Wednesday, March 31, 2010

World facing oil pricing uncertainty - "triple digit" oil predicted

The world’s energy ministers and oil producers are trying to agree on ways to prevent oil price spikes in the immediate future – although at least one economist is predicting “triple-digit” oil later this year.

The elite group is today (Wednesday, March 31) concluding their three-day International Energy Forum meeting in Cancun, Mexico. According to papers published ahead of the event, participants considered “demand and supply uncertainties,” having to balance Opec’s claim of spare oil capacity “exceeding 6 million barrels per day” against the claims of neutral strategic advisors PFC Energy that oil will be “peaking between 2020-2025 around 95.0 mmb/d.”

The majority of oil consuming nations are siding with Opec, according to press reports, agreeing that producers and consumers should work together to avoid a repeat of 2008’s market volatility. According to the UK Financial Times:

The change in attitude marks a significant shift in political relations between Opec, other producers and the world’s biggest oil-consuming countries. Opec’s efforts to control the market once made it the enemy of the US and many European nations.

However, nothing from the meeting has yet indicated how this will be achieved, or at what price Opec should endeavour to maintain oil.

In the first place, the US is reportedly pushing for a free-market approach. Again from the Financial Times:

But there was at least one important dissenter this week. At least publicly, the US insisted at the discussions that markets needed to be left to determine the oil price.

Daniel Poneman, US deputy energy secretary, said: “The goal of the US is a clear and long-standing one and that is to let the laws of supply and demand set prices.”

Meanwhile, delegates are quoted by Reuters agreeing that oil at $70-80 per barrel “was good for both sides,” maintaining producers’ revenues and consumers’ economies. It continues:

But there was no sign of a clear consensus by OPEC members at what price they would ramp up production if prices broke above the band Saudi Arabian Oil Minister Ali al-Naimi this week called "most appropriate".

"Prices above $85 for a sustained period of time could well be harmful. We have to be aware that the economic recovery is still fragile," an OPEC delegate told Reuters on the sidelines of the forum, which is aimed at promoting dialog between oil consumers and producers.

Naimi did not respond to questions about whether $85 a barrel would mean a rise in output. Asked the same question, a person familiar with Saudi thinking said simply: "No."

US crude is currently up to around $82 a barrel, with Reuters citing analysts suggesting “it could push even higher as demand from the United States and other industrialized nations rebounds as their economies recover.”

One such analyst is economist Jeff Rubin, writing in today’s Canadian Globe and Mail newspaper. He has long predicted rising oil prices.

In his column, Expect a new peak for oil next year, he wonders how come, all of a sudden, analysts are no longer deeply concerned about $80-per-barrel oil. He asks:
But how much longer can the world pretend that it won’t soon be facing another energy shock, one every bit as challenging as the one it faced two years ago?

Does anyone still believe the reassuring forecasts from discredited feel-good organizations like the International Energy Agency about new sources of cheap supply, like those that once flowed from places like Prudhoe Bay in Alaska or the North Sea? If so, where is that supply of new affordable oil coming from? Surely not from tar sands or from ultra-deep water fields six miles below the ocean’s floor.

He goes on to predict further price shocks in the immediate future:
By the fourth quarter of this year, oil prices will be back in triple-digit range, and by next year oil prices will rise to record highs, taking out the high-water mark of $147 per barrel set back before the recession began in 2008.

We’re barely out of the recession, and already we face prices that, just a few years ago, our government, our oil industry and our economists toldus we would never see.

The issue, then is at what point will Opec increase oil output to keep prices down - or even, is this possible?

Price drop means low interest ratesZero Sum Game

Pitching Manure

Pitching Manure


About this time of year, I unload the finished compost from the “hot box,” as we call our concrete block compost bin and refill it with fresh sheep manure from the barn. It will heat up gloriously in a few days and when the highest heat and ammonia subside, we can transfer plants started in the house safely to this hot bed, with a plastic cover at night if necessary. This job means I am back to pitching manure, a task otherwise reserved for July and August after the manure has aged in the barn for four or five months.

As a boy and younger man, I rejoiced when tractor front end loaders and skid loaders came into vogue to lift the manure and relieve us of long hours of manual labor. But there is something to be said for forking manure by hand. For some reason, it inspires philosophical meditation if you are alone, and philosophical conversation if you have company. I don’t know why. Following Buddhism, perhaps this menial, repetitious task empties the mind of all worldly care and a kind of Nirvana enfolds. The mind becomes centered on the job instead of flitting restlessly from one distraction to another. This concentration somehow (ask Buddha) allows the mind to enter a sort of transcendental peace. Then comes a chance for deep thought.

Or it may just be that the ammonia emanating from the manure produces a kind of chemical high that causes the mind to reverberate with impassioned thought processes and/or talkativeness. Coffee, not to mention bourbon, will set me off the same way.

At any rate, to enjoy forking manure, one must be in good physical shape and understand the principles of leverage. You can’t just jab the fork deep into the manure pack and lift up a forkful. That’s a good way to get a slipped disc or a hernia. The manure and bedding have been trampled down solidly by the livestock and is easier to pry out in somewhat thin layers. Start along the wall of the stall not out in the middle of the pack. Right next to the wall, the manure and bedding will lift away more easily. Slide the fork under only a few inches worth and push down on the fork handle. The curve of the fork tines will act as a fulcrum to lever the forkful looser from the pack. Next, if you normally grasp the middle of the fork handle with your left hand (right hand out on the end of the fork), set your left knee under your left hand and push further down on the fork handle with your right hand, using your left knee as a fulcrum. (If you normally grasp the fork handle in the middle with your right hand, use your right knee as the fulcrum.) The forkful will come loose much more easily than if you just try to muscle it out of the pack. Proceed to remove the manure in layers that way.

Some of my most treasured memories are of long talks while forking manure. Once in the seminary, where I led a rather eerie, lopsided life (you can read about it in my novel, The Lords of Folly), studying philosophy in the morning and forking manure in the afternoon for example, a conversation I remember fondly went something like this:

“I don’t get that metaphysics stuff, do you?” a fellow forker asks.

“Not really.” (In fact I almost flunked the course.)

“Well, what do you think it is.”

I puffed up, proud to have been asked. “Far as I can figure, it is sort of like, well, you can look at a particular object just as it appears in nature. An oak tree, for example, rather than just any tree. That’s the first degree of abstraction. In the second degree of abstraction which is mathematics, you can count the number of trees in the woods, for instance. Or how many board feet of lumber is growing there. In the third degree of abstraction, you contemplate sheer treeness, that which makes you recognize a tree every time you see one no matter how different trees are from each other. That’s metaphysics, learning what the idea of tree is all about.” I had no idea what I was talking about.

My companion, not wanting to seem any stupider than I, nodded as if in comprehension. “I’ve always wondered about what tractors are really all about. Metaphysically, I mean. The idea of tractor must be all about tread. Right?”

Buddha would have been pleased. I think. And in the process, one more field got fertilized the right way.


Image Credit: Ten Apple Farm


Flyswatters: Don’t Try Homesteading Without One01/21/2010: Nissan’s all-electric Leaf creates buzz among fans during Nashville stopover

Courtship, Cooperation & Negotiation: What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Many social critics in the Peak Oil community are fond of saying “Men do what they do driven by the desire to please women.” But what if that notion is just plain wrong? Is there power in the narrative that redirects our energies away from helpful pursuits believing that such strivings are “against the laws of nature?”

In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. Charles Darwin

Most of us in the Western world have accepted a story about sexual selection, and by extension ‘human nature,’ that goes something like this: Men are aggressive, and fight each other in order to win the chance to mate with desirable females. For the love of hot babes and Babettes, they burn a lot of fossil fuel, build a lot of corporations, rape and pillage other nations and destroy the planet in order to be powerful and desirable to us gals.

This, as the story goes, is for very specific biological reasons: They have small sperm, and lots of them, (making them “cheap”) so they can throw them around with very little “invested” in an attempt to impregnate females. From an evolutionary standpoint, this horn-dog behavior promotes their own gene pool, beating out some other guy’s gene pool. Men (and all males in general, to use Darwin’s terms) are “passionate” and women are less eager or “coy.”

What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Women are “coy,” because they have large eggs, and a whole lot fewer of them, and becoming pregnant requires a large investment of energy and time dealing with pregnancy and caring for the offspring that result. Their eggs are “expensive” to them, in evolutionary terms. Therefore, evolution demands that they carefully look over their choice of males and choose the “fittest” one for mating. Women do the choosing. So, as the theory goes, men compete with each other for females’ attention, and women have innate preferences about which males they choose to mate with…and may the best man win.

“The female is less eager than the male,” Darwin wrote, “She is coy,” and when she takes part in choosing a mate, she chooses “not the male which is most attractive to her, but the one which is least distasteful.” (1)

Darwin’s World

Charles Darwin was a man who once lamented that his own fragile physical state would clearly prevent him from producing great works. He had multiple psychosomatic ailments that kept him from socializing without great cost to his health. “Darwin worked alone at home, leading the life of an independent scientist.”

His decision to marry was an intellectual one, as he weighed the pros and cons:

“After drawing up lists of the benefits and drawbacks of marriage, he proposed to his first cousin Emma Wedgwood, whom he married on Jan. 29, 1839. She brought fortune, devotion, and considerable housewifely skills that enabled him to work in peace for the next 40 years.”

Together they had 10 children.

He needed quiet during the day in order to work. She dutifully brought him meals and tea in his office, at which time she might request to borrow the key to the drawer where he kept all of the keys to the rest of the household pantries.

Although he considered all young people immature like adult females, at 39 years old, he considered his own wife “always the mother, never the child, Darwin always the child, never the father.” Darwin gave his wife the nickname “mammy”, writing, “My dearest old Mammy … Without you, when sick I feel most desolate .. Oh Mammy, I do long to be with you and under your protection for then I feel safe.” (2)

While Darwin began to write down his theories of evolution in the early 1840’s he was reluctant to make them public. “He was a beneficiary of this conservative English society, and his fear of ostracism was one of the forces that prevented him from publishing his theory sooner.“(3) The world was evolving and the political climate was welcoming to evolutionary notions. While still reluctant, on June 18, 1858, he received a paper that summarized his own twenty years of work, written by Alfred Russel Wallace. He shortly afterward presented a paper jointly with Wallace.

In 1871, Darwin elaborated upon the theory of sexual selection. Darwin observed that in some species males battle other males for access to certain females (“aggression”). But in other species, such as peacocks, there is a social system in which the females select males according to such qualities as strength or beauty, like a fabulous tail.

Beyond “He” and “She”

Darwin lived in a binary world of males and females, but today’s science tells us that these represent a minority of the Earth’s living things. We live in a complicated world of uni-gendered, bi-gendered, and even cross-gendered living species. You’ve got remarkable creatures like Clownfish (4) that are born male and turn female (called sequential hermaphrodites); you’ve got hermaphroditic fish. The world is full of homosexual, asexual or autosexual creatures, and gender behavior of all descriptions.

These aren’t just the exceptions to the rule, this IS the rule.

We can’t put labels like “coy” or “passionate” on these things. It doesn’t fit the vast majority of living things.

Beyond the Dating Game

Darwin’s analysis appeared to stop at mate selection. However, mating is the start, not the end of the genetic path to reproductive success. The “passionate” (later labeled “promiscuous”) male isn’t an example of evolutionary success, if most of those offspring die before they, too, get the chance to reproduce. The male who can raise the larges number of children successfully and brings them effectively into the next generation is the real genetic winner.

The male, to be maximally successful, is proactive in assuring that his offspring grow up and make it into the next generation.

The Peacock Boy’s Club

Even the species that were suppose to be perfect examples of sexual selections, like peacocks, aren’t, according to evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden. They are “failed poster-child species.” Take pea hens. They are supposed to prefer the highly ornamented tail of males, the larger the better, which, supposedly, indicated “good genes.” However, in a 2008 study that actually looked at this in the wild; (a) there wasn’t much difference between tails and (b) the females showed no real preference. They ignored the tails, when selecting mates.

What researchers found, instead, was that the tails were sort of a вЂticket into the boy’s club’ of other male peacocks. In fact, it turned out that a lot of stuff Darwin thought was for the benefit of the female was actually a show for other males of the same species.

Mommy Dearest

What about the notion that can be summarized as “females almost always invest more energy into producing offspring than males, and therefore in most species, females are a limiting resource over which the males will compete”? This theory, called the “Bateman Principle” was the work of British geneticist Angus John Bateman – and it turns out to be wrong. His research was fraudulent in all sorts of ways, even down to basic arithmetic mistakes.

Roughgarden (4) asks: if females keep choosing males who are the fittest, why do bad genes still exist in nature? Aren’t females supposed to be eliminating them through partner choice? After twenty generations, the choice for bad genes should disappear. Why isn’t that happening? Darwin says, “Nature needs to keep renewing bad genes all the time.” Why is that? So females can continue to choose the best mate? What are the best genes in an ever-changing environment? “Most theorists don’t appreciate how great this problem is for the theory of sexual selection.” according to Roughgarden.

What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

Family of Tarzan

Cooperation and Negotiation

Through courtship (perhaps too strong a word for some species), the male and female, negotiate the cooperative relationship through which to raise children. Their cooperation allows them to act as a unit, in a вЂtwo heads are better than one’ sort of arrangement. The fitness is assessed in terms of a “couple team” who are able to place a large number of offspring into the next generation. The mating couples have a common evolutionary bank account and an overlap of interest. This model suggests that cooperation, not competition is the cornerstone of reproductive success. Conflict happens when they don’t strike an effective bargain with each other or they have different opinions about “what’s good.”

“A family like a ‘firm’ Roughgarden says ‘and the produce of the “firm” is offspring.’ The paradigm is “family as cooperative system” rather than “family as a cauldron of conflict.”

Joy in Your Company

But it’s not all вЂlove and happiness,” as a quick glance at the front pages of newspapers or time spent at a family holiday dinner will tell you. Nevertheless, we aren’t living in a world of competitive stand-offs, like John Nash’s (“A Beautiful Mind”) theory of Competitive Equilibrium – but more like his notion of “Cooperative Game theory.” Here the sexes “negotiate from a position of strength,” and establishes a “threat point.”

Taking his lead from labor negotiation, a crucial aspect of effective negotiation is that each has to believe that the other is willing to suffer and see the other suffer, before they are willing to hash out a deal. They also, however, have to see the other has having “utility,” and a “position of strength.” They have to believe that each of them has something the other person wants, and is willing to give up something else to get it, and they have to realize the point beyond which the other person is unwilling to bargain.

If either player increases their demand beyond this limit, both players receive nothing. If either reduces their demands too greatly, they will receive less than if they had demanded more.

What is the “position of strength” in reproductive politics? It is the mechanism where the animals can experience pleasure in each other’s company-friendship and physical intimacy (including sex).

Contextualizing an Idea

“Survival of the Fittest” were not Darwin’s terms, but those of Herbert Spenser. It first appeared in 1864, in which he drew parallels between his own economic theories and Darwin’s biological ones.

There is a political danger in who takes control of the narrative. It turns out that this narrative of a nasty, competitive selfish world is based on partial recollections of the data. It doesn’t tell the whole story. But it presents a political (power) explanation for oppression using biology to justify it. “Nature is selfish so I can be selfish.” It is a narrative of genetic classism. It is also a narrative of domination and imperialism.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.” Charles Darwin

It is time the world abandoned that narrative and launch a new one. Our very survival may well depend on it. A high fitness requires working together in teams. It requires us to choose to invest our collective energies carefully and cooperatively, and that includes our reproductive decision-making in an age of overpopulation.

What we are learning about emotions is helping us to see that selfish and destructive tendencies in humans, so lauded as “natural” and “normal,” are the extreme subset of sociopathic individuals who lack a capacity for several basic emotions that are intrinsic in humans as social animals. And we’ve modeled corporate institutions, in this image, with disastrous ends.

What Darwin Got Wrong about Human Emotions

The theory of sexual selection put forth by Darwin fit well with a culture that told us that the “best man” was white, Western, upper-class, and, so obvious a fact as to be overlooked, “male.” The theory of sexual selection fit that current dominant paradigm of the 1860’s. At a time when the industrial revolution was wiping out the entrepreneur, the independent farmer, the home craft producer, it became “natural” for men to aggressively eliminate one another’s livelihoods, push them off their native lands, and participate in genocide in order to push forward their aspirations for genetic empire-building. The вЂlosers’ lost the chance to mate and reproduce offspring because, after all, they weren’t the вЂfittest.’ It was all quite “natural.” It wasn’t “evil” or “good” in any moral sense. It was simply “how things are.”

Gone were notions of cooperative and collaboration as “natural” to humans and animals alike. Even actions that could be viewed as “altruistic” had to be framed as “deviant” or discussed away as ultimately benefiting selfish ends.

People made all sorts of extrapolations from this, including the notion that being blind to suffering was also “natural.”

Genial Gene vs. Selfish Gene

So, Roughgarden (5) proposes, the metaphor of the “selfish gene” isn’t accurate anymore. The theory worked in the early 70’s, but now we know more. Notions of “survival of the fittest” and “savage competition” is replaced by the empirical argument of cooperation in nature.

Less than the Ape

While Darwin argued that human ancestry descended from the ape, others argued that human evolution caused our social behavior to depart from that of other primates. Edgar Rice Burroughs was fond of using the phrase, “the thin veneer of civilization” to describe mankind’s condition in relation to his more fundamental savage makeup. The phrase was repeated in The Return of Tarzan, which he wrote in 1912.

However, in his book “Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved” Dutch primatologist Frans de Waal used the term “Veneer Theory” to argue that the view that human morality as “a cultural overlay, a thin veneer hiding an otherwise selfish and brutish nature” is outdated, and that our morality and social relationships are also embedded deeply into our genetic make-up. We cannot live alone, and we, therefore, have within us the basic stuff it takes to figure out how to work together.

The last of Darwin’s sequels to the Origin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872), was an attempt to erase this last barrier presumed to exist between human and nonhuman animals–the idea that the expression of such feelings as suffering, anxiety, grief, despair, joy, love, devotion, hatred, and anger is unique to human beings.

“Darwin connected studies of facial muscles and the emission of sounds with the corresponding emotional states in man and then argued that the same facial movements and sounds in nonhuman animals express similar emotional states. This book laid the groundwork for the study of ethology, neurobiology, and communication theory in psychology. “

Paradoxically, it took neuroscientists beginning actively during a conference in 1995 to start focusing on a variety of these emotions we call вЂsocial emotions’ like embarrassment, shame, contempt, passion, admiration, pride, and guilt. These researchers suggest that in contrast to the notion that culture is a thin veneer, we are learning that what look strictly like ‘cultural’ features such as our rules of law are in fact, based upon the origins of these early pro-social emotions.

I’ll take that discussion up in greater detail in my next post.

1. In Descent:


3. In Descent:



Deep thought - Mar 2BVS predicts solid future in digging up people’s pasts

Sustainability is the new American Dream (2010 post-recession consumer study)

Marketers Not Connecting with Today's Consumer
Research Reveals Emergence of Radical Individualism

Sustainability is the New American Dream

CHICAGO, IL, March 15, 2010 – Today’s consumer is emerging from the recession with a radically new definition of the American Dream and a renewed sense in their own resourcefulness and priorities according to a just released quantitative study of 1200 consumers and qualitative research with nearly 700, conducted by Ogilvy & Mather Chicago in partnership with leading consumer insight company Communispace.

New View of the American Dream

Among the study’s key findings is that “having it all” is an unrealistic goal with 75% of those surveyed saying they would rather get out of the rat race than climb the corporate ladder – and instead, 76% said they would rather spend more time with family than make more money. Moreover, Americans are showing disenchantment with the pursuit of money with 75% again saying they would trade job security over a job that offered an opportunity for raises.

“The most surprising thing about our study was how much consumers were saying what they would NOT do for money, even when money worries are high on the list,” explained Graceann Bennett, Managing Partner and Director of Strategic Planning at Ogilvy & Mather Chicago. “Prioritizing your life based on money is seen as a sure way to be disappointed since the pursuit of money is often reliant on factors outside of consumers’ control. They have gone down this road before and are saying that they are not necessarily happier or better off as a result.”

In fact, the recession has revealed important new consumer priorities with quality of life and peace of mind at the top and a focus on living life in a more sustainable way both from an environmental and financial point of view.

“Sustainability” takes on a new Meaning

According to Manila Austin Ph.D., Communispace’s Director of Research, “Consumers didn’t fully understand the idea of sustainability until they found themselves living unsustainable lives – working too hard, carrying too much debt, and not living or planning for the long term. Now consumers are re-imagining their lives for a sustainable future for themselves and their families.”

Quality is still in according to the study with 73% of consumer saying they would rather have fewer, high quality things. But while they still want some luxuries, their shopping habits have changed as a full 92% say they are using coupons, 91% are shopping at cheaper/discount stores and 90% are buying more store brands

“We are finding consumers make very interesting trade-offs across seemingly unrelated categories in order to get their lives into balance while still feeling like they are treating themselves to those things that make them feel normal and well taken care of,” explained Ms. Bennett. “Holding off a few years to buy a new car may enable them to keep their everyday Starbucks indulgence going while someone else may ease up on their ambitions for a promotion to feel safer in their job even if it means less money.”

The Complicated Consumer

Through a series of in-depth exercises with nearly 700 online community members, Communispace’s Manila Austin noted that “many people feel the recession is not their problem. They say that they are in control themselves, but see others spending and consuming too much and feel they need to change their habits. Importantly, they also believe that it is the consumer who will get the country out of the recession, not the government or the banks.”

A shrinking circle of trust in banks, established institutions and even the media has led 69% of consumers to say that the recession has caused them to rethink their perspective and values with 78% saying that the recession has changed their spending habits for the better. The local community – “Main Street” -- is now the focus for the majority of those polled.

“The consumer is moving forward, but many marketers are projecting the stresses of the economy in their marketing and are not connecting with the new consumer mindset,” explained Ogilvy’s Ms. Bennett. “It’s time for marketers to reflect the new positive self reliance of today’s consumer and to tap into building relationships with more one-on-one marketing efforts.”

Ms. Bennett cautioned however that it is important for marketers to tread carefully into the discount space, because brands that are associated with deprivation and the recession may conjure up less than positive associations once consumers have a bit more cash to spend.

With consumers dramatically increasing the research they do before making purchases large and small, the brand with the better information will win. There are also significant demographic trends that demand a more personal message especially when looked at regionally with consumers on the west coast more optimistic than those on the East. Some 32% on the West say the US will emerge from the recession stronger, while only 19% on the East coast feel this way.

“Today’s consumer is even more complicated than before,” explained Communispace’s Dr. Austin. “There is no one marketing solution that captures a mass value proposition. We called this study вЂEyes Wide Open, Wallets Half Shut’ to reflect the challenge of understanding and connecting with how post recession consumers view the world.”

How the Research Was Conducted

A variety of quantitative and qualitative research was conducted. Ogilvy Chicago sampled a nationally representative 1,200 American adults through a robust online survey. Communispace conducted a series of qualitative studies including interactive conversations, image galleries, and other dynamic and exploratory activities with its proprietary online community members which involved some 694 consumers participating.

About Ogilvy & Mather Chicago:

Founded in 1976, Ogilvy & Mather Chicago, includes Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, OgilvyAction, Ogilvy Public Relations and OgilvyOne, providing its clients with fully integrated marketing solutions. Its clients include CDW, Sears, Unilever, American Family Insurance, American Bar Association and others. Ogilvy & Mather Chicago is a unit of Ogilvy & Mather North America, which is part of WPP Group plc (NASDAQ: WPPGY,) one of the world's largest communications services groups.

About Communispace:

The world’s most admired brands turn to Communispace Corporation, the leader in generating game-changing insights via private online customer communities. Founded in 1999, the company has created more than 350 customer communities for industry leaders such as Kraft, Hewlett-Packard, Charles Schwab, Hallmark, Unilever, GlaxoSmithKline and Hilton Hotels Corporation. Headquartered in Watertown, Massachusetts, the company has offices in Atlanta, Chicago, London, New York, San Francisco, as well as San Remo, Italy and Sydney, Australia. For more information, please visit:

Click here to download our post-recession consumer study:
Eyes Wide Open (PDF)

Employers, consumers in spending stalemate that may delay recoveryHow to provide relief to rural Americans, create jobs, and lower emissions … all at once!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Dynamics of Complex Civilisations - Excerpt from "Tipping Point"

Recently, a 55 page paper called Tipping Point: Near-Term Implications of a Peak in Global Oil Production (PDF warning) was published as the joint effort of two organizations: Feasta and The Risk/Resilience Network, with lead author David Korowicz. Last week we published the Summary of the paper. Today, we are publishing a section from the middle paper, talking about the dynamics of complex civilizations. It is because of the complexity and connectedness of our current economy that the failure of one part of the system is likely to lead to failure of another. --Gail

3.1 Civilisation, the Economy, & Complexity

This paper is concerned with humanity's impact on its environmental resource base, and the effect the resource base has on human welfare. What mediates between these is our complex civilisation[i].

The idea of civilisation has inspired intellectuals and propagandists for millenia, and it is not particularly helpful to enter the debate here. We shall define it broadly, and in a way that serves our purposes in the current context. Civilisation is firstly a system , a singular object that connects all its constituant elements together. The constituants are people, institutions, companies, and the products and services of human artifice. The connections are people, supply-chains and transport networks, telecommunications and information networks, financial and monetary systems, culture and forms of language. It has dimensions of space, in the momentary transmission of goods, images, money, and people across the globe. And it has dimensions of time as stored in libraries, education and institutional knowledge, the patterns of fields and city streets, ideas of who we are and why we do as we do. It also places, through its history and evolved structures, constraints on its future evolution.

Our particular globalised civilisation is one that has grown to connect almost every person on the planet. One is in some way part of it if you have heard of Barak Obama, seen a moving image, used money, or have or desire something made in a factory. There are very few people on the planet who are unconnected, most are more or less integrated. We can also look at this as our level of system dependency . Imagine if suddenly across the globe; all the advanced infrastructure of civilisation-banking, IT, communications systems, and supply-chains suddenly stopped working. For developed countries relying upon just-in-time delivery of food, digital money; and complex information systems, starvation and social breakdown could evolve rapidly. In developing countries the situation would not be much better. Only for the most remote tribes on the planet it would make little or no difference. Occasionally we get a glimpse of the issue as during the fuel depot blockades in the UK in 2000, when supermarkets emptied and the Home Secretary Jack Straw accused the blockaders of "threatening the lives of others and trying to put the whole of our economy and society at risk"[ii]. More recently, the collapse of Lehman Brothers helped precipitate a brief freeze in the financing of world trade as banks became afraid of perceived counter-party risks to Letters of Credit[iii]. The more we become part of the system the more we share its benefits and the more system dependent we become.

It is a clichГ©, though true, to say that civilisation has become more complex. We can understand complexity as involving the number of connections between people and institutions; the intensity of hierarchical networks, the number of products available, the extent and number of the supply-chain functions required to produce these products; the number of specialized occupations; the amount of effort that is required to manage and operate systems; the amount of information available, and the energy flows through the system. Here is a vivid description of one aspect of complexity by Eric Beinhocker who compares the number of distinct culturally produced artifacts produced by the Yanomamo tribe on the Orinoco River, and modern New Yorkers. The Yanomamo have a few hundred, the New Yorkers have in the order of tens of billions, and this wealth is a measure of complexity:

To summarize 2.5 million years of economic history in brief: for a very, very long time not much happened; then all of a sudden all hell broke loose. It took 99.4% of economic history to reach the wealth levels of the Yanomamo, 0.59% to double that level by 1750, and then just 0.01% for global wealth to reach the level of the modern world.[iv]

Or we can look at it from the point of view of the supply-chains that are required to transform raw materials into products and services that criss-cross the globe. It is said that a modern car manufacturer has about 15,000 inputs to the manufacturing process. If each of those components was made by a supplier who put together on average 1500 components (10%), and each of those was put together by a supplier who put together 150 components, that makes over 3 billion interactions- and we have not included staff, plant, production lines, IT and financial systems. Nor are we at the end of the story here. For the car manufacturer would not exist were there not customers who could afford to buy a new car, which depends upon their economic outputs which are themselves dependent upon vast complex supply chains, and so on. Nor could these vast networks of exchange exist without transport, finance, and communications networks. And those networks would not be economically viable unless they were benefiting from the economies of scale shared with many other products and services. In this way we can start to see how intimately connected we are with one another across the planet, and why we see the global economy as a singular system.

The remarkable thing about such a complex economy is that it works. Each day I buy bread. The person who sold me that bread need not know from whom the wheat was bought, who manufactured the mixer, or who provided export credit insurance for the bulk wheat shipment. The person who delivered the bread to the shop did not need to know who refined his diesel, who invented the polymer for his gasket, or if I personally have money to pay for bread. The steel company did not know that a small manufacturer of bread mixers would use its product, nor cared where its investment came from. The process required to simply give me tasty and affordable bread, required, depending on the system boundaries, millions, even hundreds of millions of people acting in a coherent manner.

Yet in all this there was no organizer. The complexity of understanding, designing, and managing such a system is far beyond human and computer assisted abilities. We say such systems are self-organised, just like the formation of birds in flight, and the patterns of walkers down a city street. Self-organisation can be a feature of all complex adaptive systems, as opposed to вЂjust’ complex systems such as a watch. Birds do not вЂagree’ together that arrow shapes make good sense aerodynamically, and then work out who flies where. Each bird simply adapts to its local environment and path of least effort, with some innate sense of hierarchy for the lead bird, and what emerges is a macro-structure without intentional design (readers will notice the same non-teleological explanations within evolutionary biology).

Our globalised civilisation has evolved and operates as a complex adaptive system. From each person, company or institution, with common and distinctive histories, playing their own part in their own niche, and interacting together through cultural and structural channels, the global system emerges.

What ties our globalised civilisation together is the global economy. It is to our civilisation what blood and the central nervous system is to our body. The economy allows the exchange of goods and services across the globe. And the more system dependent we are, the more we rely upon the global economy.

If one side of the global economy is goods and services, the other side is money. Money has no intrinsic value, it is a piece of paper or charged capacitors in an integrated circuit. It represents not wealth, but a claim on wealth (money is not the house or food we can buy with it). Across the globe we exchange something intrinsically valuable for something intrinsically useless. This only works if we all play the game, governments mandate legal tender, and monetary stability and trust is maintained. The hyper-inflation in Weimar Germany and in today's Zimbabwe shows what happens when trust is lost.

One of the great virtues of the global economy is that factories may fail and links in a supply chain can break down, but the economy can quickly adapt to fulfilling that need elsewhere or finding a substitute. This is a measure of the adaptive capacity within the globalised economy, and is a natural feature of such a de-localised and networked complex adaptive system. But it is true only within a certain context. There are common platforms or вЂhub infrastructure’ that maintain the operation of the global economy and the operational fabric, without which they would collapse. Principle amoung them are the the monetary and financial system, accessible energy flows, and the integrated infrastructures of information technology, electricity generation, and transport.

We can make an analogy here with another complex adaptive system, the human body. Hub infrastructure for the human body would include blood circulation (heart), the signalling and information (central nervous system), and the respiratory system. If any of these fail, we die. However our body can self-repair cuts and light trauma, and can survive quite major local damage (limb loss). If the local damage is significant enough (or death by a thousand cuts), the body can fail. So collapse (death) can result from hub failure or significant general system damage. We tend to find that final collapse is driven by the interactions of these elements (death caused by heart or respiratory failure caused by trauma).

This current integrated complexity was not always so. We have adapted so well to its changes, and its changes have been in general so stable, that we are often oblivious to its ties. Imagine if all the integrated circuits introduced within the last 10 or even five years should stop working. Financial systems, the grid, and supply-chains would fail. Our just-in-time food systems would soon leave the cupboard bare, and our inability to carry out financial transactions would ensure it remained so, real starvation could appear in the most advanced (system dependent) economies. The question poses itself, how can something introduced only in the last five or ten years cause such chaos if removed, after all we were fine just ten years ago? Even just consider the consequences of losing the mobile phone network. Our most basic functioning has become, almost by stealth, more and more entwined with rapid turnover technologies, the complex supply-chains that carry our needs and labours across the planet, and the financial and monetary systems that hold them all together.

3.2 The Evolution of the Global Economy

For most people living before the late medieval period, sustenance and welfare depended upon one's own efforts and those of one's close community. In such a context, abundant harvests could co-exist with nearby famine[v] From a general welfare point of view there was a production and a distribution problem.

The central problem of distribution was firstly that money was a small part of the local economy, as most communities were largely self-sufficient. Secondly, there were very rudimentary transport links, and actual communication between towns may have been infrequent and haphazard. This meant that there was neither a proper signalling mechanism to indicate shortages, a tradable store of value, nor a trade and transport system to facilitate the resource redistribution. Rural villages could find themselves vulnerable to harvest failure (from flooding say), which was the bedrock asset of community welfare, and therefore they had to bear all the risk locally. The risk could be partially managed by storage and storage technology, but the ability to store for a rainy day also meant that there needed to be surplus production. But investing in increasing production tends to require surpluses, traded inputs and knowledge from elsewhere.

One of the great advantages of a growing interconnectedness between regions, and more trade with money was that localised risks could be shared over the whole network of regions. Surpluses could be sold to where prices were highest in the network, and the money received in return would hold its value better than the stored grain prone to rot or rodents. Distributing surpluses across the network was also the most efficient use of resources. What economists now call comparative advantage meant that more specialised roles could be performed in the network than in a similar number of isolated regions or towns with greater efficiency. This meant new products and services could be developed, especially ones that relied on diverse sub-components. This promoted further efficiency, increased wealth, surpluses, capital and a growing knowledge and technical base. Now increased investment in future wealth could be more ambitious in building the size of the network (through assimilation, integration and conquest) and its levels of integration (bridges, markets, and guilds).

There are push-pull drivers of growth; in human behavior; in population growth; in the need to maintain existing infrastructure and wealth against entropic decay; in the need to employ those displaced by technology; in the response to new problems arising; and in the need to service debt that forms the basis of our economic system. The process of economic growth and complexity has been self-re-enforcing. The growth in the size of the networks of exchange, the level of complexity, the economic efficiencies all provide a basis for further growth. Growing complexity provides the basis for developing even more complex integration. In aggregate, as the operational fabric evolves in complexity it provides the basis to build more complex solutions.

We are problem solvers, arising from our basic needs, status anxiety, and our responses to the new challenges a dynamic environment presents. That could be simple such as getting a bus or making bread; or it could be complex, putting in a renewable energy infrastructure say. We tend to exploit the easiest and least costly solutions first. We pick the lowest hanging fruit, or the easiest extractable oil first. As problems are solved new ones tend to require more complex solutions. Our ability to solve problems is limited by the range of possible solutions available to us, the solution space . The extent of the solution space is limited by knowledge and culture; the operational fabric at a time; and the available energetic, material, and economic resources available to us. It is also shaped by the interactions with the myriad other interacting agents such as people and institutions, and because all may be increasingly complex, they may re-enforce growing complexity as they co-evolve together.

As new technologies and business models (solutions or sets of solutions) emerge they co-adapt and co-evolve with what is already present. Their adoption and spread through wider networks will be dependent upon the efficiencies they provide in terms of lower costs and new market opportunities. One of the principle ways of gaining overall efficiency is by letting individual parts of the system share the costs of transactions by sharing common platforms (information networks, supply chains, financial systems), and integrating more. Thus there is a re-enforcing trend of benefits for those who build the platform and the users of the platform, which grows as the number of users grow. In time the scale of the system becomes a barrier to a diversity of alternative systems as the upfront cost and the embedded economies of scale become a greater barrier to new entrants, this being more true for more complex hub infrastructure. Here we are not necessarily associating lack of system diversity with corporate monopolies. There is quite vigorous competition between mobile phone service providers-but they share common platforms and co-integrate with electricity networks and the monetary system, for example.

This however can lay the basis for systemic vulnerability. That is, if our IT platform failed so too would our financial, knowledge and energy systems. Conversely if our financial system collapsed, it would not take long for our IT and supply-chains to collapse. The UK based Institute of Civil Engineers acknowledges that the complex relationships between co-dependent critical infrastructure is not understood[vi]. Our operational systems are not isolated from the wider economy either. Because of the expense of infrastructure and the continual need for replacement of components, a large number of economically connected people and economies of scale are necessary to provide their operational viability. What has helped make such systems viable is that they are being cross-subsidized throughout the whole economy. The resource required to build and maintain critical complex infrastructure demands that we buy games consoles, send superfluous text messages, and watch YouTube.

The growth of civilisation has costs, and as it grows, costs rise. The biggest driver of environmental destruction is the growth process itself. Rising soil and aquifer depletion, collapsed fisheries, deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions, and polluted groundwater are just some of the consequences of the requirement for continuous flows for the maintenance and growth in GDP. There are also the costs of complexity itself. As systems become more complex there are growing costs associated with managing and operating the systems and the investment in educating people who will work in more specialised roles.

Joseph Tainter has argued that declining marginal returns on growing complexity provide the context in which previous civilisations have collapsed[vii]. The benefits of rising complexity are finally outweighed by the rising costs. But problems still arise, and a society no longer can respond to those problems in the traditional way-increasingly complex solutions. It becomes locked into established processes and infrastructures but is less able to recover from shocks or adapt to change, it loses resilience.

3.3 Evolution of Science & Technology

The assumption that science and technology will automatically respond to meet the challenges we face has become an article of faith. It is related to our conceptions of 'progress', and its power and potential may be asserted with authority by anyone. In discussions of sustainability, science and technology is often invoked as the deus ex machina destined to fill the looming gaps between our demands and the earth's ability to supply them. In this sense it may act as a collective charm wielded to chase away the anxiety induced by glimpses of our civilisation's precariousness. The following section attempts to locate science and technology within the evolutionary and material conditions of our economy. We also wish to illuminate a little more why high technology infrastructure is vulnerable.

Science & Technology Suffer from Declining Marginal Returns

In 1897 J.J. Thompson discovered the electron, then the cutting edge of physics, all on a laboratory bench. The understanding of this particle laid the foundation for the digital infrastructure upon which much of the world relies. Today it requires a 27km underground tunnel, 1,600 27 tonne superconducting magnets cooled to less than 2 degrees above absolute zero, and the direct involvement of over 10,000 scientists and engineers to find (possibly) today's cutting-edge particle, the Higgs boson. In the 1920s, Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin, with a huge benefit to human welfare, for a cost of about €20,000. Today it costs hundreds of millions to develop minor variations on existing drugs that do little for human welfare.

Science and technology are an exercise in problem solving. As generalised knowledge is established early on in the history of a discipline, the work that remains to be done becomes increasingly specialised. The problems become more difficult to solve, are more costly, and progress in smaller increments. Increasing investments in research yield declining marginal return[viii]. We see this in the growing size of research groups, levels of specialisation, and the knowledge burden[ix].

The conclusion is that further research and development is likely to be more resource intensive, yet on average give smaller returns to society. For a society trying to undergo an energy transformation, this means that more and more of possibly declining energy available to society must be devoted to research and development, but with less likelihood of significant breakthroughs.

The Most Advanced Technology is the Most Resource Intensive

Because new technologies tend to be solutions to more complex problems, are built using high technology components, and have relied upon the continually upgrading operational fabric; they tend to be more resource intensive. We can see this in the evolution of key manufacturing processes over the last century where one analysis shows a six order of magnitude increase in the energy and resource intensiveness per unit mass of processed materials. This was driven by the desire for smaller and more precise devices and products[x]. A 2 gram 32 MB DRAM chip would now be considered archaic, but it required 1700g of resources to fabricate, one expects that contemporary Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) chips require vastly more resources[xi]. While popular focus tends to be on the direct energy used by final goods, it is the embodied energy and material resources that is staggering[xii].

Yet the high-tech products we use (computers say), require the networks, telecoms infrastructure, software, and the computer use of others to realise their value. Which in turn depends upon an even vaster infrastructure. So in a way, asking about the resource requirements of your computer is akin to asking about the resource requirements for your finger, it make sense only if you assume the rest of the body is well resourced.

Finally, we note for completeness that rising energetic and material costs from growing complexity (more specifically energy flows per unit mass) is just what we would expect from thermodynamic principles.

The Most Advanced Technology Has the Most Complex Supply-Chain Dependencies

The more complex a product and production process the more tightly integrated it is into the global economy. There are far more direct and indirect links in the supply-chains upon which they are dependent. Its production process is also dependent upon the inputs of more specialized suppliers with fewer substitutes. Let us consider the integrated circuit as our standard-bearer of technological complexity. Intel, who supply 90% of the processors in personal computers relies upon high-tech research-led companies providing sophisticated optical and metrology systems, control electronics, and a vast array of specialty chemicals. Those companies rely upon further sophisticated inputs with few substitutes. High-tech is less geographically mobile, relies upon very specialised staff and institutional knowledge, and generally will have a very large sunk cost in the operations and plant. Thus we can say that the more technologically advanced a process the greater risk it faces from supply-chain breakdown, just like the old rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.

For want of a shoe the horse was lost.

For want of a horse the rider was lost.

For want of a rider the battle was lost.

For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Because of the complexity of chip manufacture no company has the knowledge to build an integrated circuit (IC) 'from the ground up', that is, by starting with the raw elements to build all the production and operation systems, and process inputs. Many companies have co-adapted and co-evolved together, so that the knowledge of fabrication and the tools of fabrication, and the tools of those tools is really an IC-ecosystem knowledge, which itself is co-dependent on the global economy.


[i] Korowicz, D. Things Fall Apart: Some thoughts on complexity, supply-chains, infrastructure, and collapse dynamics. ASPO/ The Oil Drum 'Peak Summit', Perugia, Italy (2009). Gives an overview of some of the issues discussed here. At

[ii] Jack Straw BBC News. 4 November 2000.

[iii] Here we are referring to the 95% drop in the Baltic Dry Shipping Index. See

[iv] Beinhocker, E. The Origin of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics . Rh Business Books (2005).

[v] Blanning, T. The Pursuit of Glory (2007). Describes harvest failures and famines in Scotland and the north of England at the end of the 17th Century, in which some regions were saved the worst by canal networks. Page 53.

[vi] State of the Nation: Defending Critical Infrastructure . Institute of Civil Engineers (2009).

[vii] Tainter, J.A.(1988) The Collapse of Complex Societies . Cambridge Univ. Press.

[viii] Tainter J. (1996) Complexity, Problem Solving, and Sustainable Societies . Getting Down to Earth: Practical Applications of Ecological Economics. Island Press.

[ix] Jones, B. The Burden of Knowledge and the Death of the Rennaissance Man: Is Innovation Getting Harder? Review of Economic Studies 76(1) (2009)

[x] Gutowski T. et. al. Thermodynamic Analysis of Resources Used in Manufacturing Processes . Environ. Sci. Technol. 43(5) pp1584-1590 (2009).

[xi] Williams. E, Ayres. R.U, Heller. M. The 1.7 kilogram Microchip: Energy and Material Use in the Production of Semiconductor Devices . Environ. Sci. Technol. 36, 5504-5510.(2002)

[xii] De Decker, K. (2009) The Monster Footprint of Digital Technology . Low-tech Magazine July.

Retailers see best month in 2 yearsFood security and peak oil: a message to local citizens and leadership

Yemen's Insoluble Problems


Yemens Insoluble Problems

Image: For how long will he stay happy?

In my previous text about Yemen, I wrote about how we in recent years have been able to watch this poor country slowly run out of its only significant export product - oil. While this is bad enough, it is not, unfortunately, the only problem facing Yemen. In this second and final text about Yemen, I describe the cavalcade of problems facing the country besides falling oil production and dwindling oil exports.

If Yemeni oil is running short, what else can a poor, overpopulated country with few natural resources export? Besides oil, the main exports have been agricultural products and cheap manpower to richer neighbors (who send money home, known as "remittance"). Since Yemen’s problems are so numerous and large, this text could be very long. I have tried to keep the length down by listing some additional challenges that Yemen faces in bullets:

- The unemployment rate is between 20 and 40 percent. Despite this, a few thousand refugees from Somalia arrive every month. These refugees now amount to at least 150-200 000 persons and they further increasing competition for jobs, and, presumably, social tension.

- 20 years ago, a relatively large number of tourists visited Yemen. The numbers have declined and fell further when the Al-Qaeda began to attack tourists in 2007. Today, tourism has fallen by at least 90% compared to the peak years. Many of those who now visit the country are Yemenis living abroad traveling home to see their families.

- Yemen has high military expenditures and is fighting against Al-Qaeda in the east, separatists in the south and, especially, (possibly Iranian-backed) rebel clans in the north. The rebels in the north threaten to draw Saudi Arabia into an armed conflict. For Al-Qaeda, Yemen has become an important country (they thrive in collapsing states). For strategic and geopolitical reasons, the United States are also being drawn into Yemen, which may become “the next Afghanistan". 'An impoverished country that is strategically located on one of the world's busiest shipping lanes, Yemen has declared war on Al-Qaeda under pressure from Washington and Saudi Arabia. " In January this year, Obama said "So as president, I've made it a priority to strengthen our partnership with the Yemeni government".

- If Yemen advances from being a "failing state" to become a full-fledged "failed state" (they are currently in 18th place on the 'failed state index"), stability in the region will deteriorate further. With increased rebel, pirate and terrorist activities, it may be difficult for oil tankers and container ships to pass through one of the world’s most important sea lanes (with Yemen in the north and the "failed state winner" Somalia in the south) on their way to the Suez. Needless to say, traveling around Africa is a long and costly detour.

- The country has a very high rate of malnutrition - over one third of the population is undernourished (which is comparable to the poorest countries in Africa). Nearly half of the children between two and five years old are undernourished and show signs of stunted growth:

“[The boy] is 18 months old and severely undernourished. In an effort to save his life, his parents traveled a long way to the therapeutic feeding centre here in Taez Town, leaving behind another seven children, all under the age of 15. […] The baby […] had hardly eaten in days. He looked miserable, with sunken eyes and a dry mouth. When [he] did not show signs of improvement, his desperate family – facing a huge hospital expense – took him home. “We decided to take him back to where he belongs and trust God for his salvation,” said the boy’s mother.”

- In addition to oil, agriculture has been an important part of Yemen’s economy. But deforestation, soil erosion and expanding deserts make it difficult to maintain production. However, the biggest problem is the dry climate and water scarcity which has been "resolved" by (illegal) drilling of new wells to pump up groundwater. Over time, traditional crops which do not need much rain have been replaced by fruits and vegetables requireing irrigation.

- 50 years ago, an estimated 50 000 people lived in the capital Sana’a. To provide today's two million inhabitants with water is an enormous challenge, not least because the city is located 2,000 meters above sea level. Sana’a’s own groundwater is on the decline and is expected to run out completely in a few years. There have been talks about moving the capital as the situation is changing from bad to untenable.

- Did I mention the endemic corruption? The heavy administration? That the current President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been in office for more than 30 years (first in North Yemen and during the last 20 years in the united Yemen)? No? I may come back to that later ... if I get a small gift "under the table".

If you scrape on the surface, you will find many more other problems that could be highlighted. One historical example is how Yemen just two months after unification in 1990 bet on the wrong horse by supporting Iraq in the Gulf War - despite the fact that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia (until then) had provided important financial assistance to the country. As an effect of this gaffe, Saudi Arabia took the opportunity to expel almost one million Yemeni guest workers.

A contemporary example shows how several of the factors above interact. A camp with refugees from the unrest in the north houses 10 000 refugees. They people are poor and the children are undernourished. "Few of the displaced are used to washing regularly because water is scarce in Yemen, and few use toilets, preferring to leave waste in the open." This presents a problem when 10 000 people live close together and there are now fears of outbreaks of cholera in the camp.

In addition to geo-political and humanitarian problems that follow from reduced oil exports, a large and growing population, extreme poverty, internal strife and political instability, there is another major concern - perhaps the greatest of them all – which I would like to shed some light on, namely food and water.

"Yemen's water share per capita is less than 100 cubic meters a year, compared to the water poverty line of 1,000 cubic meters.” World average is 2500 m3 of water per person per year.

There is a shortage of water in large parts of the Middle East, but poverty and lawlessness makes the problem more difficult to address in Yemen than in most other places. Unlike wealthier neighbors, Yemen can not afford to build desalination plants, and tribal flare-ups and civil unrest makes it dangerous for engineers and hydrologists to travel to many parts of the country. Even water purification is difficult in Yemen. Existing facilities are poorly managed and some priests "have declared the reuse of wastewater to be a violation of Islamic principles".

Wells are drying up and the price of water has quadrupled in less than five years. The government is trying to prevent farmers from drilling new wells to the (rapidly receding) underground aquifers, but has little power – especially far away from the capital. It is easy to see a vicious circle with water scarcity and rising violence as its two main components.

A special problem for Yemen in particular is the strong cultural position of the mildly narcotic plant qat (khat). Most Yemeni men (and some women and even children) chew qat daily (some men can chew qat for 5-10 hours or more per day - see the picture above). "By 4 in the afternoon, most men walking the streets of Sana'a are high, or about to get high." Since qat reduces appetite, it contributes to malnutrition. In 2007, the World Bank noted that

"Qat […] drains the family budget; has adverse health effects; negatively affects work performance and thus contributes to poverty. Weaning consumers from the qat habit will be difficult, because its production accounts for some 6 percent of GDP and 14 percent of total employment. Qat consumption requires around 10 percent of the household budget of all income groups, which comes at the expense of basic food, education and health."

I have seen other (official) reports that almost half (!) of the money in some households is spent on buying qat. In addition, qat is a very thirsty plant that grows better when it gets more water. Different data indicate that between one quarter and one half (!) of all the water in this dry and thirsty country is used for growing qat. The output of qat has been growing every year, not the least because it is an easy plant to grow and because farmers earn much more by growing qat than by growing food. According to some reports, qat cultivation has increased 10-fold between 1970 and 2000 and has continued to grow explosively during the last 10 years. Like so many other things, qat cultivation is interconnected with other problems in a seemingly insoluble cluster:

"Despite the danger, Yemen isn't about to go cold turkey anytime soon. Not only are most of the country's leaders landowners deeply involved in khat production, the leaf may be one of the few things still holding Yemen together. [...] "Khat plays a big role in keeping people calm, and keeping them off the streets. But it's also delaying change. It's hard to convince people to act now."

It is hard to finish these two texts about Yemen with a "happy chapter" about how everything, despite all the problems, will be fine in the end for the 25 million people living in the country today (or the 60 million who are "estimated" to live there in 2050 - how that could ever happen). The best I can think of is to point out that Yemen, as far as I know, has not been affected by AIDS – in contrast to many poor countries in Africa...

But even without AIDS, Yemen is a dry, overpopulated, poor and violent country that lives on borrowed time. It is difficult to see how even very generous loans and assistance could keep an increasing societal disintegration at bay even during the next few years. Likely effects of a societal disintegration are migration, famine, growing lawlessness and more. We can expect to read more about Yemen in the newspapers in the near future (just as there are reports today about trouble in and around Somalia). A foretaste of what’s to come was given on Christmas Day, when the "underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab’s failed attempt to blow up an American passenger plane put the perpetrator’s Yemeni Al-Qaeda training in the spotlight.

Here is a recent text that does not really add much to my two texts about Yemen, but that still supports these texts by describing the interconnected problems of water, violence, qat, al-Qaeda and the fact that the Yemeni capital Sana’a may become a ghost town within a decade or two. "Yemeni water trader Mohammed al-Tawwa runs his diesel pumps day and night, but gets less and less from his well in Sana’a, which experts say could become the world's first capital city to run dry".

Nashville State Community College considers more sitesYemen: The Most Dangerous Place You Never Heard Of

That Which May Be Gained: A Return to Scale, Community, and Morality

SUMMARY: Bound by the tangled cord of its own sins, Industrial Civilization sits immobilized -- with the gun of reality pressed to its temple. Monumental changes are imminent – probably (hopefully) a swirling mix of both bad and good. In order to maintain our present sanity and maximize chances for the best possible futures, we need to both envision and embody the positive change we wish to see in the coming post-carbon era. As such, I suggest the following as a worthy set of goals for the coming post-carbon future: a return to life at a proper вЂhuman’ scale, the reclamation of functional human communities, and the widespread internalization and application of a true morality. Heck, it’s worth a shot. Hey-ho, let’s go!


Click…click…click…click…The hammer keeps falling on an empty chamber, but the inevitable bullet slowly advances.

Bound by the tangled cord of its own sins, Industrial Civilization sits immobilized -- with the gun of reality pressed to its temple. Any of the following might suffice for the kill shot: a surge in oil prices; a national debt default; a rapid devaluation of the dollar; an outburst of violence in the simmering Middle East ; a terrorist strike on some key national infrastructure; a monstrous storm or other natural disaster. There are other possibilities of course. Take your pick.

And this next shot just might be the one that undermines its foundations and topples it into catastrophic collapse. …Or it may just mark the next leg down – another mortal wound; the next morbid installment of our socio-enviro-economic Long Emergency. But in the tenuous final months (years?) of our industrial civilization, I brace myself every single day as I open the paper: Is today the day? Is today the day the gun goes off? Is today the day we’re forcibly wrenched off of our industrial teat? Is today the day we’re on our own?

But, of course, it’s not only that.

This grim economic drama is played out against a backdrop of an even more ominous environmental degradation – the metaphorical вЂfalling piano’ of climatic destabilization. Profound disturbances to our planet’s energy balance threaten to, at best, slowly erode the stability of the climate system over the next century – and at worst, devolve catastrophically in the span of perhaps a few decades or so to a new (and quite probably human-unfriendly) stable state.

Meanwhile, the CO2 rises, the planet warms, the ice-caps and mountain-glaciers melt, the oceans acidify, the permafrost destabilizes and begins to de-gas, the species blink out at an increasing rate, the droughts and storms intensify, and the seas rise steadily towards our coastal cities, aquifers, and farmland.

For as we dither and deceive, the entropic arrow of time marches steadily onward.

Tick, tick, tick, tick…


It was, of course, all foreseen long ago. We were warned. (See, for example, the interview with David Orr at

But we chose the easy path – the childish, impulsive, arrogant, blithely-limitless, material-worshiping path. We followed our worst instincts as a species and have ended up facing the worst of all predicaments.

It will not be surprising when it comes to a head – economically or environmentally -- yet we will certainly feign surprise. We will gnash our teeth and curse our perceived enemies. We will fire our missiles and expand the detention camps. We will be uprooted and tossed about like rag dolls. We will continue to choose the easy path; the path of comforting lies; the wrong path. And we will reap the bitter fruits we have sown for two centuries.

Or maybe not.

Maybe it’ll all just fizzle out. Maybe the industrial economy will just recede away from us like water draining from a tub – leaving us dripping cold and naked; on our own. Maybe then we’ll lock the missile silos and reactors; open the prisons; empty the shopping malls, supermarkets, and office buildings; abandon our cars in the driveways; take a walk around the neighborhood; knock on our neighbor’s door; and get down to work.

And maybe we – or some of us, at least – will find it possible to follow the righteous path; the path of reorienting our species with biophysical reality; the path of hard, honest work and reverent spirituality. And we can then perhaps – even a little bit (maybe?) – taste the sweet fruits of peace and community.

Who knows? Maybe it’ll be a schizophrenic mix of both good and bad in a swirling mix in time and place. Or maybe there’s something I’m missing. If somebody (me included, of course) tells you they know for sure – good or bad -- you can be sure they’re wrong.


So where does that leave us? It leaves us in limbo -- in excitement and dread; in serenity and restlessness; elated and despondent; reaching out and withdrawn; good-humored and angry; purposeful and tentative.

A student came to me the other day and asked me, in light of all that was wrong, how she could maintain her cheerfulness and positive outlook. She didn’t want to lose it and was confused. And she had trouble reconciling the things I was saying and writing with my generally-cheery and positive personality.

She didn’t ask this next question, but I asked it of myself, “Why am I not depressed about all this?”

Because she certainly has a point. It’s some pretty horrible stuff. Monumental change of any sort is scary as hell, and this is about as monumental as it gets -- the collapse of the largest, most complex civilization in the history of the planet; and perhaps even ultimately the collapse of the biosphere itself. This could quite possibly be a bona fide horror show. And perhaps we have every reason to dread the future and crawl into our dark holes of self-pity and grim survivalism.

So why the heck am I NOT depressed? Why am I cautiously optimistic about the future?

Am I unable or unwilling to grasp the true magnitude of the change that’s coming? Am I naively discounting or unfeeling of the suffering that will certainly accompany it? What’s WRONG with me? Do I WANT the suffering to occur? Because if industrial civilization tanked, all my hand-wringing would finally be proven right. “Ha hA ha HA – See everybody, I’m not a kook! I was right! I was right!” Am I a monster or something?

Well I certainly hope not. And I don’t think so.

I think perhaps the explanation for my curious lack of dread comes down to this: a sort of mental weighing-out of the things that may and will be lost in the coming times versus things that may and will be gained. And I think I have already, to some degree at least, reconciled some of the losses and envisioned the possible gains. In my mind, I have already gone through some degree of mourning for our past, present, and future losses and emerged into some partial form of acceptance.

And I have also consciously begun working towards laying the groundwork for the envisioned gains. Futile efforts? Perhaps. But maybe not. Maybe crucial.


So what have I mourned for – in part, at least? I can think of a few things.

Firstly (of course) I have mourned for myself. I have let go of the notion that my Industrial Civilization® membership card entitles me to live essentially forever outside of biological reality – to replace my malfunctioning organs with synthetic or borrowed ones as needed; to vanquish, at a moment’s notice and with potent synthetic chemicals, the countless microorganisms who desire to eat my flesh. I accept that I really have no right to live past the functioning life of my body – whatever that turns out to be. I have no right to immortality. That wish was a ridiculous industrial fantasy – part of the fundamental disconnect between the industrial version of our species and the Earth. I am ready to go when called. I don’t want to, of course – I love this Earth -- but I’m reconciled to it. I have already mourned for my lost industrial pseudo-immortality.

And I have already mourned, in part, for the countless species that have been exterminated forever from this planet – and for those whose termination is already guaranteed by the coming climate catastrophe; changes that have already been set in motion and cannot be stopped. I cannot, of course, name even a small fraction of the already-departed and the walking-dead -- but as Derrick Jensen movingly writes, they are all our kin. We have been killing ourselves. It does not matter if they are familiar or nameless, great or tiny, in our yards or out of sight – they are our kin and we have killed them. We ARE killing them. They are blinking out now… and now… and now... and now… and now…

And I have mourned, to some small degree at least, for those of my own species – perhaps those of my own family – who will not make it through the changes ahead. I have only seen pictures of war but it feels like war is coming. Isolated or nation-wide, skirmishes or conflagrations, remote or in my very house -- I don’t know. But war, when it comes, may take many of us. It may even take most of us. It is, of course, by no means a stranger to our nation. And it is part of our very nature as a species. But we have not addressed it honestly and critically when we could have; when we had the resources to do so. We have not nurtured the safeguards against it. So it will be here again.

There are other things, of course, that have been and will be lost, but that is enough.


So I have already mourned – in some fashion, at least -- for these things. But again, I don’t ONLY see what has been, is being, and will be lost. That would surely be the end of me.

My seemingly-incongruous optimism, I think, comes from also seeing what MIGHT be – what COULD be. And it comes from perhaps seeing some ways we might get there. I think I can see some of these things – through the guidance of many brilliant, beautiful people, of course -- and I think that’s what keeps my heart afloat. THAT’S why I’m not depressed – why I am even hopeful.

(As an aside, I suspect that it is the lack of the appropriate mental tools needed to envision some livable post-carbon future that traps many people in the other less-productive вЂcamps’ of futurism: the techno-utopians, the ammo-and-canned-soup survivalist doomers, and the head-in-the-sand neo-optimists. For others, I suppose, the reason is just flat-out greed for short-term profits – i.e. the inability to imagine ANY future beyond the next вЂtake’. But I digress.)

So in this вЂhope for the future’ I possess, what might we make of a new post-carbon world? What COULD it be? And how might we get there?

I’ll elaborate a little bit on this now – on some things that might be gained as we move beyond industrial civilization.

There are many possibilities, of course, but in the interest of space, I’ll discuss just three here: (1) a return of the human sphere to its proper scale, (2) the profoundly uplifting promises of genuine community, and (3) the possible reclamation of morality from its industrial sewer.

These are my seeds of hope in an industrial climate reeling with loss and despair. These are the ideas that put a glimmer in my eye and a smile on my face even when confronted daily with the toxic depredations of my civilization.


But before I outline more fully these вЂseeds of hope’, I want to give a very brief overview of their current perversions at the hands of industrial civilization. I do this to underscore both the imposing magnitude of our reclamation tasks – i.e. what we’re up against as a starting point – and the profound importance that such a reclamation succeeds. For it MUST succeed if we wish to create (in James Kunstler’s phrasing) вЂlives worth living and places worth caring about.’

Let’s begin with our civilization’s gross perversion of scale, since that has perhaps influenced all else.

It was, of course, our easy access to rivers of concentrated ancient sunlight (i.e. fossil fuels) that enabled industrial civilization to expand its scale far beyond anything imaginable to other human civilizations. These great rivers of energy made it possible to (temporarily) beat back the universal tide of entropy and construct physical and bureaucratic entities of dizzying organizational and technological complexity. And these entities were then assembled to access and unleash even more of this fossil energy; doing work of astonishing magnitudes on the lithosphere, oceans, atmosphere, and biosphere of our planet – and altering it to a huge, sometimes-almost-unrecognizable degree in the process.

But this exponential expansion of the scale at which we have operated has had profound negative impacts on the Earth’s biosphere, our human communities, and our very thought patterns.

For one thing, we have turned out to be famously poor ecosystem managers on a planetary scale. We absurdly misidentified both resource pools and waste sinks as effectively infinite. We ignored -- and even worked actively to obscure(!) -- the flashing red warning signals offered by the planetary biogeochemical system. Ecologically speaking, we tragically projected the wasteful, early-successional program of our industrial civilization onto the larger planetary scale. We were never able to approach, or even TRY to approach, something resembling a mature, steady-state approach to ecosystem management.

A quick scan of the scientific literature, of course, will show that the ecological chickens from this delusional industrial program are starting to come home to roost -- in spades, unfortunately.

Our human communities were another grim casualty of the industrial program. The industrial program of вЂbiggering’ everything (see Seuss’ The Lorax) – approaching its fruition now in the form of industrial globalization – has been utterly toxic to the functioning of traditional human communities. While the pressures of increasing economic scale undermined the economic foundations of these human communities, the ideology of predatory consumerism eroded their social fabric. The once-numerous, economically-vibrant, semi-self-sufficient, culturally-rich communities across the US have now been largely replaced with their polar opposite: economically-morbid, global-supply-chain-dependent residences of dispirited and atomized consumers.

The slowly-creeping, seemingly-optional spread of this cultural cancer has rendered it -- largely in the span of just six decades -- the вЂnew normal.’ It is a deep credit to the dark skill of our corporate spin-masters that we don’t even collectively realize the extent of our profound degradation as a culture over this relatively short time period.
And under all of this, it is not surprising that these massive ecological, economic, and social degradations have corrupted our very thought patterns as a civilization. The traditional moralities of honesty, forgiveness, respect for tradition, cooperation, charity, thrift, and reverence for That Which is Beyond Our Comprehension have been neglected (and even mocked!) to the point of irrelevance and scorn. These вЂold-fashioned’ moralities, being incompatible with the industrial economic program, really stood no chance of survival. The вЂnew morality’, which can be obtained readily from any of the various mass-media spigots, glorifies in day-glo colors the dubious standards of artifice, vengeance, novelty, hyper-individualism, greed, conspicuous consumption, and a crude cartoonish combination of bravado and hubris.

Oh, how far we have fallen!

It literally breaks my heart every day to watch, largely helpless, as my children and students sink powerlessly into this seductive immoral cesspool our culture has become.


So -- that little review was maybe a bit unpleasant, huh? Well it should be. It’s the anatomy of a planetary-scale train-wreck; a tragedy of monumental proportions.

But I think that we can do better. I know we can.

I have a deep hope that we can not only recover what has been lost and reclaim what has been perverted, but that we can maybe make something better than before. That’s what sustains me -- what keeps me going. That’s what allows me to stare straight-on at a very unsettled and unsettling future and not curl up into a little whimpering ball on the rug.

Now of course, I realize that there is a distinctly non-zero chance that we may be headed down a far darker road than we hope: disastrous climatic tipping points may have already been passed; the snap-back from ecological overshoot may be more severe than we wish to imagine; our shredded social fabric may be tattered beyond repair for the foreseeable future. In other words, highly unfavorable alternate stable states may already be in the cards environmentally, economically, politically, and socially.

But to be debilitated by such grim possibilities only makes them more likely. And should they occur, there would be no preparing for them anyway. The only truly constructive path – the only path that perhaps offers us at least SOME chance of success on the treacherous road ahead – is to keep our вЂeyes on the prize’ and keep working for something good; something great, even.

And in order to do so, we must be able to visualize and articulate вЂthe prize’ we are reaching for.

As such, I suggest the following as a worthy set of вЂprizes’ and goals for the coming post-carbon future: a return to life at a proper вЂhuman’ scale, the reclamation of functional coherent communities, and the widespread internalization and application of a true morality.

Now, some of these вЂprizes’ are almost guaranteed in some form. Others will only be obtained with effort. But all are crucial to fashioning livable civilizations from the ashes of the current one. These are things that we must strive for.


In a thermodynamic sense, we obviously have no choice but contraction of scale in the coming post-carbon era. As fossil fuels begin their imminent nose-dive, the net-energy needed to maintain the absurdly-huge current industrial scale simply won’t BE there. And despite the likely-violent convulsions that will almost certainly accompany such a monumental contraction, the smaller вЂhuman’ scale towards which we are returning may be beneficial in many ways.

Firstly, we simply won’t have the massive power to damage the biosphere as extensively and rapidly as we have. While our ecological depredations will almost certainly continue at some level, smaller scales of human activity will limit these depredations to a similarly-smaller scale. Our depredations will likely also be more separated in time and space -- giving ecosystems less extensive damage to mend and more time to mend it. Gaia, so to speak, may again have the time and resources to heal her inevitable wounds.

Secondly, there is more of a chance that even local occurrences of ecological degradation can be vastly minimized at smaller scales of societal organization. For example, the latest Nobel award in economics was (refreshingly) presented for studies on how communication within a community – something facilitated by smallness of scale – has the potential to prevent the вЂTragedy of the Commons’ syndrome associated with many human ecological-management failures.

And another more personal example: I know from my own farming/gardening experience, that I simply am able to treat the soil much better when I operate on a smaller scale; I can pay much closer attention to closing the cycles of the matter and energy changes I’m orchestrating. While maintaining adequate productivity on such a reduced scale often requires more holistic knowledge and thought-patterns – really, a richer multi-way communication between humans and their ecosystem -- the potential benefits to all involved parties are great indeed.

The noble discipline of Permaculture speaks eloquently to the practical skills and thought patterns required here.

A smaller scale will also perhaps encourage a return towards greater personal responsibility for our actions – and thus a higher quality of work. The impetus for this greater responsibility would be a more intimate connection with the results of our work at a smaller scale. No longer will we be able to destroy distant landscapes or communities from afar by remote control. Any destructive activities will be felt close to home. Thus, the blame will be more transparent – and the necessary safeguards and justice maybe more readily enacted.

And finally, perhaps one of the more edifying personal benefits of the coming reduced scale may be the opportunity to вЂmore fully inhabit’ our own lives – to feel truly human again. The increasingly huge scale and accompanying dizzying pace of industrial civilization has left a frighteningly large percentage of us almost numb to our true biological and community-based origins as a species. Our lives have increasingly been patterned on the cold logic of the machine: efficiency, speed, multi-tasking, compartmentalization, impersonal-electronic interactions, and a profound disconnect form the glorious complexity of Nature.

These trends will necessarily reverse as our scale diminishes. No longer will we be the increasingly frantic, detached avatars bouncing around in the cold realm of cyberspace. We will again reclaim our identities as living organisms enmeshed within a living biosphere. Our species will again become, necessarily and non-optionally, part of the Great Whole – with all the benefits and dangers that such membership confers.

We were meant to live slowly and intimately among other organisms, and so again we shall. I don’t think it is wrong to look forward to this.

Now, as I alluded to earlier, this return to scale will require a wide range of mental and physical skills no longer collectively possessed in this country. So much has been lost in the past 60 years. Thus, it is required that as many of us as possible work hard to reclaim these skills – and NOW, in this pre-collapse period where the fossil-fuel safety net is still largely intact. Skills like gardening, woodworking, metal-working, conflict resolution, natural building, animal husbandry, garment-making, and so many more will be essential to making life work on a smaller scale. The more of these skills we can bring into the coming turbulence, the better the ride we may hope to have.


Just as we face the compulsory return of our lives to a smaller scale in the post-carbon era, I think we are destined also to return to tight local communities. And I think that’s an overwhelmingly good thing – something to really look forward to; something to make us atomized industrial consumers smile as we gaze into the otherwise uncertain future.

And by вЂcommunities’ here, I mean REAL communities – collections of inter-dependent, cooperating neighbors working together to fashion meaningful lives. These won’t be the superficially-connected, nebular entities we call вЂcommunities’ today. We won’t be able to afford those shallow luxeries anymore -- video-gaming вЂcommunities’; internet вЂfriends’ lists; corporate вЂfamilies’; вЂcommunities’ of fellow teachers and administrators in a school district; geographic neighborhood вЂcommunities’ composed of rank strangers, etc. And good riddance to that fake nonsense – Kurt Vonnegut’s вЂgranfalloons’.

The post-carbon communities will be REAL communities working together on real, fundamental problems -- like building functioning local economies with resilient local food, water, transportation, and manufacturing systems; like building rich networks of deep face-to-face social interactions; like ensuring that our lives are consistent with the demands and limitations of finite local material and energetic resources.

I think there are several reasons why the return to вЂreal’ communities is non-optional. The first reason comes from the fact that our minds – like the rest of our physical selves – have been shaped by the marathon genetic-kneading of evolution. The success of our species over the past 200,000 years has been, from my understanding of cultural anthropology, due in a large part to the survival benefit of community organization; through the whole-is-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts benefits of neighbors helping neighbors.

In other words, it is very probable that gathering together into coherent communities is an inherently human trait. Insightfully, Dmitry Orlov wrote (in an excellent essay at that industrial civilization (i.e. the corporate nexus) has needed to expend vast amounts of energy to not only break apart pre-existing communities, but to KEEP them apart. And I think the historical record clearly backs this up. (For example, see Chomsky’s extensive chronicling of shameful corporate-backed anti-community вЂmischief’ in Central America. Or, closer to home, just trace the 60-year history of ANY small town in the US.)

Another reason for the non-optional return of community is the fact that there will just be (in the poetic phrasing of Will Oldham) вЂno one what will take care of us’ once our industrial corporate masters and fossil-energy security blankets are gone – and they WILL be gone shortly. We will simply NEED each other more than ever -- for we have barely retained any of the necessary low-energy-requiring, pre-industrial skills we’ll desperately require to thrive in a post-carbon economy.

And again, I think this return to community is one of the main reasons to – dare I say – look forward to the coming post-carbon era. Because I think that we are not only pre-disposed towards community organization, but our mental health crucially DEPENDS on it. In other words, humans apparently NEED rich community structures to lead fulfilling lives. In the most basic sense, community gives true meaning to our evolution-shaped minds, and this sense of meaning is a pre-condition for true happiness.

So, I know this will sound overly-generalizing, but I think it’s worth a gamble. I’m going to present here something like a universal equation for our species:

вЂCommunity = happiness’

OK, OK, I know that’s too simplistic, but in the larger sense, I think it’s perhaps a fundamental, evolutionarily-engrained truth of our species; a truth both sadly neglected and often purposely perverted by our corporate masters.

For after economically crushing our communities, our corporate masters substituted the lost happiness-potential of these disbanded communities with a crude form of shallow, base amusement. And, of course, there is a profound difference between a real, deep human happiness and this crude amusement dispensed to atomized consumers by the corporate entertainment/diversion complex.

If you’ll allow me an analogy here: this industrial version of вЂamusement’ is the high-fructose corn syrup to the nutritious greens of real community вЂhappiness’ – more appealing at first, but fundamentally of a much lower quality and destructive to overall health.

Our minds are literally sick with an excess of industrial amusement and literally starving for real happiness. As Roger Waters intones, we are literally вЂamusing ourselves to death.’

Now, obviously not every member of a community is happy at a given time, nor is every community necessarily in a вЂhappy place’ given certain unfavorable external circumstances. But, I think it is true that the existence of real communities certainly provides the best environment for the POTENTIAL attainment of real human happiness. And I think that’s perhaps reason enough to welcome the return of real community, in spite of all its potential imperfection and the other nasty stuff that’s headed our way.

One big problem with all this return-to-community stuff, perhaps, is the dearth actual functioning communities to hold up as examples – to help us better envision what we should expect and/or hope for. At this late stage if the anti-community industrial program, real communities are indeed few and far between. So as an alternative of necessarily-lesser quality, I highly recommend Wendell Berry’s fiction as essential reading towards better understanding the potential benefits, challenges, imperfections, and contradictions inherent in real functioning communities. It’s good stuff indeed.


The issue of morality is perhaps more problematic than the issues of scale and community – and thus more crucial to our present situation -- because I think we can be even less sure of a positive outcome here.

The return of our lives to a proper, human-sized scale and real community is, I think, inevitable in light of the low-energy reality of the coming era. And, as discussed above, both of these changes have large potential вЂup-sides’ to them. But I can certainly imagine things going horribly wrong in spite of this positive potential.

Historically, there have been very good communities and very nasty communities. In our long, pre-fossil-fuel history, we have been angels and we have been monsters. Real communities have shown great feats of goodness and perpetrated unimaginable atrocities.

This is due, of course, simply to the maddening duality of the human mind – we have both good and bad inside us. Either one can grow to overshadow the other given the proper nourishment. The good is nourished by good, and the bad is nourished by bad.

So the key question, perhaps, of our post-carbon transition is this: How might we best nourish the good in us so that an admirable morality can largely govern our thoughts and actions? In other words, how can we establish a noble traditional morality as part of our daily thought patterns?

In short, how do we get our post-carbon communities to be good?

I can think of three ways.

The first is simply by not glorifying badness -- as has, in fact, been the fervid mission of the modern corporate nexus. As a review of successful late-20th century business models shows, selling badness is far more profitable than selling goodness. As such, the corporate mind-benders have worked overtime to make “bad the new good” – to blatantly turn true morality on its head for the sake of maximizing short-term profit. As soon as we open our eyes in the morning, soul-killing, immoral sludge can be found gushing like a fire-hose from every radio, TV, magazine, billboard, t-shirt, computer, movie screen, and ipod within sensory reach.

We are told to seek consumption and treat thrift as shameful; to seek vengeance and treat forgiveness as traitorous; to seek domination and treat compassion as weakness; worship the novel and disdain the traditional; to idolize the fortunate and blame the unfortunate; to worship appearance and dismiss substance; to eschew honesty and just get away with anything we damn well can. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

It’s beyond messed up -- and it’s all that a lot of kids (and even adults) have ever known.

Now, I certainly don’t mean to come off like some über-moralist firebrand preacher here (or some hypocritical neo-conservative hack, for that matter), but I think it’s past-time time to honestly assess just how morally debased our civilization has become and how purposely we have been shepherded here by our corporate masters.

But we have a break here: the morality-perverting influence of the corporations will shortly be gone – as the global corporations wither and die for lack of essential fossil energy inputs. This, of course, does not mean that they will be replaced by agents of impeccable moral standards – what follows may indeed be more morally debased than what we have now. But the salient point here is that a true morality simply has no chance of establishment as long as our current, profoundly-immoral civilization persists. So the demise of industrial civilization at least gives us a CHANCE at morality.

The second way we can perhaps coax our post-carbon communities into being вЂgood’ is by consciously incorporating this morality directly into our economic structures. If you create an economic system that rewards waste, greed, and violence to communities, then that’s obviously what you’ll get. That’s, of course, what we have now. However, if our necessarily-local post-carbon economies reward thrift, generosity, and community-building -- then THAT’s what we’ll get.

Exactly how these goals can be accomplished will depend on how each local economy is structured – but the key point here is that a foundation of economic morality needs to be a conscious goal of each economy, not just a happy accident should it happen to occur. It needs to be talked about explicitly and actively monitored by community leaders. The well-developed (but, tragically, as-yet unimplemented) discipline of Steady-State Economics speaks eloquently to this need.

The third way of maximizing the chances for post-carbon вЂgoodness’ is simply by being good ourselves. Goodness can breed goodness, and by demonstrating impeccable moral standards ourselves – especially in the face of adversity – we can perhaps have a crystallizing influence on those around us; on the вЂgoodness’ of our larger community.

And we should TALK about it. We should be discussing what sort of morals are good and WHY they are good; what sorts of behavior patterns are good and WHY they are good. Moral goodness and badness should be talked about – not in the hypocritical, self-aggrandizing, pseudo-political manner of the modern neo-conservatives and their big-box churches – but openly and honestly among regular people in our everyday lives.

Obviously our organized religions can have an important role here, but we need not (and should not) rely solely on a formal religious setting for our discussions of morality. These discussions should happen in schools, at the dinner table, in the garden, at work, and in the bedroom. We can no longer afford to leave morality as just one of the myriad happy, comforting, superficial lies we collectively tell ourselves once a week to justify and ameliorate the guilt for our real-life depredations. We need to make morality a real part of our lives and treat each other and the Earth accordingly.


So…all that went on longer than I had planned. (Is anyone still here?)

But seriously, would that perhaps be a reasonable answer to a kid (or adult) who wanted something to look forward to in the coming times? Would it foster at least some hope for the post-carbon future? Would it flesh out some of the key things we may be able to look forward to: a proper scale, community, and morality? Would that give us something to work towards in these uncertain times?

I, of course, hope so -- because it definitely helps me. I’m certainly not immune to waves of despair in these uncertain and troubled times, and it’s nice to have a couple of key ideas to anchor my mind in the constructive realm.

So perhaps these ideas can be part of some core message we can tell the exceptional kids (and exceptional adults) who are not afraid to look a profoundly troubling reality directly in the face and work to make a positive difference in their communities.

Perhaps the core message would include something like this:

First, we need to SEE the change we want; to identify and define the important things we want to preserve or create in the coming post-carbon era. I suggested above that these might include (1) ecological health resulting from lives lived on a proper scale, within biophysical limits of the planet, (2) richly inter-linked human communities, and (3) an inspiring moral standard of thought and conduct.

Next, we need to BE the change we want.

For example, if we want ecological health, we need to pattern our daily physical routines so that they align within the material and energetic limits of our community – so that they operate on the appropriate scale. We need to work towards trying not to overstep our ecological bounds AT ALL. This is obviously a tall task – especially as we are still mired in the era of relatively cheap, scale-distorting fossil energy -- but it’s a goal to which we should continually strive.

If we want community, we need to seek out our neighbors and work to pattern our local economies in a way that encourages and nourishes inter-personal ties and dependencies within our community. Rob Hopkins’ Transition program exemplifies this goal (--see Strive to be, in his phrasing, the вЂseed crystal’ of community in your town – something for the necessary larger community structures to build around. And really any community-related activity is a step in the right direction. Start small if you wish, but keep trying for more.

And finally, if we want our community to exemplify a strong, honest morality, we need to hold ourselves to these firm (but appropriately-forgiving) moral standards. And we should do this in neither a threatening, do-as-I-do-or-else manner or in a holier-than-though manner, but simply as an example to others who might wish to emulate these admirable qualities. The learned guidance of our religions and exemplary moral teachers will, of course, be indispensable here – but it should also be an every-day thing – something we all talk about during our normal lives.

So in spite of the proverbial gun of reality to the head of our current civilization and the proverbial environmental piano falling above us, we STILL might have a chance to make something really good from all of this.

I certainly think there will be both good and bad coming our way -- but, by our thoughtful actions, we can perhaps try to steer things more towards the good and better support each other better through the inevitable bad.

The key for our current transition efforts is to figure out what 'thoughtful actions' are most appropriate and how best to get them out there -- and that's pretty much a key focus of my life right now.

And, you know, it’s actually kind of fun.

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