Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Restoring the Commons

The hard work of rebuilding a post-imperial America, as I suggested in last week’s post, is going to require the recovery or reinvention of many of the things this nation chucked into the dumpster with whoops of glee as it took off running in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. The basic skills of democratic process are among the things on that list; so, as I suggested last month, are the even more basic skills of learning and thinking that undergird the practice of democracy.

All that remains crucial. Still, it so happens that a remarkably large number of the other things that will need to be put back in place are all variations of a common theme.  What’s more, it’s a straightforward theme—or, more precisely, would be straightforward if so many people these days weren’t busy trying to pretend that the concept at its center either doesn’t exist or doesn’t present the specific challenges that have made it so problematic in recent years. The concept in question?  The mode of collective participation in the use of resources, extending from the most material to the most abstract, that goes most often these days by the name of “the commons.”

The redoubtable green philosopher Garrett Hardin played a central role decades ago in drawing attention to the phenomenon in question with his essay The Tragedy of the Commons.  It’s a remarkable work, and it’s been rendered even more remarkable by the range of contortions engaged in by thinkers across the economic and political spectrum in their efforts to evade its conclusions.  Those maneuvers have been tolerably successful; I suspect, for example, that many of my readers will recall the flurry of claims a few years back that the late Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom had “disproved” Hardin with her work on the sustainable management of resources.

In point of fact, she did no such thing.  Hardin demonstrated in his essay that an unmanaged commons faces the risk of a vicious spiral of mismanagement that ends in the common’s destruction; Ostrom got her Nobel, and deservedly so, by detailed and incisive analysis of the kinds of management that prevent Hardin’s tragedy of the commons from taking place. A little later in this essay, we’ll get to why those kinds of management are exactly what nobody in the mainstream of American public life wants to talk about just now; the first task at hand is to walk through the logic of Hardin’s essay and understand exactly what he was saying and why it matters.

Hardin asks us to imagine a common pasture, of the sort that was common in medieval villages across Europe. The pasture is owned by the village as a whole; each of the villagers has the right to put his cattle out to graze on the pasture.  The village as a whole, however, has no claim on the milk the cows produce; that belongs to the villager who owns any given cow.  The pasture is a collective resource, from which individuals are allowed to extract private profit; that’s the basic definition of a commons.

In the Middle Ages, such arrangements were common across Europe, and they worked well because they were managed by tradition, custom, and the immense pressure wielded by informal consensus in small and tightly knit communities, backed up where necessary by local manorial courts and a body of customary law that gave short shrift to the pursuit of personal advantage at the expense of others.  The commons that Hardin asks us to envision, though, has no such protections in place.  Imagine, he says, that one villager buys additional cows and puts them out to graze on the common pasture. Any given pasture can only support so many cows before it suffers damage; to use the jargon of the ecologist, it has a fixed carrying capacity for milk cows, and exceeding the carrying capacity will degrade the resource and lower its future carrying capacity. Assume that the new cows raise the total number of cows past what the pasture can support indefinitely, so once the new cows go onto the pasture, the pasture starts to degrade.

Notice how the benefits and costs sort themselves out.  The villager with the additional cows receives all the benefit of the additional milk his new cows provide, and he receives it right away.  The costs of his action, by contrast, are shared with everyone else in the village, and their impact is delayed, since it takes time for pasture to degrade.  Thus, according to today’s conventional economic theories, the villager is doing the right thing. Since the milk he gets is worth more right now than the fraction of the discounted future cost of the degradation of the pasture he will eventually have to carry, he is pursuing his own economic interest in a rational manner.

The other villagers, faced with this situation, have a choice of their own to make.  (We’ll assume, again, that they don’t have the option of forcing the villager with the new cows to get rid of them and return the total herd on the pasture to a level it can support indefinitely.)  They can do nothing, in which case they bear the costs of the degradation of the pasture but gain nothing in return, or they can buy more cows of their own, in which case they also get more milk, but the pasture degrades even faster. According to most of today’s economic theories, the latter choice is the right one, since it allows them to maximize their own economic interest in exactly the same way as the first villager. The result of the process, though, is that a pasture that would have kept a certain number of cattle fed indefinitely is turned into a barren area of compacted subsoil that won’t support any cattle at all.  The rational pursuit of individual advantage thus results in permanent impoverishment for everybody.

This may seem like common sense.  It is common sense, but when Hardin first published “The Tragedy of the Commons” in 1968, it went off like a bomb in the halls of academic economics. Since Adam Smith’s time, one of the most passionately held beliefs of capitalist economics has been the insistence that individuals pursuing their own economic interest without interference from government or anyone else will reliably produce the best outcome for everybody.  You’ll still hear defenders of free market economics making that claim, as if nobody but the Communists ever brought it into question.  That’s why very few people like to talk about Hardin’s tragedy of the commons these days; it makes it all but impossible to uphold a certain bit of popular, appealing, but dangerous nonsense.

Does this mean that the rational pursuit of individual advantage always produces negative results for everyone?  Not at all.  The theorists of capitalism can point to equally cogent examples in which Adam Smith’s invisible hand passes out benefits to everyone, and a case could probably be made that this happens more often than the opposite.  The fact remains that the opposite does happen, not merely in theory but also in the real world, and that the consequences of the tragedy of the commons can reach far beyond the limits of a single village.

Hardin himself pointed to the destruction of the world’s oceanic fisheries by overharvesting as an example, and it’s a good one.  If current trends continue, many of my readers can look forward, over the next couple of decades, to tasting the last seafood they will ever eat.  A food resource that could have been managed sustainably for millennia to come is being annihilated in our lifetimes, and the logic behind it is that of the tragedy of the commons:  participants in the world’s fishing industries, from giant corporations to individual boat owners and their crews, are pursuing their own economic interests, and exterminating one fishery after another in the process.

Another example?  The worldwide habit of treating the atmosphere as an aerial sewer into which wastes can be dumped with impunity.  Every one of my readers who burns any fossil fuel, for any purpose, benefits directly from being able to vent the waste CO2 directly into the atmosphere, rather than having to cover the costs of disposing of it in some other way.  As a result of this rational pursuit of personal economic interest, there’s a very real chance that most of the world’s coastal cities will have to be abandoned to the rising oceans over the next century or so, imposing trillions of dollars of costs on the global economy.

Plenty of other examples of the same kind could be cited.  At this point, though, I’d like to shift focus a bit to a different class of phenomena, and point to the Glass-Steagall Act, a piece of federal legislation that was passed by the US Congress in 1933 and repealed in 1999.  The Glass-Steagall Act made it illegal for banks to engage in both consumer banking activities such as taking deposits and making loans, and investment banking activities such as issuing securities; banks had to choose one or the other. The firewall between consumer banking and investment banking was put in place because in its absence, in the years leading up to the 1929 crash, most of the banks in the country had gotten over their heads in dubious financial deals linked to stocks and securities, and the collapse of those schemes played a massive role in bringing the national economy to the brink of total collapse.

By the 1990s, such safeguards seemed unbearably dowdy to a new generation of bankers, and after a great deal of lobbying the provisions of the Glass-Steagall Act were eliminated.  Those of my readers who didn’t spend the last decade hiding under a rock know exactly what happened thereafter:  banks went right back to the bad habits that got their predecessors into trouble in 1929, profited mightily in the short term, and proceeded to inflict major damage on the global economy when the inevitable crash came in 2008.

That is to say, actions performed by individuals (and those dubious “legal persons” called corporations) in the pursuit of their own private economic advantage garnered profits over the short term for those who engaged in them, but imposed long-term costs on everybody.  If this sounds familiar, dear reader, it should.  When individuals or corporations profit from their involvement in an activity that imposes costs on society as a whole, that activity functions as a commons, and if that commons is unmanaged the tragedy of the commons is a likely result.  The American banking industry before 1933 and after 1999 functioned, and currently functions, as an unmanaged commons; between those years, it was a managed commons.  While it was an unmanaged commons, it suffered from exactly the outcome Hardin’s theory predicts; when it was a managed commons, by contrast, a major cause of banking failure was kept at bay, and the banking sector was more often a source of strength than a source of weakness to the national economy.

It’s not hard to name other examples of what I suppose we could call “commons-like phenomena”—that is, activities in which the pursuit of private profit can impose serious costs on society as a whole—in contemporary America.  One that bears watching these days is food safety.  It is to the immediate financial advantage of businesses in the various industries that produce food for human consumption to cut costs as far as possible, even if this occasionally results in unsafe products that cause sickness and death to people who consume them; the benefits in increased profits are immediate and belong entirely to the business, while the costs of increased morbidity and mortality are borne by society as a whole, provided that your legal team is good enough to keep the inevitable lawsuits at bay.  Once again, the asymmetry between benefits and costs produces a calculus that brings unwelcome outcomes.

The American political system, in its pre-imperial and early imperial stages, evolved a distinctive response to these challenges. The Declaration of Independence, the wellspring of American political thought, defines the purpose of government as securing the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  There’s more to that often-quoted phrase than meets the eye.  In particular, it doesn’t mean that governments are supposed to provide anybody with life, liberty, or happiness; their job is simply to secure for their citizens certain basic rights, which may be inalienable—that is, they can’t be legally transferred to somebody else, as they could under feudal law—but are far from absolute. What citizens do with those rights is their own business, at least in theory, so long as their exercise of their rights does not interfere too drastically with the ability of others to do the same thing.  The assumption, then and later, was that citizens would use their rights to seek their own advantage, by means as rational or irrational as they chose, while the national community as a whole would cover the costs of securing those rights against anyone and anything that attempted to erase them.

That is to say, the core purpose of government in the American tradition is the maintenance of the national commons. It exists to manage the various commons and commons-like phenomena that are inseparable from life in a civilized society, and thus has the power to impose such limits on people (and corporate pseudopeople) as will prevent their pursuit of personal advantage from leading to a tragedy of the commons in one way or another.  Restricting the capacity of banks to gamble with depositors’ money is one such limit; restricting the freedom of manufacturers to sell unsafe food is another, and so on down the list of reasonable regulations.  Beyond those necessary limits, government has no call to intervene; how people choose to live their lives, exercise their liberties, and pursue happiness is up to them, so long as it doesn’t put the survival of any part of the national commons at risk.

As far as I know, you won’t find that definition taught in any of the tiny handful of high schools that still offer civics classes to young Americans about to reach voting age. Still, it’s a neat summary of generations of political thought in pre-imperial and early imperial America.  These days, by contrast, it’s rare to find this function of government even hinted at.  Rather, the function of government in late imperial America is generally seen as a matter of handing out largesse of various kinds to any group organized or influential enough to elbow its way to a place at the feeding trough. Even those people who insist they are against all government entitlement programs can be counted on to scream like banshees if anything threatens those programs from which they themselves benefit; the famous placard reading “Government Hands Off My Medicare” is an embarrassingly good reflection of the attitude that most American pseudoconservatives adopt in practice, however loudly they decry government spending in theory.

A strong case can be made, though, for jettisoning the notion of government as national sugar daddy and returning to the older notion of government as guarantor of the national commons.  The central argument in that case is simply that in the wake of empire, the torrents of imperial tribute that made the government largesse of the recent past possible in the first place will go away.  As the United States loses the ability to command a quarter of the world’s energy supplies and a third of its natural resources and industrial product, and has to make do with the much smaller share it can expect to produce within its own borders, the feeding trough in Washington DC—not to mention its junior equivalents in the fifty state capitals, and so on down the pyramid of American government—is going to run short.

In point of fact, it’s already running short.  That’s the usually unmentioned factor behind the intractable gridlock in our national politics:  there isn’t enough largesse left to give every one of the pressure groups and veto blocs its accustomed share, and the pressure groups and veto blocs are responding to this unavoidable problem by jamming up the machinery of government with ever more frantic efforts to get whatever they can.  That situation can only end in crisis, and probably in a crisis big enough to shatter the existing order of things in Washington DC; after the rubble stops bouncing, the next order of business will be piecing together some less gaudily corrupt way of managing the nation’s affairs.

That process of reconstruction might be furthered substantially if the pre-imperial concept of the role of government were to get a little more air time these days.  I’ve spoken at quite some length here and elsewhere about the very limited contribution that grand plans and long discussions can make to an energy future that’s less grim than the one toward which we’re hurtling at the moment, and there’s a fair bit of irony in the fact that I’m about to suggest exactly the opposite conclusion with regard to the political sphere.  Still, the circumstances aren’t the same.  The time for talking about our energy future was decades ago, when we still had the time and the resources to get new and more sustainable energy and transportation systems in place before conventional petroleum production peaked and sent us skidding down the far side of Hubbert’s peak.  That time is long past, the options remaining to us are very narrow, and another round of conversation won’t do anything worthwhile to change the course of events at this point.

That’s much less true of the political situation, because politics are subject to rules very different from the implacable mathematics of petroleum depletion and net energy.  At some point in the not too distant future, the political system of the United States of America is going to tip over into explosive crisis, and at that time ideas that are simply talking points today have at least a shot at being enacted into public policy. That’s exactly what happened at the beginning of the three previous cycles of anacyclosis I traced out in a previous post in this series.  In 1776, 1860, and 1933, ideas that had been on the political fringes not that many years beforehand redefined the entire political dialogue, and in all three cases this was possible because those once-fringe ideas had been widely circulated and widely discussed, even though most of the people who circulated and discussed them never imagined that they would live to see those ideas put into practice.

There are plenty of ideas about politics and society in circulation on the fringes of today’s American dialogue, to be sure.  I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a point to reviving an older, pre-imperial vision of what government can do, and ought to do, in the America of the future.  A political system that envisions its role as holding an open space in which citizens can pursue their own dreams and experiment with their own lives is inherently likely to be better at dissensus than more regimented alternatives, whether those come from the left or the right—and dissensus, to return to a central theme of this blog, is the best strategy we’ve got as we move into a future where nobody can be sure of having the right answers.


Harry J. Lerwill said...

I see the economy is a commons, and we watch the tragedy playing out there.

Stocks like Amazon are keeping the vaporous markets buoyant, but most of every dollar spent with the online giants leaves the local community.

Local businesses close their doors, and their former employers no longer can afford to shop online.

Ironically, we subsidize the destruction of our own communities, our taxes used to keep the cheap oil flowing, essential to business models that leave our high streets blighted.

Joel Caris said...

I was curious to see what this week's post would kick off and I have to say I'm mightily intrigued. I love your explanation of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I had never thought of that in terms of commons-management, and that's a fairly fantastic insight.

The last few years, I've swerved from being pretty liberal to being an odd mix of liberal and conservative, probably in ways that you and many of your readers are familiar with. The idea of governance you lay out here makes some sense of that mix of ideologies for me.

I'm going to have to think on this some more and I'll be curious to see how you continue this thread.

In that same vein of thinking on your posts, I hope you don't mind if I offer up a couple links to you and your readers. The first is a recent post I wrote about my not-long-ago immersion in politics, looking at how the myths of progress and apocalypse drove a habit of binary thinking in regards to politics. As you might imagine, it was inspired by my inner grappling with the ideas you presented in your series on magic (recently refreshed by a reading of The Blood of the Earth.)

The other link is a post I just put up tonight. Back when you were writing your narrative on the collapse of the American empire, I mentioned my unease with the idea of America being defeated militarily and finding itself at the brink of nuclear war and claimed I would eventually write a blog post about it, which you expressed interest in reading. It took awhile, but I posted something tonight, The Privilege of Empire. Perhaps some here will find it interesting.

On a final note, I didn't get into last week's conversation in the comments, but I'll chime in as another vote for you to eventually tackle the issue of religion and to write a bit more about your own path. The post you hinted at sounds fascinating and very relevant to this blog's purpose. In fact, just the phrase "the notion that religion is about having the right opinions about unknowable issues is among the most thoroughly exploded of all hypotheses around just now" makes me want to write a blog entry about the role of religion in culture and it's ability to pass down lessons about how to live well in the world, rather than being about how to get to a better world by believing the right thing rather than working hard to better the world you already live in.

Avery said...

Why is it that today's farmers keep adding more and more sheep to the commons? What happened to the tradition that kept things reasonable back in the day? One of those farmers got bit by a tarantula and suddenly became driven to abandon the unspoken agreement of the commons, work ever harder, ever faster, to pursue endless growth and wealth -- and the others felt bound to copy him. Now the only argument is over how much the farmers should spread their wealth around. There is no concern over the fact that we have not only made the commons barren, because there are countless people who are only just now suffering the tarantula's bite, and more still who we need to infect. Expand overseas! Take all the commons!

At this point, the only demands that seem meaningful to the majority are those that make faster consumption for a greater number seem possible: More growth, more progress, more liberty, more equality! I honestly don't see how a good politician could give the lie to that narrative. This is like late Rome, which had plenty of good Caesars, but none who could change the underlying mission of the Empire back into providing for the people of Italy.

John Michael Greer said...

Harry, that's one of many examples. Again, the point of local government used to include sensible regulation involving issues of that kind.

Joel, thank you! And thanks for the links -- I'll make time to follow both soon.

Avery, that's why it's going to take a whale of a crisis to reset things back to some semblance of sanity. The question that doesn't yet have an answer is whether that reset will take place under our existing constitution, or not.

Cherokee Organics said...


The extreme pursuit of individualism provided the means to slowly break existing social bonds. It was the social bonds that held back the tragedy of the commons. As a culture, we have no sense of common purpose and so pursue our own selfish ends even if it is at the expense of others (the someone, somewhere else problem).

As such, decline is the continual and accelerating process of millions and billions of individual actions and decisions every day pursuing self-interest.

The number of comments I read here week in, week out that say, "I'm so worried about my children". All it says to me is that as an individual that person is happy to continue kicking the can down the road... That opinion may be a bit full on for some, but how else can you interpret it?

Haha! Economics is a flawed science whose proponents and tame academics spend the majority of their time justifying the existing system. It is a large and lucrative feed trough! A good way to make money would be to write an extensive treatise on why the existing system is so great and will continue into the far future. As a note to all aspiring mages, it doesn't even have to be factual, you just have to push the right buttons.

One of the main benefits of the reduced quality in the food system is decreased prices for consumers. However, the reduced quality results in poor health outcomes for people at that feed trough. My local supermarket can sell for AU$5 (which is more than US$5 in world markets) 2 litres of milk, a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs. I can't even produce a dozen eggs for that price, so I find it very hard to believe that no corners are being cut. I may be wrong, but pelletised chicken feed includes ground up and processed chickens. Yuk, that's wrong!



Ruben said...

Synchronicity is starting to happen so often I might have to start believing in it. A friend and I were talking about Hardin less than 24 hours ago, and I pointed Ostrom's remonstrances about the tragedy befalling the unmanaged commons....

Tim Smith said...

The idea of the Commons is a very simplistic one, in most contexts. What defines a "Commons" in today's world?

I was reading recently about Estonia. There, they have a national identity card, that can used for almost everything except as an external passport. It is your ID, your bank ATM, your pass on local transport, your telephone card, your "you name it". So it occurred to me, wouldn't this be easy to counterfeit? And couldn't counterfeiters make a bundle?

Well, no. For the main part, you'd have to be able to speak Estonian to use it effectively. As a non-Indo-European language, I suspect that there are few non-Estonians who speak it fluently (I welcome correction from any who do).

So the Estonian "commons" could be defined by language (and, I guess, culture). Very nice and compact. Those of us who live in Western Europe, the US, or most other parts of the world do not have these neat dividing lines. Except perhaps in an extremely local sense, there are not "commons" anymore. We have become too diverse, linguistically, religiously, and culturally, for that idea to make any sense at all.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Isn’t it still the case that in business courses they teach that externalities, i.e. those costs that can be effectively borne by the commons, must be maximized as a way to achieve higher profits?

The particular example of this that springs to my mind is the extensive area of southern Spain that is covered in plastic greenhouses in which tomatoes are grown. This naturally arid zone, where many Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns were films, is now drilled with many thousands of bore holes which go down into the huge subterranean aquifer. Most of these are illegal, but it has meant that everyone in the area who owned a patch of dirt has become wealthy virtually overnight. The greenhouses are so extensive they are visible from space, as you can see here

Of course, the aquifer itself is not doing so well. I don’t know how many years it has left, but we’re probably talking about only a few. It doesn’t help, either, that the ‘farmers’ are pumping all the excess pesticide and fertilizer back down the boreholes. Something to think about the next time anyone in Europe bites into a Spanish tomato.

BTW, on an unrelated note, I happened to be in East Africa in December and was able to see first hand that the Chinese are indeed undertaking huge efforts to secure that region's resources, making the opening chapters of your story *How it Could Happen* all the more plausible.

Cherokee Organics said...


What a truly fascinating article:

Quote: "If you do behave as we ask, we will secretly condemn you for a simpleton who can be shamed into standing aside while the rest of us exploit the commons."

Yes, I have witnessed this very attitude in people.

However I sleep very well because I also know that, at the same time - with the exception of the very young - it is only the animals and birds in the forest that can both fend for and feed themselves, that get to live for another day.



phil harris said...

I had the chance in the 80s and early 90s to meet in the way of business American officials engaged in 'negotiating' global regulation of the 'global commons'. There were occasionally 'old-fashioned' teams surprised to find themselves outside of USA but sticking to the old 'engineering' mind-set of defining 'problems' and fixing them. I can remember throwing a bit of a wrench in the mind-set by informing one expert team that though a lot was known about the ozone holes, there were very few instruments anywhere actually pointing at the sky to measure the amount of UV B actually being received at ground level. At first they did not believe me.

The more usual US official crowd had a different and clearly stated objective. I remember in so many words this was to maximise American competitive advantage anywhere in what we can now refer to as the global “commons-like phenomena”. This included supporting 'public education' programs back home in the US, financed by the larger corporations who were negotiating global dominance - in this case over agricultural seeds and genetic technology.

This had the result that USA was essentially one larger version of "those dubious 'legal persons' called corporations", to use your excellent phrase.

So the logic comes home to roost in the stratified, acidified over-fished oceans and in forests cleared for biomass and etc. The tribute barges are still full - and we in Europe fully intend to burn all Algerian resources and etc.

phil harris said...

@Cherokee Organics
Perhaps not easy to answer, but how much would your eggs 'cost' you in money if you paid yourself nothing and delivered them by bicycle?

BTW you stirred a memory. Poultry litter can be part of the 'concentrate' mix fed to cattle, milk producers etc.
Sorry about this url


russell1200 said...

The commons idea is sometimes approached as externalities. Effects of economic activity where the cost is born by others (negative externalities) or the benefits are appreciated by others (positive externalities).

The commons is classic negative externalities, but positive externalities can also be a problems. Note that your economically minded types are always saying that mass transit systems don't support themselves. What they ignore is that these systems have a lot of benefits (lower polution, less land use, less congestion, etc) that the individual riders, or the service providers don't receive themselves. These benefits need to be factored into the equation.

Lizzy said...

Hello JMG, this isn't really for publication, but can be if you like. Thanks again for your writing -- it's always good (i.e. I agree with most of it, ha ha). You might remember last week I put in a plaintive note saying how "hard" life will be without electricity and ready-made thing. You directed me to Thanks. I wonder, though. Is there a book about managing the basics of life if there are no services to call on? I mean, an all encompassing manual about how to manage house repairs (broken windows, leaking roof); get salt and iodine from vegetables; make ropes; basic plumbing; food storage; hygiene and first aid; spit roasting etc etc etc. Do you see what I mean? I grew up on a farm but left when I was 17. I can't remember how we did lots of the things that I think I will have to learn about again. I would have thought a book is the thing -- my phones and laptops seem to only last a short time, and in time how will I power them? thank you again, Elizabeth

João Carlos said...

"[...] there’s a very real chance that most of the world’s coastal cities will have to be abandoned to the rising oceans over the next century or so, imposing trillions of dollars of costs on the global economy."

You are being optimist. IPCC had the artic ice cap melting at 2030's and that is happening today. Global Warming is happening at higher speed thant the scientists predicted. The truth is that the scientists were being conservative and not "alarmits" as the repubs want the american public think.

Global Warming is gaining speed. I fear we will see the coastal cities joining Atlantis before the end of this century... or sooner.

DickLawrence said...

Your interpretation for a much-reduced role of central government is intriguing, and I suspect you would resist any simplistic effort to classify it along the usual political spectrum which includes "Anarchist", "Libertarian", "Conservative", "Liberal" labels and so forth. I'd like to hear your take on how it differs from the usual labeled suspects on the spectrum.

One of the challenges, when considering the role of government (at all levels) in managing access to, and fair use of, "the commons" is developing some form of consensus as to what "the commons" actually are. Example: in pre-industrial America there might be little agreement that the air we breathe constitute a common resource to be protected, because few could imagine that its purity could be threatened by massive industrialization and fossil fuel consumption. By the time the Clean Air Act became law, it was obvious that such protection was needed.

Given that difficulty, how does (for example) a government of your description apply its power, and under what authority, to (for example) check the rising (and likely inevitable, given a "hands off" policy) gross inequity in living standards, when unlimited wealth buys absolute power, including the power to steer the government tiller in the direction that favors even more accumulation of wealth? Clearly someone's "common" is getting trampled, but it's a tough call to insist the government should play some form of equalizer role, without getting labeled socialist or communist.

Another topic: NPR radio had a debate just yesterday in which a number of prominent interviewees advocated a much-reduced U.S. military presence overseas, dramatic cuts in DoD spending, citing among other things the failures of the Iraq campaigns and the so-called "war on terror". Any regular reader of JMG will interpret these as the early signals that imperial overreach has reached its inevitable limits and must contract - although the word "empire" may never be used - and the obvious next question is, do we arrive at our shrunken post-imperial role via some relatively smooth transition (e.g. Great Britain) or by one or more successive catastrophes? such as the possible pathway you ably sketched out for us late last year.

It seems a clear appreciation of the U.S. dilemma is a prerequisite to extracting the nation from its global entanglements and to back away from its fantasies of eternal empire. Yet John Kerry just yesterday was saying "Where the U.S. isn't, comes trouble" (in effect). He will have an interesting and challenging new job, for sure.

Dick Lawrence

Edde said...

Good morning John Michael,

As Reuben mentions, synchronicity prevails. The "intentional" community in which I live is currently experiencing an internal attack on our commons, in this case the destruction of a financial endowment. The endowment will soon be completely disassembled by improper management if the current spending spree doesn't do the job first.

And, of course, the destruction of the community as a whole, follows.

As one who has spent three decades managing our commons, I have now been pushed aside, villainized and "shunned."

Can this process be reversed? As "maintenance" bills for the degraded commons mount, as they inevitably will, we won't be able to afford to continue to live here. There is time, however.

Of course, I'm not alone in my efforts to protect our common resources - we may eventually get organized to either change the take-over group's sway or declare independence ourselves.

Stay tuned...

Best regards,

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Avery asked a very good question on why people abandoned the traditional ways of managing a commons.

This is a very interesting post and I would highly recommend two books called "Customs in Common" and "The Making of the English Working Class", both by E.P Thompson, a british historian. Granted, he's an marxist (though not very orthodox), so you have to read the books with that in mind, but the main point he makes is quite clear: it wasn't that people abandoned the old ways because capitalism was "better", but that they were forced into it by a small class of landholders who greatly benefitted from it, sometimes in a very violent manner. In essence, it wasn't so much that the commons were mismaneged into oblivion, as more like they were purposedly appropriated by a group of people who forced everyone else out (by various means) and turned the "commons" into private property.

What's happening now, specially with the oceans and atmosphere is a bit different, since the sheer scale of them and their very nature made it difficult for power groups to exclude others from them, so that resulted in all of us over-exploiting them, but you are beginning to see signs that they are trying to privatize even those commons. I find it funny that nobody seems to seriously discuss the late XXth century adoption of ever larger "economic interest zones" in coastal areas, contrary to long standing free market ideology of the "free oceans" and the sometimes comic disputes over rocky atholls and other such non-inhabitable pieces of marine real estate that allows a nation to claim a large zone of "exclusive economic interest" around it. There has also been a massive growth of "marine farming", which is pretty unprecendented in history as well. My own region of the world now supports a shrimp farming industry (highly pollutant as well) that dwarves traditional shrimp catching in the past. We now have such cheap shrimp that people find it normal to consume half a pound of it on a meal normal when shrimp was a delicacy afforded only rarely as recent as twenty years ago.

It must be said, though, that there's a danger in overly idolizing the idylic past and not seeing the problems with the peasant economy and their "commons" in the past. For one, a lot of the peasants were very bad farmers. They were uneducated and farmed by tradition, mostly, not reason and experience. I see a lot of people here, and maybe even our host, sometimes speak very highly of traditional methodologies, and that has a point, specially if you consider resiliency more the efficiency as a barometer, but by and large, widespread peasant farming was very bad. There was also a economic reason for that. Landholdings were often very small and barely capable of supporting a peasant and his family, so there was little capital to do even very modest improvements. One of the first big gains by "enclosing the commons" was draining marshland, which was impossible to do on a common basis trough traditional means and also beyond the economic capabilities of peasant landholders.

The fact that they were very small also meant that they were usually powerless to negociate with traders and such people as mill-owners, which also contributed to their poverty. There are some gains of scale that can be sucessuflly implemented even with sustainable means (I would recommend people taking a look at Polyface Farms, for example), either trough cooperative means or trough a large enough private farm.

In short, I'm saying managing commons in a rational and productive way is a very, very important job for the future, which is basically what JMG was saying, but I offer a word of caution to people to look at what sort of issues people in the past had managing their commons, and what it can teach us. It might not be as straitghforward as some people think.

Guilherme de Baskerville said...

Lastly, I would like to hear what people have to say about managing a commons like the oceans or the atmosphere. Can it be done? How? It that a moot point because you believe industrial civilization will perish quickly and, with it, our ability to overwhelm these commons?

phil harris said...

Nothing much new in this piece from FT website
However, complements your thesis nicely I think?
Quote for a taster: "Second, easy access to leverage is critical, as bubbles cannot happen if investors are limited to equity. Third, most bubbles look idiotic when seen
with hindsight. Fourth – and although institutional arrangements are critical – the real driving dynamic of bubbles is a psychological process which combines greed, the willing suspension of disbelief and the development of a herd mentality."

Jason said...

I like the view of the US as a setup designed to solve philosophical ructions in the Europe of the day. A glance at the Burke/Paine dialogues shows you did get a nice blend.

On Ostrom though, the "disproving" idea wasn't quite as unwarranted as you imply.

Hardin sees government intervention as necessary (along with some Hegelian new morality which would have you going "gah" I suspect ^_^) but Ostrom's very real-world examples usually require minimum-to-no government involvement. They are solutions on a local level, produced and regulated unaided by locals. (She finds outside regulation as often hinders as helps, or more often.)

Many saw this, I think rightly, as "disproving" Hardin's necessary tragedy of an unregulated commons.

But it doesn't necessarily touch your regulatory government idea -- what goes for timber resources in the alps or precious water in the dry farmlands of Spain unfortunately doesn't go for national economic safeguards, let alone international.

The key difference is surely being out of contact with the natural rhythms that produce the goods to be regulated. Actually watching the trees you tend getting cut down, when your livelihood depends on enough of them still standing to do the same thing next year, must concentrate your mind wonderfully.

Stu from Rutherford said...

Just a reminder to readers that the so-called "Nobel prize in economics" is really "The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel", in its current official translation. Since the Swedish central bank established the prize in 1968, its official translation has changed 11 times. Over protests of many in the Nobel community, this prize has been grafted onto the other real Nobel prizes.
Also a reminder that economics is an axiomatic "science" which makes assumptions of dubious value, builds theories which it treats as having some value (despite the dubious assumptions) and then smirks and shrugs when it fails to predict things like the 2008 financial crash.

lessertruth said...

I find it amusing that Hardin frames his plea for population control as a failure to manage the commons related to pleasure! So very Christian of us!

This reveals a different side of foo degradation, the overuse of sugar as palatabilizating agent, that is something to make us like even food that is not good for us, thus shortcuiting our natural satiation instincts. Sugar is basically addictive, so there.

But what i really want to ask: What in your opinion prevented the US to treat the pumped wealth itself as a commons? Since basically everything else was managed commons prior to late-imperial rise of state largesse. I feel the more candid Roman attitude towards colonies seemed to lead to a better management strategy (their empire lasted for many more centuries than the US one seems to be able to...)

Note: I write this basically as native of one of the colonies sucked dry, my word choices (and inventions?) probably gave it away.

Lee Wilder said...

Six months ago, I would've left a comment here saying I couldn't believe I had never encountered Hardin's essay before. After all, I went to one of the top 100 high schools in the country! The faculty were almost exclusively liberal! There's just no way that concept was never discussed!

Except, of course, that it wasn't. Having realized, after spending a disastrous year in a college honors program among people who couldn't do much beyond "networking" and making filthy jokes about the young female TAs, that even a good education in the current schools is worth less than dirt when it comes to actually being able to reason and think... and then finding out that it wasn't just my failure to thrive, reading both here and elsewhere about just what has been done to make education into an industry... I am completely unsuprised.

I'm not sure if it'll do much, but I think I'll pass this essay - these essays, rather, Hardin's and yours - along to some friends who still believe in the space opera future we grew up with.

Glenn said...

For those who haven't read all of last week's comments, I'd suggest number 157 by Farmer Dirt. His is the voice of experience folks. And it's not just farming. If your plan for the future involves major changes in skills and knowledge, it's never too early to start. Collapse now, and avoid the rush...

Marrowstone Island

Robert Beckett said...

With regards to your recent call for technical papers and the current post, what is your preferred "license" for the work submitted? A Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license might be a good choice for many contributors, given the apparent intent of the wish list for Krampus.
The intellectual commons is tremendously important to the ADR project, it seems, and I, for one would welcome your thoughts on the topic.
Robert Beckett

Peck's Bad Boy said...

There is a real difference between hearing of the "Tragedy of the Commons" and generally agreeing with the image of sharing pasture actually reading the 1968 article and grasping the full ramification of all that mean. Thanks

Twilight said...

"that's why it's going to take a whale of a crisis to reset things back to some semblance of sanity. The question that doesn't yet have an answer is whether that reset will take place under our existing constitution, or not. "

I keep thinking about that, in regard to your recent posts on trying to recreate a functioning democracy, and in regard to time. There's no sign of any such renaissance and to all appearances we're still heading full-tilt in the other direction. I'm often surprised at how long these things take to unfold, but still I can't see us having enough time to build understanding and a grass roots organization before it falls apart.

But if the ideas are out there and being discussed, even by a smaller group (which could happen faster than building a grass-roots organization), then when political crisis hits could that provide a short cut? At the point of the US revolution, were the ideas that got implemented and became the useful system you've described already there in structure? Or did that get created only after the ideas of a relatively small number of outsiders got adopted.

St. Roy said...


A powerful post!

Richard Larson said...

From field to fishery to atmosphere, that clunked my brain. I'll be thinking and talking about this progression for a long time I suspect.

Otherwise, you highlight the significance of the situation quite well. One particular paragraph describing why our government is breaking down right now is right on. I can only shake my head and mutter, "one paragraph can sum this complex destroying monster up".

Hopefully this one paragraph will make the rounds leading to consideration of a political system like people once enjoyed, as per this blog.

Not going to be easy!

shiningwhiffle said...


My college economics teacher illustrated the reason with the example of a deer hunter who sees a moderate-sized buck off in the distance.

He knows that if he waits until next year the buck will likely be even bigger, with more meat and more points. But he also knows that it's more likely that someone else will kill it first in that time, so he goes ahead and shoots it.

Perversely, he's right because everyone is using that exact same logic. It's what's called a Nash equilibrium: no one's individually better off if they do something else, even when everyone's collectively better off if everyone does something else.

The problem is that we've gotten ourselves into one mother of a Nash equilibrium ("a mother with babies and grandchildren" as Mister Trey might put it). Anyone not willing to produce as aggressively as everyone else can find themselves with few or even no paying customers since the more shortsighted players can spread the fixed costs over a greater number of units.

They can also generally count on government intervention in their favor to distort (in the short run) some of the natural diseconomies of scale that would otherwise limit how far they can grow, through both subsidies and other schemes such as restrictive zoning laws that make people more dependent on the whole system.

Left-libertarian blogger Kevin Carson has pointed out that most of the disadvantages of large government bureaucracies should equally well apply to corporate bureaucracies. Carson has some strange ideas but that one seems right.

Mary said...

Cherokee, "All it says to me is that as an individual that person is happy to continue kicking the can down the road... That opinion may be a bit full on for some, but how else can you interpret it?"

I take it that they see the can being kicked down the road by "government" and worry about our collective failure, so far, to acknowledge and deal with the source of our problems.

I wanted to reply to a comment last week, but lacked time, so will respond here. The poster had questioned why the urgency of action given JMG's time frame of 100 years.

1. 100 years is JMG's best estimate, given his analysis of facts currently available to him. Obviously, every estimate is subject to change given additional facts, unexpected and unpredictable events, etc.

2. Upheaval continues to be very regional and highly personal. For me, my world was turned upside down with the combined blows of the hi-tech crash followed by 9/11. My age at the time -- pushing 50 -- left me particularly vulnerable to career loss with extreme difficulty in getting rehired somewhere at any wage, never mind anything close to my career peak.

In retrospect, I made some very smart choices based on quick analysis in less than ideal circumstances. But had this blog been available to me back in 2002-2003, I would be in far more comfortable circumstances than I currently am.

So the urgency is because there is no way to predict for sure when the floor will disappear out from under you. But one thing Hillary Clinton got right some years ago was when she described our current circumstances as a "trapdoor economy." The sooner you start preparations, the better prepared you will be for when that trapdoor opens.

SweaterMan said...


Reading the column before getting out of bed this AM.

"commons-like phenomena" becomes
common-enomena becomes
mah-na mah-na which leads to this:

Which was actually a fairly good start to my day!

The Lazy Pundit said...

Great post. I studied "The Tragedy of the Commons" in grad school and it effected me profoundly. However, a future with reborn communities that can manage commons effectively is a frightening one to me.

There are small towns and communities in the US that were a few generations ago quite cohesive and were real communities. These communities could exercise the sort of social controls that would be necessary to manage commons. However, those communities would feel quite stifling for the average person today.

One of the great benefits of living in the modern world is not being subject to the social control of fellow community members. We sit in our doomed suburbs, isolated from the ill-will of our fellow citizens by wealth and technology. Few folks would put up with the sort of petty, busybody interference in their lives that returning to real communities would entail, however beneficial that return would be in confronting the decline of our civilization. Anyone who's ever been part of a condo owners association in crisis knows what I'm talking about here.

One reason people moved out of small towns to the big city was to become anonymous and free from the sanctions of their cohorts. I'm not saying that's a indisputable good, but the transition to a society with full community engagement (and control) will be quite painful, especially for the introverts and the harmless deviants among us.

Lee said...

You have done it again.

I have, for nearly two decades, held the belief that one of the primary functions of government should be to protect its citizens from predatory corporations and others who peruse economic gain at any cost. You have stated what I believe with greater clarity (and better references) than I could manage. Thank you.

subgenius said...


Re. Elinor Ostrom / "Nobel" Economics prizes...

I know it is generally stated that economists win Nobel prizes, but it is NOT actually true, and is the result of the manipulation (against the wishes of at least some of the Nobel family) by financial institutions. Even Hayek argued it was a VERY bad idea to put economists next to the other Nobels.

I am sure you know it is actually the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel.

Then again, I suppose you could argue that the "real" Nobels are falling to the level of the economics prize after they gave a Peace Prize to a warmonger...

Ian said...

First off, something for the growing popular awareness file. The game promises to be a nice little educational tool regarding the basics of the commons dynamics you're talking about. Not my sort of thing, but for the right audience: Climate Change Scenario for Settlers of Catan.

I'm looking forward to seeing you talk more about this sort of thing. One of the challenges I see facing that future government is a good legal-governmental definition of what the commons is.

We are more aware of how interconnected ecological systems are, which makes the question of where the commons ends and the private begins fuzzier. There is still plenty clear ground, but it's not as clear cut as it was back in the 18th century. I don't think that vitiates your points, but I'm curious to hear what sort of influence you see our contemporary understanding of the commons having on the traditional democratic forms, if any.

One of my other concerns is the tendency for commons-centered politics to get more rigid and tribal, esp. in the face of scarcity. Those attitudes foster practices of communal intimidation that can be difficult to mesh with the ideals of democratic dissensus.

I don't expect there's an 'answer' to that problem, btw, besides doing our best to moderate those tendencies. If I'm reading you right, you understand resilient democratic forms to be one of the primary moderating forces?

Joel said...

You've mentioned dissensus before, and the meaning of the term is fairly clear just from its construction, but I wanted to look into it a little deeper.

That led me to Dissensus, by philosopher Jacques Rancière, which asserts (if a quick skim of the editor's notes has given me a clear picture) that the power of both art and of politics stems from an ability to challenge consensus, and to raise possibilities that had formerly been ignored as improper.

I don't know, but I wonder if this anaylsis underestimates the power of (loosely categorized) conservative politics and mainstream art, in enforcing consensus and designating certain territory as incontestible. Whether it's something to work for or against, it's probably worth recognizing.

Similarly, I haven't read enough to rule conclusively on this, but it looks superficially as though an effort to link art to politics has led to conflation of the domains in which the two disciplines contend: they're both non-material domains, and there's a real connection between them, but perceiving and willing are very different activities. Great artists aren't typically able to inspire action, and great politicians don't typically point the way to new modes of experience. If my first impressions of this are correct, is Rancière confounding the planes here?

Can your recommend further reading on dissensus?

Michelle said...

Was just this moment conversing with a friend about the restrictions on access to flowing water for pastureland. The field adjacent to my (hilly, wooded) pasture, used to be cow pasture, as did my land and the two lots next to mine. Everyone's cows watered in the creek dividing my pasture from my neighbor's. However, my land was developed and went out of pasture some 20 years ago. My neighbor stopped running his cows on that bit of pasture and started haying it instead about 4 years ago. Now that I have livestock that could graze there, and that my neighbor WANTS to graze there (because there's a steep dropoff to the creek that he can't hay, but must brush-hog) we are not permitted to use the pasture for wetland conservation reasons. I could run my goats there if I fenced them away from the water, but for pity's sake, the reason the lots are drawn as they are is SO THAT there's access to water. Who wants to schlep water to livestock when there's flowing water right there?? So - how to balance the wetlands needs (the Commons, in this instance) with the farmer's needs (mine) and is there any means to acknowledge that 6 60-pound goats are NOT going to have the same impact as a herd of beef cattle?

Jack None said...

It isn't really in my rational self-interest to put more cows on the pasture. This is "common sense," right? We make a colder and bleaker world, an ugly world. The actions perceived to constitute my rational self-interest are culturally dependent. In today's culture, short-term profit is the overriding value. Our culture assumes that personal fulfillment (happiness, whatever you want to call it) is best achieved by hoarding money and material things in the short term. It is easy to question this assumption.

In our culture, where the dominating parameters are price and profit, the tragedy of the commons is assured. There are two ways to come out of this unfortunate situation. The first is government. As you say, the government won't change its ways until there is a major crisis. This is because the government isn't the government anymore. It's only a zombie. It is the corporatocracy. The influence of short-term profit (principally corporate) has to be combed out of government before it can effectively protect the commons. But the octopus tentacles go very, very deep at this point. So it would take a crises.

The second is a sea change of mindset, a change in culture. In an alternate universe where individuals put price and profit further down on their list of drivers -- a universe where individuals realized experientially how good it makes them feel to help others (for example), or felt satisfaction in taking only what they need and no more (for example) and so they put these higher on their list -- governments wouldn't have as much work to do to protect the commons. I don't know what could cause this change in culture (or mindset). A crisis might help. In regional crises such as weather events we see some individuals rise up to help others while expecting nothing in return. This is the spark. I have no idea if it will catch, start to burn, and allow us all to stay warm in a very changed world.

-Jack Nonne

gardener herb said...

Hello JMG
Thank you ! I bin reading The Archdruid Report since 2005 . You are one of the most important Wise Man in America as I see it . Yes it is too late to talk about energy future now as we have bin warning in the early 80's when we started the Green party (naively) ,now just another party racing with the rest down the other side off Hubbert's peak (green wash) . So I bin looking for solutions out of our predicament and it's great that you started this part off with the Commons , an important part , to start with when you want to stop being a hunter gatherer or in this case an imploding capitalist society .
Since growth , interest and debt are the reasons we wasted our common resources on this poor planet ,
I fund an interesting concept in Germany what I like to share with you and your intelligent Reader's of this blog . It's translated from german into english and kept it's unfortunate title : plan B
It is 20 pages long and worth wile reading . This whole concept is being circulated in Universities in Russia and Germany . Some Professors gave up teaching economics to promote this new concept full time and even trying to force it being implemented trough a constitutional lawsuit .

Joseph Nemeth said...

I've been confounding people, particularly conservatives, for some time now with a simple question: what is government for?

The answer seems anticlimactic: the government's purpose is to govern. That seems obvious enough.

What does it mean "to govern?" We have a company here, Woodward Governor, that got its start making "governors" -- they are devices that prevent a steam engine from running too fast. They are also called "regulators." The purpose of government is to regulate.

Traditionally, governments regulate individuals (e.g. murder), business (e.g. weights and measures, currency, fair practice), and the commonwealth, whether that is viewed as you state as a "commons" (from which individuals can derive profit) or as a common hedge against chance, such as a standing military organization to defend the country, or (as in ancient city-states) granaries to hedge against bad years of harvest. It can also include property we hold as-is in trust for future generations: forests, wetlands, etc.

The entire "deregulation" craze that started under Reagan -- I recall Ralph Nader saying that deregulation would be a "dirty word" in twenty years, back in the 1980's -- has been focused on tearing down this core function of government, specifically with regard to the commonwealth. The commonwealth is viewed by business as a huge pool of stagnant potential wealth. It is either being "underutilized" in the case of the commons -- meaning that it isn't being exploited to exhaustion at the maximum rate possible -- or it is "unutilized" as it is being held in trust for emergent conditions, such as a military invasion or a bad harvest, or forever. Business wants to convert this potential wealth into near-term profit, and has spent the last thirty years "deregulating" its way into the commonwealth.

In particular, the perennial attempt to privatize Social Security has been a naked attempt to flush the Baby Boom SS Trust into the financial markets, where it can be systematically raided and placed in banksters pockets.

Social Security is one of the hedges that make up the US commonwealth. It's a hedge against old age and disability. No one can tell you how much money you need to coast to a graceful stop after you lose the will or ability (or permission) to participate in "work", because no one knows how long you will live. By creating a national risk pool, you remove the uncertainties, and can handle the centenarians. Health insurance could be viewed the same way.

I think we need to get this "deregulation" nonsense completely out of the discussion. Governments regulate.

Playful Librarian said...

If we replace Hardin's cows with humans, we quickly see that sustainable consumption (as well as its more controversial adjunct, sustainable population) is at the heart of a non-tragic commons. We have to learn somehow to consume as if we care about someone and something beyond ourselves. Humans have been remarkably efficient at stripping every last bit of value around them long before there were ever oil-enabled technologies. Easter Island is one well-worn example, while in North America the beaver had been hunted out of the Northeast and the first ban on deer hunting was issued a century before George Washington was even born.

John D. Wheeler said...

I actually heard Garrett Hardin speak in San Luis Obispo at a AAAS convention around 1992. He admitted he made a mistake in not calling it "The Tragedy of the Unmanaged Commons". One interesting example he used was overwhelming support to build a mass transit system in a city in the Pacific Northwest (I think it was Seattle or Portland). When it was actually built, however, very few people used it. Apparently, the support was for other people to use it so there would be less traffic on the roads.

Of course, you revealed the true solution parenthetically: "(We’ll assume, again, that they don’t have the option of forcing the villager with the new cows to get rid of them and return the total herd on the pasture to a level it can support indefinitely.)" It is precisely taking away this option that precipitates the tragedy.

In that lecture Hardin also introduced an interesting notation of (P)rivate vs (C)ommon (C)osts and (P)rivate vs (C)ommon (P)rofits. This gave a matrix of four combinations: PCPP, PCCP, CCPP, and CCCP. Only in PCPP and CCCP do the rational incentives work out properly. The hitch with PCPP of course is that it represents eliminating the commons. The difficulty with CCCP is that one's own labor ALWAYS represents a private cost. In PCCP systems the incentive is to minimize the private cost, and in CCPP systems it is to maximize the private profit.

Renaissance Man said...

So, this concept was what you were point to at the heart of Bridgeport's "It was a pretty good country" speech. Very nice and very inspiring.
Ironically, I believe a lot of the TEA Party nonsense with the 1770s outfits is really a yearning for exactly that sort of society, albeit one coloured with deeply rose-tinted and very distorted lenses.
It's been a long time since I read the Tragedy of the Commons essay, and over the years many people, as you rightly point out, have distorted its central observation out of all recognition. Thanks for the reminder of what it really said.
It's exactly this sort of vision that we've been kicking around in the Green Party in Canada for a decade, trying to create policy that will achieve this aim in a way that will appeal to a populace conditioned to believe that only the existing mainstream "solutions" are at all viable, that only the existing economic system holds any hope for future prosperity, despite the decreasing success of both.
The problem isn't that growth-for-growth's-sake economics doesn't work, the problem is it did: magnificently. The problem is that very few actually understand why it worked, why it isn't working now, and why it cannot work in the future. Explaining that concept is nearly impossible to people who can whip out a dozen examples of micro-successes to counter the overall sense of decline and who can dismiss any given example of decline by placing blame on some proximate cause.
The problem isn't that increased technological complexity, which we call "progress", hasn't improved lives, it has (just look at basic health care and hospitalization). It has worked so well the Myth of Progress has been very real for 200 years. But, again, very few realize that marginal returns per cost of almost all technological changes have been decreasing steadily since the 1970s and so eternal "progress" can never be. Explaining that is also nearly impossible when confronted with the latest gee-whiz cell phones and laptops and flat-screen TVs.
Crafting appealing policy that will allow a society to gently drop down to a much lower level of energy consumption, while still providing a comfortable existence has been, and still is, to say the least, a challenge. I just wish we'd been as concisely articulate as you are.

Rita said...

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from off the goose.

The law demands that we atone
When we take things we do not own
But leaves the lords and ladies fine
Who take things that are yours and mine.

The poor and wretched don’t escape
If they conspire the law to break;
This must be so but they endure
Those who conspire to make the law.

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.

(Unknown Author)

Couldn't resist citing this when the subject of commons came up. I did a long paper on the English enclosure movement back in undergrad days. Much of it was justified as allowing more efficient agriculture. But it also created an unemployed laboring class who became sturdy beggers or were absorbed by factory system.

SLClaire said...

Since reading your post I've been thinking about how to tell the difference between what is a commons or commons-like situation and what is not. I suppose what isn't a commons would have to be something that isn't subject to a limit, thus if an individual benefits from accumulating or using more of it, it doesn't deteriorate over time. Perhaps knowledge, wisdom, and such might count as among the not-commons. I think one difficulty might be if something that was thought to be unlimited and indestructible turned out not to be that way once enough people started using it. People used to think of air, water, forests, and the like as being so vast as to be indestructible - until they weren't. To envision the purpose of government as being to safeguard our commons, we'd need to have substantial agreement on what things are commons and examples of how they can be successfully regulated. We'd also need to know how to recognize when something we thought wasn't a commons became one as time goes on so that the governing process could develop and enforce reasonable regulations.

The state I live in, Missouri, has successfully regulated some commons such as the deer and turkey populations, both of which came near to vanishing in the early 1900s but have rebounded and now provide good hunting. Among the factors leading to success are science-based regulations that helped to first rebuild the population and then allowed slowly-increasing hunting; involving interested members of the public in proposing and critiquing possible changes in regulations and incorporating public input when it doesn't conflict with good science; good education of the public on the part of the Department of Conservation to understand why the limits are in place; respect for the department and the agents on the part of the public; and consistent and fair enforcement of the regulations against those who attempt to evade them. I think examples like these could be part of the conversation around a commons-based theory of government.

Jennifer D Riley said...

But what is the commons going to be in 20XX? When I see Detroit with streets plowed up and returned to gravel, I think that's close to commons, a return to the previous centuries version. I've seen hypotheses that today, the golf courses serve as an adaptive commons for business people to meet and talk.

latheChuck said...

A prime example of a well-managed "commons" is the radio spectrum. Fortunately for me, some small fragments of it have been set-aside for mostly recreational use (the amateur radio service). Now and then, it's also fortunate for those who aren't licensed to use it, when a disaster comes along which blows the commercial users away, leaving us amateurs as the last resort for long-distance (farther than you can shout!) communication.

Fortunately for all of us, the radio spectrum heals from past abuse in microseconds, not centuries.

escapefromwisconsin said...

The more complex a society becomes, the greater a need for regulations. The first stoplight in town obviously raises the stakes. That’s why it seems everything is regulated nowadays – it’s the complexity, technological abilities and commoditization of society, coupled with our reliance on large, centralized systems over which any single individual has little oversight or control (e.g. stuff on supermarket shelves). Simply removing regulations without simplification or transpacency does not solve problems, it creates more of them, as JMG points out. In a world where we can build nuclear power plants, drill a mile under the ocean and produce toxic substances easily, regulation is even more important. Antibiotics is another good example – it is in everyone’s individual best interest to use this resource as much as they see fit, leading to all sorts of abuse. Yet this leads to antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria that will make the resource useless the more it is used. This will affect everyone, yet if one single actor decides to do the responsible thing, they will be economically punished (or might even die).

However, there has been an onslaught against high taxes, "burdensome" regulations, and the "heavy hand" of government. Clearly government cannot enforce the commons unless it has the means to do so. Also, add in regulatory capture and you have a recipe for disaster. Since the 1970’s businesses have pushed “libertarianism”, meaning get government out of the way. This has led to the wholesale abandonment of protection of the commons and widespread looting. The commons means everything from natural resources to an educated populace to a functioning transport network. These have either been allowed to decay or sold off to private interests with no motive for preserving the common good – only to extract profit. In fact, government revenues as a percentage of the economy are at a postwar LOW, and the mantra of the reactionaries who call themselves conservatives nowadays is that the elimination of government will solve all problems through the magic of the market. Thus, the trend has been the wholesale defunding of government, not the expansion of it, and making enforcement voluntary. Since big businesses exist solely to maximize short term profit over all other concerns, this, of course, will not happen. It’s hard to see how the small government Ron Paul crowd, popular even among the Left, proposes to deal with this. The police state powers of government, by contrast, have been well-funded and expanded, in contradiction to the Constitution.

There was a guest on a podcast (the Extraenvironmentalist, I think) who said something profound. He pointed out that in economics, negative externalities were considered to be an exception to efficient markets that could be written off, when in fact they are the rule, not the exception! Almost every business activity affects everything else, yet collective action is decried as ‘socialism’ everywhere you turn.

The one thing that true conservatives get exactly right is that a commons should be managed by people closest to the resource – not some distant agency that is probably in the pocket of big business. If a town does not want fracking inside city limits, for example, it should have the right to make that determination. Yet in my experience, modern Republicans who espouse liberatarian values to get votes are the first to run roughshod over this idea whenever it comes down against their corporate paymasters.

Naked Capitalism today featured a video on the same topic (cut and paste, my links never work):

Jon said...


There are Americans who understand the concepts of managing the commons and what that means to society. The entire purpose of government in the modern era is to obfuscate who should control that for obvious reasons.

I think this is your finest post. But I think you are naive in the capacity of the population to change things.

dowsergirl said...

Remember the village well? Water is owned by several corporations now. Village wells in various countries are being capped and access is allowed by fee only. Companies like Poland Springs which got its water initially from a spring is now drilling wells precariously close to municipal (commonwealth) wells and sucking them dry. Our common water is heavily polluted with chemicals and additions like flouride. Yuck. I still go to my local spring for my water. Sometimes there's a leaf fleck in it or something lovely and organic, but it tastes good. I am fortunate enough to live in a small town that takes the effort to have the spring tested for contaminants, and so far the results are better than the local big city's water source.

And Lazy Pundit...I lived for many years in the most uncooperative co-op. Most people don't really have a handle on what it means to live cooperatively.

John Michael Greer said...

Cherokee, C. Wright Mills used to say that fate could be defined as the result of countless small choices made by people who were looking the other way. It's not a bad analysis at all.

Ruben, good. It's when the synchronicities start piling up that you start to realize that something is trying to get your attention.

Tim, if you'd like to read my post instead of just reacting to it, you'll find that I explained in some detail what a commons is and why the concept is relevant nowadays.

Jason, I saw your post on East Africa, and borrowed some details for the novel. Yes, you'll be credited!

Cherokee, good. My working guess is that, by and large, it's the people who learn the sorts of skills you're learning who are going to have a chance as all this winds down.

Phil, exactly. This is one of the reasons that I urge people outside the US not to trust any American who claims he's come to help you.

Russell, I dislike the label "externalities" because it's so often used to evade the point that these things aren't "external" at all -- they're all part of the whole system. Still, the fact that they're even noticed at all is probably a step in the right direction.

Lizzy, to my knowledge there isn't one book that covers all of that. You might post something to the Green Wizards forum asking for help finding the books that will be relevant to where you live -- there are a lot of knowledgeable people among the readers and posters.

João Carlos, I'm taking current worst case scenarios from climate scientists and doubling them. If you want to call that optimism, be my guest.

Dick, I'm basically a Burkean conservative -- that is, a member of a nearly extinct species these days, among people who call themselves "conservatives" but are as obsessively devoted to making a perfect society via some abstract blueprint as any Trotskyite. (Come to think of it, quite a few of them used to be Trotskyites back in the day.) One of these days I'll take the time to expand on that in a post.

Edde, you've got a fight on your hands. That sort of thing can be reversed, but it usually takes bare-knuckle politics to do the thing. Good luck.

Guilherme, the past is useful as a source of ideas about what works and what generally doesn't, but of course there's no point in slavishly copying its less functional features. That's one of the reasons I talk so much about the revolutionary advances in organic gardening and farming in the 20th century -- the newer techniques are better, and if we can get them through the current crises into the far future, the world will be better for it.

John Michael Greer said...

Guilherme, my view is rather less pleasant. I think those commons are going to be seriously damaged -- in fact, they've already been seriously damaged, and it's going to get worse -- and the blowback from that damage will be, as the original Limits to Growth study suggested, one of the major driving forces behind the dissolution of industrial society.

Phil, I've been startled for some time at the level of common sense coming out of Tullet Prebon -- this piece is better even than their last, with its frank discussion of the disaster of globalization and the role of faked statistics in fostering a lethal blindness to reality in governments.

Jason, Hardin proposed government regulation, true; Ostrom showed that smaller-scale regulatory systems enacted by local communities and institutions can do the job at least as well, and that's one of the reasons she earned her Nobel. In either case, though, the commons is being regulated and managed -- it's purely a matter of who does the regulating and managing.

Stu, yes, I figured someone was going to bring that up. I considered calling it the "Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptangya Zing Ni" Prize, but figured that nobody would get that, either.

Lessertruth, that's a relic of the frontier experience. Americans who headed out West, once they slaughtered the local natives, took the land for themselves and made whatever profit off it they could, which they then kept. The same attitude came to guide the behavior of US corporations long after the frontier closed.

Lee, I hope you didn't end up too deep in debt! Down the road a bit, I plan on doing a series of posts about education and how to get one -- I promise that no student loans will be involved.

Glenn, no argument there.

Robert, since the goal is to publish the papers in book form, and the publisher has to make back his expenses and pay his rent, plain ordinary Berne Convention copyright is the status of choice. Creative Commons is a very useful tool for some purposes, but as long as people who write and publish have to make a living, it's not a panacea.

Boy, you're welcome!

Twilight, some of the ideas that became part of the American democratic tradition were already in use by 1776; many others were still harebrained schemes in the minds of radicals; and of course it took quite a while after 1776 for the whole system to come together. It's an open question whether it'll be possible to get enough people aware of democratic process, and willing to give it a try, in time; still, I think the gamble's worth making.

John Michael Greer said...

St. Roy, thank you.

Richard, good. Half the point of this blog is to push the boundaries of its readers' thinking.

Mary, nicely summarized. The fact that we've got between one and three centuries before the Long Descent hits bottom does not mean that nothing will happen until then -- it means that the next one to three centuries, starting right now, will be a very rough road with many local and regional crises and disasters, any of which could hit at any moment.

SweaterMan, okay, that one just about got tea sprayed over the keyboard. Thank you.

Pundit, that's one of the reasons why introverts and harmless deviants in older times tended to go into monasteries, or take up one of the other options left open for those who didn't fit in.

Lee, you're most welcome!

Subgenius, and an "Ekke Ekke Ekke Ekke Ptangya Zing Ni!" to you as well. Though you're right, of course -- the bizarre notion that Obama deserved a Nobel Peace Prize while he was enthusiastically fighting two wars really rather robbed the prize of any meaning.

Ian, exactly. Democratic forms are far from perfect, but their high resilience makes it easier for people in democratic societies to tolerate dissensus. I've come to think that the totalitarian tendencies of the various autocratic regimes are simply a reflection of how very brittle and vulnerable such regimes are.

Joel, Rancière got the concept from Ewa Ziarek, who as far as I know invented it; her book An Ethics of Dissensus was my original source for the idea, though I took it in directions of which she, as a leftist, would doubtless disapprove.

Michelle, the problem is that more flexible rules tend to be bent to the breaking point by farmers, and others, doing what Hardin outlined and putting their personal advantage ahead of the survival of the wetland. Maintaining the commons requires doing things that are not in your own personal, short term interest.

Jack, oh, granted -- but people have been waiting for that sea change of mindset since about fifteen minutes after the dawn of time, and they're still waiting. Accepting the fact that people tend to be greedy and short-sighted when their own advantage is involved, and crafting limits that keep those habits from causing more damage than they have to, seems to work better.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

I agree with your point in general, especially your idea of "a political system that envisions its role as holding an open space in which citizens can pursue their own dreams and experiment with their own lives" I hope you go into more detail on ways of regulating commons that encourages it to actually function that way, instead of as a way for the big corporations and faraway agencies to impose themselves as happens too often currently.

Food safety regulations are a case in point. Many observers from both sides of the political spectrum have pointed out how so many of the regulations place a disproportionate burden on the smaller farmers and food processors. A giant corporation can easily buy the same expensive equipment and hire specialists to comply with regulations that are just too daunting for a start-up to deal with. Foodborne pathogens are certainly a real issue, but the number of people sickened or killed by then are miniscule in America compared to the health problems caused by the processed, denatured, chemical ridden modern American diet that the regulations encourage. Joel Salatin in "Everything I want to Do is Illegal" comes from a right/libertatian perspective and Sandor Katz in "The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved" from the left, but they both come to similar conclusions about food regulations, that as they exist now, they are one of the main impediments to a more sustainable, local food system.

One example that has been happening in my area is the shutting down of Morningland Dairy by the FDA despite the fact that nobody was ever sickened from their cheese.

After figuring this out, many take the libertarian position, but as you and others have mentioned, that has its own major problems, leading to the tragedy of the commons. I'm just wondering what your opinion of a way to regulate the commons that is most resistant to abuse by corporations and bureaucrats.

I see the nanny mentality that's in so many regulations as being a major impediment to the healthy dissensus that you're describing. I wholeheartedly support food ingredient labeling regulations and anything else that requires producers to be honest toward buyers and gives buyers the right to be as informed as possible about what they're purchasing. I don't support food regulations that prohibit people making their own informed choices about what we put into our bodies.

I feel the same way about a number of other things such as building codes. For some things however, informed choices do need to be more actively regulated, air and water pollution regulations for for example, even fully informed choices can lead to the tragedy of the commons. In those cases, I think the biggest impediment to a lively dissensus is that there's often more focus by bureaucrats on following specific procedures than on the actual results those procedures are supposed to obtain. Michelle's case of her and her neighbors' pasture is a case in point. Animals can certainly be destructive to streams. but some people have developed grazing systems where animals are rotated through areas with streams and have actually shown the streams to improve in quality with that management, which in some areas would not be allowed due to regulations. Some things such as toxic and persistent chemicals certainly need to be banned outright because of the extreme and irreversible damage they could cause, but if things like land use were regulated more by setting standards for water quality, and someone's innovative or unusual land use wouldn't be a problem unless it can be demonstrated to negatively affect the water (or the soil, in a truly sustainable society managing the land so it erodes away would not be someone's right, as the effects on that land are felt well beyond their lifetime).

John Michael Greer said...

Herb, thanks for the link -- I'll take a look as time permits.

Joseph, exactly. I'd put the same idea into systems language, and say that the purpose of government is to provide negative feedback in those situations where economic, social, political, and military phenomena tend to spin out of control if left to themselves. The mechanical governors you mention are a very good model for that function.

Librarian, that's the central lesson of this age of the world.

John, exactly. "Mutual coercion, mutually agreed upon" was Hardin's own formulation. In the Middle Ages, they didn't give it anything like as fancy a label, but you could be flogged and fined a hefty sum, which was normally payable not in money but in livestock!

Renaissance, I'd be delighted to see a Green Party pick up on the end of growth, and start explaining to people in so many words why they can't have the shiny future they think the universe owes them. In the short term, it won't win you friends, but then you're not going to get into office any time soon anyway; in the long term, as I commented back in The Long Descent, I'm convinced that the first political, social, and religious movements to face up openly to the implications of the end of growth and the twilight of industrialism will own the future.

Rita, excellent. Yes, I was thinking of the Enclosure Acts as well.

SLClaire, good. A commons, or a commons-like phenomenon, always involves private profit and public costs -- if you have both those two, you basically have a commons or the equivalent. The challenge would be to figure out when something is imposing previously unrecognized costs on the public sphere.

Jennifer, er, did you read my post? I thought I was fairly explicit about what counts as a commons.

Chuck, an excellent point. The ham community also is, or at least used to be, fairly good at policing its own -- another important quality for a well-run commons.

Escape, exactly. The notion that the unrestrained free market will somehow bring about Utopia is nonsense, and dangerous nonsense; it's flatly disproved by history; it's also not remotely a conservative idea. More on this later.

Jon, we can give it a try, and possibly fail, or we can convince ourselves that it can't work, sit on our backsides, and certainly fail. Take your pick.

John Michael Greer said...

Dowsergirl, that's another good example.

Ozark, the problem of regulatory capture (and thus the use of regulation as a means by which large companies prevent competition) is another common issue with democracies, especially once extremes of wealth enter into the picture. I'll be discussing one way to counter that in an upcoming post.

Betsys_Backyard said...

Lizzy, and all - for what it is worth- here is some of the books I use as reference,,,, and it is by no means "the word"
some of my pics for the following topics:
regarding Health and sanitation...
all by the Hesperian foundation Low and no energy or services for the following:
sanitation and cleanliness for a healthy environment
Where there is no Doctor
Where there is no Dentist
where there is no animal Doctor

the sanitation booklet is free the others for a modest fee at
For growing food sustainably and organically in a fossil fuel limited future: "Gardening when it counts, growing food in hard times" by steve solomon.
growing and saving seed of edible plants- "seed sowing and saving " by Carole B. Turner.
General living with less for Industrial world families- Books by Sharon Astyk.. She has a food storage and Preservation guide- most appropriate for Northern climates, Depletion and Abundance and Making home.. a woman/ Homemakers view of adapting to a low energy future.
"The easy art of Smoking Food" by chris Dubbs and Dave Heverle,

making your own solar food dryer, by Eben Fodor
and " Food drying at home" by Bee beyer.

Canning.. Ball blue book and many other info sheets available at your local cooperative extension service. Look into the Master Canner's Program!
traditional or as is said here in the South, "old timey" farm devices:
"old-Time farm and garden Devices and How to Make them " By Rolfe cobleigh, "Homemade contrivances and How to Make them, 1001 Labor saving devices for Farm, Garden, Dairy and workshop" by SkyhorsePublishing,
There are many more, as to making rope, noodling fish and turtles- my old teacher , Dave Eyster, used to teach some of this on "EdtoGo" a non-credit online class.
For wildcrafting for edibles and medicinal... there are many books out there. I most value books by Samuel Thayer- as he, like JMG, does extensive background, historical delving and extensive personal testing....into plants commonly used for food,,, and dispells some of the myths of SOME 'Toxic" plants but more so, explains what plants are easy, and abundant, ( and not to shabby to consume) and what plants are sparse and cannot be relied on to supply food the way many of the " forest farming" people may have one believe. I would love to hear all recommendations by others out there. Well, that is my shortlist..

latheChuck said...

Having just read today's essay before sitting down to dinner with my wife and 15-year old son, I asked both of them if they'd ever heard of "The Tragedy of the Commons". "... the Comments?" my wife asked. I explained the concept in a few words, then asked my son if he could give a modern-day example of a commons. His answer: "Social Security?"

He might be onto something there.

At first, I thought of the impact of (private) fraud on the (public) benefit pool, but later I realized that collective management does not ensure wise management. Short-sightedly greedy democratic action could just as easily lead to the exhaustion of the resource.

Regarding fisheries, we can take some comfort from reports that marine sanctuaries ("holy places") where fishing is forbidden can allow fish stocks to rebuild, and legal fishing can sustainably harvest those fish that wander out of the sanctuary. "Unlimited catch in a restricted area" seems to work better than trying to restrict the catch over all areas.

latheChuck said...

Re: radio spectrum. The International Telecommunications Union regulates, to some extent, the use of spectrum world-wide. The Federal Communications Commission refines and administers that regulation for the United States. Then the American Radio Relay League creates guidelines for cooperative use which are generally followed by US amateurs though they lack the force of law. And regional repeater coordination councils arbitrate specific frequencies for specific repeater stations.

Management of the commons can be hierarchical and distributed.

Silenus said...

Mr. Archdruid,

I strikes me that one of the reasons pursuit of self-interests has often been successful is that the classic examples of its success are Western Europe, the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea. In all these cases, as Noam Chomsky points out repeatedly (I don't have a video link or article handHiy right now), the self-interest of individuals was expressed within a larger organization: the state. It's not Soviet-style central planning, but the economic development of these nations was by means laissez faire. Chomsky also points out that the places where development wasn't organized by some overarching structure were places like Africa and South America - chaotic disasters.

It reminds me of a point by Joseph Tainter: complexity enables systems to function, and complexity is something like a sublation of organization (control), on the one hand, and diversity of structures on the other hand. These two properties are opposites, but together they generate systems that function (toward some implicit goal). Diversity of structures complicated interactions, but some kind of directedness is needed to point that interactions in a more or less clear direction. It's a sort of Unity of Opposites that enables continuity and change - change with a recognizable general direction.

I think of it like this. Imagine a string of symbols. If there is no pattern among different kinds of symbols, then the string is irrational. If the string consists of one kind of symbol, iterated over and over and over, then the string is trivial and uninteresting. The more layers of patterning are built into the symbol string (repetitions within repetitions, complicated functions relating distant parts of the string etc.), then the more complex it is - without becoming irrational.

Or, I think of it like this. Imagine a white background with black dots on it. If the dots are just randomly scattered, then you can't make much out of the image. If the dots are all equidistant in rows and columns, then there's organization, but of an extremely simple and uninteresting sort. However, if there are clusters of three dots forming something reminiscent of the angle points of triangles, clusters forming the features of other shapes, and these figures all relate in multilayered ways (patterns embedded within patterns), then you have a lot for your analytic faculties to work with.

The same goes for all systems, I think. The more that diversity can be balanced with organization, the more complexity you have. Given our energy limitations on this Earth, we won't have the same level of social complexity in the future as we have today. But to have any complexity, both organization and structural diversity are needed.

Silenus said...


Organization can be formal-legal and found in the state, or it can be implicit-communal and found in interpersonal bonds. In all civilizations, it's a mixture of both, since all civilizations are state-level societies (though the state has different varieties). If formal-legal control becomes too strong, there are deleterious effects; there is interpersonal atomization, isolation, and a tendency to totalitarianism. (See Erich Haberer's paper, "Intention and Feasibility: Reflections on Collaboration and the Final Solution," on the destruction of communal bonds in Soviet satellite states and how this increased the willingness of many regular people to participate in the slaughters carried out by the Einsatzgruppen.) If there is no formal-legal control, you can't organize a full-fledged civilization (just assorted tribes with tribal kingship systems at the most, which is sort of an intermediate type between acephalous forager bands and state-level societies).

What all this means in terms of implications for what we should do with our lives to make the future more tolerable, I'm not sure. We need some interplay between community and law, interpersonal bonding and formalized interaction, rules/organization and variety that those rules can channel, if we want to maintain a civilization of some kind.

It's possible to go the tribal route, but despite some people's advocacy of this, I doubt they'd want the real deal. Since we're all creatures of civilization, the sum of our behaviors in response to decline probably won't allow any rapid transition to tribalism (too much resistance to allow it very quickly). Such a change would take generations if it does end up happening in the long term, as people born into one way of life compromise more of it away, one step at a time.

Here's a talk in which Tainter discusses the organization/diversity interplay that generates complexity.

subgenius said...

Will you consider my apologies in the form of a nice new shrubbery?

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- I was glad to see the systems formulation you gave in response to Joseph. It resolved a perceived schism I was having a little trouble with. I was seeing government as having two functions -- to prevent the Tragedy of the (Unmanaged) Commons as well as preventing the Tyranny of the Majority (in its broad sense that includes Mob Rule, which does not require an explicit democratic process). However, that formulation encompasses both of these. I would use something a bit more detailed in place of "spin out of control;" such as "lead to unstable or immoral trajectories." Of course "moral" is a loophole you can drive a herd of camels through, being socially defined... but that is a (somewhat) different issue. But the point is, when a society has decided what is moral, and has identified the commons that need managing, then the role of government can be quite clearly delimited, reasoning from that simple starting point. I would note that empire building does not seem to fit within this definition no matter how you slice and dice it.

Anyone who is still unclear on what constitutes a "commons," just repeat to yourself "private profit common cost." "Profit" and "cost" do not have to be financial; you can think of them as "benefit" and "burden" if you like. If that pattern applies, then you have a commons. BUT... commons are not necessarily all fundamental entities that exist independent of society. When we as a society decided that hospitals must care for the sick whether or not they could pay, we created a healthcare commons that did not exist before (because we created a common cost). And we've been arguing about how to manage it ever since. Other commons of course are intrinsic in nature, such as the atmosphere.

John Michael Greer said...

Chuck, in ecology those are called
"refugia" -- places where living things can hide out from pressures that drive them to extinction everywhere else. They've played a major role in a lot of extinction events. I should probably do a post on that theme as we proceed.

Silenus, it's an interesting hypothesis, though I'm not sure it explains all the phenomena. In the cases of Africa and Latin America, the effect of what I've called the "wealth pump" -- the process by which hegemonic powers extract wealth from subject nations to bolster their own economies -- also had a huge role in the failure of development.

Subgenius, right. Off you go!

Bill, that's a good point -- the tragedy of the commons is only one way a society can get stuck in a positive feedback loop, though it happens to be the one that's afflicting American society most forcefully at the moment.

John Michael Greer said...

Ronnie (offlist), it was off topic. Please reread the paragraph above the comment box, especially the first sentence.

Loch Wade said...

The political options open to America, and please forgive me for being so pessimistic- are feudalism and fascism. From a peasant's point of view, what's the difference?

A commons can't be governed from Washington- when it is, it gets given to Weyerheuser or Rio Tinto.

If things fall apart suddenly, maybe, in the more remote sections of the nation, where people still remember the Constitution, their ancient religion, and some snippets of John Locke, some semblance of the rights of man can be maintained. In such a place, the old customs of maintaining a commons will be renewed and respected, for everyone will have to help one another. Abuses can only come from a conquering force, one that does not recognize the need for mutual assistance.

The Highland Closures began with the Acts of Union, followed by the FORCED DISARMING of the Scots clans. Soon, this was followed by the crofters driven off the land by force, so that the landowners, such as the Earl of Sutherland, could graze sheep.

This was no tragedy of the commons. It was the tragedy of the Imperial overlords. The overgrazing in this case came from the Lords evicting the people and using the land for their own gain.

Te Highlanders came to the Southern Appalachians, my ancestors and where I grew up.

The only rule that really works for the commons is local control via personal relationships between individuals, backed by the power of family or clan. Once the central government gets control, the commons is given over to the courtiers of the imperial regime. Today, these are known as banks and corporations.

It is interesting to me that in the wreckage of Glass-Steagal, the government bailed out the banks that destroyed the financial commons. This was NOT a defense of the commons. It was signal that the commons were to be consumed, and the crofters driven off.

A commons is based on a social contract. Such a contract is only as good as the intent of the most powerful member of that contract. The banks are a clue to the death of any social contract in this country. When I am forced to obey that contract, while others are free to violate it, it's every man for himself.

To the extent that the social contract is followed in my family and my community, I'll do my part. But woe to any outsider who comes in and tries to tell us how to run things. That goes for environmental NGO's, social workers, corporate reps, LMA's, or any other representative of the Babylon-government corporate vampire squid.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks, that is both a very good and factual analysis of fate. As a species we like to foist that responsibility onto others whilst going about doing whatever it was that we were doing.

You know, that article started me thinking about the basic economic problem (which for commenters is):

"It asserts that there is scarcity, or that the finite resources available are insufficient to satisfy all human wants and needs. The problem then becomes how to determine what is to be produced and how the factors of production (such as capital and labour) are to be allocated."

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the problem is framed in such a way as to neatly side step the issues of morality (or ethics) of those human wants and needs. It treats the problem as merely a production or allocation issue which seems to me to side step many issues raised in the article eg. externalities and their cost.

Something is tickling the back of my brain about this and I haven't quite gotten to the core of it, but it appears to me that if you ignore the morality of those wants and needs and treat them as simply a given (and possibly even a natural right), then you can promote the needs and desires of an individual over that of the common good?

In this light, it smells remarkably of a culture war to me. It had never occurred to me before that this was the case. Perhaps this is also why economics and progress is treated as a religion in itself?



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Phil,

Good question. One of the best bits of advice I received in relation to chickens was to get bantams (ie. smaller chickens). The reason for this is because they eat far less than full sized chickens and yet still produce mostly full sized eggs. Generally the yolk is the same size, but there is slightly less albumen.

The other bit of good advice was to have a few different varieties so you can cover egg production at various times in the year. Silkies lay eggs during autumn when no other breeds are on the lay. People are obsessive about Isa Browns over here. Australorps and Araucana’s do very well here though.

Anyway, a dozen chickens eat approximately 20kg of grains per week (plus kitchen scraps and whatever they forage) + some shell grit (for calcium). This costs me AU$19.50. The pelletised chicken layer feed is much cheaper, but I won't feed them this stuff on principle.

The dozen chooks produce on average about 6 eggs per day for the entire year. Laying is often higher here during winter and spring. In summer, over hot days they tend to go on egg strike, whilst others become broody (ie. they attempt to sit on unfertilised eggs!). In autumn they are regrowing their feathers which they lost over the summer heat so they generally go off the lay. Some of the dodgiest looking chooks are the best layers!

$19.50 feed / ((6 eggs x 7 days) / 12) = $5.57 per dozen

This doesn't include my time spent in supervising them free ranging, or any of the weather and fox resistant infrastructure (Chookingham palace!).

If they were able to free range longer each day, they'd require less feeding. Also, perhaps the drought has meant that they rely more on grains than fresh greens in the herbage (plus insects). Also, the sort of winters you get may mean that if they are not housed snugly then they may need far more grains and protein to keep warm.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Mary,

Thanks. I think they may see it as an issue for government, but as you point out it is actually an issue for individuals and communities.


Richard said...

JMG, just out of curiosity, are we going to be hearing about the principle of subsidiarity soon? Your admission of being a Burkean conservative brought the idea to mind, and it seems a good fit for the topic of government and organization.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Guilherme,

Oh my! Draining marshlands and undertaking work clearing vegetation out of creeks and rivers was (and is) a massive environmental disaster here. Those are the very points in the ecosystem where water is slow moving and hence gets to recharge aquifers. One must look at the whole ecosystem as each aspect of the environment plays a part.

Permaculture people are always banging on about swales and these have the same function in the environment. It is the main reason why my fruit trees (so far) are surviving the drought here.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Joseph,

Err, the attempted privatisation of social security in the US may actually be driven by the truly massive unfunded liabilities in the program. It is an attempt to get it off the government books...

There ain't enough money in the kitty bro! By the time I get to pension age, I reckon that it won't exist here - at least not in the form it is in now.

Social Security US

Just do a search on "unfunded obligation".


Cherokee Organics said...


As to your comments to Stu and Subgenius. 10 out of 10. hehe! Nice work. One of my favourites is, "'ere that's an offensive weapon that is."



Nathan said...


Thanks for this post. It is the first time I have encountered a discussion about the tragedy of the commons without it being framed by the conclusion that every bit of the commons should be sold or gifted to the highest bidder and/or campaign donor. In fact, I had come to believe this was Hardin's own conclusion, having not read the original article! Thanks for setting me straight on that.

The social dynamic around the tragedy of the commons is nearly as dualistic as our collective discussion about the shape of the future. One perspective says that it means that any commons - anywhere, ever - will be exploited and depleted. Therefore, private property is the only solution. The other perspective says that only sociopaths (or corporations) misuse common resources and the elimination of them will solve the problem cleanly and harmoniously. Both contain a kernel of truth, but both are colored by the heavy lens of unexamined mythology. Like librarian mentioned, the truth solution is the middle path of individual and collective self-discipline.

Bill Pulliam said...

Though I know you were just using a piece of very common terminology, and you understand this perfectly well, still I wanna point out:

In your final sentence you mention the left/right political polarity. The very notion that political philosophies can be placed on a one-dimensional continuum goes against the concept of dissensus. The political ideas you yourself express, for example, defy neat placement this limited spectrum.

Jason said...

JMG: In either case, though, the commons is being regulated and managed -- it's purely a matter of who does the regulating and managing.

Yes, obviously. I'm not trying to default to fuzzy/prickly arguments on "management" here. :)

What I'm saying is that Hardin didn't merely "propose government regulation", he implied there was no alternative to it. Leave the common man, his herd, and his common field alone, and tragedy was the result. Ostrom did "disprove" that, and the discussions about her "disproving Hardin" that I've seen were about that -- I haven't personally seen anyone suggest Ostrom obviates the need for management itself! That would be lunacy.

Ostrom also doesn't exactly say that "local communities and institutions can do the job at least as well". They are the only groups she looks at, and she says that government regulation often is the cause of commons tragedy by contrast. That's another sense in which she can be taken to contradict Hardin, at least to some extent.

Her conclusions seem quite in tune with a Burkean conservatism, which would see such systems, carefully built up over time, as worth preserving with all their idiosyncracies, because they work in the real world. Not only is each of her examples a perfect demonstration of that -- she also makes it quite clear those systems may not arise. Thus when they do arise, they ought to be treasured. There is no way to design an alternative ex nihilo that is guaranteed to work at all. Burke's Reflections contain many such arguments.

I hope this is clearer!

Tony Rasmussen said...

In response to this great point from 'escapefromwisconsin':
"The one thing that true conservatives get exactly right is that a commons should be managed by people closest to the resource - not some distant agency that is probably in the pocket of big business. If a town does not want fracking inside city limits, for example, it should have the right to make that determination."

I might go further and suggest that only the residents of the town can make that decision, and only they should be allowed to profit (significantly) from it. We need something like The Skin in the Game Act of 2013: The weighting of your vote about, and the amount of profit you are allowed to take from, any business venture are in direct proportion to your physical proximity to its operations / depredations.

If you want to try to get rich off an oil well, you must live directly adjacent; any leaks, spills, etc. will be piped directly into your living room. For those who clamor for more nuclear power: the waste must be stored in their cellars (or if they prefer, under their children's beds). If you make and sell food, you are required to eat of every batch you produce. The idea could be extended much further - though applying to our deep ocean fisheries will take some creativity - but enough for now.

Eduard Florinescu said...

I've seen that common pasture in practice when my grannies lived.

Because the hay for the winter is collected from the private property the numbers of the cow was pretty much the same, if you wanted more cows you just needed to buy or lend some private property.

And because the private property was fixed, and because it was risky to even go to the limit of own production in case of a heavy winter, generally people had animals way under their property capacity.
Not to mention the taboo against people wanting to overreach their quota.

Mark said...

JMG, I've been reading your site for a year or two now (and gone back and read many of your posts from before that). It was clear to me that you were well aware of Hardin's work but you hadn't (to my recollection) directly spoke to it. Thank you. The Hardin article has occupied part of my brain for some time now. I run a small solar installation company and I have asked all my coworkers to read the article and we've taken time to discuss it. Since reading Hardin's article, I see "commons" everywhere. Fisheries, atmosphere, the economy are the easy ones to see. How about Downtown? Lowes/BJs/HomeDepot/Walmart on the edge of town have destroyed many a downtown common. In my industry in Massachusetts, the solar incentives(profits) are starting to destroy the common called "solar industry credibility or reputation" (It also happened in the late 70s/early 80s when solar hot water tax credits were huge). They system dynamics are simple. Profit opportunities draw lots of new people to the business some, less than ethical business start up, do lousy work, make lousy products etc.., That affects the industry's reputation as a whole and makes it harder for any in the industry to operate.

I've concluded (and perhaps this is an overstatement) that destruction of one or more commons is a guaranteed outcome of growth oriented business practices (capitalism as we know it).


RPC said...

JMG: I used to send people like Lizzy to the Low Tech Library page at the Stormwatch Project, which seems to have sublimated (though I think I made a local copy somewhere...). Has it been subsumed into the Green Wizrds site or just...gone?
(My captcha is "ailsoul"!)

Joseph Nemeth said...

When discussing government and economics at a theoretical level, I think we have to be very, very careful with any contemporary examples, because they're skewed (hugely) by the enormous -- nay, stunning -- EROEI we've experienced in the past several centuries.

I'd go as far as to say (just for shock value) that both democracy and capitalism are fundamentally parasitic and as utterly unsustainable as the suburb, but exist and thrive for the same reason the suburb exists and thrives: an enormous EROEI.

I don't know if that's a true statement. My point is that it COULD BE a true statement, and we'd find it difficult or impossible to prove or disprove based on contemporary examples.

One thing I like about JMG's posts is when he jumps outside pop culture (in this context, anything since the discovery of the New World) and looks to other systems for examples.

Ian said...

@JMG: Burke! While I wouldn't call myself a Burkean conservative (oy, I think I hear Burke rolling over in his grave at the thought), his sort of conservatism is essential ballast for a healthy political and social life. The marginalization of that conservatism helped get us in this mess.

I swear, we go slow everywhere we need to go fast and fast everywhere we need to go slow, trying to sail a ship upside down ;-).

(I almost wrote 'counter-balance' instead of 'ballast'; that would have been grossly misstated. If you 'balance' the ship instead of steady it with ballast, it's just going to go under! The contemporary obsession with 'equal' time and always playing devil's advocate misses the mark on that.)

ando said...


Excellent! I imagine our situation would be much less dire if more religious leaders could engage in
Monty Python banter!

kuanyin said...


Long-time reader here who doesn't tend to comment online. This post pushed me over the commenting edge, however, mostly because it is one of the first times I have been left with a feeling of vague dissatisfaction (as opposed to enthusiastic agreement) after reading something you wrote.

So, in the spirit of dissensus, I will try to make my impression more specific. Basically, I found your discussion of the tragedy of the commons--as well as the idea of the rights to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness as commons--so intriguing and inspired that I was disappointed to see it end up with the familiar (not here but everywhere else)trope of U.S. government no longer being able to afford Medicaid and other "entitlements" it has undetaken. First of all because, while I agree that the imminent loss of imperial tribute will inevitably mean there are lots of things the government will no longer be able to afford to do, it seems to me that there is still such a huge amount of accumulated wealth in the country, that with the expedient of a merely slightly more progressive tax system, we can still afford to provide a minimal social safety net for awhile.

But secondly--and more significantly to this discussion--isn't the attempt to do so an attempt to manage/protect a commons? For instance, can't the health care system be considered a commons, which has been devastated by individuals/corporations (pharmaceutical companies, insurance companies, hospitals, clinics, doctors, medical schools, etc.) rationally seeking their own self-interest, so that at this stage, it is virtually impossible for an ordinary citizen on her own to secure for herself the benefits of this commons, i.e. pay for medical care if she is sick or injured. Aren't Medicare, Medicaid, "health care reform" etc. (woefully inadequate) attempts to regulate and protect this commons? Wouldn't a more comprehensive system (say, single payer) be a more effective way of doing so?

Curiously awaiting your thoughts!

P.S. I should add that your writings have influenced my life and thinking in the last year or two probably more than anyone else's. Thanks for all your great work!

Ceworthe said...

The problem with saying that SS Disability and SS Retirement is a problem because of it being an "Unfunded liability/obligation" lies in the reasons that it is "unfunded", i.e. that Congress raided the fund for other purposes. There is a myth in the US that the Baby Boomers are the big drain on SS, when in fact Baby Boomers paid extra in. It was funded, we just have been robbed. And yes, the attempt to day that we need to have retirement funds go into the gambling casino that Wall Street is, is a way to transfer funds from people to Wall Street. Anyone who realizes that Wall Street can and has crashed would be daft to bet their old age on it IMHO

Juhana said...

This model of catabolic collapse made by blog host shall probably play out in commons area also. Everything what can be used to extend period of current system will be used, however damaging it is going to be in the future. Collapse is going to be enormous, not just in the West, but around the globe. Slow death by thousand cuts, until the giant falls. Bryan Ward-Perkins has wrote book about fall of Creco-Roman civilization that brings to us example of this kind collapse from real history. What is striking about the fall of Rome is the collapse of material sophistication that followed. Roman world was not dissimilar to our own: it was complex economy, relying on complex networks of production and distribution. When these networks were disrupted largely and over extended period of time, the system collapsed. Quality of life and quality of thinking went down from the drain. The
Romans enjoyed benefits of complex economy, and leizure that comes naturally with it to some of us. And like us, they thought it will go on and on.
They were wrong, same way we are now. My opinion is that book is best analogy for our current situation that I have read.
Our values and our society are fragile and transient things, even if they look strong. Other systems have looked strong also in the past, and failed anyway. That is the lesson of history for us. And Joseph, democracy and republicanism are way older systems than industrial society. Democracies or republics of ancient Greece, Rome, medieval northern Italy or Hansa league towns of Germany had just very different flavour of people power than our current system has: it was not less real for that. There can be republican system beyond horizon of collapse that has just begun, it will just be very different from our entitlement/minority rights/political correctness-plagued system of present.

Juhana said...

@Lizzy: Where I live, we have these "institutes of working class" ("työväenopisto" in my native language). There people teach each other useful skills in institute buildings originally build and funded mainly by trade unions. Everything is done horizontally, by peer evaluation. Person who is skillful in traditional carpentry teaches it, person who is good with weaving teaches that. Students pay small sums of money for teachers, and evaluation is done by peer group. Whole original idea behind these institutes is to teach useful skills for poor and unprivileged, to civilize and teach them. But it is not done from above, but between equals, with no interference from those big players. You probably can't erect these big buildings that our trade unions have erected for this purpose, but you probably can rent some workshop/farmland once a week, and teach each other. Try to find as many persons as possible qualified in different skills, and then those persons teach others, who in turn teach new ones... I am quite active in this thing here, and it works amazingly well. Traditional carpentry has been very rewarding indeed, using old school techniques and tools. Why not give it a try over there? Teach each other, don't wait government to do it; it will not do it.

Jack None said...

I like that you take the time to respond to comments! You are the man.

No, I'm not holding my breath for a sea change in mindset. I wouldn't put it past evolution, though, on some long timescale. For the time being it would be foolish not to plan for primitive reactive thinking.

My main point was that government can't provide serviceable management of the commons when it is controlled by monied interests (the tragedy of climate change is a good example) and that I don't see us taking it back. We are too apathetic, and the monied interests too strong. They have thoroughly taken over the mind control apparatus. I suspect a series of crises will break the system down. The right question, and I think it's what you're asking, may be, What will grow in its place? Or, how do we nurture whatever grows in its place?

By the way, a common misperception about climate change is that its big punch will be sea level rise. A worse short-term effect may be a global food supply collapse and the resultant destabilization. Not exactly apocalypse -- but then what is apocalypse? -- but a deeply depopulating crisis.

Darn it, I sure sound like someone who believes in utopia or apocalypse. Have I learned nothing from reading several installments of your blog?

onething said...

Dear Kuan Yin,

I ran into this link a couple of days ago, possibly even on this site, and I think it cuts to the core of the problem, such as why we can't afford medical care for the common people, over and above what you have already deduced, which is that our entire system is essentially one of unsustainable usury, vilified throughout history for utterly valid reasons, and the continual large siphoning of the natural wealth of the people that it causes.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Juhana wrote:

"Where I live, we have these "institutes of working class" ("työväenopisto" in my native language). There people teach each other useful skills in institute buildings originally build and funded mainly by trade unions."

There used to be a good number of these in the United States, often called something like "Mechanics' Institute," complete with excellent technical libraries and workshops for teaching trade skills. A few of them remain, notably in San Francisco and New York. Worcestewr (Mass.) has its "Mechanics' Hall," now repurposed as a concert hall. There's no reason in principle why such institutes couldn't be revived or returned to their original purpose.

sgage said...

@ Juhana

You clearly have a solid point of view from which you write some thoughtful and heartfelt stuff. But I have problems with my eyesight, and it would be very helpful to me if you could break your posts into smaller paragraphs . I.e., hit the enter key twice between paragraphs, to get a blank line in there. I have a hard time with big monolithic blocks of text.

I spent some quality time in your country, back in the 80's. Did quite a bit of traveling all over the country, doing forestry research. My memories of Suomi are very dear to me.

John Michael Greer said...

Loch Wade, there's a substantial difference, even from the peasant level, between feudalism and fascism -- you might want to do some research into that. Nor do I buy your claim that those are the only options. Why is that sort of defeatism so common among Americans these days?

Cherokee, excellent! You get tonight's gold star; it's exactly the transformation of even the most frivolous wants into non-negotiable requirements that's a core driving force behind the mess we're in.

Richard, if you mean Schumacher's principle of subsidiary function, your crystal ball is in good working order. Stay tuned!

Cherokee, I'd consult the Book of Armaments first to be sure.

Nathan, exactly. It's perfectly possible to manage a commons successfully, and there are many things that are best managed as commons; it's just that everyone has to accept limits on their right to pursue their personal advantage, and that's something most people all across the political landscape don't like to talk about.

Bill, the difference between "the left" and "the right" is like the difference between J and K in the alphabet. It's far from the whole available range of options, but both viewpoints do exist -- and these days, in America, a good majority of people identify themselves as belonging to one or the other. Thus it's a social and cultural reality that needs to be addressed.

Jason, fair enough. I'll have to review Hardin's work more generally -- my recollection is that his broader analysis doesn't place so much stress on government regulation.

Tony, stay tuned!

Eduard, exactly. In traditional village culture, the barriers to overexploitation were sturdy indeed.

Mark, you're certainly right about local downtowns as commons. Your broader point is intriguing; it might be worth exploring the possibility that capitalism, in the strict sense of the term, depends on the exploitive privatization of a sequence of commons -- certainly a strong case can be made that its origins in 17th- and 18th-century England came right out of that process.

John Michael Greer said...

RPC, as far as I know that went away many years ago -- certainly I deleted the Earthlink account that hosted it a long time back.

Joseph, a case can certainly be made for capitalism as dependent on high EROEI, but democracy? There were various modes of democratic government millennia before fossil fuels were exploited; the US constitution, for that matter, was adopted at a time when fossil fuels made a miniscule contribution to the total energy use of the newly independent US. Your broader point, though, stands: it's crucial to assess any project for its viability in a world with a small fraction of the energy per capita today's Americans take for granted.

Ian, good! I certainly don't think everyone should be a Burkean conservative, either; a healthy political process requires people who want to push for change in various directions, as well as who are constantly saying, "Hold it, is that really going to work better than what we've got in place already?" BTW, "sailing a ship upside down" is a very nice summary of our current predicament!

Ando, granted. For that matter, strange women lying in ponds distributing swords might be a better basis for a system of government than the one we've got just at the moment...

Kuanyin, I'd make two points in response. First, I don't think you've really come to grips with the scale of the decline in national wealth that we're facing. A post-imperial and post-industrial America is going to have to get by on a tiny fraction of the abundance we're used to, and that's going to require hard decisions about what our priorities should be and what we can actually afford.

Second, it's always easy to point to whichever entitlement program you consider justified, and say, "Well, we can certainly afford this one." No doubt, but you don't speak for a majority. Everyone has their pet program, and by the time everyone has a say, government's back in the sugar daddy business and we have the situation we've got now, where most entitlement payments go to people who were never poor in the first place.

If the people of a community, a region, or a nation decide to provide health care for the poor or guaranteed pensions for the elderly, mind you, under a democratic system, they have every right to do so. There are many ways to do that which don't have the drawbacks of the current mess; I'll be talking about some of them in an upcoming post.

Ceworthe, interesting. The stats I've seen suggest that very few people on Social Security pay in as much as they can be expected to take out over the course of their retirements. If you have sources that show otherwise, by all means post a link. As for the stock market business, though, no argument there -- "lambs to the slaughter" is the phrase that comes instantly to mind.

Juhana, I've discussed that very book on this blog -- you'll find the discussion in this post -- and yes, it's a very good model for where we're headed. As for the työväenopisto you recommended to Lizzy, do you know of anything written about them in detail in English or French? (I read both languages.) That sounds like a potentially powerful tool.

Jack, I've made it a habit to answer comments here since the early days of this blog -- the conversations are useful to me and, I hope, entertaining to others. I think you're quite wrong to suggest that change is out of reach; it's a very common illusion in failing societies to think that nothing can change, and that can continue right up until the moment that change becomes unstoppable. A good history of the French or Russian Revolutions might be informative in this context. One crucial precondition, though, is that alternatives to the existing order need to be "in the air," part of the collective conversation of the time; that's one of the things this blog is trying to do.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, thank you! I can follow up on Mechanics' Institutes without having to figure out how to read Finnish...

DeVaul said...

Is there some possibility that none of the known and acceptable "isms" of today's political discourse will end up being our future?

What if there is no democracy nor totalitarianism after our collapse? Has anyone given any thought to that?

When our species is pushed to the very limit of survival on this planet, is it not possible that discussions about abstract theories will be considered a dangerous waste of time?

In a world where nearly everyone is attempting to just survive to the next day, "government" could very well be an unaffordable luxury.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Juhana, of course democracy and republicanism predate modern industrial society. My point was that you have to look to those earlier examples to make generalizations, because all of the modern democracies and republics sit atop an enormous EROEI.

It's the old engineering principle: with enough power, you can fly a brick. Our EROEI is high enough to make a brick hover in place, and build an opera hall on top of it. Our modern systems of government and economics are going to reflect that. They won't necessarily be valid templates for a lower EROEI future.

I said the thing about democracy and capitalism off-the-cuff, but as I think about it, I'd refine it to a question: has there EVER been a successful democracy of any sort that existed or came into being apart from a local EROEI peak?

I seem to recall that the Athenian democracy was built atop an unusually large and skilled slave class. The Roman Republic was the beneficiary of military conquest and tribute. The Florentine Republic pretty much defined the Italian Renaissance. Don't know much about the Iroquois Alliance, or other democracies prior to the sixteenth century.

So more formally, hypothesis: democracy cannot exist apart from an energy surplus. It should be simple enough to find a counterexample, if there are any, and disconfirm the hypothesis.

Robert Mathiesen said...


You're most welcome. I have always had a soft spot in my heart for those old Mechanics' Institutes, so I'm glad that Juhana reminded me to mention them here.

I think I'll have a look around now and see whether any of them have survived here in New England. If so, maybe even a 70-year-old shoulder to the wheel could help them out a little.

I suspect they will be as useful in the future as the Granges and the Masonic lodges. (There are still Granges here in New England, too, and Freemasons a-plenty.)

imaginer said...


Like the Arch druid I can feel my Celtic past. Nature is calling.

My journey connected me to another peoples journey, the Wampanoag Indians, and through my interaction with them, I have been and am discovering my true self.

I am a member of their tribe now.

However i am a member of the greater "American Tribe"as well.

Because of that and my hobby of studying social economics I have gravitated toward the Georgists - Geoeconomics.

Here is their simple model.

Christophe said...

From a historical perspective the appropriation of the British commons during the industrial revolution looks less like the work of so many disparately motivated industrial barons and more like government policy encouraging and rewarding the optimization of resource use by industry. Thinking about the privatization of the internet as a fencing in of a common good led me to wonder whether Google's oversized influence, Amazon's pricing out of competitors, Facebook's data-mining, and Hollywood's push for SOPA are merely components of a larger strategy. If so, what is the resource being seized today? The public marketplace? The public discourse? Yes to both counts, but there is also the continuous tracking of mountains of personal information.

Most of us never considered our opinions, habits, qualities, or circumstances to be public or commonly held. We knew they could be, and invested a fair amount of energy into keeping the personal from turning into the public. We now face a predicament where our personal lives are being made into a commons at the same time that that commons is being seized from us. This tragedy creates in us a dislocation too nebulous and relentless to fully comprehend or react against. Unlike the seizing of a public commons located outside ourselves, such as
the land, the market, the pulpit, the water, or the air, seizing information drawn from our personal lives seems to negate the very idea of having a personal (i.e. non-public) life. It calls our identity into question.

All the parallels I can think of in which one's personal life gets involuntarily stripped away involve servitude. Slavery, serfdom, serving time, serving one's country, and stardom (serving one's fans) are all exceptionally stressful states to have to live in. How can we cope with the stresses this constantly over-exposed lifestyle forces on us? What other commons is our personal information being used to privatize? The postal system is transformed into a junk mail distribution system. The phone network is transformed into a telemarketing network invading the peace and privacy of our homes. The banking system. . . let's not go there.

onething said...

Oh!! What happened to the link?

John Michael Greer said...

DeVaul, if the isms go away, what you get is the exercise of unrestrained power by whoever is smart, ruthless, and charismatic enough to get a bunch of bullies to work for him. That's not a future I'd like to live in -- thus my interest in seeing to it that the forms of democratic governance survive.

Robert, keep us posted. The Masons are undergoing something of a revival just now -- quite a few lodges I've visited have younger members, which is a welcome change over the recent past. I haven't heard how the Grange is doing, but I have high hopes.

Imaginer, it's not the Celtic past that drew me to Druidry, but a clear sense that a spirituality that places nature at the center of its system of values was the right path for me. As for Georgism, well, at least you get points for imagination -- it might be useful to see the current economic monoculture broadened by the addition of some of the alternative traditions of the not too distant past.

Christophe, as I see it, either model is an oversimplification of a complex historical reality in which a number of power centers cooperated to wreck, and then exploit, an old and stable system of land use.

Onething, that happens -- still, it got through this time!

Dwig said...

As one who's been following Ostrom's work for quite a while now, I was delighted to see this post! Thanks, John Michael.

For those who have the time and inclination to learn why she won the whatchamacallit prize, here's a couple of good starting points:

In "Governing the Commons" (1990), she covered quite a bit of ground and worked through aome all-too-common misconceptions about the commons, and reactions to ToC. She also laid out an excellent framework for research into the subject. She then gave examples of long-lasting commons, and those that failed. Based on such examples, she proposed a set of principles for systems of governance ("institutions" in her lingo) of a locally managed commons. I found a decent summary at, which includes the principles.

(By the way, she called the commons she and her colleagues studied "common pool resources". Such resources have two characteristics: they're difficult to exclude "free riders", and they're subtractive, in that a resource unit taken by one person is unavailable to others.)

Although she's co-authored and -edited several volumes, I think her last sole authored volume is "Understanding Institutional Diversity", which includes a lot of assertions that she'd become comfortable making. In particular, the principles she proposed in "Governing the Commons" have been well borne out by subsequent research. She uses the term "complex adaptive systems" several times in describing both the commons and the institutions developed to govern their use.

She also discusses institutional change at length, including the ways it can come about. The underlying major point is that there is no one-size-fits all "right" set of rules, that the rules need to be created (and evolved) by those with the best knowledge of the local situation and ecosystems; thus the need for institutional diversity, and for governments to recognize and support it. This leads her to consider "polycentric" systems for managing larger CPRs, and interacting systems of CPRs. Her last chapter is titled "Robust Resource Governance in Polycentric Institutions". I think it's worth quoting part of the last paragraph of that chapter:

Norms of reciprocity and trust are necessary for the long-term sustenance of self-governing regimes. Norm alone, however, are not sufficient to support individuals facing the temptations of social dilemmas. Rules that are fair, effective, and legitimate are necessary complements to shared norms for sustaining self-governing institutions over time.

Finally, rereading her work reminded me of the importance of testing one's theories and models against actual real world examples, and using such examples to give rise to new theories and models. (I've sometimes wondered if Hardin, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, ever talked to anthropologists, sociologists, or political scientists there to find out about successful stakeholder-managed commons, of which there have been thousands.)

Steve Morgan said...

"Mark, you're certainly right about local downtowns as commons. Your broader point is intriguing; it might be worth exploring the possibility that capitalism, in the strict sense of the term, depends on the exploitive privatization of a sequence of commons -- certainly a strong case can be made that its origins in 17th- and 18th-century England came right out of that process. "

Mark's point about local economies and your response kicked off an odd thought in the cobwebs upstairs. Applying the concept of the commons to the industrial economy as a whole showed one whopper for me: the purchasing power of the middle class.

Since the mythical days when Hank Ford discovered that he could increase demand for cars by paying his workers enough to afford them, the fast cycling of money wrought by the middle class has been a commons for the US industrial economy. Rising wages increased sustained demand for every company's output. On the other hand, each company netted more profit if it paid its workers less but sold products to those who made more money working at other companies. Carry the latter trend far enough and we end up where we are today on our way to an even more anemic middle class in the coming years (i.e. a degraded "commons" for all businesses seeking to graze). The various credit bubbles and the return of overproduction are the patches of denuded pasture in this case, along with the personal and social crises of poverty, homelessness, and malaise.

Of course, the government has thrown every trick in the book at maintaining this commons, from handouts to bailouts to spinning the presses. The hard reality is that this commons relied on many other much more finite and temporary conditions to prop it up as long as it has been. The Walmarts and other big pox stores are the most recent, obvious examples, hawking corrupted products at inflated prices while paying their workers little enough to qualify for food stamps and medicaid. This trend has been with us for much longer than that, though (with a tip of the hat to Paul Blumberg).

Another trend I see is the cannibalizing of future capital in extreme end-of-life "care" expenses. It used to be common for people to use inheritances to start businesses or carry on the family company/farm/etc. These days there are plenty of people expecting to die and leave nothing behind, as heroic medical interventions and expensive elder living arrangements siphon off the last equity of those who would, in another time, have died of "old age" at home. It's not just those "out spending the grandchildren's inheritance" who won't be contributing to the next generation of entrepreneurs.

All that said, I really appreciate the interpretation of the founding documents in this way. It seems right in line with how many of the original colonies were designated as Commonwealths.

realitybitesback said...

Hi JMG, I'm a long-time reader - though I've only scratched the surface of your archives, alas.

I'm observing imperial collapse from a distance (though I wouldn't call it a safe distance) over here in Oz (yes, another one!). I guess it would be more accurate to say I'm observing from the periphery, since Oz is undoubtedly (as you've mentioned) part of the imperial system. It seems to me we've gotten a very cheap ride so far and somehow I think a price will come due in the fullness of time … or perhaps a bit sooner.

I'm a physicist and I wanted to add my voice to others to assure you that many scientists would be interested in your views. It helps that you seem to rely heavily on reasoning and evidence, notions that become ever more unfashionable as the celebrity-o-sphere approaches peak vacuity and hurtles toward its very own designer-sculpted cliff.

I've had numerous conversations with friends that go something like this.

Me: "There's this guy with a website who has the most coherent and comprehensive view of what's happening in the world of any that I've seen. He's also a terrific writer, one of the best online - or anywhere actually."

Friend: "What's the website?"

Me: "It's called the Archdruid Report"

Friend: *raises eyebrow*

Me: "... and that's because he's an actual Archdruid"

Friend: *confused look*

Me: " … no really, he's an actual, real Archdruid who just happens to write about peak oil etc …"

The conversation then drifts into an exchange of what little we each know about druidry (not much at all) but the interesting thing is that after an initial confusion where they are not sure I'm being serious, the response has always been a mixture of positivity and curiosity.

For whatever reason, the low profile that druids have seems to be a positive one in the deep cultural memory.

The specific reason I went so far as to get an OpenID and fought through the anti-robot defences is that you mentioned that a lot of today's faux conservatives were Trotskyists in the past. I'm guessing you've seen Justin Raimondo's extensive writings on that topic (at, but I thought I'd mention them in case you haven't.

John Michael Greer said...

Dwig, I've only read a little of her work, but was very impressed by it.

Steve, excellent! That gets you a gold star. Curiously enough, I was mulling over that this afternoon: the purchasing power of the general population is a commons, and while it makes economic sense for each individual business to cut wages and replace employees with automation, if everybody does that long enough, there will be nobody left to buy the products that the businesses survive by selling.

Reality, you got two copies through the robots! Thank you for the feedback. I've been bemused, and often baffled, by the degree to which people are willing to listen to an archdruid who writes about peak oil. Thanks for the reference to Justin Raimondo's work, which I haven't read -- I'd run across a number of scattered references to the number of neo(pseudo)conservatives who were part of the New Left back in the Sixties, and then simply switched sides, adopting every stereotype they'd angrily projected on the capitalists as their own new identity. It's a nice cautionary tale about what happens when you make your life rotate around something you hate: no matter what emotions drive you to do so, what you contemplate, you imitate.

Juhana said...

I did quick search for written stuff about these learning institutes, but could not find anything meaningful in English. It is same thing as with Russian language; so much information is lost between language groups (Slavic, Germanic, Finno-Ugrian etc.), even in world of today. Basic idea is similar to what Robert described; if I remember it right from history books about Finnish trade unionism, it was Finnish immigrants who erected many of those buildings in USA, honouring homeland tradition.

Basic history in nutshell: trade unions started to build these "houses for working people" during 19th century. They were made after work hours by union members, and every union member had to donate money for construction materials. Actual work was done by members themselves. These wood buildings served as meeting and teaching places; will to get more knowledge was enormous among working people.

When unions got more money and their position in our society came accepted as one estate out of three existing ones (elected government of people, employer organizations and trade unions held official meetings laying binding plans for economy to three-five years ahead last time in beginning of this millennium)they build bigger and better equipped institute houses. There you have actual workshops and small libraries concerning specific trades to help people to learn.

Formula is simple: start an association; every member has to give in money and time; rent or build a space for your learning purpose; buy old machinery and tools (they can be old, because you don't have to meet any production quotas); agree to gather in that space one to three times a week during your free time. Qualified teachers are best found through your own personal and family networks, don't trust advertising; he/she must be one of you, not some outsider.

Considering Bryan Ward-Perkins' book; it is small world indeed :).

Juhana said...

@Robert: If you are over 70 years old, I have to give big applause for you. That kind of activity is great to "see", even through internet conversation! Over here, association and union learning groups are not thing for elderly only; there are many twenty-something participants, while most participants are middle-aged. I am way under forty years old myself, so while not young, I do not consider myself old either. So participatory associations are not thing of the past even in the West; even if my own nation cannot be seen purely as Western nation, we are more like somekind unique illegitimate offspring between western and eastern influences, if being honest counts.

phil harris said...

I agree that @Steve Morgan has it about right concerning the 'positive feedback' loop inherent in, and provided by, ‘Fordism’ and the enlargement of American middle-class consumerism.

In Britain a similar trend was constrained for two or three extra decades by having a smaller resource base and by the remaining 'imperial' instinct to keep wages low and siphon maximum profit from labour, trade and resources. For a while though, we have also bought the bland ‘happy consumer’ nonsense. In order to maintain this consumerism a last gasp attempt here has been to subsidise 'low wages' and to force ('encourage') people to work at anything, however inherently un-remunerative, and to thus reward ‘employers’ with low-wage labour. This 'softy' approach is being rapidly stripped of state subsidy as we revert more to the old plutocrat model.

You have pointed out before that the 'Henry Ford' approach to creating the consumer society ran into trouble sometime in the 60s when USA became a net-importer of crude oil, and this strategic problem was reinforced when US native oil production peaked at its all-time high in the early 70s. This forced America to rely ever more on its post-war military and trade hegemony to provide the vast tribute barges you still 'need'.

Europe and Japan could maintain similar trade privileges within the system. Matters eventually unravel in a competitive world though.

So it goes.

Jennifer D Riley said...

My question is the Commons of the future: agricultural or other? Yes, the agricultural based commons is probably coming back in places like Detroit. Plowing up asphalt and returning roads to gravel returns to commons and decreases government oversight at the same time.

But to me the Internet may be moving toward Commons status.

John Michael Greer said...

Juhana, thank you for the additional info! This is definitely something I'll be tracking down.

Phil, exactly.

Jennifer, please reread my post. You've apparently missed the entire point of it, which is that the logic of the commons extends to a very broad range of phenomena.

Terry (offlist), I'm still trying to decide if your comment is spam or you simply didn't get around to mentioning how it relates to the subject of this post. Please try again.

Juhana said...

@JMG: I have to clarify couple of terms for you, if you are digging into them. Those "houses of working people" are called "työväentalo" here. Proper translation for English is probably "people's house" (?) I guess.

Movement to build these houses was extremely strong in my country back in the days, and transported by immigrants to USA for sure. Houses were build and owned by working class associations (työväenyhdistys), which were joint operations between trade union chapters and either Social Democratic or Communist party.

There was long and disorderly covert "battle" between Social Democrats and Communists about which one controls trade unions. History of this "battle" is boring soup of events where poor people stabbed other poor people to the back for some esoteric differences in their political views. I am typical member of "younger" generation of workers in the way that I have turned my back completely to both of these failed leftist traitor parties, while I still believe in trade unions.

That's why I have bad habit downplaying party involvement in older history of working class movement. So, if you dig deeper into history of learning associations of working people, just throw to dumpster all information about mindless political battles and concentrate on the positive side of events: learning, teaching and elevating people away from poverty by teaching them skills to rely on.

This was probably quite useless rant from me, but I feel obliged to offer you this background information if you are looking deeper into the subject. Every seeker must have as good background information as possible, even if large parts of information are boring and useless.

@sgage: Nice to hear that you enjoyed your stay here! I have tried to follow your advice about paragraphing, hope it is easier to read now.

Ceworthe said...

JMG, I was not arguing that Boomers are going to get more back, just that we paid more in. Of course SS is not unlike regular insurance-it's a bet that not all will use it or use much of it. My point is that the "commons" of the SS fund has been raided by Congress (well, in exchange for US Bonds that is supposed to be put back in if the fund gets low, the money from which we are about as likely to see as China is) Will cite sources and other points later as I have an engagement soon.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG - The US is a singularly poor example of democracy developing apart from high EROEI.

The big wealth pump that modern society depends upon started in the 1500's, with the discovery and exploitation of the Americas by the Europeans. Silver mines in South America flooded Europe with new silver, to the point of driving inflation. The Potosi mine in Chile flooded China with silver and brought enormous trade wealth to Europe via Mexico City. The potato changed food production throughout Europe and allowed for a big spike in population. In the American colonies themselves, resources -- arable land, timber, water, game -- were plentiful and readily available with the help of a few guns to drive the natives -- their numbers already reduced by pox and plague -- off the land. And then, there were the slaves -- not merely African, but also Chinese -- which certainly count toward a relatively high EROEI.

When you think of someone snapping their fingers and making things happen, our first (modern) thought might be industrial technology, but roll the clock back a century and the first thought is slaves. When the basis of slavery is fraudulent -- promised wages you never plan to pay -- and the bonds are at least partially enforced by vast oceans and control of the ports and ships, energy invested is extremely low.

By the end of the 1700's, the Western world was a VERY wealthy place, and while it hadn't yet discovered the next spike -- oil -- EROEI in Europe and the European colonies in the Americas was, in pre-industrial terms, huge.

My intuition is that democracy relies upon high EROEI and can't exist at all in the shadow of imperial catabolism. It requires the basic idea that the other guy has a right to exist, and therefore to eat. During catabolism, there will be instances where there isn't enough to go around, and the thought will go through everyone's mind -- how nice it would be if that horrible person over there just didn't exist. Jawboning in a parliamentary procedure with a competitor for survival just doesn't seem very likely to me.

So it would set my mind at rest to see an example of democracy holding on during cultural catabolism, or failing that, forming during really hard times.

Terry Mock said...

JMG states:

"The hard work of rebuilding a post-imperial America, as I suggested in last week’s post, is going to require the recovery or reinvention of many of the things this nation chucked into the dumpster with whoops of glee as it took off running in pursuit of its imperial ambitions. The basic skills of democratic process are among the things on that list; so, as I suggested last month, are the even more basic skills of learning and thinking that undergird the practice of democracy.... There are plenty of ideas about politics and society in circulation on the fringes of today’s American dialogue, to be sure. I’d like to suggest, though, that there’s a point to reviving an older, pre-imperial vision.... of the future."

Here is "fringe idea" that is "an older pre-imperial vision" for your consideration:

Breaking New Ground: How George Washington’s Land Development Ideas Shaped Sustainability

We need to be reminded of the rich history and traditions that have made our country the world’s greatest nation in so many respects. And this grand, historical venue makes it particularly fitting to look at the inexorable connections between the history of our country, the history of our industry, and the individual who – over 230 years ago – possessed the land development experience, vision, and leadership that would ultimately make not only him the richest American of his time, but also a sustainability practitioner whose land development professional life provides important lessons from which to learn even today.

Land development professionals have played a central role in helping to make our country the great nation it has become, and when you look at the history of our industry in America, one is hard pressed not to conclude that George Washington, the Father of our Country, also grew to become what can only be described today as the Father of our own land development industry, as well as a visionary prophet of sustainability.

This side of George Washington has not received much attention in the annals of our history books, but it was a central part of his life. His groundbreaking accumulation of land assets and visionary perspectives made him the most accomplished professional during the volatile beginning stages of our economy’s development. George Washington played a bigger role than any other to make it possible for industry professionals to achieve the great accomplishments we’ve made since the birth of our country.

George Washington’s land development experiences are numerous: surveyor, land speculator and developer, urban and regional planner, architectural designer, landscape designer, horticulturist, and ecosystem restorationist, just to name a few. His diversity of experience gave him an industry perspective that few others have ever had before or since.

Sustainable Land Development Initiative

repo said...

The politically correct name these days for Työväenopisto is Kansalaisopisto ("Citizens' Institute"), translated into English as "Adult Education Centre", apparently. Although the website of their umbrella organization does acknowledge that they were once known as Workers' Institutes, and in Finnish the old name lingers on. The information available in English seems to be sparse, but there are similar concepts in many other countries.

Like Juhana, I'm taking a shop class at one. The space is a school workshop, and the instructor is a shop teacher by day, though supposedly instructors who are also full-time teachers are a minority. He's there for support, but beyond that we're free to work on our own projects and make use of the tools and machinery. The price is about 80 euros for two hours every week for around 20 weeks (well, that plus taxpayer subsidies -- apparently the instructors are paid quite decently now, though it was originally on volunteer basis, as Juhana says).

For someone looking to start up something similar from scratch, a local school that still offers shop class, art class, et.c. would seem like an obvious candidate for finding a space. If it helps build support in the community for actually retaining these unfashionable classes for the children as well, all the better. Or at least you might get first dibs on the used workshop machinery, once it's done away with. :)

The recent popularity ofhackerspaces suggest to me that there's definitely a demand for something like this in many places around the world, even though hackerspaces tend to focus on computers and electronics. There's obviously no reason to limit yourself to technical or practical subjects either -- languages, civics and classes on general subjects are perfectly possible too, and less problematic in terms of finding a space.

phil harris said...

@Cherokee Organics
Thanks for the costings for egg production. When we look at the inputs of feed that are needed. It gives some idea of the true cost of a steady supply of eggs. When I was a child in WWII Britain, eggs were strictly rationed - only dried-egg powder was imported. All fruit and veg imports, which had been a big feature pre-war and are now again, of course, were stopped for the duration.

Dwig said...

Following up on Ostrom's words about "Norms of reciprocity and trust":
She mentions in the book that these norms underly any successful institution. These qualities, however, are not easy to come by; the principles she lists are, in some part, important in creating and maintaining them.

Going a bit further, I have a working hypothesis: every community is created to manage and promote one or more commons. The reciprocity and trust needed to successfully do this are also what creates the social capital that's the "currency" of a strong community.

John Michael, do you plan any posts on the subject of community?

Rocco said...

A friend who contributes to a blog that deals with political matters described to me the frustration he has in dealing with people who respond to his writing in ways that are off-target, insulting or just a waste of time. Part of my reply to him follows. In writing my thoughts, I realized that I had answered a question that I hadn't even realized was there: What is it about The Archdruid Report that keeps me coming back week after week? I mean, after all, your weekly essays are essentially variations on the same theme, so what is the continuing attraction?

My message to my friend about you and your blog seems to spell out something important that separates you from the usual crowd. This is off-subject certainly, and you may choose not to post it, but I send it on to state again my admiration for what you have created here.

"We've talked a bit over time about the pitfalls of trying to have worthwhile communication with strangers in cyberspace, and, from where I stand, it seems that the difficulty of getting past this roadblock of communication has to do more with this peculiar medium of communication than it does an actual conflict of ideas. One of the reasons I continue to read and think about the Archdruid Report is that the author has set his forum up pretty much as a dictatorship in cyberspace. What matters first and foremost is what he puts down in his weekly essay. Readers are welcome to comment and he replies to most (very briefly in most cases), but he reserves the right to refuse to post comments that do not conform to a set of rules that he makes clear. His rules seem very reasonable to me, but the reason I keep reading is because he writes well and because his ideas make sense. At the same time though, the rules give a sense of safety and predictability to the discourse and allow consideration of the ideas to remain primary. Arguments among readers and arguments between readers and the author of the blog, while occasionally interesting and enlightening, are always secondary to the ideas that have been the theme of the blog from its beginning."

Robert Mathiesen said...

On Mechanics' Institutes in New England: First Report.

In Rhode Island there seem to have been only two significant organizations of this sort, one in each of the two co-capital cities of the state, Providence and Newport. Each of these "Associations of Mechanics and Manufacturers" was organized as a philanthropy by some of the wealthiest men of the city, and governed by them, not by small craftsmen and ordinary mechanics. Thus neither one of them was really a typical mechanics' institute at all. Nor could these less wealthy citizens participate much in public life at all; they did not, with rare exceptions, gain even the right to vote in elections until 1842.

Because of this, neither Association outlasted the "Gilded Age" of American history, when the elites began to use and publicly display their wealth in other, less philanthropic ways. By the time of its demise, neither Association seems to have had very many members at all. The dates of the Associations are 1789-1878 (in Providence) and 1792-1887 (in Newport).

The excellent, very large library of the Providence Association was given to the newly formed Providence Public Library, which despite its name was -- and still is -- a private institution not answerable to the city or state government. The smaller library and the other property of the Newport Association was given to the Newport Historical Society, another private institution.

The Providence Engineering Society claims to be the successor of the old Association, but there was a hiatus of sixteen years between the two, and almost from its beginning the latter society was comprised almost entirely of professional engineers.

More on other New England states to follow . . . The other states were far more democratic than Rhode Island at the time, so mechanics' institutes in them had a different history.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Certainly there is a small Masonic revival going on in Rhode Island right now, with younger men joining the lodges. The Granges in the state, mostly in its more rural towns, seem to have had more members, and younger ones, than the Lodges throughout the second half of the 20th century.

Cherokee Organics said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
sgage said...

@ Juhana,

Yes, your paragraphing is completely clear now. It may not seem like much, but it really helps me follow your very interesting posts.

My time in Finland was very important to me. I was visiting a family that I had had gotten very close to while they were in the States - my Finnish friend was in grad school with me, and had brought his wife and two children over with him for a couple of years.

When it was time for them to go back home, I drove them to the airport, and there in the airport they made me promise to come and visit them. So I did.

I presented some of my forestry research at the University of Helsinki, and then we (Jyrki, Markku and I) headed out on a long road trip right up the east side of Finland, up into Norway, and back down the west side, all in the pursuit of Jyrki's research.

That was in 1988, and I still think about it, and all the wonderful people I met, including many of Jyrki's Sami friends.

OK, I don't want to get too off topic here, but people, if you EVER have the chance, visit Finland!

cgeye said...

Is it a wonder that the most popular reality series are those featuring men demonstrating the most masculine feats, while extracting the last common natural resources? Gold mining, fishing, hauling goods on Alaskan ice roads, as well as mining treasures in storage sheds, hoarders' houses, distressed real estate sales? Well, the last few formats can feature less masculine men, and women, since the risks to life and limb are fewer.

It's remarkable that even the shows that are upbeat -- Undercover Boss, Extreme Makeover (which used to be a plastic surgery show) -- are also based on a scarce resource (a good job, a stable, paid-for home) running out, and networks providing corporate intervention, to access. It's as if culturally we already know the truth, but legislatively play along with the liars, because they're paying a tiny bit of their profits to sustain the ritual of denial.

Ray Wharton said...

This talk about työväenopisto has me buzzing for more information. The idea is very similar to what I am trying to set up in Colorado, as far as I can tell, especially the way Juhana describes it.

My current project is to work toward having "houses for working people" set up as a center for a school.

First step is to start some small businesses with the tools in our garage. Fire mitigation jobs opened up by the effects of climate change, fire suppression, and dumb home placement. Did volunteer work all day with a community in one of the valleys which has been under extreme fire danger for years, got some leads on a few paid contracts. My roommate and regular co-conspirator also teaches chainsaw professionally, so we are considering how to get our feet wet with schooling by teaching local communities to work together as crews to put in their own fire breaks. Tomorrow following a lead on a teacher we could learn more wood working skills from to skid, mill, and manufacture goods with the thinning and beetle kill logs. I am looking at techniques to use the slash from thinning over grown forests to improve the water retention and soil health of the forest, never shake a stick and an opertunity to decompose a stick!

I wish my first response could be an ecovillage, or something equally granola, but gotta work with the skills in the circle, and 10 years saw and fire experience is worth building on during a time where fire danger is the defining threat of inter-mountain collapse.

Also working on a xeriscaping business in town. We have the equipment and a landscapering teacher with a good reputation in the field interested in guiding its development. I have some background in landscaping, and am debating how best to market services for a landscaping service that focuses on using organic farming techniques to make a low maintenance low input yard that still looks good enough for the HOA.

Ray Wharton said...

There are a couple other business ideas floating around our group, but the general idea is starting our own small businesses mapped onto filling specific needs in our area which are being opened by the general roughening up of things, sharing overhead as a sort of 'commons' among a few close nit people who all go to meetings for both planning and to share ritual space together.

Now we are using Buddhist rituals one of our teachers is quite versed in deterritorialized from Monastic community techniques. I have been practicing some techniques from AODA which may fill other niches which Buddhism leaves open, though only the most basic practice has been happening recently, I haven't been able to really think about it as I would like while my head is buzzing with the occult study of LLC and 501 (c) craziness. Hopefully that is past and I can return to meditating on Circle of Protection more diligently soon.

There is no shared religious background among my friends, but the use of non dogmatic ritual in community is something most are taking to quickly, for reasons similar to the use of toilet paper. Not using it leads to itchiness, social in one case and more literal in the other. I recommend thich nhat hanh's 'flower watering ceremony' as a good place to start if you have a few friends to work with regularly

It also helps to focus on good intentions, really trying to help people and work together. Not to sound all sunshine and lolly pops, but that really makes a difference. Throwing out a real olive branch (sometimes in the form of 10 hours hard manual labor) gives the cred needed to get people working together, to be able to bridge folks from different politics, backgrounds, and generations. Working class people on the right are helping me learn about the nuts and bolts of running as a small business in a depressed economy, and retired blue state professors are helping with running educational organizations and non-profits which will be part of a future step. Then I spend a lot of time talking to young folks like myself who have been kicked out of the industrial economy by the debt-system, many are in bad straights. As my wwoofing experience proved to me some are HAPPY to work hard and smart for little material rewards (hippie stew every night and a place to put my tent got 60 hours a week out of this wwoofer a couple summers ago) if they can be learning something useful, and have a loving fun place to be. If these groups were scratching each others backs alot of good could happen.

wiseman said...

A friend who contributes to a blog that deals with political matters described to me the frustration he has in dealing with people who respond to his writing in ways that are off-target, insulting or just a waste of time

I believe a part of the problem is internet itself, there's just so much to read here that people don't bother to comprehend anymore, they just skim through. I am guilty myself.

Everyone also gets a lot of tips on how to argue from mainstream media which is a tragedy, since most of it is entertainment not debate.

realitybitesback said...

Here in Australia, I've seen buildings that looked about a century old, for example in country towns, called "Mechanic's Institute". I never had any idea what they were or had been used for. Now, thanks to Juhana in Finland, the mystery seems to have been solved. I wonder if the idea spread from Finland to the US to Oz, or maybe via the UK? Fascinating stuff.

So a quick google search led to this:

Evidently some of these are still going in some form or another ...

Leo said...

Just saw this, given that they get about 5-10% of the vote, i'd say that idea is slowly coming in from the fringe.

Also the shale hype will possible be reaching Australia, they just found between 3.5-233 billion barrels near cooper pedy. Unfortunately its all shale.

CGP said...

Under the system of government you have outlined 1) would there be any social safety net (e.g. payments for students from disadvantaged backgrounds to seek education/training) 2) government investing in research and development and infrastructure 3) a progressive federal income tax (or any federal income tax)?

geovermont said...

JMG, thanks for drawing my attention to Garrett Hardin's article. I've heard of the idea of "the tragedy of the commons" for years, but had never actually read the essay. I'm going to be passing the link around to friends and colleagues as I think it might be a good catalyst to get discussions going on the topics that you cover here.

Lizzy brought up the subject of " all-encompassing manual... " covering the skills she'll need in the future. The reply from Betsys_Backyard listed some great suggestions and this reminded me of the big issue that you've brought up many times regarding how we can pass on critical information to the future. Another commentator on this topic reminisced about playing the game about what ten books to take to a desert island. Well, it sounds like a game, but we're increasingly realizing that this is probably in earnest.

It turns out that there is at least one already completed project that has gathered a vast set of manuals and guides together in one package. You may already be familiar with it, but I only recently came across it. It's called the Appropriate Technology Library (also called the Appropriate Technology Microfiche Reference Library) and it's available from the Village Earth website . It's a collection of about 1,050 books and pamphlets on an incredible range of subjects. The original version was on microfiche and was intended for distribution to "Third World" countries. It's now available as sets of CDs or DVDs and there are at least a couple of sites on the web where the documents can be downloaded for free. The titles range from classics such as "Where There is No Doctor", "Putting Food By", and Weygers' "The Modern Blacksmith" to "Solar Drying: Practical Food Methods for Food Preservation" and "Raising Healthy Poultry Under Primitive Conditions."

The best website that I have found for the downloads is a very strange one: , which is a website devoted to helping people prepare for the putative arrival of "Planet X" and the attendant geophysical disruptions (this supposed disaster is surely a candidate for yet another of your "End of the World" essays if you didn't already cover it). I would guess that as time goes by and no Planet X appears, the operators may eventually abandon the operation (or, of course, recalculate the date). As the current prediction is for sometime early this summer, it might be advisable to check out these files soon. The Pole-Shift organizers have added many other files, including a number of GoogleBooks downloads and website downloads. Their site is well-organized, but there are so many files and many are quite large, that it's hard to browse through and separate the wheat from the chaff.

How we go about preserving this is a great question, which I sure don't have the answers to. There's over 13 gigabytes of pdf files in the library. However, it is quite a mixed bag, and not all of the manuals would be critical, so a subset could be quite sufficient. Using the dissensus model that you've talked about, perhaps if enough people pore over the list and each select several documents to preserve by whatever means they can, then much of the information could be passed on.

Some back-door ways to preserve (albeit temporarily) this information could include lobbying every library we have any associations with to obtain the files and also storing electronic copies everywhere we can think of. I work at a university and will be requesting that our library purchase the DVDs. Then I'll see about getting it on the network....

phil harris said...

Regarding the interesting matter of 19thC Mechanics’ Institutes: I looked up my old copy of EP Thompson’s classic The Making of the English Working Class: particularly pages 818-819 of the Penguin edition. For the origins and context of the Institutes there is the whole of the book, but for a significant beginning look to the Constitutional Societies and their emergence circa 1792. (The date is significant, as was the publication in England by Richard Carlile of the works of Thomas Paine.) These were followed by Corresponding Societies across rapidly growing and urbanising Britain. By 1821 the population in England was >12M or double its previous historic peak of ~5.7M in 1750.
The Mechanical Institutes themselves started with the formation of the London Institute in 1823. To quote Thompson: [the London Insitute]… until the 1830s, is a story of ideological conflict … By 1825 the Trades Newspaper regarded the London Institute as a lost cause, which was dependent on ‘the great and the wealthy’.
In Britain this was a story of ‘co-option’ by the middle-class professionals and Nonconformist (religion) manufacturers who provided the funding and, importantly, the Political Economy curriculum. Rather forlornly the feeling in the London Institute was that they might have built the whole thing themselves, but … It is interesting that @Juhana’s Finnish history suggests that the artisans did, literally, do it themselves.

We seem fated to fight the old battles of the early industrial period (and the battles for the US Constitution in the still agrarian Republic) and the acquisition and retention of knowledge on the other side of Hubbert’s Peak.


Thomas Daulton said...

My hat's off to Steve Morgan for his comment about the purchasing power of the middle class. I always make a point to reread the comments JMG bestows a gold star to, and Steve is no exception here.

Steve you have crystallized an observation that I've been arguing about with my economic friends (mostly armchair economists) for years with no success. My personal employment experience with private companies both large and small has led me to believe there is a sort of inexorable gravity which slowly pulls corporate business models towards the "botique" model, where you make scads of money selling a few ludicrously overpriced products or customized service to very rich people, rather than the model where you mass-produce something reliable and affordable for a small profit margin for a broad customer base. You can see this all over, from the rising number of "botique" doctors (paid a retainer to remain on-call to fly to Barbados at the drop of a hat so that a rich person's sniffle doesn't spoil their expensive vacation), all the way down to things like telephone service (when calling your phone company, your phone company matches your caller ID to your account type, and if you're a rich person paying for premium service [multiple lines or business service] you go straight to a live operator. If you're a poor person paying only the basic service, you get sent to Voice Mail Hell, and a recorded message saying we're aware of the outage affecting your State and we're working to fix it someday.)

I never ran any numbers, but I always just sensed that the profit numbers work out higher for "botique" companies than mass-production companies. This is a very slow-moving effect, so many companies go bust or experience other drastic changes before they make it all the way to the ultimate absurdity of the "botique doctor" model. Nevertheless, that's the direction most corporations seem to move over time. My armchair economist friends, of course, maintain that since Econ 101 and their MBA classes never make mention of this fact, it therefore doesn't exist, and must all be in my imagination.

I see a parallel there between your comment and what JMG wrote a few weeks back about "producing" versus "consuming" Democracy itself. If a corporation can pay its workers enough to afford the type of lifestyle that the company's product implies, then we could say that corporation is "producing" or "creating" an economy. (I'm not talking about producing the actual widgets, gadgets and products that are bought or sold, but creating an economic maneuvering space, or call it an economic ecosystem.) When a corporation does not pay its workers enough to afford the lifestyle its own products imply, the corporation is "consuming" or "destroying" the economy itself.

To switch to an aeronautical metaphor, the first company creates "lift" and the second creates "drag" on the economic airplane. In this metaphor, an economic "crash" is readily explained...

Thanks for the comment Steve!

Robert Mathiesen said...

On Mechanics' Institutes in New England: Second Report (Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont)

In Maine I have been able to find four Mechanics' Institutes, two of which still survive, in Portland and in Bangor. The two that did not survive for long were in Gardiner (roughly 1847-1871) and in Lewiston (roughly 1861-1890).

In Portland, the Maine Charitable Mechanic Association, founded in 1820, still exists and seems to be quite active, with a building, a library and even a website of its own. See:
I expect to be near Portland for a week or two this summer, and I shall see what more I can learn on site.

In Bangor, ME, the Bangor Mechanics' Association was founded in 1828. It had a substantial library, which it handed over to the newly formed Bangor Public Library in 1883. The Association itself still exists as a legal entity, though I have not been able to learn much about its present activities.

In Portsmouth, NH, there was an "Apprentices' Library" in the 1820s, which may presuppose the existence of something like a Mechanics' and Apprentices' Association at the time. However, the Apprentices' Library appears to have been incorporated into the Portsmouth Athenaeum sometime well before the Civil War. In have not found any other trace of a Mechanics' Institute anywhere in New Hampshire.

In Burlington, Vermont, there once existed a Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1842, with a modest library. I have not found any trace of its continuing existence in the 1900s. If anyone in Vermont knows more about its history, I would be very glad to hear of it.

Next up: Connecticut, and then Masssachusetts.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@CGP--My two cents on the questions you addressed to JMG.

Income tax. The United States did not have a federal income tax in peacetime until about one hundred years ago. Prior to that, the principal support for the federal budget was customs duties.

The activities of the federal government were much more limited before the income tax. There was no national law enforcement organization; little or no national regulation of food, manufactures, the financial system or the environment; a small army and navy and an even smaller intelligence service; and no welfare state. The federal government was much cheaper to run.

People on the political right say that they would like to return to this pre-Progressive Era state of affairs, but most of them are selective about which federal functions they would like to scale back.

IMO, a more active federal government was a necessary outgrowth of a national economy superseding local economies. If trade reverts to being mostly local, some of the newer federal agencies will be both uneconomic and unnecessary.

Science is an activity that depends on cooperation among scientists. IMO, the critical factors for continuing science are not the level of patronage it receives from government and private sources, but the ease with which scientists can communicate what they learn to other scientists and get access to records of past research. These are what need social support if scientific research is to continue, not the research itself.

Before the middle of the nineteenth century, most scientific research was a leisure time activity of wealthy men, and to a lesser degree, of the middle class, or supported by the Catholic Church. Between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the late Middle Ages, most basic research took place in Muslim countries. After the Industrial Revolution got underway, manufacturers paid for some applied research in engineering and material technology. Countries with large budgets for the military have sent some of that money on weapons research, back to the time of Archimedes.

Education of the poor. Some countries in the early modern era (such as England) managed to find the money to give most children enough instruction for basic literacy and numeracy.

The United States has for a very long time (maybe since day one) had competitive exams for admission to its military academies, for which tuition is free. The recipient, if he or she makes it through, receives an officer's commission. This is a democratic and meritocratic arrangement. Of course only a handful of people get to do this.

For poor people in pre-industrial countries, access to higher education has usually required getting a wealthy patron, receiving charity, or signing up for lifelong service to the government or some religious institution. We seem to be reverting to that pattern in the United States.

Morrigan said...

Joseph Nemeth, Social Security is at best the illusion of a common hedge. On the second page of the statement the agency states that payments may change or stop at any time. There is no guarantee you will collect a penny; the only guarantee is that except for certain govt emps, you MUST pay into it.

Ceworthe said...

Part of my comment before the last one in part objected to the calling of Social security an entitlement. An entitlement is something that one feels one is owed, often due to legislation. such as for Medicaid and Public Assistance (aka Welfare, Tanf). Social Security Retirement (SS Ret) is not an “entitlement”, it is a trust, much like one pays for car insurance so that if one is in an accident, various payments can be made for damage, etc.) Having been a Medicaid Income Maintenance Specialist(trans. person who decides if you get on Medicaid in the first place), I know that it is not considered that by people in government who administer these programs. Like car insurance, not everyone will get any or all of the premiums they put into the pot, since people may not live long enough to either collect or to collect as much as they put in. It is based on the fact that someone has worked and had monies taken out of their pay for the purpose. One gets Medicare at the time of eligibility for SS Ret
Social Security Disability(SS Dis) is similar, and is based on having worked enough fiscal quarters to count at the age that one is disabled. For example, a person who becomes disabled in their 30’s would have needed to have worked at least 2 years to get SS Dis, but someone 58 would have had to have worked 9yrs to get SS Dis. Someone on SS Dis would get Medicare after 2 yrs from the date that SS feels they became disabled. SS Survivors is for widow(ers) and their children in common with the deceased, who had paid into Social Security before they died. It is much less than anyone would get from SS Ret. All of which is to say they all are something one has paid into when ones receives it, or whose parent or spouse has. They are not entitlements in the sense that Welfare and Medicaid are.
SSI(Supplemental Security Income) is for those who are disabled of any age, including babies, but have not paid into the Social Security trust. They automatically get Medicaid. This is an entitlement, unlike the categories of Social Security.
References for the above are -hit SSDisability and SSI for details and look at the publications in the tool bars on the right
I am making a distinction between entitlements, which SSI, Welfare and Medicaid are, and The categories of Social Security , which are not, they are a trust, a “commons” if you will.
As for my statement that how Baby Boomers have paid more into Social Security the following explains that.. Up until 1983 during the Reagan administration, the part of one’s earned income that was taken out for Social Security was exempt from Federal taxes. However, in 1983 a bill was passed such that that income would now be taxed, and those taxes would be added to the Social Security Trust fund. Reference:
So Baby Boomers have put more into the trust. And as with previous generations except for the people in the beginning, we most likely will not get all of what we put in back.
Congress, as stated before has raided this fund and given US Treasury Bonds in its stead with all the “full faith and credit of the U.S. government”. So in order to redeem these bonds, the government would have to sell them to someone else (who China?)

Cam from Oz said...

Hello realitybitesback. Couldn't help but comment as my father is the facilities manager at the Ballarat Mechanics Institute.

It's an interesting old, for Australia anyway, building that houses a great library including many books dating back to the 19th century and newspaper archives from the same time. The trade classes are long gone but they do host other classes now such as creative writing.

It's very interesting perusing the old papers. As much as life has changed its appears that the reach of bureaucracy has not so much. Unfortunately given the current condition of these newspapers I doubt there will.much left in another 500 or 1000 years!

Cam from Oz

Lidia17 said...

@Harry J. Lerwill:
In fact, as all money is debt, the "credit commons" is vital, yet has been enclosed by private banking entities.

Thomas Greco talks about this here:

"it's our collective credit that supports the dollar"
Around 9:06
"We give our collective credit to the banks, and then we beg them to lend some of it back to us, and we pay them interest for the privilege. So this is a situation which has enabled the concentration of power and the concentration of wealth in ever-fewer hands…"

"We basically GIVE it to the banks and we ask the banks to lend it back to us."

Another interview:
Thomas Greco

Juhana said...

@repo: Thanks for very good clarifications! I have to say that level of volunteerism lingers on even today, and paycheck level varies between institutes and teachers.

And about this name change... New name truly is politically correct way to call them. Meaning that it is slick, academic way to be dishonest and airbrush away history and old division lines by renaming things. Kind of liberal version of Orwellian Newspeak widely accepted by politruks and better-offs in EU right now. This current Western phenomenon is quite familiar there in the USA also, eh..?

@sgage: There is big chance you have been driving through my ancestral neighbourhoods while cruising in Eastern Finland. Then you know, unlike most readers of this blog, how mindblowingly vast primeval forest areas are here...

Standing on hilltop near border zone, gazing this sea of treetops hissing in the wind and stretching from horizon to horizon, broken only by lakes, hearing no sound made by man except by our own group... It was and is like going to church and being in somekind holy communion with bigger things than yourself.

I have been learning to hunt with a bow now, and planning some hunting trips with it, and already waiting that feeling of solitude and peace! This new movie tells it all, from the view point of children :). What can be better..?

Juhana said...

Other good trailer about bow hunting; very relaxing and down to earth way to gather some food from forest. Probably useful skill in northern USA and Canada also.

Just remember always to respect the animal; you must use as much as possible of the fallen prey; always finish the prey, if you just wound it, you have solemn duty to track down the animal whatever time it takes.

Causing unnecessary suffering by only wounding is disgrace for a person and tells a lot about his character and causes his name to be desecrated. Hunting is done for eating or regulating the stock purposes, not for some bloodthirsty reasons.

phil harris said...

Comments recently mentioned (me & Chris) the feed ‘cost’ of eggs. Clearly, food production which, like meats etc that consumes primary production that otherwise could be eaten directly by us is comparatively expensive. One example is that about 80% of the EU’s use of primary protein (plant source) for animal rearing and for producing animal products needs to be imported, mostly in the form of Soya, to be combined with EU sources of grain.

I have recently found an interesting French author online who has done all sorts of interesting calculations.
One of his efforts is to try to rank the relative contribution of food consumption to increasing greenhouse gas emissions (all in ‘CO2 equivalent’). Some readers of this JMG blog are pretty good at numbers and calculations and I would dearly like to see these calculations checked. I am sure he is broadly right in suggesting that much meat eating can be equivalent to driving a car hundreds of kilometres! But my guess is that there is something not quite right with his calculation of the relatively low CO2 output per Kg of product from poultry/eggs. See what you think?

One of the characteristics of science is transparency and explicit disclosure of methods that allow checking by other workers. See my follow up brief thought on scientific method. We ought to be able to respectfully engage the above author about the details of his methods. This particular subject has a bearing on the priorities for human food in coming times.

phil harris said...

Some quick and provisionally selected thoughts on scientific method.

I did some ‘science’ as a British career-grade civil-service scientist in the agricultural & regulatory sectors. My personal experimental efforts educated me in just how ‘cussed’ reality, any reality, actually was. We were continually frustrated even when we were trying to get a method of investigation to work, or to transfer our methods when eventually they were working well, to someone else! The defining characteristic is transparency and explicitness and full disclosure of methods and results. Plausible explanation is not knowledge.

‘Knowledge’ in a scientific sense is a very restricted category. I can remember a wonderful lesson from our geology Prof back in the day that ‘Continental drift’, let alone Plate Tectonics, was being robustly resisted by many then ‘mainstream’ theorists. He told us he could be sacked for teaching us the hypothesis as if it were ‘text-book’– it was not ‘knowledge’ - but he could rehearse the evidence. He then proceeded to do just that, very memorably.

That brings me to ‘scientific education’. The best way IMHO is to take students (from any discipline) right up to a selected current ‘front line’ and immerse them in the current literature on the topic as the matters are being threshed out, often very competitively. The better tools (observational and intellectual) in the best work not only provide insights but undermine some of the previous more plausible explanations. Good science is most seriously interested in what it does not know, and that last is an expanding frontier – always!
(Oh, there are some nuggets for the rest of us along the way that powerfully suggest what are not clever things for us to be doing – e.g. exponential growth in just about anything for a start, as you, JMG, rightly suggest.)


Zach said...

John Michael,

Nicely done again. I read Hardin years ago, but I see I will have to put "The Tragedy of the Commons" on my re-reading list. And make sure to read Ostrom, too.

Also, this caught my attention:

any of the tiny handful of high schools that still offer civics classes to young Americans about to reach voting age.

Has it really gotten that awful? I recall, back in the Late Pleistocene when our school bus was pulled by a team of woolly mammoths, that "Government" (meaning civics) was a State-required course to graduate high school in Michigan.


Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

"Steve, excellent! That gets you a gold star. Curiously enough, I was mulling over that this afternoon: the purchasing power of the general population is a commons, and while it makes economic sense for each individual business to cut wages and replace employees with automation, if everybody does that long enough, there will be nobody left to buy the products that the businesses survive by selling."

This is exactly what GK Chesterton & Hilaire Belloc argued (see The Servile State, for instance) in their "Distributistism" :
They have a good website with introductory articles here. It really doesn't matter if you are Catholic or Druid or what have you, anyone with an objective mind and common sense and some experience and humility can see that this process we are in has a destructive outcome in the short run, as those with power and delusion and lust attempt to hang on to their insanity at any price.

I recommend Belloc's Servile State (a short read) to anyone who wants to see a Catholic thread the needle between the idols of Socialism and Capitalism.

Matthew Casey Smallwood said...

JMG: Karl Polyani's The Great Transformation (along with Belloc's The Servile State) both address the abolition of the COmmons in England (as the paradigm of Industrial Revolution). But then again, you've probably already read at least one, if not both.

g downs said...

Hi John Michael and all, and welcome to my second comment in seven years (!). What can I say, I'd rather listen than talk. I read the essay and most of the comments every week and feel like I know many of you regulars.

In the spirit of many of the comments this week, I've decided to pass along a link to a song I've written called 'No One Left to Pay'. The lyric is based on a comment by JMG, something to the effect that eventually, when things get bad enough, even the tea party types will catch on and will switch sides. The song is about what happens when everybody (even the police, military, etc.) has abandoned the David Kochs of the world and the body guard, as they so often do, puts him out of our misery.

I don't imagine JMG will approve of my rather militant tone, but in my defense, songs sort of take on a life of their own and tell YOU where they want to go. And this one wanted triumphalism.

This song is the first in a series of songs (I plan 10 at present and have written 4) with political themes, and most if not all contain ideas learned here.

A few notes: The word 'prosperity' is a catch all term encompassing both capitalism and economics ("Science of the blind"). 'Legalized' or 'Enforceable thievery' refers to my hamfisted definition for capitalism as theft from the common wealth of the Earth. "Hire some of us to kill the rest of us" is in reference to the famous Jay Gould quote. Lyrics are posted at the link.

That's about it. I hope you enjoy it. It's a rough work "tape" (we don't actually use tape these days). I would normally want to finish something before unleashing it on the world, but the studio owner, who is allowing me to record for free (Thank you, Ed!), has said he doesn't want to do more until we get a real drummer on there. And as an early victim of this great recession, I won't be raising the cash to make that happen anytime soon.

Later, see ya'll in another seven years! ;)

ganv said...

Simply outstanding. I don't remember seeing a philosophy of government that seems so right on target. Can common sense really be so far on the fringe? There is one thing I would be curious to see how you work in. It seems that in many ways, government investments in the future such as education and scientific research function as a slightly different kind of commons to be managed. Every company benefits from its current educated workforce and previous scientific discoveries, but a rational calculation would not lead them to open a school or a research lab since most of the benefits would go to others in the future. But it is not quite just 'holding an open space' in which individuals can pursue their goals. It is more than just regulation that is required. It is actual investment of current resources to produce common good in the future.

Robert Mathiesen said...

On Mechanics'Institutes in New England: Third Report (Connecticut)

New Haven was the home of the only Mechanics' Institute(s) of which I can find any trace in Connecticut.

One of these institutes survives today. It was founded in 1826 by eight young working men, apparently on their on initiative entirely, without any wealthy patrons. Originally called "The Young Apprentices' Literary Association," and later "The New Haven Yong Men's Institute," it is now known simply as "The Institute Library." It has a building (and, obviously, a library) of its own, and now a website at:

There may once have been another, earlier such organization, called the Mechanic Library Society and founded in 1792. By 1815 it had merged with the Social Library Company to form the New Haven Library Company. I am not certain whether it disbanded, or was eventually taken up into the above-mentioned Young Apprentices' Literary Association.

Next (and last) up: Massachusetts.

Cherokee Organics said...


I often see references to slavery in comments and I've been wondering recently whether this is another apocalypse meme?

The reason it may have appeal to some is that perhaps it is a continuation of business as usual albeit in a different form? The appeal may be that as an individual slave, you get to outsource responsibility for your circumstances and life and if it all goes wrong then you get to blame others. Dunno, but it is a recurring theme across the weeks and it has been making me wonder.

Also there is a perception about slavery that there is a high EROEI on this activity and I think that this is incorrect, especially in an agrarian situation. Slaves would not be motivated workers and would also require supervision, each of which would reduce the effective output of those individuals. They also consume quite a bit of the output and resources. The convict experience here in Australia was that they were not enthusiastic workers and the process of importing convicts eventually died a natural death.

In addition to the above, the ecology doesn't really support large slave populations. The author George R R Martin tells a ripping yarn and can conjure vast slave armies running about the land, but it is one thing to write a fictional account of such activities in a fictional world and another thing all together to operate these in the real world.

A relatively recent example of such large scale agrarian slavery would be the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia where an estimated 2 million people died (it was estimated that half were executed and the other half died of starvation and disease). The majority of the population was moved out of urban areas and put to work growing rice for export to China, who was in turn supplying armaments and training. It is also a good example of war by proxy.

A similar attempt at such a coup in the US would possibly lead to civil war or at the very least a massive insurgency.

So, to the commenters who worry about it - my advice - stop worrying about it.



Joseph Nemeth said...

@Morrigan -- I don't understand. A hedge is not a guarantee. It's just a way of reducing the odds of ruin. The word is also used in the expression "hedging your bets." Hedges are part of the commonwealth, and probably also part of the commons, though the mode of extracting individual value is a bit different than some other commons.

Most emphatically, you don't "own" any portion of the hedge as an individual: you can't get your "investment" back out under any conditions. It isn't yours any more. It belongs to the commonwealth.

Insurance pools function exactly the same way. You pay your money in, and you never get a dime of it back, unless you suffer an "event" that qualifies you for payment, in which case, what you get out is determined by the insurance contract and your event, not by what you put in.

If a community hedges grain against a bad year, then an army comes through and burns the fields, the hedge very well may not cover the losses: people will starve. If your house is covered under a local insurance company, and a massive hailstorm comes through and pokes holes in everyone's roof, the insurance company may go bankrupt and you get nothing (actually, insurance companies themselves buy insurance from a larger company to spread their risk).

Early insurance pools were managed as "widows' funds" held by fraternal organizations and trade groups, as I understand it. Everyone in the group would throw in a small portion of their pay, and when any contributing member died, the widow would receive enough money to cover the mandatory burial expenses: which expenses would often throw the widow into debtors' prison. Clearly, if over half the members of the organization died in a single incident, the fund would be exhausted, and the widows would all go to prison. Or they could draw straws so that some could remain out of prison. The fact that the hedge didn't plan for that sweeping disaster doesn't make it any less a hedge.

Social Security is a straightforward working-wage redistribution hedge, not unlike the widows' funds, which eventually grew to include not just one-time funeral expenses, but a small pension as well. Those who work pay into the hedge, and its vested beneficiaries receive payouts.

The hedge can go broke if you don't manage it well. It also can't handle major catastrophes -- which in the case of Social Security would be dramatic reduction of FICA tax intake due to, say, large-scale persistent unemployment. Given the likelihood of that under the assumptions of this project, it's very possible that Social Security will have to scale back to "widows' pensions only," which will cause huge ire against the government. It could break the system entirely, or bring down the government -- neither of which outcome will address the question of what to do with all those old people who no longer have any means of buying food.

What will likely happen at that point is the revival of smaller (and therefore much more risky) hedges within churches and fraternal organizations. You'll need to be a "dues paying member" to participate -- no dues, no membership, no benefits.

It's still a hedge, it's not guaranteed, and it is part of the commonwealth (held in-common by dues-paying members.)

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm interested to see what you will write about education.

Over here, education is from:
- Kindergarten / Prepatory (some private schools now demand students enter pre-Kinder, well done, it is a business after all!)
- Primary School grades 1 to 6
- Secondary School forms 1 to 6 (or years 7 to 12)
- University under graduate degree (3 years full time)
- University post graduate degree (2 years full time)

Schooling is compulsory to the end of form 3 (or year 9).

What is interesting is that a couple of weeks back I was speaking to someone who'd finished form 6 (or year 12) a year ago and they said to me, "well, what else is there to learn?"

I couldn't judge them because I distinctly remember thinking similar thoughts at the time. Not only is it chillingly arrogant, but from the perspective of hindsight it appears that perhaps the system had somehow failed. I was an A grade student, but the thought itself tells me that at the time I had a serious lack of observation and curiosity about the world.

Those are tools that I had to develop independently of the educational system. It could also possibly have been an age thing. Anyway, I see this lack in conversation when people fixate on how they believe a concept should be without regard to how that concept performs in the real world (I’m referring specifically to agricultural pursuits here).

Food for thought!



Cherokee Organics said...


Just for your interest, I tested your statement about bills received during the Christmas period and found that in dollar terms half of the annual bills are received and payable during the two months upto and including this period. Interesting stuff.

Happy holidays, here's a bill.

That's it for me!



dltrammel said...

Lizzy said:

You might remember last week I put in a plaintive note saying how "hard" life will be without electricity and ready-made thing. You directed me to Thanks. I wonder, though. Is there a book about managing the basics of life if there are no services to call on? I mean, an all encompassing manual about how to manage house repairs (broken windows, leaking roof); get salt and iodine from vegetables; make ropes; basic plumbing; food storage; hygiene and first aid; spit roasting etc etc etc.

Real life has a been a bit hectic for me, so I'm behind on my comments reading, but Lizzy, I second the suggestion on the Green Wizard's site. If you have any trouble registering please email me at this name (randomsurfer200) at

I recommend when you register, take a quick moment and post a introduction. This lets us know to make sure you don't get accidentally blocked due to our spam protection. Email me at the same address is you have problems.

As for you're question, no there is no all knowing book I'm aware of at the moment.

One thing the staff at Green Wizards is trying to do though, is come up with a general outline of what skills a "green wizard" might be expected to know. If you take a look at the Circle's forum there, you'll see a general progression, from the basics like Food and Shelter, up to the more advanced skills.

Right now we are discussing what skills and knowledge in the first circle, Food, would be here
Green Wizard Curriculum for Food - Inputs?

I'm hoping over the next year we can come up with a solid curriculm and resources to maybe think about a formal handbook.

For now, Lizzy, why don't you and any others who would like to help, feel free and stop by the site.


Robert Mathiesen said...

On Mechanics' Institutes in New England: Fourth Report (Massachusetts)

Massachusetts had more Mechanics' Institutes than any other New England state, and a few of them continue to exist in one form or another, though not in anything like their original form.

In Boston:

The Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association (1795 to present) had Paul Revere as its first president. It had a large building and library, but it sold its building in 1950, and the building was razed in 1960. It survives, but only as a philanthropic organization.

The Mechanic Apprentices' Library (1820-1892) was founded as an organization for apprentices by a member of the older Association

In Clinton:

The Bigelow Mechanics' Institute, founded in 1846, eventually became the Bigelow Free Public Library.

In Danvers:

The Danvers Mechanic Institute, founded in 1841, became part of the Peabody Institute Library of that city at some time in the middle 1800s.

In Lowell:

The Middlesex Mechanic Association had come into existence by 1840, and continued at least until 1860, but I have been unable to find much information on it.

In Salem:

The Salem Mechanic Library was founded in 1817, and survived at least into the early 20th century. I have not been able to learn whether it still exists in any form. Can anyone in Salem shed some light on it?

In Springfield:

The Hampden Mechanic Association was founded in 1824. I have found no trace of it later than the 1830s.

In Westboro:

The Wsestboro Mechanic Association was founded in 1838. I have found no trace of it later than the 1840s.

In Worcester:

The Worcester County Mechanics' Association was founded in 1838, and erected its own building in 1857. The Association lasted until the middle of the 20th century. The building was restored in the 1970s and now serves as a concert hall and auditorium.

Robert Mathiesen said...

A little more on Mechanics' Institutes.

With the industrialization of the United States and also the rise of technical schools and colleges, the Mechanics' Institutes lost their principal reason for existence. By the 20th century many of them had disbanded or been transformed into other institutions such as public libraries or charities. The very few that survive as independent organizations with buildings (and libraries) of their own have had to repurpose themselves in various ways. There is a good Wikipedia article on them that lists most of these survivors.

Alex S said...

Wonderful blog, thank you, JMG! The next question appears to be, how big are the commons that need to be managed. It may have been fine to have village elders set the rules for the local pasture, but fish in the ocean are, apparently, quite a different story.
So is air. So are oil, phosphate, uranium, timber and other resources, with the additional complication that they happen to be abundant (now) in some places and voraciously consumed in others. If a resource is global, it goes to reason that it can only be managed globally.
We as individuals can, of course, stop eating fish, or burning coal, or using phosphate fertilizer, but if most people in the world don’t – the net result will be our loss for a very minor, and very temporary, gain of others. So while the concept of managed commons is appealing, I’d love to see more details on how it could be realized on a meaningful (read global) scale.
One of the things that appear to need managing is the dynamics of our approach to a sustainability level. Just like expansion can run awry with the positive feedbacks in the human society, so can the shrinkage. The rollback of the technological civilization we have now may uncontrollably zip way past the sustainability point, to a hard landing in the Stone Age. I’d love to hear any ideas on how to avoid that.

Apple Jack Creek said...

For Michelle, with the pasture that has a creek she can't use for livestock: check out nose pumps. Wetland preservation is a big issue here in Alberta, but there is a fair bit of info as well on how to use natural water sources in ways that don't degrade the streams but still water the stock. Nose pumps are the least intrusive, and watering ramps are another option. Perhaps you can use one or the other.

For those looking to learn skills like small engine repair or livestock management in North America, look into 4H. There is always a need for adult volunteers ... mostly they want you to be there to teach, but if you wanted to learn and were willing to lend a hand in one fashion or another, or if you can drag a kid along, you might find a welcome. I know I learned a lot from our local 4H club when we first moved to the farm (my son was in the club, but I learned at least as much as he did!) and we met a lot of local people who were very willing to teach us what we needed to know.

And for the Archdruid - I remember learning about the Tragedy of the Commons in high school, must've been social studies class, or possibly English. It's come into my mind every time I consider adding more sheep to my own pastures!

As for health care as a commons - that thought kept coming into my mind as well. I look forward to hearing what you have to say about that in future posts.

John Michael Greer said...

Ceworthe, of course Congress has raided the fund -- that wasn't a point I was contesting. It was also an unfunded obligation because the amount the US government has contracted to pay out is much more than it's made any plans to take in -- and that would be the case even if it hadn't been raided.

Joseph, if that were true, wouldn't democracy in America have been concentrated in those parts of the country that had the largest slave populations, and thus the most surplus energy? I'll have to do some reading on democracies during eras of decline, but that's probably worth a post anyway.

Terry, okay, I'll take a look at it. Still, spamming the comments page of this post with a whole series of posts touting your pet project isn't exactly courteous, and the others have been deleted.

Repo, interesting. Thanks for the additional info.

Dwig, only if I have to. The whole concept has been turned into an inkblot onto which to project any number of fantasies, while real communities in the real world starve for lack of support.

Rocco, I'll quibble over your use of the term "dictatorship." What is it about setting a few simple rules, and expecting people to abide by those, that calls up such overblown stereotypes?

Robert, many thanks for the info on the Mechanics Institutes. That's going to want some serious reading on my part before I start the series of posts on education. Also, I'm glad to hear that the Masonic revival has reached Rhode Island!

Cgeye, fascinating. Since I don't watch TV, I didn't happen to know that.

Ray, ecovillages are pie in the sky. What you're doing is practical. Good for you! Glad to hear that some of the AODA ritual work is being helpful -- that's one of the reasons we put so much of it out there in public.

Reality, that's good to hear -- and another useful lead for my research.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, notice the spread in the number of barrels. If I told you that you'll be mailed an envelope containing between one and one million dollars, would you make plans on the assumption that it was going to be a million? That's what the media's doing with vague rough estimates of fossil fuel reserves these days!

CGP, three very large questions, which I'll answer here in very brief terms. First, a bankrupt nation isn't in a position to offer much of a social safety net to anyone; if the funds can be found for one, there are far less corrupt and politically distorted ways to do it than to have the national government do it. (Mind you, the constitution gives the federal government no authority to have such programs, but neither the Supreme Court nor anyone else has paid the least attention to the ninth and tenth amendments for a century now.)

Second, a good case could be made under the scheme I've outlined for infrastructure projects as part of building the national commons, but again, funds are going to be very scarce for a long time to come. Third, a progressive income tax is one way to fund the necessary activities of the national government; the ideas I've outlined neither require nor forbid such an approach.

Geovermont, thanks for the leads! I agree that a dissensus approach is best; have you considered posting these links to the Green Wizards forum?

Phil, I think it's quite possible that many of the struggles on the way up to the peak may be rehashed on the way down. Thanks for the research leads!

Cam, thanks for the info. This is interesting -- quite the international project, it seems.

Juhana, when you say "It was and is like going to church and being in somekind holy communion with bigger things than yourself" -- well, that's why most of us become Druids. For us, being in nature is going to church.

Phil, I'd definitely like to see somebody work through those numbers. Thanks also for your comments on scientific method -- since I'd like to see that survive, this is useful.

Zach, it's gotten that awful. Me, I'd like to see civics classes reinstated everywhere in the country, but that's a topic for a different series of posts.

Matthew, thank you for the suggestions!

Gene, thanks for the musical accompaniment.

John Michael Greer said...

Ganv, it's a reasonable extension of the same process, in that holding open a space is always going to involve expenditures -- even in a medieval village commons, there was usually somebody who got a modest bit of income every year as a hayward, watching the village cattle and making sure they didn't break down a fence and get into the wheatfields. The major limiting factor in a postimperial and postindustrial world will be the sheer shortage of disposable wealth for such projects, but there might be ways of making room for them even in a very spare budget.

Cherokee, not so much an apocalypse meme as a pet bugbear, along the lines of the "feudal-fascist future" I critiqued in an earlier post. By and large, slavery only works when you have good transportation systems and a profitable export-based monoculture -- in the US South back before 1865, for example, cotton monoculture was the cash crop that mattered, and without it, slavery would have died a quick death due to its economic inefficiencies. Since we're hardly in a position to have cheap transport or viable monocultures once the petroleum age ends, a major revival of slavery is among the least of our worries.

Alex, remember that all this discussion of commons and their management is taking place against the broader backdrop of the collapse of America's global empire and the twilight of the industrial age. Most of the technologies that have made it possible to abuse the oceans, atmosphere, etc. are going to be out of business permanently once the cheap abundant energy that makes them possible goes away forever. Thus I think it's more useful to discuss things that might still be around!

Apple Jack, I'll have a few things to say about that, yes.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- I don't see why that would be the case. I'm hypothesizing that high EROEI is necessary for democracy, not sufficient for democracy. There are other necessities -- like people wanting democracy in the first place.

I don't know much about the Old South, but things I've read and heard recently indicate that the pre-Revolutionary South had little interest in democracy at all. It's also been my common understanding -- which means it's doubtless incomplete if not completely wrong, so correct me -- the North was the center of Industrialism in the US, while the South clung to agrarianism. Had the Industrial Revolution never taken off, it's likely the US would have been culturally dominated by those regions that had the most slaves.

I'd be very interested in a post on democracies embedded within imperial declines, because those are going to be the most relevant templates for what you're describing.

Dwig said...

"Dwig, only if I have to. The whole concept has been turned into an inkblot onto which to project any number of fantasies, while real communities in the real world starve for lack of support."

Well, I'm not the one to tell you that you have to, and I certainly agree with your assessment -- "community", as commonly (!) used, has more phatic than denotative value. Still, I think that's a pretty good argument for beginning the process of rescuing it, as you've done for other basically useful concepts.

I took a stab at doing this a while back, at I was hoping to raise some collaborative interest, but didn't get much. I'd still like to return to it, since I think robust, resilient communities will be very much needed in the near future.

Seb Ze Frog said...

@Phill and those interested in the numbers of

I happen to know and use this site for little conferences about Energy that I give for highshcool kids. I have so far found it serious and well documented.

Since this is off-thread, I suggest to open an email discussion thread for those interested. Just email me at
sebzefrog at .

I'll be reviewing those graphs (since I need them for a presentation 2 weeks from now) but here is my first shoot:
- Note that Mr Manticore quotes that the figures are accurate +- 50%

- Note that those include not ony CO2, but also methane (CH4) produced by fermentation inside of the cows/veals. Chickens don't produce as much CH4, and one chicken produces lots of eggs, while one veal produces only one veal.

- Note that the methodology is not from Mr Manticore but from different authors, that he cites, in good policy.

Finally, while reading his site make me think that he would be open to a friendly engagement of his results, I am certain that he would appreciate a careful examination of them first.

Science is opened to courteous engagement, but one has to remember that courtesy extends to starting by doing one's homework ;-)

sebzefrog at

Rocco said...

I'll acknowledge that "dictatorship" carries negative connotations, but I quibble right back that my use of the term in this case constitutes "overblown stereotyping". The owner of a well-run shop dictates everything that must be done to make it a successful enterprise. Same for a homesteader who grows vegetables and poultry to feed his family. Countless other examples could be cited. Such people are dictators of their particular domains. Characterizing them thus is a statement of fact, not an example of stereotyping.

My observation that you quibbled with was 100% a compliment, and I stand by it still.

Zach said...

John Michael,

I just doublechecked, and the 0.5 credit of something called "Civics" is still listed as required by the State of Michigan's education department. Given the increasing nationalization of education standards, I'd be very surprised if the other 49 states didn't have something very similar.

Or is it your contention that the material covered in the one semester of "Civics" these days isn't really sufficient or worthy of the label? That I might believe.

One would think that the education of citizens to understand the purpose of their form of government might be one of the key objectives of a public education... "What are they teaching in those schools these days?"

I hope you get around to that series of posts!


Ceworthe said...

I think that an important part of restoring the commons is for the
society in question to have a common value system and strong enough
means of enforcing it. Native Americans were able to live in the
Americas for thousands of years in balance with nature, while us
settler types have trashed the place in a little over 500 yrs since
Columbus showed up. The difference?-settler's attitude of "dominion"
over the earth, which meant we could use it as a commodity, with
little or no regard for ensuring the renewability and continuance of
mineral and biotic resources. And,if native Americans wanted to cash
in on things like the beaver pelt trade,for example,they had to
convert in order to not feel guilty about misusing the earth and it's
plants and animals,which they consider(ed) Elder brothers.

phil harris said...

@Seb Ze Frog
Regarding Jean-Marc JANCOVICI (
I found his project(s) and calculations very impressive.
I said in my previous comment; "We ought to be able to respectfully engage the above author about the details of his methods. This particular subject has a bearing on the priorities for human food in coming times."

I am concerned with more than greenhouse gas emissions, though GHG are important and are in part a useful proxy for fossil fuel embedded in food production (hence the 10:1 ratio of fossil fuel input to food energy produced, often quoted for USA food). 'Eggs' cost a very great deal in primary grain and protein. I am not saying this represents a higher ratio of ‘CO2 equivalent’, (including an acknowledgement for CH4) per kg of egg and its protein, than the equivalent ratio for various ruminant meat. Nor do I know whether I am correct that it could appear 'low'. Going through both the sources and calculations is a lot of work, especially if we are concerned to do the author ‘justice’. If your students can begin that task and recapitulate some of this work that will be wonderful. The more work the better. I remember a while ago taking a long time to go through sources and calculations by the highly respected Lester Brown (Worldwatch) relating to the amount of net protein produced by catfish farming, and found him seriously mistaken in that one result.
So it goes.
M Jancovi has some brilliant ideas and your starting an educational project at his site seems good to me. I will contact your email address.

Frank Hemming said...

Hi Joseph Nemeth

“@JMG -- I don't see why that would be the case. I'm hypothesizing that high EROEI is necessary for democracy, not sufficient for democracy.”

In “The Forest People” Colin Turnbull describes the life of the pygmies (Mbuti) of the Ituri rainforest. It sounded like a very successful and informal democracy to me. Their method of hunting was to make a very long net from vines, spread it through the forest and drive animals into it which could then easily be killed for food. In terms of food energy the energy return from the food was hugely greater than that expended on making the net and hunting weapons. Of course they had the forest as a vast commons, and their hunting and gathering methods gave them plenty of free time.

Have you read JMG’s “The Ecotechnic Future”? One of the features of our present system is the vast amounts of material (and energy invested) potentially available for salvage. When I built a straw bale house I used double glazing units, which were going to be thrown in a skip as they had been measured wrongly. I designed the openings in the walls to suit the size of the glazing, rather than buying glazing to suit the openings. The energy investment had already been made and was going to be squandered. From my perspective there was a huge saving in energy and time compared to buying the glazing new.

I suggest that time is necessary but not sufficient for democracy, in the sense that people need time for reflection and debate, and salvaged materials (ideally managed democratically and locally as a commons) could help people to have that time.

Will said...

here is a serious suggestion - please read "Sustainable energy without the hot air" by David MacKay, and comment on why (or if) he is wrong.
he is a professor of physics. his numbers are the real deal. avaiable on-line at, or in print versions everywhere.
why? because he demonstrates with hard data that replacing fossil fuels is possible without collapse. not easy, but possible.
if anything, i think he is too cautious. if we assume a rationing scenario, we could get by decently on half the energy we use now, which makes everything much easier. so does a bit of nuclear.
energy is the uber-resource. if you have energy, you can find, refine or make everything else you need. the long slow decline to village life that you posit may happen, but there is absolutely no need. the renewable resources budget of the world is adequate to sustain us at close to current levels of complexity, especially if the population showly shrinks for the next 200 years, by voluntary choices by parents.

you think the future is villagers making things by hand and growing their own food in gardens. I suspect that you even welcome that prospect. you are romantic about what it would mean. In reality, it would be miserable, and the transition would be worse.
I suggest that, with good management, the future can be a rich, happy world with 1 or 2 billion people total, living at least as well as we do now, sustainably, forever.
your reactions?

John Michael Greer said...

Joseph, I'll keep you posted.

Rocco, it's the connotation that I was quibbling about. Still, thanks for the compliment.

Zach, fascinating. It would be interesting to see if that amounts to anything but another round of teaching to the tests.

Ceworthe, that's true, but values are notoriously hard to legislate.

Wil, I've read it. I gather you haven't been reading this blog long enough to encounter one of my wistful comments about grandiose plans for saving the world that inevitably end up gathering dust on shelves. Mackay's work is one of the many examples. In a perfect world, where the US population was ready to vote enthusiastically for sharp restrictions on its own use of energy and resources, no question, something like that could be done. Since we don't live in such a world, and plans like MacKay's sit on the shelves, it's a good deal more sensible to make other plans.

By the way, if you'd bothered to read any significant amount of my work, you'd know that I'm quite aware of how appalling the Long Descent is going to be, especially for those who don't invest the very substantial amount of time and effort to get ready for it. The old canard that those who predict a hard future actually want it, and are looking at it through rose-colored glasses, could use a rest.

John Michael Greer said...

Johan (offlist), no, it didn't come through -- please resend.

Joseph Nemeth said...

Frank Hemming --

We have to be careful with EROEI. High EROEI does not mean high ER.

I remember the Mbuti from my Cultural Anthro 101, and as I recall from that class, hunter-gatherers spend only about four hours a day tending to necessities. The instructor called hunter-gatherers the "first leisure class." Hunting-gathering has a very high EROEI. After all, most of what you need, you just pick up off the ground. ER is not very high, but EI is very low.

The problem with hunting and gathering is that population must remain very small, and needs to move around to let the ecosystem recover its bounty.

As described by Turnbull, it would seem the Mbuti have high EROEI, and would thus fail to disconfirm my hypothesis. Also, I'm not sure small-group consensus actually qualifies as "democracy."

Roger Bigod said...

For slavery to be a significant economic factor, it takes not just monoculture but a labor-intesive crop, and the labor should be spread out over the year, so there's no down-time. In Colonial Virginia, that was tobacco. George Washington gave up on tobacco at Mount Vernon, probably because the soil was exhausted, and spent decades trying to get enough revenue from the slaves there to pay for their upkeep.

In theory. monoculture isn't necessary for large-scale slavery, but the obvious examples involve it (sugar cane, tobacco, cotton). The efficiency of production results in quantities that can't be consumed locally, which implies a cash crop for export.

The tobacco business went into a long decline in the late 17th Century, and abolition became a respectable position. Newspapers ran editorials editorials suggesting that tobacco culture had been a big mistake. But in 1791, the cotton gin was invented and the Industrial Revolution was happening around Manchester, England. And cotton requires intensive labor input through most of the year.

I've never seen a set of annual figures for tobacco production and proceeds in Colonial Virginia, but it looks like Peak Tobacco was around 1750. Earlier, planters owned their own ships, but later they tended to stay on their plantations and sell to London trading houses, whose ships made annual stops to pick up the produce and offload clothes, furniture and other consumer goods the planter ordered. It was a wealth pump. By 1775 many were hopelessly in debt to the trading houses, and canceling the debts was probably an important factor in the support of the Virginia gentry for the Revolution.

Alex S said...


what will still be available at the other end of the transition period will, IMHO, depend on how (and if) the transition is managed. If it's not, the same positive feedbacks that didn't let us stop at 1-2 billion humans on our way up, won't let us do this on our way down, either (just look up "population damped oscillations"). In a situation like this, it's easy to imagine getting to the population levels where not only the excesses of the modern society, but its entire heritage can not be sustained. I am talking about art, science, literature, engineering, museums, theaters, internet, this blog...

Johan said...

Regarding the työväenopisto, we have them, or their close relatives, in Sweden too. Here they're called "folkhögskola". It's at least a Nordic phenomenon, with the first one founded in Denmark by a man named Grundtvig. Today, they usually don't provide trade classes but function as a sort of alternative education system. Some of it duplicates the ordinary high school system, but I know at least one folkhögskola has a one-year part-time course in eco-philosophy.

We also have the studieförbund, which sound more like Juhana's työväenopisto. They are organizations where anyone who find a couple of interested students can start a study circle and the studieförbund can provide rooms, workshops if necessary, train the participants in meeting techniques, help with getting necessary materials and so on. It doesn't have to be theoretical studies - just now I can find circles in carpentry, furniture renovation, knitting, pottery, hunting (leading to a hunting exam including the permits necessary to legally own a gun in Sweden), handling a chainsaw, vegetarian cooking, sourdough baking, making sausages, navigation, wilderness survival… and much more. (Languages and artistic subjects are the most popular.) All taught by enthusiast or volunteer teachers.

The studieförbund grew out of the Swedish popular movements which built our democracy in the early part of the 20th century by teaching literacy, rhetorics, debating skills and meeting techniques. This being Sweden, today both studieförbund and folkhögskolor are supported by the state but not regulated. As far as I know, the studieförbund themselves decide what circles to allow. There are studieförbund associated with all the major political parties in Sweden, although they are mostly apolitical now. They still focus on different things, though. One is heavily involved in the Swedish Transition movement, for example.

Here's an information page in English from their national interest organisation.

phil harris said...

JMG and all
Some observations on slavery
I think we need to distinguish between slavery, serfdom, and other forms of tied or penal servitude, characteristic of many agrarian societies, and used even in later industrial situations. Serfdom was a default condition across much of Europe into Russia until recently. Landowners were a caste often in an imperial context that needed to siphon off a small surplus from land farmed by essentially self-subsistence communities. The latter churned the soil nutrients, fallowed the ground, and a small surplus of produce could feed a relatively small craft and trading & military economy. Control of workers tied to the land gave privilege to a few. The Church in France from before the time of Charlemagne had huge estates of serfs maintaining for example the great monastery at Tours. The erosion of serfdom and the fall of the ancien regime and then the collapse of imperial Russia is pretty recent history.
Bonded servants on farms were a commonplace in most societies. Slaves were traded well after the Roman collapse in the West – seized from the Celtic fringes for example and taken east into the wealthier parts of near and further East. Presumably these provided servants for the plutocratic tendency. Cheaper than breeding them at home perhaps and, when ‘institutionalized’, useful even as armed servants and enforcers? I assume they were, (are) a form of consumption, but useful for reinforcing status?
Was it so different even in my young day? The British mainland construction industry still relied on recruiting young fit men from rural Ireland for their extravagant expenditure of youth and physical energy. The work was hard but tackled with great bouts of energy interspersed with ruinous but temporarily heartening bouts of drinking. I was there. Pay day loans? Don’t tell me!

Will said...


i have read many of your books, especially like The Long Descent because you are realistic about time scales. I also admire the work of Tainter on the Collapse of Complex Societies, and Thomas Homer-Dixon on The Upside of Down. but I DO think that you romanticize somewhat about what life will be like after the descent, driven by your contempt for current American politics and culture. James Kunstler has the same characteristic. i largely share the contempt but lack the romanticism.

phil harris said...

JMG & all
I rather regret my recent passing reference that connected Irish labour in Britain with drinking. Sitting at the threshold of old age rather colours my memories I guess. I met many sensible Irishmen, most in fact, working under hard and dangerous conditions, living in often crowded low-cost accommodation, whose main focus was, as is usually the case with itinerant labour, to remit money back home to families who have little.
Theirs was a culture that I never properly understood - often subtle and deep - and they did not make fools of themselves.

Frank Hemming said...

Hi Joseph Nemeth

I didn’t intend to disagree on the Mbuti and EROEI. It was the second part about salvage I thought could help with your issue about a high EROEI required for democracy. From my perspective a salvaged double glazed unit is low EI. Our time is unique historically in the developed world for the quantity of potential (low EI after salvaging from its original use) salvage material.

Dwig said...

To gild John Michael's lily a bit: for a plan for the future to be truly practicable, it needs not only to be technically feasible, but politically and socially as well. When I read proposals that say things like "if we ...", "we could...", "all we need is ...", my automatic reaction is "who's we?".

LarasDad said...

@ geovermont - followed your link to the "Planet X" site - looks they plan to be around for awhile yet, at least base on the quite funny juxtaposition of dates between the home page

"chances for survival after the coming pole shift due in 2013."

and the FAQs page

"When will the Pole Shift occur?

Best we can tell it will occur between May 20 and Jun 12 in 2012. "

Alex S said...

@ Dwig: IMHO, the "we" worth mentioning is the community that managed to get the ozone hole agreements not only signed, but ratified and largely implemented. And if all collective wisdom of our species manages to rescue is a few tribes living in caves... well, then maybe we really SHOULD yield this planet to somebody smarter ;-)

Alex S said...

By the way, ENERGY is perhaps not the thing we'll run out of (see, for example, - and this is only one of the options for plentiful energy we can get). No such miracle solution, however, exists (that I know of) for FERTILIZER, especially phosphates.