Sunday, May 11, 2008

What we don't know (A response to John Michael Greer)

John Michael Greer is as intelligent a voice on the issues of peak oil and sustainability as one can find. His recent piece entitled "Not The End of World" displays his broad reading in history and his deep understanding of culture. And, while history is an excellent source for understanding human nature and the natural world, it doesn't have the predictive power which he attributes to it.

In many ways history can tell us what to expect from people when they face circumstances similar to those observed in the past. But, it cannot tell us what to expect from events which are the result of far more decisions by people and far more changes in the natural world than any individual or even any group can observe or analyze.

First let me say that I too imagine that we will experience a stair-step decline in the functioning of global societies as our energy supplies recede. Greer is quite correct that historically humans have met resource declines with struggles to adapt, and that these efforts have changed the dynamics of the decline.

But I think he is too dismissive of those who worry about a rapid, steep decline. Greer takes the catastrophists to task because of their linear thinking: high prices and short supply today mean only ever higher prices and ever smaller supply of everything tomorrow and tomorrow in a straight line. The implication is that this will lead to the rapid destabilization of modern society. But, he is correct that historically, complex societies and their markets tend to take nonlinear courses. What he omits is that nonlinear systems can sometimes turn abruptly and steeply downward.

In truth, no one can know what the future holds because there are too many unknowns. We don't know how much oil is left? We don't know how much will be extracted and at what rate? We don't know when the peak in oil production will occur? And we don't know how severe the decline from the peak will be? We don't know how quickly alternatives will be found and deployed and whether they will give us anything near the energy that oil currently does? We have guesses, some optimistic, some pessimistic. But we don't have any certainty. (Of course, similar questions are being asked about natural gas, coal and uranium as well.)

I think the more important question to ask is this: What can we reasonably prepare for? A nearby oil peak followed by a swift and catastrophic decline in oil production might very well mean a quick end to industrial civilization. And, a very chaotic and nasty end it might be. But as a friend of mine recently asked, "How can you prepare for the end of civilization?" He didn't think anyone could. Our lives are too tightly intertwined. We will either overcome the energy and environmental challenges we face together or we will all go down together.

(I suppose one could become a survivalist and with expert knowledge of plants and animals live in the forest. But how many could actually do this? And, even if all us knew how, we would quickly deplete those forests and other sources of food as well.)

I think what we can reasonably prepare for is something that provides some semblance of continuity. We can prepare for a society that retains its basic functions: agriculture, mining, manufacturing, transport, and at least a modest technical base, especially the electrical grid. We can focus on those things which will be critical to our survival and let go of those things which we won't be able to save. (See my previous piece, "Triage for the Post-Peak Oil Age.")

While we cannot be sure what the future holds, I agree with Greer that we musn't be too hasty in assuming that we are now headed for the swift demise modern civilization. I'm not sure how we could prepare for it anyway. But it may be useful for each of us to dwell on the worst scenario for a bit as a picture of what might ultimately come to pass if we don't act decisively and resolutely now.


yooper said...

Hello Kurt! Excellent! We don't know...... That's life, and for me, a reason for even awaking to the next morning....

As you might suspect, I'm a big fan of John's, and I've learned a great deal from him. So much in fact, that when talking in terms of collapse or decline, there is no one on the face of this earth, that I have a deeper respect for.

I'm going to agree with you that perhaps he is too dismissive of those who worry about a rapid, steep decline. However, if it weren't for this, I might not have learned the valuable lessons that I got directly from him, from his perspective. Perhaps, I have taken him to task in proving to me, that his assumptions are correct? For one, I can only applaud in his efforts to show me where he may be coming from.

I do think you may be mistaken, when assuming that this man might be omitting that nonlinear systems can sometimes turn adruptly and steeply downward. This is how "Catabolic Collapse" works. This may often be the case, only to be followed by periods of "recovery" to be followed by more decline. (please read my responses of the last two weeks, carefully). Also, John, does have a readership that he might feel responsible for (I would), some might not be ready for this type of message yet. Even though he has yet to reveal some aspects of collapse that might not be apparent to some, doesn't mean that he doesn't already know this... Some people cannot grasp what he is alluding to yet and still some that I suspect, never will. Why inflect messages that might be hurtful to some who cannot comprehend the message in the first place? In that regard, he has earned my deepest respect. As I suspect you can appreciate, some information may be inappropriate and better left unsaid, at any time.

I completely agree with your thought, that no one can know what the future holds and that there are too many unknows. Take it from me, even "survivalists" trying to make it on their own in the forest won't deplete it in any way. It will consume them, rest assured. They won't make it very far or for very long.... Might I susgest to you that "modern man" has fallen so far, that the distance to a sustainable environment (one that premodern man was well adapted to) may be too great a distance in time and resource to penetrate? I have my doubts...

It is my hope, that we can reasonably prepare for something that provides some semblance of continuity. THAT is what John Michael Greer, is all about!

Again Kurt, excellent article!

Thanks, yooper

Jan Steinman said...

I don't understand how you can say you can't prepare. We're preparing. And I wouldn't call us "survivalists," either. But we know how to grow our own food and make our own energy, and have chosen a setting that will make those things as easy as possible, while discouraging interference from the outside.

Yes, there will always be "unknown unknowns," and you can't prepare for everything. A big meteor could strike tomorrow -- end of story.

But I find the notion that one can't prepare, and thus the tacit assumption that one shouldn't prepare, abhorrent.

There is a shift in consciousness happening. I just met a couple with two children under five who quit their jobs, sold their paid-off city condo, and are out looking for good farmland.

That's not to say that everyone should prepare in the same way. Human survival may depend on diversity of preparation. But everyone should prepare as best they can!

yooper said...

Hello jan! Good for you! It appears this community may be meeting certain critera that I would envision in becoming successful.(Please visit my site and look in the Jan. archives) Isolation, in itself poses problems..... Also, eventually this community may need to have trading partners.

I think John, is about to talk about "lifeboat" communities soon. I'll very likely chime in there and provide more of my thought.

I do believe, there may be a solution (to prevent the fast collapse) and that would have to include everybody.

Thanks, yooper

John Michael Greer said...


Many thanks for a thoughtful response. I agree that we can't know what the future actually has in store, and that it's possible that industrial civilization might come unglued all at once. Possible, though, is not the same thing as probable, and I'd suggest that the probability of a sudden collapse is a good deal less than today's conventional thought suggests.

As I've suggested in earlier posts, a great deal of our thinking on the future is shaped by unacknowledged, and often unnoticed, narratives borrowed from religious sources -- mostly the Christian apocalyptic tradition -- under a shallow veneer of secular thought. Very often what passes for cutting-edge thinking about the future is simply a rehash of the Book of Revelations with the serial numbers filed off and different characters playing the familiar roles. Thus when anybody starts proclaiming that Babylon the Great is about to fall, it seems to me, it's wise to be a bit skeptical about that announcement.

I should also stress, though, that the stairstep model of the Long Descent I've been proposing does not rule out crisis and cataclysm. Look at the collapse of other civilizations in the past and you'll find that many of the crisis phases involved many deaths and massive destruction. I expect to see the same thing this time. The point I've been trying to make, though, is that there's very little chance that this will be a single, sudden, geographically uniform process; the end of industrial civilization in one region may not happen at the same time as in another, and the intermediate stages and end points of the process will differ from place to place, and region to region. To claim otherwise, it seems to me, is to move very far into the improbable.

plaiche said...

I rely on you both for insight, but as we are in somewhat ambiguous territory, I will attempt to add a different perspective to both of your vantage points: how do we characterize existing events in the context of collapse?

In other words, is the 1-1.5 million dead Iraqi's (dating back to Gulf I) a worthy occurrence in this discussion, and could it not be viewed as a canary in the coal mine of sorts for a resource constrained future? It is a steep decline of an industrialized nation. It is a loss of some 4-5% of that nation's population (not to mention the dramatic decline in standard of living for millions more). Yes, I know it is viewed more traditionally as a unique event (a war) as opposed to a broader global descent, but I certainly see room for debate.

Neither of you need me to take it further to include the billions currently at risk from soaring food prices etc. From where I sit collapse, pace, characteristics etc . are all about what your baseline is, but could be argued to be well underway.

Student to teachers: am I missing something?

yooper said...

Hello plaiche, good points. May I susgest that Iraq was never "industrialized". In fact, there are very few nations that have this "honor". I go into great detail what this might mean at scroll on down to the comments, where I posted, "The rise and fall of industrial economies". This may give you an excellent example of how uneven and at different time intervals the stages of incline/decline among countries, regions, etc. might be.

I really like your thoughts about Iraq being like a canary in a coal mine.If this is what's in store, the 4 to 5% DECLINE in population (in what 20 years) would be just that, decline. Collapse, would be suggesting that the population would "cave in suddenly". However, this too needs to be put into perspective as you suggested. If this 4 to 5% trend would continue for decades to come and looking at the big picture going back thousands of years, yes it would be like a line, "falling off a cliff".

Thanks, yooper

Anonymous said...

Hi Kurt, hi John; and nice to see online debate that's civil and level-headed.


Re. Iraq: A couple of years ago I sent the following assessment to a friend in military intelligence, who is "in a position to know," and he said it was one of the best analyses he had read, unclassified or classified: (paraphrase of my original wording, from memory)

Iraq is a classic case of a population that was at the limits of its carrying capacity, pushed into overshoot and collapse by a) the effects of economic sanctions after the first war, and b) the direct and indirect effects of the present war.

The situation that resulted from the sanctions is an example of what occurs when there is a gradual decline in available resources relative to population (or increase in population relative to static resources).

The present war produced rapid destruction of infrastructure and thus of carrying capacity relative to population: a sudden and precipitous decline. The rapid and vigorous return of tribalism and the diffused quasi-military power associated with tribalism, is a predictable outcome of the destruction of state apparatus as per John Robb's theories of 21st century warfare.

Suicide bombings and similar kamikaze tactics arise under conditions of population overshoot of carrying capacity specifically as a means of dealing with the population/resources issue in the context of what is at root a grassroots resource war on the local or regional scale. The suicide bomber deliberately takes him/herself out of the food chain, hopefully taking out a handful more of the other side as well; and the "honor" bestowed upon the family of the "martyr" includes increased access to food! How very convenient!

The Iraq situation can stabilize in one of three ways. a) Rapid rebuilding of carrying capacity and the rebuilding of civil society, b) Rapid decrease of population (dieoff) and thus increase in resource availability, with the rebuilding of civil society at a lower level, or c) a persistent unstable equilibrium characterized by chronic resource scarcity and chronic low-intensity civil war, where the rebuilding of civil society is improbable and a "warlord/tribal" society emerges as the dominant mode of social organization.

Etc. etc., you get the idea.


I agree that realistically we can't predict the specific events or the timing. Businesses faced with uncertain economic climate succeed by preparing for "conservative" or downside scenarios, rather than by making optimistic assumptions. This is a useful point for planning.

To my mind the most important things to preserve going forward are a) humanity's accumulated knowledge, and b) the system of governance, law, and justice derived from Enlightenment philosophies, of which Western-style democracy is the paradigm case.

The need to preserve knowledge is obvious: one of the first casualties of a decline phase is often the combined set of institutions that exist for this purpose. Thus the need for what could be called "off-site backups." However we must be particularly careful to preserve not only the texts themselves, but the educational means to teach the relevant methodologies: not only scientific and technical, but literary, artistic, and so on.

The need to preserve Enlightenment-tradition governance should be equally obvious. Iraq is a paradigm case of the destruction of a state apparatus and its replacement by tribal warlordism, a cultural environment that is inimical to preserving and increasing knowledge. While we might wish to beleive that we are immune to such phenomena, one need only look at the rise of urban criminal gangs.

In some places such as Vallejo California, municipal near-bankruptcy and depressed private-sector economics provide fertile ground for the growth of gangs that include their own systems of personalistic and retributive "justice." Recourse to "settling scores" by direct violence in turn contributes to the hollowing-out of state apparatus, in a cycle of positive feedback that ends in a condition where the lives of law-abiding citizens become basically untenable.

In contrast to that type of decline and fall, a society that manages to preserve its institutions of democracy, law, and justice, and its institutions of education and transmission of knowledge, is far better positioned to endure whatever crises or disasters may occur.


Re. the observation about cognitive maps derived from the local religious mythos: Interesting point, and of course today we see various political figures notably on the extreme right, who are practically itching to "bring it on." The height of irrationalism is the ideology that is committed to "other-worldliness" and embraces death and destruction as the means. One can hope that we are about to see a substantial shift away from that ideology, but we shall see.

Though, I find it interesting that the Biblical "end-times prophesies" make reference to "war, famine, pestilence, and plague." The Biblical-era observers of human affairs in their times were at least astute enough to encapsulate the key causes of human dieoff in a memorable image. Interesting convergence, that. "Some things never change," do they?


As for me & mine, we are going the sustainable community / ecovillage route. We have some highly skilled members, almost sufficient economic means, and realistic plans going forward. We intend to pursue the agenda of "preserve knowledge / support lawful civic society." Location is northern California.

And what I personally foresee happening is a generalized dark age interspersed with a few major bright points of light (such as university towns that maintain local sufficiency of subsistence) and numerous small points of light (small towns and communities that do likewise). We hope to be one of the latter. Time will tell.

Kurt Cobb said...

So many excellent thoughts it's hard to know where to start. In general, let me reiterate that I'm inclined to believe that we face a stairstep decline. My point about preparing for the end of civilization was not that we should not prepare as well as we can, but that it seems impossible to me to prepare for something as extreme as that. So, I'm suggesting that we prepare for something along the lines that John has outlined since at least it is feasible to prepare for such an outcome.

Yes, a meteor might come tomorrow and destroy the planet. But, I don't see anyway to prepare for that. So, I'm suggesting that we prepare for a scenario that we are capable to preparing for and I think that John's outline of catabolic collapse is about as severe a scenario as one could reasonably prepare for.

This was my main point. There is no upside to contemplating a rapid and complete wipeout to industrial civilization since I don't believe anyone can really prepare for such a thing. React, yes. But prepare....I'm just not convinced one can prepare because the collapse would be worldwide since our current civilization is now so completely linked globally.

I do agree that we are seeing symptoms of that collapse already. The AIDS epidemic in Africa and Russia which is now in part responsible for declines in Russian population. The point here is that important public institutions, in this case, public health institutions are starting to crumble for various reasons, not necessarily resource exhaustion in Russia's case. But they are a precursor of a broader problem which Joseph Tainter so intelligently explains in his "Collapse of Complex Societies."

The complex societies which we've built are increasingly subject to breakdown. Oil depletion will just be another stress on that complexity.

Thanks again to all commenters for an excellent and enlightening discussion.