Folk Tales, Foreign Policy, and the Value of Systems Thinking

By Karl North | January 30, 2014

In the tale of the boy who cried wolf, a boy who is tending sheep and serving as a lookout for wolves seeks to relieve his boredom and gain attention by crying wolf when in fact there is no wolf. This decision/policy succeeds for a while, then it no longer works. A systems thinking model reveals the cause of the behavior over time that occurs, described in the graph below, and the counterintuitive result.

In my explanatory model, inspired by Gene Bellinger’s exposition of the same fable on Insight Maker, the system of interest consists of two feedbacks, one positive, or reinforcing,, and one negative, or counteracting. In one, as the boy repeatedly cries wolf, the towns people come running, and the boy gains increasing attention. In the other, the more times the towns people discover there is no wolf, the more the boy’s credibility is destroyed. Soon the second feedback becomes dominant. Because the boy’s credibility is now zero, when a wolf threatens the town and the boy cries wolf, the people no longer react, and the wolf invades the town. This is the counterintuitive, unintended result of the boy’s initial strategy. Here is a causal loop diagram of the model that shows the two conflicting feedbacks:

Foreign policy decisions can often lead to similar counterintuitive results. Suppose a great empire, in its declining years desperate to retain control of a region of the world that provided it with a critical resource, had adopted a policy of backing decadent medieval theocratic monarchies. It did so because it was easy to extract obedience from these backward regimes in return for shoring them up against the pressures of modernity. However, suppose that in recent decades, modern, secular regimes, benefitting from increasing popular hatred of imperial oppression, had replaced a few of the backward ones and had declared a degree of independence from the empire.

To counter the trend toward secular society, religious leaders in the region fomented their own popular struggle against the empire based on religious difference, which relied on the historical antagonism between the religion of the region and the religion of the empire. Leaders of the most extremist sects had the most success in recruiting insurgents to the struggle against imperial control of the region.

To counter the rise of independent, secular regimes, the empire adopted a policy of destabilization of these regimes by fomenting sectarian conflict leading to insurgency and civil war. As it turned out, religious extremist elements within these states, which had the most to gain from regime change, made the most effective insurgents, so the empire armed them and backed them with its air power.

This policy worked well, and several upstart governments on the empire’s hit list fell. The trouble with the policy was that it was short-sighted. The same religious fanatics that the empire used to do its dirty work also used the ancient religious antagonism to spread hatred of the empire throughout the region and began to fight the empire in its decadent client states. The extremists also had the capacity to inflict terrorist violence in the heart of the empire and its allied states. The empire’s use of religious extremists destabilized the whole region, which erupted in various types of conflict that spiraled out of imperial control, and the ultimate outcome of the empire’s policy was heightened popular opposition and resistance to the empire, a consequence in direct contradiction with the policy’s aims.

As it happened, this account is not hypothetical. The US Empire and its European vassals currently are carrying out the same policy in Western Asia, and reaping its counterintuitive results. The US policy of using Muslim extremists started with arming them in Afghanistan under Osama Ben Laden, a CIA operative, to overthrow a relatively secular government allied with the then USSR. That worked well initially, except for the ultimate outcome: an anti-American Muslim extremist Afghan regime. Then, faced with a Yugoslavia that, unlike the rest of Eastern Europe after the break-up of the USSR, refused to fall prey to Western private capital, the US Empire provoked ethnic conflict to break up the nation, partly by backing Islamic groups. The legacy of that policy is an uncontrollable islamo-gangster state in Kosovo. Later, the US and its allies tried to use sectarian conflict to retain control over Iraq after the US invasion and occupation did not replace the independent, secular regime with a passive, pliant one, but the result was an Iraqi regime allied to Iran, an enemy of the Empire. Subsequent uses of extremists in attempting regime change in Libya and Syria have ended in disastrous loss of imperial control of the situation in both countries. Finally, the result of decades of imperial support for Israel’s extermination of Palestinians has been the Islamization of the Palestinian resistance. The whole process has embroiled the region in conflict and weakened the decadent despotisms that are still obedient to the US Empire.

Here is a causal loop diagram of the relevant feedbacks: Regime Change, which represents the policy goal and its results, and two Policy Drift 1 and Policy Drift 2, balancing loops that counteract the policy and explain consequences that were unexpected and counterproductive from the viewpoint of the US Empire.

Topics: Uncategorized | 1 Comment » |

Why Systems Thinking?

By Karl North | January 23, 2014

My explicit focus on systems thinking in writing and teaching comes from an awareness, spreading slowly through the knowledge business, that it is an essential approach to all inquiry intended for application to real world problems. For its importance to be taken seriously and applied to all important issues in everyday life, systems thinking needs to be presented explicitly and formally for a couple of reasons:

None of the pertinent issues of the day – mounting global financial fragility, economic stagnation, resource shortages, ecological destruction, food shocks, critical infrastructure fragility, climate change, rising evidence of stress in human behavior – can be adequately understood without a complex systems perspective. Indeed, many systems thinkers see these issues as related, constituting a convergent ‘perfect storm’ whose prolongation is guaranteed to derail industrial civilization. They have come to see that the causes of this predicament can be traced to technologies and other interventions that are the outcome of reductivist thinking.

For the above reasons, systems thinking urgently needs to be presented formally as a re-education in how to think and make decisions. Many useful systems thinking learning tools exist; what they tend to have in common is an emphasis on seeing broad webs of causal relationship, and on using graphic tools to reveal parts of those webs that are often hidden from view. Here is an example of one of these graphic tools, intended to show a critical web of causal relations that connects to the variable of oil production and depletion:

Called causal loop diagrams because they trace cause and effect over time and show feedback loops and their effects, such figures are dense with meaning. While all the meanings are not evident to the untutored, it is not difficult to learn how to read these diagrams and create them to share systemic insights with others. My paper Introduction to Systems Thinking explains how to read and create causal loop diagrams. An explanation of the above example can be found in my essay, The Case for a Disorderly Energy Descent. The example shows how diagramming the appropriate systemic context can provide insights into the way changes in a single variable (in this case oil production) can cascade through a feedback structure, accelerating other changes along the way that, without a systems picture, one might easily ignore.

“Ecology” as a Systems Thinking Paradigm

Another, somewhat less formal approach to learning and promoting a systems perspective is to broaden the meaning of ecology (as many systems thinkers have) so that it becomes a worldview or umbrella meta-discipline that encompasses all fields of inquiry. This should hardly be a stretch; it simply brings up to date our manner of inquiry to fit our modern scientific understanding (since at least Darwin) of the interdependent way the world works. In this view, the human species and inanimate substances are studied as integral elements of ecosystems, subject to the same rules. Also, as we now know, how things change over time in these complex systems is not self-evident; hence systems thinking requires an understanding of broad causal networks that inevitably overlap artificial disciplinary boundaries and historical timeframes.

Ecology thus defined encompasses the biological, social and physical sciences, in fact all other fields of inquiry. And even social science now needs to include what are often downplayed as humanities (arts, history, philosophy, religion and ethics), a view of the importance of these aspects of human society that is a normal rule and working practice in anthropology. Like formal systems science, ecology writ large is by nature transdisciplinary: it assumes the potential for cause and effect in both directions among elements of the real world that in formal schooling are mostly studied in isolation.

To be blunt, to truly grasp the new worldview and apply its approach to inquiry of any kind we must unlearn much of what we absorbed in school, often imposed unconsciously by a framework of education that distorts subject matter by teaching it in separate silos. All the newer, ‘hyphenated’ subjects – biochemistry, biophysical economics, social ecology, political economy, evolutionary psychology, intellectual history, etc. – have been but baby steps in this new direction.

The view of ecology as the mother discipline is more subversive than it first may appear. Assumptions unquestioned in one field of study are now overturned by empirically discovered rules of nature of long standing in another field. For example, both the law of carrying capacity in ecosystems (including those managed by us), and the laws of energy and matter that are the accepted standard in the physical sciences demonstrate that unlimited growth in anything, an assumption that still underpins conventional economics, is impossible! Historians know that most civilizations collapsed by ignoring the limits to growth. Evolutionary biologists know that most species that ever lived are now extinct, often by ignoring the limits to growth. Physical scientists respect the laws of energy, matter and entropy (the laws of thermodynamics) according to which the continued use (for growth) of anything that exists in finite amounts leads to dissipation, where the resource can no longer be recaptured and used for growth. As a result, when a key resource is no longer economically accessible, growth stops and entropy proceeds unchecked, causing system decline.[i]

In another example, people trained in the physical sciences tend to dismiss the importance of religious or other belief systems not based on empirical evidence. But anthropologists know that since scientific knowledge still provides a far from complete understanding of the complex systems we live in, nonempirical ‘knowledge’ will always serve social cohesion and psychological integrity by filling the knowledge gap left by science. These are not trivial functions but examples of lessons learned in one field that need to be accepted in others.

In sum, when all fields of inquiry are forced to coexist under the same umbrella, assumptions dear to separate disciplines will be exposed to healthy reexamination. While the ecological worldview threatens embedded disciplinary vested interests, we should see such threats as delivering benefits. As Thomas Kuhn made clear in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, such a paradigm shift is always painful, but when a worldview no longer makes sense of what we presently know, it is time for a new one. However, as Kuhn also said, when a new framework for inquiry becomes necessary, the old one is not completely rejected; much of it is often subsumed within and adapted to the new way of doing science. Thus the systems approach to problems of science does not reject reductive ‘lab science’ methods. Instead of loose canons spawning destructive technologies, they are tamed as tools in the greater goal of studying problems in their appropriate systems context.

Systems thinking is the new scientific paradigm. Already it includes a well-developed theoretical framework of concepts that can guide and sharpen practice. As a formal meta-discipline it is known as complexity or systems science. In ecology it is known as systems ecology, pioneered by the Odum brothers and their intellectual progeny: C. S. Holling, L. H. Gunderson, Charles Hall and many others. Hopefully it will spread fast enough to save the resource base of human civilization from its destruction by the technological products of the old reductivist way of doing science.

[i] Regarding the raw materials consumption/depletion chart, the question, “How many years left?” is misleading in the extreme. As with the question of oil reserves, the depletion of any finite resource begins to negatively affect our economy long before affordably accessible reserves are gone. The effects of the peak oil have been felt in the US since domestic production peaked in 1970. Now that US imperial power is in decline and the US must compete for raw materials on a more level playing field, its economy feels the consequences of rising mineral scarcity even before global production peaks. This is the case with a number of materials in the chart, like copper, phosphorus and coal. The reason is that because the easiest material is extracted first, scarcity caused by rising costs of extraction occurs before the production peak. The costs are not only rising, but rising at an accelerating rate, revealing that their cost/scarcity is currently driven by a positive feedback loop.

Topics: Core Ideas, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Systems Thinking Tools, Uncategorized | 2 Comments » |

The Future of Industrial Society: “Progress”, A Microscopic Scientific Paradigm, and Blowback

By Karl North | January 2, 2014

Nothing is more important to understanding the behavior of a large social entity than awareness of its collective worldview. Usually that worldview is so deeply embedded and taken for granted that its inhabitants rarely know that it exists and shapes their individual and collective behavior in many ways. A common parallel is fish who do not know that the water that touches their noses is water, because they have never experienced open air. For anything in our world to have meaning, we must be able to compare it with some alternative.

One of the most deeply embedded elements of the collective worldview in industrial society is the notion that unending progress is normal behavior in all human societies.

Working in tandem with this belief is the hard fact that our peculiar form of economy becomes unstable and prone to collapse without economic growth:

  1. Our form of economy breeds inequality, so enough economic growth must occur to allow private capital its profits and still provide a trickle down to pacify the discontent that results from increasing inequality.
  2. Our form of economy relies on private capital to allocate the investment necessary not only for growth, but merely to sustain the economy at any given level. The capitalist class, the class that has enough discretionary wealth to permit investment, has the right in our form of economy to be paid simply for renting out its capital, and will not invest unless it receives this “interest”. Hence, because our economy relies on private capital, it must “progress” sufficiently to pay the rent on the use of that capital.

Without growth to pay the rent on private capital, our economy stalls and begins to collapse. Economists are therefore acutely aware of the intrinsic need for growth in the peculiar way capitalist society is organized. They have therefore made the notion a cornerstone of their ideology and have done their best to make it central to our worldview. The organization of a society around the need to pay rent/interest is peculiar to modern society because, for long periods in earlier civilizations, debt at interest was known as usury, and was banned or carefully constrained. In capitalism however, debt paid with interest is the main profit-generating mechanism, its heart and soul as it were, and when no longer functional, leads to heart failure.

Progress is so entrenched as to have become a quasi religious belief, as in the proclamations of our leaders that “The American way of life is non-negotiable”. Hence many students of our society who see that progress has nefarious consequences in time and space are coming to the conclusion that we are likely to pursue progress to its bitter end.

My goal here is to explore how our way of doing science reinforces the belief in material progress as a normal trend, so that we revere the technological products of science despite their violation of the laws of nature. The many negative consequences that follow from these violations often come later in time (our children’s lifetime) or more distant in space (those living downstream), which makes it easier to ignore them. In my title I refer to these consequences as “blowback” because they are inevitable and intrinsic to any society whose collective consciousness is fixed and intent on unending growth. I will conclude that progress as we know it contains the seeds of the end of industrial civilization.

A Way of Doing Science

The world we know consists of a web of interacting elements and forces, some strongly related, some more weakly. If we are to understand the consequences of our actions in such a world, our approach to knowledge must assume and acknowledge that web. For most of human history societies did acknowledge the connected nature of the universe in one way or another: as a natural world whose power and integrated structure deserved respect (pantheisms) or later as a theological whole portrayed in sacred texts (monotheisms).

However, an approach to knowledge slowly developed in Western Europe (starting around the 17th century, to put a rough date on it) that deliberately ignored the web, the systemic nature of the world and the way it works. People who eventually called themselves scientists discovered that by reducing their focus to few variables they could discover causal relationships whose consistency they could demonstrate by replicable experiments. This so-called reductive method, when applied to invention of technology, delivered such powerful results that it came to dominate inquiry into how the world works. Reverence for technologies based on this method of inquiry grew so great as to supplant religion as a source of power. Early large steam engines for example, whose invention is credited with jump-starting the industrial revolution, were often housed in massive architectural monuments as ornate in their own way as cathedrals, which reveals how society worshiped these machines.

Now, after several centuries of this quasi-religious obsession with technology, fully industrialized societies have become dependent on a panoply of technologies invented under laboratory conditions by a method that ignores their ripple effects in the web of connections that exist in the real world. A general pattern has emerged where technologies based on purely reductive science work for a while as expected, then start to produce unexpected and often unwanted results, so that they often create more problems than they solve.

The problems they have created have become so great that they are undermining our industrial way of life. As described earlier, our addiction to this way of life and the endless growth our type of economy requires appears to have locked us into a path of depletion where the industrial economy eats itself alive.

First, progress seen as economic growth depletes at an increasing rate the raw materials modern society needs not only to grow but simply to operate at the present level.  Energy is the most important raw material because it is necessary for all activity, and because cheap energy permits the massive extraction and consumption of all other materials.

As the energy sources that underpin industrial civilization are becoming permanently scarcer, the material consumption we have become used to over the last two centuries will decline accordingly as a degree of deindustrialization occurs. This trend was already evident by 1970, but masked in various ways so that few were aware of it as an ultimate cause of the visible decline in quality of life.

Compounding the cannibalistic depletion process, the massive extraction and consumption of energy and other raw materials has fouled the earthly nest and disrupted local and planetary ecosystemic processes to the point where the conditions for life and our survival as a species are increasingly at risk. The damage to soils, air, aquifers, forest, fisheries, and other parts of the natural resource base that underpin modern prosperity is now well advanced.

Those chickens are now coming home to roost, and represent the blowback mentioned in the title of this essay. They are manifest in the ever increasing costs of keeping industrial society going. Hence the cost of producing many of the goods that are essential to keep industrial civilization running will soon become prohibitive. This trend is impacting discretionary consumption first, and then is gradually affecting “essentials” like cheap food, transportation, communication and housing, and many economic activities and the jobs that sustain them.

What to do? Really there is no solution, only adaptation. How to do it? The primary adaptation called for is a fundamental shift in the collective consciousness. For example, there exist other ways to do science, ways that seek to understand the world on its own systemic terms rather than the narrow ones of technological knowledge[1]. Here is one take on the question that seems to point in an appropriately holistic direction:

If we really want transformation, we have to slog through the hard stuff (history, economics, philosophy, art, ambiguities, contradictions). Bracketing it off to the side to focus just on technology, or just on innovation, actually prevents transformation.

Instead of dumbing-down the future, we need to raise the level of general understanding to the level of complexity of the systems in which we are embedded and which are embedded in us. This is not about “personal stories of inspiration” [à la TED talks, for example - KN], it’s about the difficult and uncertain work of demystification and reconceptualisation: the hard stuff that really changes how we think.[2]

I suspect that those who take this direction will find that academia has become too compartmentalized to permit the holistic, trans-disciplinary approach that is necessary. They will become an outlier intelligentsia, agitating and sharing down in the streets with everyone else. In a small way this is already happening.

[1] I discuss this point in much detail in Reductionist Science and the Rise of Capitalism: Implications for a New Educational Program of Agricultural Science at Karl North Eco-Intelligence

[2] Benjamin Bratton

Topics: Political and Economic Organization, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Uncategorized | 2 Comments » |

Three Farmhouses: A Study in Passive Solar Design

By Karl North | August 21, 2013

I have just added this account of my experiences in energy-efficient housing design and construction to my Core Papers on this website.  It is an attempt to fill a gap in the literature of low energy design that, in view of the long-term energy crisis that the world is entering, I see as a serious deficiency. It was originally published by TCLocal, an energy descent research group in Ithaca, New York.

Current interest in “green design” tends to run to solar and wind electric technologies that replicate the push-button convenience that our society is used to but are very inefficient ways to heat a building. This approach bestows a certain social status but is so expensive that it is not a model likely to gain widespread adoption in an industrial economy now headed into long-term decline. Area developers sometimes promote “green materials” that may also confer status but rarely save as much of the planet as simple construction designs that dramatically reduce residential energy use.

Human consumption of planetary resources is now coming up against hard physical resource limits, with the following implications for home heating: 1) All fossil fuels will gradually become too scarce to be affordable for heating1; 2) As human society returns to reliance on biomass energy for many purposes, wood and other forms of biomass will become scarcer as well; 3) Unlike direct heat from the sun or biomass burning, other sources including “alternatives” like wind or solar electric heating require technologies that are expensive and energy conversions that waste energy, which makes them too costly for most people; 4) As fossil energy becomes more scarce, economies that currently can produce resource-intensive alternatives will no longer have the industrial capacity to provide these technologies at the necessary scale. The only answer is to use lower cost technologies.

Topics: Core Ideas, Recent Additions, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization | No Comments » |

Food Production Systems in the Decline of the Industrial Age: A Call for a Socio-ecological Synthesis

By Karl North | June 9, 2013

The sustainability of industrial food production has long been under attack for its destruction of the soil, water, air and other products and services essential to life on earth. Now the massive consumption of energy and other resources needed to build and maintain industrial society has led to the depletion of these materials to a degree that makes the survival of industrial agriculture even more implausible due to its utter dependence on external inputs. The population that will come through the gauntlet of industrial decline will depend on the level of agricultural productivity that can be sustained. The thesis of this paper is that human society is entering a new era in which agricultural productivity and subsequent carrying capacity in human population will depend on major changes in three areas:

  1. A society reoriented to emphasize agrarian communities more than urban living environments;
  2. Agroecosystems designed to rely on local self-sufficiency and biological diversity rather than high external inputs, and
  3. A scientific paradigm that re-emphasizes whole system modeling rather than exclusively reductive methods, specifically one that develops a synthesis of sociological and bio-physical research.

It is important to recognize that the effort to implement these changes will confront deeply imbedded socio-cultural patterns that are an unfortunate legacy of the industrial age.

The Urban/Agrarian Conundrum

A highly urbanized global population reliant on cheap but energy-intensive food production is one of the extravagant legacies of the waning industrial age. As industrial economies go into permanent decline, they will gradually fail to support large populations used to an urban standard of material consumption. Moreover, even where agricultural science is moving in the direction outlined above, a highly urbanized society is an impediment to change because too few are able or willing to become farmers.

Cuba is an interesting example of the problem. Cuba is a world leader in the design of low input agroecosystems. But Cuba, like most highly urbanized societies, has a farming population that is too small to produce enough food to feed its whole population using these labor–intensive systems. Incentives to encourage urbanites to move to rural communities and adopt an agrarian life have not had the necessary success. Therein lies a good part of Cuba’s failure to achieve food sovereignty after a half century of revolutionary programs devoted to that goal.

Like Cuba, most nations are hamstrung with urban populations inherited from the industrial age. Does this mean that the geographic reconfiguration of society that is necessary must await the chaos and suffering that will accompany the deterioration of city life in the post-petroleum era? Once again in history, perhaps only necessity will drive change. See my Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios for more exploration of this question.

Diversified, Self-sufficient Farming Systems

The lack of farmers is only one of the negative legacies of the industrial age. Another is an economic system that favors agricultural specialization to such a degree that it has structured even the quest for more sustainable alternatives. Some farmers in the organic farming movement have understood the ecological efficiency and resilience of highly diversified systems that will be essential in the energy descent. But generally they have found it hard to create them because these systems are not yet economically competitive in the present economy. In my Visioning County Food Production, Part Two: General Problem areas in Sustainable Agriculture Design I presented historical models and agroecological theory that support the integration of crop and livestock production as central to the improvement of agroecosystem sustainability, but successful integration is still rare in the alternative agriculture movement in the US. Part of the problem is the management skill and effort that such complex agroecosystems require, but one solution, at least in the present economic environment, may be sociological. Rather than design the farming system around the nuclear family, it may be easier to achieve the necessary diversity by designing it around an agrarian community of close neighbors that can cooperate to provide the diverse elements that a system requires to gain sustainability.

Whole systems Perspective

A third unfortunate legacy is a scientific paradigm that prefers the predictability of knowledge that comes from narrowly focused research. Born in the 17th century Enlightenment and championed as a close fit to the needs of the nascent capitalist political economy, this paradigm has bequeathed a highly compartmentalized knowledge business that lacks complex system theory and modeling methods in many fields. In our systemically structured world all applied science requires systems thinking and modeling tools. This is especially true in agricultural science, where increases in sustainability are achieved mainly by designing integrated wholes, not by simply accumulating a grab bag of “ecological practices”, as Wes Jackson described most of the work of academics who claim to be doing agroecology. Moreover, in a world increasingly depleted of the external inputs on which agriculture, including most organic farming, presently relies, the new farming systems must be highly self-sufficient in inputs. For decades, agronomists have paid lip service to the study of natural systems that excel in input self-sufficiency. Temporizing on this issue must give way to action.

As many have argued, natural selection in several billion years of natural history has evolved far more sustainable ecosystems than humans have invented in a few thousand years of agriculture. Logically therefore, the core of training in agricultural science should be systems ecology and complex systems theory, which cannot be absorbed incidentally through the curriculum of separate courses in plant science, soil science, animal science, etc. that are the typical program in most agricultural schools.

In some fields a whole systems approach is already prevalent. Biophysical economics, climate science, public health, dialectical political economy, and systems ecology itself are examples that can provide direction to other fields of ways to model problems in their appropriate historical and systemic context. In agricultural science, not only cultural inertia and its vested interests in academia, but powerful interests in the agricultural economy as well have created headwinds to inhibit change. I explore these questions in more detail in Reductionist science and the Rise of Capitalism: Implications for a New Educational Program of Agricultural Science.

Here again, a science establishment that can survive the decline of the industrial age will require radical changes not only in the content of the science, but in the social configuration of institutions of knowledge production as well. Transdisciplinary research will need to become the norm. Valuable farmer experience derived from daily confrontation with whole systems will need to gain a more important role in the advancement of agricultural science.


Brief exploration of each of three major problem areas in food production has hopefully revealed that change in each requires that sociological understanding go hand in hand with ecological knowledge. Also, by describing these three problem areas together in one essay, I hope to have made clear that, because of their interdependency, none of them can be addressed adequately in isolation. A long history of such isolated problem solving in science has produced a string of technologies that seemed spectacular at the outset. But because of their more distant consequences in time and space, these technologies taken as a whole bear considerable responsibility for the desperate state of the planet today.

Topics: Agriculture, Northland Sheep Dairy, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Systems Thinking Tools | 2 Comments » |

The Interdependence of Phantom Financial Wealth, Phantom Carrying Capacity and Phantom Democratic Power

By Karl North | May 13, 2013

Capitalism is a total social system in which most land and other capital assets can be privately owned. Over time this allows profit, wealth and power to concentrate in the hands of a minority. As a result, that minority makes or indirectly controls all the major decisions that shape US society and the rules that govern the way it works. In the latest stage of evolution of the capitalist system, its rules have gradually driven it to create a fantasy world that is tripartite:

Phantom financial wealth. Cheap oil is necessary for real wealth creation because it pays for the interest rates that private capital requires for investment to take place under the rules of capitalism. As oil has become more expensive it has destroyed the process of capital creation. Hence the capital is no longer there either to maintain the physical structures of industrial society or to finance the massive cost of conversion to a society whose physical structures are geared to lower energy consumption. Moreover, because the current structures cannot be maintained without cheap oil, they are gradually falling apart and the economy of real wealth production is at a standstill.

However, the rules allow virtually unlimited creation of money and credit to maintain for a time the profits of the financial class. As in the rest of the capitalist economy, survival in the financial economy requires competition to attain monopoly control. In the present zero-growth economy, unrestrained competition in the financial class now drives money and credit creation mainly for speculative purposes, and the resultant financial wealth greatly exceeds the production of real wealth and is thus phantom wealth.

Phantom Carrying Capacity. The rules of capitalist society allow and in fact drive resource use beyond the carrying capacity of ecosystems. Ecosystem scientists call this overshoot, a process which, continued long enough, leads to collapse. Access to a limited source of fossil energy has allowed capitalism to create a temporary phantom carrying capacity far above real carrying capacity, one that creates the illusion that the last 200 years of excess economic development will persist. In the current overshoot of earth’s carrying capacity, as unrestrained resource use continues to deplete or otherwise damage the resource base, it gradually becomes clear that the system is cannibalizing itself simply to prolong the present level of consumption for a short time.

Phantom Democratic Power. Economic behavior according to the rules of capitalism allows and in fact insures rising inequality. Real democratic power is impossible in societies where most of the wealth is in few hands. So to keep order, governing systems are created that project the appearance of democracy without the reality: phantom democracy.

The Interdependence. Economic activity at phantom carrying capacity depletes resources at a rate that causes rising resource costs and decreasing profit margins in the production of real wealth. The investor class therefore turns increasingly to the production of credit as a source of profits. Credit unsupported by the production of real wealth is stealing from the future: it is phantom wealth. It also creates inflation, which is stealing from the purchasing power of income in the present. Protected from the masses by the illusion of democracy, government facilitates the unlimited production of credit and the continued overshoot of real carrying capacity. This causes inflation and permanently rising costs of raw materials. To divert public attention from the resultant declining living standard of the laboring classes, government dispenses rigged statistics and fake news of continued growth to project the illusion of economic health. The whole interdependent phantom stage of the capitalist system has an extremely limited life before it collapses into chaos.

Topics: Political and Economic Organization, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization | 2 Comments » |

Why Trying to Save Industrial Civilization with Alternatives to Fossil Fuels Only Makes Things Worse

By Karl North | April 6, 2013

A recent Cornell report on how to convert New York state energy consumption to alternative fuels perpetuates the nonsense that in a declining economy we can convert NY or anywhere else to “clean” wind and solar energy, maybe dimming the lights a bit, and thus continue the party (industrial civilization and the US way of life) indefinitely. The report merits criticism as an example of many such plans that promote large scale conversion to alternative energy,  because it epitomizes the narrow technological lens through which we are taught to see problems that need to be viewed in a much larger systemic context. Because of its unstated reductionist assumptions, the study fails on at least three counts:

  1. Resource Consumption and Associated Pollutions. Construction of such massive projects inevitably chews through an increasingly scarce and therefore ever more expensive global pool of fossil energy and other finite materials. At one time, there existed a window of opportunity to develop energy alternatives like wind and solar on a large scale, a window that is now closed. Thirty or forty years ago when energy, copper, neodymium, etc. were relatively cheap, such a project was feasible and might have bought our way of life a temporary reprieve. No doubt attempts at such projects will continue to be made, but will founder as an economy that is going into permanent decline (due to the same resource depletion) cannot afford the costs. The costs of the attempts will be born all the same, by our children and grandchildren if they survive the man-made ecological holocaust, in the form of a world ever more depleted of raw materials and ecological services that are essential to our quality of life. So the results of such attempts will be anything but “clean” for those who inherit them.
  2. Permanent Economic Decline. The industrial phase of human history of last two centuries has been possible only because of the cheap, high quality energy of fossil fuels. The end of cheap energy is sending the mature industrial economies (and eventually every energy-intensive economy) into permanent decline. The US economy is at least as hollow and debt ridden as the collapsing economies of Greece and Spain but has used its superpower status to maintain a pretense of stability and living standard a little longer than Mediterranean Europe. This cannot last; when it falls apart all bets are off on energy conversion plans of the scale analyzed in the report.
  3. Consumption of any kind of energy at this scale is toxic. There is a fundamental flaw in the thinking that the ecosphere can handle as much “clean” energy as the amount of “dirty” energy that we presently consume. In the last 250 years humanity has been using fossil energy at levels far above what the ecosystems of the earth evolved to handle over their several billion years of existence. The fossil fuel era has been a freak accident of natural history. Energy substitutes of any kind that could approach current fossil fuel production levels will be used to prop up the industrial way of life, whose ecological footprint already overshoots earth’s carrying capacity by half. Wind and solar energy at replacement scale will continue to chew up raw materials, creating landfill garbage, destructive sinks, and sheer dissipated heat that the planet cannot cope with. The current increasingly visible climate change is only one manifestation of the problem.

Hence the goal of maintaining current levels of energy production by other means will simply perpetuate resource consumption habits and associated ecological damage and depletions that are now destroying the resource base needed for survival of our species. Why have the engineers of plans like the Cornell report not thought of that?

What Is To Be Done? Human society existed for over a million years without greatly overshooting the carrying capacity of the planet, and can adapt to a more sustainable way of life. The looming failure of the debt-reliant economy offers such an opportunity. The economy controlled by private capital that currently grips most societies manufactures the desire for massive unsustainable consumption in order to maximize private profit. As that economy goes into decline and can no longer service debt, it will collapse.

However, because it is the result of manufactured desire, much of our consumption is discretionary, not really necessities of life, although we have been taught to believe otherwise. Hence as economic decline forces us to reduce consumption, our extravagant way of life offers a breathing space where we can adjust by learning to live without non-essentials. Therein lies the opportunity to adapt to a lower energy way of life, because eventually we will have no other choice.

Richard Heinberg was right, the party is over. In the long run attempts to prolong it by any means whatsoever just make the situation worse. But those who can kick the consumption addiction can potentially adapt to the new era.

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What systems thinking reveals: from biology to political economy

By Karl North | February 9, 2013

The way we do science today suffers greatly from the dominance of the reductionist paradigm. A general pattern has emerged where technologies based on purely reductive science work for a while as expected, then start to produce unexpected and often unwanted results, outcomes that at least from a reductionist perspective are a surprise and are therefore labeled “counterintuitive”. There exists other ways of doing science that pose problems broadly enough to account for likely ripple effects and nonlinear change. So why do we keep doing applied science in ways that often create more problems than they solve?

One hypothesis, which I explored in Reductionist Science and the Rise of Capitalism pointed out how congenial technologies that work mainly in the short term are to an economic system that mainly rewards short term results. Moreover, a scientific method that contemplates the systemic context of the problems it poses can be too revealing of the way our dominant social system works, because often it traces the root causes of problems to the nature of the system itself. Such revelations are not pleasing to oligarchies interested in sustaining their plutocracies.

The other major reason I think people keep applying reductive research to problems despite its poor track record is the feeling of security the predictive power of the reductive method confers on its practitioners. However, this power is short-lived because it derives from reducing real world complexity to a small number of variables and keeping inquiry compartmentalized in disciplinary silos. Here I will explore some of the ways reductionism and systems thinking compete in the struggle to understand the causes of human behavior.

The needless conflict between the social and biological sciences over the causes of human behavior, and indeed the nature of human nature, typify the shortcomings of the reductionist paradigm. Evolutionary biologists often focus on adaptation to an environment as if the latter were fixed or independent of the organism in question even though they know it is bad biology. They do it because although it oversimplifies, the world is otherwise too complex for their reductive methods to handle.

As biologist R. C. Lewontin points out in The Triple Helix[1], environments are surroundings, and are devoid of meaning when not related to what they encircle. As systems ecology has shown, the evolution of organisms and environments is more realistically described as constantly constructing one another; thus the adaptation works both ways. However, this complicates explanations of genetic fitness immensely; it becomes a moving target as organisms constantly alter environments in ways that provide a better fit to the current genetic state of the organism. Because Lewontin is a dialectician (Marxist for systems thinker), he intuitively sees organism and environment as caught up in the causal feedback structure that best describes their evolving (dialectical) relationship in the real world. He says that “environments are constantly changing so that adaptation to yesterday’s environment does not improve the chance of survival tomorrow” (the Red Queen Hypothesis). Moreover as a Marxist he automatically defines the environment of the human species as including social and cultural features that are continually evolving and impacting its biological evolution and social behavior, which complicates understanding even more.

On the other hand, social scientists as well oversimplify reality to stay within the security of their discipline. They often operate under the unstated (or sometimes explicit) assumption that human nature is a blank slate on which culture is written. Of course this too is bad biology, as they usually admit these days when called on it. But consideration of the genetic results of biological evolution as causes of human behavior is not their bag, and complicates their work.

The implications of all the above for how scientists should study our species are huge at every scale of inquiry. Because environments are as much constructed as adapted to, species do not just invade niches, they partially construct them. As part of human environment, cultural evolution itself has a feedback structure whereby a set of beliefs and values encourages human behavior patterns that, in turn strengthen that cultural environment in a feedback spiral that reinforces the behavior until, if it spreads widely enough, a hegemonic culture is falsely claimed to be indicative of ‘human nature’. Such claims have become a common refrain in the culture of capitalism as it developed and spread widely in recent centuries. People trained mainly in the bio-physical sciences tend to be taken in by such claims because they spend little time contemplating the great variation in human cultures, especially those less affected (infected?) by the culture of capitalism.

Support groups rely on cultural feedback structures, reinforcing new behaviors by immersion in a social environment where everyone is a practitioner of those behaviors. This works at different scales. Thus it becomes easier to cooperate at every institutional level in a culture that supports cooperative beliefs and values. In the same way a competitive culture encourages competitive behavior patterns in a reinforcing feedback cycle. Fitness thus means different things in contrasting cultures. In fact, it is not clear that it even affects biological evolution of the species unless the culturally created environment is stable for hundreds of thousands of years.

Because the fate of complex systems can depend on initial conditions, sometimes the direction of cultural evolution over a long epoch depends on what kind of cultural seed is planted and nurtured. As Richard Levins[2] (another dialectical biologist and colleague of Lewontin at Harvard) reports from many years of experience working with Cuban agricultural scientists, when policy making is not done under a constant cloud of corporate control and a culture that values private interest over common good, conflict over agricultural policy decisions takes place, but it tends to reflect genuine differences of scientific opinion, not who is bought by what powerful private interest or who is pursuing what personal agenda.

Cultural positive[3] feedback loops that operate over enough time can have powerful, cumulative negative effects. An example is the culture of poverty. As described here, it does not imply a failure of will or genetic inferiority on the part of the poor, but rather a set of beliefs and values accumulated and reinforced over generations of poverty experienced by a minority who exist within an environment of relative prosperity. Constant lack of opportunity relative to the rest of society slowly kills self confidence and leads to lower expectations. Beliefs and values like these become stronger as they are passed from one generation to the next and are eventually widely shared within the community of the impoverished. Taken out of poverty, a community may take more than one generation to evolve a different culture. Such is the nature of cultural inertia.

Of relevance here, and adding further complication, are discoveries in epigenetics, which studies information which children inherit other than through DNA. For example,

Studies on rats have shown that babies who receive less care and affection from their mothers face a life of poorer health and higher stress. Not only that, but so do their children, their children’s children, down to at least the 5th generation, contradicting the classical Darwinian model of genes as the be all and end all.

A new scientific story of evolution may therefore have great implications for our social organization. Epigenetics doesn’t deny genetics, but accepts that the environment can feed back in a way which transcends genetic determinism. It explains why deciphering the human genome did not prove to be the Rosetta Stone which unlocks all the secrets of human health. It turns out that identical genes manifest themselves quite differently as a result of their context. Moreover, the idea that genes make up the entirety of inherited information which is passed down between successive generations turns out to be a wild oversimplification.[4]

In sum, given the complexity of interaction between genes and environment that science, especially systems methods, has revealed in recent times, it appears that the debate over the relative influence of nature vs. nurture in the explanation of human behavior is far from over.

[1] Lewontin, R. C. 2002. The Triple Helix: Gene, Organism and Environment. Harvard University Press

[2] Levins, Richard. 2008. Talking About Trees: Science, Ecology and Agriculture in Cuba. LeftWord Books. New Delhi. Levins and Lewontin co-authored The Dialectical Biologist, a work that is relevant to the subject of this paper.

[3] In systems science ‘positive’ feedback does not necessarily mean ‘good’; it simply means ‘reinforcing’.

[4]The Emerging Field of Epigenetics

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Scenarios of Political Response to Energy Descent Crises

By Karl North | December 9, 2012

A number of students of the energy descent have concluded that the new era will include tipping points where key economic and political institutions suddenly go into crisis[1]. Charles Hugh Smith, for example, describes “snapback” points[2] when increasing divergence between “phantom wealth” and real wealth collapses. In The Case for a Disorderly Descent I described how rising energy prices in the current debt-stressed economies could cause chain reactions leading to a degree of disorder. This disorder would manifest as periods of crisis sufficient to cause governments to convert to emergency modes of operation far different from their normal roles in present-day society.

This response to prolonged crisis is common in history and appears under various labels: a state of emergency, martial law, a war economy, a “new deal” or a whole new political order such as fascism or a partial theocratic system as occurred in early Medieval Europe in response to repeated crises that replaced the social stability of the Roman Empire. It thus suggests a range of possibilities stretching from a forceful repression of the majority in the interest of sustaining the quality of life of privileged classes to an economy that redirects remaining energy and resources to serve the basic needs of all.

If our society is to prepare at the family and local levels for the crises ahead it will be useful to gain an understanding of plausible responses to these crises at different levels of government. This is an attempt to briefly explore some likely scenarios based on the historical record in the US. It will be important to consider which of the scenarios and local responses described here are likely or feasible at different times over the “long emergency” of the energy descent.

Urban Despotism

At the end of Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios, I suggested a policy scenario to facilitate the transition of urban areas in these crisis periods.

Governments could proclaim a “wartime economy” and create a program of economic policies that redirects remaining fossil fuels and other nonrenewables to uses that adapt urban areas to a low energy future. If governments were to make appropriate major changes in economic priorities, for a while they could maintain urban populations and supporting levels of urban activity and consumption that are higher than what I have described. Perhaps Departments of Descent would emerge and begin setting economic policy, at least locally.

Whatever the success of a period of legislated economic planning, its main positive function would be to delay the inevitable return to a solar energy economy long enough to help society prepare and adapt.

This scenario would tend to perpetuate the center-periphery social system in which the defining dynamic is a “wealth conveyor” by which a metropole builds and maintains itself on the back of its agrarian hinterland.

At the regional level in northeastern US this would play out by the Bos-Wash metropolitan complex taxing the hinterlands to death. The administration might take various forms: proconsuls the central power assigns to conduct the levies on rural food production, or a new feudal order of vassals that emerges from the agrarian communities themselves but who owe allegiance to the central powers.

Stoneleigh in her paper Entropy and Empire describes a historical period that has the potential to repeat itself in the parallel situation to Rome in which the Western industrial metropolis finds itself today:

Rome eventually hit a net energy limit and could no longer sustain its internal complexity. Efforts to strengthen the wealth conveyor through repression during the reign of Diocletian – an elaborate, highly intrusive and draconian regime of taxation in kind – amounted to feeding the center by consuming the productive farmland and peasantry of the empire itself. This period represented a brief reprieve for a political center declining in resilience, at the cost of catabolic collapse. Regions incorporated into the empire declined to a lower level of complexity than they had attained before being conquered.

Rural Revolt

Alternatively, resistance from the agrarian “barbarians”, damaging systemic feedback effects of perpetuation of the wealth conveyor, or simply the chaos from the loss of the industrial economic activity that supports the affluence of metropolitan life overwhelms the cities, as eventually it did in the Roman Empire. This is the Kunstlerian thesis. In James Kunstler’s post-oil novel World Made by Hand the protagonist finds the governor of New York sitting helpless in his empty Albany office, all the instruments of his power having disintegrated. He was unable to prevent even his capitol from falling into the hands of diverse mafias, and those desiring a semblance of order must make it themselves. In this case the rural proconsuls or vassals simply become an independent landed aristocracy, or are overthrown by locals who replace them in the new feudal order.

To explore these scenarios it will be useful to think about how governments will respond to the major crisis issues. Many analysts believe the following are major crisis issues likely to require a response from central government:

  1. Credit crisis – bank failures, consumers and producers lack cash to do business
  2. Monetary crisis – deflation and loss of purchasing power, or hyperinflation  and loss of monetary value
  3. Supply chain failure – crises provoked, for example, by rising transport costs that weaken the distance economy enough to start poking holes in it
  4. Failure of the economy to allocate dwindling resources to assure basic necessities, including infrastructure elements like a reliable electrical grid (Duncan’s Olduvai Theory is an argument for grid failure as a major early crisis).

Although there may be various triggering events, the resource depletion problem is the underlying one that tends to bring on these interconnected crises. It has no solution and requires adaptation to what will ultimately be a much lower material standard of consumption. The government could mitigate the difficulties of adaptation by again taking control of key institutions and resources, instituting storm socialism as Christian Parenti calls it: big government to deal with big crises.

The credit and monetary problems could be avoided easily by truly nationalizing central banking institutions. Under full public control, banking could be restructured in ways that would keep credit flowing in the declining economy that will be the norm in an era of increasing energy scarcity. But a declining economy could not support the current system of payment of interest for credit without gradually cannibalizing itself, to the eventual detriment of the rentier class itself. Hence the practice of a rentier class that taxes credit by charging interest would disappear; as in other difficult times payment of rent would again be known as usury.

Governments also could mitigate supply chain problems by taking public control of economic distribution of certain products and services that are basic necessities. This could take a variety of forms depending on the state of power relations in society. The present concentration of wealth and power in a minority class suggests that under government control first priority in the distribution of strategic resources would be to maintain that stratified social order. So internal security and enough support of basic production and transportation infrastructure to provision and otherwise sustain the privileged minority would absorb an increasing share of the dwindling resources that have supported an industrial standard of consumption, with the rest rationed out to the majority.

Organized revolts against this state of affairs could lead to attempts at local control as central power weakened. Historical examples abound, in the wake of the break-up of the Roman Empire for example, varying in scale from monastic communities and walled towns to secession of whole regions from central authority and their reorganization as mostly local economies in many instances of the decline of central power. While these new social entities historically came under a considerable degree of internal hierarchical control, they also usually improved the quality of life of the majority and thus often gained its support.

Local Control of Local Economies

Serious relocalization may need to wait out the current process of self-destruction inherent in the centralized power-over system; then as things fall apart sufficiently in the larger political economy and its unsustainable infrastructure, communities could seize the opportunity that the new political vacuum/chaos presents to reconfigure local policy and economy. Regions that contain significant strategic resources, like fossil fuels or even woody biomass, are likely to remain under central political control for the longest time.

As our society shrinks in complexity, simple loss of the infrastructure which supplies access to local resources may eventually put those resources beyond the control of central powers and thus provide opportunities for local communities to reclaim parts of the commons. The politics of this process could manifest as communities recapturing the commons for the common good, or as warring units of self-preservation evolving toward a new feudalism of local serfs and big shots, or some of both.

The legal means to begin the relocalization of political power are well within reach of state governments. The US Constitution provides for state legislatures to alter that document (to increase state autonomy, for example) in ways that bypass all three branches of the federal government.[3] The Board of State Governors is already on record in their opposition to the nation’s continued military adventures as part of a long-simmering conflict over the use of federal tax funds. Given appropriate triggering events, the states could find the unity and popular support to amend the US Constitution in ways that increase state or regional independence and weaken federal power.

Many efforts toward local economic sovereignty, like municipal bans on factory farming or oil or gas mining, are presently failing because they are premature. But despite being currently crushed by state and federal power, they remain essential consciousness raising activities to build toward future success. In the following example, community members rallied around a dairy farmer who was selling raw milk to neighbors in defiance of state and federal regulations, and in the process strengthened a regional movement.

“Blue Hill is one of five towns that have adopted “local food and community self-governance ordinances” stating that farmers or food processors are exempt from licensing and inspection as long as they sell directly to consumers for home consumption. The four other towns are Sedgwick, Penobscot and Trenton — also located in Hancock County — and Hope in Knox County. The ordinances are couched in constitutional language asserting that people have the “fundamental and inalienable right to govern themselves” and warning against other government agencies attempting to pre-empt the local ordinance.” – Bangor Daily News, Saturday, Jan. 28, 2012.

With enough foresight, local governments can take advantage of the massive
discretionary consumption and outright wastefulness in the present economy to convert it to uses that cushion the transition to a lower energy society. An example would be a policy to manage local biomass use in the best interest of the whole county.

One of the most important changes of the energy descent era that local communities should understand and anticipate as an opportunity is the long-term rising cost of transportation, which raises both the raw material input cost and the product distribution cost of the centralized production economy. At some point local production of many goods will again become competitive with centralized production and distant trade. Meanwhile, as distant trade shrinks, both ocean shipping and land trucking is already experiencing repeated cost-price squeezes[4] that will contribute to eventual supply chain crashes and sudden shortfalls of essential goods in local economies. Local communities that are forewarned can mitigate the distress if they can get ahead of the curve with policies that favor relocalized control of the local economy and natural resources.

Many such policies require little public funding, but would require fundamental rethinking of present local development planning strategy. The simplistic notion of two choices, extreme private or public control, leftover from Cold War ideological battles, is an impediment to thinking here. Restoration of the commons as a mental model can include not just more public enterprises but any economic policy that favors the common good instead of business per se.

Instead of the current pattern of subsidies or tax breaks to both local and external businesses that are so costly in public money, municipalities and county governments can enact laws regarding what businesses can sell, where they can locate, how they can operate, etc. –  policies that privilege local, more ecologically and economically sustainable production over distant production. In addition to well known cooperative efforts and land trusting are lesser known but historically proven forms like interest-free investment institutions and craft guilds, and citizen trusteeships and chartering that create a measure of democratic economic control over essential goods and services like energy, food and housing.[5] An example of such local political control of an economic good is Kristianstad, a fossil-fuel-free district in Sweden and a working model of locally controlled energy policy.[6]

Just as countries like the newly independent US in the early 19th century have enacted laws that favored US over foreign business, so can localities find ways to gradually achieve a measure of protection from the shocks of a declining distance economy. To escape current state and federally imposed strictures like interstate commerce laws, localities will need creative policy making. An example is the present attempt to use local zoning rights to block hydrofracked gas extraction.

Beyond legal constraints, most present attempts at local democratic economic decision making run up against the reigning ideology of extreme private control of property and economic activity that is unique to the US even compared to other Western capitalist nations. However, as the economic institutions based on this ideology gradually reveal themselves incapable of addressing the problems of the energy descent, it will be helpful to have different political forms waiting in the wings, and their mental models at least entered into public discourse. Then the obligatory cultural revolution will have a head start on events.

[1] Korowicz, David. Trade Off: Financial System Supply Chain Cross-Contagion – a study in global systemic collapse(June 2012)

[2] Financialization’s Self-Destruct Sequence (August 16, 2012)

[3] Greer, John Michael. 2102. A Crisis of Legitimacy


[5] Lewis, Michael and Patrick Conaty. 2012. The Resilience Imperative:Cooperative Transitions to a Steady State Economy. New Society Publishers.

[6] Ibid.

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Cities and Suburbs in the Energy Descent: Thinking in Scenarios

By Karl North | October 8, 2012

This article was originally reviewed, edited and published by Tompkins County Relocalization, a group in upstate New York that is researching various aspects of energy descent.

“A city could be defined, almost, as a human ecosystem that grossly exceeds the carrying capacity of its local environment.”William Catton

The vulnerability of cities and suburbs in the post-petroleum era has been the object of much debate because their present organization makes their operation so energy-intensive. The debate heretofore has tended to swing between two extremes. One claims that these forms of social organization on the land are so unsustainable that their populations will be forced to abandon them gradually as the energy descent progresses.[1]

Figure 1. A tree grows in Detroit
(photo by James Griffioen,

James Kunstler, a well-known critic of the kind of cities and suburbs that have emerged in recent decades, puts it bluntly:

The whole suburban project I think can be summarized pretty succinctly as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. America took all of its post-war wealth and invested it in a living arrangement that has no future.[2]

The other extreme entertains dreams of massive programs of public transportation to save suburbia. It also relies heavily on technologies like high-rise agriculture and on the efficiencies of population density to save cities. This is the vision of the eco-cities movement.

Figure 2. Techno-fantasy unchained
Time magazine via City Farmer News)

Neither of these scenarios makes much sense. The abandonment thesis ignores the immense accumulated wealth of the built environment in metropolitan areas, which is not likely to be left to fall apart, but will more likely support a certain level of human population if salvaged for other uses than it was originally designed for.[3] It is conceivable that modern society will be reduced to energy inputs available in 1800, before much use of fossil fuels. But that would not mean a simple return to what life was like in those times, due in part to the bonanza of accessible raw materials that the present built environment represents (a good thing), and in part to two hundred years of accumulated damage to the planetary resource base (not so good) that was unimaginable in 1800.

On the other hand, the claim that technological improvement can keep cities and suburbs functioning in the current ways at current population levels fails for many reasons. First, it perpetuates the above-mentioned accumulation of damage to necessary ecosystemic functions, damage that is intrinsic to “technological improvements,” damage that is already causing exponential growth in the operating costs of metropoles. Then there are the two reasons that the technological savior argument always has failed: there is a limit to the efficiencies that can be delivered by technology, and every technological advance requires an increase in complexity in the socio-economic system, with a resulting increase in consumption of energy and other raw materials in an era of increasing resource scarcity.[4]

Moreover, as genres of social organization and human landscapes, modern cities and suburbs are among the most energy consumptive imaginable because their continued existence relies on a broader agro-industrial base. Most calculations of the energy budgets of metropolitan areas far underestimate because they fail to account for the energy embodied in their construction and maintenance, which includes the vast and often distant agricultural and industrial plant, transport, and communication systems necessary to keep them running. This diagram suggests the scope of the support system required just to keep a metropolitan population in food.

Figure 3. “The linear flow of minerals from mines to farms and then dense human settlements leads to depletion at one end and the concentration of wastes or dispersion into water at the other.” — Jason Bradford (, graphic by Folke Günther

Of course, cities have existed ever since the advent of agricultural systems capable of providing the surplus necessary for their growth. But after a period of expansion, often spanning centuries, they have usually destroyed enough of their resource base to cause them to decline. In the last two centuries, cities have grown markedly in size and consumption of resources. But this unprecedented level of urban expansion is entirely reliant on access to fossil energy and other nonrenewable resources that are now becoming permanently more scarce.

The main weakness of the eco-cities movement is its failure to squarely face the increasing scarcity in energy and other resources and seriously consider its implications in the energy descent. Green or new urbanists claim that cities like New York are sustainable because their population density allows a smaller per capita ecological footprint than suburbs.[5] The clustering of populations that the ecocities movement advocates does conserve energy in key areas like building heating and human transport. This clustering will be essential in the energy descent at every scale of human community if we hope to avoid not only the energy costs of most present building configurations and their reliance on a distance economy, but also their misuse of agriculturally valuable land.

But heating and human transport are only one part of the energy cost of operating cities. The green urbanist scenario that compares present cities favorably to present suburbs fails to consider the more comprehensive assessment of many energy descent analysts that no dominant configuration of land use and built environment in the US today, urban, suburban, or rural, is sustainable without fossil fuels. The embodied energy in cities in particular involves upstream energy and material flows along many long production chains, and it requires constant renewal due to entropy (depreciation). Hence embodied energy in cities is commonly three times as high as operational energies like heating and daily human transport.[6]

As a result, the eco-cities movement’s current urban redesigns are characteristically overly complex and overly expensive, and are therefore aimed, like much organically grown food and most present ecovillages, at a gentrified market that will not survive the energy descent. This is not meant to criticize these efforts, but simply to point out that they reflect the economic and cultural choices of a society that has enjoyed cheap energy.

In addition to narrow thinking about the massive inflows of energy and other natural resources that today sustain metropolitan areas, the ecocities movement rarely considers more fundamental questions about urban populations posed by energy descent. In a world where the energy from oil has permitted a tripling of the population and, in rich countries, an average per capita ecological footprint (a measure of resource consumption) so large that it could support 30 African peasants, what is the true carrying capacity? How is the disparity in footprint justified when it reduces the supportable global population? And what is the largest sustainable city when urban population densities are on the order of 67,000 people per square mile[7], and the transportation cost of provisioning such densities from ever-more-distant locations increases with city size beyond the declining energy capacity of the planet?

A More Likely Scenario

A third scenario that I will explore here as more likely than the two considered above envisions a major transformation of both urban and suburban land and resource use to make cities and suburbs habitable in the coming low energy era, although necessarily supporting a much lower population level than they do today. As in all ecosystems, the carrying capacity of these areas will contract to fit the available energy, which sooner or later will be mostly solar.

Carrying capacity (CC) is an essential concept for thinking in scenarios about a future in which access to key resources is declining. Carrying capacity refers in the first instance not just to a population level; it is the maximum indefinitely supportable ecological load. It is important to view the ecological load in terms of material resource consumption and strain on essential ecosystem services that the existing or desired quality of life requires, often measured in combination as the per capita ecological footprint. So it is first the level of sustainable resource consumption/strain (SRC) that a particular landscape or resource base can support, which in turn determines the mix of population level and per capita resource consumption/strain or ecological footprint. Thus the equation for sustainable resource consumption is

SRC = population × resource consumption per capita

which makes clear that sustainable carrying capacity in terms of the actual number of people it will support depends on the level of individual consumption:

CC (sustainable population) = SRC ÷ resource consumption per capita

This understanding of carrying capacity raises a concern about present resource consumption. The modern industrial society that urban areas epitomize now relies 80-90% on nonrenewable resources. A society that must return to a resource use rate that rarely uses nonrenewables except as recycled salvage will need to rely mainly on low-input agriculture, aquaculture, and forestry for food and fiber, and similar low-input technologies using renewable and salvageable materials in other areas of production. Hence the inevitability of a return to a relatively low-technology solar energy economy is likely to reduce populations in large metropolitan areas to 10-20% of their current levels.[8] Dispersal from city centers to hinterlands will account for much of the decline. In the end this will be a salutary outcome because it will contribute manpower to the increasingly labor-intensive farming systems that will replace industrial agriculture.

Figure 4. (Pastel by Robert Huffstutter)

How will employment and therefore population shrink in metropolitan areas? The relative concentration of wealth in metropolitan areas has spawned an urban economy that depends heavily on discretionary spending beyond essentials. This part of the economy will tend to shrink first as the energy to support the modern economy becomes scarce.

Also, many people who live in cities and their suburban bedroom communities work in an economy that is parasitic: instead of creating value it simply transfers wealth from one group to another. Much employment in the so-called FIRE sector (finance, insurance, real estate) falls into this category, which also includes much government, advertising, litigation, and lobbying activity — economic sectors that have arisen to exploit our society’s failure to find better ways to perform essential functions. Jobs in this parasitic economy can be expected to disappear early in the energy descent. Many urban clerks in cubicles, data gathering to feed the wealth transfer game, will need to convert to skills that provide life’s basic necessities — food, shelter, basic tools, and services — and for many that will mean leaving the city for farms.

In reality, much of the present urban population will be needed on farms. According to energy descent scientist Richard Heinberg, the de-industrialized agriculture that replaces the current energy-intensive form of food production in the US will require fifty million farmers instead of the present two million.[9] Indeed, there is a growing new farmer movement across the US, served by organizations like Groundswell here in Tompkins County.

The challenge of envisioning a plausible conversion of metropolitan corridors like Bos-Wash to landscapes that are livable sans fossil fuel is to think beyond current models of development or even redevelopment schemes requiring levels of capital investment that a post-petroleum economy cannot afford. The expensive visions of both the green urbanist movement and the nodal cluster suburbanists run aground on this obstacle. Awareness comes slowly because thinking about the upkeep of these structures in the energy descent is often counterintuitive:

Cities overburdened with skyscrapers will soon discover that these structures are liabilities, not assets. The skyscrapers deemed most “innovative” by today’s standards — the ones most dependent on high-tech materials and complex internal systems — will be the greatest failures. This includes many of the new “green buildings.”[10]

An additional hurdle is the current resistance of the denizens of these landscapes to using them differently, but eventually that resistance will melt away as necessity becomes the mother of adaptation.

Throughout their history, metropolitan areas have been centers that have concentrated wealth and power drawn from exploited peripheries. Early in the energy descent they can be expected to use this accumulated advantage to allocate resources disproportionately to themselves and thereby prolong consumption levels and material living standards even as they decline in society as a whole. The maintenance of centralized control that this requires may hinge on something as simple as the ability of security forces, police and military, to fuel their operations on renewables like biodiesel.

Later in the energy descent, however, much of the fuel-intensive economic activity and centralized, hierarchical organization that is the raison d’être of cities and their umbilically connected suburbs will become unaffordable, and the related employment and population will evaporate. The long term budgetary agony of central governing administrations, now well under way, is an early indicator of economic contraction to come. Then human activity will return to a focus on the basic necessities of food and shelter, and economies in these places as elsewhere will self-reorganize around the provision of farming, food systems, and housing that work with minimal fossil fuel. My aim here is to summarize how I think this is likely to happen. The key element in my scenario is the liberation of the built environment and its rearrangement for other uses, a change made possible by the contracting economy and population of metropolitan areas that I have described as inevitable over time in the energy descent. Finally, I will suggest how this scenario might play out in Ithaca, New York and its hinterland, and by extension, in other small cities and towns.

The Post-Petroleum Metropole

Cities located on waterways will remain centers of some distant trade as they have for centuries. On the downside, rising water levels could eventually reduce habitable areas in seaport cities. But for a while as cities and suburbs shrink and depopulate, urban activity will center on salvage of the built environment. As many parts of the built environment are abandoned, we can expect their materials and land to be reclaimed for structures and spaces for growing food and for makeovers of housing and other structures to the level of energy efficiency required by the new economy. Because the return to a solar energy economy will support only a limited population, most land and buildings will stand empty and provide a broad inventory of materials or, once cleared, space for gardens. It is hard to imagine conversion of places like the canyons of south Manhattan to either appropriate housing or food production, so some city zones may remain abandoned except for salvage activities. At the end of Apartheid in South Africa, for example, white businesses left the high-rise section of Johannesburg. The squatters who replaced them could not afford the energy needed to maintain the buildings, and they gradually fell apart.[11] As urban areas everywhere experience a similar drop in energy use, urbanites will abandon energy-intensive structures. Hence a degree of decentralization will occur as urban areas devolve into compact, semi-self-sufficient neighborhood communities separated by empty salvage-yard commons.

The same process will occur in the suburbs, where abandoned residential and commercial structures will serve as stores of materials for low-cost conversion of residential housing for the remaining population. Land to farm will be plentiful, but a main problem will be to end the inefficiencies of suburban sprawl and reconfigure this landscape into the kind of demographically dense agrarian villages that have proved sustainable for centuries. The affordable solution will be to move salvaged building materials or whole abandoned structures into clusters at these central locations. This will recreate at low energy cost the nodal demographic topography that historically has been chosen as the most efficient mode of spatial organization of rural communities the world over.[12] Thus in the long reach of history the extravagance we call suburbia will prove to be a temporary phenomenon.

Once the suburban topography is reformed into economically efficient agrarian communities, some of these villages have the potential to create a thriving trade in surplus food production with the nearest city nodes, which in turn have a surplus of salvage inventory for which they can exchange materials, and products handcrafted from them, and exchange seasonal labor as well. In other words, city and suburb will convert to symbiotic economies that bear some similarity to what they were before the oil age. In the New York metropolitan area, for example, New Jersey (the Garden State!), Long Island, coastal Connecticut, and the Hudson Valley — the city’s former breadbaskets — will regain that function. As the distance economy that cities once depended on becomes too costly, the ability of the near suburbs to convert from bedroom communities to beehives of food production may well determine the size of the population that can remain in the city.

Solarized Housing

In cool climates like the Northeast US, people will be forced to rebuild housing to maximize solar heat and minimize biomass burning, as biomass will regain its traditional role as the key strategic resource and will experience renewed demand for many uses. Here again the expensive models of residential energy efficiency popular today in the green building movement are impediments to visioning. For most of the population the only conversion option will be to use scavenged materials and hand labor, both of which will be plentiful, and in fact all that is necessary to build highly effective passive solar systems for heating both living spaces and water.

Figure 5. Solar hot water in attached solar greenhouse

To solarize a residence or other building that needs to be heated for all-season use, urbanites will raze city structures that block it from full southern exposure and will use their insulation, glass, masonry, and plumbing hardware to convert it to reliance mostly on the sun for heat and hot water. Widespread conversion will occur when the massive city and suburban built environment inventory becomes available for salvage, because this type of solarization requires no expensive technology or skills beyond elementary carpentry and plumbing. Enough business buildings to support the shrunken economy will be converted in the same way. Gradually buildings made of wood, with their short turnover time of a few decades, will give way to more durable masonry salvaged from unusable structures. The masonry will perform the added function of furnishing the thermal mass to store solar energy required by passive solar heating systems.

Food Production Systems

Like most current alternative architectural models, most organic agriculture grew in the age of cheap oil and takes for granted many of its luxuries. Food production everywhere will eventually adapt much more closely to farming in nature’s image. Like natural ecosystems, farms will have to be largely self-sufficient in inputs, including a lot of human and animal labor and relatively simple machines and tools.

City food production will reach limits, making city populations dependent on the development of farming in the hinterlands that had been suburbs. Once most empty urban spaces are used for farming, space will be a limiting factor on urban growing because demolition and removal of buildings in the energy descent will be very labor intensive. Another limiting factor will be lack of space to “grow” fertility either as green manure or manure from pastured livestock. This need for fertilizer could motivate a return to transport within the metropole using animals fed from fields outside cities, animals like those whose manure supported urban food production until well into the industrial era. In many metropolitan locations, efficient steel-on-steel rail transportation systems work as well with animal power as with energy derived from fossil fuels, just as they did for decades before and after the turn of the twentieth century. An effective policy would prioritize remaining fossil energy for the reconstruction of the rails and the rolling stock and run the latter on animal power.

A distinct advantage of farming in cities and suburbs will be the many existing structures that can be converted to solar greenhouses to furnish the heat to perform and enhance essential services in the new food system: intensive all-season growing, vermicomposting, food conservation by solar drying, and even solar cooking. Husbandry of small livestock like poultry and rabbits also will benefit from solar greenhousing. Like the solarized human housing described above, these structures will be low-cost conversions that require little skill beyond an understanding of passive solar concepts.

Implications for Tompkins County

Whatever its previous form of habitation and land use — city, suburb or rural — the most effective form of reorganization of communities everywhere will be small, dense, and mixed-use, to make the most of the traditional advantages of a convergence of many hands with diverse talents in a world made more by hand and constrained mostly to local self-reliance.

However, the size of an urban agglomeration will affect how easily the scenario that I have described will occur. Bamako, in 1962 a city of 100,000 in the heart of West Africa, seemed to manage well on relatively little fossil energy, as most of its population still cast a small carbon footprint. But Havana, with a population ten times that of Bamako, was suffering visibly despite massive compensatory government programs when I observed it during visits in the 1990s, six years into its peak oil experience (Cuba endured an 80% decline in energy and related inputs).

The larger the metropolitan area, the more population shrinkage it is likely to experience, and the greater the tendency for the city proper, like the suburbs, to break up and reorganize into compact, walkable, semi-self-sufficient communities. Cities as small as Ithaca will undergo much of the repurposing of land use and built environment described above, but the changes will be less extreme. Most of the downtown area is already walkable, and a low-input public transportation system is conceivable that would link neighborhood clusters to each other and to a rural periphery that is relatively nearby.

Like many cities on waterways, Ithaca will benefit from a potential lakeside trading area that low-input water transportation offers. The lake provides a link to a large swath of farmland that might support more of the current urban and suburban population in Ithaca than in landlocked cities. Hence waterfronts in the city and county will regain importance as points of departure in a revived system of waterborne commerce. In an era of scarce, depleted resources, this waterfront renaissance will need to occur mostly with salvaged or renewable materials.

Figure 6. An advertisement for the Cayuga Lake Transportation Company, ca. 1892. The steamer served the same communities around Cayuga Lake that are served by state routes 34, 34B, 90, and 89 today. A high-resolution version of this figure can be downloaded from (use “Save link as” to download before attempting to view)

The emergence of dense agrarian feeder hamlets along transportation lines mentioned in my Visioning County Food Production series[13] is more likely to proceed as I have argued here, by salvage of the existing built environment, than by expensive new development as in the present ecovillage model. However, the reorganization of the Tompkins County food production system, food economy, and resultant urban and suburban land use that I explored in that series is more conceivable in its urban and suburban population of 100,000 than in a larger metropolitan area, again for reasons that I have discussed here.


There is a fourth scenario for the nation’s metropoles that temporarily could partially avert the one I have described as most likely. Governments could proclaim a “wartime economy” and create a program of economic policies that redirects remaining fossil fuels and other nonrenewables to uses that adapt urban areas to a low energy future. If governments were to make appropriate major changes in economic priorities, for a while they could maintain urban populations and support levels of urban activity and consumption that are higher than what I have described. Perhaps Departments of Descent would emerge and begin setting economic policy, at least locally.

This would amount to converting the “free-market” economy to a mixed command economy, which while common in many countries, generations here in the US have been taught to regard as evil. However, our sophisticated “public relations” industry has surmounted greater challenges in manipulating the collective consciousness, and may well show itself equal to the task of achieving a flip-flop in public thinking. Whatever the success of a period of legislated economic planning, its main positive function would be to delay the inevitable return to a solar energy economy long enough to help society prepare and adapt.

The present degree of external private control of local economies is backed by government policy at all levels and is a major obstacle to adaptation to the needs of the energy descent. Therefore, an even better scenario that goes beyond emergency economic planning at a national level might be a national program to gradually devolve centralized economic control over the production of necessities to local communities, which would even give them the potential to experience economic democracy if they are so inclined.

But these scenarios might be too much to expect from the vested interests that control much of state and federal policy making. Hence my thinking about scenarios here has taken the route of cautiousness; it assumes that because the notion of public planning of economic resource use in the public interest at any level of government has become alien to US cultural values, it is more likely that cities and suburbs will be left to self-reorganize more or less chaotically into forms that can support some level of human habitation in the energy descent.

Because of all the contingencies to consider, I believe it impossible to estimate with a useful degree of probability the pace at which the scenario that I have described will come to pass. At present, for example, debt at all levels of social organization is being used to put off the inevitable, although it will only make a later transition more difficult. However, the gradual failure of the energy-intensive metropolitan way of life is already making itself felt in declining living standards for the great majority who are caught up in it. Insolvency is increasing in municipalities, forcing them to start filing for bankruptcy. Sooner or later in coming years and decades, most of us will be forced to organize our lives differently. This attempt to picture the consequences of declining energy for urban and suburban areas hopefully will facilitate that transition.


[1] Kunstler, James Howard. The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Manmade Landscape. Simon & Schuster, 1994.

[2] Kunstler, James Howard in The End of Suburbia, 2004.

[3] Vail, Jeff. “Resilient Suburbia,” 2010.

[4] Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[5] Owen, David. Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability. Riverhead Books, 2009.

[6] Fridley, David. “Embodied Energy: An Alternative Approach to Understanding Urban Energy Use.” The Oil Drum, August 12, 2010.

[7] Owen, David. Op. cit.

[8] Odum, Howard T. and Elizabeth C. Odum. A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies (University Press of Colorado, 2001), p. 174. Written by pioneers in the application of systems ecology and energetics to problems of society.

[9] Heinberg, Richard. “Fifty Million Farmers.” Energy Bulletin, November 17, 2006.

[10] Kunstler, James Howard. “Back to the Future: A roadmap for tomorrow’s cities.” Orion, July/August 2011.

[11] Kunstler, James Howard. Too Much Magic: Wishful Thinking, Technology, and the Fate of the Nation. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2012.

[12] Vail, Jeff. “Envisioning a Hamlet Economy: Topology of Sustainability and Fulfilled Ontogeny,” 2009.

[13] The series was published here in six parts:

Topics: Agriculture, Northland Sheep Dairy, Political and Economic Organization, Social Futures, Peak Oil, Relocalization, Uncategorized | 2 Comments » |

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