Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Seven Sustainable Technologies

Last week’s post on the contemporary culture of apocalypse fandom was also, more broadly, about the increasingly frantic attempts being made to ignore the future that’s looming ahead of us. Believing that the world as we know it is about to crash into ruin, popular as it is, is only one of several strategies put to work in those attempts. There’s also the claim that we can keep industrial civilization going on renewable energy sources, the claim that a finite planet can somehow contain an infinite supply of cheap fossil fuel—well, those of my readers who know their way around today’s nonconversation about energy and the future will be all too familiar with the thirty-one flavors of denial.
It’s ironic, though predictable, that these claims have been repeated ever more loudly as the evidence for a less comfortable view of things has mounted up. Most recently, for example, a thorough study of the Spanish solar energy program by Pedro Prieto and Charles A.S. Hall has worked out the net energy of large-scale solar photovoltaic systems on the basis of real-world data. It’s not pleasant reading if you happen to believe that today’s lifestyles can be supported on sunlight; they calculate that the energy return on energy invested (EROEI) of Spain’s solar energy sector works out to 2.48—about a third of the figure suggested by less comprehensive estimates.

The Prieto/Hall study has already come in for criticism, some of it reasonable, some of it less so. A crucial point, though, has been left out of most of the resulting discussions. According to best current estimates, the EROEI needed to sustain an industrial civilization of any kind is somewhere between 10 and 12; according to most other calculations—leaving out the optimistic estimates being circulated by solar promoters as sales pitches—the EROEI of large scale solar photovoltaic systems comes in between 8 and 9. Even if Prieto and Hall are dead wrong, in other words, the energy return from solar PV isn’t high enough to support the kind of industrial system needed to manufacture and maintain solar PV.  If they’re right, or if the actual figure falls between their estimate and those of the optimists, the point’s even harder to dodge.

Similar challenges face every other attempt to turn renewable energy into a replacement for fossil fuels. I’m thinking especially of the study published a few years back that showed, on solid thermodynamic grounds, that the total energy that can be taken from the planet’s winds is a small fraction of what windpower advocates think they can get. The logic here is irrefutable:  there’s a finite amount of energy in wind, and what you extract in one place won’t turn the blades of another wind turbine somewhere else. Thus there’s a hard upper limit to how much energy windpower can put into the grid—and it’s not enough to provide more than a small fraction of the power needed by an industrial civilization; furthermore, estimates of the EROEI of windpower cluster around 9, which again is too little to support a society that can build and maintain wind turbines.

Point such details out to people in the contemporary green movement, and you can count on fielding an angry insistence that there’s got to be some way to run industrial civilization on renewables, since we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  I’m not at all sure how many of the people who make this sort of statement realize just how odd it is. It’s as though they think some good fairy promised them that there would always be enough energy to support their current lifestyles, and the only challenge is figuring out where she hid it. Not so; the question at issue is not how we’re going to keep industrial fueled, but whether we can do it at all, and the answer emerging from the data is not one that they want to hear: nothing—no resource or combination of resources available to humanity at this turning of history’s wheel—can support industrial civilization once we finish using up the half a billion years of fossil sunlight that made industrial civilization briefly possible in the first place.

Green activists are quite right, though, that we can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels.  We can’t just keep on burning fossil fuels because fossil fuels are a finite resource, we’ve already burnt through most of what’s economically viable to extract, and the EROEI of what’s left is dropping steadily as quality declines and costs rise. Back in the day when most petroleum on the market was light sweet crude from shallow onshore wells, its EROEI could be as high as 200; nowadays, a large and growing fraction of liquid fuels comes from deep offshore fields, fracked shales, tar sands, and other energy- and resource-intensive places, so the average for petroleum as a whole is down somewhere around 30 and sinking.

A common bad habit of contemporary thought assumes that gradual changes don’t mean anything until some threshold slips past, at which point things go boom in one way or another. Some processes in the real world happen that way, but it’s far more common for gradual shifts to have gradual impacts all along the trajectory of change. A good case can be made that EROEI decline is one such process.  For more than a decade now, the world’s economies have stumbled from one crisis to another, creaking and groaning through what would likely have been visible contraction if the mass production of paper wealth out of thin air hadn’t been been cranked into overdrive to produce the illusion of normality. 

Plenty of explanations have been proposed for the current era of economic unraveling, but I’d like to suggest that the most important factor is the overall decline in the “energy profit” that makes modern economies possible at all. EROEI is to a civilization what gross profit is to a business, the source of the surplus that supports the entire enterprise.  As the overall EROEI of industrial civilization contracts, habits that were affordable in an era of abundance profit stop being viable, and decline sets in. Long before that figure drops to the point that an industrial system can no longer be supported at all, most of us will have long since lost access to the products of that system, because every drop of liquid fuel and every scrap of most other industrial resources will long since have been commandeered for critical needs or reserved for the wealthiest and most powerful among us.

The twilight of the industrial age, in other words, isn’t somewhere conveniently far off in the future; it’s happening now, in the slow, ragged, uneven, but inexorable manner that’s normal for great historical transformations. Trying to insist that this can’t be happening, that there has to be some way to keep up our extravagant lifestyles when the energetic and material basis of that extravagance is rapidly depleting away from beneath us, may be emotionally comforting but it doesn’t change, or even address, the hard facts of our predicament.  Like the fashionable apocalypticism discussed last week, it simply provides an excuse for inaction at a time when action is necessary but difficult. 

Set aside all those excuses, and the hard question that remains is what to do about it all.

Any answer to that question has to start by taking seriously the limits imposed by our situation, and by choices made in the decades already past. Proposing some grand project to get the entire world ready for the end of the age of abundance, for example, is wasted breath; even if the political will could be found—and it’s been missing in action since 1980 or so—the resources that might have made such a project possible were burned to fuel three decades of unsustainable extravagance. While new systems are being built, remember, the old ones have to stay functional long enough to keep people fed, housed, and supplied with other necessities of life, and we’ve passed the point at which the resources still exist to do both on any large scale. As the Hirsch report pointed out back in 2005, a meaningful response to the peaking of petroleum production had to begin at least twenty years in advance of the peak to avoid catastrophic disruptions; that didn’t happen in time, and there’s no point in pretending otherwise.

Any response to the twilight of the industrial age, in other words, will have to function within the constraints of a society already in the early stages of the Long Descent—a society in which energy and resources are increasingly hard for most people to obtain, in which the infrastructure that supports current lifestyles are becoming ever more brittle and prone to dysfunction, and in which most people will have to contend with the consequences of economic contraction, political turmoil, and social disintegration. As time passes, furthermore, all these pressures can be counted on to increase, and any improvement in conditions that takes place will be temporary.

All this places harsh constraints on any attempt to do anything constructive in response to the end of industrial civilization. Still, there are still options available, and I want to talk about one of those here:  an option that could make the decline a little less bitter, the dark age that will follow it a little less dark, and the recovery afterwards a little easier. Compared to grand plans to save the world in a single leap, that may not sound like much—but it certainly beats sitting one one’s backside daydreaming about future societies powered by green vaporware, on the one hand, or imaginary cataclysms that will relieve us of our responsibility toward the future on the other.

It’s only in the imagination of true believers in the invincibility of progress that useful technologies can never be lost. History shows the same thing with painful clarity:  over and over again, technologies in common use during the peak years of a civilization have been lost during the dark age that followed, and had to be brought in again from some other society or reinvented from scratch once the dark age was over and rebuilding could begin. It’s a commonplace of history, though, that if useful technologies can be preserved during the declining years of a society, they can spread relatively rapidly through the successor states of the dark age period and become core elements of the new civilization that follows. A relatively small number of people can preserve a technology, furthermore, by the simple acts of learning it, practicing it, and passing it on to the next generation.

Not every technology is well suited for this sort of project, though. The more complex a technology is, the more dependent it is on exotic materials or concentrated energy sources, and the more infrastructure it requires, the less the chance that it can be preserved in the face of a society in crisis. Furthermore, if the technology doesn’t provide goods or services that will be useful to people during the era of decline or the dark age that follows, its chances of being preserved at all are not good at a time when resources are too scarce to divert into unproductive uses.

Those are tight constraints, but I’ve identified seven technological suites that can be sustained on a very limited resource base, produce goods or services of value even under dark age conditions, and could contribute mightily to the process of rebuilding if they get through the next five centuries or so.

1. Organic intensive gardening.  I’ve commented before that when future historians look back on the twentieth century, the achievement of ours that they’ll consider most important is the creation of food growing methods that build soil fertility rather than depleting it and are sustainable on a time scale of millennia. The best of the current systems of organic intensive gardening require no resource inputs other than locally available biomass, hand tools, and muscle power, and produce a great deal of food from a relatively small piece of ground. Among the technologies included in this suite, other than the basics of soil enhancement and intensive plant and animal raising, are composting, food storage and preservation, and solar-powered season extenders such as cold frames and greenhouses.

2. Solar thermal technologies.  Most of the attention given to solar energy these days focuses on turning sunlight into electricity, but electricity isn’t actually that useful in terms of meeting basic human needs. Far more useful is heat, and sunlight can be used forheat with vastly greater efficiencies than it can be turned into electrical current. Water heating, space heating, cooking, food preservation, and many other useful activities can all be done by concentrating the rays of the sun or collecting solar heat in an insulated space. Doing these things with sunlight rather than wood heat or some other fuel source will take significant stress off damaged ecosystems while meeting a great many human needs.

3. Sustainable wood heating.  In the Earth’s temperate zones, solar thermal technologies can’t stand alone, and a sustainable way to produce fuel is thus high up on the list of necessities. Coppicing, a process that allows repeated harvesting of fuel wood from the same tree, and other methods of producing flammable biomass without burdening local ecosystems belong to this technological suite; so do rocket stoves and other high-efficiency means of converting wood fuel into heat.

4. Sustainable health care. Health care as it’s practiced in the world’s industrial nations is hopelessly unsustainable, dependent as it is on concentrated energy and resource inputs and planetwide supply chains.  As industrial society disintegrates, current methods of health care will have to be replaced by methods that require much less energy and other resources, and can be put to use by family members and local practitioners. Plenty of work will have to go into identifying practices that belong in this suite, since the entire field is a minefield of conflicting claims issuing from the mainstream medical industry as well as alternative health care; the sooner the winnowing gets under way, the better.

5. Letterpress printing and its related technologies.  One crucial need in an age of decline is the ability to reproduce documents from before things fell apart. Because the monasteries of early medieval Europe had no method of copying faster than monks with pens, much of what survived the fall of Rome was lost during the following centuries as manuscripts rotted faster than they could be copied. In Asia, by contrast, hand-carved woodblock printing allowed documents to be mass produced during the same era; this helps explain why learning, science, and technology recovered more rapidly in post-Tang dynasty China and post-Heian Japan than in the post-Roman West.  Printing presses with movable type were made and used in the Middle Ages, and inkmaking, papermaking, and bookbinding are equally simple, so these are well within the range of craftspeople in the deindustrial dark ages ahead.

6. Low-tech shortwave radio.  The ability to communicate over long distances at a speed faster than a horse can ride is another of the significant achievements of the last two centuries, and deserves to be passed onto the future. While the scientific advances needed to work out the theory radio required nearly three hundred years of intensive study of physics, the technology itself is simple—an ordinarily enterprising medieval European or Chinese alchemist could easily have put together a working radio transmitter and receiver, along with the metal-acid batteries needed to power them, if he had known how.  The technical knowledge in the amateur radio community, which has begun to get interested in low-tech, low-power methods again after a long flirtation with high-end technologies, could become a springboard to handbuilt radio technologies that could keep going after the end of industrial society.

7. Computer-free mathematics.  Until recently, it didn’t take a computer to crunch the numbers needed to build a bridge, navigate a ship, balance profits against losses, or do any of ten thousand other basic or not-so-basic mathematical operations; slide rules, nomographs, tables of logarithms, or the art of double-entry bookkeeping did the job.  In the future, after computers stop being economically viable to maintain and replace, those same tasks will still need to be done, but the knowledge of how to do them without a computer is at high risk of being lost. If that knowledge can be gotten back into circulation and kept viable as the computer age winds down, a great many tasks that will need to be done in the deindustrial future will be much less problematic.

(It’s probably necessary to repeat here that the reasons our descendants a few generations from now won’t be surfing the internet or using computers at all are economic, not technical. If you want to build and maintain computers, you need an industrial infrastructure that can manufacture integrated circuits and other electronic components, and that requires an extraordinarily complex suite of technologies, sprawling supply chains, and a vast amount of energy—all of which has to be paid for. It’s unlikely that any society in the deindustrial dark ages will have that kind of wealth available; if any does, many other uses for that wealth will make more sense in a deindustrialized world; and in an age when human labor is again much cheaper than mechanical energy, it will be more affordable to hire people to do the routine secretarial, filing, and bookkeeping tasks currently done by computers than to find the resources to support the baroque industrial infrastructure needed to provide computers for those tasks.

(The reason it’s necessary to repeat this here is that whenever I point out that computers won’t be economically viable in a deindustrial world, I field a flurry of outraged comments pretending that I haven’t mentioned economic issues at all, and insisting that computers are so cool that the future can’t possibly do without them. Here again, it’s as though they think a good fairy promised them something—and they aren’t paying attention to all the legends about the way that fairy gifts turn into a handful of dry leaves the next morning. We now return you to your regularly scheduled Archdruid Report.)

Organic gardens, solar and wood heat, effective low-tech health care, printed books, shortwave radios and a facility with slide rules and logarithms:  those aren’t a recipe for the kind of civilization we have today, nor are they a recipe for a kind of civilization that’s existed in the past. It’s precisely the inability to imagine anything else that’s crippled our collective ability to think about the future. One of the lessons of history, as Arnold Toynbee pointed out, is that the decline and fall of every civilization follows the same track down but the journey back up to a new civilization almost always breaks new ground. It would be equally accurate to point out that the decline and fall of a civilization is driven by humanity in the mass, but the way back up is inevitably the work of some small creative minority with its own unique take on things.  The time of that minority is still far in the future, but plenty of things that can be done right now can give the creative minds of the future more options to work with.

Those of my readers who want to do something constructive about the harsh future ahead thus could do worse than to adopt one or more of the technologies I’ve outlined, and make a personal commitment to learning, practicing, preserving, and transmitting that technology into the future.  Those who decide that some technology I haven’t listed deserves the same treatment, and are willing to make an effort to get it into the waiting hands of the future, will get no argument from me.  The important thing is to get off the couch and do something, because the decline is already under way and time is getting short.


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Avery said...

I am wondering how to get up off my computer and start putting these technologies to use. Here are some stray thoughts.

- Solar thermal is a totally unexploited industry in the United States, but water heaters in Israeli homes are virtually all thermal.
- I have no idea how you could make a living practicing home medicine -- or avoid getting arrested, for that matter -- but the book you will want to read is called Where There Is No Doctor and has been used by missionaries to save lives for decades.
- In Japan, there are tens, or even hundreds of thousands of kids who are being taught to use a soroban (abacus) as we speak, even though there's no apparent use for one in modern life. It's simply considered a traditional art, and Japan lacks the progressive impulse to discard arts that are "outdated".

For a start, I'm going to continue translating Eastern esoterica for the West. Nothing like a good mental shake-up to get the creative juices flowing.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"Plenty of explanations have been proposed for the current era of economic unraveling, but I’d like to suggest that the most important factor is the overall decline in the “energy profit” that makes modern economies possible at all."

One person who should know better, but completely discounts the idea of resource depletion as an important contributor to the current situation is Paul Krugman. In a New York Review of Books article, Krugman revealed that he was the research assistant for William Nordhaus’ landmark paper, “The Allocation of Energy Resources.” He “spent long hours immured in Yale’s Geology Library, poring over Bureau of Mines circulars and the like.” If someone with his experience with the economy of energy doesn’t get Peak Oil, then it’s probably hopeless for most economists to comprehend the issue. James Hamilton of UC San Diego is about it. That’s why I use people like Jim Kunstler as one of my examples of ecological economists (he's in a film I show my students; if you were, I'd use you instead), and list Krugman among the conventional economists.

Speaking of things I tell my students (I teach environmental science, a field that is full of the "bright green" types that you deride as unrealistic), I really like your list of seven sustainable technologies and plan on including them in my teaching. I'm in the middle of a two-part lecture on sustainability in which I've already mentioned organic farming and have already included solar and wood energy in the notes for the second half. Health care isn't on the agenda this week, but I know the topic will come up repeatedly during the semester, as the sustainability issues are becoming very apparent.

As for the rest, those might take some doing. I may have to use them as prospects to scare them. Hey, kids, anyone here want to what your grandparents did, and use a slide rule instead of the calculator on your smartphone? I can already imagining them freaking out. Heh, heh, heh.

Marinhomelander said...

Geography and climate will matter in these situations. Why on earth would anyone stay in a place where they could freeze to death when they could migrate to warmer and/or wetter climates?

Like minded people are clustered in certain places and have created the nucleus of what is in some cases already an alternate economy. Coastal California is one such place. From San Francisco north to around the Oregon border is a concentration of alternate thinkers--and a lot of entertaining charlatans-- living in the blessings of a moderate climate with great gardening potential.

Minor detail, we are in the worst drought since records began but that can change with a couple of big storms.

Joel said...

Slide rules are a great way to teach the metaphorical framework that animates the concept of a logarithm, but my understanding of bookkeeping & computation performance is that the abacus works better. An abacus plus some tables of nonlinear functions can work through a lot of engineering, without the limits to precision than an analog technology tends to have. Also, experts can use an imaginary one (not so for slide rules).

As far as medicine, I'm rooting for Eclectic Medicine to be among the systems making a comeback, but I'm also intrigued by what I've heard of the empirical tradition of non-Maoist (i.e., not influenced by the Barefoot Doctors program) Chinese medicine.

Thijs Goverde said...

I'm suddenly wondering what it is, exactly, that you mean by 'technology'. In my view the great advances in many of the fields you mention are not, strictly speaking, technological. I'd rather call them, for want of a better word, scientific. The greatest leap we've made in health care - I'd say it's a worthy contestant for the title of 'most important achievement of industrial civilisation as seen through the lens of future generations' - is undoubtedly the germ theory of disease. It leads to some very sustainable technologies (washing your hands, putting your knife into a fire before lancing a boil) that have very good results.
Would you call the germ theory a part of a technology, or would you limit your use of the word to more strictly technological achievements?

By the way: it seems that unfortunately and, if I may use so strong a word, insanely, the germ theory is contested in some areas of alt-med.
It's one of the problems of being ahead of the pack, I think: if you're not running with the pack, you're automatically on the fringe, which puts you in close association with those who end up on the fringe for, ahem, other reasons.

On a more cheerful note: yesterday my copy of Green Wizardry finally arrived. Yay!

Cosmo Q said...

No problem with your list of seven lo-tech technologies --- very insightful IMHO --- but I'm surprised you didn't include the preservation of the core tenets of natural philosophy / scientific method which underlay their development. If these could be transmitted --- no small feat, but perhaps not insurmountable --- they could spare a future civilization several centuries. Should we start carving some stone tablets?

Barbara Fisher said...

The production of cloth is a necessity. Learning to weave on a mechanical, but human driven loom would be a useful skill to learn and pass on. Spinning fiber from raw materials is also an art that will likely be necessary in a post industrial world.

You mentioned organic farming--also note animal husbandry, for without synthetic materials, we will need fiber for clothing. Alpacas, sheep, goats, rabbits--all produce fiber that can be spun and used for cloth.

Similarly, learning to knit, crochet, sew....humans in most places in the world will always need clothing, blankets, and such.

Pottery, as well. Learning to wheel-throw clay bowls and plates and such.


In fact, I would say most handcrafts are something that would be useful to learn and pass on. Perhaps that is part of the unconscious impetus behind the current trend in crafting and do-it-yourselfing. I don't quite think it's just self-expression at work here.

Also, learn to play, or build or repair musical instruments. I would say that in the dark times we humans will need our music more than ever.

John Michael Greer said...

Avery, no, you can't make a living in the US doing the kind of medicine I've referenced without being thrown in jail -- the AMA is very protective of its monopoly -- but you can learn the skills, treat your own health conditions, and wait for the financial crash that'll be hitting US health care in a decade or so; more on that in a future post. (There are also many more books than that one to study, btw.) As for solar thermal technology, sorobans, etc., by all means.

Pinku-sensei, fear of slide rules is purely a matter of pitching them the wrong way. These days, in a lot of circles, retro is in; try brandishing the slide rule and saying, "This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator" -- see what kind of reaction you get then!

Marin, funny -- are you by any chance in the real estate business? Climate scientists are warning that your part of the world is going to be racked by ghastly droughts for centuries to come. Meanwhile, I'm sitting in a pleasant region with an ample year-round water supply that's expected to remain constant through climate change, and housing prices that are between 5 and 10 per cent (no, that's not a misprint!) of what people have to pay to get equivalent properties in your area. I'd say there's plenty of reason to head somewhere other than where you are...

Joel, depends on what you want to do and how fast you need to do it. Most of the numbers that put human footprints on the Moon were crunched with slide rules. Abaci, logarithm tables, nomographs, et al. also have their place -- it's not an either-or situation, it's all of the above! As for the old Eclectic school and trad Chinese medicine, no argument there.

Thijs, nah, I've already talked about what's involved in saving scientific knowledge and, more importantly, the scientific method. This is a different subset of the same broad challenge.

Cosmo, there again, I've discussed that at length in previous posts. The key, as I see it, is to lay off the stone tablets and work on getting the scientific method back in the hands of laypeople as a living practice.

John Michael Greer said...

BTW, once again I'm having to delete otherwise good comments because of profanity. Folks, you know the rules; this is an all-ages blog, so keep it clean.

Pinku-Sensei said...

"This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator"

I love it and so will the geeks and hipsters among my students. Thank you!

Susan J said...

I have been enjoying your pillory of progress and your efforts to prophecy a lifestyle without oil. What I am missing is an explanation of why society — read those holders of wealth and power — would reach back to a different, older set of values.

When has this ever happened? Over the centuries each step, each turning, has been away from previous values. When has anyone ever said “wait a minute, let’s return to x”?

How many people today don’t laugh at the mention of the Luddites? Who actually knows the truth of their times?

Who today can say “wait a minute”? People educated in public schools? People raised in 2+ paycheck families?

Ray Wharton said...

A wonderful list of technologies! Today I finished making a system to be able to develop mushroom spawn, its still hepa filter dependent.I know their are mushroom cultivation methods that don't need lab space, but being able to do lab work for a few years will be very helpful in leeping that option open. Hopefully the worm bin will be going together this week, but set backs abound.

When it comes to solar thermal I am concerned by how many gardening systems are dependent on fairly short lived plastic. Also glass doesn't have a great life expectancy if social order drops below a thresh hold. That does leave alot of good solar thermal work to do, but the gains with out glass are smaller. Thermal mass is of interest where I'm sitting, there are alot of thinks I love about the high elevation here, but it makes for wide temperature swings. Increasing the intercourse between earth and air I hope can help. Digging machines are still around, now its the time to dig some berms, onces made a good one can be maintained easily for a long time. Just need permission prom some land owners :P.

I am also really happy to see mathamatics on the list. I was a bit of a math nerd growing up to be sure, but I am surprised by how serious most peoples innumeracy is right now. Many people can't measure, or run simple figures in their head. I am starting to suspect that simply being a math nerd may be enough for a millennial to stay busy. Helping projects conceptualize numbers, once the computers get too frustrating and pricey to use, and the numbers that products come with aren't enough to muddle forward. Heck, at this point alot of the "professional mathamancers" are all just fancy dancers. Me? I haven't been schooled in math since 8th grade, but I think numbers alot. Right now I can make cellular automata calculators on go boards which can sum hundreds of numbers, do multiplication, division, and a few mathematical properties that are stable behaviors but I can't find names for. Too bad the current form is only practical for people who can think in a Fibonacci Numerals system instead of base-10; on the other hand, lots of people are so tramatized by numbers from school that a different system is soothing. This is the second year trying to turn the rules into a game, a good project for winter, one of these years I might get something catchy made!

John Michael Greer said...

Barbara, good. Which of these do you propose to take up, practice, and teach to someone younger?

Pinku-Sensei, you're most welcome. I'm going to have to do at least one post one of these days on the retro future...

Susan, it happens all the time. Think of the Renaissance, to cite only one example -- a lot of people looked at what was going on in their own cultures, looked at what had been around in Greek and Roman times, and decided that an older set of values made a lot of sense to them. It's only in the middle and upper classes of current industrial societies, and the canned histories they repeat to themselves, that the idea of going back to get out of a blind alley is unthinkable -- and they'll catch on eventually.

Ray, yes, glass is crucial, and it can be made with medieval technologies from recycled glass or clean sand -- that's something that would be well worth putting time into learning to make. As for a number system based on Fibonacci numbers and the Golden Section, er, perhaps you haven't heard of traditional Pythagorean sacred geometry, which is all about that, and is sustainable in a medieval setting (that was standard in the last round of dark ages in the West, you know) as well as useful and beautiful.

deedl said...

I miss something very important in your whole statement. How do you define industrial civilization? What features makes it industrial? and what are the energy needs of this features? can those features be achieved by lower energy needs?

For example: Technical houshold items such as small kitchen devices, entertainment and large devices such as washing machines, dishwashers and so on. All those items are designed with planned obsolescence. You have to replace (in current industrial civilization) them every few years, but it is technically no problem to design them (without additional costs worth mentioning) them to properly work for decades. So the same feature can be implemented on a smaller resource base.

Next example: Heating. Lets say heated homes for every one are a feature of industrial civilization. Of course the current way of implementing this feature, heating with a lot of energy in badly insulated homes, is not sustainable on any energy source. But it is possible to build well insulated homes without a lot of fancy technology (using strawbales or cellulosebased insulation) and satisfy the resulting (small) energy demand with the little fancy technology still available on the smaller resource base.

Example Medicine: Cuba is a great example how you can provide a very good medical service (just look at life exspectancy there) using medical science to fill the doctors brains and not their wallets. If you say that that access to scientific medical service is a feature of an industrial society, than i do not see why this feature has to be dropped on a shrinking resource base.

How many resources do we waste do build and heat office buildings and to commute to them every day in cars to do a job that can be done at home, thanks to the internet, the latter one being less energy intensive.

Before you say that i quibble over details, those are just examples to make my point. We all know that our current way of living has to change if want that or not. But when making bold statements such as claiming the end of civilization, we have to be careful. We alle agree that there is no way to power our current industrial civilization. But that does not mean that we have to drop all the features of industrial civilization.

From a bottom up approach to estimate our possible future standard of living i would suggest to make a list of features of industrial civilization and then to find for each feature the least energy intensive way to implement them, then priorize them and then see how many items you can implement on a given resource base.

So i guess we will have to drop the individual car, human space travel and making vacations around the world. But maybe we do not have to drop access to mobility (public transport), acces to information-exchange/multimedia ans access to cooled/frozen foods. Access to comfortably temperatured homes. Access to Medicine. You name it.

I am sorry to say that this article is just another bold claim about the end of our civilization. But this claim has to be fed by facts. What of our energy goes into what needs (in germany: transport 35%, room heating 25%, process heat 22%, hot water 5%, light 3,7%, information/ communication 2,5%, cooling 2,4%) and what technology enables us to get what feature on a smaller energy base. Looks as internet fridges and and electric light will long be available.

After such an evaluation you can make predictions that are believable.

KL Cooke said...

Scroll down for low-tech shortwave radio.

John Michael Greer said...

Deedl, equally, before you make sweeping claims that we can preserve something like modern industrial civilization, shouldn't you do all the same work, and provide the rest of us with your own bottom-up calculations and assessments? If you're not willing to do that yourself -- and I think you have some idea of the decades of work that would be involved in anything of that kind that was comprehensive enough to matter -- it's a little disingenuous to demand it of others. You'll find my definitions and descriptions of industrial society, by the way, in my books The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future; if this was a book of 60,000 or 80,000 words, rather than a weekly blog post, no doubt I'd have included them here as well.

KL, an excellent example!

LunarApprentice said...

Hello JMG

I'm glad to see mathematics on your list.

Last year, I discovered Vedic mathematics, a startling system of calculation that is much quicker and powerful than what is taught in school. It derives from ancient (2000 year-ago) sutras that were decrypted by an Indian scholar only in the 20th century. To give a sense of how it compares with the math that you and I learned, take multi-digit multiplication or long division: By Vedic notions, our conventional manual methods amount to a formal proof of say 333/73 = 4.561.. A formal proof is laborious and overkill. Vedic math has a few tidy rules and methods which are not obvious at all. (My own study of them has been derailed by my long financial/professional emergency in my corner of the medical world).

Titles of Vedic math texts include:

Vedic Mathematics (The original, but not the most clearly written textbook)

Verically and Crosswise (the best introduction around I think)

Triples: Application of Pythagorean triples (An elaboration of Vedic principles enabling easy calculation of trigonometric functions, conics, complex math, solutions of polynomials, hyperbolic functions, and many other applications)

Astronomical Applications of Vedic Mathematics (Pencil and paper orbital mechanics)

There's another title on my wish list that covers Vedic solution of differential equations... the title ecapes me at the moment.

There are other titles on teaching Vedic math to kids. A search on the term will reveal a new world.

LunarApprentice said...

Hello again,

JMG, you wrote to Marinhomelander:
"...Climate scientists are warning that your part of the world is going to be racked by ghastly droughts for centuries to come."

I don't like the sound of that.

I moved to the Puget Sound region in 2009 in large part because it's temperate with abundant fresh surface water, local agriculture, on a traditional water and rail transport route, and not very crowded. Puget Sound is not THAT far north from Marin's turf.

So JMG, where did you get that climatological forecast? Is Puget Sound toast (literally)? Enquiring minds want to know...

PS: I had a typo in one of those book titles above; it should be-

Vertically and Crosswise

Bike Trog said...

I haven't used trigonometry since college, but it can be useful for anyone who builds pitched roofs, ramps, etc. Square roots and cube roots are useful for area and volume problems. I learned and forgot square root hat division, so I can learn it again.

Jason Heppenstall said...

Glad to see you have included coppicing in there. I cut my first half acre of sweet chestnut and oak last week. Although the resulting gap in the forest now looks like someone has gone mad with a chainsaw, the stumps will now be protected from rabbits and deer and each will have grown 4 or 5 new trunks when I next harvest them in 2022. In the meantime I have about 150 trees to haul out and turn into something useful. I led a group of about 20 interested people around the woods afterwards, explaining what was going on and how the woods would now be regenerated and much more biodiverse.

Next winter I will harvest the next section, in what will be a 12 year cycle.

There’s a dizzying array of things that can be done with the wood. Traditionally, in these parts, the coppiced wood was used for making props to hold up the mine shafts for the tin miners. These days, most coppice woods are overstood and abandoned … just waiting for a Green Wizard to turn up and make a livelihood out of them. Generally, woodland is much cheaper to buy than agricultural land as the industrial economy only values it by the timber it can produce - which is not very high by modern rapacious capitalism’s standards. This seems like a great opportunity to me. Coppicing trees in temperate zones is probably one of the easiest ways to turn solar power into useable products. All the offcuts that are left over can be thrown into an old oil barrel (1 pound on eBay) and turned into charcoal. Trees just grow, they don’t require much husbandry. You leave the finest specimens alone - some of those big straight oak trees will be allowed to become standards, meaning that they will provide me with some pension income in 30 or so years.

Anyone thinking of making a living out of living in the woods should read Ben Law’s book The Woodland Way. His approach is holistic and he gets more or less everything from his woods - including food, construction materials, medicine etc. It’s a way of life that has existed for thousands of years in Britain, and was only extinguished when cheap imported wood became available.

I’ll be updating my Fox Wood blog with pictures and explanations of the coppicing in a few days’ time.

Josh said...

JMG I would add to your list of necessary and sustainable technologies decentralized, small-scale water treatment and eco-sanitation. Effective eco-san will be critical for protecting public health as well as returning nutrients from human excreta to soils for local organic food production. Decentralized water treatment using things like biologically active slow sand filters and char adsorbers will be necessary to remove pathogens and provide a barrier against many of the synthetic chemical pollutants unleashed into source waters by industrial society (e.g. pesticides, pharmaceutical residues, industrial wastes, etc.). My colleagues and I are developing low-cost simple technologies for production of optimal adsorption char for water treatment from local waste biomass - we hope to contribute such knowledge and techniques to people living through the long descent. More details at AqSolutions [dot] org....

Jason Heppenstall said...

I should have mentioned another key benefit of owning a woodland in the wet and windy British isles - the chance to practice heliciculture.

Yes - fancy restaurants are falling over themselves trying to procure a supply of snails. Once you get over the yuck factor they are very nice fried up with a bit of garlic, parsley and butter.

There's probably no easier animal to farm - and if they escape, you don't have to go far to find 'em!

I say "You eat my salad leaves - I eat you."

deedl said...

I think we both live in two different worlds. In your world (the anglo saxon cultural circle) the people who grasp, that our current way of living has to change, are lonely warners in the desert as you are. Meanwhile politics, media and industry make bold claims of fossil based growth.

In my world, Germany, (separated from your world by a language border that i can cross but you can not) the general perception is different. There is a broad consensus among ALL five major political parties that we have to change. Except for the still strong car industry and their lobby, most of german industry sees the pathway towards sustainability as an opportunity for staking claims in new business fields. Why do i say that?

The assessments i demanded to do exists in your world only in fragments because it is done by the few brave lonely warners. In my world it is done by think tanks full of smart people well funded by government and industry. Germans tend to call everything into question and we also tend to plan everything in detail before implementing it. Do you think a people with this traits of character AND the scientific and technological legacy germany has would jump head first into the adventure of going renewable if there were no way of achieving the task of creating a sustainable way of industrial civilization?

You said it takes decades of work and of course that is true and that is the reason why current government plans have directions and targets for the timeframe up to 2050. The decades of work are not only planned but broad implementation is well under way for a dozend years now. And so far every single year we exceeded the plans.

Of course there are political quibbles bout the details of implementing it, about the way of paying for it, about the role of government and the market forces and so on. But this does not change the fact that every single political party is aware of the necessity of change. Be aware that the media of your world will cherry pick details of those quibbles to paint a picture of the german energy transition being an expensive mess. But despite the high prices of fuel ($7,50 a gallon due to taxes) and elctricity (second highes rate in Europe) we are the nation with the largest trade surplus on the planet, so we are living proof that highly valuable industrial goods can be produced on a small resource base.

So why do i demand a detailed assessment before making a claim? Because thats how may world works. For example the entire german housing and construction industry is doing this very assessment for low energy buildings for a decade now, since all their future business models are based on that. In my world I just have to google the results. Zero-Energy-Housing costs in construction 5% more than a traditional house per area. Thats peanuts. But its the technology to get rid of whopping 25% of our energy needs that we use for space heating. Of course it takes decades to replace or insulate the entire housing stock. But implementation is well under way.

And dont forget that all of your EROEI-assessements are current states of technology. For example today the masts of wind turbines are made of steel. In lower saxony there is a 300 ft wooden mast carrying a 100 ton wind generator and it works so well that four more are planned. This has the potential to greatly reduce the EROEI od this technology, since you do not have to process the steel. So current EROEIs of renewables are just that, current EROEIs. Those numbers will rise year until we reach the physical limits. This is a long process.

I cannot possibly summarize the loads of information my world posesses in a comment on your blog. I just can give examples to underline the statements i am making. But be aware that many questions that your world is debating about a already answered in my world with the answer being implemented right now. And be also aware that not "the world" is in decline, but that "your world" is in decline. For you that may not be a difference, but for most people on this planet it is.

Richard Larson said...

My choice is planting many different species of food trees and bushes together, to find those perfect combinations that grow well together, with the goal of extending the tree's life, minimizing pests and diseases, and producing a consistant (consistant is not necessarily large) harvest.

I'm probably too old to know which ones will work the best, but hopefully somebody will get it, see the worth of knowing which combinations are best, before some desperate soul chops them down for firewood.

For the record, I was a solar (heat) salesman for 3-4 years, that never lied about the production ability, and always made it clear as to its comparison to natural gas. The pitch for me was always about fixing your heat cost and emitting less pollution. I would add here that making glass would be another important trade in the new economy.

Typing of natural gas, the wife thought she smelled it in the basement this past week, and sure enough, the plumber we called over found two leaks! Since they have been fixed my concentration is starting to improving instead of declining...

sunseekernv said...


re: saturation of wind

nit picking here - but dunno about Carlos de Castro saying 1 TW is the max for wind.

Mark Jacobson says saturation wind power potentials are > 250 TW.

I'm fairly confident 1 TW is way too low for saturation, and 250 TW could very well be 10x too high, though even 25 TW is quite plentiful.
This the most recent/sensible I found:

Admittedly, the argument is somewhat academic given lack of coherent energy/financial/environmental policy.

Got any idea how much total wind is installed worldwide as of end of 2013?

re: drought in Marin County

What references did you use?

These say little change in precipitation there, lots of scatter in the models.

re: solar thermal in US

I wouldn't say solar thermal is totally unexploited in the U.S.

The U.S. is #2 in the world, but 1/10th of China. We have 15.7 GWt (GigaWatts thermal) of solar thermal collectors, though the vast majority are "unglazed water collectors" - arrays of plastic tubes for heating pools. (see page 11 of the link above).

Looks like (as of 2011) we had half the flat plate collectors that Israel does (at 2.5% of the US population).

If you want to help, look here:

Down at "Spread the Word" see how you can shill for solar thermal. If you think that's distasteful, remember that people are shilling for coal and oil and GMOs …

I was gratified to notice that a new house in my soon to be new neighborhood has a couple of solar thermal panels.

I R Orchard said...

I'd agree with Barbara, in considering what technologies I could create from scratch, no modern industrial components or tools at all, I'm scratching to get much beyond pottery, weaving & knitting, perhaps leather work and um….er….. Even there, how do you harvest wool, dig clay or fell trees without tools?
We should be paying close attention to how 'primitive' peoples managed without steel knives or garden tools and all the other stuff we don't even take for granted. "I, pencil" for e.g.
In the mean time, in a household with 8 computers, our 25 year old Encyclopedia Brittanica (made of dead trees) is tucked away safely.

Les said...

Hang onto your hats, here comes a veritable flood of “you’re wrong, we can easily preserve ”, many of which will probably feature iWhatsits, Android apps and/or quantum physics.

Personally I’m hoping that organic gardening will also extend to small scale farming, a little bit bigger than what the Poms term “smallholders”. I’m betting the farm on it, literally. As long as we restrict ourselves to running systems that use primarily gravity, wind, sun or wood to power them, we should do OK. Assuming it gets around to raining sometime. Soon…
PS: Chris, howzit in Cherokee? 40+? Ouch.

Cherokee Organics said...


What, that super nifty technology the Internet may eventually become uneconomic? hehe (I was joking around).

Seriously, if I hadn't read people rabbiting on about such matters I would have thought that you were joking! hehe. Of course it has to pay for itself. Mind you, I still have a mental picture of some sort of internet fairy promoting connections.

The moons have aligned again as I have been busy on several of these suggested projects and the outcomes can be seen here:

Preserving fruit


Mixed Orchard growth this summer

Via the magic of the Internet the readers here can have a look at some of the practical steps that I'm following right now. The future is here...

Meanwhile outside of Shangri la at Cherokee, things are not good in the SE of Australia. The temperature has taken a turn for the worst and it is as bad as it has historically been here:

Heatwave brings fires, blackouts and health dangers

Please spare a thought for us down here, we are cooking.



Christian Herring said...

On the topic of sustainable technologies, what is your opinion on hydroelectric power? From what I've read, the EROEI of an average hydroelectric dam is around 100:1, and sometimes can be even higher, which puts it on par with the best fossil-fuel resources. Could small communities in the future cluster around areas where these dams could be built, providing them with a modest amount of electricity? It might be challenging to build and maintain that much concrete, but from what I understand, the ancient Romans had access to the technology necessary to produce concrete, so using hydroelectric power in the future might not be out of the question. It might even allow a greater range of technologies to be preserved in the long-term. Do you think that this could be feasibly done?

gregorach said...

"The production of cloth is a necessity. Learning to weave on a mechanical, but human driven loom would be a useful skill to learn and pass on. Spinning fiber from raw materials is also an art that will likely be necessary in a post industrial world. "

I think it's worth remembering that these tasks were some of the very earliest to be mechanised, and that they were mechanised long before the advent of fossil fuels. The early industrial revolution in England was based on these technologies, and they were all initially powered by water and constructed by local blacksmiths. Still, there are places (such as in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland) where hand spinning and weaving are still practised commercially, and on a significant scale. Harris tweed is known the world over, and is still produced on hand looms, from hand-spun yarn, by people for whom it's only one component of their livelihood.

One other technology that I think might manage to hang on is precision engineering - not in its modern, computer-assisted form of course, but the basic concepts of precision measurement are much harder to develop from scratch than they are to maintain, and they allow such an improvement in the efficiency and reliability of even simple machines (such as bicycles, or treadle lathes) that they seem like they might well be useful in the future. Again, it's simply an evolutionary development of relatively simple technology that was all originally powered by water, or by human (or animal) muscle.

Andrew said...

But John, you are completely ignoring the sudden leap of consiousness that will happen soon, and will bring us zero point free energy out of nowhere!

Seriously, people interested in real medicine could do worse than starting with watching the videos of the Association of Traditional Studies which are available for free online (as long as the internet is up, of course, so...)
Some of my favorites: How I Became a Classical Herbalist, part1 and part2, and of course all the others...

flute said...

Two other very useful technologies I think can be sustainable are the telegraph and the telephone.
By telephone I don't mean the systems we have today, but rather the old style switchboards where you ask the operator for e.g. "Cumberland 27" and she plugs in the cable to the correct hole to get you to the butcher so you can place your order. Of course not every house would have a telephone as today. But a local telephone/telegraph station here and there would have to do.

Michele Yamano said...

@Avery, Japanese moms I knew, told me they sent their kids to abacus class to make them smarter (brain training) in order to excell in the highly competitive school system.

JMG- excellent post! Your blog should be required reading for every educational decision maker. As a middle school reading teacher I see first hand the nonsense that the worship of technology has created. Students can't read, don't want to read and will out right refuse to read. If they don't get it in the time frame of a commercial, they give up. "it's too hard, it's boring" Whine, whine, whine. We will have to create a new educational system in order to reeducate students in the "old" sustainable methods of living.

Russ said...

John - we've had solar hot water for 25 years and solar voltaic for 10 years. We've known from the beginning that this technology will never sustain the civilization we've lived through since the 1930's. You are absolutely correct: the energy return from the energy invested is the key to the energy future and there is nothing to replace the so-called cheap oil we've had in the past. This is going to be an awful shock to most of western civilization: the crumbling into the dust bin is happening right now. Regards, Russ Day

Jim R said...

I think it's worth pointing out that much of this ancient traditional technology you mention is in fact based on available energy sources.

For example, an acid battery -- to make acetic acid, you need the usual biological input of sugar. And sulfuric acid requires sulfur, which is found here and there in small to middling quantities, made by the earth in volcanic activity or deposited with petroleum or coal.

Now in addition to the acid, you need metals. It isn't that the earth's supply of metals have declined, they are constant. But to refine metals again requires fire. I believe the Romans mowed down entire forests to get enough wood for their metal reduction projects.

So batteries are obviously a tiny niche product. Same goes for things like glassmaking ... how about a nice niche for lesser grades of silicon (good enough for PV but not necessarily for electronics)?

IMNSHO, the problem with that low-EROEI Spanish solar project is that they are trying to scale it to industrial proportions. A lot of losses are incurred in conversion and transmission and storage in that attempt. The central Asian villager using a single panel to power a variety of small machines could be making much better use of PV.

As another key technology I would like to nominate polymer chemistry. Something that was known to the ancients as more of a craft or art form, but came into its own as a technology in the last century.

And despite its bad reputation (that floating plastic sargasso sea comes to mind), polymers are useful things ... paint is a nice example. It preserves wood or metal objects and gives them a longer life.

Also please note that polymers do not require petroleum. Though they are generally made from petroleum now, traditional polymers are made from things like flax seeds and the sap of the rubber tree.

Master Oogway said...

A good list although I would include external combustion engines ( steam and stirling). We are working on the list and doing well.

You are still avoiding the much bigger issue, population decline. I deliberately say avoid since I know you are aware of the problem. We can not sustain 7 billion people on a lower tech infrastructure.

Nestorian said...

To echo a point I made twice last week: The most important "technologies" to adopt during the Long Descent concern spirituality - the "one thing necessary" in human existence.

This is true on a personal as well as a social level. On a personal level, morally and spiritually sound spiritual "technologies" are essential to one's happiness and fulfillment - especially in times of relentless and otherwise inevitably psychologically embittering decline.

On a social level, the more a society as a whole is imbued with sound spiritual "technologies," the more it also possesses the basic necessary condition that will conduce it toward profitably integrating all the sorts of strictly material technologies you and others have mentioned into its arc of descent.

If the thematic constraints of your blog do not permit you to emphasize this point, then I hope you will permit me to do so.

Mark Boenish said...

While this is a very good article it occurs to me that one critical class of technology has been omitted from the discussion - weapons technology. Without speculating on the reason for this omission I would merely point out that weapons technology has been crucial to the development of human technologies since our ancient ancestors first began to modify sticks and stones - and will likely continue to do so.

So what will our future generations be murdering each other with? Buck Rodgers ray guns now seem very unlikely. Will automatic weapons firing metallic cartridges be sustainable? Or will a return to simpler black powder weapons be necessary?

irishwildeye said...

If I might suggest a sustainable technology that could be added to the list, simple mechanics, metalworking and carpentry, combined to make human powered machines.

One of the few positive legacies we are leaving to the future is an enormous amount of refined metals. Metals workers for many generations to come will not want for raw material to work.

With an understanding of simple mechanics and simple technologies like pedals, treadles, belts, cranks etc, metal workers, mechanics and carpenters of the future should be able to create lots of simple human powered machines.

In my youth I once saw a disused hand powered grain winnowing machine in a shed. It was a large wooden box, with a handle and most of the internal moving parts were wood. The few metal parts could be easily made by a blacksmith. Also common in my youth were disused treadle spinning machines, for spinning wool, also made mostly of wood, with a few simple metal parts.

As a teenage farm labourer I once cut up a few buckets of fodder beet with a knife. This is a slow, tedious job and dangerous when your not used to it. But many small farms at the time still had hand powered machines called mangles for the job. I never used one, but from talking to those who did a team of two could fill a wheel barrow with shredded fodder beet in a few minutes, of moderate work.

Also common in my youth were hand powered water pumps. Back then I spent some time one winter hand pumping water for housed cattle. Not as easy as a modern electric pump, but light years ahead of carrying buckets.

Even if future humans cannot make super efficient, super durable industrially produced Victorian style human powered machines like water pumps, bicycles, treadle sowing machines, or fodder beet mangles, future village carpenters and blacksmiths will certainly be able to build simple human powered machines for tasks like winnowing grain and spinning wool. Necessity being the mother of invention the same skills can be turned to making all kinds of human powered labour saving devices for the countless repetitive tasks required to run households, small farms, workshops and small businesses.

Human power is the real renewable energy source of the future, the key is to combine it with simple mechanics and produce human powered machines to increase labour productivity. This I believe will prove to be a sustainable technology.

Bill Pulliam said...

I'm looking for a rocket stove heater design that works as a fireplace insert. Ours is a historic house that has preserved most of its original design. Modest protrusion out onto the hearth is fine, but I'm not gonna fill half the living room with a pile of mud and straw.

Marin -- ah, yes, that good old ideological apartheid. When you say "like minded" I am guessing you also mean "like-colored" and "of like socio-economic status" (yes, I have been there). No need to be molested by people who view the world differently than you do, no need to be concerned with folks who don't have sizable bank accounts. That is not the future, it is an escapist fantasy. Try dealing with some real hillbillies. Many are busy figuring out how to do this stuff without the money or ideology. They just want stuff that works, cheap. And how can you not see your "minor detail" as the writing on the wall?

Meanwhile down here where the tea-party rednecks control the politics, our climate has hardly changed while the rest of the world warms (reasons unknown, no guarantees our luck will hold), and my minimally-educated fundamentalist neighbors showed me how to make a ram pump.

butzjo said...


Great post. It's the Fareheit 451 of sustainable technology.

My dad, a (PE) professional engineer for 45 years, learned on a slide rule. He started to teach me once when I was a teen, but my TI-55 was all the rage. Now would be a good time to revisit his lesson so I can pass to my kids.


Nick Nelson said...

And lets not forget about solar stills for water purification. But perhaps the large sheet of glass necessary wouldn't be practical?

Cathy McGuire said...

Yeah! This is the kind of post that needs to be made into a (letterpress) broadside and displayed widely. Your list makes good sense both individually and as a system - an important point is that one hole in a complex system can grind many other things to a halt.

One way I practice this is to constantly ask myself what inputs are needed for whatever process or tool I’m using – how many diverse or complex things/processes are needed to get me to this stage? If they are very complex, or very dependent on farflung sources, I start looking for more manual or local versions. I have noticed also that one’s tools dictate one’s layout – ie: to use a power mower, you must have a flat, rectangular lawn of generally one species of plant. There is no room with a rototiller to stop and allow a volunteer plant to grow, etc. Manual tools are allowing me to have a different relationship to my yard and my life. More silence, more time for contemplation… much less stress from noise and hurry.

I know I'm biased - the only things on that list I haven't done is shortwave and thermal power. But I just got 5 plastic fresnel lenses (it was a package) and can't wait for the Oregon fogs to lift so I can try them. I have a slide rule and soroban; I do organic intensive (and every year learn more and more); I had my own letterpress for a while and still own some type - and I can make and bind books; I have a decent herb garden and both "Where There is No Doctor" and "Where there is No Dentist" - both fascinating! - as well as many natural medicine books. A rocket stove is on my list of things to build... and really, it's fun! Most of these processes are fascinating and it feels like when I was a kid with a chemistry set (oh yeah - and I just bought myself a chemistry set - totally wimpy compared with what I had back in the 60's, but I guess they don't trust kids anymore. ;-))

thegreenmantle said...

I was pleased to see your list as most of this stuff is considered on
Espicially the Rocket Mass Heaters .
Apart from the Math that is , but I for one am cool with the slide rule . I never understood why we needed 27 decimal places for most stuff anyway


Luckymortal said...

Since food production has the greatest impact on personal freedom and the household bottom line, I've focused first on organic gardening and ecologically modeled "woody perennial polyculture" systems.

But we've also used passive solar and other simple DIY strategies to lower our energy bill to 68% less than standard homes and 12-15% less than "energy efficient homes" in our city. Some of the "lowest hanging apples" in terms of energy/cost input have the highest return. Our home energy independence plan also includes a russian oven in the kitchen (conveniently under our bedroom) and restoring our "remuddled" rumford fireplace. We're also trying to start a co-op that can use "experienced masons" to get rocket mass heaters installed to code. I'm trying to learn and record as much as I can about all of these.

But to me, there's one technology you missed which I've come to feel is very important. We hypothetically "grow 100% of our own food" based upon our dietary and caloric needs. However, we utterly lack the culinary technology to easily turn that hypothetical abundance into real meals. Processing and storing take WAY more time than growing. I don't know of any homesteaders who have solved this problem, or eat a diet that will be sustainable beyond the "green revolution" of fossil fueled grains. That intersection between "what to grow" and "how to use it" could use a lot of work. FYI to maximize our free time and minimize our labor, we're focusing on developing Jerusalem Artichokes as our primary staple.

Daddy Hardup said...

I am studying bookkeeping and accounting, online through the Open University in the UK, a distance-learning institution that was only made possible by modern communication technologies.

But I can't help noticing that what we're being taught is the old way of doing it by hand, laboriously entering transactions into ledgers and casting and checking the accounts.

Why? The accounting profession recognises that these tasks are done by software these days, but that learning the hard way is the only way of understanding properly how accounting works.

To add to Barbara Fisher's comment on clothing technology: growing and processing of plant fibres. Here in Northern Europe I suppose that means flax, and maybe hemp, rather than cotton.

james albinson said...

Other things that come to mind:
Bicycle mechanic.
Wheel wright/cart maker as an offshoot of woodwork. While recycled car axles/wheels will last a long time, rubber tyres will eventually perish.
Tinker - pot repairer.
General village blacksmith - nails/roves, farm hand tools.
Optician - eye glasses will need to be hand made at some point...
Miller - mill wright -water/wind/animal power.
Potter - wood fired kiln.
Machinist - you could run a lathe/mill/drill off a water wheel, or early on, with PV cells and NIFE batteries and an inverter. Backyard metal casting with a charcoal furnace.
Time keeper/clockmaker - set clocks by the stars - take account of precession, etc.
Herbalist, specialist cook, jam maker, baker - wood fired oven.
Just some odd thoughts.

Andy Brown said...

I like the list, and I'm happy to see glass-making included among the list of sustainable technologies. I wonder where you'd put metal working on it? I suppose, scrounging, scavenging and re-purposing metal will be a major project for the long descent, so unlike the others, this doesn't require much effort to "save." Plenty of creative people will be all over it.

I'm working on the gardening (as well as beekeeping and winemaking), but I will have to look into the printing or the glass making. And have to think about the kinds of things my sons might be willing to take on.

squizzler said...

"Those who decide that some technology I haven’t listed deserves the same treatment, and are willing to make an effort to get it into the waiting hands of the future, will get no argument from me."

My nomination is bicycle technology . Not only is the vehicle more efficient and less maintenance intensive than a horse, the principle of pedals, cranks, and chain or belt drive is the most efficient means of converting leg power into useful rotary movement for domestic machinery (much more effective than a treadle as on old sewing machines and the like).

Also worthy of consideration: the engineering and vehicle dynamics principles can inform later developments like mill transmission and even aviation (the Wright Brothers were bike mechanics)

Sébastien Louchart said...


I'm a long time reader of your blog but a first commenter here.

I do agree with your list of technologies but there is one thing that bugs me. No tech for mobility ?

No hot-air balloons to lift and carry heavy loads, boats to travel canals and seaworthy sails to cross the ocean ?

As someone mentionned animal husbandry, horses and donkeys are the key of an energy-deprived future. Heavy horseseven start to become used again in the timber industry where I live in France.

I do agree with the short-wave radio as a technology worth preserving, however, I'm wondering why you think that long-wave radio couldn't be kept as a technology for long distance communication or broadcasting ?

Wolfgang Brinck said...

Excellent post as usual. Re technologies of the future, two websites, and its sibling, both have lots of inspirational articles. One thing that comes to mind is that as we made the journey to today's industrialized present, we abandoned a lot of technologies that would be useful again in a de-industrialized future. Not only will we want to remember what is useful from the present but we will also want to rediscover what we used to know in the past such as techniques for food preservation in the absence of freezers and canning technology. We would do well to spend more time looking at how third world cultures cope since they are already at the place that we are going to, that is a world with too many people for the resources available.
As to how our culture copes with declining ROEI, that will be something to see. As far as I can tell, anyone trained in economics, even critics of Capitalism such as David Harvey has a hard time letting go of the idea that economic growth can go on without some material underlying growth. Economic theorists seem to believe that when you use up one resource, the invisible hand provides us with a replacement just in time and growth proceeds at 3 percent per annum.
In any case, it seems that our current arrangement in which we are given money to pay for food and shelter in return for performing some inane activity which goes by the name of job can go on in an environment of declining resources.

Martin said...

Dear Mr Greer,

I have been now a long reader of your essays and I cannot thank you enough for your guidance through these interesting times (also my gratitude goes to Karel Dolejsi of Britske Listy, who translated some of your essays into Czech and thus introduced me to you).

This post is very timely for my own situation. Only yesterday I was going through websites concerning letter pressing. 20 years ago, before I went to university, I apprenticed as type setter and worked still with moveable type, so I am not saying, I don't need to relearn it, but the foundation is definitely there.

Whatsmore, I am going to extend my skills and learn type foundry, which I find exciting. Also, the skill of making punch, matrix and cast type will be absolutely essential to maintain the technology of letter pressing.

For anyone, who'd be interested in taking up this craft, there are good resources on the internet:

on Youtube: Stan Nelson of Atelier press & letter foundry gives you an introduction how to produce a type matrix and cast a type.

Kind Regards

Dennis Ingham said...

I'm somewhat with deed. If conservation and reasonable priorities were implemented the EROEI needed to sustain many of our technologies very well could enable alternative energy to sustain more moderate lifestyles.

JMG, how realistic was the research that leads you to state EROEI must be 12?

Who would set those priorities? OMG we are in deep dodo.

MPL said...

I'm glad you mentioned food preservation more than once. As the proud owner of a top-of-the-line electrically-powered food dehydrator used to preserve as much as possible of the bounty from my side-yard garden, I can't help but wonder how I might go about the same task when the wall outlets stop working -- or become to expensive to use. (Maybe they already are too expensive to use, but that's another train of thought.)

I hereby declare and pledge to my offspring and future generations that I will learn as much as I can about food production and preservation sans fossil fuels, and that I will patiently pass on the acquired knowledge in as complete, lasting and inspiring a form as I can.

I might also do the same with radio tech, if time allows.

Twilight said...

Ahh, but it turns out you are quite mistaken. Soon we will be heading to the stars in ships powered by black holes (once a few details are worked out), so surely a bit of spare energy can be spared to power things here on Earth.

Kugelblitz! Powering a Starship With a Black Hole:

I read it carefully, but near as I could tell it is not satire.

Anna said...

I'm really glad to see Barbara's additions: handcrafts are of immense importance (and before you ask, Mr. Greer I'm either teaching or learning all of the fibre arts, starting with raising the animals).

One really very positive element in my community is a co-op craft shop, and by "shop" I mean "place where people gather to work co-operatively, share tools, share knowledge, and own various pieces of necessary equipment in common.

Another is the local "folk connection," which is a nearly-free evening of shared music, where again, knowledge is exchanged (though we are a bit more reticent about letting someone else take our instruments home!)

So I'd like to throw my support behind both Mr. Greer and Ms Fisher, and add that there is one non-technological skill that also needs to be developed alongside these things: the ability to be in community.

I mean a *real* community, and not the 500-nearest-friends community of facebook ;)

Jesse Smith said...

What kind of technologies can we reasonably expect to retain in a lower-energy future? Will steel production still be viable? I am thinking in particular about the bicycle. Basic single-speed bicycles with high-tensile steel frames are not particularly complex machines, and the 3-speed hub has been essentially unchanged since its invention over 100 years ago. I think the bicycle has enormous potential in making life easier for future generations. It is the most energy-efficient form of transportation ever invented, and learning to maintain a bicycle is within the reach of many.

Clearly the personal automobile is not going to be around forever, and it would be nice to not have to go back to horses with all their attendant issues.

I also agree with the comments above regarding germ theory and other basic medical technologies. I would really like my children and grandchildren to live in a world where there is still a way to produce polio and tetanus vaccine, for example. I will not miss Wal-Mart one bit, but I would really like to still have antibiotics available in my old age.

Sunyata said...

Perhaps unrelated, JMG, but I was just wondering what you thought about Jean Geber's idea of humanity's movement toward an "aperspetival" consciousness. Since you are so familiar with Steinerian/Spenglerian thought, I'm sure you're familiar. Just saw that you had never uttered the word "Gebser" in your blog. Sorry if this is unrelated to this week's post, but I'd be interested in hearing anything.

Wolfgang Brinck said...

I would like to recommend a video on youtube that shows how Cuba dealt with being plunged into a de-industrialized state by the collapse of the Soviet Union. It specifically focuses on the government's effort at encouraging a do it yourself mindset it the general population. Especially interesting to me is that they published a book that looks something like a whole earth catalog for how to keep things running and cope with being cut off from the first world stream of consumer goods.
Regardless of what we think of the politics of Cuba, Cuba is probably a good example of what de-industrialization looks like. I suspect what most people dislike about Cuba is the uncomfortable fact that in the absence of plentiful resources, we are looking at a lifestyle that to us looks like poverty. And I think this is why Greens like to hang on to the dream of alternative energy. The pure and simple reality of declining resources is that it requires doing with less, something that seems to terrify the average citizen with their comfortable consumerist lifestyle.

Bill Lindeke said...

You forgot about the bicycle, easily the most (energy) efficient and adaptable transportation technology.

Ray Wharton said...

At the moment I am more interested in salvaging glass, which I think could be a major project in the next couple decades (the time frame where I will be looking in wanted adds most often). Saving even a minuscule fraction of existing glass would leave a great glass supply per person to descendants. Right now there is a mind boggling amount of glass, though I grant recovery rates on Glass Saved per Window Shattered will likely be tiny. Folks are starting to build little solar collectors, I have helped on a few. If that picks up a little bit glass salvation could become an important business. Those jobs, and business fencing windows, could be a major conduit saving glass from hooligans, vandals, soldiers, terrorists, and various other kinds of barbarism.

All that being said, yes making glass is very important, and in Colorado recent legislation has provoked a major level of investment in glass blowing, and intensive organic cultivation. I have great faith that the skills being honed in those areas will branch out as food prices continue their upward trend.

As far as sacred geometry, I have started to research some of the traditional works, but, with my education and interests, progress on those lines is very gradual. I would really appreciate some suggestions for good sources, as picking through the literature blind is slow going.

Most of the buddies I nerd out about it with are much more fascinated by the cellular automata. The logicians of the early 20th century created a language of logic that was very important to make digital computers. The electric computer very likely done for, but I think that that logic is still valuable, even if your computer is a 5 hertz level 3 Draughtmancer running on a 610 space table with 8 different derivative overlays, 21 token types, and a full set of dice for running boards with abstract geometry. The I Ching has made its way into how I think about the numbers.Most of my sacred geometry research has been simply looking at traditional figures for inspiration to draw out tables for my glass bead game. Its all Pigeon Religion to me.

D.M. said...

As others have mentioned about crafting things by hand, I would add blacksmithing as something to preserve and proliferate, or metalsmithing in general. Have to do something with all those useless vehicles, instead of letting them rust, after there is no longer an gasoline to power them. I am not entirely sure how that would work out though as far as input of energy to work the metal, but if the creation of glass can be viable then metal should be too. Just a somewhat random thought I am throwing out there.

flook said...

JMG - have you read Mikiforuk's 'The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude?' The book suggests that since the paleolithic revolution, human slavery has often been used to subsidize energy inputs in complex societies. His argument suggests that fossil fuels replaced the 'need' of slaves at the onset of the industrial revolution. Do you see the return of slavery as a likely scenario to 'replace' some of industrial society's energy inputs over the next century as oil diminishes? I'm certainly not advocating for this, but in your view, is that a real possibility? The human population on earth is very high, historically speaking.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@JMG -- FWIW, I find this to be one of the most useful posts you've written in my year or so of reading this blog. Perhaps it's because it takes about a year for a general thesis like this to sink in, but I think it's more that, while I personally can "do abstraction" with the best of them, I really need concrete examples to tie things to reality and inspire imitation, dissent, and innovation.

Thank you!

Ruben said...

But, but...(lip trembling), but computers are so cool.

GHung said...

Thanks, JMG. It seems I have most of these pretty well in practice. To #1 I would add irrigation. While our garden and livestock watering system is currently supplied with a slow solar pump, it could easily be converted to a simple wind pump or tramp. The idea is to build water storage above the areas of need and use gravity to do the rest. Many possibilities there. We've also constructed a couple of small ponds for water storage and edible aquatics such as cattails and lotus, and fish, of course.

#2: Passive solar thermal is the best investment I've ever made. Our south-facing glass with overhangs to control seasonal insolation just works. I would add that windows need to be operable with screens. Thermal mass helps keep things warm or cool, and virtually all of our 'air conditioning' is passive.

#3. We've been coppicing for years now. In our area, the poplars and alders regrow to harvest-ability in 2-3 years; makes fine stove wood, especially when combined with forest dead fall.

#4. Here in the southern Appalachians we have a pharmacopia of medicinal plants which we identify and encourage. We keep a library of both folk and scientific info regarding their usage. I've learned how to make tinctures and poultices. Distilling is another useful skill in the "medicinals" area.

#5. The best I've done there is to put literally thousands of pencils in storage; often found in boxes of 500 at flea markets. Paper is another problem...

#6. Our grandson is working on his ham license and we are looking for vintage tube-based ham equipment at swap meets, etc. Unfortunately, the trend is toward going digital, but that frees up a lot of old equipment.

#7. I still have my old slide rule from my pre-calculator school days, along with its instruction book.

I would suggest adding animal husbandry to the list, especially small livestock (goats, chickens, etc.) and draft animals. Also, potting and basket weaving.

Here in the mountains, there are still some old-timers who lived very much in a semi- or pre-industrial way. I suggest folks go out and pick the brains of some of the folks who lived this way, or are preserving these things.

3+O( said...

I've been learning the abacus and slide rule, and thinking a lot about post-cheap-energy computing lately. In Roman times a "computer" referred to a person employed to do calculations (which in turn etymologically refers to the stones or beads of an abacus) and this usage continued up into the 60's. Undoubtedly it will return, and we might as well make thing as easy on the computers of the future as possible.

I can think of at least one zero-energy computational technology that required the invention of calculus (in Newton's sense) for real application, the nomogram. It allows a complicated function to be calculated with only straight-edges, by straightening the function line and curving the axis (or axes) relative to it. See the site and http:// for examples and more information.

Inspired by stack-based languages like FORTH and Joy, I've been experimenting with seeing whether stacks of paper cards can be used for general algorithms without becoming onerous to operate.

JMG, what do you think are the most crucial computational tasks a sustainable society would have?

Dan Pickles said...

Ooops! My bad. I didn't realize the profanity policy. My comment again, clean this time:

I love the list. I've been studying herbalism, bookbinding and organic gardening for some time now. They're all incredibly fun, aside from being useful. Spending a couple of hours at my kitchen table sewing a book, or outside digging in the garden, or even just reading about herbs all feel more productive than watching some miserable reality programming.

My one addition might be Botany (which does fall under the header of general science, which you've talked about at length) and specifically foraging. Understanding plants is critical. There's staggering abundance around us, if you know where to find it and how to prepare it. It's also a productive way to get out of the house and wander around under trees for a while.

One last thing, to Marin's point: I live in Wisconsin, originally from Minnesota. We've got water, a decent gardening season, and a great history of wild foods. Also, people have lived here (and even farther north) for quite some time without central heating.I couldn't/wouldn't give this place up. Once you catch Walleye on the great lakes, you're pretty well stuck here.

Thanks again Greer. As I said before, I can't tell you how much I appreciate your blog. Keep up the good work.

Joseph Nemeth said...

@Pinku-Sensei -- I'm always astonished by the fact that economists never seem to look at the demand side of the equation. The basic problem with our entire global economy is that we need more (affluent) customers.

Of course, there aren't any. That's the problem.

I find that this approach short-circuits the circular discussion that starts when you talk about resource shortages. People immediately want to talk about the "information economy" and 3D printers and the World Is Flat and how technology lets us make more with less, and the conversation heads down the rabbit-hole.

Instead, start with the fact that to sustain an exponentially-increasing economy, you need exponentially-increasing demand: so at 2% growth, we have to double our consumption every 35 years -- twice as much corn eaten, twice as many cars bought, twice as many prostitutes solicited. If you want to add new technologies, they can't detract from any of the existing industries -- you now have to eat corn AND wheat, buy a car AND ride the new maglev train, solicit the same prostitutes AND subscribe to internet pornography.

It brings the problem home: "I don't have the time or the money for all that!" Exactly.

Nor does enlisting the aid of the starving masses in Africa help. For them to buy your products, they need money. For them to get money, they must become producers. You don't have the time or the money to buy your own products, much less their products, so it means they have to buy their own products, which means they won't have any time or money left to buy yours.

Declining energy surplus is, I think, much easier to illustrate from the demand side. Yes, you can make a car for half the cost and four times the mileage using advanced technology and outsourcing, but who is left to buy it? Without an energy surplus that supports an affluent demand base, there are no customers. If there are no customers, your production costs are irrelevant.

Moshe Braner said...

Hi JMG & All. I've been traveling, dealing with ice storm, and such, too busy to comment for a while, but still made time to read each week's blog post as I find them fascinating and mind-developing.

Low-tech shortwave radio is a good goal, but it's not anywhere near as easy as the "crystal radio" in the picture linked by KL Cooke makes it look. That receiver has no amplification, and thus can only receive from nearby high-power AM radio station transmitters. Amplification is the real "magic" to preserve, and is useful for much more than just radio communications. For that, one needs either simple transistors (perhaps a sustainable technology, but does require somewhat of an industrial base), or vacuum tubes, which potentially can be home-built, but not easily (require glass-work and high vacuum pumps). For practical use, one also needs sources for (or home-building methods for) metal wires, resistors, capacitors, switches, transformers, batteries, etc. Since in the shorter term (at least one more generation) salvage of such components will be much easier than home-building, the preservation of the homebuilding methods that will be needed later on is quite a challenge.

Erica H said...

I'm an organic gardener and so of course am glad to see my favorite thing to do on the list of sustainable technologies! As a subcategory of organic gardening I advocate learning to save seed, since there may come a day where I can't get twenty varieties of tomato seed delivered to my mailbox on a whim. Saving seed has the added benefit that you can select for the hardiest and tastiest plants in your garden each year and over time you end up with a garden full of plants that are best suited to your bio region and your tastebuds.

SLClaire said...

In my senior year of college (1978-79) I took an intro to accounting course and learned double-entry bookkeeping. A few years later, in the mid 1980s, I was one of the volunteers who helped a local nonprofit put together its financial reports each year from its very large handwritten double-entry accounting journal. Fast-forward thirty years, when I am wondering how I can make a little money to support myself when our debt-based savings and pensions no longer bring in their current modest income. Perhaps re-learning basic accounting could help with that. It would be something easy for an old body to do. I am just beginning my search of used book stores and sales; I'll put acquiring a 1970s era accounting textbook on the list as I sold the one I used 35 years ago. Thanks - this helps to ease my mind a little as I contemplate the financial aspect of decline. (I practice most of the other technologies you mention but I don't think they will be as well suited for an aging body to make a living as accounting might be.)

HalFiore said...

If I may, I would add another suite of technologies to your seven. That is the general field of hydrological and sanitation engineering. Most of the greatest development in these technologies came in the 19th century, and were developed by enterprising individuals with little more than what we would now call grade-school educations. Educations that equipped them with an ability to read, comprehend, and reason from core principles in ways that I know I am incapable.

Some very interesting refinements and additions were made in the latter 20th century such as tertiary biological wastewater treatment and the like, and it would be very desirable to conserve those, as well. They fit very well into the scenarios I most imagine for the future.

I'm pretty sure I've hammered on these here before, so I won't go into any more detail. But I can't think of anything more worth preserving than the ability to reliably deliver water and to keep the poop out of it, which is what most of it comes down to.

You will ask what I'm doing to preserve the knowledge, and at this time all I can say is I have collected some very useful texts and manuals from the early to mid 1900s. Many projects beckon, but how many I'll get to in this life remain to be seen.

Bill Pulliam said...

About the climate stability of the west coast, etc...

One indicator of the possible stability of your future climate is the actual stability of the past climate through the pleistocene. And one good indicator of this is the biodiversity of the area, especially large things like trees that disperse and evolve slowly. The idea being that when your climate has been stable, you will have had fewer local extinctions and you will see more species surviving in the present day.

Here on our 40 acres of Tennessee, we have over 40 species of trees. In the whole biome of the Pacfic coastal belt (Northern CA to Puget Sound), there are only about half this many species of trees that are widespread. In any given 40 acre plot, you'd be lucky to find more than a dozen or so. Southern Appalachia and the adjoining areas in general are a major hotbed for North American biodiversity. Through the pleistocene climate swings, the forests have apparently never been wiped out and hundreds of species have managed to thrive in the region. Such has not been the case in the Mountain West and Pacific Coast, even with the greater opportunities for vertical migration in the west.

It's not an accident that we settled in one of the most biodiverse areas of the southeastern U.S. (the western highland rim of the interior plateaus province). To me that meant a healthier past and better chances for robustness and stability in the future.

And now folks will say "yes but the coming climate change is unprecedented, the past is no guide to the future now!" Sure, uh huh. But the same geographic, ecological, and atmospheric processes that helped moderate past climate changes are still our best guesses for moderation in the future too. And, curiously, the mid-south and southern Appalachia have not been showing much temperature change, a puzzle which climatologists have been discussing recently. So, maybe the past is still a guide for the future...?

Glenn said...


According to Cliff Mass, Professor of Meteorology at UW, the first 50 years of climate change in Western Washington will have cooler and wetter springs and summers, due to the immense thermal mass of the North Pacific upwind of us. After that, the trend is towards warmer, with more pronounced dry seasons, something like central coastal California is now; he doesn't say how long that will take or what the end point might be. I'm comfortable here for the next three generations based on that information.

Now, we do live on an island, and sea level rise will eventually take out our aquifer. If my grandchildren can't farm with their rainwater budget and cisterns, they'll have to move to the mainland. I don't regard moving much north of here as viable; Boreal Forest topsoil is too thin and acidic for grain.

Marrowstone Island
Salish Sea

Varun Bhaskar said...


My Thursday mornings are becoming so depressing because of you but that might also just be the weather.

Look these small suggestions of preserving tech are a really good idea but shouldn't this community do this is a more organized way? Why don't you start an Archdruid low-tech wiki. We, your lovely readers, can go about finding the best books on each topic of technology and write detailed articles on the various technology processes that we have expertise on. I for one would love to know how to make acid free paper and ink.

Use the tools we have while we still have them, the most powerful tool we have against knowledge loss is the global information web.

Anyway, just a suggestion. I'm new to your blog and will be contributing to our collective success with what few resources I have. Expect more from me!


View on the Ground

Alphonse Houner said...

After reading your comments, from the very first, I wasn’t sure who had lost what in the past year’s postings. The whole excursion into religion and apocalypse, which seemed to culminate, had me convinced that I needed something more productive to read then, finally, this week a really good read – well done.

The first four items are the core issues needed for whatever is coming. Nearly all these are found as responses to the various collapse/decline scenarios from time insensitive benign – Phased collapse – to catastrophic climate change. Even the utopian “Transition” movement based in quirky rural British towns includes some of these elements. They are certainly the core values utilized on our ongoing project in the rural Midwest.

I would add a few other elements:

1. Arts, both fine and heritage: Fine arts add enjoyment and broaden the mind and soften the coarse edges of a hard life. Heritage arts, such as weaving, wine making, coopering, cooking & baking, organic gardening & orchards – this is what we do - woodworking and such provide for basic necessities while providing discipline and release from emotional turmoil.

2. Music: We seem to be a species given to music of all types. It gives us joy, and with others strengthens our sense of family and encourages community participation and fulfills so many emotional needs. Obtain, or make – a heritage art – a musical instrument and then share you’re learning and playing with others. If you have no musical skill – unfortunately I don’t – you can whistle, sing or hum along with others or just soak it in. Some in our community participate in “Sacred Heart” singing sessions and travel all over to join with others to sing in unison – No it isn’t a Christian club. Several of our children play piano, guitar and flute.

3. Prepare to home school: The school system is a basket case which I suppose could be called a “failed system.” Already abandoned are the arts and music and progressively the basics of math, language and rational thinking – all this and the football team lives on.

Thanks again for a great piece.

MawKernewek said...

How much firewood can be sustainably extracted from a coppicing wood?

I don't know the numbers myself, but I suspect it is not going to be enough for the majority of the population to switch away from natural gas/electricity to wood for space heating.

How big a contribution could it make in a temperate climate like the UK, in paralell with passive solar thermal, and perhaps a reduction in how warm you expect your house to be in winter?

escapefromwisconsin said...

That first paragraph reminds me of what John Gray wrote on the BBC earlier this week. It's all about how we conveniently pretend that certain uncomfortable facts simply don't exist - that is, we wish them away. He talks about the fact that the people who partitioned Iraq in the 1920's were totally aware that the country was unstable and prone to factionalization, but the U.S. just ignored any inconvenient facts. He also points out in the aftermath of the financial crisis, nothing of substance has changed at all:

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld's distinction between known unknowns and unknown unknowns has passed into everyday speech. It's not the things of which we know we're ignorant that we should worry about, he pointed out. It's the things we're unaware of not knowing that can really cause trouble. It's a useful reminder of the vastness of human ignorance. But might there not be another kind of unknown, which Rumsfeld didn't mention - one that consists of things we choose not to know?


While we live surrounded by unknown unknowns, we live on the basis of unknown knowns - intractable facts that we prefer to forget. We'd do better to confront these awkward realities and muddle through more intelligently. We humans are sturdy and resilient animals, with enormous capacities of creativity and adaptability, but consistently realistic thinking seems to be beyond our powers. This may well be the biggest unknown known of them all - in an age that prides itself on its advancing knowledge and superior understanding, we're as anxious as ever to avoid facing up to our actual condition.

Except for shortwave radio, none of these are really new. The ancient Greeks planned cities to take advantage of the sun, although they didn't have plate glass.

Karim said...

Greetings all

From the available literature it appears that JMG's figures of EROEI are on the low side. However, that's not the critical issue here because even if renewable energies' (RE) EROEI were to be significantly higher, it is probably too late for a massive shift to RE to have any sort of positive impact on the effects of peak oil worldwide.

Nevertheless I have to say that EROEI figures most probably cannot be measured to a high degree of accuracy given the large number of inputs that need to be known precisely. The best that can be achieved are probably EROEI figures that give orders of magnitude. I tend to believe that EROEI figures quoted to 2 decimal places are misleading and bizarre, it is claiming an accuracy that can't be achieved realistically.

Other measures must be used to make a realistic assessment of RE, such as pay back time and cost of KWH of electricity generated. On this front RE have been making progress as far as I have been able to gauge. For instance in Mauritius, where people are fighting against the erection of one more coal powered station, the cost of electricity from coal is Rs 4 to Rs 5 per KWH (Rs 30 = 1 US $) whereas a solar farm has just signed a supply contract of Rs 6 per KWH.

I am currently involved in attempts to introduce solar farm co-operatives in Mauritius based on the German model. Together with German experts, using real figures about costs, technology available and solar insolation in Mauritius we are coming up with figures of Rs 8 per KWH and a pay back period of 4 to 5 years!

All those figures taken together mean that subject to local circumstances, a gradual shift towards RE for electric power is most probably possible within a 20 years time frame. However peak oil may not grant us this much time, nevertheless it is worth a shot. Better late than never. I am afraid that the rational of JMG on RE may actually be counter productive as it may convince many people to mistakenly believe that a shift towards RE is a waste of time and effort when every bit of RE will help and is helping right now.

Bill Pulliam said...

Another biogeograpic tidbit to give you clues about your regional climate stability -- fishes. The entire pacific coastal region from northern CA to Puget Sound hosts about 25 species of native fish. In comparison, just the state of Tennessee hosts at least 277 native species; the tiny drainage basin of the Buffalo River within which I live is home to over 90 species of fish. About a dozen species live in the teeny first-order headwater stream behind my house. Conspicuously absent from the western states are all those little "headwater endemics," the species that occur only within very limited ranges in the drainage basin of only one stream. These sorts of endemics are widespread in the southeastern states.

So what does this say to me? That those western rivers dry up completely, all the way to the headwaters, periodically, and have to be recolonized by widespread species that are often able to move in from the ocean. But in the southeast, those smaller rivers don't dry up, not even in the mega-droughts, over many many millennia of drastic climate change.

Fish aren't such a good indicator farther north in the eastern states, where the pleistocene ice sheets periodically wiped out everything. Whatever we might be looking at for future climate change, most people (there are always exceptions) are not envisioning a return of the pleistocene glaciers in the next few thousand years; megadroughts are a much bigger worry.

Karim said...

JMG is probably correct that under its current format industrial civilisation cannot be sustained on RE. But a different form of industrial civilisation can certainly be imagined that may run mainly if not exclusively on RE. I have yet to see any convincing arguments that some form of industrial civilisation CANNOT be run on RE. Indeed, the 7 technological suite taken together very much look like the embryo of an ecotechnic industrial civilisation.

Our real problem is transportation because peak oil creates a shortfall in liquid fuel used for transport and RE are not really suited for our current transportation system.

Compounded to the above transportation issue and the time needed (20 years) for any transition to RE is the fact that there is tremendous opposition to any serious shift to RE from certain Government sectors. For instance in Mauritius initiatives to boost RE are being systematically hampered by officials. Taken together it is inevitable that we shall run into very severe trouble sooner and later.

Hence the approach advocated by JMG makes sense, low cost and low tech yet functional on the household level or community level. But the more solar PV panels around then, the better for all.

Last but not least, I would add an 8th and 9th technological suite: windmills and electric generators and motors. Windmill have existed for centuries and last for decades and electric generators will be needed for radio transmissions.

Electric motors can last very long and provide very useful power for manufacturing (think of lathes) and I know that from experience as in one of our workshops are electric motors that have been running every working day for the past 60 years and yet others for 20 years or more!

Max Paris said...


I was just wondering where you got this fact:

According to best current estimates, the EROEI needed to sustain an industrial civilization of any kind is somewhere between 10 and 12;



Wolfgang Brinck said...

I meant to provide a link to cuba's adaptation to de-industrialization but forgot, so here it is.

August Johnson said...

JMG – Yet another excellent post! I’m slowly getting introductions and tutorials written for those interested in Ham Radio. I’m also planning on having a lending library of books useful to prospective or beginning Hams. I seem to be a focal point lately for those who either have for sale cheap, or want to give me, older HF rigs. I’m getting quite a collection of very fixable rigs that I’ll be able to eventually pass on at very affordable prices. I’m very interested in helping any who want to get into Ham Radio. An abundance of Drake and Yaesu rigs!

I think some I’ve been communicating with have mis-interpreted my appearing to have a total preference for tube type equipment. I have a preference for tube rigs because they’re available for less money and easier to bring back to working condition. I love the performance of the latest rigs, when they work, but it’s still far easier to repair the tube stuff, even to the point that modern stuff can be impossible to get parts for when it’s the custom Integrated Circuit that’s no longer made that you need.

I have 1,000’s of transistors here; it is very easy to throw together simple QRP rigs on a whim. Bags of 100 or 1,000 transistors are quite cheap! There’s so much stuff that’s just thrown out that parts can be salvaged from!

I also think that many don’t understand that you are talking about Ham Radio during the decline, when salvage parts and some of the technology are still available. Yes, once all the salvage is used up, it will be quite difficult to replicate much, but the decline is going to be a long and drawn-out process and radio can be a big help. Even if all you could make was Spark-Gap transmitters and Coherer or Crystal receivers, a lot can be done. After all, that was the technology employed back in 1900-1915 when the ARRL was formed and trans-continental relays were being performed regularly. There’s a lot to be learned by reading books like 200 Meters & Down and The World of Ham Radio 1901-1950.

I’m also working on the Organic Gardening, Solar Thermal and Bookbinding. All of this is actually lots of fun, especially when you leave the High-Tech expensive stuff out of it!

ando said...

Thanks, again, for another fine essay. It seems that a Green Wizard might need a little Tai Chi or Karate, not only for the health, fitness, and self-defense, but also for the PHILOSOPHY of self-reliance and personal responsibility, eh?



Ruben said...

@Bill Pulliam,

Bill, is there a reason why you specified a rocket stove fireplace insert?

I think rocket stoves get so much press because they make a large amount of heat for something that is made out of old tin cans.

But, they are not the most efficient or cleanest burning stove.

If you are trying to maintain the character of your home, perhaps a masonry heater would be a better choice. There has been quite a bit of development in DIY masonry heaters if you search for the Russian Bell.

No Tech Magazine: Rocket Stove Heating

LOW-TECH MAGAZINE: Sunbathing in the living room: oven stoves and heat walls

LOW-TECH MAGAZINE: Tigchel heaters and Finovens

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to JMG and everyone,

My contribution to "savable" technologies is a working, practical knowledge of regional ecosystems. I guess this is more of a meta-technology that necessarily informs the listed technologies (plus fiber arts and handicrafts). However, as many people have become more separate from nature, this kind of knowledge is in real danger of being lost.

I would like to point out that while green wizards are working on various savable/adaptable technologies, and that clearly descent is happening, we also aren't "there" yet. This is a weird hybrid time, a time to take some advantage of what's available in the present, that will last a long time, with an eye to a more descent-ed future.

Haven't commented in awhile because we've been fixing the kitchen of our very old house to be more energy efficient, more durable/adaptable and to better accommodate scratch cooking and food preservation and storage.

Mark Rice said...

"I’d like to suggest that the most important factor is the overall decline in the “energy profit” that makes modern economies possible at all.

Here is Ben Bernanke trying to explain What Caused the Decline in Long Term Yields. The explanation looks to be entirely financial and "economic". There seems to be no awareness of any physical reality behind all that finance and "economics". If all you have is a hammer than everything is a nail.

Carl said...

Very interesting the idea of keeping original stuff going. I for one know how to do double entry book keeping by hand and into ham radio. I would suggest for inspiration one go to a video sharing site and search 'hand made vacuum tubes'. The video of Claude Paillard fabricating vacuum (valves is the British term) in his home shop is very inspirational. And vacuum tubes are very handy for making your own electronics. You can also search home made transistor. Most other parts are just different bits of foil, wire, doped clay etc.

John Michael Greer said...

Lunar, thanks for the Vedic math tip -- not something I'm familiar with at all. As for Pacific Northwest climate change forecasts, they're not hard to find online -- that I recall, your area's far enough north and west to escape the droughts, but you'll want to do some research.

Bike, trig's useful for much more than that, and a good trig-function slide rule makes it easy as 3.14159 ;-).

Jason, excellent. Coppicing's crucial, and not merely for firewood -- coppiced ash trees produce splendid building timber for pole construction, for example.

Josh, fair enough. Glad to hear that you're working on it.

Jason, sounds tasty.

Deedl, for the record, I have a decent reading knowledge of German -- Latin and French had to come first for professional reasons, but there's a long list of Dichter und Denker I plan on reading in the original. As for your broader point, though, stripped of the triumphalist rhetoric, what it amounts to is that Germany happens to be in a position just now to be able to afford the massive government subsidies needed to prop up renewable energy -- and it's in that position because of systemic fiscal imbalances in the Eurozone that are bankrupting Southern and Eastern Europe to prop up the German economy. That's not a sustainable situation, and it will be interesting -- in the sense of the apocryphal Chinese curse -- to see how it plays out in the decades ahead.

More broadly still, of course the US empire is ending -- I spent most of my 2012 posts talking about that, and my book on the subject will be published in March. That said, I urge you and my other German readers not to fall into the old delusion of supposing that the decline and fall of an Anglophone empire necessarily means the rise of a German-led Europe to, shall we say, its place in the sun. It was because of that same fantasy that Germany spent the first half of the twentieth century slamming face first into one self-induced catastrophe after another. If the same mistaken notion is once again getting traction east of the Rhine, I have to say, along with Hermann Hesse, "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!"

Richard, good. A better knowledge of companion planting is a contribution worth having.

Sunseeker, I'm aware that de Castro's estimate is controversial, and that it's much lower than the estimates that proponents use -- in fact, I think I said as much (as did de Castro in his paper). His methodology, though, takes into account thermodynamic limits the others don't. As for Marin county, I'll have to find the papers I read.

Orchard, you don't do any of those things without tools, of course, but that's not at issue; most of the tools are very easy to make from metal scrap and have very long working lives as well. The technologies I want to preserve are the ones that are at serious risk of being lost.

August Johnson said...

@Varun – JMG has the Green Wizards site,, where others are sharing their expertise in many areas. I think that it’s up to us to carry this Green Wizardry forwards. If it all depends on one person to make it happen, then if that person trips, falls, or whatever, the whole movement dies. We as Green Wizards need to carry this forward as a group, not just depending on JMG to do something.

I’ll be sharing the different new and old books that I feel are good contributions.

I understand that the Green Wizards site is going to be getting a total restart in the near future; hopefully this will allow lots more knowledge to be exchanged.

John Michael Greer said...

Les, I expect smallholders to do very well once the corporate farms start going bankrupt due to rising direct and indirect fossil fuel costs. It's the intensive gardening technology that might get lost in the interval, and that's why I want to see it saved.

Cherokee, er, "the moons have aligned"? I knew Australia was a long ways away, but the nearest place I know of with more than one moon is a bit further than that. ;-)

Christian, micro-hydro and mini-hydro is sustainable, and well worth cultivating; big dams fill up with silt in a matter of decades to a century or so, and lose most of their ability to produce power -- and of course there's also the ecological damage, which is not small.

Gregorach, good. What will you personally do to make sure these things survive to be passed onto the future?

Andrew, that's right -- not to mention the horde of flatulent unicorns on their way from Zeta Reticuli right now, who will meet all our energy needs if we can only figure out how to filter twinkle dust out of methane!

Flute, possible. Radio's actually easier and cheaper, because you don't need the network of wires connecting station to station.

Michele, you've touched on one of the most critical needs we've got -- a different way of educating both adults and children. I plan on a series of posts about that down the road a bit.

Russ, excellent. It's good to hear from someone else who gets it!

Jim, of course. Everything in the deindustrial future is going to have to function at a much smaller scale. Polymer chemistry? A possibility -- here again, what do you propose to do to preserve this?

Oogway, I'm not avoiding it, I've discussed it repeatedly here. Population is a dependent variable, not an independent one, and as the limits to growth bite harder, we're going to see population growth turn into population decline -- the original Limits to Growth study puts that at 2030 or so, and I expect global population to bottom out somewhere around 2150 to 2200 at maybe half a billion. The mechanisms for population contraction? There are four of them, and they ride horses.

Nestorian, I'm not at all sure I'd be comfortable describing spirituality as a technology -- it's more a relationship, as I see it. Is it crucial? Yes -- but as Spengler pointed out a long time ago, a return to religion is one of the predictable events in the decline of a civilization, so that one's probably covered.

onething said...

First off, I don't completely get why an energy source that produces only about three times its input is so useless? i think what you are saying is a matter of scale - we just won't be able to produce enough to have the kind of energy people currently waste. And yet, we really don't need all the crap we have and could live a tolerably "modern life" with much less in the way of energy consuming gadgets. The modern washing machine comes to mind. Because it is so easy, we have lots of clothes and probably wash them too often. My daughter told me that in college her roommates would throw a towel into the laundry after each shower. In the Soviet era, certainly a modern and scientific society, most people had few clothes, kept them as clean as they could, and washed by hand in the house and hung them up to dry.

Thijs Goverde-

I don't think it is exactly true that some people don't buy the germ theory of disease. It is rather that they think other things can trump germs, such as having a healthy immune system and getting enough of the right nutrients. It was Claude Bernard who said "The terrain is everything." Certainly we know that some people seem to catch every cold and flu that comes along, and others are rarely sick despite great exposure. So there is obviously more going on than the germs themselves.

Having said that, I completely agree that asepsis is crucial and easy to attain. Medicine might need to drop a lot of expensive tests and use more clinical diagnostic skills.
Another thing similar as regards health is our knowledge of nutrition. If people got exercise and ate natural foods, and understood that variety in the diet is needed, we could get by with much less medical intervention. Pine needles are meant to be very high in vitamin C. So you can gather them and make tea (minimally boiled).

Barbara Fisher -

That was an excellent list. I am interested in a couple of them.

Enrique said...


I would like to encourage you in your quest to translate the esoteric traditions of the East for a Western audience. The peoples of Europe and North America have forgotten so much of their ancestral traditions, and those of us who are interested in such things could use the inspiration and knowledge. I have enjoyed reading not only your comments on this blog, but your writings on your own blog and on Gornahoor. The Archdruid Report and Gornahoor are two of my favorite websites, and among the most intelligent and insightful on the Internet. I am looking forward to reading your forthcoming book on the sacred sciences of ancient Japan. I have already pre-ordered a copy. Keep up the good work!

JMG - "This, my friends, is a steampunk calculator"

I am still into roleplaying and miniatures gaming, and I can tell you that will while medieval fantasy and sci-fi are still popular genres, games with a steampunk theme have become extremely popular these days, as are the films of Hayao Miyazaki, who incorporates a lot of steampunk aesthetics and themes into his movies. I also have an artist friend who does a lot of artwork with a steampunk theme as well.

The funny thing is that it’s very likely that the highest level of technology that could be sustained by an ecotechnic society is probably equivalent to late Victorian or World War I level technology, with a few new twists such as modern ecology and sustainable organic farming thrown in for good measure. Moreover, there is a great deal that could be done with technologies that were developed during that era, such as windjammers, dirigibles or those magnificent solar powered engines that were developed by the French in the late 19th century.

Maybe steampunk is the true wave of the future.

jim said...

You essay got me thinking about not just preserving some types of technology, but also how to send some hopefully useful materials and tools to our descendants. So I thought of this short story taking place in the Stars Reach timeline.

Inheritance 2280 Treasure Buckets

I sat nervously with my sister as the Priestess translated the message from our long dead ancestor into modern English:

“To my distant descendants, this is the 12th and final map to last 12 buckets of stuff from my time. I know that the greed and short sightedness of the people of my time will cause a great many troubles for you.” The Priestess looked up and said “Now, that is an understatement.” She then continued to read “ I hope these buckets contain materials and objects that you will find useful. It is my hope that these things will make your life a little less difficult.”


Our party found the site and dug up the 12 black plas buckets, and I asked the ruinman how to open one up. He took one bucket and pulled a piece of black plas of the top, then made some slits in the top with his knife and pried off the top. Inside the container was a small booklet made of white plas the title was “On Optics”. I had no idea what that meant, but there were other things in the container, Binoculars!! Two pair, they would be worth a fortune in Sinadi. This strange metal object with wheels and a mirror that has the word Ziess on the side. Ten boxes filled with small rectangular pieces of glass, and several boxes with round glass. My sister and I hugged each other because we knew that just one bucket was going to be enough to make our lives much easier. If the priestess OKs the Ziess as not being demonic we may have something very valuable.

I reached for the next black plas bucket and opened it to find……

raul parolari said...

I very much enjoyed the post. I want to add that there is a technology (of 50 years ago) that could turnaround the decline of our civilization. It is a nuclear technology proposed in the 60s, very different from the one that prevailed. It is based on Thorium (dissolved in salts), called Molten Salt Reactor. The project was cancelled and the proponent, Alvin Weinberg, was even fired in 1973 (the MSR did not produce Plutonium, then needed for the cold war).

China has restarted since 2011 the research (with 400 engineers on the project).

If (a big if) the technology is resurrected successfully, things could dramatically change.

Mark Luterra said...

Others have asked this before me, so feel free to answer us all at once.

Why should an EROEI of 10-12 be necessary to support an industrial civilization? And is that the number required to support our particular industrial civilization, or any industrial civilization at all? Can you cite your sources?

EROEI is a complicated thing, because the ability of a technology to be sustained, in my view, depends more on the complexity of the required inputs than the measured EROEI.

If energy is all that is needed, and in the form produced by the technology in question, then a low EROEI looks the same as a low conversion efficiency. Let's say I need 1 MWh of electricity per year, and I have hypothetical solar panels with an EROEI of 2 that require only basic materials (wood, straw) and electricity to produce. In that case, I simply need to install enough panels to product 2 MWh per year and put half of them to work producing more panels.

Of course, real photovoltaic panels don't work that way, requiring mined materials and a great deal of intense heat (charcoal furnace? solar thermal?) for their manufacture. And yet they are simpler than giant wind turbines, which require cranes that can handle many-ton structures and electrical capacity to manage shifting generation on the scale of megawatts.

All of this is to say that I don't care for the way you write off wind and solar because their EROEI is around 9 and somebody came up with a study that no less than 10 will do. I realize that there is a false tendency to feel that because something really ought to work, then it will, and you are reminding us to avoid falling into that trap. Even so, it seems that with an EROEI of 9, or even 4-5, it should be possible to build a solar-powered factory that produces photovoltaics, and if that is possible then it just might also be possible for small communities of "higher" technology to survive through the coming decline. The monasteries of the new dark age, if you will.

Kathleen Quinn said...

Love your list. You forgot one thing though: the making of alcoholic beverages using traditional low-tech homegrown methods and materials. Perhaps it could be included under low tech health care? Or organic growing? Either way, that'll be my contribution. Party at my house?

Yupped said...

Nice post. I'd add that if you want to practice any of these technologies and skills in a professional way it will be necessary to have some transitional business skills - to be comfortable working with a foot in both the old and the new (ie. reality).

For example, it is hard to make a living as a natural healer (say a community or clinical herbalist) although some do. But if you combine herbal remedy making and counseling with making products, selling herbal teas, some teaching and writing, say, it is possible to eke out a living. Some people even make a great big living pushing fancy tonic herbs and adaptogens on wealthy health hipsters.

Lots of things are possible if you can figure out how to build up new skills while surfing the wave down. But just waiting for the tide to be all the way out before jumping in will be tricky, at least from a making a live perspective.

Fidelius said...

@JMG - regarding your answer to Deedl: I would argue that (continental) Europe is already "German-led" and that this trend is accelerating. It's probably natural given Germany's population advantage and economic power (China is in a similar position in East Asia). The main difference between today and the first half of the 20th century is that today Germany is dominating economically, not militarily -- one could say that Germany has become more Bavarian and less Prussian. There are more differences: The United Kingdom is not much involved in continental Europe anymore; France is economically married to Germany and essentially emulating German policy; and Russia is trying to win Germany, its biggest oil and gas customer, over as an ally, now that Germany is reunified and doesn't need NATO any more. The other European countries are politically and economically insignificant (compared to Germany) and/or integrated with German economy. That's at least my interpretation of the situation, as a non-German who regularly reads German, French and English newspapers.

@JMG - regarding your blog post: I would add one technology/device category to the list: Mechanical precision instruments. The ability to measure time, temperature, height, distance and so on as precisely as possible is quite important in engineering and planning. Slide rules are useful for calculations, but you need measurements to calculate with.

Ashley said...

This is the first post I've read in awhile on this blog that I really loved. Thanks for moving back to the practical side of things and explaining this so clearly. I actually shared this one.

My area of interest is the handicrafts. I knit, sew, crochet, spin, dye, bead, and embroider. I'm also particularly passionate about making long lasting and well-fitting clothing. A lot of people are deeply intimidated by the idea of producing their own clothes and the threat of future scarcity isn't enough to make people feel learning this "out-dated" skill worthwhile. But I've found that talking about making clothes that actually fit my body has gotten several of my friends interested in clothing production.

There are SO many resources online for learning clothing construction, tailoring, fitting, alterations, etc., and gaining access to these skills while the tutorials are freely available online is, in my opinion, extremely worthwhile. I now know far more about sewing than I could have learned even 10 years ago because of the sewing blogosphere,. I know techniques that are not easily found in books carried at your local library, and even in my over-educated town are not taught in any formal setting. And for the record, I went from first wearable garment to making all of my own clothes (including winter coat and basic tailoring) in 4 years. I've been planning on starting sewing workshops for years, and will once I no longer have young children.

Phil Harris said...

I can think of utilitarian reasons, but one piece of technology that is fairly easily retained just for its 'magical' value, is sound recording.

One of your book ('Ecotechnic'?) mentions that we have just one haunting melody from Roman times. It lasts I think you say, all of 25 seconds. It would be good to have a gold disc or two playable on a wind-up. I would dearly like to have the voice of Socrates in discussion, as an example.

I can't help thinking there could be some very clever analogue data-storage waiting in the wings of long winter evenings down on the farm. The amazing burst of innovation of horse-driven farming tools, local blacksmithing in the first instance, in America in the 19thC and early 20thC, suggests that minds had time. Might even be transmissible on your SW!

PS You have, I guess, a lot of very valuable soil data in America recorded down to field level. Check your local Agri service does not throw it away or put it in a form that will not be retrievable.

daelach said...

Just this week, I got by self-built abacus out again. It has the size of a pocket calculator and is operated with a thin wooden stylus pen. PDA meets abacus, so to say. I can even extract a square root using simple mathematics (additions only). Just remember that the sum of the first N odd numbers gives N squared, that is among the useful knowledge to preserve.

Overmore, I made a logarithm table myself, using a computer that is available today. Logarithms, reciprocal values, square roots, trigonomotric functions. Cube and other roots can be calculated with logarithms in two steps. I have also some sliders.

The reason was that I thought about how to perform calculations without a computer, and I found this knowledge appealing.

Another thing is that I set up unbreakable encryption that can be done without computers. Unbreakable even if the opponents still have computers. Some pieces of paper, pencil and ordinary dice are all that's needed. The "one time pad" is well known for such circumstances. Of course, the key exchange is the cumbersome part.

@ deedl: You are talking about the amount of energy needed to operate the computers. JMG is talking about the energy needed to drive the whole industrial manufacturing and supply chain. See the difference? The internet will not break down because we can't pay the electricity bill. It will break down because we will not be able to afford producing computers (on a large scale), failing to replace the computers that wear out. Remember that we are not talking about a time horizon of a some years.

onething said...

Lucky Mortal,

I don't quite get your question. Processing and storing take a lot of time...yes, they do. What do you mean about not being able to turn it into meals?
We got a good crop of apples this year. I spent days in the kitchen and made applesauce, apple pie, apple juice, apple crisp, and finally froze cut and peeled apples. I was reduced to locking my husband out of the house and threatening him not to bring in another apple! (Just kidding) It was hard to accept that we could not use all the available apples.
I'm genuinely scared at the thought of living without a fridge and freezer, but I talked to one 70-year-old at the garden club last summer who grew up without it, and it is more doable than I thought. I just don't like heavily salted or smoked meat.
The hillbillies are a great resource, and often even have the old tools hanging in the barn.

Ms. Krieger said...

In the US at least, homebirth midwives are charting a course for sustainable medicine. Most of them have trained to competently attend to difficult situations with nothing but their hands, some easily made tools and a few key medications. I have been very impressed by the homebirth midwives I've met; a competent, humane and evidence-based bunch. Their craft definitely deserves to be passed on.

Liquid Paradigm said...

Perhaps our German friend could answer about this "green" issue?

And I saw somebody's already pulled the thorium reactor boondoggle out of mothballs to share with us the much needed Imminent Miracle Cure.


@Kathleen, I'll be right over. ;)

Twilight said...

Jason, excellent. Coppicing's crucial, and not merely for firewood -- coppiced ash trees produce splendid building timber for pole construction, for example.

Probably not for much longer. Unless some miracle happens the Emerald Ash Borer will destroy them all. The rate at which they are being consumed makes it very unlikely that anything can stop it. They are already under separate attack around here by a fungal wasting disease called Ash Yellows. Not much hope for them.

If the Asian Longhorned Beetle breaks out, which is likely inevitable, then birches, maples, poplars and willows will be devastated too, along with any ash trees that are left.

The forests may be very much changed in North America, something which is particularly hard for me to deal with. I suppose in such an environment coppicing may be very important, as it developed in places where timber was generally over-harvested.

Rita Narayanan said...

Dear JMG found this particular essay very interesting as also clearly addressing the point about where civilisation is headed.

while a lot of stuff gets written about global warming and such very few people like Kunstler tell it like it is.

It is very scary from an Indian perspective because even the poorest of the poor are all looking at first world affluence.

on the other hand you have an educated elite who talk about human rights and the environemnt but whose own education and sensibilities are elite academia.

often the proponents of rivers, tribals and such get funding from the US...a famous person such as Arundhati Roy runs between talks funded by rich American foundations.

The modern world has made it possible for a liberal elite to play the game that they have always accused the Church of playing and the world will have to pay the price.

the responsibility on those who preach is always heavier when it comes to walking the walk.


Bill Pulliam said...

Ruben -- thanks for the refs. We have two 19th century hand-tooled limestone fireplaces and chimneys, which we would never dare to actually build fires it but they are critical to the original character of the house. We put a handsome Jotel woodstove insert in one, and I am trying the decide what to do with the other (the actual work is probably most of a year away). Everyone, at least all the greenies around here, sings the praises of rocket stoves, but the implementations I have seen online for space heating are massive constructions that would never go with our house.

Russ said...

John - thanks - we also have geo-thermal heating/cooling. When we moved here 35+ years ago we planted a bunch of trees that we have been harvesting for firewood. Have been a ham radio operator since 1973 and have low power contacts (5 watts or less) all over the world. What might be possible is the multitude of CB radios lodged in basements that haven't been used for 20 or so years. These are all 12 volt radios that with a solar panel and battery one can communicate with a simple 1/2 wave dipole or 1/4 wave vertical. Anyone looking into ham radio should contact for info. Anyone currently thinking about solar heating or voltaic might realize that the federal tax benefits expire next year (30% tax deduction); our systems have paid for themselves and every time the sun shines they keep on giving. Regards, Russ

Twilight said...

@Bill Pulliam - I installed 2 stoves into the large stone fireplaces in our 1830's house. With a lot of stone you already have a large thermal mass, so look for a stove (or insert) with a secondary combustion system. An insulated stainless flexible flue liner is a huge help too. Other than a couple of space heaters it is our only heat.

It is amazing how efficient some of these modern stoves are, and had they understood the principles something similar could have been constructed in the 1800's too. Think of the labor and time this would have saved them, not to mention the trees.

Stoves with catalysts are available too, but I purposely looked for something that did not require special materials or complex firebox parts.

team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I would like you to reconsider Christian Herring's question about hydroelectric power. The big problem with most renewables is that the energy being harnessed is highly diffuse. Hydroelectric gets around that problem elegantly by letting the environment do the concentrating into easy to use rivers.

There are, or course, problems. They silt up and have ecological impacts. But the big problem is that hydro won't provide all the power that an industrial society needs. We are pretty much using all the good hydro sites already and we still need lots more power. But just because it can't power the entirety of our civilization's needs doesn't mean that we can't use it at all.

The EROEI of hydro depends mostly on the location, but I have heard numbers as high as 100:1 several times. So the question is can a region, like the Columbia river in Oregon, provide enough energy to produce the level of local industry necessary to maintain, repair and replace the hydro infrastructure for, oh, let's say 500 years?


Cathy McGuire said...

For any who are interested in seeing what the low-tech tools and household items used to look like,
I found this cool link of a museum started at the turn of the last century that has the most awesome collection of old tools and items. I wish I lived anywhere near Doylestown, PA!!

BTW, someone asked about steel as a future industry - I just read this about a Scottish iron age hill fort that was making "high-carbon steel" (whatever that was) - so the low-tech is there!

Cathy McGuire said...

In the whole biome of the Pacfic coastal belt (Northern CA to Puget Sound), there are only about half this many species of trees that are widespread.
Umm... was the Pacific Coast even THERE during the pleistocene epoch?? it was formed from lots of fairly "recent" volcanoes, as I recall... Dang - you made me get up and find my Oregon geology book... says about half the state only started to emerge from the ocean 200,000 years ago... so give us a break - we're newbies! ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, I was specifically talking about technologies that might be lost. Human beings being what they are, I'm quite confident that our descendants will have the most advanced weapons technology that can possibly be maintained with the available resource base!

Wildeye, fair enough. What do you personally propose to do to bring that about?

Bill, that's an interesting question about which I know nothing. There ought to be ways to adapt rocket stoves and other high-efficiency woodburning technology to existing fireplaces, though.

Butzjo, break out that slipstick and get some fluency with it! I can tell you from personal experience that a slide rule can solve complicated trig equations faster than a pocket calculator, and get them right -- I used mine to pass the Amateur Extra class ham radio license exam, and didn't miss a math question.

Nick, there are many ways to do a solar still. Are you willing to invest the time and research into finding a design that can be built and used without sheet glass?

Cathy, the Fresnel lenses ought to be interesting! When time permits -- which may be a while -- I have plans to build a solar calcination furnace for spagyric work, and have considered a Fresnel lens for that. I'll be interested to hear how well yours work.

Greenmantle, excellent. Excess decimal places are usually a source of false confidence anyway.

Mortal, er, who are you including in that "we," when you say "we" don't know how to store, process, and use the food we grow? For myself, I beg to differ -- and there was a lot of work along those lines going on back in the appropriate-tech movement. Visit the kind of used bookstore that doesn't get much turnover, find an old copy of Stocking Up or the like, and you'll be pleasantly surprised...

Daddy H., that's really good to hear. I meet far too many people who know how to make a computer do things but literally have no idea what's going on -- it's just a black box that spits out figures to be taken on faith.

James, it's easy to make a list. Which of these will you take up, practice, and transmit to someone younger? That's the question that actually matters right now.

Andy, exactly. I'm focusing on technological suites that might be lost; metalworking is going to be around for the long term.

Squizzler, again, it's easy to make a proposal. Are you personally going to do something to get that technology into the waiting hands of the future? Otherwise, it's empty air...

Chris G said...

JMG and the readers - There is another technology that for obvious reasons did not make the list, that doesn't count as a "technology" because it is not the work of hands, or rational minds, but that bears mentioning here. That is an understanding of our personal and collective relation to nature, time, and spirit.

We are, besides the problems of energy limits, and changes to climate effected by human action, also limited in our relation to the world by rationality. While rationality gives us greater power, this is limited because it is confined to our concept of self - a physical self. This is demonstrated by the willingness to allow other species to go extinct, a willingness to disrupt natural processes, as well as by a worship of selfishness represented in our political, economic, and cultural relations.

When the matter of energy limits gets discussed, the limits are either ignored (by most, which is an aspect of selfishness) or denied (because it seems "they" have always come up with something to save us.)

That selfishness in large part, I believe, is fed by an erroneous concept of time, well demonstrated in Christianity, where some still feel it necessary to conceive of the Earth/Universe as only 6000 years old.

What the list in JMG's post represents is a recognition of the need to be part of the greater whole of life/nature, a willingness to adapt to what it can provide for us, rather than the need to stretch nature to our desires.

Over and over following this subject and JMG's blog, I'm reminded that, really, the problem isn't how much sunlight got stored up for our use, or whether we can devise new, more powerful ways to gather energy together for our use; but the ability of the rational mind to adapt to changes. We are quite adaptable, however, and one of the key adaptations, a kind of spiritual technology, is to recognize the limits of the unique human adaptation to nature, called rationality. To recognize that there are times to quit thinking about things and use other modes of adaptation.

This is represented often in those who dispute the particular measurements, for instance, of EROEI. Maybe the numbers are a little more "optimistic" (re human ability to harness power); but really at best that offers maybe another 100 years, or maybe 200 years, of industrial civilization, mass production, greatly augmented human physical power. Compared to a million years, or even just 6000 years, is that worth more extinctions, more climate disruptions?

And just as importantly, what we've gotten for having tapped into all this energy for human control, is greatly diminished human capabilities, sadly degenerate human behavior, lots of destruction and conflict. Power corrupts, so thank goodness, I would say, for limits.

What can be found in the list above, a practical list of technologies that are adaptive, and many of the others mentioned by the commenters, is the peace that comes from being part of something much, much greater than oneself - the rest of the world.

(ps, all due credit, a lot of the ideas in this comment come from what I've gleaned from JMG, as well as other writers.)

Ruben said...

@ Bill

My local greenies are very into rocket stoves as well. In fact, I am too. But as I learned more about rocket stoves I realized that many of my local greenies don't understand how they work.

Rocket stoves require an insulated firebox. That is how they burn hot enough to reduce indoor air pollution. I frequently see thermal mass used instead of insulation.

John Michael Greer said...

Sébastien, these are simply my nominations. If you've got something else to propose, and are willing to take action to preserve the technology you value, by all means.

Wolfgang, true enough. I've discussed the revival of discarded technologies more than once here, but it's a worthwhile topic and can use more discussion.

Martin, excellent! If I had the spare time, which unfortunately I don't, letterpress printing is very likely something I'd get into -- a highly creative craft as well as a necessary one.

Dennis, I've argued at some length in my book The Ecotechnic Future that it should be possible to support a society with a modest range of advanced technologies on a renewable basis, and over the long run, that's what this project is about. Getting from there to here is the problem -- we missed the window of opportunity that would have allowed us to make a smooth transition, and only a small minority of people are willing to make the sacrifices that would be necessary to avoid the normal processes of decline and fall, so the emergence of ecotechnic societies is going to have to wait until the approaching dark age is over and done with.

MPL, solar dehydrators used to be fairly popular -- I used one in the early 1980s, with extremely good results. Might be worth adding to your studies!

Twilight, I'm still going to wait for those flatulent unicorns from Zeta Reticuli.

Anna, good. There are actually quite a few nontechnological skills that could use developing, and the ability to get along constructively in a community is certainly one of them.

Jesse, I don't happen to know whether bicycles will be viable or not in a deindustrial future; a lot depends on whether specialized technologies such as steelmaking can be carried out extensively enough to make steel frames affordable -- and what about tires? I'd encourage you, personally, to do some research on that.

Sunyata, my impression of his work -- which is admittedly based on a fairly limited amount of reading -- is that he's pushing yet another version of the myth of progress, with leaps into new and more expanded states of consciousness providing the necessary onward-and-upward mechanism. I don't find that interesting, helpful, or relevant to the real world. If I'm misunderstanding him, though, by all means clue me in.

Wolfgang, I'd like to offer one amendment. It's not just that lifestyles that have a lot less energy and the products of energy look like poverty to us; such lifestyles are, in fact, impoverished in every material sense of the term. I really don't think it helps to sugarcoat that hard reality!

Bill, no, I didn't forget about it. I have significant doubts about whether bicycles will be viable in the deindustrial future. Just because something is efficient in terms of converting muscle energy to motion doesn't mean that a good fairy will keep it available?, you know.

John Michael Greer said...

Ray, remember that shattered glass can be melted down and used for glassblowing and the like. My guess is that harvesting old glass from landfills will be a growth industry for centuries to come. As for sacred geometry, that's a bit off topic -- put in a comment marked "not for posting" with your email address and I'll forward some suggestions.

DM, as I mentioned earlier, I don't expect metalsmithing skills to be at any risk of being lost, and yes, turning dead cars (as well as dead skyscrapers!) into knives, shovels, etc. will be another growth industry far into the future.

Flook, no, slavery happens when the supply of labor falls short of the potential demand. When you have six and a half billion spare people who will do just about anything to get enough food to stay alive, there's no need to invest in the social complexities of slavery -- you just have to put out a "Help Wanted" sign.

Joseph, I've spent most of the last year talking about the most abstract end of the subject this blog is meant to explore, so I'm not surprised that this week's post is getting so enthusiastic a response. It's encouraging, though, that so many people are ready to hear suggestions about something they can do!

Ruben, funny.

GHung, excellent. As far as ham radio goes, have your grandson surf over to Green Wizards Radio -- that's becoming a very solid source for info on that end of the Green Wizardry project.

3+0( -- nice Hieroglyphic Monad, by the way! -- that's a heck of a good question, to which I don't think anyone alive today knows the answer. Thus the need to get a good wide range of mathematical options into the hands of future calculators.

Dan, glad to hear it. I don't see botany as a technology, which is why I didn't include it in the list. Is it worth preserving? Good heavens, yes -- a solid grasp of botany is essential for the gardener, farmer, herbal healer, ecosystem repair tech, etc., etc., etc.

Moshe, you might want to have a look at Pete Friedrich's book Instruments of Amplification, which covers a range of different handbuilt amplification technologies suitable for radio frequencies. Handbuilt vacuum tubes are well within the reach of medieval technology -- you need glassblowing, delicate metalwork, and a simple vacuum pump, and all those are easily arranged (medieval alchemists used vacuum distillation in some of their work). Once you have amplification, furthermore, the rest is easy -- books on radio from the 1920s have plans in which every single component other than one tube is completely handbuilt.

Erica, no argument there. We grow and save about half our own seed these days, and that's only going to pick up as things proceed.

SLClaire, that strikes me as an excellent idea. Relearn how to do it, and then get some experience in teaching it, and you may just have yourself a lively second career.

HalFiore, if you've made a collection of texts, that's excellent. May I encourage you to take one more step? Take all your texts that are out of copyright, scan them to PDF, and get them onto a website for free download, then post something to the Green Wizards website and here as well for those who might find them useful. That could be a real contribution.

Bill Pulliam said...

Cathy M. -- the Cascades may be young, but the Coast Ranges are much older. I believe the overall shape of the Oregon coast and Coast Ranges has been in place and relatively stable for something like 30 million years. Plenty of time to evolve lots of new species. And I think you might need to double check that 200,000 year date; even the Cascade Range is much older than that (though individual volcanoes may not be). The eastern 2/3 of Oregon are in the Columbia Plateau, where it has been a couple of million years since the *last* flood basalt poured over that area

dave1941 said...

Germany had this problem in the 1920s and solved it by making clean liquid fuel from coal. The world's supply of coal is also finite, but it's enough to last a century or two.

After that, we'll make liquid fuel from biomass, which grows fast in a high-CO2 atmosphere. It'll be more expensive, but still better than horse carts and sailing ships.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, well, it's a little more complex than that. As recently as the Miocene, what's now the Pacific Northwest was under the western Pacific; the convulsions that created the Cascade Mountains and flooded the lands east of them with a layer of lava more than a mile thick left the entire region with a depauperate flora and fauna -- and then, of course, the Ice Age didn't exactly help things. Puget Sound was excavated by a glacier; the whole region was glacial tundra, and cut off by mountains from warmer areas that could have restocked the biota -- from south of Eugene OR to just north of Redding CA, you're in rugged mountains that extend from the Cascade-Sierra jumble out to the sea. The central-to-southern Appalachian region had a considerably less brutal time of it!

Varun, the site you want to visit is -- it's about to go through a major makeover, and will be serving as a venue for exactly the kind of discussions you've suggested.

Alphonse, yes, I know the last year or so has been very abstract. My academic background is in history of ideas; I consider Nietzsche and Schopenhauer pleasant light reading, and I like to discuss the philosophical dimensions of all this at some length now and then. Still, trust me, I've noticed how many of my readers would much rather read a discussion of what they can do about the crisis of our time, and I promise we'll be covering that in more detail in posts to come -- it'll make a pleasant diversion from talking about the future of fascism and the shape of the coming dark age.

MawKernewek, those are good questions, to which I don't know the answers. I do know that coppicing provides firewood without devastating forests, which is a crucial point, and that when other resources run out, coppiced wood and a rocket stove can still be cooking your dinner!

Escape, thanks for the heads up -- he's quite correct, of course. I'm going to quibble a bit about your comment that none of these are new -- that's true in very general terms but emphatically not so in specifics, and the specifics are worth preserving.

Karim, if investing in PV or other green technologies becomes an excuse not to deal with the desperate need to conserve resources and use much less energy, then I'm far from sure that investing in PV is a good idea. As for the possibility of sustaining some kind of technic civilization on renewables, of course -- that's the core theme of my book The Ecotechnic Future, you know!

Bill, the reason you won't find headwater endemics in the Puget Sound basin, again, is that the Puget Sound basin was under a mile of ice until about 13,000 years ago. Further south, the Coast Range and the Cascades both had massive glaciation during the ice ages, and the streams then flowed through tundra to the sea -- and let's not even talk about the cataclysmic floods from glacial Lake Missoula that devastated the entire inland basin! Again, it's a depauperate ecosystem for reasons that go far beyond the kind of climate change we're talking about at this stage of the game.

Max, extensive discussions on The Oil Drum and You might find it useful to search their archives.

Wolfgang, thank you.

August, delighted to hear it. I'm far from sure that tube radios won't be available for the long term -- again, glassblowing, delicate metalwork, and simple vacuum pumps were well within the reach of your common or garden variety alchemist long before fossil fuels were more than geological curiosities -- and in the meantime, as you say, there's an enormous amount that can be done with salvage. I've been very pleased to notice that QST has been full of homebrewing articles of late!

Bill Pulliam said...

Ruben -- interesting, yeah a thermal mass is designed to do exactly the opposite of the insulated firebox (extract heat not retain it). For the record I am not concerned about air quality, our population density is low enough that even when all the neighbors have their stoves cranked up there's no notable smoke accumulation. And I'd not vent the stove into the house no matter what. I'm mostly interested in the claims that more BTUs are extracted from each unit of wood, and heat is generated quickly.

What I'd think would be plausible would be extracting the heat from the hot exhaust stream after the firebox, as I thought the space-heating designs I had seen were intending to do. But they all used enormous thermal masses, which really have to be designed into the construction from the beginning. Just unsure whether any realized increase in efficiency would be worth the design etc. hassles.

backyardfeast said...

Just wanted to chime into the discussion about solar EROEI. It's easy to get all caught up in the details about what level of technology and civilization can we keep with solar (or other) forms of electricity. But let's keep in perspective that these discussions are about *electricity*, which is only a fraction of our industrial energy use, and I would hazard not the most important one.

On our homestead, when I think about serious survival, having a little bit of power--to run the chest freezer, for instance--makes a big difference to our lifestyles. As might a solar lantern or a solar oven, if the stories from the developing world are to be believed. A little bit of electricity is a nice thing to have, and we are looking into trying to produce a little.

However. Our industrial system, I would argue, is far more dependent on liquid gases for transportation than anything else, and solar isn't going to make a dent in that realm. How do we mine, manufacture, and then transport goods, resources, minerals, food,or information without diesel or other liquid fuels? We're not making concrete or building wireless towers with solar!

So go ahead--build solar panels with an EROEI of 10 or 12. And then try to produce steel or mine silicon or rare earth metals with them. Let us know how that goes.

John Michael Greer said...

Ando, a very sensible suggestion!

Adrian, that's perhaps the best excuse for not commenting I've heard in the last year. Glad to hear it!

Mark, well, he's an economist -- the poor dear can't be expected to think clearly about resources, can he, now?

Carl, exactly! Some of the handbuilt vacuum tubes I've seen are things of real beauty, and have quite a decent Mu (that's "amplification factor" for those who don't speak the jargon) to boot.

Onething, the thing to keep in mind is that an energy source has to provide enough energy to support all the infrastructure that's needed to provide it with raw materials, spare parts, ways to transmit energy to its end users, and so on. Grid-tied PV, in other words, isn't viable over the long term unless it produces enough electricity not only to cover its own manufacturing and maintenance, but to cover its share of the supply chains, mines, factories, and the electrical grid, with all its> supply chains and so on. An EROEI of less than 3 won't do that. Are there useful things to do with solar energy? You bet, but they presuppose a much simpler lifestyle and a less interdependent technological infrastructure.

Enrique, funny you should mention that. I'm planning a post on steampunk, or something like it, as the wave of the future. If you do live-action roleplaying, and have or can do a steampunk engineer persona, why not add a slide rule to your gear and brandish it authoritatively as you make emergency repairs on the dirigible? ;-)

Jim, your crystal ball is working well, I see. I'll be saying more about this next week, but I'll whisper this now: there's going to be a second short story contest, and another anthology. Are you up for finishing that story and submitting it?

Raul, I want you to stop and think about what you've just said, and why. It's absolutely standard these days, when a discussion of the practical realities of the Long Descent gets under way, for people to come charging in, insisting that (insert unproven vaporware technology here) will, or can, or may save us. Why do they do that with such regularity? Because it provides them with an excuse for not doing anything as the crisis of our age tightens around us all. That's what you're doing, and what everyone is doing when they come barging in here to talk about some other technology that some other people are creating somewhere else that will make everything better.

I'd encourage you to remember, furthermore, that the further any nuclear technology is from being actually deployed for commercial power generation, the cheaper and more wonderful it seems -- ordinary fission power, remember, was being sold as "electricity too cheap to meter" back before the first generation of commercial nuclear power plants came out and proved otherwise. Do you know what technical challenges and economic difficulties might be involved in trying to deploy thorium reactors on a large enough scale to make any difference? Have you even thought about such questions? I have to confess I doubt it -- and in the absence of such real-world considerations, excited chirping about thorium reactors or some other bit of vaporware is simply one more distraction in the way of thinking clearly about the mess we're in and what has to be done about it.

Bill Pulliam said...

West coast biogeography -- was there really coast range glaciation as far south as Oregon and northern California? I remember noticing the relative lack of tree diversity in the SF Bay area, which was not submerged, glaciated, vulcanized, or scab-landed.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, I'm perfectly willing to change my assessment of PV if someone will demonstrate that a PV system can be built and maintained using the kind of very modest energy and resource base that a post-fossil fuel society will have available. So far, though, PV cells require chip fabrication plants with clean rooms, nearly worldwide supply chains to provide the raw materials not only for the cells and dopants but all the other requirements of manufacturing, and a great deal more in the way of extremely energy- and resource-costly inputs. Can that change? Potentially, but in that case someone needs to get to work on it right away -- and until that happens, I'd like to suggest that it's more sensible for the rest of us to focus on those options that are known to work (such as solar thermal technologies) rather than betting the future on a technological gamble that may not pay off.

Kathleen, maybe it's just because I live in a region with a long tradition of moonshine production, butI have no fear that the brewing and distilling of alcoholic beverages will ever, anywhere, become a lost art! Of course it's worth preserving, and not just for enjoyment -- alcohol is an excellent disinfectant, a very good fuel, and also a highly useful solvent.

Yupped, an excellent point -- good enough that you get tonight's gold star.

Fidelius, of course. The questions I have are, first, whether Germany can weather the backlash from the financial imbalances that are making it prosper at the expense of southern and eastern Europe; second, if a Russian-German alliance emerges -- and it's far and away the most sensible approach for both sides -- whether that will split the EU into pro- and anti-Russian camps, as seems most likely; and third, whether any of that can keep Germany and the rest of Europe from being dragged down in the common wreck of the industrial world.

Ashley, delighted to hear it. I already get a significant fraction of my clothing from my wife's spindle, knitting needles, crochet hooks, etc., so I'm inclined to think that there's a vast amount that can be done along these lines!

Phil, that's a fascinating question. I'd be happy to have some Roman sheet music -- but sound recordings for the future, yes, that might work. As for documentation on soil, yes again; as far as I know, the whole country had its soils surveyed on a county-by-county level, and that's exactly the sort of lore that gets lost all too easily as things come apart.

Daelach, excellent! I've done a little work with a Chinese abacus, not enough to be fluent but enough to get a sense of the potential; slide rules and logarithm tables are more my style, mostly because they relate to math I use fairly often. Still, good to hear that somebody else is working on low-tech mathematics.

Ms. K., true enough.

Liquid, well, yes. I also read recently, though I can't find the link just now, that one of the big solar firms in Germany has been reduced to begging its creditors and investors for mercy in order to stave off bankruptcy.

Twilight, granted. What the forests will look like a thousand years from now, with climate change added to invasive pests, is a very complex issue.

biglakejudy said...

I am puzzled by your lack of the inclusion of the softer but much needed skills such as soapmaking, weaving, spinning, cooking on wood fired stoves either rocket or wood cook stove (which by the way Pilgrim, is not easy) and washing of clothes and people. You seem to overlook many things that are by default provided by women. These need to be addressed along with the radio and organic gardens. By the by, it is not an accident that we live a tank and a half of gas from the nearest big city. Neither is the fact we grow a huge organic garden and raise animals and fowl.

K!EF said...

Another "technology" we should not just preserve but also develop further, is the art of "grassroots bioremediation". This is still a fairly young technology combining phyto remediation (using plants), microbial remediation, mycro remediation (fungus) amongst other approaches to heal toxic soils and waters. Our descendants undoubtedly will have to deal with vast areas of toxic soil's, unsuitable for any kind of food growing or even habitation.
I am still a novice to this technology, although I do have a good knowledge of regenerative agricultural technics, which helps a lot.

To anyone interested in this subject, I would highly recommend LEILA DARWISH'S book EARTH REPAIR - A GRASSROOTS GUIDE TO HEALING TOXIC AND DAMAGED LANDSCAPES, published a few months ago by New Society Publishers. As far as I know, one of the very few books written on this subject.

John Michael Greer said...

Rita, true enough. That's because many of today's liberals have taken over the role of the church, as the prophets and theologians of the religion of progress.

Russ, do you happen to know if those old CB rigs can be refitted for 10 meters? If so, that might be another way for people to get inexpensive ham rigs.

Tim, that's a good question, to which I don't know the answer. 500 years, though, seems like a very long time given river siltation issues.

Cathy, that BBC piece is stunning. High carbon steel is what you need for really good knives, swords, and many classes of tools. I had no idea that was being made that long ago! It's certainly doable in a low-tech setting -- some of the best steel on Earth, tamagahane steel (the raw material for the finest Japanese swords), is made by hand using pine charcoal in a very simple smelter -- but it's fascinating to learn that the trick was worked out so much earlier than older histories of technology thought.

Chris, well, yes. That's a lot of what I was trying to talk about last year. As I mentioned to Nestorian, I don't consider it a technology so much as a relationship, but it's crucial.

Dave, you really need to check your claims against history. Did the Germans have coal-to-liquids technology? You bet...and yet the Wehrmacht still ran out of fuel. Why? because coal-to-liquids technology has a very low rate of energy return on energy invested, too low to meet the needs of an industrial society. You might also want to check those airy comments about biomass against real world data, because they don't support your fantasy either, you know.

Backyardfeast, exactly. A little electricity is easy to generate -- wind, micro-hydro, a Stirling motor bolted onto your wod stove flue, you name it -- and easy to store in metal-acid batteries. Liquid fuel's another matter; one gallon of gasoline, remember, contains as much energy as one ton of fully charged car batteries. That's why, again, I want to focus on the things that are known to work on a home- and village-scale level.

Bill, there are some glorious U-shaped glacial valleys in the Siskiyous, just north of the CA-OR border, so the answer is at least partly yes. As for the Bay area, though, that's a different bioregion, and one I don't know at all well; I wouldn't be a bit surprised, since it's semiarid at best, if it got hammered by serious droughts at certain phases of the planetary weather cycle.

John Michael Greer said...

Judy, did you think I meant my list to be exhaustive? Of course it isn't, and as I commented, if you have a different list, by all means pursue that. The strategy of dissensus is as crucial here as elsewhere: since none of us knows exactly what the future will bring, or what people will need in the deindustrial age, the best option is probably to encourage as many people as possible to explore as many options as possible, in the expectation that time will sort out the best ones.

K!EF, fair enough. Are you studying that?

John Michael Greer said...

Mickyle (offlist), Blogger doesn't include your email address when you make a post. If you'd like me to contact you, please post a comment marked "not for posting" with your address and what you'd like to discuss. Many thanks!

Matt Heins said...

In re Germany/European renewables push:

I am curious as to what better course of action Archdruid Greer and others think the German national government should be taking? It may be that they are doomed to failure, but what other feasible plan should they implement?

Trying to run basically business as usual on renewables seems like a very good first step to organized energy decline to me. From both my own reading and deedl's comments it seems like Germany is already getting this.

Ruben said...


I don't know how the BTUs of rocket stoves stack up. I suspect not as good as masonry heaters which have been refined over generations. Rocket stoves, after all, are really meant as competition for a pot balanced on three rocks.

It sounds like you don't have a lot of physical or aesthetic room for a big pile of cob for your mass. How about doing something like a water coil--you could move your thermal mass to less obtrusive location. Just watch for steam generation in the pipe!

deedl said...

JMG said: "I urge you and my other German readers not to fall into the old delusion of supposing that the decline and fall of an Anglophone empire necessarily means the rise of a German-led Europe to, shall we say, its place in the sun"

How did this come around the corner? Did anybody read what i said? I claim that we will not make that much sacrifices in the coming decades that we will lose the status of being an industrial civilization. I never talked about keeping the current level of activity and i surely never talked about anything that has to do with rising.

Nobody in Germany has any intentions to dominate Europe. Germans are sick of getting involved with other nations problems (see Iraq, see Lybia). It is rather that most Germans just don't want to be dominated by Europe in a way that they have to pay the others bills. That is an important distinction. Of course with a sixth of the population and a quarter of economic output Germany is a major player in Europe, but it is still to small to influence European politics without partners.

@ daelach: Here you have a nice overview about the energy and emergy of the internet ( It concludes that the total energy for both operating AND maintaining physically the internet (includign replacing every smartphone every two years and every server every three years) results in 1,1-1,7% of world energy consumption. This Energy is roughly half operation and half embodied energy in the hardware.

You can easily further reduce those costs by using the hardware much longer (it is technically no problem to build computers that run for decades) and by reducing the use of the internet for the important data (you can cut the amount of data and therefore operational costs enormously by just stopping to stream videos). Access to knews, to scientific knowledge, realtime communication and individually produced content can all be text based and therefore produce no significant amount of data. So a simple textbased internet can be maintained on a very small budget and still offers the significant advantages. If you ask people below 30 if thex would rather use their car or their internet, we all know how the will choose, and they are the generation that will be faced with those decisions.

TomK said...

Dear JMG,
thanks for another great post. I have been following this blog for a few years now.
Concerning healthcare, I am a dentist and have volunteered as one in rural Nepal back in 2009. There I could see first-hand how energy and technology/equipment-intensive the profession is and how brittle and prone to disruptions due to ever-present power cuts is its exercise. Also, the need for the profession comes from one of the most widespread diseases, the tooth decay. Tooth decay is a disease of the industrial world ever since refined sugar has entered our food chain on a large scale. Prior to that, tooth decay was a disease of the rich. That is why there were really no dentists, say, in the 1790s. Rural Nepal essentially is a pre-industrial culture, so the people need to pull a tooth here, wisdom teeth can cause problems. Then there is gum disease and tooth wear, but as you grow older, it is considered natural that the teeth get worn or get lost. This is not really considered a disease among the locals and is definitely not a priority health care concern. Under primitive conditions and in the absence of refined sugar in the industrial food, all you need to do is to have someone to pull teeth. In Europe in the 1600s, you would go to a blacksmith for that. As for gum disease, you can brush your teeth yourself with a primitive brush, maybe you could add a herbal decoction. As a useful remnant of our industrial age, maybe a simple glass ionomer cement, which could be blended by hand from a powder-liquid, could be used as a filling material after removing carious substance from a tooth by a simple hand instrument. These are the things you simply could add to physician training, so that a future sustainable health care worker/physician will be a true generalist and will eliminate the whole dental profession. In fact, tooth extractions are a part of training of physicians in Nepal. Some of those are sent to mountainous outposts by the government and serve as true health care generalists. To be sure, in the cities, as well as among the few affluent Nepalese, tooth decay is rampant, just as it was in the industrial world after the diet had changed, but before the advances of the dental profession were introduced to the public. It seems to me that we first export some of the features of our culture, in this case, introduce cheap candy so that the poor can afford it, then a disease will spread, which again creates a much greater need for dental care. And here I was, imported dentist on a volunteer mission. The rural Nepalese can actually do without all of these - bits of industrial culture, candies and imported dentists. As mentioned before, the only useful aspect of what I did there and thousands of other dentists in other so called developing countries, is to identify the procedures, tools and technologies that can still be put to use if you don't have power, water lines, expensive dental chair etc.

k-dog said...

I enjoyed your essay this week and like your lower tech sustainable technologies. Technology with a high EROEI that serves man first and not the market. But society as it is right now won’t support a shift to lower tech solutions of any kind.

I'm reading an old book I recently picked up at a used book store. Written in the seventies the title is 'Fundamentals of Solar Heating'.

I pass a new housing development near where I live daily which is about half finished. All the new homes will have gas heat and the development which is under construction by a national home builder could have easily been built with solar heating systems to augment the conventional heating systems being built into the homes.

The added cost of solar heat augmentation could have been folded into the home mortgages in such a way that new buyers could have saved money at the end of the day on a month by month basis through gas savings.

To expect such sagacity from a particular builder of a dozen homes may be unreasonable but no such wisdom is expressed on any homes built anywhere. Our economic arrangements only allow for the fastest possible buck to be made and the wisdom of adding solar heating would be considered foolish by a builder who only desires to build homes as fast as possible, sell them, and move on.

At what point would lower more human and earth friendly technology be expected to replace corporate resource intensive technologies? It seems to me our economy and culture will not allow any shift in the way things are done until long after the need becomes apparent. As things are now a dark age will be well under way before any sustainable technologies emerge.

Anonymous said...

I spent time working in the manufacturing of CdTe solar panels, and one of the biggest impressions about the whole thing that lingers is how I would look around the operation and ponder what a massive amount of electrical power went into the whole deal. Massive. Which, naturally, led to a lot of thinking then, and much more these days, about the basic fact that it would be simply ridiculous to consider the idea that you could use photovoltaics to manufacture photovoltaics.

I didn't have the information to be able to do any calculations, but I always wondered...

...given that the estimated projections were that the things would probably have around 20 years of functional life, if you knew the total amount of electrical power required, between the processes and all the support systems of the plant, to make a panel, in KW-Hrs, how would the total lifetime output of a panel in KW-Hrs compare?

And, of course, people will have taken note of one bit of information there; the estimated 20 year lifetime before it becomes effectively scrap. (Did I mention the toxic ingredients that make the current flow when sunlight hits it?)

One other note, relevant to the essay. Readers with better memory might check me on this, but I vaguely recall a short story by, I think, Harlan Ellison, about future "calculators".

In this story, the "calculators" were actually people who actually knew and practiced the generally forgotten craft of doing mathematical calculations... without any electronic equipment! In the setting of the story, the gizmos that had once done such things were gone, and over the course of the time of the gizmos, most people had forgotten (and eventually, never learned) how to actually do math with a pencil and paper (or some other low-tech means). So the specialized group known as the calculators did the math for people. It was basically like medieval monks who kept the art of letters alive in a culture where the average schlub was illiterate.


Boddah Meep said...

I personally believe that knowledge and skills are more important than technology.

I think if you take most peoples naive techno-utopia view of the future and then divide it by (prehistoric past + 19th century man) you get probably future. lol something like that

I agree with Bill Mollison that the worlds problems can be solved in the garden. And if you try to prove otherwise the Shao-lin monk has devised a way to sneakily snap you in the jaw with his shovel.

I'd like to second another commenter that the stance 'against germ theory' is not necessarily saying that a 'germ' doesn't necessarily cause cholera sympotms, aids, or TB, but that much of the inner and outer world are inhabited by 'germs'. The effect of the germ is varied as exemplified by the fact that 30% (aprox) of the world is infected with the TB mycobacteria or whatever its called. Yet only half or less (again i forget the details) will ever experience TB. Instead it is found that organisms can be held in check by a healthy superorganism. Some take it a step further and would say that the rapid proliferation of a various organism is intended as a healing response, say for instance TB helping you to clear your lungs. I don't know that I think that could be considered 100% true, and is probably often wrong, but I think its a good notion to consider.

As for the ASH trees, and the maples birches etc. Its always sad if a species doesnt make it but I always see the death of a tree on my property as an opportunity to put in a new one. I am all about establishing as many useful trees (shrubs, herbs, vines, roots) as I can. I don't much buy into the native nonnative argument. I will plant anything I can control (avoid vigorous runners in many situations) but i certainly do not believe i have the right to tell someone they cant grow it. I do not believe its our job to keep lands 'native' as we are a main infractor of that in america. By forcing lands to be native we force our food to be grown elsewhere and force all the negative consequences far and wide. Instead our only obligation should be to find the species which keep introduced opportunists in check. So for our imported ash destroyers it is our job to find their enemies. I do not believe the ash will be wiped out. Just as the american elm wasn't and the chestnut wasnt.. The losses were devastating almost unimaginable but are being overcome by plant breeding. To say we need a 100% american chestnut, to me, is like saying the 'whites and the blacks shouldnt breed' (absurd).

So rambling done, my main point is that food/plants are the most important thing to the human world. The more diversity, the more skills and simple metal tools we can use effectively to work with plants (including animal husbandry) the easier and more pleasurable our lives will be. When the supply lines shut down plant mobility will too and so I believe that their motion needs to be facilitated now.

By all means people should tend vulnerable natives, but do that as a hobby, do it where you would tend your garlic, and grow garlic mustard where the native was if its gonna help with survival.

Personally I am working to create a fully functioning diverse farmstead using a global list of species. It is my intention and hope to incorporate animals in such a way that their life is not more valuable in death. Being a buddhist vegetarian I believe certain animals have a role not just in death for humans but as workers who can provide functions.

The breeding of plants, for more resistant ashes perhaps, or chickens who lay later in life. To breed better yielding northern nut trees. More resistant bees. The list goes on. It borders on technology/knowledge/skills, and its insanely vital to the human species.

I also love old methods of wood working, but i use the new power tools now. I find it a fine balance that I still keep up with what people expect of me and what I can do using the primitive lifestyle.

irishwildeye said...

I’m already a bicycle mechanic and a passable woodworker, and have a workshop set up for both. If all goes well I’m planning to start my metalworking apprenticeship this year by doing a course in bicycle frame building in England. My first project after I get home from England will be building a pedal powered washing machine.

Joel said...

Ray & JMG:
"shattered glass can be melted down and used for glassblowing and the like. My guess is that harvesting old glass from landfills will be a growth industry for centuries to come." Some problems arise, though: "glass" is many different substances...not as different as "metal", but you can't really melt bottles and windows and laboratory beakers together into much that's useful. The technology of discerning various types of glass, and of adjusting their formulation (bottles, especially, are composed to be blown by machine, not by hand, or so I've read) is in danger of vanishing and would be needed for such a recycling effort.

3+0(: Certain I can't answer the question you asked, but a big-picture view of the field might help you choose what to do first. I know of no better source for that, than "Where Mathematics Comes From", by Lakoff and Nunez. Audacious title, I know, but they build up from the experiences of toddlerhood to Euler's identity, using cognitive linguistics. Difficult reading, but being fluent in how the field of math (at least, all the math one would encounter in the first couple years as an undergraduate) is cognitively constructed should help in building a toolkit.

mkroberts said...

Spot on, regarding the dreams of keeping this civilisation going with renewables. I clash with greenies all the time on this. One aspect you didn't mention, though, is that all (100%) of the energy that reaches our planet and is not reflected immediately back into space goes into producing the planet and environment that we have. It may be deteriorating (through our actions) and some parts may not be too great at times (like extreme weather), so diverting that energy for our personal pleasure may have unintended consequences and no-one knows how little need be diverted from its natural course to have those consequences. Research by Alex Kleidon, nearly 3 years ago, perhaps along the same lines as the research you mentioned, starts to hint at the damage large scale use of wind would wreak.

Regarding technologies to save, to give the next civilisation a flying start, I cringed at the thought of yet another civilisation starting to damage the environment. Isn't that what civilisations do?

To the actual technologies, you mentioned cold frames and greenhouses in number 1. Even though glass or (perish the thought) plastics might be around for much of the decline, can they be expected to be available between civilisations? Maybe number 2 may also suffer from the lack of processed materials in that phase. Coppicing - yes; I only wish I could figure out how to do it, with two failed attempts so far. Healthcare - agreed. Number 5, maybe, depending on how severe the final stages of this civilisation's collapse is. Shortwave radio - yes but, again, I'm not sure this could be kept alive through the bottleneck. Maths - agreed.

Now, let me think of what I can do ...

Somewhatstunned said...

JMG said If the same mistaken notion is once again getting traction east of the Rhine, I have to say, along with Hermann Hesse, "O Freunde, nicht diese Töne!"

Wasn't that Schiller rather than Hesse? I don't read or speak german but I recognize those wrods as the first sung words from Beethoven's choral symphony.

Cherokee Organics said...


haha! Very amusing. I never said which planet (or solar system) I was speaking of... hehe! Planets and moons are probably as common as muck across the universe.

I am exhausted as I spent the afternoon successfully fitting another permanent high pressure sprinkler for bushfire purposes (digging trenches, installing rural plumbing and mucking around with pumps).

Not only do I have to consider potential future warlords and bush rangers, but also fires which more often than not have human origins. It was 43 degrees Celsius today (109.4F). This is the 5th day in a row with temperatures above 40 here. No wonder, I thought that I'd never seen these conditions before, because I hadn't in my lifetime.

Anyway, as you'd expect in these extreme weather conditions there are some monster fires in South Australia and also some pretty serious ones in western Victoria. Despite the fact that they are hundreds of kilometres away, the dense smoke is all about me and you can smell the fires.

Just in case anyone was thinking that these were small affairs, the photos speak a thousand words:

Grampians fire conditions the worst since Black Saturday

We do things big down under.

I have long since come to the conclusion that we here as a society are completely incapable of managing the forests as they need to be managed. It is only a moment in time, nature will sort it out and eventually we will recognise the need to manage the environment across the planet because we have no alternative. That’s where we are heading.

By the way, I respect the fact that you committed to a list of techniques. Most of them I adhere to here, it is a shame that other people are using a wait and see strategy. I can assure them that such a strategy is counterproductive when a crisis hits as it will dump them in with everyone else. Asking for help in a crisis puts a person at the wrong end of the bargaining arrangement. In our society as it stands, everyone has to sell something.

Hi Les,

Thanks for your thoughts. It has been as bad here as I could imagine. Most of the drought strategies are paying off. I'm glad to hear of your work in taking organics to the next level. Unfortunately, I'm a small holder and forest guardian here. Still the kangaroos, wallabies, wombats etc. all benefit. I've recently discovered the benefit of leaving a medium "soak" out for them at night. They love it.



Cherokee Organics said...


Due to weather related circumstances, the reading of the comments has only just begun...

Hi Ray,

Quote: "When it comes to solar thermal I am concerned by how many gardening systems are dependent on fairly short lived plastic."

Exactly. That is why I wrote the article on planting densely. It has the exact same effect and doesn't cost you a cent. More importantly it is replicable using plants.

PS: I'm about to re-experiment with coffee bushes having learnt some serious lessons with the previous plants.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi deedl,

Welcome to the dialogue. I recommend spending some time dwelling on the many failures of the Weimar Republic.

Germany has long energy and food supply lines and once a country has exceeded its carrying capacity, then without Oil, it can only promise a difficult future.



Karim said...

Hi again,

JMG You are quite right to say "if investing in PV or other green technologies becomes an excuse not to deal with the desperate need to conserve resources and use much less energy, then I'm far from sure that investing in PV is a good idea."

However it need not be so. Over the years, at least in Mauritius, I have noticed that the more society talks about and implements RE (inclusive of but not limited to PV) because of high energy prices, the more it becomes easier to talk about conservation, reduction in energy consumption and implementation of energy saving measures.

Some people here are beginning to openly question our hunger for ever more consumption, energy included and become more receptive to the need of actually reducing consumption levels.

In short, an all out drive towards all sorts of sustainable / green technologies whether low or high tech, large or small scale, imported or locally manufactured can and do spur an intelligent public discussion about lowering consumption, conservation and recycling. This public debate together with an honest assessment of what RE can or cannot do is to be commended.

There will be many failures, set backs and disappointments as the usual entrenched interests act to counter this drive and certain technologies fail, no doubt, but there is just one chance that this drive may smooth the way ahead by exploring different pathways.

And in the spirit of dissensus, all reasonable options ought to be explored for nobody knows which tools will work best at a given location.


Tyler August said...

@Bill, re: Rocket Stove inserts:
This fellow made one. It's not exactly built to a heritage aesthetic, but it won't damage what's there, and has a certain steampunk charm. See:

@JMG: When you talk about saving things like movable type, it really brings home just how dark the coming dark age may be. I think the recovering society you showed in "Star's Reach" may have lulled me into a false impression of optimism.

Phil Harris said...

Quick thoughts on plant diversity in USA / Europe:

If I counted correctly there have been 8 major glaciations in the last 800,000 years. The land was re-colonised by plants each time during the inter-glacials - except for some stony ground in very inclement places. A lot of re-stocking came from 'refugia'; at least we know this for Europe. There are significant differences in tree diversity North / South, where typically tree species are many times fewer in the northern re-colonised zones (see boreal forests).

In Britain the diversity is very noticeable in inventories of total plant wild species. Britain has been at the boundary of successive glaciations. Very roughly 200+ species in a kilometre square in the north near latitude 56, and 400+ species only 600 Kilometres further south. (There is also a huge range in species / communities with slight changes in elevation in Britain, which equate to climate boundaries. Here in Scotland, the arctic is barely a 2 mile walk up any steep and high enough hillside. We still have alpine plants on some of our higher slopes.)

Evolution of individual species clearly goes back a lot further than a few ice ages. I have not looked for info on the evolution of for example redwood species adapted for fire-climax – but we must be looking at millions of years? The redwoods must have been able to compete for other reasons in very different environments that came and went in alternation with fire climax? These were wetter as well as warmer worlds if we go back more than a million years.

Phil H

raul parolari said...

John, I'll reply (briefly) your points (copied in italics):

1) Raul, I want you to stop and think about what you've just said, and why. It's absolutely standard these days... for people to come charging in, insisting that (insert unproven vaporware technology here) will, or can, or may save us

I did not come charging to sell vaporware. I pointed out that the Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) is an interesting technology, and that the Chinese Academy of Sciences (with DOE and Berkeley Univ) is working on it. I even added: if (a big if) the technology is resurrected successfully, things could dramatically change.

2) Do you know what technical challenges and economic difficulties might be involved in trying to deploy thorium reactors on a large enough scale to make any difference?

First: the MSR technology is not a "cute idea"; the kernel was proven at ORNL in the 60s (by the same engineer who patented the LWR, Alvin Weinberg). The Chinese visited ORNL a few years ago and took a copy of all the documentation.
Now: it may take 7 years to build several prototypes (e.g., China completion date for prototypes is 2017 and 2020), and 10 years more to start mass production.

How many reactors would be needed? take as objective to replace Coal consumption. The world burns more than 1400 GWY of Coal per year.
How long would it take to replace that poison? if we installed a 1 GW MSR per Week, it would take 27 years.

I am aware that all this may be too late for our planet (as we know it), so it's just a possibility. In any case, good luck with your project, I enjoyed reading it.

RPC said...

One thing I'd like to point out is that the subsidies for renewable technologies can probably be discounted. The competition (fossil fuels) receives subsidies that make those for renewables look like pocket change. I think it's a bit much to ask that unsubsidized renewables compete with an energy source that has everything from a plethora of tax breaks to the full might of the U.S. military at its disposal.

DickLawrence said...

It's refreshing to hear about some amateur radio fans getting back to basics and minimalist technologies vs. the trend toward computerizing everything. One commenter pointed out that you need amplification if you're ever to get beyond high-power AM stations feeding crystal receivers. This means either tubes or transistors. On YouTube there's a French guy who demonstrates crafting his own tubes (after building the equipment on which they're constructed, like high-vacuum pumps). But there's one serious (I think) stumbling block: he salvages the tungsten filaments from incandescent light bulbs. Now anyone who's examined a light-bulb filament with a magnifying glass or low-power microscope will appreciate the challenge of fabricating such an infinitesimal piece of wire - it's a helix within a helix, a very long and thin wire of pure tungsten double-helixed so it can be crammed into a little light bulb. Given the incredibly high melting point of tungsten, how in heck do you fabricate such an object? I realize that even this technology is 100 years old, but this step of the process stumps me. Comments and ideas welcome!
- Dick Lawrence

ozoner said...

Big thanks to you and your [rational] posters!
I am very encouraged to hear that some are interested in printing tech and have a question regarding that. Trippticket (of Small Batch Garden) was distressed that his precious reference library was being destroyed by mildew in the North Georgia woodlands. I'm wondering if anyone is studying a low-tech solution for preserving these paper treasures? (Sure, re-printing/copying, but there are sooooo many important works out there, I'm not sure that even a concerted, Apollo-Project style effort could get it all re-made before it turned to Earth-food.) I wonder how the Library of Congress keeps its' collection in good shape, but I would bet it's fairly energy intensive.
Thank you all for your practical inputs!

Ps. Last season was my first attempt at planting saved seed. It did very well; I'll do more.
Kathleen Q., just received a book called "True Brews" for making cider, beer, wine, sake, sody-pop, mead, kefir, and kombucha. Excellent and low-tech!

August Johnson said...

JMG - Most CB radios can be converted to 10 meters, back in the 1980's huge quantities of them were. Just do a Google search on "Convert CB to 10 Meters" and you'll have all the information you could want. Both AM and SSB rigs are usually quite easy. In older crystal-synthesized rigs you just switch some crystals around, in newer PLL synthesized CB's you just switch some pins on the synthesizer chip. I pick up old CB's both for parts and conversion.

thrig said...

But what this list really needs to tie it all together is rope, rope to fill roles now performed by various products drawn from the wrong end of the oil barrel. These products involve a wealth of chemicals--a coworker from Louisiana mentioned someone swept by a tide of Benzene. This nameless one is now, somehow, graced by cancer of all kinds. I might mention that 1948 study, published by that most radical of environmental groups, the American Petroleum Institute, that specifies a minimum safe dose for Benzene. Moving forward, how would hemp rope not help avoid such consequences? Or are the petrochemical profits from cheap plastic straps too dear to dissolve, the cells of the dying man be

That modern society says yes, and eagerly courts such growth--well now, that might be telling.

Jim R said...

Yes, I know. It felt sort of like that opening scene in The Graduate.

In answer to your question, JMG, and given that I am convinced of most of your observations (we have had 40 years to 'get it right' after all) are correct, I keep looping back to acid-free parchment paper, heavy metal black ink, and shaped blocks of inexpensive low-melting bismuth alloys.

How much of Wikipedia can be distributed in this way, and what sort of time capsule would be needed? Cornerstone of a pyramid?

Greg Belvedere said...

Do you think fly wheels would be a practical way to store mechanical energy for certain jobs, or even power a generator to run radios and the like? Or is a good fly wheel too hard to make with limited technology?

I would appreciate any resources you could provide.

Also, I'm thoroughly enjoying Green Wizardry. I will definitely put the info to use when I move out of my overheated Brooklyn apartment this spring. With the exception of the coldest winter days I always have the windows open at least a crack and never need anything heavier than a t-shirt.

Though I have already started growing some sprouts and plan to pick up The Apartment Farmer if I can. I have some experience with organic gardening and composting. When I moved back in with my folks after college I had a nice garden for three years. I miss it terribly. So the resources you provide will definitely fill in some of the holes in my knowledge.

Also, as a librarian I look forward to reading some of the books you recommend on cybernetics etc.

Nastarana said...

Barbara, I don't think the rising interest in domestic arts is in any way unconscious; I believe many women in many different communities and sub-cultures are reading the writing on the wall, and responding, even while it will still for a while yet be considered rude to mention the fact of coming hard times in their particular neighborhoods and sub-cultures.

I would particularly like to mention two of the sewing arts: crochet, which I am now learning. Crochet is a kind of knot making which is extremely versatile. Almost any string-like substance, from lace, to torn-up old clothing strips to various yarns can be crocheted into rugs, potholders and similar useful items. Now that we are going soon to be able to grow hemp again, perhaps we will see a revival of the art of ropemaking; I am afraid my fingers are too small and arthritic for that, but I can still manage various kinds of decorative braid.

I also suggest that sewers learn pattern drafting. Two good books are by Dorothy Moore and Donald McGunn. Both are OOP and were selling for from $10-$20 second hand the last time I looked. Wishful thinking to the contrary, tropical ethnic clothing styles are not practical in cooler climates, and, people do love the comfort of clothing which fits them exactly, as Ashley said above.

I also suggest that technical drawing is a skill which should be preserved. The textbooks and tools are still around, and the essential tools, T-square, dividers, compass, scale, etc., were well made from good materials and can last almost forever. Had the cathedral builders been able to use the techniques of drawing to scale, there might have been fewer collapses of towers than did happen. said...

Regarding Barbara's comment on handcrafts: I own 3 looms - a 36 inch weaving width floor loom, a 15 inch weaving width folding loom (that I take to demos and classes), and a rigid heddle loom (viking technology). I also own 3 treadle spinning wheels, two of which are more than 100 years old and work as well as they did in their prime, two great wheels, one of which is from the early 1800's and still needs repairs to make it fully functional.

I am teaching a beginning spinning class at the end of this month; I teach knitting and crochet, and am passing along my skills to my grand-daughter who is 4. I have also taught on of my DIL's to knit and give her hand spun to knit with.

I process cotton, flax, and wools of various breeds for different purposes (they aren't all the same!). I spin the fiber and then knit or weave with my yarns.

I sell many of my products but also gift many to those with an appreciation of the time and skill necessary to produce such useful items.

I have a firm commitment to participating in living history demonstrations and in any other venue where I can tell people the history of cloth and hopefully interest people in learning the skills themselves. I have even piqued the interest of more than one man in the technology of spinning wheels and inspired them to attempt making one themselves. They are quite high technology with deceptively simple parts.

My friends, family and co-workers all joke that if the apocalypse hits they're coming to our house because they'll be warm (wood stove), well fed (grow our own/preserve our own), and clothed.

JMG, there are a number of guilds and groups keeping these skills alive; you can find a list of them at My guild, I am proud to say, is one of those listed.

I have to say, the act of crafting is a form of meditation for me and the plus is I get useful and beautiful items from my meditations.

Bogatyr said...

@Onething: you're quite right about the Soviets. I'm typing this as I look down onto Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg. My job comes with an apartment in a Soviet-era housing block. It has a cramped kitchen, a small bedroom, a living room, a tiny toilet and a not-very big bathroom. I feel - with my British sensibilities of space - that I have just enough space, living on my own. When it was built, of course, there would likely have been three generations of a family squeezed in here.

Not only is there no washing machine, there is no space where one could possibly be fitted. In the bathroom, I found a T-shaped wooden tool, used for agitating clothes so that they can be washed in the bath without bending over. I'm not very good at doing this, not having had much practice. Fortunately, this morning I discovered that this apartment complex has a central laundry, where residents can take their dirty clothes. Its fees are quite reasonable - but probably, Soviet citizens may have found them quite steep, and would have preferred to wash and dry their clothes in the apartment, as granny slept on the sofa and the kids amused themselves out on the streets somewhere...

Central St Petersburg, as I look at it out of the window here, is quite interesting. Nevsky Prospekt itself looks very prosperous these days, but even the major streets radiating off it have grand 18th or 19th century buildings with the plaster crumbling and the roofing entirely made of rusting corrugated iron. I begin to understand Dmitry Orlov's position rather better - and to know what slow collapse is going to look like back home...

redoak said...

@Bill and others interested in rocket heaters. I’m just about finished building our house here in NH. It’s a two story 30’x40’ colonial, the kind of massive structure typical of farms here in northern New England. Same basic layout and dimensions as my last house which was built in 1763. At any rate I installed a very large masonry heater in the center of the house and a Jotul 121 in the basement. This winter I’m on track to burning 4 cord of wood. The masonry heater takes a small fire twice a day, the woodstove is back up in case of polar vortices! The heater has a brick oven above the combustion chamber which is great for breads, pizzas, cassole, grilling meats, etc. It starts at about 1000F post firing, hangs at 400-450 for about 4 hours, then settles out at 325 until the next fire. It takes about a week to get the mass up to temp in October, and about a week for it to lose the heat if we go away or when spring comes. Because it is fired flat out it can burn woods that you wouldn’t put in a wood stove, for example resinous pine and other softwoods. There is no creosote production at these combustion temperatures. A serious investment, right around 20K including the chimney, but the fuel is free (50 acres of forest) so payback is less than ten years at $/btu. Having a hot oven for 6 months out of the year is a bonus as well.

That house built in 1763 has a lot of life left in it, so I built this new place with the intention that it too will be useful in 250 years.

Progress and Conserve said...

OK, I've got one that must be considered - Sustainable Law Enforcement.

In the more homogenous communities of my youth, the law was generally enforced by one or a few men, equipped with guns and badges, to be sure - but mostly equipped with iron willpower, and the tacit support of the society at large.

But today, law enforcement has come to rely much more on technology, massive manpower, and SWAT operations employed freely. An energy-descending future is going to reverse all of this.

What started me thinking about this was Bill Pulliam's: "Marin -- ah, yes, that good old ideological apartheid. When you say "like minded" I am guessing you also mean "like-colored" and "of like socio-economic status" (yes, I have been there). No need to be molested by people who view the world differently than you do, no need to be concerned with folks who don't have sizable bank accounts. That is not the future, it is an escapist fantasy"

Bill, I disagree. Throughout history, people have lived in tribes or villages where most everyone was "like-colored" and of a similar (usually very low) socioeconomic status. I think the misty future will see most humans return to this, as prosperity ebbs.

Unless, that is, someone can devise a system of sustainable and very low-tech law enforcement - to hold down the property crimes AND to keep your various groups away from each other's throats.

And JMG, you'll want to ask what I'm doing now to help law enforcement transition to a lower energy future. I'll tell you, but in a later post. I think I'm about at the "blogger limit" for this one.

August Johnson said...

JLE - In the same theme as your "Calculators",

When Computers were Human

Roger said...

JMG, these are good ideas for upping our game and re-learning basic skills whether it's arithmetic via abacus or learning to make tools do your bidding. Or growing food. I'm reading that not so long ago people created local telephone systems using hand cranked telephones and using the barbed wire that separated farms in the place of telepone lines.

But especially growing food. Maybe it's easier in tropical or subtropical places where you throw down a handful of pumpkin seeds and in a few weeks pumpkins are taking over the world.

I'm having trouble picturing the new society and system of governance. The one I keep seeing is where the local authority, in the form a glorified warlord and a clique of thugs, extract half of what you grow as a tax. I can imagine the rationale ie to keep the peace, to maintain order, to administer justice, to provide for collective security. Because one thing is for sure, you won't be left alone to humbly go about your business. Somebody, whether you like it or not, will be on your case making demands backed by the threat of violence. Duly constituted authority is defunct? The Senate no longer meets? Something else will take their place.

Necessity will be the plea. And it will have the imprimatur of the local worthies. Be reasonable, they'll say, and pay up, it's for everyone's good. And do you know what will be most galling? You'll know the man, he'll have been your neighbor, you'll have grown up together, his wife will know your wife, his kids will know your kids. No matter, you'll pay. Everyone will.

Ruben said...

I have been trying to resist, but people keep using the word "technology" so I wanted to offer the thoughts of award-winning historical metallurgist and thinker on technology, Ursula Franklin.

Ursula Franklin - Wikipedia

Both the print and audio versions of her Massey Lecture series, "The Real World of Technology" are absolutely excellent. She would classify religion and language as technologies, and regualrly asks, "Who controls this, and who does it benefit?"

"Franklin is best known for her writings on the political and social effects of technology. For her, technology is much more than machines, gadgets or electronic transmitters. It is a comprehensive system that includes methods, procedures, organization, "and most of all, a mindset".[5] She distinguishes between holistic technologies used by craft workers or artisans and prescriptive ones associated with a division of labour in large-scale production. Holistic technologies allow artisans to control their own work from start to finish. Prescriptive technologies organize work as a sequence of steps requiring supervision by bosses or managers.[6] Franklin argues that the dominance of prescriptive technologies in modern society discourages critical thinking and promotes "a culture of compliance".[7]

LewisLucanBooks said...

While the Internet is still up and running ... I got an interesting set of Dvds from the library. "Edwardian Farm." Then I discovered that "Tudor Monastery Farm", "Victorian Farm", "Victorian Pharmacy" and "War Time Farm" (WWII) were all available over at YouTube.

This is an English series from the good old BBC. A historian and two archaeologists live for a year on such farms. They're great overviews of how things were done in the past. I think the trick is to see what interests you and then go searching other places for depth. I have a good idea how tin was mined and smelted, and how to harvest copper nuggets from the outflow of old copper mines. How to make large quantities of charcoal.

But the sections on capturing wild yeast (for brewing or bread making) and the section on making clotted cream caught my attention and I'll give them a try this summer.

I also picked up an interesting book at a library sale. "The Forgotten Arts & Crafts" by John Seymour. Again, an English source. A nice overview of forgotten technologies and crafts.

Robert said...

@Deedl @Fidelius @JMG

On Germany's domination of the EU and the crisis of the Eurozone one potential solution might be to revisit the scheme proposed by the British economist Keynes at Bretton Woods in 1944, a scheme that was rejected by the USA who were determined to put the world on the dollar standard.

Keynes proposed a new neutral unit of international currency – the “Bancor” – and a new institution to manage it – International Clearing or Currency Union (ICU) All international trade would be measured in Bancors. Exporting would accrue Bancors, importing would expend Bancors. Nations would be expected to maintain, within a small percentage, a zero account with the ICU. Each nation’s Bancor account would be related to its national currency through a fixed but adjustable exchange rate.

Nations that imported more than they exported, debtor nations, would pay a small interest charge to the Clearing Union on their overdrawn account. This would encourage them to promote exports as well as a marginal currency devaluation. But equally nations that ran an aggressive trade policy and exported more than they imported would also be charged by the Clearing Union for their surplus account. This would encourage them to find ways to spend their excess Bancors back into debtor nations or gradually lose that surplus. These charges were intended not so much as a deterrant or punishment but as a benign feedback mechanism ensuring that over time trade would remain in balance.

If Greece and the other weaker countries were allowed to restore their national currencies but were part of Keynesian type European Currency Union with the remaining Eurozone the currency problem and the chronic trade deficits with Germany could be resolved.

It would also be in the interests of the US to cooperate with the BRICs and the EU and agree to a Keynesian ICU for the global economy. As things stand the dollar's role as world reserve currency is not sustainable and if an ICU were set up the US would be cushioned against a potential collapse of the dollar with devasting effects on the US economy.

In my view it is only the US military that maintains the dollar's role. It's interesting that the only thing the Axis of Evil nations had in common when they were first labelled such was using the euro to denominate their bank reserves and do all their overseas trading and shopping. At one stage, Venezuela and OPEC also considered switching to euros.

The Eurozone crisis has already led to the rise of neo Nazis in Greece and could give rise to terrorism in the Meditteranean countries. The global competition between the dollar, euro and yuan could lead to war. A Keynesian ICU might avoid a lot a people getting killed.

onething said...


"At what point would lower more human and earth friendly technology be expected to replace corporate resource intensive technologies? It seems to me our economy and culture will not allow any shift in the way things are done until long after the need becomes apparent. As things are now a dark age will be well under way before any sustainable technologies emerge."

I think about this and see this as being the case all the time. It adds yet another layer of surreality to my perception of life in this society.


I wrote you an answer to your questions about vegetable gardens at the end of last week's post.
The hottest temp I remember living in was 115 in central California as a teenager, in the 70s.

streamfortyseven said...

Apparently there is a fungus spreading which has all but made production of natural latex rubber from South America impossible, and only the use of strong fungicides in the East Indies allows that industry to continue. Research has been going on in Germany on getting natural latex from a species of dandelion and they've managed to produce 200 to 400 kilograms per acre of this latex. And the rubber is equivalent in mechanical properties to that produced from the rubber plant. Here's some info on the research:

Also, here's more information - during WWII, this species was cultivated in the US as well, producing about 45 kg of rubber per acre:

Fidelius said...

@Matt Heins: I was thinking the same thing. One the one hand, some people insist that only a massive government programme along with broad support could possibly avoid or at least slow down decline. But when a government actually implements this -- and has been doing so quite successfully for more than a decade now -- suddenly the same people will say it's all useless and won't work anyway.

I tend to interpret this as a moral superiority complex: Pointing out what others should do (but aren't doing) can feel incredibly good. Until the others actually start doing what you pointed out. Now they've taken away your moral superiority. Who do they think they are? Quickly, tell them it's all wrong and futile anyway so you can feel morally superior again! Ha, that'll show them!

On a more serious note: I'm quite sure the German think tanks involved in the energy transition are acutely aware that our current energy habits cannot possibly be sustained with renewables. In 2010 a study on peak oil by a Bundeswehr think tank was leaked and made the rounds in the media (if anyone is interested, simply google "german military peak oil study"). It shows that the German military (and, by extension, the German government) have a very clear understanding of peak oil and its dire consequences (the government wisely chose not to comment on the study at all). Still, something like the energy transition has to be sold to the masses somehow without causing panic or despair. The claim that everything will be alright and we can continue to consume as before is a sales pitch, nothing more. Keep calm and build windmills.

What else should they do? Nothing, like all the others?

Moshe Braner said...

That book on how to build your own vacuum tubes (and transistors) sounds like fun. I do wonder though, how would the balance between make-your-own (hard) and salvage components (easy for decades to come) is going to allow the knowledge of make-your-own techniques to survive?

Also, even thought I grew up dabbling with vacuum tubes and thus they're nostalgic to me, I am quite aware that their high power requirements are rather inconvenient in a future without the electrical grid. Even industrially produced miniaturized tubes optimized for lower power use are orders of magnitude more power hungry than transistors.

As an aside, JMG, are you going to join the recent flurry in the peakoilblogdom of writings on "collapse on demand"?

John Michael Greer said...

Matt, I've discussed that repeatedly here. Any plan for the future that doesn't start with using much less in the way of energy and other resources simply isn't serious. The strategy they and other national governments should have embraced would focus first and foremost on energy and resource conservation, along with decentralized (homescale and village/neighborhood scale) energy production and incentives for local production of necessities. That would have sharply increased the resilience of the nation as a whole, and made it less likely that a crisis in one area would trigger cascading failures elsewhere. Politically, of course, that's a non-starter, because it requires coming to grips with the reality of our predicament; still, that's the approach that would actually have helped.

Deedl, I'm uncomfortable with the thought of giving you a lesson in your own cultural history, so I'll simply encourage you to look up the bog-standard German rhetoric about "the Anglo-Saxon cultural circle" between 1871 and 1914, and note the similarities to your post. That said, if that's not what you had in mind, fair enough; I admit I was nettled by the bland arrogance of your assumption that I couldn't possibly be familiar with any language but the one I grew up with. That comment of yours would have been gauche under any conditions; given that I've just spent a year talking about Friedrich Nietzsche and Oswald Spengler, it was really quite uncommonly rude.

Tom, those are excellent points. One of the major challenges to be faced by health care in the deindustrial future is the need for health care providers to back out of the current fetish for hyperspecialization and get back to plenty of general practitioners and a few specialists.

K-dog, that's why it's up to us -- individuals who see the need and are willing to invest their own time and effort -- to make the thing happen now, while there's still time to save much of what's currently known.

Anonymous JLE, yes, that's one of the things that solar power proponents usually forget -- just how much energy it takes to manufacture a PV cell. As for the story, I don't recall anything by Ellison like that -- are you possibly thinking of Asimov's "The Feeling of Power," which has a similar plot?

Boddah Meep, I've seen Shaolin shovel forms; I don't know that I'd call them sneaky, as they're well designed to reduce an opponent to bloody chunks, but they'd certainly do the trick.

Irishwildeye, excellent. Glad to hear it.

Joel, of course it'll require sorting and a fair amount of the sort of hands-on knowledge any craft picks up. "Now you don't just throw bottles like this into the crucible," the master says to the apprentice; "you have to crush it, and mix it with some of this sand over here, and then you get something you can use..."

Mkroberts, yes, there's also that little point! As for glass, granted, that could be a bottleneck, but there may be ways around that; the sooner it gets some serious attention from green tech types, the better.

John Michael Greer said...

Stunned, it was Hesse quoting Schiller. At the beginning of the First World War, when almost everyone else in the German literary scene was spouting bombastic Prussian platitudes, Hesse published an essay using Schiller's words as the title, trying to counter the hysteria; of course he was denounced for it in extreme terms.

Parenthetically, I take a wry amusement in the way that Hesse so often got (and gets) dismissed as an impractical dreamer disconnected from the real world. In 1914, he predicted that the war would be a disaster for Germany; by the early 1920s -- you'll find this in Steppenwolf, for example -- he was already saying that what passed for German patriotism at that point was driving Germany straight toward a second war that would be even more disastrous than the first; in The Glass Bead Game, he predicted that the wars of the 20th century would end European global dominance and reduce Europe's nations to minor players in global politics. The soi-disant "hardheaded realists" dismissed all these predictions -- and we've seen who turned out to be right...

Cherokee, that's got to be grim. Stay safe!

Karim, that's very good to hear. Here the US, unfortunately, most people treat PV and other green energy options as excuses not to conserve.

Tyler, remember that Star's Reach is well along the curve of recovery, long after the really harsh times of the drought years or the Third Civil War and its aftermath. I'll be discussing dark ages in more detail as we proceed.

Phil, it's similar here, though there are inescapable differences generated by the location and orientation of mountain ranges.

Raul, until it's proven to be commercially and economically viable, it's vaporware. Plenty of technically feasible processes are expensive toys or irrelevancies because they can't be used in a manner that will pay for itself. The core point I was trying to make, though, is that what you did here is something that happens whenever anybody tries to have a serious discussion about the aftermath of the industrial age, and what to do about it: instead of contributing to that discussion, people try to derail it by waving around some technology or other that can save us all, blah blah blah. That's an evasion, not a contribution.

RPC, that's a complicated issue. Of course fossil fuels also get subsidies, but for the most part, they have vastly better EROEIs than renewables do. A case can be made that subsidies for fossil fuels are mostly there to line the pockets of the rich, while subsidies for renewables in many cases are the only things that make renewables economically viable at all.

Dick, I'm going to repeat my recommendation of Pete Friedrich's book Instruments of Amplification, which presents several handbuilt vacuum tubes that don't require tungsten filaments, and several other ways of amplifying that don't use tubes at all. There are other ways of doing the thing!

Ozoner, damp climates are hard on paper, no question. I don't know a lot about the best ways to counter that, but it's an issue that needs to be explored.

August, I thought so. Thanks for the details!

Thrig, good. Will you study ropemaking and post something about it to the Green Wizards forum?

John Michael Greer said...

Jim, to my mind there are plenty of things that come well before Wikipedia on the list of what ought to be printed and preserved!

Greg, heck of a good question, to which I don't know the answer. Anyone else?

Tinfoil, I'm impressed by the number of fiber-art craftspeople who have popped up in response to this post! (My wife, who teaches drop-spindle spinning at the local yarn shop, is delighted as well; she says it's great that more people who work with fiber are realizing that what they're doing isn't just a hobby, but a contribution to the future as well.) Yes, yes, and yes; all of this is worth doing.

Progress, good. Yes, I will indeed ask that, and look forward to hearing from you.

Roger, take a moment sometime to calculate how much of your income gets paid out in taxes and other payments to government at all levels, national, state, and local. Your average medieval peasant paid considerably less of his annual in-kind income to the local baron and the church. One of the reasons that feudalism takes off so quickly and so reliably in the aftermath of a failed civilization is that the local baron normally charges much less for his services than the late and not always lamented empire charged for the equivalent. More on this as we proceed...

Ruben, interesting. I'm not at all sure I agree with her use of the word, but her concepts are certainly worth exploring.

Enrique said...

Progress and Conserve is quite right. The sort of multiculturalism that we accept as the norm today and view as a human right is another offshoot of the fossil fuels boom and derivative effects like globalization. Historically, people lived in communities of people who were like them, and this has always been the normal way of things. This is especially true since different cultures and ethnic groups often have radically different beliefs and cultural values, and it’s not always possible to split the difference or dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator. Even in the UK, we see Pakistani immigrants forming neighborhood watches in areas where Roma immigrants have moved in because crime rates and ethnic conflicts have gone through the roof wherever the Roma have settled. What is wrong with people preferring the company of those who are like them and share the same set of values?

A professor of mine once argued that much of the social welfare system and so-called “affirmative action” programs are essentially the result of the government buying peace by bribing potentially aggrieved elements of society into not rioting or challenging the status quo. He also argued that much of what passes for politics these days is essentially political economy, that is to say, who gets the goodies and who has to pay the price.

As recent riots in London, Paris and Stockholm show, that seems to be not working as well as it used to, and I think we see a lot more that sort of ethnically motivated conflict in Europe, America and elsewhere. As the Long Descent continues, governments will be less and less able to keep the peace using this approach because the funds and resources will no longer be there. We will have to return to a community based model, those communities will be much more homogeneous, will be based on a firm set of cultural and moral values, and those who either cannot or will not abide by the values of their community will have to leave or pay a heavy price for not doing so. There will no doubt be many such communities living side by side, but within a given community, there will be a lot less “diversity” and a lot less tolerance for criminal, deviant and antisocial behavior and behavior which violates the social norms of that community.

The sort of mass immigration and enforced multiculturalism and “diversity” (which is really nothing more than a weasel word for the socially destructive racial, ethnic and gender politics of the radical Left) that we see today is going to cause huge conflicts, even civil wars and insurgencies, in the not so distant future in many countries. It’s only due to the fossil fuels boom and the things it made possible that the leftists and liberals could indulge their utopian fantasies, including those of an egalitarian society, which has never existed on the face of the Earth and never will. Even hunter-gatherer tribes tended to be dominated by a small group of tribal elders and often warred with other tribes. It’s just the way things are.

We should and will return to smaller, decentralized political structures, and yes, communities that are based on ethnic ties, in part because the ethnic, racial and religious conflicts will be too severe to manage otherwise in the absence of the Leviathan state.

K!EF said...

RE: K!EF, fair enough. Are you studying that?
Well, I wouldn't call it studying yet, rather familiarizing myself with the subject (workshop & reading). I went to Layla's workshop last year and was astonished to hear how toxic our urban/ backyard soils can be due lead paint (used a few decades ago) and other hidden remnants. This was quite eye opening and made me aware how ill equipped our communities are to deal with this legacy on a low tech basis.
So its on my list of things I am learning about in more detail, together with biodynamic's, Victor Schauberger's understanding of farming and forestry and other "ancient" technics of healing/ working the land.

On a different note: I've heard now several times that some biodynamic farms were tested (by university scientist's) for nuclear radiation after Tschernobyl, but the Geiger counter didn't pick up any radiation there, although on the neighbors field it did. I don't have reliable source for this claim other than hearsay. Are you aware of these claims?

Joseph Nemeth said...

"Politically, of course, that's a non-starter, because it requires coming to grips with the reality of our predicament; still, that's the approach that would actually have helped."

A quibble, but it's important to diagnose dysfunctions correctly. This implies that the politicos are deluded and somewhat stupid, which seems to be true enough, but it implies that they could be educated out of the dilemma.

They cannot, because that's not the problem. The problem is that you can't turn local resilience into big business, by its very nature, and at this point, none of the national players are the least bit interested in anything that isn't big business.

Even if the politicos are completely aware of the dilemma, they don't have any choice: to do anything other than fawn over the big campaign spenders means their tenure in office is over. Nor do the big campaign spenders have a lot of choice: promoting local resilience means loss of company income. Those who are bound to "fiduciary responsibility" to their shareholders, cannot legally make sound long-term choices for the future, if it means a dip in short-term profits: they, likewise, will be fired for that sort of behavior.

Which merely underlines your primary thesis, which is that it's up to localities to embrace local resilience -- as is fitting, since it hardly makes sense for local resilience to rely upon federal grants.

Locals should understand, however, that the national level of politics and business will be a cold and steady wind in their faces, and it will get stronger and colder in direct proportion to their success. I'd even venture to guess that if local resilience becomes robust enough, it will be denounced as unpatriotic, and perhaps even as terrorist activity.

Ian Stewart said...

Here in inland California, the short-term climate and rainfall trends certainly conform to the long-term projections asserted above. Since the start of winter, we have had less than a week of heavy rainfall, and nothing beyond that. The governor has now declared a state of emergency predicated by drought, and wildfires are starting up already down south. Locally, the water authorities are apparently about to open up the reservoir to provide for the coming irrigation. Ironic, considering that we're right next to the California delta, the water transmission hub for the entire state. Last winter, I seem to remember, had heavier rainfall with less concern over water supply. Winter 2011/2012, though, was an outlier, as there was no rainfall at all until the latter half of spring. Almost like some sort of tropical monsoon?

It's also interesting to read Bill's comments about the west coast fish populations being repopulated from the sea. The Delta water supply controversy was partly predicated by a judge's ruling that the endangered Delta smelt was being killed by the pumps which provide much of the San Joaquin Valley, and there's also concern about the population of salmon spawning on the Sacramento River. The San Joaquin River is pretty much innavigable in the northern part of the valley, and even if industrial-grade irrigation tapered off, climate trends make me wonder if that would really change.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

@Cherokee Organics

Hi Chris,
Wishing you all the best as you confront the dangerous heat and threat of fire.


Joseph Nemeth said...

@Greg -- stationary flywheels are an excellent way to store mechanical energy over the short term. Not so much over the long term, because you have losses in the bearings: they run down over time.

They're easy to make, and are excellent accumulators: you can spend an hour on a bicycle spinning one up, and then throw the clutch and use up all that energy in a fraction of a second -- that's a lot of power. It's also fairly easy to charge in parallel -- many people riding bicycles for an hour, say.

The issue you'll find with existing flywheel technology is that it's trying to duplicate the feats of the dead dinosaurs (oil) and compete in the big business environment. It's not enough to make a decent flywheel that serves a purpose: it has to compete with an electric motor attached to a gasoline-powered generator, AND you have to be able to standardize it and sell one to everyone for all possible uses. So "modern tech" in flywheels tends to be experimental, using extremely dense, high-tensile strength materials spinning at ridiculous speeds, which introduces a lot of problems, including substantial property damage if one of them ever locks up its bearings.

You'll never find one of those in a low-energy future, nor much need for one.

Bill Pulliam said...

P & C -- you missed a key point in my rant. These ideological enclaves are built by the comfortable middle class (and they come in all flavors). They often delude themselves into thinking they are somehow self-sustaining, whether it be because of their solar panels or their stores of ammunition and canned goods. And it is a delusion. They are doing nothing but living on the fat of the industrial-fossil-fuel economy and convincing themselves of their own "rightness." You are talking about traditional societies that have been living the same way, and developing a collective worldview, over many generations. Not the same beast at all.

Ian Stewart said...

And a note for August: I found a fellow on YouTube named David Casler, who's posting instructional videos on the ham radio license levels. Looks like he's got the technician license covered, and he's working his way through General class. I'll be following along once I've got the extra cash for an ARRL technician manual. Perhaps you will find his efforts worth collaborating with.

Enrique said...

As an illustration of the point I was trying to make with my last post:

Of course, it’s not just the UK, but countries throughout Europe, from Spain and Greece to Sweden and Finland, that are facing these issues, and the policies of the EU and the liberal elites have made things far worse. This is an issue that isn’t going away, no matter how much the liberals and leftists try to delude themselves and everyone else, and it will probably end being settled like it usually has in the past, through inter-communal violence and warfare.

Unknown said...

I think we would do better to preserve technologies and techniques surrounding oxen as tractors than horses and donkeys. Oxen are easier to feed for one thing, work better in deep snow and mud require much lower tech "harness/tack" (oxbow and yoke and simple chain or stout rope) to put to work and cattle have been domesticated far longer than horses in particular (I'm not sure horses really are domesticated).

I lament the potential loss of photography. I find the early history of photography and its resurgence as an artform endlessly fascinating. It is possible to brew your own "film" and printing paper, some of it is relatively low tech. Quality lenses last a long time. Am working on a home built view camera with a 1950's lens from a design popularized in the 1890s.

Likewise, I dearly love the pigments that came to the fore with industrial chemistry such intense blues, greens, reds, oranges, purples so intense they come out of the tube looking black...

Luckymortal said...

JMG, there's a dozen books in my library dedicated to the storage of foods. I have skimmed or read dozens more. There are NONE that I know of that do not assume a food system built upon cheap energy, unsustainable agricultural practices, or forms of slavery. Or all three.

As such, once you look past the most basic level, you find how hard it is to use those sources if you would prefer to avoid one of the vices above.

If you have the answers here, you have something that no one in the sizable group of homesteaders and farmers (including 3 generations in my own family) that I've talked to in 10 years study of the subject have figured out yet.

I'm assuming you source 100% of your food in such a way?

Robert said...


Interesting about the Bundeswehr report. I attended a public talk given by retired British general Sir Mike Jackson - the same guy who refused to obey Wesley Clark's orders to take military action against the Russians when they sent paratroopers into Kosovo during the 1999 Kosovo war and by doing so averted potential catastrophe - and the subject of energy came up. He asked us to imagine flicking the switch and the light not coming on. So yes the military everywhere are well award of Peak Oil.

He also said the politicians are incapable of thinking more than three months ahead.

John Franklin said...


See Robert Peel's police system, which seems to have (at least in Britain) worked better than the currently used model, before it was foolishly replaced by Unit Beat Policing in the 1960s. It was imperfect. Everything is. But that said, it worked with half as many police per person, and none of the fleets of gas guzzlers needed by our current police force.

Peter Hitchens writes at length about it in "The Abolition of Liberty". My view is that something like this would stand a much better chance of surviving the Long Descent than today's system of policing.

August Johnson said...

@Ian - Thanks, I'll be providing links to David's Videos and blog. A great companion to the ARRL books.

As I mentioned to JMG, soon I'll have a lending library of books including the License Manuals. Not everybody needs to keep the manual after they get the license. Some may chose to buy and pass it on when they're finished, others just need to borrow one to study or see if it's something they're interested in.

mkroberts said...

I think much depends on how the long decline progresses and what lies beyond the bottleneck (as William R Catton terms it). Will it be possible to retain any appropriate technologies by those who pass through to the other end? Perhaps any technologies that can make use of only what can be found in nature, would be great ones to pass down. Provided life can persist, there will always be fibrous plants, trees and animals. It could be that the sun will only be captured by plants for a long period of time, and wind will only be dispersing seeds and nutrients. Building anything may be exceedingly difficult and likely to yield temporary structures.

Permaculture, particularly forest gardens, would be useful to pass down. Working with, rather than against nature, would certainly be preferable to what civilisations usually end up doing.

Humans, of course, will go extinct some day, and any passed down knowledge will be lost. Maybe we shouldn't be trying to pass down anything other than basic survival knowledge (which isn't don't now). That got humans to and through past civilisations. Anything more might be a bonus but wouldn't that be icing rather than the cake?

Having said that, I'd love one piece of technology to persist. That is the making of good quality acoustic instruments. We can always sing, of course, but having some other way of making music would certainly be a big boost to any communities that make it through the bottleneck.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi onething,

> planting the vegetables in a rather haphazard and random pattern.

That will make it a confusing place for garden predators at the same time as teaching you plant identification. The article also provided other good reasons for doing this strategy.

> Don't I have to plan some pathways to get around?

Of course. Walking through a garden bed eventually compacts the soil, which destroys the air in it and makes it susceptible to anaerobic bacteria (not what you or your plants want). You can just throw in a few pavers and walk on them, or put paths through like I do here.

> so that you have a younger set and not all things ripening at once

Yeah. In natural systems not everything ripens at once. This also confuses garden predators because they follow cycles and you are restricting their food supply. Everything ripening at once is good for commercial growers, but rubbish for the home gardener. Why would I want 50kg of tomatoes in one week, when they can ripen over many months?

> perhaps it won't be necessary to carefully rotate crops

Eventually you have to rotate crops. But if everything self-seeds it will find a natural balance. You just have to plant species like mustard for example which fumigates soil. Also deep rooted perennials like comfrey which bring up to the surface minerals and nutrients. Go for maximum diversity and you avoid problems. No one ever actively went out and fertilised a natural forest or grassland (yes, people did manage those ecosystems though) and yet they continue to grow. Mimic nature, it'll save you work.

> about the strip mining

See the above comment. Plant foxgloves, comfrey, borage, lucerne in amongst your vegetables and you avoid this problem. It just doesn't look like what people think it should. There is a whole world of plants to choose from and anything that is undemanding and grows of its own accord is probably building top soil.

> pretty well obsessed with my flower garden

Yeah, they're nice and all, but why not chuck some vegetables into the mix. Carrot flowers aren't small and they provide feed for beneficial insects. Dill is amazing looking.

If you don't let some of your vegetables self-seed then you have to buy in seed every single season. That is getting tricked by business. Self-sown vegetables here are earlier, hardier and just as tasty (if not more in some cases) than seedlings. You have to start somewhere though.

I'm suggesting both.

Good luck and keep us updated.


Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Jason,

Top work. Your activities have a long history in the UK.

Hi Richard,

Well done. It is a good strategy. Someone once told me you plant a pear tree for your children.

Hi Adrian,

Thanks for your thoughts.



Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for your thoughts. I survived here unscathed, so far.

There were a few fruit tree deaths, but it is usually the first year trees, any that were moved, or any that were previously "pruned" by stumpy the house wallaby - the nemesis of all fruit trees.

This week, I'll be continuing the process of putting the farm into drought mode. Climate weirding threw me for a six (cricket reference) as it was completely surprising how quickly the local climate could deteriorate during a season. The next week looks like it will be a lot cooler. Water infrastructure of all varieties is critical here for me, the plants and the animals.

It is still really smoky here too.

As an interesting side issue which is relevant to this weeks essay, there has been a bit of discussion on the renewable energy forums about how peoples equipment de-rated in the extreme heat. De-rating means that the systems throttled the capacities to reduce the heat stress on the electronics.

The stuff I use here is locally manufactured and rated to continue working up to an ambient temperature of 55 degrees Celsius (131F). The people on the forum look down upon the equipment I use because it is considered clunky and old tech. However, under extreme conditions it continues performing. The controllers have no fans - which can fail - just really massive heat sinks.

I'm not gloating, but the people seriously confuse efficiency with resilience. I'm starting to think that the simpler a technology is, the longer its useful lifespan will be.

When it cools down - during winter - hopefully I'll get a chance to start looking into QRP low-power transmitter and receiver technology.

I'm really enjoying this essay and the discussions it has engendered.

Gotta bounce,


wall0159 said...


Great essay. I think it's a little on the negative side. While I accept that we _have_ to take a huge cut to our collective energy consumption, I'm not convinced that it _has_ to mean the end of industrial civilisation.

I think an interesting attempt at doing the sums can be found in this free book:
I think the author does a good job of conveying the difficulties (he does the numbers) to be faced in moving to a stable society from where we are now, while also showing that it is yet possible.
This does not mean that every (or, indeed, any) country will actually do what is needed -- as you have observed, there are many examples of societies who have chosen to perish rather than change their cherished beliefs. But I think it does show that it is possible, and that we _could_ still do it, if we had the collective will power. I think it's _possible_ that Europe and China are doing what is needed.

btw. in this hypothetical future, I don't believe each house would necessarily have a car, A/C or a computer. But I think society as a whole might maintain some kind of high-tech manufacturing. I think the numbers in "Without The Hot Air" support this.

(I'd be interested to hear some critiques of this book, if anyone has read it and has an informed opinion)


Compound F said...

Archdruid: I have a sense that deep down, modern liberalism, e.g., Bertrand Russell’s description will do for our purposes, appeals to you; and yet, you are equally caught up in what one might call the unconscious brain, archetypes, irrationalism, etc., those very things Russell noted that are in constant oscillation.

Myself, I prefer reason to hatred, but I suppose I know something of hatred, as well, just to cap-off Frost's little gem.

On the other, How does one explain the beauty of the moonlight in the pines? Ray Charles.

This "transition" is going to be a shock.

dltrammel said...

I want to post something that is going to sound harsh.

(I've been debating posting for about two days now, reading the replies.)

I see alot of people posting how they are learning skills that WE are going to need in a World Gone Harsh. Yet 90% of you I have never seen post to the greenwizard forum.

You talk the talk, yet don't walk the walk.

AKA, you want the recognition of learning the skill but don't want to expend the energy to share it. You post here about the thing you are learning yet in the Long Descent, skills know by one are useless.

The Green Wizard site is getting a complete reboot in the next few months, and a few of us are working our asses off to help the millions out there who need our help and knowledge.

If you are in your basement doing skills, yet never share, then honestly.....shame on you.

sunseekernv said...


re CdTe and Energy Payback Time calcs

If you want to do these studies well, you probably need to be a recognized academic with no axe to grind/no interest in other PV companies. Otherwise you have to use public data, which are more questionable than going directly to the companies.

Since you're not in that category (if you were, you wouldn't need to ask the question), I'd start with the comments/bibliography here (though it's from early 2012):

Many of the articles will be behind paywalls, and I doubt there are many here besides myself who shell out the $2737/year for a subscription to Progress in Photovoltaics, or the $4K for Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, or even the few hundred for Photon International magazine, or even know about to read PVTech online ( for free.

Sidenote: they allow anyone - for free - to look at the "top" papers from the recent European Photovoltaic Energy Conference for 2013,
at least thru the end of 2014. (note only a few papers are up yet - and the selection is limited - feh!).

This micro-grid paper about India is interesting from what would a village of poor folks do with a bit of PV

Anyway - how to get papers if you don't have access and don't feel like shelling out the typical $39.95 per paper.
You search for the exact title, or a phase from the title (or abstract - since the abstracts are all online) and the main author's name.

So then you'll get search results of:
* bootleg copies - which one ignores unless one chooses to do otherwise.
* essentially the same paper that the author(s) presented at another conference/published elsewhere
* the author's courtesy stash "for personal, non-commercial use only"

So for example, item 12 is behind the paywall at ProgPV, but a search for that title turns up:

Almost the same authors, instead of a published version from 2011, this is from the EUPVSEC from 2009,
so a bit older. But since science is an evolutionary thing (mostly), things probably didn't change all that much, or if they did, it's almost always to the established trend (e.g. PV got cheaper).

So, long story coming to point, EPBT (Energy Payback Time) under a year for CdTe ground mount systems.

That's a 20+:1 EROEI.

Seems like one could at least breed replacements for PV at those rates. Most EROEI studies I've seen claim around 5:1 to maintain, and 10:1 to grow societies.

Crystalline silicon has come down to about a year lately too.

(But not during land rush conditions, where newbies paid twice price for junk that failed early. My copy of Prieto & Hall is on order.)

The Croatoan 117 said...

I would add line shafts to the list. They greatly reduce the need for direct human labor and can be run off of steam engines or water wheels. While we won't ever return to large scale industry I imagine most villages will have a small machinist shop in an ecotechnic civilization. A metal lathe can perform much more precision work than blacksmithing. A metal lathe would be difficult to operate without an outside power source though. I was able to get a lot of line shaft parts from a neighbors barn for simply the scrap metal value of it. I am reading up on how they operate with the intent of eventually powering a small workshop using a line shaft. For those that are interested I'm attaching a video of a line shaft in action.

Greg Belvedere said...

Thanks Joseph. Your answer addressed all my big questions about fly wheels and saved me a lot of research. I had suspected a lot of what you wrote, but it helps to hear things from someone who knows more about the subject. Cheers.

thecrowandsheep said...

There are some nice comments here. TomK for one.

A number a people have questioned for what purpose primitive calculation could be deployed.

The first numerical weather prediction forecast, by pencil-paper-slide rule combo, was undertaken by Lewis Fry Richardson during World War I in between hauling bodies from trenches to hospital units (now that is a scientist!). Richardson estimated that one would need tens of thousands of human calculators to give a useful forecast before the weather arrived as Richardson's own forecast of 6 hours took weeks to complete. This was not viable until von Neumann put his ENIAC machine to work 30 years later using a stripped down version of Richardson's own equations.

Perhaps it is possible to produce a viable forecast using even a more minimalist weather model with a slide rule, and with what we know today about the weather? Perhaps a network of that neolithic technology, the barometer, could be maintained and communicated with a bunch of Greer's radios to provide the intial conditions? Or are more traditional methods ranging from the mythological to the graphical to the statistical (which is sometimes a complete connected circle) more realistic?

The real question though is whether any systematic weather forecast is terribly high up on the list of necessities going forward? It is quite possible that a weather forecast is an industrial-era luxury that doesn't work perfectly anyway and can be essentially papered over with a bit of know-how, experience (climate change?) and an umbrella.

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