Humanity’s Final Exam

Don Dwiggins

Rights and Lefts

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A summary of the license, taken from the referenced page:

  • Attribution. The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees must give the original author credit.

  • Noncommercial. The licensor permits others to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work. In return, licensees may not use the work for commercial purposes—unless they get the licensor’s permission.

  • Share Alike. The licensor permits others to distribute derivative works under a license identical to the one that governs the licensor’s work.

This is a fair statement of my intent. As with everything in this document, I’m willing to discuss it (see the last paragraph of the Overview).

Introduction and Overview

“Never believe that a few caring people can’t change the world. For, indeed, that’s all who ever have.”
— Margaret Mead

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not deliver itself to making you happy.
I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
I want to be thoroughly used up when I die; for the harder I work the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me. It is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations.”
— George Bernard Shaw

This is a personal document, a record and companion of my journey toward understanding what I currently perceive to be (at this time) possibly the most urgent crisis for all of humanity, and what can be done about it (by me, and by “us”). I’m also writing it to an audience of others, some of whom I hope will help me flesh it out, and possibly lead to a group document.

Of necessity, it’s a work in progress, and will probably stay that way; that’s why I’ve added a version numbering scheme, inspired by my work in software development.

The crisis is triggered by the impending peak of petroleum production and its inevitable decline thereafter. The “short story” is that, according to several petroleum industry insiders (and their number seems to be growing), the peak is/will be occurring between about late 2002 and around 2010. After that, production will continually decline.

What makes this a crisis? The following factors:

  1. The “conventional wisdom” is that production will continue to rise for several decades to come; thus, major industries and governments are complacent or in serious denial. This kind of denial and dedicated focus on narrow, shortsighted motivations has doomed civilizations in the past. (See for example “Easter’s End” by Jared Diamond at, and a related essay by Diamond at .)

  2. The economies of the industrial nations are based heavily on petroleum, and almost all societies have been altered to some extent by the effects of the petroleum-based economies.

  3. The prevailing economic system is based on the concept of continual growth in consumption, without limit. This is so fundamental that even the hint of a suggestion of a limit to growth triggers a firestorm of intemperate criticism. (For a good history and analysis of such an event, by an energy industry insider, see “Revisiting The Limits to Growth: Could The Club of Rome Have Been Correct, After All?” by Matthew Simmons, at,club_of_rome_revisted.pdf .)

  4. The world population continues to rise; additionally, there’s pressure to increase the “standard of consumption” of people in the poorest countries (this is a major emphasis for China, for example, and a UN priority). Both trends create pressure for a continuing rise in production.

  5. The ecological concept of “carrying capacity”. The earth’s carrying capacity for humans will be considerably less than the current population when fossil fuels are exhausted—there’s no likely alternative form of energy that can make up the difference. (This factor is exclusive of other limits to carrying capacity, such as the capacity of the earth to absorb human-generated pollution.)

  6. When production can no longer keep up with demand, serious dysfunctions will arise in the economic and political systems, quite possibly leading to a breakdown of society, and in the worst case, a massive die-off (typical of the cases of population overshoot in various species that have been studied for some time by ecologists).

  7. The accumulating evidence that these events are near-term possibilities.

Why is this crisis worse than all the others that clamor for people’s attention in this time of many changes? Its near-term nature combined with its seriousness; in effect, it has the potential to overwhelm all current political, economic, and social crises. (In a later version of this document, I plan to consider how it might interact with other environmental crises, such as global warming.)

Do I believe all this? Enough to devote considerable time to investigate its credibility, alternative scenarios, etc., and to record here what I find,and how I think about it. Also, enough to try to foster a dialog with people who can help me fill in the “rich picture”. (Or possibly, convince me that the crisis is just a chimera, and we’re in good shape on this front. I’d be more than happy if a really convincing argument could be made for this.)

I’ve organized this document into the following main sections:

  1. <DFN>Despair</DFN>: I feel that it’s important to take a good look at how bad it might be and become; once I’ve seen the worst, I can begin to deal with the rest of the picture. (This is related to, and inspired by, Joanna Macy’s concept of “despair work”, which I first encountered in Chapter Two of her book World as Lover, World as Self.)

  2. <DFN>Hope</DFN>: In this section, I look at the resources available to us for dealing with the crisis, and look at more favorable possible scenarios. This forms the basis for “action learning”.

  3. <DFN>Understanding</DFN>: Next, I try to build a deeper understanding of the likely scenarios, and what effective action might be possible in each.

  4. <DFN>Action</DFN>: Finally, I try to lay out a plan for action, in the near, middle, and longer terms. (What you’re reading now is the result of some very near-term action.)

  5. <DFN>Resources</DFN>: an annotated bibliography of the resources I’ve drawn on, or that I think are worth looking into or contacting.

It may seem that I’ve “bitten off more than I can chew” with this document. I’m indeed attempting to cover as much of the relevant ground as possible. I’ve collected many references to resources that go into depth in most areas, and I’m not going to try to duplicate or compete with them; in fact, it’s their presence that makes this kind of work possible. There are a few works and workers that I’ve encountered that have a similar breadth of scope: Hardin Tibbs’ Sustainability (see for a summary and pointer to the full paper), and Timothy Wilkens’ Synearth web site ( A major goal of this journey is to create connections among workers such as these.

Acknowledgment: the title of this document comes from an interview with Buckminster Fuller transcribed at Fuller: “I have to say, I think that we are in some kind of final examination as to whether human beings now, with this capability to acquire information and to communicate, whether we’re really qualified to take on the responsibility we’re designed to be entrusted with. And this is not a matter of an examination of the types of governments, nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with economic systems. It has to do with the individual. Does the individual have the courage to really go along with the truth?”

Finally, a few words on what I intend to communicate, and what I’d most like from you, gentle reader, by way of response. As the above description implies, my focus is on laying a foundation for and facilitating effective action (personal and in concert with others)—to mitigate and/or delay the crisis if possible, or at least to work toward a better long-term outcome. I’m writing not as an expert—my expertise is in software engineering, with the study of natural and social systems as a strong interest—but as someone who’s motivated to look at issues from a systemic perspective, and who’s oriented toward problem-solving. This document, then, is the visible part of a personal journey toward understanding and action, and an invitation to you: to fill in gaps or misunderstandings in the document, to join the journey if it seems right to you, and/or to use the information presented here as material for your own journey (common journeys, parallel journeys, interweaving journeys, but hopefully not journeys at cross purposes).

Status of the Document

This section will change as I develop the document further. Currently, it’s largely a rough outline, with some sections partly filled in; my intent for now is to supply just enough information in each section to give the reader a sense of where I’m going with it. Some text will be especially rough, enclosed with “{…}” brackets. This text is essentially notes to myself, and should disappear in subsequent versions (but you’re welcome to read it, and ask questions about it if you wish).

At this point, I feel I’ve gotten a decent start on Despair and Hope. Understanding and Action consist mostly of placeholders and random thoughts. I have a beginning set of references under Resources, good enough at least for this stage of development; I have quite a large and growing list in my “database” that I’ll continually winnow for inclusion. The references aren’t in a consistent style, and there’s intentional (and no doubt unintentional) redundancy. I ask your forbearance until I have a chance to do a proper job of editing.

The document is currently being maintained and developed in the HTML editor of the office suite ( This is a convenient editor for creating documents in HTML (at least mostly-text documents like this one). My motivation for the HTML format is to make it easy to distribute and to read—it can be pasted into or attached to an email message, and viewed with any web browser and most document editors.


“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
— Pogo Possum, via Walt Kelly

The Threats

Resource Limits


While this document is focused on the crisis induced by petroleum depletion, it’s worth looking at other limits that will or might interact with this crisis in some way, or present the “next crisis” that will need to be planned for even while dealing with the immediate problems.

There are many good references on the web to learn about the resources we depend on, their nature and their limits. Here, I give a brief description of the major ones with some references to these resources.

In studies of population dynamics, it’s been found that one limit will be the effective constraint at any given time; removing it will allow expansion to the next limit. (Elihu Goldratt uses this concept as well for “production dynamics”.) In some cases, removing a limit will lead to population “overshoot”, so that when the next limit comes into play, the population is too large to “fit within the limit”; this in turn leads to dieoff.

Limits may be local or global (or both, to different extents).

For each limit:

  • What’s its nature and pattern?

  • How much of a threat/risk is it? (Taken alone, and in relation to others.)

(At this point, what I have is pretty sketchy; I leave the reader to follow up the references I give, look for others, and maybe even to contribute more complete sections.)

Fossil Fuels

The best introduction to the hydrocarbon depletion situation, in my opinion, is Roger Bentley’s Summary page, describing the main import of his research; see There are a few recently-formed organizations to study the situation and raise public awareness of it; examples are the M. King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies (at, the Association for the Study of Peak Oil (ASPO), and the Oil Depletion Analysis Centre (ODAC; web site

The web site has a wealth of material on the limits of fossil fuels and their alternatives, presented in a straightforwardly apocalyptic style; presents a good summary of the author/maintainer’s message and an overview of the material to be found there. The site also includes many other works that I’ve referenced here.

Note: In considering alternatives to fossil fuels, it’s important to recognize that not all energy sources or uses are the same. There may be excellent substitutes for some purposes, none at all for others. It’s also important to consider time frames; any given alternative source will take some number of years to be generally usefully deployed. (Even currently used sources such as wind power need considerable further development before they can be integrated into a society.)


An important point to remember about petroleum: it’s critical for more than energy: see,convince_sheet-pdf.pdf for an enumeration.

{Various points to make: different scenarios of timing and shape of depletion; how it might/will affect society’s ability to respond.}

Natural Gas

{Similar but different considerations. Time line for depletion is similar. Lack of early indications of a field running out. Review Duncan’s, Simmons’, and Bentley/Campbell’s descriptions.}


{Look into…}

{any others?}


{What constraints are we likely to run into here in the near future? How do these constraints interact with energy depletion?}

Organic Materials

Includes plant and animal-derived materials used for construction, clothing, industrial uses, …


{I’ve read some texts that imply depletion of metals through their use and discarding, essentially making them less available for a given amount of work to gather and extract them (e.g., from waste dumps). Need to look more into this – verify, qualify, or refute.}

Trace Elements

We tend not to think of the roles that relatively rare elements play in our technology and society, but they can be crucial. Some are needed for life, others for the products of industry that we depend on. Also, they’re not evenly distributed around the earth.


Another emerging crisis is the availability of enough water of good enough quality for the many uses that we put it to. {See for some details on this. For this document, look into its scale and timeframe; how will it interact with energy crisis?}

Food Production and Distribution Limits

{From “…we have yet to recognize the alarming facts that for the last 16 years we have passed the sustainable food limits that Earth can produce relative to population.”—look into this – verify, qualify, or refute. (See the article for more details.) Also, clarify; the population is not “crashing” yet – it’s still growing, although the rate of growth (acceleration) is negative; this is normal for an S-shaped growth curve. It’s unfortunate to see a potentially useful essay marred by this kind of confusion and hysteria…}

{Agricultural land depletion; interactions with energy depletion; … }

Environmental Responses to Degradation

(Gaia strikes back!)

Climate Instability (Global Warming)

This is currently the most-discussed of the environmental threats facing the world – unfortunately, it’s also one of the least understood. If it were to turn out that energy availability isn’t a near-term threat, this one might be the most serious one in the next few decades.

{Nature of the threat; interactions with energy depletion.}

Extinction of Species

It’s becoming clear that human activities are causing a mass extinction of species (see the discussion of Edward Wilson’s work below under Human Extinction); among these, there may be some that we depend on crucially in as-yet little understood ways.

Loss of “Earth’s Lungs” (mostly forests, some oceanic)

{Look into, summarize the picture.}

Epidemic Disease

One of the benefits that science and technology have brought us is the ever-greater capability to reduce the impact of disease in individuals and populations. Like so many other things, modern medicine and public health rely heavily on the fossil fuel energy subsidy. One likely result of the depletion of that subsidy is the re-emergence of diseases whose impact we currently have under control (and the worsening of those we don’t, like cancer and AIDS).


AIDS, of course

Tropical diseases that might migrate to temperate areas under global warming

Well-known diseases that will be more threatening due to lack of medical/health infrastructure

Isolation of areas due to national breakdowns would tend to keep outbreaks from becoming pandemics – a “grim solution”.


From a history of The Black Death (
“The bubonic plague did not go away. It still exists, everywhere in the world. It is quite common among rodent populations–rats, of course, but squirrels, rabbits and skunks as well. The Rocky Mountains (where I live) is one of the places where it is still widespread. Every few years I read in the newspapers how a hunter has contracted the disease. We have a cure for it, but the disease moves very quickly, and there are some isolated places in the Rockies, and once in a while the hunter doesn’t make it.” (Dr. E. L. Skip Knox )

Population Growth


‘2nd order’ threat; major effect is to exacerbate others

Complex interaction with others: as they cause local dieoffs, the population reduces, reducing the stress on survivors. Latency between cause & effect reduces this “benefit”, however.

Article in re “ZPG in 2020-2029”. Look into this, see what can be learned from it.


Human Dysfunctions

Compounding the threats are human characteristics (individual and group) that keep us from enacting the best available responses to them; instead, people often react in ways that actually make things worse over the medium and long terms, and sometimes even in the short term.


Despair paralysis (Joanna Macy’s and Molly Browns book Coming Back to Life has a chapter on Apathy that goes into some detail about why “the best of men lack all conviction…”)

Power of denial

Local (space), shortsighted (time) focus

Seven deadly sins {from};:

  1. Pride is excessive belief in one’s own abilities, that interferes with the individual’s recognition of the grace of God. It has been called the sin from which all others arise. Pride is also known as Vanity.

  2. Envy is the desire for others’ traits, status, abilities, or situation.

  3. Gluttony is an inordinate desire to consume more than that which one requires.

  4. Lust is an inordinate craving for the pleasures of the body.

  5. Anger is manifested in the individual who spurns love and opts instead for fury. It is also known as Wrath.

  6. Greed is the desire for material wealth or gain, ignoring the realm of the spiritual. It is also called Avarice or Covetousness.

  7. Sloth is the avoidance of physical or spiritual work.

{Interesting; these can all be characterized by lack of balance in one or another spiritual dimension. Could there be “complementary sins” characterized by imbalance in the other direction? Self-denigration, lack of motivation, asceticism, …}

Based on Maslow’s hierarchy as described in, many people in most societies are “hung up” in the deficiency needs while, according to Maslow, an individual is ready to act upon the growth needs if and only if the deficiency needs are met.

Mob effects (the “deadly sins” of people in groups)

Seven Blunders Of The World That Lead To Violence (Mohandas Gandhi)

  • Wealth without work

  • Science without humanity

  • Pleasure without conscience

  • Worship without sacrifice

  • Knowledge without character

  • Politics without principle

  • Commerce without morality



Phases of Decline

I believe these phases will occur in all possible futures, even the most benign. This is a consequence of the fact that we’re overshooting the limits of sustainability. Ideally, the decline will only be in the average per-capita standard of consumption, and the phases will be minor periods of adjustment; in the worst case, the decline will be in all important aspects of human life, and will be too severe and too fast for our individual and cultural faculties to adapt to.


This goes from the present up to the point that the petroleum production decline begins to seriously affect large economies and societies. Ideally, it will be a period of evaluation and planning, providing a foundation for meeting the crisis effectively.

Initial Decline

During this phase, the decline will be evident to all. It will also be a time of increasing difficulties and challenges.

Full Descent

In this phase, any use of fossil fuel energy will be at most in a transitional role. People, organizations, and governments will be facing the problems of trying to build the foundations for post-fossil fuels in the face of declining available resources and increasing challenges to social stability.


In one way or another, a more or less stable situation will emerge, in which sustainable forms of energy will be used to support whatever social structures have survived.

Possible 2nd-Wave Decline

It’s possible, however, that delayed effects from previous environmental insults will result in new environmental crises, which will strain the fragile structures and possibly cause a further decline in population and/or standard of living. Subsequent waves are also possible.

New Equilibrium

Finally, a “low point” will be reached, from which survivors can begin to rebuild to the extent permitted by the energy and environmental resources available.


“It is change, continuing change, inevitable change, that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be. . . . This, in turn, means that our statesmen, our businessmen, our everyman must take on a science fictional way of thinking.”
— Isaac Asimov


I discuss for each scenario:

  • The story: a typical way the scenario could play out

  • Variations: any important variants within the overall scenario

  • Critical factors: what could make the scenario more or less likely

  • Outcomes: the situation at the end of the scenario

{Need to flesh out scenarios per the above}

A common set of assumptions for all: There’s no technical solution to or way to avoid the collapse of current level of industrial society (although some aspects may survive in some forms); in keeping with the theme of this section, the scenarios are gloomy, and focus on the “full descent” phase more than the “preparation” phase.

Also, they should be read as applying to local areas in most cases; loss of energy may well result in loss of global communications and transportation. Different scenarios may play out in different areas at the same time.

{Reference Hardin Tibbs’ “Sustainability”, Sec. 5, for a good framework and set of scenarios. Rework this section to leverage his.}

Human Extinction

This is certainly a possibility—if the population falls below some critical level, then ravaged, dysfunctional societies, genetic drift and environmental challenges may make it impossible to recover.

Note that from a Gaian point of view, this is not a total tragedy. Human activity of the last century has been like a moderately serious infection in the biosphere (not as severe as the mass extinction at the end of the Cretaceous period, caused by the Chicxulub meteorite, but serious enough – biologist Edward Wilson estimates in “The Future of Life” that half the world’s remaining species could be extinct by mid-century). With the human species gone, the biosphere can begin the long slow work of restoration and healing.

Free Fall

Not as drastic an outcome as the above, but cause enough for despair. This assumes that no effective action can be taken in the time available; society will be drastically reduced in population and in standard of living, over a period of several decades. Populations will be small, generally agrarian or hunter-gatherer, living at the basic survival level for a considerable time to come. (These may be the descendents of current populations least affected by industrial societies; those currently living most like their ancestors. Unless they’re swamped by desparate refugees from industrial areas or fatally impacted by environmental crises, they may be well enough prepared to recover their old ways.)

Under this scenario, there will likely be a drastic loss of “civilized knowledge”, both the knowledge that has enabled the rise from subsistence living, and the knowledge of the factors that led to the subsequent fall. Thus, if civilizations do arise again, they’ll have to “relive history”.

Slaveship Earth

In this scenario, one or more organizations will control enough energy and resources to allow the establishment of a rigid, repressive society controlled by a few. This will be a temporary state, however; when the energy sources and other resources run out, the society will crumble (if it hasn’t already succumbed to the cycles of typical conflict and deterioriation that characterizes such societies). {Elaborate a bit – see Ecco notes.} Thus, this scenario eventually devolves into Free Fall (or possibly local Extinction).

Controlled Descent

This is the “least bad” of the scenarios under the assumption of sharp near-term decline. Enough people and organizations have enough time to make effective preparations, and can manage the descent in an orderly fashion, while maintaining a decent quality of life for the members and a viable, resilient culture. The following section will describe some of the resources and requirements needed to make something like this possible. {Elaborate a bit – see Ecco notes.}


“Buy terms divine in selling hours of dross:
Within be fed, without be rich no more:
So shall thou feed on Death, that feeds on men,
And Death once dead, there’s no more dying then.”
— Shakespeare, Sonnet CXLVI

“When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart;
and where the old tracks are lost, new country is revealed with its wonders.”
— Rabindranath Tagore

“Pessimism has negative survival value”
— me


If you’re hoping for reassurance that it’s all a bad dream, or that some deus ex machina will save the day for “life as usual”, this section will be a disappointment. My focus here is on hope for one of the following outcomes, in decreasing order of desirability:

  • Survival of viable, diverse societies, based on sustainable resources and values. The decline in population and gross material wealth will be more than offset by improved quality of life, and a general sense of hope and dedication to continuous improvement of that quality. The lessons of history will have been well learned.

  • Survival of the basic knowledge and technologies needed for societies to survive the resource and environmental crises, and to serve as the foundation for a sustainable recovery. These societies, possibly worse to live in than today’s, will at least have the potential to “tough it out” and improve in the longer term. The general awareness of the seriousness of the situation, and the fact that humanity has brought it on itself and must work together to get through it, will power that improvement.

  • Survival of a few societies with enough diversity, knowledge, and wisdom to form the base for a sustainable renaissance of civilization (possibly after a long gestation).

  • (Assuming full free fall.) Creation of a few sustainable centers of knowledge and learning about human history and the nature of the crisis that brought about the fall, and about the technological and spiritual resources that can serve the recovery. Once human societies have begun to re-form, these centers will help provide a base for creating in society the knowledge and wisdom needed to rebuild, while avoiding the mistakes of the past.

  • (Assuming human extinction.) The creation of “time capsules” that may last for millions of years, and may be decipherable by future intelligent species, who may benefit from learning of our accomplishments, mistakes, and the causes of our disappearance. If such a situation comes about, we will have helped to “seed the future” of intelligent life, and will have a sort of rebirth in the memory of these creatures.

Useful Information

From (I’ve added a clarification in square brackets):

The exponential growth of human population peaked in 1987. That year 87.01 million more people were added to the Earth. Since 1987, the population [growth] has declined on average by 2.1 million less people added per year. In this year of 2000 the population will increase by 60.1 million people. If we maintain this 13 year average of 2.1 million less people added per year, we will peak in population reaching zero population growth in 2029 with 6.90 billion people.

The decline of human population has been even more dramatic over the last 6 years. In 1994 we added 78.5 million more people, this year we will add 60.1 million. This is a decline [in growth] of 3 million less people added per year. If we maintain this 6 year average of 3 million less people added per year, we will peak in population reaching zero population growth in 2020 with 6.64 billion people.

{Revisit this; the author doesn’t seem to be representing the S-curve properly.}

Fundamental Resources


In a time of drastic change it is the learners who survive; the ‘learned’ find themselves fully equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.
— Eric Hoffer

Humans have a tremendous advantage over other populations faced with the consequences of overshoot: the capacity to learn, individually and as groups. For an individual example, simply the awareness of the causes of one’s dysfunctions can lead to a series of corrective actions (e.g., the ability to quit smoking or to control alcoholism). For a group example, consider the growth in awareness of and concern for environmental issues over the last 30 years – not a long time for large human populations with many competing (and more immediate) concerns.


Also talk about digestive vs. revolutionary learning, the nature of group learning, the need for a culture based on continual learning, …



Gentlemen, we must hang together or we will most assuredly hang separately.
— Benjamin Franklin, to his fellow American revolutionaries

The opposite of crisis is community. And it is crisis that calls us into community.
— Andrew Campbell

I believe the most important resource we have in dealing with this crisis, is each other. For this reason, one of the most critical areas for action is to create, foster, nurture, and build on communities dedicated to sustained, positive action to create the best long term outcomes possible. A major part of this will be work to heal the many rifts that exist in most societies, to change the emphasis from a largely competitive, win-lose mentality to a focus on cooperative, win-win social and cultural patterns.

While there are many “survival” resources on the Web, most are focused on individual survival over a short time (days-weeks-months). For long term thriving (not just eking out a subsistence living), you need a community large enough to provide a useful variety of roles and a network of mutual support (critical mass). There’s a delicate balance here, of course; any local community must also be small enough to stay well within the carrying capacity of its supporting environment. (See Peter Hartley’s essay “Sustainable Engineering” at a good discussion of carrying capacity, and in particular for the reasons for staying well below the limit.)

While political action at local, national and international levels can be useful, it needs to be complemented by a kind of “cellular growth”, in which local communities form, contact each other, and act and interact in an organic fashion {need to clarify here – what’s accomplished by political action vs. community building action}. Among other advantages, this kind of action has a natural robustness that makes it harder for chaotic conditions to destroy or for repressive “authorities” to subvert or suppress.

Other views: Flemming Funch’s “Holoworld” ( covers a lot of aspects involved in creating communities. Timothy Wilkens offers eight critical subsystems that should underpin a sustainable community in$3.


  • Look at “dysfunctions” under Despair; invert for resources for community building.

  • Maslow hierarchy: the best communities require a critical mass of individuals working at the Transcendence level (see for this and other ways of “cutting the space”).


Existing Communities and Other Groups

Fortunately, there are many communities and other groups that have the potential to seed the kind of community that will be needed. Here’s a few examples, in no particular order:

  • Communities formed to explore and increase sustainability and other “communal virtues”. (For example, see the References for Gaviotas, Sarvodaya – these efforts have been underway for some time, and persisting in difficult circumstances.)

  • Networks of people involved in using sustainable technologies for daily life {sustainable housing, permaculture, …}

  • Groups organized around web sites devoted to environmental or sustainability concerns {synearth, BFI, …}

  • Political or social action groups, devoted to spreading the word and/or changing the political dialogue.

  • Groups working toward sustainable and more equitable economic and/or political structures {Grameen, Hawkens’ “Natural Capitalism”, Jeff Gates’s “Shared Capitalism”, several others – should enumerate, compare.}

  • Religious groups whose foundational beliefs involve a sustainable relationship with nature and a concern for all beings {Quakers, some Buddhists, Baha’i?}

A major action item will be to assess and increase the level of communication and cross-fertilization of these groups.


Communication is the nervous system and the circulatory system of communities. Where communication within the community is impaired or degraded in character, the community’s health suffers. Also, communication across communities in a region is important to the health of all the communities. {Is this worth a separate section, or just a para or two in the above?}


What I have tried to show in this book is that the social process may be conceived either as the opposing and battle of desires with the victory of one over the other, or as the confronting and integrating of desires. The former means non-freedom for both sides, the defeated bound to the victor, the victor bound to the false situation thus created–both bound. The latter means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world.
— Mary Parker Follett, Creative Experience (1924)

If communication is the medium, these attributes carry the messages. As a useful simplification, we can consider a spectrum of interpersonal and intergroup relationships:

War -> Detente -> Coexistence -> Trade -> Trust -> Caring -> Love

As you move along the spectrum from left to right, the sense and quality of community increases. Also, the “total energy flow” goes from a strong negative to a clear positive. People working in unison/unity have more available energy than the same number of “disconnected” people, who in turn have more than people who must defend themselves against each other. Also, over time, people on the right side of the spectrum will “fund the future” through the synergies of their common works; the “legacy” of violent cultures is a degraded future.

A metaphor here that may be useful is “Indra’s Net”, in which we are all nodes (see for descriptions, ideas, and reflections – pun intended). Most of the descriptions of the Net focus on the jewels at the nodes, and the way in which they reflect each other; here, I’m focusing on the quality of the strands that connect the nodes, and how those strands are created, strengthened, frayed, or broken.

In, Timothy Wilken provides a thorough discussion and grounding of these concepts. (There’s a kind of convergent evolution here – I wrote the above paragraphs, based on my emerging integration of much reading and digestion, before I encountered Wilkens’ work. He’s taken it much further than I had gotten, however. I hope to have a fruitful dialog with him on the subject sometime.)

At our current “level of thinking”, we lack well worked-out ways to build cultures of caring and love larger than family groups (and even within these groups, it’s all too common to have subgroups at serious odds). I believe the success of long-term sustainable cultures depends on their ability to learn to “move to the right” on the spectrum.


From, some lists of virtues: prudence, temperance, courage, justice; love, hope, faith; humility, kindness, abstinence, chastity, patience, liberality, diligence; faith, hope, charity, fortitude, justice, temperance, prudence. These are mostly individual virtues; maybe put this outside of Community (or weave them into “community virtues”).


Appropriate Technology

I’m using the term “technology” somewhat loosely here, to mean not only embodied technologies like machines, electronics, etc., but also “know-how” that enables us to create such things and otherwise make large scale changes to our environment.

In Tibbs’ Sustainability, he describes the systems dynamics world model presented in the book Beyond the Limits, in particular 4 simulation runs: the first assuming “business as usual”, the second assuming changes in peoples’ attitudes toward the environment, the third assuming transition to new technologies, and the fourth assuming both changes. All but the last run showed a general system-wide collapse in the 21st century. Tibbs says: “The potential for technological innovation alone is explored, but this only buys time – there is still a collapse, but it is delayed until the middle of the 21st century. Radical behavioral and attitudinal changes are explored too, but it turns out that these alone are not enough either – there is still a crash in the mid 21st century. In this model, it is only when both these kinds of changes are applied together that a crash is avoided.” While this is indicative rather than conclusive, I think it’s reasonable to go on the assumption that the best of all human thinking and actions will be needed to make the transition successfully; we’ll do ourselves no favors by trying to walk just on one leg or the other.

This section considers appropriateness in three contexts:

  1. For initial decline: knowledge/technologies useful during the preparation and initial decline phase. These will be the most immediately useful, and should probably be given the most initial emphasis, even it they’re not sustainable. (An excellent example is the Internet; for now, at least, it has a crucual role to play in raising the awareness of diverse people and groups of each others’ existence and work, and in enabling cooperative efforts. In its current form, however, it’s very dependent on the “high-energy” society, and may be an early victim of the decline.)

  2. For surviving and mitigating critical situations. These will be the core transitional technologies; their main importance is to maintain the communities’ ability to remain coherent and effective under stress, and to do the necessary work toward building a sustainable future. It may be useful to think of these as a kind of scaffolding. (To continue with the Internet example, it might be possible to set up relatively low-energy and low-tech communication media based on something like the old ham radio network. Certainly, the maintenance of global communications, even in an attenuated form, will be valuable.)

  3. For long-term sustainability: these will be the technologies and knowledge that will form the basic infrastructure for the sustainable future. Of course, where it’s feasible, they’ll begin to be used for the above situations as well.


Another possibly useful dimension for considering technologies is the extent to which they’re primarily for individual or group use.

Do some “info mining” to get some good examples of both transitional and sustainable technologies.

One point to consider: assuming worst 2 scenarios, a “message in a bottle” activity:

Under free fall: Preserving useful knowledge in a way that survivors can find, learn to read and use

Under extinction: Preserving knowledge that may help next intelligent species avoid our mistakes

Example of issues in substituting for fossil fuels: look up URL for “Green Party Response to ‘The Future of Aviation’”. This points out that while it might be feasible to build a hydrogen-powered air fleet, it should be limited to sub-stratosphere flight, since hydrogen fuel gives off water vapor, and water vapor in the stratosphere contributes significantly to climate change problems, since thre’s little mixing there. (Perhaps put part of this in Despair, part in Hope.)

Maybe BFI stuff here…



The task is not so much to see what no one has yet seen, but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.
— Erwin Schrödinger

An educated mind is useless without a focused will and dangerous without a loving heart.
— Winfried Deijmann

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.
— H. L. Mencken


Basic idea of section:

What knowledge and “weltanschauung” do we need to fund and guide our action? And who’s we, white man? (Maybe start with the same outline as Despair, merged with Hope, and fill it in.)

Some basic concerns:

  • What’s meant by “sustainability”

  • Good and improving information and models of the situation and prospects

  • Risk analysis, opportunity analysis

  • “Hidden treasures”: social/human/bio/physical goodies that can be built on

Some basic commitments/assumptions:

  • No one, or even a small group, has all the answers. Surviving, rebuilding, and sustaining will be a process of constant learning. “None of us is as smart as all of us.”

  • It’s important to broaden one’s perspective, to look at the “Long Now” and the “Global Here”.

  • Not all people are like Americans, not all the good ideas will come from here; not all challenges will have the same impact everywhere; not all solutions to similar problems will be similar.

  • Continual learning will be a necessary part of sustainability. Learning proceeds in an alternation of two phases: digestive, in which new knowledge is added to the existing weltbild, and transformative, in which the current weltbild has to partly or completely collapse in order to create a more adequate one.

  • “We” have to start from an acceptance of the human condition as it is. The seven deadly sins won’t disappear immediately, and they’ll be a force in communities for quite a while. The Buddha dharma, the way of the bohdisattva, may be extremely useful here.

  • It’s crucially important to keep a balance between pragmatism and idealism; both are necessary elements.

  • Effective solutions won’t be designed and created; they’ll grow and adapt (perhaps from a designed/created starting point). Also, they must be allowed, even encouraged, to cross-fertilize, give rise to new solutions, and give way to them where appropriate (see transformative learning above).



But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
Robert Frost, from “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

The ableness of this work is oned to the work itself, without separation: so that whoso feeleth this work is also able thereto, and none else. Insomuch, that without this work a soul is as it were dead, and cannot covet or desire it. For as much as thou willest and desirest it, so much hast thou of it, and no more and no less: And yet it is no will, nor desire, but a thing thou knowest never what. I pray thee: But do forth ever more and more, so that thou be ever doing.
— The Cloud of Unknowing

At first people refuse to believe that a strange new thing can be done, then they see it can be done—then it is done and all the world wonders why it was not done centuries ago.
— Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
— Mahatma Gandhi


I’ll try to avoid the temptation here to prescribe “the path we should follow”, or any other recipe for success. There’s an old joke (possibly politically incorrect) that has the punch line “Who’s we, white man?” I think about that line whenever I read or hear someone talking about what “we” should do, either leaving it unclear who “we” are, or addressing it to humanity at large. In this section, I’ll try to address some “practical we’s”, as well as some other resources that can translate hope and understanding into action.


Parallel approaches:

  1. Conventional political/social activism, trying to change country’s/world’s understanding and direction.

  1. Bottom up, “cellular” approach – grow/build communities and networks of local action, targeted at phases of decline.

  2. Others?

While we have global communications, try to seed global cells, keep them in contact (maybe rediscover ham radio as way to maintain a global net when Internet breaks down?)

(One possible outcome is that 2. will be an effective way to accomplish 1.)
“I must see where my people are going, so I can lead them there”

Quote from
“Gandhi spoke of two parts to a strategy for change – resisting what’s not working and creating the new.”

Ongoing learning about the situation and prospects

Creation of “learning communities” to become the cells for the future

Looking for any/all opportunities for “disaster prevention/mitigation”


Near Term

  • Continue to build this document

  • Identify relevant groups and communities

  • Contact them, help to interweave them into a coherent force

  • Identify the best transitional technologies and the sustainable ones that can be realized in the short term

  • Learn to characterize and anticipate the timing and character of the initial decline

  • Plan, execute, adapt, replan; repeat (plan-do-check-act?)


  • Leverage community and technology to create and nurture centers of at least survival, hopefully able to begin work of (re)building.

  • Focus on survival, consolidation, conservation, sustaining energy and hope.

  • Look for ways to mitigate the effects of the decline for as many people as possible.


  • Recognize opportunities for renewal/rebuilding.

  • Begin careful expansion.


What to leave behind if nothing else—for possible re-emerging humans or (much later) other intelligent species.


This section is basically an annotated bibliography. It doesn’t include all the resources (mostly WWW sites, but also some books) that I’ve visited in the course of this project – I’ve included just those that I consider quite relevant, or have resonated with me for other reasons. Many of the sites have links to other related sites, so if you want to branch out, they’ll provide a good starting place.


  • http: (News for a Synergic Earth) There are links here to related sites focused on sustainability, community, etc. Quite a bit of good stuff.

  • Hardin Tibbs’ long paper exploring the concepts, problems, and requirements for sustainability. I put it here due to the breadth of its scope.

  • “an initiative of the Buckminster Fuller Institute to catalyze awareness and action towards realizing humanity’s options for success.”

  • (Buckminster Fuller Institute) {maybe should go elsewhere}

  • (Communications for a Sustainable Future) “CSF was founded on the idea that computer networking could be used to enhance communications with the objective of working through disparate views and ideologies to secure a more promising future. The contents of the archives and the quality of communications on CSF are intended to reflect this purpose.”



  • Joanna Macy’s site, reflecting her work as a systems theorist, Buddhist scholar, and environmental activist (and as a synthesis of all three).

  • The Grameen family of organizations. The Grameen bank has been giving practical hope to poor people in many nations since 1976. I include it here as an example of a kind of cellular growth, working from the local outwards. There are also lessons in its practices for community building, starting in many cases from the depths of despairing, dysfunctional neighborhoods.

  • The Cultural Creatives: you are not alone… (

  • “Skills for the Age of Sustainability: An Unprecedented Time of Opportunity” Part of Elisabet Sahtouris’ website, which has lots of other good stuff worth looking into.


{Winnow these; look at others in the Ecco list. I think that oilcrisis, hubbertpeak, and some others are pretty much equivalent.}

  • “The site is written by Dr. Roger Bentley, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Cybernetics, The University of Reading, UK.” This is a good place to start in examining Bentley’s work, which is more detailed and less apocalyptic in outlook than Duncan’s Olduvai papers.

  • Howard Odum’s concept of Emergy (embodied energy); a way of getting a total accounting of the energy cost and value of activities and artifacts. The most complete reference is his book Environmental Accounting: Emergy and Environmental Decision Making. There’s a review of the concepts by David Holmgren at



  • “Named after the late Dr. M. King Hubbert, Geophysicist, this website provides data, analysis and recommendations regarding the upcoming peak in the rate of global oil extraction.”

  • {Need some good resources on sustainable energy}


Natural resources other than energy.

  • (Rocky Mountain Institute): “Rocky Mountain Institute is an entrepreneurial, nonprofit organization that fosters the efficient and restorative use of resources to create a more secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining world.”


A few of many sites, books, papers, etc., proposing ways to make economics more humane and useful for the future.

  • World Economic Forum ( “The World Economic Forum is an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world.”

  • (Economists valuating ecosystems)

  • The Grameen family of organizations (see under Hope). A workable system of microcredit that’s been helping poor people to become self-sufficient for many years.


  • (Home of the Global Systems Simulator)

  • The Buckminster Fuller Institute ( “This site is devoted to advancing Humanity’s Option for Success, inspired by the principles articulated by Buckminster Fuller.” The future wouldn’t be the same without Bucky, who left his footprints all over it… I need to spend more time in this treasury.

  • “Welcome to The Complexity & Artificial Life Research Concept for Self-Organizing Systems”


(I haven’t looked as thoroughly at these sites.)


Here are a few of many sites on the subject of population dynamics:

… and a few specific to human populations:


  • “The Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka” ( An organization working to create peaceful and sustainable communities under as difficult conditions as exist anywhere. Sri Lanka has suffered from factional violence for several years, yet the organization has been able to make progress, and even reduce tensions in some areas.

  • by Flemming Funch. “Blueprint for a synergetic society”, “HoloWorld is a hypothetical society that is scalable to any size, from a size of one family to the size of a whole planet.” Covers a lot of considerations involved in building such a society.

  • “Since 1979 Context Institute, a nonprofit research organization, has been exploring and clarifying just what is involved in a humane sustainable culture – and how we can get there. We invite you to join us in this adventure!” I’m just getting to know this site, but I’ve already found some treasures there.

  • (Mary Parker Follett Foundation) {Need intro to Follett, how the foundation relates.}

  • The Grameen family of organizations—see under Hope.

  • “The New Civilization Network (NCN) is a meeting place for people of good will who are working on building a world that works for all of us. A world of increased quality of life, freedom, fun and inspiration for all. A world where the needs of all of humanity are met.” Again, I’m just getting to know this site.

  • “Issues of Human Evolution into Global Community” Elisabet Sahtouris’ ideas on the development of sustainable commuities.

  • “HoloWorld is a hypothetical society that is scalable to any size, from a size of one family to the size of a whole planet.” Thoughts on developing societies that work, by Flemming Funch, maintainer of NCN. Yet again, I’ve only scratched the surface…


A web search for this term will turn up approximately a gazillion hits. Sustainability (or at least talking about it) bids fair to become one of the worldwide fads of the decade. I include here a few of the sites that have been most useful (or intriguing) to me.

  • (The Sustainability Institute) “ The Sustainability Institute provides information, analysis, and practical demonstrations that can foster transitions to sustainable systems at all levels of society, from local to global.”

  • (Sources of Sustainability) A collection of links to related sites.

  • “ The Natural Step (TNS) Framework is a science and systems-based approach to organizational planning for sustainability. Sustainability happens when people’s activities meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

  • (Sustainable Communities Network) “Linking citizens to resources and to one another to create healthy, vital, sustainable communities.”

  • A companion site to Synearth, focused on sustainability