Mass deception and the quest for a more sustainable agriculture

By Karl North | February 16, 2018

Most of our society has fallen victim to a spectacularly successful, century-long effort of mass deception. The idea that organically certified farming is making a significant difference is just one of the many myths. To explain how that happens, I will first sketch a more general, historical picture that provides the necessary context.

The advent of mass communications and the arrival in the US of Freud’s kinsman Edward Bernays, both at the beginning of the 20th century, was a fortuitous convergence for our rulers. Bernays showed industrialists how to manufacture desire using psychology, and spread it via the growing media of mass communication. Thus the first industry of mass deception was born, known as advertising.

It was so successful at accelerating consumption, burning through resources at the fastest rate possible, and thereby maximizing capitalist profits, that our ruling strata engaged Bernays to apply his methods of mass deception more generally to allow them to achieve near total control over us with little need for force. Bernays taught ruling strata how to use propaganda to, in Chomsky’s words, manufacture consent to a social system where most of the power lies in the hands of the few, by using a psychologically sophisticated narrative to sell the myths of democracy, free enterprise, free market, free trade, and free speech.

The result is that today most people are badly misled as to how our society works and who its most powerful institutions serve. A ruling elite has achieved immense power and bends government, media, markets and the knowledge business itself to serve primarily its own interests, while sustaining the illusion that these institutions serve the public interest. Because the powerful remain in the background, critical analysts have accurately described this system as inverse totalitarianism. Hence government agencies serve the economic sectors that they are supposed to regulate: the USDA serves those who exert monopoly control over industrial agriculture. The historical record shows that it always has. The first Secretary of Agriculture created the Pioneer seed company, which used hybridization to take control of seeds away from farmers.

Under these conditions, what is the reality regarding the present food system and the quest for a more ecologically sustainable agriculture? Ten percent of US farms produce most of the food. These are the biggest, foulest farms in the food economy. The same is true for organic – the biggest, least sustainable certified organic farms produce the lion’s share of the organic food economy, thanks in large part to the NOP that nationalized organic food miles. Worse, organic is a drop in the bucket: US acres in farming is 844 million, certified organic acres is 5.4 million – 0.64% of the total farm economy (click to enlarge).

Certified organic is a joke, just another brand that agribusiness uses to more fully exploit the discretionary consumption capacity of the gentrified slice of the food market. Make oats into the letter O, call them Cheerios (because they start your day with cheer), then call them Honey Nut Organic O’s to sell even more oats – at twice the price. Moreover, this branding hardly makes a difference in the quality of the US food system. After decades of the organic movement, certified organic food is a tiny fraction of the US food economy, less than 1%. And incessantly corrupted, at that, gradually eroding trust even in the miniscule gentrified market that it serves. Not that agribusiness cares that much for such a small market fraction. We need to think about that reality and ask what kind of social system under what set of power relations achieves such an outcome.

None of the above is meant to lay blame on farmers, conventional or organic, or on anyone who works for a more sustainable agriculture. But when we falsely believe we are making much of a difference, or expect any help in that effort from the government or any of its agencies, or any of the other major institutions in our society, we are deluded, duped, in a word, and the system will not change for the better as long as that mass deception reigns supreme.

We have been taught to dismiss any attempt to lift the veil as ‘conspiracy theory’, but knowledge about how things really work is available, not secret, if one is willing to look beyond the sources the oligarchs daily put before our eyes and ears. Education must start with an understanding of the concentration of power that makes possible the control of institutions and the success of indoctrination. The public is even misled about that, although the information is readily available if one looks for it. The public is aware that there is inequality, but the concentration of wealth and power is orders of magnitude above what the average person thinks.

Those who try to lift the veil will be called names, suggesting they are promoting some impossible future, and diverting attention from the real question: how much of our conception of the present is illusion.

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The Pace of Descent: A Long Emergency vs. Sudden Collapse

By Karl North | January 17, 2018

Students of the energy descent continue to debate the probability of different rates of industrial decline. Sudden collapse advocates focus on the increase of many kinds of fragility in the global industrial economy. Risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb (Antifragile, The Black Swan) and others argue that increasing fragility is inherent with increasing complexity in systems due to randomness, uncertainty and the limits of knowledge. David Korowicz in Tipping Point described how a number of elements of fragility could lead to sudden collapse. I summarized his work in The Case for a Disorderly Descent.

Early adherents of slow decline describe a process in which industrial society gradually adapts as it chews through a massive backlog of built assets that cushion the decline, as described by James Kunstler in The Long Emergency or John Michael Greer in The Long Descent. These perspectives rely on historical patterns of how societies adapt to disastrous situations, usually via increased governmental intervention in economies, as in the US war economy and German national socialism in WWII, and the Special Period in Cuba due to the loss of energy and other industrial inputs from the USSR.

Increasing awareness of how interdependence causes things to change over time in complex systems has strengthened support for scenarios of sudden change. Interdependence of feedback loops can cause exponential change in one loop to infect others in a cascade. Hence the total effect is much greater, as in this model of some of the potential effects of decreasing oil production (click to enlarge):

This has led to a convergence of views on the pace, or at least the shape of the energy descent – toward a bumpy stairway scenario, illustrated metaphorically by Pooh Bear in this classic Christopher Robin scenario:

In The Ecotechnic Future, Greer’s latest version of his theory of catabolic collapse, he expects the declining energy will force society to flexibly adapt, gradually using up the built capital, but he now accepts the probability of a ragged descent likely punctuated with sudden shocks due to “trophic cascades”. I have summarized Greer’s points in Scenarios on the Downslope: Insights from Greer’s The Ecotechnic Future.

Some of the influences that have been advanced to suggest faster or slower change are:


  1. The so-called Seneca Cliff, in which declining net energy makes a civilization fall faster that it has risen.
  2. The industrial economy and infrastructure that is necessary to permit proposed technological palliatives is shrinking and will close off most such options. Korowitz: “Once collapse begins we will lose the tools and infrastructure we would need to manage the collapse”[1]
  3. A low- or no-growth economy can no longer pay the interest that capitalism requires to provide capital for growth or even maintenance of the economy.
  4. Tightly coupled supply chains in the present global economy cause a cascading collapse.
  5. Lock-in effects trap society in unsustainable systems like large scale institutions, automotive transportation and its suburban topography, industrial agriculture and its short cuts to fertility and just-in-time distribution, which impede transition to more viable lower energy ways of life, then cause sudden, costly collapse.
  6. In the present situation of fragility, damage to the industrial resource base from man-made or natural disasters can set off vicious spirals.


  1. The enormous waste and extravagance that capitalism tends to produce mitigates the collapse: it gives a society time to gradually let go of this accretion of discretionary consumption before it must suffer loss of necessities like food and shelter.
  2. In the attempt to sustain profits in the energy descent, capitalists will be compelled to adapt production to what is affordable to the average consumer, a pressure that could lead to more sustainable technologies in the whole economy.
  3. The salvage stage that Greer writes about also slows the decline, and includes not only physical remains but the accumulation of knowledge of living systems. In Cuba’s transition, for example, agroecologists and peasant farmers combined scientific and experiential knowledge to replace industrial agriculture with highly productive low input systems.


Our tendency so far to cling to what Greer calls wasteful abundance suggests a probable future where rising scarcity makes much such consumption unaffordable, causes demand destruction starting with the most discretionary consumption, and forces economic investment in directions that are more affordable for the majority of society. Thus begins a painful transition, slowed by cultural inertia that prolongs overshoot until some part of the no longer viable cheap energy economy suddenly gives way – a financial crash, electrical grid failure, supply chain failure, etc. Therefore, the downslope is likely to be punctuated with occasional shocks. Due to interdependency and fragility of system elements, chain reactions triggering cascades of change are likely, and hard to predict.

[1] Korowitz,

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What is Sustainable?

By Karl North | January 8, 2018

Answers to this question that are rooted in the relevant scientific disciplines – primarily systems ecology, the physics and economics of natural resource science and the world-system method of the history of civilizations – are so unsettling to most people in their implications for the future of modern civilization that they are met with denial. Systems ecology reveals that all systems that overshoot their carrying capacity in natural resource use eventually collapse. Natural resource science tells us that consumption of finite sources of energy and other raw materials depletes them in a standard pattern – an asymmetric bell curve whose downside is steeper.

The history of civilizations as world systems discloses that all civilizations prior to ours have collapsed. Or they have given way to invaders with better technology and new resource frontiers. At present there are no more resource frontiers. In that respect the planet is fully occupied. The combined implications of these revelations for our civilization are unthinkable for most people.

What to do? Perhaps what is needed is a way into the problem that is gradual and indirect enough to avoid provoking denial, and an initial target group that is more approachable than the general public. All notions of sustainability of human society depend on how necessities of life – food and shelter – are produced. Hence farmers and agricultural scientists have begun to use the term in many ways in recent decades, as have environmentalists (although unfortunately with little knowledge of the above mentioned relevant scientific disciplines). Consequently, these groups at least acknowledge the importance of the concept. A recent book that tackles the problem head on, but in a way that might gain access to the environmental and alternative agriculture movements is What is Sustainable: Remembering Our Way Home by Richard Adrian Reese. What follows is a short review of the book.

Reese is the typical urban expatriate who finally got fed up with his career and lifestyle in a midlife crisis and bought an abandoned farm. Having no rural or farming skills, he embarked on a crash course to learn these, but also to read a huge booklist of the literature in any area of inquiry that might be relevant to the question of what is sustainable. If nothing else, his book is a comprehensive review and introduction to this literature.

His booklist does not include the relevant scientific texts themselves; rather it covers the secondary literature, often written by scientists whose aim is to bring to a general public the perspective of their discipline on the subject. Typical of the wide range of literature that Reese draws on are titles like Changes in the Land, a detailed account of how European land management displaced more sustainable indigenous land management in colonial New England; Topsoil and Civilization, a history of the rise of civilization and its damage to soil; The Myth of the Machine, an analysis of the central tenet of the industrial worldview; Tree Crops – A Permanent Agriculture, a valuable compendium on agroforestry; Collapse, an inquiry into the rise and fall of a number of civilizations; and The Long Descent, one of the best examples of the energy descent literature.

Reese has a knack for extracting the core messages from this literature in pithy remarks that drive home important conclusions. His summary of the literature and its conclusions is thorough enough that it covered all of the important works that I have absorbed in a half century of study and teaching of the subject, and then some. Reese’s conclusions challenge the idea that anything like modern civilization and its agriculture, including most currently practiced agricultural alternatives, can last much longer. However, his method – following his own gradual learning trajectory – presents the argument repeatedly from many different angles, and may be palatable where more direct arguments from science so far have failed. Among the perspectives he shares to make his case are:

Although understandable in the approach of a layman on a steep learning curve, Reese’s book exhibits little evidence of knowledge of the sciences that I said are relevant to an understanding of what is sustainable. The works he relies on are often written by scientists in the relevant fields, but present mostly interpretations of historical data, not the powerful concepts that scientists use to order the data. Thus, the lack of clinching arguments based on modern systems ecology are a limitation of the book. Theoretical considerations essential to thinking about sustainability must include the relationship of carrying capacity and its erosion, phantom carrying capacity (a term coined by systems eco-sociologist William Catton), and overshoot, as demonstrated in this time graph,

and its devastating use by the Limits to Growth project to demolish the myth of everlasting growth and material progress, as in this scenario.

Reese also could have made more use of the so-called peak oil literature that appears in his bibliography, which focuses on the depletion of cheap fossil energy, the all-important understanding of declining net energy, the extravagant energy costs of industrial economies and their consequences and implications.

Another limitation of the book is Reese’s lack of any of the penetrating tools of inquiry known to political economists. Despite numerous superficial remarks regarding exploitation and its victims, Reese never manifests an understanding of the power structure of our society, the power elite that is orchestrating much of the predicament he writes about, and how it all works. Hence all the bad things just “happen”, or he eventually blames the bad fairies, and hopes that the good ones will prevail. A grasp of the structure of class and power in capitalist societies is essential to see why the collapse of industrial civilization is happening the way it is, and to explore probable scenarios of how it will play out.

Still, I would recommend the book as a user-friendly, lay approach to learning or teaching the question of what is sustainable. Reese has brought together in a single work important lessons from a voluminous literature.

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How the Maximum Power Principle affects living systems

By Karl North | November 22, 2017

I make no claim to expertise on the subject, but here is how I understand it. The laws of thermodynamics are central for understanding how the universe operates. One of the aspects of the second law is that gradients of energy or matter will try to eliminate themselves. This is important because of all the consequences – the many dynamics it explains. In the process of draining energy gradients, many structures are created: inanimate ones like mountain ranges and weather, living systems and their organisms, and social structures and their material elements including the industrial civilization made possible by fossil fuels.  This process follows a Maximum Power Principle (MPP, explained below). Systems ecologist Howard T. Odum in his book, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-first Century: The Hierarchy of Energy made a landmark contribution to general systems theory. He created a framework for understanding behavior in all systems based on how energy works. Because of the important influence of MPP on the dynamic behavior of all systems in the known universe, Odum proposed MPP as a fourth law of thermodynamics .

As Odum describes it, under the influence of MPP “systems that prevail are those with loading adjusted to operate at the peak of the power efficiency curve”. This helps explain all sorts of structures in the universe, from microscopic to astronomic. Odum elaborates, “The natural processes of design selection during self-organization cause the systems to develop that maximize power intake and useful consumption. In each energy transformation an optimal intermediate efficiency is selected that maximizes power.” In other words, the more energy available, the more it will tend be used to the maximum in accord with MPP. For living systems, following Lotka, he says that this assumes a Darwinian selection is occurring in this direction in the long run. Hence, in compliance with MPP, all species will try to multiply their  populations to fill the available carrying capacity of the system, as delimited by the available energy. The human species, for example, under the influence of MPP, and accessing apparently unlimited fossil fuel,  goes on a predictable consumption binge, drawing down energy and all finite natural resources on earth. The resulting population overshoot and its resource consumption erodes the earth’s carrying capacity causing human population to collapse.

There is debate about the influence of MPP on the behavior of human society. The dominant influence of MPP on all species has fostered a genetic deterministic reading of MPP regarding humanity such that overshoot in the fossil fuel era was inevitable, and will always occur if not constrained by natural energy limits.  I am not so sure. Overall, human historical and even prehistorical experience certainly follows MPP, but the existence of attempts at moderation, however small, suggests that other genetic traits exist that allow other choices. So I tend to see MPP as a strong force among others that might prevail under different social and cultural conditions. Among the conditions is the type of social organization chosen. For example, Cuba is the only nation in Latin America where policy choices are causing forest area to increase. In all the others, deforestation is the historical pattern. According to a deterministic reading, MPP should overrule Cuban policy choices, and human society everywhere will maximize deforestation to maximize its consumption of its stored energy content, as every society has done in the ten thousand years of ‘civilization’. The Cuban example is just one of many societal choices in human history that are exceptions to MPP as an overriding rule. So it appears that a diversity of choices is found in the human genetics evolved to date, of which the MPP factor is only one, albeit a very strong one. Notably, this diversity in our genetic heritage and in all species is critical to survival: according to evolutionary theory it is necessary to allow adaptation and evolution to occur.

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Biochar – a Critical View Through the Ecosystemic Lens

By Karl North | October 30, 2017

I have been following the biochar story since it began to gain visibility over a decade ago. I view it from the perspective of forty years of farming informed by study of systems ecology. My understanding of both of these pursuits has evolved over that time in ways that will inform this critique. I began to study ecology in a unique graduate program in anthropology that regarded the knowledge of a society as incomplete without an understanding of its ecological foundation. However I still saw the study of ecosystems as one field of knowledge among others. Gradually I have come to see it as the master or umbrella discipline, one that that provides an essential framework for all other inquiry.

Similarly, in farming I first saw the enterprise I was creating as sheep farming. As the wellbeing of my sheep and draft horses was heavily reliant on the health and productivity of perennial grasses, it began to make more sense to think of the enterprise as grass farming. But as forage quality and productivity in turn depends on the state of the soil and its food web, I ultimately came to see myself as a carbon farmer, as it became increasingly apparent what an important role the level of soil organic matter (and its carbon) plays in the fitness and success of the farm as an agroecosystem. Others have experienced this evolution, and now there exist increasing numbers of self-proclaimed carbon farmers, for whom a central question is to design a farming system that insures the best regeneration of soil carbon.

Getting past the Greenwash

Given the background described above, it should not surprise the reader to learn that I have tended to regard with the healthy skepticism of a student of science the promotion of a form of charcoal as a soil amendment. A fad enhanced with an intriguing story of terra preta, the dark earth residue of a mysterious ancient Amazonian civilization, appears designed to enlist environmentalists desperate for a solution to climate change and to entice business people who are always looking for a new way to make a profit. With agricultural soil organic matter levels typically down in the 1-2% range due to conventional tillage agriculture, there is no doubt of a need to rebuild soil, and since it sequesters atmospheric carbon in the process, so much the better. However, as ecological farmers, we have studied the many ways both mankind and nature have generated and regenerated soil. Rodale’s excellent long term trials demonstrated one way. An example of dark earths that evolved in natural ecosystems is the muck soils sought by growers of heavy feeders like onions. The real question for us should be: What is the most effective way that integrates with ecosystem processes and does no harm in the larger context?

The first tipoff of an attempt to create a new fashion is to dress up something old with a more attractive label. The term “Biochar”, like ‘clean propane’ or ‘clean coal’, is an attempt to make a substance and a process sound greener than it really is. Biochar is no more nor less biological than any other form of charcoal. All charcoals are made from biomass (any substance that is or once was part of a living thing) by pyrolysis, which is oxygen-starved combustion, a rather violent process by comparison with the ways biomass is decomposed in most ecosystemic carbon cycling. I am using the term biochar in this article only because that is how the general public recognizes it. A more neutral term used in the scholarly literature is black carbon.

A lengthy review of the literature on the subject only tended to confirm my skepticism. Currently it is mostly blatant promotion – garden variety advertising; I could find few attempts to view the subject critically with the habitual skepticism necessary to scientific appraisal.  A common kind of statement is the following: “Biochar is increasingly being recognized by scientists and policy makers for its potential role in carbon sequestration, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, renewable energy, waste mitigation, and as a soil amendment.”[1]

As the biochar feeding frenzy has reached new heights, even the scientific papers tend to begin on a promotional tone, with just enough ambiguity in the language to cover for the caveats buried deep in the studies. For example, Biochar is often described as if it were a fertilizer. A website of Cornell University, a hot spot of biochar research, postulates “the soil fertility benefits of biochar”.[2] To the lay reader that carries the implication that it is a fertilizer. The fact that biochar is not a fertilizer and makes little direct contribution to soil fertility is often buried deep in the scientific literature.

Again for the lay reader, the literature also tends to confuse biochar with terra preta/dark earth by using the properties of the latter to promote the former. The properties of earth darkened with carbon from any source are the result of a complex systemic process of interaction between the carbon and the other soil constituents over a long time frame; they vary in the extreme with the nature of a specific soil and climate and cannot be deduced from the properties of charcoal alone or in a short term laboratory trial.

Stoked by the desire to defy the limits to growth on a finite planet, the business-oriented literature is also full of glowing expectations that biochar production will deliver yet another agro-fuel to replace fossil fuels as the end of cheap oil starts to bite into the global economy. Given the disastrous boondoggle of corn ethanol and soy diesel, production of which steals land from food production and exists only with the prop of massive subsidies because it can never deliver any appreciable net energy, it is surprising that anyone has the nerve to suggest another agrofuel project.

Finally, the treatment of this subject, as with most others, suffers from the limitations of narrow focus of the dominant reductionist way of doing science. Big questions like sustainability and climate dynamics require a systemic approach. I could find few attempts in the literature to compare biochar use with alternative solutions, or to make the full life cycle energy calculations necessary to any investigation of energy production or consumption in complex systems like ecosystems and human economies.

In this article I will address the following claims of the biochar promoters:

  1. Biochar has the unique ability to indirectly enhance soil fertility by encouraging the growth of soil microbial populations and store and retain plant nutrients.
  2. It is more stable than more naturally occurring carbonaceous compounds, and therefore a better option for sequestration to mitigate climate change.
  3. Some of the gaseous byproducts of biochar production could replace fossil fuel use, also mitigating climate change.

I will demonstrate that the first claim, while true, is misleading because it ignores other, better ways of providing the same benefits. Regarding the second claim, while the relative stability of biochar appears true, I will show that properly designed agroecosystems can achieve the same carbon sequestration results while better serving overall system health and productivity. Regarding the third claim, I will argue that while pyrolysis produces burnable methane, so do other less violent processes. Moreover, like all energy alternatives, it will fail to reduce fossil fuel use due to the Jevons Paradox[3]. As with all attempts to produce biofuels, whether the consequences for society and the planet are good or bad depends greatly on the choice of biomass feedstock and where it comes from. As I will argue, there are no biochar feedstocks produced in any ecosystem on the planet whose massive expropriation would not damage the normal, necessary function of the carbon cycle in that ecosystem. Unless of course one is counting on sourcing them from Mars.

Seeing the issue through the ecosystemic lens

The ecosystemic lens is the worldview that frames all inquiry in terms of the dynamics and health of the ecosystem processes. The health of these processes and obedience to their laws are essential to the long term survival of all species within its system, including us. Although we have been led to believe since the Book of Genesis that Nature is our plaything, Nature rules us, not the other way around.

Using the ecosystemic lens, students of ecosystems soon realize and must come to terms with the complexity of our environment, which derives from the interaction and interdependence of so many of its parts. Within ecosystemic wholes they see further layers of complexity: social wholes and organisms, especially ours. They discover that there is no simple answer to any problem because all problems are ultimately connected and consequences of actions are multiple. They realize that when intervening in complex systems, one can never do just one thing! There are always ripple effects, and consequences distant in space or time are commonly far different from immediate ones. In my view a critical assessment of any human activity or technology needs to be undertaken through the ecosystemic lens. That is how I intend to explore the question of biochar.

Farmers who see agriculture in an agroecological framework know that the health of ecosystem processes includes proper carbon and other mineral cycling. The biochar literature consistently refers to biochar feedstocks as “wastes” or “residues”, a first tip-off of the narrow unecological lens through which promoters are viewing the subject.

I still remember hearing sustainability pioneer William McDonough[4] in a keynote address to the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture years ago stating, “There’s no such thing as waste!” Ecosystems, whether managed or natural, must follow the ‘law’ of the ecosystem food web: waste=food=waste=food. The level of ecosystem health and sustainability depends on how well this law is obeyed. In the language of systems ecology, there exists a mineral/nutrient cycle that must not fail or be broken, and if possible must be enhanced.

1. Biochar has the unique ability to indirectly enhance soil fertility by encouraging the growth of soil microbial populations and store and retain plant nutrients.

The main trouble with this claim is not with the truth of the functions of black carbon in the soil, but of with the claim of uniqueness of biochar to serve these functions. A typical statement is: “The application of bio-char (charcoal or biomass-derived black carbon (C)) to soil is proposed as a novel [my italics] approach to establish a significant, long-term, sink for atmospheric carbon dioxide in terrestrial ecosystems.”[5] It should not be necessary to remind readers of The Natural Farmer that ways of getting soil carbon up to optimal levels and keeping it there are hardly new.

There exist numerous ways to get black carbon into the soil and keep it there. However the biochar literature rarely considers these other ways of obtaining dark earth and its benefits, hence, what is worse, it rarely compares them to its favorite, biochar production, an industrial process that occurs outside the agroecosystem. So let’s do the comparison.

From the viewpoint of conventional chemical fertilization – soluble salt fertilizers that can contain as much as 40% of N, P or K – neither compost nor pyrolysis rate as fertilizers. Both processes lose nutrients, especially nitrogen amd carbon. Figures vary in the scholarly studies, so the following are some purely illustrative figures from different studies to compare nutrient retention in the two processes:

  1. Composting: high C/N ratios obtained using deep litter bedding limit N losses to 12-18%,[6] and losses can go as low as 5%.[7] C losses range from a high of about 40% – same as in pyrolysis – down to 19%, again depending on how well the compost is made.[8]
  2. Pyrolysis. N losses ranged from 10.4% to 72.6% depending on the N concentration in the feedstock. The higher the N concentration vs. C, the higher the loss. “The amount of N conserved ranged from 27.4% in the PL biochar to 89.6% in the PC biochar and was inversely proportional to the feedstock N concentration.”[9] PC and PL refer to different feedstocks.

Unlike pyrolysis (a chemical process), composting is a biological process, a version of carbon cycling time-tested through several billion years of natural history. Ongoing vegetation die-off and regrowth in natural ecosystems in many locations slowly build soil organic matter and its black carbon content up to maintenance levels that due to constant renewal can be permanent, barring disturbance – natural ones like landslides or erosive floods or man-made ones like tillage. In the US Northeast these levels commonly attain 5-6% soil organic matter (SOM).

Based on this ecosystemic knowledge, the well-known 30-year project of organic farming research pioneer, Rodale Institute, demonstrated that a combination of animal integration, legume-based forage rotations, cover-cropping and herbicide-free minimal tillage can even improve on natural SOM levels in the Northeast and quicken the process. And regarding the carbon sequestration potential of their system, Rodale concluded,

“Simply put, recent data from farming systems and pasture trials around the globe show that we could sequester more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term “regenerative organic agriculture.” These practices work to maximize carbon fixation while minimizing the loss of that carbon once returned to the soil, reversing the greenhouse effect.”[10]

The work of two holistic scientists, French farmer-researcher André Voisin and range ecologist Alan Savory brought more insights from natural ecosystems to bear, and demonstrated systems that accelerated the ability of Rodale’methods to regenerate soil even more, permanently raising soil carbon levels in the same way.

Unfortunately, most US readers of Grass Productivity, Voisin’s chef d’oeuvre, absorbed only the rotational grazing component of the effort in healthy agroecosystem design that his title implies. Using long term studies from different European farming systems, Voisin showed that a system that integrated careful manure management, planned grazing and the potentially productive ‘wet meadows’ common to many European coastal plains could rebuild soil and produce a surplus of fertility that, applied to crop fields, in many cases had sustained those farming systems and their soil carbon levels for hundreds of years.[11]

While Voisin’s system was designed to work well in cool wet, temperate environments like New England and Europe, Savory adapted it to work in arid, seasonal rainfall environments like rangelands in Africa, Australia and the US western plains. Studies of the performance of the Savory system on grasslands all over the world bear out Savory’s conclusion:

By restoring grasslands through Holistic Planned Grazing we have the potential to remove the excess atmospheric carbon that has been the result of both anthropogenic soil loss over the past ten thousand years and industrial-era greenhouse gas emissions. This sequestration potential, when applied to up to 5 billion hectares of degraded grassland soils, could return 10 or more gigatons of excess atmospheric carbon to the terrestrial sink annually thereby lowering greenhouse gas concentrations to pre-industrial levels in a matter of decades. This while restoring agriculture productivity, providing jobs for thousands of people in rural communities, supplying high quality protein for millions, and enhancing wildlife habitat and water resources.[12]

In all three regeneration systems, permanently renewing carbon pools, especially lower ones, function to provide the same increase of sites for bacteria and mineral capture that biochar offers. Not often mentioned in the biochar literature is the fact that all soils with appreciable clay content perform the same mineral and microbial site functions.

However, high organic matter soils created by these regeneration systems go beyond the functions of biochar to provide better tilth, air and water capacity, and an essential feedstock of energy and minerals in organic form for the growth of the soil microbial food web. In that sense a dense soil microbial/fungal community acts like a keystone species in regard to ecosystem function. Without decomposing organic matter, soil microbial population densities remain relatively low. The crucial importance of high microbial populations in the soil food web to overall agroecosystem health and productivity has finally been recognized by the agricultural research community after generations of focus on only the chemistry.

2. Charcoal is more stable than more naturally occurring carbonaceous compounds, and therefore a better option for sequestration to mitigate climate change.

About That Carbon Cycle: A proper comparison of biochar with other methods described above requires at least an elementary understanding of the carbon cycle that must work properly in all of them. First, carbon is lost to the atmosphere in all processes that reduce complex carbonaceous organic matter to simpler forms – everything from the rapid, violent extreme of normal burning to pyrolysis to bacterial decomposition, to metabolism in humans and other animals. So those losses need to be subtracted from any calculations of the sequestration potential of a system that uses any of the above biomass reduction processes.

Second, soil organic matter decomposition proceeds through stages that scientists describe as carbon pools of increasing carbon loss as CO2 but also increasing stability in the carbon that remains. A typical biochar research paper states,  “Although little research has been published on the long-term stability of biochar, studies suggest a mean residence time (MRT) for charcoal in soil in the order of millennia, compared to 50 y for bulk soil organic matter.”[13] So apparently the lowest, most stable soil carbon pools from microbial decomposition cannot match the stability of the black carbon in biochar. However, what is missed in the comparison is the ability of managers to constantly renew soil organic matter and maintain rebuilt soil carbon levels and therefore the sequestration, once brought to full potential, as in the agroecosystem designs already described above. Hence the constant renewal in these systems serves the same stability/sequestration function of biochar, and provides many more benefits as well.

3. Some of the gaseous byproducts of biochar production could replace fossil fuel use, also mitigating climate change.

First, let’s take a closer look at pyrolysis. Burning anything at all seems an unlikely cure for an overheating planet. No matter how it is done, or what is burned, combustion creates pollution — air pollution, particulates, ashes, various toxins and soot, the second largest warming agent created after C02. Pyrolysis is much dirtier in particulate and other pollutions than normal high-oxygen clean burning.

As already mentioned, pyrolysis also destroys some of the nutrient-value in the biomass feedstock. Even at the lowest temperatures adopted recently in the production of biochar, 50% of the nitrogen in the biomass can be lost. Compare that with well-made (high C/N ratio) compost that can retain larger quantities of nitrogen.

Also, a trade-off exists between fuel and biochar production. Pyrolysis can be done at different temperatures with more biochar production at lower temperatures and more fuel production at higher ones. The same process cannot maximize both.

In the evaluation of any complex production process through the ecosystemic lens, a full life cycle calculation is called for, not only of energy and carbon outcomes, but all other short and long term effects on the health of larger systemic wholes. I found only one such evaluation of pyrolysis in the literature:[14]

Yet even this attempt is flawed: Where in this picture is the 40% of co2 in the biomass feedstock that is lost to the atmosphere as greenhouse gas during pyrolysis?

The real agenda of the business community for biochar seems to be the creation of yet another agrofuel boondoggle, dressed up in the green garb of carbon sequestration to save the climate. The capture of fuel gases as a byproduct of pyrolysis will not scale up to any significant degree without further expropriating agricultural land, especially in less developed countries. Already the activists and critics who exposed the disastrous consequences, particularly for the less developed world, of the corn ethanol and other agrofuel projects, are exposing attempts at land grabs for the harvest of biomass feedstocks in the global south for industrial scale pyrolysis and fuel production.

A paper entitled “Land Grabs for Biochar” describes “carbon grabs” as one of the most recent forms of land grab being resisted by the less developed countries, partly because it “threatens a re-run of ‘biofuels vs. food’ controversies and resource appropriations, yet with a new twist as carbon grabs for other biofuels and for biochar feedstocks threaten to compete with each other too. NGO activists and African governments alike have seized on the land grab spectre to mount vociferous critiques of biochar as a whole.”[15] To what degree that “spectre” will fulfill itself is unclear due to many variables, not least the grinding to a halt of the industrial civilization juggernaut as scarcity looms for its main energy source, oil.

There exists one method of biofuel production that, unlike biochar, returns a large amount of mineral fertility as a soil amendment, and can be designed to serve useful functions as an integral part of an agroecosystem when kept small in scale. Anaerobic digesters small and simple enough to have seen wide adoption in peasant communities on several continents produce enough methane for families to cook and light with, and fit well into the carbon cycle of farms that produce wet manures such as from pigs, poultry, and humans. Figure 1 is an example of such a design.

Part of the hype of biochar promotion is its proposed provision of carbon credits. As one scholarly paper states, “Bio-char soil management systems can deliver tradable C emissions reduction, and C sequestered is easily accountable, and verifiable.”[16] This too is surprising in a scientific paper, because carbon trading has been exposed for years as a scam used by big business to greenwash itself while allowing it to continue to pollute.

What seekers of alternate energy sources fail to understand is that the present excessive level of energy consumption is the problem. It inevitably entails the resource depletion and damage to essential ecological services that have initiated catabolic collapse of industrial civilization and the way of life it supports. Resource analyst Tim Murray conveys well the meaning of the limits to growth in his blog, Canada the Sinking Lifeboat: “The greatest calamity that could ever be inflicted on human and non-human species alike would be the discovery of an abundant, cheap and perpetual energy source, or unlimited availability of cheap food and universal and uninhibited access to bountiful water supplies.”[17] Those who fight off the fog of denial and willful ignorance that currently blankets most of humanity know that to end the suicidal industrial destruction of the planetary resource base, we need to “power down”[18], not try to replace current energy sources with others.

Niche uses for biochar

Arguably there exist niche uses for biochar in less developed countries where most cooking is done by burning biomass. Cookstoves designed by Worldstove for less developed countries are an example. They burn the combustible gases from pyrolysis to cook, leaving biochar instead of ash for the soil. If biochar claims are true, the longterm benefits of charcoal are potentially better than ash as a soil amendment. Biochar cookers have tradeoffs and limitations: hot burning stoves reduce particulate air pollution and cook faster but leave less biochar. Cookstoves that use pyrolysis produce biochar but cook more slowly and still smoke somewhat. However, better cooking solutions than biochar cookers exist. Solar cookers use simple technology and materials, directly address forest depletion, and eliminate biomass burning and its pollution and soil carbon loss entirely.

Biochar also has been proposed as a transitional stop-gap measure. Many areas of production in industrial society are chewing through the global natural resource base at a rate that is unsustainable for much longer. But as long as their termination is not politically feasible, conversion and sequestration of their byproducts (termed “wastes” in the language of the ecologically uninformed) as charcoal makes some sense. Low temperature pyrolysis of papermill byproducts is an example.[19]


Apart from the major objections described above, the truth of the claimed benefits to agriculture from biochar application is far from proven. According to one review of the literature, “Fifty percent of the reviewed studies reported yield increases after black carbon or biochar additions, with the remainder of the studies reporting alarming decreases to no significant differences.”[20] Also, in a German comparison of plant growth with pure compost vs. a mixture of compost and biochar, the pure compost trial came out ahead.[21]

Digging deep into one scientific paper I found a long list of sustainability criteria that pose obstacles to adoption.

“Biochar can be produced sustainably or unsustainably. Our criteria for sustainable biochar production require that biomass procured from agricultural and silvicultural residues be extracted at a rate and in a manner that does not cause soil erosion or soil degradation; crop residues currently in use as animal fodder not be used as biochar feedstock; minimal carbon debt be incurred from land-use change or use of feedstocks with a long life expectancy; no new lands be converted into biomass production and no agricultural land be taken out of food production; no biomass wastes that have a high probability of contamination, which would be detrimental to agricultural soils, be used; and biomass crop production be limited to production on abandoned agricultural land that has not subsequently been converted to pasture, forest or other uses. We further require that biochar be manufactured using modern technology that eliminates soot, CH4 and N2O emissions while recovering some of the energy released during the pyrolysis process for subsequent use.”[22]

In sum, the biochar fad seems to be one more of the increasing frenzy of wishful attempts to prolong the inevitable decline of the industrial way of life. Biochar is promoted as one more technological silver bullet. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, silver bullets don’t exist. Seen through the ecosystemic lens, we do not have a shortage of anything, we have a longage of expectations. Hence the human overshoot of planetary carrying capacity and its consequences – the accelerating destruction of the natural resource base. We need to stop grasping at straws like agrofuel from pyrolysis and reduce our energy use to the level for which the biosphere was designed.

[1] Kookana, R.S., et al. 2011. Biochar application to soil: agronomic and environmental benefits and unintended consequences. Advances in Agronomy, Volume 12, Chapter 3. Elsevier, 2011.


[3] Capitalist manufacture of desire trains consumers to override all attempts to conserve resources by making gains in efficiency or development of alternatives. Conservation gains are wiped out by increased consumption. William Stanley Jeavons first explained this historical human behavior pattern in 1865, in regard to coal consumption.

[4] Braumgart, Michael, and William McDonough. 2002. Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Northpoint Press. 2002.

[5] Lehmann, Johannes, et al. 2006. Bio-char sequestration in terrestrial ecosystems – a review. Mitigation and Adaptation Strategies for Global Change, Vol. 11, Issue 2, 2006.

[6] Sommer, S.G. 2001. Effect  of  composting  on  nutrient  loss  and  nitrogen availability  of  cattle  deep  litter. European  Journal  of  Agronomy 14  (2001)  123 – 133.

[7] Sommer, S.G. and P. Dahl. 1999. Nutrient and Carbon Balance during the Composting of Deep Litter. J. Agric. Engng. Res., 74, 145-153. 1999.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Gaskin, J.W., et al. 2008. Effect of low temperature pyrolysis conditions on biochar for agricultural use. Transactions of the ASABE, vol. 51(6), 2061-2069. 2008.


[11] Voisin, André. 1959. Grass Productivity. Island Press, 2nd edition, 1988.

[12] Savory Institute. 2013. Restoring the climate through capture and storage of soil carbon through holistic planned grazing.

[13] Shackley, Simon, and Saran Sohi, eds. 2010. An assessment of the benefits and issues associated with the application of biochar to soil. UK Biochar Research Centre, School of GeoSciences, University of Edinburgh. 2010

[14] Roberts, K., et al, 2010. Life Cycle Assessment of Biochar Systems: estimating the energetic, economic and climate change potential. Environmental Science and Technology. Vol. 44 (2), Pp. 827–833.

[15] Leach, Melissa et al. 2011. Landgrabs for biochar: narratives and counter narrratives in africa’s emerging biogenic carbon sequestration economy. Conference on Global Land Grabbing. University of Sussex, April 2011.

[16] Ibid.


[18] Heinberg, Richard. 2004. Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World. New Society Publishers, 2004.

[19] Van Swieten, L. et al. 2009. Effects of biochar from slow pyrolysis of papermill waste on agronomic performance and soil fertility. Plant and Soil, Vol. 327, Issue 1-2, February 2010.

[20] Spokas, Kurt, et al. 2012. Biochar : a synthesis of its agronomic impact beyond carbon sequestration. J. Environ. Quality, 41, 2012.

[21] Schulz, Hardy and Bruno Glazer. 2012. Effects of biochar compared to organic and inorganic fertilizers on soil quality and plant growth in a greenhouse experiment. J.Plant Nutr. Soil Sci., 000, 1-13, 2012.

[22] Woolf, Dominic, et al. 2010. Sustainable biochar to mitigate climate change. Nature Communications, v1, n5. 2010.

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Scenarios on the Downslope: Insights from Greer’s The Ecotechnic Future

By Karl North | September 17, 2017

Perhaps the hardest truth for modern society on the edge of industrial decline is to learn our species’ dependence, like other species, ultimately on natural laws, not human ones. The learning process has many layers, partly because it involves a revolution that takes us beyond reductionism to seeing reality in a more systemic and historical context. H.T. Odum’s general systems theory demonstrates that dynamics in all living systems are governed by the same laws: laws of energy and matter and ecosystem processes on which the durability of all living systems depends. Once we see that human society is a subset of a larger ecological whole, then it becomes clear that the laws and disciplinary concepts and principles of ecology are essential tools for social inquiry. In The Ecotechnic Future: Envisioning a Post-Peak World, John Michael Greer elaborates ways this systemic worldview and principles from the study of natural ecosystems offer insights on the evolution of collapse of industrial civilization.

In earlier work Greer described the process as one of catabolic collapse, a kind of metabolism, defined as a process of conversion of resources to maintain and perhaps grow living systems. A metabolism that no longer has the resources to achieve this result begins to feed on itself: it goes into catabolic collapse. This is the metabolism of shipwrecked people in a lifeboat without food; the more obese tend to live longer, feeding on their own fat. Following general systems theory, Greer applies this concept at all levels from living cells to civilizations. In The Ecotechnic Future, Greer applies the concept of succession from ecosystem science to describe a framework for thinking about the catabolic collapse of industrial civilization. In this essay, I will summarize the ecology of succession (which should be familiar to students of elementary systems ecology) and then show how it provides a rough guide to thinking about scenarios on the downslope. Those people who can see likely scenarios and begin adapting will be the most likely survivors.

Ecologists observe succession as a long process of trial and error as ecosystems and their inhabitants adapt to changing conditions, mostly brought on by the residents themselves. For any given environment, succession follows a pattern of somewhat predictable stages called seres in which ecosystems reorganize into new communities, adding new species and losing others in response to changing conditions. Conditions in early seral stages select for fast growing species that make inefficient use of resources, called R-selected species. Plants that typically sprout in tilled soil, which farmers call weeds, are examples of R-selected species. Most crops, being fast-growing annuals, are R-selected. Conditions of competition for resources in later stages select for species that make slower, more efficient use of resources, called K-selected species. The degree of system stability at each stage hangs on how well the species integrate into a system of interdependency – how well the species ‘hang together’.

Following general systems theory, we should be able to see succession operating in human ecosystems. In modern civilization, the adoption of fossil energy made available a bonanza of resources. Thus, the industrial revolution generated an explosion of R-selected forms akin to species in early seral stages of nonhuman ecosystemic succession.   After the R-selected growth of earlier industrial society, resource depletion and diminishing returns to technological innovation began a succession of seral stages toward human ecosystems selected for K-selected forms as industrial society fades away. Greer’s description of the process identifies and elaborates three seral stages of catabolic collapse:

  1. The end of affluence – 1970 to at least the present time.
  2. Age of scarcity industrialism – industrial economies are gradually forced to adapt to resource scarcity.
  3. Age of salvage – embodied energy in the built environment allows a gradual decline but depends a lot on how much information is salvaged.

If all goes well, survivors will evolve an ecotechnic society where they have adopted technologies that are adapted to the remaining resources and obedient to the laws of nature. At the same time, seral stages are bottlenecks through which only a portion of previous population passes. Just as certain species survive the transition and new ones take hold in natural ecosystem succession, seral transition to the age of salvage for example will favor certain types of people – like blacksmiths over software engineers – and eliminate others.

Important to the succession concept as applied to human society is the understanding that each stage is not just a chaotic one of things falling apart but represents a process of forced or chosen reorganization of the social system around the new conditions. Depending on the ability of policy making to be proactive at different levels of scale, each seral stage represents an opportunity to achieve a degree of mitigation of collapse – a degree of temporary sustainability built around a lower material resource base. Just as a given species configuration in non-human ecosystems eventually no longer works, and one seral stage supplants another, so the inevitable catabolic process in the industrial downslope gradually renders each configuration of policies obsolete and a new type of social organization will succeed the previous one. Barring catastrophic events, society will pass through each seral stage. Hence it is useful to consider the probabilities and possibilities at each stage. In what follows I will sketch a rough outline of each stage.

The end of affluence – 1970 to present

Drawing on his broad historical knowledge, Greer describes the way all collapsing civilizations have clung as long as possible to the way of life at their peak, and suggests that will be the most likely pattern of society’s response throughout the age of the end of affluence. The almost complete denial occurring today will likely continue for several years, although financial collapse could cut it short. Characteristic of this stage is a reinforcing loop of demand destruction in response to increasing resource scarcity and rising costs, starting in the lower classes, resulting in lower economic activity, less employment and eventually more demand destruction. This positive feedback loop is already operating. Demand destruction starts with the least necessary consumption; industrialized society gradually lets go of its immense overload of discretionary consumption and waste. This built-in slack (in the sense of ‘cut me some slack’) provides the opportunity for gradual adaptation to new definitions of necessity.

Age of scarcity industrialism

As industrial economies are gradually forced to adapt to resource scarcity, the props and tricks used to maintain the appearance of affluence – extreme debt financing, deliberate infrastructure dilapidation, war economies, etc. -  not only no longer work, they have left society in a more fragile state.

Hence the age of scarcity industrialism is increasingly prone to what in ecosystem science is called a trophic cascade. Ecosystems are trophic webs – food webs of interdependency where each species is food for others. As predator species keep prey populations in check they serve a homeostatic regulatory function that tends to give the whole system a degree of dynamic equilibrium. Thus a serious disturbance in one species population can have repercussions throughout the food web. Ecologists have identified keystone species, ones whose role is so important that a major change in a keystone species population can cause populations of others to alternatively crash or explode down a chain of predator-prey relationships. This trophic cascade can reduce the whole system to a lower seral stage of succession.

Greer suggests that we can use the concept of trophic cascade to think about dynamics in modern society as it becomes more fragile in the age of scarcity industrialism. Because human societies are also systems – where in this instance economic, political and cultural elements are structured in webs of interdependence – a major disturbance or collapse in one element can cause a cascade that collapses whole chains of elements.  As an example, here is my summary in a causal loop diagram of a commonly cited scenario.

As resource scarcity causes the economy to shrink, demand destruction deepens and the impoverishment it brings to the majority increases. Hence the ruling class is likely to employ greater government intervention in the economy, more or less in the following ways depending on the competence of rulers and in the following priority:

  1. To maintain the prosperity of the upper classes amid declining resources.
  2. To pacify suffering urban populations by providing basic necessities of life. Example: German National Socialism and Italian fascism.
  3. To reconfigure the political economy toward a new seral stage that favors K-selected forms that are adapted to the end of growth and increasing resource-scarcity.

The social costs to human welfare in this process depend on how intelligently society responds to increasing scarcity. The longer industrial society clings to present forms, the greater the damage. As Greer states,

In the near term, societies that embrace scarcity industrialism, relying on efficient use of remaining fossil fuels and eking them out with renewable resources and high technology, will likely do better than either the wasteful abundance economies of the present or the more sustainable cultures that will replace them.

The “wasteful abundance” thus represents some slack where remaining industrial potential could be differently used to cushion the downslope during this period.

Other writers have contributed to the discussion of scenarios of adaptation in the age of scarcity industrialism. Alice Friedemann’s short summary is a good place to start:

Age of salvage

Depletion and damage to the resource base is likely to be so great at this stage that its carrying capacity for a human population will be low. However, depopulation eventually provides a period of relief from resource scarcity. And as reliance on new raw materials extraction comes to an end, the crumbling material remains of the industrial age represent an accumulation of emergy (embodied energy) that cushions the decline. Salvage steel, for example embodies all the energy of mining, processing and long-distance transport. Thus, the accumulated emergy of salvage allows a gradual decline but depends a lot on how much information is salvaged. Medieval Europe enjoyed the durable roads and aqueducts of Roman civilization for a long time but lost techniques like making concrete.  As in Kunstler’s World Made by Hand saga, islands of knowledge conservation may permit local, small electricity generation to continue for a while. This in turns allows some salvage use of electrical appliances.

Society will reorganize in this seral stage. Resource nationalism and urban concentrations of salvage materials will push production, transport and trade into new more localized forms. Central control, either private or government, will weaken as it becomes unaffordable. Whatever social policies emerge will likely be created by local communities struggling to define themselves.

Ecotechnic age

Considering that it is the title of his book, Greer has little to say about life in this age, except that society will become agrarian again and whatever technologies exist will conform to the laws of thermodyamics. Barring a predator species to hold its population in check, humanity may again violate the law of carrying capacity. But a largely eroded planetary carrying capacity will keep new population peaks relatively low. Agriculture will reorganize around staple food production that favors R-selected perennials over annual species. Peasant populations that never could afford much of the prosperity of the industrial age retain and still practice a cultural heritage of technical knowledge from pre-industrial times. This will give them an advantage over other populations in this seral adaptation.

Criticisms of Greer’s gradual decline thesis.

A number of energy descent writers have questioned Greer’s claims of a slow collapse over several centuries. In The Ecotechnic Future, Greer projects a slow collapse even in the near term. He uses the original Hubbert bell curve, calculating that from an oil peak in 2005, production in 2030 will equal production in 1980, and production in 2060 will still equal production in 1950. This is deceptive, as it ignores the so-called Seneca cliff popularized by Udo Bardi, according to which declining EROEI and the costs of pollution will create a steeper down slope – an asymmetric bell curve. Surely Greer knows this, as the idea is as old as Richard Duncan’s 1989 Olduvai Theory of collapse.

In my view, Greer also fails to fully apply his own notion of a trophic cascade to identify the civilizational counterparts of keystone species, disturbance of which is likely to accelerate collapse. For example, Duncan and others have claimed that prolonged electrical grid failure can cause cascading failure of the industrial economy, like trophic cascades discussed above that ecologists have documented in non-human ecosystems. Others have pointed to the ability of financial system failure, major supply chain failure triggered by a war, natural disaster or other major shocks to spark a cascading general collapse of the global economy. A paper by David Korowicz, summarized by Alice Friedemann is the best I have seen on this subject. I modeled some of the positive feedbacks responsible for those cascades in The Case for a Disorderly Energy Descent.

I also think Greer places too much faith in the ability of society to reorganize at each seral stage. He cites evidence from nonhuman ecosystems and historical evidence from collapsing civilizations. For example, as the Roman Empire fell, the breakdown of social order became so great that Western Europe was almost completely cut off both from the accumulated cultural heritage of Rome and the other ancient civilizations, and from thriving economies elsewhere. Yet Frankish warlords and eventual monarchs under strict tutelage from a totalitarian church managed to reorganize a somewhat stable society out of the chaos. However, life before and after the fall of Rome was still agrarian, so the change was not great. By contrast, as industrial civilization falls, most people have none of the skills to survive in the agrarian existence that collapse will impose. Complete social disorder could happen relatively quickly; chaotic social conditions could last a long time, and little reorganization could ever take place. Greer avoids dramatizing the inevitable suffering. Fair enough. However, the breakdown of elemental security and social order will be a major factor deciding what is possible in all of his stages of collapse, and should have been accounted for in his analysis.


Despite above criticisms, I think The Ecotechnic Future offers useful concepts from ecosystem science to frame thinking about how the decline of the industrial age will evolve.

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What Is the Deep State?

By Karl North | August 22, 2017

Recently the idea that there exists some shadowy group called the deep state has begun to edge its way into the alternative news media, and occasionally into public discourse in the US. I see two major reasons for this. One is that people in power, whoever they are, fearing the declining public credibility in major institutions – the major political parties and agencies in government, the mass media, corporations, even the scientific community – have in desperation begun to overtly use these institutions in ways that reveal how little they serve the public interest. Both major parties have discredited themselves. The federal government has been paralyzed for years. In the last electoral cycle, the mass media abandoned any semblance of neutrality by blatantly supporting one of the two presidential candidates. The media in service to a militarized foreign policy magnify threats to “national security” (Russia, terrorism, etc.) that strain the credence of a public that is tired of serial wars. Corporate interests now openly subvert attempts at regulation and regularly overrule the peer review process in scientific research. This reckless behavior undermines the belief, carefully nurtured in the collective consciousness for generations, that taken together, these social institutions work for the good of the people. This trend is thus damaging their credibility even further in a vicious positive feedback loop. The result is mounting public disenchantment all across the political spectrum with the established public order, and what was once called the social contract.

The second reason I see for the emergence of the notion of the deep state is a long-term decline in the US economy starting circa 1970. Well researched elsewhere, this is mainly a product of two trends, the export of the US industrial economy to regions of cheaper labor and lower regulatory pressure, and increasing global depletion of the natural resource base on which the industrial economy depends. However, like the twice daily ebbing of the massive 20-foot tides on the Maine coast where I Iive, which gradually reveals a rocky beach, the economic decline is gradually revealing to the masses a systemic tendency to serve a tiny minority to the detriment of the majority.

The public is therefore expressing its rising anger at these revelations, for instance in amorphous calls to “take back our country”. But from whom? (And for whom, for that matter?) Trained since the beginning of the republic to uncritically accept a narrative that depicts our society as a plurality of interests that somehow deliver democratic results, most people have few analytical tools with which to confront this question. It is not surprising in these circumstances that attempts to identify a deep state are missing the mark. They often fix on a few superficial elements: permanent factions embedded within the governing bureaucracy like Congress, the Pentagon, the intelligence establishment, think tanks. Or they spotlight sectors of the economy like the military-industrial or medical-pharmaceutical complexes or the mass media. These results are not satisfying because they do not describe a coherent organizational entity. More importantly, as we shall see, it will be more useful to our understanding to describe these elements as power brokers, servants of power, not the real power behind the throne, as it were. It is essential to identify the source of power because the goals of that class are what reveals the coherence in the patterns of behavior in the social institutions that that class controls, and hence does the most to improve our understanding. Agents of power, be they government servants, businesses, information media or academic institutions, may claim or even pursue other goals, but they do not last long in power unless they ultimately serve the goals of the source of power.

The phrase ‘deep state’ evokes mystery and secrecy. Actually, what people are trying to describe is neither mysterious nor so cloaked in secrecy that it cannot be seen. Since the advent of agriculture, large city states and then whole civilizations emerged, all controlled by some sort of ruling class. By the 19th century, political economy, the study of the structure and operation of power relations in human societies, had developed, pioneered notably by Marx, Engels and others, which took for granted the existence of a hierarchy of class power as the basis for social science inquiry. It spawned a voluminous literature whose incisive explanatory power describes in great detail the structure of the now dominant social system, capitalism, as an oligarchy of the minority wielding most of the nation’s capital and power beneath a thin republican veneer.

However, the industrial revolution created a large exploited urban working class whose organizational potential posed a threat to the established order. Throughout the 19th century a series of mass revolts (1789, 1830, 1848, 1870) revealed the threat to be real. In reaction, the ruling class, particularly in the US, countered the threat with a systematic program of indoctrination to conceal the reality exposed in the critical literature of how modern capitalist society works. Pioneered in the US by European immigrant and kinsman of Freud, Edward Bernays, a highly successful propaganda industry developed, which Bernays instructed should be masked as ‘public relations’.

Hence, until recently, the US public has been ‘dumbed down’ to political illiteracy with a tissue of myths and lack of critical thinking tools that prevent it from learning enough about the real power structure of the society we live in to begin a serious inquiry into the existence of a deep state. As mentioned, detailed knowledge exists of how the US ruling class functions as a deep state. But little of it is allowed to seep into information sources the masses usually access.

This censorship operates successfully in higher education as well, preventing the formation of a US intelligentsia that can think critically about who actually wields the power in our society and how they exercise it. Allow me to relate a few examples from personal experience. During my undergraduate years in a liberal arts college of some repute I found only three faculty who dared teach a social science whose emphasis on the configuration of power in society was incisive, and potentially critical of the capitalist system. One was a Marxist hidden away in the French department. With him I studied the Paris commune of 1870 through the lens of a daily newspaper that was a product of that working-class uprising. Another was a professor in the classics department, a rare self-taught generalist in an academy of specialists who taught a course in how Western capitalist culture and its psychology evolved from political and mythological beginnings in the Greco-Roman tradition. A third was a visiting instructor with whom I studied colonial society in Africa and the decolonization process then at its peak. The small class met at his home, was not listed in the college curriculum, and could not be taken for credit. None of these examples were anomalies; as I began to learn in further experiences with academia, this marginalization is typical of anyone who mounts a powerful critique of the reigning narrative of how our society works.

How does the deep state work? Ruling classes of yore paraded their power. Modern capitalist oligarchies rule quietly in the background through all the major social institutions that they control, which one social scientist has described as an inverse totalitarianism. The coherence of deep state rule derives more from common goals and tacit agreements over strategy rather than overt structures of governance. Some of the decision makers in the institutions are themselves oligarchs, but most are simple servants of power. This structure in the exercise of capitalist power has worked well until recently. As will be described below, changes in capitalist goals have made the job of mass deception more difficult.

It is important to realize that the goals of the capitalist class are not static. As that class became dominant after the French revolution, it directed investment initially into national economies and shaped them so as to maximize profit, reinvested in the health of the national economy. Even imperial expansion served the same national goals. The oft proclaimed goal of serving the national interest had some validity as the immense profits of imperial plunder were allowed to trickle down to lower classes. In the 20th century the trend of concentration of wealth, intrinsic to the system, continued, and investors looked for better places to invest. In the mature industrial economies, welfare state policies had raised both labor costs and taxes on capital. Digitalization of communication and financial transactions facilitated a trend to relocate industry to countries with cheap labor and less regulation. Thus the economic goals of the national capitalist classes became more international, while retaining control of national governing institutions to provide military protection of increasingly far-flung investment and trade policies to facilitate economic domination around the world.

The trend toward an international capitalist oligarchy explains many things in the mature industrial economies:

  1. the increasing financialization of mature economies, encouraged by the purely speculative investment opportunities that globalization offers,
  2. the export of industry to the imperial periphery
  3. increasing debt as a prop to consumerism
  4. the gradual replacement of welfare state expenditures with military ones in federal budgets,
  5. the creation of a class of dispensable citizens no longer needed as labor.

In the long run, this trend seems self-destructive: social order in these countries is falling apart as their majorities react to their pauperization. The consumerism that capitalism requires may itself relocate to the emerging economies and financial centers can now be anywhere, not just London or New York, but international capital still needs its original core governments to provide protection. The new powers in a rising multipolar global political economy show no sign yet of that capability.

Underlying trends described above is another that threatens industrial civilization itself, including ruling classes; the system of industrial capitalism is fast depleting its natural resource base, going into catabolic collapse – eating itself alive. Despite increasing awareness, the international financial oligarchy and its agents in the social institutions seem willing to simply ride down the collapse, staying on top as long as possible, purchasing ‘lifeboat estates’ in protected places. As the industrial system goes into catabolic collapse, those who study how that process will play out need a clear understanding of the deep state and how it will react.

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The holarchy of rules and the problem of silos of knowledge in the quest for the survival of humanity

By Karl North | March 31, 2017

Seen in retrospect, the failure of those concerned with the advancement of knowledge to respect the complexity of the world, and to move toward ways of doing science that account for its connectivity, may be one of the greatest causes of the ongoing collapse of Western Civilization[1]. As products of that civilization, we are all in varying degrees more prisoners in silos of compartmentalized knowledge than we need to be. And the resultant mistakes in interpreting the world and solving the problems of living are greater than is necessary. This essay is an attempt at a partial remedy, a set of tools for seeing and seeking a more generalized, transdisciplinary knowledge that reveals a holarchy in which lower levels are necessary to properly understand higher ones. The holarchy is also a way of testing to what degree one’s policy proposals for confronting the collapse are grounded in the all necessary underlying levels of knowledge.

If the human species wants to survive and to behave in ways that might increase its longevity, it must learn and respect a holarchy of rules and options. The holarchy can be described as levels in a pyramid in which the lower levels limit what can happen in the ones above them. There is of course more to understand in the systems and structures of interdependency at each level, but the rules are the starting point. Later I will offer another pyramid as a guide to understanding within levels.

The biophysical rules are at the bottom because they constrain what our species and all others can do to survive, and the size and resource consumption of populations. They include the rules of energy and matter – the laws of thermodynamics – and the rules that govern ecosystems, in particular the carrying capacity (CC) of a resource base.  The carrying capacity in turn governs the size and consumption per capita of the populations that can survive. In simple terms, consumption of resources must stay within carrying capacity or carrying capacity will erode and populations will decline and possibly go extinct. This graph gives some idea of the range of options.

Because our species has such a great relative ability to consume resources, the ecological load that situates our species relative to carrying capacity is of necessity a product of the population and the consumption footprint per person. The temporary windfall of fossil energy has permitted a rise in consumption to a phantom CC[2] far above the actual CC, which results in rapid erosion of the actual CC.

Although many of the biophysical rules are known today, most of humanity has so little understanding of them that nothing higher in the pyramid can be properly understood and all policies adopted eventually fail. Test yourself. Do you have at least the elementary understanding of the rules of matter, energy and ecosystem rules and their implications for what happens in the world, a knowledge needed to have any chance at understanding anything higher in the pyramid? If not, that is the first knowledge gap that you need to fill.

The political economy and its rules

Because of its place in the holarchy of rules, no social system can last for long unless it obeys the rules of the biophysical system. In turn, one can change little of consequence in a social system without an understanding of its internal rules and structure.

The important key to understanding a given society is its political economy – its rules and structure of power relations, the power to make the decisions that affect everyone’s lives. Just as energy and its structure, forms and flows are central to a grasp of how biophysical systems work, so power, its distribution in a society and its forms and routes of implementation are vital to seeing how and why things happen in a social system.

In a society whose rules mandate private control of resources and their use in the economy, and allow unbridled competition, power inevitably concentrates in a minority to such an extent that all major institutions – the market economy, government, media, schooling and science – fall under its control. This description represents capitalism as an ideal type, variants of which are dominant in the world today. In this social system the leadership of the minority, acting as a loose oligarchy, stays in the background and rules and shapes society by operating indirectly through the social institutions it controls. When one understands the political economy of capitalism, one can see that attempts at lasting change that do not serve the interests of the oligarchy will not occur through government channels or the electoral system; capitalist government exists to work out the differences within the oligarchy; other than that function it is just a stage show meant to fool the people.

A society with another kind of political economy will exhibit a dramatically different decision and policy making process. In Cuba for example, where concentrations of private power are banned and private investment from outside is strictly controlled, no powerful private oligarchy exists to control government planning. Agronomists in the Ministry of Agriculture, for instance, can legitimately disagree and debate what agricultural policies are best for the Cuban people without regard for what is best for the likes of Dow Chemical, Monsanto, Conagra or Tyson Meats, unlike the US Department of Agriculture, which operates as a servant of agribusiness corporations. And in Cuba the Ministry of Agriculture, not private central banks like Citibank or Morgan Guarantee, has a major say in the allocation of agricultural investment.

A tool to understand how societies work

As explained above, there can be no effective strategy for political change without a deep understanding of the political economy: how it operates, its dynamics and structure. The iceberg graphic – another holarchy – is an important conceptual tool to gain that knowledge. The iceberg tool can be applied to biophysical systems or any complex system, a large corporation for example. Most people see only events and a few patterns – the tip of the iceberg – and try to effect change based on that superficial knowledge. The iceberg tells us that if we can identify events as part of patterns and trends of behavior, we need to look for their causes more deeply in the iceberg – in the structures that generate and explain them.

The underlying structures and mental models – the collective beliefs and values – are essential to know because they limit the options for social and individual behavior or change. A pattern of suburban sprawl in a capitalist society is an example of a physical structure that tends to limit transportation options to the use of motor vehicles. The iceberg directs further inquiry into the relationship of the rise of suburbia to related structural elements like the political economy of capitalism. As described above, the concentration of power under capitalism in private corporate institutions – in this case the auto industry and related industries like energy – explains why so much of the transportation sector is devoted to motor vehicle transportation, one of its most energy intensive possible forms.

Knowledge of the underlying social structures and collective mental models go hand in hand. A focus on changing moral values alone will not achieve much if the social structures are not understood and altered in ways that facilitate the new values.

Again, test yourself in your understanding as directed in the iceberg. Have you learned enough about the political economy of the society you live in to have any chance of devising effective strategies for change that would allow the human species to get through the coming population bottleneck[3] and rebuild a civilized society at a much lower level of access to energy? Social science, like biophysical science, is not something one can learn by winging it. The use of the iceberg tool may reveal why the existing political economy limits options and methods of change, as described in the hierarchy of rules.

An example of silo-ism

The Limits to Growth project[4] (LTG) is an example of self-imprisonment in silos of knowledge. It displays a good knowledge of the biophysical level of the holarchy of rules but practically no knowledge of the existing social system – globalized capitalism – whose problem dynamics its models reveal. The LTG authors omit from their world model a submodel of the rules and structure of the political economy, an understanding of which in the hierarchy of rules is necessary to consider options for change. That is, they fail to apply explicitly to the existing social system and its complexity the same modeling method that they deem necessary to address the complexity of the world system. Instead, the causal forces in the social system are merely implicit, embedded in the data they use to build the world model. The political economy is a phantom presence in the decision rules of the model – the auxiliary variables that comprise the flow equations in the model. In effect the authors of LTG treat the global capitalist power structure as an external, as if it were an immutable fact of nature. Consequently, when they propose and simulate policy scenarios to address the problems of sustainability their world model reveals, their world model has no way of showing how the social system will react to these policy scenarios. The authors are simply plugging in calculations of the changes to the key stocks and flows that they expect from each policy scenario. To achieve any of these scenarios except ‘business as usual’, their world model needs to include a submodel of the rules and political economy of the social system to provide insights as to what structural changes would be necessary at the systemic level in society. Here is a simplified version of the LTG model.

As you can see, there is no social system explicitly represented in the model. It’s as if the world were as Margaret Thatcher said, “There is no such thing as society, only individuals maximizing self-interest”. As a result, the authors of the Limits to Growth do not think intelligently about capitalism as a social system. Here is an example.

The title of chapter two of the LTG book  - “The Driving Force: Exponential Growth” – illustrates the invisibility to the authors of the social system as a dynamic system. Growth does not drive anything; only people organized in a structure of power relations do. This is the same mistake that mainstream economists make when they speak of the market as a driving force, thus avoiding revealing questions such as the effect of monopoly control and the power of the capitalist class to make the decisions that shape everyone’s lives. LTG co-author Donella Meadows, who was a pioneer in promoting systems thinking, nevertheless revealed the same inability to describe the existing political economy of capitalism because she was never willing to seriously study and model its system dynamics. When she wrote about the problem of the sustainability of society in one paper, all she could say was “it’s the economics”. That hardly begins to expose the nature of the problem.

The avoidance the LTG authors display is common in the capitalist world because to properly describe the political economy of capitalism as a system is revealing, and is therefore considered subversive, and carries penalties, especially in the US. So instead, people who have the investigative skills tend to remain in the comfort zone of their intellectual silos, defending them with bounded rationalities.

The iceberg and options for change

Learning from the iceberg tools to see below the surface of events is essential to know how deep it is necessary to intervene in the social system, the biophysical system or any complex system to achieve lasting change. To use another example in the physical structure of transportation, the iceberg tool directs us to understand why a pattern of increasing traffic jams in the transportation system cannot be solved by widening roads: this will only attract more cars, replicating the problem. To achieve the necessary leverage will require structural changes: in the political economy that in turn changes the physical structure of transportation. It will also require a shift in the collective values and beliefs, such as the car and happy motoring as a cultural ideal. Hence the manufacture of such cultural ideals and who controls that process is revealed as a problem to be solved.

The recurrence of traffic jams despite attempts to solve the problem demonstrates resilience – a general property of complex systems. Resilience can be bad or good depending on one’s goals for the system. The lesson of the iceberg is that policies that intervene too high in the iceberg may fail because they encounter policy resistance – an ability of the system to bounce back when changed – an instance of resilience.  Deeper interventions that alter system structures will be more politically difficult but are more likely to result in lasting change. However, deeper intervention also demands a systemic understanding of society, starting with its political economy as described previously, to find the effective leverage points in the structure.

Individual vs. social options for change

Past social options, once acted upon, limit individual options for many people later on. In the US, after an alliance of the fuel, auto and tire industries conspired to trash the railroads and replace rail with auto transportation, it became difficult to travel by train, despite rail being much more energy-efficient.

Some individuals appear to have freedom to choose. Many people think that because an individual can make a change, it can be scaled up to a national policy. People who put solar panels on their roofs, for example, often assume that because they have done it, the whole society can change to run on solar electricity. In general then, proposed changes at the level of the whole society require consideration of many interconnected factors in both the social and biophysical realms that an individual may get away with ignoring, but only for a while.


Many civilizations have collapsed for lack of knowledge and application of the holarchy of rules. The paradox in the present collapse of industrial civilization is that, taken as a whole, humanity knows enough of the holarchy of rules and the realms of knowledge it represents to mitigate or at least navigate this collapse, but for reasons explained above, the knowledge often exists in isolated compartments, often in different individuals. Few of us have, or are willing to gain enough integrated knowledge of the whole. What are your gaps of knowledge in the hierarchy of rules and systems? Are you taking the lesson of ‘the blind men and the elephant’ seriously?

[1] For summaries of this situation from different angles, see the following:

Humans Have Energetically Overpowered the Earth

Locked In: The Paradox of Capitalism

Clinging to the Titanic, or How to Let Go

[2] Catton, William R. 1982. Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Chance

[3] Catton, William R. 2009. Bottleneck : Humanity’s Impending Impasse: Humanity’s Impending Impasse

[4] Meadows, Donella H. and Dennis L., and Jorgen Randers. 2004 Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update.

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Clinging to the Titanic, or how to let go

By Karl North | February 20, 2017

- “A world ends when its metaphor has died” Archibald MacLeish

- “Don’t be fooled by the idiotic exertions of the Red team and the Blue team. They’re just playing a game of “Capture the Flag” on the deck of the Titanic.”- James Kunstler

Political ecologist William Ophuls has researched the unsustainability of modern industrial society for several decades.[1] Recently he summarized our global predicament this way:

Modern civilization lives on depleting energy and borrowed time. Its day of reckoning rapidly approaches. If civilization itself is to survive, it must be inspired by a new ideal that renounces endless material acquisition and makes a virtue out of the necessity of living within our ecological means.[2]

In other words, the industrial economy is a one shot deal, an oil-fired short-lived spike like a sky rocket in the long reach of natural history. How many have digested that reality as it slides down and growls in the gut like a hot shot of bourbon? And if not, why not?

Ophuls’ day of reckoning is currently taking the form of a number of convergent global tipping points:

A tipping point is a point in time when a trend gains runaway status: like a ship so close to hitting an iceberg it can no longer be stopped before there is long term or even permanent damage. Despite decades of warning from scientists, humanity has not been able to alter course from the above trends to avoid the inevitable. What causes us to cling to the Titanic? This essay will describe some of the mechanisms that keep us clinging, and suggest ways of advocating letting go that might make them attractive to a wider audience than they are getting now.

The culture of the Titanic

Every age has its guiding, reigning metaphor. In the era of the totalitarian church in Europe, one could call it divine kingship, or more generally, the rule of the divine Word. Since the Enlightenment, the reigning metaphor seems to have been the machine, which is perhaps short for the technologies born of reductionist science and its quasi-religion of endless material progress.

From the viewpoint of most of human history, the machine age and its culture is an anomaly. We have been tribal and local for most of our history, but have been taught that tribes are primitive and that only nation states are good. For most of history, natural resources were considered common wealth; in the machine age a minority has maximized their control of resources and persuaded us that it is for our own good. This minority has replaced conceptions of the world that arise from local experience with a worldview that they manufacture to serve their interests. Early in human history, trade began as a gift economy, more about mutual benefit than calculated gain. In the machine age the custom is to pursue never-ending profit for its own sake, to maximize consumption at all costs, to generally accept technological solutions for our problems, and to accept a fraudulent financial system of semi-legalized theft, prohibited in earlier ages as usury.

A new metaphor

As the age of the machine goes into its end game, depleting the very resources required to sustain it, humanity needs a new guiding metaphor, one that rectifies the failings of the machine age and its worldview, and helps us choose our options in light of new knowledge of how the world works and our place in it.

The new knowledge in question – actually old knowledge given new value by science – acknowledges the importance of the connectedness of the world and the rule of natural laws, the laws of ecosystems. Hence the appropriate metaphor to midwife a new age of human history might be the age of ecology, writ large enough to encompass as part of ecosystems, for the first time in centuries, all the social endeavors of our species. In other words, in language even economists could comprehend, we would concede that humanity is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mother Nature.

The deeply embedded beliefs and expectations of the machine age, as described above, may die a long, slow death. Hence acceptance of the age of ecology and its laws may not occur without some help from religion. The mayhem and social chaos that attended the fall of previous civilizations caused humans to find refuge in religious beliefs. As the Pax Romana fell apart, European society found an anchor in the Christian Church. This time, the world’s monotheisms, steeped in unecological, anthropocentric beliefs, will be useless. In fact populations that cling to them will spike and then self-extinguish as their attempts at retaining control over nature destroy their resource base. Like technology, religion can easily work for good or ill. However, if some sort of religious response is inevitable, it is worth considering what alternative creed might best assist the birth of the age of ecology.

To embrace the necessity of a low energy, post-industrial world will require a major shift in beliefs and values – a new cultural paradigm. Many pre-industrial faith-based cultures that attempt to conform to ecological and tribal law exist as models reconstructed from history. One example worth exploring for what it can teach us is the historical experience of the Amish and Mennonite communities, convenient because they live among us today. These are not folk communities stuck in time. Their technologies and way of life are conscious choices that derive directly from their values, not from ignorance or backwardness. Their history is one of continuous struggle to invent ways to continue to practice their values under pressure from the outside world with which they must trade and compete economically. It is precisely for this reason that they may be worth learning from. As groups try to bail from Titanic and seek relocalized ways of survival, they too will need to struggle against the pressures of the dying industrial economy and its institutions, and against its residual culture within themselves.

The Amish experience

Complete economic autarchy was never a goal of Amish communities. Hence they had to continually adapt their technological choices to both their collective values and the changing technologies they are competing with in the external economy. In the process they developed a keen understanding of the social implications of adopting technologies like telephones, electricity, and motor vehicles, in sharp contrast to the English (as they call us), who have been taught to judge technologies only for their convenience or economic profit.

The Amish hold life in an agrarian community to be their ideal. They believe it puts them in close contact with the creation and therefore with the creator’s commandments. In the same way, their system of farming reflects their respect for the earth as the work of the creator. They use horses and mules as part of an integrated crop/livestock farming system that is more ecologically sustainable than industrial farming systems. Thus they share some farming goals in common with organic farmers and increasingly participate in the organic movement. A Mennonite dairy farmer group once invited me to present a day-long seminar to share with them my experience as a certified organic sheep dairyman using draft animal power. They in turn have much to teach organic farmers about simpler technologies and more frugal, communitarian ways of living.

Draft animal power adds to the measure of sovereignty the Amish seek as a protection against the toxicities of the industrial way of life. The Amish control most of its technology, from animal breeding to the manufacture of animal powered machinery for farming and transport. Thus their communities are relatively independent of an auto industry that is one of the most resource-wasteful products of the industrial era.

The Amish seek economic security in community strength instead of technological development and expansion of farm size. Their prohibition of movable tractors tends to limit farm size to less than 100 acres, keeps neighbors close and relationships strong. Yet they continue to improve horse-drawn machinery in ways that allow them to compete in the external economy without undermining the community.

In Ohio they even adopted machinery improvements before the English. When the use of the telephone became necessary for business communication, they allowed it in booths far from farmhouses and buildings, to prevent it from replacing face-to-face communication among themselves and thus weakening community relationships. The Amish ban on connection to the electric grid is intended to maintain as much local sovereignty – control over the shape of their community – as possible wherever dependence on the outside world is not absolutely necessary.

The Amish are careful to protect key social institutions like the rearing and education of children from outside influence. As long as English schools still had the rural character of the one room schoolhouse, they sent their children there for the elementary grades and then brought them back to farm and workshop for apprentice-style education. But when English schools began to consolidate, taking children far from home and providing a more urban oriented program, they created their own parochial schools. They were acutely aware of the consequences of habituating their children to corrosive influences like bus riding, electrified buildings and indoor plumbing.

Amish values of simplicity and community are manifest in the rejection of status consumption, obvious in their undifferentiated clothing and plain, functional buildings and household interiors. Such subtle status seeking as occurs is limited to areas that also stress their positive values, like well-kept barns and animals and beautiful front flower gardens.

In sum, how can the Amish example help us develop a creed for the energy descent? The Amish long ago created their unique interpretation of Christianity, which provides the values that inform decisions about farming and other livelihoods, technologies, and community relations and lifestyles. Working in reverse of the Amish, humanity on the energy down slope needs to work out a faith or at least a belief system that encourages and rationalizes the changes in all these areas of life that increasing resource scarcity will impose.

A number of the elements of the Amish credo are made to order for the energy descent. As energy-intensive agriculture gives way to a labor-intensive form, our faith will need to venerate farming and rural life instead of demeaning it as we do now. Community will again become necessary for economic security, so Amish ways of building strong communities may be useful. As many technologies become too energy-costly, we will have to develop the same ability as the Amish to discern which to let go and which will serve us well in a low energy world. Communities will need to become more economically self-reliant and resource input self-sufficient, so the Amish quest for sovereignty – autonomy by deliberate defection from the outside world – will be a useful example as the industrial economy becomes increasingly dysfunctional. The Amish model demonstrates the possibility of frugality without abject poverty. Taken together, these beliefs and values provide a good start on a creed to fit the age of ecology.

Part of the answer may be the alternative American dream that exists in the back of everyone’s mind. It surfaced in the dropout movement of the 1960s, motivated then by a desire to escape mainstream society, its values and occupational straightjacket. It is beginning to surface again due to a powerful new incentive: the need to build an alternative as the industrial system melts away. Hence guiding slogans of the sixties like Small Is Beautiful[3] are gaining new impetus. Ecological imperatives will ultimately compel us to live in smaller, simpler settings congenial to the political ideals of Rousseau and Jefferson – somewhere between the Dunbar Number (150) and the community of seven thousand of Alexander’s A Pattern Language[4]. Something like a Gaia religion that embraces the systemic, integrated nature of life on earth may appear if our species should be so lucky.

Today, a small population is beginning to boldly explore those options again, as happened in the Sixties. A courageous few are jumping ship, beginning to walk away from the industrial civilization and distance themselves from its institutions – its urban clusters, the market economy (especially the parasitic FIRE economy: finance, insurance and real estate), centralized government, mass media, formal schooling and the reductionist intellectual culture. Although they tend to explain themselves in rational terms, I think the root motivation is more a shift in gut values. Probably the only way this model will take root in a larger population will be by taking on religious overtones, becoming a faith for the age of ecology.

[1] Ophuls, William. 1977. Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity.

[2] Ophuls, William. 2013. Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology.

[3] E. F. Schumacher, 1973.

[4] Alexander, Christopher. 1976

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Reality 101: Some Notes on Teaching Humanity’s Predicament

By Karl North | September 10, 2016

Our species faces a predicament: the inevitable decline of industrial civilization as we know it, and possible extinction. Decades ago, a small but growing group became aware of the situation and began to create ways to communicate it to the general public. An ‘energy descent’ literature appeared that has described it using terms like overshoot (Catton), the limits to growth (Meadows et al), a long emergency (Kunstler), catabolic collapse (Greer), die-off (Hanson) and peak everything (Heinberg), just to name a few. They faced a mass media which did not consider the news fit to print, and a public who so far has denied it outright.

Gradually most of the group recognized their effective quarantine as The Cassandra Complex. Cassandra was the legendary daughter of the king of Troy who warned her father not to allow the Trojan horse into the besieged city. She was under a double curse: that she always had to tell the truth, and that no one would ever believe her.

Still, some of the group who understand the situation continue trying to find ways to break through the denial and provide enough explanation of how the world really works so that those who can handle the information might begin to adapt their lives. One example is a set of talks by Chris Martenson, The Crash Course. My essay takes its title from one of the more ambitious and comprehensive results, a college course designed and taught by Nate Hagens.

These educational efforts generally have two main themes. One is an explanation of the biophysical system in which our species exists, and how our violation of its rules is creating the predicament. This theme often includes a segment on evolutionary biology and psychology that tries to explain humanity’s predicament behaviorally mainly in those terms. The second theme is an analysis of the present organization of humanity as a globalized capitalist system, an analysis that explains the ability of the system to persist in a pathway of self-destruction while keeping most people in the dark.

Because the members of the initial group who became aware of the predicament were and still are mostly people trained in the biophysical sciences, there now exists a large literature that explains that aspect of the predicament. Their attempts to explain the role of the present social system in causing the predicament have not been as accurate or successful, in my view, for a couple of reasons.

One is the historical antagonism between physical scientists and social scientists. The former have questioned the scientific status of social science, going so far at times as to describe all behavioral science as nothing but noise. Margaret Thatcher epitomized this view when she said that society does not exist. Ideologically in line with her capitalist handlers, she meant that our species will prosper as a collection of individuals each pursuing his/her self-interest, and has no need for theories or analysis of society as such.

In reaction to their detractors in the physical sciences, many social scientists have tried to give their discipline independent status by ignoring biophysical realities in their research. C. P. Snow’s The Two Cultures, written half a century ago, summarized the antagonism, coming down heavily on the side of physical science, and kicking off a debate that continues to this day. Many who write accurately on the energy crisis retain residual loyalty to their training in reductionist science despite its inability to cope with the interconnected nature of the universe as we know it. They therefore tend not to take too seriously anything that can’t be empirically demonstrated by reductive methods.

The second reason that the presentation of systemic social analysis has not been as successful is the subversive nature of critical social science. Ruling strata have therefore traditionally demonized it, penalizing and marginalizing its producers, and making their writings easy to ignore even by highly educated publics.

While far from the whole story, one area of social organization that energy descent educators have singled out for special treatment and covered well is the role of money, finance and debt under capitalism. Understanding how financial structures and forces are combining to bring down the capitalist political economy is important in exposing the deep delusions of most of the public about these things and helping people to project alternative scenarios of social organization for the era of transition. Writers who are renegades from careers in finance have been particularly effective in this area (Chris Martenson, Paul Craig Roberts, Michael Hudson, Charles Hugh Smith, Nate Hagens). As these writers document, the policy of using interest bearing debt to enable capital investment, while not unique to capitalism, is intrinsic to capitalism as a system, and is essential for an understanding of the impetus to endless growth in our economy.

Without attempting a full-blown treatment, these notes will point out elements that critical social science reveals about our society as a system, which I argue that younger generations need to know to better confront the industrial melt-down that lies ahead.

A political economy of capitalism

If we are to have any chance of coping with such an unprecedented turning point in human history, we need to know how our current social system really works, how it contributed to the predicament, and how it will react to melt-down and to attempts to transition to a different social order. That is, we need a knowledge of its political economy. By ‘political economy’ I mean more than a study of the interaction of wealth and decision making power. I mean a systemic analysis of a society as a totality encompassing all its social institutions and its distinctive culture, grounded in an understanding of its structure of power relations and the many forms in which power is exercised. I am using the term political economy as shorthand for this more comprehensive framework of inquiry. In the nascent social science of the 19th century, social analysts of all political persuasions called themselves political economists.

The structure of power

Among the important insights that critical social science reveals is that the process of concentration of wealth and power in a minority is built-in to capitalism. Most people are aware of rising inequality, but surveys show that the public seriously underestimates the present concentration of power, and is therefore far too optimistic about the potential of political action to change anything at the level of nation states. Partly this is because of what Sheldon Wolin called inverse totalitarianism, the ability in modern states of ruling strata to avoid the direct exercise of power, remain in the background, and rule indirectly through control of the main social institutions: government, economic system, mainstream media, and the science establishment.

The manufacture of consent

Also important, our rulers have used powerful tools of propaganda to indoctrinate and successfully manufacture consent to their rule and unending desire for capitalism’s products – a deeply embedded culture of capitalism. The overwhelming growth and triumph of the propaganda industry over the last century got a boost when a kinsman of Freud, Edward Bernays, brought Freud’s insights on unconscious desires to the US and created the advertising industry. Bernays went on to show the powerful minority how to use propaganda to manipulate the collective consciousness, calling it ‘public relations’ and schooling them in a cardinal rule of propaganda: always use language that diverts attention from unpleasant realities.

Ruling strata have successfully created false narratives around all major institutions to hide who rules America. As I wrote elsewhere,

Since the beginning of the republic, US elites have found in the language of freedom a magnificent weapon of mass deception. “Let Freedom Ring!” the siren song sang out. Pandering to both libertarian Republicans and liberal Democrats, the powers that be offered different conceptions of what ‘free’ means, all of which on deeper analysis ring hollow. ‘Free speech’, ‘free press’, ‘free elections’, ‘free enterprise’, ‘free competition’, ‘free market’, ‘free trade’, ‘free world’ and the like were all peddled to a population that got only a show window view, a shallow misrepresentation of how these policies work out over time in a society where from the outset wealth and power have been concentrated in few hands. As in The Emperor’s New Clothes folktale, it is important to defrock and to deconstruct this language in the light of what has happened historically in our society in the guise of freedom.

What does a closer look at freedom in our society reveal? The main deceptive device in the language of freedom is to focus on individual freedom in the short run and to hide the inevitable consequences over time in which a few that have the means, unless thwarted, capture the means to control the lives of the many. Thus unrestricted freedom ends in loss of freedom.   Speech that functions properly to promote the public good turns out to be not free but expensive, and thus becomes the privilege of the wealthy minority who use it to indoctrinate the rest of us. Enterprise appears free until one’s enterprise is subjected to the inevitable hostile takeover by the powerful interests that exert monopoly power in most sectors of our so-called free market economy and reduce most people to wage slavery. Trade is not usually free, but favors the more powerful, imperial player, and so locks lesser economies into underdevelopment. Elections are not free but won by the candidate with the most funding. Academics, particularly in the applied sciences, know well that the price of academic freedom to criticize corporate power is institutional marginalization and the end of funding for their research.

Thus knowledge of the political economy of capitalism can offer eager students of the energy descent powerful analytical thinking tools to see through the fabric of fairy tales that propagandists are constantly fine-tuning. They tailor different versions to specific publics all along the political spectrum from techno-fundamentalism to Christian fundamentalism. Hence they persuade conservatives that government is the problem – when it is really only the agent of a powerful class, and they convince liberals that government would serve the people if there were just a little more regulatory red tape.

An extensive literature on the manufacture of consent and many other areas of political economy neatly exposes all these false narratives, and awaits energy descent writers who are willing to share its important insights on how our social system really works. An example of my own writing along these lines is The Alchemy of Language in the Pacification of the American People.

Keeping the system going beyond its demise date

Another reason to share the revelations of political economy that expose its false narratives is to help people see how ruling strata have created crutches that mask evidence of the energy descent that began decades ago, props that make the present situation more brittle and crisis prone, and will cause more distress as those chickens come home to roost . Here is a list of some of these, covered well in the literature:

  1. The expansion of credit to keep consumption going, thus mortgaging the future with debt at all levels of society.
  2. Financialization of the economy, anticipated decades ago in a major work of Marxian political economy, Baran and Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital. The endless bailouts to prop up debt-ridden financial institutions.
  3. Offshoring of the US industrial economy. The result:

Cheap imports based on cheap foreign labor and unregulated raw materials extraction slowed the decline in US standard of living and actually increased wealth greatly in the US financial class. However, because US production for export declined, one result has been a ballooning trade deficit, which we paid for again by artificial means: the printing and sale of federal treasury bonds not backed by the production of real wealth.

4. Increasing reliance on the weapons industry to soften economic stagnation. As I have said elsewhere,

The weapons industry – one of our economy’s few remaining profit engines – is still helping to provide a semblance of normality in the US economy and keep public discontent from spilling over into revolt. Because the weapons industry depends on constant warfare to market and consume its ‘products’, US foreign policy is driven toward serial wars, partly to sustain the ‘health’ of this prop for an otherwise stagnant economy. But because a trillion dollar federal budget for warfare displaces the funding needed for social services – especially in a failing economy – the end result is the same: rising discontent.

5. Ignoring infrastructure dilapidation: utilities, transport, essential medical and educational institutions etc., to maintain a semblance of system solvency.

To begin to explain the above constellation of policy choices, one needs an operational knowledge of our political economy – how it is organized to insist on profit maximization at any cost. Taken as a whole, this policy pattern suggests that ruling strata have little allegiance to nations in which they happen to have residence. Rather, they use national armies and diplomatic muscle to protect their interests.

The costs of life in the system

Energy descent educators need to reveal the costs, the trade-offs inherent in capitalism’s ability to generate the vaunted material benefits of The American Way of Life. They need to draw on the copious literature in this area. Examples in the early wave of criticism in the 1950s-60s include works on planned obsolescence like Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers and the literature of cultural alienation, exemplified by Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and exposés of the emptiness of middle class suburban life like C. Wright Mills’ White Collar. More recently, Kunstler’s The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream identifies suburban sprawl as a product of the cheap energy era and attacks it both for its immense waste of natural resources and its spiritual and social emptiness. Other costs like the destruction of family and community and the loss of quality of life from living in an environment where pollution is inescapable in air water and food are well described in the literature as derivatives of the capitalist political economy.

In conclusion, educators who wish to school audiences in Reality 101 – to reveal the real world behind the veil of false narratives and misunderstood status of biophysical resources, to describe the present unique situation in human history and to prepare them for some sort of adaptation to the post-petroleum era – need to provide powerful tools for understanding how the world works, both the biophysical systems in which society is immersed and the peculiar political economy of capitalism that locks society into a self-destructive path.

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