Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Age of Limits 2014

I took off for a long weekend (5 days actually) by myself at the end of May this year. Most of my readers here are family or friends, and will be aware how unusual a thing this was for me.

I went to the Age of Limits Conference, at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania, May 22–26.

Three of my favorite bloggers (John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov and Gail Tverberg) were speaking at the conference, so I wanted to go, as I had wanted to go the previous two years. What tipped the balance this year was another speaker, Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of “The Limits to Growth”, a book that I read back in the 1970s, which dealt with the issues I’ve been discussing here long before I (or hardly anyone else) began to take them seriously. So this year I really, really wanted to go.

But... many buts…. I rarely go anywhere without Carolynn, my long suffering wife. I really don’t like driving, especially long trips and the US is certainly not my favourite place. It would be about a 12 hours drive, so I’d have to leave early, and I am not a morning person–single digit hours are NOT for me. Further, I would be camping out for the 4 nights. It had been over 10 years since I spent a night in a tent, much less 4 nights. Carolynn’s idea of camping out is staying in a three star hotel, and I have always been glad to support her in this. And the meal plan featured only two meals a day, which is definitely not my habit.

Still, by some miracle, I didn’t succumb to any of these excuses to call off the trip, gathered up the necessary camping equipment and headed out at 8 am on Thursday May 22. Fortified by a large cup of coffee, I managed to stay awake for the whole drive (I think). At any rate, I did manage to stay on the road. Crossing the border, despite all the stories I had heard, was no problem. Seems like border guards don’t see anything suspicious in old white guys with short hair (like me).

After several arguments with the GPS in my new smart phone, I rolled into the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, on a farm in the Allegheny Mountains, at the very southern edge of Pennsylvania.

The last few miles of roads, after making a wrong turn and having to follow the GPS since I had no idea where I was, reminded me of the township where I grew up: short on gravel and marked “no winter maintenance”, threaded windingly among hills and hardwood bush. And Four Quarters reminded me of the area just to the east of where I grew up in Ontario, where the land drops over on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. It felt a long way from civilization, which suits me just fine.

I did survive the weekend camping out -- enjoyed it actually. It didn’t rain and the temperature, even in the middle of the night, never went below the mid forties (Fahrenheit). A good air mattress and heavy down sleeping bag kept me comfortable at night. There was one evening session when it got pretty chilly, but I put on the long underwear and heavy socks that I had brought along just in case, and was quite comfortable. I grabbed an apple each day at breakfast and ate it around noon. Breakfast and dinner were quite generous in quantity and excellent in taste, so hunger was no problem at all.

It was very encouraging, really, that an old codger like me who has been living pretty close to home for a long time, could actually enjoy an outing like this. But enough about my silliness, what is this Four Quarters place and what was the Age of Limits Conference actually all about?

My apologies to the people of Four Quarters for any undue simplifications or outright errors in what follows.

For those who haven’t clicked on the link (their website does present one with quite a lot of reading), here is an excerpt:

Four Quarters was founded in 1995 to provide safe harbor for the practice of both indigenous and modern Earth Religions, and to help preserve their spiritual roots into the future. The following years have witnessed the organic growth of a truly Progressive Community, one that is firmly rooted in the natural Land of Four Quarters. As we move through our second decade, we have made tremendous progress from our very humble beginnings, with almost 350 Members in support of this Community of Choice. A Community that incorporates progressive ideas of Family, Ecology, Culture and Tribe; bound together by our diverse Earth Based Spirituality.

You may wonder how I, an avowed atheist, felt going to such a place. But I am a lot less bothered by Earth religions with their immanent gods than I am by the religions of the Book, with their one transcendent God. Here is an excerpt of Four Quarters Constitution:

1.2.0···· * We do not attempt to define the belief of the individual, knowing that belief is a deeply personal matter, a part of our ongoing journey together.
1.2.2···· * We do recognize, support and incorporate into the body of our experience as a Church those practices and beliefs that we perceive are commonly shared and expressed among the many indigenous and modern traditions of Earth Religion.
1.2.4···· * These practices and beliefs include, but are not limited to: the manifestation of Spirit as a gender duality and polarity; our honor of the Circle in its completeness and its directions; polytheism and monotheism as accessible and understandable expressions of the divine impulse; the wheel of the year as a means of understanding ourselves and our world; and the recognition of nature as the source and endpoint, image and reflection, of ourselves and our experience of Spirit.
1.4···· * Our tradition is one of public service through work; on the land and amongst the public; to foster and protect The Standing Stones as sanctuary for all.

Hmmm… a church that doesn’t tell you what to believe, and concentrates on a progressive kind of public service. They seem to be making it up as they go along, but taking care to do a good job of that. Of course, in my opinion, all religions are being made up as they go along, but most are doing a terrible job of it and don’t seem to see what the problem is with that.

In the material sense Four Quarters is (again quoting from their website):

...150 acres of extremely beautiful and diverse land in the Allegheny foothills of south central Pennsylvania. We are located 15 miles west of the intersection of Interstates 68 and 70 at Hancock, Maryland, just a mile across the state line into Pennsylvania.
The Land is surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe bend in Sidling Creek, one of the cleanest free-flowing streams in the state as it cuts through Town Hill Mountain. The creek forms a naturally secluded retreat, framed by high cliffs and blessed with fine natural swimming.
The land features a broad range of ecological habitats ranging from creekside wetland to dry cliff face, mature forest to hilltop meadow. Four Quarters is listed as the most ecologically diverse tract of land in Bedford County, Pennsylvania by The Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy and we are ever mindful of this trust in caring for the Land.
Providing access to exceptional natural surroundings for individual spiritual growth is a primary purpose for which Four Quarters was founded.

Of those 150 acres, about 30 are suitable for farming and the rest is various sorts of bush, meadows and streams, parts of which have been set up as campsites, a dormitory, the Pavilion where the conference took place, the “Starvin’ Artists” kitchen and areas (such as the Stone Circle) for the ceremonial activities of the Church.

Four Quarters owns, free of mortgage, the 120 acres of the centre, where six adults live permanently in an income sharing community, working with the vital help of staff volunteers and 350 members. Everything is built and maintained by member volunteers who receive no monetary recompense for their labour.

My bad knee was acting up and didn’t like the 12 hour drive, so I didn’t get around the grounds of the place as much as I would have liked, and because I wanted to get back before too late on Monday I missed the tour that was offered Monday afternoon. Well, maybe next year.

I did get to set my tent up in a nice grassy area very close to the washrooms and showers and close to “Coffee Dragons”, where free coffee was on tap from early morning until much later at night than I ever drink coffee.

The thing about the people of Four Quarters is that, whatever else they may believe, they do recognize the reality of those limits that Meadows et al were talking about in “The Limits to Growth” forty years ago. Further they believe that as our industrial society runs up against those limits, the result will eventually be the collapse of that society. The only questions are those of timing and details and how we can hope to cope with the situation as it unfolds. This is why they are hosting “The Age of Limits”.

What follows is an outline of the conference and my reactions to it.

The Thursday evening Meet and Greet was nicely underway by the time I got my tent up and wandered down to the Pavillion. There was close to a majority of “old white guys” like me, with beards very much in fashion. Also a surprising number of women and young people. But very few people of color. People seemed quite eager to say hello and introduce themselves, something I find difficult to do. So I actually did get to meet a few people. One was KMO, of the C-Realm podcast. I had already visited the C-Realm website, but had somehow got the impression most of the podcasts concentrated on pretty flakey subjects. Since then, I have looked closer and found that while there is some of that, there are also a lot of interviews with very interesting people, discussing very interesting subjects. And KMO is a top notch interviewer.

Throughout the weekend being a Canadian proved a great basis for conversations, and I was surprised to find there were at least three other Canadians there.

Friday morning’s speaker was Orren Whiddon, Executive Officer of the Four Quarters Church. He explained the intended interactive nature of the conference with extensive question and answer sessions after each speaker’s presentation, and “conversations in the round” Friday and Saturday evening. Plus, of course, ample opportunities for one on one conversations with other attendees, even, as I found, the “celebrities”.

Orren also spoke about his own journey to being collapse aware, and gave a number tantalizing hints about the history and organization of Four Quarters. I did get one chance to speak with him one-on-one later in the conference, and thanked him for a job well done. But I would like to have a chance to talk to him quite a bit more. A very interesting fellow.

Friday afternoon Albert Bates gave us a short history of ecovillages. Bates was one of the founders of The Farm in Tennessee, one of the first ecovillages. An ecovillage, what we called a “commune” back in the 1960s,and what is now known as an “intentional community” is a group of people with a communitarian bent, aiming to live together in a way that both reduces their dependence on the “business as usual” world and the burden they place on the environment. Good goals, it seems, and also a good starting point for the kind of “lifeboat” communities that many collapse aware people are thinking about. Of course there have been many problems with setting up such communities and with keeping them running for extended lengths of time. But people are still trying and learning a lot in the process.

Friday night’s conversation in the round was entitled “Personal Collapse Mitigation Strategies” and was moderated by Peter Kilde, KMO and Whiddon. As an aid to getting the discussion rolling, this question was posed, “If you were given a million dollars, what would you do to mitigate collapse?” I may have the exact amount wrong, but in any case it seems like a dumb question to me, since the nature of collapse is such that coming into large sums of money is one of the least likely things to happen in the process. A better question might be what can we do with a minimum of cash. Nonetheless, the question did serve to get conversation going. Many people felt that consciousness raising efforts would be the way to go–after all, people who are unaware of what is coming can hardly plan to mitigate its effects. We are, however, working against a level of denial that is pretty amazing. I would have liked to hear more about “deliberate descent” sort of strategies, but oh well….

Saturday morning Dmitry Orlov gave a talk entitled “Communities That Abide II”. Part two because he gave a similar talk last year outlining the characteristics of communities that have been able to maintain a separate and different lifestyle across generations while living within but to at least some extent not being a part of industrial civilization.

Dmitry got a pretty negative response from the feminists in the audience, or perhaps more accurately from people concerned about social justice. Many such communities are patriarchies and he may have made some comments to the effect that the sort of social justice that progressive people expect these days is a product of our fossil fuel powered society and we can’t expect it to be maintained in a lower energy world. This is a common idea among old white male collapse niks. But it is not an idea that I accept, nor did the majority of people at Age of Limits this year. Dimitry was no longer pushing it (if he ever was) and may indeed have changed his mind on the subject, so he didn’t get such a negative reaction. It may be that those “negative” aspects of these communities are largely irrelevant. He did emphasize two of the more important aspects of such communities: what makes them successful (socially and economically), and what keeps them together.

Of course, communism is still a dirty word in the US. But call it what you will, communities whose members work together, pooling their resources and their labour and relying on the formal economy for relatively little, have a tremendous advantage over those of us who are stuck in the formal economy with most our relationships monetized. Being part of a group where you know you have a role to play, and that you know will take care of you simply because you are one of them is a hugely positive thing and one that most people is our society never experience.

What it is that keeps communities together is a more complex subject, best to get a copy of Dmitry’s book on the subject—I picked up a copy at the conference, and you can get it as an ebook at Amazon.

Saturday afternoon, Dennis Meadows talked about “The Dynamics of Societal Collapse”. He started by saying that this was the first time he had ever spoken to an audience that was already convinced that limits are real, so bear with him, because this would be a new version of his usual presentation. Here is a link to his usual presentation with comments on what was added at Age of Limits:

He said that he has boxes piled up to the ceiling of papers refuting the conclusions of The Limits to Growth, and only one small box of papers supporting those conclusions. Even so, the actual numbers plotted beside the Limits to Growth “predictions” show that the world is following their “business as usual” scenario, and appears to be headed for collapse, sometime between 2015 and 2020.

He said that he has boxes piled up to the ceiling of papers refuting the conclusions of The Limits to Growth, and only one small box of papers supporting those conclusions. Even so, the actual numbers plotted beside the Limits to Growth “predictions” show that the world is following their “business as usual” scenario, and appears to be headed for collapse, sometime between 2015 and 2020.

In 1972, we were at something like 90% of the planet’s carrying capacity. We could have switched to a sustainable lifestyle by simply slowing down. We are now at approximately 150% of carrying capacity and that overload is reducing the planet’s carrying capacity every day. So at some point our population will stop growing and decrease to a level that is sustainable. We are facing a period of decline, and while we still need to work on reducing pollution, changing our energy sources and reducing our reliance on violence as a way of solving problems, we more than ever need to work on increasing our resilience. If we go into the coming period of decline without being prepared for it, it will strip away our values and take us to a very unpleasant place indeed. But if we are prepared and resilient, it may be possible to retain democracy, equity and social justice.

Dennis explained we are facing two type of problems: easy ones and hard ones. For easy problems, the actions that solve the problem also make it better in the short term. The market and politics deals with this sort of problem quite well. Hard problems are the ones that require sacrifice now for benefits later. The actions that solve them make things worse in the short term, and this requires the sort of decision making that the market and politics invariably get wrong.

Meadows also did some practical demonstrations that I think are worth recounting.

First he asked us to cross our arms in the way that we usually do, and note which wrist was on top. Then he had us put our arms back down and cross them again, again noting which wrist was on top. Then he asked how many have done it the same way both times (everybody) and then how many had the right wrist on top and how many had the left wrist (about 50/50). He explained that the point of this was that you cross your arms when you aren’t going to be doing anything with them and it would be stupid to have to stop and think about which way to do it every time. So we form a habit. Over the last couple of centuries we have formed a complex set of habits to do with growth, and they have worked very well for us. But now the circumstances have changed and we need to develop new habits.

Then he asked us to cross our arms the other way. The result was amusing to watch, with many people having to try more than once to do it. He commented that we had probably noted three things: it is possible, it’s a little hard to figure out and we make mistakes in the process, and it feels uncomfortable at first. This is also true of the changes we need to make to build a sustainable society.

Then there was the hula hoop thing. Arrange 5 or 6 people in a circle facing inwards, supporting a hula hoop on one extended finger each. Tell them to lower the hoop to the ground. If any of the fingers drops too quickly, losing contact with the hoop, they must start again. This requires such fine co-ordination that it is very difficult to even keep the hoop still. Usually, it goes up and it is practically impossible to lower it. This is justy because of the geometry and physics of the situation. But lower the number of people to 3 and it works fine, again because of the geometry. The point being that there are many strategies that don’t work, even with people who have the best of intentions and work really hard, because the plan itself is not workable. But what’s wrong is subtle enough that people can’t see it.

I think that identifying strategies that don’t work and abandoning them for ones that do is going to be one of our biggest challenges and an area where we need to focus a great deal of effort.

His third practical demonstration might be called “One,Two, Three, Clap”. He told us that he would count to three, then say clap and we should all clap our hands together. Then he counted to three, clapped his hands and then said clap. About half of us clapped when he did, the other half clapped when he said “clap”. Dennis observed that we had understood what he had said, we agreed with it and we wanted to do it. But as soon as his actions were different from his words, we paid attention to his actions. He concluded by saying if we leave here promoting sustainable development, but our actions are consistent with overshoot, we’ll get overshoot. A sobering thought.

Meadows commented that the original simulation didn’t distinguish between energy resources and other resources. He would like to see the study redone separating out fossil fuels into their own category. But there is very little interest and no funding for such an effort today, so it won’t likely happen.

In the lull between supper and the evening session, a fellow by the name of Jack Alpert (link to his website: showed a couple of short videos about his plan to solve the problems facing the human race without reducing our standard of living. Apparently there are two or three locations in the world where there are locally concentrated water power resources enough to sustain a high energy use society. But not for billions of people. More like 500 million total. So if we reduce our population down to that level while setting up the infrastructure needed in those two or three areas, about 500 million of us can have our cake and eat it too. He proposed to achieve this reduction in population by reducing the birth rate, by convincing people that it is the right thing to do. The interesting thing was that the negative reaction to his ideas was all focused on that one aspect: that people could and should be convinced to voluntarily reduce our population to a small fraction of its current level. Particularly in the light of the discussion that followed later that evening (see below). Apparently people think that it is inevitable that human population will be reduced by disaster but highly improbable that it could be done intentionally. I felt kind of sorry for Jack, who while not exactly surprised by the negative reaction, was obviously disappointed by it. Just another great idea that’s not going to happen.

I talked to Jack later about the electrical system central to his plan and offered some of my experience with the maintenance and unplanned failure of grid equipment. Flocks of black swans seem to hover over electrical grids.

Saturday night’s conversation in the round was entitled “Timelines in Collapse”, and started with going around the room and having everyone give the date they expect human population would peak and optionally, how long after that it will have declined by 50%.

The average prediction turned out to be in the early 2040s, not far off my prediction of 2045. Of course, my prediction was entirely pulled out of my ass… more based on the fact that I expect to be long gone by 2045 than anything else. Later in the discussion Orren mentioned that he had expected us all to pick dates conveniently far in the future. But many, especially the younger folks picked dates that they will very likely live to see. So they had some “skin in the game”. As arbitrary as the dates we picked may have seemed, they did serve as a springboard for some lively discussion. One thing that was discussed is that most of the damage of collapse will have been done by the time the population actually peaks and starts to decline. So my prediction of 2045 means not that things won’t start getting bad until then, but that they will have gotten bad enough to actually stop population growth. John Michael Greer, who predicts a slow and gradual collapse, didn’t think the population would peak until much later in this century. I generally find his arguments pretty convincing, so maybe I was actually being too pessimistic.

Even though it took place in the U.S., there were very few overt, in your face Christians at this event (2 by my count), I guess it was inevitable that one of them would get up and say something about God saving us from the coming troubles. It was entertaining when John Michael Greer asked the facilitators if he could respond to this suggestion. He made the night for me with his comments about the unbelievable feeling of entitlement common among Christians and the extreme unlikelihood, in the light of the human race’s record over the last few hundred years, that the universe or God or whatever you will, is going to bail us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Sunday morning on the way to breakfast, I introduced myself to Greer and secured his permission to use some of his ideas in my blog. Very easy fellow to talk to.

Sunday morning Gail Tverberg spoke on “Converging Crises”. Here is a link to her blog entry discussing the presentation:

While she did give a good summary of the crises facing our industrial civilization, and had some wonderful graphs to illustrate them, she left me hanging without any unified picture of what comes next. Gail is an actuary and applies that expertise to talk about the economy and is certainly aware of the “Surplus Energy” interpretation of economics, but I don’t think she has fully grasped its strengths when to comes to explaining the mess we are in and predicting what comes next. Or perhaps, based on a recent blog post of hers, she knows more about this than I do. Maybe even at Age of Limits she mentioned the idea that the global economy is a network with fragile parts and delicate connections, which may quit working because of point failures long before surplus energy analysis would suggest it should.

She talked about the “Fracking Bubble”, which is set to burst shortly and that will probably lead to a stock market crash, if something else doesn’t trigger it first.

And she did bring up one idea that I found very intriguing: the predicament of oil companies as the cost of producing oil keeps going up, but oil prices are limited by demand destruction. At some point it just doesn’t pay anymore and this happens long before the oil has actually run out. Already many of the large oil companies are cutting back on exploration--it costs more than the value of the relatively small discoveries that are being made. I can’t help wondering what will happen when oil companies start closing up shop and and leave us with real, major shortages. The conventional answer has been that prices will go up enough to make the business pay, but it seems more likely that the economy will go into an even deeper recession, reducing the demand for oil to match the available supply.

Another realization came to me while listening to Gail, though it wasn’t something she specifically said. Governments are going to become less and less effective agents of change, simply because their tax revenues are going to drop over the years ahead. First, as the economy continues to contract, the tax base contracts along with it. But beyond that, wealthy individuals and large corporations have the political clout to ensure tax cuts for themselves--they have the power to simply refuse to be taxed. And as the rest of us become poorer, we will have less income to tax. The result of this will be tax starved governments, who will be even less capable of dealing with the coming crises than they are today. Looks to me like we will have to learn to take care of ourselves.

At noon John Michael Greer took over and talked about Dark Ages. Greer sees history as cyclical, and explained that our civilization has all the earmarks of one headed for collapse and a subsequent dark age. Based on previous dark ages, he presented a pretty detailed picture of what the next one will look like. Of course, many people are convinced that things are different this time, and by that they mean “not as bad”. John Michael has his counter arguments nicely lined up and is pretty adept at making fun of the “it’s different this time” attitude. Of all the speakers, John is probably the one who has influenced my thinking the most. Rather than going on at length about what he had to say, I’ll just advise you to read his blog.

He was followed by Mark Cochrane, a bona fide climate scientist. Last year at Age of Limits Guy MacPherson spoke about climate change. He is convinced that we are facing the near term extinction of the human race (by 2030). Many of us disagree. Here are some links to arguments against MacPherson:
MacPherson, it seems, is not really a climate scientist and his opinions are not backed up by real evidence.

Cochrane began his presentation with the statement, “We are all going to die.” Which, of course, is true, and was met with nervous laughter. He immediately went on to debunk the idea of short term extinction due to rapid climate change. Then he described the sort of climate change that we can expect to see in the somewhat longer term, for the rest of this century and beyond. And the news was not pleasant. Many changes will occur too fast for plants and animal to adapt or move. And hardly anywhere on the planet will not be affected. Many of us went away wondering how much better this picture was than short term extinction.

Sunday night, instead of a conversation in the round, there was a dance in the pavilion, “La Danse des Mortes Heureux” -- the Dance of the Happy Dead. There was a fiddler in the band, so I was happy anyway, though my bum knee didn’t allow me to take part. I wandered away from the dance fairly early and found myself under the tent next to Coffee Dragons, sitting at a table next to John Michael Greer and “shooting the shit” for an hour or so on largely non-serious subjects.

Monday morning I got Dmitry Orlov to autograph my copy of Communities That abide, had breakfast and left for home. For those who stayed, there was another conversation featuring attendees’ reactions to the Age of Limits, and that was followed by a “Closing Circle” in the Stone Circle.

The “Retro Progressive’s Practicum” followed for the rest of the week, with five days of BioChar hands on with Albert Bates, kiln fabrication in Four Quarters’ metal shop, visits to adjoining organic farms and night-time conversation on the practical aspects of communitarian living. Really wish I could have stayed for this.

After taking a few weeks to think it over, I have to say that Age of Limits solidified my thoughts on collapse. I’ve been entertaining thoughts in vein of “if only we could get our act together and do this, that or the other thing, maybe we could get through this with relatively little trouble.” Such schemes are extremely unlikely to succeed, but they do have a seductive appeal. One is better focusing on preparing for what is almost certainly coming.

One a more positive note, it seems that there may be something to the intentional community idea after all. I had grown very skeptical about the likelihood of finding myself in any sort of functional community, intentional or not. But it seems that some people, like those at Four Quarters, are making it work. Perhaps there is hope.

Here are some more links to blog posts and podcasts about Age of Limits 2014:
Albert Bates:
Dmitri Orlov:
Orren Widdon: