There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)

We keep seeing statements from the Center for the Advancement of a Steady State Economy suggesting that a steady state economy is desirable. I would agree that growth in a finite world is not sustainable, but even continuation of our current level economic level, or a drop to an economic level two or three levels below that where we are today, is not sustainable.

We are consuming a huge amount of fossil fuels, and to maintain anything close to our current economic state, we would need to continue to consume a very large amount of fossil fuels. If a person stops and thinks about it, no level of fossil fuel extraction is sustainable, because we only have a finite amount of fossil fuels. At best, we would be talking about stair-stepping extraction–reducing it to a lower level than today, and holding it there for a while.

One big issue with even trying to stair-step fossil fuel use is the fact that our financial system needs growth to keep from collapsing. In order to pay back debt with interest, it is necessary to have economic growth, and financial growth and growth in fossil fuel use are very closely tied. Economic growth can be 2% or 3% above fossil fuel use growth because of efficiency gains, and economic growth in a particular country can be higher than that of world economic growth because of greater outsourcing of manufacturing to other countries. There was even a gain in the late 70s and early 80s, as we picked the low-hanging efficiency fruit and switched to using nuclear. But overall, there is no evidence that fossil fuel use, or even oil use, can be divorced from economic growth. If there is a big decline in fossil fuel use, it will translate to a decline in economic growth.

The need for economic growth in order to pay back debt even applies to our money supply itself. Money is loaned into existence. This happens when a commercial bank makes a loan and deposit at the same time. The problem is that when the money is created, not enough money is loaned into existence to pay back the interest as well.  So economic growth is needed to create the additional money so that the debt can be paid back with interest.

Because of this issue, a Steady State Economy (economy without growth) requires a financial system with virtually no debt. It might be possible to have a little debt, but its use would be primarily to facilitate short-term transactions. Debt jubilees at regular intervals might be needed, to keep people from building up much debt.

It is theoretically possible to create a Steady State Economy that doesn’t use fossil fuels, and a new financial system that doesn’t use debt. As far as I can see, though, this would put us in a situation similar to where we were in 1750, because none of our so-called newer “renewables” (like solar PV and wind turbines and algae-based biodiesel) are really possible without fossil fuels. We need fossil fuels to extract metals and to make the solar PV and wind turbines and to transport them to their new locations. There is not even a plan in place that would get us to a situation such that the various renewables would replace themselves and provide enough energy for the world to live on.

The problem with going to a system without fossil fuels and with much less debt than we have today is the fact that the world supported fewer than one billion people in 1750. There are now nearly 7 billion people in the world. Furthermore, most people living today don’t have the skills required to live without fossil fuels. We also don’t have all of the infrastructure in place that we would need to live as people did then (draft animals, horse drawn carriages, wells that could be repaired with local materials, schools close to where people live, homes mostly in rural areas or villages, etc.). So it is not clear that we could even successfully make this type of transition.

When I read articles that talk longingly about going to a “Steady State Economy,” I am perplexed. If governments were to take away fossil fuels, or even reduce their use significantly, it would likely cause a crash of the financial system, and this would likely lead to a crash of other systems, particularly international trade. It would seem to be virtually impossible to keep this crash from affecting food production systems, international food export systems, and even such basic systems as electricity (because workers need to be paid, and fuel needs to be purchased). It seems to me that without a lot of intervention and planning, we would soon fall back to a very low level, very quickly, perhaps much lower than the 1750 level.

It seems to me that what we really ought to be doing is looking at the situation that is ahead, and figuring out what we can do to make the best of a pretty awful situation. Those wanting a steady state are dreaming for something that can never happen. Decline is pretty much inevitable. We need to be working to understand what is really ahead and figuring out how to make the best of a bad situation. Perhaps by planning, we can make things a little better.

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 financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
This entry was posted in Financial Implications, Planning for the Future and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

77 Responses to There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)

  1. Biff Vernon says:

    Gail, your talk of stair-stepping extraction–reducing it to a lower level than today, suggests you’ve read David Fleming’s earlier publication Energy and the Common Purpose – Descending the Energy Staircase with Tradable Energy Quotas (TEQs) with its numerous illustrations of stairs to step down. As Shaun says, an excellent idea whose time is come.

  2. Great post Gail. I totally agree that the meaningful topic of discussion is how best to manage the era of energy and economic descent.

    I don’t think you made any comments on my recent TOD post on TEQs (Tradable Energy Quotas):

    As you may well be aware, this is the late David Fleming’s energy/carbon rationing scheme designed with exactly this purpose in mind, and I personally find it an exciting possibility for ameliorating the coming times. It is now attracting ever-more political and media coverage, and I just wonder whether you have any thoughts on it?

    Since David’s death I find myself with a big responsibility for future developments around the idea, and would appreciate any insights you might have.

    Best wishes,

    • I will have to admit I have not been following this issue, and haven’t read the comments on the thread you linked to. It is possible that the system would work in a small homogeneous European country better than it would in the US. My comments are based on thinking about how it would work in the US.

      It seems like the proposed system would add a big bureaucracy on top of what we have, so would add significant costs. It would also present a significant opportunity for fraud, similar to what already has been experienced in Europe in their carbon trading. Even if the system mails out credits to people, the system needs to have a good mailing list for everyone (something I doubt exists), and there is significant chance of mail theft. Think of all of the problems the census folks encountered.

      Many people live in apartments. Quite a bit of their costs are built into their rent, so they may not pay any separate heating bill. How would this work? Some live in public housing, or in jails, or in mental institutions, or in college dorms. How would their credits work? Does each child in a family get credits too? How about those illegally in this country?

      Utility bills come after the fact, in the US. Isn’t then a bit late to be figuring out using these credits to pay bills?

      I would expect that pretty much all poor people would end up with left-over credits, and all of the rich people would be short, because energy tends to be used in proportion to income. But I don’t see the poor people as having the tech savvy to figure the whole system. Most of the poor don’t have computers, and don’t read newspapers. Many have very limited education. I expect that they would not figure out the system of selling back the credits, and there would be a huge percentage that end up unaccounted for.

      Climate and geography has a big impact on fuel use. People living in temperate climates would tend to have leftover credits, but people living in very cold/ hot climates would need to buy their credits. This would tend to have an adverse impact on housing prices in less temperate climates. People is Hawaii would come out well. They don’t need to heat or cool their homes, and they can’t drive very far, so they would have lots of left-over credits. People in Alaska and Wyoming would likely find the system confiscatory.

      One big use of fuel is buying airline tickets. I presume people /businesses would need credits for these, and poor people would the primary source of the left-over credits for buying these credit. Or are these excluded from the calculation?

      The thing that it is important to remember is people’s income doesn’t go up because of this new system (except the people employed by the system). Any money spent on overhead for the new system does not really produce any goods and services for the economy, so the economy is that much poorer because of it. I would expect the system to act like an additional tax on the economy, for this reason.

      • Thanks for your thoughts Gail. Entirely understandable that you haven’t been following the issue – one can’t follow everything!

        I’ll attempt to answer your queries here, and if you don’t have time to read the full report I would definitely suggest a quick scan of the FAQs page:

        In fact, the TEQs scheme is electronic, so there is no mailout issue. There would be a TEQs account for each energy user, however, which does permit the possibility of computer hacking, though to no greater extent than any other electronic system.

        The infrastructure would indeed cost – the UK Government’s 2008 pre-feasibility study estimated running costs in the UK of £1-2bn per annum, (although more recent work has suggested that halving that figure may be more realistic), but also estimated that the auction of TEQs units to energy users other than individuals would generate Government revenue of £6bn per annum (though the public sector would also be a buyer).

        With regard to those living in apartments, the system is quite straightforward. Whoever buys the fuel or energy has to surrender TEQs units alongside their purchase. If this is some institutional body, landlord etc, they would simply pass the cost on to their tenants.

        In terms of those illegally in the country, this is a particular concern of mine, as I used to run a centre working for unaccompanied asylum seekers and the like. Although in the worst case scenario, they might struggle to secure the benefits that everyone is entitled to (as is of course often the case for them), the TEQs system would not deny them access to fuel. If they turn up, say, at the petrol station – they will simply be charged for the fuel in cash, and the cost of buying TEQs units to cover their purchase (at the current national price) will be added on and included in the price charged.

        Utility bills are retrospective here in the UK too, and this presents no problem at all, as confirmed by the various studies into the technical feasibility of the scheme. Indeed, many people pay their utility bills by direct debit, so for them there would be no hassle at all – their TEQs debits would be handled in the same way.

        And yes, as you say, energy tends to be used in proportion to income, which would leave the poor with a surplus, making the scheme strongly redistributive. But there is no need for those people to suddenly become proficient market traders. There would be a single national price for TEQs units at any given time, so no individual or company would need to ‘haggle’ or bargain for their requirements – they simply buy and sell at the current price, which is no harder than buying, say, mobile phone credit. The system is very simple for those living within it. Indeed, part of the beauty of TEQs is that it makes complicated notions like lifecycle carbon footprinting and labelling redundant.

        Regarding air travel, it is important to remember that TEQs units would only be surrendered for your direct fuel and energy purchases – not for food, manufactured products, travel tickets etc. However, the company providing your flight would have to surrender TEQs units in order to purchase the fuel that their vehicles require.

        You highlight that those living in temperate climates would need fewer units, and this is of course true. Living in those places is more energy/carbon intensive (unless extensive infrastructure – Passivhaus technology etc – is in place). This is where TEQs brings us face-to-face with reality. If we are to deal with our climate challenge and reduce energy use drastically, then we are going to have to cut back on high carbon/energy lifestyles. That’s the bottom line. Any scheme that does not discourage energy/carbon intensive lifestyles is not doing its job. TEQs would not introduce new constraints on our lifestyles, it would simply make the existing ones apparent. We do need to figure out ways to live with less energy/emissions, and that challenge is indeed much harder if we live in more extreme climates. There are ways it can be done, however, and if we are to get through these difficult times, we must either do them, or move somewhere more hospitable.

        Finally, I come to perhaps your key point:

        The thing that it is important to remember is people’s income doesn’t go up because of this new system (except the people employed by the system). Any money spent on overhead for the new system does not really produce any goods and services for the economy, so the economy is that much poorer because of it.

        This is true, as far as it goes. But surely the appropriate comparison is not between now and a future with TEQs (in which the economy would indeed be poorer). The appropriate comparison is between three possible futures:

        1) A future with TEQs
        2) A future without TEQs, in which PO/CC have their head
        3) A future without TEQs, but with some alternative approach to PO/CC

        It is clear to me that we are all better off in future 1 than future 2. And as yet, I have yet to see anyone outline a future 3 that looks preferable.

        I hope that’s helpful, and thanks again for taking the time to apply your ever-insightful brain to this topic!

        Best wishes,

        • Thanks for your thoughts. I am still wondering how all of those without computers are going to make this electronic system work, though. Maybe you have more people in the UK with computers than we do.

        • There’s no need for people to have computers – I’m not really sure what has led you to think that there would be. The Indonesian government have recently been in touch to discuss the scheme, and I’d imagine Indonesians have a lower percentage of computer users than Americans.

          What aspect of the scheme seems to imply that only computer-users would be able to participate?

          • I am afraid I don’t see how people would be involved with this without computers or some type of booklets with coupons in them. Perhaps I am too old fashioned.

  3. james says:

    7 billion is a tremendous height to fall from. . that will make a big noise.
    steady state? hmm . .like Somalia? Afghanistan? not exactly the happy agrarian fantasy common in many circles that foresee collapse. The future is local and tribal. For growth to continue, for the high-tech world to survive, technology would of had to deliver us beyond this planet. If this civilization does collapse, it will not ever again reach the heights we have achieved, we wont have the energy resources.This brief strange period in human history will become a rumor. Many a strange and suppositional tale will be told of this world from its enigmatic ruins. None though will likely reach to its fantastical reality.

  4. Tiago says:

    I’ve been in a big steady state conference, in Leeds, UK (last year(. Other than a woman from the Transition Town movement, the thing was sufferable. Most people laughed at peak oil. The standard reaction was black-or-white: either it does not exist (majority) or if it does then a Malthusian outcome is guaranteed. It was mostly a gathering of useless academics that lost the battle against Thatcher (and were clearly resented).

    Don’t get me wrong: I would have loved to liked it. In concept it is a great idea. This made the disappointment even bigger.

  5. Rebecca says:

    One question about debt: I get the point about growth making it so a dollar today is $1.02 tomorrow so you can pay it back with interest. But what about borrowing against future productivity, as in student loans? Or purchasing a productive item like a sewing machine, and then using part of the future flow of value to pay back the current investment. I tend to discourage people from borrowing these days because their future cash flow is becoming very uncertain, but I would think there would always be a place for investment / debt.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Rebecca, it’s precisely the assumption of “future flow of value” that makes interest-bearing debt dependent on growth.

      Prior to the widespread use of fossil sunlight, debt was “at par” — you were expected to return the principle amount only. And there were periodic “debt jubilees” every fifty years or so when all debt was forgiven. And all three of the great middle-eastern religions forbade interest — although they conveniently overlook that prohibition today. That should tell you something, no?

    • This is one of the reasons I leave the door open to a little debt.

      The problem that happens in real life is that debt for what we think is an investment often doesn’t work out very well in a declining economy. For example, a person gets an expensive degree, then finds he/she is “overqualified” for every job he/she applies for. Or a person gets laid off from jobs repeatedly, or there are few people who want the goods the new sewing machine will produce. As replacement parts become more scarce, and electricity more intermittent, what look like good investments now are likely not to turn out very well.

  6. Stephen says:

    Maybe we need to rethink the motion that every bit of matter has a dollar value associated with it, and work to provide basic needs locally again. Then we need to invest in the alternative fuels with the highest EROEI available and rethink the motion that every person needs a car and must work an 8-5 job. Some of these alternatives may not keep happy motoring alive but may allow us to power some things like farm tractors, railroads, a few vehicles, and maybe an occasional airplane flight every now and then (I envision possibly running a few flights around holidays as opposed to all year so people can still see distant family occasionally).

    From then, we need to focus on quality of life at home as a priority over GDP. We need to get schools to drop No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing and instead teach a generation of kids the skills they need to survive peak oil. We also probably need to relax debt collection laws and abandon the motion of losing everything you own when a job loss or economic decline hits, especially in the personal possessions, housing, and quality social life realms. I also think each town is going to adapt differently, for example the northeast will have a cold problem in the winters. For a climate like the desert southwest (e.g. Phoenix AZ, Las Vegas NV), perhaps this will lead to a seasonal migration into the mountain regions via Railroad to places like Flagstaff, Lake Tahoe, Gallup NM, Southern California, etc during the hot summers and return from the mountain regions in the winter.

  7. Alan McDonald says:

    Many small groups all over the place are making plans. Here in the UK the Transition movement, local food campaigns and other sustainability initiatives are working out how, locally, to make the transition. I am very distrustful of big figures and global solutions. Let’s begin with local specifics: how can we around here have more local food, use local water wind and sun to get energy, what do we really need beyond that to have a good life?

    To me the point of debating the steady state economy is to begin to imagine how things will be different. To predict that certain things will be impossible when we can’t know this: I can’t see how that’s useful or intellectually sound. So many of the initial blog’s predictions seem to be doubtful that I hardly know where to start: with inflation, for instance, we can easily imagine living through periods of negative real rates of interest, for instance – we are in one – and I feel there is an underlying despondency to the thesis which is not evidence-based.

    But maybe I’m just an optimistic fool 🙂

  8. Dave Gardner says:

    Great post and impressive, if not depressing, conversation. I would just add this suggestion, notwithstanding the few technological optimists who still have high hopes: We’re going to end up living like 1750 one way or the other. It might be prettier, though certainly not easier (and maybe even impossible), if we make the choice to coast to that level rather than wait for nature to quickly and cruelly do the job.

    I expect there are steadystaters who recognize this but are trying to take it one step at a time, and steadystaters who have faith that some combination of stabilization of population and economy along with a few technological miracles and the adjustment won’t be so bad. I choose not to sweat the difference, as even advocating steadystate is a radical move in the right direction. I’d like to see us get the ship turned, then we can quibble about the speed, the exact compass heading, and what’s for dinner.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Dave,

      Good website.

      I’d like to see us get the ship turned, then we can quibble about the speed, the exact compass heading, and what’s for dinner.

      A suggestion for your next documentary: Why most people are unable to recognize the real problems facing humanity and the planet in general? The symptoms of the problem are obvious and abundant: climate change related events, the rate of species extinction, increasing forest destruction, ocean’s losing fish and corral reefs, soil erosion/desertification, aquifer depletion, food scarcity, etc. Or even limits to livable space (the mouse universe experiment).

      Symptoms of a problem are often obvious – causes are much more difficult: fossil fuel depletion rates, increasing rate of GHG, human population growth rate, growing consumption rates, conversion of forest to cropland, paving over aquifer recharge areas, monoculture/industrial farming practices, etc.

      From those few who do see the symptoms and understand the causes, a multitude of “solutions” are proffered – basically to no avail because this tiny minority has little ability to change the course of events.

      So, why do so few people understand? Why are so many oblivious? I think Richard Dawkins knows the answer. Is he right?

      What (besides catastrophe) might start turning the ship in any meaningful way?

      • Dave Gardner says:

        Bicycle Dave, that is EXACTLY what my first film is about! Great suggestion, clearly. And the exciting news is you won’t have to wait for a sequel.

        “Why most people are unable to recognize the real problems facing humanity and the planet in general? “

  9. Philip C Stone says:

    You write: “I think Gail is aware of the issues you raise.” Here I would counter and say that silent awareness is not enough. Climate change, both short and long term, is the biggest and most threatening issue of all. If we fail to address this problem, all of our other efforts will have been in vain.
    The solution, in all its banal simplicity, is increased efficiency, reduced fossil fuel consumption, and the deployment and continuing development of clean energy sources. The solution also involves examining our priorities and distinguishing between the essential and the non-essential.
    To illustrate what I mean: Approximately 70% of America’s oil consumption goes to transportation, and I believe that most other automobile based societies would show a similar pattern. If we had mixed-development, walkable communities with good bike infrastructure and good mass transit, we could reduce our oil consumption by a considerable amount. If we limited the use of cars by introducing congestion fees, removing parking spaces and increasing parking fees, the reduction would be greater. And if we could replace our current internal combustion vehicles with more efficient technologies, even more would be gained. All of this is doable, and steps of this sort could have the added benefit of discouraging developing countries from developing the disastrous kind of transportation infrastructure that we have. Another necessary step would be to correct the widespread misconception that mass transit is subsidized but driving isn’t. In fact, in today’s USA, 80% of all transportation dollars
    goes to roads and only 20% to mass transit.
    This is just one of the two birds with one stone solutions. It would reduce fossil fuel consumption and decrease the CO2 emissions that contribute to global warming. It would also remove some of the pressure from our food and water problems. And insofar as we can reduce the number of cars, we can free additional resources that can be used to build clean sources of energy. We are facing enormous challenges, but they are not insurmountable.

    • Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to do all of the things you are talking about. Things are happening much more quickly, as far as I can see. Fossil fuel use will decline far too quickly for the things you are hoping for to happen. Extraction of fossil fuels now requires huge machinery, and replacement parts for the machinery in turn requires global trade and a working financial system. All of these things will last for at most a few more years (20 years max). Once we lose them, we lose fossil fuels, and it won’t matter whether we have walkable communities at all–it is likely that the developers will have just wasted resources, because they won’t have thought about what the world would be like without an operating water and sewer system, and without adequate transportation of food to town. The problem with these plans is that they assume we really have far more time and resources than we have (which is why climate change folks are so worried in the first place).

      If the climate change plans were focused on raising draft animals and on developing crops that could be raised with simple tools and crop rotation, and building simple cisterns for water catchment, then they might be worthwhile. The problem is that they are starting from vastly too favorable a view of future fossil fuel availability.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I find myself in the position of agreeing with both Philip and Gail and I don’t think there is any real contradiction in doing so.

        It is true that some percentage (perhaps as high as 50%) of the western world’s fuel consumption is wasteful and unecessary. When we combine consumption for recreational driving, extravagent tourism travel and inefficient automobile commuting (often with only the driver in the auto) then we could assume that this accounts for 50% of all fuel use. We could even add in excess transport for items which should be produced locally in a more “energy rational” world. But in any case, let us assume we could, right now, with the proper will, reduce fuel consumption in the west by 50%.

        The above reduction or savings would probably not apply in the developing world. However, 50% reduction in western world use would provide some climate change amelioration or delay and would provide a better buffer and window for a transition to renewables. This assumes something not proven yet, namely that renewables could eventually power us say at 50% of our current energy use. It is not unreasonable to assume currently that 50% of our energy use is wasteful. So far I have been agreeing with Philip.

        Gail’s points explicit and implied (and I hope my summary is right) are that;

        1. We are not seeing enough progress in the right direction.
        2. Obstacles to this progress are inbuilt into our entire political economy. On the socio-political side there are ideologies, vested interests, complacency, inertia and even perverse propaganda and disinformation campaigns against the necessary changes. On the economic side there are financial system obstacles and another form of inertia, the inertia of a large system in motion and committed to a certain path with massive investments in fossil fuels infrastructure.
        3. Even with the best will and technology it may be too late save our current civilization because of overshoot. There may not be enough fossil fuels left to transition, the climate may be irreparably damaged in any case before the transition is complete, the energy flow from renewables may be too little and the infrastructure required for renwables may be too extensive and thus not feasible.
        4. Financial, material-economic and social-civilizational breakdown from all the strains of transition may occur before transition is complete and sabotage all hope even if transition were theoretically feasible.

        I think though that we cannot afford to totally give in to despair. If I may be forgiven a penchant for a little Tolkein inspired philosopy that is not pure fantasy I will say this. Yes, as a species we are fighting the “long defeat”. The species will go extinct sooner are later even as each of us individually is fighting to survive for a while until die in the end.

        Total despair is just as unreasonable a philosphical position as is total optimism. We cannot entirely know the future so we cannot know that it is either hopeful or despair-laden. Every person alive on this world must die sometime anyway. Is a mass die-off ultimately worse than all the enventual deaths which must happen in any case? Given that capitalism is the exploitative system that has destroyed so much of nature and the earth’s carrying capacity, it will be good that natural forces will destroy capitalism. I still hope that some smaller remnant and wiser civilization might arise after. Perhaps the chances are small but then so be it. What will be will be. Compared to the csomos humans are puny and unimportant except to themselves in their own existential view.

      • Gary Peters says:


        Climate change is already “baked into the cake” and will worsen as we continue to burn fossil fuels as fast and furiously as possible until they either become too expensive or completely unavailable. Though James Howard Kunstler and others keep talking about the end of “happy motoring” in America, I don’t see that happening any time soon. Gasoline remains a dollar or so below its peak a couple or three years ago, and even that peak, at above $4/gallon, hardly made a dent in our use of private autos to scoot us around. There are perhaps 250 million passenger autos in the U.S. and I don’t see them all parked any time soon.

        I can see why you might like climatologists (most of whom are remaining far to silent) and others to promote the use of draft animals and simpler farming methods, but that seems like a lost cause. We’re not going to feed 310 million people with a simplified agricultural system like that, though personally I think it would be very good for the environment. As for its effects on global warming, it would be more than countered by China’s incessant addition of coal-fired power plants.

        Though I don’t disagree with you and others in the peak oil community about what appears to be happening to world oil production, I don’t agree that oil and other fossil fuels will fall into disuse in time to prevent considerably more climate change.

        With the world’s population approaching 7 billion, much pressure will be on providing food and other necessities for that population, even though it is probably well beyond numbers that we can support over the long run, which may be closer to one billion or less, numbers that would fit with your date of 1750.

        • The way I see it, all of the fossil fuels are very closely linked through the financial system. Once oil fails, it is likely to take out the financial system, and with that, the majority of international trade. Once those things are gone, coal and natural gas will decline, almost at the same time as oil.

          If I thought there was a chance that all fossil fuels could continue in great abundance for a long time, I would be worried about the climate change effects. Since I don’t see this happening, it makes one fewer thing to worry about.

      • Philip says:

        I’m glad you wrote “unfortunately”, because here that’s a constructive starting point. We may not be able to do everything I’m suggesting, but we should do as much as we can as quickly as we can.

        At present we are not just using fossil fuels, we are squandering them. We need to learn to use less, and we need to use wisely.

  10. Shunyata says:

    Lifestyle, whether spontaneously organized or deliberately organized, requires energy consumption. Any lifestyle that consumes energy faster than that energy is replaced is doomed in the long-run. (Of course the short-run may be thousands of years, which changes the nature of the discussion immensely.)

    Human society has increasingly relied upon consumption of pre-existing energy stores – whether clearing forests for charcoal, mining coal, or extracting oil. A “steady-state” society takes us back about 5,000 years.

  11. Ikonoclast says:

    “Cold fusion is always 20 years away.” – A sarcastic scientist.

    In fact cold fusion is about as possible as the perpetual motion machine. At least my idee fixe, the solar convection tower, uses known technology and would actually produce power. Whether it produces net power after all inputs (probably it will) and whether it can be ramped up on a massive scale to replace fossil fuels (this is dubious) are the key questions.

  12. Arthur Robey says:

    Oops. Lyrics by Bob Dylan

  13. Arthur Robey says:

    “Pointed threats they bluff with scorn,
    Suicide remarks are torn,
    From the Fools gold mouthpiece.
    The hollow horn plays wasted words,
    Proves to warn
    That he not being born,
    Is busy dying.”

    A process such as a body or a fountain of water or a civilization is never in a condition of stasis. They are in disequilibrium. Our bodies survive as long as they do because of apoptosis. Voluntary cell death.

    If the promise of the recent demonstration by Rossi have substance, then we will be growing again and it will be our manifest destiny to leave OurFiniteWorld.

    (Rumour has it that his 1MW Cold Fusion unit is awaiting a decision by bureaucrats. And that the Italian Navy has woken with a start to the implications).

    • brian says:

      Actually, we mostly stay alive due to senescence. Apoptosis is mostly about building and maintaining developmental structures, such as fingers, skin, gut, etc. In senescence, a cell gets programmed to no longer divide. There is a fine balance for senescence, too little and you get cancer or too much and you get Progeria. Just right you get to die at the ripe old age of 100 or so.

      BTW, limitless energy doesn’t help anything. Go back to Limits to Growth and you will see that limitless energy just makes us feel better for a while, but we still choke on our waste.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Brian wrote: “limitless energy doesn’t help anything.”

        Stephen Hawking wrote: “Given infinite energy, by the year 2,500, humans will occupy, shoulder-to-shoulder, every square inch of the Earth’s surface, which will glow a dull red from the dissipation of their heat.”

        Doesn’t sound like a place I’d want to live in.

  14. Keith Akers says:

    Thanks, Gail, this is a blog I was waiting for.

    The first thing I would suggest is that we separate the two issues of “what would a viable steady state economy look like” and “how do we manage the energy descent to that level.” The second issue involves such things as figuring out how to deal with all the debt, persuading people that we have a real problem, getting them to accept radical solutions, and stashing away enough cocoa powder for the rest of my life. Of course if there is no real answer to the first issue and central governments stop working, then the second issue may not arise, as in Richard Heinberg’s “Lifeboats” strategy in his book “Powerdown.”

    Here is a thought experiment which will allow us to separate these two issues. We have a time machine which enables us to go back to a Parallel Earth of the 16th century, just as Henry VIII takes office in 1509. (We also have a budget and limitations on what we can take back in time with us; but assume there are no time travel paradoxes.) We find Henry to be a very amiable sort of guy and he quickly makes us his key advisors. How do we generally improve things and make England great? Remember, Henry is King, so we don’t have to deal with the hoi polloi.

    Oh, there’s one catch: on Parallel Earth, there are no reserves of coal, oil, or natural gas (and we can’t take any back with us).

    I wrote briefly about this here some time back:

    This isn’t a perfect thought experiment. In some ways, Parallel Earth is a much tougher neighborhood even than our likely situation after an economic collapse (we still have some fossil fuels and the internet), in some ways, Parallel Earth is actually better off (population levels are probably 10% or so of 21st century population). But this is where I would start.

    I think the upshot of this is that technically it would not be difficult, taking modern knowledge and textbooks back with us, to build an advanced civilization that would be fairly comfortable and literate, even by modern standards, on Parallel Earth. But socially and politically it would be more difficult, even with Henry on our side as absolute monarch. Penicillin would be easy, birth control a bit trickier because of the social implications. We would then need to further divide the analysis to look at the strictly technical issues and the social / political ones. Our crisis is extremely difficult, but in some ways it is a social and political crisis even more than it is a crisis of limited natural resources.


  15. Ikonoclast says:

    Philip, I think Gail is aware of the issues you raise. This is a kind of triple-bunger issue and any one bunger, or two or three simultaneously, could blow up in our faces. (Bunger is old fashioned Australian jargon for a large firecracker.)

    Climate change, fossil fuel use and resource depletion/resource substitution (in the form of non-renewables and transition to renewables) are interconnected problems. Unrestrained population growth is the fourth overarching issue.

    You say, “Addressing peak oil sensibly will also mean reducing the dangers we face from climate change, and visa verse” This is true in itself. But addressing peak oil and indeed peak fossils also means addressing all the transition and depletion issues; not only depletion of high quality energy sources but also general depletion of high quality raw material resources. Lower quality raw resources (like lower grade metal ores) will directly act to increase our need for energy precisely when that energy is not available. It appears likely that the energy for transition and exploitation of lower quality resources simply will not be available; certainly not for 7 to 9 billion people.

    I see only one energy hope on the technical front. It might be possible to meet our energy needs by utilising solar convection towers. Countries with ample hot arid or wide plains areas could begin a crash program to build these towers. Once scaled up these towers would be 1,000 m high which is twice the height of the world’s current tallest buildings. This is technically feasible and adequate steel, concrete and energy could be harnessed for this particularly if military budgets were cut back. A large circular tarmac apron and “glasshouse” cover surrounds each tower. Asphalt is not in short supply and can even be recovered from urban areas by reducing road surface. (We will move to public transport.)

    Each tower would produce enough power for about a city of 250,000 people. These towers produce power 24/7 as they work on the temperature differential between the surface and an altitude of 1,000 m. This temperature differential is higher at night so these towers actually produce even more power at night.

    An additional benefit is that such towers could also be set up to produce and liquify methane from the electrical power plus CO2 and H2O inputs. This methane could replace hydrocarbon fuels. This means our current transport rolling stock (converted to run on methane) and manufacturing committement to IC engine technology do not have to be retired and replaced by electric vehicles. Electric vehicles require too many rare earths and exotic or expensive minerals to ever be viable on a large scale.

    This scenario might seem science-fictionish but it may be our only hope. Certainly our only hope is large scale utilisation of solar energy. If we cannot scale up to this or if the energy density of solar is too low (requiring an impossible extent of collection infrastructure) then yes, we are totally doomed.

  16. Gary Peters says:

    Though little is mentioned here about population, it remains crucial to discussions of the future. When Malthus wrote his famous essay on population in 1798 the planet had less than one billion people, though Homo sapiens had been around for about 200,000 years. Since then, thanks in large part to our discovery and exploitation of fossil fuels–first coal, then oil, and finally natural gas–our numbers have grown at an unprecedented rate. In 1900 there were about 1.6 billion humans; today we are approaching 7 billion.

    It is popular, but highly misleading, to argue that the demographic transition, a descriptive and not a predictive model, will gradually bring about population stabilization in the world’s population somewhere in the 9-10 billion range. Gail’s argument in this post show how unrealistic this model really is for predicting the future course of demography by demonstrating how unlikely it is that we can sustain economic growth in a world bumping up today against serious energy restraints.

    Everyone alive today has lived in a world characterized by population growth, so many believe that is the natural state of the human population. Nothing could be further from the truth. Throughout history human populations have ebbed and flowed with changes in food supplies, disease incidence, ecological problems, and energy supplies. Only since the Industrial Revolution, with its shift from animate to inanimate (and very concentrated) sources of energy has the human population been able to go on a growth binge, what biologists might term an “outbreak.”

    If any other large mammal had gone on such a growth spurt, we would have done something to stop it. On the other hand, we have no predators, so we’ve covered the planet with our species, transformed landscapes around the world, and pushed numerous species over the brink and into extinction.

    Now, as we run up against constraints in our use of oil, then coal, and finally natural gas we may be reaching a new era in which the growth of economies and human populations will no longer be possible. It took tens of millions, in some cases hundreds of millions, of years for Earth to store so much carbon under its crust. It has taken only a couple of centuries for humans to utilize a substantial portion of that stored solar energy. We continue to burn up fossil fuels as fast as possible, but we are getting ever closer to paying the price for what we’ve done. The bills are now coming due and a part of the price to be paid is likely to be a substantial decline in the human population. Another part of the bill will be substantial climatic changes because the CO2 content of the atmosphere has increased from around 280 parts per million in 1850 to 390 parts per million today.

  17. Philip says:

    First, a couple of remarks about 1250. As Jean Gimpel made clear in his book, The Medieval Machine: The Industrial Revolution of the Middle Ages, the medieval period was one of significant technological innovation. It saw the invention of eyeglasses, the mechanical clock (which in the West, unlike China, continued to be refined and did not fall into disuse), a more efficient plow, and the first widespread use of labor saving energy technology – water and windmills. According to Lewis Mumford, it is “the clock, not the steam engine” that “is the key machine of the modern industrial age.”

    Gail – I value your intelligence, your insights, your diligence, and your modesty, and even when I’m not sure whether I agree with you, your posts force me to think and evaluate my own position. But something troubles me. I see climate change as a far greater and more lasting threat than peak oil and the like, for where the latter will affect the quality of human civilization, the former will determine living conditions on Earth for perhaps thousands of years. You write that you are interested in “finite world issues…and climate change”, yet I’ve seen little evidence of this. Instead of dealing with the relationship between fossil fuels and climate change, I believe you focus on our ability to extract ever more oil, regardless of the consequences. This really shouldn’t be a matter of either or. Addressing peak oil sensibly will also mean reducing the dangers we face from climate change, and visa verse.

    • The climate has always been changing. We have been fortunate to have lived during the 10,000 year period when climate has been stable enough for people to settle down and grow crops, and develop all kinds of technological advances. This is a longer period of stability than we would have expected. If past patterns had held, we would be back to an ice age by now.

      It would be nice if “we” could fix it so the climate stops changing, but I don’t think that is possible. I expect that peak oil will in fact, do, far more too stop all fossil fuel use than 99% of climate change activists are hoping for. What peak oil does is break the financial system, and without it, it becomes impossible to have natural gas, coal or nuclear. What climate change activists would like will either (1) break the financial system sooner, and take many of us with it or (2) waste a lot of money on things that don’t really do anything, and will never be useful (carbon sequestration) or (3) are terribly expensive and have no long-term benefit (offshore wind).

      “We” don’t really have control over what the other 6.9 billion people in the world do, and even if we did, it is not clear to me that there is much that we could do to “fix” the climate situation. Even if all fossil fuel use stopped tomorrow, and the world population went down to 100 million by the end of the year, I don’t see that it would make much difference in fixing climate change. The climate would continue to change, and the world likely would be less hospitable for people 100 years from now in some way–hotter, colder, wetter, dryer. It looks to me as though all fossil fuel use will stop very quickly anyhow, regardless of how we much we worry about the situation–perhaps as soon as 20 years from now. So running around frantically, trying to do something, when there is really nothing helpful we can do is a waste of time.

      • Philip says:

        Gail –
        Thanks for your reply. I regret not having taken another look at this post before now.

        I think your statement, “The climate has always been changing,”
        overlooks the speed, cause, and consequences of current climate change. What’s happening now is unlike what happened before, and the differences are important. I’m rather pessimistic about our future prospects, but I don’t think that rolling over and playing dead is a particularly constructive strategy. We may not be able to achieve very much, but I do think it important that we try.

        To the best of my knowledge carbon sequestration is not supported by a homogeneous group of “climate change activists.” Greenpeace has issued a report about CCS entitled False Hope, and this seems to sum up the prevailing view of most people concerned about climate change. I think you’ll find that CCS is mainly supported by the coal industry and its supporters, not as a concrete course of action, but as a bit of rhetoric designed to give credit to the concept of clean coal and thus make coal extraction as acceptable as possible. I’m not qualified to refute your contention about offshore wind, but I do know that the recently released Vestas V112 is supposed to be considerably more efficient than comparable models and that wind technology in general is constantly improving. I don’t think that offshore wind can be written off as easily as you have done. Finally, I’m not sure I know what you mean when you speak of “what climate change activists are hoping for,” so I don’t quite know how to respond to your remark about the financial system. More generally, we would certainly agree that peak oil will affect the financial system as we know it adversely.
        However this does not necessarily preclude the establishment of another kind of financial system that could channel available funds into socially vital projects.

        • The issue is that we lack net energy for investment. (This is what I am talking about in “WSJ, FInancial Times Raise Issue of Oil Prices Causing Recession”.) Putting large amounts of what little resources we have left into offshore wind doesn’t really help the situation–just leaves us with more assets that will be likely be unproductive, long before the planned end of their lifespans. Unfortunately, without resources for investment, we can’t maintain the high tech solutions we have been chasing after, including offshore wind turbines, and they will fairly quickly fall into disrepair.

          It seems to me we would be better off putting our resources into things that can truly help up for the long haul–like raising draft animals, making simple tools that can be used without fossil fuels; finding the right crops and crop rotation for different areas, without commercial fertilizer; training people in what needs to be done. Offshore wind farms only have a place as part of the current fossil fuel age, and in my view, it will leave us quite quickly, whether or not we do anything to actively discourage it.

  18. John Weber says:

    I lived off the grid for 30 years but was still really tied into the technological society. My first wood cookstove alone was built in 1935 and I got it in 1973 and used it daily for 25 years. I was certainly a product of an industrial society.
    I have studied the middle ages because I believe we will live at the per capita energy level of that period of time. We will have materials to mine from the present era for a while. But ultimately, I believe it will be human and animal power with a scattering of mechanical wind (dutch windmills as example) and water wheels. That still doesn’t insure sustainability. Humans need to figure out how not to overshoot. This will probably need to be a believe system (read religion). Very difficult to come to and even more difficult to maintain at least peacefully and fairly.
    Plus a few bad growing seasons through the whole period out of kilter. In England it was cold and wet that ruined growing seasons. I would suggest people study this period of time.

    • Interesting observations!

      I really studied the Middle Ages. It seems like the Middle Ages around the world might be worthwhile studying, since the oriental groups seemed to have very different solutions than the Europeans. I am sure that there were many other cultures as well, for example in Africa and the Middle East.

      With bad growing seasons, I expect keeping the population down might be easier than you think, but not for a good reason. The last 10,000 years have been unusually stable, climate-wise. As we go forward, whether or not we have man-made climate change, the climate is likely to vary more than we have been accustomed in the past 100 years. Hunter-gatherers seem to do OK with climate change, but changing climate is difficult for folks who attach themselves to the land in one location.

      I think you are right about religion likely being important in the future for transmitting values required for keeping population down. This seems to be the way cultures around the world have transmitted values of many types for thousands of years.

  19. Ikonoclast says:

    I think it is clear that production is almost directly proportional to energy inputs. It is also appears that we are at “peak energy harnessing” right about now. Peak oil for example was likely 2005. Gas and coal are making up the shorttfall for the time being but we are basically at the top of the energy plateau. I see us starting to fall off that plateau about 2012 to 2015.

    This means world production or world income has essentially peaked or will do dio very soon. The world of 2020 will be no more productive and possibly noticeably less productive than the the world of 2010 and yet population will continue to overshoot until 2020 or even beyond. This is the crunch decade. World history will move rapidly and painfully now. The food price riots of the Arab world (for that is what they really are) are a harbinger of the future.

  20. Jerry McManus says:

    In regards to the idea of returning to 1750, I would suggest that one likely future scenario is already in evidence in many parts of the world.

    Rather than simply turning back the clock, so to speak, we should ask ourselves how the current built environment will likely be used with much less energy and resources available.

    There are already many places on Earth where people use far less energy, and consequently have much lower standards of living than average North Americans or Europeans, but who are living in relatively “modern” infrastructure.

    These places are the teeming slums of the so-called “third world”.

    To be clear, I am NOT making any claims about the sustainability of these populations, only that we already know what overpopulated cities, most of which were built out in the last hundred years or so, look like when people are forced to live on very small amounts of energy and resources.

    Not a pretty picture.

  21. Jerry McManus says:

    I will add my voice to the “Excellent post!” chorus. Whatever else can be said about the changes (or lack thereof) at TOD, I think this blog is a fantastic improvement. For example, I know from personal experience that any suggestion that so-called “renewables” are just as dependent on fossil fuel inputs as the rest of our industrial civilization is often met with disbelief, if not outright ridicule.

    I especially like your thinking in terms of the whole system. Population, pollution, resources, food, water, energy, economy…, all these things and more must be considered in any meaningful discussion of our predicament. Great job “connecting the dots” so to speak, and exploring the dynamic feedbacks of these systems.

  22. Ikonoclast says:

    That is a dismal thesis Gail and in most practical senses probably very likely to come true. I will come back to this predictive issue. I can understand the frustration that makes you want to hit the “endless growthers” between the eyes with a hard up-front thesis like this. The smugness, blindness and destructiveness of the endless growth, business as usual, corporate capital system is infuriating. It seems impervious to all warnings or attempts at change.

    At the theoretic level however, I do not agree with the basic thesis, “There is No Steady State Economy except at a very basic level.”. This thesis posits that a steady state economy more advanced than that of circa 1750 can never exist. There is no way we can know this for certain at this stage. Karl Popper effectively refuted historicist thinking at least of the sort which implies we already know all the laws which determine historical development. Popper’s refutation rested on the simple premise that human knowledge (to some extent) determines the course of human history and that we cannot predict what future knowledge we might have.

    One post above has already named an academic (Steve Keen) whose work might indicate that one of the planks of your thesis (that growth is needed to repay debt) is flawed. To categorically state that we can never develop a financial system to accommodate the needs of a steady state economy (with a debt or a non-debt system or some hybrid thereof), is to make an historicist claim which denies all possibility of the development of human knowledge and techniques in this area. The thesis as it stands also contains a clear presupposition. The presupposition is that a materially steady state economy is steady state in all aspects. This need not be so. For example, knowledge, science, technology and the arts could still progress and change in a materially steady state society.

    It is one thing to say that such a materially steady state advanced economy might be possible theoretically. It is another thing to surmount the enormous practical and material problems we now face and to transition to such an economy. The central dilemma revolves around two issues. Will renewables ever provide enough energy and materials to maintain a materially steady state advanced (and qualitatively advancing) society? Do enough non-renewable resources remain to enable the transition? I really don’t know the answers to these questions. The answers would require a vast quantitative investigation. I am not aware of anyone currently undertaking or publishing such a comprehensive study.

    My gut instinct is that such a transition (to maybe one or two billion humans living in a materially steady state and frugal society still incorporating the potential for further qualitative advancement in the sciences and arts) is theoretically possible. If we had commenced action immediately upon the publication of ‘Limits to Growth’ we might have done it. In practice, now I cannot see it happening. Overshoot, resource depletion and climate damage are already so great we have probably precluded the possibility.

    Nevertheless, when the crisis really bites it will be the right moment for the overthrow of capitalism. The masses (or what remains of them) will be furious with the system that has totally mislead and betrayed them and wrecked their world. Our one last hope is that some sort of green socialism arises which seeks to create a better and fairer society for the remnants of humanity. But perhaps almost medieval style warlords will rule once again. Either way, in the race memory and traditions, capitalism will be excoriated as the most evil and destructive of any systems for as long as humans continue to exist.

  23. Acoatl says:

    Adam Smith was the father of Modern Capitalism. He wrote The Wealth of Nations at the first birth pangs of the Industrial Revolution.

    Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto as a responce to the exesses of Capitalism. Communism depends on the concept that people can share.

    Industrial Capitalism depends on an ever increasing amount of raw materials and that the two parties will fulfill at least the written part of there contracts.

    It is becoming apparent that Industrial Capitalism at least in its present form is not working. We are running out of nonrenewable resources and the Banking Capitalism we have now seems to be involved in massive widespread fraud.

    If the collapse of Communism showed that we can´t trust people to share. The continuing collapse of Capitalism and the widespread fraud show that we can´t trust people to keep there word.

    What type of economic system can we have if we can´t trust people to share and we can´t trust them to be truthfull?

    It seems to me that with the continuing collapse of civilization as we know it as evidenced by the current worlkd wide depresion. The resource wars, Global Warming, rising food prices, overthrow of governments throughout the Middle East ext.
    That citizens will clamor for protection befor economic liberty.

    The best armed and most organised elements of society the ones most able to step in and restore order and protection when the governments colapse is the criminal elements of society. The Mob and Drug Cartels. These elements operate in a feudal system.

    The mob boss divides up his teritory among his leutenats for loyalty and a persentage of the take. These leutnents furhter devide up the teritory until the lowest levels go about the business protecting the citizens.

    The Mob and Drug Cartels operate in an environment where people are expected to not share or be truthfull. Where the threat of violence of actual violence is commonplace.


    “People who are not students of economics are destined to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

    I am afraid this is correct most people are not students of history or economics and I believe that we will revert to a simpler system of economics.


    • Some of the difficulties we are having may relate to having so many people.

      It seems like many early systems worked as “gift economies,” where each person would share his/her excesses (good harvests, successes in hunting) with his tribe, and they in turn would share their excesses with the group. This system works reasonably well with small groups, but not so well with larger groups. Maybe if the population declines, we will return more to a gift economy approach. If there is no saving for the future (refrigeration, bank accounts, insurance policies) then groups almost have to have an economy that includes aspects of a gift economy.

  24. Ed Pell says:

    There is no agreed on energy payback time for PV panels but 8 years seems to be a fair number after looking at several sources. With a 24 year life time a single PV panel can make 3 PV panels. So we can have a self fueling renewable energy system. It may take awhile 10×16 years so 160 years to build up.

    • George Mobus says:


      Payback time is not an adequate metric for determining the capacity of PV to replicate itself. One has to look at the total energy consumption and the qualities of the energies needed to do the work. For instance, what will be the energy requirements for recycling materials, or extracting new materials from raw resources? No one knows the real EROI of PV (or other alternatives either) because we do not know the energy investment numbers. These can only be estimated roughly by the dollar proxy and that is a very poor proxy indeed.

      This doesn’t even get to the issues of converting all production work processes to, say, electricity in order that the energy from PV can be fed back into the production processes. Worse still is if you used electricity from PV to ‘make’ a liquid fuel, for, say extraction and transportation, you will be lowering the EROI considerably.

      Unfortunately the monetary numbers are almost meaningless in this computation. Among other factors there is a great distortion due to things like subsidies that skew the cost numbers rather badly.


      • marty schoffstall says:

        To be slightly more optimistic, no one really knows the lifetime of the PV panels. I have 5kw of 12 year old panels with zero failures, and not showing the predicted 10% decline per decade, and i have little motivation to remove them. It is possible that PV based residential systems might last much longer and the homes they are in might use less electricity over time due to lighting/motor/compressor/electronics decreases.

      • I agree with you George.

        Also, most current installations are part of a grid tied system. Once the grid goes down, the solar panel becomes less useful Even if the panels have battery backup, it will be hard to find replacement batteries at some time.

        But none of this talks directly about the problem of a renewable system not being able to make more solar panels. Once they are gone they are gone. The same with the backup batteries, and the electric light bulbs attached to them.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          gailtheactuary says:”Also, most current installations are part of a grid tied system. Once the grid goes down, the solar panel becomes less useful Even if the panels have battery backup, it will be hard to find replacement batteries at some time.”

          As globalization dies of catabolic failure, I see a great deal of variation in this regard. Areas that get all their electricity from hydropower could continue for a long time.

          Also, the technology behind lead-acid batteries is simple and well-understood. A small city or large town could have the capability of re-manufacturing these without the support of global supply chains.

          That’s not to say that things can remain peachy-keen in some places, but that the inevitable decline will be slower and more measured, with more resilience.

          I do agree that solar panels are going to be in trouble soon, but batteries? My rule of thumb is that if it existed 150 years ago (pre-oil), some form of it may continue into the future — such as it is.

          • Perhaps so. We do have a lot of minerals already extracted, and if we can figure out a way to re-maunfacture batteries and other basic needs, we will be ahead. The problem I see is that you sill need to keep manufacturing the things the batteries and the solar panels make, too– for example light bulbs, and refrigerators, and washing machines. At some point, this will become too difficult.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          gailtheactuary “The problem I see is that you sill need to keep manufacturing the things the batteries and the solar panels make, too– for example light bulbs, and refrigerators, and washing machines. At some point, this will become too difficult.”

          I agree with the “at some point” part, but one issue I have with most “doomers” is that they can see the wolf at the door, and they can see far into the future, but they are myopic about the medium-term.

          There are lots of people who are capable of maintaining and custom-building the things you cite. Custom-built is eschewed these days due to “economy of scale,” but in a world of declining energy, labour is about to get very cheap, and custom-built (really, repair and modification) is about to become very popular!

          I get so tired of people telling me our little ecovillage isn’t “sustainable” because we aren’t using draft horses. Diesel farm equipment has a long life, and we should not be abandoning its embedded energy, just because “at some point” we’ll be farming with horses!

          So yea, some day (probably after we’re all dead) there will be no more tractors or refrigerators. And some day soon (while we’re still kicking, and can still contribute to the viability of future generations) there will not be many new mass-produced industrial goods. But the space in-between will be crucial to future generations, and we need to encourage those who can keep existing artifacts useful.

          • It is hard to know how long the mid-term will last. I know a lot of people are counting on it lasting for quite a while.

            One of the bit questions how long diesel fuel (or other fuel) will to be available. The myth is that there will always be some oil, but it will be more expensive. I think that is simply a myth. We are likely to have oil-based fuels If we can keep all of our systems operating (oil pumping from the ground, refineries going, financial systems going, electricity operating, food production up so people aren’t too hungry, political system relatively stable). Otherwise, I would be pretty doubtful of fuel availability.

            My guess is the mid-term will be pretty short. It seems to me that it can’t be more than 20 years, and could be much less. A look at how things progress in Libya over the next three months could be instructive in this regard. As food supplies get short, and debt defaults become major problems, we are likely to see more revolutions and general political unrest in many countries around the world.

            One of the concerns that I have is that transition to doing without oil will be very slow. If this is the case, we need to start raising draft animals and developing crops that are easy to use without refrigeration, now rather than later. Otherwise, the next step down will be much worse.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “One of the bit questions how long diesel fuel (or other fuel) will to be available.”

          It’s not that difficult to run diesel engines on plant oils. I’ve been doing it, as have others. I figure oil crops can have an ERoEI of between eight and fifteen. We’re going to be experimenting with using oilseed crops to fuel semi-mechanised agriculture and food delivery systems.

          I think attitude is going to be very important. I know people are going to suffer and die, but in all our preparations, I’m approaching this as an adventure and challenge, trying to stay impassive and uninvested in any particular outcome while following what seems like the best path. It’s going to take diversity of ideas to keep life meaningful!

  25. RobM says:

    “So economic growth is needed to create the additional money so that the debt can be paid back with interest.”

    I used to agree with this until I studied the work of Steve Keen. He shows that it is possible to have a “reasonably” stable system with credit money and no growth, provided that population does not grow, and provided that some key resource, like oil, does not decline. The common belief that credit money requires growth to pay interest apparently results from confusing money stocks with money flows.

    This superb talk explains it:

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “… provided that some key resource, like oil, does not decline.”

      Does Keen explain how to accomplish that? Didn’t think so!

      • RobM says:

        No, but that’s not the point. At some point, assuming we do not go extinct, we will be forced to adopt a no growth steady state system. Many people believe that this system cannot use credit money because it requires growth. Steve Keen says it can use credit money.

  26. aeldric says:

    Good points Gail.

    Humans don’t seem to do Steady State well… we are more a “Boom and Bust” kind of organism.

    If we learn to do Steady State it won’t be at the level of affluence that we currently enjoy here in the Western world, nor will it be at the population level that currently exists.

    1250 AD may indeed be a good model for a Steady State society -We would have a small group of ruling elite that enjoys an affluent lifestyle at the expense of a serf class who live in perpetual subjugation…. oh wait …. let me rephrase that – A small group that enjoys a relatively affluent Steady State lifestyle at the expense of a serf class who live in perpetual subjugation…. nope, still sounds like 2011 to me….
    A small group that enjoys a Steady State lifestyle at a lower energy level than our current usage, but still enjoy relatively affluence at the expense of a serf class who live in perpetual subjugation at an extremely low level of energy usage. There we go, fixed it….. 🙂

    • Gary Peters says:


      All populations are boom or bust–all do their best to grow but must find some balance, often growing then declining, depending on what is happening to food supplies, predators, etc. Humans remain animals, however some among us might wish to think differently.

    • That may very well be right. Past ages have always had a serf class, and often outright slaves, and a few in the ruling class.

  27. Ed Pell says:

    It is evolution in action. Those who survive are the fittest for the given environment.

    We all seem to agree that not all will survive. In fact most will not survive. There is still the question who will survive?

  28. John B says:

    The points made are valid based on the thinking of today, the ways of today and the desire to keep today’s standard of living. But as noted, nothing about today is sustainable, even the economy and the silly notion that growth is mandatory.

    Shift the thinking to an alternate paradigm whereby growth is not necessary. Only then will we get ourselves out of the mess that we are in now. We do need a radical shift and it could be 1750 or 1250 living and thinking, but it will be necessary in order to ensure survival. And it damn well better happen soon.

    Action is required, the days of talk are long gone.

    Those that are concerned about economic growth and preserving today’s structure are simply protecting their own little place within it.

  29. Neil Paynter says:

    Thank you for this insightful evaluation of the ‘steady-state’ issue. As the original “Limits to Growth” study showed, putting the world on anything like a steady-state trajectory would have required developing a social consensus towards that end decades ago. The window there has opened and closed, and it is best just to admit that and move on, dealing with collapse as it unfolds.

    I would like to point out what is perhaps the result of some reductionism in your line of thinking. The level of material throughput of 1750 for one billion people needn’t necessarily mean the recreation of the technology of the World of 1750. In the transition to the fossil-free future, there are a lot of ‘low hanging fruit’ energy gains thanks to collapse. For example, the end of the mass private-passenger car, along with the disinvestment in the suburban build-out, will free up energy which can rebuild the city/village model of civilisation with a modicum of modern comforts in those parts of the World which have overshot.

    To the world’s wealthy, a 90% reduction in consumption might feel like a catastrophe. To those who are already living modestly, entrepreneurial opportunities ensure that the future could be built in a progressive line.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Neil, I tend to agree that “To those who are already living modestly, entrepreneurial opportunities ensure that the future could be built in a progressive line.”

      And yet, I think one still needs to examine what “living modestly” means. If you are in an “occupation” or a “career,” I don’t think living modestly is enough, because you are still a slave to the greater economy, which is headed for a major train wreck.

      I think the only way to avoid such a train wreck is to get off the economy to the greatest degree possible. This means supplying much of your own food and energy, and bartering instead of collecting little bits of coloured paper to supply your needs.

      A single occupation or career is “fiscal monoculture.” If you can’t supply your own needs (and thus must remain on the economy), you need to have multiple small revenue streams.

      • Neil Paynter says:

        If you are living in a large enough village or a city, a single career is usually just fine – has been for thousands of years – I don’t see why that wouldn’t continue to be the case.

        By modestly, I mean living on the order of US$5,000 per capita per year, or even less. I think the biggest mistake anyone could make at this point is attempting to continue in a lifestyle that depends on much more income than that.

        I’m all over getting prepared for barter, but I’d just as soon wait for that when the need arises.

        • Jason Schneider says:

          Neil, I live in interior Alaska and have a friend that moved here in 1971 and in 1972 homesteaded north of Denali National Park. He came out of the woods in 2003 or so. He has described to me his lifestyle, which by most people’s standards (including his homestead neighbors with there planes and heavy equipment; his direct neighbor raises buffalo, but still has to fly in tons of fertilizer every season) would be considered hell. He didn’t drink anything other than water. He didn’t eat any refined sugar and use any type of spice what-so-ever (just a wood stove to cook on). He ate what was in season (he has described many years of eating mostly beaver, cranberries and grouse; moose was too much work and expended more energy than he wanted). Every summer when the bushrats come back to town they do bring supplies back with them, but when you have to paddle over 300 miles you’d be surprised at the things you can do without.

          I’d bet that my friend made about $5000 a year trapping and fishing (in the ’80’s Japanese were paying $100 for a 5 gallon bucket full of salmon roe). Running a dog team with only food from the bush! Of course, like all other bushrats, he did bring in supplies during the summer. Even though he built his first two cabins with hand tools and block and tackle, he still needed nails, tin for the roof, ways to patch the sled and canoe, etc…..

          Here’s a link to an article in Fairbanks Daily Newsminer written by someone living off the road, yet still dependent on modern days.


          I guess my point is that it can be done, but it won’t be like anything like today. My personal opinion if a complete collapse happens, it will be like living in 1850 but with a time machine:) Before you throw anything away, think first!

          Gail, thanks for the reading! I think I might have a chance to meet you this spring if you come up?


          • That is an interesting story about your friend. It sounds like he really worked at it!

            The story from the link talks about putting moose meat in a freezer. Let’s hope there is still electricity, or the moose meat won’t keep very long! I think the majority of people who are thinking about living off the land assume a pretty high level of services will continue. I know I talked to one woman who planned to use city water to water her blueberries, then store them in her freezer. Even simple things like electric fences assume continuation of our manufacturing industry and transportation to where they are needed. For now, we have all these things. The question is how long these nice things will last.

            I am not sure that the Alaska trip will work out. You should talk to the organizers at your end, if you know them.

        • marty schoffstall says:

          You maybe talking past each other. The “single career” individuals of the villages of 1750 and before had to partially manage and create his/her food and energy stream. The physician’s horse (as an example) might have a bit of a paddock beside the house, the physicians backyard might have a clutch of hens, and a bit of a garden, and the household worked towards the processing of food into storage through smoking, drying, root-cellaring. Since there was little hard money, account scripts might be kept on who owed whom what, even in the specialist stores like the tack shop. Wood eat is whole other issue in this world.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          marty schoffstall wrote: “The ‘single career’ individuals of the villages of 1750 and before had to partially manage and create his/her food and energy stream. The physician’s horse (as an example) might have a bit of a paddock beside the house, the physicians backyard might have a clutch of hens, and a bit of a garden, and the household worked towards the processing of food into storage through smoking, drying, root-cellaring.”

          My point exactly; you explained it better than I.

          Today, you typically exchange all or most of your intellect and effort for bits of coloured paper, which you then exchange for all your needs.

          By “multiple small revenue streams,” I meant not only money, but sustenance.

          But I also meant money, if your career or occupation only supplies you with money from far away. In the example above, the local doctor (who was also a farmer and food processor) undoubtedly got all his currency from the local populace. Contrast this to most people’s occupations in cubicle farms — the money they are paid comes from far away, and I would still suggest that they have more than that one revenue stream!

  30. wotfigo says:

    Why did you chose the year 1750? Why not 1850 or 1650 or even 1250?

    1250 may be a good starting point if you want to consider a strong possibility of a new medieval “Dark Ages” where there was almost a zero fiat money economy in existence in Europe.

    The European medieval steady state natural economy followed the collapse of Rome. It seems likely that a similar medieval civilisation will emerge from the collapse of our modern FF based high tech civilisation.

    • By 1800, we were starting to use a little coal. So 1750 was the next step back. The industrial revolution started about 1800.

      It might be that 1250 is a better estimate of where we would end up, for the reasons you mention.

  31. George Mobus says:

    Insightful as always Gail.

    I’ll mimic John and post the URL to my latest blog at Question Everything since it appears to be on topic. Past the Point of No Return. Hints at a worst-case scenario.


  32. Richard Ha says:

    Excellent Gail!
    What if we maintained oil production at the same level for a number of years. Wouldn’t the net energy available to the world decline even as we felt we were maintaining the status quo because we would be using up the cheap and easy to access oil first?

  33. John Weber says:

    Gail – I agree with this assessment. As usual, right on. Here is my newest blog essay. You might find it interesting.
    The Curmudgeon Report

    Maybe, just maybe, a couple billion people have some awareness of climate change. Maybe, just maybe, 500 million to a billion people have some awareness of peak oil and fossil fuel depletion. Maybe 100 thousand really have knowledge of these and other defining issues. Maybe a thousand people are writing about these issues. It is all speculation and it doesn’t matter one iota.

    We will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to continue on this path. And if we don’t have the energy level we see others have, we will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people and even to ourselves to attain that level. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.

Comments are closed.