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.


This entry was posted in Book draft, Financial Implications and tagged , , , , by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

About Gail Tverberg

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

124 thoughts on “Can we expect the economy to keep growing?

  1. 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.

          • Excellent.
            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.

      • 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
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biochar
        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 :¬)

        • 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

            • 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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Gail,
    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.

  5. 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

    • 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.

      • 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

        • 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.

          • 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

  6. 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 park.com
    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.

      • 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.

    • “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.

      • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.”

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    • 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.

        • 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.

          • 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.

            • 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.

          • 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.

  9. Source of information about biochar.
    http://www.biochar-international.org/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

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

  10. 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.

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