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.

91 thoughts on “More Reasons Why We are Reaching Limits to Growth

  1. 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

    • 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.

  2. 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.


  3. 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.


  4. “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.


  5. 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.

      • 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.” ?

  6. 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.


  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

      • 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.

      • 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.

  10. 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.

    • 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.

      • “… 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.”

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