Can we expect the economy to keep growing?

If we read the financial pages, economic growth seems to be viewed as the “normal” situation to which economies inevitably return. But is it really?

If we look back over the past 50 years, or even over the past 100 years, economic growth has predominated. Over the longer term, we know that people have become more prosperous, and that world population has grown.  The natural assumption is that economic growth will continue in the future as it has in the past.

Let’s think about this a little further. We live on an earth with a fixed surface area. If the population of the earth keeps growing, at some point people would fill up every square foot (or square meter) of land space. Clearly that can’t happen. Also, the resources we pull from the ground aren’t unlimited–at some point the amount we pull from the ground starts to deplete. We know that at some point, perhaps far in the future, economic growth must stop.

The question is really where we are now, relative to the hard limits that we know must exist. Let’s think about the situation.

What is needed to produce goods and services?

If we are going to have an economy, we will need goods and services. What do we need to produce these goods and services? While there are standard breakdowns (for example, land, labor and capital), the following is a different approach to the breakdown:

1. Human ingenuity. Animals don’t provide goods and services; humans do. Human ingenuity is needed to think of ways of combining materials and energy of various forms to provide goods and services.

2. Materials. Goods and services don’t come from thin air. Even if the product in question is a service, materials of various types are likely to be needed–a place for the worker to work, perhaps heated and cooled; a computer for the worker; transportation to and from work; and food for the worker. If food is to be produced, the soil must be of good quality, appropriate minerals must be in the soil, and fresh water must come at appropriate times.

3. Energy sources. “Work,” typically involving some type of movement or heat, has to be performed to make the service or goods appear. This work is performed by some combination of humans, animals and machines. A human worker needs food as an energy source so he can perform the work of typing on computer keys. Similarly, in parts of the world where draft animals perform work, they need food as their energy sources. Machines operate with various kinds of energy inputs. If electricity is used, it can be generated in many different ways. Other forms of energy include fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil), wood burned as fuel, wind energy, solar energy, nuclear energy, water energy, ethanol and other biofuels, and geothermal energy.

4. A way to pay for goods and services. In the earliest days, people lived in small groups. If one person was able to catch a large animal for food, the animal was shared freely with the group. In this case, there was no need for a system to pay for goods and services.

Once we start moving to larger numbers of people, some type of financial system is needed. If investments in large factories are to be made, a financial system must be available to accumulate past savings, so that they can be used to pay for the factories. Alternatively (or in addition), debt financing must be available, to promise to use the profits to pay for the factory in the future. There must also be a way for individuals to purchase goods and services sold.  David Graeber in Debt: The First 5,000 Years talks about the relatively complex systems that were in place many years ago.

Has Economic Growth Always Been Possible?

If we look back through history and pre-history, what we see is a long struggle against limits of various kinds. Many societies collapsed, but the general world trend has been upward. Some examples of the kinds of struggles we see include the following:

A recent article in American Scientist talks about the fact that the Neanderthals and Modern Humans were both alive at the same time in Europe and the Middle East between 45,000 and 35,000 years ago, but the Neanderthals went extinct while Modern Humans survived. According to the author, anthropologist Pat Shipman, current analysis suggests that modern humans were able to domesticate dogs to help them in their hunting, and this greatly increased the amount of meat they were able to catch, while Neanderthals did not. So, even at this early date, humans were able to use their ingenuity to find their way around apparent limits, and were able to use the energy and skills of another species to supplement their own hunting skills.

In the Neolithic period, starting about 7,000 BC, early farmers were able to increase the amount of food available per acre by shifting from being hunter-gatherers, and thus support a larger world population. This was not entirely an advance, however. Hunters and gatherers were running into limits because they had killed off some of the game species. While agriculture allowed a larger population, the health of individual members was much worse. Average height of men dropped by 6.2 inches, and the median life span of men dropped from 35.4 years to 33.1 years, according to Spencer Wells in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization.

Many societies have collapsed, as documented by Jared Diamond and by Joseph Tainter. Sing Chew in The Recurring Dark Ages talks about the recurring setbacks that took place within individual societies because of ecological stress and climate change. According to Chew, deforestation was a problem from at least 3,000 BC onward. Farming practices damaged the soil. Periods of collapse allowed natural systems to regenerate after ecological damage and changes in climate took place. Since not all societies collapsed at once, the system as a whole was able to continue.

Wars are also tied to lack of resources, energy or otherwise. Plunder in itself was often a major objective for medieval wars. Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard in Energy and the Wealth of Nations talk about Japan’s need for resources, particularly oil, being a major reason for it role in World War II. According to Ugo Bardi, Italy’s lack of coal played a role in its involvement in the same war.  Many have suggested that oil resources played a role in the United States’ involvement in Iraq.

Forces that Have Enabled Economic Growth to Date

If we look back through history, it is possible to see several forces that enabled long-term economic growth.

1. Agriculture, starting about 7,000 BC, and later the Green Revolution. The invention of agriculture allowed world population to grow from something less than 100,000 hunter-gatherers world-wide, to about 225 million at the time of Christ. In a “settled” state, financial systems and trade developed.

The Green Revolution  took place between the 1940s and the late 1970s. It involved the development of high-yielding varieties of grains, expansion of the use of irrigation in farming, modernization of management techniques, and distribution of hybrid seeds, pesticides, and synthetic fertilizers to farmers. It is credited with saving over 1 billion people from starvation.

2. The development of an integrated world economy. The development of international trade started very early. Chew writes that by the late third millennium BC, sailors were able to sail from northwestern India to the eastern Mediterranean region. By the time Abraham left Ur of the Chaldeans around 2000 BC (mentioned in Genesis 11:31 of the Old Testament), Ur was a major city-state and center of long-distance trade.

Over time, trade expanded. During the 15th and 16th century, Spain and Portugal pioneered exploration of the globe, and built large overseas empires.  They were followed by England, France and the Netherlands. In part, these empires helped the more advanced economies to extract wealth from less advanced economies, but these empires also fostered the growth of new more advanced economies, such as the United States.

In recent years, international trade has played an even larger role, with many international businesses and the development of the World Trade Organization. The availability of materials and services from around the world has allowed a kind of synergy to take place. Technology developed in one part of the world can be used with technology developed in other parts of the world. Materials from diverse parts of the world can be combined to make high-tech goods such as computers and electric vehicles.

3. The Development of Fossil Fuels (Coal, Oil and Natural Gas). As mentioned previously, environmental degradation was a huge problem from at least 3,000 BC onward, because wood could not provide enough energy for growing populations. Figure 1, below, shows even at a much later date, water power and wind power did not provide much energy either. Because “renewables” did not provide enough energy for growing populations, other fuels were sought out.

Peat moss began to be used in the Netherlands for fuel in the 12th and 13th century. Peat moss is theoretically renewable, but its regeneration takes hundreds of years.

By the mid-16th century, coal was added to the fuel mix in Europe, and its use greatly expanded thereafter.

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Tony Wrigley from Opening Pandora's Box. Figure originally from Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, also by Tony Wrigley.

Coal was the power that was behind the English industrial revolution. The summary that accompanies Wrigley’s book from which Figure 1 is taken says,

The industrial revolution transformed the productive power of societies. It did so by vastly increasing the individual productivity, thus delivering whole populations from poverty. In this new account by one of the world’s acknowledged authorities the central issue is not simply how the revolution began but still more why it did not quickly end. The answer lay in the use of a new source of energy. Pre-industrial societies had access only to very limited energy supplies. As long as mechanical energy came principally from human or animal muscle and heat energy from wood, the maximum attainable level of productivity was bound to be low. Exploitation of a new source of energy in the form of coal provided an escape route from the constraints of an organic economy but also brought novel dangers. Since this happened first in England, its experience has a special fascination, though other countries rapidly followed suit.

After coal was discovered, the power of oil and natural gas were also discovered. Oil was in many ways superior to coal: it was a liquid, so it could be easily dispensed and easily transported in vehicles, it was more “energy-dense” than coal and natural gas, so the size of the tank could be smaller, and after oil was refined, it was cleaner burning than coal. It was more expensive than coal, but it quickly became the transportation fuel of choice. Use of coal, oil and natural gas led to huge economic and population growth (Figure 3).

Figure 2. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

A comparison of the timing of world population growth (Figure 3, below) with the transition to oil as a fuel (Figure 2, above) shows that the surge in population growth that stared about 1950 corresponded to the huge increase in per capita oil consumption, and also to the timing of the Green Revolution mentioned above.

Figure 3. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

4. More Education. Another force that helped enable long-term economic growth was a trend to greater education, since a better-educated population could better use new technology and would be able to handle more advanced jobs. As an example, during the first half of the 20th century, literacy rates in China were only 15% to 20%. Now, according to the CIA World Factbook, China’s literacy rate is 92%.

5. Aggressive Use of Debt Financing. This is different kind of issue that really has only come into play since World War II. It has to do with giving people and businesses credit to buy goods and services that they could otherwise not afford. It is really an accounting issue.

The way economic growth is calculated in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) calculations only considers whether new goods and services have been produced, not whether additional credit was extended to allow a factory to be built, or to allow a consumer to buy the new product. For example, if you are given the opportunity to buy a newly built house or new car on credit, the value of the new house or car that is built adds to reported GDP, but there is no adjustment to remove the new debt that allowed you to buy the new car or house.

Since World War II, economists have been aware of the connection between additional debt and reported economic growth, and have tried to encourage the use of more debt. If the economy is growing, this debt would likely be easy to repay, because of growing sales for a manufacturer, and better job opportunities for a worker. Figure 4 below shows the total amount of debt in the US economy, for governments, businesses and individuals combined in 2005$.

Figure 4. Total US debt in 2005 $, based on Federal Reserve z1 data. Includes all types of debt. Adjustment to 2005$ based on US Bureau of Economic Analysis data.

This debt grew rapidly (in constant 2005$) until 2008, but has since been declining.

Limits We Are Now Hitting

While the five areas listed above have helped enable long-term economic growth, we are now reaching limits in all of them. Thus, while these factors have tended to create growth in the past, the same factors cannot be relied on to produce growth in the future. In fact, they may lead to a turn around in the not-too-distant future. Let’s look at them individually:

1. Agriculture and Later the Green Revolution. While agriculture and the Green Revolution enabled much more production of food in the past, we have now pretty much exhausted how far these efforts can go. Increased irrigation has led to depleted aquifers and more land with high salinity. In addition, cropland is increasingly being used for biofuels, leaving less land to grow crops for people.

The issue would not be so serious, except that population continues to grow, as the result of better sanitation and better medical care. The United Nations projects that world population will reach 10 billion by 2100 (from 7 billion now), even if birth levels gradually decline.

Figure 5. United Nations' figure showing countries and areas classified by fertility level. Low level corresponds to each woman having less than 1 daughter who survives to the age of procreation; medium has 1.0 to 1.5 such daughter, and high as more than 1.5 daughters. From UN Press Release

A person might think that growing population would be good for world economic growth rates, because rising population implies more workers and more demand. The problem is that all of these additional people will need to eat, and we will need to find food for them. If oil supplies become more constrained (discussed in a later section) this will put further pressure on food production because the Green Revolution was a heavy user of fossil fuels, including oil, for food production and transport. Perhaps human ingenuity will solve this problem, but no immediate solution appears to be on the horizon.

2. The development of an integrated world economy. After thousands of years on working on getting to an integrated world economy, we have finally pretty much reached the limit. This presents a two-part problem for world growth:

  • The “Kick” to world economic growth that we had in the past will no longer be there, because the synergies of integration have now pretty much been reached.
  • We are starting to see the down-side of an integrated world economy, such as downward pressure on wages, leading to demands for more separation. In future years, we may even see some “unwind” of an integrated world economy, resulting in less synergy.

Another concern with an integrated world economy is that with a single world economy, it is harder to deal with degraded ecosystems. As mentioned previously, Sing Chew writes about some societies collapsing due to ecosystem distress in one part of the world, while other societies continue, allowing the ecological systems in that area to rest. If all of the world’s economies are now integrated, the collapse of one economy leads to a much greater chance of collapse of other economies, especially if financial systems are connected.

In an integrated world economy, there is also the chance that the countries without problems will bail out countries with problems. This approach will temporarily prevent local collapses, but may eventually lead to the collapse of the world ecosystem, since it will prevent local ecosystems from resting when they need to.

3. The Development of Fossil Fuels (Coal, Oil and Natural Gas). On the upside of the growth curve, the addition of fossil fuels helped create economic growth. Now we are starting to hit limits, particularly with respect to oil. The limits we are reaching are of two types:

  • We can’t get oil out fast enough; and
  • What we can get out is so high-priced that its high price tends to cause recession, especially in countries that import large amounts of oil.

Sometimes the oil limits are described as peak oil. One way of describing the situation is that we are experiencing declining quality of oil resources. To some extent we are experiencing this problem with all fossil fuels, and with many kinds of metals, but the problem is most severe with oil.

What happens is that when companies make a decision to extract oil or gas or any other kind of mineral, they choose the easiest to extract first. Such minerals tend to be inexpensive to extract.

After many years of extraction, what we have left is the lower quality, more expensive to extract resources.  They may be deep underwater, or in countries with unstable political situations, or have serious pollution issues. On Figure 6, it is as if we start at the top of the triangle with the best-quality resources, and work our way down. It always looks as though there are plenty of resources; they are simply of lower and lower quality, so no “alarm bells” go off.

Figure 6. Author's illustration of impacts of declining resource quality.

But things aren’t really all right, because we can’t get the oil out fast enough to meet rising world demand, and prices go up, leading to recession.

The reason high oil prices tend to cause recession (which is declining economic growth) is because fuel for driving to work and food are necessities for most people. Oil is used to make gasoline, and to grow and transport food, so the prices of gasoline and food tend to rise when oil prices rise. If oil prices rise, consumers cut back on things they don’t have to have, like vacations and restaurant spending.  This leads to layoffs affected industries, and possible recession.

Economist James Hamilton showed that 10 out of 11 recent recessions were associated with oil price spikes. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) evidently agrees that high oil prices are a threat to economic growth. A recent Wall Street Journal article talking about the IMF said,

High oil prices represent another major risk to the global economy. If tensions with oil-exporter Iran boil over and spur prolonged supply disruptions, it could force oil prices to surge above $165 a barrel, potentially causing another Great Depression, the fund said.

4. More Education. There is only a certain amount of education that makes sense for an economy, and the advanced economies are starting to reach these limits. A recent Wall Street Journal article called Education Slowdown Threatens US says throughout American history, almost every generation has had substantially more education than its parents, but this is no longer true. Individuals who turned 30 in 2010 had only 8 months more education on average than their parents according to a study by Harvard University economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz. If additional education was helping boost GDP growth in the past, it cannot be counted on for as much help in the future.

It might be noted that additional education is not necessarily helpful on very broad issues, such as “Should we expect the economy to grow forever?” One reason is that research tends to get very compartmentalized. Scholarly papers tend to be narrow in scope and very deep. Researchers are rarely good in economics and anthropology and geology and ecology at the same time. Therefore, their analyses tend to tackle only small pieces of the problem and miss the big picture.

5. Aggressive Use of Debt Financing. Aggressive use of debt financing has limits, too, because after some point, people and businesses and governments can’t afford to pay back the debt, especially if interest needs to be paid as well. Figure 4, above, gave a hint that we are reaching limits, since amounts were no longer rising after 2008. If we look at the split between debt by the US Federal Government and other debt (Figure 7), we see that since 2008, government debt has rapidly escalated, while other debt has been dropping as a percentage of GDP.

Figure 7. Ratio of US debt to GDP, divided into the portion attributable to the US Federal Government, and the portion attributable to others (individuals, business, and local governments). Debt from Federal Reserve z1 report; GDP from US Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Some of the decline in non-government debt is related to debt defaults on homes with declining value; some of it is related to individuals defaulting  on credit cards, and not being able to get new ones. Financial sector debt is also lower now. The Federal Government has ramped up its deficit spending since 2008, putting itself at risk of downgrade by rating agencies.

The absolute level of debt is very high now, raising questions as to whether this approach to ramping up demand is sustainable. Real people can’t pay back debt if their salaries are not high enough, or if the value of their homes is declining.

Other Stresses on the System

Besides the five items that helped on the way up that are a less helpful now, that we discussed in the last sections, there are some long-term problems that we always have to deal with. These include

1. Pollution. With more people and more industrial production in a fixed sized world, it is inevitable that there will be more pollution. This problem also arises because we are dealing with lower quality ores, and thus have more waste products to dispose of.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics says that the natural tendency is to move from an ordered state to a state disordered state. This means that all of the roads, buildings, and other things we build will tend to degrade over time, and we will have a constant battle with repairing whatever we build. If what we build is not repaired, it in time turns to pollution. The Second Law also implies that whenever we try to produce useful work (such as make electricity, or power a car, or pump water), there will always be waste heat produced.

One particular type of pollution of concern is carbon dioxide. Rising carbon dioxide levels can affect climate. They also cause ocean acidification. Rising carbon dioxide levels are of sufficient concern that work is being done to try to reduce consumption of fossil fuels. If fossil fuel use is reduced, it will be increasingly difficult to support rising world population with basic services (food, clean water, clothing, housing, and medicine).

2, Weather/Climate. Changing weather and climate conditions have always been a problem for human populations. In pre-historic times, this problem was solved by migration; hunter-gatherers simply moved to a different location, if weather was too severe. Now, the world is so full of people and so much infrastructure has been created for particular types of crops in particular locations that it is hard to make quick changes to match changes in weather conditions. High carbon dioxide levels raise concerns that weather changes may get worse.

3, Lack of fresh water. Fresh water is used in many ways, from cooling towers associated with electricity production, to irrigation, to industrial processes, to drinking and bathing. As world population grows and as economic activity increases, this puts more pressure on fresh water supplies. Changes in climate can also have an effect.

There are many potential “fixes” to shortages of fresh water, such as piping water from a distance (sometimes uphill), desalination, and treating wastewater so it can be used for drinking. All of these fixes require the use of energy in one form or another, and, as we have already seen, energy supplies are increasingly difficult to extract and often tied to carbon dioxide pollution. Also, if any of these fixes are tried, the price of water is raised. Since water is a necessity, this can lead to cutbacks in other expenditures, and thus recessionary influences.

Where do these observations put us now?

At the beginning of this post, we suggested that in order to provide goods and services, we needed four things:

  1. Human Ingenuity
  2. Materials
  3. Energy Resources
  4. A way to pay for the goods and services

The issues we have described show that 3. Energy Resources, particularly oil, is at risk. We have a large number of vehicles currently in operation that use gasoline or diesel for fuel, so this is a difficult issue to fix quickly.  Inability to produce as much oil as we would like also puts us at risk for 2. Materials, because many materials depend on oil for their extraction and transportation.

The issues with too high debt level suggest that 4. A way to pay for goods and services may also be at risk. This leaves only 1. Human Ingenuity to solve our problems. While humans are very ingenious, we can’t expect their ingenuity to keep an economy growing indefinitely, with the other three all under stress.

Looking back at past history does not suggest simple fixes. Humans have had difficulty with sustainability since they were hunter-gatherers. “Renewables” have not proved to be very “scalable” in the past, suggesting that we may be expecting more than is reasonable of them now as well. Increased use of fossil fuels doesn’t appear to be a very good solution either, because of pollution issues.  Scaling back the size of the economy is not easy either, because of the large number of additional people we expect to need to feed, and the fact that all of the infrastructure that is currently in place will tend to degrade, and therefore need repairs if it is to remain useful.

These issues will be discussed further in future posts.

About Gail Tverberg

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

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  7. Daniel E Vasey says:

    Regarding any post on nuclear power, I’d suggest distinguishing types of reactors: (1) once-through designs that make up nearly all present-day reactors (all of those producing practical power); (2) breeders that utilize uranium 238/plutonium cycles; and (3) breeders that utilize thorium/uranium 233 cycles. Ikonoklast (above post) is presumably referring to the first category when he points out limitations on uranium resources. I concur; whether a peak in mining is imminent, gearing up to a nuclear-powered world economy would exhaust even speculated resources in a very short time.

    Breeders could expand resources by usefully “burning” at least thirty times as much of the natural uranium mined and by tapping into the more abundant thorium. Because a high proportion of the uranium and thorium would be converted to energy, the energetics and economics of exploiting low-grade deposits would improve as well.

    But the record of breeders thus far is dismal; they remain an unproven and possibly prohibitively expensive technology, and the prospect of having thousands of them operating in a hundred or so countries scares me and quite a few other people.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Source of information about biochar.

    A few notes from me:
    1. The site promotes all kinds of biochar: from Small is Beautiful to the use of trainloads of wood chips.
    2. The site is quite international in outlook.
    3. The site reports potentially troublesome things as well as the positive

    As I said earlier, I am dubious about the ‘trainloads of woodchips’ approaches because I see them as a part of an industrial system which is likely to come under severe stress in the not too distant future. But if you think that the industrial system is likely to keep right on rolling along and produce ever more severe climate challenges, then biochar from industrial waste products may be quite interesting to you.

    Probably because of my nature, I am a lot more interested in the Small is Beautiful approaches. The homemade stoves and those with a little more design which combine cooking, biochar, and even modest electricity generation.

    You will find a wide variety of For Profits and Not For Profits as well as research institutions such as Cornell are involved. (Both agricultural colleges in North Carolina are involved.)

    Finally, nobody that I know of is contemplating cutting down virgin forests in order to produce biochar. The industrial people are looking to use parts of the waste stream. The subsistence farmers are looking to either gather dead sticks for cooking plus biochar or else to grow crops like bamboo (which is a weedy plant) for cooking plus biochar and maybe a little electricity. And nobody that I know of is projecting that biochar can singlehandedly turn the tables on climate change–because it takes energy to make and distribute biochar in the industrial processes. The Small is Beautiful biochar will require much less industrially provided industry. The stoves CAN be made from salvaged tin cans.

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      sorry…last sentence should read ‘energy’, not ‘industry’

  9. Epic article Gail, thanks for new references,

    The idea of growth is something that bears more examination. It’s a unique social invention along with the parallel idea of ‘the future’ and progress.

    “Unlike previous cultures which ‘sold’ permanence and stability, the culture of modernity markets a narrative of perpetual progress and material development. Implicit in the narrative is that what has preceded the present has no value and is being superseded. Modernity is destabilizing along with its institutions. What is useful and worthwhile on day one is useless on day two. The goods produced by modernity reflect the marketing requirements the culture makes on itself. Since fashion is false what modernity markets is its own false- ness. As such the primary narrative is another self- referential scam.”

    “For it to be otherwise would be undermining: it would imply something outside of fashion has value and put an end to the narrative. The scam consequently markets itself as ‘Ironic’, with irony set forth as a central virtue of modernity. The ‘modernity narrative’ paints itself as an imperfect work ‘in- progress’ whose defects will be cured when one more ‘advancement’ gives rise to another -then another, and another. This concept gives ‘growth’ moral supremacy.”

    “Because growth is a moral imperative it is difficult to address by way of economics or politics which are both marketing tools of culture. It is fashion, not economics. that demands growth.”

    Growth insists that for tomorrow to arrive, today (and everything today contains) must be destroyed in order to clear the ground for it. There is something powerfully old-fashioned about this self-devouring aspect of growth which makes it particularly durable. It’s ‘heads I win, tails you lose’ with a systemic concept that accepts destruction as a central organizing concept..

    More on this later, thanks for the thought provoking article.

    • Glad to hear from you Steve! Yes, this whole thing of modernity and growth is hard to deal with.

      I find myself going into clothing stores and looking for clothes that are not very “fashionable,” since next year they will look dated. Of course, my clothes probably will always look unfashionable.

      I understand the USSR worked on making durable, plain things for everyone–for example refrigerators with parts that could be replaced, and plainly styled costs in a couple of basic colors. The trend we have gone in is very much the other direction, for quite a few things. A few years ago, “everybody” wanted to replace their countertops with granite ones. I doubt this was for durability reasons. People need to have every latest computer-operated gizmo that is out. It seems like at some point we will have maxed out on computer gizmos to carry around.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Steve, you are slanting towards a view I have long held, but have largely held back from expressing because I couldn’t find the right concepts with which to paint the pictures.

      It has to do with the inherently reflexive and self referential nature of knowledge itself – a fundamental problem that Hofstadter has examined most deeply, but which I believe pops up in Godel’s incompleteness theorem, Turings incomputability problems, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and in the ‘consciousness problem’ of quantum physics: namely that things become what they appear to be as much as a result of looking at them in a certain way as in being what they are anyway. Viz Kant, Schopenhauer and the distinction between the phenomenal world and the ‘thing in itself’.

      Now apologies from appearing to stray off topic: bear with me, because it has direct relevance.

      I would direct attention to a book of popular philosophy called ‘why truth matters’ by Jeremy Stangroom to see what has happened and where it has lead us in human social and political terms.

      A brief resume goes this away.
      Philosophers have noted that the truth content of any theory is ultimately indeterminate: that is – for a popular example – we cannot distinguish whether we are in a Matrix, or not, unless there is a red pill to take. Lacking the red pill there are an infinite number of explanations for life the universe and everything all of which fit established data. God theories are the most typical: you cannot disprove the existence of a supernatural being that exists outside of the phenomenal universe, from evidence within it. Neither of course, can it be proved.

      What Stangroom argues is that this has lead to an unfortunate and stupid conclusion that there is no Truth at all. Or rather there are infinitely many truths any one of which can be selected if it fits your political narrative, and putting on e.g. the rose tinted spectacles of Cornucopianism will in some way create a universe that conforms to its precepts.

      But what is also a small truth is that while there are an infinite number of theories which ultimately fit the facts, there are infinitely more that don’t. That is while we can’t say ‘this is the One Truth’ we can say ‘but that is most certainly false, in the context of its own metaphysical ontology*’

      And we can at least examine competing ontologies for their utility in solving our particular problems.

      Now it has occurred to me – and its seems to you, also – that the mind works in mysterious ways, and has a fondmness for a given ontology at a given point in time, to the point where it tends to mash all experience into whatever the current metaphysical mould of the day is. When all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

      And the great success, or the worst disaster, that has befallen modern civilisation is that the ontology that worked in times of ‘more resources than we have the ability to exploit, technologically’ , and pervades every single aspect of political thought, espcially on the Left, where the doctrine of expansion, development and emanicpation are inextricably linked, that same doctrine which is implicit in just about every institution we have, is our worst enemy if – for whatevever reason – we find expansion is no longer possible.

      Sometimes I imagine civilisation as a vast mining company with hordes of back office workers each doing their bit to keep the operation going, from exploration for new seams right the way to making sure the company toilets flush, and no one in it can conceive the possibility that in fact the seams have run out…and the WHOLE RAISON D’ETRE of the WHOLE OF CURRENT CIVILISATION has – gone!

      Years ago I spoke to a graduate in Moral Sciences and the topic turned to my pet subject and he remarked ‘That is what real intelligence is: when the systems you have been taught no longer work, you must go back to first principles and indeed to metaphysics itself, to see what is wrong and solve the problem at another level’

      I suppose thats why I am here, cheering from my armchair the incerdible effort of Gail and others, and trying to give their work a context at a metaphysical level: I believe – believe is wrong – I observe from the perspective I have arrived at, that civilisation itself has to understand its own purpose, and question its own purpose before it can develop in what will I am convinced be a new paradigm. The dim witted Gaians dimly understand this, but they dont even understand the world we live in and are worse than useless at conceptualising what it might become. The direction has to come from people who ‘know whereof they speak’ ..and sadly that is NOT those who are embedded deeply in the current system either. Turkeys/vote/Christmas etc.

      Energywise the problem is in principle soluble: Not by renewable energy so called – that truly is a Gaian fairy tale for most parts of the world – but nuclear energy has the potential to provide many centuries of – if not growth, at least a halt in the decline. And that buys time, and time is precious. Neither is fossil fuel dead yet, though as I sit here in a dismally chilly May day, it is looking incerasingly as though AGW may be.

      Raw materials are a prioblem but again, recycling – as long as you have the energy – meabs tht you shouldnt LOSE any copper iron gold silver neodymium or whatever from the world technology sytsems.

      But food water and living space are very urgent problems: birth rates may fall in sophisticated western cultures, but elsewhere they are as they always were, and death rates, due to adoption of systems of hygiene and medicine, are falling: the result is huge stresses on natural resources. Worse, the ‘politics of expansion;’ and the Ponzi schemes of debt financing insist that populations must increase exponentially to dilute the debt incurred by their forebears.

      This may be where the cracks will appear first. I personally see that is exactly where they ARE appearing: The financial crisis is entirely about the cessation of growth – not the other way about. With growth all those sub prime morages would have been paid off and all the housing would be worth a mint. And capital ratios as high as they have been in banks would have been fully justified as good and necessary things to help finance the exponential growth that everyone thought would last forever. Simply by dint of believing that it would.

      Back to the emotionally satsifying narrative of growth.

      My perspective says that what happened was a faltering in commodities and oil, and the hint of lower growth, and that essentuially crashed a system that depended on groeth to achieve a balanced set of books. And, with the self fulfilling prophecy that is associated with all reflexive systems, that in turn led to less growth, bigger problems, and here we all are..trying to restart the growth engine. Which has simply run out of gas. And since that is a problem that has never happened before, no one has a clue what to do. Hence back to first principles and scrap the ontology of growth and most importantly start to build a new ontology that has more utility in the current context.

      I apologise for the rushed and somewhat incoherent conent of this, but I hope people will see past that to what I am driving at.

      Years ago I realised that there is an intrinsic problem in usimg existing conscepts to try and formualte pictures of concepts that have yet to be developed..its a chancy buisiness, but one tries one’s best.

      * that being broadly the concept set we use to describe the world, so that – for example – today a flock of crows is a collection of quasi automous organic beings, rather than a sending direct from the Norns of impending doom and disaster, as it were. 🙂

      • The one thing I would slightly argue with is your point about recycling metals. Whenever metals are recycled, you lose some. You also have to have a way of heating metals to high temperatures if you are going to somewhat separate out alloys–I am not really sure how this is done, or if it really can be done. The net is that even with recycling, the amount available for use goes down quickly. In many cases, the metal is likely to be not very pure, also.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Oh, for sure Gail, there is SOME loss, but metals don’t come out of the ground pure either!
          What I meant to say is that its not a use it and lose it scenario, you maybe get back 80-95% of the metal one way or another.

          Again its all about energy,: In the limit you can CREATE elements in atomic level reactions, in theory anyway!

          But that is some hundreds of years away.. for most of them!

          Energy and advanced nuclear technology ought to be able to create just about anything. Fusion energy has potentially huge resources in terms of fuel and we ought in time to be able to create any element we want. At that point cornucopianism might once again rear its head.

          But thats so near science fiction as to be impracticable to consider now, stuck as we are with uranium or plutonium fission or thorium fission to cary us through the next couple of hundred years.

          But with a huge excess of energy you can grow food under artificial light in huge areas….energy is the key and finally, getting rid of the waste heat as well. But that you can pump into the core or radiate to space if you want – again huge projects, but within theory.

          In short IF we had access to massive energy we could just about finance expansion. Sadly we only have one technology and its been made deeply unpopular. I don’t see many people facing up to that issue for a decade or two yet tho.

          What worries me is the ‘sustainable reneable’ vision which is deeply flawed and will cripple us to the point at which there will be no way back.

          • Ikonoclast says:

            The idea that nuclear energy can “save us” is a myth which does not stand up to quantitative scrutiny. First, let us talk about fission.

            Nuclear energy currently supplies about 6% of the world’s total energy consumption. This is about equal to hydro and all other renewables combined. So if renewable supply is currently a minnow then so also is nuclear. Uranium supplies are finite and the evidence is that “peak uranium”, as in peak uranium from mining production, has occurred already or will occur within the next ten years. This peak can be obscured for a while (maybe ten years) by using (recycling) weapons-grade uranium stockpiles.

            The failure of Japanese nuclear generation following the tsunami and the other nuclear disasters including Chernobyl indicate that nuclear fission power is not safe and not viable on a financial or net energy basis now or in the future. If nuclear fission power paid the full financial and energy costs (insurance, commissioning, mining, decomissioning, decontamination etc etc) for itself over its whole lifecycle (without finacial and fossil fuel energy subsidies) it would be proven non-viable on both financial and EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) grounds.

            Now most of the above comments are made as assertions and I haven’t provided the proof here in terms of data and links to impeccable scientific sources (which I have posted in other blogs on this topic). However, I can dig up the data and links again with a little time.

            Gail, I think you need to do a post (after fully researching it of course) on the myth (or otherwise If you find so) of the idea that nuclear power will “save” us or even provide a significant stop-gap.

            Fusion energy production technology is always thirty years in the future as one wag put it. It appears that the harnessing of fusion power will prove so difficult in technical and engineering terms it will probably never be solved.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I dont think its down to you or I to tell Gail what to do.
              I weas going top refute your post as well, but I dint want to be rude: suffice to say it simply is not based on fact.

            • Thanks for the suggestion regarding a Nuclear Energy post.

          • One of the issues is our limits on oil. I believe these will also limits coal mining and natural gas production, because of systemic effects.

            If energy is the problem, then processing reprocessing metals which have already been refined as well as refining ore may well be limited. It is my understanding that reprocessing uses a lot less energy than initial refining. This is a link to a PDF called Metals Recycling Rates, put out by United Nations Environment Program. I haven’t had time to figure out exactly what it says, but the booklet on its page 15 defines three different metrics, which it calculates. I think what we were talking about is what they call the “recycling process efficiency”, which is g/i in their terms. You might look over the booklet.

  10. La Curée says:

    Sorry if I have over egged the comments on this post, a bit full of myself ATM.
    More energy into my own blog I think, like you much of my traffic is image related directed at pictures of my bike and feet – sobering :¬)

    • I think both of you have things to offer, so I don’t like this kind of response. How about just not arguing with each other? And of toning down your comments, so you do not offend others?

      The geologist in Don’s video had very worthwhile things to say, in my view. There is a tiny bit at the end about biochar, but as you point out, what the energy balance and balance of other nutrients in this has not been analyzed very well. It may simply be an exercise in robbing Peter to temporarily improve the soil condition of Paul. It may also have offsetting losses in terms of, say, more soil erosion, that offset any benefit that is gained, if trees are cut down to do this. There is plenty of worthwhile stuff in the video, apart from biochar. I would like to hear all sides of the story, based on as credible sources as I can find. The geologist comes off as quite credible.

  11. Ikonoclast says:

    The category of “human ingenuity” needs some discussion and perhaps at a somewhat philosophical level. It is common for the Cornucopians (like Julian Simon, deceased) to invoke human ingenuity as an almost super-normal or supra-natural force as if humans and human intelligence were somehow outside of and above nature. However, humans and human intelligence are clearly inside of and fully part of nature. Everything in nature is governed by regular, dependable natural forces at the macro, “classical level” of physics and by probability distributions at the quantum levels and at the higher emergent behaviours levels. This is true be they the natural forces studied by the discipline of physics (especially the laws of thermodynamics) or the emergent natural forces studied by the disciplines of chemistry, biology, ecology and even neurology, psychology and sociology. Mankind is not over and above this “nature”. Mankind is embedded in and part of nature.

    The role of “intelligence” in engineering, fabricating and artificing, though important can be over-emphasised. It is clear for example that other species achieve engineeering and design feats and exhibit apparent intelligence without possessing, so far as we can tell, the overt, self-conscious and languange/symbols facilitated intelligence of humans. The climate-controlled “magnetic” termite mounds of northern Australia are one example. “Magnetic Termite Mounds – Built by termites, are amazing architectural feats complete with arches, tunnels, chimneys, insulation and nursery chambers. The mounds are aligned north to south to minimise the exposure to the sun.” – http://www.litchfieldnational
    The natural processes of evolution themselves have “designed” all forms of life; a design feat still far ahead of anything concerted, coordinated human intelligence can yet achieve.

    Whilst the above is true, we ought not wholly deride or hold cheap human ingenuity and design ability. They are real emegenet qualities of nature too, However, we ought to remember the nutural limits within which they operate. The philosopher Francis Bacon has penned some very apt and succinct aphorisms which sum up the position of man in nature. The first I want to talk about is;

    “To command nature we must obey nature.” Whenever we design something that looks clever (and perhaps is clever) and which appears to “command” nature and bend nature to our uses, we will actually find that we had to obey and utilise the natural laws, the natural behaviour of force and matter to achieve our ends.

    The second aphorism is;

    “Everything that is achieved by man is done by the putting together or putting apart of natural objects. The rest is achieved by nature working within.” This is profoundly true if you think about it. All of our fabricating, engineering, chemical, electrical and electronic feats are at base done by the the putting together or putting apart of natural objects. The actual working of nature (atomic forces, chemical bonds etc) happens within and are phenomena forever extrinsic to human actuation, will or wish.

    Man is within and subject to nature. Man is not a special case, nor is his intelligence/ingenuity in any way a special case phenomenon which places him outside or above nature. That is categorically impossible. Thus our correct stance with regard to nature is one of humility and respect whether or not one actually regards said nature to be dependent ultimately on a supernatural agency.

    • Good observations! I don’t remember hearing, “To command nature we must obey nature,” but it is very true.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        The correct quote (which I paraphrased inaccurately from memory) is;

        “Aphorism 1 –
        Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.” – Bacon.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “However, humans and human intelligence are clearly inside of and fully part of nature.”

      Well only if you are a rotten to the core rational materialist and take a particularly view of existence. 🙂

      You might find Schopenhauer and Kant have something to say on this matter.

      Which is not to contest your conclusions, but the pedant in me insists in saying ‘well its a bit more complicated than that’

      However, within the metaphysical ontology broadly defined as ‘science’. your supposition is sound enough.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I would express is as a “consistent to the core materialist”. However, properly speaking I am probably a dualist rather than a materialist. My brand of dualism recognises “consciousness” as a real phenomenon but does not make the essentialist assumption of calling it “spirit” nor of arguing that “consciousness” can exist without a material base of matter and energy.

        I am quite aware that it is “a bit more complicated that that” having studied the philosophy of Idealist George Berkeley as well the works of Bacon and Hume.

        Bacon’s Aphorism 9 is apposite here;

        “There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth. The one flies from the senses and particulars to the most general axioms, and from these principles, the truth of which it takes for settled and immovable, proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of middle axioms. And this way is now in fashion. The other derives axioms from the senses and particulars, rising by a gradual and unbroken ascent, so that it arrives at the most general axioms last of all. This is the true way, but as yet untried.”

        The first method which flies from the senses and particulars (i.e. flies away from empirical evidence) and moves immediately to making the most general axioms (i.e. great metaphysical assertions without evidence which are then upheld dogmatically) is the method Bacon correctly identifies as the old method. The new method, as yet untried in Bacon’s time is empiricism.

        A true philosopher recognises the modest limits of empiricism. A true philosopher also recognises that the modest limits of empiricism are preferrable to wild and endless metaphysical speculations raised up as various dogmas. The second method has no way of approaching truth or of even recognising truth.

        • Leo Smith says:

          I have email detailing your response but it doesn’t show here? Never mind. This is not the correct place to talk metaphysics: Suffice to say that my thesis is that we make an equal mistake if we make consciousness a derivative of the material world, as if we make the material world a derivative of consciousness alone.

          We have free choice what metaphysics we choose, but I have found greater insight to be obtained if one considers them (consciousness and phenomenal reality) to be orthogonal and mutual derivatives of something else altogether. I.e. broadly in line with Schopenhauer. That is that the material world is not an invention of consciousness per se, but is in fact a transform of something else *performed* by consciousness – and both consciousness and the phenomenal world it contemplates are two halves of something altogether completely different. Consciousness cannot contemplate itself and therefore its view must always be of less than the whole.

          Allowing consciousness to modulate – if not reality itself, but at least our view of it – I find really helpful, in terms of understanding how people THINK, and why they act in the ways that they do. We talk of people ‘living on a different planet’ – and this is in fact almost literally the case: their ontologies not only dictate the way they must behave towards what we might call their mappings of reality,. but deeper than that, they condition what is drawn upon those maps in the first place.

          This is terribly relevant to discussions of limits in the natural world: many people are ‘in love’ with the idea of infinities, from Eternal Life. to infinite sustainable growth or the infinite ingenuity of Man..these people scare me. If there is anything I have found out in Life it is that there is a limit to everything, except perhaps the human capacity to believe in things that are simply not to be found in the phenomenal world.

          My excursion into philosophy is really to establish how they can do this, and why they want to do this.

          • Ikonoclast says:

            I agree, philosophy and metaphysics is off the topic. Simplistically, I would simply say that the problem with all speculative metaphysics (like Schopenhauer’s) is exactly that, the speculation. Basically you can make up anything you want. (Witness Berkeley’s Idealism which is internally consistent and not refutable from inside or outside of its assumptions. However not refutable is not equal to provable or true.) Empiricism at least puts a check on speculative metaphysics and founds things in observable, dependable, repeatable phenomena. Empiricism also says yes I know there’s a lot of things I still can’t talk about and even I can never talk about so I have the sense to remain silent while metaphysics goes on to make stuff up.

            We certainly agree about the issue of limits. The denial that real limits exist is about to land us in a heap of trouble.

            As a footnote, Berkeley’s idealism fails the Occam’s razor test (for what it’s worth). The simpler explanation for the apparent reality of materials is that they are real. One English contemporary, on having Berkeley’s idealism explained to him, kicked a rock and said, “I refute it thus.”

            Also, whilst insisting on objective material reality and its dependable observable laws as real I do concede that what material actually IS, is ultimately unknowable. The fundamental nature of what matter is always recedes from empirical observation. It is a position of “I know it IS but I know not what it is.”

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail

    Here is a suggestion for your book. Please note in the following that I am not an expert in these areas, so treat what follows as an idea which may be worth pursuing–as opposed to sound facts on which suggestions for behavior can be based. I will refer to Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis and also Too Smart For Our Own Good by Craig Dilworth.

    I hope I have demonstrated in other posts in this discussion that the notion of using cows (or other large prey animals) along with Mob Grazing is a reasonable way to greatly leverage human effort toward the restoration of soil quality in certain circumstances.

    To understand some of the things which are going on, I suggest looking at Teaming With Microbes, pages 37 to 39. I will give you my summary of those pages:
    -Bacteria and fungi secrete slimes which hold soil particles together
    -Which creates pores for the circulation of soil critters and air and water
    -Which lets the soil hold capillary water
    -‘If there is adequate soil structure, there is ample drainage between aggregates, but also plenty of plant-available capillary water. The air circulation necessary for biological activity is sufficient. And, perhaps, most important, if there is adequate soil structure, there is space for soil biology to live. Good soil structure withstands torrential rains, the drying of desert-like droughts, herds of animal traffic, and deep freezes. Water and nutrient retention is high. Life on and in it thrives.’

    And from page 40:
    -Clay and humus carry a minus charge. Therefore, they attract plant nutrients which are cations (positive charge): calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, iron, ammonium, and hydrogen.
    -Anions (negative charge) also exist: chloride, nitrate, sulfate, and phosphate–all plant nutrients
    -Unfortunately, the clay and humus particles in the soil repel the anions, and they stay in solution. Thus, they tend to leach out of the soil with irrigation or rain.

    So…how do you retain as much nutrients as possible? You build good soil structure and you add a lot of organic matter. That way, you retain a lot of capillary water in the tiny spaces opened up by the bacterial and fungal slimes. The capillary water holds the anions in solution for the plants. The cows and the soil critters are building good soil structure with a lot of organic matter. There are other solutions to the problem, of course.

    When we farm with heavy machinery, use industrial fertilizers, deplete the soil with excessive cropping, lose topsoil (with good structure) to wind or water erosion, then we must fight Nature with ever more fertilizers and fossil fuel powered pulverization of the soil (e.g., rototillers and plows). If we are smart enough to leverage Nature, then we get the sustainable yield that the land is capable of providing.

    Now from Dilworth, page 406, discussing whether growth is possible by switching to a Services economy:

    ‘Nearly all services represent the result of human labor expended through the agency of some form of capital goods. Any increase of services designed to achieve economic growth would have to be accomplished without increasing the amount of these service-oriented goods, if the ecological requirements (no energy or capital growth) are to be met.’

    And just above on page 406, he talks about how a capitalist economy will serve, first and foremost, the non-vital needs of the Capitalist as opposed to the vital needs of the poor.

    So what can we make of the possibilities if we put these two thought streams together:
    1. Humanity CAN soften the blow from depleting energy and financial and other resources by increasing the leverage of Natural Services provided by plants and animals and the sun and water and air.
    2. Which implies that we, first, stop degrading those resources, and second, rebuild them where depleted
    3. Which implies that we need to get smarter and relearn some old techniques and splice in some new techniques.
    4. Take the capital required for the human role in leveraging the Natural Services from the non-vital capital now held by the rich–as opposed to starving the poor.

    So far as I know, no one has put this together in a reasonable scenario. Perhaps people with more knowledge than I have done so.

    If you are uncomfortable with writing about something like this which is outside your field of expertise, perhaps a ‘guest chapter’ would be appropriate.

    Good luck with the book…Don Stewart

    • Thanks!


    • La Curée says:

      At Don:
      ‘a MacArthur genius award winner, and the recipient of a full professorship at an early age.’
      First that is an oxymoron from my perspective, second often people with success early in life have a tenuous grasp on the bigger themes in human society.
      Biochar and other tech. salvation is like building sand castles on the beach I’m not enough of a child to be interested.
      I’m certainly not going to spend an hour of my time on your recommendation to watch some tired obese fart who hasn’t got respect for his own body tell me what to think.

      • Don Stewart says:

        As I hope I made clear, I don’t wish to argue with you and I find discussions impossible. Get out of my life…Don Stewart

        • Bicycle Dave says:

          Hi Don,
          I always read your comments when I visit this blog and always find them interesting. I visit less often now in part because of Mr. La C.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Bicycle Dave
            Thanks…I guess…IF someone is actually reading something I write, then it puts some pressure on me to say something that is actually interesting or useful…so I will have to become thoughtful and accurate and express myself well…none of which qualities my wife would accuse me of having…

            Don Stewart

  13. reader from India says:

    Superb write-up. I like to think of the current situation as a planetary bottleneck, I think technological innovation will continue as it has for the past 5000 years but we will suffer a temporary setback to our efforts.
    Humanity after all needs to come to it’s senses and understand that it’s fate is tied to the fate of the planet. It’s like watching a coming of age movie.

  14. Bill Simpson says:

    I like to think of the critical economic inputs necessary for growth.
    Obviously, we need electric power. Now we use coal and gas to generate most of it. They run out, and the grid goes down, taking industrial civilization with it, within a couple of weeks. Shut down the grid, and 80% of us will be dead within 3 months. A massive solar storm might do it. You won’t have to worry about economic growth because you will starve. You will be stuck where you are with nothing to eat and no one to help. Refineries don’t work without electricity. Remember Katrina?
    Yet many other inputs are required to maintain growth. Transportation is nearly totally dependent on oil products. Not enough oil, and some things don’t move. That must contract the economy.
    But other things are nearly as important. Try to make most electronic items without copper. Try to build without steel made from iron. There are many other examples. Jet engines need several rare metals for the turbine blades, most of which are produced as byproducts of copper production. Notice that they all need huge quantities of energy to process the ore at the scale we do today. I suspect that the cheap energy to process ore will run out long before the low grade ore does. It is a big planet. Even recycling needs energy.
    We would need to perfect nuclear fusion for economic growth to continue for hundreds of more years. If we had cheap, virtually limitless energy, we could make what we need from seawater and rocks. A substitute for helium might still need to be found. If we had limitless energy, we could grow food in giant, multi-story greenhouses. Instant farmland to feed billions and billions of more people! People could move to Mars. We could mine the Moon and asteroids. Affordable fusion could do it.
    If I had to guess, I would say that an oil shortage crippling the transportation system will be the first major problem we will face. If it doesn’t start to happen before 2025, I will be very surprised.

    • I agree with much of what you say. I expect that lack of water, if electrical systems go down, could be as much or more of a problem than lack of food.

      Electricity could go down for reasons other than running out of fuel. It’s a Liebig’s Law of the minimum issue. If a railroad can’t pay employees because there are no banks open, this could cut off coal deliveries, for example. We don’t know exactly how pieces will fail. But we do know that no electricity -> no oil, very quickly. The reverse also holds, but perhaps with a little lag.

  15. Leo Smith says:

    Liebig’s law was something I was going to mention: in the context of my field, which is engineering.
    The cornucopian myth goes along the lines of “well human smarts will always manage to create more wealth even if…” and so on.

    The reality is that industrial progress depends on a very very few things – smarts being just one of them, but ALL are necessary for affluence.
    – Food
    – Water
    – mineral resouces
    – energy
    – skill/education.

    Run out of any one of them, and it doesnt matter how smart a designer you are if you don’t have the computers or the drawing boards, the pencils and the paper, let alone the machine tools, the materials and the time in which to develop things with a reasonably full stomach and health.
    If you are starving you will trade a lathe for a hot meal. Especially if there is no electricity to run it.
    And that is how societies collapse- All that Arabic mathematics and atsronomy and culture vanished when all there was left to do was drive a camel train from one water hole to the next.
    Societies discard what isn’t relevant and forget all about it. How many people who are happy to fire a gun could actually make gunpowder? Let alone a lathe to make a rifle barrel!

    And that to me is the scariest thing there is. Not only do people not know how to replicate the technology on which their lives depend, they don’t even regard that technology as anything significant or important. Some techno-serf will fix the plumbing, repair the car, sort the computer out, keep the internet going so it all ‘just works’.

    Until it doesn’t, and no one is left who knows how it works.

    At that point you know society is walking a tightrope.

  16. Strav7 says:

    Gail, systems terms that are important to learn:

    Liebig’s law of the minimum
    The tragedy of the commons
    Jevon’s paradox
    The maximum power principle
    Resilience (efficiency vs. redundancy def.)

    These are all paradigmal thoughts that describe systems behavior in non-binary terms that allow predictions that are otherwise counter-intuitive.

    Oh, and a preface by JMG would guarantee epicness. 😉

    • Maybe several prefaces, and an afterward, by different people.

      I don’t quite understand the “resilience” item. Isn’t it sort of like “denial”? While there are all kinds of problems ahead, humans are resilient, so there is no reason to worry.

      • La Curée says:

        During a recent clear out this is one of the very few books or papers that I kept, they had to be worth rescuing from a fire to qualify.
        It is the seminal text for modern ecology all referenced to academic papers.
        Published in 1985 and still available at a price £160!

        • Also available used, including shipping and handling, for less than $5 from Amazon! You can see why I collect used books.

          • La Curée says:

            I had a quick look on Amazon UK but I could not find an entry.
            Just tried again after a PrivateLee search on ‘amazon used books uk’ and got £4.24 used.
            Learned myself something today, thanks.

      • La Curée says:

        On ‘biochar’:
        Take biochar, I had an acquaintance a few years ago who is a respected high flying academic in the hard science side of ecology.
        He was adamant that biochar was the magic bullet capable of putting everything straight and delivering increased fertility.
        I had already discounted biochar on the following basis but gave it another look over:
        The laws of thermodynamics come to mind you don’t get something for nothing;
        The area that this marvel was discovered had been abandoned to the jungle why exhaustion soil exhaustion perhaps?

        Looking at it again in light of its presentation and adoption by career scientists other more sanguine reasons to doubt appear:
        techno salvation a whole industry to make the process more ‘efficient’ has sprung up…;
        Looking at the wiki
        It becomes apparent that the shiny new conversion process is being touted as ‘efficient’ because ‘waste’ products can be turned into fuels…,
        lets look at where we are now 10 units of fossil fuel energy are used to produce 1 unit of food energy, what you need to avoid starvation is to improve on 1:1 with the help of photosynthesis post peak oil you will be expecting some people to starve so you can produce biochar,
        that brings up speculation on where the South Americans got the spare energy required produce their inefficient biochar – logically by burning vegetation on one plot and cross subsidising a form of slash and burn.
        As the wiki points out ‘Some plant residue, however, must remain on the soil to avoid increased costs and emissions from nitrogen fertilisers’, Mmm so basically its a crock :¬) a boon doggle for someone until the cross subsidisation of fossil fuels finally ends.

        As to our friends points on not tilling the soil, yes I agree with that if you plough you get a brief improvement in crops from the biota die off, then a long term reduction in fertility.
        However, the reason for this is the economy in energy transmission achieved by a high evolved community of organisms it does not increase the amount of energy and so fertility available.
        As the tiny one line quote in the wiki ref. above points out biochar with out energy & key growth limiters i.e. ‘plant residue’ is just a lump of charcoal(plant residue).

        Not convinced I can spend some more time on it and no doubt find more holes in biochar :¬)

        • Don Stewart says:

          I am really not interested in industrial biochar. One of the farms I visited makes biochar when they burn firewood to warm their house in the winter (in ammo cans). This past winter, they didn’t make very much, because they seldom burned any wood. Mostly they are passive solar plus a wide comfort zone. So don’t spend any time trying to convince me that commercial biochar won’t work.

          What Albert likes about biochar is the microbe enhanced environment and the consequent improvement in soil structure which permits humans to more effectively harvest the services of Mother Nature. As well as the sequestration of carbon.

          Don Stewart

          • La Curée says:

            Is that the time.
            Oh, I see clearly now Don, you have the last laugh, silly old me.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear La Curee

              I do have one suggestion for you. I think you should resign as my Fan Club President. I am, after all, quite an unworthy opponent. I don’t have a PhD and I am not a scientist. So I suggest that you redirect your fire at a more worthy target:

              Professor Dave Montgomery

              The first 40 minutes are a history of soil degredation and societal collapse. Then, at 41 minutes, he begins to tackle some subjects which arouse your hostility–rapid soil building with human management and biochar as a carbon sink.

              Dave is a bona fide scientist, a MacArthur genius award winner, and the recipient of a full professorship at an early age. I think your attacks should be redirected at him….

              Don Stewart

            • I thought the video was very interesting. Filled in some gaps between other things I had heard.

  17. Don Stewart says:

    Here is a little essay on what a handful of people have achieved in terms of grass farming with some reflections on how it is reflected in GDP. The grass farmers have definitely made ‘progress’, but I don’t know if it is ‘growth’.

    This is Farm Tour Weekend and yesterday we visited a grass farm with mostly beef. We last visited it 5 or 6 years ago and I thought it was beautiful. Hilly, gullied, old tobacco land converted into hillsides with grass and cows and a clean stream running through it. Yesterday, it was spectacular. What accounts for the improvement?

    Three years ago the owner was persuaded by Greg Judy from Missouri to adopt Mob Grazing. Mob Grazing grew out of observations on the plains of Africa. Large grazing animals are held in tight herd by their predators, where they intensively crop a patch of grass, and drop manure and grass stalks into the soil, and tread it into the soil with their hooves. The soil residents, including dung beetles and earthworms and a dizzying array of microbes promptly attack both the manure and the grass residue and turn it into new soil which is very rich and grows new grass. And so the wheel turns.

    Greg Judy has grown five inches of topsoil in 10 years. That is an astonishing statistic. The average corn field in Iowa loses topsoil every year.

    The climax prairies were a rich biodiversity of plants and animals. If rainfall is adequate, a prairie will turn into a forest. But the large grazing herbivores can arrest the Succession and keep the prairie in grass. No human maintenance is required if there are adequate numbers of grazing herbivores to control tree seedlings and if they are grazing in Mobs controlled by predators. Here, we had bison controlled by wolves and Native Americans. The grass farmers have achieved that result with cows controlled by humans with small, portable electric fences (which operate on solar panels with 12 volt batteries).

    The owner of this farm is a dentist who still practices. He has one farm hand plus three student interns. They manage 225 cows. The cows are one hundred percent grass fed in normal or wet years. Last year we had a severe drought and the owner bought one load of peanut hay. He remarks, ‘I bought the nutrition in the legumes and brought it to my farm…the seller sold the nutrients in his land to me’. In short, even a drought year has a bright side.

    The cows are never given antibiotics or growth hormones. They never eat grain. They never need deworming. The fields never need mowing. The only amendment is that after a number of years, the field may need liming (this is the Southeast, with a strong tendency to acidic soils). There is no manhandling of manure and manure spreaders or compost heaps. The cows do not live in barns. The cows are used to the once to three times daily movement of the electric fences, and eagerly anticipate getting into the fresh pasture–so no cowboy antics are ever used. There is very little fossil fuel input from the birth of a calf until the day the cow is killed. On that day, the cow is trucked a dozen miles to a small slaughter house, butchered, and the meat is flash frozen and shrink wrapped. The frozen meat comes back to the farm where it is stored in freezers. People drive their cars to the farm to pick up meat (preferably a quarter of a cow). They put their meat into their own freezer until they use it.

    In short, this is very economical in terms of fossil fuel use. Tractors are seldom involved. Most of the energy usage is for the freezers and the cars driving to pick up their orders. In terms of ecological impact, the farm is sequestering carbon as it creates topsoil. Biodiversity is astronically higher than in an Iowa corn field. The creek that runs through the property hasn’t looked this good in 300 years. The cows are healthy. The cows do emit methane. Historically, methane from large herbivores was the supply of the essential greenhouse gases that keep this planet from turning into an ice cube. Add industrial emissions to the historical methane level and you get something dangerous. So…who is to blame?

    Now think about GDP. The veterinary bills are just about zero. The feed bill is zero in most years. No water is trucked in. There are no vehicles or motorized belts delivering feed to the animals. There is no expensive infrastructure designed to force the animals to stand still and eat their fattening grains. Since this is a climax prairie, it is self-maintaining and no legions of human workers are fighting the natural Succession from weedy disturbed ground to oak/hickory/beech forest. No pesticides or herbicides are used to decimate the soil dwellers.

    In fact, I would think that the major cost in this farm is the land. Land is expensive because Wall Street people have scads of money (and the Fed keeps handing them more) and think they want a country place.

    So…is the development in the last dozen years of a mature philosophy and practice of grazing animals ‘growth’? It most certainly has a lot of good things associated with it. We might call it spiritual growth, in a sense. But in terms of GDP, it is a step backwards. An inefficient farm with diseased cows constantly purchasing inputs from the industrial sector to try to keep them alive will contribute a lot more to GDP.

    Grass farmers also admit that they will never be able to produce the quantity of meat demanded by the Fast Food joints. Generally, they think people should eat less meat but of much higher quality. And many of them think those meals should occur at home. So here are more deductions from ‘growth’.

    So…I suppose we will have a Federal Program to kill at least the cows and maybe the Grass Farmers for being a bad influence on the Recovery.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for the story. As you say, the real cost is the land. I expect avoiding the land cost and fitting many more cattle into less space is a primary motivator for the industrial approach.

      There is also the need to pay the land cost up front, either from accumulated profits from another venture, or by financing it. So financing costs are likely significant as well.

      We needed a lot of infrastructure to build the solar panel and electric fence–roads, educational system, steel mills, etc. As long as we have them built, we can do this. It is not clear if we could repeat this 200 years from now, but perhaps that doesn’t matter. This is intended as a temporary transitional solution. Using this approach, we likely couldn’t raise as many cattle in total, because of the land area required per head of cattle.

      Adopting industrial farming of cattle (from a model more like you describe) sort of reminds a person of going from hunter-gatherer to farming. The result wasn’t as good, but it did produce more food in the aggregate.

    • La Curée says:

      ‘Native’ Americans were settled farmers before they used horses introduced by the Spanish to decimate the Buffalo herds, much easier pickings than farming.
      Just another story that doesn’t fit your phoney ‘unique’ American experience.
      So fess up where did you copy the story from Don or did you see it on the TV.
      Thanks for the tripe.

      • Don Stewart says:

        The earliest Native Americans slaughtered the megafauna in well defined waves. The last megafauna slaughtered were in the Caribbean islands, as I remember. Later, some Native Americans became farmers. When horses became available, many of the Plains tribes went back to hunting and gathering. At any rate, there were an awful lot of bison still here when Buffalo Bill and the railroads crossed the plains. And a lot fewer Native Americans than there were in 1492.

        I guess I don’t understand your complaint. I can’t think of anything that is uniquely ‘American’. The mob grazing theory comes from Zimbabwe. The breed of cows that the farm I visited use come from New Zealand. I visited another farm which is adapting a system long used in Britain. Farming is international.

        Perhaps if you could explain your complaint a little more, I might have a better idea what to respond.

        Don Stewart

        • La Curée says:

          American exceptional-ism and a presumed new fall from grace i.e. it was an Eden before we arrived and all we have to do is be virtuous.
          It is apparent in most online comments made by Americans take the cow issue.
          The problem is too many cows managed by idiot apes.
          Look to Africa, cows numbers will increase until they are eating all the available biomass destroying what you seem to see as an unnatural progression to scrub.
          Your grassland was created by us idiot apes, it reduces the overall productivity of the land and increases the risk of soil / climate destruction.
          There is no natural environment called ‘climax praire’ forest is the natural cover of anywhere in the world with enough rainfall, light and warmth.

          Trees bring rain and keep it local.
          Permaculture based on managed tree crops i.e. friut not wood is the only way to improve the soil and climate in an profound way.
          Cattle numbers will increase during wet years, the destroy the soil in dry years progressively reducing fertility and rain fall due to over grassing of what water attracting scrub exists.
          All that beef that leaves the property is taking micronutrients out of the local system and flushing them into a river and then the sea.
          Soil formation processes e.g. leaching from clay is not fast enough to replace these.

          As a ‘scientist’ not working I object to all the stuff you claim to know as facts without sources given especially when every time I look at what you write I find more tripe.

          • Don Stewart’s background is as a professor of economics, by the way.

            I am trying to dig to the bottom of the ecological issues, but starting from a background that is not very strong. In my post, True Sustainability Solutions, I reference two articles from Science, including one called, The Hunters Did It. One of the things discussed in the two article was that the hunters, once they discovered fire, burned down the trees, disturbing the local ecology. They also killed off some of the large animals, further disturbing the ecological balance of the area, and also tending to get rid of the tree growth. The Savanna article you link to also talks about humans’ use of fire being responsible for tree-loss from savannas.

            If I am understanding your comment and the link to savanna correctly, the natural climax ecosystem is savanna, with a varying percentage of trees mixed with grassland, depending upon the amount of rain. It would be virtually impossible to just have prairie as a natural ecosystem.

            What is the natural situation with animals, in a climax ecosystem? I remember reading that goats’ hooves do great damage to grassland. I know that sheep are known for nibbling grass down too far. I know that top level predators normally represent only a small share of the total population. What references should I be reading? You can e-mail me if you like, or respond here.

            By the way, one of my concerns is that humans’ climate change impact started when the Hunter-Gatherers started burning forests. I remember one article from years ago claiming that the world would have re-entered the ice age years ago, if it weren’t for humans taking up farming and deforesting the land. This is a recent article that is of concern as well, about new insights into the Permian extinction. The article seems to suggest that the changes that are taking place now seem to line up fairly well with some of the changes that took place in the Permian Extinction–ocean acidification and higher carbon levels in the atmosphere. (That is an over-simplification, though. Read the article.)

          • Don Stewart says:

            Sorry to disappoint Gail, but I am not a professor of Economics. I spent the afternoon building raised beds on a vegetable farm–in blistering first of May heat.

            If you are going to be the President of my Fan Club, you had best learn a few facts about me.

            As for exceptionalism. I used to believe in it. Surely anyone not from the two-bit town I grew up in MUST be smarter than the yokels who surrounded me…But as I got older and travelled around I found yokels wherever I looked. The places were different, but each had pluses and minuses and it was best not to try to rank them–just take each for what it had to offer. So I don’t think your criticism of my ‘American exceptionalism’ is on target. I keep looking for some culture which is smarter than the Americans I see every day. In fact, Gail will attest to the fact that I don’t think the word ‘American’ is a very helpful description–things like ‘rich or poor’ or ‘farmer versus banker’ being a lot more informative.

            As for cows. I work on a vegetable farm. I am 71 years old. It is hard work. It is not at all like what Craig Dilworth describes back in the Upper Paleolithic. I know a little bit about Permaculture. The notion of getting back to the relaxed atmosphere of the Upper Paleolithic is very attractive. So I look around for people with good ideas. The Farm Tour is an excellent opportunity. I reported on the Grass Fed Beef farm, which has somehow aroused your hostility. I will just note that it is the closest thing I have seen to Dilworth’s description of the Upper Paleolithic.

            Personally, I have not eaten beef in more than a year. (Full Disclosure: We go to a dinner benefitting new farmers in a couple of weeks and may very well have some beef there.) It isn’t because I think beef is sinful. I just think that legumes are a better fit for me in terms of cost and nutritional value. But you pay your money and you take your choice.

            I will also elaborate on a couple more Dilworth themes. The carrying capacity of this land is 225 cows. The land cannot reasonably be used for row crops–because it is steep and would simply erode. It could possibly be used for orchard. I certainly wouldn’t object to that. But neither am I about to get on a soapbox and preach about the evils of grass fed beef and the virtues of fruit. I will also note that I visited a very nice Permaculture fruit orchard earlier in the day, and they have a plan which integrates ducks into the orchard. So if your complaint is about the ‘abuse of animals’, count me out.

            Once people accept that the carrying capacity is 225 cows, then it follows that the amount of beef available per person is 225 cows divided by the number of people. If you start thinking that way, you begin to see the logic of limiting population. I can assure you that grass fed beef will never supply the needs of the Fast Food industry. Instead, you begin to think in terms of Dilworth’s territorial principles.

            I will also comment on the relative progress of the various types of agriculture that I saw on the Farm Tour and which I experience each time I go to work or into my garden. I see the grass fed beef people as coming close to sustainability. The laying hens people are pretty close. The broiler hen people are not close. The hog people are somewhere in limbo. The fruit people are still very labor intensive, but are beginning to get the picture and are integrating animals intelligently. The vegetable farmers are working very hard for very little return. The gardeners are doing well–with the work not qualifying as labor. It will be a long time before farm based vegetables really make sense in terms of sustainability (my opinion pretty well matches that of Joel Salatin on this point). I did not see any grain farms.

            All Industrial Agriculture, of course, is a wash out.

            Now to the final point about topsoil. I was at the ASPO conference in DC last fall. Wes Jackson gets up and talks about the desperate loss of topsoil and how we only make an inch or so per century. But also at the conference was Albert Bates, the author of The Biochar Solution. I bought his book. He states that topsoil is made by the activity of the soil organisms. At the break, I confronted him: Is it really true that simply because biochar provides a good habitat for soil organisms that one can make an inch or so of topsoil per year? His response was ‘Yes’. (Errors are mine, not Albert’s.) I said, ‘Then it makes sense to buy old tobacco farms and just grow topsoil if you think that the future holds food shortage?’ He said , ‘Bingo’. Then he added that two of his children are buying old farms and building topsoil. Since then, I have checked in with people I meet. A recent college grad that I work at the farm with said that ‘you can’t make topsoil that fast’. On the farm tour, several people told me they are making topsoil very rapidly. The key is not to plow or rototill and thus to keep the soil organisms happy. A grass fed beef farm, of course, is the epitome of zero cultivation. So this is an area where I am certainly no scientist going out with a measuring stick. But people showed me very fertile pastures. So maybe Albert isn’t crazy and maybe I am not hallucinating.

            Don Stewart

            • My apologies for the confusion. I do want to hear the various sides of the story, though, because the ecologists come with a very different perspective. Thanks for your side of the story.

              By the way, I eat very little meat/fish–probably 5% or less of my diet. This started out for health reasons in the mid-1990s, and I never saw a point to going back and eating meat.

          • La Curée says:

            What the wiki on Savannah says is ~no savannah in the US is natural and proof of this is the remnants of the original forest.
            Simply trees have a better EROEI once established, grasses can’t compete, trees also make a more complete use of the sunlight and so create a bigger harvest.
            There is much more to it of course.
            I have been out of the environmental arena for a long time so can’t really recommend a text.
            Books are so 20th century, ‘PrivateLee’ or ‘wiki’ and see what comes up, you have to make your own mind up not have it made up for you by a plausible rogue like me :¬)
            My reasoning on the big noise around biochar to follow.

            • Don Stewart says:

              I know a fellow at the UNC Botanical Garden who has a keen interest in prairies. Some very early European travelers reported large expanses of prairie in the Carolinas. Why weren’t they forests? Some speculation has centered on fire–either caused by lightning strikes or by Native Americans. Prairies can be extraordinarily diverse, so the Botanical Garden has put a lot of effort into recreating them. I have volunteered some labor. It turns out to be very hard to make a prairie out of agriculturally depleted land. What I see with my own eyes is that Mob Grazing has the ability to take worn out tobacco land and turn it into a prairie–with practically no labor on the part of humans. The labor is by the big animals and the soil inhabitants. As the quantity of fungi increase relative to the bacteria in the soil, the PH will fall and grass will suffer and trees will prosper (at least that it my understanding). Which explains why the farmer needs to lime the soil occasionally. You can quibble and say that if it requires liming, it isn’t a climax prairie. But I would respond that it is pretty darn close. It may be that the original prairies were maintained by a combination of big grazing herbivores interacting with the soil critters plus occasional burning. I don’t think anyone knows for sure.

              What I do have pretty good reason to believe is that the easiest way to make a prairie in Carolina is to Mob Graze it. Since I doubt that we can bring back the bison and the wolves, grass fed cows may be the best solution. And the cows do provide some food for humans–just not the type and quantity that the Fast Food world expects.

              Don Stewart

            • In Atlanta where I live, trees would take over in five years, if no one actively pulled out all of the “volunteers” that come up. The roots are amazing, not long after they start growing.

              I will need to look into this more.

  18. Don Pitts says:

    Very good “big picture” article.

    “While agriculture allowed a larger population, the health of individual members was much worse. Average height of men dropped by 6.2 inches.” But why do you think taller height means better health? Average longevity might be a better measure but likely not available.

  19. Robin Datta says:

    The answer to the title question depends on what one calls the “economy” and what one calls “growth”. 

    The primary economy consists of the resources that Nature gives us: sunshine, air, wind, water resources, arable land, mineral resources, flora & fauna (stands of timber, edible plants, earthworms, honeybees, hoofed animals, sheep dogs, and the rest). Fossil fuels are a very special resource, as they are a source of energy. 

    The secondary economy consists of the items of use, products such as food, clothing, shelter, tools, buildings, roads, bridges, ships, aircraft, iPads, DVDs and everything else. Even services are rendered in exchange for acquisition of the ability to secure items of the primary and secondary economies. 

    The tertiary economy consists of symbols purported to be ultimately exchangeable for items in the primary and secondary economies. The primary symbols are pieces of paper with green pictures of dead presidents and their equivalent, magnetised particles on hard drives. Secondary symbols such as mortgages, bank accounts, etc. are exchangeable for primary symbols. Tertiary symbols (“derivatives”) are exchangeable for secondary symbols. And there are higher-order symbols (“derivatives of derivatives”) each exchangeable for symbols in the next lowest order. The symbols of the tertiary economy serve as a medium of exchange (a lubricant for the machinery of the economy) and a store of value.

    Conversion of resources into products requires energy (and skills at directing that energy). In a steady state, without growth, there is a constant RATE of conversion of resources into products. This will come to an end if non-replaceable resources are depleted. In a growing economy, the RATE OF CONVERSION IS ACCELERATING. It will deplete resources faster. The conversion requires energy, and after optimisation of energy use, any constraint on available energy will also be a constraint on the rate of conversion. 

    The symbols are not bound by such constraints. Seigniorage refers to the profit from the issuance of fiat currency. A lot of the “growth” that is bruited about is growth in the tertiary economy. 

    • Good points.

      I might add that in some sense, we are depleting quite a lot of the resources that Nature gives us, not just the fossil fuels. We are drawing down some of the aquifers. We are leaving the soil in less-good condition than we found it. We are extracting minerals of all types from the ground, leaving available only ores of lower quality. Natural animal and fish populations are down greatly. Pollution of various types is more of a problem. We don’t even know which molecules are harming us, with huge number of new molecules of various types being added to the environment each year.

      • Robin Datta says:

        A new source of cheap abundant energy such as hydrogen fusion (hot or cold) or thorium in LFRTs will serve to power the conveyer belt from resource to product to refuse and wastes wastes generated along the way. Ultimately a more severe depletion of resources and/or accumulation of wastes and refuse wlii be the limits.

      • Robin Datta says:

  20. La Curée says:

    A point from your comment: The ‘old’ testament is only old if your a Christian and only a Christian or a Muslim would have the arrogance to assume it is addressing them.
    It is a tribal history record that has to be interpreted with common sense.
    So small tribe under constant pressure requires hope to continue, you may have troubles but your tribe will prosper.
    There is even a priestly blessing adapted by Spock a member of that ‘clan’ – live long and prosper.
    IMO being self deluding unwise apes is our problem not tribal histories appropriated by idiot apes.

    John Williams of SGS shows simply in 2 graphs that indeed growth has not continued.

    My fear is a return to feudalism so the elites can maintain lifestyles on the misery of their citizens as the export land model of expropriating assets collapse.

  21. Paul Stahnke says:

    Thank you so much for your efforts, Gail. I will be sharing these ideas (attached and with credit to you) via email with my co-workers. Lately, our school has been having a discussion on graduation rates. I have broadened the discussion to include what we should be teaching in general, and the waste of the university paradgm when perhaps young people need to learn more applicable skills for a less complex and more constrained world.

    Thanks…. Paulo

  22. reverseengineerre says:

    “Growth” is a misnomer to begin with. As Steve on Economic Undertow points out often, we are not in the bizness of growing, but rather in the bizness of wasting. Inputs are converted from one form to another, population of humanity grows but at the expense of other organisms inhabiting the environment, there is no real “Growth” here, just exchanges made while energy is wasted in the process of the exchanges.

    Growth on the physical level isn’t possible at all without the constant input of energy, and the main constant input would be the Sun, but the efficiency at which that energy can be gathered is limited because it is so diffuse on a daily basis. It takes biological processes which are far ore effficient than industrial ones to collect up energy, and it takes a long time for them to do that and create large surpluses.

    There is no way we will “grow” on any kind of physical level now that most of the surplus has been burned and converted to molecules of CO2 floating around about us these days. Growth remains possible on other levels than physical growth though, as long as we do not auto-extinguish the species of Homo Sapiens. Good discussion of this topic going on now on The Automatic Earth, “The Limits to Mankind” begun by Ilargi.

    I remain of the opinion that focusing on the Oil input is a waste of time, this sucker is already history here. Its a Zombie paradigm that hasn;t quite accepted the fact it is already dead. Its more important to consider how to recreate society with a low energy footprint than it is to dwell on the past, which is the Age of Oil. Its going the way of the Dinosaur, and if Homo Sapiens doesn’t reconfigure here, we will go the way of the Dinosaur right along with it.


    • Thanks for writing.

      I had forgotten about “Steve from Virginia’s” point, “We are not in the bizness of growing, but rather in the bizness of wasting. Inputs are converted from one form to another, population of humanity grows but at the expense of other organisms inhabiting the environment, there is no real “Growth” here, just exchanges made while energy is wasted in the process of the exchanges.”

      With 7 billion people, it is very difficult to create a world with a low energy foot-print. If any energy goes unused, we seem to get an increase in population.

  23. justnobody says:

    There is a lot o good comments and it is a good article. I started preparing for the collapse around 2006 and I stopped fairly quickly. As Don Steward said “Note how little he actually does himself from beginning to end. His business would quickly collapse without transportation.” This is what got me stopping to prepare. My preparation could not work without transportation. Instead of preparing physically, I started to prepared spiritually, mentally and philosophy. I like to come to this site because it reminds me of keep preparing myself spiritually, mentally and philosophy.

    Maybe there should such a section in your book.

    • Thanks! That is a good idea.

      I have been trying to work on a garden, and can’t help thing about the amount of fossil fuel to make a garden the way people do today, even if the garden is “organic”.

      • Don Stewart says:

        This is Farm Tour time. Yesterday we visited a garden for Burmese refugees. The Burmese mostly have night shift jobs and live crammed into apartments. They were mostly subsistence farmers in Burma. So the farmers are eager to get out and garden, and grow the plants they were accustomed to in Burma. An obvious obstacle is that we are in the temperate zone while they were in the tropics. Nevertheless, many of the practices of horticulture are similar.

        Now the person running the program got a government grant. The way it was described yesterday is to ‘give them a chance to become American farmers’. But the abundance of government money was spent on a first class infrastructure. They have a beautiful greenhouse with very sturdy tables and water taps everywhere and on the other side of the building is a covered area with a spotless plant washing and packing area and picnic tables and some kitchen facilities. I work for a farmer who has been at it for 40 years and he doesn’t have any of these things. Everything he has is cobbled together. So the disconnect between the Fairy Palace where they are supposed to be learning American Farming and the reality of what they will be able to afford after they finish the program is likely to be jarring.

        The Burmese were used to building houses out of bamboo which lasted three years and then they just built another house. They would like to plant bamboo (which grows easily here) and build their own buildings. But if they try that, they will quickly find that the Building Inspectors hate nothing more than an inexpensive, subsistence type dwelling. What the Building Inspectors want to see is a several hundred thousand dollar McMansion. And so they won’t get occupancy permits. People who have been recycling their own and animal manures for 40 centuries will be told that they have to have indoor plumbing installed by a licensed plumber.

        In the field, I didn’t see any compost piles. Nor do they have manure animals. I didn’t get to ask, but I imagine the manager brings in 600 dollar truckloads of compost. I asked our tour guide if she knew how the Burmese made subsistence gardening work in the low capital, low energy world of Burma. She said she did not. I know the tour guide, and I think she cares about the answer to that question, but I think that the government grant people would see that question as insane.

        Don Stewart

        • That is a humorous and sad story.

          Unfortunately, there are too many who think that way. I even visited a farm which was being subdivided (the owner hoped) for sites for what was supposed to be a sustainable community. The person with the original house had a fancy large home that had a high level of LEED certification. We had driven past quite a number of fairly old mobile homes, on the way to the site. When we asked whether something more modest might be acceptable on the site, the owner said, “No.” The owner did not want any lower-quality homes to disturb the arrangement that was being put together. I think the plan ultimately fell apart.

  24. Don Stewart says:

    This is a relatively minor point considering the crash of industrial civilization. But since you are writing a book, I will bring it up. You state that ‘animals do not provide goods and services’. That is not true in a traditional agriculture or in a modern permaculture. See this note about an interview with Carol Deppe, who urban farms in Oregon. What she says about ducks vs. chickens is, of course, peculiar to the Pacific Northwest (all traditional agriculture is specific to a locale). But notice how she uses the ducks both for their particular nutritional value (Omega 3 fats) and also for their functional value (eating slugs). If we think about trying to get from a 10 to 1 energy used to usable calorie output, down to a less than 1 calorie used to usable calorie output, then animals will very likely play an important role. Sharon Astyk has noted that there is some academic support for the notion that sustainable agriculture requires animal manures.

    So in your book, you might want to make note of the role of animals in achieving a positive energy ratio. The way that works is that the animals harvest solar energy (grass or weeds or slugs) that humans are not designed to harvest and turns it into energy that humans can use (manure, fewer slug eaten plants which yield more energy). The animal is not, per se, efficient. A duck may convert only 15 percent of energy to a useful human form, but since it is a gift, it may make the difference between sustainability and long term disaster.
    Don Stewart

    • I probably didn’t phrase what I was saying correctly. I meant that animals do not set up lemonade stands to sell lemonade, or do other things we think of as trading in goods and services. Certainly, humans can be expected to trade in live animals and in meat from animals, as part of their commerce.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Just to make sure I am clear. Wild plants and wild animals performed services or provided products with positive net energy to our Paleo ancestors long before there were lemonade stands. In more recent times, domesticated animals performed services or provided products with positive net energy. On a Permaculture farm, domesticated animals are frequently used to perform services and provide products which have a positive net energy. In the Industrial World, animals are a huge energy sink. For example, people calculate horrible resource consumption ratios for beef.

        So my point would be that the average urban citizen who knows little about farming needs to understand some of the rudiments about how different the future is likely to be in terms of animals: no CAFOs, diligent search for farm designs which achieve net energy, clever use of animals mostly taking care of themselves but also providing services and products to humans. And only a fraction of the meat consumption we are accustomed to.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        Thinking a little more about it. Our Paleo ancestors used the products and services of Mother Nature’s plants and animals. Mother Nature’s plants and animals are now a minor part of our diet. But they do still provide us with valuable services such as pollination and pest control and soil maintenance and restoration.

        Before WWII, we mostly relied on what we might call Phase II plants and animals. That is, we had domesticated them and bred them to give us more of what we wanted. They may or may not have been better, but the domesticated plants and animals would support a larger population (so think about Craig Dilworth’s VCP).

        At the present time, our diet is heavily dependent on what we might call Phase III plants and animals. The American diet is probably 95 percent sugar, corn, soybeans, and wheat. Some of it comes disguised as animals which are grain fed. The corn, soybeans, and wheat are increasingly genetically engineered and are totally dependent on chemical agriculture. If one believes the propaganda, Dilworth’s VCP has turned again and our 7 billion population is totally dependent on the Phase III plants and animals. Meanwhile, chronic disease is bankrupting everyone. Many say it is because we are eating food we are not designed to eat. Our Paleo ancestors had no chronic disease.

        Whatever may be the truth about the health issues, it is clear that the Phase III system cannot survive energy scarcity. A recent post on Do The Math said that, while the human body is very efficient, the food system is so inefficient that it is more energy efficient to drive a mid-size sedan to the grocery store than to walk powered by Phase III food.

        So while we may want to cling to the human distinctions between products and services (the lemonade is a product, while the stand is a service, and plants and animals are something else entirely), in a world of energy scarcity we will need to go back to the Paleo and Phase II basics about just how we get products (meat, milk, eggs) and services (pest control, manure) from plants and animals in a way that yields Net Energy.

        Don Stewart

  25. David Harney says:

    Hi Gail (BTW, I’m Bicycle Dave but WordPress apparently doesn’t like bicycles),

    As usual, you have made an excellent presentation regarding our planet’s predicament – all very good research and analysis.

    However, I continue to challenge you with the most fundamental question: Why is it that a species that has the intelligence to “put a man on the moon” can’t show the slightest inclination to understand or deal with the simple concept of “limits to growth”? Without this basic understanding and will to make profound changes in our behavior, the rest of the discussion amounts to little more than the “shuffling of deck chairs on the Titanic” analogy.

    The only explanation I see is that our collective intellectual capacity is crippled by a variety of delusions of cultural origin (Dawkins’ memes). These delusions are primarily the result of ideologies rooted in our religious, political and economic belief systems. Most people seldom (if ever) subject these ideologies to any kind of truly critical analysis: why would anyone totally believe in a supernatural afterlife; why would anyone think that one religion or nationality is superior; why would anyone believe that government is inherently bad and “liberty” is paramount; why would anyone believe that only “free enterprise” can improve our quality of life? Billions of people hold these kinds of beliefs as infallible truths – few even understand how to determine if something is true or false.

    These delusions totally prevent any kind of actually effective solutions to mitigate impending calamities. The number one problem is human overpopulation and the solution is to curtail breeding: universal free birth control and abortion services, real sex education, no tax breaks for children, encourage LGBT, etc. Next is consumption and the solution is to vastly curtail the use of private transportation (cars), eliminate home mortgage tax breaks, raise fuel taxes, stop student busing, full cost for environmental impact of products, etc. I could go on but the author of “Plan C” laid out all of these measures several years ago. We have done the opposite.

    These kinds of suggested solutions tend to infuriate people who are committed to the religious, political and economic systems we have today. In fact, even people who are sympathetic to the goals underlying these solutions tend to cringe when they hear this sort of thing. They argue that it is counterproductive to “poke a stick in the eye” of people who hold these beliefs (delusions from my POV). That somehow it would be better to find ways to accommodate these beliefs and still strive to get effective solutions enacted. Lots of luck!

    The “accommodation” mentality seems to be based on the idea that all of the issues raised by Gail are basically “debatable” with no real urgency and the kinds of suggestions I offer are just too “extreme” for anyone to take seriously. If Gail’s analysis are generally correct (and I think they are) then just how is this going to work in the context of encouraging breeding (as all religions, political groups and corporations advocate); striving for “growth”; and demanding personal “liberty” to drive a Hummer, have any number of children, carrying hand guns, kill wildlife, build coal fired electrical plants, etc, etc? How does this all work out if we don’t challenge these very sacred belief systems that currently underpin human culture?

    • (By the way, if I post on someone else’s blog, WordPress has now decided I am ourfiniteworld. It used to use gailtheactuary.)

      Regarding religious beliefs, and opposition to limiting numbers of children, this is a tough issue.

      Many of us grew up hearing God’s promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. “He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars–if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

      Also, the stories in the Old Testament are filled with stories about how terrible it was for a woman not to be able to have children.

      It seems to me that there are two separate ways that humans could have evolved:
      1. The sustainable way that nature intended
      2. A different, growth-oriented way that gives humans higher population and temporary power, but is destined to collapse.

      Once humans moved out of Mode 1 into Mode 2, they needed a story to tell themselves and their children, interpreting how things should be. Partly this was about getting along with others (because natural instincts would be to kill off strangers, and keep population down). There were other major roles for religions as well–dispute resolution and reinforcing the authority of the King. One of the stories religion seemed to pass along was about how many children to have, and for those who followed the teachings of the Old Testament, the answer seems to be, “lots”.

      I don’t know how this can be changed.

      It seems like there was a time in the United States, when there was a trend away from large families. Back in the 1960s, birth rates in the United States really dropped off. Roe vs Wade came along in 1973, giving women the option of abortion. Also, at some point along the way, Gay Rights got quite a bit of publicity.

      Now the Religious Right has taken up the issue, and many seem to have ridiculous ideas. It is definitely not all religious people. I think part of the reason that it is hard to get much traction talking about the population issue now is because the US birth rate already fairly low, especially among educated people. It is hard to say that people in Africa should have lower birth rates, or even that Mexican-Americans should have lower birth rates.

      • David F Collins says:

        Finding messages in Scripture is kinda like looking for blueberries in a blueberry patch when they’re in season: look anywhere very long, and you can find pretty much anything you might seek, as long as you use imagination and avoid reading much in other parts, which leads to confusion before it leads to wisdom.

        For instance, King Saul is driven mad as punishment for not slaughtering enough of the Amalekites: God told him (via Samuel) to kill not only every Amalekite man, woman and child, but also their cattle, donkeys, chickens and the kids’ pet turtles. Zionist 200%ers use this to call for getting rid of whoever they want to get rid of at the time, by claiming the lesser breeds without the law are «Amalekites». This tends to be «proven» with logic resembling “Trouble that begins with T that rhymes with P that stands for POOL!”

        One might simply say that humankind has indeed gone forth and multiplied: Been there, done that, mission accomplished some time ago. Now let’s move on and tackle today’s and tomorrow’s problems.

        Actually, I think this subject is better pursued in the blog of Gail’s sister Lois, and of course there are other relevant blogs. For instance, there are some interesting essays on «Green Prophet», from a Moslem perspective.

        And I agree with Wotfigo that Prof Murphy’s blog is excellent. In particular, Prof Murphy shows the hopelessness of expecting the Technical Fix cavalry to come riding over the hill in due time is just plain excellent.

        I will close by thanking Gail for this essay.

    • Andrew in the Bay says:

      Sorry, Dave, but I have no interest in living in your world of Universal “free” everything and an even stronger federal and/or world government. That sounds like hell to me. I think many of us would rather be wiped off the planet than live under your “know-it-all” world. Believe me, I know all your reasoning. I live in the Bay Area surrounded by people who think like you…who tend to be mean and selfish people, despite their claims of the later.

      • David Harney says:


        I know all your reasoning.

        People with psychic powers are quite special.

        many of us would rather be wiped off the planet than live under your “know-it-all” world.

        Reminds me of a story:

        A city fellow is lost and driving at night on a very rural back road. It’s windy, raining and cold – he gets a flat tire on this muddy road. He has a jack and a spare tire but no jack-handle. Far down the road he sees the faint light of a farm house. He knows every farmer would have a jack-handle so he starts walking down the road in the cold and rain wearing only a light sweater – he is miserable. As he trudges down the muddy road he recalls all the stories he’s hear about farmers not liking “city slickers” and how they can be demeaning and condescending to such a fellow in trouble. He keeps turning these stories over in his mind as he struggles down the road – he keeps thinking how he is going to deal with this obnoxious farmer. He finally gets to the door and knocks loudly – he is braced for an unpleasant encounter with the farmer he is convinced will ridicule his lack of preparation for traveling in the country. The farmer comes to the door and the fellow blurts out “you can shove the jack-handle up your —-“.

  26. John Weber says:

    “Machines operate with various kinds of energy inputs.” Gail the way I read this was the input to run the computer or shredder. I believe even more significant is the energy input to build the tools of the service industries. The infrastructure required is all fossil fuel based as well as other natural resources – copper, rare minerals, etc..
    I think a book by you will be a great help and hopefully an eye opener. I believe it is as important if not more important at this point to be discussing and coming to terms with the massive lifestyle changes coming then actually immediately developing the skills to cope. The reason is the absolute panic and hysteria along with scapegoating (displacement) others and resource conflicts that will be far more devastating physically and psychologically than adapting to a lower percapita energy availability (not that it will be easy given the loss of knowledge of how to).

    • That is a good point –it is really the embedded energy in the computer or shredder. In fact, there gets to be a whole chain of different things involved–roads, and vehicles for transport and education systems and hospitals to support the whole system. Not to mention the electrical grid.

  27. Rebecca says:

    There’s some relationship between human ingenuity and education. Ever since I read some of Howard Odum’s work I think of education as very energy intensive and not really sustainable in a lower energy future. So human ingenuity may have peaked, too.

    • There certainly are high costs associated with education. Even though it is a service, there are salaries that go to a whole lot of individuals (and these salaries partly go to buy fuel), and there are a lot of buildings to operation.

      So far, universities (at least lower priced ones) have been doing very well. People who are out of work collect unemployment and go back to school, figuring that with a new degree they can get a job. It is hard to see that in the aggregate this will work, though. At some point, it seems like we will hit “peak education” as well.

      • Rebecca says:

        What interested me from Odum’s work was the notion that we’ve had enough excess energy available from fossil fuels to build some complex systems that will have to be wound down as the excess energy drains away. The three I remember are the large central government w/ associated military, the higher education system, and the entertainment industry.

        My local high school is one of two private academies in CT, which years ago used to board students and give them a high school education (way back, before the age of oil). Now they’ve started buying a few local houses and offering education to foreign students, particularly Chinese. One of the Chinese students who is here this year had been living alone in Beijing since the age of 12 while his parents sacrifice everything to give him an education. Needless to say, he doesn’t take it lightly.

        Odum described how the seed stores all the information from the plant so the cycle can start all over again. Very concentrated energy — all that growth and structure and then the seed(s). So when I consider an educated person, I think about all the accumulated energy that went to provide enough free time to produce the knowledge that the person carries. Which leads to musings on culture and institutions, myth and tradition — much to think about!

  28. Ian M Stewart says:

    I second Leo with that Gail. This one’s a keeper.

  29. tmsr says:

    I really like figure 6.

    I think we need to add countries buying and/or renting farm land in other countries. We might call this soft warfare, or, just capitalism.

    • Countries buying or renting farmland in other countries is to me pretty much like the old Empire building–trying to extract benefit from the soil at the expense of the local population. This hasn’t really peaked, I am afraid.

      • real assets says:

        Hi Gail: Great post, I just have to respectfully point out though that not all international farmland investing is bad. Any project that takes into account the needs of local citizens, pays good wages, and sells crops locally to improve food security may well be a win- win. Indeed, it is not all developed buying developing world farmland; China for example is a huge buyer of Australian farmland.

        • Les D. says:

          That might explain why long term Australian defence planning seems to see a war with China as inevitable.

  30. quantiger says:

    Something you are leaving out is, I think, quite critical. That is the nature of the debt. Over the past 15 years, financial ‘products’ have expanded until they have become 40% of the financial system. These ‘products’ have little or no connection to creating production. The Ponzi economy of the 2000’s fed by credit default swaps that functioned as insurance, (and still does) further disconnected the evaluation of risk and reward from finance. No economy can withstand the level of flim-flam that we have now institutionalized. Since 2008, all that has happened is that the these systemic issues have been covered up once more.

    Debt has to be connected to the real world. When it is created, it has to correspond to doing real things, creating real products and services that actually do something for people’s lives. For the individual, cheating the system is better for them. For the society, cheaters in the financial system are a cancer. The metaphor is quite apt. In cancer, one set of renegade cells find out they can break the rules of the body and feed themselves, growing and growing at the expense of everyone else. From the viewpoint of the cancer, everything is fantastic – until the body dies. The banking/finance system pioneered in New York after the repeal of Glass-Steagall is now a cancer. No amount of human ingenuity can withstand such an assault on our economy. We call such cancerous networks “extractive elites” today.

    I have other comments, but I wanted to bring that one to the fore first.

    • The nature of debt certainly deserves more treatment, I would agree. This was intended to be more of an overview. I have more debt graphs created–it would be easy to write more about debt.

      • quantiger says:

        Steve Keen hasn’t broken the kind of debt out, despite his excellent general work on debt. I don’t know anybody who has (although that doesn’t mean it’s not there) and most economists don’t seem to care about Ponzi debt versus productive debt, even though in my view that is like a physician failing to differentiate anthrax from commensal digestive bacteria.

  31. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Thanks for another good post.

    A couple of things are coming clearer for me. The first is how much transportation is involved in even the simplest businesses. For example, see this video of a local guy who makes candles and sells them through a local store. Note how little he actually does himself from beginning to end. His business would quickly collapse without transportation:

    We can compare this fellow’s candle business with the candles a farm family might have made on their farm with ingredients mostly from the farm along with a very few items from off the farm. So just being ‘local’ in the sense that this business is ‘local’ is not really much of a solution to our fundamental problems.

    Second is Charles Eisenstein’s
    At U.N. happiness summit, a coal pile in the ballroom
    article yesterday in the Energy Bulletin. He makes this interesting statement:

    In summary, debt drives growth, and growth drives debt. This system erodes many of the things that are essential to human happiness – such as community, leisure, and nature – but as long as there is room for new growth, the system can keep going. Today, though, we are running out of nature to convert into goods – the planet just cannot sustain much more exploitation. We are also running out of social relationships that aren’t yet monetized. This crisis of growth has been delayed for many decades through colonialism and technology, extending the domain of money, but it is upon us now. The result is rising indebtedness and growing misery, as each extension of growth comes at higher and higher cost.

    And this morning Zero Hedge reports that: It takes $2.52 in new debt to increase $1 of GDP
    At least that was the ratio for the first quarter GDP. This is in line with a decades long graph showing declining marginal utility of debt in the FEASTA compendium of essays.

    So if ‘localization’ is much more problematic than most of us have realized, if transportation really is getting more expensive, if we have reached the point of diminsihing returns on financializing everything, and if we have reached the point where additional debt has a negative marginal utility, and if there are no magical sources of new natural resources to tap into, then growth is quite unlikely to return. If we count the cost of dealing with pollution as ‘negative GDP’ rather than counting it as ‘positive GDP’, then probably GDP will fall quite a bit. As a number of commentators have recently observed, the fuel rods at Fukushima are dangerous and exposure to relatively modest earthquakes could kill enormous numbers of people. Yet we don’t seem to have the money or the technology to deal with them. We have to deal with the pollution of the oceans and the buildup of greenhouse gases. Etc., etc.

    And as a number of European commentators have observed, the social fabric in Europe is unraveling. In the US, I think it has also unraveled.

    So the outlook is pretty grim. I am afraid I am beginning to agree with your gloomy assessment.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your additional points. I had a graph of the $ of debt to increase GDP, but decided not to use it in this post–too long as it is.

      The nature of the problem gets worse and worse as a person looks at it. It would be nice if a person could, for once, look under a “rock” and find something optimistic to write about. The more ideas you stick together at once, the worse it seems to get.

  32. wotfigo says:

    Can we expect the economy to keep growing? Er, no.
    Economic Collapse has occurred globally before in a cycle of i) economic stability,ii) growth, inflation & debt financing iii) overpopulation & resource depletion and iv) economic instability, debt deflation, social decline (especially wars) & economic collapse.
    This has been beautifully documented by David Hackett Fischer in “The Great Wave; Price Revolutions and the Rhythm of History. There have been 4 Price Revolutions since the 12th century. The current 4th Price revolution which started at the turn of the 20th century has not yet reached its finale.
    From Amazon Book Description;
    “Fischer studies this wealth of data, creating a narrative that encompasses all of Western culture. He describes four waves of price revolutions, each beginning in a period of equilibrium: the High Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and finally the Victorian Age. Each revolution is marked by continuing inflation, a widening gap between rich and poor, increasing instability, and finally a crisis at the crest of the wave that is characterized by demographic contraction, social and political upheaval, and economic collapse. The most violent of these climaxes was the catastrophic fourteenth century, in which war, famine, and the Black Death devastated the continent–the only time in Europe’s history that the population actually declined.
    Fischer suggests that we are living now in the last stages of a price revolution that has been building since the turn of the century. The destabilizing price surges and declines and the diminished expectations the United States has suffered in recent years–and the famines and wars of other areas of the globe–are typical of the crest of a price revolution. He does not attempt to predict what will happen, noting that “uncertainty about the future is an inexorable fact of our condition.” Rather, he ends with a brilliant analysis of where we might go from here and what our choices are now. This book is essential reading for anyone concerned about the state of the world today.”
    This book was published in 1999 & the economic & social decline since then serves to reinforce Fischer’s hypothesis.
    The social & economic declines that most nations of the world have been experiencing now for many years are not unique. It has happened before. The decline will continue & be exacerbated by the resource depletion & overpopulation trends that are now unstoppable.
    This book is essential reading for those trying to understand the social & economic collapse we see in the world today.

    • I have The Great Wave Revolutions as well, although I haven’t gotten much beyond the first chapter yet. (I am a good customer of Amazon’s resale book department.) Thanks for reminding me of it.

      I was trying to make this post cover a lot of subjects, fairly lightly, so wasn’t able to get into a lot of detail.

      • wotfigo says:

        Also check out Tom Murphys’ Excellent coverage of this same subject “Can Economic Growth Last?”

        • Thanks! I had forgotten about that one. I went back and looked at it again.

          Tom’s big interest is in energy efficiency–something I didn’t touch on.

          One of the issues with energy efficiency is that improving on it depends on having all of the items I listed–human ingenuity, materials, energy products, and a financing approach. In other words, in order to bring the efficiency of the car fleet up, we have to be manufacturing a whole lot of new cars, and people have to be able to afford to buy them. So I am not sure it really will happen. And if we have problem creating more steel and other materials for the car, it also may not happen.

          There is also the issue of higher embedded costs versus more efficiency. Replacing a gas powered car that cost $20,000 with an electric car that costs $40,000 looks efficient, but someone has to pay for the embedded costs in the new car.

          There is also the issue that the pollution makes us move away from efficiency. No one would ague that CCS will improve the performance of coal fired power plants. Even adding new scrubbers on is very expensive, and raises the cost of generation–I am not sure what that does to someone’s efficiency calculations, but there are a lot more up front embedded energy costs.

          Our experience with efficiency to date is not that it has reduced fuel use. Instead, it has lowered costs, and allowed more people to have, say, electric lights. Now, the cost of energy is moving up a lot faster than the 1% gain we might get from energy efficiency. So people are still being priced out of energy products, but maybe not as quickly as if energy efficiency weren’t helping.

          • strav7 says:

            Excellent post, Gail. I agree that in regards to energy efficiency, we may have problems with the four tiers. I am seriously considering leaving my technician job at the hospital to pursue a career in HV/AC –> energy efficiency. If you consider the economic value of an item as a rough approximation of the resources that went into it minus degradation (2nd law) over time, then what is economical in regards to energy efficiency may actually be what is energy efficient, once inputs and pollution are also accounted for.

            In other words, if you can save someone money via efficiency, you are saving net energy.. If the money spent is more than the money saved, you should not generally do the project.

            The only real problem I have in this interpretation of economics is the Veblen premium involved in the desirability of owning something new may skew things a bit to the +10%ish in price side… there may be some kind of tare involved..

            Thanks again.. How was the conference btw?

            Oh, and can you think of a more immediately profitable/ alternate way to get into the energy efficiency industry than thru the heating and air route? I’m finally going to have some leeway in my time in August so planning I am.

            • I would agree with you that what is economical tends to be what is energy efficient. Now that oil is so expensive relative to natural gas and coal, what is economical also tells a person whether the fuel in question is available. Subsidies hide this kind of thing.

              I am attending a couple of conferences in the near future, but neither has happened yet.

              If thinks stay “together” energy efficiency sounds like a good field to be in.

          • Justin Nigh says:

            Jevons paradox suggests increases in energy efficiency cause increases in consumption. I don’t think energy efficiency helps us.

  33. dagormo says:

    Reblogged this on David G. Moore and commented:
    Gail provides a great synthesis of major challenges to our current socio-economic systems. However, without numbers on where we expect limits to occur, it’s going to be hard to argue against advocates of economic expansion. And by limits, I mean hard-limits, not soft-limits such as those suggested by the Ecological Footprint (which can be crossed for an indefinite period of time) 🙂

    • As I mentioned in my comment to dagormo, I think the footprint folks do a disservice, putting out the information they do. What they are putting out has nothing to do with what our footprints really would be without fossil fuels. They seem to assume that fossil fuels will always be abundant.

      • dagormo says:

        Thanks Gail, and it’s a good point! I am trying to help push the research at Global Footprint Network to try to situate human demand within what can sustainably (i.e. in the absence of artificial stimulation) be produced. From my understanding, it’s not a HUGE difference – perhaps 20 percent lower crop yields on average. However, transportation etc. is not included in that. Of course, a 20 percent reduction in food consumption would be generally catastrophic for the 2 billion people already on the edge.

        • I am trying to put in a garden, and I can see that I personally am using a whole lot of energy inputs. I drive to the store to get plants that someone else has started. I use a wheelbarrow and shovel. I take water out of the tap, and put it on the new plants. Even if I don’t use fertilizer and pesticides and an electric fence to keep pests out, I am already making use of a huge amount of fossil fuel inputs. I think the 20% reduction in crop yields is way too low. The amount we could produce, by poking a stick into the ground, and sticking seeds in that we had saved from last year, net of what other animals and insects would eat, would be very low, in my opinion. Saving seeds would be very difficult, without a home that is well-sheltered from the elements, and probably heated and cooled using fossil fuels.

  34. dagormo says:

    Crikey – what a magnum opus!

    Your excellent summary raised a few questions for me:

    1) Given the apparent exponentiality of technology (since numerous new innovations stem from each previous innovation), some people argue that there are no limits to human ingenuity. Looking historically, despite collapses of individual groups, in general there has been significant continuous progress due to the diffusion of knowledge to other groups.
    2) The free movement of goods and services may have reached its theoretical peak (or at least, come close), but the free movement of people has not. I just found out that Switzerland, where I work, has just put restrictions on the free movement of people from Central and Eastern-EU countries. In a hypothetical world of one-language and total free-movement of people, could we expect another big jump in productivity?

    I completely agree with you that limits do exist, but one of the problems I have with organizations such as the Global Footprint Network ( is that they don’t suggest where those hard limits are and when they will impinge on further growth.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Regarding the exponentiality of technology, are there limits to technology?

      I think one limit is in the area of materials/energy. That is why I separated “human ingenuity” from the materials to which it is applied. If we can’t get the materials out fast enough, it is a problem.

      A second limit is in getting income to the population to purchase the new technology. The current issue of the Economist has a special report on “The Third Industrial Revolution“, in which many more processes are automated. Computers will have the ability to “print” 3-D objects, like a new tool, so that if a person needs a new tool, all they have to do is download the software to create the new too. The big issue I see is the workers who will be displaced, and because of this will not have the income they need to buy the new products. It is hard to see whether this produces more “stuff” in total. I suppose the idea is that each widget will be cheaper, so we will buy more widgets in total. This could lead to the attempted use of more resources.

      A third limit is the overarching limit of man versus nature. We keep on encroaching on natural systems, and telling ourselves that we have the power to control everything, including the climate. I am not convinced that we do. As the saying goes, “Nature bats last.”

      I agree that the free movement of people could theoretically increase. In the United States, we are seeing a push back, because of lack of job opportunities for workers who are already here–more immigrants appear to make the situation even worse. There is also the possibility that countries could merge to become larger countries, and there could be a larger more over-arching governments. But I think high oil prices makes the trend go the other way–countries breaking up after civil war and organizations like the European Union falling apart. Cheap oil makes for better integration, because a visiting worker can easily visit home from time to time and businesses can visit distant sites. If there is economic growth, there is less civil unrest as well. So I don’t think that your hypothetical world of one language and total free movement of people will happen. If it really could happen, it does seem like there would be a productivity jump.

      I think the Global Footprint Network does the world a great disservice, because they come up with ridiculously low footprints per person. The idea is that somehow we can reduce our footprint a bit, by changing our actions–sounds laudable, but it doesn’t really tie in at all with our real predicament.

      • Chris says:

        I think technology may be part of the problem. The more technologically advanced a society becomes the less people it needs to run. A single farmer can do the work of a hundred people (random number) by using farm machinery. This may increase food production, but it upsets the economy, you now have 100 people with no income to buy food. How many working people do we really need to support 7 billion people? It’s certainly not 7 billion. How do those people who are not needed get money to buy food?

        Our Governments have created a complex debt system to keep the system running, the whole economy is based on confidence. With Governments printing money as fast as they can it won’t take long for things to fall off a cliff.

  35. Pingback: Can we expect the economy to keep growing? | Conscious Travel |

  36. Leo Smith says:


    I could make minor corrections, but why spoil something so almost perfect with nit picking?

    One of the best summaries on this subject if not THE best.

    Morturi te salutamus.
    You are de da woman!

    • Thanks! I am thinking about writing a book, and I was trying to put together a first chapter (changing post to chapter). This might be too much, and too dense. I have never written a book as such–just lots of reports and lots of posts.

      • sponia says:

        This is more than a chapter; this is the whole narrative, summarized.
        You could take each of the major ideas presented here and expand them into chapters.
        That will make the material 1) more manageable for you,the author, and b) more accessible to the readers, your audience.

        You don’t need to add more length; just go into finer detail on what you already have. If you want to add more ideas, you’re going to need a second volume.

        • The idea (which is maybe not what I will end up with) was to start with a summary narrative, and then look at some pieces.

          But this is probably way too much for a new reader to digest, so one has to take a different tack.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        With all due respect, I suggest that the best way to start writing a book is to find a great editor. Not that your writing isn’t excellent, but an experienced book editor has a good feeling for the appropriate “pace” of a book, introduction of concepts, etc.

        I would suggest New Society Publishers, from Gabriola Island, BC.

        • Thanks for the thought. I know that New Society has been publishing a huge number of Peak Oil related books for a long time. Richard Heinberg’s latest book, The End of Growth, has been doing quite well in terms of sales. I hadn’t gone that route because I had been approached by another very good publisher. But it is a good thing to keep in mind.

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