Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Review: Age of Limits 2014

I got back to the boat late last night, after an intense three days of presentations and discussions. This was my third year presenting at this conference, and I am at this point quite heavily invested in this annual event and have started to take on roles I didn't even know existed when I first showed up there three years ago not knowing what to expect.

For those who haven't heard of this conference before, here is a synopsis. The venue is unusual for a conference: it is a large campground that occupies a bit of high ground surrounded by a fast-flowing creek nestled in the Allegheny mountains, a few miles from the Maryland border, but quite accessible because it is just a few miles from Interstate 68 and a fast two-hour drive from Baltimore. For those flying via BWI airport, there are usually enough locals driving by BWI on the way to the conference that rides can be arranged. If flying with camping gear is problematic, there is a dormitory with bunk beds and some semi-private rooms. The accommodations are basic, but there are flush toilets, hot showers, free tea and coffee available virtually around the clock, bonfires for when it gets chilly, and two satisfying and plentiful meals a day. A visit to the sweat lodge, optionally followed by a dip in the creek, rounds out the non-intellectual part of the experience.

The intellectual part of the experience is a sort of Epicurean feast for the connoisseurs of collapse. (There are plenty of conferences at which the topic of collapse has been banned; consequently, I am no longer invited to them—to my relief, because life is short, and speaking at these conferences makes it that much shorter.) Virtually all of the attendees without exception have successfully navigated their way through the grieving stage of denial prior to showing up, and there is almost no discussion of whether financial, economic, social or civilizational collapses are possible and/or likely, or whether this is something that beautiful people shouldn't even worry their pretty little heads about. If you show up while still grappling with denial, then, in all likelihood, your head will explode, and while there will be helpful people on hand to help you find scattered pieces of your cranium in the tall grass, you will spend most of the conference gluing the pieces back together, and will miss out on all the fun. So, if you are new to the topic of collapse but curious about it, please acquaint yourself with the Kübler-Ross model and do whatever you have to, prior to showing up, to get past Stage 1. For maximum effectiveness, try to make it all the way to Stage 5 (acceptance).

In addition to the usual suspects (Gail Tverberg, Albert Bates, John-Michael Greer and me) this year featured a couple of star speakers: Dennis Meadows and Mark Cochrane.

Dennis is Emeritus Professor of Systems Management, former Director of the Institute for Policy and Social Science Research at the University of New Hampshire, and Lead Researcher and co-author of the Club of Rome’s 1972 publication, The Limits to Growth. He successfully predicted the collapse of industrial civilization four decades ago—successfully in that the model he presented back in 1972 has been in remarkable agreement with observations ever since. Since then, he has collected several large boxes of articles attempting to disprove his claims, and a slender stack of articles pointing out that he was right. Even in science, getting it right is not the path to recognition if the truth contradicts the dominant paradigm (of infinite economic growth on a finite planet).

Dennis had agreed to present at this conference reluctantly. He has retired from Club of Rome discussions, and has found more cheerful uses for his time. But he seemed happy with the outcome, saying that this is the first time he faced an audience that did not need convincing. Instead, he took the time to add some details that I think are crucially important, among them the fact that his WORLD3 model is only accurate until the peaks are reached. Once the peaks occur (between 2015 and 2020) all bets are off: past that point, the model's predictive ability is not to be relied on because the assumptions on which it relies will no longer be valid. Thus, the author of this particular plot, claiming that peak population will occur in 2030, committed the exact error that Dennis warned us against: of looking too far to the right. Once the initial peaks come and go, we will be in a different world than the one he modeled in 1972—a world in which, I foresee, accurate population statistics will no longer be available. We know that the dynamics of global growth are very different from the dynamics of global die-off, but perhaps that is all that we will ever know, because there won't be anyone left to model or measure the die-off.

Mark Cochrane is Senior Scientist and Professor with the Geospatial Sciences Center of South Dakota State University who specializes in the use of remote sensing to study the impacts of climate change. Mark's talk was a very thorough demolition job on the various shibboleths that haunt what passes for discourse on climate change in certain intellectually stunted corners of the world. He demolished the denialist claims, and then proceeded to demolish the techno-utopian “solutions,” such as seeding the oceans, seeding the clouds, space mirrors and so on. In doing so, he did not use climate models, explaining that models are quite complicated and open to dispute. Instead, he relied on climate theories which are not in dispute because they agree with observations, and on historical measurements of climate change—its known causes and its apparent effects.

Mark's conclusions included some tongue-in-cheek “good news”—“We're all gonna die!”—which I took to be a nod in the general direction of Guy McPherson, who presented at this conference last year, and who predicts near-term human extinction—whereas he clearly feels that “nature bats” (vespertilio naturalis?) do last. But Mark also gave a much more nuanced summation: that while global effects of climate change can be predicted to some extent, the local effects are unpredictable but are certain to be sufficiently dramatic to make life very difficult and perhaps impossible for the vast majority of us. Apparently, there is no place on Earth where you can hide from climate change. Be it the boreal forests of Siberia or the tropics of Borneo, the local destructive effects of climate change on ecosystems are unpredictable. Most of the species alive today have evolved long after the last time such conditions occurred anywhere on Earth, plus the rate of climate change is now very fast, giving them insufficient time to adapt. Consequently, no historical data exists on which such predictions could be based. We do know some things: fish, corals and shellfish will do badly; sea grass and jellyfish will do well. (I hope that there is a sea-grass-and-jellyfish soup recipe out there that results in something palatable!) Overall, his presentation reinforced my feeling that it will be essential to remain mobile, because no one place can be expected to continue to reliably produce food.

This year, each talk was followed by an ample period of moderated discussion. Most of these Q&A sessions quite well, with people queueing up at one of two microphones to ask questions, with plenty of follow-up and group discussion. As always, there were some people who simply craved attention and hogged the microphone in spite of having little to say. But overall this format worked amazingly well: after my talk, one fellow voiced an opinion that home-schooled kids were badly socialized. There followed a spontaneous barrage of commentary on the subject of home schooling (many of the attendees have home-schooled their kids) pretty much blowing his little boat out of the water. After the talk, the discussion continued, with several professional educators providing a lot of detail on how exactly the educational system in the US is broken beyond repair. I walked away with a depth of understanding that I don't think I would have achieved just by reading books and articles. This is a question that comes up a lot: How do we teach our kids given that the schools (both public and private) are now largely useless (if not harmful)? And the answer seems to be: home-school, or leave the country.

One of the previous presenters who unfortunately did not attend this year was Carolyn Baker. Her presentations had been unique in that they were not all in the head but attempted to get at the emotional side of collapse, and had been found to be helpful by approximately a third of the attendees in overcoming the feelings of shock and grief that naturally arise when delving into the deeply distressing subject matter of this conference. But many other people chose to cope by blocking their emotions and considering collapse as a strictly intellectual challenge, while a small minority compensated for their emotional discomfort by becoming disruptive. An age-old technique for drawing people out of their heads is through drumming and chanting, but certain people chose to ridicule Carolyn's quite effective use of this technique as “Kumbaya and bongos.” Thus, Carolyn's work was to some extent polarizing—but in good way, because these people didn't show up this year. Last year's attendees included one particularly odious 1%er whose name I forgot, together with her entourage, and they did their best to disrupt things. Needless to say, their absence this year was not missed by anyone.

The nature of the human ape being what it is, once in a while some borderline personalities always find their way into every group, resulting in some amount of drama. But a bigger problem is that the helpful, healthy kind of drama was also almost entirely missing. Most of the attendees seemed to be able to process the intellectual content of the conference, but collapse as an intellectual pursuit seems almost worthless to me. It cannot be reduced to problems and solutions. The universe, and life on earth (jellyfish, cockroaches and all) will go on with or without you, and so the only real problem is you, and how you may need to change in order to adapt. And this is not an entirely intellectual transformation, but also an emotional and a physiological one. To be sure, some of the adaptations are intellectual, and not everyone can surmount even this hurdle. There was one white-haired gentleman in attendance who complimented me on my talk on long-lasting communities by saying that it was interesting to hear “even though we find their business plan distasteful.” He gets an award for the most distasteful use of the phrase “business plan.”

But for those who did manage to grok the content of the conference on an intellectual level, there was nowhere to go further. This problem came up repeatedly in a number of conversations. I hope that these conversations continue, and I hope that next year's conference does address the questions of personal transformation. Among the questions I would like to see the conference to address are:

1. How can we communicate the reality of collapse to family and friends in ways that are constructive rather than destructive and find helpful ways to reflect our “endarkenment” in our everyday behavior?

2. How can we form personal relationships with people that can survive the disappearance of official life support systems based on finance, commerce and centralized authority?

3. How can we transform our physical selves into ones that will stand a chance, by eliminating lifestyle diseases, bad habits, luxuries and comforts, and by finding maximally independent and resilient ways to provide the necessities?

4. How can we make use of ritual and spiritual practice to transform a group of individuals into a community?

If you have insights that you would like to contribute on any of these questions, please email me directly, and we'll take it from there. Amazingly, it turns out that there is even some money to throw behind the effort of coming up with good answers to these questions. Don't worry too much about the mechanics of writing: ClubOrlov's crack team of editors and proofreaders will transform your writing into publication-quality content. Also, it's not exactly a rush job: there are twelve months before next year's conference. But we might as well get started now.


John in Cape Charles Va said...

I regret not attending this year, thanks for the interesting update. Wouldn't it be interesting if every human grouping modality (churches, pta's, knitting clubs, golf outing groups, what have you)knew deeply and certainly that this is happening. I wonder if anything would actually happen as a result.

At some point there will be a turning of the collective ship towards the ominous black clouds of the collapse storm. I suspect the world will quickly divide into three groups, the hopeless/helpless/abandoned urban and suburban folk (dead) the pull together/circle the wagons/we can adapt folk (mostly dead, unless lucky in location) and the various flavors of nomads, prepared and unprepared (mostly dead as well, for where is there to go).

On a positive note, the last ones left to survive get all the gold, silver, guns and ammo. Good for them!

Doug Darrah said...

Thanks for the write-up, Dmitry. Good stuff as always.

C. Baker has been a big help to me personally: her writings have helped me get through the despair of realization of inevitability of this whole thing. The emotional part is surprisingly difficult, especially for a supposed "Apollonian"-type like me. It's good of you to promote her as I'm sure she can help others (as she helped me) if they just listen a bit.

The greatest conundrum our species faces in this dire time is our tendency toward hierarchy. 10000 years of it may be too much for our species to overcome. I feel anarchy is the only way forward, but honestly can't see how we get from here to there. I'm hoping Communities That Abide helps me out in this direction...

Harry J. Lerwill said...

Wish I could have made it, I really enjoyed the conference last year, but more practical preparation work took precedence.

I'm looking forward to next year, we hope to be living in the NE by then.

Don Stewart said...

I would like to make a suggestion relative to rituals. Paul Woodruff, a philosopher at the University of Texas and a former military officer, has written Reverence. As a philosopher, he makes fine discriminations so that we are able to communicate with a minimum or misunderstanding. For exsample, a religious person may be reverent, but a reverent person need not be religious.

On page 250, Woodruff identifies music, poetry, and ritual as key languages of reverence. Sacraments and liturgy are not generally useful languages of reverence.

Giving a knife blade a sharp edge can be an exercise in reverence, I think. Watching a skilled sharpener we experience the reverence also.

My guess is that we need to 're-reverence' as much of our mundane world as possible. As the distractions wind down, we will need to satisfy ourselves with reverence for what we need to do.

Don Stewart

John Graham said...

Hi Dmitry - on relationships:

Some time ago (before Ukraine hit), you said you were going to write more about 'illegibility' a la Venkat Rao.
I hope you get around to that soon. It seems relevant.

DaShui said...

In s Korea I ate jellyfish, I think it was raw, marinated in vinegar , u and me open a new chain of J fish restaurants?

Unknown said...

I'm confused about Meadows' statement that the future portion of the famous World3 projection graph is not to be trusted. I've read the original LtG and the 30 Year Update. The 30 Year Update has many graphs projecting the future in this way, for many different scenarios. (I remember the only one that enabled civilized humanity a chance at continuing something like how we live now was massive conservation and ending the consumer culture.) Is Meadows saying that all these graphs are not to be trusted?

While I don't have a better suggestion, the Wikipedia entry on Kubler-Ross is poor. I'll try to find a better one.

Thanks for a great blog.
Derek in Seattle

lorrie said...

Thanks Dmitry for the synopsis of the conference. I'm so sorry that I didn't go.
Thanks again for your blog...I never miss it.

David H. said...

There are some people that can grasp the concept of collapse and some people just won't and don't want to get it. One way to communicate it is to show em whats happening in Europe. Just look at Greece. Below are some examples of whats happening in Greece, a collapsing country.

* Greeks randomly take over toll road

* Greeks turn to barter and trade

* more of Greeks resorting to barter and trade.

Because of the economic crisis Greeks are relocating from the cities to small towns and rural areas. Perhaps the Greeks can jumpstart smaller communities that revolve around permaculture small scale agriculture.

* Greek Crisis Drives City-slicker Exodus to Countryside

* Greeks create self reliant permaculture village.

@ 2:10 "the crisis, the crisis, the crisis. You turn on the news and you hear the crisis. Here there is no crisis"

Because of the collapsing economy the Greeks and Europeans can jumpstart permaculture villages. Here's one site on Greece Permaculture. As things get worse hopefully they'll spread the permaculture knowledge.

Communicating the topic of collapse won't have much of an audience in the U.S. since nothing here is collapsing (not yet) but will probably have more audience in Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal where the economy is collapsing. You can search youtube and you'll find similar news stories of Italians, Spanish etc. resorting to barter and trade.

Here's one U.S. based that understands collapse is around the corner and is focused on resiliant communities.

refarmer said...

I tried to teach a class in our church , titled, "Christians Confronting Contemporary Crisis; the eight horsemen of the Apocalypse." It was rejected because the leaders said that it was too "dark" for the members; it would scare them off. I respect their decision, as they are good and honest men, but it was unexpected for me. I am repeatedly exposed to rejection of my message. It makes me wonder if the American colonists had rejected Paul Revere's warning, what history would be like today.

Karl K said...

The Book of Revelations is not too dark? Seems to be a standard scare-mongering resource in many churches.

Liam Jackson said...

Interesting review, nice to read emphasis on the missing 'heart' content. Its a concerning paradox that it is mostly thinkers that tread the winding collapsenik road this far, but it is feelers that bind communities together. Some thoughts on your questions..

1. First part - we can't. Nobody can be told/sold on collapse without first experiencing it in the own lives (illness, tragedy, dissolution etc) and then also being curious enough about the larger world to look. Helpful ways to reflect endarkenment: reverence sounds good; shedding maladaptive habits and priorities is good too, and (for me anyway), easier once i got past denial. More controvertially: i think nondualism flows from acceptance of collapse and/or death, and while it is kryptonite to those still devoted to the matrix, it is attractive to anyone half awake.

2. Do it. Get into the habit of trading favours, being reliable and nonjudgemental, and the relationships will blossom. Remember we live in a toxic social context, anything less pathological sells itself.

3. Monkey see monkey do - spend time with people with similar lifestyle & priorities, & boycott death-eaters. If i watch Dynasty twice a week i will always feel poor; if i work on my friends humble house twice a week, i feel rich upon returning to my only slightly-less humble abode.

4. The tools lie scattered all around us. 'Religion for atheists' A.deBotton provides useful pop-philosophy summary of why & what are the important bits of religion, eg. regular gathering+ beauty(eg.scenery,music)+ affirmation of shared values+ ritual for processing/packaging extreme experiences (death, disaster). Steal some familiar iconography and run it as a nonprofit business, easy! ;)

Yossi said...

The Kubler-Ross model is useful for people who have suffered bereavement but until you have done so it is an intellectual model.
I worked as a psychotherapist and often used the model with people who had experienced loss. I was able to invest in the model emotionally as well as intellectually because I too had suffered losses.
None of the people attending your conference have actually experienced collapse - if they had you would not be attending a conference, using a flush loo,eating two nice meals a day and commenting about it on the internet.
Nobody really knows how they will react to loss until they have suffered it and I think that the same will apply to collapse. I am not saying that it isn't useful to think deeply about it and have a considered response ready but when it happens the trauma will be unimaginable and emotions will overwhelm people.

Don Stewart said...

Here is a remark by David Orr concerning modern and traditional ways of understanding and managing complex systems:

'Furthermore, there is nothing new in systems thinking beyond the higher level precision and analytical power inherent in sophisticated computer modeling. Earlier societies created complex ways to foresee and to restrain certain behaviors that could damage their collective prospects. The Amish achieve many of the same results by maintaining a coherent and sober, if restrictive culture.'

From his long article:

I haven't yet read Dmitry's new book, but Orr's perspective on the role of the rules and relationships in societies which have survived over long periods of time might be an interesting framework to examine Dmitry's examples.

Don Stewart

Ellen said...

Have been following your blog as well as the Archdruid's and several others for years. Although fourteen years in to grappling with collapse, it is a piecemeal evolution occasionally fraught with emotional meltdown. I am a midwife by profession and no longer greet new life with joy rather with the thought "another mouth to feed" and deep concern for the future of this new one and the world we will share. I recently traveled 4000 miles by car through the heart of the Midwest. I am a born and raised Detroiter and have watched that once great industrial city spiraling down since the 1960's. If we want to see the future, see Detroit. All the hope and despair and the sorrow for what will never be again are encapsulated within that city. I am almost numb now when I see Detroit. And other communities are following. The decimation of farm towns by the corporatization of America is accelerating. Case in point: Peru, Indiana. Houses, road, buidlings- crumbling. Scarcely a family owned business in operation. Every corporate abomination from Walmart to Wendy's lining the impoverished streets. CAFO's dot the landscape. Orchards being plowed under to plant ethanol corn. Amish farmers having to take town jobs to keep their farms going. The acceleration of decay since my last trip two years ago was sobering. The pace of collapse is speeding up.

Your questions just posed need to be answered thoroughly and deeply. I don't know if the human species can or even should survive. What poor stewards of the earth we have been. But if there is to be anything of value salvaged, if we as a species are not to degenerate into mindless barbarism, then we have to create a new paradigm and a new culture. Somehow I would like to save the intellectual capital our species has evolved over the millennia. How to accomplish that is worthy of prolonged and thoughtful debate and discussion.

If I can be at next years Age of Limits I will be. Thank you for generously sharing your idea.

seed hound said...

This was my first time at Age of Limits and I hope not my last. It was a pleasure to meet the people who's sites I have been following for so long. Dimitry, Greer, KMO, Tverberg. They are such bright and thoughtful people. It was an emotional high to be among a group of people who are aware of what is happening on our world and preparing in whatever ways they can for collapse. Living in the bible belt, South Carolina, it can be difficult to find people who are not stuck in the narrative of being swept up into the sky and later returning to a new earth after jesus and the horsemen kill all the sinners. With this belief system, you do not need to try and fix anything. The problems will all be worked out for you. Returning home was an emotional crash, to no longer be with like minded believers is so isolating.

HS said...

Just remember, everyone can't be saved, nor should they be. However, the impending collapse could provide our species a second chance, provided the proper preparations were made beforehand.

donalfagan said...

Albert Bates also posts a review:

Ian Graham said...

a rare poster: doing permaculture garden farm near Hamilton ON Canada.

This past weekend there was Forest Garden Convergence hosted at The Living Centre in London ON, talk by Peter Bane to soldout crowd at Transition Erin (north of Toronto), several farm consultations by Peter on improving the design for resilience, and some social potlucks on the same theme.

Next year we need an Age of Limits convergence here in ON. Just like we need dozens of on the ground pc designers, and group/grief counsellors and spiritual guides.

But for now, I think I can say we are seeing grounds to be positive about an emerging local response to the Age of Limits now upon us.

PS. In July I am hosting a farm tour sponsored by the Ecological Farmers of Ontario here at Old 99 Farm, entitled, Garden Farming for a Bleak Post-carbon Future. All welcome.

Cam said...

Thanks for your thoughts on the conference, Dmitry. Were there plans to post video etc for those who could not attend?

Al Low said...

Thanks Drimtry, my signed copy (No. 42 of 222) of "Communities That Abide" arrived in San Francisco just in time - ahead of the collapse. Mucho kudos. Kevin S.

Last Chance said...

Dimitry thank you for the write up. I pondered on attending 2014 AOL but couldn't swing it. I'm planning on going to 2015 if things hold together. Keep up the good work.

timothy price said...

Okay, I'm easy.. so I collapsed this March, 2014. My well pump broke so I lost all running water. Okay, so there was lots of snow and a wood stove.. voila, all kinds of water, hot and cold was available... soft, delicious water. Had to convert to humanure composting. Easy, sanitary, and productive of fertilizer. Converted lawns into meadows, beautiful and provide flowers and hay for mulch and compost. Use little energy now, no pumps, no mowing, have solar panels. Using about 5 gallons of water a day without feeling any deprivation.
Learning how to live on rainwater is a whole new world with great trade-ups. We keep doing things the same old way only cause we can afford to. Once you cannot, then necessity becomes the mother of invention, and a new life unfolds.. most of it much richer and productive.

jal said...

Most people will experience a collapse.
I will experience a change.

The change will probable end my life.

Laura Emerson said...

With respect to #2 above, we have documented our physical and emotional move from high-rise city life to off-road, off-grid living at We would enjoy helping others learn from our experiences and mistakes. Laura and Bryan