Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

Does a fish know that its nose is wet? Probably not. It swims in water, and assumes that is the only way any animal lives.

We live in an economic world. Economic models that were developed years ago were created based on observations of how the economy seemed to work at the time. As time goes on, it is becoming clear that early economists missed important connections. The most important of these is the role of energy and its connection to the economy. It takes energy to make anything, from a piece of steel to a loaf of bread. It takes energy to transport anything. Humans need energy in the form of food to continue to live. Clearly, energy should have a place in economic models.

In this post, I explain some of the basic principles as I see them:

1. Humans have evolved to be dependent on external energy.

2. Humans now supplement their own limited energy supply with external energy of various types. In general, the more external energy used, the more humans are able to control their environment.

3. Over the 1 million+ years during which humans have been able to control fire, humans have generally been in situations with favorable feedback loops, due to increasing efficiency in producing goods and services required to meet basic needs. Such loops allowed continued population growth and economic growth.

4. We are now reaching limits on these feedback loops. The result is feedback loops that are changing from favorable feedbacks to contraction.

5. Part of the change in feedback loops relates to the cost of energy sources, such as oil. A rise in the price of oil tends to reduce salaries of workers (because of layoffs) as well as reduce discretionary income (because of higher price of food and commuting), contributing to the trend toward contraction.

All of this is very concerning, because in the past, adverse feedback loops of this type  seem to have led to collapse.

The Many Types of Energy

The most basic type of energy, at least from a human perspective, is human energy. This is the energy we as humans have that allows us to move our own bodies and allows us to think. Each of us is given approximately the same amount of energy, with males having somewhat more energy for lifting and pushing objects, and females having the special ability to give birth to new humans.

In order to use human energy, humans need to eat food of appropriate kinds. Most of this food is from plants and animals that we process in some way for this purpose. (This processing normally requires some type of energy.) The only food that is not from plants and animals is mother’s milk. Women need to increase their own intake of food from plant and animals, in order to produce enough milk for their babies.

Humans are able to leverage their own energy with many types of external energy. One very old source of external energy is burning wood and other plant matter. Such energy is used in keeping warm, cooking food, making sharper tools, and warding off predators. Another very old source of external energy is energy from dogs, trained to help with hunting, and from draft animals, trained to help with plowing and grinding tasks.

Humans have learned to harness various other forms of other energy, such as wind, water, and geothermal energy. In the last 200 years, the use of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) has greatly expanded the amount of external energy available to humans.

Fossil fuels are important, not just because they can be burned directly, but because they enable the use of electricity from a wide range of sources—including hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar photovoltaic. While we think of these latter sources as non-carbon fuel sources, they are today available only within a system powered by fossil fuels. It takes fossil fuels to create metals in the quantity needed for electrical transmission; it takes fossil fuels to make and transport the type of concrete used in hydroelectric dams and wind turbines; it takes fossil fuels to purify silicon and other materials used in making solar PV.

While people talk about a system that does not require fossil fuels, no one has mapped out how the world could in fact transition from a system that uses fossil fuels to capture these types of energy to a system that would work without fossil fuels. The best we can hope for within the next 100 years is to use fossil fuels more sparingly.

One specialized form of energy is embedded energy that has been stored up in goods for the long term. Examples of early embedded energy includes heat-sharpened stone ax blades, used by hunter gatherers, and clothing, whether made by hand or machine. Today, there is much embedded energy in roads, pipelines, and electrical transmission systems. The vast majority of today’s embedded energy is derived from fossil fuels.

External Energy as a Human Need

Most animals seem to get along fine without external energy, other than the sun’s rays. They live in the parts of the world where they are adapted. They more or less live in balance with their predators. The number of a given species may rise for a while, but if the number grows too much, the species will exhaust its food supply, leading to population decline.

Humans have moved to a different model. The change came when humans (or predecessors to humans) first learned to control fire, over 1,000,000 years ago. Being able to control fire gave humans many advantages over other animals. Humans were able to cook part of their food. This had many advantages: It greatly reduced chewing time, allowing time for other activities, such as making tools and clothing. It improved nutrition, by making food more digestible. It allowed the human body to evolve in ways that used more energy for brain development, and less for chewing and digestion. [i]

The way the natural order works is that each species gives birth to far more offspring than is needed to survive to adulthood. “Natural selection” determines which of these offspring will survive. If humans had been like apes, chimpanzees, or gorillas, total population might have reached a plateau of perhaps 3,000,000, (based on historical animal populations). This limit would be reached because of competition with other species, and because climate is less hospitable outside of a narrow range.

With the help of external energy, such as the controlled use of fire and the use of dogs for hunting, humans were able to gain an advantage over other species and spread to all areas of the globe. This is what allowed population to grow, and continues to help it grow.

The natural order assures that far more human offspring are born than are needed to survive to adulthood. If humans are intelligent, they desire to extend their own lives and the lives of their offspring. The result of this dynamic is that there tends to be continual upward pressure on population.

There is a second dynamic as well. Because of humans’ intelligence, humans have the ability to over-consume at least some of the wildlife in the areas. For example, we learned on our recent visit to Iceland that when Vikings first discovered the island, there were both walruses and the flightless bird, the auk, on the island, but both disappeared soon after humans moved to the island.

Because of these dynamics, there has been tendency to need more food, and more energy supplies of other types, over time. To meet the need for greater food supply, humans began using agriculture about 10,000 years ago. With the advent of agriculture, the amount of human food available per acre was greatly increased.

The availability of agriculture added to the two dynamics noted previously for hunter-gatherers. As before, (1) population tended to increase, because the natural order provides for far more births than are needed for replacement, and because humans, with their intelligence, now had a way to provide more food per acre. Also, (2) there was a tendency of the amount of food available from a given acre of land to degrade over time, because the methods used for agriculture were less than perfect. Erosion was a problem, especially when planting was done on slopes. If irrigation was used, salt deposits often became a problem. Rising population combined with degrading resources led to a need recurring need for additional energy, since supplemental energy could indirectly add to food supply. In situations when additional energy was not found, populations had a tendency to collapse after many years of growth.

Besides the two basic dynamics of rising population and degrading resources leading to a need for additional resources, there were other forces that tended to add to the need for increasing amounts of energy:

a. Cheapest resources used first. Soon after agriculture began, humans began to use resources of other types, such as wood from forests and metals such as iron and bronze. With any of these resources, there is a tendency to use the “cheapest” (easiest to extract, closest at hand, highest ore concentration) first. If extraction is to continue, increasing amounts of energy per unit extracted are likely to be required for later extraction.

b. Increased disease transmission when population is packed more closely together. This issue can be overcome with techniques that kill germs and that keep humans separated from waste products of other humans. The need for these techniques adds to the need for external energy.

c. Deforestation. Without fossil fuels, there was a severe tendency to overuse forests. Deforestation occurred as early as 4000 B. C. E., according to Sing Chew. Historian Norman Cantor writes, “By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize.” The use of coal allowed more energy per person, and took pressure off of limited forest resources.

d. Pull of Technology. The availability of fossil fuels, starting around 1800, has allowed much of what we now call “technology.” Without fossil fuels, our ability to make materials such as metals and glass is severely restricted. Without fossil fuels, we are also lacking for the basic building blocks for plastics, synthetic fabrics, and even modern medicines. Technology provided ways to use fossil fuel resources in ways that helped overcome many human limits. The desire to use more technology led to increasing use of fossil fuels in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hunter-Gatherer Economies

There were no doubt many different types of economies in the over one million years when humans and pre-humans were hunter-gatherers. One documented approach is the gift-economy. With this approach, those who killed animals shared what they obtained with others in their group. Status was gained based on how much an individual was able to provide to others in the group. Members of the group played different roles—some were involved with caring for children, or too old to work, but what was available was shared with the group as a whole.

In the days of hunter-gatherers, the function of the economy was not too complicated. There was little need to “save for tomorrow,” because it was difficult to carry anything during travels. The amount of food an individual could eat was pretty much limited by appetite, so having “more food” for one individual wasn’t particularly helpful. If one person was the leader, he (or she) might have special adornment.

If population rose too high, relative to resources, this may not have been apparent in “normal” times—when weather was good, and when a particular hunter-gatherer group had an area to itself. But if there was a major weather problem or an encounter with another group needing space as well, population pressure could lead to a crisis. It seems likely that die-offs occurred from time to time, especially during natural “bottle-necks.”

A Simple Agricultural Economy

Thinking about a simple agricultural society gives us some insight as to how early economies must have operated.

Consider a simple economy in which some members produce barley; others produce fish. The fish can be salted and dried, so both the fish and the barley can be stored, if desired. The big issue in such a system is how efficient the barley and fish operation is. If in order to feed the group, half of the group must work full time growing barley, and half of the group must work full time catching, salting, and drying fish, then no matter what kind of economic system is in place, the result will simply be trading fish for barley. Everyone will continue to have to work at either producing fish or barley. The economic system will simply move some of the fish to the barley producers, and some of the barley to the fish producers.

Let’s suppose instead that the barley and fish producers are much more efficient. Suppose that with 10% of the population working at barley production and 10% of the population working at fish production, the population can provide enough food for the full population, leaving 80% of the population (100% – 10% barley producers – 10% fish producers) to pursue other activities. How the remaining 80% of the population will spend its time will depend on resources available and the desires of the citizens. Perhaps 30% of the citizens would make goods of various types (build homes, make clothing, and make furniture) and 20% of the citizens would provide services of various types (education, health, artwork, and hair cutting). This would leave 30% for government and finance. The government portion would include pay for government officials and police and transfer payments to the elderly and disabled.

The total wealth of the community is then the sum of all of the goods and services in this community. The financial system will redistribute the goods and services produced among the members of the community, perhaps allowing some “savings” for future consumption. Those producing goods and services will expect to be included in the redistribution, but so will others, if this has been the tradition in the community.

If the economy operates without fossil fuels, the quantity produced is limited by the speed with which biomass regrows. Thus, unless the community is willing to live with deforestation, it can’t use much wood each year. This puts a severe limit on the amount of goods produced. Printing more money does not change this dynamic.

In the example above, I suggested an efficient economy might need only 20% of its population for food production. In fact, the percentage of the population involved in food production varies greatly across economies. Before fossil fuels use, typically 80% of the population of a country was involved in agriculture. With so many involved in agriculture, the number who were involved in manufacturing and services of all types (including government services) was necessarily very limited, because they needed to be “squeezed into” the remaining 20% of the economy.

Figure 1. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

Figure 1. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

If, in our hypothetical community, population rises because more children live to maturity, this adds a new dynamic. There is a need for more food, clothing, and housing for the growing population. Unless land area keeps increasing, there becomes a need to grow more barley per acre. In a world without fossil fuels, increasing grain yields becomes difficult. More farmers can be added to a given plot, but the additional yield for additional manual effort (perhaps picking off insects that might eat the crop) is not very high. This dynamic tends to lead to what we think of as falling wages of the common worker, when population becomes high relative to resources available. As I have mentioned in previous posts, based on the book Secular Cycles by Turchin and Nefedof, collapse often occurs in such situations. Governments have promised significant services, but it becomes difficult to collect enough taxes to pay for these services, with falling wages of the common worker.

The dynamic is similar if energy supplies of types other than food (such as oil and coal) does not rise as fast as population. The amount of goods produced using these energy supplies will tend to fall, unless technology advances are able to offset the decline in energy consumption per capita. Such technology is normally fossil fuel dependent. If goods per capita falls, this will be reflected in what we think of as falling inflation-adjusted wages, since it is not possible for workers to have more than what is produced.

Adding Fossil Fuels

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 3. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 3. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

If metal tools can be used—say metal plows—these metal tools can greatly ramp up efficiency of farming, allowing fewer people to work in the agricultural sector. If we think about the result in the last section, this situation allows a greater proportion of the population to be employed in producing discretionary services, and thus more wealth for the community as a whole.

The problem with making metals such as iron using renewable resources is that huge amounts of charcoal are needed to make even small amounts of iron. If one wants reasonable quantities of metal, or modern alloys such as steel used in plows and trucks, a person needs fossil fuels.

If a person wants to add fossil fuels and the things that fossil fuels can make to a community that does not have fossil fuels, the question becomes how to pay for the new goods using fossil fuels. As an extreme example, if farmers have always planted barley with a stick, the amount of barley each farmer produces is tiny, and the population is likely mostly farmers. If a farmer can use a new tractor, with the latest equipment, a single farmer can perhaps feed the whole community. The tractor will provide the improved efficiency needed to free up a whole community of workers for other purposes.

The secret to adding fossil fuels (or any kind of energy source that can improve efficiency, and allow fewer people to produce essential goods and services) is debt. While the farmer cannot pay for the new tractor with his earnings from growing barley using a stick, the farmer can indeed pay for the tractor with all of the goods and services that the whole community can produce, as the result of the tractor handling work that now takes many workers to do. By growing much more grain, and selling that grain to all of the workers who are now freed up to provide discretionary services, the farmer will have enough funds in the future to repay the loan for the equipment which will allow much greater efficiency. (The problem is that the tractor requires a huge amount of embedded energy from fossil fuels. Workers who have been working without fossil fuels will not be able to earn enough to pay for this embedded energy without debt.)

Salaries of Workers

In my imaginary simplified economy, there is only one country. In such a country, the amount of salaries that workers receive then is closely related to the amount of goods and services that the economy produces. There will be part of the production that goes to the owners of factories, farms, and other sources of production, but they cannot eat any more than anyone else, or sleep in more than one place at a time. If they get paid much more than others, some of it must be in the form of “paper income” that they can theoretically use at some time in the future, but does not involve current consumption.

In general, the more goods and services produced relative to the population, the more workers will receive in inflation-adjusted salary. If the economy is so distorted that most of the goods are made with machines, the government must play a much bigger role, providing transfer payments to those who cannot find employment (unless the government is prepared to handle uprisings by citizens). If workers are not receiving adequate wages to pay the taxes, taxes will need to come from some other source–possibly from the owners of the sources of production.

To see how a rise in oil prices will affect the economy, lets consider what can be expected to happen to a manufacturing company. Suppose that for a particular manufacturer, costs are distributed as follows (the actual percentages aren’t important–just the point that wages tend to be a big piece of the total):

  •  Wages 40%
  • Oil products 10%
  • Electricity 5%
  • Raw Materials other than Oil 20%
  • Rent 15%
  • Profit 10%

If the cost of oil doubles and the manufacturer is not able to raise prices, the higher cost will wipe out profits. In fact, the cost of other raw materials is likely to rise as well, because oil is used in extracting and transporting raw materials. This will make the impact on profit even worse than the oil-only comparison would suggest.

To “fix” the problem, the manufacturer has to make some sort of adjustment, and the adjustment will almost certainly lead to less dollars being paid for wages. One such approach is to “make a smaller batch,” with the amount produced equal to what can be sold at the higher price. If this is done, the manufacturer will employ fewer workers. It will also cut back on oil consumption, other raw materials, electricity consumption, and rent. The result will look like recession.

Thus, a rise in oil prices, such has happened since the early 2000s, can be expected to affect feedback loops for countries that use very much oil.

Figure 4. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

Figure 4. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

The Positive-Feedback Loop

When can an economy grow? If an economy can grow in efficiency—that is, fewer and fewer people employed creating the basic requirements for life, then more of the population can be employed in providing discretionary services. In total, the wealth of the economy will grow. Historically, this has happened as increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy is added to supplement human energy.

If an economy can increase its debt, and that debt can finance equipment or infrastructure that will allow greater efficiency in producing basic services, this will also allow an economy to grow.

In economic analyses, increases in population are counted as part of economic growth. The problem with population growth is that it leads to more population per acre available for cultivation, and more population relative to external energy sources of all types. This sets up a competition: can enough external energy be added to maintain (and even increase) goods and services per capita?

Economies of scale are also important as producing positive feedback loops. Once an energy investment, such as a road, is made, it can be used for an increasingly large population, often without much additional cost. Businesses also find growth beneficial, since they can build a factory, and operate it more hours, with little additional cost.

The combination of all of these favorable feedbacks leads to the pattern of growth that economists seem to think always occurs.

What Can Go Wrong?

The big “oops” that takes place happens when we start hitting natural limits:

1. The cost of oil extraction goes up, because we pulled the easy-to-extract oil out first. This means that workers start having less discretionary income, rather than more, because they now needed to spend more on commuting to work and on food. Wages tend to stagnate or decline, for reasons described above. A larger percentage of the population needs to work in oil extraction, and more fossil fuels of various types must be used in oil extraction, leaving fewer workers and less energy supplies for other purposes.

2. The economies of countries consuming large amounts of oil are disproportionately affected by rising prices, and oil consumption begins to drop in these countries, even though world oil consumption in total is still rising.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

3. Debt added to produce oil tends to produce fewer and fewer barrels of oil per dollar invested, as the cost of oil extraction rises. With fewer barrels of oil produced per dollar of investment, less goods are transported per dollar invested. If other energy products also rise in cost of extraction, or if the cost of making metals increases, we reach a situation where increasing debt, in general, starts adding a smaller and smaller quantity of goods per dollar of investment. (Substituting a different high-cost source of energy does not fix the situation.) Eventually, so little benefit is gained from additional debt that huge defaults occur. These huge defaults are likely to lead to higher interest rates and more layoffs.

Of course, during favorable feedback loops, the economic growth that comes with increasing energy consumption plays a major role in permitting debt to be paid back with interest. If energy consumption, in fact, starts contracting, this contraction will contribute to debt defaults.

4. As the economies of individual countries got richer and richer, the natural tendency was to add more government services. Pensions and health care were promised, based on what looked possible when the economy was growing rapidly. Now, the economy is not growing as rapidly, and increasing wage disparity is occurring. There is no way to tax the common people enough to pay for the benefits promised to people. People become very unhappy when told that the government cannot pay promised pension benefits. The tendency is toward increasing unhappiness with government status quo, perhaps even leading to new (cheaper) forms of government.

5. Because of energy limits, we find a need to conserve, but in the process discover that we are inadvertently hitting “diseconomies of lack of scale” instead of “economies of scale”. Instead of continually adding new jobs based on construction of new infrastructure, job opportunities for young people start to disappear. This adds to the dynamic of contraction, even if changes are planned.

6. All the time, natural forces are eroding the huge amount of infrastructure that has been built. Hurricanes and earthquakes cause destruction that must be fixed, if the current system is to be maintained. Lesser forces, such as freezing and thawing and roots of trees growing tend to ruin roads over time, and cause buildings to need repairs. While this has always happened, if the government is poorer, the cost becomes an increasing burden.


As a result of these influences, the natural feedback loop is now changing to contraction, instead of continually adding a positive increment. This is an unknown situation relative to what we are used to. There is no “reverse gear” on the economy.

We know that in the past, economies that have hit these adverse feedback loops have tended to collapse. The situation is indeed worrisome.

[i] Despite evolving in the direction of requiring external energy, there is still a possibility that a few individuals in particularly advantageous parts of the world might be able to “get along” without external energy. These individuals would probably live in areas where raw fish is available for food, and where predators are not particularly a problem. If these individuals are able to use stored energy in the form of modern knives, shoes, and clothing, such stored energy may take the place of other external energy that ancient people normally required.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to inadequate supply.
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315 Responses to Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

  1. Pingback: Good things I’ve read this week | Foodnstuff

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Gail and Others
    You might be interested in reading this rather brief article by Paul Chefurka:

    The subject is humanities inability to avoid hitting the wall despite all the evidence. He refers to ‘fish in water’, very like this post by Gail. He also alludes to life as being about a phenomenon that Adrian Bejan refers to as the Constructal Law. Bejan is optimistic about the Law, Chefurka quite pessimistic.

    I’ll place myself in this discussion also. I tend to agree with Chefurka that humans are facing collapse. I think most people will die. I think that as individuals and small groups we try to figure out how to get through the bottleneck and come out the other side…with a lot fewer humans in the world. I don’t think we can ‘save 7 billion people’. I don’t share Bejan’s optimism that the world is going to get better and better from a technology perspective. I hope that Chefurka is wrong that a bad mistake by most humans will drag down all of us. Best to get prepared as best we can. And have fun and don’t worry too much in the meantime.

    Don Stewart

  3. Don,

    Thank you for sharing those passages from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. Here is a bit of story telling of my own, passages I wrote almost 30 years ago, when I lived on the edge of Phoenix, AZ. My favorite past time was hiking alone in the desert.

    Desert Solitude

    The heat shimmers across the air; flies carry on a monotonous drone.
    Some people say the desert is empty, but I call it home;
    for it is in the desert that I awaken and open,
    and know that I am home.

    I walk into the desert in the early morning,
    seeing ridges of rocks standing off in the distance.
    I look with wonder and anticipation, judging their distance and difficulty to climb.
    Moving forward around cacti and thorn bush, ever watchful for signs of life,
    I walk into the desert farther and farther;
    allowing myself the freedom of letting the moment pick its own goal.

    I love the desert, so full of rocks and sand!
    When I sit upon a ledge and look across the desert I feel energy
    that comes from the rocks, the sunshine, the air, and the plants.
    It is an energy that is everywhere at once, moving and pulsing, almost alive.
    And when I feel this energy in me, I am glad to be part of it, and able to be here in this moment sitting on a rocky ledge, over-looking the desert.

    When I look at life I see a flow that is neither mindful of my existence,
    nor separated from it. We exist as a totality, a mass that does not hearken to my cry
    but goes on unimpeded, leaving me to walk as if alone.

    Silently I have listened to the emptiness that fills the void.
    Patiently I have waited until the sunshine lifts me out of another dreary day,
    and laughter overflows my soul. And it is enough just to sit on a ledge
    and watch as life unfolds.

    At night the desert comes alive.
    My eyes and ears strain to perceive the eternity that stretches away in all directions.
    Perhaps that large a space is why so few people come to the desert alone,
    especially at night. It is an overwhelming solitude, an emptiness with which few people can feel comfortable.

    Some people listen to the silence and say “Oh, how quiet it is in the desert!”
    And then head back for the campfire to fill the quietness with conversation.
    Some people listen and say “I don’t hear anything!”
    And that is why they never come again, once was enough.

    Even within myself, when a pain is too great to bear amidst the hustle of the city,
    I come to the desert only to find it is actually too little a pain
    to offer up to the solitude of the desert.
    And so I head back to the city,
    where I can be comfortable with my misery.

    Life is strange that way.
    What we think we want, we can’t accept when it comes,
    Yet we go on asking for it all the same.
    And we find ways to overlook the answers just so we can be confused.
    Whoever thought that when we came here we would forget how we arrived?

    regards to all,

    • Don Stewart says:

      Macfarlane uses the opportunity of a late blizzard to go to the Lake District and go for a night walk on a high ridge. He sleeps for a while in his bivvy sack and sleeping bag, wakes to find the snow has stopped and the moon is out, and goes out walking. His comments about how night is different from day and how we are depriving ourselves by putting electric lights everywhere would resonate with you.

      He’s one tough professor. In the morning, he walks down the mountain, finds an iced over pond, breaks the ice, and goes for a swim. Grumbling about how modern conveniences have separated us from Life.

      Don Stewart

  4. xabier says:


    There is no little irony in a farmer eating ‘perfect’ apples rather than the imperfect natural ones…..! Its really very curious, because the apples from my untreated tree seem fairly regular and attractive. But of course, not all…. Giant agri-business and the supermarket have distorted so many of our perceptions.

    De-hydrating the apple slices seems to be the order of the day: maybe I can use them to make apfel strudel like my dear old Viennese honorary ‘mama’? Now that would be a good thing!

    Thinking back to distortion: it’s all a bit like what happened in bookbinding (my craft) in the 19th century: everything became too regular, losing the little irregularities which made the charm of older books.

    But of course it’s far worse: the ‘perfect’ books didn’t poison one, although they did change the way in which the eye functioned……

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    I have, inexpertly, referred to epigenetics and the notion that life generally doesn’t involve stand alone entities. ‘You’ are really a collection of ‘thems’.

    Here is a much better explanation courtesy of Albert Bates and Sandor Katz:

    This thinking is generally along the lines of the article
    Life-as-Meaning: Biopoetics as Paradigm for Living Relationships
    that I referred to earlier in this discussion.

    Let me add to this that the more we learn, the more we are inclined to see all the ‘great leaps forward’ in terms of irradiated food and skyscraper farms and soilless agriculture and lots of antibiotics as mirages in the desert. Industrial food we are likely to see as poisoned water-holes in the desert. It goes back to my point that food is, firstly, information for our bodies and only secondly plain calories. Calories are relatively easy, excellent information is much harder to come by.

    Don Stewart

    • Yes. Our economy is adapted to what food is cheapest, but that is far different from what food our bodies are really adapted to. We are only now beginning to figure out the relationships.

      • xabier says:


        On the same theme, my relations who work in a hospital in Spain inform me that corpses are so full of preservatives now, ingested from food, that they are taking much longer to rot, like the apple.

        And for those of a more macabre turn of mind, medical schools in Spain are inundated with corpses ‘left to Science’, as it significantly cuts funeral costs, (the State pays to bury what’s left after the students have had their fun); so much so that they are now turning them away…… An economic indicator not often taken into account. One of my cousins had signed up with this in mind, I fear he may be disapppointed.

        Will the next stage of economic decline be do-it-yourself cremations in the sierras? Will impoverished Spaniards be cremated on the beach like the poet Shelley?

        • Interesting about corpses taking longer to rot now. Perhaps we are getting the “benefit” of the preservatives in food.

          The direction we will need to move in for almost everything is “cheap” (very little energy inputs). I was told in India that each town in India has its own site for outdoor cremations. In fact, I saw such a site in the village I visited.

          With outdoor cremations, I would worry about all of the mercury in fillings and perhaps other metals in people’s bodies today ending up in the smoke everyone else gets to breathe.

    • xabier says:


      Maybe an irradiated Deathless Apple has the same relation to a real apple as a printed reproduction has to a real painting………..

  6. Mary Lehmann says:

    Once again you have presented a clear explanation of how our ecology and economy got the way they are. I have forwarded it to people still hoping that something can be done. One such group I have just found out about calls itself the Citizens’ Fee and Dividend Lobby, supporting James Hansen’s plan called Fee and Dividend, which I believe has some real merit. Its weakness seems to be that he makes some naive assumptions about what citizens receiving the dividend would do with the money (from an equal division to all U.S. adults of a gradually stepped up fee (tax?) on CO2 emission per unit of electricity or fossil fuel at the mine or port of entry) which he said could approximate $3000 per capita.

    If you know about the plan, I would be interested in knowing what you think. Why couldn’t recipients decide they could afford a bigger SUV than before? A “cure” might be to issue coupons instead of cash, redeemable at specific types of enterprises that really do help reduce CO2 emissions because they, for instance, are constructing shops in the midst of housing projects in suburbia, or houses in the parking lots of the malls? That could get people using their car less, and job seekers might like the savings prospect even at reduced wages.

    Please keep writing and sending us your highly readable big pictures, Mary Lehmann

    • You sent me an e-mail, and I responded to it earlier. I am afraid the plan worn’t really work.

      The major problem I see is that the carbon tax makes US goods less competitive in the world market, because the tax applies to goods made in the US (that are manufactured using imported or US produced fuels). There is no such carbon tax on imported goods, which are often made with coal. Goods from China, India, and other countries using coal as a primary fuel are already cheaper than what we can produce. The carbon tax will thus reduce the amount of goods made in the US, increasing the US unemployment rate. (In my view, the carbon tax has contributed to Europe’s unemployment problems, for this reason.)

      To the extent goods are still made in the US, they will become more expensive for the consumer. Foreign goods will not be affected. A rational US consumer will take the dividend and buy more imported goods, because they are increasingly cheaper than US goods. This will help increase the demand for good manufactured outside the US, while pushing the US economy downward. The effect will be to help the economies of countries manufacturing goods using coal, because demand for good produced by them will increase.

      I wrote a post about this issue last November. Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work.

  7. Bicycle Dave says:

    The two sides to our predicament seem pretty obvious.

    OOH, we have science and math detailing the downward trajectory of natural resource supplies. Gail does a good job of distilling much of this stuff down to simple concepts and charts. Although Gail emphasizes the depletion of fossil fuels and sometimes the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb GHG, the depletion issue is much broader. Aquifers and glaciers are shrinking, soil is eroding and losing nutrient value, forests are shrinking and deserts are growing, oceans are acidifying and fisheries depleting, the extinction rate of other species is rising at an alarming rate, mineral deposits are depleting, etc. Although some of the available data is questionable, it is pretty hard to argue that the crust and biosphere of our planet will continue to produce abundant supplies of new resources. Even if the dubious claim for a 100 year supply of NG was true, what happens after that? And even if the even more dubious claim that thorium-based nuclear-power-for-all dream came true, how much would that alleviate all the other resources issues? Probably a little – but do we really want to bet the fate of the planet on this unproven wish? The science and math are clear: the rate of natural resource depletion can’t indefinitely support BAU and no amount of efficiency and technology can change that calculation.

    OTOH, we have metrics that detail global per-capita consumption of resources (and all the attendant items mentioned above). These metrics make it clear that the planet simply can’t support 7 to 10 billion humans at current consumption rates for very long. Reducing the number of humans and scaling down their consumption practices has a strong potential for avoiding the serious consequences that seem most popular on this blog. There really is no shortage of ideas for how to accomplish this feat (humanely) over the coming decades. There is an abundance of Plans – both B and C (the books Plan B and Plan C are good reading). And, most of the really useful plans don’t have much to do with individual survival ideas. Home gardens, bicycles, solar heat, etc might be well be part of the overall plan – but pretty useless on an individual basis if we are talking about some semblance of well-being for the bulk of humans and our flora/fauna fellow travelers. Right wing conservative and Libertarian ideas aren’t useful either because, above all, we need a massive level of human cooperation – not rugged individualism. Any effective plan would need broad global understanding and support.

    So, assuming people would like to avoid collapse of various sorts and a nasty form of human die-off, what kind of activism is needed? What’s a better approach than buying guns and sacks of rice or joining your local church? I’d suggest understanding meme theory and how people are motivated to make their most important decisions – the ones that affect the fate of the planet. Whether it’s called “conditioning by propaganda”, “cultural meme”, “ideology”, or “human nature” – the end result is the same: most people are motivated by their ingrained political, religious and economic belief systems. These belief systems generally serve the small minority of people who personally benefit from them – people who control police and armies, clergy, and the hierarchy of corporations. Power over mind and body seems to have become very popular since the advent of agriculture allowed for the development of nobility, warrior and shaman classes of people. There is little evidence that hunter-gatherers operated with the kind of class systems we have developed since agriculture came on the scene.

    Activism can take many forms. My main hope lies with young people, many of whom seem to understand that the political, religious and economic systems they’ve been born into are failing and need to be replaced – and I’ve met many who actually understand what is happening. I don’t know if there are enough of them. For an old guy like me – I try to support organizations and politicians that are consistent with my thoughts – and I always vote. I support organizations like “Population Connection” and “Americans United for Separation of Church and State”. I vote for trains and against new expressways. I try to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. And, I do take seriously Gail’s advice about enjoying the life we have while, at the same time, not excessively contributing to the problems.

    • Hi Dave

      I would like to thank you for introducing two needed organizations. Population is the key to solving the heart of the world problem. You just can’t stop the damage to the earth without eliminating a lot of humans. We are just eaten, blogging, crapping, sex texting, production, earth destruction machines. If we don’t do it willingly, it will be forced on us because of our own actions. Trek 5000

      • I can only agree with you—but I can never get my head around the ‘willing’ part.
        we are the mechanism by which our genes move forward and evolve, that fact forces us to eat and procreate as a first priority.
        nature doesn’t care much what we do with our time when we’ve done that. If we die–too bad, if we live, well that improves the gene pool.
        People have a suicidal habit of viewing nature from our own perspective, we marvel at its beauty, and so imagine that nature looks on us in the same way. with much the same kind of emotion as a married couple for example.
        as far as nature is concerned we are plant food

        • I am afraid you are right with respect to, “As far as nature is concerned we are plant food”.

          • xabier says:


            ‘All Flesh is Grass’, as the good Book has it.

            It’s going to be very hard for people in the advanced economies to grasp that all the ‘social conquests’ (as they call it in Spain) of the 20th century, – ie birth-control, mass education from 5 to 21 and beyond, unemployment and sickness welfare, mass medical care, freedom of women from life-long childcare or domestic labour, taking the whole of August as a holiday, pensions from the age of 55, etc, international holidays, the universal franchise and end of slavery – were just, in many ways, the social by-products of a cheap and abundant fuel source: first people were liberated by coal, then by oil.

            The perception gap is so great that, frankly, it’s not even worth raising the issue with most people. Well, events will teach us all, won’t they?

            • Scott says:

              Xabier, We have a rather large back yard which is a garden and a grass area. We had a late bloom of flowers since we had late spring rains, The bees came and I have left it un-mowed so that the bees can have the nector. Hoping to help the Bees a bit by not mowing my flowers.

              On the financial side of things Gail and others have foreseen a collapse in the bond markets, and leading sovereign defaults even in the USA eventually. Looks like Spain is already there almost.

            • It seems like Europe is expecting even more of these things than the US. It is hard to even contemplate the needed changes. Everyone is thinking only about the solar panel they can add, or the new “green” dishwashing liquid. Certainly, their lives will not change.

        • EndMore, The “willingly” part is the problem. We know how to do it. But, Dave clearly points out the road blocks in the way. The Affordable Care Act is a prefect example. After three years, the self interest are still fighting a watered down version of simple healthcare for all. The pathway is education and again that’s another special interest fight.

          • Affordable healthcare has nothing to do with it.
            Except that we have used improved health to breed more people. We all want to be healthy–but that is the consequence—unpleasant as it may be.
            Prof albert Bartlett puts it very well

            and sets it out as a matter of simple arithmetic. Healthy mothers have more children, and the mothers of the next 2 billion are alive right now, they are not going to forgo their chance to breed no matter how much contraception is available, neither are the people who are destined to live to be 100 going to roll over and die.
            Post 2050/70 may see a natural dieback, but by then we will have traumatised ourselves in the fight over whats left.
            Which solves the problem in natures way.

          • The ACA and your comment are a perfect examples of the headwinds and lack of education needed to solve the problem. Advanced society have lower birth rates. The ten years before the ACA the cost of healthcare had been growing at a 10% rate which is Dr. Bartlett’s Exponential Function. The ACA is designed to limit/lower the growth rate and cost of health care, but the self interest of some have poisoned the well of information of the truth in their political quest for power. One can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

            I will stand by my example

            • Advanced societies use a huge amount more fossil fuel energy than less advanced societies. The use of fossil fuel energy allows a very different distribution of labor. Instead of nearly everyone, children included, needing to work in the fields, some people can specialize as teachers; others can write and print books; and children (freed from farm labor) can go to school. Fossil fuels also allow birth control. Countries using fossil fuels often make promises to their citizens with respect to pensions and health care for the aged. This frees families from needing to have enough children, to make certain that children will be available to support them in their old age. (Of course, these promises really cannot be kept, but people generally don’t realize this.) Fossil fuels also provide lots of distractions, so that sex isn’t the only easy, cheap form of recreation.

              Without fossil fuels, we have a very different world than we have today, with much less education, birth control and recreation available, and much fewer promises for retirement income.

    • Thanks! Each of us try to do what we can. I wish the economy had a “reverse” mode, that would allow easy shrinkage. Without one, even if we can succeed in reducing the population and the amount of resources each uses, it will leave us with a need for very different political and financial systems. These would need to be part of any new plan as well.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail and Bicycle Dave
        Forgive me for piggybacking on this response. But an example of ‘going into reverse’ happened during the Depression of the 30s. The Southern US had a ‘pellagra belt’ which was caused by people eating a diet really high in processed corn which lacks a certain nutrient that humans need. With the collapse of agricultural markets, the farmers stopped growing corn for processing and reverted to growing food for subsistance. At the same time, relatives came back from the cities to work for food.

        The pellagra disappeared with the improvement in diet. The needy relatives provided additional, very cheap, labor. The thing that didn’t disappear was the knowledge of how to grow a subsistence diet and how to live very frugally and self-reliantly.

        The Depression era farmers simply did not know many of the things we know now. And so we got things like the Dust Bowl and terrible water erosion. Good small farmers now know a great deal. The limits on how much of what they know they can actually put into practice are mostly financial. One has to be competitive in order to survive. A farmer like Alex Hitt has shown he can survive with pretty darn good practices. If fossil fuels largely go away, if electronics disappear, if tens of millions of people die from starvation and disease, if the cost of labor falls precipitously as desperate people look for work, and if rural communities begin to reformulate the economy which was destroyed mostly after WWII, then I think Alex could cope with the changes.

        Don Stewart

      • Gail I’m going to disagree again with you here. I wouldn’t throughout the baby with the bathwater here. I think our political and financial systems are the best there has ever been. But in both cases there are some with self interest that have gamed the system. Like an airplane at 35,000 feet, repair is difficult. But crashing is not an alternative.

        • you have no alternative if the plane runs out of fuel
          planes with big engines dont glide

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            People who spend(t) portions of their lives at the controls of planes, large and small, might dispute your characterization. Such craft do indeed glide, but like a rock.

            Notwithstanding, the metaphor is terribly flawed. We are much more like the guests on Noah’s ark, for far too long, and none of us need list all our complaints as we’re quite familiar with them.

          • Well Chris, maybe it wasn’t the best example. But the goal is to get the aircraft safely to the ground, repair it and fly another day.

            Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III is a retired airline captain would be my hero.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Yes sir, I agree. The ark metaphor leaves us totally at the whim of the Almighty and that’s probably unacceptable to many readers for all the reasons we don’t need to list.

              Sully done good. He kept his head and quickly achieved optimal glide rate, which is at an airspeed defined as “L over D Max” — Lift Over Drag is at its lowest point. It’s the speed an airplane has just as it crosses ‘the fence’ onto the airfield, just before landing. For a 737 just after takeoff and heavy, it’s probably around 220-230 kts.

              For the purposes of this analogy, it might be useful to say that it’s not a good speed to try to maintain or to cruise at. It’s kinda slow and uncomfortable, and a bit noisy; all the passengers start shouting “are we there yet?” and they all have to stay strapped in without beverages and you know what crybabies they are. If the engines are powerless (which is not the case) then the best we can do is find a place to touch down and glide in at L/D max.

              If we are getting some power from one or more of the engines, even if it’s sporadic and can’t be easily anticipated which of the several might feel virtuous when, then the problem is one of managing the intermittent failures. It’s often a good idea to keep the passengers well-briefed under such conditions, because they’re crybabies (you already know that) and some one or two might have overpowered the air marshall and got his weapon, which means things could get nasty.
              But that assumes that all the passengers know we’re sort of in a bit of a mess and that they oughta be praying and stop complaining and shut up. Please. Don’t wanna hafta tell you again.

              But what do you do when one of the pilots returns from a stroll down the aisle and informs the other gals and guys up front that there is a very serious problem (take your pick — engine mount breaking, some skin ripping off, a potty vacuum relief tube frozen and ready to explode the rear — use your imagination…) that could precipitously terminate the aerodynamic portion of the flight. But you can’t say a friggin’ word to the crybabies back there enjoying their meals and highballs. Why not? Well, for whatever reason, management wants to keep sales high, costs down, and confidence up. So don’t scare the customers, especially if you’re not 120% certain. Call headquarters (or the White House) for instructions if you run into a real problem and are too dumb to figure out what it means to keep your mouth shut! Just don’t scare the people or give them some reason to vote for somebody else. Shhhh!

              We can start writing Act 2 next week.

              Cheers, Chris

        • Our financial system cannot work without economic growth. Economic growth has been slowing greatly, especially in the “developed” countries, because we are no longer competitive with the part of the world that use primarily coal for manufacturing, and where people (in part because of the warmer climate) can live much more simply–without cars, in houses without much heating or insulation, etc. Higher oil prices have accentuated this disparity, and changes toward globalization have made this a reality. See my post, Twelve Reasons Globalization is a Huge Problem.

          Energy consumption is required for economic growth, but in recent years, the growth in energy consumption has been shifting away from the developed world, to other parts of the world–the energy exporters, and countries in warm climates with low per capita energy use, that often is coal. As economic growth is moving away from us, all kinds of distortions are needed to hide this fact–artificially low interest rates, very easy access to loans, and continued government borrowing, to pay out benefits it really cannot afford to pay. These distortions cannot continue forever, however. Already interest rates are beginning to rise. And low interest rates are likely to blow bubbles, as investors increasingly invest in projects that cannot pay back. These may include tight oil and shale gas wells, that decline very quickly. Investments also include buying up and fixing up housing that has been foreclosed, without realizing that low income people cannot really afford even to rent these properties.

          Eventually, the whole mess must fall apart. THe current rise in interest rates is one issue. The continued government debt problem is another. Problems in Japan and Europe are others.

          If we have a new system, it will be with a world which is in collapse, because of declining fossil fuels use, so declining economic growth. Very little debt can be used in such a system. What debt is used will need to be primarily very short-term debt–for example, covering goods in transit, as with old Lloyds of London insurance policies. We will have to recognize the fact the nature does not do accrual accounting. The amount of fossil fuels we can pull out of the ground each year pretty much puts a limit on how much can be produced in a given year. If the amount goes down, we will need to cut back to essentials. This make the developed countries, with their focus on services, the most vulnerable.

          • it doesn’t matter who’s wall you damage with your head, you will not convince the majority that growth is directly and specifically linked to energy input.
            time and again, I have exchanged viewpoints with seemingly intelligent people who insist that spending money is all that is necessary to create prosperity (Krugman being the most well known in that sphere)
            With economists like that, who needs a flat earth society?

          • Chris
            I disagree on the closeness of our (as yet unknown ) problem
            The world / aircraft needs oil to function. We are agreed on that. An aircraft might have a million parts with backups, but…no fuel–and it falls out of the sky.
            Right now, the middle east is a powder keg, with country after country slipping towards anarchy, to a great extent because muslims are fed up with keeping us affluent westerners afloat on their oil. their leaders sell their oil cheaply, rather than funding home needs with it first. (that goes back nearly a century with accumulating grievances)
            at any moment. we could have another pearl harbour, when an insurrection shuts down the saudi/iraqi oilfields.
            that could happen overnight, When it does, it might be because Saudi supplies are getting tighter, and they can no longer buy off all their idle young men with glitzy lifestyles. They might be expected to work! they will not go on supplying the west as their oil drains to nothing
            You will see a repeat in Riyadh of whats happening in Cairo and Damascus and elsewhere.
            When that happens, our plane falls out of the sky. Strategic oil reserves are for essential government use, not general commerce
            Oh and I came up with another option, the 630 weak passengers turn on the 70 strong ones–and throw them out of the plane, insisting the arithmetic is wrong.
            They still crash into the ocean.

        • to take the plane/planet earth analogy a logical step further:
          You have a plane with 700 passengers on board (add noughts yourself) flying over the ocean
          the pilot discovers a leaky fuel tank, and realises that he can only fly the plane on to its destination by lightening the load . His does some quick calculations, and works out that with 10% of the weight, he can make landfall, any more and he will crash into the sea.
          he therefore asks for 630 volunteers among the passengers to jump out, or they are all going to die. (add the necessary noughts again)
          The radio is dead, so they cant put out a distress call. (just to complicate matters)
          Now , the passengers have a choice…do they draw lots, or do the 70 stronger passengers gang up and throw out the weaker ones?
          the third option is to hope the pilot has got his sums wrong, and sit it out.
          Please submit all other options for consideration

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            To End of More:
            Sir, I posted my opinions last evening, a few paragraphs above. Keeping with the airliner analogy, we are not, I believe, anywhere near a point where the powers that be would allow open and repeat trumpeting that ‘earth, we got a problem…’ I might well be wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine any political leader repeatedly and willingly shooting his feet and his partners and his constituents.
            Another analogy, however imperfect, is of FDR knowing beforehand that the Japanese Fleet was headed for Hawaii, but he couldn’t tell the people until after the attack.
            Cheers, Chris

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  10. xabier says:


    ‘Gliding like a stone’, exactly describes our situation, how perfect!

    Will anyone call the truth of the situation? Of course not: as Kyle Bass remarked not so long ago, ‘the politicians and bankers will tell you everything is just fine until the crash, they’ll lie and lie.’

    But thankfully, despite the MSM propaganda machine, we still – as individuals – have access to enough accurate data, if we ferret it out, to assess our prospects objectively and take whatever action we care to, or indeed none at all if we think it all too hopeless.

    To that extent, we are a little more fortunate than the citizens of a totalitarian state obliged to applaud the next 5 Year Plan and its promises of abundance and the earthly New Jerusalem.

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Don Xabier,
      You flatter me unnecessarily, sir, but I’m glad you got a chuckle. Aviation has some delightful sayings, such as ‘running out of altitude, airspeed and ideas…’
      I’m not sure exactly where our general human society is on the ‘C’ timeline that Don has mentioned. Has our situation declined seriously, markedly, over the last 2 years? 10? What bad things are coming next? When? One-time bad ouch or irredeemably bad and nowhere to go but down (like a rock) thereafter? I, for one, have no idea, and I’m skeptical of almost all potential answers. I appreciate your analysis regarding our freedoms and access to information, and of course I agree with you entirely. The first thing I’m going to do when the balloon goes up is kidnap Don Stewart because he’s the best qualified to do the ‘survival farming’ he seems to think might help us live for a few more years. (Just joking, everybody!)

      Cheers, Chris

  11. Stan says:

    I found myself wondeingr what communities in the US will get along fine after “THE FALL”. Co-incidentally, PBS’s American Experience series aired a program about the Amish tonight. My guess is that they will do fine withoit oil, except when they want to light the kerosene lanterns.


    • I am not as convinced. They depend on our current system for quite a few purchased goods. I am not entirely certain what they are, but I would guess they include cloth, shoes, metal plows for the horses, paved roads, the kerosene lanterns they use, replacement parts for wells and sanitation systems, and trucks to pick up produce they have to sell. I expect their homes are built with nails, which are from our current system. If I looked very closely at what a particular group is doing, I but I could come up with a fairly long list of things from our current system they are using.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Gail, should we not consider that the availability of resources / replacements at the initial onset of Collapse will probably be a lot different as time goes on. The speed with which Collapse gains momentum cannot be accurately predicted, I think. But those who, like the Amish, are less reliant on machinery and electronics, however marginally, would tend to fare better, I would think. Not that I’m right and I surely don’t look forward to checking my arithmetic against reality, but I think they would be in better mode to survive than those living in big cities (whose supermarkets could run out of replacement food very quickly…)

        • Scott says:

          Hi Chris, Yes, I have a great deal of respect for the Amish people, living in our society and the way they operate closer to the land. We can learn from them. They may be a little strict which I would have trouble with and as for most of us, but I see the way they live which is hard to do in today’s world.

          I did buy some Amish furniture some time back just to support them a little, a bedroom set and it was really nice, they are great wood workers! I like to work with wood myself too, but mostly these days refinishing old pieces I found up here in Oregon.

          Best Regards,


    • it’s not whether you are ‘doing fine’ that will be the problem. it’s the people around you who are not ‘doing fine.

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    In an attempt to clarify the issues surrounding ‘feeding 7 billion people’, let me offer the following as a model.

    Let’s assume fast collapse. Everything falls apart with great speed driven by a global financial collapse.

    My rough guess is that perhaps 1 percent of the people in the US would survive for 3 years. So at C + 3 years, the population of the US would be around 3 million. We can guess about the characteristics of the survivors, but I would put my money on those who are able to provide food and water for themselves. (There will be plenty of abandoned shelter). Drinking water might be an issue in Phoenix, but those of us who live in the East will probably figure out how to gather rainwater pretty quickly. There will be plenty of scrap material to gather the water and lots of 5 gallon plastic buckets to store it in.

    As for food production, those who know how to produce food with very simple methods and the tools and seeds or plants and animals they had before the collapse will be the winners. I assume that the 99 percent who don’t survive will go as quietly as the Irish during the famine.

    What will happen after C +3? The Natural World will begin to regenerate itself due to the absence of humans. Let’s suppose that life is still hard for the surviving humans, and the population drifts steadily lower. As the Natural World regenerates, and as humans relearn the ways of the Wild, then returning to hunting and gathering may well gain attractiveness. We know that the Plains Indians reverted to hunting and gathering after two events: their numbers were decimated by European diseases and the Spaniards brought them horses. So, speculatively, we might see the population settle at a million or two, with a mixture of hunting and gathering and simple agriculture.

    All that is quite speculative, and what things would look like at C + 1000 years is a complete guess. It probably won’t be a re-run of human history as enabled by fossil fuels.

    A person or family or commune can have several different approaches to that speculative scenario. First, they can simply say that worrying about the future has never paid much in the way of dividends on the investment and so they won’t worry about it. Second, they can think that, rather than producing food, killing one’s enemies will the the prime necessity and stock up on guns and ammo. Third, they can try to take up hunting and gathering now, looking for some blessed land where that is still possible. Fourth, they can agree that the simple agriculture model offers the best chance of survival, and set about acquiring the skills and knowledge and base of tools, seeds, plants, and animals they will need for survival in the decade after collapse. During the decade after collapse, they will have to figure out what comes next.

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Gail and Others

      Following up on my thoughts about survival in a global collapse being largely about what you go into the collapse already possessing. Here are a few examples from Sandor Katz’ book on fermentation. Lot’s of fermentation enthusiasts write Sandor with recipes and stories.

      Page 111: My parents were born and grew up in Russia. I learned from my dad that after WWII, he (age 8) and his family literally survived on sauerkraut and potatoes for a year. There really was no other food and he is still healthy today at 70 and still loves sauerkraut. (My comment. They probably had a root cellar to store the potatoes and knew how to grow cabbage and make it into sauerkraut and had the necessary tools and clay or glass vessels from before the war years. They also got salt from somewhere.)

      Page 111: One of my great-grandmothers was so kraut obsessed that a cabbage cutter was the only thing she brought with her to this country, besides a sack of clothing. (My comment. It is hard to make sauerkraut with a knapped rock. Tools like cabbage cutters will be valuable things to have post-collapse.)

      Page 116: Many of the origin myths of Shaoxing’s fermented delicacies tell tales of extreme poverty, and of the accidental discovery of ways of using fermentation to make spoiled, inedible, or overlooked odds and ends of produce taste striking and delicious. (My comment: extending one’s knowledge and skill at using wild foods and being able to ferment temporary surplus to store for periods of shortage and eating just about everything one gathers or grows would be valuable skills post-collapse. We are better off than the ancient peasants of Shaoxing because we can piggyback on what they learned the hard way.)

      Page 403: Even now in the 21st century, half the world’s population continues to live in earthen dwellings, which are more thermally comfortable than the cement bunkers or house trailers that often replace them. (My comment. He then goes on the describe a sort of fermentation like process that happens when one builds with clay and straw and water. My advice: go live in a dwelling built out of natural materials, so you get over your prejudices. Then enroll in a natural building class appropriate to where you live.)

      Page 409: The idea of capturing methane from anaerobic decomposition processes is not new. Nearly one thousand years ago, Marco Polo observed it in China….by providing primarily rural people with fuel for heating and cooking, biogas also saves trees from being cut. (My comment. Enroll in a class and make a simple biodigester.)

      Page 412: Jenifer Wightman is a biologist-artist who created installations of mud and water enclosed in frames, fermenting, called Winogradsky Rothko: Bacterial Ecosystem as Pastoral Landscape…De/Composition represents beginnings, change, contingencies of cause and effect, interconnectedness, possibility…Perhaps decomposition is where my hope for the world lies. (My comment. What can I say?)

      Don Stewart

      • xabier says:


        I’ve just been leafing through a gardening book published in New York in the 1830’s, by a Mr Wilson: the author recommends burying potatoes and beets in trenches covered in one foot of earth, with another two shovelled on if the winter is very, as an alternative to a root-cellar. Requires more space than a root-cellar I suppose.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Xabier
          The details of what will work best is highly dependent on circumstances. For example, where I live the right thing to do with carrots is leave them in the ground all winter and just harvest what you need, when you need it. Where the ground freezes a foot deep, that plan won’t work. I don’t know what they do in Florida (other than that they don’t produce very good carrots).

          Carol Deppe, who gardens in Oregon, has this to say about storage: Winter squash is shorter lived than the grains and beans, but stores indoors at room temperature for months, given appropriate varieties. Natural storage requires no extra work beyond harvesting.

          Our secondary storage method is cool, moist storage for potatoes, that is, root-cellar storage. In our case, our ‘root-cellar’ is a wall of shelves in an unheated attached garage….Here in the Northwest with our mild winters, we use winter gardening and in-garden storage and overwintering to supply many winter vegetables rather than a root-cellar. On our wish list, however, is a full orchard, and bushels of apples and pears in cool storage along with (but in a separate room), potatoes. In areas with more severe winters, where winter vegetable growing is impossible, in-garden storage becomes less practical, and root-cellar storage is more practical.

          Back to me.
          If you have a walk in root cellar, it gives you a lot of climate control. When I was a child, it was where we went to in tornado weather. The walls were lined with shelves and jars of preserved foods. It keeps things cool in the summer, and warmer in the winter. Someone with a basement may find it redundant. I suggest that people just think about their own climate, their own situation, talk to some clever people, and figure out what they want to do–including nothing at all.

          My main point is not that everyone should rush out and build a root-cellar, but that now is an excellent time to think about preserving the abundance of harvest for the lean parts of the year–especially if you think that you may not have a reliable freezer due to electrical failures. Trying to adapt to collapse AFTER a fast collapse occurs may be very hard indeed.

          Don Stewart

          • xabier says:


            Excellent over-view, thank you.

            • Scott says:

              Don, I will second Xabier, thanks for the good write up and advice, gardening and food production is a complex subject. You would make a good next door neighbor to have around!


    • I suppose that is one possible scenario. I know that Guy McPherson is postulating something similar, and quite a few people stocking up on ammunition have some similar ideas–there simply won’t be anyone around to shoot, so it won’t be much of a problem.

      I honestly don’t know. It depends on how fast things fall apart, and how independent different parts of the US and the world are from each other.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail and others, I think the collapse will be slower than expected,
        Simply said….
        Meat prices have doubled this year and things slowly get tougher for all.



        • Christopher Johnson says:

          I agree with your observation about meat prices; they appear to increase and decrease according to some motivation that is well beyond my ken. Same with milk and eggs. And I’ve watched those ‘Consumer Price Index’ prices over the years and decades. Are they much more now compared to 30 years ago given inflation? I think not much. Ditto for gasoline, by the way, as well as levi’s and a pair of boots. Lots of stuff got cheaper at WalMart, but also lower quality.

          I also agree with your observation about the onset of collapse. Are we closer to the edge now than we were 3 years ago? 5? 20? I honestly don’t know. Who does? What are their metrics? We can worry ourselves to a frazzle by allowing news from the Middle East or Venezuela to affect our outlook, but most of us are able to resist such urges. We do, however, bear real burdens of responsibility to repair the systems whose deterioration threatens civilization. In other words, trying to fix Syria and its neighbors is probably a losing proposition, while fixing Southern Europe is essential. So let’s focus properly and do what needs to be done. Then we can start working on the next items on the list, like improving the water situation in most of Africa…

          Does it matter whether or not you or I or the next person(s) agree with that a particular item should be on the list, or its conditions, characteristics or importance? Probably. But does that mean we have to all take a vote? Nope. Just don’t do something that might harm others.

          Cheers, Chris

        • xabier says:


          Yes, I’d agree – a slow. slow grind for ever greater numbers of people in the developed economies. Maybe rather sudden collapses elsewhere though – ie Egypt, Iraq, Syria.

      • Scott says:

        Yes Gail, we have to consider how strong the social fabric is — and how that things can hold together longer than we think….

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      The population of the US was about 314 million at the beginning of 2013. Just to make sure we’re starting from similar data points, you are proposing that within three years the US population would decline to 3 million, or 1% of its present size. Do I have that right?
      I think the number might be a little higher, sir, and there’s probably some likelihood that some survivalist communities will possess relatively abundant resources of petroleum products, machinery and even ‘electronic age’ capabilities, and that some forms of government organizations (quasi-military at a minimum) will exist in numerous places. In fact, it would not be surprising at all if some petroleum extraction and coal mining and other such activities continued. Of course, neither you nor I, nor anyone else, can propose that their projections will be accurate, but I would propose a much slower, less steep decline than 3 years and 99% death rate.
      Respectfully, Chris

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Chris
        I am just combining what Gail and David Korowicz say. If the global supply chain falls apart and if it is so complex that a command and control apparatus can’t put it back together again, then starvation and disease would reduce the population very quickly. To take one example, if electricity fails for 30 days, I think cities would simply grind to a halt. And since they have only a 3 day food supply…you can do the math. If FEMA becomes active, I suspect they will run out of food and water pretty quickly.

        I’m not making any predictions myself. I’m just saying that if you take Gail and Korowicz seriously, then most people are going to die pretty quickly. As I think of it, this is one of those Black Swans…not the most likely, perhaps, but having a huge impact if it does occur.

        As I have tried to make clear, the strategies for survival are pretty basic. But most people are in denial and won’t do anything at all. I also factored in the death of lots of people who may be doing the right things but just have bad luck…perhaps die in violence.

        Where did the 1 percent figure come from? In my metropolitan area, two percent of our food qualifies as ‘local’. With no supply chain, 98 percent of our food goes away. Assume we somehow managed to get the two percent which is local distributed to some people. But that half these people didn’t make it for unfortunate reasons such as violence, disease promoted by poor sanitation, etc. You get one percent survivors.

        Don Stewart

        • Christopher Johnson says:

          Thank you, Don. I apologize for my mis-directed questions, and I appreciate your taking time to provide sober responses. I didn’t want to attack anyone, least of all you. The calculations you related make sense, but I still think there will be far greater resiliency than a 1% survival rate. Why? 1) There are just too many people out there in various boondocks. 2) The authorities may not be talking about this but that doesn’t mean their inactive.
          Cheers, Chris

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Chris
            Just to elaborate a little.

            There are three big assumptions in the one percent survival scenario. The first is that we have a global financial collapse with a simultaneous collapse of global supply chains. That assumption is derived from my interpretation of Gail’s work. The second assumption is that global supply chains have become so complex that command and control can no longer reconstitute them once they collapse. That assumption is derived from Korowicz’ work. The third assumption is that violence will not be common and, just as in the Famine in Ireland, most people will die quietly.

            If we think about survival in a densely populated world, we might identify food and sanitation and water as very large considerations. In my metropolitan area, about 2 percent of the food is in a local food chain where the participants know each other. Even if the global food system breaks down, the 2 percent chain might continue to function. But the sanitation and water system would not necessarily work. In addition, there will certainly be some violence. And so I come down to one percent survival rate. I always try to preface my remarks by saying that I am assuming a fast collapse, as Gail expects, and not a long, slow decline as some others expect.

            If you consider all the food produced in California as ‘local’, that still doesn’t mean very much because almost all of it is delivered to LA and San Francisco in a complex supply chain. I am looking at the complexity of the supply chain rather than something like ‘food miles’. I think my metropolitan area has more food delivered through a simple supply chain than most any other.

            However, if you looked at a country such as Bolivia, it might well be true that a majority of the food is delivered in a simple supply chain. Therefore, a global financial collapse might not mean too much in Bolivia. It would certainly put some people out of work as export markets were lost, but food and water and sanitation might not be affected very much. In short, I am taking Korowicz’ claims about the dangers of complex supply chains very seriously–at least in terms of scenario planning. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that my assumptions will come true.

            Don Stewart

            • Scott says:

              Don, No boats full of goods will leave without payment or a line of credit, that seems to be the weak link in the chain.

          • xabier says:


            I recently saw a Disaster Plan for the State of Oregon, which gave likely schedules for the restoration of communications, power, etc after a major disaster (flood etc), further broken down according to region – rural or urban.

            It was very interesting to see just how long many services would be out for, even with the assumption of business as usual in neighbouring states and – I think perhaps Gail would make this point? – with all financial systems operating normally, spare parts available for purchase and able to be shipped, etc.

            But you are quite right, the authorities are certainly not sitting idle. It just seems to me that the financial and supply side of things is just assumed, maybe unwisely, although it is of course the only feasible working assumption when making such plans.

        • Scott says:

          Don, yes if the global supply chain broke down, it could get pretty bad very fast, thinking of being in a large city then is a scary thought to me. Those in and around farming communities should fare the best I would think.

          We live near the Willamette Valley of Oregon which is giant farming community with many people much tougher than I that have grown up here, so we have only lived here a few years but already I am pleased we relocated here.

          My daughter who is nearly 30 now had the opportunity to relocate here with her company, but she chose to return to San Francisco as the country life seemed to quiet for our “city girl” daughter. It concerns me that she is in the big city which may be ground zero for collapse or even attack. Most young people do not see any problem and never heard of Peak Oil or understand the financial aspects of a government that owes 14 trillion but even double that and more if you count all of the unfunded liabilities.

          A trillion one dollar bills laid end to end in a ribbon would reach nearly the moon.

      • Scott says:

        Hello, Well Chris, I do agree there are some pretty tough groups out there, especially in the West US. These groups have been planning for this and there is so much ammo and like you said high tech stuff too and fuel stored. Here in Oregon, most of my neighbors have stores of food and ammo, it sad, but it seems many are expecting trouble here too. let’s hope it holds off, hopefully for us to live out our lives first on this planet. That would be nice wouldn’t it?


  13. Christopher Johnson says:

    To Xabier and His Fellow European Contributors:
    Below is a link to an article in the New York Review of Books that focuses on Germany and what is evolving in Germany and Europe. I would be honored to hear your views.
    Cordially, Chris

    • These are a few things I think the article missed:

      1. Germany has been helped out by the Euro floating where it does, pulled lower by the problems of the PIIGS. If they leave, or if Germany had to compete on its own, it might well do much worse competitively.
      2. The full extent of the problems with the move to renewables and away from nuclear has not yet been revealed. (I understand that Germany would like Sweden to help it out, by burning more of its wood cheaply, and exporting this cheap electricity to Germany. But Sweden is not really interested in this give-away plan to Germany.) The costs of the current plan have not fully been passed on, and the problems with the grid have not fully been felt. Germany will be at a disadvantage when attracting new businesses.
      3. I expect Germany will be hit as hard as any country by pension and other promises that cannot really be honored. They are based on the premise of everlasting growth.

      • germany is like a wonderful toyshop—and they do make lovely toys–I have one myself
        Even the best toyshop goes out of business if it has no customers

        • Christopher Johnson says:

          You’re entirely correct. Also note that among their biggest customers is China, which is even more dependent on foreign customers buying its manufactures. In a pre-collapse scenario such as the global economic outlook currently emerging, Germany’s high end products are likely to succeed well.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Thank you, Gail. Regarding your first point, I recall seeing that argument in the Economist essay on Germany a few months ago. It’s quite true: Germany prospers by its economic proficiency and efficiency. I also appreciate your insights on the fuel / wood / Sweden issue. Re retirement pensions, it’s obvious that if the global economy begins shrinking — destination undefined — those national funds will have to be reduced. But the price of everything will have dropped also, right? Not too sure about that?
        The most superior single feature of Germany’s economy is, I think, its labor system that emphasizes good management-labor cooperation (and sharing) and the youth apprentice program. We need such programs in the USA, and I think some of the European states are beginning to get interested.
        Cheers, Chris

  14. Lindon says:

    What puzzles me these days is the degree to which it seems the entire media and political establishment is committed to maintaining a “business as usual” demeanor. Is it just me, or are we living in two separate realities these days — the “reality” the MSM and political machines portray, and the REAL reality that is hurtling toward us like a mile-wide asteroid?

    Interesting case in point: In the article linked below, the Saudis are now generating public concern that the oil shale developments in North Dakota are significant enough to put a serious dent in their revenues. “Fear” is what the Saudis are feeling, if this article is to be believed.

    Should Saudi Arabia Fear North Dakota? One Man Says Yes

    From what I have learned, North Dakota oil reserves is a hyped-up non-starter. There isn’t enough oil there to make any kind of impact on Saudi sales to America — or am I misinformed.

    Articles like this make me wonder why the MSM and political players involved are pumping this questionable narrative, and what is the reason behind it. It seems to me that the answers to those questions lead directly to the subject matter that Gail is presenting here. Is it just me, or does anyone else get the impression that a concentrated effort is being made to keep this limping economy going for just a few more steps?

    Any other opinions? Thanks!

    • xabier says:


      Well, there are investments to protect. There is nothing so short-term as the investment mentality, as I hear every time I talk to richer friends who never cease in their search for opportunities, and dismiss all fears out of hand. I love teasing out of them what they are up to and the essentially naive hopes which lie behind their business activities (like a child thinking that if only it can get that toy or bag of candies it will have found ultimate happiness.)

      And a false message as to our predicament has to be energetically spread in the MSM, as all developed economies have come to be based on people, above all the mass of people, consuming thoughtlessly without any regard to real circumstances. Reality cannot be allowed to intrude. If it does, and people retrench then all those highly-geared industries will just collapse.

      It seems fairly simple to me, no great conspiracy, just many vested interests coalescing into a near-universal blindness.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        To Xabier et al,
        Your description of ‘rich folk mania’ struck earlier today when an article appeared calling for ‘Insider Trading’ to be legalized.
        It took a couple of days, but some of his colleagues told him to retract his statement. Those people live in a different universe, of which each is an individual master.
        Cheers, Chris

        • xabier says:


          Well, they seem to love their money as if it actually had personality and is a thing to caress and cherish. And the world being as it has always been, it is true that nearly everything and many people do have their price, so acquisition is a agreeable mode of life and very satisfying – if you don’t know how to make your own fun, as it were.

          The price they pay is eternal, often paranoid, vigilance over their ‘little green friends…….’ (One New York financier who was in partnership with a friend of mine used to say ‘Friends? I have loads of ’em: millions of little green ones!’ One can only pity an individual with so reduced a view of life’s possibilities.) He was a disgusting individual who used to take pleasure in building and destroying careers. He was able to exert a curious influence over his more decent colleagues, fascinated by his ruthlessness and amorality: maybe this was Hitler’s secret? Alas, he is now richer than ever…….

    • Part of the problem is that Saudi Arabia is playing into this ridiculous story as well. Saudi Arabia needs a “cover” for their own problems with maintaining oil production, and the excuse of North Dakota production eliminating the need for it sounds like a good one.

    • No Lindon you are not misinformed, the well figures for the two oilfields tells the real story.
      Saudi needs about 1600 wells to produce its oil (around 10mbd), the USA needs over 500000, to produce a little over half that amount, with that figure climbing year on year proving that the oil industry has to run faster to stand still.
      what that means is that world industrial and political stability is dependent on those 1600 wells, and some other similar oilfields, (giving an EROEI of about 20 : 1)
      western civilisation would collapse if we could only get oil at the return offered by the bakken or tarsands, maybe 5 or 6 to 1
      Right now there is a pretence that oil is oil whatever its source, and it will not affect our way of life. But we can look around and see that our way of life is being affected right now. We have turned oil into food, and we are selling it to those who can afford it.
      the 1 billion people in the world who can’t afford it are going without.

  15. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Xabier and Scott and others
    There are several different ways to control temperature in the absence of electricity. If you seriously think that electricity supply will be interrupted, it makes sense to look at your options before the Collapse. Some that occur to me:

    1. Deciduous trees or vines shading your dwelling. Cooler in the summer, but allowing warmth in the winter.
    2. There are passive cooling building techniques which take advantage of the fact that hot air rises. Sometimes you see these in places like Zion National Park.
    3. Build a spring house if you have a spring.
    4. Put a glazed pot inside an unglazed pot which is filled with water. The water evaporates out of the unglazed pot and cools the glazed pot.
    5. Use passive heat storage, such as large drums of water inside your greenhouse.
    6. Use active compost inside your greenhouse. The greenhouses at Clemson University in South Carolina use a row of active compost on the north side of their greenhouses.
    7. Use body heat to warm small rooms. In the Twelve by Twelve that I have referred to several times, the only external heat comes from the candles she burns (sparingly) at night and her body heat. That house is located in North Carolina, with outside temperatures down to 0 farenheit. On a very cold night, I think she sleeps with quite a bit of clothing on. The temperature in the house stays above freezing.
    7.1 In a large bedroom, you can build a four poster bed and drape insulating fabrics around it and over it. Your body heat will warm the interior quite a lot. The sleeping cabinets of Scotland are another application of this idea.
    8. Build a place to sleep in the summer which is exposed to the sky. If you have slept in the desert, you know that your body will radiate to the absolute zero temperatures in outer space. In many tropical places, this sleeping space is on a flat roof.

    These are just some of the things which occur to me. I am sure the group can think of others. For some of them, it is definitely wise to get the supplies you would need before the Crash. Many of them make sense just in terms of frugal living.

    Don Stewart

  16. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Xabier
    One other thing that is amusing in the Kunstler interview with the young woman farmer. He tries to draw her into his diatribe about ‘dixieland’. The way she turns that question around on him should be studied by everyone who is ever going to be interviewed, testify before Congress, etc., etc.

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Xabier and Scott and anyone else interested

      Electricity has been available on US farms for less than 100 years. So you will still find people practicing old ways. If we think about the issue of preservation beyond the natural season, without using electricity, then there are a variety of solutions.

      (1) We can rely on grains and beans which are usually sold dried. These grains and beans can be rehydrated with cooking, or they can be sprouted and eaten raw.
      (2) We can dry fresh meat, veggies, and fruits and rehydrate them before eating. My daughter in Portland, OR built a non-electric dryer which is made from junk parts.
      (3) We can use canning. However, canning is best done with a modern kitchen with electricity. It CAN be done with plenty of firewood and a good wood stove, but it requires a sealed jar, which is easiest to come by with industrial products.
      (4) We can use fermentation. Confucius said in the 6th century BC that ‘I have my salted vegetables, so I can live through the winter’.

      If we want to do fermentation, then we need some basic ideas (or, alternatively, robust traditions) to guide us and we really need some way to control temperature. For example, Katz quotes one of my neighbors on the subject of temperature:

      ‘Lower temperatures–at least under 70F/21C, preferably under 65F/18C, ideally 50 to 60F/10 to 15C’

      Like most chemical reactions, heat speeds it up. This isn’t usually what we want, since fermentation is on the road to rotting or turning to vinegar (in the case of wine). So we want to arrest the natural processes with acid and salt so that our sauerkraut lasts through the winter–as recognized by Confucius all those centuries ago.

      Katz says that a 55F cellar is ideal for many purposes:

      ‘Visiting the Flack Family Farm in Vermont, I was treated to delicious still-crunchy three-year-old kimchi from a barrel in the cellar’.

      So let’s suppose one is gathering in the surplus veggies all during the summer and fall and putting them in crocks for fermentation and storing the crocks in root cellars. Then the crocks will last until the new crop of vegetables arrives in the spring. The crocks would be unlikely to last that long in a warm kitchen.

      But there are times when one might like a faster fermentation. For example, one of the advantages of fermentation is that it converts the sulfur compounds in brassica into the strongly cancer preventive kind. Around here, the brassica survive right through the winter. So one might want to harvest some in February and ferment it quickly and eat it. In that case, keeping it in a warm spot may be perfect.

      Carol Deppe’s solution of a shelf in the garage doesn’t have the kind of temperature control that a root cellar has.

      If we think about someone living in a city apartment, we can see that a root cellar may be hard to come by. Although it may be possible to rig up something in a basement. So the city dweller needs to be, first, close enough to a farmer or navigable water that transportation is not an overwhelming obstacle, and, second, have something valuable to trade with the farmer.

      Don Stewart

      • Scott says:

        Hello, It sounds like fermentation is tricky business and probably takes some practice and time to perfect this. We have made Kimchi before. I would like to know how to make my own wine and I have seen some home kits for sale, but after looking over the costs and time involved, Some things are just easier to buy than to make at home. If we had to, I suppose we would learn many of these things and collapse may just speed up that process.

        I would like to make sauerkraut sometime, I think I could look that up online, but I am first going to try to make pickles from this years garden harvest.

        Aside from some freeze dried foods that are in #10 cans, filled with nitrogen and sealed buckets with oxygen removers dry beans/rice etc. – we do store some seeds. I do keep some seeds in my refrigerator they are sealed in coffee cans and foil wrappers, I wonder how they will keep stored this way? I am guessing five or more years. We did open one of the three year old seed cans this year and planted a bunch of the seeds and they were fine.

        This can had even been in the freezer for a time too and when we moved I then stored it in the just in the fresh food section of the fridge because the can had thawed during our move to Oregon from California and I was not sure if I could refreeze the seeds.

        I have more seeds than I need, but I want to be able to increase my garden size if needed. Storing seeds is a good way to store a large amount of food, but too bad they do not last forever.
        Perhaps freezing the seeds in the freezer is the better way to go, I have heard about the World Seed Vault some where like Antarctica, so maybe they will last for 100’s of years if frozen. Not that we have a 100 years before the collapse….

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Scott

          Shortly after WWII, commercial pickles stopped being fermented. Now they are just sealed in an acidic liquid. So a true ferment is acidic, but it has also undergone the process of fermentation.

          Fermenting vegetables is actually very easy. You can get Katz’ book, or go to a local half-day workshop. Nobody has ever been poisoned with ferments that turned out badly. I guess if it smells too bad, people throw it out. Like anything else, it helps to have a little science, and as I noted, a cellar is desirable if you are serious about extending the season without electricity, but not essential if you are just messing around having fun.

          Similarly, you can ferment in odd jars or you can buy hundred dollar crocks from Germany with some nice design features. If you have a local potter, they can probably make you several crocks. Fermentation is unlike canning in that botulism and sealed lids are not important considerations. In fact, you need to not tighten a lid on a jar for the first few days because it will be busy giving off CO2 and you don’t want to explode the jar.

          You can follow family heirloom recipes or just use what you have and mix and match.

          Don Stewart

          • Scott says:

            Thanks Don, I will do some internet reading on the subject of fermentation and I think I will try sauerkraut. Yes I guess dill pickles are not fermented. But I am going to make those too because we have lots of cucumbers this year and they should be good eating. Nothing like fresh veggies from the home garden.

            On the fermented veggies, I have also been reading about how good they are for your gut health. My wife and I were out shopping today and picked up a jar of Kim-chi they are a spicy Korean fermented veggies, although we have made it before, but it is sometimes cheaper to just pick up a jar and yes when we made it it sat our for a few days with the lids left loose on the jars.

            These are good things for people to learn and learning now may help folks later as we do more of our food production. But we are nowhere close to that yet, we still spend about $500 USD per month to feed just my wife and I. The gardens help though, but you know we need to learn better about preserving our harvests. So I have been interested in these subjects lately.

            Yes a root cellar would be good, I am still thinking about where to put mine, where to dig, it needs to be a dry place so you cannot really just dig a hole and cover it with a board. Those that have basements are lucky in that regard. I know where I am going to dig one if I need to and it is under my home next to an opening to access the crawl space below my home.

            I enjoy your posts, keep ’em coming!

            Best Regards

        • Don Stewart says:

          After taking a walk, the obvious occurred to me. Kathy Harrison has probably taught classes on everything there is to know about food preservation. Bingo! If you were in the Berkshires, you could attend all of them…Don Stewart

          • Scott says:

            Thanks Don, I have found that I can find most anything on the internet on how to make things, that would be an interesting class, I would be nice if it was online, as I am a homebody these days and do not like to travel far from home. Last year I dried a bunch of veggies and still have some in jars for my winter soups.

            I also found some plans for a solar dryer on line and I bought the piece of glass for it and hopefully eventually I will get around to building one, but for now the electric works good as it a regulated temp., the solar ones could tend to get too hot and then too cool at night, this electric one runs all night and all day, what a great thing to have, electricity!

            We will build the solar one if needed pretty quickly, if the collapse arrives, which hope will hold off for many more years, but we are watching rates and if they begin to rise in the US, the debt problem will become and issue very fast.


    Annie Lennox – A Thin Line Between Love And Hate 1995 –

    Is all this talk about collapse really good for us and the country ? Is it part of the problem or part of the cure ? At what point do we make our own reality ?

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Chief,

      Gail’s blog presents a bit of a dilemma. OOH, I think we can agree that her analysis of resources regarding “Our Finite World” is very good and useful. OTOH, the prevailing assumption on her part and the majority of the folks making comments, is that some type of collapse is inevitable in the not-too-distant-future. I think it’s OK to argue that prediction – but the problem I see is that there really is no argument here; there is almost no counter position; there are almost no constructive suggestions for how a collapse might be avoided or mitigated. People with truly opposing viewpoints seem to have drifted away. Positive suggestions get pretty short shrift here.

      I find the discussion about family/local farming issues to be mostly irrelevant if an actual collapse is inevitable. I don’t see how 7 to 10B people can have their basic needs met in a collapse scenario and I doubt they will just die quietly. It would seem that family farming advice would not be relevant for quite a long time and no one knows how a collapse scenario would really play out. Perhaps some survivalist might actually survive – but for what?

      If collapse is inevitable fairly soon and you’re beyond middle age (like many people commenting here) then the most rational strategy might be to just enjoy one last fling of the “good life” – quit your crummy job, cash in your IRA, take a cruise in the Mediterranean or whatever is on your bucket list!

      But, if one is thinking about young people (perhaps your children, grandchildren, or the kid next door) and has some sense of responsibility for what our generation as both enjoyed and screwed up, then perhaps it might be useful to at least explore potential ways to deal with our predicament or avoid some of the worse consequences. As this blog becomes more and more pessimistic I suspect it will lose its credibility in the broader world – which will be a shame as Gail does have a very important message.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Dave, I think many of us have realized we can only do little things on our own as we are up against a huge monster of a government and social and global financial powers which are not to be easily overthrown. Are beaten? Maybe in a way that we really lost this war about 40 years ago. Most of us here probably would like to see more wake up and face this reality and let us hope we do, As a group are we destined to accept the evident collapse and are we helpless? Well no, but we are surely in the sites of this bullet. We can only works towards a better way of life and start living different ways if can. I sold my IRA and bought a home on land in Oregon.

      • xabier says:

        Bicycle Dave

        Very good points, but I don’t feel the general tone of this site is particularly pessimistic: try the Guy Mc Pherson site to see what that can be like – Suicide Club as one might call it!

        I’ve observed that the only ideas that get shot down as you say, and on the whole this is a very broad-minded site, are the technological cornucopians and the rather old-hat Left-wing collectivist agendas. But that’s not prejudice: they are simply too naive in addressing an immensely complex predicament, and are all predicated upon the necessity of saving all 8 billion, which is a delusion and not at all desirable to any sane person. They don’t stand the test.

        Collapse, and maybe transition, will, as history shows, take many forms, proceeding unevenly in the various regions of the world, and at different levels of intensity for individuals and families and social groups.

        In the advanced world, it will probably manifest itself economically as steadily increasing poverty and lack of adequate nutrition, and ever more people losing good employment permanently: but as Orlov has observed about the former Soviet Union, an awful lot of people can fall ill and die prematurely in quite a short space of time – say a decade or so, without the corpses noticeably piling up in the streets or any major shocks.

        This is surely the most likely scenario in the near-term, maybe really becoming observable about 10 years from now. It’s essential outlines are visible NOW (Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal in Europe: Egypt is quite fascinating to observe – maybe horrors to come there in not to long.)

        Stress and malnutrition, and inadequate heating in the colder regions of the world, and the loss of heart ensuing from loss of hope and loss of employment, will prepare the ground for the fairly devastating spread of our old, old friends TB and typhus, and so on. And a great many males without careers will simply drink themselves to death, we can be quite sure of that.

        But we will never see 8 billion people running around like headless chickens looking for food and water simultaneously in one massive global breakdown. Of course, the wild card in all of this is revolutions and civil war, which can certainly produce very dramatic short-term collapse of all state structures and the economy in afflicted regions, particularly if the whole global system is highly stressed (imagine Western Europe int he 1950’s with no Marshall Plan.) For instance, Egypt is now being propped up by many other countries: if they themselves hit deep problems, it’s clearly the end.

        So, in this context, positive planning to feed and protect oneself, taking steps towards resilience, are perfectly sensible, even though carrying no guarantees as to survival and safety.

        But what could one do for the mass of people, what could a benign and far-sighted government propose and encourage at little cost and to the benefit of many?

        1/ Ensure that all new building projects include sufficient space for the growing of fruit and vegetables to meet at least part of a family’s needs. Ensure communal or individual storage space for crops, and maybe communal areas for canning and preservation. Educate all children in this…and so on.

        2/ Complete abolition of zoning restrictions in suburbia with a view to encourage food-resilience: no lawns, all land to be productive. Tax-breaks for those who undertake this, and professional help and advice to establish such plots.

        3/ Encourage rain-water collection systems. Plan for the breakdown of modern sewerage and water systems.

        4/ Make the construction of thick-walled dwellings, cool in summer, warmer in winter ,mandatory, with durability ( for centuries) of construction a priority. Not the thin-skinned buildings of today with a life of 20 years. But only build them in strategically-chosen regions not flood-plains and so on. Also, strategic abandonment of non-viable regions and road networks, etc.

        Now, is any of this likely? Do we see the shadow of a sign of even one of these simple steps? Not from any current Government, not from any property developer, but the individual, thankfully can still take steps on their own account, to varying degrees – they can act to learn, implement and instruct. With no guarantees, but with some degree of hope.

        And to do so will be to act as was usual before the mass consumer system turned so many of us, quite deliberately, into hopeless, clueless, dependants (and I include myself in that!)

  18. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Folks
    I will try my best to address the ‘irrelevant doomer blog because it can’t save 7 billion’ argument.

    First, if we want a program which is going to gain widespread support around the world it has to include:
    1. Unlimited personal freedom to do whatever you want to do
    2. Unlimited debt
    3. Government as an activist creator of economic growth
    4. Cheap energy
    5. Cheap food that the individuals mostly didn’t have to work to produce
    6. Some vague ideas about ‘being green’
    And you can probably add to that list. I just don’t think any of us are clever enough to figure out a way to actually deliver such a world.

    Second, trying to talk 7 billion people into sacrificing some of the objectives in the first point in order to achieve a ‘fairly good life’ for everyone while avoiding disaster hasn’t worked in the climate negotiations, and I don’t see much hope that it will work in any other sphere.

    Third, doing things which will make sense in a world of Collapse may make a lot of sense today. As Exhibit 1, I offer the program at a local institution:
    You will note workshops on relieving stress, preserving food with fermentation, nature appreciation, communal gardening and dining, herbal medicine and the like. This place also offers workshops on community solar and natural building. These are all fun things to do today and become ever more relevant as Collapse looms. And, in the back of your mind, you may be thinking about a clan which will have the skills to get through Collapse with you. At any rate, you don’t let the unwillingness of the 7 billion to do any of these things deter you.

    Fourth, Gail’s scenario of financial collapse followed by the collapse of supply chains and global capitalism are not limited to her. As Exhibit 2, see:

    While there has always been a market for doomerish projections on Wall Street, other people besides Gail, and coming from very different perspectives, also see the financialization of the economy as a great threat. One Wall Streeter said recently that ‘of course its all phony, but you can make a lot of money’.

    It’s Gail’s blog and I imagine she will do what she wants to do with it. So far, she has been most gracious in tolerating those with ideas ranging from magical new sources of energy to those like me who think that fermentation is a really important thing to have practiced when C day rolls around.

    As for me, I have no illusions that the 7 billion are all going to embrace communal meals from the garden, yoga as a communal undertaking, natural building, or fermentation as an engrossing way to preserve the harvest. I just hope to plant a few seeds. If my wishes were fulfilled, some of the people driving their cars to Pickard’s Mountain today would, after the Collapse, remember how much fun it was and start the same thing in their immediate neighborhood. In the best of all possible worlds, it wouldn’t take a Collapse to start programs like these in every neighborhood right now. Sort of Rob Hopinish ‘just do a lot of stuff’.

    Don Stewart

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Speaking only for myself, Don, that was a masterful summary. The potency of these thoughts that Gail first propagated, and her wisdom to allow them to be gently kneeded by many contributors, especially kind-spirited thinkers like you and Xabier and Scott and Jody along with many others, has generated a recipe that could well prove to be important to our continuing survival.
      Cordially, Chris

      • Scott says:

        Thanks Chris for your kind comments towards some of the main writers on the group. I think we feel likewise.

        You know looking at the world – as we do – it does look pretty glum or grim as we would say.

        Some of you that have followed my comments for awhile and thanks for reading through the typos as sometimes I write late. But anyway, those of you that have read my comments know that I still believe that there may be a solution that is not yet known.

        So to Dave and others, if you have read what I have written you will know that I am kind of the “weird one” that saw the spectacular UFO take off at age 16 in the High Sierra Mountains of California. And, I have said that I believe that our government and those in control have hidden some things from our view.

        Some of you may have noticed that they (world governments) are not too concerned about running out of fossil fuels as they continue to expand. Well, that makes me suspicious of them that they may be hiding something.

        Myself I am retired from a long career in a Court House and in my early 50’s. And I have told many of my friends my UFO Story but until you really see one they are hard to believe. My story was not really that outrageous as some the stories out there about abductions etc.

        I want to Thank Gail for putting up with some our different views and for her being so easy access and being tolerant of some of our views. I was also wondering how many folks we are reaching out to on the blog and how many read, but do not post comments, but the messages we putting out are healthy and good.

        I think many of us can agree that world governments have become far to secretive especially in the last century.

        I think we also agree that we are all seeing things at kind of a “dead end” in the real sense of speaking sort to speak if there is not something better.

        Our situation does look very grim if you look at what can be seen. However, On a crystal clear Sierra Night, I did see something very different in 1976, a craft powerful enough to take off from a mountain top across a canyon from us and become a tiny darting star in space just a few seconds. Ever since then I have questioned things that there is something out there that is not yet known to most of us.

        Thanks for putting up with me and my views but if anyone has a better idea let us hear it. Just think what if there is something out there that could provide clean power and star travel.

        Otherwise, if “this unknown power source” is not out there we are really in for some trouble ahead. It will be interesting to watch the years ahead.

        I do believe our governments possess things that are many years advanced that is widely known, mark my words we will see. Until then we will maintain our gardens and do the best we can to cope with the changes we perceive to be underway.

        Kind Regards,


  19. xabier says:

    For those who are interested, the glossy international design magazine World of Interiors (no less!), September issue, has given eight pages to a chap living in a wood in England,in an essentially wood-powered house he built himself, on what we might call Don Stewart Principles, with a very good interview, too. Nor is he treated as an eccentric odd-ball or curiosity. There isn’t an online version of the article, sadly.

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