What President Obama Should Have Said Regarding Energy Policy

We meet here at a tumultuous time for the world.  In a matter of months, we’ve seen regimes toppled and democracy take root across North Africa and the Middle East. One particular area of concern is our energy supply, both present and in the future. It very much affects all of our nation’s actions, both at home and abroad.

I am afraid we have not been entirely open and honest about the situation in the past, but I want to make a change, and talk about the real energy situation, and start making plans for a lower-energy world. In the not too distant future–probably within the next 20 to 50 years, but perhaps as soon as the next 10 years, we will need to go back to using just the energy resources that we receive each day to sustain this world. This will require a very different type of society than we have today.

Our Current Predicament

In the last 200 years, roughly the time the United States has been existence, the world has been transformed through the use of fossil fuels. Huge economic growth has been possible, as well as huge aggregation of wealth. We have gone from a nation of people who walked and used animals for transport, to one that depends on cars, trucks, trains, and jets for transport. We have been able to develop electrical availability for every purpose, and many devices, including computers and the Internet. The world has gone from being able to support less than 1 billion people, to being able to support nearly 7 billion people.

Figure 1. World Population Growth

Figure 2. World population, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red)

We now need to start planning to go back again to a world without fossil fuels. This decision is not our choice. We would like to postpone the decision as long as possible, but it is not clear how much longer we can postpone it. The decision is being imposed on us by outside forces. The force you hear most about is climate change, but this is only one of many issues.

The real issue is that we have built an economy that requires growth to survive, but this is no longer possible, because of difficulty in obtaining cheap fossil fuels needed to run our economy. We have also raised the world population to a point where we need fossil fuels to keep food production at its current high level. We are reaching the point where economic collapse, reaching all aspects of living, is not only possible; it is quite likely.

Problems with Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels are becoming more difficult to extract, because we extracted the high quality, easy-to-extract resources first. What we have left are fossil fuel resources that are much more difficult (expensive) to extract, and often of lower quality, and more polluting. In the not too distant future, we will reach the point where we are spending as much to extract the fuel as the value society gets from the fuel. Some would argue that we are already reaching this level when one considers the pollution issues associated with coal, the potential for spills with oil drilling, and the issues with potential damage to water supplies, when using “fracking” to obtain natural gas.

Figure 3. World Fossil Fuel Production

The total amount of fossil fuel resources extracted around the world continues to rise, but it is fairly certain that within the next 30 years, world fossil fuel resources that can be profitably extracted even in the absence of collapse will decline. If collapse occurs, a decline in all fossil fuel extraction is likely to take place in the years following collapse.

Oil resources are the highest quality fossil fuel resources. Figure 3 shows that world oil extraction has been close to flat for over six years now, and even prior to 2004, was not rising rapidly. Future problems with oil supply appear to have a serious chance of inducing collapse.

Oil prices recently have been volatile. The US and many other countries went into recession when oil prices peaked in 2008. There are signs that economic strain are reaching the world economy, even as oil prices are again rising. We have heard about the financial difficulties of Greece, Ireland, and Portugal. If oil prices continue to rise, we are likely enter a new recession, even worse than the last one. If this happens, it is likely that United States, Britain,  Japan, and much of the rest of the world will face debt default.

Figure 4. US Liquid fuels by source (petroleum and substitutes)

The US has been an oil importer for many years, even though it is at this point the third largest oil producer in the world. We expect imported oil to become less and less available in the years ahead. This is one of the reasons we need to change our way of life, so we use less oil and fossil fuels of all types.

Fossil Fuel Extenders

We have attempted for years to find substitutes, but have had limited success. Our biggest success came years ago, with hydroelectric, but even these plants require fossil fuels for upkeep, so probably cannot be maintained in its current form for the long term. Much smaller plants could perhaps be maintained without fossil fuels.

Figure 5. United States Electricity Generation by source, based on BP and EIA data. "Renewables" relates to wood, waste, geothermal, wind, and solar combined.

Wind is used as a fossil fuel extender for electricity production, but cannot be expected to last any longer than oil availability, so is of limited benefit for the long term.

Solar photovoltaic is also a fossil fuel extender. Individual panels can last longer than the grid, but we will not be able to manufacture them without fossil fuels. Also, they require an electrically powered inverter, so should also be considered fossil fuel extenders.

In the future, we will drop the word “renewables” when referring to these sources of electricity, since the fuel sources we have been able to identify are simply fossil fuel extenders, and will lose their usefulness within a few years after we lose fossil fuel use.

Nuclear has been another big success as a fossil fuel extender, now powering 20% of the United State’s electricity. Along the US East Coast, 30% to 35% of electricity is powered with nuclear. But it too needs fossil fuels, to extract and refine fuel, to clean up after accidents, and to decommission plants at the ends of their lifetimes.

Wood and other plant material is probably the only true renewable resource, but it is in quite limited supply. The US ran short of wood resources in the 1800s, when trying to heat homes with wood. We will need to watch our use of wood and plant material very closely, so as to not repeat these mistakes.

Biofuels as they are currently produced depend upon oil for growing the corn, plus natural gas or coal for the conversion process, and oil for shipping the finished product. Thus biofuels are primarily fossil fuel extenders, although perhaps they could be produced on a much more limited extent without fossil fuels. After all, American’s had stills in the days of prohibition, and the same principles work today.

Plans for the Future

I know people would like to transition to what we have thought of as “renewables”, but as we have seen, most of the alternative sources we have are simply fossil fuel extenders, that will disappear at the same time, or shortly after fossil fuels. What are truly renewable are growing plant and animal materials, which are in short supply.

We will have to change our lives very dramatically, to adapt to the new world. Even though we don’t know how soon this new world will arrive, we need to start taking steps to work toward this transition.

Let me first outline how the new world will likely look. As far as we can see now, most people will need to be farmers, or at least growing food on a small plot of land. Hopefully, the farmers will be able to produce enough surplus that trades people and small businesses can make a living as well. It is doubtful that there will be large businesses, especially large international businesses. Cities are likely to become much smaller, and population in the countryside will rise. Education will be much more limited than today. People will still be happy, but in a very different world.

Fortunately, he United States has quite a bit of arable land. According to the CIA World Factbook, the US has the equivalent of 437 million acres of arable land, and a population of 311 million, or an average of 1.4 acres of arable land per person. This might be enough to provide an adequate food supply, if resources are managed well, although it will be necessary to look into the details. It is not clear that there will be much room for large animals, such as cows or horses, unless the number of people is lower. New homes built will likely need to be very modest, probably without electricity or indoor plumbing.

With this background, these are the steps I am recommending that we take immediately:

1. $1 billion a year will be directed toward research on growing crops, using manual labor. What crops would work best, in which locations? What techniques should be used to assure long-term soil fertility (crop rotation, spreading of manure, “green manure” crops)? How should pests be kept away from crops, without pesticides or commercial fences? Where can simple irrigation techniques be used? As part of this effort, seeds will need  to be  developed for each area, along with techniques for seed-saving from year to year.

2. $1 billion a year will be directed toward research on preserving locally grown foods, recipes for locally grown foods, and techniques for cooking locally grown foods, without the use of electricity or fossil fuels. In addition, we will start teaching teachers about these techniques.

3. We will start immediate work with the UN to try to put together a new international financial system, that does not depend on debt and growth. The sticking point is likely to be countries who would like to buy goods and services from other countries, but have little to trade in return. If these countries have previously defaulted on their debt, other countries will not want to trade with them. Since additional debt seems imprudent, the US federal government will not raise its debt ceiling further. A 10% tax will be placed on all new debt entered into by private parties, as well.

4. We will discontinue research on and funding for most fossil fuel extenders. We will take steps to phase out the biofuel requirement, so as to have more land for growing food. We will discontinue special programs for wind and solar PV. We will cease to give tax credits for electric cars. We will also discontinue research on carbon capture and storage, since it appears to have little chance of being finished before we stop using coal anyway, and because it will result in an even faster burning of coal than otherwise. If there is evidence that a technology could possibly extend the time before collapse, such as thorium, work will be continued in such an area.

5. We will continue and greatly expand research on tools and techniques that can be used to make life better, without fossil fuels. These will include solar hot water heating, passive solar heating for homes, solar cookers (using mirrors), small wind and water turbines that can be used to run and pumps machines. We will also research the best of old technologies such as treadle sewing machines, spinning wheels, looms, and cotton gins. Textbooks will be put together, showing how these devices can be made with local materials, including metal recycled from other uses.

6. Families will be encouraged to have at most two children, with one child preferred. Tax laws will be changed to give same-sex couples the same tax breaks as married couples.

7. Over the last 40 year years, tax revenues from companies have all but disappeared, because international corporations can be structured to avoid taxes, and because many companies that sell goods in the United States are domiciled elsewhere. To put an end to these issues, the tax code will be changed to tax all goods and services (such as insurance) that are produced outside of the United States, but sold here. This tax will gradually be raised. At the same time taxes, on small local producers of goods and services will be lowered. Also, regulations will be rewritten so that they are suitable for small local businesses.

8. Schools will develop new curriculum that will emphasize the skills needed in the future. In particular, they will emphasize (1) math without calculators (but perhaps with abacuses and slide rules), (2) memorization, (3) growing crops and raising small animals (4) cooking with local ingredients, without fossil fuels, (5) food preservation (6) construction without fossil fuels (7) cloth-making and construction of clothing, (8) composting and recycling of human and animal waste (9) building rainwater catchment systems, (10) first aid and home medical care. Students should also have the opportunity to learn other skills, such as paper making, tanning of leather, making of shoes, and making of baskets and pottery.

9. An emphasis will be placed on a healthy lifestyle, rather than medical cures for every ailment. Medical care will gradually be scaled back, with coverage for the elderly and care for newborns under 4 pounds scaled back first. Also, if death is expected within six months, regardless of care, the only treatment provided will be palliative care. No coverage will be provided for fertility care or in vitro fertilization. Clinics charging a fee equal to three times the US hourly minimum wage will be encouraged. Providers will be asked to accept these charges as payment in full for their work.

10. We will develop a plan for buying land from large agricultural owners, and reselling (or gifting) the land back to individuals who demonstrate adequate skills for growing crops on the land. It may be that co-operatives can be formed to produce crops in areas now owned by large farmers.

11. Because we will be needing fewer roads in the future, and asphalt is an oil product, we will encourage states to cut back on the proportion of roads that are paved. We will stop funding for new lanes for roads, and for airport expansions. We will encourage cities to set aside streets to be used only by those using bicycles or walking.

12. To show our support for the new way of life, Michelle and I will turn the entire White House lawn into garden and space for a few goats and chickens. I will start riding a bicycle or walking from the White House to the Capitol, and will encourage members of Congress to do the same. I will cut back on my travel by 50%, trying to solve most problems by telephone or video conference. We will untangle our ties in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya, so there is not the need to send troops there, and military spending can be limited to what is needed for domestic needs.

I wish I could promise to build trains and rapid transit, but these will not be useful without fossil fuels. Also, there are likely to be many fewer people in cities, because so many people will be farmers, and because disease transmission in confined spaces is likely to again be a problem, especially if animals are used for transport. People in cities will need to walk as their primary form of transportation. It is possible bicycle transport can be maintained, but not certain that this is the case. Boats and barges have been a good form of transport for many years, and their use will be encouraged and expanded.

Energy efficiency is also not very much of an issue, if the primary goal is to move to a society that does not use fossil fuels. This is the case because there is no point in working to make fossil fuel using devices such as cars and trucks more efficient, if they are not to be used in the future. Energy can be saved by making fewer of them instead.

Climate Change or Collapse

Many people believe that Climate Change is the primary threat to the world today. This belief is based on the view that the exponential growth shown in Figures 1 and 2 will continue.

I am not of the belief that exponential growth shown in Figures 1 and 2 can continue. We can try to hold it up for a bit, so as to prevent collapse, but we are not likely to be very successful in preventing collapse for very long.

Because of the need to hold up exponential growth for the short-term, we will continue and expand oil and natural gas drilling in the United States. We do not kid ourselves that this additional drilling will make a huge difference, but it will provide energy resources needed to help with the transition, and may help keep the country from defaulting on its debt obligations for a while.

Figure 6. EIA Figure from the Early Release Overview of Annual Energy Release 2011. (Upper caption is EIA's.)

We note that the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), in its Early Release for Annual Energy Outlook 2011, expects that US natural gas efforts will result in only a very modest rise in natural gas production. If such a modest increase does result, it seems likely that businesses will modify a few of their fleet vehicles to use natural gas, without any special tax incentives. We note too that shale gas producers cannot make money at current prices, based on many analyses. If natural gas prices do not rise, even the limited growth in natural gas production seen by the EIA may prove optimistic.

While some may argue that we do not need to start planning for a world without fossil fuel, I believe that we need to start now, because the transition will take a number of years, and we don’t know when we will need to make the change. Even if we are able to continue exponential growth for a few more years, we know that exponential growth cannot continue forever because the world is finite. It makes sense to start planning for the disappearance of fossil fuels, now, while we still have them, and can use them to ease the transition.

* * *

Thank you for attending my talk today! I am sure if we work together, we can make this difficult transition a successful one.

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.
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43 Responses to What President Obama Should Have Said Regarding Energy Policy

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  3. Gary Peters says:


    Maybe you should run for office–I for one would appreciate a modicum of honesty from our elected officials, especially the one at the top. However, as Jimmy Carter found out back in the 1970s, a little honesty can do a lot of harm to one’s political career. Later on I think it was Bill Clinton who said that no one ever got elected to office in the U.S. by promising less to Americans. Now both republicans and democrats refuse to even use the word truth in their discussions, instead slicing and dicing issues like they were making vegetable soup.

    As you know, I’ve long been concerned about population and have long looked at all the rising curves associated with it, from energy use to extinction rates for other species, but still we go on, urged by corporate and political leaders, as if nothing might one day go wrong. What we will be able to say, whenever the roosters finally come home to roost, and dazed blonds on Fox news wonder “why didn’t someone tell us this could happen?” we will be able to say that someone, in fact many, did.

    It is too bad that Obama once again failed to make a choice that would have stood him above others, opting instead for another round of fantasy politics in which he, of course, sees little more than a need to stay where he is for another four years.

    I guess we’ll continue to add another 80 million or so people to the planet until finally the planet says “enough,” a word that has been purged from the vocabulary of all economists, corporate leaders, and politicians. When Earth finally speaks, we will have no choice but to listen, but by then it may be way too late. Linnaeus was far too generous when he named our species Homo sapiens.

    • Jen says:

      It is people like Jimmy Carter who deserve the name homo sapiens, who define, by their actions and ideas, what it is to be a person. Personhood needs to be cultivated, I think – only the potential is innate. We, as a whole and as individuals, spend a lot of time thinking strategically, like a pack of wolves (Obama’s address was strategic) in other words like animals. When we act with reason, ethics and compassion (like we see in Gail’s address) it makes us people – not the iPads, not The Bomb, not multi-national businesses, not the grid – reason, ethics and compassion are how we are “made in God’s image” or the substance of our “Buddha nature”. And it does not need fossil fuels, or capital, imagine that…
      Gail, I would vote for you, though I think your efforts on this blog, and in the book I am excited to hear you are writing, may well supersede what a public official could reasonably accomplish at this point. Thank you and keep up the good work.

  4. dan allen says:

    Great article, Gail! A voice of sanity within a caucophony of delusion, lies, and hypocrisy. If only…

    It’ll be interesting to see if some degree of sanity (such as your article) can reclaim our leadership’s minds when ‘the troubles’ begin in earnest. …But I’m not putting any bets on it, myself.

    We may very well see the reverse — a rise of toxic 1930’s-style Germany & Japan hijinks. So it goes.

  5. Pingback: Alternative US Energy Policy – Speech Text by Gail Tverberg | Transition Centre County

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  7. Wesley says:

    Book marked, I enjoy your blog! 🙂

  8. David F Collins says:

    Fascinating essay, thought-provoking comments. Provoked to thought, I did think, and dare to offer a few thoughts.

     Most of the disturbing situations we confront turn out neither as badly as they could and as we fear, nor as well as they might and as we hope for. (I say «most» and not «all»!) The wisest course is perhaps to plan for not the worst case but for the scarier end of a 3σ spectrum of the foreseeably possible. (If and when we hear the hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen galumphing ever closer, the scarier end of that 3σ is clearly too pollyannaish.)

    • To make the best of the lower 3σ, we need a lower population. To achieve this humanely, we need a low birthrate. Hence, I (presently) disagree with withholding medical care from « newborns under 4 pounds». Having expectations of our kids getting great care decreases our urge to have more. (Disclosure: my twin granddaughters were came into this world at 3½ lb apiece, and in a few days were doing fine, and are still doing fine nearly a decade later.) Likewise, for growing kids. And has been pointed out, having decent retirement benefits really reduces the incentive to «breed like rabbits» — even by ethnic groups we don’t like.

    • I suspect we have more than enough metal to last us a goodly while. Before I recently trashed a nonfunctional stapler, I roughly calculated it had enough Fe in it for at least a ten-year supply of razor blades (disclosure: I abjured shaving years ago, my son-in-law more recently). Our rate of consumption of virgin material — and of discarding it — borders on pornographic from the wrong side of the border. My son uses my Dad’s garage tools; my niece uses my grandmother’s kitchen knives (they hold an edge better than the Sabatier stainless-steel cutlery of my daughter-in-law).

    • We were taught in High School that Matter & Energy Are Conserved. What we gotta learn is that they gotta be conserved, in the moral rather than the scientific sense.

    • What we really need is for everybody who can think to think as Ms Tverberg does in her tryout for presidential speechwriter. Stare into that abyss; stare deep and hard. As for myself, with most likely no basis other than hope, I cannot resign myself to doom as the only alternative, nor can I do the pollyannaish head-in-the-sand thing. (That ostrich leaves its other end up in the air, reminding me of the Latin American proverb, “Cada cual puede de su ano hacer candelero.” The translation is an exercise best left for the student.)

    • Thanks for your thoughts. Even if we think that there is a chance things will turn out better, it seems to me that we need to plan for the worst, because getting ready will take quite a few year.

      The question is whether we can plan for two different directions at once–a very bad case, and a not so bad case. I think that part of the problem is that we don’t have the resources to plan for two ways at once. The other part is that it is very hard to hold two ideas in our heads at once. If we convince ourselves that things have a reasonable chance of turning out OK, we won’t do much to try to prepare for things being worse. In order for preparation to work, it seems to me that preparations have to be done on by nearly all. Otherwise, those who haven’t prepared will simply steal the food that those who have prepared raise, in the event of a down-turn.

      My observation relating to 4 pound babies was with respect to what might happen, rather than what should happen. If medical resources are short, it seems like ones at both end of the age spectrum will be the first to lose services. Stopping in vitro fertilization would seem to help premature births, since often these seem to lead to multiple births.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        we need to plan for the worst

        Using the USA as an example, what actual evidence exists to suggest that there is any meaningful planning to mitigate the consequences of potential future energy shortages?

        Corporate media spin about research dollars and emerging new energy technologies don’t constitute a plan. Neither does periodic government proclamations about vague alternative energy goals to escape from “foreign oil”. Nor does congressional defunding of NPR and Planed Parenthood demonstrate any leadership for honest media or restraint of population growth. The proclamations from mega churches and Tea Party folks show zero recognition of resource or environmental issues (drill, drill, drill and demonize those same-sex people that don’t produce many babies). The current freak show in Iowa for Republican presidential candidates offers of very sobering view for anyone expecting a rational approach to global problems.

        What category/group of people might come forth in sufficient numbers to change some fundamental US policies – policies that relate to our discussion?

        If by “we” you mean individuals or small groups acting independently of major governmental entities, then I suggest (and, I think you have also) that these efforts are not going change the fundamental course of history – a course that most likely is not going to be well received by human-kind.

        • You are right. All of this is too awful to contemplate. At most, what will happen is small groups here and there will try to prepare, but it will be hard for these groups to do enough that their efforts won’t be for nought because there will be a huge number of hungry people, all wanting whatever food there is. If there are things like solar panels that seem to work, these will be stolen, too.

          There are transition groups planning for a world where the major issue is oil shortages, rather than things completely falling apart. Reducing oil use, or transitioning oil use to electricity, is a much easier kind of thing to plan for than doing without fossil fuels. It is hard to see that such a plan will work for very long, but maybe that is all we can hope that people will do. Such a plan does practically nothing about adapting to the new world we will need to live in, however.

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Gail, this does not brighten my day! I was hoping you would find some fault in my comment – something I had missed that held forth much more promise of dodging the bullet.

          My grandchildren actually tend to listen to my advice. However, I’m getting more and more reluctant to talk about the most likely future scenarios – as it’s hard to also offer solutions. Acting upon my advice, my grandson changed his education path to get into wind technology. He seems really happy with that choice and already has job offers upon graduation. I’m not about to dampen that enthusiasm with my darker thoughts.

          • It is hard to know what to tell children and grandchildren. I may have frightened my children enough that I will never have grandchildren–or if I do, it will be only one or two, total.

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  10. Ikonoclast says:

    “Humankind cannot stand very much reality,” as T.S. Eliot wrote. Most people simply cannot accept how close to disaster we are. The great majority are in denial and continue to subscribe to all the usual cornucopianist fantasies.

    I don’t think we have long to wait to see how this plays out. I believe we have hit or will hit peak gross energy production in 2010 plus or minus 5 years. Peak net energy production (after allowing for energy costs of energy production) is almost certainly already in the past. Economic production is directly related to energy consumption so I think we can safely say that world production has peaked.

    World economic production in 2020 will be less than in 2010. Combine that with the demographic momentum of population growth and we see that a complete disaster will unfold. This event will be beyond all human capacity to control or moderate.

    From a personal perspective, I am taking no special measures to survive this event. I am already over 55 years. If I had any thoughts of being tough enough to go into survivalist mode I would be deluding myself and so would just about all people over 25 (be deluding themselves) if they think they will be tough enough to survive this.

  11. RobM says:

    Gail’s superb speech will never be given for all the reasons discussed above. Perhaps the following speech may be given some day…

    /sarc on

    I am sorry to report that the economic problems we are experiencing are being caused by several physical limits to growth with the oil being the most important. Unfortunately this means that our unemployment problem will persist and our standard of living will decline in perpetuity unless we do something. My experts have advised me that our current standard of living is sustainable for at least 500 years if the world’s population was reduced from 7 billion to 300 million. I know you view our American lifestyle as being non-negotiable. I am therefore pleased to report that we have been planning for this day and have a solution. Many of you questioned the wisdom of us building the world’s largest military when we could not afford it. Well, the day has come when we need the military. I have authorized our forces to vaporize all human life on all continents other than North America. These actions are commencing as we speak. I am sorry if you have any friends or family in other countries but under the circumstances I am sure you will understand and support my decision. Good night and God bless America.

    /sarc off

  12. Ed Pell says:

    I enjoyed the article. I agree with much of it. I do think that some higher level technology will still exist. For example water powered weaving machines to make cloth. This existed before fossil fuels and makes much more cloth than working by hand. I think the internet will still exist in some form. It will not go to low population areas. It will be low power so it will not transmit video and maybe not audio but text is super low data volume and can be super low energy use. It may not come to your home you may need to go to the library or internet office in town to send and pickup your messages.

    I hope we make an effort to build out greenhouse (with glass windows) before the energy runs out. Here in cold cloudy New York State the growing season is short.

    I do see the northern states dying first as people move away to places where they can afford to stay warm in the winter.

    Nuclear fueled by uranium and plutonium (not a choice I would make) will be both an extender and a mess.

    We will have 10% level of energy from hydro, oil from algea, PV, wind, nuclear. Much of that will need to go to farming and farm distribution. The military-industrial complex will try to use it all. It will be interesting to see how that works out.


    • I agree that there will be water and wind powered machinery, but not as high tech as today.

      One of the big issues I see going forward is the fact that most of the world’s high quality ore is “mined out” unless you have a fairly high tech society. We have a lot of metals that can be reprocessed, but they are not going to be of sufficient purity to make new computers, or new telephones. It should be fairly easy to make wheelbarrows, but as we get to products that need inputs from around the world, and high quality materials, it is going to be a whole lot harder.

      Another issue I see is that even if we “could” live on 10% of the fuel we have today, the practicalities of the matter are such that no one will have given enough thought and planning as to how to make this happen. Supply chains are amazingly long. Even if we make certain that all of the farmers have fuel, we need to also make certain that the workers who make the fuel also have fuel, and the workers who make the replacement parts for the machinery that the farmers use have fuel, and that the roads are in sufficiently good condition that the farmers can get the crops they grow to market, the service stations that sell the fuel are properly manned, there is adequate electricity to run the pumps at the service station the farmer uses, and a lot of other details. Rationing plans have to work through details–how do you get coupons have to those who need them; how do you make sure they aren’t stolen; how do you do it equitably. All of this is more easily said than done.

      • schoff says:

        Larry Niven over thirty years ago took a stab at mine resources not being available after a high tech civilization fell in “ringworld”. There have been other treatments of this in fiction.

        The difference between recycling basic elements like “copper” and my Intel 8080a chip in my ancient Imsai are pretty significant. In India there is a business of reusing old phones and electronics to build things, but they all tend to be “less capable” then what they started with, but still have some economic value (otherwise they wouldn’t do it).

        For anyone who has suffered significant or even tragic accidents where your body for the rest of your life is just not
        as capable, as in my case, you figure out there are just certain mountain cliffs you don’t want to fall off of. This is one of them.

  13. David F Collins says:

    Congratulation, Ms Tverberg, on a thoughtful and thought-provoking essay. Even more congratulations on drawing such an interesting assortment off comments!

  14. Kathryn says:

    That is exactly what the President should have said if he wanted to lay out the truth and help us move on. I also agree the world would have panicked, economies would crash, etc, etc, etc. That’s why nature is so valuable..It just tells it like it is and expects us to adjust or die. That is what has happened in the horrible disaster in Japan. And you know They/we do panic for awhile and then we settle down and deal. That’s what we need to do. We need to summon the courage that lets us face the truth. I disagree that we can’t handle the truth. What we can’t handle are the lies and deceit. They are undermining the very foundation of our societies. People know…they may not like what they know to be true…but somewhere in their conscious or unconscious minds…they know.

    I read everything you write, Gail, because you are straightforward, level headed, decent and convincingly interested in our coming to grips with these huge challenges. I appreciate your efforts to educate and offer solutions to them.

    So I agree, Gail for President!!!!!!

  15. vaengineer says:

    Gail for President!

    • I don’t think anyone could really say this. Even if we sit down and analyze the situation and decide rationally that what I suggested needed to be done, I don’t think many people would go along with it. People would look for something that had a fraction of 1% chance of working.

  16. robert wilson says:

    9. An emphasis will be placed on a healthy lifestyle, rather than medical cures for every ailment. Medical care will gradually be scaled back, with coverage for the elderly and care for newborns under 4 pounds scaled back first. Also, if death is expected within six months, regardless of care, the only treatment provided will be palliative care. No coverage will be provided for fertility care or in vitro fertilization. Clinics charging a fee equal to three times the US hourly minimum wage will be encouraged. Providers will be asked to accept these charges as payment in full for their work.

    Such will happen. But to the extent that healthy life styles enable us to live longer, cost savings may be elusive . For a discussion of medical complexity and the problems of super specialization see The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Hillman and Goldsmith discusses how high tech medical imaging is changing health care. The increasing availability and cost of cancer diagnosis and treatment is addressed by Siddharthe Mukheriee in The Emperor of All Maladies.

    • If people live longer, they will be expected to work longer. So I think it will work out.

      I have always thought that pension plans owe a debt to smokers, for helping keep average longevity down.

  17. Cub says:

    Even if we have to go back to completely sustainable energy usage within the time frame you discuss, a lot of this is just wrong.

    Much of the technology we’ve developed over the years is here to stay. We’ll sift through various technologies and those that aren’t expedient or sustainable will go away, but not all will. We almost certainly have the capacity to develop mechanical technology that is more energy efficient than utilization of manual labor or farm animals. It’s incorrect to think that because mechanization has so far been done in a way that uses a lot of energy (but still fairly comparable to human/animal labor) that they cannot be made to be far more energy-efficient. If comparison is to people or farm animals, the bar is not high – we’re not that energy efficient and neither are horses. If the incentives are there – and so far there haven’t been – and it’s physically possible (obviously it’s physical possible for a dedicated machine to be far more efficient at handling specific tasks than a general purpose entity like us or farm animals), it’s likely that we’ll figure it out.

    For instance, computers will be here – we know this because computers that were literally trillions of times less energy-efficient than present day models were still useful, even when energy was quite a bit more expensive than it is now.

    That some technology is dependent on high energy expenditure doesn’t mean all technology is that way. Much of the technology we’ve developed over the past few centuries are genuinely energy-saving, even if we don’t necessarily use it that way right now.

    The internet will still be here – we know this because we had communication infrastructure (signaling with smoke, various forms of postal service, and telegraph, telephones later) before the internet and before fossil fuel. It was far less energy efficient than the internet ever was (probably also by a factor of trillions), yet it was still considered crucial.

    And with those technologies, the situation we have right now is not at all comparable to where we were in 1700’s. These technologies make the world genuinely far more capable of innovation. It often took hundreds of years for some invention/discovery made in one part of the world to be fully understood, known and replicated in another part of the world. Now, these things are instantaneous. And it hasn’t even been more than about 15 years since the internet became ubiquitous. Your blog, and I’m sure much of your own knowledge, is strong evidence of the genuine progress we’ve made. And on that front, we’re not going back.

    And we’re nowhere near finished. The cellphones a lot of people carry around use almost no energy (can probably be powered by excess body heat in the future) and are better computers than what people used on the desktops 10 years ago. Which in turn are more powerful than computers that used to power entire companies 30 years ago. Each of which in turn is more powerful than all computers in existence put together 50 years ago. Most of this advancement has basically nothing to do with increases in energy intensity. Wwe simply know so much more about the world than we did in 1700’s. While we’ve used this knowledge often in energy-inefficient ways, that does not mean that’s the only way.

    On another note, you also have to have an equilibrium of force. Having two or less kids is suicide even if you think population decline is inevitable, unless you can defend yourselves and sustain your lifestyle. Even under conditions of global population decline, local populations that grow are certainly likely to be more sociopolitically stable. At the very least, you have to make war unprofitable for others. Encouraging people to live less, have less kids, learn manual labor skills for tasks that are easily handled by machines is unlikely to prepare them for large conflicts that will inevitably accompany such drastic forced change in lifestyle. What good is long-term soil fertility, if you cannot protect the soil?

    • DownToTheLastCookie says:

      Cub, I agree with you. We are not going back to 1800. I also get tried of hearing the word “collapes”. It’s like hearing people saying the engine is “blown”. What most people really means is that “the engine is broken, I don’t understand what is wrong and is expense to fix. The term probabily came from a rod pushing a hole in the side of the block.

      I think Obama’s campain slogan in 2008 would size up the future best and maybe this is what he really ment by it, because he sure hasn’t done much different so far. That’s right, “change” is what we are going to see in the future. Our economy and way of life is not going to “collapes”, it’s going to “change” over a period of time.

      First of all, we are going to become less wastefull. Second, we are going to slow down. Third we are going to do with a lot less. But we will still be here.

    • The issue is whether we will be able to maintain all of the “stuff” needed to keep the electric grid operating, and keep a wide range of imports coming on a regular basis. The breakdown could happen in a lot of different ways. If electric companies go bankrupt, of if banks go out of business, so electric companies cannot pay their employees, there could be a problem in maintaining the grid. We import a lot of parts for all kinds of purposes from around the world-including parts needed for the operation of the electric grid. If the financial system is all messed up because countries everywhere have failed to pay their debt, and no one trusts sending them additional goods because they are likely not to get paid, then there could be a problem.

      Efficiency is really not the issue. If there is no electricity, a computers and all of our other nifty technology doesn’t work. All the research done shows that societies rise to some point, and then collapse. There are a lot of signs that we may be reaching the point of collapse too–scary thought. Let’s hope I am wrong.

      • Cub says:

        I understand that you’re pondering about and preparing for the worst, but you’re overstating the infrastructure’s dependence on political and financial stability – financial systems are simply a mechanism for organizing people. Money tells us what to do. If somehow, financial systems, money, markets, political systems all collapse, we’re gonna have come up with an alternative way of incentivizing people (it’s gonna involve more threat of force), but electricity doesn’t go away. Communist countries without anything resembling a functional financial system have had no problem using electricity, computers, etc. We’ve seen all kinds of political transitions, with money becoming worthless, financial markets collapsing – usually the world goes on. This is a terrifying example, but Germany during the Great Depression did have a political breakdown as well as complete financial breakdown. It led to an authoritarian government, but not complete disruption of public infrastructure. It will take unprecedented levels of violence and war to trigger what you’re discussing and even then, military systems are designed to operate under those conditions.

        Furthermore, there are computers these days that use almost no electricity beyond that can be generated by hand (literally – a hand crank is sufficient to power a low-powered laptop – see OLPC). The same, obviously, is true of networking equipments, which by and large are just computers. Maintaining the network is slightly more problematic, but the internet’s designed to survive absurd levels of infrastructure disruption. The amount of redundancy built into the internet is staggering – you can destroy pretty much 99% of the internet and it would still basically work – you just won’t be able to stream YouTube videos. Also, electricity is an easy form of energy to generate – the grid is useful for transporting a lot of it, but computers use very, very little energy. The amount of energy it would take to operate some form of internet is very modest and it’s getting more modest by the day. We’re not looking at an imminent collapse by any means – computers right now are probably something like 100 times more energy-efficient than they were 10 years ago and we’re continuing to become more efficient.

        Efficiency is ultimately what matters – we’ll use the more efficient technology over the less efficient technology, because if you don’t, someone who does will win over you, whether in the market, on the battlefield, whatever. I don’t see any reason some form of internet isn’t far more efficient than alternatives. How much did people pay to communicate in 1800? We take communication for granted, but it’s absurdly, incredibly valuable. A society in 1800 that had information/communication technology of today, but not the cheap available energy we do, would’ve completely outpaced other societies, even if they had to pay an extremely high price to build such a system. The same set of incentives exists for future societies.

        And under situations of total sociopolitical collapse, domestic policy of the sort you outline is simply not helpful. If people are going to see lifestyle changes of that magnitude, you’re going to have unparalleled levels of miltary buildup arond the world. And the capacity will be used. We’d need to worry about Hitlers and Stalins of the world. The ability to procure and protect energy supplies, as well as offensive capacity is going to be important, since the ability to force unhappy masses to act in an orderly manner is required to do anything productive. If large population declines are inevitable, people aren’t going die without fighting. But collapses rarely result in complete loss of useful technology. And with some of the core technology we developed being communication and information storage, it’s even less likely that things will be completely forgotten. Certainly reduction in energy availability implies means complexity has to be scaled down – but again, the baseline we’re starting from isn’t 2011 either. We’re going to see some unbelievable, amazing advances in many fields over the next 10-15 years, in part because of the faster pace of innovation enabled by by advances in information/communication/social technology.

        • There are a lot of things we don’t know about for certain. It is indeed possible that things will continue for quite a few years in the future, as they are today.

          One of my concerns is that if things do take a turn for the worse, to plan for them, we really have to start learning new skills and preparing far in advance–at least 20 years, more would be even better. So somehow, we need to start ahead of time. So even if it sounds silly now, in some ways, that is what would seem prudent to do.

          One concern I have is related to your concern about wars. The US may have enough arable land for everyone, but the world as a whole clearly does not, especially if yields go down a lot, when we don’t have commercial fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides, and even fences. How do we keep the rest of the world away from what we have? I have sometimes said that I don’t think one person can “save” him or herself, by having a small farm, because others will want the food too (also, there are problems with illness, injury, skills the person doesn’t have, etc.) It may not be possible for one country to “save” itself, either, if others attack to get what we have.

          But even if things do turn out badly, there is a fairly high probability that there will be some who “make it”. People have lived on earth through ice ages and other
          inhospitable times, so regardless, something is likely to work out for some folks.

        • step back says:


          With due respect, I don’t know where to begin in responding to your “we we” talk other than to hope you are being sarcastic because, after all, it was April 1 (April Fools Day) when you posted all your “we we” stuff. Truly you can’t be seriously serious about this, can you?

          Folk who spout the “we we” talk are often being dishonest (mostly with themselves) because the term “we” means “not me”. It pegs the responsibility entirely on some vague and nebulous “them”. “Them” will perform a magic this and a magic that.

          You say:

          We’re going to see some unbelievable, amazing advances in many fields over the next 10-15 years, in part because of the faster pace of innovation enabled by by advances in information/communication/social technology.

          One of the truly “amazing” advances in current technology is Wikipedia.
          Perhaps you can educate yourself with this amazing tool.
          Please try this one on for size:

          Then ask yourself how much energy do “we” need to produce super high purity monocrystalline silicon and what on Earth could that possibly have to do with the amazing computers that “we” currently build and are absolutely guaranteed to keep building forever and forever?

          (You might have to do a bit more of amazing research on the amazing Wiki tool by also looking up: what is a “transistor”? an “integrated circuit”? and what are are ALL the steps and processes needed to make modern versions of these amazing magical things?)

          The following hyperlink may be of help:

          “We” have great hopes that once you read all these things, “you” will come up with the amazing solutions for our energy and technology dilemmas. We hope to hear of your solutions by 9:00 AM tomorrow. That’s light years away from now in Internet time. God speed. 😉

        • ZTY says:


          I’m afraid you are rather wrong on your take on the Internet, and on your computer power consumption ideas. The internet has not been designed, it evolved, it depends on satellites, under sea cables and large data centers. None of which will be maintenable if we run out of fossil fuels. We’ve seen problems where bad updates have caused huge problems, knocking out access to large sections of the Internet, we’ve seen under sea cables cut causing bottlenecks (happens a lot, there are boats out there fixing them all the time). Without constant maintenance I’d only give it a few years at most.

          If you look at the computing power vs electricity consumption I’m sure its gone up over the years, however modern computers require quite a bit of juice to run. When you scale up to server rooms you have multiple problems, servers generate heat, the heat needs to be removed, this requires more power.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Cub,

      Yogi said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”. A new book “Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless…” discusses the failure of most expert predictions because they tend to be a linear projection of existing trends. Reality, in unfolding futures, is generally full of many unanticipated surprises. Another twist is the timing of predictions that actually have a sound reasoning basis, but nevertheless fail to occur as predicted. The author of the aforementioned book took great pleasure in ridiculing Paul Erhlich (Population Bomb) because we now have obesity problems instead of the predicted famine. Erhlich addresses this criticism in his book “The Dominant Animal” where he believes his basic thesis is still correct – simply delayed by the so called “Green Revolution”. Only time will tell.

      It seems to me that both you and Gail are painting scenarios that are based upon various assumptions – which may or may not be relevant to future decades. For the most part, Gail is assuming that energy substitutes/extenders will wither over time and people will not gracefully/intelligently adapt to a powered down world. It seems to me that you make the assumption that we’ll use the more efficient technology to adapt to changes or, if Gail is right We’d need to worry about Hitlers and Stalins of the world and you would like the ability to defend against these guys.

      I suspect that there are many potential scenarios under which the future might unfold and the most prudent approach is to understand these potentials and react/adapt in real time as the clues present themselves. Planning for the highest probability scenarios would be most rational – I just don’t see any evidence that mankind is capable of this level of foresight. I disagree when you say of Gail’s thinking that a lot of this is just wrong. Her analysis and suggestions might prove to be very useful – depends upon how events unfold. From a probability perspective, I rate her view of the future pretty highly.

      However, I agree with you that some technology will carry forward regardless of how unpleasant things become. Technology and practical science used in The Peace Corps comes to mind. (From Wiki): “Programs include effective and efficient forms of farming, recycling, wildlife preservation, conservation for sustainable use of forests or marine resources, urban sanitation management, flood control, creation of alternative/sustainable fuels, fruit and vegetable production and protection of environment/biodiversity.” Also, we certainly know a lot more about passive heating and cooling for buildings. The modern variations of the wheel will not soon be forgotten – and I suspect that some kind of utility style bicycle could continue to be built with pretty low tech means – we understand basic tools very well. Even in a collapse scenario, we should be able to salvage a lot of basic construction materials for a very long time. Maybe the crystal set radio I built as a kid will become the foundation for the next generation of the internet – long after the very high-tech chip factories disappear and the satellites have fallen from orbit. So, I think you have a valid point about some technologies carrying forward.

      If you are right about the needed level of human reproduction for defensive purposes, then I suspect that total collapse is a very high probability. If this strategy represents mankind’s best effort to meet declining fuel supplies, then we have definitely not learned how to adapt to changing circumstances.

  18. robert wilson says:

    I don’t know if this is true but I have read that the US has been placed in a competitive disadvantage because of lower or absent corporate taxes in other countries??

  19. robert wilson says:

    I am certainly paying taxes on my 401k’s It is true that the taxes were deferred.

    • The taxes on 401(k)s are long deferred, and at tax rates for retirees, so are on average lower. So the present value of the benefit to the government is a whole lot lower.

  20. Robert Rathgeber says:


    If thorium is successful, wouldn’t it greatly extend fossil fuel production(hundreds of years)?

    • The chance of success in the timeframe needed would seem to be pretty low, and it is not clear how things would work out. I know M. King Hubbert was hoping that nuclear (perhaps with thorium) could be ramped up quickly, and be made to produce liquid fuel by essentially reversing the chemical process in combustion. Such a process would pull CO2 out of the atmosphere, as it makes replacement fossil fuel. I am doubtful that such could be accomplished. Whether or not it extended “true” fossil fuel use would depend on whether the replacement fuel was cheaper or more expensive than fossil fuel. If it were cheaper (Hubbert’s vision), then making the substitute would grow, and CO2 levels would fall.

  21. robert wilson says:

    Why should corporations pay taxes? Corporations are owned by stockholders who generally pay income tax, capital gains or inheritance taxes on any profits. In some cases these owners are disallowed capital loses. Should there be double or triple taxation??

    • The issue is that the government needs vastly more revenue than it gets today, and a large share of goods and services are out of the government’s reach. For example, companies set up insurance companies for the purpose of self insurance in the Cayman Islands or Bermuda, and pay virtually no tax anywhere. Somehow, the government needs to get this revenue back. The stockholders that own the stock are often pension plans and 401(k)s, that don’t pay taxes. Somehow the situation needs to be changed, so the government actually does get tax revenue. Also, these companies need to shrink / disappear in the long run. Taxing them is a good way to make it happen quicker.

  22. Susan Albert says:

    Agree with all you’ve said here, Gail. But if Obama had said it (as he should), the markets would plunge, people would panic, and . . . . [fill in the blanks]. Most would dismiss him as a loony, others as a radical trouble-maker. I believe that the govt planners have the big picture (the Hirsch report was available to the DOD in 2005). But they have to sidle up to the truth, rather than facing it full-on. Which only underlines the importance of clearly-written pieces like this one. Thank you.

    • I agree that President Obama couldn’t really say this. I think that most people would like to believe that by adding another layer of complexity and a bit of efficiency, we can somehow get beyond this and the next several bottlenecks.

      It seems to me that the focus has to be in one direction or the other–more technology, or less complexity. We are never going to get ready for a post-fossil fuel age, by adding complexity.

      If we look back, every type of society developed some knowledge and skills appropriate to that society (how to hunt, what to gather, how to make fire, memorization, how to prepare food, etc). If we go into this transition with zero skills, the number of survivors may be very small.

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