More Reasons Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth

In a recent post, I talked about why we may be reaching Limits to Growth of the type foretold in the 1972 book Limits to Growth. I would like to explain some additional reasons now.

Figure 1. Base scenario from 1972 Limits to Growth, printed using today's graphics by Charles Hall and John Day in "Revisiting Limits to Growth After Peak Oil"

In my earlier post, I talked about how rising oil prices are associated with rising food prices, and how these high prices can make it harder for borrowers to repay their loans, as is now happening in Europe. These same problems can lead to a contraction of credit availability. A contraction in credit availability can be doubly problematic: it can lead to a cutback in demand because buyers cannot afford goods using oil, such as new cars, and it can lead to a drop in financing for industrial uses, including expanded oil drilling. All of these issues may lead to contraction of the type expected in Limits to Growth. US governmental debt limit problems and European debt defaults are also outcomes of the type expected with rising oil prices.

In this post, I would like to discuss some other basic issues that seem to be associated with Limits to Growth, and that may eventually lead to an abrupt downturn or collapse.

Limits to Growth: More Basic Issues

1. The over-use of resources by humans seems to be of very-long standing origin, dating to the time-period 100,000 BC when there were fewer than 100,000 people on earth. Capitalism today is an extension of this long-term pattern.

2. World systems often seem to work as a gradual build-up of forces followed by a cataclysmic release. Examples include earthquakes and hurricanes. Even getting hungry, and then eating, follows this pattern. A similar pattern may happen with the Limits to Growth that we seem to be reaching.

3. The extent to which humans can gather resources for their own use depends on their geographical reach. As hunter-gatherers, our reach was quite limited. This reach has gradually grown through inventions such as ships, through the settling of new lands and colonialism, and most recently through international globalization. Globalization is necessarily the end of this growth.

4. Globalization sows the seeds of its own demise because factory workers are effectively forced to compete for wages with workers from around the world. Workers in the Global South can get along with lower wages for a number of reasons, including the fact that they tend to live in warmer areas, so do not need to build as sturdy homes and have less need to heat them. With fewer jobs and less investment in the Global North, demand falls and debt defaults become more of a problem.

5. In the normal scheme of things, world systems would rest and regroup once resources reach some sort of crisis point, defined by Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Soils would build up again; aquifers would refresh; climate would reach a new equilibrium; and a different group of plants and animals would become dominant. Oil and gas supplies might even be rebuilt, over millions of years. It is not clear that humans will be part of the new world order, however.

Long-Term Overuse of Resources

Over the past 100,000 years, man’s record of sustainably using natural resources has been poor. Humans differ from other primates because of their relatively larger brain size, but humans have not used this intelligence to preserve the environment. Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones in Atlas of World Population History report that the final increase in Homo sapiens’ brain size to the current average of 1450 cc took  place about 100,000 years ago.

There have been five periods in the history of the world in which large numbers of species have died off. These are sometimes called “mass extinctions“. (See my post European Debt Crisis and Sustainability.) According to Niles Eldridge, the Sixth Extinction is occurring now:

  • 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.

According to Eldridge, humans have been like bulls in a China shop. They disrupted ecosystems by overhunting game species and perhaps also by spreading disease organisms. Regarding the development of agriculture, he says:

Homo sapiens became the first species to stop living inside 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.

The development of fossil fuels ramped up the attack on natural systems further. Fossil fuel could be used for irrigation, and to produce herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizer, allowing farmers to choose the crops they preferred to grow. Fossil fuels also enabled large fishing boats to deplete the oceans of large fish.

Capitalism furthered this attack on the natural order by giving those who extracted resources from the earth profits based on this extraction. While governments may have taxed these profits, these taxes, too, were used for developing infrastructure so that man could continue his attack on the natural order, and this extraction of resources would become more efficient.

The final tool man found in his attach on natural ecosystems was debt based financing. While debt had been used for many years, it took on a new role when economists started realizing that greater debt could be used to increase demand for goods. This happens because debt financing gives people money to spend in advance of when it is earned (for example, a car loan allows a person to buy a car that he could not otherwise afford).

Because debt allows people to buy thing that they would not otherwise be able to afford, it has a tendency to raise commodity prices. These higher commodity prices make it economic to extract more marginal resources, such as oil in difficult locations.

Natural systems often operate through a build up of forces, followed by a cataclysmic release

There are no doubt some natural forces operate at a pretty steady level indefinitely–gravity, for example. But many of the processes we experience are “batch processes”. We remain awake during the day; by evening we become tired, and fall asleep until the next morning. We eat, digest the food, and become hungry again. Movement of earth’s plates gradually builds up forces which are released by an earthquake. When force is released, the change can be quick and dramatic.

Right now, one stress is that of  limited oil supply. This is leading to rising oil prices and stress on economies of oil importing countries.

Figure 2. Two views of future growth

The problem is that when limited oil supply is rationed by high oil prices, economic growth slows down, and eventually decreases (Figure 2). When this happens, it becomes much less advantageous to borrow from the future, because the future is no longer better than today. If an economic contraction occurs for very long, the whole debt system can be expected to undergo a major “unwind”.

Logic says the result would be fairly cataclysmic. We recently started seeing the beginning of this unwind with the financial crisis of 2008-2009. We are seeing more of the potential unwind with the problems in Greece and the rest of Europe, and with the US government reaching limits on borrowed debt. Exactly how this will play out is uncertain, but debt defaults in Europe could spread to banks worldwide, in one scenario.

With much less credit available, demand for extracted energy products would fall, because with less debt, people can afford to purchase fewer products that use energy, such as new cars. Prices of oil and oil substitutes will fall, making oil extraction unprofitable in locations where extraction costs are high. The result is not likely to be a slow decline, of the type attributed to M. King Hubbert. Instead, a much more precipitous decline can be expected (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Historical crude, condensate, and NGL production based on BP and EIA data, plus a Guesstimate of Future Oil Supply.

Human Geographical Reach

The amount of food and other goods we have access to and the steadiness of supply depend very much on our geographical reach. In the earliest days, humans were nomadic, so that they could gather food from a wide area. It was not until about 10,000 years ago that humans began to settle down with agricultural existence. When a change to local agriculture took place,  this change led to shorter stature and earlier deaths. Part of this was due to poorer nutrition from a less varied diet; part of this was due to an increase in the incidence of infectious diseases, because of closer proximity to other humans and domesticated animals.

Now, with globalization, we have reached the logical maximum in our geographical reach. Those who are rich enough can buy foods from around the world. We also have access to computers and other high-tech devices that can only be made with inputs from around the world. Most people’s expectation is that somehow we will keep up this wide reach, even if our world financial system fails due to debt defaults, but we have no guarantee that this really will be possible.

If we start re-localizing, we will likely run into problems that people have had since the dawn of agriculture. It is hard to grow a wide range of crops in one area. Weather conditions are often bad in one year, necessitating either multiple-year storage of crops, or trade with other areas. If we cannot maintain our use of antibiotics and of water and sewer treatment, deaths from infections may soar.

Globalization Sows the Seeds of Its Own Demise

From the point of view of profit-making businesses, globalization is wonderful. Workers can be found in “less developed” areas of the world who will work for lower wages. As a result, wages of workers in the Global North are put in direct competition with wages for workers in the Global South. Wages in the Global South can be lower for several reasons:

  • Workers may expect to work more hours per week to earn the funds needed to support themselves and their families.
  • Payments to workers do not need to include as much for healthcare benefits, or as much for retirement payments to the elderly, because of the younger workforce, and differences in the healthcare systems.
  • Energy costs of workers are likely to be lower because of greater use of coal, smaller homes, less needed for heating in warm climates, and use of bicycles instead of cars.

But there are adverse effects of sending manufacturing oversees:

  • The unemployed need to be taken care of by government programs, even if they don’t have jobs.
  • Demand for goods produced may fall. Neither the low-wage workers producing the goods in the Global South nor the workers without jobs in the Global North are likely to be able to afford the products that are being produced.
  • Economic growth is likely to decline in countries of the Global North that outsource manufacturing and other processes.
  • Debt is likely to become more of a problem in countries of the Global North, because of low economic growth or actual contraction. Laid-off workers are likely to find themselves less able to repay their loans. Governments are likely to find themselves in difficulty because of low tax revenues, high benefits to laid-off workers, and high debt levels.

Thus, globalization sows the seed of its own demise.

Regrouping is Likely to be Needed

At some point, the system can be expected to fail, and regrouping will be needed. The path to failure seems to be through debt defaults, leading to falling demand for the products that capitalism provides.

Once this decline starts, it is hard to see a natural “stopping point” for the decline. On the “way up,” businesses, governments, traditions, and even religious beliefs are built that reinforce the processes that are in place. For example, if a certain amount of oil, gas, and coal is being extracted from the ground, businesses will be formed that use these fossil fuels, and traditions will be started (for example, expensive healthcare for many, and college education for most) that will use these fossil fuels. Economics becomes the new religion, touting the benefits of more consumption.

If the decline is to stop, we need a whole different set of businesses and traditions to support a much lower level consumption of fossil fuels and other inputs. It is not at all clear that we can adapt quickly enough for a change of this type.

When we look back a few thousand years, societies had a surprisingly rich tapestry of businesses and traditions to support them. For example, David Graber, in Debt: The First 5,000 Years talks about the ancient (2700 BC) Mesopotamian city-states being dominated by vast temples where trading was done. It wasn’t until about a century later that Abraham left “Ur of the Chaldeans” (Genesis 11:31), a major port at that time.

Part of our problem in going back is that we can’t even imagine what web of businesses and traditions would be needed to support a lower fuel use than we have now.  We can build a garden in our backyard, and we can print some “local currency” for local citizens to trade, but these types of activities do not really fill the major void that would be left if our current approach to civilization fails.

Sustainability: What Would Work

If we think about it, it is pretty obvious how humans could fit into the natural world better. We could behave like other animals. We could stop wearing clothes. We could stop living in houses. We could eat food in its raw form. This food would be only that which we can pick or catch with our bare hands. We could co-evolve with our fellow creatures. If a virus or bacteria comes along and kills off a significant share of mankind, or if a woman dies in child-birth, we could simply accept that as the natural order of things.

I don’t think any of us would accept such a solution, though. It is just too harsh an outcome. Such a solution would not work except in very warm climates, and even there, we would need fire to cook meals and tools for killing animals. Under one theory, cooking of food is necessary for our current level of intelligence, so we could not give that up.

We can’t know how our current predicament will turn out. Logic says that the natural system needs to rest and regroup after Limits to Growth are reached, in one way or another. Perhaps there is a “happily ever after” solution that will include a large number of humans. Unfortunately, it is hard to see what that solution might be.

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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91 Responses to More Reasons Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth

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  3. Ed Pell says:

    I will put in a word for the LTG people. They never claimed to be making a model that could predict exact dates. They made a model that demonstrated the dynamics of the system. It is just dumb luck and great insight on the part of the modellers that it is doing so well so far.

  4. Don Stewart says:

    We have to be careful of The Confirmation Bias–the tendency of humans to only see evidence that supports what they already believe. For example, check out this concise, one page appeal for donations and note that we did, in fact, raise the money.

    Sometime this spring the Crop Mob (30 to 50 people) will arrive for a day of volunteer work to transform the lot into an urban farm. You see a reference to Two Ton Farm. That farm was started several years ago on a quarter acre next to a halfway house. That lot was transformed by the Crop Mob and is now growing enough food for a six member CSA, selling to several restaurants, and distributing free food in the mostly poor neighborhood. People in the halfway house help work Two Ton.

    So…Joel Salatin finds an incredibly productive one twelfth acre farm in downtown St. Louis. And notes that ‘we have 35 million acres of lawn and 36 million acres devoted to recreational horses’ and that there are no inherent barriers to growing plenty of food. He also notes that much of the vacant land is in inner cities (such as the gardens I refer to above). Yet in March, 2010, the Montgomery County, Maryland, school superintendent, John Weast, sent out a memo stating ‘Because vegetable gardens are a food source for pests, create liabilities for children with food allergies and have other associated concerns’, school gardens get the axe.

    Folks, this is beyond stupid. It won’t be Peak Oil that kills humanity, it will be stupidity.

    As to producing more calories than you burned producing the food. I don’t have numbers, but these efforts are a lot better than the 11 to 1 ratio of conventional agriculture. First, they focus on the high water content crops: fruits and veggies. Water costs a lot to ship and makes the produce perishable and so needs refrigeration. A neighborhood garden avoids all that expense and fossil fuels. And when people walk to the garden to get their greens and their apples, the most expensive part of the agricultural cycle is avoided–driving the two ton SUV to the grocery store.

    Any half-way competent gardener can garden with recycled nutrients. A good urban garden uses chickens, rabbits, and earthworms to recycle kitchen waste. And the urine from one human can fertilize one acre.

    The high calorie count grains are dry and are relatively cheap to transport. High calorie count meat is more problematic because it needs refrigeration. But if you see Sharon Astyk’s current post, you find that two thirds of the cost to the consumer is complying with useless, idiotic regulations. If you really want a bellyfull of explanations of just how stupid the regulations have become, read Joel’s book. The school superintendent would be proud that our ‘advanced society’ has been able to develop all this idiocy.

    Don Stewart

    • Jan Steinman says:

      My sister teaches high school in New Jersey. She got approval to turn an unused courtyard into a Permaculture demonstration perennial food forest. She rounded up grat money to buy the plants and supplies. She got students involved — many of whom gave up personal time to come to after-school planning sessions — and turned in a beautiful design.

      But the local fire department said they can’t put anything within 50 yards of a building that was taller than mown grass.

      So here’s a counter-example of a willing school, but obstructionist “public health and safety” bureaucracy — beyond stupid, indeed.

      The ones who survive will be those doing things in open defiance of bureaucracy — if they can last so long.

  5. Jan Steinman says:

    As someone with a minor in Ecology, I keep coming back to ecological principles, which I strongly believe underlie financial principles, as well.

    In high-energy environments, such as the tropics, competition dominates. There are generally multiple species filling each trophic niche, such as several species of hawk, all working the same territory at the same time. This is the model that those who worship at the Church of Growth like to emphasize as the One True Model. This is why they can get away with privatization in what should be core government services, such as military, education and health care, citing the benefits of competition in such cases.

    However, in low-energy environments, such as arctic and alpine ecotopes, you find that cooperation dominates in more species, and even between species. This is where you’ll find one or two species of hawk hunting in the day, and one or two species of owl hunting at night, effectively cooperating to temporally divide up the limited trophic resource.

    This is what we’d better learn in a hurry as human civilization moves from a high-energy environment to a low-energy environment.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Jan,

      Interesting thought. I’m nearing the end of my current book “The Humans Who Went Extinct: Why Neanderthals Died Out and We Survived” and it is interesting to read about theories of early cooperative efforts between different nomadic bands of humans.

      Clearly, cooperation is the most fundamental key for any chance of homo sapien survival for the long term. I often raise the question: what is the major impediment for this cooperation? I guess I’ve made my opinion about this fairly well known.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “… what is the major impediment for this cooperation?”

        To me, that’s obvious: high energy availability.

        Although Jay Hanson (et. al.) assert that per-capita energy consumption has been on the decline for some time, it’s still hard to argue that we are in a low-energy situation… yet.

        The question is: will the decline be steep, or slow? Will we have time to re-learn co-operation, or will catastrophe be thrust upon us while we are all still rugged individualists, competing all the way to the bottom?

        My experience in trying to start a cooperative venture is that people are not yet hungry enough — both figuratively and physically — for such things. The perceived liabilities still outweigh the perceived benefits.

        I don’t think co-operation has much of a chance while energy levels are high enough that most people can still afford to own cars. We’re involved with someone who must spend a hundred a week on transportation, but can’t afford to contribute to the co-op mortgage. We were involved with two younger couples who would drive their kids twenty minutes for a “play date,” rather than get together to walk the thousand acres behind our property.

        My hope is that things get very bad very quickly, as Gail seems to think may happen. It’s going to be real hard to hold on to the dream if we have to go through another twenty years or so of “boiling frogs” before people “get it.”

  6. Bicycle Dave says:

    Gail’s essay is about “Why” we are reaching limits to growth. In the general sense, most people construe “growth” to mean the stabile or increasing production of more material goods/services and the means to acquire them. For example, growth implies it’s relatively easy for an increasing population to find a good paying job that allows one to consume the goods and services that provide for what we perceive as a reasonably comfortable lifestyle that is roughly equivalent to our understanding of a good “standard of living” for our country. Around here we like to say BAU – and “growth” seems to imply that BAU is actually getting better. Even though much of the world’s population is bitterly complaining about a declining standard of living, most people still think that the solution is to stimulate MORE growth.

    I think it is safe to say that the majority of the people reading this blog understand the true underlying dynamics of this growth paradigm. It is not the economics that most of us grew up with whereby there was always a new frontier, discovery, technology, etc to fuel longer life spans, better diet/shelter, greater mobility, more leisure time (for some anyway), more communication gadgets, etc. And, most people in the USA believed that ideas like “American Exceptionalism” and “vast resources” explained the good fortune we enjoyed in previous decades. Folks reading this blog understand that the growth ideology actually encouraged increased population, increased consumption of finite natural resources, increased production of waste products, etc – and that these increases have depleted resources and degraded the biosphere to (or near) a tipping point that threatens very harsh consequences for humanity and the planet at large. We also understand that this viewpoint is either not understood or actually rejected by most people living on our planet.

    Which brings me back to Gail’s “Why” reasons. It seems to me that Gail does an excellent job of showing the “evidence” that we actually are reaching limits. But, in the broader sense of “why”, I think there are unanswered questions. Without dwelling upon the cultural memes that I think lie at the root of the problem, it seems to me that most people (beyond this blog) would believe that Gail is making extraordinary claims about our predicament and therefore an extraordinary amount of proof is needed. If there is any hope of “softening the impact” for the planet at large, I think the first step has to be an extremely powerful explanation of the problem in a manner that is very difficult to deny. We can’t expect to overcome centuries of entrenched beliefs with essays on TOD or papers published by ASPO. It would also be nice if there was a really charismatic champion for this issue – someone of great international standing.

    One of the major faults that I see with most writings on this issue is an oversupply of opinion and a seeming inability to objectively separate out the component parts of the problem. Gail and others have presented solid facts about oil supply and demand, global population, CO2 concentrations, alternative fuels, species extinction, etc. And then we have a pretty good handle on the category of the actual history and actual observable trends associated with these facts – population growth rate, CO2 rate of accumulation, rate of species extinction. Plus, we have very solid scientific facts about cause and effect related to these issues.

    But then we get to the area of interpretation and speculation about what these facts, trends, and science portend for the future. I submit that it is not in our best interest to promote the doom scenario as a nearly foregone conclusion. The doom scenario is certainly one very valid possibility, but I don’t think it is the only possibility – and neither do billions of other people who are either unaware of the issues or dismiss them for one reason or the other. There are other scenarios that could happen if we have sufficient enlightenment about the issues and understand what kind of actions would be helpful. The fact that many of us personally believe that our chances of avoiding catastrophe are slim, it is a poor excuse for ignoring the legacy we are literally dumping upon future generations with no real warning.

    Some of us believe that the best approach is to get some of highly respected body of people, who appear to be fairly objective, to conduct an exhaustive study of the issues – starting with Peak Oil. This is not a new challenge. President Lincoln had the same problem when he needed unbiased advice for issues that had a scientific component. To fix this problem he created the National Academy of Science – NAS. However, NAS has to be specifically commissioned to undertake such a study. To date this has not happened (other than a few inconsequential papers) and will not happened unless there is political pressure to commission such a study – meaning a full-blown and comprehensive study. If you would like to support this approach please sign the petition at:

    Even those of you who are convinced that humans are not smarter than yeast and this is a futile effort, or you think all government is corrupt, or you hate studies, or whatever – you can still sign this as a small constructive action in case you have any lingering guilt feelings about the mess we have made of the planet with our unrestrained breeding and consumption habits.

    • Thank you Dave,

      Let me briefly clarify one thing, I’m not one for complacency or fatalism. I’m a lifelong activist. But I believe that we need to first face up to hard reality before we can move on.

      By way of parallel, it is constructive and helpful for a doctor to tell a chronically ill patient what the score is. Telling the hard truth is much more constructive than the earlier approach of denying the truth to avoid the trauma of knowing.

      The bad news may be met with grief and denial at first, but the good practitioner will immediately weigh in with what the patient can constructively do about his or her situation and explain the supportive resources that are around. The good practitioner also knows that much of our well being is in our heads. If we treat the human condition that we live in as a challenge and as an adventure in living then we will survive it far better than if we think of it as a prognosis of terminal failure.

      “Live the change that you wish to see” almost says it all. I see inspirational people all over the place making these transitions in their lives, and enjoying it immensely.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Chris,

        Good to hear your perspective on this. I really like your “Live the change that you wish to see” comment. And, I very much agree with your “good doctor” analogy – lets get the facts out and make a constructive argument for positive change.

        Most of the PO community agrees with Gail that the facts are too painful to bear and would lead to a more rapid collapse. We have had little support for the petition from the PO community for this and other reasons. I disagree – but, I’m clearly a minority here. You might also want to be careful about any expressed optimism 🙂

    • If our economy depends on faith in the financial system, then no one would want a study that might suggest that the financial system can’t hold together forever, or worse yet, that much of the debt on the books today can never be repaid. So this would be a good reason not to do such a study. Because of this, I won’t hold my breath that it gets done.

      By the way, I signed the petition a long time ago. I am #15 on the list.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Gail,

        Thank you for signing – I forgot your about your early signing and your nice comment:

        The decline in world oil production is likely to mean the end of economic growth. Without economic growth, our financial system cannot be expected to work as intended. All aspects of our lives are likely to be affected — not just the availability of liquid fuels.I have known about peak oil for about 3.5 years. It is really part of a larger issue, Limits to Growth, which has been discussed since the book Limits to Growth was written in 1972. Japan’s Science and Technology Foundation gave Dennis Meadows, one of the authors, its annual $500,000 award on April 23, 2009.

        Thanks for your support.

  7. Jerry McManus says:

    Highlights of 2011: Energy and economics 2011-2012
    Long-term fiscal plans need to consider energy possibilities

    Over the last decade, the net energy from our energy resources declined, mimicking the decline of the 1970s, and we overestimated our rate of progress. Unlike the 1970s, this recent net energy decline was not imposed by a quasi-political body such as OPEC, however. Now there is a debt we cannot understand how to repay because most economic models don’t contemplate the threshold effects that human and natural resource constraints impose on our current situation. The coming year is a good time to rethink the model: Mainstream economics and policies need to consider how the scarcity and lack of equivalent substitutability of many of Earth’s natural resources — in particular energy — are playing an increasingly influential role in our economy.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    One more thing about Nicole Foss. Sometimes people make a great contribution by contributing a phrase which encapsulates a complex phenomenon. I think Nicole did that recently when she talked about the Horizon of Trust. I saw that Jim Kunstler talked about it (referencing Nicole) with someone on his broadcast (but didn’t hear it).

    If you think about the trillions in debt (money) and the far fewer actual resources, and think about Nicole’s analogy of a game of musical chairs with only about one chair for every five people, and then imagine the chaos when people lose confidence in the debt instruments and start trying to claim their real assets, you can see how important the Horizon of Trust is. People keep marching to the music only so long as they have Trust that they can, indeed, someday claim their assets. The Central Banks in the OECD countries have been able to add 15 trillion in dubious assets because, amazingly, they are still operating within the Horizon of Trust. People are still eager to buy 30 year Treasury bonds at 2 percent interest. Europe is either outside the Horizon of Trust, or right at the edge. Japan is a study unto itself.

    In the US, we have indications that the Horizon of Trust for the US Government among ordinary citizens may resemble the situation in Europe–outside or on the edge. The thriving business in guns is one exhibit. The second exhibit is Chris Martenson’s interview this past week with John Mauldin. I don’t particularly recommend anything in the interview except for one observation by Mauldin. He says that the morning after the South Carolina primary, conservative talk show people were ranting about how dumb Gingrich is and how stupid are the people who voted for him. Then Mauldin goes on to describe just how scared and desperate people are and it is understandable that they turn to someone like Gingrich. (Mauldin claims to be friendly with Gingrich.)

    If you think about Germany and Greece, you can see how the Horizon of Trust can be quite different for the ordinary citizen and the Powers That Be (in this case, the German Government). What Germany is saying is that the debt is a sacred obligation which must be repaid. So assets such as the Parthenon or Greek Islands must be sold, sovereignty must be relinquished, and the citizens are to be Indentured Servants until they pay off the debt. So the Horizon of Trust for the German Government and the Corporations they serve has a lot to do with, in the final analysis, force. Are we confident we can force the Greeks to do our bidding? It’s hard to see how, from the standpoint of the average Greek citizen, there can be any Horizon of Trust in anything except possibly close family and neighbors.

    You can apply the same sort of thinking to the US. At what point do Mauldin’s scared and desperate people lose their Trust? If you are buying a 30 Year Treasury, how certain are you that you can force these scared and desperate people to remain Indentured Servants until they pay you off? Is the Government and the Corporations it serves confident they can prevail?

    In short, I think the term Horizon of Trust is one of those pregnant phrases that can serve us as a vehicle for thinking and sorting out what is happening.

    Don Stewart

    • Good points!

      It is no wonder that the government and media keep telling the story that everything is OK. If they didn’t, the trust that everyone has would suddenly disappear.

  9. Hi Dave,

    They’re all good thoughts, Dave,

    The main factors that have convinced me that our predicament is unsolvable? Well mathematics in the main. Coupled to the inability of our political / economic system to grapple with the predicament.

    The graph that heads the article says most of it. Life as we know it can’t go on. Trying to make it go on is a futile game. Trying to make dilute energy resources maintain the huge edifice that dense energy resources have built up is mathematically impossible. We can’t avoid what Paul Gilding has titled in his book: ‘The Great Disruption”. Thinking that we can avoid it is not just futile, it sends us in the wrong direction and is likely even make matters worse. Yet that’s the main response to date.

    But I think I know what you are getting at. The begging question is: what is worth doing then? Look, I don’t have the answer. Many writers have been wondering about that conundrum. The Transition movement may hold part of the answer. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to draw attention to the grand problem. Primary denial (there’s no problem) is a minor problem. Secondary denial (there is a problem but I don’t want to change my ways) is a much, much bigger problem. If everyone who thought there is a problem worked together, as in a war situation, then we could collectively pull off not a victory but a safe transition. We’re light years from that, so it comes back to crude mathematics. What can happen? What will happen?

    As it is, through many conversations such as this one, we are collectively building up a fantastic documentation of our civilisation’s demise. This, of course, may be a rather pointless exercise in itself, like leaving a message in a bottle. The “what can we do?” bit is vitally important.

    My starting point on worthwhile action is that we don’t face any sort of total Armageddon, but we do face a dramatic collapse. We need to think about the residual, post collapse, population and how it will have to live. And, without knowing how the collapse will take place or precisely when, we know that some skills will be more useful than others. Some technologies will be useful too. A person’s most adaptive advantage will be his or her ability to deal with any challenges. Resilience building is the generic term used for that. Not just of the individual but also of communities. Deep cultural change is a must.

    I don’t know anybody who has the answers to the big question. Many people are putting their minds to it.

    • Start with the assumption/realization that on the Grand Scale of 7B People, there really is not a damn thing that can be done about the problem, by you or even by the people you “elect” into CONgress or as POTUS.

      The fact that a Global Economy will go the way of the Dinosaur does not necessarily mean every last small economy will though. Look, when Toba went Ballistic, did EVERY last community on earth go the way of the Dinosaur? Nope, at least ONE community of 10,000 Human Souls made it through that Zero Point.

      So far, we are not faced with the eruption of a Super Volcano AND we know a whole lot more than the survivors of Toba did. Bad as circumstances are here, they still are not so bad as having 70% of the earth’s surface covered in Volcanic Ash, right? It’s not like there is NO HOPE left, just little Hope.

      For this reason I do applaud “Transition Towns” people for their efforts, though I think most of them are seriously deluded as to what is possible through the Time of Dieing. IMHO, it is only AFTER the global population is taken down by roughly an Order of Magnitude will it be possible to rebuild amd remake society along more sustainable lines.

      For this generation and probably the next two of them, its the Time of Dieing and will not be pleasant for anyone. It is not necessarily “The End” though, and further short of something even BIGGER than Toba was, its not even likely it is the End. Its just another Bottleneck we have to pass through here, and some folks WILL make it through the Zero Point.

      So as an Individual, there are still many things you can do to try to make it through the Zero Point. Prepping is important, Location is Important, Flexibitlity is Important. You cannot know precisely WHEN TS will HTF, but you can be pretty sure now that it will come inside of your lifetime, if your current life expectancy is any more than around 20 years anyhow.

      Where should you GO, what should you DO here to increase the statistical probability of your own survival and that of your progeny? I cannot answer that one definitively. I can say with reasonable assurance though there are some places you simply do not want to be, and that is where most of the population IS. Inside of Big Shities. They are Death traps, “accidents” waiting to happen. If you live in one of them, GTFO of Dodge NOW. Live there, you are writing your own Ticket to the Great Beyond.


  10. Gammakaren says:

    Gail, I think I’m one of the few women that read the oil drum regularly. I love the clarity of this post, and agree with your general thoughts on what to do: enjoy each day to the fullest, we will all die – 100% of us, and we do not know and cannot control when that will happen. My husband of many years just died unexpectedly so the sure knowledge of this is right in my face. I do worry a lot about my 3 dear grandchildren. Prepping seems like a mistake – too much time and energy consumed for what?? All your preparations could and probably would vanish in a heartbeat. I think the very best we can do for our children and grandchildren is love them and do our best to help them to be emotionally healthy and resilient people. A lot of this sounds like a terrible cliche but it isn’t!

    • Actually very sensible, Gammakaren.

      Not long after the Limits to Growth was published I read an astute commentary from a British environmental leader which put our impulse to try to ‘resolve’ the problem very nicely. He likened that impulse to trying to stop ripe apples falling off an apple tree – – concluding not only that we couldn’t do that but also that we shouldn’t.

      Most of us have been immersed in a Hollywood culture making us think we can be heroic saviours of our time. One of our hardest tasks is to accept the humility that in this case the predicament is not solvable. All we can sensibly do is prepare ourselves as best we can for the unknown and thus perhaps soften the impact. Some obvious actions strengthen our incipient resilience, and they are the ones to try to pick up.

      • Bicycle Dave says:

        Hi Chris,

        I realize my questioning here is about as welcomed as passing gas in church; however, your position also has enormous ramifications that should not be taken lightly.

        I’m still in the undecided camp but leaning toward the idea that there are some possible mitigation strategies (beyond individual ones) that could, as you say, could “soften the impact” not just for a few survivalists, but for the planet as a whole and a big chunk of humanity. I have grandchildren and even a great grandchild – I’m not terribly comfortable with simply helping them to be “resilient” (not even sure how to do that) and wishing them good luck. We are the generation that really screwed up the planet and it hardly seems fair to just dismiss the search for some degree of solutions as simple Hollywood Heroics.

        Is it really true that our predicament is completely unsolvable and denial is just hubris? What is the right analogy? I suspect that as the Germans were marching upon France and England, some people felt that resistance was futile – others did not – we know how that worked out. OTOH, is this more like an approaching asteroid that will definitely decimate the planet and no degree of preparation will prevent a significant die-off – only the lucky, resilient, and individual survivalist types will survive?

        Regarding the survivalists: I agree with Gamma Karen that preparations could vanish in a heartbeat – especially for the tens of millions of people living in concentrated high-rise buildings. As Dr Peters and others have pointed out, there is zero potential for any significant portion of 7B people “returning to the land”. With only a few exceptions, we are going to sink or swim together.

        If it really is a foregone conclusion that we are in a gladiator moment – then “eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” might be as good a strategy as any. Why are we wasting our time on this blog? I’ve often had your same feeling about trying to “pick up” on some trends and tips to help myself and family read the road signs to decide when we need to move into Plan B with our lives – but then I ask if this is really the best we can expect from humanity? Is it really just a humility issue for fence-sitters like me who just need to accept the inevitable? Is it really just a Hollywood delusion to think that there might be ways to soften the impact for the planet at large?

        Also, I’m curious as to the main factors that have convinced you that our predicament is unsolvable. I think everyone here understands the concepts of population “overshoot”, PO/GW, environmental degradation, etc. These are serious problems. But, what has convinced you that they are “unsolvable” or, at least, sufficiently unsolvable that “concluding not only that we couldn’t do that but also that we shouldn’t.” ?

  11. Jan Steinman says:

    “Whether deflation (as she has been expecting) or hyperinflation (as many expect) will result, I am not wise enough to know.”

    Boy, that is the $64,000 question, no?

    I know people (close followers of TAE) who are waiting for farmland prices to crash so they can swoop in and scoop something up with cash they’ve been stashing. It could easily go the other way — piles of cash worthless, while land that is producing food is valuable.

    I guess this exposes my particular bias. I have no hope of believing any other way at the moment, having put all my eggs (and seeds, and goats) in one basket…

    • Though the Inflation/Deflation question gets a lot of airplay, I don;t think it really matters which way it goes here in the end. In both cases at the extreme end, its a failure of the monetary sytem. In one case, there is no functioning Money circulating, in the other that which is circulating is Worthless.

      Perhaps if you play your cards just right and wait for the day the Land prices drop by 90% you could take the $10K you have stored in the Bank of Sealy and buy 100 Acres of Prime Bottom Land on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi for $100/acre. Sounds like a Sweet Deal, doesn’t it?

      Problem is, this much land is as much a Liability as it is an Asset. Ypu have to Protect and Defend it from others, and in the absence of any Goobermint structure which supports your “legal” title to that land, you are basically on your own here.

      If you do buy into what local Goobermint is established so you can have some Protection of your Property, then you will have to pay Taxes on the land, likely a protion of the produce to support the local Militia charged with protecting the land. If you aren’t forking over enough Tomatoes, at any time the local Militia might choose to “nationalize” your farm, so what did your purchase of the land really buy you here? A lot of HEADACHES mostly!

      al this does is buy you some marginal security for so long as laws regardignProperty Rights are defended, and that costs money or produce in a pure barter economy. You;ll have a hard time meeting the needs of all who surround you as the Land Owner. You are essentially setting yourself up to be a small scale Feudal Lord, and unless you have an Army to protect your property, you are dead meat here.

      Its probably better to have some land than not have some, also better to have some money in the Bank of Sealy than not have it inthe near to medium term. You Hedge your bets this way. When the system collapses completely though therough Inflation or Deflation? Fuhgettaboudit, there is no security in either pardigm.


  12. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Reverse Engineer
    This is a switch of gears from my use of Nicole’s hard drive and tin arguments that computers may not be around all that long.

    Instead, I will give you my personal reaction on how well Nicole understands money. I personally became convinced that there was too much debt in the world in early 2008. Sold my stocks. Sat for a while as the market continued to bubble. Finally decided, rightly or wrongly, that corporations were going to be the ‘last men standing’, and put my money back into an insurance company scheme which ‘guarantees’ me a six percent return per year regardless of what happens to the stock market. (The company has since withdrawn that insane offer).

    I discovered Nicole around 2009. Where I see that Nicole went wrong in 2008 was that she assumed that the bond market would not permit the governments to print money. But since 2008 the central banks have accumulated 15 trillion dollars of junk assets. I think that I was right in my assessment that governments would not permit the corporations to fail, and would sacrifice their taxpayers to save the corporations. That has certainly been the case lately. Papandreaou’s abortive attempt at a referendum in Greece was an attempt to sacrifice the corporations in the best interests of the people, and we see how that turned out.

    What will happen in 2012 and beyond remains to be seen. I think Nicole is exactly right that there is far more money (claims to future production) in circulation than any reasonable prospect of actual production. Whether deflation (as she has been expecting) or hyperinflation (as many expect) will result, I am not wise enough to know.

    Don Stewart

    • Unfortunately, a reply I made to this post seems to have gone lost into the ether. I don;t have the energy right now to try to reproduce it. My msitake for not composing it first in my text editor and saving.

      Briefly however, I do not entirely agree that Nicole’s error is in underestimating the willingness to Print by TPTB. This delays what she speaks of, but it does not prevent it from occurring. It just changes the timing, and so if you bet on the Printing, then you do OK for so long as it continues to work.

      IMHO, Nicole’s main problem is she never examines just how and why Credit comes to be created in the first place and why Money is used as it is. Steve Ludlum on Economic Undertow does a better job with this genearlly speaking, but he has his own biases regarding the industrial economy which you have to examine pretty closely as well, because they are not entriely correct either, at least IMHO.


  13. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Bicycle Dave and justnobody

    First, my apologies for sounding like a lecture from your mother. But since I am reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow right at the moment, lapses in rationality tend to jump out at me (all except my own lapses!)

    As for building bridges. Suppose you are living on an idyllic island in Puget Sound. As part of a stimulus program, the State gets some money to build ‘much needed bridges’. Do you want your island connected to the mainland with a bridge? That decision is a balancing of your various interests: peace and quiet, rolling farmland, clean air, higher property prices, quicker trips to the mainland, etc., etc. If you are in the real estate business or the bridge construction business you are likely to have different decision outcomes than if you are retired in your dream country mini-estate. Antonio Damasio, the neuroscientist, showed that decisions such as whether to build a bridge, and even as simple as choosing where to go for lunch, cannot be made if the intuitive faculties are compromised. That is, there is no solely rational solution to the problem. But our System 1 intuitively based system easily deals with these kinds of issues. Jonah Lehrer, who wrote How We Decide, advises you to gather a few facts, but not too many, and then sleep on the question and let your various System 1 faculties sort it out overnight and when you wake up in the morning, do what you perceive that you want to do. So the important decisions in life (whether to build the bridge or marry Jimmy instead of Johnny) are a combination effort of our System 1 and System 2 capabilities.

    As for ‘not liking Nicole Foss’. Kahneman points out that one of the weaknesses in human rationality is that we tend to let our like or dislike for a person color our estimate of what they are saying. The important rational content of what Nicole said in the few minutes that I referenced has to do with the expected functional life of a computer if a new computer cannot be obtained. She argues that the expected life is short because of the fragility of hard drives and because of the use of tin which oxidizes pretty rapidly. If we assume that those two statements are true, combine it with Gail’s concerns about our ability to maintain an industrial society capable of making computers and transporting them to the end user, and what we know about the proliferation of computer controlled machinery, and being aware of Leibig’s Law of the Minimum, I think we can rationally expect a lot of trouble which the machines won’t get us out of. I have recently had two occasions where my car would not start because the computer, allegedly there for safety, simply wouldn’t let it start. I will also note that it seems to me that the tin connections make the idea of cannibalizing for parts problematic. Whether Nicole is in it for the money might be an interesting question to discuss–but I don’t know her and won’t hazard any guesses.

    I do note that Nicole changed her diet radically a year or so ago, and now looks pretty trim and healthy. And that impresses me–particularly for a post-menopausal woman. So perhaps I am more willing to trust her on the hard drive and tin statements and not do too much checking. Kahneman would not fail to note my failure to check. But he might also agree that life is too short to check everything.

    Finally, Kahneman notes that once we have made a decision, we tend to see only the arguments for what we have decided to do and none of the counter arguments. You can see that at work today in the disputes between the Peak Oil True Believers and the Climate Catastrophe True Believers.

    Note the bar charts showing that we have just scratched the surface in terms of carbon dioxide pollution of the atmosphere. Which implies that we have a lot more fossil fuels to burn. Yes, yes…I know all about peak extraction and net energy (Nicole did a good job with that in the video). The point is that few Peak Oilers take Hansen’s bar charts seriously, and I don’t think Hansen takes the Export Land model very seriously. The two sides see their own arguments in a favorable light and discount the other side. Much like political parties. Kahneman thinks this is human nature at work. We have to struggle to overcome these innate tendencies.

    There was also an article in Energy Bulletin yesterday where a climate scientist took to task the Nature article which suggested that the climate scientists should shift their focus to Peak Oil because of the polarized political atmosphere surrounding climate change. The article accused the Nature paper of being junk science (in slightly less offensive words).

    Don Stewart

    • I’ve been reading Automatic Earth for a couple of years now, and it seems to me that Stoneleigh (Nicole) and Ilargi (her Significant Other as I read it) carved out a particular viewpoint on how the spindown will progress, and mostly are now in the Bizness of defending that POV.

      As I read TAE, most of their observations on collapsing credit systems are correct. However, despite the fact they both understand ramifications of Peak Oil, they really have not tied together the Credit problem and the Energy problem all that well. Nor does Nicole realy seem to have that good a grasp on the nature of Money itself and how Credit comes to be created int he first place. So TAE is sometimes lacking in briinging together the Big Picture here.

      TAE is a good Blog though, better than most in terms of bringing together a lot of disparate sources for one read. ZKeeps the amount of jumping around you have to do between blogs to a somewhat more manageable level.


  14. Don Stewart says:

    Gail frequently gives us some pretty steep descent curves. Some supporting theory and facts can be found on this video by Nicole Foss, starting at minute 53:

    She makes a number of points. For example, she states that, by design, computers only last a few years. One problem is that connections which were formerly soldered now use tin. Tin degrades pretty rapidly over time. So a 20 year old, functioning, computer is now an impossibility. I think you will find 7 or 8 minutes here which tend to support some of Gail’s scenarios.

    Don Stewart

    • justnobody says:

      I don’t like her that much. She seems there to make a buck. She is always talking about finance but never have any figures to prove her point. She still believed that we are in a financial bubble. Show it to me with figure and graphs. She thinks that finance is the ultimate driver, but it is resource depletion. She neglects that the REAL driver is accelerating oil scarcity, which then drives the economics, which then drives other things.

      She always talk in general terms and her blog is full of cut and paste from other newspaper. No real analysis.

  15. Bicycle Dave says:

    Don, RE, Gail regarding rationality,

    Apparently, I’m the only person reading this blog that thinks homo sapiens are actually capable of being “smarter than yeast” even if our collective behavior suggests we might not be. I also find it ironic that those who claim rationality is “way overrated” tend to be the very folks who use very rational arguments. Otherwise, instead of carefully reasoned arguments, these folks would put forth admonishments based upon holy scriptures, patriotic slogans, and the kinds of appeals used by advertisers. When it comes to the big issues, I rate a well reasoned argument over any emotional appeal.

    In any event, this discussion got me thinking about parsing out the statement that “rationality is way overrated”. It’s easy to Wiki the concepts of rationality, reason or sapience – here are a few snippets:

    rationality is the exercise of reason… manner in which people derive conclusions when considering things deliberately….conformity of one’s beliefs with one’s … actions …. However, the term “rationality” tends to be used differently in different disciplines.

    Reason … refers to the capacity human beings have to make sense of things, to establish and verify facts, and to change or justify practices, institutions, and beliefs….. is normally considered to be a definitive characteristic of human nature.

    Humans are not rational by definition, but they can think and behave rationally or not, depending on whether they apply, explicitly or implicitly, the strategy of theoretical and practical rationality to the thoughts they accept and to the actions they perform….that humans are rational in principle but they err in practice, that is, humans have the competence to be rational but their performance is limited by various factors….Others think that any kind of rationality along the lines of “rational choice theory” is a useless concept for understanding human behavior….The relationship between rationality and political power was studied by …….[finding] power profoundly influences rationality.

    The word sapience … meaning “wisdom… nomenclature created … to describe the human species…. intended to emphasize man’s uniqueness and separation from the rest of the animal kingdom.

    Clearly, rationality is a component of the human makeup even if there are nuances. I find it difficult to accept that one of the most defining characteristic of humans is something we should describe as “overrated”. And that got me thinking about the practical implications of that “overrated” description and why this blog supports that feeling. It appears that a majority of writers on this blog have come to the conclusion that some form of collapse is forthcoming (probably sooner than later) and humanity is powerless to prevent this catastrophe. Perhaps this is the most likely course of events, but it makes me uncomfortable when a tiny fraction of humanity holds an unconventional belief. This lack of broad acceptance, in itself, doesn’t falsify the belief – just as my non-belief in the supernatural is not made invalid for the same reason. But, non-believers far outnumber people who believe humanity faces possible extinction in the relatively near future. A principle of the scientific method is that extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof.

    Forthcoming collapse is an extraordinary claim. That we are powerless to prevent it is even more extraordinary. Personally, I’m persuaded that we are deep into “Overshoot”; especially because of the population issue. I can’t imagine a happy BAU scenario. But, I also haven’t completely given up on the idea of developing mitigation strategies. I prefer to think in terms of potential scenarios and their probabilities. But, I really don’t see here a methodical analysis of those scenarios and probabilities. Putting nuclear war and asteroid strikes aside, there are probably a half dozen major shades of gray between BAU and “The Road”. For each of these scenarios there will be factors that raise or lower their probability. Those factors might be important to discuss – may I suggest: rationally.

    BTW, Don said “I don’t see Rock or Kahneman as denigrating rationality. I see them as looking realistically at the fact that most of our decisions are intuitive”. At face value, it is obviously true that most of our decisions don’t require the hard work of careful and deliberate examination of the facts before we arrive at an action plan – like, for example, getting out of bed in the morning; but, building a bridge over a raging river does require careful and deliberate thought. I suppose that bridge building can be argued as an inherently destructive assault on the environment but this ignores a simple fact – things change. Just as it seemed rational to build that bridge yesterday, today it is rational to reverse population growth in the most humane and fair manner possible.

    And RE said ” “Rationality” if it even really exists in the individual has never really been demonstrated on the aggregate level of human societies. ” and ” Acting in a “Rational” manner does not always result in exactly the kind of result you were looking for when you began along the path of rational thinking. It has Blowback. ” The theory of the non-existence of rationality is beyond my pay grade to deal with. The word “Feedback” is another way of looking at blowback. Certainly, human behavior has been an assault upon the environment for the past 13K years ever since we invented agriculture; and the last 200 years have been the worst. We are now getting feedback about the consequences of this behavior and some segment of the population clearly has the ability to understand this feedback and might be able to craft mitigation strategies. Obviously, many of the people commenting on this blog are thinking about personal mitigation strategies. Is it true that there is not enough “aggregate” rationality for more than just this august little group to appreciate?

    • Joe Clarkson says:

      It is important to remember that “reason”, the ability to “make sense of things”, is very similar to the process of developing a scientific explanation of a phenomenon, the practice of which is very hard work. Much data must be gathered, numerous chains of cause and effect accounted for and a great deal of statistical analysis performed to have any confidence that one has actually made sense of things.

      The vast majority of human action is non-rational in the sense that our actions are not preceded by an examination of existing conditions, examination of all the likely chains of cause and effect that might result from our action and the development of a “rational” determination that the activity is warranted.

      Rather, most of what we do is based on pure unthinking habit, and for good reason. We do things without thinking about them because thinking takes so much time and energy. Imagine trying to justify everything we do every day as being “rational”. It would take all day just to get out of bed, get dressed and eat breakfast. Starting as children, we copy other peoples behavior and form similar habits because it is so much more efficient than a rational analysis of every option before us, of which we have thousands every day.

      Virtually every person on earth would agree that if a container of liquid has even a drop taken out every day, with nothing put in to replace it, then eventually it must become empty. Everyone would agree that using finite resources at any continuous rate will eventually use them up; it’s only rational.

      But just because we know this as rational fact, it has little impact on the panoply of daily habits we must use to make our way through life. We all know how hard it is to change a long ingrained habit. How many of us are capable of changing huge numbers of them, based only on the knowledge that some time in the “distant” future, resource depletion will make them obsolete? I suspect that the percentage is so low as to be virtually zero.

      Forming habits by observing and copying the successful behavior of others has long been very adaptive. Usually, people who march to a different drummer are marching into trouble, hence the very real value of tradition. Unfortunately, we are about to find out that the habits that have been working for generations are going to be our undoing. But it should not be surprising that we will stick with them until the end.

    • “The theory of the non-existence of rationality is beyond my pay grade to deal with. “-Bicycle Dave

      Time to up the pay grade and go for a Promotion then, it would seem, no?

      I’m as Rational as the next analyst out there, despite the fact I pepper my prose with a lot of Gonzo. What I have found in terms of analyzing these problems “rationally” is that you run short of Reason to resolve them. Sort of a “Peak Rationality” problem.

      So for myself, I just step outside the box of “Rational” thinking and explore Irrational ideas, as Rationally as I can. LOL. Another self referential Circle Jerk of course.

      Of one thing I am quite sure however, Rationality will not resolve this mess even though Rationality is what got us into it in the first place.


  16. Gail, you’ve had too much influence on me. When I was playing the piano the other day I thought of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum ’cause I needed to slow up the whole piece to the tempo with which I could accomplish the most difficult passage. See what you’ve done 😉
    Have you read any of Charles Eisenstein’s work; his Ascent of Humanity or his Sacred Economics? He goes broad and deep but essentially makes the case for humans being bent on the idea of separation from nature and each other since the dawn of agriculture. However, he’s optimistic that in our coming collapse – which he sees as certain – we will come to realize that we are one with nature and each other so that more for me is more for you. Anyhow, I’m not doing him justice but I think you’d find his work congruent with your ideas.

  17. “Somehow, we need to continue to live our lives, even it the future does not look very good.”

    Plenty of commentators have surmised whether or not Easter Islanders thought or talked about their impending collapse in the same way. Having read dozens of commentaries on collapse in recent years, along with our obvious inability to do anything about it, I’ve arrived at a conclusion that those islanders did the very same thing. Face-to-face of course, rather than via the internet.

    Though I’m not one of those who likes to pin the whole problem on overpopulation, the major problem we have in reverting to a simper culture is that there are far too many of us to do that. It’s not just a tough ride, our planet’s carrying capacity won’t allow a hunter gathering existence for 7 billion. That said, a simpler existence is still the only pathway for the post-crash population to follow, whatever human numbers may be by then.

    • I think this population problem is a big obstacle to a solution. Even if a government could see a solution for some percentage (x%) of its people, it would be hard to implement it if there were no room for the others (100% – x%).

      • Jan Steinman says:

        This is such a thorny problem with no solution — a predicament, as John Michael Greer says.

        And yet, I think it’s important to understand that energy makes people, not the other way around. There will be fewer people in a low-energy future. In other words, the “population problem” will solve itself.

        In the best scenario, population decline will come through natural attrition, with people dying of things they always died of before nursing homes and intense end-of-life care gave us a decade more of relatively uncomfortable, joyless life. I’ll take that future!

        On the other hand, it’s probably more likely to come from war, insurrection, disease, and starvation.

        When there’s extreme’s the most likely scenario is the middle ground, or some combination. The good news is that each of us has a choice as to which of those groups we will be a part of! Those who work toward a sustainable life certainly have a better chance at a natural death than those who dont’t, no?

        The scary part to me is not that people will die earlier — much earlier, in some scenarios; it’s that the birthrate will shoot up. People will begin to breed their energy source and retirement care as industrial energy sources and retirement care go away. This is clearly shown in the opening graph of the WORLD3 model published by the Club Of Rome.

        Modern demographic theory says that as women become educated, they have fewer children. I’ve disputed this cause-effect claim for a long time, instead claiming that as energy availability went up, birthrate goes down. We have yet to see if the converse is true, as well.

  18. Jan Steinman says:

    “Natural systems often operate through a build up of forces, followed by a cataclysmic release.”

    This is nicely explored in panarchy theory (“ruler of everything”).

    Basically, all things — from subatomic particles to galaxies — go through phases of birth, growth, senescence, dissolution, and re-organization.

    CS Holling (et. al.) describe panarchy loops as moving through a three-dimensional space of time, energy, and connectivity. It’s easy to see that we are in a time of both high energy and high connectivity, so guess what comes next? 🙂

    • I have run across panarchy theory, but I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way.

      What would seem to come after high energy and high connectivity is low energy and low connectivity–that is reorganization.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        As though you don’t have enough to do, I think you would enjoy learning more about panarchy theory. Buzz Holling is not the originator, but perhaps the best known and most vocal advocate.

        For me, panarchy makes our present dilemma understandable in the grand context, and the more I learn about our present predicament, the more panarchy makes sense.

        When I am able to put such a thing into a greater context, it helps me to accept it and to prepare for it, rather than to deny it or struggle against it. It happens to galaxies, for gosh sake! Why should we clever monkeys get all upset that it’s happening to a hundred-year-old civilization on a small planet circling an obscure main-sequence star half-way out one arm of a rather ordinary spiral galaxy?

        Humans take themselves way too seriously. Look around. See what’s happening. Pick what seems to be the best direction. Lift up a foot. Move in that direction. Lather, rinse, repeat. That’s all we can do.

  19. Jan Steinman says:

    Village-level, appropriate-technology manufacturing could provide a smoother transition than trying to move complex systems back from China.

    Just about everything in your treadle sewing machine could be made in a large village or small town. Steel alloys have become dispersed — small, local manufacturing centres don’t need to ship iron ore thousands of kilometres from the Mesabi Range when they can mine the local dump.

    I keep coming back to Howard Odum: complexity is a function of energy. If we willingly reduce our complexity, we’ll have a much better change of getting by with less energy. I’m going to lead that charge right now by not buying an iPhone.

    • It is hard to reduce complexity, when our current world is pushing for more complexity. If nothing else, the total amount that can be invested each year has limits. Pushing up on less-complex investments means less for money/resources for other investments. In individual family can do a little of this, but it is hard for a major company to make a change. So we don’t get, for example, a new shorter supply chain that can produce treadle sewing machines locally. Instead, we have a few families, who have found treadle sewing machines they can buy.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        It’s tempting to see the future through the lens of the present. My point was that we no longer need “supply chains” at all — at least not ones that are longer than a trip to the dump.

        One occupation that hasn’t been seen in most of my high-side-of-middle-age lifetime is “tinker.”

        I think we’ll see the return of the tinker, the person in the village or town who can fix things using local materials and hand tools, rather than a schematic and global supply chains.

        When I was very, very, young, a man would come around with a truck and collect old rags and broken appliances. He would then fix and re-sell them — coming soon to a distopia near you!

  20. Gary Peters says:


    I like the fact that you take the long view here and I especially like your idea that with modern globalization we have reached a limit in our geographic reach (unless you’re with Newt and ready to colonize the moon and beyond). I agree that most of us would last only a very short time as hunters and gatherers or even subsistence agriculturalists. The average American understands nothing about what is required to put food on our table, other than getting in the old SUV and heading to one or more supermarkets. Even hunters and gatherers probably made changes in Earth’s ecosystems, especially once they could control (at least to some extent) the use of fire, but from the earliest advent of agriculture onward we’ve carried on one long assault on natural ecosystems.

    In a recent essay Stiner, et al. wrote that “The cultures of the Epipaleolithic and Mesolithic periods, which developed on the heels of global warming (after 18,000 years ago), were quite complex, at least economically. The Natufians, in particular, who flourished 13,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Near East, formed large communities and cemeteries in the Mediterranean hills. The Natufians, more than any other group, are credited with the domestication of wheat and barley. Goats were domesticated in the Zagros arm of the Fertile Crescent, and sheep, chickpeas, and lentils almost certainly in the Taurus foothlls.” The “global warming” mentioned here, of course, is that that began the interglacial period after the last Ice Age maximum, not today’s “global warming,” which will lead us to changes that we can’t yet be sure of.

    At least since the Natufians and others found ways to “stretch” Earth’s carrying capacity we’ve seen places and peoples rise and fall, doing well in good times and when new resources could be utilized and not so well when such was not the case. In a sense history, even for those who read it, doesn’t tell us enough because it doesn’t reach back far enough. If we look back at least to the earliest days of the Neolithic, we see patterns not unlike what we’re seeing now, though always much smaller in amplitude. Each rise comes with new discoveries, tools, energy sources, etc., then each seems to reach a peak, often followed by decline, but not usually to below where it was earlier. Imagine a series of these, spreading geographically and demographically, until we reach our own period of growth, starting 2-3 centuries ago.

    I agree that it looks like what we’re doing now is reaching another “end,” in the sense that we cannot much longer sustain a system in which we add another 80 million people each year, using resources that are on the one hand getting scarcer (e.g. oil, but others as well) and creating ever more waste products (e.g. CO2 and CH4) that are steadily changing the chemistry and heating capacity of our atmosphere.

    • Regarding why we are not adapted to going backward, one article that someone else linked is If Modern Humans are So Smart, Why Are Our Brains Shrinking?

      The article talks about the fact that whenever any animal is domesticated, its brain size (and size in general) tends to shrink. About 20,000 years ago, humans brain sizes started to shrink, and the shrinkage of brain size was disproportionate to the rest of the body.

      I am wondering if part of what happens is a person or animal living in the wild needs to keep a mental map of everything around him, along with notes as to what is good to eat when, and what animals may be lurking where want to kill him. Such person or animal doesn’t have the help of year to year diaries, or computers with vast repositories of data. So one of the things a person successfully living in the wild needs is a near photographic memory (and a larger brain to enable this–but this is just my theory). All of this means people living now would have huge problems living in the wild–we don’t even know which foods might be good to eat, and have only the most rudimentary knowledge of what the dangers are (poison ivy, bees, bears). Our brains aren’t adapted to keeping all of this additional information.

      There is also the issue of adaptation to particular parts of the world. We have moved around, so that blue-eyed blondes like myself live in the South. This is not the right place for us.

  21. Arthur Robey says:

    Companies are people too, you know.
    They could replace H Sap as the fundamental economic unit.
    How about this scenario? Companies make robot workers for other companies. Then the world economy could go on forever. No need for verminous humans at all.
    It would not even need a biosphere. Oxygen is corrosive, so that would have to go.
    Think of it. An economists heaven. Where all his theories are shown to be true. Perfection.

    Why does a scene from Dune spring to mind? The one where the Fremen smash the Navigator’s life support system with large hammers.
    Sigh. Sometimes the old ways were so much better.

    Aren’t you a little sad that you chose to squander your wealth beating up on some poor rice farmers in Vietnam? You could have taken Dr Gerard O’Neil’s advice and not be constrained now by this infinitely small rock.

    I had a look at the heaving mass that paraded around on Australia Day and it is obvious that Mr. Darwin has a backlog of work. Perhaps the Universe is unfolding as it should.

  22. Pingback: More Reasons Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth | Our Finite World | Secularity

  23. sponia says:

    r.e. ‘…a “happily ever after” solution that will include a large number of humans’…..

    My happiliy ever after solution just contains some humans – any at all, in fact.

    But then, I always did have lower expectations than most folks. Born Slacker, that’s me.

  24. Ed Pell says:

    If need be, people will die earlier than they would if energy supplies did not fall.

  25. Kenneth says:

    I would love to have your thoughts on figure 3 with world oil production future guesstimate on why it is drawn the way it is and on what data and analysis you base it on. By your predicted chart we will drop from 85 mbd to 45 mbd in 8 years ( 2013-2021 ). A penny for your thoughts and logic for that is truly cataclysmic beyond what I envisioned. No modern society can adjust to such a rapid deindustrialization nor can any Western government with debt supported entitlement systems survive.

    • I labelled Figure 3 as “guesstimate” because I didn’t want people to assign too much predictive value to it. My point is that production may very well fall much more quickly than most models would suggest because of a whole host of problems–inability to pay workers, because of problems with the financial system; political uprisings; lack of ability to import needed parts to continue production, where it has already begun; lack of funds to finance new infill drilling.

      What happens is that we start running into Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. While most things work, if one thing does not, the production as a whole can stop. I don’t know how fast things will head downward, but it seems like it could be fairly quickly.

    • @Kenneth

      Assuming a 5% annual rate of decline, it takes 13 years to drop from 85 mbd to 45 mbd. And with 6% annual rate of decline, it would be 11 years

  26. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    The first thing I suggest is that people watch the first video. Somewhere in the middle David Rock makes the point that people need to be realistic but slightly on the positive side of the emotional divide if they are to take steps to solve their problems. I know that Barbara Fredrickson, author of Positivity, has independently come to the same conclusion–she says that people need to feel ‘safe and sated’. So both Rock and Fredrickson have found that just scaring people does not facilitate those people making the adjustments they need to make. Also please note in Rock’s presentation that Maslow got it wrong–social issues are just as primary as food and shelter–because it is through our social life that we acquire both of them.

    Your Brain at Work by David Rock

    1. The rational is massively overrated
    2. We’ve got emotions backward
    3. Social issues are primary
    4. Attention changes the brain

    The second thing I suggest is to look at Albert Bates current blog entry (and the preceding one–these are a team). Albert thinks that the current state of affairs is collapsing and that something new will be born. He reviews some of the opportunities we have both in concrete terms and as social philosophies.
    by Albert Bates
    Are we as buffalo being stampeded by herd instinct — in this case our consumerist DNA? Or are we as monkeys with our paws caught in a trap fashioned by our reptilian brain, unwilling to let go of all the goodies we have so recently latched onto? Or, do we have yet some freedom of movement here? Can we, as Klein suggests, refashion the whole setup from something glaringly dysfunctional to something offering a scintilla of hope that survival of mammalian bipeds with outsized cerebral cortices might yet have a place in the greater scheme of things?

    This tension between capitalism, socialism, and theocracy is bound to be heightened in the coming years, because fates — whether climate, energy resources, or ticking cultural time bombs — will now conspire to reset the game to the start and at the same time absorb much more attention. Great! At the start of the game all strategies are possible. So what future economic strategy optimizes our prospects?

    (One example)
    ZeroCarbonBritain 2030 by the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT). In 1972 a group of young idealists colonized a derelict slate quarry on the edge of Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Inspired by the notion of creating a community to test alternatives to mainstream technology, they aimed to research, develop and implement new approaches to sustainable technologies and lifestyles. Today, the Centre receives 70,000 visitors each year, has a world class research division and offers a master’s degree program. This book shows how the island of Great Britain could meet all its food, water, energy, housing and transportation needs on a completely renewable basis, with an affordable price tag even in a Depression, by 2030.

    The third thing I suggest people do is study Joel Salatin’s book Folks, This Ain’t Normal. Look at the case studies of how we have substituted complex industrial processes dependent on cheap oil for the more natural processes we used a hundred years ago–and how the industrial processes are so disastrously destructive of resources both natural and human. Ask yourself exactly WHY we can’t turn this clock backward.

    If you combine some of Alberts and Joels ideas, perhaps you can move to that ‘slightly positive’ sweet spot that Rock talks about.

    The fourth thing that I think people need to spend some time internalizing is that everybody in the world today is simply not going to make it into whatever survives. Suicide rates are alread rising. I believe Greece is up 40 percent from last year. So going through a period of grieving for what is passing is entirely appropriate, but getting on with life needs to follow closely. And I think that Albert and Joel are trying to get us to move in that direction. If Dmitry Orlov can manage to bring about the collapse of the various governments, we may just be able to make some progress.

    The exact nature of any individual’s or family’s move can only be determined by the individual or family. Some of those plans will work, and some will fail. That’s just the way life is, at the moment. My personal advice would be to try to stay one step ahead, but don’t try to get a hundred yards ahead. Remember Rock’s point about the social being primary. Try to associate with clear thinking people, but don’t bet the farm that collapse will happen by July 4th.

    Everyone who is my age is either worried about money–or should be. We are trying to live off our savings or else the financial promises made to us. Posts such as today’s from Stoneleigh caution us that there is probably no ‘financial’ way to get through the maze–at least for the ordinary person. Which says that we just do the best we can with the financials and move on to the substantive issues of living as well as possible in a very different future world.

    Don Stewart

    • I didn’t get the movie to work, but I agree with most of what you are saying. (I couldn’t get the original version to work either.)

      I would agree that the rational is way over-rated. A large number of people seem to be interested in emotional arguments. I think each of us have talents in a fairly narrow spectrum, though, so we can’t make too big a change. That is why there are a large number of people writing about our predicament, from different perspectives.

      Joel Salatatin’s book sounds interesting. I would guess the reasons we can’t go back include things like
      (1) debt defaults if we move away from the current norm;
      (2) not enough capital available to would-be small farmers to make a change;
      (3) lack of knowledge about how things used to be done;
      (4) educational system that says a person who is trained in (x) doesn’t work in farming.

      There is also the issue that governments cannot support anything that will not provide jobs for everyone. They also don’t have the money to buy out current farmers. So they will be an obstacle, rather than clearing the way.

    • Bicycle Dave says:

      Hi Don & Gail,

      I would agree that the rational is way over-rated.

      I don’t agree.

      I watched all 55 minutes and 2 seconds of the video. Great lecture for a project manager – I wish this guy had coached me once a month for the many years I was a project manager. Everything he said made good sense and I’d guess he can make a good living as a business consultant.

      As much as I personally enjoyed the video, I fail to see how this proves that rationality is over-rated for the kind of planetary predicament of “overshoot” that currently challenges humanity. Although I could personally relate to almost every point made by the speaker in the video, I fail to see how this relates to the “limits to Growth” issue we face. BTW, I thought that it was ironic that, in my prior life as a manager, according to his advice, I would very consciously have to use my prefrontal cortex to deal with my emotional issues effectively!

      The Socratic Method used reason and logic about two and a half centuries ago to deal rationally with the various issues facing humanity. The Scientific Method evolved later. These methods don’t depend upon the issues raised by David Rock in the video. In fact, these methods arose exactly to minimize these issues. Even an hour or two a day of rational behavior, conducted by thousands of individuals over thousands of years, committed to writing and built upon by others, represents a testimony to rationality. Now we even have “models” to provide frameworks for rational thinking – and also massive computers to support the data behind these models. It is this kind of aggregate rational thinking that gives homo sapiens a potential solution to our predicament. (Not personally hopeful)

      Although I appreciate the tips and techniques offered by Mr. Rock to improve the efficiency of our brain function and behavior in human endeavors , I see no reason to denigrate the value of rationality in the bigger picture. It is rationality that leads Gail to conclude that fossil fuels are declining and this is will be a huge problem for humanity and the planet. Emotion simply tells us that humans can meet any challenge and don’t worry too much about the future – the future has a way of taking care of itself. Which seems to lead to “happy motoring and all you can eat”.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Bicycle Dave
        Whether rationality is ‘overrated’ depends entirely on where one (or society) currently rates it. For example, consider standard Economics. Mankind is assumed to be rational. So just letting people do what they want to do and getting out of the way is the solution to most all problems (with some niggling externality issues). But when Psychologist/ Economists like Daniel Kahneman look at actual behavior (as in Thinking: Fast and Slow) they find all sorts of irrational behavior. And so the real world of business is dominated by corporations who can afford to hire the best and the brightest to manipulate a relatively unsophisticated public who fall regularly into the traps.

        And so we get results like this when people try to figure out ways to cut Medicare expenditures:
        More than half of beneficiaries are treated for five or more chronic conditions each year, and a typical Medicare beneficiary sees two primary care physicians and five specialists working in four different practices.

        It would, I think, be hard to sustain a rational argument that the average medicare recipient has behaved ‘rationally’. The medical fraternity is behaving quite rationally by maximizing their incomes. Society is behaving suicidally, in my opinion.

        The fourth leg of Rock’s thesis is that ‘attention changes everything’. I assume he is talking about something like Mindfulness. The Socratic Method could perhaps be seen as an early precursor. So I do NOT think that rationality (or what Kahneman calls System 2) is useless. We just have to understand the limitations, recognize when we are depleting it, and form the proper habits to maximize the effectiveness of the partnership between System 1 and System 2. For example, Kahneman notes that if we have been thinking hard, our brain glucose is depleted and we will find it hard to keep thinking clearly, but that a dose of glucose in a drink refreshes us.

        Note the story of the monk practicing insight (10 or 12 minutes into the video). So we have Gail’s excellent work on the limits to growth, which tells us that we cannot continue on our current path, we know that in order to make changes we need to be cognizant of the dangers BUT ALSO be cautiously optimistic about the potential for change, and also be able to call some models of different behavior to mind. If we have read our Kahneman, we will also be aware that the priming effect will strongly influence our reasoning abilities–so we read Helen and Scott Nearing’s Living the Good Life or we study Albert Bates’ The Biochar Solution or we read Joel Salatin’s Folks, This Aint’ Normal. These books are all about solutions realized through different behavior, and prime us to think and make those ‘weak associations’ that Rock believes are essential to insight.

        In short, I don’t see Rock or Kahneman as denigrating rationality. I see them as looking realistically at the fact that most of our decisions are intuitive, that thinking hard is unpleasant and difficult and subject to pernicious influences, but that with attention and some key tools, we can become more effective.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Bicycle Dave
        Another line of thought in response. A couple of scientists writing in Nature propose that the world is suffering from Peak Oil (A radical idea, I know). They say that since Climate Change has become a polarized religious issue, and no progress appears possible, then the scientific community needs to start talking about Peak Oil and the need to cut our reliance on fossil fuels. The net result, of course, is the same–less use of fossil fuels and reduced CO2 and methane emissions.

        Now Joel Salatin is an Evangelical Christian. He believes that the world was literally created in 6 days. BUT he also thinks that farming in the traditional way and building topsoil and sequestering carbon is God’s Work. He debunks the notion that Confined Animal Feeding Operations are more efficient. They are, in fact, more wasteful and result in huge pollution costs and human costs. He states that the current system can only survive with abundant, cheap fossil fuels, which we will not have in the future.

        Joel is full of ideas, and some of them are almost certain to offend you, or strike you as unrealistic. HOWEVER, the book is filled with stories about how Joel and others have made their farms a carbon sink, how anybody can do it if they just make up their mind and the governments will get out of the way, and how farms can produce more calories of energy than they use.

        So. Thinking about Kahneman and Rock and priming. If you are thinking about how and whether you, your family, or your extended family might survive Peak Oil, do you want to read a study proving that the existing global economy HAS NOT been able to decouple from oil, or do you want to read Joel’s story about the decoupling on his farm?

        Don Stewart

        • Garth Sproule says:

          Hello Don
          Thanks for the link to David Rock’s work…fascinating stuff. Just wanted to point out to you and others that many of today’s modern farmers have been sequestering carbon and improving soils for many years now.

          As a farmer I am proud to be part of this movement….however I admit that modern methods do require fossil fuels and that the “limits” are in sight.

          Garth Sproule

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Garth
            Thank you.

            I will make myself a little bit obnoxious. I was reading some in Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking: Fast and Slow this morning. Humans, even those who should know better, can get pretty confused. For example, on page 138, he reports ‘Death by accidents was judged to be more than 300 times more likely than death by diabetes, but the true ratio is 1:4.’ Which is related to Paula Deen being able to convince people that eating cheeseburgers on a donut is a really good idea and if you do get a little touch of diabetes you can just take some drugs to make everything OK.

            One of Kahneman’s main points is that humans don’t do probability very well. Even professionals trained in statistics fall into predictable traps–unless they are writing for a journal or giving a presentation. But in day to day life, they don’t radically outperform ordinary people–who, as we see, are pretty poor. This leads to misplaced effort. Anyone can cure their diabetes today if they have the knowledge and the determination to do so, but avoiding accidents is a lot harder. But avoiding accidents gets the attention.

            Another weakness of humans is to either wallow in bad news (‘if it bleeds, it leads’), or to have a Pollyanna attitude which leads them to continue doing what they are doing and just hope for the best. Neither attitude is very helpful when real change is required. For example, my guess is that of the people reading this blog, at least a thousand will die from diabetes (which is under their own individual control) for every one who will die from Peak Oil or Climate Change or Financial Collapse (none of which they can directly control).

            Which leads me to seek out those who are making progress in their own backyards. Joel Salatin is certainly an example. Here is another:

            Now the results are not all in on the Mondragon green house. But I work at a farm which is part of the North Carolina Double Cropping experiment, so I know a little bit. The idea of using technology to control the entrance of sunlight and to convert the surplus sunlight into electricity strikes me as a very good idea. Since water must be supplied to plants growing in a greenhouse, perhaps the electricity can be used to pump water into a gravity fed watering system. So we can sit around and moan that solar electricity isn’t useful because it doesn’t work at night, or we can get busy and use it in places where that is irrelevant. (Or…maybe, go to bed when the sun goes down–we’d be healthier.)

            40 years ago, 50 cents of the retail food dollar went to the farmer. Today, it is 8 cents. It didn’t get harder to transport food. So the 42 cents is going into food processing. People would be a lot healthier if they never bought processed food. Sure the GDP would go down as processors went out of business and doctors and Big Pharma had to seek other work, but we would save an awful lot of energy, create fewer greenhouse gases, and be a lot healthier.

            So I will make myself obnoxious by saying that the antidote to pessimism is actually getting involved. Go out and grow something under a solar double cropping, or use a plastic high tunnel on a vacant city lot, or follow the Mondragon example. And stop eating processed food.

            Don Stewart

      • “Rationality” if it even really exists in the individual has never really been demonstrated on the aggregate level of human societies. As Gail points out, just about all Human Societies since gainign control over Fire have in some way proceeded to deplete the environment upon which they are dependent.

        In Nature, organisms are all constrained in their reproduction in some way by predation. Even top of the food chain predators can be predated on by the lowest of life forms, bacteria and viruses. Homo Sapiens through the conquest of utilizing a lot of stored energy succeded in rendering most predation on the species relatively ineffective in controlling the numbers. So we “remade” the world to produce all the food we needed and got rid of or rendered impotent many diseases that kept the population in check over the millenia.

        In the ABSENCE of the energy necessary to control all of this stuff, Homo Sapiens is subject to all the constraints of other living organisms, regardless of how Smart or Rational he might be. The “Rational” thing Homo Sapiens could engage in is wiping out the population to match the available resources in the absence of energy, but this is a self referential problem. If the only solution to the problem is to kill yourself, only suicidal people will tackle the problem this way. If the solution is to kill others, only the homicidal will do it that way.

        Both Suicidal and Homicidal responses are evident here, all over the place actually. This is the “Rational” response to a problem of vast Overshoot, itself a result of “Rational” choices on accessing the thermodynamic energy of fossil fuels and expanding the population as a result.

        Acting in a “Rational” manner does not always result in exactly the kind of result you were looking for when you began along the path of rational thinking. It has Blowback.


        • Unfortunately, I think you are right.

          • Unfortunately also, being “right” in this case has little reward. I write unexpurgated DOOM for the most part as far as the near to medium term is considered, and most folks don’t like that message at all.

            However, I do not believe as of now that this is an Extinction Level Event. I believe that some people will make it through the Zero Point. The challenge ahead is to figure out just how to best increase your statistical probabilities of doing so. It provides much to consider and think about.


  27. I think your intuition is very good Gail, on the symptoms that are evidence of our hitting natural limits to growth. Looking at the particular mechanisms connecting the symptoms to limits helps, and also helps point to particular options that are real, too. As a systems scientist what I look for are “clear behaviors of the whole”, because that is definitely where I most often find questions about complex systems that can be answered with high confidence. That’s what then lets me “connect the dots” and see the patterns in data.

    Examples of smoothly building forces followed by systemic failures and “cataclysmic release” (your #2 above) can be found all over the universe of complex system evolution patterns. I think it’s generally evidence of reaching the organizational limits of the system that is building up, as with the bursting of a balloon. If the process pumping up the strain on the system continues, at the limits of the organization holding it together it will lose its resiliency, becomes rigid and unresponsive, and “burst” or “collapse” in disorder.

    For the world economy what we see happening is not a single collapse, but waves of failure of different things that pop up all over, arising like “spontaneous combustion”. Part is partly because we are pushing up against natural resource limits with our many growing parts all coming into conflict with each other’s efforts to grow. So as the tensions in formerly reliable relationships are pushed to the limits their collapse sweeps through a whole sector that relied on them. It’s a systemic “rat race” to achieve the impossible, with each part finding more and more of their trusted practices breaking down. To grow people are pushing their productivity, using efficiency as a resource. That saps their resilience and makes them unable to change fast enough when improving efficiency is not enough.

    The systemic driving force, that would need to “pause” to prevent further collapses of these kinds, appears to be our systematically growing financial investment, directed toward expanding the resource demands of high productivity businesses and sectors. What that forces throughout the economy is true cut-throat competition, between formerly secure and cooperative resource users finding expanding supplies, now needing to depose each other fighting over shares of relatively shrinking supplies.

    What it becomes is something of a life or death game of “musical chairs”. The increasing resource desires of “the fast” need to be obtained from squeezing the resource needs of “the slow”. The fast also run into extreme risks themselves, unwittingly, as any habit of reaching for ever higher “low hanging fruit” may cause “falling off the ladder”. I describe a few of these more in my article in New European Economy, and in various blog posts.

    When our economy’s growing demands hit the earth’s quite stationary limits, it abruptly changed the “laws of economics”, as it were. Gratefully a small number of “experts” are starting to notice. John Fullerton of the Capital Institute seems to be getting a little hang of these things, and finding a way to connect them with his insight into the inner workings of finance.

    • Thanks for your thoughts.

      I agree with most of what you are saying. I am not sure I agree that we would need to “pause” to prevent collapses of these kinds, because continued expansion and the high level of financial investment in energy and related products is what is keeping a major collapse from happening. Pausing might help some small problems, but will not solve our overarching problem–we don’t have a small system that we can easily collapse down to (at least that I can see). We keep changing the businesses and the support systems to match the current state of the environment. Even if we could have gotten along with much less oil and energy 50 years ago, it would be much harder today. For example, we would get huge debt defaults now.

  28. Stu Kautsch says:

    Thank you for this very good post. You’re taking a bit of the “predicament to which we must adjust” approach instead of “problem that *must* have a solution” approach that so many have fallen into. (The latter is unscientific, since it assumes the “must”.)

    General edification: Human cranial size: Actually, current thought is that the peak was about 20,000 years ago at about 10% greater than our current cranial size. (Human body size also shrank from that time until about 150 years ago – probably a side effect of agriculture.) Although this *might* mean that our ancestors were smarter than us, this is not necessarily so; the example of the crow (a brilliant animal) shows that cranial “wiring” can become very efficient. Who knows.

    Good article about this:

    The original chart (the first one) from “Limits” shows the important peaks occurring right about now. Unfortunately, this is all too believable, and their timing may turn out to be correct. (Odd, since everyone’s timing is always off when predicting the future.)

    “It is not at all clear that we can adapt quickly enough for a change of this type.
    ” Yep. Once again, you bring in the question of timing, which is the scary part. All most of us can think to do is to just make “right moves”. When I was young, there was a world champion in chess named Tigran Petrosian whose entire game could be summarized as “don’t make any bad moves”. One of the least glamorous players ever, but it actually worked! So I’m just trying to minimize the “bad moves” and maximize the “good” ones and see what happens!

    • Thanks for the link to the brain article–very interesting.

      Brains have been getting smaller for quite a while, as people have become more closely-packed and less aggressive. Domesticated animals almost always have smaller brains than their wild equivalents. The article links to a study that shows that there seems to be a positive correlation between brain size and intelligence today.

      With our smaller brains, we probably wouldn’t do well as hunter-gatherers today. We are too domesticated.

  29. The flat-earth politicians and economists and the mass media either lie or have no idea of what is going on. I’d like to kick their asses.

    Our future is not very promising and I don’t know if I can do anything about it. I’m loosing my hope.

    By the way, I’m reading ‘Limits to Growth, The 30-year update’ and I absolutely recommend it.

    Great post.

    • I think the subject is in some ways too awful to write about, for most media.

      We never know what tomorrow will bring, even though the media would like us to think things will get better and better. We can always do the best we can today; that doesn’t change. We can make friends and be friends to those around us. We can look for the good things that happen every day.

      Storing up for tomorrow never worked terribly well. Having a little food on hand doesn’t hurt, but expecting paper investments to have very much value in the future is pretty iffy. We can really only take one day at a time.

  30. justnobody says:

    Good post. I think the collapse will go faster that most people think. I just bought a new sewing machine. It was a German brand (PFAFF) but the machine is now made in china. I had to open the machine and adjust it myself. It seems that every product that I buy is cheap. Company are fighting for their survival and have to sell something no matter what, even at the cost of alienating futures customers. After talking to a sale person about sewing machine, she told me that Berlina is starting to move is production to China in order to kept the same price. It seems that increasing cost of raw input such as steel is cutting into profit margin.
    The only way to keep making a profits is to cut labor cost because there is no where else to cut. Shipping manufacturing to China is the last desperate effort to keep manufacturing affordable to the regular broken citizen OCDE countries. How do you cut cost when you cut everywhere and price of raw material is increasing. We might be seeing the beginning of the end for manufacturing. I thing we are closer to a full collapse the most think.

    • It is really hard to see how manufacturing will be able to move back here, if it has already moved to China. Current designs assume materials will be available from everywhere, and computerized controls will be available for manufacturing processes.

      I personally grew up with a treadle sewing machine that seemed to have very few parts. The belt around the wheel to the treadle was made of leather. I am not sure where it came from–my mother had found it somewhere. I found it easier to use than the electric powered machines I used later.

  31. becoming a raw vegan might as well be part of preparations alongside permaculture. Great essay, I share your view of our current situation or predicament.

    • I think we would lose weight on a raw vegan diet. I like nuts, but otherwise, I think it would be hard to get enough to eat.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      I’m not sure veganism can exist in a low-energy world. Where will you get your B12?

      On the other hand, vegetarian cultures that honour and respect animals for their many gifts is one heck of a big step away from the modern industrial meat system.

      • DavidC says:



        • Jan Steinman says:

          Marmite, vegemite, et. al. are industrially-manufactured food products. Can you or the earth justify crossing the ocean with jars of nutrition when the same stuff could come from a couple chickens in your backyard?

          I personally share many values with vegans, such as treating animals ethically. But I think that inflexible, dogmatic approaches are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

      • uhm, I mentioned raw vegan cause if we have a lack of natural gas,we need to get really busy on planting our firewood if we want to cook some animals. I just heard about wheatgrass and check this tree out, Moringa, I want to have many of those in my permaculture system

  32. DaShui says:

    My Chinese friend has been living in Tibet.
    She said that there are some friction between the Chinese and the locals because the Chinese want to mine Tibet for its large amount of minerals, but the Tibetians say “You can’t dig there. It’s a sacred mountain.”
    Maybe this it what it takes for humans to accept natural limits.”If you mess with nature, you go to hell.”

    • I think some of that has happened in Hawaii too, when there were questions about using mountains for geothermal production. The native Hawaiians objected. (Eventually one geothermal plant was built, anyhow.)

      I know one woman who does permaculture, pretty much full time. She says that she is in great awe of what the soil can do. For her, it is almost a new religion. If each person depended on the land, it seems like they would be more in awe of what it could do.

  33. John in Va Beach says:

    The clarity of your writing is really terrific!

    It is interesting how humans respond to stress inducing events. The brain allows animals to “fight, flight, or freeze”. We humans seem to also “deny, ignore and appeal” (to some higher person, entity, technology or religious power).

    I suspect that as the stress becomes more acute our response will become more primal, and the outcome will be disastrous. Until the stress becomes more acute (ie, decline as an experience instead of just an intellectual concept) I think we’ll stay (as a species) generally in the deny, ignore and appeal zone and continue the business as usual approach.

    Thus I am not sure the human intellect can process this situation across the species in any meaningful way. Those that do “get it” and can also act on it are very courageous pioneers indeed.

    John D

    • It is hard to even process thoughts like those in my post today. I would expect quite a few people would find the whole discussion unacceptable.

      I can’t blame people for having difficulty with ideas like this. It is much easier for people to react positively to, “Oil company bad; solar panel company good; solar panels will save the day,” even if it isn’t true.

      Somehow, we need to continue to live our lives, even it the future does not look very good. The percentage of us who will eventually die is 100%, whether or not these things come to pass. The timing may move up a little, but we don’t normally have much to say about the timing, anyhow. There are many things to be thankful for now (warm homes, automobiles, the Internet, the opportunity to share ideas, etc.) We probably have a better standard of living than most people have ever had.

      We don’t know the shape of the downslope. Perhaps there are things that can be done to make things better.

      I don’t have a problem with religious responses. With any event, it is a person’s response to the event that is important. If a religious response can remove the high level of fear and anxiety that people would normally have, that in itself can be helpful.

  34. Jean-Luc says:

    I would rather see crude Oil production reach a plateau (because we have lots of reserves) in the next ten years, with lots of volatility. It would follow this cycle: Recession->oil prices collapse->production decrease (non profitable)->”Recovery”->lack of supply->price increase->product restart->high price->Recession and repeat the cycle again.

    I don’t really think we would get back to dark ages, although the “quality” of life would have to decrease, as well as the world population and we would have to live with local resources.

    PS: I did not know cooked food made us smart, we learn something everyday 🙂

    • I don’t think nature is going to ask our opinion as to what happens (plateau or oscillation). If the price is too low, governments will try to take over oil companies. I don’t know whether they will be able to keep up production or not, though.

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