Everything Old is New Again

Sharon November 5th, 2009

There’s an interesting post over at The Oil Drum, by a high school teacher who uses this chart (scroll down the post to the end before comments) to illustrate something of the future to his students.  I’m very taken by the clarity of this piece, although I understand some of the criticism of it – the leap to the old ways seems a little fast even to me – I suspect the transition to low tech will be more gradual, and “cobbling together temporary tech solutions” more prevalent. 

 I think perhaps he’s conflating different time scales, and probably different effects for different people.  I think there will be a lot more gradual a decline in many respects – and that we’ll be using a lot more of the industrial infrastructure for various things.  But overall, I think it is a useful thought exercise.  What do you think?  Do you have a list?


14 Responses to “Everything Old is New Again”

  1. Denise - Illinois says:

    In regard to doing things “differently”, an issue that has been front and center in my household recently has been the proper method of replacing mattress/foundations sets in an ecological and healthy manner. Months of research have left us confused and uncertain as to a proper resolution so we continue to make due with bedding that is far beyond the need for replacement. Most tranditional mattress manufacturing involves the use of 50 or more potentially toxic chemicals each with a specific purpose, i.e. fire-retardants, insecticides, chemicals used in the production of natural or man-made materials, etc. Environmentally sound and healthier mattress/foundation products exceed $3,000 and up, effectively eliminating these products from consideration.
    As these are mail-order delivery, there are also no methods for trying out the product prior to purchase. Have you or your readers analyzed this situation, or have suggestions for remedy? Certainly, our forefathers did not have to spend months of earnings to produce satisfactory bedding.

  2. Paula Hewitt says:

    the leap to the old ways seems rather fast?? the rhs of his list looked like he’d been peeking through your windows! :)

  3. Sharon says:

    Well, yes, but I’d make it a multi-step process – first cars and trucks get replaced by fewer deliveries and more people crammed into cars, then by fewer trips and more bikes and even more people (beyond anything legal now) crammed into cars, and finally his end point – that is, it is a process.

    Re:mattresses – I have a cotton futon – it is 20 years old and works fine. Our ancestors either slept on the ground, made ticks full of straw or feathers, or used rope beds. All of these are still viable options if you don’t want to spend money on a mattress and boxspring. As is the futon. We set ours on the floor, so no box spring needed.


  4. What do I think? I think little to none of that will be any great surprise to your readers. Your readership is part of the demographic who have begun adapting to the scenario portrayed in that article in advance. Probably few of us, if any, are fully prepared for a smooth transition to those realities. But when that time arrives, people will be looking for “answers.” Whoever adapts early and successfully will not only ease the discomforts of that transition for themselves, but they’ll be able to provide proof of concept to others that there is a viable alternative way of living. Here’s hoping anyway!

  5. Sharon says:

    Kathy, I think that’s the best point to take from this – I usually suggest people just move right on to the end outcomes, because it saves time and energy and money ;-) .


  6. Karen says:

    I have to say, too, that I was surprised at your comment Sharon. I was expecting much further along doom and gloom than what I read. You are living that lifestyle already. I read that and didn’t blink at all. My kids don’t get it and will be totally caught off guard but I think they will catch on. What was interesting was the long discussion to the post. That was one of the more fascinating discussions I have read. Fear was underneath it all. Even some people who get resource depletion have a hard time with the simple living part. It is scary and will challenge us all.

  7. Heather G says:

    Yup, we’re doing a lot of it (end results in chart) already, but of course most other folks aren’t.

    btw, the rope beds need a mattress, so it isn’t “or use rope beds”. The farm still has the frames from the old days, and even some of the feather bed ticking — I’d need a special covering between me and the feathers though (allergies). We’ve taken one of the beds to Pennsic a few times, and put our futon on it. I need a bit more than that between the ropes and me though, so we’d bring along some scraps of carpeting to pad it out more after the first time. Yes, we brought a bed camping — when you’re a soft city girl and will be camping for 1 to 2 weeks, a bed is a very fine thing indeed! Besides, it was a more efficient use of tent space, as we could put storage bins under the bed.

    The only thing I didn’t care for as a result was him essentially saying there wouldn’t be divorce anymore. I can see it becoming more rare, but it will never be nonexistent. Divorce has been with the human race for many many centuries.

  8. Jade says:

    I’m always surprised that the loss of family planning/ birth control isn’t on these lists. Constant pregnancy, large families, danger of dying in childbirth (as my paternal grandmother did) are an enormous burden or lifestyle change. Is it that these lists are mostly written by men? I recall several months ago commenting on this at TOD and the community responses ranged from “Women (and only women it seemed) will have to deal with it,” to Kunstler-like glee, and a sense among the men that women have always had some secret knowledge of local plants that would serve as abortificants if we needed them.

    I’m just saying there’s some deeeeep denial.

  9. Tamara says:

    Three year olds who awaken erratically and wander into one’s bed are highly effective birth control devices.

  10. cecelia says:

    Great point re: birth control. My grandmother (born in 1899) told me birth control “back then” was celibacy – you shut down shop as she said – when you wanted no more kids.

    I thought that it was a good chart given that it was meant to stimulate awareness and some thinking among the students. I suspect that we really do not with certainty know how things will look – I sure hope for a gradual transition not total collapse – but I bet there will be surprises, stuff we have not anticipated.

  11. Brad K. says:


    A couple of comments about the Dr. Allen OilDrum.com chart.

    Horses and mules. Mules are hybrids, less than 1 in 1000 are fertile, a cross between a donkey jack and a horse mare. Horses, and mules, take a lifetime of experience to work and manage. In the past, this lifetime of experience was passed down through the family. In the 1920s and 1930s the US Department of Agriculture boffins and tractor makers decided that tractors make the tractor makers more money, and conspired to force horses out of field work. Lifetimes of knowing about feeding, caring for, doctoring, working, breeding, and training work and pleasure horses was lost. In the 1960s relative affluence led many to flirt with horse ownership, and the numbers of horse wise and horse owners grew again. In the last few years there was a concerted attack made on PMU farms, where pregnant mares urine was collected, and the estrogen extracted for use in Premarin for treating menopausal women. A Canadian news report of shoddy handling practices on a few of the PMU farms there was quickly followed up by the industry. Those same reports and pictures of that first, earliest report, are still being used by shameless rabblerousers to raise funds and keep headlines. The resulting drop in use of Premarin – which had side effects, but was still considered less risky than alternatives for some women, and definitely for those that took some form of estrogen replacement. And the horses? Many thousands of horses were outright slaughtered. Many were trucked around the United States, and sold 10 cents per pound – or less. Hint: Sell a person or family a horse for $100, and the horse gets the care that a $100 horse gets. Again, lots of people got out of the horse business, the market is still depressed. Responsible breeders could no longer make a living, so they stopped their operation or sold out, many of them – but the indiscriminate, backyard breeder with no will to keep an unfit animal from breeding, they keep producing scads of dangerous or unfit horses.

    It will take years to rebuild a useful horse population, to make a serious contribution to farm and transportation work. These horses will require adequate housing, harness, wagons and implements, trainers, and handlers able and willing to work with horse implements, horses, and enough about farming, or transportation, to use the time and equipment to good effect.

    Horses also take handlers and helpers, to help harness, to clean barns and manage compost and pastures, storage for harness, for feed for the horses, etc.

    If America stopped employing people today for advertising, marketing, and filling out government forms, many would be able to find work in crafts or farming, as we return to a farmer feeding 2 to 10 people, instead of the 50 or more today. And there will be a lot more people needed to support farmers directly than do now.

    There were a several mentions of using creeks for entertainment, swimming holes, etc. My first reaction is that there are a lot more people now, a *lot* more water usage, and as energy availability drops, I wonder whether water quality won’t suffer. Before anyone takes to the creek – we will need upstream assurance of water quality. This includes untreated city, town, and village effluent, as well as farm and family leaching and dumping, solids and liquid. As the old cowboy story goes about finding the dead, rotting cow lying in the creek, all the juices oozing into the water – that made such a great, cool drink of water, just down stream a bit.

    He mentioned brewing stuff. I believe the ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, of the Treasury Department) rule since Prohibition, is that the head of household is allowed to brew 200 gallons of wine or beer for home use only. Brewing hard stuff – I don’t know. I think to have any to sell or barter you need to pay a tax or risk Revenuers breaking in and busting up your works, and interfering with your life. Once the ATF collapses, of course, that limit becomes problematical. Also keep in mind that moonshine has killed, caused blindness, and other maladies besides being a beverage with high alcohol content. Proceed with caution, and like much of nature, get as much good guidance as you can. Leo Frankowski claims (Cross Time Engineer, an SF novel) that mead – honey wine – is the cheapest alcohol drink to make, in cost per volume.

    Dr. Allen mentioned the decline of divorce and remarriage. I expect other social changes, including getting married younger, fewer people living unmarried, less tolerance of cohabiting without being a family – whether a formal handfasting or marriage ceremony occurs; a common law marriage was held, and still is in some places, to take have taken place for any couple living together for seven (7) years.

    Power tools were shown to be replaced by hand tools. I think that is true, but there is a related context – there will be a growth in local craft trades. Carpenters and cabinet makers, blacksmiths and quilters and harness makers, horse trainers and livery stables and coaches and wagon makers and repairers, tailors and rug makers and weavers. Knitting and crocheting will be more important; perhaps tatting will be reborn generally, as the skill and artistry of handicrafts are once again valued for beauty and to honor special occasions.

    And we had power tools long before they all went electric. Wind power, the old mill stream, these have been used to turn saws and grind grain. Coal and wood fired steam drove locomotives and factories. My dad had a gadget that was let a tractor run a grain elevator (take grain from the wagon that brought the grain from the field, and raised it to dump into a storage bin) that was adapted from a round-and-round rig that let a horse drive the thing. Sort of like a hamster wheel laid on its side. Or like a sailing ship’s man-powered capstan, as featured in old time movies and pirate cartoons.

    Faith and respect among peers and in the community will be ever more influential in judging who to associate with – or consider for a mate or business partner. Faith is often a more powerful force among those living less affluent lives.

    Toward the end, Dr. Allen mentioned the Amish lifestyle. I read (The Amish In Their Own Words) that the Amish consider the farm to be the single best place to raise children. They believe that work is worship of their Lord. They believe that on a farm, there is always work to expand to meet the needs of their children; no child need feel un-needed or that they are doing make-work. There is always a place that more effort will bring in more at harvest, or more eggs, or more garden better tended. This approach to building character. The public schools don’t address building character, and common parenting wisdom seems to overlook it, aside from assuming the parents have good character, and the kids will pick that up by osmosis.

    I mentioned the ATF in connection with their enforcement of brewing and distilling regulations. Dr. Allen seems to have glossed over whether the “after” column will be subject to interference-level regulations, like the proposed Food Safety Enhancement Act 2009, National Animal Identification System (NAIS) and the whole CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, I guess) classification and reporting mess.

    Science fiction writers of the 1950s through the 1970s often reference mining the asteroid belt, out beyond Mars. Or the moon, or Mars. The known deposits of metals and minerals out there would go a long ways toward meeting current and many future needs. Possibly some combination of physics and motive sources can even bring energy in with the rocks and metals. I fear Dr. Allen has fallen into a bit of shortsightedness, of refusing to include the rest of the solar system, and beyond, in the list of resources available, reasonably, to mankind. Just as one for-instance, the concept of moving heavy industry to low or mid earth orbit, and relying primarily on solar radiation for industrial energy, would be a tremendous change in our carbon footprint. But we have to stop robbing everyone else to pay for our own pet project – regardless of what our emphasis is. Just like the insanity of “redistribution of wealth” or the 10% tax on America Obama intends to give away with the Copenhagen treaty for “climate debt”, we have to have people with extra resources, projects that benefit others, and research that doesn’t buy us votes, for the diversity of approaches, the synergy that will help us meet what lies ahead, to adapt and thrive.

  12. Deb says:

    Just one point about horses–in our climate here in Wisconsin, you only really need a 3 sided shelter for a horse to remain healthy–essentially a place to get out of the wind. Barns are not necessary for the horse and sometimes can cause more problems–the dust from hay and dirt can cause respiratory problems. Our horses dont even go in the shelter we provide even in the coldest, wettest weather. More important to a horse is adequate food and water in cold weather–food equals heat for a horse and when the weather is cold they can drink up to 7 gallons of water a day.

    I do agree that the management of horses health is something that was acquired over generations. Healthy as a horse is a fallacy and even the sturdiest pony is susceptible to an amazing amount of issues with thier legs, eyes, and hooves.

    Steam power can be used to run everything from a grain thresher to a washing machine to grain grinders. We go to an antique power shows and I’m always enchanted by the ways folks have adapted steam to running household items. Most of them use wood also.

    Tatting may be reborn as a decorative art. I hope so….it’s beautiful, takes little in the way of materials and incredibly sturdy. I learned to tat from an elderly blind woman in a nursing home and have been doing it for 20 years. My original shuttle that I picked up at an antique store is still in good working order and my daughter will probably inherit it when I can no longer see or use my hands to use it.

  13. Deb says:

    One thing he left off that is on my list is the art of letter writing. In an age of IM’s and texting, we’ve lost it and I find it sad.

  14. Art Kral says:

    If I have to make a choice between virtual Vs Live Poker I will at all times opt for the live option as playing on-line poker mostly makes me feel like a poker bot – counting cards and just getting by dry strategy

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