Monday, December 26, 2011

Beyond Fuels 7: The Muddling Path

Muddling Toward Frugality is a book originally written in 1978 by Warren Johnson. From searching online it seems like it's been recently republished with a review by Edward Abbey (also from 1978) tacked on as an introduction.

The scary thing about re-reading this book is realizing how clear it was, even back then, what we needed to do, and how little of it has been done in the last thirty-two years.

Warren Johnson took the title of his book from a paper written in 1959 by Charles Lindbloom called, "The Science of 'Muddling Through'". It was about the way administrators of various types actually make decisions as opposed to the way academic theorists described ideal decision making. As Johnson says, "The only trouble is that this is rarely the way decisions are made, primarily because it is rarely possible." Administrators need to deal with conflicting demands and priorities and seldom have the time or, indeed, the needed information, to make ideal decisions. The result is that "Even with the best of intentions, the administrator ends up by taking only a modest step (well checked out by the powers that be), ... that at least makes a marginal contribution to the issue at hand. In the process of reaching a decision, the administrator becomes practical and political as well as rational. The result is muddling through." And this is basically the process that Johnson suggests for dealing with the coming crises.

This book really is practical and makes a lot of sense. However, as one reviewer noted, Johnson also muddles his way through the book--making detours through history (not that I haven't done it in this blog) and his opinions on a number of issues (some of which I can't say that I agree with). But his point is if we all make small steps in the direction of using less resources and living on a smaller, simpler scale, this will move us to a future beyond fuels far better than trying grand schemes and failing.

Last year, John Michael Greer (see my posts A Magical Way of Thinking, 8/3/08 and The Archdruid Report, 8/5/08, for more on JMG--and note that one of the paths ahead is his) wrote a post in his blog, The Archdruid Report, referencing this book. I want to quote a little of it, since it puts the book in perspective. Greer wrote: "Warren Johnson’s Muddling Toward Frugality has fallen into the limbo our cultural memory reserves for failed prophecies; neither he nor, to be fair to him, anybody else in the sustainability movement of the Seventies had any idea that the collective response of most industrial nations to the approach of the limits to growth would turn out to be a thirty-year vacation from sanity in which short-term political gimmicks and the wildly extravagant drawdown of irreplaceable resources would be widely mistaken for permanent solutions.

"... His strategy, though, still has some things going for it that no other available approach can match: It can still be applied this late in the game; if it’s done with enough enthusiasm or desperation, and with a clear sense of the nature of our predicament, it could still get a fair number of us through the mess ahead; and it certainly offers better odds than sitting on our hands and waiting for the ship to sink, which under one pretense or another is the other option open to us right now." And this summarizes the best reason that I can think of for re-reading this book. Seeing the direction we still need to move in and making moves in that direction, no matter how small, may (if anything does) make a difference.

This is the simplest of the four paths I'll look at. Can we muddle our way to a life beyond fuels? What other choices do we have? Let's look at some other, more recent explorations of the path ahead.

Quote of the Day: "Above all, it can be a good life. In effect, we will be exchanging the grand achievements of large scale technological society for modest accomplishments on a more human scale. ... Above all, we will have the comfort of knowing that our relationship to the environment is sustainable, and that the earth is a true home to us." - Warren Johnson

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