Stumbling Blocks to Figuring Out the Real Oil Limits Story

The story of oil limits is one that crosses many disciplines. It is not an easy one to understand. Most of those who are writing about peak oil come from hard sciences such as geology, chemistry, and engineering. The following are several stumbling blocks to figuring out the full story that I have encountered. Needless to say, not all of those writing about peak oil have been tripped up by these issues, but it makes it difficult to understand the “real” story.

The stumbling blocks I see are the following:

1. The quantity of oil supply available is primarily a financial issue.

The issue that peak oil people are criticized for missing is the fact that if oil prices are high, it can enable higher-cost sources of production–at least until these higher-cost sources of production prove to be too expensive for potential consumers to buy. Thus, high price can extend oil production for longer than would seem possible, based on historical patterns. As a result, forecasts based on past patterns are likely to be inaccurate.

There is a flip side of this as well that economist have missed. If oil prices are low (for example, $20 barrel), the economy is likely to be very different from what it is when oil prices are high (near $100 barrel, as they are now).

When oil prices are low, it is likely that oil production can be expanded rapidly, if desired, because it takes little effort to extract an additional barrel of oil. In such an atmosphere, it is easy to add jobs, because new technology, such as cars and air conditioners made and transported using such oil, is affordable. Growth in debt makes considerable “sense” as well, because additional debt enables more oil use. It is likely that this debt can be repaid, even with fairly high interest rates, given the favorable jobs situation and growing economy.

With high oil prices, there is a constant uphill battle against high oil prices that rubs off onto other areas of the economy.  Businesses tend not to be too much affected, because they can fix their problem with high oil prices by (a) raising the prices of the finished goods they sell (thereby reducing demand for their goods, leading to a cutback in production and thus jobs) or (b) saving on costs by outsourcing production to a lower-cost country (also cutting US jobs), or (c) increased automation (also cutting US jobs).

The ones that tend to be most affected by high oil prices are wage-earners, who find that their chances of obtaining high-paying jobs are lower, and governments, who find it increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes from wage-earners to pay for all of the promised benefits.

2. The higher cost of oil extraction in the future doesn’t necessarily mean that the price consumers can afford to pay will rise.

In peak oil groups, I often hear the statement, “When oil prices rise, .  .  .” as if rising oil prices are a given. Businesses may be afford to pay more, but individuals and governments are finding themselves in increasingly poor financial condition. Quantitative easing isn’t getting money back to individuals and governments–instead, it is inflating the price of assets–a temporary benefit until asset price bubbles break, as they have in the past, or interest rates rise.

The limit on oil supply is what I would call an affordability limit. Young people who don’t have jobs can’t afford to buy cars. If young people graduate from college with a huge amount of educational loans, they can’t afford to buy houses either.  Within the US, Europe, and Japan, we seem to have already hit the affordability limit on the amount of oil we are consuming. Economic growth is low, as oil consumption declines.

Figure 1. Oil consumption based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

The risk, as I see it, is that the price consumers can afford to pay will drop below the cost of extraction. It is this drop in oil price that will cause supply to fall. If the drop in price is very great, we could see a very rapid decline in oil production, especially in countries with a high cost of production, such as the US and Canada. Some oil exporters may find themselves in difficulty,  because they are no longer able to collect the tax revenue they were depending upon. This could lead to uprisings in the Middle East and possibly lower oil production in affected countries.

I should point out that it is not just the peak oil community that seems to think rising oil prices can continue indefinitely. Economists and those forecasting climate change seem to share this view. If oil and other fossil fuel prices can rise indefinitely, then a very large share of fossil fuels in the ground can be extracted.

3. There is widespread confusion about what M. King Hubbert really said about the shape of the decline curve. 

M. King Hubbert is known for showing images of world oil supply which seem to show that oil supply will rise and then fall in a symmetric pattern. In other words, if it took 50 years for oil production to rise from level A to level B, it should also take 50 years from oil production to fall from level B back to level A. This relatively slow downslope gives comfort to many people concerned about peak oil because they believe that the slow downward path in oil production will be helpful in mitigation strategies.

In fact, if we look at Hubbert’s papers, we discover that Hubbert only made his forecast of a symmetric downslope in the context of another energy source fully replacing oil or fossil fuels, even before the start of the decline. For example, looking at his 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, we see nuclear taking over before the fossil fuel decline:

Figure 2. Figure from Hubbert's 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

Figure 2. Figure from Hubbert’s 1956 paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels.

Hubbert’s 1976 paper talks about solar energy being the substitute, instead of nuclear. In Hubbert’s 1962 paper, Energy Resources – A Report to the Committee on Natural Resources, Hubbert writes about the possibility of having so much cheap energy that it would be possible to essentially reverse combustion–combine lots of energy, plus carbon dioxide and water, to produce new types of fuel plus water. If we could do this, we could solve many of the world’s problems–fix our high CO2 levels, produce lots of fuel for our current vehicles, and even desalinate water, without fossil fuels.

Clearly the situation today is very different from what Hubbert was envisioning. Neither nuclear or solar energy is providing a sufficient substitute for our current economy to continue as in the past, without fossil fuels. We have a huge number of cars, tractors and trucks that would need to be converted to another energy source, if we were to move away from oil.

If there is not a perfect substitute for oil or fossil fuels, the situation is vastly different from what Hubbert pictured. If oil supply drops (perhaps in response to a drop in oil prices), the world economy must quickly adjust to a lower energy supply, disrupting systems of every type. The drop-off in oil as well as other fossil fuels is likely to be much faster than the symmetric Hubbert curve would suggest. I wrote about this issue in my post, Will the decline in world oil supply be fast or slow?

4. We do have an estimate of the shape of the downslope when there is not a perfect substitute the resource with limits. 

There are many historical examples of societies that found a way to greatly increase food supply (for example, by clearing land for new fields, or by learning to use irrigation). Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedof researched the details underlying eight agrarian societies of this type, documenting their findings in the book Secular Cycles.

These researchers found that at first population was able to increase, because of the greater ability to grow food. Population typically increased for well over 100 years, as population gradually expanded to match the new capacity for growing food.

At some point, the economies analyzed entered a period of stagflation, during which wages of the common worker stagnated, because an early limit had been reached. Population had reached the level the new resources could comfortably support. After that point, growth slowed. New babies were born, but additional area for crops was not being added. Adding more farmers didn’t increase output by very much. Debt also increased during the stagflation period. The chart below is my estimate of the general pattern of population growth found by Turchin and Nefedov, in the years following the addition of the new capability to grow food.

Figure 3. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

Figure 3. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on Secular Cycles by Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov. (Figure by Gail Tverberg)

Eventually, a crisis period hit. One major issue was a continuing need to pay for government programs had been added during the growth and stagflation periods. With the stagnating wages of workers, it became increasingly difficult to collect enough taxes to pay for all of these programs. Debt repayment also became a problem. Food prices tended to spike and became quite variable. Governments became increasingly susceptible to collapse, either because of outside forces or internal overthrow. Population was reduced through a combination of factors–more wars and a weakened population becoming more susceptible to epidemics.

It seems to me that our current situation is somewhat analogous to what has occurred in these secular cycles. The world began using fossil fuels in significant quantity about 1800, and reached the stagflation phase in the early 1970s, when US oil production began to decline. We are now encountering the classic symptom of resources not rising as fast as population–namely, wages of the common workers stagnating. Fossil fuel prices tend to spike and be quite variable. Government financial problems we are seeing today sound very similar to what past civilizations experienced, when they hit resource limits.

We don’t know that our current civilization will follow the same shape of downslope as earlier civilizations that hit limits, because our economy is not an agrarian economy. We are now dealing with a globalized civilization that depends on international trade. Jobs are much more specialized than the past. But unless there is a miraculous growth in cheap energy supply that can fix our problems with young workers not finding good-paying jobs, there seems to be a good chance we are headed in the same general direction.

5. High Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROI) is a necessary but not sufficient condition for an energy source to be a suitable substitute for oil. 

We are dealing with a complicated financial system, but EROI is a one-dimensional measure. It can tell us what won’t work, but it can’t tell us what will work.

Any substitute for oil (for example, a transition to battery-operated cars) needs to be considered in the context of what the total cost will be of a transition to a new system, the timing of these costs, and who will pay these costs. It is important to consider what impact these costs will have on those who already are at greatest risk–namely, individuals who are having difficulty earning adequate wages, and governments that are finding it increasingly difficult to pay benefits that have been promised in the past. If individuals are being asked to pay higher costs, this will reduce discretionary income to be used for other purposes. If a government is already stressed, adding energy related stresses may “push it over the edge,” making it impossible to collect enough taxes for all of the promised programs.

6. It is easy to be influenced by the fact that everyone likes a happy ending.

People coming from a peak oil perspective often accuse the main street media of putting forth a “happily ever after” version of the oil story. But I think there is a temptation of the peak oil community to put together its own “happily ever after” story.

The main street media version says that the economy can continue to grow, and we can continue to drive cars and go to our current jobs, despite a need to change to different kind of fuel supply.

The peak oil version of the story often seems to say, “If we conserve, and learn to be happy with less, there won’t be too much of a problem.” Some seem to suggest that hoarding solar panels for our own use can be helpful. Others seem to believe that society as a whole can be transformed by adding more solar and wind power to our current electrical system.

The difficulty with adding a new energy source in quantity is that we don’t have any such energy source that can truly act as a cheap substitute for oil.  If solar PV or wind, or some other new energy source were truly a good substitute for fossil fuels, such a fuel would be exceedingly cheap and could be used with today’s vehicles. Governments could improve their financial condition by taxing this new energy resource heavily. It would be obvious to everyone that by adding much more of this miraculous new fuel, we could add many more good-paying jobs, especially for our young workers.

Unfortunately, I cannot see that we have found a good oil substitute. Instead, quantitative easing is temporarily hiding financial problems of governments and individuals by forcing interest rates to be very low. This makes cars and homes more affordable, and keeps the amount of interest paid by the federal government very low. We know that these artificially low interest rates are temporary, though. Once they “go away,” tax rates will need to rise, and asset prices (stock prices, bond prices, and home prices) will drop. Oil prices may very well decline below the cost of production. We will again be at risk of heading down the “Crisis” slope shown in Figure 3.

The Oil Drum Going to Archive Status – Important Story Still to Be Told

The peak oil community is filled with many dedicated volunteers coming from a variety of backgrounds. I particularly commend The Oil Drum volunteers for sticking with the issue as long as they have. Many of them have discovered at least some of the pitfalls of the traditional “peak oil” story listed above.

I will continue to tell the story of oil limits on my site, Our Finite World.  In the near future, I am also giving a number of talks about the issue to actuarial groups. I need to get the story documented in other formats as well–in book form and in the actuarial literature. The fact that The Oil Drum is going to archive status doesn’t mean that there isn’t a real, important story to be told. It isn’t quite the original peak oil story, but it is closely related.

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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456 Responses to Stumbling Blocks to Figuring Out the Real Oil Limits Story

  1. The late L. F. Bus Ivanhoe on Hubbert 1997
    Others on Hubbert the following decade

    • Thanks for the links. Many people are impressed by Hubbert’s insight.

      • Scott says:

        Gail, talking about your next post. Some brought up the trouble in Japan, but it seems the middle east is worse like in Syria, the next American war zone, but looking at their oil reserves Iran really dwarfs them and so does Iraq. But there is some oil there for sure.

        I guess it just depends on where you believe the trouble will originate… from places like China which is starting to really slow down or Japan or the Middle East? So many trouble spots to pick from to write about it seems.

        So I guess you will surprise us all with your next title for a new post….

        Kind regards,


  2. Greg Chadwick says:

    You noted that…”The difficulty with adding a new energy source in quantity is that we don’t have any such energy source that can truly act as a cheap substitute for oil.” In this one sentence, you seem to have identified the crux of our predicament. It isn’t enough to have a substitute for oil; or fossil fuels in general, that substitute must be CHEAP! If it’s not cheap, we have merely substituted hemlock for arsenic in our energy cocktail.

    If I recall correctly, you previously noted that we’re not likely to find a cheap substitute because everything is built on a fossil fuel platform. Consequently, the cost of all replacement fuels will be at least as much as oil. That’s not a solution.

    As we simultaneously reach peak production on many resources, it’s pretty much a guarantee that GDP and every other measure of productivity will decline with them. It only seems logical that after some lag time, we will also reach peak life expectancy and peak knowledge as well.

    What will it take for us to admit that our world-views and myths are fatally flawed, and begin the process of inventing more realistic ones?

    This is point where we need to seriously consider that our mechanistic and reductionist science has serious limitations, and by itself, it will not solve our dilemma.

    • It’s the lack of a substitute which leads to the Seneca Effect described by Ugo Bardi, rather than a downhill slide mirror that Hubbert’s curve shows. Hubbert made the assumption that Nuke Energy would substitute for diminishing fossil fuel supplies once the peak was reached. This has turned out to be a faulty assumption.

      For more about it, read Dead Cat Bouncing and listen to the Ugo Bardi podcasts on the Doomstead Diner.


      • Leo Smith says:

        It hasn’t turned out to be a faulty assumption YET.

        And in asia, its is already replacing many other sources..

        Of and by itself uranium – even refined and reprocessed into fuel rods – is very cheap. Probably around the 1c a unit mark.

        What cots is the high capital cost of the power stations, and most of all, the excessive strictness of the regulatory environment. But then gas and coal have been aligned with the greens over this to mount a campaign to keep nuclear very expensive.

        INM saner places the actual capital costs are are around $2,000/ kW capacity. Regulation drives that up to around $5000.

        When the fashion for renewables turns out to be a busted flush as is being recognised already, tacitly, ( )
        there IS only one place to go. Nuclear.

        We would all like access to unlimited cheap clean energy. Unfortunately without unlimited dilithium crystals growing on trees, we don’t actually have it.
        Beyond fossil, and beyond the hype, nuclear is the least worst alternative in terms of cost, energy security and environmental impact.

        It doesn’t solve everything, but it solves more problems than any of the other alternatives.

        • “Beyond fossil, and beyond the hype, nuclear is the least worst alternative in terms of cost, energy security and environmental impact.”-LS

          Tell that to the people living next to Chernobyl and Fuk-U-shima.


          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Chernobyl was a very poor design and Fukushima was stupidly sited. Nuclear reactors today are far safer. If we can get thorium sorted, they will be a lot safer still. So please stop the hand-wringing and wailing: “We’ll all be murdered in our beds” type of scare mongering. We must use all non-fossil fuelled technology if we are going to stand any chance what-so-ever of transitioning to the new energy-lite economy that is going to be thrust upon us, like it, or like or like it not.

            • Scott says:

              Hi Mel any predictions on the timeline before this becomes public? That is the shortage of fuel. It appears the blue prints sit on the shelf ready to build if only the money and resources were there to build the Thorium Power Facilities. I think the problem is it would take such a huge amount of fossil fuels initially to rebuild, which some doubt that we have and also can afford. But I bet they could do a lot if they started now, the problem is that they are not.


            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Scott, I have no idea when nuclear, especially thorium, will gain the public acceptance for it to take its rightful place among the sources of energy that we are going to need to supplement the ever decreasing availability of oil. I do know two things, however.

              1, We would have far more nuclear reactors today if only the Greens had not automatically taken and promoted the notion that all things nuclear are to be avoided at all costs. But for them, the private sector would by now have poured funds into thorium fueled nuclear reactors and we would have, or be very close to having, local thorium fueled reactors for towns and cities that would thus be ‘off grid’.

              2, Unless the Greens take a more responsible position towards our energy situation, especially nuclear, and take it very, very soon, we will not have enough time to get thorium fueled reactors developed and produced in sufficient quantities to make much difference to the energy drought that confronts us. As it is, we are going to have to over rely on uranium fueled reactors, which have significant disadvantages, but safety is not one of them.

              Clearly we are going to go through a period of enormous transition. It would be better if we could steer that transition so that it does least harm. The more energy we can obtain, and, of course, use – thinking particularly of transport and mobile devices – the better positioned we will be to steer that transition for the good of all. We stand no chance when people are so ill-informed that they lean on Chernobyl and Fukushima as support for their anti-nuclear stance. There never ever be any nuclear reactors built in the future to the same design as Chernobyl and it is difficult to see how the experience of Fukushima could ever permit any new nuclear reactors that could be subject to a tsunami. (If we could only get small, modular thorium fueled reactors, the risk from tsunamis becomes non-existent.)

          • Scott says:

            Hi, Yes, I hear you about nuclear being a double sword, but until there is something better it may be all we go since no one has found the Star Trek Dilithium Crystals yet. If people behave badly this will not work as will no other situation work in war time or riot time. It is hard to build a new power infrastructure in a time when people loot the copper and are fighting or rioting.

            Just here in Oregon a man was killed this week trying to steal copper, he cut into a 440 volt line and he was found dead. If we are missing the social fabric and morals to respect the infrastructure we need especially as we go forward and need more high tech and expensive things to make power, then we have another face of our problem showing.

            I think Gail probably sees this as a real problem too?


            • I expect more problems with riots and stealing of expensive parts of infrastructure. I am not sure this is a moral problem. People who don’t have jobs need to eat. If the system lets too many fall through the cracks, there will be more who use illegal means to bet the basics. I suppose this is part of “demand”.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Maslow’s hierarchy of needs! A hungry person will do whatever it takes to obtain food, and to hell with the consequences.

            • If he doesn’t find food, he will stop pretty quickly though.

        • Don says:

          Judging by the recent Japanese experience and stories fron the USA I would suggest that the regulatory environment is far from strict enough.

        • the big mistake here seems to be looking at energy as if one form can seamlessly replace another.
          Reactors produce electrical energy
          Unfortunately we eat oil, and in addition we use oil to make all the stuff we need for our industrial and social survival. That is the system we have locked ourselves into, and by which we have exploded our population to 7 times what it should be.
          You cannot eat electricity, fantasising about reactors is just that….fantasy

    • I agree that there is a great big “Oops!” around the corner. I find it hard to believe that we will have enough insight to do anything very different, though. After all, everything is tied together. Families are working hard, so that they can send their children to expensive colleges where they learn about what used to be important. At the same time, all of our businesses depend on continued business as usual for their financial success. There is a huge amount of debt that needs to be repaid, and this can only happen if things happen according to our current plan, not a new plan. It is hard to even think about what a new system would be like.

    • David Cobb of Move to Ammend connects the Dots on Corporate Personhood and the Hijacking of the Political System by Corporations over 500 years of Western History on the latest Diner Podcast!

      “Cobb, a lawyer and political activist, has impeccable activist credentials. He has sued corporate polluters, lobbied elected officials, and has been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience. Born in Texas, Cobb graduated from the University of Houston Law School in 1993. After several years in private practice as an attorney, he became engaged in politics before devoting himself to full time activism. He has run for political office himself, including, in 2004, for President as the candidate of the Green Party of the United States.”

      Podcast hosted by Surly, not me. I’ll be up presently in a podcast with Nicole Foss (Stoneleigh) of The Automatic Earth.

      This Podcast is a MUST LISTEN for anyone interested in Constitutional questions and the hijacking of Amerika by the Elite Coporatacracy.


  3. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to forecast
    But judging the future from our current situation, the decline will be a sudden straight down
    I hope I’m wrong of course, but looking at the chaos in the Middle East right now, the entire region is a powder keg, with Saudi, the biggest producer sitting on the most explosive mix of all, with thousands of unemployable young men expecting free handouts from oil revenues, with a suppression of human rights condoned by the USA
    When Saudi blows, and it will, our oil economy blows with it, because no one else can make up that shortfall.
    Already, Iraq is collapsing back into anarchy and seems unlikely to deliver its oil potential.
    we are in many respects just like the saudi unemployables—we expect our freebies to go on forever.

    • Lindon says:

      End Of More, it looks like chaos in the Middle East is here and now. Read this article:

      It is frightening, because when you start putting all these bits and pieces together into one big mosaic, a clear image begins to emerge, and that clear image looks very much like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. When Saudi princes start defecting, you know it is getting real.

      • Ive been screaming—look at the big picture– for years, instead people just see individual countries and their ‘problems’
        Saudi is unreal, it’s bound to collapse and soon I think
        then the religious nutcases will take over and really screw things up—though I might just as easily be talking about the USA there.

    • Hopefully, you are wrong. Somehow, things have stuck together this long. Maybe they will hold things together a little longer, even in a situation of declining Middle Eastern exports.

      One thing that I find somewhat comforting is the “stuff” that we own (clothes, chairs, pans, tools, etc.) will continue to exist, even if we lose electricity, oil and the financial system. Thus, we are still a little ahead of people with absolutely nothing.

      • xabier says:

        Keynes said the markets can stay irrational for longer than you can remain insolvent.

        When we look at all the problems unfolding, we might say: ‘The world will hang together in a nightmarish kind of way for longer then you can imagine’……..

        Countries to study right now are: Egypt, Argentina, Hungary – very interesting political and social developments linked to economic crises.

        Civil liberties and national cohesion will go long before the oil ceases to flow.

        • Perhaps. But Libya’s oil production is now down, I understand. And Iraq production is down as well.

          Tight oil is dependent on the credit markets. It is also very much helped by high oil prices. If credit dries up, or oil prices drop, or both, it is likely to drop off fairly quickly. None of these things happens overnight, admittedly.

  4. BC says:

    Since ’08, the banks have printed themselves $3 trillion in no-cost, fiat digital debt-money reserves, the US gov’t has borrowed and spent $6 trillion in cumulative deficits, the equity market added back $12 trillion in market cap, the price of oil has tripled, and US total liquid fossil fuels production is up 80-85%. Yet, US real GDP per capita is no higher than in ’08 and has fallen from 2% to 0.6% since ’00; employment and real wages per capita are at the level of ’98; and global crude oil production and exports per capita are down since ’05-’08.

    Moreover, S&P 500 revenues and reported earnings have not increased in two years, even as profit margins and profits/GDP are at a record high, as is non-financial corporate debt/GDP, which is at the 1929 high and that of Japan in ’90-’95.

    The S&P 500 is now priced in terms of trough-to-peak long-term reported average earnings, P/E, and PEG to ’25-’29 to ’32, implying no more than the average return of the dividend of 2% (before taxes, fees, and price changes) while accepting cyclical drawdown risk of 35-50%+ in the meantime.

    Finally, China and India’s growth rates are decelerating significantly, whereas a growing share of the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia are collapsing economically and disintegrating politically and socially.

    Yet, the establishment political, economic, and mass-media consensus is that “Peak Oil is dead”.

    • Bill says:

      I live in the mountains. It’s easy to see a peak when it’s in front of you, or behind you. From the peak, though, the view is fabulous!

      • BC says:

        Bill, I like your “elevated perspective”. :-) Have you a small space on which I could place a small yurt with a wood stove? I keep to myself when necessary and needed. I’m rather handy mechanically and with computers. I like gardening, canning, cooking, hiking, and fishing. I travel lightly and am unattached, apart from a small, charming female Basenji-Jack Russell mix. ;-)

    • You have looked at more details than I have. People don’t seem to get the connection between oil limits and all of the problems we are running into. Somehow, economic growth is supposedly magical, not the result of a feedback loop that could switch from expansion to contraction, with a change in oil supply and price. It is very strange.

    • dolph says:

      This is a great summary BC and I think your numbers are accurate though I haven’t confirmed them myself.

      The one comforting thought is that we are starting the collapse from a very high place. While some may feel that this gives us further to fall, and I agree, I also feel that it gives us time. And that’s basically what’s been happening since ’08, it’s just a process of buying us all time.

      There is still much energy out there, I think what lies ahead in the coming years is a total shift in global values away from what has been promoted for more than 3 decades, the idea of running as fast as you can for the most money as possible.

      • BC says:

        Dolph, I suspect you’re right. Thanks.

        The hierarchical system of upward flows of resources, labor product, rentier income, and gov’t protection services for the top 0.1-1% is a HUGE COST in net energy, resources, time, and well-being for the bottom 90%+. Many in the bottom 90% are required to work in order to earn enough so they can afford to work for pay, creating that much more waste, pollution, and resource depletion, which exacerbates the systemic cost of flows to keep the system going primarily in the interest of the rentier elite top 0.01-0.1%, and thereafter residually to the next 0.9%. What a onerous cost to subsist the top 0.1-1% imposes on the bottom 90%.

  5. Barry Vokes says:

    Thank you for your terrific work. I first happened upon “Gail the Actuary” in 2008, on the Chris Martenson website. Since then I’ve closely followed your posts, which are uniformly excellent in quality. I lament the demise of The Oil Drum as an active forum, but Peak Oil is not going away. Just today I read the post by Euan Mearns about that topic on TOD. Sadly, the MSM has convinced people that a new golden age of American energy independence is just around the corner. Two words: ha, ha.

    Please continue posting on Our Finite World. It’s an excellent and thoughtful blog. Best wishes.

    Barry Vokes

    Childress Creek Ranch

    China Spring, Texas

    • You are welcome! Glad you like my posts. I have enjoyed meeting the many people involved in the peak oil community, including Chris Martenson and Euan Mearns. It has been an interesting group to be associated with.

  6. Joe Clarkson says:

    Aloha Gail,

    You say … “Some seem to suggest that hoarding solar panels for our own use can be helpful”. I certainly concur with that suggestion, since solar panels have been part of my life for decades.

    My family lives in somewhat unusual circumstances though. All twenty-seven houses on our country road, including ours, are off-grid, with the vast majority of their household electricity coming from solar panels. In our case, solar PV allows us to run our refrigerators, freezers and other electric appliances (thank goodness for clothes washers) with minimal cost after the initial investment has been made.

    For most of the folks on our street, preparation for Peak Oil was the last thing on their minds. They live off-grid because there was no grid power available. Since vacant land was thereby much less expensive than where utilities were available, many where enticed to settle here.

    In our island of Hawaii, there are hundreds, if not thousands of families in similar circumstances. PV modules are a commodity that all of those families find very useful. I have no doubt that this appreciation will continue long after the world economy has gone over the Seneca Cliff you so clearly describe. Anyone who has lived entirely without electricity, as I have, will agree that even a little goes a long way toward making life easier.

    So yes, I am a solar panel “hoarder”. I have plenty of spares in case my modules get broken or in case I have need for more of them in the future. I also know that if I don’t need them they will be great items for barter with others who will. I would rather own solar panels than gold.

    • I agree that in some situations, solar panels “make sense”. Off grid in Hawaii is definitely one of them.

      One of the problems I have with the current system, has to do with the funding of solar panels. If solar panels are for the purpose of helping some (chosen few) individuals through the transition to living without electricity, I have a hard time thinking it makes sense for the government to subsidize the cost. If government subsidizes the cost, it becomes a situation of the taxpayers (including many poor people) subsidizing the purchase of solar panels by those with enough foresight to plan ahead (these people tending to be richer and better educated).

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        Here in Hawaii much of the generation of electricity involves fossil fuels, primarily oil. Government subsidies for solar PV are based on the premise that electricity from PV will displace electricity from oil, thereby reducing CO2 emissions and reducing the cost of imported oil. Government subsidies are not based on providing a few rich folk the opportunity to outfit their “lifeboats”.

        That said, it is also true that the people here who are most prepared for economic collapse tend to be better educated and have more assets than average. Just to own property in Hawaii takes a lot of money. But even on the mainland, how many poor people have the resources to pull up stakes in the city and move out to the country where they can grow their own food?

        Since a low energy future will require a lot more human labor to grow the food we now produce through massive energy inputs, it would make sense to promote movement of people closer to arable land where even poor people could eke out a living. Perhaps the time has come to subsidize subsistence farming collectives instead of solar panels. It makes sense, but somehow I doubt that holding up Cuba as a shining example for the US to follow will get much traction in Washington.

        • Perhaps it would make sense to move people closer to arable land, but as long as farmers own it, it is expensive to buy. Also, our current farm techniques are pretty efficient. We would probably lose productivity, if a group of amateurs with limited skills and little equipment attempted to farm. Ideally, we would make forest gardens (to protect the soil), and harvest everything by hand. I doubt that is going to happen though. People will be concerned about maximizing the production for next week, not doing what is most sustainable for the long term.

        • Scott says:

          Hello Joe, The more I look at this the more things I see that I do not have. I think you need a balance of things. I would not put all of my eggs in one basket like solar panels. But I surely would like to have some and even a few replacement panels if a system broke. If you are planning to go into the power business then I would want a warehouse full of them. But I am worried about secure them from being stolen during hard times. You may have to lock them down using special screws that no one has a bit to unscrew them from your homes, kind of like wheel locks.

          But to quickly get on to my point, you need lots of things, food, seeds a place to get water and grow food and hunt if needed, that to me means the country. It is hard to just pick up and move to the country for most folks as jobs disappear and hard times ensue unless you have much savings or some source of money like a pension as I do which not the best but all we have.

          Gold and silver should also be included if you have the means, during the early years of the collapse they should buy you goods (it stores well and does not spoil) and they have been traded for many thousands of years and also other food items like coffee and any other needed items will be in short supply like they were in World War II times including Rum and razor blades. (But I am thinking I may need these items for myself).

          But really made a large investment in Freeze Dried Foods, these cases last almost 30 years and those other items like regular canned goods that I also bought may expire before the crisis really ensues.

          In Summary: There are many needs and they have to be balanced out and there are many different things to be done.


          • Joe Clarkson says:

            Aloha Scott,

            Indeed! So many things to be done and so little time. We have made numerous preparations, including all the things you mention and more. I too believe that only the country provides a suitable milieu for sustainability. My family lives in the country, as we have for decades, so we have a head start on most. Even though it is hard to walk away from city life, I think it really must be done to have much of a chance.

            Your point about security is valid, but one’s greatest security is the good will of one’s neighbors, which we have in abundance. We also have the benefit of living in a community that is unlikely to generate the desperation that will be found in many places. For this we are very fortunate.

            When hard times come we will be as prepared as possible and will just have to make the best of what comes. My wife and I are in our mid-60’s, so we really don’t have too much at stake. Much of our preparation is for our children and their families or perhaps for other young people who have a much longer life to live. I like to think that we are preparing fertile ground for the green shoots of the generation to follow.

  7. Mott Greene says:

    Gail, I have been reading your contributions on The Oil Drum with great interest and have enjoyed the way you get to the heart of the matter; I’ve been using your posts in teaching in upper division university courses for years. Now that The Oil Drum is about to become an archive, your latest post reminds me, since I am a historian of science, to make a historical point. Peak Oil, at the beginning, with Hubbert, then with Ken Deffeyes, and Colin Campbell, was never ( as you know well) about running out of oil. It was about the relationship between the production curve, and the discovery curve. It was a novel means of predicting, from the shape of the discovery curve, what the chances were that we would run out of a given resource in some finite time, based on the shape of the curve which represents our use of what we had already found, and its relationship to the curve of what we were still finding, or NOT finding This given resource was oil, and the oil in question in all these calculations was not tar sands, tight oil, C+ C, natural gas, gas condensates.It was easy to find, easy to pump, light, sweet crude on continental surfaces. That’s all it was about. As the cornucopians continue to crow about the closing down of The Oil Drum, they continue to misrepresent the original idea and to declare victory over the notion that we were running out of all the petroleum in the ground. Anyone who paid any attention to what was actually being written knows this this was never the issue. I want post this because it is exactly why I like your work: the problem with peak oil comes when the price of the substitution instances (other forms of energy but especially other forms of petroleum) become too high for common consumers all over the world to afford.If the housing cost and food cost cannot be significantly reduced, and if the energy cost continues to grow in a time of static and even declining real wages, it must come at the expense of discretionary consumption. That’s the problem of peak oil, and we cannot let cornucopians pretend that it was otherwise.

    • Mott,

      I was thinking about adding a point about the idea of oil discoveries and the amount of oil coming from the discoveries, but I decided not to. I think a major problem with this approach is that it is too complicated. No one really keeps track of what oil is pumped from which reserves. As tight oil and oil from the oil sands are added (but were not included in the original calculations), the amount of oil extracted suddenly becomes more favorable than the original formula suggested. Outsiders don’t really care where the oil came from–just that it is there.

      Te discovery approach has other pitfalls as well. The original list of countries with oil reserves was intended to include only conventional liquid resources. As higher prices are available, other resources come on line as well. Those who see the peak oil estimates come back with the comment, “See, we need to add all these other resources as well now, because we have the technology to extract from them.” Of course, these new resources have huge amounts of oil theoretically available, and were known all along, but were not in the discovery chart.

      I mentioned this approach in the earliest articles I wrote, but more recently, I have stayed away from it. It seemed to me that it just got those making the projections into a box they couldn’t get out of. The projections were not verifiable by any publicly available data. If others did attempt to verify them using publicly available data, they would very often disprove what was supposedly being shown. Even the use of Enhanced Oil Recovery methods could change the result, unless higher discoveries were put in on a “backdated” basis.

  8. Scott says:

    Gail and all thanks again for another informative article. I think we all agree this massive change is in the pipeline and still looking at the timeline, at some point it will be the top news story on the TV night after night and on Daytime TV too special shows will come on as the long emergency begins. I know some believe it will start very fast, well it could but it could also grind on as it is now a slower not improving economy. However there could be a catalyst a spark to light the fire and I agree likely it will begin in the middle east perhaps will the closure of supply lines of oil and war.

    This comment below is pasted by someone in from the article End of More sent us and it seems to sum up my view well too.
    “As the ME breaks down, the West is printing money like mad to keep it’s own citizens from revolting. Japan is leading the printing frenzy. Europe is bailed out/propped up by the US Fed to the tune of trillions of dollars to try to accomplish the same thing. China and Russia are working to destroy the dollar as the world’s currency. And Mother Nature is warming up for another mass extinction event. (No pun intended.)

    Yet, most people waste their time watching “Dancing with the Stars” or “American Idol”. Reality is far more exciting than any TV show and far more important.”

  9. Bruce says:

    I think the concern is misplaced. We can produce all the energy we need with uranium and thorium reactors. When things get bad enough we will turn to nuclear energy.

    • Scott says:

      Interesting point, I wonder if we can turn to Thorium and uranium, but we should be working on it now and not later. I do believe you make a good point. People can really get going when a fire is lit under them…

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        The problem is, Scott, that we have to get round the obstacle posed by that lovely group of Luddites, the Greens, before we can consider nuclear energy in any of its forms. Yes, of course we should be working flat out on getting Thorium reactors working, but we just don’t have the political leaders to push things through.

        My guess is that they will have been advised about the coming crisis, but rather than take any pre-emptive action on it, they are waiting for the Middle East, or wherever, to collapse/blow up first so that they can wring their hands and claim that the privations that will obviously follow are not their fault.

        • Skye says:

          Mel, “The Luddites were 19th-century English textile artisans who protested against newly developed labour-saving machinery from 1811 to 1817. The stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms introduced during the Industrial Revolution threatened to replace the artisans with less-skilled, low-wage labourers, leaving them without work.”
          And they were right. I’m a Luddite in many ways!

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Thanks for the lesson, Skye, it is always nice to be told one’s history, even if one knew it already. What the Luddites really were, were a bunch of clowns who didn’t like the idea of progress, much like many of the Greens of today. (Please don’t try and correct me on that point, I held office for a time in the U.K. Green Party and have seen the teepee dwelling twits close up.) What a good job they were not around when the species decided to experiment with bipedal motion and try giving the trees a miss for a while. There are still some left, so we have to be very careful not to let them interfere too much with matters at this very delicate juncture.

            We need as much electricity production as we can get from non-fossil fuel sources. Then the venture capitalists will feel confident in funding efforts to adapt our transport and agricultural energy systems to electric power. Even if oil supply were not seen to have any limitations, and climate change did not exist, that would be a good idea for many reasons, not least from avoiding wars over the damn stuff.

          • Becky Z says:

            I’m with you, Skye. The Luddites were right. Mechanization/automation has always been about throwing people out of work in favor of machines that don’t demand a living wage. It worked as long as industry was growing. Workers really could find other jobs, often better jobs. Now they can fight for room under the overpasses.

      • The problem with using Thorium as an energy source is that it makes electricity, after we’ve poured in a lot of hydrocarbons to make the power plants.
        Unfortunately we cant produce ‘stuff’ by the exclisive use of electricity, and we need hydrocarbons to make all the stuff we now see as critical to our survival.
        We effectively eat oil. You can’t eat electricity.
        And no—you can’t feed 7 billion by organic small scale backyard farming.

        • Adam says:

          The problem is both energy (fuel) AND resources. The more energy we have, the faster we use up our resources, some of which are already becoming severely depleted. Jeremy Grantham estimated that nowadays you have to dig up around 400 tons of earth just to get a ton of copper ore. He also likened the exploitation of tar sands to 1000 men using teaspoons to extract oil.

          • Leo Smith says:

            Adam: resources are less of a problem than you suppose. Or may be.

            1/. we realise and its not even a controversial point any more, that population will limit – either by choice, or by less attractive measures. Ergo what follows is the ‘zero population growth’ scenario. IN western populations, apart from immigrant births, the birthrate is already ‘below replacement’

            2/. All elements that constitute mineral resources are infinitely recyclable. So in a steady state society we never run out. Given access to the energy to recycle, they will always be available.

            3/. most organic consumables and water are replaceable – grow more food, collect more rain and so on.

            4/. use of petrochemicals as a feedstock is a trivial part of what we do with petroleum. And its not THAT price sensitive. So peak oil wont impact the limit these can all be synthesised from other materials anyway. And it plastic supermarket bag ends up costing more than a paper one, we will again use paper.

            5/. That leaves the one consumable that cant be replaced. Free energy, as a low entropy state of material. That is irreplaceable, and one day the universe will die a heat death. But in the meantime, all the free energy there ever was, is locked up in stars and fissionable materials. It so happens that fusion of light elements – especially hydrogen/deuterium, is what drives life on earth, and created all the fossil fuel we have, and fission of heavy ones – chiefly uranium and thorium, is likewise the easiest way to access the other end of the periodic table. Stuff in the middle is simply too hard to fission or fuse and get any worthwhile power OUT of it.

            In a planet made entirely out of nuclear waste, whose life has been created delivered and evolved in the heat of a nuclear fusion reactor, reprocessing a bit of it to get energy seems eminently sensible.

            Now for a steady state global system., assuming similar per capita energy use to the West, and no population growth, there is probably enough fissionable material, especially with breeder technology, to do a thousand years at least. With fusion power its tens of thousands of years more. But that is an uncertain timescale to get working.

            What that means is that we don’t in fact have to do ANYTHING more than

            – Limit population
            – stop demonising nuclear power
            – stop interfering politically in energy markets.

            And let the markets sort out at what point nuclear becomes an attractive investment, and gets built. Or not.

            I’ve addressed these ideas in more depth here.


          • I agree—the Jevons Paradox is always a good thing to be aware of

        • Scott says:

          Hello, I am not a huge fan of nuclear energy, but given our predicament, I think we need it and soon and the plants should have been built 20 years ago. On Thorium, I always thought we could make lots of Hydrogen with Thorium and or Nuclear Reactors to runs trucks, trains and farm equipment. They have built Hydrogen cars and there was one running around S. California If I recall. Dealing with Hydrogen is tricky as it is very dangerous volatile stuff. The molecules are so small that it cannot be stored in a typical propane tank as it will leak past the valve seals but there may be ways to upgrade existing propane tanks to store it. Everything would have to be redesigned, home heating etc. The existing gas lines under our streets probably would not work for hydrogen. This project would be huge.

          The problem here is once again resources and also finance. It is going to be expensive to retrofit or completely replace all of our gas and diesel powered cars, trucks, tractors etc. with ones that run on hydrogen or batteries. Our unstable financial system along with misguided or dishonest politicians are some of the biggest obstacles we face it seems to me. So sadly for the world, it looks like we missed the opportunity to do many of these things years ago, and it is starting to look more and more like the time has passed when we still enough petro resources and financial abilities. Special interests groups have misguided the use of these resources for their profit and at the cost of entire planet. So perhaps we could as far to say that in the future when collapse comes, greed of special interest groups and misinformed citizens is the cause of the coming collapse.

          I think the 1970’s would have been a time to take on this change over away from oil, but it just did not happen.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I don’t think even the most strident advocates – myself included – of nuclear power are ‘fans’ of it. It just happens to fit the bill as the least worst alternative to fossil or if you are that oxymoronic thing, an intelligent rational scientific green,actually better than fossil fuel.

            And its far from a perfect solution. But at least the issues associated with it are soluble at something approaching sane costs, which sadly cannot in truth be said about renewables.

            We have to abandon faith based thinking if we are to arrive at sane rational conclusions.

            ‘Fans’ have faith. sceptical advocates respond to the calculations they have done.

      • Dave says:

        Georgia Power is currently building two nuclear units, Vogtle units 3 and 4. Cost estimates are around 14 billion. The US Government provided 8 billion in loan guarantees to them. Georgia Power is creative in raising the money. The Georgia PSC allowed a portion of the cost to be passed to the rate payers in advance of the units actually going on line. This reduced their borrowing costs. Gail is helping fund nuclear power whether she likes it or not.
        Without the loan guarantees and a friendly PSC would they have been able to borrow the money at a reasonable rate?

        • My answer: Probably not.

        • Scott says:

          Hello Dave, I agree, if only we could focus the power of the Military Industrial Complex War Machine into this project to build a new energy structure. I have brought this up with Gail before and I think she may believe too little too late. I guess that is yet to be seen, when everyone gets a fire burning under their butts to do something when the “Long Emergency” is headlines day after day on the nightly news.

          • Military industrial complexes are just another way of fuelburning.
            in WW2, the USA won because her enemies ran out of gas first, not because of better or worse soldiers.
            Right now the USA is acting as world policeman in an attempt to keep the oil flowing as long as possible, it has nothing to do with altruism. Probably 2 million people have jobs because the US military goes on burning oil.
            Building new energy structures consumes energy itself. No matter how complex you make it, if you haven’t delivered more energy at the end than you put in at the beginning, then it was a waste of time. Or at best a job creation scheme.

    • Adam says:

      @Leo Smith

      “1/. we realise and its not even a controversial point any more, that population will limit – either by choice, or by less attractive measures. Ergo what follows is the ‘zero population growth’ scenario. IN western populations, apart from immigrant births, the birthrate is already ‘below replacement’”

      Yes, and the immigrant births are a huge problem, given the fundamentalist people in the UK who think it’s fine to have 8 children (and claim state benefits, no doubt, that negate any usefulness of their presence). Sadly, the government is too “politically correct” to realise the wrong-headedness of allowing any more such people in.

      Furthermore, apart from renewables, world resources, such as metals, are limited in nature. But even if the population does reduce itself, that is only relative, because there are still, in our terms, an infinite number of generations to come, who will still want to use the finite supply of non-renewable resources.

      “2/. All elements that constitute mineral resources are infinitely recyclable. So in a steady state society we never run out. Given access to the energy to recycle, they will always be available.”

      They are not infinitely recyclable, because you lose a high proportion of the material through entropy. And Gail has already stated that recycled metal does not give you such sharp knives. And access to energy is precisely what will become a problem.

      As for nuclear, yes, I’m definitely in favour.

      • we will eventually reach zero population growth–that much is obvious, but the problem is the bubble passing through the system right now. We dont die conveniently at 50—we live to 80+
        The mothers of the next 2 billion are alive now, and they wont forgo breeding.
        It has to be a sharp downturn on population to preserve humanity I think

      • I agree that you do lose quite a bit of material in recycling, so it is at best a temporary approach. It also doesn’t give the mix of metals you want, and usually still requires heat for processing.

  10. philsharris says:

    I have been following the story for a good number of years now, but found interesting new thoughts in this most recent post of yours. Thanks.
    When first presented with the ‘Hubbert curve’ (Hat/tip Chris Vernon) the ‘downslope’ was the problem to predict.
    Just a thought about our current ‘global world’: about 50% of the world population is not yet urbanized and has varying degrees of dependence on the urbanized half where industry resides. A significant fraction can grow a lot of their own food, for example, even when the rest of their income is very low in purchasing power.
    The fragility of this ‘mixed’ system – the industrial half of course is almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel – is not straightforwardly equated perhaps to that of a previous civilisation growing too large for its food supply? The parallels with those earlier examples however are certainly worth exploring. The linked economies of the industrial half – the exemplar is the USA even when it has located a lot of its actual industry offshore – fits remarkably well with your quoted cycles. Hard limits mean facing up to decline, as you suggest. ‘Our’ mutual system (I am British) of ‘capitalism’ has been a tool for enabling ‘growth’, even if that meant getting and importing ‘global’ resources. (For example, “our oil just happens to be under your sand”). Profit and return on investment has meant ‘growth’. Decline as you suggest means potentially rapid restructuring where whole industries can go bankrupt. This does not mean, at least to start with in the USA or in other OECD countries,, a declining population because of constriction of the basic food supply but unemployment and declining wages means many fewer happy bunnies! (A presenter at the recent GES Conference in Edinburgh organised by Oil Drum staff, Euan Mearns & Rembrandt Koppelaar, suggested that Greece was the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for our previously growing economies. Dr Sgouris Sgouridis, Masdar Institute, backed his conjecture with compelling evidence.)

    • There is clearly very mixed dependence on our current fossil fuel system. There are probably parts of Africa that have few roads, little commercial fertilizer use, and where water is obtained by carrying pots great distances. But I would expect these to be a relatively small part of the total.

      The issue of concern is that population has been growing rapidly, especially in countries with low fossil fuel use. While many people can grow their own food, will it be enough to feed the current population? Can that food be brought to market, it there are problems with obtaining fuel for trucks? I know India is very fertilizer dependent. What happens if they cannot afford to keep purchasing large amounts of fertilizer? They also need to keep their irrigation systems going.

      I don’t think we know how this plays out. I know that in past famines, a big issue has been that a share of the population cannot afford food, because they don’t have jobs, and there are not government programs to give them alternate income. I would expect that that will be the primary reason for famine in the future as well. I see governments and government programs as being very much at risk. We know that the Former Soviet Union broke up into its constituent parts. We also know that our current form of government is too expensive to keep going for the long term. But we don’t know what the transition to new government will be, or how it will take place.

      • Scott says:

        Hello, I found these links about a hydrogen powered tractor. They look expensive – don’t they? I think we can build them, but can all farmers afford to totally replace their fleets of equipment? That really worries me. Interesting – these run on fuel cells and large electric motors.


        • Leo Smith says:

          …and where does the hyrdogen come from Scott?

          • Scott says:

            Hi Leo, you asked about where the Hydrogen comes from. It takes lots of electricity and a little water to make it and I envisioned it coming from Thorium Reactor Power Stations. There are many other ways to make it too. Hydrogen can run fuel cells very well and I do not see anything any better out there right now as a replacement. Looks like an expensive switch over, but if we can start right away, perhaps we can still save some of us.

            I just wonder what is going to happen on in the days when oil shortages are the top stories on our news programs, will that be the time these things will be discussed. Will it bee too late by then? Well maybe.


            • I will be surprised if oil shortages are ever the top stories on our news programs. The top story will the economy crashing, and then there won’t be news programs. The reason we won’t have oil is because we don’t have jobs, and we can’t afford oil. The lack of jobs will be what people will be concerned about, not the lack of oil.

            • Scott says:

              Interesting Gail, I guess I keep missing that point that this will be given a “financial spin” and much oil may be left in the ground without the lines of credit and financial backing and investment needed to explore, especially if the price falls again like in 2008 when gas was about $1.


        • It seems like when I read about hydrogen powered devices, there were two major drawbacks:

          (1) The molecules are so small that they slip out of tanks and pipelines in the tiniest of places. This means that you are likely to lose the hydrogen in your fuel tank if it is left unused as short time (day or two?). It also makes it impractical to pipe hydrogen from place to place (or am I mistaken about this?).

          (2) You can’t keep a hydrogen powered car or tractor inside a garage because the leaking hydrogen will collect, and may cause an explosion.

          If I understood these problems right, it sounded like they were deal-killers, regardless of the price of car or tractor.

          • Scott says:

            Hi Gail, Well in my opinion Hydrogen is the best thing out there we got and we have multiple ways to make it as discussed. In Search of “The so called “Dilithium Crystal” I have been reading about Hydride Metals as means to store hydrogen in a safer way.

            You may fill your gas tanks with a sand like substance with a shovel and then seal the box. Sounds different than buying gas doesn’t it?

            The box receives heat from a starting device which causes hydrogen gas to emit and pressurize, who knows, when I studied solar in the 1970’s it was being discussed then already. Burning hydrogen does not give off any smoke, just water vapor and if we can indeed make it in nuclear we could do something with this.

            I agree as I have written many times the atoms are small and would need more modern delivery devices and better seals, but perhaps using it in the inert metals may be a safer transport mode, this stuff is way over my head but it is interesting.

            It appears to be the best goal to work towards from what I can see now. But you know I understand the money is not there which is the problem aside from disbelief of the major majority of the population not really believing in Peak Oil. Here are some links on Hydride’s.

            – Scott


          • Scott says:

            I think some of us in the group hold out hope for Hydrogen, it but we would have to see an immediate political change and social change in will.


            • If you look at the details, it is hard to see how hydrogen would work. See End of More’s comment. There is a good reason why discussion of hydrogen has dropped from discussion. If you can make the energy needed to split hydrogen out of water, you can use the same energy in a different way, much more cheaply.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Gail, I guess I was just dreaming that “if” we had the Thorium Reactor Stations making so much cheap electricity we could use the excess to make hydrogen as a way to store the excess energy for use in other ways such powering a fuel cell to run a train or tractor…. It seems like we could make lots of electricity without oil if we were to build these someday, the problem is that batteries are not a good way to store the excess electricity that could be generated at night.

              I understand and agree that peak oil may look more like financial collapse and it looks like we are heading back into recession, so not much will get done in the next few years. Here is a news story about the economy from today.



            • Thanks for the link. I think our problems are here and now. We are dealing with a very long time line with thorium reactors. Even if we started working on them now, it would take a long time to build the first one, see how it works, then add a few more, and see how they work. Bringing the cost would come even later yet. And of course, it would take lots of oil to build each of these thorium reactors. Adding a hydrogen economy would add huge more costs and oil use. I would think that the chance it could happen in the time frame it is needed is 0.00%.

            • Michael Gorn says:

              Then what do you think will happen to US economy 5 years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now? Realistically…

            • Within 20 years, I would not be surprised if US GDP (if it is still measured) is less than 20% of today’s GDP. I am not sure I want to speculate on precisely how the economy drops.

              I know that some “doomers” think that a large share of the population will be dead in a very short period of time–a week, a month, a year, or some such amount of time. I am doubtful that there will be as quick a change as this. I expect changes will be very uneven, with some parts of the country (and world) doing better than others. I expect that governmental differences will be important. If an area can put together a reasonable government, and also has some easily accessible resources, it may be able to hang on reasonably well. A big concern of mine is the lack of available structure, if our current government disappears/falls apart.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              If one listens to the thorium scientists, they are far more optimistic (well, they would be, I suppose). But if they are not completely living in cloud cuckoo land and the world woke up to the danger it faces, stopped wetting its knickers in fright because it is ‘nuclear’ and cooperated to complete the design (we know from early work in the U.S.A. that the fundamentals are o.k.). And let’s not forget that China is well on the way with their thorium project, as is India, but I understand there are problems with their chose design.

              We don’t need to build the same massive structures that we do with uranium fueled reactors; in fact we could make them in factories and transport them in modules by road to wherever they are best located. Seeing as they only need minimal water, that means they can be put almost anywhere.

              If we could complete a Manhattan project because of the supposed German threat in WW2, surely the potential collapse of our current system is of equal importance and thus deserving of a similar focus. (Those to whom thorium fueled nuclear reactors – commonly called LFTR – could Google Kirk Sorensen and watch various videos on the topic on YouTube.)

            • Scott says:

              Hello Gail, I respect your point. Really 0.00? can we even give it 0.1? That is our chance to switch over to an hydrogen system?

              I think we get your message that there is not a chance financially speaking as we are on the doorstep of collapse. Folks it looks like Gail is not giving us much hope on switching over to a new hydrogen economy or for that matter any alternatives. Sorry but I still think we can make these thorium plants, but it looks like there will be no money sadly.

              The numbers she is giving us spell doom as it sounds?


            • Maybe .001. Hydrogen seems to be very low on the list of possible solutions, as far as I can see. Its cost would be way too high. We would need huge amounts of metals made using oil to create the new infrastructure, if it were even possible to do so. We would have to generate the amazing amount of energy needed to separate hydrogen from oxygen, in order to use this energy. It would be better to use this energy directly, if so much energy could be generated.

              The hype around hydrogen died out years ago, when people discovered the huge drawbacks.

          • There are several problems with hydrogen—my figures here are quoted from memory–they might be a bit out in detail, but close enough.
            1—-In liquid form you need to keep it at 256bar pressure
            2—at that pressure you still need a gas tank 26 times as big as a conventional car to get the same volume of energy
            3—-no hydrogen infrastructure is possible or practical due to leakage and transport problems
            4—-hydrogen is a battery, ie in making hydrogen you have to put in 1.5 times more energy than you get out

          • Michael Gorn
            If any of us knew that with any accuracy, we’d be rich
            I forecast the current Egypt collapse 5 years ago, but couldn’t put a date on it then. Just when a friend said they were buying a holiday apt there–I told them not to—but they did anyway. (Nov 2010!)
            So much for fortune tellers.
            As to the USA— Egypt and Syria and a swathe of middle east countries are giving a dress rehearsal for the industrialised west, showing just what happens when nations go into energy decline and can no longer support their own people. Syria’s problems were caused by a 10 year drought, so country people migrated to cities and clashed with other sects. Egypt doesn’t have enough land to feed its own people, so exists on handouts from rich nations anxious to keep Egypt afloat, but 50% live below the world poverty line and 30% are unemployed, with an 80 million population set to double in 35 years. When the handouts stop, Egypt goes down.
            Saudi stays stable by buying off its unemployable young men with billions in freebies. Dubai builds like crazy, pretending that towers in the desert represent wealth–they don’t, they are energy sinks. Iraq is sinking back into anarchy. Iran might just start lobbing nukes around in desperation–(a wild card there) Even India and Pakistan might toss something in to the mix over water supplies. (another of Egypt’s problems there.).
            The collective picture is one of decline, each nation showing different symptoms, but a collective chaos. Few people zoom out to look at the complete house of cards
            Transpose this onto the USA and you can find the same things happening. Severe and prolonged drought, unsustainable debts incurred to keep an economy afloat, rising population and poverty, collapsing cities, both literally and financially. They are all there. In the USA you also have a military that is fully aware of the implications of what is about to happen, even if the wackier end of the senate deny it.
            I can guarantee they will react like armies in the middle east, so long as they are getting paid.
            As to time—I wouldn’t bet on 20 years. 5 years might be OK—so that drops us in the 5-10 range for collapse.
            But remember Pearl Harbour, Dec 6th you were at peace, Dec 7th you were at war. I’m convinced there won’t be a gradual decline. There are some seriously deranged people out there on both sides of the fence. If Saudi shuts down, Western infrastructure collapses with it.

            • Scott says:

              Hello, End of More, Thanks for nailing it down, We all got your 5-10 year prediction. I tend to agree – but we hope for more time…


  11. This comment is concerning the last paragraph.
    In addition to the oil drum, I would point readers to Paul Chefurkas Blog, that was for me one of the mot helpfuk in connecting the dots about peak oil.
    His insights about what to do with the frustration, once the realisation of the enormity of the problems hit you, are very helpfull too.
    Paul Chefurka links to the works of Charles Eisenstein on his Blog and I am especially grateful for him on pointing me in that direction. ( see ).
    Especially if you are frustrated about the looming crisis, read (or whatch) Eisenstein. I could make you feel better about the future.

    So go check them out.

    • Thanks for the links. I know that several years ago, some of Paul Chefurkas post were printed on The Oil Drum, so I am familiar with him from their.

      Charles Eisenstein wrote the book, “Sacred Economics”.

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    A recurring theme in the discussion section is whether we can grow enough food to feed ourselves. A second question revolves around the use of energy to produce the food we eat and what might be done to use less industrial energy and more natural energy (solar heat, gravity, microbes, animals, wind, evaporation, atomic forces, etc.).

    Gary Paul Nabhan has just published Growing Food in a Hotter, Dryer Land. The book is simply a ‘must read’ if you are at all interested in the subject of food security. I think this link will take you to the Table of Contents:

    Nabhan’s particular interest is what we can learn from farmers in the desert…and particularly those who have created oases in the desert. So, as Sepp Holzer creates an oasis high in the Austrian Alps, these farmers create oases in the dry regions of the world. Holzer uses very heavy machinery to move a lot of rocks and soil and to build lakes. These farmers tend to use much simpler methods such as piling brush in flood zones to trap nutrient rich soil which can then be farmed. Simple methods of irrigating and increasing the organic content of the soil to enable greater storage of water are highlighted. For example, on page 112 we find ‘with just 1 percent organic matter left in the topsoil of most conventional farms, a field can hold only about 33 pounds of water per cubic meter. But if you increased that organic matter to just 5 percent, the soil moisture-holding capacity goes up to 195 pounds.’

    Nabhan early in the book has a section titled No Sniveling or Hand Wringing Allowed: Here’s What You Can Do! In each section you tend to find inspiring parables of those who have succeeded (frequently from third world countries or long dead peasants), a discussion of the tools, and then a challenge to do things yourself.

    Bill McKibben wrote the Foreword. McKibben and Nabhan are friends. But I find their approaches very dissimilar. McKibben presents a picture of doom and holds out actions such as carbon taxes or divesting fossil fuel companies as solutions. You won’t find those in this book. This is about farming successfully in an uncertain world and the specific things you need to be doing right now. Those who are really concerned about feeding 7 or 10 billion will not find any reassurance that these techniques will supply any predetermined amount of calories. Merely that they produce a lot of food in what would otherwise be a desert.

    We have recently had some discussion about fermented food in the comments section, so you may find the following interesting. Nabhan notes that 80 percent of the energy used to get the food to our plate is not used on the farm, but in the industrial food system and in home preparation and storage. His challenge near the end of the book:
    ‘From where I sit, it seems that we need to ‘ferment’ a new revolution, not only about how we care for the land, but how we care for our health and for our local economies. The steps suggested on these three pathways to restoration will not only enhance the food-producing capacity of our land, but create less waste in our food system and redirect the community economies in which our food production is embeded. But we must pay attention to each of the three legs of this stool for seating– restoration, regeneration, and resilience–for without even one of these three in place, the stool will topple.’

    Highly recommended, even to those in the flooded Southeast….Don Stewart

  13. Transition to a New Government–A First Step

    Gail Tverberg, Again your most recent post is basically quite good,
    but just pamphleteering on these issues is not enough. For 23
    years The Social Contract, a quarterly published out of Petoskey,
    MI by Dr. John Tanton, has been publishing articles on immigration,
    population sustainability, resource depletion and on several
    occasions has highlighted Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory about
    the imminent collapse (2030) of industrial civilization. I don’t
    share his pessimistic views as I do believe we have choices,
    albeit hard ones, a plan B. The problem is that outside of a
    journal like The Social Contract and a number of self-contained
    blogs like yours, these issues are not being discussed seriously
    in the public forum.

    It has long been my contention that there will not be the
    discussion we need until our political space is opened up to
    third parties willing to do what Ross Perot tried to do in 1992
    concerning our unsustainable government deficits. That is
    not possible, as I explain in my electronic book “Third Parties
    and Voting Reform: The American Dilemma” on my website, without voting reform.

    The longer we wait, the worse the situation will be. But surely
    there are things we can do. They will require government and
    taxes. We are in my opinion under taxed and could surely
    raise the revenue to attempt to try to mitigate what we face.
    Our taxes on both an intertemporal and interspatial basis are
    on the low side. Our total tax take is very much on the low
    side for OECD countries and for our own post-war historical
    record. I suspect from what I have learned from your site
    that we need to develop a workable thorium nuclear
    infrastructure, focus on downsizing and population policies
    aimed at achieving self-sustaining population levels. Can
    we do it? I don’t know and others don’t know, but we will
    never know without trying. And government inevitably will
    be an important element here despite what Republicans
    and Libertarians think.

    • You need to add our health care cost to the tax rate, to make it comparable to other countries. Furthermore, the other countries need huge tax increases to balance their budgets.

      In my view, there is no possible way we could raise the tax rate enough to fix our problems. Discretionary income would drop too low. Basically, we can no longer afford the expensive government system we put in place. We also cannot afford our ridiculously expensive healthcare system. We need to recognize that we are poorer now, and expect to become progressively poorer in the future. In such a situation, government needs to start contracting. Otherwise, it will collapse at some point.

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  17. Michael Gorn says:

    you should read this memo by Warren Buffett that he wrote in 1975:
    In it he talks about actuaries and the faulty assumptions they make. He also talks about pensions. It is very interesting and was just released today. Let me know what you think.

    • I should start by pointing out that US actuaries “specialize” in one area or another. My training is as a casualty actuary, although some of the beginning material is applicable to pensions as well as life and health insurance. As a casualty actuary, I was involved with lines of insurance like medical malpractice and workers compensation. I was involved in setting up “captive” insurance companies, (used to minimize US taxes), and in modeling their financial results, to show that they would meet regulatory requirements in future years. So I understand a lot of the same mathematics, but I have not been involved in pension funding, per se.

      I haven’t read through the entire document, but the part I read seems reasonable. Buffet is pointing out that actuaries look at recent past experience, and extrapolate forward, with minimal adjustments. If we lived in a world without limits, this at least in theory might be all right. In a finite world, we start hitting limits pretty early, and that is a major part of what causes problems. Buffet doesn’t point out this particular issue–he points out some other issues: inflation can be very important in calculations, and the company is pretty much on the hook, regardless of the errors in estimation the actuaries make.

      I have thought for quite a long time that the interest rate assumptions made by pension actuaries seemed optimistic. (I really haven’t looked at the other assumptions.) In the years when I was involved, casualty actuaries were generally using much lower interest rates in their assumptions than pension actuaries–but our assumptions were not tied in with what someone before us had come up with, perhaps decades before. Furthermore, casualty actuaries tended to stick to bond yields (since casualty companies tended to be funded with bonds), not “wishful thinking” regarding how the stock market would do (because pensions were generally funded by a mix of bond and stocks). On pensions, it is very easy to become “locked into” assumptions, because any lowering of the assumed future rate of return in the calculation will mean that an employer will need to make much bigger future contributions to provide the stated benefit.

  18. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others

    If any of you decide to read Gary Nabhan’s Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, I would like to offer a couple of thoughts about language.

    In the Energy blogosphere we frequently talk as if heat engines run with some sort of fuel are the definition of ‘energy’. But to a practical gardener or farmer, heat engines are only part of the equation. I don’t think it is useful to think thoughts such as ‘everything is solar powered’, because a practical person will use lots of gravity. If gravity has a connection to the nuclear reactions in the sun, I don’t know what that connection is. And gravity is perhaps the most important force because it holds water vapor close to Earth so that it can condense into rain and fall under the force of gravity.

    I would like to suggest the following terms for thinking and talking about energy and growing food:
    1. There is Positive Energy That is Free for the Taking. Things like gravity and the nuclear forces which bind nutrients to clay and the solar heat energy which warms things and photosynthesis by plants and dead limbs which fall off trees and the condensation of water in the form of dew. We might also include functions which aren’t exactly energy but are also Free for the Taking: the decontamination powers of mushrooms, the cleansing powers of moving water, the oxidizing powers of fresh air, the disease preventive powers of plants which humans eat.
    2. There is Negative Energy That is Free for the Taking. As you read Nabhan, you will see lots of discussion about ways to shield plants (and buildings) from excessive heat. One way is to build a canopy and put industrially produced shade cloth on it so that the plant is shielded from part of the sun’s rays. Another way is to plant a tree which performs the shade function and also hosts nitrogen fixing bacteria. The first option costs money, the second does not. (If one gets the tree at a nursery, then the plant costs money. If one gathers seeds in the wild and plants them, it costs no money.)
    3. There is Human Energy. Human energy is very efficient energy in terms of dietary calories required to produce work. It is true that if we have thousands of fossil fuel slaves we can move a lot more dirt in a short period of time, but the human will do it more efficiently.
    4. There is Animal Energy. For example, feeding a burro which can then haul a heavy load. I believe animal energy is usually next down the scale of efficiency.
    5. There is Mechanical Energy. Kris DeDecker writes a lot about these systems. Water falls and turns a turbine which turns a shaft which operates a machine. In many circumstances, these systems are more efficient than the next step down.
    6. Electrical and Heat Engines. These are the least efficient. They can only exist in a world with abundant fuels.

    In a different category are Scavenged Items Which are Free for the Taking, but won’t be around forever. Here we might think about all the stuff people get out of the Mexico City dump. A slightly different category is Scavenged Items Which are Cheap for the Taking, but won’t be around forever. These are things like the scavenged glass that cob house builders typically use as windows and the shipping containers that frugal young people fit out as dwellings. Another category here is legacy tools.

    In a severe Collapse, the first three categories plus the scavenged items and legacy tools must provide the framework for the production system. Nabhan has lots of examples of production systems which rely overwhelmingly on these sources of energy. In my opinion, being able to think in these terms becomes essential in a Collapse. Having some skill in actually doing things with these energy sources will determine whether one survives the collapse (along with legacy tools such as metal roofs for collecting rainwater and metal tools for working).

    But, unless one lives on an undiscovered desert island, nobody can make a reasonable living today by using the post-collapse resources to compete in a high-energy economy.

    I have seen lots of confusion in the discussion section which I hope that this short essay can help sort out. It is also homemade, and so subject to small and grievous errors. Corrections are solicited.

    Don Stewart

  19. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    One more plug for Nabhan’s book and I will shut up. It is frequently a mistake to try to go from scientific first principles to the practical. How can I say such a thing? Consider Nabhan’s story on page 154:

    ‘In the later 1980s, I happened to be present and humbled when a remarkable archaeological discovery was made in Arizona–the presence of living century plant populations on terraces and rock alignments constructed 500 to 800 years earlier. This marked the first time that scientists confirmed that the very same crop variety (or genetic lineage) has survived in an unbroken chain since prehistoric farmers had first planted it on terraced hillsides centuries before us. What’s more, the volcanic cobbles laid down in rock alignments and low terraces by desert dwellers 25 to 40 generations before us still held soil and moisture in place long after they had been abandoned.

    Like most so-called discoveries, ours was a fortuitous find; many other archaeologists and botanists with just as much or more expertise as our own had tramped along the same slopes without ever glimpsing the remnants of ancient crops surviving in these terraces….I was curious to learn whether any of the century plants know as Agave murpheyi could still be found…And so I invited a few of my achaeological mentors…to come into the field with botanically trained scientists…Within 50 yards of leaving our cars on the sole rocky road that climbed up the mesa, we spotted a few century plants on the lower slopes…that flanked the mesa. As we gathered around the plants to see exactly where they were situated, I pointed out the prehistorically constructed rock alignment that followed the contour for dozens of yards across the slope. Another of us realized that this clonal population of century plants was still situated on the very same terrace created by a rock alignment built hundreds of years prior to our own arrival there!

    And then–to our astonishment–one of the archaeologists reached down between the century plants and found what prehistoric tool experts call an agave knife. It was a thin piece of carefully shaped stone that had a curvilinear blade with obvious serrations along its cutting edge. Our jaws dropped. Here were the very same crop plants, terraces, rock alignments, and harvesting tools that had fed a prehistoric farming family half a millenium ago! What’s more, most of the terraces still retained enough fertile soil and moisture that both agaves and a fishhook cactus with delicious strawberry-like fruits continued to produce abundant food crops long after the last cultivator had departed from this landscape 5 or 6 centuries ago.

    ….And so many of the cultivated agaves were intentionally planted in loosened soil and then half buried in rock piles, where dew and light rains would collect on the bottom sides of the cobblestones in the pile. This enhances the moisture available to each plant.’

    Here is my point about depending too much on science. It took a COLLECTION of scientists to recognize and understand what they were looking at. Neither the botanists nor the archaeologists singly would likely have pieced the story together. Today, we tend to look to specialists who tell us that ‘everything is created by energy’–by which they mean everything that has economic value in a market economy and by energy they mean some sort of combustion. Yet the farming family who lived here had an extraordinarily sophisticated way of using some human labor (which is very efficient) with some intelligence (finding the contour) and some know how passed down from their ancestors (planting agave on the lip of a terrace to stop erosion), a tool which may well have come from their parents, a botanists understanding of plant guilds, and multiple free sources of energy that had nothing to do with combustion. The result is something that has continued to work up to the present day without human maintenance. I would call this a very high EROEI example. Perhaps we should redraw the graphs starting at 10,000 to 1 in the good old days back in the Sonoran desert—instead of the paltry 100 to 1 in the East Texas field. But then it would make the tar sands disappear into the abscissa of the graph and we might feel inferior to an illiterate farm family. And we know they were savages.

    Sepp Holzer was in Montana a couple of years ago doing his thing constructing terraces and lakes. One of the things he told his hosts was to work in a circle–trying, observing, modifying, observing, expanding, observing, etc. The dominant thought in Permaculture is to start from Ethics and work out toward the practical. Yet a number of Permaculturists now agree that talking about Ethics rarely solves any problems. Problems are solved by actual work and observation. If you read Gary’s book, you may have a more mature conception of how you want to procede as Collapse unfolds.

    Don Stewart

    • Chris Johnson says:

      Don, at the beginning of this post you said, “One more plug for Nabhan’s book and I will shut up…” Don’t you dare.

    • Nice comments Don. I couldn’t agree with you more, most people tend to think of energy as only fossil fuel powered machines, and that there are many other viable forms of energy that our ancestors knew much more about than we do. The sooner we learn to understand other ‘free’ forms of energy, the faster we can transition to a different lower energy lifestyle. As long as we cling to the hope for ‘modern’ solutions, the false belief that some technology will save our current economic system, the longer it takes us to see new opportunities.

      Personally, when I look at our modern economy, modern agriculture, modern health care, modern diets and life styles, I see mostly stressed out, hormonally unbalanced, unhealthy people desperately trying to find the health and happiness they lost because they are cut off from the natural world that we evolved within. I see this as the legacy of fossil fuels and the technology it spawned. I am not unappreciative of the opportunity to live with technology, but I am not blind to the curse that comes with the blessing. I see how technology has cut off humans from a perception of our place within the web of life on earth.

      The more I work in the soil, with plants, insects, and animals, the more I feel connected to Life. We are in such a quandary of how to replace all the energy we currently use. Few people stop to think about why they cling to this system. Do we really need to use all this ‘energy’? Do we need the appliances that are now engineered to last only 10 years, when we used to build them to last 30 or 40; hand tools that are almost disposable because they are made so poorly? Are we giving our bodies what they need when we eat ‘food’ that has been formulated to taste good and look like natural? Do we need that closet full of clothes that we frequently have to “clean out” and haul to the thrift store? Do we need to watch 4 hours of T.V each night, or surf the internet for hours on end? Are we perhaps missing relationships we need when do so? Do we perhaps need miss something in life when our children move hundreds or thousands of miles away? Is your life only about your job?

      I suggest that we can be happier without these beliefs. We just need to pick up a tool and start using our hands. The wisdom comes with the sweat.


      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Anyone who supports reverting to the old ways also supports the cull of vast numbers of human beings that will have to die in order to facilitate such a move. They must take that into consideration when advocating same. We can only feed the numbers we have now by using the technology that we have thus far developed. The problem is not that we have developed too much, but that we have not developed enough. Fro example, we discovered nuclear fission ages ago, yet have failed to develop it to the extent that we needed to. And the reason we have failed to do so is mainly because of the influence of the Green movement over public opinion. They have a lot to answer for. So too do the governments who have failed to steer policy towards the long forecast population numbers that we now face and are morally obliged to at least try and support. We won’t do so if we are all working by hand in the fields, will we?

        It is clear that we face a period of turmoil caused by a perfect storm of energy deficit combined with a corrupt finance system seemingly designed to cheat the rest of us in order to provide obscene bonuses to its practitioners. With proper leadership, we could take the opportunity presented by this forthcoming period of turmoil to hit the reset button and develop coherent strategies to deal with the problems that beset us all as a species, not least of which is climate change. Despite being well informed on energy matters, this site takes a view that climate change will sort itself out when the oil supply fails. Unfortunately, in the meantime we are supposed to ignore it and continue to pump vast amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, which is going to hang around for hundreds of years at least and spoil things for our children and grandchildren, and so on down the generations, it would appear. Out of the turmoil must come respect for scientists and their scientific opinions, no matter how much they might contradict political opinion.

        Perhaps Douglas Adams got it right and coming down from the trees was a mistake in the first place. But curiosity is part of our nature – well of many of us anyway – and that will make it difficult, if not impossible, to stop us as a species continuing to develop, providing the coming collapse doesn’t kill all of us off, of course.

        You stick with the old ways Jody, like the Amish do. There is room for those who reject modernity, but not so much room that they can be allowed to stop us seizing a future where technology is our slave, not the master it has been allowed to become.

        • Mel,
          I don’t reject “modernity”, in fact I live in a very nice modern home, powered by solar panels. Yes, I grow a lot of food. Yes, I can many types of vegetables and fruit. Yes, I have a small flock of chickens, a few pigs, and a milk goat. Seems logical to me given that most high quality food in the store is getting more and more expensive, not to mention the possibility of salmonella contamination or perhaps even worse a disruption in the food supply. I suggest that if you don’t know how or aren’t prepared to grow some of the food you eat you will be one of those “culled” from the herd.

          My point is that we should question our assumptions of what we need and what we get from our current modern economic system. I will pick just one of your assumptions. You made the statement “We can only feed the numbers we have now by using the technology that we have thus far developed.” Is that really true?

          The majority of grain grown in the U.S. is corn and soybeans. The majority of that is either feed to our car in the form of ethanol, or it is feed to animals, of which pork and beef are the largest volume. I would estimate that of the 7 billion people in this world, few of them actually benefit from all the beef and pork we grow. Most of the 7 billion, if they eat pork or chicken, they raise it themselves. I think this is just one of the assumptions you made that needs to be looked at more closely.

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            You live a very nice life, Jody. The problem is that if the whole of the human race lived as you do, we would run out of land pdq. (Yes, that is another assumption.) I will admit that I am in no place to argue, having about two hectares to myself – mostly sandy soil and currently with a nice show of weeds. Yes, my assumptions do need to be questioned as do those of others – and examined now, before the ungazi hits the fan, is surely the best time to do so, yet, do we hear anything other than cans being kicked down the road? Not in my experience.) My main point is that I don’t believe we can ditch the Industrial Revolution by going backwards as if it were one big mistake. I contend that we need to develop a post Industrial Revolution life that employs technology for the benefit of all. You are right about the TV hours and the like (I don’t own a TV and have not done so for many years. And I could not care less about having the latest iPhone, or whatever similar device is all the rage.) The technology that I see as vital is energy production and associated matters.

            I suppose what I was reacting to is the large proportion of the commenters herein who see living off grid as the be all and end all – a box I put you into, perhaps a little hastily. Living off grid might be best for them, but at the expense of the wider population. In addition to be rather selfish, it is hardly helpful from the wider perspective of the problems we know are headed our way and they are not going to get solved if those who do consider the issues important, i.e. those whose subscribe to this blog, are all too busy comparing the size of their homesteads – like some mass exhibition of penis envy – to force the powers that be to get off their butts and start doing the things we pay them to, instead of planning where their next campaign contributions are coming from and which revolving door they will exit and re-enter through should they lose their seat at the next election.

            • Don Stewart says:

              I am pretty sure I referred you to this previously. But I doubt you have read it or thought about it.


              As a rule, the way to increase yields is to put more feet on the soil. It’s not about using nuclear energy to exponentially increase the resources put into the industrial food system. Your assumption that the real scientific agricultural methods are ‘a step backward’ is just wrong.

              I’ve no intention of arguing with you about whether nuclear is a good way or a bad way to produce electricity. Just that your characterization of true scientific agriculture as a ‘step backward’ is terribly misinformed.

              Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              “More feet on the soil,” Don, sounds fine, until you have to decide what to do with them when the crops are growing quietly without the need for any feet on any soil. I live in the middle of a crop growing area and it seems to me that there is precious little going on outside of harvest and sowing time from mid summer to late summer or early autumn depending on the weather.

              Surely one the biggest benefits that the Industrial Revolution ushered in was the use of traction engines that took over the donkeywork that was being done by the farm hands. Progress has given us the combined harvester and other mechanisations. If we had to prepare the land, sow the seeds and harvest the prairies by hand, just where would that army of labourers live? And just what would they do when their feet are not needed on the soil? And if we do come up with something, it is more than likely that for each individual, one or the other of the types of work will not suit them. Surely it has to be better to develop our technology so that it takes the back-breaking work away from humans and frees them to do things from which they might extract some pleasure.

              If we, as a species, went on a war-footing and saw it as essential that we electrify heavy transport, farm machinery and the like, I am sure that a solution would be forthcoming that removed our dependence on oil. Failing that, we might just have to resort to more feet on the soil, and heaven help us. It sure as hell will not suit me and people like me. I am creative, I like messing about with computers and I like messing about in my workshop, In contrast, I came bottom of the class at gardening in school (yes, the school had soil upon which we were expected to put our feet) and have spent my life trying to keep my feet as far off the soil as possible ever since. I doubt that I am alone when I say that the prospect of working on the land with my feet on the soil fills me with dread. I rather think we are at opposite ends of the spectrum, Don, don’t you?

            • Don Stewart says:

              You obviously still haven’t read the reference. These farmers do live on the land. I’m really not interested in hearing more of your excuses to keep doing what is obviously not working until you actually read the reference.

              Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              I did read the reference, Don, but I was applying its recommendations onto our western lifestyle. We have a load of other work that ‘needs’ doing (inverted commas because obviously one can argue about the need for many of todays jobs). I just don’t see the technique you recommend fitting into our world, sorry. It is not for nothing that we are referred to as the developed world.

            • Scott says:

              Greetings Mel, Hey – isn’t one of those big modern day tractors equal to like doing the work of hundreds of farm animals in a day? We are surely going to have trouble with that one, last night Bio diesel being made on farms was something I read somewhere, is that any hope for the smaller farmers? Perhaps, but I am sure it no hope for the large scale industrial farms we have today, looks like a problem if we run short on diesel in the years ahead.

              I think if we could indeed invent a decent battery, you know one that could run a car for 500 miles, then we would have something, and these batteries maybe strong enough to power a locomotive, but there is nothing in sight now, just expensive batteries that have little range and not enough to power the locomotives.


            • Mel Tisdale says:

              You make some good points, Scott. I cannot see how we can possibly support food production for the masses if we divide the land into small plots and try and allocate them to families to feed themselves. The administration of such a system would be a minefield, not to mention the handling of claims of unfair treatment because some have better plots than others and so on. And then we have the problem of water supply (as ever). Who should have the well and how much they can charge, and who sorts out disputes etc. etc. etc. Such a system might work o.k. in an area where it has evolved out of custom and practice over a great many years, but to try and impose it from scratch – no chance.

              If we are going to feed the masses, we are going to need ‘big ag’. One has only to look at the effect a bad harvest in America has on grain prices worldwide to see just how important it is. Big Ag needs oil to work, and as Gail has told us, supply of that is going to be a problem. I would like to see an emergency effort to develop a means, or many means, of electrifying the big tractors you mention, together with the big trucks we need to move stuff around, not least of which includes food. But that is never going to happen while we cling to the dream of impossible methods where we all feed ourselves. Or is the idea whose name cannot be spoken that those who live in cities must be allowed to wither on the vine? I rather think they might have a contrary opinion on that, and therein lies the rub. It all depends on the quality of government that each nations has and having seen them in action, courtesy of YouTube, I don’t have much hope, unless the solution involves Playdough, Lego bricks or paper and crayons.

            • Scott says:

              Well said Mel, That is the way I see it too, with all these people to feed in cities, we are stuck with big ag. until such a time the world population is what it was perhaps a hundred or more years ago.

              I hope an effort is made very soon to electrify also.


          • Mel,
            You live on 2 hectares….of sandy soil! Wow, I am envious. I live on 1 hectare of heavy clay. Of that I use about a third of for growing food and animals. If the people you associate with are more into comparing the size of their homestead, than sharing their knowledge of homesteading, then I wouldn’t consider them worth envying.

            The assumption that we don’t have enough land…is this really true? I live near a small city with a population of about 100,000. Surrounding our community are thousands of acres of farm land that is currently planted with corn and soybeans. If the banks were to collapse or couldn’t loan money to big farmers for whatever reason, most of that land would sit idle. Although occasionally I am starting to see a few small farmers working their land with ‘old fashioned’ i.e. small tractors. It would require significant manual labor, but I think it would be quite possible to grow enough food to feed our community.

            In fact, our community has four farmers markets. People who sell at the market have complained that sales are dropping because of all the competition from new small farmers and from families growing their own food. Interesting problem I think. We have grown the small farmers to the point where we have more of them than customers. So the supply is there, now we need the customer.

            I am sure it would be a massive adjustment for most people, but I think our small farmers and urban families could provide enough food for our community if the global supply were to dry up. People will need to eat less meat and dairy, more beans and whole grains, and much more seasonal fruit and vegetables, much as our grandparents did. But we wouldn’t starve. Might even get healthier! I grant you, this is not true for other regions of the world. Time to move if you can.

            If you are serious about growing crops on sandy soil you need to add lots and lots of compost and mulch. You might also investigate dry land agriculture and crops that do well in sandy soil. You might also try figuring out which weeds make animal fodder, or are beneficial as food and medicinal. It’s surprising how many weeds are good herbs. Goats are also very good at eating bushy weeds and don’t require much in the way of housing. Offer up that vast acreage of yours to someone who needs pasture for a herd of goats. In a month or two, no weeds! Add a few pigs for the summer and the soil will be turned over and free of perennial plant roots such as dandelion. Of course, crop rotation with animals on pasture is a very old fashioned technology! :)

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jody, I think it was Mel that said that we do not have enough land for all 7 or so billion to live as you do and as some of us with our small plots of land, gardens and livestock, but I wish they could. Probably not enough land with water out there to do it so they are doing it with the factory farms which are hell for many animals which also worries me. So I guess it is better that most stay living in the cities rather than overrunning the country side, what else can we do? I do not know but that is the scary thought during collapse of the cities overrunning the countryside and out on the roads wandering aimlessly, that keeps coming to mind.

              We have a rather large garden this year, but no chickens yet although I have a coupe ready to put up, the thing is that we do like to camp a little and get away and you know the animals really need daily attention, so eventually we will get some chickens and maybe a goat but may have to give up some camping trips!


          • Mel,
            Sorry I was typing my last post and didn’t see your most recent one. So you don’t want to work in the soil. that’s ok too. Can you fix things in your workshop? That would be a skill others will need. Can you find someone who wants to grow food but has no land? Offer them the opportunity to work your land for a share of the food.

            We don’t all have to love our feet on and our hands in the soil. Me, I was born this way, according to my mother. I have loved being in the dirt forever. The first thing I want to do when I see good soil is dip my hands in it and take a big whiff. Nothing better than the earthy smell of good soil! So I guess you could say that we really are at opposite ends of the dirt loving spectrum. That’s ok as long as someone else is willing to trade food for whatever skills you have.

            • Don Stewart says:

              With your permission, I’ll tag onto this.

              Mel, look around your community and see who could use some food. Do you have a local church or other institution which regularly feed the hungry? I assume you have some money. Build some raised beds and let some local people come and grow food for the local church. My community garden provides hundreds of pounds of food to those institutions which feed the hungry every year.

              Another alternative. Find a young couple who want to farm but can’t afford the land. (All the money printing around the world has horribly inflated agricultural land prices.) Let them build a simple home on the land and farm it and share the food with you. They are able to make a living and you get food security in the case of a collapse.

              The local government won’t permit the young couple to build a simple dwelling because of the local housing codes which demand that a McMansion be constructed? You are a political veteran. Get active. Make the local politicos lives so miserable that they stop persecuting people.

              That should keep you busy for a year or two….Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Thanks for all your suggestions, Don. I have yet to watch the Greening of the Desserts video and will reply to that when I have done so.

              In the meantime there is one overriding fact that closes a lot of doors: I am a pensioner and thanks to three marriages, two divorces and one death, I don’t have a lot of spare cash with which follow through on many of your suggestions. Don’t feel sorry for me because there has to be an upside. I am convinced that when we add up all the plusses and minuses of all of our situations, be it personal, or more general, the bottom line shows one big round zero. (Put a pedestrian crossing near a busy road junction and the cars will be going slower, but the drivers will have a lot of distractions, or make a car suspension with minimal unsprung weight and the ride will be excellent, but the suspension members will have minimal strength, or be very expensive, to name the two considerations that started me on the road to that philosophy. It makes making decisions a doddle!)

              Oh by the way, I am English, I just don’t happen to live there, for reasons that even I don’t fully understand!

        • xabier says:


          Now, if you’re not watching TV, or playing with an i-phone, why are your two hectares weed infested? Either become a good custodian of the land, or give it over to those who know what to do with it.

          And since when was self-reliance and sufficiency a form of selfishness? It seems to me it is the start of being a useful human being. To hold land and not cultivate it is perhaps the height of self-indulgence…..

          What did the old anarchists say? ‘Those who won’t work don’t deserve to be fed?’

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Xabier, do you seriously think that I am happy with the state of my land? I have had it sprayed with weed killer, had it ploughed (several times) to put the dead weeds into the sandy soil and finally I have had a crop planted, which hardly grew due to the state of the land and an extended period of zero rainfall just when it needed it. As for your suggestion that I give it over to those who might make better use of it, none of the local farmers are interested in it, even with a rent-free arrangement, which I thought might put some organic material into soil so that I can eventually grow things on it with some success. The land is in Eastern Europe and is not classed as agricultural land (obviously for good reason). Though it does have building permission and permission to grow trees, which are not cheap.

            Regarding your second paragraph, promoting a self-sufficient life-style is a selfish act if there is not enough land for everyone to do so. It is also a selfish act if those doing so are not going to do the work for the society in which they are members when their land demands their attention, which has to take priority, surely. Certainly, if my experience is anything to go by, things can go pear-shaped very quickly with crops. Further, it is a selfish act when that lifestyle leads to a drop in food production, with the consequent starvation that will result. (I just don’t believe that hand production of food can possibly match that of modern agriculture.)

            As for your final paragraph: they are sentiments for another time, another epoch. When push comes to shove, I’ll work in my workshop, which is something that I can do reasonably well, and for which there will be a need, though to be honest, at my age I expect that I will miss most of the ‘fun’.

            • Scott says:

              Mel, we had a hard time with some of our crops, I actually started using fertilizer this year, that is something we are going to need and this soil was only brought in a year ago for my raised beds. After about a year it was not as good although I added some compost, but I find it hard to make enough at home just from our own compost bin. So my point is it is really hard to grow your own foods in the volume needed to survive, especially without fertilizers. Many farmlands these days are just depleted soils acting as sponges for chemicals which sustain crops today of some empty nutritionally and not very good but big vegetables.


            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Scott, when it comes to asking for advice on anything to do with gardening, I am the very last person you should listen to! I don’t even seem to grow the right kind of weeds (i.e. the edible kind).

          • xabier says:


            We can all find plausible reasons for self-indulgence and for failing to make that which has come into our hands flourish. Ownership of land brings duties, and the highest moral duty now is to make it either a haven for wildlife or to grow food and timber – in fact both would be ideal.

            I suspect the old anarchist motto will be the one for the future, not the past.

            Industrial agriculture is most likely to destroy itself through soil depletion and dependency on an over- complex financial structure.

            It was in any case quite wrong of you jeer at the healthy and sane sentiments of so hard-working and productive a custodian of the land as Jody evidently is – not just a ‘return to the land’ sentimentalist and certainly not ‘selfish.’

            Is everything which does not meet with your particular ‘modern’ and ‘creative’ life-style to be dismissed as ‘ of another epoch?’

            How ‘creative’ is it to be the possessor of wasteland? How ‘modern’ will it be to starve……..?

            Nonetheless, your comments are valuable, as they exemplify an attitude which I fear is very widely held by the spoiled products of our too-cosy consumerist age.

      • xabier says:


        The painter Renoir had a wonderful saying: ‘Man was born with two eyes, two ears and two hands, and yet he doesn’t seem to want to use them!’

        It is extraordinary how ill and anxious so many people look in our supposedly well-nourished, peaceful and ‘advanced’ societies, and they are obviously not the poor.

  20. Andy says:

    A great article thanks Gail.
    I do not ‘know’ that low interest rates are going to go away. It is a very prevalent assumption, but as I see it, interest rates are no longer a market function, and there is no price discovery. Interest rates are set by the Reserve Bank. If they were to go away, then lots of bad things will happen, and I suspect most people know this, and every measure possible will be used to prevent that.

    I think we have more of a Malthusian problem, where things measured in per capita terms are in decline, and per capita wealth measured in access to resources is in decline. Most of the money in the world is stored in non tangible assets such as bonds and to a lesser extent in stocks, though stock do have a tangible aspect. Were this money for some reason seek realisation as a claim on tangible assets then we would have the inflation, where the price of tangible assets would have to increase to absorb all the as yet unrealised claims. As they say, we can always print more money, we can’t print more oil.


    • We have a lot of things that aren’t working right with very low interest rates. One of them, of course, is defined benefit pension plans. They are assuming a lot greater return than is actually the case recently. With QE, banks don’t have the spread to work with between high and low interest rates, and this reduces their willingness to give loans. Also, the super-low interest rates encourage speculation in stocks and real estate, including farmland. This distorts decision making, and eventually is likely to end up in a crash.

      But you may be right that governments can do more than I think they can, to keep our problem hidden for a few more years. I never ceased to be amazed at the creativity of government leaders in kicking the can down the road a while longer, in Japan, Europe, and the US. While we are hitting limits, it is hard to know exactly when they will come into play.

      Pension plans own a large share of stocks and bonds (50% is the number I remember, but I am not sure how that is defined). As long as there is enough funding from new pension fund participants, it seems like not much of the bond and stock revenue will need to be “used.” I am not sure how this all works out now though, with new participants usually in 401(k) plans and defined contribution plans, for smaller amounts.

      Also, at some point, even if interest rates can remain low indefinitely, we are still going to reach a point where the cost of oil extraction becomes too high for oil importers to pay. We will end up with more recession, even with the low interest rates. Or if oil prices drop too low, then oil producers with high cost of production (like tight oil producers and oil sands producers) will have problems, and oil exporters will find they are not collecting enough tax revenue to keep their economies from falling apart.

      • Andy says:

        I saw this interesting crude oil price chart, which possibly shows the conflict between producers and consumers, and seems to have a target of $115.
        Technical patterns like that can be used to predict price moves, and I’d imagine that a breakout should see price move significantly in one direction or the other. Of course if price comes down the peak-oil ballyhooers will cry that peak oil is dead and buried, and we have hit peak demand. Haha.

        Thanks again Gail, always a pleasure to read your articles.

        • Andy,

          I am not sure that that method gives exactly the right amount, but the general idea is right. The amount oil importers can afford to pay is dropping, while the amount oil exporters require is increasing. The following is a recent chart showing what one set of analysts says the OPEC oil prices need to be, in order to meet both the cost of extraction and pay the taxes the country requires to meet their budget. (Without enough taxes, riots and lower production may take place.) This chart says OPEC required prices are approaching (or exceeding) current actual prices. I have also seen indications that Russia needs very high oil prices to meet its budget.

          Sept 2013 Fiscal Cost Curve APIC

          • Andy says:

            Most developed nations haven’t had a balanced budget in years, so I assume that Opec can also use debt financing to a certain extent. To what extent is the big mystery.

  21. Ed says:

    An excellent article, as usual, however I have one serious bone to pick.

    The statement, “M. King Hubbert is known for showing images of world oil supply which seem to show that oil supply will rise and then fall in a symmetric pattern,” is highly misleading.

    Pages 14, 15, and 16 of the pdf Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels very clearly spell out the conditions of the “Hubbert Curve”, and symmetry is definitely not a requirement of it.

    The requirements are:
    (1) that it begin and end at zero at times t=0 and t=infinity, and
    (2) that it conform to the fundamental theorem of calculus.

    While figure 11 on page 16 shows the idealized symmetrical “Hubbert Curve” which everyone is familiar with, it is immediately followed by two real-world examples of this curve on the same page, figures 12 and 13, which clearly include multiple anomalies and are anything but symmetrical. This choice is not accidental. He then discusses the background of the anomalous factors in them.

    Clearly symmetry is not a necessary part of his model at all.

    Again, in figure 18 he draws a somewhat symmetrical dotted line, but counters it with, “the shape of the curve is variable”. Also note again that the to-date portion of the up-slope has anomalies.

    What Hubbert is doing is mathematically elegant, and very common in the age before computers, choosing a curve for the purpose of simplifying the process of manual calculation, without introducing undue error. In several cases, he is using a graphical technique to solve the equation, which makes the exact shape of curve even less important. It takes a fair degree of mathematical literacy to do this successfully.

    It’s what engineers, scientists, and mathematicians have always done, choose a mathematical model that gets the desired result with the least effort and the least error in the result they are trying to obtain. They openly admit that models are merely idealizations and discuss what the errors are.

    What Hubbert was primarily concerned with was the inability of a finite amount of material to meet exponentially growing demand for it. This is why he discusses inflection points appearing in the previously exponential data, and expends most of his effort discussing the timing of peak production. It’s one reason why he chose the derivative of the Logistic curve rather than a Gaussian curve. Frankly, he was not focusing on the exact shape of the down-slope because he had more important fish to fry. He did discuss some factors that could distort it because it can alter the timing of the peak slightly, but uncertainties in the official estimates of the ultimate resources were a more overwhelming factor, making the down-slope moot at the time.

    There is a concept in engineering called “boundary conditions” for any model. They are the conditions within which a model is designed and will give reasonable results. Exceed them, and the results the model gives may be gibberish. Newtonian physics is an example. Stay well below the speed of light, and his equations describing the motions of bodies are reliably accurate, but approach the speed of light and they become more inaccurate, until at some point you need Einstein’s equations of Relativity. Using equations that take into account Newton, Einstein, and quantum physics together at the same time, is cumbersome and usually unnecessary.

    Hubbert’s detractors, most of whom are clearly unfamiliar with his actual work, take great delight in misstating, misapplying, and over-idealizing his model in order to exaggerate discrepancies and use these straw-man conclusions to falsely discredit his thesis. (It is really the only argument they have against it.) I believe this is the source of the incorrect notion that the Hubbert curve must be some-how symmetrical, when Hubbert himself clearly did not think so.

    • I agree with you. I no doubt overstated what Hubbert intended for symmetry. Hubbert also made the point that improved techniques might skew the distribution to the right.

      My problem is that an awfully lot of people seem to think Hubbert’s curve is symmetric, and looking at the outlines he shows, it looks pretty symmetric. There seems to be a lot of (mis)belief that the shape of the curve is symmetric, whether it is or not. The general shape of Hubbert’s curve clearly makes no sense without a substitute coming into play early on, and he in fact had one coming on early on, in each paper I read.

      With theories about peak oil, sometimes a person feels like he/she is playing a game of gossip. Each person explains things as they think they understand them. After a few iterations, people have found the parts that fit in best with what they want to believe, and emphasize those parts. Symmetry seems to be one part that has stuck, more than it should.

      I am not sure I can figure out a clearer way to say this, without making the post a lot more complicated/difficult to understand.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Perhaps I have it wrong, but surely the real ‘peak’ of anything is when its supply fails to meet the need that there is for it, which will still be there until alternatives are found (or economic conditions reduce that need) even if demand falls off due to the commodity’s increased cost. For example, I will not demand fuel for my car if I cannot afford to pay for it, but I will still need that fuel and will have to find a way of coping without it.

        I cannot see how the symmetry of the extraction curve can be anything other than simply as good a way as any to depict something that will vary from well to well, from pit to pit, and from extraction site to extraction site, even from commodity to commodity. I imagine that the ‘peak’ can even occur on a rising part of the extraction curve if it is not rising fast enough to match the rate at which the demand/need curve is rising and the curves cross over. Indeed, there can even be several such peaks as supply and demand each react individually to the vagaries of economic conditions, locally, nationally and globally.

  22. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Mel Tisdale
    I didn’t realize your land was in eastern Europe. I am under the impression that you live in England. Is this just some odd land that you own, but don’t really have much interest in?

    If you do have some interest in it, I suggest you spend a few minutes and look at this video:

    This is the history of Geoff Lawton’s involvement in Jordan. This is one of the worst growing environments on the planet. And yet, with some investment of money and proper continuing care, it is yielding abundant crops. As you will see in the video, Lawton originally established a very successful demonstration project which has been horribly mismanaged. Now Lawton is working on a number of sites which some NGOs control. The side by side comparisons are startling.

    You have to understand that Lawton would say that your spraying weed killer and plowing are further destroying the land. Conventional agriculture is the destructive enemy.

    You also need to understand that water management is the key to restoration. And in some cases water management requires some considerable construction. Therefore, money is involved.

    The second thing I recommend is Nabhan’s book Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land. There are many, many case studies of places in the deserts of the US Southwest, Northwestern Mexico, Morocco, and the Arabian peninsula. You will learn how Mestizo Mexicans and Native American Mexicans build soil in poor locations with the strategic placement of brush and plants along intermittent waterways. You will see rocks placed on hillsides to control water (you will see something similar if you keep a sharp eye on the Lawton video).

    Sometimes Amazon will let you look at a few pages in a book. Try to look at pages 4-7, where you will learn about a remarkable Sufi in Morocco and his construction of oases in the desert.

    From the way you are describing the place, I suspect that you need professional design help. If the land is not something you actually care about, then you have to factor that into your decision. There are probably not a lot of people in eastern Europe capable of doing what Lawton is doing in Jordan and what the poor farmers in the Americas, Morocco, and Arabia are doing.

    Good luck with it….Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      If the land should be grassland, you can check Alan Savory’s videos. Here is one:

      Alan has a couple of videos with some stunning before and after pictures once he developed his theory and practice of rotational grazing in Africa. Look at his Youtube videos and you will get the idea. There is also a video of him flying over sections of Texas which are turning into sand dunes…perhaps reminiscent of your land. He blames it on poor grazing practices.

      You will note in the above video that Alan thinks that the biggest contributor to climate change is industrial agriculture–not burning fossil fuels. I have no opinion on that except to say that industrial agriculture is a very big contributor.

      Don Stewart

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Thanks for this, Don. I believe I have seen, and been very impressed by, his TED talk. At least the person looked the same as far as I can remember and it covered the same area of concern.

        Judging by that TED talk and the accompanying visuals, he is on to something. I am no expert, but I do know that we know that the carbon dioxide that is in the main causing most of the climate change is from fossil fuels because of the isotopes, but that aside his talk was really very good and got a TED standing ovation and although that seems to be the norm for good TED talks, for once I felt like standing up at home!

        (I still need to find the 36 minutes to watch the Greening of the Dessert video, but as my previous posts will have indicated, I suspect that the remedies are going to be outside my price bracket.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        Don, I owe you and Mr Savory an apology! After posting my reply, I had a niggling feeling about the isotopes and have managed to find a source for the accurate position ( We know that climate change is due to fossil fuel burning and the clearing of forests, which is the point Mr Savory is making. Sorry, I thought it was just fossil fuel burning.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Thanks for the link.

          Here is another fascinating (scarily fascinating) dynamic that Nabhan refers to in his book…the effect of longer growing seasons on carbon in the soil. As we warm the planet, growing seasons get longer. The longer the growing season, the more microbial activity in the soil. The soil microbes are powered by the carbon in organic matter.

          A farmer knows he is doing something wrong when the microbes are forced to eat humus to survive.

          So we have a vicious circle. As it gets warmer, the soil microbes are active for longer periods and so consume more organic matter in the soil and eventually are forced to eat the humus and so the water holding capacity of the soil is decreased. The soil is giving up its carbon stores which increases the carbon in the atmosphere and oceans with consequences we know too well. The soil is also depleted of its ability to hold water, which means it either has to be irrigated more or else the plants which traditionally grew there won’t make it through droughts and perhaps the land becomes a desert.

          The correct response seems to me to be growing more cover crops to get more organic matter into the soil (or buy more compost from Jody Tishmack). But cover crops don’t really bring in much, if any, cash. So the farmer is producing less food and getting less income. (All the while, the central bankers are busily printing money to drive up the cost of the land which is becoming steadily less productive). What the farmer will tend to do is keep right on trucking and then a dreadful drought strikes and there is widespread crop failure (as we had in Texas in 2011 and 2012),

          I hope there is some really smart person reading this who can explain just how wrong I am on this subject.

          Don Stewart

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Yet again, the law of unintended consequences raises its ugly head! The more I study climate change, the more concerned I become, and the more annoyed I get with those who deny that it is a problem. (There are a couple of British peers whose retention of their titles is a mystery to me, considering the effort they put in to denying that it is a problem and never mind the harm done to their country. I’d sling both of them in the Tower of London and call for the executioner and his axe, preferably blunted for the purpose so that it is a slow process.)

            Here is another set of unintended consequences to mull over:

            You hope for some expert to prove you wrong and I hope to wake up and find it is all a dream. Sadly, I suspect that we are both destined to be disappointed.

          • Scott says:

            Hello Don, as far as farming goes, some areas are doing good, but weather changes make it harder for farmers to plan crops in this new farming world we have now. I think especially if you are planting only one crop, mono crops can be risky, we planted about 15 things and a few did not make it this year for reasons unknown. Our compost needed to be fertilized or more trucks to haul in more because we did not have enough. However, we do not have chickens and goats which I imagine could be the solution to the small plot composter, so I will keep that in mind.
            Having farm animals or any pets is a big commitment, and it make one have to stay close to home especially with farm animals.


    • Mel Tisdale says:

      Don, thanks ever so much for pointing me to the Greening of the Desert video. I found it extremely informative. You are right in what you say about the need for a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves, I just hope that you can see that in the meantime we have to stick with what we are used to if we are going to feed the masses.

      I can see exactly how and why Lawton is enthused about his plan and he has every right to be enthusiastic. Were I a young man, I would be joining him. Whilst I do not like gardening, I can see how the science and the mechanics of what he does could be fascinating and also provide an excellent career, which would almost certainly not fizzle out, the way my motor industry one did, thanks to a certain female British prime minister! Indeed, getting involved in such work is something that all young people should at least consider.

      Regarding my land, I bought it before there was any hint of the coming collapse (I had not found Chris Martenson’s Crash Course by then) and my main reason for buying it was that it was cheap, the farmers wanted to be rid of it (I now see why) and it would allow me to stop houses being built too close to mine (so that I could play Bob Dylan at full volume if I so desired without attracting complaints). Growing my own food was not very high up the list, for the obvious reasons I spell out in my previous comments. For me to follow Lawton’s methodology and ‘grow’ my soil would be very expensive and way beyond my means. I will just have to go to the shops for my food and hope that the collapse is nice and slow when it comes and does not begin too soon.

      For some reason, I find that I do not read much these days, so will give the book you recommend some thought before I purchase it. As for the other article, and this on the Greening of the desert, I can see the point you are making, and accept it. I might have come across as being anti self-sufficiency. I am not. Indeed, I applaud it. But, to repeat myself, I can only see big ag feeding the multitude. Though I would happily put Monsanto out of business if I could find a way of doing so that did not put me behind bars.

      Thanks once again, Don, for all your attempts to help me, I really do appreciate it!


  23. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Xabier
    Regarding the question of the nature of the collapse. I wholeheartedly agree that heavily armed people with full stomachs who realize that food is about to get scare is a really dangerous situation. If people have been hungry for a week, then everything changes.

    A friend of mine lived here during the hurricane of 1997. The electricity was gone for 8 days. The morning after the hurricane passed, he assembled the neighbors and they made up a plan. The grocery stores had been completely depleted in the couple of days before the hurricane, and no supplies were getting through. Gasoline pumps were not working. I think the water was not working either. Their plan involved:

    1. 8 or 10 families agreed to share essentials for the duration.
    2. All potable water was reserved strictly for drinking.
    3. All fresh food was eaten first. One refrigerator was opened at a time to avoid loss of cool air.
    4. Once the fresh food was gone, they began to open one freezer at a time.
    5. All cooking was done on one of the gas stoves (the gas did not fail) They also located camp style cookstoves, but never had to use them.
    6. They opened the last freezer on the 7th day. They still had some cans, but not very much.

    On the 8th day the power was restored, groceries reopened, gasoline could be purchased, etc.

    I think these dates are fairly informative in terms of thinking about a very sudden, catastrophic collapse. The grocery stores will be looted quickly, as the pre-hurricane panic buying cleaned them out. If a global collapse occurred, then it would probably take around 8 days to run out of food, including what could be looted. Whether FEMA would be any help is speculative. They would have the entire United States to try to get around to. I don’t know how many people they might be able to feed and for how long and how the failure of electricity would affect them.

    If people run out of food in 8 days, then by 14 days things may be pretty desperate. If someone hasn’t eaten in 6 days, they may be pretty weak and depressed. Babies and sick people will be dying. Many will die from contaminated water. By 21 days, I think things would be desperate and more people will begin to die. Many people will have diarrhea. By 30 days most people would be dead.

    In our hurricane, we had a local shortage of food, but there was plenty of food just outside the area flattened by the hurricane. In a global collapse, there is no ‘outside’ to offer help.

    I read a story about a young woman from Portland, OR who tried to forage food on a dare. She lasted less than a day. But she studied the subject and, a year later, was able to live for quite a while strictly on foraged food (with no dumpster diving). But I doubt that many people are going to put in very much study of wild edibles which might be growing in vacant lots. And most people never think about how one might collect rainwater…unless they are sailors.

    As I see it, there are many imponderables. If financial markets close down and banks fail, then I don’t know what the government would do. Would it print money and deposit it in the banks and try to reopen them? How would it prevent runs from rapidly depleting the new deposits? Would it install martial law and put military people in charge of running companies and simply doing the physical things that need doing and pay no attention to finances? How would they get people to work if they don’t pay them? I have no idea.

    I think it is comforting for some people to assume that there is going to be gang warfare with blazing assault weapons…because that excuses everyone from doing any preparation. It’s harder to think about surviving in the aftermath of a really big hurricane or atomic blast. It’s really, really hard to think about making a new life after a global collapse when things stay broken for years or forever. I am pretty sure that the population would be much lower in such a scenario.

    thanks for the observations about Argentina….don Stewart

    • Scott says:

      Hello Don, You are getting to be a real doomer!, but it is true it would not take long for the stores to go empty and all hell break loose. A good reason to store a bit of food, whether it is peak oil you fear, or an earthquake, or storms and/or other calamity – like financial collapse.


    • xabier says:


      Fascinating details. I see the disaster plans for Oregon allows for between a week up to a year for the restoration of some services and ammenities after a natural disaster, depending on location within the State and assuming no problems in obtaining supplies from outside….

      When there was just a bit of heavy snow here in England last winter, there were tales of people rushing to food stores in panic and taking anything they could find – simply because of their now ingrained habit of going once a week to the supermarket and not having any food reserves at all at home. It was all rather pathetic, but that’s the modern home economy – it doesn’t exist!

      In Argentina, the government, preoccupied with it’s own internal and international problems, with macro-economics and trade, just left everyone to their own devices as to how to survive – hence the sudden upsurge in robberies and violence to get the money for food, after an initial stunned lull while stocks ran down.

      As ‘bank holidays’ and capital transfer limits, ‘haircuts’, disruptions to fuel supplies and problems at refineries (strikes and blockades?) and sudden out-of-the-blue economic crises such as a balance of payments crisis are the most likely short-term events we have to face on a national scale, anyone with any excess cash at the end of the month would be well-advised to use to it provide a food, fuel, water and cash buffer. And get growing stuff.

      I have the impression that charity food banks seem to have very limited stocks for the desperate to fall back on, drawing their stocks mostly from the long-supply-chain supermarkets in the first place.

      • one of the most telling factors in all this was when the UK had a fuel delivery strike in 2001. The heads of supermarket chains here collectively warned the government that their stores had about 3 days supply of staple food in hand, after that the shelves would start to empty. The strike was settled in less than a week
        It demonstrates just how thin the thread is that holds everything together.
        It is critical to have food reserves. I look on it as insurance—in the sense that if you have stuff and it goes well over sellby date—you get more after a few years
        but from experience I know that stuff can go 5 or 7 years over date, which gives you a 10 year safety window at least. Though I do feel for those people without sufficient means to build some reserves
        As with fire insurance–you have to renew it every year, and hope you never need it.

      • Scott says:

        Hello, Interesting on the Oregon Disaster plan. Sometimes in Oregon the power can be out for days or weeks in places, so some more prepared. However, many also out of work up here and they live week to week waiting for their next benefit card. Our power went out for a few days last year in a snow storm here in Oregon we kept the fridge going with a little generator so we did not loose the food.

        That group that does not really think about or or are out of work. This is the unprepared group and they do not have some emergency supplies and food stuffs. They will be the most vulnerable group. Sometimes the churches try to help feed the out of work and homeless, but even they can run out of food.

        There are quite a few Mormons in our little town here and I noticed they like to store lots of food as part of their religion. So maybe I can trade with them if times get tough. To me it just makes sense to have at least a few months worth of food around as we could face anything – earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, financial collapse.


        • xabier says:


          Well, maybe it’s ‘Make Friends with a Mormon Today’ time? That’s a new approach to prepping!

          • too late—you shouldn’t have slammed the door last sunday morning

            • Scott says:

              Good point, it is hard to make friends with some groups without actually joining their churches.
              I am a Christian that does not really belong to any single church, which is a whole other subject.

          • Scott says:

            Hi Xabiier, Yes, I have made friends with my neighbors, a good thing to do. We have already traded some food items.

            One thing about living in the country is neighbors are more approacable so you will likely get to know them better.


          • Don’t count on buying food from the Mormons if food gets short. They will want to hold on to what they already purchased.

      • One thought about food…some basics I bought 5 years ago have tripled or quadrupled in value. Beat that with any other investment.
        But it does show where we’re headed.

    • Mel Tisdale says:

      Another insight into how things might pan out post collapse can be found in the book: The Day of the Triffids (1951) by John Wyndham. O.K. it is old and there are no such plants as triffids, but there is a lot that might just apply to today’s world. As usual, don’t bother with the film version.

    • watch Egypt right now—that’s our dress rehearsal for what happens when a country runs out of cheap fuel and people get desperate. One leader gets elected, finds out the books dont add up so tries to grab what he can for himself and his tribe. that leads to even more chaos and desperation from the mass of the people.
      Everybody starts fighting and the economy collapses around those denying that there’s anything wrong.
      Egpyts problems are food and jobs, not religion and politics

      • Scott says:

        Hello End of More and others, Yes we can watch Egypt right now to see what is going on, but I wanted to point out that right now there are many countries supporting Egypt. And, the big thing I wanted to mention was that perhaps by the time the collapse reaches Europe and the USA there will no longer be other countries to prop up the whole thing.

        In looking at a potential collapse, Egypt has it pretty good right now, another bail out just around the corner especially after a bout of trouble like we are seeing now. Who is going to bail out the USA, the Euro Zone? I think no one entity, unless some new world bank appears, which we may see, but it may be hard to understand where it came from and who is behind it, they may be our new leaders. They will also have new currency in hand that they want us to have faith in.


        • I agree, Egypt is a pivot nation, so everybody who can is propping it up. but the prop is exclusively oil. If the lunatics take over the Egyptian madhouse, they’re all in trouble.
          With regard to a new world bank, there isn’t one. We’ve only got one world, and we’ve used it up. By far the best summing up of our situation is here
          Professor Albert Bartlett does it with simple mathematics, well worth spending time to sit through his lecture.
          Thinking in terms of ‘world bank’ is indicative of our overall problem. Banks = Money, the ‘bail outs’ and so on, which is what most people think we need. That is imagining a future based on past thinking. Money has nothing to do with it. We created an entire civilisation on the concept of converting energy sources into money tokens.
          We’ve had that situation for thousands of years, we are now so conditioned to that way of conducting world business we have the odd notion that it works in reverse: if we spend hard enough, our ‘world economy’ will kickstart itself again. Nobel prizewinning economists think the same way, as well as our politicians.

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Thanks for the link. I don’t know what others think, but I doubt that there will be many reading this who are not fully aware of what it says, and even more that it does not say, such as the mess that the politicians have got us all into with the need for growth to pay off the debt. A debt whose default in paying down will likely precipitate the collapse that all their kicking the can down the road is desperately trying to avoid.

            We need ideas for a way out of the mess we are in, not telling, incompletely at that, what we already know. Old Bartlett has been pushing his exponential growth talk so much, you can imagine him doing it in his sleep. A better, more relevant explanation can be found here.

            It is no good relying on politicians. Take the U.K. for example. Believe it or not, the Secretary of State for Environment is a climate change denier! But that is what you get from a system that puts history graduates in charge of scientific issues. Though having said that, I cannot believe he is so poorly advised that he doesn’t know full well what the science is telling us. But what care he for his or our children when there is a Prime Minister to please and the need to survive any pre-election re-shuffle? Bah! A plague on all their houses!

            It seems to me that we are at a crossroads. We can either carry on in the same direction and continue to kick the rather battered can even further down the road until it eventually gives up the ghost and we all head for the emergency shelters. Or we can choose another route: ditch the battered can and start to take control of the situation. I don’t believe that we can come this far as a species and fail. So, preferring action to inaction, I suggest that we take the latter option. it might take too long, but if the population could see the prize that success would bring, then they may well be persuaded to tolerate some privations rather than rise up against them with all that that would mean. This would buy us some time.

            We have an energy shortage problem, so let’s go about generating some (while avoiding that other great problem, climate change). To my mind, that means renewables where possible and nuclear in all its forms, unless we can identify a preferred option. (It is no secret that I prefer small, modular thorium fueled ones). I hope that the realization of the size of our problem will tend to quieten objections on the ‘same old same old’ grounds that modern designs have mostly made irrelevant. If the energy produced happens to be in a form that is not best suited to our needs, such as being in the form of electricity and we need it in liquid form to power our transport and agricultural systems, then let’s pour money into electrifying those vehicles together with the associated machinery and equipment. We know that there are some rather inefficient means of doing so already, so it is not a fool’s errand.

            We know we can electrify cars and bikes, so at worst, we might reduce the demand on oil to some extent and thus its price and availability while providing more time to find a solution. This can either be done nationally or internationally. While some might prefer the national route with the idea that the technology can be sold upon completion, there has to be doubt as to whether there will be a monetary system in place to facilitate those transactions. (If ever a central banker had a tiger by the tail, it is Bernanke with Q.E. Fun to watch, until you realize where it is headed!)

            There have to be alternatives worthy of consideration, so let’s hear them. But please make them relevant to our global needs, even if one is personally self-sufficient to some extent. The alternative is that we all metaphorically put our heads between our legs and kiss our backsides goodbye?

            This site cannot solve the problem, but perhaps it can start a public discussion on the matter. Who knows, it might for once be one that the politicians actually take heed of. They might even act upon it, too. It is an understatement to say that there is more than votes at stake.

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            I see that the Generals in Egypt are now talking about ‘liquidating’ the 3 million or so Muslim Brothers in the country.

            It grows more interesting by the day. Much supports your basic thesis.

            No mention, of course, of over-population and energy crisis in any of the MSM pieces on the situation.

        • Mel
          I’ve watched the Martenson lectures as well as Bartlett’s, they come up with the same conclusions but from different directions I think.
          Our politicians are aware of what faces us, just as much as ordinary mortals, but standing up and saying so will get them kicked out of office
          Theirs is a job like anybody else’s,and they want to hang onto it as long as possible.
          ‘growth’ is all they can offer, even though they know there isn’t going to be any

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            You are right, in the end it is a job for leaders, not politicians, but I can’t see any that stand out as being anywhere near capable of doing what we need doing.

        • Adam says:

          Here’s what Jeremy Grantham said about Egypt in April 2012.

          “Egypt had a population of 2 million when Napoleon invaded; it has 82 million today, and it’s going to rise to 120 million. It can feed about 60 million. Egypt used to feed the Roman Empire; without Egypt, the Romans would have collapsed long before they did. Egypt has been the world’s bread-basket for ever, and still today it has some of the most productive acres on the planet. But it can only feed 60 million people, and it buys the rest by selling the oil it was lucky enough to find.

          But Egyptian oil has peaked, and its trade deficit is growing. Nobody is going to pay for the trade deficit to feed 120 million Egyptians. We’re not going to volunteer. With the growth rate way down, we are getting to be very, very cheap about foreign aid. Any country that starts to run a food deficit, from now on, is on its own. And this will happen to Egypt next year, basically; the game is up. Every year, they’ll be struggling for the resources, financial or otherwise, to feed their people, and pretty soon there will be waves of reasonably well-educated Egyptians attempting to find jobs in Europe. This goes for many other countries on the African continent, and one or two other countries, and the social pressures will be massive.”

          Jeremy Grantham is a British investor. He is co-founder and chief investment strategist of Grantham Mayo van Otterloo. He is also a Quaker and philanthropist.

    • Andy says:

      Is it really hard to think of a slower decline? Things get worse year after year, prices go up, incomes go down. It’s a long slog between here and Egypt, yet people are not starving in Egypt. They still have access to food and gas, times are tough, but not desperate.

      • xabier says:


        I agree: slow steady deterioration is an unglamorous concept, but an important one. It’s underway in the West, of course. And as long as international trade flows and internal networks function, a country which is not highly financialized – like Egypt – can go into a long slow decline and stabilize at a very low level: as you say, not nice, but bearable. People adjust: and the attitude becomes ‘Well, at least we put food on the table today’: no narcissistic fretting about pensions, international holidays and health care plans! Dental problems? Hand me those pliers!

        People viewing it from their own very high Western standard of living can find this hard to understand. In the same way, people looking back on the Middle Ages find it hard to conceive of anyone surviving and flourishing in such circumstances, the more so if they are unfamiliar with the literature and music and only view the economics and life expectancy using modern expectations.

        Similarly, very high unemployment and low salaries (as in Spain, Portugal and Greece, Hungary, etc) crime rates S. Africa, Venezuela, etc) and even the very bloody civil disturbances we see now in Egypt, can become regular, established features of life without ‘total collapse’ occurring. Shooting people down in large numbers was not uncommon in 19th century Europe after all.

        The flesh hangs thinner, but the bones of society remain. I suppose one could conceive of real Collapse’ as those bones dissolving completely?

        Egypt has the singular advantage – for the time being – of considerable subsidies from political friends who are richer: hence those tanks can still roll and the soldiers are still paid……. The appalling demographics will, however, surely tell against them in the end: it is Overshoot and no mistake!

        • Scott says:

          Hello, I agree with the slow grind down but with some bumps like we saw in 2008. When the Bond and Stock Bubbles Burst, those will be the bumps or should we say steps down…

          I do not think the bond/stock market collapse will will thrust us into complete chaos, but surely a lot of rich people will loose some money and probably another big round of money printing to recapitalize those special bankers.

          The rich will receive some help, but average Joe that was invested in the markets will loose their shirts. These continued bail outs most likely will bring upon us inflation and or stagflation and bond/stock collapse which I think looms will bring upon us recession. So I do not see a total collapse not anytime soon, but things continuing to get harder and perhaps a worse recession coming next than we saw in 2008 due the size of the bond market and that bubble is ready to pop. Higher interest rates and likely higher taxes ahead to fund the debt at a higher rate. But next recession will likely make it difficult for the government to collect the higher taxes.

        • I think your reference to the middle ages put two words together which were somewhat incompatible—surviving and flourishing.
          Sorry—but most people survived to their mid 40s, and they most certainly didn’t flourish.
          As late as the 1900s, the British army started recruiting soldiers for the Boer war, and then WW1, and found the average recruit from the lower classes was 6″ shorter that his aristocratic equivalent, and in many instances was literally too weak to undergo basic military training. Diseases were appalling and too numerous to mention here.

          • It is not too surprising that men’s height was for a long time a good predictor of success. It may still be true.

          • Height as a measure of success…that is interesting. My sons are 6’4″, 6’4.5″, and 6’5.5″ (the almost 16 year old is the tallest). The first question people ask me is “What do you feed those boys?”. Their genetics have a lot to do with it. There are above average height people in both my and my husband’s family. I’m 5’10”, but my great uncle was 6’4″. My husband is 6′ tall but his great grandfather was 6’6″. Next comes diet and lifestyle. Lots of dairy for calcium, whole grains, veggies, and fruits. Meat when I used it was the best quality I could afford. Everyday I feed them a good breakfast. Lifestyle…rules they are expected to follow such as bedtime. Always plenty of sleep (even at 17 my child’s bedtime at 10:00 is enforced). If I have to I remove computer and phones from their rooms.

            I attribute my son’s height mostly to their genetics and epigenetics (i.e. our lifestyle and our ancestor’s lifestyle. Our ancestors were farmers with access to plenty of food, exercise, and rest. I don’t think financial success had much to do with it in the last 50 years.. When I do buy meat I buy the best quality, but most of the time their diet consists of beans, dairy (calcium), vegetables, and fruit. The other thing I attribute their health to is plenty of sleep. Children needs lots of sleep and a lack of stress to achieve their best growth rate. A stable home with plenty of good healthy food, fresh air, and exercise will probably allow most children to attain what their genetics determine.

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            I do enjoy your posts, but still I would suggest that your view of the Middle Ages is rather too grim! Your perspective is a bit too modern and anachronistic. It was different, but not unredeemed horror.

            Even if one lives to only 40, or even 30, one can lead a good and full life – particularly when you considered boys of 16 could lead divisions armies, like the Black Prince and craftsmen were fully trained by 21. Again, one has to read the poetry and literature to understand what life felt like. We are much taller on the whole, and fully ‘nourished’, but life is fairly degraded in many respects. Maybe six of one and half a dozen of the other.

            Many of my ancestors were in the army which defeated the last great Muslim invasion of Spain, Las Navas de Toledo : over 100,000 men engaged, and I suspect those brave men weren’t recruited from starving dwarves! Those battles went on for whole days, maybe even two or three. The peasants had to be strong, too: there are men of the older generation who might be very short, but strong as oxes!

            Malnutrition did not pay the masters well, when you think about it: peasants were good livestock in a sense, to be looked after. Absentee landlords are another matter: as in the south of Spain, or Ireland, they let their tenants starve alright.

            And what about the ‘stout’ yeomen of England who gave the French their due deserts? An Italian ambassador to England in the 1490’s noted the strength, height and beauty of the English common people….and so on.

            On the whole I envisage quite strong and hardy people, certainly shorter in many cases, but inured to hardship, and usually going to meet their maker as the result of wearing out ‘early’ with immense manual labour from an early age, plague, and very importantly tainted meat or water – this took out even aristocrats well into the 19th c. Typhus and cholera are feared by the rich in Edith Wharton’s novels, in the very midst of their luxuries.

            The real degeneration in the very poor began with the rapid urbanisation in slums of the 19th c which showed up, as you say, in all its tragedy in the assessment of men for WW1. Also in WW2, although the masses were fitter then. I knew an officer from then who said that he had men from slums who didn’t know how to wash in his unit, let alone read and write…..he never guessed that such poverty and ignorance still existed.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I don’t follow Egypt very closely, because it seems to me to be more of the same old, same old. The US wants three things in Egypt: a safe place for US based multinationals to operate, a government favorable to Israel, and a government approved by the Saudis. The Saudis want a government which will do what they tell it to do and will suppress popular uprisings. Israel wants a military which is armed heavily enough to repress the local population, but still pose no credible threat to Israel. What you are seeing in the last month is simply what those three powerful governments do to get what they want done. Our Nobel Peace Prize Winner is supplying the bullets which are killing the Egyptians, all the while occasionally mouthing off about ‘peaceful means and democracy’.

        I think the stock market in Egypt advanced pretty sharply in the wake of the coup. So Egypt is not an example of the financial crash/ collapse of supply chains type of crash that I think might kill a lot of people in the US. I see Egypt as simply one more example of very powerful players manipulating the middle east to get what they want.

        If I haven’t been clear, I will also reiterate that I am not preparing for a 6 week period in the US when money has no value and nothing moves through supply chains. It might happen, but at my age and in my circumstances I don’t think preparing for such a thing is the best use of my time and resources. What I am doing is growing and working on a farm for the preponderance of my fresh fruits and vegetables. These are the most expensive items you can buy in supermarkets. So my plan is frugal right now and also works if refrigerated transport in trucks is disrupted. My plan also puts me in the field with some wonderful young people, 50 years my junior. I buy grains and dried beans in bulk (e.g., 40 pound bags), so I would probably have enough calories in the house to keep us alive for a couple of months. I also periodically take classes in things like foraging wild foods and fermenting foods. These are both fun and useful.

        I don’t mean to be seen as some prophet of doom. I think everyone should look at what is happening now, read and ponder those who are making reasonable prognostications such as Gail, Korowicz, and Greer, and then take inventory of their own life situation and decide what they want to do, if anything. The only reason I write about the ‘starvation scenario’ is because I think it is one logical extension of the work of Gail and Korowicz and because I see a lot of people assuming that the collapse is all going to end in a hail of bullets and so there is no point in doing anything.

        Don Stewart

        • Scott says:

          Hi Don and others, I wonder if anyone has read the book Ismael by Daniel Quinn? It describes how humans changed paths thousands of years ago from being hunter gatherers with wandering animals to graze, to basically farmers, from what they called “Leavers” into “takers” where the takers. The takers would block off the water divert it into there farms away from the wandering animals and sheep herders and hunter gatherers. It describes us changing paths long ago and it kind give me the impression that this path we took could not be changed once we took it long ago. The path must be followed to the end. I do however believe we are smart enough to make changes, but we may have to need a new beginning with new leaders to do so which is not likely to happen anytime soon, so I see more of the same coming our way for awhile.

          I imagine a few of you may have read Ismael. However, it was interesting, and the book gave me some things to think about. Quinn also has some podcast out there that I have downloaded. Interesting author.

          about the author Daniel Quinn

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Hi Don and Andy, and other Buoyant Doomsters:

          Please forgive, Don asked Andy for an assessment of Egypt and I just looked for same but couldn’t find it, which indicates Andy probably took the rest of Sunday off. Given my propensity for the ‘pol-mil’ business and having spent some time in Egypt and that part of the world, I thought I’d take a crack at Don’s task.

          Overall, Egypt is a mess. Most historians say that for the last 3,000 years it’s been conquered repeatedly and ruled horribly. When Mohammed’s cavalry came through 1300 years ago, there were 4,000 horsemen that subdued the country of 5 million. And so on. Throughout the medieval and into the modern era, Egypt was ever a doormat. Still is. But I should be somewhat discreet and avoid offending anyone.

          For the last 30 years Egypt has become much better educated, Western oriented and liberal. Many now call the latest activities not a ‘coup’ but a ‘revolution’ against tyrannical islamists. They know their economy is controlled and not free, that all the statist ills of the old days and the ‘khaki capitalism’, ‘crony capitalism’ and horrible corruption plagues their economic life. And still, the average Egyptian is content with little.

          Mubarak’s ‘social compact’ was really based on the subsidized ‘balady bread’ sold everywhere, and cheap gasoline. People were generally content until they got fed up with the corruption and then the cruelty of the security forces’ response 18 months ago. They’d seen enough TV and they believed they deserved something better. They were right.

          Unfortunately, in the election to replace the old regime, the Muslim Brotherhood won by a very small margin, and immediately began to insert revolutionary organizations and methods. The economy was falling badly despite international assistance and offers of more if only the government would try to stabilize conditions and get commerce flowing. They preferred the roles of ‘political organizer’ and ‘islamist politics’, to the point that the people and the Army believed they had to launch their rebellion in late June.

          Some observers have noted that parliamentary elections were scheduled for September, and the anti-Muslim Brotherhood forces should have been more patient, as the MB would surely have lost badly. Rebelling and toppling the MB government, however, elicited sympathy for the MB, especially among liberal western societies.

          It appears that the ‘people and the Army’ are gaining supremacy. Perhaps peace will be restored soon.

          Don’s reference to Saudi druthers appear just about right. US druthers are less focused on Israel than the Suez Canal. Israel can take care of itself, as shown repeatedly. But the US and UK stand for stability – or they’re supposed to…

          Afternote: Ethiopia is constructing a large dam on the Blue Nile which will probably affect water levels through Sudan and Egypt. Difficult negotiations and perhaps serious tensions ahead.

  24. Adam says:

    An interesting article of a year ago, about worrisome problems with the grid in Germany, and how energy from renewables can exacerbate these problems:

    • I expect to see more articles like that in the future.

      This is a different link that was posted in the comments here recently.

      • Adam says:

        Thanks for the link. The article certainly doesn’t mince its words about unintended consequences. While I don’t dispute the veracity of the article, and indeed it chimes with what you, Gail, have written about the shortcomings of green solutions,The Global Warming Policy Foundation is not what it seems. It is headed by (Lord) Nigel Lawson, who sits on the board of BP and is what Greens would call a climate denier. Not that it matters – the slow motion train crash is already underway.

        Mr Lawson was the UK’s Chancellor of the Exchequer (that’s “finance minister”, in modern English) during the 1980s, until he fell out with Mrs Thatcher at the end of that decade. He is most definitely a free marketeer, so state intervention designed to mitigate climate change is anathema to him.

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          I’d like to know just how much Lawson has been remunerated for setting up the GWPF. He is very quiet about its funding, which makes me wonder about the whole issue. And don’t forget, he is related in a tenuous sense to Monckton, which should cause anyone who has bothered to study the subject to be suspicious. (See the Youtube videos entitled ‘Monckton Bunkum’ put together by one Potholer 54, a British journalist.)

          • Adam says:

            OMG, this Monckton guy has the eyes of an anencephalic baby. He looks weird enough to be one of your avatars, Mel!

  25. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    This relates to the ‘crowding out’ phenomenon of high oil prices and the resultant rush to exploit higher cost reserves. Please see:

    I found one source which said that global oil and gas exploration will result in capital expenditures of 1200 billion in 2013. The cash flow from the S & P 500 is 1800 billion and stagnant. Capital expenditures are in the range of 500 billion. So the capital expenditures (globally) for oil and gas exceed by quite a large margin the total capital expenditures for the S & P 500. What I would really like to see is how the global capital expenditure line looks segregated between oil and gas and all other and how they relate to cash flows..

    I’m not clever enough to do that. Does anyone have a source?

    Thanks…Don Stewart

    • Andy says:

      Not quite what you were looking for, but a useful chart showing capex used to build vs maintain existing assets.

        • Andy says:

          It seems logical that something like this would happen as we approach energy limits, though I’m sure there are limitations to how accurate a chart like that could be, considering how vast the current capital accumulation is. Too many variables for it to be much more then WAG IMO. I found the link at the bottom of the article interesting as well, titled ‘Is global warming unstoppable’ though it should have been titled ‘global warming is unstoppable’.

          • Scott says:

            Hello, Looks like the ball on global warming is already rolling. Kind of like how we have the longest days in the spring — but the hottest days come later in the summer when the days are shorter…

    • I am afraid I don’t have a source for breakdown of capital expenditures of the S & P 500.

      I was looking at Steve Kopits presentation that showed that worldwide, capital “upstream” capital expenditures for oil and gas was close to $600 billion for 2012, worldwide. The US was over $100 billion of this.

      Steve quotes Barklay’s in making this estimate. Barklay’s is now saying that US “upstream” capital expenditures will amount to $140 billion out of $644 billion worldwide for 2013.

      Those amounts exclude “midstream” and “downstream” capital expenditures. Including midstream and downstream, capital expenditures are quoted as being $1.039 trillion for 2012, which is in line with what you are saying for 2013 for the world. North America is quoted as being $253.1 billion of this total.

      There may be more detail, if you poke around. It looks like an awfully lot of the expenditures are by the National Oil Companies, elsewhere in the world, that are not included in the S&P 500. These companies are some of the biggest companies in the world.

  26. To everyone interested in food storage here is a link to a website created by the Church of the Later Day Saints (i.e. the Mormons).
    Lots of good information.

    Personally I have always kept a lot of food on hand (a big pantry) because I like to cook and bake. It was what my parents and grandparents did. I have always bought dry goods in bulk because they are cheaper that way. I have a big basement so I have lots of room. I buy flour in 25 or 50 lbs bags, dried beans in 20 lb bags, rice in 25 lb bags, etc. I also buy things I don’t grow when they are in season. Wheat is cheapest in the mid to late summer and the most expensive in the spring. Dried beans and nuts are cheapest in the fall. Same for oats. It takes awhile to get to know what is in season. But the most important thing is that I’m buying ingredients for the food I cook all the time. I’m not storing this away in a closet for some future disaster. This way my stores are always being used and rotated.

    I bake bread, muffins, sweet breads, cookies most of the year as needed. I like to grind whole grains for some of the flour I bake with, but I also buy flour. I regularly store about 200 lbs of flour, 50 lbs of oats (for granola), 20 lbs bags of about 12 different types of dried beans, peas, and lentils, 100 lbs of rice, and about 100 lbs of various other grains. I keep sugar, several cases of honey (quart jars), baking powder, baking soda, tea, salt, pepper, vinegar, baking yeast, nuts/seeds, powdered milk, etc for baking. Each year I can about 120 quarts of tomatoes, 50 to 60 pints of various jams, 30 quarts of fruit butter, and 50 or 60 quarts of different types of pickles. I freeze blue berries, rhubarb, pesto, and sweet peppers. I always keep potatoes, carrots, and onions on hand, growing about half of what I typically use each year. I dehydrate herbs for soup mixes and always cook them vegetarian. My chickens give us 6 to 8 eggs a day, and I keep 500 lbs of chicken feed on hand (about 6 months). I usually can get something from the greenhouse or garden most of the year. My hothouse cucumber plants live last year in the green house until November. Kale and spinach, chives, chinese garlic, leeks all year… always something to throw in a pot with potatoes or rice.

    We are currently buying cows milk (until my goat gets bred again and delivers next spring), cheese, oranges, bananas, other seasonal fruit, celery, a few other veggies I don’t grow. We eat mostly vegetarian dishes, lots of curries, stir fries, salads and soups. My family never complains about the food I cook, which is good because I have a policy of “if you don’t like what I cook, cook it yourself!”

    I don’t think I spend more than 2 hours a day on average in the garden and kitchen. Hard to tell, really, because most chores only take me a few minutes here and there. During canning season or spring planting, it is longer, but as with other seasonal chores they only come around for a relatively short intense period and then they are over until next year.

    I haven’t done the math but my guess is that my family could survive for at least 6 to 12 months even if we couldn’t go to the store. By then some type of economy will develop in the absence of the grocery store. My husband and I could get along very easily living off of what we get from our greenhouse and garden (my teenage sons are big eaters and eat more than we do.. But since we eat this kind of food regularly, it wouldn’t even feel like a hardship. All though I haven’t started making beer yet.. That would be a hardship to live without!


    • Mel Tisdale says:

      Thanks, Jody, very informative. One wonders when you find time to sleep!

      On a practical note, what do you do about mice and perhaps even rats helping themselves to your stores? It’s that time of year when the mice start looking for somewhere warm and I have already found some evidence of them testing my defenses. I, too, have a large basement, but can’t imagine storing bags of anything edible down there. I suppose large plastic drums/containers are o.k., but some of your amounts must mean that you divide them into smaller containers.

      • Mel,

        As I said, I average a few hours of work a day. Ok, maybe three. I don’t know why people assume I work so hard. It takes me 15 minutes in the morning and evening to feed animals and gather eggs. It takes maybe and extra 10 minutes when I have to milk the goat. Two minutes to feed the dogs, but an hour to walk with them along the fields and woods. When I’m walking the dogs am I working or enjoying myself? I really enjoy cooking and eating. It would be painful for me not to have time in the kitchen. Is that work or play?

        I am really a lazy person, who would much prefer to sit in a comfy chair and read a good book, or type these comments. Even if I’m in the garden, I putter. It’s a fine art…puttering…moving here and there, stopping to smell the roses or listen to the birds. No hurry. No time like the present to pause and take a deep breath and just admire the day. Even stopping when I’m weeding, kicking back in a chair and letting the breeze dry the sweat from my skin is a very good feeling. If I weed, it’s early in the morning when the day is cool and the birds are in full voice. I fall asleep every night at about 10:30 or 11:00 watching a video or movie; we have a large collection and haven’t had cable T.V for 17 years. A cup of chamomile tea puts me right out! I get up when I wake up, usually 5;30 or 6. The house is quiet, the family still asleep. Best time of the day! A nice pot of tea in the morning, a few hours of reading or writing in my journal; reflection starts the day out on the right note. I’m a big believer in simplicity. Stress is our worst enemy.

        We have dogs and I’ve never seen rats around. As regards mice, I use galvanized garbage bins to store bags of opened grains. I have large jars or canisters that I fill from the bins for the kitchen. Seeds and nuts go in an extra fridge in the basement. Wheat, oats, nuts, and sunflower seeds are the main things I’ve seen mice go after. I store unopened bags on shelves with wire racks that make it easier to keep an eye on them for chew marks. Also, my husband has this thing about catching mice. He knows just how to set the traps (sunflower seeds or peanut butter), and which type of trap works the best. And he sealed off all the holes he could find in our foundation and garage so they can’t get in. He likes to brag about how many mice he has caught. Even a guy who works in an office all day likes to hunt!


    • Scott says:

      Hi Jody, That sounds like a good plan, even with all that you are doing, I bet there are times in the winter when you need stuff from the store like the rest of us perhaps? No matter how hard we work it is really hard to grow everything we need and we need to trade things with folks.


    • xabier says:

      Thanks Jody, a very thorough food-storage site indeed.

      And those lovely Mormons will even sell you the storage equipment – they don’t miss a trick.

      (Meanwhile, the Church of England is busy registering its mineral rights in the UK, so as to take part in the fracking ‘bonanza’ – ‘for the sake of the poor.’ One is left speechless at such hypocrisy.)

  27. Don,
    I also wanted to comment on your post about longer growing seasons and the effect on carbon in the soil. You said…”As we warm the planet, growing seasons get longer. The longer the growing season, the more microbial activity in the soil. The soil microbes are powered by the carbon in organic matter….As it gets warmer, the soil microbes are active for longer periods and so consume more organic matter in the soil and eventually are forced to eat the humus and so the water holding capacity of the soil is decreased.”

    We lose so much more organic matter when we open up or turn over the soil and expose it to higher oxygen content of the atmosphere, that I doubt this will be a significant problem. There are so many well established no-till practices, we can easily preserve humus this way. And permaculturists are looking at perennial crops which allow us to leave the ground “closed”.

    But, another proactive approach is to feed your soil and keep it cool. Organic surface mulches do both. Put a covering of 2 to 3 inches of mulch (leaves, grass, hay, straw, chopped newspaper and food scraps, even cardboard) on your soil. Organic matter provides fresh food for microbes, mulch reduces the loss of moisture, keeps soil temperature cooler, and helps plants grow. Growing cover crops or “green manure” is another way to add fresh organic matter to the soil Even some types of weeds make good cover crops and feed lots of carbon to soil microbes. You just want to avoid letting them go to seed if you want to avoid too many weeds next years. Soft green weeds you pull out also make a tremendous compost pile that breaks down in by the next season. Shading the ground with shade cloth or certain types of trees planted at wider spaces can intercept solar radiation and keep soil cooler. This is one of the reasons why permaculture has such potential.

    There was an old soil science experiment I read about where back in the 30’s the scientists put fresh farm soil in pots and buried cotton pads (in those days cotton pads were actually made from natural cotton). Periodically the scientist would dig up the pads, rinse them, and measure weight loss. They were determining the ability of soil microbes to digest organic matter. So in today’s farm soil, how long do you think it would take to digest cotton pads? I’m guessing maybe several years. I don’t think you need to worry if our soil microbes start get hungrier….but as always we need to feed them regularly.


    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Jody
      I am particularly sensitive to the soil microbe issue because I live in the Southeast. We have a warm and wet growing season. Even the best farmers have trouble maintaining 1 percent organic matter in the soil. I am going to a ‘show and tell’ on Monday with a star local farmer who will explain his multi-year rotation. If you check the soil samples he sends in each year, he has less than 1 percent organic matter. I have talked a little with him and he says it is just a treadmill–keep feeding the microbes and they keep eating. It is very difficult to get ahead of them and actually accumulate organic matter up the 6 percent that a Minnesota organic farmer might take for granted.

      Back during WWII a soil scientist in Missouri checked the induction records of young men subject to the draft. He found that the men from the higher and drier northwestern part of the state (high prairie) were a lot healthier than the men from the southeastern part of the state (low and swampy). He thought it had to do with the leaching of the soils in the southeast due to the much heavier rain down there. (Back in those days, everyone ‘ate local’.)

      I agree that keeping a constant mulch on everything is a very good idea. But I will observe that mulch has to come from somewhere. It’s not that big a deal for a suburbanite where all the neighbors are mindlessly discarding organic matter every day of the week. But for a farmer with significant acreage, it can be a problem. One can dedicate some land to growing mulch, but, again, that subtracts from cash production.


      • Don,
        I see your point. I think like a gardener dealing with relatively small plots and not a farmer who has to treat many acres. I wonder what the history of your agriculture is. Some of the land in our Southeast has been so mined you are really dealing with subsoil not topsoil. Cotton and tobacco are very hard on soil. How close is your nearest city and what size? Cities that have to pay to dump their yard waste or sewage sludge can sometimes afford to move it out pretty far. Cornell University wrote the book on On-the-farm composting, which gives small farmers lots of ideas on where to source their organics.

        • Don Stewart says:

          It took the pre-revolutionary European settlers about 20 years to substantially mine the topsoil here. Then they moved west to new lands to ‘conquer’.

          In my little side yard garden, I have been pretty successful turning sub-soil into topsoil I recycle everything that I harvest right back into the soil. I also collect organic matter from the neighborhood to use as mulch. If you began to scratch around in my soil, you would find a very rich soil food web.

          By contrast, I have never seen an earthworm at the farm I work at. And the farmer considers himself a champion of putting organic matter into the soil. It’s like being in the tropics where there is really no humus in the soil.

          I am still puzzling why the Southeast has such low organic matter in the soil. But as I think about it, I have formed certain tentative hypotheses:
          1. When I lived in St. Louis, the oak forests in the Ozarks section of southern Illinois had a faster growth rate than oaks anywhere else. The days at the summer solstice are very long and thus there is a lot of solar energy to power photosynthesis. The days are several hours longer than they are in the tropics. Therefore, other things being equal, the oaks should grow faster than in the tropics.
          2. Then the leaf litter falls in the autumn and pretty soon there is a frost and biological activity in the soil slows down a lot. So the leaf litter sticks around until the following spring. It compacts, but you can still walk in the woods and kick leaves well into April.
          3. Then the critters tackle the leaves and leave humus to work its way into the soil, all the while the trees are making yet more leaves from the abundance of sun and mild temperatures and adequate but not excessive moisture.
          4. In the Southeast, the oaks pretty much stop growing as the days get shorter, but the frosts don’t happen right away. Therefore, the critters have longer to attack the fallen leaves. In short, it seems to me that the breakdown of the fallen organic matter gets ahead of the creation of new organic matter.
          5. My evidence is just remembrances of walking in the woods when I lived in the Midwest with sometimes the leaf litter being 6 or 8 inches deep, and lasting until the spring. It seems that the leaf litter in the Southeast never amounts to all that much.
          6. For whatever the reasons, it seems to be harder to accumulate organic matter in the soil in the Southeast. If frosts in the Midwest start being delayed into late November, then I would think that the same pattern might happen there. The critters get a longer shot at the leaf litter and organic matter doesn’t last over the winter in the volumes you have been used to. And organic matter in the soil begins to decline.
          7. This is independent of the effect of plowing.

          In short, I can imagine that longer growing seasons may not be the godsend that everyone expects.

          Don Stewart

  28. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Jody Tishmack

    Dear Jody
    Here is a reference from Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, page 132. It just illustrates how unfair life really is…you folks in Indiana have been favored by God while we poor sinners in the Southeast are still pushing rocks uphill, which continually roll back down on us.

    ‘Organisms are another factor in the development of soils. Plant roots penetrate the soil and, when they die, leave behind gaps and channels, contributing to soil structure. Because climate also determines the biota of a region, it can be difficult to tease apart the influences of climate and organisms on soil. (Hans) Jenny succeeded in differentiating the two in the prairie-forest transition in the Midwest. Here, in a broad stretch of land with similar climate, some areas are covered in prairie and others in trees. Beneath the prairie, Jenny found, organic matter and total nitrogen were higher than in forest soils. In the forest, soil carbon was largely in the surface layer. Leaching was also higher in the forest soil.

    Because of the governing influence of climate and organisms, soil types are distributed across the earth’s surface in much the same way as biomes….Utisols are the red clay soils of the southeastern US. Heavy precipitation has weathered these soils greatly and leached them of base ions such as calcium and magnesium. The resulting acidity supports forests of typical southeastern plants such as pines and azaleas, which in turn contribute moderate levels of organic matter to the soil. Mollisols form in grasslands. They are most notable for the thick A horizon (the top layers), filled with organic matter left by generations of grass roots. Precipitation is adequate to move carbonates and clay particles from the A to the B horizon but not so great as to strongly leach the soil. These are the fabulously productive soils of the US corn belt.’

    Then he describes the soils typical of arid regions, which are high in nutrients (no leaching from rain) but typically quite alkaline and thus the nutrients are not plant available and the soil may be underlain by caliche rocks which needs dynamite to break it up.

    When I was growing up on the tall grass prairie land of northern Oklahoma, we were taught (and I still believe!) that our obvious superiority to all other humans came from being the Chosen Ones of God, and being pruned by our individual ability to tolerate extreme heat, extreme cold, droughts, and floods so that only the most select survived. Consequently, I don’t buy all this baloney that it was really just the luck of the draw that our ancestors settled on such fabulously productive soil.

    But if you have seen Wes Jackson’s big hanging scroll showing the roots of perennial grasses going down 30 feet into the soil, and then you see a pine tree in the southeast that is blown over by a hurricane with no trouble at all, you are getting an object lesson in putting organic matter deeply into the soil I think it also has something to do with why grass fed beef really flourish in the southeast. The natural tendency to climax toward trees is prevented by the grazing, the grasses with their extraordinary roots flourish with the rotational grazing, and you can see some gorgeous farms.

    Because I live in a suburban area, I can scavenge all the organic matter I want. If I keep everything mulched all the time, I stay ahead of the microbes and all is well. Broad-acre farmers obviously have a harder time of it.

    Hope this is informative…Don Stewart

    • xabier says:


      To some the soil is a source of nourishment and health (mental and physical), and an object of study and reverence.

      To others, whose limited conceptions and spiritually famished minds have determined the tragic course of our civilization, it’s just ‘dirt’, to be smothered with chemicals and concrete and avoided at all costs.

      I suspect these two tribes are irreconcilable, rather like those who have empathy with dogs – and those who hate them.

      Reading about the Parsee religion recently, it seems that reverence for the land and trees was inculcated in its adherents above all else. A modern cynic would of course just see that as keeping the peasants in their place, I’d beg to differ. It also seems to have been one of the least cruel of all religions, and there may be a connection there.

      (There’s a dating agency here in the UK called, I think, ‘Muddy Boots’, so you can be sure of meeting the right kind of partner for tribal mating if you are in the first category: but I find walking one’s dog is just as good!)

  29. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    Here is a thoughtful essay by David Holmgren defending the relative lack of political programs in Permaculture. The attack was from someone who believes that individual and family and community actions are ‘worthless’, and that mass political action is necessary.

    I second most everything David says. Some people who comment here think that we have to keep doing what we are doing to feed 7 or 10 billion people. Some commenters think it will all end in massive bloodshed. Some think we will wake up and begin to use various magical sources of energy to replace fossil fuels. Permaculture, as articulated by David in this essay, is a middle way. Yes, we have to change…but the change has to start at home. Governments are incapable of directing the changes we need to make. Even if some ‘enlightened’ political authority decided to change things, the powerful people who would be hurt by the changes will stop them.

    Some might argue that global corporations can make the changes we need. I don’t see any evidence for that at all. Corporations are like greyhounds chasing the mechanical rabbit, and pointing out to the dogs that real rabbits reside outside the oval in the grassy fields is not going to get their attention.

    If Permaculture has a political program, it is one of permissive Anarchy. Holmgren notes the debt that Permaculture owes to Anarchic thinkers and practitioners. What we need is for the government to stop persecuting people who don’t meet all the codes and thousands of pages of laws written to keep the Indians on the reservation. We need to be able to get off the reservation and build our houses from shipping containers and cob and collect our drinking water from our roof and use composting toilets and send our graywater out into a little wetland which cleans the water. We need to be able to provide our own healthcare rather than pay the taxes to support an indecently bloated sick care system. In a fantasy world, we would also get the government to stop with the Empire nonsense.

    Don Stewart

    • Mel Tisdale says:

      Don, it is quite obvious that you disagree with technology and believe that we can feed the planet by putting more boots on the soil. I, on the other hand, I have grave doubts that such remedies are the panacea you claim them to be. Please allay my fears:

      You will agree that half the world’s population lives in cities, most only having minimal ground, if any, associated with their property. So to start with all those with more land are going to have to feed those who cannot feed themselves. How do you intend to administer this situation? I note that you object to general health care (I think it is called Obama Care), so I assume that you will object to feeding others (health or food – about the same thing really). If so, what happens to the ones you should be feeding?

      There is a lot of farm land that could be redistributed to city dwellers. How would you decide on who should be allocated what? How would resolve disputes about size of land allocation, and re-allocation of of it after dispute resolution? What do you propose for handling long-term disputes, such as when the size of the incumbent family increases/decreases in size and by rights should have more or less land, whichever is appropriate? How would you handle the fact that these city dwellers will need to travel from their homes to their plots of land? What happens when they decide to commandeer farm houses of the locals instead of having to travel each day back and forth, say when the weather. Or how do we house these people when we need to harvest vast tracts of land and travel to and from home is not an option? Who decides on when they should move from their city job to their rural job? How do they get paid and by whom? For those that can travel from home, how do you propose to arrive at a fair resolution as travel costs become ever more expensive? What plans do you have for water distribution? Please cover who does the maintenance and how are the costs decided, etc. Who is going to do the work these city dwellers normally do while they are putting their boots on the soil? Some will claim that they should be excused farm work because of the nature of their work, such as doctors and surgeons. Their case is clear, but what about toilet cleaners and other such menial work? If they are not excused, how long will it be before the hospital has to close because of dangerous hygiene conditions? And what then? Relent and give them permission to be excused from farm work? If so, how do you propose to handle the claims from others doing exactly the same work, but in offices and factories? Do we make the current farmers work in the city in order to equate the working experience of the city and rural communities? How should the produce from these boots on the soil be distributed? What happens when there is a disaster such as a famine, as happened in Ethiopia? They starve? Or do we impose a levy in order to save lives? And if so, how do we decide on the amount and how it is collected?

      The argument is often made that nuclear power plants take a very long time to build. That is true when planning permission drags on and the power station is a particularly large one. I suspect that you will not have resolved half of the above questions before the new plant is switched on. But, seeing as you will have given the application of your proposed new agricultural methodology much more thought than I have, I expect you will already have the answers.

      But there is one final set of connected questions: Why oh why did this God creature that so many believe in give us the technology that freed us to spread our wings in so many different directions? Why did it give some the ability to create great works of art, marvellous music and poetry? Why did it make radioactive materials that, if we so choose, can make many more people free to enjoy their lives, if we are not intended to take advantage of that freedom? Why is it so important to you and those who think like you that we should all get back to the soil? Would you stand outside a prison and try and persuade any escaping inmates that they should go back to the chain gang? You obviously love the soil. I don’t. So why do you think you have the right to force me to do something I do not like doing while you do something you do like doing when there is technology that frees me and leaves you to do it of your own accord?

      Don, there are some excellent videos of the prairies being harvested lots of combined harvesters in echelon formation working fields that appear to go on forever and try and imagine just how on earth you put enough boots on the soil to do it by hand. It would take an army and it if ever it were to arm itself, they will decide the answers to the questions that I posed above, not you, not the government, not anyone but them. In fact they will probably say “Sod this for a lark” and force others to do the work for them.

      • I think a good analogy relevant to individual and wages is: If brain surgeons go on strike–maybe a few hundred die, if refuse collectors go on strike, we all die. Maybe an extreme example of worth, but I think it makes the point quite well.
        As to other jobs, menial to whatever degree you choose, anyone not involved in food production/delivery, is riding on the excess energy made available by those food producers. That is where our ‘civilisation’ comes from.
        To further make the point, go back to the brain surgeon, put him alone on a desert island and he instantly becomes a hunter-gather.
        You make the point very well Mel about city dwellers and land—just where are these city dwellers going to find an acre of land to feed themselves. or indeed the knowledge to do it. The notion is dangerously nuts.
        I have a reasonably sized garden–but the idea of getting substantial amounts of year round food from it is laughable.

        • xabier says:

          End of More

          The answer to this debate is that this system of industrial agriculture and resource depletion will simply go on until it breaks, (very much for financial reasons, and the impact of social disorder, I agree with Gail’s intuition) as the social, and moral imperative is to keep feeding those who exist now and only industrial agriculture can accomplish this aim.

          And human population – which is in any case grossly excessive and highly damaging to this planet – will be very drastically reduced in most unpleasant ways.

          Not such a bad thing, too, in the long run.

          • nope—unless it’s you and yours being reduced of course.
            we have no alternative but to go on as we are, because we know no alternative. We think we do, but that really is wishful thinking by a few daydreamers, who, having dreamed their dreams, get in a car, put petrol in it, drive to the supermarket and buy their food with paper or plastic money.
            OK—so I accept there are exceptions—no brickbats please—, but their numbers are miniscule by comparison the people who run their lives in the normal way. To insist that the lifestyle of a few thousand can be scaled up to include billions is dangerous nonsense

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            Watching my neigbours over the other side of the village green – two fat kids, very fat mother, even fatter father, squeeze their way out of their front door (getting back in with shopping is quite a challenge) heading for their second car, I have a perfect picture of the mass human being bred by this crazy system. No, they won’t be adopting permaculture!

      • xabier says:


        I don’t think that Don is the Pol Pot of Permaculture: who’s talking about forcing you or anyone to do anything?

        If someone tells you that the only way to get to your destination is up a stony mountain path, he’s not imposing pain on you, just pointing out a fact.

        You seem, however to despise the soil and everything associated with it.

        I’ve noticed this in people whose family have only recently moved ‘up’ from being very poor landless peasants, which is understandable, and of course among extremely urban people who have a self-image (a new term for our old friend vanity) that precludes getting their hands dirty.

        It is of course an ancient attitude, and used in the past to define one’s place in the class structure: until recently in England no gentleman would be seen carrying anything in his hands other than a cane (and some walked into battle like this even in WW2!). And he would be gloved in dainty leather to show he didn’t ever soil his hands with work.

        Maybe you are an aristocrat of the old school?

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          Grow up Xabier. My son will have live through the turmoil that is coming our way and all I am doing is fighting for his survival. Its what grown ups do. As for your ridiculous notions regarding getting my hands dirty, I am a retired mechanical engineer and probably more used than you are to having dirty hands, and dirt that took chemicals to remove, not simply soap and water. When it comes to dirt, soil only just makes it on to the list.

          • xabier says:


            I’ve noticed that you accuse others of being offensive and vituperative, but engage in quite a bit of that yourself, notably your patronising attitude to Jody and those who live like her which was very rudely expressed.

            I’m afraid you seem to lack the skill in polite engagement and sharing of views from around the world, which has always characterised this site, and which make it interesting unlike some of the blogs out there, and it would be very nice to hear less about how much you are ‘trying to do’ for humanity.

            You are doing nothing much more than boring us. When you first appeared, you attempted to convert this site to your obsession with 9/11, which bored us all. Then you directed a general insult to all those discussing ‘homestead matters.’ Now you are the earnest Saviour of Humanity trying to find a global solution. It’s all more than a little tedious.

            If you are serious, put a spade in your son’s hands.

            • Don Stewart says:


              No, I don’t have the time or the will to answer all your questions. I believe you are going to have to answer them yourself. So I will pose two questions to you which may start you on a road of discovery. If you do go down that road, you most certainly won’t end up in the same place I am…that’s part of the beauty of Anarchy.

              (1) Do we need more nuclear energy so that we can perpetuate lunches such as this one that was given (but not eaten) to Joel Salatin?

              It was the first meeting of this kind I’ve ever attended that offered no water. The only thing to drink were soft drinks. Lunch was served in styrofoam clam shells — Lay’s potato chips, sandwiches, potato salad and chocolate chip cookie. It didn’t look very safe to me, so I didn’t partake. But I’d have liked a drink of water. In another circumstance, I might eat this stuff, but with these folks, felt it important to make a point. Why do they all assume nobody wants water, nobody cares about styrofoam, everybody wants potato chips and we all want industrial meat-like slabs on white bread?

              (2) Do some research on Joel He appears in tons of YouTubes and has written extensively. Over a 50 year period he turned a gullied, worn-out hilly farm in Virginia that his family was able to buy really cheap because it was worthless, into a highly productive and beautiful farm. Joel speaks frequently at Permaculture gatherings, although his ideas were formed somewhat independently (as were Sepp Holzer’s ideas in Austria). If Permaculture isn’t ready for prime time, how come Joel made it work so beautifully over a 50 year period?


              Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Don, I am really not that interested in Permaculture to study it any depth. I consider that I know enough to know that it is not going to be rolled out across the board in sufficient time to feed the multitude. If it were, you and others would have presented, or linked to, a full analysis of how that was going to be achieved.

              On a personal level, from what I have seen, I think it is a very good idea. I like the idea of eating food when, and only when, it is in season. That way, it is something to look forward to. I like the idea of strawberries that not only look like strawberries, they actually taste like them, too, and are only available in the late Spring, early Summer, and NOT at Christmas time. There is a lot to like about your farming methods. I just wish that you could hurry along this bottom up approach. It is no good trying to convince people like me to try it, I don’t like gardening to the extent that while my father’s food that he grew at home tasted a lot better than anything I can get from a supermarket, I still prefer to open a bag of frozen peas than grow them myself (and, yes, it does mean that I will probably not survive the bottleneck as you called it, a fact in itself that tells just how much I do not like gardening!). BUT if you can get young people interested (school meals – a possible route in, perhaps?) you can eventually flood the farming industry with people steeped in your methodology. And more power to your elbow, say I.

              If there is a mass die-off, then at least those who survive will have examples of a better way of farming than the one that not only let them down by not producing enough, it made them ill and overweight before doing so thanks to its poor quality. You and Jody have a lot on your side in terms of quality, you just don’t seem to have time on your side, too. (And I have a niggling doubt that it will need altering if it is going to feed mouths not involved in it from a production point of view. But that is not insoluble.)

            • Don Stewart says:

              You want me to do your work for you. I won’t do that.
              Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Don, I am not in the least interested in promoting, defending or anything else …ing the Permaculture movement, so am at a loss as to what work you think I want you to do for me.

              Let’s recap. I started out by suggesting that an increase in nuclear power stations would provide enough electricity to enable an electrified farming industry (machinery, tractors, combined harvesters, etc. for use on the farm and the heavy goods vehicles used to transport produce to (and from) distribution centres). I put the caveat in that I am no expert and called for other opinions as to how we can maintain food production so that we do not end up with food wars, food riots and a general breakdown in law and order. I did not mention that I had the hope that such a conversation would lead to there being a mature discussion about over-population and how to fix it, but that never-the-less was in my thinking.

              Just look at the outcome. I have been branded as some sort of pariah who is completely opposed to organic/Permaculture farming and will kill his own grandmother in preference to seeing it succeed. I cannot for the life of me understand why. I am not opposed to Permaculture/organic farming at all. I just don’t see how it can meet the needs we are going to face in the near future and no matter how much I ask for some explanation as to how Permaculture can rise to the challenge, I have yet to see even one explanation, be it serious or advanced as a joke. Why? I suspect that the answer has to be that there is no explanation to be had. It will just have to grow from the bottom up and evolve to meet the needs presented to it, which will almost certainly be slow process.

              Where we need to be is the public aware of the coming threat to food availability and from that the politicians, bless them, rising to the challenge. In preparation for that dawning of awareness on the part of the public and politicians I think there is the need for us to have some idea as to what solutions are possible. I stated my preference, by way of seed-corn for the debate, that I saw nuclear, preferably thorium fueled, should be the source of the electrical energy and we should have a major project to develop improved ways of storing that electrical energy so that the vehicles have a sensible range of operation. How does that exclude Permaculture, Don? We can keep going round in circles on this issue and while we do, the famine comes relentlessly down the pike until eventually we realise that we have left it far too late. The sad thing is that thanks to the poor quality of our politicians it might already be too late, so should we give up? Surely not, not even to please those who seem to relish the prospect of a mass die-off of our species.

  30. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others, especially Mel Tisdale
    A recurring question is whether the current industrial food system can feed 9 billion people, and whether some other system such as Permaculture can feed 9 billion people. Here is David Holmgren’s answer. Please note that the sound is not the best in the world. The link will take you to a page with a bunch of videos. Each video is about 7 minutes long. Go to the video third from the end and click on it. There is a volume control slider.

    David gives a nuanced response. First, he says that with the looming energy crisis, the current system will not be able to feed 9 billion. However, the current economic system may result in the richest 2 billion starving the remaining people as the rich people devote land to biofuels to feed their cars. In addition, the recycling of nutrients from human waste is extraordinarily difficult in the current system. Yet such recycling is essential to future food production.

    A Permaculture system which reconnects the place where food is produced with the place where it is consumed, the great reduction in the percentage of calories accounted for by dead animals (especially cows), stopping the practice of feeding high quality grains to animals, the eating of food which is grown in gardens and is currently in surplus rather than exotic foods from around the world, the farming of land which is now marginal, and the reinvigoration of the home economy WILL permit Permaculture to feed 9 billion people DESPITE a great reduction in energy availability.

    I believe David bases his belief on two observations:
    1. Permaculture demonstrably greatly increases food production.
    2. Permaculture changes human behavior for the better in terms of feeding billions of people.

    I would add that you need to understand that food production can increase amidst a general lowering of standards of living. Many people may become subsistence growers of food. If the economy is producing one fifth of the current GDP in 20 years, then people will be spending a much higher percentage of their income on food.

    Is this a reversion to some bad, old ways? If you care to listen to the earlier videos, you will find a nuanced answer to this question, also. David says that one criticism of Permaculture is that ‘it is just common sense’. His retort is that the ‘sense is no longer common’. When he visited Italy, for example, his translator said ‘this is the way we used to do things’. People from Japan have a similar reaction. But even in countries with a robust historical tradition, the traditions are dead or dying. And there are tricks which the historical tradition did not incorporate, which can be stolen from other places. For example, it is commonplace in Australia to catch rainwater from the roof, but in many countries this is an entirely novel idea. The notion of doing earthworks to control water in the landscape is common in certain cultures, unknown in others. In short, the globalization in terms of knowledge permits us to adopt the best practices from a much broader palette.

    Don Stewart

    • Mel Tisdale says:

      There is no doubt that we can improve food production by such methods as Permaculture. But there is one great big gaping hole in the notion that we can just apply it to global food production as if by throwing a switch. If you listen to the other talks, Don, there is one that talks about the subject more generally, In that it is clear that the vast majority of adherents to the Permaculture method, so to speak, are all keen on the subject, much like yourself. Also, they are mostly feeding themselves and their families with, on occasion, assistance from local farmers, who are also working to the same methodology. We have to get from there to one where people such as myself, who don’t have any interest in the subject are expected to work on the land. And while doing so, provide food enough for others. Surely you can see that that can only lead to large numbers going hungry. I’ll help others by spouting forth on sites such as this one, but get soaked and muddy to feed some other person just because I have some land and they don’t is not something I will queue for.

      We have an imperfect system in place at the moment. But, imperfect as it is, it works and if we could provide it with energy, it would continue to work. I hear no mention in the Permaculture talks of distribution needs, such as decisions on crop choices so that the distribution system can continue to work without ending up with a right old mixture of grains etc. It is like steam trains, Some hark back to the good old days of steam and wish for its return. We have moved on. Steam trains can only use existing track by special arrangement because they don’t fit in with modern track safety technology. We could make Permaculture work on a grand scale, but I just don’t see any ideas from you, Don, or Mr Holmgren, on how we transition from a bunch of enthusiasts to a bunch of unenthusiastic individuals forced to do work for which they have no vocation.

      I see no option but to try and make the existing methods last as long as we can while we find ways of energizing them past the point where oil shortages would be a problem. By all means start now with getting schools to promote Permaculture by teaching it and providing certification to reflect that teaching. Get colleges and universities to take those secondary level students and provide them with degree level tuition so that we soon have a body of highly knowledgeable young people enthusiastic about food production, steeped in a methodology more suitable to the problems we face than the current methodology. Let them go out into the world of agriculture and introduce Permaculture as though it is the most natural thing in the world (which it seems to be, anyway). That way, current farming methods will change in line with the needs of Permaculture and Permaculture will change in line with current custom and practice where that is more suitable on a global scale. For example, food today sometimes has to be shipped to starving people in a hurry. Farming methods have to support a distribution system that can meet make that happen.

      I think, Don, if you read my other post and try and answer the questions I posed, you will see that the idea of pushing Permaculture, or any similar method, onto the public generally, is doomed to failure. We only have to look at climate change to see that. We know that climate change is on course to kill a large number of people, most as yet unborn. You would think that for a God fearing person, tackling it would be a no-brainer. Yet if we look at America, a God-fearing nation, one of its two main (almost ‘only’) political parties has, almost as a right of passage, the belief that climate change is all a hoax, even when they experience drought, floods and rising sea-levels. These people should be charged with committing a crime against humanity, but we let them get away with it. How can we expect people to do hard labour that they have no affinity for in order to save lives when they won’t even support political action to save other lives?

      One of the talks mentions that more people will be needed to work on the land in future. If we can provide tractors, combined harvesters etc. with energy, we will not need those extra people and probably could manage with fewer than at present. So let’s get back to solving that problem, shall we? It involves fewer people, is quickly applicable when solved, and most of all, feasible.

      • Don Stewart says:

        David Holmgren freely admits that Permaculture hasn’t changed the world. As someone who took The Limits to Growth to heart, and did something about it (invent Permaculture), he is of course dismayed. He is quite pessimistic about ‘big solutions’ coming from governments or mass movements. He thinks that when some people see the obvious advantages, they will adopt the methods. It’s not at all about ‘top down’, its about ‘bottom up’. The fact that you have zero interest probably just indicates to Holmgren that you won’t make it through the bottleneck. Sorry…that’s just the way the universe works. It’s not personal.

        So when you pose a lot of questions about ‘fairness’ and ‘doctor’s excuses’ and all that stuff, I just can’t work up the energy to reply. People either see that The Limits to Growth are real, or that Gail’s formulation of Peak Finance is real, or something else convinces them that they have to change…or they continue to do what they are doing. Holmgren, I think, believes the former have a chance and the latter don’t. But he also admits that the system has held together a lot longer than he thought it could.

        As for the notion that if we just had infinite amounts of nuclear energy we could solve all the other limits such as nutrient depletion, I think he would just laugh and wish you luck.

        Don Stewart

        • xabier says:


          It seems to be a common psychological failing to declare that The End Is Nigh when one has seen the fracture faults in the system: the perception is usually correct, but the assessment of timing is often hopelessly wrong.

          I’m sure there are old evolutionary reasons for this tendency to jump the gun: not least being that as we tend to go into automatic in our daily routine lives, a mechanism that impels us to immediate, drastic action once a threat is perceived has great survival potential – just as much as the denial-reaction which helps to minimize the perception of threats and so save us from a constant sate of anxiety.

          So the wise man ends up looking like the little boy who called wolf, and a fool or liar. But he ain’t none of those!

          Another factor is that no-one will listen to a prophet of doom (or hope) who can’t put a time-frame on his predictions: like the ‘the economy will recover to growth in 6 months’ predictions which the European leaders have been making for the last 5 years, an estimate is required from the pronouncer however much that defies reason. Of copurse, in this instance, the prophets are just downright liars!

          Waiting for mass action or government initiative in this field is like, as the Spanish say, waiting for the Virgin Mary to turn up in court and dispense Justice. Nice idea, but……

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          Sorry you feel that way, Don, but of course I am bound to feel that you do not have answers to my questions and have taken the easy way out. You think Permaculture is a good thing (so do I, thanks to your links and information). As I indicated in a previous comment, I just don’t see being applied in time to feed the planet when the oil supply falls to dangerous levels, not without some assistance at least, which we soon won’t be able to provide. You admit that it has not caught on to the extent it was hoped, which shows that there is something wrong with the current methods being used to introduce it. I have suggested some ways that might work, about which you make no comment, yet make no alternative suggestions. Why? I would have thought an enthusiastic bunch of graduates let loose in today’s same old same old agricultural industry would be just the shot in the arm that it needs. Do you have an alternative suggestion?

          So Don, what do we do? Give up? Let the world starve? Your reference to a ‘bottleneck’ would seem to indicate that you accept that there is going to be a cull and only some will survive. Is this the ‘can do’ America we hear so much about? An America that has an abundance of talent, produces more Nobel Laureates than any other nation and is better equipped than any other nation. I’ll bet that given a Manhattan Project approach to coping with diminishing oil supply the best brains in America could come up with solutions, though I would prefer a global effort. It might be too late, but I am damned if I am prepared to just give up. It just isn’t way we do things on this side of the pond, and quite honestly I don’t thing giving up is an American trait either.

          We will get nowhere while the discussion is limited to this website, good as it is. All I am trying to do is get some wider discussion going. Sure, nuclear power is anathema to some, but it is at least a source of energy, which is half the battle. If not nuclear, then let us at least have some realistic analysis of renewables, or perhaps synthetic oil – from coal, if I remember right. I like nuclear, especially thorium, but I recognize that I am not the best informed. People might ridicule my position, but that doesn’t matter as long as it is done in a positive, informed manner rather than what we have become used to: “It’s nuclear, we’ll all be murdered in our beds!”

          If Gail is right, we are long past the time when the governments should have come clean about the situation we are about to experience and at least started a public conversation with and among their populations. So it is a case of ‘better late than never!’ If we can get an informed public, we might cut through some red tape and get some honest opinions about the alternatives available. And perhaps get some direction towards avoiding what appears to be an imminent global disaster. If that means wind turbines spoiling our green and pleasant land, so be it. If it means nuclear power, then others will have to accept it. Getting the energy is only part of the solution, for most available energy supplies, we need to develop a much better way of storing electrical energy that is currently available.

          Or we can just curl up and let fate run its course – over my dead body!

          P.s. A global Manhattan Project would be an excellent distraction from the mess the world governments have made of the financial situation!

          • Please—not ”Manhattan project ” again. Or another Apollo project
            These projects consumed cheap energy and in so doing created a vast range of employment, but without access to cheap fuel these projects would not have been possible.
            Oil underpinned the wealth of the nation that created them, allowing such colossal enterprises to ride on the back of prosperous fuel burning, profit making industry
            That cheap fuel is no longer available, so projects on that scale can no longer be supported

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              O.K. And what constructive suggestions do you have for us as to how we manage to feed 7 to 9 billion? Or do you, like so many others on this site, see the coming potential food shortage as a glorious opportunity to kill off a few billion?

            • Scott says:

              Hello Mel, I enjoyed reading your recent posts today, you said a lot there. I think what many of us fear is that this change will be crisis driven and not pre-planned as it should have been 30-40 years ago. I think what Gail is trying to say is that the planet cannot support all of us for much longer using the fossil fuel model and for that matter, there is just too many of us now sadly to be supported by the ecosystem that would stay in balance, so things are getting increasingly out of balance.

              I do also see a food shortage ahead perhaps coupled with a major Depression that likely will affect us all and may likely cull.

              There are things we could be doing now, but they are not being done. Even to build a new type of power plant would take years and loads of red tape, we need to start over with a new fresh way of thinking, but I do not see that happening until post-collapse.


            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Hi Scott. All I am trying to do is at least make an effort to feed the people while the planet transitions to a more sustainable way of producing food and, perhaps, becomes pro-active in tackling over-population. To read some comments, one would think I was trying to do something akin to organizing a hog roast at a bar mitzvah!

            • I am afraid I agree with End of More. Over-reproduction is built into the biology of all living species. There is no possible way we get this rate down, and keep it down. Nature’s way is “natural selection” — a large share of the young will not live to maturity. The ones that don’t live to maturity will disproportionately reflect the handicapped, those with diseases, and those who happen to live in areas where there are not enough resources to survive. We have managed to get the rate of reproduction down, through birth control, education of mothers, medical treatment of those who are born with handicaps, and promises of pension plans so that people do not need to make certain that they have enough children of their own to provide for their old age.

              Unfortunately, our method of getting the reproduction rate down is not sustainable. Even the education component is not sustainable, because it requires that we have a large surplus of labor who can be kept out of the fields, thanks to metal tools, fertilizer, irrigation, and other manifestations of the fossil fuel age. Also, ending up with a significant proportion of the population that is disabled is not at all helpful. Even such issues as people living in the part of the earth where their skin color does not match what is needed for best use of Vitamin D is a problem. So is intermarrying with others, to produce an “average” skin color. There is no way that we can convince people that it is best that they allow their disabled child to die–whether or not this is what nature would dictate. These changes would be too much for people to even consider. I would be considered a nut, a bigot, or worse.

              If we are headed back to nature’s way we will have to have very much lower population. How we transition to that point is an open question. The world’s resources are finite–any crops moved from one type of production to another are lost to the first set of production. Our current industrialized approach, as much as we dislike it, is very good at producing a lot of food, very cheaply. A remnant of population can perhaps be saved in this transition. The remnant will most likely need different approaches. Whether or not permaculture is the answer has not yet been proven. Historically, humanity has been hunter-gatherers, far longer than we have been farmers. But agriculture of some form has the possibility of allowing at least 100 times higher population than hunter-gathering, so using some form of it, such as permaculture, seems like something worthwhile trying. Current permaculture methods are tied in with the fossil fuel system we have today. I think that we need to be considering sustainability of the permaculture systems without fossil fuels as well (and I know some do). Otherwise, we just move the die-off a generation or two later. Of course, that may be (for some) a goal in itself.

            • Don Stewart says:

              David Holmgren describes a constellation of practices that we might call ‘natural farming’….as distinguished from pure hunting and gathering (which was rare over the last thousands of years) or the industrial extraction and chemical agriculture. As he describes it, permaculture came out of the peculiar situation in Australia where there was no available tradition (except, perhaps, the extremely broken Aborigine society). If Holmgren had grown up in Japan or Italy, he would likely have latched onto some traditional practices. In Japan there was a rich tradtion of ‘natural farming’ and there was a rich tradition in Italy. So…if you look at what the inventor of permaculture thinks, he doesn’t try to claim that some trademarked word ‘permaculture’ is the solution to everything.

              If you look at our upcoming Carolina Farm Stewardship conference, you will see presentations on a very wide range of initiatives from rotational grazing to food forests to no till, cover crop, organic annual plants to local sourcing of food by restaurants to nutritional education in schools and on and on. To call all these ‘permaculture’ is stretching the word and doesn’t serve any useful purpose that I can think of. Can they all be described as ‘natural farming’? No. Not really.

              All of them DO reflect a turning away from the extractive, manipulative, hubristic, resource depleting, disease promoting methods which are now ‘business as usual’. I don’t know what the right word is to describe it, but if you were to attend the conference, you would feel it.

              Is it all about ‘organic’? No. For example, I was in a cover crop seminar yesterday and we saw some results on soil organic matter. To really put a lot of organic matter in the soil, there are two general approaches. One is rotational grazing…the kind that built the tall and short grass prairies in the US and is promoted by people like Alan Savory. The deep roots of grass can put astonishing amounts of organic matter and thus, carbon, deeply into the soil.

              The second is growing crops without fertilizers by using nitrogen fixing cover crops and then using the cover crop as a mulch and planting into the mulch. No pesticides are used. A huge California certified organic farm almost certainly does not do things this way. They will have a little more organic matter in the soil than a conventional farm, but not markedly so. They will probably import a lot supplies onto the farm. Yesterday, we heard from a farmer who did not, for 15 years, import any fertility (fertilizers or compost) onto his farm.

              Another important point was made by David Holmgren when he talked about behavior change. The two methods I have mentioned produce more biological activity than any industrial agriculture method…but not necessarily more corn per acre. So diversifying oneself away from total dependence on a few staple crops is also important.

              The important thing is the practices…not what it is called.

              Don Stewart

            • You are right. The important thing is the practice.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Otherwise, we just move the die-off a generation or two later. Of course, that may be (for some) a goal in itself.

              At least that would give people a choice of whether to risk having children who might suffer a short and painful life. But what do I know, I am only an atheist.

              One hopes that the powers that be store today’s intellectual wealth securely so that future generations are able to take advantage of it and thus avoid re-inventing the wheel if or when civilization returns some time hence. One also hopes that they also record any mistakes that we have made that could have led to the die-off so that future generations can avoid making them.

              Considering that even if we stopped producing CO2 today, future generations will also have to cope with a quite markedly changed climate that we know is already in the pipeline and we have hardly done as much as we could have to ameliorate, surely we should do whatever we can to assist their survival. Let’s face it, they are going to need all the help they can get.

            • Scott says:

              Just looking at this story about Chicago violence, It looks like this is going to get worse as the economy gets worse again soon.

            • I was rereading part of Secular Cycles yesterday, and noticed discussion about the big role violence (and protection against violence) seems to have played in early collapses. Defense mechanisms seemed to have been very important after early collapses. People didn’t settle where the crops would be best–they settled on the hilltops where it would be easiest to defend their properties.

          • Mel
            when they make me el Supremo—I shall certainly take the glorious opportunity to bump off everyone…well I might make a few exceptions.. too good an opportunity to miss wouldn’t you say?
            And as with all self elected supreme beings, I shall no doubt find a lot of willing helpers in my task.
            On the other hand, if we leave out the hysteria and concentrate on rational thinking, that clearly shows that every human being needs a fixed amount of energy just to stay alive, plus all the ‘extras’ we’ve come to regard as some kind of essential right.
            That is the reality we have to live with.
            So, we must burn fuel to live and there is only a fixed amount available per person.
            When the manhattan project started, the USA had 120 million people, and more natural resources that anyone had ever dreamed of, food as well as minerals etc. Now there are 330 million.
            Each one demanding their share of energy, which is itself diminishing.
            The arithmetic of distribution is simple.
            When you had 120 million, you had spare capacity to divert to the the manhattan project. (and the rest of WW2)
            Now there are no spare resources, everyone is borrowing like crazy to keep going..
            The manhattan project was another aspect of a wartime economy. Everyone ‘appeared’ to be prosperous and fully employed, but the reality was that everyone was burning up resources in an effort to defeat physical enemies, who were effectively doing the same thing. People were getting paid to turn resources into wartoys, which were then destroyed.
            You cannot turn the clock back and do it again, because we do not have the spare resources to ‘burn’.
            Which brings me to killing off the excess population.
            Any species that outgrows its resource base is culled back to sustainable numbers once food sources have been used up. Hysteria about ‘wanting to kill off a few billion’ won’t alter biology I’m afraid. People eat, and once they’ve eaten they tend to think about reproducing themselves. Every species on the planet does the same thing. A plant can’t reproduce itself in badly nourished soil. We need the soil just as much as plants do, unfortunately we drained its nourishment and replaced it with (cheap) oil based fertilisers, and carried on reproducing ourselves as if that was normality.
            So there are now seven times more of us than there should be.
            There are no ‘suggestions’ about feeding that excess, because the means to do so isn’t there. Altruism is not part of nature’s vocabulary.
            It’s what’s known as facing reality.

      • This discussion about the practicality of top down (eg nuclear power and industrial food system) vs bottom up (permaculture and behavioural adaption) responses to the energy issue reveils some structural dynamics that are quite interesting. Mel and others proposing the top down solutions rely on the power of existing structures to keep on doing what they have been doing only bigger and faster. It feels like getting with the strength, a strength that just needs encouragement and commitment from the masses to enable the scientists, entrepreneurs and politicians to save us all from having to leave our screens or worse. Don and others put their energy into the bottom up approaches not just because we like them, but because we have the power to do so. The problem with the top down solutions is that all we can do is shout louder demanding the solution. As conditions get worse the perception of the problem and the solutions starts to look more like what is happening in Egypt. My Future Scenarios ( work is specifically designed to empower activists committed to the bottom up responses more nuenced understanding of the energy descent future. The Brown Tech scenario looks like it is consolidating as the default scenario and this is very relevant to this discussion because in this world, citizens will increasingly be forced to choose between the strictures of a failing centralised system or trying their luck in the wild uncertainties of the parallel economy. The example I have used in workshops to illustrate this divide is a situation where the government will guarantee the supply of No Name GE food at the nationalised supermarket food distribution system, if you have your ID card and various other restrictions on your freedom. Otherwise you are out in the feral food system growing your own, farmers markets and community supported ag etc. Similar situations would apply to health, education and so on. At present we have the luxury of developing one while having easy access to the other for back up. It might seem in everyone’s interests for this parrallel development to continue but inevitably the bottom up solutions are a threat to the viability of top down systems suffering extreme stress.

        In the Brown Tech senario, the central system spends its limited resources, keeping the lights on, the food in the supermarket and the borders defended in a world of escalating climate change natural disasters and more climate and environment damaging expensive energy sources. For the shrinking middle class, the comforts provided might allow them to keep their hands and feed out of the dirt but with the on-going loss of freedom and autonomy and little hope for the future generations. Will it be any better out on the feral fringes? It maybe less secure, but with greater freedom and hope for future generations.

        • xabier says:


          A lot of sense in that: a (necessary) minority pursuing a dirty hands alternative at the fringe, while most are (happily for the most part) stuck in the globalized system which has been constructed around oil.

          It seems to me that the greatest threat to the former is that, as the system creaks and groans, it will intrude on their lives ever more disruptively with hyper-regulation and punitive taxaion – for instance, it was fatal to Rome and disastrous for the individuals concerned that the independent farmers were bankrupted by taxes and their sons taken for the army, but for a system bent on self-preservation there was really no viable alternative: the people were squeezed and the army got paid until, one day, it just wasn’t possible anymore.

          In a modern context, some draconian property tax payable only in fiat currency or by surrendering one’s property to the state in lieu is most likely as the system seeks self-preservation.

          The historical record shows that most elites have no difficulties of conscience in reducing the mass of citizens to penury. As societies become ever poorer and more stressed, there will be much electoral advantage in property confiscation (‘it’s only Fair’ as they say in Europe.)

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Xabier and Others
            I have never met David Holmgren, and I never met Emilia Hazelip. But I very much like the work that David is doing and that Emilia did (she died around 2003). I have recommended Emilia’s You
            Tube video on gardening many times on this blog.

            Very frequently people who favor the status quo, or, what amounts to the same thing, say that ‘there is no alternative’, resort to character assasination. Therefore, I will append this note from Emilia as it regards David. You may find this illuminating in terms of ethics and anarchy and the feral fringe…Don Stewart

            david told me: “when i finished with my thesis i put it in a drawer & went
            to my mothers property & started the realisation of the concept, my
            intention was only to start divulgating permaculture after seing the
            results, by bill starting immediately its diffusion, since the concept works
            he has speeded up the process of making it accessible to other people by 10
            years”…(some words are mine as i don’t recall verbatim the conversation
            but the meaning is there) david is about the most opposite in personality
            to bill, he is truly modest & his time he spends it in direct involved
            ecological activism…he has given me back the respect i had towards the
            “tool of permaculture” but i have nothing to do with the institutional
            empire that bill tries to create with the institute, tagari & the pc
            trademark. (from Wikipedia)

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Don, I, and I am sure many others on this site, can see that Permaculture works, at least at the very local level. You have given us more than enough information for me at least to see that it has a lot of merit.

              Now what we need is for you and the other experts in the subject to stop ‘pushing at an open door’ and tell us how precisely you intend to expand it beyond the ultra local so that those who work and live in cities can be fed by it. And if you can’t find a workable solution, then tell what you think we should do to feed them. Please, let’s have something constructive. It is not too much to ask, is it?

            • Don Stewart says:

              People should not listen to me. David Holmgren has given some of the most thoughtful advice about future scenarios. People should study his work. I have additionally posted on this site work by Geoff Lawton. I have also referred to Toby Hemenway. These people are the real experts.

              If you want to look at what a really nice Permaculture home in the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, looks like, go to

              Then go out and DO SOMETHING yourself.

              Don Stewart

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Thanks for the advice to DO SOMETHING, all caps noted. The problem is that if I were to DO SOMETHING along the lines of Permaculture then I would see myself as part of the problem, not the solution. As for making changes locally, who in my adopted country is going to listen to the mad Englishman who only speaks enough to get by in the shops?

              The problem is, Don, that you and some others on this site just don’t get it. Or if you do, are quite content to let millions, probably billions, die of starvation. Permaculture is a solution to a chronic problem, and from my admittedly limited perspective, it seem to be a good solution, too.

              The coming oil shortage is going to present an acute problem that will swamp anything on the Permaculture front, and it is that that we need to address. OK, I can DO SOMETHING, such as make my house a Permaculture paradise, but it will only be part of changing the chronic problem, just one of the dribs and drabs that people make from a personal perspective, and then it will only be for my dog and me. Compared to It is even going to feed one of those destined to die from a collapse of the existing food production system, unless they happen by my house and the dog lets them in (he tends to get his way in such matters).

              What I find most telling is that while I suggested that we rapidly expand our nuclear power generation and work flat out on electrifying the farm vehicles and tractors (plus associated transport vehicles, No one so far has put up an alternative. All I get is Permaculture and the like put forward as if it is going to feed the multitude with absolutely no suggestion as to exactly how it is going to perform such a feat. If absolutely everyone who has a garden or plot of land big enough to feed themselves adopted Permaculture whole-heartedly, it would still leave the vast majority of city dwellers without food. It will be too late then to address the problem of food production.

          • pre-industrial revolution, what we think of as ‘society’, as opposed to an aboriginal existence, most people lived in poverty because access to food production was ultimately controlled by the church and state.
            In UK, they owned the land, all of it. landholders kept their land under fiefdom to the king–ie they were required to supply soldiers in time of war. priests just kept all the profits and built more churches.
            Essentially church and state converted peasant muscle power into wealth and profit
            It wasn’t until Henry 8th confiscated church property and sold it for cash that the concept of freehold land began to evolve.
            We added fossil fuel to the mix and boosted wealth for everybody (temporarily), but the system is still the same.
            we are now seeing it revert to old arrangement, its just that titles have changed, theyre not called kings anymore

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          First, David, if I may call you that, thanks for joining the discussion. If we can only get others of a similar status involved from other disciplines, we will be getting somewhere. I have answered some of the points you make in a reply to Don, but will reiterate them here because it will give me a chance to explain my position, which from reading your comment, could do with clarifying.

          First of all I am not opposed to Permaculture. Don directed us to your talks (about nine of them) and also to Lawton’s Greening of the Desert video. And I have to say that I was impressed. My original comment regarding finding a solution to the fix we are in was intended to lead to finding a solution to the problem that agriculture takes energy and energy, according to Gail – and I have no better alternative source – is going to be in short supply pretty soon. Having a world population of 7 going on 9 billion is going to test our ability to feed ourselves unless we can manage to maintain food production and delivery. Some on this site seem resigned to there being a cull. Personally I consider that irresponsible. The weak and the young will be most susceptible to a cull and they have done nothing to deserve it, period. To think otherwise, is, I think, to deny our humanity. It may still happen, but not without a fight if I have anything to do with it.

          Moving on. Oil depletion will mean that feeding ourselves is going to require an alternative source of energy, which we currently don’t have in the quantity we need, and if, when we have it, it takes the form of electricity, it is going to require the electrification of the vehicles and machinery associated with food production. Seeing no discussion on what form that energy production should take and more importantly how urgent it is, I thought it would be a good idea if we started a discussion here and if possible for it to spread until the politicians were forced to address the issue and with luck put their global heads together to find a way out of the forthcoming mess. What you would no doubt call a top down approach.

          So far, so good, bad or whatever. My problem with Permaculture as far as I understand it, comes down to the fact that we have to feed the population and not let people starve to death (or die from wounds obtained in any wars fought over food). For me, a cull is just not an option. So, I look at the prairies and see vast swathes of crop that is widely regarded as the breadbasket of the planet and thus essential if we are going to avoid those deaths. Call it a lack of imagination, but I just don’t see how we can apply Permaculture to that type of farming, at least in the short term. Heaven knows they face enough problems with climate change putting them through extreme weather events, not to mention that they will probably move northwards as the planet warms. This will take them to virgin territory as far as suitability of the soil is concerned (alkalinity, microbes etc) which will almost certainly affect yields. Do you have any ideas as to how we can apply Permaculture to this type of farming, which currently takes multiples of combined harvesters and I assume multiples of seeders (if that is what they are called)?

          While I did not mention it in my original post (or I don’t think I did, but whatever) when we have avoided the calamitous cull and got some direction to where we are going, I did think that the world, having looked into the abyss, might be in a state of mind to have a grown up discussion as to population control. I have no opinions as to how this might be achieved, but it will be for the next generation to tackle, not me. It is here that Permaculture could come to the fore and form a cornerstone of at least some of the options.

          As for Permaculture as a technique/philosophy, I am now actually quite enthusiastic. I can see that when we have averted the cull, or possibly before, but with care just in case it doesn’t work on very large scales, it would be excellent if it could be rolled out to a much wider usage. I suggested to Don that one way is to get it into mainstream education to the point where school children, secondary level, could be attracted to take an agricultural degree, a large part of which should be Permaculture centred. Once they get into the farming industry and start wielding their knowledge, if it is as good as you and many others, Don included, say it is, it should spread like wildfire. What’s not to like about increased yields with better land management? But first we have to ensure that we live up to our responsibilities to feed the hungry. Do you remember the Ethiopian drought and the awful scenes that Michal Buerk showed us every evening? As probably shows, it has had a lasting effect on me.

          In passing, one of your talks made a rather disconcerting statement regarding potassium depletion; do you have any links that might further inform a non-agrarian like me, especially the ramifications of a shortage?

          Once again, thanks for your input.

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