Humans Seem to Need External Energy

Strange as it may seem, humans seem to have evolved in a way that we have a need for external energy, such as energy from burning wood or fossil fuels. While the evidence is not 100% certain, it appears that we learned to use fire long enough ago that it is now  necessary for our food to be cooked. Otherwise, in many climates, we would need to spend half the day chewing our food, and we would not be able to do much besides gather food and eat it. (People on raw food diets get around this issue by using a blender, which also uses external energy.)

There are other evolutionary deficiencies as well: How do we deal with our lack of fur? How do we deal with our evolutionary dental problems? How do we deal with “survival of the fittest”? If we want our children to live, we continually need more food for our growing families. Cooked food gives more choice of food supply. We don’t think of humans as having instincts, but like dogs, we have a tendency toward hierarchical behavior, and this affects our need for (or at least “want for”) external energy.

An additional issue, now, of course, is that the world’s population is over 7 billion people. Even if we had not evolved to require using external energy, cooking our food makes many more types of food available, and is from this point of view much more practical than raw food. Cooking food does not in itself take a huge amount of external energy, but once we had learned the skill of using external energy, it opened new doors for other applications.

In this post, I will explain how these and other evolutionary issues relate to mankind’s need for external energy, such as wood, or gasoline, or electricity.

Humans’ Need for an Outside Energy Source

According to Todar’s Online Textbook of Bacteriology, energy is important for all living organisms. Plants and animals literally can’t live without a source of energy. Except for humans, plants and animals get all the energy they require from natural sources: from the food that they eat, or from sunshine through photosynthesis. Some organisms derive the energy they need through oxidation of inorganic compounds. Because of these natural mechanisms, these species have everything they need for survival, without requiring clothing or shelter, or other types of goods.

We can see how different humans are from other animals by comparing ourselves to large primates such as chimpanzees. Large primates spend much of their day gathering and eating raw food. They are not as intelligent as humans, and they mostly live in trees, so as to be able to avoid predators. This limits their choice of food supply. Their total number is far smaller than humans, because they need to stay in habitats to which they are adapted. The number of large primates varies by species (100,000 to 200,000 chimpanzees, about 130,000 gorillas, and fewer than 250,000 Gelada baboons according to the National Primate Research Center), but is always far fewer than the 7 billion humans in the world.

The shift away from behavior similar to that of other primates seems to have started after humans learned to control fire and learned to cook food. Chris Organ and others have shown that for a primate the size of humans, cooking food decreases the amount of time that must be spent chewing food from 48% of daily activity to 4.7% of daily activity. With so much more free time, the way an animal spends its time can change dramatically. Those changing to cooked food could do more hunting, and because of this change, include more meat in the diets. This would improve diets in another way.

It is well-known that cooking makes grains much easier to digest. Grains are a major agricultural crop, so cooking helped enable the transition to agriculture, around 10,000 BCE.  With the transition to agriculture came the possibility of much higher world population.

Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham in “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human” sees evidence of evolution of adaptation to a cooked food diet as early as 1.9 million years ago. When Homo Erectus appeared at that time, teeth and guts were smaller than in predecessor species, and brains got larger. He speculates that the energy that had previously gone into digestion might have gone into brain development.1

With  the evolution to smaller teeth, smaller gut, and bigger brains, humans have a real need to cook at least part of the food they eat. So outside energy for cooking food is one real need for the 7 billion people on our planet today.

Other Reasons Outside Energy Is Desired

Humans evolved without fur. Richard Wrangham in Catching Fire argues that fire allowed humans to evolve without fur, because a hairless animal can warm itself by a fire. A hairless animal is at an advantage chasing animals because it can dissipate heat much more quickly, allowing a hairless animal to catch one with fur by chasing it until it drops of heat exhaustion. The down-side of having no fur is that humans need at least some type of protection from the outside elements, especially if humans move to locations outside the tropics. Such protection might come in the form of clothing or shelter, or both. Outside energy would be helpful in creating food and shelter, but not as essential as for cooking food. Here again, being able to cook was helpful, because the reduced chewing time permitted more time for creating clothing and shelter.

Humans evolved with little defense against predators, except their intelligence. While other primates could climb trees, humans could not. They couldn’t fly or swim either.  Here too, outside energy sources were helpful. According to Wrangham, if early humans were gathered around a campfire, and a predator approached, one means of defense was to swing a fiery log at the predator. A group of humans could be protected from predators overnight by having a watchman with access to burning logs stay up all night. Eventually, humans learned how to use outside energy sources to build transportation of many types: automobiles, trucks, boats, and airplanes, to make up for deficiencies in the area of self-transportation.

Humans gradually found other ways that energy could be used to help overcome their evolutionary deficiencies. About 75,000 years ago, humans discovered that by heating rocks before they made tools from them, tools could be made more efficiently, and with a sharper edge (KS Brown et al, 2009). They later discovered that metals could be created with the use of external heat, expanding the type of tool that could be made. Humans evolved with hands that were more dextrous than those of other animals, so being able to produce good tools gave humans an advantage over other animals.

One deficiency of human evolution is that our tooth enamel has not evolved to withstand a diet high in starches. (PS Unger, 2012) Dentistry, which uses energy in many forms, including metal for tools and electrically operated X-ray equipment, helps provide solutions to these evolutionary deficiencies.

Humans, with their upright posture and large head sizes (because of large brains) have tended to have difficulty in childbirth, resulting in many deaths. Modern medicine helps overcome the problem of excessive mortality in childbirth. It, too, uses a lot of external energy, including metal tools (created using heat), sterilization, and medicines made from petroleum products.

Humans Outwitted Survival of the Fittest

In the natural order, each mother gives birth to more offspring than are needed to survive to maturity. This tends to work very well, because the offspring that are best adapted to the environment tend to survive to adulthood. As changes occur, such as a change in climate, or an increase in a particular type of predator, the offspring that are most able to handle the new environment are the ones who survive.

Humans, because of their intelligence, have found ways to defeat survival of the fittest.  As areas get overpopulated, humans have moved to areas where they have a better chance of survival. Humans have found ways to increase food supply, through the use of fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation, and refrigeration, all of which require fossil fuels. They have developed trade, so that so areas with shortfalls can benefit from surpluses elsewhere. Humans have developed a world financial system, which has helped enable world-wide trade. The financial system has also allowed investors to pay for goods after they are put into service, so that the cash flow resulting from an investment can be used (after the fact) to pay for the cost of the investment. This enables investment, and faster use of resources, including energy resources.

One of the reasons for continued upward population pressure is the fact that humans have evolved to live beyond their reproductive years. In their declining years, humans often need assistance, either from their offspring or from a public pension program, or both. Because of concern for their own old-age, people without pensions tend to have enough children so that there is a significant chance that a child of the right sex will survive to adulthood. With improving medical care, this tends to lead to ever-rising population.

As an actuary (but not a pension actuary), I am aware that even when there are public pension programs, fewer children can cause funding problems. Public pension programs are typically transfer programs, where today’s taxes on working citizens pay for today’s benefits to retirees. If the number of retirees becomes too high relative to the number of workers, it becomes very difficult to pay a reasonable level of pension benefits to retirees. The use of “pay-as-you go” funding reflects a reality of life: whatever goods and services are available in a given year will have to be split between retirees and the current working population. If there are fewer workers relative to retirees, funding becomes very cumbersome for the workers.

The pressure of continuing population growth is a major reason for the need for supplemental external energy. The additional population needs to be fed, housed, and clothed. The additional people also needs jobs, and in today’s world, these jobs require external energy inputs.

Controls Built Into the Population System

Nature builds a number of controls into the system, so that overpopulation will not occur. The most obvious one is limited food supply. We have found ways around this problem, thanks to the use of fossil fuels for fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides, irrigation, cultivation, and fast transport to market.

Figure 1. World population was able to increase greatly, once fossil fuels started adding to food supply about 1800.

Thanks to the wonders of fossil fuels, world population has been able to rise to 7 billion.

Besides limited food supply, there are a number of other controls in the system. One is infectious diseases. If humans live in close proximity to each other without adequate sanitary precautions, infectious diseases become a problem. In today’s world, these are not much of a problem, because we have built water and sewer systems, and have developed antibiotics. Doing these things required external energy sources, generally oil and other fossil fuels.

Craig Dilworth in “Too Smart for Our Own Good” says that there are instinctual behaviors that would normally act to prevent overpopulation. One of these is territoriality. Primates and most mammals are what are called K-selected species.

In K-selected species, territoriality tends to hold down population size by restraining the number of breeding pairs. We have all seen territoriality, if we have male cats or dogs. They mark out their territories, and defend them.

The territories chosen by instinct by K-selected species are large enough to ensure that populations do not grow to such a size that they undermine their own resource base. Thus, if territoriality is working properly, there is no problem with tragedy of the commons (excessive use of shared resources), because the territory selected by the male for his family group is large enough to feed the family, with much available food left over.

There are a number of related mechanisms for keeping K-selected populations in balance with the rest of the ecological system. For example,

  • Too high population tends to cause stress and leads to violence against neighboring groups. The winner gets more territory; the losers typically are killed.
  • Infants may be killed, to keep the population in line with resources.
  • Learned behaviors or instincts may limit when mating takes place.
  • High population will tend to attract predators (germs, in the case of humans)
  • If population is too high, hierarchical behavior (another instinctual mechanism) may appear or increase. Because individuals who do not need resources get a disproportionate share of the total, there is less for those at the bottom of the hierarchy, helping to reduce population size more quickly than if resources are shared equally. Those at the top are spared.

Humans have managed to overcome territoriality to a significant extent. One mechanism is language, since it allows humans to communicate with one another. Another is trade. If an outsider is of some value to us because of goods we gain through trade, then an individual is less likely to kill the outsider when he comes into contact with him. Another is religious beliefs that encourage respect for human life, and thus prevents killing of infants. The availability of sufficient resources, as has mostly been the case since World War II thanks to fossil fuels, may also act to reduce territoriality.

The Role of Hierarchical Behavior

A person often hears the comment, “We would have plenty of resources, if we would just share them more equally.” Yes, that is true, but as mentioned in the previous section hierarchical behavior is an instinct, put in place in other species to help keep population down. If individuals at the top hoard more of the resources, then individuals at the bottom of the hierarchy are starved out–part of survival of the fittest, that humans (including myself) find so objectionable.

Hierarchical behavior, if combined with a taxation system that helps transfer money to the poor, seems likely to lead to greater use of resources. If nature had been allowed to run its course, the portion of the population that nature considers excess would have been starved out. With the combination of hierarchical behavior and taxes to protect the poor, we have (from an energy demand perspective) the worst of both worlds: lots of people at the bottom of the hierarchy, who thanks to the transfer payments have the financial ability to buy goods and services made with energy products, plus we have all of the people at various distances from the top, who want to gather as much of the resources as they are able to, in an attempt to get to the top of the hierarchy.

The Connection of Energy With the Economy

Apart from all of the biological issues associated with the need for energy use, there is an economic aspect. External energy is needed for any kind of manufacturing (except the simplest home handicrafts, such as picking reeds and making baskets from them). It is needed for any kind of transportation of goods or people, except walking or transport based on animal labor. External energy is used extensively in today’s production of food, even when produced organically. A person would expect there to be a connection between the amount of energy available, and the amount of goods, such as food or new homes, produced.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is a measure of how much goods and services an economy is producing. In the version I am using here, it is “real” GDP, which takes out the effect of inflation. Thus, if an economy grows by 1%, there are 1% more goods such as houses built and food sold, on average during that year. Having more goods and services available is especially helpful if population is growing, and new members need to be fed and housed.

When we look back over the past 2000+ years, we see a pattern of gradually increasing GDP growth. (See Table 1 below) The rise in growth seems to match up with increasing external energy. Although data on energy usage is not available prior to 1820, we know from other sources that there was a gradual growth in other types of energy usage prior to that date, such as the burning of peat most, water power, wind power, and a little coal usage. I will talk more about this in a future post.

Table 1. GDP Growth based on Angus Magnuson Estimates of World GDP since 1 CE. Energy Growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, and Prospects. Energy amounts prior to 1820 are really unknown, but are shown as “0”.

If we look at the long term, we can see that the really big increases in GDP growth (that is, over 1% per year), all came after 1870. That was about the same time that energy growth started ramping up over 1% as well, because of the growth in coal usage. (Of course, economists who have only looked at GDP growth since World War II would consider GDP growth of 1% very low. They would prefer GDP growth of 3% or more a year.)

It is not surprising that GDP growth is a little higher than energy growth on Table 1, because GDP reflects growth in “goods and services”. Goods take energy to produce and transport. Services, such as financial services or the cutting of hair, can often be done with little energy input. To the extent that part of the growth in the economy is services, less than the full amount of energy is required to produce the corresponding  GDP percentage growth. There may also be savings through more efficient use of energy, for example, through more energy-efficient cars, trucks, or light bulbs.

We can also show the GDP growth listed in Table 1 as a graph, shown below as Figure 2, below.

Figure 2. GDP growth from the first column in Table 1, graphed.

The Relationship Between Energy Growth and Population Growth 

The impression a person gets from looking over the long history is that as more energy products became available to society, people found ways to put them to use that allowed more goods and services to be sold. With more goods and services available, it was possible to feed and clothe more people, so the “survival of the fittest” issue referred to above became less of a problem. If we compare Figure 2 with Figure 1, we can see that the spike in population coincided with the rapid rise in GDP, in the last couple of centuries.

We can also look at the relationship between population growth and GDP growth more closely using estimates by Angus Maddison going back to 1 CE. Here we find that prior to 1820, about 80% of GDP growth was absorbed by population growth. It is only since the growth in the use of fossil fuels, and especially since World War II, that rising GDP has been far above population growth, permitting a sustained rise in standard of living.

Figure 3. World average growth rates in population, energy, and GDP based on data of Angus Maddison (GDP and population) and Vaclav Smil (energy).

Can We Reduce Human Demand for External Energy?

It’s clearly not easy to reduce human demand for external energy. (One exception: If you are an economist, it is very easy to reduce demand for external energy. All you have to do is either (1) increase the price of that energy, so the poorer folks can’t afford it, or (2) reduce consumers’ incomes (perhaps by laying them off from work), so they can’t afford it. Either of these will reduce demand, according to their definition of demand. When you hear the term “demand destruction,” this seems to be what is meant.)

But what if we really want to cut back on the amount energy that the world’s population wants, at a fixed price, without reducing the buying capacity of consumers?

Here, I think the first issue in stopping demand growth is stopping the continued rise in the world’s population. As long as the world’s population is rising, even in lesser developed countries, there is going to be a continuing need for more food, clothing and housing. This is an issue we don’t seem to be able even to talk about. It may offend people.

Figure 4. World Population by Area, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration. FSU is Former Soviet Union. EU is the European Union-27.

Second, there is room for making vehicles more efficient, for insulating homes better, and for making other similar changes. But getting large savings in this manner is not as easy as it looks, partly because an initial investment is involved, and partly because when people find that they can save money by the change, they are likely to spend the money they have saved on another product that also requires energy to make, such as taking a vacation. When the overall picture is considered, the net savings are lower. This issue is common enough that it has a name–Jevons’ Paradox.

Third, a country can easily make its energy consumption appear lower by “offshoring” heavy industry (which uses lots of energy), and changing to more of a service economy. If it still continues to use products created by heavy industry, just importing the products rather than making the products itself, it is not at all clear that there are savings for the world as a whole. If we look at Figure 3, we can see that energy consumption definitely rose more rapidly in the 2000 to 2010 period than in the previous two ten-year periods. The 2000-2010 period is a time-period when much industry (and jobs) shifted to Asia. While there was some energy savings in countries that sent manufacturing overseas, the energy consumption of developing countries in Asia grew more rapidly than the energy savings, resulting in higher overall growth in world energy consumption.

To a significant extent, we start finding ourselves with what I call a “Whac a Mole” problem. (In the Whac-a-Mole game, a person is faced with trying to whack down a mole that keeps popping up from one of five holes, but whenever it is whacked down into one hole, it reappears in another one.) Especially with oil which is high-priced and internationally traded, we have a situation where if one buyer chooses to buy less oil (or gasoline, or diesel), there is a good chance that some other buyer, perhaps in China or India, wants to purchase it. It all comes down to financial issues, which I will discuss in future posts.

The energy demand issue is a frustrating one. The more you look into it, the knottier the problem seems.


[1] Richard Wrangham’s findings are disputed by some anthropologists, because we do not have direct evidence of human cooking as far back as he indicates. They also believe that there might be other explanations for his findings, such as greater eating of meat. Wrangham in a 2009 paper argues that the early date isn’t really necessary for his finding to be true; even 250,000 years ago would be sufficient for evolutionary changes to take place. He also argues that compared to chimpanzees, humans seem to be adapted for a higher-quality diet because they “exhibit higher energy use, but have reduced structures for mastication and digestion”.

About Gail Tverberg

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

  1. Pingback: The Oil Drum | The Long Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy

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  3. Don Stewart says:

    Once again, I have a comment which does not relate specifically to this post, but does relate to Gail’s body of work. I will try to elaborate a little on Kurt Cobb’s question:

    Suppose we accept the general notion that change requires a ‘burning platform’ (

    plus some vision of an option which is better than the burning platform. We can assume that the current power structure will be doing everything possible to convince all the people on the platform that: the platform is not burning; or it is burning but the fire is contained; or it is a very slow fire and you have lots of time; or there is no alternative to the platform. So if someone is a truth teller like Gail, they have to do their best to convince everyone that the platform is indeed burning and represents a clear and present danger.

    In addition, someone has to present a credible scenario for some alternative which is better than staying on a platform which is probably going to burn one to death. It might be Gail or it might be someone else.

    I have been reading The Forest Unseen by the biologist David George Haskell. He is observing a small section of an old growth forest in Tennessee. On April 8th he writes about the maples and the hickories. The maples have leafed out, while the hickories are still bare. The difference is a hint that the two species are following different strategies. Both work, obviously (or natural selection would have selected one of them out of the running), but they are quite different.

    Haskell points out that by thrusting their leaves skyward, the trees have become slaves of the physics of their plumbing. Their plumbing is remarkably efficient in that it is able to raise many tons of water high in the sky with no external source of energy. ‘Inside the trees’ leaves, sunlight causes water to evaporate from cell surfaces and drift out of breathing pores. As vapor wafts away from wet cell walls, the surface tension of the remaining water tightens, particularly in the narrow gap between the cells. This tension yanks more water from deep in the leaf. The pull moves to the leaves’ veins, then down the water-conducting cells in the tree’s trunk, finally all the way to the roots. The pull from each evaporating water molecule is minuscule, like a breath of wind tugging at a silk thread. But the combined force of millions of evaporating molecules is strong enough to haul a thick rope of water up from the ground.’

    I won’t try to reproduce all the details here, but the structures of the maple trees and the hickories are different, reflecting their different strategies for accomplishing the daunting task. One tree reuses last years mechanism, while the other tree constructs a new mechanism every year.

    Now suppose you are a tree (with a brain somewhat smarter than the average American) which has been using fossil fuels to pump the water up to your leaves. But you get a message from your friendly biologist that the oil company will shortly stop supplying you with oil. What should you do? Well, first, you consult the oil company, which stoutly denies that they will ever leave you without oil. You go through various stages of denial. Some of the trees say ‘the end is near, and we are all going to become mosses clinging to the ground’. Some of the mosses say ‘we believe that we can cleverly harness the power of surface tension to raise water to our leaves, but we will have to become shrubs instead of tall trees’. Some of the trees say ‘we can raise the water to our leaves by cleverly using surface tension, but we are going to have to construct a different physical substrate for the water to travel. we can reuse the same substrate from year to year.’ Some of the trees say ‘we can raise the water to our leaves by cleverly using surface tension, but we will have to build a new physical substrate each year because of the damage to the substrate done by ice in the winter’.

    Do you think that these smart trees would ever jump off the burning platform with any coherent strategy in mind? If they have TV Talking Heads, the talking heads have plenty of room to cast doubt on the opposition. In fact, the TV Talking Heads can cite real disadvantages to all of the alternatives. The maples suffer under certain conditions, and the hickories suffer under other conditions. Neither is a perfect solution like a fossil fuel pump.

    If you examine Haskell’s book, you will find numerous other examples of plants and animals selecting a strategy which has both good points and-not-so good points. For example, pollination and seed dispersal strategies.

    My point is that when you have something working for you which seems, at least on the surface, to be ideal, and you can’t think of any alternative which doesn’t have drawbacks, and when the TV Talking Heads are paid handsomely to point out the drawbacks, and when you have a well-funded campaign to get you to stick with the burning platform, change for the majority is going to be very difficult indeed. And hammering out a National Policy solution which most everyone agrees with is likely impossible.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I don’t see a national policy solution. No one would ever agree, and anything that might theoretically be adopted would cost too much and take too long.

      At best I could point out some partial mitigations. It is hard to see that all 7 billion of us will make it, and that makes solutions problematic.

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Not directly related to this post, but generally relevant to Gail’s body of posts.

    A new movie just opened called The Queen of Versailles. It is a documentary which, among many other things, shows vividly the problems posed by maintenance when the cash flow dries up.

    David Siegel, his third wife Jackie, and their seven children are on top of the world in 2003 in Orlando, FL when the documentary begins. It ends in late 2011 when many things have gone wrong. In 2003 David is a mover and shaker in the political world, and claims to have insured the election of Bush by means which ‘may not be legal’. They host all 50 contestants for Miss America in their house. David made his money developing time-share resorts.

    It all falls apart post-Lehman, when the banks refuse to extend more money and begin insisting that money owed be repaid.

    There are many different things you can say and conclusions you can draw. I will emphasize only one: the maintenance costs of the Siegel lifestyle. They are living in a ‘small’ house with 100 doors. They have a private airplane and a yacht and all their children attend private schools. They employ 19 servants, many of them as nannies. Jackie says that she always wanted one child, maybe two, but then she found out about nannies and had a lot of children. They are building a 90,000 square foot house which is modeled after Versailles. They are accumulating furnishings in a warehouse which is eerily reminiscent of the warehouse in Citizen Kane.

    As the movie maker returns for periodic visits post-Lehman, we see the steady deterioration physically and socially and mentally. For example, they cut the staff to four, and the house becomes an unkempt pigsty. David becomes very tightly focused on money–he carps about people leaving lights on and wasting electricity and when someone leaves one of the hundred doors open and wastes conditioned air, he attacks.

    But dreams die hard. While David is doing no maintenance at the unfinished Versailles, he refuses to give it up. He tells his dog that he and the dog will live in the 90,000 square foot house and leave Jackie and the children in the ‘small house’. Jackie may be reduced to shopping at Wal-Mart, but she buys multiple copies of everything and stuffs the vehicles to overflowing with toys for the children. The children do not adjust well to losing the servants who cleaned up their messes.

    If you think that the credit expansion which facilitated the Siegel’s lifestyle has also facilitated an expensive lifestyle for more modest income Americans (as well as Greeks, Spaniards, etc.), but that we are now experiencing Peak Credit, then this movie may give you some idea about the problems to be encountered on the downslope.

    Don Stewart

  5. funglestrumpet says:

    I hope Ikonclast doesn’t live long enough to have his or her grandchildren ask what they did when there was still time to avert climate disaster. An honest answer would seem to be: “I gave up without even bothering to fight.” And this after this year’s summer has shown those prepared to open their eyes a taste of what may well be to come. It doesn’t need “clear and salutary disasters” to alter public opinion, just the realisation that the fossil fuel industry is only interested in profits and profits at any cost.

    The amazing thing is that nearly all the senior fossil fuel executives have families that they know will suffer directly as a result of their industry’s behaviour, yet are so wedded to their pay and bonuses that they turn a blind eye, blithely ignoring what happened to the originator of the expression. Either that, or they simply haven’t got the guts (or any other part of their anatomy) to face up to those above them.

    The not so amazing thing is that the politicians are so desperate for campaign funds that they can, in many instances, be bought. That it also appears that some scientists can also be bought is just plain sad. Sad that they can behave in such manner when they of all people should be seekers of truth and sad that their universities seem to ignore their shenanigans.

    All it really takes to fight climate change is for those guilty of deliberately manipulating public opinion to face some form of sanction. For professors to be stripped of their position and title, for politicians to be deselected and banned from holding any political office for life. For senior executives who can be shown to have had a part in orchestrating the fossil fuel industry’s campaign against combating climate change to face the charge of committing a crime against humanity. Clearly, this final category includes those employed by any public relations companies involved.

    These sanctions will not come about until the public realises just how much they have been deceived and the dangers it faces, especially with relation to tipping points, which could make the whole process of warming unstoppable. The public is not going to rise up while the Ikonclasts of this world give up at the first hurdle, even while admitting awareness of the potential six degree (C) projected temperature rise, which will be nothing short of dire.

    Rex Tillerson, CEO of Exxon Mobil, a fossil fuel company, says “We have spent our entire existence adapting. We’ll adapt,” Sure, we can adapt. All we need to do is select where to bury the dead, of which there will be a vast number. They will be easy to bury though because they will be emaciated, having died from starvation. I want something better for my children and grandchildren. I am sure the rest of the public do too, well, most of them. All that is needed is to raise their awareness.

    Anyone wishing to know more about climate change could do worse than visit

    • Leo Smith says:

      “All it really takes to fight climate change is for those guilty of deliberately manipulating public opinion to face some form of sanction. For professors to be stripped of their position and title, for politicians to be deselected and banned from holding any political office for life. For senior executives who can be shown to have had a part in orchestrating the fossil fuel industry’s campaign against combating climate change to face the charge of committing a crime against humanity. Clearly, this final category includes those employed by any public relations companies involved.”

      The problem is that the emerging evidence is actually that these people are the ones shouting loudly about climate change and forcing technologies *that demonstrably do nothing of any significance to affect carbon emissions, or fossil fuel consumption* on the public, for profit.

      The fossil companies love renewable energy. It increases energy costs and therefore profits whilst doing little or nothing to reduce consumption

      Of course this year has been interesting. So far zero hurricanes have made landfall in the USA and tornado count is much lower than usual. You can read a static jetstream over the Northern hemisphere in two ways. 🙂

      • funglestrumpet says:

        Point taken regarding renewables. I certainly think that there is a con-trick going on regarding their efficacy and would much prefer loads of small, local LFTR nuclear power stations to a forest of wind turbines, especially when they are just standing limp in still air. It would be o.k. to even consider an expansion of the current design of nuclear power stations but for their public image, which I fear has been ‘greened’ beyond redemption. It is difficult to see how they can get sufficient public support to get them built in a timely manner.

        LFTRs, on the other hand, are new, have an almost inexhaustible fuel supply, do not need copious amounts of water, which is scarce in a lot of places, so they can be located almost anywhere, they cannot safely be used to make nuclear weapons and most of all, they are automatically safe in the event of a problem. If we can only get the Greens to act in a more responsible manner, we might be able to provide enough energy from them in time to meet our static energy needs and thus avert the most dire effects of climate change. What is more important: reciting a mantra of ‘Nuclear bad!’ at the very mention of anything nuclear regardless of the harm such behaviour does, or keeping the temperature rise to a minimum? It is just a shame that there appears to be little alternative to oil being necessary for transport purposes in the main (LFTR powered ships perhaps?).

        Regarding the jet stream, while it is a good thing that there have been no hurricanes making landfall in the U.S.A., surely the important point to consider is that the jet stream will tend to meander as the temperature differential between the north pole and the lower latitudes diminishes as a result of the poles warming more rapidly. That can only be a bad thing for agriculture and thus our food supply because farmers, be they large, small or of the ‘home grown’ variety, will find it difficult to plan if they cannot be confident regarding their seasons or even which plants will suit their new conditions. After all, we are a few short years away from a population of nine, perhaps even ten, billion and all that that means for food supply.

        I do not live in the U.S.A. and am not aware of the tornado situation there. I thought that there had been a major ‘storm’ of them earlier on, which would not have been a good thing, but perhaps I am wrong.

  6. Ikonoclast says:

    In one sense, Leo Smith is right. I say this even though I disagree with him more fundamentally.

    It seems very likely that all non-renewable energy sources will be substantially used up. This includes fossil fuels of course. The reason is as Leo Smith puts forward. The need for as much energy and resources as possible right now will likely continue to trump concerns for future dangers like AGW (Anthropogenic Global Warming).

    I happen to think that this will lock us into global warming of plus six degrees C or more which will be disastrous. Leo happens to be very sceptical about this. I guess Hoot’s philosophy (from Blackhawke Down) is appropriate here;

    “You know what I think? It don’t matter what I think!”

    The facts are it doesn’t matter what I think and it doesn’t matter what Leo thinks. Whatever is built in (by the laws of human behaviour, the laws of industrial momentum and the laws of physics) is going to happen anyway. The notion that we can turn this around and push solar (or even nuclear power) through and keep the fossil fuels in the ground seems to be a non-starter. About 5 billion people on this planet have no choice and are even unaware of AGW anyway. Of the other 2 billion, maybe 500 million are seriously aware of AGW and maybe 250 million actually accept the theory. I doubt even 1 million of these are seriously living the life that would prevent AGW.

    There can only be change (if at all) if some clear and salutary disasters occur. That is to say, some disasters must start occuring which kill millions to hundreds of millions of people very quickly and these disasters must be totally, unambiguously connected to clear and undeniable climate change. That is the only possible game changer.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Ikonoclast: I am glad that you agree at least in principle that there is no point in arguing about AGW – the real context is one of unstoppable climate change – whether it’s up down large or small – and falling fossil reserves.

      Starting from that position, we probably agree on what policy should try to achieve, although we strongly disagree on what solutions will actually work.

      That is actually progress!

    • With respect to timing, I think the issue is timing, and how much we could actually change. As I understand it, a lot of the change is already “baked into the cake,” based on past emissions. It is basically too late.

      Also, the climate has been changing all along. Before the warming since 1800, we were getting out of the “Little Ice Age”. We are probably deluding ourselves if we think we can cause the climate to be a certain way.

      And there is also the problem of how you actually reduce fossil fuel use. The one way I can see that would work is to cut off international trade. The economies of all of the countries would fall apart, and less fossil fuels would be used. But who would agree to this, unless the economy fell apart on its own?

      • fungestrumpet says:

        If we say it is too late to combat climate change, we commit future generations to a living hell, unless you have information that a six degree Celsius average temperature rise can be described in any other way. Perhaps you should read the blog posts: ‘Climate Change, Irreversibility, and Urgency’ (re-post from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) and ‘Why Arctic sea ice shouldn’t leave anyone cold.’ Both are cool, calm analyses of the current situation, though ‘chilling’ would perhaps be a better adjective.

        We can be fairly sure that the weather this summer is the result of a meandering jet stream, which is exactly what is expected because the Arctic temperatures are rising towards those of lower latitudes and thus reducing the differential. How on earth are farmers expected to plan their planting and harvesting, and indeed what to plant and harvest, when they cannot be sure of what conditions they are going to meet? Some variation is only to be expected, but what has happened this year cannot be described as normal variation surely? Next year might produce normal weather, a repeat of this year, or perhaps different conditions entirely. At least this summer has shown that climate change is no longer something only for future generations to worry about.

        It is not too late to combat climate change, but it is getting there. What we need is an urgent and thorough raising of public awareness on this issue. It is difficult to believe that anyone would be happy if they knew what is in store. The problem is that there is a lot of unscientific misinformation being bandied about, some of it by scientists. (I hope they enjoy spending their thirty pieces of silver.) At least in the age of the internet, and with it YouTube and the like, a large body of evidence exists for when the public demand punishment for those guilty of deliberately disseminating misinformation on this issue.

        • Leo Smith says:

          “unless you have information that a six degree Celsius average temperature rise can be described in any other way”

          Sure it can be described in another way. The nicest word I can find to say is ‘fictitious’.

          Why do you feel the need to make your point with violent emotional statements?

          Even if it were remotely true, it would actually increase the amount of area where crops could be grown and people, live immensely – there is more land up towards the Arctic than there is near the equator, and a 6C rise would make N Europe a Subtropical Heaven.

          The far greater danger is a 2-3C fall in global temperatures. That would destroy most of the cereal crop growing regions in the world.

          On the historical evidence, as opposed to the hysterical evidence, we might well be heading that way.

          • funglestrumpet says:

            When 97% of the world’s recognised climate scientists say that climate change is a real and present danger and among the remaining 3% there are scientists known to receive reimbursements from the fossil fuel industry (and previously from the tobacco industry when lung cancer was being disputed the way climate change is today), the evidence is sufficiently conclusive to convince all but the most ardent of sceptics that we need to do something about it.

            If in ‘doing something about it’ at a personal level, one discovers just how near we are to tipping points that could easily lead to irreversible climate change, one is entitled to get a little annoyed when one comes across a statement that it all “fictitious,” especially when the person making the utterance not only fails to provide any corroborating evidence, but also makes another statement that: “a 6C rise would make N Europe a Subtropical Heaven.” Leo, your other posts clearly indicate that you know better than to take an average rise instead of the upper and lower bounds which define a location’s habitability. A six degree average will actually mean that some areas of the world, N Europe included, could easily become uninhabitable, without 24/7 air conditioning for long periods at a time at least. Far from being a “Subtropical Heaven” methinks.

            Such dependence on external energy could easily mean a death sentence if there were any loss of power for more than an hour or two. As for agriculture, forget it. As for nine billion population, forget it, even if they are actually present in numbers, they won’t be for long, sadly. A world warmed by an average of six degrees just won’t be able to feed them. I just hope my family die quickly in the wars for food that must follow as night follows day, instead of dying a slow lingering death from starvation. (And you fail to see why someone might get emotional about that prospect!) Yes, that might sound hysterical, if so, then I make no apology. Unlike smoking, I cannot give up climate change, it is being forced upon me and my family. And forced because people either give up without a fight or cannot see the evidence before their eyes. But of course, this summer was nothing to do with climate change, was it? Just a coincidence that it followed exactly what the science says should happen.

            I have been studying climate change since the early 80s and have watched as the world’s politicians have repeatedly missed opportunities to turn the situation around. Even this morning I had to endure the chairman of the Commons climate committee in the U.K. arguing for an expansion of Heathrow airport, despite all the evidence that aircraft are among the worst polluters because they dump CO2 just where it can do most harm most quickly. All politicians today can think of is economic growth and to hell with the well-being of their families.

            If climate change is fictitious, you must have reasons for saying so; what are they? Among those reasons you must have an alternative explanation for the dramatic decline in ice cover that the Arctic has been experiencing for many years now with this year set to smash, not just break, the record yet again; what is it? Perhaps if you actually read the blog posts that I recommended, it will avoid my having to refer to them by way of any rebuttal that I might reply with.

          • funglestrumpet says:

            Just a quick comment. On reading back my post, I realise that I have not explained my six degrees C figure that is considered fictitious. A quick Google search will give its provenance from many sources. It is hardly fictitious.

            There are even some who say that the world has a natural binary temperature setting, so to speak, and flips between the two. I forget the upper bound, but it is quite high. For a detailed discussion, one should search the Royal Society archive for a Professor James Lovelock’s talk ‘Climate Change on the Living Earth’. In that talk he gives evidence for the earth suddenly rising to a new stable state some six degrees C warmer.

            I do not know where the idea comes from that a six degree rise is fictitious, perhaps we will soon know. Until then, I will go with Professor Lovelock, a recognised polymath and among a number of other accolades is also a fellow of the Royal Society.

  7. PeteTheBee says:

    Human’s DO need external energy.

    That’s why, if it comes down to it, every last bit of coal will be mined, and every last bit of shale will be fracked, because on some fundmental level, people understand this is preferable to a “power down”.

    I personally don’t think it will come to that, as fracking is keeping coal in the ground now, and UGC will be the next phase for coal, and solar powered/nuclear powered synthetic methane will probably be the next phase after that…..

    But when push comes to shove, the “save the earth” crowd on one hand, the “we need energy” crowd on the other, the latter will always win. Because humans need external energy.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Spot on. I wrote something along those lines about climate change and renewable energy. In short it is impossible to expect the emerging economies of India and China NOT to to exploit every last bit of coal that they can- and the USA too – when the proposed alternative is that their citizens simply get poorer, and in the limit, die. In democracies they will simply vote in the bunch that will let them continue. Ergo until the real economic costs of coal and gas and oil rise above the nearest competition – which wont be renewable energy – carbon emissions will increase.

      The rational perspective on that is that invalidates all our attempts to produce expensive technology that works very poorly merely to reduce our tiny contribution to an insoluble problem.

      We are better served by putting money into meeting climate change, if it actually happens (and I am deeply skeptical that it will on account of Carbon-Dyed Oxhide, though its always been happening anyway, so contingency plans are indicated) and developing the most cost effective primary energy sources that can replace fossil fuel when the cost of that rises enough to make the alternatives viable – and that is nuclear power.

      All this has been well documented for years ( – its just been smothered by a massive PR campaign from the huge spin system that is the climate change/renewable energy rent seeking machine.

      In short the whole of all this climate fluff and faff boils down to two RATIONAL (but not emotionally satisfying conclusions)

      1/. Climate change will happen irrespective of anything governments have the power to do.
      2/. The only thing they DO have the power to do is invest on contingency plans to meet it.

      On energy, the rational conclusions are:

      1/. The current population levels cannot be sustained except by an excess of access to external sources of cheap energy beyond renewable energy’s ability to meet.
      2/. Energy costs will rise as fossil resources become depleted, until the next cheapest energy source is cost competitive.
      3/. That source for electricity generation is in fact nuclear power.
      4/. That does not solve off grid power needs – road transport, aircraft or shipping.
      5/. Shipping can be done with nuclear power easily. marine reactors for submarine and icebreaker use already exist.
      6/. Off grid the optimal power store is still hydrocarbon fuel: Aircraft cannot realistically operate on anything else, and battery theory and the properties of materials suggests that battery cars will never match gasoline or diesel cars on range. Batteries will – on a cost benefit basis – be suitable for short range and lower power off grid uses however.
      Hydrocarbon fuel is synthesisable, but not at anything like existing costs.
      7/. with primary power solved, and a reasonable suite of alternatives for off grid power the final use of fossil hydrocarbons is as a chemical feedstock – plastics on the one hand, and as a primary reducing agent to remove oxygen from minerals to create metals and so on. Plastics wise, its likely that organically produced hydrocarbons could meet demand – but realistically the dis-use of hydrocarbons for energy will result in millenia of materials being available for plastics. There is more hydrocarbon in one tank of fuel than in all the recyclable plastics in your car. The replacement of carbon as a reduction agent is not so easy. It is difficult to see how cement, copper and steel to name but two, could be produced without it. Although aluminium can definitely be.

      These are the rational directions.

      Naturally they are not being pursued: In democracies policy is made not on the basis of whether it will work, or be good for the nation, but on the basis of whether it appeals to the emotions of the electorate. Or suits the purpose of some powerful lobby, as long as it can be wrapped in enough sugar coated spin to be sold to a presumed gullible electorate

      • PeteTheBee says:

        “2/. Energy costs will rise as fossil resources become depleted, until the next cheapest energy source is cost competitive.”

        Natural gas and coal both becoming cheaper in America. With Australia and China leaping aboard the fracking bandwagon, the world is sure to follow.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Yep. I’ll leave it to Gail to discover whether unconventional hydrocarbons come in at less than the equivalent cost of nuclear power. Nuclear power ought to be around 2c-4c a KWh but over regulation drives that up to the sorts of 12c level ..and so much depends on the cost of finance. My figures are base don 7.5% ROI. Drop that to 3% and you halve the capital contribution, and the next biggest thing is maintenance.
          US gas is currently hugely cheaper than European.. I guess no one wants to run LNG tankers around. Probably about 1000 times more dangerous than a steam explosion in a nuclear power station…..

          • PeteTheBee says:

            Nuclear would probably be the cheapest if it wasn’t so overburned with political baggage.

            When Gail says things like “ignore the price signal, shale gas is actually quite expensive” I tend to roll my eyes, People who correctly discover that a commodity is underpriced (or overpriced) can easily get rich of such deductions …. so people who say such things but lack the courage of the convictions aren’t trustworthy.

            In other words, if shale gas really was expensive, than natural gas will surely spike in a few years, and it would be easy to make a bundle with the futures market. I tend to distrust such get-rich-schemes-in-disguise…. I think it is more likely the futures market is accurately reflecting the true state of the gas market – there is a ton of gas to be had at a price that is steep compared to the current spot price, but very cheap compared to the “peak gasl” spot price of a few years back.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Gail has asserted that humans need fire in order to survive. Purely by accident, I happen to be reading something today which sheds light on the question. The book is The Forest Unseen by the biologist David George Haskell. Haskell first observes some Buddhist monks making a mandala, which reveals the whole universe in a small circle. There are other religious and mystical traditions which find that small things reveal mighty principles. Haskell goes into an old growth forest in Tennessee and throws down a ring roughly a meter in diameter. He will observe life inside the ring many times during the coming year. He calls the ring his Mandala.

    Entry for January 21st, The Experiment

    A polar wind rips across the mandala, streaming through my scarf, pushing an ache into my jaw. Not counting the windchill, it is twenty degrees below freezing (probably C?). In these southern forests such cold is unusual….Today’s cold will take the mandala’s life to its physiological limits.

    I want to experience the cold as the forest’s animals do, without the protection of clothes. On a whim, I throw my gloves and hat onto the frozen ground. Quickly, I strip off my insulated overalls, shirt, T-shirt, and trousers. The first two seconds of the experiment are surprisingly refreshing, a pleasant coolness after the stuffy clothes. Then the wind blasts away the illusion and my head is fogged with pain. The heat streaming out of my body scorches my skin.

    A chorus of Carolina chicadees provides the accompaniement to this absurd striptease. The birds dance through the trees like sparks from a fire, careening through twigs. They rest no more than a second on any surface, then shoot away. The contrast on this cold day between the chicadees’ liveliness and my physiological incompetence seems to defy nature’s rules. Small animals should be less able to cope with the cold than their larger cousins. The volume of all objects, including animal bodies, increases by the cube of the object’s length. The amount of heat that an animal can generate is proportional to the volume of its body, so heat generation also increases with the cube of body length. But the surface area, where heat is lost, increases by only the square of length. Small animals cool rapidly because they have proportionally much more body surface than body volume.

    (insert discussion of Bergmann’s rule–members of a species at the northern limit of the species range will be larger than those farther south in the range)

    Bergmann’s rule seems remote as I stand naked in the forest. The wind gusts hard and the burning sensation in my skin surges. Then, a deeper pain starts. Something behind my conscious mind is trapped and alarmed. My body is failing after just a minute of this winter chill. Yet, I weigh ten thousand time more than a chicadee; surely these birds should be extinguished in seconds.

    (insert discussion of Chickadee defensive mechanisms such as insulating feathers and shivering) Yet all this impressive protection merely slows the inevitable. Chickadee skin does not burn in the cold like mine, but heat still courses out. A centimeter or two of downy fluff buys just a few hours of life in the extreme cold.

    My usual heat generating chemical reactions are now totally inadequate, and my muscles’ shivering paroxysms are the last defense against a falling core temperature. Muscles fire seemingly randomly, pulling against one another so that my body shudders. Inside, food molecules and oxygen are burned, just as they are when muscles cause me to run or life, but now this burn produces a rush of heat. The violent shuddering of my legs, chest, and arms warms the blood, which then carries heat to the brain and the heart.

    (insert discussion of shivering in Chickadees–and how shivering accounts for half their energy expenditure on a cold day and a description of the enormous amount of food they need to find every day in order to survive)

    As I stand shaking, fear surfaces. I panic and dress as fast as I can. My hands are numb, and I grasp my clothes with difficulty, fumbling with zippers and buttons. My head aches as if my blood pressure has suddenly soared. My only desire is to move quickly. I walk, jump, and wave my arms. My brain signals: make more heat, fast.

    The experiment has lasted only a minute, just one ten-thousandth of the duration of this week of arctic air. Yet my physiology reels. My head pounds, my lungs can’t grasp enough air, and my limbs seem paralyzed. Had the experiment continued minutes longer my core body temperature would have dropped into hypothermia…Stripped of my clever cultural adaptations to the cold, I’m revealed as a tropical ape, profoundly out of place in the winter forest. The chickadees’ insouciant mastery of this place is humbling.

    I will replenish my reserves when I retreat to my warm kitchen, drawing on the winter-defying technologies of food preservation and transportation. But chickadees have no dried grains, farmed meat, or imported vegetables.

    (insert detailed discussion of how much chickadees require to survive, the difficulty of finding it, the sometimes cooperative efforts with other species, the danger from hawks, and the fact that half of them will not make it through the winter and selection of the fittest will have taken place. Discussion of hierarchy among the flock–the dominant get to eat first and are sleek, the subordinate eat second and must store more fat–which makes them a more tempting target for the hawks.)

    End citation. You will note that this biologist essentially agrees with Gail: we need fuel and we need transportation. I can visualize scenarios involving less fuel and transporation, but, especially considering the graphic nature of Haskell’s description, it seems unlikely that any significant number of us could survive without some fuel and some transportation and some civilization from which to import necessities we can’t get locally..

    Don Stewart

    • If we could survive as hunter gatherers without fire, it seems to me it would mostly be a relatively small number living in the tropics, where the biodiversity is greatest and the need for heat to keep low is least. In fact, I think that is where hunter-gethering held on longest.

      There is a question whether we could also live in without fire in relatively cool areas with enough fish and berries and not too many predators. It seems like one issue that would be keeping warm enough; another would be keeping predators away (without knives, guns, etc.)

      • Don Stewart says:

        It is very hard for most of us to keep Liebig’s Law in focus as we consider alternatives. For example, consider knives–which Eustace Conway identified as quite important. We need a source of ore (which in the olden days was a pretty rich ore) and we need some heat (which we can get from a wood fired furnace with a little skill) and we need something to shape the knife with. It also helps if we have something to hone the blade on. Why is the knife important? Because we can’t count on industrial methods of insulation (Haskell’s insulated overalls) and will need to rely on feathers and hides and such which as a practical matter need knives to utilize. We 21st century humans are not used to thinking in such fundamental terms. So what is Liebig’s limiting resource? My vote is for the ore–we can’t find rich ores anymore because we have exhausted all but the low grade ores. But there could be something else which is limiting, such as the knowledge of how to forge a knife blade. Or maybe it is the population of fur bearing animals.

        Or maybe the limiting factor is our perspective. September 15 is the hundredth birthday of Woody Guthrie, more or less. A large assemblage of local musicians will perform a celebration. One of his songs, which those of you a certain age will remember, talks about a lonesome valley:
        You’ve gotta walk that lonesome valley
        You’ve gotta walk it by yourself
        There’s a path that leads to glory
        No one here
        Can walk it for you
        You’ve gotta walk it by yourself
        And so we get a fairly clear distinction between the notion of doing the right thing and doing the crowd pleasing thing. The ‘realists’ will say that unless you can get the crowd to go along, you are wasting your time. Woody disagreed. Which is right? We do know Woody was hounded by the Congress. And generations have pursued phantoms.

        We also hear a song from kentucky many years ago:
        Daddy, won’t you take me back to Muhlenberg county
        Down by the Green River where paradise lay
        Well I’m sorry my son
        But you’re too late in asking
        Mr Peabody’s coal train
        Done hauled it away.

        So…is paradise available when fossil fuels or other industrial sources are unavailable? Many of the people who subscribe to this blog do not think it is. Jesus and Buddha and Mohammed would have said that it was right at hand. Which is correct? What will the majority think? What is the sane perspective for an individual or family or small group?

        Don Stewart

        • Leo Smith says:

          The richest source of iron ore available to 22nd century hippies will be the rusting scrapyards of wind turbine carcases, oil tanker hulks and Detroit cars…

          ..and it will be a lot richer than any ore you might have found in the iron age Weald..

        • I think knives are likely to be a problem when our current supply is gone. Metal ores are of too low quality today, and recycling mixed metals is not going to work well. We may have to get along with poor quality knives, if that is all we can come up. Maybe someone else knows more details than I do.

          I remember the “You gatta walk that lonesome valley” song well.”

        • corfubob says:

          The sane perspective is to believe things won’t be as bad as many say, nor as good as a few hope – learn how to use simple tools now, and start collecting useful rubbish rather than the sparkly rubbish you mostly collect now. Learn to keep your mouth shut and eyes open. Do more for yourself and for other people. Buy some good knives now – they will last your lifetime.

  9. James says:

    All energy is external until it becomes internal to the system and is degraded with the release of heat. If you unravel all of the complexity, what you end up with is high-grade sunlight being converted into chemical bonds and motion and then being degraded into heat that flows into space. What we see around us is real biochemical pageantry but it is just a slow path for energy to spread out into the coolness of space. Like dust devils, we’re picked up, given a spin and dropped back down again as concentrated energy hits the earth and then spreads out into space.

    As sunlight is degraded and sent back to space, a lot of strange things can happen with matter. The spinning skittles of the ecosystem bounce back and forth, searching for their sustenance and trying to avoid being eaten. Humans, being just another arrangement of cells, having evolved to technology, also learned to fear the death that sculpted their bodies and minds. Lots and lots and lots of death left you spinning on the stage, and you can see that death and you can see the flow of energy, the direction of time, and there’s nothing you can do about it, nothing, except believe the game will continue on some ethereal sphere. Your technology is helpful, but ultimately impotent. The skittles keep spinning, more every day. Will you hit a 100-point pin, be bounced off the stage or simply fall for lack of success? Will your genes have another spin? Does it matter, since the ultimate purpose is dissipation of the sun’s energy into space and this can be achieved with or without “consciousness”, with or without human form?

    As pathetic as it seems, this is probably the greatest game in the universe and your participation is obligatory. You’ve done been spun. Now what are you going to do? Sit around and eat and evolve heat into space? Watch the boob tube? Remember, you won’t be spinning forever.

  10. Don Stewart says:

    If by ‘not part of my thinking’ you mean that you don’t think about cheating other people, then I have no comment. If you mean ‘I don’t think it is anything worth paying much attention to’, then I would just point to the financial crisis, peak oil and the gas bubble. And a lot of other phenomenon where you have shed light in murky corners. If you think that most of your daily transactions are fraud free, I would point to the study that dentists perform a poor procedure in one quarter of the cases involving certain fillings, and the longer their relationship with the patient, the more likely they are to select the poor procedure. Details in Ariely’s book.

    Ariely also applies the term ‘cheating’ to self deception–which you see all around you all the time. Ariely discusses the ease with which we convince ourselves that our self-justification story is true.

    Don Stewart

    • I am sure my transactions are not fraud-free, but that is not something I focus on. There are a long list of other things that pretty much pass me by too–wars; who is running for what office and what they are saying; television shows; sports events; most music; latest fashions; etc.

      With 24 hours in a day, a person kind of has to limit their focus to a few issues. Leaving out some unpleasant ones perhaps biases my analyses somewhat, but it seems like that is what works best for me. When I learned the ten commandments, I also learned Luther’s set of meanings.

      The Eighth Commandment.

      Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

      What does this mean?–Answer.

      We should fear and love God that we may not deceitfully belie, betray, slander, or defame our neighbor, but defend him, [think and] speak well of him, and put the best construction on everything.

      With this focus, I probably overlook a fair amount of cheating. It saves me the grief of wrongly thinking badly about people. It is not really for other people’s benefit; it is for my own mental health.

      • Don Stewart says:

        You may be pleased to hear that at the end of his book, discussing possible remedies, Ariely points to some traditional religious practices. A brief quote, and then the results of a study:

        From the social science perspective, religion has evolved in ways that can help society counteract potentially destructive tendencies, including the tendency to be dishonest. (Then he ties in daily religious practices with his experimental evidence that reminders at the point of temptation are incredibly effective.)

        Following the physically painful approach of Opus Dei, we decided to conduct an experiment using a more modern and less bloody version of cattail whips–so we picked mildly painful electric shocks…We asked some participants to write about a past experience that made them feel guilty, some to write about an experience that made them feel sad, and some to write about a neutral experience….We set the machine in the lowest possible level of shock, and asked participants to press the switch, increase the level of shock, press the switch, increase the level of shock, and so forth until they could no longer stand it…In the neutral and sad conditions, the degree of self-inflicted pain was similar and rather low, which means that negative emotions by themselves do not create a desire for self-inflicted pain. However, those in the guilty condition were far more disposed to self-administering higher levels of shock.

        Back to me. Ariely concludes by noting that cheating (including self-deception) is an irrational act that we are frequently not conscious of. But there are some methods which have been shown to be effective in reducing it. So he recommends more research on countermeasures. Earlier in the book, he tells the story of a lawyer who was scrupulously honest in terms of billable hours. Consequently, he had a lower income than the other lawyers but was happy with his honesty. But he was also generating less money for the senior partners. So when the cutback came, he was fired. I don’t think Ariely has proposed anything to reform organizations such as law firms. We should also remember than research shows that sociopaths tend to rise to the tops of large organizations because they are willing to do anything to succeed. It might be very difficult for the head of a big bank to write any story about events which made him feel guilty. Ariely’s subjects are overwhelmingly ordinary people who CAN feel guilt.

        Don Stewart

        • On the refusing to write up hours question, my son who is mildly autistic had a job years ago grading computer programs that college students had written. He was amazingly fast at this–could grade a homework assignment in something like 2 or 3 minutes on average, with very high consistency from paper to paper–students who had copied from each other nearly always got the same score, and he often noticed the similarity. More than one person suggested that he write down more hours, because other graders took much longer to grade papers, but he refused.

  11. Don Stewart says:

    These thoughts are a little bit of a tangent from this particular post, but are relevant to the body of Gail’s work.

    Dan Ariely is an experimental economist/psychologist who is now at Duke. His latest book is called The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. It is full of fascinating insights into human behavior which is not rational by conventional economist standards.

    Dan establishes early on that the amount of cheating we humans (as a group) do is a function of two conflicting goals. First, we want to maintain our self respect as ‘an honest person’, but, second, we also want to gain material advantage when we can. The only way to keep us all honest is to design life such that cheating is impossible. If cheating is very difficult, then only a few people will put out the effort to cheat.

    (My comment. As we have financialized much of what used to be in the household economy (food production, child care, home remedies for health care, entertainment, clothing, etc.) we have increased the GDP and we have increased the cost of controlling the cheating that happens when things are financialized and we have increased the opportunities for the government to tax us. We have also decreased health such that the number one disease in the world is now clinical depression.)

    Then Dan gives many fascinating examples (from experiments) about what increases and decreases cheating. For example, being creative makes you more likely to cheat both because you are able to figure out how to do it technically and because your left brain is more agile in coming up with explanations for why your behavior really isn’t cheating. And you will cheat more if your co-workers also cheat, and particularly if your boss is cheating. If someone you respect is cheating, then you will cheat more–but if you see a member of a despised group cheat, you will cheat less (as, for example, when Carnegie Mellon students see a person wearing a University of Pittsburgh sweater cheat).

    (My comment. We have reached the questionable position in this country where both candidates for President are, by word and deed, condoning cheating in a wide variety of actions by everyone from Wall Street to the Department of Justice to the monthly Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. And the current President has made a point of punishing whistle-blowers. We DO have clever, creative politicians who are able to come up with ever more elaborate justifications for why their actions are not really cheating–I imagine they sleep well at night.)

    Ariely’s colleague Ed Balleisen has a forthcoming book Suckers, Swindles, and an Ambivalent State which describes how each new technology enables new kinds of swindles. For example, the Post Office enabled people to sell non-existent products by mail order. The solution was stringent Mail Fraud laws. Now imagine the swindles in Mortgage Backed Securities.

    (My comment. Our solution…failure to prosecute but try to bail everyone out with taxpayer money.)

    Ariely also comments on the general decline in the quality of decisions which are arrived at by a group. Then he gives a vivid example of fraud in the Accounting profession which was enabled by the group nature of the report.

    (My comment. Corporations are extremely fond of calling people ‘team members’. Study Ariely’s example and see if you can think of why a corporation might like to have a malleable ‘team’ as the production unit rather than an individual who will bend the rules just so far but refuses to go beyond the line where they can’t feel good about themselves. Are fast food employees able to keep their self-respect only because ‘everyone else is doing it’?)

    Ariely points out that each new technology requires anyother layer of rules to control the inevitable new opportunities for dishonesty.

    (My comment. Think about Tainter and the collapse of complex societies. Every new set of rules increases the complexity. Old rules which have become obsolete are seldom repealed. If a rule is repealed, it is generally aimed at increasing the opportunities for fraud by Crony Capitalists–think of the repeal of Glass-Steagall. So rule repeal is not free.)

    A final thought. So Gail has certainly convinced me that the current system of financialization of everything is going to collapse. I think we will revert to a production mode where very much more will be produced by the household economy. We will inevitably lose something in terms of glittery products and the promise of perpetual growth and the illusion that many people will not have to do physical work. But we will also cut out enormous amounts of fraud and the overhead of trying to regulate the fraud away and we are likely to be a lot more healthy both physically and sociologically and psychologically.

    Will we be better off or worse off?

    Don Stewart

    • I guess cheating isn’t sufficiently part of my way of thinking to relate very well to it. I do agree that more rules increase complexity, and usually new rules are added on top of old rules.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Actually I do have a comment about about your probable willingness to cheat. Ariely found that Accountants are the most honest profession he looked at. Where they get into trouble is when they are subjected to group pressure–such as those who work for ratings agencies or perhaps those who work for regulatory bodies where, as Bush II insisted, the banks were their ‘customers’.

        I would expect Actuaries to be at least as honest as Accountants. And you are working alone. So I expect you are a paragon of honesty.

        Still….there is that 1 percent chance…so I will keep my wallet close to me…(smiley face)
        Don Stewart

        • With actuaries (as with any other profession) there is pressure to write reports that say what the client or management of the company wants to hear. On the “casualty” side, which is where I worked, I don’t think there was a lot of cheating pressure. If there was “bad news” to report, actuaries would try to choose assumptions that don’t overstate the amount of the bad news–and may err in the direction of understating it. Casualty actuaries have tended to be interested in peak oil.

          On the life-pension side, I expect there is pressure to use high interest earning assumptions (especially on pensions), so that pensions look like they will work out. I would have a problem working in life-pensions.

          The question of talking about peak oil/low interest rates came up at an actuarial committee I am on (mostly life-pension people, except for me), and the response by one person was, “But the message isn’t one our management wants to hear.” I expect that it will be very difficult for the committee to say anything useful, because people understand on which side their bread is buttered. I haven’t heard from the committee in a while–the committee seems so far to be a waste of time.

          Even at that, there are some life actuaries interested in the issue. I was asked to write an article for a British actuarial publication that goes to actuaries of all types. I wrote the article; it hasn’t been published yet.

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Just a few thoughts on our human need for external energy. If we step back 10 yards and look at it, I think we find:
    1. Plants depend on energy stored as carbon and other nutrients stored in the soil and on sunlight.
    2. Animals depend on energy stored in plants.
    3. Humans have learned additional tricks:
    A. We have learned to mine energy from the earth.
    B. We have learned to use energy more efficiently. For example, we invented knives, which are considerably more efficient than ripping with out hands.
    C. We have learned to increase photosynthetic activity. For example, maximum photosynthesis occurs in the disturbed ecosystem as opposed to a climax forest. Annual vegetables and forestry practices such as coppice maintain a disturbed ecosystem and do not let it progress to climax.
    D. We have learned to harvest the energy of gravity–particularly with water.
    E. We have learned to select or breed plants with differing photosynthetic paths to match our disturbed ecosystem methods of production.
    F. We have learned to design our home and work spaces to take advantage of solar energy (both additions of energy when it is cold and radiation of energy to outer space when it is hot)
    G. We have learned how to harvest the energy in atoms.
    H. We have learned how to accelerate the use of low entropy and thus harvest more energy now–with less energy later.
    I. We learned to hunt more efficiently, thus increasing our ability to feed on other animals.
    J. We have learned a myriad of tricks for increasing the success of domesticated plants and animals–plant and animal husbandry.
    K. We learned to wear clothing to protect us from UV and also to keep us warm in cold climates.
    L. We learned to cook food and to ferment it to decrease the energy we spend in chewing and digesting.

    (You can add to this list to suit yourself.)
    As we practiced these energy liberating strategies, we changed both psychologically and physiologically. Just as a lion is dependent on the herd, so we are dependent on many of our energy strategies. The Lion cannot live on grass, and humans cannot now live without our energy tricks. Both the Lion and the Human evolved from a single celled creature in the ocean, but we cannot rewind that tape.

    If you look at the list above, and the evidence you have presented, a reasonable conclusion is that mining energy from the earth has enormously distorted the number of humans on earth, the rate at which we lose our low entropy inheritance (minerals washing into the sea, etc.), the extent of our Overshoot, and the poisoning of the planet with heavy metals and industrial chemicals. You can also add to this list.

    Suppose that we simply stopped mining additional energy from the earth and quit trying to harvest energy from atoms: no more fossil fuels or nuclear reactors, sequestering carbon with plant husbandry techniques, recycling all nutrients such as calcium and phosphorus with plant husbandry and waste disposal techniques. (The cessation of mining and nukes might result from depletion or financial collapse or desperate resource wars or international agreements). How many humans could earth support?

    That is a very hard question to answer for several reasons. First, the earth is no longer climatically the earth we evolved to live in. Second, the earth has been significantly depleted of stored energy in the form of minerals and soil carbon during the reign of fossil fuels. Third, the oceans have been poisoned during the reign of fossil fuels. Fourth, Liebig’s Law holds–we have to identify the most limiting factor and work from there. Fifth, soil fertility has been significantly destroyed during the reign of fossil fuels. Sixth, while humans physiological and psychological inheritance is the same as it was before fossil fuels, the stock has changed. Adults are accustomed to a very different life now, and reverting back to an earlier paradigm (or a new paradigm reflecting the changes just mentioned) may be very difficult for many people. Seventh, while there is no doubt that humans in the industrial world have lost skills in many of the energy tricks, at the margin our knowledge is increasing. SOME people have significantly advanced the art of energy harvest on all of those fronts over the last 40 years. The fact that the vast majority have ignored the advances and relied on the brute force of fossil fuels does not destroy the knowledge gained. We now have a knowledge distribution problem, rather than an ignorance problem. How effective can we be in distributing knowledge?

    Is all gloom and doom? Well…if you are a certain sort of person, you might think that a few billion fewer humans is a pretty good outcome. But I don’t think it is worthwhile to debate that question. Charles Hugh Smith had an excellent post a couple of days ago on Sick Care. He asserted that the present system is unsustainable and, therefore, will not be sustained. He opined that the Public will end up financing preventive care and nothing else. He doesn’t debate the morality of the taxpayer refusing to pay for the fourth bypass surgery for the cheeseburger addict–he just claims it won’t continue because it can’t continue. I think that a similar attitude is probably appropriate in terms of population. Humans will do the best they can with all those novel tricks up at the beginning of this post (excluding mining and nukes) and we will just see how the population thing works out.

    Don Stewart

    • That is very good. I think though, that the problem is more than distribution of knowledge. It is also somehow changing ownership/ access to land so people can have a chance to act on this knowledge. It is not going to matter too much if people in apartments know how to farm–they have to have someplace to put it to use. I suppose of the knowledge is “gathering” as well. Such knowledge might even be helpful for the apartment dweller.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Both Peter Bane and David Holmgren, who advocate Garden Farming, agree with you on the land reform issue.

        Will you permit a flight of fantasy? John Michael Greer thinks that the US is about to be defeated in a war. When the US defeated Japan in WWII, General MacArthur became the ruler of Japan. He redistributed the land from the very rich to the ordinary people. Perhaps, in defeat, we will be so lucky as to get a General MacArthur as our ruler.

        Don Stewart

        • There have been quite a few other places where that has happened, as new rulers took over. That can work both ways though–if someone buys property, they could find that it is one that is confiscated.

    • reverseengineerre says:

      “The Lion cannot live on grass, and humans cannot now live without our energy tricks.”-Don

      I think I have covered this pretty well in my dialogue with Gail. Humans CAN in fact live without the “Energy Tricks”, just not nearly so many of them can exist on the planet simultaneously.

      It’s all about the juxtapositon of resources against population. Knock Down the population enough, then the earth replenishes faster than the consumption occurs. Same with all Predator-Prey cycles really. We just blew out the curve when we accessed fossil fuels, but we did not “evolve” to be incapable of existing without them. I am perfectly capable of existing without them, as long as there are not 7B OTHER people all competing for the same limited resources.

      Homo Sapiens are not Lions, though neither one can eat Grass and gain nutrition from it. Takes an Ungulate to do that. The variety of things a Human CAN eat, even RAW are immense really. Its just a Numbers Problem, not an Evolutionary one. People are not a whole lot different than Bears in what we can eat. Both Omnivores. Bears got Big Teeth and Claws, Humans have Big Brains and Tools. Generally speaking, Humans got it all over the Bears, even without the Guns. Just if there are too many of us, we knock down all the prey too fast and graze out the land like sheep run amok.

      This whole concept that we have evolved so far we NEED External Energy Input is just WRONG. We Do NOT. Anyone who has spent a decent amount of time hunting and fishing knows this. You just need to be able to find enough food and clothe and shelter yourself. The Energy stuff is just Bonus to make you more “comfortable”.



      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Reverse Engineer
        Since all plants and animals that I know anything about use energy tricks, I don’t think it is very useful to debate whether we could live without them. We can go back to such basics as the capture of a microbe to live inside our cells to become our energy generator. That is an energy trick that most living things now use–but it wasn’t always that way.

        Lions use pack hunting as an energy trick. Could Lions survive without pack hunting? I don’t know. Pack hunting changes the behavior of the herbivores which changes the nature of the grassland and changes the climate. Would Lions survive in the world as it would change if they gave up pack hunting for some reason? 99.9 percent of species have become extinct, so the probability is ‘No’.

        Take the Eustace Conway story about the wilderness and the knife. If there was a resurgence of the Black Death which killed all the humans except for a couple of dozen who happened to be sailing in the South Seas with Dmitry Orlov. They land finally, to see deserted cities and abandoned farms. They have no useful tools at all. They are urban people used to buying food at the grocery store and fuel comes in a pipe or a wire. Would they survive? Probably the 99.9 percent solution, in my opinion.

        Don Stewart

        • reverseengineerre says:

          We’re not talking about Mitochondria or what will happen to Dmitri and his crew.

          The Energy Trick under discussion is the use of Fire, and whether on an Evolitonary level Homo Sapiens is incapable of Life without it. Gail makes the case that we cannot live without it, I make the case we can, though we likely never will have to. Where do you stand on this question?


          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Reverse Engineer
            I do know that the dental evidence and the length of the gut evidence support the notion that humans long ago diverged from other primates in an environment of ‘soft food’–presumably cooked.

            Other than that, I am not qualified to say much on the specific question of fire. We have also bred ‘soft food’ by manipulating wild plants to domesticate them in ways we find pleasing. Today, many chain restaurants run meats through something like a cement mixer to soften it. This both pleases the customers and also means they have to chew very little and so finish faster and so turn the table over faster. Whether our domestication efforts have softened food sufficiently that we can now dispense with cooking, I don’t know.

            All this soft food, of course, might be one of the contributing factors in the epidemic of chronic disease. There was a recent study in Asia which found that the introduction of fast food is leading to rapidly worsening health in that area..

            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Reverse Engineer
            One more thought on the evolutionary path. Someone once told me that a gorilla in captivity will eat soft food in preference to the tough leaves and stems it would have to eat in the wild. (Gorillas in captivity also generally have vascular diseases–those in the wild don’t.) Now suppose, way back when, humans discovered fire and discovered that they could make soft food by putting it in the fire. So all the humans are quickly cooking their food to make it soft–because of an innate preference. The teeth and gut needed to deal with hard, wild food would no longer be needed. And so they disappear to be replaced by teeth and gut designed for softer food.

            Give the chain restaurants a few more thousands of years and maybe human teeth will disappear?

            Don Stewart

          • reverseengineerre says:

            I find this distinction between “hard” and “soft” foods to be pretty arbitrary really. Nuts are quite hard and I can eat them. Basically I just compare myself to the Average Bear (Yogi) as to what he can eat and what I can, and we both can eat the same things, raw or cooked. Bears don’t eat Leaves and Grasses, we aren’t set up to digest Cellulose like Ungulates are.

            Far as my Habitat is concerned, what can I eat that is around up here to eat?

            1-Fish-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            2 Caribou/Moose-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            3-Berries-Check, can eat them raw or cooked
            4-Potatoes, Carrots, Lettuce, asorted Wild Tuberscheck can eat them raw or cooked
            5-Pine Nuts-check, can eat them raw or cooked
            6-Worms, check can eat them raw or cooked

            No grains are grown up here to any extent, so they would not be part of my diet if they are not being shipped up here. No citrus fruits either. I can scrape the inside of the Bark of different trees to get some vitamin rich nourishment, though it has no real calorie content I can digest. The calories though come from the fish oils, the animal fat and the carbs from Potatoes and some other tubers that grow in this climate.

            What are the “hard foods” here me or my fellow Bears cannot digest raw or cooked? How much of this stuff do I need to Chew anyhow? I have a very good Knife that will last me the rest of my life for sure, and probably another generation or two past. I can cut anything up into teensy weensy little pieces to eat with minimal chewing involved. Even if I ddi not have said knife, making one from stone 7 bone is not that hard, though it takes practice to make a real good one. Something future Homo Sapiens may have to do, but I will not. I got a nice Knife forged from Kraut Stainless Steel! LOL.

            Besides that, I really do not HAVE to eat any of this stuff raw unless I want to, Plenty-o-trees still around to burn for fuel, and you don’t even have to cut any down just for cooking. You pick up fallen deadwood for it. You just do not BURN all that much to cook a meal. Its when you make BIG fires to Heat shelters and to do things like bake ceramics you start burning fuel faster than it grows.

            Its all about NUMBERS and the fact Homo Sapiens kept inventing things to make himself more comfortable, but NECESSARY for living? No WAY. It is quite possible to live in balance with nature, but you have to WANT to do it and realize if you don’t you will screw yourself in the end. Some people did live this way for THOUSANDS of years with virtually no damage to their environments. They RESPECTED Mother Nature and did not TAKE more than she could GIVE to them.

            This thread bothers me because it amounts to an APOLOGY for the conspicuous consumption fo energy by Homo Sapiens under the cover that we HAD to do it because we EVOLVED in such a way we could not live otherwise. This is complete Poppycock, and the anthropology shows that to be so. Hard vs Soft foods? This is just nonsense. As to what your gut can digest once you get yourself used to it, I suggest you spend a few years as an OTR Truck Driver and eat Truckstop food for a few years. If you can digest that shit and not DIE, you can eat ANYTHING. LOL. Seriously I had a couple of cases of food poisoning so bad I literally thought I would DIE. I NEVER had diahreah and vomiting so bad eating anything else, including worms.


            • When cooked food is part of the mix of food eaten, a lot more people can inhabit the earth than without. Population pressure explains a lot if it.

              The places that where people can live on the diet you are suggesting are pretty much cold places. Maybe a few people can live without fossil fuel in cold places, but I am willing to bet not many. If you had to live in a jungle somewhere, you would be eating a lot of greens–leaves or vegetables–and those are difficult to chew. Go to a zoo sometime, and see how much of the time a chimpanzee spends chewing. If you ate similar food, you would too.

            • corfubob says:

              Your comment is an inspiration, but what you or I ‘can’ do is hardly relevant to a generalised statement of how mankind has evolved, or to the general meaning of ‘need’. We had better hope the powers that built the weapons industry and explore Mars will recognise the need of the masses to live in cities until their numbers shrink enough for them to spread out and find/grow stuff without angering the land-owners who can now own 1000 times what they need for their families, without censure.

              However the statement ‘humans need external energy’ is about as enlightening as saying ‘humans need to breath’ And what the hell ‘saving the earth’ actually means remains anyone’s guess. Let us hope people with power will decide what needs doing to save humanity from itself, and just get on and do it. The ‘people’s opinions about what should be done are making me very tired – not because the opinions are wrong (always), but because small groups of action takers have to decide for themselves.

          • reverseengineerre says:

            Posted a response here but it did not take. Its up in the OFW discussion thread on the Diner.


          • reverseengineerre says:

            I didn’t make the case that you have the same set of foods in the Jungle, or that all habitats and climates are equally well endowed with food stuffs Homo Sapiens can consume. I just demonstrated that the concept that Human beings NEED external energy input to survive is a canard.

            Nor did I disagree that the carrying capacity of the planet for homo sapiens is increased in the presence of external energy inputs. That is self-evident.

            Insofar as your persistent reference to Chewing is concerned, I am not a Chimpanzee and if I lived in that climate I would be digging up a somewhat different set of tubers on the veggie end and grinding them up to meal with some rocks. I would not use my teeth at all for this task as a Chimp does. Similar with leaves, they can be ground into a Pesto Sauce. Just about any of this can be made into a mash and left out in the sun to ferment as well. I can come up with endless strategies for making the food palatable without chewing or burning anything. Besides, you can always use animals as Converters. If you raise some Goats, the goats eat the Grass, you drink the Goat’s Milk. Where is the NECESSARY Energy input there Gail? Where is the chewing problem there?

            The only issues as far as long term survival for Homo Sapiens are not evolutionary limitations of “required external energy input”. They are realted wholly to Overpopulation and poisoning the environment. Climate change and Ocean acidification may render all these arguments moot though anyhow. If the Phytoplankton collapse, nothing above the level of the Tardigrades will make it through that Zero Point.


    • Leo Smith says:

      You would be surprised how many people would accept nuclear power if the alternative was an early death.

      There’s an interesting bit of news going the rounds – an artificial membrane that can extract uranium from seawater at only about 5 times the cost of mining it.

      Since the contribution of fuel cost to nuclear power is about 0.5c per kw/h this is significant. 2.5c is still a reasonable price to pay.

      The estimated resource of uranium in seawater if used efficiently with breeder and reprocessing is enough for the current population of the world to all have Western levels of energy for about 5000 years.

      Which may be enough time to actually make a fusion reactor that works, giving is anther 50,000 years on top of that.

      In short there is no primary energy crisis at all. almost Nuclear power at 10c-15c a kwh represents a ceiling on energy prices. No power should cost more than that, and if it does, you are being gouged.

      It doesn’t solve the issue of transforming a carbon based society into a nuclear electric based one, but it does show that access to cheap energy is not the main issue.

      • Don Stewart says:

        I am just plain tired of nuclear. I can’t listen to cornucopian stories about any more. I listened to them 60 years ago in the Atoms For Peace traveling exhibit. Energy was going to be ‘too cheap to meter’. If there was an inconvenient nuclear war, then a 1952 housewife in high heels and apron would just sweep the polluted dust into a dustpan and drop it outside in the garden. Then onto quite a number of years later when a bicycling buddy was an engineer at Hanford. He assured me that the big bosses were assuring him that everything was quite OK. We now know they lied. My friend died of cancer.

        There used to be a saying that ‘gallium arsenide is the future of transistors…always has been…always will be’. I have the same thoughts about nuclear: ‘the way to really cheap energy…always has been…always will be’. Nuclear plants have never supported themselves commercially. Oil, of course, also gets hefty subsidies in the form, most notably, of massive military forces.

        At my stage in life, I am vastly more interested in living with very little fossil or nuclear energy. Life can be very good without much of either.

        Don Stewart

        • Leo Smith says:

          Sorry Don. Next time I will try and post something that fits your emotional needs, rather than what is based on facts

  13. reverseengineerre says:

    Restart from above due to the Nesting Problem.

    From Gail:

    “I agree–the issue is that society needs external energy. It is always possible to show that a few people, who choose to live in a particular way can live without external energy (especially if they have the benefit of knives, shovels, needles and perhaps thread, and a few other tools). It is even possible that the Inuits could live without external energy, in one particular environment, for fairly short life expectancies.

    But there is no way that 7 billion people could live without external energy. We have too many hereditary deficiencies, and external energy makes things so much better, especially with so many people.”-Gail

    No argument that the Agrarian-Industrial lifestyle needs external energy inputs in many forms. That is not how you phrased the titling of your article though. You Titled it :”Humans seem to NEED external energy”. You did NOT say “Humans need external energy in order to keep 7B alive on the planet in toasty warm McMansions”.

    You then made the argument that because of the way our Jaws are constructed, we have to Cook Food, which is clearly invalid because stone tools substitute for powerful jaws. Enzymatically speaking, your stomach can even adapt over time to eating heavily tainted food that has been rotting a while. Back in Jolly Old England in the 16th Century, it was common practice to hang Pheasants out for a couple of weeks to let them rot before eating them, though yes they did cook them after that. Anyhow, Carion eat rotting food and so can we, but it takes getting your stomach used to it.

    Then you attempt to Minimize the possibility of Humans living in the absence of External Energy input by grudgingly admitting that , OK, a few Inuit who lived short lifespans may have done it, but hardly anybody else did, which again is not valid. The few Inuit who still live close to subsistence lives are merely among the very few left as Ag and then industrialization marched around the globe and wiped them all out.

    You are fabulously good with numbers Gail, but your Anthropology arguments have more holes than Swiss Cheese. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, the Potlatch society Tribes of the Pacific Northwest in aggregate numbered close to 1M Human souls at their Peak. They lived for over 10000 years throughout WA and OR up through British Columbia to Southern Alaska. They never burned down all their trees for fuel, for smelting metal or for making ceramics and glass OR for Ag, even though they did practice Horticulture besides doing conventional H-G living.

    On a more recent migratory level the Polynesian Naviagators who moved from Tonga to New Zealand to the Society Islands to Rapa Nui and eventually to the Big Island of Hawaii did not with the exception of Rapa Nui destroy their environments over 500-1500 years of time either. Again these were basically Paleolithic people although their navigation technology was quite amazing. They did use and control Fire, but again just using fire to cook with does not burn down forests anywhere they grow reasonably fast.

    In terms of what actual Population of the earth is sustainable utilizing Energy on a pay as you Go basis no quicker than it gets replenished, it is far less than the current 7B, but not so small as it was when only H-Gs populated the planet. Just simple techniques of harnessing Solar Energy to cook your food and harnessing Wind power to pump water around magnifies the carrying capacity by a couple of orders of magnitude would be my best WAG.

    What does that Population Number look like? 100M Human Souls might be a valid estimate IMHO. Is that a nasty knockdown from 7B? You betchya, but it is not an Extinction Level Event in this case.

    If Human Life is to be extinguished on Planet Earth forever more, its not because we “need” external energy inputs to live. We do not. It will come either we so Poison the environment it can no longer support ANY Homo Sapiens at all, which could come as a gift from either the Fossil Fuels industry or the Nuke Puke industry. The other possibility as has been mentioned before is that of Ocean Acidification, which probably is not Anthropogenic in origin but may continue over the nxt 50 years to such a degree that it will knockdown the phytoplankton and all higher animal life will suffocate from lack of oxygen. This is not an energy related problem really though we are likely exacerbating that problem now.

    People need to be educated that we CAN live very low per capita energy usage llives, and stop believing in pipe dreams and Skittle Puking Unicorns. Anybody who would like some chance at being among the few who make it through this Zero Point would be well advised to follow the lead of Peter Bauer and others backing away from Industrial Civilization. It is on its way out now, and nothing will save it. All to the good there, it and Ag were a blight on the Planet for so long as they have been pursued. They can be pursued no more.


    • I agree, 100,000,000 might work.It might take quite a few years to get there too, so from our point of view, be better than that.

      Perhaps I should put it a different way. It is so much more optimal (from a time chewing point of view, and from the kinds of foods that can easily be eaten point of view) to incorporate cooked food into the mix of foods we eat, that nearly all groups will choose to cook their food, if the fuel is available.

      If the fuel isn’t available, there may be a few places that people with our tooth structure and gut structure can live, and consistently eat raw food, but these can be expected to be few and far between–mostly groups that get quite a bit of their nutrition from fish.

      • reverseengineerre says:

        I don’t expect Cooking to stop as long as any Homo Sapiens walking the earth have acess to SOME form of cooking it, and they pretty much always will since you can make a Solar Oven quite easily, and besides that once the population gets knocked down enough eventually there will be regrowth, assuming the climate doesn’t go completely whacky. Depending which way it goes long term, survivable zones might be in the far north in the case of runaway Warming, in the case of an Ice Age follow up (my general hypothesis) it’s back to equatorial regions for survival.

        I just jumped all over the Cooking thing because it was representative of the whole Theme you pursued that Homo Sapiens has evolved to NEED external energy inputs, when in fact we have not evolved to that point at all. The number of people the planet can support as long as there IS additional energy Input available is of course much larger than in its absence, but that is an aggregate numbers problem not an evolutionary existential one.

        One thing I won’t let go of here though is your obsession with the mastication abilities of the human jaw and teeth. This has way less to do with Cooking and Energy than it does with the use of Tools. Long as you have at least Stone Knives available, you can mince up even the toughest stuff into tiny pieces you can swallow whole if you have to. Once inside the powerful acidic environment ot the stomach, about no food cannot be digested, even raw grains. You can grind up grains to fine powder with rocks and digest them raw.
        Problem there is more a hydration one than anything else.

        Where cooking really comes in handy is on the Poisons end, a lot of plants are not edible prior to cooking because they produce enzymes which are taken up too quickly through the intestine and can kill you outright if you eat them raw. Everybody knows abotu the Mushroom problem of course. On the other hand, there are some plants you can ONLY eat raw, if you cook them there is conversion to some poisons also indigestible. Getting to know how to identify which are which is a lifetime study sort of thing. I’ve been jamming it into my head for the last 3 years memorizing as much as I can on this topic.

        Animal flesh does have the bacteria and parasite problem, but outside of pens in a normally clean environment, this is a very minor issue. The issue with some wild game is that they go and feed in dumpsters and the like, this can get them all full of festering bacteria. The further out you go, the less problem you have with this.

        Far as getting from here to there in terms of Population Die Off, it could be a Fast Crash St. Mathews Island scenario, or it could happen over the longer term of a century or more, but either way it is not good. A slower knockdown will mean more wars and human misery for a longer time. Under about no conditions short of Cold Fusion riding in over hill here can I see how a massive population knockdown can be avoided over the next century.


  14. Pingback: Humans Seem to Need External Energy « Economics Info

  15. Don Stewart says:

    Fall is a good time to get some hands on experience with fermentation. Here are two events in my neighborhood. I am sure most of you can locate equivalents near you unless you live in a dreadful, high-class neighborhood.
    scan down the page and click on the kim chee workshop description

    And learn to make wine from our native Muscadine grapes:

    Greetings from the Carrboro Farmers’ Market! Mark your calendars for a
    very exciting DIY wine making (and vinegar) class with Benjamin
    Vineyards on Wednesday, August 29th at market! Reserve your space

    Wine Making Class (and vinegar!) with Benjamin Vineyards
    Wednesday, August 29th (4pm and 5pm)

    Andy Zehman of Benjamin Vineyards will be demoing all the steps of the
    wine making process in this class. You’ll be able to learn and see
    everything that goes into making their Muscadine wines. Participants
    receive instructions on the winemaking process and will take home a
    bottle of Benjamin Vineyards wine. Andy will also cover simple steps
    to vinegar making in this class! Classes will be offered at 4pm and
    5pm, and the class fee is $12.

    There are lots of beer making classes around (people used to make it in the bathtub)…I just don’t have information on one at hand. As I noted earlier, making kim chee is just like making sauerkraut which is just like fermenting eggplants or red peppers, etc. So these two classes give you the basics of preserving vegetables and of converting fruit into an alcoholic beverage or vinegar. A beer making class would teach you how to convert grain into an alcoholic beverage. The other big category is making cheese out of milk, which I know very little about. I know people who do it, and I don’t think it is complicated.

    Don Stewart

  16. Don Stewart says:

    If you are persuaded by Gail (or your own observations) that a crisis is imminent, you might want to spend a little time contemplating the ‘tea kettle boiling’ apparatus in this link I posted earlier:

    Some historians of tea think that its historical popularity is due to the fact that boiled water doesn’t taste very good. Add tea and you have a fine beverage. Why did people need to boil their water? Because if they were using surface water, it would likely give the humans who drank it various diseases which prevented them from working up to their capacity and thus threatened their life. (There is a thin margin for survival in an energy poor world.) Should a collapse actually occur in the near future, you may not be able to depend on municipal water supplies. Most of us don’t have wells or springs in the back yard nor do we have roof top water harvesting (as we all should). So we may be dependent on surface water for drinking. So having a ‘tea kettle boiler’ such as a lot of Chinese apparently have might be a very good idea.

    It also makes sense to plant your yard with some herbs for making herbal teas.

    Don Stewart

    • Stu Kautsch says:

      And make sure you know how they propagate, or you could end up with a garden full of mint 🙂

    • I think boiling water, in a world where water is often contaminated, is going to be just as important as being able to cook food.

      I discovered the “tea” plant is not cold-tolerant. Getting caffeine may be a problem.

  17. Ikonoclast says:

    One respondent above said, “And getting 50 million humans per year to buy solar cells instead of an auto is not very likely.”

    Well, the first question to ask is why these 50 million humans per year are doing something so grossly environmentally destructive as buying autos? Let’s mention;

    1. Poor national development of public transport.
    2. Poor urban design.
    3. Corporate propaganda (called advertising).
    4. General lack of understanding of our environmental peril.
    5. False and damaging national priorities.

    This can be turned around. Indeed, it soon will be turned around. It is certain to be turned around because it will be soon proved empirically impossible to keep extravagently wasting masses of key resources on making 60 million cars per annum globally. Especially when these resources will be needed for personal and national survival rather than road trips and mass short urban commutes.

    Mind you, the world might soon be making an extra 100 million bicycles a year.

    • corfubob says:

      Staying at home and entertaining oneself (family) hardly advances the consumer society and the greedy crooks that live off it. Enjoy your sanity IK.

  18. Ikonoclast says:

    Cooking food does “pre-digest” or perhaps pre-breakdown it for us. In some cases some common food sources (e.g. poratoes) are indeed semi-indigestible and/or even mildy toxic if eaten uncooked. Then there are the issues of bacteria and parasites. Many meat foods are much safer eaten cooked. Even eating raw fish and raw seafoods has its dangers it you don’t have societal and cultural knowledge and control of the process. Yes, some foods like many fruits, nuts and some vegetables are best eaten uncooked.

    However overall, cooking and associated processing (fermenting, millling, baking etc) do act to unlock many calories and nutrients which otherwise could be assimilated poorly or not at all by people. That is where one logically gets the idea that some foods need to be cooked.

    • Also, in the area of microbes, heat is a way of getting rid of microbes in water. Some cultures use alcohol to mix with water to kill of stuff, some brew coffee or tea. Some drink milk (with or without pasteurization).

  19. reverseengineerre says:

    Also, this canard:

    “While the evidence is not 100% certain, it appears that we learned to use fire long enough ago that it is now necessary for our food to be cooked”-Gail

    Did you ever go to a Japanese Restaraunt and have Sashimi? Have a Seaweed Salad? Ever go to an Oyster Bar and have them on them Raw on the Half Shell with some Cocktail Sauce? Did you ever go to a French Restaraunt and have Steak Tartare? Did you ever eat a Raw Peach or Raw Apple or Raw Potato or raw Carrot? Did you ever drink a glass of Milk? Eat Stinky French Cheese? Eat a Raw Egg? Did you ever collect Walnuts? Pick Blueberries or Strawberries? Did you ever eat any Bugs when you were a kid? ALL of these are digestible without cooking. I’ve eaten all of them and had no problem whatsoever digesting them, and in addition the Vitamin content is better when you eat anything raw, cooking messes up a lot of vitamin content. ALL fats are digestible raw, fish oil, lard, vegetable oil, lard you name it.

    About the only thing that sorta needs to be cooked are Grains, and they aren’t too good for you overall anyhow. Even Corn though can be eaten raw off the cob.

    Where do you get the notion you have to cook food?


    • Lizzy says:

      I lived in Japan for a number of years. The Japanese do not exist on sashimi; they exist on cooked rice, with a bit of sashimi on the side. That rice “sorta needs to be cooked”.

      • reverseengineerre says:

        I mentioned that many grains like Rice need to be cooked. However, Grains as a staple part of the diet are a result of the Ag society, and in no way impact on our ability to digest MANY raw foods, a few of which I mentioned we quite COMMONLY eat raw.

        I personaly eat a whole LOT of foods Raw, and I most certainly could subsist eating raw potatoes and raw carrots and raw fish from around my neighborhood. The idea you gotta COOK food to live is complete balderdash. The most ridiculous assertion ever made on these pages by far. I got no problem with eating Worms or Grubs while they are still Wiggling.. Gail is writing complete NONSENSE here, I know it from personal experience.

        ANYTIME you knock down a Caribou you can eat a whole lot of it raw, and it is quite good. Tongue is good and tender, liver though very strong in flavor chews easily, you can suck the Marrow from the Long Bones, good grief where does the idea come from you have to COOK food? You can even eat the Brains, but I cannot stand the taste and texture of those, worse than the liver. Anyone who thinks you cannot eat raw food has been living way too many years shopping for food at Safeway and Cooking on Westinghouse Ranges.


        • Lizzy says:

          I’m sure you’re right. The only thing is, most of us need to eat a base of starches to survive. I don’t think there would be enough meat and fruit to feed the world. And you’d better watch out eating raw potatoes! They’re slightly toxic. There are usually a few infants fatally poisoned each year.

        • Ikonoclast says:

          “Raw caribou consumption is commonly linked with the bacteria brucellosis that wreaks bodily havoc in the form of fever, fatigue and appetite loss. Other more familiar invisible bacteria, such as E. coli and Salmonella, can also make a home in raw meat.” – HowStuffWorks.

          There are also two or three hydatid cyst parasites which are found in caribou meat depending on locality.

          Yes, you can eat raw meat and derive nutrition. How long you will remain healthy and disease and parasite free is another question.

        • You’re completely overreacting here. Gail’s article is not about arguing raw vs. cooked or that cooked is ‘superior’ or even ‘required.’
          The question is whether the use of cooked food allowed for more constant, higher energy consumption by people as early as 250,000 years ago, which then would free up energy and time for other things – including eating hunting meat – which apparently can be cooked as well for the same purpose. I don’t think people even ate all that much meat beforehand – more of raw fruits, nuts, and occasional insects.

          And as others point out, it would not be feasible to revert to a completely raw diet and maintain population growth – because raw foods cannot be farmed as extensively as most starches and grains that are the bulk of humanity’s diet, like it or not.

          So the idea is to trace a line of energy usage increase along with the progression of civilized history. Don’t get all worked up over the raw food debate, I’m pretty sure most people would agree about the vitamin content and health effects etc.

          • Stu Kautsch says:

            Thanks, Vyse. This discussion really needed a comment to remind us all of what the actual topic is. The only fuzzy point is: When we say “We need external energy”, does the ‘we’ mean each and every one of us (individuals) or the species? I think the latter is a no-brainer (‘Yes’), but the former can be debated according to one’s definitions of ‘need’ are (a single human lifetime that leads nowhere and leaves behind no trace – perhaps it’s ‘No’).

            • I agree–the issue is that society needs external energy. It is always possible to show that a few people, who choose to live in a particular way can live without external energy (especially if they have the benefit of knives, shovels, needles and perhaps thread, and a few other tools). It is even possible that the Inuits could live without external energy, in one particular environment, for fairly short life expectancies.

              But there is no way that 7 billion people could live without external energy. We have too many hereditary deficiencies, and external energy makes things so much better, especially with so many people.

      • The issue that rice “sorta needs to be cooked” is the big deal.

        I remember hearing once that part of the reason for sashimi was to save on fuel, for where it is really essential.

        • reverseengineerre says:

          That is again nonsense. You could just cook the fish right in the same pot with the rice. Sashimi just tastes better.


    • I didn’t say everything had to be cooked. THe point is that our bodies are adapted to eating a diet which includes quite a lot of cooked food. Certainly there are certain foods that can be eaten raw, and fish is one of them. We get a lot of our diet from grains, and the nutrition from them is much better absorbed if eaten cooked. Our mouth structures would need to be different–more like those of chimpanzees–if we ate only raw food all day long.

      I suppose that a group of survivalists could survive on a diet of fish, fruit, milk/cheese, wine, etc, especially if the survivalists live in a sheltered enough environment–no large predators to take care of (or guns and ammo to take care of them–of course made with fossil fuels), fish caught with knives or fishing rods using stored up energy from the past, clothing made with the benefit of needles made with metal), etc.

      Living without fire is so sub-optimal that no one, in practice, does it. We have the benefit of fire in all of the metal things we own. I don’t know of any survivalists who are throwing out all of their knives in an attempt to be more authentic.

  20. This is complete nonsense Gail. If you have enough food and your clothing is well enough insulated, fire is completely unnecessary.

    I personally spent a month in a snow cave with no fire, temps at -20F, inside the snow cave around 40. 3 guys and 6 dogs. That many creatures with a body temp in the 90s heats up a small space rather quickly, and snow has fabulous insulation value.. I’ve had friends stay out the whole winter with no fire. Iditarod Mushers rarely make a fire, though yea they do carry propane to heat up some soup.

    Ever take a trip to the tundra? There’s almost nothing to burn. Just Caribou chips mainly and its not enough to heat up a space with, only barely enough heat to cook with. There is however plenty of food up there wandering around.

    Down in te lower 48 where temps rarely drop below 0F its REALLY nonsense you need an external source of energy to survive. Your main hypothermia danger down there comes in the 30-50F range if you get wet from rain. This will nail you faster than -20 in the Arctic. However, that is a Shelter issue, not a Fire issue.

    Did you ever DO any Winter camping? At least hit some Survival Blogs? Somebody HERE on OFW recently put up some good vids by Ray Mears offthe BBC.

    This one I am not going to cross post on the Diner. It’s plain wrong.


    • I notice that the people in the video are using shovels made with steel and wearing insulated clothing made in commercial factories.

      I would like to see evidence of a people today, who make all their tools from stone/animal bones, eat all raw food, make their own clothes from local plants/ animals, and live in insulated shelters of their own making. The question is being able to catch and eat enough food to support the energy needed for all of these other activities. These people would also have to make any boats and other transportation items completely from local materials, without nails and other metal items.

      I agree that if it is possible anywhere in the world, it would be in the far North, because so much of the food is higher-energy food from fish and from animals that live near the sea. Eating leaves and fruit would be a half-day chewing job, but eating fish etc. could be accomplished more quickly.

      But even if some people can get along now without external energy in the far North, it is pretty clear that are jaws are not made for chewing raw food, unless perhaps that raw food is just fish (which has reasonable nutrition and can be eaten raw). Everything we know says that the people in the far North came there from elsewhere. People’s jaws had evolved to the point where they couldn’t eat huge amounts of raw plant material. So I stand by what I am saying. What I am saying about needing external energy seems to be true for at least 98% of the world, and I don’t have definite proof yet that it is not true for the remaining 2% based on what you presented.

      • reverseengineerre says:

        Peter Bauer is currently off for a month with all his stone tools and clothing made from skins, etc.

        The problem with this whole idea that “Humans Need External Energy” is that it is making the case that we Biologically are forced to be energy consumptive creatures when this just is not the case.

        Humans did not burn down whole forests for fuel for cooking. They burned them down building armadas of ships, and burning them to smelt metal for swords and spear points and numerous other more complex toys of war later.

        How our Jaws are constructed is not the result of Fire, it is the result of learning to use tools with our hands. We don’t need to rip flesh off a dead animal with our teeth, we can cut it into pieces with a stone knife. We can pound tough meat with rocks until it is soft enough to chew.

        Bacterial and parasitic infections tend to be more a problem with animal raised in pens and feed lots. They are dosed with antibiotics to keep that down. In any event, almost every one who likes steak “rare” eats meat that is raw since the inside is basically uncooked.

        Of all the foods spoken about so far, the ONLY one requiring cooking are Grains, they are from the Ag diet. The H-G diet is digestible without cooking, although cooking does add some roots otherwise not digestible. Foul is not one you would want to eat uncooked, but again its not a necessary part of the diet.

        Far as the fact the guys in the vid use metal tools to build their snow cave, it definitely makes it easier and quicker, but it is not NECESSARY, since no Inuit prior to 1800 or so ever used one. Even so, the ones we have now will last a long time, along with the ones that can be scavenged from rusting automobiles.

        Sub-optimal life? IMHO, the Industrial life is the Sub-optimal one. The Paleolithic life is different for sure, but in terms of Optimization it makes the best use of what nature provides without over consumption of energy, which you make the case is “necessary” because of how our jaws have evolved. In terms of population control, one fact of life for Inuit was that because they chewed hides to soften them up for clothing, by the time they were 35-40 their teeth wer ground down to nothing, and that was the end of their life. They lived just long enough to reproduce and care for the next generation until they could live independently, then it was off to the Great Beyond. Is it “necessary” or “optimal” for people to live into their 90s in nursing homes pumped up with pharmaceuticals?

        Must we live without Fire? Of course not, using some fire for cooking is not what burned up forests or depleted fossil fuel supplies. Its the smelting of metal that did that, along with the willy nilly Happy Motoring of the last century to accelerate the process. Take all of this away, there will be many fewer people on the planet, and those who can live OPTIMAL lives of low energy consumption in the Paleolithic style will do just fine. At least as long as the Nuke Puke crowd doesn’t completely poison the environment with their desperate grasping for more energy fixes for their Jones.


  21. St. Roy says:

    This post brings to mind a passage in Charles Hall’s book “Energy and Wealth of Nations”. “Human history, including contemporary events, is essentially about exploiting energy and the technologies to do so”. Fossil fuels, as long as they last, has enable man to do this at an greatly accelerated rate. Not much longer and we will be back to just a daily dose of solar.

  22. Ikonoclast says:

    Gail writes of the renewable energy project in general and of the solar project in particular;
    “I am skeptical of the feasibility of this whole project. I presume we would stop making new cars, trucks, roads, and most consumer goods, to allow this all to happen.”

    Certainly, it will be a difficult project. Indeed, I wrote above that the world might have to reduce car manufactures from 60 million a year to 10 million a year. I noted that on a “manufactured mass” basis that 50 million cars foregone at 1,000 kg per car (quite light for a car on average) would equal 2.5 billion solar panels maufacturable. Considering that a car is more complex and energy intensive to manfuacture than a solar panel on a per kg basis (though this possibly not true for the ancillary electrical equipment) this seems like a close to reasonable calculation.

    However, given that the alternative to attempting this difficult project is absolutely certain catastrophic collapse of our entire civilization then I am surprised that people aren’t saying, “Righto, let’s try it, whatever it takes.”

    Throwing up your hands and saying, “OK, let’s make preserves and pickles.” is really not addressing the problem.

    Look, I agree that many other finite limits confront us, not just fossil fuel limits. But we need to engineer, as best we can, a controlled crash landing (into a renewables economy) for our current fossil fuelled global economy. Giving up totally means accepting a vertical power dive straight into the ground. For those of you know aviation there is still a considerable difference between a controlled crash landing and a vertical power dive.

    • Stu Kautsch says:

      Most people are not throwing up their hands and saying “OK, let’s make preserves and pickles”. Most people are watching TV, hanging out on Facebook, and telling the readers of this blog that “someone will think of something”, etc.

      Most of us that read blogs like this are anxious to make adjustments to that which will probably happen. And getting 50million humans per year to buy solar cells instead of an auto is not very likely.

      I ran for public office in 2004 and 2005 and talked to hundreds of people about the natural limits to growth. Their reactions led me to become a serious gardener and home handyman.

      • Lizzy says:

        Dead right, Stu. Most of my family and friends think I’m a doom-monger, so I shut up. They know very well, it seems, that They will come up with something to replace oil.

    • Not really seeing the problem. Build more gen3 nuclear reactors now. They’re pretty damn safe and ones like are now specced to survive a 747 smashing into it.

      15 years from now, we should start seeing gen4 nuclear ready for production, eating our previous “burnt-out” fuel rods for the next several hundred years. Or the thorium models if we need more for whatever reason.

      Safety of gen4? I’d totally live next door to one of these: 100% incapable of having a core meltdown – the core is already molten. Futuristic? There was an experiment model running in the 60s for several years, but it was shutdown. Presumably because it didn’t produce materials usable in bombs.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “However, given that the alternative to attempting this difficult project is absolutely certain catastrophic collapse of our entire civilization then I am surprised that people aren’t saying, “Righto, let’s try it, whatever it takes.”

      No. Two points, the real alternative is – as I have reluctantly come to understand, is nuclear power.

      There is little point in exploiting an alternative that a couple of months with a web browser and spreadsheet will convince you cannot ever supply an alternative at all, and when a far far cheaper alternative exists, that can.

      The fiction that renewable energy can be made to work at economic prices, is the biggest and most present danger to society right now.

      And the biggest fraud that is being perpetrated since..well the tobacco industry told you that smoking doesn’t cause cancer and is good for you…or the dotcom vendors told you there was no reason why stock prices wouldn’t go up and up..or Rumsfeld assured you there were WMD in Iraq…

  23. Stu Kautsch says:

    Sorry for my poor posting technique, but I forgot to say that you’re analyzing something that the rest of us have been trying to avoid thinking about for the last umpteen years! Good for you! Very good post; I’ll cut this short so I can read the other comments.

  24. Stu Kautsch says:

    Thanks for mentioning the second issue – efficiency. Even without Jevons’ Paradox, this is sticky because investments (measured in either capital or energy) become *very* problematic when growth stops, because it necessitates driving down the general standard of living (as we now think of it) faster than it would otherwise be dropping. Theoretically, this is only temporary, but despite the propaganda that we swim in, postponing consumption for future benefit is not popular.

    • corfubob says:

      Gardening must be more satisfying than talking to people about consuming less. I bet they all said ‘Why me?’ Their poor perspective and education is surely no accident generally; it was essential to commercial ‘progress’ that they craved consumption, and did what they were told to gratify it. Now camps and prisons are being built to prepare for the anger reality will bring. Your government’s weapons capacity will be the last to cut back when oil and energy get expensive. The army of thugs that control will need will be paid just enough. I laugh at the time people have wasted here ‘calculating’ how may cars equals how many solar panels. take care Stu and go well (providing you are not philosophically ‘right’).

  25. James says:

    Solar and wind energy will never match the net energy that was available to build our fossil fuel fantasia. They may produce enough energy to reproduce themselves and some net energy, but like plants, we will live much less mobile existences. How can we deploy vast amounts of fossil fuel energy towards a solar regime when we need every bit of energy just to maintain and marginally grow the existing fossil fuel system. As fossil fuels increase in price it will become impossible to use them to build lower EROEI alternatives. The existing technological organism, its arteries and systems, built in times of high net energy, will become increasingly starved and decrepit as we slide down the net energy cliff. How do you keep the high net energy system alive (and happy) while still taking more energy from it to invest in lower EROEI alternatives like solar and wind energy.

    It seems like large swaths of the population will be without the remaining high priced fossil fuels and without the benefit of the modicum of energy provided by alternatives. I believe the politicians will reassure us that everything is “under control” up until the last minute, and then it will become obvious that there never was a solution for a vast swath of society’s population. Not even the politicians will be able to blow enough hot air to keep them warm.

    Every tool built must justify itself by providing the builder (sometimes indirectly) more energy than was used in its construction. If not, anyone making a living building the tool (technology) dies from starvation. Technology and related information evaporates without adequate energy gradients to be degraded. At this point our imagined fusion tool has not become possible, so a whole lot of fantasia is likely to be evaporating soon.

  26. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    One more important technology I intended to mention and then forgot–fermentation. Fermentation is currently the hottest trend in a certain segment of the foodie community. Any plant can be preserved with fermentation from native bacteria. All you need is something to crush the plant and an earthen container. Some salt is also valuable. Sandor Katz’ recent book with his universal recipe for ‘Kraut-Chi’ shows what can be accomplished. The advantages to fermentation are that it doesn’t require heat or cooling, it preserves nutrients well, it doesn’t require metal, it doesn’t require any additives (except the salt, if used), and it improves digestibility.

    Peter Bane and his partner are using fermentation as a key technique on their suburban retrofit in Indiana. Peter reports that fermented cabbage is their chief vegetable in the winter, and that they are not getting colds–which implies a strong immune system from the retained nutrients in the cabbage.

    If you compare fermentation with traditional ‘canning’ in Mason jars, the difference is striking. Canning required a great deal of heat, it requires glass, it requires precision fit lids, and it destroys most of the micronutrients which are essential to a strong immune function.

    Don Stewart

    • I agree traditional canning leaves a lot to be desired. Fermentation from native bacteria sounds like a solution to the need for heat, at lest for one vegetable–cabbage.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Almost all plants can be fermented. Some of them you end up with something that looks nothing like sauerkraut–as in beer made by fermenting grains or wine made by fermenting grapes. Hard working farm hands typically took some beer for their lunch in the fields because, among other things, it has a lot of calories and they needed maybe 4000 calories every day. Wine famously preserves the micronutrient resveratrol.

        I am not claiming that fermenting the harvest for later eating isn’t a lot of work–it is. But it is work done outside the money economy and thus is not taxed. Nor is it subjected to the pervasive low intensity fraud which is endemic in the money economy (as shown by Dan Ariely’s latest book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty). Nassim Nicholas Taleb contributes this blurb: ‘I was shocked at how prevalent mild cheating was and how much more harmful it can be, cumulatively, compared to outright fraud.’ So expanding the home economy and contracting the money economy saves the persistent losses to the government and to cheating. It also, of course, eliminates many of the costs of holding a money-economy job (such as commuting and yet more taxes).

        Don Stewart

  27. Farmer says:

    Perhaps instead of arguing over the feasibility of solar or other renewable energy sources, we could simply agree that if humans would work more on basic self-sufficiency and less on consuming, we would be a tad better off. Part of our “evolution” has been technological advances such as smart phones, tv, game consoles, etc. Do we really need such things? Do we really need to spend hours and hours a day staring at an idiot box? Do we really need to have every light in the house on? Do we really need to drive $40,000 vehicles? This could go on and on…we do not “need” these things. We crave them, we desire them, we covet them; our society has been trained to believe that these things are essential to our happiness and well being. Reducing or eliminating the desire for frivolous energy needs and consumer goods would go such a long way to saving our society.
    I am a simple farmer, I do not have some fancy degree from Standford or Cambridge, but I often find this issue to be so much more simple than it is usually demonstrated. Define, in your own life and needs, what it is you really need to survive and be comfortable, and low and behold the chances are you will begin to use far less consumer goods and thus energy that goes into their production. Congratulations, you have now helped the world.

    • The point I sometimes make is that for most people, the amount of consumer goods you use is determined by your income. (Perhaps a small adjustment needs to be made for in and out of savings, but putting money in the bank may help the bank lend more, and increase demand.)

      So, as I see it, the real way to cut consumption is by cutting your income. Most people don’t want to “go there”.

      • corfubob says:

        It will help, Gail, when ‘intellects’ begin to focus their grey-matter on the message of Farmer above. Will you not argue for reducing consumption and saving for the equipment a simpler life will need? Pointing out that ‘most people’ do not want to reduce their income is not a surprise to many for sure.

    • corfubob says:

      An important comment Farmer. My father was such over 50 years ago and spared the kind of intellectual drivel we have to wade through before finding reward. Thanks.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Well I am a Cambridge graduate who loves in the middle of (someone else’s) farm! So I appreciate the two sides of this.

      Once again, you need to do the maths to get a quantitative rather than qualitative idea of how significant both sides of the argument are, and if you haven’t already got it, the book that does the consumption maths best is David Mackay’s ‘without the hot air’ .

      What becomes apparent is that the fraction of power used domestically that can reasonably be reduced is very small indeed in the overall context of what power a nation consumes. You, as a farmer, will be aware of all the machinery you need to do that efficiently, to till, sow, spray harvest arable, to dry grain if needs be, store it, and transport it off the farm to where it will be subject to further processing and transport before ending up in the consumers refrigerator or deep freezer. And even the machinery and farm buildings come with an energy price.

      For sure we can make do with less – the average UK person uses almost half what the average US person does..even including energy footprint exported overseas..and oddly enough I think that be best ‘living standard:energy’ ratio in the world is Cuba. Which is lower again.

      BUT there is an irreducible minimum below which the population densities we have are not sustainable. And that is not achievable by any means other than fossil or nuclear

      Even modern day smarts wont do it – and who will be able to have time to be smart if we are all being ‘Amish’.

      That is to say, whilst I too find enormous amounts of modern day consumption needless wasteful and not conducive to even making people happy, I cannot bit accept that its not in the end the greater problem.

      Where I live on a landscape created 10,000 years ago by man, and inhabited ever since, the spatial frequency of market towns and old windmill sites, and even power centres and castles, all reflect reality of one thing: prior to the canal or railway, the maximum economic distance to transport staple goods by horse, was about ten miles. More than that an the horse had eaten your profits. Society was intensely localised by dint of massively high transport energy costs.

      Horses are not cheap to run. You cant leave a horse parked in the drive, tip a gallon of gas into it and drive off. It needs feeding grooming and shoeing whether its doing anything or not.

      Which all demonstrates that going backwards into a ‘renewable’ future is feasible, but not for existing populations no matter how frugal they are.

  28. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    A central concern in your post is the fuel required for cooking–as well it should be. While I don’t usually say that ‘technology can save us’, in this case it just might. Let me preface my specific comments with a story about bicycling around England in the early 1970s. Everyone was excited about the North Sea oil, but there wasn’t very much of it at that point. So it was easy to see adaptations to low energy wherever one looked. The English were masters of reusing old things. I was walking down a street looking at the houses, when I saw a house which had been built over perhaps a thousand years. One end of the house was a cruck house, of the type built in the late middle ages. At its simplest, this involved cutting down 5 tree trunks. At each end, two of the trunks were crossed and tied together with pegs. Across the top the other trunk was used as a ridge pole. In the very early versions, the ends were merely stuck in the ground, and rotted pretty quickly. Then they learned to put the ends up on a sill. In this house, the sills were stone, and the end tree trunks were quite ancient. The roof was thatch. The middle section of the house was a wattle and daub (Shakespearean era) building. The final section of the house was a modern post-WWII building. The three sections, built over many generations, blended together seamlessly and were quite beautiful. Astonishing to an American accustomed to a throw away culture.

    The early cruck houses had no outlet for the smoke from fires, and the people tended to die of lung disorders. Then they learned to make ventilation holes and health improved.

    So, if we look at the embodied history of technology, we can see some clear advances which were not really dependent on fossil fuels. The surplus generated by the technology was available to fund either a higher population or higher incomes per capita.

    So what cooking technologies are available for a future with low energy availability?

    First, we are rediscovering coppice. Some trees re-sprout vigorously when the trunk is cut. The sprouts are allowed to grow a few years and then the sprouts are harvested for firewood. This cycle can repeat for a very long time. Simon Fairlie calculated a land use scenario for Britain which provided enough land for coppice to provide for reasonable heating and cooking requirements:

    Second, see this current post on the Oil Drum for what the author saw in China in terms of solar heating of water for making tea:

    Third, people like Albert Bates and hundreds of others have been quite energetic in terms of researching and developing efficient cookstoves which also make biochar which improves the fertility of the soil.

    I will note that any efficient form of cooking requires metals. A fireplace consisting of rocks with an open fire in the middle is just not efficient. A serious challenge may be to fabricate efficient cook stoves from our increasingly poor quality ores. At the level of society, we would be wise to pay attention to fabrication of essential tools from metals while we still have fossil fuels and a functioning industrial economy. At the level of the individual and small group, we are wise to pay attention to the acquisition now of fuel efficient cooking utensils, the learning of efficient cooking techniques (, and planning to use coppice.

    The importance of metals may be underrated. Elizabeth Gilbert wrote about Eustace Conway in The Last American Man. Eustace grew up in a typical middle-class suburban family, but he was fascinated by Native American methods. He was once asked ‘if you were dropped by helicopter into the wilderness, could you survive’. He thought a little and said, ‘I could survive…but I would live a lot better if I had my knife’.

    So, some of us can survive if we garden and coppice, but we will live a lot better if we have an efficient cookstove. And if we can make biochar while cooking, we may live pretty well.

    Don Stewart

    • This post is not intended to say anything about what options are available to solve meet this demand. It is simply looking at energy consumption from a point of view of what people want.

      You are ahead of me.

    • Leo Smith says:

      You say ” The surplus generated by the technology was available to fund either a higher population or higher incomes per capita.”

      And that is the point. Anyone who has camped knows how little fuel cooking takes. Or boiling a kettle.

      By far and away the greatest use of energy is in heating homes, transporting goods from the rural areas where they are produced into the towns where they are consumed, and making more complex artefacts than a basket 🙂

      Energy excess meant rural depopulation an increasing population overall and towns that made goods and imported raw materials. Not that everyone got a cooked supper 🙂

  29. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Regarding the higher growth in GDP than in energy use over the last few decades. At least in the US and Britain, the percentage of the GDP coming from Financial, Insurance, and Real Estate has risen strongly during those decades. Now shadow banking is declining by trillions of dollars since 2008 and there seems to be general agreement that the world needs to deleverage. It seems to me that we are probably at the end of the leverage enabled growth of the FIRE industries. Which may imply that future GDP growth won’t exceed the growth in energy, and might actually be less than the growth in energy.

    Don Stewart

  30. Leo Smith says:

    I am more of the opinion that fire made agriculture and in particular starch processing possible, rather than the other way round.

    It was largely the Middle Eastern societies that promulgated grains as food, and slaves to process it – the N European Bronze and Iron age societies were at best herders and meat eaters, with fruits.

    But overall the broad brush you use is adequate for the picture you paint – of the inextricable links between ‘civilization’ and excess of energy per unit population. And the steep rise of the one engendered by the steep rise of the other.

    In fact civilisation itself can be viewed as simply a system of distribution of food and fuel resources to populations that need it (in towns) from populations that produce it (rural). With originally a commensurate flow of manufactured goods in the reverse direction. That has now all but stopped in the UK however, with many towns being pure dormitories for service industry workers, and producing nothing at all. Whilst their function as markets is eroded by the Internet and distribution warehousing on cheaper out of town sites.

    • “. . . civilisation itself can be viewed as simply a system of distribution of food and fuel resources to populations that need it (in towns) from populations that produce it (rural)”.
      I think that is a worthwhile insight.

      My impression is that grains were independently developed in several areas, but would need to go back and look at the details. For example, China used millet and other grains. Quinoa was used in some areas. It isn’t exactly a grain, but needs processing to eat. Corn was developed from predecessor grains. Humans today get a significant share of their calories from grains, something not possible without cooking (or perhaps some other modern processing using energy. I have eaten raw oatmeal with milk on it.)

      • Leo Smith says:

        Its always interesting to contrast the US perspective with the European one. Food is utterly strange. We associate tomatoes and (bell) peppers with Mediterranean food, and potatoes with N European food, yet none of these were known outside the Americas until 16th century explorers brought them to Europe. In Africa Maize is the staple diet of millions yet it too is a New World import.

        2000 years ago the Roman empire ran on whet the way we run on oil.
        N Europe native cereals are barley, rye and oats. Millet and wheat are more southerly – its native to Africa and the middle east. Rice is native to India and the far east.

        Other tropical starches include tapioca and sago. The one from a root, the other from a palm tree.

        What IS evident is that really none of these could have formed part of early man’s diet. Starch is indigestible to most mammals – you need saliva style enzymes to break it into sugars. It is odd that we do have it..most mammals do not. Our more likely early diet would have been fruits and sugars in them, and proteins and fats. from eating other animals fish and insect type creatures. I suspect we developed the ability to process starches when we started digging up roots to eat as well. Those mostly contain sugars, but many do have starch as well.

        And its given us rotten teeth as a legacy.

        And the gruelling concept of slave labour – the amount of work to grow and process grains into edible food is almost as great as the man hours of energy they produce. Grains are the food of the desperately poor. Rich people eat meat and fruits!

        Without mechanisation, that equation goes back to what it used to be in N Europe. 90% of the population in grinding poverty as agricultural workers, dying crippled by arthritis, with no teeth left, after a rather short lifetime toiling in the fields, or worse still, hand grinding grains into flours.

        • At least one version of the standard “how we will live in the future” view seems to be that people in cities will be able to grow their own vegetables and fruit, and perhaps raise a few chickens. The expectation is that most of the calories will continue to be supplied with grain that will still be grown in a mechanized way elsewhere. (Permaculture gardens don’t emphasize grain growing, that I have noticed.) That view would seem to stop working if we can’t keep up the mechanized growing and processing of grain, plus the transport to cities.

          • Leo Smith says:

            The mediaeval norm was about 10 acres per family for ‘sustainable organic’ living. In the UK anyway.

            That supplied food and fuel for heating and cooking, and enough material to make clothes with.

            But not necessarily wood for building.

            Not sure what the normal land area for a city dweller is, but I’d say around 500 sq meters. At the very very most

            The organic energy harvest of that (and food is energy) would be about 50W, and human food intake averages out at around 50W minimum.

            Our farmer here gets about 1.5 tonnes an acre of wheat using the best mechanized sprayed and fertilised production methods: That has a wholesale value of just £ 200 (say $320) an acre if its a good crop. Which this year it aint.

            To give some idea of just how MUCH land you need to both feed people and to generate any sort of life at all.

            IN short as you say its just more emotionally satisfying fantasy to think that cities could grow their own food., I pointed this out once and the reply was ‘we will build upwards, and so get more space that way ‘ I then asked how that could possibly increase the total sunlight a city would receive. Then the response was that it would all be grown indoors in hydroponic tanks. Then I asked how the light and heat would be generated for those, and apparently solar panels would do that!..there is simply no way of explaining to people that energy runs EVERYTHING and if you have more people per square mile than the energy falling on it will keep alive, that is not a problem that’s amenable to any sort of technology, no matter how smart it is.

            Cities are net importers of energy. Full of opinionated people who think that they are the moral ones who don’t use the energy, and that country dwellers use a lot more. They do. They have to because they use it to incorporate it in, and export energy products to, the towns.

            I believe 60% of Americans think that milk comes from wheat…An electoral majority.

  31. Leo Smith says:

    All very well till the sun goes behind a cloud or you need lighting when the sun goes down.
    peak daytime capacity does not equal usable continuous output.

    • Ikonoclast says:

      Leo, are you unaware of the following facts?

      1. A distributed electricity generation system over a wide geographical area will average out varying sun and wind inputs to some extent thus guaranteeing some stability and continuity of supply.
      2. Wind blows at night.
      3. Solar convection towers (also known as Solar chimneys) actually produce more power at night than they do during the day.
      4. Hydro storage can be used to soak up surplus daytime power by pumping water back up to resevoirs. This can be released at night for hydro power.
      5. Molten salt storage is already being used epecially in conjunction with closed circulation concentrating thermal power stations. Molten salt storage of heat can be made 99% efficient.

      Your point that “there isn’t that much renewable energy around when it boils down to it” is utter nonsense. The amount of solar energy falling on earth is vastly greater than total amount of energy that global civilization uses. The problem is not the total amount but the relatively low density in watts per square meter. If you were paying attention to the argument’s real parameters you would have noted this. This low density will necessitate large collection areas and extensive infrastructures. However, by re-jigging our very large industrial capacity we can achive what is required.

      Your gainsaying seems to be driven by basic closed-mindedness to empirical evidence and blind repetition of inappropriate and simplistic mantras like “all very well till the sun goes behind a cloud” or till “the sun goes down”. You are conveniently ignoring many broader factors like the five I listed above.

      It is true that electricity network stability and generation consistency is an issue to be addressed. However, I wonder that you think all nuclear engineering and safety challenges to be relatively easy to address and yet renewable electricity network stability and supply consistency engineeering challenges to be completely beyond all human ingenuity. This smacks of very selective logic and the cherry picking of objections.

      • Leo Smith says:

        I am aware that ‘to some extent’ equals about 5%. Now admittedly Europe is not the same size as the USA – only maybe half as big, but it is not uncommon for all of Europe to be dark, at the same time and experiencing a high pressure system with little or no winds at all, anywhere. I have the data,.

        Thee is not enough even potential hydro storage at any cost that any nation anywhere in Europe to do the job required. I have the data and I have done the caclulations. Even if there were its far more cost effective to use it to replace peaking gas in a gas/nuclear grid than it is to attempt to make expensive intermittent renewables actually work at all.

        Solar convection towers are woefully inefficient. They may produce more at night, but that’s because they produce next to nothing during the day.

        Molten salt cannot be made 99% efficient in terms of *electrical * storage. The very best heat engines we have are about 60% efficient. To convert electricity to heat and then back to electricity will involve exactly the same losses as a typical pumped storage – about 25%-30%. Probably more. Once again, I have the data and I have done the calculations.

        I am also aware of the COST of long distance transmission lines which actually equal the COST of a nuclear power station of similar power when you get to around a couple of thousand miles.

        Like all of these hand-wavy qualitative ‘solutions;’ it appeals to people who can’t do sums. But sadly real world engineering does not run on hope, faith or magic, but on stuff that is best expressed mathematically.

        Likewise supporters of renewable solutions who want a particular answer to be the right one should not confuse their own way of thinking with those who don’t care for any solution other than one that demonstrably has a chance of success: When I say I want nuclear power, its not because I like it, or work in the industry, but simply because after an incredibly exhaustive and exhausting amount of research onto ALL this stuff you assume I have never heard of, and days of calculations at considerable depth, I have concluded its the nearest thing to a workable non-fossil economic supplier, of energy we can’t do without.

        And when you further insult me by saying “This smacks of very selective logic and the cherry picking of objections.” then I realise that you are simply pre-empting my own opinion of your so called solutions.

        I can claim to understand engineering better than you, because I am a fully qualified trained and ‘lifetime of working in the arena’ of electrical, electronic and IT engineering.

        YOU need to learn the difference between selective cherry picking of facts and objections and apply that not to what I have to say, but to those who seek government and taxpayer money to promote solutions that they and I know will never work.

        The next time someone tells you that this or that renewable technology is ‘almost as cheap as nuclear/gas/coal etc. ask them whether that is with, or without, all the technology that you cited above (nearly all of which has never been built at all, yet (and likely never will be either)) that will be needed to make it work IN THE CONTEXT of our normal grid operations. If YOU want to spend YOUR money on environmentally devastating windmills, tidal barriers, PV installations, convection towers, transcontinental HV lines, molten salt accumulators, and produce unreliable electricity at a dollar a kWh or more, that’s your choice, but you have no right to use lobbies to change government policy, fraudulent accounting , qualitative marketing spin not backed up by calculations of true holistic and social costs, to enforce that on me, when I know I can generate nuclear electricity with no use of fossil fuel at 10c a kwh. Or use coal or gas at 5c a kwh.

        • I might add a recent quote from the American Physical Society about batteries:

          All-Electric Cars Need Battery Breakthrough

          Despite their many potential advantages, all-electric vehicles will not replace the standard American family car in the foreseeable future. This was the perhaps reluctant consensus at a recent symposium focused on battery research.

          Tom Murphy also had a post on the subject: Battery Performance Deficit Disorder.

          It seems to me that part of the problem is that “wish” rather than careful evaluation permeates an awfully lot of thinking. Politicians want voters to think they are doing something, so they institute research into something that is not now a major part of the energy mix, no matter how poor its chances. (Grass is greener on the other side of the fence syndrome) Governments end up with grant money to give out on a number of chosen “winners,” so needless to say, university researchers go chasing after it, regardless of whether there is any reasonable change of long term success in the area. Magazines write articles lauding the possibility of new technology, and groups encourage governments to subsidize the “somewhat new technology that doesn’t really work”. No one is really willing to step back and say, “Even if it is renewable, it doesn’t mean it is sustainable, or that it makes sense economically, or that it will keep society from collapsing. In fact, it may very well push the grid toward earlier collapse.”

  32. Ikonoclast says:

    Sorry to post three in a row. Some other rapid calculations show that 80 billion solar panels might be excessive. Probably 30 billion may be nearer the mark. About 100 panels for every man, woman and child in America. This sounds impossible but it could be feasible.

    Over 30 years it would require the manufacture and installation of 1 billion panels annually (thus rising to 30 billion after 30 years). Currently, the world manufactures 100 million solar panels and the industry is in its infancy. Ramping up to 2.5 billion panels annually (assuming an aggressive approach by the US which saw it install nearly half of all panels in the world) might not be all that difficult.

    After all, the world makes 60,000,000 cars annually. If this was scaled down to 10,000,000 cars then the industrial inputs on 50,000,000 cars at 1,000 kg per car are very roughly equatable on a kg to kg basis to the industrial inputs to 2.5 billion solar panels at 20 kg per panel. We simply need to reconfigure the direction of the world’s industrial might.

  33. Ikonoclast says:

    I guess bloggers on this site would regard Stanford as a reputable University.

    “A new study (in 2011) – co-authored by Stanford researcher Mark Z. Jacobson and UC-Davis researcher Mark A. Delucchi – analyzing what is needed to convert the world’s energy supplies to clean and sustainable sources says that it can be done with today’s technology at costs roughly comparable to conventional energy. But converting will be a massive undertaking on the scale of the moon landings. What is needed most is the societal and political will to make it happen.” – Stanford University News.

    The plain fact is that the physics, maths and economics tell us that 100% renewable power can and should power our entire civilization and that we could make the entire changover in about thirty years. Those who say it cannot be done do not understand the calculations and in particular do not understand the sheer amount of insolation received by the earth and its relative compared to our total energy needs.

    A FAQ publication by the US dept of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, tells us that;

    “In the United States, cities and residences cover about 140 million acres of land. We could cover every kilowatt-hour of our nation’s electricity needs by applying PV to 7% of this area – on roofs, on parking lots, along highway walls, on the sides of buildings, and in other dual-use scenarios. We wouldn’t have to appropriate an single acre of new land to make solar PV our primary (electrical) energy source.”

    By calculation we can see that about 10 million acres of PV would cover all the electrical power needs of the US. If we quadrupled that we would probably generate power equal to all sources currently used in the United States.Together, the 48 contiguous states and D.C. occupy a combined area of 3,119,884.69 square miles. Let us call that a neat 3,000,000 square miles. There are 640 acres in a square mile. Thus there are 1,920,000,000 acres in 3,000,000 square miles. Forty million acres would cover 2.08 per cent of US land area. Let us allow 2.25% including access roads and other infrastructure (where this is needed).

    This forty million acres is 1/40 th of the land area of the US but much of this would be dual use with the140 million acres of land already built-up; urban, suburban, roads, factories and infrastructuce but not agriculture and ranching). The land use is not a problem.

    What is needed next is the calculation of total solar panel numbers needed and the feasibility of this number. We will assume a 250 watt solar panel needs an average space of 2 sq.m. with allowances. Thus an acre (4,000 sq.m) will hold 2,000 panels. 40 million acres will hold 80 billion solar panels. Question: can we buid up to a stock of 80 billion solar panels or equivalent solar generating infrastructure over 30 years? Assume solar panels last 30 years but there will be failures, breakages, storm damage etc on the way.

    This is for the USA of course.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Its a shame that their study is fundamentally flawed, and their means of overcoming intermittency is as vague and hand-wavy as the usual outpourings on this subject, and nor do they address the fundamental point that there isn’t that much renewable energy around when it boils down to it.

      And their comments on how much land area is used are totally disingenuous. I would say fraudulent actually. Its a classic piece of greenspin designed to fool enough people to get investment into an energy source that everybody who has deep exposure to it knows doesn’t work as advertised, and often barely at all.

      Try this for a fact based indication of what deep levels of renewable energy do

      “physics, maths and economics tell us that 100% renewable power can and should power our entire civilization”

      Er no. In fact its the engineering and the economics that tell us we should avoid it like the plague. Physicists don’t do cost accounting, economists don’t do engineering.

      Engineers do both.

      And the experience of Germany is acting as a magnificent experiment warning everyone else not to go down the same path.

      (The author has a masters in Electrical Engineering from Trinity College Cambridge, England. I guess bloggers on this site would regard Cambridge as a reputable University.)

      [Jacobson is the director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Woods Institute for the Environment and the Precourt Institute for Energy. So guess who funds their ‘research’ then]

    • funglestrumpet says:

      What do you do about crime as the sun goes down, the street lights grow dim and eventually go out, not to come on again as the sun comes up? Of course, that we will not actually need street lights while the sun is up is just a minor consideration.

      Perhaps it is all a conspiracy on the part of the gun manufacturers who wish to increase sales to householders needing to protect themselves during the hours of darkness and the robbers wishing to steal from them. What an excellent population control mechanism! Not only would it reduce population size, such gun battles would be centred on the rich, who consume most and thus not only have most worth stealing, but also contribute most to climate change. A win win situation, surely.

      Or am I missing something blindingly obvious? Such as the cost of the solar panels, which must be self-regulating if a consistent voltage is to be produced, the admittedly minor problem and cost of converting the DC output from the panels into AC supply, not to mention the complications surrounding where this conversion is to be performed, and how, so that all voltage peaks coincide (or do we replace all AC equipment with DC? (think $$,$$$,$$$,$$$ at least and forget exports to an AC world)), the deaths and injuries of roof-top installers and their compensation claims, the amount and cost of the extra cabling from all these separate solar panels (in a world nearing peak copper), the energy storage problem – a killer in its own right – related to the intermittancy of supply (which brings us back to the lack of street lighting). And so on, seemingly ad infinitum.

      • Dick says:

        Think of the gradual peaking of fossil fuels and the concurrent political realization of nuclear waste storage hazards as a window of opportunity. Then it becomes clear that renewable energy can assume the proper role of mitigation, with your street light example being a great case in point. With grid-tie solar systems, the need for batteries is diminished through conventional power sources filling the gaps at night. This is an important concept. We are on the threshold of a huge transition towards electrical power being utilized for transportation, and it will be fought tooth and nail by the entrenched liquid fuel cartel much the same as it was during the last century. The difference this time being the geological restraints on big oil.
        As we move further down this path, I think there will be a phase transition not unlike the mainframe/pc revolution of the eighties. How many IBM engineers were banking on mainframe storage at the time? Answer that question and you can begin to see just how empowering residential pv energy production could be, as well as a threat to the existing utility structure. As an aside, solar panels are kept functionally clean through rain, and competent installers can remain accident free, oil rig work being far more dangerous.
        There is no doubt that as our industrial civilization powers down, enormous challenges will ensue. The leadership vacuum in this arena is just as enormous, with a “last man standing” approach being practiced by the MIC. This is unsustainable. The populations of South Asia will not stand for it, and firepower superiority will never replace boots on the ground especially in their back yard thousands of miles away from the United States. They are holding our debt.

        • “With grid-tie solar systems, the need for batteries is diminished through conventional power sources filling the gaps at night”

          What a terrible waste of precious resources to have two separate energy supply systems in order to pander to a green lobbly that demands renewables at any price, even to the extent of spoiling our countryside in the process. The only reason there is public discontent about nuclear waste storage is because it has been alarmed by the green movement, who quite frankly have a lot to answer for. Any nuclear waste that takes thousands of years to decay to half strength is not at all dangerous, background radiation from radon, which many people live with in their houses without even knowing about it, can be more radio active. We need a mature look energy supply, which just don’t have at present. E.g. “Grow your own food, you will be happier” is going to fall on a lot of deaf ears with roughly half the world’s population living in cities. Try feeding a family of four from a window box.

          The main problem with nuclear energy supply is that the current designs rely on an old technology chosen mainly for its ability to facilitate the prodution of nuclear weapons. It only uses about three to five percent of the energy content of its fuel rods before consigning them as waste (And making a fortune for the powerstation builder in the proces – a bit like ink cartridges for printers). As for operating them, they consume vast amounts of water and are suseptible to hydrogen explosions should their extremely high pressure (hundreds of atmospheres) spring a leak.

          Anyone who has looked at the LFTR design with an open mind instead of an open mouth will see that they are safe because they automatically shut down in the event of a problem (Fukushima would have been a non-nulcear event had they been LFTR reactors). They consume 99% of their fuel, thus creating a minimum of waste, and can be made in small modular form, which, combined with their minimal water requirements, means that they can be made on a production line basis and delivered almost anywhere. And guess what, they don’t need ugly grids all over the place because power supply will be local, nor do they need the wind to blow or the sun to shine. On top of all that, LFTRs are load following, so even if the public is daft enough to support having their green and pleasant land peppered with massive, ugly wind turbines, then it can accomodate them automatically. Though we will not need them because there is enough thorium to keep the lights on for aeons. By then who knows what our energy needs will be? (Or, given the current predictions for climate change, whether we will be around to need any at all.)

          • Dick says:

            Being self employed for thirty years affords me a perspective a bit in congruent with mainstream thought, so I may place a higher priority on self sufficiency than most. This would explain my advocating such a “wasteful” system in order to achieve a zero electric bill. The fact that Florida Progress Energy derives power from coal and nuclear (both extremely toxic) is in fact secondary. Why should I subsidize other foolish consumers who refuse through stubborn ideology to see the advantages of a system that pays for itself in four years and yields 14% per year thereafter? They can build another reactor if they want, just don’t expect me to finance it. The solution does not rest with “them”, it rests with me.

            • funglestrumpet says:

              I don’t care whether you grow your own food or not. What I do care about is that the climate is changing and not to our advantage. Combating that is going to take more than your growing your own carrots, tasty as I am sure they are.

              The problem is that so many see endeavours such as your agricultural adventures as a solution to climate change and that we should all do the same as your good self. That is clearly impossible for many and extremely difficult for many more. Silly talk of changing nearly all our production of motor vehicles in order to make solar panels that only work when the sun shines is another example.

              I have no doubt that we, as a species, need to go on a war footing on this issue, otherwise we will continue with business as usual until it is far too late to stop known positive feedbacks from taking us to at least a four C and possibly even as high as a six degree C temperature rise. Let us hope that no black swans take us beyond those projections. Four degrees would be bad enough, but six degrees just does not bear thinking about and any idea that a bunch of home-grown carrots can solve the problem is worse than inconsequential, it is a diversion, a bit like arguing whether climate change is human in origin or not, a pure, but very clever, diversion from attacking the heart of the problem.

              In conclusion, time is just not on our side. We have wasted so much of it while the politicians take political positions rather than rolling up their sleeves and doing what they are supposed to, protect us from harm. What hope is there when one of the two major political parties in what was up until recently the world’s leading emmitter of CO2 has, as a rite of passage, denial of climate change? ‘Irresponsible’ doesn’t come even close to describing such behaviour.

        • Lizzy says:

          Dick: “We are on the threshold of a huge transition towards electrical power being utilized for transportation”
          Really? Not here in the UK where I have yet to a see a single charging post outside of London. Inside London I’ve seen a handful, mainly used for beetling about the city, not travel. I’ve never heard of a farmer who uses electricity to plough the fields. I’m reasonably well informed, but this could be ignorance, I suppose. Likewise I’ve heard of no intercity or intercontinental lorries, nor ordinary delivery trucks that are electric powered.
          I think it sounds like a nice idea but really, it’s just an idea.

          • I agree. And if we are going in the direction of more electrical outages, like India, electric transportation becomes unreliable at the same time.

    • You also have to assume that you are going to figure out a way how (with these solar panels as your power source) you are going to build new solar panels to replace the old ones, and build that into your cost estimate. You are also going to have to (eventually with solar panels) build electrical storage capacity so that this electrical power is in a useful form when it is needed, not just when the sun is out on sunny days. Of course you will need to build and repair electrical transmission lines as well during the whole time, and will have to keep the solar panels clean. If you used water for this effort, you will somehow need to find the water for doing this, in the desert where the panels are located.

      I am skeptical of the feasibility of this whole project. I presume we would stop making new cars, trucks, roads, and most consumer goods, to allow this all to happen.

    • Karl says:

      It’s not only oil and coal that is finite. Even rare needed metals like gallium (extracted from soot when burning coal) is limited. Rare metals are needed in solar panels, magnets in turbines and batteries needed if “green” alternatives are to be used. The question it boils down to is if it is possible to produce these metals in required quantities if all of the world would go “green”. Chris Martenson thinks not.

      • Leo Smith says:

        Well yes and no. Sure plenty of materials are limited, but the actual amounts needed are often not that great and often not that critical.

        It would be pain to use aluminium instead of copper, but its possible, We only use copper because silver is in short supply…

        And as Gail has pointed out before, many things are recyclable. With energy.

        That applies to most of the rare earth’s in particular.
        If you take a holistic view, elements are never created or destroyed*. We di=ont consume elements: we change them into different compiund, so a stable population might recycle all material and have the same amount of stuff to play with.

        But energy – or rather entropy – is the one thing in the universe that isn’t recyclable or renewable.

        Once you run out, that’s it.

        *elements may theoretically be transmuted by highly energy releasing or energy intensive means in nuclear reactions.

        • Karl says:

          Yes, that may be so. Many materials can be replaced by other materials, but with reduced efficiency, possibly to the point of being useless. For batteries Lithium seems to be the economic holy grail. How much Lithium can be produced, enough for the whole world to go green or just US, or just California?

          There are serious limitations that cannot be overcome by wishful thinking.

          • Leo Smith says:

            Absolutely. Which is why lithium battery cars cant replace fuel cars.

            So that puts a limit on that particular way of solving off-grid transport issues.
            So, you simply extend the grid and use other technologies: Synthetic fuel is perfectly feasible – albeit expensive if you HAVE to have off grid power. Its one of the biggest problems we will face, but its not insurmountable

  34. Pingback: FT Alphaville » Further reading

  35. Ikonoclast says:

    The behavioural and physiolgical strategems uses by Feugians would seem to support the above analysis. According to Wikipedia, the Yaghan people (southernmost of the Patagonian Feugians) coped as follows;

    “Despite the extreme cold climate in which they lived, early Yahgan wore little to no clothing until their contact with Europeans.[5] They were able to survive the harsh climate because:

    1) They kept warm by huddling around small fires when they could, including in their boats to stay warm. In fact, the name of “Tierra del Fuego” (land of fire) is a name given to the island cluster by passing European explorers who witnessed these fires burning.

    2) They made use of rock formations to shelter themselves from the elements.

    3) They covered themselves in animal grease.[citation needed]

    4) Over time they had evolved significantly higher metabolisms than average humans, allowing them to generate more internal body heat.[citation needed]

    5) Their natural resting position was a deep squatting position, which reduced their surface area and so helped to conserve heat.[6]”

    Point 4 above is possible for all humans without actual further evolutionary adaptation but simply by acclimatisation and physiological changes. When exposed to cold for long periods, the human physiology can elevate its metabolism and limit heat loss to some extent. Of course, adequate fuels are necessary in the diet, expecially fats. Eskimos and Feugians ate a high fat diet as their natural prey animals (whales, seals, fish and birds) came from the same cold environment and had good stores of blubber and fats.

    One French Officer veteran who survived Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow in one the most brutal winters seen in central Europe for a long time wrote how:

    In his first winter in civilized quarters in France, he felt stifled and had to douse the fire in his room, open all windows to the blustery mid-winter elements and sleep bare chested without covers on the bed. Otherwise he felt he was burning up.

    • Thanks for this example.

      Fats in the diet is an issue I didn’t get into. The observations I have seen is that people near the poles seem to eat more meat (and I expect fats) in their diets. Cooking is not quite as essential in meats as grains, although one study (Carmody RN and Wrangham RW, Cooking and the human commitment to a high-quality diet,Cold Spring Harb Symp Quant Biol. 2009;74:427-34.) shows that the digestibility of meat is improved by cooking, in experiments using mice. The higher fat content of the diet might have helped permit higher metabolism.

  36. RobM says:

    Very insightful post. Thank you. I think you will find the work by Timothy Garrett relevant and helpful to your investigations in this area.

    • Thanks! That is a very helpful post. One overview paragraph:

      It might help to think of civilization as a global organism that collectively feeds on the energy in coal, oil, natural gas, uranium, hydroelectric power and renewables. Global civilization wealth, or capital, is sustained by civilization’s rate of “food” consumption. This consumption supports not just the production of new wealth through the GDP. It also sustains all of civilization’s historically accumulated production of wealth. Just like us as individuals, civilization must continually feed to survive and maintain its past accumulated growth against the ever present forces of dissipation and decay.

      He also has a model that is different from the traditional one, in that he looks at the relationship of wealth rather than GDP to energy consumption. He finds, “The observed relationship between the current rate of energy consumption or power of civilization, and its total economic wealth, is a fixed constant of 9.7 ± 0.3 milliwatts per inflation-adjusted 1990 dollar. Equivalently, expressed in the units of the plot shown below, the constant equals about 300 kiloJoules per year per 1990 dollar. The plot shows wealth in blue, energy consumption rates in red, and the value of the constant in green. Currently, the global energy consumption rate of about 16 TW sustains about 16,000 trillion 1990 dollars of global wealth. In 1970, both numbers were about half this. Both quantities have increased by an average amount of about 1.85% /year since.”

      Timothy Garrett's image showing the relationship between energy growth and wealth growth

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