Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Monday, September 3, 2012

The Preservation of Knowledge?

It's difficult to lay down any sort of meaningful time frame for energy descent. After all peak energy per capita is already 33 years in the rear view, so these forces have been moving for some time already. Judging how peak oil will affect the pace and intensity of the energy descent already well underway is problematic for a host of reasons, not the least of which are the scope and complexity of the global system. But one figure that might give us a tangible date to work with comes from German reinsurance giant Munich Re: Munich Re claim that, at the present rate of increase, the cost of recovery from natural disasters will exceed Earth's gross domestic product by 2060. 2060 is within the 50 year time frame presented in the last post, and one should logically assume that our civilization will not (cannot) follow a linear progression to this kind of total financial and ecosystem collapse. Something, and probably several somethings, will have to give well before a date like that rolls around.

So to claim that the world will be starkly different 50 years from now seems like a gimme to this Georgia boy. Do we still have time to plant and grow fruit trees to a productive size?  Probably.  But I think we can safely assume that non-essential functions will start to give way fairly soon.  The printing and distribution of books, for example, may take a back seat one day in the not-too-distant future to the production of firewood.  When people are too cold to enjoy a good book things will change, and we are, after all, working with a finite and already over-allocated energy budget.  The substantial energy required to cut all that firewood, and the wood itself, will have to come from somewhere.  One thing that is very safe to assume is that we will not be adding new demands to our time/energy/budgets.  Not a net addition anyway.
The preservation of knowledge, though, seems like a worthy thing to spend time on as we inch toward that day when the printing presses get a lot quieter. My wife and I have been steadily building a library for our children for the past several years, buying high-quality printings of classic literature and of course tons of permaculture and self-reliance related literature.
 This is an awesome recent yard sale score - 47 Franklin Press leather-bound, gold-leaf classics for $25.  I honestly don't know how useful a second copy (or the first for that matter) of Moby Dick will be in a deindustrial subsistence future, but then maybe "useful" shouldn't always be the main judgement criterion, especially when applied to literature.  What might be most useful where we live is a dehumidifier!

This is our beautiful neighborhood - moderate climate, relatively healthy forests, reliable rainfall, chattering creeks, and book-eating mold and mildew!  How in the world will we keep all those great books intact without the drying effects of AC?  Certainly brings up some big questions about the shape of literacy in the future.  Humidity destroys electronics, too, so that nifty little Kindle is probably just as doomed.  Surely it's no accident that the bulk of civilized literature that emerged from the Dark Ages was preserved in the dry desert air of the Middle East.  But European monks did pretty well, too, and if we want to keep all those pages in readable condition we'll have to work it out.  Any advice on the matter would be appreciated.  We have plenty of anti-fungal herbal oils around - that's part of our business after all - but the application methods are unknown to me at this point.  High quality printings, in book sleeves as often as possible, should get a lot farther down the road, but I think it's safe to assume that a deindustrial future will be a future of compromised literacy.  Probably a natural trajectory though.  Book literacy is really only necessary in a culture that requires it.  Masanobu Fukuoka was a good example of a civilized visionary who didn't buy the argument that the merit of literacy was self-evident.  For my part in this play, however, I'm going to do what I can to keep my descendents in books.

On the other hand, pattern literacy is likely to be a much more useful kind of intelligence in an energy descent future.  The black Australian aborigines are a good example: as a group they notoriously register the lowest IQ scores of any demographic set on Earth.  But they have an ability to map terrain and food sources in four dimensions, in their heads and in their unique art, that westerners can't even imagine.  Is this sort of pattern intelligence inferior to book intelligence?  Probably only to people with book intelligence...and they are the ones writing IQ tests.
Energy descent will undoubtedly challenge our most cherished assumptions.  Unlike oil, open-mindedness is nowhere near its peak.
Cheers, friends.
Tripp out.


  1. I would have been ecstatic over 4 Franklin Press books for $25. 47 for that price surely must be a sign of the apocalypse.

    The Northern European monks, with their long winters with fireplaces going continually, did well preserving books for precisely the same reason as the desert people. Heated winter air has very low relative humidity. During the summer they were too busy with other things to spend much time with their books.

    One pattern we have lost is true bookcases, as opposed to bookshelves. True bookcases have doors on the front with glass on them, and preferably some kind of seal, to keep out the ambient environment. Add to that some kind of desiccant to absorb the moisture; silica gel is the modern favorite, but white rice works great too. And minimize the number of times you get into your bookcase, especially when it is humid.

  2. Probably good advice, John! I'll move barrister bookcases up my list of wants and needs. The long fire season necessary for tent life is already starting to show its opening hand around here, so that will surely help. Fall is probably traditionally a time to clean books as well, scrubbing the footholds of summer mildew from the page edges and bindings. I can report that we have made it through the first two summers sans A/C with all of our clothes, shoes, and literature intact, although a good shoe washing with soap and hot water was in order recently to get them back in form.

    One new pattern that is emerging from life without electricity is the need for more regular maintenance on just about everything. With a scrub scrub here, and a mop mop there...doing all the things by hand that coal used to do for us! Hell, at one time I had one of those robot vacuum cleaners!! What a world...

  3. The cycle of political corruption resulting in revolution followed by brief periods of political virtue, is historic evidence that truth literacy is more important to society than reading literacy. This cycle occurs throughout human history.

    Truth literacy holds corruption at bay because virtue not corruption is rewarded and virtue then flourishes. Without truth literacy corruption destroys virtue because then it is more advantageous to be politically corrupt.

    Human society after the rise of democracy failed to install a system by which truth literacy can be maintained.

    Reading literacy helps the individual, truth literacy helps society.

  4. Well said, Dog. Truth literacy is so foreign a concept to this modern American that I'd never even thought about such a thing! Although I think I might have to take issue with your closing statement. As long as society demands literacy to function, book literacy is just another kind of capital for that society, as necessary as fresh water or coal. Real, physical energy must be slowly converted to literacy over time, especially to achieve the sort of mass literacy a country like ours sports, so we have to view mass literacy as another type of national capital. The declining standards for high school graduation/college entry, SAT softening, "best guess" spelling tactics, standardization to the lowest common denominator, etc, are just more (less obvious, granted) signs that our culture is in decline. We no longer have access to the quality of energy that produced that mass literacy over decades and centuries in North America. We're already living on yesteryear's capital, the regular interest payments of the early to mid 20th century having long dried up.

    Not that a fat dose of truth literacy wouldn't improve our situation dramatically. We could use some truth from the leadership about our situation just now for sure.

    1. Your not taking issue with my last statement, you are clarifying and expanding it.

      The contrast between society and the individual I was trying to capture is that over time, over generations, not respecting truth will cause a rot that will destroy society from within. The individual sense I was thinking of is the more immediate, the here and now. The microcosm of an individual life as apposed to the greater time horizon of society as a whole. From that point of view literacy is essential to civilization in all ways.

      'Truth Literacy' is no more than a way of looking at general literacy in a special way. Basic literacy is desperately needed in our times. But our modern world is swamped with a mountain of information and our ability to understand the truth of it is essential to living effective meaningful lives.

      I realize that I was fortunate to experience 'peak education' which happened decades ago and agree with what you say.

      Forty Seven Franklin Press leather-bound, gold-leaf classics for twenty five bucks is a great score.