Teaching Ourselves Out of

the Industrial Economy

Last week I had the fortunate opportunity to attend a fruit tree pruning workshop held at a nearby community garden. I say "fortunate" since I've only had one day of pruning experience, and because growing fruit trees is something I'd like to take on in the future for preservation purposes and, amongst other things, for fermentation purposes.

That one day of pruning experience I've had came about 10 years ago, which also occurred here in New Zealand while on my one-year WWOOFing venture. To say it was horrid would be a severe understatement, partly due to it being during one of my short (non-WWOOFing) work stints that inevitably occurred on one of those wretched monoculture farms.

To start off the day I vaguely remember being dropped off at a peach monoculture, given a pair of pruning loppers, and a quick ten-minute lesson on how we were to prune those trees. It was pathetic to say the least, and not only were we not taught any fundamentals behind the cuts one makes when pruning, but I hardly even grasped exactly how it was that we were to be pruning. No matter, as off we were sent to go up and down the rows chopping away, the strong impression that I was trashing those trees contributing to me hating every second of it all.

This all ended up ringing true for me just a few days ago during the pruning lesson. Our instructor, giving a short bio on his pruning experience, mentioned that after several years of working on a team that travelled from orchard to orchard pruning fruit trees (as well as kiwi and grape vines), he was eventually pushed out of the market by orchardists who wanted to reduce their costs, replacing the hard-won knowledge of pruners like himself with the cheap labour of ignoramus' like myself and backpackers.

Although our instructor had lost his job to people like me, he wasn't completely out of a job. Because occasionally – and I don't know if this was all pre-factored into the plans of the bean counters – our instructor was hired to go back through the orchards that were recently pruned to fix the mess that people like I had inflicted on the trees. Stupidity squared, but no surprise when it comes to the mentality of the industrial system which chooses to ignore long-term consequences for short-term gain.

But doing the workshop at a community garden at an elementary school, our instructor pointed out to us that although he could charge all the schools to go from community garden to community garden pruning their trees, he preferred giving workshops. Or as he told us all that day, he was more interested in spreading the knowledge around, and so effectively, as he put it, "I'm teaching myself out of a job." More than a noble gesture I'd say, and as far as I can tell, a wise approach as we go over the far side of Hubbert's curve.

If we're going to have much of a chance of softening our landing on the come-down from peak oil and upon the collapse of industrial civilization, then it's going to be necessary to spread around the required knowledge so that when things such as food production are inevitably forced to become more localized, a significant percentage of us (once again) have the needed skills to make it happen. Since industrialism has largely cordoned us off into increasingly secluded specialities where the norm is to know about one thing and one thing only (leaving us ignorant of pretty much everything else), perhaps a more generalist approach to the gathering of knowledge and skills would prove more useful in a time when knowledge is being thrown away and lost for the saving of a few bucks.

This approach of "teaching one's self out of a job" and spreading the knowledge around reminds me of small seed-saving companies who state that they'd be pefectly happy if they were put out of business by the (re)emergence of a seed-saving populace. For if we and our communities started saving our own seeds to the point that we no longer needed to buy them from seed suppliers (even from the nice heirloom seed suppliers), then all the better – we'd be that much closer to adapting our cultures (and our seeds!) to our places and securing ourselves a more resilient way of living.

Seeing how the collapse of economies is turning into a bit more than just a fad, where viable and applicable, teaching ourselves out of our jobs and professions before they're pulled out from under us might come in rather handy.

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Johnny
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Mar 2015
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I think the focus on how peak oil and collapse are going to cause the need for all the cool, non industrial things you like to do is severely overblown. While this fits in perfectly well with the peak oil niche folks (as a trigger to bring about a world they would rather see, as compared to the one they have) it ignores all economic reasons why peak oil is irrelevant in accomplishing that end. Your pruning instructor being a perfect example.

Many people doing something cheaply, in an occasionally flawed way, is more cost effective than doing it perfect the first time, but it being terribly expensive. This could be called the "perfect is the enemy of good" angle. "Good"...is good enough. "Perfect" can be brought in on an as needed basis to fix the mistakes, and overall the system is more productive in this configuration than of it only being one (backpackers and incompetents) or the other (expensive perfection).

As far as our jobs being out from under us by collapse, that is a conditional scenario based on collapse. The US in 2008, Zimbabwe, Greece this week, or 2 years ago, the Soviet Union, Argentina, all of these caused dislocation and change, but certainly reading collapse into them is also heavily overblown.

What I do for a living would certainly have ZERO value in a REAL collapse world, but that isn't what we are getting with the various economic dislocations around the world. Some enjoy pretending this is right around the corner, but then they have been doing that for centuries, if not millennium. So I wouldn't hold your breath waiting around for something operating on a frequency length that far beyond your lifespan.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Johnny: Well, I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm into "all the cool, non industrial things." I like to think of myself as an ecologically oriented agrarian, not a hipster. Furthermore, I can't say that peak oil would "bring about a world [I] would rather see," largely because I don't know what that world is going to look like. It may very well end up looking rather ugly, which is not something I'd be particularly fond of.

Yes, the conventional way of doing things might very well be cost effective, but that is not what I'm after. Industrialism is a way of thinking based on money. Agrarianism is a way of thinking based on the land. Industrialism is not concerned with much else besides the bottom line, at the expense of health, community, self-worth, friendship, and much more. Furthermore, industrialism's existence is largely based on "cheap" energy – fossil fuels.

Is it a bit much to speak of Greece as being an early example of industrial collapse? I don't think so. Greece is simply the first "loser" in the game of musical chairs, thanks to the effects that peak oil will have on the system of fractional-reserve banking. I explained this in depth in my piece Is Greece Planning to Print Energy?

And to correlate peak oil to the rantings and ravings of those with messianic complexes and such is to seriously stretch things. Peak oil is based on geological facts, not hokey ramblings.
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Johnny
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Mar 2015
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The ugliness of what peak oil is "supposed" to look like is exactly the point of those referencing it. The context of the way you have been using it would be completely different if you thought it was going to bring about ecological agrarian utopia.

Industrialism is a thing, a process, it is not required to have feelings about the way it goes about making your lifestyle possible, your travels, your education, the tools of film making or your reporting via computer and the web your ideas on it. The use of fossil fuels are just another result of human ingenuity, just as the ongoing transition into a less hydrocarbon world is. And some of them haven't been "cheap" for decades, so that turn of phrase doesn't apply either.

Greek, as Zimbabwe, FSU, Nigeria, are all examples of collective ignorance, bad political leadership, etc etc. Venezuela and Russia being two great examples of fossil fuel rich societies that aren't doing so well, for the same reasons, and fossil fuel scarcity of any kind has nothing to do with it.

Peak oil has nothing to do with geology. Another basic misunderstanding. There are two things that matter, to all humanity. Physics, and the will of man. Physics defines how much oil there may be within rocks, how fast it can move under certain conditions, the temperatures necessary to cook it from organic matter, but it is the will of man (otherwise known as economics) that determines the actual rate. The only way the geology matters is in determine the amount of effort required to create a given rate, but overall it is insignificant when compared to the will of man.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Johnny: I don't think there are any guarantees when it comes to peak oil. That being said, our awareness of the upcoming dilemmas posed by peak oil, never mind our response to them, has been pretty much nil. The less we educate ourselves and act upon that knowledge, then yes, the uglier it will be. In the meantime, our ability to somewhat manage the collapse of industrial civilization was lost decades ago, and the less we do to prepare for it the rougher it's going to be.

Industrialism is a system largely based on mechanized industry (which is based on fossil fuels), and so is more than just "a thing [or] a process.| You are correct that "it is not required to have feelings" about what it makes possible, just like it is not required to have feelings about anything in this world. But I'm not a nihilist, and so have made the conscious decision to examine industrialism and its underpinnings. From those examinations I can say that I don't think industrialism has much to say for itself in regards to individuals, communities, societies, nor the land and ecosystems.

Sure, the "use" of fossil fuels may be the result of human ingenuity, but fossil fuels themselves are not. The non-existence of fossil fuels (or fossil fuels with less energy return, EROEI) makes this notion of ingenuity rather moot.

And sorry, but the use of the phrase "cheap" energy is very much applicable. If you go back and read what I said, I was not referring to the price of fossil fuels over the past few decades. I said that industrialism's existence is based on "cheap" energy. And fossil fuels are most certainly cheap. The numbers differ from study to study and how you want to measure things, but if you count how many hours of human work would be required to match the energy output from a barrel of oil, you're looking at roughly 20,000 hours. Whether a barrel of oil is priced at $20, $55 (where it is now), or $147, the energy from fossil fuels is most certainly cheap.

No doubt that ignorance, corruption and other factors can lead to problems within a country (Venezuela). As do the theft of a nation's resources (Nigeria). But to state that the existence of such things negates the effects that fossil fuel supplies can have on nations doesn't hold water. The Soviet Union's oil supply peaked back in the 1980s and contributed to its collapse. Russia's oil supply is hitting its second peak, which will also have repercussions. On the other hand, Greece has barely any fossil fuels to speak for. Would it be needing bailouts if it were flush with domestic supplies of fuel? Not a chance. Greece is the first developed country to be experiencing collapse for a variety of reasons, one major one being its lack of domestic fuel supplies.

And not only does it seem that your understanding of geology seem to be skewed, but so does your understanding of economics. "Economics," derived from the Greek Oikonomia, refers to "household management." Unfortunately, our current understanding of economics doesn't give much attention to this, and is more concerned with notions of growth to keep the fractional-reserve Ponzi scheme going. On top of that, to say that economics has something to do with the "will of man" is to venture into New Age territory and surmise that the we can have anything we want, so long as we want it hard enough. That's not how oil is brought into existence.

And by the way; I may be an agrarian, but if anybody told me that an agrarian utopia was possible, I'd probably give them a funny look.

Cheers.
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Johnny
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There are no guarantees in life, let alone the future consequences of a complex series of interactions between people and their energy usage. You use the call to peak oil in more posts then just this one, and as a conditional upon which to build out the context of the posts themselves. So you've made your call, and it isn't a neutral stance on the issue.

Industrialism doesn't require saying anything for itself, as long as even those not happy with it, such as you, continue demanding the benefits it provides.

As far as what we are calling "cheap", I think we would need to define that a little better before discussing it. Certainly no one in your lifetime has bartered their energy labor for a gallon of gasoline or ton of coal, and for the metric "cheap" to be applicable, SOMEONE would have had to have used it before. $$ being the most common metric of course, and both you and I know how expensive crude oil was, prior to 1930. In some cases, even more expensive than it is today.

It isn't called "theft" when political leaders of a country are the ones doing the selling, and profiting, from resource exports. Gasoline and diesel isn't being "stolen" from the US because our refineries are exporting it to various overseas points.

To answer your question, Greek needs bailouts because it can't pay back all the money it borrowed to fulfill political promises to retirees that it couldn't keep. Not much thinking required in how these conditions came about, you can even try this on a personal level if you'd like, and then what the Greeks have done to themselves becomes blindingly obvious.

My knowledge on petroleum geology is world class, and my understanding of economics, while less so, is thoroughly modern. Has nothing to do with the origins of the word, as it is not relevant to the application with respect to the modern principles. If you wish to discuss elasticity of oil and GDP, or the cost curve of various farm products comprised of the underlying components such as the cheap, inexperienced labor, and the perfect pruner, fine, that falls right into the application of the science in the modern context. If understanding the origin of the word helps out in the context of now, the context you are posting in, then fine, I'm willing to learn how you think it is relevant.

To some extent, economics is a beautiful science, because all it tries to really do is explain the semi-chaotic (but discernible in the aggregate) human behavior. What we as humans CHOOSE to do, not what some might hope we do, or what we dream we might do, if only we all became Amish, or gave up our cars, or whatever the current fad of "sustainability" might be.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Johnny: Of course my stance isn't neutral in the sense that nothing will happen. To a certain degree though what will happen is up to us, and that requires action, action which is largely still not appearing. I don't really make predictions of the future, but am mostly stating my opinions on what the actions we've made so far will amount to. For a better look at that, you can take a look at my post Collapsing Down the Plum Tree.

I don't demand anything from industrialism, and I can't see where you pluck that from except preconceived notions that you may have. I already quit film and television and the life of a filmmaker some ten years ago; I was (directly) off the Internet for five years, and if I had to do it again would be glad to; I haven't eaten corn in any form in about seven years now (which is the epitome of industrial agriculture); and so on and so forth. None of that makes me an angel of course, and that doesn't mean I'm not part of the system. That being said, I'd rather not be writing a blog, and would much prefer to be writing with pen and paper (as is how my blog posts get written). But the Internet is where people are right now, and nor is it likely that the things I write will get printed in mainstream media venues. So I'm doing this until my manuscript is finished, possibly longer. We'll see.

You might want to check out John Perkins' book "Confessions of an Economic Hit Man." It's pretty illuminating in regards to all that "theft" we mention.

Much of the talk about Greece's collapse being due to the Greeks themselves is way over-hyped. Even Forbes mentioned the other day that Greeks work the longest hours in Europe, even more than Germans. The problem, as I see it, is the fractional-reserve banking system which is meeting up with limits of energy supplies. I'll be elaborating on that again in my next post.

And you're certainly right that "sustainability" is a fad, watered down as have things like "green," "organic," even local. I remember seeing in Toronto, at an outlet of Canada's largest grocery store chain, "local" being defined as all of Canada, and so their "local apples" came from British Columbia – some 4,000 km away.

Cheers.
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Johnny
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Mar 2015
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I am glad the Greeks work alot. Not sure of the relevance to the issue at hand if those hours are invested in goat herding as compared to a German assembling motors for BMW. As far as what is hyped, or by who, that is irrelevant as well, NONE of what is happening would be happening if the Greeks hadn't borrowed beyond their means. Period. That is the conditional from which all consequences flow. No hype required, no opinions on such a historical fact even matter. It WAS, therefore....fill in the consequences, good or bad. In the case of the Greeks...bad.

While i agree that fractional reserve banking can bring about its own issues, the entire meme of "limits to energy supplies" is just another spin on already discredited peak oil type ideas. Resource scarcity claims were going on long before you were born, and will continue to be recycled by any children you might have. The reason that can happen is because the people doing the claiming just don't understand the topic, no reflection on you of course, you appear to get most of your information on this topic from the internet, and this topic on the internet is WAY overpopulated with peak oil similar ideas from those lacking any experience in resource economics.

And sustainability is amusing, isn't it? Buy a Prius!!
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Johnny: Goat herding! I can't wait to raise goats myself (no joke)! Regardless, what's so much more valuable about making BMWs than raising goats? Kowtowing to a bunch of fat cats with a false sense of superiority, and prolonging the fractional-reserve game of growth?

Speaking of factional-reserve banking, it's fair to ask if Greece would have had to borrow money at all, and be the token "loser" in this charade, if the Greek government, and all other governments, created their own money rather than ceding that privilege to private banks.

Although I do get information from the Internet for these blog posts, I much prefer books, and I don't think I'll be referencing one Internet page in my completed manuscript. Instead, I'll be referencing 500+ books. Books allow for much more thorough arguments, and are generally a bit more reputable. And while I do count myself as one of those without experience in resource economics, there are many who do have those credentials. Charles A.S. Hall is one of them, and he has co-written a formidable book called Energy and the Wealth of Nations: Understanding the Biophysical Economy. Then there's Herman Daly and Joshua Farley's textbook Ecological Economics.

And yeah, Prius'. From what I've read, there's so much energy embedded in their construction that the energy used over its "lifespan" is equivalent to an SUV. But they look good in the right social circles!

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