True sustainability solutions

We live in a world with very limited solutions to our sustainability problems. I often hear the view, “If we would just get off fossil fuels, then our society would be sustainable.” Or, “If the price of oil would just go high enough, then renewables would become economic, and our economy would be sustainable.”

Unfortunately, our problems with sustainability began a long time before fossil fuels came around, and the views above represent an incomplete understanding of our predicament. When fossil fuels became available, they were a solution to other sustainability problems–rapid deforestation and difficulty feeding the population at that time. Getting rid of fossil fuels would likely lead to very rapid deforestation and many people dying of lack of water or food. If getting rid of fossil fuels is a solution to our predicament, it is one with very bad side effects.

A couple of different events this week reminded me about how deeply embedded our sustainability problems are. For one, I had the opportunity to read a draft of a soon-to-be published paper by James H. Brown and a group of others from the University of New Mexico and the Sante Fe Institute called, “The Macroecology of Sustainability.” This paper points out that sustainability science has developed largely independently from and with little reference to key ecological principles that govern life on earth. Instead, sustainability science is often more of a social science, looking at slightly greener approaches which are almost as unsustainable as the approaches they replace.

A second thing that reminded me of our long-term problems with sustainability was a pair of articles in this week’s issue of Science. There is a research article called, The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia by S. Rule et al, and an accompanying perspective article called The Hunters Did It by M. McGlone.  The perspective article explains that there had been a controversy as to why marked changes in habitat took place shortly after humans settled Australia. Some thought that the loss of forest and animal extinctions were the result of climate change. New research shows that the changes almost certainly came from hunting and the use of fire by humans. This is further evidence that humans did not live sustainably, even when they were still hunters and gatherers. (See my earlier posts, European Debt Crisis and Sustainability and Human population overshoot–what went wrong?)

Below the fold, I will offer some ideas about truly sustainable solutions.

Truly Sustainable Solutions

Humans at this point do not fit in at all well with the natural ecology–the natural systems of plants and animals. In fact, we have disturbed these systems greatly, making natural systems “fit” into the little niches we have reserved for them. In order for humans to fit back into natural systems, it almost seems as though humans would have to evolve to become more like monkeys or gorillas. We would need to stop living in houses, wearing clothes, and cooking our food. It would be helpful to be able to live in trees, to stay away from predators. Somehow, this doesn’t sound at all appealing, or likely.

But if we think about the situation, it yields a few ideas regarding where we need to be, if we are to live in an ecologically sustainable way:

1. In terms of local foods, we need to focus on foods that truly grow wild, or with very little support, in our area. We may need to discard some foods that can be grown today, but which require soil amendments which must be hauled from a distance, sprays for insects, irrigating, or much tilling.

2. To limit our ecological impact, we should be eating plants and perhaps small animals (including birds, fish, and insects) that reproduce in large numbers. We certainly should not be eating cows and pigs grown on industrial farms. The food we eat should be minimally processed–not packaged or finely ground. If we could eat food raw, that would be ideal, from the point of not disturbing other systems. The human digestive system has evolved to work better with cooked food, however, so cooking will probably be necessary, perhaps using solar cookers.

3. Our housing should be simple. We certainly shouldn’t be building more huge houses and buildings. We shouldn’t expect buildings to be heated very much, and probably not be cooled at all.

4. Walking should be our primary means of transportation. Perhaps dug out canoes or rafts would also be suitable for fitting in with the ecosystems.

5. Medical treatment should largely disappear, because it interferes with normal evolutionary processes and because it tends to leave a large dependent elderly population. It also tends to lead to far too high a population in total.

6. We probably need to live in smallish groups (<150 people) and have an economy based on a gift economy. With such an economy, people gain status by what they give away, rather than what they accumulate. Land would probably be shared in common. No one would be wealthy.

If Truly Sustainable Solutions are Impossible

If truly sustainable solutions are virtually impossible, then what do we do? There are 7 billion humans on earth. If human populations were similar to those of monkeys or gorillas, there would probably not be more than more than 1 million (with an “m”) humans in the world, mostly living in warm places. Our basic problem now is that there are far too many of us.

Some choices that might slightly reduce our impact:

1. Reduce our incomes. The amount of resources a person uses is mostly determined by a person’s income. If a person cuts back on his income, he will use less. Trying to cut back within the same income is less effective, because the money a person doesn’t spend one place is likely to be spent somewhere else. (This is one reason that many attempts at being “green” don’ t really work out.)

2. Plant at least some food crops. This too, disturbs the natural ecology, but it is about as good as we can do. If perennial plants are planted, it is possible that others will benefit as well. Animals, birds, and insects may also get some benefit from the crops.

3. Share what petroleum is available more equitably. If I use less oil, by driving a smaller car, or by driving fewer miles, it doesn’t mean that petroleum will be left in the ground. What it does mean is that the gasoline or diesel that I didn’t buy will be available for someone else to buy. This rather strange result happens because total oil supply is pretty much “maxed out”–total world oil supply doesn’t increase by very much, even with more demand. Instead, all that happens is that price rises. If I use less, price may drop a bit, but the same amount of oil in total will be consumed. So by using less petroleum, someone else, somewhere can use more. The result is better sharing of what oil is available.

4. Have smaller families. One child, or even no-child, families are to be encouraged.

How about all of the “green” things that we hear about?

I have a hard time believing that most of the “green” solutions presented to us today are more than marginally beneficial from an ecological point of view. Even substitutes like wind turbines and solar PV have their difficulties. Most of the time wind and solar PV  are used as parts of large electrical grids, and the grids themselves are not sustainable. In addition, we have to disturb natural ecological systems to make and use these systems. The intermittent electricity they produce is not a reasonable substitute for petroleum, which is the fuel we are having most difficulty with.

The problem our economy is facing now is recessionary impacts associated with high-priced oil. High priced substitutes are even worse, in my view. If low-priced substitutes for oil are available, they may make sense. For example, if natural gas could substitute for oil that would be a small step in the right direction, but even natural gas has its difficulties–it too produces CO2 when burned and it is out of synch with the natural ecology.

If there are “green” solutions that are helpful and not too ecologically disturbing, I expect that most of them will be smaller and simpler–for example, small windmills made with local materials, or small water wheels. Recycled materials may be used for some of these–perhaps parts of old autos or recycled building materials.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
This entry was posted in Planning for the Future and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

119 Responses to True sustainability solutions

  1. dianaryoo says:

    Reblogged this on diaooo and commented:
    Gail Tverberg dives deep into the problem of an unsustainable present and offers solutions that promote a sustainable future for our planet and the people that will reside within it.

    I came to realize all the more, how much this society thrives on consumption of materialistic goods. It scares me because I know that this materialistic society won’t be allayed any time soon. Rather, people will continue to crave the bigger and better things.

  2. Or… in a phrase, why not ask “What kinds of negative feedback follow any particular positive feedback?”

    That question at least requests an answer to the complete certainty that a negative feedback WILL follow positive feedback, easily proved by several means. Then you waste less time with the baloney.

  3. Alan Clarke says:

    I read this blog whilst also making my way through “Farmers of forty centuries” F H King, 1911. This book details a tour of agricultural practice in China and Japan at the turn of the last century, and describes systems that have stood the test of time for millenia – which I think meets most definitions of sustainability. Of course to maintain populations of say 35 million in Japan alone requires a use of land completely different from hunter gathering – in some ways more intensive than current agriculture, as all energy and mineral inputs are from renewable resources. So all waster recycled, rivers controlled and water pumped, and minerals eroded from mountains captures and used.
    So, yes we can’t maintain a fossil-fuelled society for long, but humans do have the ability to manage their environment to feed clothe and house dense populations in a sustainable manner.

    • These things seemed to pretty much work, especially before changes in healthcare allowed population to grow so rapidly, and all of the new technology allowed new practices which fed many more people. The old practices do work for many years, and they support a population greater than hunter-gatherers, but they likely will not support 7 billion people.

    • Dave Lea says:

      Alan, What a wonderful comment and what a fantastic book. I too recently purchased it and I am amazed at the foresight that E.F. King had at that early date. He wasn’t fooled at all by the hype of technology, but pointed out very astutely the impossibility of importing so many agricultural materials from so far away and products that were finite and non-renewable. Hats off to Dover for republishing this very essential piece of the documentation for sustainability!

  4. Stu Kautsch says:

    Sorry for leaving a second comment, but this post has made me think a lot.
    It’s true that nothing that humans have done in our so-called “civilization” phase is remotely sustainable over millions of years (with the possible exception of permaculture of perennials), but we may be looking at the wrong time frame.
    Humanoids were pretty “sustainable” for about 3 million years (until about 10,000 years ago). This was mostly as hunter-gatherers, true, but we should not ignore the fact that Mother Nature would, on a pretty regular basis, wipe out 95% of our numbers through huge calamities like super-volcanoes. The last one was about 50-100,000 years ago and almost snuffed us entirely.
    There’s no way to avoid these things (or comets or asteroids), so “sustainability” really needs to last only for a few hundred thousand years at a time. Small comfort, I know, but it gives us a realistic boundary for our efforts.

  5. Leo Smith says:

    Of course all this discussion is predicated on some kind of implicit assumption that we know how the world OUGHT to be, and that is not how it actually IS.

    Consider: the world OUGHT to be clear of its most dangerous parasite, human beings. So crash and burn, baby!

    Consider: the world is there for man to use, so use it. Nothing is sustainable, so don’t worry, When it runs out, ‘fin du civilization’ baby and time for a new approach.

    In both cases we are doing EXACTLY THE RIGHT THING.

    Hastening the inevitable.

    One thing is for sure, human population has never been so great, and probably never will be so great, ever again. Megadeath looms. Sit back with your euthanasia syringe and watch the show.

    The choices are between not having kids, or watching them die, or dying yourself, first.
    I chose the former.

    The rest is just irrelevant chatter really.

    Happy Easter!

  6. Lionel Boxer says:

    Fantastic. I wrote a book along these lines for businesspeople – THE SUSTAINBLE WAY.

  7. keithakers says:

    In your article of about a year ago, “There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level)” you indicated that “sustainable” meant going back to about the economy of 1750. Now, it seems, “sustainable” means going back to 50,000 years B. P., or maybe 5,000,000 B. P.

    But I don’t think even that technology is sustainable, even at a suitably lower population level. The next village over is going to have better spears and hunt more aggressively for those prairie turnips. They will succeed, and their power and population will increase. To counter them we will have to sharpen our spears and expand our own search efforts. Soon we will be back in the “vicious cycle,” doing the same unsustainable things that we have been doing for millennia. As Dilworth suggests, it is not the technology which is or isn’t sustainable, but human nature and the vicious cycle principle.

    To become sustainable, we don’t need to have sustainable technologies. We need to change human nature. If you could wave a magic wand and change human nature, there are probably numerous technology adaptations which would be sustainable. Just a thought.

    • Chris Harries says:

      And a very good thought, at that, Keith.

      The simple view is that we just made a few wrong turns, especially with our technological choices. The common masculine solution is to just mend these errors by switching from coal to wind and solar. Problem solved.

      The difficulty in attending to this is that these folk are generally very earnest and well intentioned. To tell them that, in advocating technology change, they may simply be adding to the big problem is a very hard thing to do. Cruel almost.

      At every workshop I attend I prefix my address with a commentare which goes along these lines:

      “Our problem is perhaps 10 percent to do with technology, the other 90 percent is to do with culture and human psychology. We do have to deal with that 10 percent of the problem, and good luck to those who are working in that area. But we should not be obsessed by it. We can put solar panels on every home and an electric car in every garage and we still wouldn’t have the problem licked if we don’t deal with higher up problems like our growth ethic and our consumer culture and our alienation from each other.”

      I find that this sort of message helps the technophile sort of people put things into perspective without attacking them or alienating them.

      Although most technology devotees are males, the whole idea that we can fix things up by buying our way out of trouble is a feature of our modern culture.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “The common masculine solution…” “most technology devotees are males…”

        I don’t think the “fairer sex” gets a free pass, although I’m not suggesting you were saying that.

        The two sexes tend to have subtly different ways of destroying the Earth. Although yes, men do love their technology, women love their safety and security. For example, the men engineer the SUVs that the women buy because they feel safer in a huge vehicle.

        The maternal instinct is very powerful, and often comes out in absolutist terms, as though it were self-evident that a 0.000001% reduction in harm to progeny is worth almost any cost. For instance, I’ve seen very aware moms defend driving their pre-school kids to gymn class, claiming they’ll need those skills to survive the coming hard times, rather than taking them out back and teaching them to climb trees, a real survival skill.

        I do agree, as Riane Eisler writes in The Chalice and the Blade, that male dominator culture is responsible for much of our woes, and that we could use a good dose of feminine nurturing culture, but these archetypes are just that, not accurate models of reality. No one has dragged half the human population into worship of shiny plastic techno things — women are willing participants, albeit perhaps more as followers, rather than leaders.

        Eisler describes how in one culture, the women refused to have sex with their husbands until they stopped a particular war. Can you imagine modern women refusing to have sex if their husband brought home a big-screen TV? No, they end up having sex in front of the big screen TV instead.

        Women could have incredible power to change the world — and some wield that power. But by and large, women are just as complicit in our dilemma as are men.

        • Chris Harries says:

          Yes, well I wouldn’t want to start up a gender war over who causes the most harm. But as one who deals with energy issues, I can’t avoid noticing the evangelical fostering of various energy supply technologies is an almost exclusively male preoccupation.

          There’s not need for blokes to get all defensive about that. Women are known to shop, shop, shop, and much has been said about that preoccupation.

          Since gender and energy have such a strong cross-over I must conclude that the gender factor is very relevant all the same when discussing energy issues. I seem to have spent a lifetime listening to technology devotees trying to persuade the world that they have a brilliant solution to the energy problem, nearly all supply-side technologies and nearly all to do with electricity production. It’s a huge distraction from the deeper changes that we need to be debating.

          (Being a bloke I have no trouble identifying with the syndrome. I’m no Luddite.)

      • Chris,

        Your approach sounds like a good one. Even at that, I expect it is a hard sell for those who think we can fix our problems with yet another invention.

      • Bruce says:

        Talking about human behaviour and psycology being 90% of the problem, don’t forget that the main reason we cannot live in 150 person HG groups and live off windmill power is because invariably a larger more well organized group will attack and enslave you. In oder to keep this from happening, you need to join a larger group and develop technology, all of which is unsustainable and leads us exactly where we are right now. This is precisly why we will have the mass extinction…….and a good riddance.

    • Keith,

      Your summary is pretty much what I have come to believe. Our real problem is as Dilworth says, we are too smart for our own good. (See my post, Human Population Overshoot-What went wrong?) Technology is not sustainable, because it requires too much disturbance of natural system, and too much transport of different materials from one place to another, and generally use of external energy as well. Even overhunting using spears, or by driving animals over a cliff, is a problem.

      It looks as though we need to change human nature to be more like chimpanzees and other animals, in order to be sustainable.

      It seems like the more a person learns, the worse the story becomes. It is a little like peeling an onion. But it is hard to explain to people who have not peeled the onion themselves.

  8. Tony Weddle says:

    Good post. I’m glad some have the courage to talk about medicine aiding population growth. I think that could be a big factor. Death was a normal part of life (as it were) for most of human time, but we now almost seem frantic to avoid it for as long as possible. We could probably get by without medicine except for some reliable means of pain control and of terminating ourselves, when we’ve had enough. Of course, this would be in a completely different kind of existence with reality forming our collective mindset.

    I’m not totally convinced that 7 billion can’t live sustainably. Richard Heinberg distilled some ideas on sustainability in his essay “Five Axioms of Sustainability”. They sort of boil down to: not consuming any resource faster than its renewal rate and not degrading our habitat. How we go about measuring the degradation of our habitat is probably problematical. However, I think it’s a global, rather than local question. If there is somewhere to move to after we’ve degraded one locale, but not fatally (i.e. nature can repair the damage), then locally unsustainable behaviour may be globally sustainable. Though that is much harder to do with 7 billion people, than with 1 million.

    So, I’m not sure the conditions for sustainability that you state comprise the only possible list. I don’t think (sustainable) hunter-gatherer societies are feasible with the current level of global environmental degradation and extinctions but permaculture techniques could offer a way forward. But for global applicability, we also need to get rid of artificial borders/boundaries.


  9. Lee Bentley says:

    Interesting article, I enjoyed reading it. A real life example of what life would be like with minimal outside inputs can be seen in the Pueblo People of the Southwest. Up until quite recent times these communities were entirely self sufficient all trade was financed with surplus. They lived, and some still do in multi storied adobe fortress/apartments. They were and still are skilled desert gardeners, hunters and gatherers of the many wild food plants. During favorable climatic conditions their communities swelled to 2000+ (I am told). Their model shows us that a society can function providing a meaningful life within the carrying capacity of even a high desert climate. I have been privileged to call these people neighbor for 40 years.

    • I agree that there are/have been a number of groups like this. In many cases “civilization” has been encroaching on their lifestyles, killing off the animals they used to eat.

  10. Robin Datta says:

    Sustainability is misconstrued when taken out of the context of its timeframe. Ultimately nothing is sustainable when considering concepts such as the Heat Death of the Universe or the Decay of the Proton. Whenever the word sustainability is mentioned, the implicit (but usually overlooked) assumption is a timeframe sufficiently long to be omitted from mention.

    The processes in natural systems that ate sustainable move in closed loops. This actually refers to matter rather than energy. Energy on the whole moves in only one direction, from the concentrated (ordered, low entropy) to dilute (disordered, high entropy). Even CO2 is a trash/garbage/waste when produced in excess of the biosphere’s reabsorption rate, but its ease of disposal into the atmosphere is matched by the difficulty in statutory regulation. It does not lie around, visible to everyone.  

    The closed loops of nature cycle at various rates, from the local ecosystems within soil to the tectonic plate subduction balanced by seafloor spreading. 

    Humans evolved in a tropical climate. Even the Garden of Eden story refers to humans who needed neither clothes nor shelter 24/7/365. In all places where either clothes or shelter is needed, we are an invasive species, although we do not deem ourselves to be such.

    The control of fire was our first paradigm shift: it made possible the cooking and eating of previously indigestible grains, setting the stage for farming, agriculture, civilisation, resource depletion (deforestation) and the use of fossil fuels. All these are linear systems from resource to product to trash/garbage/waste instead of closed loops. Even the green energy craze involves energy capture methods that use machinery on the linear flow from resource to product to trash. 

    Recycling is touted as a solution for sustainability, but is only so if it is 100% with NO leftover trash/garbage/waste even from the process of recycling. 

  11. chrisharries says:

    Time and Money. Or should I say Time versus Money.

    Having been involved in significant behaviour change programs, I’ve learned that these two competing barriers play a great part in what we do with our lives. They largely define our lives.

    When asked what is the main barrier that prevents you from living sustainably, top of the hierarchy of barriers comes time poverty. Caught in a time trap, we believe we don’t have enough time to do things like walk our kids to school, or wait at a bus stop of public transport to come along or turn a compost heap. Let alone enough time to bend down and turn off a power point at the wall. So time is our main excuse.

    A much less acknowledged barrier is Disposable Income – as you’ve mentioned in the article Gail. Most of us spend much of our disposable time earning disposable income. Then what we do with that? The more we become environmentally conscious, the more this becomes an ethical problem. I have one hell of a time trying to explain to people that having disposable income is a problem in itself. We may devise ways to try to dispose of it sustainably, but, really, money just goes around in circles and we lose control when we spend it on anything. Even purchasing a great work of art puts money in the hands of an art outlet the manager of which may go out tomorrow to buy a brand new car.

    And, from my observation, when a citizen accumulates an amount of money over and above his / her basic day-to-day needs, that person is eventually tempted into doing something rash and out of character – like extending a home that doesn’t need to be extended, or buying a boat or justifying a jetting holiday.

    Not all time is locked into earning money (we also are trapped into technology that gobbles up time) but for many people a prudent way to deal with these two competing barriers is to couple them together and re-asses our lives. If time poverty is a major barrier and disposable income is a major (albeit not admitted) barrier, most people can ease off on both by making critical life decisions. In almost every case the person will be better off in relation to physical and mental well being. So too will the planet that they live on.

    • Your point of “Time” versus “Money” is a good point. I think it is especially true for men. Women have the option of saying, “No” or “My family comes first,” if they are married, and have a husband earning a good salary.

    • Robin Datta says:

      Disposable income is not always a barrier. General Patton was independently wealthy: he signed over his entire Army income to the Soldier’s Relief Fund and served gratis.

  12. Pingback: True sustainability solutions »

  13. Dan says:

    What about this report, though?
    Resurging North American Oil Production and the Death of the Peak Oil Hypothesis

    • Jan Steinman says:

      [irony]Oh my gawsh! What were we thinking? Of course, commodities brokers have never been wrong before! Especially those have a lot to gain![/irony]

      I have to laugh when I read things like “fastest growing oil producer in the world.” That could either mean that your growth is truly spectacular, or that you simply have any growth at all, while everyone else is declining.

      As for “2 mb/d by 2020,” well, I’ll wait and see. That’s nearly ten percent of current US consumption, or over 20% of current US imports, so forgive me if I’m skeptical.

    • Dave Summers (known as Heading Out) over that The Oil Drum wrote an article a few days ago called A Review of the Citigroup Prediction on US Energy. It relates to another recent Citigroup publication Energy 2020: North America, the New Middle East? I expect that the two Citigroup reports are pretty similar. Dave has some good arguments explaining why what Citigroup says is wrong.

  14. reverseengineerre says:

    “We would need to stop living in houses, wearing clothes, and cooking our food.”-Gail

    Stop living in Houses yes, wearing clothes no, Animals die all the time, and their skins last a long time. Besides that, there are many wild plants which provide good fiber to weave, flax and hemp among them.

    On the cooking question:

    ” If we could eat food raw, that would be ideal, from the point of not disturbing other systems. The human digestive system has evolved to work better with cooked food, however, so cooking will probably be necessary, perhaps using solar cookers.”

    The digestive system of Homo Sapiens works fine on Raw Food. Do you know the origin of the word “Eskimo”? Its not what Inuit and Aleuts called themselves. Its an Algonquin word that means “Raw Meat Eater”. Reason of course they ate their meat raw is because there is so little fuel on the Tundra.

    Anyhow, the ‘truly sustainable lifestyle” has already been done, the Inuit did it, so did the Kalahari Bushmen, so did Aboriginal Autralians and so have numerous tribes in the Amazon Rainforest.

    Mainly for sustainability, the population of Homo Sapiens just needs to shrink back to a size where the H-G lifestyle becomes possible again. This assuming of course the population of phytoplankton in the Oceans doesn’t collapse of course.


    • Thinking about it, it is mainly the grains that need to be cooked to be eatable. (Perhaps grinding would work also–I don’t know.) Root vegetables like white potatoes and sweet potatoes are also better when cooked. But certainly fruit and meat and fish have been eaten raw for a long time.

      If humans stuck to some pretty simple clothes, such as you describe, and if there weren’t seven billion of us, it might work as well.

  15. Stu Kautsch says:

    Gail, your writing is actually getting less cheery than many of your readers, which is a bit of a change from a couple of years ago. Honestly, I’ll bet the carrying capacity is more than a million.

    Due to some comments over at Greer’s blog, I just finished reading a book called “1491”, which covers the manipulation of the ecosphere of our hemisphere by American Indians. Many archeologists feel that the Amazon’s tree species distribution was determined by the people living there. (North American Indians had similar effects.) Note that this type of food cultivation does *not* mix with a cash economy very well, but it certainly provides a lot of food. It’s difficult to say if it’s sustainable or not, but it *might* be. (It certainly preserved the Amazon forest more than Old World agriculture.)

    Don Stewart’s comment about medical care points out an important generalization: Although it’s true that we have forgotten a lot over the past 500 years, we’ve also learned a lot, and some of it is important and relevant. Comparisons between what our descendants might be able to do and what our ancestors did are difficult because of this. We have to devise ways of maintaining the important knowledge that we’ve accumulated while trying to re-learn the old stuff.

    Also, as unsustainable as cold-climate civilization is, we need the geographical distribution to ensure that some of us are left after each super-volcano event. Our short-sightedness is *not* the only thing threatening us sometimes!

    • The 1,000,000 population estimate is based on the premise that if humans acted like a “normal” species, say chimpanzees or gorillas, that is very roughly the number of humans we would expect. (Colin McEvedy and Richard Jones in Atlas of World Population History estimate that human population would be expected to be in the 70,000 – 1,000,000 range, based on a comparison with gorilla and chimpanzee populations.) Our range would be fairly limited, and the density within that range would be quite low, so that other species would be able to have their “fair” share of the resources as well. In such a system, humans wouldn’t be dominating the system.

      Of course, if humans start “running the show,” digging in the dirt to arrange plant types to their liking, and using fire to cook their food, and killing large animals (despite their small size themselves), then their population could be higher.

      People often talk about the earth’s carrying capacity being perhaps 1 billion people, based on the view that that is roughly what the world population was about 1800, before fossil fuels came into widespread use. If our only problem were fossil fuel use, and people lived sustainably at that time, maybe 1 billion would be a reasonable carrying capacity, but there were huge ecological problems long before 1800. If you read books like Clive Pointing’s A New Green History of the World or Sing Chew’s, The Recurring Dark Ages, (dark ages refer to times of ecological stress) it is clear that the earth’s history is full of ecological crises. Humans tried irrigation, and then the soil became salty. They cut down forests, harvested peat moss unsustainably, and raped the “less developed” parts of the world. They had great problems with disease, because of living too close to domesticated animals. History does not give confidence that humans, living as humans usually live, can ever live in harmony with nature. In order to go back to being in harmony with nature, it would seem like humans would have to behave like other animals–for example, fight with their hands, not with their superior intellect. Doing this would lead to smaller numbers, similar to “normal” species.

  16. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    A little confusion is a good thing, as it gets us out of the ruts. However, as I read through your articles and the comments and your responses to the comments, it seems to me that there are two different questions which are not addressed as separate questions but instead as some amalgam of the two. I suggest that this practice may lead to more confusion than is good for us.

    The first question is ‘Can an industrial economy and civilization of the kind we have built over the last 400 years survive the next hundred years?’. Most of your posts, it seems to me, address that question. And the answer is ‘No’.

    The second question is ‘Can civilized people survive in the new (really very old) environment?’. How will it be different from 1600? What will be similar? What can the individual, the family, the extended family, and small groups do to facilitate the transformation? (I think government is hopeless, so I leave it out.)

    It seems to me that the second question is what is being addressed at the Memorial Day session at Four Quarters where you are speaking:
    Workshops for Understanding and Adapting to Decline

    • Localized food production, transport and consumption.
    • Debt based finance, fiat currencies and the global economy.
    • Climate change, the current state of the science.
    • Personal energy production and shelter creation.
    • Fossil fuel production and consumption metrics.
    • The new extended family and local community.
    • Flexible livelihood and living in place.
    • Understanding the limits of renewable energy systems.

    I assume that you are not completely negative about these discussion topics. Therefore, it seems to me that when any of us is answering the question ‘what about renewables?’, then the answer needs to be clearly stated as to which of the two questions it is addressing. For eample:
    1. No, renewables cannot save industrial civilization
    2. Yes, civilization can survive on solar power as harvested by wind and water and plants and enclosed buildings.

    I am, of course, not trying to dictate your answers, merely suggesting a way which might increase the clarity of the discussion.

    Don Stewart

  17. Bruce says:

    What’s wrong with conservation? While not really a sustainable solution, it can surely be beneficial. Small cars, drive slower, turn out the lights at night, eat less, take care of your stuff and make it last longer. Don’t throw so much stuff in the trash. No need to freak out, just be sensible. Of course we know this will not happen either! But it could, I am doing that and my footprint is quite smaller than it used to be.

    • Conservation is sort of helpful, except that it leaves you with more money to spend on other things (perhaps later). So the result of the conservation is a lot less than a person might think. Also, it is a solution (at the individual level) to today’s problems of high prices, since it allows a given income to go farther, so it is beneficial from that point of view.

      Often, conservation can be helpful in allocation. For example, if there is not enough water to go around, if you don’t water your lawn, it may leave more for power plants and irrigation. (Not sure you would approve of these uses, but these are the big ones, in the real world.)

      Perhaps my not including conservation is an over-reaction to the emphasis given to it.

      • schoff says:

        Having saved a bit, following the purchase of land, it does present a problem, my money (or actually bits in a computer), is then used to finance someone else’s consumption or wrecking scenario. Should i take it all out and put it under my mattress? We need a social lending method like Lending Club that would allow others to buy land and such.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Our concept was to have the land and infrastructure financed largely through the savings of older, more established people, using co-op shares for accounting. The co-op would then “loan” that money to younger people for the sole purpose of obtaining their minimum shares. Such loans would be at a tiny increment over the rate of inflation — only enough to pay bookkeeping expenses, and would be paid at the market rental rate for their habitation — but since the interest rate was so low, the lion’s share of their payment went into shares.

          The end result of this generosity is that the young people left the co-op and redeemed their shares, having lived here for over a year nearly rent-free (about $1,350 of $1,500 applied to principle each month), putting the co-op further into debt and stretching our equity-value ratio. So now we’ve regressed to the less-progressive notion of old-fashioned rent, and closer to feudalism, or at least to conventional economics.

          Actually, we have a separate class of shares that are non-redeemable that we’ll try doing this with again. After some period of time (perhaps 20 years) or at some minimum level of “vesting” (perhaps 50% or more of a full equal share) we can then decide to convert those “Class B” shares to the normal, redeemable “Class A” shares.

          Although we had a three-year redemption period, it was a mistake to let people harvest their basic housing expense as equity that way, especially at a time when the housing equity market was declining. By using another class of shares, we can make a reasonable “market correction” when the time comes to convert to redeemable shares.

          I’m not bitter, and I still have nearly every penny into this experiment, but it has given me a stereotypical view of younger people that they all don’t deserve, I’m sure.

          Another thing I find about such egalitarian social experiments: the people with the least in are generally the most demanding and want the most say, and the people with the most to lose are generally the most accommodating. We had one couple come in and, before even putting a cent in, wanted to re-name the farm after their family farm in Ireland! I guess that should have been a giant “red flag…”

  18. Michael Eric Andersen says:

    Hello Gail … you continue to be my champion … energy management starts with our ADL ‘s … ( activities of daily living ) … I have been a Registered Nurse for 16 years now and it is the primary focus for my patients to return to their optimal level of function … the energy we function with … our metabolic physiology, is the baseline needed for survival and is generally influenced greatly by our perceptions of ” comfort ” … need and want are the human condition … comfort is the personal moderator for every human being that has been faced with the question ” What do you need ? ” … my good friend always says to me ” Mike, I don’t think I could tolerate living in a cave .” … to which I always reply ” It would be much more comfortable than not having shelter and being exposed to dangers like weather and predators ” !! … it seems that the human family has drifted well past “needs” in the desire to be comfortable, (substitute “safety” for “comfort “) … I believe it is time for all of us to prepare our friends and my patients to accept significant reductions in our ” comfort ” demands … in other words, if you can get by with out something and still function ( ADL’s ) that is probably as far as you need to go to maintain your optimal level of function … God bless you Gail and please preserve yourself … Mike the RN

    • We probably need to be doing more examining of how people have lived in the past in other countries, and even how they live currently. Around the norm, simple housing is more the norm than what most of us would think. Of course, many parts of the world are quite warm. I think the colder parts of the world will be at a disadvantage, if fuel becomes more scarce.

  19. Pingback: Agrarian system | Matthewthomas

  20. Jean-Luc says:

    A cash-based economy, instead of a debt-based economy, could also help a bit with the transition, as people would only be able to buy what they can currently afford.

  21. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Thank you for another thoughtful post. Of the six primary goals you set, all are being met by some people today. Whether ALL of us can meet ALL the conditions is an interesting question. Whether wars will break out as people attempt NOT to live that way is another interesting question.

    1. In terms of local foods, we need to focus on foods that truly grow wild, or with very little support, in our area. We may need to discard some foods that can be grown today, but which require soil amendments which must be hauled from a distance, sprays for insects, irrigating, or much tilling
    There are a number of gardeners who meet your requirements. See, for example, this video of Ruth Stout in her 90s: (There is a second tape which you can find if you are interested). While she is not growing truly wild plants, they are growing with little support. She does not shop in supermarkets. She does not use industrial inputs. On the other hand, you will see her with a bottle of wine in the second tape–so she is not ascetic, either. But, if she were still alive, she could move right into the world you describe.

    2. To limit our ecological impact, we should be eating plants and perhaps small animals (including birds, fish, and insects) that reproduce in large numbers.
    There are a significant number of people who eat mostly plants and small animals (including domesticated fowl). Many people around the world eat insects.

    3. Our housing should be simple
    Two weekends ago, I visited two local settlements. In one, a young man was living in a cob house which he has, thus far, spent 300 dollars building (he has scavenged windows and doors). The second visit was to the Twelve by Twelve (144 square feet) made famous by the book of the same name. No heat or air conditioning and no electricity in North Carolina. One of the visitors remarked to her that ‘you are the happiest person with your life that I have seen’. Simple housing is entirely possible. The biggest obstacle is building codes. And the size of the house has little to do with happiness.

    4. Walking should be our primary means of transportation.
    On the same weekend, I visited a group of young people who are renting a large old farmhouse within walking distance of a downtown area. They are gardening the grounds to provide most of their own food. They walk downtown for shopping. They do have cars. But if villages become rejuvenated such that walking is practical, then the change in their lives won’t amount to much. (My father never drove to work–he walked).

    5. Medical treatment should largely disappear
    This can happen pretty easily–but the results won’t be what you anticipate. For example, in Britain a group of diabetics was put on a simple diet: a protein shake plus two pounds of non-starchy vegetables every day. Within one week, the diabetes was reversed. At 8 weeks, there was no sign of diabetes. As the excesses of the industrial food system disappear, people will get healthier. If we can hold together what we know about early childhood diseases and treatment of accidents, people’s health spans (years without chronic disease) will increase. Disease is overwhelmingly about the disastrous epigenetic effects of industrial food rather than some Darwinian selection of genes. (You CAN get the same effect as the diet by doing a 25,000 dollar surgery–which is the first choice of the Medical Establishment, for obvious reasons).

    6. We probably need to live in smallish groups (<150 people) and have an economy based on a gift economy
    There are many intentional communities around the world living in smallish groups and practice a gift economy.

    In short, everything you would like to see is being largely practiced by people who are living satisfying lives. These people DO have to use cars and are dependent on trucks for some things because of the type of world we have built. But becoming completely independent of cars and trucks would not be a wrenching experience.

    Don Stewart

    • Hi Don,

      I agree that at least some are doing the things I mentioned.

      Regarding our current high health costs, I think that our food situation is definitely playing a major role in the epidemic of obesity, diabetes, and other related health disorders–higher cancer rates, more knee replacements, bariatric surgery, etc. Poor people who can’t grow their own food may be particularly at risk, because they cannot afford higher nutrient foods, and may not be aware that living on hamburgers and fries is not conducive to long life. Also, working two jobs makes, as some poor folks do, does not provide time to cook food from scratch–something that is helpful.

      • Don Stewart says:

        The notion that cooking from scratch takes a long time is a mistaken idea that just won’t die. The actual process of cooking should generally take no more than 10 minutes–except for items such as grains. And grains can be cooked in a rice cooker on a timer.

        Figure 10 minutes for chopping and 10 minutes for cooking and it takes 20 minutes from start to food on the table. People waste enormous amounts of time trying to follow recipes. They are trying to live like the nobility in France. Cooking from scratch gives the cook control over the nutrient quality of the meal (long cooking times destroy nutrients) and there is zero waste.

        Here again, we have a supposed problem which, on closer examination, is actually a solution. It can bring families together in a shared enterprise, efficiently use food from garden and grocery, maximize nutrient values, and provide a ‘flow’ eperience which is a relaxing break from what most people do at work.

        Don Stewart

        • I cook pretty much from scratch. We make a lot of soups. It doesn’t take a lot of time to put things in the pot to cook. The cooking takes a while, but the pot doesn’t need to be watched then, so it can be done whenever it is convenient, for example, in the evening, or early in the day. It is easy for me, but it might be difficult for someone with two jobs, who isn’t around home much.

          I think that when people say that cooking takes too much time, they are considering the series of events that have to happen:

          1. Decide what the family wants to eat.
          2. Stop at a grocery store and buy the appropriate ingredients.
          3. Chop and cook the ingredients.
          4. Afterwards, load the dish washer and wash other things by hand.
          5. Later, unload the dishwasher.

          You and I can probably buy several days worth of ingredients at a time, but some people without practice find this difficult. Also, we can make “planned overs” to cut down on later cooking, but not everyone does this.

          There is also the issue of not everyone liking the same food. If Johnny doesn’t like the same things as Susie, at a fast food place all a person needs to do is order what each one prefers.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            I have a theory…

            There are two types of people: those who make things happen, and those who watch things happen. (There’s also a third, who look about in bewilderment and scream, “WHAT THE HELL HAPPENED?” :-))

            All of us fill either of these roles at different times and situations, but there are general tendencies, and some of us fall primarily in one type or the other.

            Modern civilization caters to those who “watch things happen.” In fact, we may have created Darwinian selection pressure for that characteristic. Most people have become rather passive about their lives, just letting things flow around them.

            I’m not judging that good nor bad, but I do think those who “make things happen” may have a selection advantage on the back slope of Hubbert’s Curve, just as those who “watch things happen” had an advantage on the up slope.

            “There is also the issue of not everyone liking the same food. If Johnny doesn’t like the same things as Susie, at a fast food place all a person needs to do is order what each one prefers.”

            In this case, I’d argue that Johnny and Susie are watchers, rather than doers. The role of a watcher is to select from among the myriad faux choices presented to them, without even asking about “none of the above.” The doers are busy fixing meals; the watchers are choosing from the menu.

            Anyway, that’s my theory, and I’m stickin’ to it… 🙂 Anyone want to help me do stuff?

          • schoff says:

            Then there is the scenario where you go into your gardens and see what is fresh and add to it what you put away days/weeks/months ago. I agree with you, especially in soup loving people/families this is a 20 minute scenario. What is a little more complicated if you want to live out of your gardens is planning your plants and your successions, but after some number of years that becomes more natural. As an organic wheat farmer for family and friends, bread making can be overwhelming when you first start it to many.

  22. David F Collins says:

    My attitude, based on my experience and my family’s history, is that by and large things hardly ever work out as well as they could and should, nor as badly as they very well might. The panorama Gail presents is realistic, bleak, devoid of hope. “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate” could be an appropriate title for the essay. And I really cannot argue against it.

    Argue, maybe not, but I do not abandon hope, and have faith: “…faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen…” is not very scientific, but works for my purpose here. What I do NOT mean is that we can count on a miraculous confluence of technofixes, wondrous political arrangements, and the like charging magically over the hill to save us, and all we have to do is wait for scientists, a strong-handed visionary demagogue, some God coming down from on high, or whatever such. Instead, we gotta try. Work at it, acknowledge the realities, the bleakness, and keep at it.

    In the meanwhile, there is significant disagreement on what «sustainability» even means. It is an uncertain destination, a squishy goal, but we gotta give our all to getting there. Myself, I worry most about the rising denialism, a short-term comfort that eviscerates in the intermediate term, never mind the long term — it makes sure we never get that far. Bleak as reality is, it is not the utter crushing of hope that lies in the heart of denialism.

    • I agree that things hardly ever work out as planned. Miraculous intervention remains a possibility. So do changes that we could not foresee–for example, some plague that eliminates a large percentage of mankind quickly and as humanely as possible, but leaves the remainder with enough resources to carry on. (This wouldn’t be a great result, but a quick, painless death would be better than endless fighting.)

      I am a regular church attender. While I don’t believe that the particular narrative of any particular religion is historically correct, or the one and only view, I think that there is definitely the possibility of a miracle. If nothing else, we need the possibility of a better outcome than what models would predict, so that everything does not seem bleak.

      By the way, I have a sister who is a religious writer, who researches the what Hebrew really meant in Old Testament times, and what the religious customs of Jesus day were, and reinterprets the Bible based on this research. Her results are interesting. This is a link to the part of Lois Tverberg’s website that describes the books she has written.

      • David Collins says:

        Thanks for the link! I’m under the weather, reading around.

        The discussion on the Sallman head of Jesus grabbed my attention. My Dad was an artist, a portraitist for a while in the 20’s & 30’s, with an awesome ability to understand a person by the face and figure (provided the person was not too young), although of course he blew it on occasion. But he loathed that Sallman representation! Incidentally, my Dad’s take on the physical Jesus: short, stocky, kinda homely. But he never drew Him that way, clients would not stand for it (or pay for it).

        As far as hoping & praying for miracles regarding our oncoming climate and resource crises: While living in Mexico in the 1990’s, my best friend was a young Roman Catholic priest (my son’s age!) who headed an orphanage of kids taken from the outflow of the sewers of Mexico City society. (Over half of the pre-adolescent boys were HIV-positive, for instance: an occupational disease.) He said his prayers, most of which dealt with getting food (clothing not such a problem) for the kids. But his prayers were answered only while he was working his butt off to get things done, not by sitting back and praying in the comfort of an easy chair. (As my wife & I were somewhat wealthy back then, we were glad to help out. And as we’re Protestants, we had no problem bypassing the ecclesiastic bureaucracy so his orphanage got the money unskimmed.) “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!” comes to mind.

        Yeah, we sure could use a miracle. By the plenty. But we gotta do more than hope.

  23. energycrunch says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with you about reducing incomes.

    For virtually all of my adult life so far (I’m 32) I have lived on a level of income around the federal poverty level, out of my own choice. Still, I acknowledge my current lifestyle is more luxurious than what many others in the world experience and still probably will seem very comfortable to many people in the future. My money generally goes to paying rent, food, public transportation fare, and not much else. Occasionally I spend money on something extra, like a book I really want, or travel.

    There are lots of other ways I think I could be preparing myself better for the future, but this is one way that I feel might help me (at least a little bit) in the future, simply because I have less distance to fall in terms of lifestyle. Still, I sometimes contemplate how my current $10,000-or-less-a-year lifestyle (where I still have access to a large variety of foods I can buy from far-off places, clean water, electricity, access to Internet, emergency health care, etc.) is still very fossil fuel dependent and dependent on a ultra-complex growth-based economy. I remind myself I’m far from being poor; I’m still living very richly.

  24. Ted Howard says:

    The 6th Mass Extinction now underway at a rate never seen before in the geological records, plus Peak Everything, makes it very clear: as homo colossus/homo economicus our task is to become indigenous again (people of the land) as fast as possible, or join the die-off.
    I chose not to have children, live on a 1/3 of previous income, and work mainly as a Permaculture gardener/designer/asst. teacher, doing what I can to regenerate/rebuild healthy landbase food systems. And that’s not enough. The real elephant in the room is the dominant insane culture, aka Global Industrial “Civilisation” aka Empire. It’s pathologically, suicidally insane. We need to pull it down, re-localise, rebuild and defend our landbases as if our lives depended on it, which they surely will.

    The Lord of The Rings ha nothing on the mythic story we’re now being asked to embrace. We are the little people, with the burden of this ring. Our task is to take it back and give it to Mt.Doom, give it back to the Earth. As in LOTR with the knights and kings, if we let the ring get anywhere near the present business and political leadership, they go insane with power and do great damage. We require a grass roots revolt/rebellion/dis-obedience on a massive scale.
    Without a culture of reisitance, this present dominant one will continue to kill us, our communities and the biosphere…
    Resistance is fertile! Let it grow, let it grow, let it grow!

    “We can have a healthy biosphere, or industrial ‘civilisation’, but not both” Prof.Guy McPherson

    • Guy McPherson is working on a model of hoarding what he needs (12 pair of pants, n pairs of shoes, etc) plus gardening/ farming in a fairly warm part of the country. I agree that this model can perhaps kind of work for a few people, but not for everyone at the same time. Part of the issue is that there is not enough to go around, and part of the issue is that many people could not make the intellectual leap to make such a change.

      I think that this model will have a hard time surviving, because it will not have the necessary institutions built up to support it. The current forces are pulling down our current systems (financial systems, political systems, electricity, international trade, local trade, etc.). At every time in the past, systems have been built up slowly, over time, building on the framework of other systems. For example, a store will be built, to take advantage of a need to transfer goods from producers to consumers, and the availability of a suitable building, electricity, etc. It will be the lack of replacement institutions, as much as anything, that will be a problem, as I see it.

      Also, year to year weather variability is likely to be a problem. If there is a governmental organization in place, it could set up long-term storage and methods of taxing places which are not affected by bad weather to help those supported by bad weather elsewhere. (Think of Joseph in ancient Egypt.) If old systems have disappeared, and new systems not been set up, there could be much more of a problem with starvation when times are bad.

      • Joe Clarkson says:

        Aloha Gail,

        Our family has a plan for the next 50 years or so that is very similar to the approach taken by McPherson. While you call purchase and storing of a few key products available now from our industrial culture “hoarding”, I prefer to call it preparation. After all, “fortune favors the prepared”.

        You are right that it can’t work for everyone and can’t work for more than the functional life of those key products. For those of us who live in a warm climate, have extensive garden/farming acreage, have no dependence on the electrical grid, have on-site water collection and distribution, and are generally far away from masses of people who don’t have the advantages we have, our plan can help ease the transition to what will eventually become the new normal, a very primitive life of subsistence agriculture and hunting/gathering.

        If we are very lucky, our preparations will allow us and some members of the next younger generation to keep ourselves in water, food, clothing and shelter and perhaps even a few luxuries, such as electric lights and indoor plumbing.

        I believe that our preparations may not be sufficient, but they are certainly necessary for us to have any chance at surviving the next couple of decades. Would you deny us this chance to avoid “starvation when times are bad”? We just want to get out of the way of the coming train wreck and hunker down as far away from the tracks as we can. Is that so bad?

        • My only problem with this is that it can’t be a solution for more than a small percentage of the population. It is probably not feasible at all in many parts of the world–Europe, China, and India, for example. (I know when The Oil Drum ran articles about some person’s long-term preparations, most of the strong objections came from non-US audiences.) This solution favors the well-to-do and educated; others can’t afford the land and materials needed and can’t research the many topics required. Some simple omissions (dentistry, for example) could lead to huge problems.

          It is obviously not something that a government can suggest to its people, because if very many run out and make preparations, it will create less for everyone else.

          Ultimately, things will work out however nature intends them to work out. This approach may help a few to increase their own, and their family’s, chance of survival.

        • Stu Kautsch says:

          Although we should be mindful of the ethics behind our actions and plans, I think what you’re doing is fine:
          — Most people would agree that a “pantry” is a good idea. Storing things of value is just an extension of pantry-ism.
          — Although an widespread use of this strategy could drive up the prices of some necessities, it at least as likely to divert productive resources from some of the complete crap that’s currently produced into things that have survival value (like tools, for instance), and that’s a *good* thing.
          — We all need to contemplate our own survival and that of our families or we’re guilty of shirking our most basic duty. If, knowing that our civilization is crumbling, I don’t take steps to help my own family, how can I expect others to do so? (Of course, this does not get us off the hook from attempts at getting our wider communities to take steps, or to try to exert cultural influence, but “walking your talk” may actually influence a *few* others.)

  25. Great post as usual, Gail. Hopefully we’ll have some time to adapt–this probably won’t all happen overnight. You end with a comment about technocracy for those who can keep the lights on and the nuclear fires stoked. I’m more worried about what happens where we don’t keep the nuclear fires stoked. Fukushima alone had 30 times as much fuel as Chernobyl, with a more harmful mix (MOX fuel that distributes long-lived isotopes such as plutonium and uranium). We now have 102 NPPs in the U.S. and 440 worldwide. We need to start decommissioning the old nuke plants now, while we still have the surplus energy to do so, and we need to be adapting to a lower electrical energy basis in a non-emergency situation, before there is a destabilizing crisis (widespread blackout, war, oil shock surface as obvious examples). We can adapt over time to a lot of things, but I’d like to have a choice and some control. Reacting to longterm radiation sickness and increasing biomagnification of radiation poisoning in our foods is an ugly way to go and leaves very few ways out.

    Check out how many NPPs globally are not operating or shut down . . .

    What could happen in the US in a crisis; 100 minutes without cooling is all it would take . . .

    • I agree that all of the nuclear power plants and the stored waste are major issues. We are not possibly going to have enough money/energy to properly decommission them if we wait–I am not sure that we even have enough now. Building more, when we can’t take care of what we have, is idiocy. And we have seen at Fukushima what can happen if electric power for cooling pools is interrupted.

  26. Pingback: True sustainability solutions | Sustain Our Earth |

  27. John Weber says:

    Another great one Gail.
    It is clear to me sustainability is a living process and a process of living.
    The future may depend on what we mean by sustainable. There are important questions to be asked:
    1. When we use something from the earth can it regenerate itself as a tree can or is it non-renewable?
    2. When we use something from the earth how long does it take the earth to regenerate itself as in rotational farming or the example of acres of trees?
    3. When we use something from the earth how long does it take the earth to assimilate the waste such as computer chemicals and copper processing?
    4. When we call something “renewable” does that include all the fossil fuels used to create the devices to capture the sun or wind?
    5. How large a geographical area does the sustainable definition include?
    6. Is there a holding or carrying capacity to a geographic area and are we willing to discuss it?
    7. How should we value non-renewable resources as petroleum from which tractor and ambulance power comes as well as many medicines?
    8. All life depends on energy. We need an accounting method to determine the value of how we use energy? Instead of payback in money should we assess a payback in energy for any energy devices such as wind and solar collectors?
    We are at a crossroads for the future. This requires hard questions and selfless honesty. We need to be clear about what we mean about sustainability. Faulty definitions create false hopes and dead end decisions.

    • I think one of the issues is that renewables have been valued too narrowly. It is really irrelevant what the EROEI of wind and Solar PV is, if the storage issue has not been addressed, so it is more comparable to other energy sources. Also, calling them “renewable” is misleading, because they are made by the fossil fuel system, and function primarily as part of the fossil fuel system. If the fossil fuel system stops, most of their utility stops.

      Admittedly, there are some application that may be temporarily useful. Solar panels can be helpful for pumping water (as can low-tech windmills). Solar panels with batteries can be temporarily helpful for providing electricity at night and refrigeration, but they are not long term solutions, because the batteries are not-long lasting (as in 100s of years). Wind turbines can be adapted to making nitrogen fertilizer, if they are not needed by a grid, but this adaptation continues to work only if the wind turbine can be kept in good repair–something that is not necessarily likely.

  28. energycrunch says:

    For those of you who don’t know Gail Tverberg (along with John Michael Greer, Tom Whipple, Dmitry Orlov, Carolyn Baker and others) will be presenting at the Age of Limits Conference: Conversations on the Collapse of the Global Industrial Model, 25-28 May 2012 at Four Quarters, in Pennsylvania (about 100 miles from the DC area). This is not intended to be a conference in the usual sense of presentations to a passive audience. We will instead foster “Weekend Community” through the creation of physical spaces that encourage attendees meeting and exchanging with each other and with our presenters… I encourage you to come and/or publicize the event! Very affordable…around $75 a person for the whole weekend.

    For more information, or to register:

  29. Gail, excellent post. We were discussing this topic recently on another blog I visit ( and I commented that no one had ever really offered any viable solutions to the problems we face. Other than global warming, you’ve addressed those issues well and I appreciate what you have to say. Of course, the odds of any of these things happening in any meaningful amount is, in my opinion, zero. But, the concepts are sound, nonetheless.

    This topic makes me wonder if the real problem is intelligence. To our knowledge, no other Earth-bound species has ever come close to our level of intelligence. And, no other species has wreaked so much destruction. So is intelligence and our quest for knowledge and understanding what has led us to the place? Perhaps it’s an inquisitive mind which leads to dissatisfaction with current surroundings and lifestyle. That in turn leads us to explore and want more. Maybe this idea has already been explored by others, if so, I would welcome a reference to any works about it.

  30. phil harris says:

    I have no problem with the general thesis you are getting us to think about.
    Here are some thoughts!
    No denying the human propensity, but it is difficult to generalize about ‘hunter gatherers’ (HG). Mega fauna went extinct because of humans in fragile ecosystems like Australia and on the Siberian glacial Tundra, but HG did not cause similar extinctions in southern Africa over similar time spans. In North America on the fairly fragile Great Plains, the HG and other predators co-existed with bison herds. There must have been some ebb and flow. There is a good discussion of historical human and bison numbers here….
    In the tropics, for example in S America, there is evidence that some people who are now HG secondarily adapted back into their current HG mode. Civilisations though; meaning high density populations arising from an agrarian/gardening culture? Plenty of them and they tend to come and go; the forests of S. America, C. Africa and SE. Asia cover numerous examples.
    I know you are American and writing mostly for Americans, but I have problems with ‘we’. Industrial civilization is relatively new, and the oil-using version is only a few decades old (Peak Horses on the US Great Plains was around 1926). The British population explosion began nearly 200 years before that and was not unconnected with the ‘Agricultural Revolution’, and was initially almost independent of fossil fuels; in those days, coal. This ‘organic revolution’ was relevant to temperate agriculture where soil moisture was not the limiting factor, and was based on incorporation of very efficient (‘renewable’) nitrogen-fixing crops in a rotation system. This innovation trebled the British population ‘carrying capacity’ in about 100 years and allowed much greater urbanization with virtually no use of fossil fuel ‘down-on-the-farm’ (no pesticides either). Twenty two percent of the population (rural) just about fed the rest of the (urban) 18 million in England by 1850. Thereafter of course it was food imports all the way because the population had yet to reach its growth ‘inflection point’ let alone to stabilize and ‘we’ had run out of arable land.
    The same approach to agriculture did not work so well on the Great Plains of N America. From 1920 onwards your growing urban population in the USA increasingly needed food grown using fossil fuels and essential inputs of synthetic fixed-N, supplemented with the mined P&K fertilizers (let alone in some places mined ‘fossil’ water).
    It has become obvious that the vast 7 plus billion worldwide will never, remotely, live like Americans, nor even live like Europeans, South Koreans, Japanese, nor any current privileged minority middle-classes scattered across the globe. ‘We’, the privileged, are going to suffer some serious setbacks to as you put it, more sustainable levels. My guess is that you Americans will continue some version of your agricultural system for another century or so, mostly from local resources, with some of the adjustment to eating patterns that you suggest. That should improve your collective need for medical care in middle-age and for the elderly. I guess you will similarly maintain vaccinations and some degree of Public Health: just my guess, of course. Climate change though could be the big nemesis hanging over your continent’s civilisation, even within 100 years. You will probably not have a global empire any more.
    Rather than the more grand ‘civilizations’, for the longer term I look for knowledge from agrarian systems and cultures, which successfully adapted long term to meagre conditions without gross population overload and without benefit of modern industrially based methods. The Buddhist villages of the Himalayas are just one example. I can just imagine perhaps some of John Michael Greer’s science/eco-tech ‘monasticism’ grafted on to the dual village/monastery systems used in that Buddhist culture. (See Crook & Osmaston book on human geography ‘Himalayan Buddhist Villages’ on Amazon.) The British 19thC agricultural system of course would never feed the latest modern population of 60 millions, but it was relatively sustainable at the scale it achieved in its day, even if run back then by a brutal social system tied to a growing industrial empire.
    I think you are right to mention, fairly gently, changes in the way ‘we’ live!
    Very best & thanks

    • You are right, in that improvements in agriculture indeed played a role as well.

      I am wondering about whether you are really right about fossil fuels not playing a role in the growth in Britain’s population. According to Tony Wrigley, the ramp up in coal use in England started about 450 years ago. There was also the use of peat.

      I would expect that the existence of the British empire also played a role in Britain’s population growth. I understand it started in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. It allowed Britain to obtain goods from abroad, and in that way, expand the food supplies for its people. It allowed Britain to be quite different from the reset of the world.

      Regarding Hunter Gatherers in Africa, that is where humans and animals co-evolved. There is more of a problem in areas where humans moved into an area, which was new to them. THen, there is the more of a likelihood that humans would kill off the large animals. This happened in many areas around the world. In fact, this article from Science Digest talks about it happening in North America as well.Mass Extinction: Why Did Half of N. America’s Large Mammals Disappear 40,000 to 10,000 Years Ago?. I don’t think the fact that bison were not in the half eliminated disproves the general problem.

  31. The physicist Charles Galton Darwin took a shot at this problem during the 1950’s. One can read what he had to say on the internet at no charge.

    • Thanks! Charles Galton Darwin is the grandson of the earlier Charles Robert Darwin. The book you reference is from 1953, only three years before M. King Hubbert’s paper, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels. There is a lot of overlap about their concerns–fossil fuel running short, and whether nuclear energy would work, mentioning thorium as well. There is also a list of possible alternatives, that sounds an awfully lot like the group being pursued today, with questions about whether they can really be made to work adequately. A lot of it sounds quite contemporary.

  32. John Marshall says:

    Thanks Gail. You are one of the very few who are trying to honestly examine the problems we face. There are others, such as FEASTA for example, who are examining ideas like Cap and Share:
    and the New Economics Foundation who have suggested a 21-hour working week:
    The problem is that we need to admit to the dificulties, which are terrifying, as well as remaining positive in finding and implementing solutions.

    • I agree that this is an issue. Everyone likes happy endings, and groups like to present stories that make their readers happy. I’m hoping that Energy Bulletin’s new name, “Resilience,” doesn’t mean, “Biased toward articles with a happy ending”.

      • energycrunch says:

        Yes, I agree with you. In the same way the word “sustainability” has been used to mean many things that are not really sustainable, I wonder if word “resilience” will be co-opted and used in ways that don’t really mean resilience.

        • I have issues with the words steady state and resilience, which both imply that we can keep what we’ve got now–Business As Usual. From the Resilience Alliance’s homepage yesterday (it’s not there today, so don’t bother going to look), a quote:

          “Urban resilience is the degree to which cities are able to tolerate alteration before reoganising around a new set of structures and processes” (Alberti et al., 2003).

          And steady state is a brief climax period in the cycle of pulsing that occurs in all systems. Steady state says we can keep our civilization frozen in time in the current snapshot, when all indications are that we cannot.

          Yes, we can try to hang on to what we’ve got, but if we do, the principle of energy hierarchy mandates that we will “shorten the cumulative length of the game the more we steal.”

          Game over, man. We’d better start getting the lifeboats out instead of rearranging the deck chairs.

          • You may have seen my post from a while ago, There is No Steady State Economy (except at a very basic level). It made quite a number of Steady State folks angry.

            Regarding your third link, and your statement,”Yes, we can try to hang on to what we’ve got, but if we do, the principle of energy hierarchy mandates that we will ‘shorten the cumulative length of the game the more we steal.'” Isn’t the issue with this one the fact that you and I are alive now, and we probably won’t personally be alive for the whole game? So from our personal point of view, holding on to what we have may help for a bit now, even though for humanity as a whole, it can be expected to make the game shorter. This issue makes it (somewhat) attractive to stay with fossil fuels, despite their many deficiencies. The time before collapse is short enough that any difference in length because of choices we make will likely be pretty minimal.

          • Responding to Gail’s post below mine VVVV (no reply button). I missed that steady state post, thanks for linking.

            Great point about how we will try to use fossil fuels as long as they are available. That leads us to Principle 4 on that linked list, the Maximum Power Principle, that says we will do our best to maximize energy throughputs for the system. As long as fossil fuel net emergy is higher than the alternative, someone in the system will use them. But as surplus energy wanes, cues should lead us to shift from maximizing power intake as the only goal to instead also becoming more efficient, to capture renewable energy wherever possible, and to reorganize into more cooperative, simple arrangements. For example, Odum suggested that “The auto age will come to an end when alternate needs for the fuels running the personal autos become more important than the time saved by having individual cars” (2001). If my choice is between waiting in gas rationing lines for 4 hours a day and biking to work, I’ll probably oil up the bike. The gas will get used somewhere in the system, it is just that goals and priorities will shift, and infrastructure will reorder as we descend. First luxury and waste will be weeded out, with new reward loops that foster efficiencies and frugality. Reward loops may present as high prices that weed out wasteful behavior through consumer choices, or some sort of regulations? Unfortunately, high prices/inflation then create gross inequities between haves/have nots and create terrible strife. So we need to be working on how to get along so we don’t blow ourselves up in the process of this great transition?

  33. Leo Smith says:

    Well Gail – another voice crying in the wilderness ‘there is no such thing as a sustainable civilization’! ?

    Exactly so. The deserts of north Africa and the middle east are “the direct result of 10,000 years of organic farming.”

    The world changes: It changed before we developed as a species ad it continues to change and we are like it or not reasonably large agents in that change – at least in the ecosphere.

    Nothing is forever: we are as usual chasing a chimera when we look for ‘green sustainability’: we should abandon the attempt and merely pragmatically look at what population and in what lifestyle we can support, on the resources we still have.

    And we should also abandon those feeling that we are a special species: we are not. Like any species that finds a resource or a niche and expands into it, our population exploded and when the resources run out, will crash back again. In a sense we are just doing what species do.

    Civilization is after all merely a way to exploit natural resources more efficiently. By organizing ourselves and development a technology we can support more population, and/or at a better standard of living: the price we pay is the freedom of a low population density that out individual actions don’t count for much. Now they do.

    This is not a flattering view of humanity: but it is a pragmatic one. The Green movement is from this perspective nothing more than a huge and supercilious arrogance. A wet green dream, that we are better than we are, and that our imaginations and wishes can supplant physics and biology and turn us into what we are not, and never have been.

    The fact remains that with – say – nuclear power and a strong ethic for population control – we could live at a level of a few hundred million people or so, like gods, for several thousand years.

    But we wont do that: we will instead live like rats in a sinking ship. Only China has grasped the population nettle and only china takes a pragmatic approach to energy.

    What stands in the way of that are the culture and ethics of the last 2000 years of expansionary morality, and the religions of it which are now embodied philosophically in the Green movement.

    Once you stand back and realise that the green movement is not ‘the way of the future’ and ‘part of the solution’ but actually the last gasp of a certain sort of religious thinking and a certain sort of arrogance, a thing of the past and definitely ‘part of the problem’, the scales fall from your eyes.

    In the end natural selection will ensure the fittest survive: they won’t be the Greens though. They will be those who find and use some other natural resource for the next few hundred years, or simply those who were used to, and able to do without (much) civilisation at all, which cetainly won’t be the denizens of the air conditioned factory farms for humans we call cities.

    As with the Mayan civilisation: the high and the mighty will fall, and what will be left is he peasantry of the rural economy that used to support them.

    Andf if we are lucky a few pockets of technocracy who have managed to keep the lights on and the nuclear fires stoked and some sort of respect for knowledge alive.

    • I am afraid that you are pretty much correct.

      We live in a world of black and white. If one approach doesn’t work (or is “wrong”), than the alternative must be “better” or “right”. Unfortunately, in the real world it doesn’t work that way. Both can be pretty much equally wrong. Then it starts getting down to the pragmatics–which works better for now, and it looks to me as if any temporary partial solutions most likely come from the fossil fuel side–say natural gas. Building huge wind and solar installations with big front-end costs when we likely can’t use them for long makes us feel like we are doing something, and we have control, but it is a delusion. The high front-end cost only can be supported if it is subsidized by profits from fossil fuels, and the construction and transport of these new energy sources depend on fossil fuels. The electric system becomes harder to control with the new more variable electric power. The whole system won’t last any longer–in fact, it may last a shorter time, if the variability interferes with normal operations. And of course, all of this does virtually nothing for our need for cheap oil.

      There are some parts of the “Green” movement that are a step in the right direction (concern for nature, desire to do something personally to help, etc), but there are big pieces that make no sense whatsoever, when looked at pragmatically.

  34. arthurrobey says:

    I take a different view.
    The planet has need of an intelligence and we are it.

    Why does it need an brain now when it got along just fine without one before? What is the problem?
    The sun turns hydrogen into helium. Helium is a greenhouse gas for the sun. The sun has heated up 20% in 4.5 billion years.
    The planet has remained in the Goldilocks zone of liquid water as the sun has gone from too cold to to hot by controlling the composition of the atmosphere.
    This no longer works as there is no more CO2 left to sequester. The C4 plants (Grasses) are efficiently scrubbing out the last of the CO2 as we speak.

    The consequences of the breakdown of the controlling feedback loop is that the planet can no longer control it’s temperature and hence the (geologically) recent phenomenon of the glacials and interglacials.
    Because the planet cannot move itself out of it’s orbit, Gaia has to abandon the planet.
    Our sole purpose is to colonise L4and 5. There are as many la Grange points as there are two body systems in the Cosmos.

    An introduction to our new home.
    Major influence “The Gaia Hypothesis” Professor James Lovelock.

    • I am afraid this is not something I am not familiar with. When I searched on google, I didn’t find much. Perhaps this has to do with April 1.

    • simon says:

      I love this rendering. Having read the entire Rama series and Asimov’s Foundations and many more I see where you’re coming from.

      I also used to believe we would get to LEO, the “easy” LaGranche points, the Moon and inner planets and all we needed was sheer technophilia. I certainly hoped I would see the first permanence of us in space before I passed –The International Space Station certainly hoodwinked me for a little bit.

      Alas, I started understanding the scientific process, the laws of thermodynamics and its implications to us in a finite system mismanaged nearly from the start.
      Now I understand it was all based on the circular thinking that never considered the finitude of the system we exist in. Perhaps we could have, had we evolved differently, with a lot more wisdom first and intelligence evolving later.

      Right now we should all busy ourselves with repairing the world with the little repairing each can manage. Hoping that all the knowledge we’ve gained is not lost in the next down cycle and hoping that the next gathering of peoples into complex societies will take their time, will learn to think 200 generations ahead in everything they do before deciding on competing to death.

  35. wotfigo says:

    William Catton addressed this issue in 1982 in his book “Overshoot”.

    There are no solutions that will make human civilisation sustainable within the finite limits of the Earth’s resources other than major population decline. And as humans will not voluntarily stop reproducing, then the “system” (the environment) will enforce a return to sustainability in a die-off.

    We are almost certainly beyond the possible sustainable scenarios demonstrated by the “Limits To Growth” team. A population of 7 billion now rocketing toward 9 billion in 4 decades. There is no sustainable solution.

    Gail you are a statistician. Can you demonstrate any one of your suggested “solutions” to sustainability would be successful. With all due respect I doubt it. They are all just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

    The planet is so far beyond sustainable in resources, energy use, food, fresh water, & pollution including GHG’s. All these are under severe strain including global economies that reflect human exploitation of resources.

    Extremely rapid population growth rate cutback coupled with some of the suggestions listed in your article might work at this late stage. But it is not happening. And it probably won’t.

    • I agree with you, that we are almost certainly beyond the possible sustainable scenarios demonstrated by the “Limits to Growth” team. I really don’t see the situation as sustainable. I meant the suggestions as to the things we can do in the context of “while this mess unfolds,” not as something that has any real chance of preventing the collapse from occurring. It would be nice to think that they would make the situation a bit better–perhaps this is true, but not a certainty.

      I read Overshoot a while ago–I need to go back to it again. At some point, my brain hits overload.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “We are almost certainly beyond the possible sustainable scenarios demonstrated by the “Limits To Growth” team.”

      If you examine the WORLD3 model printouts in that book, you’ll see both births and deaths escalating, even while population declines.

      The implications are enormous and scary. As energy declines, humans will once again resort to “breeding a labour force and old-age pension,” as the so-called “demographic transition” goes into reverse, much to the consternation of the sociologists, who think they have it all figured out.

      (They unknowingly have it half figured out: “Empower women to reduce birth rates” is only true in the literal meaning of “empower,” to provide more physical energy to. Women quit having babies when a village pump powered by electricity or diesel keeps them from sending children to walk five miles for water.)

      So as Gail and The Club Of Rome points out, life is about to get brutish and short for many people. But this will be an average, not an absolute.

      On the high end, there will always be people with too much. Those who can afford to feed armies will command allegiance — and tribute. With any luck, the rich will spend all their time squabbling with each other, as they have throughout history, and thus keep their numbers low.

      I like to think there will be a middle ground of people who are prepared, independent, and co-operative. Like Frank Herbert’s “freemen” of Dune, they will live their lives in moderate, self-imposed deprivation, taking from the Earth only what is “enough,” and returning to the Earth everything they can.

      Might be a fairy-tale, but what the heck, someone’s gotta do it… 🙂 And seriously, folks — it’s actually fun working toward such a goal!

  36. kiwichick says:

    we are in deep shit

    and we are adding 200,000 extra human beings to the planet every day

    here in australia the government actually pays poor people ( it’s income tested) to have kids

    they call it the ” baby bonus”

    a former Treasurer ( Minister of Finance) actually called for australian women “to have one (child) for mum, one for dad and one for the country”

    australia has one of the highest population growth rates in the OECD

  37. dagormo says:

    Great post Gail! I really enjoy your blog, and this latest post was a very interesting departure from your usual technical analysis.
    I do have question about your use of the term “sustainable”. A lot of us in the environmental movement have taken it to mean that it requires maintenance of systems as close to their wild structure as possible. Therefore, as you mention, hunter-gatherer societies which depopulated megafauna would be considered unsustainable. However, (and as I think is implied by your post) if we just take the broadest sense of the word, we would consider sustainable any society which appears to be structured in a way that can survive over the long-term. This would involve not creating man-made problems, like groundwater pollution and depletion, but also being “affluent” enough to withstand natural shocks.
    Therefore, I think that encouraging altered landscapes which fit in with natural, large-scale ecosystems, but do not necessarily maintain their wild state could help with development of sustainable societies. I think this is the general point you are driving at, so sorry if I am belabouring the obvious!
    As a last comment, given this definition of sustainability, there is clearly no role for depletion of any non-renewable materials since this cannot be sustained in the long-term; a point which you eloquently make many times on this blog.

    • It seems to me that there is a lot of range in what the environmental movement is doing. A big piece of it seems to me to be centered around “using less”. This in turn seems to be partially based on a misunderstanding of the Hubbert Curve. The Hubbert Curve does not guarantee the availability of supplies on the downslope–what it does is set an upper limit for supplies, assuming systems (financial, electrical, international trade, etc) remain in place so that BAU can continue.

      If systems start falling apart, the whole basis of “using less” disappears. When this happens, the Prius’ and the systems using raised beds will become just too difficult to maintain, especially if they require having soil amendments from a distance and organic sprays made by some company at the other end of the state.

      Another focus of environmental groups has been diversity of species, with concern that individual species will be lost. This is only part of the problem. The problem is really the mix of species, and the number and sizes of animals of a particular type. We have way, way too many cows and pigs on earth. The story of fish in the oceans is a disaster (see “Jesse Jackson talks about How We Wrecked the Ocean“), and yet we continue to hear about “sustainably fished” fish, and organic food stores feature huge displays of fish caught in the wild. Visiting one of these stores is enough to make me ill!

      • Shrimppop says:

        Hi Gail,

        thanks as always for a thought-provoking post. Seems to me the definition of sustainable needs some serious work. For example, we might ask, sustainable for whom ( a subthread in the comments here) or what?

        Nature seems capable of sustaining itself (should I refer to Nature as a whom or Whom?), even given the massive extinction episodes of the past, so the current one should ultimately be handled at planetary scale. So a second question is sustainable at what scale? Globalization has expanded scale about as far as it can go with regard to economics, supply chain and division of labor. The strange result is a seeming resurgence in nationalism and tribalism- the troika, immigration laws, etc.

        And finally, to what extent does sustainability include management by humans? If we’re all evolving to be more like wild primates (?) and human intelligence is the source of our problems, I don’t see much hope or point. Fortunately I think your conclusions may be based on a story of evolution that needs further study and elucidation. I’ve found Bateson really helpful in this (“Steps Toward an Ecology of Mind”, “Mind and Nature”).

  38. DAVEBEE says:

    ‘there are far too many of us” AMEN….yet when I talk to my financial planner (so-called) he looks at me with bovine blankness and just keeps talking his book and opening ever more little glossy brochures that always have a line starting in the bottom left corner and climbing up to the top right corner…..Oh no! Not even a B com graduate gets it, we really are doomed.
    Mention those nasty facts about overpopulation/peak energy/peak arable soil and he gets up and leaves. Why? Because the future aint what it used to be and he cannot or will not see REALITY as Gail and I do.

  39. Jan Steinman says:

    Bravo, Gail! This is one of your boldest columns yet!

    And yet, there is the notion that some subset of our current population could live at some level higher than sleeping in trees to avoid predators and digging for insects for sustenance.

    Not many of us seven billion work very hard at reducing our impact beyond changing light bulbs (consumption), recycling (consumption), and buying a hybrid car (lots more consumption).

    You really hit the nail on the head with “Reduce our incomes.” Straw poll: raise your hand if you’ve done this. You get to raise both hands if you’ve done it by a factor of five or more.

    And yet, it isn’t all that difficult to live on 20% of your income, particularly if you own enough land free-and-clear to grow a lot of your own food.

    I think the problem of land is the biggest one keeping people from short-term sustainability. Very few people have managed to save enough to be able to own land without a mortgage. Of course, in Gail’s ideal, there would be no land ownership, but we’ve got a long way to go to get there.

    (Blatant plug: we’re set up for communal land ownership, but can’t get people to take part. We could use some help! I think things just aren’t bad enough yet for people to share land, when they’re under the excess-energy-driven illusion of independence.)

    • With respect to “reduce our incomes,” I am basically doing what I am doing for $0, or very close to $0. I don’t show ads on the site, and I don’t accept donations. I am officially “retired,” while my husband teaches at the university where he has taught for many years. Charlie Hall has joked that I could call myself, “Gail the Housewife” instead of “Gail the Actuary”. So you might say I have reduced my income, in response to the issues at hand.

      I honestly don’t know what transition will be like, but I am concerned that it will not be anything that anyone would call pleasant. There will far be too many people left out, and conditions will continue to get worse, not better. People who have developed land and water supplies are likely to be targets for those who do not have enough. Also, nature is not likely to be kind to those who live on small tracts of land. The climate (and insect conditions and animal predators) are likely to be favorable for a few years, and then a bad year will occur. Everyone in a given area will be hit as well. Unless the people in that area have been able to set aside supplies for an entire year, starvation is likely to be common. Natural variability is why early human populations were hunters and gatherers, rather than farmers. Farming doesn’t work well, without a system of trading and storing up in bad years for the good. That is why, historically, many systems have grown together–political governance, military or police, religions, education, irrigation and other approaches to farming, financial systems, etc. We can undo our current systems more easily than we can put new systems in place. It is the lack of these systems, as much as anything else, that seems likely to do us in.

      • pjc says:

        “With respect to “reduce our incomes,” I am basically doing what I am doing for $0, or very close to $0. ”

        Well, that’s nice, but don’t break your arm patting yourself on the back,

        You worked a well paying coprorate gig for many, many years, no? And have the savings and investments to prove it, right?

        You probably own a home, and likely own it outright (or very close to it).

        I don’t begrudge your (assumed) financial success. (Perhaps I’m wrong, but you’re not the first actuary I’ve known). You’re clearly bright and work hard. However, there are lots of young people reading this, and I think it’s a little hypocritical to say “reduce our incomes, don’t have kids” to people in their 20s, just starting out in their careers. If the “peak energy” catastrophe fails to materialize in the next 30 years, such advice could be truly horrible.

        • justnobody says:

          If you don’t like Gail opinions you are free to comments on a blog this is closer to what you believe. If you don’t agree with what is written I am sure there is plenty of other blog that will benefit from yours very enlightening advices. MSNBC, CBS and FOX are good places for you to go.

        • Justin Nigh says:

          It should be relatively easy to validate this concern.

          Can we have a show of hands for all those young people who are being unduly influenced by Gails’ analysis, perspective and advice?

        • The way that this is all working out is indeed terrible for young folks. Their incomes are by-and-large terrible. No wonder the market for first homes is terrible.

          I am not sure I would advocate reducing incomes for everyone–especially young people. You are right that actuaries have done well–the profession was rated number 1 in job rankings for many years (income relative to physical working conditions and consequences if bad decisions were made). Part of my decision was based on the observation that we don’t need the income to live in a reasonable fashion, since we no longer have a mortgage. Perhaps a young person or two was hired, because of the vacancy I left. The overall impact on the economy of a person leaving a job is less than the personal impact, because the job will likely be given to someone else. Here again, a big piece of the impact is likely to be more equitable sharing.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “nature is not likely to be kind to those who live on small tracts of land. The climate (and insect conditions and animal predators) are likely to be favorable for a few years, and then a bad year will occur. Everyone in a given area will be hit as well.”

        I agree in a conventional sense, when people buy seed, fertilizer, and other accoutrements to grow a half-dozen common crops. If you’re doing things the “big farm” way, of course a small farm is at a considerably disadvantage.

        But I do think Permaculture and alternative agriculture techniques give us a shot.

        Wendell Berry wrote, “The aim of a healthy farm will be to produce as many kinds of plants and animals as it sensibly can.” With high diversity comes resilience.

        I’ve been developing a real appreciation for inefficiency. US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz is famous for saying, “Get big, or get out.” I think the future mantra will be more Schumakerian: “Small is beautiful.” Ten thousand acres of wheat may be efficient, but it is not resilient. A thousand ten-acre plots, with people growing a wide variety of different things, some drought-tolerant, others flood-tolerant, is the scenario most likely to survive. Those thousand farmers are going to be doing things a thousand different ways, and some of those will work better than others.

        We currently have 181 different seeds that we’re planning to plant, and that doesn’t include the perennials already growing here and there, nor all the wild food in the thousands of acres of public land nearby.

        “People who have developed land and water supplies are likely to be targets for those who do not have enough.”

        I think you overestimate the impact of “Mad Max” hoards of starving zombies. My bigger concern is a return of feudalism, in which landless peasants work at the pleasure of the landed lord for his protection.

        A hope I have comes from my background in ecology. In high-energy trophic systems like the tropics, competition is the rule. There are tens of species for each ecological niche, and it’s an “eat or be eaten” world.

        But in low-energy trophic systems, cooperation is the dominant force. In arctic or alpine environments, there may only be two species in a niche, and like the snowy owl and the rough-legged hawk, they might “cooperate” by dividing up the hunting temporarily, by day and night.

        Time will tell. Will low energy cause humans to cooperate? Or will we continue with our high-energy worship of competition?

        • You are right–diversity is the way to ensure a higher probability of a better outcome.

          The thing I find troubling is that even back in ancient times, monoculture seemed to be common. For example, people recognized that more food could be grown in total if irrigation of a particular area was used. When this was done, my impression is that crops which fit with the available moisture level (often wheat or rice or other grains) were grown. When the soil became too saline, the crop was adjusted to a new monoculture of a more salt-tolerant grain.

          As another example, if a culture uses animals assist with plowing and planting, it necessarily needs fields of a particular crop, to make animal assistance feasible. (Of course, other crops could be grown around the edges, to provide some resilience.)

          Potatoes in Ireland are another well-konwn (and notorious) example.

          I am wondering if there are enough efficiencies in monocultures that people have adopted them, because of the pressure to produce enough for their families, even if resilience is poor. Maybe there was enough governmental support to permit this approach.

          • Dave Lea says:

            Thanks for your systematic musings her Gail. The problems are huge and so many people are absolutely unaware of the dangers facing us all. I hope that you have encountered the movements of Permaculture and Transition. The later is an extension of the former. Permaculture has been in action all over the world for over 40 years and is gaining real traction. They both offer a method of building communities and restoring ecosystems while providing abundance with almost no external energy inputs. Hope you look into both of these! Just google them.

            • Tony Weddle says:

              I’m not sure if you mean that Transition is a formal extension of Permaculture but, if so, that’s not true. Transition may encompass some permaculture principles but permaculture, to me, is the overriding movement.

            • I have had some exposure to both Permaculture and Transition.

              With respect to permaculture, I would like to see some evidence that it can actually be enacted on a large enough scale to make a difference. I have seen movies showing own little area being rework so that it is vastly productive, and there are permaculture experts who are willing to draw up plans to show how your lawn can be turned into “permaculture”. But my impression is that these folks are earning their living by selling permaculture plans, rather than because the systems that they have put in place are so productive that they can yield enough of a surplus that they can trade for everything else that the need/want. Some of the permaculture things I have seen are great–little ponds, with water brought in by plastic hoses, and kept in place by plastic liners. They don’t look very sustainable to me, but I understand that it is just meant to be a transition. I would have more confidence in permaculture if it had grown up over a historical period (probably 1,000s of years ago), and had been shown to have good enough results that people voluntarily adopted it.

              I am sure that there are many different models for Transition communities, and some are better than others. Some seem to be very close to BAU (townhouses with Priuses out front, a community organic garden, and community room for weekly pot luck suppers) and some are much more intentional. If there is a very slow downslope, these perhaps may be helpful. If there are serious system disruptions, how they will work out is less clear. Finances may prove a downfall, for example.

            • Don Stewart says:

              I know a little bit about Permaculture. My tiny little suburban lot has been packed with useful plants and intelligent water management and is producing an astonishing amount of food. It’s not ideal, because the soil is builder detritus, but it is still amazing for the two years the garden has been evolving.

              One of my favorite Permaculture people is Geoff Lawton, from Australia. Relative to your first point about indigenous people and Permaculture. Here are two Lawton videos worth watching. Both are illustrations of very old systems which have stood the test of time.


              Note especially 800 different people farm this

              A second point is the dependence on advanced technology and high energy inputs. You will see in this video that Lawton can pretty quickly establish a system which can be sustained with little human intervention (comparable, perhaps, to the interventions by the Native Americans).
              Note especially accelerating succession

              A third point. The Australians, especially, are focused on water management. Water management involves moving earth, usually. Permaculturists as a group think we should invest our limited fossil fuel resources in moving the earth to manage water–as opposed to driving our Hummer to the Mall. If we waste our fuel now, we may have to rearrange the earth with shovels and buckets operated by humans. Here is a Lawton construction project in one of the worst deserts in the world.

              Permaculture does not solve all the problems with annual vegetable plants. As a general rule, Permaculturists prefer to use perennials wherever possible. The work at The Land Institute led by Wes Jackson may give us more perennials. Or our designs may incorporate more wild edibles.

              In general, Permaculture people see abundant resources available right now to do a lot of the work that needs to be done to prepare for an energy descent. David Holmgren, another Australian, is a strong advocate of converting suburban landscapes now. That view is echoed by people like Joel Salatin in the US.

              My final comment: nothing cures depression about the future better than getting your gardening tools together and going out and doing something to make the future different.

              Don Stewart

            • Thanks! Everything I have seen says that perennials make more sense than annuals. I am planting a few hazelnuts and a fig tree.

              My success with annuals has not been very good.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Good luck!
              One little piece of advice. I had my garden designed by experts. They gave me blooming plants whenever insects were active. Especially attractive to beneficial insects are the umbelliferous plants (many small blooms rather than one large bloom). My yard has an amazing variety and quantity of insects and birds and beetles and toads and lizards and the occasional snake. It really does look a little like Geoff Lawton’s examples. If you have read Craig Dilworth’s descriptions of how a diverse population of species keep each other in check, you know what I have experienced. When you have a diverse ecosystem in place in your yard, tuck a few Earth Boxes in with some annual veggies. I think you will have a lot less trouble with predation.

              Don Stewart

            • Don Stewart says:

              One additional thing to think about.
              See page 46 in Dilworth, last paragraph on the page:
              …some environments are so unstable or transitory that it is impossible for colonising animals to reach a ceiling density and invoke their regulatory machinery before the habitat becomes untenable or is destroyed…freely increasing in size…It is also very common in agricultural land due to the constant disturbance of ploughing, seeding, spraying, harvesting, and the rotating of crops.

              So…what I have found is that a planting of perennials designed to provide a rich habitat, coupled with some annuals, is the best in terms of producing what humans need with minimal inputs (including labor). (Other than the hunter gatherer lifestyle which might require, say, 3 acres per person.) A monocrop field is like the arctic and desert regions described by Dilworth in terms of its vulnerability to explosive population growth by pests. Which is why Industrial Agriculture tries to kill everything that moves.
              Don Stewart

            • Tony Weddle says:

              Well, in some sense, permaculture has been around for ever. The permaculture that is starting to catch on now is merely attempting to imitate nature but, of course, slightly modified to make it work for humans (like the mix of plants). There is a permaculture food forest in Vietnam that has been there for centuries. There are food forests being designed and already in use that are many acres large, so it’s not just a matter of small experiments here and there. There are examples where virtual desert/scrub has been turned to productive use. Food forests form micro environments and can be designed to function on minimal natural rainfall. If anything can feed more than a million people, permaculture can. It’s really a no-brainer, particularly with food forests, where multiple layers are being utilised – and the plants don’t provide just food but medicines, building materials, clothing materials, animal feed and so on.

        • we all ultimately work for our sources of energy, money is just a token by which one workers energy output is traded for another’s, money of itself has no value. it follows then that when oil is no longer available as an energy source our money system will lose its value completely. But we will still need energy to stay alive. If one man holds a lot of food producing land and you dont, there will be little option other than to work for him for a share of the food produced. the alternative will be starvation.
          That is feudalism, and it is our future

  40. tmsr says:

    How many people can the planet support in this life style? 100 million? How do we get rid of the other 7 billion people? Over what time period do we get rid of them (surely not us)?

    • In this lifestyle, I am not sure. In a way that blends with the rest of the ecology, at a much lower lifestyle, more of that of the gorillas and monkeys, perhaps 1,000,000. I didn’t mention the book Too Smart for Our Own Good, which I wrote about in my post Human Population Overshoot – What Went Wrong? I think human intelligence is basically what got us into our current predicament–we were able to greatly increase our numbers, by “outsmarting” the others on the planet. It required more and more energy to do this. But it is becoming increasingly difficult to get additional energy, and we are having to resort to poorer sources. The high price of the energy supplies are bringing down the financial system. Globalization has helped us, but now we are at the ends of globalization. We are increasingly at the point where financial collapse and great ecological changes seem likely–not good!

      • I don’t know if the problem is human intelligence so much as the application of industrial practices to the ever-changing body of scientific data, all in an effort to “correct” what humans perceive as problematic about their world. We see a problem, look at the current science, and then use the tremendous industrial force of our civilization to set the problem aright. Having done all of that, the science revises itself (as all good science tends to do) and it becomes clear that we’ve directed all that force down a dead-end path. Or worse, we see that our efforts have actually worked against us.

        I believe humans are inherently scientifically-minded, but the application of tremendous industrial might has increased our potential for harm in the event that we make a mistake. Science can be easily revised, but the after-effects of an industrially-conceived paradigm shift are a very different story. It’s as if we are toddlers strapped inside a gigantic, robotic battle-suit, armed to the teeth.

        • There are an awfully lot of problems like pollution and indirect impacts that we don’t know about until much later. These can grow to be great problems, before we realize that there is a problem at all. What is behind all of the autistic children and adults, for example? There have to be at least some environmental problems.

  41. XRM says:

    Jesus. We are so far off from what is really sustainable. Our definition of sustainable, as far as corporations and the mass consumers are concerned, is some energy source or method which appears ‘green’ or is propagandized as such and still allows for the industrial capitalist society to continue. Catabolic collapse will eventually take us down to a level of equilibrium with the ebb and flow of the Earth’s natural systems, but we won’t go willingly or with forethought.

  42. 7 billion people. The thought makes me shudder.

Comments are closed.