Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

This is a guest post by Toby Hemenway, author of  Gaia’s Garden, a Guide to Home Scale Permaculture. It is being republished with the author’s permission. It was previously published on his blog, Pattern Literacy

Jared Diamond calls it “the worst mistake in the history of the human race.”(1) Bill Mollison says that it can “destroy whole landscapes.”(2) Are they describing nuclear energy? Suburbia? Coal mining? No. They are talking about agriculture. The problem is not simply that farming in its current industrial manifestation is destroying topsoil and biodiversity. Agriculture in any form is inherently unsustainable. At its doorstep can also be laid the basis of our culture’s split between humans and nature, much disease and poor health, and the origins of dominator hierarchies and the police state. Those are big claims, so let’s explore them.

Permaculture, although it encompasses many disciplines, orbits most fundamentally around food. Anthropologists, too, agree that food defines culture more than our two other physical needs of shelter and reproduction. A single home-building stint provides a place to live for decades. A brief sexual encounter can result in children. But food must be gotten every day, usually several times a day. Until very recently, all human beings spent much of their time obtaining food, and the different ways of doing that drove cultures down very divergent paths.

Anthropologist Yehudi Cohen (3) and many subsequent scholars break human cultures into five categories based on how they get food. These five are foragers (or hunter-gatherers), horticulturists, agriculturists, pastoralists, and industrial cultures. Knowing which category a people falls into allows you to predict many attributes of that group. For example, foragers tend to be animist/pantheist, living in a world rich with spirit and in which all beings and many objects are ascribed a status equal to their own in value and meaning. Foragers live in small bands and tribes. Some foragers may be better than others at certain skills, like tool making or medicine, but almost none have exclusive specialties and everyone helps gather food. Though there may be chiefs and shamans, hierarchies are nearly flat and all members have access to the leaders. A skirmish causing two or three deaths is a major war. Most of a forager’s calories come from meat or fish, supplemented with fruit, nuts, and some wild grain and tubers.(4) It’s rare that a forager will overexploit his environment, as the linkage is so tight that destruction of a resource one season means starvation the next. Populations tend to peak at low numbers and stabilize.

The First Growth Economy

Agriculturists, in contrast, worship gods whose message usually is that humans are chosen beings holding dominion, or at least stewardship, over creation. This human/nature divide makes ecological degradation not only inevitable but a sign of progress.

While the forager mainstays of meat and wild food rot quickly, domesticated grain, a hallmark innovation of agriculture, allows storage, hoarding, and surplus. Food growing also evens out the seasonal shortages that keep forager populations low.

Having fields to tend and surpluses to store encouraged early farming peoples to stay in one place. Grain also needs processing, and as equipment for threshing and winnowing grew complex and large, the trend toward sedentism accelerated.(5)

Grains provide more calories, or energy, per weight than lean meat. Meat protein is easily transformed into body structure—one reason why foragers tend to be taller than farmers—but turning protein into energy exacts a high metabolic cost and is inefficient.(6) Starches and sugars, the main components of plants, are much more easily converted into calories than protein, and calories are the main limiting factor in reproduction. A shift from meat-based to carbohydrate-based calories means that given equal amounts of protein, a group getting its calories mostly from plants will reproduce much faster than one getting its calories from meat. It’s one reason farming cultures have higher birth rates than foragers.

Also, farming loosens the linkage between ecological damage and food supply. If foragers decimate the local antelope herd, it means starvation and a low birth rate for the hunters. If the hunters move or die off, the antelope herd will rebound quickly. But when a forest is cleared for crops, the loss of biodiversity translates into more food for people. Soil begins to deplete immediately but that won’t be noticed for many years. When the soil is finally ruined, which is the fate of nearly all agricultural soils, it will stunt ecological recovery for decades. But while the soil is steadily eroding, crops will support a growing village.

All these factors—storable food, surplus, calories from carbohydrates, and slow feedback from degrading ecosystems—lead inevitably to rising populations in farming cultures. It’s no coincidence, then, that farmers are also conquerors. A growing population needs more land. Depleted farmland forces a population to take over virgin soil. In comparison, forager cultures are usually very site specific: they know the habits of particular species and have a culture built around a certain place. They rarely conquer new lands, as new terrain and its different species would alter the culture’s knowledge, stories, and traditions. But expansion is built into agricultural societies. Wheat and other grains can grow almost anywhere, so farming, compared to foraging, requires less of a sense of place.

Even if we note these structural problems with agriculture, the shift from foraging at first glance seems worth it because—so we are taught—agriculture allows us the leisure to develop art, scholarship, and all the other luxuries of a sophisticated culture. This myth still persists even though for 40 years anthropologists have compiled clear evidence to the contrary. A skilled gatherer can amass enough wild maize in three and a half hours to feed herself for ten days. One hour of labor can yield a kilogram of wild einkorn wheat.(7) Foragers have plenty of leisure for non-survival pleasures. The art in the caves at Altamira and Lascaux, and other early examples are proof that agriculture is not necessary for a complex culture to develop. In fact, forager cultures are far more diverse in their arts, religions, and technologies than agrarian cultures, which tend to be fairly similar.(3) And as we know, industrial society allows the least diversity of all, not tolerating any but a single global culture.

A Life of Leisure

We’re also taught that foragers’ lives are “nasty, brutish, and short,” in Hobbes’s famous characterization. But burial sites at Dickson Mounds, an archaeological site in Illinois that spans a shift from foraging to maize farming, show that farmers there had 50% more tooth problems typical of malnutrition, four times the anemia, and an increase in spine degeneration indicative of a life of hard labor, compared to their forager forebears at the site.(8) Lifespan decreased from an average of 26 years at birth for foragers to 19 for farmers. In prehistoric Turkey and Greece, heights of foragers averaged 5′-9″ in men and 5′-5″ in women, and plummeted five inches after the shift to agriculture (1). The Turkish foragers’ stature is not yet equaled by their descendants. In virtually all known examples, foragers had better teeth and less disease than subsequent farming cultures at the same site. Thus the easy calories of agriculture were gained at the cost of good nutrition and health.

We think of hunter-gatherers as grimly weathering frequent famine, but agriculturists fare worse there, too. Foragers, with lower population densities, a much more diverse food supply, and greater mobility, can find some food in nearly any conditions. But even affluent farmers regularly experience famine. The great historian Fernand Braudel (9) shows that even comparatively wealthy and cultured France suffered country-wide famines 10 times in the tenth century, 26 in the eleventh, 2 in the twelfth, 4 in the fourteenth, 7 in the fifteenth, 13 in the sixteenth, 11 in the seventeenth, and 16 in the eighteenth century. This does not include the countless local famines that occurred in addition to the widespread ones. Agriculture did not become a reliable source of food until fossil fuels gave us the massive energy subsidies needed to avoid shortfalls. When farming can no longer be subsidized by petrochemicals, famine will once again be a regular visitor.

Agriculture needs more and more fuel to supply the population growth it causes. Foragers can reap as many as 40 calories of food energy for every calorie they expend in gathering. They don’t need to collect and spread fertilizer, irrigate, terrace, or drain fields, all of which count against the energy gotten from food. But ever since crops were domesticated, the amount of energy needed to grow food has steadily increased. A simple iron plow requires that millions of calories be burned for digging, moving, and smelting ore. Before oil, one plow’s forging meant that a dozen trees or more were cut, hauled, and converted to charcoal for the smithy. Though the leverage that a plow yields over its life may earn back those calories as human food, all that energy is robbed from the ecosystem and spent by humans.

Farming before oil also depended on animal labor, demanding additional acreage for feed and pasture and compounding the conversion of ecosystem into people. Agriculture’s caloric yield dipped into the negative centuries ago, and the return on energy has continued to degrade until we now use an average of 4 to 10 calories for each calorie of food energy.

So agriculture doesn’t just require cropland. It needs inputs from vast additional acreages for fertilizer, animal feed, fuel and ore for smelting tools, and so on. Farming must always drain energy and diversity from the land surrounding cultivation, degrading more and more wilderness.

Wilderness is a nuisance for agriculturists, a source of pest animals and insects, as well as land that’s just “going to waste.” It will constantly be destroyed. Combine this with farming’s surplus of calories and its need for large families for labor, and the birth rate will rise geometrically. Under this brutal calculus of population growth and land hunger, Earth’s ecosystems will increasingly and inexorably be converted into human food and food-producing tools.

Forager cultures have a built-in check on population, since the plants and animals they depend on cannot be over-harvested without immediate harm. But agriculture has no similar structural constraint on over-exploitation of resources. Quite the opposite is true. If one farmer leaves land fallow, the first neighbor to farm it gains an advantage. Agriculture leads to both a food race and population explosion. (I cannot help but wonder if eating high on the food chain via meat, since it will reduce population, is ultimately a more responsible act than eating low on the food chain with grains, which will promote larger populations. At some point humans need to get the message to slow their breeding.)

We can pass laws to stop some of the harm agriculture does, but these rules will reduce harvests. As soon as food gets tight, the laws will be repealed. There are no structural constraints on agriculture’s ecologically damaging tendencies.

All this means that agriculture is fundamentally unsustainable.

The damage done by agriculture is social and political as well. A surplus, rare and ephemeral for foragers, is a principal goal of agriculture. A surplus must be stored, which requires technology and materials to build storage, people to guard it, and a hierarchical organization to centralize the storage and decide how it will be distributed. It also offers a target for local power struggles and theft by neighboring groups, increasing the scale of wars. With agriculture, power thus begins its concentration into fewer and fewer hands. He who controls the surplus controls the group. Personal freedom erodes naturally under agriculture.

The endpoint of Cohen’s cultural continuum is industrial society. Industrialism is really a gloss on agriculture, since industry is dependent on farming to provide low-cost raw materials that can be “value-added,” a place to externalize pollution and other costs, and a source of cheap labor. Industrial cultures have enormous ecological footprints, low birth rates, and high labor costs, the result of lavishing huge quantities of resources—education, complex infrastructure, layers of government and legal structures, and so on—upon each person. This level of complexity cannot be maintained from within itself. The energy and resources for it must be siphoned from outlying agricultural regions. Out there lie the simpler cultures, high birth rates, and resulting low labor costs that must subsidize the complexity of industry.

An industrial culture must also externalize costs upon rural places via pollution and export of wastes. Cities ship their waste to rural areas. Industrial cultures subsidize and back tyrannical regimes to keep resource prices and labor costs low. These tendencies explain why, now that the US has shifted from an agrarian base to an industrial one, Americans can no longer afford to consume products made at home and must turn to agrarian countries, such as China and Mexico, or despotic regimes, such as Saudi Arabia’s, for low-cost inputs. The Third World is where the First World externalizes the overwhelming burden of maintaining the complexity of industrialism. But at some point there will be no place left to externalize to.

Horticulture to the Rescue

As I mentioned, Cohen locates another form of culture between foraging and agriculture. These are the horticulturists, who use simple methods to raise useful plants and animals. Horticulture in this sense is difficult to define precisely, because most foragers tend plants to some degree, most horticulturists gather wild food, and at some point between digging stick and plow a people must be called agriculturists. Many anthropologists agree that horticulture usually involves a fallow period, while agriculture overcomes this need through crop rotation, external fertilizers, or other techniques. Agriculture is also on a larger scale. Simply put, horticulturists are gardeners rather than farmers.

Horticulturists rarely organize above the tribe or small village level. Although they are sometimes influenced by the monotheism, sky gods, and messianic messages of their agricultural neighbors, horticulturists usually retain a belief in earth spirits and regard the Earth as a living being. Most horticultural societies are far more egalitarian than agriculturists, lacking despots, armies, and centralized control hierarchies.

Horticulture is the most efficient method known for obtaining food, measured by return on energy invested. Agriculture can be thought of as an intensification of horticulture, using more labor, land, capital, and technology. This means that agriculture, as noted, usually consumes more calories of work and resources than can be produced in food, and so is on the wrong side of the point of diminishing returns. That’s a good definition of unsustainability, while horticulture is probably on the positive side of the curve. Godesky (10) believes this is how horticulture can be distinguished from agriculture. It may take several millennia, as we are learning, but agriculture will eventually deplete planetary ecosystems, and horticulture might not.

Horticulturists use polycultures, tree crops, perennials, and limited tillage, and have an intimate relationship with diverse species of plants and animals. This sounds like permaculture, doesn’t it? Permaculture, in its promotion of horticultural ideals over those of agriculture, may offer a road back to sustainability. Horticulture has structural constraints against large population, hoarding of surplus, and centralized command and control structures. Agriculture inevitably leads to all of those.

A Steep Price

We gave up inherently good health as well as immense personal freedoms when we embraced agriculture. I once thought of achievements such as the Hammurabic Code, Magna Carta, and Bill of Rights as mileposts on humanity’s road to a just and free society. But I’m beginning to view them as ever larger and more desperate dams to hold back the swelling flood of abuses of human rights and the centralization of power that are inherent in agricultural and industrial societies. Agriculture results, always, in concentration of power by the elite. That is the inevitable result of the large storable surplus that is at the heart of agriculture.

It is no accident that permaculture’s third ethic wrestles with the problem of surplus. Many permaculturists have come to understand that Mollison’s simple injunction to share the surplus barely scratches the surface of the difficulty. This is why his early formulation has often been modified into a slightly less problematic “return the surplus” or “reinvest the surplus,” but the fact that these versions have not yet stabilized into a commonly held phrasing as have the other two ethics, “Care for the Earth” and “Care for People,” tells me that permaculturists have not truly come to grips with the problem of surplus.

The issue may not be to figure out how to deal with surplus. We may need to create a culture in which surplus, and the fear and greed that make it desirable, are no longer the structural results of our cultural practices. Jared Diamond may be right, and agriculture and the abuses it fosters may turn out to be a ten-millennium-long misstep on the path to a mature humanity. Permaculture may be more than just a tool for sustainability. The horticultural way of life that it embraces may offer the road to human freedom, health, and a just society.


I am deeply indebted to Jason Godesky and the Anthropik Tribe for first making me aware of the connection between permaculture and horticultural societies, and for formulating several of the other ideas expressed in this article.


  1. Diamond, Jared. The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race. Discover, May 1987.
  2. Mollison, Bill. (1988). Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual. Tagari.
  3. Cohen, Yehudi. (1971). Man in Adaptation: The Institutional Framework. De Gruyter.
  4. Lee, R. and I. Devore (eds.) 1968. Man the Hunter. Aldine.
  5. Harris, David R. An Evolutionary Continuum of People-Plant Interactions. In Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation. Harris, D. R. and G.C. Hillman (eds.) 1989.
  6. Milton, K. 1984. Protein and Carbohydrate Resources of the Maku Indians of Northwestern Amazonia. American Anthropologist86, 7-27.
  7. Harlan, Jack R. Wild-Grass Seed Harvesting in the Sahara and Sub-Sahara of Africa. In Foraging and Farming: The Evolution of Plant Exploitation. Harris, D. R. and G.C. Hillman (eds.) 1989.
  8. Goodman, Alan H., John Lallo, George J. Armelagos and Jerome C. Rose. (1984) Health Changes at Dickson Mounds (A.D. 950–1300). In Paleopathology at the Origins of Agriculture, M. Cohen and G. Armelagos, eds. Academic.
  9. Braudel, Fernand (1979). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century: The Structures of Everyday Life. Harper and Row.
  10. Godesky, Jason (2005). Human Societies are Defined by Their Food.

Copyright 2006 by Toby Hemenway.

(Published in Permaculture Activist #60, May, 2006)

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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143 Responses to Is Sustainable Agriculture an Oxymoron?

  1. DaShui says:

    Just for everyones future reference, I knew a (Lutheran) missionary to the headhunters of Borneo. He told me Borneoans really enjoyed a good rump roast dinner.. Maybe a good thing to keep in mind.

    • BC says:

      DaShui, it’s good to hear that the missionary who was invited to dinner by the Borneoans lived to tell about it. 🙂 Besides, it has been said by some cannibals that eating a missionary will make one sick, because one can’t “keep a good man down”.

      What did the cannibal say to the missionary explorer? “It’s nice to meat you.”

      Religious convert cannibals only eat Catholics on Fridays.

      Would having rump roast for dinner in Borneo be considered a “sit-down” meal? Some might say that such practices are “behind” the times, “butt” I don’t consider myself well enough informed about Borneoan culture to get to the “bottom” of the matter and provide a “meaty” presentation one way or the other.

      While it might give me something to “chew over”, I don’t want to appear to have a “bone to pick” with anyone about the topic. I don’t want to get myself into “hot water” or a “real stew” about it.

      It’s better to give a starving cannibal a “helping hand”.

      Most people can’t “keep their head” when around cannibals.

      But cannibals don’t eat comedians, because they taste funny.

      For most of us, eating people is an idea that is “hard to swallow”.

      The great cannibal’s dilemma: If the Creator did not want us to eat people, why were we made of meat?

      Remember, Soylent Green is the perfect food for people who love people.

      Soylent Green is the most democratic and “green” of diets: food by, for, and of the people! The perfect mass-consumer food. You’re invited for dinner at your nearest Soylent Green facility today. Food for thought and for the sustenance of your fellow humans. Give someone a hand and a piece of your mind and heart today, won’t you? Every day is Soylent Green day. Everybody is served by your effort.

      • donsailorman says:

        Today we take for granted that overpopulation and increase in population are persistent problems. They are not. Both ancient Athens and ancient Rome fell from power primarily due to population declines. Both Plato and Aristotle worried about falling birth rates and increasing infanticide. In “The Laws” Plato outlawed homosexuality–because homosexual practices tended to reduce the birth rate. Athens put a tax on bachelors to try to increase the birth rate, and it helped, at least in the case of Socrates, who had three young sons living when he was seventy years old. Living in cities without modern public health practices produces death rates in excess of birth rates.

        The Trobriand Islanders perfected the ultimate form of birth control–constant sex by teenagers to the point where male sperm count never got high enough to impregnate a young woman. See “The Sexual Life of Savages” by Bronislaw Malinowski–a most entertaining and informative volume. Especially amusing are the imitations of sex by missionaries that the Trobrianders engaged in; they ridiculed “the missionary position” for the good reason that their sexual practices were far more satisfying (to both male and female) than the Christian ones. The Trobriand Islanders were lovers, they were not fighters.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Sailor Don,

          In “The Laws” Plato outlawed homosexuality–because homosexual practices tended to reduce the birth rate. Athens put a tax on bachelors to try to increase the birth rate,

          Given the situation has changed a tad bit since the time of Plato, I’d suggest some new laws. For a modest example: married homosexuals who pledge not to engage in any reproductive activity would be exempt from all taxes. Of course this would produce a dilemma for religious fundamentalist conservatives as they would be torn between the appeal of zero taxes and the horror of godless homosexuals being recognized in law.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Stop! You’re killing me!

        Do you remember the Twilight Zone episode where aliens came down to earth and gave us all sorts of technology and gifts and such, and they were constantly referring to a book they had, titled, “To Serve Man?”

        Turns out, it was a cookbook.

        • BC says:

          Jan, yes, I recall that TZ episode, including the main character smoking and being served white-bread sandwiches to fatten him on his journey to the alien planet where he is to be served.

          Of course, rather than eat each other, we could develop a taste for mealworms, i.e., eat them before they eat us. 🙂

          Don, the species has never before faced planetary overshoot and falling net available/affordable energy per capita we face today. Blinding acceleration of automation of labor via robotics, smart systems, biometrics, and nano-electronic sensors will render irrelevant labor productivity as a metric, resulting in the elimination of most paid employment, incomes, and purchasing power we receive today.

          Millions of robots are being produced to replace tens of millions of Asian wage slaves in the next 2-5+ years. Robots, smart systems, and biometric devices work 24/7/365 in the dark and at the speed of light, and they do not require wages, sick time, vacations, medical insurance, maternity leave, or pensions.

          Robots don’t pay income and payroll taxes, nor do they need housing, clothing, furnishings, autos and parts, meals out, baby strollers, Xboxes, iThingies, and college educations.

          Robots and smart systems don’t need political representation and patronage, but their owners do, which they have already bought and paid for.

          One’s labor is about to become practically worthless/valueless in purchasing power terms in an increasing number of sectors, resulting in a collapse in the mass-consumer economic model, as well as a decline in gov’t receipts in the years ahead just as Boomers will be needing jobs to supplement their income in late life as they draw down on gov’t transfer programs en masse.

          Mechanized and industrialized agriculture replaced 98-99% of jobs in food production, and robotics, smart systems, nano-electronics, and biometrics will replace a similar scale of mfg., distribution, and services jobs over the course of the next generation.

          It will not matter how educated, intelligent, skilled, experienced, and ambitious one is, one cannot compete with an increasingly automated intelligent-systems labor division and further concentration of distribution of income and wealth to the top 0.1% owners of the means of goods and services production.

          When even the purchasing power of the next 2-9% below the top 0.1-1% is lost to the intelligent-systems economy/society, so will be the discretionary incomes and purchasing power the top 10% have for personal services so many Americans increasingly must provide at low wages to survive.

          Bearing children in such an environment is a virtual guarantee of unemployment, underemployment, lack of purchasing power, increasing competition for scarce resources and paid employment for them and their peers and a significant disincentive to couple and bear children.

          One increasingly hears that young women in their 20s-30s complain about the dearth of young males their age who are self-supporting with promising career/occupational trajectories such that they make for desirable coupling partners. No kidding. When men have to compete for jobs, income, purchasing power, and status with not only other males, including male relatives, but other females of all ages in an economy that has not created a net new full-time private sector jobs since the late ’70s to early ’80s, it is very likely that the vast majority of males will find their coupling prospects diminished greatly hereafter. Automation of labor across sectors and loss of income and purchasing power will only exacerbate these conditions for young males, and for all of us of any age.

          Is it any wonder so many young males are postponing adulthood and instead playing video games, watching SpongeBob and 70s Show, skating, consuming pornography and substances, and forgoing sex and commitment to females? Most young men can barely provide for themselves given emerging labor market conditions; forget the delusion of being able to support a female and children, or partner in supporting same.

          It should be no surprise, then, why one sees so many films in recent years with vampire, zombie, disaster, and kick-ass girl themes. The mass-social psyche or unconsciousness is already in touch with what overshoot, Peak Oil, debt deflation, fiscal “austerity”, climate change, and imperial decline have in store for us.

          The zombie apocalypse is more likely than we imagine.

          Human rump roast . . . tastes like chicken . . ., but you don’t have to pluck it.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            BC, I’m confused. What are all these robots producing? And where is it going? And who is maintaining the robots?

            It seem that if purchasing power crashes, than the robots will be idled, just as human labourers would be. It’s easy to say that robots cost nothing when they are idle, but they will be costing someone their expected return on investment. So won’t the fat cats feel the pain like everyone else?

          • Bicycle Dave says:

            Hi BC,

            I understand your point about automation, and I think it has merit. But, I have considerable uncertainty about how this will play out. I’ve been retired for almost a decade now, so perhaps my perception of this issue is out of date – but, I don’t think so. I worked for about eleven years in the field of logistics automation (primarily transportation and warehousing). There are lots of issues in the development of this type of technology – but this is not the right forum for drilling down on them. My feeling, however, is that this type of technology always takes a lot longer than anyone estimates before it is really useful and reliable.

            I suspect one dynamic in our predicament will be the race between automation and collapse. My guess is that we won’t actually get to the level of automation you’re suggesting because all kinds of other supporting systems will degrade before that time. If BAU does miraculously continue for a few decades, then we may successfully develop the technology – but, as Jan mentions, how does this actually work with penniless consumers? I guess one could envision everyone enjoying a 10 hr work week to supervise the robots and getting a handsome paycheck in return – however, I never used those funny cigarettes to help me with this vision.

            And then, there is the vision of the Technological singularity wherein humans would need to be exterminated as harmful pests for the planet.

          • robots need energy input, they will function for a while then grind to a halt

          • BC says:

            Jan wrote: “BC, I’m confused. What are all these robots producing? And where is it going? And who is maintaining the robots?

            It seem that if purchasing power crashes, than the robots will be idled, just as human labourers would be. It’s easy to say that robots cost nothing when they are idle, but they will be costing someone their expected return on investment. So won’t the fat cats feel the pain like everyone else?”

            Jan, et al., I would encourage you to expand the perception from “robots” to include “smart systems, biometrics, and ubiquitous nano-electronic sensors”, which in turn will be integrated components of an evolving “intelligent-systems economy/society” in which the ownership of the means of production of goods and services is concentrated still further from the top 1-10% today to the 0.1-1%. A cashless medium of exchange would likely be an aspect of this scenario.

            Consider today in the US that the Fortune 25-100 to 300 firms have revenues equivalent to 40-75% to 100% of US private GDP, meaning that effectively the largest 100-300 firms are “the US economy”, and within that the market capitalization and profits are concentrated to the Fortune 25-50.

            Moreover, these firms’ revenues since the ’80s have increasingly come from sales to one another and to gov’ts, including their foreign subsidiaries, whereas the Fortune 300 firms employ fewer than 13% of the US workforce at $425,000/employee. For 30 years “the US economy” has required progressively fewer workers to the point that only 6-7% of the US population are employed to produce revenues equivalent to 100% of US private GDP.

            As US and global growth of uneconomic activity further slows and contracts per capita, in order to reduce costs and maintain profit margins and increase revenues/employee, the Fortune 25-300 firms will be compelled to reduce further the number of workers they employ and increase investment in automation and smart systems (see what Google, IBM, Oracle, and VMware are doing), resulting in millions of jobs being cut in the US and worldwide, mergers, jettisoning lines of business, idling or writing off facilities, and spinning off assets when possible.

            IOW, expect an acceleration of the process that has been underway for 20-30 years, meaning that increasingly the Fortune 25-300 will merge with one another and gov’t, with a growing large majority share of business sales occurring in a kind of closed-system economy, if you will, within which the vast majority of us will not be beneficiaries.

            Then, imagine a collapse of the fiat digital debt-money system, including wage labor, gov’t transfers, and pensions, and the top 0.1% (who own controlling interest in the Fortune 25-300 firms and the gov’t) seizing all public and private assets, e.g., land, water, ports, utilities, etc., as recompense for systemic defaults on the claims owned by the top 0.1%. If the top 0.1% cannot receive compounding interest claims from labor, production, and gov’t receipts, the system has little value for the top 0.1% to lend against labor, production, and gov’t receipts and to own the claims therefrom; therefore, growth of the system and profit seeking will no longer be an incentive, whereas complete ownership of a kind of private corporate-state run primarily for the benefit of the top 0.1-1% will become much more likely.

            With the ownership of most land, water, ports, and financial and physical capital concentrated to the top 0.1-1%, growth no longer possible or necessary, and automation increasingly eliminating paid employment for all but the techno-scientific elite and corporate-state surrogate political and military castes, the vast majority of the rest of us will become irrelevant, if not useless bread gobblers, to the intelligent-systems private corporate-state economy/society.

            Dave, as for humans becoming “harmful pests”, one can envision the ultimate evolutionary course for an intelligent-systems economy/society would be towards the system becoming biologically symbiotic with the ecosystem, i.e., “Spaceship Earth”; that is, a kind of planetary super-organism that is fully integrated in terms of renewable energy transfer/exchange, water, carbon, and nitrogen cycles, waste disposal and recycling, etc. Thus, human population, resource consumption, waste, etc., would be required by definition to be in a kind of adaptive/dynamic equilibrium with the planetary super-organism’s optimal conditions for sustaining itself.

            In this context, the human species desperately requires a “new religion” or “zeitgeist” or universalist metanarrative about who and what we are that transcends fear of angry, jealous, genocidal tribal desert sky gods and redefines humans in terms of what is required of us as individuals and a species to create such a planetary equilibrium.

            Of course, the top 0.1% like things just as they are, with the mass of human apes competing for limited resources, fearing, hating, and killing one another, reproducing like vermin, and exacerbating overshoot conditions that keep us all too occupied with survival to challenge the hierarchical system of resource flows and power relations.

            Moreover, the top 0.1-1% can envision such a techno-scientific utopian system . . . for themselves, excluding the rest of us.

      • Dashui says:

        Yes, it’s a great thing to “serve mankind!”

  2. Mel Tisdale says:

    There is an aspect of modern society that, it seems to me at any rate, is about to solve a lot of our current and future problems. Many think that nuclear weapons are consigned to the waste bin of history now that the Cold War is over. I rather fear that that is far from being the case. When I discovered the technical specification of Trident D5 as opposed to that of the C4 version and all its predecessors, I became a member of CND, Greenpeace and would even have joined Lesbians for a Nuclear Free World if they would have had me, but they never replied to my letters. (I am told that they don’t like male members.)

    As the world slowly loses the peace that came with the fall of the Berlin wall, I am afraid though that a new Cold War is in the offing. Should one come about then it will last 5 minutes, 6 if we are lucky, such is the difference between today’s nuclear weapons systems and those of yesterday. There will be none of Herman Kahn’s ‘ladder of escalation.’ Modern nuclear weapons are designed to be fired all at once in a surprise attack so as to destroy the enemy’s launch infrastructure and even its missiles themselves. In short, we have moved from the era of the blunderbuss to that of the snipers’ rifle. He/she who shoots first wins, period. You don’t wait to see if the other side is going to fire first, but you do automate your launch procedures because there will be no time to discuss the issue if they do in fact fire before you. (We can only hope that Microsoft has absolutely nothing to do with the computing requirements of that automation!)

    I sincerely hope that I am wrong, but I do not like the way international relations are developing. There would be a silver lining, I suppose. A nuclear winter would do wonders for combatting climate change.

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      From Wikipedia – “A minor nuclear war with each country using 50 Hiroshima-sized atom bombs as airbursts on urban areas could produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia today could produce nuclear winter, with temperatures plunging below freezing in the summer in major agricultural regions, threatening the food supply for most of the planet. The climatic effects of the smoke from burning cities and industrial areas would last for several years, much longer than previously thought. New climate model simulations, which are said to have the capability of including the entire atmosphere and oceans, show that the smoke would be lofted by solar heating to the upper stratosphere, where it would remain for years.”

      I doubt that several years of no food would be good for the human race or any other species. When the nuclear winter subsided, global warming would resume for the next several centuries, augmented by the CO2 injected into the atmosphere by the same fires that provided the soot that caused the nuclear winter, but the CO2 would last far longer than the soot. There is no “silver lining” to a nuclear war.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Very few nuclear missiles carry atom bombs, and when they do, there will be only one carried as they are intended for dealing with the likes of Iran or North Korea. Most warheads will be directed at missile silos or command and control bunkers, most, but not all are located away from centres of population, so the C02 increase would not be too bad and there would be a dramatic reduction in the C02 emmissions that had existed hitherto.

        As far as I am aware, the latest nuclear winter scenarios indicate that sub-zero temperatures will not be reached. This is obviously important, seeing as few food crops can survive sub-zero temperature.

        The above is not intended to indicate that I am in favour of a nuclear winter as a cure-all for todays ills. I only raise it because we have such poor media that most (nearly all) people are unaware of just what modern nuclear weapons are designed to do. Generally, the public think we are still in the world of M.A.D. (mutually assured destruction). Of course, if we banned M.I.R.V. delivery systems, we would be.

  3. BC says:

    Mel, a Cold War-like situation between the US (West) and China could occur if the historical pattern repeats for China as in the 1780s-90s (White Lotus Rebellion), 1840s-50s (Opium Wars), 1890s-1900s (Boxer Rebellion), and the 1930s-40s (Mao’s revolution) when China turned inward against the world to deal with internal social, economic, and political instability after westerners flocked to the Middle Kingdom to become rich as has been the case since the ’80s-’90s.

    Such a scenario might occur, for example, as a result of an economic and financial collapse in China, xenophobia arising, social unrest occurring, gov’t reaction, seizing of foreigners’ assets, deporting of foreigners, breakdown of trade and diplomatic relations between the US and China, and the new generation of PLA generals in Beijing taking control to restore order and the country’s leadership becoming more insular and suspicious of westerners’ motives and activities in the region.

    In fact, this is a scenario I suspect is more likely than not in the years ahead, especially as Peak Oil and oil exports constrain growth of economic activity, debt service becomes more difficult or impossible, and real GDP per capita decelerates to 0% or contracts worldwide.

    Historically, the elites have invariably chosen total war and reaction as the means to diffuse domestic dissent, create external enemies, and concentrate power and the means to use mass violence to the top 0.1% and their surrogates in the executive branch and military. Homeland Security, never-ending imperial war for oil supplies and shipping lanes, Patriot Act I and II, Total Information Awareness, and now the virtual total management (manipulation and propping and bailing) of the mortgage market, financial markets, economic data (propaganda), and “health care” are all examples of the owners of the militarist-imperialist corporate-state taking over and attempting to influence the outcome of virtually all aspects of private, political, and economic activities.

    As a result, total debt of the US now has a compounding imputed cumulative interest to term equivalent to private US GDP, i.e., the top 0.1% owners of the debt now have 100% claim on all wages, profits, and gov’t receipts in perpetuity. The owners of the banks issue private debt-money that they own. The imputed interest at effectively infinite term is what gives the debt-money its value to the owners. “Our money” is their money. We actually own nothing, apart from personal possessions that do not have liens. We only borrow the debt-money to circulate it for subsistence. All our wages and future gov’t transfer payments are already claimed by the owners of the corporate-state’s private and public assets.

    Eventually, the owners of the corporate-state will seize all private and public assets as recompense for non-payment resulting from local, state, federal gov’t and private defaults.

    • I think several of your comments, including this one, are a little over-the-top.

      Somehow, the banks and the top 0.1% have an interest in keeping some kind of peace. Even if they could repossess the vast majority of homes, they wouldn’t, because of the problems with angry mobs. At some point, the problems of the masses become their problem as well. It becomes hard for a government to stay in power. They need to come up with some kind of plan (war??) to get more resources.

      In the natural world, it is survival of the fittest, and the top 0.1% would probably be the fittest. But I don’t think it will be easy for them.

      • Michael Lloyd says:


        You have several times used the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Could you expand on what you mean by this phrase?

        See for some background information.

        • I suppose I should say “natural selection” rather than “survival of the fittest”. To me, the critical parts of it are (1) Far more offspring than are needed to keep population steady and (2) The best adapted to survive.

          All of our medical techniques are designed to change the situation so that nearly all offspring survive. (Fossil fuels help as well in this regard, so there is enough food, and so there is heat and air conditioning.) In addition, we have developed means of transportation, so that people who are genetically adapted to one climate can move to another climate. Birth control reduces the number who are born. All of these tend to defeat natural selection.

          • Michael Lloyd says:

            I think “natural selection” is a better term, if only because it avoids some less attractive connotations.

            However, I think your point (2) is the critical factor and we have used that too effectively. Note that adaption is over a short or immediate timescale. Fossil fuels have not been used for sufficient time to have an evolutionary effect and I guess that they will not be available for long enough to have any significant evolutionary effect.

            There is some evidence that we are still evolving to accommodate the move to foods from agriculture and animal husbandry (problems with gluten/lactose intolerance). Whereas, we may well have incorporated a number of evolutionary changes arising from cooking.

            To me, what you describe most eloquently in your posts are examples of perturbation of homeostasis.

            • Fossil fuels have been around long enough, though, to allow an extra 6 billion people to be born. Unfortunately, keeping all 7 billion people alive seems to require some fossil fuels, simply because of the quantity of food, cooking fuels, and other necessities (spears with tips that were hardened with heat, and later metals) that are needed.

              We have indeed perturbed homeostasis. We have increased far beyond what our numbers would be if we had not discovered a way to control fire, and later discovered agriculture, and later fossil fuels. But I think that the earth moves from one state to another–it is never just a static system. We are doing what all species are designed to do–use any energy resources available to us, to increase our numbers and become well fed and cared for. The current balance cannot last long–we are already encountering high priced oil.

      • BC says:

        Gail, as for repossessing houses, the top 0.1% don’t want the structures, as the value of the “property” is not in the structure but the imputed compounding interest to infinite term from lending against the value of the land (site) scarcity value. Once the dead pledger (mortgagee) can no longer afford a perpetual land debt of 3-4 times his income in perpetuity, the value of the property will be of little interest to the top 0.1%. The land site value will be more valuable to the neo-feudal landlord (land tenure) system if the top 0.1% were to seize the land at pennies on the dollar, evict the “tenant” debtors by force, demolish the poorly constructed dwellings, and turn the land into a buffer borderland and secured agricultural and forest land to support a private, self-contained, secure, high-tech city-state.

        The top 0.1% have no sense of loyalty and social, political, or moral obligation to the mass populations of a nation-state, majority ethnic/racial group, etc.; rather, their first impulse is will to power and to secure financial, economic, social, and political influence and power at whatever cost to the bottom 99-99.9%. The hierarchical command-and-control nature of western imperial power relations does not require growth of population, production, and consumption per capita but an adaptive system of low- to high-entropy flows of resources, materials, and goods and services at increasing complexity. The structure need not be as expansive, if you will, at this particular point, needing to accommodate 313 million people in the US and 7 billion worldwide. The hierarchical flows at the desired level of consumption per capita for the top 0.1% could just as easily be supported by 30 million people in the US as 300 million. In fact, at the log limit exergetic bound per capita at current overshoot conditions, the top 0.1% would be better served at the top of a hierarchical pyramid with 30 million people vs. 300 million.

        Of course, 30 million people would not permit supporting a global imperial military to prevent the Asians from amassing a military to overtake the Anglo-American and European Power Elite top 0.1%, which is why the coming bottleneck must first result in economic decline and collapse, failed states, and mass die-off beginning in the densely populated Third World, Middle East, Central Asia, and China-Asia.

        As to the “survival of the fittest”, the top 0.1% and many among the next 0.9% have demonstrated their successful adaptability, i.e., “fitness”, in reproducing, defending, and perpetuating the hierarchical system of flows from the labor of masses to the top of the income, wealth, and power structure; that is, this “reproductive success” trumps the biological kind of reproduction over the past 40-80 years or more.

        However, ongoing advances in genetic engineering will permit the top 0.1-1% to eventually reproduce offspring with the most highly adaptable traits (including as much “diversity” as is demonstrated to be optimal) to ensure continuing reproduction of the hierarchical system of structural flows. The bottom 90-99% of us increasingly will be of little use than livestock or vermin whose cognitive capacity is so far eclipsed by techno-scientific advances and the evolution of the intelligent-systems super-organism as to render most of us an unnecessary cost to the further evolution of “the fittest” top 0.1-1%.

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          Let us hope that there arises a leader of the masses who can bring about a more equitable life for our species. Unless he or she comes forth, then I fear that your predictions may well come to pass. Perhaps, when bankers can construct completey useless financial instruments that bankrupt the rest of us while they earn themselves massive bonuses, we, the 99%, deserve what we get when we do little to protest the inequity of that sittuation. What about ‘Occupy’? Occupy’?, oh, yes, I remember.

  4. wtvnl says:

    The spirit of Craig Dilworth, “Too smart for our own good”, is very much present in this discussion. Many examples of how the Vicious Circle Principle might work out…

    • BC says:

      Indeed. Accelerating automation of labor and loss of income and purchasing power of the bottom 90-99% of the population precludes further growth of a mass-consumer economy, which is derivative of population growth, abundant cheap energy per capita, and the need for inflation of “money” and income to purchase the increasing supply of goods and services.

      Now we are faced with the end of growth of the mass-consumer society (and of debt, gov’t receipts, real GDP per capita, etc.) which technology permitted and most are convinced will create alternatives/substitutes for costlier energy and food, jobs, and lost tax receipts needed for private subsidies, transfer payments, etc.

      But the top 0.1% disengaged from the productive economy decades ago and effectively own (have perpetual claims against) everything of economic value. When the global resource pie begins to contract in earnest per capita, the top 0.1-1% have no incentive to concede any of their wealth and power to anyone other than to accommodate those with the subordinated knowledge, skills, and power to assist the top 0.1% in retaining their share of the resources and the associated power.

      One of the initial features of the emerging intelligent-systems economy/society is the corporate-state’s efforts since 9/11 (and arguably long before) to monitor all Internet activities and store, encrypt, compile, share, and analyze what will be an infinite amount of data providing the impetus for further R&D spending for massively parallel, quantum/molecular, photon computing, biometrics, nano-electronic sensors, etc.

      The math, physics, and logical/computational methods are becoming so complex that only an infinitesimally small fraction of the human population will have any hope of understanding the emerging techno-scientific paradigm and its implications hereafter for the division of labor, socioeconomics, and political power relations.

      Our so-called “education” system today is wholly insufficient to prepare the population for the transition from 19th- and 20th-century industrial model of economic, financial, social, and political organization and distribution, because those in positions of authority to adapt the system are utterly clueless about the evolving system, captured by narrow interests and rewarded, or restricted by institutional inertia.

      And even the small fraction who do understand enough to further the evolution of the techno-scientific paradigm will become increasingly dependent upon the capabilities and self-awareness of intelligent systems (and the source of funding of further development) to do much of the work in a fraction of the time required today by dozens to hundreds of scientists, engineers, technicians, and managers.

      In this context, the overwhelming majority of us will be incapable of competing with intelligent systems, or to “produce” an equivalent of marketable value add per capita of what we need to consume to subsist at a desirable standard of material consumption and well-being.

      Without a radical reorganization of the system of ownership of the emerging intelligent-systems means of production of goods and services and income flows therefrom, the vast majority of us and our progeny face complete loss of purchasing power and the ability to subsist. The top 0.1% have no interest whatsoever in such a radical reorganization, needless to say.

    • Good point. I first talked about Craig Dilworth’s book “Too smart for our own good” in this post: Human Population Overshoot–What Went Wrong?

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Another entry in the ‘how many people can sustainable food production feed’ contest:

    Albert Bates thinks the answer is 3.5 billion or maybe less. So our choice is vasectomies or funerals….Don Stewart
    PS I don’t know what Albert is assuming about the climate change issue. You will see his graph of the very stable climate of the last 10,000 years and then the 5 degree C warmer climate. I don’t know if Albert is assuming in his number some different ability of the Earth to produce food for humans, or if he is taking the current ability of the Earth to produce food for humans. Albert is aware of the issue. For example, at his home in Tennessee he has been thinking about how to transition plants and animals and insects during a period of rapid warming. We cannot count on the ability of tropical species to efficiently and effectively colonize temperate zones. And the sustainable food production scenarios are entirely dependent on the free services of a robust soil food web–which may not survive a 5 C change.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “We cannot count on the ability of tropical species to efficiently and effectively colonize temperate zones.”

      Many — if not most — tropical species are limited more by light than temperature. They don’t have a period of dormancy to tide them through the winter. Things like cocoa might be able to follow higher temperatures north, but once they cross the Tropic of Capricorn, they start having trouble with the reduced daylight in the winter, which temperate species have evolved with.

  6. BC says:

    All resource extraction, goods production, distribution, and consumption is based on private debt-money with imputed compounding interest claims in perpetuity growing at a rate fast enough to provide (1) debt-money and price inflation sufficient to service the existing and future debt-money claims on labor, profits, and gov’t receipts and (2) subsistence per capita and an amount necessary to sustain gov’t spending to support an imperial military force to defend expansion of US Fortune 25-300 firms’ investment, production, and resource expropriation of external resources at the far-flung imperial frontiers.

    We have now reached the Jubilee threshold at which the cumulative level of private and public debt to wages and GDP can no longer be serviced from wages, profits, and gov’t taxing, borrowing, and spending, let alone permit further growth of public debt to make up for lack of growth of private debt.

    The top 0.1% by virtue of ownership of all private debt-money now have a virtual 100% claim on all labor, profits, and gov’t receipts forever. Growth of real GDP per capita, gov’t receipts per capita, and gov’t spending is no longer possible. Period. Private and public pensions and federal gov’t transfer payment obligations cannot be honored.

    The Jubilee conditions imply that pension payouts, transfer payments, and gov’t spending per capita will be cut 50% per capita in the next 10-20 years, which implies that regressive payroll taxes are 100% higher than what 90% of workers will receive per capita.

    Lesson: Do not count on current promises of public and private pensions (and medical benefits), Social Security, Medicare, and private annuities. The coming relative “austerity” need not be perceived in a negative context; that is, if one can avoid mass-media consumerist propaganda designed to make one feel bad about oneself so that one is incessantly compelled to buy some object or service that promises to make one feel better, i.e., young, thin, sexy, hip, rich, cool, techno-savvy, avant-garde, etc.

    For Boomers and Jonsers, tell your kids, extended family, and social and professional support network that a 2- to 3-generation household and pooling of intellectual, financial, technical, psycho-emotional, and spiritual resources will be a valuable asset in terms of per-capita well-being and adaptability in the coming decades. Forget the hyper-individualist, hyper-competitive, keeping-up-with-the-Joneses mentality. Communitarianism, cooperation, and symbiotic mutualism are the “best investments” for the future.

    If one can subsist on $48,000 median household income with 2.59 persons per household and $18,500 per capita per household, then one can endeavor realistically to reduce that income per per capita by a significant amount while maintaining a desirable income per household without reducing well-being.

    For Millennials, forget $100,000-$250,000 university credentials and learn permaculture, horticulture, animal husbandry, carpentry, welding, gardening, food preservation, sewing, electrical skills, patience, kindness, compassion, and to ignore the artificial, technology (“tools”), and socially constructed boundaries between Nature (symbiotic biological processes of mutualism) and basic human needs and experience. We are Nature, but we have been conditioned to think otherwise.

    Yes, this is antithetical to the mass-consumer model, but it is perfectly compatible with Daniel Quinn’s (“Ishmael” series and “Beyond Civilization”) recommended “walking away” from “civilization”, i.e., mother culture that threatens our existence as a species, and creating new adaptive “tribes” based on self-sustaining mutualism.

    • I hadn’t run across “udderworld”. I agree though that the current system cannot continue long. Deficit spending has been covering up the problems since 2008, and cannot continue. Thus, you are right about the current system not continuing for very long. What alternatives really work has yet to be determined.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    I would like to elaborate a little bit on Albert Bates’ comment that ‘organic agriculture can produce a small percentage increase in food production over current methods’ and his statement that sustainable food production may feed fewer than 3.5 billion people.

    If we define sustainable food production as food production with a positive calorie balance and also as production which sustain the fertility of the soils and waters, then we are not talking about ‘organic agriculture’ as it is presently practiced. I don’t think food labeled ‘organic’ is particularly less fossil fuel dependent than food labeled ‘conventional’. And food labeled ‘organic’ can be grown very intensively with practices that deplete the soil just as food labeled ‘conventional’ can be so grown.

    The small farmers in my area have a listserve on which people can post questions. Someone recently asked about the right time of the year to apply soil amendments. She got about 35 responses with most people giving her their ‘secret formula’ for buying and applying amendments. Soil amendments are usually mined somewhere (e.g., New Jersey Greensand), processed in a mill (e.g., ground into dust), and then packaged and shipped and distributed. Finally, the farmer drives their pickup to the feed and seed store, picks up the products, and takes it to the farm and distributes it over their fields, perhaps using farm machinery. I would not be at all surprised if the calories of energy used exceed the calories produced as food.

    So when we begin to envision a truly sustainable food system, then a lot of things we currently take for granted have to change. For example, annual crops completely dominate our current food system. Annuals take a tremendous amount of fertility from the soil, to produce highly nutritient dense foods for humans and animals. Perennials produce less food nutrient density per square meter, because they take less from the soil. It is possible to grow perennials in polycultures which generate enough fertilizer for the food crops (e.g., a food forest), but the yields will not be as high as growing annuals. It is possible to buy seed for perennial rye and wheat–but few farmers will do so because the cost of farmland is very high and the farmer feels the need to produce as much of a cash crop as possible.

    One could look at irrigation, terraforming to make better use of rainfall, the food distribution system, cooking methods, packaging, and a lot of other aspects of food trying to design a system which is sustainable. It can be done–our ancestors did it. But it will look significantly different than what we do today, and may well not support 7 billion people.

    I would like to also comment on some of the barriers to change. We in the West throw away roughly half our food. And we eat a very small number of the plants and animals which are edible. Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder, opines that humans do best on a very diverse diet. Think of a hunting and gathering family–they never know at sunrise what they are going to be eating for lunch. There are several hundred options. Now contrast that with a recipe I received from a diet doctor recently. The ingredient list included about 25 items, and involved three major steps in preparation with significant kitchen equipment required and somebody to watch the pot for well over an hour. I would say that few people would have on hand all the ingredients (so a trip to the store is required, which also requires an industrial economy to manage the distribution). The ‘pattern language’ behind this particular recipe is ‘eating like the French Nobility’. The recipe begins with a ‘reduction’ and ends with baking everything in an oven for 45 minutes. Now let’s consider an alternative pattern language: soup. The recipe reads something like this: gather what you have, chop if needed, include plenty of veggies, some high protein food (squirrel, rabbit, bits of beef, beans, etc.) and some fat. Begin by browning what tastes good browned, then add liquid and simmer until it smells really good.

    I submit that the ‘French Nobility’ pattern language generates wasted food and a lot of calories in the process. The ‘soup’ pattern language uses everything and requires far fewer calories in the process. Yet all the diet doctors I know, and most of the farmers selling directly to customers, think that it is absolutely essential to give people ‘recipes’–patterned after what the French Nobility had cooked for them at Versailles or in their chateau on the Loire. Whether these pattern languages can be changed easily, or will change as a result of catastrophe, remains to be seen. Donella Meadows identified these higher order thinking processes as those with the most leverage–but also resistant to change.

    Don Stewart

    • I would agree with you. My family eats lots of soup!

      When it comes to food supply, I agree that to be sustainable it pretty much needs to use mostly perennials. The problem I see is that it is pretty obvious that at least for the short term, humans can get more food by using non-sustainable methods. If there are a lot of people who need to be fed (or even a farmer who would like as high income as possible) it is hard to get farmers to forgo short-term gain.

  8. Gail and other Finite Worlders may be interested in our latest Energy: Part II post on the Diner by Monsta666 focusing on the thermodynamic arguments leading to the end of the Industrial Age and Happy Motoring. I added a little math to the article for the technically inclined, but it is mostly Monsta’s.


    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi RE,

      I read the article – seems well reasoned and informative. Looking at the Hubbert Curve chart it brings to mind that I’ve not yet found a concise, simplified explanation of the facts that would support the prediction that’s explicit in this chart (that significant scarcity is not that far off). I’ve read enough books, articles and blogs to be personally convinced but I always seem to fail to make my point when discussing the energy topic with people who aren’t persuaded they should even devote any time to this doomer topic.

      My vision for this explanation would have 4 parts – oil, NG, Nuclear, and all other. I find it’s pretty useless to discuss just oil as the conversation then quickly turns to the other sources and all the predictions for the 100 to 1,000 year energy supplies we have. In each case I’d like to see a global breakdown (just big chunks) showing the classic depletion rates, reserves, discoveries, etc. Of course with the overlay of EROI and Net Energy factors. And, a nice list of highly credible references. However it is presented, the goal being to give the average person enough to chew on to perhaps make them question the MSM assertions about our happy energy future.

      Obviously, there are all kinds of other factors and subtleties like GW, efficiency/conservation, other resource issues like water usage, habitat destruction, etc. But, I’d just like to stick with a simple argument that demonstrates why energy scarcity is a highly likely probability that should be taken seriously. Every day we see countless predictions about how our lives will be affected by this or that political or economic factor. Although GW and other environmental concerns are often mentioned (usually only lip service), I almost never hear a discussion in the MSM about a serious possibility of significant energy scarcity.

      Suggestions where I might find such a document welcomed!

      • This article is part of a Series Monsta is doing BD. I will pass on your suggestions to him for some things to include in the succeeding installments. Or you could pass on the suggestions yourself inside the Diner.


      • monsta666 says:

        Thank you for reading the article. I will try finding some graphs that show projections for peak coal, peak gas and peak nuclear although I cannot guarantee I can find such graphs. If we totalled all these energy sources maybe it would be possible to devise the time when we peak in total gross terms for all energy sources.

        What needs to be brought in mind when making such analysis is gross energy will be quite different to net energy and there is an enormous question mark on whether we can afford the expensive stuff so there is a good chance of a major financial crisis before we hit peak coal for example.

        We also need to be aware that not all uses of energy are easily substitutable for example some of the uses of oil can be replaced as we cannot run planes or heavy equipment on coal. So those limitations need to be considered. But yes it would be interesting to find information on some of those facts you mentioned so I will try and do a bit of digging.

        Some fun facts that I mentioned in the first part of the series:

        – 1 barrel of oil = 6.1 gigajoules of energy which equals 1.5 million kilocalories or 3.5-7 years of human labour.
        – 30 billion barrels of oil consumed in 1 year so from this we have 30 billion energy slaves through oil alone.
        – 1 short ton of coal = 19.7 gigajoules of energy or 4.94 million kilocarlories 11.5-23 years of human labour .

        These are conservative estimates (for the years of work). I have seen estimates where you need more years of labour to match the fossil fuel burned but these should still be good ball park figures to dish out to people who are new to this topic. If you can say a ton of coal in the US costs $70 tops and provides over 10 years worth of labour in energy terms then people can grasp why capital has been so cheap.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi monsta666,

          BTW, interesting Gravatar – is there a story behind this?

          Thanks for your thoughts (and fun facts). I do appreciate the “Cost -> Financial Collapse” implications – Gail makes this point often. I guess I could explain that part fairly well if we can solidly establish the scarcity premise first.

          If you do manage to put together something along the lines I mentioned, I’d be very happy to provide feedback. I think you have the analysis and writing skills to do something like this. Even if there are some gaps due to lack of underlying research, I still think it would be great to have a start on this. Maybe others here would contribute also.

          • monsta666 says:

            My avatar comes because I used to run an anime website and webzine (online magazine) where I was the chief editor. The site is no more as it became too time consuming and stressful while I was studying but I still watch a bit of anime these days hence the ava, I did think about changing it but decided against it.

            Thanks for the offer of help, when I get the piece completed I can send you a sneak peek before I publish it so you have an opportunity to offer feedback.

          • monsta666 says:

            @ Bicycle Dave: I have completed my draft for my coal article and plan to have it published on the Diner (the in the coming days. If you are still interested in providing feedback you can contact me on monsta666 at and I send an attachment of the draft via email.

      • I think the problem is that people don’t understand what energy scarcity looks like. It looks like high-priced energy, which leads to lay-offs of workers. It looks like a very bad recession, that gets worse and worse, with more and more people unemployed relative to the jobs they have today. The problem does not look like an energy scarcity at all, any more than the 2008-2009 recession did. The government has been able to cover up its problems for a while, but they haven’t gone away, they are just hiding behind the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling. I expect the problems are right around the corner, starting again in 2013.

        We have a lot of people looking for the wrong problem.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Gail,

          You make a good point. But, I’m not sure what you mean by

          The government has been able to cover up its problems for a while……We have a lot of people looking for the wrong problem.

          I assume we agree that the most basic problem is the fact that we live in a “Finite World” that can’t support the current human population – and the problem is exacerbated by the resource consumption levels of some segments. GW, species extinction, debt, poverty, etc, are all just symptoms of this underlying cause. So, conservatives who are focused on austerity to reduce debt, or liberals who are focused on equity to reduce poverty – are both just trying to treat symptoms. Neither group has an agenda for either mitigating or avoiding the erosion of the planetary resource base that supports humans and many other life forms that currently inhabit Earth. Although groups like tend to be on the liberal side and deserve some credit for as far as they go.

          To actually address the cause would require actions aimed at reducing both population and consumption – hopefully by humane and equitable means. This means policies that set future population goals and support these goals with meaningful measures related to reproduction (birth control, sex ed, tax policy, etc). This means policies that set immediate goals for consumption and meaningfully related measures such as prohibiting advertising to encourage consumption, banning private vehicles beyond NEV and HPVs, greatly limiting FF for heating and cooling of buildings, tax policies based upon consumption of vital resources, etc, etc. And, the USA should enact these types of policies before it preaches to anyone else in the world.

          If this is what you mean by “wrong” vs “right” problem, then I agree. And, perhaps we can put aside the immediate negative effect these measures would have on economies such as we have in the USA – this concern has to be weighed against the longer term economic impact of not starting a new paradigm now. Of course, I don’t really expect any meaningful action in a useful timeframe. I suspect most of us commenting on your blog are just trying to better understand the dynamics of the world we live in.

          • donsailorman says:


            My understanding of what Gail has been saying over the years is that the ultimate and fundamental problem we face is growth–growth in population and growth in affluence–in a finite world. However, what she sees as the immediate trigger for economic/social/political collapse is the probability of an abrupt financial collapse–one much worse than 2008 and also worse than 1929-33.

            In my strong and well-informed opinion, financial collapses cannot be predicted, because they are essentially sociological in nature and based on panic, rumor, and similar elements of collective behavior. The numbers one reads in “The Wall Street Journal” or “The Economic Report of the President” are all well and good, and they are worth paying attention to, but by themselves, facts are meaningless. What will determine whether we have a crash (and how bad it will be) in 2013 is volatile expectations. For example, a few weeks ago, there was a lot of worry about the fiscal cliff. Now the conventional wisdom is that it does not matter much if we do or do not go over the cliff, because, as usual, in January the President and the Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives will find yet another way to kick the can down the road and find some way to write up some kludge of a budget and agreement to raise the debt ceiling.

            Note that we can have a complete financial collapse with a much lesser impact on the “real” economy. For example, during the period 1929-33 the stock market collapsed to roughly 10% of what it had been before and all major banks were technically insolvent. The real (inflation adjusted) GDP went down by about 25% and the rate of unemployment peaked at 25%–a Great Depression, but not by any means a total economic collapse.

          • What I meant is that people keep looking for some sort of fix to the financial system to fix the problem. Certainly growth would return if we would just . . .

            I am not sure how much fixing we can really do of the type you suggest. In a world with international trade, reducing consumption in one part of the world will simply allow consumption to be higher elsewhere. If it is rich countries allowing more resources to go to the poor countries, that is perhaps better from an equitability point of view, but it may cause world population to rise higher than it otherwise would, because more resources will mean that more children in very poor countries will live to maturity. That is good in some ways, but not so good in others.

            The only resource extraction we have control over is our own resource extraction. We could forbid companies to extract oil, gas, and coal. Of course, that would not end well at all, because we likely can’t feed people in such a scenario. We could also put high taxes on imported goods and services (but these would simply end up elsewhere).

        • Steve on Economic Undertow’s latest set of graphs from BP and the IEA with the “Blue Triangle of Death” sure looks like Energy Scarcity to me.


      • BC says:

        Don, secular financial crises can be anticipated, notably by the Jubliee point of debt growth. When growth of debt to wages/production/GDP reaches a cumulative differential order of exponential magnitude, debt must thereafter grow at a faster-than-exponential (“super-exponential”) rate to service the existing debt and permit additional growth to keep the system expanding. Historically, Jubilees result in debt/assets being written down 40-50%, and highly leveraged debt/assets more than that.

        In ’08 the US reached the Jubilee point for private debt to wages and GDP from the early ’80s, whereas total corporate and combined local, state, and federal gov’t debt to GDP only just recently reached the Jubilee threshold.

        Growth of private and public debt can no longer occur hereafter against wages, production, profits, and gov’t receipts. Without growth of debt-money in a debt-based economy, there is no growth of real GDP per capita. Debt/assets must decline hereafter 40-50% either by write-downs, pay down, restructuring, or some combination. The stock market is currently overvalued by 80-150% historically and in the context of the growing risk of debt deflation and global mass consolidation of capacity and resulting job losses.

        The same for China, as M2 velocity has been in collapse since ’08. China must increase bank lending at a doubling time of 4-5 years just to prevent investment, production, and employment from collapsing. China’s lending was 15-16% of GDP for ’12, which would be equivalent to US banks increasing lending by 34-35%. Were China’s bank lending to slow to the reported rate of GDP, China’s GDP would fall from 7% to 3% in no time, whereas the effects of decline in production and exports would reduce employment and GDP further. But China’s FDI is now undergoing a sustained contraction, including capital flight. China’s credit-induced fixed investment bubble is the largest in world history as a share of GDP, exceeding that of the US in the 1920s and ’90s-’00s, and that of Japan in the ’80s. China is perhaps as few as months away from imploding.

        Worse yet, Japan has reached the point at which net interest on public debt is now at ~20-25% of receipts, which historically has been the point at which default risks soar. The Japanese Yen could easily fall to 100-110 to the US$ and do next to nothing to inflate away Japan’s public debt given Japan’s reliance on energy imports and how much Japan exports to its subsidiaries in the US and China-Asia.

        • donsailorman says:

          We will see. At some point in our future, financial collapse (global) will happen. I have no clue as to when.

        • BC says:

          The so-called Industrial Internet:

          Labor and multi-factor productivity gains in the context of the emerging intelligent-systems economy/society will become an irrelevant metric when most jobs, income, and purchasing power are replaced by robotics, intelligent systems, biometrics, and nano-electronic sensors.

          What has been described as labor productivity gains over the past 30-40 years have come from (1) offshoring of production labor and (2) growth of asset inflation from $42 trillion in debt-money growth and the self-reinforcing effects of IT in financial services and communications. Virtually all of the financial gains, however, have gone to the top 10% of households, and concentrated further to the top 0.1-1%.

          The so-called “productivity gains” from the acceleration of the intelligent-systems economy anticipated by the likes of Fortune 25-100 firms such as GE will further concentrate to the top 0.1% owners in the years ahead, requiring even fewer workers and increasing capital deepening of existing workers at higher revenues/employee.

          The phenomenon will be reported by economists as a surge in “labor productivity”, but few will admit that it is occurring at the expense of income and purchasing power of hundreds of millions of workers who have no way of competing with machine intelligence and the capital and market structure benefiting GE and the company’s Fortune 100 peers, and no replacement source of paid labor and purchasing power.

          The rapidly accelerating innovations in quantum/molecular computing, biometrics and biological computation, and nano-electronic sensing and processing are now entering the takeoff phase of the emerging techno-economic S-curve; but these innovations are incremental at increasing scale following on the innovations in device physics and microelectronics, internetworking, accelerating computational speed of microprocessors, and increasingly sophisticated algorithms.

          Displaced farmers went to the cities to find work in factories during the Industrial Revolution. Industrial workers who lost their jobs or their children after them went to university or trade skills to learn technical and analytical skills to become machinists, technicians, engineers, accountants, teachers, programmers, analysts, social workers, and managers in the public and private sectors.

          However, the emerging intelligent-systems economy is evolving with half of households receiving gov’t transfer payments and no more than 30-35% of the US population employed full time in the private sector, with a disproportionate share of those jobs held by Boomers who will be leaving the labor force in the next 10-15 years and not replaced. In fact, some 20% of states in the US today have more people subsisting on gov’t transfers of one kind or another than there are full-time private sector employees in those states.

          Thus, the acceleration of the implementation of the intelligent-systems economy implies that there will be no growth of full-time private and public sector employment at living wages hereafter; quite the opposite. Our corporate, political, educational, and social institutions are woefully unprepared for the consequences of the end of the mass-consumer economic model and loss of tens of millions of jobs, incomes, purchasing power, and tax receipts in the next 5-10+ years.

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            How it copes with the state of development that BC discusses here will be a measure of just how developed the human species realy is. We can create a situation where the whole of society reaps the rewards that these advances in technology will bring, or we can continue on the course we are already on where only the top 1%, or possibly only the top 0.1%, will reap those rewards. Put climate change into the mix and it is difficult to see anything other than an apocalyptic future for human kind.

            Perhaps our future resides in how the technologists/scientists responsible for the developments BC discusses here use their power to influence the course of world events. While well paid, they are not in the top 0.1% and few are in the top 1.0%. I wonder if they realise the power they have at their disposal and if they are wise enough to wield it responsibly, or whether they will be too engrossed in their work, which, as a retired research engineer, I can understand (one has wealth beyond measure when one wakes up and cannot get to work soon enough).

            Taking into consideration all the indicators of how things are developing, I am very glad to be in the autumn of my years. I fear for the future that my son faces.

          • Good points, but all of these things depend on our networked system hanging together, and this in turn depends on physical resources. At some point, probably not too far away, the system starts developing cracks. A major issue is that the government needs a huge amount of taxes to fund all of its promises. The many people who are not working cannot really pay them. Raising the retirement age doesn’t really fix the problem, because the problem is too few jobs for people. If more older people are still working, fewer young people will be working.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Good article.

      He took a long time to realise that what most people mean when they talk about ‘energy’ is ‘entropy’

      Life feeds by interpreting flows from low entropy (like sunlight) to high entropy. (like waste).

      In a sense the whole universe acquire the lowest entropy possible – the big bang – and is riding towards heat death.

      Life exploits the interface between thermonuclear reactions (the sun) and chemical

      I’ve one bone to pick with his data though. Nuclear EROI for the FUEL is massive. To get it as low as he does, he must be considering all the other factors that go into the construction of a nuclear power station.

      For EDFS French nuclear fleet the total cost of the fuel including dealing with the waste is less than 15% of the cost of running the plant overall. Most of that is processing and disposal.. Very little is in the raw mining cost.And looking at reasonable assessments of costs between nations, one gets massive variation in final energy costs. To the point where its probably true to say that 60% or more of the cost of nuclear power is down to the local regulatory framework that surrounds the industry. That is, the costs are essentially political.

      In a similar vein the high EROI of hydro is – like fossil – simply another low hanging fruit issue. All the good hydro sites are now taken..

      As an engineer it occurs to me that political problems are more easily solved than physical ones.

      But that is probably naive…

  9. dolph says:

    BC makes some interesting points but also misses some important ones as well. Also his vision of a techno dystopia and a “back to the land” movement to sidestep it is unconvincing.

    We have burned through all of the cheaply available fuel. There is little left from now on. It was never the goal of our financial overlords to become feudal overlords on the other end…it was to make as much money in as short an amount of time as possible. The “I’ll be dead, you’ll be dead” mentality.

    The debt and the associated money are abstractions which might very well prove to be worthless. They will disappear along with the fuel, as will the worth of most assets including physical, fetishistic ones like fine art and antiques.

    There is no such thing as a “perpetual claim.” If that were the case, we would all live under Egyptian or Roman emperors or British kings. The claims die with the societies themselves, or when armed revolution extinguishes them.

    Now I’m not saying collapse isn’t going to happen. It’s just not going to look like anything. It’s probably going to be prosiac and drawn out. The long descent. And it will probably take everybody down with it.

    Oh, and the 0.1% are all old fogies who will quickly find out that their needed “healthcare” isn’t available at any price and that no amount of technology will keep them above ground forever.

    • BC says:

      “If you want real examples of what will happen, based upon the real actions of real people, not speculation, look at the fall of the Roman Republic. Cheap and plentiful slaves owned by wealthy landowners displaced citizen-farmers who flooded cities seeking welfare and staffed private armies seeking salaries. The result: the fall first of the Republic and then of the Empire, replaced by a manor system of feudal lords owning everything and everyone else having nothing. Replace the concept of slaves with robots and you can see clearly what is going to happen.”

      The latter reference is the kind of scenario that is most likely, which could fit the long descent; that is, decades of continuing decline in employment and real incomes and gov’t spending per capita with wealth, income, political, and military/police-state power continuing to concentrate to the top 0.1% even has more imperial treasure is squandered at the imperial frontiers to prevent the “barbarians” from the oil supplies and shipping lanes.

      The “cost of living” per household per capita for the bottom 80% of US households (receive ~40% of US income and have just 7% of financial wealth) is $18,500/year. Approximately $5,000/year equivalent per capita is total public and private debt service, i.e., 26-27% of US household income per capita goes to the “rentier tax”.

      Another $1,200/year equivalent per capita comes from the cost of imported crude oil.

      Total combined debt service and imported crude oil costs are an equivalent of ~33% of income per household per capita.

      Then add the $9,000/year per capita cost of public and private “health care”, and debt service, crude imports, and “health care” are cumulatively an equivalent (emphasis on equivalency) to 81% of household income per capita.

      The point is that the US economy is not producing sufficient domestic capital investment, capital deepening of domestic labor, and returns to labor for the vast majority of the population to receive anywhere close to what they require to subsist; therefore, gov’t must run perpetual deficits and tax labor and production to make up for the ongoing shortfall resulting from inferior labor returns, runaway “health care” costs, and imported oil (precluding a growing labor-based industrial economy).

      IOW, the bottom 80%+ cannot produce their equivalent consumption even if they desperately want to and are willing to work ever harder to achieve it. The energy regime, debt-money inflation and associated debt service, and system of hierarchical flows from the bottom 90% to the top 0.1-1% to 10% precludes the masses from growing their real after-tax incomes and financial wealth.

      Now add accelerating automation and loss of employment and purchasing power of a growing majority share of paid employment in the top 10%, e.g., accountants, financial analysts, attorneys, gov’t, doctors, nurses, teachers, professors, programmers, engineers, etc., and the loss of gov’t receipts and gov’t spending per capita.

      What would be the “cost of living” in such a scenario? Demand per capita for credit, energy, durable goods, and services would likely decline significantly whereas demand for income from an alternative sources for subsistence at a lower level per capita would soar.

      How would society function that did not have to devote 81% of household income per capita equivalent of the bottom 80% to imported oil, debt service, and “health care”? What would the “cost of living” be for the bottom 80-90%? Eliminate debt service, imported oil, and no longer permit the financialization of “health care” via insurance, and the “cost of living” for the vast majority could hypothetically plunge (along with incomes).

      Thus, rather than oppose the intelligent-systems economy/society, there is a strong case to be made to encourage accelerating automation of labor, dramatic increase in efficiency of production, services, and lifestyles, and ELIMINATION of as many jobs as possible, as well as “unemployment”, labor taxes, commuting, waste, shopping as recreation, fractional reserve debt-money, neo-feudal rentier manorialism, and so on.

      There should be no such thing as involuntary “unemployment” or “poverty”.

      Most of our so-called technological solutions that result in industrial and post-industrial jobs are owe to problems resulting from earlier “solutions”. The system creates problems that require more costly problems sold as “solutions” that are self-perpetuating at increasing complexity and cost.

      The larger point is that the mass-consumer, debt-based economy requiring perpetual growth of population, employment, wages, resource extraction and consumption, debt-money, and gov’t costs too much per capita and is wholly incompatible with both the ecological system of the planet and the ability of the system itself to create sufficient employment, income, and purchasing power for subsistence for a growing majority of the population. A radical reorganization and redistribution of resource, investment, labor, production, energy, and income flows is required to avoid collapse or increasingly volatile descent.

      Virtually none of us has the ability to secure personally fossil fuel equivalent net energy per capita of 100-150 “energy slaves” in perpetuity, whereas those in the top 0.1-1% who receive equivalent energy of many multiples of that are beneficiaries of a system hierarchy permitting disproportionate upward flows, not because they are superior “producers”.

      A progressive energy use tax in BTUs (or some other easily measurable unit of consumption per capita per unit per time) is required to encourage conservation and efficiencies, eliminate taxes on labor and production, and create an digital, energy-based medium of exchange to replace debt-money.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Good point. Roman civilisation didn’t collapse overnight. It simply waned over hundreds of years until only its religion was left.

      It deglobalised. Only the things that were economically portable – ideas essentially – could maintain a wide influence.

      It takes a lot less energy to power the Internet than to put food in the freezer…
      It has been my cynical observation over many years that human beings in a society, rarely respond to the facts that exist: largely they respond to the pictures in their heads.

      And there are those who dimply grasp this, and manipulate society by creating those pictures. What they seem to forget, is that they too, are only responding to pictures in THEIR heads.

      Look at us here: we all have pictures. WE post our own pictures, all claiming to have the one true picture.

      At some point perhaps we should concede we really don’t know, and just get on with today, and let tomorrow take care of itself.

      Pictures that are efficacious will promote policies that promote survival. Pictures that are simply fantasy will vanish along with the dreamers.

      Politicians grasp only half of this – they understand that the battle for power in the sphere of human influence, is a battle for hearts and minds. But therein lies a problem. They win the battles, but they lose the war, because in the end, winning the hearts and minds of people who you cannot sustain is a Pyrrhic victory. The Dream of socialism founders on the rock of the cost of providing it.

      At some point the issue becomes one of whether or not the people will realise that – to bang the same drum again – cheap slightly dirty and slightly unsafe nuclear power is going to keep more people alive than are going to die from lack of any viable energy at all.

      Those that believe in perfection will be Enraptured and pass from our ken… 🙂

      (well its is Sunday, after all. A time to let the mind wander over its picture store and play with them).

      However, some of at least have got top first base, and recognise that very little of what we know is capable of sustaining us very much longer.

      Which is why the marketeers now sell you anything with ‘sustainable’ written on it. Its not of course sustainable at all. BUT its a handy way to bend your spending habits.

  10. wtvnl says:

    Some commenters seem to await eagerly something spectacular, such as the total collapse of everything. But as John Michael Greer, among others, never tires to emphasize, there will not be such a sudden apocalypse. His view of “The Long Descent” is supported by Jørgen Randers in his book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years.

    This society has a lot of resilience built in, which will only become apparent when hard times set in. We can still learn something from Charles E. Lindblom: . For a summary of his views:

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Thanks wtvnl for the links – I’d forgotten about that whole Lindblom type of debate 50 years ago.

      It made me think of a parallel debate in the world of computer software development and project management. The “Waterfall” method which emphasized heavy up-front design was dominant for years in the trade. Much that same work today is governed by the “Agile” methodology which is a much more iterative approach to producing effective software in a reasonable timeframe. However, like most things, these competing methods are still debated by some.

      My guess is that the political world could learn something from the Agile approach to problem solving. The current approach seems to be mostly driven by rigid ideologies which dictate both the ends and means with little flexibility.

    • Thanks. There all kinds of degrees of collapse. We have seen some pretty bad ones that took place pretty quickly–the collapse of the Former Soviet Union, for one. I haven’t kept up with everything John Michael Greer has written, but my impression is that he is saying the early stages of US collapse took place many years ago. The later stages may not be as drawn out as some expect. The required network of connections are quite different now than in the collapses of the last 2,000 years.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Absolutely Gail. Chaos mathematics can show you everything from slow change to catastrophic change. And the difference between the bullet that causes you to move a bit more into cover and the one that turns your head into a pulp can be a matter of millimetres.

        I wrote something up on this point but its too poor quality to share. The main point is that faced with decision making in a non linear chaotic situation, there is very little point in planning ahead more than you can clearly see. Indeed strict adherence to a battle-plan that turns out to be based in false premises is one of the great military errors.

        Deep in the bumf of military training this principle is taught and taught well. How to increase knowledge of a situation, how to make a plan in the full knowledge that no plan survives first contact with the enemy..its a shame there are few military commanders in politics these days. The essence is maintain clear sight of simple goals, and bearing in mind the implications of what you do. IN a chaotic foggy situation.

        Most political and academic thought shies away from this in horror. You have to pretend that the future is clear, you know all there is to know, and that your decisions are totally correct, and have infinite time-spans of validity.

        And that, I am afraid, is how politicians and academics in ‘soft’ sciences respond. My physics friend calls it ‘physics envy’ They long for a simple clear world of Newtonian physics governed by simple linear equations where a little input has a little result. What my ex military friend calls ‘simplistic one dimensional linear thinking’. They haven’t even got as far as understanding the fact that even simple two dimensional linear equations can create a chaotic result…the three body problem of Newtons gravity gives an infinite solution set depending in minute differences in the inputs.

        Whether society collapses overnight or declines over many years may be down to a single butterfly flapping its wings. Or not.

        All we can really say is ‘we cant go on like this much longer’. That is of little help in deciding on what way, if any, we can go on.

        I have been accused of being overly negative and in concentrating on what wont work and why: That’s not from some emotional commitment to gloominess. Its simply to remove false options from the equation. Whatever is left is at least worth a try.

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