January - February, 2006

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January 9. Two articles that (when you look closely) are about the psychology of collapse. First, in Strapped for adulthood, a reviewer of a new book writes:

My mom actually took notes while reading. Her best notation? "Book premise -- harder and more costly to become an adult." Now that my mother is in tune with the pressing issues facing young people trying to become a full-fledged adult with a spouse, a home, a car, and a job...

Hold on. The real problem here is that they're clinging to a definition of "adult" that only made sense for about 40 years in the entire history of the world. People born after 1962 can either suffer and die trying to live like our parents, or shift to a new definition of maturity: to find food without a job, to find shelter without a mortgage, to get around without a car, to build savings and avoid debt, and to form alliances with other people that reduce our need for money... generally to become less dependent on institutions, and more dependent on people we know personally.

Next, from an article about "Dark, eerie New Orleans":

"It's scary at night. No neighbors, it's pitch black, it's awful," said Mark Wiltz ... "I want to go back, but I'm scared," said Antoine Shropshire, a 41-year-old truck driver visiting his house in the Ninth Ward. "There's no people. It's creepy here. It's too weird."

Yet murder rates are lower. Although they might have good reason to fear mercenaries and bulldozers, they have no rational reason to feel creeped out by the darkness and silence that our ancestors lived with for the whole history of life on Earth. They're like little kids still afraid of the dark -- and the late 20th century, with its definition of adulthood as isolation and toy-buying, was an age of infantilism, from which we're now beginning to mature.

January 15-18. Two good essays from Toby Hemenway: Urban vs. Rural Sustainability, and the sequel, Cities, peak oil, and sustainability. The idea is that the city might be better than the country in a collapse, and this position deserves more attention, with so many doomers taking for granted that urbanites will eat each other and cities will go extinct. I continue to believe that some urban areas will adapt, that the best cities will be preferable to many rural areas, and that cities will play a big role in the future of humanity.

But wait -- aren't cities unsustainable? Derrick Jensen argues that cities require importation of resources, and therefore they must deplete the surrounding land and collapse. But I think it's possible for a city to give back what it takes, if the residents compost their shit and food scraps, and export that compost to local farms, and if they don't demand crops or quantities that destroy fertility. And even if cities do deplete the land and crash, this can take hundreds of years, and meanwhile new cities are forming elsewhere. People throw around the word "unsustainable" as if it means "impossible" or "immoral." But in reality, things that can't be sustained are always coming into being and existing. In the strictest sense, nothing is sustainable -- even the Sun will burn out. So instead of dividing everything into "sustainable / not sustainable," we should ask, "How long will it last?" and "What role does it play in the larger world?"

Toby Hemenway comments:

I often describe sustainability as the midpoint between degeneration and regeneration. We've damaged so many ecosystems that we've got to do better than just treading water; we need to do regenerative work.

January 18. Fascinating excerpt from the book Synthetic Worlds:

Nothing is more eerie than a large, unpopulated city. It happens often in the cities constructed in virtual worlds, because the cities have no economic rationale and hence no economic activity. They are large, beautiful, empty spaces. Meanwhile, somewhere out in the countryside, all the players have accumulated somewhere to conduct their marketing activity. In the first few years of EverQuest, the main market was located in a tunnel in the wilderness because that happened to be the main route by which people traveled; a nearby city was evidently built to feel like a capital but was usually empty simply because the tunnel was the most direct route through that area.

All our present cities are full of people and commerce because of their roles in the economy of industrial civilization. In America, most of our cities were even built in that context. As the corporate/industrial economy breaks down, the economic rationale for many of our cities will dry up, and they will become large (beautiful?) empty spaces. This has already been happening for years in downtown areas, as commerce moves out to the suburbs.

We will always have economies. What we call "the economy" will crumble and other economies will grow through the cracks. These economies will have "cities" -- locations where people make a living not by producing anything but by serving as catalysts for trade. Without oil to burn, we will not be able to afford the luxury of giant buildings full of people who make a living by rearranging pieces of paper. Our cities will be smaller and leaner. Some of them will be in the same streets and buildings as our present cities. Some will be in spots where there are now no cities, and some of our present cities will not be cities at all, but places where people go to scavenge.

January 19. One of the densest ways to produce food is algae cultivation. That link goes to the wikipedia page, but there's not much information online. Here's an expensive book, Microalgae, and there's a very rare book called Spirulina production and potential. Also Eric found a manual translated from French, Grow your own spirulina, now available only in the web archive minus illustrations, and Anne found this spirulina medium chemical list.

My thought is, it can't be this hard! If edible algae grows in nature, there must be natural materials that will feed it. But if you read the French manual closely, you find this:

In case of necessity ("survival" type situations), all major nutrients and micronutrients except iron can be supplied by urine.

January 19. 1491 is a new book arguing that "native Americans had created vast cities and civilizations on a scale that dwarfed Europe at the time." And they all died from smallpox in time for dominant history to ignore them:

De Soto ignored the taunts and occasional volleys of arrows and poled over the river into what is now Eastern Arkansas, a land "thickly set with great towns," according to the account, "two or three of them to be seen from one." Each city protected itself with earthen walls, sizable moats, and deadeye archers.
After De Soto's army left, the Caddo stopped erecting community centers and began digging community cemeteries. Between the visits of De Soto and La Salle... the Caddoan population fell from about 200,000 to about 8,500.
"That's one reason whites think of Indians as nomadic hunters," Russell, an anthropologist at UCLA, said to me. "Everything else -- all the heavily populated urbanized societies -- was wiped out."

January 22. In this Village Blog post, Aaron quotes permaculturist Joe Polaischer on what happened in WWII when the cities ran out of food. It's a little more complex than the murderous "roving gangs" myth:

My first 10 years in Austria after the war -- on a peasant farm that was so isolated we had no road access, no electricity, no fossil fuels -- and it was an excellent time because we were functioning up there self-sufficiently.

We had all of a sudden all these relatives came out of Vienna because they were bombed and they had nothing to eat. And they all said "we are related, do you remember we're second and third so and so" and we said bugger off. They said, "I'm hungry, can I stay here" and "our house was bombed" and we said OK and all of a sudden we had 15 to 20 people in that household and then we said we can't actually support you, move on, so people started moving and then we got into trouble.

Then, those people became dangerous -- they turned the necks of our free range chooks and they disappeared. We planted potatoes, it was our staple food -- we planted them in daylight and the people were sitting in the forest waiting for darkness -- came out, dug out the seed potatoes, boiled them and ate them and we waited for our staple food crop to come up and they wouldn't sprout -- and the same thing through the rest of the neighbourhood.

January 23-26. A summary of the permaculture discussion:

1) When I talk about "permaculture," I mean a set of principles and techniques to simultaneously grow food with great efficiency, and increase soil fertility. It's not the same as "horticulture" because it includes some techniques and concepts that are totally new. And it's not just a pretentious word for growing a home garden, which has more in common with an industrial monoculture crop than it does with permaculture. They both grow annuals (tomatoes, corn) and permaculture grows mostly perennials (blueberries, oregano); they both till the soil and permaculture doesn't; they both deplete soil fertility and permaculture, when done right, builds it.

2) There is no clear line between permaculture and foraging. The more foragers know about planting, and the more space permaculturists have, the more they blur into each other. If there's a berry bush you like, you're going to plant it wherever it will survive and you can eat from it. There is not even a clear line between permaculture and hunting. If flocks of birds come to eat your cherries, throw a net over them and eat the birds! Or, if you plan to be hunting in the same region for the rest of your life, you would be smart to use techniques from permaculture to slow down and cycle water, to build topsoil, and to encourage the growth of plants that will attract the animals you're hunting.

3) Permaculture can feed people even in arid regions. The ancient Nabateans used a network of giant cisterns to thrive on only a few inches of rain a year. And in a depleted ecosystem, permaculture and even agriculture are better survival strategies than foraging and hunting. But the more we succeed in rebuilding the abundance of nature, the easier it will be to live by pure foraging/hunting, and the more likely our ancestors will choose that.

4) We have a lot of room to make permaculture knowledge affordable. The books are more expensive than other books of the same size, and the classes are not much cheaper than college tuition and new age seminars. You would think, with a system that allows you to grow loads of food with little effort, that someone would get so self-sufficient that they could teach classes for next to nothing, and then those students could do the same thing, and so on.

5) I think some people fear permaculture because it would be sustainable, and therefore it could be used to feed a bad society which would then never crash for ecological reasons, and could lock us in for a million years. We have to have faith that even a physically sustainable society will break down if it's not emotionally sustainable.

February 10. Google appears to be planning a second physical internet, which will be controlled by Google, and accessed by $100 "computers" sold by Google, which will be useful only as nodes in the Googlenet. So, assuming the regular internet doesn't get ruined, we'll have two options: buy the googlebox and do shiny high-bandwidth stuff on the googlenet, or buy an old cheap computer and do clunky slow stuff with more privacy and autonomy. That's one reason this site will always have small, fast-loading pages.

[Update 2020. This is basically what happened with smart phones.]

February 14. Yesterday, Patricia and I thought it would be interesting to go a whole day with no talking and no computer, and we also decided to have no clocks or electric lights. I didn't much miss the lights. With four or five good candles you can see well enough for almost anything. Without the computer, we did a lot of stuff we normally don't have time for. No talking got interesting after about five hours. Just reading a book and saying the words in my head felt strange. But by twelve hours, with another person I needed to say things to, it was frustrating. Even if language has made it possible for humans to nearly exterminate life on Earth, it's now part of who we are, and going without it too long is kind of like monks who torture themselves to get enlightened.

February 24. I don't like to get caught up in scaring myself and you about fascism. What we have to understand is that central control doesn't work. The forest doesn't have a king tree that tells the other trees where to grow. Squirrels don't have forced nut-gathering camps, because they enjoy gathering nuts. Many forager-hunter societies don't even have the concept of "freeloading" -- they have no pressure to "work," not even social pressure, because their activity is so in tune with their nature that everyone just wants to do it. This is 100% spiritual efficiency, the default condition of the whole universe. But something has got into humans that makes us build top-down systems of forcing each other to do what we hate. This works so badly that these systems burn themselves out in centuries, while other living systems persist for tens of millions of years.

Socialists think we can make centrally controlled systems that are benevolent and enduring. But it's the nature of these systems to reach for more and more control, at worse and worse functional value, until they burn themselves out. In a strange way, fascism is natural: it's a safety mechanism that makes anti-natural systems unstable. America will have labor camps, and then it will have ruins of labor camps.

February 26. This article, Biowar for Dummies, has an interesting section called Biotech's growth curves leave Moore's Law in the dust. The good news is, we no longer have to worry about the evil robots. If the system keeps going another 50 years, new biological life will overtake and pass new computer life. The singularity will be eaten by dragons! Or maybe by bacteria. If there is a benevolent intention behind civilization, this could be what it's intending, an age of DIY genetics that creates biodiversity a million times as fast as nature.

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