Mother Pelican
A Journal of Sustainable Human Development

Vol. 7, No. 7, July 2011
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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The New Middle Ages

John Weber

Originally published in SunWeb, 8 May 2011
Reprinted with Permission

Editor's Note: This paper is about how to facilitate adaptation during the inevitable transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. It generally seems that only hitting bottom (often more than once) makes people think and behave in a new way. Ethical appeals to be "planet-friendly," and even warnings about the human health impacts of pollution, have little effect. And the problem it is not just the billion (more or less) humans in the First World who already are high energy users. Everyone on earth, including billions in the Third World who crave for a USA-like lifestyle, will have to shift priorities in favor of sustainability. The fights for "freedom" now taking place at various places in the world are nominally for democracy but are also - to a significant extent - for the vision of a higher (material) standard of living. Three quarters of the 7 billion people on earth have minimum or no access to electricity, natural gas, and petroleum. And most want it.

We will go kicking and screaming down the path to the new Middle Ages as fossil fuels desert us. With the decline of available energy, those of most of us who have sat at the top of the energy pyramid will become the new peasants. With the popular view of the Middle Ages as a brutal and dirty time filled with famine and disease and at the mercy of armed overlords. We cringe at the thought.

With great sadness, we must recognize the direct connection between present day population levels and the use of fossil fuels in food production, medical procedures, medicines and hygiene. With the fall in fossil fuel availability there will be a reduction in population. Population soared with the industrial revolution and the development of industrial, fossil fuel based agriculture. It cannot be sustained.

I will try not to reinvent the wheel. There are many well researched and written works on these issues. I provide references to works that underline points I am making. (See both POPULATION and PETROLEUM PRODUCTS listings in the bibliography.)

We need to celebrate our inventiveness and wonderment. We must also recognize there will be losses of people that will evoke great grieving. There will be losses of dreams. There will be great stresses causing both physical and emotional pain. We must honor these in each person. We must not get trapped in these, seeking a control through blaming others or ourselves, through seeking scapegoats or self-flagellation. Humans have a history of this during times of great losses (black death of the Middle Ages). We must beware.

The Middle Ages have been given somewhat of a bad rap. Yes, there was little buffer from year to year for the bulk of humanity against hunger and famine. Medicine was primitive and poorly conceived. Hygiene was not understood. And yes, there were the rich that controlled and took from the poor. Most of humanity worked very hard to make daily living work.

However, let me suggest that this future without fossil fuels may not be significantly different from present once we work through the inevitable losses and grieving. In an Excel spread sheet I created in 2000 looking at the per capita use by country of petroleum, natural gas and electricity, some 75 to 80 per cent of the population had very little use of fossil fuels. Many people today work hand to mouth and lived on the edge with hunger, low energy accessibility, poor water resources and fragile shelter. What is in process is the great leveling of globalization. Many of us will be joining the peasant class.

Through history there seems to be a distribution of wealth and privilege that looks something like:

0.1% Dynastic Oligarchs

1% Administrators (in today’s world - CEOs, Presidents, Fed chairman, etc.)

10 to 15% Functionary Workers (this would be most who are reading this now)

80 to 90% Peasants (Wage Slaves in debt-bondage)

Today is no different. As I indicated globalization is the new leveling and pathway to peasanthood given the peaking and ultimate depletion of fossil fuels and other resources.

Historical commentaries about work and worker control in the Middle Ages are quite interesting. For example:

“ . . . By 1338 Florence was importing 10,000 lengths of cloth while manufacturing 80,000.... The banking and commercial techniques of the merchant capitalists of Florence effectively enslaved the majority of the thirty thousand textile workers of the city. The raising of the output demanded a more intensive exploitation of the available labour, a progressive division of labour and the gradual mechanization of labour methods, by which is to be understood not merely the introduction of machines, but also the depersonalization of human work, the valuation of the worker purely in terms of the output achieved. Nothing expresses the economic philosophy of this new age more trenchantly than precisely this materialistic approach, which estimates a man according to his achievement and the output according to its value in money - which, in other words, turns the worker into a mere link in a complicated system of investments and financial yields, of risks and of profit and loss, of assets and liabilities.” Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art, 1951.

Another example:

“ . . . The assembly-line system of today is criticized in that the workman is only a cog, an element separated – in effect, alienated – from the final, complete product. The Florentine textile workers were alienated, too, and for the same reasons. And they had the added frustration of the entrepreneurs’ refusal to let them form an association. Their bosses knew only too well what power such organizations could offer, for their own power was itself largely founded on the associations or guilds of the Florentine ruling classes. In order to hold this urban proletariat in check . . . introduce(d) . . .the truck system, which consisted in granting advances in goods or money to be repaid later in work, the goods themselves being, of course, generally overvalued. This chained the workman to his employer.” Gimpel, Jean. 1975. The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. Penguin. N.Y., pp. 104-105.

What is absolutely fascinating is that the “truck system” (the company store of “Sixteen Tons” by Tennessee Ernie Ford) is at work today. Buy, buy, buy. Credit cards, house loans, new cars. Right after 9/11, the president of the United States of America was telling people to buy, buy, buy. Can you quit your job with all this debt? Do you think this is free will? In 2007, $149 billion was spent on advertising in the United States alone. Psychologists, advertising people, sociologists get paid top money to convenience you and I to buy, buy, buy on credit.

Another interesting comparison is environmental concerns. We are gouging the earth, polluting the oceans, messing with the ground water, perhaps changing the climate, creating plastic beaches by plastic debris in the oceans and creating all kinds of toxic as well as nuclear material. The past had its own salting of land from irrigation, pollution of rivers and fouling of the air from burning as well as serious resource depletion. Here are two interesting pieces from history. The first is earlier than the Middle Ages:

“Population, fueled by agriculture, rose in an upward moving curve. In a repeating ecological pattern, our growing numbers exhausted the land, strained and polluted the water, depleted the forests, and crowded people into unhealthy conditions. Under these pressures, some people relocated using their feet, the wheel and domesticated energy in the form of animals. Or they died of starvation or pestilence or killed each other off.

“One of the early Church Fathers, Tertullian (c. 160-240 A.D.), commented on the effects of human enterprise on the earth: “Farms have replaced wastelands, cultivated land has subdued the forests, cattle have put to flight the wild beast, barren lands have become fertile, rocks have become soil, swamps have been drained, and the number of cities exceeds the number of poor huts found in former times . . . Everywhere there are people, communities - everywhere there is human life!” To such a point that “the world is full. The elements scarcely suffice us. Our needs press . . . Pestilence, famine, wars, [earthquakes] are intended, indeed, as remedies, as prunings, against the growth of the human race.” Gies, Frances and Gies, Joseph. 1994. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel. Harper Collins. N.Y., p. 6.

The second during the Middle Ages:

“The building of thousands of furnaces in hundreds of medieval forests to satisfy the extensive demand for iron was a major cause of deforestation. . . . From the very beginning, the fuel used was charcoal, the black porous residue of burned wood. . . . The extent of the damage caused by iron smelters to forests can be appreciated when one realizes that to obtain 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of iron it was necessary at that time to reduce approximately 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of iron ore with as much as 25 steres (25 cubic meters) (883 cubic feet) of wood. It has been estimated that in forty days, one furnace could level the forest for a radius of 1 kilometer (over a square mile.)” Gimpel, Jean. 1975. The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. Penguin. N.Y., p. 79.

It is the scope of the changes and environmental degradation that makes this a very different human experience. It is global. A misconception about the Middle Ages was that it was a time of no learning or creativity – a dark ages. However:

“Over the past forty years, historians have increasingly recognized that technological development “took off” in the medieval and early modern West . . . The “dry” compass, mechanical clock, firearms, and the printing press – all medieval inventions . . . More mundane inventions including new agricultural methods, the wheelbarrow, the spinning wheel, the chimney, and eye glasses, had significant and long-lasting effects on European society. Medieval people also adapted older technologies, such as the watermill and windmill, the stirrup, and gunpowder, to new uses.”

“Watermills proliferated in the Middle Ages. As early as the late eleventh century, southern England had over 5,600 mills in approximately 3,000 communities. By about 13000, England had over 9,000 watermills and at least 3,000 windmills. . . . By the fourteenth century, Paris had sixty-eight mills less than a mile from the center of the city. . . .

. . . During the High and late Middle Ages, water-driven mills were adapted to pound hemp, saw wood, make paper, grind grain and pigments, sift flour, strip bark, press grapes for wind and olives for oil, tan leather, forge iron, , prepare cloth, and power bellow used in furnaces. Of these, fulling cloth, the process which cleaned, strengthened, and tightened the weave of woolen or linen cloth, probably had the most sustained economic impact. . . . ” Whitney, Elspeth. 2004. Medieval Science and Technology. Greenwood Press. London, pp. 111, 116-117.

Many of these techniques and technologies will be available to us to provide food, clothing, tools and housing. We will be able to mine the carcass of civilization for many decades. Metal and materials already extracted and processed wait our turning them into useful tools.

We can go kicking and screaming into the new peasanthood or we can plan and learn. We need to assess what medicine and medical technologies can be carried into this new world of less per capita energy. We need to not lose the reams of knowledge that have been gleaned by the hard work of research by tens of thousands of us learning about our world and how it functions.


Ball, Warwick. 2010. Out of Arabia. Olive Branch. Great Britain.

Brimblecombe, P. and Pfister, C. (editors). The Silent Countdown. Springer-Verlag. N.Y.

Cipolla, Carlo. 1967. The Economic History of World Population. Penguin Books. Baltimore, MD.

Clark, Wilson. 1975. Energy for Survival. Anchor Books. N.Y.

Catton, William. 1980. Overshoot. University of Illinois Press. Chicago.

Chefurka, Paul. 2007. Population The Elephant in the Room.

Cohen, Mark Nathan. 1977. The Food Crisis in Prehistory: Overpopulation and the Origins of Agriculture. Yale University Press. New Haven.

Gies, Frances; Gies, Joseph. 1994. Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel. Harper Collins. N.Y.

Gimpel, Jean. 1975. The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages. Penguin. N.Y.

Hauser, Arnold. 1951. The Social History of Art. Routledge and Kegan Paul. London.

Le Goff, J. 1980. Time,Work, & Culture in the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press. Chicago.

McCluney, Ross. 2004. “How Many People Should the Earth Support?” from Humanity's Environmental Future: Making Sense in a Troubled World. SunPine Press, Cape Canaveral, Florida

Mollat, M. 1986. The Poor in the Middle Ages. Yale. New Haven.

Newman, F. 1986. Social Unrest in the Late Middle Ages. Bhinghamton. N.Y.

Odum, Howard T. and Odum, Elisabeth C. 1976. Energy Basis for Man and Nature. McGraw-Hill Book Co. N. Y.

Pfeiffer, Alan. 2003. Eating Fossil Fuels. New Society. Canada.

Postan, M. 1973. Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy. Cambridge.

Price, David. 1995. Energy and Human Evolution. Population and Environment: A Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. Volume 16, Number 4, March 1995, pp. 301-19

Ross, S. John . 2008. Medieval Demographics Made Easy.

Steinhart, Carol E. and John Steinhart. 1974. The Fires of Culture. Duxbury Press. Mass.

Steinhart, John and Carol Steinhart. 1974. “Energy Use in the U.S. Food System”. in Science 184:307-316, 19 April.

Tuchman, Barbara. 1978. A Distant Mirror. Knopf. N. Y.

Watzlawick,P.; Weakland, J; and Risch, R. 1974. Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution. Norton. N.Y.

White, Lynn. 1978. Medieval Religion and Technology. Univ. of California Press. Berkeley.

Whitney, Elspeth. 2004. Medieval Science and Technology. Greenwood Press. London.


See Petroleum Products (Wikipedia) and Things You Didn’t Know Were Made of Oil (PeakOil)

About the Author: John Weber is a retired psychologist who lives in Longville, Minnesota, USA. His hobbies are community gardens, alternative energies, sustainable communities, and orchards. He has lived off the grid for over 30 years making his own electricity from sun and wind, and is most concerned about the psychological impact of the culture shock coming down the pike. His blog, SunWeb, is a resource for thoughtful reflection on the social impacts of the impending ecological crisis. For example, see the following: The Curmudgeon Report, Energy in the Real World, Superman Plays With Kryptonite Dice, Do Lemmings Grieve?, and Transitions.

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