Some Thoughts on the Long Descent

Because of a dear friend, I now have a copy of the Long Descent by John Michael Greer. I have finished up my first read through, but I want to spend some more time with this book and really chew my way through it. Nom nom nom.

Overall, I want to say that is a very good book. It is obvious that plenty of research and thought went into the shaping of this book. While I have found plenty that I agree with, I also found plenty that I want to quibble with. Or at very least, record a few thoughts on the matter before I dig deeper.

Premise 1 Peak Oil; There is so much to say here, so really in so many ways I am only going to scratch the surface here. Basically, due to the fact’s of the Hubbert Curve, and the work of many subsequent scholars, it is a fact that sooner or later we will run into peak oil. Peak oil, being the point at which the overall production of oil ceases to continue to grow. After that, there will be an ever diminishing amount of oil that we can pump from the ground. Estimates, both within the book and without, put this peak somewhere between the 1990’s and early 2000’s. It is not clear whether or not we have hit this peak or not yet. Estimates vary widely, mostly because estimating how much oil is left in the ground is not an exact science. These days, most estimate are between the year 2000 and the year 2030, give or take.

As such, while whether or not we have hit peak oil is up for some debate, the fact is that sooner or later we will be up against that reality. And, as our civilization is based on the premise of cheap and abundant fossils fuels, and decline in one is a decline in the other.

Premise 2 The Decline of Civilization; The fact is that no civilization can grow infinitely. As I have written on this blog before, there are limits to growth. The Long Descent reaffirms this fact, primarily in the area that our production and dependence on oil and fossil fuels cannot continue indefinitely. Plain and simply, you cannot have infinite growth when faced with finite resources. This is both the problem with an oil dependent civilization, and a general problem of capitalism in general. Once peak oil begins to set in, and oil production starts to stagnate and eventually decrease, an oil dependent civilization will have to diminish and start to contract as well.

I think this much is pretty on the mark, as premise one follows pretty neatly from two. The way I see things, we are at the end of an age. We cannot base our current model of civilization on petroleum, or any fossils fuels, going into the future. Such a model is unsustainable. If we have already passed peak oil, the future of our civilization will be one of non-existence. However, as Greer points out, it will not be a sudden apocalypse, but a long, slow, decline.

It is no secret that I studied archaeology and anthropology in school, and this has given me a solid foundation to understand these things. Let’s be honest, the whole field of archaeology is based upon the idea that peoples and civilizations of the past are not around any more, and that we can understand them by what they left behind. There is a great deal of precedent for the rise and fall of civilizations, and I do not have the space to talk about it all here. I have heard from many people that we are already in a state of decline. I cannot say I agree with them wholesale, but there are signs to be sure. Our infrastructure is crumbling, and its seems like the maintenance on many things are going by the wayside. Now, I cannot say whether this is a normal oscillation, or some harbinger of things to come. It is hard for me as a single person to say. Greer points out several civilizations that have fell in the past. However, it needs to be said that even a healthy civilization will have periods of growth and contraction. The history of a civilization is not a bell curve, even a stepped one of slight recovery and further decline as Greer details in the book.

This is not a denial however, and nor should it be taken as such. Sooner or later we will have to deal with some measure of decline, and such a decline would be spanned over human lifetimes. Most of us really wouldn’t notice.

Premise 3 Replacing Oil is more costly than viable; Greer throughout the book provide a good general overview of many of the so called “alternative” energies. Many of which fail the net energy test, that is they take more energy to produce than they create. He first takes on other fossil fuels, natural gas, coal, and other finite resources such as uranium. I am generally in agreement here, that these cannot solve the problems caused by the decline in oil production. At best they are temporary bandaids, even though coal is by far the most abundant of the fossil fuels, as Greer rightly points out, it is limited and very dirty. In addition, none of these are as efficient as oil in terms of energy output.

Naturally, his discussion moves towards other alternatives, such as solar, wind and biofuels. This is the part where I start to quibble a little bit. In my opinion Greer spends far too little space in the book weighing the merits of these alternatives. In addition, this is also where the book starts to show a little bit of its age. While it is generally true that ever the most “efficient” alternatives do not have the same energy yield as oil, I think Greer misses the mark a little when it comes to dismisses these options as not enough.

The Long Descent was published in 2008, and the alternative fuel industries have made huge innovations in regards to efficiency. PV cells and solar plants produce quite a bit more energy now than they did even a year ago. Wind turbines have followed the same course. And, one area where I think Greer really falls short is his focus on ethanol production from corn alone. Even wood waste has a higher yield of ethanol than corn, and in fact corn is one of the least efficient ways of producing ethanol. While I agree it is true that ethanol does not have as high energy yield as oil or gasoline, it is one of the few viable options to keep our current modern combustion engines running, without having to convert our entire transportation sectors over to electricity, which is a better long term solution.

This is not to say that ethanol is the end all be all. There are certainly land use issues, and all kinds of problems of infrastructures. What I am really talking about here is what Greer mentions many time throughout the book, the ability to “cushion” any kind of decline.

Another criticism that Greer levels at renewable is the fact that they cost so much to mine, create and process. Whereas he says about oil, “…today the world gets most of its energy supply almost free of charge by drilling a hole in the ground and piping the results somewhere.” Pg 18. This is very incorrect, as there are huge invests in mining the metal to build wells and derricks, building the pipelines, as well as the refineries. “Light sweet crude” as Greer often calls it is hardly usable in its base form, and has to be piped, shipped, trained and trucked to refineries. Refineries for any one who has not seen one are typically MASSIVE in scale, scope, and resources intensive. In addition, the process of refining crude into say gasoline, is insanely energy intensive. Oil is hardly any less resource intensive than any process needed to create renewables. The difference of course is what Greer rightly points out, that oil yields more energy per unit, and secondly that it is much more profitable in our current economy.

Premise 4; The end of the oil age is a Predicament, not a Problem.

“Plenty of pundits and ordinary people alike insist that there must still be some constructive way out of the current situation. First in line are those that insist that replacing the rascals in power with some other set more to their liking would solve the problems facing industrial civilization. Next come those who argue that if the right technological fix gets put in place, business as usual can continue….” Pg 20. Greer goes on to highlight other manners of thinking such as more radical versions of “burn it all and build something better” and building some form of sustainable lifeboat communities to weather the coming storm.

The problem with all these lines of thought, Greer points out, is that they handle Peak Oil as a problem to be solved, not a predicament which has no solution. In other words, the realities of peak oil are inevitable, and something we will have to face and that there are no solutions. I am inclined to only partially agree. Not that I disagree with most of the points he has made so far. There are limits to the growth of any civilization. Our current civilization is built on the foundation of cheap, usable oil, and sooner or later that will run out. That is a severe limit to our growth, and nothing can grow indefinitely with a finite amount of resources available. However, I disagree that there is nothing we can really do about it. Climate Change is a predicament, but I don’t think peak oil is. It is more than a problem with a single solution to be sure, in fact it is a whole mess of complex intertwined problems. I agree generally with the ideological camps that Greer has laid out, but I think any solutions lie in some form of “all of the above”, and not in any individually posited solution.

A change in politics, a change in society, and a change in technology.

While it is true that none of the alternatives have quite the same net energy yield as oil, I do think there are viable alternatives and viable means to weather or “cushion” the effects of peak oil. Entire countries are on track to be mostly free of fossil fuels within a decade or two;

Sweden

Scotland

In addition, just this year many nations of the world signed on to the Paris Climate Agreements. While I have plenty of quibbles with the agreements, the fact is that they are historic and unprecedented in range and scope. And while they are primarily targeted towards limiting climate change, a big part of that is cutting emissions. I.E, reducing our use and dependence on fossil fuels.

Add to this that huge renewable projects are coming online, or pledging to do so;

Some of the largest cities;

The Largest Solar Plant

Solar Planes

Electric Cars

And this is just a taste…

Now let’s be realistic for a moment. None of these solutions individually will be enough. It will take a concentrated, holistic effort at every conceivable level, from the individual up through global. That is why I am cautiously optimistic about the Paris Agreements, because it implies that world leaders as well as individuals and local communities are aware of realities ahead, and have made the pledge to do something about it. That is huge in my opinion.

Premise 5; History and archaeology show how civilizations collapse;

I have plenty of quibbles here, and I am not going to detail them all here. Some of my points were made above, but one of my biggest problems with this section is two fold. First, Greer is pretty selective about the ancient civilizations he uses to make his case. While it is generally true that all civilizations from the past had vanished, the devil is really in the details. His book points to the Maya, the Roman Empire, Mycenae and Minoan Greece, as well as others to make his case for both the nature as well as the time frame for collapse. But this might be a case of making the evidence fit the theory. Once again, it is generally true that civilizations take human lifetimes to collapse. Centuries. However, it should be noted that no one civilization follows the exact course of another. For instance, the Egyptians did not collapse per se, but were absorbed into other conquering empires. Same too with the Aztecs, and many others that had the unfortunate fate of meeting with conquering powers. The point being that change is a constant when it comes to civilizations. They are constantly rising, falling, growing and contracting. They are also changing form, from empire to a diverse collections of smaller “civilizations”.

There is a great book by Wenke and Olsewski called “Patterns in Prehistory” that covers the archaeological data from many past societies. I think at least one passages from the Wenke/Olsewski is worth quoting;

“It would be gratifying if we could extract from our review of world prehistory some important predictions about the future of humankind, but, as we have noted, archaeology should not be considered a predictive science. It is not that we cannot look at the past and extrapolate trends we see into the future. It is that there is no necessity to these trends. Evolutionary histories are what happened, not what had to happen or what has to happen, and they are unique.” Pg 606

Which is a good segway into my next problem with some of Greer’s conclusions. Modern industrial, especially Western, civilizations really have not historic or archaeological precedent. No civilization from the past had such scale and scope as our increasingly globalized world. Even the colonizers from the Age of Exploration did not have the same access to technology and transportation that have come into being in the last century. They did not have the same level of integration. This is not to say our civilization is immune of course, but only unique in another way.

Admittedly, these are mostly fossil fuel driven, but the fact that we face peak oil does not make these technologies and developments obsolete. Quite the contrary, it may serve a a drive to adapt not only our technologies, but our societies as well. Even Wenke/Olsewski have this to add on this line of thought;

“While major droughts were likely an important the demise of the Classic Maya should be seen as a period when people began to restructure their society and culture to meet various challenges, such as failures of rulership, increasing populations, and warfare, as well as major droughts.” pg 515.

So, while peak oil may be a major challenge that lies ahead, the collapse of a complex society and civilization in turn has to have a complex set of causes, and no one factor can be pointed to as the root cause. More than the fact of peak oil, or even our dependency on it, it will be a full set of complex factors that will determine the success or failure of our society. So unlike what is claimed in Greer’s book, agricultural collapse was not the central cause of the collapse of the Classic Maya, but one factor in a “perfect storm” of factor’s that led to the disintegration of their society.

Conclusions; The Long Descent.

Warfare, ineffective leadership, increasing populations, and ecological decay, combined with the reality of peak oil, may well prove to be the “perfect storm” of factors that leads to what Greer calls the Long Descent. And it is difficult to deal with that reality without a certain sense of trepidation and anxiety, even it it will be our descendants, not ourselves, that will live through that reality.

And yet, one can agree, more or less, with the premises, and still find the conclusion wanting, or downright inaccurate. It could be considered a version of the fallacy of the White Raven.

Premise 1: This bird is white.

Premise 2: This bird is a raven.

Conclusion: Therefore, all ravens must be white.

The logic of the premises can be sound, and yet the conclusion is not. Now, I am not saying that is the case here. In general principal, I think the premises are sound, and the conclusion is not necessarily faulty. Peak oil is coming, civilizations collapse, and the coming of peak oil may have bad results for our industrial civilizations.

And as Greer concludes; therefore we must prepare for the long gradual descent that follows, so that we can build the next civilization.

This is not a bad conclusion given the premises, and certainly a possible future. However, this is where I diverge a little bit, because I think the next civilization is already waiting for us to embrace it. While I do think we will face a contraction in the future, especially once peak oil sets in, for all the lower net energy outputs that Greer says make renewable energies undesirable, as I pointed out earlier there are in fact entire nations within the Western sphere are near to achieving a nearly fossil fuel free status. Industrial nations. These are the kinds of models we need to be following, and we need to take steps, as Greer puts it, to “cushion” the fall, and minimize the chance of catabolic collapse.

Some of these, as is the case with the Maya, might be things like ending warfare and supporting effective leadership. Greer’s catabolic collapse is predicated on inadequate resources, especially for maintenance. Endless wars in the Middle East (some over oil) could certainly reroute necessary resources, as well as having leaders that can actually balance a budget. Living within our means, and all that.

As Greer says, in his chapter on the Myth of Progress and the Myth of Utopia (neither of which do I subscribe to. They are among the first to go studying anthropology, because so many of the field’s early thinkers were plagued and blinded by such narratives), that there are serious flaws with only having one (or a small selection) cultural narrative. So I ask, why should the Long Descent be the only cultural narrative we put our faith it? While it is founded on a good model and reasonable premises, it is not inevitable, nor is it the only option.

The thing that has often struck me as a science fiction writer, and practiced speculator, is that we are often if not always wrong with our predictions of the future. Even founded on good logic and modeling, the Long Descent may well turn out to be wrong. Dead, flat, and wrong in every way.

So while some of the prescriptions for enduring the Long Descent are solid, we should be building local communities, and practicing old crafts. We should be developing organic and local food productions, and sustainable communities as a whole. Those are all a good start, but not a final destination. Things like climate change are nothing short of global problems, and will need global solutions as well. Local solutions to global problems will not be enough. While our individual spheres of influence may be limited to the local, we need more than that. We need integrated communities, allied communities, as regional as well as global networks of interconnection. We need holistic solutions top-down and bottom-up. No one community, state, nation will be enough. We are all in this together, for better or worse.

Which is where I diverge. I do not see industrial society as a chief social ill, but it is still imperfect as all things thus far created by human hands. It may be dependent on oil, but that is something that we need to change. Our current technology makes ethanol a viable (however imperfect) transitional fuel, that we can use in flex fuel and hybrid vehicles to lower our demand of oil. As many countries are doing, we need to convert our energy production to renewables, and continue the decline of fossil fuel demand. During the same process, we can continue to convert our vehicles to full electric, making a clean energy and transportation infrastructure. This is not merely a technological solution, but one that requires a rework in social, cultural and political spheres as well. It should be said of course that there is no silver bullet, one single “one size fits all” solution. Some areas may have ethanol, others abundant solor and/or wind resources. A diversity of approaches, but a collective result.

The question is one of time.

Because let’s be frank, there may well be a period of decline ahead of us. Just like the British Empire before us, the time of the America Empire may be waning. That means we do face a period of contraction, but how far is an open question. If we follow Greer’s model, the Hubbert curve takes us right back to the 18/19th century.

But I for one am not quite ready to resign myself to that just yet. There is too much at stake, too much to loose that we as a species have worked so hard for. Not just science and technology, but literature, learning and law as well. Letting our society decay means things like civil rights and our human rights go out the window too. Also basic protections such as fire and police. Lawlessness is not something I find attractive. While these are certainly not perfect, I am not quite ready to throw away lives because of things like gender, skin color, or whether or not one has access to medication or guns.

In my defense of the big machines, as an animist, I think they are people of a different sort. Our cars and industrial tech are not simply tools or technologies, but helpers and allies as well. And they have the same unhealthy relationships with fossil fuels that we do. They need our help to adapt, and we need their help as well.

I think we should take some of Greer’s suggestions, even if I do not accept his conclusions wholesale. If his abstract model of slow decline (with periods of crisis and recovery) shows the future of our current civilization, then an inverse model of slow growth (with periods of faltering and regression) represents the next civilization, which is already in the works. As Greer himself pointed out, the oil crisis of the 70’s was met with an equal response of calls for renewables and sustainability, which regressed as oil supplies stabilized. When oil prices (and electrical costs with it) spiked a few years back, so did the number of people investing in household renewables or buying smaller cars.

It is logical to prepare for multiple options, so let’s take Greer’s suggestions and do what we can to prepare for the worst. But in the mean time, let’s keep pushing towards electric vehicles and industry, and putting up solar panels on our houses and connecting to the grid, and pushing for legislation that let’s us build a more sustainable society. Let’s keep building the large solar plants and wind farms, but  we can build these things on a household level as well and contribute our part, and the lights don’t have to go out when the oil stops.

A common metaphor for these times, found in Greer’s and Beckett’s writing, is that we are on a train headed towards the Long Descent. Those in charge keep calling for more speed, and we can see the tracks ahead leading down a long slope of decline. Following that track may be desirable for those in charge, or those that think a 19th century or medieval lifestyle might be fun.

But I would add to this metaphor that there is another track, parallel to ours, that leads off in another direction, over the river and through the woods. Those of us who look out the window can see there is a train on this track, though it is well behind us. It is the train to the next civilization, powered by more renewable energy and more sustainable communities. It is gaining speed and starting to close the gap, all the while those in charge of the current train throw more coal in the engine and oil on the tracks.

And I pray that the green train gets up to speed fast enough so I don’t have to go off the rails of this crazy train.

Sources, references;

Wenke/Olsewski “Patterns in Prehistory”

Greer, John Michael “The Long Descent”

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About Nicholas Haney

I am a writer, author, hunter, craftsman, and student of anthropology/archaeology. View all posts by Nicholas Haney

2 responses to “Some Thoughts on the Long Descent

  • Sarenth

    I was curious as to what you thought of it. I’m glad his work prompted this much digging in to!

    You mention that “A such, while whether or not we have hit peak oil is up for some debate, the fact is that sooner or later we will be up against that reality. And, as our civilization is based on the premise of cheap and abundant fossils fuels, and decline in one is a decline in the other.”
    With this in mind, it is hardly hyperbole to say that our decline in civilization is linked to the decline of cheap, abundant fossil fuels. Oil, and all that is made from it, affects every single industry, every single thing on this planet, from the quality of the ocean to the way we transport food, to how medicine is delivered.

    If we accept this causal link to oil, as you have stated above, then if our oil supply is no longer growing our industry and economy can no longer grow. The economy we have is predicated on an infinite growth paradigm, and whether we place that period now or a hundred to three hundred years in the future, the point is that the paradigm is unsustainable. If the source of wealth that keeps industry and economy running is in decline, so too, are the civilizations to which this resource is linked.

    It would make sense, given the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) for oil is higher than any other resource, that Greer would attack so-called alternatives. There are no viable alternatives to oil, especially if those who would put them forward try to do so without requiring those who enjoy the largess oil provides to sacrifice so others can live in comfort as well. If these alternatives are bandaids and cushions, then that is all they are. They cannot be the foundation upon which industries will rest because they cannot provide the foundation, especially because none of the so-called alternatives produce the plastics and other things which enable industry to function as it does now in the first place. Plant plastics are on the rise, but whether they can rise to the level of use and versatility of petroleum-based plastics remains to be seen.

    If PV cells and solar plants have a 4:1 ration, that still does not touch the 100:1 ratio or so of petroleum. We could not, and indeed, cannot move our industries and economy over to such a low EROEI. At the time of publishing I can understand why Greer focused on corn ethanol, especially since the Bush administration made such a big deal of ‘let’s just move on over to corn ethanol!’, ignoring the problems Greer raises in his book.

    I think the quote you have from pg 18 is true, simply because the industries for oil are set up already, and converting our industry and economy to something else is simply not viable. I don’t think he was saying that we should literally look at this as ‘hey, there’s no investment here!’, but that the industrial and energy sectors already account for this, and there are huge government and private investments that make the financial investments far easier to bear in ways that the would-be alternatives simply could not handle. The infrastructure for a lot of the refineries and such is already there, whereas making the infrastructure able to handle our load is not, and probably wouldn’t be possible even if the will, politically and financially, were there.

    On your issues with Premise 4: If you agreed that 1-3 are accurate, then there is no solution to Peak Oil. It is, by its own existence, a predicament that cannot be solved. No amount of alternatives will equal the EROEI of oil, and no alternatives produce the immense amount of usable goods from petroleum.

    You have already agreed that peak oil is inevitable and that there are limits to growth. Whether we agree that we are hitting them now, or hitting those limits comes in the future is an academic guess at best. Sooner or later, the line will be reached. There is neither the political will nor the ability to move on to alternative energy and industrial resources that will enable us to continue living as we do. Changing our politics, society, and technology cannot be the solution so long as the solutions, in whole or in part, rely upon the resource of oil, which is in decline.

    While Stockholm’s work is to be lauded, it is only able to be done because of plastic, it is one city in Sweden. Something to be lauded and imitated. However, they use nuclear, which is incredibly energy intensive, environmentally destructive, and needing to be phased out, especially since there are no effective means of dealing with its waste.

    Here’s a pretty big problem with the Scotland article: ”The 2030 decarbonisation policy assumes carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology will be operating at scale, fitted to 2.5GW of gas power plants.” Carbon capture and storage is not only incredibly expensive, it is incredibly energy intensive and it is not being massively deployed. Counting on it in this way is basically a handwave, and this is hardly the first time I have seen it. However, Scotland does has a groundswell of means to make alternative energies for its electric grid, not the least of which is that it is an island, making hydroelectric and wind more viable. What is frequently not talked about for hydroelectric is the building and upkeep costs, which can be immense. Upfront investment of the means to make the electricity need to be factored in to the solutions we make, but so do the maintenance costs that are required. While I think that hydroelectric is a far better energy source than, say, nuclear, if it is to be viable long-term its maintenance needs to be accounted for.

    Would-be alternatives have many issues: scale, deployment, and infrastructure. The reason many European nations can enact these changes effectively is the sheer size of their countries, and the infrastructure for things such as bus and subway systems that are already in place. Retrofitting many of these systems for different means of electricity production is easy. Retrofitting car-going nations, especially the United States, is far harder, and will require an immense amount of upfront investment.

    Another quibble I have here, is that the nations you say are on their way to being carbon neutral are, in both articles, only going to be carbon neutral in terms of their electricity generation, which is something far afield from being carbon neutral itself. I have written elsewhere my issue with many of these agreements, especially since past ones have promised orchards but have not delivered a single apple. Again, laudable goals. I’ll believe these orchards bear apples when I taste them. As with elsewhere, I have noted the immense roadblocks, politically and otherwise, to why these efforts, while laudable, are likely to fall short of what we need to avoid collapse.

    The purpose of the Long Descent is not to be a history lesson, but rather, to give a brief overview. Besides, if he spent anywhere near enough time on civilization collapse, it would well be a series of books on its own. The fifth premise, from my read, is more or less that the tune is similar even if the words don’t rhyme. Resource collapse is part and parcel of why these empires all fell, political and other factors contributing as well. Part of the reason for writing The Long Descent, as well as a great many authors on the subject of Peak Oil, Climate Change, etc., is because there are no historical or archaeological precedents as such. Of course not. You cannot step into the same river twice. However, we recognize that the Tigris is the Tigris, regardless of the bounds of time when we and an ancient Greek may have stepped into it.

    Our uniqueness is not a shield against collapse. Rather, it is believing that this uniqueness lends itself to our advantage that I think is the main issue at hand. We are not unique in our misallocation of resources, political blindness and hubris, or environmental destruction. Our uniqueness is in the useful of the resource, the way it has become bound to the world markets, industries, economies, and environmental damage, and how its decline will affect us all.

    You say:
    “Admittedly, these are mostly fossil fuel driven, but the fact that we face peak oil does not make these technologies and developments obsolete. Quite the contrary, it may serve a a drive to adapt not only our technologies, but our societies as well.”
    Actually, the decline of fossil fuels absolutely does make these technologies and developments obsolete. That would be the point of why the decline of fossil fuels is and will be so destructive. If the means by which industry and economy function fail, those technologies and developments which these two pillars of societies rest on will fail right with it. The political realm will have little effect if people are starving because the crops failed because they were monocultural and were not sprayed and wiped out in a blight as a result. The economic realm will have little effect if the means of production grind to a halt that enables the economy to work as it does. It may be a factor that results in civilization collapsing, but it is a major factor upon which all else in our modern societies have been hung.

    Rather than understanding The Long Descent as a White Raven fallacy, I see many denying it in the opposite. That we are the exception to the rule, that ‘this time it is different’, and explaining it away, as the Scotland article did with the 2.5GW of gas that it assumes will be sequestered.

    I think that Greer is saying that the next civilization is waiting for us to embrace it. I think that what is waiting to embrace us, however, is utterly different than what people would like it to be. The Myth of Progress is so intertwined, that we still have people who want the flying-car future of the 1950s they were supposedly promised. The Jetson future that never arrived.

    There indeed are nations, industrial nations, working to achieve a fossil fuel free status, but no one has made it yet, and despite the hype, I doubt anyone will. The oil economy is too interwoven into the various industrial, commercial, and other industries to make this possible yet. We will need to get off fossil fuels not only for electricity generation, but especially for the creation of industrial and commercial goods. United States infrastructure will drastically change, one way or another. I hope that we do enough that our future generations can weather the coming storm, but I have sincere doubts, especially given the political climate and increasing divide between rich and poor.

    I don’t think that ending warfare is possible at all, but I think that a non-interventionist policy would be the best thing for the U.S. at this juncture.

    “So I ask, why should the Long Descent be the only cultural narrative we put our faith it?”
    I do not think the Long Descent is the only cultural narrative we should put our faith in, but it seems to me that it is the most accurate, and the best map to our future that we have at the moment. It is flexible enough to change with the times according to our local, State, or national reaction to fossil fuel depletion and climate change, but clear enough in its premises that we can actually have a map to begin with.

    I use it as one of the main narratives of my life because in the end it makes sense. My hope is that it is flat wrong, but my gut, and the evidence I have read in this book and elsewhere, leads to believe it is far more on the nose than not. So long as my national leaders continue to bicker about whether or not Climate Change is real, well, the local actions I take will need to be enough. So long as the major polluters and users of the fossil fuels continue to backstab, bullshit, or gnash their teeth at needed measures for reducing the use of these things, I think that acting as though the Long Descent is on the horizon is the reasonable thing to do. If I cannot trust that my local, State, or national government will act on these things, I do what I can with an eye to the future.

    To my mind, going to the technology equivalent of the 18th and 19th century isn’t all that bad, especially since we do see most of the things we like about modern times surviving. I doubt we’ll just up and abandon the literature, learning and law we’ve developed in the interim, and if we do, it will probably be piecemeal much like how history shows us folks adapt to crises and the decline of empires. If, as you say, the way forward is holistic and aligned communities, we need not see the decline or decay of social institutions like civil rights and human rights, or needed public works like fire and police. To my mind, this means that things will increasingly be worked out on the local level, by hook or by crook.

    As an animist myself, I also recognize that cars and industrial technologies may need help to adapt. It is also as likely they may need to go extinct because the world cannot afford the drain upon resources they make if they cannot or will not adapt.

    “It is logical to prepare for multiple options, so let’s take Greer’s suggestions and do what we can to prepare for the worst. But in the mean time, let’s keep pushing towards electric vehicles and industry, and putting up solar panels on our houses and connecting to the grid, and pushing for legislation that let’s us build a more sustainable society. Let’s keep building the large solar plants and wind farms, but we can build these things on a household level as well and contribute our part, and the lights don’t have to go out when the oil stops…”

    Agreed on all points.

    “But I would add to this metaphor that there is another track, parallel to ours, that leads off in another direction, over the river and through the woods. Those of us who look out the window can see there is a train on this track, though it is well behind us. It is the train to the next civilization, powered by more renewable energy and more sustainable communities. It is gaining speed and starting to close the gap, all the while those in charge of the current train throw more coal in the engine and oil on the tracks.”

    I truly hope that this is a viable train. I do. As you said, though, we should prepare for the worst, and that is my priority now. I truly do want to see a more sustainable future. I really enjoy the technology I have…but I am ready to give it all up if that means my son and future generations have a better shot at living through the Long Descent.

    “And I pray that the green train gets up to speed fast enough so I don’t have to go off the rails of this crazy train.”

    You and me both!

    • Nicholas Haney

      “If we accept this causal link to oil, as you have stated above, then if our oil supply is no longer growing our industry and economy can no longer grow. The economy we have is predicated on an infinite growth paradigm, and whether we place that period now or a hundred to three hundred years in the future, the point is that the paradigm is unsustainable. If the source of wealth that keeps industry and economy running is in decline, so too, are the civilizations to which this resource is linked.”

      I am in agreement here, as that is one of the premises of capitalism as I understand it. The idea of infinite growth with finite resources doesn’t make any sense to me either. When peak oil sits in, our economy will not be able to grow anymore. Depending on the curve you fancy (Hubbert’s curve is bell shaped. Others are a little more flat on top, ect), a short and/or longer period of stagnation will follow. Production will cease to increase, and in one way or another our economy will have to deal with that fact. There might be an equal phase of economic stagnation, as the various sectors deal with that oil production is not going to increase. That means that demand has to fall as well, especially as production starts to shrink.

      “It would make sense, given the EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) for oil is higher than any other resource, that Greer would attack so-called alternatives. There are no viable alternatives to oil, especially if those who would put them forward try to do so without requiring those who enjoy the largess oil provides to sacrifice so others can live in comfort as well. If these alternatives are bandaids and cushions, then that is all they are. They cannot be the foundation upon which industries will rest because they cannot provide the foundation, especially because none of the so-called alternatives produce the plastics and other things which enable industry to function as it does now in the first place. Plant plastics are on the rise, but whether they can rise to the level of use and versatility of petroleum-based plastics remains to be seen.”

      Here too I am generally in agreement, with both you and Greer. Most altenatives just don’t have the EROEI unit per unit that oil does. I am not disputing that in any way. However, when you say that they cannot be the foundation of our industrial society, I agree in part, but I disagree in part as well. I agree that they cannot be the foundation of our current society, built as it is on cheap abundant oil. While it may be piecemeal, some of our society will go out with oil. While most alternatives do not match the net energy of oil, they can “bridge the gap” so to speak. Talking specifically about electrical generation, we can for instance make up the slack with wind and solar, but it will take more mills and solar plants to do so, because of the energy output difference.

      To use your example, if a given solar plant is 4:1, and an equal oil plant is 100:1, then you would either need a larger solar plant, or a greater distribution of smaller plants to make the same amount of electricity. The overall electrical production of solar can meet that of oil, but the scale and scope will have to be very different. That is why I think time is the more crucial factor. As you rightly point out, it is quite a bit of investment in time and energy, even if for a lower overall net gain. I agree that it cannot be the foundation of our current civilization, but I think it can be the foundation for the next. It will not have the same EROEI that we do not, that is for sure, but I think the results could be similar albeit on either or a lower scale, and/or a wider scale.

      Maybe we cannot move our current industries over to a lower EROEI, but that is the point I think. I agree with Greer on those points, that we are in for a lower energy future, and in for a contraction. But the difference between a contraction and long decline back to the 19th century is long and far between.

      “On your issues with Premise 4: If you agreed that 1-3 are accurate, then there is no solution to Peak Oil. It is, by its own existence, a predicament that cannot be solved. No amount of alternatives will equal the EROEI of oil, and no alternatives produce the immense amount of usable goods from petroleum.”

      I agree with you, and this is either bad wording on my part or straight up error. I will own up to both. Let me restate it this way. Yes, peak oil is a predicament. There is nothing we can do that will prevent a finite resource we are dependent on from running out. Yes, there a limits to growth, and that one is pretty solid. However, while we may agree with that is a fixed point and inevitable, what is not inevitable is our responses to it, either in preparation or after the fact. Greer pointed out that the oils crisis of the 70’s should have been a wake up call, and I think it was if even in small measure. It got the ball rolling, and set up some basic work on the matter at least. Maybe these things waned as oil stabilized, but they did not go away. We are starting to see the fruits of those first seeds, and I generally see the trends in growth as crucial steps in the right direction. That is why all this comes down to a question of time for me. We may not have all the infrastructure now, but we are working on it, and overall I would say at faster rate year after year. If the worst effect of peak oil (whenever it happens) are still a century out, I think we will hardly notice. If it is less than decades or single years, as Greer seems to think, we might be a lot worse off.

      That is why I thinks such as the Scotland (Acknowledging I have my quibbles too) and Stockholm articles are so important, as well as the Paris Agreements. We can all disagree with the specifics, it should better be treated as a work in progress. The Agreements are, at a very basic level, and acknowledgment that we need to do something. And overall, we are doing something that I think is very important. With time, peak oil might be a non-issue. Without time, it may be a worse case scenario.

      My overall point is and general agreement with Greer is that the Oil Civilization is on its way out. The question that weighs on me is if we have time to put the Next One in place before that happens? Maybe or maybe not, but I am going to hedge my bets with the latter, all the while preparing for the former.

      “Rather than understanding The Long Descent as a White Raven fallacy, I see many denying it in the opposite. That we are the exception to the rule, that ‘this time it is different’, and explaining it away, as the Scotland article did with the 2.5GW of gas that it assumes will be sequestered.”

      Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not saying the Long Descent is a White Raven. It was more used an example that even with good premises and model, the conclusions can be very wrong. That is the long and short history of speculation. I am not saying it is or isn’t in this case. Only the future will be able to decide one way or another.

      Thank you so much for the feedback!

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