on July 3, 2009
The Long Descent, by John Michael Greer, was interesting and informative.
Greer tackles a difficult topic - peak oil and the potential collapse of much of what we call civilization. The strength of this book is that the author provides an interesting intellectual framework with which we can try to understand how we got into this mess. His first chapter, "The End of the Industrial Age," briefly summarizes the predicament. We are overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet and we burning oil at a rate that will soon surpass the rate of oil production. Soon we will not be able to extract as much oil as we depend upon to support our energy-intensive lifestyle.
The second chapter, "The Stories We Tell Ourselves," is maybe the most interesting chapter in the book. Greer discusses how we tend to think in stories. He reviews that many people view our future in terms of the "myth of progress" and many others view that same future in terms of the "myth of the apocalypse." It is interesting to understand that the stories we use can shape our thinking about the world around us. Greer also discusses how the classic tale of the "monkey trap" and the tale of Faustus help us understand some aspects of how we are reacting to today's peak oil crisis.
In the remaining chapters, Greer discusses his view of how the societal decline might occur in the era after peak oil. The most interesting point here seems to be that the decline is not likely to be precipitous, but rather step-wise. He does a good job at providing historical examples to support this idea and ends up being fairly convincing.
There were two weakness of this book. The first is that Greer rambles a bit about Druidism - this doesn't seem to fit well with the rest of the book. He could have easily left out the Druidic discussion and the book would have had a much better flow. The second is that he fills an appendix with a poorly labeled mathematical model for catabolic collapse. The mathematical modeling is quite interesting, but he picks names for variables that only serve to obfuscate. The appendix would have been much better with a good editing.
On the whole, though, this was an interesting book and was worth reading.
on October 14, 2010
We're going down, baby; we're going down. I knew it, but I couldn't really face it until I read The Long Descent: A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age</a>. Author John Michael Greer helped me face it by explaining that it won't be an apocalypse, but rather more like a slow-motion fall.
Mr. Greer explains that the time of peak oil is past, and that a post-peak world will come into being, whether we are prepared for it or not. He suggests that we do prepare. He also notes that our government did not prepare.
<strong>The Long Descent</strong> does a fine job of explaining that any post-oil energy production systems we create will not be able to generate the same amount of energy that oil did. Think of it as being fifty years old and trying to perform as you did when you were twenty years old; it's not going to work.
Greer calls for frugality; an increase in individual physical labor; and the use of durable, independent, replicable, and transparent low-tech tools instead of disposable, interconnected, unique, and difficult-to-repair tools. In other words, use less nonrenewable energy, get up off the couch and use your body to do work instead of using a machine to do it, and learn or relearn to use tools you can depend on without electricity or a means of mass production.
Greer presents these ideas without sounding gloomy. He confidently declares that we do have a future, that we will survive. We're going down, baby, but it doesn't have to be the end of the world---just the end of the world as we know it, which could be a good thing in the long run.
on June 2, 2011
Greer is an excellent writer. He convinced me that the end of cheap oil is here or will be soon, and we will likely be entering a post-industrial era.
The American people, in the 1970's, missed an opportunity to start making the transition from petroleum to renewable energy. Now it is clearly apparent that Jimmy Carter was right, and we find ourselves utterly unprepared for the coming oil shortage and its consequences to our way of life.
I give the book a four rather than a five because although Greer well describes our situation, the book falls short of being a clear guide to a soft landing. So it does not live up to the title of being "A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age".
Without cheap oil the world is over-populated with Homo sapiens. Reducing population could be a very ugly process.
on September 13, 2009
People who work in the area of energy efficiency programs and follow the evidence and projections of climate change realize that nearly all of our current energy conservation efforts, while creating a useful program delivery infrastucture, are incapable of mitigating the major effects of climate change. They are not play acting within the terms given by our current misguided cost benefit tests, but they are just shadow boxing given the actual physical conditions we face already for much of our population, and soon for almost everyone (except perhaps the very rich). At the same time, people who work in the energy area tend to be aware that conventional economics is not materially true since it does not take account of the second law of thermodyanmics and the fact that it takes increasingly more energy to create a new unit of energy so as we deal with the effects of climate change we will face increasing unit costs for the use of electricity, oil, and natural gas. This will affect food supply and health and public resources just when we need them to deal with the climate problems. Together, these problems frame the immediate human future.
This book, with its projection of catabolic collapse points the way to a hopeful human future full of possibilites for community development and reasonable institutions and personal and family lives as we devolve away from the bright few years in which the earth's store of energy resources was wasted in lifestyles bound up with the foolish systems of capitalism, globalization of production, greed, and alienation from community and locality. The pattern of collapse described by Greer is quite different from the usual science fiction type pictures. It is one we can live with as population dramatically contracts and we evolve in new directions with less and less access to the leverage provided by easy access to energy resources. Evidently, what Druids do is conserve things like useful plants and simple technologies that we will need to survive.
The first three chapters of this book are excellent and should be "must reading" for every thoughtful person. The middle is dull, but the writer is, after all, the Head of and Order of Druids and slipping a bit of religion into the middle is probably what we would expect if the Pope were asked to write an excellent techical book on engineering, so it is probably fair. The next to the last chapter could have been left out. The last is, again, excellent. It also has practical advice about what one can do, now, that is real and useful.
I did not know we still had Druids, but if this is representative of what they do, then, like the monks who kept culture alive during dark ages, they are some of the most important people because they have taken on a certain representative responsibility for all of us to gather and conserve resources that will be needed, and to see clearly.
on November 24, 2014
If you are new to Greer here is where you should start. JMG (as he is affectionately referred to on the comments section of his blog) is a thinker in the Peak Oil/End of Empire genre. But his work is different then alot of thinkers in that arena. Some people who recognize our looming fate begin to look to technology to save us. This is the "we just need more solar power/wind turbines/nuclear power to save us" crowd. At the very far extreme you get the people who believe that the move "Interstellar" is realistic in some way. The other side of the coin is the "Mad Max" crowd who expect everything to collapse into rubble and Warlords to arise sometime in the next decade. JMG believes neither. He proposes a series of bumps down much like we have already seen. A price spike in oil and an economic crisis, shored up and stabilized only to be punctured by a needless war, brought to a close and then a banking crisis, and then another energy shock, then a terroist attack etc.etc. Each time we recover a little less. Each time we fall a bit further.
That said, some areas will look like Mad Max (some already do - Detroit, Haiti). But over all the nation and the world will keep bumping along but the trajectory will be downward rather than upward.
This is a sobering book and for some will be terribly depressing. Others will see in it a false hope (much like the hippies who began communes in the late 60s and 70s thinking that they were going to create some sort of Eden only to realize that subsistence farming is *really* hard work). For some it will inspire action and that is what JMG is hoping for.
on October 22, 2009
In all my 68 years, I've never read such a rich source of radical wisdom.
Our predicament becomes clearer when we see it in the context of our primeval inheritance. Winston Churchill said: "The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see." Churchill was thinking in terms of historical times, but it becomes even more true when we consider that much of our behaviour makes sense in the context of our genetic legacy from our primate inheritance.
Like that of most other primates, human behaviour is characterised by a constant interplay between cooperation and competition. In hunter-gatherer times our ancestors lived in relatively small groups, and under these conditions cooperation was an absolute prerequisite for survival, status being earned by contribution to the welfare of the group. Under these conditions, competition was kept under severe constraint.
All this changed with the Neolithic Revolution. The pace of cultural evolution greatly increased, with commensurate growth in human numbers. With the coming of the industrial revolution, population has exploded, but there has been little change in the genes influencing our behaviour. Though the cooperative impulse is still with us, for many the competitive drive for status has become the main driving force.
Like our closest relatives the chimpanzees, the alphas of laissez-faire capitalism -- the politicians, the bankers, the media moguls and the CEOs -- have become adept in the art of being competitors in cooperators' clothing, portraying themselves as acting in the public good, when in fact their true agenda is pure exploitation. They pretend to care about the environment -- and given the capacity for self-delusion, many probably believe they do. It is therefore naive to hope that our leaders will respond constructively to the exigencies of peak oil.
As Greer explains, the descent down the other side of Hubbert's peak there will be a drastic reduction in human numbers and most of the goodies we take for granted will simply disappear, forcing us to become cooperators once more. If fellowship and a feeling of being needed by our neighbours is a major ingredient of happiness, "The Long Descent" offers hope for Homo sapiens, even though the journey will be full of tribulations.
on November 26, 2012
The subtitle of this book is "A User's Guide to the End of the Industrial Age." What it turns out to be is a book warning us of the consequences of running out of oil and natural gas, without having other ways of supplying sufficient amounts of energy as replacements.
In many ways, we are scolded by the author for becoming so dependent on "things we didn't build," to repeat a term from the recent Presidential election. In other ways, the warning tells us that if we don't figure out a way to replace oil and natural gas, we will have to return to much simpler times, when people raised, killed and prepared, from scratch, their own food, for example. How's that for an incentive, huh?
But for this 2008 book, we have been given a reprieve in the recent news that the U.S. is pumping more oil than it has in decades and that we have become, in effect, the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. (This is kind of like the warning of a stock market collapse back in 1999, when there was a period after the first downturn that the market went back up, and we had another chance to get out.)
In short, the thesis of the book can be challenged for now or at least delayed. But that does not keep it from being a decent read. And perhaps the best part of the book is back in the Appendix, which is entitled, "How Civilizations Fall."
Back to the thesis, this passage from the book's Preface pretty much nails it: "We have lived so long in a dream of perpetual economic and technological expansion that most people nowadays take progress for granted, as the inevitable shape of the future. Our collective awakening from that fantasy may prove bitter (as) most people nowadays find the possibility of economic, cultural, and technological decline impossible to grasp...."
The author takes us through the history of oil exploration and projections. The oil industry has given us all kinds of positive stuff, like that oil is the perfect energy source and that it is "fungible," as in that it can end up in many shapes and forms. But the author fires back: "The collapse of civilizations is a natural process." Why, he says, should ours be anything different? The Mayans, the Romans, the Egyptians: They all came and went.
But he also says that the collapse is not to happen soon and that there will be plenty of time for all kinds of people to say, along the way, that it is not inevitable. His point is that we should all admit that we have a bunch of balls in the air and that we can't imagine letting them fall to the ground. And, at the same time, maybe we also need to admit that the continuation of a better world is not inevitable. But, in a sentence I like, he says, "The religion of progress has maintained its hold for the last three centuries because it has delivered on its promises."
The author frequently cites the book, "The Collapse of Complex Societies," by Joseph Tainter. In the Appendix, he gives us the details of the Tainter theory, which, in its simplest terms, is the formula that new capital is produced when you use up existing capital by producing waste. Run out of capital and/or the ability to produce more capital and you have a problem, assuming that the accumulation of waste doesn't kill you first.
To the author, the family or individual car has never made sense. He would prefer trains and/or more efficient vehicles than individual cars. And it's not like, along the way, there have not been scares that things could get worse: There have been financial downturns, e.g., Y2K scared many people. Major U.S. communities have experienced natural disasters, plus there have been numerous diseases along the way that gave us a fright. But we get through these things, and we build up the confidence that, somehow, we will always find a way. But we will not, if we cannot get past this: "The arrival of worldwide peak oil completes the process (of ignoring our myths) by making America's energy-intensive model of empire utterly unsustainable."
He suggests in one chapter that we accept the inevitable and get ready. For one thing, we can do all we can to reduce our consumption of oil, to elongate the time we will have to be dependent on it. The other thing to do is to simply accept that we will not have the level of human services that we have had before. We will need to relearn how to grow crops, tend animals, build and maintain things, etc., as we did in the past. We will need to learn how to become simpler again and take care of ourselves again. The consumer-based society has gone on a long time, but it may not last. And this includes getting to see doctors, let alone specialists at big, fancy hospitals. Without predicting details, he feels that it is likely that some forms of religion will play a major role in any transition to the past.
So, that's the story of this book, in a nutshell. Again, we would seem to be getting a solid reprieve from imminent disaster, now that more American oil is being pumped and that we seem to have discovered all the natural gas that we could possibly use for decades, if not centuries. Let the music play on...for now.
on March 6, 2012
Each previous civilization has had its beginning, rise and fall. This engaging and clearly written book makes a powerful argument that (American Exceptionalism not withstanding) ours will be no exception.
The discovery of how to use inexpensive fossil fuels as portable and extremely concentrated energy sources made possible the extraordinary progress in technology and corresponding global population of the last couple of centuries. When, in the early 1970's, Americans reached a point were they could no longer increase their production of cheap fuel to meet their increasing demand, gasoline prices rose. At first, Americans responded by making efforts to reduce demand by purchasing smaller vehicles, better insulation, and investigating alternative energy sources. If these efforts had continued it may have been possible to replace the increasingly-expensive fossil fuels with alternative more sustainable energy sources. Unfortunately in the early 1980's 'morning in America' arrived where we collectively decided that we could import as much temporarily-cheap oil as we wanted and burn through it as if their would be no tomorrow. Now it's too late to expect we can continue to grow our economy and population in the face of increasingly expensive imported and domestic fossil fuel costs. The author is not a gloom-and-doomer or radical survivalist. He explains why decline will more likely occur as a prolonged series of economic contractions followed by weak, temporary recoveries.
Our challenge will be to preserve as much of the best of our culture and knowledge to pass on to future civilizations that will arise when our population has fallen to a level that can survive on sustainable energy sources.
The Long Descent is the most compelling and convincing account I have thus far read addressing the challenges of the coming age when cheap and plentiful energy ends. The time of peak oil is happening now, so it's all downhill from here. Mr. Greer presents perspectives on the coming crisis that are sobering indeed. While nearly all of us know that the age of oil is coming to an end, few realize how few appropriate energy replacements exist. In terms of the vast scale and availability of fossil fuels those renewable sources that are projected to exist by 2030 will not come close to providing the amount of energy currently being used. Moreover, it will be more costly to produce. Greer shows how the development and implementaion of any such replacement infrastructure is highly unlikely to occur. The author presents several reasons for this. One, its implementation would need to have already started, which it hasn't. A feasible energy replacement structure (which doesn't actually exist) would require decades of infrastructural development. Secondly, none of the known sources of renewable energy come close to providing similar amounts of energy compared with what we are currently drawing from carbon-based sources. Perhaps most sobering, alternative sources, like solar energy, depend on means of production that are highly carbon-energy based. Just the kind of industry that is likely to collapse in the foreseeable future. Thus, it certainly appears, that a truly different post-industrial age is arriving at our historical and cultural door step. This book provides a kind of manual to both understand the coming collapse of industrial civilization and what we can begin to do to survive the drastic changes that will occur in the not too distant future.
I have just two modest criticisms of this work. One, the author doesn't seem to take seriously the possibility of nuclear war as a consequence of the struggle to control the last remaining regions where oil is still plentiful. I suspect this is a real possibility. And two, as the author concedes in several passages, predicting the future is a highly risky endeavor at best. Given the speed of technological advancement and understanding that the most revolutionary advancements in technology are often unforeseen, I would not, necessarily, rule out the possibility of new energy, likely renewable, sources emerging in the next 10-30 years.
on February 22, 2015
Civilizations rise and fall – the Roman Empire, the Mayans, the British colonial empire – and now it’s our turn. Consider the author’s blunt term, “a post-industrial society.” Yes, he means life after our vaunted high-tech industries grind to a halt for a lack of oil.
Petroleum geologist M. King Hubbert developed a formula for projecting when an oil field or a country would reach its maximum production, a point now referred to as Hubbert’s peak. In 1956 Mr. Hubbert predicted that the U.S. would hit its oil peak around 1970. He nailed the date exactly and despite continuing exploration, offshore drilling, oil tar sands, etcetera, it has been downhill ever since.
In 1970 Hubbert then applied his formula to global output and his forecast pointed to the year 2000. Recent, more accurate analyses peg the apex between 2005 and 2010. Greer estimates world oil production maxed in 2005 and we are already descending the back side of Hubbert’s peak.
It turns out there is a science of fin de siecle for civilizations and Greer displays the formulas and equations used by specialists in the field (fiends de siecle?). But they are unnecessary for the lay reader. The bottom line is that the world is inexorably running out of oil, upon which our society is so utterly dependent, and we are already way behind in preparing for the aftermath.
In fact, those who shout “Drill, baby, drill!” actually sabotage the public interest, making the inevitable transition more difficult, more abrupt and economically traumatic. The author states that to achieve a relatively painless transition to a post-oil economy we should have begun serious long-range planning decades ago, perhaps around the time President Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House.
The Long Descent presents our dilemma in such clear, concise terms, and Greer’s research is so comprehensive, that the reader is left with no doubt as to the impending crisis. Like a mouse in a glass jar one’s mind scratches in vain to find the flaw in his presentation. The metaphor he uses to explain our denial, our refusal to accept the impending collapse of our high-tech lifestyle, is the Asian monkey trap. The monkey can save himself by releasing his grip on the food he has found in the gourd trap – but he doesn’t, and is doomed. Likewise, we cannot let go of our dependence upon oil. If we could, we’d have a chance to save our economy, at least some of our comfortable lifestyle -- but we don’t.
The eye-opening analogy Greer provides for the decline of the oil-depletion curve states that life on the downside will approximate life an equal number of years before the peak. Example: around 1905, one hundred years before 2005, transportation was primarily by horse-drawn buggies and coal-fired locomotives. Thus it will be in 2105.
In Chapter 5, “Tool for the Transition,” Greer offers suggestions on how to prepare for the long descent and life in an oil-less society. (Think of learning craft skills like blacksmithing and beer brewing.) This penetrating, disturbing wake-up call should be required reading for every high school and college student today. Forewarned is forearmed.