Wednesday, March 19, 2014

American Delusionalism, or Why History Matters

One of the things that reliably irritates a certain fraction of this blog’s readers, as I’ve had occasion to comment before, is my habit of using history as a touchstone that can be used to test claims about the future. No matter what the context, no matter how wearily familiar the process under discussion might be, it’s a safe bet that the moment I start talking about historical parallels, somebody or other is going to pop up and insist that it really is different this time.
In a trivial sense, of course, that claim is correct. The tech stock bubble that popped in 2000, the real estate bubble that popped in 2008, and the fracking bubble that’s showing every sign of popping in the uncomfortably near future are all different from each other, and from every other bubble and bust in the history of speculative markets, all the way back to the Dutch tulip mania of 1637. It’s quite true that tech stocks aren’t tulips, and bundled loans backed up by dubious no-doc mortgages aren’t the same as bundled loans backed up by dubious shale leases—well, not exactly the same—but in practice, the many differences of detail are irrelevant compared to the one crucial identity.  Tulips, tech stocks, and bundled loans, along with South Sea Company shares in 1730, investment trusts in 1929, and all the other speculative vehicles in all the other speculative bubbles of the last five centuries, different as they are, all follow the identical trajectory:  up with the rocket, down with the stick.

That is to say, those who insist that it’s different this time are right where it doesn’t matter and wrong where it counts. I’ve come to think of the words “it’s different this time,” in fact, as the nearest thing history has to the warning siren and flashing red light that tells you that something is about to go very, very wrong. When people start saying it, especially when plenty of people with plenty of access to the media start saying it, it’s time to dive for the floor, cover your head with your arms, and wait for the blast to hit.

With that in mind, I’d like to talk a bit about the recent media flurry around the phrase “American exceptionalism,” which has become something of a shibboleth among pseudoconservative talking heads in recent months. Pseudoconservatives? Well, yes; actual conservatives, motivated by the long and by no means undistinguished tradition of conservative thinking launched by Edmund Burke in the late 18th century, are interested in, ahem, conserving things, and conservatives who actually conserve are about as rare these days as liberals who actually liberate. Certainly you won’t find many of either among the strident voices insisting just now that the last scraps of America’s democracy at home and reputation abroad ought to be sacrificed in the service of their squeaky-voiced machismo.

As far as I know, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by none other than Josef Stalin—evidence, if any more were needed, that American pseudoconservatives these days, having no ideas of their own, have simply borrowed those of their erstwhile Communist bogeyman and stood them on their heads with a Miltonic “Evil, be thou my good.”  Stalin meant by it the opinion of many Communists in his time that the United States, unlike the industrial nations of Europe, wasn’t yet ripe for the triumphant proletarian revolution predicted (inaccurately) by Marx’s secular theology. Devout Marxist that he was, Stalin rejected this claim with some heat, denouncing it in so many words as “this heresy of American exceptionalism,” and insisting (also inaccurately) that America would get its proletarian revolution on schedule. 

While Stalin may have invented the phrase, the perception that he thus labeled had considerably older roots. In a previous time, though, that perception took a rather different tone than it does today. A great many of the early leaders and thinkers of the United States in its early years, and no small number of the foreign observers who watched the American experiment in those days, thought and hoped that the newly founded republic might be able to avoid making the familiar mistakes that had brought so much misery onto the empires of the Old World. Later on, during and immediately after the great debates over American empire at the end of the 19th century, a great many Americans and foreign observers still thought and hoped that the republic might come to its senses in time and back away from the same mistakes that doomed those Old World empires to the misery just mentioned. These days, by contrast, the phrase “American exceptionalism” seems to stand for the conviction that America can and should make every one of those same mistakes, right down to the fine details, and will still somehow be spared the logically inevitable consequences.

The current blind faith in American exceptionalism, in other words, is simply another way of saying “it’s different this time.”  Those who insist that God is on America’s side when America isn’t exactly returning the favor, like those who have less blatantly theological reasons for their belief that this nation’s excrement emits no noticeable odor, are for all practical purposes demanding that America must not, under any circumstances, draw any benefit from the painfully learnt lessons of history.  I suggest that a better name for the belief in question might be "American delusionalism;" it’s hard to see how this bizarre act of faith can do anything other than help drive the American experiment toward a miserable end, but then that’s just one more irony in the fire.

The same conviction that the past has nothing to teach the present is just as common elsewhere in contemporary culture. I’m thinking here, among other things, of the ongoing drumbeat of claims that our species will inevitably be extinct by 2030. As I noted in a previous post here, this is yet another expression of the same dubious logic that generated the 2012 delusion, but much of the rhetoric that surrounds it starts from the insistence that nothing like the current round of greenhouse gas-driven climate change has ever happened before.

That insistence bespeaks an embarrassing lack of knowledge about paleoclimatology. Vast quantities of greenhouse gases being dumped into the atmosphere over a century or two? Check; the usual culprit is vulcanism, specifically the kind of flood-basalt eruption that opens a crack in the earth many miles in length and turns an area the size of a European nation into a lake of lava. The most recent of those, a smallish one, happened about 6 million years ago in the Columbia River basin of eastern Washington and Oregon states.  Further back, in the Aptian, Toarcian, and Turonian-Cenomanian epochs of the late Mesozoic, that same process on a much larger scale boosted atmospheric CO2 levels to three times the present figure and triggered what paleoclimatologists call "super-greenhouse events." Did those cause the extinction of all life on earth? Not hardly; as far as the paleontological evidence shows, it didn’t even slow the brontosaurs down.

Oceanic acidification leading to the collapse of calcium-shelled plankton populations? Check; those three super-greenhouse events, along with a great many less drastic climate spikes, did that. The ocean also contains very large numbers of single-celled organisms that don’t have calcium shells, such as blue-green algae, which aren’t particularly sensitive to shifts in the pH level of seawater; when such shifts happen, these other organisms expand to fill the empty niches, and everybody further up the food chain gets used to a change in diet. When the acidification goes away, whatever species of calcium-shelled plankton have managed to survive elbow their way back into their former niches and undergo a burst of evolutionary radiation; this makes life easy for geologists today, who can figure out the age of any rock laid down in an ancient ocean by checking the remains of foraminifers and other calcium-loving plankton against a chart of what existed when.

Sudden climate change recently enough to be experienced by human beings? Check; most people have heard of the end of the last ice age, though you have to read the technical literature or one of a very few popular treatments to get some idea of just how drastically the climate changed, or how fast.  The old saw about a slow, gradual warming over millennia got chucked into the dumpster decades ago, when ice cores from Greenland upset that particular theory. The ratio between different isotopes of oxygen in the ice laid down in different years provides a sensitive measure of the average global temperature at sea level during those same years. According to that measure, at the end of the Younger Dryas period about 11,800 years ago, global temperatures shot up by 20° F. in less than a decade.

Now of course that didn’t mean that temperatures shot up that far evenly, all over the world.  What seems to have happened is that the tropics barely warmed at all, the southern end of the planet warmed mildly, and the northern end experienced a drastic heat wave that tipped the great continental ice sheets of the era into rapid collapse and sent sea levels soaring upwards. Those of my readers who have been paying attention to recent scientific publications about Greenland and the Arctic Ocean now have very good reason to worry, because the current round of climate change has most strongly affected the northern end of the planet, too, and scientists have begun to notice historically unprecedented changes in the Greenland ice cap. In an upcoming post I plan on discussing at some length what those particular historical parallels promise for our future, and it’s not pretty.

Oh, and the aftermath of the post-Younger Dryas temperature spike was a period several thousand years long when global temperatures were considerably higher than they are today. The Holocene Hypsithermal, as it’s called, saw global temperatures peak around 7° F. higher than they are today—about the level, that is, that’s already baked into the cake as a result of anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases.  It was not a particularly pleasant time. Most of western North America was desert, baked to a crackly crunch by drought conditions that make today’s dry years look soggy; much of what’s now, at least in theory, the eastern woodland biome was dryland prairie, while both coasts got rapidly rising seas with a side order of frequent big tsunamis—again, we’ll talk about those in the upcoming post just mentioned. Still, you’ll notice that our species survived the experience.

As those droughts and tsunamis might suggest, the lessons taught by history don’t necessarily amount to "everything will be just fine." The weird inability of the contemporary imagination to find any middle ground between business as usual and sudden total annihilation has its usual effect here, hiding the actual risks of anthropogenic climate change behind a facade of apocalyptic fantasies. Here again, the question "what happened the last time this occurred?" is the most accessible way to avoid that trap, and the insistence that it’s different this time and the evidence of the past can’t be applied to the present and future puts that safeguard out of reach.

For a third example, consider the latest round of claims that a sudden financial collapse driven by current debt loads will crash the global economy once and for all. That sudden collapse has been being predicted year after weary year for decades now—do any of my readers, I wonder, remember Dr. Ravi Batra’s The Great Depression of 1990?—and its repeated failure to show up and perform as predicted seems only to strengthen the conviction on the part of believers that this year, like some financial equivalent of the Great Pumpkin, the long-delayed crash will finally put in its long-delayed appearance and bring the global economy crashing down.

I’m far from sure that they’re right about the imminence of a crash; the economy of high finance these days is so heavily manipulated, and so thoroughly detached from the real economy where real goods and services have to be produced using real energy and resources, that it’s occurred to me more than once that the stock market and the other organs of the financial sphere might keep chugging away in a state of blissful disconnection to the rest of existence for a very long time to come. Stil, let’s grant for the moment that the absurd buildup of unpayable debt in the United States and other industrial nations will in fact become the driving force behind a credit collapse, in which drastic deleveraging will erase trillions of dollars in notional wealth. Would such a crash succeed, as a great many people are claiming just now, in bringing the global economy to a sudden and permanent stop?

Here again, the lessons of history provide a clear and straightforward answer to that question, and it’s not one that supports the partisans of the fast-crash theory. Massive credit collapses that erase very large sums of notional wealth and impact the global economy are hardly a new phenomenon, after all. One example—the credit collapse of 1930-1932—is still just within living memory; the financial crises of 1873 and 1893 are well documented, and there are dozens of other examples of nations and whole continents hammered by credit collapses and other forms of drastic economic crisis. Those crises have had plenty of consequences, but one thing that has never happened as a result of any of them is the sort of self-feeding, irrevocable plunge into the abyss that current fast-crash theories require.

The reason for this is that credit is merely one way by which a society manages the distribution of goods and services. That’s all it is. Energy, raw materials, and labor are the factors that have to be present in order to produce goods and services.  Credit simply regulates who gets how much of each of these things, and there have been plenty of societies that have handled that same task without making use of a credit system at all. A credit collapse, in turn, doesn’t make the energy, raw materials, and labor vanish into some fiscal equivalent of a black hole; they’re all still there, in whatever quantities they were before the credit collapse, and all that’s needed is some new way to allocate them to the production of goods and services.

This, in turn, governments promptly provide. In 1933, for example, faced with the most severe credit collapse in American history, Franklin Roosevelt temporarily nationalized the entire US banking system, seized nearly all the privately held gold in the country, unilaterally changed the national debt from "payable in gold" to "payable in Federal Reserve notes" (which amounted to a technical default), and launched a flurry of other emergency measures.  The credit collapse came to a screeching halt, famously, in less than a hundred days. Other nations facing the same crisis took equally drastic measures, with similar results. While that history has apparently been forgotten across large sections of the peak oil blogosphere, it’s a safe bet that none of it has been forgotten in the corridors of power in Washington DC and elsewhere in the world.

More generally, governments have an extremely broad range of powers that can be used, and have been used, in extreme financial emergencies to stop a credit or currency collapse from terminating the real economy. Faced with a severe crisis, governments can slap on wage and price controls, freeze currency exchanges, impose rationing, raise trade barriers, default on their debts, nationalize whole industries, issue new currencies, allocate goods and services by fiat, and impose martial law to make sure the new economic rules are followed to the letter, if necessary, at gunpoint. Again, these aren’t theoretical possibilities; every one of them has actually been used by more than one government faced by a major economic crisis in the last century and a half. Given that track record, it requires a breathtaking leap of faith to assume that if the next round of deleveraging spirals out of control, politicians around the world will simply sit on their hands, saying "Whatever shall we do?" in plaintive voices, while civilization crashes to ruin around them.

What makes that leap of faith all the more curious is in the runup to the economic crisis of 2008-9, the same claims of imminent, unstoppable financial apocalypse we’re hearing today were being made—in some cases, by the same people who are making them today.  (I treasure a comment I fielded from a popular peak oil blogger at the height of the 2009 crisis, who insisted that the fast crash was upon us and that my predictions about the future were therefore all wrong.) Their logic was flawed then, and it’s just as flawed now, because it dismisses the lessons of history as irrelevant and therefore fails to take into account how the events under discussion play out in the real world.

That’s the problem with the insistence that this time it really is different: it disables the most effective protection we’ve got against the habit of thought that cognitive psychologists call "confirmation bias," the tendency to look for evidence that supports one’s pet theory rather than seeking the evidence that might call it into question. The scientific method itself, in the final analysis, is simply a collection of useful gimmicks that help you sidestep confirmation bias.  That’s why competent scientists, when they come up with a hypothesis to explain something in nature, promptly sit down and try to think up as many ways as possible to disprove the hypothesis.  Those potentials for disproof are the raw materials from which experiments are designed, and only if the hypothesis survives all experimental attempts to disprove it does it take its first step toward scientific respectability.

It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias. Any present or future set of events, however unique it may be in terms of the fine details, has points of similarity with events in the past, and those points of similarity allow the past events to be taken as a guide to the present and future. This works best if you’ve got a series of past events, as different from each other as any one of them is from the present or future situation you’re trying to predict; if you can find common patterns in the whole range of past parallels, it’s usually a safe bet that the same pattern will recur again.

Any time you approach a present or future event, then, you have two choices: you can look for the features that event has in common with other events, despite the differences of detail, or you can focus on the differences and ignore the common features.  The first of those choices, it’s worth noting, allows you to consider both the similarities and the differences.  Once you’ve got the common pattern, it then becomes possible to modify it as needed to take into account the special characteristics of the situation you’re trying to understand or predict: to notice, for example, that the dark age that will follow our civilization will have to contend with nuclear and chemical pollution on top of the more ordinary consequences of decline and fall.

If you start from the assumption that the event you’re trying to predict is unlike anything that’s ever happened before, though, you’ve thrown out your chance of perceiving the common pattern. What happens instead, with motononous regularity, is that pop-culture narratives such as the sudden overnight collapse beloved of Hollywood screenplay writers smuggle themselves into the picture, and cement themselves in place with the help of confirmation bias. The result is the endless recycling of repeatedly failed predictions that plays so central a role in the collective imagination of our time, and has helped so many people blind themselves to the unwelcome future closing in on us.


1 – 200 of 225   Newer›   Newest»
Tom Bannister said...

I will admit here I am more than a little spooked by the rapid rises in sea levels you speak of here (not that I haven't heard you talk about this elsewhere). But of course, considering a very large chunk of the worlds population lives not far above sea level...

John Michael Greer said...

Tom, we'll get to that in the upcoming post I referenced. It's a source of wry amusement to me that so much of the yelling about near-term extinction has served mostly to blind people to real disasters that anthropogenic global warming is all but certain to trigger -- and could do so without much warning.

Pinku-Sensei said...

A happy Vernal Equinox to you!

As far as I know, the phrase “American exceptionalism” was originally coined by none other than Josef Stalin—evidence, if any more were needed, that American pseudoconservatives these days, having no ideas of their own, have simply borrowed those of their erstwhile Communist bogeyman and stood them on their heads with a Miltonic “Evil, be thou my good.”

Ah, Joe Stalin, the Red Czar. For someone who seemed like an thug next to Lenin, Marx, and Engels, he could certainly turn a phrase. As for the pseudoconservatives appropriating Communist ideas and attempting to invert them, they may think they're being clever, but they're really showing their authoritarian impulses when they do so. An example is the Soviet propaganda poster re-imagined as a National Review cover portraying the 2012 Republican ticket as heroes of capital. I have both the cover and the original poster at the link.

The scientific method itself, in the final analysis, is simply a collection of useful gimmicks that help you sidestep confirmation bias. That’s why competent scientists, when they come up with a hypothesis to explain something in nature, promptly sit down and try to think up as many ways as possible to disprove the hypothesis. Those potentials for disproof are the raw materials from which experiments are designed, and only if the hypothesis survives all experimental attempts to disprove it does it take its first step toward scientific respectability.
It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias.

As a science teacher, I must say that you did a first-rate job of explaining the scientific method and recognizing its applicability to situations where controlled experiments just aren't possible or practical. That kind of method is called the comparative method, and I make a point of describing it to my students, using examples of geology (including paleontology and paleoclimatology,* such as you used), astronomy, and evolutionary biology where scientists have been using it for centuries, and sociology, where the sociologists have decided to get on the scientific bandwagon during recent decades. History and economics would benefit from analysis using the comparative method, but the historians and economists seem to be resisting. Ah, well, at least you're doing it. Leave it to the amateurs and outsiders to do what the professional insiders won't. The new paradigms for the next scientific revolution have to come from somewhere.

*You did that well, too. My M.S. thesis was on the freshwater mollusks of Rancho La Brea. I used them to interpret the climate and environment of late Pleistocene Los Angeles. Therefore, I'm quite familiar with the most recent deglaciation and all of its effects. I'd have noticed if you screwed that up. You didn't. Congratulations.

Ruben said...

Wonderful post, JMG. This will require leisurely re-read.

I am looking forward to your post on climate change, and have only my usual quibble. I quibble mostly on behalf of others who I think hear you dismiss NTE or whatever, and therefore assume you mean Everything Is Going To Be Alright.

I know that is not what you mean, but it took me a few years of reading your blog to figure out what I thought you meant.

Let's just ignore the people who are literally talking about extinction.

However, there will be many attendant miseries that will come with "Most of western North America was desert, baked to a crackly crunch" -- mass migration, food constraints, loss of access to the niceties of modern civilization, such as YouTube and TVDinners, elimination of whole swathes of the culture we use to give us meaning etc. etc.

So, even if no one dies from the "crackly crunch", I think it will feel like apocalypse. And it seems unlikely that no-one will die.

So, let's take extinction off the table as the product of an event so rare it isn't worth doing anything more to prepare than cracking your finest bottle. But very small events can cause very large trauma in people, and these events won't be very small.

Anyhow. I think a lot of people are arguing with their own binary, not with what you have, and perhaps, will say.

The other part I would quibble with, in the hopes you might expand on it in the future, is the power of governments to take drastic measures.

For all that Roosevelt achieved, the US is currently incapable of wiping its own DELETED ... raising its debt ceiling.

If the US was capable of looking around at good precedents, you all might have a functioning medical system, rather than the Mengeleian Supply Chain that is currently operating.

So, maybe this is the question I am trying to ask:

History rhymes, until it doesn't. Sometimes that is a new form of poetry--Free Verse!--but sometimes it is just illegible. How do you figure out which is which?

Richard Larson said...

I'm just enamored by bad news! Don't know if I could balance all that bad news with all that good news! *Gasp*

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-Sensei, thank you for the vote of confidence! I've been intrigued by the last ice age and its aftermath since I was in high school, and have a collection of books from the days when you could still talk about the Holocene Hypsithermal and the Neoglaciation -- are you familiar with E.C. Pielou's fine book After the Ice Age? Among my faves. Once we get into the next sequence of posts, I plan on covering the likely environmental changes of the next five centuries or so using the Pleistocene-Holocene transition as a guide; expect discussion of global meltwater pulses, the seismic consequences of isostatic rebound, and more along the same lines.

Paul Thompson said...

JMG said "The result is the endless recycling of repeatedly failed predictions that plays so central a role in the collective imagination of our time, and has helped so many people blind themselves to the unwelcome future closing in on us."

Heads in the sand?

Dan the Farmer said...

Ah! A challenge!

Here's what I see as truly different:

We've never before had a single global civilization of over 7 Billion of us, addicted to virtually free energy, to the point where we have, en mass, destroyed the parts of our culture that would show us how to get along without that energy. To say we may take 300 years to collapse, as Rome did, ignores that for many, Nickelodeon was right when they said the bad 70s sit-coms are our heritage.

General ignorance of what for millennia have been "basic life skills", coupled with the oily rug that's going to be pulled out from under us, mean that Darwin is going to have some nasty work ahead of him. Maybe this has happened before, but it seems like this is an exceptionally high peak we've climbed, and the fall is going to be exceptionally drastic, and faster than that of Rome.

I suppose the comeback is that those segments of our global population that have retained some traditional skills are going to drink our milkshakes, and that's how civilization will go on. How much does that count as our civilization though? It almost feels more like the Vandals, Visigoths, and Huns moving in quickly than like Rome doing a long descent.

escapefromwisconsin said...

If people want to read more about previous financial panics and crashes, I'd suggest this series on the blog of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (!!) The Crisis Chronicles:

7 entries so far, from the Kipper-und-Wipperzeit to the Credit and Commerical Crisis of 1772. Lots more to go until 1920!

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, I've done my level best to explain, over and over again, that the Long Descent is going to be a very rough road, involving local and regional catastrophes, collapsing public health, wars, insurgencies, and a body count high enough that by the time we hit bottom one to three centuries from now, the human population of the planet will likely be somewhere around 5% its current value. It's a source of wry amusement to me that so many people cannot or will not hear that, and insist on forcing what I'm trying to say into the current mythology that says that business as usual and sudden annihilation are the only two options there are.

As for whether or not the US government can manage a decisive response to crisis, that's an open question, but plenty of other nations don't have that problem. (I'd encourage you to consider how the governments of Russia and China would respond to a credit collapse, for example.) If the US government fails to respond adequately, it's probably safe to assume that it will be replaced in a hurry (and a flurry of bullets) by somebody that will -- and if that doesn't happen, it's just a matter of one large nation making a fast transition to failed-state status for a while, and easing up resource constraints on the rest of the planet.

Richard, funny. I try to offend all sides, you know.

Michael Petro said...

Just a simple "yes."

It seems that we are seduced by the exotica of complete collapse to mitigate the intuition of just how very hard near-term history is going to be for some (many) of us, to project that it will be (comfortingly?) all of us... especially "me."

Pinku-Sensei said...

"Pinku-Sensei, thank you for the vote of confidence!"

Quite welcome.

"are you familiar with E.C. Pielou's fine book 'After the Ice Age'?"

I have to say that I'm not. My excuse is that when it came out, my interests had shifted to living snails as I pursued my Ph.D. in biology. I ended up studying the evolution of reproductive strategies in snails then and neglected developments in paleontology for a decade.

Even when I was working in paleontology, my interests were on the extinction side of things, so I'm more familiar with the work of Paul Martin, who was a major advocate of the Overkill Hypothesis, and Bjorn Kurten. Repopulation of the glaciated areas and the reorganization of communities that resulted were sidelights to the question of the extinction of the megafauna, and I was interested in them to shed light on death, instead of studying new life in its own right.

Just the same, thank you for mentioning it. It looks like a book I should add to my reading list.

"Once we get into the next sequence of posts, I plan on covering the likely environmental changes of the next five centuries or so using the Pleistocene-Holocene transition as a guide; expect discussion of global meltwater pulses, the seismic consequences of isostatic rebound, and more along the same lines."

Looking forward to them. I lecture about both of the phenomena you mentioned to my classes, so be on your toes. I'll be sure to catch any mistakes you make just as I will be to notice when you get things right.

Cherokee Organics said...


History tells a wonderful lesson for those that have an ear to hear. For much of human history, the vast majority of people have been poor with very little access to either energy or resources. Yet, despite all of that, they still loved, lived and got on with their lives as best as they could.

It is weird that people just don't get that. You only need to spend a couple of hours in a third world country to see your own future writ large.

That message wasn't lost on me. Whilst we have access to cheap energy and resources, use it to improve your local environment so that it is productive. Few people will ever even understand what they are looking at so it will fly under the radar – so to speak.

As an interesting side note, I had a visit from the local power company today looking for a meter to read as he found that my place had been overlooked (they're remotely read here). It was pretty funny because he looked like a stunned mullet when informed of the situation here – it sort of said: “how could this be?” Just to add to the scene the dogs were going ballistic! I think they wanted to tooth him just a little bit as he clearly disregarded the keep out sign. Ahh, hill billy country.

Unfortunately people tend to only "see" the output side of industrial food production and therefore miss all of the "death and flies and stuff" (hehe - sorry I couldn't help myself with that quote) that goes on in the background to achieve that output and the wreckage of the environment left in its wake. Shame really, because it'll be too late before they realise. Still, it is never really too late to commence land restoration. Chemical and radioactive wastes on the other hand would be very hard to deal with.

By the way I liked the part in your essay about the "food chain". I was having lunch at the time of reading that and almost spat bread with blackberry and rhubarb jam all over the monitor as I was laughing so hard! Cheeky!

Being 700m above sea level, I don't worry too much about sea level rise. However, Blind Freddy here is telling me that the weather extremes are getting more extreme every year. Water management is the key to surviving in this place and I put a lot of thought and actions into that and will be again in the next few days. It never stops.

Hi Ruben,

If you look outside your own country, you'd see that the Australian government has eliminated its debt ceiling. It has also extended a $380bn facility from the Reserve Bank to the four main banks to utilise in whatever fashion they need if and when a credit crisis occurs. The last time I checked, the debt to GDP ratio here was about 26%, so there is a lot of space to breathe, before we resemble the US situation.

My gut feel is that in the US should any major crisis occur, the "noise" that you are hearing now will disappear. At the moment my gut feel says that it is all just noise, because they don't know what else to do and are simply repeating past strategies. That to me is actually scarier. But they'll act when needed, whether the outcome is favourable to you personally is another question altogether.



Nathan Donaldson said...

First, allow me to state that your views as of this writing appear to be entirely correct. However, the main difference between this time and "last time" back in the 1930's is that fossil fuel energy were still cheap and plentiful in more than a few places. The wind was at the back of the central governments and therefor they all became more powerful, absurdly so in the case of Hitler and Stalin. The only exception I can think of is China falling apart, but they were probably still somewhat removed from industrialization.

It's hard for me to imagine a police state scenario working out with constantly declining energy. Plus at some point there would be severe negative feedback loop caused by war. Just think of post-War Europe without a Marshal Plan.

btidwell said...

Isn't it possible that part of the divide between "don't worry be happy" and "The END is near" has to do with the fact that for the average American, if you take away their Internet, their morning Starbucks, and next the season of Game of Thrones, anything remaining between that and total inhalation is really just pocket change? I'm not near that shallow but sometimes I almost find myself agreeing with them.

It's one thing to make mid-range plans towards marginal self- sufficiency with the understanding that the "party" is winding down and things are going to get progressively rougher and now is probably a good time to buy a bicycle. Quite another, to accept the kind of massive dislocation of every sort that will happen if/when the temp. starts rising by 2f a year, every year for ten years. Not that we have any choice as to "accepting," or not.

At that point, though, it seems it all comes down to the rather academic question of just what constitutes "civilization." People living? I imagine far too many will. A president in the White House? For all the good he will do. Some form of economic activity? As long as there are people with something called "dollars" goods will exchange hands in some manner. Beyond that, how much of the life we know today would survive? Virtually none. How much quality would any normal persons life have at that point? So far less than none that "hell on earth" starts to become frighteningly literal.

Since, at this point, there is absolutely nothing any individual can do about it, and quite possibly nothing realistic that can be done at all, it doesn't seem to be surprising that irrational denial and "Beyond, There be Monsters" are the popular responses. Almost makes wish I were that shallow.

Ana's Daughter said...

I think the phrase "It's different this time!" can be classed along with phrases such as "There's a light at the end of the tunnel", "Hhe tide is about to turn", and "We can win the war in Vietnam!". In my experience all of them provide the clearest possible proof that the speaker is dead wrong.

Redneck Girl said...

I think the ego of the human race needs drama and a fast collapse is more 'romantic' than the slow creeping of senility in our doddering global civilization.

Me personally, I just want to get it over with and hopefully keep enough of the natural systems and species alive to replenish all the vacant and near vacant niches the human race has created by greed and carelessness. Sometimes I feel grief at the loss of so much bio diversity. In many ways I sympathize with the animal kingdom much more than humanity. What I've seen and read of the treatment of animals by ignorant or callous and uncaring people tend to make me not like people so much. My attitude is more like 'bless the beasts and the children,' help those who can't help themselves.

I do have one question, and an observation, even with five hundred years of extreme drought being predicted was the Milankovitch cycle and the precession of the poles taken into account? Because I believe we are on the outward swing in the M. cycle and I'm not clearly understanding how the earth's polar precession is affecting the M. cycle at this point. And when taken into account the collapse of oil fueled civilization with the attendant drop in population wouldn't the CO 2 levels drop allowing for cooler to colder weather?


Matthew Lindquist said...

"Things that reliably irritates"? Heck, that's the whole reason I'm here!

Well, maybe not the whole reason, but pretty close. I sometimes jokingly refer to you as the Internet's patron saint of the lonely students of history!

Renaissance Man said...

I thought "American Exceptionalism" was the current term-du-jour for "Manifest Destiny" pretending very hard not to be racist. Did not know Joe Stalin coined it. Thanks.

I am too tired to come up with a witty play on the phrase "those who do not learn history..." The best I can do is "...are doomed to repeat themselves" or some such, but that is your point, I take it:
That differences are superficial whereas patterns run deep. But people, in my observation, usually tend to focus on the superficial and thus miss the underlying patterns. It explains much of our social systems.
I've long wondered why this is so, but have not come up with any good reasons. Intellectual laziness? It's too difficult?
It manifests right now as political Parties screaming at each other over trivia, while keeping the status quo, and preventing any new Party or really different ideas from gaining entrance into the discussion.
Which, I note, is a feature of dying empires in their last days.

I think, for example, that your entertaining story "How it Could Happen" bears some striking similarities to the real world Crimea Crisis. The essence of your story, as I read it, revolved around the U.S. being shown to be a paper tiger and here we are, with the U.S. and E.U. full of bluster and empty threats, utterly impotent to impose their will in this crisis. Worse, Putin is openly calling western governments hypocrites (to great applause) and all the pundits and pols can do is seethe. The similarities probably end there, and I'm guessing (hoping) it won't result in the immediate dissolution of the U.S.A. just yet, but you did give a timeline of a couple of years to unfold.

Also, an aside, I wish you a Happy Equinox!

faoladh said...

Let's also point out to people that, in order for the world population to be 5% of the current population, that means an average loss of about 0.32% of the world population per year for the next 300 years (or more if it happens more quickly).

1% of the current world population exceeds a net loss of more than 21,000,000 people per year - and that after accounting for births. That is a reduction in population of about 57,000 per day every day for the next 300 years. Keep in mind that the current world population growth is 1.2%, so that has to be offset by an additional 78,000,000 per year (assuming that the birth and natural death rates do not change appreciably), for a total of nearly an extra 100,000,000 per year dying off, or about 275,000 extra people per day, every day for the next 300 years. Well, slightly less because I didn't take into account the lower increases over time, but it shouldn't be that much different as an average number.

This is not a trivial amount of death and suffering.

Ruben said...

Hi Chris,

Oh, the US isn't my country. My parents left it before I was born, and enthusiastically wiped the dust off their shoes, so if anything, I am less tolerant than most Canadians.

And yes, it is clear other governments can do good things--I mentioned healthcare, which we Canadians are inordinately smug about (as long as nobody mentions the Swedes).

But, I have the misfortune of living next to the United States, and their narrow little mindset is diminishing my country--our current Prime Minister would make Mitt Romney look exciting.

Also, given how much of the Canadian economy is from selling to the Yanks, well, Canada is set for hard times.

John Michael Greer said...

Paul, or inserted in one of their own orifices, take your pick.

Dan, you'll have to do better than that. A difference in scale is not a difference in kind; the same gravitational equations that govern the arc of a thrown paperclip also govern the orbit of Jupiter around the Sun. The patterns of decline and fall I'm discussing hold good for societies that range from Neolithic kingships ruling a single river valley right on up to continental empires with market economies and international trade; since other patterns found across that same spectrum can already be shown to apply to us, it's arguably safe to assume that the arc of decline and fall will, too.

Escape, thank you! They've already touched on some crises with which I wasn't familiar.

Michael, yes, that's probably a good part of it.

Pinku-Sensei, I'll be relying on the best sources I can get, but please do keep me posted; it'll be helpful when turning the posts into a book.

Cherokee, exactly. We have a window of opportunity, and it's disheartening to see so many people ignore it, flop back down on the couch, and turn up the volume on the TV so they don't hear what's coming. Me, I'm using the time I have.

Nathan, a police state scenario is far from the only option; in a time of economic crisis, most people cheer decisive action, which obviates the need for police state measures. Of course you're right that the measures I've discussed won't work forever, but they don't have to; they just have to stop the immediate panic, so that the economy can settle back into its present state of slow strangulation.

Btidwell, the vast majority of people on this planet have much less in the way of wealth than you and I do, and yet they still find life worth living, by and large. My guess is that when people in America and elsewhere no longer have their current distractions blaring at their minds, they'll find that quality of life has a lot less to do with consumer goods than they thought.

Ana's Daughter, it might be worth compiling a little handbook of such phrases.

Redneck, yes, I'm keeping Milankovich et al. in mind. The temperature spike from anthropogenic global warming is a transient phenomenon piled atop the normal climate cycle, so after maybe a thousand years of higher than normal temperatures, the normal cycle will resume and down we go into the next ice age. If you recall my piece on the next ten billion years, I factored that in.

Matthew, I didn't say that it irritated all my readers!

Renaissance, funny that you should mention that. I'm in the latter stages of the novelization of "How It Could Happen," Twilight's Last Gleaming, and I've been taking detailed notes on the Crimean crisis to fill in details for the fictional Tanzanian crisis in the novel...

John Michael Greer said...

Faoladh, exactly; it's not trivial at all. For what it's worth, I expect birth rates to go down over much of the world, the way they did in the post-Soviet states, and for death rates to climb steeply as antibiotics lose the race with microbial resistance, public health collapses, and malnutrition and stress-related phenomena such as alcoholism and drug abuse become even more common than they are now. Over that background pattern of fewer births and many more deaths, you get bursts of morbidity and mortality driven by wars, famines, epidemics, natural disasters that governments no longer have the resources to mitigate, and so on. It's not a pretty picture, but it's fairly standard for a civilization in the course of decline and fall.

deedl said...

Very important Article. Confirmation Bias is a topic too rarely discussed in any context, despite its appearance all over the disputing world. There are two additional phenomenons i would like to add to complete the overview about argumentative traps: Cognitive dissonance and false induktion.

Cognitive dissonance is the condition when the world in your mind differs from the world of your senses. So whenever you face facts that contradict whataver you thought to be true, you have to cope with that. There are three strategies: Adapting, ignoring and discrediting. You can work on your view of the world and adapt it to the facts, you can ignore reality and then live with the uneasy feeling that someting is wrong or you can attack the fact (or the messenger) to defend your worldview. Those are the cornucopians clinging to their business as usual hopes.

False induktion is a logical mistake of confusing necessities und sufficiencies. For example oil is sufficient to heat your house. But the same is true for wood, coal, geothermy and even bodyheat (when combined with super insulation). So the fact that oil is sufficient to heat the house does not mean that without oil the house can not be heated, because oil is not necessary, just sufficient. Many peak oilers list all the things oil is sufficient for and then claim that it would be a necessaty for this. Those are the doomsters in the argumentation.

Finally i want just add how to deal properly with the social science dilemma of not making experiments but just observing different economies/societies and then conclude based on the observation. Let us assume for example, that a scientist crunches properly collected data and finds that countries with a minimum wage are poorer then countries without. Proper scientific treatment of this observation means to equally consider four causal connections:

1. minimum wage causes nations to be poor (the confirmation biased neoliberal would stop here)
2. poorness causes nations to install a minimum wage (the confirmation biased politically left one would stop here, thinking he is smart, because he considered one causal connection more then the neoliberal)
3. a third variable not measured causes both the minimum wage and the poorness (for example governments that have a certain set of ideology install the minimum wage together with other measures that couse the poorness, here the third variable would be the ideological mindest)
4. There is no causal connection between poorness and minimum wage, their correlation is just chance.

At this point none of the four can be dismissed. Our scientist can use these four possible links to properly plan his further research. he can collect addditoal data, search for possible thrid variables or have a closer look at the countries that are outliers to his statistic, meaning countries that both rich and have a minimum wage or are poor and have non.

Proper knowledge about proper argumentational logic and scientific method could prevent many misunderstandings and dogfights among discussing individuals. Unfortunately, pointing out and explaining and argumentational mistake in a claim takes always much more effort then just claiming.

Stuart Jeffery said...

In a society undergoing some random double blind trial, I can only assume that the one eyed man is king?

Certainly those with the vision and understanding to look behind and relate to the future are in a far better place than the majority who are continually blinded by media and political manipulation.

Alex SL said...

What I always find quite puzzling about your writing is the implication that any significant number of people believes that humanity will go extinct in the near future.

I do not currently know a single person who believes that, and I am reasonably sure I have not met such a person where I lived before either. My friends, relations and colleagues seem to fall mostly into two groups: those who think that the future will be one of conflict, poverty and starvation because we are overpopulating and overconsuming, and those who think that it will be alright because surely we have got people working on technical solutions.

(And of course the latter are right, after a fashion. Science already came up with a technical solution to our problems a few decades ago: have less children and waste less resources. Pity nobody acted on it.)

I can only assume the difference is that you are moving in different circles than I do.

OrwellianUK said...

There is, I believe another context where things are really different this time - and that is that now the bubbles and unsustainable growth are Planetary Wide. There are no more New World's left to expand to and provide the resources to underpin the paper we fool ourselves to be wealth.

Regrettably, for our brazenly extravagant lifestyles, there is no Earth Number 2 parked alongside this one which we can move house to and continue Business As Usual.

So whereas in the past - say during the tulip bubble - there was still plenty of space to produce increasingly larger speculative pyramids, in our future, the bubbles will get increasingly smaller if we can even pump them at all, since all these bubbles ultimately rely on a resource base. As that base shrinks, it becomes more difficult to leverage.

Derv said...


No big rant this time. Just wanted to say good work and make one suggestion: I think the occasional confusion from people about your posts is partly from misidentifying the target. I've noticed that when you cite a particular person/article/blog that inspired your reply, there seems to be little confusion about it. But when it's aimed at a more general "people with apocalyptic thinking" (or some other such group), I think some people get defensive because they feel they may be a part of that subset. Because of this, even though they almost entirely agree with you, they feel the need to justify where they differ, which then comes across as trying to pigeon-hole you into business-as-usual or apocalypse thinking.

If you pointed out an example, in other words, or just articulated exactly what kind of idea you're addressing in detail, it might not come up anymore. Just my two cents to make the comments run a little more smoothly, not a big deal.

Dang, it got long again. Sorry.

Herr Doktor said...

Bravo Mr Greer! Another great writing!

Could you please suggest some good reading regarding paleoclimatology? I'm still working out were should I relocate, and not completely sure whether Northern Spain (similar climate as Ireland, but several hundred km to the South) is my right pick.

As for exceptionalism of any kind... well, in order to cure that, it's good to live in a country such as Spain were you can look everywhere at the remains of no less than than 4 Empires (Phoenicia/Carthago, Rome, Al-Andalus Caliphate, Spanish Empire). So, that's humbling...

Robert Magill said...

Entry:Post Peak Contest

Women of the World Summit

April 3-5, 2040
Western Hemisphere Conference
Monterrey, Mexico
The outstanding success at 2039 United Nations Congress in Canberra, Australia where our female delegates pursued and enacted Resolutions taking the Big 4 Nations to task for the first time for past psychopathic behaviors, is now a part of our history. Monterrey has been very hospitable for the ten years we have been meeting here and we are thankful the port at Tampico is able to still handle our vital sea traffic despite the flooding problem. Some delegates still brave overland travel regardless of the punishing fuel cost. We salute your determination and welcome you all.

In preparing for the upcoming W of the W Summit please keep the momentum going—

(Suggested Agenda)

1. Consider disqualifying from positions of power women who have arrived to prominence emulating men. Not helpful to perpetuate all those bad habits. Search for women who have tendencies and traits that demonstrate freedom from testosterone mimicry.

2. First order of business: Reclaim uteri and other personal appurtenances. Disregard all advice and restrictions for maintenance and usage not female originated; especially ignore celibate elderly males...

Compound F said...

That is a very well stated case. And it's done with your usual scope. I'll congratulate you on that for tonight. I'm promising "buts" and "ums," and hope to deliver. Admittedly, yours is a well-made argument, a fine argument. It even appeals to my worst impulses.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

JM, this post surpasses even most of your best! It, plus the dense sprinkling of intelligent comments must be one of the best sources I know to offer the multitude of Chicken Littles around me who are right now singing Guy's Song, and delving deep into self-indulgent despair-porn.

And yes, as I keep saying to people: Just because NTE is most probably not going to happen is not at all the same as saying: 'It's alright, it isn't going to be all that bad'.

Yes it is! Just not NTE, that's all. Though for lots of humankind it will be untimely and terrible deaths, and for lots of dearly-loved species it will be extinction.

Keep sluggin' John! I come more and more to believe that yours is a uniquely authoritative, uniquely erudite, and uniquely steadying voice of our time. Solidarity bro! This from a rabid lefty-radical to a sober Burkean conservative. :-)

Bob da i ti, fy mrawd i!

Phil Harris said...

Where I sit on the Scottish Border it is slightly reassuring that there is nothing like the volume of ice hanging over us 'up there' at the moment. I believe vast Tsunamis scoured the North Sea between what became the British Isles and the Continent. Must have happened several times considering the number of Ice Ages. I like your point though that Nature reliably 'does sudden' very well indeed, if to a pattern, and without any help.

Back to the main point: you and Chris Cherokee: "make use of our/your time".

Just a query over finance in the modern global version: Trade matters or the real wheels stop turning. It is not so easy to co-ordinate global 'fiat' measures in response to crisis in the financial 'distributive' arithmetic. So far global powers seem to get that. But the American ‘delusionists’ (New American Century wife Victoria Nuland et al) play high stakes games?

Phil H

Nathaniel Ott said...

As always very good post JMG! I agree with you on the pseudoconservative position of trying to keep up empire forever is slowly choking the life out of us. But alot of people even some on here seem to underestimate just what the end of it would mean.

While many positive benifits would occur for the rest of the world many people think they would all be positive. For one the real reason the military empire is kept up is of course OUR hyper consuming lifestyles, and many people think said lifestyle can continue after that empire is gone. Many of our goods are manufactured, mined or produced over seas, in countries that just happen to have american troops stationed there or an american fleet off theyre coast. Many pseudoliberals still think we'll continue using 25% of the worlds energy and a third of the worlds resouces after they are gone, not going to happen.

Its not just Americans iether. For all theyre self righteous talk on the "evil American empire" many foreigners fail to mention theyre countries are allied with said evil empire and they reap the benifits acordingly. Not as much as us but thats because thyre not the imperial center. That abundance may also end or have to be mitigated when our empire finally goes away. Thats one of the tactics weve employed. Part of the reason we have the largest military gdp is to keep our alies relient upon us for military protection and to enforce theyre intrests through military force. While they of course provide us with goods and services. You think Britain will remain the power it is without the military to back the small island nation up? You think Japan wont have to drastically increase its military forces possibly with a draft after our fleet is gone? You think South Korea wont have "problems" with North Korea after the threat of American mililtary might is no longer there? Do you think the US (and possibly other countries) will remain on the UN security council after our military might is gone. As JMG has said before, we have nothing else to offer.

Then theyres the problem of the 1-2 million or so americanilitary personel that are iether stationed abroad or support those stationed abroad. We'll always need a military but the bloated global one we have now is not nessecary. The problem is thinking we can do it over night. With the troops, option A: We call them all back from everywhere across the globe. The goverment would then be forced to fined "something else" for them to do right here at home. Most people wont like what the something else may be. Option B: call them all back overnight, then subsequently fire them all. Now of course we have millions of jobless, possibly homeless, trained killers who very likely feel betrayed, abandoned and most importantly angry. And thats not including the millions of federal employees who support them, and the millions of civilian employees who suport them. Ill leave it up to the imagination for the "possibilities" that might come about in this situation.

I agree that we need to scroll back the american empire. But it should be done gradually. And with the acceptance that our and our allies way of life, and the global geopolitical shpere will be NOTHING like it was before. Of course this would happen even if we wernt facing massive energy prdicaments. Is also very likely that many of thes things will happen anyway. Wheather you think theyre good or bad things, or both, im the both position. Not trying to undercut you or anything JMG and sorry for the long scroll, just felt like getting it off my chest.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ruben,

No dramas. I like Canadians - haven't met a bad one yet. I like people from the US too.

Actually, the culture both here and in Canada have a lot in common.

By the way, you lot elected that lot. Just sayin, we have the same issues here. It is a moment in time though and things could be much worse! I wish our lot would just man up and get on with the job at hand and stop seeking to blame the other party.

As an interesting note to you: My gut feel says that your population in a low energy future will hug the coast and/or head south. I doubt very much that there will be much movement north into Canada from the US.

My reason for this is because even with a few degrees of global warming, your growing season in Canada will be far too short to support a large population and even then the winters will be too harsh. The fuel requirements will also be too great to support a large population and the trees only grow slowly. Add in variability and extreme weather events (unpredictable frosts and droughts during the growing season come to mind) and I reckon it will be a tough ask for organic agriculture.

I'm prepared to be shouted down on this one. I reckon I'd consider where the populations of the natives historically lived as an indicator of the best spots for your country. Shame the ecosystems are probably trashed by now though (just like here).



Odin's Raven said...

The reference to experiments and 'confirmation bias' brings to mind the rather interesting 'Harry Potter' fan fiction called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, whose author makes Harry a super-rational genius of a wonder boy more devoted to science than magic. It's rather different from the original but very ingenious.Free online work in progress.

xhmko said...

And for what its worth, i doubt there'll be as much recording of birth/death in the future anyway. It will come back to the aphorism that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything thst counts can be counted.

Tony f. whelKs said...

I find history fascinating, and frequently surprising. A major part of that is because I dropped the subject at schoool in order to concentrate on sciences and languages. Hence I've had no formal historical education since age 12. I managed to ignore the field entirely for three decades, then my interest was re-sparked and I had to start educating myself intensively to fill this massive hole in my worldview.

My advantage was that I KNEW I was thinly educated. I find I inhabit a world alongside people who do not know how poorly educated they are in this field. They give themselves away by the tribal cry of 'but it's different this time'... ;-))

A major reason I suspect that it's so difficult for them to see the patterns is that so much of history has been thoroughly mythologized. The patterns have been rewritten. It's most glaring when people start to equate having watched 'Spartacus' and '300' with being classically educated, but similar forces pervade more recent history too.

Here in the UK (so I'm told by friends with kids in school) 'history' is basically reduced to 'The Romans - The Tudors - WWII'. Japanese schools' teaching of the history of the 1930s and 1940s is notoriously laughable. I'm sure most regimes add their own kaleidoscopic lens to their national history. The US may call their lens 'Disney' or 'Pixar' but it's a distorting lens nonetheless, and one must ask Parsifal's question. Little wonder people believe 'it's different this time'. It's different every time if you don't understand what 'it' is in the first place.

There's a giant clash of competing mythologies taking place right now. Crimea, of course. The Russian myth is not in sympathy with the Ukrainian myth - nor the German, British or American myths of what Crimea is. I still stand by my previous prediction - no war, but Russia will keep Crimea.... however, time will tell.

Slightly off topic - I'm now reading up on the causes of WWI, just to give the centenary due reverance really, and am shocked how little it matches our myths. The more history I read, the more I understand that what's happening today started centuries ago, not in the latest machinations of one or other politician on the stage today. People give too much credence to proximal causes, I believe.

Equinoctial blessings to all.

--... ...--

Matthew Sweet said...

One of the things I've been noticing in media articles on scientific studies in the area of climate change is the tone. I don't know if it is the tone of the scientists or if it embued by the media types. But every new study on the various details of the effects of climate change sounds the same alarm: "These mollusks are being affected, if they go away the entire ecosystem will collapse and we're all doomed". Now I have only a basic understanding of ecology but as you suggested in this post, doesn't it stand to reason that another organism will fill the niche abandoned by said mollusk (or whatever the focus of study in question), and hence the ecosystem will continue to function, albeit slightly differently? Now, accummulate enough of those "slight differences" and yes I can see there being problems, in terms of disruption to the ideal human conditions ecologically and climatologically. I guess it depends on the definition of apocalypse. Is change apocalypse?

1ab9a86a-8991-11e3-899b-000bcdcb8a73 said...

JMG - please humor my ignorance on matters paleo-anything-much: you mention conditions in North America in the post-Younger Dryas period. Presumably these are well known to biologists? (I'm not sure exactly which subspecies of biologist, but there must be some who study the natural history of the fairly recent past). The reason I ask is that the head-in-the-climate-sand people often cite how the climate was warmer in the recent past (specifically in that period you mention). But I gather you are saying that if they simply bothered to look at the conditions at the time they might not be so pleased with this idea. So I'm confused as to why this point has not been made more forcefully in debates (unless I missed it)...

Wandering Sage said...

I agree with your position on "this time it is different" however I don't think you can dismiss Dan the Farmer's point about the population of the planet. This is unprecedented. WIthout a drastic reduction in the global population, the myriad of issues we face will never be resolved.

Strovenovus said...

Backing out of the delusions, distractions and blind alleys that are described here tends to be a somewhat painful awakening, if my personal experience is any indication.

I am afraid that not many people will have the time, resources or even the will to face the disturbing possibilities that you describe.

I agree that the current invocations of American exceptionalism are hollow. Could this belief in our past and future, so dearly held, be employed to raise awareness and hopefully a response to our unfolding crisis?

One cannot claim to be exceptional without proving oneself anew as challenges arise.

Please accept my sincere thanks to you and other commenters for this and prior posts.

GHung said...

Thanks, JMG. I now understand why a certain pill, popular in Japan, has never caught on in the US; marketed under such names as "Odafree" ("#1 Fecal Deodorizer"), and "Etiquette Up" (tablets for beatifying body waste - "People must be responsible for their odors").

Exceptional, indeed.

Glenn said...

"He who lets the small things bind him,
leaves the large, undone, behind him."

--Piet Hein

Still, most of our lives are a series of small, seemingly insignificant acts, that eventually form a larger, more coherent pattern.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Steve Morgan said...

"Faced with a severe crisis, governments can slap on wage and price controls, freeze currency exchanges, impose rationing, raise trade barriers, default on their debts, nationalize whole industries, issue new currencies, allocate goods and services by fiat, and impose martial law to make sure the new economic rules are followed to the letter, if necessary, at gunpoint."

A few weeks ago my wife and I visited the university library. She took me to the basement stacks where she used to do research for her papers at school (in the pre-internet days). One rack we passed contained three shelves full of small printed pamphlets, about the size of a standard sheet of paper folded in half. Curious, I untied one bundle and thumbed through the title sheets. Here in my hand were the "voluntary" guidelines issued by the National Recovery Administration to a whole host of retail enterprises. The rules included price controls, hours and wages of workers, hours of operation, and the conditions of discounting items "on sale." Participating shops could display a banner in the window proclaiming "doing our part" or somesuch. Many stores without the banners would face boycotts.

After perusing a couple pamphlets, I randomly picked up bundles and skimmed the industries affected by these "Code of Fair Competition" rules. Among them were oil and chemical refineries, industrial equipment suppliers, tractor factories, lumber mills, paper mills, grocers, butchers, barbers, clothing stores, etc. Judging by the sheer volume of 10-12 page pamphlets, it seems nearly no corner of the economy of the early 1930s escaped the reach of the (later found unconstitutional) National Industrial Recovery Act.

Such action would be substantially more complex today in the US, but there's no reason to think that the winner in the ongoing struggle for supremacy in the cycle of anacyclosis shouldn't be able to use political power to similarly transform a more dysfunctional economy (while in turn using such an economic stabilization to build political power).

On another note, I like to have a good laugh at the phrase "American exceptionalism" by tweaking its intended meaning just a bit. As in, "Everyone on Earth agrees that the US is the greatest threat to world peace, except Americans." A bit more edgy might be, "Every citizen of an industrial country can go to the hospital without worrying about bankruptcy, except Americans."

Yupped said...

It's a little ironic how serial predictors of doom seem to keep rolling happily along from one failed prediction of apocalypse (or alternatively failed "end of history"-type triumph) themselves. Un-phased by being incorrect, they just roll on happily to the next big prediction. Bouncing along in the slow meandering of history...

JP said...

The next train to leave the station is the thorium reactor train.

It's going to solve all our energy problems and allow us to restart the Carousel of Progress.

I need to go back down to Florida to ride that thing again. I love it.

JP said...

"Faoladh, exactly; it's not trivial at all. For what it's worth, I expect birth rates to go down over much of the world, the way they did in the post-Soviet states, and for death rates to climb steeply as antibiotics lose the race with microbial resistance, public health collapses, and malnutrition and stress-related phenomena such as alcoholism and drug abuse become even more common than they are now. Over that background pattern of fewer births and many more deaths, you get bursts of morbidity and mortality driven by wars, famines, epidemics, natural disasters that governments no longer have the resources to mitigate, and so on. It's not a pretty picture, but it's fairly standard for a civilization in the course of decline and fall."

This is where I need to make the Spenglerian point that the rural areas of Russia are once again above TFR of 2.1.

And rising.

I noticed several years ago that rural Russia seemed to be alive. I also suspect that alcoholism is on the *decline* in these areas.

And that was even before I encountered Spengler's civilization overlay.

Also, they have definitely locked in a nice warm water port over these last few days.

JP said...

Also, the use of wood as a heating tool is on the rise in the NE of the United States.

Granted, I grew up in rural PA, so this was not unusual.

Agent Provocateur said...


I am persuaded, as are most of your readers I'm sure, that the reduction in the complexity of our civilization due to resource depletion and climate change will not result in Near Term (human) Extinction (NTE). There are an awful lot of us. At least a few will carry on no matter what happens.

I'm inclined to think failure to honour national debts is the most likely mode of failure of the global financial system. If we look at sovereign debt, there are three time honoured ways of not paying it off (and it is never paid off ... ever). The nation in question can devalue it currency, it can default, or it can die. The last option reminds me of my uncle's line to his creditors: “I'd rather owe you that money till the day I die than see you out of it.”

There is a long history of counties defaulting on their debts in the last 250 years, many several times, and often in concert with other nations. In almost all cases the country survived through an initial period of hardship immediately after default and then thrived not long after. Credit was not long denied to a county that defaulted.

What is different this time is the extent to which the entire financial system is interconnected (though it was interconnected before … hence the tendency for clusters of defaults). So much so that when one country (or even a large bank) defaults, the entire global credit system may go down. It has already come close several time following the last oil price spike. We can expect another such spike if the global economy can gather enough steam. For the sake of argument, lets say the global credit system does collapse as a consequence of that spike or some subsequent one.

An interruption in global credit would result in an interruption in global trade. It wouldn't be the end of the world, but it sure would look like it at the time. Analogous to the consequences of national default, after a period of extreme hardship, the global credit system would reset. With the reset of global credit, global trade would resume … but at a lower volume than before due to resource depletion.

What would also be different is that, subsequent to a global credit failure, affected nations would not eventually thrive. We would not be in a period of overall global economic growth. Things would get better, but not better than the state before default. Things would get better than the period immediately after default. So an interruption in global credit could well be the proximate cause of a significant step down in the complexity of the nations affected and an overall reduction in global trade. The ultimate cause, of course, is resource depletion. We can expect some climate change events as well just to keep things interesting.

So a sudden financial collapse would not crash the global economy once and for all as you indicated, but it certainly would be catastrophic nonetheless. One further point worth mentioning is that there has been a global economy of sorts since at least the Neolithic age. It will continue, just at much lower volumes.

Cathy McGuire said...

Happy spring equinox! I feel gratitude deep in my old bones for coming through another winter (except for several possible frosts or snows ;-)) The camelia is blooming outside my (doublepaned) window, and I've finished readying my hives for the bees coming April 5th (buying this year; hope to keep and increase in the future)

Loved your post, as usual. The current thinking is another example of that polarity or binary thinking you've discussed before - either The End or No Problem... I see examples of climate weirding all around me, and poverty is biting deeper in this area, too. I'm focusing on following through with my green wizard lessons and improving my gardening and husbandry skills, filling in the gaps of my energy/power and communication set-up (with the future help of another green wizard - thanks in advance, August!) and strengthening my connections with locals who also "get it".

It's frightening - Oregon just released a description of their disaster plans
and it clearly states that power and roads might not be fixed for three months - but I've seen none of my friends responding at all - not even a stash of water!! Even after a series of earthquakes at the base of our long coastal fault... not sure what it takes... thanks for your clear and practical vision.

John Franklin said...

"That’s the problem with the insistence that this time it really is different: it disables the most effective protection we’ve got against the habit of thought that cognitive psychologists call "confirmation bias," the tendency to look for evidence that supports one’s pet theory rather than seeking the evidence that might call it into question. The scientific method itself, in the final analysis, is simply a collection of useful gimmicks that help you sidestep confirmation bias. That’s why competent scientists, when they come up with a hypothesis to explain something in nature, promptly sit down and try to think up as many ways as possible to disprove the hypothesis. Those potentials for disproof are the raw materials from which experiments are designed, and only if the hypothesis survives all experimental attempts to disprove it does it take its first step toward scientific respectability.

It’s not exactly easy to run controlled double-blind experiments on entire societies, but historical comparison offers the same sort of counterweight to confirmation bias. Any present or future set of events, however unique it may be in terms of the fine details, has points of similarity with events in the past, and those points of similarity allow the past events to be taken as a guide to the present and future. This works best if you’ve got a series of past events, as different from each other as any one of them is from the present or future situation you’re trying to predict; if you can find common patterns in the whole range of past parallels, it’s usually a safe bet that the same pattern will recur again."

What an insightful comparison.

divelly said...

Is there some way to collate your responses to the comments?
That is to say, follow each comment with your response.

Agent Provocateur said...


Last week you wrote a response that read “... Those who don't collapse now and beat the rush won't have that advantage, and will probably be busy instead pushing up daisies. Yes, the situation really is that grim.” I think this is the most (dare I use the term) apocalyptic response I've seen you write. Granted it was in response to Hombre's comment about the situation late this century. Still, you used the word “now”. By “pushing up daisies” I assume you mean death by starvation.

Sorry for being a week late again. But perhaps, in keeping with this week's dual themes of economics and using the past as a guide for the future, you will allow me to sneak this in.

I thought it might be useful to look at how mass starvation often occurs. Amartya Sen's “Poverty and Famines” is a helpful guide when looking at the causes of mass starvation. Parts of it are written in the wonderfully opaque style fashionable among professional economists; nonetheless I think it yields some useful insights even if you skip the math. It reviews the causes of some of the more spectacular famines of last century. Sen offers the conclusion that people don't generally starve to death because there is not enough food to go around. They die because they can't afford what food there is.

Sen's study indicates people starve to death for lack of calories. People do not starve to death for lack of protein, vitamins, or minerals. Its not the lack of greens or meat on the plate that leads to starvation. Yes, a person would be malnourished due to lack of these and so possibly eventually die of disease … but not starve to death. What prevented the Inuit from starving on an all meat diet was the enormous amount of fat (and so calories) associated with Arctic marine mammals. Try an all meat diet further south and a person may die of “rabbit starvation”.

Two strategies present themselves to anyone wishing to avoid starvation: 1) be rich enough to buy the needed calories or 2) grow them yourself. For those whom wealth has evaded, here's a quick look at growing your own calories.

Roots and grains are what produce the highest yields in carbohydrate calories. Potatoes are king for calories per space required of all roots and grains. They are also very easy to harvest, process, and store ( I've heard some people (not me) can produce 1 lb of potatoes per square foot (sqft). A potato produces 350 calories/lb and so yields about 350 calories per sqft max. Compare this against the next best contender, corn, at about half that i.e. about 180 calories per sqft. Wheat gives roughly half again at about 84 calories per sqft

A family of five like mine requires 11,400 calories per day (3000 adult male + 2400 adult female + 3x2000 kids). Thus the absolute minimum space required to produce all the calorie requirements of such a family is about 12,000 sqft (11,400 x 365/350). To put this in context, this is over 7 times the space I actually devote to potatoes and assumes 4 times the yield I normally get.

Just a few sober thoughts for those planning their gardens for this year and the years to come.

Varun Bhaskar said...


You would be surprised at the how many history teachers I've had who basically disregard Edmund Burke's old saying about history. In fact two of them flat out told me that the saying was inaccurate because no two eras of history are comparable.

In fact I had the discussion about exceptionalism with two of my closest friends just two weeks ago. Both of these men are intellectuals of high caliber but both used the assertion of exceptionalism to end our discussion. One used the idea that unfettered capitalism would just keep the system chugging along and the other used the idea of “states as laboratories of democracy.” I didn't know whether to scream or break down into tears so I ended the discussion instead.

I would like to blame them (the general public) but I can't because I know how much I still struggle with the idea of the great turning. Not to get too much into pop-culture but given the option between the red pill and the blue pill, with a clear explanation of what they will see when they take the red pill, the majority of people will take the blue pill. Exexptionalism is just one of the blue pills people can take and so they do.

Varun Bhaskar
Chief Administrator
View on the Ground

James said...

Once cancer begins and metastasizes, it's difficult to eliminate. The previous civilizations you allude to were just tiny tumors that resolved because of local insufficiency of metabolic needs. However, many humans capable of reestablishing the cancer created new foci of growth. The discovery of fossil fuels and the tools necessary to use them has accelerated the growth of the malignancy and ability to derive “natural” foodstuffs from the ecosystem body. Now cachexia begins, but the cancer envisions geoengineering to maintain the near-corpse in a sufficient state for further consumption. What will death of the ecosystem mean from a human perspective? A loss of concentrated energy gradients such as fossil fuels, loss of soils and monocrops, loss of schooling ocean fish that could be hauled out in nets with high EROEI, loss of large herbivores that sustained us early on. There is no reason to believe that remaining humans will not still be growth oriented, feeding upon any resource providing an EROEI high enough to justify the tools, information and behavior necessary to capture it. Eventually nothing remains but diffuse life too small or too sparsely distributed to justify human existence. Anything that can provide net energy will be utilized. Things are different this time, that exogenous source of juicier and tastier than oxblood oil has enabled cancerous growth that would have previously broken down for lack of net energy.

Pongo said...

More generally, governments have an extremely broad range of powers that can be used, and have been used, in extreme financial emergencies to stop a credit or currency collapse from terminating the real economy. Faced with a severe crisis, governments can slap on wage and price controls, freeze currency exchanges, impose rationing, raise trade barriers, default on their debts, nationalize whole industries, issue new currencies, allocate goods and services by fiat, and impose martial law to make sure the new economic rules are followed to the letter, if necessary, at gunpoint.

A fine point, and one that I agree with. In my opinion, the people who insist that a massive financial crash will be the end of human civilization are simply making the common error of projecting a specific trend out towards infinity, without taking into account the forces that would be there to push back against that trend. In this case it's the trend of the global elites towards neoliberal policies, the belief in which seems to have reached a religious level within policy circles. Of course, many of the things on your list are absolutely forbidden by neoliberal orthodoxy, which leads people into a logical trap:

Price controls, wage controls, nationalization of industry, etc, are necessary to save the economy from collapse in the event of a financial crash. Price controls, wage controls, nationalization of industry, etc, are heresy to the ruling elites. Therefore, in the event of a financial crash the elites would do nothing productive to save the economy and the whole thing would implode and collapse and send us back to the days of living in caves.

I tend to agree with the first part of that equation, in the event of a truly catastrophic financial crisis I have every expectation that most of our rulers would keep attempting to make the same failed policies work, doubling down in spite of clear evidence of failure. But if they refused to implement those policies the problem would eventually get to the point where somebody would stand up to do it. That would be the point where you could see everything from elections that brought new parties into power to military coups to rebellions, revolutions and states trying to secede from government control.

Grebulocities said...

Great post, from what I've read so far (still working through it). I have one quibble about the Holocene hypsithermal/climactic optimum. The temperature effects appear to have been mostly a Northern Hemisphere high-latitude phenomenon - there were temperatures locally up to 4 C/7 F warmer in some spots in the Arctic (although generally more like 2-3 C), but the temperature effect dies down to virtually nothing by the time you reach the subtropics. Reconstructions of the global temperature usually show no temperature increase (or at most a very slight one of ~1 C) averaged across the world.

The best theories on this involve two of the Milankovitch cycles: around 9000 years ago, axial tilt was at its maximum 24 degrees, and the sun reached perihelion during the Northern summer, causing higher NH temperatures. Now the tilt is a little lower and perihelion comes in January, so the NH is more moderate.

Of course just because world temperatures weren't measurably higher as a global average doesn't mean there weren't huge effects: the American Midwest did become a desert while the Sahara and the Australian Outback received much more rainfall. There's also evidence that Arctic summer sea ice still existed at the time, albeit at a reduced level.

jemand said...

Somewhat parenthetical to the week's topic, but something I have been wondering about awhile, what do you think the future role of documents, books, libraries, etc. in dry and desertifying areas after the long descent and towards a new global civilization? Much of the best documented information we have of past cultures (and the information that was available with less technological study, as well) comes from desert areas, and even if nobody lives there for centuries, much of the raw material might be there.

They may be interested in whatever we know about chemical or nuclear contamination and cleanup, but I can also imagine that depending on the timeline, much of the worst bit of cleanup happened from more practical trial and error and the historians who read such "desert salvaged" information are dealing with relatively stable conditions.

I'm not sure what they'd actually find *interesting* from us. Science? Religion? Mathematics? Global politics? Stories? And which parts do they think useful to implement rather than considering trivial curiosities?

I suspect such desert repositories will be within reasonable reach for most future cultures, though, given the spread of modern society and it's propensity to build to dizzying and impractical heights in already dry and desertifying areas.

James Eberle said...

The BBC has a great documentary about the Permian Extinction event. It apparently occurred in three waves: The first, following the Siberian Traps eruptions, and a consequent 5 degree Celsius warming, was terrestrial in nature. The second extinction was marine, and resulted from much warming entering the deep ocean. The third extinction was again terrestrial and resulted from methane hydrate release from the oceans following another 5 degree spike in temperatures. I do wonder if we are not again experiencing something similar, where anthropogenic warming is replicating the Siberian Traps eruptions. Just a thought.

Ken Barrows said...

Perhaps a fast crash won't happen, but I don't know if the world has had a situation in which the marginal cost of extracting a barrel of it (oil, today) is greater than a growing economy can support. In that situation, you can get a new equilibrium, but at what point? Is it a small contraction or contract/riots/contract some more?

k-dog said...

I'm trying to avoid all assumptions. Historically governments have survived economic disruptions but never has our government been owned by elite interests to the extent it is now. It may be inflexible and unable to respond but Obama picks Michigan State to win it all in the NCAA Tournament. The world has had many failed economies. We may resemble the calcium-loving plankton if a remnant survives.

Looking at the great changes of the past mass extinctions have resulted and also no doubt severe depopulations too. And a severe depopulation may resemble mass extinction more than survival. Life may have been very unpleasant after the Younger Dryas event for generations. From personal points of view it may have amounted to extinction for many.

But a great article. And today the holy candle is lit with the sun giving equal day and night. Happy spring.

Ruben said...


If one of JMG's responses makes me think the comment he is responding to is worth re-reading for detail, the best method I have found is to highlight and copy the name of the commenter in his post, then do a 'Find' (control or command F) with that name. You can then jump to the comment, and back to your spot in JMG's response fairly easily.


For what it is worth--and I would say it is not worth much--but anyway... One of the books titled Radical Simplicity from about 15 years ago had the calculations that if every couple had only one child, population would drop to one billion people by 2100.

The vast majority of Canada already lives at the 49th parallel--I think it is something like 75% lives within 75 miles of the border. In fact, in Victoria, I am below the 49th. We don't have any further south to go. We like to go watch the July 4th fireworks across the strait in the little US towns.

People who think about these things are certainly aware we could have some migration coming up from Mexico and the US, but the common worry--mainstream press and everything--is that the US will forcefully take our water. We have a lot of fresh water.

As far as vegetables, my best friend wrote a rather famous book The 100 Mile Diet: A year of local eating in which I am terribly proud to say I am a very minor character. (it is sold as Plenty in the US, and check out his latest book The Once and Future World)

Anyhow, they visited many places on their book tour, and said, bar none, the biggest and most beautiful vegetables were being grown in the Yukon, which is at 60º North, about 2000 km north of here. The seasons are very short, but the days are extraordinarily long.

They found the capacity to eat a local diet virtually anywhere they went. Anybody who said it couldn't be done in there place invariably had not read the book.

Now, of course, that does not mean an infinite population can be fed from any given foodshed.

Canadians have also invented some good season extenders, such as a double wall greenhouse full of soap bubbles for shade or insulation as needed, and there are the examples of farmers like Eliot Coleman's Four Season Farm in both wintry Maine and Vermont.

So, in short, I am not worried about the light so much as the drought, and as you say, the ever-wierder weather. There are lots of Canadian heritage varieties of wheat, fruit and veg--but almost nothing can be productive with unpredictable cycles of drought, flood, wind, and snow. sigh.

Derv said...

Cherokee (et al.),

While I agree that not a lot of people will head north as things deteriorate, that doesn't mean they're better off heading south. Here in North Dakota, we have a number of advantages. We have a clean(ish) river nearby for drinking water. We grow far more food than we need. Population density is low. The people who are here are friendly and have strong social ties. We have coal (bituminous is all that's left, but that's a very good thing because it means it remains relatively untouched, unlike our oil/gas which will soon be declining). Many people have useful firsthand knowledge of the land.

Add to that the fact that all the scared, hungry, and relatively unskilled people will be heading south and to the coasts, and we may well be one of the best places on earth for some time. All we have to worry about is heat in winter, but pack enough people into a small, well-insulated house and that'll take care of itself (plus we all have fireplaces as well as a number of older/smaller homes available).

Just food for thought. The people on here would be quite useful to have up north, as you all seem quite competent. So come on up!

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Agent -- similar to my own calculations, see:

I come up with somewhere between 1/4 acre, to 1 acre per person, depending on soil quality, using a number of very different approaches. That's about 10,000 sq. ft. per person on the best soils. You're claiming that your actual yields would require about 48,000 sq. ft. for the equivalent of four adults, or 12,000 sq. ft./adult. So we're really right in the same ballpark.

My numbers are pure theory (well, based on easily-accessible agricultural data). Sounds like you have some actual hands-on experience.

Janet D said...

JMG, I'm assuming you are familiar with Warren Buffet's much-stated advice: "The four most dangerous words in investing are 'This time it's different." His reasoning has always been that people are too blinded by the seeming differences of the here-and-now to notice how many similiarities there are to what has come before, usually more than once.

I'm very grateful for this post. I've recently had three different people forward a recent interview of McPherson's to me....all NTE stuff. Even though I don't believe in NTE, it's awfully depressing to watch. Fear is a difficult emotion to control once it gets tagged. Not that I'm saying there aren't reasons to be fearful, it's just that the NTE stuff immobolizes me. Definitely need to avoid.

@RedNeckGirl: Have you ever read any of Derrick Jensen's books? Your post has similar themes to his book, "A Language Older Than Words", a most excellent book that I would recommend highly to anyone.

Also, last week someone posted about the lack of birth control in a decline & after. Just wanted to pipe up and say that the web site has a couple different threads related to natural BC (not just the Rhythm Method stiff either). Good info to stockpile. Conscious parenting is always preferable. Tried to post this info last week, but blogger appeared to have eaten my post.

Glenn said...

Cherokee Organics said...

"even with a few degrees of global warming, your growing season in Canada will be far too short to support a large population and even then the winters will be too harsh. The fuel requirements will also be too great to support a large population and the trees only grow slowly. Add in variability and extreme weather events (unpredictable frosts and droughts during the growing season come to mind) and I reckon it will be a tough ask for organic agriculture."


The big problem in the North is the thin, acidic Boreal topsoils. In places like the Matanuska Valley in Alaska, where the soil is good, long summer days make for a hugely productive growing season and gigantic vegetables (like Findhorn, but without the mysticism). Of course, you only get one growing season, VS two or three in more temperate areas.

So when people say "oh, farming will just shift North" when climate change causes droughts and famines, they aren't considering the soil factor. The climate refugees from the American South, for instance, will have to haul all the muck out of the Gulf of Mexico that's come down the Mississippi River in the past 200 years to fertilize Northern Alberta if they really expect to grow anything.

Yeah, wood heat; we do that, but we have 8 acres and can grow firewood faster than we burn it and still have room for the garden and orchard. We live in a rural area on the Olympic Peninsula. If everyone in the U.S. did that we'd clearcut the country in the first winter. I reckon folks will have to insulate a smaller house, or part of a larger house and get used to cooler indoor temperatures like our great grandparents did. And granny can sleep in the kitchen near the stove and it's residual heat as it cools overnight.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Jael Edgerton said...

My husband and I practice traditional skills and a simple way of living, referring to ourselves only partly in jest as "pagan Amish." And certainly, if awareness itself is any sort of preparation for the various upheavals we're likely to face in our lifetime, then we have a better chance of muddling through than most Americans. Even so, at times I'm gripped by such intense horror at the thought of the many griefs to come, particularly when I consider my innocent two year old son, that it's as if I'm choking. Mr. Greer, how do you endure the fear this kind of knowledge brings, even or perhaps especially to wise a druid such as yourself, without succumbing to despair, if not madness?

dave1941 said...

Post-bubble economies purge bad debt and heal themselves in spite of, not because of, government meddling. A government not in thrall to Keynesian delusion responds to a crash by maintaining law and order, keeping trade routes open, and laying off all government employees not essential to this task. President Harding did this in the Depression of 1920, and the economy recovered in 18 months.

Herbert Hoover thought this remedy too harsh, and tried to fix a broken economy instead. His intervention led to two decades of worldwide depression and genocidal war.

SLClaire said...

"If all the absurd theories of lawyers and divines were to vitiate the objects in which they are conversant, we should have no law and no religion left in the world. But an absurd theory on one side of a question forms no justification for alleging a false fact, or promulgating mischievous maxims, on the other." Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p. 23 in the Yale University Press edition.

Replace "lawyers and divines" with Republicans and Democrats, NTE believers and cornucopians, and so forth; it's just as true, as your post indicates.

Thanks for pointing us to Burke. I'm in the process of reading the cited book (after reading Jesse Norman's biography of Burke, thanks to the reader a few weeks ago who called our attention to it). Burke never got brought up in the European history course I took in college in 1975-76 though he surely should have been. At least I can remedy some of the gaps in my education now, along with my green wizardry work.

John Michael Greer said...

Deedl, true enough. I've discussed cognitive dissonance several times here, but you're right that false induction is also epidemic, and probably needs to be addressed head on.

Stuart, funny. I'd probably sum up your latter point, at the risk of false induction, by suggesting that paying attention to the mainstream media makes people stupid.

Alex, do a Google search for "near term extinction" sometime. This is the stuff I get in my inbox, and delete, all the time.

Orwellian, now go back and read the part of my post where I point out that it's always different this time, but that fixating on the differences and ignoring the similarities gives you no defense against confirmation bias.

Derv, and when I cite specific examples, people insist that I'm not talking about them because they aren't my specific example. I wish it were that easy...

Herr D., I don't have any good sources to hand on European paleoclimatology -- I've concentrated on the continent I live on. You might see what your local university library has handy.

Robert, er, I think I'm going to pass on this one.

Compound F, I'll look forward to your objections.

Rhisiart, diolch yn fawr!

Phil, how high are you above sea level? If the Greenland ice cap starts breaking apart, Britain is highly vulnerable to tsunamis from the consequences. As for the global economy, it's toast -- I expect the same kind of breaking apart into national and subcontinental economies that followed the First World War.

Nate, excellent. You're quite right that the Americans who are busy denouncing the evil American empire are not going to be happy when that empire goes away, and they no longer get to share in the wildly disproportionate share of the world's wealth that American empire brings home. A sane policy would be to roll it back gradually -- but unfortunately we're past the point when that's an option, and decline and fall are on their way. Yes, it's going to be rough.

onething said...

5% JMG?! Why so low?

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

(OT) The Crimean situation reminds me of the dealings between the United States and Mexico during U.S. expansion into Mexican territory. I wonder why Ukraine doesn't take a page from that history and offer to sell Crimea to Russia in exchange for forgiveness of Ukrainian debts?

It would be a face-saving win for everyone except the Tatars. Russia effectively controlled the Crimea from its naval base anyway. As Rachel Maddow pointed out the other night, Ukrainian domestic politics will tilt more toward the West when a bunch of Ukrainians who want to be Russians are no longer voting in Ukrainian elections.

John Michael Greer said...

Raven, funny. Do you recall my joke a while back about Harry Potter and the Scientist's Stone?

Xhmko, oh, granted. Still, numbers help people today think through these things.

Tony, par for the course. "The Tudors, and then Word War Two -- oh, and of course somewhere in between those Britain had the largest and most predatory empire in human history, and brutally exploited a quarter of the planet, but there's no need to talk about that, is there, boys and girls?"

Matthew, I've seen that, too, and it baffles me. It's almost as though climate change activists are trying to lose -- so weak an argument just begs to be stomped.

1ab, see my response to Matthew right above. I have no idea why climate change activists haven't taken the Holocene Hypsithermal and used it as a lethal weapon to pound denialists into the ground -- a use for which it's eminently suited. Again, it's almost as though they're trying to lose.

Sage, now go back and read the part of my post where I point out that it's always different this time, but that fixating on the differences and ignoring the similarities gives you no defense against confirmation bias.

Strovenovus, hmm. That might be worth trying.

Ghung, okay, I'm dumbfounded. Still, how perfectly Japanese!

Glenn, wasn't it Michelangelo who said, "trifles make for perfection, but perfection is no trifle."

Steve, excellent! You get today's gold star for attention to relevant historical detail.

Yupped, agreed -- it's one of the most remarkable features of contemporary culture that people who make one failed prediction after another just keep on being taken seriously, and nobody ever stands up in the press conference and says, "Er, Mr. Yergin, you said X and Y and Z and you were wrong every time. Why should we believe you now?"

John Michael Greer said...

JP, yes, thorium might be the next deus ex machina on the list, though I think there's likely to be a big push for solar PV as well. As for Russia, how do those rural figures relate to that for urban areas and for the country as a whole? That would be worth watching.

Agent, nicely outlined. Of course a really whopping financial crash would be a major disaster for a lot of people, and it would hit the US particularly hard, since so few Americans produce actual goods and services these days. It won't be the end of the world, but it could be a very, very ugly time to live through.

Cathy, by "quakes at the base of our long coastal fault" I hope you don't mean the Cascadia fault, where the Juan de Fuca plate is being subducted beneath the North American plate. If you do -- ouch. When that one goes, America is going to find out the hard way what a real natural disaster looks like.

John, thank you.

Divelly, unfortunately not. The only way I know of to do that is to open two windows, size them so that they fit side by side, and have the comments page on both.

Agent, all very true. Learning how to grow bulk calories on a limited patch of land is a good step just now.

Varun, it's become an item of faith in today's America that history has nothing to teach us. Seen from outside that bizarre mindset, what's being said is that we're too stupid to learn from history. It makes me shake my head, too.

James, it's always easy to blame "human nature," that inkblot pattern onto which so many ideologies have been projected, for our current situation. At the end of the day, though, it's just one more excuse for inaction, and so doesn't interest me.

Pongo, political and economic orthodoxies don't tend to last long in a real crisis. Historically speaking, if the current holders of power won't take action, they can count on being replaced by someone who will, and the means of replacement can range from a peaceful election to violent revolution and the mass slaughter of the former ruling class.

Grebulocities, the tropics are always relatively stable -- the effect of global warming and cooling primarily appears in increased or decreased efficiency in heat transport toward the poles, thus in polar warming or cooling. Due to the current arrangement of the continents, the north polar region is much more strongly affected than its southern equivalent. I note that the current round of anthropogenic global warming is also tending to focus on the north polar regions, so here again the Hypsithermal makes a good equivalent.

Jemand, it sounds like a great plan! I could easily imagine archeologists of the future finding an ancient library buried in the sand in the Arizona desert a thousand years from now. As for which books to stash, that probably requires a post of its own.

John Michael Greer said...

James, so far the closest analogue seems to be the Paleocene-Eocene climatic optimum, which was a good deal less devastating. Still, it's useful to look at the comparative data, no question.

Ken, have you read my theory of catabolic collapse? What you've described is the precondition for that process.

K-dog, the US government was wholly owned by the rich when the country was founded -- remember that until the 1820s, you couldn't even vote unless you owned a fairly substantial amount of wealth. Most other countries, throughout history, have had a 100% overlap between the people with power and the people with wealth, so our current situation is basically normal. Thus the value of historical parallels...

Janet, definitely avoid it unless you have the emotional fortitude to shrug it off. It's meant to paralyze, or more precisely, to justify paralysis.

Jael, that's a subject for an entire post, which I'll definitely consider doing in the very near future.

Dave1941, and where would we be without the touching faith of the true believer? You might want to look into the economic history of the US in the late 19th century, when we had no central bank at all and the government did absolutely nothing to influence the economy -- and depressions were far longer, deeper, and more destructive than they were from 1933 to 1990, in the era of sensible government regulation of the financial industry. 'Nuf said.

SLClaire, delighted to hear it!

Onething, that's a fairly common rate of dieoff in the collapse of a civilization that's dependent on nonrenewable resources. Yes, I know it's pretty grim reading.

Unknown Deborah, that might have been a good face-saving compromise. At this point, though, it's pretty clear that Russia has had enough of the American/EU notion of "partnership" -- that is, we do whatever we want and break our promises at will, and Russia gets to lump it -- and has decided on a much more aggressive and confrontational stance. If I lived in Europe, I'd make sure I had a backup heating source before next winter rolls around...

rj8957 said...


I really liked this post. I'm going back to school in order to become a history teacher, so this topic is very relevant to my life. I've often been dismayed by the rejection of history by so many people; the common response is: "when are you ever going to use that in the real world?"

You've encouraged your readership to get started preserving what is valuable so that it might be used in the future. I hope that I can get future generations interested in History, as well as, Philosophy, Psychology,etc. Maybe
my teaching will go some of the way toward fulfilling that task.

Also,I've often wondered if this rejection of history has to do with our national religion, Progress?Serious study of History will disabuse one of the idea of Progress in a hurry. Christopher Lasch talked about this in his work.

Finally, the War Nerd is back with his take on the Crimean situation:

beneaththesurface said...

Since I don't think JMG has mentioned this yet this year, I'd like to remind everyone that the 3rd annual Age of Limits Conference is happening this year, on May 22-26, in Artemas, PA:

John Michael Greer will be speaking again. This year Dennis Meadows, co-author of The Limits to Growth, will be speaking! Gail Tverberg, Albert Bates, Carolyn Baker, Dmitry Orlov, and Marc Cochrane will also be speaking.

JMG, thanks for letting me know your book Decline and Fall is now in print! In the past year I started working for DC Public Library, and I was disappointed to find that none of your peak oil-related books were there. I have now successfully gotten the library to order five of your peak oil books. I've noticed that people soon check them out once they arrive on the new book shelves, so perhaps people less familiar with your ideas are coming across them when they are at the library. I will now tell them to order Decline and Fall.

latheChuck said...

Just a practical note on heating and calories... It has only recently been acknowledged by nutritionists that cooking food makes more calories available. Prior work was mostly based on chemical analysis that assumed "a protein is a protein is a protein", at 4 kcal per gram (same as any carbohydrate). In a world where you have to make every calorie count, it seems to me that one would use fuel only for cooking, use solar cooking when you can (or to pre-heat ingredients before topping up with wood). With well-insulated occupants of a well-insulated home (of minimum volume and surface area), human metabolism may be the space heating system of our future; fuel for space heating may be an unsustainable luxury. (And before you light a fire in the fireplace, find out how wretchedly inefficient they are.) Make sure that your cooking fuel wood has had a year to dry, so none of its energy is wasted driving out moisture as it burns. That requires foresight, to lay up green wood to carry through the next year, and calculation, to know how much that is. Hang on to that slide-rule.

According to my favorite book on nutrition ("Eat Better, Live Better", Reader's Digest, 1982), the average American male needs 2900 kcal/day at age 25, declining to 2005 kcal/day at 75. In a crisis, we'll probably want to cut back a little, so it's good to have a kitchen scale to weigh portions. As postage rates have changed, obsolete postage scales are very cheap at garage sales!

I've read that by growing pototoes on a 1/4 acre lot, an Irish family could provide the calories it needed. Until the blight came, of course.

Enrique said...

JMG Said:

“At this point, though, it's pretty clear that Russia has had enough of the American/EU notion of "partnership" -- that is, we do whatever we want and break our promises at will, and Russia gets to lump it -- and has decided on a much more aggressive and confrontational stance. If I lived in Europe, I'd make sure I had a backup heating source before next winter rolls around...”

It’s pretty clear the Russians are fed up and have both the means and the will to fight back. The Saker had a great post from earlier today on the latest events in the current crisis. When it comes to broken promises and reneging on treaty commitments, the US government has treated the Russians since the end of the Cold War in much the same manner as it treated the Native American nations back in the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Russians will not tolerate any more bullying from America. The US will find that the Russians are a much tougher enemy than even the strongest Native American tribes ever were. Just ask the Turks, the French, the Germans, the Japanese or the Chechens about that one.

The comments (both from the author and the readers) about the American ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, are spot on, while the Russian ambassador to the UN had every right to take offense at her petulant and juvenile tirade and warn that there will be further consequences if the Obama administration continues to behave like a bunch of spoiled, badly brought-up children. As we have seen, the Russians don’t go around making empty threats, unlike many Western governments. Ambassador Churkin and the Russian government mean business.

If the likes of Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Susan Rice and Samantha Power are the best America can do for political and diplomatic leadership, then America is well and truly fracked. I never cease to be amazed at how clueless, incompetent and mind-numbingly stupid the American political class has become. Just when you think these people can’t get any more moronic and self-destructive, they surprise us with yet another example of jaw dropping asininity. David Goldman (AKA Spengler) had a great essay on this very topic several years back towards the end of the Bush administration, and his observations are even more true today than when he wrote these words.

I think we can see the end of the American Empire clearly in sight. This may turn out to be one of the fastest imperial declines in history, and much of it will have been due to the sheer folly of both the American elites and the masses.

Oswald Spengler believed that the next great civilization would come out of Russia. Many of the leading thinkers of the 19th and early 20th centuries believed the same thing as well. I wonder if part of what we are seeing is the eclipse of the West and the rise of the Russian/Orthodox civilization that Spengler predicted? With the rise of China as a super power, the re-emergence of Russia as a great power, the resurgence of Islam as a force to reckoned with and the internal decay and decadence of the West itself, America and Europe are in much more serious trouble then most people realize.

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, wasn't it Michelangelo who said, "trifles make for perfection, but perfection is no trifle."

That's new to me, I don't know _any_ Michelangelo quotes. Sound like the motto of a craftsman though. I'll have to remember it.



in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

pintada said...

"Janet, definitely avoid it unless you have the emotional fortitude to shrug it off. It's meant to paralyze, or more precisely, to justify paralysis."

Finally, I can make a comment without sounding like a mindless fan boy. Hurray!

Dr. McPherson is very clear that he keeps working in his role as activist because once one sees the inevitability of our extinction, there is no reason NOT to be active. If you have no hope of some rosy outcome, you have nothing to loose by being radical. His stated intention (and I for one believe him) is not to excuse paralysis, but to generate a sense of urgency - not to save humanity, but at least a few species with which we are familiar.

Sure, he and his friends at might be wrong. They and I hope that we are! But, we will continue to be very afraid of the methane bomb that may very well be going off right now.

Sure, by 2020 if it hasn't gone off yet, you (and everyone else) can say that they are totally wrong, and you will be able to compare them to other apocalypse predictors as they continue to point out how dangerous it is. (I'll save this, hopefully i'll get to post it again in 2020.)

I remember the old story about the man who walked into his cellar and saw an ax in the ceiling beam. He was made the fool, since he didn't see that the obvious solution to the problem was to remove the ax. That simply is not possible with methane clathrates. If there is a .1% chance of it going off in any one year, and temperatures continue to go up making it more likely year after year, can it be ignored forever? Look at Guys' latest talk (at arctic-news or his site) again. Can the 26 non-linear forcings he lists be ignored? How will they impact the temperature of the deep arctic in the decades or centuries to come?

As I read your work, I gain a better appreciation for history. Please review (or re-review) some more history, specifically the PETM, for your global warming posts. If a PETM warming occurs, the human species will end. Full stop.

I hope Janet has a copy of: "Collapsing Consciously", Dr. Carolyn Baker

Candace said...

I suppose I tend to think in binary terms because as a human I'm either alive or dead. When I think of being alive I think of being in the physical state I'm in now. I know I often want to bury my head in the sand because it feels like the long descent is like being told that you are going to have a major heart attack, but probably won't die and then you'll have a major stroke, but probably won't die, and then you'll get some sort of cancer and have both of your kidneys removed, but you'll be able to continue living on dialysis. I'm not sure I want to survive that, mostly because it's hard to believe I will be able to with stand such radical change and still be able to go on. So I'm glad you are going to have a post in the future about despair. I think that is what my retreats into denial are often about, just not believing I could cope with that much hardship, so I keep hoping I'll just get hit by a bus before anything significant plays out.

John Michael Greer said...

RJ, delighted to hear it! History is one of the most useful studies there is, if done in a meaningful way, because it reveals the stupidities to which our species is prone, and thus helps avoid repeats. Also, thanks for the heads up about the War Nerd -- one of the sharpest bayonets in the drawer when it comes to contemporary geopolitics.

Beneath, many, many thanks!

LatheChuck, all very good points. The inefficiency of an open fireplace, if I may interject one note, is the reason why Ben Franklin invented the Franklin stove -- still a good option.

Enrique, modern empires tend to fall very fast: consider the Austro-Hungarian empire and both Russian empires (the one that ended in 1917 and the one that ended in 1991) for starters. I could definitely see something on that time frame happening here.

Glenn, you're welcome!

Pintada, I don't know McPherson; I do know that far more often than not, when somebody brings up near term extinction to me, it's in the context of "so why should I bother to do anything?" As for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, you really need to read some actual science on the subject, not the distorted summaries that are being circulated in the apocalypse fandom scene. A repeat of the PETM doesn't mean human extinction -- despite the number of people who are longing for that to come about. I'll get to the details when we start talking about the climate and ecology of North America during the next five centuries.

Candace, how about if somebody told you that you were going to lose your cell phone, your internet connection, and your TV? Would that plunge you into despair? I hope not. Here's one secret: the sooner you begin making the necessary changes, the more your future is going to be like my example and the less it's going to be like yours. I'll explain further in that upcoming post.

Robert Mathiesen said...

I'd like to echo rj8957 and JMG's praise for the War Nerd's cited analysis of the Ukrainian situation. It's one of the better and deeper pieces I've read on the subject.

Witter said...


Contradicting your reply to Divelly, threaded comments have been available for blogger since November of 2012.

It's not set up in the way you described. The way it should be configured looks pretty easy.

Here are two links that tell how to do it, or just google blogger threaded comments.

Agent Provocateur said...

@Joseph Nemeth

Read your essay at the link. Interesting we arrived at much the same numerical conclusion by such different methods. My intended take away point was much the same as on of yours, though I left it implied. I was hoping to provide a gentle reality check and a way of looking at the requirement.

You were more direct … I felt the sting of your “vanity garden” reference even after a harvest of 400 lbs of potatoes and another 400 lbs of other root crops. Ow! ;-)

I hope people will nonetheless do what they can to meet some of their own calorie needs by creating a … lets call it a “victory” garden as per WWII usage. Even if it doesn't meet all calorie needs, it may be enough to take the edge off hard times ahead. As I implied, the key is to focus on crops which give the highest calorie count per area cultivated. This gives the best EROEI as area cultivated is directly proportional to effort required to cultivate.

Grebulocities said...

I see - I think I misread you and thought you were stating that the 7 F warming in the Holocene hypsithermal was a global average, rather than the highest values found in some parts of the Arctic. I really like your approach of using paleoclimate to get a handle on what we can expect, and that's the way I tend to think too.

I'm reading a good review paper by Hansen et al saying that, based on a large number of proxies worldwide, Holocene hypsithermal temperatures seemed to be hotter by about 0.7 C above preindustrial levels on a global average. There was then a slight cooling trend ending in the Little Ice Age, and then an anthropogenic warming of about 0.8 C starting around 1850.

So at this stage I think it's fair to say that we've essentially returned to the Holocene hypsithermal, at least using the crude measure of average global temperature. As temperatures keep rising, within 40-80 years we'll hit the peak of the Eemian (2 C above preindustrial or ~1.2 above now, sea level 6-8 m higher). As warming continues, we leave the ice age and move on to the late Pliocene warm period at 3.3-3.0 Ma (about 3.5 C above preindustrial, sea level ~20 m higher, Greenland unglaciated). Going even further will lead to conditions not seen since the Earth entered its current icehouse state.

Due to lack of enough viable fossil fuels, I strongly doubt we'll manage to jostle the system all the way into Eocene-style hothouse conditions. Even if so, obviously there would still be a variety of survivors ready to undergo adaptive radiation and recolonize the niches left empty by the resulting extinction event. But it would be a very traumatic extinction event while it lasted.

One of the things I fear about rapid climate change to humans is that we're not sure what the long-term climate requirements of agriculture are. It strikes me as very interesting that agriculture developed, independently and nearly simultaneously, in at least a half-dozen places starting right around the time the climate entered an unusually stable period starting about 10000 years ago. Modern Homo sapiens did exist in the Eemian (which was warm but quite variable with no plateau of stable temperatures), and the ensuing glacial period was full of wild swings up and down until the present interglacial began with the abrupt end of the Younger Dryas.

Given all this, I wonder if relative long-term climate stability may be critical to the existence of agricultural civilization. If one thing is certain about the future, it's that the Holocene stable phase is over and we will be subject to erratic temperature changes of several degrees, along with rapidly shifting precipitation patterns, for millennia to come. Whether agriculture can survive this is an open question - the history of agriculture is short enough that there really is no historical precedent for climate change this rapid and severe, and it doesn't give me any comfort to know that much smaller local changes have done in civilizations numerous times even during the relative stability of the Holocene.

I think it's important to note that this time really is different from the short time perspective of agrarian civilization, and its survival isn't guaranteed. Of course it won't fail entirely in the short run (especially with FF-based inputs), but I don't know that this form of human civilization will be viable a millennium or two down the line.

Boddah Meep said...

Someone mentioned that everyone couldn't heat like he did, with wood. If there are 300 million people and you heat off 8 acres (i divide that by 4 generously saying households have 4 people) thats 2 acres per person. Multiple sources from a cursory googling, say that there are about 730 million acres of forest. This is above the 600,000 million acres needed to heat households with wood. Now I'm not arguing that clear cutting the two acres is a good idea, but their are plenty of fast growing and sustainable harvesting methods.

Your point might hold true for places like europe, I don't know but there is a lot of empty space in america and we could heat with wood. Not to mention all the warmer places that need less, and of course alternative fuels like pits, shells, and poop.

John Michael Greer said...

Witter, interesting. I'll look into it as time permits.

Grebulocities, it's important not to treat agriculture as a single phenomenon. As Colin Tudge points out in Neanderthals, Bandits, and Farmers, agriculture by some standards was already being practiced in 40,000 BCE -- the spread of hazel nuts into deglaciated northern Europe, to name only one example, can only be explained if people were deliberately planting thickets to give themselves a more stable food supply.

Certain kinds of agriculture are highly vulnerable to climate change; other kinds aren't -- and it's crucial to remember that the tropics suffer very little variation in temperature during climate cycles, so that tropical agriculture will almost certainly go on as the viability of agriculture in the temperate and subarctic regions varies drastically due to changes in temperature and rainfall. Once again, though, I'd encourage you to ask yourself why it's so important for you to be able to insist that it really is different this time...

Boddah, now factor in large-scale forest dieoff driven by severe droughts that run for centuries, and a general drying out even of parts of the country that don't face drought as such. No, we can't just count on burning wood.

Kutamun said...

Yeah ,
The Land Down under is set to dry off dramatically ( like it isnt already ) if our very own independent government scientific body ( are correct ...incidentally, the fossil fuel industry dominated neo con gubbermint in this country are in the beginning stages of gutting and presumably silencing this fine institution ... There is a plan ( largely secret ) in australia to liquefy coal and ramp up ethanol production to make up energy shortfall. With conventional oil fields in serious decline ( bass strait ) , much of our shale deposits are located in the outback, a place called Arckaringa Basin near CooberPedie. Vast amounts of water will be sucked from the ancient and fragile artesian basin to superheat the shale rock and extract the oil, depleting it ( both oil and shale ).
At present , large tracts of queensland and nsw are locked into severe three year drought, with all the signs pointing to the onset of El Nino drying period in 2014....the gubbermint has been forced to step in with low interest loans to prop up farmers who all believe that climate change is a load of codswallop , thanks to Crown Prince Ruprecht Murdock the First and only who controls eighty per cent of the countries print media. Growing up in the bush and living there still and farming , i fear for these people who are already suiciding in record numbers , while steadfastly clinging to their misguided belief that all this must be some mistake , and things are about to return to normal . Recently a farmer in Bourke NSw went out and shot his too weak to move 500 strong herd of breeding cattle and then shot himself .

A recent book by Peter Christoff " four degrees of global warming " predicts that in such a scenario, sydneywill have the climate of rockhampton, melbourne the climate of griffih, perththe climate of present day western queensland , alice springs will be like the Soudan in africa, cairns and darwin like nowhere presently on earth, scorched with heat and battered by terrifying storms ..
Only poor old unloved Gondwanaland Tassie will be largely spared these ravages , and i am thinking of moving there soon , as the last two pitiless bushfire seasons have ledt me with the distinct impression that annihilation by fire is becoming more and more a distinct possibility.

Generally , though , i am feeling good and light and happy , touching all who venture near me with my white light fairy dust and demeanour of sunny optimism !

Riding alone on my sea of discontent , feeling the pain of the welling bliss , shorelines littered with the redundant metals of a bygone empire now lying in ruins .
It is cloudy one moment , fair the next as the cyborg JOJ is reassigned to me , marked for life in the ultimate reassignment as rain sheets down on the overloaded death camps , its inmates lowing in abject futileness , returning to the sight of their redundant humanity , again and again

Sorry JM mate cant help it !
Cheers Kuta

OrwellianUK said...

Hi John

I mainly meant my first comment to be in the context of the claims and illusions that "progress" will always go forward and "technology" will always improve. Once we've burnt up the best of the planets cheap energy it is difficult to see us ever flying around in spaceships and airborne cars or whatever, but perhaps in a millennia or two another Empire similar to the Roman one could emerge.

I tend not to worry too much about the proper scientific method for disproving Peak Oil etc, and the risk of Confirmation Bias, because Governments, Corporations and the Media have been frantically trying to disprove those hypotheses for years and all I seem to need to do is check if their numbers add up. So far, they've failed abysmally and the hypothesis stands.

Quos Ego said...

Dear JMG,

what often gets missed in the whole "abrupt climate change" debate, it what we're currently experiencing is what abrupt climate change looks like. The Arctic ice cap melting in three decades, that's huge!

I think people rally need to get a geological time frame perspective here, and stop reasoning in human years.

As for the NTE scene, McPherson's blog has become a place where people bemoan their condition as human beings, revile their ancestors ("I'm ashamed of being a descendant of Colombus" for instance), and write bromidic screeds about acceptance and healing. If the situation were not so dire, and if those people were not needed to build some resiliency for the future, it would make me laugh.

You really NEED to write something about self-hatred in the environmentalist scene.

Phil Harris said...

Your reply sent me scurrying for information about tsunamis round Britain, and particularly those in the North Sea between Britain and the Continent.
From the geological record Britain seems most at risk from submarine landslides. The last massive one ~8000 BP in the sea off Norway sent down a huge tsunami. (Inundation by the North Sea was ongoing because of general northern hemisphere ice melt.) A similar tsunami in our next few hundred years would cause enormous loss of life and immense damage. So far six submarine landslides have been identified as occurring during the last 20K years in the northern seas, but not all seem to have generated tsunamis, and not all tsunamis will have reached Britain.
You are right that the question has been raised as to whether another bout of rapid melting of ice i.e. Greenland, increases the likelihood of a mega slide. Britain is still tilting because of ‘rebound’ after the weight of kilometres thick ice was removed those 8-10 thousand years ago. There is more to come.
I am slightly reassured that there is much less ice in the north than there was back when. Greenland has enough if melted to raise ocean level about 7 metres. This compares with a total de-glaciation melt (mostly in the northern hemisphere) that pretty quickly raised the ocean 120m. The seismic action / landslip potential could be proportionately less, and we might get away with it in the next hundred years or so.
I found this informative
Phil H
PS I think Britain can probably defend against the first one metre rise in sea level. Eventually though after perhaps a century or more, (sure, it could happen much more quickly) we will lose a lot of London and presumably most of London’s sub-ground infrastructure. All our reclaimed farmland will revert to salt marsh (swamp) and we will abandon many historic towns. Tidal surges will overwhelm and remove sea defences. The Eemian interglacial was about 2degC warmer than now and the ocean raised ~7m, although Greenland ice did not melt totally back then. A similar scene appears baked in the cake as some kind of ‘minimum’ over perhaps (we hope) several centuries. I think this account covers facts and conjectures fairly well
Personally, our heritable 2 acres is well above danger as is vast majority of high quality land hereabouts. In my lifetime, that is before 1930 (ahem)? Not a chance!:)

JP said...

"As for Russia, how do those rural figures relate to that for urban areas and for the country as a whole? That would be worth watching."

I do know that the fertility rate in the cities has been rising, but is still well below 2.1.

I don't know enough about internal Russian population flows at this point to figure out what is happening, however this could be rural areas functioning as seedbeds of a living, rising culture.

I also have not yet looked at the relative sizes of the populations, although that would require looking more deeply into what happened internally during the U.S.S.R. with respect to forced internal population transfers.

Phil Harris said...

I found this to be one of the most interesting articles I have read on attitudes to climate and climate events.
@cherokee organics as you are right in the firing line, does it ring bells with you?

mallow said...

So, once Greenland really starts to go and we get tsunamis from it, how much warning might people in Britain and Ireland get? Assuming current satellites, communication technology etc. And is there any way of knowing how high up or far inland is safe enough?

Glenn said...

Boddah Meep said...

"Someone mentioned that everyone couldn't heat like he did, with wood."

That was me. And there are three of us, and we only burn about 2 cords a year, which takes the produce of about 2 acres of our woods. And we live in NW Washington State, which has some of the most productive forest on the continent _and_ a very mild Maritime climate. Now we are not even getting all our calories (not being willing to cut forest to plant grain), much less our fiber for clothing, leather, metal or lumber (though the latter is at least possible) off our land. Like many Crofters and Homesteaders, we sometimes take outside work to purchase what we need.

As I type this, the temperature in here is about 50 Farenheit, we haven't lit a fire in two days. This is typical 6 months of the year for us. As JMG points out, forests are diminishing, and most don't produce as many BTU's per acre as ours. I am sure that future Nomadic herders on the Great Plains (until they desertify) will burn dung. We, however, prefer to use it as compost.

You might examine whole systems; there are competing uses for the land available in any region, and even in a nation as vast as the U.S. long term wood heating is not sustainable at the current population level. It was not that long ago, with a smaller population and larger forests that people here lived exactly as I described.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Nilas spasov said...

Can you post a few references on historical climate change, where we can go deeper into some of the patterns you referenced in the post on American Delusionalism.
Jerry Silberman

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- I think I more often see the opposite of the "it's different this time" -- the "oh, we've gotten through this before" argument, which is what leads to getting blindsided.

One of the underrated major advances in science in the last century was the discovery of chaos -- specifically, "sensitive dependence on initial conditions" and the idea that not all deterministic systems are convergent.

Assassination is usually a quiet and effective political tool. There's a big fuss around the event itself, but then the waters close over the gap and life goes on. But then, there was that Franz Ferdinand fellow, whose assassination plunged the entire Western World into generations of bloodshed.

We saw a lot of this kind of rhetoric around the last US government shutdown, with a number of Republican hostage-takers shrugging and saying, "Meh. Default isn't so bad. The world will forgive us, and then we'll move on."

Yes, maybe. Unless it's an Archduke Franz Ferdinand moment, in which case the only satisfaction we could all take is the expression on those politicians' faces as the situation spins completely out of control. Which isn't much compensation at all.

It seems to me that "its different this time" is the flag of the radicals, who are pushing for some kind of major change and want to justify it with the "desperate times call for desperate measures" argument.

The "we've been through this before" is the flag of the (true) business-as-usual conservatives, who do not want to make any changes in the face of changing circumstances.

Both are almost always wrong.

Ray Wharton said...

I stand corrected about the complexity of making semi-conductors, thanks to sunseeker! I had no idea how powerfully it would draw on oxygen; not that I would play with (budget) attempting any transmutation experiment without much more research, right now I only have a few brief bursts of Internet each week, so only more modest projects get throughly investigated. Maintaining an inert environment vastly increases the already steep difficulty level! Also, I think that Tom Bannister's metaphor of scrabble for economic viability vs technological feasibility has real merit!

I eagerly await your report on potential climate disruptions, I am highly invested in Colorado, which is of course vulnerable to water disruption. The tree farm where I am working is being decommissioned, as its owner is looking to retire from that business, and turn the fields into a small farm. The place has excellent water rights (water law in Colorado is a complex, yet surprisingly sensible legal construct) but I am trying to encourage some modifications in how the place is going to be transformed into a farm which will make it more competitive in drought prone conditions, which mostly means preventing the wind from pulling humidity out of the soil. My suggestion is to use the equipment that exists and runs well now to create earthen wind breaks, and experiment with drought tolerant desert shrub based hedges. Wind is such a dominant factor in this area, more than is generally discussed.

When the gravy train does run out here it will be harsh because SO MUCH of the economy is phony, even by American standards. I estimate that this place will get hit very hard during the next couple disruptions, but I really hope to be able to support myself, even if most of the population has to exodus to uncertainty. Its a gamble, but I don't have to out run the bear, so to speak. I love this place, but it is remarkably over populated relative to natural resource base. So I build relationships with the best people I can find, learn from then whatever they will share, and help them when I can.

But I am doing better at producing much of my own food, and hopefully enough food to give a lot away this year, barter some too. And I have lots of friend who I work together with to support several different little garden projects, including surveying for a raised bed for my lodge this Saturday!

I think it was latefall who suggested high value small mass goods be added to the 'list'. Well there is a lot to say for it, but also consider in all matters how tempting your projects would be to thieves, pirates, and thugs. There is no way to completely avoid this danger of course, but if you make things that are easy to carry off and sell that might be a liability. Not to say that it shouldn't be tried, in fact the low survival rate suggests that many should try any worthy project. As far as the 'last man standing' goes, I think that those folks are already in their game of musical chairs, and it is too late to join that game for all but a couple players, and if you are trying to preserve something dependent of that last stand, it is best to be eagerly working on an alternative, either a different way to do the same thing, or more likely a second line of work.

One factor about the coming time is how unprecedentedly common metals have become, it very much upsets the 'balance of power' concerning what strategies are dominant, and I think offers some optimism to the pneumatic punk, or what ever technology works out. Any body who can make life easier for farmers by working metal, or retrofitting existing technology, into things that aid with food raising will be in a good spot. Small engine repair means that field work which once took a horse's appetite of precious biomass to support can be replaced by a few hours of fueling a 2 hp engine running a wince plow, at that usage and treated with respect a half decent engine will out last any one of us, unless it gets locked in a warlord's flooded basement one winter :/

thrig said...

Boddah Meep: leaving just 130 million acres for the birds and whatever else needs to live in what remains of the forest, and only after assuming that both the woods and population are evenly distributed, and that nobody need walk very far to cut and obtain said wood—a circular forest of uniform density?—or otherwise how much Carbon would be burnt cutting, processing, and distributing the wood. And ignoring the blights, beetles, and other impacts on the forests, nor the costs to the soil of trying to replicate such fast growing trees year over year. Might be nice to have the passenger pigeon to help fertilize—oh, whoops! In short, simple math falls well short of the long-term realities of trying to burn that much wood for that many people over that much land.

Poop-based heating is very unlikely; I am familiar with it, as in Pakistan they use it as a cooking fuel, leaving cow-dung patties with bits of straw to dry like dalek bulges on the walls of their huts. But that was for cooking, not heating; those in the Himalaya instead walk around at night when it is cold out. Hence the survivors smiling while they ascend a path at 13,000 feet carrying thrice the load you bear. The Pakistani are also presently gnawing their way through what remains of the trees and scrub, lacking other heating material. Indeed, even back in the 1980s and 1990s the conifers on the road up to Murree looked like dandelions, the lowest branches or as high as the ladders could reach having already been harvested.

Max Paris said...

Hi John,

I thought you might find this story on the Guardian website interesting... that is, if you haven't already seen it. It seems pretty pertinent to a lot your writings.


BoysMom said...

Those of you with access and some paleo chops might find William L. Donn and Maurice Ewing's research published in Science between 1956 and 1966 of interest.
In brief, the gentlemen in question worked on where the water to form the North American ice sheets came from, and came to the conclusion that the Laurentine could not have formed without an open Arctic ocean to supply the moisture.

John Franklin said...

Since we're sharing links to analyses of the Russia-EU-US problem, here's a link to an article written in 1997 by Sir Roderick Braithwaite, the British Ambassador in Moscow:

I think it's normally behind a paywall. But, in response to recent events, Prospect magazine has kindly brought it out for readers.

John Franklin said...

Apparently I spelled his name wrong. I shall try again: Sir Rodric Braithwaite, once British ambassador in Moscow.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Agent - And I want to emphasize again (as I do in that essay) that I don't think a "victory garden" or even a "vanity garden" is a bad idea, not in the least. It's a great idea!

It becomes a bad idea only if people think a backyard garden is going to let them go "off-grid." They're still going to need a LOT of support from a functional community.

Which they WILL HAVE in most cases. Even if everything falls apart, people will band together.

Phil Harris said...

JMG, rj8957 and Robert
Thanks for the pointers to War Nerd's piece on Crimea. It was not Putin who set this whole thing up. Floating what were in my view spurious possibilities for joining the EU and NATO had more to do with it.

One not very special error: at my last check, Russia is the world's largest producer of oil but not quite the largest exporter.

A few other points of fact - Eastern Ukrainians have a much higher per capita income than citizens in Western Ukraine (except Kiev) and the Eastern half holds most of the industry. That industry is reputed to be old-fashioned but still able to sell into the Russian market. One guesses it would likely not survive any deal with EU / IMF.

Question: does Victoria Nuland (wife of New American Century Robert Kagan) think she has won or lost?


zmejuka-alexey said...

As there is some discussion of Crimean story going on here, I'd share a view from Russia.

For people in Russia the whole situation has a big spiritual dimension (or a religious one, as it touches the cornerstones of the russin culture). There is a very popular russian film "Brother" in which the main hero does anything needed for truth and justice. Famously he says " The Power is in the Truth". This time russian people believe that our state has taken the side of the Truth against the West.

The sanctions from the West in this light look like the sanctions from the Satana to a devout christian.

Personally, I am happy with the situation. Now there is hope that Russia won't be based on the soulless consumption. We either build a society with an alternative set of values or die trying to do it.

I don't know whether the alternative would be more enviromentally responsible, but there is more chances now that Russia will better weather the long descent, as it had spitirually disconnected from the dominant capitalist-consumerist culture.

Best regards

P.S. Sorry for a slight off-topic.

Alphonse Houner said...

Oh, they will fall apart eventually but for now it is nice to see someone finally stating reality - the financial and other systems won't crash and burn in an overnight collapse. Everything will be thrown at most of the existing systems, especially finance, to keep them running well past their "stale date."

Arthur E. Berman said...

JMG--the last 2.5 billion years of earth history have been dominated by "green house" climates (no polar ice cap) periodically punctuated by "ice hose" conditions (polar ice cap). The apocalyptic view of warming climate today is, therefore, a return to the Earth's normal.

Life on earth has done quite well throughout the many changes between a warmer and a cooler earth. Humans may not fare as well especially in coastal cities but the planet will undoubtedly survive.

There have been many periods in which mean global temperatures were much higher than the direst of predictions by climate change catastrophists (particularly the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum some 50 MA in which the only known extinctions were some ultra deep-water bottom feeding organisms).

I do not disparage the concerns expressed by climate change partisans but also believe that context, as you suggest, is useful.


Matthew Lindquist said...

Er, apologies. I certainly didn't mean to imply that.

Anyway, have you heard of/read David Archer's "The Long Thaw"? His conclusion is that humans will ultimately cancel the next ice age, in his model of the limits of negative feedbacks, particularly with regards to ocean chemistry. I understand that you've drawn a different conclusion? Personally, I'm a bit suspicious of anything that I really want to believe, since cancelling an ice age seems too much like a silver lining, but I'd love to hear your opinion!

simon.dc3 said...

hi JMG, great post.

Not sure if anyone mentioned already, as I haven't read all the comments, that Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock has a great podcast this week ( with guests speaking on exactly what your upcoming posts deal with.

Besides Dr Michael Jennings, there's also Dr Sing C. Chew. Dr Chew has a meritorious background studying exactly what you hear deal with in your blog. Great minds think alike...and all that :-)

Two of his books are
"The Recurring Dark Ages: Ecological Stress, Climate Changes, and System Transformation", and
"Ecological Futures: What History Can Teach Us"

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, sounds like people on your side of the planet are as deep into self-defeating delusionalism as most of us are up here. Unfortunate, but not unexpected...

Orwellian, oh, granted. My guess, though, is that future empires won't be limited to Roman standards -- a Spanish or Chinese empire circa 1500 is wholly within reach of future societies, and no doubt plenty of clever technologies will be invented to make the most of what energy sources exist once it's become finally, brutally clear that the heyday of fossil fuels is never coming back.

Quos Ego, exactly -- this is what extreme climate change looks like. As for self-hatred, I'm coming to the uneasy and reluctant conclusion that I'm going to have to spend some time exploring the festering mess at the dark heart of the American dream, because that bizarre concatenation of entitlement, self-loathing, hubris and apocalyptic despair seems peculiarly American to me. More on this as we proceed.

Phil, to get ahead of things a bit, you have three main causes of tsunamis in the oceans right next to a deglaciating region: earthquakes due to isostatic rebound, underwater landslips due to unstable terrain left behind by melting ice sheets, and methane hydrate "burps" due to the relatively rapid warming of the shallow sea floor. Those can act individually as well as together. In this case, I don't expect anything as extreme as the tsunami that dug the English channel, but ordinary tsunamis are quite bad enough when combined with rising sea levels.

JP, before the 20th century it was normal for rural areas to have fertility rates well above breakeven, and cities to have rates well below breakeven -- thus the constant flow of rural people into the city. If Russia's reverting to that, that's not surprising.

Phil, thanks for posting that!

Mallow, heck of a good question. There hasn't been the collapse of a continental glacier since records started to be kept, so we're flying blind. I'll try to make some suggestions in the upcoming post, but I'd encourage you to think about the BBC article I linked above, about the tsunami that dug the English channel...

Nilas, you might want to start with the book I cited earlier in the comments string. I'll see about a reading list for the upcoming posts.

Joseph,, actually, the "we've gotten through this before" reaction is more often right than otherwise -- its weakness is that every so often things do spin out of control, as in the summer of 1914. Even then, a lot of people and a lot of countries did, in fact, get through it. By contrast, if you embrace the "it's different this time" narrative, you're normally wrong.

Ray, if you're learning how to work salvaged metal, you're getting in on the ground floor of a trade that's going to keep a lot of people gainfully employed and socially valued for many centuries to come...

Max, thanks -- yes, I've seen it!

John Michael Greer said...

Mom, I remember those theories! One of the wild cards is that for several reasons -- the potential for a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation is another -- the heat wave triggered by anthropogenic global warming could trigger, a little further on, a plunge in Northern Hemisphere temperatures leading into a new ice age.

John, thank you for posting that! It's good to see that someone, at least, has noted the stunning stupidity of US policy toward Russia over the last two decades or so.

Phil, I don't think they were spurious possibilities at all. The EU would love to have another country to strip to the bare walls to keep the wealth pump running, and NATO would love to be able to base missiles right on the Russian border.

Alexey, that's interesting to hear. That's "Satan" in English, by the way, not "Satana" -- English borrowed the word direct from Hebrew, without the additional bit at the end added in New Testament Greek.

Alphonse, thank you for a dose of common sense. Of course they'll prop things up, by whatever means necessary, and if things do come crashing down something else will be jerry-rigged in its place.

Arthur, exactly! Thank you likewise for a dose of common sense. Rapid climate change will be a real bear for human societies, especially those too close to the seashore or too dependent on maritime activities, but the claim that it's the end of everything just won't hold up to any kind of reasonable scrutiny.

John Michael Greer said...

Matthew, I'll have to read his book, but it seems dubious to me. Human beings these days -- or the subset of them that live in industrial cultures -- like to think of themselves as omnipotent, but I'll believe that human beings can cancel an ice age when the Milankovich cycle is rolling toward one right about the time I see people finding a way to steer a hurricane away from land.

Simon, thanks for the heads up. I'll have to read those books!

Enrique said...

More evidence of just how self-destructive and idiotic the policy of the US and EU towards Russia really are. Perhaps when Europe is freezing in the dead of winter because the Russians decided to retaliate for the greedy and stupid behavior of the EU by shipping their oil and gas to East Asia instead of the EU, the leaders of the EU will finally wise up.

I am reminded of the old Greek saying: "Those who the gods would destroy, first they drive mad".

mr_geronimo said...

"Certain kinds of agriculture are highly vulnerable to climate change; other kinds aren't -- and it's crucial to remember that the tropics suffer very little variation in temperature during climate cycles, so that tropical agriculture will almost certainly go on as the viability of agriculture in the temperate and subarctic regions varies drastically due to changes in temperature and rainfall. Once again, though, I'd encourage you to ask yourself why it's so important for you to be able to insist that it really is different this time..."

There is a problem with tropical agriculture - pests. Just as plants love the hot and humid climate so do the insects and fungus that destroy whole harvests.

Here in home in Rio we fight an eternal battle against aphids and cochinillas to save our small pepper garden. Going north, to even more humid places near the equator is even worse. Tropical agriculture depends upon agrotoxics to kill the pests.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@JMG and Matthew--Five or ten years ago I read an article about climate cycles in National Geographic or Smithsonian or some other magazine of that sort. It said that the planet would have been heading into an ice age right about now, were it not for agriculture and the industrial revolution. Though the article did not say so explicitly, one takeaway for me was that anthropogenic global warming would have showed up sooner were it not for the coincidence of an astronomical offset.

To this layperson that seems plausible.

Delaying an ice age is not the same as stopping it. Once an ice age is underway, the rising albedo of spreading ice sheets is positive feedback that would likely outweigh any human activity, unless somebody comes up with a low tech way to spread soot over glaciers or get volcanoes to erupt more often.

Any thoughts from the better informed? Is the smart money on our next ice age arriving within a historical time scale or have we reset the clock for tens of thousand of years? Or not enough data to say?

Cathy McGuire said...

Cathy, by "quakes at the base of our long coastal fault" I hope you don't mean the Cascadia fault, where the Juan de Fuca plate is being subducted beneath the North American plate. If you do -- ouch. When that one goes, America is going to find out the hard way what a real natural disaster looks like.

Yup. I think that’s why the Portland media gave it some coverage… but it’s like shouting at deaf people. Since March 9th, there were 24 total, 2 over 4.5 – all in N. Calif, just where the single off-coast faultline splits into the two faultlines – the JDF trench is right there. And – seems significant to me – none at all along Oregon… the pressure is building.

Boddah Meep said...

No offense JMG, and I know you aren't, but you sound like a "doomer" in your response to me. I wasn't suggesting anyone count on anything with regards to heating with wood. All I was showing is that its far more possible right now than the OP made it seem.

If we reduce population to 5% like you predict, and the world is a lot warmer, like the global warming scientists say, then heating with wood is still very viable.

I'm not suggesting anyone count on anything. Most likely we will be dead before there are too few trees, and nor to I believe that trees and fossil fuels are the only things that burn.

Its easy to focus on the negative affects of climate change but there will undoubtedly be good changes as well. I don't propose to know either. I was simply saying that there are currently enough forests to meet human needs for heating in america.

Thanks for the response tho

Boddah Meep said...

And Glenn...

Thats fine that you have 3 in your family. But if energy was a problem there would probably be more in your household. Most likely 4 or more IMO, which is why I used that number in my little calculation.

As for your grain and such... I was only stating forested land. Only 33% is forested.

I know what its like to grow potatoes. I know how much fire should be edged off, roughly speaking. I also know that trees can produce fats and carbs.

You are talking from what is, and I moreso intend what can be. If people were encouraged to forest all properties, (akin to lawns for gardens etc). Intercropping hybrid poplars with osage orange and ironwood... planting in the rows your beloved root crops! (mine too.) Swaling dry land with the valuable remaining fossil fuels. Carrying capacity for earth is a lot more humans, but not with their current ignorance and insatiable appetites.

latheChuck said...

Boddah Meep: You said that we have "730 million acres", and that we need "600,000 million acres". Either that's a massive editing error, or you've just proven that we have about 1/1000th of the forest we'd need for heat.

In Michigan, there is a fort in the shadow of the Mackinaw Bridge (which connects the lower and upper peninsulas). Visitors to the fort, if they pay attention, will hear that it was eventually abandoned when it occupants had burned all of the firewood within hauling distance of their fireplaces. Great strategic location; not so great energy management - open hearth fireplaces. (They also depleted the soil fertility, btw.)

Boddah Meep said...

Yikes it seems everyone doesn't understand what I'm getting at.

To thrig.

Man utilizing an area for wood heating does not exclude birds. Doing a clearcut in a small area won't even clear birds. Leaving a snag or two of a widowmaker creates a nice start. What does the blights of beetles have to do with harvesting wood? You mean like transporting ash, with the borer and all? No argument here I'm not suggesting people live in the desert anyway. I wouldn't consider it, live where the trees are and harvest your own.

I understand its easy to destroy forests, but that doesn't mean there aren't sustainable ways to harvest and handle our heating in a renewable way. If they are chewing through their trees in pakistan I wouldn't be surprised people very often fail to handle their resources correctly.

As for replacing the fertility, thats fairly easy, return what was taken. The rest comes from the sun and rain. Coppicing will do the rest and anything else that can be added. The same way forests survive wildfire.

Passenger pigeons? I read recently a theory that they only exploded in population just before they disappeared and that the numbers are therefore misleading

latheChuck said...

Bringing things back down to earth, I am happy to report that the lettuce I transplanted to my garden last Saturday got through the 8" snowfall of Monday without damage. Some were protected by plastic gallon-jugs with the bottoms cut out, others by a 4'x4' cold frame with sides constructed of packed garden soil, the top being corrugated plastic. Kale grown in a wood-framed, plastic-topped cold frame has been edible all winter (in mid-Maryland), despite temperatures near -20C at times. The vitamins in fresh greens may be an important supplement to dried fruits, grains, and root-cellar potatoes.

Despite good written sources, it has taken me several seasons to figure out this cold-frame stuff. It's NOT to prolong the season for warm-weather crops (e.g. tomatoes), because they'll freeze inside anyway. (Tried that.) And it's easy to bake tender seedlings in small pots on a sunny spring day. (Did that, too.) But to keep hardy, leafy plants from being damaged by movement while they're frozen, THAT works!

Janet D said...

JMG said, "...I'm going to have to spend some time exploring the festering mess at the dark heart of the American dream, because that bizarre concatenation of entitlement, self-loathing, hubris and apocalyptic despair seems peculiarly American to me."

I can't wait for this. I was wondering today why it is that the latest round of Peak Oil/Prepper news/blog updates that I receive have been bothering me (which they usually don't). I realized that it's because some in this "movement" (if that's what it can be called) are becoming so focused on the future and the disasters that await us (all spelled out in never-ending detail) that awareness of the present is obliterated. It's a bizarre form of mental hyper-future-focus combined with self-absorption and self-condemnation, almost a continuation of the focused selfishness that helped get us into all these messes.

The time we have now is precious, and the three friends I've had who have already lost their lives (I'm 48..they were all younger) still whisper to me to not lose awareness of the only moment(s) we can enjoy or impact - right now. I realize I risk sounding sappy/sentimental here, but when I become tense and overly focused about "what is coming", I let my life now go unlived, because I'm not even paying attention to it.

So I've determined that these other blogs/news updates have to go (for now at least). They are feeding the unhealthy in me. But I do look forward to hearing your insight into the prevalence of this "doom is because of us and is coming to us and we deserve all of it" mentality so seemingly prevalent now.

onething said...

I think the idea of selling Crimea is the most smashing idea I've heard in a long time, and so much more humorous than the route taken.

While we're discussing high caloric plants, let me put in a plug for the old trio of corn, beans and squash. They are all high calorie, easy and reliable to grow, and go well together, and butternut squash particularly is disease resistant, nice and meaty, very tasty and stores like a champ.

And last, " that's a fairly common rate of dieoff in the collapse of a civilization that's dependent on nonrenewable resources."

Really? Can you name a couple? Rome? Did the population reduce to 5%?

Grebulocities said...

That's a good point, and I think it's time I got around to reading Tudge's book: it's one of the dozens of books I've been meaning to track down to never got around to. I've ordered it and look forward to reading it.

If I had to guess about his thesis without having read his book, it would be that so-called hunter-gatherer societies engage in substantial manipulation of their environment to encourage the growth of useful organisms, such as hazels, and that they've been doing this since long before what we think of as agriculture, possibly as long as there have been modern Homo sapiens.

I wouldn't dispute that, but I'm more concerned with the independent development of intensive agriculture in the Fertile Crescent, the Indus Valley, China, at least one site in sub-Saharan Africa, Mesoamerica, the Andes highlands, and the New Guinea highlands, plus anywhere else we don't know about. These all developed in the time frame 10000-5000 BP, and given that most of these sites were inhabited well before this, it seems reasonable to believe that intensive agriculture (of the sort that supports population densities higher than hunter-gatherers and horticulturalists can) required the relatively stable climate of the Holocene to develop. This is true even in tropical regions, which experience major precipitation changes with global climate even as local temperatures stay fairly constant.

I've spent quite a while trying to convince myself that this time wasn't very different on a long-term basis, but I've come to the conclusion that this is largely incorrect, at least from the perspective of modern Homo sapiens. Although I doubt we'll reach Eocene level hothouse conditions, a rapid temperature spike to 3-5 C above preindustrial levels over the next couple centuries would be far outside the range that humans have experienced since intensive agriculture developed; it would also represent conditions the Earth hasn't seen for several million years. We have no idea how modern Homo sapiens will deal with this environment, although I certainly do expect some humans will make it - we're a remarkably weedy species relative to all the other apes.

I like your comparison of the formation of large igneous provinces to our current situation. Our abrupt rise in greenhouse gases along with particulates does generally match the outcome of a quick flood-basalt eruption. I will note though that the most severe one in known geological history, the Siberian traps, were likely the trigger of the Permian-Triassic extinction, and the events you mentioned besides the Columbian eruption are all associated with minor extinction events. The combination of climate change and human predation could easily turn the Holocene/Anthropocene extinction event into the sixth major extinction, albeit probably not quite as bad as the P-T extinction.

In short, I really don't want to believe this time is different, but based on the evidence I'm forced to conclude it is at the least different from anything humans have experienced since H. sapiens evolved. Agriculture may survive or it may not, but either way we are going to enter a climate regime totally outside the experience of H. sapiens. Of course NTE is a joke, but I think we have some reason to fear for the long-term survival of human civilization.

Avery said...

Onething, the population of Rome decreased from 800,000 in 400 CE to five hundred, perhaps even zero, during the Gothic Wars around 500 CE. After that, it took hundreds of years to recover even to the size of a large town. Dozens of other Mediterranean cities suffered a similar fate. This has been discussed before on this blog.

Anselmo said...

I think that the mass murderer Stalin was not a devout Marxist, because He established a political system called Stalinism, with huge diferences about Marxism.

We have the examples of the Stalinist regimes in Cuba and North Korea that suffered its own peak oil occurred when the USSR collapsed and stopped sending cheap oil.

And we also have the example of Japan in the Tokugawa era.

Tracy G said...

USGS earthquake map. I've set the feed to show events of magnitude 4.5+ over the past 30 days. Settings can be changed at upper right.

Jan Wareus said...

A fine post JMG - but pls, tell us how to handle all the articles we have here in Botswana about forbidden archaeology, former giants, technical stuff inbedded in coal, 200mill old skeletons, illuminati from other stars in UFO's etc - it all seems to focus on that history is wrong!

AlanfromBigEasy said...

The population of the city of Rome fell by more than 95%.

John Michael Greer said...

Enrique, I admit to some sympathy for the leaders of the EU. They're stuck between America's empire and a resurgent Russia, and nothing they can possibly do can satisfy both. It's not going to be pretty, whatever happens.

Mr. Geronimo, the native peoples of the tropical belt worldwide had wholly functional ways of doing agriculture, and some of those -- especially in the Old World -- remain solidly in place. Too many pests is usually a good sign that what you're doing isn't yet in balance with the local ecology.

Unknown Deborah, I'm not sure what the current state of science is about the time scale of the beginning of a glaciation, but last I heard it was a fairly slow process. My working guess, based on that and other paleoclimatological data, is that we've simply delayed the process a bit, and after a millennium or so of unusually warm temperatures, Milankovich forcing will bring on the next round of continental glaciers. Still, that's something I need to research!

Cathy, in your place I'd relocate at least one state further east, and I'd do it now. I mean that in all seriousness. I'd hate to see your comments stop suddenly, and hear maybe years later that you were one of the hundreds of thousands who died in the big Cascadia quake.

Boddah Meep, I think you're quite wrong. Forests across much of the Third World have been devastated in recent decades by people trying to rely on wood for heat, and the ecological consequences have been severe. I wish it would get through more people's heads that natural systems are not just sitting there waiting for human beings to exploit them!

LatheChuck, excellent! And it's exactly the vitamins etc. that a small backyard garden is well suited to supply. Famine in the absolute sense -- that is, sheer lack of calories -- is another matter, and fortunately not one that's likely to be an issue in the US; as the price of food spikes, there's a lot of vacant acreage in regions not suited to corporate megafarms that can very easily be (and in some cases already is being) turned over to potato growing and the like. Malnutrition in protein, vitamins, and other noncaloric needs is a significant source of illness in hard times, and your victory garden will help mightily with that -- especially with cold frames.

Janet, that's probably a good idea. I've been spending a lot of time recently, while prepping garden beds and doing other useful chores, thinking about the politics of despair in contemporary America, and relating it to such things as our death-fetish for vampires and zombies. It's a complex issue, and one that is going to need much research and pondering.

Onething, the western Roman empire and the classic lowland Maya are two very good examples. I'll be talking about the depopulation explosion in our future at some length in the upcoming series of posts.

Grebulocities, you're still missing the whole point of my post. Historical events aren't "different" or "the same" in absolute terms. In every present or future situation, without exception, there are differences from past examples, and there are similarities to past examples. Why are you fixating on the differences, rather than being willing to learn from the similarities?

Anselmo, well, many varieties of Christianity have very little to do with the teachings of that guy from Nazareth, but we still use the phrase "devout Christian" to describe believers in them!

John Michael Greer said...

Tracy, many thanks. I'm noting those two 5-pointers right at the place where the bottom end of the Juan de Fuca plate jams into the join between the Pacific and North American plates, and getting a very queasy feeling...

Jan, good heavens, is that all the rage in Botswana now? That was all over the American media in the 1920s and 1970s -- your cultural cycles and ours are a bit out of step, I gather.

thrig said...

At 300 million small clearcuts, I'd say that the forests near the humans would be in deep, deep trouble. And how did you ever transmute "blights and beetles" to "blights of beetles"? Both blights, and also beetles, have been something of a problem for a variety of trees, especially given that we barely understand how forests work, and that species such as the whitebark pine are not commercially viable, so receive scant attention despite the critical water and soil management services they provide.

Return what was taken? So you make the appropriate observances to the tree, and if those are favourable, cut it down, walk home, turn around, walk back, and drop it off unburnt to decompose? Or is there something more to the soil fertility plan that I'm missing?

I suppose that Micawberism is fine, but hurtling through the supposed infinite bounty of nature like a wide-eyed hunter from a Jules Verne novel does not bring the passenger pigeon back.

pintada said...

"As for the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, you really need to read some actual science on the subject, not the distorted summaries that are being circulated in the apocalypse fandom scene. A repeat of the PETM doesn't mean human extinction"

I did some reading and stand corrected - especially if I change your statement from "doesn't mean human extinction" to doesn't necessarily mean human extinction.

Glenn said...

Boddah Meep said...
"And Glenn...

Thats fine that you have 3 in your family. But if energy was a problem there would probably be more in your household. {Snip!}

You are talking from what is, and I moreso intend what can be."

You have no idea what we plan to do on this land as things unwind. I did not feel it a good use of space to enumerate _all_ the things we are doing here. It isn't all On Topic and would take too long. Yes, we have an orchard and planted hazlenuts on the edge of our clearings. Enough with the Bill Mollison already.

More to the point, at some time in the future what is left of humanity will live in balance with available resources. Indeed, we are now; it's just been severely influenced by cheap fossil fuels and isn't sustainable.

What I was specifically addressing was the transition period when we really hit the bottom of the fossil fuel barrel. Probably some time between say 2025 and 2050 (I should be dead by 2050). The U.S. population is likely to be very close to current levels, living in larger than necessary houses, and used to high indoor temperatures in the winter. Every forest within walking distance of a population center is probably going to be destroyed.

You are fine with numbers, but distribution is key. The existing woods are not all near cities. As industrial agriculture declines, and by necessity is replaced by more labour intensive methods (such as organic), and as "unemployment" grows; people will move from urban to rural farming areas. I suspect they will prioritize to where the food is, versus where the firewood is. Hence my statement that an attempt to heat with wood couldn't last long.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...
I'm noting those two 5-pointers right at the place where the bottom end of the Juan de Fuca plate jams into the join between the Pacific and North American plates, and getting a very queasy feeling..."

Well, it's been 314 years since the last good one. The native population here on the Olympic Peninsula survived. I expect we'll see about a meter or so of drop with an acceleration slightly over 1 G in our location. The house is bolted down, we'll lose some glassware though. It's not surviving the quake the worries me. It's the months or years it will take to re-establish freight movement, travel and communication. It's going to be a regional disaster, help will have to come from far away in a dysfunctional country, if Katrina is any example. We'll probably lose the well and power; we'll be dependent on rainwater, firewood and an early bed time. But we'll survive. We have a good community, skills, knowledge and boats that don't require motors.

So I promise to send you a report after it happens. Please let me know when the Atlantic gets to DeeSee.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea
Cascadia subduction zone

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@JMG--I agree that outright famine on a large scale is unlikely in the US, but think it is a possibility depending on the political situation.

A lot of research has been done recently about past famines. I haven't read the books, only summaries of their findings.

Most if not all of the famines of the industrial era have been caused by human action, not natural disasters. Places where the government is responsive to the needs of its people don't have famines.

Some famines are political, used by rulers to starve their opponents. Some are economic; there is food in the markets but the poor have no money to buy it. Landowners force farmers to grow export crops instead of food for their families. And of course war drives people off the land, destroys crops, and prevents them from getting to market.

I think a totalitarian regime capable of stopping large populations from having access to food isn't likely to arise domestically, though it could be imposed by foreign conquest. Absent conquest, control over what people are allowed to grow is more likely to wane than wax. It would take some time to establish the kind of feudalism that exists in Central America. We probably will have gang warfare and local insurrections.

Grebulocities said...

Don't get me wrong - I completely agree that looking at the past for similarities to the current situation is likely the best tool we have for predicting the shape of the future. The paleoclimate record does demonstrate that Earth has been through events like this before, and that humans are quite capable of adjusting to rapid climate change (even if the adjustment is rather traumatic). We can also look at past civilizations (e.g. the Maya) that suffered decline partially brought about by local climate change, and use those experiences to project what effects climate change may have on the decline of our own civilization.

I don't think that things are "different" or "similar" in some absolute sense, and there's a lot to learn from historical similarities between events that also have many differences. It's just that I've become convinced that what we're experiencing is different enough from anything ever seen in the era of human civilization that the past may stop being as useful a guide as it would be if we were staying roughly within the bounds of previous human experience. I think we need to focus on both the similarities and the differences in order to come up with the best understanding of our predicament.

Shane Wilson said...

Regarding the U.S., it's been said that we're experiencing" mass/collective schizophrenia" , but I'd posit that the more apt description is "mass/collective dementia", an advanced/ aged society losing its mind, forgetting everything, and collectively becoming feeble-minded.

sunseekernv said...

John, Cathy - re earthquakes

Before doing anything, I'd recommend reading Peter Yanev's Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country and looking at one's local hazard maps.

Actually, pretty much anyone planning to move/build/remodel/keeping living there ought to read it if they're anywhere near historical quake areas. Besides the West coast, there have been serious quakes in Idaho, Utah, Nevada, Wyoming, etc. Then there's the New Madrid zone around Memphis, South Carolina, and some issues in New England from Canada. Not to forget Alaska and the Southern Hawaiian Islands.

Check out your local hazards at:

Many other state/nation geology/mapping/emergency preparedness agencies have similar hazard maps.

Moving from Oregon to Idaho may be "from the frying pan into the fire".

The real hazards come from immediate location: what kind of ground is your house built on, how steep is the terrain? Northern California, Oregon and Washington coasts will be in for more nasty tsunamis in due time, living on the coast seems to be a bad idea - we're talking huge waves + land subsidence. The Seattle area (and some of Portland, OR and Vancouver, BC) in particular is toast, since it's mostly soft land that will undergo "liquefaction" under shaking, like the Marina district in San Francisco during the '89 quake.

Building construction details matter greatly. Some buildings in the Marina with lots of garage doors on the first floor just pancaked, anybody on the first floor or two got smushed. And often people got trapped on upper floors and couldn't get out - some burned. Fires after quakes are a big issue - do you have automatic gas shutoff valves, water heaters, etc. securely braced? Un-reinforced masonry walls (including foundation walls), un-braced cripple walls, heavy roof tiles without adequate shear bracing, hmmm - even add-on solar systems on the roof could be the straw that breaks the camel's back. Masonry chimneys? Look nice, bad if they topple onto you/through the roof. etc. etc. etc.

Details in Yanev's book.

I'd be concerned about water availability, and somewhat about being downwind of volcanic eruptions in Idaho, and if you go further East in Idaho, you get into another bad quake zone and the whole Yellowstone Caldera thing.

But if Cathy's on the coast or along a river valley leading inland, anywhere within reach of a 100' tsunami (e.g. below 100-200' above sea level depending on distance inland), or built on soft sediments, or beneath a questionable dam or slidable hillside, etc. - yes, moving should be considered.
The Cascadia Subduction Zone has a 37% chance of going off in the next 50 years. Not counting the myriad of local fault hazards in the area.

On the other hand, the upper reaches of the Willamette Valley will likely have a reasonable water supply regardless of what happens elsewhere.

Earthquake engineering is a subject matter where history really does matter.

John Michael Greer said...

Pintada, human beings are among nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches. We're remarkably difficult to exterminate. If you'd like to suggest that industrial civilization is toast and the human population of this planet a few centuries from now is going to be a lot smaller than it is today, due to anthropogenic climate change among other factors, I won't argue for a moment, but extinction? It'll take a good deal more than one millennium of chaotic climate to do us in.

Glenn, where you are, I wouldn't worry -- the Puget Sound islands are made of compact glacial till, which is nearly as sturdy as rock under seismic stress. (I rode out the 1965 and 2001 earthquakes on ridges of glacial till in the Seattle area, with minimal effects in both cases.) Urban zones are quite another matter, even where they're not built on uncompacted fill subject to liquefaction -- and of course you'll be able to get supplies by sea after the first few days, where the mouth of the Columbia is expected to be impassable until dredged. As for Deesee, sure -- why do you think I'm a couple of hundred miles abd a mountain range inland?

Unknown Deborah, that seems realistic enough.

Grebulocities, you might want to read through the last two sentences of your comment, and notice that they flatly contradict each other. Either we can use the past as a guide to the future, with appropriate adjustments to deal with the unique features of the situation under discussion, or we can't. It's been utterly fascinating to me to watch people -- you're far from the only one -- go into a mental spasm over this point, repeating "but it's different this time, but it's different this time" over and over again as though it's their mantra.

Shane, well, I've talked about cultural senility, so we may be on the same page.

Sunseeker, I grew up in Seattle, so am very familiar with earthquake issues. If there's reason to think that the Cascadia subduction zone is about to let go, Idaho is a much better place to be; even if you get an earthquake there, it's not going to be 9 point something on the Richter scale -- that's the base scenario for most studies of the next Cascadia quake -- and you're not going to be left without water, power, or functional roads for three months, which is what Oregon's saying will happen even if all goes well.

The tsunamis are another matter. Public safety officials are publicly admitting that there will be no way to get anybody out of a whole line of vulnerable coastal towns during the 20 minutes or so between the earthquake and the first tsunami impact -- the roads will be impassable due to earthquake damage -- and so, barring a few very lucky individuals, the entire populations of all those towns will die. It's really a very grim prospect.

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...
"Puget Sound islands are made of compact glacial till, which is nearly as sturdy as rock under seismic stress. (I rode out the 1965 and 2001 earthquakes on ridges of glacial till"

Roger that. My brother and wife are both extensively familiar with local geology. We call it the Marrowstone layer. Normally I can dig 6 cubic feet an hour. If I let it weather for a week between working, I can get about 6 inches down over a square yard of the till in an 8 hour day.

I rode out Nisqually on a Coast Guard icebreaker moored at Pier 36. We heard the rumble and went outside and watched the dust rise off Seattle. My wife was in her parents house in Auburn keeping the glass cabinet from falling on our infant daughter. That was a small quake, deep down. The subduction quake, as you said, will be another story; both in intensity and duration.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Grebulocities said...

"Either we can use the past as a guide to the future, with appropriate adjustments to deal with the unique features of the situation under discussion, or we can't."

I agree that we can use the past as a rough guide to the future, and I actually suspect we don't really disagree much. I'm not trying to argue that the current situation is so unlike the past that we can't make use of it at all. All I am trying to say is that the unique features of our current predicament are far enough outside Holocene conditions that using the past to predict the future may result in more error than we would usually expect to see. I'm making a fairly "moderate" argument: this time has some important differences that may make using the past to model the future a worse approximation than it usually would be. I'm not saying that "this time is different" in such a way as to make the past irrelevant, and it's certainly no mantra of mine.

The reason I'm saying all this is that I've spent quite a while over the past year reading climatological literature, and I'm struck by both the similarities and differences from past events. There have been carbon spikes before, and there have also been ice ages. But a carbon spike on the order of a moderate flood basalt eruption, during an ice age interglacial, is something we don't really have any good analogues for in the paleoclimate record. The climate has also been unusually unstable over the past few million years, oscillating wildly between glacial and interglacial phases with very small forcing changes. We're giving the climate system a huge shove towards warmer temperatures, which hasn't happened during this ice age, and it's really hard to say how the system will respond. The current ice age has also featured the lowest CO2 concentrations ever recorded during its glacial phases, at ~180 ppm, and since the climate response to GHGs is a logarithmic function of their concentration, there's reason to believe that an increase from the interglacial 280 ppm to 600 ppm over the course of a couple centuries would have an effect far larger than, say, a spike from ~1500 ppm to ~2000 ppm as happened several times during the Jurassic and Cretaceous.

The past can give us some general information (e.g. large parts if not all of the West Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are going to collapse over the next several centuries), but the details of what will happen and the effects on human civilization are really hard to guess because the sort of climate we're likely to see by 2050-2100 hasn't happened in the history of modern humans.

That doesn't mean the past is useless as a guide to what may happen, but it does mean that the differences are large enough to introduce a large amount of uncertainty, above and beyond the considerable level of uncertainty we have in predicting the future in general.

Boddah Meep said...

I'll address your responses at once, because I'm not really here to argue.

That's fine if you think I'm wrong. And condescendingly think ("people" aka) I need to get it through my head. But i am not claiming anyone exploit anything.

Nor am I claiming we destroy all the necessary features to support birds.

Nor am I saying anything should be clearcut, larger than a circle with maybe a 300 foot radius or so. Nor am I saying I know what you are doing with your land. Nor am I suggesting that poor and/or ignorant people don't destroy forests without replacing them.

I am merely suggesting that there is the land area to successfully manage current populations in america. I agree distribution is the bigger problem post FF.

I could be wrong but if i am I doubt its by very much. I am suggesting that having larger family units, heating smaller areas with wood and wood alone, is a viable option for current population levels. Especially if people replace what was taken and protect saplings or coppice etc.

As for how to return what was used, and your silly little example. No I mean the ashes. Ashes contain much of what the soil needs. Combustion is largely the carbon and the remnants are many of the minerals the soil would otherwise be deprived of when people pile up and concentrate their ashes. Not rocket science. How do you suppose forests regenerate when periodically stressed by fire?

xhmko said...

JMG, I absolutely agree, these facts and figures help our brains wrap around the deeper issues facing us. Sometimes i cant help but feel sad though that numbers like that are argued over when its the uncountables that recquire the most urgent attention. In other words, not a criticism of you or the other commenter, just a feeling from my own heart.

Cherokee Organics said...


The last two days have involved more water infrastructure, new paths and additional areas of productive poly-culture gardens. Did I mention that I have grand plans for thornless blackberries as well as expanding the strawberry production next season? I’ve dug so much soil and relocated so many plants, I’m a bit tired…

The good Baron Sir Ferdinand Jacob Heinrich von Mueller would approve given that he planted so many blackberries about the state. He was quite busy up here in the mountain range with plants (as well as the rest of the state) with the now historic hill station gardens and he had quite a lot of supporters. It was a shame that society moved past his scientific concepts and worldview and eventually gave it to him in the neck. He is an historical inspiration to me, but also an object lesson about learning to bend with the winds.

Anyway, back to the main point which is that I'm attempting to vertically integrate my production here. One of my suppliers for fruit has become a bit erratic and I wish to minimise my dependency on them. However, it requires both effort and infrastructure. There really is no point feeding ripe and juicy blackberries (fruit, leaves and canes) to stumpy the wallaby...

I got some great night time video footage of fatso the wombat cruising the herbage too last night and will post it to youtube over the next week!

I'm not sure whether it just my devious brain, but if I was in authority in Russia, I'd wait for a cold snap in Europe and have an industrial accident on the gas supply lines. Oh yeah, I'd probably insure the facilities through a Western European insurance under writer too, just for good measure. No one can possibly get upset about an industrial accident eliminating gas supplies to Europe, could they? Anyway, that's how I'd make a statement about who has the upper hand.

As an interesting side note, I managed for the second time to get the wood fire here lit without matches this evening using steel and flint. By the time that it got started, I was so warm myself, I'm not sure I needed the heat... Matches are good... Mmmm matches...

Stumpy and co have been busy eating some of my edibles because of the lack of rain here. I even caught a rosella (bird), ripping chunks off an elderberry this afternoon and having a good old snack. It has left me thinking about the very real benefits of hedgerows as a natural fence as I'm observing what plants the animals and birds don't like eating. It is all interesting stuff. They do however completely surprise me from time to time. Oh well.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi everyone who responded to the discussion regarding Canada. Apologies, but I'll respond in the next day.

Hi Phil. I always enjoy your comments and look forward to hearing from your part of the world. Thank you very much for the link too. I've read part and will continue reading tomorrow. I already have some thoughts about it to share and would like a dialogue about this as it concerns me and yourself greatly (as you correctly guessed).

Hi Glenn. Haha! You are cheeky changing your signature block. I wonder how people many noticed? The house here is heated over winter using timber and I will try and share some thoughts about this process with you over the next few days.

Hi Mr Geronimo. Pests such as you describe indicate to me a lack of predator insects as well as bird life. The fungi you mention is simply natures method of converting plant cellulose into soil. There are plenty of plants which act as bio-fumigants and can balance out the actions of the fungi. You just have to consider planting a higher diversity of plants. Sorry, it is not a simple answer.



Isis said...

JMG said:

"A difference in scale is not a difference in kind; the same gravitational equations that govern the arc of a thrown paperclip also govern the orbit of Jupiter around the Sun."

Scale does matter, though. Furthermore, sometimes, a difference in scale does produce a difference in kind. If you start out with 40C water and decrease the temperature by 35C, you'll move from warm water to really cold water. Decrease the temperature by another 10C, and you get solid ice. Difference in scale produced a difference in kind (liquid vs. solid).

Anyway, I don't feel any need (emotional or otherwise) to claim that "it's different this time." I just think it's important to find correct parallels. If you want to know what happens when a city gets hit by an M9 earthquake, then you need to look what happened the last few times when cities were hit by M9 earthquakes. Studying the aftermath of M6 earthquakes is more likely to mislead you than to elucidate the matter.

Will human population decrease 20-fold in the next 100-300 years, as you claim it will? I don't know. But assuming you are right, the correct parallels are those where human population decreased at least 10-fold. (And we're talking 10-fold population decrease over a large - or at least isolated - territory, and not just in this or that city. After all, any given urban area can become heavily depopulated due to migration to surrounding rural areas.)

So has human population ever experienced something like a 20-fold decrease over a relatively large territory before? I don't have the numbers, and I'm willing to learn from those who know more than I do, but I was under the impression that the population of the Western Roman Empire didn't decline anywhere close to that. However, unless I'm very much mistaken, Easter Island collapse, Mayan collapse, as well as the collapse of the North American Indian tribes (due to both disease and warfare) entailed population losses of roughly that magnitude, and so those collapses might offer a more useful guide for us. And if these are our guides, then chances are that the cultural discontinuity between us and our descendants (of course, I realize that the majority of us will not have any biological descendants; I certainly won't: I have no children and don't plan to) will be far greater than the discontinuity between the Roman civilization and the Christian Europe that succeeded it.

More to the point, if this is the sort of population decrease that we're looking at, then I think that attempts at cultural conservation are basically a waste of time. The survivors are unlikely to conserve any skills that aren't essential (and I mean essential, not merely useful) for keeping body and soul together, and perhaps a few folk songs and popular beliefs, too. Geology? Ecology? Literacy and numeracy? Forget about it!

None of which is to say that our descendants won't eventually develop rich and complex cultures. I'm sure they will. I'm just saying that, if we're looking at a 20-fold population decrease, those complex cultures are likely to have almost nothing to do with ours, they'll be built pretty much from scratch.

Isis said...

JMG, one more comment. I love your blog, and I find it very informative, but I get the sense that you're not very careful with numbers. Concerning the collapse of the industrial civilization, I find that your qualitative and quantitative predictions contradict each other. You spend much of your time arguing that the so-called fast collapse proponents are wrong. And yet, according to your very own scenario, the global population could undergo a 20-fold decrease in 100 years. I ask you to give me a qualitative description of a 20-fold population decrease in 100 years. (Not a 2-fold decrease, or 3-fold, or 4-fold. I mean a 20-fold global population decrease in 100 years. You said you expected the global population to decrease to about 5% of what it currently is in one to three centuries, so a 20-fold decrease in 100 years is within the range of what you predicted.)

For comparison, black death decreased the population of Europe "only" by about one third (so it wasn't even a 2-fold decrease). The Holocaust wiped out "only" about two-thirds (a 3-fold decrease) of European Jews. So what might bring about a 20-fold global population decrease in 100 years? Plague followed by genocide followed by plague followed by genocide, and all that of global proportions. During the black plague, the worst hit localities saw about 80% of their population wiped out. If the global population undergoes a 20-fold decrease in 100 years, then those communities that decrease in size by "only" 80% (a 5-fold decrease) will be the "lucky" ones. The "unlucky" ones will be completely wiped out.

The qualitative description of collapse that you give is consistent with a 2-fold, or maybe even 3-fold or 4-fold population decrease (it depends on whether one takes your best or worst case scenario) in 100 years. But it isn't consistent with a 20-fold population decrease in 100 years. If the global human population decreases 20-fold in 100 years, then anybody living through that (and that would include most readers of your blog) will experience it as apocalypse. If you don't want to call it apocalypse, then that's just quibbling about terminology.

Bob Smith said...


While most of your posts are very good, this one was outstanding. Thank you!

"American exceptionalism" to me is just another way of saying, "it can't happen here".

It can and it will. For those who don't study history, "muddling through" will seem very much like collapse. Funny, Detroit and Chicago lead the way in the last century, and they are leading the way in this one. Too bad we won't leave any pyramids behind, all our monuments will be harvested for scrap.


Shane Wilson said...

I'll be interested to get your take on it, JMG , but the parallels between the U.S. today and early 20th century Europe are uncanny to me. I think fetishizing apocalypse fills the role that fetishizing war did for early 20th century Europe. They got their war(s) alright, but the effect once the dust settled after WWII , was hardly the effect they were going for at the outset of WWI . I imagine we'll try just as hard for apocalypse, to bring down the curtain on it all, but I imagine once the dust has settled, the effect will be somewhat less than what the apocalypse fetishists are hoping for. It won't be for lack of trying. I think the whole, "but it's different this time" , is just another expression of the oversized American ego.
Regarding Russia and the West, I simply can't imagine western Europe not occupying a privileged place as a preferred client state in a future Russian empire. The West would simply be too coveted a prize for Russia, and Russia values western Europe too much on a cultural level, containing both Rome, Greece, and historical Christendom. Russia values western Europe as much, if not more, than the U.S., and even though being a privileged Russian client state will be a step down from being a privileged American client state, that's more to do with the age of extravagance coming to an end rather than Russia's value of the West. Putin may be autocratic, but he's no Stalin.

pintada said...

"Pintada, human beings are among nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches. We're remarkably difficult to exterminate. If you'd like to suggest that industrial civilization is toast and the human population of this planet a few centuries from now is going to be a lot smaller than it is today, due to anthropogenic climate change among other factors, I won't argue for a moment, but extinction? It'll take a good deal more than one millennium of chaotic climate to do us in."

Sloppiness is rather rampant on the internet. Or is it in society in general? What with trolls, ideologues, idiots and whatever ... I must remind myself that this is an idiot free zone, which is cool since I can question something that has bothered me for a couple years, but its also hard since i must also remind myself that words have meanings, and some people actually know the definitions. :-)

This entire conversation regarding AGW points to conditions that, under certain circumstances obviate catabolic collapse. The phrase, "a few centuries from now" vs "black swans" is the issue:

In the obvious case, there is a non-zero chance in any given year of the earth being hit by a very large rock. Poof, no civilization, and if the rock is large enough, no people either. In that scenario, there is no catabolic collapse. A major eruption of the Yellowstone or Toba super volcano (also unlikely in a given year, but inevitable in geologic time), would do the same thing to the duration of the collapse, though one could argue that extinction from that event would be unlikely.

Maybe you can provide a url pointing to where you have discussed this idea in the past? (LOL, Maybe you have discussed it with the phrase "all things being equal", and I just missed it.)

Here is my argument that AGW will be in effect very much like a astroid strike or super volcano eruption:

1. Even the most conservative main stream climatologists have moved the amount of warming they expect to 3-4 degrees C. by the end of this century.

"Starting in 2011 I quit teaching about “avoiding dangerous climate change,” which was the policy statement that we might control our emissions well enough to keep the average surface temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. I starting teaching that we needed to prepare for a world with at least 4 degrees Celsius warming. We’ve already passed 400 parts per million carbon dioxide, and there is no indication that we “collectively” are going stop our rate of emissions anytime soon."

(You can find (or have read) multiple peer reviewed examples of the same conclusion, so this one should suffice for my purposes.)

2. I do not consider the conclusions of the IPCC legitimate except that their information can be used as the absolute limit of (half way reasonable), happy scenarios. The process they use guarantees that result.

Continued with point 3

pintada said...

To continue:

3. In my experience observing natural systems professionally and as an interested amateur I got the distinct impression that those systems typically (maybe I mean "often") are not linear. Given the feedback effects now being seen, I think it is unreasonable to project the planets future temperature increases linearly. Unfortunately, that is exactly how the 4 degree C forecasts are produced. So, doesn't that mean that the 4C figure is also conservative?

Some of those feedbacks (provided in peer reviewed papers) are:
High temperature water passing into the Arctic, and ice getting pumped out partly as a result of the reversal of the Beaufort gyre
Siberian tundra releasing methane
Canadian tundra releasing methane
Peat decomposition
Amazon drought
Tall shrubs migrating north
The darkening of the Greenland ice sheet
Antarctic methane releases
Russian forest and bog fires
Dust coming from the US SW
Slowing jet stream

4. The reason mainstream people project the temperature increase using a straight line is that the alternative can lead to absurd conclusions:
For a giggle scroll down to the chart labeled, "Yearly Heat Transport in Watts" - ... temperature of venus ... .

(As an aside, if you read Dr. Light starting from his first post on arctic-news and continuing to the present, i think you can see the impact of the strain on some of the "collapse conscious".)

My takeaway is that the earth will reach an average temperature anomaly beyond 4 degrees C before the end of the century. By the end of the century, 10 degrees centigrade of warming (i.e. a PETM like event) looks quite likely ... call it a 50-50 chance.

5. It is pretty clear that industrial society cannot continue in a 4C world.°c-warmer-world-must-avoided

This article has profound implications for farming:

So, in conclusion, the question: If we reach 4 degrees C of average warming this century, our civilization will be swept away, is that catabolic collapse?

Robert Mathiesen said...

@Chris at Cherokee Organics:

I have a devious brain also. Were I in charge, that "accident" would happen just where most of the pipelines pass through L'viv (aka L'vov, Lwów, Lemberg, Leopolis). That's a huge historic center of anti-Russian sentiment in Ukraine.

Oh, and eventually, well after the hefty insurance settlement you mentioned, evidence would emerge that the local pro-EU, anti-Russia forces in Ukraine had caused the"accident" so as to stick it to the Russian economy.

Just sayin' ...

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, I've dug ditches for sewer lines in Puget Sound glacial till, and I'm impressed by how far you can get through it in eight hours!

Grebulocities, that's why it's wise to use the widest possible range of past analogues, including those from outside the Holocene, in order to get a good sense of what the range of variation actually is. That was, you know, one of the points of my post.

Boddah Meep, if you're not here to argue, you might want to be more careful about posting such dubious claims on a forum like this one, where they're inevitably going to be challenged.

Xhmko, understood.

Cherokee, hmm! I was completely unaware of the good Baron. An interesting figure. I'll look forward to seeing Fatso on video.

Isis, I'm using the collapse of the Western Roman Empire and that of the classic Lowland Maya as my main parallels here, and in both cases population levels dropped to rather less than 10% of precollapse levels. In neither case were literacy, numeracy, or some degree of cultural continuity lost. I'll save a detailed study of collapse demographics for the upcoming series of posts, but the very short form is that it's not the big flashy catastrophes that contribute the most to population decline -- it's the simple excess of deaths over births that you get in a declining civilization due to decreased public health, poor nutrition, and economic troubles.

The easiest way to understand this is to put it in personal terms. Let's say your circle of acquaintance -- the people you know well enough to keep track of, including family and friends -- has a hundred people in it. According to the CDC, the crude death rate in America these days averages out to 0.799% per year, so you might expect to attend one funeral most years. The crude birth rate is 12.6 per 1000 population, so you might get one birth announcement in an average year, and two every so often.

That birth rate, by the way, has been dropping precipitously for the last few years, which is standard; in hard times, fewer babies are born. Now imagine that over the years ahead, the crude birth rate drops steadily and the death rate rises. Ten years from now, you're getting a birth announcement every three years, since most people you know can't afford more kids (or any at all), and you're attending three funerals a year. Life goes on, and your circle of acquaintance may stay the same size as new people enter it to replace the dead, but it doesn't take many decades of this before you've got a population that's a very small fraction of the original. (I encourage you to crunch the numbers yourself -- crude birth rate of 4 per thousand, crude death rate 2.4% per year, which are by no means uncommon in such situations -- and watch how it plays out.)

John Michael Greer said...

Bob, oh, I think we'll leave a few. Unfortunately they'll be full of radioactive waste, and nobody will be able to get close to them for a quarter of a million years, which will limit the tourism possibilities somewhat.

Shane, it's a good parallel. As for western Europe, that's still an open question. It would be just as practical for them to orient themselves toward China and India, secure their near abroad in eastern Europe, and chuckle as western Europe descends into Third World status.

Pintada, you're engaging in the standard rhetorical tricks of climate apocalyptics here: that is, listing the positive feedback loops while ignoring all the negative ones, and laboriously cherrypicking the peer reviewed literature for the most extreme scenarios while ignoring all the others. This is why, to return to the point of this week's post, it's necessary to check your reasoning against the evidence of history -- in this case, paleoclimatological studies of previous greenhouse and super-greenhouse events -- to see what actually happens. This approach points out, among other things, that the absurd conclusions you mention are, in fact, absurd, and the interplay of positive and negative feedback loops tends to produce a sigmoid (S-shaped) curve -- rather like the temperature curve we've actually seen in recent years, with warming slowing down sharply of late. Mind you, it'll go up again as greenhouse forcing continues; as each threshold is passed, we'll likely see a burst of warming, followed by stabilization at a hotter level as the negative feedback looks kick in -- which is, again, what the paleoclimatological data suggest is normal.

thrig said...

"a circle with maybe a 300 foot radius or so"

Okay. Let's see, pie are squared, so around 2.83e+05 square feet so 8.48e+13 square feet for the American population of 3.00e+08, or converting to square miles, 3.04e+06. Then from we find that America has 1.17 million square miles of forest, or 1.17e+06 in scientific notation. So no, it is not viable for 300 million Americans to each have a 300 foot radius or so clearcut—the break-even point (where no forest remains) would be for families of about seven. Pakistan has an average household size of 6.8 (per the Census Report of Pakistan 1998) and lo, they are busy destroying the woods. Actually leaving any forest behind would require some combination of lowered population, extended families, and smaller clearcuts, though those numbers would greatly depend on the percentage of the forest that could be clearcut, how much forest can be grown, and how this state would be maintained over time. Otherwise, I am sorry, but your numbers do not appear viable for current population levels and extant forest stocks.

Glenn said...

John Michael Greer said...

"I'm impressed by how far you can get through it in eight hours!"

Rereading my post, it was a bit ambiguous. The 6 cf/hr (cubic feet per hour) rate was ordinary soil; about 48 cf/day. The 13.5 cf/day for till is a good deal less. Note the 6" depth limit in till, that's to take advantage of the week's worth of weathering between labour bouts. And yes, for a carpenter, I am a pretty mean excavator. I learned my rates by the time it took me to double dig our garden beds in raw compacted soil.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Isis said...

Well, I'll certainly read your study of Roman (and Mayan) demographics with interest, but I'm rather stunned to hear that Rome's population declined to just about 10% of pre-collapse levels. (You are talking about the whole of Western Roman Empire, and not just the city of Rome, correct?) Because a quick Internet search suggests that Roman population (again, I'm talking about the empire, not the city) declined to somewhere around 50% of pre-collapse levels, and the decline took a couple of centuries or so.

Anyway, as I said, I'll be reading that series with interest, but I hope you can provide some references because what you're saying contradicts what a Google search is telling me.

Shane Wilson said...

I'm expecting Sino-Russian tensions to escalate once U.S. collapse is more fully in the bag. Remember, it was Sino-Russian tensions that paved the way for Nixon's detente with China. Also, once it's fully apparent that the U.S. is finished as a world power, I fully expect western Europe to cozy up to Russia the way Great Britain did leading up to the World Wars, in fact they're already doing it. It's still up in the air how Russia will respond to those future overtures.

Quos Ego said...


about your answer to Pintada, it might be useful to look at the climate the last time we hit 400 ppm of CO2, which was in the Pliocene, 3 million years ago.

Back then, the earth was 2 to 3 degrees hotter than today, and the earth was pretty much a decent place to be.

And considering the accelerating collapse of industrial civilization, I doubt we'll ever pass the 500 ppm milestone.

Thomas Daulton said...

Hey I'm late to the party, but I have a related question from the linguistic side, spurred by JMG's use of the word in this column.

JMG uses the word "Shibboleth" according to its proper dictionary meaning, which boils down to: a by-word, code word or buzz-word which members of a particular group use in order to prove their membership or belonging to that group.

Economist Paul Samuelson -- and I rarely listen to economists, but in this case I am very interested -- and some others have tried to adjust the meaning of the word so that it means:
A piece of conventional wisdom, like an 'old-wives tale', which large numbers of people believe, but simply is not true.

For example, a piece of false conventional wisdom: the old wives' tale that you can avoid male pattern baldness by brushing your hair in some particular way or with particular vigor. (We now know that male pattern baldness is caused by testosterone and has nothing to do with how you brush your hair.)

My plea is that, since "shibboleth" does not actually mean what Samuelson and others want it to mean... we need a word to express that latter meaning. "Old wives' tale" is the closest I can think of, but even that is not precise, because there is the possibility that an old wives' tale can be true, such as "Chamomile tea relaxes you". It also seems silly to blame vast societal misunderstandings upon old grandmothers when young virile pundits spout them constantly.

I should think this is very relevant to the Archdruid Report, since JMG is constantly discussing fallacies in conventional wisdom. He just named another one "American Delusionism" today. What is the name of the class of delusions to which American Delusionism belongs?

Anyone got a word they know of which suits this purpose, or can anyone make up a clever new word or turn of phrase??


sunseekernv said...

Janet D, pintada, JMG = re Guy McPherson

I note this on Michael Tobis' new blog:

which references this take-down:

Worthwhile reading, especially the 4th paragraph, even if one doesn't have time for the details.

Extremism - Near Term Extinction or Infinite Progress Forever/BAU is emotionally easy and intellectually lazy. One can argue with one's back to the wall at whatever end of the spectrum one is at, and pour on the emotion, get real wrapped in righteousness and blame, wallow in martyr and victim (and, as JMG points out, avoid actually doing anything effective).

But if one looks at facts/history to try to get to the truth somewhere "in the middle", that takes time and effort, one realizes one is dealing in probabilities, the facts have a certain amount of fuzz, there's more to be learned, etc., and one is left to deal with a certain amount of dis-satisfaction and "normal suffering".

But modern life, enabled by fossil fuels, made it so easy for most folks they think any suffering is bad, abnormal and must be suppressed (and ignore any possibility of learning/changing/growing because of it).

Thomas Daulton said...

If I may clarify a little: generic terms such as: falsehood, fallacy or delusion, are not what I am asking after, because by themselves they don't capture the sense of social approval or mass belief. For example, "2+2=5" is a falsehood and a fallacy, and "Trout live in trees" a delusion, but the number of people who make decisions and take action on those ideas is vanishingly small. On the other hand, delusions such as JMG's "American Delusionalism" shape the history and policies of huge nations and wars; and, millions of people probably still brush their hair a certain way because their Gramma told them to.

The more I think about our lack of a pat word for this concept, the more it fascinates me. It might be marginally easier to fight these widespread delusions if we had a word for them which explicitly illuminates the aspect of social and cultural approval behind the fallacy in question. For example, various racist 'shibboleths' such as, members of X ethnicity are genetically less intelligent -- at one time, a time which is arguably not over with yet, these were the conventional wisdom despite little objective proof. Or, even in the case of brushing one's hair: the delusion carries with it the hidden social judgment that it's better not to be bald even though there is little one can do to control it, high-tech medicines aside. Plenty of past societies thought that being bald was attractive, yet again reinforcing my plea that a mere logical fallacy or delusion is not the same as a "shibboleth" in Samuelson's meaning. A "shibboleth" in this sense carries with it the momentum of widespread societal approval.

Also fascinating... the two meanings (Samuelson's modern meaning, and the dictionary meaning) are very different yet closely related. Almost anywhere I could use Samuelson's meaning, I could also substitute the official dictionary meaning, and my discourse would still make sense. Intriguing, isn't it?

Isis said...

BTW, JMG, I did crunch your numbers (crude birth rate of 4 per thousand, crude death rate 2.4% per year), and indeed, under those assumptions the population decreases to some 5% of the original size in about a century and a half. Still, I wonder where you got those numbers. The death rate doesn't seem outrageous, but that birth rate seems very, very low. It's very low under any circumstances, but I'll grant you that it doesn't seem outlandishly low if your population is rather old (think Japan), you're in the midst of a major crisis, and contraception and/or abortion is readily available. However, after a few decades of collapsing public health, one would expect old people to become relatively few and far between. For a population made up mostly of people of reproductive age (high death rate means people generally die before reaching old age, and low birth rate means there aren't many children), 4 per thousand birth rate is very, very low. It means that most women never give birth (not merely that none of their children survive to adulthood - under those circumstances, the death rate should be much higher - but that they never give birth in the first place), which is quite an assumption even in worst of times, and it's hard to imagine it could be sustained for a century plus some. So how did you come up with those numbers?

(Blogger is misbehaving, so this might be a double - or triple? - post. If so, please delete.)

Redneck Girl said...

JMG, I don't think many of the international posters realize what's in store for the Pacific North West when the Cascadia Zone breaks.

What we've been told here in S. Oregon is that, as you stated, on the coast the quake will be in the 9 + range and is predicted to last at the least nine minutes. By the time the shock waves reach this far inland it will reduce to the 7+ range and the same amount of time quaking as at the coast.

We have one commercial airstrip and you are familiar with how difficult it is to fly in or out of this valley when the fog settles in to stay. The interstate will be impassable as well as many of the secondary roads because of land slips in the mountains. With town bisected by the via duct traffic will be reduced to next to nothing unless they use the recently built interchange just south of where I sit. That one is built to 'float' over the shocks, (little else is on the interstate).

We will have the advantage of forty minuets of warning and I'm pretty concerned as to how in H, E, double hockey sticks I'm going to get my essentially wheelchair bound best friend out of this ground floor apartment building and our pets, let alone clothes. Makes me think I really need to get my 4 X 4 truck running and stash extra clothes, food and water in the cab. A cab over camper might be a good idea as well, come to think of it.


wvjohn said...

Another nice post. Thanks as always for your hard work.

Here are a couple of recent articles that may be of interest.

An interesting look at International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (the "Big" fusion project).

Gears of war: When mechanical analog computers ruled the waves. The mechanical computers that provided targeting solutions for battleships were not updated because they worked just fine.

PioneerPreppy said...

You may perhaps regulate the extreme FIAT currency of our current system and out of control fractional reserve banking v. the credit/debt ratio to the waste bin of "Not important enough to make a difference" if you like. You probably will also discount the effect of the Constitution on just how much martial law and government crackdown tools the people will tolerate. Lastly you can also ignore the victim politics of the last 50 some-odd years and the massive welfare payouts.

To many all of those "differences" may not be enough to create an entirely new situation. To me they scream something we have never seen before and a mixture so volatile I suspect it will be something we never see again.

Ruben said...

@ Thomas Dalton,

Fibboleth? Shibbolaugh?

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the link. Your question was: "as you are right in the firing line, does it ring bells with you?"

Yes, well, I'm right in the firing line. The forest here has a history of wildfires on about a 40 year basis and time is running out before the next one is due. It doesn’t have to be that way though and this is a source of frustration for me.

The author described the linguistics problems surrounding the descriptive: "climate change". My perspective is that this is an ambiguous term at best and somehow a few years back was introduced in place of "global warming". Change is an ambiguous term, whilst the earlier descriptive was pointing in a certain direction. That change always interested me as I felt that the narrative was hijacked and something else was inserted into its place. Dunno.

As you asked for my perspective, I can only tell you that during the fires in February, when I noted that members of the local fire brigade evacuated the area, then I too got out. People are social animals and look for confirmation bias to support their point of view.

I also note that the author himself can't seem to make the connection between his own actions and climate change. He boasted about travelling up and down the east coast of the US interviewing people. Has he no idea that such an activity contributes to climate change? There seemed to be no acknowledgement of that fact, which seems weird to me. I spoke with someone locally who was telling me how they were writing a letter to the Greens (local political party) (whilst on an aircraft to Hobart) about climate change and how they felt very passionately about the subject. The lack of connection between their actions and consequences was just odd. No disrespect to them, but I just don't get it.

As to reinvesting in lives, well that is something I do know about. However, the essay made the assumption that insurance funds would be available to rebuild lives. I question this assumption, but perhaps that is just me. The Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009 destroyed 2,000 houses and burnt about 450,000 hectares. The Queensland floods two years ago took out 40,000 houses. I read that the insurance council of Australia was pretty annoyed because most home owners took the payouts from the floods and upgraded kitchens and bathrooms whilst ignoring flood prevention works. On the other hand 173 people died in one night during the fires, so I had to build one of the few fire retardant houses on the continent because the building codes changed. The people who were actually burnt out received exemptions because of the circumstances. Now they just put a blanket ban on permits for living in these locations. Just sayin...

Last weeks discussion about solar electricity also made the very big assumption that the grid would be operational and no one questioned this.

Cherokee Organics said...


Ahh. The author has links to transition towns. Right. Both groups that I am involved in are part of the Transition town movement. I will point out that I am one of the younger members of both groups and am slowly working with them to reframe their focus into practical responses. My gut feel is that the Transition town movement is just feel good noise. It is not even close to being enough.

I take issue with the author’s dismissal of individual asset protection / response. Mostly because I'm actively trying to minimise the risk of the inevitable happening here. His call for a collective response is lazy and only serves to reinforce the status quo and is typical of an activist. Someone has to provide for an anchor around which others can seek assistance. You cannot provide assistance if you are also seeking it at the same time. Community arises around the anchors.

Nick Minchin (pity it wasn’t Tim Minchin!) is a politician and he merely reflects the will of the party and community that support him. I expect nothing better.

The difficulty is that scientists are actually asking for funds with which to study the impacts of climate change. This is a difficult bind and not a terribly good look. In effect they are shilling it for the man and there is no easy way around for them. If theoretically you were a scientist, how do you propose the theory that manmade actions are causing global warming without also sucking at the teat of industrial surplus, for that is what they are doing?

Apologies if this is a bit full on, but I get what the author is trying to say, but he is essentially asking someone else to pay the price and lose access to their perquisites. I don't see any easy way around that conundrum.



Mike Roberts said...

Thanks to grebulocities for pointing out that the Holecene climatic optimum was not warmer than today's temperatures. As the US National Climate Data Center says, "there is no evidence to show that the average annual [global] mid-Holocene temperature was warmer than today's temperatures".

With regard to the tropics, research last year estimated that the tropics would transition to a new climate state first, possibly as early as 2020. The new climate state is defined as a period when the lowest monthly-average temperatures will be hotter than anything experienced over the past 150 years.

Finally, Michael Mann's research estimates that the 2C threshhold (deemed by politicians to be dangerous) will be passed by 2036.

Cherokee Organics said...


Yeah, he would have been an interesting character to have a beer with. Although, in all honesty, I reckon he'd be breaking me about some of the methods employed here, kind of like your nonna might, but worse because of his unrelenting adherence to the scientific method. hehe! Mind you, he would be very much of the old school scientist variety and not unhappy at all about getting out into the field and observing nature.

I had an interesting thought yesterday as I came across an article about biochar in a gardening catalogue. It occurred to me that perhaps some people may really like the concept of biochar because it completely disregards the whole messy nature thing about having to deal with manures (ie. the yuk factor). It also tends to not be a process that you'd see in nature (except maybe as a by-product of repeated cool burns over a long period of time) and provides a role for people in natural systems? Dunno.

Hi Glenn. I use about 2 to 3 trees a year here for firewood. They do need to season for about 24 months (in comparison to your experience) because they are incredibly dense hardwood. They do have the benefit of being very fast growing and as such there are literally tens of thousands of them here just on my block. The birds and animals primarily live on only the oldest trees as they have hollows where branches have fallen off, so I only select from those that will never become prime specimens and are mostly less than 30 years old. I wouldn't want to have to supply an entire town with firewood, but there is little no chance of me keeping ahead of the growth here, even when there are repeated droughts.

The funny thing about timber harvesting is that no one seems to consider that in taking the timber out of the forest, a huge chunk of the fertility of that area disappears. This is why I reckon, pests and blights get a chance to establish themselves in an area, because the trees are stressed - and often biodiversity is much reduced in a clear felled area. I select for an understory of support species.

Hi Robert. Evil genius chuckle... Yeah, well I guess it could work both ways. It all depends on who wants the product most. Interestingly it should be noted that supplies to China go in the other direction. That customer also has a lot of foreign currency that they are probably keen to offload.



Phitio said...

again, you would be right if we didn't had nuclear weapons in the equation.

The global economic crisis that prompted the first and second world wars are the general patters.

A global economic crisis is the premise to new "fascist" regimes in the world. Even in USA, as you previously argued. Such regimes are predicted to use wars to solve internal and external problems ( very much more, internal)

Nuclear weapons are not an option to win, but are an option if you lose. We will have a bunch o f crazed people in harsh times.

So, it is really different this time? Yes. Because nuclear weapons are a true disconnection in the history.

Notice: a global nuclear war will not mean human extinction , after all.

Only the losing of 700 years of human history , and probably 6,5 billion people around the world, in about 15 years.

And, after this, probably a very slugging process of adjustment to the available planetary support baseline, until long term stabilization is reached.

Phil Harris said...

@Thomas Daulton
I appreciate your desire for Shibboleth to retain its original meaning and for another word to be used when meaning 'old wive's tale'.

Nothing appeared when I rattled the old brain. Hmmm... we need a clear distinction between the Sacred Cow and the one that Flew over the Moon? ;-)

Phil H

Liquid Paradigm said...

@Thomas Daulton: That economists twist words into unrecognizable shapes and meanings comes as no great surprise to me. Still, how they could wreck such an easy term as "shibboleth" makes me shake my head.

@Preppy: Welfare is not new ('panem et circenses,' anyone?), though the greatest recipient of US government handouts has been business, not citizens, and by a very large margin. Identity politics is ancient (see the origins of "shibboleth" in Judges 12). And even hungry people will tolerate a great deal of abuse so long as they have an Other (Sir Richard Burton's cynical quip about the true ambition of a slave springs to mind).

I.e., we are not so unique in history as you imagine. "This time it's different. NO REALLY!" around these parts won't serve you particularly well.

Glenn said...

PioneerPreppy said...
"To many all of those "differences" may not be enough to create an entirely new situation. To me they scream something we have never seen before and a mixture so volatile I suspect it will be something we never see again."

Hmm, a society with a dysfunctional currency, massive wealth and income disparity maintaining order by a combination of state force and bread and circuses. Perhaps somewhere in the vast arc (at least in the West) between Byzantium and the late Soviet Union someone might find a parallel.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Kyoto Motors said...

Just a few scattered thoughts this week on another fine post...
Is “change” apocalypse? Well, no. Though a retro-active re-definition of apocalypse may accommodate… I used to find myself saying “The apocalypse will be televised; it has been for fifty years.” (I thought I was being so clever!). I suppose it was my way of framing the myriad failures of the modern industrial “ecosystem”. But in the sense that “life goes on” and probably always will (?) humans will probably survive the global petroleum experiment and move on…
Another way I’ve been thinking about “apocalypse” lately is that for many self-centred secular/atheist/materialists/quasi-solipsist, apocalypse is analogous to one’s personal demise (impending mortality) at which point the world effectively comes to an end. A very unfortunate world-view to be sure, but perhaps it explains the persistence and popularity of apocalypse in pop-culture?
I do encounter regularly people who resort to apocalyptic projections as a way to abort further discussion on topics such as climate change, economics and finance, peak oil, etc. Your observation that people use it as an excuse to do nothing encompasses even thinking about any of the details…
Just received "Decline and Fall" in the mail from new society. Am enjoying. Thanks!

Ray Wharton said...

A brief comment on fire wood.

Heating is one the the biggest issues I worry about in the near to mid term future in Fort Collins. Many families are already dependent of federal aid to maintain the conventional heating life style. If natural gas prices made a jump, unemployment increased, and/or federal support were cut many people would be in heating hard ship very quickly.

Already climate change has decreased dangerously cold nights by a good bit. But it is hard to be functional with out a warm place in the winter, even on non deadly nights.

At the moment wood is cheap around here, but if we had another few thousand houses start burning regularly, especially if they did so without improved stoves and habits, it would spike fire wood prices considerably. Very far into the mountains and the forests will be fairly safe, because even getting into the back country is difficult and the roads are decaying fast; last falls flood contributed alot to that process. Even with some people paying for the fire wood, alot of folks would be fracked because its prices would go up quickly as the easy supplies of high ERO(effort)I wood gets burned. Then the trees in and near town become targets of chilled amateurs, which is a dire situation indeed. Laws protecting trees may follow, the implementation of which will cause many little messes.

Ray Wharton said...


If we could afford to spread out and focus on harvesting wood that is currently fated to burn up because of our fire ecology, we could basically move in on a niche that Fire is already holding, and rob no biological kin of their cellulose rich diets. Alas, things are more challenging because the kind of harvesting that would be responsible would be alot more labor expensive. At least around here where a large area of forest would have to contribute.

I think that many houses will have to be left cold during the winters, and folks should pile in to conserve energy in comparatively efficient houses among given communities (some of the guys at that AA group are staying at Ryan's this week). Lessons on how to live in close quarters will be taught by Old Man Winter, he is a very strict, but effective, teacher.

I remember one time posting here from a house which had lost heating, I was in the basement with pneumonia watching my breath by the light of my computer screen.

It was a sad evening, but I am grateful for that night, I am a little more aware about the importance of heating after that. The solution at that time was to pack 4 guys into a 16 foot diameter yurt that we had. It was easier to manage than a modern house with out utilities is.

We worked long days, and in retrospect things would habe been pretty nice if we had just taken turns staying home from work so one of us could tend the fire.

I know of glass blowers (who are common and skilled in this region, because of reefer legalization) who heat their houses by working in the basement. Hopefully many energy intensive tasks worth preserving (even if just for another generation or two) will be able to stack functions by heating shelters which the work is being done.

Regardless, the time from the popping of the fracking bubble until a substantial exodus from Fort Collins happens will be susceptible to heating crisis, and will endanger any tree growing on a spot flat enough to get a trailer near.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

Since we are talking about future population trends--

The Thursday 3/20/14 Wall Street Journal had an article on population trends in Asia. It seems to be paywalled and I don't remember the headline so I can't link to it, but here are points that I recall.

1. India, Indonesia and the Philippines have birthrates above replacement level, though nowhere as high as the birthrates in parts of Africa. One major country, I forget which, is right at replacement level, which is 2.1 births per woman. The other listed countries, about half a dozen including China, Japan, Vietnam, and Singapore, are well below replacement levels.

2. The drop in birthrates seems to be driven by urbanization. One section of the article contained quotes from young city dwellers answering the question of why they were having fewer children. The universal answer was the high cost of city living and the desire to educate what children they have. Education is expensive.

3. In many parts of Asia, most young people have migrated to cities, leaving the rural elderly to fend for themselves, without adequate remittances or any government support. Several national governments have initiated programs to make the rural elderly more economically self sufficient, by teaching them how to grow or make things that they can sell.

The article also quoted a U.N. population study that has low and mid-range estimates as to how large the world population will grow in this century. Unfortunately I didn't take notes, but IIRC the low estimate tops out in the low 8 billions some time in the middle of this century, followed by population decline.

The article didn't say so, but since the rapid drop in Asian birthrates is mostly (though not entirely) the outcome of young people moving to cities to get work, if jobs are not available in the cities, birth rates might not continue their rapid drop. OTOH, if and when the economies of these countries begin to contract, death rates will probably rise.

Phil Harris said...

I know because he has referred to it that JMG is very familiar with the book The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins, who teaches history at Oxford University. W-P discusses evidence for population decline.

There is a telling pair of 'before and after' maps of a large area north of Rome City. The traces of people and settlements, (mapped by showing what they left behind,) go from densely populated to almost zero. Of course, as W-P says, I paraphrase, the follow-on people might have lived in wood and straw structures and eaten from wooden plates and drunk from leather mugs, and we would not know they had been there. (In Britain, the follow-on Anglo-Saxons did just that, and their remains are few to discover.) However, W-P does a comparison with Syria (there you go, eh?) where substantial Roman economy persisted across the Eastern Mediterranean, and the evidence of prosperity is on the ground. A substantial population with resources built substantial churches and dwellings.

Across early mediaeval Europe, however, the bones of cattle tell a story of diminished agriculture. The cattle got even smaller than domestic cattle in the earlier Iron Age and were very different from those in the Roman period. This is a good book by the way, but not exactly reassuring for the squeamish like me.

Phil H

John Michael Greer said...

Glenn, that's what I thought you were saying. The memory of aching muscles from my misspent youth still reminds me that that's a fair amount of hardpan to get through!

Isis, you're confusing the Western Roman Empire (which I specified) with the Roman Empire as a whole. The eastern half of the empire suffered fairly modest population declines; the western half underwent demographic collapse. I recomment Bryabn Ward-Perkins' The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization as a readable introduction to the subject.

Shane, well, we'll see. I'm not half so sanguine as you are.

Quos Ego, granted -- it's getting there, with the rising sea levels, unstable climate, etc., that's the bear.

Thomas, thank you for a very cogent point. I'm going to have to mull over that one -- for reasons that will be known to some of my readers, I tend to give the word "shibboleth" its original meaning. The interesting point in its modern usage is that a false belief very often does serve as a shibboleth, i.e., a sign of identity in a subculture or movement, these days.

Sunseeker, spot on. I recently found Tobis' blog, and find it well worth reading.

Isis, the figures are arbitrary, of course -- I increased the current death rate and decreased the current birth rate, each by a factor of three, to show you how simple demographic shifts can do what you thought it would take an apocalypse to do. We don't actually know what happened to birth and death rates during, say, the collapse of the western Roman Empire or the classic lowland Maya, as they didn't keep modern vital statistics; it's probably a safe bet that both rates varied widely during the decline in both cases. Still, since population declines on the order of 90-95% over one to three centuries are fairly common in such situations, it's pretty clear that some such divergence between births and deaths is involved.

Your assumptions about the demographics of a declining society may also need a second look. Collapsing public health has a greater impact on infants and children than on mature adults -- one of the reasons that population contracts so quickly in such situations is that child mortality spikes, and a much larger proportion of children don't live to have children of their own -- and since each generation is smaller than the ones that came before it, on average, you have a larger proportion of adults past prime reproductive age, not a smaller one, as you've suggested. That effect seems to more than cancel out the shortening of average lifespans that comes with declining health among the very old.

Redneck, exactly. I don't think anybody really has any sense of just how bad it's likely to be. You might have heard the news of the landslide in Washington State, which flattened 30 houses and may have killed more than a hundred people; imagine that repeated and amplified across the most populous parts of two entire states, and that begins to get in the general vicinity of it.

WVJohn, thanks for the links. The Khatchadourian piece got some discussion in response to last week's post, but don't think I've seen the piece about mechanical naval computers -- well worth a look!

PioneerPreppy, now ask yourself this: why is it so important to you to stick your fingers in your ears and say "It's different this time, it's different this time" over and over again, to drown out what I'm actually saying?

John Michael Greer said...

Mike, see my response above to PioneerPreppy. Why is it so important to you to fixate on the differences instead of learning from the similiarities?

Cherokee, hmm! You may well be right about the biochar. Modern industrial people only seem to be comfortable with nature when they've killed it and burnt the corpse.

Phitio, I addressed that more than a year ago.

Kyoto, good. In the course of following up on a reader's request to talk about alternatives to despair, I find I'm going to have to talk about apocalypse as a way to shut down discussion, and thinking, about the future -- among quite a few other things.

Ray, not that long ago people in Colorado didn't have central heating at all. You might want to look into how people got by in Fort Collins in the 19th century. By the way, how well is your home insulated and weatherstripped?

Unknown Deborah, I notice with some interest that quite a few parts of the world that used to have runaway population growth are seeing it slow, and begin to decline. I think we may be closing in on the peak of overshoot; unfortunately that normally comes right before dieoff starts.

Phil, oddly enough, that's exactly the book I like to cite. Definitely worth reading!

Thomas Daulton said...

@ JMG, Phil Harris, Liquid Paradigm... I love your responses to my comment!

I often wonder if Samuelson chose the word "shibboleth" to make his point because he was confusing it with H.P. Lovecraft's "Shoggoth", a horrifying, insanity-inducing monster from the distant past which _should_ not exist in the modern era, but does.

sunseekernv said...

@Redneck Girl - "nine minutes of shaking", "40 minutes of warning"

The nine minutes of shaking seems too long, probably 2 - 4 per the usgs:

But even at mag. 7 it will seem like forever. The worst will be the constant aftershocks.

But who said 40 minutes of warning?
If you're inland ("freeway" == I5), then no need to be concerned about tsunami. (and if "freeway" == 101 along the coast, then listen to JMG's admonition to move!).

The P waves from the quake will be traveling at the speed of sound in the rock, about 5 km/second (3 miles/second, 11 thousand miles/hour), with the S waves right behind.
So, even if there was a warning system hooked to undersea seismometers (which there isn't there, AFAIK), you could only get seconds before the shaking starts. You need to be prepared NOW.

Get and read Yanev's Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country, get as local and detailed of hazard maps as are available, like from here:

Unfortunately, looks like many of the bigger cities don't have online maps, you'll have to buy the printed ones.

Your city/county ought to have them.

Earthquake hazard can be very local.
For example:
in Ashland, there's "low" amplification hazard East of the main street, but none West.

BUT - West of the main street, there are pockets of high landslide hazard. (and a big slide just East of I-5 - errr.)

You've got to pick carefully, because you cannot do anything about the geological hazards but avoid them.
And Yanev's book will also give you details about structure hazards. Good that you live in a single story place, but there could be hazards due to how it's built and furnished. One example - do you/your friend have any heavy armoires/bookcases/AV hutches/top-heavy desks/etc.? They need to be securely attached to the wall (not the wallboard - the actual wall studs). Not only could they fall on someone and hurt them, they could block opening a door.

Some pry bars, axe, jacks, come-alongs, wood bracing, etc. may come in handy extricating your friend or others. You will have NO warning for quake induced structure damage, furnishing overturns, etc.

Just moving East may move you into more hazard:
This map
shows Ashland reasonably safe, Klamath Falls less safe, another cycle of more then less safe, then very safe in South Idaho until dangerous Eastern Idaho as one moves due East.
But central Idaho is no more safe than the East side of the Central Oregon corridor - GENERALLY SPEAKING. One needs the local hazard maps, so one can pick out your house location and make an evaluation to move or fix/prepare.

Isis said...


I just ordered Bryan Ward-Perkins' book from Amazon; thanks for the recommendation! I'm still unconvinced that the population of the Western Roman Empire declined by 90% or more. (I'll change my mind if I see some convincing arguments - backed by good evidence - to the contrary. We'll see what Ward-Perkins' book says.) The city of Rome did see its population decline by some 95% (according to what I've been able to find on the Internet), but the city of Rome is about as representative of the Western Roman Empire as New York City and Hong Kong are of the global industrial civilization. Our population will shrink, yes. How much and how fast? I don't know. But by whatever factor the global population shrinks, I'll bet that the population of New York and Hong Kong will shrink by a factor far larger than that. (It's also entirely possible that the human population of those two cities in particular will drop to zero, while their fish population dramatically increases...)

Anyway, understood: your birth and death rates were arbitrary. Still, my point stands: you'll never see a global 4 per thousand per year crude birth rate. It might possibly happen in some restricted localities for a limited amount of time, but globally, it will never happen, not even for a very limited amount of time. If we do see a global population decline of 2% per year, it won't be because birth rates dropped to 4 per thousand, it will be because death rates increased a lot more than you suggested.

One of my worries is that Sharon Astyk was right when she suggested that as contraception becomes less available due to deindustrialization, birth rates will go up rather than down. What she didn't say (but the conclusion is inescapable) is that this would entail skyrocketing infant mortality rates, and so most people would be attending quite a few funerals of babies and very small children. The conclusion is inescapable even if population were to decline (and decline it will) by a mere 0.2% per year, rather than 2% per year. If a typical woman gives birth to three children (say), and yet the population size isn't going up, then on average, at least one of her children must die before reaching maturity. It could get far worse than that, too.

You're certainly right to point our that infectious disease is more likely to kill an infant than an adult (even of a relatively advanced age). But that's kind of the point: it claims infants and young children first, then the elderly, and only then adolescents and adults of reproductive age. (Exception: STDs.) If you assume a minuscule birth rate, then that relatively large death rate will mostly be killing older adults. But we'll never see such a miniscule birth rate, so it's kind of a moot point anyway.

BoysMom said...

JMG, The newer research on glacial periods seems to indicate that glaciation, at least, happens quite rapidly.

I've heard even shorter numbers batted about around the dinner table, but we don't have the ability to date well enough to get precise, so it's speculative rather than publishable. You do get some uncomfortable geologists when they're dealing with 'human short' rather than 'geologic short'!

Isis said...

Here's one reference with numbers:

It gives numbers for the 4th century (separating Western and Eastern Empires, and giving a breakdown for more smaller regions), and it also gives population estimates for various regions that (used to) comprise the two empires in years 400, 650 (which is when the population bottoms out in most regions), and later. The tables don't quite allow direct comparison, but roughly speaking, it looks like the population of the Western Roman Empire halves between 4th century CE and 650 CE. Am I missing something? Are the numbers given on that web site unreliable? (If so, which source might be more reliable?)

I understand that the population of the Western Roman Empire was decreasing starting with around 200, but surely it didn't decrease by a factor of 5 between 200 and 400 CE...?

bagginz said...

To those concerned with heating using wood.

The so called "Rocket Mass Heater" is definitely worth exploring as a simple, cheap to make, low tech. solution:

Main advantages are:
1. It's *far* more efficient in use of fuel.
2. The thermal mass buffers the heat (House is still warm in the morning)
3. Much cleaner exhaust.

Unfortunately at present no building regs seem to support it (it's a comparatively new design)

However, imagining for a moment a severely constrained energy future, I wouldn't be surprised if building regulations (such as would still exist) would make it illegal not to build to a design that used between and quarter and eighth less fuel and massively cut down on toxic emissions by full combustion of the exhaust gases.

Grebulocities said...

I think I actually have no real disagreement at all with you, JMG. We placed different levels of emphasis on the differences vs. the similarities with past experience, and you focused more on the similarities. But it all turned out to just be a matter of emphasis; there were no substantive disagreements.

That seems to be one of the hazards of Internet discourse - most arguments actually consist of people talking past each other without necessarily disagreeing at all, even on the best-moderated forums. Of course, it is probably true of newspaper editorials and any other written format too. I bet that if we were chatting in person over a good microbrew, we wouldn't have even thought there was a disagreement in the first place!

I'd also like to back up your numbers on population decline, at least for the 300-year timespan. Some basic math can show that a growth rate of -1% leads to a population drop of 95% in almost exactly 300 years. That's about the speed I imagine a decline would occur, over time spans long enough to average out rapid falls from war, pandemics, famine, etc. and rises based on partial recovery from such events.

I will say that I doubt that a birth rate of 0.4% against a death rate of 2.4% is unlikely to last long; more than likely the birth rate will climb again as childhood death becomes more common again.

One of the fascinating things about the Limits to Growth models is that the crude death rate falls until sometime around now, begins to slowly rise for a while, and then shoots way up a few decades later when food and industrial output per capita falls below a critical level while pollution rises. The birth rate then lags behind it, but eventually it also rises dramatically after about 30-40 years of high death rates.

They only reported to model year 2100 or so, but the model is still nowhere near an equilibrium. The Club of Rome later released what a refined version of their model extended to the 22nd century. The final outcome is that by model year 2200 or so the pre-industrial "normal" human situation of high birth rates and high death rates has reestablished itself and human population is fairly stable again at a much lower level than today, oscillating around some carrying capacity.

Of course they'd be the first to admit that their model is only designed to show the rough qualitative shape of the future and isn't a prediction per se. But I found their general pattern interesting and more or less in agreement with what I know about ecology.

Mike Roberts said...


I don't think I'm fixating on the differences, though it could be argued that you are more concerned with trying to find similarities from paleoclimate data, even though you, for some reason, claim that the mid Holocene was much warmer than today, and have not corrected that piece of your article.

Oceans haven't acidified this quickly for 300 million years. globally abrupt warming this fast hasn't occurred whilst humans, particularly our species, have been on the planet.

However, even if there is a paleoclimate analog for what is happening now, I'm sure that you'd find that such events were not smooth sailing for the species around at that time. Hansen is right to be concerned that temperatures higher than 1C above baseline would take us to an unknown state within the Holocene. Dangerous climate change seems inevitable, however you look at it, and with 2C looking very likely within two decades, I think it will be harder and harder to argue that there is nothing to see here, folks. It's going to get very bad quite quickly, even if that is not as bad as an apocalypse would suggest.

Phil Harris said...

You wrote:
"The funny thing about timber harvesting is that no one seems to consider that in taking the timber out of the forest, a huge chunk of the fertility of that area disappears...."

Yes indeed. K&P (of NPK; after the wood got burnt and N dispersed with smoke)and minor minerals probably kept Mayans going, until it didn't?

There is also another vital statistic for would-be wood users. The ratio of the inevitable distance of wood harvesting from the point of use, intrigues me.

It caught out the Swedes apparently when they were major iron ore and weapons exporters in a biomass fuelled 17thC fore-runner of the industrial revolution.

I contrast the use of round by those prosperous Eastern Med types back in Roman & post-Roman times, who exported mostly carbon in an 'added-value' form? (i.e. wine and olive oil). ;)


moordweller said...

(posted in the wrong place)

"The Holocene Hypsithermal, as it’s called, saw global temperatures peak around 7° F. higher than they are today"

The *global* 7 degree rise doesn't appear to tally with the evidence I've seen.

wikipedia maintains-

The Holocene Climate Optimum warm event consisted of increases of up to 4 °C near the North Pole (in one study, winter warming of 3 to 9 °C and summer of 2 to 6 °C in northern central Siberia).[1] The northwest of Europe experienced warming, while there was cooling in the south.[2] The average temperature change appears to have declined rapidly with latitude so that essentially no change in mean temperature is reported at low and mid latitudes. Tropical reefs tend to show temperature increases of less than 1 °C; the tropical ocean surface at the Great Barrier Reef ~5350 years ago was 1 °C warmer and enriched in 18O by 0.5 per mil relative to modern seawater.[3] In terms of the global average, temperatures were probably colder than present day (depending on estimates of latitude dependence and seasonality in response patterns). While temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere were warmer than average during the summers, the tropics and areas of the Southern Hemisphere were colder than average.[4]

Of 140 sites across the western Arctic, there is clear evidence for warmer-than-present conditions at 120 sites. At 16 sites where quantitative estimates have been obtained, local HTM temperatures were on average 1.6±0.8 °C higher than present. Northwestern North America had peak warmth first, from 11,000 to 9,000 years ago, while the Laurentide ice sheet still chilled the continent. Northeastern North America experienced peak warming 4,000 years later. Along the Arctic Coastal Plain in Alaska, there are indications of summer temperatures 2–3 °C warmer than present.[5] Research indicates that the Arctic had substantially less sea ice during this period compared to present.[6]

Phitio said...

Dear JMG,
I have recovered your post, and, yes, it may seem that you are rightly talking about nukes, but it seem to me that you are missing a crucial point.

As I have said, nukes are not the tool for an attack, but for a counterattack. At least, on rational basis...

Now You should think about a situation in which a conventional war is fight between two contending countries. Both of them have nukes, both of them know that using them is giving ourselves sheer destruction, but both of them are desperate.

Now think that only one of them has some vital resource (or maybe it is the thinking of the other side).

Do you see the problem? Like the conflicting of a irresistible force against a unbreakable wall? Do you really think that this kind of equilibrium can exist in reality?

Nope. Desperate people gets irrational. Irrational people convince themselves that acting swiftly, damage taken can be great, but just acceptable. You have to consider a context in which damage from doing nothing is extremely great, too. Like US dismembering, things like this.

Hitler could have launched nerve-gas rockets or nerve gas airstrikes against his enemies? Do you really have a picture of German army shape before the true situation was really clear to the boss?

Do you have seen the film reconstruction of Hitler going awry after discovering that he was ordering movement of ghost armies? True reconstruction, or it was only a film drama?

The crucial thing is that you are underestimating the human stupidity.

It is really the only true bottomless thing in the universe.

Ruben said...


It seems that many of the things we have heard about the rocket stove design may not be exactly true--things like they are clean burning.

Here is a good introduction to a time-tested design that may work better for many people.

Riding a Russian Rocket

John Michael Greer said...

Thomas, hmm! That's entirely possible. I suggest "shoggoleth" as a term for something really, really scary, belief in which is an inseparable part of belonging to some subculture or other. "Near-term extinction? Yes, that's the shoggoleth among Guy McPherson fans."

Sunseeker, if I may intrude, you need to do some research. The reason the Cascadia quake is expected to be so devastating is precisely that subduction-zone quakes keep up the shaking for much longer than other quakes. One helpful book on the subject is Cascadia's Fault by Jerry Thompson; I'd encourage you to read it before handing out more misinformation on the subject.

Isis, from my perspective, you're quibbling. You asked for a model of population decrease that could accomplish a 95% decline in a century; I provided one. You asked for historical models; I provided two, only one of which you're disputing. Yes, I'm aware that the idea of a world a couple of centuries from now with only 350 million people in it is a shock to modern sensibilities; so? The entire project of this blog is a shock to modern sensibilities.

BoysMom, interesting. I'll look into it.

Bagginz, true enough. Do you have a rocket stove? Are you doing anything, other than posting comments online, to see to it that the technology gets passed down to the deindustrial future?

Grebulocities, er, were you going to addres my point that focusing on the similarities allows you to correct for confirmation bias, while fixating on differences makes it easy to keep chasing pop-culture fantasies?

Mike, er, how about you? Were you going to addres my point that focusing on the similarities allows you to correct for confirmation bias?

Moordweller, I'd be more impressed if it were a less political source than Wikipedia. Still, it's quite possible that the latest science has numbers different from the ones I learned; I'll check into it.

Phitio, that is to say, your desire for an apocalypse requires you to believe that people will behave in a way that makes no sense from any perspective other than a boundless faith in human stupidity. I rest my case.

«Oldest ‹Older   1 – 200 of 225   Newer› Newest»