Friday, July 9, 2010

Towards an Ecotechnic Future II: The Debate

Here are the responses I received from John Michael Greer ("JMG") and some of the long-time commentators on his blog to the proposal I described in my previous post. I've re-arranged the order to respond to each commentator in turn:

Kevin, sure, and if pigs had wings we'd all catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets. Neither you nor anyone else has the money, the resources, the time, or the political will to turn those pretty pictures into reality in a world already smack up against the limits to growth. This habit of trotting out visions of a lovely future, when we've long since flushed the opportunity to get there, is one of the least helpful forms of incantation in the peak oil scene just now.

I would have liked a more substantive reply. However, in fairness to JMG, he makes the effort to respond to each commentator on his blog (and he has a lot of commentators). I think that's very cool. So I can understand that he does not have the time and space to respond in depth, and he has also presented his case in greater detail in his blog posts. So, pigs and butterfly nets aside, let's break it down:

Money: There are plenty of people with control of plenty of money. IIRC, we are still spending something on the order of $200 million a day to fight resource wars we've already lost. Currently there are over 10,000 road work projects underway, with a budget of $26.6 billion. Source. is that possible? No one has any money or resources! Somebody get me a butterfly net, I want some bacon. And why hasn't anyone told these guys that building trains is impossible?

Resources: All the stuff in the "pretty pictures" was built by hand, without fossil fuels. Why was it possible to build Venice in the Middle Ages, but impossible because of resource limits to build places like that now? Furthermore, living in a city, especially a carfree Traditional City, cuts per capita energy use to about a third (or less) of the "Average American" rate without even trying. What if we did try? Or do solar water heaters and south-facing windows and high R-value insulation only work on subsistence farms? What is the EROEI for a city like Venice or Damascus that provides shelter, a place for trade and industry etc. and good living for thousands of years? Diverting resources currently tasked with propping up the old system and building new suburbs to building train-linked walkable Traditional Villages would actually save resources, thereby making more available. Those economic and physical resources are already accounted for, so it's not like getting started would require a sudden infusion of new resources and capital that wouldn't be spent otherwise.

Time: We have nothing but time. The ~80% of the people, for whom a Little House on the Prairie Doomstead Farm is not an option might as well do something other than lie around and wait for starvation to take them so those of you in the ~20% can get on with your Dark Age. Even in your own model, collapse to the Dark Ages will take centuries. That's a lot of time. How is "Build places that will still be awesome a thousand years from now" worse than "Let's conquer Saudi Arabia and Venezuela so we can keep Suburban Hell running for another 50 years"?

Political/Economic Will: I'll grant that this is the most difficult problem. The current political/monetary establishment can't see past BAU, and it will likely use its power to prevent the formation of alternatives to itself. This is the real problem, the one that sank the ecotechnic efforts of the 1970's. The Republicans had better marketing. IMO one of the things that gave Reaganism the edge was the note of optimism old Ronnie sounded.

If you want to guarantee a repeat of that defeat, only worse, just get all the people who "get" that BAU is not sustainable to repeat your chosen incantation. It's awful hard for "There Is No Brighter Future Ahead (So Let's Resign Ourselves to the Dark Ages Where Only Us Few Will Even Survive)" to compete for political will with "It's Morning in America." Do you really want the "political (and economic) will" to be following the prescriptions of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck as long as physically possible? I could see that if you have a new Dark Age as a goal rather than just thinking it's the most likely outcome.

This habit of trotting out visions of a lovely future, when we've long since flushed the opportunity to get there, is one of the least helpful forms of incantation in the peak oil scene just now.

Why? Even if we can't get there now, isn't going halfway in the right direction better than going the whole way in the wrong direction i.e. squandering what's left trying to prop up BAU until things go completely fecoventilatory? Even a relative handful of rail-linked Traditional Cities with renewable energy and ecotechnics could go a long way toward keeping the flame of civilization alive through a collapse of the current order.

The thing about political and economic will is that it's a matter of human decision-making, not physics. People will resist a collapse to the Dark Ages and a world population of maybe a half billion feudal serfs and lords. We do not have a world population of Stoics and Buddhist monks who will meditate quietly as the lights go out.

The question is how people will resist. Why not encourage people to resist in ways that will leave something worth having when the last oil well stops? I don't see how it can be a good thing to spread the incantation "There is no brighter future" and let the neo-Confederate Drill or Die cornpone Fascists have the monopoly on "Oh, yeah?"

I'm not trying to suggest that a transition would be easy, only that it's a better strategy than nothing* and lots better than resource wars and "Drill or Die!" Isn't it?

*That is, "nothing" for the people who don't have subsistence farms and for whom getting one isn't an option.

Kevin, I'm not talking about your chances of making something like that happen in the next four years. I'm talking about anyone's chances of making it happen in the next four hundred. I didn't criticize Red Neck Girl for her plans because they're realistic, while yours are not -- again, neither you nor anyone else will have the money, the resources, the time, or the political will to make that happen at any point along the curve of the Long Descent.

This is a rather startling claim. I know you are not suggesting that the present built environment will function or can be made to function for four hundred years (and thus there will be no motive to replace it), since your core argument is that the present order is going to collapse. You are claiming that no matter how much they need to, people will not be able to build Traditional Cities--which are "traditional" because they're what people built and lived in for more than ten thousand years, without needing a single drop of oil. Somehow, people will become literally too stupid to come in out of the rain--for four hundred years. What is going to cause this strange phenomenon?

Whenever a doom scenario requires that people inexplicably become much dumber than they actually are (as in the Y2K scenario, where people were supposed to stare slack-jawed at their crashed computers until--you guessed it--the Middle Ages came back) it's time to start doubting that scenario.

I know it's very easy to look at the current political/economic situation and decide that Other People Are Idiots, that you and a relative handful of like-minded friends are the only exceptions, and that therefore the only possible practical approach is for you and the anointed handful to build subsistence farms, raise goats, and watch the idiots stand around helplessly until they starve or the wolves get them.

I know you've never said as much, but that's what your Inevitable Doom scenario requires. That people literally forget how to build homes and cities and trains and wind turbines for four hundred years, and become utterly incapable of any effective response to their predicament not because of inevitable physics, but because they've been turned into dodo birds. Once the farmland is taken up by the Little Teeny Farmers, everyone else has no choice but to passively lay down and die. To actually suggest they take any sort of action is somehow, and in some unspecified way, daaangerous.

So why, exactly, is it harmful to project the vision I've laid out as preferable to Drill Baby Drill, followed by Mad Max, followed by The Road, followed by the Dark Ages, forever (a.k.a. the unspoken Republican Party Platform)?

As long as the proposed action isn't "Attack the Little Teeny Farms and take their goats!" what do you care? I would think that any proposed action that gives those people hope for survival and a future worth living in that doesn't involve sacking country doomsteads would be a good thing from your perspective. If the idiots-who-can't-come-in-out-of-the-rain are kept busy building Traditional Cities and trains and wind turbines, at least they're not forming bands of neo-Visigoths you and your kids will have to be fighting off all the time.

You and your commentators are in your Little Teeny Farm lifeboats rowing away from the Titanic, worrying about what the people still aboard might do, and apparently hoping they do nothing but drown. The only "danger" I can see to you and yours is that they might be able to plug the holes or get those big safety doors shut in time to limp the ship into harbor. If the ~80%+ of the people who can't become Amish-hippie subsistence farmers even if they wanted to do manage to create a sustainable version of modern society, with lively cities and trains and doctors and dentists and a standard of living that isn't medieval or worse, I suppose that would leave a lot of Little Teeny Subsistance Farmers feeling a bit foolish as they toil at their washboards waiting for the Dark Ages to arrive. Rather like the folks with garages full of beans and rice and ammo for the Computer Apocalypse must have felt on the morning of January 1, 2000, and the Mayan Calendar folks will feel by Christmas, 2012.

My suggestion: Don't take up neo-medieval Little Teeny Subsistence Farming unless...

A) You are so convinced that the Fall of Civilization is inevitable that you don't care what the doomed non-farmers do, so long as their actions don't directly threaten your farm or those of your family and friends;

B) You value the neo-medieval lifestyle for its own sake and would happily live that way even if cheap, safe nuclear fusion and Drexlerian molecular nanotechnology were invented tomorrow;**

C) You're growing a victory garden to help you and your family (and perhaps also your neighbors) get through the crisis, but you won't feel miserable if technological civilization survives in a new form.

Otherwise, you won't be happy on your farm, and you'll be bitter and resentful if the idiotic rabble who were supposed to stand around drooling until they tipped over and died actually start taking actions that can keep them alive and happy as members of an advanced civilization.

**Just to be clear, I'm not suggesting that such handwavium could be invented tomorrow, or that they are necessary to save civilization or that they are even possible.

KevinC - what you are suggesting would require that we tear down to the ground the accumulated infrastructure of nearly our entire human civilization and rebuild it from the basement up!

I'll tell you what - you get out a calculator and some reference materials and try your best to tally up what it would take in time, materials, energy and funding to do what you suggest to just your nearest city of any size. Then, you figure out what it would take to process all the debris and pollution generated by this rebuilding. Then you figure out who is going to pay for it. I think you will see my point long before you hit the final total button.

It simply isn't doable. As JMG says, you'd make better odds betting on pigs to fly.

Our current built environment is r-selected, built to get quick returns, not to last. It has to be continuously and expensively patched and propped up, and that requires lots of energy and resources that can be better spent. Look again at the link I cited above about the 12,000 road work projects underway. So, legacy built environment in the way: can it still be usable after oil?

Yes: Retrofit it as much as possible and muddle through.

No: Then it will have to be scavenged and replaced or abandoned anyway. The people leaving it are going to want someplace else to live. Look at any really ancient, long-inhabited city, like Jericho or Jerusalem. If you dig down, you can excavate layer after layer of versions of the city built one on top of another over thousands of years. Refurbishing, refitting, then ultimately scavenging, tearing down and rebuilding cities is the normal way it's done.

I live within a short drive from Taos Pueblo. This is a place that was built by hand, without a drop of fossil fuel, and has been maintained with hand tools for over a thousand years. That's sustainability. The people who live there are "poor" in balance-sheet terms, but they don't seem eager to leave.
It's urban-dense (walkable, no CARS), and it's cool enough that people drive long distances from other states so they can come see it. There's no reason something like it couldn't be scaled up to be a full-sized Traditional City with bath houses and restaurants and artisans and markets and a great night life.

[T]he very best that can be expected, given where we find ourselves now and what we will have to work with in the future (dwindling resources, dwindling finances, dwindling energy, dwindling political will as people will be concentrating more on survival and conjuring back BAU than on moving forward) is that a few groups in a few select places may be able to gather the resources required to build some of what you envision as the solution.

Just don't wait for the government to do it for you or to pay for much of it, because at this stage, keeping bloated governments running, keeping politicians and their corporate cronies well fed with food, power and money, and expanding empire's greedy reach is fast consuming the vast majority of the resources we have left to work with. (The scary part is, we're actually flat broke by any reasonable reckoning, but we're creating huge amounts of debt, waging wars of many kinds upon other nations and taking unreasonable risks with the environment so we can keep pretending we aren't.)

Given this, individuals and small groups of like-minded folks "muddling through" together (as discussed in previous posts) will almost assuredly accomplish the vast majority of what transition work actually gets done as we slide down the other side of the Peak, and most likely without much help - if any - from their respective governments.

I agree with you that a bottom-up approach starting on the smallest scale possible is the best way to go. I don't expect the Federal government to lead the way, and most state governments are insolvent. I think even one or a few Traditional Village projects built on the scale of the Alsatian village of Equisheim would go a long way toward creating demand for more such places.


Since Equisheim was built centuries ago without the assistance of fossil-fueled machinery, my WAG is that such a place could be built for about what it takes to make a suburb of McMansions, or less. The expense of longer-lasting materials would be offset by lower per-capita costs for water and sewage systems (due to higher density) and lower maintenance costs over the long term. Building a Pueblo-style Traditional Village would be even cheaper. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, "Privately-owned housing starts in May were at a seasonally adjusted annual rate of 593,000. This is 10.0 percent (±10.3%) below the 10.3%) revised April estimate of 659,000, but is 7.8 percent (±9.7%) above the May 2009 rate of 550,000," even in this crappy economy. That's a shitload of worse-than-useless suburbs--or to put it in a more hopeful light, about one full-scale Traditional City a year.

So, good luck and get to work! ;-)

Thank you!

Looks good: You get it built and I'll be there in a shot. Oh wait …. Sorry …. Were you suggesting that other people will build it for you if you ask nicely?

Well, cities and infrastructure are things that human beings have to build together as members of a civilization. I guess that's one of the appeals of the Little Teeny Farm: it's something you can do All By Yourself in true American rugged individualistic fashion. There's none of that messy sausage-making all cooperative endeavors require, no having to work together with all those useless Other People. At least not on a larger scale than a co-op between a handful of Little Teeny Subsistence Farmers.

I don't object to people deciding to get themselves a subsistence farm and start trying to learn how to breed, train, and use draft horses, etc.. Go for it! The problem is, the vast majority of people can't do that, period. Not. Physically. Possible. Seven billion people cannot become yeoman farmers plowing the fields behind their oxen any more than they can paint their skin fluorescent blue, move to the jungle and hunt for food with bows and arrows from the backs of Technicolor flying dinosaurs.

Neo-medieval subsistence farming is, at best, a strategy for the few. For the rest, some other approach is inescapably necessary. Even if it's really, really difficult and really, really expensive in an era of increasing energy scarcity. As long as it's not physically impossible (as in, "See this equation? You're doomed. Might as well take a cyanide pill."), an approach that would work if tried ought to be tried. So far, none of you have convinced me that Traditional Cities, linked with electric trains, powered by renewable energy, and enhanced by New Alchemist-style appropriate technology (living machines, rooftop greenhouses, solar water heaters, passive-solar heating, etc.) are physically impossible for people to construct in the years ahead. Even JMG never went beyond merely re-asserting the claim a couple times.

Hell, give it a crack, who knows, you might just be lucky enough to live in a time when people don't put their hands over their ears and chant LA LA LA at these suggestions. So I suggest you go for it. Make it happen. Who knows, you might just be the guy that gets lucky. And if it doesn't happen you can always say that you gave it a red hot go. There's no shame in failing that way.
I've gotta say though.... I don't think much of you're chances.

Maybe you're right. But for the people I'm talking about, the chance of survival as Little House on the Prarie re-enactors is exactly zero. Nonetheless, thank you for your support.

I have checked your profile links and I see you have written fairly copiously, so unlike myself any misunderstanding of your words is unlikely to be caused by careless or clumsy handed prose on your part.

Hmm, it seems that I might not have been clear enough in my post to the thread. I am not Nathan Lewis, the author of the website. I don't necessarily agree with all of the essays there, but I do agree with the gist of his views on city design.

I have analysed the content and the language of your comments to my own satisfaction and considered various alternative responses. Now your first question does seem to be requesting a point by point refutation of every one of of your steps as an proof that the type of systemic transformation you envision is beyond achievement. Thats a big ask, and I'm guessing that the reason you have never seen beyond this vision is that no one has been able to provide adequate refutation in everyday conversation. I wont even try because: a- none of your ideas are inherently without merit in and of themselves, and b- fish like me dont suck that type of bait.

So rather than specifically addressing point by point the pros and cons of the list of proposals associated with your first question, let me respond only to the rhetorical structure displayed in your comments as a whole and answer your second question.

Q) “Why is this sort of thing impossible?”
A) Because of society

Enjoy your bacon.

And this is, I think, the capstone in the arch of this whole discussion. Up 'till now, JMG has been presenting his collapse scenario as an inevitable result of physics. No high-density, low EROEI fossil fuels = return to the Middle Ages. Presented with the case for train-linked, renewable-powered, ecotechnically designed Traditional Cities as an alternative, he started talking about flying pigs and asserting that nobody has the resources, money, or time to do what they're already doing as we speak, but with better design.

"Society" as you're using the term is not a principle of physics. It is basically the activity of human consciousness (thoughts, beliefs, decisions, etc.) in the aggregate. Changing human consciousness is exactly what "Magic" as JMG defines it is most useful for. JMG's proposed incantation, "There Is No Brighter Future Ahead" would, if it catches on, guarantee misery and death for at least six and a half billion people and/or their descendants. Right up there with Global Thermonuclear Warfare in terms of tombstone count. That's a Grade-A Killing Curse right there!

But as all of you have basically admitted, the collapse to a new age of serfdom and squalor in the wake of an unprecedented degree of human misery and death is an option that "society" can choose--or not.

So here's my counterspell:


"Would you live in an apartment here if it meant you could use all the money you spend on your car for other things and never miss the road rage? Would you raise kids here if your other choice was to give them short lives of starvation and squalor? Would you give up your McMansion to live here, if it meant that your children and theirs and theirs and theirs would thank you for giving them this instead of a New Dark Age?"

More on the specifics of how to get there from here in future posts.


  1. Wandered over from the Archdruid to see what all the fuss was about. I'll say that what you're suggesting isn't terribly unreasonable to me and it doesn't diverge from my own extrapolations from JMG and others.

    To me it seems to come down to whether a neo-medieval lifestyle (cities as you describe, agriculture as others have suggested) will honestly provide a standard of living we consider modern and a "progressive culture", as you suggest. I'm not so certain that's a given; I personally suspect that a world of cheap energy makes for a "fairer" society than one without. Discounting the fact that the vast majority of the world does not even now enjoy either a modern standard of living or a progressive culture, without all the bells and whistles of modern life somebody has to get elbows deep in the daily work; dishes, laundry, fresh food regularly (no significant refrigeration, right?), plus all the rest of the things that the common folk have always had to do for themselves, up until World War 2 or so. That means that either a) the womenfolk stay home and make me a sammich and a few children to do the work or b) we do as the Romans and get us some unpaid labour or c) resign ourselves to the drudgery ourselves, which hardly leaves us in a modern lifestyle in the third case or a progressive culture in the first two.

    tl;dr? a. I dig your angle and don't have any serious problems with it on the whole.
    b. I do have reservations about having a society at all like the one we enjoy without our friend Cheap Oil.

  2. Welcome, Alchemyguy! I think we can retain a "modern but different" level of technology and standard of living using a basket of renewable energy sources, lifestyle changes (e.g. electric trains instead of Happy Motoring) and good design.

    Even a poorly-designed dense urban environment like Manhattan can lower per-capita energy use to about a third of the average American's. If we design and/or retrofit buildings to maximize energy efficiency while incorporating JMG's "Green Wizardry" into the designs and building out renewables to meet our reduced energy needs, I think we can create a sustainable society with the "energy services" that matter most.

    According to this graph from the Energy Information Administration, most of the Cheap Oil (71%)is going to the CARS CARS CARS--er, "transportation" sector. We are going to have to find a way to get around that doesn't involve cars, but I don't think that means it has to be horses. Walkable cities and villages (replacing transport with proximity) plus electric trains, and heck, maybe solar/biodiesel zeppelins (I don't have figures on the zeppelins, but it'd be cool if they'd work...) would solve 71% of the oil scarcity problem with proven technology (apart from the zeppelins, of course).

    We've got about 100 years or so before the oil actually runs out. That's the time it took to go from a mostly muscle-powered horse-and-buggy society and a built environment that supported it to the current car society/built environment. 100 years is also a long time in terms of research and development. I think a transition to a sustainable, advanced world is quite doable.

  3. Okay, that was a really fascinating bit of reading. Offhand, I'm not seeing any reason why it couldn't be done - though I agree that it would be quite a fight to move people out of Business As Usual, especially in the early stages when it isn't as obvious that BAU isn't sustainable.

  4. I think you've hit the nail on the head: JMG's vision of the future, which he sells as some sort of inevitable law of physics, is in fact a complete fantasy. Actually, in JMG's future of collapse, the result would be Traditional Cities in any case, because NO civilization on earth sophisticated enough to build permanent buildings has built them evenly spread out across the landscape. ("Civilization" is pretty much defined as the ability to build cities.)