Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse

How does the world reach limits? This is a question that few dare to examine. My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes:

  • To extract oil and other minerals from locations where extraction is very difficult, such as in shale formations, or very deep under the sea;
  • To mitigate water shortages and pollution issues, using processes such as desalination and long distance transport of food; and
  • To attempt to reduce future fossil fuel use, by building devices such as solar panels and electric cars that increase fossil fuel energy use now in the hope of reducing energy use later.

We have long known that the world is likely to eventually reach limits. In 1972, the book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others modeled the likely impact of growing population, limited resources, and rising pollution in a finite world. They considered a number of scenarios under a range of different assumptions. These models strongly suggested the world economy would begin to hit limits in the first half of the 21st century and would eventually collapse.

The indications of the 1972 analysis were considered nonsense by most. Clearly, the world would work its way around limits of the type suggested. The world would find additional resources in short supply. It would become more efficient at using resources and would tackle the problem of rising pollution. The free market would handle any problems that might arise.

The Limits to Growth analysis modeled the world economy in terms of flows; it did not try to model the financial system. In recent years, I have been looking at the situation and have discovered that as we hit limits in a finite world, the financial system is the most vulnerable part of the system because it ties everything else together. Debt in particular is vulnerable because the time-shifting aspect of debt “works” much better in a rapidly growing economy than in an economy that is barely growing or shrinking.

The problem that now looks like it has the potential to push the world into financial collapse is something no one would have thought of—high oil prices that take a slice out of the economy, without anything to show in return. Consumers find that their own salaries do not rise as oil prices rise. They find that they need to cut back on discretionary spending if they are to have adequate funds to pay for necessities produced using oil. Food is one such necessity; oil is used to run farm equipment, make herbicides and pesticides, and transport finished food products. The result of a cutback in discretionary spending is recession or near recession, and less job availability. Governments find themselves in  financial distress from trying to mitigate the recession-like impacts without adequate tax revenue.

One of our big problems now is a lack of cheap substitutes for oil. Highly touted renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV are not cheap. They also do not substitute directly for oil, and they increase near-term fossil fuel consumption. Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,” but it is not cheap. Battery powered cars are also not cheap.

The issue of rising oil prices is really a two-sided issue. The least expensive sources of oil tend to be extracted first. Thus, the cost of producing oil tends to rise over time. As a result, oil producers tend to require ever-rising oil prices to cover their costs. It is the interaction of these two forces that leads to the likelihood of financial collapse in the near term:

  1. Need for ever-rising oil prices by oil producers.
  2. The adverse impact of high-energy prices on consumers.

If a cheap substitute for oil had already come along in adequate quantity, there would be no problem. The issue is that no suitable substitute has been found, and financial problems are here already. In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.

The Role of Inexpensive Energy

The fact that few stop to realize is that energy of the right type is absolutely essential for making goods and services of all kinds.  Even if the services are simply typing numbers into a computer, we need energy of precisely the right kind for several different purposes:

  1. To make the computer and transport it to the current location.
  2. To build the building where the worker works.
  3. To light the building where the worker works.
  4. To heat or cool the building where the worker works.
  5. To transport the worker to the location where he works.
  6. To produce the foods that the worker eats.
  7. To produce the clothing that the worker wears.

Furthermore, the energy used needs to be inexpensive, for many reasons—so that the worker’s salary goes farther; so that the goods or services created are competitive in a world market; and so that governments can gain adequate tax revenue from taxing energy products. We don’t think of fossil fuel energy products as being a significant source of tax revenue, but they very often are, especially for exporters (Rodgers map of oil “government take” percentages).

Some of the energy listed above is paid for by the employer; some is paid for by the employee. This difference is irrelevant, since all are equally essential. Some energy is omitted from the above list, but is still very important. Energy to build roads, electric transmission lines, schools, and health care centers is essential if the current system is to be maintained. If energy prices rise, taxes and fees to pay for basic services such as these will likely need to rise.

How “Growth” Began

For most primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the number of the species fluctuates up and down within a range. Total population isn’t very high. If human population followed that of other large primates, there wouldn’t be more than a few million humans worldwide. They would likely live in one geographical area.

How did humans venture out of this mold? In my view, a likely way that humans were able to improve their dominance over other animals and plants was through the controlled use of fire, a skill they learned over one million years ago  (Luke 2012).  Controlled use of fire could be used for many purposes, including cooking food, providing heat in cool weather, and scaring away wild animals.

The earliest use of fire was in some sense very inexpensive. Dry sticks and leaves were close at hand. If humans used a technique such as twirling one stick against another with the right technique and the right kind of wood, such a fire could be made in less than a minute (Hough 1890). Once humans had discovered how to make fire, they could use it to leverage their meager muscular strength.

The benefits of the controlled use of fire are perhaps not as obvious to us as they would have been to the early users. When it became possible to cook food, a much wider variety of potential foodstuffs could be eaten. The nutrition from food was also better. There is even some evidence that cooking food allowed the human body to evolve in the direction of smaller chewing and digestive apparatus and a bigger brain (Wrangham 2009). A bigger brain would allow humans to outsmart their prey. (Dilworth 2010)

Cooking food allowed humans to spend much less time chewing food than previously—only one-tenth as much time according to one study (4.7% of daily activity vs. 48% of daily activity) (Organ et al. 2011). The reduction in chewing time left more time other activities, such as making tools and clothing.

Humans gradually increased their control over many additional energy sources. Training dogs to help in hunting came very early. Humans learned to make sailboats using wind energy. They learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that they could provide more food energy in the location where it was needed. Domesticated animals could also be used to pull loads.

Humans learned to use wind mills and water mills made from wood, and eventually learned to use coal, petroleum (also called oil), natural gas, and uranium. The availability of fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to make substances that require heating, including metals, glass, and concrete. Prior to this time, wood had been used as an energy source, leading to widespread deforestation.

With the availability of metals, glass, and concrete in quantity, it became possible to develop modern hydroelectric power plants and transmission lines to transmit this electricity. It also became possible to build railroads, steam-powered ships, better plows, and many other useful devices.

Population rose dramatically after fossil fuels were added, enabling better food production and transportation. This started about 1800.

Figure 1. World population based on data from "Atlas of World History," McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978  and Wikipedia-World Population.

Figure 1. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and UN Population Estimates. 

All of these activities led to a very long history of what we today might call economic growth. Prior to the availability of fossil fuels, the majority of this growth was in population, rather than a major change in living standards. (The population was still very low compared to today.) In later years, increased energy use was still associated with increased population, but it was also associated with an increase in creature comforts—bigger homes, better transportation, heating and cooling of homes, and greater availability of services like education, medicine, and financial services.

How Cheap Energy and Technology Combine to Lead to Economic Growth

Without external energy, all we have is the energy from our own bodies. We can perhaps leverage this energy a bit by picking up a stick and using it to hit something, or by picking up a rock and throwing it. In total, this leveraging of our own energy doesn’t get us very far—many animals do the same thing. Such tools provide some leverage, but they are not quite enough.

The next step up in leverage comes if we can find some sort of external energy to use to supplement our own energy when making goods and services.  One example might be heat from a fire built with sticks used for baking bread; another example might be energy from an animal pulling a cart. This additional energy can’t take too much of (1) our human energy, (2) resources from the ground, or (3) financial capital, or we will have little to invest what we really want—technology that gives us the many goods we use, and services such as education, health care, and recreation.

The use of inexpensive energy led to a positive feedback loop: the value of the goods and service produced was sufficient to produce a profit when all costs were considered, thanks to the inexpensive cost of the energy used. This profit allowed additional investment, and contributed to further energy development and further growth. This profit also often led to rising salaries. The additional cheap energy use combined with greater technology produced the impression that humans were becoming more “productive.”

For a very long time, we were able to ramp up the amount of energy we used, worldwide. There were many civilizations that collapsed along the way, but in total, for all civilizations in the world combined, energy consumption, population, and goods and services produced tended to rise over time.

In the 1970s, we had our first experience with oil limits. US oil production started dropping in 1971. The drop in oil production set us up as easy prey for an oil embargo in 1973-1974, and oil prices spiked. We got around this problem, and more high price problems in the late 1970s by

  1. Starting work on new inexpensive oil production in the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.
  2. Adopting more fuel-efficient cars, already available in Japan.
  3. Switching from oil to nuclear or coal for electricity production.
  4. Cutting back on oil intensive activities, such as building new roads and doing heavy manufacturing in the United States.

The economy eventually more or less recovered, but men’s wages stagnated, and women found a need to join the workforce to maintain the standards of living of their families.  Oil prices dropped back, but not quite a far as to prior level. The lack of energy intensive industries (powered by cheap oil) likely contributed to the stagnation of wages for men.

Recently, since about 2004, we have again been encountering high oil prices. Unfortunately, the easy options to fix them are mostly gone. We have run out of cheap energy options—tight oil from shale formations isn’t cheap. Wages again are stagnating, even worse than before. The positive feedback loop based on low energy prices that we had been experiencing when oil prices were low isn’t working nearly as well, and economic growth rates are falling.

The technical name for the problem we are running into with oil is diminishing marginal returns.  This represents a situation where more and more inputs are used in extraction, but these additional inputs add very little more in the way of the desired output, which is oil. Oil companies find that an investment of a given amount, say $1,000 dollars, yields a much smaller amount of oil than it used to in the past—often less than a fourth as much. There are often more up-front expenses in drilling the wells, and less certainty about the length of time that oil can be extracted from a new well.

Oil that requires high up-front investment needs a high price to justify its extraction. When consumers pay the high oil price, the amount they have for discretionary goods drops.  The feedback loop starts working the wrong direction—in the direction of more layoffs, and lower wages for those working. Companies, including oil companies, have a harder time making a profit. They find outsourcing labor costs to lower-cost parts of the world more attractive.

Can this Growth Continue Indefinitely?

Even apart from the oil price problem, there are other reasons to think that growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world.  For one thing, we are already running short of fresh water in many parts of the world, including China, India and the Middle East.  Topsoil is eroding, and is being depleted of minerals. In addition, if population continues to rise, we will need a way to feed all of these people—either more arable land, or a way of producing more food per acre.

Pollution is another issue. One type is acidification of oceans; another leads to dead zones in oceans. Mercury pollution is a widespread problem. Fresh water that is available is often very polluted. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to concerns about climate change.

There is also an issue with humans crowding out other species. In the past, there have been five widespread die-offs of species, called “Mass Extinctions.” Humans seem now to be causing a Sixth Mass Extinction. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge  describes the Sixth Mass Extinction as follows:

  • Phase One began when first humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. [We were still hunter-gatherers at that point, but we killed off large species for food as we went.]
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago, when humans turned to agriculture.

According to Eldredge, once we turned to agriculture, we stopped living within local ecosystems. We converted land to produce only one or two crops, and classified all unwanted species as “weeds”.  Now with fossil fuels, we are bringing our attack on other species to a new higher level. For example, there is greater clearing of land for agriculture, overfishing, and too much forest use by humans (Eldredge 2005).

In many ways, the pattern of human population growth and growth of use of resources by humans are like a cancer. Growth has to stop for one reason or other—smothering other species, depletion of resources, or pollution.

Many Competing Wrong Diagnoses of our Current Problem

The problem we are running into now is not an easy one to figure out because the problem crosses many disciplines. Is it a financial problem? Or a climate change problem? Or an oil depletion problem? It is hard to find individuals with knowledge across a range of fields.

There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem, if the answer appears to be in the “very bad to truly awful” range. Politicians want a problem that is easily solvable. So do sustainability folks, and peak oil folks, and people writing academic papers. Those selling newspapers want answers that will please their advertisers. Academic book publishers want books that won’t scare potential buyers.

Another issue is that nature works on a flow basis. All we have in a given year in terms of resources is what we pull out in that year. If we use more resources for one thing–extracting oil, or making solar panels, it leaves less for other purposes. Consumers also work mostly from the income from their current paychecks. Even if we come up with what looks like wonderful solutions, in terms of an investment now for payback later, nature and consumers aren’t very co-operative in producing them. Consumers need ever-more debt, to make the solutions sort of work. If one necessary resource–cheap oil–is in short supply, nature dictates that other resource uses shrink, to work within available balances. So there is more pressure toward collapse.

Virtually no one understands our complex problem. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we can fix our problem, none of which make sense:

“Humans don’t need fossil fuels; we can just walk away.” – But how do we feed 7 billion people? How long would our forests last before they are used for fuel?

“More wind and solar PV” – But these use fossil fuels now, and don’t fix oil prices.

“Climate change is our only problem.”—Climate change needs to be considered in conjunction with other limits, many of which are hitting very soon. Maybe there is good news about climate, but it likely will be more than offset by bad news from limits not considered in the model.

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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606 Responses to Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    A few thoughts about Captain Kiefer’s article on biofuels. First, for the optimistic view on biofuels, see:

    Whether these guys have sold Snake Oil to Google and the other prestigious investors, I don’t know. I think that they are describing what Kiefer calls ‘Hydrotreated Biofuels’ in section 4.2.

    Second, I would like to offer a perspective from a biological farming and gardening position. See this article suggesting a Permaculture approach to resettling the plains of Alberta:

    If you read the article, you will see that it is a sort of hybrid approach. For example, note the phrase
    ‘fresh greens at $100k/acre for boutique consumption’.
    The people who live in this small town doing Permaculture jobs are mostly going to grow their own fresh greens in their own garden and most assuredly won’t have the money for ’boutique consumption’. I’m not knocking the plan. It represents some thinking about how one might escape some of the more noxious environments in urban areas while actually making a living in the current world. The current world imposes a pretty high cost of living on everyone, no matter how simply they try to live, and so coming up with cash crops which can be sold to urbanites is essential. But selling fresh greens to boutiques demands a very high level of transportation infrastructure. So this model is not the sort of thing you would design if you were planning for a complete collapse in 2014.

    The Kiefer article usually assumes that we must have a 6 to 1 EROI for our fuels in order to keep civilization going. And he assumes that we have to keep civilization going. A different tack is taken by Toby Hemenway in his talk at Duke titled How To Save Humanity, But Not Civilization.


    So Toby’s basic assumption is that civilization is going to crash, but that some significant number of humans can still live fulfilling lives if they have the right skills, attitudes, and resources in terms of plants and animals. The resources that Toby envisions do not include Iowa cornfields which are totally dependent on fossil fuels and in which the biology of the soil has been decimated and the topsoil of which has been eroded. Nor does Toby envision going back to Roman methods of production. The methods he does envision include things such as polycultures and rotational grazing and food forests. I don’t think that Kiefer would call these ‘cultivated’. For one thing, they are best suited to hand harvesting, and so are inconsistent with Kiefer’s notion of ‘civilization’.

    Toby’s methods expand the harvesting of solar energy with photosynthesis in several ways that Kiefer is probably not thinking about. Any polyculture, for example, features synergies between plants and animals. An Iowa cornfield is a stand-alone crop in a desolate environment, heavily treated with industrial chemicals. A biologically farmed or gardened field can produce more net energy, but not as a single crop of corn which is neatly laid out for mechanical harvest. And the human labor of harvest is quite efficient also–a pound of human fat can power a marathon run. Human labor is efficient, but it doesn’t deliver the power of diesel. When Kiefer says that ‘every cultivated crop competes with every other cultivated crop’, he seems to be ruling out the biology of synergy that is everywhere in the natural world.

    I pose a few questions and my answers:
    A. Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil fuels?
    I don’t think so.
    B. Will we have a collapse, Seneca Cliff, or Long Decline?
    My (not very confident) guess is a Seneca Cliff.
    C. Could biological methods feed 7 billion people if we did everything else right?
    Probably so.
    D. Will we do everything else right?
    A don’t think so. We are not making the changes or investing in the infrastructure that we would need. We are doubling down on the current system.
    E. So how many people will survive?
    In the US, I suspect about one percent with a Collapse, perhaps 3 or 4 percent with a Seneca Cliff, and maybe 20 percent with a Long Descent.
    F. Is there any way that a sensible person can both make a living but also prepare for what lies ahead?
    The proposed settlement in Alberta has some good ideas. In general, I suggest that people need to become more dependent on their Home Economy and far less dependent on the Market Economy, whether globalized or local. Learn how to do things very simply, even if you usually get the product in a store. Learn how to amuse yourself and enjoy life without the prosthetics of Disneyland. Try very hard to form face-to-face relationships which will permit specialization and trade (hard to do).

    Don Stewart

    • edpell says:

      Don, what proposed settlement in Albert? Please point in the right direction to find it. Thanks.

    • Chris Johnson says:

      HI Don:
      As usual, you illuminate a broad range of subjects that many/most of us hadn’t considered. A friend recently instructed that ‘discernment is not only determining between right and wrong but also between right and almost right.’
      It struck me that your first question, above, “A. Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil fuels? I don’t think so…” addresses only one of the important scenarios. Other scenarios for fuels include alternatives such as electric and hybrid vehicles that gradually relieve demand pressures. These are not expected to achieve more than a few percent of annual sales within the next five years, but even that is enough to affect demand for oil. When 10% of cars sold in a year are EVs, perhaps we’ll be able to say that the battle is largely won.
      Of course, I could be all wet and despite the slow progress of the past few years we never get EV annual sales to 5% or 10% of total. At which point we will all be forced to begin breeding and training big dogs and mules to draw hand-hewn wagons (replacing gigantic SUVs) to take the children to school and momma to the supermarket. Right?
      Cheers, Chris

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Chris
        Thanks for your kind words.

        Regarding ‘taking the kids to school’. I just point out that ‘schools’ pretty much requires that governments continue to exist and function, are able to collect taxes, etc. But perhaps the Internet still functions, and home schooling gets more and more attractive. I frequently run into a group of homeschoolers and it seems to me that what they are doing is at least as good as what the public schools are doing. And it seems to me that they are doing it in a fraction of the time. In short, they are at least as effective and are probably more efficient. In a world where full time jobs for two spouses are becoming scarcer, and governments may simply implode under their loads of debt, homeschooling may become the norm–with or without the Internet resources. So there is no need to build a dog cart to take the kids to school.

        What about the grocery store? If you travel around the countryside, you are likely to run into abandoned stores in lots of places. Rural people used to walk to the store, which might be 2 miles from their small farm. The store was a social center where they could meet neighbors as well as a source of staple groceries…not much fresh produce. My guess is that, in tough times and without onerous government restrictions and requirements, somebody will just open up a little store in their house and stock staples which don’t require refrigeration. Neighbors will walk to it.

        I don’t think people understand just how much government regulations inhibit small businesses. I was just listening to a woman hog farmer. She got a question about processing her own hogs. She said it would cost at least 100K in capital. Your grandfather killed hogs during the winter with a capital expenditure of less than a hundred dollars. The difference is that we now have all sorts of bureaucratic requirements that have to be met. The FDA is currently attempting to regulate as hazardous lots of practices which have been around as long as farming. Bizzarely, they are trying to classify compost tea as a toxin. The FDA is doing its best to kill small farms. As governments fail, these bureaucracies will go away and more sensible procedures will come back, I think. So yes, thank God, we can’t continue to do many of the stupid things we currently do.

        In short, I think it is a mistake to simply project the ‘way we do things now’ into a future with fewer fossil fuels. Governments and big corporations will go down fighting, but I think they will go down. People will operate little stores out of their houses and people will kill hogs once the frost is on the ground. That changes all the equations.

        Don Stewart

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Right, Don. Ain’t anarchy annoying! Parents teaching children, neighbors slaughtering animals, farmers demanding non-GMO seeds and using stuff not bought in the hardware store. What will those ungrateful dolts think of next?

      • xabier says:


        Wishing I’d never mentioned dogs by now!

        • Denis Frith says:

          “Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil […]” is ambiguous. Civilization consists of a population together with the infrastructure. It population naturally reproduces so long as basic subsistence products are available. The infrastructure has been produced, operated and maintained mainly by using irreplaceable natural resources to supply the energy and materials during its limited life time. The end of cheap fossil fuel will have a profound effect on the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure, so the goods and services the population have become so dependent on. The population will also be hard hit by the declining availability of food and other essentials so a dieoff amongst the disadvantaged this century is most likely.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Denis
            Since I formulated the question, perhaps I should clarify it. But since Toby Hemenway used the distinction between humanity and civilization in his talk, maybe we should go back to him, also.

            The best clarification of the term humanity that I have seen is contained in E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, where humans are seen as one branch of the eusocial creatures who have come to dominate the Earth in the last couple of hundred million years. So humans have quite a few things in common with the ants that we don’t have in common with, for example, bears or fish. Civilization is, in some respects, a repudiation of our eusocial heritage. For example, Wilson points out that no eusocial creatures have evolved in the absence of a defensible nest. The ants have their nests and humans, historically, had a small village with a close knit society around them. The idea of Homo Economicus is pretty much every man for himself in a globally competitive economy. There is a downgrading of the idea of the defensible village, and the notion of intergenerational cooperation to accomplish common goals is mostly destroyed. Civilization, with these characteristics, is, I think, only possible with an abundance of external energy from some exotic source such as fossil fuels. Absent the large sources of external energy, humans will be forced back toward our evolutionary origins. The family homestead, the close knit community, and the multi-generation production group will once again be dominant.

            Now many commenters on this blog would see a reversion to the historical pattern as horrible. I don’t think it is necessarily horrible…but I do think it is inevitable.

            Which leads to my statement that ‘civilization can’t survive without cheap fossil fuels’.

            Don Stewart

          • Denis
            in describing civilisation as reproducing itself so long as basic subsistence is available, you have also described bacteria in a petri dish.
            The correlation is exact. Each expands to the limits of resources, the trappings we have created for ourselves are merely window dressing. As is all our ‘wisdom’
            At its fundamental level, all wisdom has given us is the ability to deny reality, and create a different reality that fits our circumstances. Our big brains allow us to remember the past and anticipate the future, In that we are unique
            The wisdom to be aware of ‘technology’ is a side issue.
            Thus we deny what nature is, and instead create a god that conveniently agrees with what we think nature should be, that somehow nature is something ‘created’ for our benefit. (Go forth and multiply etc) Written at a time when they didn’t know where the sun went at night. We still worship the gods of our own creation (technology) and delude ourselves that they will perform some strange feat of perpetual motion that will allow us to continue into perpetuity.
            understanding or not understanding of that is irrelevant, because your understanding will certainly clash (eventually with violence) with someone whose understanding is different.
            One gets the impression that anticipated difficulties might be expected to involve the wheels coming off someone else’s civilisation, but affecting our own to only a minor degree of nuisance if only we can get our ‘technology’ fixed.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I did not say that civilization was reproducing itself. I just made the point that people reproduce naturally but the technological systems society has become so dependent on cannot reproduce. Their operation is an unsustainable process. And future generations of people with have to cope with that realityas best they can. The population will be like bacteria in a petri dish, but with dish crumbling!

        • Chris Johnson says:

          For your penance you have to rent a Ford Expedition and drive it to the grocery store for one week, twice a day. I think big Mastiffs, St. Bernards and Pyranees are marvelous, but wouldn’t want to feed one.
          BTW, do you know the correlation between Roman mules and the throw weight of the Space Shuttle? If not, I’m sure you’ll love the story.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Xabier: Sometimes this website behaves as if it had been constructed by contractors for the goverment…so a ‘reply’ might end up anywhere, and definitely not where it was supposed to be put. Ergo, having found my comments misplaced, I’ll try again here:

          1. For mentioning ‘big dogs’ your penance is to drive a Ford Expedition to the grocery store twice a day for a week. Or two. You’ll be a real hit on tight English roads.
          2. Large Mastiffs, St Bernards and Great Pyranees are marvelous, but I wouldn’t want to feed one.
          3. Re mules, do you know the correlation between Roman mules and the throw weight of the Space Shuttle? If not, I’m sure you’d like it.

          • xabier says:


            As witty as one has come to expect.

            My faithful Sancho carries my gin flask in a pocket of his camo jacket – that’s as far as it’s going to develop I think.

            Saludos cordiales.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Chris, I appreciate your comments and I understand some this blog may not be religious, but given the recent events in the world I think many of us feel a bit more humble in the face of the our future. These huge storms and death and destruction, they do follow many of the old writings. The violence and death seem to have no target, but they sometimes hit some of the nicest folks on Earth. It seems to target any one with out regard to good or bad in many cases, although there have been many stories of miracles.

        I do believe there is something more out there than is known to us which can give us hope I think. Let us hope for a new power source. And also a new sense of love for one another which seems to be in short supply these days.


        • Chris Johnson says:

          Dear Scott:

          Thank you for your cherished thoughts. The devastation in the Philippines was massive, perhaps in the category of ‘worst ever’. I’m sure you wife and her family has been touched, as have most families in the islands, and those from the Visayas hit the worst. We can but pray for them.
          I certainly would not wish to insult anyone or be pushing some sort of religious doctrine on this website, and I apologize if any of my remarks were seen in that light. If the Christian scriptures are accurate, then there is no point in ever trying to guess the day or the hour of the next cataclysm. It will happen when it happens. If the Christian scriptures are not accurate, then it doesn’t matter anway, and anxiety about the end of days accomplishes nothing positive. Far better to plant a garden!
          Cheers amigo, Chris

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Let us hope for a new power source.”

          Ouch! How ’bout, “Let us hope for the smoothest possible transition back to the traditional, low-impact power source that humans have lived with for 200,000 years!”

          • Scott says:

            Hi Jan, I just thinking and was hoping we could find a clean power source to support all of those 8 Billion or so souls that are living on the planet now. I understand that most of us would need to die off if we were small enough to go back to a wood burning society of hunter gathers. Is that what you meant?

            I really do understand that the world is severely over populated and there may be no other option unless something drastic changes and fast.

            Our world is not set up to be this big under the current programs and energy setups that we are using as it is destroying our food supplies, our air and water etc. Just dreaming but perhaps if we had a Star Trek type system this planet could be clean and hold 8 billion or more. I do not see it out there yet but have discussed things like Thorium power stations.

            In closing, I do think the world would be a kinder place to live if things were like the old days and with an crowded Earth, simpler times would be nice, I would much prefer that to a Star Trek environment as guess as long as we did not need modern day medicines and things which will be hard for almost all of us,

            Best Regards,

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Scott, a basic tenant of ecology is that excess energy causes population growth.

              I see no reason why humans are more intelligent than yeast cells in this regard.

              If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. — Richard Dawkins

              It gives me no joy to say that, yes, many people will have to “go away” in order to live within our means — I may be one of them.

              On the other hand, much of this may come as “attrition” — restoring natural depletion rates. Living until you’re 90 is no great benefit if the last ten years see you bed-ridden and connected by tubes to machines, nor even if you are tied to medications that have unwelcome side-effects. We’ll probably see a lot fewer people living into their 90’s, 80’s, and even 70’s. And on the other end, infant mortality will likely increase.

              Given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation. — Garrett Hardin

    • sponia says:

      I just note that Kiefer is referring to crops for use as fuel, not food. He specifically mentions that investing energy into food crops is a viable option with a desirable outcome – more food.It is just plain crazy to invest energy into a plant to try and get energy out of it, however. Thermodynamics, again

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear sponia
        I won’t try to speak for Kiefer. But the notion that current energy can be invested to increase future food is not crazy at all. Doing those Permaculture things such as terracing, sub-soiling, building small dams to rehydrate the soil, planting food forests, building the infrastructure for rotational grazing…those things all use energy now, but pay off in much higher yields in the future.

        Similarly, building a root cellar doesn’t increase the amount of potatoes grown, but it sure does keep more of the potatoes edible for a longer time.

        Building earth sheltered dwellings, such as Earth Ships, uses energy now to reduce the need for cooling and heating in the future.

        Don Stewart

      • Denis Frith says:

        I am bemused by this focus on energy as though it is the determining factor in all operations. The flow of energy is a neceassary but not sufficient condition for all operations of materialistic systems. My body operates through the input and output of solid, liquid and gaseoue materials. The supply of energy for internal and external operations is one consequence of that process. I know that the misleading use of the term “energy” is common in the mainstream and we have climate change as an unintended consquence of that lack of understanding of the role of energy in all operations.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “I am bemused by this focus on energy as though it is the determining factor in all operations.”

          Well, this is Ecology 101.

          Your body takes in solid, liquid, and gaseous materials — primarily, to drive metabolism. We consume carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We inhale oxygen. Liquid water is the solvent of life that enables what we consume to be changed into adenosine triphosphate, which powers mitochondria to generate heat and muscles to contract, using the oxygen we breathe in a reduction reaction.

          So perhaps I missed what “it” is that you object to. If an “operation” is some form of work, then yes, energy is the determining factor.

          • Denis Frith says:

            You descibe facets of metabolism involving a range of materials. That was the point I was making. The flow of energy is a major factor in that process but so is a range of other activities including chemical reactions and the action of bacteria, cells etc. So describing operations as an energy process is misleading but it is widely employed, even today when there is increasing understanding that this focusing only on energy supply has had the unintended consequence of producing the waste materials that have contributed to climate change. How can you say energy is the determining factor after your sound comments on what happens in metabolism?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              I guess I don’t see your point.

              Einstein taught us that energy is mass, albeit on utterly unimaginable scales. A kilogram of water is30 exaajoules, about 5% of our current global energy use.

              “Chemical reactions” are the expression of energy. The “action of bacteria” is energy. Each time there is a chemical reaction or a bacteria takes some action, an infinitesimal amount of matter is converted to or from energy. So I don’t think “describing operations as an energy process” is misleading at all — in fact, quite the contrary; I think it takes people closer to fundamentals than they are used to thinking!

              We can resort to new-age spiritualism if you like. Mother Earth and Father Sun, matter and energy. Although Einstein says they are equivalent, one is the actor and the other is the action. For eons, they were in near equilibrium, except that mom kept banking part of dad’s paycheque. Now we’ve become unbalanced, with energy dominating mass. We’re spending down our children’s inheritance, and mom is getting pissed off about it, throwing temper(ate weather event) tantrums.

              Write a sentence. Unless the verb is a state-of-being verb, it generally describes the energy, while the subject and object generally describe the mass.

              Perhaps we’re in “heated agreement” here, but I think an increased attention to energy is entirely appropriate — nay, vital — to our understanding of our dilemma and to choosing actions for the future.

            • Denis Frith says:

              You do not address the fact that the past focus on energy without taking into account the associated production of the waste material that is contributing to cllimate change led to unintended consequences. It suprises me that on a forum like this there is that lack of understanding. What Einstein found has no relevance to this issue. A more relevant fact is that the various forms of energy are properties of materials and this relationship should be taken into account in any rational discussion of what is happening to systems.

            • CLimate change has been over-emaphsized on other forums, perhaps because it is a convenient distant limit that distracts people from thinking about immediate problems that are threatening to bring down the economy now. If the world economy collapses, a major cause of climate change mostly disappears–fossil fuel use goes to essentially zero very quickly, without government intervention. So all of the current hype about the need to do something to “fix” climate change is in fact irrelevant, in the whole scheme of things.

        • THe issue we are dealing with is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Indeed, there are other flows. Cheap energy seems to be the limit we are up against, however.

          • Denis Frith says:

            Quoting Liebeg’s Law is a selective argument. You presume cheap energy will be the limit. Others presume climate change will be the determining factor in the collapse. Toxic material wastes are causing many problems. So are declining fertile soil and aquifer water, to name just a few. And that includes obtaining the resources (additional to those supplying energy) to operate and maintain the cities and accociated infrastructure. I believe joining the dots to get the holistic scenario is a more realistic approach. It will help in making sound decisions to ease the powering down.

            • A big part of the question is what hits first. That is why I quote Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Too much debt, and inability of governments to collect enough taxes from increasingly impoverished workers looks to be high on the list of what hits first.

          • Scott says:

            Hello, I was wondering about Canada, this article paints a rosy picture on their upcoming exports to the USA. I know Mexico has peaked in their production, but not sure about Canada?
            Now we are seeing oil trains coming south from Canada to the USA and USA Coal moving East to Asia on coal trains to load sea going barges.



            • Jan Steinman says:

              Canada may well be the final oil (tar) superpower, if Harper can figure out how to get it out of the country as quickly as possible without adding any value.

              It will take time and money to exploit the tar sands, and conventional oil may be in steep decline before tar sands can ramp up production much.

              If we’re gonna burn it up anyway, we might as well process it in-situ and get more jobs and income from it. But I say the same thing about raw logs, and nobody listens to me. :-)

              There is huge public opposition to pipelining tar sands to ports, but the tragedy of Lac Megantic is making people think pipelines might be better than trains. I say, “leave it in the ground,” but like I said, nobody listens to me.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jan, I think we can agree that in 20 or 30 years fewer countries will be exporting oil, coal and gas etc. I was just wondering how close to peak Canada’s oil/gas is given the tar sands etc. I do believe these resources will be exploited. We know places like Texas, Mexico, North Sea, Egypt have already peaked and Saudi even looks to peak in next 20 years or so.

              I still think our generation is limp along with some troubles along the way. It will get harder in 20 years for sure. So many countries depend on the sea for food and I like seafood too, but it is already getting harder to come by. Our collapse may hit some areas harder first in the next 20-30 years, like we are already seeing in parts of Africa and the middle east.

              We will likely burn up the tar sands and most of the coal I believe but at a great cost of our oceans etc.

              Kind Regards,

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “I was just wondering how close to peak Canada’s oil/gas is given the tar sands etc.”

              Really hard to say, given the low return on tar sands.

              The tar sands are immense, and probably exceed Saudia Arabia’s petro resource, but it 1:3 (or less) oil, so it’s really hard to say when it will peak.

              If it’s going to get used, I just wish it would get used in Canada, but Harper is hell-bent on getting it away from Canada as fast as possible. Then Canada will have to import gasoline and diesel.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jan and all just one more thought on the rail roads, I think it is good that trains are being used to move oil and gas as that will bring money to restore our old decaying railroad system, this oil money now pouring into the system will help us repair old rail road tracks, trestles and this renewed infrastructure will be very useful once the decline in fossil fuels is widely known, there will be a renascence in the Rail Roads and it will be once again a cherished mode of moving things as it should be.

              I do believe for this reason, it is wiser to for the USA and other countries to revamp their rail systems — instead of spending billions on pipelines that will someday run dry! At least this way we will be left with something we can use and we can even run the steam or coal fired trains if needed, but hopefully some thing better will be found.


            • I haven’t looked up the figures, but I believe coal is the biggest revenue source for train companies. Now that coal is being exported, it is both exported coal and coal that is used in this country that moves on trains. I haven’t looked up information on rail transport of goods recently, but my impression is that it is doing pretty well, compared to say, truck transport of goods.

              We don’t have steam or coal fired trains (at least in this country) any more. If we want them for later, we will need to build them.

              Train cars that are built for transporting coal or oil are not very helpful for transporting people. In the US, the rail system is basically a freight system–people mostly use other means of transportation. In Europe (because of “gage” problems), railroads are primarily for people; freight moves by truck. You almost have to pick one or the other. On single-track systems, they get in each other’s way.

            • Canada has Oil Sands production. Once the big upfront costs are sunk, it continues to produce for quite a long time. Canada has had problems with depressed prices for bitumen from the oil sands for the last two or three years, because of the lack of good transportation to heavy duty refineries that can handle this kind of oil. If sufficient transportation can be provided, the price of oil from the Oil Sands can rise, making it more economic to add more production from the Oil Sands. So no, Canadian oil production hasn’t peaked.

              Right now, the US is just about the only destination for oil from the Oil Sands. If sufficient pipeline capacity is available to send it South, it is possible it could be exported to China or India, both of which have heavy duty refineries to refine it. Gulf Coast refineries to handle this kind of oil tend to be close to full up, unless the Canadian oil substitutes for heavy oil from elsewhere–such as Venezuela. So it may be that the new exports go to China or India rather than the US.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It is hard to know what to do. The government isn’t really in a position where it can back a big program which would “save” everyone, for many reasons–it can’t admit to a problem, it doesn’t have money to buy up farmland to convert to somewhat different uses, it doesn’t really have the detail knowledge of what to do–what crops to plant where, how this should be organized, what percentage of the population needs to be farmers, what kind of tools to plan for, and many other things.

      Of course, a government can’t really plan for a solution that only saves 1% or 20% of the population. And it is hard for individuals to put something together either.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “it is hard for individuals to put something together either.”

        True, it is hard.

        But individuals can try, something that governments can’t even attempt!

        If Obamacare can paralyze the US government, how far do you think a proposal for everyone to go off and supply their own basic needs would get?

        And yet, smallish numbers of people can come together to do such things. We could use some help!

        • xabier says:

          The problem with governments. Ostensibly all-powerful, in reality mostly hamstrung and hedged in by vested interests, ideology, the election cycle, etc.

          A bit like what they used to say about armour in the Middle Ages: ‘ A wonderful invention that stops you getting hurt, and also stops you from hurting anyone.’

          Without more or less effective government we would certainly be a complete prey to every psychopath and gang leader and raw capitalist out there But if you want to turn the ship around, it’s hard…..

      • xabier says:


        Good points!

        1/ The problem can’t be acknowledged by Government, as finance is now deemed to run on ‘animal spirits’ and ‘confidence’, ie blind faith in the future of BAU and easy acess to credit. Only people ‘on the fringe’ are permitted to question this.

        2/ Any Government programme would fail in so far as it centralized and commanded – see Stalin and Mao, etc. Propaganda would likely triumph over real achievement.

        But we can surely hope that Government will keep out of the way of those who wish to help themselves and others. An end to zoning restrictions on food growing and livestock in the suburbs would be a big step forward, for instance. So much wasted land…..

      • Scott says:

        Hi Gail, well our US Gov. seems to be acting like they are very rich these days rolling out a host of new programs weekly. I would be nice to think if they have enough revenues could take care of everyone, but I fear it will be short lived and short on promises. I am just not sure on the timeline, they may be able to keep this going for another generation. That is if there is no major shortages, but that seems unlikely given some of the models we have studied.

        Tax collections are falling and not keeping up with the spending, so at some point the pedal meets the metal — or sort to speak the rubber meets the road.

        Those who do not make large incomes are getting Obama care for a small costs which I also think will not last. But it will be nice while it last, I guess if you get it take care of some of your needs while you can before things get tough again.

        Those big doctor bills can really kill your monthly budget.

        Inflation is something to keep an eye on or for that matter Deflation, they are both tough on folks. I guess as long as they can hold rates down — things will remain calm, when rates rise, watch out!


  2. I very much enjoy Gail’s blog and the comments- I think if Gail does have an economic law named after her it must include the word Cassandra- but there seems to be a preponderance of defeatism, and even hostility to the human race that it gets all it deserves. At best a reluctant pragmatic acceptance or escapism to a ecotopia. I wonder how representative that is [and open to your views]. I am a born optimist but also political, I see the issue in as much as peak growth politics as peak oil or population. I don’t have the answers but change is needed now- heroes are needed now.

    The actor – comedian Russell Brand has kicked up a stir – an unlikely hero [he does swear if you are sensitive to that sort of thing!]

    and it has even led to wider debate-

    • I watched that on TV, Paxman deliberately let Brand rant on to reveal himself for what he is, a windbag with no awareness of reality, or of the causes of our predicament.
      Like others of his ilk–it’s all the fault of politicians. / millionaires//the ‘system’. He would ‘change things’, the rhetoric of the bar-room radical the world over.
      I am reminded of the classic line: As soon as this pub closes, the revolution starts.

      • ‘as soon as the pub closes the revolution starts’ ;-)

        I don’t know- perhaps what is needed to start is simply to be told we don’t have to put up with it.

        The press certainly felt compelled to pour scorn on Brand – see Guardian link- so perhaps the message is something the system fears.

        • our ‘predicament’ is not political, it’s a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all.

          • ‘our ‘predicament’ is not political, it’s a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all”

            Well, End [do you have a real name?] I suppose that is a the nub of the issue.

            There are number of solutions [at least possible ones]- it all goes tits up- lots of people die, and a few survive in a Dark Age- perhaps to flower in the future as a truly sustainable culture.

            or – capitalism [corparatism greed ism etc] sees the up coming death of its self and changes its ways.

            or- the future is bleak but not catastrophic and we muddle along

            or – we have revolution [the style and nature to be determined at a later date.

            the predicament is the same and is not political- the solution is /or not depending on opinion.

          • Jules
            When we die back to numbers that balance resources, it will not be a voluntary thing, any more than the weeds I have just been attacking in my garden voluntarily keel over and die because they are taking up veg space.
            Next year they will be back, and if I leave them to flourish, they will eventually be climbing up my front door. Weeds cannot ‘change their ways’ any more than we can.
            That is what every species does, given free reign. Humanity is no different. We only think of ourselves as homo sapiens, whereas in fact we are too stupid to see that we are destroying our only means of survival.
            When our numbers have died back, our genes will see to it that we start over again. Eventually we will reach the point where humanity itself becomes a dead end. Nature has made lots of mistakes before, we are probably just another one.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I disagee! Our predicament is because we did not understand that the consumption by our technological systems of irreplaceable limited natural resources with the consequential production of toxic material waste is an unsustainable process. The belief that we could use ‘cheap’ energy out of the global store without dire ecological consequences is only part of the delusion.

              Ironically, that unsustainable process is under way now. The most that society can be if they can find a little wisdom amongst the clatter of dollars is gain some understand og fundamental physica priniples so they can make sounder decisions during the inevitable powering down.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            End_of_More wrote “our ‘predicament’ is… a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all.”

            Denis Frith wrote “I disagee! Our predicament is… the consumption… of irreplaceable limited natural resources…”

            Apologies if my eliding changes something basic, but I’m having trouble reconciling these two things.

            Denis, are you saying energy is not among the limited resources that have been consumed, or are you objecting to the “cheap” part?

            Because it sounds to me like you two are in “heated agreement.”

            • Denis Frith says:

              I was quoting a fundamental physical principle. Energy is a property of materials. It takes many forms (chemical, mechanical, thermal, electical etc) in its flow from source to eventual destiny as waste heat. The primary source of the energy used by the systems of civilization come from the stored fossil fuels and uranium. Solar energy is the source of a continuing supply from the Sun but needs systems made of materials to provide energy in a form that can power systems. Energy flow is a necessary but not sufficent condition to do work or provide some useful service. Material transformation is associated with that process. And the process occurs in a system made of materials and it ages. These fundamental principles, however, are not widely recognised in society largely because they are not taught in the education system. Even engineering in universities cover only some of the aspects, like the thermodynamice of energy flow.

    • That interview is fantastic, he is so well spoken and energetic, it might stirr something up.

    • edpell says:

      I love Brand. The interviewer is a fine servant of the owning class.

      • edpell says:

        He offers a solution socialism and massive redistribution. But two things are missing.
        1) How do you get the thug class (private security, police, sheriff, state troopers, army, navy, air force) to go along? They serve whoever has the money or control of resources (food, gold, etc).
        2) Even with equal distribution we are still getting poor due to declining resources and increasing population. For England the North sea oil drys up, all they have for export are BAE weapons. Half the food is imported but will not be in the future.

    • Brand’s chat with Paxman has as they say “Gone Viral” on the net now. Got up on Zero Hedge, and some Bitcoin Promoter got another one up applauding him. I myself dropped the Vid on Diner TV.

      What you should observe here I think is the Beppe Grillo effect. Beppe is ANOTHER comedian, whose Party now is a majority in Italian parliament. Why are comedians getting such political followings?

      It is simple really. Comedians of this type are iconoclasts deconstructing a bad system. People do see the problems, they actually experience them. So what the Comedians will say resonates with them,. It is the TRUTH.

      However, neither Beppe Grillo or Russel Brand IMHO really understand the underlying problems of resource deficiency, and both think if we could just rid ourselves of the corrupt scumbags currently running the system we could fix things. With Political following, they can leverage people into political office, but said people have not clue one on what to do to reorganize the system really. Less corrupt perhaps than those currently in Political Office, but equally ineffectual really.

      Still, this is an essential part of deconstructing the system. Certainly going nowhere fast with BAU.

      As always, I recommend you GTFO of Dodge if you can. Living the Full Primitive is close to impossible now, but you sure do not want to be deep on in a Big Shity when JIT goes down, which it will. Stay flexible, stay mobile, and build FRIENDSHIPS. Your Friends are your true WEALTH in this world.

      SUN is Coming Soon to a Theater Near You. Diners do not roll over and DIE without a fight.


      • Glad somebody else has pointed out the nonsense Brand was spouting—like I said, it was the rhetoric of the barricades.
        Here in UK we had a legendary raconteur. Joyce Grenfell (well Worth searching for on youtube) Who used to do a marvellous spoof of idiots like Brand. One of her most destructive quotes: “Yes dear, but who will look after the drains?”

  3. Thanks for the post Gail. Do you have any new projections for when you think the shit will start hitting the fan?

    • I can only speak on a hunch- I may write a blog for posterity and if we all do it one of us get it right.

      option 1 – a big lender of the US debt wants their money back [China, Japan, Brazil, UK and other nations owning 14% -http://advisorperspectives.com/dshort/guest/Craig-Eyermann-130823-Who-Owns-US-Debt.php ]- I don’t know if Japan’s 6.5% makes much difference. The US defaults and capitalism crashes to it’s knees.

      option 2- the shale- tight oil bubble bursts [18months to 2 years] could trigger a domino effect on world oil prices – recession- lower oil production- peak oil crash

      option 3- the debt illusion with other economic levers like devaluation of $, QE etc- continues for 10 -20 years. The inequality between rich and poor will grow and result in revolution and mass unrest- followed by dysfunctional governance and near anarchy.

      option 4- the warming ‘pause’ comes to an end [in the next 10 years] and climate disruption kicks in causing a panic- followed by rushed attempts to control CO2- transition is bumpy with no uncertainty as to outcome.

      option 5 – 5 years- Middle East conflict spills over into Gulf – either pre-emptive strike on Iran- or local revolution similar to Egypt’s. disrupted Gulf oil causes recession- the 1970s all over again but forever.

      option 6 – business as usual – i.e. decline rates of oil less than 3%-5%, slow growth and stagnation [see option 1]- a gentle whimper rather than a bang.

      option 7 – a post growth international enlightenment driven by a popular non violent uprising- inequality is tackled and a new social democracy is born- a wild dream perhaps but more likely than-

      option 8 – fusion is suddenly invented- or space aliens give us matter- anti matter technology. energy is so cheap no-one bothers with fossil fuels.

      • I left out one other ‘black swan’ in a kind of Star Trek themed plot-

        Imagine if Gail and other Cassandras warning of impending economic collapse because of limits was suddenly listened to. Imagine if like some viral information it spread across the web and a wave of panic or concern set in: people would de-invest in risky fossil fuels like shale and tight gas- the money would dry up, oil production falter, recession hit, oil prices collapse- peak oil impact.

        The very act of warning destroys the illusion that is just keeping things together.

        It reminds me of a sci-fi plot [usually involving time travel] where the rescue mission or what ever causes the catastrophe in the first place.

      • has there ever been a non-violent uprising? sounds like a contradiction in terms

        • Ghandi managed to defeat the power of the British Empire.

          Slavery was over turned by the British public.

          Post war Britain voted for the Welfare State [ok a vote but a revolution none the less]

          • there was a lot of violence in India before independence, even more when India/Pakistan separated The UK couldnt afford to keep ,its empire militarily, it converted itself into the commonwealth
            Ending slavery in 1833 UK was not an uprising, there was little direct impact here
            The welfare state didnt come about through violent protest, it came about because we could afford it (via fossil fuel energy input) it was perhaps a revolutionary idea—thats different

            • The welfare state came about because we thought we would have the high standard of living forever. Then comes the big “oops”.

            • bradbradshaw says:

              “oops!” What a great reply on the part of the government. Hits the nail on the head. As you know, I am writing a book on Sustainable Economics, and one of the key constructs is the idea that low cost energy has enabled surplus value creation. This surplus value creation has allowed us to build up a large amount of activities in our economy which are, for lack of a better word, but in no means diminishing their worth, parasitical from a value perspective. Parasitic activities, for example, include health care and the military, for example. Over time, the economy will naturally not have enough surplus value creation to support the high level of parasitic activities within the economy, which will become a very painful down slope for all. We will be able to band aid part of this pain through financial gimmickry, meaning increased taxes and more debt spending.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              Re ‘parasitical activities’, in which you included health care and military, two prominent ‘flavors of the decade,’ please accept a few comments:
              1) The cost of health care in 1990 was about 1-2% of GDP; it grew by almost 1% a year for the next two decades. It might be worthwhile tracking the growth trends of the main constituents: big pharma, big hospital, big medicine, big law (those that specialize in medical & tort), and big insurance.
              2) The abuse of military capabilities, primarily by the US but occasionally supported / egged-on by allies, flared in the last decade of the 20th Century, after Congress had already reduced active duty manpower limits. It was a simple trick to expad the reserves and the National Guard, and after 9/11 (or, more accurately, Wolfowitz’s success in convincing GWB to squash Iraq in retaliation for 9/11), and subsequently build a political slop tray that all Congress found bountiful as long as the wars continued. (Note that the D’s supported the Iraq invasion, and even pushed harder than the R’s to expand the futility in Afghanistan after the Nobel Prize president received his reward — thank you, Europe…). The bottom line, sir, is that severe military threats do still exist and appear to be growing: see Russia and and China, inter alia. So if you want to consider military expenditures an ‘economic parasite’ and not an ‘existential protection organization’ then please proceed. I already speak a little Chinese, but not Russian, which might mean I’ll be one of the first to be shot, or to get rich…

            • bradbradshaw says:

              Hi Chris,
              Great comments. My choice of the word “parasitic” is challenging. To try to be clear, I am not judging the decision to allocate resources to health care and the military (noting that some may argue that the level of expenditures in both areas might be a little high). The point is that our ability to fund health care and military expenditures is based on sourcing low cost energy into our economic system. Our challenge going forward is that as are access to low cost energy recedes, we will have to pull back on economic activities which rely on surplus value creation for their existence. Mark my word, we will see a requirement for the government to pull back on expenditures, and areas such as health care and military spending are going to be in middle of serious resource allocation and budgetary decisions.

          • xabier says:

            You are perhaps looking for the Chartist movement as the prime example of completely peaceful change due to popular pressure – although it did scare the hell out of the English aristocrats and business class for a time!

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Jules: Responses to just a few:
        Option 1: If there were a better ‘home’ for their money, those investors would make the switch. Are you aware that rich Chinese are paying fees of 20% to Macau smuggling artists to get their money out of China? The CCP doesn’t enjoy admitting their vulnerabilities, but the realities are stark. Ditto for Japan, Brazil, et al.
        Option 2: Possible but highly unlikely. Shale oil in China and Russia is immense. As oil prices fall economic growth increases, invariably for the last several decades.
        Option 3. Now that’s a serious problem in some places, less so in others. Can’t wait to buy the mansion in the Hamptons…and hire lots of well-trained trigger-men.
        Option 4. Climatologists would be thrilled, but most people don’t care very much…
        Option 5. Serious and protracted Middle East conflict is possible but relatively unlikely. Even the locals are getting tired of it. Slightly further east, however, Pakistan has a much heavier population and is cross-cut several ways by religious, ethnic and political conflicts. Ditto on smaller scale in Afghanistan. Iran fighting the GCC? No, that won’t happen — Uncle Sugar too militarily dominant, and the Iranians are realists! Saudi could possibly explode because their rulling elite is less flexible, more fragile than Iran’s.
        Option 6. BAU appears to be the most likely outcome at this stage, though that could change in a flash — eg, Saudi or Egypt eruption.
        Option 7. Ahhh, Elizabeth Warren for Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. I’ll vote for her.
        Option 8. Super-tech solutions abound, captains of industry and pirate chiefs of government agree how to develop and deploy the systems and split up the profits. Not realizing that they’ve been raped yet again, the body politic remains placid.
        Now that’s BAU!
        Cheers, Chris

      • What do you say about an alternative option 2 when the bluff on world oil-reserves is publicly revealed?

        • The BBC did a mini series drama back 2008-

          If I recall the hero doesn’t publicise his knowledge to avoid public chaos.

          Of course the OPEC states are lying- more importantly home consumption is causing exports to diminish.

      • timl2k11 says:

        I think the most likely outcome (surprisingly, given as cynical as I am) might be option 6. But it will only be BAU on the surface. It could be slow enough decline that people don’t panic, and never bother to consider the cause of it all, blaming the government, liberal agendas, conservative agendas, never considering their own contributions. The OECD countries especially are like the proverbial frog in a lukewarm pot that is slowly set to boil. We won’t realize what has happened until we are already “cooked”.

    • edpell says:

      I will throw in my two cents. I think it will be more like a plumb pudding. There will be small areas that fare better. It will be a slow decline over 40 years. Individual things will collapse as time goes on but “the system” will still be here in 40 years. The system will change to accommodate reality. If you are a geography that has some local energy you will be better off than places with none. You will not keep the current standard, style, of living but you will live. Hydro Quebec will still be functioning in 80 years. It may not be possible to build additions to it. The transmission lines will still work in 80 years. Splicing out breaks will be done. It may take a month rather than a day but it will be repaired. The hydro in the northwest will be a center of industry and relative prosperity. Any well maintained nuclear plant they stocked up on fuel rod before the failure of the supply chain can go on for 80 years and be a center of relative prosperity.

      Yemen on the other hand has no resources other than fish. It will be a country of fishermen as soon as the subsidies from Saudi Arabia stop, less than 20 years.

      China will build nuclear plants with a vengeance. Africa might have coal in areas and if they can stop China and the US from “buying” it from the ruling class they may have centers of prosperity.

      The not centers of prosperity will be empty or farm land owned and controlled by the rich in the cities. Currently today there is a federal program to pay farms to leave a strip of land unused around the farm to reduce runoff. The major recipients of the money live in Manhattan. They bought up the strip land and are now the owns. Smart folks. That pattern will not stop as the world gets poorer due to less energy.

      • Denis Frith says:

        I find it intriguing that even on a knowledgeable forum like this one, the focus is on energy as though the materialistic operations of civilization is determined solely by the flow of energy. Energy flow is a necessary but not sufficent condition for things to happen. Energy is only a property of material. The transformation of the materials in the process should also be taken into account in any rational discussion of what is happening. The functioning of the human body is not defined by how energetic the person feels!

      • Danny says:

        Wow slow decline over 40 years…is that your Gut feeling? What facts do you base this on? Are we going to find a huge reserve of easy to get oil. Because that is what is needed to have a “slow decline” and it aint happening. You can’t have a huge slowdown in china and india and think it will not happen here! I don’t think you have been actually reading the essays posted on this website. We are in an intrinsic system “all” will be affected and fairly soon.

    • Not really. I still think the first part of 2014 is a critical time, with the budget issues coming up again.

      It is really a question of how long until the duct tape and bailing wire stops holding the economy together. One question is how long interest rates can remain low, without QE going even further into overdrive. At some point things will fall apart. Not to mention the debt ceiling issues that keeps coming up, and Japan’s ability to keep raising its debt level. Of course, there is also the question as to how well the Eurozone can hang together as well.

      • bradbradshaw says:

        We are currently in the great decline. The paradigm for the United States shifted in 2000, migrating into a new low to zero growth energy paradigm. It is likely that we may have already hit peak energy and peak employment in the United States. GDP will grow moderately, due to improvements in productivity, which will expand revenues and profits at the expense of labor. Based on the EIA projection of primary energy use, our labor force in the United States will grow at 1/2% per year for the next 20 years, which is below the replacement rate. This projected growth rate is likely optimistic. Receding accessibility of cost effective energy is a wet blanket on economic activity. Unless oil gets below $80 per barrel in the next two months, we will likely see an economic contraction early in 2014. For more on the connection of employment to energy, please see: http://bit.ly/USEmployment

        • Thanks. I have been looking at some pretty similar data, and come to somewhat similar conclusions.

          The only way the economy gets more “jobs” (without more oil) is by making a bunch of part time jobs out of full time jobs. I believe some of that happened in the first part of 2013, in response to the health care law changes. When there was a delay in the implementation of part of the law, the shift to part time employment stopped.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail and everyone, I just wonder if there is a limit on the US debt limit and if they will likely take it all the way to 50 or 100 trillion, I do think so. How far can we go before the feared inflation blooms. Like you say about 2014 I do believe we may start paying more for needed items then as all of that printed money makes it’s way into the world.

        Our major governments in the world, the US and UK and Euro Zone Countries have become fearful of raising interest rates and rightfully so. They have over borrowed.

        I think we are heading into a period of rising rates, money printing and rising prices and scarcity in some things, energy being high on that list.

        I think if you have the cash sitting around in a bank it would be good to invest in a solar system or self sustained country property if you are able. But still not sure if you will survive the oncoming onslaught of City Zombies showing up at your place hungry.


        • bradbradshaw says:

          Hi Scott, I like your post. If federal government debt keeps increasing, it will hit a tipping point, where the cash flow burden on the government is too high, i.e., running beyond the capacity to support with tax receipts plus the addition of additional debt. One of the interesting twists, reported in today’s New York Times, but identified by Paul Volcker a few years ago, is a murmur of a drum beat to allow for inflation of up to 6%. The idea is that inflation will increase government revenues and move tax payers into higher and higher tax brackets. When anyone, including the government, has a fixed note debt instrument which has to be paid back to the investor, inflation favors the payer, in this case the government.
          As the debt and debt payments continue to take a larger and larger chunk of the government’s budget, the burden will be on the shrinking discretionary portions of the budget, and will hit those initiatives very hard. The hope that is perhaps implicit in deficit spending is that we will grow our way out of it. Unfortunately, I believe that we already hit our limits and are now in a low growth regime.
          With regards to the timing of inflation, please take a look at my post on the matter: http://bit.ly/Fed_and_Inflation I think we continue to be in a low inflation period, because of several factors, but most notably the the low level of inflationary forces in our economy and how low demand for energy. Our currency is tied to oil prices, inflation is tied to oil prices, and I do not believe that we will return to inflation at least until 2015, as we first have to see a reduction in oil prices below $60, a pull back in oil exploration, and a re-energizing of the global economy. Without those three factors, we will not see a return to inflation. If we had a manufacturing base to speak of int he United States, it might be a different story with the economy having a more robust recovery. As it is now, we will not see a return to pre-recession levels of employment until 2018 at the earliest. You can check out the analysis from which that deduction is drawn here: http://bit.ly/USEmployment

        • I don’t know exactly when the debt that is currently out there will implode. Rising interest rates would be one fairly quick way to make it implode. Not raising the debt ceiling would also tend to work that way. We are working in a short time frame–months to a couple of years, I would guess.

  4. David Gower says:

    I really like how Timothy phrased it, “…brute facts of our current predicament.”.

    Saudi rumblings may advance the timeline relative to petrodollars/debt financing, etc issues.

    Per Gail’s comments regarding maintenance factor/costs of Wind turbines: I have tried very hard to get people in the industry to provide the maintenance repair cost factor information without success. Maybe they don’t want people to know since tax money is obligated for ten years under the current subsidy program.

    Regarding Solar PV – Some thin film technology may have 50+ year life and have better sustainability characteristics than crystaline technology.

    Regarding EVs – They do provide a “common denominator” so to speak in that all electric generation types can be used interchangeably for the light transportation function. They also have potential to have a longer life than ICE vehicles (if the current battery technology is ignored).

    • I will get back to you on that- a friend [his surname is Breeze- made for the job] used to work for Vesta and now Siemans on the local wind farms- one is now 20 years old and was the largest at the time with around 200 turbines. I shall hunt down some insider knowledge.

    • Chris Johnson says:

      To David Gower:
      Sir, I have read some reports / articles that scouring by sand and dust cause serious deterioration of solar panel efficiency.
      Re EV’s, they are very slowly expanding sales — along with hybrids. The impact will be minor at first, but reduced demand for gasoline, even marginally, will be a major result. Note that this year Tesla sold more cars in California than several other major brands.

    • Regarding wind maintenance costs, Google offers some articles.

      One issue I see is that it will be very difficult to keep up repairs on wind turbines, so they will quickly become unable to deliver power. (Repairs are not something a person can do with small tools and local materials.) This will especially be the case on offshore wind turbines. They often require helicopters to access the wind turbines. I found it interesting that this article says:

      The blades are usually made from composite materials such as fibreglass reinforced plastic (see Figure 1) with an expected useful lifetime of twenty years. However, in offshore wind farms, the useful lifetime of a blade is significantly shorter than its expected lifetime. The reason is that the blades are “stressed” in a harsh maritime environment and extreme weather conditions and suffer from different types of damages (such as wear, fatigue, deterioration, crack, corrosion, and erosion) [13].

      With Solar PV, we need to distinguish on-grid from off-grid. Solar PV on grid needs an inverter, and the inverters have a short lifetime–less than 10 years, I believe. Off grid, the usefulness of solar PV may be limited by the length of time the applications it is running are available.

  5. Timothy says:

    In response to Stilgar, ” I think the techno-cornucopians are in for a rude awakening.”

    All of the necessary data is in, whether in regards to resources, or the side effects of there extraction (Pollution, depletion).

    The problem is that most people have become quite accustomed to the recent phenomenon of ‘Just In Time’ solutions. So much in fact, that they are blinded to the brute facts of our current predicament.

    I constantly have to remind myself that they are deluded and not me as I am scolded or snubbed for being too negative. I consider it my duty as a conscious human to express the reality when people get excited about ridiculous wastes of energy like the new high speed train project in California.

    This project will cost billions and in ten years or less CA will not have the resources to service it, let alone power it. They are already dependent on much of their electricity from other parts of the nation.

    Not to be too down on the religious (sorry as this will be offensive to you), but since people can still believe in fairy tale explanations for our existence and incompetent, jealous father figures that live in the sky, I have know problem understanding how people can so easily dismiss the seriousness of our current situation on planet earth.

    • Denis Frith says:

      People can easily dismiss the seriousness of the situation because they have not been taught the fundamental physical principles that govern all tangible operations, natural and those of the systems of civilization. They are conditioned to believe in the power of intangible money, much of which has been conjured out of thin air this century. The bewildered population will slowly learn that the technological systems that provide the goods and services they have become so dependent on use an unsustainable process to irreversibly divest natural material and wealth and produce irrevocable waste material while devastating the environment. Money will become impotent as reality strkes hard.

      • I think that there is a second part of this as well. There are a fair number of peak oil folks who go the opposite extreme. Their view is that all that matters is what is in the ground, and the fact that we have the technology to get it out. The fact that it is too expensive to get out is not an issue. If there is some problem with the money system (say all banks are closed, so no one can get paid), they don’t see that as a problem either. Somehow, everything will work out without money, or in spite of money.

        Part of the confusion lies with not understanding the networked nature of the system. If a necessary supplier is out of business (perhaps for financial reasons), this may cause production to stop.

    • In relation to technology as a saviour [and I am pragmatic yet slightly optimistic and no TC] we are metaphorically a plane crashing in the wilderness.
      Assuming many survive the crash- some will vote and wait to be rescued [eating the last of the inflight meals to survive, others decide to pursue an escape route- and there is the issue- the tricky route over the mountains may be the best way and another across the open plain may lead to danger.

      Technology as to what tools proved most useful is a rear view mirror job. Betamax was so much better than VHS: Also in the limited period of abundance -only half the oil is gone- we have no idea what will spawn what: The industrial revolution was helped greatly by the invention of the gun lathe- the problem was exploding cannons but it solved the problem of small energy efficient steam engines. [likewise superglue wasn’t invented to do emergency stitches].

      California’s dilemma [the UK has it’s own with nuclear and HS2] is what is going to work- do you have the answer? My brother back in the 90s was on a good wage but would not buy a house- he believed the prices would crash- 20 years later there is no crash and he still rents. If only hindsight could be turned into foresight.

      If people only offer in-action then they are offering no solution at all.

    • If we are going to make trains, what we need is the least expensive, easiest to fix, trains there can be. Ideally, they should run on any fuel available–including coal or wood. I am not even convinced these simple trains make sense. By the time we finally get them up and running we will have run out of the ability to keep them fixed. But I agree, expensive bullet trains don’t make sense. They won’t work for long, so can never payback their huge initial costs.

      • Denis Frith says:

        It is quite remarkable that the prime consideration with regard to proposals such as the bullet train refers to the (financial) cost rather than the more pertinent ecological cost. In addition, little consideration is given to the possibility of being able to replace them when they inevitably wear out. When wiil those who make decisions about such proposals wake up to physical reality. I expect they realistically appraise their health but for some incomprehensible reason thay do not take into account how the systems of civlization how tangible systems really operate. They seem to believe intangible money can do everything!

        • I don’t think bullet trains even have to wear out to stop working. It is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum that causes the problem–irreplaceable essential parts, or financial problems of the operator, or lack of fuel (electricity), or inability of potential riders to afford tickets.

  6. Chloe says:

    Great article, Gail! One of your best….and the comments are quite interesting also!

    As I was reading some of the above comments on renewables, I was reminded of a statement on solar energy that I heard recently (might have actually been from you, Gail). Note that I’m paraphrasing here:

    “When I see a SOLAR panel whose parts and assembly have been manufactured using only SOLAR energy, then I might consider solar power panels renewable. And that test should be applied to every “renewable”.”

    I agree with that statement. The question is, are any “renewables” currently really renewalble? I’d say not. Can you build complete nuclear power plants using electrical power just from nuclear power? Uh, BTW, that also means mining for uranium and transporting it using only electricity from “renewable” resources. Switchgrass to ethanol? Uh, now they say it will probably need “nitrogen” supplements (i.e., commercial fertilizers from natural gas) to achieve a profitable net energy ratio (i.e., enough easily extractable cellulose in the refining process)….oh, and you don’t mind food prices rising, do you? Switch grass does need farmland. And solar panels? Uh…ever see a rare earth metals mining operation? Think you can run that mining operation with just solar power? Sigh….and so it goes. What’s the solution? I don’t know…my head hurts already. But one thing I do know….you name it and somebody, somewhere is working on it. But they aren’t applying the “renewables” postulate above….and, IMO, few seem to be applying the KISS principle very well either. And, believe me, we’ll need KISS in the future.

    Not to say that I’m not “for” renewable energy. It’s just that all these supposed renewables are stopgap measures….perhaps helpful for individuals to bridge the gap when oil/gas systems start to short out…but not a permanent or systemic solution…at least so far.

    BTW, Gail had a great article on renewables a while back, but I can’t find the link to it…perhaps Gail could supply it? (She talks renewables a lot better than me!).

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “The question is, are any “renewables” currently really renewable?”

      The closest I can come up with is using biofuel to produce biofuel. I can do it, and I’m no rocket scientist. But even this comes with the help of the considerable embedded energy of diesel engines and other metal bits.

      I’m under no illusion that anything can allow us to continue our current life-style, but biofuel-sourced biofuel might be a transition strategy to a lower energy future. If they’re well-cared for, the life of diesel tractors and steel field equipment could see us through to a transition to animal power. My calculations indicate a direct† ERoEI of about 1:16 — one acre of oilseed could produce enough fuel for mechanized cultivation of another sixteen acres. I note that the ERoEI of a horse or oxen is not much different.

      A “prosperous way down” strategy might include numerous low-tech systems such as these. They won’t let us continue “business as usual,” but they may buy us time in transition.

      †Yes, of course, such a calculation does not include the production and maintenance of diesel tractors and steel farm implements, but if those are already sunken investments, the transition to even lower-energy methods could take place during the useful lifetime of those artifacts.

      • the interesting factor on what acreage can deliver what energy might refer us all back to Henry Ford himself.
        Ford came from the horse-powered era in its literal sense, he was basically a tinkerer with no concept of what motorised transport would bring to the world
        His original vehicle concept was intended to run on (literally) moonshine, because an acre or two of land could produce several hundred gallons of it, at a time when no other source of fuel of that type could be readily obtained. There were few adequate roads, so no long distance road travel was feasible.
        Ford himself said that ethanol was the ‘fuel of the future’. It was not until 1910 that gasoline production exceeded ethanol production. The first diesel engine ran on peanut oil. To say that we can power even a fraction of our present infrastructure that way is also moonshine.
        Ford didn’t have to worry about billions of people waiting for him to perfect his ideas so their lives could carry on as usual, which is where we are right now.
        Onto the second part of my comment:
        Is there any way we can rid ourselves (on here at least) of this insane notion of ‘transition through to animal power? Please?
        Any draft animal needs at least 2 acres for its energy source, You wont be able to buy hay from somewhere else.
        Not only that, you can’t stuff grass in a horse’s mouth and expect it to carry on ploughing your field or whatever indefinitely like pouring diesel into a tractor. It needs to rest for at least as long as it works–probably longer depending on conditions.
        Look at that date again, 1910. We started burning gasoline in earnest when the population was under 2 billion, now its 7 billion. The correlation is exact and the meaning is brutal. Without gasoline we feed 2 billion, maybe a lot less because the other 5 billion won’t go gently into that good night. When any resource goes into short supply, what’s left is fought over.
        We will return to animal power—if we’re lucky, but the transition isn’t going to return us gently to an era of bucolic peasantry. Collectively speaking, people under threat are not nice to each other. If you doubt that, check what’s happening in the middle east. They have resource shortages, religious differences are just smokescreens for what’s really going on. They also enjoy killing each other.

        • xabier says:

          Transition to animal power is a nonsense, at least in advanced economies, I agree – quite simply, the breeding stock isn’t there. The old draught animals were the result of centuries (in the case of mules, millenia) of breeding and training (no easy thing to manage the good health of these beasts!)

          These magnificent animals were mostly taken out and shot for dogmeat when farms went over to petrol after WW2. My great-grandfather had a stable of about 90 carriage horses, all gone by 1912. There’s no winding back of the clock.

          When the Roman cities and towns folded, the rural environment continued largely unchanged. We do not have that fall-back option.

          Hunting dogs, however, have been continuously bred for thousands of years, as they have served the interests of hunters, gamblers (greyhounds) and the rich for all that time, and are still in good shape. I think we could breed draught-dogs – once very common – quite rapidly, but in England at least they are now illegal.

          Hard to take a right turn, when we have taken so many wrong ones……..

          • I must get a mini plough for my Chihuhuaha. (no spelling of that looks right) at least my window box will then be productive. Provided he doesn’t fall off when he comes to the end of each furrow of course.
            if your g grandfather had that many horses, he would also have had an army of servants to look after them. and also bought in hundreds of tons of feed, and disposed of hundreds of tons of excrement. Servants were also the energy source. You should investigate their rates of pay.
            People harking back to the ‘old days’ blank out the muscle power needed to keep it going. City streets were literally coated with solid coagulated horse shit.
            We’ve now moved over to electricity and gasoline to get our work done

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            You are missing my point in your usual pre-occupation with the miseries of the past which we we all know but which are often exaggerated in a melodramatic way, it wasn’t all serfs and masters with whips. Admit it, for you the future is black, and the past even blacker…..

            Anyway, my point was that big heavy dogs were used for load-pulling in Europe (and I imagine the US?) into the beginning of the 20th century. Then they were eliminated by a combination of welfare legislation and the combustion engine. But they could surely be revived: we have big dogs, and just need to breed carefully from them. Photos exist showing the kinds of harnesses and carts that suit them.

            The bigger draught animals are more problematic.

            As for servants: clever ones knew how to steal from their masters!

          • xabier and Jan
            our forbears had a miserable existence (by our standards) which was only alleviated by the widespread availability of fossil fuels, nothing else.
            I knew my grandfathers cottage, it was tiny and had had 9 kids crammed into it somewhere. That was commonplace. I live in a warm nice house that they wouldn’t recognise. Grandad walked to the pit, I drive a Merc.
            No they weren’t forced to work with whips, but by the simple expedient of starving if they didn’t
            I have at least 5 generations of coalminers behind me, so I know something about fossil fuel extraction first hand and the near-slave labour needed to get hold of it.
            The dog usage thing has me mystified, the prime use of animal muscle has always been to help us obtain more energy–hunting/ploughing/harvesting and so on. Dogs will only run on meat-power btw. Which makes them a three stage energy source. (grass, grazing animal, dog) unless the dog is used to hunt meat
            I am doubting the viability of an easy transition to animal muscle use, because animal power cannot deliver the agricultural output that tractor power can. The problem as I see it, is that the vast majority of people seem to think that a transition back to animal power is somehow going to deliver what we have now, food etc.
            It isn’t, and just as we have deniers of all the other stuff, we have deniers of that too.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “our forbears had a miserable existence (by our standards)”

              I can’t agree. It was different, for sure, but we’re in the habit of “more is better.” Current happiness research seems to indicate that happiness is largely independent of physical conditions. Maslow teaches us that we really only need to meet very basic needs in order to thrive and be happy. And of course, we all know of people who are rich and miserable.

              Do people buy big houses because they don’t want to be crowded? I think they buy big houses because they’ve bought into the lie that therein lies the best return on investment. My partner raised “9 kids crammed into” a small house. Her kids describe it as a wonderful way to grow up.

              Perhaps “walking to the pit” had more to do with your grandfather’s “miserable existence;” my partner farmed, and while they were by all standards, “poor,” they always had food on the table and never felt deprived.

              I know nothing of your situation, but in my experience, the further one is from the land, the more one tends to think of the past as “miserable.” That’s why I spend a lot of effort encouraging people to get closer to the land now, while there’s room for mistakes. I have no doubt that life is about to get “miserable” for many people, but it need not be that way.

            • It is at least pleasant to work outside in a garden–certainly compared to working in a coal mine. Dave Summers of The Oil Drum worked in a coal mine in his younger years, and had many relatives before him who worked in coal mines. He talks about working hunched over in the dark. That would not be very pleasant.

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            Like many people in the developed (ruined) world you, understandably, view the past through the lens provided by the 19th and 20th century exploitation of human labour in the industrial system. Life was indeed terrible for the working poor – like miners – who had no land, no property, no rights and were wage labourers, Always exploited, always in fear of sudden death, terrible injury or being laid-off and left to starve or go to an inhuman and un-Christian institution. Their rightful sense of injustice still lingers. (One of my greatest friends comes from an old mining/mill-working family and he left to join the army after seeing a truly horrifying accident – he’d rather be shot at by Arabs in Aden and Northern Ireland !).

            Of course, this all helped create a large middle class who were cosily housed and comfortable, and helped the aristocrats build even bigger palaces for themselves (I have always regarded the mansions of families like the Sitwell’s and the Lascelles (mine owners in the UK) as being built with blood-money and a disgrace) and to develop their Empire.

            Housing conditions in the over-crowded cities were also left fester for a hundred years before the middle class reformers decided to help the poor with decent living conditions. And until governments softened in the face of revolutionary threats and the appreciation that better-fed workers would be more useful in imperial wars……

            However, step back a little and we can see a different world which preceded the industrialized and urbanized economy: very hierarchical, often barbarously violent, priest-ridden (but is that worse than manager-ridden?) not as comfortable as today, – how could it be? – but in many ways more human and more palatable. We might shudder, but that’s just hindsight and anachronism.

            I work with my hands as a book restorer, and at any time from the Roman Empire onwards my working conditions and status would have been very acceptable – probably very nice indeed in a Benedictine monastery! – with a sudden decline in the 19th century, unless I happened to be the Master of a workshop – things got much worse for journeymen in the industrial age, with longer hours and low pay, having lost the independence and ability to settle their own terms which skilled men always enjoyed in the ages we call ‘primitive.’

            In short: they still had fun in the 12th century.

            • Denis Frith says:

              Tainter in “TheCollapse of Complex Societies” provides well researched insight into the complex nature of the operations of societies in many civilizations. Many of the issues were similar to the ones mentioned in the post. However, today’s industrial civilization differs from those he considered in one dominant feature. Vast infrastruture has been built by irreversibly using resources out of the crustal store to supply the necessary energy and materials. That is an unsustainable process. Consequently, the demise of this infrastructure is certain while the population will dieoff to some extent. The issues that Tainter discussed will doubtless have an impact to some extent but it is to be hoped that some wisdom does surface to ease the inevitable powering down.

          • xabier
            It’s important to cover this energy use/who owns and uses it thing with the broad brush of history.
            First off, all our energy sources are drawn from the land, or from under it, one way or another.
            That land has been owned by a ruling class / looting class until our modern era. (think invading armies, settlement, tribal laws etc)
            I suppose the fundamental mistake lies in regarding land as private property, but that came about when the land (and thus the energy sources of the nation) was largely acquired by force of arms, (1066 invasion), by people who held on to it for centuries. (Many still do) The great houses of the mine owners were a direct offshoot of medieval castles of the previous era, both were constructed by drawing energy from the land and using muscle power to convert it into wealth.
            (We see the same thing happening, say, in Saudi, where the royal family own the prime energy source, and exploit it. Its the same situation, huge useless vanity buildings etc)
            The energy obtained from that land came via the hands of agricultural labourers who made up over 90% of the population. Their life expectation was around 30/40 years. That is your measure of life’s pleasure or otherwise given in broad terms. They did not live a life of bucolic bliss and keel over at 40.
            Their surplus energy supported everyone not concerned with food production, so you could have arts and crafts, kings and jesters. But not without the excess from the land. The benedictine monks exploited the gullible with the same determination as Bernie Madoff. (You cannot build a cathedral without spare food supplies and a belief that it will bring you some benefit in the future)
            As I’ve pointed out before, the great civilsations of the world grew around the line of the great food producing areas of the world. Eskimos never built cities, not enough spare food.
            Medieval people no doubt had happiness on their terms, my point throughout this exchange is to try to stress that reverting to pre-industry is going to make us most unhappy. We cannot ‘unlearn’ things we know about, and disregard them. We will know that diseases can be cured, but we will not have the industrial base to do it.
            It is an unfortunate result of our commercial system that we can now loot with our minds as easily as muscle now, but it still leaves millions disadvantaged among the less intellectually gifted.

          • I understand that the draft animals should be “right sized” for the job, so they don’t eat way too much relative to what they produce. Most of the horses we have today are too large, compared to what was used at one time in the past. A fellow from Finland that I talked to was trying to find draft horses that would work there, and the problem was finding small enough ones. In a better climate, perhaps bigger ones could be used.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Is there any way we can rid ourselves (on here at least) of this insane notion of ‘transition through to animal power? Please?”

          EoM goes on to describe the challenges and necessity of animal-powered agriculture, so I’m a bit confused as to what he’s asking for here.

          Are you doubting the necessity of returning to animal-powered agriculture, or the notion of a low-tech transition to such?

    • Thanks, Chloe. Chloe lives in the Atlanta area also, so I see her at “Atlanta Beyond Oil” meetings.

      No, I don’t know of any renewables that can be made from other renewables or themselves. In fact, it is hard to see that they ever could do so.

      Regarding renewables articles I have written, here several:

      Renewables – Good for some things, not so good for others

      Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

      Some cautionary thoughts about wind

      What are the problems with using corn ethanol for fuel?

      Corn Based Ethanol: Is this a solution? (From 2007)

  7. Stilgar Wilcox says:

    “In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.”

    I suggested just such a scenario on The Oil Drum back in 08 and was read the riot act by a so called expert at the time, that I did not understand supply & demand, i.e. the basics of economics. In reality I have a business degree and several economics classes were part of the curriculum. My point was the economy can only support high oil prices if incomes rise with oil price, which of course they cannot because the higher the oil price the lower the profits and wages. So thanks for completing the loop on that dated exchange.

    Right now the fabric of society is being held together with bailing wire and duck tape (rising debt and QE) but at some point those efforts will either need to be curtailed or they will run their course. In any event, when artificial support wanes we will enter another recession, an economic step-down, and with it dropping oil price. I’ve even noticed oil price dropping recently in step with warning signs about employment and the overall economy.

    Dropping oil price will be the worse kind of news because it will greatly reduce marginal oil sources with supply dropping but worse of all exploration will be forced to curtail many operations. As an infinite resource one would presume oil price would rise with reduced supply, but it is a finite resource that is increasingly difficult to attain with lower price causing supply to dwindle.

    I think we are currently on a precarious edge. However, there are posters like Rune Lukvern at peakoil.com that are certain we will be saved by thorium reactors, cold fusion, hot fusion, fuel cells, etc. that will somehow replace oil as it depletes from a peak he suggests will not occur until around 2030. I think the techno-cornucopians are in for a rude awakening.

    There’s also scuttle-butt rumors circulating that the Fed under Yellin will opt to raise QE. Might as well raise a white flag if that happens.

    • Thanks for writing. Needless to say, my views haven’t been terribly well received by many of The Oil Drum staff, either. That was indirectly the reason I went back to writing on Our Finite World in 2010, and let them copy as much or as little as they pleased. My views have pretty much withstood the test of time, and readership keeps rising. The Oil Drum has stopped publishing new posts.

      I think your “bailing wire and duct tape” analogy for rising debt and QE holding together the economy is a good one. Many people don’t seem to understand this. Rising interest rates, however they come, will be a huge problem. Already, today’s WSJ reports, Mortgage Declines Spread the Pain: Bank of America, Other Lenders Cut Thousands of Jobs as Refinancing Slows and Bad Loans Shrink. When interest rates drop, this allows for refinancing. Borrowers often take additional money out to spend. Even if they don’t they generally end up with lower monthly payments, so that their spendable income is lower. This is one of many effects of low interest rates that is propping up the economy. As interest rates rise, even a little, this effect turns around. Rising interest rates are likely to cause huge problems all around the economy, when they occur.

      You might be right about Yellin raising QE. At some point, the whole charade has to come to a halt.

  8. dashui says:

    Cuba was in the best position possible, the autocratic government recognized the problem, brought in Australian permaculture experts, pulled out some oxen, legalized farmers markets, attempted to become self sufficient in food, doctors had to grow their own food, led the old die, ….. But self sufficiency didn’t happen, they are still dependent on imported food and energy donations from the UN and others.
    My father went there 10 years ago, he liked it, but he said electricity is rationed every day.

    North Korea discovered that high yield grains would not work in the absence of irrigation and chemical inputs. It seems that the genes that make a plant high yielding reduce its robustness in many ways. The NK had to go back to using lower yield heirloom plants. One of my friends who went there said he saw truckloads of soldiers being driven to work in the fields with hand tools. A doctor I know went to a commoner’s hospital there and said NK uses old beer bottles for IV bottles.

    • Thanks for the information. I know a National Geographic article is the last year or so talks about the rising need for food imports in Cuba.

      The impression one gets is that the Permaculture solutions were to some extent helpful, in that they helped the country grow more fruits and vegetables in the cities. But even these depend on irrigation, so aren’t really permanent solutions. The fixes never really solved the basic problem of getting enough food for the people.

      Cuba has a favorable climate and quite a bit of arable land per capita, so it would seem to be in a better position than most to be self-sufficient on little energy inputs.

    • edpell says:

      Dashui, thanks for the info on NK. It is disturbing and may be a view of our future.

  9. Don Stewart says:

    Here is a thought about the danger of debt, when coupled with an unrealistically rosy view of the future.

    The price one is willing to pay for an asset is a function of one’s expected future cash flows. If one expects to be doing financially better in the future, then what makes sense is to pay more for an asset today than one would pay if one assumed a steady state or falling income. So too big a house and too expensive a car are bought, and one overpays for an investment in rental property. If the reality is that we are now engaged in a downward trend in terms of economic prosperity (whether the trend be sharply down or gently down), then one is unlikely to be able to pay for the overpriced asset such as a house or car and one is unlikely to get the rents one expected from the rental property.

    In terms of fracked oil and gas wells, if one expects steadily rising oil and gas prices, then one will spend the money today to frack the wells, but the money will never be returned if poor economic conditions drive down the price of oil and gas.

    So we can see that the availability of cheap debt along with unrealistic expectations regarding future economic prosperity result in current economic activity which actually wastes money. The value of the assets held by our society is not what we think it is.

    For the past couple of hundred years, the assumption of greater economic prosperity in the future has generally come true. If the assumption now becomes only rarely true, then the delusion is causing us to squander current efforts to build assets which have less value than we think they do. The physical economy still works on current natural resources and labor, but the resources and labor are being misallocated to projects which are not worth the natural resources and labor expended. We have misallocation of resources. The misallocation of resources hurts us because, with the sad state of the natural world, the misallocation tends to further degrade the natural world and also because we could instead be directing the current resources toward restoring the natural world.

    If one assumes that economic decline is our future, then investing in expensive ‘renewable’ energies is a misallocation of resources. While investing in passive solar heating and earth insulation cooling probably both make eminent sense.

    So the crime that the Central Banks are committing is to foster the further degradation of the Earth that sustains us and to discourage efforts to restore the productivity of the Earth.

    Don Stewart

    • Those are good points.

      Everyone makes the assumption that somehow things will work out–they will be able to afford the too expensive house and car. And investments in oil and gas are based on a combination of today’s low interest rates and the expectation that prices will probably rise. (In the case of natural gas, the assumption is made that they will be able to export to countries that seem to be paying a higher price. However, these countries are skating at the edge of recession themselves. Whether they will really be able to afford the high gas price when the export terminals get built is not clear.

      The profits of oil companies were down this year in the US.

      In Europe, the electric utilities were doing terribly this year. The Economist has an article about European Utilities titled, How to lose half a trillion Euros–Europe’s electricity providers face an existential threat. This has to do with the way renewables are being favored in the pricing system.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Thinking a little more along these lines.

        We frequently hear that ‘running debts burdens future generations’, but a point I have made frequently is that bankruptcy laws are made to deal with unpayable debts. IF the bankruptcy process is working smoothly, unpayable debts vanish and the loser is the person who lent the money or invested in the business.

        But misallocation of capital is forever. If someone should have been investing in carbon farming to both sequester carbon and avoid some of the penalties of global warming, and also to increase the fertility of the soil, but instead puts their efforts into things such as building ghost cities or ever grander freeway systems, then the wasted resources can never be regained. Future generations suffer from the misallocations of previous generations. For example, if Kunstler is correct that suburbs are a fatal misallocation (I’m not sure of that), then all future generations suffer.

        If we think about the investments our children, looking back from the year 2025, would have liked for us to have made, it doesn’t seem like we are making very many of them. Consequently, we would have to say that most current investments are wasted. Our leaders who tell us cornucopian stories (if only we will trust them) are to blame.

        Don Stewart

        • I think you are right on “the misallocation of capital” is forever issue. People have their heads in the sand with respect to our current problems, and couldn’t even imagine how we might prepare. Meanwhile, we spend huge amounts of money not on only on ever-grander freeway systems, but also on educating young people about topics that are irrelevant for the future. We could be teaching them techniques that would be helpful. We could even be thinking about how reorganization might work, and what steps have to be taken in that direction.

  10. edpell says:

    There is nothing I like about North Korea.

    North Korea seems to be a place that is living within the limits of local resources(?). We might learn by studying it. They have the growing population problem just as any human (animal) society has. Their solution seems to be let the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy starve to death. There are some basic questions like what percent of the population is lost per year due to starvation and what is the age distribution and social distribution?

    What does North Korea do for energy? Oil/coal from China? Local coal?

    • North Korea’s is a country whose energy consumption per capita has dropped a lot, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its energy consumption per capita isn’t terribly low by world standards (33.677 million Btu per person in 2010). For example, India was 18.865 in the same year; Haiti was 3.210; Ethiopia was 1.590; Somalia was 1.151. China’s per capita energy consumption was 71.299 in 2010, but it was at North Korea’s level in 2001.

      I think that part of North Korea’s problem is that its per capita energy consumption used to be a lot higher, and dropped after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. North Korea’s energy consumption per capita was 86.245 per capita in 1985, but dropped to 56.388 in 1993 and 33.794 in 1998. It has a lot of buildings and roads to maintain, but doesn’t have the resources to do it. It is fairly cold, so needs energy for heat as well.

      The energy used is mostly coal produced in North Korea. North Korea seems to export a little of its coal as well.

      By the way, the energy consumption per capita for Cuba in the same years was as follows: 1985, 48.098; 1993, 34.517; 1998, 40.964; 2010, 36.038. Cuba is a lot warmer country though, so doesn’t need energy for winter heat.

      The above amounts are EIA data. BP doesn’t give data for small countries, such as these countries.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, I guess the next question is when do they hit peak local coal?

        • North Korea’s coal production was highest in 1988. In fact, it seems to follow the approximately the same curve as the Former Soviet Union energy production–a big dip starting even before the collapse of the FSU, except they their production doesn’t pick up later. Without looking into this, it is hard to tell what is going on. Is it peak local coal? Or is it lack of industry because of lack of oil, that cuts back in need for coal as well? My guess is that it is mostly the later.

      • Wim Weber says:

        This is a side note, but interesting: the Cuban people actually were healthier when they were in economic hardship:

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Wim
          Many years ago I saw a documentary about Cuba with a title something like ‘How the Cubans Got Their Paunch Back’. Seems that a belly was a sign of prosperity, and they had all become very lean. The agricultural changes following the Soviet exit gave them, after a few years, their paunch back. But it is well established that belly fat promotes inflammation, and inflammation is a root promoter of most chronic diseases.

          Don Stewart

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “But it is well established that belly fat promotes inflammation, and inflammation is a root promoter of most chronic diseases.”

            Correlation is not causation. Do you have a reference for that?

            I’ve read that inflammation and “apple shape” have common causes in diet.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Jan
              I don’t have a reference. I have heard quite a few doctors say that ‘fat is an endocrine gland’. As such, it generates cytokines which cause inflammation. Fat around the organs is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (which insulates us). Many of our organs are in the belly area.

              I’ve basically taken the statements as true…but I surely have not put some sort of meter reading on belly fat. Nor would I recognize a cytokine if it walked down the street.

              Don Stewart

            • I think the problem can work both ways at once.

        • I can very much believe that the Cuban people were healthier when they were forced to lose weight (eat less, exercise more). The poor US health standing is at least partly related to too much weight, thanks to too much/wrong kind of food, too little exercise.

  11. I think we have to face facts: the Earth has recognised humanity as a plague species, and is usinf heat wind and water to get rid of us, or at least our excess numbers

  12. David Gower says:

    “Virtually no one understands our complex problems. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we fix our problems, none of which make sense:”

    There is not ONE silver bullet. I don’t know if it is a human tendency or more here in the U.S.A./west or what, but the idea there is one magic “solution” is repeated over and over currently and throughout the very recent history. And complex does = interrelated! A lack of a “big picture understanding or overview” is particularly apparent in regards to economics.

    Gail, I don’t know how you can show the affects on a chart how much we humans are shooting ourselves in the foot over and over again. There is a certain “interference or friction” with the true economic and physical situations caused by human/social/governance factors at work. The difficulties of physical finite realities and economics have become accentuated more than they should due to lack of timely responses. It doesn’t take 5 years to decide if it is in the national interest of the U.S.A. to build the KeystoneXL pipeline. A decision we made in the eighties to extend our available oil with ethanol doesn’t have to live forever even when our situation has changed and unintended consequences have become apparent.

    I find it interesting that the internet has made so much information available to everyone yet we are more “decision paralyzed” than ever. The interpretation/filtering/slanting/propagandizing of internet information has been left to we lowly humans in our free societies. Group/committee decisions (democracy?) take longer to materialize than in an autocratic sovereign nation or Kingdom I suppose. It would have been / could still be beneficial if an “energy policy” could somehow be crafted. Or some reasonable “living” outline thereof.

    There is a possibility that methanol may become part of our energy mix.

    • The big policy change that is really needed is to get families to have fewer children, and work on getting other countries to reduce population. This is not something that is not possibly going to happen, though.

      • collectively speaking, humanity is programmed to have as may offspring as possible.

      • SG says:

        I wonder. Maybe financial decline is achieving this already.
        Japan is Deflation Central and appears to have a birth rate below the replacement threshold. And I think that’s also true for some states in Europe, which make up for it with open door immigration.
        So perhaps it’s a self-limiting system.
        And perhaps a declining birth rate is an effective proxy to measure the degree to which growth through state stimulus policies is illusory.

        • you could be right, for prosperous nations—on the other hand the birth rates across much of Africa is terrifying, they are the countries least able to support doubling numbers
          Nigeria’s is 3.3% meaning it will double in 22 years. Nigeria is already a basket case. other nations show similar rates.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            EOM: FYI, Africa’s population doubled to 1 Billion from 1960 to 2010, and is expected to double again in the next 40 years. There are some cases better than Nigeria. Nobody expected Angola’s GDP to grow at 15%, but that’s what’s happened the last few years, largely from oil. A few others are also doing well, but too many are still basket cases, as you said, and not expected to produce much other than refugees. The Chinese are well ensconced and extracting all they can as fast as they can, including deep forests that might never grow back. Maybe they can teach the Africans how to poison/pollute their soil, as they buy up African farms. And while the World Bank holds its nose, the Pentagon is the only USG agency with any heft trying to counter the Chinese influx. What a world!
            Cordially, Chris

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Gail: There’s a bit of a mis-correlation between your ‘fewer babies now’ ideas and your economic analyses wherein the ‘penalized’ society gets doubly penalized, as in ‘carbon taxes.’ Do we need more third world immigrants flocking to ‘rich world’ countries due to population vacuums? Or should we be as strict as the Japanese (though unable to replicate the insularity) , or as unfriendly as the Russians, in order to thwart migrants dreams?
        I believe most astute demographers agree that after societies reach a certain economic level they naturally begin reducing population growth. Surely that’s what happened in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, among others.
        Inchoate calls for ‘fewer babies right now!’ will not solve the human over-population problem but will cause plenty of others.
        Cordially, Chris

        • I am not convinced the rushing around to fill population vacuums will really happen. It seems to me that it is people from low energy consumption countries moving to higher energy consumption countries, to increase their standard of living. Once there is a big drop in energy consumption in the higher energy consumption countries, there will be a lot less point in moving there. There may be no one to make gardens (without fossil fuels) for the many elderly people, but without reasonable pay for the work, no one is going to want to take up the job. If there were good paying jobs, that would be a different matter.

          • xabier says:

            Latinos are leaving Spain en masse as the economy collapses, as they can get work and have family in their home countries, but not Arabs, Africans and Eastern Europeans (I think that’s a euphemism for gypsies!). Arabs are undercutting native workers ferociously as they need to eat.

    • Denis Frith says:

      A copious amount of sound information is available on: * the amount of a vast range of irreplaceable natural resources (fossil fuels, minerals, phosphorus, aquifer water, etc) that have already been used up and estimates of the reserves remaining * the problems of storing material waste in landfill, including the ecological and economic costs * the pollution problems created by the production of this material waste – climate change, ocean acidification, pollution of land, sea, air and organisms (including human beings) * degradation of natural resources such as arable land, soil fertility, rivers, forests etc at a rate far in excess of their ability to recover naturally * extinction of flora and fauna species that play an important role in natural operations * the vast infrastructure of civilization (cities, roads, bridges, tunnels, sewerage systems etc) that consumes natural resources for their operation and maintenance during their limited lifetime Society, however, is not connecting these dots so in the main continues to pursue economic growth regardless of the consequences.

  13. dolph says:

    In retrospect it was the production and widespread distribution of fossil fuel burning machines that got us into trouble in the first place.

    When we are going to grow up and learn to live in balance?

    Other sources of energy will have their role, sure, but they aren’t to keep industrial civilization going and quite frankly that’s a good thing. Our future is one of contraction and it is a necessary one. We shouldn’t grow the system, and destroy the planet, just to pay back these fake debts.

    It’s very frustrating to live in a world in which almost all concepts are basically wrong.

    • I agree with you with respect to

      It’s very frustrating to live in a world in which almost all concepts are basically wrong.

      It is amazing that we have gotten as far off base as we have. The Economist had an article recently about most scientific research being published probably being wrong. It is a lot worse than that. It is endless wrong theories that recycle themselves.

      • Denis Frith says:

        I have been a physical scientist for many decades so I do not like to recognize the the myopia of science. I find it ironic that society proclaims the value of scientists advancing the frontiers of knowledge. The reality, of course, is that scientists are improving their knowledge of how natural forces have operated for eons. They have yet to convince society at large that the operation of the systems of civilization entails the irreversible consumption of limited, irreplaceable natural resources and the irrevocable production of material waste. This failing of scientists is doubtless due to focusing on their specialist field rather than on the holistic scenario.

        • Timothy says:

          This also reminds me of another quote that I have forgotten. However the gist is that they aren’t going to make money using science to negate our way of life. Instead, the profit is in maintaining the illusion.

        • Part of the problem is that that part of the story is depressing. As another reader mentioned,

          As Jay Hanson put it, “Our present economic system is… little more than a well-organized method for converting natural resources into garbage.”

          • Denis Frith says:

            Of course it is depressing because people hope that their life style is sustainable. They become depressed when they understand that the operation of industrialized civilization is not sustainable. But that is the reality. Smart people will rise to the challenge of powering down as painlessly as possible. They will not hope or be depressed as they focus on being pragmatic.

        • timl2k11 says:

          Yes, many scientists I have great respect for don’t ever seem to bother for a second to think about our finite world. Perhaps reality represents an existential dilemma to them, as the decline of surplus energy and the contraction of the economy will nix a lot of scientific exploration and research. Right now, I put the odds of the James Webb Space Telescope ever actually getting into space at <10%. It is scheduled to launch in 2018 (that will surely be pushed back) and is already 8-12 times as expensive then originally planned. I think there is little room for doubt that our economy will be much worse in 2018 then it is now. I think a lot of astronomers and cosmologists would vehemently deny that our economy (i.e. our finite world and the resource limits we are running into) might imperil the endeavors of science.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I am a retired aeronautical research scientist. During my career, I devoted all my time, knowledge and energy to the research in my field as well as the day by day living of my family. I expect all scientists are similarly occupied as circumstances force such a reductionist attitude. Few are in the position where they can gain a holistic view of what civilization is doing to the environment. The detail data and understanding is readily available for perusal but it is very fuzzy due to the impact of vested interests and ignorance of physical reality. The multitude of dots is not being connected – yet.

            • I think this is a big part of the problem. In fact, if researchers expect their work to be published, it needs to “fit in” with what others in their field are saying.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            Last week’s (19 October) The Economist main article was ‘How Science Goes Wrong.’ The only real difference between now and last year is that people are finally discovering how bad it is. For those in the know, we can joke that ‘science is always wrong’, by definition, in order to keep the order book full as well as other reasons.

            • I thought that was a good article in the Economists. If the Science is wrong, the other fields (economics, political science, etc.) are even worse.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              A decade and more ago I used to sell stuff to Uncle, and became familiar with some of the labs that generate the products our 20 year old kids have to use in combat. One of the things I learned was the ‘total time computation’ that determined the lifteime of a project. It was actually, more often than not, decided on ‘how many years till the kids graduate from college’ of the prime researcher. Which sort of explains why even such things as ‘Meals Ready to Eat’ were developed in time for the first joint exerccises in Kuwait in 1991, but not before that, even though C Rations and K Rations were well expired from their WWII origins…
              Perhaps we expect too much of our scientists, and our politicians, and our other leaders…
              Cheers, Chris

          • timl2k11 says:

            @ Chris Thanks a ton for the link. At the bottom there seems to be an unfortunate disregard for the scientific method among researchers. If I were in the position of hiring researchers for a project I would not care about those three letters “Ph.D”, I would care about how well they understood the scientific method.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              Well stated, sir. It’s somewhat similar to the code an officer of the law or the government is bound to commit to. It’s also a matter of integrity or honesty. Are you cognizant of the major challenges Chinese researchers have begun to pose to international scientific papers, patents filings, etc.? Their approach appears to be based on sicilian rules and optimum rapine.

  14. edpell says:

    To understand a complex system we need a computer model. Sad if humankind does not have enough surplus at this point to make a model and understand its fate.

    • Denis Frith says:

      There is nothing complex about the stark reality that the industrial systems are irreversibly using up limited natural material resources, such as oil, and producing material wastes, such as those that have caused global warming and ocean acidification.

      • justeunperdant says:

        /sarc on
        You are silly things are not that simple.

        Don’t say things like that. Don’t you know that everything can be explain using ecomonic theory and money. All problemes are related to money.

        Silly of you to think that waste have a impact on biological system. They ( I don’t who they are but some people brigther them me know) will find an answer.

        /sarc off

    • There are an amazing number of bad computer models out. A person who has worked with them learns to be distrustful of them.

  15. Tad Davis says:

    Good Evening Gail,
    Thank you so much for your supreme writings, intelligent analysis and huge personal efforts at educating the uninformed. Please keep up the information dissemination. Very many people appreciate your insights!!

  16. Scott says:

    I forgot to mention, but most know that If credit freezes up due to some financial collapse, we could surely see a very fast energy shortage and price spike. Very fast. Higher rates are surely a concern leading up to that as the debt load in many countries like the US and UK are not able to service the debts at higher fair market rates like say 6 percent for 5-10 year debt.


    • bradbradshaw says:

      Very good point. Today’s debt is premised on having surplus value creation in the future to service the debt over time. There is a very real prospect that the debt overhang will be too large, especially as surplus value creation diminishes. We also have a lot of parasitic activities in our economy that rely on surplus value creation. Finished economic activity iis going to be a real struggle going forward.

    • I was getting a little confused. If credit freezes up, we may have lower oil prices, but we will have higher interest rates. Higher interest rates are a big problem, as you say.

  17. Scott says:

    Hello, Thanks another Great One Gail. That really does sum things up very well. It seems to me that a major part of the problem is people getting used to things the way they are and assuming they will continue to be the same, kind of a sense of entitlement and that is especially seen in some cultures and in young people.

    Well the shocker will be out there to surprise them. I am not sure I am ready for it either as all my friends and some family relatives are mostly clueless.

    We may have some time yet for the wost of this, but we will all have to deal with it’s onslaught.


  18. George Vye says:

    Bill Catton ‘splained it all over 30 years ago. Too bad no one was paying attention.

    William R. Catton, Jr.
    Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
    University of Illinois Press, reprint ed. 1982

  19. Will says:

    “Harvesting the easiest resources first” strikes again – it looks like the same effect has occurred with antibiotics as with peak oil: http://becomingantifragile.blogspot.com/2013/10/parallels-between-antibiotics-and-peak.html

    • You make a good point about antibiotics. I know I have heard of this issue before.

      With our high current population and the amount of crowding, it seems like diseases may spread pretty rapidly without antibiotics.

  20. I’m not giving up on humanity just yet. The warning is evident, the signs abundantly clear and the prognosis dire. But humans, us, are adaptable and curious.

    Prior to the industrial revolution- whose birth place is an hours drive from my home [Iron Bridge] – and during the early stages of it the population of the UK [including Ireland] had leapt from a gentle increase of around 6 million to 16 million just 50 years later [1750-1801]. This population explosion was not a direct consequence of coal becoming the new cheap energy.

    The 18th Century saw an expansion in enlightenment and science which were the very things needed to allow the industrial [the fossil fuelled growth] revolution. At the height of Empire [1870s] the population doubled and has since taken twice as long to double and stabilise.

    Fossil fuels [coal] was only part of the revolution- water power was intrinsic to the fabric mills- wind was the thing that held the Empire together- Steam ships only supplemented sails towards the end of the 19th century. The revolution in science was sanitation and understanding disease.

    Food production improved through better management and not directly through coal- where coal mattered was the ability to get produce to market via the railways. With limited fossil fuel direct inputs the UK was effectively able to be self sufficient with a population of about 44 million [60 million today].

    Where there is the explosive issue of population is in developing countries- Egypt in 1960, pop 26 million- doubling in 1987 [52m] and now 75 million. Unlike developed countries where wealth and education went roughly hand in hand, oil money by passed the slow evolution of population growth delivering cheap food.

    On a technical level places like the US have huge natural resources so feeding the nation [whilst limiting choice] and keeping them warm is not impossible. Egypt along with countries reliant on oil exports for food have a big problem. Technically even the cheap oil has not run out- most of US production is still the old cheap stuff but is in decline- so with rationing and fuel going to do the essentials there is decades still left. Even the UK has decades of oil in the North Sea- it peaked yes, but there is still huge amounts that could do the essentials.

    During the age of abundance the rich [and this blog is mainly addressing the economy of the rich- a couple of billion people live on very little energy] wasted it. We drive a ton and half of steel to pick up a few bags of groceries. We build cheap uninsulated houses and leave lights on- energy is so cheap it is wasted. Rather than living in walking distance of work we commute 10, 20 30, miles or more. We process all water to be drinkable and flush most of it down the toilet and if we are really wasteful we using it to clean the car and water the lawn.

    All politics in the developed nations- whether left or right is growth orientated- it is not enough that government guarantees human rights and security they are convinced to offer a capitalist utopia of endless wealth [and I include state capitalism:communism, or third way socialism etc]

    Capitalism will destroy itself- the question is what will replace it?
    North Korea demonstrates that it is possible to have a functioning nation that is impoverished- as does the anarchic Somalia.

    People [nations] will descend in to anarchy, a claptocracy [the Congo], totalitarian [most like fascist-&-militaristic], theocracy [fascist & militaristic] and all the other post economic collapse plot lines [although some may be disappointed in the lack of zombies].

    The alternative to hiding out in a permaculture ecotopia hoping the city folk don’t turn up in motorcycle gangs is a new wave of democracy where the purpose is to prosper in the old fashioned sense. And I don’t mean turning back the clock.

    The likelihood is a descent into the gross inequalities found in developing countries like Pakistan and Egypt. We already have a super rich in the US and UK who despite everyone else getting poorer are getting richer. At some point particularly in the US the slavish spell of the American dream of being part of that elite will be rejected. Capitalism [in its broad sense of eternal growth and riches] can only sell the lie for so long.

    Gail, the economy that you see collapsing [and I just wonder on the speed- will be 5 or 50 years?] has created its own culture. It is so strong that imagining a different world is impossible: the alternative to many is old skool communism [state capitalism]. In a world where we have only half the energy [which would make the US like Europe- not bad!]- OK, a quarter for the US- perhaps our idea of work and a 5 day week will have to change. Accommodation will have to change- houses like cars get worse as they age so why should they not get cheaper as time goes by?

    Who knows perhaps nano tech or graphene will be a new revolution. Perhaps we will abandon money like in Star Trek and receive the basics to live and choose are own destiny. I’m sure our ancestors would marvel at what has been achieved by their descendent. what was a mystery being common knowledge.

    It is an extraordinary time to be alive.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      As much as I’d enjoy doing a point-by-point rebuttal, have your read Gail’s “two views” blog entry? (Of course you have, you commented on it!)

      You seem to be more-or-less of the “predominant view,” that energy and population are independent variables, that technology will save us, and that life can pretty much go on as before — except with more solar panel, wind turbines, and perhaps a good dose of nano-tech. In short, human exceptionalism.

      Perhaps our ancestors would look at how we live, and say, “How did you pay for all that?” rather than marvel at what has been achieved. In the past, it was common knowledge that you don’t get something for nothing. That knowledge doesn’t seem to be so common any longer, substituted with, “My, aren’t we clever hairless apes! We can do anything!

      • No. I’m not saying that.
        I get Gail’s point clearly and it is only a matter of time- it may be that the illusion will spin for another decade or two and each year everyone has a little less. It may happen in a few years.

        If you hadn’t noticed we are the rich ones- I have travelled and even in ‘developing’ countries, even in China most people live in tiny apartments with few luxuries. I’ve met professionals, teachers, university lecturers, doctors whose standard of living is that of poor worker in OECD countries. My partner and I are on average UK income and in comparison we live like royalty- and we, along with a billion are the ones using the energy of 300 slaves.

        I have friends who appear to be similar to you- you are dependant on the tech world as everybody else. Medicine- requires blue sky research, just because big pharm is selling the same b/s mean it is some how redundant. Knowledge is power- ask your vet, or doctor or farmer. Technology is the end result of study and curiosity- I’m researching means to build using less stuff and less energy- and spare me the joys of adobe or traditional ‘wisdom’ or straw bails or sheep’s wool insulation.

        Technology may not work, but it has in the past and much of it has been of great benefit. – all the way up the beginning of the industrial revolution – and pre fossil fuels.

        I am planning for a solar system and small wind [I have an off the grid version in my other holding]- revolutionary high tech, low energy, low material house and it pays to do it. It may just buy 25years of comfortable draught free snuggly living- long enough perhaps for retirement and possibly long enough to see a transition. I’m no thorium/fusion enthusiast- there are limits to the practicalities of imagination.

        Wind is so old tech- the British built an empire across the globe with it.
        and the point of post is that life will be changed- just because the system crashes do you think those unlucky ones who don’t have a nice middle-class permaculture venture are just going to curl up and die?

        How we manage that change is the issue- turning our backs on acquiring knowledge and experimenting is something the religious devout can do lest we offend the gods.
        It is who we are as a species.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “turning our backs on acquiring knowledge and experimenting is something the religious devout can do lest we offend the gods.”

          By no means do I advocate “turning my back on acquiring knowledge and experimenting!” I’m doing that all day!

          But knowledge is not technology! That is where we appear to differ. HT Odum has convinced me that technology is a form of embedded energy. Technology must be maintained, and Joseph Tainter has convinced me that excess maintenance in light of declining resources is what kills civilizations.

          I’m a big believer in appropriate technology that does not depend on current energy levels. There lies the path of “graceful degradation” instead of a crash.

          • You have to be a lot more specific about the kind of technology you mean.

            Take solar- you don’t appear to be a fan- we live in a fossil fuel world so everything is going to have a lot of ff inputs- my only estimate on oil content is price- however in the last 5 years oil has hit regular highs and solar has halved in cost. [so ignoring rare earth’s and Chinese pollution- I buy German anyway]- solar has reduced it’s energy inputs by half in 5 years. They don’t need fixing because they don’t go wrong [the inverters need replacing every 7-10 years, but this is fixed with keeping them cool]. They give full output for 20 years and will run for another 20 at reduced -i.e. 70%] output.

            A house is another piece of technology- the plumbing system, the waste, the heating, the door handles. I’m planning on fitting a heat recovery module- it has a fan, and switch which could fail- the rest is a very clever surface which cannot fail.

            My partner has just come back from working at a hospital in Afghanistan- built by German aid, with solar because the electricity is so un reliable.

            when it comes to maintenance the VW is a mystery but never seems to go wrong, my landrover is always going wrong but it is simple and easy to repair. local workshops make parts for my ageing tractor that always goes wrong.

            Knowledge leads to technology- leads to improvements of bows and arrows, better ways to process timber, better ways to make a toilet. Better in the future should mean less energy.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “Better in the future should mean less energy.”

              “Less energy” will mean less energy in the future. We won’t be able to maintain anything more than the photovoltaic efficiency of plants (~6%) for very many years.

              Yea, solar panels are cool. I love them! I love LED lighting, too! I have some of each out of pure selfishness. But neither of them are sustainable in the long run. There is not a single 100% solar-powered solar panel factory on the planet. (There are some claims, but they appear dubious.)

              I’m afraid we must simply agree to disagree.

            • agreeing to disagree whilst polite isn’t why i seek a better understanding of the world and our future.

              you may be correct- I don’t know. for the truth to manifest requires evidence. I am cautious in using a single philosophy- no matter which bright person coined it. evidence based, even [or especially] if it is counter intuitive, is [in my opinion] the only way forward.

              We are collectively embarking on an incredible challenging future- the right decisions will only come from being challenged. surely this is the point of Gail’s blog- the convention of economics will fail and opinion, gut feeling, or wise words of a past economist is not going to change that.

              your approach does challenge me- I did read up on emergy. Not entirely impressed but perhaps I need to see the nuance of the theme.

              best jules

            • Denis Frith says:

              It seems that I need to repeat a fundamental physical principle because most people are unwilling to take this into account because they have not been educated about this reality. Technology does no more than use natural forces to irreversibly use limited natural material resources and produce irrevocable material waste. Society is addicted to the goods and services provided by technology but they are unwilling to believe that technology does not create anything. It just consumes to do work useful to society during its lifetime.

            • I think you are entirely focusing on one aspect of technology.

              Prior to the industrial revolution the enlightened countries did see growth in population, technology, and science.

              Take the water wheel- constant improvements of over centuries improved the amount of power that could be extracted from a stream. Iron was used to reduce weight and improve longevity- the initial iron water wheels used simple mining- animals and wooden railway tracks and carbon from charcoal to smelt. skill and technology and some still last today and work. Iron is everywhere and can be recycled, perhaps not at the scale to make 6 billion cars but most of the world does not live like you and me.

              Clean drinking water is a technological improvement, metallurgy that adds tiny quantities of elements and improves longevity is technology, combining bone, wood and sinew into a redesigned bow was high tech compared to the previous version.

              The democracy of technology allows people to free themselves of government and use social media to achieve change- you may hate the computer you use- but it uses less energy than your trip to the shops. It is a means for me to access latest research in wind turbine design- speak to people who recycle and reinvent.

              The energy we have is limited but how we spend our allocation is about weighing up evidence.

              It is as absurd to dismiss tech in a general way as it is to dismiss any wide ranging subject.

              Be specific. I don’t swallow everything tech. I think fusion whilst worth the research is as likely as warp drive.

              ‘technology doesn’t create anything’- I can’t see the logic- a hammer doesn’t create anything- it is a tool. Am I arguing for more of the same? no. Do I argue that blind faith tech will cure our ills. no.

              Technology is a tool- we can exploit resources more efficiently but we can equally harness renewable resources- like food and water, energy and human intelligence.

            • Denis Frith says:

              You focus just on the what technology has given society. I commented on the unsustainable ecological cost of the technology. That is a different issue and one that society does not address.

            • Denis, clearly you use a pc and the internet, and your english and grammar indicate that you have been educated to a high western standard. As for the rest of your lifestyle you are connected to the grid and directly benefit from the abundance of ‘excessive’ fuel use.

              For you to say all technology is bad and destroying the environment is from a position as a participant rather than observer. Which would logically require to renounce your privileged position as a rich westerner.

              I don’t disagree that ‘growth’ and its politics is extremely destructive and promotes human inequality as well. And some technologies- like military complex- don’t help us. Within the broad mix of tech their is evidently constructive and destructive tech [guns and ploughs] but even though a hammer [low tech] can be used for positive change it can be used to beat someone to death.

              Society does address some destructive tech- but as vaccines and GM are concerned that objection is not based in evidence based study. Society does have a habit of being selective though, overlooking how destructive some innocent tech is.

              My focus [in this instance] is identifying what tech is appropriate for transition. Overwhelming my focus is on the new politics to replace the politics of growth and exploitation. Tech is just a tool.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I am a realist. I use my advantaged situation to promote understanding of what the systems of civilization have done to its life support system. We are well aware of the contribution of technology to the living standards of many people. I was commenting on the other side of the balance sheet, the ecological cost of the technology and how it is an unsustainable process. The reality is that civilization will collapse in coming decades as a consequence. Drawing attention to the destructive side of technology can contribute to the challengs of powering down. My generation enjoyed the ‘free’ lunch. I aim to leave a legacy of understanding that will make paying for that lunch easier for the coming generation.

          • Denis Frith says:

            All technology irreversiby consumes natural material resources, including those supplying the energy to do the work, while producing irrevocable material waste. That is the fundamental physical principle that few in society take into account.

          • We need to be looking to windmills and watermills that can be built with local materials and hand tools, not today’s high tech devices.

          • building local watermills and local windmills using local tools and local people will sustain…….only local people

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “building local watermills and local windmills using local tools and local people will sustain…….only local people”

              Yup. Ain’t it grand! The only ones left standing will be… local people, providing for themselves!

          • and technology is not energy, though billions of people are staking their lives on that simple statement being wrong.
            energy delivers new forms of technology, (basically through ever- improving methods of using energy itself), however that doesn’t work in reverse, you cannot create a technology where the end product is energy output. Technology is as Odum stated, embedded energy.
            fusion power might possibly refute that, but I doubt it.
            We Brits might have started our empire under wind power, but iron and oil was necessary to sustain it, just as the American empire needs iron and oil to sustain itself in one piece. When the oil runs out, the American empire will cease to exist, and yes I do mean the lower 48.

    • Thanks for your insights.

      It is hard for me to see the current economy staying together, if there are massive debt defaults, and the price of oil drops. Governments are likely to be the worst off–I am afraid the examples you give may occur elsewhere.

      It will be a real challenge to figure out a way around our problems. Perhaps some banding together, perhaps along religious lines, may allow some order to be kept, and a reasonable amount of food to be produced.

      • xabier says:

        Perhaps what we will get is not ‘no government’, but hyper- corrupt government – a whatever level operating in a purely parasitic fashion s it interacts with the people.

        I think people in highly corrupt countries such as India and Pakistan will be familiar with this. The lowly official is the scum of the earth.

        Also, police who fund themselves through bribes: a poor and discontented policeman is a dangerous person to encounter.

        • You may be right.

          I know that in China, I heard a lot of complaints about needing to bribe officials to get anything done. Bribes seemed to account for quite a bit of their compensation.

    • Denis Frith says:

      the sound comment on the developments of industrial civilization would provide hope of a sustainable future for those who not understand the fundamental physical factors that have always governed what happens. Technology employs natural forces to irreversibly use limited natural resources to provide society with goods and services. Technology has not and cannot create anything. At best it can make worthwhile use of the remaining natural resources.

    • to pick up on a few points there: N Korea and Somalia are no more ‘functioning economies than Hitler’s Germany or Japan were functioning economies. (they sustained themselves only by constant looting of other territories) N Korea is essentially a prison camp run for the benefit of a privileged elite, I understand the food ration is 1500cal a day. Somalia is a territorial area run by warlords. Neither can have a long term sustainable future. What they have in common is a form of twisted theocracy (ie–faith in an insane concept of infinite growth in return for unquestioning belief in the diktat of the ‘leader’)…think about that, and overlay it on the present faith in modern industrial politic/industrial systems. (we have ‘faith’ that they are infinite—they are not of course)
      The bottom line in all this is that democracy is the product of excess energy. Study recent history, the great democracies arose in parallel with increasing energy availability and use. Before then we had Theocratic or regal dictatorships or a mixture of both
      It follows then, that democracy will not survive energy depletion, because we will have anarchy in the struggle for what’s left (thats called survival btw).
      I live only 30 minutes walk from Ironbridge ( if I’m feeling energetic) where it all started. It was certainly cheap iron/steel that kicked everything off: Guns, ships, and all the rest—without iron we can do nothing. Before Darby (1709), iron was made with charcoal, after then it was increasingly made with coke….I often stand on the (stunning) bridge and think: Well here’s another fine mess you got us into!

      • justnobody says:

        /sarc on
        Democracy is the best gouvernance system.
        Don’t say think like that. It is too negative and depressing. Someone hide this comment.
        /sarc off

      • Without the excess energy we have from fossil fuels, something like 80% of 90% of us would have to be working in farming. The rest would be in manufacturing, services, and government combined. That doesn’t leave much for government. I agree that democracy cannot last without fossil fuels.

        • Do you have any calculations for the 80-90% number? Manual ecological farming without any energy use, (perhaps water pumps for irrigation aside but even this can be solved by collecting rain water at higher altitude and digging channels) can give bigger yields per square meter than we have today with fossile fuels. This is because we can plant much tighter and have multiple harvests and use a variety of tricks people in the 1900-century wasn’t aware of. I belive one person with hard work manually could produce food for maybe 4-10 people, even in Sweden where I live. You don’t need much tools (with embedded energy) either.

          • sponia says:

            Perhaps you are right, in a way. Modern cultivation methods do produce higher yields than were possible in the 19th century, after all. Intensive farming techniques can indeed grow a lot of vegetables. (Ask Gail about the invasion of the Purple Martin gourds!)

            A big problem comes up in processing, preserving, storing, and transporting the fruits of this labor. This is an often overlooked piece of the process that has not particularly benefited from modern advances – other than the application of fossil fuel energy, that is.
            Growing food is easy; nature is on your side at that stage of production. Keeping it from decaying – well then you’re fighting against nature, an entirely different kind of battle. (Old 1980’s joke: What do you call a pile of cabbages rotting in the village square? Chinese refrigeration.) It doesn’t do any good to grow ten times as much food unless you also have the ability to get it safely to the animals that it’s supposed to feed.

            A shift to moving either a) the garden into the suburubs, so it’s closer to the people, or 2) the people into the countryside, so they’re closer to the farm, can help alieveiate transportation bottlenecks. But everybody has to learn how to pick, process, can, dry, smoke, ferment, and salt food again too. New storage areas will need to be created, because this approach dosen’t work very well with a cinderblock warehouse full of steel shelving unless you also have enough energy to run a giant bank of air conditioners / heaters non stop for months at a time. All of this takes much more labor and effort than the gardening itself. Much more! I speak from personal experience. Everyone will need to adjust to a greatly attenuated diet, too. It is going to require an integrated approach to this lifestyle to ensure minimums of essential nutrients are available. And people are going to have to become skeptical of their food, too, because the processing is going to be somewhat more uneven in quality than we are currently used to.

            It’s a bigger adjustment than it looks like, if a superficial glance is all the attention you give the issue. It’s not simple at all, when you try to actually live this way. Or to raise children with it.

            • Thanks for the comment. I agree that storing and preserving is a major issue, and certainly or diet in march every year will be quite boring,. Transporting is less of an issue if we live closer to the land being farmed as you say. I also agree that it’s not a simple life, but does really 80-90% of the population need to be involved? Perhaps they will in the sense that 90% of the population will need to invest a lot of their free time in the late summer/ fall preserving the vegetables they just bought from their local farmer, but I can’t see the need for 90% of the population working full time with food production, but maybe that was not what Gail meant?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “but does really 80-90% of the population need to be involved?”

              I can’t put my finger on the reference, but I do recall reading that, prior to the widespread exploitation of fossil sunlight, it took fifteen people on the land to support one in the city. That’s 93.75%.

              Today’s numbers are somewhere along the lines of one industrial farmer supporting about 700 in the city, or 0.14%.

              Perhaps someone else can google around for some sources for those numbers. I have to go pick tomatoes and cucumbers.

            • Agricultural labor is quite seasonal, leaving time to work on other needs during the year, like making clothing, and building sheds and fences. Perhaps their work was not full time–perhaps in the off season they helped with a building a local cathedral or some other time consuming project–but it took up a big share of their time, so precluded setting up another business or taking up another profession. Also, animals can need assistance at odd times–a person ends up being tied to milking schedules, and birthing times.

            • I think the difficulty in keeping food may be part of the reason why most of the world’s population has been in the part of the world where crops grow pretty much year around. In the North (and cold part of the South), there is more of an emphasis on meat/fish for food, because this is a year-around food. And there are fewer people.

              Grains are a large part of people’s diets now, and have been for a long time. This has to do with their keeping quality (and also their quality for shipping, if boats are available). They are not that great for peoples health, but convenience trumps a lot of problems with them.

          • We know that looking around the world, the countries that don’t use much fossil fuels have that high a percentage in agriculture today. I believe there are other sources as well.

            Water pumps for irrigation are a pretty high level of energy use. The use of metal of any form almost requires fossil fuels, if we have 7 billion people on the earth. Metal shovels require fossil fuels. Planting tighter only makes sense with fertilizer and other supplements. The land will wear out quickly with this formula I expect. By 1900, we had a lot of benefit of coal, and the agricultural workforce was dropping rapidly.

            • You don’t need industrial fertilizer, taking care of human urine and fecal matter, growing green fertilizer like clover, comfrey and nettles and making composts from hay and garden waste is quite enough. The soil actually becomes richer and better over time if you use the right methods.

              The fact that in many undeveloped countires a major part of the population is farmers does not say that this has to be the case for everyone in the future. That many people are farmers may be because there are no other jobs, not because so many people are physically needed to produce the food. And sadly, much of the information on how to farm the land in a sustainable and efficent way has not reached the rural farmers in undevopled countries.

              And there are many new solutions like for example aquaponics that gives more food per energy unit invested than farming. (For aquaponics you need materials and water pumps but the energy input is very, very low compared to industrial farming)

            • Denis Frith says:

              The high current food production is not a sustainable process because fossil fuels make a major contribution to fertilizers, pesticides, plowing, harvesting, storing and transportation. Methods for food production without using fossil fuels are used in some quarters but there is no way that these measures can produce the amount of food required by the global population, even if the waste of food in developed countries is eliminated.

            • That is a completely false statement. It’s actually the opposite, you can produce MORE food when using non fossil farming, growing intensly. However it takes much more manual labour so maybe 10-20% of the population will have to work full time with food production.

            • Denis Frith says:

              That is your opinion. It is not backed by the numerous studies that have assessed the amount of arable land, water supply and the amount of labor required to give the global population a subsistence level of food. This problem is compounded by the fact taht a high percentage of the food produced in developed countries is wasted. It is not even used as compost to aid in food production naturally.

            • Do you have any links to these studies?

            • Denis Frith says:

              You use the search engines to find the authoritative reports. You will find it a good eductional process. I found it fascinating to have the ability through the internet to rapidly get sound answers to my questions about what is happening in the operation of civilization.

            • Materials and water pumps require today’s fossil fuel society. The amount of energy consumed on a day-to-day basis is pretty much irrelevant.

              It is the fact that you need roads and governments and probably international trade to keep the whole system going that makes such approaches not work for more than a few years. Parts start breaking, and it is not possible to replace them.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail
              In thinking about the vulnerabilities of current methods of producing food, I think it is important to consider alternatives which may not be attractive in today’s cheap fossil fuel environment, but which will become more attractive in either a very expensive fossil fuel world or even in a collapsed global economic system.

              For example, you talk about irrigation pump failures. There are at least three alternatives. The first is to convert the cropland to grassland and grow herbivores. Rotational grazing helps here, as carbon is sequestered deep in the soil and the water holding capacity of the soil increases. Rotational grazing as it is currently practiced uses very economical electrical wiring, but I believe it can also work with thorny hedges and herdsboys. Nobody today would consider using herdsboys because humans are expensive and electricity is cheap. But if electricity becomes unavailable, humans will be cheap.

              The second alternative is annual rotations. For example, on the dry plains of Montana one might put cattle on the land one year, followed by a nitrogen fixing crop, and then a cash crop the third year. Of course, the farmer would prefer to have plenty of irrigation water so that he doesn’t have to restrict his cash crop to one year out of three. If irrigation water is plentiful, then the price of the land will be high. If irrigation water vanishes, then the price of the land will fall and, perhaps, the farmer can make money with the annual rotational scheme. When the well dried up on a relatives farm in the semi-arid west, the price of the land fell 80 percent.

              The third alternative consists of a variety of water conservation practices such as keyline subsoiling, the use of biochar, never turning the soil with a plow, leaving plenty of mulch and planting directly into it with a drill, terracing, swales, and other techniques. All these things can be done entirely by hand or with oxen, but it is much easier to do it with fossil fuels. Trying to do them entirely without metals would be a challenge. Let’s hope that salvage is available.

              A very real difficulty is working out some sort of transition plan to get from here to there. First, nobody knows exactly what will happen or when it will happen. Second, if one buys land, one has to pay the market price–which currently reflects the tsunami of money printing by the central banks. Joel Salatin has written a book in which he advises young people to pretty much give up hope of buying land, and instead to farm the land for the rich people or the older generation of farmers who currently own it. Even if the central banks weren’t printing bales of money and handing it to rich people, the market price would still reflect the productivity of the land with abundant fossil fuel inputs and plenty of irrigation water. A veteran local farmer told me that labor used to be the biggest barrier to a new farmer…but now it is the cost of the land.

              On the positive side, trial after trial demonstrates that the supposed advantages of ‘post WWII farming’ are overstated. The Iowa State trial, for example, found essentially no difference between the most modern methods and the methods of 60 years ago. But the most modern methods do reduce labor and greatly increase the profits of the Agri-Business corporations. On the negative side, the US government seems determined to force all farmers into the ‘huge farm, fossil fuel dependent, proprietary patents, highly regulated’ mode of production. The FDA ‘food safety’ regulations are a case in point, as well as the drive to give multinational corporations patents on the quinoa which has been grown in the Andes for millenia.

              In summary: It may not be your job to figure out what we might do differently and survive tolerably well–or maybe even flourish. But I also think that, as individuals and families and small groups, we need to give some serious thought to adopting today those practices which are less susceptible to disruption and which are also economically feasible. And have a notion of what we would do in a collapse, or what the next step would be in a gradual downward spiral.

              Don Stewart

          • xabier says:

            Reading about a poor English peasant family in the 1920’s, on bad land, the father and mother produced enough grain, milk, ham and eggs to feed themselves, their three children, and have a surplus of eggs to sell in town and to provide additional food (but not all that was needed) for their retired parents. Apples too, I think, and a basic kitchen garden.

      • To my knowledge Iron production by China in Brazil is powered by charcoal- huge foundries. Of coal changed it all and iron would be a lot more expensive if it was reliant on charcoal. The industrial revolution may have been part kicked started by Darby I but it was not until Darby III and the late 18th century it was rolling.

        I mention N Korea only because it functions- or rather survives despite being in a near state of collapse- for over 20 years.

        And true- freedom and democracy have been a product of wealth through cheap energy- but we have that education now- so unless the intellectuals are murdered and a year zero created then I don’t think people will be quite so docile.

        The Muslim Brotherhood tried to impose a theocracy and were deposed. I think the bigger threat is popularism- the Nazis 2.0- the new face seen in UKip and Tea Party.

        Democracy will be challenged by depletion, it may even evolve into something better. It may all collapse into a bad Mad Max movie- I know the problems I just am looking for the better option and not being defeatist.

        Pessimists aren’t cool- they will either suffer alongside the optimists or never be invited to a dinner party again. Part of the historic human narrative is the heroic struggle not the blind acceptance.

        • xabier says:

          Civil liberties existed long before fossil fuel use, so its not that bleak. (Petroleum has enslaved us in a more subtle way: freedom to drive anywhere, and be spied on anywhere too).

          They were granted by rulers in return for things they wanted – like taxes, troops.

          For instance, one of my ancestors exchanged (like a mafia offer, he couldn’t refuse!) his rights over the town of La Rochelle for Eleanor of Aquitaine’s absolute rights over the Forest of Talmont, for which he had had to do homage. And she gave the citizens of La Rochelle excellent civic rights. Why? In return, they had to send troops when she needed them, or pay for them. They were very happy with that deal and getting rid of my ancestor! Bit of a bastard I’m afraid……

          Similarly, the very violent warrior kings of Navarre lured French artisans and merchants to their territory with similar deals. Why? There were no towns, and they need them. Civic rights were a small price to pay. If those rights were breached, they rebelled violently and successfully.

          If you look at contracts between monasteries and villagers in medieval Spain, the villagers had rights which were recognized, but they had to be vigilant.

  21. BC says:


    In terms of available net high-entropic fossil fuel-based exergetics per capita, we are constrained at the log limit of real GDP per capita of the 1950s-80s for the bottom 90% of us at the benefit of the top 0.01-0.1% to 1-10% and the maintenance of the hierarchical/pyramidal system of low- to high-entropic flows.

    IOW, we are witnessing the so-called “Seneca cliff” at which point we attempt to extract and consume at an accelerating rate (tar, shale, and deep liquid fossil fuels) ~30% of net energy reserves per capita at the presumed exponential rate before the peak, which only depletes reserves at a faster rate and ensures less available net reserves in the future and negative real GDP per capita.

    We are into the early zombie apocalypse decline phase before the accelerating log-linear collapse trajectory, yet we are not collectively aware.

  22. Love your work Gail. I think we hit peak employment in the United States. My view on the future is shifting based on the continued cost reductions in renewable energy. Unsure how the world will treat renewables with zero marginal cost, and capital costs that will continue to go down. There may be asymptotic linearities that keep certain renewables at less than attractive economic price points. As such, economic activity is a function specifically of the cost and level energy inputs and the degree of energy efficiency and productivity improvements. You might enjoy my recent post on the correlation of the value of the dollar and oil prices, and how the current reduced global economic growth is reducing demand for oil, which will result in a strengthening the dollar. Oil leads and our economy bleads. We already hit peak employment, and are not gowing down the backside. http://bit.ly/1caCysT

    • Denis Frith says:

      I am confounded by the comments on ‘renewable’ energy. Energy flows from source to sink, even when it does useful work. Those systems that supply ‘renewable’ energy may be worthwhile for a time but they irrevocably age. What then? Money cannot replace them!

      • bradbradshaw says:

        Ultimately, all energy we consume will be renewable. The energy return on investment for a Vestas 3MW turbine is 35 to 1. Thus the wind turbine will be able to be replaced without creating a negative energy balance. The renewable energy dynamic, from an economic perspective, is unique with wildly high eroi and near zero marginal cost. Already in Germany, fossil utility companies are running for the exits, as renewables with near zero marginal costs are edging out all other energy sources based on merit order inn the dispatch regime. Amazing to watch some of the monstrous changes underway before or eyes..our own decline in carbon emissions, and the edging out of conventional power by renewables in Germany.

        • cbg1217 says:

          This is vague. For instance, please explain, “The renewable energy dynamic, from an economic perspective, is unique with wildly high eroi and near zero marginal cost.”

          “near zero marginal cost” can be roughly translated as “I’m a magical unicorn!!”

          It’s not far off from, “He will come to judge the living and the dead, and the righteous will reign together with Him in Heaven for all eternity” or something like that. Hocus Pocus!

          I suspect perhaps the phrase “from an economic perspective” can be translated as “with large government subsidies” because in the real economy, it takes resources to make wind turbines. The EROEI is not 35 to 1.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “‘near zero marginal cost’ can be roughly translated as ‘I’m a magical unicorn!'”

            LOVE IT! You’re earned a spot in my database of over 7,000 of my favourite quotes!

            (Send email to Quote@Bytesmiths.com to get a random quote, or Quotes@Bytesmiths.com to get 50 random quotes. Put a word in the Subject line to filter for that word.)

          • I will repeat the comment I made elsewhere. Someone in the business of insuring wind turbines told me that he felt wind turbines ran on a steady stream of replacement parts. These parts are very high tech. Wind turbines may be wind powered, but they are still very dependent on the rest of the system for maintenance. Offshore ones especially seem to need helicopters to install some types of replacement parts.

        • SteveK says:

          I’ve read that’s not necessarily the case. Isn’t Germany buying an awful lot of France’s nuke-generated electricity? Does the 35:1 figure include delivery to site? We in the US have a huge problem with an antiquated grid. http://www.impactlab.net/2008/08/27/the-power-grid-cant-handle-wind-farms/

        • Denis Frith says:

          energy is never renewable! The term ‘renewable’ energy is grossly misleading. Wind turbines harness wind energy (which came from solar input) to supply electrical energy. The wind turbines are made of materials and they will wear out. They may then be replaced if sufficient energy and materials are available.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “energy is never renewable!”

            I think the vernacular for “renewable energy” is “energy that is derived from current solar or lunar sources.”

            • bradbradshaw says:

              True – From the first law of thermodynamics, energy can neither be created or destroyed. To try to be helpful, when using the term renewable energy, I am trying to draw a distinction between flows of energy and stores of energy. Petroleum would be considered a store of energy, while wind, solar, hydro and bio would be considered flows of energy. I was friends with Buckminster Fuller, who very strongly believed that over the long term, all of our activities will by definition be based on flows of energy, as we will have economically consumed all the available stores of energy. This may not occur for perhaps 1,000 years, but it ultimately has to be so, or the alternative will be true, that we do not exist.

            • I would argue that when these devices are connected to the electric grid, we are not talking anything like 1000 years. The grid fails due to Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, and that could be for financial reasons very quickly. Or it could be for any number of other reasons–lack of availability of replacement parts, political break-up, or lack of a needed fuel, or inability to keep the system going as nuclear is taken off line for one reason or another. Solar has issues with alternators, besides the grid itself. Admittedly, the solar panels can be detached and used to operate something that will accept direct current. But we have to have devices that work with them available.

            • Denis Frith says:

              The flow of energy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for something, including work, to be done. The work is always done on systems made of materrials. The association of energy and materials (energy is always a property of materials) should always be taken into account in any rational discussion. Unfortunately, that is not so. Ironically those people who thnk in terms of energy as a commodity have bodies in which the energy flow is only part of what happens in the operation and development of the metabolism.

            • I would argue that today’s wind turbines and solar PV are not “derived from current solar or lunar sources”. They are primarily the result of the embedded energy in the devices. Without the high-tech devices, nothing would happen.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              No argument from me! I was attempting to define “renewable” in the vernacular, or “common parlance,” as my dictionary says.

              Not so long ago, my definition of “renewable” was limited to organic agriculture, but I’m increasingly coming to view the only truly renewable energy source as that which comes directly from perennial plants.

              In any event, I think we’ll all come to see “renewable” as energy coming directly from basic productivity, the sunlight harvested by plants.

              And that’s a scary thought! Those who pooh-pooh environmental issues are fond of pointing out that there are more forests than there were 150 years ago. That’s because, lacking access to fossil sunlight, humans cut them all down for fuel! I fear renewed pressure on forests as fossil sunlight goes into decline.

          • Also, the EROI methods don’t reflect the real differences from energy source to energy source. An EROI of 38 on wind is not at all comparable to a similar EROI on oil or coal. The EROI is somewhat useful for comparing one wind turbine to another (in the same location), but not for making comparisons among energy sources, in my view. For one thing, energy costs associated with mitigating intermittency are omitted–a very large adjustment. For another, a lot of inputs (such as human labor, rent for land, funding for debt) result in payments that are used to purchase a range of goods, including fossil fuels, but they are not charged with any any energy use at all. There is also the issue that the grid needs to be upgraded to increase the amount of intermittent renewables by very much, and it is doubtful we can afford it. If we could, I am sure it would have an energy cost as well.

            If an energy source truly is sparing of resources, it should be very inexpensive. In fact, it should be so cheap that the government can make a lot of tax revenue by taxing its output. I don’t see that happening for so-called renewables.

            • Denis Frith says:

              EROEI can be a useful measure of the effectiveness of energy supply in some circumstances and with qualification, including the source of the primary energy. However, it does not take into account the real value of the energy supplied. It does not take into account the associated material waste produced and the consequences, including climate change. So it creates a delusion that clouds rational discussion of how civilzation can cope with the declining availability of the concentrated energy stored in the fossil fuels and uranium.

            • Those are good points. I think EROEI is most useful for comparing two like items–two proposed wind turbine designs, or two sets of US oil drilling costs at different points in time.

        • We cannot run our system on renewables.

          We need a system we can operate. If we chase the non-renewables away, the system is dead in the water. How does this possibly help anyone? We have millions of purchasers of electricity, and the puny electricity of a few solar panels and wind turbines is not going to provide a steady cheap electricity load for the whole group.

          People are chasing an illusion of something that can barely happen now, with a lot of subsidies, and with the backup power of fossil fuels. Somehow, pricing has to be made to reflect that most of what is being sold is an electricity distribution system. Wind adds very little benefit to that system.

          I think EROIs are very misleading. They lead people to chase after mirages.

      • Renewable is a bad name for these devices. One person in the insurance industry I talked to said that instead of feeding wind turbines fossil fuels, we feed them a steady diet of replacement parts. Solar panels need an inverter, and those don’t last long. If they are part of an electric grid, they don’t last longer than the grid itself.

      • jcl64 says:

        I notice there is a lot of resistance towards renewables here, possibly because they are at the moment created using our fossil fueled economy. But I believe we need to step back a bit and understand that there is a practically endless amount of energy in the form of sunlight hitting earth every second. A lot of this is absorbed shortly before being re-radiated out (and due to high CO2 levels a lot re-radiated down again). A lot is absorbed in the oceans heating that up as well. The earth is almost like a battery as it is now with the high CO2 levels, constantly accumulating heat. But even with an equilibrium the energy that hits earth can surely be harvested without any consequences. Nature consumes it all the time, no matter if its by a fruit tree in jungle or one you planted in your garden. The fruit you eat is then naturally the traditional form of captured sunlight as well as a good dose of carbon from the air. This is essentially a never-ending machine until the sun grows too big and start eating planets, or it just becomes too hot so that the carbon cycle cease to exist as our atmosphere is “jettisoned”.

        Humanity has been using renewable fruit-from-trees-energy for as long as we could get at them. So nature has a lot of renewable energy in it just in the shape of its foods.

        Naturally the sun also creates the weather systems that give us wind, waves, temperature differences, rain and rivers. All of these are also harvested by nature in some way, the wing brings seeds and pollen, same with water, rain is even important for capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and contribute to the vital parts of the carbon cycle with reactions to stones to eventually form calcium carbonate so that all sorts of creatures in the oceans can form their shells. All life is a renewable as well, the carbon cycle makes it all tick.

        Humanity can easily tap into these resources very easily and have been since we invented water and windmills to mill grains or do other heavy work for us. And we did it with simple tools and wood. In a controlled population we could probably have been living a life like that for a hundred of thousands of years, using renewable energies. Where we failed though was that surplus got us comfortable into multiplying like rabbits.

        And as we all know, we got eventually tricked into the magic of stored fossil fuel, and we all know where that has lead us to. Amazing technology, amazing population book and amazing devastation of the planet. Its clear that no form of this can go on unless we plan on total collapse and probably triggering an extinction event.

        So yes, there is no way of doing what we do now with renewables. But yes, its possible to use renewables as a part of a seriously scaled down civilization. And now there is the problem of technology. I believe John Michael Greer has some good ideas in his catabolic collapse, where each step down is just recycling the previous technologies in what shape we can. He even mentions in his book, The Long Descent, that there is a ton of junked generators that can perfectly create electricity for a long time. And when you study a generator and motor (which has many equal parts), they really arent that hard to manufacture even with rather crude tools if you disregard perfecly molded casings and cardboard boxes with instructions. What I mean is that a lot of new knowledge is what differs us from previous generations going through a collapse – and no doubt the good parts that assist us in any way will be kept alive in some shape.

        But we wont be doing this with 7 billion people on the planet. Still, even with a couple hundred million people we will be trying to harvest any form of renewable energy, most likely in the form of water and wind-power as that is the easiest one to convert to electricity that can be used. Some of this electricity can be used to make new and more advanced technology, although greatly scaled down and not using rare metals that require us to power monster trucks and mining machines running on fossil fuels (which we cant get at anyway). Have some faith in humanity, is all I ask. :)

        I highly doubt very complex computers will be around though, and most likely we wont be able to rebuild a civilization that can even touch anything we had in the late 1980’s and beyond. Flying and trips to the moon is also quite likely long gone thing in 100 years time.

        This of course all depends on us not frying the planet or that major tipping points with regards to the release of methane in the Arctic region hasn’t been passed.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “I believe we need to step back a bit and understand that there is a practically endless amount of energy in the form of sunlight hitting earth every second.”

          I’m not sure what you mean by “practically endless,” but we in North America currently consume 50% more energy than is collected by all the plants in North America.

          Are you suggesting that human’s short period of hi-tech progress trumps nature’s 3.5 billion years?

          • No, I am basically saying that the resistance towards renewables is that it wont keep up the growth paradigm we have now. So why aim for that at all? Why not aim for something completely different where we seriously conserve energy at the expense of a smaller system where we are able to fix and change the renewable energy sources that we have? Surely some of the technology is good to have around, and I feel its possible to maintain some it in a non-fossil fuel world. But as I say, 7 billion people wont be able to live in this kind of world, but it beats extinction because we feel we need to burn every fossil fuel resource we can find.

            • Changing to renewables is really not an option–at least not what is labeled “renewables” today. The new technology in terms of modern wind turbines, is not helpful at all, because it is too hard to keep fixed. I am doubtful that solar PV connected to the electric grid is of any net benefit. The poor reimbursement given to utilities for solar panels use is more likely to cause the financial failure of the grid. Whether a few solar panels are helpful for the next fifty years are helpful remains to be seen. They might keep someone’s computer charged, as long as it and the battery are working. The Internet will be long gone, as will cell phone connections. Some light bulbs (especially LEDs) will still be around. If a battery is still around (doubtful), then the combination of the battery and a solar panel might make the lights work in the evening.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “If a battery is still around…”

              I think basic battery technology is simple enough so that a large village or small town would have the resources to maintain and rebuild lead-acid batteries. Lead is toxic, but with some precautions, it can be re-refined using simple sources of heat, such as wood-burning. Sulphuric acid is likewise simple to produce. Basic tooling uses 2,000-year-old steelmaking techniques. Landfills can be mined for copper.

              We should be looking for groups of contemporaneous technologies from the past to use as stepping-stones down the back of Hubbert’s Curve. Basic electric motors and batteries have been around a long time, and they can be maintained with 19th century technology.

              Can all this happen? Yes. Will it? That depends on a lot of things, such as how fast collapse hits, if it hits different industries at different times, if social problems undermine basic problem-solving, if neo-fiefdom does away with basic technology, if, if, if…

            • My guess is that if this is done, it will be done on very small scale, or there will be huge deforestation problems. Also, it takes a lot of steps even to get something as simple as this to operate. As time progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to find enough lead and other metals to recycle.

        • Denis Frith says:

          Nature has been using sunshine as a sources of energy for eons in processes that naturaloly replenish and that process will coninue long after this civilization has collapsed. However, wind farms and other technological systems that harness the input of energy from the Sun have a limited life. That is an unsustainable process so should not be equated to the natural sustainable process.

        • I equate today’s wind turbines to the monster trucks, in their size and complexity. They will not last long, in part because of the difficulty in keeping them repaired.

          Solar panels are a bit better, but they still are energy intensive to make, polluting to make, and have absolutely no place on the electric grid.

          Yes, some very much scaled down number of humans may indeed live on renewables, but basically, they have nothing to do with today’s so-called renewables.

    • Thanks, Brad, I appreciate the link. I hadn’t realized how closely the value of the dollar and oil prices are correlated. I agree the global economy is cooling. That may simply be that the continued financial coverup of the rich world’s problems isn’t working, and China and India are increasingly becoming fossil fuel importers. Brazil is having problems with its production too.

      I feel fairly differently than you about intermittent renewables. They are only “worth” the value of the fuel (coal or natural gas or uranium) they replace. When time of day pricing is done, and intermittent renewables are favored, it does irreparable harm to the whole system. We have no possible way of running our whole economy on renewables. We have to keep our electrical system solvent, if we are to keep businesses operating. It may be the intermittent renewables that bring down the electrical grid, because of the financial harm done.

  23. Matthew says:

    I think I am unique around here.

    I believe in peak cheap oil and its impact on the world economy, but I don’t believe in man-made global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels.

    Am I alone?

    • Jan Steinman says:

      My dictionary says “believe” is “to accept that something is true, especially without proof.”

      I don’t “believe” in anything. I just keep testing hypotheses.

      There is a “preponderance of evidence” in support of both peak oil and anthropogenic global warming. But the deniers are going to keep testing both those hypotheses until humans are extinct.

      It doesn’t matter if one “believes” something or not; when the consequences of an action are terribly catastrophic, one should take precautionary action.

      • Matthew says:

        Believing is the only proper word I can use. Both sides are supported by scientific findings (or so they call it), so one cannot ‘prove’, but one can ‘believe in the hypotheses offered’. There is no certainty involved. The ‘denier’ side is supported by observing the past as well.

        That the world temperature has went up and down, including periods of glacialization in the northern hemisphere, followed by warming, is a strong evidence in itself that changes do accur “naturally” (i.e. without human intervention). The only warming that comes from humans are local, caused primarily by asphalt and deforestation.

        Cheap peak oil, on the other hand, sounds much more plausible and can be easily observed by studying the costs of extraction, location of extraction, EROI, etc.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          I think you’ve been watching too much Faux News.

          There is a preponderance of evidence in support of anthropogenic global warming. The IPCC 5 report says it is a 95% certainty. The LA Times newspaper will no longer print letters denying it, because they “have no basis in fact.” Some two dozen newspapers, spanning the political spectrum, have followed suit. This is not censorship, any more than not printing letters asserting the Earth is flat would be censorship.

          But I suspect you have heard all this and still continue to “believe” a near-certain falsehood. Following the LA Times lead, I won’t be responding further on this topic.

          • SteveK says:

            We’ve all seen charts plotting CO2 concentrations against temperature. Look closely and you’ll see temperature increases LEADING CO2 increases in some cases. Anyone see a plot of methane vs temp?

          • Matthew says:

            I don’t watch TV. The peak oil community is full of partisans, who think everyone follows a party line. You’re either a Fox News-watching, Israel-supporting, gun-trotting conservative, or a CNN-watching, gay-loving, god-hating liberal. The environmentalists are even worse.

            And yes, it’s censorship what the LA Times is doing. The battle is far from over and there is a huge difference between saying you believe that the earth is flat & saying that global warming (it used to be called “global warming”, but since new findings have suggested the contrary, the subject is slowly shifting toward the all-encompassing “climate change”) is controlled by solar activity and other phenomena. And you don’t need to censor those who believe the earth is flat, they will be seen as the idiots that they are.

            The new trend toward censorship in these big news sites are all about controlling public opinion. Dissidents have always existed, and their voices have slipped the top-down control that exists on TV, radio, cinema and press, thanks to the internet. We used to read, listen and watch to what was filtered by a small body of opinion makers, and they are hopelessly trying to make their views, or ‘truths’, the only one. They will start losing readership to websites where you have more freedom, and all that will be left are the ones toeing the party line. Now, to me this doesn’t sound democratic at all. Their choice, their loss.

        • I would hate Gail’s blog to be hijacked by ACC deniers. But it comes down to evidence- unless evidence [and we are not talking one or two papers/studies or blogs or self published] can be produced that explains everything in the context of climate change everything else is an opinion, or a belief.

          However the issue of peak oil, leading to economic collapse and therefore leading to reduced GHG and ACC averted is another matter. China was able to function as an insular nation- it may go that way because there are no markets but it will burn every scrap of coal, it will buy land in Africa and strip the forests. 7 billion people are not just going to curl up and die- they may not burn tight oil or fracked gas but they will still strip forests and burn coal and available conventional fossil fuels

          • Brad Bradshaw says:

            It is really sad, but we appear to have lost the climate battle. It is going to be very hard around the world to forrce companis and countries to keep carbon in the ground. Mixed news is the fact that the US has reduced carban emissions significantly, which is really great, but also note that we hit peak employment a few years ago. Economic inequity is only going to grow, in a slow growth regime.

            • SteveK says:

              The U.S. has reduced carbon emissions by shipping polluting heavy manufacturing overseas, and to a lessor extent through the use of natural gas and nuclear for electricity generation.

            • bradbradshaw says:

              Good points. Also the double whammy of reduced driving miles and improved efficiency of cars. I should share with you my chart of manufacturing employment. Down 40% in past 20 years. Offshoring manufacturing has a big effect, but the shift from coal to natural gas has had the biggest impact. The point on offshoring manufacturing is key, as it represents shifting the deck chairs as it were, exporting the carbon issue, especially considering Carbon intensity may be higher in China than here.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “The U.S. has reduced carbon emissions by…”

              Don’t forget the recession and government furlough! There’s a lot of unemployed people who are not filling their tanks as much as they did when they were commuting each day.

            • bradbradshaw says:

              Absolutely right on. Aggregate employment in the United States over the past 50 years is 100% explained by oil prices. Our currently high oil prices have driven out employment. We have shifted jobs overseas, and improved energy efficiency and labor productivity here at home. We are currently in the decline. We are currently in the decline. Lost jobs, reduced wages, and wealth creation centered on thos e with capital and global investment reach. I predict $70 oil before the end of the year, which will keep us out of a Contraction in the first quarter of 2014.

            • Scott says:

              Hello, $70 or less oil would fall below the production costs for many non conventional wells like fracking and tar sands. It seems like it may happen and that could be the gateway to collapse as these operations would all shut down and loose access to credit. First we may see cheaper gas, then we may have the opposite in price and scarce gas. These huge oil exploration companies need huge amounts of cash and liquidity to operate.


            • . ‘Economic inequity is only going to grow, in a slow growth regime.’

              until no one buys the illusion any more. Then the problem with revolution is the direction it takes- popular, religious, fascist, or a true form of democracy?

        • cbg1217 says:

          Matthew – I’m not expert either, but I consider the discussions of AGW in general in the media to be quite inadequate and misleading. There are a lot of reasons (excuses?) the media have trouble: false objectivity, corporate influence, being misled…. (In many ways, those reasons/excuses are the same ones that the media can’t seem to adequately discuss peak oil!!)

          But the basic science behind global warming is really quite simple. it’s not *certain*, though – scientific hypotheses can always be proven wrong, they are not dogma, opinions, or beliefs (look up Karl Popper, principle of falsifiability).

          Here’s the nutshell picture of global warming. Carbon will allow light in the visible spectrum to pass through, but will reflect light in the infrared spectrum. This effect is cumulative: the infrared keeps bouncing back in, stays in, to a measurable degree. It’s like a greenhouse. Humans have been releasing roughly 7 times as much carbon into the atmosphere as is released naturally, by volcanic vents, and the like. This is a pace that is faster than the biosphere can take up the carbon. Atmospheric measurements of carbon show it has been steadily climbing for at least the last 70 years (Mauna Loa observatory is sort of the standard here); concentrations are a little over 400 parts per million now. The ocean is considered a “carbon-sink” – that is ocean acidification, and it’s not good either! – but the ocean cannot absorb as fast as carbon is being released, it is done by the churning of water and increased precipitation.

          the real question is why our civilization can’t seem to get the answers right about peak resource and anthropogenic global warming. The answer, I suggest, is pretty simple: we’re animals, we’re selfish and greedy, we always want more, and others should make the sacrifice. Namely future generations.

          • Scott says:

            I agree that ocean acidification is one of the largest problems this group has bee looking at and I have posted some things on that myself recently under the last post from Gail. More than a Billion depend on fish from the sea for food and it is in pearl. I believe this is worse than the financial crisis that looms.


          • Scott says:

            Yes 400 PPM and climbing it seems on the CO2. Sorry for my typos on my earlier posts, I should not write so late at night, but I do think CO2 is the major problem we face and the more I look at that the worse it looks. Divers finding dead reefs.


          • Scott says:

            Hello, Since CO2 is on everyone’s minds aside from impending financial problems. I have read some stuff about plans to dump minerals in the oceans to help suck up the carbon and there are websites reporting that permits can be obtains for such actions to reduce the acid from the carbon in the sea. It is hard to imagine that man can fix such a problem. It seems like too little to late, I suppose some areas of the sea could be tamed from the acid but I do not think humans have the resources to tame the sea and the air.


          • The story may be simple, but if a person puts together such a model that assumes way too much fossil fuel usage in the future, the results are likely to be unduly alarming from a climate change point of view. Even the “peak oil” scenario has far more fossil fuel usage than I expect.

        • Denis Frith says:

          The IPCC have used the evidence obtained by thousands of climatologists over many years to arrive with 95% certainty that the emissions from fossil fuel combustion have caused the rapid global warming, so climate change. That should be regarded as being proof by those who have not devoted there careers to obtaining evidence and providing sound argument.

        • yt75 says:

          There is something very simple, we use hydrocarbons mostly for energy use through combustion reactions (in engines, gas burners etc), that is :
          CnHm +O2 (atmosphere) –> Energy + CO2 + H2O
          And we burn and have burnt gigatons of it.
          CO2 atmospheric concentration has risen 38% since the beginning of industrial revolution.
          That’s it.
          Afterward you can ponder the extend of the effect yes, but denying the above is a bit tough.

    • SteveK says:

      No. “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” It wouldn’t be too hard to address warming by reducing methane emissions instead of focusing on the much weaker GHG CO2. I believe Peak (cheap?) Oil is the real issue. The imminence of Peak Oil would panic the masses (markets). The remedy is the same – reduce GHG by finding ways to use less fossil fuels.

      • At least that is what we are told–the remedy is the same. But a “remedy” that simply messes up the electric grid, and does nothing for the oil shortage, is not helpful in any regard.

      • Denis Frith says:

        Reducing the rate of greenhouse gas (CO2, methane etc) emissions will do no more than slow down the rate of warming. Irreversible rapid climate change is under way and society will now have to learn to cope with it.

    • I think the man-makde global warming effect is greatly exaggerated in the model, because the model doesn’t include other limits that will tend to reduce fossil fuel use. I don’t know well the model is done, otherwise.

      • yt75 says:

        Gail, it is true that IPCC scenarios miss a lot in taking the ressource constraints into account, but I think your are mixing a bit the models and scenarios here.
        The IPCC models per se are pure “physical models”, describing the climate system response to various changes (CO2, CH4, deforestation , etc).
        The ressource constraints aspects would then have to be “fed” as an input to this model in terms of “story line”.
        (which they have done for various scenarios, the low emission one being in line with ressource I think, but for sure not realistic in terms of changes required).

        • Even the low emission one I am fairly sure uses a lot more fossil fuels than a collapse scenario. It is closer to “consumption starts dropping when we hit 50%, and we will extract all of the downslope”. A downslope in oil is not assumed to cut off coal or natural gas, either.

          • yt75 says:

            Their scenarios are in fact not linked to resources at all.
            In the reports before the last one, they were based on “socio economic assumptions” (growth, renewables and efficiency developments, etc).
            In the last report (AR5) they changed the principle of the scenarios : they are now defined as “target levels” of radiative forcing in 2100 (in W per square meter), without trying to define what it means economically or technologically speaking : the charge is on “scenarios people” to describe an economic/technological/policy story to fit the target.
            This is explained below for instance:
            (also in some IPCC site pages)
            And for the low emission one, RCP2.6, it does indeed correspond to a very strong reduction in fossile fuel usage (and the “concrete way” for this scenario also suppose some negative anthropogenic CO2 emission starting 2050 I think, by technologies capturing atmospheric CO2 or something).
            So clearly, there is no “standard resource availability based scenario”, and absolutely no “resource availability modelling based scenarios” similar to what was done with limits to growth.
            Which is clearly very strange.

            I remember a debate (in ASPO 9 in Brussels I think) between an IPCC guy (Jean-Pascal van Ypersele I think) and Kjell Aleklett about that, unfortunately the video isn’t available anymore, where Kjell was telling him : “but your scenarios aren’t realistic at all with resources”, and clearly a kind of refusal from Ypserle side to “go there” (answering “but the IEA is still showing possible growth” or something).

            And I agree with you that the “global down-slope” might look very different from the “standard Hubbert curve”(and Hubbert was always showing another energy source rising in order to be able to extract “the second half” in a “normal down slope”).

            This is clearly a major issue with the IPCC, and it also translates in the tremendous “public communication” deficit that we have had for years or even decades now, between the “CO2/climate aspect” of fossil fuels usage, and the “resource constraints/production peak” aspect of this same usage.

            • Thanks for the link. I can’t say I really understand what they are doing–except that it has very little to do with resource limits. RCP2.6 comes closest, but even it assumes too many resources, I expect–and it shows much less future impact of GHG–under 2 degrees Celsius.

              IPCC Forecasts

              We keep hearing that 95% of climate scientist agree with this report. I doubt that climate scientists really understand the other limits the world is reaching. Even apart from oil limits, we have other limits, such as water limits. For example, if China is already running very short of water (needed for washing coal, and for fracking, and many other things), they cannot do much ramping up of their coal production, and they are much more limited in their ability to ramp up natural gas and oil.

          • yt75 says:

            Below an IPCC page about this change in scenarios definition :

            • Thanks! That one is more helpful. So rather than take the time to go though the steps of figuring out what the economic growth will be in the future, and how much energy is needed to support that economic growth, and thus how much CO2 will be generated, they will just skip that step, and move on to what they think based on past analyses the warming gas outcome is likely to be. So we get very high CO2 estimates, as we did in the past, that have nothing to do with resources available to burn.

          • yt75 says:

            When they say 95% of climate scientist agree with the report, I think it has to be taken as “they agree with the science described”, and the last report is only the first part of AR5, which deals only with the scientific aspects, not with scenarios at all.
            Climate science and models is not about deriving future evolutions from previous time series, it is about considering the earth system as a thermodynamic object, and applying/measuring the known physical laws effects to it (and modelling the interactions using finite elements and the like).
            Then different anthropogenic emissions scenarios (and other things such as deforestation) are fed to the same models to get the results in T and other aspects (rain, oceanic acidification, etc).
            It could also be summarized as “climate scientists agree on earth climate sensitivity to CO2 (or GHG in general) increase to such an extend with that incertitude delta).”
            Otherwise I think defining the scenarios as they have in this one, by setting radiative forcing targets without defining how we get there, is better than previous ones (starting with different “economists” forecasts).
            But then again, fully agree with you that the fact that scenarios definitions don’t take resources constraints into account is a major “caveat”(to say the least).
            Somehow there is a “hole” in this whole affair :
            – IPCC is an official scientific experts organisation, with a clear mandate (of which resources evaluation is not part of)
            – For the resources aspects, the closest thing would be the IEA
            – But first this isn’t a “scientific expert organisation” (started after the first oil shock to manage OECD strategic stocks), and we know the “value” of their predictions (predictions which kind of oscillate between “demand forecasts based” and “resources assessment based”)
            – So there is in fact no official “scientific oriented” resources evaluation organisation (ASPO not being “official”)
            – and so the IPCC relies on IEA data for possible scenarios (and on other official forecasts regarding economics growth, population, and the like)

            Otherwise regarding the climate and CO2, still think there is quite a bunch of available hydrocarbons available to continue messing it up, and economic collapse could also result in major deforestation for instance …
            But clearly there is for me a tremendous deficit in “public communication” between the resource constraints aspect and the CO2 aspect (and has been the case for years).

            Btw, good to remind that Donella Meadows was the lead author of “limits to growth”, often gets kind of eluded with the “club of Rome” labels and such.

            • Denis Frith says:

              This is a good summary of the work being done by climatologists apart from the comment “it is about considering the earth system as a thermodynamic object, and applying/measuring the known physical laws effects to it (and modelling the interactions using finite elements and the like).” The climatologists apply the range of mathematical representations of the range of applicable natural laws to the finite elements representing the eco system. Thermodynamics is taken into account, with the other natural laws. The above statement suggests that the climatologists assume the climate is a thermodynamic object. That is not so!

            • Thanks!

              IEA is very closely related to the OECD. In fact, I wrote a post called, Objectivity of the International Energy Agency. Politics may play a role in what the IEA says/does.

              For what it is worth, Luis de Sousa and Euan Mearns wrote a post back in 2008, in which they attempted to match up what they thought were fairly reasonable peak oil estimates of the maximum amount of fossil fuels that would be burned, together the program indicating the corresponding amount of warming that would result. The result, shown in the post I linked to, looks sort of like the 2.6 Scenario modeled in the current report.

              As I recall, Euan thought at that time that the IPCC was using higher fossil fuel estimates than the IEA was using in the reports they published themselves–almost as if there were two sets of numbers. It is possible I misunderstood what Euan meant, and this is not really an issue. Euan has recently written a short post about the new IPCC report.

            • yt75 says:

              Gail, thanks a lot for the links, was off for some days and missed this message.
              The post by Luis and Euan is what must be done (or redone) I think to “link” the ressource aspect with the climate aspect (taking IPCC work as a basis for climate aspects).
              But things are going kind of fast now…
              For instance Libya is splitting in two, eastern part has declared a new government and started an oil company right away :
              And the “official” government in Tripoli threatens of war with western support :

            • Thanks for the links about Libya.

          • yt75 says:

            Yes agree with you, should have written applying known natural laws in general more than only thermodynamics, and in particular this includes physics other than thermodynamics with radiative forcing, but also biology with all the biosphere and photosynthesis aspects for instance.
            In fact what makes climatology so specific is that it is more gathering various scientific knowledge for the study of a specific object, than a “science field” or theory in itself. With in particular the fact that for the “complete object” there is a single experiment and a single test tube .. (even though many aspects taken separately are more “classical”).

  24. SteveK says:

    Another issue regarding feeding people: I’ve read in a number of places that our “arable land” is being depleted of minerals. Our national nutritional databases were created before the soils were depleted and are no longer reliable sources. One example ( from page 2 of November/December issue of Well Being Journal) “A study by UCLA shows that spinach in 1953 had significantly more iron than spinach grown in soils today; you’d have to eat 43 bowls of today’s spinach, at least that grown conventionally, to get the amount of iron in one bowl grown in 1953”. I’ve read that this is true of most minerals.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “our “arable land” is being depleted of minerals”

      That’s largely due to this annoying habit we have of pulling weeds.

      The immediate effects of weeding are positive: less competition for resources for the desired plant. But many “weeds” are “dynamic accumulators” with deep tap roots that bring minerals up from below the plough pan, distributing those minerals on the surface as leaf litter, which doubles as water-saving mulch.

      Dynamic accumulators are often the first “pioneer species” to come into disturbed soil. And guess what a tilled and cultivated field is? Right — disturbed soil. Such weeds are often the result of soil crying for help.

      • Denis Frith says:

        nutrients in the food sent to cities are often flushed down the sewerage system into the oceans. CSIRO has provides figures that show that the amount of fertile soil in Australia has halved in the past two hundred years. That is presently being overcome by the rampant use of fertilizers but that cannot continue.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “nutrients in the food sent to cities are often flushed down the sewerage system into the oceans.”

          We face “peak phosphorus” in the next twenty years. We are currently flushing about 0.5% of our phosphorous reserves down the toilet each year.

          Successful farmers of the future will be composting and applying human manure. Or there won’t be many domesticated fruiting and seed-bearing plants growing.

          The future lies in the “peasant food web,” which is estimated to currently supply 70% of the world’s food using 30% of agricultural resources, while the “industrial food chain” takes 70% of agricultural resources to supply 30% of the world’s food.

          I aspire to be a part of the Peasant Food Web. You can be, too!

          • Jan Steinman says:

            (Oops! Perhaps Gail can edit and put a closing “</a>” in my link… I wish we could edit our comments here!)

          • Denis Frith says:

            There are numerous sound proposals about improving food production similar to the ones mentioned but all that can do is slightly ameliorate the damaging process that is under way.

          • sponia says:

            Present day Poland is a country with great agricultural prospects; there are over two million private farms in the country, and Poland is the leading producer in Europe of potatoes and rye and is one of the world’s largest producers of sugar beets and triticale. This has led Poland to be described on occasion as the future ‘bread basket of the European Union’. However, despite employing around 16% of the workforce, agricultural output in Poland remains low, and the industry is characterised as largely inefficient because of the large number of small, independent farms. This situation is likely to soon change for the better with the government debating agricultural reform and currently pursuing the option of auctioning off large tracts of state-owned agricultural land.” -wikipedia
            I suspect the ‘low output’ stems from a reliance on traditional methods that don’t use a lot of FF manufactured fertilizer. Already, 16% of the population sustains itself directly through employment in agriculture. These are descendants of the Serf system of government, where a farm worker was as much chattel of the land as a draft animal or a hay fork. I suspect this quality of a robust and stable system is being overlooked and wrongly qualified as an inefficient one. Central planners don’t count the rewards of agriculture in the same way or to the same degree that farmers do.
            It seems ironic; current thinking about what best practices might be is so directly opposed to the ideas you express. Once the traditions are lost – methods, seeds, organizational strategies – they will be very hard to replace. The knowledge might perhaps be written down somewhere, but there is a world of difference between reading a fact and hands on experience.

        • There is a lot of the world with severe erosion losses.

          • Denis Frith says:

            Yes, there are a lot of erosion problems around the globe. I quoted Australia as an example. Declining availability of aquifer water is an other proble. The situation is really dire when you connect all the dots about deleterious consequences of the operations of civilization. the declining supply of oil, ocean acidification and climate change are but some symptoms of the holistic malaise.

    • I can believe that our soils are being depleted of minerals. In fact, I should probably add that to the post.

      A person wonders how much of the obesity and other problems we have today are related to people’s bodies looking for more food, because they aren’t getting the right nutrients in food people eat. Does anyone have a more general reference on this issue.

    • I can believe that our soils are being depleted of minerals. In fact, I should probably add that to the post.

      A person wonders how much of the obesity and other problems we have today are related to people’s bodies looking for more food, because they aren’t getting the right nutrients in food people eat. Does anyone have a more general reference on this issue.

      • p01 says:

        The obesity problem is that people’s bodies are STORING more of the food they eat, not looking for more food to eat.
        Minerals could be a factor, but not the main driver of storage.

      • p01 says:

        Just in case (since it was late yesterday and I could not find a link explaining most of the problem):
        Eating mostly seeds of one form or another seems to be the main culprit. All seeds (except perhaps those the plant protects with a hard shell) are inherently toxic. It’s a defensive mechanism for plants. A high carbohydrate content also plays a very significant role, but perhaps not so devastating all by itself.

    • Spinach- rich in iron, eaten buy Popeye and sailor men everywhere.
      Myths on top of myths- spinach was considered way back in the 19th century to have lots of iron- it didn’t, never had that much and it wasn’t a decimal point it was bad research which was quickly corrected, but even in the 1920 it was thought spinach had lots of iron. Popeye ate up his vegetables for Vitamin A, not iron.

      If the soil is red btw, it most likely rich in iron- around our way the rain leaches out copper so we buy salt licks for cattle and sheep. Different soils can have an excess or lack of minerals. Selenium is lacking in soil where I live, but irrigation and the build up of salts can lead to toxic amounts of it in water courses.

      There is no depletion of arable land beyond the loss of the soil and organic content in modern farming.

      Eat a variety of foods and if you grow your own do a bit of trading.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “Myths on top of myths- spinach was considered way back in the 19th century to have lots of iron- it didn’t, never had that much…”

        Do you have any references to support this assertion? Because what I find is contrary.

        It is true that iron from meat is more bioavailable than iron from vegetables, but as vegetables go, spinach is near the top.

        • The link has rather odd servings- 1 medium potato!
          you would have to eat a lot of spinach compared to the amount of lentils, beans, potatoes that is in a normal serving. Comes down to balanced diet.

          when compared to porage it doesn’t come close.

  25. Denis Frith says:

    This sound comment on energy supply considers one side of the balance sheet. However, supplying energy has the consequence of producing irrevocable material waste. Irreversible rapid climate change is just one symptom of the holistic malaise resulting from supplying society with ‘cheap’ energy.

    • I think our issues with limits are as much related to the high world population as anything else. If the population were 1/100 its current level, we would have more leeway on what could be done.

  26. timl2k11 says:

    Another truly excellent post Gail. The best thinkers I know of research across many disciplines and you are doing just that. One point though:
    “Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,”
    I doubt that very much. A very good paper here: http://netenergy.theoildrum.com/node/6760 concludes that “producing ethanol is virtually a zero sum game; i.e. energy produced equals energy consumed.” In fact the most extensive analysis I have read concluded ethanol had an EROEI of less than 0.9. (I will keep looking for the link)
    Ethanol is a government subsidized energy sink. It shows the true level of insanity in our society. Oil sands, fracking, deepwater drilling, energy negative wind farms and solar arrays… we are very, very desperate.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “the most extensive analysis I have read concluded ethanol had an EROEI of less than 0.9. (I will keep looking for the link)”

      Are you thinking of the work of David Pimentel and Tad Patzek? They peg the ERoEI of conventional corn ethanol at about 0.8.

    • I don’t think it makes any difference that “energy produced is equal to energy consumed”. What we are short of is liquid fuel. While there is some oil involved in making ethanol (planting and harvesting crops, transporting the corn and later the finished ethanol) the majority of the fossil fuel used in the process seems to be natural gas (used in making nitrogen fertilizer and electricity) and coal (used in making electricity). I don’t really have a problem with effectively creating a fossil fuel-to-liquid operation from coal and gas, if we recognize it as simply being that. After all, we make electricity from other fuels, with an energy loss as well. Liquid fuels are much more valuable than other fuels, and EROI doesn’t recognize this issue.

      I think ethanol has other issues that make it undesirable–competing with the food supply for land and often leading to marginal land being used for production. It likely leads to more erosion and loss of topsoil. If irrigated land is used, the situation gets to be completely ridiculous–much more energy is used, and the aquifer is depleted in addition. I think it certainly should be banned.

      I don’t think the production of ethanol is particularly sustainable either, so it doesn’t have any long-term future. Since it is only added at a rate of 10%, ethanol use tends to decline as oil use declines (unless someone can force an increase to 15% ethanol).

      Also, farmers depend on the same financial system as everyone else. If banks fail, or if loans become unavailable, we may see a drop-off in ethanol production. If diesel is not available or if there are electricity interruptions, production of ethanol could decrease or stop.

      • SteveK says:

        Whatever happened to the (Mathew) Simmon’s plan to produce ammonia as a liquid fuel from offshore wind farms in the northeast? http://www.agmrc.org/renewable_energy/renewable_energy/ammonia-as-a-transportation-fuel/

        • Nothing? Offshore wind farms are horribly expensive, and difficult to keep repaired. In fact, I don’t think there are any in the US, except possibly some shallow ones in lakes. If we are going to make ammonia, it would seem to make more sense with land-based ones. But even these require precision parts for repair, so aren’t likely to be useful for long.

      • dashui says:

        My friend is a mechanic, he said ethanol turns to sugar in your gas tank gumming up everything, its kind of like corn syrup for cars.

        • Wonderful! I thought it just dissolved plastic tubing. It must be only under certain circumstances–sitting around to long, for example.

          • Yeah, ethanol is a desperate measure. I had a $600 repair to swap out a gummed up fuel injector in my ’06 Prius (ethanol being a very likely suspect).
            Ethanol has been known about for a long time as a fuel “extender” for crude oil based fuels. But I’m not aware of anyone using it unless desperation forced them to. The Japanese made extensive use of ethanol (and other strategies) during WWII because U.S. submarines were sending Japanese crude oil tankers to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. The Germans used ethanol as a crude oil extender because they couldn’t retrieve sufficient quantities of the “good stuff” due to the actions of the Allied armies arrayed against them. They never captured the Caucasus, never received the benefit of Iraqi oil, were very short on oil from European suppliers.
            I have tried to point this out to people who tell me that ethanol is a solution. It’s NOT a solution. It’s a short term stop gap if you’re desperate.

        • Wonderful! I thought it just dissolved plastic tubing. It must be only under certain circumstances–sitting around to long, for example.

        • timl2k11 says:

          Actually ethanol is quite stable. It is the other way around, sugar turns into ethanol with the aid of yeast. That is how beer is made! Did your mechanic want to sell you a fuel additive by any chance? ;)

          • sponia says:

            The search for the ‘ideal replacement’ for petroleum is a fantasy, bordering on a con artist’s gimmick. Hydrocarbon chains – pure ones, made up only of Hydrogen and Carbon atoms – are the most ideal fuel possible. They contain the maximum possible amount of chemical energy because they have the maximum number of hydrogen bonds per unit volume. Hydrogen bonds are the source of the chemical energy released during combustion. The carbon atom acts much like the plastic ring that holds a six pack of canned beer together; it packs the hydrogen in so efficiently there is more hydrogen in a gallon of pure gasoline (C8 H18) than there is in a gallon of pure liquid hydrogen (H2). It is a matter of the spatial geometry.

            All attempts to substitute for this structure must necessarily prove inferior. The ethanol molecule contains an oxygen atom, (C2 H6 O) which carries only one hydrogen bond that makes one end of the chain.

            More importantly, a pure hydrocarbon chain is an almost perfect electrical insulator, while ethanol is not. If you circulate ethanol through a fuel system that is made up of electrically dissimilar metals, you get – electrolysis. Or in common terms, corrosion. Rust, if you will.

            I recommend to you a certain Capt. Kiefer, of the AIR University:

            Captain Todd “Ike” Kiefer, USN, is an instructor in the Strategy Department of the Air War College at Maxville Field, Alabama. Capt. Kiefer’s original paper (76 pgs) was published in January 2013 by the Waterloo Institute for Complexity & Innovation (WICI). This institute is part of the University of Waterloo in Canada and is directed by Thomas Homer-Dixon.

            Capt. Kiefer’s original paper was followed by an abbreviated version in the Spring 2013 edition of Strategic Studies Quarterly (“the strategic journal of the United States Air Force”). The SSQ version is titled, Energy Insecurity: The False Promise of Liquid Biofuels (38 pgs). While the title and the style of the original version are provocative and hard-hitting, the SSQ version is more concise and its style has benefited from some thoughtful rewording.

            Both versions are direct and unrelenting in their criticisms. Kiefer’s study is thorough, as indicated by this partial list of his subtitles: basic thermodynamics, EROI, parasitic dependence and hybrid EROI, peak ethanol, the real cost of biofuels, power density and capacity limits, the nitrogen problem, competition of food and fuel, the mineral problem, the water problem, etc.

            Both versions end with a list of conclusions and recommendations, followed by extensive, detailed footnotes (182 notes in the original; 103 in the SSQ version).

            Given that Kiefer’s original study has been available for several weeks, and given its damning evidence, one would expect a quick response from the biofuels associations. This reviewer has found none, despite ongoing checks of numerous trade websites.” – resilience.org

            However, if you try to look up that paper on the AIR University website today, both the original and the concise version have been oddly unavailable for months. That might be a coincidence; but if you had a chance to actually read the paper you might not think so.

            • Denis Frith says:

              This comment on the intrinsic worth of hydrocarbons as a fuel reminds me of the efforts to produce a substitute for avtur (fuel for airliner jet engines) from biomass. The current avtur is a specialized derivative of oil (hydrocarbon). Research has been under way into the production of bio fuels as a substitute for avtur for decades as many in the airline industry are aware of the fact that the source of avtur (oil) is irrevocably running out. This stark reality will hit economies and consumers hard in the hip pocket in coming years.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “I recommend to you a certain Capt. Kiefer, of the AIR University…”

              Hey, if it’s written by someone named after a fermented milk drink, it can’t be all bad! :-)

              Google turned up this: Twenty-First Century Snake Oil, Why the United States Should Reject Biofuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy.

              Hmmm… a “rational national security energy strategy.” Reminds me of what Gandhi said after visiting London, when a reporter asked him what he thought of “western civilization:” “I think it would be a very good idea!”

              Why don’t we have a “rational national security energy strategy?”

            • Denis Frith says:

              The proposal for a “rational national security energy strategy” is an oxymoron. Any consideration of energy supply without taking into account the associated transformation of the host materials is irrational even though it is common amongst politicians and in the mainstream media.

            • A little like “renewable energy”. It isn’t what is claimed.

            • Thanks for those insights.

              I think Robert Rapier talks about “chemically identical fuel,” or perhaps he has a different word for it. I would need to go back to his posts to see exactly what his approach is, but the idea is closer to natural gas-> desired liquid or wood -> desired liquid. Needless to say, the process isn’t very cheap, but it can produce a direct substitute for oil from the ground. I imagine it also produces a fair amount of waste and uses a lot of energy, if its starting material is something like wood.

              So I am not disagreeing with what you said–just pointing out that there are attempts to make the equivalent of oil directly, because it is so desirable.

          • sponia says:

            For anyone who is interested, here is a link to a download .pdf of the original paper:


            Twentyfirst Century Snake Oil: Why the United States should reject BioFuels as Part of a Rational National Security Energy Strategy

            • Thanks! I note a comment he made in the article:

              Converting fossil fuel hydrocarbons into plant carbohydrates and then back into hydrocarbon fuels is a futile attempt at perpetual motion in chemistry.

              I think this basically describes the high-priced circular system that Robert Rapier has written about.

  27. One of your best posts, Gail. I’m going to post a link to it in the comments section of today’s Wall of Fame post at Growth Bias Busted. You’d be on tomorrow’s wall of fame if Kunstler hadn’t beaten you there today! It will be here: http://www.growthbiasbusted.org/wall-of-fame/entry/growth-is-obsolete

    Dave Gardner
    Director of the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  28. Ruben says:

    Gail, thank you for your detailed posts.

    On your statements about population, do you know of any work that shows fuel use FOLLOWED BY population growth, as opposed to a growing population (just because) which would naturally use more fuel?

    Thank you,


    • Andrew says:

      Just a thought but I think that there won’t be work which shows population growth after fuel use since humans would not produce any more fuel than is required to meet the requirements of the growth needed. The population growth rate exploded at the same time as fossils fuels were discovered and extracted.

    • timl2k11 says:

      “Naturally use more fuel”
      Only if more fuel is available. I think that alone answers your question.

      • Ruben says:

        I remember reading once that both steam and oil were sitting around, as technologies, for several years, before people figured out how to expand the use of them.

        If you think about the first oil gushers, there is oil in abundance, but there is no technology to use it. The systems that take advantage of cheap energy did not exist.

        I am not sure that clarifies. But what the population charts superimposed with fossil fuel use charts imply is that population growth is a consequence of fossil fuel. But, I think it would be easy for people to think higher fuel consumption is a consequence of population. People could have more babies, but keep farming with oxen, and just spend more time hungry.

        Obviously, there is a line beyond which all the oxen in the world would eat so much feed that population would be limited by grazing for draft animals. So, to grow population beyond a certain point requires a denser energy source. But that is a few steps down the logic chain, and I am not convinced everyone would get that.

        So, I am just wondering if any studies have clearly looked at whether the chicken or the egg came first.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “So, I am just wondering if any studies have clearly looked at whether the chicken or the egg came first.”

          In modern ecology, it’s pretty much established that excess trophic (food) energy causes population, not the other way around. Of course, that applies to animals, of which we know humans are not. :-) Although ecology deals with trophic webs, it can be argued that petroleum is, indeed, a food source for humans these days, albeit indirectly.

          One of the seminal studies was the lynx-hare relationship. Another study I recall was with the St. Matthew Island reindeer relationship to lichen.

          The general model uses a form of the logistics function, which is basically a two-variable exponential equation. As part of my degree ecology class work, I took the lynx-hare model and substituted humans (predator) and petroleum (prey), with pretty much the same results, except petroleum doesn’t self-multiply. When I took the reproduction factor out of the equation, the humans preyed upon the petroleum and their numbers increased exponentially, until the petroleum collapsed, then the humans went extinct.

          Of course, the “real world” is much more complicated than that. Or is it?

        • I think you really need a combination of three things, to expand fossil fuel use:

          1. Knowledge about how to get the oil or other fossil fuel out of the ground.
          2. An idea with respect to technology that can use it. This idea can be polished over time.
          3. A debt system that will allow the ramping up of everything–fossil fuel extraction, building factories for the technology, and allowing potential customers to buy the devices. If the fossil fuels are cheap enough, the extraction part may not even need the debt–cash flow may be sufficient. But the customers definitely need a way to pay for it.

          I know that in every major recession and in the Great Depression, births rates drop.

          The FSU countries and ones that depended on the FSU that had huge loss of fossil fuel energy after the collapse of the USSR in 1991. These are the same countries that had dropping population, partly due to higher death rates, partly due to lower birth rates, and partly due to more emigration to other countries.

          I also posted some charts in response to an earlier comment showing the increase in fossil fuel use and the increase in population occurring at the same time.

          My interpretation is that when families feel financially well enough off (salaries are higher, allowing more fuel use) they tend to have more children. When they feel threatened, (and thus fossil fuel use falls), they have fewer children. If you think of having more fossil fuels as “wealthier,” it sort of explains it. If both members of a couple feel they will absolutely have to work full time to support any children they have, they won’t have many children.

          • Denis Frith says:

            Technology has never done more than use natural forces to consume limited natural resources to provide good and services to society. It has never created any natural forces. Innovative technology may possibly be worthwhile by slowing down the harvesting of some of the remaining natural resources.

            • The problem is that it takes both time and money to get any new approach implemented. We are running out of both.

            • Denis Frith says:

              The only possible new approach is rising to the challenge of powering down in coming years by making the best possible use of the remaining natural resources. That requires widespread understanding of fundamental physical principles rather than money.

            • I think that what people think are basic principles can sometimes be misleading. EROI can be considered a basic principle, but I am not convinced it is.

              Sometimes, I think that scientists have been too quick to disregard the importance of cost when it comes to renewables. Energy consumption is not easy to measure–the front ended nature for renewables is very different, as is the intermittent nature of the output. If high cost starts looking like it is a problem, researchers have to go back and check and see whether what they think are “basic principles” are doing a good job of measuring real-world differences. Most expensive energy generating approaches take a lot of energy, whether or not we are measuring it correctly.

            • Denis Frith says:

              EROEI is not a basic tangible physical principle. It is an intangible measure devised by humans to account for some aspects of the operation of tangible physical systems.

            • It reduces the number of “dimensions” a person is looking at. This can be helpful, occasionally, but the risk is that it becomes misleading.

          • dredmorbius says:

            Gail: it’s not just total wealth that matters in family-formation decisions, but _financial stability_. Elizabeth Warren gave a 2008 lecture at UC Berkeley on the coming collapse of the middle class which highlights the role of financial insecurity, not just decreased wealth, in this. Income volatility for married couples with children is up some 90% or so. Summary on my G+ profile as well as the (hour long) video:

            The role of stability and predictability in fostering economic growth is also a theme I picked up in Nial Fergusson’s _Ascent of Money_ and in the almost perpetual state of a monopoly, cabal, oligopoly, or other collusive consortium seeking to maintain oil price stability since the days of Standard Oil, as told in Yergin’s _The Prize_.

            • Thanks! I am sure I saw that a while back. It is the old problem of stretching a system to its limits. When both spouses are working, and the family is depending on both incomes, if any little thing goes wrong, there is more of a chance of a real problem. I suppose the government is expected to step in more–except it can’t either.

              Oil price stability definitely improves the ability of oil companies to plan for which wells might be economic. The very high, then very low, situation leaves companies uncertain.

        • Going against the grain a little- but history demonstrates that in the early days it was non fossil fuel improvements- such as Jethro Tull,[not the 70s folk rock] Townsend and other innovators in agriculture and science that allowed for an expansion in population who in turn were able to be harnessed to dig deeper mines, develop means to improve the steam engine, and harness coal for smelting. As you mention, oil and coal had been available for centuries and not exploited.

          17th to 19th Century British history- the science, the open thinking, the empire building is a fascinating period- it is the birth of why we are where we are. And it is not a simple account of fuel first- population second. Certainly the healthcare and food improvements have been made in developing nations and this is the main area where limits to growth will bite first as they by-passed the initial development phase.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “it is not a simple account of fuel first- population second. Certainly the healthcare and food improvements have been made in developing nations and this is the main area where limits to growth will bite first as they by-passed the initial development phase.”

            I would submit that modern “healthcare and food improvements” are a direct result of increased access to energy.

            • I would agree that healthcare and food improvements are a direct result of increased access to energy.

            • I would agree that healthcare and food improvements are a direct result of increased access to energy.

            • More recent develops are a consequence, of wealth and energy, and that would include the amount of education that wealth brings as well as the amount of food and refrigeration.

              The big early changes were not related to excess energy- scientific understanding of where germs came from, clean water, sanitation and scientific understanding. The first agricultural leaps were also not fuel related- steam power did not revolutionise food production but the science of crop rotation, development of better tools [for horses and man]. The evidence is clear- look at the 18th- 19th century population increases and compare it it to coal extraction-

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Innovation has always been the result of excess energy!

              Certainly, the changes you cite did not rely on fossil sunlight, but they were a direct result of human’s increasing ability to catch and store energy.

              Certainly, human conquest of fire some 400,000 years ago was a seminal event. It is argued that this step alone freed up more nutrients in food, allowing human brains to evolve to the point we could invent pastoralism and agriculture.

              In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond describes how the advent of grain agriculture was the thing that enabled the evolution of cities, and it also allowed specialists like scientists to arise.

              In Europe and in early European America, forests fuelled innovation, to the point that the entire eastern seaboard of North America was clear-cut. It’s only been the availability of fossil sunlight that has allowed forests to recover. I fear for our forests as fossil sunlight declines!

            • Denis Frith says:

              The comment below “direct result of human’s increasing ability to catch and store energy.” contibutes to the misunderstanding that limits rational consideration of what the systems of civilization are doing. Human have devised and caused to be constructed systems made of irreplaceable materials by using up stored energy to increase the ability to catch and store energy. The intangible thoughts of clever people led to the industrial revolution involving the operation of tangible mechanisms and to the unintended consequences of climate change and ocean acidification.

            • With respect to the control of fire, I think the number that is being used now is “in excess of 1 million years ago.”

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Thanks, good reference. Someone should tell Wikipedia.

              (And around here, folks are expected to replace “someone should” with “I will” :-))

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “Someone should tell Wikipedia.”

              Did it. Let the edit wars begin… :-)

            • The development of better tools was very definitely related to coal being available, so that metal could be used in different ways, including making tools. Refrigeration is a definite outcome of adding coal availability.

              The fact that fewer people were needed on the farm, because of coal, is a big reason why education became available to more people, and more research activities could be done. When 80% or 90% of employment is on the farm, that doesn’t leave much for education, or medicine or government.

          • There really has to be three things together:

            1. Fuel availability
            2. Innovation ideas
            3. Debt financing

            The debt financing helps get everything going. Potential consumers can afford the new goods, business people can afford to construct factories, and debt helps enable the extraction of the fuels.

            • Denis Frith says:

              Those three measures are necessary for the provision of goods and servics to human beings by divesting natural material wealth and degrading their life support system, the environment. This is an unsustainable, destructive process as the necessary natural capital input is becoming scarce and the material wastes produced continue to harm land, sea, air and organism operations. Ironically, the foundation of the ivory tower that society glorifies (New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, Bejiing etc) is crumnbling as natural forces extract their toll.

            • In the spirit of debate I am adding an alternative that certainly existed prior to the ff revolution and perhaps exists along side it.

              1. surplus
              2. innovation of ideas
              3. vision

              A surplus of food- either because the climate and fertility offered agricultural growth- or a neighbouring country[ies] was/were exploited, or because of inequality between the workers and the educated classes. Those times of surplus occured in ancient Egypt at various times, and the 18th/19th century Britain [coinciding with the growth of the industrial revolution- perhaps promoting it but not directly because of it]- Rome and British Empire – Ancient Greece.

              Surplus leads to the educated classes [and ambitious self educated] to have the time to be inquisitive. It also has required for tradition [particularly religious] to lose power.

              Debt financing- I presume you use the wider term of offsetting costs rather than just money- although I could point periods in history where savings were used [i.e. building in ancient Egypt and spare/slack times for agricultural workers], wealth was stolen [Spanish invasion of SAmerica], trade, agricultural surplus etc.

              I don’t dispute that the current growth economy is deeply in trouble- I fear that it will try and carry on with the poor getting poorer and the rich richer whilst trying to keep the poor enthralled with bread and games. We are moving from abundance to scarcity which may last 50-100 years and not to pre-industrial /pre ff, I mention this period to demonstrate that the good bits of humanity existed before ff. But bad bits did and my fear is exploitation, invasion, inequality and ignorance will replace abundance for elites.

              Debt will implode- and the politics/economics of growth will come to end after a couple of hundred years. You Gail have been most helpful for me to understand that. It is all we know as a way to live so transition will be painful. I know you are sceptical of a steadystate economy. Is it because it is difficult to imagine- is it such a complete change that we have to wait to find out how the world reacts?

            • Let’s think about a steady state economy. Suppose the economy starts with some amount of output, say 1000, and we want to maintain output at that level. To do so, we will need ever more input, because of diminishing returns, just to stay even with respect to output. At that same time, we are also continuing to add the to the pile of garbage, both because of refuse related to the natural resource extraction and also because of the breakdown of the previously made products. In a finite world, it is very clear that this scenario will come to an end quickly. It is absolutely absurd to call this sustainable. (But it does lead to a slight reduction from the rapidly expanding natural resource input needed to create output that goes from 1000 to 1000 x 1.03 to 1000 x 1.03^2.)

              Suppose instead that we will live within the resources that Nature has provided us. We have not done that since man discovered how to control fire, over 1 million years ago, but why not start now? Judging from other primate species, there probably won’t be more than a few million of us, living in some warm part of the world. There is just one detail–our brains and digestive system had adapted to some cooked food in our diet, so that our brain can be large and our jaws and gut small. Without fire, we can’t have cooked food–we have to live like other animals and spend most of out time looking for food, eating, and chewing. We would need to expect quite a high mortality rate of offspring, to fit in with natural selection. It is not clear any of us could live in this model because of our adaptation of our bodies to cooked food–perhaps a few living in a part of the world where easily chewed food, such as fish, is available.

              I have a hard time Herman Daly and others envisioned either of the above.

              Nature works in cycles. Humans (or yeast put into grape juice) discover a new resource. (I expect that was part of what was happening in your examples.) Their numbers increase greatly, as they learn to use that new resource. It looks like a great situation–all the food we could want. Eventually, we drown in our own pollution (or perhaps the food short first, for the yeast it is drowning in the alcohol they create). Actually, in practice, one thing that brings about collapse is wages of common workers becoming too low (due to diminishing returns) to support the tax level needed for ever-expanding government.

              There is no such thing as a steady state in nature, in a finite world.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “There is no such thing as a steady state in nature, in a finite world.”

              I am slightly less pessimistic. There may not be an infinitely long steady-state, but certainly there are periods of relative stability — such as a temperate climax forest, some of which survived more-or-less in present form since the last ice age.

              But hey, it’s the downs that let you appreciate the ups, no? A true steady-state might be a pretty boring place to be!

            • I don’t dispute the ecological principles that limit growth. As you say: we are part of the ecology whether or no we pretend otherwise.

              I would add to ‘collapse through wages loss’ has historically lessons- The Black Death in Europe peaked in the 14th century with the result that workers wages rapidly improved, living conditions improved and a new era of prosperity and innovation began- possibly resulting in the Age of Enlightenment.

              As much as ff have transformed humanity surplus has had a massive pre-industrial- pre ff effect and although the population increases were no-where near the meteoric rise following the ff/industrial revolution they have occurred frequently. Sometimes based on exploitation and invasion, sometimes on a few centuries of good weather, sometimes on sharing technology like the mould board on plows.

              Perhaps the term ‘sustainable’ is too absolute- perhaps ‘consistent’ would be better. No system will last indefinitely- [even the discovery of fusion or warp drive, would not ensure that].

              The key message of your post is that the system collapses before the physical limits are met. your posts have been very helpful to me in identifying the limits to the economics of growth and inevitably the politics that protects, promotes, and represent it.

              Therefore [as an optimist] I see the problem as political and economic at the moment given there is still half the cheap oil left, and there is enough food production currently to feed 10 billion [if the west gave up meat], that we are surrounded by waste and abundance. But only at the moment – even if there was transformation of the system it would only buy us some breathing space.

              The pessimists are probably correct- or at least closer than the eco-techno-optimists to the likely outcome. The last global collapse on the level you envisage was the Black Death of the 14th century with 25-30% losses but the rebound was greater.

              I have offspring- friends – worked in aid so those people in famine or crisis are not faceless non-humans- and I am not going to give up

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail
              You might like to take a look at Albert Bates book on Biochar. He has a chapter titled Stove Wars. He outlines the basics of a stove which produces biochar. Essentially, the biomass is separated from the flame with a metal box with holes in it. The gasses escape through the holes, ignite, and leave biochar in the metal box. I have seen these handmade from metal trash, although perhaps not as efficient as purpose made boxes. I believe rocket stoves also separate the biomass from the flame. Rocket stoves can reach blacksmithing temperatures.

              I’m not a ‘stove person’. I use conventional electricity and natural gas. Albert has a long standing interest in eliminating inefficient cooking methods (such as three rocks forming a triangle). He is also one of the godfathers of the biochar movement. If you really want to know whether a billion or two humans can exist on surplus wood produced by woodlots, he would be an excellent person to ask. A woodlot also calls up images of trees managed for wood production with techniques such as coppicing. Only fools would simply cut down a forest.

              Bill Clinton talked briefly about efficient stoves at Omega. So it’s not like nothing has happened in the last hundred million years.

              Don Stewart

            • Thanks for the idea. If one can make biochar at the same time one is getting heat for cooking/heating that is a step forward.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “If one can make biochar at the same time one is getting heat for cooking/heating that is a step forward.”

              I have never understood the point of making biochar as the primary end product.

              We heat with wood and sift the “clinkers” out of the ash, crumble them into small bits, and incorporate this into our potting soil, pre-charging it with urine. (Biochar by itself initially depletes the soil of nutrients, it’s such a sponge!)

              Yea, biochar can be used as part of an integrated system. But in the tradition of Cartesian reductionism, many have pursued biochar as an end, rather than as a byproduct. That doesn’t make any sense to me at all.

            • Let’s think about a steady state economy. Suppose the economy starts with some amount of output, say 1000, and we want to maintain output at that level. To do so, we will need ever more input, because of diminishing returns, just to stay even with respect to output. At that same time, we are also continuing to add the to the pile of garbage, both because of refuse related to the natural resource extraction and also because of the breakdown of the previously made products. In a finite world, it is very clear that this scenario will come to an end quickly. It is absolutely absurd to call this sustainable. (But it does lead to a slight reduction from the rapidly expanding natural resource input needed to create output that goes from 1000 to 1000 x 1.03 to 1000 x 1.03^2.)

              Suppose instead that we will live within the resources that Nature has provided us. We have not done that since man discovered how to control fire, over 1 million years ago, but why not start now? Judging from other primate species, there probably won’t be more than a few million of us, living in some warm part of the world. There is just one detail–our brains and digestive system had adapted to some cooked food in our diet, so that our brain can be large and our jaws and gut small. Without fire, we can’t have cooked food–we have to live like other animals and spend most of out time looking for food, eating, and chewing. We would need to expect quite a high mortality rate of offspring, to fit in with natural selection. It is not clear any of us could live in this model because of our adaptation of our bodies to cooked food–perhaps a few living in a part of the world where easily chewed food, such as fish, is available.

              I have a hard time Herman Daly and others envisioned either of the above.

              Nature works in cycles. Humans (or yeast put into grape juice) discover a new resource. (I expect that was part of what was happening in your examples.) Their numbers increase greatly, as they learn to use that new resource. It looks like a great situation–all the food we could want. Eventually, we drown in our own pollution (or perhaps the food short first, for the yeast it is drowning in the alcohol they create). Actually, in practice, one thing that brings about collapse is wages of common workers becoming too low (due to diminishing returns) to support the tax level needed for ever-expanding government.

              There is no such thing as a steady state in nature, in a finite world.

          • timl2k11 says:

            @ Don If you really think a billion or two humans can exist on surplus wood produced by woodlots… you’re just not thinking.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear timl2k11
              You really ought to direct your question to Albert, or some other expert.

              However, there is a very large gap between ‘cooking’ and the way I imagine you are interpreting the word ‘exist’. By ‘exist’ do you mean consuming as much energy as the top 1 or 2 billion people in the world today consume, but in the form of wood. Or perhaps you think ‘exist’ means consuming lots of energy, but maybe less than today, all supplied by wood? Or perhaps you think that ‘cooking’ should include all the industrial energy which is used today to put food in supermarkets and fast food chains?

              Or does thinking about 1 or 2 billion people cooking with the product of woodlots and other methods of preparing food (raw, fermented), in very efficient stoves which also produce valuable biochar. What I mean is the latter.

              We do know that 35 million people lived pretty well in Edo Japan, while improving the health of the forests. They accomplished that by regulating the use of the forest. They didn’t have stoves with the technological sophistication we could bring to them now. And, so far as I know, they didn’t use techniques such as coppice. I think they were just harvesting the surplus. But a lot of the forest product was diverted to the aristocracy which used it to build palaces and such.

              If we can construct a society which makes efficient stoves and has a diversified food preparation repertoire and has scientifically guided woodlots, then how many people do you think could be provided cooking fuel?

              Don Stewart

          • timl2k11 says:

            “If we can construct a society which makes efficient stoves and has a diversified food preparation repertoire and has scientifically guided woodlots, then how many people do you think could be provided cooking fuel?” That’s a huge if, but I’ll humor you. Sustainably? I.e. in perpetuity? Humans have been using surplus energy for a long time, that is energy above and beyond what nature provides from the energy of the sun. If we can use our knowledge to live more efficiently then we did before the dawn of agriculture when population stood around 5 million, I think 50 million is a pretty optimistic but not unreasonable number. However we may have been forced into agriculture because of population pressure, i.e. 5 million was already too much. There is a wide range of population estimates for when humans were pure hunter-gatherers, anywhere from 1-10 million.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear timl2k11
              Here is a link to a discussion of woodlot management:
              Go to the 32 minute point and you will hear an account of what the professional forester told the group.

              If you want a broader discussion of biochar, charcoal, cooking stoves, and practical farming and gardening issues, you can listen to the whole thing. There is, near the end, a discussion of which tree species coppice well.

              In terms of history and forests and population. We know that the Edo Japanese reversed the degredation of their forests with some pretty simple socially imposed and enforced rules. We know the population was in the neighborhood of 35 million. If we expand 35 million from Japan to the world, we come out with some pretty good sized numbers.

              If you listen to the audio, you will learn that the forester recommends NOT picking up fallen branches in a woodlot because they are important for recycling nutrients and especially as hosts for fungi. The Edo Japanese DID harvest the ‘dead and down’. It was not such a grievous mistake that the forests continued to degrade—they started getting healthier. But let’s assume that in 2013 we know more science in terms of woodlots than the Edo Japanese knew. Then, applying modern woodlot science, Japan could have supported more than 35 million in terms of cooking fuel and some heating. If the Edo Japanese had had efficient stoves, then they could have cooked for even more people.

              I am not going to broaden the topic to ‘but wasn’t the life of a hunter gatherer better than all the hard work done by the Edo people?’ I’m sticking to the question ‘Are we all necessarily going to starve because we can’t grow enough wood for cooking?’

              Don Stewart

    • After World War II, population grew at precisely the same time energy use expanded. In other words, after the war, Europe began rebuilding. In the US, former soldiers got married, had families, and got cars, and moved out of the city center.

      The use of energy preceded the time the new small babies would really have needed it, in terms of their food supply. This is a graph of population growth:

      World population 1820 to 2010

      This is world per capita energy consumption:

      per capita world energy consumption by source

      • Ruben says:

        Interesting. There is certainly a lot of elasticity in the current food supply, as 30-50% of it is wasted.

        • I think there is even more wasted in parts of the world without good transportation and refrigeration.

          We have had the luxury in the past of putting up fences around our crops, netting over fruit trees, and I am certain some kinds of devices to keep squirrels away from nut trees. I am not sure how long we can depend on having all of these kinds of things. Also, sprays for insects are likely to disappear. I expect the share of the crops we will get will go down considerably in the future.

        • I think there is even more wasted in parts of the world without good transportation and refrigeration.

          We have had the luxury in the past of putting up fences around our crops, netting over fruit trees, and I am certain some kinds of devices to keep squirrels away from nut trees. I am not sure how long we can depend on having all of these kinds of things. Also, sprays for insects are likely to disappear. I expect the share of the crops we will get will go down considerably in the future.

          • I looked into to taking on an agricultural advisory post in post conflict Sierra Leone- the war had decimated the rural population and they were looking to re open agriculture land. The issue was about education- a loss of experienced smart farmers who had fled and transportation to market. The land is fertile, the people hard working and it didn’t require high ff inputs, the problem was 25% of food was wasted or too low quality for sale in the cities. So city folk preferred imported rice and food to their own.

            Some of the solutions were simple and cheap- better rat proof stores- just redesigns no special materials, and the dirt roads needed better culverts [hand dug] to stop them being washed away in the rainy season. Also education programmes that helped farmers make better judgement with handling.

            It is not just energy- important yes, and the Punjab region in India is an area where yeilds are high based on ff inputs and are on the verge of a serious climate change and limits wall.

            • I would argue that education requires energy as well. Someone has to put together a program (and quite probably get paid). Then there needs to be a way of disseminating this information to farmers–having them come to classes, or going to them. All of this requires that society be rich enough that all of these folks can take time off from farming to take part in the educational program. The money that is paid goes to buy resources, including energy resources.

            • SteveK says:

              From Charles T. Hall: “oil was 1.1:1 then one could pump the oil out of the ground and look at it … and that’s it. It would be an energy loss to do anything else with it. If it were 1.2:1 you could refine it into diesel fuel, and at 1.3:1 you could distribute it to where you want to use it. If you actually want to run a truck with it, you must have an EROI ratio of at least 3:1 (at the wellhead) to build and maintain the truck, as well as the necessary roads and bridges (including depreciation). If additionally you wanted to put something in the truck and deliver it, that would require an EROI of, say, 5:1.3 Now say you wanted to include depreciation on the oil field worker, the refinery worker, the truck driver, and the farmer; you would need an EROI of 7:1 or 8:1. If their children were to be educated you would need perhaps 9:1 or 10:1, to have health care 12:1, to have arts in their lives maybe 14:1, and so on. Obviously to have a modern civilization one needs not just surplus energy, but lots of it—and that requires either a high EROI or a massive source of moderate-EROI fuels. If these are not available, the remaining low-EROI energy will be prioritized for growing food and supporting families.”

            • I think Charles Hall’s point is right, but his numbers are probably too low. We are already at the point where the EROI of oil is too low to maintain current society–hence our financial problems. We don’t have the luxury of putting together societies that just happen to have the characteristics he says.

            • Having worked in this area as a volunteer I would agree education is key- many programs do seek to develop a community based education system and use modern communication. it does require a degree of prioritising of wealth- many countries spend there resources on smart cars and houses for the rich, and on the military to keep people in their place. Education is cheap in comparison.

              The other misconception is agricultural workers always working- agriculture produces more spare time than office workers- however that is for men- the big area is children who are unpaid menial workers and prevented from attending school, women likewise are disadvantaged.

              Incidental the earliest agricultural settlement in Turkey from 8,000 yeas ago [I forget the details] shows evidence of male skeletons having knee joint problems and women having big toe defects. The reason- men squatting and chatting, women on all fours grinding corn [big toe is pushed against].

              best Jules

  29. St. Roy says:

    Hi Gail:
    Good post. Here is my summary.
    The human epic is really about the discovery and use of surplus energy. Fossil fuels were a BIG bonanza that exponentially expanded our use of fire and much magnified our food production via agriculture. The result was a huge increase in our species population and corresponding decrease in most other species (at least vertebrates). As net energy declines the human epic can be expected to contract to where it started except for CO2 induced climate change and radiation poisoning of the environment. Both of these portend for mass extinction – probably in this century.

  30. Jan Steinman says:

    “There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem…”

    Or as Upton Sinclair put it, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

    • I thought of using that particular quote.

    • xabier says:

      Or, ‘It’s hard for a man to understand what’s really going down when he just wants to be consoled about his investments and pensions…..’?

      Equally, I’m devoid of both so have my eyes and ears open!

    • So there is probably a link between a persons amount of capitalist success and ignorance of the problems at hand? :)

      Well, I consider scientists intelligent people and most of those grasp the problem – so I guess it also has something to do with lateral thinking, no matter what your income is. But I guess the more you are into the money game, the more that world seems “un-collapsable”. I guess those same people might also consider people who scream about doom and gloom as envious dissidents.

      I guess we have a bit of both going on now, but grasping that the planet is indeed finite is really just about realism – and we don’t know in what rate the world is really ready to swallow this piece of realism.

    • Allmost everything we actually “have” and everything “we can do”, and everything “we can dream of” and everything “our children have to work for” in our current way of life depends on not understanding it….

      • You are probably right–unless you can dream of becoming a hunter-gatherer, or a subsistence farmer. We might even be able to aim for a little above those levels, if everyone agreed to aim for the same thing, but that doesn’t seem likely.

        Of course, if we look at things from a current perspective, we can assume that we ourselves will have a solar panel or two to mitigate the downslope, even though others don’t.

      • You are probably right–unless you can dream of becoming a hunter-gatherer, or a subsistence farmer. We might even be able to aim for a little above those levels, if everyone agreed to aim for the same thing, but that doesn’t seem likely.

        Of course, if we look at things from a current perspective, we can assume that we ourselves will have a solar panel or two to mitigate the downslope, even though others don’t.

    • dredmorbius says:

      There’s also, I’m coming to conclude, a failure of multiple institutions of society, and models for interpretation, to respond to or interpret properly, events.

      Among the latter, first and foremost, the orthodox neoclassical economics model, its failure to understand or explain growth, and its failure to understand the role of energy. I suspect our political and sociological models may also be at fault.

      In terms of institutions, I see failure in governance (gridlock, corruption, capture, failure), in the financial system (which Gail highlights and illustrates wonderfully), in the press and media, in education. Possibly also in community, nationalism, religion, and liberal democratic principles, but that’s a thornier nut to get into.

      And of course, the problem that so many given a voice to speak on these matters are locked into a system which rewards them only by perpetuating it as long as possible. Though we know that that won’t be a whole lot longer.

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