The view is great but the air is thin: reflections on the first “Age of Limits” conference

I just returned from the first Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model conference. It was a thoughtful, well organized gathering in a beautiful setting in rural Pennsylvania, Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary.

The conference gave me a lot to think about, which I’ll be writing on going forward, but I today I wanted to reflect on what I see as one of the core conundrums of peak oil folks as a group. It basically boils down to this: get a group of smart white guys in a room, and you’ll find that they like to look at charts, debate, and theorize. But it’s less popular to put on the work gloves, get out a shovel, and get to work. Let me explain.

On the one hand, such gatherings give a great opportunity to think about what’s going on in the “bigger, bigger” picture around us, and fine tune one’s sense for what’s going on and how things might play out. It is quite interesting to hear about the history of other societies, how they grew and shrunk, and the pace at which it all happened. And there is a practical angle to considering the “Is our society any different?” angle, both in terms of the bad news (if anything our society is different on the bad side) and the good news (these changes play out over years and decades, not days and weeks). But I found myself getting itchy to get beyond yet another Hubbert’s Peak chart and into the “OK, now what.”

So the beauty of a gathering like “The Age of Limits” is that there is a real diversity there, and so I found like-minded individuals to talk about the “OK, now what.” Here are some highlights:

  • One of my favorite authors, John Michael Greer, gave a session  on Green Wizardry, aka mastering the a practical set of life skills to live in a more sustainable way: organic intensive gardening, weather proofing of houses, passive (yes I said passive for a reason) solar heating, and so on. And yes, he’s actually doing these things himself.
  • In addition, in informal discussions outside of the seasons, JMG told us about the role that fraternal organizations such as the Grange and the Free Masons used to play in local society, certainly before the time of the 401k’s and medical insurance, and in an age of much greater civic involvement than now. That got me thinking that such organizations could play a crucial leadership role in years ahead, as decision making necessarily gets more local, and with higher stakes.
  • Luanne Todd told me all about her years of experience in raising grass fed cattle (and sheep, and goats) using a careful system of fences, timing, and ingenuity. It took me a while to realize that this system probably goes way back, to the days before tractors, machines, artificial fertilizer, and so on, where it was necessary to get the cows to do a lot of the work for you. Also it was so interesting to hear Lu refer to herself as a “grass farmer.”
  • And Orren Whiddon, founder of Four Quarters, gave us a very enthusiastic tour of his machine shop. As an engineer I definitely shared his excitement in his tools, and noted that many of them are rebuilt 1950’s era machining tools which he and his crew have refurbished. There is something very exciting about being able to machine your own replacement parts, in order to repair your machines, if you follow. And yes, he can run the machine shop off of alternative energy sources if (when?) needed.

It was great to be at a gathering where practically anyone I went up to had an active vegetable garden, and many were raising chickens as well. So clearly many people there are in various stages of taking action, but interestingly there wasn’t a lot of focus on the action itself.

I think that John Michael Greer put it really well when he said several times about the importance of taking personal to prepare for the changing times ahead, as opposed to focusing on trying to get other people to change. In fact this is good general advice for anyone, at any time, wouldn’t you say?

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