Monday, July 30, 2012


With the record heat this summer, attention is turning back toward the dormant Sun's re-awakening, and what this could do to the various electronic devices we've come to depend on. One segment of technology that would be very vulnerable to a solar storm would be satellites. Satellites themselves are used for military purposes, but are also used for communication and orienteering. How many of us now have GPS devices, either standalone units or phone-based apps, to do our navigation in the car, or on a boat? For that matter, how long are satellites in orbit going to be maintained after our industrial civilization begins to crack up?

The importance of navigation and mapping is not something new, and has been a subject of much effort over the centuries. In the time of the Renaissance, for example, early navigational books, called "Rutters," were essentially regarded as state secrets, for a person who knew how to get from one place on the globe to another would have a huge advantage in trade and military matters. We look at maps made from the age of discovery and think how laughably inaccurate they are, but forget that at the time, these were a huge leap over having no idea what was out there at all.

People will be quick to point out that maps are both a combination of physical and conceptual data. We can't readily change features like mountains or rivers, but roads and towns can vanish, be reloacted, and so on. This is particularly true of many places which have grown up simply because there was cheap money to build something there. I think most of us know of a few "roads to nowhere" that were always very lightly traveled and existed only because some politician was able to appropriate some money for it. Likewise, there are "bedroom communities" that are located in the middle of nowhere, complete with a shopping mall, that exist simply because nothing else was there and gasoline was cheaper than land at the time. How quickly will these places vanish? If Life After People is a guide, maybe within a generation, and nature will have reclaimed them.

On the other hand, physical features don't change as quickly, and settlements which have grown up around them are more likely to exist and be maintained, especially around places which have running water or have been settled for access to renewable resources (good farming soil, timber, etc). This pattern of settlement was particularly true back before the invention of automobiles, when everyone had to walk or ride a wagon. Effectively, this means that we can expect that some places will still continue to have some human habitation, regardless of what is happening on a larger scale. Think of them as "buckets," where people will simply go (or stay) because it makes sense to do so.

The importance of saving maps is something which might be seen with a skeptical eye at first, but I think it is important for both practical reasons, and for cultural ones. It is in the absence of information that the imagination runs wild, for better or worse, and I'd guess it would take around a generation for people to go back to thinking the earth was flat, without any contradictory evidence. Storing history is no different -- how many people think Hitler was a Union general during the Civil War? From a practical standpoint, if we accept that we are going to rebuild to a sustainable level after a collapse, knowing what is out there, and where it's located at, is going to make life much easier for people who are trying to "re-connect" at some point.

It's worth pointing out two things that may not readily come to mind when we're putting a copy of Rand McNally on top of the heap of things to save. The first is that we should consider also preserving navigational instruments. A drafting compass, ruler, protractor, star chart, magnetic compass, etc, are also reasonably cheap and should last indefinitely if stored right. The other thing to consider is the form of the data itself. A road atlas is a convenient tool, but if I remember correctly, most of them do not include latitude and longitude as data. One possibility to explore (which would drastically cut down on storage space) would be storing maps which are lists of "vectors." A vector is a measure of angle, which usually represents force in a direction, but could also represent distance and location, meaning we could say that Town X is 45 degrees south of an arbitrary point at a distance of 40 miles. I haven't investigated enough yet to see if these are available, however.

Maps will have to be maintained, copied, and will be more prone to error as time goes on. However, we need to remember that if we are managing to make things work at a ninety-percent level, then we're still ahead of where we would be without that form of guidance. We aim for perfect accuracy in the storage of our information for future generations, but accept that anything we are doing is better than nothing at all.

Thursday, July 19, 2012


Just a few quick tidbits, today.

I went to the mall yesterday to buy a couple of items. It's not a place I willingly spend time at, but when you need it, you need it. Inside, I was struck by the number of empty storefronts. Foot traffic was light, but given that it was the middle of the week in summer, not implausible. What I found funny was that there was a new mini-strip mall being put up right in front of the mall, on mall grounds. Wait a minute. Why not just use the existing space in the mall? But, really, this isn't much different from suburbanization. The city offers a greater diversity of social life and entertainment, yet people have been willing to abandon common sense to move to the suburbs into ticky-tacky houses, then trying to recreate the city living experience in the suburbs through all kinds of "shopping districts," parks, and whatnot. Even as the price of goods begins to shoot up as a logical consequence of energy scarcity, people are still holding onto these obsolete ideas.

Second is George Zimmerman. I don't know what branch of legal theory thinks that clients running off at the mouth is a good idea (Jerry Sandusky engaged in this particular sort of self-immolation at the beginning of the year, too), but I guess shooting Trayvon Martin is now part of "God's Plan." In truth, I hear this used more and more as an analytical tool. I'm not a particularly religious person, although I generally don't have a problem with religion as a worldview or ethical tool. However, I do have a problem with people who begin to ascribe things which are logically explainable as being the end result of some unseen divine process. This really points to nothing but mental laziness at a minimum, or delusion as a maximum. Either way, it points to a backsliding of people's willingness to use reason. And, I really have a problem with people who try to invoke God when they are on the hook for something. Look for this sort of thing more in the future, as people try to explain away events by suggesting they're part of "God's Plan" or optionally suggest that "God will save us." If anything, God gave us reason and memory, but people seem to have completely quit using those.

Next is the impending post office default. There are two ways of looking at this -- one is that the post office is a dinosaur and relic, in the face of email and package delivery services. The other is that this is an organization which is directly mandated by the Constitution to exist (I think the only other one is the Navy), yet is on life support. What does this really say about the stability of our government endeavors? If we can't salvage something that was one of the first things originally mandated by law, where does that leave the rest of the whole house of cards? Maybe this is the point where we can all feel a little like Simeon at the temple -- the sign that the prophecy of collapse is being fulfilled before our very eyes, whether we are ready for it or not, want it or not.

Last is the few news items that seem to be related to the acceleration of the collapse of the consumer class. Inflation is definitely here, one of the canaries in the coal mine. The price of meat, for example, is up around ten percent, and this was before the effects of the drought are really going to start to be felt. This is going to be part of the "death spiral" of consumerism -- people will start discarding the optionals and favor the essentials, something that has already shown up in the collapse of retail sales in June. I predict that you're going to start seeing a lot of things like "Five easy and delicious recipes using dried beans and rice" in the major media outlets. Of course, the feedback cycle of reduced consumer spending will hammer everything else in the economy, causing more people to be out of work, thus causing more businesses to go under and spending to go down, etc, etc. America has made a lifestyle and religion out of personal consumption, and built the entire social lifestyle around it. How readily are we going to go back to being satisfied with a game of checkers and wearing homespun?

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Hundredth Post

I started writing this blog a couple of years ago, on a rainy fall afternoon. At the time, the Gulf Oil Spill was still in and out of the headlines, with the well recently having been stopped up at least. There was still quite a lot of news coverage about the effects of the spill, who was responsible, what the lasting environmental damage was, and so on. As of today, the full impact of the spill is not known, but things like increases in the death rates of large marine mammals, mutations are widespread in smaller marine animals, and much of the information related to the environmental impact is still suppressed due to an "ongoing criminal investigation," so the full extent of damage may not be public for a long time, if ever.

Back in October of 2010, the event was still so fresh that these issues were not yet identified on any scale, but it was clear that we were dealing with something unprecedented related to the consequences of our reliance on cheap energy. If an oil well could blow and poison a massive body of water, what other consequences could the addiction to energy produce? Fukushima was still months off, but it seemed clear that the consequences had been identified, at least on some level. Remember, also, that this was two years into the global economic downturn, brought on by an addiction to spending and overconsumption, the need for MORE. In June of 2012, the gulf is still reeling from what was released into it, then dumped into it, Fukushima is still smoldering, real unemployment in America and elsewhere is around 20%, gas has not fallen back down to affordable levels, the stock market is increasingly looking like a minefield, pick something.

In the almost four years since October 2008, the world has not shown signs of recovery. The green shoots dry up and blow away as soon as they emerge, in spite of what optimists says, and another "downturn" is around the corner. These things are not "stumbles" on the road to a brave new epoch, but signs that we have exceeded our grasp as a civilization, both in terms of using them, and understanding them. Humanity has become the equivalent of a child who finds the door of the candy store unlocked and decides to go in and have "just one piece." With half the store eaten up, and a bellyache like no other, it's come time to decide how to proceed.

Is there a plan for dealing with the world, and a way forward to a more sane and sustainable civilization? Clearly, political "leadership" has become playing to the polls and trying to catch up with what people want to hear -- the expression "The American Way of Life is Not Negotiable" tells you all you need to hear about the attitude toward "American Exceptionalism." It's a grand, fine-sounding "line in the sand" type of expression, but falls short of physical reality.

The human imagination is both our greatest friend and worst foe. We can imagine wonderful things like travel to other stars, thinking computers, and worlds of fantasy. In the past, we've been able to implement some of these dreams, too, such as the airplane, the telephone, and so on. However, it's also our worst enemy in many ways. We become so focused on the "possible," that we ignore the "practical" and the "realistic."

Right now, we still have the ability, as a civilization, to begin examining our models and deciding what the best course to take is. There is still enough in the way of resources, wealth, and energy to begin promoting alternative ways of doing things. Rail, an end to widespread automobile use, turning grass into gardens, an end to consumerism and overspending. It's not a question of whether or not we need to make adjustments, but whether or not we will choose them or be forced into them. In this, civilization is not unlike a boat at sea with a storm coming -- we can choose our own harbor while there's still time, or get smashed against the rocks from forces we cannot control.

Unfortunately, like political leaders who adopt a "No Compromise" position on the consumer-driven lifestyle on campaign stumps, our society, from businesses, civic organizations, institutions of higher learning, religious organizations, down to individuals has also preferred to ignore reality and continue doing things as they have. After all, there is no such thing as Peak Oil, our oil-industry connected scientists tell us. Our bankers say there is no problem with the economy and not to worry. Our priests and preachers tell us "God will provide." All is well, don't worry.

For people who have taken the time to study the issue, and listen to the voices crying in the desert in the past such as Thomas Malthus and M. King Hubbert, who have examined the science and numbers, and even lies and distortions, for themselves, the picture is sobering, if not bleak. We have overshot our planet's carrying capacity for people by a factor of thirty or more, based on the use of fossil fuels to create massive short-term surpluses of artificial labor and resource utilization.

Think about that for a moment, and take a look around you. Count out thirty people. Pick one of them. The earth only has enough capacity for that one person, without the application of cheap energy to act as a surrogate "slave." This is less than the population of America, much less the world. It is a sobering exercise, but one we have ignored to the peril of our species and human civilization.

We are still collectively toward the cliff, but individually, we have begun to wake up, here and there. The critical model of mass consumption is not going to be untied and discarded on a mass scale, but we can begin to understand where we are headed and what our seat on that "bus" is going to be. Do we join in with the mass of people who are like bipedal locusts, congratulating themselves on their latest purchase? Or do we take a measured approach to life, live with low-impact, and prepare for when the "black swans" take to wing en masse?

The Leibowitz Society has gone through a couple of iterations since I originally defined it. In the beginning, I had looked at it as being a stuctured sort of thing, combining both a running analysis of our descent into a new Dark Age, with efforts to collect and store as much relevant knowledge as possible. Allied with these goals was the idea of trying to raise some level of awareness as to where we are, and what can be done about it, if anything, including defining how society may reorganize itself and what we can do as responsible people to make things better locally, even as they get worse globally.

Discussing the events leading to the Dark Age quickly moved the other considerations to the back burner, and I suppose it's a natural reaction. When Rome fell, there was a Dark Age on three continents (the Byzantine Empire survived, of course, but often felt "under siege" through most of its existence), as the mechanisms which had built daily life up to a high level fell apart. Now, America is stumbling and the coming Dark Age, brought on by resource scarcity, environmental failure, and economic mismanagement, is going to cover the entire globe. It will unfortunately be a collapse of unprecedented proportions, where the conditions on the other side of the globe will be no difference from what they are down the weed-dotted and decaying street. Like a train wreck, we can't look away from this.

However, the study of our near future is at some point going to become the study of our past, and it's the far future which will take precedence. As responsible people, we understand where the world is headed. We also know that this understanding doesn't lead to a comfortable complacency. We will all likely only live to see the early manifestations of the new Dark Age -- wars, riots, starvation, looting -- but our children and grandchildren will be there to see the dust settle and try to make sense of it all. They will have questions and will need answers. How did they get to where they're at? How to go forward? And what to go forward with?

One of the most sobering ancedotes I have ever read concerned a village in the south of France, not long after Rome collapsed. It had been an agricultural area, and it doesn't take much to imagine how many people it supported. Within a generation or two, human remains showed signs of starvation or even death by starvation, as the knowledge of high-intensity farming was quickly forgotten. And, this was just one village in one area. How many places like this existed, but were not known about in remains of Rome? This was not in a time and place where the science of agriculture depended on high technology to make it work, but on remembering procedures that had been discovered and modified over several generations. Even if we take slave labor out of the picture, figure that people would shift priority to food production away from whatever other pursuits they had.

If you take modern America, where even fewer people are connected to food production -- maybe three percent at most -- and most of them are involved in the "high energy input" tye of farming, are we going to fare much better when the cash runs out and the cupboard is bare? And what about other things, like medicine, governing ourselves, maintaining our structures, and so on?

We can save books on things that interest us, and it's a start, but we also need to think in broader terms. If we accept that information is DNA, then knowledge is an organism built from it. Do we really know what the books mean? And how to use them? Are we missing areas of knowledge that would be vital? Would we have any way to pass this on to another person or people? Or form a community of learning?

This was the original intention of the Leibowitz Society and where I want it to go toward again. This doesn't mean we can't talk about the path we're headed down, only that we need to think clearly about what we do once we get there. And it's likely that none of us will survive to see the "hard landing" when it finally happens. Rome's collapse took several generations. We started ours in 2008 and have not managed to reverse course, although we limp along, meaning our children or grandchildren will be the ones to see "lights out," more likely.

I don't see all this as being pessimistic, no more than someone who looks up at a darkening sky and says it's going to rain is being a pessimist. We're gifted with reason and foresight and would be fools not to use them. We can make a difference in our futures, and the futures of people yet to come, by taking steps now to preserve thousands of years of wisdom and knowledge, and having a plan to pass it on. The problems we face now are not going to go away, but only get worse, and it's up to us to light the future.

Monday, July 2, 2012


One of the issues that confronts people grapping with how to prepare for the coming collapse and new Dark Age (or how to deal with it, now that it's here, depending on how you measure things), is when to make that jump from a citizen of the modern industrial world to a tribesman of the post-collapse, post-industrial world. Humans are binary thinkers, so it all-too-often becomes an "all or nothing" affair. In other words, people might stock up on some supplies, but continue living the SUV McMansion lifestyle. Or, they may sell off anything of value in the modern world and start raising their own free-range bean sprouts and using nothing more technological than a candle.

One reader recently pointed out that the real issues is "timing" when to go all-in with preparing for collapse. Others have pointed out that our collapse is gradual in nature, maybe taking a generation or more to complete (although, there are plenty of Black Swans flapping around all over the place to definitely wreak havoc with whatever plans we've made regarding collapse). It's really not a trivial question. If we don't match our efforts to the current reality, we are setting ourselves back in one direction or another. The person who refuses to accept the idea of collapse, or who waits too long to start dealing with it, is going to be living an obsolete lifetyle, while the person who jumps in with both feet at this point is risking losing access to resources that they would otherwise have been able to use.

My general rule of thumb in life is that you between two extremes, you can generally count on the middle interpretation to be right. For us, using that idea means that we accept the reality of looming collapse, but try to take advantage of what the industrial world still has to offer, with the recognition that it won't be around forever. This means that we have to start planning for the post-industrial world, as well as the role of our lives in it, and how we plan to adapt to it. While this may come on a slower pace than some expect, we're four years on into the first great upheavel related to Peak Oil and Peak Wealth, and the flow of good economic news like in years past has instead become a thin trickle of perpetual promises and little in the way of delivery on that hope.

While things look bleak at the cultural level, we can start adapting and making changes in our lives. People have kicked around the term "downshifting" before, and I think it's a nice metaphor for what we're doing at the end of the Peak Age. But the question always remains of how to define it and how to practice it.

Most activities in our lives can be categorized into things we have to do and things we want to do. While people may argue the point that we have to work (sometimes, quite successfully), most people reading this have or have had jobs at some point. A modern job is usually directly tied into the exploitation of surplus which has been the economic model of the world for the past two hundred or so years. Short of changing or abandoning our source of income, there's not a lot we can do to "downshift" in that area without being considerably creative. On the other hand, everything we do outside of work is a good candidate for reexamination into how we could begin to adapt our lives into a post-Peak age.

Sports is one area which comes readily to mind. Widespread, well-organized team sports are a child of the industrial age. The leisure time needed to play them, plus the manicured facilities and equipment, plus the accepted risk of debilitating injury, means that they are probably going to get increasingly scarce as times goes on. Other sports like golf require precision equipment and dedicated grounds to enjoy (although I can see "rough" golf persisting, like the way the game was originally played, the other point of downshifting is to prepare for the new Dark Age while still finding a niche for these activities in our daily lives). If we still want to participate in sports, what can we do to "downshift"? For the person who wants a more intense and physical activity, I would suggest participating in some form of martial arts or historical fencing. These skills are going to be useful down the road, and a person could conceivably be able to barter some teaching time in return for lodging, food, or other compensation (this was the case back in the Middle Ages and even earlier). If a person doesn't want the intense workout from martial arts, backpacking or hiking is basically golf without the fancy drivers and the drinking, usually costing a lot less and providing better exercise.

Food production is another area which comes to mind. People like to garden as a hobby, but how high are their energy inputs and are they gardening with the idea of transitioning to subsistence food production? Most people are going to be personally a lot more involved in agriculture, so practicing this now is a good idea, but do we do it in a realistic manner? Gardening is labor-intensive, but we can begin to use organically fertilized raised beds and other high-yd techniques to cut down on the labor or industrial tool input we would need. When we're growing plants, do we choose things which have good nutritional value or do we grow things on a whim? Are we practicing our food preservation techniques on the surplus? And do we practice seed saving instead of buying seed packets each spring?

Speaking of food, cooking is another area where we can downshift and begin to practice for a post-collapse world, while still living in the Peak Age. Do we know how to make cheese from excess milk? Or how to make wine or mead from excess honey and fruit? Are we familiar with how to smoke or salt meat to preserve it? And how to cook on a wood fire instead of a stove?

Reading comes to mind, too. We can choose both the content and the medium of what we read. The battery lifespan of a Kindle or Nook is limited, and won't run without power in any event. Downshifting here means going back to paper for our books. And what do we read, anyway? Techno-thrillers where the world is nearly saved by the last page, or books that will teach us how to prepare for the new Dark Age? And do we have books of quality that we can pass onto the next generation? (acid free paper, etc)

If we choose to watch TV, are we watching gossip programs and sports, or are we watching programs which will educate us?

When we think of purchasing firearms or bows, are we buying higher-tech items, or are we thinking about the long-term? Modern firearms are very complex and would be difficult to service or repair, plus ammunition will grow increasingly scarce (or simply become non-functional with age). Building and learning how to use flintlocks would be a good skill to have, plus these items can be passed down to the next generations. Likewise with bows -- do we buy compound bows or do we buy/learn how to make odler bow designs?

Housing also comes to mind. I've written previously about how ill-suited modern houses are to being used in a post-collapse world, plus they often come with an unusuable amount of ground. For people who are considering buying a home, building, or relocating, are we moving to someplace that will be untenable in the days ahead when the power grid eventually begins to fail, or is it someplace we will be relatively comfortable and self-sufficient in? Is there room to do some small-scale agriculture, and so on? For people who want to remodel, likewise, why not do it in a way that will serve you well when the lights go out and candles are the primary form of illumination?

There are some areas which absolutely cannot be translated to the coming collapse, and we just have to recognize that we are wasting time and money on them if we engage in them. Among them are video gaming (hard to run with the power off and I'm skeptical of arguments like "Fallout teaches me how to survive in a hostile world"), expensive vacations (going to Vegas, Europe, etc), wealth building through investments (the only safe investment these days seems to be hard goods like gold and silver and even these cannot be translated to useful items in a post-crash world), and collecting otherwise worthless items (stamps, baseball cards, etc). I'm sure readers could name several more complete wastes of time and resources, too. If we choose to engage in these, we have to do so knowing that we're not ever going to see a return on them.

Downshifting is a rational response to the changing world. When we do this, we're like the animal who is growing a thicker coat in response to cooling weather, or the tree whose leaves are changing colors. We know what's coming, and what we need to do to prepare for it, but we also recognize that we are still part of a different world, even if it's one which is coming to an end at some point, to be replaced with something completely different. We don't have to lose hope, but just have to recognize where we can make changes that will make sense for us in this generation and our children in the next.