A review before the exam

Actually, this review is too late for the many people who have already endured economic collapse. As any of those folks can tell the rest of us, we do not want to receive the lesson after the exam.

I’ve written all this before, but I have not recently provided a concise summary. This essay provides a brief overview of the dire nature of our predicaments with respect to fossil fuels. The primary consequences of our fossil-fuel addiction stem from two primary phenomena: peak oil and global climate change. The former spells the end of western civilization, which might come in time to prevent the extinction of our species at the hand of the latter.

Global climate change threatens our species with extinction by mid-century is we do not terminate the industrial economy soon. Increasingly dire forecasts from extremely conservative sources keep stacking up. Governments refuse to act because they know growth of the industrial economy depends (almost solely) on consumption of fossil fuels. Global climate change and energy decline are similar in this respect: neither is characterized by a politically viable solution.

There simply is no comprehensive substitute for crude oil. It is the overwhelming fuel of choice for transportation, and there is no way out of the crude trap at this late juncture in the industrial era. We passed the world oil peak in 2005, which led to near-collapse of the world’s industrial economy several times between September 2008 and May 2010. And we’re certainly not out of the economic woods yet.

Crude oil is the master material on which all other depend. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot produce uranium (which peaked in 1980), coal (which peaks within a decade or so), solar panels, wind turbines, wave power, ethanol, biodiesel, or hydroelectric power. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot maintain the electric grid. Without abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil, we cannot maintain the industrial economy for an extended period of time. Simply put, abundant supplies of inexpensive crude oil are fundamental to growth of the industrial economy and therefore to western civilization. Civilizations grow or die. Western civilization is done growing.

Not only is there no comprehensive substitute for crude oil, but partial substitutes simply do not scale. Solar panels on every roof? It’s too late for that. Electric cars in every garage? It’s too late for that. We simply do not have the cheap energy requisite to propping up an empire in precipitous decline. Energy efficiency and conservation will not save us, either, as demonstrated by the updated version of Jevons’ paradox, the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate.

Unchecked, western civilization drives us to one of two outcomes, and perhaps both: (1) Destruction of the living planet on which we depend for our survival, and/or (2) Runaway greenhouse and therefore the near-term extinction of our species. Why would we want to sustain such a system? It is immoral and omnicidal. The industrial economy enslaves us, drives us insane, and kills us in myriad ways. We need a living planet. Everything else is less important than the living planet on which we depend for our very lives. We act as if non-industrial cultures do not matter. We act as if non-human species do not matter. But they do matter, on many levels, including the level of human survival on Earth. And, of course, there’s the matter of ecological overshoot, which is where we’re spending all our time since at least 1980. Every day in overshoot brings us 205,000 people to deal with later. In this case, “deal with” means murder.

Shall we reduce Earth to a lifeless pile of rubble within a generation? Or shall we heat the planet beyond human habitability within two generations? Or shall we keep procreating as if there are no consequences for an already crowded planet? Pick your poison, but recognize it’s poison. We’re dead either way.

Don’t slit those wrists just yet. This essay bears good news.

Western civilization has been in decline at least since 1979, when world per-capita oil supply peaked coincident with the Carter Doctrine regarding oil in the Middle East. In my mind, and perhaps only there, these two events marked the apex of American Empire, which began about the time Thomas Jefferson — arguably the most enlightened of the Founding Fathers — said, with respect to native Americans: “In war, they will kill some of us; we shall destroy all of them.” It wasn’t long after 1979 that the U.S. manufacturing base was shipped overseas and we began serious engagement with Wall Street-based casino culture as the basis for our industrial economy. By most economic measures, we’ve experienced a lost decade, so it’s too late for a fast crash of the industrial economy. We’re in the midst of the same slow train wreck we’ve been experiencing for more than a decade, but the train is teetering on the edge of a cliff. Meanwhile, all we want to discuss, at every level in this country, is the quality of service in the dining car.

When the price of crude oil exhibits a price spike, an economic recession soon follows. Every recession since 1972 has been preceded by a spike in the price of oil, and direr spikes translate to deeper recessions. Economic dominoes began to fall at a rapid and accelerating rate when the price of crude spiked to $147.27/bbl in July 2008. They haven’t stopped falling, notwithstanding economic cheerleaders from government and corporations (as if the two are different at this point in American fascism). The reliance of our economy on derivatives trading cannot last much longer, considering the value of the derivatives — like the U.S. debt — greatly exceeds the value of all the currency in the world combined with all the gold mined in the history of the world.

Although it’s all coming down, as it has been for quite a while, it’s relatively clear imperial decline is accelerating. We’re obviously headed for full-scale collapse of the industrial economy, as indicated by these 40 statistics. Even Fortune and CNN agree economic collapse will be complete soon, though they don’t express any understanding of how we arrived at this point or the hopelessness of extracting ourselves from the morass.

We know what economic collapse looks like, because we’re in the midst of it. What does completion of the collapse look? I strongly suspect the economic endgame is capitulation of the stock markets. Shortly after we hit Dow 4,000, within a few days or maybe a couple weeks, the industrial economy seizes up as the lubricant is overcome with sand in the crankcase. Why would anybody work when the company for which they work is, literally, worthless? Even if they show up for a few days to punch the time-clock, the bank will not issue a check, and the banks won’t be open to cash it. It won’t be long before publicly traded utility companies don’t have enough employees to keep the lights on. It won’t be long before gas (nee service) stations shutter the doors. It won’t be long before the grocery stores are empty. It won’t be long before the water stops flowing through the municipal taps.

There are those who question my credibility, particularly when I make predictions. We’re in the midst of a war to save our humanity and the living planet, and some readers are worried about my credibility, as determined by the power of the main stream. My responses are two-fold: (1) I’m hardly sticking my neck out, unlike when I made my “new Dark Age” prediction in 2007 (at which point the price of oil had yet to exceed $80/bbl, the industrial economy appeared headed for perennial nirvana, and everybody who read or heard me thought I was insane); of the fifty or so energy-literate scholars I read, about half indicate the new Dark Age starts within a year, and a large majority of the other half give us less than two years; (2) Get over it. This war has two sides, finally. This revolution needs to be powerful and fun, and we cannot afford to lose. We cannot even afford to worry about seeking credibility from those who would have us are having us murder every remaining aspect of the living planet on which we depend for our survival.

Credibility? Respectability? It’s time to stop playing by the rules of the destroyers. We need witnesses and warriors, and we need them now. It’s time to terminate western civilization before it terminates us.

Lesson over. The exam comes within a couple years. And pop quizzes come up every day in this unfair system.


This essay is permalinked at Counter Currents, Revelations, Islam Times, New Age Op-Ed, Island Breath, creative informationalist, Before It’s News, Mammon or Messiah research, Hot Kashmir, remedios’s posterous, and Running ‘Cause I Can’t Fly.

Update: So far, the comments at Counter Currents are absurd to the point of being humorous. But they cannot compare to the ludicrous nonsense landing in my hate-filled email in-box. Fear of the future must be driving this insanity. Similar stupidity fills the right-wing blogosphere. Google “Guy R. McPherson” for a taste.

Update 2: This essay is mentioned in the Melbourne, Australia Herald Sun, which adds one of my interviews from 2008. As usual, the comments are particularly insightful with respect to denial of both sides of the fossil-fuel coin.

Comments 104

  • How do we terminate Western Civilization? How do us few mice put an end to the reign of several billion dinosaurs?

    What prevents industrialism and capitalism in other parts of the globe from picking up where we left off?

  • Kudos to you, Guy, for doing the emotional work and stepping out of the old paradigm. The old structures, even the supposedly enlightened ones, are trapped in it and are contributing to collapse as branching complexity is added, with less and less ability to see the whole. It takes courage to hop into the current and start swimming in the other direction.

    This essay is well-stated. It’s too late, yes, so we’d better start figuring out how to make an energy diet fun and entertaining. I never thought I’d be agreeing with what’s-his-name about drowning big government (and other military-industrial structures such as large corporations, corporate academia, corporate media, corporate finance, etc.), but I am ready. I tossed the tenure track position 7 years ago, built the sustainable house, and now teach a sustainability course as an adjunct within Honors, with no muzzle.

    So how do we make this fun?

  • navid, my ten-step plan for terminating western civilization is here. In the absence of a cheap energy source, I don’t think we need to worry about civilization making a comeback. The human population likely will shrink to a much smaller, more durable number.

    Iaato, thanks for your kind comment and for your example, earlier and wiser than mine. Bringing back the living planet it inherently fun. We can make it even more fun by working together in groups, shoulder to shoulder. Every Earth-saving, industrial-economy-destroying activity should be a joint effort, with a potluck meal involved. There should be food, drink, pickaxes, shovels, and uplifting discussion about the common good to which we are working. Btw, where do you teach, sans muzzle? Do you have room for one more? :)

  • Navid, stop asking how and just try things. No one knows how. But you can start by; sticking your neck out, talking to anyone, getting angry, get out of debt, live with a group of people, doing work for free, read about Anarchism, go into Borders and put copies of Adbusters in front of all the magazines. And watch this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqpVe9kNbhg

    Just stop being polite. Politeness is the collar of the industrialists.

  • A neat review. In my exam-taking days I did not quite see a distinction between studying for an exam and cheating. Studying to know the subject was a different matter. But perhaps my exam-taking days are not over yet: the exam for this review is yet upcoming.

  • Great essay Guy. I’ve had the same time-frame for the poop-hits-fan moment for a couple of months. Everybody is turning blue from holding their breath for a recognizable point of recovery.

    Ordinary people seem for the first time I’ve known to understand in their guts that there is something rotten lingering in the air. I think they smell the decay of it all. I just hope that when it comes exploding into the forefront of their mind they don’t lash out too violently. I expect they will be angry and bitter for the loss of their dream, and with a country as jaded as ours it’s difficult to predict exactly where the blame may fall. I would expect as different regions become more isolated a new cottage industry of regional mythology related to the event may spring up.

  • The link to “The Anarchist Library” is to a misnamed site. Anarchy is the absence of the state, not aggression of one party against another. Anarchy is the logical outcome of the non-aggression principle, the non-initiation of force.

    Practical Anarchy:

    Everyday Anarthy:

  • Good review, Guy. Your honing those rhetorical skills; getting the “irreducible minima” lined up.
    I’m ready to be a witness and a warrior. Doing what I can this fall with a small CSA offering. Waiting for my land to sell; hoping someone has the means to buy it before I’m stuck. Central Texas was a pretty good place to make a stand against Santa Anna, but we all know how that turned out, don’t we. 104 F today. Lotta straws suckin’ on that old aquifer.
    I’m heeding Lovelock: “Go North young (old) man”

  • Guy, please go back and read what an earlier generation of doomers was saying in the 1960’s and 70’s about a similar litany of civilization-threatening problems. None of this is new, and the fact that we’re still here and there’s more of us than ever and I’m comfortably typing on a keyboard connected to a global internet in a climate-controlled house with a pantry full of food suggests that they were quite wrong 40 years ago, and that your predictions will look just as silly in 2050.

    Dark Age by 2012 and Stone Age by 2025? Do you really expect to be taken seriously when you make such absurd predictions? Do you really think humanity is just going to lay down in the face of our global challenges and accept defeat? Remember, history is highly non-linear, and human intelligence is the most powerful force in the known universe, one which has overcome every obstacle thus far to get us to the rather comfortable position of dominance we find ourselves in today. I enjoy your writing because it challenges people’s complacency, but I think you’re quite delusional if you actually believe your own predictions. Doomerism is more a psychological and spiritual condition than a serious scientific perspective imo, but the good news is it’s curable, and I’m living proof of that!

  • Very nice synopsis. I like this:

    “Credibility? Respectability? It’s time to stop playing by the rules of the destroyers.”

    And yeah, making it fun is essential!

    I’ll just add that it may be a bit too generous to go along with the Ecological Footprint conclusion that we only went into overshoot around 1980. I suggest it first occurred around 8,000 BC with the advent of agriculture. It was only by beginning to damage ecosystems through agriculture that we were able to begin growing our numbers.

    (Incidentally, I have a copy of a portion of an email in which Eco-Footprint co-creator, William Rees, actually agrees we went into overshoot at the dawn of agriculture, but says that in developing their measure they didn’t want to scare people into inaction. Seems some notion of salesmanship or “acceptability” trumped the truth as they knew it.)

    Couple of related links, one my own:



  • @Dr. D. You may think the cliche’ “This time it’s different” is apropos. But beware, “Same as it ever was”.

  • Guy one huge flaw in your argument is that after the fall of the system humanity will take up the simple village life and forget all about the wonders of the modern world and their benefits such as electricity and perhaps if we are lucky excluding cable tv. At a lower population there will still be plenty of resources left and those that make rapid use of them will come to dominate every one else. At that point global warming is no longer an issue since output of greenhouse gas is greatly reduced with the reduction of the population and industrial activity. But men with technical knowledge will always dominate the world even at a smaller scale. This is the final result I expect and plan for. I welcome any rebuttal on how anyone thinks this will not be the final outcome.

  • I agree with the khazzoom-brookes postulate and that brings us back to human numbers driving demand as they attempt to rise from the status of chinese peasant rice farmer as an example to a higher standard of living the inevitable wall of resource depletion and environmental damage is reached.

  • Robin Datta, thanks for the clarification, with links.

    Doctor Doomlove, passing the U.S. oil peak produced inordinate economic pain. But there was a political solution, which we employed: go to war to get oil. This time, we’ll have to go to space go get the oil. I doubt the EROI on that endeavor will be promising.

    John Feeney, thanks for your first-time comment. I think most thoughtful folks would agree we passed into overshoot upon the advent of agriculture (i.e., civilization). So, although Catton’s 1980 eponymous book is a great marker, it was late by a few thousand years.

    Greg Breneman, your argument indicates we should pursue business as usual. That’s working out well, don’t you think? I’m willing to try something different, particularly if it puts us into an era similar to the Neolithic, during which hierarchy and oppression were, by all accounts I’ve seen, uncommon.

  • Doctor Doomlove.

    You wrote: ‘human intelligence is the most powerful force in the known universe, one which has overcome every obstacle thus far to get us to the rather comfortable position of dominance we find ourselves in today.’

    Do you not understand that the only reason we were able to make the so-called progress of the past 10,000 years was increasing access to energy(wood>coal>oil>electricity) and that with a declining energy supply there is only one direction possible?

    Do you not understand that the chief source of problems is ‘solutions’, and that without those ‘solutions’ we would not be in the mess we are in now?

    Do you not understand that without stable ocean chemistry this planet rapidly becomes uninhabitable for most (if not all) mammalian species?

    I take the Chinese civilisation as a classic example. It goes back 4,000 years, and if the Chinese has not been forced to adopt western culture (and the effects of western-generated pollution could have been prevented from impacting) perhaps the Chinese civilisation would have continued for another 4,000 years. As it is, by adopting the western system, the Chinese are now bringing about the rapid termination of their own nation and the rest of the planet, via environmental collapse.

  • @Kevin– I hear you, but even the Chinese system would eventually have collapsed since it was founded on agriculture (cf. horticulture) which is inherently unsustainable. (see my link above) if you ask me, no civilization gets off the hook.

    @Guy — That comment above was my second. I’m a veteran here!

  • Dr. Doomlove,

    The random chance that has given you the privilege of living in a society with all the amenities you mention does not in any way make up for the abject poverty and suffering that a great part of the rest of humanity must endure to give you that life. Not to mention the plight of virtually every other species of life on this planet. History is indeed non-linear, but somehow you appear to have forgotten what that means. You appear to be thinking in a linear, rather than exponential, fashion. You might want to google Al Bartlett’s essay on “Arithmetic, Population and Energy”. And there are a number of good works on the collapse of complex societies, if you need further evidence that your views are not logical.

  • No Kevin, the only reason we’ve made so much progress in the past ten thousand years (and yes, I consider my lifestyle an improvement over the Neolithic hunter-gatherers, as exciting as that may have been), is our *intelligence* and *creativity*. This is the critical resource that has distanced us from the rest of the animal kingdom and brought about the Singularity that has produced 7 billion of us and a global technological civilization. It’s not about wood, coal, oil or any other finite resource! There are zillions of atoms doing very little in the world’s deserts that we can manipulate, the oceans are a vast frontier, the polar regions are mostly uninhabited, and the sunlight falling on Earth produces thousands of times our current global power usage – and that’s just on this planet! So don’t talk to me about limits to growth!

    Malthusian thinking is so dangerous, because if people start believing there isn’t enough to go around it becomes easy to persuade them to start slaughtering each other (see “lebensraum”). Now maybe this is the real agenda of a lot of hardcore doomers – a genocidal hatred of humanity – but if so please just come out and admit it rather than appealing to these false claims of limits to growth.

  • Ah…. A Derrick Jensen line:

    “This war has two sides, finally.”

    One of my favorite perspectives:


    (The environmentalist version of Star Wars.)


  • Dr. Doomlove,

    Is this singularity you talk about the same one that Robin Hanson suggests will see the economy grow 60 to 250 times? Or is it the one Bill Joy warns about, where our big brains get us in trouble because we do technology stuff without thinking through the consequences? Or maybe it is the one postulated by the “Singularitarian” blog where computers take over because man’s brain is so limited that thinking machines just can’t wait around for us?

    Just what do you expect to do with the sand in the Sahara? Just what do you plan to do with the empty space at the poles? Just how do you expect to harness the sun’s energy? Oh, I get it, we will take all the excess people and put them in igloos, and use the old alchemist’s trick of turning sand into water for irrigation and lithium for batteries, and then we’ll make electric tractors, to raise the food, to feed the people, who moved to new homes in Antarctica.

    I read about this once when I was a kid. I think it was called “And This Is The House That Jack Built.”

    Guy has given clear explanations for why he holds his beliefs. His views are supported by thinkers from the left and the right, and based on hard science with references you can check out yourself. Your response is that (1) Guy suffers from a mental condition, (2) you had the same condition but you’re cured, and (3) anyone holding Guy’s beliefs must be advocating genocide. You’ll have to do better than that. Just saying, “I have a computer so everything will be okay” isn’t a very strong proof of a technological cornucopian future.

    Michael Irving

  • John. We could debate my hypothetcal China till one of us dies, but essentially all I was saying was that the Chinese system was very, very much more sustainable than the Anglo-American system which supplanted it, partly becuase Darwinian forces kept the population in check. It is said that in the 1960s around 30 million Chinese starved to death, partly because district officials demanded agricultural implements be melted down to augment party-inspired production quotas.

    There is some evidence that around the Eddo period the land and waters around Japan supported a population of 30 million for centuries,i.e. semi-sustainable. There was almost no international trade and everything (including night water) was recycled. The fact that the population is now 100 million more, much of the agricutural land has been covered in concrete and asphalt and the seas have been largely stripped does not bode well for the people of Japan.

    Doctor Doomlove: I believe your premise is nothing short of absurd and hardly worthy of a response. To totally dismiss the availabilty of energy and resources, and to suggest humans can think themselves out of any predicaments is to to promote arrant nonsense. I would like to see you fashion a stone axe or built a hut, or even manage to stay alive for more than a few days on a barren island.

  • I’m confused .. do we want change .. or is it just everyone for them selves , if we are all doomed ?

    if we are all doomed then its just party on, unless you care about the children .. I have 2.

  • Kevin, I think it’s important in all this to keep an eye on what’s truly sustainable. I fully agree that China’s system was *closer* to sustainable. No argument there. But it was not sustainable. It was based on agriculture which is inherently unsustainable. I would again point to my link above (“Agriculture: ending the world as we know it”)

    One problem with agriculture (versus horticulture as practiced by hunter-gatherers and perhaps others on small scales) is that it leads to the creation and storage of unnecessary food surpluses which drive population growth. That might of course be mitigated by such things as famine. In any case China’s population grew from around 70 million in the late 1300s to over 400 million by 1850. Blame agriculture.

    Population follows food supply. There are social and other factors which influence fertility rates as well. They tend to change over time. But once you have agriculture, you have a basic ecological driving force in place which will always, unchangingly, drive population growth in the absence of those changing factors, or until the agriculture burns itself out. I don’t know much about Japanese history, but clearly such factors had to be in place there during the brief 2.5 centuries of the Edo period.

    Just as fundamentally, agriculture on the scales practiced by China, Japan and, well, everyone who’s practiced it, requires damaging or destroying ecosystems, which basically matches it squarely with the definition of overshoot. It may take time to see the damage, but eventually it will show. After all, the Sixth Extinction (or a second phase of it, depending on who you read) began with the advent of agriculture. So at populations much smaller than Japans Edo period 30 million we were beginning to do serious damage to our own life support system.

  • unfortunately everyone has a view and a point,
    sadly no consensus trance here or elswhere

    praise the slow, the silent and the modest

    human ‘intelligence’/ingeniuty is a curse on the biosphere

  • Doctor Doomlove,

    You state “the oceans are a vast frontier.” Well, between the two of us, only one of us is a Doctor of oceanography, and I guarantee it is not you. If the current rates of temperature rise, acidification, overfishing, and dead zones continue, there will be nothing left for us to discover, let alone the fact that you can’t power an ROV with solar panels and there is no such thing as a dynamically positioned sail boat.

    Aside from that, we all face choices. We can have biologically diverse seamounts, or we can have iron manganese and oxides. But …

    We can’t have it all. The belief that we can is one of the things that has driven us to this awful place.

    Sure, perhaps algae biofuels can scale [and become economic] — but then we are faced with the same choices. Poor people can have artisanal fisheries and protein, or we can have sushi in Las Vegas.

    We can’t have it all.

  • Robin Datta, can you explain why you did not like the link I posted?

    I am sure I know what Anarchism is. By the way, I saw the FreedomRadio guy on Max Keiser today. Nice to see Max going more towards Anarchism as a solution.

  • jimmy, I do not understand your question, or to whom it’s addressed. I discussed the immorality of the industrial economy in two parts, the latter of which is here (with a link to the preceding post). But I’m not at all certain if that’s what you’re looking for. Please clarify.

  • Guy to respond to you I do not think we will end up in a situation that resembles the neolithic. I live in tempe but also own a farm in Iowa. We raise soybeans and corn. The land thanks to machines and modern fertilizer produces about four times as much per ac than it did in the 1800s and it is some of the best farm land on earth. I have heard it said that we use 10 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food and I believe that to be accurate. The situation is simple,without oil we cannot feed 310 million americans much less export food to anywhere else while are population keeps growing every day as it is. The fall of the industrial world will be staggering with the survivors seeking to patch things back together as soon as possible because their neighbors in the next village over or the next nation will be doing the same thing and who ever is faster will dominate those who are slow to recover or chose not too. There will be no neolithic garden of eden,we know how to do to much and have seen too much.

  • Back to this matter of whether any form of agriculture is in any way sustainable: John Feeney is suggesting that no form of agriculture is sustainable because any form will either generate surplues that will result in population growth or the need to defend those surpluses from others. That implies we are wasting our time promoting permaculture or saving heritage seeds etc.

    Are we to simply do nothing and wait for the die-off, wait till some remnant of humanity has passed through the bottleneck, then return to some kind of hunter-gatherer lifestyle? (which probably also caused species extintions….. mammoths and all that).

    The region where I live supported an indigenous population for several centuries, arguably at the 10,000 level, and now has a population of 120,000, courtesy of cheap oil. The experiment to see whether the land base can support that population via permaculture has not been done (of course). In the absence of that experiment being done, we must anticipate a 90% die-off.

    For want of a better plan, surely we must at least give permaculture-powerdown a go.

  • The content of “The Anarchist Library” was excellent for its purported intent, viz. to instruct in aggressing against the powerful in a lopsided contest. In fact I saved the content of the link to disk. But the title of “Anarchist” is misleading: anarchy is the logical result of the non-aggression principle, which is not what the website was promoting.

    In that regard, an example of somewhat better integrity is:
    US Army Field Manual FM 23-10 Sniper Training:

  • WOW! You sound angry, Guy. I honestly don’t know what you mean with “warriors”, but the fighting skills of a few thousands are useless against modern armies. If you mean “political actions”, I’ll consider it as a joke. In fact, there is nothing we can do, but waiting for to collapse occur and hurry to be ready, nothing else.

    In fact the exam has already started, and it will last for 30 years or so. The struggle, for our generation, will be basic survival, in order to guarantee the existence of humanity in the future.

    Let industrial civilization commit suicide. I think there is not enough available oil to get the 4 ºC (global) increase to cause a drastic climate change. Think about saving yourself and a few trustworthy people around you: that might work, with a little luck… and brass balls.

    In fact now I’m more worried collecting natural seeds, and learning some classical blacksmith’s skills…

  • Agricultural soil is sustainable if the nutrients that leave it by way of agricultural product are recycled back to the soil from plant and animal (including human) waste, and soil runoff into drainage systems is prevented. The growth of population as a consequence of the abundance of food is quite another problem in sustainability.

    Most of the pessimists around would much rather prefer that Doctor Doomlove proves correct, and all of us turn out to be wrong. It is so pleasant to think of continued progress and technologic salvation that ore might indulge in it for its antidepressant effect – with the caveat this may detract from preparations for the gloomier alternatives.

  • Kevin Moore, I think John Feeney would distinguish between agriculture and permaculture (and other forms of horticulture, as practiced during the Neolithic). But I’ll ask him to respond.

    Greg Breneman, I’m optimistic enough to hope we’ll move ahead to the post-industrial Stone Age. It will not happen all at once, and it will not happen unless we’re pushing. I’ll keep pushing.

    Jean, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. But seriously, we need people who resist civilization. Civilization is making us crazy and killing us. We have many ways to fight back, but we have the best excuse in the world to not fight back (imprisonment, torture, death). As Derrick Jensen points out, we can have the best excuse in the world, or we can have a world. I’ll take the latter, even if it kills me.

    Although I recognize (and write about) the horrors of agriculture, I don’t think settling on any one option for the short term is a particularly viable approach. So I’ve proposed four general strategies for individuals: https://guymcpherson.com/2010/04/what-works-maybe-individual-options/

  • “Jean, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. But seriously, we need people who resist civilization. Civilization is making us crazy and killing us. We have many ways to fight back, but we have the best excuse in the world to not fight back (imprisonment, torture, death). As Derrick Jensen points out, we can have the best excuse in the world, or we can have a world. I’ll take the latter, even if it kills me.”

    Actually I am very angry. No excuses. But for me, it is not a moral debate, since it’s too late to change anything.

    But there is no red button to blown industrial civilization away, no way to avoid the catastrophe. In fact, we would be very lucky if we are still alive in a few years time. I still sustain that our mission is surviving and building another model of civilization. That’s enough. The wide majority of the mankind can sink in their particular Titanic, while their orchestra still plays “Tosca”: I don’t mind. Having consumed like pigs for such a long time, they deserve it, honestly.

    Don’t worry about Gaia: with or without us, She will go on. In the timescale of earth we’re less than nothing.

  • Guy,

    You note that you have proposed four general strategies for living during the coming collapse. However, you have actually proposed only one general strategy, agricultural anarchy. In the post you’ve referenced, you noted that the hunting and gathering lifestyle, while viable for 2 million years, would only serve a few people given current conditions. Likewise you suggest a few could live by traveling but indicate that will only be viable if there are some stable communities to travel to. Finally you note that transition towns are doomed to failure because we lack the resources for the necessary build out.

    So you’ve really left us with one path forward modeled on Jefferson’s Monticello and various Central and South American towns. I’ll note that one of the knocks on transition towns is that they offer a concentrated supply of resources (food, water, energy) that welcomes attack by roving bands of dispossessed people (aka zombies). How are your less technologically dependent agricultural anarchy communities different in terms of being targets? It seems like the logical suggestion is that each community has to be a walled retreat, like a medieval castle. Of course that could be problematic, as it was for our ancestors, because of the widespread adaptation of explosives. If individual homesteads are, in contrast, spread out across the landscape then I would suggest that makes appropriating resources even easier for the zombies.

    Maybe studying the strategies used by settlers on the frontier during the French and Indian War would offer some answers.

    Michael Irving

  • Jean, I’m not worried about Gaia the rock. I’m worried about people in non-industrial cultures and non-human species.

    Michael Irving, I agree that no options scale. The alternatives I present are for individuals. We’re in overshoot, and the consequences will be profound. But some individuals will persist, using various routes that are different than the route society has us pursuing. As I’ve explained many times previously, I’m less concerned about chaotic zombies than most people because I believe in the (defensive) power of my human community.

  • Kevin,

    Yes, as Guy suggested I do distinguish between agriculture and permaculture as well as other forms of horticulture/gardening. Many if not most hunter-gatherer societies have practiced some form of horticulture, from various forms of gardening, often well integrated with the local ecosystem, to “tending the wild,” encouraging the growth of particular plants.

    Various forms of horticulture tend to be much more ecologically sensitive than agriculture, preserving topsoil and soil health and preserving or encouraging rather than reducing biodiversity.

    It was the switch to agriculture proper which enabled the development of civilization.

    Lemme provide this link again. I know people usually don’t bother to read them, but hey, I wrote it and know it covers much of this topic in two short pages. :)


    Another good article with more on the differences between agriculture and horticulture:


    Now, I know permaculture has in its ethical principles a statement describing “limits to population and consumption.” I’m not sure, though, that there’s anything built into its practices which actually prevents the creation and storage of food surpluses. So I have my doubts we could just say, “Hey, we’ll replace agriculture with permaculture and we won’t have to worry about population growth.” No, I think what permaculture and similar practices give us is a more ecologically sensible way through the transitional time, as humans are adapting to the end of civilization. Beyond that, the ultimate destination, I’d say, is hunting-gathering (supplemented by horticulture). I wouldn’t rule out some possibility of long term, small horticultural societies, perhaps structured in ways avoid a lot of food surpluses… something like that. But hunting-gathering worked amazingly well for over 2 million years. (See my article for the cause of the *spread* of agriculture.) If it ain’t broke…

  • By the way, the idea that hunter-gatherers caused a lot of extinctions seems to get weaker as evidence accumulates. Yes, there is the “overkill” hypothesis, but it competes with the climate change hypothesis, and there is a more recent theory concerning an impact (asteroid) in North America. People prior to agriculture probably did cause *some* extinctions, but there’s obviously no comparison whatsoever with what civilization has done. I mean, 2 million+ years versus 10k or so and the Sixth Extinction.

  • So to sum up the prevailing philosophy of a lot of folks here: humans are a cancer on this planet and we’re going to kill our host unless we die off first.

    If you really believe this, why not just kill yourself as many other cancerous humans as you can? Don’t you see the danger of this way of thinking? The next mass-murdering tyrant will probably think like a lot of you folks: let’s cull the population and take the pressure off poor Gaia. This is why I’m more worried about deranged doomers than humanity as a whole. Like it or not, we are the apex of this biosphere, and we are the only ones with a chance to expand life beyond this planet and prevent cosmic extinction. Sure, we’re in a rough patch right now, but to intentionally seek to rewind or disempower ourselves is to basically give up on this biosphere and consign it to oblivion. It’s the ultimate sin against life, imo.

  • Doctor Doomlove, you continue to miss the point I’ve made in this space a few hundred times, probably purposely. The problem is not the genus Homo, which lived in relative harmony on Earth for the first two million years of the human experience. The problem is industrial society, the nadir of western civilization. When we move forward to the post-industrial Stone Age — and there is little doubt we will be there within a couple decades — we will again be living in relative harmony with the living planet that sustains us. The other alternative is too horrific to consider seriously.

  • I want to address a recurring theme: If industrial civilization is doomed, just give up (eat drink and be merry; party on; kill ourselves and everyone else) Such responses are a total failure of imagination, and probably arise out of our myopic sense of agency. We’ve bought into the illusion of self-dertermination and agency. It’s like the woman at the airline counter in Europe during the volcano eruption this spring demanding to know “Who’s in charge here?” Or the hand-ringing and proposals for nuking the Macondo well, when first attempts at stopping the flow failed. We assume that control is an option (and my daddy told me what “assume” does). And failing to control, there is no proper human response.
    I believe that there is a way to recognize the collapse, clearly understand the causes, and live as responsibly as we know how in the light of this knowledge. It’s what Guy calls “morality”. True morality is what we do when no one else is looking; and it just might be what we do, in the face of catastrophe, because it is the human thing to do.
    In Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” the man tells the boy that they are carrying the fire. When Guy called for witnesses I thought, “That is what we need.”
    We may not be able to fix anything. We may not be able to save ourselves. We doubtlessly will not be able to salvage this most recent orgy of self-indulgence called industrial civilization. But we can bear witness to a way of being human that is modest and moral. And that, it seems to me, has been a good vocation for most our human evolution.
    As a child, I used to whine about the heat, about the gnats, about the other kids playing, while I was hoeing in the pea patch. Some wise adult answered all my whining with the same simple imperative: HOE OUT YOUR ROW!

  • Some very good dialogue here, and thanks for your response John. Yes I did read your link.

    You see, I have a problem: I live in NZ. Prior to the theft of the land and ravaging of the country by the empire (military-financial-industrial complex) from roughly 1840 to now, tribes of Maori lived as hunter-gatherers and as small scale farmers. However, they did manage to extermiante moas (large flightless birds). And incursions by one tribe on another tribes territory (to obtain resources or slaves) seem to have been fairly commonplace.

    The great white myth is, of course, that civilised white people put an end to inter-tribal fighting. The reality was that the Maori became defeated, decimated, demoralised and westernised, increasingly dependent on the fossil fuel economy.

    Part of me wants to stick around and see how this all ends. Part of me wants to get off this insane planet before it all turns nasty. The former dominates most of the time.

    On the matter of permaculture, there is the matter of seasonal variation. Even where I am living (with a fairly temperate climate) the productivity of the land is close to zero in mid-winter. So substantial storage of food (I am experimenting with the drying option) will be necessary.

    There are others who are like-minded, fortunately, but few and far between at this stage. What about the other 90# of the populace who have made no provision because they don’t believe the industrial system will fail them?

    I continually emphasise the concept of ‘window of opportunity’. It takes anything from 3-8 years to restore soil and get worthwhile production from truit trees etc.

  • According to Strauss and Howe in their book “The Fourth Turning,” we are currently in an Unraveling period, if not already in a Crisis. Their cyclical view of history is encouraging, as a period of relative peace and prosperity almost always follow a Crisis. However, the current Unraveling and the coming (or unfolding )Crisis is, to my mind, unprecedented, due to peak oil, overpopulation, and global warming. I do not see America emerging triumphantly on the other side, as in 1945 or 1865; but there may emerge a humanity more in balance with the world it inhabits. That is my hope.

  • Kevin, just to clarify, I’m not a purist when it comes to practical reality, especially for the short term. I have no objections to Guy’s “individual options” post for instance. I’m just sort of a purist on a theoretical level concerning the long term. Short term, there’s no question people are going to be trying what they can to survive. And to me that’s really where some of the (potential) fun will be. Lots of room for creativity and a sense of accomplishment.

    On the matter of storing food for the winter, I don’t think that’s a problem from even the most anti-agriculture perspective. I think the “food surpluses” issue really refers to unnecessary surpluses, those beyond what is needed. Hunter gatherers in areas of the world with cold, snowy winters have, as far as I know, always stored some food for the winter. You gotta do what you gotta do. :)

    By the way, I’ve heard some say NZ will be an excellent place to be post-peak-oil. Don’t recall the details, but you may actually be well located.

  • John Feeney,

    6.5 billion dead = fun?

    Michael Irving

  • Well, Guy, Gaia is not just a rock to me… It’s a chaotic system, but there is a complex and astonishing order behind that chaos: that turned me into an agnostic. I’m not very worried about rare species. The planet has seen other major extinctions before, and life always found a way to go on and develop new diversity.

    In fact, my concerns are more about the inmature mankind: if our species still exist after all these troubles coming, and we receive a moral lesson, stupid white men like me will probably become true men…

    Worry about you, your skills, and the people around you: your anger is morally legitimate, but materially disastrous. It might lead you to impotence and depression. It’s not in our hand changing anything now, but our own lives.

    Survive; each one of us, every single survivor, will put his brick to build a balance with Mother Earth, if we learn the lesson.

  • John. In reply, I was born in England, but recognised by the age of about 15 (in my own childish way) that England was in gross overshoot -not that I had heard the term. I left for NZ at the earliest opportunity, not realising that the empire had got there long before me.

    Yes, NZ will be one of the best places to survive the collapse, not just because of th relatively low population, but because it is surrounded by rather cold, rather deep water. We dont want too many people to wake up, of course, becasue that wouild overload the ‘lifeboat’. Seflisih are we not?

    However, in this transition period it is actually quite awful living here because the culture of denial is arguably on a par with that in the US, and becasue life was so very, very easy for such a long time NZers tend to be complacent and apathetic: perfect sheep. I fact the joke goes ‘there are 44 million sheep in NZ and 40 million of them have four legs’.

    You wrote: ‘Short term, there’s no question people are going to be trying what they can to survive’. At the risk of repeating what I wrote a while ago, that, unfortunately, suggests they will cut down trees and burn wahtever coal or old tyres they can get hold of to stay warm or cook food …. thereby exacerbating the CO2 problem and bringing forward point at which the Earth is likely to become uninhabitable.

    I just hope Mother Nature has some wonderful trick we do not know about for bringing things back into balance, not for myself, but for my grandchildren.

    The other REALLY BIG ONE that hardly gets a mention is global dimming; there is much evidence that pollution from the industrial economy is actually mitigating global warming by reflecting heat back into space. If the days immdiately after 9/11 are anything to go by, we should expect a surge in temperature [due to reduced global dimming], as the industrial system goes into decline. That surge in temperature would be expected to accelerate the release of CO2 and CH4 from permafrost amd meathane hydrates etc., leading to a gretae rsurge in temperature.

    I often feel that I know far too much and life would be so much more pleasant if I knew next-to-nothing. I guess others feel the same. For the moment, ignorance is bliss.

  • Ouch! I wish I had a farm in New Zealand… all I have a is a piece of land and a small house in the mountains, but I’ll have to fight much more than you, unfortunately.

  • Michael Irving,

    Hey man, why single me out? :-? Guy and a few other commenters in this thread have referred to the need to make this fun. I was simply bringing that point into my comment. Yes, to cope I think people will need to find some fun where they can. This thing won’t be over overnight and you can’t just hand yourself over to depression for the rest of your life.

  • John Feeney,

    I’ve been accused of being a cranky old guy. That’s probably true. I’m sorry to offend, but I took your “fun” remark seriously.

    I was jumping on you mainly because your remark was put into a string of comments about the disaster agriculture has been and your projection that going forward only hunting and gathering was sustainable. At some point in the string, which I can’t access now (probably techno-illiteracy), you also noted that permaculture would not scale.

    I’ve read your article and some of the links. I would summarize it this way: Man was a non-destructive part of nature until he developed agriculture. From that point forward man has become a plague on the planet and his actions have precipitated the sixth extinction. I got that. I even agree with it. Then you went on to say that agriculture, and horticulture, are unsustainable (broad brush here). I disagree with you there. What’s unsustainable is a human population, without oil, above +/- 500 million by any means possible; that’s one part in 14 of the current level. (Yes, I just made that up out of thin air and some other people’s estimates). Coincidentally, that is also the projected world population during the time of Columbus (circa 1500) (Mann, 1491). At that time much of the world was minimally affected by man’s activities; not Europe of course, not China, not the central highlands of Mexico, but much of it. The rain forests of Brazil, the Congo, and Borneo were still wild. The Asian steppes and America’s great plains were still open and wild. My point is that somewhere along the continuum between the advent of agriculture and today there was a period when man’s activities were sustainable on planet earth because the human population was still small enough.

    You note that the answer for man’s continued existence on the planet is a hunting and gathering lifestyle and yet the population pre-agriculture (circa 10,000bp) was around 5 million. That’s one in 1,400 if compared to today’s population.

    I think that a loss of only 13/14 vs. 1399/1400 is significant. Systems like permaculture or Guy’s agricultural anarchy may not scale but they might provide a viable population post-bottleneck.

    Michael Irving

  • A little history. We have been peak oil aware for about 7 years. 5 years ago we purchased a run down dairy farm in NY State. Through alot of hardwork, permaculture ideas, hugel kulture, forest ag we have radically transformed this place into a sustainable, self supporting spot. That was just to try and explain that we are on the same page as you are. I believe things are going to get far worse, but your comment above floored me. The new Dark Age starts within a year. If you get a chance could you please explain in a couple of lines why you think this time frame is valid. Thank You.
    One other thing. I read in one of your previous writings where you were joking about taking all the aspirin to get by. I’m 54, the largest piece of equipment we have is a BCS walk behind. We do most of the rest of the work with our backs. If you are going to rely on aspirin (I realize you were kidding to a certain extent) you wont make it. We start with yoga, we run, we lift weights at the end of the day, we take alot of the old fashioned preventitive medicines to keep going. We found very early that if you are not always aware, that this kind of work at our age can turn you into a twisted mess.

    Thanks again for beating the drum.


  • Thanks for the first-time comment, Ed. I applaud your efforts and appreciate your questions.

    I regularly read about 50 energy-literate writers. Slightly less than half indicate the industrial economy hits the brakes this year. The vast majority of the remainder give us another year. I’m still sticking to my uber-conservative prediction of “lights out” by the end of 2012.

    Regarding aspirin: I visited my thirty-something physician shortly after I posted that essay. She expressed considerable surprise (and too much disappointment for me) that I was not “bleeding out” in her examining room. So I’ve off the aspirin and back to the stretching exercises. Live is painful, but nonetheless wonderful. Death is peaceful. The transition is the hard part.

  • This might be my last post here – it’s fairly pointless trying to debate people who hold such religious views about humanity’s proper role and destiny on this planet. After spending quite a while in the doomosphere, even developing a small following as yet another prophet of doom, I eventually realized that while many of its inhabitants are quite intelligent and perceptive, they tend to be ideologues, fanatics, misanthropes, civilization haters and mentally ill misfits, participating in a deranged Church of Doom. I’ve never been one for religion, so when it dawned on me that that’s what doomerism is, I decided it was time to get out with whatever remained of my sanity.

    At the end of the day, all beliefs about the future are myths, and I’ve chosen to believe myths that give me a sense of empowerment and a reason to get up in the morning. The myths of the doomer cult may do that for some, but for me, and I think most healthy people, they lead directly to “despair, and to panic, and to nihilism” (to quote the late, great Terence McKenna). If you find yourself in this condition, looking forward to the die-off of six billion as some kind of deliverance, please step back and look at the big picture, at how far humans have come from our hominid days clawing grubs out of the earth with our fingernails, at how far we may have yet to go toward our unknowable destiny, in a universe that is infinite in all directions, and reconsider your beliefs. Because your beliefs, and your intelligence, and your creativity are your most vital resources — far more important that oil supply or arable land — and if you squander them on an obsession with doom you may find yourself fulfilling your own prophecies. Good luck!

    (Here’s a video that helped me recover from acute doomerism — enjoy!)


  • Oh dear Doctor Doomlove.

    What a pity you are unable to distinguish between spirituality and religion.

    And don’t they say the difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist knows the facts.

  • Dr. Doomlove,

    I will try to be respectful.

    I am finally beginning to understand what you mean when you say people commenting here and Guy in particular are “looking forward to the die-off of six billion as some kind of deliverance.

    I think you are missing the point. Some of the people here care deeply about people and have often devoted their lives to the service of others. They see the damage being done to the planet and the other life forms riding on it. They see the potential for man to blindly orchestrate his own extinction. They are working to find some kind of bridge between where we are now and a future that still has a people-friendly ecosystem. They are trying to plot a course over that gap, that period which by all measures will be hugely difficult. They are hopeful of establishing a new paradigm allowing humans will live sustainably and in harmony with the rest of the biosphere. They are hopeful that the better parts of our culture (art, music, literature …) can be projected through the coming hard times into a brighter future. In this effort they are not unlike the medieval monks who preserved some measure of the glories of the ancient world. In effect, using the words of Michael Rupert, building lifeboats.

    Building lifeboats means applying all of the intellectual and physical effort we can muster. It means running experiments, both thought experiments and actual hard physical trial and error experiments out in the hot sun. Building lifeboats sometimes means, as you phrase it, being a fanatic and an ideologue. It means, in some cases abandoning the comfortable middle class world of the 21st century; something that will get you labeled as a misanthrope. And yes, many of the folks communicating on this site hate civilization, as it currently presents and threatens all of us, and the biosphere, with destruction.

    So there you have it. People here are creatively engaged in humanity and the future. They are not, however, trusting to magical solutions to save us from a catastrophe of our own making.

    Michael Irving

  • Michael Irving,

    I think you’re misinterpreting or misreading some of what I wrote in that article and in these comments. I did say here that I had no objections to the kinds of transitional adaptations Guy has outlined, such as “agricultural anarchy.” In the article, as well, I outlined a period of transition in which agriculture is gradually scaled down, shifting toward horticulture, then ultimately to hunting-gathering, and so on.

    Now this:

    “My point is that somewhere along the continuum between the advent of agriculture and today there was a period when man’s activities were sustainable on planet earth because the human population was still small enough.”

    Here’s one problem with that idea: Humans have been the cause of a huge acceleration in extinction rates, traceable right back to the dawn of agriculture:


    What we were doing, via agriculture was unsustainable from the start. In the article I outlined a number of reasons for that, the impact on biodiversity, our life support system, being one. Another, as I outlined in the article, is that agriculture led to and leads to human population growth, which is of course unsustainable. Do you have a way to stop that?

    As Guy and I briefly commented above, humans went into overshoot at the dawn of agriculture. Living in overshoot is unsustainable. This mini-blog-post might clarify as well:


  • Two other small bits…

    I didn’t say horticulture was unsustainable. Please check my comments in this thread. (At the bottom of the page find a link saying “older entries” or something.) But if people tried to use it simply to replace agriculture, taking that kind of control over their food supply, then yes that’s unsustainable because it will run into the same ecological problems agriculture does.

    Also, FWIW, the pre-agricultural human population is often said to have been 5-10 million. As I understand it, though, this may well be an underestimate, the result of historians and others trying to downplay the extent of extermination of native peoples (many of whom were living without agriculture) in N. America and maybe elsewhere. That said, yeah, the population was of course much, much smaller than in 1491.

  • John Feeney,

    Thanks for your response. As you can see I’ve given it some thought.

    I think I did understand the premise of your comments. I also understand your comment, “… humans went into overshoot at the dawn of agriculture. Living in overshoot is unsustainable.”

    I still think my statement, which you quoted (“My point is that somewhere along the continuum between the advent of agriculture and today there was a period when man’s activities were sustainable on planet earth because the human population was still small enough.”) still applies. Here is why: (Forgive my simple-minded explanation).

    Using for a moment Samaria as the first birthplace of agriculture (?) there was a time, say 9563 bp, when there was no agriculture. There was another time, 9562 bp, when there was agriculture. Your statement indicates that from that point on we were in overshoot and causing mass extinctions. My statement grants that but also says that in Bolivia at that time we were not in overshoot. To all intents and purposes, at that time, Bolivia was on another planet and agriculture was still thousands of years away; thousands of years with no agriculture, no harm, no foul in the Americas.

    Fast forward to the present.

    How do we get through the coming bottleneck? Your solution is “a period of transition in which agriculture is gradually scaled down, shifting toward horticulture, then ultimately to hunting-gathering, and so on.” First, I would not characterize the loss of billions of people “a period of transition.” And second, I don’t hear any mechanism for initiating the transition, or a recognition that your transition must occur now (!), within the next 50-75 years.

    I was suggesting that with a reduced population we could have a stable population subsisting by small-scale agriculture/permaculture /French intensive gardening without continuing to ruin the world. Spreading the impact out spatially would reduce the impact on other organisms and systems. Holding the population in check avoids a continuation of overshoot. I know that requires a bit of magical thinking. When have people ever controlled their urges?

    Which brings us to the fault I find with your continued use of the idea that humans existed for two million years as hunter/gatherers and agriculture is brand new. In your article you dismiss anyone who says, “We can’t go backwards.” I would suggest a different view. We have never gone backwards on purpose. Sure, we were hunter/gatherers for two million years. Once we developed fire we never gave it up. Once we developed the hand axe, we stayed with it for hundreds of thousands of years. We didn’t go backward.

    There was a long period, a very long period, when culture remained virtually unchanged. Hobbs characterized that as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” You reject that as wrong on its face but I’m thinking you are equating the old and new stone ages. It’s unlikely that anyone with the intellectual capacity and culture of a Cro-Magnon would willingly change places with Homo erectus. So your two million years does not really reflect reality. Reality is that somewhere within the last 100,000 years we started breaking out of that long, long period. Our culture developed. We started doing art and magic and religion. Once we learned those things we never threw them away. Spears were better than hand axes. Bows were better than spears. We don’t go backwards.

    So agriculture is really a much larger part of our history. I will arbitrarily fix a start point at 35,000 years before present. That is the place where our culture really started to explode. From then on we were different. We were no longer mired in that long, long period during which nothing significant changed for thousands of years. We truly began to become the wise man. We never went back.

    Somewhere around 9,500 years ago people developed agriculture. If you accept my chronology then you’ll agree that instead of a very short and recent event in mankind’s history agriculture represents the way we have lived for one quarter of our existence. We are not hunters/gatherers we are instead “agro-man” and we are no more likely to give that up than the !Kung were likely to give up the bow and arrow a hundred years ago. I think that any way forward will have to embrace some form of agriculture.

    Michael Irving

  • Michael Irving,

    Yes, from the moment of the advent of agriculture on we were in overshoot and, relatively speaking from that point, were causing a new phase of the Sixth extinction. Obviously the impact started small and locally, and grew, but that is the point to which that phase of the holocene extinction is traced. The fact that it presumably wasn’t happening in Bolivia at that time is precisely because there was no agriculture there.

    If you could hold the human population to some tiny number, practicing horticulture as the primary source of food production, in just few scattered areas, you might have something sustainable. But as you agree, that is magical thinking. For that is not what happens when you take control of your food supply by making agriculture or horticulture your primary food source. Instead you get human population growth, just as we did with agriculture. You seem to suggest we could just start over and this time our numbers wouldn’t grow. Figure out the magic for real and you’ll have something.

    As for the idea that humans “don’t go backwards”: First it’s a moot point. We will have no choice given the unsustainability of agriculture or other practices when they are a people’s primary food source.

    Second, it’s not true historically. As I pointed out in the article, many peoples have taken up agriculture only to return to hunting and gathering. The whole idea discussed here on Guy’s blog — the implications of post-peak-oil — might be seen as an examination of how we will go backwards, whether to something like pre-industrial civilization or to pre-civilization. Long term, we will have no choice but to return to the latter. (And as near as I can tell that is Guy’s argument as well.) Well, we would have the choice of self-extermination, but that’s not much of a choice.

    You say, “Hobbs characterized that as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” You reject that as wrong on its face but I’m thinking you are equating the old and new stone ages.”

    In neither case was human life was as Hobbes described it, no more so than any other species’ life is “solitary, poor, nasty…” Do you think bears or lions or gorillas have terrible lives?

    “So agriculture is really a much larger part of our history. I will arbitrarily fix a start point at 35,000 years before present. That is the place where our culture really started to explode. From then on we were different.”

    Seems you’re saying there were cultural precursors which led us to agriculture. (There is no good argument that it was evolutionary. See the passage in my article about how agriculture spread.) Sure, there may have been. We don’t know. Doesn’t mean that we’ll have any choice, and it doesn’t mean that if we did we wouldn’t be free to choose the option proven sustainable.

    In all of this, I get a sense you are arguing with me essentially because you just don’t think you’d like hunting and gathering. I get that a *lot*. Two responses: First, hunter-gatherers have nice lives, completely unlike the Hobbesian view promoted by civilization. If there were a way to measure it, I’d jump at the chance to bet (and I used to be a professional poker player.:-))that the average hunter-gatherer, even today when they are mostly pushed into marginal lands, is considerably happier than the average person in civilization.

    For that reason, I also think we should be careful what we wish for. The life of a typical hunter-gatherer is far easier and more leisurely than that of an agriculturalist. If I had a choice, I’d take the former.

    Second, I just don’t think my or your own comfort level or preference is a sufficient basis for predictions or suggestions concerning the human future. We have to look at what will preserve the web of life and there is only one human way of living we *know* does that, the one in which we live, just as any other species, integrated into local ecosystems.

    I recommend you see the movie “Ten Canoes” and then see what you think. :-)

  • Missed this:

    “How do we get through the coming bottleneck? Your solution is “a period of transition in which agriculture is gradually scaled down, shifting toward horticulture, then ultimately to hunting-gathering, and so on.” First, I would not characterize the loss of billions of people “a period of transition.” And second, I don’t hear any mechanism for initiating the transition, or a recognition that your transition must occur now (!), within the next 50-75 years.”

    Not sure what that has to do with anything we’re talking about, but…

    I haven’t tried to do anything but outline some possible actions in the most general terms. (In the article I also mention resistance movements.) I’m talking about the long term course we will take. Do I have some obligation to talk about specific actions? Find your ways to survive post-peak-oil. Research and start acting if you wish. I’ve also said, now several times, I have no objection to the kinds of options Guy outlined in his “individual options” essay. Consider those options. I have advocated permaculture as one useful tool along the way. No recognition that it must occur now? Again, that’s not been the topic of this discussion, has it? But of course it must. We are already likely in some stage of collapse. Doesn’t mean many will do anything about it.

  • Michael, Here’s a quote from Guy which might be clearer than my ramblings:

    “The root cause of the problem is complex, but it can be reduced to a few primary factors: agriculture (i.e., western culture), industrialization (the epitome of western culture), and their contribution to human population growth.The genus Homo persisted on the planet some 2 million years, and our own species had been around for at least 250,000 years, without exceeding carrying capacity. We actually lived without posing a threat to the persistence of other species. During those good ol’ days, humans had abundant spare time for socializing and art, spending only a few hours each week hunting, gathering, and otherwise feeding themselves (i.e., “working”). Contrast with today’s humans, and how much time we spend working (and rarely enjoying that work, if talk around the water cooler is any indication. Agriculture leads to food storage, which leads to empire, which produces slavery, oppression, and mass murder (all of which were essentially absent for the first couple million years of the Homo experience). Lives were short, but happy by every measure we can find. In short, without agriculture there is no ecological overshoot. The human population explosion is effect, not cause.”

  • John Feeney,

    Of course you have no obligation to talk about specific actions but you risk being labeled “all hat and no cattle.” For example, if you’re advocating rewilding but you’re living in Boulder, with winter coming on, and your only cache of food is in the local WalMart, you have some credibility problems. If on the other hand, eschewing agriculture, you’ve been catching and drying fish all summer and have mixed it with the berries and seeds you’ve gathered, then you’re walking the talk. Of course you may not have time to talk (studies of easy living notwithstanding). Any ideas on how long it takes to put in a winter’s supply of pigweed?

    By the way, did you know that Napoleon had foragers out in the countryside gathering pigweed seeds (lamb’s quarter) to extend his supplies during the Russian campaign? It’s related to quinoa.

    I’ve been thinking about food a lot lately, very much in parallel with #5 from your piece “Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis.” It amazes me that the natives could survive here when there was a functioning ecosystem. How much harder it would be now.

    Thanks for allowing me to gab with you a bit and leading me to your web site. It gave me a chance to follow up on a few ideas. Thanks for the link to Emily Porter, too.

    Michael Irving

  • thanks john & michael, & all for the interesting discussion & links.

    i have always felt that the size of the group[dunbar’s no. less that 150 or so] is a crucial issue re ‘ecological’, or preagriculture decision making.

    john feeney question that population size is just food related. i am a rookie in these fields though…

    here is a comment i made on the oildrum; peter salonious post, linked in u’r:
    “Six steps to “getting” the global ecological crisis.”

    ‘our hard wiring leads us collectively to make poor choices- towards self destruction in our global, city-state way of living. This is Not a way of organizing/living that we are wired for & as Mr. Salonius points out was not most of our history.

    the tragedy of the commons is that to collectively care in an actionable, meaningful way we have to be quite close to others[include nature] & the consequences of our living.

    we are headed towards smaller groupings in our ways of functioning by the forces of energy depletion. i am concerned we will not make that choice; it will be forced on us. we will then function better & more meaningfully [if we are still here].’

  • KOO-KOO…you guys are nuts. I will make a bold prediction…mankinds ultimate demise will come from above or within….not from anything we can or will do while we habitate this planet. We are a knat on the earth, the entire population could fit in Canadas smallets province ( PEI ) and yet you are trying to believe the earth is overpopulated? Take a flight and look down….pretty empty down there..
    Peak OIL ?? I have been hearing about that for years, and yet there are more and more discoveries daily, so much oil that they stopped pumping it up lest they drop the price so that their profits drop…peak oil is a myth. Cheer up all you doom and gloomers….the grass is pretty green from where I sit.
    Enjoy life before it is too late for you own sanity.

  • @Michael,

    I haven’t talked about specific short term actions up to now because I thought we were talking on a general level about the direction of the human (and nonhuman) future. That has also generally been my focus in other writing as I haven’t felt, so far, that I have a lot to say on the “actions” topic that others haven’t already covered nicely elsewhere. That said…

    While I am interested in rewilding, I do not much expect to jump immediately into hunting and gathering as soon as the grid goes down. And I have not advocated that for people in general. If everyone tried that it would present serious problems. Sure, some committed rewilders may try it. In the right areas, those best prepared might conceivably have some success, but hunting and gathering in a world of billions of humans, is going to be a challenge. But the human population will drop hugely over some time frame. For those remaining, the hunting-gathering option will become more viable barring some problem (such as the global dimming Kevin mentioned above) which would destroy too much biodiversity, in which case no option will be viable.

    In my own case, I have a family which, for now, isn’t much into the rewilding option (though they’ve become pretty good backpackers and such). That steers me toward staring by developing a more standard off-grid living situation much as Guy has described here. If I were on my own my approach would probably be a little different, with more emphasis on the rewilding possibility in the nearer term, but still cognizant of the fact that it may not be viable short term. If, at some future point, I were to try living by hunting and gathering, I doubt it would be in the Boulder area. Others love dealing with the snow and might thrive here. Different strokes… For the moment, I’m keeping some options open.

    Otherwise, I have worked quite a bit in recent years, though certainly not enough, on skills relevant to rewilding. I am pretty adept at spending time in very remote country with minimal, mostly very low-tech equipment, and have a bit of formal training in aboriginal living skills, edible plant identification, etc. I have tried my hand at foraging for a few days at a time with no other food available. But I have much more to learn. It’s where my heart is, though for practical reasons I have to accept that I may be too old to see the day when many or most humans will return to hunting-gathering full time. We’ll see…


    I agree we are headed toward smaller groups, but that much of it may be forced on us.

    The population/food-supply link is very strong, but is not the only thing that influences population. In humans (and in many other species!) there are social layers, for instance, which play a large role, But the food factor is the base layer. Though it’s a bit long, this video is one of the more informative online sources on that topic. It’s Daniel Quinn and biologist Alan Thornhill fielding questions on the topic:


  • You armchair hunter-gatherers are hilariously delusional, but if you enjoy fantasizing about a return to that lifestyle don’t let me stop you. Folks like Derrick Jensen are romantics, dreamers and frauds; most of these guys wouldn’t last five minutes as hunter-gatherers. Sucking at the tit of civilization while expounding on all the ways it is evil and is soon headed for the dustbin of history is the height of absurdity, wouldn’t you agree? Maybe you guys should talk to some real hunter-gatherers, or better yet try hunting and gathering for a while yourselves, before you get too deep in your own fantasy worlds. Never in recorded history have human beings voluntarily gone backwards or abandoned technologies to pursue a more primitive lifestyle en masse. You might as well be arguing for people to stop having sex — it’s not in our nature, it’s pure fantasy, and it’s never gonna happen!

  • thanks john..i’ll catch that video later.

    the base layer you describe makes a lot of sense.

    i think the size group we are in is very important for us to be able to ‘look’ further ahead, dampen impulses that get us into trouble..[our antisocial tendencies for example], develop & maintain relationships/belong, & have a sense of wellbeing; & Know directly our impact on others[include nature]…all of which is generally missing in groups that are larger…as we are not wired to ‘work reasonably’ in the larger sizes.

    obviously oil especially has allowed us to organize in very large groups; over vast distances…so that we rarely know in a full way the consequences of our actions.

  • The hunter-gatherer lifestyle is a misnomer for the Native American lifestyle. It made up by stupid Europeans who could only see tobacco gardens being grown by the Natives. They believed that divine providence had put this land here for them, rather than in being highly cultivated by the inhabitants.

    A better description is ecological farming practices coupled with wildlife management and ecosystem renewal practices. Something decidedly more akin to permaculture without fences. Sure it worked for 12,000 years but could never work today I hear. BS I say. If people went out and stripped the countryside of all edible plants by uprooting them, yes it would be a disaster. Those foolish enough to strip the land to the bone in a desperate attempt to fill their bellies would most likely eat hemlock or do something equally foolish before wreaking too much havoc. Most people today would kill someone for the last can of Spaghetti O’s when faced with starvation before thinking of eating weeds because they haven’t the first idea how to do so. How many people even bother to learn such things? One in several thousand perhaps?

    If someone knows about enough edible plants to live off of the land without poisoning themselves first (big if) they most likely know how to harvest sustainably too. Harvesting sustainably with ecosystem renewal, seed spreading, replanting of immature bulbs in aerated soil, pruning plants to stimulate productive growth, and transplanting species to favorable habitats would all need to be integrated. Why wouldn’t it work if one was diligent enough to know beforehand the proper plants, their life-cycle, and relationship to the land?

    I think that those who seriously dedicate themselves to this and who have many sources for identification will not go hungry. Like I said, it only worked since the ice age to make North America one of the most healthy ecosystems on the planet before contact.

    I think we need more people to learn how to heal our damaged ecosystems by living with them as a part of them. Could everyone do this at current population levels – no. But most people don’t even remember it as a possibility beyond stories of people with feathers in their hair. Could a few million do it across the country? Probably, if they weren’t stoned to death by the more “civilized” factions of society for trying.

  • P.S. One-size-fits-all is a product of centralized thinking. There are too many answers to the questions we are all asking as the answers will often require localization of thought and localization of action. Find out what works where you are and/or where you want to be. Take the steps to make the two one.

  • nice post chris.good, new info to me. i have often thought native americans ought to be part of my next readings/study.

    i’m in ky, & i hear we were ‘happy hunting ground’, but not living here.
    cold & wet winters i figure, but this is the kind of thing i need to study.

  • For more information on Native American agricultural practices read books by Kat Anderson. Tom Brown has a good series on Native American survival skills including stalking/hunting/tracking, native plants, and spirituality.

    As to learning about plants in wild food walks with an instructor or through your local Native Plant Society is best, don’t be afraid to ask an expert. http://www.eattheweeds.com/ is a good place to start as well. Positively identify all plants several times with several books with good pictures and line drawings to be sure you don’t run across any look-alikes. Note distinguishing characteristics carefully like hairs, leaf pattern, flower pattern/color, stem growth, ect. Learn the areas the plant is likely to be found and how different climates will effect growth. Ask yourself if it is the correct time of year to see the plant at this maturity. Trust authors who have actually eaten plants more than those going off historical accounts as many of the more obscure plants have to be prepared properly to avoid mild to severe toxic effects. Be sure you know how to prepare the plant properly prior to eating. Do not eat very much the first time to check for allergic reaction.

  • Chris,

    “P.S. One-size-fits-all is a product of centralized thinking.”


    As you probably know, there is a wide “foraging spectrum” with adaptations ranging from “art of nothing,” nomadic foragers at one end, and more sedentary hunter-gatherers relying heavily on horticultural supplementation at the other. (Robert L. Kelly etc.)

    I hear what you’re saying but, to elaborate a bit, subsistence strategies in North America varied by region and culture. Many groups pre-contact were indeed, from what we know, on the more sedentary, horticultural end, though still classified as foragers/hunter-gatherers. Some may have been more completely reliant on horticulture or agriculture, and may have been on ultimately unsustainable paths. (A soil scientist friend of mine tells me some groups’ agricultural practices would likely have proved unsustainable in the long run.) No doubt many of the more sedentary groups were wrongly characterized by Europeans as nomadic hunter-gatherers. anyway, as long as they were practicing minimally damaging horticulture (can it really do better than nature?) and had something in place to prevent population growth, I’d guess they were sustainable.

    On the other hand, many North American groups were, as far as we know, nomadic or semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers near the first end of that spectrum. Off the top of my head, many of the older cultures, such as the Archaic culture of the Colorado Plateau would be characterized that way. Many later groups as well, such as the Ute, some plains groups, most Apache bands, etc.

    “Most people today would kill someone for the last can of Spaghetti O’s when faced with starvation before thinking of eating weeds because they haven’t the first idea how to do so. How many people even bother to learn such things? One in several thousand perhaps?”

    Sure, but the same could be said for, say, permaculture. No matter the subsistence strategy there’s a lot to learn. I’m resigned to having to learn horticulture techniques, though I find hunting-gathering skills far more interesting and so will keep a toe in those as well. :(

    I hope you didn’t get the impression I was suggesting everyone go out and try to live as hunter-gatherers immediately post-collapse. I think I spoke clearly about that above. Long term, though, it’s clearly stood the test of time to a degree nothing else can touch.

    “If someone knows about enough edible plants to live off of the land without poisoning themselves first (big if) they most likely know how to harvest sustainably too.”

    And in the short term (maybe for a generation, maybe more, maybe less…) that’s probably the best choice for many or most folks. At some point, though, once population levels and ecosystem health make foraging as viable an option, it might make sense to choose whichever strategy is less work, whichever is most clearly sustainable, and whichever makes for more egalitarian social arrangements. Often that will fall somewhere along the foraging spectrum. Most will undoubtedly want to stay somewhat sedentary as nomadic hunting and gathering just feels “foreign” to most of us in civilization. But it will often come down to what works best in a bio-region, eh?

    BTW, the risk of serious poisoning from wild plants is not always that big a deal. Here in Colorado there are only about two plants that will actually kill you in smaller quantities. Others will make you sick though, so sure you have to proceed in small steps. I’ve found it helpful to go on walks with good herbalists who know nearly all the plants as well as survival instructors whose emphasis is specifically on the edible ones (herbalists often emphasize the medicinal).

  • Chris, I think I misinterpreted what you were implying with, “If someone knows about enough edible plants to live off of the land without poisoning themselves…” My comment was in response to what I read (incorrectly?) as a suggestion that people should choose heavily horticultural lifestyles over more stereotypical hunting-gathering. So if it doesn’t follow from what you actually said… that’s why. :-/

  • I believe the illusion or delusion that people live under in this current culture is that EVOLUTION EQUALS PROGRESS. I keep trying to tell people that Evolution is not progress. Evolution is a species that adapts to it’s natural surroundings and environment. I keep hearing human beings say “Hey look at all this technology and how we are conquering nature, we’re progressing, we’re evolving!” That’s all nonsense. Our so called technological advancements having nothing to do with Evolution. Industrial civilization is on it’s way OUT. The human animal loves to pride himself on advancements but the reality is History and
    mother nature doesn’t care about our technology and industrial way of life. I truly believe 2011 and beyond are going to be situations unlike humans have never seen before. I believe the New Dark Age is coming very soon!

  • John:
    I was just saying that the practices of Native Americans were not stripping the land of resources as we do now, because they actively renewed habitat for game and had specific cultivation patterns to increase wild plant productivity. Whatever end of the spectrum from horticulture to hunter-gatherer a group was they did cultivate their environment in one way or another. Healthier plants and increased animal habitat stemming from these practices were actively renewing the environment. Often a specific tree would be chosen for a tool because thinning that thick patch of trees would make the others healthier and tighter growth rings from a stunted tree would produce a better tool.

    If someone is permaculturing with a compost heap great, more power to you. You are renewing the land too, often using similar practices.

    I have stored food, I have seeds, I am ready to garden. I just don’t have any land to do so, beyond a small porch which is currently home to sweet potatoes and morenga. If I have to leave my apartment I would like to know I can do so with little to nothing if needs be and still make it.

    One reason for this is that I am within 50 miles of a nuclear storage site. This happens to be the site of the largest nuclear release in US history, larger than Three Mile Island. The place has a safety record that would make Homer Simpson blush. This site has to be cooled in a continuously circulated water bath. One week without power and the generators run out of fuel. Two weeks after the power goes out the pile will be on it’s way to China. I don’t know if my apartment is in a long-term viable area because of this. I may have to leave on short notice if something bad goes down and I may have to be on the move for a while.

    I think that expecting things will only drop to a certain level of bad (like the friendly neighborhood nuclear storage facility working indefinitley) and preparing for that level has its risks. I fully expect that in the wake of a peak oil many people will have to leave areas where a piece of critical infrastructure fails and simply is not repaired in time due to resource constraints. They may have to do so on foot, and carry as little as possible. Knowledge weighs nothing. If you know how to adapt to the requirements of your local environment with very little you will be in a better position to survive. That is where regional indigenous skills come in.

  • John Feeney,

    Sorry about this slow response; life calls, you know. Thanks for your comments regarding your own forays into rewilding. I know how daunting it can be to try to balance every-day family life against experiments in alternative life-ways. Running experiments is how I think of it. If I lived in an Amish community I might feel settled on a viable path forward, confident that the life I was living would carry me on into an uncertain future. As it is, everything I do that might prepare me for that future is a step into a different world, an experiment in living in Kunstler’s “world made by hand” if you will. Many of the people commenting here are running these kinds of experiments, taking steps toward inventing a new path. I’m guessing all of them are finding that the path always seems to lead up hill. Yesterday I was shocked, shocked (!), to find that I could not buy a big box of Ajax Future Life-ways Equipment from WalMart. I thought the Chinese were offering anything we wanted.

    I’d like to add my two cents regarding Native Americans and foraging. Your point about different techniques being used in different parts of North America is correct. As Chris noted, tribes in the eastern and central US were agriculturalists but it was good that you noted that the approach was much different in other places. I think the remarkable thing is how many different techniques were used to survive. Your comments about the Ute culture applies as well to people living up here in the Inland Northwest and beyond into British Columbia. In the Puget Sound area, by all accounts an area heavily populated, a completely different set of survival skills was being used based on the abundance provided by the sea. My point is that throughout North America each group of people had developed a set of skills that best fit the place they lived. If agriculture worked, they used it. If hunting and gathering was the best answer then that’s what they used. Even in terms of agricultural responses there was a broad range of techniques, each mated to the area in which they were practiced, i.e., irrigated corn farming in the desert southwest is a long way from growing tobacco in Virginia. Even non-agriculturalists constantly manipulated the environment. In my neck of the woods natives used controlled burns to thin the high forests and thus improved conditions for huckleberry production, one of their staple foods. Maybe Chris would classify that as agriculture, too. My point is that those native folks were just as smart as any of us and were perfectly capable of running experiments in order to figure out how best to survive.

    Michael Irving

  • Chris,

    Thanks for clarifying. Good points. Yeah, most or maybe all hunter-gatherer societies have practiced some level of horticulture, tending the wild, etc. And the peoples more fully dependent on horticulture typically practiced it in ways that, as you say, apparently helped the land and habitat. (See below… I say “apparently,” because on a theoretical level I’m still questioning whether any more substantial horticulture actually “improves” rather than just “altering” the land in some way. But I know that’s what many have concluded.)

    I like your comment that “knowledge weighs nothing.” Goes well with that phrase, “The more you know, the less you need.” I think you’re on the right track to work toward being able, if need be, to set off with essentially nothing and make it from there. Then any supplies you are able to take will be gravy. I’ve read some amazing stories of survival among the Apache in the 1800s involving individuals who had next to nothing on them. It’s too bad kids today don’t grow up with that intimate knowledge of the land and how to live on it.


    Yes, it really is remarkable how many different adaptations Native Americans used. Agriculturalists, hunter-gatherer-gardeners… and much range within each group. As you might guess, I suspect that in many cases horticulturalists have been casually labeled “agriculturalists.” The actual agriculturalists were, I think, the ones who more often faced the collapse of their cultures (Hohokam, Anasazi…).

    Though I think questions remain, it does seem that some horticulture-based groups came up with practices which did not harm — even helped — both the soil and habitat/biodiversity. I was just reviewing an article about the evidence that the Amazon once contained perhaps millions of people. (They were mostly wiped out by disease upon European contact.) From the sound of it, many were actually semi-sedentary, though I’m not sure how that varied. Perhaps as much as 15% of lowland forests were significantly shaped by humans. Their use of terra preta (biochar) and a horticulture that emphasized fruit and nut trees boosted and preserved soil quality and apparently did not damage habitat or biodiversity. So, up to some sizable populations they seem to have solved the soil and biodiversity problems the plague agriculture. The only catch, it appears to me, is that such large populations make me think their numbers were probably growing and would eventually have become a problem. But it’s one of the best cases for ecologically sensitive horticulture such as permaculture.

    This does make me wonder what sort of social organization was required to fill such large areas of soil with biochar. How much work is it? I tend to use the nomadic, “art of nothing” hunter-gathers such as the Hadza as a kind of mental baseline of high egalitarianism and modest work. I wonder if any of the strongly horticultural peoples managed to retain both of those. Maybe…

  • John Feeney,

    I’ve been trying to fit the Hohokam and Anasazi into the “agriculture as the destroyer of environments” argument. By most accounts the Anasazi were successful for hundreds of years while farming in extremely harsh conditions. Most of what I’ve read suggests that they collapsed because of changed environmental conditions (extreme drought). The Hohokam apparently collapsed from changed environmental conditions (extreme flooding destroyed their irrigations systems). While it might follow that the Hohokam and Anasazi collapsed because their systems were not resilient enough to respond to changed conditions, it is unclear to me that their systems (agriculture) were responsible for the changed conditions. Another way to say that would be that is that they had to abandon the areas they’d lived in for hundred of years because of acts of god rather than because their agriculture systems had degraded the environment.

    Of course I admittedly have an poor understanding of the Hohokam and Anasazi.

    Michael Irving

  • Michael,

    No, I think that’s about right. I seem to recall reading somewhere some speculation that the Hohokam may have had problems with their irrigation causing soil salinization or something. But otherwise, yeah, I think it was that, long term, agriculture was not a resilient enough system to handle the changed conditions. Whether or not they were otherwise degrading their local ecosystems, well, I don’t know. I guess it would depend on how they were managing the soil, the scale of their activities (Hohokam was pretty big.), and such. But I see that lack of resiliency as one of the problems with agriculture. It’s why agriculture ushered in famine, something almost unknown to mobile hunter-gatherers who can just up and move on to greener pastures – so to speak.

    Ah, here’s a page listing some of the theories for the demise of the Hohokam. It favors population growth as one of the more likely culprits. Makes a good point that they’d been farming for so long that it wasn’t likely soil salinization. Could be worth looking further in to it.


    An engaging book on the Anasazi is Craig Childs’ House of Rain. Quite speculative, but that’s what makes it so interesting. He’s willing to venture where credentialed archeologists won’t tread. And his desert wanderings make for great stories.

  • john

    thanks for the link/video of Quinn & thornhill. excellent for a newbie like me. i will be finding out more about what seems to driven and maintained the hunter/gather typical size. if anyone has a link or there is an consensus explanation i’d appreciate either. you’all have been kind & generous! fascinating arena. thanks.

  • John Feeney,

    Thanks for the Hohokam link. It’s a good one. I was especially interested in the size of the population and the size of the individual canals. The suggestion that the location of villages along irrigation canals was the results of bureaucratic dictates rather than growing up like topsy is also interesting.

    Michael Irving

  • Sam,

    I was interested in your comments about how the size of the group acts as a moderator of the potential range actions available to members of the group. The stronger dampening effect of small groups, as opposed to large groups, makes perfect sense. I might rephrase that to say, “If somebody in your immediate group is looking over your shoulder you’re less likely to screw around.” It is just another way of explaining the relative freedom to innovate that cities are noted for, as opposed to the general rigidity often found in small communities.

    Michael Irving

  • Sam,

    Anthropologists speculate about a number of variables keeping hunter-gatherer populations from growing too much: late weening reduces female fertility; in nomadic groups having to carry one infant provides motivation to refrain from having others too soon; sex taboos; infanticide (not as prominent a theory as it used to be); herbal birth control substances and abortifacients; and probably some others I’m forgetting. They don’t talk too much about the food supply hypothesis. And that’s too bad. I think it’s the simplest and most powerful explanation by far. It just says, “Because hunter-gatherers are living, like other species, integrated into local ecosystems, their populations are controlled just as are populations of other species.” And once you start thinking about it, it explains a lot.

    Not sure why it doesn’t have more “official” acceptance. But what Alan Thornhill says in that video makes sense — that it’s hard, even for many scientists, to acknowledge that humans are subject to the same natural processes that affect other species. An acquaintance who has written about the food supply issue with regard to human population tells me he once spoke to a university faculty on it. I think they were environmental scientists or perhaps biologists… something relevant like that. Afterward one got up and said, “What you say is clearly true. But what are we to do about it?”

    A friend of mine came up with what might be another factor keeping hunter-gatherer populations down. Google the “Westermarck effect.”

  • Here is an article that may be of interest to people:

    The Most Isolated Man on the Planet


    “The most isolated man on the planet will spend tonight inside a leafy palm-thatch hut in the Brazilian Amazon. As always, insects will darn the air. Spider monkeys will patrol the treetops. Wild pigs will root in the undergrowth. And the man will remain a quietly anonymous fixture of the landscape, camouflaged to the point of near invisibility.”

    “He’s an Indian, and Brazilian officials have concluded that he’s the last survivor of an uncontacted tribe. They first became aware of his existence nearly 15 years ago and for a decade launched numerous expeditions to track him, to ensure his safety, and to try to establish peaceful contact with him. In 2007, with ranching and logging closing in quickly on all sides, government officials declared a 31-square-mile area around him off-limits to trespassing and development.”

  • well not sure at this point how to tie this together; but here’s some..for me…grist for the mill.

    john i checked out westmarck effect & good pro, & con info available & it seems true to me that this is true & is a factor in maintain social order in the closeness that is the hunter/gatherer adaption[& ours… see below].

    the following is a video of robin dunbar; re the max size of ‘trust & obligation’ relationships as 150.[22 min.]


    his finding was accidental; studying grooming times in primates; & eventually relating brain size to group size. at about 8 min. he gives the ‘social/community’ adaption as the primary adaption of primates[& ours]. he maintains that back to ‘Lucy” etc. the size of community directly relates to brain size[smaller brain, smaller community] & he ventures into bird & other species[?]…i don’t know biology lingo well…re brain size & social bonds…the more intense ‘for life’ pairing as requiring larger brains.
    he relates in the video that 150 is the historical avg. for villages..in numerous historical periods, & places.

    one of the fascinating aspects of …his video is 3/2010 i think…this is that the twitter/facebook ways of relating is what is evidently drawing attention to his theory. he refers to it at the end of the video. also see the recent study below by google which even uses the 150 no. BTW part of this seems to have to do with marketing?

    anyway ‘food’ for thought for me; & i’m still not able …john… to clearly see this group size as directly related to food availability primarily… though food obviously has to be available. [too much new info for my brain size]. maybe food relates to no. of groups.

    dunbar directly talks about the lack of authority hierarchy in the ‘policing’ involved in the hunter/gatherer groups. interesting word u use re ‘freedom to innovate in cities’.. i wonder if the ‘city’ is our not accepting our limits in many ways…though i have enjoyed the anonymity of the city….nuf said. jacque ellul[sp?] & harvey cox have written about this issue.

    for me as we get into societal collapse i’m going to worry if the [close] community size is; or is getting above 150 as i’ll be concerned it just won’t work w/o bad turmoil or an oppressive structure evolving.


  • I am so ashamed. I just found out that I have been causing all kinds of global warming by breathing! Every time I exhale CO2, I am killing innocents somewhere. By drowning them in torrential floods, by burying them in massive unrelenting avalanches, by frying them in the heat, by freezing them into ice cubes……

    I feel so awful and so guilty I have to take one for the team and terminate myself in an eco-friendly way. I also feel all good environmentalists should follow my lead, especially Joe Romm at Climateprogress.com, Guy McPherson and all climate scientists/AGW true believers.

    We scions of the movement must be the first to go, to set an example for all the other toxic spewing humans that in order to save the planet, we must immediately have a Jim Jones cyanide laced kool-aid drink-athon. This will prove just how committed we are to our beliefs and how much we care for the planet!

  • From what this fool can make out from the small amount of reading etc I’ve done ……… every time a human appeared in the geological past, something went extinct, we just got a shit load better at killing things after we started becoming agricultural … we didn’t want ‘them’ eating our tucker, hence fences.
    There was mega flora all over the world before ‘we’ came along, even the American Indians killed them off … and if the Idians had been left alone eventually they would have found oil and become us … again just like Easter Island ‘we’ can’t help ourselves, unless ‘we’ had/have a zero population growth policy …. back when ‘we’ were only 5 million or so………. but that is bygones I guess.
    I suggested to my 18yo niece that she should ‘get fixed’ (she doesn’t want babies) .. but no … maybe one day?
    Ho hum

  • Chris, thanks for the link to the Slate article. My favorite line: “In 2010, can anyone realistically live off the grid?”

    I can’t help thinking we’ll all be there soon. Not in 2010, but not long after, either.

  • John Feeney and Sam

    A review by Dr. Susan Block, sex therapist, of the book “Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Drs. Christopher Ryan, Ph.D. and Cacilda Jetha, M.D. in which the consequences of the development of agriculture. Block states, “Farming is the root of all evil.” The importance of group size enters into her discussion of prehistory, too. Also, the review is funny and my neighbor thought I could use some humor. Find it here on CounterPunch http://www.counterpunch.org/block08192010.html

    Michael Irving

  • Dear Guy,

    Does you or anyone else in this community think there is any chance at all that Paul Ehrlich, despite his poor showing as prognosticator and gambler, will be shown to be one of the greatest scientists of all time because he has accurately foreseen what catastrophes could likely occur in the future?

    After all Paul Ehrlich is the forerunner for recent research by Russell Hopfenberg and David Pimentel that appears to indicate with remarkable simplicity that human population dynamics are essentially similar to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species.

    Since many too many population experts remain silent about this research and blogmeisters associated with the mass media refuse to discuss the peer-reviewed evidence, perhaps you could take a look at it, make your comments, and encourage by your example others to do the same. You can find the article, Human Population Numbers as a Function of Food Supply, by Hopfenberg and Pimentel on the worldwide web or at the links below.

    Thank you,


    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  • Steven, there is no doubt in my mind that Paul Ehrlich will be viewed as one of our greatest scientists. Many people, including me, already see him that way. His predictions have not always been accurate, in part because he was sounding alarms that caused people to change their behaviors. But he was an optimist about population overshoot: At this point, more than a billion people are starving.

    Paul is one of few scientists willing to make predictions based on data. He also has a long history of outreach, including a long run as television news commentator and numerous books aimed at the general populace. I cannot recommend him enough.

  • It’s very brave of you to praise Paul Ehrlich on this forum, because if there’s one guy who is a poster child for the two century long failure of the Malthusian narrative, it’s him. Here’s how Wired magazine described Mr. Ehrlich’s repeated failures as a Prophet of Doom:

    All of [Ehrlich’s] grim predictions had been decisively overturned by events. Ehrlich was wrong about higher natural resource prices, about “famines of unbelievable proportions” occurring by 1975, about “hundreds of millions of people starving to death” in the 1970s and ’80s, about the world “entering a genuine age of scarcity.” In 1990, for his having promoted “greater public understanding of environmental problems,” Ehrlich received a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award.” [Simon] always found it somewhat peculiar that neither the Science piece nor his public wager with Ehrlich nor anything else that he did, said, or wrote seemed to make much of a dent on the world at large. For some reason he could never comprehend, people were inclined to believe the very worst about anything and everything; they were immune to contrary evidence just as if they’d been medically vaccinated against the force of fact. Furthermore, there seemed to be a bizarre reverse-Cassandra effect operating in the universe: whereas the mythical Cassandra spoke the awful truth and was not believed, these days “experts” spoke awful falsehoods, and they were believed. Repeatedly being wrong actually seemed to be an advantage, conferring some sort of puzzling magic glow upon the speaker.

    Yes, Dr. Ehrlich could be one of the greatest scientists of all time, if by greatest you mean “makes the most wildly inaccurate predictions”. It looks like Guy has a chance to top him in the greatness category with his “Dark Age by 2012”, “Stone Age by 2025” predictions, we’ll see…

  • Dear Guy and Dr. Doomlove,

    Thanks for all you are doing to understand the implications of human population growth on the world our children will inhabit. Please note that I am not an expert in matters related related to human population dynamics and human overpopulation of the Earth. My field is psychology. Perhaps you could help me out here. Would it be possible for you to examine and comment here on the scientific evidence from Hopfenberg and Pimentel on human population dynamics?

    I am suggesting that we openly discuss peer-reviewed published scientific articles in reputable professional journals. At least to me the very best way to find the “truth” about the way the world we inhabit actually works and also to discover the most accurate placement of the human species within the natural order is the adequate application of the scientific method. Regardless of what we believe because it is politically convenient, economically expedient, socially correct, religiously tolerated and culturally syntonic to do so, whatsoever is is, is it not? Please help me examine research of the population dynamics of the human species. The implications of this research appear to be potentially profound. If human population dynamics are essentially common to, not different from, the population dynamics of other species, then the unbridled growth of absolute global human population numbers in our time could be the proverbial “mother” of the human-induced global challenges looming before the family of humanity. If this global challenge continues to be ignored, the human family could end up winning some Pyrrhic victories over subordinate global challenges but losing the larger struggle for survival itself.

    Please note the following perspective from Sir Fred Hoyle that dates back to 1964, a time prior to the publication of Ehrlich’s “Population Bomb” and the Club of Rome’s seminal work, “Limits to Growth.”


    “It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance… and one chance only.”


    It appears to me that Sir Fred Hoyle was asking people years ago, when I was still a teenager, to carefully consider and rigorously examine a superordinate situation that was too dangerous to ignore… that dwarfed other already identified global challenges. Rather than seriously scrutinize population dynamics leading to the human overpopulation of the Earth, which would require experts to rivet their attention on the placement of the human species within the natural order of living things, the topic was avoided, just as it is being ignored now. At the beginning of my lifecycle in 1945 there were about 2.8+/- billion human beings on Earth. Only 65 years later 6.8+/- billion people are members of the human community.

    So much time has been wasted recently by the brighest and best of my generation. The implications of such an unfortunate failure of nerve appear to be far-reaching. We cannot address problems, the root cause of which we refuse to acknowledge.

    Representative democracies led by human beings with feet of clay could readily become a force too formidable to ignore with remarkable speed, I believe, but first humankind needs to be helped to see why a force too formidable to ignore is necessary as well as to understand more adequately the nature of the primary human-induced global challenge that presents itself to the family of humanity in our time; that takes its shape in the form of a colossal looming threat to future human wellbeing, environmental health and the integrity of Earth as a fit place for human habitation.

    Gentlemen, it deeply disturbs me that knowledgeable people who now say “things are beyond our control” saw nothing, heard nothing and spoke openly of nothing that J. N. “Ding” Darling, Garrett Hardin, Aurelio Peccei, Alexander King, Paul Ehrlich and many others have been trying to communicate during my lifetime.

    The willful refusal of many too many to come together, widely share what is true to them about the human-induced aspects of the global predicament looming before humanity, and speak truth as they see it to the wealthy and powerful among us who rule the world, is a betrayal that could stand as one of the most colossal failures of collective intellectual honesty, moral courage and personal will in human history.

    The messes on Earth that are distinctly human-driven can be cleaned up by reasonable and sensible human-forced action.

    Please assist me. I do not know if I am right or wrong to ask directly and repeatedly for truth, as each of us sees it, to be spoken loudly and clearly so that people can better share an understanding of the global emergency the human family could soon confront. But it does appear to me that if people with knowledge lose faith in God’s gift of science by denying its presence, embracing silence, and remaining electively mute while selfish, shortsighted leaders go forward on the basis of specious preternatural thinking to extirpate global biodiversity, pollute Earth’s environs and dissipate its limited resources, then the human community has virtually no chance of responding ably to the human-induced challenges before all of us.

    Perhaps I am mistaken about the scientific research to which I draw attention. If that is shown to be case, I will end the AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population immediately. I make you the promise that from that moment forward you will not hear from me again. Given the human-forced global challenges that appear to be converging before humankind currently, it will just fine if it turns out that I am indeed the fool so many people take me for now. Such an outcome has certain benefits. Fool that I am, still I will be free of a “duty to warn” and gratefully released to fulfill the promise I made years ago to my long-suffering spouse: end the AWAREness Campaign I began in 2001.



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001
    Chapel Hill, North Carolina

  • Thanks for your comment, Steven Earl Salmony. My response comes in two parts: (1) A review of my essays pointing to the abundant literature, and (2) more (and more recent) literature.

    We’ve known about limits to growth for a long time. The latest issue of Scientific American gives us an aesthetically pleasing overview. We understand that overshoot produces consequences for the organisms in overshoot. William Catton’s 1980 book, Overshoot, describes the situation and the likely outcome reasonably well. Because we’re in overshoot, people on this planet are starving in droves. Acting as if we can leave this planet for another is ignorant or stupid, and probably both.

    If you don’t believe the evidence contained in my essays, go straight to the refereed literature. The first thing you’ll notice is the relative paucity of recent papers, which is easily explained: Every sentient human knows we’re in ecological overshoot, and there is no reason to pummel the deceased equine while we search for the impossible dream of a political solution. But you will find papers underlain by a wide array of assumptions, including unlimited access to fossil fuels forever. Even in that wildly unrealistic scenario, human population stabilizes between 10 and 20 billion barely-living people. More reasonable assessments indicate we need an additional three Earths to support the current population living industrialized lives.

    This is all very sad, and also quite expected. Evolution drives us to survive and procreate. Evolution gave us big enough brains to conquer the world, for a while, but our brains are not big enough to find our way out of overshoot. Sad though the situation has become, it’s not nearly as sad as the humans who refuse to see it.

  • Steve,

    Going back to the beginning of your comment, as you know, I’ve written some on the same idea Hopfenberg and Pimentel describe. In fact, we were discussing it earlier in this thread. I think they’re right on the basic population/food-supply link. I think it’s actually more clearly explained (for most people) in the Quinn/Thornhill video I linked to somewhere in the comments above.

    As I’m sure you know as well, there have been comments from scientists to the effect, “Yeah, but what are we to do about it?” Others have trouble, though, conceding that human population may be subject to the same processes which regulate numbers in other species. (Often, I think, this is due to letting other layers [social etc.] which do influence fertility rates, obscure their vision of the food supply factor.)

    For three reasons, though, my own conclusion do not settle in the same place as those of some others. I don’t see much solution to be had, for instance, in the idea of capping the global food supply. First, I think that would be akin to trying to replicate the processes which regulate numbers in, say, hunter-gatherers (which — I should mention before someone brings it up — does not involve starvation). But though those do center on food supply, I fear they are more complex, and contain more subtleties than a simple caloric cap. Second, there is the question of how to get all major governments to go along with it. Seems unrealistic to say the least. Third, I strongly suspect it’s too late for it to do much good anyway. I think we’re not far from nature doing the work we should have taken more many years ago. So that’s how it fits into the thinking in my recent article.

  • Typo correction: “…nature doing the work we should have taken more *seriously* many years ago.”