Initial Thoughts on the Age of Limits 2013 Conference

apocalypse city

This is actually free desktop wallpaper. Who says we’re not looking forward to the apocalypse?

Over Memorial Day weekend, Erik and I and our buddy John Zapf, attended a conference called The Age of Limits: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model. This conference brings together different luminaries from the “doomosphere” to discuss the impact and implications of the three-headed hydra of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse.

Now, Erik and I are aware that our lifestyle–what with the chickens and the canned goods and the funny relationship with urine–puts us somewhat on the fringe of American culture. Although, in our heads, we think our lifestyle is perfectly normal, and it is in fact getting more normal all the time.  I mean, since the advent of Portlandia we are at least a part of an identifiable subculture.

But this weekend, at the Age of Limits, we ventured into the deep fringe. We’ll get to some details for you later, but suffice it to say it was an intense four days, and since we returned late Monday night we’ve been trying to process a vast quantity of information and impressions. The hardest part of this process has been deciding how to share this experience with our readers. Where to begin?

Well, first, we are not journalists and were not equipped to deliver detailed reporting from the event. Here are links to the speakers so you can check them out, if you’re curious:

  •  John Michael Greer is the author of approximately a billion books, including The Long Descent: A User’s Guide to the End of the Industrial Age, The Ecotechnic Future: Exploring a Post-Peak World, The Wealth of Nature: Economics As If Survival Mattered and Apocalypse Not.  He blogs at The Archdruid Report
  • Carolyn Baker, a psychotherapist and the grief councilor of the event, author of  Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse, among others. Her website.
  • Dmitry Orlov is the author of The Five Stages of Collapse: A Survivor’s Toolkit and Reinventing Collapse: The Soviet Experience and American Prospects. Blog: ClubOrlav
  • Gail Tverberg is a professional actuary and mathematician, global limits analyst and writer. Her blog is Our Finite World.
  • Guy McPherson is Professor Emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona, author of Walking Away from Empire.  His blog: Nature Bats Last.
  • Albert Bates is one of the board of directors of The Farm, a co-founder of the Global Eco Village Network and the author of The Biochar Solution: Carbon Farming and Climate Change, The Post Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook. He blogs at The Great Change.

In the wake of the conference, what we find ourselves most interested in thinking about and talking about with others is not the validity of the concepts of peak oil, climate change and economic collapse, or the gritty details of it, but the culturally loaded ideas that spin off in response to these threats–what you might call the meta-narratives of collapse. Those are the topics we’ll cover in a series of posts in coming days.

In the spirit of full disclosure we should state where we stand on these ideas, and the truth is we disagree to some extent.

Kelly’s statement: I believe oil is a finite resource and that it will eventually cost more to extract it than it’s worth, that the record high CO2 levels in our atmosphere are changing climate and acidifying the oceans right this moment, and that our national and global financial systems are in a bad way.

Erik’s statement:  As Lao Tzu says, ”Those who have knowledge, don’t predict. Those who predict, don’t have knowledge.” Nassim Taleb has made a career of pointing out the failures of prognosticators. Taleb says, “What is surprising is not the magnitude of our forecast errors, but our absence of awareness of it.” We simply don’t know what the future holds. We do know that whatever happens, good or bad it’s in our interest to build community, grow gardens and eat healthy food.

Back to Kelly: As Erik says, we’re both agnostics in terms of outcomes. We know it looks bad, but we won’t make bets on when, where or how the badness, or the various badnesses, will manifest. It seems a poor bet to try to predict the behavior of any enormously complex system.

But just because we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen doesn’t mean that we’re not going to do anything in response. In fact, the more time I spent in that conference, the more I became certain that my response to these predicaments, to this Triple Melange of Misery, is a combination of individual action and moral philosophy.

1) Individual action: Erik and I have always preached that change starts at home. It actually starts with the self. All we can really control is our own actions and choices, and if we’re lucky, we can talk some of our immediate family into joining us.

You readers know what I’m saying. You’re walking your talk. You’re learning new things, working with your hands and your hearts, connecting with community and nature and doing your best to live lightly on the land. You know that to advocate change without first changing yourself is hypocrisy. And refusing to change just because others aren’t doing so (e.g. the China argument) is just excuse making.

What is the value of individual action? Can it save us? I don’t know. If enough people did it, it might, and that would be cool. But at the very least, you can hold your head up, look the last dolphin in the eye through the thick glass of your respirator helmet and say, I tried, bro. I did my best. 

2) Moral philosophy: We’re going to have more to say on the moral/ethical dimensions of end time thinking in a another post. But I can say here that my own personal philosophy calls me to live well–not in terms of material things, but to try to live in gratitude and practice something like what Buddhists call right action, and do that every day. Even if the oceans are turning red and the zombies are crawling the streets, I’m still going to be composting and working in my garden and trying to share what I know with whoever wants to learn and doing whatever I can to help my neighbors because that’s how I want to live, and I don’t intend to let a little thing like an apocalypse turn me into an #$#%#*&.

In the coming days we’re going to be looking at the following concepts:

  • The apocalypse meme
  • The paralysis of doom
  • Gender roles, sexism and importance of high heels in coming dark ages
  • Kill Thy Neighbor: dubious strategies and overflexed ethics during troubled times

We’ll also discuss if we are going to change our location or otherwise up the ante on our lifestyle in response to the information we learned there, and we’re going to reveal the best positive action suggestion from the conference.

Stay tuned!

p.s.  If you’d like a reasoned, detailed overview of the problems arising around the intersection of peak oil and climate change, and a contemplation of possible outcomes, check out David Holgrem’s Future Scenarios website. (Holgrem is one of the founders of Permaculture.)

Leave a comment


  1. You guys seem to have a healthy attitude about all this. I am in the same boat; I’m into trying to make my family more sustainable and prepared for what may come, but I don’t want to live each day fearing the next! I am curious to know how this whole conference affected you car decision??

    • How has it affected the car decision? errr….ummm…. We’re going to have to do a post about our responses, and the car will be part of that.

  2. I look forward to reading your posts about the conference.I have been a follower of The Archdruid Blog and the peak oil scene for a couple of years.
    The further I get into trying to live lightly the more despair I feel.My eyes are open to the wanton consumerism and waste all around me and I do wonder how my little changes can make a difference.

    I read you blog every day and it does give me some encouragement.

    • We’ve been reading the Archdruid Report for years, and we must confess that the prospect of meeting JMG was one of the driving forces behind attending the conference. His new post today talks about Stoicism, and by coincidence (or not!) we talked with him about Stoicism one cold afternoon while huddled around a fire. We shared a Stoical love-in, basically. I find much comfort in that philosophy and will be writing about it more in this series of posts. I’d encourage you to look into it, as it can help with those feelings of helplessness. Know, too, that you’re not alone. Also, be sure to check out the Dark Mountain link in the first comment.

  3. Hi, great post and especially your thoughts about individual action. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought these days and you just summarize it very clearly. Thank you!

  4. Great stuff (and what a line-up!) – wish I could have been there. I read this post hot on the heels of re-reading Paul Kingsnorth’s recent article over on the Dark Mountain site. You probably know it already, but thought I’d post the link for your readers, and just in case:

    I look forward to reading more…

    • Thanks, Tom. Thanks for the link, too. I’ve read Kingsnorth before, but this recent article is good stuff, and very apropos to this discussion.

  5. This sounds like it’s gonna be a great series of posts. Can’t wait. I used to read a lot from some of the speakers you mentioned, but did find it depressing, to a point of finding it hard to stay hopeful about just making personal and positive changes. Better to get out in the garden and get your hands dirty, do your part, and let the next 300 years take care of themselves.

  6. I’m interested to see how you and other readers find hope for the future when it comes to knowing and learning about these really depressing things. I also find it difficult to feel like I am doing “enough” and doing the “right things” to make any difference at all. I feel especially helpless to prepare my young children for what they might face.

    • It’s important not to despair. The world is a strange, surprising place–we simply can’t predict what’s going to happen. Anyone who tries will get it wrong. So all you can do is what you’d do anyway: live well, love, enjoy every moment. Not because doom is on the horizon, or despite doom on the horizon, but because that simply is how we should live every day.

  7. What a great confluence of stories on my blogroll: I just read a report of the event at Wit’s End ( It goes to show that I’m not very plugged in, that I didn’t know about the event. Couldn’t have gone anyway, but would have loved to, if only to meet you and Gail as well, in the flesh!

    • Thanks for that link. It’s great to hear her perspective. She did catch scorn for mentioning Pussy Riot to Orlav, which I thought was unfair, and I also thought it was pretty funny that Carolyn Baker was peeved that folks weren’t interpreting her tiger story the way she wanted them to. I happened to be one of those who thought it was crappy for the woman to callously abandon the tiger after taming it. I mean, come on! Is that nice? Is that fair? And I definitely am going to be covering the feminist blow up. It was very, very interesting.

  8. It looks like I am on the fringe! Oh me.

    I feel the same as I did when I read the story “By the Waters of Babylon,” a post apocalyptic tale.

    it seems to me that some people, some of these writers make a living off doom-peddling. How bad can they make me feel so that I am motivated to do more? There is little more that I can do. Oh, I can give up, sell my car, live in the woods, eat berries, grow potatoes, and quit bathing. What good will that do anyone?

    I don’t believe the 2030 date at all. I have lived long enough to know that these predictions are just scary and nothing to do with reality. After I read “By the Waters of Babylon” as a young teen, I was overly disturbed by the images. Shortly thereafter, at about the age of 18 or so, I read “1984” and the despair deepened. I remember dreading the year’s approach ten years before the date. Nothing like that transpired in the the almost 25 years past 1984.

    When 1985 rolled around, I lost faith in all predictions of the future, of all concrete images and mental apparitions, all institutionalized rumors.

    I do believe bad things will happen. I don’t think peak oil is a myth whenever it happens. I do not have my head in the sand. However, the manner in which things will transpire will be something I can only guess at, not listen to predictions that overly sensational. Maybe I am the delusional one.

    That said, I am certainly looking forward to what you experienced and learned.

    I had to quit reading the Archdruid Report.

    • We’re pretty much in line with you, regarding acknowledging that things are bad but trying not to make predictions–because when does that ever work out? We’ll be talking more about this, and Guy’s predictions, in our posts. By the way, I find the John Michael Greer’s writing in the Archdruid Report the least alarmist of the bunch.

    • I have to agree with you PP because I am at least as old as you are or older and have watched the alarmists using fear to sell books. We need to find alternative solutions to problems. Not be fearful. All the terrible things that have been done to others have been started by spreading fear. We just need to be aware of the need to change and then do something small on our own to start the ball rolling. Depression is not going to help any of us. But mostly we need to stop supporting all those mega businesses that are causing a lot of the problems. Research. Then talk with your pocketbook.
      I have been canning and growing my own food for the past 40 years. Frugality was how I was brought up. So this returning to basics is just plain logical to me.
      Mrs. Homegrown: I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts about what you learned. You and Erik seem to always have a thoughtful, practical view about things like this. And I enjoy discovering all the links and ideas you present. Peace.

  9. Hi, I’m so glad to have found your wonderful blog!! …and sorry I didn’t get a change to talk to you more over the weekend. I loved the video tour of your RootSimple Compound, what a beautiful garden and chickens (I guess you don’t have to worry about foxes like I do, meh). Now, I am contemplating a worm box.

    I’m really looking forward to reading more of your reactions to the presentations at the conference especially since apparently Dmitri did not react to my impressions with the humor I thought he possessed. Hmmm.

  10. Hey there Homegrowns and readers,

    John Zapf here, the 3rd wheel of Kelly and Erik at conference. I also have a lot of stuff rattling around in this noggin of mine and am in a similar predicament. I have to bore my friends and employees with it but I think this is a great forum to discuss it. I’ll throw in my 2 cents when I figure some stuff out and contribute to the conversation. Thanks much to all who posted as well as to Kelly and Erik who have done a great job of outlining the conference and beginning to break down their own reaction to it.

  11. Hey,
    Greetings from East Tn. It was really nice to meet the three of you at the gathering. The best part of the event is that I left a sense that I had met my tribe finally. People that understood my current dilemmas better than my own family.

  12. Greetings from Doug of Ark, another Agr of

    Greetings from Doug of Ark, another Age of Limits participant. Thank you John, Gail, Kelly, Erik and others for your insight, ideas, and comraderie. Best part of the weekend was being around people who, if not on the same page, at least are reading the same book. Social interaction with more honesty than is usually possible. Really the back and forth between Kelly and Erik, and your use of whatever is lying around for your projects. Looking forward to reading more at Root Simple and Wit’s End. Here’s one recipe for better living – use little, need less, love more.

  13. What refreshing sanity! My goodness. There are some people in our camp who don’t buy the “I am right and you are wrong, and I know what the future holds” meme! What a relief. Will be back.

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