John Michael Greer walks his talk. He moved from Ashland, Oregon, to Cumberland, Maryland, based on his view of the future. While this may seem odd for a guy who is quite unconventional, his reasoning makes sense, given his assumptions. Read his essay on the move East at the link below (check out the great comments). I've included an excerpt below.
By the way – if his view of the future is on the mark – this is good news for the people who live in cities and towns that have been devastated by the transfer of jobs to lower-wage countries. Maybe my hometown of Martinsville, VA, will start to rebound!
Note: Greer has begun laying the groundwork for a nonprofit organization, The Cultural Conservers Foundation, aimed at preserving the legacies of the past and present into the future.
America is learning the hard way, as Britain did a century ago and Spain a century and a half before that, that the sheer economic burden of maintaining a global military presence is quite capable of pushing even the richest nation into bankruptcy. The Asian industrial powers that once churned out consumer goods for American stores are calmly retooling, using the billions we send them each year, to produce goods to meet the desires of their own newly prosperous people. Meanwhile the age of cheap abundant energy that made 20th century-style globalism possible in the first place is coming to an end around us. The economic model that built California’s past prosperity, in other words, is done enough to poke with a fork.
As far as I can tell, very few people on the west coast – or anywhere else – have begun to think through the implications of that troubling fact. I wonder, for example, how many states within driving range of California have drawn up plans to deal with the massive influx of economic refugees that will likely follow once California’s relatively lavish entitlement programs are slashed to the bone or shut down completely. I wonder whether any of the other west coast states, for that matter, have faced up to the possibility that the import-driven gravy train they’ve been riding for the last half century may just have run off the rails. If that’s the case – if Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland and Seattle play the same role in coming decades that towns such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Buffalo and Gary played in the recent past – some of the most basic assumptions of American social geography are headed for the dumpster.
Sussing out the geography of the future in advance is no easy task, but the constraints bearing down on what’s left of the American economy offer a few hints worth noting. Now that we’re on the downslope of Hubbert’s peak – world production of conventional petroleum peaked in 2005 – energy costs will, on average, take a larger bite out of economies around the world with each passing year. One of the implications is that transport costs will no longer be a negligible part of the cost of goods shipped over long distances. More energy-efficient transport modalities will tend to replace less efficient ones because they, and thus the goods they ship, will be more affordable; equally, diseconomies of distance will tend to outweigh economies of scale and foster the reemergence of regional economies. Among the likely beneficiaries of these changes are the towns that thrived best in an earlier, more regional economy — those that are well served by rail and water transport, surrounded by farming regions that don’t depend on irrigation, not too far from major markets, and provided with ample and inexpensive real estate for the factories and warehouses of a downscaled and relocalizing industrial economy.
Charles Hugh Smith questions the whether gold is the best way to store wealth in the coming "Great Transformation", when oil becomes very scarce. (I remember how valuable gasoline was in the movie Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior). He suggests that having a convenient supply of energy and food are the most valuable sources of wealth in very hard times. Excerpts below.
If we understand that "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy, then we reach another understanding of "the problem" and thus of the "solution."
Let's say that the fragile supply chain of remaining oil breaks down in a complex interaction of positive feedback loops. Oil would not just be costly; it would be unavailable to individuals. The government would undoubtedly ration what was left for essential services like agriculture, food distribution, police and hospitals, etc.
Let's say we anticipated this and responded not by hoarding gold but by buying a 100 KWhr/day solar power array, productive land in a mild climate, a store of fertilizer and a few electric vehicles to share with our family/community. We own zero gold but we own a power supply, the means to grow food and transportation that does not require petroleum.
Now would we sell these productive assets for gold? At what price, if they were essentially irreplaceable? What would we do with our pile of gold if we can't go anywhere, can't grow food and have no power source?
The holder of gold assumes that all goods can be purchased with a means of exchange holding a tangible value, i.e. gold or an equivalent commodity. But this may not be entirely true. Yes, we will sell some of our power/energy output for gold, but we will not sell our "wealth" i.e. the power plant for gold, which may or may not be able to buy a replacement. As a store of wealth, gold is no match for a productive source of energy.
The reason is "money" as a store of wealth is simply stored energy. From this point of view, fertilizer is stored energy. You may or may not be able to exchange "money" in any form for stored energy, for "wealth" is either stored energy or the capacity to generate energy sustainably. Everything else is merely a means of exchange.
Will gold hold more value as a means of exchange than paper money? If history is any guide, yes—but that's a different "problem" than building or storing wealth.
There are many other examples of "problems" whose solutions may well completely fail to address the structural challenges we face.
These forests now face their greatest threat in a century.
Reflecting a nearly 50% nationwide increase in wind electricity plants in 2007, developers are arriving in what they themselves called “a gold rush” at a recent industry conference. There, a wind map ranked thin red currents along the highest Appalachian ridges as just possibly strong enough to power turbines for massive industrial wind installations.
Glossy ads for wind power always show turbines in open fields, never in forests. That’s because every turbine requires up to five acres of deforestation. Hundreds of turbines are being built here, burgeoning to tens of thousands if the U.S. Department of Energy indiscriminately pursues its “20% Wind Energy By 2030″ program. Do the math, and factor in the forest fragmentation that multiplies the loss of habitat, and the super-wide new roads that destroy the last remote, wild ridges.
Slender, rocky ridges are blasted and bulldozed to flatten pads for turbines. Each pad requires hundreds of tons of concrete. After the 25 year life span of the huge machines, the pads remain as dead ground but possibly good tennis courts in a summer camp for giants in the future.
Deforestation is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions after fossil fuel burning. The rest of the world agreed at the recent U.N. climate summit to protect maturing forests that sequester huge amounts of carbon dioxide — like those now healing from old abuse in the Southern Appalachians. In Transition to Green, the 400 pages of nature tips sent you by a coalition of environmental organizations, the first recommendation for the U.S. Department of Agriculture is to “manage the national forest system to secure climate benefits.”
Industrial wind will blow this opportunity away.
It’s already blowing away a lot of wildlife. Turbine blades reach 450 feet above ridge crests where songbirds migrate, bats feed, and eagles rise on thermals. Just across the state line in West Virginia, thousands of creatures are being killed every year at new wind plants, the highest kills ever documented worldwide from turbines. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service strongly recommends against turbines on nearby Shenandoah Mountain due to the likelihood of killing endangered species, yet several projects are underway.
Some of the people living near turbines suffer from chronic sleeplessness and other symptoms of Wind Turbine Syndrome (including depression over loss of property values).
Death, destruction and insomnia are marketed to urban consumers as “green” electricity, what little there is of it. Turbines produce only about 30% or less of their maximum rated capacity, and some of that is lost along hundreds of miles of transmission lines. When the wind does blow, the aging lines can hardly handle the surge.
Janaia at Peak Moment Conversations interviews one of my favorite bloggers and thinkers, John Michael Greer. He's articulate and informed – be ready to learn and smile. You can read his essays at The Archdruid Report.
In his book, The Long Descent, John Michael Greer observes that our culture has two primary stories: “Infinite Progress” or “Catastrophe”. On the contrary, he sees history as cyclic: civilizations rise and fall. Like others, ours is exhausting its resource base. Cheap energy is over. Decline is here, but the descent will be a long one. It’s too late to maintain the status quo by swapping energy sources. How to deal with this predicament? He lays out practical ideas, possibilities, and potentials, including reconnecting with natural and human capacities pushed aside by industrial life.
John Micheal Greer describes how some science fiction writers explore the future, sometimes with surprising accuracy. He says that some writers picturing the post peak oil landscape are producing peak oil fiction that could be useful for people who want to prepare for a very different world. Excerpts below.
Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret, the hugely successful pop spirituality phenomenon of two years ago, was exactly such a rehash of forgotten commonplaces; its promoters correctly guessed that ideas that appealed to the public during the boomtime of the 1920s, no matter how dubious those ideas were, would be just as popular during the late housing bubble. No doubt they’re sorting through the rather different self-improvement literature of the 1930s in search of a bestseller for the decade ahead of us.
The interesting thing is that there were thinkers busy during these same decades whose visions ended up having a huge and enduring impact on the way the entire Western world thinks about the future. These visionaries weren’t to be found in the ivory towers of academe or any of the other prestigious places where people, then and now, expect great minds to be found; they didn’t even have the cachet of romantically starving to death in garrets. Most of them could be found in ordinary urban apartments and homes, hunched over clattering manual typewriters, as they fed a couple of dozen cheap gaudy magazines with science fiction stories.
…serious literature rarely has a major impact on society. Its readership is too small and too well educated to slip into the uncritical enthusiasm that shapes the imagination of an age. Most often it turns out to be the popular literature, the reading material of housewives, factory workers, and schoolchildren, that reaches into the crawlspaces of culture where the future takes shape. By shedding literary credentials and wrapping itself in the gaudy finery of the pulp magazines, science fiction worked its way into the collective imagination of the modern world.
…science fiction in its pulp days transformed itself from a somewhat esoteric literary genre to a folk mythology that still shapes most of our thinking about the future today. Onto the blank screen of infinite space, as a result, the modern imagination projects all the dreams, fantasies and fears other cultures assign to more obviously metaphysical realms. Many of the essays I’ve posted on this blog have focused on disputing assumptions about the future that root straight back into the science fiction of the pulp era.
What makes this all the more interesting is that the grand future shared in common by most science fiction from the pulp era straight through to the 1970s – the leap upward from Earth to the first colonies on the Moon and Mars, the expansion through the solar system, the inevitable arrival of interstellar flight, and the panorama of star federations and galactic empires to follow – has lost nearly all the conviction that once made it look like the inevitable shape of things to come. It had its day, and accomplished certain things in that time; without Jules Verne and his many successors, human footprints probably would never have been left on the Moon, but its day is over now. Those who still cling to the old hope today – I am thinking of Ray Kurzweil and the Extropians here – have been reduced to wrapping Protestant eschatology in the borrowed garments of science fiction; rapture into heaven followed by immortality is a religious concept even when the god who is expected to provide it is named Technology. It’s a measure of this loss of faith that the publication of science fiction novels in the English-speaking world, at least, has declined steadily since the late 1980s and now amounts to only a few hundred titles a year.
In this light it’s interesting to note that the impact of peak oil on the future of the industrial world has begun to be explored using the toolkit of fiction. James Howard Kunstler’s World Made By Hand is the example most people in the peak oil scene know about, and deservedly so; it’s a rousing, readable tale that borrows from familiar genres (notably the Western) to portray the aftermath of the petroleum age in accessible terms. More experimental and, to my taste, even more interesting is Caryl Johnson’s self-published “essay-novel” After The Crash, which weaves together a tale about the writing of a narrative history of the end of the Hydrocarbon Age in post-Crash Philadelphia with social criticism directed at the present and speculation about the future.
…Just as science fiction enabled people to get their heads around such improbable realities as moon landings decades in advance, peak oil fiction could make it easier for people today to make sense of the approaching changes in our own world.
The US could replace all its cars and trucks with electric cars powered by wind turbines taking up less than 3 square kilometres – in theory, at least. That's the conclusion of a detailed study ranking 11 types of non-fossil fuels according to their total ecological footprint and their benefit to human health.
The study, carried out by Mark Jacobsonof the atmosphere and energy programme at Stanford University, found wind power to be by far the most desirable source of energy. Biofuels from corn and plant waste came right at the bottom of the list, along with nuclear power and "clean" coal.
The energy sources that Jacobson found most promising were, in descending order:
• Concentrated solar power (mirrors heating a tower of water)
• Geothermal energy
• Tidal energy
• Solar panels
• Wave energy
• Hydroelectric dams
To compare the fuels, Jacobson calculated the impacts each would have if it alone powered the entire US fleet of cars and trucks.
He considered not just the quantities of greenhouse gases that would be emitted, but also the impact the fuels would have on the ecosystem – taking up land and polluting water, for instance. Also considered were the fuel's impact on pollution and therefore human health, the availability of necessary resources, and the energy form's reliability.
"The energy alternatives that are good are not the ones that people have been talking about the most," says Jacobson.
"Some options that have been proposed are just downright awful," he says. "Ethanol-based biofuels will actually cause more harm to human health, wildlife, water supply, and land use than current fossil fuels."
…The end of the age of cheap energy has many implications, but one of the most important – and most daunting – is that it marks the end of the road for nearly all the cultural trends that have guided the industrial world since the paired industrial and political revolutions of the eighteenth century. Those trends pursued greater size, greater speed, greater power; the replacement of human capacities with ever more intricate machines, demanding ever more abundant energy and resource inputs; an escape from the interdependence of living nature into an artificial world transparent to the human mind and obedient to the human will.
That way to the future is no longer open. The nations of the industrial world could pursue it as far as they did only because abundant reserves of fossil fuels and other natural resources were available to power Faustian culture along its trajectory. The waning of those reserves and, more broadly, the collision between the pursuit of unlimited economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, marks the end of those dreams. It may also mark the beginning of a time in which we can sort through the results of the last three centuries, discard the ones that worked poorly or demand conditions that no longer exist, and keep what still has value.
One useful way to talk about this process, it seems to me, is to borrow a common habit of talking about history and put it to work in a new way. Not that long ago it was common to describe the medieval period in the Western world as the Age of Faith, and to contrast it smugly with an Age of Reason that was held to have dawned with the first stirrings of the scientific revolution, and come into its own with the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century. Oversimplified though these categories are, they point up certain important distinctions between the phases of our cultural trajectory that were primarily guided by religious thought and those guided by the expansive Enlightenment belief in the limitless power of human reason.
That latter belief is on its last legs just now, because the effort to direct human behavior solely according to reason simply didn’t live up to its advance billing; the inevitable reaction is following. Thus the faith that unchecked rationality is a ticket to Utopia, or the only hope of the human future, or whatever other set of religious ideas might be assigned to it, is wearing very thin these days, and the decline of today’s technological infrastructure in the wake of peak oil may just put paid to it. Reason will doubtless retain an active role in our collective life, just as faith has done, but other forces will likely take the lead in the decades and centuries ahead of us.
Thus it may not be inappropriate to suggest that in a very real sense, the Age of Reason is ending. If Spengler is right, what will follow it is an Age of Memory, where the collective imagination of the West turns back to contemplate its own past and extract the most useful elements from a thousand years of innovation. The cultural conserver concept, which I introduced in an earlier post here, represents one workable response to that possibility. I plan on discussing that in more detail, and in more practical terms, in the weeks and months ahead – subject to the usual interruptions, of course.
TVA Coal Ash Disaster – December 22, 2008 - CBS News
CNN — A wall holding back 80 acres of sludge from a coal plant in central Tennessee broke this week, spilling more than 500 million gallons of waste into the surrounding area.
Environmental Protection Agency officials are on the scene and expect the cleanup to to take four to six weeks.
The sludge, a byproduct of ash from coal combustion, was contained at a retention site at the Tennessee Valley Authority's power plant in Kingston, about 40 miles east of Knoxville, agency officials said.
The retention wall breached early Monday, sending the sludge downhill and damaging 15 homes. All the residents were evacuated, and three homes were deemed uninhabitable, a TVA spokesman told CNN.
The plant sits on a tributary of the Tennessee River called the Clinch River.
"We deeply regret that a retention wall for ash containment at our Kingston Fossil Plant failed, resulting in an ash slide and damage to nearby homes," TVA said in a statement released Tuesday.
TVA spokesman Gil Francis told CNN that up to 400 acres of land had been coated by the sludge, a bigger area than the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill.
Video footage showed sludge as high as 6 feet, burying porches and garage doors. The slide also downed nearby power lines, though the TVA said power had been restored to the area.
John Michael Greer describes the difficulty of planning a society without cheap energy supplies. Excerpts below.
The bottom line: Unless we have a technological breakthrough that provides cheap energy without polluting, the post-industrial society of the future will look very different than an extension of today's world.
There are two widely held beliefs these days about how we can deal with the end of the age of petroleum. The first claims that we simply need to find another energy source as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum, and run our society on that instead. The second claims that we simply need to replace those parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy with others that lack that dependence, and run our society with them instead. Most people in the peak oil scene, I think, have caught onto the problem with the first belief: there is no other energy source available to us that is as cheap, abundant, and concentrated as petroleum; the fact that we want one does not oblige the universe to provide us with one, and so we might as well plan to power our society by harnessing unicorns to treadmills.
The problem with the second belief is of the same order, but it’s much less widely recognized. Toss aside the parts of our society that depend on cheap, abundant, concentrated energy, and there’s nothing left. Nor are the components needed for a new low-energy society sitting on a shelf somewhere, waiting to be used; we’ve got some things that worked tolerably well in simpler agrarian societies, and some promising new developments that have been tested on a very small scale and seem to work so far, but we have nothing like a complete kit. Thus we can’t simply swap out a few parts and keep going; everything has to change, and we have no way of knowing in advance what changes will be required.
The core fact of the matter, after all, is that what we are trying to invent here – a society that can support some approximation of modern technology on a sustainable basis – has never existed on Earth. We have no working models to go by; all we have, again, is a mix of agrarian practices that seem to have been sustainable, on the one hand, and some experiments that seem to be working so far on a very small scale, on the other. Our job is to piece something together using these, and other things that don’t exist yet, to cope with future challenges we can only foresee in the most general terms.