An Energy/GDP Forecast to 2050

We talk about the possibility of reducing fossil fuel use by 80% by 2050 and ramping up renewables at the same time, to help prevent climate change. If we did this, what would such a change mean for GDP, based on historical Energy and GDP relationships back to 1820?

Back in March, I showed you this graph in my post, World Energy Consumption since 1820 in Charts.

Figure 1. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent. The biofuel category also includes wind, solar, and other new renewables.

Graphically, what an 80% reduction in fossil fuels would mean is shown in Figure 2, below. I have also assumed that  non-fossil fuels (some combination of wind, solar, geothermal, biofuels, nuclear, and hydro) could be ramped up by 72%, so that total energy consumption “only” decreases by 50%.

Figure 2. Forecast of world energy consumption, assuming fossil fuel consumption decreases by 80% by 2050, and non fossil fuels increase so that total fuel consumption decreases by “only” 50%. Amounts before black line are actual; amounts after black lines are forecast in this scenario.

We can use actual historical population amounts plus the UN’s forecast of population growth to 2050 to convert these amounts to per capita energy equivalents, shown in Figure 3, below.

Figure 3. Forecast of per capita energy consumption, using the energy estimates in Figure 2 divided by world population estimates by the UN. Amounts before the black line are actual; after the black line are estimates.

In Figure 3, we see that per capita energy use has historically risen, or at least not declined. You may have heard about recent declines in energy consumption in Europe and the US, but these declines have been more than offset by increases in energy consumption in China, India, and the rest of the “developing” world.

With the assumptions chosen, the world per capita energy consumption in 2050 is about equal to the world per capita energy consumption in 1905.

I applied regression analysis to create what I would consider a best-case estimate of future GDP if a decrease in energy supply of the magnitude shown were to take place. The reason I consider it a best-case scenario is because it assumes that the patterns we saw on the up-slope will continue on the down-slope. For example, it assumes that financial systems will continue to operate as today, international trade will continue as in the past, and that there will not be major problems with overthrown governments or interruptions to electrical power. It also assumes that we will continue to transition to a service economy, and that there will be continued growth in energy efficiency.

Based on the regression analysis:

  • World economic growth would average a negative 0.59% per year between now and 2050, meaning that the world would be more or less in perpetual recession between now and 2050. Given past relationships, this would be especially the case for Europe and the United States.
  • Per capita GDP would drop by 42% for the world between 2010 and 2050, on average. The decrease would likely be greater in higher income countries, such as the United States and Europe, because a more equitable sharing of resources between rich and poor nations would be needed, if the poor nations are to have enough of the basics.

I personally think a voluntary worldwide reduction in fossil fuels is very unlikely, partly because voluntary changes of this sort are virtually impossible to achieve, and partly because I think we are headed toward a near-term financial crash, which is largely the result of high oil prices causing recession in oil importers (like the PIIGS).

The reason I am looking at this scenario is two-fold:

(1) Many people are talking about voluntary reduction of fossil fuels and ramping up renewables, so looking at a best case scenario (that is, major systems hold together and energy efficiency growth continues) for this plan is useful, and

(2) If  we encounter a financial crash in the near term, I expect that one result will be at least a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2050 because of financial and trade difficulties, so this scenario in some ways gives an “upper bound” regarding the outcome of such a financial crash.

Close Connection Between Energy Growth, Population Growth, and Economic Growth

Historical estimates of energy consumption, population, and GDP are available for many years.  These estimates are not available for every year, but we have estimates for them for several dates going back through history. Here, I am relying primarily on population and GDP estimates of Angus Maddison, and energy estimates of Vaclav Smil, supplemented by more recent data (mostly for 2008 to 2010) by BP, the EIA, and USDA Economic Research Service.

If we compute average annual growth rates for various historical periods, we get the following indications:

Figure 4. Average annual growth rates during selected periods, selected based on data availability, for population growth, energy growth, and real GDP growth.

We can see from Figure 4 that energy growth and GDP growth seem to move in the same direction at the same time. Regression analysis (Figure 5, below) shows that they are highly correlated, with an r squared of 0.74.

Figure 5. Regression analysis of average annual percent change in world energy vs world GDP, with world energy percent change the independent variable.

Energy in some form is needed if movement is to take place, or if substances are to be heated. Since actions of these types are prerequisites for the kinds of activities that give rise to economic growth, it would seem as though the direction of causation would primarily be:

Energy growth gives rise to economic growth.

Rather than the reverse.

I used the regression equation in Figure 5 to compute how much yearly economic growth can be expected between 2010 and 2050, if energy consumption drops by 50%. (Calculation: On average, the decline is expected to be (50% ^(1/40)-1) = -1.72%. Plugging this value into the regression formula shown gives -0.59% per year, which is in the range of recession.) In the period 1820 to 2010, there has never been a data point this low, so it is not clear whether the regression line really makes sense applied to decreases in this manner.

In some sense, the difference between -1.72% and -0.59% per year (equal to 1.13%)  is the amount of gain in GDP that can be expected from increased energy efficiency and a continued switch to a service economy. While arguments can be made that we will redouble our efforts toward greater efficiency if we have less fuel, any transition to more fuel-efficient vehicles, or more efficient electricity generation, has a cost involved, and uses fuel, so may be less common, rather than more common in the future.

The issue of whether we can really continue transitioning to a service economy when much less fuel in total is available is also debatable. If people are poorer, they will cut back on discretionary items. Many goods are necessities: food, clothing, basic transportation. Services tend to be more optional–getting one’s hair cut more frequently, attending additional years at a university, or sending grandma to an Assisted Living Center. So the direction for the future may be toward a mix that includes fewer, rather than more, services, so will be more energy intensive. Thus, the 1.13% “gain” in GDP due to greater efficiency and greater use of “services” rather than “goods” may shrink or disappear altogether.

The time periods in the Figure 5 regression analysis are of different lengths, with the early periods much longer than the later ones. The effect of this is to give much greater weight to recent periods than to older periods. Also, the big savings in energy change relative to GDP change seems to come in the 1980 to 1990 and 1990 to 2000 periods, when we were aggressively moving into a service economy and were working hard to reduce oil consumption. If we exclude those time periods (Figure 6, below), the regression analysis shows a better fit (r squared = .82).

Figure 6. Regression analysis of average annual percent change in world energy vs world GDP excluding the periods 1980 to 1990 and 1990 to 2000, with world energy percent change the independent variable.

If we use the regression line in Figure 6 to estimate what the average annual growth rate would be with energy consumption contracting by -1.72% per year (on average) between 2010 and 2050, the corresponding average GDP change (on an inflation adjusted basis) would be contraction of -1.07% per year, rather than contraction of -0.59% per year, figured based on the regression analysis shown in Figure 5. Thus, the world economy would even to a greater extent be in “recession territory” between now and 2050.

Population Growth Estimates

In my calculation in the introduction, I used the UN’s projection of population of 9.3 billion people by 2050 worldwide, or an increase of 36.2% between 2010 and 2050, in reaching the estimated 42% decline in world per capita GDP by 2050. (Calculation: Forty years of GDP “growth” averaging minus 0.59% per year would produce total world GDP in 2050 of 79.0% of that in 2010. Per capita GDP is then (.790/ 1.362=.580) times 2010’s per capita income. I described this above as a 42% decline in per capita GDP, since (.580 – 1.000 = 42%).)

Population growth doesn’t look to be very great in Figure 4, since it shows annual averages, but we can see from Figure 7 (below) what a huge difference it really makes. Population now is almost seven times as large as in 1820.

Figure 7. World Population, based on Angus Maddison estimates, interpolated where necessary.

Since we have historical data, it is possible to calculate an estimate based on regression analysis of the expected population change between 2010 and 2050. If we look at population increases compared to energy growth by period (Figure 8), population growth is moderately correlated with energy growth, with an r squared of 0.55.

Figure 8. Regression analysis of population growth compared to energy growth, based on annual averages, with energy growth the independent variable.

One of the issues in forecasting population using regression analysis is that in the period since 1820, we don’t have any examples of negative energy growth for long enough periods that they actually appear in the averages used in this analysis. Even if this model fit very well (which it doesn’t), it still wouldn’t necessarily be predictive during periods of energy contraction. Using the regression equation shown in Figure 8, population growth would still be positive with an annual contraction of energy of 1.72% per year, but just barely. The indicated population growth rate would slow to 0.09% per year, or total growth of 3.8% over the 40 year period, bringing world population to 7.1 billion in 2050.

Energy per Capita

While I did not use Energy per Capita in this forecast, we can look at historical growth rates in Energy per Capita, compared to growth rates in total energy consumed by society. Here, we get a surprisingly stable relationship:

Figure 9. Comparison of average growth in total world energy consumed with the average amount consumed per person, for periods since 1820.

Figure 10 shows the corresponding regression analysis, with the highest correlation we have seen, an r squared equal to .87.

Figure 10. Regression analysis comparing total average increase in world energy with average increase in energy per capita, with average increase in world energy the independent variable.

It is interesting to note that this regression line seems to indicate that with flat (0.0% growth) in total energy, energy per capita would decrease by -0.59% per year. This seems to occur because population growth more than offsets efficiency growth, as women continue to give birth to more babies than required to survive to adulthood.

Can We Really Hold On to the Industrial Age, with Virtually No Fossil Fuel Use?

This is one of the big questions. “Renewable energy” was given the name it was, partly as a marketing tool. Nearly all of it is very dependent on the fossil fuel system. For example, wind turbines and solar PV panels require fossil fuels for their manufacture, transport, and maintenance. Even nuclear energy requires fossil fuels for its maintenance, and for decommissioning old power plants, as well as for mining, transporting, and processing uranium. Electric cars require fossil fuel inputs as well.

The renewable energy that is not fossil fuel dependent (mostly wood and other biomass that can be burned), is in danger of being used at faster than a sustainable rate, if fossil fuels are not available. There are few energy possibilities that are less fossil fuel dependent, such as solar thermal (hot water bottles left in the sun to warm) and biofuels made in small quantities for local use.  Better insulation is also a possibility. But it is doubtful these solutions can make up for the huge loss of fossil fuels.

We can talk about rationing fuel, but in practice, rationing is extremely difficult, once the amount of fuel becomes very low. How does one ration lubricating oil? Inputs for making medicines? To keep business processes working together, each part of every supply chain must have the fuel it needs. Even repairmen must have the fuel needed to get to work, for example. Trying to set up a rationing system that handles all of these issues would be nearly impossible.

GDP and Population History Back to 1 AD

Angus Maddison, in the same data set that I used back to 1820, also gives an estimate of population and GDP back to 1 AD. If we look at a history of average annual growth rates in world GDP (inflation adjusted) and in population growth, this is the pattern we see:

Figure 11. Average annual growth in GDP in energy and in population, for selected periods back to the year 1 AD.

Figure 11 shows that the use of fossil fuels since 1820 has allowed GDP to rise faster than population, for pretty much the first time. Prior to 1820, the vast majority of world GDP growth was absorbed by population growth.

If we compare the later time periods to the earlier ones, Figure 11 shows a pattern of increasing growth rates for both population and GDP.  We know that in the 1000 to 1500 and 1500 to 1820 time periods, early energy sources (peat moss, water power, wind power, animal labor) became more widespread. These changes no doubt contributed to the rising growth rates. The biggest change, however, came with the addition of fossil fuels, in the period after 1820.

Looking back, the question seems to become: How many people can the world support, at what standard of living, with a given quantity of fuel? If our per capita energy consumption drops to the level it was in 1905, can we realistically expect to have robust international trade, and will other systems hold together? While it is easy to make estimates that make the transition sound easy, when  a person looks at the historical data, making the transition to using less fuel looks quite difficult, even in a best-case scenario. One thing is clear: It is very difficult to keep up with rising world population.

This entry was posted in 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.

111 thoughts on “An Energy/GDP Forecast to 2050

  1. “If we encounter a financial crash in the near term, I expect that one result will be at least a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2050 because of financial and trade difficulties, ”

    With re: to Figure 1 – weren’t there at least a half dozen significant financial crashes during the 1820 – 2010 time frame ….

    and yet the graph still grows.

    I think to create a 50% reduction in total energy consumption would require something much more significant than a crash. Perhaps a giant meteor is what you’re anticipating?

    • We haven’t had a major credit implosion of the type I am expecting, that will affect the whole world. We have had downturns in one part of the world or another, and debt defaults. But the rest of the world continued on, and was able to pick up the pieces.

      Even if the crash were of “only” the US and Europe, and the rest of the world refused to pick up the pieces, it could be a major problem. Eventually the others would fall as well.

      • There have been multiple global financial crashes during the 1820-2010 timespan. The economy has been globalised for some time.

        The Great Depression is the most obvious example, but there were global panics and economic contractions throughout the 19th century.

        And of course, the most recent global meltdown … from which Global GDP took all of 20 months to recover.

        I thought the focus here was energy limitations? Predicting a massive crash in the next 12 months ….. this will reflect very poorly on this blog if. 12 months from now, the Global GDP merely muddles along with “lower than forecasted” growth.

          • You do not believe the Global GDP numbers or the global energy numbers? If you do not believe these numbers why make charts with them.

            The global economy was very indebted after World War II. By almost any reckoning, more indebted than today. Perhaps there is a history class at your local community college that can help you with this.

          • I’m surprised by your comment. You have spent the last year correlating GDP and oil useage. Which would means the world has recovered. I would say United States has recovered also without the false real estate demand of easy money. The US papered over debt is the penalty or real cost for past “bad” policy. If “recovery” means going back to 2006, than god help us all.
            If “recovery” means going back to expecting a better future, than smart good investments from the private and public sector are required. War is not a good investment for the total sum of the population, but can be profitable for a small portion. Today in America, politics (to agree on the way forward) is our biggest problem holding back a bright economic future for the whole, not a future shortage of energy.

  2. I have been following your posts recently with interests as they follow my thoughts. I guess you develop in a very logical direction and this stimulates readers thoughts in the same direction. We see now that banking has peaked as is usual before a big crash like in the 30s in % of economic activity. If finacncial industry is strongly reduced in total due to less opportunity and regulation and firings of employees and less young people will seek a job there then the problem with growth coupled to finance, bank interest and corporate dividends will be less important. The financial markets are being starved and are starving the small and medium businesses of funds which businessses make the creative life changes in the economy. The powering down of the economy back to horse buggy tech will become a real opportunity for millions of citizens locally along with fresh garden produce to market and candle manufacture and wicker furniture and baskets a la 1970s hippies once the brownouts and blackouts get more common and international fruit delivery (kiwis, bananas) in cooled containers is reduced. The big banks will probably die and coops will take their place with the local scripts. A reduced GDP is no problem when you consider that unemployed women at home and men in the garden eat and make clothes without any statistical plus for megacorp, wall street, TBTF banks. TV and internet is just such a waste of time and computerization in workplace (enter data several times for insurnace and govt. records, etc.) wastes so much worktime for all concerned (police, hospitals, educational) that loss of these tools would be positive net benefit socially and save massive amounts of energy. Same with packaging. Just take away the plastic in medicine(rewash glass needle and shopping and carry it home in your own bag. So a reduction in per capita energy consumption means an increased qualtiy of life most certainly. I would imagine a 90% or more reduction in GDP(and energy usage) per capita would be no problem. The problem is the 10% we actually need and maintaining actual levels needed for survival, like a minimum caloric intake until we get back to a sustainable population level at a lower level of consumption globally (with corresponding die off here and there due to ethiopia type conditions or syria type civil wars). Less involvement by big powers and their megacorps and banks and militaries would allow local development of culture within countries (no Walmarts in China, Mexico, Egypt and local stores and production in USA and Europe instead of pure Chinese throwaway manufacture for everyone) which would be for local conditions more useful everywhere. Generally if USA/Europe/Japan use more energy than they consume they have a long slide down austerity’s slope as we see in Spain and Greece, in the localities in Southern Europe and US going broke. The social welfare state was a pipe dream to maintain social peace and prevent warfare in a temporary high energy industrial society. On the downslope food rationing cards(food stamps for everyone?) and war time gardening could do the trick but much earlier deaths due to lack of high tech medicine will probably balance out lots of financial problems(state pensions and medicaid, etc.).

    • If major systems “stick together” what you describe might work.

      But if food production is not enough outside of big cities, and cities can’t produce for themselves, that could be a problem. Intermittent power could cause problems with water /sewer, leading to disease, particularly in densely populated areas.

      There are also questions of unforeseen circumstances like government overthrows, and countries breaking up in to smaller pieces. They could be a problem for commerce.

  3. Right now one of the topics I am looking at is the example of Edo Japan (1603-1867) as a possible model for what our future might look like. During that era Japan was isolated from the rest of the world, under feudal rule, and powered by current solar energy (last 2 or 3 years). Some relevant links from and

    I am also reading a book on Edo Japan entitled Just Enough by Azby Brown (2009)

    Obviously, it was a society that was living very close to the margins materially while having a cultured and literate populous. Direct sunlight was used in every conceivable way, and everything was treated as a valuable resource that was used and recycled numerous times. Edo (later Tokyo) had a population of 1.2 million and 4000 used clothing stores.

    No doubt getting there would be wrenching as a country re-set to a new balance between land, people and resources. At the same time, the fact that such a society existed is encouraging in contrast to all the talk of total collapse.

    • Japan only had 30 million people back then, and now it has about 127 million. There were a lot more large fish in the sea, back then.

      There is certainly more that can be done in the fashion it was done earlier, but it makes it much harder with a much larger population.

  4. Is there some explanation here for why the global economy would radically drop it’s use of fossil fuels but ramp up it’s use of renewables?

    Renewables are currently a “boutique” fuel. They cost more and are more difficult to use than fossil fuels?

    If there is a major financial crash and economic contraction …. people would then abandon the cheaper and more convenient energy sources and rush to the more expensive, luxury energy source? This seems like lunacy. If there is a major economic contraction, than fossil fuel use will **grow** as a percentage of the total energy mix, as renewables will decline more than fossil fuels.

    It is very hard to imagine a different scenario. A major economic crash such as predicted here is certainly possible, (lots of things are possible) …. but a major economic crash accompanied by a rush to more expensive energy sources strikes me as impossible.

    • What is actually happening is that everybody is SAYING how wonderful the renewables are, but the reality is that the biggest gains are coming from coal and nuclear in Europe and Asia and gas in the USA.

      While Germany rushes to build filthy brown coal plant to replace is politically terminated nuclear.

      Given the choice between citizens rioting on account of high fuel prices today, and sticking in a CO2 emitting coal station, that may (or may not) impact climate 20 years down the line, or a nuclear power station that wont, which way do you think governments will go. Are ALREADY going in fact.

      The cos/benefit analyses are nowhere near as clear cut on climate change and CO2 as people perceive them to be.

      The eco-fringe would have us believe that cO2 is so damaging that it must be prevented at any cost at all. Which is odd, because in thet same breath they reject the most successfully low carbon energy source that is also the cheapest – nuclear. You don#t need a tinfoil hat to realises that at least some of the fuss is not about the planets future, but the future of renewable energy companies..

      If you then construct a matrix of climate change possibilities starting with something we all agree – the late 20th century was warmer than the earlier part some interesting options emerge. Especially when its been a great deal warmer and indeed colder in the last 2000 years.

      Option 1. The IPCC narrative is substantially correct. Man Made CO2 is raising the planets temperature.
      Option 1a. So let it and meet the cost of what we will have to do to deal with it
      Option 1b. Build lots of nucelar power stations which are the cheapest and least environmentally impacting way to deal with it
      Option 1c Build lots of very expensive renewable energy that locks us in to co-generation with fossil fuels forever. But gives the greens the warm, fuzzies. Most expensive and least effective response.

      Option 2. The world is getting dangerously warmer but its nothing whatever to do with CO2.
      Option 2a. Carry on building fossil power stains and burning up fossil reserves to meet the changes we can’t stop anyway.
      Option 2b. Build lots of nuclear power stations that will be a bit more expensive than the fossil, but will ultimately mean we have more fossils left for longer, cheaper for things we cant plug into the grid, like aeroplanes.
      Option 2c build renewable power that isn’t actually needed as CO2 is no longer an issue, and involve ourselves in needless expense.

      Option 3. The world is about to enter a rather vicious cooling phase as it has done (at least) twice in the last 2000 years. (some alternative climate scientists draw parallels between the current position of the jet stream, the current sunspot activity and the occurrence of these events historically) Food production in that temperate regions will be badly affected at least until the climate settles enough to work out what to grow, where. We will likley need more energy than ever.

      Option 3a. Build conventional fossil plant as fast as we can and hang the CO2 emissions since we will need all the greenhouse gases we can get to stay warm. Assuming CO2 has that effect.

      Option 3b Build nuclear as fast as we can – it is going to cost more but maybe the waste hot water can go into greenhouses, which it looks like we might be needing. At least we are protected from massive rises in fossil prices as demand tops out.

      Option 3c Build renewable energy that doesn’t free us from dependence on fossil fuels, is more expensive than fossil fuel or nuclear and is solving a non-existent problem we don’t have.

      Ok, now in order to agree with the options assumptions, its needful to have done research most people haven’t, which is to accurately use the data from the renewable industry (as opposed to their political lobby groups, whose output is more or less a tissue of lies, when examined in detail) to assign costs in terms of fossil, renewable, and nuclear energy (financial, social and environmental) , and benefits in terms of reduction of carbon emissions, assuming these actually represent a problem.
      In the UK two groups of people have done this at least, as have others elsewhere. Their conclusion is that irrespective of whether or not Option1 is the correct analysis of the climate arguments, renewable energy is always the worst possible option to choose for any power strategy.

      Mercados ( has this to say .

      “It is often not clear whether the aim of that (having a renewables target, over and above an emissions target, alone) policy is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, or to deliver renewables for their own sake.”

      Professor Hughes of the global climate change foundation, who presents a more complex and in depth analysis of the carbon fuel nuclear and renewables market, is somewhat more pithy.


      “The casual assumption that expenditures on green technology represent an efficient and economic use of scarce resources is little more than a convenient fairy tale for troubled times.”

      The conclusion that less responsible people than these, like myself can voice clearly, is that renewable energy is in fact not a response to climate change at all, but a response to falling profit margins in the energy generating sector, and that it’s used the climate change agenda to essentially fraudulently hawk their wares on false assumptions and misleading data and a public perception that has been carefully groomed. The use of political lobbying groups that are – in the UK at least – exempt from any requirements to tell the truth, as politics and religion are , are held to be areas which, as they do not directly advertise products from a specific vendor, are “ultra vires” when it comes to the law on providing misleading advertising copy.
      This is not to say that in a litigious USA a class action by consumers against such groups, and their commercial sponsors, might not be pursued with some hope of success on the grounds of fraud.

      Be that as it may, further analysis of this train of thought brings into sharp focus the actual basis of the IPCC AGW hypothesis itself. We have established motive and opportunity for that to also be misleading and a fraud. As increasing numbers of people here in Europe consider that it may well be. A change mild planetary warming over 40 years is simply ‘normal’ in even historical times, and this one is nothing special at all.

      And suddenly an alternative narrative forms. Not of the brave IPCC as a lone voice crying out against a disastrous and certain future, but of a fairly small and not very substantiated theory – one amongst many – that is seen to be exactly the right adjunct to a massive corporate seeking of rent. One that upset the oil majors initially, because it allegedly devalued their resources, but now one they are happy to assist in every way precisely because with careful management of the information flow, the proposed ‘solution’ doesn’t damage sales of hydrocarbon fuels at all. Because the solution actually barely works at all. In fact it increases their value: because it sets the expectation of higher energy prices to ‘save the planet’

      And finally, the real competitor, the actual technology that DOES work is demonized completely.

      Its a wonderful recipe for profit as long as the truth stays hidden.

      Whether or not you believe the received wisdom of the age, or this deeply cynical alternative, depends on whether or not your experience of people in corporations and politics and commerce, marketing and finance has been one of high minded moral altruistic benefactors of mankind or a bunch of greedy lying b***r*ds who would sell their grandmother down the river for short term profit.

      Follow the money, see who is funding all this eco-this, climate change that, and renewable other, and you may be surprised.

      And Gail, if, having read this extremely long piece of whatever, you feel its has no place in your blog, by all means delete it.

      But I felt it should be written. These are not easy times, and when you stumble on what amounts to a multi-billion dollar fraud, you have to say something.

      Personally having satisfied myself that renewable energy is verging on, or a clear case of, fraud, I have come to be deeply skeptical of the AGW hypothesis which is its sole justification.
      It all smacks too neatly of creating a problem to fit a solution you have.

      • Leo – you need to master the art of smaller posts.

        Certainly renewables could be poised for a big **proportional** growth.

        But there are growing from such a small base, they will surely remain a small fraction of the energy pie for decades. (Unless you count hydropower, which the Green movement hates).

        My point is this “forecast” is beyond absurd. Fossil fuel use will crash, totally energy use will decline precipitously, and renewables will ramp up quickly? The future, whatever it may be, will not resemble this prediction in the slightest.

        Gail should put a clear disclaimer saying this is not a forecast in the slightest, but an intellectual exercise describing what would happen if the world were taken over by Greenpeace.

        • My point is that renewables are driven by faith and ideology and not by results.
          Fossil fuel wont crash, but we will have a decade of energy austerity.
          There is presumably an urgent need to change our ideas, but my second point was that all the eco-lobby side produces is ‘qualitative’ solutions. I.e. one man rows across the Atlantic therefore “we will carry on international trade with teams of people rowing ships across the Atlantic” sort of thinking.

          Gail is one of the few people – no more than 1-200 – that I am aware of in the future prediction game who actually run the numbers,

          In general the world, like the Americans, can always be counted on to do the right thing – after it has exhausted all the other alternatives. I am am juts trying to streamline the process.

          Nuclear V fossil is entirely bounded by cost: faced with the one in a million chance of having to evacuate their homes for a year, or the certainty of dying from hypothermia, it is after all a no- brainer. Assuming we still have something resembling a democracy.

          Lord knows stoking fuel rods in a big pot of water to make steam to drive a steam engine is a pretty crude thing to do, but its a heck of sight better than windmills and solar panels.

        • I gave a second reason for looking at this, and I think that is the one that makes sense (but with a different fossil fuels/renewables split). What I said was,” If we encounter a financial crash in the near term, I expect that one result will be at least a 50% reduction in energy consumption by 2050 because of financial and trade difficulties, so this scenario in some ways gives an “upper bound” regarding the outcome of such a financial crash.”

          HIgh oil price is nature’s way of brining demand down. The downslope may not be as smooth as I suggested, but the effect will be recession and job layoffs, leading to less oil and other fuel use. It is really this that I am concerned about. (It doesn’t hurt to look at the other scenario as well.)

        • “HIgh oil price is nature’s way of brining demand down. ”

          But isn’t low natural gas price natures way of bringing demand up?

          And a high oil to natural gas price ratio natures way of swapping oil for natty gas?

          • Yes, but it is expensive to pull natural gas out of the ground. Unless the price of natural gas exceeds the price to pull it out of the ground, we won’t get much for very long. There is also a big cost of conversion (including energy cost), and the amount of natural gas available appears to be far too low to substitute for the shortfall in oil supply.

      • Leo,

        I am not as convinced as you are that nuclear power is safe for the long term, or I might feel as you do. We don’t have the facilities to reprocess all of the left over uranium, and we don’t have the nuclear plants that would use the plutonium in it either.

        The climate change situation is more complex. The climate has been changing for a long time, and humans have been causing climate change since we first started burning down forests when we were still hunter gatherers. CO2 pollution is a problem in and of itself, apart from climate change. But like you, I don’t see “renewables” as a solution. They don’t do enough and they are more expensive than we can afford. There are all kinds of indirect effects that people don’t consider, as well, that make the direct savings calculations invalid. For example, if renewables ramp up energy costs in some parts of the world, the higher costs will tend to increase imports from parts of the use world that use coal as an electricity source, and indirectly raise CO2 emissions. (We have been seeing this in recent years. Carbon taxes seem to have the same effect.) See Is it really possible to decouple GDP growth from energy growth? and Thoughts on why energy use and CO2 emissions are rising as fast as GDP.

        I think that the push toward renewables has several sources (besides climate change):

        1. Desire to help the local economy with a new local business. Corn ethanol arose from a need for a new market for corn. Renewables sound more local than oil imports, especially if it is possible to ramp up local production of wind turbines or solar panels.

        2. Fear of peak oil. No one can talk about peak oil, so climate change is a convenient proxy–at least, theoretically, more distant in its impact.

        3. Desire for politicians to look like they are doing something, if oil and other energy prices are rising.

        4. There is a myth that renewables will at some point become less expensive than fossil fuels, and at that point, demand for them will take off. There are too many fossil fuel inputs for this to be true. Also, no one stopped to think that perhaps the economy can’t really function on high priced energy, regardless of whether this energy comes from fossil fuel or “renewables”.

        5. Misunderstanding that renewables really are “renewable”. This is largely the choice of a clever name for them. They could best be described as “fossil fuel extenders”. If we lose fossil fuels, we lose renewables, because they are so dependent on fossil fuels (for example, for maintaining the electric grid, and for building new cars that use biofuels).

        6. Need to reduce oil imports. The countries most interested in both carbon taxes and renewables are ones that cannot afford oil imports, so anything that might possibly help them is important. (Of course, if world oil production is maxed out, its production is likely to remain the same, whether or not the country in question reduces its consumption.)

        7. Academia tends to go along with “fad de jour”. If funding is for research on renewables, that is where the research will be.

        • “Leo, I am not as convinced as you are that nuclear power is safe for the long term, or I might feel as you do.”

          Gail: that is the sole difference in our positions.

          I am not a nuclear engineer – I am a simple electrical engineer, but I have made it my business to asses where nuclear stands from that engineering perspective. In essence there are no issues with it that cannot be solved at far lower cost than e.g. ‘renewables’ whose issues are intrinsic – not to the technology, but to the energy source itself.

          There is a circle of self fulfilling prophecy about the way nuclear is demonised, so that no one is willing to tackle the issue for fear of a political backlash, which means that the issues don’t get tackled, and so the perception is that the issues cant be tackled at all.

          Likewise, in that climate of fear, extremely conservative standards based on the LNT* model of radiological risk were developed. Short of subjecting people to years of low level radiation and seeing how many did die, that was a reasonable approach, but once again that model – though absolutely flawed – has been held as evidence that:

          ‘Even the government says there is no safe level of radiation!’.

          Radiation is complex. And the damage it causes even more so. Not only is the type of decay (alpha, beta or gamma) relevant, so also is what the decay product is, and how biologically active it is. Radioactive iodine is possibly the worst of all: it concentrates in the thyroid where it can do great damage. Fortunately it’s more or less gone in a few weeks, as its high radioactivity count means it transmutes fast.

          By far and away the greatest radiation killer is sunlight: high energy gamma rays (UV) from the great nuclear reactor in the sky, (the one that drives all that ‘renewable’ energy) cause more deaths from cancer than anything else by a large margin. In the UK its comparable with deaths from road traffic accidents.

          The second biggest killer, is radon, that occurs naturally in many places: by itself it represents a slight risk, but that risk is massively magnified by smoking or anything that impairs the lungs ability to clean itself. Radon decays via alpha and beta emissions through various isotopes of polonium, bismuth and lead, all of which are poisonous and many of which are carcinogenic. Inability to cough that sort of stuff out leaves the potential of particles of them in the lungs to cause real damage. Fortunately radon is not something the nuclear power industry produces. It’s entirely natural.

          And its not the only entirely natural radioactive compound. Background radiation from entirely natural causes like cosmic rays hitting the earth, is responsible for nearly all the radiation we are exposed to – apart of course from the sun which bombards us with gamma rays. Carbon 14, potassium 40..these are in the air we breathe and in the food we eat. As is radon. In fact the total radioactivity of all of these is 4 times greater than anything man made, and that is from MEDICAL use of X rays and radio isotopes. Next on the lists is the residue of weapons testing in the 50s and 60s, at a teeny fraction of the total, and right at the bottom, contributing 0.5% or less is the residue of making electricity. Including Chernobyl and Fukushima..

          So there really IS no problem of radiation at all. The problem lies in the fact that whilst people are prepared to risk death by lying on a beach, and want their X rays and their cat scans and their transcontinental flights – all of which expose them to far more radiation than any remote nuclear accident conceivably could – they have been educated to fear any radiation that’s not natural or medical as if it were somehow worse…

          And that drives up the cost of nuclear forcing it to maintain huge insurance against totally unrealistic scenarios, and has paralysed the treatment of waste. Which is all grist to the mills of those to whom the greatest threat is nuclear – not because it kills people, but because it is a well proven reliable energy generating technology that actually competes well with coal and gas for base-load generation, but they want to sell something that doesn’t.

          IN short the cheapest way to decommission a reactor is to wait 5 years, fill it with concrete and cover it with trash and a layer of soil. Which would actually work extremely well. HOWEVER one is required to spend billions on studies that will demonstrate that in 10,000 years time one atom of plutonium won’t somehow get out into an underground stream. Or something equally irrelevant. And of course that can’t be done. So by setting impossible targets nuclear can be discredited, or made impossibly expensive.

          Likewise spent fuel could be ground up with general hardcore and dumped in a hole in the ground and would be no more radioactive overall than the actual ore from which the uranium was originally extracted.

          But by the magic of ‘unnatural’ intervention, anything that has been through the nuclear industry, power or medical, suddenly acquires a big warning sticker and becomes qualitatively different, it seems.

          Leading to some curious and interesting anomalies.

          1/. Coal ash (fly ash) is very slightly radioactive due to concentrating the minute amounts of uranium that generally coexist with coal. If the coal had been through a nuclear facility, it would be classed as ‘low level waste’ and be disposed of by burying in sealed containers. However if it’s just ‘coal ash’ its perfectly all right to combine it with cement and make ‘cinder blocks’ for use in the construction of domestic homes.

          2/. In the UK we have two areas where the normal natural background radiation is so high (Dartmoor in the South-West, and parts of Aberdeen in Scotland) that no nuclear power station could ever be built there, since the dose received from entirely natural causes exceeds the total permitted annual dose for nuclear power workers. People have lived there for centuries, and there is a just detectable increase in lung cancer amongst smokers who live there, and almost no detectable increase in non smokers. (compared with the general UK statistic for these types of people).

          3/. Post Fukushima, some diplomats were sent home amidst concern that the background radiation levels had risen slightly in Tokyo. Sent home to cities that had considerably higher background radiation than Tokyo ever reached…Japan is a very low radiation country, having little coal or granite it seems.

          What can you say? nuclear power is about 100 times safer than the regulators regulate it to be, and about 10,000 times safer than its painted by some. That’s the factual basis. Nothing can’t be done to fix safety and waste disposal to reasonable standards, but of course the game is to insist on totally *unreasonable* standards.

          Politically of course, no one got elected advocating nuclear power, so its likely that no one will resort to it once they have bankrupted themselves on getting rid of it and putting in coal, gas or renewable energy.

          It is however under great expansion in ex soviet countries, India, China countries of the middle East..the only nations reducing it are the USA, Western Europe and .parts of the British ex commonwealth.

          IF we reach a fossil peak though, and we need quantities of primary energy, its the only card left in the deck. The issues of ‘renewables’ cannot be ‘solved’ because they are issues with the energy sources themselves, not the technology that collects them.

          No one wants nuclear out of some fascination with atomic technology: rather we need nuclear technology because we have run out of alternatives. That is the quandary the Japanese face. They are scared of it, they don’t trust their politicians or their engineering companies, yet realistically they cannot do with out it.

          As I said earlier, the pressure is off the USA for a decade or so if the unconventional oil provides a short term stopgap, but for some of us that option is already running out. Or being stifled by more opposition from the eco-lobbies.

          If its a choice between nuclear and nothing, I know where my money is.

          (there is an excellent book called ‘radiation and reason’ by Wade Allison, that puts the whole issue into perspective, and is recommended for people who actually want to know the facts.)

          *Linear No Threshold, based on the assumption that if exposure to radiation of value Y causes 50% of people to die (data from say Hiroshima), than exposure to 1% of that value will cause 0.5% of people to die etc etc. It was introduced as a worst case scenario, and its absolutely been shown to be far to conservative – up to 100 times too conservative in fact. Chernobyl had the anti-nuclear brigade using it to predict hundreds of thousands of deaths, The official WHO figure is I think just 78 people and about 3000 incidences of (non lethal) thyroid cancer which should have been prevented by iodine pills if the state there had been as fast as the Japanese were. So low has been the death toll that millions of people are now convinced its all a government cover up, as if 200 thousand people dying of cancer could be covered up..

    • I should perhaps have made myself more clear. If there is a financial crash, there might be a 50% drop in fuel use, but it would be the most expensive 50% that is likely to go. So I would expect renewables to stop ramping up. The drop in fossil fuels might be less than the 80% that I postulated in the renewable fuel ramp-up scenario. If coal is the cheapest fossil fuel, and can at times be mined with little complexity, it might continue to the largest extent.

      • So this is chart you call a prediction …. is in no way an actual prediction.

        Thanks for clearing that up.

  5. Scientifically literate people understand that AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming) is happening to a high degree of certainy. The science, the modelling and the empirical data since the industrial revolution all confirm this.

    “The scientific opinion on climate change is that the Earth’s climate system is unequivocally warming, and it is more than 90% certain that humans are causing it through activities that increase concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as deforestation and burning fossil fuels.” – Wikipedia.

    Note that wording of “the Earth’s climate system is unequivocally warming”. That means this part is 100% certain from the data. It is then over 90% certain that this is manmade (anthropogenic).

    People who deny or are unduly sceptical about these scientific conclusions are either scientifically illiterate or they have allowed pro-business and pro-fossil fuel propaganda to lead them an illogical and unscientific conclusion. Most climate change sceptics are people who do not understand what science is nor how it works as a discipline.

    Nuclear fission power is not a renewable energy source on earth. It relies on finite supplies of fissile materials. Already there are clear signs that peak uranium extraction is approaching.

    “The Energy Watch Group has calculated that, even with steep uranium prices, uranium production will have reached its peak by 2035 and that it will only be possible to satisfy the fuel demand of nuclear plants until then.” – Wikipedia.

    Ultimately, we have only two choices. Survive on renewables or suffer species extinction. Sooner or later, we will reach the point where only renewable energy and materials are available (all essentially powered by incoming insolation i.e. sunshine.) Thus, those who denigrate the capacity of renewables to power some (probably much lower) level of civilization should give up all hope now. Those who recognise correctly that renewables are our ONLY long term hope ought to keep working for that hope no matter how slim and for how few. Because it is the only hope for a remant of the human race at least while the sun keeps shining.

    • Other animals just use the energy that comes down from the sun, plus the energy that they get through eating the food. None of this involves what is today referred to as “renewable energy”. Perhaps this is the way all species need to live, if they are to blend in with the rest of nature. If this is the case, it is sort of a big “oops” for humans.

      • Theses are the people that will survive. Nice video about tribe living in the wood and raising deer. These people live in harmony with nature,

        If the link does not work search on youtube ray myers seberia

        • I am not familiar how to post video links on this blog. To get the video of the siberia tribe type How to Build a Siberian Chum – Ray Mears World of Survival – BBC
          on youtube.

          It is beautiful to see these person in action,

          • Interesting! I agree they can keep on doing this, pretty much indefinitely, unless climate change vastly changes their environment.

            I did notice that they were use several metal tools: an ax, a knife for killing the reindeer, and a metal scraper to scrape the deer skin. If these were not available, I presume they could make somewhat acceptable substitutes from sharpened stones or from bones.

            • Yes. That’s how they used to do it.

              You will note that

              – they have a monumentality low population density
              – they absolutely are NOT vegetarians, and in fact could not be.

  6. As I read all these comments I mostly see the underlying assumption that somehow we need to keep the existing systems going: heating and cooling and industrial agriculture and high tech medicine and the housing industry and water and sewer systems and so forth.

    I suggest that all of you go and live for a week or so where none of these things are available. Life can be pretty good without any of them. There is a lot of work to do–but no jobs paying cash.

    If we get back to the fundamentals of what it takes to lead a good life, we find that many of these things are just expensive, non-sustainable distractions. Jesus, among others, managed without them.

    As for deaths–nobody ever said that Mother Nature highly values an individual life. Whether of a soil bacterium or a human. Take a nature based look at the situation and enjoy what life has to offer while you can. The ego is an illusion.

    Don Stewart

    • That’s true if your society is geared up (or should that be down?) for it, but we who live in a hi-tech, just-in-time world do not have those simple infrastructures to fall back on. In many parts of the world, society hasn’t got past the subsistence farming level, and they still manage to be happy, but we would starve if we were suddenly thrown into that situation by the collapse of fossil-fuel powered agriculture and just-in-time supermarkets.

    • I have done that Don. The problem is that it requires that you drop the population density by a factor of ten….

      Now if I am in the ten percent all well and good, but what about the 90% who have to die?

      • Leo Smith said:
        The problem is that it requires that you drop the population density by a factor of ten…. Now if I am in the ten percent all well and good, but what about the 90% who have to die?

        DownToTheLastCookie said:
        Minimum, I think renewable energy could give individuals transportation as good as a horse with out the mess in the street.

        davekimble2 said:
        That’s true if your society is geared up (or should that be down?) for it, but we who live in a hi-tech, just-in-time world do not have those simple infrastructures to fall back on. In many parts of the world, society hasn’t got past the subsistence farming level, and they still manage to be happy, but we would starve if we were suddenly thrown into that situation by the collapse of fossil-fuel powered agriculture and just-in-time supermarkets.

        And on The Oil Drum there is a report about China using coal to feed its chemical industry rather than petroleum as is done in most of the world. Several ‘American’ multinationals are participating in the construction of the plants. Some of the commentators say ‘another defeat for Peak Oil’. Among the products produced in China is synthetic nitrogen fertilizer–which promotes soil degradation while boosting yields in the short term.

        My point is simply that Life follows certain rules. If we transgress these rules long enough and far enough, we are going to pay for it with suffering and death. The situation is similar to feeling sorry for the people who buy junk food in gas stations and the middle aisles of grocery stores. Of course Big Food is exercising its demonic powers over relatively helpless and clueless humans…but at the end of the day Life’s rules will be followed. No amount of Obamacare is going to change the outcome–although it WILL contribute to the bankruptcy of the US.

        I do not know with certainty what the population density will be when Life gets we humans sorted out. I DO know that a human intensive agriculture can grow a lot more food than industrial agriculture currently does. I DO know that ignorance about the value of horse manure is both endemic and a shameful indictment of our educational system. (John Adams, our second President, investigated the horse manure on London streets with his walking stick and found it ‘inferior to what we make on our farm in Massachusetts’.) I DO know that a sudden collapse of the current system would result in widespread starvation–but I ALSO know that the very reasonable path laid out by Peter Bane in Garden Farming for Town and Country is within the capabilities of most people. The question is mostly: how many people will take heed and actually do something?

        As an overall observation, the US is trying to be successful with fewer and fewer people actually producing anything at all that is actually useful. We are at record levels of mental and emotional and physical incompetence and our ‘jobs’ have been skewed toward the unproductive roles of speculation, caretaking for the chronically sick, and the production of junk food. We have mined the Earth rather than husbanded the Earth. While I can empathize with, let’s say, an elderly couple who are in poor health because of a lifetime of bad choices and whose children are all a thousand miles away and who don’t have grandchildren to take care of while the parents work–but that doesn’t mean the US taxpayer can and will support them.

        Don Stewart

        • Don, that is all well and good in the USA where actually the countryside could absorb a LOT of the townspeople in a sort of Amish type lifestyle.

          In nations in Europe, and say Japan, we depend on a vast excess of energy input to create less than half the food we eat. Take that energy out and we are truly scuppered. The towns and their populations would largely cease to exist. The last time we – the UK – were self sufficient without the use of fossil energy, and depended on renewables, the population was less than a tenth of what it is today, and for most people life was a grindingly poor existence as manual agricultural fieldworkers and the like. Transport was by horse, by horse drawn canal boat, or by sailing ship.

          The world has never been renewable. It has never been in equilibrium. It constantly changes to reflect the climate, the chance arrival of new species, the destruction of old all of whom expand to fill the habitats they exploit, then crash back to niches when they exhaust that habitat.

          The key is in the term ‘fossil fuel – the remains of long extinct species who created that carbon fuel as waste out of what they found – a carbon dioxide rich, wet, watery world before too may animals had arisen. Its a good thing for us that plants in the carboniferous didn’t worry about making the planet unfit for their children, or they too might have created vast bonfires to burn up their dead and take up the excess oxygen and create more carbon dioxide for themselves!

          The Old World and Japan have few options left. On the numbers the only hope is to use nuclear power or suffer massive loss of civilisation and life. And even then the transformation to a low carbon lifestyle will be severe.

          That they don’t even realise this at a political level shows the downside to democracy: You can only move as fast as the peoples ideas about the world can and will be changed, and they can be changed as easily for selfish motives as altruistic ones.

          And there is no guarantee they will be changed for the better in either case.
          The truth is that the political class does not lead, it follows: it is parasitic upon the nation, taking its excess consumption and using it to regulate matters as much to its own advantage as that of the people. That creates a system that is very slow to respond to change. And very disinclined to allow change to happen.

          Sometimes that’s a good thing, sometimes its a very bad thing indeed. Wars typically provide the desperation to try the new, as the governments are threatened then with complete destruction of themselves. Lacking wars, we can look forward to at least another decade of weary attempts to keep the ball in the air and kick the old civilisation can down the road. This will postpone but not prevent the final collapse: And make it more sever – as long as reliance is placed on, and resources poured into, existing institutions, they new ones that are more fit for purpose are disadvantaged, and when that becomes understood, there may be few resources left to create them with.

          • Leo
            I am certainly no expert on Britain. I do know that some Permaculture type studies (intensively farmed as opposed to industrially farmed) have shown that Britain can feed itself, and even produce a modest amount of animal food. I don’t know about Japan. Recent (last 15 years) studies have shown that Hong Kong and Shanghai have the capability of feeding themselves from the surrounding territories. That, of course, doesn’t mean that either city may not grow to a size which is completely insane or that industrial farming will not be used in such a way that soil fertility is destroyed. It also doesn’t mean that China will stop spending vast sums of money importing US corn (maize) to feed hogs. I wouldn’t claim that the Chinese are any more rational than Americans.

            I will also emphasize that nobody I respect is recommending old time farming. To quote from Peter Bane, page 6:
            Humans have practiced agriculture for 10,000 years without our understanding why it works, and as a consequence most long-term agricultural practices and the civilizations built on them have collapsed from one or another failure to maintain ecological balance. Again and again, soils became exhausted, salted from irrigation, eroded because of plowing, the climate changed because too many trees had been cut or the population increased beyond the ability of farmers to provide food.

            So…as I see it, our charge as humans is to stop doing destructive things and instead partner with Nature to produce the things we need to flourish. And to stop deluding ourselves that we need a bunch of Stuff in order to flourish. How many humans that means for the planet I don’t know. Will a whole lot of clueless people die? I am sure they will. Can I stop it? Not likely. Can I drop a few clues that some smart people will pursue in their own way? I try.

            Don Stewart

            Don Stewart

      • I think you have hit on one of the big issues.

        I am afraid that the 90% will go and shoot at the 10% (or 1%) who have set up sustainable living quarters, and take them over.

  7. Gail, you show the decline of fossil fuel very sharp at first then slowing down as we approach mid century. I think this is a mistake, the decline will likely be slow at first then speed up as we approach mid century.

    There is several reasons that this should be the case. At first all nations will be producing flat out, then as the economic situation gets worse and some nations start to have serious internal problems with their populations, there will be riots and destruction of the infrastructure. There will likely be resource wars between nations and even within nations like Iraq. Also many nations will begin to hoard their resources, keeping it for themselves.

    Ron Patterson

    • The pattern I am using to decline fossil fuels is equivalent to multiplying by about .96 each year–more or less a 4% decline rate. Over 40 years, it leads to fossil fuels that are 80% as much as those at the beginning.

      I agree it isn’t the most reasonable looking pattern. If the issue is a financial crash, I expect that the decline would take place in fits and starts–as a governments of oil exporters are overthrown, for example. Also, resource wars and hoarding as you say.

      If everything hangs together, a person would expect more of a convex shape, rather than the concave shape I am showing.

  8. I have looked up one reference in terms of Britain feeding itself. The author is Simon Fairlie and the book is Meat, A Benign Extravagance. The book is endorsed by many notables.

    In the chapter Can Britain Feed Itself, he looks at various scenarios and shows what the land utilization would look like under each, along with some reflections about how each scenario would play out in terms of culture change. For the details, you can read the book–and I warn you there is an abundance of detail. But for a flavor of what is possible, here is how he describes A Permaculture Approach:

    My main purpose in Tables F and G is to go a step further and see whether the UK could become more self reliant, not only in food, fodder and fertility, but also in fibre and fuel. Our environmental footprint currently stretches across untold ghost acres around the world; if suddenly we had to shoehorn it into the 22 million hectares of non-urban land we have in this country, how would we cope? Could this be done organically, whilst keeping a reasonable amount of meat in our diet for those who wanted it, and ensuring that a reasonable proportion of the country is reserved for wildlife?

    Tables F and G reflect a more permacultural approach, by which I mean permaculture on the macro-scale, involving increased integration of lifestyle with natural and renewable cycles, rather than just mulching, intercropping, and herb spirals. Some of the measures taken require a change in our land management systems, and also in human settlement patterns. This is a society in a state of energy descent, with increasing dependence upon renewable resources, more waste cycling and (consequently) a localized economy which is more integrated with natural processes. The approach towards livestock is a default strategy in respect of the cows, insofar as they are grass fed and contribute to the fertility building of the arable rotation; but less so as regards the pigs and chickens since a certain amount of grain is grown to feed them (though in the next chapter I argue that a certain amount of livestock grain is necessary for food security reasons).

    The system uses 7.9 million hectares for arable and ley, 5.9 million hectares of permanent pasture, 6 million hectares of woodland, and 2.4 million spare hectares. The system calls for a considerable movement of people from urban areas to the countryside, with considerably more labor involved in agriculture than presently.

    Back to me. Britain is one of the more densely populated places on earth. And it clearly can feed itself–just not with the current agricultural system. It also, as is shown by Fairlie, cannot grow enough biofuels to replace fossil fuels and also grow food enough to feed the population. Fairlies’ biofuels scenarios are pretty modest and involve things like farms producing fuel for tractors and heating around 6 million homes with wood (probably the people who move from urban to countryside dwellings). He also shows how the integration of animals into the production cycle increases the efficiency of land use–when done intelligently.

    Don Stewart

    • I remain skeptical. I would like to see this actually done in practice, in a reasonable sized area. Or at least reviewed by someone with practical experience.

      Waterfall is irregular. I think we should assume people will not be able to water the Permaculture (or if they do, someone is going to a well, raising a bucket from many feet down, transferring the water to jars, and taking the jars to water the plants).

      If we don’t have fences (except hedges or rough hewn wood ones, and nets to keep out birds, or refrigeration, there is going to be a lot of crop loss. Has this been factored in?

      • Gail
        Fairlie’s scenarios are not complete. For example, I see no evidence that he counts in the oats eaten by the horses that take the food to the cities. And he (and others who have studied the problem) can make some simplifying assumptions such as that everyone in the cities just grows most of their own fruits and vegetables in gardens and allotments. There ARE and HAVE BEEN instances where cities grew most of their own fruits and vegetables. Fruits and vegetables are also the most perishable (full of water) products, and harvesting them when you want to eat them by walking out to your garden makes a lot of sense.

        As for trying it out. That is impossible so long as the fossil fuel economy continues to stumble along. If you tried to live this way, you would go broke trying to compete with the subsidized, polluting industrial agriculture system. But bits and pieces have been tried. For example, Fairlie points out that when New Zealand stopped subsidizing beef, the farmers changed from grain fed to grass fed. Feeding cows grain is a terribly wasteful thing to do. Yet one of the first things the new Tory government in Britain did was to authorize an enormous new confined beef feeding operation. So, if you are trying to do grass fed beef in Britain or the US, you have to be able to get a higher price for it. In New Zealand, because the subsidies have been eliminated, you have an economic advantage.

        As for things like water management, pest management, soil fertility, etc. Permaculture is designed to be just what it implies: permanent. It is an ecological system as opposed to a ‘poison the symptoms’ system. It begins by increasing biological activity in the soil which increases the carbon in the soil (with or without the help of biochar) which increases the water retention capacity of the soils and the cation exchange capacity which makes soil nutrients more available to plants. Since the plants are healthier, they are better able to fend off disease with their own resources. Furthermore, plants are not grouped into huge blocks suitable for armies of machines and so are less targeted by pests. Since there is an abundance of biological activity, there are many more beneficial creatures eating the bad guys.

        Martin Crawford, author of Creating A Forest Garden, has been managing a forest garden in Britain now for a couple of decades. It is generally considered to be the best forest garden in the temperate zones of the world. It can be done. But it is a non-profit–because you can’t compete profitably with subsidized industrial agriculture. Crawford provides, for example, nitrogen requirement tables by plant. Here is the nitrogen budget for a moderate demand planting of 2800 square meters:
        Urine (one and half pees per day) 3 kg
        Comfrey (4000 cuts) 2kg
        N fixing trees in sun (610 sq m) 6.1kg
        N fixing shrubs in sun (300 sq m) 3 kg
        N fixing shrubs in part shade (400) 2kg
        N fixing herb perennials part shade 1kg
        Total 17.1 kg of nitrogen
        Many of the N fixing plants are, of course, also edible. It is the root nodules that supply the nitrogen.

        When I look at the evidence, it is clear to me that a lot of humans can live meaningful lives using ecological science and the pattern language of permaculture. Whether 7 or 9 billion can live meaningful lives with permaculture is a lot less clear. Whether resource wars will wipe us all out is very murky in my crystal ball. But it is clear to me the direction we need to be going–individually and in small groups. It would be nice if the Tories got religion, or if the Democrats and Republicans had an experience on the Road to Damascus, but somehow I think they are all destined for one of Dante’s circles.

        The sane course of action for individuals, families and extended families, and small groups will be similar to the path that Peter Bane has laid out for us…Don Stewart

        Don Stewart

        • I guess I am somewhat discouraged by my own gardening attempts (even though we are getting a lot of tomatoes and okra and my fig tree looks very healthy). I would have to scale up what I am doing greatly, to feed our family of three. My biggest challenge is watering (we are in a “severe drought”). Without “city water” and watering the plants, the plants wouldn’t do well at all.

          The one family I visited who is trying to make a go of it with their own permaculture plot seemed to be having a hard time of it. When I saw it, they were not self-sifficent in food, and made their living selling permaculture designs. Part of the problem is that trees take a long time to get started. Even if at maturity, a given design will theoretically work, the first 10 years can be a problem.

          • Gail
            There is no ‘instant recovery’ from degraded soils. The soils around Atlanta were degraded when the first wave of settlers moved on West around the time of the Revolution. They have pretty much been continually abused since then. Sometime you should go down to the ‘grand canyons’ in SW Georgia–they were created by erosion in the years before the New Deal brought some semblance of land conservation.

            What is exciting is that we now DO have ways to recover from soil degradation in a reasonable time–at least partially. Take a look at Joel Salatin’s story on the recovery of their family’s worn out tobacco farm. It doesn’t happen in a year, or even two, but it begins to happen when animals are used intelligently. Which we didn’t know how to do until quite recently. Or look at Allan Savory’s fantastic pictures of Africa. You will see that deep soils with lots of carbon really do make a difference in terms of resistance to drought.

            And the first step in permaculture is to slow water down and sink it into the ground–not store it in a rainbarrel. The slowing and sinking are usually done by constructing a swale. There are also amazing pictures of the power of swales on the internet, including some from the Dead Sea. Along with swales can come perennials with deep roots.

            None of that happens instantly. Peter Bane and his partner have been working on their very plain suburban home in Indiana for six years. But the before and after pictures are phenomenal. From desert to garden.

            And some things are gone forever…such as the minerals flushed into the toilets and down the rivers into the oceans. But the loss can be stopped with intelligence.

            The Pima Indians ate very well from the desert in Arizona. But there weren’t very many of them. Nobody I know thinks anyone could feed Phoenix with anything like a sustainable system. But there are amazing pictures from Tucson and the desert in northern New Mexico of just what a garden can be created by the simple expedient of sinking rainwater into the ground which is rich with carbon.

            I will also observe that one does not create a healthy, biologically active garden overnight. If you are like me, you learn the hard way that maximizing production does not mean maximizing crop area–lots of area needs to be given over to flowering plants which will attract a wide variety of biological life.

            If you are gardening, then it is pretty easy to return virtually all the nutrients that you take from the soil back to the soil. And with a little diligence you can hoover up nutrients that your neighbors don’t want such as leaf fall. Which means your garden gets more and more nutrient dense and more and more productive. If you are farming, then you are by definition selling products which go off the farm. Replenishing nutrients is trickier.

            How many people can be fed with such practices? Liebig’s law holds here. Whatever is in shortest supply will limit the amount of food which can be delivered to cities. It probably won’t be the raw ability to grow food in the countryside. Transportation, refrigeration, robbery, riots, you name it. For a town dweller, the important thing is to make a plan and get started. Peter Bane and his partner made a plan and six years on, they are in pretty good shape.

            Don Stewart

  9. Gail
    I had never noticed this coincidence before, but modern Permaculture was born the same year as ASPO–2002. Both were a response to energy descent. Recent books by Akelett and the ASPO conference in Vienna covered the history from that angle. Here is the history from the Permaculture angle, courtesy of Peter Bane, page 29 in Garden Farming:

    In 2002, David Holmgren, permaculture’s younger and quieter co-author, reentered the global permaculture conversation decisively with the publication of a new book. While this book had much to say about the evolution of the permaculture system of design and permaculture’s impact on the culture of energy descent–a phrase of David’s coinage–it most decisively established a template of working principles that has gradually taken precedence over the hodgepodge of good ideas, aphorism and guides for the designer that had gone by the name principles up to that time. David’s increasingly visible teaching and writing work, disseminated through his world travels, his books, and over the Web, has persuaded many second and third generation teachers as well as newer students to bring that conceptual lens into focus through practice.

    And then, on the facing page, Peter presents David’s conceptual scheme in the form of a repeating cycle, or spiral pattern with his own unique graphics.

    If I were to grossly oversimplify ASPO and Holmgren style Permaculture, I would say that ASPO is about hand-wringing while David is about designing to solve problems by mimicking natural processes. The difference in messages is pretty stark: ‘We are all going to die’ vs. ‘We can live pretty well, just differently’. Of course, neither camp is immune to ‘confirmation bias’. But there is no doubt in my mind that I want to be on the side of doing something.

    Don Stewart

  10. Just as an aside: the sorts of scenarios we have been discussing – isolation from power water food and electricity and any other means to transport them into an urban space are happening right now in Aleppo, in Syria.

    Those who think ‘we could do without them’, should observe carefully as this drama unfolds.

Comments are closed.