Growth Shock and How the Gods of Our Greed Continue to Fail Us


(Number of Planet Scenarios as Calculated by the World Foot Print Network. Note that according to current data, our pace of consumption currently overshoots Earth’s sustainable resource base by about 50% requiring about 1.5 Earths to meet our needs. By 2050, consumption will nearly demand the yearly productivity of three Earths. Overshoot causes irreparable harm to resources and ecosystems resulting in a collapse of the resource base. See image below.)

We are living in the age of limits, the age of consequences, the age when our quest for an endless expansion of the production of goods and services and the resulting endless concentration of wealth under pure capitalism has resulted in ever more intense degrees of Growth Shock even as it risks a devastating collapse of current day industrial civilizations.

It is a world where Western governments run by ultra-conservative political servants of the oil and gas industry engage in scientific book burning, as recently happened in Canada. A world where 85 people own more wealth than 3.5 billion of their fellow human beings. A world where it is possible for one individual to consume the same amount of resources as hundreds of thousands of his fellows.

In this world, hydrogen sulfide gas is building up in the deep ocean, a bleeding Earth is contributing its own increasing volumes of methane and CO2 to a human-caused global warming nightmare, a world where CO2 levels have passed 400 parts per million, a level not seen in 4.5 million years.

We live in a place where rock stars like Neil Young join with indigenous peoples and environmentalists in a rebellion against the fossil fuel giants who rule so much of our planet and who seek to enforce continued and increasing consumption of dirty, dangerous and depleting fossil fuels. A place where climate scientists are forced to become political activists, to risk prison sentences, to have any hope of keeping a shred of the bounty of Earth safe for their grandchildren. A world where bloggers and activists are increasingly threatened and imprisoned for expressing their previously inalienable right of free political speech.

We live in a world that is an ongoing and intensifying wreckage. A calamity caused by our worship of the failed gods of our greed, a disaster born of our turning away from our fellow man, of our loss of faith in our ability to work together through rational and representative governments, and of our dramatic failure to impose limits — both upon ourselves and upon the most criminally greedy among us.

We are living in the age of Growth Shock and on this unsustainable path the days of human civilization upon this Earth are numbered. There are no second or third Earths to which we can extend our madness that is an economic system designed to endlessly increase consumption of finite resources. There are no green fields of Mars or Venus for us to plunder. The worlds within our reach are barren and as far as even our great telescopic eyes can see across the vast expanse of space there is nothing, nothing even within an insurmountable gulf of light years, of which we could even have cause to dream of to slake our boundless want.

No. We are here. And of all the worlds within our reach fair Earth is Alone. And so we must set our task to live within our means here. To find ways to be happy that do not involve an attempt at endless, mad, and harmful expansion. That do not involve an attempt at burning all the fossil fuels and rapidly ruining our atmosphere and climate for ages and ages to come. Ours is the terrible and hopeful task of the Easter Islanders, of the residents of Tikopia — one group who succeeded in living happily and sustainably upon an island world of limited resources, and the other who desperately and miserably failed.

Our choices are as essential as they are dire and we are making them now, mostly for ill.

Environmentalists get it. Ecologists get it. Anthropologists get it. Druids get it. Scientists get it. Everyday people slaving away under minimum wage or worse get it. Those who live in the shanty towns get it. Those who live down wind of a coal plant get it. Those in West Virginia who had their water ruined get it. Those who live in fracking towns where their water is at risk or must be pumped in get it. Those in British Columbia protesting tar sands pipeline expansion get it. Some in the drying, burning west get it. Some in the storm-wracked east get it. The middle class of America who has been scape-goated and sacrificed on the alter of billionaire greed for the past 30 years should have gotten it by now. Muslims in the middle east who would have rather found water than oil get it. Christian monks who construct solar panel farms get it. South Pacific Islanders witnessing their nations being devoured by the waves get it. So many more who have been forgotten, abused, or who remain unnamed get it.

And now, an economic historian, who clearly gets it, has broken ranks from the mainstream to pen the extraordinarily brave and insightful work: Green Capitalism, the God that Failed. Consider:

We can’t shop our way to sustainability because the problems we face cannot be solved by individual choices in the marketplace. In the final analysis, the only way to align production with society’s interests and the needs of the environment is to do so directly. The huge global problems we face require the visible hand of direct economic planning to reorganize the world economy to meet the needs of humans and the environment, to enforce limits on consumption and pollution, to fairly ration and distribute the goods and services we produce for the benefit of each and every person on the planet and to conserve resources so that future generations of humans and other life forms also can live their lives to the full. All this is inconceivable without the abolition of capitalist private property in the means of production and the institution of collective bottom-up democratic control over the economy and society. And it will be impossible to build functioning democracies unless we also abolish global economic inequality. This is the greatest moral imperative of our time, and it is essential to winning worldwide popular support for the profound changes we must make to prevent the collapse of civilization. A tall order to be sure. But we will need even taller waterproof boots if we don’t make this happen. If Paul Hawken, Lester Brown, Francis Cairncross and Paul Krugman have a better plan, where is it?

In the niddling little details, Richard Smith may be wrong. You can make steel without coal, for example (biomass can provide the coking carbon and electric furnaces can smelt the metal) and total renewable energy production worldwide is now 20% of overall demand (not .6 percent as stated in Smith’s report), plug in electric vehicles, especially when run by renewable power sources, do result in an overall lowering of fossil fuel emissions, and, yes, you can eventually weed out all the carbon-producing fossil fuel inputs from a manufacturing chain (just not all waste and pollution).

But all that over-pessimism aside, Smith is correct in the broad brush. Steel production is limited by its coal or biomass coking base and overall mineral and energy inputs. If you use coal, it is also limited by long-term damage to the climate and to water supplies. Manufacturing, no matter how efficient, will always produce some waste and consume some resources that are not recyclable.


(Classic ecological overshoot and degraded carrying capacity. Image source: The Elephant in the Room)

And, most importantly, any economic model requiring endless exponential growth in the consumption of labor and resources is eventually doomed to fail especially when it is primarily based, as it is today, on a set of finite materials (fossil fuels) that through their ever increasing use cause untold damage to the world in which we live. When such a model is also based on an endless funneling of wealth to the top of the economic spectrum it is socially horrific as well. A Godzilla Zombie of a thing.

To survive the age of Growth Shock will require not just a transition away from dirty, dangerous and depleting fuels. It will also require economic systems that do not demand more materials and resources than our single Earth can provide. And, in this, Mr Smith is absolutely correct. We need to reverse the trend that has so undermined both our faith in and the direct effectiveness of our systems of government. Corporatism, commercialism, and laissez faire neoliberal globalized capitalism all must vastly recede. The zero sum game must be put back into its box. Governments must be enabled to impose effective rules and constraints even as it is also enabled to redistribute wealth to its people. It must be enabled to gap fill for the industries it will most certainly have to shut down by providing alternate jobs programs and livelihoods for those who will inevitably be put out of work. It can no longer be the ineffective baby-sitter for anarchic corporations who do what they want, when they want, however they want. Either through active responsibility or passive turning away and collapse, those days are coming to an end. Lastly, the world’s civilizations must learn to work together effectively, acquiescing to rules and constraints that benefit all people.

These are tall orders. But if we wish to retain some shade of our current wealth and Earth’s current richness and beauty, if we wish to establish a powerful, capable, and effective world civilization, if we wish to pursue justice for all peoples and not just the wealthy, then we must pursue these goals with passion and ardor. For the path we are currently on has no viable future.

Leave a comment


  1. mikkel

     /  January 23, 2014

    I am extremely wary of feel good green washing but Smith is conflating mechanism (capitalism) with intent (industrialism). His article is not about green capitalism, it is about green finance-industrialism and by buying into propaganda devised by robber barons and later neoliberals, he is largely disarming himself of weapons that can get us from here to there.

    Far from maximizing profits, there is nothing inherent in capitalism that even requires constant growth; it can work perfectly well in a steady state economy. What cannot work in a steady state economy — and the focus of the bulk of his article — is debt based financialization.

    Industrial socialism is just as bad at ecocide, and seems to get there even faster. This can be seen even in the first decades of Marxist philosophy in which many Marxists judged things based on anarchist cooperative vs. centralization and had much more in common with anarchist capitalists than industrial Marxists. Once the industrialists won the struggle, Communism started consuming resources in even more pointless ways than Capitalism! (As this great documentary by Adam Curtis demonstrates

    While I agree with him that ultimately the core commodities need to be socialized, there is an enormous amount that can be done inside systems oriented social capitalism. Or at least I hope so, because there is not going to be a widespread revolution any time soon, and even if there were, it would fail quickly.

    I’m working on a project that is attempting to bridge the gap between financialization and social capitalism so that we can provide jobs and ways to enable people to increase their resiliency immediately. While it is capitalist in form (and thus checks all the boxes needed to get buy in from the establishment), in reality it meant to divert money from the entrenched players and distribute it amongst customers, green manufacturing and social minded investors — all with the intent of acting as a hub to “close the loop” by investing in permaculture based strategies.

    You can email me if you want more info.

    • Thanks Mikkel. I’d be very interested to hear more.

      Smith’s post did seem to be as much an attack on potential solutions to climate change as anything else. I see this a lot from peak oilers. That said, I tend to feel that a shift left is needed given current trends re inequality and failure to regulate/restrain greenhouse gas emitters. Not to undermine the very salient points Smith raises RE finding jobs for those industries that will need to go into decline if we are to have climate solutions.

      I am not at all enamored with the communist/industrial socialist mold you mention. But I don’t see current systems working very well either. Business just carpet bombs everything with money and, more times than not, end up with what they want. See fracking. See keystone. See coal in India and China. Great for business and profits short term. But it’s killing us long term.

      We do have lots of positives — growing renewables, rapidly falling solar prices, wind in a similar position, growing EV market share, less carbon in the production line etc. but the growth in fossil fuel consumption and carbon emission continues apace. This growth needs to stop soon. Preferably yesterday. And it needs to be brought down to near zero in a systems basis blink of an eye (2050ish). Even so, global/climate catastrophe is still a crap shoot.

      Steady state capitalism ends with a very few people holding all the cards very quickly. And maybe that’s part of the problem we’re having now as real growth in the west has probably been stagnant for quite some time.

      I am not emotionally or intellectually attached to Smith’s views. Some, as I noted in the post above, were simply flat wrong. But he does raise good points.

      If you like, you can share more of your thoughts at I would be happy to hear them.


  2. colinc

     /  January 23, 2014

    Eloquent, passionate, sincere and… so very misguided. I’m not saying that you or Mr. Smith are wrong, per se. Just that you, like McPherson, Carana, Hansen, Beckwith, Anderson and a host of others, are looking in the wrong direction. Most, if not all, of those who “get it” (they really do not) seem to be perceiving AGW/CC as a “problem.” It is not. It is but a “mere” symptom as are “capitalism” (as though that ever existed) and the burning of fossil fuels. Attempting to “treat” the symptom(s) is tantamount to applying a couple of finger-tip band-aids to a person who has had both legs bisected at mid-thigh. Result, the patient still bleeds-out.
    Similarly, the “remedies” you propose, in and of themselves, are not wrong but they are at least 50 years too late (probably 100+) and don’t have an ice-cube’s chance in hell (or the Arctic) of being implemented, ever, let alone as broadly and rapidly as the current conditions require. Moreover, even the sincerest and most rapid implementation I can imagine would be a death sentence for a minimum of 300-500 million people around the globe within a few months. Alas, we’ll all witness that all too soon regardless. However, the largest impediment is, as always, the ducats, dinero, moola, money. Do you really “believe” that any of those 85 in possession of 1/2 the world’s wealth are going to, ahem, “invest” any portion of it to “save” any of the poor or starving? Do you really “believe” that any government anywhere on the planet will be inclined to “force” them? If so, please, present some supporting evidence as I’ve seen none. Yet, it is not just those 85 “richest” or the thousand-plus global billionaires who would be disinclined to acquiesce. I live in a “village,” population ~3,000, about 30 miles WSW of Cleveland, OH and I can tell you for a fact that not more than a literal handful “get” anything and all of them will not “sacrifice” even one cent to save themselves much less anyone else. (Most of these miscreants believe Glenn Beck and Limbaugh are “smart.” Ugh!! Of course, they also believe that they, too, are “smart.” So exceptional!)
    I beg pardon for being a “wet blanket” but I have an overwhelming inclination toward realism. What I see no one, anywhere, considering are the “knock-on” ramifications (or too few of them) of the aforementioned symptoms that ARE going to be the “knock-off” for the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants. I’m incessantly reminded of the emphatic interjection made by the Russian submarine’s executive officer while trying to sink the USS Dallas in that(?!) memorable movie, “You arrogant ass! You’ve killed us!!” If you would like to be enlightened further as to just how far over the cliff we already are, please, feel free to post me a query.

    • Well, a little concise proof would be nice. Not to say I’m entirely disinclined to believe you. I have quite a handle on risks, as it were. But I have encountered quite a number of VERY CERTAIN people in my time and they typically end up at least half wrong.

      Peak oilers, for example:

      1. Oil production peaked in 2005

      Half wrong. Conventional oil peaked at that time, unconventional made up the slack.

      2. You can’t run an economy on any oil substitutes EROEI is too low.

      Wrong. Substitutes were more expensive (except for wind and solar which are now less so) and economies adjusted.

      … I could go on and on about the ‘certain ends’ predicted that didn’t crop up.

      The world system is fluid. The current state, though difficult and dire, is responsive to our actions.

      So please, enlighten me concisely.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Speaking of substitutes, do you know much about in situ coal gasification -> Fischer Tropsch? If not, you really should because it will probably be all the buzz in 10 years…and is the only thing (other than methane hydrate mining) that can hit the BAU emissions curve easily.

        I used to be very concerned about peak oil but now believe it’s immaterial. Not immaterial in the sense it isn’t true or that we won’t have oil shortages, but in the sense that there is a socio-enviro-economic structure that means due to peak oil, only one can have any hope of retaining its current shape. Peak oil can be papered over with enough wealth inequality and environmental damage, or we could have less inequality with a severe recession/environmental damage or we could have emergency climate laws that kill the economy and create rampant inequality.

        Whatever happens is irrelevant because the system will collapse in different ways based on arbitrary decisions (just like how it’s impossible to say whether there will be hyper inflation or deflation).

        Now there is peak oil fatigue because a lot of people reacted and “nothing” happened, yet if instead they focused on building a new vision regardless then they’d have plenty of stuff to do. Instead I know quite a few people acting more like the doomsday cult followers after the world fails to end.

        • Ah, Mikkel. Now you have lost me. Fischer Tropsch was the buzz of the 1880s and it is highly polluting. I suppose we will be running out of fracked gas soon so now it’s back to coal once more?

          I guess one thing is certain, there is never a vacuum that those promoting fossil fuels cannot fill with a good sales pitch, hmm??

          Ah the terrible Juggernaut grinds on…

          As for my part, I wish peak oil, peak coal, and peak gas were a reality as they would force us off the fuels that are wrecking our environment and get rid of the business interests that are trying to enforce continued dependence on such terrible fuels.

          Furthermore, I’m completely exhausted by those who seem to keep turning their brains back to the small box, the one in which fossil fuels are the only solution.

          In any case, I think peak oil played nicely into oil company hands. It distracted people from the real threat that is climate change. At this point, however, to keep doing that, they’ll have to shut down a big portion of science and gain nearly complete control over the media. It’s certainly working out that way in Canada which is now basically a petro state. US resistance is scattered and weak, but still better than that seen in Canada.

          Oh, how hard life is for the ‘Destroyers of the Earth!’

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        What will happen is that fracking will “save” us for a few more years, then the ponzi scheme will come crashing down because of the massive decline rates.

        At that point I think there will be immense panic because there will be a large disruption in natural gas (just as they get all the new LNG export terminals up) and oil. Then focus will be on mining methane hydrates, shale oil and coal gasification to FT.

        I never thought that people would be crazy enough to start poking the hydrates, but the Japanese are all over it so that is a huge wild card; the shale oil will never work due to water requirements; but the coal gasification just requires a few $billion to throw up some plants and rolling back of environmental laws, then the crisis will be over.

        They will tout it as clean because there will be little particulate emission, as necessary because it’s the only way to ramp up energy production quickly and as stable because there are trillions of tons of low grade coal to burn through.

        China is laying the groundwork for this pivot [] []

        I think the oil companies are already writing legislation in anticipation and is a reason why peak oil won’t have much effect on total emissions.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Wow, looking at the American Fuels Coalition website, it’s progressed more than I thought. There are many more gasification and coal to liquids (FT) projects listed in their news banner than I realized were active.

      • Oh dear God what a nightmare! There are enough materials to keep burning well into the 22nd century. The stuff is terribly polluting, barring particulates. And you’re absolutely right about hydrates. They’re actually starting a campaign claiming it’s safer to mine them then leave them in the ocean….

      • Excellent post Robert.

        Thanks for clarifying the manufacturing point. I think we both can agree ( can we ?) that we cannot run industrial scale manufacturing on renewable while maintaining current globalized economy. We can use biomass for production of steel,but biomass is limited too. There are plenty of other metals as well that need energy (especially mining and refining). Somehow, every one of them may need renewable resources, thus further constraining overall biomass supply, and eventually will limit overall growth.

        I generally use anthropological concepts. All those previous empires collapsed because they eroded soil, deforested area to burn biomass etc and make weapons. I do not remember if it was you or someone else in one of your previous posts, who said Native Americans, Inuits, Aboriginals were sustainable, but if you look at their total population and way of living, you realize that why they were sustainable. Roman empire, Indus valley civilization, and many more did not have fossil fuels, but still they managed to live beyond carrying capacity of ‘local’ environment. (You may read Collapse: Why some societies choose to fail by Jared Diamond). So, modern economy with so many people with such a large military, more intensive agriculture, already occurring climate change, pollution..have made so pessimistic or I would say realistic. Wind and solar won’t help much in preventing it from happening. Irrespective of what you do, as you also pointed out, manufacturing will always create some waste and pollution. If you prevent use of biomass in power plant, as people are deforesting US forests in Louisiana, to export wood to Europe, people will either use coal, natural gas or nuclear. Recently, European commission reduced/modified their environmental goals to maintain industry competitiveness.

        Another factor you forgot in “get it” is human nature. People who get it as long as they do not have much money as compared to others. But, once they have more money, they start consuming more, enticing others to follow same path. I do not think anyone would therefore voluntarily give away their wealth and reduce their standards of living.

        I totally support your efforts. I support permaculture.I support renewable energy. I am trying to become carbon neutral as well. I consume as little as possible. What I do not support is green-industrial complex, where people claim that renewable energy can replace fossil fuels easily without much change to the way we are living.

        I tell everyone about climate catastrophe, but I end up being isolated, as truth is bitter and scary.

        • It’s pretty simple, really.

          1. We can’t continue current growth under fossil fuels for much more than another 10 years because it will wreck the climate, leading to collapse.

          2. We can’t continue current growth under fossil fuels with geoengineering for much more than another 20 to 30 years because it will wreck the climate, leading to collapse.

          3. We can’t continue current growth under fossil fuels for much more than another century even if we didn’t have to worry about climate, because fossil fuels are a finite resource and current growth would ultimately consume them.

          4. We can’t continue current growth under renewables for much more than another century because the feed-in limits (materials etc) make such growth impossible to sustain.

          5. Even without climate change, population growth + resource depletion will eventually consume the resources of a single planet, limiting growth to the pace of innovation (not exponential growth but geometric growth).

          6. In each case, growth reaches overshoot and partial destruction of the resource base (we are in this state now).

          7. Climate change risks destruction of most or all of the resource base.

          8. To continue growth on any scale comparable to what we’ve seen over the past century, we need new worlds worth of renewable and non-renewable resources, new pollution sinks, and elegant, powerful, low polluting new technology. We don’t currently have any of this.

          9. So growth is rapidly approaching an end (at least in the context that we are used to) and if we are to have peaceful societies full of happy, trustworthy, nonrebellious people, then we had better look to sustainability and ensuring that these people have the means to survive as we pass through the difficult times (steady state or very slow growth and wealth redistribution). We had better look to population restraint to bend down the population curve. And we had better look to rapidly dismantling (in a generation or two) the sections of our economies that are dependent upon fossil fuels.

          10. One way or another, traditional rapid growth economics based on industrialization through fossil fuels is at an end. My opinion is that renewables can fill some or most of that gap. But I don’t think renewables support the same kind of economics that fossil fuels did. Renewables, by their nature, support less concentration of power and are a much more democratic resource. They actually deflect wealth downward toward the poor and middle class. They give smaller agencies and institutions a chance. So economies based on renewables would be inherently different than the centralized, rapid growth, economies we see today. They would require both more cooperation and more individual responsibility. And that is one of the reasons why I am hopeful about renewables.

          11. IF we can beat the curve and make these changes before climate change becomes too disruptive to bear, we might actually see a positive world emerge. Not an age of decadence. But an age of happy work, community, and individual responsibility. An age of solving problems and helping one’s fellows, not working selfishly for masturbatory gains one will never have the grace or the virtue to share or pass onward.

          If we don’t, well, in my view it’s over for our civilizations as we know them. There will be wars over diminishing resources, mass migrations, climate catastrophes, and human society (those diminishing numbers that survive) will be increasingly mean, false and bitter. I am not completely certain of this. But it is a high probability given the obstacles we face.

          As for climate catastrophe. You are right. Keep talking. And ask people to spread the word. Ask them to help both you and themselves. We need everyone pitching in.

    • mikkel

       /  January 23, 2014

      Well the difference between success or failure and doom or salvation is largely in expectation.

      Someone who helped me accept a lot of this is the systems professor George Mobus ( who believes that we are entering a preordained evolutionary bottleneck that will lead to a higher form of existence. Not “preordained” in any planned God like way, but simply a function of system behavior. He says that humans have the wrong scientific name since we are not sapient as a species, but believes that sapience is possible/inheritable and the survivors of the bottleneck will eventually create a new species. Thus, his metric for “success” is whether enough (and the right type) of humans survive to carry on cosmic evolution, so even only a few hundred thousand is probably enough based on anthropological evidence.

      Now I don’t literally believe in this idea, but it did get me to look at existence itself as an evolutionary process. Existence creates needs, which creates problems and thus solutions, and all solutions will create unpredictable consequences, forming new problems. This occurs on the grandest and most mundane levels simultaneously, and suffering comes from attachment to how things are instead of accepting this nature.

      That is the central message of Buddhism. The central message of evolution is that life itself is intertwined into this process, and the strategies of the individuals work together in emergent ways.

      So by accepting these two things, I stopped focusing on trying to “save” anything, including myself. The very presumption of saving means you can predict the future and protect against danger, but we are talking about unfathomable changes and infinitesimal odds that society will act in a way where it can be saved (e.g. stop change).

      I am now focused on living for myself and that’s all. Just like this comic ( I realized, what if society doesn’t change but I did? I’d be stuck with being happier, healthier and having better relationships.

      And what if I was honest to people I met about this and figured out ways they could do it too? Then I wouldn’t feel lonely and we can make fun things together instead of wasting away in cubicles or breaking our backs in the field.

      And what if they did that with their friends?

      From this I realized, the rich and the powerful are neither. They are not a barrier in any way because they are trapped by their own attachments and so are weak and slow. There is no use in fighting directly on their terms because they have the rules rigged that way. Instead, use what spare resources you can cobble together and help yourself, then throw a few your friends’ way and encourage them to do the same. If things change and it becomes more useful to act with this strategy then it’ll become dominant, if not, then it won’t. That is the essence of evolution and is nothing that has to be pleaded for or earned, for it is just how things are.

      • Buddhists do tend to cope very well with adversity. Some of us tend to take a bit too much responsibility 😉

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Robert, I have been reading this book ( which is quite fascinating because of his results and also that he writes cleanly as a scientist-philosopher.

        It is very radical in its message because it attacks the core assumptions behind the Scientific method, ones that I have long understood to be false and seen them fall apart first hand. “I realized, however, that these faults of modern farming were rooted in the basic
        illusions of Western philosophy that support the foundations of scientific agriculture. I
        saw that mistaken ideology had led man astray in how he lived his life and secured his
        essentials of food, clothing, and shelter. I noted that confusion over food had bred
        confusion over farming, which had destroyed nature. And I understood also that the
        destruction of nature had enfeebled man and thrown the world into disarray.”

        It is extremely prescient [“Even organic farming, which has come into its own with the pollution problem, only serves as a temporary stopgap, a brief respite. This is essentially a rehashing of the animal-based traditional farming of the past. Being part and parcel of scientific agriculture to begin with, it will be swallowed whole and assimilated by scientific
        agriculture”] and it is incredible how up to date he remained with the literature considering he had been farming in a small village for 40 years by the time this was written.

        In any case, I mention it because it’s his ideas about how to farm from a Buddhist perspective. A common theme in his work is that we don’t have much work that is inherent, we create it for ourselves by taking responsibility over things that are merely natural processes. Then because of that, we feel we are owed a product and think of nature as something to manipulate and have attachment to the outcome. By manipulating nature we then create scenarios where it can only survive with our intervention, and then we turn around and credit ourselves for “sustaining” something that is only sick from our efforts in the first place.

        The book is about his life long efforts to figure out how to farm while doing “nothing” and how eventually he came to have one of the highest yielding farms in Japan without any weeding, fertilization or machines; all while expending very little labor at all.

        While ostensibly about farming, its implications go much much further.

        • Ha! Again the preaching to the peasant of the virtues of doing nothing and taking little responsibility. Buddhism is perfect for this. No wonder the Chinese emperors encouraged its existence for so long.

          It is a simple fact that humans do much to affect nature. No fatalistic philosophy will change that truth. You can use Buddhist philosophy as means to hide from that larger, ongoing issue. But it does not remove the fact that human emission of greenhouse gasses causes certain harm. A harm we would do better to prevent, not live in a philosophical construct that denies or, worse, degrades the perception of that harm.

          As for permaculture. I completely agree. But the choice to farm in this way involves action. And the fact that it didn’t require hard work doesn’t make that action any less important.

        • Sounds like permaculture to me.

        • Thanks for the book link mikkel; that’s of interest to me.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Ah Robert, if that is what you think his message is then you really need to read it, at least just a bit.

        You will quickly realize that his only message is about action. For instance, he explains how he inherited his father’s orchard and thought he’d let it go natural, so he stopped tending to it. It quickly died.

        There is a vast difference between neglect and doing nothing; one is lack of movement, the second is about imposition of will.

        The latter part of the book is a plea that society rapidly moves towards reintegration or else it will collapse under environmental catastrophe; and in it he talks explicitly about how social policies can help.

        Yes the Eastern elite have appropriated the message about Mu for a very long time, but that doesn’t negate its point.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Miep, this guy is apparently one of the major influencing factors of permaculture, which I didn’t know until I ran across him independently.

        While I buy into permaculture wholesale, its emphasis on structure and near mechanistic understanding of nature have always bugged me. I have a hard time interacting with permaculture groups because so many members spend their time memorizing the facts and being analytical.

        From my own experience in doing permaculture stuff, I quickly realized that the designs were largely qualitative and merely set constraints in which the environment evolves. From this I came to understand the difference between creating something and nurturing something.

        This book crystalized the difference completely and tied into criticisms I’ve had about science for a long time; I believe science should ultimately be a nurturing field first and foremost.

        • Thanks, mikkel. I guess I tend to think of permaculture as people living in the jungle and knowing 50 different things to do with every plant and encouraging some while discouraging others, and sometimes moving them around some. A more mechanistic approach is less appealing to me. Recovering lost knowledge is more interesting.

          I can appreciate Robert’s perspective, in that so much is being lost so quickly. It’s sort of the same old argument about working within the system for larger changes, or outside it on a more personal level. Unfortunately we’re getting killed by misinformation, which is perhaps the biggest problem with working within the system. It’s the thing about people believing in lies when their paycheck depends on it.

        • I agree with Mikkel more than I let on. And I admire his perspective and calm. I’m just resistant to philosophies that seem too comfortable, at this time.

          As for working within the system… Jettisoning the entire system would be very, very hard considering the number of people who do not know how to live on their own without outside support. And if I move too far outside the system, the only person I help is myself. And that’s not good enough.

        • Robert: there are situational elements. Again, one can’t do it alone.

          Mora County, NM, outlawed fracking last year. Carlsbad will be the last place in the country to do so, if ever. It’s already been written off by many as a sacrifice zone, because of the nuclear waste dump. I am surrounded by deniers who work in the extractive industries.

          Leaving aside the question of why on earth did I decide to live here, there isn’t a whole lot of influence I can have locally, in a political sense. That doesn’t mean I can’t do anything, but it’s limiting. You do the best you can with what you’ve got. And I’m not too inclined to argue with anyone’s approach, other than noting that giving up is toxic. Life wants to live.

      • The Fischer Tropsch line above got me riled…

        This looks like an excellent work and one I should certainly read. Thanks for the push back Miep.

        As for science being a nurturing field, can you expand more on these thoughts? I’d be interested to hear them.

    • Ken Barrows

       /  January 24, 2014

      85 people have the same wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population (3.5 B). It doesn’t mean that 85 people have half the wealth. It just means they have a lot.

  3. mikkel’s approach is useful in that it frees one to act without addressing whether what one does is enough. The doomer perspective is terribly problematic in that it leads one to feel that all action is meaningless, which is ultimately a suicidal perspective. If one is not to work from a suicidal perspective, one needs to have some sense of hope for the future, or else give up being so concerned about the future, but hopefully within the context of still having an overall respect for life.

    I’ve talked to other doomers about the problem with meaningful action and how immobilizing it is. So writing like this has a certain appeal to me, because it does not demand solutions as much as it allows right action.

    • Buddhism — helping the hopelessly oppressed cope with their predicament everywhere…

      I suppose they could also teach it to livestock animals. It might help them cope with their hopelessness?

      In any case, the imperative to act is central to being unless one is a prisoner, a caged animal, or a member of the oppressed.

      You see, I have yet to accept that my situation, our situation, is hopeless. So the intellectual drugs that are doomerism and Buddhism have no appeal to me.

      As for the ‘heavy’ load of responsibility… It’s much lighter knowing that if some of us do not act, there will be many more Buddhists and doomers out there due to consequences (and, sadly, in the end, some of them not so well off).


      • Robert: well, part of the problem is one can’t do it alone, and a doomer perspective does tend to isolate one because of the internal conflict about whether action is meaningful. So to adapt instead the Buddhist perspective at least gets you out of the house. Journey of 1000 miles starts with one step.

        At the same time, I have a sense that hopelessness is a kind of hubris. The scope and unpredictability of what we have put in motion is daunting, and it’s useful to try to predict things and especially note which models turn out correct, and in what ways – but in the end, we just don’t have the science to make truly firm predictions, and there is an odd kind of hope in that, though it’s a dangerous concept when picked up by deniers.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        “At the same time, I have a sense that hopelessness is a kind of hubris.”

        What I came to realize from interacting with doomers is that they constructed their entire ego around their prediction. When that happens, they would rather have everything fall apart and be right rather than take action that would make them wrong.

        Many of them are fantastically skilled and insightful and I thought for a long time we could work together to utilize their talents, only for it to go nowhere. Once I realized that it seemed most of the world was asleep and most of the ones that recognized the dangers were only in love with their own reflection and nightmares, I became very depressed and nearly had a willful psychotic break (meaning that I was tempted to have a psychotic break for the purpose of experiencing what it’d be like to be so alienated).

        This acceptance is what led me to get out of the house (figuratively and literally) and from there a rush of action has occurred. Now I have accomplished more in the last year than the last 10, all without feeling too uncomfortable. My friends marvel at how much is done in so many ways, yet I work less than before.

        I’m now focusing on ways to use my security to help others find the same and build systems together. I’m doing this by not trying to predict, but to focus on caring for my work and most especially, everyone else’s.

        • What is your work, Mikkel? Are you a polyculturalist?

        • That’s insightful, mikkel. Less focus on being wrong or right about predictions, as if we were all participating in a game of chance we can win by being right about failure, and more just doing what humans ought to do.

          Ironically, this is not all that different from Robert’s answer to the burning boat analogy, about working with people. But first you have to find something useful to do with them. That can start anywhere, but this business of deciding what is useful and what is not can drive you nuts. Thus I contentedly watch the wasps eat the caterpillars eat the dill, which isn’t saving the world, but for all these little people who live here, it’s their entire world.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Fukuoka talks about the barrier of the ego (remember this was written in the late 70s):

        “Recently, led by individuals aware of the danger of being swallowed up by urban
        civilization, people in the great metropolises, cut off from the natural world, have sensed
        within themselves a heightened need for nature and have even begun seeking a road back to farming. Do they really intend to return to the land and here build up a society where they may live in peace and comfort? Somehow, it does not look that way to me…

        Farmers themselves have destroyed the earth while praying for its protection. People
        attack the destruction of nature yet condone destruction in the name of development.
        They make compromises in the name of harmony and prepare for the next wild rampage.
        The foremost cause for the-discord and contradictions of human society is that
        everyone in the towns and cities act independently and in their own interest without
        seeing things clearly. People all claim to love nature, but each pushes his interests
        without feeling the least contradiction or concern.

        The lack of coherence in this world and the flood of disjointed campaigns attest to one
        thing: what everyone really loves is not nature but himself. The painter who sketches the
        mountains and rivers appears to love nature, but his real love is sketching nature. The
        farmer who works the earth merely loves the thought of himself laboring in the fields.
        The agricultural scientist and administrator believe they love nature, but the one only
        really loves the study of nature and the other enjoys studying and passing judgment on
        the farmers at work. Man has glimpsed but one tiny portion of nature. People only think
        they understand its true essence; they only think they love nature…

        No “method” is needed for loving nature. The only road to nature is non-action, the
        only method is no method at all. All one must do is to do nothing. The means will
        become clear of itself and the goal absurdly easy to attain.

        This is what I mean by doubting the degree of resolution in those who profess a wish
        to return to nature. Are they really drawn to farming? Do they really love nature? If you
        have a genuine love for nature and wish to return to farming, the way will open with great
        ease before you. But if your love for nature is superficial and what you do amounts
        simply to making use of farming for your own purposes, the road will be closed off to
        you; returning to nature will be impossibly difficult.

        The first obstacle that blocks the movement back to the land is people; it lies within

        • Many would see me as a failure as a gardener because what I like best is just seeing what happens. Those wild salvias moved six feet across the yard this year? Interesting. The swallowtail larvae ate all the dill? Interesting. The Polistes wasps ate all the swallowtail larvae? Interesting. They ate all the squash bugs too? Cool.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Robert, I am a computer scientist who has worked in both the climate and medical fields in order to advance systems oriented hypotheses…

        Who then quit to work on more immediate (I got tired of spending all my time helping researchers discover things that would sit on the shelf, when I learned plenty of discoveries made 20+ years ago had never been implemented due to cartelization) things in energy and Big Data analysis so that…

        I could have independence/time to create a permaculture farm for my own amusement and security like Miep talks about above, while also focusing on business processes that could be franchised, allowing anyone who wanted to join…

        And am now aiming to create an energy reduction service (that I’ll email you about) built on a backend that allows for distributed collaboration in many fields with only minor customization….

        And then will copy that offering into the permaculture area to encourage as many people to have productive yards/small scale farms as possible.

        Then I’m also a cook for the tea shop that my partner and I decided to create in order to have a place where we could start teaching art/programming/building skills in a creative way to encourage people to become producer/consumers and lead to localized economies.

        Stated like that makes me sound like a self important blowhard, but I assure you that in reality it is really just talking to people about things I like to talk about anyway, then programming a bit and going home to see what neat things happened in the yard.

        • mikkel: that all sounds SO New Zealand. I have always regretted not having gotten to spend my life there.

          I don’t think of myself as running a permaculture farm for production as much as tending a natural community into which I occasionally introduce things. I started out with one good-sized pecan tree and a couple of mimosas, and after fifteen years, it’s like a short forest, though I wish I’d planted more trees sooner.

          Lately I’ve taken to letting the Ailanthus go. That’s Tree of Heaven, the tree that grew in Brooklyn. Incredibly hardy and prolific tree. I’m starting to think that maybe we should not be so hard on invasives, as they can more easily survive weather extremes, though Ailanthus, like Bermuda grass, still stays in town – the desert is too much for them, they’re synanthropic yet.

        • This is amazing, Miep. Sounds like excellent and fulfilling work.

        • You’re doing good work. In my view, it’s OK to toot your own horn a little in that case. Also, I asked!

          If you’re interested, I think I have a few writing projects I’d like you to pursue. Please send me that email as I’m very interested in your energy reduction work and would like to chat further.

    • With the big, important, trends, the models do very well. The details, however, can be messy.

      If the issue is too big to bear, I can see the usefulness of Buddhism. But it is not for me. To lead, one must take responsibility. One must act first. And in this, we need more leaders. More people willing to act first. More people willing to take responsibility. Not less.

      So I take responsibility. I’ll make myself carbon neutral. I’ll remove as much pain as possible from my eating habits. I’ll convince as many people as I can to come along with me. And I will work to hold those who cause harm or who seek to trap people in it responsible for their actions. To me there is no middle ground, no comfortable happy medium. I am uncomfortable because I am challenging myself and others to act. Because action is necessary now. And if I am comfortable, in thought or body, it is because I am doing something wrong.

      Yes the croon of lack responsibility, of do nothing or little is appealing. Because it is easy. They say, at times, that death is the easier way. Well, that’s not me. I don’t go down easy. I don’t want to die at heart. Instead, I choose pain. I choose adversity. Why? Because the difficult path is the right path. The difficult path is the path of life. The only path that generates real hope is the constant maintenance of action.

      A bunch of people happily waiting for nature is not at all what we need at this time. For with each passing hour nature grows ever more vicious and angry.

      • At the same time, people need to eat, and developing less intrusive land management policies is really important. If a guy can figure out how to feed people without messing with the land, he’s figuring out how to do it without messing with all the nonhuman life on the land.

        We really do need to do something about agriculture, it’s not just some minor detail. As unpredictable weather extremes get more common, what kind of strategy will work best to both not result in crop failure, and help preserve biodiversity? Monoculture and annual cropping are very hard on natural communities, and watersheds.

        • These are extraordinary points and ones I should do well to listen to.

          I switched to vegan for the same reasons. But if the mode of production can be less harmful, all the better.

          Polyculture actually helps with crop resiliency to weather extremes (growing groups of mutually beneficial plants in the same farm/community). Combined with permaculture, such practices could help quite a bit. In addition, many polyculture societies show extraordinary yields.

          I was too harsh with Mikkel. Part of the problem with being passionate is you can go off half-cocked. So my apologies.

          This looks like an excellent work and, as I said above, one I would do well to read.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Haha it’s quite alright. I don’t know anything about you personally, but bought Growth Shock before commenting on this thread, because the reviews say it’s both clear eyed and strong.

        One point of goading you indirectly is that people are moved by both love and fear, but I’ve come to realize that only love has the power to create healthy systems. And what is the most simple and strongest love if not love of life?

        When I focused on fear (we must do X because otherwise Y will happen) then plenty of people were sympathetic but few ever changed behavior.

        Now I laugh out of enjoyment and am overflowing with people looking to change.

        I truly believe that if we are to avoid catastrophe, it will not be because the risks are assessed and everyone agrees to change, but because a small group lives in a healthy way and is so joyous that the vast percentage of the population you describe above in the post spontaneously changes their world view.

        With this blog you have shown you have the intellect and honesty to clearly see into the vast realms of possibility, yet there is an inherent pain present in the writing because you haven’t quite figured out how your skills/passion fit into the larger picture.

        I know how that feels, and am merely suggesting that once you stop self flagellating then you will see possibilities that would have never been available otherwise.

        Of course, ,I can’t claim a ton of credit for my change in mindset, I had to leave the US in order to feel safe enough to let it out. I am too still much too weak and have too many attachments to be able to maintain it if I moved back…so when many of my friends in the US explain their anxieties I feel immense pity.

        • mikkel: I have just a little land to work with, a double lot on the corner and a lot of easement owned by the city. It’s about a fifth of an acre not counting the houses.

          I let it run wild a LOT. I get cited occasionally. I selectively introduce plants and selectively discourage others. Sometimes I have incredibly beautiful wildflowers and other plants. This kind of yard is extremely rare in this town.

          The middle school is down the street, and kids walk by my yard all the time. While this is a solitary project, every kid who looks at this place is informed that you can do this instead of having a barren yard or a lawn or some kind of sterile utility shrubbery.

          I see this as my main mode of communication locally. And in rainy years when it stays cool enough for them to set fruit, I give away tomatoes to anyone who asks.

          Not saving the world either. Just giving people ideas.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        Miep you’ll definitely feel an affinity with that book. He talks a lot about how he doesn’t try to determine where his veggies grow; he just throws seeds around randomly and then watches with amusement as they move around his land from generation to generation.

        I’m in the process of converting my 1/4 acre into productive land, which is fun because it’s on a hill so you can do a lot. At the moment though, just focusing on building up soil quality and so am letting things run wild — it is amazing how many dozens of species there are that you never notice when the yard is kept tidy!

        I too plan to use it as communication but also to prod people that look interested to do it themselves and I’ll pitch in. A pro who has given some advice gets 70-80% of all his food off his 1/4 acre, so I’ve definitely been convinced it is a major building block to greater potential.

        In a few years, once we’ve gotten comfortable, we are very interested in joining with a few other people to get 40-80 acres and set up a larger permaculture installation with integrated pasture and let the animals rejuvenate the land.

        Have you had kids shown much explicit interest?

        • Fantastic! I would love to learn how to turn 1/4 acre into 70-80 percent of my food.

        • mikkel: I don’t talk to humans much in person. My current struggle is philosophical. Once I started reading about how toxic this culture is, in increasingly greater detail, I realized that the great pitfall was about being immobilised into inaction by the sheer scope of the trouble we’re in.

          But if one does not believe in trying to act, one is just part of the problem.

          Action can be inaction. It’s a matter of vectors and getting in the way of them at times, which can be mistaken for inaction.

          What it came down to for me is that inaction is suicidal in a personal sense, so one must come up with some form of action, even if it’s just a blocking move. Otherwise one becomes crazy, miserable and isolated.

          There is no way out of making decisions. And having a logically dictated sense of hope isn’t necessarily required.

          Life wants to live.

      • mikkel

         /  January 23, 2014

        I’d say the first book to read that really convinced me it was possible is Gaia’s Garden by Toby Hemenway. Until then, the only permaculture I’d been able to find was at 10 acres+.

        I was actually turned on to the book by a commenter at who was writing that all his food needs were covered by his garden (70%) + grain and supplements by volunteering at a local farm. His name is Don Stewart, I could email him and see if he’d mind me passing along yours — but you can definitely engage him there in the comments.

        From there, I decided to specifically try to find someone here to help and found a professional who is getting about 70% for his family of 3 (or 4) after 6 years of maturation. A lot of it is just knowing what to grow and also becoming adapted to the taste of more heritage foods — they’re not as sweet as what we think of as veggies.

        In NZ the climate is quite mild so it’s easy to grow all year around, but on the flip side it’s not hot enough where I am to grow squash and other winter staples, so there are ways to adapt to North America.

        The potential of what can be done is quite mind boggling. For instance, Fukuoka writes, “This field has not been plowed or turned in over thirty years. Nor have I applied
        chemical fertilizers or prepared compost, or sprayed pesticides or other chemicals. I
        practice what I call “do-nothing” farming here, yet each year I harvest close to 22 bushels
        (1,300 pounds) of winter grain and 22 bushels of rice per quarter-acre. My goal is to
        eventually take in 33 bushels per quarter-acre.”

        And then there is this 1/10th of an acre in California ( which talks about harvesting 3 tons of food from intensive polyculture!

        The criticism of Fukuoka (and presumably the urban homestead) is that a) the climate is not as ideal in many places as it is in Japan, CA, NZ [true but there are ways to adapt, and even so, the yields they are getting are so extreme they aren’t needed generally] b) it takes a long time to reach good productivity (4-5 years) [this is why creative financing and support is so crucial] and c) even though the methods are simple, it requires much intuitive insight. It took Fukuoka 25 years before he figured out how to get the yields consistently, although to be fair he was trying to be extreme on purpose and was running it as many experiments simultaneously while growing with methods he knew would work on enough of his farm to survive. He says that since he’s done the work, people should just copy and then adapt as needed, but it’s difficult since the nature of it is more intuitive than didactic; many people that have tried to copy him have apparently failed, but it seems that’s because they gave up after only a few years and didn’t get in rhythm with the land.

        Which brings me to a general point, which is that there are enough people that are demonstrably doing this (in many climates) that it definitely works, but it is not something to be learned, it is something to be *lived.*

        On the other hand, they all agree there is very little labor involved — many people I’ve talked to average less than 10 hrs a month — so it’s not like you have to grow food as a job.

        I sent you an email last night to mithorden; did it come through?

  4. “Corporatism, commercialism, and laissez faire neoliberal globalized capitalism all must vastly recede.”

    As already stated, this is a very tall order. And, it is perhaps tallest in the U.S. Such an effort would require both short-term and long-term strategies focusing on education and activism. It would need sufficient funding and time to implement. But most of all, it would necessitate great cooperation between progressive and populist interest groups who aren’t always on the same side (example: environmentalists and labor unions). I can see a viable path forward. However, it is not a path humanity is likely to take anytime soon.

  5. Robert: you’re good people and this has been a good conversation, no apology required. I appreciate your courtesy.

    • 🙂

      I am thinking there is are some people more on the inside who need to be telling the story of those like Mikkel, who need to show that the misinformation is, indeed false. Someone to show that there is another way. I am thinking that I need to be one of those people.

  6. Gerald Spezio

     /  January 23, 2014

    Colin Turnbull’s classic ethnography of what HAS happened to one human society in periods of extreme material/physical shortages, adversity, & stress.

    Turnbull confronts our “notions” about human nature, morality, & ethics.

    In short. what “conditioned” the IK’s catastrophic social decline, including the strange & seemingly bizarre behavior & ideas in the brains of the IK people.

    Kindness became stupidity, & the word for love disappeared from their language.

    The Mountain People (1972) from WIKI;

    In 1972, Colin Turnbull published an ethnography about the Ik titled
    The Mountain People.[3] The book provides an examination of Ik culture
    and practices based on information gathered by Turnbull during a stay
    of three years.

    He depicts the Ik as a people forced into extreme
    individualistic practices in order to survive. Using the few remaining
    elderly Ik as sources, he attempts to describe the former Ik society
    (including hunter-gatherer practices; marriage, childbirth, and death
    rituals and taboos; religious and spiritual beliefs, and other
    aspects). Much of the work, however, focuses on the then-current
    condition of the Ik people during a severe famine brought on by two
    consecutive drought years.

    Turnbull clearly became very involved with the Ik people, and openly
    writes about his horror at many of the events he witnessed, most
    notably total disregard for familial bonds leading to the death of
    children and the elderly by starvation. He does speak warmly about
    certain Ik, and describes his “misguided” efforts to give food and
    water to those too weak to provide for themselves, standing guard over
    them to prevent others from stealing the food. Turnbull shares these
    experiences to raise questions concerning basic human nature, and
    makes constant reference to “goodness” and “virtue” being cast aside
    when there is nothing left but a need to survive (even going so far as
    to draw parallels to the individualism of ‘civilized’ society).

    Overall, living with the Ik seems to have afflicted Turnbull more with
    melancholy and depression than anger, and he dedicated his work “to
    the Ik, whom I learned not to hate”.

    Claude Steiner cited Turnbull’s study saying:
    ” “There is no better or more heartbreaking example of the
    alienation of the human capacity to love than the story of the Ik
    tribe of Uganda. Colin Turnbull in his book Mountain People documents
    how Milton Obote nationalized traditional hunting lands as national
    park for European tourists, and prevented the Ik from hunting in their
    traditional hunting grounds.

    After a couple of generations of
    starvation conditions, the Ik, originally a cooperative, child loving
    tribe, became a group of selfish cruel people who don’t trust or
    help anybody.

    They would desert children at an early age and one story
    Turnbull tells is how after abandoning a baby to be eaten by wild
    animals the animals were hunted an [sic] eaten.”-Source

    • People pushed to desperation behave very badly. Survival, at its basest level, is vicious. Which is one reason why we should do our best not to put people in those situations. I know things aren’t all that hopeful, but we should at least try.

  7. Spike

     /  January 23, 2014

    I read one report suggesting CO2 levels are now higher than for 15 million years

    “During the Middle Miocene (the time period approximately 14 to 20 million years ago), carbon dioxide levels were sustained at about 400 parts per million, which is about where we are today,” Tripati said. “Globally, temperatures were 5 to 10 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, a huge amount.”

    In the last 20 million years, key features of the climate record include the sudden appearance of ice on Antarctica about 14 million years ago and a rise in sea level of approximately 75 to 120 feet.

    “We have shown that this dramatic rise in sea level is associated with an increase in carbon dioxide levels of about 100 parts per million, a huge change,” Tripati said. “This record is the first evidence that carbon dioxide may be linked with environmental changes, such as changes in the terrestrial ecosystem, distribution of ice, sea level and monsoon intensity.”

    • The last time the Earth witnessed CO2 levels in the current range was during the Pliocene about 4.5 million years ago when CO2 levels rose as high as 410 ppm.

      During the Miocene, CO2 levels fell as low as around 300 ppm. And this low CO2 level was thought to have allowed a large growth and expansion of the Antarctic Ice sheet.

      It was not until around 13-23 million years ago that we again saw CO2 levels in the range of 400 ppm + with CO2 levels approaching 450 ppm by the early Miocene at around the 20 to 23 million year ago interval.

      So, if we exceed 410 parts per million CO2, as we will almost certainly in the next five years, we will have transported ourselves to a time, 20 million years ago, when the great Antarctic ice sheets were still growing and expanding and the Greenland Ice sheet hadn’t even formed. A time when sea levels were 25 to 40 meters higher than today.

      Pushing above 450 ppm, we go back 25 million years ago to the Oligocene. And if we hit 550 ppm (possible under bau by mid century), we hit a range of CO2 averages not seen in about 35 million years when there was virtually no ice on the planet.

      By the end of this century, we could see CO2 in the range of 800-1000 ppm, a level not seen since the PETM of about 55 million years ago. A level that also roughly correlates with estimates for the Permian Extinction event, the last time the world went from a glacial to a hothouse state, 250 million years ago.

  8. Gerald Spezio

     /  January 23, 2014

    Translating methane into CO2 numbers & factoring the methane as CO2 equivalent into the present CO2 total of 400ppm gives a future of terrifying gravity because when we do this we are already at more than 435 ppm of CO2 equivalent.

    The people at may mean well, but …

    Moreover, an ABRUPT methane release (more abrupt than we are observing) of only a fraction of existing methane stores in the arctic delivers us into pure hell on earth.

    Igor Semelitov has openly & publicly said that a gigantic & abrupt methane release could occur anytime.

    We are NOW observing at least 50 million tons per year minimum of methane released into the atmosphere from arctic stores.

    • True, true and true.

      We may well be seeing a total GHG forcing that has not been seen in at least 20 to 25 million years. We just don’t have proxy methane and other carbon gas readings to prove it at this time.

      Will dig a bit to see if they’re buried somewhere… Might be worth writing a bit about.

      As for the Arctic methane stores… That stuff should scare the hell out of everyone.

  9. publiusmaximus

     /  January 23, 2014

    Wow, great discussion in this theat.
    @Mikkel: your path is amazing. Would it be possible to converse with you via email?
    I have a neuroscience/social sciences background. I now work for a software company, and am teaching myself computer science from scratch. I’ve had an odd path, lots of issues. I now have a wife and kid, and want to transition to a more rural/village life, with low impact and more sustainable. Mainly, I find our modern urban life, and working for “the man” to be meaningless and demoralizing.

    I am very inspired at how you are using your computer skills along with your interest in permaculture, sustainable ag, etc.

    @Robert: I think you are a little hard on Buddhism, but I also have felt that way. My wife is into Buddhism, and she does not like it when I get angry, or political, or talk about the evils that should be fought.

    I believe, however that Buddhism, or at least some stoicism, is very psychologically useful, because it can give you the stability needed to act.

    I believe that action, for the most part, will consist in building a parallel society, parallel economy, and parallel government. We should still participate in standard politics, mainly so that others will find out about the alternatives. We won’t win on the national scale, but we will get attention.

    I think that the collapse of the bigger system will occur somewhat soon, and we will need these parallel systems in place in an embryonic manner, and these new systems will be the real way we are able to exert leadership and vision.

    I also believe we are entering a time of extreme danger: fascism is on the horizon, or here, in the USA. The police state and national security state is securely in place, and will be used against those who promote and live alternatives.

    I have at first reluctantly, and now with more enthusiasm, have decided that my family and I are going to try to emigrate. American society is so not ready for a transition to sustainable living, equality, and cooperative models, that I would rather carry on the struggle elsewhere. If we can’t leave in time, I plan to decamp for a small village where people are already living in the way I yearn for, to some extent.

    • Thanks for your kind words and insights.

      Where in the world do you plan to emigrate? I’ve often considered the option myself. But I hadn’t settled on a specific place.

    • mikkel

       /  January 23, 2014

      Sure, just get it from Robert when you email him.

      Don’t give me too much credit, it’s the pioneers that are actually working the land, designing new architecture/devices and writing about all of the potential that are paving the way.

      That said, I am a strong believer in adoption curves, and believe that these ideas have been proven on a physical level and have enough early adopters that they can catapult into a to parallel economy if only a large percentage of sympathizers realized the potential. There is easily 20% of the populace — perhaps even in the US — that could be pulled in; it’s just about making the social magic work, so that’s what I’m focusing on.

      There are only two people in the world: those that understand systems and those that don’t. Thus, many control engineers, neuroscientists and computer scientists instantly get these patterns.

      The unofficial motto of Permaculture is that pre-Modern times were powered by manual labor, the industrial age is powered by fossil fuels and permaculture is powered by information.

      If you make design integrated around conservation and resilience, then it is possible to use 60-90% less energy and resources for nearly any application. My business partner has intimate knowledge of industrial processes and says most of them can reduce use by 50% without any further research, it’s just that they don’t because they are scared about tinkering with their system and there are no alternatives arising to challenge.

      That isn’t even counting manufacturing cooperatives in which different companies are linked by energy flows and together use 80-90% less energy than current techniques.

      The same goes for the home — 50% reduction in current design is accomplishable with retrofits, but 90% is possible with redesign.

      These are not hypotheticals, they are facts and you can find examples when you know where to look. However, I have given up on current players changing: even though they can analyze the proposal and see it is doable, they will not change because of social/business risk…and most of all, they need to confront their ego in an existential crisis, which most people fear above even death.

      Therefore it is up to “us” to develop the parallel society and live it far and wide across the world. This society can then suck up all the professional class that is in existential pain like you are (I can’t begin to describe the number of technical professionals that I can get to open up in less than 5 minutes, but say they can’t do anything because of kids, etc) and the massive number of people on the margins of society.

      Instead of asking the powers that be for permission, we should just do it and take away their power base. There is nothing stopping it except for courage and resolve.

      I read a good distinction between our current predicament and social rights movements that the environmental movement has tried to emulate: social rights movements are fundamentally about *inclusion* into the status quo, whereas we need to dismantle it. This is why the tactics and messaging of the environmental movement is largely failing: they refuse to accept that they are talking about destroying the lifestyle and world view of society.

      Except of course, when destruction of self is done through love instead of hate, it is Salvation and Enlightenment. This is what the soul longs for and why fundamentally my messaging is grounded in spirituality (Buddhism for me, but all religions have traditions to tap into) as purpose, with rationality as mere process and evaluation.

      This is very challenging because it is a fundamental break with the traditions of secular humanism, in which our social class is raised in. The writing that made me look at it differently is by MLK explaining why he stopped being a liberal ( and accepted that man is inherently sinful. Not evil as the conservatives would say, but weak and fearful when challenged. Therefore, he writes, a radical movement must embrace the best of man through the liberal tradition, while keeping an eye on the worst through the conservative, providing a purpose through the existential and connecting to the soul through Divine Love into satyagraha.

      All that said, I moved out of the US because it is psychotic and delusional. The US is a place that is drowning and refuses to acknowledge it, but if you try to help then it drowns you nonetheless. And you know what they say to do if someone is panicking while drowning…

      Now that I’ve moved, I’ve found that most of the rest of the world is actually clear visioned but just lacks fortitude. This is much easier to deal with because then it gives me confidence that results will move them gracefully into the fold instead of being destroyed in a fervour of righteous fear.

      • Awareness of the situation is paramount. If the misinformation stream is pierced, then many more will become aware of how necessary what Mikkel proposes has become. A 90% reduction in energy use when combined with other practices could be a world saver, especially if it is linked to sustainability and not the perpetuation of damaging forms of growth.

      • mikkel

         /  January 24, 2014

        Yes, the trick is two fold:

        1) Information is not enough to change behavior for the vast majority of people; only action and social normalization is.

        2) Many of the people who have figured out how to do these things and can bring them into reality have been worn down over decades to the point of fatigue and are either doomers or paralyzed from fear of continued disillusionment. There needs to be a way to activate them.

        I have a comment in moderation — do you see it or do I need to post again?

        • Without accurate information and communication, there can be no effective action, for there is no understanding of the options and related consequences. At a certain level, even the most bull-headed of conservatives know this. That’s why they fight science and burn books.

        • Got the comment in moderation. For some reason, the filter is very sensitive to links, even if I am not.

        • More than one link gets you spam-filtered. I wish they’d write in a way to turn that off, it’s irritating.

      • mikkel

         /  January 24, 2014

        Well of course accurate information is essential, but due to improper education and willful planning, there is very little ability to determine what is accurate or not. As such, I do not see the value of information primarily around getting people to change, but instead as a way to organize people that have already changed into collective action and purpose.

        The value of this blog isn’t in convincing someone to change their mind about what we face, but in fostering anticipatory creativity for those that have accepted it.

        The author closest to my views is Huxley — both in terms of what is happening (Brave New World) and what could happen instead (the novel Island).

        I haven’t read the book Brave New World revisited, but here is an excellent post with excerpts that has been going around (

        In that link you will see Huxley simultaneously discounts the value of truth in persuading the populace and the primacy of it in becoming immune to propaganda.

        • Sorry, I have to disagree with both you and Huxley, at least in part. Though I agree that information and truth gathering must proceed to organization in order to be effective, the notion that truth has no value is absurd and discounted by history. Truth is a more effective tool than propaganda, due to its validity. And if wielded at least as effectively as the propaganda, will over-ride it. It requires a bit of art to do this, though.

          Needless to say, I absolutely agree when you talk about organization. Information without organization is pretty useless. But to have effective and just action you need both.

        • And… the beginning of organization comprises both a call to act, the will to act (information supported), and the ability to act…

          But you already knew this 😉

        • Which is why we desperately need those with organizational talents, like you, Mikkel.

      • publiusmaximus

         /  January 24, 2014

        @Mikkel: Aha, so you are an American, also! Anyway, I am at work and must work now, but thanks for the inspiring words… Much to think about this weekend and year….

      • mikkel

         /  January 24, 2014

        Robert, I think you are making a post hoc error. It is not that truth wins out over propaganda, it is that systems built on lies will always fail eventually on a physical level. When that happens, a more truthful system (for the moment) will succeed because it is having greater success in explaining the ills that are happening and giving something else to work towards.

        The distinction is very important because it means that change occurs in the context of crisis and systemic failure instead of the context of rational agreement to prevent crisis at all.

        Many of the great historical leaders such as MLK talk about bringing the underlying tension to the surface by speaking simply about failures and offering another way — not in order to avert disaster per se, but in order to accelerate the decline of the status quo so they can gain adherents. These adherents are almost always the young and currently disenfranchised.

        This is exactly how paradigm shifts work even in the most “rational” of pursuits such as science, which Planck said advances one funeral at a time.

        When viewed this way, the value of Truth actually becomes stronger, because it is aimed at providing dignity to those stripped of it rather than trying to convince those that already believe they have obtained it to change their ways.

        • It’s not post hoc. It’s simple understanding of the human condition and the overall dynamics of conflict.

          Propaganda inevitably fails long or short term. There is an intrinsic reaction to it. That’s why regimes relying on propaganda must also establish oppressive systems to maintain their validity.

          When confronted with truth both the oppressive regimes and the propaganda disintegrate. Governments, after all, must maintain legitimacy. And without such legitimacy governments fail. Propaganda is simply a means to maintain false legitimacy.

          MLK leveraged the response to false legitimacy quite well, I think. And, thankfully, the response of government and society as a whole was to work to re-establish legitimacy rather than continue to oppress.

          Methinks you’re splitting hairs and monkeying with semantics to not appear in the wrong. How’s that disintegration of self working for you?

      • mikkel

         /  January 24, 2014

        If you haven’t read , the ideas are indispensable.

        I know from personal experience he is completely spot on and science is by far weaker for failing to internalize his viewpoint. It is applicable to any organizational shift though.

      • mikkel

         /  January 25, 2014

        It is not a semantic argument at all, it is a fundamental world view shift.

        If you believe that rationality and truth is sufficient instead of merely necessary, then you will think the problem is that not enough people know what the truth is because of ignorance and misinformation. Therefore, all tactics focus on the level of information.

        If instead you believe that rationality is mostly used in order to develop strategies and defenses for pre-existing (non rational) aims and that Truth itself is merely contextual instead of absolute, then you will focus on the world view first and foremost: creating new ones or pointing out the inherent contradictions in the current ones.

        One time my mom said she wished she had training in logic so she could tell what was truth and what was false. I replied that logic doesn’t help determine that, it only helps you deduce implications from what you already hold true. Formally, all logic is based on axioms and axioms themselves must be selected outside of the system. This is what I mean by world view.

        Or as my grandma states when I complain that the world doesn’t make sense: “It makes perfect sense, you just have to understand the aims of the people in charge and the general populace.”

        Until you understand this, you will remain captive to your own biases, instead of being the master of them.

      • mikkel

         /  January 25, 2014

        This goes directly into what I was saying about science up above.

        Science does not tell you what to do, it is merely a mode of inspection. The current scientific thought is built on assumptions of reductionism that are the underpinning of all modern life.

        Because of this, the field of science spends its time largely discovering “rational” things and then fretting about how much it should push society to adopt them. Most scientists get upset that lies and misinformation dominant governance instead of the “truth” that they have discovered.

        Except is the truth actually useful? No, that’s not the right question: in what contexts do the hypotheses constitute the truth at all?

        For instance, they say that obesity has an extremely strong genetic component: this is indisputable fact. Therefore, the reasoning goes, perhaps whether someone gets fat or not is largely independent of their own actions.

        Or many economists and engineers have proven that many problems in the world are caused by lack of efficiency and rational optimization seeking; which people are inherently bad at. Therefore, the reasoning goes, we need concepts such as nudge theory in order to make the rational choice the default one.

        Yet in the first case, the rates of obesity across the populace are undeniably rising and in the second, they are holding up a value of existence as superior that they literally just claimed is rare.

        The role of science and society is a feedback loop, in which reductionist rationalism led to great discoveries and useful technology that then dominated over less (materially) useful pre-Enlightenment thought. It took quite a while, but eventually society became defined by it.

        Now, just as with all systems, the inconsistencies of are create massive amounts of pollution because it has run its course. Yet the mode and operation of science, engineering and the professional class has not changed: it merely is studying the pollution itself and attempting to fix it with the same type of thought that created it in the first place.

        You accept that the climate is changing too rapidly for climatology to catch up using the methods they accept, but I am claiming this is true on a fractal and universal level, with the added point that the complexity is generated from the problem solving itself. This is the crux of Tainter’s Collapse of Complex Societies theory.

      • mikkel

         /  January 25, 2014

        This is what I was alluding to above when talking about MLK and focusing on a spiritual instead of secular humanism basis. I used to consider myself a humanist until I was very aggrieved by our failure to address climate change and someone said “I am not a humanist because its assumptions about the nature of man are as absurd as the assumptions of the religious fundamentalists,” then went on to talk about his relationship with terror and depression.

        I always thought Freud was wrong and Jung/Maslow were right, but in the depths of my despair Freud came out on top; for just a while. This made me realize that Freud was looking at the state of man ruled by anxiety and control, while Jung/Maslow focus on the potential state of man to overcome it. Neither is wrong, just contextual.

        And we live in a Freudian world.

        The concept of truth and disinformation is static, but nature is fundamentally fluid. Usefulness and context are Divine and this is the ultimate message of Taoism and Buddhism. I’ve come to realize that there are two ways to let go of the ego: caring about nothing and caring about everything. The first is what you attack, but the latter is the true way of the Buddha. Through this you destroy your ego because your world view flows naturally as required through the context of life. Out of creation comes destruction and vice versa.

        Most people think I am very complex, because I can seemingly talk about anything and do many things that appear unrelated. They are completely wrong, for I am simpler than most. Instead I am multifaceted like an infinitely cut diamond so that the angle in which I am viewed changes my nature. A few people have learned to see the facets instead of the reflected light and they completely understand; the rest are caught in their own illusion and call me the most mysterious person they have met.

        Such is life.

      • mikkel

         /  January 25, 2014

        Oh one last point, you write “MLK leveraged the response to false legitimacy quite well, I think. And, thankfully, the response of government and society as a whole was to work to re-establish legitimacy rather than continue to oppress.”

        But I had already argued why: “social rights movements are fundamentally about *inclusion* into the status quo, whereas we need to dismantle it.”

        The social rights movements are implicitly saying “what you are doing is great and we want it to” vs “you need to let go of everything you thought was meaningful.”

  10. publiusmaximus

     /  January 23, 2014

    Robert, I’d rather discuss such things privately between you, me and the NSA. You can either shoot me a private email address, or I will give you mine as a comment, provided you delete it right away.

    • Certainly:

      Please feel free to contact me at

      Will look forward to hearing from you.

      In any case, you should probably know I’m working on a climate ‘safe havens’ paper for the public. And that, in my view, it’s best just to help everyone as much as possible.



    • Between fracking and coal there appears to be no end to the insults to our water supply. In my view, if it can’t be done with renewables, then it shouldn’t be done at all.

      • Miep

         /  January 26, 2014

        Robert: one of the many things that disturbed me about that article was people talking about washing their clothing in bottled water. Really? Actual bottled water?

        • These places, they have to truck in their water, however they can get it. It’s hugely wasteful and expensive. In some cases the water is moved hundreds or thousands of miles from its original source. Tons and tons of it. All to maintain what is now a deadly and damaging addiction to coal.

  11. Hey Robber,

    I found this video on peak mining. Interesting theories and facts about peak mining.

    I disagree that peak oil-ers were wrong. If you see the oil prices, they are now three times the prices in 2005. So, high oil prices made unconventional oil ( low EROI) economical. However, oil substitutes such as many types of bio-fuel have much lower EROI than even tar sand, therefore, we haven’t been able to find suitable substitute for oil yet.

    Surprisingly, Forbes magazine has this article that captures importance of energy in economic growth.

    You can see that energy sources that are on the verge of “EROI Cliff”. Don’t forget we are still producing 85-90 percent of oil as conventional oil. Unconventional oil is contributing no more than 10-15 percent of total oil supply. Moreover, a large part of our economy is still running on energy sources with high EROI. Wind, Solar, and Bio-fuel make still very small share of overall energy supply. Therefore, our economies adjusted only to the ripples caused by substitute having lower EROI. As fossil fuel dwindles, substitute will create “Tsunami”, to which out economies will not adjust without significant changes.

    Btw, I have also started writing blog posts. If you wish you can follow me.

    • My research indicates fossil fuel depletion is an issue that increases costs slowly over time. It does cause major economic shocks (1979, 2008 etc), but economies are generally able to rapidly adjust and return to some rough allegory of the old growth model.

      In general, it more so serves as a tool to transfer wealth from the hands of oil/fossil fuel consumers and into the hands of the scarce resource holders. This is one reason why those who own fossil fuels are so bound and determined to keep them at the forefront of global energy. They are a perfect economic tool for exploitation of others and self enrichment.

      EROEI is an academic measure that lives outside of this general reality. That said, it does provide a half-decent measure to determine the economic usefulness of a fuel — to society in general. EROEI, however, is not a measure of profitability which generally derives from the scarcity of a material combined with the resource holder’s ability to remove all alternative competitors.

      In general, the oil companies can manage to capture about 5 percent of global GDP before wrecking the world economy. So it is within this structure that all the unconventionals have to live. And they’ve been doing that quite well while marginally expanding global oil production for the past three years. Now, considering the very high volume if these resources in the ground and at sea, global oil production will probably continue to expand, when we include unconventionals, for at least the next ten years. It probably won’t be as much as oil companies predict, but there is quite a lot of tight gas and tar sands they will try to exploit, much to the harm of our climate. After that, a big push for coal gasification and methane hydrates will probably expand access to unconventional fuels again. So unless renewables outcompete fossil fuels and take al their market share or unless governments directly provide a push to rapidly transition (or some combo of the two) we are cooked.

      So yes, peak conventional fuels exists, but there are more than enough unconventional to extend the life of fossil fuels out long enough to cause major climatological harm. And that, in my opinion, is very bad news.

      • mikkel

         /  January 28, 2014

        “At the request of Commission President José Manuel Barroso, EU member states are no longer to receive specific guidelines for the development ofrenewable energy. The stated aim of increasing the share of green energy across the EU to up to 27 percent will hold. But how seriously countries tackle this project will no longer be regulated within the plan. As of 2020 at the latest — when the current commitment to further increase the share of green energy expires — climate protection in the EU will apparently be pursued on a voluntary basis.”

        • Damn. That is a heavy blow. We need much, much more from Europe. The fossil fuel companies appear to be in the midst of devouring our future.

  12. lonewolf

     /  January 29, 2014

    The best possible evidence that there IS intelligent life somewhere in the Universe is that they’d all stay the FK away from here (us). Or, would biologically accessible resource constraint with induced environmental degradation the same everywhere and therefore intelligent life has never evolved anywhere? It certainly did NOT on Earth … queue Mothy Python. Ah … its those plants, its all their fault. All that damn molecular oxygen oxidizing that Carbon.

  1. Another Week in the Ecological Crisis, January 26, 2014 – A Few Things Ill Considered

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