Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The Four Industrial Revolutions

Last week’s post on the vacuous catchphrases that so often substitute for thought in today’s America referenced only a few examples of the species under discussion.  It might someday be educational, or at least entertaining, to write a sequel to H.L. Mencken’s The American Credo, bringing his choice collection of thoughtstoppers up to date with the latest fashionable examples; still, that enticing prospect will have to wait for some later opportunity.In the meantime, those who liked my suggestion of Peak Oil Denial Bingo will doubtless want to know that cards can now be downloaded for free.

What I’d like to do this week is talk about another popular credo, one that plays a very large role in blinding people nowadays to the shape of the future looming up ahead of us all just now. In an interesting display of synchronicity, it came up in a conversation I had while last week’s essay was still being written. A friend and I were talking about the myth of progress, the facile and popular conviction that all human history follows an ever-ascending arc from the caves to the stars; my friend noted how disappointed he’d been with a book about the future that backed away from tomorrow’s challenges into the shelter of a comforting thoughtstopper:  “Technology will always be with us.”

Let’s take a moment to follow the advice I gave in last week’s post and think about what, if anything, that actually means. Taken in the most literal sense, it’s true but trivial. Toolmaking is one of our species’ core evolutionary strategies, and so it’s a safe bet that human beings will have some variety of technology or other as long as our species survives. That requirement could just as easily be satisfied, though, by a flint hand axe as by a laptop computer—and a flint hand axe is presumably not what people who use that particular thoughtstopper have in mind.

Perhaps we might rephrase the credo, then, as “modern technology will always be with us.” That’s also true in a trivial sense, and false in another, equally trivial sense. In the first sense, every generation has its own modern technology; the latest up-to-date flint hand axes were, if you’ll pardon the pun, cutting-edge technology in the time of the Neanderthals.  In the second sense, much of every generation’s modern technology goes away promptly with that generation; whichever way the future goes, much of what counts as modern technology today will soon be no more modern and cutting-edge than eight-track tape players or Victorian magic-lantern projectors. That’s as true if we get a future of continued progress as it is if we get a future of regression and decline.

Perhaps our author means something like “some technology at least as complex as what we have now, and fulfilling most of the same functions, will always be with us.” This is less trivial but it’s quite simply false, as historical parallels show clearly enough. Much of the technology of the Roman era, from wheel-thrown pottery to central heating, was lost in most of the western Empire and had to be brought in from elsewhere centuries later.  In the dark ages that followed the fall of Mycenean Greece, even so simple a trick as the art of writing was lost, while the history of Chinese technology before the modern era is a cycle in which many discoveries made during the heyday of each great dynasty were lost in the dark age that followed its decline and fall, and had to be rediscovered when stability and prosperity returned. For people living in each of these dark ages, technology comparable to what had been in use before the dark age started was emphatically not always with them.

For that matter, who is the “us” that we’re discussing here? Many people right now have no access to the technologies that middle-class Americans take for granted. For all the good that modern technology does them, today’s rural subsistence farmers, laborers in sweatshop factories, and the like might as well be living in some earlier era. I suspect our author is not thinking about such people, though, and the credo thus might be phrased as “some technology at least as complex as what middle-class people in the industrial world have now, providing the same services they have come to expect, will always be available to people of that same class.” Depending on how you define social classes, that’s either true but trivial—if “being middle class” equals “having access to the technology todays middle classes have,” no middle class people will ever be deprived of such a technology because, by definition, there will be no middle class people once the technology stops being available—or nontrivial but clearly false—plenty of people who think of themselves as middle class Americans right now are losing access to a great deal of technology as economic contraction deprives them of their jobs and incomes and launches them on new careers of downward mobility and radical impoverishment.

Well before the analysis got this far, of course, anyone who’s likely to mutter the credo “Technology will always be with us” will have jumped up and yelled, “Oh for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well what I mean when I use that word! You know, technology!”—or words to that effect. Now of course I do know exactly what the word means in that context: it’s a vague abstraction with no real conceptual meaning at all, but an ample supply of raw emotional force.  Like other thoughtstoppers of the same kind, it serves as a verbal bludgeon to prevent people from talking or even thinking about the brittle, fractious, ambivalent realities that shape our lives these days. Still, let’s go a little further with the process of analysis, because it leads somewhere that’s far from trivial.

Keep asking a believer in the credo we’re discussing the sort of annoying questions I’ve suggested above, and sooner or later you’re likely to get a redefinition that goes something like this: “The coming of the industrial revolution was a major watershed in human history, and no future society of any importance will ever again be deprived of the possibilities opened up by that revolution.” Whether or not that turns out to be true is a question nobody today can answer, but it’s a claim worth considering, because history shows that enduring shifts of this kind do happen from time to time. The agricultural revolution of c. 9000 BCE and the urban revolution of c. 3500 BCE were both decisive changes in human history.  Even though there were plenty of nonagricultural societies after the first, and plenty of nonurban societies after the second, the possibilities opened up by each revolution were always options thereafter, when and where ecological and social circumstances permitted.

Some 5500 years passed between the agricultural revolution and the urban revolution, and since it’s been right around 5500 years since the urban revolution began, a case could probably be made that we were due for another. Still, let’s take a closer look at the putative third revolution. What exactly was the industrial revolution? What changed, and what future awaits those changes?

That’s a far more subtle question than it might seem at first glance, because the cascade of changes that fit under the very broad label “the industrial revolution” weren’t all of a piece. I’d like to suggest, in fact, that there was not one industrial revolution, but four of them—or, more precisely, three and a half. Lewis Mumford’s important 1934 study Technics and Civilization identified three of those revolutions, though the labels he used for them—the eotechnic, paleotechnic, and neotechnic phases—shoved them into a linear scheme of progress that distorts many of their key features. Instead, I propose to borrow the same habit people use when they talk about the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions, and name the revolutions after individuals who played crucial roles in making them happen.

First of all, then—corresponding to Mumford’s eotechnic phase—is the Baconian revolution, which got under way around 1600. It takes its name from Francis Bacon, who was the first significant European thinker to propose that what he called natural philosophy and we call science ought to be reoriented away from the abstract contemplation of the cosmos, and toward making practical improvements in the technologies of the time. Such improvements were already under way, carried out by a new class of “mechanicks” who had begun to learn by experience that building a faster ship, a sturdier plow, a better spinning wheel, or the like could be a quick route to prosperity, and encouraged by governments eager to cash in new inventions for the more valued coinage of national wealth and military victory.

The Baconian revolution, like those that followed it, brought with it a specific suite of technologies. Square-rigged ships capable of  long deepwater voyages revolutionized international trade and naval warfare; canals and canal boats had a similar impact on domestic transport systems. New information and communication media—newspapers, magazines, and public libraries—were crucial elements of the Baconian technological suite, which also encompassed major improvements in agriculture and in metal and glass manufacture, and significant developments in the use of wind and water power, as well as the first factories using division of labor to allow mass production.

The second revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s paleotechnic phase—was the Wattean revolution, which got started around 1780. This takes its name, of course, from James Watt, whose redesign of the steam engine turned it from a convenience for the mining industry to the throbbing heart of a wholly new technological regime, replacing renewable energy sources with concentrated fossil fuel energy and putting that latter to work in every economically viable setting. The steamship was the new vehicle of international trade, the railroad the corresponding domestic transport system; electricity came in with steam, and so did the telegraph, the major new communications technology of the era, while mass production of steel via the Bessemer process had a massive impact across the economic sphere.

The third revolution—corresponding to Mumford’s neotechnic phase—was the Ottonian revolution, which took off around 1890. I’ve named this revolution after Nikolaus Otto, who invented the four-cycle internal combustion engine in 1876 and kickstarted the process that turned petroleum from a source of lamp fuel to the resource that brought the industrial age to its zenith. In the Ottonian era, international trade shifted to diesel-powered ships, supplemented later on by air travel; the domestic transport system was the automobile; the rise of vacuum-state electronics made radio (including television, which is simply an application of radio technology) the major new communications technology; and the industrial use of organic chemistry, turning petroleum and other fossil fuels into feedstocks for plastics, gave the Ottonian era its most distinctive materials.

The fourth, partial revolution, which hadn’t yet begun when Mumford wrote his book, was the Fermian revolution, which can be dated quite precisely to 1942 and is named after Enrico Fermi, the designer and builder of the first successful nuclear reactor.  The keynote of the Fermian era was the application of subatomic physics, not only in nuclear power but also in solid-state electronic devices such as the transistor and the photovoltaic cell. In the middle years of the 20th century, a great many people took it for granted that the Fermian revolution would follow the same trajectory as its Wattean and Ottonian predecessors: nuclear power would replace diesel power in freighters, electricity would elbow aside gasoline as the power source for domestic transport, and nucleonics would become as important as electronics as a core element in new technologies yet unimagined.

Unfortunately for those expectations, nuclear power turned out to be a technical triumph but an economic flop.  Claims that nuclear power would make electricity too cheap to meter ran face first into the hard fact that no nation anywhere has been able to have a nuclear power industry without huge and ongoing government subsidies, while nuclear-powered ships were relegated to the navies of very rich nations, which didn’t have to turn a profit and so could afford to ignore the higher construction and operating costs. Nucleonics turned out to have certain applications, but nothing like as many or as lucrative as the giddy forecasts of 1950 suggested.  Solid state electronics, on the other hand, turned out to be economically viable, at least in a world with ample fossil fuel supplies, and made the computer and the era’s distinctive communications medium, the internet, economically viable propositions.

The Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian revolutions thus had a core theme in common. Each of them relied on a previously untapped energy resource—coal, petroleum, and uranium, respectively—and set out to build a suite of technologies to exploit that resource and the forms of energy it made available. The scientific and engineering know-how that was required to manage each power source then became the key toolkit for the technological suite that unfolded from it; from the coal furnace, the Bessemer process for making steel was a logical extension, just as the knowledge of hydrocarbon chemistry needed for petroleum refining became the basis for plastics and the chemical industry, and the same revolution in physics that made nuclear fission reactors possible also launched solid state electronics—it’s not often remembered, for example, that Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for understanding the process that makes PV cells work, not for the theory of relativity.

Regular readers of this blog will probably already have grasped the core implication of this common theme. The core technologies of the Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian eras all depend on access to large amounts of specific nonrenewable resources.  Fermian technology, for example, demands fissible material for its reactors and rare earth elements for its electronics, among many other things; Ottonian technology demands petroleum and natural gas, and some other resources; Wattean technology demands coal and iron ore. It’s sometimes possible to substitute one set of materials for another—say, to process coal into liquid fuel—but there’s always a major economic cost involved, even if there’s an ample and inexpensive supply of the other resource that isn’t needed for some other purpose.

In today’s world, by contrast, the resources needed for all three technological suites are being used at breakneck rates and thus are either already facing depletion or will do so in the near future. When coal has already been mined so heavily that sulfurous, low-energy brown coal—the kind that miners in the 19th century used to discard as waste—has become the standard fuel for coal-fired power plants, for example, it’s a bit late to talk about a coal-to-liquids program to replace any serious fraction of the world’s petroleum consumption: the attempt to do so would send coal prices soaring to economy-wrecking heights.  Richard Heinberg has pointed out in his useful book Peak Everything, for that matter, that a great deal of the coal still remaining in the ground will take more energy to extract than it will produce when burnt, making it an energy sink rather than an energy source.

Thus we can expect very large elements of Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian technologies to stop being economically viable in the years ahead, as depletion drives up resource costs and the knock-on effects of the resulting economic contraction force down demand. That doesn’t mean that every aspect of those technological suites will go away, to be sure.  It’s not at all unusual, in the wake of a fallen civilization, to find “orphan technologies” that once functioned as parts of a coherent technological suite, still doing their jobs long after the rest of the suite has fallen out of use.  Just as Roman aqueducts kept bringing water to cities in the post-Roman dark ages whose inhabitants had neither the resources nor the knowledge to build anything of the kind, it’s quite likely that (say) hydroelectric facilities in certain locations will stay in use for centuries to come, powering whatever electrical equipment can maintained or built from local resources, even if the people who tend the dams and use the electricity have long since lost the capacity to build turbines, generators, or dams at all.

Yet there’s another issue involved, because the first of the four industrial revolutions I’ve discussed in this essay—the Baconian revolution—was not dependent on nonrenewable resources.  The suite of technologies that unfolded from Francis Bacon’s original project used the same energy sources that everyone in the world’s urban-agricultural societies had been using for more than three thousand years: human and animal muscle, wind, water, and heat from burning biomass. Unlike the revolutions that followed it, to put the same issue in a different but equally relevant way, the Baconian revolution worked within the limits of the energy budget the Earth receives each year from the Sun, instead of drawing down stored sunlight from the Earth’s store of fossil carbon or its much more limited store of fissible isotopes.  The Baconian era simply used that annual solar budget in a more systematic way than previous societies managed, by directing the considerable intellectual skills of the natural philosophers of the day toward practical ends.

Because of their dependence on nonrenewable resources, the three later revolutions were guaranteed all along to be transitory phases. The Baconian revolution need not be, and I think that there’s a noticeable chance that it will not be. By that I mean, to begin with, that the core intellectual leap that made the Baconian revolution possible—the  scientific method—is sufficiently widespread at this point that with a little help, it may well get through the decline and fall of our civilization and become part of the standard toolkit of future civilizations, in much the same way that classical logic survived the wreck of Rome to be taken up by successor civilizations across the breadth of the Old World.

Still, that’s not all I mean to imply here. The specific technological suite that developed in the wake of the Baconian revolution will still be viable in a post-fossil fuel world, wherever the ecological and social circumstances will permit it to exist at all. Deepwater maritime shipping, canal-borne transport across nations and subcontinents, mass production of goods using the division of labor as an organizing principle, extensive use of wind and water power, and widespread literacy and information exchange involving print media, libraries, postal services, and the like, are all options available to societies in the deindustrial world. So are certain other technologies that evolved in the post-Baconian era, but fit neatly within the Baconian model: solar thermal technologies, for example, and those forms of electronics that can be economically manufactured and powered with the limited supplies of concentrated energy a sustainable society will have on hand.

I’ve suggested in previous posts here, and in my book The Ecotechnic Future, that our current industrial society may turn out to be merely the first, most wasteful, and least durable of what might  best be called “technic societies”—that is, human societies that get a large fraction of their total energy supply from sources other than human and animal muscle, and support complex technological suites on that basis. The technologies of the Baconian era, I propose, offer a glimpse of what an emerging ecotechnic society might look like in practice—and a sense of the foundations on which the more complex ecotechnic societies of the future will build.

When the book mentioned at the beginning of this essay claimed that “technology will always be with us,” it’s a safe bet that the author wasn’t thinking of tall ships, canal boats, solar greenhouses, and a low-power global radio net, much less the further advances along the same lines that might well be possible in a post-fossil fuel world. Still, it’s crucial to get outside the delusion that the future must either be a flashier version of the present or a smoldering wasteland full of bleached bones, and start to confront the wider and frankly more interesting possibilities that await our descendants.

Along these same lines, I’d like to remind readers that this blog’s second post-peak oil science fiction contest has less than a month left to run. Those of you who are still working on stories need to get them finished, posted online, and linked to a comment on this blog before May 1 to be eligible for inclusion in the second After Oil anthology. Get ‘em in!


Pinku-Sensei said...

"Well before the analysis got this far, of course, anyone who’s likely to mutter the credo “Technology will always be with us” will have jumped up and yelled, “Oh for heaven’s sake, you know perfectly well what I mean when I use that word! You know, technology!”—or words to that effect."

Kunstler gets a very similar response when he talks about the post-peak-oil future: "Dude, you are so wrong. We've got, like, technology!" It's intended to be a refutation in the form of a thoughtstopper in his case as well, but it doesn't work like that on Kunstler. His response to this refrain ended up being his latest non-fiction book, "Too Much Magic." For some reason, I find that title utterly ironic, if not downright perverse, when I use it in the virtual presence of someone who actually practices magic, but as Emperor Joseph II said in Amadeus, "Well, there it is."

An another note, I like your renaming the industrial revolutions after their intellectual founders. Not only does your terminology clarify what these revolutions are about, but also clears up an issue with the other terminology. After all, whatever is "neo" (new) now won't be "neo" in the future, so the Neotechnic of Mumford isn't the new technology now. If one had to stick with Mumford's classification scheme, it would have to be the Mesotechnic, and Fermi's would be the Neotechnic. As for your Ecotechnic, the name has nothing to do with its position in time, so it should be safe.

Finally, I like calling the first industrial revolution the Baconian. That places the Scientific Revolution, which Bacon is also responsible for, on equal footing with the first industrial revolution. As a scientist, I like that.

onething said...

JMG, what do you make of the various claims/documentaries re the inventions of Nikola Tesla?

Andy Brown said...

I think one of the great disappointments to me is that globalization (or at least de-parochialization) of most of the world's communities didn't result in any kind of real cultural revolution. Certainly nothing as transformative and durable as you describe from Bacon's era. Of course, given that bureaucratism would probably be the lead candidate, perhaps that is for the best. In any case, the division of labor shattered our material lives into these vestigial things we call "jobs" and "stuff we buy" and our culture went to consumerism. I'm not sure what we have to show for all this when contraction hits. I'm going to have to continue to give that question some serious consideration.

Dylan Siebert said...

This post has the cogs of my imagination clicking and whizzing...

I've got a tale in the works for the contest- thanks for the deadline reminder. I'm in the research phase right now, and that will involve a brownfield map of my city and a voyage downriver by canoe.

Thanks for another insightful post. You'll hear from me again before the end of the month.

Crews said...

John Michael Greer,

What would the military technology of the Baconian Era or future technologies look like. I was wondering how dependent gunpowder kinetic weapons, "firearms" are on saltpeter/potash/KNO3? I wonder if the advanced mining techniques of our current era will deplete potash resources to the point where gunpowder in unavailable to all but the wealthiest centers of power? Could we see a return of Cavalry and lances? Modern steel is of much higher quality and much more available, so armor might be superior as well. I can't even think of what sort of bizarre form 24th century warfare would look like. Would make for the creation of an interesting novel!

Al Sevcik said...

John -
Here is my entry in your "After Oil" short story contest.

Unknown said...

The lakes behind the dams tend to silt up. not so sure the life span for massive hydroelectric power w/o dredging is measured as long as you say. But, I'm not an expert.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

I would like to expand on a point which JMG's current entry makes in passing:

"The specific technological suite that developed in the wake of the Baconian revolution will still be viable in a post-fossil fuel world, wherever the ecological and social circumstances will permit it to exist at all."

It might be happenstance that social arrangements favorable to the Baconian revolution first arose (as far as we know) in Western Europe in the early modern period, rather than around the Hellenistic Mediterranean, under the Caliphate or in the Ottoman Empire, or in China or India at various times. The resources and information needed for a Baconian revolution had been available since antiquity, but the necessary economic incentives and political conditions never existed long enough to get it going.

'Such improvements were already under way, carried out by a new class of “mechanicks” who had begun to learn by experience that building a faster ship, a sturdier plow, a better spinning wheel, or the like could be a quick route to prosperity, and encouraged by governments eager to cash in new inventions for the more valued coinage of national wealth and military victory.'

At the risk of sounding like a liberal (in the historical sense) economist, I think that's a crucial point. I'm confident JMG agrees, since he mentioned it.

Other social and economic arrangements than the ones that fostered the Baconian revolution might suffice to preserve it or revive it, but not just any arrangements. At some point we may want to discuss what the minimal requirements are.

Handing down proficiency in the skills of parliamentary democracy as JMG advocates is desirable for many other reasons but perhaps not essential to this.

I think the necessary conditions include but are not limited to the rule of law, a form of government other than absolute monarchy, some guarantee of real property and/or intellectual property rights, widespread literacy or a functional equivalent and a class system that isn't too rigid.

For the younger people on this list, or their children, this might be more than a theoretical discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Pinku-sensei, like most practitioners, I got used a long time ago to the fact that people who don't practice magic use the word "magic" to mean habits of mind that are almost precisely the opposite of the ones that mages actually cultivate. It's just one of those things. As for renaming the eras, I'd considered calling the Fermian era the Hesperotechnic...

Onething, I haven't studied his work in any detail, though I've seen a flurry of very dubious cornucopian claims made in his name.

Andy, that's because we didn't actually have de-parochialization. "Globalization" was merely the temporary imposition of one highly parochial economic system, with assorted cultural baggage, onto a large fraction of the globe.

Dylan, excellent. I'll look forward to it.

Crews, if you've got urine -- human or animal -- you can make saltpeter, so I don't expect a gunpowder shortage any time in the next million years. That said, you're certainly right that war will likely take very different forms in the centuries ahead; I'll be talking about that in the upcoming sequence of posts.

Al, got it. If you could put in a not-for-posting comment with your email, that'll give me a way to get in touch with you if your entry is selected for the anthology.

Unknown, dredging can be done with fairly low tech, and even a silted-up dam provides some power. Still, that's an issue, of course.

Tom Bannister said...

Hmm yes I've bin wondering for a while which parts of western civilization might be viably preserved into the far future. For one thing anyway I reckon It'll be a good source of comfort (and hopefully motivation) for myself and for a lot of people to know despite everything that's happened western civilization was still able to bring about some lasting change (hopefully) for the better.

For example, I've been toying for a while with Niall Fergusons book 'Civilization: The six killer apps of western power". His six killer apps are(if you haven't read the book) Competition, Science, Property Rights, Consumption, Medicine and Work. Now of course, the book is very much a civil religion of progress cheerlead and it almost completely ignores the role of non renewable resources in the rise of western power, but, so far as pitching these ideas into the mainstream in a form easily accessible and less uncomfortable to an average person is concerned, it might be a useful starting point.

I guess what I'm most impressed by in the book, is the presentability of the analysis, rather than the conclusions he comes to. Still, as you've said yourself in this post, science producing technological advances initially had nothing to do with non-renewable resources. Similar cases in some form might be made in the fields of law (encompassing proerty rights) and medicine (allowing for all the energy required to keep up our current medical institutions). competition seen in the context of an antifragile model (see Nassim Talebs latest book), might also have some validity. Personally work and consumption I'd leave out. Consumption relies on an abundance of resources and 'work' is far too often simply a deferred gratification/class oppressing weapon in drag.

Anyway thanks for the post.



Glenn said...

There was a pre-Baconian, medieval industrial revolution. The two main factors were the introduction of wind mill technology from Central Asia in the early 12th century, and the Black Death in the 13th.

Europeans had long had water mills, from the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. Stationary windpower (as opposed to sailing ships) was new, and so popular that by 1140 laws were passed (in the Netherlands, IIRC) to replant saplings to replace trees cut for windmill spars.

The Black Death killed so many people that labour was at a premium and wages climbed alarmingly (at least to those who paid them), and there was a huge incentive to "automate" anything possible. The period saw tremendous development in mining, metallurgy, gear design and other ways of transmitting power. (the Lowtech site has a nice series on power transmission).

By the time fossil fuels came along, Europe had a couple of centuries of building non-muscle powered machines. All they had to do was attach the steam engine to all the gears and mechanisms they'd already developed for water and wind.


in the Bramblepatch
Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Redneck Girl said...

In regard to silting behind dams it depends very much on the surrounding terrain. The dam in N. California, Shasta, sends electricity to large portions of western states not bordered by an ocean. It creates a huge lake made mostly of numerous, root like arms that are pretty deep. Its entirely possible to open the spillways and let the river run naturally and that would clean out an amazing amount of fine silt down the main channel. (It being a given that the Sacramento Delta wasn't being used for farming because of rising sea levels or simply lack of residents.) In less mountainous areas a silted dam would make excellent farm soil. It could be carted away or used in place to grow crops and basically be sub irrigated by the river that spawned the dam. ;) Of course that would also depend on what was up-stream, whether or not there was any dirty mining or manufacturing in the area. That is the case for Keswick Dam (which provides power for Redding), just down stream of Shasta which is up stream of a super fund pollution site that can't be cleaned up because it is in large part natural but acerbated by mining, (Iron Mountain Mine), in the late 1800's. The ecological damage from cutting trees for fueling the smelters and the toxic clouds released by them is enough to make a Druid cry a hundred years later.

It appears some members of the human race are masters of destroying the environment where ever they go. It seems 'We' don't know when to leave well enough alone and be satisfied with a little less whenever possible, which is a good habit for a long and prosperous life in a multitude of aspects.


Cherokee Organics said...


It seems that each revolution builds upon the back of the previous until it becomes uneconomic. Makes sense.

An Oil well can be constructed and drilled using energy derived from Oil. As can a refinery, storage, distribution etc. etc.

However, you can't really use the energy output from a nuclear power station to build another power station, you need Oil for this. Therein lays the problem. The energy produced is much more diffuse and very tricky to transport and distribute. If people realised how much energy is lost in the electrical distribution network they'd probably say: "No way". Storing electricity is like trying to catch rain water in a leaky bucket.

Speaking of rain, there is a category four tropical cyclone about to make landfall off the north coast of Australia. Not good as it is about as bad as it gets...

Tropical cyclone Ita - Cooktown

Meanwhile a tropical low which originally pulled tropical moisture down from Darwin (about 4,000km north west of here) has caused it to rain here for the past three days - with another four days of rain to go. In Central Australia, they're not used to such rain:

Hopping mad residents hit by outback flooding at Coober Pedy

The forest kangaroos and wallabies here deal well with such downpours, so they're ignoring it and are out sampling the fresh green pick. I knew the rain was going to be significant when fatso the wombat made an appearance on Tuesday night (despite the rain). Wombats are sensible - but grumpy - creatures that don't like getting wet coats. The tree frogs are happy though.

Oh yeah, getting back to diffuse energy sources, because of that significant rain, the 3.8kW PV (photovoltaic) solar electric system is only producing about 2.6kWh / day for days on end. I mention this to keep it real for the truly fervent believers in a possible (in their minds) solar electric future. If they don't like it - too bad, because it is reality.

Mind you, that much electricity is still hugely useful (especially from an historical perspective) and I simply cut back on my own usage so as to not drain the batteries.



Mark Rice said...

There may be a chance for elements of the Fermian Revolution to survive. At least some computers and electronic communication may survive.

The Semiconductors main ingredient is silicon. The dopants are more exotic materials but much much less of these substances are used.

Optical fiber is mostly glass. Even an Erbium Doped Fibre Amplifier has far more glass than erbium.

I am worried about some of the other components for fibre communication. Photonic Integrated Circuits and DFB lasers use an exotic stew of materials such and Indium, Phosphorus, Gallium and Arsenic. Will Lithium Niobate be available?

But ultimately the question is this. Will we maintain the level of organization necessary to keep manufacturing these thing?

I am less worried about the energy needed for computers. Computers do not need that much power. Some will run off of 2 dissimilar wires pushed into a lime. Treadle powered computers would have ample power to be useful.

The communications infrastructure will take some power so that may be expensive. I doubt we will be streaming movies off the internet after the Wattian and Ottonian revolutions have run their course. Presently terahz of data takes kilowatts power.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, good. Working out some basic set of requirements might indeed be a worthwhile project.

Tom, as I noted in a previous post, Ferguson is one of the most uneven of our living historians, and his "killer apps" might are rather too loaded with neoconservative thoughtstoppers for my taste. Still, so long as you pay close attention to his misses as well as his hits, that might be a good starting point.

Glenn, the medieval industrial system was pretty much the same sort of thing that urban societies had been experimenting with for many centuries -- its importance to the later industrial revolution was mostly in hindsight. (If the Baconian revolution had happened in China or India, say, those societies would have had roughly the same selection of pre-adapted machinery to hand.) That said, you're right that medieval industry is another place to look for ecotechnic starting points.

Girl, no argument -- we're leaving a lot of very ugly messes behind.

Cherokee, Oz really seems to be getting hammered these days! When you see Stumpy toting around an umbrella, you'll know it's time to add ark building to your skill set. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, thank you for mentioning the issue of the level of organization needed to manufacture computer equipment -- most people who want to talk about computers in the deindustrial future avoid that like the plague. The other issue that needs to be considered is whether it will be economically viable to invest any significant amount of real wealth in computer technology when available resources are needed for, oh, food, shelter, and the like instead.

Kutamun said...

Yes , when i talk to mates now about these Malthusian scenarios , i try to recognise that Australia was here functioning before the Age of Oil, and will be after.
I live in an area that the Kelly Gang were known to frequent , having robbed a bank in nearby town . Yes, there was still law and order , despite central government being many days ride away . I suppose the difference between now and then is that the population was much smaller, and was composed of people who were accustomed to singing for their photosynthetic Francis Bacon Sandwich , rather than angry hordes with a much different mindset of instant gratification, instant access to every resource imaginable . It is these angry, ravenous hordes , nurtured in a compost heap of extreme competition and Darwinian struggle that may well prove to be the biggest problem in the event of either sudden or gradual collapse .

. I read an essay on people smuggling operations from Indonesia to Australia the other day , and it struck me that Indonesia currently operates with the facade of an ineffectual  and unfinancial central fovernment that elicits dictums that are simply not carried out , as local police and military outposts turn a blind eye for the highest bidder.
You could argue that most of the world has never even seen the summit of peak oil , much less been there and had to endure a fall  from said lofty peak .
Yea , verily , one does not have to venture too far from information superhighway to see what post ( or pre) industrial looks like.., though generally speaking i find people in these countries far more dignified and graceful in manner and bearing than the average spoiled westerner who has just been told " NO "

While walking in Western Australias capital city Perth recently , i was compelled to stop dead before a house in a built up suburb not ten kms from the CBD ; it was of the old style, wide verandah , corrugated iron, with a large yard with wire and timber chook pen , and many outbuildings , even a small orchard. The lot seemed unusually large for its location , and the owners had clearly sought to preserve its rustic charm, having declined to paint the corrugate , or the outbuildings , which had the look of stable and hayshed . Like Lovecraft wandering through modern new york , i realised i was looking at the old homestead of what was once a working farm, still clinging tenaciously to existence amid the confines of a modern plastic  and steel  , multi million dollar neighbourhood . A shiver went up my spine as i glanced around the densely packed townhouse and mcmansion surrounds , as though i was standing in a wormhole in time , and someone was watching me curiously .....,
Strange days indeed .,,,

Robin Datta said...

Technology is the harnessing, control and direction of energy flows, so as to let those energy flows act upon matter or other energy flows that ultimately act upon matter. The initial energy flows do not have to be exosomatic, as in chipping a stone ax or using a bow & arrow. Even information technology is about controlling energy flows that encode information.

There are three sources of energy, two of which are from the conversion from matter. Fusion in the sun provides solar, convective wind & water, and fossil fuel energy. Fission energy from the breakup of large atoms that were squeezed into existence in long-bygone supernovae provides the energy in nuclear reactors and geothermal from fission within the earth, predominantly of thorium, but also of uranium, plutonium and others.

The one form of energy that does not fall into either of these categories is tidal, which comes from gravitational force and momentum.

Somewhatstunned said...

One way of considering individual technologies might be to analyse them in terms of their:
(1) materials footprint
(2) energy footprint
(3) knowledge footprint

A technology with a high "knowledge footprint" might stand a chance of survival if it also has low material and energy footprints.

(This is just a sketch of an idea - but somebody surely must have already thought this through in more detail? Referecnes please, if anyone knows of them)

Brian Cady said...

Glenn's curious point about windmills and black death adds to an already great post by John. The uniqueness of the Baconian really stands out.
I have a short story entry, at:

The setting is post-apocalyptic, but only as a plot device - I've tried to make it fun to explore what might be considered high-steam-punk ameliorating air's carbon increase. Hope it entertains. I guess it could be clasisfied as 'bargaining' among the stages of grief.


Odin's Raven said...

Genies, even the Technological, may not grant an infinite number of greedy wishes.

Mr O. said...

As I'm in the publishing business I'm glad printing is viable with Baconian technology, but I guess it would be good to become familiar with moveable type and printing presses (or maybe the offset process will still be viable?)

@cherokee organics. Out of interest what sort of things can you run on 2.6kwh/day? Also how viable are batteries in a Baconian world

M said...

Very helpful timeline. As always, I learn something new or have something come more into focus when I read your essays. In fact, nowadays when reading such august media as The New York Times and its ilk, I automatically dissect every article. Most end up in a smoldering heap of illogic, falsehoods, and gross misunderstandings.

One of the main reasons for these failings, as far as I can tell, may actually be related to the Baconian revolution, and that is the idea of specialization. I mean, how can you write about the economy while never discussing the limits of planetary resources? By going to a "top" school and getting work at the NYTs ... or any school and any paper, for that matter.

You mention the Fermi era, and just yesterday I had the NYT "Gotcha" exoperience with this little beauty:

Global Warming Scare Tactics. The first 3/4 of the piece appears to be a critique of how, for lack of a better way of putting it, climate change is "marketed." But at the very end, it reveals itself to be nothing but a plug for nuclear energy. Here's a key phrase that speaks directly to this week's Report:

"Nonetheless, virtually every major national environmental organization continues to reject nuclear energy, even after four leading climate scientists wrote them an open letter last fall, imploring them to embrace the technology as a key climate solution."

Here we note nuclear technology being dusted off and resurrected in these desperate times and asked to play savior once again. Uh-huh.

I hope the authors, Mssrs. Nordhaus and Shellenberger, of the "Breakthrough Institute," are planning to fund the required plants, perhaps from their 401k's. (And no doubt they are developing suitable technologies in their basements for dealing with the nuclear waste.) And so it goes.

Great epitaph:
Here lies the Industrial Civilization. It embraced technology as a solution.

SMJ said...

Hello JMG

Did these four industrial revolutions take place in China at the same time? Or did China have its own independent industrial revolutions?

Tony f. whelKs said...

Firstly, thanks for the reminder about the story deadline -- I really ought to get back to it if I'm going to submit on time! One of my worst habits is deadline-hugging, given a year to do something I usually wait for 364 days before starting.... that's a habit I'd like to break, some day.

I agree the renaming of the 'technic' eras helps to pin down their essential natures, and the suites of technoligies each enables. As for 'hesperotechnic', yes :-))

@Deborah Bender: "It might be happenstance that social arrangements favorable to the Baconian revolution first arose (as far as we know) in Western Europe" -- My take on that is the (major) pertinent factor in Western European society of the time was the religious Reformation. The rise of Protestantism and the consequent breaking of the stranglehold of the Catholic Church on intellectual life probably had a profound significance in freeing up alternative ways of looking at the world. This was the era of iconoclasm, after all.

@onething -- Tesla is a controversial figure, but two things must be remembered - he was brilliant, then he went a little crazy. Much of what is claimed on his behalf by modern acolytes is largely wishful hand-wavy conspiracy-fodder. A fascinating pursuit, but a diversion from doing something productive like Green Wizardry.

On another front, I've dredged my old 'steampunk calculator' out of the spare room and have begun relearning its usage. A very nice Aristo Rietz model that's older than I am. Amazing how much you can forget in a few decades of not using it....

Lizzy said...

There is of course the amazing, phenomenal "two-thousand-year old computer" discovered in 1901, the Antikythera Mechanism. No matter how often I remind myself that we're not the smartest ever, the most advanced ever, sometimes I forget. The thing seems to be, when you look at any of these ancient marvels, people througout timehave had very accurate measuring abilities and skills. They could measure exactly the sun and the stars, to the tiniest degree.

RPC said...

Regarding the ecotechnic ages of the future, I'm rather fond of Ran Prieur's paraphrase of Arthur Clarke: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from Nature."

AA said...

Clock punk, steam punk, diesel punk, cyber punk.

Robert Beckett said...

The Baconian revolution is far from over, having enjoyed a mild renaissance in the 1970's alt-tech movement that lives on in this blog and many others and in the countless grass roots initiatives around the world.
Just this morning I chanced to meet an acquaintance who is in the PV installation business, he is building a Passivhaus near Merrickville, Ontario. Must check it out!
Great post as ever, and Bon Voyage across the pond!
Robert Beckett

Claudia Oney said...

I love Mark Rice's comment, but am not blind to the Archdruid's skepticism. I love my computer…and the internet. Experiencing hunger, thirst, cold and no internet are all in the same list for me. I have lots of books (love the local library) and have many knowledgeable good friends. But here are examples of why the internet provides a foundation for day to day living for me:
• Many seeds are very hard to germinate and although I am a Master Gardener and active at the Ladybird Johnson Wildflower Center, it is the internet that provided dozens of suggestions for germination—not all of which worked but the luxury of the information was wonderful.
• An internet search located a new guardian dog for our little farm. His mother was the chicken guardian on the farm where he was raised and his father walked the family children to the bus and came home when they were aboard. Of course dogs are available within a reasonable drive who will kill coyotes and other predators who threaten stock, but finding one safe with children and chickens is tricky.
• I enjoy warm and informative email exchanges with a fiber processor a thousand miles from me. No one local will take the wool we shear from our three sheep and turn it into yarn. Mail it, select the yarn type I want (from rug to lace weight) and the dyes I want and voila’.

I suppose my point is that information exchange may be a problem in our future, not just for 'discussion' but for hard information necessary for survival.

The Bacon-influenced world was driven in part by the wealth pump operating in the New World, providing, well, lawyers, guns and money, among other things. Glenn is right that in the 11th to 13th centuries a great deal of invention was practiced and information and technology was exchanged in medieval fairs. Mail service is pretty much based on fossil fuels so I worry about that. Without a wealth pump (astroid mining anyone??) I think we may be back to fairs and face to face gatherings.

We'll miss our internet! In response to comments that accuse computer use of interfering with our thinking deeply, I can only say we should treasure these information-rich days. I enjoy my coffee on Thursday mornings with the Archdruid Report and a community that honestly discusses our future. I like access to Russian writers discussing the Ukraine situation; I enjoy Ron Patterson’s report on the current oil situation. I am accused in my family of thinking too much when I attempt to discuss reality and it is comforting to be able to ground myself reading others who also think too much.

Cathy McGuire said...

Wonderful post today! Even though I slept in past dawn and am thus behind in the homesteadette tasks, I wanted to finish reading. I really appreciate the way you clarify and separate the confused muddle that modern credos cover up! I myself am wondering what social/psychological aspects of these revolutions might survive as we slide back down. (I want to believe some will, but I'm thinking it through using as many facts as I can). I will post more in the green wizards blog about this, once I get through some urgent tasks. I got my bees in on April 5th and have already had some wild "bee adventures" which I will post on the green wizards forum/site as soon I can. But animals and plants have first dibs on my time in spring. Thanks again - Thursday mornings are my favorite reading times.

L JK said...

1) We have the ability to build low power solar laptops/tablets/calculators devoid of batteries and lasting centuries (no moving parts) so quite a bit of progress is possible to make some complex electronics durable. Look up the HP-67 from 1979 and how a 35+ year old programmable computer can still work.

2) Sailplanes can be built using wood and balsa and with 16th century craftsmanship so air travel, at least in this form is possible.

Those 2 example show we can keep what is good and durable enough to be preserved for millenias to come. Even technologies now sitting on top of a complex production chain, but with high durability and low maintenance rates.

Moshe Braner said...


As it happens, a friend recently asked me:

"Someone in my class always knows the secret to free and infinite energy. What do you know about Tesla's magnetic motors? This one I've never heard before. Apparently the solution to all our problems was supressed...."

To which I replied:

"I think Tesla is rolling in his grave every time somebody borrows his name to label the latest perpetual motion delusion. I don't know why he, as opposed to the other inventors of his generation, has been drafted into this role.

For some reason, too, magnets have confused people more than other perpetual motion schemes. I don't hear too many people suggesting that sailboats
carry along big fans to make their own wind. But magnet-based schemes are a dime a dozen. There are even those who believe that a magnet outside the
fuel line in a car will somehow make it more efficient, or that a magnetic wristband will cure what ails you.

The great thing about studying physics is that you learn integrative
concepts. Such as: you can't have energy pouring out of a closed system without depleting something within. Conservation of energy and all that. Once you get that, you avoid spending endless hours re-arranging those
magnets in the vain hope that they'll somehow find the way to make them chase each others' tails.

And then there's the perpetual blaming of the energy cartels for hiding all the great free-energy ideas. As if they could stop all those who would market such things, if they existed, as they'd have obvious economic
advantage. Look at how solar panels are now selling in the billions. The oil and coal companies cannot stop them.

PS: I suspect most of the quotes attributed to Tesla are false. (So are many of those attributed to Einstein too, for that matter.) But it's a bit hard to research.

PPS: havn't heard from Rossi's cold fusion ("ECAT") device in some months now!"

Jack Alpert said...

John, Thank you for your views on our course into the future (both problems and opportunities.) I would like to expand on two that you briefly addressed in this piece.

1) there is some small community (that keeps most of the good aspects of present society minus cars and planes, that could support itself on what you call the residual of the hydro electric systems for several centuries. I have outlined the design of such a civilization in a short video "How Much Degrowth is Enough?

2) while the transition to this new civilization is difficult, it is not impossible and we can think about its design and implementation. See video
"Change the Course"

For more information see

Jack Alpert

Moshe Braner said...

@Andy Brown

"I think one of the great disappointments to me is that globalization ... didn't result in any kind of real cultural revolution."

- to me, a great disappointment is that the collapse of the communist world did not result in any kind of real cultural revolution, one that would recognize the limits of both communism and capitalism, to come up with new ideas. Perhaps it's still coming, and I'm asking for it to happen at an impossible speed.

Martin said...

This discussion brought to mind how rapidly technology can change and accelerate - and how rapidly it likely will 'de-change' and decelerate once we have depleted the sources of concentrated and portable energy below a viably accessible level.

For example, my father was born in 1893 (yeah, I'm an old guy) in Ukraine and lived there across his first 13 years. The predominant energy source for doing work of any kind was muscle - albeit there was a water-powered grain mill in the community.

The family emigrated to Canada when Dad was about 14. It was pretty much the same situation - muscle was the prime energy source.

Dad saw a car for the first time sometime around 1916 - he was nearly 20.

He died in 1963; too early to see the moon landing, but consider how much else had occurred during the intervening 50 years.

My point (if I have one) is that the changes that took place between my Dad's birth and now (about three generations - maybe four) were radical and were pretty much dependent on the discovery and use of concentrated and highly portable energy.

When this stuff is gone - or becomes too expensive to extract - methinks we'll revert pretty quickly to the lifestyle my father experienced as a young man.

Moshe Braner said...

re: "the Baconian revolution was not dependent on nonrenewable resources. ... used the same energy sources that everyone in the world’s urban-agricultural societies had been using for more than three thousand years: human and animal muscle, wind, water, and heat from burning biomass. Unlike the revolutions that followed it, ... the Baconian revolution worked within the limits of the energy budget the Earth receives each year from the Sun..."

I think that was not quite the case. The Baconian revolution happened in Europe at the time when Europeans happened to plunder the human and natural resources of other continents. And they did that in ways, and at rates, that depleted those resources just as if they were non-renewable. Think of native Carribeans enslaved in such a way that new slaves had to be brought in from Africa (on an ongoing basis) to keep the sugar industry going. Think of the forests of North America that were quickly depleted by use as fuel, before turning to the inferior resource, coal, out of necessity - just as happened a bit earlier in Europe. Think of the temporary and limited capacity to convince people in the Old World to give up their labor and savings in return for gold plundered from the New World, before inflation kicked in.

f4780e70-c0c8-11e3-9250-000bcdcb5194 said...

JMG, I've been a long time silent reader, too many troll encounters to generally enjoy commenting on blogs. But the other day I encountered this article on Yahoo News, thought you might enjoy it, talk about vaporware!

Jim R said...

The biggest problem I see with these new technologies is that the humans who manage them, the ones 'in charge', those who are good at manipulating and organizing people, do not have more than a faint glimmer of a dim understanding of the science or the technologies themselves.

This has resulted in a nuclear power industry which is wrapped around a weapon program, but which pays little heed to safety and security. The forces at work there are so far beyond the understanding of the 'managers' that accidents which inflict permanent damage are bound to occur.

Likewise, our management tier does not understand the implications of the last couple decades of development in information technology. And by not understanding these implications, the wrong things are watched for 'security' reasons, while the information revolution roars on past them.

And of course, there is the continued concentration of the actual manufacture of this high tech kit into four or five smallish bits of real estate... which may at some point become targets.

Depending on how much longer these trends continue, I can see several dramatically different scenarios for collapse. I will be interesting to watch it begin to unfold.

Jim R said...

Oh, and another one for the bingo cards:
"Nuclear power works great for the Navy!"

Pantagruel7 said...

Just one point on hydro power: silting in of reservoirs limits their storage capacity, but you still have the head of water pressure (which comes from elevation, not storage). Thus the power producing capacity should be as large, but less constant due to reduced storage.

Courer du Bois said...

Re: Gunpowder etc. There are, of course, two different kinds of gunpowder. Smokeless and Black Powder. I dont see us being unable to make black powder anytime soon, if you need KNO3, get everyone around to pee on the same big pile of straw, you'll get it.

Modern smokeless powder is a horse of a different color. It generally involves nitric and sulfuric acid and wood pulp or some other cellulose. Its much more dangerous to make and requires a greater skillset. It might be able to be done, but I wouldnt want to do it.

I dont see armor making a comeback because we still have guns, just blackpowder guns.Blackpowder guns do not necessarily mean muzzleloaders, if we can can make mercury fulminate we should be able to make primers for cartridge firearms of a type similar to the winchesters and spencers rifles of the late 19th century. That is assuming we are able to have enough energy to run an assembly line.

If we dont, we are down to muzzleloaders. Still no armor though..

I'll go back to knapping flint now.

Hey JMG, I'm the guy who was making a bow over at Dana D"s house in Michigan last year.

Doug Darrah said...

Excellent write-up as usual.

I have to say I'm not all that comfortable with the Baconian Return. Much of the "wealth" of that time was looted from foreign lands, with that subsidy factoring mightily into "Man being the measure of all things". The hubris of that era really kicked into high gear the schism between Man and Nature (a struggle that had already seen many species "lose" to the Tool User), and it seemingly self-justified the pursuits that have led us to this point. I suppose the next go round might be different, but with slavery but a fried power station away, I'm not so sure it will be.

Robert Magill said...

(JMG: I posted this Wednesday but must have goofed again. So here goes. RM)

Entry: Post Peak Contest

The War Between Men & Women:
2050 CE

...The War Between Men & Women should have been over before it even started. One party so outguns the other that there never was a contest. The battles were waged over the primacy of pleasure in the lifetime of humans versus suspension of pleasure to a future life. The issue should have been decided long ago...

... If coat of-arms were designed the male crest would feature a rocket hovering over a chastity belt and the female a winged cork on a field of purple over a turkey baster. Ergo, the battle was lost before it began...

...In early days shamans and witch doctors led off the process followed in time by priests, conjurers, theologians and necromancers. These subversives have been abetted in their work by Machiavellian villains such as inquisitors, sin-hunters, witch finders and others despots...

John Naylor said...


This post and some comments highlight the problem of terms like "new/neo" and "modern". A couple of quotes come to mind from books in your de-industrial reading list, in the context of the terms ancient/medieval/modern.

"I see world-history as a picture of endless formations and transformations, of the marvelous waxing and waning of organic forms. The professional historian, on the contrary, sees it as a sort of tapeworm industriously adding on to itself one epoch after another."

Toynbee [abridged]:
"While the division between 'ancient' and 'modern' stands for the break beween Hellenic and Western history, the division between 'medieval' and 'modern' only stands for the transition between one chapter of Western history and another. ...and there is ample reason for supposing that we have recently passed into a new chapter whose beginnings may be placed around 1875. So we have:
Western I ('Dark Ages'), 675-1075.
Western II ('Middle Ages'), 1075-1475.
Western III ('Modern'), 1475-1875.
Western IV ('Post-Modern'?), 1875-?

I dare say that 100 years from now, the idea that around 1970 we entered a post-modern age will be quite a knee-slapper!

I've only thus far gone through the introductions, where the above are found, but I'll get into them in earnest after I complete an upcoming permaculture course. I have a childhood dream of rehabilitating forest, and it's making itself known again in my second half of life. Speaking of permaculture, I think it's a good system, and its adherents mean well, but they're just as likely to fall into the apocolypse/cornucopian duality as anyone else. I've recently seen two individuals in online permaculture forums claim that NASA is working on bringing an asteroid to Earth, and then we'll have plenty of resources. Many other squares in the peak-oil bingo are easy to find as well. I hope to challenge that mindset where I can.

. josé . said...


You might be amused by this breathless announcement:

"Scientists use solar power to make more solar panels" (italics mine)

"The study ... found that the sun could be used to create copper indium diselenide ink..." Copper, indium, diselenide. I didn't bother reading any further (or seeking out the study) to determine the feedstock. I'm confident it's not raw copper ore, raw indium ore, and sand containing selenium. I'm also confident these are not available in one place.

Systems, anyone?

Kevin said...

I very much enjoyed the way you cut the "technology will always be with us" meme down to size. If ever there was a crooning lullaby of self-deceiving incantation, that must be it. Just hearing it makes me feel like I've snuggled up in a warm fuzzy shoe. Seems like you must have used some cold prickly elitist notion like logic or something to do it. Very unfashionable!

Your parsing of the several industrial revolutions was also very informative. I now have a considerably clearer notion of our historical situation vis-a-vis tech, and what is or is not likely to be feasible in future.

Incidentally, I'd like to report a small success in terms of educating friends about peak oil and related matters. Yesterday I received a call from a friend who had been asking himself about renewable energy. He wanted to know why putting solar panels on the roof of his condo and such-like measures couldn't adequately substitute for the usual municipal power sources, as I had told him before. This clearly had him so perplexed that it was like a little cloud of question marks over his head. I explained by using the concept of energy density. Using your example, I asked him what mileage per gallon he gets in his car (33 mpg). I then asked him how much energy it would take take for him to push his car that far. That, I said, is how much energy is embodied in one gallon of gasoline. I could tell this really came home for him. I then followed up by pointing out that the difference between this and renewables is that the latter represent currently incoming energy, while the former is energy sequestered over hundreds of millions of years. Here's the kicker: he got it. He brightened up considerably, his perplexity banished, and said "Oh! Now I get it," thanked me for explaining, and shortly thereafter concluded the call.

For a moment or two, I began to attempt to explain to him about the Hirsch report, the surplus energy needed for a successful transition to renewables, and the too-lateness of our doing so now; but I thought better of it, and cut myself off. I could tell he wasn't ready to hear it yet. For one thing, the too-lateness is the bummer part of the peak oil story. A person has to be properly prepped to hear a line of reasoning that leads to "and that's why our civilization as we know it is doomed." Furthermore, that's not the next logical step of my disquisition. The next logical step would be to explain about EROEI and how it relates to renewables and "innovative" fracking tech and related economic film-flam. If my friend asks me further about such matters, that's what I'll follow up with. But I would probably never have known any of it without the peak oil blogosphere.

Rich Brereton said...


Thanks for your work in this post and elsewhere to disentangle the scientific method from its nasty historical baggage, in order to conserve its value as a system for adaptation to the real world. Do you think ecology's establishment as a science in the twentieth century was a true advance to this end, and a chance for science to diverge from the destructive path it's been on since, oh, at least Mr. Watt's day?

I recently picked up Wes Jackson's New Roots for Agriculture, in which he says that the plow has precluded more options for future generations than has the sword (my paraphrase), and that agriculture has been practiced sustainably - without depleting or eroding the most important non-renewable resource, the soil - in very few times and places since its invention. How much does our ten thousand year experiment with agriculture have in common with our three hundred year fossil fuel bacchanal? Are you optimistic, like Jackson, that applying the scientific method with a generous helping of ecological understanding and ethics can make agriculture sustainable for your future ecotechnic societies?

Maybe the distant future will call it the Leopoldian Revolution, the era when humanity's great agricultural, urban, and industrial projects finally became ecologically wise.

Rich Brereton

John Michael Greer said...

Kutamun, those angry, spoiled Westerners who can't stand hearing that reality has told them "no" will be a serious problem, but a temporary one. That attitude does not make for prolonged survival in a time of crisis.

Robin, okay; so?

Stunned, good. Very good. I don't know of anybody who's really developed that kind of analysis yet, since it's taboo in our tribal culture to think about energy, material, and information limits.

Brian, got it. Er. I'm not at all sure how to read your email; if you could put in a not-for-posting comment that makes it clear what goes between the "at" and the "dot," I'd appreciate it, as that'll give me some way to get in touch with you if your story's selected.

Raven, a nice succinct summary.

Mr. O., I don't know enough about the whole-system cost of offset presses to know whether they'll be sustainable, but letterpress with handset type is viable in a medieval society, so getting good at that might be a good place to start.

M, excellent! That epitaph gets you today's gold star.

SMJ, neither one. China got the Wattean revolution in the late 19th century and the other three after the 1949 revolution, and they were imports; an industrial revolution based on China's own indigenous scientific thought and technology would have been very different, and fascinating!

Tony, now that's a very nice slipstick. Once you get your skills back, teach somebody else how to use one, and you may just have made a real contribution to the future.

Lizzy, I really ought to do a post about the Antikythera mechanism and Greco-Roman gear technology generally, as it teaches a fascinating lesson about the history of technology. Thanks for the reminder!

RPC, nice. I hope he draws the inevitable corollary: "If your technology is distinguishable from nature, it's not advanced enough."

AA, excellent! I'm going to break my usual rule and award a second gold star today for that crisp and funny summary.

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, the Baconian revolution went underground, but it's still there, and I suspect we'll see a lot more of it in the years ahead.

Claudia, postal services, newspapers, magazines, public libraries, and the organized exchange of scientific knowledge all existed before fossil fuels were a significant economic factor. You might look into the career of Ben Franklin, who was involved in all five. As for the equivalent value of internet access and food, well, I suggest you go without food and internet access for a week, have someone offer you one or the other, and see which one you pick!

Cathy, by all means get the chores done first! As for the social and psychological dimensions of the four industrial revolutions, it's a fascinating and rarely discussed issue whether technological change caused those shifts, or whether they simply happened at the same time. I should probably get into that in a future post.

LJK, are you, personally, doing anything to make either of these things happen? If not, you might consider the possibility that you're using these notions as ways to hide from the reality of the future...

Jack, thanks for the links; I'll have a look when time permits.


Thank. You. For. Getting. It.

It's a constant source of wry amusement to me that so many people work so hard at avoiding the simple and readily demonstrable point that you've just made.

Moshe, are you arguing that those habits -- which, by the way, had close equivalents at many other points in human history -- caused, or were necessary for, the Baconian revolution? If so, I'd like to see your reasoning.

f47, I took that as an April Fool's joke. If it wasn't -- well, in that case our culture's descent into deliberate self-deception has gone further and faster than I thought.

Jim, nicely summarized. You're quite right, of course; the decision makers in our society by and large understand nothing but how to manipulate the abstract tokens we call money, which is very poor training for dealing with reality.

Pantagruel, thanks for the detail.

Courer, the first assembly lines consisted entirely of workmen with hand tools, and interchangeable parts for firearms were among the first things produced that way, so 19th century breechloading rifles and revolvers will be well within the reach of a deindustrial technology. How did the bow turn out?

Doug, now explain to me why a Baconian technology must, by definition, exist alongside the specific social forms of the era that happened to be in place when it happened. That sort of thinking isn't unique to you; when I brought up steam technology in an earlier post, several people jumped up and said, "Oh, but that means child labor, etc., etc." I really do need to do a post on the way that the past has been turned into a bogeyman to excuse the equal or greater abuses of the present, don't I?

daelach said...

With a deindustrial future, powerful computers will probably not be available as today, at least not for normal people. How will we be able to communicate confidentially over longer distance (e.g. by letter) if we must assume that Nosy Sniffer Agencies or economy spies may still have computers for breaking encryptions? Or what if we can't trust computers because nobody really knows what the machine is doing in the background?

There is one method that can be done with pen, paper and dice but cannot be compromised even with infinite computing power: The good old "one time pad". The only drawback is that the keys have to be as long as the messages and can be used only once. The key exchange is the main burden, but if you meet your communication partners in real life from time to time, you can exchange enough key material until the next meeting. We will not be communicating world-wide to people we have never seen anyway.

But the point is that this method would have been feasible even with medieval technology.

I have set up a scheme that doesn't require any operating skills more complicated than rolling dice and looking up tables. I think this would fit a Baconian world quite nicely. If anyone is interested, I'll upload it to a webspace.

Moshe Braner said...

The point I was making, and apparently a couple of other commenters said similar things, was that I suspect that the timing of the Baconian revolution, about a century after the "discovery of a new world", is not an accident. I cannot prove it, but my conjecture is that the presence of the plundered wealth -- a one-time drawdown of natural and human capital -- is what made the "revolution" in machinery, mass production, etc both economically desirable and economically possible. The organizational structures set up for the purpose also revved up the industrial growth juggernaut, leading to depletion of the stored, if nominally renewable, resources much faster than could have been.

You ask why, say, the Roman empire didn't do the same, given that it too plundered from afar? Perhaps that's a necessary but not sufficient condition. Or perhaps we can say that the Romans did do it: they did develop a lot of sophisticated technologies and mass produced many products (such as the good-quality pottery you often mention). And their system collapsed when they, too, ran into the limits of their empire's wealth pump operating on a steadily-impoverishing subject populations and lands relative to the empire's steadily increasing complexity. In other words, they, too, did not quite live within their ongoing solar income. E.g., trees for serious lumber and fuel certainly ran short. The Baconian revolution may have faded away similarly, had it not been for the Wattian revolution happening right on its heels.

But why didn't the Romans discover coal?

Rich Brereton said...


You said "I really do need to do a post on the way that the past has been turned into a bogeyman to excuse the equal or greater abuses of the present, don't I?" in reply to Doug Darrah.

Please do! I recently witnessed a far better student of history than me make a similar logical leap to Doug Darrah's - that slavery would inevitably return to the post-peak US. Perhaps you can shed light on this tendency, while at the same time examining the real possibilities for much progress in human and civil rights to be lost in collapsing societies.

Rich Brereton

Moshe Braner said...

re: the US Navy producing fuel from seawater. I actually think it's a real thing, just not quite what it first appears to be. That's because 99% of journalists are energy-illiterate, so they don't explain it well.

The linked article says "US experts have found out how to extract carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas from seawater. Then, using a catalytic converter, they transformed them into a fuel by a gas-to-liquids process. They hope the fuel will not only be able to power ships, but also planes."

My interpretation: they set up a system to use heat and electricity from the nuclear reactors on board the aircraft carriers as the energy source for synthesizing liquid hydrocarbon fuels, using only seawater as the input material. Hydrogen is gotten via electrolysis, and some CO2 is present in the seawater and can be separated, and the two combined chemically in ways not dissimilar to coal-to-liquid or gas-to-liquid facilities. The EROI is terrible, but they have nuclear power to spare, and a need for liquid fuels on site.

SMJ said...

I presume you've heard of Science and Civilisation in China by Joseph Needham?

Maybe something to add to the Green Wizardry library. If not the full version (27 books) then at least the Shorter version (5 books).

Flagg707 said...

The question of limits to cheap fuel seem to be sinking in over at the U.S. Navy, at least to some of the R&D folks. Here is a quote from an article that caught my eye:

"Basically, we've treated energy like air, something that's always there and that we don't worry about too much. But the reality is that we do have to worry about it."


At least they are past the "Great Green Fleet because Technology" talk.

Don't take this as me agreeing with the thrust of the article that the problem is solved and ten years this conversion technology will replace the Permian Basin, as I have a lot of experience in trying to take lab-scale projects up to production scale, but I thought the quote was interesting if nothing else.

latefall said...

@Kevin re breaking people in to this line of thinking

This week's article is another one of those that I plan to use for the purpose. I like it very much as a sandbox for reflection.
There are several alleys hinted at, but the boundaries can be perceived very wide, which helps to get a foot in the door.

As for the "and that's why our civilization as we know it is doomed." part: It is also very much a matter how package this one.
For most people their role in society is of similar importance as their actual wealth. If they take initiative - they may end up in a respected position doing something non-predatory, which they (by then) like and do well.

William said...

Hello, JMG
I like your linking of our recent technological revolutions to new energy sources, and the contrast to Bacon's revolution--in clear thinking, really. I do quibble; as a (retired) physicist, I don't see a basis for identifying the nuclear physics technology of Fermi (reasonable name choice, though) with the basically atomic physics of the semi-conductor technology, which grew more or less naturally out of the early twentieth century work by Bohr and Schrodinger and Heisenberg.

latefall said...

re Return or continue?

You cannot go home. Time goes forward. Do you feel your kids will relive your great grandparents life? Even if they could - why would they, the situation has changed, and they are also different persons with a different upbringing?

re hydropower and silting:
Why should someone who can build canals have insurmountable problems with silting? If you can't build canals - you probably couldn't hook up an electrical generator to save your life.

Also, can't you flush the stuff a intervals? May not be the best options but should work.

A couple of tech suggestions:
Distribute (used) books and articles (printed on both sides!) on regionally relevant technology (e.g. dams and turbines) in places where there's a chance they'll be found again. Now we have the data mobility - later this may become a problem.
Also it struck me that picture based books for learning a certain craft can be really useful down the line. It struck me when I came across books about medical diagnosis, a palpation, microscopy and the like. It is not that you avoid reading through them - but they highlight some very good reasons to learn reading.
Old books on industry standards (possibly with commentary) would also have pretty high concentrations of useful data.

I also thought about making "industrial time capsules" with some hardware, tools, and plans, and books how to read the plans. You hide/bury them and scatter a bunch of pointers that can be interpreted from the right perspective. Then you'd hope that the availability of some appropriate gadget could kick start re-engineering it.
I guess it would be only fair to embody a few drops of fossil fuel in this way for our descendents.
The questions is if we could just let is sit long enough.

Ruben said...


I really enjoyed this post. The first little dialogue was fun, and the breakdown of technology from a monolith into different developments at different times is very useful.


I cannot recommend highly enough Ursula Franklin's The real world of technology.

@Moshe, re: Roman tech
It is interesting to ask why Romans did not develop more, and to layer that with Tainter's work. Perhaps they would have, except they collapsed.

We look to be in a similar situation. Like the Romans, we have developed fabulous and horrible technolgies, and doubtless we could develop many more. But like the Romans, we have a collapse scheduled.


Some people say there are more people in slavery today than every before in human history. The US government estimates that 14,500-17,500 people are trafficked into the US each year.

That would be considerably more than the number imported during "Slavery". Slavery in the United States - Wikipedia

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Ha! vintage archdruidical writing.

It occurs to me you could partly trace the Baconian revolution back to the Italian Renaissance--since that's when humanism took hold--and the renaissance did come later to England, so Bacon and other members of the English Renaissance (like artists such as Shakespeare) were building on that change in intellectual culture and orientation. The English took that and ran with it. IMHO, at any rate.

The Italians had the extensive wealth-pump trade networks prior to the English getting in on the action. Not forgetting the excellent points brought up by Unknown Deborah Bender and others.

Downside of the Baconian revolution? The extreme objectification and commodification of nature that occurred when Baconian thought became a general worldview that valorized using supposed scientific objectivity in the service of efficient exploitation. Woe to the living earth.

All this really only supports your thesis, I suppose.

Re thinking: I have been reading Christopher Alexander's classic "Notes on the Synthesis of Form," which is an excellent treatise using set theory to discuss how to think through design problems in order to come up with truly real-world context-driven solutions instead of design driven by "programs" and theoretical constructs (and maybe the assumptions derived from the myth of progress). You could say they would be "credo-free" solutions, something we'll increasingly need. So we come back round to Bacon, perhaps.

Aimed at architecture, but I would think useful to anyone thinking about how to design pretty much anything that needs to function in the real world.

latefall said...

I've been searching for something similar for a while. I am far from satisfied, but it is a very important avenue to pursue I believe.

I think the general term is "resource efficiency".
In a slightly more realistic scenario this has to be expanded into a extended "life cycle assessment" (LCA) or to the "ecological backpack" (on the kid's channel), or "MIPS" (with convenient externalization, Last week I referenced the proceedings on a related conference from 2013 (500+ pages cc-licensed articles, some are quite good - if only to know how the people tick).

However I am quite certain I will only be happy once the approach is complex enough to be analytically and predicatively useless.

I'd use these factors in "neanderthal man-hours" with "tool/tech coefficient": think, communicate, do
and these basic inputs: space and time, energy, matter
and then I guess you'd have to document the things relationship with the rest of the system. This is where writing and the e.g. printing press shine, and nuclear power has some drawbacks.

It is likely that you'd not have a single number for each of these variables but rather a function (often cross-impacting) that for example describes the "learning curve" of teaching a "neanderthal" reading. This will make him have a higher communication coefficient, but you have the upfront cost of teaching him this (which again requires a teacher...).

Cherokee Organics said...


Fortunately Stumpy, Fatso and Big Daddy (the 6ft+ forest kangaroo with harem) are all resilient to the crazy weather here. Much more so than I. Although they have come to depend on the reliable water and food here over summer. Fortunately there is plenty of good sized timber to build that ark!

The rain is wind driven, almost horizontal and lashing the windows. Not a nice day to be outside as a couple of inches have been dumped. The infrastructure is holding up pretty well. Off the property is another story though as it is very muddy (not here though - mud is a sign of dysfunctional land).

The reserve water tanks are starting to fill, but they'll need at least another 4 inches of rain before they're full.

You know, it is strange, but I've read quite a few independent accounts of how unusual combinations of animals can act in quite a civilised manner when sheltering from bushfires. I'd always dismissed those accounts as some sort of rural legend, but nowadays I'm not so sure.

Hi Mr O.

Great questions.

The system itself uses about 0.5kWh / day.

A refrigerator uses about 1.0kWh / day. The inside of the house is pleasantly warm due to the wood fire (heating, cooking and water), but this means that the refrigerator has to work in order to compensate.

If it gets desperate, the laptop uses about 1/4 of the energy that a desktop PC uses. I don't leave them on whilst they are not in use.

The only things on standby are small things such as weather station, pump controllers, smoke alarms etc. These all use about 0.3kWh / day.

The remainder is used up by lights and pumps (water). Everything else is switched off at the wall. The house pump uses 0.5kW when it is in operation so you can start to get a feel for how tight the usage needs to be.

The old timers used to have batteries in glass jars. I think they were nickel iron (NiFe) batteries and they have a very long life span. The Chinese still manufacture them, but they are really expensive. The batteries here have a maximum life span of 20 years, although I do know of people that have used lead-acid batteries for 25+ years. I have no idea how you could purchase nickel plate, so if anyone has any ideas?

The trick with ensuring a long life for deep cycle batteries is to not use them and keep them charged with an occasional heavy discharge. The more you use them and the greater the energy that you constantly discharge from them, the shorter their working life is.

Just for your interest, after 5 days of this weather, the batteries are at about 80% full. They hold 30kWh of storage. Over winter, they'll get as low as 50% full, but I'm hoping this year that it will be better than this because of the many modifications which go on here.

Great questions.



latefall said...

I am not sure if I missed something but the English version of wikipedia ecological economics category counts only 39 entries while the German one has 113. But it may only be an issue of linking it differently...

As for a rough idea how hard decline will pull on various industries look for a list of "energy intensity" of economics (kWh per $ made). Of course you won't be able to make money with much of the useless consumer junk being pushed today - but there are some trend to be seen I suppose. I may vary somewhat from country to country as well.
I have the stats for Germany (2003) handy (does someone have US or India?) the average was approx 5 MJ per € for general stuff (excluding energy goods such as gas, etc.).
air travel is at 25 MJ/€ (improved 6 in 8 years, but still that is 7kWh @ 20c each for private use - talk about subsidies)
general transit is at 16 MJ/€ (saved about 4 in 8 years)
chemical products 12 MJ/€ (this is an interesting one I think)
Food & feed 5 MJ/€ (the only one with no improvement in 8 years - maybe maxed out using current approach?)
Health & social was the lowest with 2.5 MJ/€

Brad K. said...

I recall an observation that pornography, specifically revenues from pornography, funded and drove acceptance of some of our latter technologies -- cell phones, computers, the internet. It wasn't until porn established a viable revenue stream that mainstream activities were affordable. From MacPlaymate to

But what comes to my mind is the growing role of decadence in the progression of technologies you cite.

An agrarian technology would enable gathering surpluses -- probably the first requirement in supporting warlords and wars in a society.

Further concentrations of wealth, and specifically wealth generated by non-productive means (rents and other forms of taxes, plunder, and various forms of forced labor from marriage to slavery and caste systems) have increased, and driven efforts ever more separated from production of food, shelter, and productive progeny.

I might cite Wall Street as an invention that significantly affected the development of the US and the world. As I gather from reading your writings, most wealth generated in America comes from consuming cheap energy. Which is a problem, now that there is no more abundant energy that is still cheap.

If I understand correctly, a social hierarchy is part and parcel of human civilization. I wonder if what we call "middle class", isn't entirely an artifact of wealth generated by consumption of cheap energy -- and that without cheap energy, there will be much less support for a higher class.

Leo Frankowski comments that it took dozens of peasants to support one night in the field, in 12th century Poland. That, I think, is a social dynamic that sheer lack of wealth will restore.

Derv said...

Hey JMG,

Here is my third entry for the contest, called "The Final Debate." I wanted to explore the same theme as my first short story (the end of the United States as a political entity) while keeping it much more focused on the post-peak condition of the world.

Here you go:

Other comments and feedback are appreciated!

John Michael Greer said...

Robert, got it.

John, that's one of the reasons I find Spengler generally more convincing than Toynbee, who is a bit more stuck in conventional historical taxonomies.

Jose, exactly. You get tonight's gold star for noticing the thing that every economist misses.

Kevin, "cold prickly elitist logic" is a keeper. It reminds me of the irate comment by a manufacturer of bogus Celtic pagan traditions that one of her critics was "mean, cruel, and academic." As for the conversation with your friend, excellent! Definitely take it one step at a time; this is a lot for anyone to get used to in a hurry.

Rich, I'm quite sure that agriculture can be made sustainable, since that has already happened in a good many areas -- consider East Asian rice paddy agriculture, which has maintained stable harvests for millennia without depleting the soil. As I've noted here more than once, I suspect that future generations will consider the development of organic agriculture over the next century to be the most important achievement of our civilization.

Daelach, another simple method is to prearrange with the other person to each have a copy of the same obscure edition of the same obscure book. You agree to use 100 pages from that book -- not pages 1 through 100, but even numbered pages from 130 on or something like that. You send a series of five digit numbers; 34296 would mean the 34th page, line 29, word 6. I've been told that unless the cryptanalyst can figure out what book you're using, a code of this kind is effectively unbreakable.

Moshe, you're confounding two unrelated questions. The first is what conditions were required for the Baconian revolution to happen in the first place, and you've offered a speculative answer. The second is whether the results of the Baconian revolution can be retooled for a sustainable ecotechnic society; that's the question I'm trying to address here, and that's an entirely different matter. In the case of the Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian revolutions, the dependence of the resulting technologies on nonrenewable resources is obvious; in the case of the Baconian, not so, and thus I think it's worth exploring the possibility that a Baconian technology could remain in use on a renewable-resource basis.

Rich, that's exactly the same sort of logic. It's equivalent to insisting that if we return to some older technology, a monster will jump out from beneath the bed and eat us. Yes, I'll certainly address that in a future post, and in the process show that slavery is the last thing we have to worry about in the next couple of centuries.

Moshe, okay, that makes a certain amount of sense.

SMJ, I haven't just heard of it, I've read several volumes of the long edition -- it's an excellent source for information on Chinese alchemy. Similar craft traditions were common in many high civilizations; there was a qualitiative as well as a quantitative difference between those and the industrial revolutions that took place in the western world. (A case could be made that China had its own Baconian revolution, but the other three? No, because the exploitation of concentrated energy resources didn't take place.)

Flagg, if they're beginning to worry about it, that's an excellent sign. They should be worrying themselves haggard about it.

William, in the same way, vacuum-tube electronics didn't strictly have that much to do with the internal combustion engine. Nonetheless they made up part of a common technological suite, as did nucleonics and solid state electronics.

Moshe Braner said...

@JMG: "Moshe, you're confounding two unrelated questions. The first is what conditions were required for the Baconian revolution to happen in the first place, and you've offered a speculative answer. The second is whether the results of the Baconian revolution can be retooled for a sustainable ecotechnic society... the Wattean, Ottonian, and Fermian revolutions, the dependence of the resulting technologies on nonrenewable resources is obvious; in the case of the Baconian, not so..."

- It is possible that technologies from the Baconian revolution can be used in a sustainable way, but that's not proven, since that's not what happened historically.

The same can be said of the other revolutions, especially the Wattian -- it is entirely possible that some aspects of those technologies could be used in a sustainable future. E.g., can run steam engines on wood rather than coal. Can even smelt (a limited amount of) metals, for the steam engine, with charcoal, as has been done in the far past. The vacuum tubes that you suggest for future small-scale radios would also need Wattian technologies.

Dagnarus said...

On the subject of technology will always be with us/they will think of something. I am reminded of the modern Christian parable of the man in the flood zone who believed God would save him. For those unfamiliar with it is stated here, With a few alterations the parable would seem to be a tolerable fit for our current situation.

On the subject of aspects of the Fermian revolution surviving. An aspect which I haven't seen much discussed is that of preserving the algorithms. It is technically possible for any computer algorithms to be executed by a trained human, and it seems likely that it will be practical for many algorithms to be executed by trained individuals in the de-industrial future. Could I suggest that those who use algorithms often in their current work, should learn how to perform those same algorithms by hand, and get a sense of how large of a problem they could practically do. I suspect that scientists who actually know how to calculate a Discrete Fourier Transform in the same way that Guass did in the 19th century, rather than getting Mathlab do it will have a distinct advantage when having access to a computer which can run Mathlab is restricted. It would be a shame if all of these algorithms were lost simply because it didn't occur to people that they could be performed by a human rather than because they actually are impractical in the de-industrial future (which many of them will be).

Also with respect to the book cipher. I would suspect that the problem with that setup is that if the crypt-analysts really wanted to know what book you were using they would probably be able to search both of your respective book collections/check what books you each checked out of the library around the writing/reading of the letter in order to narrow the list of possible books down. Then there is the fact that sending your letters in code will probably be a red flag to any such agencies that they should pay attention to your mail.

John Michael Greer said...

Latefall, industrial time capsules would be useful; so would getting viable technologies back in use, since a living technological tradition doesn't have to be reconstructed from written descriptions and the like.

Ruben, glad to hear it.

Adrian, I really do need to reread Alexander one of these days. As for the downside of the Baconian revolution, granted -- one of the core tasks of the aftermath of any civilization's age of reason is reintegrating the ideologies of extreme abstraction back into a more humane understanding of the world.

Cherokee, "mud is a sign of dysfunctional land" -- or perhaps of dysfunctional land use. That's definitely a keeper!

Brad, it hadn't occurred to me that an increase in decadence was an organizing principle in the transition from one industrial revolution to another, but you're quite right. Hmm! That's worth exploring, no question.

Derv, got it. It's in the contest.

Moshe, that is to say, if you assume without proof that the Baconian revolution must be constrained by the conditions in which it emerged, and you assume without proof that the other revolutions must not be constrained by the conditions in which they emerged, why, then, yes, you can equate them. I promise you that I can prove that a silk purse is a sow's ear using the same sort of logic.

Dagnarus, the idea of preserving algorithms is frankly brilliant -- thank you. As for the code, well, of course it can be broken if the cryptanalysts have access to your personal book collection; the assumption is that they don't. The long strings of five digit numbers are a problem with most codes and ciphers, for that matter.

Raymond Duckling said...


Be extremely careful with One Time Pad. Cryptanalysts love it because it can be proved mathematically to be secure, which is not always true for other more practical methods, but my opinion is that it is borderline close to Mencken's quote: "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

For starters, if you try to use one dice roll per letter (which is already a lot) you are not using a one time pad, but a clever variation of a Ceasar Cipher, which has been known to be badly broken for at least a century. If you use the latin alphabet, you need at least 6 dice rolls in order to produce a number between 0 and 30 (in the ballpark of the number of symbols in the alphabet), but by just adding the result of each roll you will produce a number that is strongly biased towards the middle of the range, another more convoluted but not particulary improved version of the Caesar Cipher variation. So the construction is not trivial, and honestly who has the time to roll the dices so many times!!!

Our host's approach sounds promising, but of course it lacks the mathematical rigor tha makes One Time Pad construction such a bedrock of moder cryptography. The main problem I find in it is that you are limited to encode message whose individual words are all contained in the key book. And if the word is contained just once of twice the attacker will know that you are sending the same code over and over again, even if they cannot at first guess what it is. So, ideally you need two forms of encoding, a short form that lets you send common words in a compact way, and a long form that lets you spell a single word using the first letter of each code, or something along the lines.

By the way, don't you even thing about combining the two approaches. If you use a natural language phrase as a key for the One Time Pad, patterns are going to emerge. This happens because not all sequences of letters are equally likely in any given language. And if you combine two pads with the same pattern, another recognizable pattern is likely to emerge. I am sure there are ways to work around this, but it would require much more effort than what can be achieved by an Internet comment.

Cherokee Organics said...



Nature rarely leaves soil unprotected by plants. Even in some of the coldest alpine conditions Down Under, you'll get every bit of soil covered by plants. Even if those plants have only grown a couple of centimetres in 1,200 years. Destruction of plant communities seems to be a defining human activity.

PS: Scored some massive (get these trees out of our sight) olive trees today for next to nothing. Transport was complex, wet and slow, but they made it back here in one piece. Woo Hoo!

The weather here is filthy. Just shy of 3 inches has fallen in the past few days. On a positive note the reserve water tanks are now half full, which is a real achievement at this time of year. I'm still going to increase the water storage here though over the next few months.

I just seem to be battered from one weather extreme to another extreme here. As time is going on, and it may be my imagination, but there seems to be very little in the way of intermediate (ie. pleasant) weather here.

Cyclone Ita has just been upgraded to a category five (which is as big and bad as it gets). We're talking 300km/h winds and 300mm (one foot) of rainfall every 6 hours for several days. This is the same storm which hammered the Solomon Islands a week or so ago. However, it has since picked up even more energy:

Cyclone Ita shows no sign of weakening

My thoughts are with the people both affected and waiting it out.



latefall said...

erratum re "air travel"
It should be aerospace industry and the cost calculation is apples with oranges at best (kerosene, etc vs electricity). It doesn't change much for the outlook of air travel though.

while I'm at it there's a bit more erratum left over from an old comment on flywheels.
While they supposedly can last far longer than batteries, this was measured in cycle times - which tend to be quite short and frequent in flywheels.
On the longer term energy storage front I've dug up some more info that does not look as bright. The shiniest number unfortunately correlate with frequent bankruptcies or niche applications without perceived financial constraints.
Not sure it means it is impossible to get something useful with a low tech base (some companies are relatively low tech) but it is certainly hard.
There's also the failure modes or maintenance complications to consider for batteries vs flywheels.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Even one-time pad ciphers have been broken by skilled cryptanalysts. The weak point is the key and how it was made. To achieve theoretical uncyptanalyzability, the numbers in the key must be truly random, and true randomness is very, very hard to achieve in the real, physical world -- not impossible, but impractical, or practical only with great difficulty.

Decades ago the pads were made by relatively few typists attempting to hit number keys at random, but much as one can recognize the individual "fist" of a telegrapher using Morse code, so eventually the cryptanalysts learned to recognize the individual "fists" of the typists who created the one-time pads, and then to tease out the non-random patterns in their muscle movements as they typed their pads. This was enough to decrypt the messages encrypted with a typist's pad, given enough encrypted text.

More recently, the keys have been generated by complex algorithms such as so-called pseudo-random number generators. These keys are indeed "pseudo-random," and messages encrypted by them have also been decrypted.

Book ciphers can, in principle, also be decrypted by similar sorts of analyses, given enough encrypted text and reasonable certainty as to the language of the clear message and the key (English or German or, say, Ukrainian, vel sim.). If anything, they are a little easier to decrypt than one-time pad messages.

Of course, not every encrypted message can be decrypted in practice. Sometimes the amount of encrypted text available to the cryptanalyst is too small for these complex statistical methods of cryptanalysis to be applied with success. So rarity of use is an excellent defense against cryptanalysis. Since we are a chattering species by nature, this defense is not commonly used.

Successful cryptanalysis of messages encrypted by these statistical methods is enormously facilitated by the availability of powerful electronic computers. If ever we come to the point where even the NSA and similar agencies no longer have the use of such computers, then of course many messages that could be decrypted in principle will become undecryptable in practice, or not worth the use of scarce or expensive energy to decrypt them.

Diane said...

Hi John
Last night I watched a tv program , Strip the City about the under pinnings of cities. The city in question was Dubai. I was both awestruck and dismayed in equal parts The engineering and technological feats were something else but to see it wasted on short lived tackiness was depressing. Plus the amount of finite resources being wasted never to be recovered, oh dear.
Thinking about it today it seemed to me that this was an unfortunate characteristic of most civilisations elaborate ostentatious displays of wealth that often lead to the downfall of the civilisation.I have always had a what I now see as a pollyanna view, that humanity had reached a level of maturity sufficient to be able to avoid such pitfalls,but increasingly I no longer believe this, its really sad.

lessertruth said...

JMG, having grown used to you as the guy telling us "middle class stuff" will not be around forever, this post sounded positively cornucopian. ;-)

Some other guy talked about gunpowder, that might as well be the energy source for the Baconian revolution. Maybe not in the sense of "something you can base an economy on", but certainly in the sense of a good enough trick to convince people that "things have changed forever". Even though they hadn't, of course, as any competent analysis of military history will show you. But the feeling that it was a whole new world developing was widespread enough to be taken for granted in some writings... This feeling, as for your own definition of magic, might have been the conjuring of the century, the 18th century that is. (This is all guesswork, by the way.)

Anyway, i'm very interested in something i call philosophy of science (albeit my reading list might be too apocryphal) and one of my main working thesis is that technology breeds science and not the other way around. As in Bacon depended on the "mechanicks" but they did not depend on him. And seeing as Bacon would probably loathe this point of view, i just wondered if you had any take on that --- IMHO it has a very important magical (again, your def) impact...

sunseekernv said...

@Moshe re: "But why didn't the Romans discover coal?"

Uh, they did.

But they didn't have the economical transport to get it from Britain to Rome.

And once the wealthy Roman empire abandoned Britain, the industries that used coal there collapsed, with no records of coal being used again in Britain until the 12th century.

Where it was locally available, the Romans used it: not only Britain but the Rhineland and a few places in Italy (Liguria) and Greece (Elis). But without economical transport, large volumes of coal weren't shipped very far, so use was not widespread outside of Britain.

Eduard Florinescu said...

Natural gas accounts for 22% of the world's energy consumption, and demand is growing.

We can say that natural gas could have had some potential but it is the airbag (pun intended) of the world economy when they hit the wall.

latefall said...

re crypto

consider a group of 5 persons, each connected to one person in that group in an obvious fashion and to one in a clandestine (non electronic!) fashion.

The obvious connection may use steganography (btw Bacon did) the clandestine may use dead drops and cipher.

This structure should make the group very low profile but connected and large enough to act effectively.

If every other person in one group also belongs to another group of 5, you have enough crosslinks for a resilient "network of nets" type structure.

It is common practice to collect cipher raw material like books in a raid.
Also social engineering including torture has to be considered of course.

I would suggest using a mnemonic phrase to together with a shared algorithm to extract a transient key from the environment (e.g. parts of the speech of a politician or a coke ad).

As an example:
Take "the state of the union" address, go back X sentences from the end and use that text as basis for e.g. a
Or use every initial letter after the first mention of the word "growth" to fill up your first line in the checkerboard. I guess with some practice this can be done without pen and paper altogether. But it is simple even so. It takes less than a minute to set up and takes very little previously shared data and memory.
Also you can let people in on the (secondary) key but can cut them out in a year.
Of course when the president is gone you better have a backup plan.

All you need to start is to talk 5 minutes with two or three persons you trust, and possibly define a trigger.

SMJ said...

I often wonder what the world would be like if things developed along the lines of ancient Chinese thought.

Do you apply much Chinese alchemy to your druid practise?

Marc L Bernstein said...

Perhaps one could mention that the advent of modern technologies related to wind power and solar power represent the final stage of the industrial revolution (post-Fermian), even though the technologies are less advanced than those used in nuclear power plants. In fact, the generation of electricity by means of wind turbines requires only 19th century physics, the theory of electrical induction of James Clerk Maxwell.

Let's hope that Maxwell's work and ideas are preserved during what could easily be a long dark age for humanity, starting perhaps some time next century.

Wind turbines might continue to function for awhile after most internal combustion engines have been abandoned, and most nuclear power plants have been shut down, decommissioned or abandoned. Wind turbines should be able to outlast coal-fired and natural gas-fired power plants too.

It might be a strange sight to see horses dragging behind a large wagon with replacement parts for a modern wind turbine, but such an idea might not be so far-fetched. We will probably never see such a thing but our grandchildren and great grandchildren might.

Luckymortal said...


But I wonder if our combined technology suites don't act as an accelerator pedal, speedily burning us through the essential resources that support even a basic civilization, let alone an ecotechnic one.

Like Easter Islanders, will we wake up and find we've burned through our foot of arable land, our last inch of topsoil?

I wonder if the momentum of our technology won't necessarily propel us to turn increasingly (and unsustainably) to our trees, when fossil fuels reach a certain price. Will we burn every last thing we can before its done? The trajectory, viewed through the prism of history, implies that without some "magical" enlightenment, we will. Burn, burn, burn.

Luckily, Baconian technology is based on "renewable" resources, which, uh, will renew themselves given time.

But that implies to me that there may be a "breath" between what we have now, and what rises from the ashes.

Lamont said...

Have you ever noticed how someone getting angry about a vague issue ("technology will always be with us" he yelled)gives that issue a moral foundation?

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


You said, "As for the downside of the Baconian revolution, granted -- one of the core tasks of the aftermath of any civilization's age of reason is reintegrating the ideologies of extreme abstraction back into a more humane understanding of the world."

Oh, yes, of course--I forgot about integrating the sequence of industrial revolutions of this post into the larger pattern of the cycles of civilizations' developmental stages.

So the task in light of that model, as I understand it, and which I suppose is a core theme of your work, is not only to carry on the scientific method (and systems thinking), but to marry that to an ecologically-based ethos/understanding/reverence. Plus love, arts, intuition and so forth. Appropriate technology would be the result. (This is simplified--otherwise I'd have to write a whole essay.)

Re Alexander: I'd been relying on "Pattern Language" for years as a foundational text for thinking about house and garden, but hadn't read "Notes," which really does offer a more general tool for approach to design. And working one's way through the logic is good mental exercise!

Nano said...

Dagnarus and JMG

I'm curios, what kind of Algorithms would be useful to the de-industrial future?

Nano said...


The scariest part, for me, is that it will more than likely take, WAY LESS, than three generations for us to return to that type of energy input.

One of my priorities is to give my children the mental and physical tools/training to make their way among the rubble.

team10tim said...

Hey hey Somewhatstunned,

(1) materials footprint
(2) energy footprint
(3) knowledge footprint

You might want to look into the work of Kenneth Boulding. He did a lot of original work in economics, specifically evolutionary economics: "What the economist calls "capital" is nothing more than human knowledge imposed on the material world."

I don't have internet at the moment (except at work, were I should be working, or I would dig up the links.


Richard Larson said...

There are so many options available to people, even in a decline from a revolutionary era, I highly doubt that most of the people now dependant on current conditions will be able to adjust fast enough to have a life they personally would think is worth living. Thanks for parsing these three distinct revolutions (circles).

Meg said...

I suspect that future generations will consider the development of organic agriculture over the next century to be the most important achievement of our civilization.

I suspect you're right that organic agriculture's fully developed form is yet to come. That said, its beginnings lie on the cusp between the Ottonian and Fermian eras. To which would you assign it? The former, on the basis that Steiner and the field of agro-ecology appeared in the interwar period? Or the latter, on the basis that it 'took off' in the 40s and, as you say above, the tech is still maturing?

Nick Vail said...

Thanks JMG.
Wondering if you would comment on the megafauna extinction that followed the last iceage, and how that relates with the topics you are discussing here. I think it's fairly evident that it was mostly caused by humans.
It seems that resource depletion to the extent of causing collapse and extinctions is a recurring theme in human history.
Of course now, instead of atl-atls, we've got MIRVed ICBMs.

John Michael Greer said...

Raymond, it's exactly because it lacks mathematical rigor that I like the shared-book code; people who like mathematical rigor, a category that includes most of the cryptanalysts I've met, tend not to be interested in it, or to think of it.

Cherokee, olive trees and grapevines were the foundation of the sustainable agriculture that gave birth to ancient Greece -- good for you! As for Cyclone Ita, that's ghastly news -- the "big" storms that have hammered the US in recent decades were much less powerful. I hope everyone's treating this with utmost seriousness.

Latefall, true enough -- batteries look like the solution mostly to those who haven't tried to work with them. Energy storage is always a challenge!

Robert, oh, granted. Given enough computational power, any code or cipher can be broken by brute force methods. The question is simply how long those brute force methods will still be available.

Diane, as I see it, human beings are human beings, and the level of maturity you see around you right now is about par for the course. That can certainly be depressing if you've grown up thinking that we're getting smarter all the time!

Lessertruth, that point of view is fairly common in some branches of the history of science. I tend to think that it's a little too simple to see technology as the driving force and science as the result -- there are feedback loops, and inputs from other sources -- but it's by no means completely misguided.

Eduard, a fine metaphor!

Latefall, and that's also an option, of course.

SMJ, yes, especially when interpreting the fragmentary material we have on Western subtle-energy traditions and practices.

Marc, in my post-peak novel Star's Reach (concerning which I expect to be able to make an announcement soon) I have a canal boat hauling a wind turbine to what's now Illinois; doubtless the farmer used a wagon to get it from the canal to the farm.

Mortal, exactly. The breathing space is called a dark age, and we'll be talking about it in the upcoming series of posts.

John Michael Greer said...

Lamont, for certain values of the term "moral," yes, indeed it does.

Adrian, good heavens, I don't expect anybody to keep track of the whole sprawling structure of the ideas I'm trying to introduce here -- I have enough trouble keeping track of them all myself. ;-)

Nano, I'll have to let Dagnarus field that one.

Richard, I've lived on a hippie farm with no electricity, central heating, or running water, and found life very much worth living on those terms! It's probably worth a series of posts down the road a bit on making life worth living in grubby times.

Meg, my take is that we haven't yet seen the organic/biotechnic revolution yet. Steiner and Albert Howard were in roughly the same role as Thomas Savery, who came up with the first workable steam pump in 1698; a figure equivalent to James Watt is still to come.

Nick, the role humanity had in the megafauna extinctions is still hotly debated among paleontologists, with rapid climate change and the collapse of ecosystems also a leading candidate, and a mix of factors probably more likely than any single-factor thesis. That is to say, the morality play that casts humanity in the eternal role of ecological villain isn't any more useful than the morality play that casts humanity in the eternal role of creative hero; a less simplistic view strikes me as considerably more productive.

Val said...

If storms like Ita become much more frequent due to climate change, it's likely to prove bad for shipping for a long time to come. You can forget about sailing anything in 300 km/hr winds. Also, I gather frequent storms tend to generate the conditions that are likely to produce what are called "rogue waves." These are comparatively unusual, but quite real. Your vessel only has to encounter ONE huge wave for your voyage to be over very quickly. Consequently, it may be that shipping will have to observe more restricted seasonal good weather windows - a circumstance that may prove somewhat hampering to future international shipping, I fancy.

ganv said...

Nicely done. The technologies of the 'industrial revolution' have indeed included many phases and tracking them by the energy sources is a pretty good division. A challenge is that the scientific insights that developed in different phases of the revolution are not so tightly tied to the energy the telegraph doesn't really go with the steam engine. (Most early electrical discoveries were actually made with chemical batteries). And solid state electronics don't really have any substantial connection to nuclear power. (Solid state electronics relies on properties of semiconductor crystals that are totally free of any nuclear reactions.) I would argue that we don't really know what technologies will be available to scientists who understand quantum mechanics, electro-magnetism, material science, and biochemistry, but don't have concentrated fossil energy sources. There is very little historical precedent since coal power was already widely available before the science developed. I agree though with the main point...that the scientific part of the industrial revolution will likely survive but the parts dependent on concentrated energy will not. I would guess that not just the early modern science, but most all of the basic scientific story ( how matter is made of atoms from the periodic table interacting by electro-magnetic forces under the laws of quantum mechanics and all the way through biology) will survive. It is just too useful even if energy supplies are tight. Now what technology we will make with it...that is very hard to say.

Andy Brown said...

I like the 3 footprints idea that Somewhatstunned proposes. You can easily see how a summation of the three tells you much more than any of the three alone, materials footprint, energy footprint, knowledge footprint. But as I think has been pointed out by this blog several times, there also has to be an accounting for the plastic nature of desire or usefulness. Maybe we need an additional image, a "sandbox" of desire to hold those footprints. If the sandbox grows too small then all the calculations of footprints don't matter at all, unless it's to shrink things down to where people can be bothered again to make use of a given technology.

John Michael Greer said...

Val, ships used to go missing with all hands all the time; it's only since about the beginning of the 20th century that that more or less stopped. So long as the economic return on shipping is high enough to cover the losses, shipping will continue -- though you're doubtless right that it will become a seasonal thing, with ships staying well clear of the hurricane and typhoon belts during the wrong part of the year.

Ganv, no argument there -- this is why I noted in the post that such things as vacuum-tube electronics might well turn out to be viable in an otherwise Baconian world. The task of sorting through the legacy of the last three hundred years, as I've noted here repeatedly, is going to be the great intellectual and technical challenge of the next millennium or so.

Andy, "The Sandbox of Desire" sounds like a novel from the 1920s. That said, you're quite right -- there also has to be an accounting of competition between technologies that need the same limited stock of resources.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

My earlier comment about the relevance of sociopolitical conditions to technological advancement was prompted by memory of a science fiction story I read decades ago. I don't remember the title or author, only that it appeared in an anthology of various authors' work, probably a Year's Best. IIRC a minor character was a babe named Mnemosyne, who couldn't talk, so the protagonist remarked that she was "beautiful but dumb."

It was a time-travel story set in the Hellenistic period. Remarkable advances in both theoretical sciences and useful inventions from people like Archimedes occurred during this period. But it didn't last, and the Romans weren't much interested in developing the theoretical side.

This story examined the question, "Why didn't it last?" by sending a mid-twentieth century engineer or some such back in time to teach modern chemistry and how to build a steam-driven ship. He got funding for the prototype steamship, but it wound up being a one-off for cultural reasons.

If this rings a bell for any of the middle-aged SF readers here, maybe you can identify the story.

onething said...

Says JMG:
"That sort of thinking isn't unique to you; when I brought up steam technology in an earlier post, several people jumped up and said, "Oh, but that means child labor, etc., etc." I really do need to do a post on the way that the past has been turned into a bogeyman to excuse the equal or greater abuses of the present, don't I?"

Indeed, at one time, having read a bit of Buddhist literature on freeing the mind of its conditioning and together with a quote that I cannot currently find but which could be paraphrased as "It is easy to see the foolishness of prior ages (or other cultures) but we are quite blind to the foolishness of our own time" I've spent quite a bit of time attempting to do just that and it really is difficult. We are so immersed.

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks. A mature Olive tree can produce at least 1 litre of Oil per year, so it is worthwhile getting a head start and obtaining some older trees.

The cyclone was pretty nasty by all accounts but has since been downgraded. You wouldn't have wanted to be there though.

Life here Down Under reminds me of part of Rudyard Kipling's poem - If:

If you can dream---and not make dreams your master;
If you can think---and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build'em up with worn-out tools;



Paul K. said...

I really enjoy your writing, as always. I noticed a missing "be":

it’s quite likely that (say) hydroelectric facilities in certain locations will stay in use for centuries to come, powering whatever electrical equipment can *be* maintained or built



daelach said...

@ Raymond:

In the way I have set up the dice stuff, you need two dice rolls to produce a number between 0 and 35: 6*(dice1 - 1) + (dice2 - 1), that gives the latin alphabet plus the 10 digits. For sparing the calculations, I have made a table which dice combination corresponds to what character/digit. Plus that this way ensures a uniform distribution. Never just add the dice numbers because that gives a bell curve (as any backgammon player will know).

Oh and btw, using a natural phrase as key is known as Viginere cypher, and that has been broken about 150 years ago - without computers, naturally. I could break a Viginere cypher myself with pen and paper, given enough time and enough cyphertext.

Setting up the one time pad scheme the right way isn't trivial, but using it is easy - that's work sharing. Like forging a knive is difficult, but using it isn't.

I estimated that you need about 5 seconds per throw including looking up the table and writing down the result, so for a 160 character pad, you need about 15 minutes. For an easier start, I have developed a computer program that will throw out lots of pads - though programming "randomness" on a deterministic machine is difficult, especially because you can't use the usual random() functions.

Of course, you will not encode long and winded letters, rather important portions. Or maybe if we have a Baconian future, maybe with a good deal of warlord feudalism (like in most failed states even today), there will be a job for a cryptographer whose task it is to cypher the letters of those in power. Like Thomas Phelippes who worked for Francis walsingham. Phelippes cracked e.g. the letters from and to Mary Stuart.

The book approach has an even bigger problem: if ever the secret is broken (the used book gets known), messages can be compromised in hindsight, so that's like a ticking time bomb. Onetimepads will never be broken once both sender and receiver have destroyed their pads after use. Torture can be used with one time pads, but there is no way to tell whether the victim is saying the truth. On the other hand, torture would be useful with the book message because the victim's statement can be verified: only the correct book will decrypt the collected encrypted messages into meaningful cleartext.

@ Robert:

Onetimepads have not been broken - the Venona project where the Soviets' OTP encrypted messages where proken was only possible because the Soviets reused the pads in the chaos of wartime conditions. Of course it is breakable if you reuse them, but then this isn't a one time pad anymore.

Plus that it is obvious you can't use the usual random() functions on a computer because their "secret" is the seed value, a 32bit integer - so it comes down to a 32bit encryption, and that's nothing if the opponents still have computers.

Claudia Oney said...

Yes, one would always choose food over internet access as well as art, science and all public services. I think my point was that in creating a life worth living we need skill and a rich information exchange. Dear Ben Franklin, what a fine mind. But he lived in a fat new land full of resources. I find great inspiration in your thinking since it is so positive about human inventiveness in lean times.

Dagnarus said...


Two examples of algorithms which I think should be preserved is how to to find the natural log and natural anti log of any given number. I remember when I first came upon this blog there was a discussion about slide rules vs log/anti-log tables and whether or not it would be possible to preserve said tables. What I thought was noticeably absent from that discussion was preserving the knowledge have how to calculate the tables, and consequently how to work out the measurements for your slide rule, would be invaluable to anyone who wishes to preserve either of those two technologies.

That said more generally I'm not certain. One of the reasons why in my original comment I called on those who used algorithms regularly in their work to learn how those algorithms worked is because those are the people who are most likely to known how the algorithm is used and thus how applicable they actually are. For example I mentioned the algorithm to calculate a discrete Fourier transform. While I know that the discrete Fourier transform is used extensively today for a multitude of different purposes, and has been around for at least a couple of centuries, I personally have no experience of using it in my own work. Thus while I suspect that it would be useful for scientists to learn the fast method of calculating the transform by hand (the obvious method for calculating the transform is orders of magnitude slower than the fast methods which have been developed), I think those who actually use it would be in a better position to comment on it's application in a de-industrial future.

I personally am interested in linear programming, which is a method of maximizing/minimizing profit/loss with respect to a system of equations. Unfortunately this also falls into the category of something which I don't have much practical experience with (My career thus far has been involved with things which I'm pretty sure are going to be of very little use after the long descent) but I know that it is currently used for many diverse problems, from working out the cheapest way to fulfill all of somebodies dietary needs to how to best transport supplies to where they are needed. As such I'm interested to see how practical it is to do a reasonable sized problem by hand and which of the currently used algorithms is best for a human computer. It will be interested to see if LP and related optimization methods will have a place in the ecotechnic future.

John Michael Greer said...

Unknown Deborah, hmm. I must have missed that one; it doesn't ring a bell.

Onething, no question, it's difficult -- but even making the effort can be very helpful indeed.

Cherokee, excellent! You get today's gold star for an apposite bit of Kipling: good advice, and not just Down Under.

Paul, yes, typos do get through the editing process now and then.

Claudia, the same technologies Franklin used were also much in use in 18th century Germany, which was neither young nor plump, and spent most of that century being repeatedly stomped by other people's armies. If history shows that something can be done quite handily on a sparse resource base, suggesting that it can be done on a sparse resource base again isn't optimism, it's realism.

latefall said...

I am currently fiddling with plans for human powered lifting using trusses supported at the waist.

Trusses are pretty neat things and should keep some maths alive in a wide range of settings, this example is from the 18th century:

My idea looks a bit like a half lens with 4 wooden 1.4m meter compression beams and 3 overlapping ropes in tension, with the load dangling from the apex. It is fixed with slings and one extra rope to secure the load against swaying.

It would be the next step up from a "forearm forklift" and one step under prepared path with wheelbarrow or similar.
It can be used very nicely to catabolize the glass windows from skyscrapers methinks.

The apex T-piece could double as seat or saw stand (the way I have it in mind).
If you switch it for an X piece you can lift heavier stuff but need a wider path and better walk coordinated. You might want to have a person assisting at the side in the 2-lifter configuration even.

When you're done working you only need a bit of tarp and you have a tent.

If you neglect buckling for the moment you can get a 1 t lifting capacity (+ 3x safety factor) with approx 10 kg of kit, split on two persons. Fiber reinforced plastics should be considerably lighter (but more fragile) still.

This thing has good chances to be built in the near future as it stows away very well and is quite versatile.

It always gives me the creeps seeing what loads people are carrying on their backs and shoulders in a scarce environment...

Robert Mathiesen said...


I think you're slightly mistaken about one-time pad cryptanalysiss, depending on what one means by the term "one time pad." But this may be a minor quibble only, taking us into the realm of "no true scotsman" arguments.

A one time pad system, if each pad is used only once and each pad is truly random, is indeed unbreakable in principle. As you say, if a pad is used more than once, messages encrypted with it can be decrypted.

If, however, the pads are not *truly* random, then, too, the system is breakable in principle, *provided that* you can recover the algorithm by which all the pseudo-random pads were produced for that system -- and provided that you have enough encrypted messages to work with.

In this case, even if each one-time pad is used only once, the precisely defined "family of co-generated one time pads" is used more than once. And that is a weakness which a cryptanalyst can exploit.

Here, too, one could quibble that such a system has ceased in some real sense to be a one time pad system.

jansprite said...


I just finished a story for the contest, here is the link:

Also, I did submit a novel to Founders House Publishing. Even though it was nearly done when you posted the "return of the space bats", it still took me almost to the deadline to get it ready to submit.

Back somewhere in my writing frenzy, you posted something about "American Exceptionalism" attributed to Stalin, and I thought I remembered it from American Studies classes several years ago. I looked it up, and it was Alexis D'Tocqueville, also reference to John Winthrop and the concept of "city on a hill". But the context was different, and your reference to Stalin was a better fit to your post (I can't believe my audacity here -- I'm not criticizing, but agreeing with you). I have slowly been reading my way through this blog, and the green wizards blog, but there never is enough time to do all that plus everything else.
Also, while I'm here, I did submit a story way back in February, but don't know if you got it -- I'm very new at this stuff. It was:

just in case

I will continue to write, hopefully have something else by May 1. Looking forward to writing something different than the book I just emerged from, still blinking at the light!


Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- thought-provoking post, as always.

New submission for your Space Bats contest:

Allie said...


Just wanted to share this post with you. I'm sure you'll find it amusing.

It's the seawater into liquid fuel trick...

Mark Rice said...

Off Topic -- at least off this weeks topic -- "The Germ Theory of Democracy, Dictatorship, and Your Most Cherished Beliefs”.

But somehow this fits with other weeks topics though. This makes a plausible case that cultures in colder drier climates have less of a disease problem. This makes them less xenophobic, and authoritarian.

dltrammel said...

Here's an interest take on Industrial Revolutions with a "Game Of Thrones" slant.

"Why Westeros Is Stuck In The Pre-Industrial Era"

Since the World of GoTs has had 6000 years of human habitation, you would expect that some sort of industrial revolution would take place.

The article makes the argument that Westros lacks these things that would make advancements possible.

1) Lack of a banking system and credit.
2) A long period of peace with the previous rulers
3) Lack of fossil fuels

and most importantly

4) A captive knowledge base controlled by a select group.

I took that argument and consider what it might mean in the Long Descent.

My donkey said...

I would have enjoyed learning History in gradeschool and highschool in the way you've presented it here -- as living processes that occurred for specified reasons, the impact they made on society, and what relevance they might have to today's world.

Unfortunately, I was taught: "This happened... and then THIS happened... and then THIS... etc." and my job, apparently, was to memorize the names and dates of events, and periodically reproduce that information on paper.

Looking back, I don't know whether the rationale for that kind of teaching was to minimize the mental energy required of students/teachers, but it might help to explain why so many people can barely think nowadays.

Karl said...

I have to give this economist points for originality, as I have not seen this comparison before.
The stagnation of the Ming may carry important lessons for a more modern superpower: The United States. We too are a huge, rich, powerful nation that for much of our history has dominated the field of competitors. We too have a whole century of dominance — the 20th — under our belt. And if there's one thing we don't want to do, it's turn into the Ming.


The fact is, America had an extraordinary run of success in the 20th century. We got used to thinking of our country as The Future, as No. 1, as the place where everything happens. But other countries have been racing to catch up with us, and in some ways they have already succeeded. We need to get out of our bubble and recognize the innovations other countries have achieved, and reform our institutions in order to keep up. Otherwise, we risk becoming a stagnant superpower. "Ming America" must be avoided at all costs.

John Michael Greer said...

Latefall, build that puppy, and get the plans into circulation. That's very much the sort of thing that's needed.

Jan, glad to hear about the novel! I got both stories; if you can put through a not-for-posting comment with the name you want on the story, and an email address where I can contact you if one of your stories is selected for the anthology, that would be great.

Joseph, got it.

Allie, funny. I'm sure we're going to see many equally silly things in the years ahead, as people keep trying to convince themselves that they can have their planet and eat it too.

Mark, except that history doesn't support the basic assumption; there have been plenty of tropical cultures that weren't xenophobic and authoritarian, and plenty of cultures in the temperate zone that were both of these.

Dltrammel, that's a classic. Notice the underlying assumption that of course all human history must inevitably end up producing the kind of society we've got now, and if that doesn't happen, there's got to be some special reason why. (Of course the simple lack of fossil fuels will do the trick...)

Donkey, I'm more than half convinced its more than that. Just as phonics was abandoned to keep kids from learning to read faster than the teacher wants to teach them, historical thinking has been ditched to keep kids from asking hard questions the teachers can't answer.

Karl, thanks for the link! It's an interesting comparison, though the biases of the author come through a bit too clearly for my taste.

Nick Vail said...

Ok; let us bear witness then to the cod species in the North Atlantic for the last five hundred years; or the bison and buffalo on the North American continent; or the relationship with many various whale species from different cultures in the near past; et cetera.
Rather than simplistic morality play, what I am proposing, my dear druid friend, is merely a thought experiment: that amongst the complex diversity of patterns and drives of our species, what if, in our ignorance, perhaps suicidal tendencies were at play in our collective mind?
I recognize and appreciate the unveiling that you have done with the extremes of those who value "progress" and those who preach "apocalypse."
However, based on the Fermian technology you discuss, an elite minority of our species now has the distinct capability of terminating most life on the surface of the planet.
What I am getting at is that our general sense of ethics and morality, let alone the complex diversity of our other drives, have not evolved as quickly as the development of our technological prowess that you discuss here in terms of the 4ish recent industrial revolutions.
I am not casting our species as hero nor villain; of course it is more complex than that. What I'm asking is, what if, in our ignorance, in the spectrum of our mental activity, there seems to be a historically perceptible proclivity and penchant for destruction?

Cherokee Organics said...


Many thanks for the gold star.

It was the last two lines of that part of the poem that struck home for me. Living with the risk that every summer a fire could come through here tends to change my perspective on the apparent solidity of infrastructure and the transient nature of things.

Plus, I reckon it is a good metaphor for catabolic collapse too.

The sun finally made a special guest appearance on Sunday. I spent two days at a mate’s farm helping them out with all sorts of set up things. It is amazing how much knowledge you pick up on this journey and it is great to be able to help out others as they too are starting out. Fun stuff.

On the negative side of things, there was a bit of bureaucratic craziness recently around here recently.

The local council graded the dirt road here a day before the rain hit... Not good... Mmmm roads are good - when they work. I was put in mind of the historical descriptions of the early bullock tracks through these parts. Not passable when wet.

The state country fire authority is upgrading their radio gear from analogue signals to digital. It is a bit of a nuisance because I (and a whole lot of other people) use a scanner to listen in to what is happening when there is a big fire. They have internet updates, but generally people are on the move and the mobile phone network becomes patchy. Part of the reason for the patchiness is that people constantly call and send messages saying, "I heard about the fire, are you OK?". Thoughtful, but it overwhelms the network. Oh yeah, anyway, the point of this is that analogue scanners that people currently possess and know how to use will no longer be of any use.

If they go to some obscure frequency and potentially even encrypt the transmissions, there is no chance of listening in. The brigades are mostly manned by volunteers, but they have families, friends and people at properties which all would like to know what is going on. Crazy stuff.

I gave them a couple of years of my time.



William Lehan said...

An email investment solicitation I was skimming this morning opined, with the breathless hyperbole of such things, that deepwater oil exploration was the "final frontier" for oil drilling, and that there were potential oil fields as large as or many times the size of the Bakken Shale off the coast of Brazil.

Despite the hucksterism, I couldn't dismiss this from my mind. Does anyone have any thoughts on whether deep -water drilling may become economically viable? It seems to me that such resources, made available, could extend the oil era indefinitely.

John Michael Greer said...

Nick, sure, and you could just as well cherrypick a set of examples to make our species look innately kind to animals, or what have you. Any statement of the form "humanity is inherently (x)" is best read as a justification for an agenda. Most often these days, when people claim that humanity is innately ecocidal, the conclusion they draw from that is that they should just go ahead and enjoy their cozy lifestyles, since there's nothing they can do to keep humanity from doing what it's programmed to do anyway, blah blah blah: a comforting evasion, no doubt, but not especially helpful. I'm perfectly willing to believe that this isn't your intention -- but in that case, what conclusions do you draw from your speculation?

Cherokee, that's becoming increasingly common here as well -- ham radio operators who want to work in emergencies are expected to get the digital gear. I'm far from sure it's a good idea, but if it becomes problematic, it's probably a safe bet that the hams will switch back to older gear in a hurry.

William, the word "indefinitely" is meaningless when you're dealing with the accelerating consumption of a finite, nonrenewable resource. Deepwater oil is already in production, and geologists have been locating promising drilling sites for decades now; the amount of oil that's available from that source was factored into peak oil analyses from the beginning. Remember that the oil wells being drilled and pumped today have to make up for declining production at existing oilfields!

The thing I find most interesting about the sales pitch you received was the notion that deepwater oil was the final frontier. When you reach the end of the final frontier, there isn't anywhere left to go...

Nick Vail said...

One conclusion is that we all have the penchant and ability to harm, a kind of darkness in us; that we fear and often gets the better of us.
The darkness is not "evil," that's a merely a label. Light is not "good," either. They are interdependent, and ultimately beyond duality. However, it is problematic when we believe and indulge in our concepts about anything.
I think that it would benefit us all greatly individually and collectively if we all took a long, honest, and compassionate look at our motivations and intentions.
If we took the time and effort to objectively analyze our preconceptions, expectations, ideals, and habitual patterns; and test them against our actual experience in the world rather than blindly indulging in our mental conditioning.
Basically, to get to know our own minds and hearts better, in a genuine way. Then extending authentic care and kindness to ourselves and others in appropriate and skillful ways.

Robert Mathiesen said...

Nick wrote:

"our general sense of ethics and morality, let alone the complex diversity of our other drives, have not evolved as quickly as ..."

Do you have any reason to think that a "sense of ethics and morality" is subject to any sort of *evolution* whatever? I see no evidence of such an evolution whatever over the course of recorded history. There is change, yes, but it does not seem to trend toward any sort of long-term goal other than VERY short-range victories in competition over scarce resources.

Biological change is not even remotely teleological; why should cultural (including ethical and moral) change be any different?

Rita said...

Re Deborah--the silting of dams depends on the type of soil that the feeder river runs through. Since Folsom Lake is currently so low, estimates of the degree of silting were made on morning news recently. It was less than you might expect because the American River feeds from the Sierra Nevada, which are mostly granite. Since the erosion rate is slow, so is the build up of silt. Interestingly, they are saying this is the worst drought California has had since records have been kept, but Folsom Lake is not at it's lowest.Of course, Folsom is only 50+ years old.

AlanfromBigEasy said...

I can think of two areas where "morality & ethics" have evolved in recorded history - slavery & the status of women.

Nick Vail said...

@Robert Mathiesen

Good question. What I meant was: that our current destructive capability using Fermian technology is now global and extremely long term, in comparison with the physical destruction one could wreak as we evolved as a species (stone tools, etc.)
This can be discerned through the fossil and corresponding archaeological records.
Basically, it is extremely difficult for our minds, including senses of ethics and morality, to comprehend the scope of destruction that could easily be committed these days. We are technologically out of synch with our ability to fully understand the consequences of our actions.
People don't tend to wrestle in a logical or deep way these days all that much with ethics and morality in general, including the folks who have their finger on the button, groups that are ethically and morally suspect to say the very least.

Joseph Pierce said...

JMG, what's this all about?

irishwildeye said...

Might future wars look like this ? An anti-Gaddafi fighter on a bicycle riding to the front line, Sirte October 12, 2011. Great photo with the technical in the background.

John Michael Greer said...

Nick, self-knowledge is generally a good idea, no argument there. Does it help the cause of self-knowledge to engage in blanket statements about humanity's alleged bias toward suicide or destructiveness? That's where I start saying "Whoa, Nellie."

Alan, by "evolved" I take it you mean "changed in the direction you personally prefer"? That's not what the word means, you know.

Joseph, as usual, it's about the frantic attempts of people in the industrial world to pretend that they can have their planet and eat it too. Expect to hear any number of whoppers in the years ahead. Did you notice any discussion of where the Navy planned on getting the energy needed to run that process? No, neither did I.

Wildeye, definitely the wave of the future -- and quite possibly coming to an American or European street near you in the not so different future.

latheChuck said...

mydonkey (in particular, and all others as well) I just picked up, for all of 25 cents at a rummage sale, a copy of "Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong". It has a Wikipedia entry, so I won't waste keystrokes here, but it's amazing. My copy is the first edition, 1995, and there is an updated edition as well. In a nutshell, it's "American History for adults who prefer documented truths, and documented ambiguity, to the boring fairy tales of childhood."

latheChuck said...

Here's a bit of good news from "Lies my Teacher Told Me": "Most current estimates of the precontact population of the United States and Canada range from ten to twenty million." This, of course, a much larger number than met the colonists, because the population had be decimated by the diseases brought by the explorers. The good news: 20 million, living without fossil fuels!

latheChuck said...

My other treasure from the used-book sale is a copy of "The VNR Concise Encyclopedia of Mathematics". (VNR being Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1975 edition, printed in the German Democratic Republic). In 760 portable pages, it includes a little bit of everything from counting to integral equations, including the use of slide rules, the construction of nomographs, tables of mathematical functions, calculation of interest, plane and solid geometry, differential calculus, differential geometry, and Goedel's incompleteness theorem. (Dangerous knowledge, indeed, so they put it way in the back.)

You can buy the 2nd edition, brand new, on eBAY for $100.

Springer will sell you an EBOOK version for a mere $70.

My copy? It was on the "all hardcover books $1."

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@AlanfromBigEasy--I think the relative status of men and women in most societies tracks pretty closely to the respective economic contributions of their genders, allowing for a time lag between changes in economic requirements and social adjustments to those changes.

The main factors to look at are which gender contributes essential proteins and fat to the diet, how important upper body strength is to the economy and to defense of the group, whether there's a need for women to engage in childbearing throughout their fertile years, and the need for personal support services to the most productive workers and the fighters.

Women and the working class are pressed into whatever situations they are useful in, and morality provides justification for the arrangements. Within those limits there is room for some variation.

Second wave feminism arose and got traction exactly when it did, in the postwar period, because rates of infant mortality and death in childbirth had dropped, universal free primary and secondary school meant the government was providing free childcare for part of the day, and labor saving home appliances, factory made clothing and processed food meant that a wife's full time domestic work was no longer needed to care for children and get her husband ready for work. At the same time, mechanization opened a lot of jobs to people who were not physically strong.

Betty Friedan's original plea was that the social stigma against married women working for pay once their children were grown was out of date. Getting more women into the paid labor force increased consumption and undercut the wages of working class men, so the moneyed classes liked it. That and the Pill were responsible for the revival of feminism, not some advance in human moral consciousness.

As a second wave feminist myself, forcing women with small children to get full time low paid jobs does not strike me as an advancement in the welfare of women or children. Contempt for women, along with contempt for darker skinned people, may be becoming a thing of the past permanently but I'm not counting on it.

Robert Mathiesen said...


There's no question that some things have changed recently in ways you and I think are for the better, at least in public within the so-called first world. And other things have changed for the worse, sometimes very much for the worse.

And any of those changes can and likely will be reversed, given enough time. The two changes you mention -- the status of women and slavery -- have been reversed more than once over the course of the last fifty centuries of recorded history: now for the better, now for the worse, then again for the better, and again for the worse. Overall, I see neither stability nor progress.

. josé . said...

Mumford, Schumacher, Bateson, Sir Albert Howard ... it's amazing how this blog (posts and discussion) keep going back to the heroes of my youth.

But I have a story to tell about Alexander.

I once asked him to be on my thesis committee. My plan was to develop a set of climate-specific patterns covering passive heating, solar hot water, solar cooking, etc. That fell through when one of his acolytes, who was teaching the Pattern Language course that semester, sneeringly dismissed me in front of the class one day. "Solar is just a fad. In a few years, it will all be over." She then turned around and walked away, so that I had no chance to reply. I dropped out of the class, but never gave up my (now dog-eared) copy of the book.

(My thesis was, instead, an "Integral Urban Neighborhood" for San Francisco, extending the concepts in Berkeley's Integral Urban House.)

Some years later, at some kind of alumni event, I ran into her again. She remembered me. "So, are you still doing that 'solar' thing?" As it happens, I had just thrown in the towel, after six years as a solar architecture consultant. I couldn't make enough to pay the rent and was switching to software (where I've had a successful - if historically irrelevant - career).

I had to work hard to keep from crying. I still believed I was right, but I knew that her way of thinking was in control, and my dream of a solar architecture would not happen in my lifetime.

I have never since gone back to Wurster Hall (the UC Architecture building).

KL Cooke said...

"The good news: 20 million, living without fossil fuels!"

The bad news: We have to go from 300+ million to 20 million in short order.

Cherokee Organics said...


I'm glad you recognise (it goes without saying, I guess) the deeper meaning in the poem and look forward to your essays on the future Dark Ages. The word re-consolidation keeps popping back into my mind to describe that future time.

The mature coastal banana crops (the suckers were unaffected) and about 90% of the sugar cane crops in those areas were wiped out in the cyclone too.

On a lighter note, I thought I'd post a link to some music. Hopefully there are no grumbles this time, but you never know.

First Aid Kit is a band from Sweden with two female vocalists with angelic voices who have a country sound. You know, I kind of enjoy the country sound when it is done well:

First Aid Kit - My Silver Lining

The chorus is really appropriate too to this blog.

Also, a bit of a plug for local Melbourne lads who have just had their 1,000th performance, The Cat Empire with their awesome song, Steal the Light. The video has a back drop of the Melbourne skyline with some stunning Victorian architecture. The yellow building with the copper roof is the Flinders Street railway station and it is a beautiful bit of architecture.

The Cat Empire - Steal the Light

Interestingly too, the recent bushfire burnt the railway sleepers here. The authorities are replacing those sleepers with concrete sleepers over the next week or so (bus replacements are a bit of a step down in luxury from the country trains!)

Also, on reflection it was interesting working with other people on their farm as I can see that in addition to the technical issues, they also need to learn to prioritise and organise and this is not a skill I see in the population. Just sayin…

Hi latefall,

In Kathmandu in Nepal, I saw a guy carrying a refrigerator on his back supported by a head band. PS: He was wearing flip flops (we call them thongs here but that has a very strange and different meaning in the US).

Hi donkey,

US and European history in school here was pretty much as you describe it. However, Australian history was primarily about people and their stories. I believe this was the case only because the convicts had recently only recently become a topic you could mention in polite company (salonfahig, anyone?)

Hi Deborah,

I wonder about that too issue too. I'm in the domestic economy up to my eyeballs and it is liberating and powerful. Shame that not many people see it that way. My gut feel is that they are buying into the notion of consumption as a defining point along the status continuum, but who am I to tell them?



AlanfromBigEasy said...

Dear Deborah,

You wrote:I think the relative status of men and women in most societies tracks pretty closely to the respective economic contributions of their genders, allowing for a time lag between changes in economic requirements and social adjustments to those changes.

The main factors to look at are which gender contributes essential proteins and fat to the diet, how important upper body strength is to the economy and to defense of the group, whether there's a need for women to engage in childbearing throughout their fertile years, and the need for personal support services to the most productive workers and the fighters.

Women and the working class are pressed into whatever situations they are useful in, and morality provides justification for the arrangements. Within those limits there is room for some variation.
There is certainly truth in what you say - but the result you note does not increase (IMO) a societies chances for survival.

Let me explain Iceland, a somewhat isolated society.

Fish were 90% of exports, now down to 60% (the balance being mainly aluminum and other cheap electricity products).

Fishing north of the North Atlantic is VERY tough work, 100% male. Aluminum production is also largely male. The Icelandic Climate is very tough on land as well - a quite "macho" attitude is required to function.

Yet, cultural evolution has lead to a high degree of gender equality (outside professions like fishing).

The well managed fisheries of Iceland are, I believe, connected with gender equality and other Social Democratic values. There are common values in both that also promote social survival.

Centuries old Newfoundland fishing villages were destroyed by overfishing - a fate Iceland was willing to go to war with the Royal Navy to avoid. Why did Canada not see - and act on - the same information that Iceland acted so decisively to avoid ?

Because Iceland is a better evolved society than Canada (and Canada is ahead of the USA). Gender equality is another part of that same evolution.

Comparable cultural evolution is leading Denmark to set the goal of being oil free by 2050 (and reduced their per capita carbon emissions by -26.5% in 5 years).

Preserving sustainable fisheries, getting off oil, saving & investing instead of spending oil royalties (Norway) are all pro-survival traits. I think gender equality is another.

Evolution is supposed to favor pro-survival traits.

JMG does not agree with me that Scandinavia has a good chance at being one of the last, if not the last, technological civilizations left during the Long Descent.

I think that their pro-survival social evolution will find a way through.

The last technological civilization standing (wherever it might be - Brazil is another option) will have a great competitive advantage for survival vs. the rest of the world.

james albinson said...

Perhaps a little off topic? But Risa Bear is (re)posting corrected/updated chapters of "Starvation Ridge" at with some illustrations and redrawn map. A recommended post-apoc blovel! Enjoy!!

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...


Interesting story re Alexander's acolyte. Also surprising, since (speaking as an architecture layperson) it seems to me solar would fit right in to the system of patterns. In fact it seems like the language would almost demand it, particularly passive solar.

Particularly if the patterns are derived from traditional ways of solving architectural problems, since so many cultures have taken the sun and climate into account in their ways of building.

One nice thing about books rather than acolytes is that the ideas in books can be applied as one sees fit: The ideas have been liberated from their owners, as it were, to make their own way in the world. Acolytes, on the other hand, can sometimes be rigid and on the lookout for "heresies." At least in my experience.

And these days, a system of solar patterns would be so useful.

Joseph Pierce said...

Thanks for the reply, JMG. I agree.

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@AlanfromBigEasy--I would like to believe that egalitarian societies have better chances of survival than societies based on domination, but I don't see compelling evidence that they do.

You state that relative gender equality in Iceland is the result of social progress. That implies that the sexes in Iceland are more equal today than they were in the past.

Do you know this to be true or are you assuming it?

The Scandinavian peoples adopted Christianity late, and retain some cultural attitudes from their pagan past. I have a general impression that the Vikings, despite being very warlike people, had more equal power relations between the sexes than many other peoples of that period. I would welcome comments from the better informed, if it's not too far off topic.

Like other social democratic countries, I presume Iceland provides families with high quality childcare, which makes a great difference in people's freedom of choice about work. Because the United States is not a social democratic country, American feminists have tried to solve the childcare question by getting men to do more unpaid childcare and housework, with moderate success. In the US, high quality paid childcare remains a prerogative of the upper middle class and the rich.

My general point was that most movements for equality and justice take a long time to gain results and do so in the teeth of violent opposition. That's true of the labor movement, which has had as many setbacks as successes. The campaign for racial equality in the US entailed a long bloody civil war followed by one hundred fifty years of often violent struggle, and isn't over yet. The campaign to get women the vote took three generations.

By contrast, some of the goals of the second wave of the feminist movement were won in two generations with little violence. I don't believe such a rapid change in laws, social attitudes and economic arrangements happens without support from powerful interests.

onething said...

Cherokee - both very good songs, thank you.

And so --- I propose that we nominate Chris for the position of Most Versatile Poster.

Jeremy Sandrik said...

This isn't terribly relevant to this week's post, but thought you might get a chuckle out of this Onion article.,35788/

I harbor no ill will if you decide not to publish this.

Paul said...

Nestorian said...

Some of you may have already heard about the following tragedy to befall the Peak Oil community (such as it is): Michael Ruppert committed suicide via self-inflicted gunshot wound.

I always admired the man for his tremendous courage. It appears that this trait has exacted the ultimate price.

alan woodbury said...

.jose don't despair,producing a pattern language for Solar energy is not only a very good idea it has been already been done once.

In 1979 Edward Mazria wrote "The Passive Solar Energy Handbook". The whole book was a series of Patterns based on Christropher Alexanders' work.

It was a good book for its time, but does need some updating.

My favorite Pattern is, that 1 square foot of South facing double pane window provides the same amount of heat as 2 square feet of Trombe wall or 3 square feet of an attached green house to a personal dwelling.

A Trombe wall is just a window in front of a concrete wall with vents at the top and bottom of the wall to circulate hot air into the living space.

The most important Pattern that had not been figured out was, that to heat a normal wood framed house with only sheetrock, furniture and cats to store the Solar heat you need 7 to 10 percent of the floor area in South facing glass to provide heat without overheating the house during the winter months.

Edward Mazria's book is out of print but was widely available in used book store for very little money. I've got two copies.

It really does need a follow up, when I finally finish my current passive solar house I'll let you know if it works as well as the patterns say it should. I only need to build and install 24 very small double pane windows and I'll be good to go.

Hey we only moved in 10 years ago, I'm really glad we have a good wood stove.


alan woodbury said...

.jose, I like many of Christopher Alexanders' ideas. His main focus was and is on creating life and a feeling of wholeness through architecture.

Most of his best examples are from pre-fossil fuel societies. These buildings are wonderful, but the people who lived in them were mainly concerned with not freezing in the winter and or at best being 10 degrees cooler in the hot summers.

The Kings and Queens had summer and winter palaces for a reason.

The regular folk just made do. As a result he does not have much if anything to say about passive solar architecture.

If you do follow the pattern of having 7 to 10 percent of your floor area in south facing double pane glass, please realize you are only going to get about one third of your heat from the sun.

To get more heat, you need either to have a Lot more insulation than a regular house,(Think 1 foot thick walls), or more south facing glass and a lot of concrete or water barrels to store the heat for night time warmth.

I mention all of this because the Solar houses of the 1970s tended to have way too much glass and no way to store the heat.

These houses would bake all day and freeze at night during the middle of winter as glass is horrible at keeping heat in.

Wurster Hall at U.C. Berkeley was designed and built in the Brutalist style out of undecorated reinforced concrete.As with many architectural department buildings it is one of the ugliest buildings on the planet.Brutalist says it all.

If you never go look at it again you will save yourself much pain.

The old architecture department buildings at U.C. Berkeley are a wonderful collection of craftsman style brown shingle buildings that any human being could love.

Take care, Produce some great solar energy patterns, for some odd reason green building is once again in fashion with the middle class.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

Thanks! Glad to see that you enjoyed the music too, both pieces evoke an emotional response.

It is kind of funny to say it, but most of the times I have no idea what I'm going to comment about in advance. Our host is a truly great alchemist and ever so slowly lifts the veil from our eyes, so both the essays and the comments subtly change the way that I look at the world week, by week.

In changing the way that I look at the world, I start to observe things and wonder about them. It is an education. I'm pretty sure it is doing the same to you too! Well done, JMG, tidy work.

Hi Jose,

Architects have lost their raison de entre and from experience here the building industry is owned by the large scale builders. To attempt anything outside of the expected (which I did here) only invites headaches. I feel your pain man.

Hi Alan,

Stop it! The Nordic countries are toast because the human populations are greatly in excess of their ecological carrying capacity and periodic starvation is part of their history.

I am uncomfortable quoting Yoda, but here goes: "Try not. Do or do not! There is no try." The 2050 plan is simply what I describe as a plan to make a plan. Politicians do that all of the time.

From my experience with organic agriculture, electricity is good and useful, but it does not put food upon the table and an export economy requires other countries to export to plus reliable transport systems. Pirates anyone?



AlanfromBigEasy said...


I would argue that those societies that are willing to fight to preserve sustainable fisheries are more viable than those will not even impose reasonable quotas as fish populations collapse. Likewise, those that plan to get completely off oil, coal and natural gas and those that do not spend an oil windfall in an orgy of consumption.

I assume you do not want to argue the above points.

Observation: I can think of very few societies outside Scandinavia where any one of the three points above are true.

The question is are the above points related to gender equality, and I believe that they are. They derive from the same Ethos, the same view of a just and wise society that Scandinavians aspire to (when they are in the mood).

So there is not a direct link between gender equality and what are clearly societal survival traits, but a common directed social evolution leads to both. And I do not think that you can create one without the other.

BTW, Viking society did treat Viking women better than most. Non-Viking women, not so much. But they were still far from equal. Only women were executed for adultery for example.

Robert Beckett said...

Jose, Adrian,Alan Woodbury, & JMG:
You folks may be interested in this site which has plenty of information, including a free download of an illustrated Passive Solar Energy Book (not Mazria's but same title):

Mazria does emphasize the need for heat storage (eg page 29 for those who have the book)and I believe that is the main reason he does not discuss conventional wood frame(light)construction - there is inadequate mass in the structure for storage.

I have written three articles on this very problem and suggest a solution in passive solar / wood frame retrofit situations, which is phase change material heat storage, an order of magnitude more effective than masonry.


(Nothing to do with GE, by the way)

Regard to all, Robert Beckett

thrig said...

Deborah Bender: property rights and other factors I'm forgetting (and negative "oh that's interesting, now let's look at the next thing" over in China) have been called out as to why The West was able to get The Enlightenment thing rolling, though for full details I'd have to revisit the articles in "Revolution in Geology from Renaissance to Enlightenment":

Ruben said...

@Alan Woodbury

"I mention all of this because the Solar houses of the 1970s tended to have way too much glass and no way to store the heat."

That pretty much describes the house I grew up in.

Do you have any recommendations on the current best thinking around solar design? I don't want a passive house, thanks to all the plastics and sealing and technological systems, but I would like to see some examples of solar houses that actually work well.

onething said...

Deborah Bender,

Yet it seems to me that the ability of a government to provide expensive alternative parenting (childcare) is a derivative of belonging to a first world country, i.e., having enough wealth from the wealth pump to pay for such a thing. I continue to find it odd that leaving small children in the care of someone who loves them much less than you do so that you can engage in paid employment is considered a desirable thing and an advantage.

"to heat a normal wood framed house with only sheetrock, furniture and cats to store the Solar heat you need 7 to 10 percent of the floor area in South facing glass to provide heat without overheating the house during the winter months."

Could you explain that? Did you mean wall space? My living room has about 180 square feet and I have a southeast facing window that is 25 square feet. I guess if it were truly south facing we'd get a couple hours more direct light in. the kitchen, which is next to it, is slightly smaller and has the same window size and orientation. It does warm up the room quite a bit, but that is not counting the bedroom and bathroom, which do not have sun coming directly in. Nonetheless, I don't think it comes remotely close to heating the house. It does make a fair difference on a sunny morning, but won't do much at night or for the several days in a row when the sun doesn't shine at all.

AlanfromBigEasy said...


It is much more than a plan (Just as the French Grenelle is much more than "just a plan").

Per capita carbon emissions for Denmark fell by -26.5% in five years (2007 to 2012) with much more in the pipeline.

Just because Aussies and the rest of the English speaking world cannot get their acts together, does NOT make it a universal truth for all of humanity.

With their moderating population, and retaining some modicum of technology, Scandinavia can feed themselves (veggies, grains, potatoes & fish). The joker is if their Climate warms or cools.

You might enjoy one of my short stories, 500 years hence, about settling Tasmania.


Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Robert Beckett--I had a look at your blog entries and noted your remarks that vernacular passive solar architecture is designed to produce tolerable, not comfortable, temperatures and royalty had summer and winter palaces.

It seems to me that passive solar houses might be easier to achieve if people gave up on the idea that every part of the house needs to be at a comfortable temperature all the time. In practice, it's fine if areas where work is done are comfortable while they are in use, and there is some place indoors or out where people can be comfortable when they are relaxing. In some localities one could achieve that without heat pumps or tons of thermal mass.

I live in a two story apartment with well insulated walls, operable single pane windows and a lot of skylights, some of which are fitted with thermal blinds. During peak summer and winter months there is a 25 degree F difference between the ground floor and upstairs. On the third day of a heatwave, when opening the windows at night doesn't do any good to cool the place off, I sleep downstairs on the couch.

I wonder whether a modestly sized U shaped house built around a courtyard could be oriented to have a summer wing and a winter wing.

daelach said...

Gender equality is a by-product of our modern society and will perish together with it. The reason is that women and not men are the bottleneck in offspring production. A man can theoretically have thousands of children, a woman less than ten.

Gender equality can only work whith low infant mortality because otherwise, you need women primarily for reproduction to make up for the children that died away. Remember that high infant mortality has been historically rather normal.

On the other hand, you will never risk women for dangerous activities because a loss of a woman would cut into the next generation (birth rate bottleneck!) while loss of men is acceptable as long as the society doesn't crash. Male losses will be replenished with the next generation, female losses will not.

Using men for dangerous activities certainly inflicts male losses, but those who survive may harvest great power and/or riches. Those who return home in triumph e.g. as winners of a war or raid then are those in power. Since women cannot be risked, they will not be put onto such a way for avoiding female losses, the consequence being that they will not be among the triumphant returnees and thus will not come to power.

Except of course as spouse of a powerful men - thus becoming a queen. But then again, her primary duty will be to give a son to her husband, an heir.

Our gender equality is directly tied to keeping infant mortality low; if the latter turns out to be impossible, so will the first. The problem is that our whole modern health care system that keeps infant mortality so low is part of our industrial civilisation based upon oil.

In today's Greece, the IMF imposed measures have caused the health care system to collapse, and one of the consequences is that infant mortality has risen by over 40%, from what I've read. That's a fast degradation.

Please not that I'm not talking about whether it is desirable to keep or abandon gender equality. I'm talking about what will work and what not.

In the short run, keeping gender equality despite high infant mortality may even be useful because it helps in population reduction. In the long run, though, societies with gender equality and high infant mortality will just dwindle away and make room for others who emphasise reproduction.

latefall said...

Some people back home like to call those flip flops "Philippine Sailors Boots".

As we've veered into the musical a little already, check out: Kat Frankie

That show always seems to me to have a "LESS undercurrent".

re the carrying bit:
My plans ended up a bit heavier (of course, 12ish kg) and I'd recommend high quality wood to keep it from warping and buckling.
Let's see if I can find some place and time where I can make it (before I spam the world with more bad plans...)

Unknown said...

(Deborah Bender)

@Thrig--The description of the book you cite is fascinating. It would never have occurred to me that Renaissance art would influence the thinking of geologists. As I've gotten older, I'm developing an interest in intellectual history, and "Revolution in Geology from Renaissance to Enlightenment" looks meaty.

Robert Mathiesen said...

@daelach about gender equality:

You seem to be taking it for granted that women themselves will (or can) have no decisive agency in the scenario that you posit. Remove that assumption and your whole argumefoasit Hermannt falls apart.

They do have it, and it may well be that they will exercise their paramount agency and refuse to bear or raise the children needed to perpetuate a social order that seems wrong to them.

. josé . said...

@ daelach

You wrote:
"Our gender equality is directly tied to keeping infant mortality low; if the latter turns out to be impossible, so will the first. The problem is that our whole modern health care system that keeps infant mortality so low is part of our industrial civilisation based upon oil."

I'll concede that infant mortality may rise initially, as societies (like your example of Greece) that are accustomed to modern medical systems lose them.

In fact, though, most of the innovations required to reduce infant mortality are clearly Baconian. These include good sanitation practice (also difficult initially in urban areas during a catabolic decline) and simple rehydration therapy. In many countries throughout the world infant mortality dropped dramatically before high-energy lifestyles were introduced.

daelach said...

@ Robert: Of course they may decide that being mothers in the face of high infant mortality isn't what they want. If the society gives in to that wish, it will just be wiped out in the long run by other societies that either don't give in (less probable to work) or where women experience the mother role as individual fulfilment.

Cf. also what Spengler wrote about the "Ibsen-women" and the plummeting birth rate before a collapse as it was observed in both ancient Greece and Rome. Btw., Rome did try to enforce more births, that was the point of the marriage laws. It didn't work, that's why I said that the enforcing approach rather won't work.

The other possibility, being wiped out by a society where women see being mothers as their primary fulfilment (means: this IS what they want) corresponds to the birth of what Spengler called a new culture soul that will prevail against an old and dying one, in the most simple case just by numbers. It is normal that cultures are born, grow up, mature, age and die, just like individual human beings.

We are in a late phase, an already dying civilisation, among other things to be recognised by the very fact that women seriously think about mothership instead of taking it as just "natural".

That's the way things go, nothing lasts forever.

And gender equality being a product of a dying civilisation will not survive it's death. Given that gender equality has been a very rare exception among various cultures, the point that women will always have to say something because it isn't possible otherwise just is not supported by the historical data.

In fact, it isn't even valid today, in a world-wide perspective. Just like religious freedom or freedom of speech hasn't been the normal case and still isn't, world-wide.

james albinson said...

My previous attempt to post this seems to have gone to /dev/null, so here goes again...

Have a look at Leo Marks, "Between Silk and Cyanide", for a clear idea of the deadly consequences of bad codes. In a nutshell, Marks was codemaster for SOE in WWII, and tells an epic tale of blunders, codes, bravery and stupidity. Well recommended!!

Patrick Cappa said...

Well, darn, you mentioned the thing I've been working on for the short story contest, that is, hydroelectric facilities long outlasting most of civilization. I hope to post it soon, regardless.