Our Tails Get in the Way: The Problems and Principles of Energy Descent

"How did you get there, Roo?" asked Piglet.

"On Tigger's back! And Tiggers can't climb downwards, because their tails get in the way, only upwards, and Tigger forgot about that when we started, and he's only just remembered. So we've got to stay here for ever and ever - unless we go higher. What did you say, Tigger? Oh, Tigger says if we go higher we shan't be able to see Piglet's house so well, so we're going to stop here."

-AA Milne, "The House At Pooh Corner"

Note: I wrote this essay several years ago, and have been thinking about it a lot in relationship to the BP problem, so I thought it was worth a rerun. I think in some ways the Deepwater Horizon issue has been a perfect example of a "tail in our way" problem - we used our cool technologies to be able to drill 5 miles under the ocean - but now we can't get down. Also this is the week Eric and I have an actual overnight without the kids, something that happens about once every thousand years or so ;-).

My kids were out climbing trees yesterday, supervised by Eric and our visiting friend and my honorary brother, "Uncle" Jesse. Isaiah really wanted to climb up to a particular spot, but couldn't get there on little four year old legs. Jesse helped him up part of the way, and then told him he had to do it himself, or be content with where he could get to. Jesse observed, "I wanted to give him a boost, but only up to a place he could get back down from himself."

I was struck by what a useful metaphor, and perhaps even principle was embodied in that casual statement. I was also reminded, perhaps because I've now read _Winnie The Pooh_ to my children approximately 1000 times, of the classic representation of what happens when you climb up and can't climb down.

Let us imagine human beings climbing up a rather steep and precarious tree, boosted up by fossil energies into a place we simply could never get to without them. The problems we are facing right now all originate in our fundamental inability to voluntarily set limits - that is, at no point did most of us even recognize the basic necessity of stopping at a point at which we could get down on our own, without our petrocarbon helpers. So right now we look like Tiggers high in the trees - we can climb up but we can't climb down. Is the problem our fears or that our tails (our structural addictions to energy) get in the way? It can be hard to tell. But what is not terribly hard to tell is that one way or another, we have to come down - and probably quite rapidly. The goal is to avoid a painful "thud" upon descent.

Why do we have to come down? Well, there are two compelling reasons, which will be entirely familiar to my regular readers, but perhaps are worth rehashing. The first is this. We can't keep burning fossil fuels - period. And we have very, very little time to make our choices not nearly as much time as we need to make a smooth, easy descent.

The problems we face have several names. Peak oil, which the Hirsch report suggests requires a 20 year lead time before we reach an oil peak - a peak that even optimistic sources suggest is much less than 20 years from now (the USGS, for example, uses 2023, many sources suggest much sooner - the US Army JOE report anticipates major constraints within 2-5 years).

But even if we had all the fossil fuels we wanted, we know we can't burn them. The recent IPCC update, the Copenhagen Diagnosis, before that ill-fated conference, pointed out that if we don't begin making rapid changes before 2015 it won't matter what we do. Because it is unlikely we will radically alter our entire basic energy structure in the next 4 1/2 years by any estimate, that means we effectively have to stop burning fossil fuels, and those changes will have to come out of substantive conservation.

Moreover, all of our analyses begin from the premise that we have a fairly stable economy, and can expect fairly stable economic terms. This does not seem to be correct - and whatever accomodations we make, they will be taken in difficult financial circumstances.

That's another reason we have to get down from the tree. Both the world's poor and the US
poor are increasingly being priced out of energy markets. A growing deflation means that energy and everything else is being rationed by price - we can see this in rising utility rate shutoffs, for example. Deflation most likely has further to go and more of us are in danger of experiencing real shortages of energy for meeting basic needs. Whether those shortages of food, energy or other resources arise from absolute shortages or simply because of inequity and our price rationing system doesn't really matter. The simple fact is that we must either find useful ways to climb down rapidly or simply pitch out of our tree as rising costs make the crisis acute.

There is a great deal of talk about the potential of this renewable technology or another, about how if we just do this and this and this, we can get carbon emissions down, or help people adapt. Generally speaking, these plans fail to take into account several factors. They are:

1. The sheer scope of the problem. This is partly denial and partly the fact that the science has changed so rapidly. For example, when the proposed climate changes in the US were imagined, reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 seemed likely to prevent us reaching 2 degrees of warming. Now we know that climate sensitivity is greater than previously anticipated, and that's not enough. And yet, many analyses of costs and feasibility still rely on this older date.

Then there's peak oil - for years, we were told that the declines would be a slow and stately 2% or so. Then came Jeffrey Brown's useful Export Land Model and the IEA's own projections that suggest declines could come more rapidly. And, of course, we've also seen energy costs play out in arenas that people didn't expect, and in ways no one quite predicted, spiking food prices, for example.

2. The scope of all the problems put together. Nearly everyone doing this work is completely out of their fields on some level. Climate scientists are usually not petroleum geologists, and vice versa. Neither are either generally economists, and thus expert on how global economic crisis is likely to impact what we can expect to do. Nor are economists, climate scientists or geologists usually ethicists, writers who can communicate issues effectively or experts in issues of justice, geopolitics or agriculture.

It would not be inaccurate to say that no one fully understands what I like to call the "Crisis Ourobouros" that is, the disaster that is always swallowing its own tail. And because no one full understands it, and most people are experts only in one area, it is very hard to come to a clear analysis, say, of how a growing deleveraging and economic instability and volatility in energy prices will constrain a future build out to address energy shortages. The feedback loops don't just exist within climate change and peak oil, but in the whole of our present situation.

Although a few scientists and writers have done compelling analyses of how climate change and peak oil are likely to impact one another, they have barely begun to look at the giant iceberg of what faces us. Indeed, in many cases, thinkers who are wholly sound on the subject of one area simply don't grasp the magnitude of the other problems.

3. How urgent things are. I frequently run into people who believe all of these things are real problems - but that they will definitely wait until it is convenient for them, ideally after they are dead, to become difficult and actively inconveniencing. But this is not necessarily the case - one can be hopeful without being unrealistic.

Not only do radical emission cuts have to be made now, we are running up against other constraints. As capital tightens, the economy struggles and our infrastructure frays, we may well have a very limited period in which we can build renewable energy capacity, or reinsulate homes. We may simply have to do some serious triaging, recognizing that each of our pet build-out strategies may never come to fruition. The emphasis, then, has to be on strategies that return to us even if they are halted by fossil fuel supply constraints, loss of capital or other crisis. That is, we have to do things that will help us even if we can't do everything - that have interim benefits.

4. The costs of the solutions. Most renewable build out analyses don't contain a full, fair analysis of their climate implications, a gaping hole in analysis that must be filled. That is, a build out that gets our emissions way down but does so with an emissions cost that pushes us past tipping points is obviously a failed solutino. The odds are very good that some or even many build-out strategies will simply turn out to be far too carbon intensive to keep up anything like our present life going. They may also simply be too expensive.

We may simply have waited too long for a renewable build out on a vast scale to be feasible. In any case, we have almost certainly waited too long to make a smooth transition, as many analyses document - that is, we have waited too long to have our new renewable supplies waiting for us to evenly switch from oil and coal to sun and wind. That is, even if we can do a renewable build out, several decades of drastic conservation are likely upon us, as we cut back our emissions while we await the results of what the Hirsch report and other research suggests will be a very long term project.

The other cost that hasn't been fully calculated is the economic one. Overwhelmingly we are told that green solutions will be good for the economy. This is the most arrant nonsense of our times - and most analyses in that regard are based on far lower emissions cuts than are even remotely acceptable. Stabilizing emissions will involve among other things, huge cuts in consumer spending, because there is no way to make a perfectly green VCR, flat screen, or foot massager. They still use resources - lots of them. The truth is that consumer spending alone would probably be enough to tip us into major recession, and since we're already heading that way, the word "depression" is probably appropriate. If we act, we are going to have to act fast, with little money, little credit and careful calculations of emissions costs. This is not happy news, but it is no less correct for being unpleasant. The only good reason to do so is that we have seen as the Stern Report and others indicate, that the economic costs of not acting are much higher.

5. The sheer cowardice of most of us. The blunt truth is that we are very close to being past the point at which anything will do us any good at all. And my own sense is that because we're so close to the verge, and unsure of whether we may have crossed it already, many people would rather we imagine ourselves to be well past it, so that they are not required to make the hefty sacrifices. And most people cringe from the notion of telling an energy-addicted populace that the solutions we have to come up with rapidly probably involve a great deal of hardship, economic suffering and a host of other bad things. How much easier to argue that we can refine a little on our present situation and essentially have what we have had?

There are some people with the courage to tell the truth, however almost none of them are elected to office (it is virtually impossible to elect someone who tells hard truths), and those who do tend to be tarred with the brush of apocalyptic fantasists. It is generally easier to talk about technical possibilities than to deal with the real possibility that even technically possible solutions may fail for lack of money, energy, political will or for their potential to crash carbon limits. This cowardice may, in the end, be our final undoing.

And it will hurt us not only because of the enormous political difficulties (greater, even than the technical ones) of addressing peak energy or climate change, but also because our fear of mentioning self-sacrifice makes the political opposition to this situation more acute. The simple fact is that we are taking precisely the wrong course as we de-emphasize self sacrifice - and everything we do to reinforce the idea that people will have essentially the same lifestyle that they have reinforces their inevitable sense of betrayal when that proves not to be the case. We are, in fact, seeing that sense of betrayal in working class and lower income families joining tea parties to express their sense that they have lost a basic access to a decent way of life.

What could work - with great difficulty - is for us to enlist our fellows in a great project of courage and self-sacrifice - engage those people who feel least a part of this society. People climb mountains, run marathons, march off to be killed at war, and engage in all sorts of grand, painful and difficult challenges because doing so expresses their sense of honor, their courage, their patriotism, their love for others. As long as we fear to call upon one another to sacrifice, as long as we sell the narrative that an essentially similar life is possible, as long as we deny the costs, we will give up the greatest tool we have - the passionate energy of those who are doing what must be done for a better future. There is no certainty that such a course would be successful, of course, but it could hardly be less successful than our current strategies.

So what tools have we left in this time of great exigency and crisis? What are our options to get out of the tree? How do we get the tails out of the way, and overcome the enormous fear we have when the boosting power is taken away.

To my mind, there are a few relevant principles that are needed to get us to go in the true direction we need to go.

1. In the absence of a full and fair peer reviewed literature that clearly delineates a best course in a technological sense, the presumption must be towards more conservative estimates. As James Hansen notes, we may actually have to get to 300 ppm. That means that the emphasis should be on not making emissions now, on quick reductions rather than slow ones, on widely accessible solutions rather than expensive ones. The goal must be the dramatic reduction of industrial emissions quite quickly. The precautionary principle must be put into play routinely in any large scale planning for the future.

2. Renewable energies will be built, but they must be built at a pace that doesn't push the climate over the edge, and that allows for the fact that future generations may want to use a bit of fossil energy too. That is, we cannot blow any limits doing this - our build out will almost certainly have to be gradual, and probably comparatively slow until the total density of renewables is great enough to power regeneratively. Until/if we have enough renewable energies to actually power the construction of more renewables - not in theory, but in reality. In the very short term, this means massive constriction of access to energy, while hopefully, the future of energy for our posterity becomes brighter than it is.

3. Human and animal powered technologies can and should fill in the gaps. With 6.7 billion people and growing, human power is the most abundant and underused energy resource on the planet. For systems, such as agriculture and local transport, that can be easily human powered, and in fact, improve in efficiency when human powered, we must make much greater use of human resources.

This will, of course, require a massive restructuring of the economy - paying people well to grow and make and produce things people actually need and also to provide care and support to other people, while paying them badly to make cheap plastic crap or defend the manufacturers of such crap in court, in complete opposition to everything we've set into place. Thus, this will not be easy and will require a great deal of change - if it is possible.

4. All solutions should, as mentioned above, work even if the project cannot be finished or scaled as desired. That is, we need to triage and emphasize projects that are feasible in the current situation within its timescale and other limits, that also get us part way there, even if we can't go the whole distance. Currently, we have few mechanisms to prioritize, but we need to think hard about what matters most to our quality of life. For example, providing power for public water pumping, education and health care should preceed providing renewable power to private homes. Public resources must be prioritized over private ones. This would, of course, massively overturn the trend towards privization, and howls of fury will go up in all sectors of the economy. Tough.

5. All solutions must work on a world scale. China and India will not accept a lower standard of living than we have, and will not reduce their coal burning and car usage if we demand that we all keep our cars and run our a/c any time we get warm. Neither will Russia. No narrative that includes the underlying idea that we're going to keep using more energy than most other people can possible address climate change - period. I

If we're going to have fridges, others will. If we're going to have private cars, others will. Now it is perfectly possible that China and India and Russia won't follow our lead - or rather, that they will continue to follow our lead and won't follow our final change of heart. But there is no hope whatsoever that anyone, in any nation will ever accept the idea "Oh, we'll just use more, and you can bear the consequence - you won't mind, will you?" They mind. So any solution we have has to involve equitable use - period. Otherwise, other nations will attempt to achieve what we have, and we already understand the basic math that says everyone cannot have this. That way leads to a worldwide game of apocalyptic chicken.

So when we figure out our plans for the future, they need to look rather like 'a fair share' as little as most of us are accustomed to that thinking. The basic assumption here is "kindergarten ethics" - that is, if there isn't enough for everyone, you don't get a private one either. Think back to how you learned to share, and we need to begin the large process of establishing a way of life for the developed nations that retains what is valuable about modernity while also accepting a shift to using and having less. This will not be easy, but without a new dream to aspire to, we will continue to fail.

6. Finally, we are going to have to rethink how high in the tree we can and should be. That is, in many cases the energy we've used hasn't gotten us nearly as much as we think it has - not in happiness, not in our declining real wealth, not in security. What it has done is get us treed.

It has also given us tails that get in the way of getting out. It has placed us in an enormously vulnerable situation - one that may well cause enormously more misery than doing without the energies in the first place would have. That vulnerability is economic, political, moral and physical - we now risk a devastating fall. So any future analysis of how the world should look must also take into account the real question of where in the branches we want to stay. It should be low enough that, have we waited too long and courted disaster too badly, any further falls will be merely inconvenient, and not disastrous.

As Milne puts it,

"I thought," said Piglet earnestly, "that if Eeyore stood at the bottom of the tree, and if Pooh stood on Eeyore's back, and if I stoood on Pooh's shoulders - "

"And if Eeyore's back snapped suddenly, then we could all laugh. Ha ha! Amusing in a quiet way," said Eeyore, "but not really helpful."

"Well," said Piglet meekly, "I thought - "

"Would it break your back, Eeyore?" asked Pooh, very much surprised.

"That's what would be so interesting, Pooh. Not being quite sure till afterwards."

Since the blunt and painful truth is that we are simply not sure whether we have placed the final straw on the camel's back, whether we have waited too long with both climate change and peak oil to avert the worst consequences, we must work from a radically different set of principles, and with awareness that what we have done so far is not adequate to the task at hand. We must simultaneously work to avert disaster and prepare for our own failure. As Eeyore notes, that is what will be so very interesting.


More like this

Fossil fuel exploitation has given humanity a boost up the tree of massive carrying capacity overshoot and now, as fossil fuels deplete and the environmental consequences of their oxidation become increasingly serious, not only can we not climb back down but the tree we're up is on fire. It's crashing in flames, just as human population will. Crashing all the way to the ground - to extinction or at least close enough to it that population will never recover even to the new and greatly reduced carrying capacity a trashed biosphere can provide. You know everything you need to know to reach this conclusion for yourself yet something (hope for your children's future, I'd reckon) keeps you from reaching it. Oh well, it doesn't matter what any of us believe. Some things are simply inevitable and human extinction on the order of decades to a few centuries is one of them.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

And the wealth blown on war and the Military Industrial Complex over the past 10 years by the US elites could have been used to transform the energy infrastructure of this country with plenty of wealth left over to help other, less fortunate countries.

I simply do NOT understand why people in the Peak Everything subculture are not passionately antiwar. The FIRST step toward planning for the future is to stop the entire Imperial agenda. If that is not accomplished, then all the rest is futile.

If there was a draft and middle and upper-middle class kids were being sent to the meat grinders in Af-Pak and Iraq, youd see so many mommies become Cindy Sheehan so fast it would make your head spin!

And yet, Peak Oil writers almost never mention Imperial overstretch. Worse, many Peak Oil writers posit an equivalency between regressives and progressives, which, to my mind, is just a reactionary attitude posing as "fair and balanced", like Fox News.

Stop the freakin wars and bring the troops and money back here to at least attempt to cushion the Collapse. Our country is sick and the people running it at the highest levels of business and government are extremely sick, and until that is faced, there wont be much progress on the issue under discussion.

Now that I'm thoroughly disheartened - what do I do? Honestly - for an average person living in a city, it seems impossible to make any sort of real difference in day to day life. I already turn off the lights when I'm not in the room, and I walk to work. I eat organic foods whenever possible (although now I'm even more confused because "they" say you should eat locally instead of organically and both if possible) and try to grow whatever food I can on my balconey and 9x6 foot community gardening plot. I always vote for whichever political candidate takes environmental issues the most seriously (of course nobody else does so I might as well just spit on my ballot). But all of that seems really trivial in the grand scheme of things and I'm sincerely out of ideas.

"The goal must be the dramatic reduction of industrial emissions quite quickly. The precautionary principle must be put into play routinely in any large scale planning for the future."

Which may be about the wost possible way. We have cheap energy _now_ which should be used to build as much clean generation capacity as possible. Never mind a few Chernobyls from ill-fated experiments and a couple of dead whale species from offshore wind farms.

Dragging out the clean migration is NOT a good idea because we'll still be burning fossil fuels (maybe at a slower rate than now, granted) during the migration. And once fossil fuels get scarce, it will be much harder to finance the expansion of clean capacity.

We have the technology right now to solve our problems. The only thing missing is political will, alas.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 13 Jul 2010 #permalink

Alex, I am not sure what you mean by "political will." The fact is, this country is led by psychopaths, and if the people of this country want to stop their wealth from being pissed down the drain on Empire all so a few sick, rich scumbags can get their rocks off by dominating the earth - or trying to - then the people of this country need to get angry and get out in the streets in the tens of millions and DEMAND things change or else! That, dude, is political will, and the American people dont have any.

BTW, LATOC has a good thread on the issue of methane and the GOM disaster. It was Matt Simmons after all who started a lot of the most dire predictions about the GOM disaster and it sure would be nice if he came out now and made it clear where he was getting his info and if it has been confirmed.

At any rate, not all but most of the worst case scenarios from climate change research have been coming true over the past few years, thus proving that the Slow Descent crowd have been wrong far more times than they have been right.

I advocate looking at multiple scearios simultaneously, but the Slow Descent crowd only look at best case scenarios and wont go near non-linear tipping points. Not only that, they are viciously intransigent about it, like Johnny Greer, who doesnt want a dialogue but wants a monologue delivered from his throne to submissive acolytes who are expected to preface all posts with a deep bow.

The amount of greenhouse gases emitted by US global military operations, and the amount of pollution generated and energy consumed by the US military, and the wealth squandered, is immense, and if you arent going to start there, you might as well not bother to say anything about What We Need To Do.

It seems to me that there are eleventy million projections for how things could come out- and everyone simply believes the one(s) that support how they want to behave. It's not just that selfish jackhats want to pretend everything is either 1) hopeless or 2) just fine, thanks; it's also that people who want certain actions (with which I may wholeheartedly agree- hi Joseph!) believe only those scenarios which support people taking those actions.

I don't even know where to begin to think about this stuff.


There is a lot you can do. One is to switch over to community resources - such as unplugging the refrigerator, or getting one just big enough - and really well insulated! - to handle leftovers. Storing food in an energy-intense fashion, long term, adds up. Plus amenities like ice cubes are both luxury items, and often health risks (and cold foods impede digestion, for those with GERD).

The book about Square Foot gardening suggests that 9x6 feet, if divided into a pair of 9x2 foot raised sections, can produce a lot of food. Dividing the planters into 1 foot squares and planting each individually allows for a lot of variety, and enables much more effective use of plantable area. According to the book, and to comments - I read most of the book from the library - it makes sense, and I have had good results from the parts I tried. Now if the neighbor would just tie up that danged dog, so I could turn my chickens loose on the grasshoppers. . .

You can also look at sharing resources, from room mates to other shared living and work environments.

You can also study. Learn crafts both staid and cultural historical 'quaint' efforts (lace making and tatting, tile making, wooden shoe carving, etc.) and rediscovered crafts and trades from smithing in iron and brass to mending and sewing clothes without electric devices - manual powered machines or manual processes.

Dryers consume a lot of resources. If not a clothesline, at least using community dryers reduces the market demand for personal dryers - and the attendant cost in carbon to manufacture another new one. Same goes for cars. Keeping an existing fuel hog tuned up and maintained properly probably means consuming less energy, over the next six to ten years, than buying a new, energy efficient model, with the cost required to build a new one, and the energy requirements of the people needed to build another one, etc.

If there is to be any carbon emission reduction, or decreased consumption of fossil fuels, then every erg of renewable energy is most properly used - to reduce the need for fossil fuel-powered energy, including electricity.

Plugging an electric car into the grid is no more green, when there is still enough demand for electricity that a single coal, oil, or gas fired electric plant is needed and online, is squandering fossil fuels. There are no green cars today, or green refrigerators or dryers or air conditioners. They cannot be considered green until they are powered by renewable resources and all fossil fuel demands have been replaced by renewable resources.

Just as there is the USDA white-wash (green wash) about formally labeled "organic" food that really isn't organic at all, labeling something as "green" is mostly about marketing by the same energy-profligate industries that brought us to today. Manufacturers don't want to lose income, so they portray their products as if they were better choices - when the only good choice is none at all.


I fear one word you use raises my hackles. The adult practice, unlike Kindergarten rules, seems to be that I never hear the word share, until someone demands something that someone else has - that is, redistribution of wealth, thug style. I am sure that is not what you mean. How to describe a family or community utilizing resources at need, without imposing hardship on any, may take another descriptive word.

Brad, Jonathan Kozol ones observed that he was giving a talk about impoverished American urbanc children and used the word "share" and saw the hackles of his audience go up. He laughed and said "they think I want to redistribute their wealth." Long pause. "And I do, but that's not the main point."

I'm with Kozol - yes, sharing means that we're going to have to stop hogging all the energy. Yes, I believe in redistribution - and that it will happen, voluntarily or involuntarily. But that's not my main point ;-).

Joseph, if Matt was the first person to start the "everyone run, the Gulf is going to explode" then he's been selling bullshit and he should apologize. We've got enough real problems, and the Gulf situation is enough of a crisis without making new stuff up.

As for being anti-war - most of the peak oil folk I know are radically anti-war. But they spent long chunks of their lives trying to stop the wars, in a nation built on military keynesianism and they have switched to accomplishments they think might have a tiny bit more hope of getting done.

Becca, I think this is one of those "you've got to decide for yourself." My own observation is that most people who know this stuff decline to fully understand the full consequences of that knowledge - that is, they understand that we have to do X and Y, but not that these things are going to make them poorer and give them less energy.

Alex, I agree with you to an extent - that while we've got fossil fuels we need to prioritize them for renewable and semi-renewable energies. But we also can't burn them faster than the climate can take and that's an inevitable limiting factor - besides the limiting of time, since we should have started this 30 years ago. Realistically, every analysis I've seen dealing with the US (and much less the world) suggests 2 decades or more of a WWII style project to make any kind of smooth transition. The problem is we don't have two decades before oil peak (and maybe not even before natural gas peak), and we don't have the borrowing capacity of WWII, and we also don't have the climate flexibility. So within those limiting parameters, what do you suggest?

Lindsay, I think this applies both to the national stage and to the personal stage - make carbon-intensive and fossil fuels as optional in your life as possible. Ask yourself what you would do without them at each stage of your life. This isn't easy - but a lot of people are doing it and there's a lot of support out there.


I don't even know where to begin to think about this stuff.

The place to begin thinking about this stuff is by thinking about time. Ecological, evolutionary, geological time. Years, decades, centuries, millenia, tens, hundreds of thousands, millions of years, geological periods, era, eons. Shallow, medium, deep time. How long does it take for selection to effect adaptation to novel environmental stressors in populations of various sizes & reproductive rates. How long does it take for range shifts to occur in taxa of various volancy, in intact and fragmented habitat. How long does it take for ecosystem integrity to evolve versus how long it takes for integrity to be compromised or destroyed. How long does it take for biodiversity to reestablish following mass extinction pulses. These are the issues that need to be thought about when considering all the "stuff" discussed on this forum.

Certainly there are economic, social, climatic, geological issues at play, but the most cogent issues are ecological & biogeochemical. Lacking a firm grasp of the physical & biological sciences it's difficult if not impossible to think about all this stuff with an appropriate frame of reference.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink


"Realistically, every analysis I've seen dealing with the US (and much less the world) suggests 2 decades or more of a WWII style project to make any kind of smooth transition. The problem is we don't have two decades before oil peak (and maybe not even before natural gas peak), and we don't have the borrowing capacity of WWII, and we also don't have the climate flexibility. So within those limiting parameters, what do you suggest?"

Peak oil in itself is not THAT scary, we probably still have some time before it hits. And even after it finally hits, things won't stop immediately - there'll still be a plenty of oil (about half of the total reserves).

Oil/gase decline can be partially offset by increased efficiency. Hell, US can readily decrease the average gasoline consumption by 20-30% just by mandating stricter fuel economy standards, we don't even need any new technology or development for that! Then the green capacity will slowly start coming online and will ease the pain.

I don't really think that we'll ever come to seriously limiting CO2 emissions until we have sufficient green capacity. So all practically recoverable oil _will_ be burned and that's why it's better to use it for good rather than wasting it. So no sense worrying about what it's going to do with climate :)

Two decades for transition is about right, probably. We don't necessarily need WWII-like effort with 90% taxes and children working in factories. But with the current 'leadership' we'll probably end up with the same situation.

In my dreamworld, Obama announces the major (tens/hundreds of billions dollars) state programs to improve engineering education to prepare the army of engineers and researchers for renewable technology (wind, solar, nuclear). With many many many billions for the actual research and development, including 4G nuclear powerplants. In 7-9 years we'll have a reliable roadmap for development _and_ a trained workforce to make it happen. Then we should implement it.

But it's not going to happen, it's obvious now. Climate&oil threats are a 'distant future' (i.e. more than one Congress term) and public can be easily mislead if necessary. And I don't see (as an outsider) any good leaders in US capable of tackling this problem. Obama has failed the whole world, it's obvious now.

And the whole world has problems of its own. Europe is too divided for such a concerted action. China doesn't give a damn. And Asia is too poor as it is.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

"Lindsay, I think this applies both to the national stage and to the personal stage - make carbon-intensive and fossil fuels as optional in your life as possible. Ask yourself what you would do without them at each stage of your life."

There's a good joke in Russia:
- Optimists study English.
- Pessimists study Chinese.
- Realists study AK-47.

Too bad it's going to be prophetic.

By Alex Besogonov (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

Thanks Alex. You've just clearly articulated the stuff of my nightmares. I fully expect to be raped, kidnapped and finally murdered once the hordes realize I have a foot powered sewing machine and a pantry full of home canned pickled peppers.

Alex, I certainly know that the oil isn't going to disappear immediately - I've been writing about peak oil for a long, long time. But the consequences of an oil peak are higher cost and that imposes heavy constraints. I actually think that the pure technical challenges are greater than you are allowing.

Lindsay, since most murderers won't have the faintest idea how to use a food powered treadle machine, you are probably ok. It is certainly possible that civil unrest and social violence could become as dangerous as some of the worst places in the world - it is also possible that the US could undergo a fairly low violence collapse - as it did in the Great Depression. I would be practical and reasonable here and have things like stout locks and strategies for safety but I wouldn't go straight to murder.


Stop the freakin wars and bring the troops and money back here to at least attempt to cushion the Collapse.

Humanity has never been able to muster the resolve to end war. If, as a species, we can't stop organized efforts to kill one another, how can anyone expect us to collectively & effectively remediate all the other urgent environmental & social problems that plague us & the biosphere?

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

Sharon, I don't think your point 3, about not building out renewables too fast makes sense. If the renewables are indeed energy positive, i.e. a unit of RE infrastructure makes enough energy to build more than 1 more unit of RE infrastructure, then minimization of the overall carbon slug comes from maximizing the buildout (even if that may mean a shortterm increase in emissions).

Now, we have a lot of other constrainsts on the rate of buildout, mainly financial, political will, and the fact that new employees must go through a learning curve, and new manufacturing takes time etc. etc. etc. But, spiking of carbon emissions by a too rapid buildout is not an issue.

By Omega Centauri (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

I fully expect to be raped, kidnapped and finally murdered...

Keep a loaded shotgun under your bed. Go down swingin'...

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink

@Omega: Why do you think that RE infrastructure is energy positive in the sense you state above? I mean, it may be, but I haven't seen any reason to think it is. We don't make solar panels using solar-panel-powered factories, for example. We do make solar panels using coal & oil powered factories that have some of their electric bills offset by their demo models out front, but that's the best I've seen. Just because the unit will, in fact, produce power, that's not a reason to believe that it will produce enough power to create another one of itself, which I'm pretty sure right now it won't. But I could be wrong--sources?

Climbing up the tree metaphor can be very personal if you look at it in the light of "radical simplicity" or "austerity". It's something I've fought against (and lost a bit lately). All because, to be honest here, I live way too much of a comfortable-liberalish-greenish existence. There's no two ways around it. I've grown accustomed to buying organic food from the store, eating out at ethnic restaurants, buying new clothes when needed, driving a newer fuel efficient-ish car, living in a relatively expensive condo so I can walk to work, etc. When you compare my lifestyle to that of say, the typical Southern Californian, I look great. But I'm still too far up the tree. Way too far. I might be able to climb down very carefully, but there's momentum against that...both mine and my wife's. It's easier for us just to say "we're doing enough, point the finger at someone else". But the truth is, even without peak oil, I'm not okay with where we are. Being used to all those things now means I have to keep a job I don't like in a city I don't want to live in. But it's hard to change...unless you're forced to. And that's where we sit. Uncomfortable, but probably not finding the gumption to change. I imagine there are plenty who feel the same way...waiting for the world to change. Because I have a job in the city, so how can I justify or afford moving to the country even though that's where we belong? And since I have a job, why not enjoy all the "green" things that money lets us buy? See, it's just so easy to let the momentum sustain you, despite that grating feeling in your stomach that everything you're doing is wrong, and not enough, and a lie. Sad isn't it?

Sad isn't it?

It's only sad if your lifestyle is making you unhappy, Dan. Seems to me that there's probably millions of people who would envy your lifestyle. I'm certain that a lot of country folk would trade places with you if they could. Two of my own kids moved to the city in order to live pretty much as you describe after a childhood of chores: turning compost, hoeing, carrying wood, tending animals. My grandparents were more than glad to trade farm life for town & factory. The grass is always greener...

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 14 Jul 2010 #permalink


Yes, I know there are TONS of people who would trade places with me, because they would love to be able to afford the lifestyle I live (that sounds really conceited, but stay with me)...but the whole point is that my lifestyle is up too far in a tree...and just because it seems grand now, it's quite precariously perched. If I lose my job, how far do I fall? How fast? How much longer will my perch even be viable? And do I want to climb down on my own terms, or get thrown out at some point?

I don't doubt that life would be more difficult if I choose XYZ instead of my current ABC, but the whole point of Sharon's post (I believe), was that we don't have that long before we might not be able to choose the higher-consumption side...and climbing down the tree now may be less painful than climbing down it later...or falling out of it later as the case may be.

That's a damn hard choice to make though when you look around and see everyone else partying it up with their own choices...friends, family, strangers, the Yankees, whatever. And I think that's why so many well intentioned people only do enough to make a token effort...hard to be the early adopter unless you're forced to.

It's also hard because these things happen in little case studies of one.

It's a beautiful sunny day out right now, I have plenty of cash in my bank account, do I go out to eat tonight, have a glass of wine, and curl up with a fun book? Or do I cook from scratch, read up some more on ecology, and work on my food storage?

Little choices. Day after day. Keep you in the tree or start you climbing down. How do you find the will to change if everything still seems so easy, so available, even while you know there's so much horrific crap happening now and coming down the pipe?

This mental excersize is making me really question my convictions around all that. Kind of feel like a pompous jerk right now to be honest...I could do so much more than I do, and it's mostly out of laziness that I don't...and THAT is what's truly sad...

"The FIRST step toward planning for the future is to stop the entire Imperial agenda. If that is not accomplished, then all the rest is futile."

If I've said this once, I've said it a thousand times, and I will keep on saying it. Our leaders are a reflection of who we are. They are not demons from the underworld sent to oppress us. They are a symptom of our culture. If you don't solve the problems on main street you'll never solve the problems in Washington. This is the country that voted in Reagan "morning in america" after we got turned off by Carter's malaise speech. (Even Carter had to placate us by enacting "the Carter Doctrine" to protect our access to persian gulf oil.) This is the country that reelected Bush after Iraq had already been categorized as a cluster-F. This is the country that sees no value in buying american, who shop at Wal-Mart with pride because price is our #1 consideration. This is the country that whines about illegal immigration and yet are too spoiled to do the work that illegals do in this country, or to pay the prices for goods and services that they'd have to pay to support living wages.

And I'm supposed to let all that slide and point my finger up at Obama and the shady smoking man in the back-room? Enough, already! We need a wholescale societal paradigm shift, not simplistic calls for regime change.

As long as the public are thinking in terms of "the center must hold" then there will never be anything good to come out of Washington. No matter how disgruntled people are, and no matter how libertarian their ideologies are, they are still holding onto their fantasies of growth and american exceptionalism.

I'm kind of surprised that Sharon is issuing a top-down political manifesto, considering that people like Heinberg have all but abandoned hope that the Plan B approach will ever gain traction. It doesn't hurt to try, but you won't find any suppport for steady-state economies or powerdown outside of the doomer clique and the handful of nascent transition town movements and I doubt yet another blog posting will change those demographics.

Ed, Sharon I disagree with both of you.

Sharon, as I said, I do not see ANY Peak Oil writers passionately advocating massive protest against the bankrupting of this country by Imperial overstretch.

The point is - and this is for you too Ed - the elites who control this country are unfit to be in positions of leadership and it is long past time to completely delegitimize them absolutely. In other words, it is time to call the corporate plutocracy and the political whores that serve them traitors to this country and to the human race.

I mean what the hell? - our *leaders* are killing massive amounts of civilians: these people are criminally insane. They are using missle-firing drone aircraft in cities! They bail out the banks, refuse universal health care and escalate war, all against the will of the majority of the people.

Yes Ed, there ARE dumbed-down, uninformed people out there, the ones who look to Sarah Palin and other sick demagogues to lead them, but there are still a lot of real smart and informed progressives and enough people who have enough common sense to know that this country is being destroyed.

So yes, Sharon and Ed, I think that if you truly want to see the Collapse mitigated, there is only one source of wealth to do it with, all the wealth being drained away by the Military-Industrial Complex and Imperial overstretch. If you have been keeping up with the news, you will notice that "they" intend to reduce the deficit by taxes and the reduction of services to the middle class and the poor, and they are refusing to even consider drastic cuts in military spending, even though it is the only sane thing to do.

If the MIC is not stopped, then the least fortunate among us are going to suffer the Collapse the worst, and it is starting right now. As we speak, thousands of dollars a minute are being thrown away on useless wars, wealth that could be used to mitigate the Collapse, and that wealth would make all the difference in the world. Tell me Sharon when Kunstler, Greer, Orlov, Lundberg or whoever passionately wrote of their outrage over this?

I dont think they shy away from it for the reasons you mention, I think they are afraid to stand up and tell the truth because doing so opens up a whole can of worms, especially concerning the situation in the Middle East.

Re: Matt Simmons

I dont think he is the one who said the "Gulf was going to explode", but he is on video saying there are fractures in the geological formation, that there are leaks miles from the well head and that the well casing is damaged.

Here is a link from LATOC for what it's worth.


I also remember seeing articles about how scientists warned that drilling in the GOM formation could be dangerous.

I dont know why Simmons was saying the things he was saying, like saying that the leaks are unstoppable and will go on for decades. It is hard to imagine that he would just recklessly throw away his reputation.

I dont think the above website - helium.com - can be trusted to be a reliable source of information.

This whole GOM disaster illustrates the dire situation we are in: we live in a disinformation matrix from which it is almost impossible to discern the truth because so many people are lying and spinning and pushing agendas.

The fact is, we are being lied to so much by the corporate state, or whatever you want to call the present Big Business-Big Government Oligarchy (some call it proto-fascism), which completely controls the mass media, that we really have no idea what is actually going on in many areas.

Whether it is 911, a war here, a war there, the Gulf disaster or whatever, we are constantly being kept in the dark, lied to, subjected to deliberate propaganda campaigns and information warfare.

The GOM disaster is just another example of how we, the people, have completely lost control of our country and our future. We have no say, we are told to accept what we are told by our overlords, and beyond that, we search and probe the meager trickles of information that come through the tiny alternative media.

All of this is going to make planning for the future so much more difficult. Soon we may well be subjected to another propaganda campaign "explaining" to us why we have to bomb Iran, or maybe Venezuela, or wherever.

So what do we actually KNOW about what is really going on in the world? Who do we trust? The corporate state? Ha!

To all I say, good luck navigating the future from within the disinformation matrix we all live in.

Fine article but I take exception at this paragraph:

"Human and animal powered technologies can and should fill in the gaps. With 6.7 billion people and growing, human power is the most abundant and underused energy resource on the planet."

- human power is not an energy SOURCE!
- as a matter of fact, the human motor is less efficient than a car engine, it uses more food calories to produce the same work (technical term)
- and the way food is produced commercially, it takes perhaps 5 fossil fuel calories to produce one food calorie
- I'm not convinced that food for the 6.7 billion can be produced without a substantial fossil fuel input

Just saying...

willy - Your first three points are correct, but you're overlooking the fact that labor-intensive crop production is far more efficient in terms of energy return on energy invested. Many people today still rely on horticulture or agriculture using no fossil fuels, as some civilizations did for millennia, and if agrarian peoples burned more calories tending the crop than they were able to harvest in edible biomass, they would rapidly starve to death. Hand cultivation can also be far more efficient in terms of calories returned per acre, depending upon the methods used.

The down side (from the Western perspective) is that because it is so labor-intensive, a large fraction of the population must be employed as farmers. We perceive this as an unpleasant role even beyond the fact that it involves (horrors) manual labor, but its status depends very much upon cultural attitudes. For example, I learned from the book "Just Enough", about sustainability in Edo period Japan, that the social hierarchy of that society ranked peasant farmers above artisans and especially merchants, who might have much more money than the farmer but were seen as less worthy of respect. Cultivation of such attitudes towards those who produce our food might make producing food seem like an attractive option for more people.

- as a matter of fact, the human motor is less efficient than a car engine, it uses more food calories to produce the same work (technical term)

Not sure how this is arrived at.

If ATP, ADP & inorganic phosphate concentrations are equal, the efficiency of cellular respiration is 38.3% @ STP. However, [ATP] is often five to ten times of that of [ADP] and the cellular environment is not @ STP, elevating efficiency to ~50%.

By contrast, gasoline ICEs typically operate in the range of 10 - 15%.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink

I struggle to find some optimism in all this. The best I come up with is that we will be noted primarily as an organism that concentrated a great deal of resources in fairly easy to mine locales (dumps) for the sentient critters who will follow us in some tens of millions of years. Collapses are not linear, peak oil is not the only peak scenario we are engaged in, and this is not a problem of just a few variables. This is the billion body (plus or minus a few) problem, and we will not plan our way through this. Nature will.

Our wars are ample evidence that we as a species are simply bats**t crazy; there will be little left in the way of resources not concentrated in the hands of a very few over these next few years, and the richest f**ks are building retreats (at least the paranoid ones). Our indicator fossil? The flattened water bottle.

Shallow time, we will suffer increasingly, and the rich will get richer while the poor do what they do. Slightly longer, the poor rise up and eat the rich ones, while the summer temperatures climb to 120 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit. At least making monkey jerky will be easy.

A bit longer term: Will our heat death extinction period be called the Homocene? Will the octopi even pay any historical attention to us? Not likely.

Deeper time? It matters not at all. As I said, I struggle to find some optimism. Sorry.

Personally, my family and I have plans to centralize, and work our land; we will make our wine and distill a bit of alcohol for the tiller, We will share with those around us, and tell stories of the old times around the dung fires.

Earth abides.

By Alan from near BC (not verified) on 15 Jul 2010 #permalink

dewey- point taken.
Not sure however whether the current 6.7 billion people would be able to survive on their own labor, as opposed to some tribes surrounded by an abundance of nature.
Too many Indians are starving.

darwinsdog- I'm not an expert but I tend to look down on "human power", perhaps helped by personal experience since all the transport I have is my bicycle!

One figure that I came across, struck me in particular: a human is able to generate about 1 KWh of mechanical work per day ( I have no specific internet reference, but I believe the 1 KWh is not far off target; and: I'm sure I'm not able to deliver 1 KWh)
Now 1 kWh costs me â¬.20 or about 25 dollarcents!! That's the worth of a day of physical human labor!

As to human efficiency overall: figures I found ranged from 25% absolute max, to 12.5% more typical.

I believe modern Diesel engines achieve up to 30% efficiency.

willy - "Not sure however whether the current 6.7 billion people would be able to survive on their own labor"

Well, no, if we had to transition instantly to a subsistence agricultural economy we would be screwed. JMG has commented regarding the back-to-the-land communes of the 1970s that aiming for total rural self-sufficiency will get you at best the lifestyle of a Third World peasant (some of whom have tolerable lives, I will say, and some of whom don't), and that only IF you have the same competence at farming that they have. Very few Americans nowadays have either the physical fitness or the competence to grow enough calories to feed ourselves plus several other people.

Good post Alan. The nonlinear synergistic compilation of environmental degradations that, taken alone aren't irremediable, perhaps, but together potentiate one another chaoticlly & catastrophically, is the real problem, as you point out. Regarding climatic warming the issue isn't so much 120 - 130^oF daytime temps as it is that it won't cool off sufficiently at night for the body to lose heat to the environment. Fatal hyperthermia will be the outcome & this will render large areas of the Earth's surface uninhabitable.

Hi willy. I think that the confusion stemmed from two different metrics of metabolic efficiency. My figures were for conversion of the potential energy of the glucose molecule into ATPs, whereas others were referring to conversion of ATP --> ADP + Pi into work performed by muscle.

6.7 billion people absolutely cannot be fed sans fossil fuel energy inputs into agriculture. .2 - .5 billion at most, perhaps. However, other environmental stressors make even this population level unrealistic.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

darwinsdog - As you might expect I disagree on a couple of points:

The predictions about how much of the world will be "uninhabitable" don't address the question of whether you can find human beings right now in places that, according to the criteria used, would be labeled uninhabitable. Apparently there are some. The worst challenge for desert dwellers is not surviving the heat - appropriate housing and behavior make that much easier - but providing food for a substantial population in an environment where commonly experienced heat waves are hot enough to kill almost any crop plant.

Secondly, more than .2-.5 billion people TODAY are fed by subsistence agriculture using little or no fossil fuels. To be sure, in many areas their practices are not sustainable, but that is due to their dense populations. If you gave half a billion of today's subsistence farmers the entire planet to live on (even discounting the areas that will become too hot and/or dry to grow crops), I believe they would be able to feed themselves very well (until, of course, they bred themselves back up to several billion hungry, warmongering people - humans are what they are and I see no hope that that will change).

Secondly, more than .2-.5 billion people TODAY are fed by subsistence agriculture using little or no fossil fuels.

I've spent an hour trying to find some reliable estimate of population of subsistence agriculturalists in the world today. Since I haven't been very successful I'll have to take your word for this, dewey. One thing I have discovered is that the very definition of "subsistence agriculturalist" is hard to pin down. Tony Waters, in his "The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: life beneath the level of the marketplace," gives the following definition: "Subsistence peasants are people who grow what they eat, build their own houses, and live without regularly making purchases in the marketplace." A photograph meant to illustrate subsistence agriculturalists shows Ugandan women hoeing a crop. The hoes they are using were made in China or India. They are also wearing brightly colored garments made of factory woven cloth. If a "subsistence agriculturalist" is someone who "live(s) without regularly making purchases in the marketplace," as Waters says, and uses "little or no fossil fuels" as you would have it, I'm not sure that ANY such people still exist. Perhaps there are a handful of tribal people still living as subsistence agriculturalists meeting these criteria in the tropics but as many as 200 - 500 million? Maybe those women stole those hoes and their garments were imported via clipper ship.

By darwinsdog (not verified) on 16 Jul 2010 #permalink

In rural parts of the developing country with which I am most familiar, you buy the metal end of a hoe or shovel at the local marketplace - this could be locally made, and you can sometimes tell from the appearance that it was - and attach a handle yourself. Few imported goods are available, and village markets mostly feature local crops and animals; most people seldom deal in cash money, and there are still some in remote areas who have never seen a gas-powered vehicle. Local people do prefer factory-made cloth with artificial dyes, and families usually own a handful of manufactured items, such as a plastic bucket or two. But there were people living in this place long before factory cloth or factory buckets, and if they could not replace those few manufactured items, they or someone in their vicinity would hand-make substitutes.

Personally, I don't think that the lives of those women in Uganda are less secure or sustainable because they were able to purchase or trade for a hoe and a length of cloth. Expecting every family to make its own tools and weave its own cloth is a recipe for endless labor with squalid poverty as its reward.

Can someone explain why douche bags who unabashedly use the obscenely classist expression peasant use the word subsistence as an inaccurate euphemism for hardsrcabble.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 17 Jul 2010 #permalink

Can someone explain why douche bags who unabashedly use the obscenely classist expression peasant use the word subsistence as an inaccurate euphemism for hardsrcabble.

Can you rephrase that so it isn't a tautology? Or were you just having an existential moment?

*hands Prometheus a cuppa* There, there. I personally derive quite a lot of humor from the musings of folks who imagine that the future somehow holds a Plague Of Doom that specifically targets anyone with the slightest amount of creativity and spatial reasoning. FSM knows, the whole world will forget how to build a gorram water-mill or solar oven in the future.

D'you think, seriously now, d'you think that it's *because* the audience here is so highly-educated, that they believe so strongly that in order to create or invent anything of consequence, such levels of education are a prerequisite? (E.g. "all those uneducated dumb bunnies can't run an aquaponics farm to save their lives," "it is impossible for stupid people to grow enough food for more than themselves without Smart Agronomists to tell them how to do," and so on. ) I run into this in my colleagues frequently, they seem to be morally certain that it requires a degree in civil engineering to build a house, a degree in computer science to assemble a computer and program it, a degree in MechEng to build a car, &c. and when you point out that all these things are done by teenagers with no formal education in the subject on a routine basis, they are incredulous and accuse you of lying. I reckon it is an artifact of the extension of the grad school/postdoc time frame, that they have inculcated decades of training as a normal requirement of independent thought. What do you think?

DD, the UN estimated in 1999 that 2 billion people were living in the world on largely subsistence agriculture (which doesn't mean "don't barter or sell anything, or ever buy anything in a market place, but rather "produce their own primary needs first and sell only surpluses") with "minimal inputs of fossil fuels." Gotta dig around and find the paper.


As for us tautological douchebags ;-), I like and use both the words "peasant" and "subsistence" - peasant isn't always a classist term - consider the uses of Maria Mies, or the reclamation of the word "peasant" by many agrarian groups in the global south. I tend to use it as Teodor Shanin (my favorite economist) does, in the sense of peasant economics. As for "subsistence" it shouldn't merely mean "hardscrabble" if only because that's such a terrific word in and of itself that it shouldn't be replaced, but it should fairly accurately describe a life in which people meet their primary needs first, from their own production, rather than functioning primarily in the money economy. I've seen people complain that subsistence is derogatory as well, but I don't find it a compelling case - again, check out Maria Mies.


Tsk tsk...so pessimistic. Using fear and backward thinking we resist the flow of history and ignore the emerging technologies which are like a rung on the ladder of human advancement and are taking us to the stage where humans can at last harvest the bounty of space and consequently give the planet's resources a rest. As for energy specifically, space based solar, fusion, as well as newer and safer forms of fission are now more promising than ever.
While the common understanding is that the exorbitant costs of sending payloads to space makes large scale commercial development in space unrealistic and/or beyond reach. That's true only as long as we insist on using the same rocket technology that was designed for military ballistic missiles within the trident defense concept of Air (carried by bombers), land (hidden in tunnels), or sea (submarines) and so the rockets are scaled intentionally to be too small to efficiently utilize the economies of scale that apply to the vast potentials, demands, and rewards of space. We've just spent 45 years learning how to operate in space but we need to start using that knowledge to scale up for tools and platforms that are robust enough to be really useful. The current ISS is an amazing apparatus but it's delicate, complex, cramped, expensive and dangerous...we need a platform that's on the scale of the South Pole where researches can live for a long time without having to worry about zero-gravity and radiation effects; both of which would become non-problems on a truly robust rotating torus comprised of the payloads themselves each of which could be the size of commercial buildings instead of Katrina-trailers. It's no longer 'rocket science', it's now astro-engineering and we are well versed in it and would do well to get beyond the stage were we equate fuel-sipping satellites made of the lightest possible (and therefore the most expensive) materials immaginable with the durable, affordable materials of modern design.
What would it cost to develop a truly large scaled and efficient 'railroad' to space? A lot and yet it's a small fraction of the amount of money many of our presumed leaders are really and willing to spend on trying to control CO2 in the belief it will work to stabilize our historically oh-so unstable climate.
We can look up and start building the path to abundant clean energy and other resources of space or we can sit here on the curb staring at the knotty problem of our tangled progress-inhibiting shoe-laces, wondering just how we'll ever be able do anything except crawl back to some perceived point of safety...and wait for the next big asteroid to make all our efforts irrelevant.

You really can't reclaim a word that was never used by your group self referentially in the first place.

Peasant, traditionally refers to the English agrarian facet of non-artisan working classes very specifically as a status proscribed by birth.

It descends from a proposition of human lives being part of the features of a parcel of negotiable farmland like water wells or barns.

As impressed with some of Mies' observations I regard her use of the term decorous, inconsiderate and historically flippant.

Calling third world hardscrabble subsistence farmers, peasants, for the edification of a first world audience is analogous to hanging a scythe in an Upper West Side Pied de Terre and calling it "folk art".

There is a western pretense that everyone is harmoniously living the life they want and we have wasted a few centuries furthering it with notions of noble savages, romanticizing rural life and fetishizing third world poverty.

I suppose I am as guilty of this as the next person. If I was more realistic about what the third world wants from the first world, I would wear a bandolier when I walked the dog.

Lora at #41

You started me thinking about this:

By Prometheus (not verified) on 18 Jul 2010 #permalink

Prometheus: Good link! Thanks.

I dunno, I particularly like the notion of a scythe blade hanging on the wall of a spoilt yuppie. It should hang right next to the guillotine blade used to remove the heads of their ancestors, yanno? "And this is the executioner's axe from when great-great-great-great-great-great-great auntie Erzebet was convicted of bathing in human blood. Isn't it striking?" They should all have such ever-present reminders.

No offense, Prometheus, but my Polish *peasant* grandparents were proud of being peasants, and quite a number of eastern european communities use words appropriately translated as "peasant" positively. The reality is that in a limited set of language, "peasant" doesn't just imply its single origins, but it also is the correct english cognate for a large number of other words, many of them not negative - we simply don't have a better language. Maria Mies, the daughter of German peasants, isn't a yuppie reclaiming something she has no entitlement to. Neither is Shanin, the son of Polish (and Russian, depending on what year we're talking about) peasants. Frankly, you can tell me I can't reclaim it since I'm two generations removed, but I don't think you can tell people who have reclaimed that word that it is too tainted for them - I think that's arrogant and insulting.


lora: "D'you think, seriously now, d'you think that it's *because* the audience here is so highly-educated, that they believe so strongly that in order to create or invent anything of consequence, such levels of education are a prerequisite?"

Yes, do I ever. There is a vocal contingent online of people who explicitly claim that one cannot know ANYTHING except through science, and who appear to mean by "science" only formal practices, of (in their minds) recent Western vintage, engaged in by educated people. In their epistemology, foragers or traditional horticulturalists in Papua New Guinea, say, literally possess no knowledge. This, of course, not only justifies total contempt for non-Westernized peoples, but makes it easy to justify ripping off their traditional knowledge (since they have none).

"my Polish *peasant* grandparents were proud of being peasants, and quite a number of eastern european communities use words appropriately translated as "peasant" positively."


Of course they were.

I'll give up and grant that I should be less historically pedantic.

Your grandparents were rightfully proud of their work/culture and no doubt encouraged by a neo-romantic populist movement called ChÅopomania, an attribution of virtues by fin de siecle Eastern European intellectuals which they certainly deserved and too long delayed.

Chlopski was about as far from the traditional French/English meaning of peasant as you can get and this demonstrates the general disdain in which immigrants and their old world professions were held at the turn of the century in what they were called and came to call themselves in this country.

....but I leave it where it lies.

I'm also glad Maria Mies ancestors' were bauers at a time when they were revered instead of ridiculed (as they were and are now).

I will allow that roseate memories and the complexity of language can clean-up the meaning of a word.

It requires a steady diet of lotus.

....but I leave it where it lies.

The context in which I have in the past entertained the term ad arguendo has been in the anthropology of African and Indian anti-colonial uprisings and colonial persecutions wherein third world subsistence farmers were being treated according to the status traditionally afforded European peasantry,by Europeans.

I hope you find me less arrogant and insulting considering, for you, I am distending ad arguendo to the point of risking a semantic rupture and a sociological/historical truss.

Yours on a figurative inflatable doughnut,


By Prometheus (not verified) on 19 Jul 2010 #permalink

A "peasant" discussion! Well, I am from central Europe, and I have *never* heard anyone there referring to anyone as peasants. There are country people and town people. Country people are also known as farmers. Never peasants. Peasants is what Americans refer to small farmers in other countries, but never here. How come a subsistence Appalachian farmer is never a peasant? Oh and the word, as least as used in the U.S., seems to imply has subtle, or less subtle, overtones of backwardness. Chuck it...

Prometheus, I think the problems we have are with the limits of English, which doesn't have a lot of good words. And I agree with you that there's a solid case against Peasant, and its historic overtones - but I'm fond of the exercise of reclamation - I like the word "Queer" also - and talk about the baggage that one has. Personally, I actually would like to bring back older words that have roughly the same origins but then slipped out "Gnof" and "Churl" being my favorites. Actually, I really like "Gnof" but unfortunately its only rough cognate is Goniff - there's a reason why all the other words - Varlet, Churl, etc... are all *more* derogatory than Peasant.

Vera, actually the reason American Appalachian's aren't called Peasants is because they are called much worse things by most Americans. Poor white trash and Cracker and Redneck (the latter is being partially reclaimed) are among the polite ones. Peasant would be a word to which they can only aspire in its classiness.

Sharon, daughter of a swamp yankee (northern equivalent of PWT, although Mom's an Indian too, so that makes it worse)

Well, that may be, Sharon, but you miss my point. Why is it that American farmers, no matter how small, no matter how subsistence or traditionalist, are NEVER called peasants? The Amish are never called peasants either. Nobody here is. Only people in other countries are peasants. Isn't there something fishy about that?

Maybe that is because, Sharon excepted, there are very few rural Americans who farm by hand and live largely off their own produce, which is part of the lifestyle we all envision when we say "peasant." I agree that "peasant" carries some connotation of a person who spends his life laboring in poverty beneath the yoke of the state and/or church, but that need not be the case. Some medieval European peasants were pretty well off, by local standards of the time. (Prometheus in comment 45 seems to be confusing peasants with serfs; there were free peasants who had long-term rights to land of their own, usually having to pay their overlords some token sum for its use that compares very favorably with today's property tax.) Anyway, if the fact is that rural people in a particular country ARE oppressed, impoverished, isolated, etc., proclaiming that we will no longer call them "peasants" is not going to lift those burdens from their shoulders.

I add that it's not only foreign to our very young national culture for Americans to live a traditional rural existence outside a cash economy, it's almost totally illegal, for one thing because there is no such thing as allodial land title anymore. You can't OWN land; you rent it from the government, getting evicted if you can't pay the property tax, and you can't pay it in wool or wheat as European peasants frequently could. An old-fashioned European farming village, or a modern-day African village, simply could not exist within our borders. When you say "why doesn't America have peasants?" you might as well ask why we don't have nomadic herdsmen. It's not part of the range of lifeways tolerated by the overall society.

Dewey, I don't buy it. The Amish do exactly that: farm by hand and live off their produce, selling only the surplus. Yet nobody calls them peasants. Americans are all farmers, those who farm. But other countries, well, that's different. Those foreign people are quaint clodhoppers. :-(

Well, you seldom see an Amish woman out hoeing potatoes and wearing a babushka. The babushka is an essential part of it. ;-)

Seriously, there is a group of Americans who are quite happy to apply demeaning names to rural folks, especially those perceived as poor and ignorant. Cracker, redneck, white trash, etc. (On another Scienceblog a few months ago, I saw a discussion of how anyone who self-identified as a "redneck" was ipso facto an evil racist, with vitriol heaped on any ruralite who tried to dispute this.) Yet this contemptuous name-calling never, as you observe, includes "peasant." I think that is good evidence that to us, "peasant" means not just a poor farmer, but someone with a specific, if ill-defined, way of life or cultural status that simply does not exist in America.

"...there were free peasants who had long-term rights to land of their own, usually having to pay their overlords some token sum for its use that compares very favorably with today's property tax."

Not really.

In order to accomplish this you first had to leave the estate to which you belonged and abandon rural life for an urban one, accumulate enough money to buy a parcel or negotiate contractual tenancy from a hereditary owner on terms by indenture.

I'm looking over my desk at a framed 17th century English farm indenture.....nope not favorable terms.

The land in the area where Sharon is located was the subject of a populist war as late as the mid-nineteenth century under the Dutch corporate incarnation of this principle in North America.

As a note of possible interest, this process of expired serfdom and return with powers of negotiation changed status from peasant, paisant, serf or bauer to landlord, propriataire, padron, laird, junker etc..

It was the first class mobility in Europe and created the third estate.

Unfortunately the principle law was expressed "Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag"

shortened to:

"Stadtluft macht frei."

A phrase of real hope co-opted and changed to give false hope under profoundly tragic circumstances.

By Prometheus (not verified) on 21 Jul 2010 #permalink

The situation in England was actually variable, both over time and within a single time period, and not all peasants were serfs by any means. However, we should also remember that there was a lot more to Europe than England - there were places in Europe where serfdom didn't exist at all.

Heh. The Hutterites wear babushkas religiously! :-)

I have seen the word 'peasant' used in America in ways that are patronizing to other peoples. We proud Americans are farmers, even the white trash and rednecks. But those foreigners, they are, well, peasants. I guess I would not be carrying on about this if it hadn't come to bother me over the years.

Prometheus, I have not seen the enlarged phrase before: Stadtluft macht frei nach Jahr und Tag... Town air makes free after a year and a day? Huh?

Late medieval law in many places was that if a runaway serf made it to a city and stayed there for a year and a day, he was free and could no longer be caught and dragged back to the farm by the landowner. (Centuries earlier, in the "dark ages," there was neither such an institution of serfdom, nor cities to which those who were fed up with farming could decamp.) This custom was one of the inspirations for the saying "City air is free air." Most who made that choice probably stayed in the city, rather than trying to return to farming somewhere else - in a feudal society, if you did not have family or social ties to a place or its local nobility, you would not have found it easy to rent land.

Even during the period when serfdom was common in England, you could find serfs and freemen answering to the same noble and working fields in the same area. It was never the case that everyone who worked the land was a serf - at least in England. I'm not familiar with Russian history, but have gotten the impression that serfdom was near-ubiquitous in rural areas of Russia at certain periods. In fact, there were well-known serf artisans, artists, actors and musicians, etc., who were often trained at the expense of their "owner"; it was not only farm workers who were enserfed.

Russia was an extreme case, I think... in the Czech lands, there were plenty of free farmers in high medieval days, and even serfdom was not too onerous. A number of regions even had special freedoms guaranteed. But as time wore on, serfdom got worse, with greater restrictions and work duties and rescinded privileges, and there were many rebellions. It finally got repealed around 1760 or so (by Joseph II, the monarch featured in Amadeus). I never heard about the year and a day law... not sure if it existed there.

Vera, I take your point about American peasants - and I think that's true in measure, and what it represents isn't necessarily the derogation of peasanthood (although some of that too) but the observation that Americans have never been tied to the land in any formal way, except by slavery. We had slaves and indentured servants, not peasants - the language is different because the history is different. Moreover, Americans have a long tradition of abandoning their place, rather than staying in it -in fact, the first act of a new American, if you were not native or african american, was always to actively eschew historic ties to the land in favor of others.

I think the problem is that the language of serf and peasant implied very different things, depending on where and when you lived. Britain's peasants, pre-conquest, for example, had a surprisingly large degree of social mobility, with legal recourse to those tied to the land. Britain post-conquest didn't have that mobility or legal recourse again for about 300 years. The Plague gave some measure of it back, simply because of the labor shortage.

But it is worth remembering that the Robin Hood story is precisely the reverse of how it is told in modern times - it isn't about freeing the peasants, it is about *not* freeing the peasants - serfs didn't have to pay taxes, free peasants did. The rape of the population under Richard and then John was caused by the discovery by the nobility that by freeing their peasants, by ripping up the historical legal responsibilities that made lords responsible for things like taxes, providing ale for feasts, paying the priests, etc... they could extract a lot more money from the poor. The starving, desperate peasantry was the involuntarily freed - they now had minimal access to the courts, and the traditional system that required the lord to pay the fees for any actions on the status of his peasants had been overturned - now they could be involuntarily freed and charged for it, suddenly inheriting a tax burden the land couldn't support.

The history of the British enclosure laws is another example that's less about freeing peasants than about overturning historical reciprocities between peasants and the more priveleged. This isn't to valorize the relationship, but it is worth noting that at one point social mobility among peasants was fairly high (around 4% in 1060), and the relationship fairly functional, with explicit legal rights, and when it changed, it didn't necessarily change into the modern narrative in which freedom is at the center - some people escaped to cities, of course, but most often what was wanted was the enforcing of traditional *mutual* responsibilities.

It reminds me of that old Simpson's cartoon where Homer goes into space (20 years ago now) and he accidentally breaks open the ant farm in space, and the ants screams are translated as "Freedom, horrible, horrible freedom!"


That's another good point, Sharon - I think the word also carries a connotation of intergenerational persistence - we assume that a "peasant" lives in the same village her great-grandfather lived in. That's not unknown in America, but it's rare (though I do know a fifth-generation farmer in Illinois). If energy decline makes us a less mobile society, who knows, one of your sons' great-grandchildren may still be farming your land (and blessing you for having taken such good care of the soil).

Vera -

The Amish do exactly that: farm by hand and live off their produce, selling only the surplus. Yet nobody calls them peasants.

Erm, that's not quite the view of the Amish I've come to hold - you realize they utilize GMOs, persticides, herbicides and artificial fertilizer in their crop production - Amish farmers growing acres of corn arent living off their produce and selling only the surplus - they're growing commodity grain for sale, they're as much part of modern agricultural practices as pretty much any other small to mid scale commodity farmer out there.
They don't really fit any definition of Peasant (regardless of how wrong a definition to use that is for practically anyone)

And there you'd be wrong, Ewan. The Amish, including many Mennonites and Hutterites, very much do follow the economy of feed yourself and your community first, and sell surplus (though some of the Mennonites and definitely the Hutterites avail themselves of modern machinery in the field).

It has nothing to do whether or not they use chemicals and other modern things, or whether the surplus they sell is a commodity: it has everything to do with the fact that they know to feed themselves first, and are not at the mercy of the market for the stuff they themselves can produce. If you farm corn which you sell to the silos at farm prices, and buy all your food at premium retail prices, you become at the mercy of the economic machine. This is one of the reasons why anabaptist farmers continue to farm successfully while the mainstream family farm has been going extinct.

There are, of course, other parts to it. Staying away from debt as much as possible, mutual support and aid, placing high value on community, and establishing the next generation in farming are also very important. Just like "peasants" have done from time immemorial.

Sharon, yes, what you say makes sense. The breaking of liege bonds was not promoted by concern over the rural people, nor did it necessarily serve them. But the contempt for "peasants" by the other orders -- knights and clerks -- dates from very ancient days. So does their exploitation.

The point I was making, somewhat badly it seems, is that it really doesn't fit to call the Amish 'peasants' particularly not how this is generally meant (insecure subsistence farming(at least that's my own personal perception of what peasant means in this day and age)

They are, to a certain extent, "at the mercy" of the "economic machine" as they purchase their inputs (seed, pesticide, herbicide, fertilizer) aswell as some of their "machinery" (there is a certain level of bizaritude in seeing a horse drawn pesticide spraying rig (and I'm going to go ahead and guess that the Amish aren't producing plastic pesticide containers or spray nozzles) - they're part of the economic machine regardless of how you choose to romanticize them.

Of course, Ewan, they are part of the economic machine in the larger sense. I would have wished you'd comment on the smaller economic picture I am highlighting, namely, that their economic model is to feed your family/community first, then sell what's left.

The whole definition thing is getting crazier by the minute... now you define them as "insecure subsistence farmers". :-) Well, ok, in what way are they insecure? Peasants, I mean?

I wouldn't have said that "peasant" implied insecurity (some peasants are prosperous by local standards), rather that subsistence agriculture is an intergenerational rather than a chosen lifestyle.

Insecure in that they are food insecure - totally, or at least mostly reliant entirely on what they produce themselves.

Again - this is the image that the word "Peasant" conjures in my mind in the modern world and as such - at least part of the image anyway.

Well, maybe we are getting at why Americans think of foreigners as peasants... and never themselves. Peasants are not just subsistence farmers, they are "insecure" in their food supply. Is that why we look down our noses at "peasants"? ;-)

I have two things to that:

Like dewey points out, many historical "peasants' were anything but food-insecure, they were prosperous. And of course there was a great deal of trading between regions as well for food stuffs that were not produced locally. So it was in central Europe. In Czech, there is no word for "peasant" really, just a variety of words for "farmer" and "villager." And the words for 'farmer' tend to differ in part on the size of the holdings and the farm's prosperity.

The other thing is... when thinking of food security, isn't the subsistence farmer the most secure of us all? Even if things get bad and trade breaks down, they are the most likely to still have food to eat. Even in starving Leningrad, farmers from surrounding areas would come and sell a bit of private surplus in the squares of the famine stricken city. While on the other hand, the modern farmer who grows only one or two crops for the commodity market while buying food from the store has no food security at all...

If "peasant" is a quasi-hereditary status implying that your family has been farming in that village since time immemorial, it's no surprise that we don't have any peasants in America. 99.9% of all of America's farmers have ancestors who came here relatively recently - and until the past few generations, those who began farming did so on land that had just been seized by force from native residents. You can't be simultaneously a colonist and a peasant, I think; the former implies going somewhere else, the latter implies staying right where you were born.

Anyway, if people who do that are looked down on, I think the thing to do is to correct that attitude, not embark on an endless search for the perfect euphemism that can't have a derogatory attitude attached to it.

Correct that attitude? People have been scornful of peasants for hundreds, thousands? of years.... so why don't we correct that attitude by calling them farmers? Or villagers? That's what they are, after all.

All farming started as conquest one way or another. What America does not have is villages and villagers. It does not have a village culture. There are country folks with country values, but most of them live either in or near small towns in a situation close to suburbia, or they are on isolated farms, having to come to town to get stuff and be with people, so they are dependent on the town culture...

1. (Sociology)
a. a member of a class of low social status that depends on either cottage industry or agricultural labour as a means of subsistence
b. (as modifier) peasant dress
2. Informal a person who lives in the country; rustic
3. Informal an uncouth or uncultured person

No wonder Americans don't wish to be called peasants. The "low status, uncouth" part is built in to the term. For those of us living near and still connected by family ties to the country, such a term does not make sense... our relatives were villagers, farmers or village craftspeople, or simply country folk. They were neither low status, or uncouth, or uncultured. Though they were distinctive; they had a very different outlook on life than city folk.

Vera, what dictionary are you using? Because the OED defines it rather differently:

a. One who lives in the country and works on the land, either as a small farmer or as a labourer; spec. one who relies for his subsistence mainly on the produce of his own labour and that of his household, and forms part of a larger culture and society in which he is subject to the political control of outside groups; also, loosely, a rural labourer. In early use, connoting the lowest rank, antithetical to noble; also to prince. Although modern sociologists agree that a peasant works the land, the more wealthy peasants may also be land-owners, rentiers, hirers of labour, etc., and in these capacities share interests with completely different social groups. Hence in the analysis of many rural societies divisions within the class frequently have to be made.


Sharon, the definition I posted earlier was from Collins.
Collins Thesaurus also gives us these synonym gems:

1. rustic, countryman, hind (obsolete), swain (archaic), son of the soil, churl (archaic)
2. (Informal) boor, provincial, hick (informal, chiefly U.S. & Canad.), lout, yokel, country bumpkin, hayseed (U.S. & Canad. Informal)
1 : a member of a European class of persons tilling the soil as small landowners or as laborers; also : a member of a similar class elsewhere [but not in the U.S., apparently, vera notes]
2 : a usually uneducated person of low social status
A member of the lowly social class which toils on the land, constituted by small farmers and tenants, sharecroppers, farmhands and other laborers on the land where they form the main labor force in agriculture and horticulture; A country person; An uncouth, crude or ill-bred person; a worker unit
I like this the best, from Routledge glossary of anthropology:

Peasant: An out-of-favor term for rural and agricultural peoples who live in but are peripheral to a centralized and often urbanized society. The peasants provide the food for the society but generally have the least power and wealth in the society.