Monday, June 4, 2012

Hearth and Home

The Euro panic keeps going and going. If the end of the EU was a disaster flick, it would be shown as a multi-year series, maybe studded with the usual standby roster of not-quite A-listers, all desperate to keep their face on the screen, hoping for a mid-career boost back to Cannes. It would definitely not be a two-hour feature film, a back-room, caviar-laced version of Armageddon, featuring Bruce Willis managing the global financial crisis with a steely eye, while an Aerosmith ballad played in the background.

This is how collapse seems to go, a long, slow event, better imagined as the Galaxy of Unrestrained Hope and Cornucopian Optimism, colliding with the galaxy of Physical and Financial Reality, all while accompanied by a Strauss waltz. We know what the outcome is, where we're going at the end of it, but become self-improsed refuseniks, not wanting to leave the land of Plenty for the land of Adjustment. Adjustment itself is a nuanced word and implies a lot of things, most of them not so good. It is a word of acceptance, when reality runs over our dreams, and we reassemble the pieces into something that we make ourselves live with, even though it's a long way from Optimum.

This is where we are at the beginnings of the new Dark Age. This paradigm is well-played out in the situation of the twenty-five or so percent of the population that is unable to find work that matches their skills and expectation. Maybe colleges would be better off offering the "Bachelor of Barsita-ing" instead of Film, Philosophy, and all the other things a society in decline has little need of. That doesn't address the auto and factory workers who spent half their adult life at positions which are no more likely to return than a helium balloon released by accident in a moment of overexuberant play.

Reality is slowing pushing us into making different choices and thinking in new ways. One place it still doesn't seem to have caught up is with the "prepping" movement. The notion seems to exist that everything will turn bad for a couple of years, then return to normal, and all that is needed is to have a basement full of MREs and a few guns to shoot the horde of starving people that show up to claim them. The fact is that 2001 was an "overshoot" and a warning sign that we were pushing against the limits of growth. 2008 was when the rubber band snapped and it became clear that the lights were starting to go out, for good.

How do people find their way back from a collapse, when there's nothing to find their way back to, anyway? We grow up with the expectation of always being able to run to the store to pick up something for dinner. At some point, the Wal-Mart is going to become "Home to Pigeons and Rats Mart." I've done a little urban exploration, traversing buildings that have outlived their usefulness. I think it's a good illustration for where we'll be at, after a few more years of the present upheavals. For anyone who thinks this isn't where we're headed, take a look around. How many business do you see that have closed up, or are on the verge? How many buildings stand empty now?

Prepping is, in some ways, an optimistic activity assumes we can find our way back at some point. Realism assumes that the door is closed behind us, for good. It's not enough to think anymore in terms of "a rainy day," but we need to think in terms now of a new era of human life. What happens when the palette of ramen noodles in our suburban McMansion runs out, and we have 1/4 acre of land to try farming on? Prepping can't be a matter of trying to replicate or maintain our present life, but needs to shift to the idea of trying to function in a time and place when the old ways of doing things are gone and the new ways are the same as the old old ways.

Medicine, food, transportation, entertainment, social interaction and organization, these are all things which are going to shift from the high-energy input, semi-anonymous methods of existence, and become slower, more effort-filled, and more personalized. Are we prepared for these shifts? Does the average office worker have any idea what a full day labor in the fields feels like? Or does the average modern suburbanite have any notion of what it's like to live in a house during winter that's only marginally warmer than being outside? Or when the idea of a big trip becomes walking a town or two over to catch an open-air play?

We probably don't like the idea of these kinds of adjustments, not having asked for it or considered it, but things are forced on us sometimes, like it or not. We've all benefitted from 180 or so years of massive expansion of human luxury, but never asked when, where, and how it would end. Now, like how the idea of pan-European culture died with a pair of gunshots in the Balkans, triggering the First World War, the collapse of a single nation in the Balkans is going to destroy the idea of globalism, and with it all the things built on top of it. The wise response now is to recognize reality and align our lives with what the future holds, not what the past brought.


  1. I really like your blog, I smile every time you post something new. Yes collapse will be for keeps. My prepping includes seeds, tools, and books, not e-books. As well as a little favorite store bought food. It is really daunting to wean myself from perceived instant gratification, but I am working on it. Thankyou for your thoughts and watch your six's. steve

    1. Dealing with collapse seems to be a lot like coming to terms with a disease...not necessarily terminal, but like being told you have to give up salt or drop dead. Or maybe red meat or something. Wrapping your head around a new reality takes some serious adjustment, but at least committing to the first steps is probably the most important thing.

      I'm curious -- what kind of books are you putting aside?

    2. I also believe in books on paper rather than on electronic media. I have a state of the art collection of science books, but i am well beyond the idea that the science in them is correct. I tend to pick up older books - my prize is a first edition copy of Linus Pauling's The Nature of the Chemical Bond. I like to read scientists descriptions in their own words.

      I also have a section of books on Gardening, plant identification, mushrooms, and the like. I grow various things off and on - winter squash is a very productive genre.

      I treasure my games books, particularly the chess books. I consider books like Lao Tzu's Art of War and Machiavelli's The Prince to be in the game genre - an consider gaming to be a form of theater.

      The fourth and final area are my own book - the ones of have written, including many volumes of journals. A good scribe takes notes - the eidetic memory of my younger days let's trivia go - which contains both names and faces - but not the two together.

      A good topic - perhaps i'll wax more over at the Zone.

    3. Well, in reply to your question... "what kind of books are you putting aside?" I had to go look at my bookshelves, then went out and hoed the okra and tomatoes, thought a little. Chased the chickens back into their pen, thought some more, looked at the books some more, put some water on the compost pile, and well it is funny but I have a lot of cookbooks, and bunches of how to identify bird, animal, and plant books, many books on gardening like Steve Solomon's "Gardening when it counts" and John Jeavon's "How to grow more vegetables...". I was thinking while I was hoeing that maybe I am saving books not for myself but for my grandson. I look for classics, textbooks, famous novels, picture books of the wonders of the world, history books; as I was hoeing I thought to myself "You idiot, you have no system, no conscious well thought out plan." So with that I need to thank you again, I have a new mission and that is to accumulate well made books that will hopefully last a few years, that a young person living in a deteriorating world will find essential. Thanks for the focusing of my mind. I think about the best way of preserving books, and I think of Farenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury where in that story individuals memorized entire books, good story, Ray passed recently, may he rest in peace. Anyway, I guess I am a hoarder of knowledge, and I really need to build more bookshelves soon.

  2. Actually the world has been growing steadily poorer since at least the US hit peak oil in the early 1970s. Check out this blog post:

    I grew up in New York City in the 1970s, and come to think of it I also remember more businesses, fewer vacant storefronts, and it was very unusual for an adult man not to have a job, though there were still quite a large number of housewives supported by their husbands' income.

    Ran Prieur had a post out recently stating that he saw peak oil leading to economic collapse but not "industrial collapse". I think the drying up of investment funds, which is happening, should eventually lead to at least technological stagnation, though we will still see techs come out of the pipeline for a few years that had been funded in more prosperous times.

    However I suspect what peak oil will look like is what its looked like for the past four years, only more so; every year a few more unemployed adults, a few more boarded up storefronts, continued cultural stagnation, and so on. Though I think as family sizes and eventually the population shrinks we will get a few minibooms whenever an overhang generation (a generation born during a period of larger families) dies off.

    1. Ed, nice find. People often mention that real wages have been dropping since 1970, but often forget to mention Peak Oil. If called on this, people would probably turn around and say "Well, there are still plenty of cars on the road, blah, blah..." Of course, that's a straw man.

      Most tech at this point seems to be based on consumer-driven refinements to existing technologies. A smaller phone or faster computer isn't necessarily new technology.

      I suppose maybe quantum computer would be a genuine advance, if it ever is developed, and fusion power or solar satellites would certainly be as such. Even Planetary Resources' efforts might be turning a new page, but I'm skeptical of it being anything more than a money sink at this point.

      Otherwise, I think your description of the likely scenario is probably quite accurate. Obviously, some sort of catastrophic event can't be ruled out entirely.

  3. Many in the prepper movement would disagree with your characterization of it as focused on a short-term reset. Many preppers are into long-term sustainability, which means farming, livestock, manual tools, and re-learning how to live independently from all the "grids" of society: electric, cellular communications, food distribution networks, modern financial institutions, etc.

    Granted, I bet you're right that lots of folks are indeed hoping for a short-term event and think that just saving up a bunch of wheat, sugar, salt, and dried milk will see them through (even though they never bothered to learn how to cook with wheat, sugar, salt, and dried milk). But these people aren't really preppers. Preppers are more into knowledge and skills, followed up by enough "stuff" put by to help them make the transition to the new way of living.

    Anyway, I just found your site and it appears to me that you're thinking about what's coming in the right way. I'm looking forward to reviewing your archives.

    1. It's a little dicey sometimes, to wave the generalization flag like I did above. I think there probably needs to be another category, maybe "Adjusters," to go with the existing categories of Doomer, Prepper, and Survivalist. Maybe defined as "people who know that life will go on, in spite of a crash, but that things are going to radically change based on physical reality." (I make a distinction between Prepper and Survivalist, due to the more political nature of Survivalists) The bright side is that, yes, more Preppers have begun to take a serious look at the long-term and realize that the 55 gallon drum of powdered milk will eventuall run out.

      As for the blog, start with the first post. While I've spent a lot of time trying to define what is taking us where we're going, the intent behind it has always been to provide a guide and support to "generational survival" and a path to emerge from the new Dark Age, not unlike what was done by Western monks.

  4. Predicting Collapse is fraught with consequences.

    Convince someone to go all in on prepping too early likely ensures they run short of fiat and join the crowd under the underpass. And yet, waiting too long to act is bound to result in remorse.

    Timing is everything went you have limited resources to coast thru transition periods.

    1. I would agree absolutely with this statement. The positive thing, I think, is that we don't necessarily face a situation where one day we are commuting to work, the next we are driving a supercharged Ford Falcon down an outback highway while shooting a crossbow at someone with a mohawk. The danger, obviously, is if the economy completely goes off the skids and we see a nationwide panic and run on food and whatnot. Maybe, but the more likely thing is that I think we grow accustomed to what is happening and incrementally survive.

      In truth, you can look at it in a couple of different ways -- for many people, collapse has already occurred for them, because they're out of work and have no hope of finding work again. This is more immediate. The more subtle thing is when we go to the store or pump and see that prices have risen on stuff again, the consequence of increasingly scarce resources (typically energy), and make do with less.

      Come to think of it, increasing crime is another thing. People talk about the need to be armed and ready to defend against the "zombie hordes," but one-on-one or several-on-one robberies is no less terrifying than a mob of looters.

      In any case, we're already dealing with a form of failing systems built on the notion of unlimited growth, and the overshot and "ricochet" of finally hitting the limits to growth. What we do now is a consequence of our adjustments, and what we expect to see in the five or ten year period ahead of us. Clearly, Europe looks poised to crash at some point in the nearer future. It can limp along, but only for so long. We have our own issues with a debt that can't even be grasped, much less addressed. Salt it with Peak Oil, and it's clear that we're already moving down the road.

      The nice thing is that a lot of "prepping" is dual-purpose. If you start producing your own food, even on a limited basis, you're probably saving at least some money. Learning survival skills is handy on the off-chance that you encounter a more immediate emergency (everyone should know first aid, for example). Converting your house to at least partially run off the grid makes in case electricity is lost for whatever reason (Hurricane Ike knocked out power to much of Ohio for over a week back in 2008, for example). And so on.

    2. Long before this type of blog (or even the internet), I felt the world had a population problem. The world could support a relatively wasteful 1 billion, whereas it can't support 7B.

      Perhaps I missed it, but I don't see you (or other similar bloggers) address population growth as an issue. U.N and other estimates are that something like 3 football stadiums of people are added to the planet EACH day. It's like this elephant in the room that you ignore.

      Nor do I really see you address our debt based money system and fractional reserve banking and the affect it has in fostering consumption (perhaps I missed that too).

      Combine the two (population growth and debt money system) and the stage is set for a rapidly growing consumer society that tends to replace rather than recycle. This is a recipe for bumping up against the limits of what the planet will support. Which is what has happened.

    3. I would suggest looking at some of my earlier postings. I do put forth the idea of "Peak Wealth," that the population has outstripped the ability to provide a comfortable lifestyle for everyone. We're already seeing the effect of this in the "structural unemployment" which is becoming an "unseen" problem in the modern industrial world -- people who cannot find jobs simply because there are not enough jobs to go around, because there are simply too many people for the available jobs.

      I don't think that anyone writing about collapse deliberately avoids the overpopulation question or issue. It's just one of those things which is generally assumed to be in the minds of most people, if it's not explicitly mentioned already.

      The term "die-off" is mentioned often, itself being a natural occurrence, but in the terms of human population. Cheap oil has allowed us to grow the human population by an exponential factor due to the ability to greatly increase available food, shelter, etc. When oil becomes too expensive to reasonably use, the trend is going to reverse itself. Any excess capacity is going be gone, and so will populations that depend on it.

      The other point is that collapse isn't likely to be a linear event. As a population is stressed, it becomes less healthy. In human terms, we can think of this as manifesting in war, epidemics, internal violence, etc. Stress is already being placed on the population in Greece. Do we expect that "austerity" (i.e. "reality") being visited on the population isn't going to result in violence at some point?

      The truth is, we have probably not seen growth and the potential for collapse like this in the history of the planet, so it's hard to say what direction events will follow. However, if I remember correctly, the pre-industrial population was around 200 million, meaning we're around 30-40 times what the carrying capacity of the planet actually is.

      The best metaphor would be a cargo ship full of grain running around on a deserted shore, and a bunch of rats finding their way into it. For a time, they will be fat, happy, and able to breed well out of proportion to their numbers. However in a generation or two, the grain surplus will begin to run out and the population will eventually return back to where it was originally. Likewise with humanity and Peak Oil/Peak Wealth, etc.

  5. On Sunday the NYT ran a headline article: "Are We In The Middle Of The Sixth Mass Extinction". The NYT likes to pretend from time to time that it's still in the business of delivering news. In the case of that article they're looking at the growth numbers in doomer-porn so it's about sales and profits. Business as usual.

    But the fact is reading is way way down. There were large colorful graphs (orange ducks for bird populations going extinct) for the caffeinated over-stimulated consumer. After all we're a high-tech, fully integrated, wired society of functional-illiterates. Maybe they can cut down some more trees for throwaway coloring books of doomed species.

    Here's a wake-up: most of the dill-weeds reading that article see no connection between their behavior and the 6th mass extinction. What they do is shrug their collective shoulders and summarize that this is after all the "price of progress".

    I like blogs like the Leibowitz Society because it's the only place where I might find fellowship in a world gone mad. I would far prefer that I could find a local coffee-shop where topics like this are openly discussed with live human interaction. I'm still looking for my tribe. In the meantime I'm in production on "Somewhere In New Mexico Before The End Of Time" about finding tribe in the age of collapse.

    1. Mike,

      I very much enjoyed the youtube clip of your movie and am looking forward to the whole release. I thought it connected on many levels, including the striking visual imagery, the mention of Peak Oil (which is overshadowed lately by Peak Wealth), and the ways in which people are already beginning to adapt to post-industrial reality.

      Speaking of extinctions, people do not really grasp, on a daily basis, how tied we are to the land and food production through nature. The health and management of ecosystems and food chains should be a priority, but seems to generally be tossed over the shoulder in favor of worthless shiny trinkets.

      As for reading, part of the reason I had for starting the Leibowitz Society was to preserve ideas which were already going out of favor. Knowledge takes both the memorization and the practice to maintain itself. What higher ideas do most people embrace these days? Colleges are little more than party-oriented trade schools and paid whores (athletes and actors) dominate the media and discourse. If we look at the new Dark Age strictly in terms of knowledge production and conservation, we're already there.

      I agree about your summary of blogs like this. I had followed Marc Widdowson's Dark Age writings for some time, as well as stumbling across James Kunstler's work not too long after. It is problematic to talk about these things in the open. Far too many people conflate their physical existence with their material existence to ever really begin having a reasonable discussion on the topic.

      Tribal politics and identity are interesting to me, as well. I posted a couple of pieces on social units and subcultures that were likely to begin spontaneously organizing once the crunch really begins to hit. I think the ominous rise of neo-Nazis in Greece is one darker example of what happens when people can't figure out where they stand anymore. In America, I have no idea what form it will take, though I suspect the Occupy movement might show some of the beginnings of it.

  6. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Here's a couple of other trailers that go a little deeper. Mike Sosebee

  7. What I can't understand is why people are oblivious to the destruction around us, even when it affects them personally. We are destroying the planet in multiple ways. The biggest problems are the chemicals, additives, and drugs in the food, water and air. Disease is rampant, the percentage of kids with autism is astounding---but we have lousy medical care and science is unable to find an explanation (or more likely is paid to look the other way).

    I too have a large library of alternative medicine, use and identification of herbs, and crafts. I learned how to do canning and I've been stocking up on alternative heating and cooking devices. It's not so much that I think the apocalypse is coming but that nobody can afford to live a middle-class life anymore.