Sunday, December 18, 2022

I have seen the future and it is 'Ramp Hollow'

It is almost impossible for a modern person living in a so-called developed country to imagine growing, hunting and foraging for all the food one's family eats. Yet, not all that long ago in human history, that's what most of the people in the world did. Given the current fragility of modern industrial society, we humans may not be so far away from the collapse of that society and a return to an agrarian society that will demand the combined skills of the farmer, the forager, the lumberjack and the hunter. (This is my prognostication, not that of the author mentioned below.)

In historian Steven Stoll's Ramp Hollow the author focuses on one particular group of people, settlers in the Appalachian Mountains and the process by which they were forced out of a way of life that provided all their basic foodstuffs and some extra produce and crafts used to trade for tools and what were considered luxuries in the hollows.

Stoll does not ignore the dispossession of Native Americans and other aboriginal peoples whose lands were overrun by Europeans. He recognizes this seizure as part of a worldwide process of enclosure of the commons for the benefit of a few.

For those who don't know how this works, Stoll provides an explanation. In Great Britain the aristocracy conspired with law courts and Parliament essentially to seize land for its sole use, land that had been held in common by the Crown and was available to peasants to meet their needs through farming, foraging, and hunting.

Perhaps the most important thing you need to know about enclosure is that before it occurred there was no such thing as real estate. This is another almost impossible thing for modern people to imagine, namely, that individuals did not own land, but rather had rights to its use.

The excuse for enclosure was that it would make farming more efficient—which it did at considerable cost to the independence of the peasantry.

Ownership of land from which almost all wealth proceeds became the basis for the modern capitalist system which could not spread if peasant rights of use were not overcome.

Stoll tells us that for many decades land grants made by colonial and early American governments in what we now call Appalachia were largely irrelevant. The putative owners lived far from the land and there was little they could do to develop it even if they lived nearby. It was left to those who inhabited it and enjoyed the freedom of a life Stoll calls "self-provisioning." Stoll uses this term to distinguish this life from that described by "self-sufficient" and "subsistence." In truth, these rural peoples did not barely eke out a living, but instead had sufficient food and grew, gathered or made items to trade. They were not outside the market system. But they were never slaves to it because they could provision themselves with their own food.

This is probably the most important takeaway from the book. Once a human loses the ability to grow, hunt and gather the food he or she requires, that person is under the power of a market system manipulated by wealthy bankers, financiers and the government officials who collude with them. Capitalism requires that everyone—yes, everyone—produce to sell, NOT for their own consumption. This makes them dependent on others who control the marketplace that provides all their essentials.

It is true that there were lean years for the denizens of Appalachia. But in those lean years they could rely of extensive kinship networks to see them through the worst. But once the self-provisioning families of Appalachia were thrown off the land they had worked for generations by the coal companies and others claiming ownership, a cruel poverty that denied them the right even to exercise their skills to feed themselves became the norm.

While we should not romanticize the hard work of farming, hunting and foraging, when done successfully to feed oneself, the work has purpose and a direct relationship to the well-being those engaging in it.

Today, this is the picture we have of Appalachia: poor, ignorant, isolated and without hope. Where these conditions exist, they were brought to Appalachia, according to Stoll. They are not inherent in the people or their cultural heritage.

Today, we can see the results of the triumph of this system everywhere. Where there were once people just like those in Appalachia across the several continents, there are now plantations, large corporate-owned monoculture farms, mines and dams. But a system that promised to end all want has instead spread want to billions whose ancestors could fulfill their own wants even if they did not lead luxurious lives. The path of capital is to concentrate it into fewer and fewer hands, and it is doing a marvelous job of that while depriving billions of the necessities of a healthy life.

We have the strange specter of a system that produces more food, more fiber, more minerals, more wood, more energy from fossil fuels, uranium and renewable energy, and more consumer goods than ever before and yet continues to trample on the many in its relentless pursuit of—you guessed it—enclosure of more resources for the benefit of the few. We have already seen how the once chaotic internet has been "enclosed" by technology giants who use it to gather personal information on us that they then sell for trillions to others or use to target us for purchases or even more information. Information about ourselves that should belong to us is simply taken from us, repackaged and used to enrich the few. It's a form of enclosure all over again.

The tech giants will say that we consented to this. But then they are the ones who write the impenetrable user agreements that say somewhere buried in the final paragraphs of a pages-long document and in ways that few people can understand that we agree to let them spy on us. Sometimes they don't even bother to get our permission. The barons of England and the coal barons of Appalachia used some of the same tricks. Appalachian farmers who owned their land signed over mineral rights not knowing that they would receive little in return and that they had just given the coal company the right to rip up their land as needed to get the coal.

In 1954 Harrison Brown in The Challenge of Man's Future contemplated what it would take to create a sustainable industrial future. He said that the path to such a future would be narrow and have to be managed carefully. He concluded that therefore the most likely outcome of industrial society would be a return to agrarian society.

Since Brown gave that advice—when there were only 2.6 billion people Earth—it has been completely ignored. Therefore, I believe that humans can look forward to a return to Ramp Hollow. Given how few of us have the knowledge for that type of life and given how depleted and polluted the land, the forests and the waters have become, the human race can most probably look forward to a tumultuous transition when it comes.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Naked Capitalism, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He can be contacted at


Erik Michaels said...

Unfortunately, this idea completely ignores the predicament of ecological overshoot and the symptom predicaments it causes, such as climate change, energy and resource decline, and the mass extinction we are in. A new paper from James Hansen ( clearly shows extinction as the outcome of this predicament, quote:

"Improved knowledge of glacial-to-interglacial global temperature change implies that fastfeedback equilibrium climate sensitivity is at least ~4°C for doubled CO2 (2×CO2), with likely range 3.5-5.5°C. Greenhouse gas (GHG) climate forcing is 4.1 W/m2 larger in 2021 than in 1750, equivalent to 2×CO2 forcing. Global warming in the pipeline is greater than prior estimates. Eventual global warming due to today’s GHG forcing alone – after slow feedbacks operate – is about 10°C."

Another conservative paper ( shows that 1 out of 4 species is slated for extinction before 2100, quote:

"A new tool developed by European and Australian scientists enabling unparalleled modeling of interconnected species loss shows cascading extinctions are unavoidable, and that the Earth will lose some 10% of its animals and plants by 2050, rising to 27% by 2100.

The findings are published in the journal Science Advances.

Using one of Europe's most-powerful supercomputers, European Commission scientist Dr. Giovanni Strona also of the University of Helsinki and Professor Corey Bradshaw of Flinders University used the tool to create synthetic Earths complete with virtual species and more than 15,000 food webs to predict the interconnected fate of species that will likely disappear from the ravages of climate and land-use changes.

The tool presents a grim prediction of the future of global diversity, confirming beyond doubt that the world is in the throes of its 6th mass extinction event."

John Gowdy also predicts a hunter-gatherer future in this paper:

So, it would appear that Ramp Hollow might be the future for a little bit as industrial civilization collapses, but shortly thereafter will see the diappearance of most large plants and animals on this planet, including us.

Thomas Reis said...

How did the Fugger managed to exclusive own the silver of Tyrol in the Alpes, what before was owned by the miners themselves? I think the invention of the Notar and some trick to sell the mine to the Fuggers, but I am not sure I do not remember but a very strange move that made them to richest family in history?

Anonymous said...

По-перше, у суспільстві з мінімальними потребами не існує організованого «дефіциту» індустріального суспільства та його нерівності.
По-друге, там, де «засоби виробництва» є практичними навичками, а ресурси для використання цих навичок рясні та спільні, вільні від прав власності, це створює зовсім інший набір економічних відносин у суспільстві, що базується на соціальній цінності трансакції, а не на матеріальній вартості створених товарів. Тоді в нерозвинених суспільствах люди не працювали, щоб купувати споживчі товари, щоб виразити свою свободу. Люди працювали кілька годин на день, щоб задовольнити свої основні потреби в їжі та матеріалах, а решту часу вони створювали соціальні товари, які виражали їхню індивідуальну творчість, наприклад мистецтво, ремесла чи музика.

Chris Kuykendall said...

>>This is probably the most important takeaway from the book. Once a human loses the ability to grow, hunt and gather the food he or she requires, that person is under the power of a market system manipulated by wealthy bankers, financiers and the government officials who collude with them. Capitalism requires that everyone—yes, everyone—produce to sell, NOT for their own consumption. This makes them dependent on others who control the marketplace that provides all their essentials.<<

There's a corollary to this, at least in my view ever since I re-comtemplated my master's thesis on the irrigated-agriculture depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer in Texas. The wonders of the irrigation, effectively underground rain whenever needed, intermittently over the decades produced a glut of the wheat that farmers brought to my father's grain elevator to store, an oversupply versus inelastic demand that knocked down the per-bushel price that farmers were going to get for their wheat if they got or tried to get a price from the MARKET. This, as regards the wheat and other U.S. crops in other relevant regions for which gluts happened, produced the rescue farm programs the FDR administration and Congress originated and subsequent administrations and sessions of Congress continued, bipartisanly. It's why, in one of the intermittent timeframes, farmers rode tractors to Washington and Willie Nelson had Farm-Aid.

Individuals losing self-provisioning ability draw their sustenance, or too much of their sustenance, from what they sell into the market. If that market is an open-access commons, as it generally is, and there are two many of them selling into that market--selling, say, themselves (labor) or wheat (a commodity)--then the resultant glut of putting too much of what they aspire to sell, into that open-access market, fits analogously the putting of too many cattle on the same open-access pasture, as in the Garrett Hardin parable. The ruination of the market of sustenance-relevance to them is the analog of the pasture with its grass being ruined in the parable. The emaciation of the price they get for their labor or commodity is the analog of the emaciation of the condition of the cattle in the parable.

This is how I came to decide (although I've never had any luck advancing the idea with anybody on the Internet) that the Ogallala Aquifer depletion phenomenon was actually two common tragedies, not one. The physical commons tragedy came from putting too many wells, drawing too much water from an open-access commmons, the aquifer, in amounts normally well in excess of aquifer recharge. It's the Ogallala Aquifer commons tragedy that gets all the analytical focus. But the economic market commons tragedy can be a driver of the physical commons tragedy. If a commodity price is low, farmers try to grow as much as possible as an offset, and irrigation helps. If a commodity price is high, they try to grow as much as possible to reap the bonanza, and irrigation, or fertilizer or other modern productive inputs the high prices enable them to afford, help. There's not a market thermostat. People like William Spillman, leading to George McGovern and Bob Dole, understood this. Donella Meadows, in one of the entries in her book THE GLOBAL CITIZEN (pp. 98-100), understood it. Many energy historians writing about the 1930s East Texas oil field, before Railroad Commission of Texas prorationing, with derricks all over the place and oil down to worth only a nickel per barrel, have understood it. A lot of labor union leaders presumably understand it, or otherwise John L. Lewis and Cesar Chavez wouldn't have had to pursue activism to get better wages than the wages the labor markets, and who had control of such markets, were subduing laborers to endure.

gwb said...

The late, great Joe Bageant wrote about the dispossession of Appalachia in his books Deer Hunting With Jesus and Rainbow Pie, as well as a number of essays which I think are still online.

Kurt Cobb said...

A Google translation of the comment above in Ukrainian:

First, in a minimum needs society there is no organized “scarcity” of industrial society and its inequality.

Second, where the "means of production" are practical skills and the resources to use those skills are abundant and shared, free from property rights, this creates a very different set of economic relations in society, based on the social value of the transaction rather than the material value of the created goods. Back then, in undeveloped societies, people didn't work to buy consumer goods to express their freedom. People worked a few hours a day to meet their basic needs for food and materials, and the rest of the time they created social goods that expressed their individual creativity, such as art, crafts, or music.