What is a Sustainable Living Situation for Future Humans? Part 2

Two days ago, I put up Part 1 of this post by George Mobus, and this is Part 2. You will remember that George is looking forward to some time in the future. At that time, there seem to be a much smaller number of people on earth. In Part 1, George tells us how generally he sees a sustainable living pattern–in communities of about 500 people, located in areas where the climate is favorable, and that soils are favorable, and there is a diversity of plant and animal life. His base case is a low tech society. In this segment, he tells us more about how he would envision such a new society to be organized. His original post on Question Everything can be found here.

The Layout

This figure summarizes some of the above considerations for the conditions needed to support a small society sustainably. It represents what amounts to necessary and sufficient conditions for life that provides opportunities for all members of the community to achieve self-actualization (and meet all of the lower needs) and is sustainable for an indefinite period (until the environment shifts so badly as to make life difficult or invaders arrive).


That is, life will be sustainable as long as the population is maintained at the relatively constant average of, say, 500 individuals. This is the most difficult condition. We humans, as constituted, are not very good at exercising controls over our sexual and, hence, reproductive urges. And unless we were to learn to do so, this potential for long-term sustainability will remain elusive.

Primitive (but more “advanced”) Technologies

By primitive I mean that the principles come from very ancient times. That does not mean that the technologies have to be primitive in form, they may be updated in realization based on our more advanced knowledge. For example, I indicate in the figure that there is a built reservoir of water by assuming that a dam structure has been built downstream from a more elevated watershed. We know a lot about effective dam building these days. We also know how to use materials more effectively. I suspect that a very effective dam could be built to contain a reservoir of water for many purposes, including running water in the homes and “factories”, perhaps even flushing toilets!

One of the earliest technologies of agriculture was water management, not just the irrigation canals themselves, but the organization of how they should be laid out, constructed, and maintained. Management is a form of technology, knowledge as technology. We know a lot about what needs to be done and how to do it, even without fossil fuels. Much of this knowledge is currently being implemented in developing countries to boost agricultural output.

Similarly we know a huge amount today about how to design a village of living quarters, shops, factories, and schools — a village. We can borrow a lot from many European and Asian villages. But we know a great deal today about sanitation and public health that could help develop livable communities near enough to all resources that transportation could be accomplished with animal and human resources alone. We know a tremendous amount about building construction and thermodynamics to produce optimal structures from local building materials as long as we are modest in our desires.

Regarding factories, the models are the early 19th century blacksmith shops and weaving factories (with a potter’s wheel thrown in for good measure). It is altogether likely that most of our material goods will need to be manufactured locally from locally obtained raw materials. The situation for blacksmithing is problematic. Where will the metals come from?

Metal is a problem. It is highly unlikely that every tribe will have access to metal ores. It is even unlikely that any tribe will! Therefore, I assume that a certain quantity of metal has been imported at the start from scavenges of metal products left over from our current metal-rich civilization. Metal is not verboten in the base case. But it must be recognized that whatever metal is available to a tribe at the outset pretty much constitutes its total allotment and must be recycled assiduously (more on this later).

The picture I am trying to develop here is one of a civilization not unlike some of our ancestral ones, before fossil fuels, but with the advantage of knowledge (both scientific and practical) that we have developed since those societies existed. We (in the US) may live like our pre-Columbian predecessors (I claim a 1/100 ancestry of Native American blood!) but with a lot of advantages of hard-won scientific knowledge. For example we know about climate shifts and their consequences. We know about soil health and how to maintain it. We know about metals and the principle of leverage in machines. Take the best of the Native American cultures, the pre-Industrial Revolution European cultures, the Asian cultures of wisdom, the ancient civilizations of the Mid-East, etc. and combine them along with modern scientific understanding and you have a formula for good living, in my opinion.

Those people were not unhappy! They may have been unsatisfied in some regards. They were constantly challenged by all sorts of factors from invaders to climate changes. But they lived. They were productive. Were it otherwise we would not be here. We need to learn from their experiences and shape our future based on their successes along with the reality of energy flow declines in our world.

The real trick is to find a satisfying existence with knowledge of what is possible, what is feasible, and what is good for us in the long run. That, unfortunately is a real trick because the majority of humans today are incompetent when it comes to good judgements (see my series on sapience, Series Index, to get my thoughts on why this is so). Ergo, the kind of living situation I have been describing is not necessarily available to the average human today. Ah well, that is perhaps left to a future blog post.

In Harmony With the Ecos

The key will be understanding the Ecos as a system and our place in it. This is not easy. We have a heritage of belief that we humans have somehow transcended ordinary physics and biology. This is deeply engrained within our psyches and so it won’t be easy to expunge. But it is essential to do so for there to be any future for something we would recognize as humanity.

How should we think about so-called “advanced technology” and its role in our societies in post-fossil fuel powering of our future? Consider the village described above. What would it take to support something like hydroelectric power? Clearly, if the society in this scenario has built a dam they have the potential to include hydroelectric generation. Say, for example, that such a community, before the rest of civilization broke down, had the presence of mind to install a small hydro-driven turbine and generator. Then after civilization collapsed how would they maintain the generator and replace it when it finally gave up the ghost? They would have to have some capacity for metallurgy, for shaping and forming metals, for constructing other electric components, etc. A blacksmith shop is not going to fill the bill.

This raises the main problem with keeping an extrasomatic technology going after fossil fuels are no longer available. Rebuilding a hydro-turbine and generator (not to mention the general infrastructure for distribution) at some future time is not a trivial problem. We might be able to preserve the knowledge of how to do it, but keeping the capabilities for doing so is another thing. Such capabilities will require maintaining metallurgics that are, themselves, complex and need dedicated skills and facilities. What are the possibilities for having more advanced technologies?


Here we meet the real conundrum for humanity. We have defined ourselves in terms of our capacity to solve problems with ever increasing technologies. For the majority of our existence this has been our experience and has come to represent our deepest beliefs about ourselves. Unfortunately, this belief is based on something entirely different from our cleverness at the root. We have been the unsuspecting recipients of the benefits of the increasing flow of high powered energy from fossil fuels. We are beneficiaries of expanding energy flow, not from some magical ability to conquer the universe with cleverness. But being basically self-indulgent beings, we told ourselves the story of progress based on our own superior intelligence. We were kind of dumb as it turns out.

What technology is possible with no real extrasomatic energies than water power and solar energy? That is a real problem for us. Suppose we were to introduce wind power into our model community. Suppose that we install wind turbines that can take advantage of the prevailing winds (see figure). Suppose we install electricity distribution infrastructure (based on DC current to be very efficient). How will our community produce the needed materials for repairs of those generators (and turbines)? More importantly, how will they provide for replacements? That is the crux of technological capabilities. It requires energy flux to support maintenance and replacement. If our model society were to install a hydroelectric generator how would it maintain and replace it when the time came, as it would? The support for technology requires high powered energy flows. That is what we have enjoyed for most of humanity’s experience. But that is not what we are going to have in the near future.

Preserving Knowledge

The fact that it might be impossible for future societies as conceived above to actually take advantage of technology as it has been developed by modern high-energy society doesn’t mean that such technological knowledge is worthless for all time. In fact, one of the critical purposes of society after the decline and loss of fossil fuels will be to preserve knowledge of what is possible with high through-put energy fluxes. We have fought hard to acquire this knowledge and I don’t want to believe it was in vain.

The world of humanity is a history of advancement and decline. Golden ages followed by Dark Ages in which some seed of enlightenment was preserved by diligence. I hope the future will have that same characteristic. Those of us who see what needs to be done in terms of preserving some kind of civilized culture (even if not high tech in nature) have a duty to future generations of what I think will be a more sapient form of humanity. We need to transmit knowledge that was gained by our kind. Even if life seemingly devolves to more primitive social forms we need to fulfill the role of the monks in the Dark Ages, faithfully copying the understanding of this age to some future eusapient generation able to pick up where we left off, but without the weaknesses that we have displayed. Let’s prepare and hope.

More Complex Societies and the Future of Mankind

It is nearly certain that the time of complex societies is at an end, at least for a long time into the future. Until there is some form of energy flux that can replace fossil fuels in such a way as to replace the high power and support a technologially advanced civilization again, I think we should have the wisdom to accept simpler and more sustainable societies along the lines described above. It is possible that if humans can achieve a more eusapient future and survive the coming challenges, then we might yet produce a high technology civiilization, complete with travel to space and the stars and all the dreams that we have given voice to over tha last milenium. There is nothing wrong with those dreams. The only problem is with our eagerness to achieve them and the consequent loss of understanding of what it takes to do so. There are energies that we, as a species, have yet to tap into. The universe is still full of promise. But all things in their own time and ways. It is not yet our genus’ time. We have lessons yet to learn. If we succeed the future species evolved from our seed may yet reach the stars.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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20 Responses to What is a Sustainable Living Situation for Future Humans? Part 2

  1. kyani sunset says:

    I no longer prepare food or drink with more than one ingredient.

  2. Paul says:

    I think the social unit that you sketch is too small to be viable. I already have remarked that the ancient Greek city was much larger than 500 souls. These cities were successful
    for many centuries. And were capable of sustaining many highly specialized roles for various members of society.

    Here I suggest that sustainable civilization requires a sustainable genome. Somehow these building bricks of 500 souls must be worked into a larger social structure that support a much larger effective breeding population size or else there will develop local genetic disorders. There is some worry about the Amish population having accumulated genetic defects. They number several hundreds of thousands. Various megafauna in Africa are considered to be endangered when their numbers fall to values
    that are still much larger than 500. I would say we are at the bottom of the size range that qualifies as being megafauna, and that the reasoning that applies to magafauna also applies to us.

    On the future of our technology: With many thousands of 500-soul units existing, there can be some specialization of economic activity and some trade in high value products.
    I can imagine a high tech center using electric power for energy intensive activity being maintained where there is a hydro power resource, for instance, at Niagra Falls.
    Note, I’m not suggesting that trade and specialization must exist, only that a population large enough to support them must exist in order to support a sustainable genome.

    I have no good ideas as to how large the breeding population needs to be, but I guess — surely much smaller that current 6 plus billion, but larger than 500

  3. Arthur Robey says:

    I shall have to remember the words that I typed yesterday as the sequence of publishing was incorrect and my opinions disappeared into cyberspace.
    However I hold to them strongly and so will recreate them from memory.

    You see, the only way is up.

    We are creatures of flatland. We live in two dimensional space. We apportion space on the surface of this two dimensional world we live on. Geographers study spatial distribution. If we are to thrive it is imperative that we recognise the third dimension.


    There are some who would accuse me of techno-triumphalism.
    But I counter with”Is that not our Human suite? Do we have any other strengths? Are we fleet of foot or have the strength of a bear?” What we have is technology.

    Others say that the distances between objects in the Universe are so vast that they become impassable.
    But we crave Lebensraum. And lebensraum has been provided in infinite abundance.
    The magnitude of our inheritance is boundless. Superlatives lose all meaning when one looks up.

    Yet others say that it is all too hard.
    It is not as hard as what awaits us if we do not sever the umbilical cord. I assume that you have all done the The Crash Course or have read Limits to Growth and so I will not labour the issue other than to mention href=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hM1x4Rljmn”>Exponential growth and population of 6.7 billion.

    Whoever colonises L1 and L2 will be the gate keeper to the Universe. Once they are in position all access to deep space will be by invitation only.

    Because the reluctance of the humans to understand these self evident truths intrigued me, I investigated further. I found in this great work (The Master and His Emissary) a fundamental flaw with our brains. It is only when reality hits home does our flawed brain register it’s existence.
    As an example among many when the Wright Brothers flew, it was not reported in the News for some time as everyone “knew” that heavier than air flight was impossible.
    As a consequence All progress is made by people who dance along the precipice of madness and whose rich internal life conflicts with reality as seen by the flawed general population.

    Those who wish to be exposed to the truth of our two brains are invited to see Jill Bolte Taylor speak on TED.

    Friends, once we have grasped the reality of the third dimension and are comfortably ensconced in Deep Space, all doubt will evaporate and it will become self-evident why we did it.

    We cling to this planet as a child clings to his security blanket.
    Time to let go.

  4. Arthur Robey says:

    Our world is finite if you look down and see things two dimensionally.
    This is what Geographers do. They do spatial analysis in two dimensions.

    However, if you look up (http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/)
    You will see a million galaxies, each with millions of stars. All superlatives lose their meaning when contemplating the vastness of the cosmos.
    And if you are still not satisfied with our wealth, we have found evidence of a sister cosmos that is a bubble sitting against ours in the Cosmic Background Radiation.

    What we have is a failure of nerve. The Oil Age has made us complacent. I do believe that the coming days will shake us out of our complacency. I think that circumstances will be sever enough to traumatise all of humanity.

    But, you might argue, this is all triumphalism. Technology progresses. Here we have a new chemical that has potential as a revolutionary rocket fuel.
    It is called Trinitramid.

    But, you might grizzle, these stars are so remote as to be inaccessible.
    I reply “This is great. There is just so much real-estate out there. ”
    You see, once we have made ourselves comfortable in zero gravity, we will consider it an act of madness to want to live at the bottom of a gravity well.

    Now whether you agree with me or not is of no consequence. These decisions will be made by whoever replaces us.

    We either make it, or we don’t.


  5. krishnajaya says:

    I live in a relatively unpopulated area of northern California and belong to a local organization that advocates for non-motorized trails in our county. On a the agenda of an upcoming committee meeting was a bullet for “long-range vision.” I typed up a page of stuff in preparation and offer it here in case it might be of interest. It is not as “long-range” as yours, George, but still, for what it’s worth…

    “Five years ago, a friend emailed me a promotion for a book that was about to be published by Jim Kunstler called The Long Emergency. It piqued my interest so I ordered the book which introduced me to what is known as “peak oil.” At that time, world-wide conventional crude oil production had been increasing year by year, but Kunstler argued that this was soon to change. During the past five years, conventional crude production has reached a plateau, never crossing the seventy-five million barrel a day barrier. When prices reached $147 a barrel in the summer of 2008, all of the oil-producing countries were operating at full capacity and were therefore unable to bring the price down by flooding the market with more product.

    As production in huge oil fields like Cantarell in Mexico, Ghawar in Saudi Arabia, the North Sea, and the Alaska North Slope declines, new discoveries are unable to do more than break even, maintaining the production plateau. China’s appetite for oil grows, while many of the exporting countries are using more and more of their oil for their own uses. All of this spells trouble for us unless we more urgently implement strategies to prepare for the time in which petroleum will be downright scarce.

    Strategies must include the idea that survival will depend upon the ability of communities like those in Humboldt County to become more self-sufficient. We have the luxury of bordering the ocean which will allow sea-traffic to play a role, but there will be much less truck traffic. A refurbished rail system would certainly help, but there will be a strong thrust to grow more food locally and to provide other services locally if our community is to become more self-sustaining.

    The Trails Trust in general and the Steward Program as a particular component will play important roles in the new local economy. The labor required to construct and maintain regional and local trails will keep a lot of people busy. In this vision, the barter system will play an increasingly large role in the exchange of goods and services. There will be food producers, health care providers, first responders, infrastructure workers (including Trails Trusters), craft people (both of artistic and practical bents, i.e. everything from entertainers and artists of all stripes to carpenters, contractors, handy-persons and the like), and other providers of goods and services who will all work together to make things happen in an integrated way. We are going to lose our federal and state safety nets, because of their essentially bankrupt status so we will have to turn to each other to survive. Even if this is an unrealistically pessimistic view of the state of affairs, it wouldn’t hurt to proceed…just in case.

    In this vision, what will initially be a group of volunteers to construct (as in Cooper Gulch), maintain and watch over our trails, will be transformed in the years ahead into a force that, by being responsible essentially for transportation flows in the county, will no longer be volunteers but rather cogs in the machine that ensure our community’s sustainability and will be compensated, just like the other cogs, not in dollars, but in food, health care, entertainment, and so on.”

  6. DavidB says:

    I agree with Gail, in that the population will self level fairly quickly when certain manufactured drugs and chemicals such as insulin, thyroxine, antibiotics etc, become more difficult to access. Our longevity into our 80’s and 90’s is unfortunately fossil fuel derived, and can only go backwards when fossil fuels get expensive.

    Speaking more on the what George has outlined, I think ‘Preserving Knowledge’ is a key area that we as individuals can work on. Indeed I think I’m right in saying that John Michael Greer’s Green Wizard concept is a call, to preserve, that lower level knowledge which our grandparents used on a daily basis to make things, cook things, grow things, and fix things. Often, this is the kind of knowledge that we now find in second-hand books that tell us (with suitable diagrams) how to make a crystal radio set, and in following pages outline the anatomy of a chicken.

    Such books usually have pages that are yellow edged and have a smoky, musty smell like an old library. These books are quirky and quaint in an iPad age. But they were a valuable source of ‘How to’ in a previous age. Such ‘How to’ information will likely become very valuable again in an age of limited fossil fuel.

    Finally, in the process of preserving knowledge, let’s not forget that some very valuable knowledge has been acquired during the great fossil fuel ‘sugar rush’. Such things as DNA, quantum physics etc. We may indeed discover that we must travel backwards in time to find sustainable lives. But, we now know the earth is not flat, so let’s do everything we can to resist a wholesale reversal of our hard earned understanding and culture.

    Best wishes


    • Joe Clarkson says:

      One thing that people might forget is that even after the industrial culture of the fossil age is long gone, there will still be “legacy” concentrations of steel and other mineral resources that were not available to pre-industrial societies of centuries past. Think of the huge amounts of steel, aluminum and copper that will be left in the ruins of cities around the world.

      If the requisite knowledge is still around (think Lindsay Technical Publications), many folks will be able to use those resources to jump-start a new round of technical and industrial development. We may now be the beginning of a very long undulating plateau of boom-and-bust in technological sophistication, especially for those who live near the ruins of our current civilization.

      It is quite possible that eventually an equilibrium will be found at some intermediate level between hunter-gatherer and “internet” societies. If enough knowledge is preserved, that level may be closer to 1900 than 1300. In 1912 Frank Shuman was using parabolic trough collectors to run a steam powered pumping station in Egypt. If we can keep those kinds of energy collection and utilization skills, it may be possible for us to keep a little of our technological heritage alive on a sustainable basis.

      • Blunder Dog says:

        Sounds a bit like Greer’s Stages of Technic Societies, posted here:

        I’m not in full agreement with his timescale; I believe we will already be scavenging in a decade or two. It’s already happening in some areas.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        It is quite possible that eventually an equilibrium will be found at some intermediate level between hunter-gatherer and “internet” societies. If enough knowledge is preserved, that level may be closer to 1900 than 1300.

        I’m sure that many of you know “Nick” from his numerous comments on TOD. http://energyfaq.blogspot.com/

        Nick makes robust arguments regarding the various strategies and tactics we could employ to maintain a fair amount of our current standard of living primarily by using existing technology – for example he envisions some mix of wind, solar, nuclear, hydro, biomass, etc being able to both build and maintain critical technology components for energy, transportation, etc. He does see a dramatic reduction of consumption in the western world being a necessary part of his equation. I would guess that he sees something like US 1900-1950 as a sustainable model.

        My first complaint regarding his argument is my observation that there is little evidence that a critical mass of people will either recognize the problems or implement solutions in any kind of timely manner to realize his vision.

        However, assuming (by some miracle) we (human race) did take timely action – I wonder if Nick’s ideas are somewhat feasible?

        • Joe Clarkson says:

          I have worked in wind, solar and hydro (even OTEC) professionally for the last 30 years, all the while waiting for the “call” from that critical mass of people to start making the massive effort to convert our energy systems away from fossil fuels. I now think that it is probably too late for the world at large, even if the call does miraculously come, although individuals may be able to pre-stock spares and keep certain household scale renewable energy systems going for a long time before they fail, never to be repaired. I certainly intend to try. It may even be possible to develop some community-scale islands of fairly high energy intensity from renewable resources, but even that will require heroic effort, mostly because all the bits and pieces of solar, wind and (to a lesser extent) hydro, all require the smooth functioning of a complex technical culture, with all its various supply and manufacturing chains.

          I learned this fact the hard way. In the late 90’s, I participated in the installation of a 100kW hybrid village power system in Fiji. The system had PV, wind, a 240V battery bank and an inverter to convert the battery output to 415V AC, to be used by a fairly large village, including a regional hospital. In spite of our team’s every effort to make the system as simple and robust as possible, the Fiji Department of Public Works was not able to maintain the systems installed, even after extensive training sessions.

          Here is a small example of the problems involved: the inverter for the project was a hybrid rotary system, based on an off-the-shelf ABB motor drive. After about four years, the tropical salt air got to the bearings of the cooling fan in the motor drive. When it failed the drive would trip on high temperature. A new fan would have had to come from the US or Europe and would cost several hundred dollars, for which no money had been allocated. We managed to disassemble the fan and replace the bearings, even though the fan was not designed to be repaired, but it failed again after a couple of years and was never replaced. Without it, all of the renewables were worthless. The facility kept operating by running the “backup” diesel generator full time.

          This example shows the necessity of “bottom up” technology development, which has almost always been the history of energy technology world-wide. A new, more complex technology must rest on the capabilities of those who maintain all of the older systems that precede and support the new development.

          What we did in Fiji was knowingly “parachute in” a new system, with the hope that we could use the capabilities of the local Fiji technicians, who were actually very capable, to maintain it. Their failure to do so shows how hard it will be to keep things going with renewable energy systems on the way down, especially without all the supply chain backup we now take for granted. It may be that we will be able to somehow keep all of those critical spares coming, but “lacking a nail, the shoe is lost…..” may well be the best example of the perils ahead.

  7. Blunder Dog says:

    “But being basically self-indulgent beings, we told ourselves the story of progress based on our own superior intelligence. We were kind of dumb as it turns out.”

    Perhaps shortsighted would apply better. Our inability to plan ahead more than one or two generations is a fundamental problem that will have to be addressed lest we keep repeating the mistakes of the past; something we seem programmed to do.

    It’s interesting to me that your graphic is very close to how our combined tribal (family) property is layed out. While scale is variable according to location, it would be useful to define what number of individuals one’s ecosystem can support sustainably…..which leads to Gail’s comment on population.

    In the natural world, IMO, population is self-limiting, though usually in a boom-and-bust cycle. This is, of course, where we humans now find ourselves; on the brink of the mother of all busts as the result of the mother of all booms. Perhaps the scale of this transition puts this discussion into the category of naivety, though I’m enjoying the posts.

    Thanks, George/Gail!

  8. Graycat says:

    I see your sketch as far too prescriptive. Different people will have to live in different ways in response to geography. Also, you’ve talked nothing about preparations for warfare, something thats at least somewhat likely. Finally, except for the idea of technological monks, you’ve talked nothing about what class and gender divisions would be either likely or optimal.

    • I am guessing that people will want to live in less hospitable areas too, just because there are so many of them.

      People will need to play different roles, and I imagine class and gender differences will be important. The physical strength of men will be in greater demand. I expect women, because they are not as physically strong, will end up doing jobs that don’t require as much physical strength.

      George hasn’t talk about economy. I would bet the gift economy plays a role.

      • krishnajaya says:

        Thank you, Gail, for referencing your post on gift economies. I have spent the past hour digesting it as well as many of the comments. One of the messages I got is that gifting, bartering, and “exchanging” can all be present in varying degrees. “Pay it forward” is a nice ideal, and I liked the movie, but would it work in a small community? And what about the practicalities? If I go out and work for eight hours building trails in my community, so that people in the future will have an easier time of it getting around from point A to point B, how is that going to translate into a good meal that night (and a good breakfast and lunch tomorrow) so that I will have the strength to go back out on the trail tomorrow? Doesn’t someone(s) or something(s) need to be in place to see to it that Maslow’s hierarchy of needs get met?

        • Blunder Dog says:

          There was some discussion in Gail’s gift economy post that gifting, bartering and currency exchange wouldn’t be mutually exclusive. This interaction of different economies already exists. I think that as societies change and currencies become less stable , gifting and bartering will be more appropriate for most situations. Currencies may be used for paying armies or groups of laborors, buying real property, paying debts, etc.; bartering for the exchange of goods and individual skilled labor; gifting for social bonds and occasions, or political/tribal status.

          IMO, as an ideal, gifting would seem to work best within less complex cultures such as hunter/gatherer societies, though gifting may be the most socially complex form of exchange.

    • George Mobus says:

      I probably left out quite a bit in this sketch Graycat!

      Local and regional conflicts are quite likely in the early going after a collapse. But without the influx of high-powered energy the capacity to wage war as we have known it will surely diminish.

      The sense of prescriptiveness probably arises from the fact that there are just so many ways to organize a food-shelter-clothing production system that will allow a small village to achieve more than subsistence existence. The plants and animals, forests and streams will tend to dictate the details, not arbitrary choices by people. The key to this piece is finding a feasible design that permits all members of the society to achieve self-realization in what ever form that takes. I make no claims about what form that should be. What interests me is the size and density of population that is within the bounds of the natural environment (has a sustainable ecological footprint), the area of mixed-use land that would be needed under the assumed conditions, and the kind of well-being that population might achieve. It is an inquiry, not a formula.

      • Don Millman says:

        I think war as it existed before fossil fuels were exploited will continue to exist. In other words, there can be empires as big as the Roman one was; these empires will include both villages and cities, but neither the village nor city will be independent of empire; most taxes will go to the Imperial center, which in turn will maintain armies and navies.

        Alternatively, depending on the particular level of military technology, there could be independent city states, as there were in ancient Greece for centuries. Ultimately, however, the city states fell to Alexander’s empire, and later to the expanding Roman empire.

        After the fall of the Roman Empire, social and political and economic disorganization was so great that independent feudal fiefdoms could exist for hundreds of years. Eventually, however, gunpowder and the building of nation-states destroyed the independence of feudal lords. I think gunpowder will be with us for the foreseeable future, and so I do not think that independent feudal fiefdoms will return. (For this to work requires the defense to have a big advantage over the offense.) Roman army engineers showed that no fortifications could withstand attack by a determined Roman army–even without gunpowder.

        Thus I think the long-term future is one of militarized empires and nation-states.

        A truly interesting and relevant book for our times is ORIENTAL DESPOTISM by Witfogel. In important ways our futures will resemble our pasts.

        • George Mobus says:

          I think this argument needs to be examined more closely. The past has always been attended by some expansion of energy resources somewhere in the world. As long as net energy was increasing within regions the local powers could amass armies and weapons as the excess capacity could be turned to these ends — the old guns AND butter argument. Rulers all over the world apparently learned to expand their energy resources by conquering outlying agrarian communities until the net energy return from doing so diminished to zero and the empire collapsed (see Joseph Tainter’s “The Collapse of Complex Societies” or Thomas Homer-Dixon’s “The Upside of Down”). In those cases there was always the surroundings to escape to. And since the economies were based on agriculture and timber, with a little bit of hydro thrown in, eventually the depleted regions recovered and became able to sustain modest populations again.

          Maintaining even a modest army is a huge drain on the resources of any community of any size. Unless such a community is actively thriving and expanding I don’t see how they can muster more than a protective militia if it were even needed. And expansion depends critically on net energy increase.

          So when imagining the future we should probably make explicit our assumptions about energy flows and the historical relations between cultural modalities and net available energies. I assume that, due to the huge overshoot resulting from fossil fuels, the rate and severity of energy decline will preclude any large scale conduct of war. As I said, early in the decline there may be a reaction by ‘states’ to attempt to grab resources from other ‘states’. But I just don’t see how this could sustain into the far future.

  9. I am wondering whether keeping population down will be as big an issue as you suggest, George. For one thing, without modern medicine, it seems like there will be a lot more deaths from causes that are preventable now. For another, food production capabilities are not likely to be very high (at least net of what the animals and insects eat), and this will likely tend to keep population lower.

    • George Mobus says:

      It is true that in the immediate aftermath of a collapse that diseases will be a major factor in reducing the population. But as time goes on, the survivors, who will have natural defenses (immunities) against the prevalent diseases will survive and procreate. Human populations that have lived for many hundreds of generations with various disease vectors do evolve resistances. They are selected for and tend to produce offspring endowed with those resistances (c.f. Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond re: how the resistant Europeans brought novel diseases to the lands they conquered). After something of an arms race between the pathogens and humans there will come a settling down and co-habitation that will mean the human survivors will once again be relieved of the constraints on their reproductive success from disease per se. That is when foresight will come in handy.

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