Monday, December 12, 2011


There's a few items of note in the news lately. One is that Europe has basically recommitted itself to the idea of the European Union, while Britain has increasingly chosen to turn away from it. People are afraid that the job losses we've suffered are permanent. The Republicans cannot really define themselves as a party of opposition, and Obama cannot define himself as a president. Hollywood is tanking again (gas for the week or go to a movie? You decide). Modern industrial civilization seems to have finally lost its way, getting someplace, and not knowing whether to go forward or backward, all the while not understanding that it's on an iceberg that is slowly melting away.

All bets are off, anything is fair game, the ball's in play. These cliches sound good until you realize that apathy is the order of the day. Nothing's getting solved, nothing is being really analyzed. Or, if you want, it can be boiled down to "If you're looking for meaning in the world that has been built over the last hundred or so years, you're wasting your time." It's with this that I want to keep moving forward and exploring where we are going as a civilization and what we do after we get there.

There's been a lot of talk between a slow-crash scenario and a fast-crash scenario in the past, revolving much around what people's perceptions and attitudes are, as much as anything to do with what case is actually mostly likely to happen. We look at the somewhat linear graph of oil availability, point to a definite peak, and assume that since we've gradually built up to this point, that we'll gradually descend on the other side of the slope, giving up plenty of time to make adjustments and see ourselves through.

The problem with this hypothesis is that it shows an ignorance of the theory of complex systems. While I don't want to go to deeply into it, complexity theory generally tends to consist of an energy input into a closed system, such as oil into the system of human civilization. It's a little like running a current through a tube filled with neon gas. All of a sudden, everything is very bright. We also see spontaneous order, in terms of people aligning their economic activity as part of this system.

What is sometimes forgotten, and what is most important for this discussion, is the idea of "feedback." Feedback, in this case, tends to function as a self-correcting mechanism that tends to sustain the system longer than it would potentially otherwise persist. Short-term substitutes are found for oil, there are other ways of working around it, maybe nuclear or solar picks up some of the slack. Think of it as borrowing on credit cards to not only keep the party going, but to build it up bigger and better.

The problem with complex systems is that they also collapse suddenly. The classic example is a traffic jam which creates itself for no reason, leaves us stuck for half an hour, then suddenly dissipates. We drive by, expecting to see construction or a wreck, or something, but there's nothing. It just happened and then it just vanished. (If you want to be really philosophical about it, the same thing is said of the beginning and end of the universe.) So, while we expect that we might be able to see an orderly "powering down," I think the odds of this happening are much, much lower than the odds of seeing everything come to a grinding halt in relatively quick succession.

What this really means for people is that anyone who tends to think that there's plenty of time to figure things out as they happen may be in for a rude shock as people begin to rapidly unplug themselves from the "complex system" and start looking for other ways to get by. In other words, there would be negative feedback on a massive scale, as opposed to the positive feedback (in terms of sustaining the system) that we've seen for years.

A possible example might be with the airlines. Business slows, and ticket prices rise due to fuel costs, so air travel slows. A person working for an airline as a mechanic, for example, might see the writing on the wall and look for something else to make a living at. In turn, this reduces the number of people working on planes, driving up the price for maintenance for existing planes, making air travel even harder to do. More airlines go under, demand for surviving ones rises, putting the ticket price out of reach, etc. This ignores the possibility of cheaper competition jumping into the game, but the barrier to entry for an airline startup is very high, especially when lending has dramatically slowed and investment cash is scarce.

This thinking is obviously open for debate, but it should color how we view the future and how we expect that things may play out. Obviously, an orderly transition to a sustainable world would be best. However, when you've built on top of a house of cards, it's not likely you're going to be taking the stairs out the front door when the winds begin to blow.


  1. Ok Leibowitz, take a deep breath and a Thyme Howdt. There are many people seeing that there are major problems, but rolling out anything new at this point in time is just feeding the monster before it rolls over. There are several amerikan assumptions that have to break once and for all, because if they are embedded in the new, they will be game breakers.

    I'll choose one example of something that drives me nuts, yet is a total disconnect. People want to feel good, so they use the medical system to fix what is wrong. This is nuts. MD's tend to be dehumanized and programmed to make $ for big pharma and the lobbies. The best person to take care of you is you (or your significant other). Nutrition allows for the absence of medicine. You do not need pills for thinning blood, or acid reflux, or headaches, or you fill in the blank. What you need is a glass of water. Most symptoms of illness are psychosomatic.

    I realize entirely that i am preaching to the choir. If we are to get there from here, we must abandon most of our preconceived notions of how it is and how it has to be. Just stop, take a thyme howdt and think about anything in depth. You will enjoy the meditation and have more food for fodder.

  2. What wrong? That's funny. When are you and everyone else going to realize there are to many people on the planet. Nothing is going to solve the problems that vast numbers of people are the cause of. Nothing. Yea, go ahead and call me malthus and he was wrong in his time but he would not be wrong now. Start thinking about how to reduce the demands of so many people and how to reduce the number of people. The best way is to stop everybody from having any children for one generation. That will go along way to solve the problems. And guess what there is no such thing as sustainability in this scenario. Quit producing period. Lets miss a generation. And boy am I going to enjoy reading the replies.

  3. I raised the population issue on the last post. Essentially the argument is that the world population first hit one billion around 1800. Since that seems to be the most that the world can support with limited use of fossil fuels, that is where world population is heading in a post peak oil world. This argument makes sense, and I see no good counter-argument to that.

    But there are huge variations in how, and in how quickly, the world gets from seven billion plus down to one billion. If every woman had only one child, the population would be cut in half the next generation. From seven billion, it only takes three generations of this to get down to just under a billion, with no "die-off" as people imagine it. And of course there are scenarios where the population is cut very quickly, in a very painful manner for the people around at that time.

    Incidentally, a generation where no one had children would end the human race, so I assume the last post didn't mean that literally. Three generations of one child families as the norm in a row would do the trick.

    Not enough credit is given to the "one child" policy of the Chinese government, which is probably the most successful government policy in terms of improving the welfare of its people at least in the last sixty years. The premise was that China needed to at least stabilize its population to develop economically. They stabilized their population, and experienced tremendous economic growth. Imagine what conversations we would be having if there were an additional billion, impovershished, Chinese added to the mix during the current crisises.

    Speaking of China, we know that the collapses of the Han, T'ang, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties were no picnic, with estimates of absurbly high numbers of people through war (always between various warlords), famine, floods, etc. But the continuity of Chinese culture was always maintained, except maybe in the most recent case, and a new dynasty later reconstituted the empire. On the other hand, the Roman collapse or contraction, lasting four centuries, was so gradual that few people living through it probably realized what was happening. There were bad plague epidemics at the beginning and end of it, during the periods of Marcus Aurelius and Justinian, but on the whole each generation just made due with living in a poorer and more authoritarian and backward-looking world than the previous one.

    But neither of these models are consistent with the zombie hordes of popular imagination.

  4. What rubbish! Come visit Israel Mr Leibowitz - there is no crisis here, the high-tech economy is booming. Things are expected to get even better now that the very large gas and oil deposits have been found. Sure what helps is that we don't have the free market economy here - imports are strictly controlled by the government which allows them to fine tune the levels of prices and employment. Thus the privately owned economy has adult supervision and they can't just offshore and outsource whatever they want. Some of the largest companies are government owned and are expertly ran; for example Israel Aerospace Industries is cutting edge technologically, while being consistently profitable and rapidly growing.
    The problems in US and Europe are because of over-reliance on the discredited free market concepts. And then all those countries also suffer from democrapy; with voters forever demanding more and more government services while insisting on low taxes. This causes the politicians to constantly borrow until their countries go broke. In Israel we also have democrapy but the economy is able to outrun the growth of debt. Hope this would occasion an onset of clarity in your thinking, Mr Leibowitz

  5. Perhaps Israel is booming because it's convenient parasitical status on various Western hosts. Just saying...

  6. If I remember correctly, spending on Israel's "neighbors" is several times what Israel itself gets in aid, so a collapse of foreign aid might actually benefit Israel as opposed to hurting it.

    The oil reserves in Israel are shale oil, which comes with its own problems and difficulty of extraction, plus consider this process would be occurring in what is becoming an increasingly unstable Middle East once again, thanks to the "Arab Spring."

    I would really question the long-term viability of Israel during a global economic collapse, though at the same time, I would suggest that there may be areas of the world, like Israel, which may revert to the status of acting like a large-city state, if only because of an ability to remain organized longer than anyone around them.

    Last, "Leibowitz" is not my real name, which I don't put on the blog because I don't want this idea to be associated with only one person, or to have it turn into a "cult of personality" type of thing.

  7. All right "Mr Leibowitz" you are commenting on the peripheral issues - but what about my central argument that Israel is prospering because of its guided economy which is largely privately owned but has the government making sure that it acts in the national interest, whereas in the Western economies the corporations are busily offshoring and outsourcing the national industrial(and thus tax) bases. By the way Nazi Geramny also had what they called a directed economy eerily similar to what Israel has. That allowed Germany to rise from the ruins of the collapsed Weimar republic and to become within several years strong enough economically to challenge militarily the US, the Soviet Union and most of Europe. The crisis that we are witnessing is the crisis of the free market economies which in the end failed just as badly as did the other extreme concept of centrally planned economy. It really is amazing that the free market fallacy endured for so long going from bubble to bubble, from bust to bust all the way from the tulip mania to the dot-com and real estate manias, forever fluctuating between the emotional extremes of greed and fear and using a casino-like mechanism which is anything but coolly rational for price determination and resource allocation. Its operation internationally resulted in the massive de-industrialization of the West, astronomical trade imbalances and violent currencies turmoil. It commercialized and debased the Western culture and ruined and corrupted just about everything in the West making its political and legal systems corrupt and dysfunctional. Israel is lucky as because of its security situation the Government here just had to exercise control over the economy and the worst excesses of the free-market were never allowed to develop - that and the population's ingenuity turning the country into one large Silicon Valley

  8. I will add a little to my preceding comment, to put your example about the supposedly failing airlines into a proper perspective. You dramatically underestimate the human ingenuity.
    The airline business will recover and grow far bigger than ever before, as now there is an air vehicle approaching in terms of efficiency the airplanes but with vertical takeoff and landing capability. Here is a video of a fully functional prototype flying
    You can read more about the cyclogyros on Wikipedia.
    We can look forward to a future where very costly and usually remote airports are gradually
    becoming unnecessary. I'm sure that the substitutes for oil will also be found. Your pessimistic viewpoints "Mr Leibowitz" are caused
    mostly by you choosing to live in a country and culture which are in a precipitous decline, which is certainly not the case in many other parts of the world/countries

  9. I know that bashing the "free market" has become the "response du jour" in recent years, but the obvious problem with that is that West really has not had a true free market (except for minor pockets) since the inception of the industrial age. "Bubbles" are generally the result of political "tweaks" to market processes (i.e. contracts for tulip purchases not being enforced, public assumption of mortgage risk, etc).

    Germay's successes in WW2 were largely due to a mix of innovative military thinking and political fragmentation and uncertainty in the west, not because they were an economic powerhouse at the time. For example, the German still relied greatly on horse-drawn transport. Also, Nazi Germany was plagued by cronyism, hardly making it a model for how to run a just economic system.

    I should point out that the idea of the "Leibowitz Society" -- that of storing information so that it would survive any future upheavel -- isn't necessarily related to economic and social collapse. I'd promote the same idea, were it twenty five years ago and the primary threat was that of nuclear war. Everyone talks about economic collapse, but the truth is that we also have plenty of other things which would push the world over the edge -- nuclear war, an asteroid hit, a pandemic, etc. Even if the world economy were otherwise strong and not full of holes, we would still have to put a thought toward those possibilities.

    However, going back to your posts, I think it is telling when you say "I'm sure that substitutes for oil will also be found." Maybe, maybe not, but are we really seeing those substitues being developed in such a way to be widely available? Or are we pissing away resources, putting faith into something that will never happen?

  10. On Dmitri Orlov's blog there is an interview which is dense with information, which is useful both as a summary in one place of the crisis, and also for specific suggestions and speculations, some of which I had not thought of before:


    At one point the interviewee suggests looking to ancient and medieval settlement patterns to find places that are at least less screwed. There is an obvious problem in trying to do this in the United States (it implies that you really, really want to be on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area). I agree that mid sized cities or large towns are the way to go, and I live in Manhattan (ulp! and I have elderly relatives here). One problem with the U.S. is that the mid sized cities tend to have the most corrupt political and business class, relative to their resources.

  11. That is something I was going to address in an upcoming post, but hadn't gotten around to writing about it yet (the day's headlines always distract me). The thing is, pre-industrial settlement patterns usually reflected access to water (the most important physical item, outside of air), locations that might have straddled a trade route (which is supposedly what Rome was built on), etc. In other words, places that were once viable due to their physical location, not someplace that grew up because someone decided, by fiat, to locate a town there.

    I think the settlement patterns in the east U.S., particularly places that date back before the advent of rail, were probably ones selected based on geographical rationality. On the other hand, it's easy to see a lot of places in modern America that exist only because it easy to build a road there.

    I would tend to agree about corrupt politics, though I've found that it can permeate all size of towns, down to the lowest level. One piece of advice I've seen that seems like gold is that if you move to a smaller town, integrate yourself into the community as much as possible -- volunteer time, get to know your neighbors and important people in town, etc. There is the issue, though, of a lot of places not being as nice/safe as they used to be, so I would agree that larger -- but not too large -- communities seem reasonable.