European Debt Crisis and Sustainability

What would humans have to do to really live sustainability with the world’s ecosystems?

I got a shock when I read about the pattern of species extinctions which is taking place that form a part of what is called the “Sixth Mass Extinction.” It turns out that man’s adverse influence on ecosystems didn’t start a few hundred years ago, when we started using fossil fuels. Instead it started way back, when man was still a hunter-gatherer, and there were fewer than 100,000 people on earth.

According to Niles Eldridge, in describing the Sixth Extinction:

  • Phase One began when the first modern humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago.
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago when humans turned to agriculture.

In this post, I’ll explain a little more about the Sixth Mass Extinction, and how fossil fuel use has contributed to it in recent years.

I’ll also talk about a new bottleneck that humans seem to be reaching related to oil limits and financial crises that grow out of these oil limits, with the current example being the European Debt Crisis. Depending how this and other debt crises work out, it seems possible that human population will decline. If this should happen, it could lead to a reduced problem with species extinction.

But the whole situation illustrates just how difficult attaining sustainability with world ecosystems is likely to be. Humans by their nature seem not to mesh well with world ecosystems. Unless humans become completely extinct, it seems likely that humans will always have difficulty living in a truly sustainable way.

The Sixth Mass Extinction

In the last 500 million years, there have been five mass extinctions, removing varying percentages of animal species. The last happened 65 million years ago, when dinosaurs became extinct. Biologist (including Michael Soulè and E. O. Wilson) have calculated that the current rate of extinctions is 100 to 10,000 times the background rate.

Niles Eldredge describes the Sixth Extinction as follows:

Everywhere, shortly after modern humans arrived, many (especially, though by no means exclusively, the larger) native species typically became extinct. Humans were like bulls in a China shop:

  • They disrupted ecosystems by overhunting game species, which never experienced contact with humans before.
  • And perhaps they spread microbial disease-causing organisms as well.

Regarding agriculture, Eldredge states:

Agriculture represents the single most profound ecological change in the entire 3.5 billion-year history of life. With its invention:

  • humans did not have to interact with other species for survival, and so could manipulate other species for their own use
  • humans did not have to adhere to the ecosystem’s carrying capacity, and so could overpopulate
Homo sapiens became the first species to stop living inside local ecosystems. All other species, including our ancestral hominid ancestors, all pre-agricultural humans, and remnant hunter-gatherer societies still extant exist as semi-isolated populations playing specific roles (i.e., have “niches”) in local ecosystems. This is not so with post-agricultural revolution humans, who in effect have stepped outside local ecosystems. Indeed, to develop agriculture is essentially to declare war on ecosystems – converting land to produce one or two food crops, with all other native plant species all now classified as unwanted “weeds” — and all but a few domesticated species of animals now considered as pests.

Now, with the advent of fossil fuels, we have been able to take our attack on ecosystems to a new higher level. I have previously shown how population greatly expanded, as the use of fossil fuels expanded in the last 200 years.

Figure 1. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

It is difficult to even show population growth and fuel use on the same graph. They exploded at the same time, so the amounts overlay each other.

The New Bottle Neck

Fossil fuels in general, and oil in particular, enabled a great increase in food production. It is this increase in food production that has allowed world population to grow to nearly 7 billion.

Recently, however, we have started experiencing a change. World oil production has not grown nearly as quickly as demand since 2005, leading to high oil prices. These high oil prices (and the high food prices that go with them) lead to recessions, and layoffs, especially in oil-importing nations. Governments try to fix these problems, by bailing out banks that have failed and by stimulating the economy, but find themselves in increasingly unacceptable debt positions. I have described these issues in previous posts.

The current situation is brittle. If there are severe financial dislocations, they could feed back and disrupt other systems, such as international trade and industrial agriculture. We could see political upheavals and reduced oil production, and because of all of these issues, reduced human food supply. The changes that may happen could be quite sudden, much faster than one might expect, if the Hubbert Curve were the only factor influencing the amount of oil available to society.

The European Debt Situation and Beyond

Clearly Greece has severe financial problems, and is near default, but European financial problems extend beyond Greece. Banks in other countries hold Greek debt. If Greece should default,  banks outside Greece that hold Greek debt would stand to lose money, and would likely need to be bailed out. Otherwise, the many individuals with deposits in the banks would find themselves without the funds they had deposited. Businesses might not be able to pay their employees, if their funds are in a “bad bank”.

If there is a default, countries vary in their ability to deal with it. If a country is outside the Euro, such as the UK or Switzerland, it can “print” more money, and can use these additional funds to recapitalize the banks in financial difficulty with freshly issued money. Thus they have a way around the problem, although it may result in some inflation.

Countries that are part of the Euro have a bigger problem because they are more like an individual state of the United States. They use a common currency, so cannot themselves issue more currency. Unless they have a lot of funds available from other sources, it is difficult for them to recapitalize banks when there are defaults.

EU countries have been arguing for months about how to solve the problem, but there is no easy solution, in part because the problem easily spreads from country to country, so it is a much larger problem than simply paying for defaults on Greek debt. It is likely that there would be defaults related to the debt of other PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, Spain) countries as well. Some banks in France would also need recapitalization, because of loans they made.  The EU itself is limited in the amount it has available to bail out countries with problems, and individual members object to spending huge amounts to bail out governments that are likely not to be able to pay back the debt.

The European situation may eventually bring about the end of the Euro. If this should happen, we don’t know what the indirect impacts of this would be. A recent UBS publication talks this issue and  mentions the possibility of civil disorder, saying:

Past instances of monetary union break-ups have tended to produce one of two results. Either there was a more authoritarian government response to contain or repress the social disorder (a scenario that tended to require a change from democratic to authoritarian or military government), or alternatively, the social disorder worked with existing fault lines in society to divide the country, spilling over into civil war. These are not inevitable conclusions, but indicate that monetary union break-up is not something that can be treated as a casual issue of exchange rate policy.

Whether or not the Euro situation leads to disorder, there are innumerable other debt problems around the world that are likely to  get worse, as world oil supply gets tighter. Countries are likely to go back into recession, or see anemic job growth, and their governments will try to fix the situation. Eventually, the “borrow your way to prosperity” approach will have to end, either though debt defaults or through unwillingness of investors to purchase more debt.

Over time, the debt “unwind” I have talked about since early 2008 is likely to grow and gather steam. As more states, cities, businesses, and individuals default on their debt, recession is likely to worsen.

One of the questions in all of this is whether the international financial system withstand all of this disruption. If Greece defaults, and then pulls several larger European countries with it, how will this affect international trade? Even if this hurdle is passed, can debtors such as the United States and the United Kingdom continue with their high level of imports, if their financial condition continues to deteriorate? Perhaps the value of all of the OECD currencies will drop greatly, relative to non-OECD currencies, or countries will choose to trade only with trusted partners.

If any of these things happen, trying to maintain the world’s current level of oil production and food production will become more and more of a challenge. Countries with debt problems are likely to find themselves unable to afford their prior level of oil imports, or will find trading partners unwilling to trade with them.

What Happens when the Current System Stops Working?

In a “normal” ecological situation, humans would have co-evolved with the plants and animals around them, so that stopping parts of the fossil fuel system would be no problem. Our current situation isn’t normal, though. We have found any number of ways to make our current way of life dependent on fossil fuels. At the same time, our way of life does not fit with our local ecosystems:

  • Population has been allowed to grow far beyond what carrying capacity would support without fossil fuels.
  • Big cities have been developed which allow germs to spread. Without fossil-fuel dependent pharmaceuticals and immunizations, diseases would greatly reduce populations.
  • Land has been planted with large monocultures of plants. Animals have been specially bred for industrial agriculture. Special seed hybrids have been developed, and many varieties of crops that were grown in the past are no longer available. We have grown dependent on fertilizer and sprays for our crops.
  • Modern medicine has effectively stopped “selection of the fittest.” Many people alive today depend on today’s medicines for their continued health.
  • People have resettled to parts of the world where their genetics do not match up with the climate. For example, I am a blue-eyed blond, because my ancestors were Norwegian, but I live in Georgia (USA), which is a warm location.
  • We have become dependent on our financial system, our international trade system, our electrical system, industrialized agriculture, the automobile, computers, and many other inventions and systems that depend on fossil fuels.

Thus, if something like the financial crises that we are now seeing causes any of our major systems to fail, we are in danger of finding ourselves poorly adapted to the world around us, because we depend on fossil fuels in so many ways, and because we have spent so many years not evolving with the ecosystems around us.

Exactly how things will work out is unclear, but there seems to be a possibility of a substantial reduction in human population. This change seems possible, because we are so poorly adapted to living in the areas around ourselves, if we lose any of our major systems, such as industrial agriculture. The fact that other systems (ocean acidification, climate change, water tables) are currently undergoing adverse change makes the situation worse.

The timing is not clear. Theoretically, a decline in human population could come as soon as  an  indirect result of European Debt Crisis. But governments may be able to find ways around this crisis, and the next several that follow. And financial crises don’t necessarily translate to food crises, but they may.

If there is a reduction in human numbers, it may actually help other species survive, and make the sixth mass extinction “less bad” in terms of the percentage of species lost. The world is resilient, and will eventually recover.

Our Response

All of this discussion makes it clear how very difficult it is to fix our current predicament, and how difficult it is to truly live in a sustainable way.

It seems to me that, in spite of our current predicament, we need to go on with our lives, and appreciate what we have now. Some of us may be able come up with partial mitigations, such as finding ways to better live within our local ecosystems.

Any change will take some time.  Perhaps we will have several years, before major changes take place.  We need to take each day as it comes.

This entry was posted in Financial Implications, Planning for the Future and tagged , , , by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

100 thoughts on “European Debt Crisis and Sustainability

  1. You equated EU member states with states within the US federal government. Just as US states can not print money EU member states can not print money. This is very helpful to me. Thanks.

    I see world trade turning into world barter. As long as the two parties have tangible goods to exchange they will. Like food for oil, manufactured goods for oil or food. We will have balanced trade which is a good thing.

      • By the way, I will be talking with Dmitry Orlov on a panel at the ASPO-USA conference in November on a topic related to Russia’s collapse, and what we can learn from it.

        • ” I will be talking with Dmitry Orlov on a panel at the ASPO-USA conference in November…”

          Great! I hope you’ll report on that meeting. I’m a big fan of his work. He puts depth and breadth behind collapse. So many people see things as binary: either “business as usual,” or “Mad Max.” Orlov shows us that collapse is a process, not an event, and that it is a continuum, not a switch.

          Short of an Orlov-5 collapse, there is a lot to life for those who are willing to prepare. In fact, it could be said that collapse at least to Level-3 could be seen as A Good Thing.

          (Brief review of Orlov’s collapse taxonomy from memory: 1: financial collapse, 2: commerce collapse, 3: government collapse, 4: NGO/social system collapse, 5: moral/ethical collapse.)

          Another thing Dmitry wrote that made a big impression on me: collapse can be nearly imperceptible. He noted that until looking at a high school yearbook and noticing that half the people in it were dead (who should have instead been middle-aged), he hadn’t really internalized that nearly half the population of Russia has “gone away” since the Former Soviet Union.

          On a darker note, he also describes the myriad ways in which the FSU was more prepared for collapse than the Western World. For example, some 45% of Russian food comes from 7% of the land, via individually-farmed “dacha gardens.” I don’t think Americans are at all ready to feed themselves — and their government and the big agribiz corporations are doing their damnedest to keep people dependent on corporate food from far away.

          What I take from Orlov is: plant a garden — NOW! If you wait for “things to get bad,” it will be too late. Only those who are rich, or those who are progressing toward food sovereignty will have a chance. Which one of those two are you?

      • Thanks very much for the reference to Orlov — found some of his papers and am checking them out — very interesting.

    • The problem with world barter is that the countries that have been spending more than they sell (particularly the US) will suddenly have to live within their means. I think it will also cut back on imports of things we have come to expect –for example, repair products of things that need repair parts, like wind turbines, and availability of high tech goods like computers.

  2. I tried to be more independent from the system but I found it was difficult. Five year ago, I started a small garden. I go and order soil. My seeds will germinate and died. After investigation, I discover that the soil was death, it has no nutriment. I added fertilizer and thing go better. I want the be organic as much as possible, so I was looking for mulching coming from dead trees. Very difficult to find. I am not talking about the constant fight against ground hog and insects or if you prefer constant fighting against nature. Some of sprouts were eaten before they reach 1 inch high. This experience show me how we have destroyed nature and we still alive because of oil. If the trade system collapse, where do I get my fertilizer, where do I go my biological insecticide. I thing the we have damage the ecosystem so much that we might be looking at a die off here. If there is no electricity, how do I save my tomato for the winter, canning required electricity so does dehydration especially in cold climate like Canada. There is very few place on earth that can support live without a lot of energy such oil, coal. Maybe the best preparation for the collapse is spiritual.

    • If you stop and think about it, the “original plan” was that the insects, birds, and other animals would get their fair share of what you planted. Some seeds would grow, but others wouldn’t. There would be natural fertilizer being added to the soil, and food wouldn’t be extracted at a rate higher than the natural fertilizer replenished itself.

      I was looking at Energy Bulletin recently, and saw a book review of Spin Farming Basics by Rob Hopkins. This seems to be a version of high intensity farming. The text talks about making $36,000 -$72,000 revenue a year on 10,000 -20,000 square feet. From the description (uses “relay cropping” to get multiple crops and from the pictures, the whole thing doesn’t sound even slightly sustainable, yet Rob says in his review, “I have something to share in this post which I think is hugely exciting and which I think you are going to enjoy.”

      • I look at it. Like some of the comments at the bottom of this article I am skeptical. After my first crop of beets, I had to put more fertilizer, otherwise the beet will be small. I never had a crop that did not depleted the soil almost completely. My experience is that vegetable take a lot from the soil.

        • We would have a lot to learn, if we are to grow vegetables truly sustainably.

          In North Georgia, where I live, it rains a lot–an inch a week, on average. This amount of rain washes nutrients down to very low levels, I have heard, which is why trees do so well around here, but not other crops (unless you do a lot of work). We are going to have to learn how to live with local conditions. Some areas may not be very conducive to growing vegetables, I would expect.

        • @justnobody, you do need to constantly replenish soil fertility. But you don’t need to do it with chemicals.

          You can do it with animal manures — including manure from the human animal. You can also do it with “green manure” and “cover crops” — plants that are not intended for direct harvest, but rather are ploughed-down or mulched in place to provide nutrients for other plants. Such crops are most often nitrogen-fixers, like clover or other legumes, but can include specialty plants that are “dynamic accumulators” of specific soil nutrients. Cover-cropping with fall rye, for example, can add as much potassium as using a chemical fertilizer.

          I’d encourage you to explore the Rodale Institute website. Robert Rodale was one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement. You might also look into Permaculture.

          • Further to this, it is possible to grow a fair amount of food from a fairly small area (I’ve heard it said that a person can be completely fed from 10 square meters in a sub-tropical environment — I am a little skeptical of this though).
            However, to grow organically, you need to build up the organic matter and microbial life in the soil. This takes time (a couple of years). You also need to encourage insects, birds and lizards in your garden to predate the pests. Think of your vegie garden as establishing an ecosystem that will provide you with food. Not all of the production is for you — some of the food will go to feed your helpers.
            If you do this sensibly, and use permaculture crop-rotations and interplanting, and don’t allow too many nutrients to leave your land*, then once you have the system up and running it should be quite productive. There is a big learning-curve though.

            *further to this, to follow from what Gail said. The more organic matter you have in your soil, the fewer nutrients are washed away by the rain. Also, all the sewerage that you flush away are nutrients that are leaving your block. If you come to truely rely on the food production of your land, you will _need_ to keep these. Read about humanure.

            • @Gustava wrote “Read about humanure.”

              The very best on the source is Joe Jenkins’s book, The Humanure Handbook. An older edition is available free on-line, but really, send the guy $10 to download the latest edition — he deserves it!

              Jenkins manages to bridge the gap between informative and entertaining with this book. Nerds will delight in the facts and figures, and the rest of us will enjoy the puns, double-entendrés, and other humorous forays into the taboo subject of dealing with human “waste.”

              But there is no “waste,” is there? If we don’t put it to use, less desirable pathogens will. Properly composed humanure is no more a health risk than healthy soil, but sewage treatment plants both cause the evolution of anti-biotic resistant pathogens and end up with something that no one wants, neatly turning one solution into two separate problems.

              You can start with a five-gallon bucket and some sawdust. It ain’t hard. Just do it. The future of humanity depends on closing the nutrient cycle.

      • I have a problem equating Rob Hopkins’ upbeat gushing “If you don’t do it someone else will, and they likely won’t do it in a way rooted in social justice, community benefit, food security and Transition”. The only “spin” I see here is the spin trying to add the sustainable label to a “system” which is to all intents equivalent to “French intensive gardening ” and the 101 variants that have been seen for the last eighty or ninety years and written about by dozens of practical and decades-experienced gardeners- My bookshelves have several’ all similiar. Interestingly, a common thread is they all seem to be former military officers- which gives the key to the success or otherwise of the intenseve gardening venture- discipline, a factor entirely missing in the lexicon of the new-age aesthetes that make up the majority of the would-be “community resilience” movement.

        The authors say, “once you put on SPIN glasses, you start seeing dollar signs all over vacant and underutilised patches of land” There are two problems with focussing on “dollar farming” rather than “calorie farming”. The fact is that during and after the protracted economic trauma that we are / are going to experience, the dollars won’t be there for purchase of “high-value crops, such as spinach, carrots, fresh herbs, lettuce, a variety of leafy greens, radishes, scallions and chard”. What people need is calories, and in order to produce sufficient energy dense foods there is no substitute for acres. Where I live in NZ we a large commercial fruit producing area and yet what are the Transition towners doing? – Planting “community orchards”! I suggested that maybe we should instead be making contingencies for pulling out orchards in order to grow wheat and potatoes- needless to say I am considered by many to be a pariah!

        • I have had some of the same problems with reading about the “We are growing high value crops, so as to earn the most money” approach. It makes sense to me to grow potatoes or grains as your main crop. Then at least you have something to eat.

          I think one of the problems is that we have a lot of people who think that tomorrow will look exactly like today, except oil will be high priced. It is sort of a belief that our only problem is a Liquid Fuels shortage, and that this shortage will automatically be solved by making it high priced. Somehow, everything else will go on as today–transportation to market, irrigation, electricity, other people willing and able to buy goods, availability of organic soil amendments and sprays, etc..

          • I think the key is not necessarily “high value,” but “value added.”

            If you just grow wheat, you’re competing with the huge commodities producers. But if you combine that wheat with some local honey and some wild blackberries, you’ve got an artisanal cottage-industry muffin!

            The key is to have multiple price points. I can get $25 for a quart of zero-mile, organic, raw goat ice cream. But I also provide raw goat milk to herd shareholders at a more reasonable price, so they can make their own ice cream.

        • Another consideration might be that many high-calorie foods store and travel well. For example, dried grains and pulses could be brought from the surrounding countryside in bulk (even if this was achieved by horse-and-cart), to be augmented by market gardens in the cities (whose goods are more fragile and must be fresh).
          To be more clear: calories come from farms surrounding cities, vitamins and minerals come from market-gardens in cities.

        • It’s harder to garden if you have a job.

          My gardens peaked in beauty and productivity when I was unemployed.

          On major factor is that I could spot problems early and correct them. Further it was relatively easy to wander in and out of the garden all day, just doing little simple tasks. Now that I’m working again, I see my gardens at night when the daytime stresses are over, or on weekends when days of damage may already have been wreaked upon them.

          My efforts now are in getting perennials established and laying down lots of organic matter. This year I had a good crop of melons, by preparing for lazt gardening in advance. I essentially planted them in deep unfinished compost made from leaves and chopped up branches. I placed them along the track where I laid a soaker hoses, then covered the area in straw. the soaker hoses are on electronic timers. I still have melons left ripening in spite of record breaking heat here in Texas.

    • Justnobody”, I think that you need to study and understand the art of organics and sustainability a little more.Solis and fertility can be produced from local materials, to include mulch from dead tress,but also available other resources in the vast waste stream of this country; that’s the way nature does it. Also all things grown does not necessarily have to be sown directly in the soil, IE (aquaculture,hydroponics,raised beds,vertical gardens etc….Tomatoes can be canned without the use of electricity by the use of heat from any fire source,or dried and then stored even in the coldest of climates.There are many options available,but one has to learn them,and believe me its time now.An African saying: “If one is starving,its to late to plant a garden”. I recommend that you read up on Permaculture in addition to organic growing……Peace “Dee

    • Well, being in a “cold climate like Canada” has the advantage of a sort of a natural refrigerator during winter, so food preservation is easier if anything. Also, it’s quite possible to preserve tomatoes as tomato sauce (I do it) just by boiling, without any electricity (plenty of wood for fire in Canada I would think)… People have lived in that environment, so it can be done, getting the lost knowledge and skills in time might prove to be a bit of a problem…

  3. This is not possible as social justice would disappear which is not possible under progressive ideologies.

  4. Hi Gail:
    I enjoy your posts. Your comment about human beings not being able to live within the Earth’s ecosystem reminded me of Alan Gregg’s (VP Rockefeller Foundation) article in Science (121, 1955) where he proposed that we think about humanity as a cancer of the Earth. I don’t think that there is any question that the number of humans on the planet will decline by several billion during the 21st Century. The bigger question is what will be the rate? The Mayan population declined 85% in 100 years – from 3 million to 450,000 during 850 to 950 A.D. This is proof that it can happen. The St. Matthew’s Island reindeer population went from 6000 to 42 in 3 years – another benchmark of reality. As an actuary I would like to see some of your hypothetical projections of population decline based on various birth rate/death rate scenarios. I know this is a taboo subject but I believe your audience is mature, intelligent and open enough for a such a discussion.

    • Thanks to the reference to Alan Gregg’s statement. I hadn’t run into it before. I didn’t run into the actual Science article on a Google search, but I did find lots of references to it.

      Regarding making an estimate of the shape of the decline, earlier this year, I said that I thought that most of it would occur in the next 20 years. I probably should revisit the subject.

  5. Hi Gail:
    It seems that if the decline in fossil energy supply happens at the rate we (peak oil believers) foresee, the carrying capacity that supports 7 billion of us will rapidly erode. Having then to depend on daily sunlight for most of our energy needs (maybe nuclear will provide some extra) the Earth can probably only sustain 1-2 billion of us. If we take 2100 as a generous date when the EROEI from fossil sunlight in less than 5:1, it would seem that the population will have to decline, on a linear basis, by about 50 to 60 million per year starting soon. Can we do that by birth rate alone? Maybe, but not linearly, but possibly with some form of tradable fertility licenses as Kenneth Boulding proposed in “The Meaning of the 21st Century” (Harper and Row 1964). More likely, humans will not be able to organize such an effort and Nature will do the work. I would really like to see your actuarial skills applied to these two extreme scenarios. Something in between will probably be reality.

    • The issue I see is that the financial situation will cause political systems to collapse (or to be taken over by dictators–remember Hitler came to power in the Depression). I expect the Euro will disband to its member countries, and think it is likely that the United States will disband to its member states (or perhaps some of these will split further, or regroup). In the new configuration, trade will be much more difficult, and groups will be unwilling to trade with those who seem to be in financial difficulty. Each smaller group will have its own currency, and you may need a passport to go from, say, North Dakota to South Dakota.

      We can hardly think in terms like these. (Hopefully I am wrong.)

    • @St. Roy wrote: “Having then to depend on daily sunlight for most of our energy needs…”

      To be on the safe side, I think we should plan on no more than half the sunlight actually harvested by photosynthesis as our energy budget — and even that is probably shorting many other animals who count on that.

      Many “cornucopian” views of solar energy simply take the amount of sunlight falling on the earth and say, “See, no problem! There’s plenty!” The slightly more responsible will factor in the conversion efficiency of solar cells, and then say, “See, still no problem!”

      But I am not convinced that, long-term, humans can actually do better than a billion years of evolution has achieved. The conversion efficiency of photosynthesis is about 6% or 7% — what, in all our arrogance, makes us think we can maintain an efficiency greater than that?

      Note also that the energy used in North America currently exceeds the solar energy harvested by all the plants in North America by about 50% — this obviously cannot continue, unless one believes that high-tech solutions like super-high efficiency solar cells cover a significant portion of the land mass.

      • I am not following the math. In one day the US uses 3TW x 24hr = 72TWhr of energy. One meter square at 6% harvests about 240Whr per day. One square kilometer harvests 240MWhr. So dividing 72TWhr by 240MWhr we get 300,000. We need 300,000 square kilometers. That is an area 550km by 550km or 330 miles by 330 miles. This would fit nicely in the Southwest of the US.

        • Our big problem is storage of solar electricity. It is not very useful for most purposes, if it just comes at one time and is gone. While there are a lot of theoretical solutions, they tend to either not be available locally (pumped storage) or are very expensive and lose quite a bit of the electricity in the process. They also require continual manufacture and transport of batteries–something that is not possible with renewables alone.

        • My 6% – 7% number is for an unshaded leaf on the equator. You can’t simply cover several southwestern US states with leaves and harvest the sunlight.

          Kling of the University of Michigan reports that the gross photosynthetic efficiency of the entire Earth (gross basic productivity* divided by gross insolation) is more on the order of 0.06%.

          The info I had about the energy use of North America exceeding the basic productivity of North America by 50% came from an article in The Oil Drum, and I suspect it was using gross numbers like Kling. (I did a cursory search on The Oil Drum, and could not quickly locate that article.)

          The devil is in the details.

          * Note that “basic productivity” means something different to an ecologist than to an economist. It is the amount of chemical energy amassed by all autotrophs or plants and photosynthetic algae capable of directly turning sunlight into chemical energy.

      • Yes, but the US could probably cut its electricity use by 90% without huge consequence for quality of life. My parents use about 2 kWh/day in summer (more in winter for cooking).

        • Yes, we could probably conserve. Moving people out of the Southern states where a lot of electricity goes to life saving air-conditioning would help too.

          Then we could continue to expand our population until it’s unsustainable, do to this and many other factors.

          • Actually, I think handling cold may be a bigger problem than handling heat. If we have indoor plumbing, pipes have to be kept about 32 degrees. So some heat is needed in northern states and Canada. Air conditioning can be omitted, if a person chooses, in most places.

            • Hi Gail,

              Agree. Although I grew up in Northern Minnesota, I was drafted into the army and spent many days at Fort Hood Texas in temps over 100 degrees – even up to 115! We had no air conditioning. Of course, we were also in the prime of our lives.

              I’m not sure about the history of A/C, but back in the 40s and 50s I don’t recall A/C being widely used. There were roof top water coolers, ceiling fans, 12 ft ceilings with vents at the top, etc – but not much dependency on electricity beyond fans.

              But cold is another story! I recall many days of 20 to 40 degrees (F) below zero in Minnesota. Humans can dress for this cold, but modern buildings are highly vulnerable without efficient heat sources. The days of using simple wood burning pot belly stoves is long gone for heating a large home, office building or factory. Nearly all conventional heating systems rely upon electricity regardless of fuel type. Extended electricity outages have serious implications for heating issues.

              We have a passive solar home but I’ve not yet tested to see if it would remain above freezing after 2 weeks of very cold and cloudy days. Although I could probably get by with a small amount of heat from a wood burning stove. Cold is serious stuff.

    • It seems to me that a tacit assumption in your post is that the carrying capacity of Earth will be less without the injection of fossil fuels into agriculture. I am not a permaculture expert, but what I have studied does not support this assumption. My understanding is that small areas of land intensively farmed using permaculture principles are at least as productive (and perhaps more so) than industrial level agriculture.
      Of course, this would require a much larger proportion of the population being involved in food production and uninvolved elsewhere, so would mean huge societal changes, but I am not convinced we should be assuming the immanent starvation of great swathes of the population.

      • Permaculture takes years to set up, and it takes a population that has some training in it and the will and time to invest in it. I don’t see a population who thinks that an easy life is their birthright, getting involved in this.

      • A big issue is irrigation. Without fossil fuel, it is hard to have even city water supplies. A person can do something with the run-off from their roof, but this is not enough to feed a big group.

      • I doubt that permaculture will give you the same production that you would get from modern agriculture. Take a garbage can, drill holes in it, fill it up with organic matter such vegetable and other similar mater and mix it up with dead leaves. Two months later the garbage can will be fill with 3 inch at the bottom of compost. From there it is easy to image how much organic matter you will need to replace modern fertilize. Much more that you think. Try to multiplied that into a bigger scale. Where would you get your brown matter ( such as dead leave) matter to create your compost.

        • Some people will respond that they collect leaves that their neighbors bag.

          I can say the same, but… I realize that if all of my neighbors gardened like I do, they wouldn’t be putting out bags of leaves for me to snag.

          And even so, my small lot would never feed us in this part of the country without inputs from civilization.

        • Again, I am not an expert — just studying.

          To respond to your comment about compost — most of what is lost when composting is the water — the nutrients remain. Hence the idea that, because it shrinks, you need a lot more is incorrect.

          To carry the theme in general:

          Yes, organic gardening takes time to establish, and requires the injection of large amounts of organic matter into the soil. If you’re trying to establish a permaculture garden on disused/abandoned cotton plantation you have your work cut out for you.

          If, however, you’re setting one up in your backyard, things aren’t so bad.

          If you plan to export a lot of food (ie. nutrients) from your land, you will need a corresponding intake. But if you plan to eat your own produce, then you’re ok as long as you have a plan for returning the nutrients to the soil when you’re finished with them (eg. humanure). The measure of the fertility of the soil is not the absolute number of nutrients there, but how quickly you can get them to cycle (I’m quoting from Linda Woodrow’s “permaculture home garden” here). Obviously, other things being equal, the more organic matter in the soil the better.

  6. I would add two brief comments to a good post and some good comments:

    If any dimension of physical growth is included, the term sustainble growth becomes an oxymoron.

    Today’s basic demographic arithmetic looks like this: each year there are about 140 million births and 60 million deaths, leaving us with an additional 80 million or so each year. This is also unsustainble.

    We have adopted an economic system that cannot deliver what it promises, in part because its underlying assumption is that economic growth can go on forever on a finite planet. Economists cannot accept that our planet is finite; rather they argue that resources are either infinite or infinitely substitutable. Economics is not a science; it is closer to a theology, a belief system, one that may have worked well in the 19th and early 20th centuries but it isn’t working any more. Until we accept that, we will see more of the same, from finding and burning every possible fossil fuel to creating an ever more carbon dioxide laden atmosphere. If nothing changes, the latter will change climate enough in many places to conditions much less friendly for agricultural production. Look to Texas as a good example, then to its governor for his moronic comments on climate change.

    • Hi Gary,

      Plus 10 on your comment. Isn’t it amazing that your math is beyond the comprehension of even PHD types. Scholars who can expound on quantum mechanics (and, can do the math!) are unable to deal with (140 – 60) * 10 = 800. Nearly another billion in 10 years when millions are currently starving to death each year.

      You mention “finite planet…..until we accept that” and “Economics ….. closer to a theology”. I argue that there will be no such acceptance until humanity collectively moves from “faith based” beliefs to embracing science. But, as you said “Texas…Governor … moronic” – unfortunately, millions of Americans idolize the man.

  7. What Happens when the Current System Stops Working?

    Casual observation tells me it has already stopped working. Sometimes in subtle ways and sometimes not so subtle.
    I have recently joined my closest Transition Town Initiative, here in the UK where I live. I’ve never been overly keen on the transition initiative because I don’t feel it is sufficiently deep enough to cope with what is to come.
    I have no high expectations of TT, but I consider it to be a kind of ‘lightning conductor’, which attracts people who ‘get it’, and gives me the opportunity of contact with like minded individuals.
    The fact that they ‘get it’ does not mean that they will think in a similar way to me. Maybe that’s a good thing, in that I will learn new or better ways of approaching the problems of peak oil.

    I can see from simple observation around me, that most people can see that something is wrong. The economy is not working as it should, and there is no clear solution on the horizon to give them a route to the business as usual they are expecting.
    If we could get people to understand the issues of peak oil early, they might (might!), adapt in a constructive way.
    Yet I struggle to convince even close relatives, that there is a problem.
    None of us know if the decline will be 2 years or 20 years. I hope it will be closer to 20 years, to give us all a chance of adjusting without major trauma.

    • Everything I can see says we are going to start taking very big steps down within 2 years, just because the problems have now been moved to the governmental sector, and they can no longer hold things at bay. As you say, it looks like the system has already stopped working. Now much of the question is how long the problems can be kicked down the road.

      • I think one of the stages we will go through is government controlled rationing of gas, home heating oil, housing and food. Until I see that I think we can kick the can a few more times.

  8. Gail:
    I agree, the financial collapse will cause current political boundaries to disappear. We may see the European Union begin to dissolve even this year. The US is also fracturing but I don’t think it will be along state lines, but rather by natural geographical resource regions and cultural values. I live in Mexico and the locals here see the Southwest again becoming part of their country.

  9. “Without fossil-fuel dependent pharmaceuticals and immunizations, diseases would greatly reduce populations.”

    Gail, I don’t think this is as important as you say. The major improvements in life expectancy in the last century have been due to public health improvements, many of them quite inexpensive and not directly dependent on much fossil fuel. Perhaps the largest single factor in increased life expectancy is chlorination of public water supplies.

    Of course, the existence of public water supplies is dependent on fossil fuels in many places, but that’s a different aspect of the problem.

    • I know you are right about public health improvements being important. I think the issues is the one you mention at the end–these are really dependent on fossil fuels. We need fossil fuels to pump, the water from the ground, to produce the chlorine and transport it to the right location, and to pump the treated water to the right place. All of the sewage treatment is similarly tied to fossil fuel use (and the availability of other fertilizer). Spraying for mosquitos to prevent disease is also important, but again this spraying is fossil fuel dependent.

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