The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy

The tie between energy supply, population, and the economy goes back to the hunter-gatherer period. Hunter-gatherers managed to multiply their population at least 4-fold, and perhaps by as much as 25-fold, by using energy techniques which allowed them to expand their territory from central Africa to virtually the whole world, including the Americas and Australia.

The agricultural revolution starting about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE was next big change, multiplying population more than 50-fold. The big breakthrough here was the domestication of grains, which allowed food to be stored for winter, and transported more easily.

The next major breakthrough was the industrial revolution using coal. Even before this, there were major energy advances, particularly using peat in Netherlands and early use of coal in England. These advances allowed the world’s population to grow more than four-fold between the year 1 CE and 1820 CE. Between 1820 and the present, population has grown approximately seven-fold.

Table 1. Population growth rate prior to the year 1 C. E. based on McEvedy & Jones, “Atlas of World Population History”, 1978; later population as well as GDP based on Angus Madison estimates; energy growth estimates are based on estimates by Vaclav Smil in Energy Transitions: HIstory Requirements, and Prospects, adjusted by recent information from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

When we look at the situation on a year-by-year basis (Table 1), we see that on a yearly average basis, growth has been by far the greatest since 1820, which is the time since the widespread use of fossil fuels. We also see that economic growth seems to proceed only slightly faster than population growth up until 1820. After 1820, there is a much wider “gap” between energy growth and GDP growth, suggesting that the widespread use of fossil fuels has allowed a rising standard of living.

The rise in population growth and GDP growth is significantly higher in the period since World War II than it was in the period prior to that time. This is the period during which growth in which oil consumption had a significant impact on the economy. Oil greatly improved transportation and also enabled much greater agricultural output. An indirect result was more world trade, which enabled production of goods needing inputs around the world, such as computers.

When a person looks back over history, the impression one gets is that the economy is a system that transforms resources, especially energy, into food and other goods that people need. As these goods become available, population grows. The more energy is consumed, the more the economy grows, and the faster world population grows. When little energy is added, economic growth proceeds slowly, and population growth is low.

Economists seem to be of the view that GDP growth gives rise to growth in energy products, and not the other way around. This is a rather strange view, in light of the long tie between energy and the economy, and in light of the apparent causal relationship. With a sufficiently narrow, short-term view, perhaps the view of economists can be supported, but over the longer run it is hard to see how this view can be maintained.

Energy and the Hunter-Gatherer Period

Humans, (or more accurately, predecessor species to humans), first arose in central Africa, a place where energy from the sun is greatest, water is abundant, and biological diversity is among the greatest. This setting allowed predecessor species a wide range of food supplies, easy access to water, and little worry about being cold. Originally, predecessor species most likely had fur, lived in trees, and ate a primarily vegetarian diet, like most primates today. The total population varied, but with the limited area in which pre-humans lived, probably did not exceed 1,000,000, and may have been as little as 70,000 (McEvedy).

Man’s main source of energy is of course food. In order to expand man’s range, it was necessary to find ways to obtain adequate food supply in less hospitable environments. These same techniques would also be helpful in countering changing climate and in mitigating deficiencies of man’s evolution, such as lack of hair to keep warm, limited transportation possibilities, and poor ability to attack large predators. The way man seems to have tackled all of these other issues is by figuring out ways to harness outside energy for his own use. See also my previous post, Humans Seem to Need External Energy.

The earliest breakthrough seems to be the development of man’s ability to control fire, at least 1 million years ago (Berna). The ability to cook food came a very long time ago as well, although the exact date remains uncertain. A diet that includes cook food has a number of advantages: it reduces chewing time from roughly half of daily activities to as  little as 5% of daily activities, freeing up time for other activities (Organ); it allows a wider range of foods, since some foods must be cooked; it allows better absorption of nutrients of food that is eaten; it allows smaller tooth and gut sizes, freeing up energy that could be used for brain development (Wrangham).

There were other advantages of fire besides the ability to cook: it also allowed early humans to keep warm, expanding their range in that way; it gave them an advantage in warding off predators, since humans could hurl fiery logs at them; and it extended day into night, since fire brought with it light. The wood or leaves with which early man made fire could be considered man’s first external source of energy.

As man began to have additional time available that was not devoted to gathering food and eating, he could put more of his own energy into other projects, such as hunting animals for food, making more advanced tools, and creating clothing. We talk about objects such as tools and clothing that are created using energy (any type of energy, from humans or from fuel), as having embedded energy in them, since the energy used to make them has long-term benefit. One surprising early use of embedded energy appears to have been making seaworthy boats that allowed humans to populate Australia over 40,000 years ago (Diamond).

The use of dogs for hunting in Europe at least 32,000 years ago was another way early humans were able to extend their range (Shipman). Neanderthal populations, living in the same area in close to the same time-period did not use dogs, and died out.

With the expanded territory, the number of humans increased to 4 million (McEvedy) by the beginning of agriculture (about 7,000 or 8,000 BCE). If population reached 4 million, this would represent roughly a 25-fold increase, assuming a base population of 150,000. Such an increase might be expected simply based on the expanded habitat of humans. This growth likely took place over more than 500,000 years, so was less than 0.01% per year.

Beginning of Agriculture – 7,000 BCE to 1 CE

Relative to the slow growth in the hunter-gatherer period, populations grew much more quickly (0.06% per year according to Table 1) during the Beginning of Agriculture.

One key problem that was solved with the beginning of the agricultural was, How can you store food until you need it? This was partly solved by the domestication of grains, which stored very well, and was “energy dense” so it could be transported well. If food were limited to green produce, like cabbage and spinach, it would not keep well, and a huge volume would be required if it were to be transported.

The domestication of animals was another way that food could be stored until it was needed, this time “on the hoof”. With the storage issue solved, it was possible to live in settled communities, rather than needing to keep moving to locations where food happened to be available, season by season. The domestication of animals had other benefits, including being able to use animals to transport goods, and being able to use them to plow fields.

The ability to grow animals and crops of one’s own choosing permitted a vast increase the amount of food (and thus energy for people) that would grow on a given plot of land.   According to David Montgomery in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilization, the amount of land needed to feed one person was

  • Hunting and gathering: 20 to 100 hectares (50 to 250 acres) per person
  • Slash and burn agriculture: 2 to 10 hectares (5 to 25 acres) per person
  • Mesopotamian floodplain farming: 0.5 to 1.5 hectares (1.2 to 3.7 acres) per person

Thus, a shift to agriculture would seem to allow a something like a 50-fold increase in population, and would pretty much explain the 56-fold increase that took place between from 4 million in 7,000 BCE, to 226 million at 1 CE.

Other energy advances during this period included the use of irrigation, wind-powered ships, metal coins, and the early use of iron of tools (Diamond) (Ponting). With these advances, trade was possible, and this trade enabled the creation of goods that could not be made without trade. For example, copper and tin are not generally mined in the same location, but with the use of trade, they could be combined to form bronze.

In spite of these advances, the standard of living declined when man moved to agriculture. Hunter-gatherers were already running into limits because they had killed off some of the game species (McGlone) (Diamond). While agriculture allowed a larger population, the health of individual members was much worse. The average height of men dropped by 6.2 inches, and the median life span of men dropped from 35.4 years to 33.1 years, according to Spencer Wells in Pandora’s Seed: The Unforeseen Cost of Civilization.

Deforestation rapidly became a common occurrence, as population expanded. Chew lists 40 areas around the world showing deforestation before the year 1, many as early as 4000 BCE. Montgomery notes that when the Israelites reached the promised land, the better cropland in the valleys was already occupied. In Joshua 17:14-18, Joshua instructs descendants of Joseph to clear as much of the forested land in the hill country as they wish, so they will have a place for their families to live.

Energy, Population, and GDP: Year 1 to 1820

Table 1 shows that during the period 1 to 1000, both population and economic output were very low (population, 0.02% per year; GDP, 0.01% per year). During this period, and as well as in the early agricultural period (between 7,000 BCE and 1 CE), there was a tendency of civilizations that had been expanding to collapse, holding the world’s overall population growth level down. There were several reasons for collapses of well-established societies, including (1) soil erosion and other loss of soil fertility, as people cut down trees for agriculture and for use in metal-making, tilled soil, and used irrigation (Montgomery) (Chew), (2) increasingly complex societies needed increasing energy to support themselves, but such energy tended not to be available (Tainter), (3) contagious diseases, often caught from farm animals, passed from person to person because to population density (Diamond), and (4) there were repeated instances of climate change and natural disturbances, such as volcanoes (Chew).

Even after 1000 CE, growth was limited, due to continued influence of the above types of factors. In most countries, the vast majority of the population continued to live on the edge of starvation up until the last two centuries (Ponting). Most growth came from expanded acreage for farming.

There were exceptions, however, and these were where growth of population and GDP was greatest.

Netherlands. Kris De Decker writes about the growing use of peat for energy in Netherlands starting in the 1100s and continuing until 1700. Peat is partially carbonized plant material that forms in bogs over hundreds of years. It can be mined and burned for processes that require heat energy, such as making glass or ceramics and for baking bread. Because it takes hundreds of years to be formed, mining exhausts it. Mining also causes ecological damage. The availability of peat for fuel was important, however, because there was a serious shortage of wood at that time, because of deforestation due to the pressures of agriculture and the making of metals.

Wind was also important in Holland during the same period. It produced primarily a different kind of energy than peat; it produced kinetic (or mechanical) energy. This energy was used for a variety of processes, including polishing glass, sawing wood, and paper production (De Decker).  Measured as heat energy (which is the way energy comparisons are usually made), wind output would have been considerably less than the heat energy from peat during this time period.

Maddison shows population in Netherlands growing from 300,000 in the year 1000 to 950,000 in 1500; 1,500,000 in 1600 and 1,900,000 in 1700, implying average annual population growth rates of 0.23%, 0.46%, and 0.24% during the three periods, compared to world average annual increases of 0.10%, 0.24%, and 0.08% during the same three periods. Netherlands’ GDP increased at more than double the world rates during these three periods (Netherlands: 0.35%, 1.06%, and 0.67%; world: 0.14%, 0.29%, and 0.11%.)

England. We also have information on early fuel use in England (Wigley).

Figure 1. Annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Wrigley.

Here, we see that coal use began as early as 1561.  To a significant extent coal replaced fire wood, since wood was in short supply due to deforestation. Coal was used to provide heat energy, until after the invention of the first commercially successful steam engine in 1712 (Wikipedia), after which it could provide either heat or mechanical energy.  Wind and water were also used to provide mechanical energy, but their quantities remain very small compared to coal energy, draft animal energy, and even energy consumed in the form of food by humans.

Maddison shows population and GDP statistics for the United Kingdom (not England by itself). Again, we see a pattern similar to Netherlands, with UK population and GDP growth surpassing world population and GDP growth, since it was a world leader in adopting coal technology. (For the three periods 1500-1600, 1600-1700, and 1700-1820, the corresponding numbers are Population UK: 0.45%, 0.33%, 0.76%; Population World: 0.24%, 0.08%, 0.46%; GDP UK: 0.76%, 0.58%, 1.02%; GDP World: 0.29%, 0.11%, 0.52%.)

Growth “Lull” during 1600s. Table 1 shows that both population growth and GDP growth were lower during the 1600s. This period matches up with some views of when the Little Ice Age (a period with colder weather) had the greatest impact.

Figure 2. Winter Severity in Europe, 1000 to 1900. Note period of cold weather in 1600s. Figure from Environmental History Resources. Figure based on Lamb 1969 / Schneider and Mass 1975.

If the weather was colder, crops would likely not have grown as well. More wood would be needed for fuel, leaving less for other purposes, such as making metals. Countries might even been more vulnerable to outside invaders, if they were poorer and could not properly pay and feed a large army.

Coal Age for the World – 1820 to 1920 (and continuing)

When the age of coal arrived, the world had two major needs:

  1. A heat-producing fuel, so that there would not be such a problem with deforestation, if people wanted to keep warm, create metal products,  and make other products that required heat, such as glass.
  2. As a transportation fuel, so that walking, using horses, and boats would not be the major choices. This severely limited trade.

When coal arrived, it was rapidly accepted, because it helped greatly with the first of these–the need for a heat-producing fuel. People were willing to put up with the fact that it was polluting, especially in the highly populated parts of the world where wood shortages were a problem. With the availability of coal, it became possible to greatly increase the amount of metal produced, making possible the production of consumer goods of many kinds.

Figure 3. World Energy Consumption by Source, based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 01965 and subsequent

Between 1820 and 1920, which is the period when coal came into widespread use, the world’s use of energy approximately tripled (Figure 3). The large increases in other fuels later dwarf this increase, but the use of coal was very significant for the economy. Table 1 at the top of this post shows a fairly consistent rise in GDP growth as coal was added to the energy mix in the 1820 to 1920 period.

With the invention of first commercially successful steam engine in 1712 (Wikipedia), coal could also be used for processes that required mechanical energy, such as milling grain, running a cotton gin, or weaving cloth. It also helped as a transportation fuel, in that it could power a railroad train or steam boat. Thus, it did help with the second major energy need noted above. It was not very suitable for airplanes or for private passenger cars, though.

One invention that was made possible by the availability of coal was the widespread use of electricity. Without coal (or oil), it would never have been possible to make all of the transmission lines. Hydroelectric power of the type we use today was also made possible by the availability of coal, since it was possible to create and transport the metal parts needed. It was also possible to heat limestone to make Portland cement in large quantity. The first meaningful amounts of hydroelectric power appeared between 1870 and 1880, according to the data used in Figure 3.

Agriculture was helped by the availability of coal, mostly through the indirect impacts of more/better metal being available, more ease in working with metals, improved transportation, and later, the availability of electricity. According to a document of the US Department of Census,  changes were made which allowed more work to be done by horses instead of humans. New devices such as steel plows and reapers and hay rakes were manufactured, which could be pulled by horses. Later, many devices run by electricity were added, such as milking machines. Barbed-wire fence allowed the West to become cropland, instead one large unfenced range.

Between 1850 and 1930, the percentage of workers in agriculture in the US dropped from about 65% of the workforce to about 22%. With such a large drop in agricultural workers, rising employment in other parts of the economy became possible, assuming there were enough jobs available. If not, it is easy to see how the Depression might have originated.

If we look at the coal data included in Figure 3 by itself, we see that the use of coal use has never stopped growing. In fact, its use has been growing more rapidly in recent years:

Figure 4. World annual coal consumption, based on same data used in Figure 3. (Vaclav Smil /BP Statistical Review of World Energy)

The big reason for the growth is coal consumption is that it is cheap, especially compared to oil and in most countries, natural gas. China and other developing countries have been using coal for electricity production, to smelt iron, and to make fertilizer and other chemicals. Coal is very polluting, both from a carbon dioxide perspective, and from the point of view of pollutants mixed with the coal. For many buyers, however, “cheap” trumps “good for the environment”.

A look at detail underlying China’s coal consumption makes it look as though the recent big increase in coal consumption began immediately after China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, in December 2001. With more trade with the rest of the world, China had more need for coal to manufacture goods for export, and to build up its own internal infrastructure. The ultimate consumers, in the US and Europe, didn’t realize that it was their demand for cheap products from abroad that was fueling the rise in world coal consumption.

Addition of Oil to World Energy Mix 

Oil was added to the energy mix in very small amounts, starting in the 1860s and 1870s. The amount added gradually increased though the years, with the really big increases coming after World War II. Oil filled several niches:

  1. It was the first really good transportation fuel. It could be poured, so it was easy to put into a gas tank. It enabled door-to-door transportation, with automobiles, trucks, tractors for the farm, aircraft, and much construction equipment.
  2. It (and the natural gas often associated with it) provided chemical fertilizer which could be used to cover up the huge soil deficiencies that had developed over the years. Hydrocarbons from oil also provide herbicides and insecticides.  Oil also enabled the door-to-door transport of mineral additions to the soil mix, enhancing fertility.
  3. Oil is very easy to transport in a can or truck, so it works well with devices like portable electric generators and irrigation pumps. It can be used where other fuels are hard to transport, such as small islands, with minimal equipment to make it usable.
  4. With the huge change in transport enabled by oil, much greater international trade became possible. It became possible to regularly make complex goods, such as computers, with imports from many nations. It also became possible to import necessities, rather than using trade primarily for a few high-value goods.
  5. Hydrocarbons could be made into medicines, enabling defeat of many of the germs that had in the past caused epidemics.
  6. Hydrocarbons could be used to make plastics and fabrics, so that wood and crops grown to make fabrics (such as cotton and flax) would not be in such huge demand, allowing land to be used for other purposes.
  7. Hydrocarbons could provide asphalt for roads, lubrication for machines, and many other hard-to-replace specialty products.
  8. The labor-saving nature of machines powered by oil freed up time for workers to work elsewhere (or viewed less positively, sometimes left them unemployed).
  9. The fact that tractors and other farm equipment took over the role of horses and mules after 1920 meant that more land was available for human food, since feed no longer needed to be grown for horses.

If we look at oil by itself (Figure 5, below), we see much more of a curved figure than for coal (Figure 4, above).

Figure 5. World annual oil consumption, based on the same data as in Figure 3 above. (Vaclav Smil /BP Statistical Review of World Energy)

My interpretation of this is that oil supply is more constrained than coal supply. Coal is cheap, and demand keeps growing. Oil has been rising in price in recent years, and the higher prices mean that consumers cut back on their purchases, to keep their budgets close to balanced. They can’t afford as many vacations and can’t afford to pave as many roads with asphalt. Oil is still the largest source of energy in the world, but coal is working on surpassing it. In a year or two, coal will likely be the world’s largest source of energy. Together, they comprise about 60 percent of today’s energy use.

If we look at per capita fuel consumption based on the same data as in Figure 3, this is what we see:

Figure 6. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 6 indicates that there was a real increase in total per capita energy consumption after World War II, about the time that oil consumption was being added in significant quantity. What happened was that coal consumption did not decrease (except to some extent on a per capita basis); oil was added on top of it.

If we look at world population growth for the same time period, we see a very distinct bend in the line immediately after World War II, as population rose as the same time as oil consumption.

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

Clearly, the arrival of oil had a huge impact on agriculture. Unfortunately, the chemical fix for our long-standing soil problems is not a permanent ones. Soils need to be viewed as part of an ecological system, with biological organisms aiding in fertility. Soils also need an adequate amount of humus, if they are to hold water well in droughts. There are natural things that can be done to maintain soil fertility (add manure, terrace land, use perennial crops rather than annual crops, don’t till the land). Unfortunately, using big machines dependent on oil, plus lots of chemical sprays, tends to operate in the opposite direction of building up the natural soil systems.

Our Energy Niche Problem

There are other fuels as well, including nuclear, wind energy, solar PV, solar thermal, biofuels, and natural gas. The production of all of these are enabled by the production of oil and coal, because of the large amount of metals involved in their production, and because of the need transport the new devices to a final location.

All of these other fuels tend have their own niches; it is hard for them to fill the big coal-oil niche on the current landscape. Solar thermal and natural gas are both directly heat-producing, and play a role that way. But it is hard to see how adequate metals production would continue with these fuels alone. Of course, with enough electricity, we could create the heat needed for metal production. The catch would be creating enough electricity.

“Cheap” is a very important characteristic of fuels to buyers. Coal is clearly beating out oil now in the area of “cheap”. Natural gas is the only one of the other energy sources that is close to cheap, at least in the United States. The catch with US natural gas is that producers can’t really produce it cheaply, so its long-run prospects as a cheap fuel aren’t good. Perhaps if the pricing issues can be worked out, US natural gas production can increase somewhat, but it is not likely to be the cheapest fuel.

One of the issues related to finding a replacement for oil and coal is that we already have a great deal of equipment (cars, trains, airplanes, farm equipment, construction equipment) that use oil, and we have many chemical processes that use oil or coal as an input.  It would be very costly to make a change to another fuel, before the end of the normal lives of the equipment.

Wrapping Up

Over the long haul, energy sources have played a very large and varied role in the economy. In general, increases in the energy supply seem to correspond to increases in GDP and population.  Necessary characteristics of energy supply are not always obvious. We don’t think of low-cost as an important characteristic of energy products, but in the real world, this becomes an important issue.

As we move forward, we face challenges of many types. The world’s population is still growing, and needs to be housed, clothed, and fed.  None of the energy sources that is available is perfect. Our long history of using the land to produce annual crops has left the world with much degraded soil. The way forward is not entirely clear.

I will look at some related issues in upcoming posts.

About Gail Tverberg

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

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  4. Mel Tisdale says:

    I wonder just how realistic any costings that are arrived at via today’s economics will be when the ungarzi hits the fan. From what I have seen, there are many pundits in the financial arena who are quite convinced that today’s finance system, with its fiat money, simply cannot survive in its present state. It might come down to a more simple position where, if something can be done, it will be done, regardless of cost because any cost as such will only be set on a temporary basis. By that time the public will quite possibly accept any solution that is an improvement on their then current situation. Certainly, the U.K. government is showing signs of panic, and who can blame them when nothing seems to be doing what they thought it would.

    Leaving climate change to run its course, both politically and in reality, what we can say is that a fleet of uranium fueled reactors should reduce oil consumption to some extent, which with any luck will reduce its price, assuming the laws of supply and demand will still apply more or less as they do today. I just wonder what a reduced oil supply is going to mean for plastics and fertilizers, let alone its obvious transport usage. These are key ingredients to the economy.

  5. Mel Tisdale says:

    Leaves me very little to add, Leo, with the possible exception that despite the awful future that seems to await us, I think we would be wise to at least try to get the ship on an even keel; to continue your marine analogy, simply on the basis that hope springs eternal, if for no other reason. To that end, I will continue to fight for nuclear power, especially LFTRs because I think that thorium fuelled reactors could at least make life a little more bearable and are sufficiently far removed from uranium ones that they provide the Greens with a much needed excuse for a U turn – if they have the necessary backbone, of course?

    As for your “No political so called leader has had the courage to stand up and say that in fact, we will not return to normal growth, the recession is likely to be several decades long and its not inconceivable that it could last a millennium” I wonder if they are even aware of that sad possibility. If one listens to the U.K. government’s latest buckshot round of measures to stimulate growth, I rather think not, unless they are under instruction from the other side of the pond not to rock the boat before a certain election taking place in November.

    • Leo Smith says:

      I disagree only in detail from that.

      I support conventional uranium fission because right now that’s all we have that is reliable on cost and delivery estimates.
      I support continued use of fossil fuel because I don’t see that the sorts of models that produce alarming global warming can be correct, or it would have happened already many times.
      I support reserach into LFTR and so on, but we cannot rely on it short term,. Or fusion. But LFTR means HUGE amounts of fissile material available and fusion means ‘as long as there is seawater’ long term? Good bet. Right now? Doesn’t work.

      But be aware that even WITH access to essentially unlimited supplies of nuclear energy, loss of fossil fuel is still a massively serious issue. Its not QUITE as bad to my mind as Gail makes it out, but its still very tricky to handle. We will have to explore different ways of doing things, some of which simply wont work.

      What would be ideal would be a way to use off peak electricity or even waste heat to make synthetic hydrocarbon fuel. It can be done, but the economics are not good. IF a better reaction pathway could be found that would make a huge difference, since we have liquid fuel engines and infrastructure already in place.

      Short of some quantum level breakthrough in energy, that would be the optimal strategy: Investigate synthesising hydrocarbon fuels and loads of standard design reactors to drive them.

      EROI on that is good, but prices is not. A litre of diesel represents about 10Kwh of energy. at a notional nuclear cost price of electricity of 8p, a 100% efficient synthesiser of zero capital cost places that litre of diesel at 80p before any taxes profits or delivery charges are placed upon it. Current UK raw delivered domestic kerosene is under 60p. Whether nuclear synthetic fuels at say £2.50 a litre are possible I cannot say. And whether we could run a nations transport on that level of cost I don’t know either. Or the NHS. Because fuel taxation that takes 50p a litre kerosene and turns it into £1.50 a litre road fuel is a MASSIVE source of income for the government.

      BUT again, nuclear power puts an upper limit on the cost of hydrocarbon fuel. If its more expensive to pull it out of the ground than to MAKE it out of water and CO2, then you make it instead, if a demand exists at that price. The overall EROI is good. Because nuclear fuel has such a high EROI in itself. The energy outlay goes in plant construction, not fuel extraction.

      That’s as close as I get to a magic silver bullet. Dirt cheap nuclear power by standardised reactors in mass production driving synthetic fuel plants. And to get dirt cheap plant means considerable attention to sane regulation . Type approval rather than site approval for example.

      As far as synthetic fuels from atmospheric CO2 goes, no one has tried it. The Fischer Tropsch process could use electrolysed water to give hydrogen, and then pass that to a high temperature and pressure environment with pumped CO2 derived from distillation of liquid air injected. The net result would need cracking to get gasoline and are looking at a BIG multi-stage CHP nuclear unit that generates electrical power and also produces synthetic fuel, running on a 24×7 basis to maximise income stream.. It might be quite efficient, but it wouldn’t be cheap!

      There are a few solar boilers going this direction as well, but again, intermittency dilutes the capital plant cost, and in the end if its pure constant heat you want, a reactor is the way to do.

      It might be possible in principle to feed CO2 and hydrogen directly into a reactor core and get out a red hot mixture of hydrocarbons and oxgyen. Not very safe though if anything goes wrong 🙂

  6. Just to take issue on another point if I may-(your articles always bear re-reading), hydrocarbons have not defeated bacteria. Our attacks on them have merely kept them at bay for a century or so. What our obsession with ‘cleanliness” did was to wipe out 99.999% of germs, but like all species, some are immune to our attacks no matter what we do. They have mutated into stronger strains, and we have to consume more and more hydrocarbon energy to fight back.
    We are unfortunately outnumbered trillions to one, the outcome of the battle is a foregone conclusion.
    When our energy supplies run out, they will march back into our lives with all the power they had in previous times, and then some, thanks to hydrocarbon energy use, we have destroyed our own immune systems too.

  7. The critical factor in the use of energy and its conversion to useful work is often omitted by writers on this subject.
    they almost invariably jump straight to the steam engine , but in order to build steam engines in quantity you need iron in vast amounts.
    Making iron in charcoal furnaces at that volume wasn’t possible, but in 1709 Darby figured out how to smelt iron using coal.
    After that, iron production was virtually unlimited, that’s how iron ships began to take over from wood in the early 19th century, and steam engines proliferated after about 1776.
    The early steam engines worked, but they consumed vast amounts of coal. Watt patented the first commercially viable steam engine in 1776 incorporating the same basic principles in use today.
    That conversion of energy source into effort drove our population from 1 billion to 7 billion, always interesting coincidences, that the steam engine and the American nation were created at the same time, and only a few years later Malthus wrote his famous treatise.

    • Thanks for filling in some of the “blanks”.

      It’s the vast amount of iron you need for almost any application that is the deal-killer without coal. That is how coal enabled farming with more use of horses. Electric light bulbs were also possible, if it was possible to make both the glass and metal parts with coal.

      When a person starts to thing what we wouldn’t have without coal, it is mind-boggling.

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  11. Ikonoclast says:

    Can solar power power the world? Actually, this is the wrong question.Solar power already powers the world. Look at the facts.

    1. Maintenance of ambient temperature on earth is almost solely due to incoming solar radiation. (Heat from the centre of the earth plays a small role,)
    2. Peat and coal are formed from plant matter and these plants grew via solar radiation. Peat and coal represent embedded solar power.
    3. Oil is formed from marine organism detrititus. The food chain for these organisms commenced with algae and other organism using sunlight. Oil represents embedded solar energy.
    4. All the food we eat is essentially created by photosynthesis of plants or by animals which eat plants. All our food represents emebedded solar energy.

    The proper question is this. Can solar power the world directly while leaving oil, coal, gas and fissile elements in the earth? The answer is yes.

    “The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year.[7] In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world (economy) used in one year.[12][13] – Wikipedia.

    Estimates of feasible infrastructure indicate the following potential for renewable energy. It is about 5 or 6 times greater than current total energy use.

    “In 2008, total worldwide energy consumption was 474 exajoules (474×1018 J=132,000 TWh). This is equivalent to an average energy consumption rate of 15 terawatts (1.504×1013 W).[1] The potential for renewable energy is: solar energy 1600 EJ (444,000 TWh), wind power 600 EJ (167,000 TWh), geothermal energy 500 EJ (139,000 TWh), biomass 250 EJ (70,000 TWh), hydropower 50 EJ (14,000 TWh) and ocean energy 1 EJ (280 TWh).[4]” – Wikipedia.

    There are limits to growth but the energy limits are not near if we fully utilise renewables.

    I’ve yet to see anyone provide figures on this blog or elsewhere to prove that renewables are not viable.

    • Tony Weddle says:

      I’ve read innumerable articles that show renewables are not viable to power our consumer industrial growth oriented civilisation. Most renewables are diffuse energy sources that require enormous resources to harness but only in a form that is suitable for a subset of the use fossil fuels is put to. The need for infrastructure and resources, including some very limited resources, will ensure renewables cannot power our world, even if the investment capital is there (which is doubtful). In addition, unintended ecological impacts mitigate against renewables ever gaining the kind of level needed. Some recent research indicates wind energy is limited by ecological impacts and I suspect solar is, also, unless distributed very widely (rather than in massive local/regional farms). We definitely need more research into the impacts of renewables at all levels and of all kinds. Assuming there are no impacts (even for small diversions of natural energy flows) is not wise.

      I’m sure everything will be tried to keep an unsustainable civilisation going a bit longer but even if our only problem is energy (which it isn’t) I doubt renewables can take up the slack from dwindling supplies of fossil fuels.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Professor Charles Hall et. al. disagree.

        “We find in solar (industrial) energy a very large potential but a rather small application (so far). The greatest use (of renewables currently) is traditional biomass (perhaps about 5 percent in the US) and hydropower. In general high EROI sites in the United States were developed by the middle of the last century and a further expansion is probably limited by environmental considerations. (Globally the potential is much more). In the United States existing wind power seems to have a rather good EROI (18:1) although that is likely to be decreased substantially if issues related to storage are factored in. Present generation photovoltaics have a moderate EROI (around 8:1 but with great variability and uncertainty). Both wind and photovoltaic systems appear to have a large potential for improving their EROI. The greatest potential, however, is for passive solar, although this issue seems not to have been analyzed very often using EROI explicitly. There are many reasons to favor a solar future and it is probably quite possible to get there, but we need a much more comprehensive analysis of the issues of availability and storage if applied on a very large scale.”

        • Tony Weddle says:

          Oh, I’m quite sure that the numbers show that solar power could power our world several times over. Others (such as Heinberg and Greer) have looked at other aspects and I’ve yet to see a full environmental impact assessment for the grand schemes that are paraded for continuing our industrial technological civilisation on solar. In my view, not only won’t it be done, it can’t be done. Of course, you’re free to believe what you wish. Maybe my view is coloured by the knowledge that continuing our industrial technological civilisation, by whatever means, is unsustainable, not least because it will continue to degrade our only known habitat (as well as the habitat of the other species we rely on in so many ways for survival). I find the counter arguments quite strong; you may not.

        • Mel Tisdale says:

          No matter how many learned professors you call on for support, the simple fact remains that without some means of storing the energy they produce that is cheap, practical and indeed even possible, renewables, as a solution to our energy supply needs, will remain in the airy fairy Green camp, championed by people who are very far from the mainstream and want us all to join them in their cloud cuckoo land yurts.

          No thanks. One has only to look outside on a dull winter’s day, when the sun is well out of sight and there is hardly a breeze to rustle any remaining leaves, to understand why renewable are just a diversion. Of course, there are other forms of renewable energy supply, but they all seem to suffer to some extent from an inability to keep the lights on due to their intermittency.

          While you are obviously (very obviously, some might say) wedded to renewables, there are a large number who are not, such as myself. Personally, I just don’t like the idea of having the countryside peppered with wind turbines, which, incidentally, are getting larger and more intrusive with every day that passes.

          Obviously, I would support the use of renewables if they were all that we had as an option. But they are far from that status. We have nuclear energy. If we could only get the Green brigade to just stop a moment and think sensibly about the situation that we are in, they will see that nuclear is really about the only option that we have as a species. What is really needed is for the various nuclear options to be properly considered. By that I mean considered fairly. While we have a lot of expertise embedded in the current technology, there are other technologies that seem to offer far safer solutions and which also have far less radioactive waste to dispose of, not to mention a whole raft of other advantages, such as a plentiful supply of fuel that is currently regarded as an undesirable by-product of other mining operations. If we had stuck to steam engines because of the degree of expertise that existed, where would we be today? (And they were lovely, too, unlike a wind turbine!)

          The Greens have a lot to answer for. It is very largely due to their hysterical opposition to all things nuclear that we have an uphill struggle ahead of us in getting nuclear energy accepted by the public. So it is up to the Greens to make amends and join in the nuclear energy debate and let the public see that their movement can actually take a responsible position. If Professor Lovelock can change his position, then surely the rank and file can.

          As oil slowly sinks, having passed its zenith, we need to urgently decide just what we are going to do about keeping the lights on and the food shelves full. There are many vested interests, which we need to beware of. While this site does an excellent job of raising the issues, I am not sure that it is sufficiently mainstream yet to provide a forum for all. Something needs to happen to drag the population away from the froth of life, such as reality TV, and make it consider its options. I do not know what that something is, or indeed who will apply it. All I do know is that all the time and money spent erecting yet another eyesore of a wind turbine is time and money that could have been better spent.

          • Tony Weddle says:

            Nuclear is a terrible choice. It uses a non-renewable resource, it produces nuclear waste (for which only Norway has a long term storage solution – that will take decades to complete) and its safe operation requires not only a stable biosphere but stable societies – for centuries. I wish we could stop thinking that an unsustainable way of life can magically be made sustainable. The only sensible response to our predicament, it seems to me, is to utterly change our living arrangements and behaviours.

            • Leo Smith says:

              So, please tell, me where the sun gets its energy from, how renewable it is and what it does with the nuclear waste? And also how we have survived as long as we have with all that nuclear stuff in the ground which actually does get into all the water – because the sea is full of radioactive uranium. In fact it probably helped life get going?

              I agree the *idea* of nuclear power is terrible. That the thing about ideas, They are easy to make scary.

              Also the thing about ideas. You can have really impossible ones too, like you can imagine pink elephants or green pixies. You an even imagine something called ‘renewable energy’. Or ‘sustainable growth’. Neither exist in the real world. In the end we all die and so will the earth, and if we are still on it, that’s curtains for the human race.

              The problem with the youth of today, is that they have lived in a bubble of media information so long, that they actually seem to think it is the real world. Korzybski said it, and it bears repeating..

              The map, is not the territory.

              Magical incantation of ‘renewable energy’ and ‘sustainable growth’ does not sadly – as far as we can tell – bring these entities into existence in any place beyond the marketing man’s pen and the minds of the gullible.

              If you are concerned that all the fissionable material will run out in the next 3000 years, well fair enough. But I would point out to you that we have barely been using iron that long.

              Of course in the limit things that pollute the planet and are around a long time are ideologically to be disdained. I’d suggest that the biggest offender here is human beings, irrespective of what source powers their I-Bling. and indeed we find that in the typical green mind, the logic of sustainability and ‘care of the planet’ is already extrapolating to the conclusions that mass suicide is probably the best way to save the planet for unborn generations – that now will never BE born.

              Or possibly war. Drop nuclear bombs on people who would use nuclear power and pollute the planet, and breed themselves into a danger to unborn generations.

              With immediate conversion to celibacy or homosexuality as definite second choices. Its green to be gay. Or its gay to be green? These will shortly be made compulsory, I hear.

              An interesting philosophical and logical conundrum. The best way to save the planet for unborn generations is for there to be no unborn generations. Ho hum.

              But then doublethink* has become a real thing, insofar as anything in people’s minds can be said to be real…

              *George Orwell, 1984

              “To tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them, to forget any fact that has become inconvenient, and then, when it becomes necessary again, to draw it back from oblivion for just as long as it is needed, to deny the existence of objective reality and all the while to take account of the reality which one denies – all this is indispensably necessary. Even in using the word doublethink it is necessary to exercise doublethink. For by using the word one admits that one is tampering with reality; by a fresh act of doublethink one erases this knowledge; and so on indefinitely, with the lie always one leap ahead of the truth”

            • Tony Weddle says:

              Leo, I’m not sure what solar nuclear fusion has to do with nuclear fission here on earth. You are mistaken about the sea being full of radioactive uranium. If that were true, there would be no water on this planet. Uranium is at a very low dilution in the sea – extremely low.

              It was once believed that oil and other fossil fuels were virtually unlimited. Look where that got us. Believing in thousands of years’ growing supply of uranium (or other fissionable materiable) is just repeating the same mistake again. However, it is the probable lack of stable societies for centuries that worries me most about nuclear (though that might be because I live in New Zealand and don’t have to worry as much about the other negatives).

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              “The only sensible response to our predicament, it seems to me, is to utterly change our living arrangements and behaviours.”

              O.K., that’s the funnies out of the way, now can we please get down to discussing options that the public stand a chance of accepting in the timescale at our disposal?

            • Tony Weddle says:

              What the public will accept is largely irrelevant, unless they will accept something that actually makes a difference and moves us towards sustainability. I don’t think it’s funny, at all, to suggest that a total rethink of the way we live is needed. I do think it will not happen, however, so we will all have to live with the consequences of not doing so.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              I am sure that when you say “a complete rethink on the way we live is needed” will not happen, you are correct. I find it funny to suggest something that you have no confidence in, you obviously don’t. Perhaps it’s the engineer in me coming out, but there again, engineers can end up on a manslaughter charge (or its equivalent) if they get things wrong, so we take great care not to start off on the wrong foot. In short, I guess we come at it from different angles.

              You may be right when you say that society needs to hit the reset button, but that implies enormous change in short order. Time has told me that when you put a human being into a state of change, it goes into a state of shock. The size of the shock is directly related to the size of the change experienced. So what you want to do is give everyone a severe shock. That, I am afraid, is one of those ideas that only looks good until you examine it in detail.

              You cannot get to where you want society to be directly from where society is today. The reason being that the public just will not support it. They are used to a life of cheap energy and a plentiful supply of commodities. While it is true that a new way of living is being thrust upon us, all the politicians are putting forward policies that are specifically designed to bring back the good times. Their very jobs rely on the public supporting their point of view, so you can see the size of the problem. If we want the public to accept something, then it has got to be seen as the best way to return society to the conditions that existed prior to 2008. If good cause can be shown, then failure will be more readily accepted. As things stand, renewables do not, nor cannot, even come close to achieving that goal because they are intermittent in supply. That they are ugly in their own right and need equally ugly power grids that despoil the countryside are just additional reasons to consign them to the scrap heap of good intentions.

              While you might think that geology of today has not advanced much beyond the days of thinking that fossil fuels permeated the whole of the earth’s crust, I think you will find that if a modern geologist says that such and such an element exists in plentiful amounts, then plentiful amounts of that mineral exist. So, if we were to go the LFTR route, supplies of thorium would not be a problem. Add to that all the other benefits of that technology, not least of which is its inherent safety, and any idea of lavishing money on renewables is just plain wasteful. Give the public small, modular LFTR power plants serving local communities and you begin to have the ‘think local’ notion in the public’s mindset. Build on that with local supplies to local shops, none of which are to be found in identical shape, size and decor in other towns and you begin to get to a Green society without all the ‘extreme’ cycling and other intense stuff that they rave about and want to inflict upon us all.

              But none of that is achievable without first and foremost keeping the public on side. And you don’t even come close to achieving that if your opening gambit is something that even you don’t believe will be acceptable.

            • Tony Weddle says:

              You could well be right, Mel. However, that slow process will take decades, at best. Meanwhile, the situation gets worse. What will a worse situation do to societies? I think we need faster responses but, you’re right, I have no expectation that we’ll get them. My only hope is that our predicament gets bad enough to prompt real change but not so bad that suffering becomes the norm or that change will have little impact. I’m not hopeful and I don’t find that funny at all, oddly enough.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Tony: Yep. You are approaching a key area here. And that’s the nature of the human animal. And of the social and political systems he uses.

              To my mind – and there’s room to argue the point – most people are successful because they are smart but not TOO smart, and a bit daring in their youth, but tend to revert back to ‘what their parents did’ when under stress. This innate inertia and conservatism works because it means that changes happen slowly and not too many people are taking risks at any one time – risks that mostly show the rest of us what NOT to do.

              Systems tend to be organised as loose associations of hierarchies with the interfaces decided on an opportunistic and ad hoc basis. This means that any area where resources or things of value to the society exist, gets exploited rapidly by those nearby, and the benefits filter outwards through the rest of global society. The benefits of this loose system that is not designed by anyone, is that it is fairly fast to respond and adapt, and yet the innate conservatism of people means it doesn’t waste effort exploiting dead ends. Today we have a word for this system, and its called ‘the market’.

              And ever since we realised how its worked people have been claiming that if it was properly designed, it would work better. And that imposing central state controls on everything and setting out to build custom designed societies would enable the whole process of governance to yield a faster response and greater wealth and less wastage.

              And yet all such attempts, seem to lead to the reverse. Communist society was hidebound, rigid, and slow to respond, and less wealthy than free market societies.

              I have pondered this, and come up with an explanation that is based on engineering thinking: There are two reasons why this state centric civilisation is not very good, and one of them is deeply dangerous, too.

              The first reason is that the ‘command and control’ lines are too long. System engineering can be modelled to show that if every decision has to be centrally debated with huge time delays, and that no local decision making (which is feedback in system terms) is allowed, the system will be unstable if over-controlled, or terribly slow to respond if its stable. If a tree falls across the road outside your house, and you have a chain saw and your government lets you use it, that tree is gone in an hour. If you have to wait for the ministries of parks, roads, and gardens all to confer to decide whose responsibility it is, and dispatch a team who have had the appropriate safety training, after signing a requisition in triplicate, it takes DAYS.

              The second reason is more subtle. When you DESIGN a system, be it a machine or a society, you need to specify what the design is to achieve and in what environment it will operate. And you need to be right about both. Or it will be a cock-up at best and an utter disaster at worst

              That means you need to second guess both what human nature will be wanting and what the actual real environment will be YEARS ahead of the time in which the design is done. It’s all very well wishing we had a society that had a command and control structure ideally suited to dealing with the tapering off of fossil energy supplies. But the fact is that twenty years ago when such institutions might have been put in place or basic research done, those were not the issues of the day and there was no political will to implement them and they were, if not wholly unforeseen, of indefinite magnitude and timing.

              In short, you can’t make definite plans for indefinite problems and expect to be right.

              My conclusions are in the end that whilst designed top down controlled societies may be reasonable efficient in static societies – they will tend to have the effect of creating them- they are useless at responding rapidly to external changes . In fact they tend to break instead.. Market oriented systems are less fair, and more volatile (and stressful or exciting depending what you make of them) but are massively faster to respond to local situations and develop optimal strategies on an ad hoc basis that can then filter through the system as ”things that worked for Joe, so let’s try them here”. Market systems resemble organisms – huge devolution of power and control to local quasi-autnomous systems, with the top level being concerned solely with the strategic direction. Centrist Big State system actually resemble machines. Rigid formal paths of communication and rigid adherence to limits and tolerances .

              My point being that the tradeoff is a certain efficiency in the machine-like solution for a massive drop in overall flexibility and resilience. When things are stable, big machine-like corporations and governments can be designed to extract the last ounce out of a predictable situation. When the situation changes those companies and governments will collapse.

              Which is why I think that right now what is seen as a ‘lurch to the Right’ in terms of the state getting out of running things and letting nature take its course is optimal. Many would disagree.

              But if you don’t, you will see why I am so cynical of any governments at all being able to ‘solve the crisis’ : Better to educate the populace and smaller institutions to seek their own salvation and do what governments do best – set as light a touch as is necessary on the tiller of the state to point it towards at least a place where its pile up on the iceberg is not totally inevitable.

              In short don’t vote for more control and more state in the expectation this will lead to the right thing being done quicker. It wont. Best is to do whatever you yourself can at whatever level you are operating, to move in whatever direction you see fit. If it works, others will copy. If it doesn’t, you have lost little beyond your pride.

              I present that as a point of view that some may find valuable. Few would disagree with the general socialist principle that what we want to achieve is the best possible world for the greatest number of people. Where the argument rages is exactly how this is to be done, and my observation is that trying to take political and social ideology and design a society based on these principles will at best create a rigid hidebound society utterly resistant to change, and at worst result in a structure that is incapable of meeting challenges and changing. And is terribly prone to cat-belling* pseudo-solutions. Of which renewable energy is the classic example 🙂

            • One of the things I find interesting is that as badly as the communist approach worked, once it broke down, it has taken a huge amount of time to be replaced. In fact, there are still a lot of things that are done as they were in the past. For example, I understand that there is not normally private ownership of agricultural land in Russia. The Metro system in Moscow is still amazing. There are no houses in Moscow, only apartment buildings.

              When a person looks at a list of countries in the world with declining population now, most of the list is countries that were former members of the Soviet Union, or were influenced by the Soviet Union. It is hard to tell how much of this is low birth rate/ high death rate and how much is emigration, but the effect is the same.

              When I visited Russia in June, one of our tour guides said that he felt a long term feeling of “depression”. I think that related to the ideals of Communism not working, but it also may have related to the wrenching feeling of believing one thing, then moving to another, and then trying to move to another. It is very hard to rebuild a working economy with a new set of parameters. Foreign investment has been important, but Russia does not have an approach that “gets things done”, on time, and within budget.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Absolutely Mel. BUT the public at larger – and politicians – even if they begin to grasp the basics of physics, have almost zero understanding of engineering.

              There are many things that can work theoretically that are simply unattainable with real world materials and so on. If Leonardo da Vinci had the petrol engine, there is no reason why eventually he could not have built an aircraft.

              We know fusion reactors are theoretically possible, but the engineering problems have meant that after 50 years we are only a few steps closer to one.

              Aircraft the size of a city block are theoretically possible, but no material strong enough and light enough exists. Howard Hughes ‘spruce goose’ remains a testament to one man who tried, and he only flew it once.

              For similar reasons airships are not effective flying machines in terms of an adequate strength:payload ratio.

              Nor can wooden ships be made as big as steel ones. For the same fundamental reason.

              Frank Whittles gas turbine jet engine was theoretically possible and described in patents in the 1920’s. Making one was a huge challenge in finding materials that didn’t burn up. IRRC it took twenty years to make it work.

              Likewise the public does not understand that because a solar panel and a lithium battery can make an effective power source for a laptop, does not make it suitable to be scaled up to run a nation.

              This makes it very simple for academics within a single narrow area of expertise to produce reams of perfectly correct calculations that in the end have no value whatsoever. Because the solutions described either cannot be built at all, or cannot be built without astronomical cost implications, or have so many adverse effects that the technology is doomed before anyone builds it. Or SHOULD be,. Instead the technology is used to go rent seeking for subsidies.

              The ONLY group of people who have expertise in materials, physics and cost accounting and are absolutely involved in the overall impact of technology on the environment are in fact engineers.

              And is amongst engineers that the greatest derisions of ‘renewable energy’ and the greatest support for nuclear power exists. Not that that changes anything politically.

              Once you have built what hydro you can, and done the calculations of the impact (cost and environmental) that biofuels would have if widely deployed, there is only one viable zero carbon energy technology left. Engineers who have done the calculations know what it is but the rest of the world is wasting billions on not listening to them.

              Ultimately what that means is that we who have not a sufficient ratio of hydro power to population, are constrained to three broad paths in terms of what happens to industrial society.
              – It collapses
              – It continues to produce big volumes of CO2.
              – It transitions to nuclear power. (And even that is not issue free)

              Since none of the above appeal to the emotional narratives of the electorate, the deep motive to pretend that its going somewhere else, exists at the political level. This however, is a matter of faith, not of engineering. No political so called leader has had the courage to stand up and say that in fact, we will not return to normal growth, the recession is likely to be several decades long and its not inconceivable that it could last a millennium, renewable energy is an expensive way of achieving nothing of any real value, that standards of living and populations will at best remain static and really need to fall, and that parts of the civilisation we already have are simply too expensive and deliver too little benefit to remain in existence. And that their ability to change any of this is essentially zero.

              In short the necessary paradigm change that has to happen in public consciousness is to realise that its not a question of plugging the leak in your cabin window and continuing the voyage on the Luxurious Titanic, its a question of grabbing little more than the clothes that you stand up in and running like hell to the boat deck, and getting in and working like you have never worked before to row to shore, because no one else is coming to help.

              Not the electoral ticket that is likely to win in a democratic society is it?

              So events will run their natural course. China and India will burn coal build cars and soak up the worlds oil output. Japan will sink into deeper stagnation. Europe will disintegrate politically and abandon renewable energy simply because it can’t afford it and it didn’t actually work. And the rest of the world will take note. Then it will sink back to a Victorian level of poverty run by small fiefdoms.

              the USA will probably go into isolationist mode, and finally construct a society that is more or less self sufficient in co operation with Canada.

            • Roger Button says:

              Good summary Leo, speaking as a fellow engineer.
              I did write to Mervyn King (contemporary of mine at university) along these lines when everything started going belly-up in 2008. I think he sort of agreed, but then still had faith that if commodity prices rose enough the commodities would somehow miraculously apear before western capitalism collapsed. Not sure where he stands now but he did have the decency to put engineers on the £50 note acknowledging our importance for ‘economic growth’!
              However, I’m not sure if Europe will ‘abandon renewable energy’. I think most of what we have built will last long enough to be of great value when the price of fossil fuels has doubled, and then doubled again.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Roger: I refute that last point quite simply
              You say:

              “However, I’m not sure if Europe will ‘abandon renewable energy’. I think most of what we have built will last long enough to be of great value when the price of fossil fuels has doubled, and then doubled again.”

              I say that with MTBFs* measured in weeks, and absolute lifetimes less than two decades, most renewable energy projects will be ruins long before energy prices quadruple. And the public’s patience with them some time before that.

              In case you haven’t seen it, this is an interesting report.


              *mean time between failure. Wind turbine failure rates are appalling,. especially in marine environments. Less than two months for some failure or other to become apparent once past the ‘warranty period’ . Which accounts for part of the even poorer-than-predicted capacity factors (the other part is too close spacing on limited land or sea areas).
              Making this better is driving up the cost and complexity. Wind is getting more expensive capital wise as a result. Solar too is exposed to remarkably hostile conditions.
              By contrast the trend is to extend nuclear and coal power plant life as far as is economically realistic. 60 years. A working power plant generates revenue: a power plant that must be decommissioned represents a liability.

            • Roger Button says:

              Interesting comments Leo. From information published on the Web I get the impression that in the UK load factors are >22%, this including maintenance down time etc. This may be lower than some claim, but still looks useful.
              We’ll have to see if you’re right about the life expectancy. To support the longer timescale I could point to the National Grid and Supergrid, still going strong after many decades, and the about-to-be-retired ‘A stock’ on the Metropolitan Line that has been rattling along pretty gruelling tracks for 40 years. At sea, HMS Belfast remaind in service for 30 years.

            • Leo Smith says:

              22% overall is about right. Lower onshore and higher far. I am dubious about long term offshore reliability tho. Most installations are new….

              BUT with onshore costing £1bn per GW and 22% capacity factor, and HUGE environmental costs and kick on costs in terms of gas backup, extended grids, maintenance and a relatively short service life of 15-25 years, with nuclear only costing £3bn a GW with a reliable 70-90% capacity factor (and plant can be taken down for refuelling and maintenance in summer when peak capacity is not needed) and almost no REAL environmental costs if a sane approach is taken to used fuel recycling and disposal, its hard to see that onshore wind can compete on level terms. Offshore wind is three times more expensive than onshore with only a marginal increase in capacity factor. Solar 5-10 times more expensive with a really bad capacity factor – 10% or less.

              The numbers simply don’t stack up. And in reality, intermittent energy is simply less valuable as a commodity. If you got paid a randomly variable salary on the basis that you had to spend it as soon as you got paid, and couldn’t put the money in a bank, and neither did you have a deep freeze capable or storing food in for weeks, you would end up with a pretty dysfunctional lifestyle. With a large part of your expense devoted to managing the knock on effects of extremely lumpy cash flows. And might decide that a lower paid job with regular income and access to banks was a better solution. Conventional power is willing, Renewable energy is wilful. Use it or lose it.

              For sure it makes sense to run what renewables we have as long as we have gas to back them up with.

              But it doesn’t make sense to build any more, ever. Sadly sense is not a quality that seems to be in abundant supply anymore.

            • Roger Button says:

              Dear Leo, I must say I thought that a dysfunctional lifestyle, by comparison with today, was a sine qua non of the future we were talking about. So all we need is a guaranteed supply of uranium – invasion of Kazakhstan anyone? and it would help if we could agree on where to put the waste.
              I hear the Chinese are interested in building us a new Hinckley Point.

            • Actuaries aren’t engineers, but we work in the real world, and have an understanding of what is practical and what is not. I think that is part of what sets us apart from economists. (Most of us weren’t steeped in economic theory either, even though we work in the financial world.)

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  13. Roger Button says:

    Dear Gail,
    re your last paragraph, one thing we can be sure of is that, in the future, the value of labour will be a lot lower relative to the value of raw materials, as it was in the past.

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  15. Roger Button says:

    It has been fascinating following this debate! I agree with most contributors, but disagree with some over the timescales involved. I would like to add a couple of points.
    1) Everyone up ’til now seems to be assuming that even with a radically different future energy scenario, energy has to be available 24/7 – i.e. the biggest argument against most renewables is that they aren’t available 24/7. I diasgree. With current technology it is feasible to adapt many domestic activities, heating, refrigerated storage, clothes washing etc. to intermittent use when cheap energy is available. Many industrial uses can also adapt to intermittent electricity supply, where this generates cost savings. Many large users already have a ‘maximum demand’ tariff so that they reduce consumption when overall grid demand is high. Historically we were content to mill corn when the wind blew or the rivers flowed.
    2) Leo Smith seems confident that there is essentially unlimited uranium available for future nuclear generation. I know the data is very hard to come by but I thought the consensus was that it was in about the same situation as coal – i.e. peak production within a few decades?

    • Leo Smith says:

      1/. If it were simple and easy to store energy so that availability did not dominate usage we would already have done so: the variability between off-peak and on-peak prices is enough to drive the development of this as it is. That it has not done so makes me sceptical that it could be done. High capital cost equipment has to be kept working, or its ‘capacity factor’ declines with overall cost increases. The facts on et ground suggest that variable output to conform with grid capacity is not as economic as paying a high price for peak power. In fact I read ionly yesterday that a considerable opportunity exists to improve output of a small UK hydroelectric scheme, because it was built to provide constant steady power at a lower level than in a good rain year it might, in order to provide reliable 24×7 power to an aluminium smelter.

      2/. The availability of massive amounts of fissile, fissionable or potentially fissile material is not inconsistent with a peak in uranium production. There are two reason for this

      – Firstly in the West, there is extreme pressure against nuclear power. Legislation ensures it is expensive, and public opinion is carefully nurtured to regard it as expensive, dangerous and unnecessary. So it is being strangled out of existence. In the USA where frackable gas in large quantities, as well as coal , exists there is no pressing economic need for it either. Yet.

      – Fuel reprocessing and the political issues of waste storage are tending towards the reuse of existing fuel. Very little of the U235 in a fuel rod is actually used – it gets poisoned by its own waste products. Removing these and the plutonium waste results in reusable material and indeed more fissile material in the shape of plutonium. That was originally used to build nuclear weapons, but we seem to have enough of those. Britain is sitting on 10 years of plutonium nuclear fuel, or some dangerous and nasty long-lived nuclear waste, depending on which attitude you choose to take. I am not aware of the US situation in any depth, but I assume it is similar.

      3/. The availability of several thousand years worth of fissile materials is based on an understanding of the uranium and or thorium cycles. The energy in U235 fission is massive. Thousands or millions of times greater per unit mass (depending whether you talk about U235 or the usual U235/238 power grade mixture) than any fossil fuel. In short the EROI is so high that despite the issues with refining, the actual energy cost of extracting uranium, could rise a hundredfold without it actually unduly affecting the cost of nuclear power. Likewise breeder reactors which create more fissile material than they consume, are perfectly feasible and have been built. They again failed commercially because the cost was not competitive with the extremely low price of raw mined uranium. The situation is similar to the use of deep water drilling and fracking which has increased oil reserves that are viable as long as the market price of the product is high enough.

      What this means is a picture of a ‘technology in reserve’ that is neither currently politically fashionable nor viable in competition with cheap coal and gas. That it is the best and cheapest choice for people who are concerned about carbon emissions and yet is most reviled by those that espouse that cause , is a curious and interesting fact. I note that ‘green’ pressure has been successfully diverted from solutions that compete with fossil fuels to those that mandate its continued use as a co-operating technology.

      The problem of course is that so much money is at stake that there is not one area of energy or power production that is not subject to marketing spin, political lobbying and the blatant use of outright propaganda. In short whatever you have been told about any aspect of energy and power, has almost certainly been told to you by someone carrying a fat chequebook and hiring whatever experts he wants to promote whatever message he wants and funding whatever ‘independent institutions;’ are needful to get the perception he wants, to spin across to a technically unsophisticated audience.

      Except me of course. No one is paying me anything at all. 🙁

      Finally Gail makes a more relevant point, in that e.g. nuclear powered cars are simply a nono. They will never happen. For road transport liquid hydrocarbon fuel is the appropriate storage medium. The current second best – lithium based batteries – have a theoretical limit of about twice the energy density that current technology has. There is not much room for improvement. Neither is there enough lithium in the world to replace all the working cars that exist. That means that what is happening in electricity supply technology – especially in a USA with good coal and gas – is not going to be the area where fuel price/shortage impacts first. That will happen in terms of road and air transport.

      In short the salient points are:

      – Nuclear and renewables cannot easily replace gasoline and kerosene in transport.
      – Renewables of the intermittent sort do not replace fossil energy in electrical generation at all.
      – Intermittent availability of energy is more expensive to deal with by the end user than it is to deal with by use of dispatchable stored energy power stations.

      And, finally what this means, is that we are facing at some level a re-structuring of society. The fear that I suspect Gail and I share is that that restructuring will inevitably involve massive drops in population levels, or standards of living, or both. All the proposed ‘solutions’ involve some drop in productivity. Some far more than others. In the end it is not a question of what we could do, but how well we could do it. I look ceaselessly for a scenario that involves the least possible change to the way things are done now, because that is likely to be a close to optimal strategy for the world’s populations, if not for the world’s power companies.

      Sadly that means goodbye to cheap personal transport and to cheap air transport. Two things I love..

      • Roger Button says:

        In reply to Gail,
        1) yes that is a big question. However, the equipment required, a smartphone and a relay, consume negligible real resources.
        2) again yes, but we haven’t really tried, at least not in the UK. If you want a cheap night rate they charge you so much more for the day rate that it is not economic to use the night rate for clothes washing etc.
        Yes, there is scope to convert existing hydo schemes to peak-lop rather than provide base load, but again not yet tried in the UK.
        I await with interest to see what happens to the price of nuclear fuel. Leo says that the price could rise x100 without causing problems. That may be so, but oil has risen x10 in a decade, so there is no reason why nuclear fuel could not rise by x100 in 20 years, and then start to become unaffordable. As oil has shown us, when scarcity looms, price is not governed by the cost of production, but what the marginal consumer will pay.

        • David F Collins says:

          Mr Button:

          You have several times touched the idea that energy can be useful and valuable even when it is not power-on-demand (as it «at the flick of a switch»). Earlier, I tried to make the point, in a more general sense. We would say, “I want what I want when I want it.” Reality often intrudes: “You will get what you get when you get it.”

          I learned photography with a totally manual camera and was fortunate enough to have a good light meter. I learned that when a clear sky clouded over, I needed three more stops or so (≈10×) to have enough light for an equivalent exposure. Far less solar energy, but often enough sufficient. And I never shook my fist in rage at being unable to photograph a landscape in the dark of night. Kinda like not giving up on gardening because, living in Michigan at that time, I couldn’t grow beets in January.

          Come to think of it, we make massive use of incoming solar energy all year long. My home, for instance, is largely heated by solar energy. Were it not for the sun, the furnace would have to raise our indoor temperature all the way from -455°F. Even though the effective background temperature fluctuates a bit, the solar assist is much appreciated.

          «Civilization» must trim its sails to the winds that blow. Not to the winds as we wish they were.

        • THe issue isn’t the negligible real resources; it is the ability to keep the international trade in place to support the import of those real resources. It is also the ability to keep governments from collapsing.

          As I point out in the new post I have up today, governments depend on energy to support their needs. The type of government which uses the least energy dependence is a king or local dictator. As governments collapse back from large mega-states to smaller pieces, each with their dictator or war lord in charge, the world is likely to face many local currencies. Whether or not trade can continue in such a context is not clear.

          Electric transmission lines are likely to be affected by such a change as well. For a while they may operate fine, but after a while, they will need repairs, either from after a storm, or when old transformers and other parts wear out. The question is whether these repairs will actually be made.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I’d merely comment on the validity of the idea that nations can’t function without complex centralised governments

            Of course that is what complex centralised governments keep telling us…

            The Tainter thesis is is that of course they can, albeit in a different way.

            Trading ships – armed or otherwise- were quite able to directly barter trade goods without any notion of money or international finance or government guarantees for many years. Likewise road networks spanning fiefdoms also existed. Because it was in the interest of those fiefdoms to maintain them, and trade was a mutually beneficial thing.

            I think that, analysing what I find at odds with your thesis Gail, is that it seems to regard international governance and finance as de rigeur for civilisation: And the fact that both are busted flushes means it all over.

            I cant accept that. There is trust and credit available, and cooperation between individuals, small fiefdoms, and principalities. is always possible. Just because the existing institutions have lost all credibility doesn’t mean the principle of trust will pass with it.

            That may be a truth we need to rediscover. Business ethics are needful for efficient commerce. IF institutions betray that trust, and banks and governments have, then that’s a good sign not to get rid of all institutions, merely the ones that have patently failed.

            I as an individual can put my money in a company which issues me with a share. IF it has a good idea, that share will be worth more money. I might put not my paper money, but my time or my house or a share of my produce. That’s voluntary capitalism. Governments and monopolistic systems like international finance are involuntary capitalism: taxation is involuntary capitalism. Having to use a system of banks that gouges my gains for individual advantage is involuntary capitalism. Buying shares in an engineering company or a farm is voluntary capitalism.

            If that company takes my money and steals it, then it is a lesson that it will not easily get any more money from me or anyone else, again.

            Governance originally existed to safeguard voluntary capitalism: The rights of property and so on. Somehow that became in time the right to gouge taxes into involuntary capitalism where the state commanded and controlled all capital. This I feel is a mistake. Now the state is bust.

            In short the world is awash with the strangled quacks of the past gasp of many golden geese. But not all of them.

            It is just not clear which ones are worth feeding, yet. Or who is competent to be their custodians.


            • I didn’t intend to take conclusions that far. If governments collapse back to smaller locally ruled states, there is a question of whether trade would be greatly restricted. I expect some trade would continue. The question is how much.

              I clearly need to write a post on ways we could move toward less complexity.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I look forward to it.

    • I think that there are a couple of issues:

      (1) Can we really maintain the complexity to do all of this? (High tech import capability and such)

      (2) Wind, Solar, and water are variable over such long time frames (far longer than 24 hours) that it badly tests the limits of such systems.

      Hydroelectric peaks in the spring, and may not even be available at certain times of the year. Year to year weather fluctuations make a big difference as well, in many years. Less developed countries tend to use a lot of hydropower in their mix, if it is available, but this can be a problem. You may have read about Venezuela’s drought problems a few years ago.

      Wind is variable all year, and over long periods. Solar PV is much better in the summer than in the winter.

      WHile we can and do do a lot of adjustment right now to when appliances, hot water heaters, and factories operate, doing much more requires that there be systems that “turn off” homeowners electricity use when there isn’t enough. Ideally, this would be individual appliances, but my guess is that it would have to be rolling blackouts. Cost estimates for wiring homes to hook up individual appliances for switching off have been high, and homeowners have been less than happy about the idea of agreeing to such an arrangement, in certain versions of “smart meters” that would do this.

      It works OK now for factories to have interruptible power, and to lose their power for a few partial days a year. But if workers have to go to work, and as often as not, discover the factory is out of service because of no electricity, this will be harder to handle. Wages will need to be much lower, for one thing.

  16. Björn Larsson says:

    Cosmologists have convincingly concluded that space is flat and infinite, and that materia is most likely homogeneously distributed in it all, on large scales. So the name of the blog is a bit funny!

    Furthermore, oxygen and carbon are the third and fourth most common elements in the universe, and suitable for combustion. Locally, we have about 800 000 000 000 tons of materia per human being under our own feet. But cheaper than to dig much deeper, might be to extract resources from the thousands of large asteroids around us, each one of which contains more metals than humanity has ever extracted so far. The Earth’s surface is poor in valuable metals because they’ve sunk to the planets core, those that occur, have come from collisions with asteroids.

    There’s no finity, but there are scarcities, an economic term. We produce and use more fossil fuels because their value is higher than their costs. And it is notable how those who talk about “finite resources” never talks about values, but only about quantities. That excludes an economic analysis of the subject.

    Since every litre oil extracted and used produces more and more value every year, even a falling supply of oil would contribute to increasing wealth. But oil production and known oil resources are greater now than ever, so, well, the “problem” is imaginary in several different ways at the same time. So don’t worry!

    • The world needs the real oil in order to transport goods and services and to be used in other processes. Higher prices will admittedly help the sellers, but they hurt the buyers. The buyers are getting less value.

      Reserve amounts have very little to do with what can be produced in a year. Rising reserves don’t mean that more oil can be produced!

  17. Leo Smith says:

    Gail: A view on investment into large capital projects. (nesting is going too deep so a new post I hope)

    You point of view seems to be that this can only come from governments, who are essentially bust.

    But the reality is that with interest rates chasing zero, and until and unless a government confiscates the private money that exists in pension funds and so on the world is actually awash with cash looking for the best return. Its juts that the markets don’t trust governments to pay a decent return or to actually pay it back at all, in some cases.

    This has led to a new way of financing large capital projects Instead of direct government investment we see everywhere an overt unblushing award of monopolies to business sectors, and with guaranteed income streams. And my favourite whipping boy, renewable energy, is the prime example.

    By guaranteeing an income – its not the same mechanism as the USA though which seems to use tax rebates – and guaranteeing a market (the power companies are legally required to take all the renewable electricity that is generated, and at a very high premium) – the private sector is attracted into a sector whose risk is removed by diktat and whose income is more or less guaranteed.

    The history of Royal and legal monopolies and cartels and of guild protected industries are very long.

    You may take whatever view on these that you prefer, but the fact the remains that such systems exist, and may be used by cash strapped administrations to essentially underwrite investments at no cost to themselves.

    The risk resides not then in the marketplace itself- the companies have a legal ‘right to gouge’ – but in the vagaries of political fashion. Legally constituted governments have the right and have used the power to both nationalize assets with little or no compensation (Iran and IIRC Venezuela both have nationalised foreign owned oil assets) or tax them into relative decline (Tobacco industry) or in other cases simply declare that they are no longer tolerable politically (nuclear power in Germany)

    I don’t wish to explore this further beyond to make the point that investment in major infrastructure projects is not actually a problem in practice. Its the principle – essentially legalised rent seeking – that is at issue.

    • I see this scheme as not working for very long. At some point, the system goes bust. The guarantee needs to go away. Even if they have decided to gouge the purchasers, after a certain point, the business purchasers leave the country for elsewhere (or go bankrupt) and the individuals are laid off from work so can’t pay for electricity.

      I agree, it sort of works for a while.

  18. Ikonoclast says:

    There is a concerted campaign to discredit renewable and clean energy. It is funded by the dirty energy (fossil fuels and nuclear) industry. It involves fake experts, disinformation, planted commentators, trolls and astroturfing campaigns. The hypocrisy and lies of the dirty energy industry are staggering considering the massive subsidies (over $11 billion per annum in the U.S.) given to that industry.

    These merchants of misinformation follow the same methods used by the tobacco industry and the climate change denialist lobby. The clear motive in each case is to protect what would otherwise become stranded assets were the true dangers of their products to become known. These people would rather kill people with their products and wreck the entire biosphere for future generations rather than take a hit to their already obscene and immoral profits.

    Those who are falling for their propaganda campaigns ought to re-analyse the whole situation. The reputable Sierra Club report is a good place to start. It is called;

    Clean Energy Under Seige: Following the Money Trail Behind the Attack on Clean Energy.

  19. Eugene Kimzey says:

    Wow, didn’t know I was walking into trench warfare. Admittedly my idea of a reduced power network that includes renewables that serves police, fire, medical, agriculture, water supply etc contains a lot of “ifs”. But people adapt. Kicking, crying, and moaning along the way, but many of us will eventually adapt. First faint signs of this are appearing as noted below.

    AGHIOS, Greece, Aug. 30, 2012 (Reuters) — Web designer Apostolos Sianos and three friends startled Greek villagers when they quit well-paid jobs in Athens to set up a self-sufficient commune that lives in yurts and grows its own vegetables…..

  20. Ikonoclast says:

    And if anyone thinks I am out of line for pointing out that Leo Smith is an incipient fascist and an overt rascist, I give you his own words posted in this blog and copy/pasted verbatim below.

    “Sigh. I think the best solution is a totally nuked out middle east meself.
    Devoid of people quarrelling over real estate and religion and all desperate to
    (a) preserve traditional values whilst
    (b) adopting as many Western things that they don’t know how to make themselves and whose scientific basis contradicts their deepest held beliefs. ” – Leo Smith

    “The most chilling thought that occurs to me rather too often as I look at the UK equivalent of what you might term ‘trailer trash; is ‘if all these people simply vanished one day, everybody who actually does contribute to society would be immensely better off. ‘ Followed by ‘And look what happened last time someone got that idea’ ” – Leo Smith.

    Leo loses all credibility with these statements.

    I call on Gail to protect the integrity and credibility of her blog by stating explicitly that comments such as Leo’s with such blatantly obvious racist and fascist implications are not welcome on this blog.

  21. Pingback: The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy »

  22. Leo Smith says:

    why should I believe you? you don’t even use your real name. You don’t substantiate any of your claims. I supply my facts and figures so they can be worked through. You do not.

    You can look me up in the rolls of my College if you like and verify my degree. Trinity College Cambridge 1969 -1972. You can look up Professor Hughes as well. You can look up David Mackay who is also a Cambridge professor and currently advisor to the government on energy matters. Who wrote this:

    You can check the credentials of the Mercados group who wrote this.

    There is only one person here whose credentials are unverifiable and its you. And all these hand wavey ‘scientists and technologists’ you claim support your views, note a single one of whom you have cared to cite.

    Probably because like the latest gushing of the renewable energy group in the UK, your output is written by people who work for renewable energy companies

    Well it makes a change from letting Greenpeace write huge chunks of the IPCC reports on global warmiong.


    At a recent gathering of graduate engineers at my old college only one supported renewable energy. He gave me his card,. He worked for the renewable energy lobby group.

    • Ikonoclast says:

      Leo, since you mention partisan support (the renewable energy lobby), I feel able to mention the heavy partisanship of the sources you tend to quote. In the great majority of instances, opposition to renewable power and opposition to phasing out fossil fuels comes from people directly connected to and benefiting from the fossil fuels industry. These people have a vested interest in continuing to sell fossil fuels until they have destroyed our climate. They have a vested interest in and they fund climate change denialism and other anti-science propaganda including the anti-science propaganda against what renewables could realistically achieve.

      They are in many cases heavily invested in fossil fuels (in terms of capital or career and political investment) and have a fear, where capital is involved, of being left with stranded assets. They are in most cases part of the right wing conservative or neoliberal power structures who are heavily invested in current power systems (political and energetic) as the powered and monied class benefiting most from the status quo. The “science” of these oppressive classes, whom you obviously support to the hilt, is biased against any possibility of solutions which might lead to outcomes which are not highly centrist, exploitative, imperialistic and militaristic. In your posts you have explicitly admitted that your knee-jerk reactions are fascistic (even though you then describe exerting some supergo correction on youself). I agree with you. I think your self diagnosis as an incipient fascist is quite correct.

      • Leo Smith says:

        I didn’t realise how absolutely desperate you were as you lost the arguments.

        It takes a degree of either desperation or vindictiveness that even for shills is unusual to go cyber stalking to the extent you have, in an attempt to discredit me when your arguments utterly fail to convince.

        I will not reply further to you. I think everyone now knows essentially what you are and who you work for.

  23. Ikonoclast says:

    Australia has a Zero Carbon Emissions Plan. Unfortunately, at this stage it is not endorsed nor scheduled to be implemented by the Australian Federal Government. The Plan is called the “Zero Carbon Emissions Stationary Energy Plan” and has been produced by the University of Melbourne Energy Research Institute. The basic plan is to supply all of Australia’s stationary energy generation needs within 10 years of commencement of the project. The plan is detailed with full costings, material requirements, technological and engineering feasibility issues covered.

    The plan is endorsed by (among others) Cedric Philbert, Renewable Energy Division, International Energy Agency; Professor Robin Batterham, Kernot Professor of Engineering, University of Melbourne and former Chief Scientist of Australia; Mark Z. Jacobson, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University; Associate Professor Keith Lovegrove, High Temperature Solar Thermal Group, Australian National University; John O. Blackburne, Professor Emeritus of Economics, Duke University, USA.

    I recommend that enquiring, open-minded people check this plan at;

    In my opinion, Leo Smith’s rejection of the feasibility of large scale renewable energy is clearly based on out-moded knowledge and assumptions. He has not kept up with progress and technological development in this field. Leo offers a journalistic Telegraph article seeking to debunk solar power. I offer an academically rigorous report from an Australian University Research Institute headed by recommendations from eminently and appropriately qualified people in Australia and overseas. I leave it to those with discerning minds to assess which report carries the greater credibility.

    Leo’s characterisation of the philosophical (or more precisely epistemological problems) related to science and its modelling of empirical reality is substantially correct. This I concede. The mechanistic and causal simplicity of Newtonian physics, the scientific optimism of the Victorian and the 1920s foray into logical positivism (crudely equal to empiricism plus rationalism) all indeed succumbed to the Uncertainty Principle, the general “weirdness” of quantum mechanics and the data and prediction problems associated with complexity theory and so-called “chaos” theory.

    Having said the above, it is still fair to say that Leo throws the baby out with the bathwater. Abstruse philsophical objections can be exaggerated and used to discount too severely our ability to deal with practical problems with current very firm though not absolute knowledge. The same goes for certain predictions and extrapolations to a defined degree of certainty. For example, despite the complexity and admitted unknowns of climate modelling, the predcitive models are now being borne out in large part by the latest empirical data.

    Much of the science and knowledge we have now in relation to energy generation and energy economics is fundamentally reliable in the practical sense. Empirical confirmation is firm across the board that renewable energy is viable though it does not and will never confer the massive and cheap advantages of prime fossil fuels in their heyday of exploitation of the highest quality reserves. Renewable energy is not as good as that but is still good enough to run our civilization with attendant changes and more modestly in some respects. There is a complex mix of expedients and changes that will be necessary to make a renewable economy work. For all his talk of complexity theory, Leo does not seem to appreciate the synergies and possibilities of this complex mix in the renewables field.

    I am not averse to a dual strategy of pursuing renewables and nuclear power. I would put certain caveats on it to be sure. A first step would be to remove all subsidies on all forms of power and allow them to compete on a level playing field. A second step would be to properly cost, to the best degree of accuracy possible, all known negative externalities of each power type. A third step would be to rigorously enforce safety standards for all forms of power generation and allow the market (within a safety regulation regime) to determine risk and assign insurance costs. Each form of power should bear its own insurance costs and these along with negative externality costs must be factored into the power price in an open power market.

    Continuing to burn all recoverable fossil fuels (though I do greatly fear that this is exactly what will happen in practice) is a non-tenable strategy that will end the Holocene benignity of climate we have enjoyed for about 12,000 years and which is necessary for our agriculture to flourish. It will also engender sea level rise of up to 15 meters with some scientists seeing possible rises of 1 metre to 5 metres by 2100 following Business As Usual practices. In the light of this a dual strategy of renewables and safe nuclear (where this is possible) might be the most viable approach. A dual strategy hedges risks.

    • SA says:

      Here’s some critical food for thought re the Beyond Zero Emissions plan from Ted Trainer:

      And for a more general critique of the idea that renewables can replace fossil fuels, see Ted Trainer’s latest essay here:

      It seems to me that this debate is still open to some extent, however Trainer has spent the best part of a decade looking into the assumptions of some of the bolder plans for renewables, and found their assumptions highly problematic. Just to be clear, he’s unconditionally in favour of moving to renewables as soon as possible, but when he looks at the evidence he concludes that the figures just don’t support the idea that renewables can support anything like the energy-intensive societies we have today. We’ll have to live with considerably less energy if we rely on renewables only/mainly, and that means living very different lifestyles and having zero-growth economies (and probably degrowth economies). Oil supply issues may mean that that is what we are facing anyway…

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Ted Trainer is a Social Sciences lecturer. He is not a hard sciences scientist. He is not a physicist. He is not an energy expert. He is not an engineer. He is not an economist. Ted Trainer for all his well meaning intentions is not suitably qualified to form an authortative opinion in this area.

        • SA says:

          That’s called “argumentum ad hominem.” Rather than directing your criticism at Dr Trainer, perhaps it would be more useful for us all if you’d point out where his arguments are in error so that we can advance the debate. Furthermore, his analysis has been published in peer-reviewed energy journals (e.g. Energy Policy), so that ought to be borne in mind too. If he is wrong, let us know where and why and by how much.

          • Leo Smith says:

            Or see what this man who is a professional advisor on energy and economics says


            He has access to plenty of hard scientists and engineers in his capacity as advisor to the global warming policy unit

            “The key problems with current policies for wind power are simple. They require a huge commitment of investment resources to a technology that is not very green, in the sense of saving a lot of CO2, but which is certainly very expensive and inflexible. Markets have to be rigged in order to persuade investors to fund the investment that is required. The economic cost of fix-ing markets in this way, especially if there is a possibility of making mistakes, is very high. Before proceeding along this path, any Government ought to be very sure that
            (a) the economic and environmental benefits outweigh the substantial costs incurred, and
            (b) the risks of pre-empting better options that may emerge in future have been minimised.

            In reality, neither of these conditions is close to being satisfied. To misquote another aphorism, unless the current Government scales back its commitment to wind power
            very substantially, its policy will be worse than a mistake, it will be a blunder.”


          • Ikonoclast says:

            Ted Trainer is very inconsistent in some of his arguments. For example, he argues that renewables will never provide as much energy (or at least as much EROEI) as good quality fossil fuels. Of course, he is right. He then argues that we need to prepare for more frugality in a lower energy and lower consumption future. He is right again. BUT then he criticises the ZCA plan for proposing a practical renewables plan for stationary energy in Australia which is built around providing less energy than the current system. Then the ZCA plan shows how we can frugally manage with this lesser amount of energy.

            Am I the only one who can see the inconsistency of Ted’s argument? When it suits him he wants to project Australia’s future stationary energy needs up to the amount that would fit normal BAU growth (and he is a trenchant critic of BAU) so that he can then criticise the ZCA plan for not providing that amount of energy.

            For his calculations Ted consistently uses low end, worst case scenario data further skewed by quoting out of date studies from times when renewables performance was signicantly poorer.

            Finally, it does no good to quote the principle of “argumentum ad hominem” when dealing with the issue of proefessional qualifications. It IS appropriate to check the qualifications a person holds for giving professional advice and opinions.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Well I am nearly all of those and you don’t believe me, either.

          So why bother saying that?

          • Ikonoclast says:

            Leo, for the simple fact that I can line up numbers of notable experts in all those disciplines (science, physics, energy physics, engineers and economics) who say it can be done. They are many. You are one. Their credentials are verifiable. Your credentials are merely claimed on this blog so far as I know. Their work gives the results of empirical studies. Your blog posts are full of emotive rhetoric, qualitative claims and assertions unbacked by data. Why would I choose to believe you?

  24. Luis says:

    Very good summary. There’s no explicit mention of the use of wind energy for sailing, which I think played a big role in the development of European societies in the 1500-1800.

    • What I could find out about sailing was pretty fuzzy, especially as to what improvements were made.

      Clearly the oldest sail boats are very old, maybe 40,000 years old. We know that there were sail boats by 3200 BCE, but they may have been around before them. One source I read talked about wind power not being reliable even in the 1500s. A trip from Africa to the Caribbean was sometimes as short as 23 days and sometimes as long as 95 days. There were problems when not enough food was brought along, not to mention other mishaps.

      China had wind powered boats, and suddenly decided not to use them, in the 1400s.

      In earlier days, I know capsizing was a huge problem. I remember reading that Archeologists figured out how much trade there was by century on the Mediterranean by counting how many capsized boats they found that they could date to each century. It may still have been a problem later.

      Sailing did enable trade, but sailing had been around for a long, long time. When Abraham in the Bible set out from Ur, it was a major sea port.

      • David F Collins says:

        Transit and transport by sailing vessels have definitely been subject to «unpredictable» (albeit «foreseeable») delays. Like Handel, holed up in a Liverpool hotel on his way to Dublin for the presentation of his Messiah: the packet’s captain refused to sail, as the weather was rotten. In 1588 the Spanish Armada was held at bay in the Battle of Gravelines and was subsequently destroyed, while awaiting the delayed arrival of the Duke of Parma with his army of invasion, by an unseasonably early autumnal storm. (The Brits credited the storm to Divine Intervention, striking medals with the inscription “He Blew With His Winds, And They Were Scattered.”) And in 1944, Operation Overlord was postponed because of bad weather.

        As the saying says, “Time and tide wait for no man.” Not for Georg Friedrich Händel, nor for the Duke of Parma, nor for Dwight David Eisenhower. The consequences vary.

        On a more modest scale, in 1954, while I was a teenager, my Dad bought a small ketch in Kenosha WI; we flew to Milwaukee, took a bus to Kenosha and set sail for Holland MI which was to be our home port. Trouble: in the middle of Lake Michigan, the wind died. Dead, dead, dead. The Kermath auxiliary engine followed suit. Eventually the wind came back to life, even though the Kermath did not, and we made port a couple of days later. Many thought we’d been rammed and sunk by an ore ship, or something dreadful had happened. Our sailing friends knew that the unforeseen can and does.

        It is only in «modern» times that we try to believe that we are masters over Nature, fooling nobody but ourselves. Temporarily. But as the modern folks of the wiser ilk like to say, Nature always bats last. They are the folks who decide against building on the sandy floodplain, preferring to build on the rocky bluff. (Matthew 7:24-27)

        • Thanks for those observations. I think we have gotten far enough away from wind sailing across oceans to mostly forget the problems.

          I expect that the sailboats we have now are mostly better too (fiberglass hulls and modern materials for sails), so the old ships had things that could go wrong that ours today probably wouldn’t have.

  25. PeteTheBee says:

    “The catch with US natural gas is that producers can’t really produce it cheaply, so its long-run prospects as a cheap fuel aren’t good.”

    This statement is really a financial prediction, similar to a sure-fire-way-to-get-rich.

    The futures market will richly reward people who can accurately predict a significant move in the price of natural gas. I wouldn’t take Gail to the bank here, since the futures market is more than likely to be correct in it’s prediction of “more-or-less” cheap natural gas for the forseeable future.

    That is to say, the current natural gas is almost “cheaper-than-cheap”. We are basically seeing the cheapest natural gas prices in modern times, adjusted for inflation, in the US. So it is a safe bet to say prices will be higher in 5 years.

    But significantly higher? As in 3-4X more expensive? No. Perhaps a bit under twice the current price. That is a big price jump, to be sure, but it could still go that high and be correctly called “cheap energy”.

    • I agree that current gas prices are “cheaper than cheap”. It is not obvious to me how this will all shake out. It seems like a lot of little natural gas companies will need to go bankrupt or significantly decline in value. Some of them (but not all of them) will be snapped up by large buyers, at low prices. Then maybe we would have higher priced natural gas, but not necessarily more natural gas. So we would be back to more like the situation we had before–barely enough natural gas for our needs.

  26. Leo Smith says:

    “And let’s not pretend the massive drop in population, increase in crime and drug abuse as well as graft and underworld activity and other discomforts were a beneficial outcome in Russia.”

    They were, for some. And that is the point. A few very undemocratic illiberal people did alarmingly well out of the collapse of the SovBloc.

    Having everything owned by the state made it extremely easy to acquire, simply by paying the right state officials off large enough amounts.

    Russia is now run by thugs. But then it always was. Since they slaughtered the monarchy and then the intellectual bourgeoisie.. They simply abandoned any pretense at being socialists, that’s all.

    You know damn well that if Los Angeles goes off grid the streets will become tribal fiefdoms in hours. They already are. Those who can, will run, those who can’t will die, and those who are stupid enough to think being a local warlord in a dying town is kewl, will die a bit later, of lack of water and fuel and food and medical attention.

    A part of me keeps saying ‘great: let’s get started shall we?’ 🙂

  27. Eugene Kimzey says:

    Leo Smith said, “Its amazing what different conclusions simple logical deduction can reach if you change the premises on which it is based”. Exactly. I believe that Smith’s arguments are sound if one assumes our industrial civilization continues pretty much as it does now. Renewables may work if industrial civilization partially breaks down, community comes to their senses and uses remaining industrial capacity and resources to build a minimal power network . This network could supply energy to core institutions and not much else. We would walk a lot and tend to our gardens.

    • Leo Smith says:

      I almost agree with that. There is a problem though Eugene, and typing your name brings to mind what it is – the spectacle of Eugenics and Nazism.

      A hi tech renewable world might be possible. But at nothing LIKE the population densities of today.

      And, as I said in another post the prospect of reaching that lower population density is one that fills me with horror.

      Disease, warfare..deliberate selection of a ‘master race’ and euthanasia for people who don’t fit your criteria- enforcement of one couple one child? And shoot any left over?

      THAT is why I favour nuclear energy. It buys time to educate and manage the populations down. and indeed a rich society running on cheap nuclear fuel can accommodate some dead weight whose DNA might JUST be useful one day.

      The alternative is a lot of dead people. Human nature being what it is, the most likely survivors will be the biggest baddest meanest bastards around, and the technocrats they will need to stay in power.

      Mr and Mrs Ordinary will simply be ‘disappeared’. Personally I prefer the prospect of a few thousand reactors worldwide.

      Now I have to say that this is all predicated on something you may dispute, and that is the proposition that the energy usage per capita necessarily increases as population density rises even though material standards of living remain unaltered, or even fall. That is a few hunter gathers can work an hour or two a day, use very little energy – just chase the odd deer and feast for two days and sleep in the sun.

      The herder has to do more. He has to drive his herds to new pastures, and manage those pastures and protect his herd from predators. But more herders can use a given land area than hunters.

      The farmer we know is condemned to a life if unremitting ‘organic and renewable ‘ toil. He works from dawn to dusk, but he can support another order of magnitude population level.

      Add in chemical energy,. metals and fertilisers, and the ability to economically transport food into cities and waste out, and that’s another leap in population.

      Take that out and 90% of your population is dead within weeks. And will get eaten by the remaining 10%.

      Most of our energy use is more ‘essential’ than you think. Its not just a question of turning a few lights off…

    • I think I have to side with Leo Smith and David Korowicz on the issue of collapse vs decline.

      When discussing the issue of ‘how we will cope with long term adaptation to lower-energy inputs’, and people postulate things like you are – that we can have a sort of ‘downward trend’ sustainability adaptation, I am a bit puzzled.
      One does not simply ‘pause’ the march of civilization and somehow force an egalitarian mindset worldwide. There are going to be disruptions – disease, war, famine, dislocation, and worse – and the bigger societies and populations are, they are the harder they fall.

      I do not see what the point of most people’s existence will be given the hyper-complexified nature of modern society. Many people’s roles will simply evaporate and they will either not be able to feed themselves or have no job to do whatsoever. Many poor dependent on food subsidies worldwide will not get to work building eco-farms – they will depose their government and a state of chaos will ensue, igniting old tribal and ethnic conflicts that humanity is always one step away from. Breakdown is not pleasant or peaceful, and the adaptation will probably be too far-fetched for most entrenched in the current paradigm; as Gail says, “I’m not sure that people would even be willing to consider simple coal-operated trains, perhaps with the simplest wooden (or reprocessed metal) seats and doors, but that would seem to be the kind of thing that could work.”

      Office workers who depend on fossil-fuel supply lines to get their daily groceries are not going to build sustainable power grids when the system goes down. Only a few of us are even aware enough to be reading this blog and others and have a grasp of the situation. Instead these people are going to go out in the street and start thirsting for blood, in my recollection and intuition. A disruption in global hyper-financliazed interconnected lines of credit and supply is not a walk in the park – avoiding this outcome is the reason major OECD countries have been printing money and manipulating policies no matter how absurd – because behind the scenes they are aware that many angels are dancing on the head of this pin.

      So given the above reasons, you can see the problems I have with this assertion:

      “Renewables may work if industrial civilization partially breaks down, community comes to their senses and uses remaining industrial capacity and resources to build a minimal power network . This network could supply energy to core institutions and not much else. We would walk a lot and tend to our gardens.”

      Just about every part of that is highly assumptive, leading to a Utopian tone in your overall message. And above – why would people decide to power core institutions? So they can tend to their gardens and share organic produce all day while government bureaucrats still collect paychecks in their air conditioned offices processing our payment checks? The think that way implies a severe disconnection from reality. At best, the outcome will be something like the post-Soviet collapse as described by Orlov. But considering how unprepared we are, at least in the US – and how much bigger and more global the problem is now, I see an isolated adaptation to collapse being less and less plausible in most places. And let’s not pretend the massive drop in population, increase in crime and drug abuse as well as graft and underworld activity and other discomforts were a beneficial outcome in Russia.

  28. Don Stewart says:

    I would like to pose a question. David Korowicz makes the case for a very fast collapse based on some structural changes in markets such as the integration of global supply networks and the increased speed at which such networks function and the financialization of everything with fiat money. John Michael Greer continues to ridicule Korowicz’ conclusions because ‘nation states know what to do in a collapse’. He points to the collapse of Argentina, Russia in the early 90s, and the US in 1931-32.

    If we assume that ‘he who has the gold makes the rules’, and to make it a little more vivid, that the Republicans win in November and institute a gold standard. Who will have the gold and thus make the rules? The Petro States, of course. Beyond that we have institutions such as Apple and the Oil Companies. The heavily indebted OECD countries would not make the list at all. (While the US owns a lot of gold, it would not have enough to pay off its debts).

    I do believe that Apple, after a fumbling start, could negotiate a deal with their Chinese manufacturer and the Petro States and Exxon-Mobil and continue to provide some semblance of ITunes–provided they could keep the OECD governments out of the sand box. It would be difficult, but I suspect that the logistics could be worked out fairly quickly. What would fall on the cutting room floor would be all the stuff that governments do. We would not be talking about ‘the survival of Germany’, but about the ‘survival of Apple and its supply chain’.

    So the production side of the equation might continue to work surprisingly well. How about the consumption side? Here, my crystal ball is quite fuzzy. I suspect that the few consumers with any money will be those who are the princes in the Petro States and those who work for Apple and its suppliers and Exxon-Mobil and other oil companies. There is no question that huge numbers of people in the US would be unemployed (e.g., 90 percent of those involved in medical care).

    It seems to me that those who think that there can be no collapse because ‘nation states know what to do’ haven’t really thought through the obsolescence of nation states. Corporations do still enjoy commanding the armies that nation states can field (I read that NATO built bases in West Africa for the specific purpose of protecting western oil companies, and we all know about Dick Cheyney and Iraq), but corporations have and can still field mercenary armies if need be. The US military is increasingly reliant on contractors.

    It might be that we see the collapse of the OECD political apparatus and the collapse of transfer payments between segments of the population, but the survival of the corporate (or quasi-corporate in the form of the Petro States) system. I have described a very limited scenario to keep the example concrete. You can extend it to things like huge farms and Cargill and Monsanto and barge companies and Wal-Mart. My point is that given a medium of exchange based on some real asset (such as gold or oil or a menu of metals), supply chains could continue to function.

    What do you think?
    Don Stewart

    • I hadn’t thought about it that way. I guess it depends on the extent that the supply chains need the international financial system, and that the international financial system continues to work.

      As long as there are governments, there will likely be some local currencies, but there is nothing to guarantee interchangeability of local currencies.

      I expect central governments will shrivel in importance, or disappear altogether, in the manner of the Former Soviet Union. Social security, medicare, and the many other government programs are not fixable (without huge, huge cutbacks). Having people work until age 70 or 72 sounds like a fine idea, until a person stops to realize that there are not enough jobs to go around as it is. Raising the retirement age has the tendency to make the overall unemployment rate higher.

      • Don Stewart says:

        The reason I assumed a gold standard (or other medium of exchange and storage of value asset based on real wealth as opposed to fiat money) is that such a standard would make the corporations independent of government sponsored money.

        If governments survive, it might be necessary for the corporations to change some of the universal, real money into a local currency to pay taxes, but it seems that a non-fiat system gives the corporations plenty of freedom to behave the way they want to.

        Periodically you will see a story about ‘the 200 people who move the world’ or ‘the 20 people who really count in the world of fashion’ and other fields. I suspect one could assemble 200 selected people and quickly create a ‘new world order’ with an independent currency which they use to settle among themselves and with their suppliers. At the present time, such a gathering would expose them to US drone attacks. But if Korowicz’ scenarios take place, and governments are completely discredited, and governments can’t pay their bills or keep their promises, I can imagine that such a gathering might take place. Apple currently has far more money that the US government (Apple is solvent, the latter is not). Apple and its supply chain also have expertise that the government knows nothing about.

        In terms of expertise, the governments have been considerably hollowed out. I was working at the farm with a young man who is about to go to work for a company which reviews a certain category of patent applications and then tells the Patent Office whether the patent should be granted. So what, exactly, is the Patent Office doing other than rubber-stamping. I don’t think the militaries could build weapons. Ross Perot made his billions processing Medicare claims. So if the US government were to disappear, but we had a widely accepted form of money, exactly what would we have lost?

        Don Stewart

        • Leo Smith says:

          Hah Don if the US government vanished what would you have lost?

          A lot of debt and a few banks for starters. All those troughing politicians who snout at your expense. That’s on the plus side,.
          You would lose all the need to pay taxes to the federal government. But Id hazard a guess that you will pay nearly as much to the local warlord on a Harley Hog who will call himself ‘sheriff’ and demand payment with menaces. And take your daughter as collateral.

          On the minus side, a system of law and order. Now if you happen to have a cellar full of M16s and rifles you might consider that a positive too. Until Da Man drives up in his chevvy SUV with 30 of his chums all dressed up and ready to take you on for the bottles of beer and the tins of baked beans you also have in there.
          You would lose the prisons too.
          You would – in these parts – lose the roads too.
          There is sadly a lot of useful stuff in government – about 5% is actually well – pretty OK.
          You would have to bury all the people you shot protecting your property too. And buy more ammo somehow.

          • Don Stewart says:

            The US Federal Government is a minor player in law enforcement. The bulk of law enforcement is done at the local level, with some at the state level. So the disappearance of the nation state would not have much impact on the basic civility of the society.

            In general, it seems to me that those parts of government which are redistributing money, minting money, or making regulations would largely disappear in the crisis. I suspect that the bulk of the financial world would disappear. Corporations which have made promises to pay (e.g., insurance companies who have sold retirement plans) would disappear. Those corporations, and those parts of government, which are producing an actual product would tend to survive. It might be IPhones or garbage pick up by the city. As I remember Dmitry Orlov’s stories about Russia, those who had jobs producing something in a state owned corporation (public transit, electricity, police, etc.) tended to go to work even when they weren’t being paid because the Soviet government had collapsed.

            It is ironic that the ‘right wing’ in the US has long warned against the Elites desire to impose a single world currency. And yet, I hypothesize that if The Two Hundred do get together to keep things working after governments fall, then they will most likely anoint a single global currency. The fact that we have so many currencies today means that corporations in the supply chain spend quite a significant amount of money hedging currencies. With a single currency, a whole lot of the trillions of dollars of hedging would disappear. I also do not think there is much love lost between non-financial corporations and financial corporations. I imagine that a steelmaker views Wall Street as mostly blood-suckers. So if they could come up with a simple, real asset backed currency which applies worldwide, I think they would do it.

            Don Stewart

            • It is the fact that the currencies tend not to stay together that makes this not work–there is huge inflation in Zimbabwe or Greece, for example. In fact, it is part of what has made the Euro not work. Then countries would have to issue debt in this currency, if they did at all, just like the Euro. When they couldn’t pay, it would be obvious to all.

            • Don Stewart says:

              I admit this may be fantastic. But what I see is the collapse of the financial pyramid and the nation states. What remains standing will be supply chains which actually produce something. They may be shaken in the collapse, but I suspect they may survive if they take effective action.

              Let’s suppose that Volkswagen has a supplier doing business in Greece. If there is a universal currency used by Volkswagen and other major corporations and that currency is used to price each piece of the supply chain, then the supplier located in Greece would not be threatened by hyperinflation or deflation or default by the Greek government. They would be paying their workers, buying global supplies, and selling their product in the universal currency. We can think of it as pieces of gold–but there are practical problems with having enough gold.

              (Suppose such a universal currency were in place today and the supplier located in Greece could ignore Greek law and Greek money. Then if the government of Greece mismanages everything and there is rampant unemployment in Greece, then the supplier will reduce the wages of its workers. The result is similar to a devaluation of the Greek currency. It just happens without all the drama which surrounds government actions. Its like Wal-Mart treating its workers badly when it can get away with it or McDonald’s scheduling its workers for split shifts.)

              A better system would be for the corporations to set up a currency issued by a captive organization with rather limited goals–which would not include financial speculation or QE3 or bailing out banks or propping up nation states. The US was designated, in effect, to issue such a currency at Bretton Woods. But, especially since Nixon took us off the gold standard, the US performance has left a lot to be desired. The politicians in the US are quite capable of perverting the US dollar to serve their own re-election needs–and they really don’t care what happens to global supply chains.

              In short. We are probably headed for a financial armageddon. The global corporations are certainly not angels but they DO know how to produce goods and services with complex supply chains. Governments do not know how to do that. Neither do banks. Governments and banks, with the help of consumers, have largely created the financial mess. Therefore, I would not be shocked if, out of the chaos, something like a universal currency emerged. I guess my base case is still collapse of everything, but the notion that it might be possible to separate financial failure from physical failure is intriguing. (Keynes wrestled with this problem in the 1930s. How could it be that farmers were destroying wheat which they had already produced but could not afford to take to market because the price was so low? How could it be that the demand for oil collapsed so completely that it sold for around 2 dollars a barrel? And so the notion of issuing more money or reducing the cost of credit or other strictly financial maneuvers could possibly restore the functioning of the physical production system was born. Of course, at that time, many economies really were national. We no longer have truly national economies. We have global economies. My speculation is that establishing a reliable global monetary unit might help the physical side of the economy survive a financial collapse. And it would probably work better without nation states getting involved.)

              Don Stewart

              Don Stewart

            • Perhaps the major companies could band together and put together a currency for themselves and their supply lines.

              Wouldn’t you need a currency for the buyer of all of these goods as well? It seems like this is where the system would be likely to fall apart.

            • Don Stewart says:

              The way I visualize it, it is a universal currency. They use it within the supply chain (companies, employees) and it goes into wider circulation. The key point is that the currency is managed for the purpose of facilitating trade. The banks have a conflict of interest (in my opinion) in that they will always see more leverage as the royal road to a big bonus. Governments have a conflict of interest (in my opinion) in that they see money printing as a way to cheat and not actually have to tax in order to spend. Non-financial institutions are very much more capable of objectively managing a currency (through a jointly owned institution).

              If the government of Greece survives, it can issue currency. But in my scenario, they would lose their monopoly over currency. And good money drives out bad money. So I would expect the universal currency to soon dominate serious trade.

              Don Stewart

        • I think the issue even with a gold standard is that you really need a country or some issuer to back it up, unless users of the currency can trust each other.There is only a relatively tiny amount of gold in the world, so it is not like the gold itself could change hands.

          I know that in David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years, temples kept tabs for those who bought and sold things there. I forget if he said what they were denominated in–gold, or bushels of wheat, or some similar thing. But here again, there was an issuer involved.

          Part of the problem with a currency is “holding value”. This works OK if the world is more or less level, or if things are getting better. If things are getting worse, the money you have today will buy less tomorrow. Perhaps that is just inflation–we can just expect it to get worse with time.

  29. Tony Weddle says:

    There seems to be a distinct split between energy use growth and GDP growth from the 1970-1980 period, onwards. Prior to that, the two figures were much closer. Is there any sense of what caused that? Either a one-off efficiency improvement or the start of modifications to how GDP (and the related inflation) is calculated in various big economies?

    • Leo Smith says:

      As far as the West is concerned that time frame is marked by a massive explosion in credit and debt and in particular CONSUMER credit and debt..and the creation of a consumer economy based on ‘buy today pay tomorrow’ to the extent that many people now consider that ‘tomorrow has finally arrived’ and we are paying for it. 🙂

      Its easy enough to increase GDP. Print money and give it to people to spend. They will. Until suddenly they get worried about debt and start using it to pay off the debt instead.

      Also marked by a transition away from manufacturing towards service industry in the developed economies.
      At the end of 18th century most people worked on the land and lived in a village.
      At the end of the 19th century most people worked in a factory and lived in a town.
      At the end of the 20th century most people worked in an office. and lived in a city or suburbs thereof.

      (agreed these are VERY broad brush strokes indeed, and only meant to convey a very fuzzy picture of general trends in Western society.)

      A friend joked ‘and by the end of the 21st century most people will work in healthcare and live in a care home’ – extrapolating the number of old people and the increasing amount of things you can do to keep them healthy, if somewhat miserable and depressed, for years beyond their ‘natural’ sell by dates.

      • Bogwood says:

        Visiting with my 99 year old mother in a care home, I think of it somewhat metaphorically. Staff arrive in overly engineered cars,average annual cost 8000 dollars(AAA). They live in overly engineered homes (more thousands of dollars). Neither the cars or the homes are otherwise productive. Assisted living is not supportable. Many activities such as childcare and eldercare should never have been financialized. Agree that it is not an economic model for the future. The image of disposable plastic water bottles comes to mind. The expensive convenient option which should be rejected. The whole concept of a job has to be re-examined. The assisted living staff survive only in a economy of continuing debt, this type of job will return to the family or tribe.

    • That is a good question. One of the issues is how real GDP is calculated. It is based on taking total growth and backing out the impact of inflation. Governments figured out that if they “low-balled” the inflation estimate, they could make reported GDP look better. This is a major reason for Shadow Stats website in the US. Their adjustments go back to 1980.

      Another issue is the growth of the service economy, including the financial economy and medicine. These don’t take as much energy as making more goods, so as long as the service industries are growing rapidly, they can add to GDP. Of course, if we have to go back to basics, it would seem like these would be first to shrink. At one point I had an article from the WSJ saying that there had been a shift in growth from services to goods–if people had to cut back, they were cutting back on services first.

      There may be a little efficiency gain as well, and some standard of living gain as well, much of it fueled by debt.

  30. Mark N says:

    ““Cheap” is a very important characteristic of fuels to buyers.”

    “Cheap” in my mind is why fossil fuels transformed the world. I have heard there is the equivalent of 35,000 man hours of physical labor in on barrel of oil. Oil being so much cheaper than human labor enabled a massive amount of economic growth and population growth.

    Modern economic systems took advantage of this seemingly limitless growth to issue credit enabling humans to allocate resources from the future to the present; fanning the flames of growth to even more amazing heights.

    The problem now is how do we back down the great tower we have built to the heavens now that the “cheap” is just about gone? We are like a lottery winner who bought a splendid mansion with his winnings unaware of the high real estate taxes and overhead of owning a mansion. We will soon find out how hard it is to maintain a lifestyle that was built on the assumption of cheap fuels.

    Great post Gail, I always look forward to new articles here.

    • We are like a lottery winner who bought a splendid mansion with his winnings unaware of the high real estate taxes and overhead of owning a mansion. We will soon find out how hard it is to maintain a lifestyle that was built on the assumption of cheap fuels.

      That is a good way of putting the situation!

  31. Ikonoclast says:

    It is a matter of simple deduction to demonstrate that the human global economy must eventually run solely on renewable and ubiquitous resources. In addition, the waste generation associated with resource use and production must be fully assimilable and degradable. All waste must be absorbed and recycled by the earth’s natural systems without significant damage to the biosphere or to ecosystems. Some resources, like fossil fuels, cannot be safely used up in their entirety due to the long term damage they will do to biosphere systems like the climate. All non-renewable or limited and non-ubiquitous resources will dwindle and peter out if their use continues. Recycling of materials can ameliorate this problem but recycling never recaptures 100% of the material in question. Some proportion is always lost and dispersed in unrecoverable quantities.

    The above considerations prove irrefutably that only renewable and ubiquitous resources offer humanity any long term prospects for maintaining global civilization. This is whilst terrestrial and solar conditions remain sufficiently benign for human civilization to continue. A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability to reproduce through biological processes or replenish through natural processes over time and in any reasonable terrestrial time scale. Resources which will eventually fail after vast periods of time, e.g. solar power when the sun explodes or fails, are considered renewable resources for all practical purposes.

    Ubiquitous Resources are found everywhere and in large quantities. Key examples of ubiquitous resources on earth are solar energy, visible light, air, water, oxygen, silicon (as silica), nitrogen, carbon, sodium, chlorine, calcium and some others. We might add items like cellulose, carbohydrates, starches etc. from plants. Many useful bacteria might also be termed ubiquitous resources. Not all of these items (where they are elements) are available in their free state. The graph of elemental abundances in the biosphere and crust of earth is some guide to this. However, even some abundant elements (like iron) are not economically recoverable except at specific locations. All such elements along with the rarer elements are correctly termed localized resources.

    Seawater is a good source of key ubiquitous resources if sufficient energy is available to extract them. “The four most concentrated metal ions, Na+, Mg2+, Ca2+, and K+, are the only ones commercially extractable today, with the least concentrated of the four being potassium (K) at 400 parts per million (ppm). Below potassium, we go down to lithium which has never been extracted in commercial amounts from seawater, with a concentration of 0.17 ppm. Other dissolved metal ions exist at lower concentrations, sometimes several orders of magnitude lower. None has ever been commercially extracted.” – Ugo Bardi, The Oildrum. Chlorine is also extracted from seawater or more precisely from treated brine. It is clear that Na+, Mg2+, Ca2+, and K+ can also be economically extracted at that time.

    Localized Resources are only found in recoverable quantities in certain limited parts of the world (e.g., copper and iron ore). These localized resources are limited (though in some cases the limits are quite large) and non-renewable. Eventually all economically recoverable, limited localised resources will apparently be substantially exhausted and scattered. Substitutions for many of these are feasible. For example iron (for steel) and also aluminium for construction can both be substituted with carbon fibre and glass fibre reinforced polymers. The carbon and silica are ubiquitous resources. Epoxy (the most common polymer) needs propene (also known as propylene or methyl ethylene) and chlorine as the basic feed stocks for manufacture.

    We have already seen that chlorine is a ubiquitous resource given adequate energy for extraction. Propene is currently produced from fossil fuels—petroleum, natural gas, and, to a much lesser extent, coal. If these fossil fuels are conserved for industrial feed stocks rather than wasted by burning them then propene production for epoxy is assured for a very long but not indefinite time. In the distant future, should all fossil fuels be used up for feed stocks, synthesis of propene from cellulose or pure charcoal from sustainable forests or from inorganic carbon sources like limestone, dolomites and carbon dioxide might be possible. Large quantities of energy would be required. Recycling of waste carbon fibre epoxies would have to occur probably through high temperature furnaces achieving complete combustion and producing useful energy.

    Some metals would seem to be needed indefinitely for the maintenance of a high technology society. For example, iron, copper and aluminium would seem to be needed for as long as a high technology electrical economy would continue (not to mention lithium, zinc and neodymium). I am not sure how this supply of metals can be maintained indefinitely given the exhaustible nature of these resources, their non-ubiquitous nature in practical recovery terms and their slow dispersal given the impossibility of 100% effective recycling. How do we eventually make electrical machinery (generators, motors, transformers, inverters, transmission lines etc.) without metals? That is a question to exercise our minds but it might be solvable in the future by advances in carbon, silicon and polymer technology along with nano-engineering applications. It’s hard to know at this stage. Alternatively can iron, copper and aluminium etc. be recovered indefinitely in a sustainable, renewable, ubiquitous fashion?

    • Leo Smith says:

      “It is a matter of simple deduction to demonstrate that the human global economy must eventually run solely on renewable and ubiquitous resources.”

      ROFLMAO. That one brightened up my whole morning.

      No energy- or as another poster has termed it better : exergy – exists that is renewable, so whatever it is that leads you to the conclusion, simple or not, it is not deduction. Or if it is its based on false assumptions.

      “A renewable resource is a natural resource with the ability to reproduce through biological processes or replenish through natural processes over time and in any reasonable terrestrial time scale.”

      That presumably means the ‘natural’ (but dangerous and unshielded) fusion reactor in the sky then?

      There is only one source of energy in the Universe and its fundamentally nuclear, and its not renewable.

      “Ubiquitous Resources are found everywhere and in large quantities.” Like fusible hydrogen and thorium and uranium and deuterium. Got it!

      The problem with people who think like you – in terms of linear time stretching out for eternity, of ‘renewable’ solutions that work for eternity, of cornucopian human races that last forever, is that the world is simply not like that. Every age takes the pollution of the previous one and builds something new, flourishing and then collapsing back as it poisons itself. Early earth with sulphur carbon dioxide and so on created bacteria to process this into organic chemicals in volcano plumes. Later, bacteria developed the ability to tun off sunlight, and life spread to the earth’s surface. Then came plantlike things, that took carbon dioxide and water (in a strangely cool world, considering the amount of carbon dioxide) and made oxygen: A poisonous waste product that eventually strangled the life out of the bigger plants, but gave rise to the possibility of high energy ‘carrion eaters’ that fed on dead plant material and were wholly unable to process the nuclear sunlight directly. Eventually they got round to feeding not in dead plant material but on living plant material and ultimately on each other, and the unstable dynamic seesaw of predator prey relationships took over as the dominant dynamic of what we call the ecosphere.

      Not one part of which ever stays the same over any time scale or is in any way ‘renewable’ As resources become available in terms of some other species pollutants, life forms become able to process it and adapt to it and utilises it to transform the eco sphere along to the next phase. Humanity has discovered and utilised the detritus – the carrion – of old plant material that never got properly recycled, and we have recycled it back into water and carbon dioxide, which is what the plants wanted all along.

      When it runs out the numbers of us that depend on it will die, because that niche is exhausted. Niches are there to be exhausted. Niches always do get exhausted. Unless you are a religious person who thinks the universe was created by an anthropic Genius with your existence clearly in mind as an end-goal (which seems to be the underlying implicit understanding that you have of the world) the ‘natural’ thing is to realise your existence as a useless consumer of goods and a producer of more consumers is simply to process the fossil fuel reserves of the planet back into plant-food. The logical deduction is that man is therefore doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and burning up resources as fast as he can in an entirely natural part of the ecosphere. In fact we should concentrate on doing it faster so we can then collapse back in the full knowledge that our job is done and there world has been restored to a different balance heavily in favour of more plant life!

      This is therefore the simple logical deduction that we can make. The burning of fossil fuels by a species that can, is both entirely natural and highly desirable, to allow plants to once again flourish mightily, as is their manifest natural destiny.

      Its amazing what different conclusions simple logical deduction can reach if you change the premises on which it is based. All you have to do is stop seeing humanity as some sort of divinely created exception to natural law, equipped with a morality that is god given, and see it simply as just another grubby little species exploiting a resource that happens to be there, and the picture changes completely.

      And by doing that the artificial distinction between man made and natural vanishes. WE cannot but be natural. There can be no morally superior ‘natural’ process that is somehow better than ‘man made ‘ ones. There are only processes and choices, some of which lead to human life being more plentiful and many of which lead to less.

      The real question is whether or not the portion of humanity that is infused with spiritual arrogance and thinks it has a god given right to exist, forever, and where the understanding of the implication of its choices is only dimply perceived through the transformation of it into some sort of moral guilt, is the portion most likely to survive. Or whether the portion of humanity that simple accepts the way the world is, and uses it, is the portion that will survive.

      Did the great plants of the Carboniferous era suffer moral guilt over pumping out all that oxygen? And laying down all that carbon ? Did some Ikonoklast plant have the dim idea that doing this would lead to the demise of Carboniferous plants? and the rise of some grubby little species that would in the end breathe all that oxygen, and better still, burn all the coal, to return the planet to a sort of pre animalian paradise?

      Sheesh dude. Go and learn some critical thinking, and start examining the premises on which your ‘simple logical deductions’ are based. Thinking is supposed to be a tool that helps with survival. If you want to have it create an imaginary world of half baked concepts and dreamy fantasies, that entirely possible, but please don’t drag the rest of the species along the same path. Or perhaps do, because that ultimately is what will ensure the demise of stupidity, and the survival of smart people.

      The sun takes a “Ubiquitous Resource , found everywhere and in large quantities.” called hydrogen, and processes it into energy by nuclear reactions. And a waste product called Helium, which will eventually kill it. It does this in a totally non renewable way. Once the hydrogen is gone, it will puff up and eventually die. It may or may not then get sucked into some other galactic mass and end up becoming a supernova, which will again in a totally non renewable way explode in a giant fusion reaction creating lots of other elements that will form other newer planetary systems, on which of they too have a proper fusion reactor at their centre, will possibly develop life that will consider that it’s existence, and it’s alone, is the sole purpose of the Universe. It wont honestly make much difference one way or the other what it thinks. It will exist, gobble up what resources it finds, because it can, all the while marvelling at how uniquely suitable the Universe is for its existence (rather than reflecting on the fact that its existence is solely down to the way the Universe happens to be) and eventually pass away too when they run out. And seeing its own moment in time as a state of affairs that is not only eternal, but rightly so, and continuing to draw straight lines on a universe of a very knobbly shape, and calling it ‘reality, for all Time’.

      Simple deductions, indeed. Very simple. Far TOO simple.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Leo, you launched a long criticism against my post. Your diatribe was not well thought through. In your haste to deride me, your key criticism misses the fact that I made the same point myself. You say;

        “The problem with people who think like you – in terms of linear time stretching out for eternity, of ‘renewable’ solutions that work for eternity, of cornucopian human races that last forever, is that the world is simply not like that.”

        However, I specifically mentioned that the sun will indeed explode or fail eventually. I also carefully qualïfied what “renewable” meant for the purposes of the discussion. I said;

        “Resources which will eventually fail after vast periods of time, e.g. solar power when the sun explodes or fails, are considered renewable resources for all practical purposes.”

        You seem to assume I am a religious person or somehow think like a religious person. I am not a religious person. There was nothing in my post which indicated that I thought mankind was special, or the creation of an anthropomorphic god or was not part of nature. These are all your projected assumptions and they are all false. They are the faults you wished to find in me so that you could pour the maximum scorn and ridicule possible; an activity in which you seem to delight.

        It might surprise you that I am also capable of thinking of things in the light in which you put them; successions of species, exhaustion of niches etc. None of your thoughts in this area are new to me. Don’t believe that you are especially imaginative or unique for entertaining these thoughts. I long ago joked to friends that humans are simply carbon termites and one of our major lasting effects in biosphere evolution terms might be to re-liberate much of the carbon locked away in what we now call fossil fuels.

        If you have nothing worthwhile to say by way of constructive criticism or valid points and if you cannot make your points courteously then you had best not post at all. You do yourself no favours by displaying youself in this light.

        • Try overlooking the parts that don’t apply. My impression is that Leo was trying to answer the question more generally, not to point out that particular flaw in your argument.

      • Can you recommend a book or two on what I would call the long-term natural cycle? The climate keeps cycling, and so does everything else. This is something that people have lost sight of.

        • Leo Smith says:

          If one has been written I don’t know if it.

          My own understanding of the nature of feedback in linear and non linear systems comes out of doing analogue electronics design in the 70’s We simply knew that various feedbacks produce oscillatory and massive random chaotic behaviour (usually accompanied by a smell of burning).

          Such analysis as there then was was mostly concerned in how to avoid those areas and keep things in the predictable linear portion of the modelling.

          It was the same in aeronautics and fluid mechanics. One didn’t anayse turbulent flow and vortex generation one learnt how to avoid it.

          Only with the advent of cheap computing and the work of the maths guys – Mandelbrot and so on – did people have the tools and the ability to start to understand the shape of what turned out to be very simple differential equations that produced massively complex results when intergated , like the mandlebrot set.

          The mathematics is generally called chaos mathematics. That’s not too hard to grasp at its fundamental level though a lot of books get carried away into specialised notation and so on.

          I had, but cant locate, a fairly good one. If you are reasonably au fait with partial differential equations and basic topology its not that hard to grasp what its about – doing it is in some ways much easier. Derive the differentials and plug them into a computer and let it chug away.

          When i was looking this up earlier there’s a LOT been done by the serious ecology boys – II dont mean the eejits who wrote for popular medias and appear on TV talking about the environment, I mean the guys who go out into the wild with laptops and butterfly nets and sample populations of this and that over periods and then try to work out the effect of – say – removing half the hatatat would be.

          Climatoligists – real ones as opposed to those who bow down to the Carbon Dyed Oxhide god – are also people who have gone further into this than most, or perhaps meteorologists.

          The problem with chaos theory is that like so much 20th century maths philosophy and science, it doesn’t tell you what you can do, it tells you what you cant. Huge areas of knowledge are now definitely proven to need marking with ‘here there be Tygers’ other words enter at your own risk. Taleb’s ‘The Black Swan’ is a reasonably good run through of part of that ‘limits to knowledge’ area.

          I’ve even had a stab at putting the ideas over myself. Essentially that not only is future prediction an theoretically highly uncertain game it will always BE an uncertain game, and therefore we are being extremely naive to expect that the future will conform to our expectations .

          Which means that planning exhaustively for it is also pointless and a waste of money. Its better to ‘Be Prepared’ with contingency plans that e,g. implement a policy that attempts to stop global warming at huge expense only to find the next ice age has started.

          I suppose on a personal; note that’s why I get extremely irritated by people who have small knowledge of these things and regard the world in simplistic linear terms. A sort of 19th century view that ‘in 20 years physics will have discovered everything’ . Heisenberg, Turing, Godel, Mandlebrot, all tackling hard problems and telling us not the answer, but that there there was no answer.

          My broad conclusion for what its worth is that the failure of science comes in three flavours, which may be worth consideration.

          1/. At a philosophical level, all science is the construction of arbitrary models that produce predictions that fit the observed data. No more and no less. They have zero truth content. Two entirely different models may in fact fit the same set of data. If there is no data beyond that we have no way of deciding between them, which if either, is true. In practice we use Occams Razor, which isn’t about truth, its about convenience. This point has corollaries:
          – if we extrapolate the theory beyond the data points we have, all bets are off. That in general is how theories are refuted. By failing to live up to expectations. Cf Karl Popper ‘conjectures and refutations’ Also Talebs Black swan, Just because all you have seen are white swans doesn’t mean a black one doesn’t exist. etc. And wont peck you on the pecker.

          “You only ever know when you are wrong, not when you are right..”

          2/. Once you have a correct theory, (although you can never prove its correct, just that it works) you still may not be able to use it to predict anything of value. You are probably familiar with the ‘butterfly effect’ . In short some mathematical models are so sensitive to the data, that starting from a very slightly different ‘now’ than what is really there, leads to a completely different future outcome. I like to explain this in terms of the small gust of wind that shifts the snipers bullet to just graze the president’s head instead of exploding his brain. Taleb makes this point rather forcefully ‘more stock market changes are down to the unexpected singular event than the accumulation of all the expected and analysed events. One Katrina or one 911 does more to the markets than 10 years of ‘steady growth’ etc.

          “Even if you are right, it may not actually be of any use”

          3/. Finally even if we have the right theory and we know that we have the right data, it still may be no use to us for a slightly different reason. The actual process of unrolling whatever law we think we have found – essentially an expression of a time derivative of what we want to know against the time values of parameters we can and have measured accurately – the actual mathematical solutions may be simply incalculable. We can in fact use information theory to show that if we want to predict the future of the universe exactly, we need a computer the same size as the universe running at the same speed as the universe runs, or faster..

          And this is something I wrote for a political party, who of course ignored ot

          “After about 400 years of relatively stable climate and economic resource development, during
          which time the limits of simple linear analytic modelling of the world achieved remarkable results in improving the human conditions in almost every way, the 21st century represents a reversion to a much more complex situation, in which the simple analytical models will break down, because they are not sufficiently comprehensive, and even where the models turn out to be accurate, they may be useless on account of the mathematics being impossible to solve, or so
          sensitive that you might as well toss a coin.

          Political solutions must either seek to restrict humanity to that which can be analysed and
          controlled and pay a heavy price in terms of efficiency and speed of response to the new, or
          they must humbly respect that the future cannot be second guessed and revert to a reactive
          mode, where problems are dealt with at a variety of levels.”

          (there is a reference there to another piece of systems analysis, that broadly says the more accuracy you want, the bigger price you pay in terms of efficiency and the slower the system will respond to changes without going unstable on you. )

          But the broad thrust of that, based on the mathematics science and philosophy of the 20th century is that second guessing the future is a mugs game by and large. And that its the height of folly to commit resources to things that may never happen. Especially if it reduces the possibility of responding to the things that actually do end up happening.

          Its also possible to show using systems analysis why Big State Centrist governments are and MUST be woefully inefficient – they are the massive feedback that has to be slow to respond to change, and because of the necessary delays and path lengths between problems at local levels and solutions imposed by centralised bureaucracies, they are utterly unable to respond to changing conditions.

          But I digress.

          In all its a long winded way of saying ‘there are not the answers that you seek. there are only reasons why most of the answers have not been and cannot be found sufficiently well to be of use’

          Which is why we don’t put letters in bottles and throw them in the sea in the certain knowledge that the recipient we seek will at the right moment be walking along a beach in Tahiti… if we want a reliable delivery system, a plane is better. (If more expensive and less ‘renewable’)

          Anyway the best IO can do is this

          Which looks right up my street anyway, but you had better skim it and if its up yours 🙂

          • Thanks for the information. I am at least a little acquainted with chaos theory. I started reading some of Mandelbrot’s writings a long time ago.

            Part of what I was thinking about was just the historical situation as you outlined it:

            Every age takes the pollution of the previous one and builds something new, flourishing and then collapsing back as it poisons itself. Early earth with sulphur carbon dioxide and so on created bacteria to process this into organic chemicals in volcano plumes. Later, bacteria developed the ability to tun off sunlight, and life spread to the earth’s surface. Then came plantlike things, that took carbon dioxide and water (in a strangely cool world, considering the amount of carbon dioxide) and made oxygen: A poisonous waste product that eventually strangled the life out of the bigger plants, but gave rise to the possibility of high energy ‘carrion eaters’ that fed on dead plant material and were wholly unable to process the nuclear sunlight directly. Eventually they got round to feeding not in dead plant material but on living plant material and ultimately on each other, and the unstable dynamic seesaw of predator prey relationships took over as the dominant dynamic of what we call the ecosphere.

            Not one part of which ever stays the same over any time scale or is in any way ‘renewable’ As resources become available in terms of some other species pollutants, life forms become able to process it and adapt to it and utilises it to transform the eco sphere along to the next phase. Humanity has discovered and utilised the detritus – the carrion – of old plant material that never got properly recycled, and we have recycled it back into water and carbon dioxide, which is what the plants wanted all along.

            When it runs out the numbers of us that depend on it will die, because that niche is exhausted. Niches are there to be exhausted. Niches always do get exhausted. Unless you are a religious person who thinks the universe was created by an anthropic Genius with your existence clearly in mind as an end-goal (which seems to be the underlying implicit understanding that you have of the world) the ‘natural’ thing is to realise your existence as a useless consumer of goods and a producer of more consumers is simply to process the fossil fuel reserves of the planet back into plant-food. The logical deduction is that man is therefore doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing, and burning up resources as fast as he can in an entirely natural part of the ecosphere. In fact we should concentrate on doing it faster so we can then collapse back in the full knowledge that our job is done and there world has been restored to a different balance heavily in favour of more plant life!

            This is therefore the simple logical deduction that we can make. The burning of fossil fuels by a species that can, is both entirely natural and highly desirable, to allow plants to once again flourish mightily, as is their manifest natural destiny.

            Does someone expand on these issues, particularly in the first paragraph of yours I quoted?

            By the way, I am to some extent connected up with the ecology group. I am acquainted with Jim Brown of the University of Mexico who is a co-author on this recent paper from Nature: Approaching a State Shift in the World’s Bioshpere.

        • Michael Lloyd says:


          You could try the book I mentioned previously on Oxygen: the molecule that made the world. That was recommended to me by Ugo Bardi.

          You might also try the Ages of Gaia by James Lovelock.

          I am somewhat dubious about ‘natural cycles’, particularly for climate. Over a long timescale the Sun will increase in intensity, continents move, the Earth orbit changes as does it’s tilt. Then there are odd events such as relatively rapid global warming, for example the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I think that’s a balanced (sic!) view. ‘cycles’ is something that is simple to understand and so is ‘balance’ and ‘equilibrium’ . Being simple to understand however doesn’t make for good analysis (but is handy when peddling concepts in marketing).

            In reality the ecosystem is hugely complex with many independent variables many of which we probably haven’t identified. Let alone correctly incorporated into a reliable model of climate or any other ecological variable of interest. And then there is inherent negative feedback in the system : There has to be or it would not be as stable as it is.

            That means that you can get periodicity in two ways – as a result of the periodic variation of something that influences the ecosphere – like orbital variation and so on, and also from the time delay in any internal feedback paths in the ecosphere like hot earth means hots seas later, means warm water saturated air later still.means clouds form (cooling earth) and rain falls (cooling earth more ) etc etc. Those delays will introduce also some element of periodicity as well.

            So that’s where you CAN find approximate periodicity. BUT the problem is that when the feedbacks paths get numerous enough and the number of actual drivers gets enough and the feedback gets great enough you end up with so many different periods emerging that its hard to say more than ‘its chaotic behaviour, if not theoretically, for all practical purposes’. And at that point all hope of accurate prediction is virtually gone.

            Stick some non linear systems in there as well, and frankly you might as well roll a pair of dice.

            I am blatantly copying something read on a skeptics blog, because it is a massively good summary of the huge complexity that some of us see in analysing the ecosphere. We cannot see how anyone let alone the so called climate scientists can be as sure as they claim to be when this is how we see the reality

            It dissusses AGW, yet it might be discussing almost any other aspect of the ecosystem.
            “Let me tell you in a few short words why I am a skeptic. First of all, if one examines the complete geological record of global temperature variation on planet Earth (as best as we can reconstruct it) not just over the last 200 years but over the last 25 million years, over the last billion years — one learns that there is absolutely nothing remarkable about today’s temperatures! Seriously. Not one human being on the planet would look at that complete record — or even the complete record of temperatures during the Holocene, or the Pliestocene — and stab down their finger at the present and go “Oh no!”. Quite the contrary. It isn’t the warmest. It isn’t close to the warmest. It isn’t the warmest in the last 2 or 3 thousand years. It isn’t warming the fastest. It isn’t doing anything that can be resolved from the natural statistical variation of the data. Indeed, now that Mann’s utterly fallacious hockey stick reconstruction has been re-reconstructed with the LIA* and MWP** restored, it isn’t even remarkable in the last thousand years!

            Furthermore, examination of this record over the last 5 million years reveals a sobering fact. We are in an ice age, where the Earth spends 80 to 90% of its geological time in the grip of vast ice sheets that cover the polar latitudes well down into what is currently the temperate zone. We are at the (probable) end of the Holocene, the interglacial in which humans emerged all the way from tribal hunter-gatherers to modern civilization. The Earth’s climate is manifestly, empirically bistable, with a warm phase and cold phase, and the cold phase is both more likely and more stable. As a physicist who has extensively studied bistable open systems, this empirical result clearly visible in the data has profound implications. The fact that the LIA was the coldest point in the entire Holocene (which has been systematically cooling from the Holocene Optimum on) is also worrisome. Decades are irrelevant on the scale of these changes. Centuries are barely relevant. We are nowhere near the warmest, but the coldest century in the last 10,000 years ended a mere 300 years ago, and corresponded almost perfectly with the Maunder minimum in solar activity.

            There is absolutely no evidence in this historical record of a third stable warm phase that might be associated with a “tipping point” and hence “catastrophe” (in the specific mathematical sense of catastrophe, a first order phase transition to a new stable phase). It has been far warmer in the past without tipping into this phase. If anything, we are geologically approaching the point where the Earth is likely to tip the other way, into the phase that we know is there — the cold phase. A cold phase transition, which the historical record indicates can occur quite rapidly with large secular temperature changes on a decadal time scale, would truly be a catastrophe. Even if “catastrophic” AGW is correct and we do warm another 3 C over the next century, if it stabilized the Earth in warm phase and prevented or delayed the Earth’s transition into cold phase it would be worth it because the cold phase transition would kill billions of people, quite rapidly, as crops failed throughout the temperate breadbasket of the world.

            Now let us try to analyze the modern era bearing in mind the evidence of an utterly unremarkable present. To begin with, we need a model that predicts the swings of glaciation and interglacials. Lacking this, we cannot predict the temperature that we should have outside for any given baseline concentration of CO_2, nor can we resolve variations in this baseline due to things other than CO_2 from that due to CO_2. We don’t have any such thing. We don’t have anything close to this. We cannot predict, or explain after the fact, the huge (by comparison with the present) secular variations in temperature observed over the last 20,000 years, let alone the last 5 million or 25 million or billion. We do not understand the forces that set the baseline “thermostat” for the Earth before any modulation due to anthropogenic CO_2, and hence we have no idea if those forces are naturally warming or cooling the Earth as a trend that has to be accounted for before assigning the “anthropogenic” component of any warming.

            This is a hard problem. Not settled science, not well understood, not understood. There are theories and models (and as a theorist, I just love to tell stories) but there aren’t any particularly successful theories or models and there is a lot of competition between the stories (none of which agree with or predict the empirical data particularly well, at best agreeing with some gross features but not others). One part of the difficulty is that the Earth is a highly multivariate and chaotic driven/open system with complex nonlinear coupling between all of its many drivers, and with anything but a regular surface. If one tried to actually write “the” partial differential equation for the global climate system, it would be a set of coupled Navier-Stokes equations with unbelievably nasty nonlinear coupling terms — if one can actually include the physics of the water and carbon cycles in the N-S equations at all. It is, quite literally, the most difficult problem in mathematical physics we have ever attempted to solve or understand! Global Climate Models are children’s toys in comparison to the actual underlying complexity, especially when (as noted) the major drivers setting the baseline behavior are not well understood or quantitatively available.

            The truth of this is revealed in the lack of skill in the GCMs. They utterly failed to predict the last 13 or 14 years of flat to descending global temperatures, for example, although naturally one can go back and tweak parameters and make them fit it now, after the fact. And every year that passes without significant warming should be rigorously lowering the climate sensitivity and projected AGW, making the probability of the “C” increasingingly remote.

            These are all (in my opinion) good reasons to be skeptical of the often egregious claims of CAGW. Another reason is the exact opposite of the reason you used “denier” in your article. The actual scientific question has long since been co-opted by the social and political one. The real reason you used the term is revealed even in your response — we all “should” be doing this and that whether or not there is a real risk of “catastrophe”. In particular, we “should” be using less fossil fuel, working to preserve the environment, and so on.

            The problem with this “end justifies the means” argument — where the means involved is the abhorrent use of a pejorative descriptor to devalue the arguers of alternative points of view rather than their arguments at the political and social level — is that it is as close to absolute evil in social and public discourse as it is possible to get. I strongly suggest that you read Feynman’s rather famous “Cargo Cult” talk:


            In particular, I quote:

            For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing–and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.

            One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

            I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

            Time for a bit of soul-searching, Dr. Bain. Have you come even close to living up to the standards laid out by Richard Feynman? Is this sort of honesty apparent anywhere in the global climate debate? Did the “Hockey Team” embrace this sort of honesty in the infamous Climategate emails? Do the IPCC reports ever seem to present the counter arguments, or do they carefully avoid showing pictures of the 20,000 year thermal record, preferring instead Mann’s hockey stick because it increases the alarmism (and hence political impact of the report)? Does the term “denier” have any place in any scientific paper ever published given Feynman’s rather simple criterion for scientific honesty?

            And finally, how dare you presume to make choices for me, for my relatives, for my friends, for all of the people of the world, but concealing information from them so that they make a choice to allocate resources the way you think they should be allocated, just like the dishonest astronomer of his example. Yes, the price of honesty might be that people don’t choose to support your work. Tough. It is their money, and their choice!

            Sadly, it is all too likely that this is precisely what is at stake in climate research. If there is no threat of catastrophe — and as I said, prior to the hockey stick nobody had the slightest bit of luck convincing anyone that the sky was falling because global climate today is geologically unremarkable in every single way except that we happen to be living in it instead of analyzing it in a geological record — then there is little incentive to fund the enormous amount of work being done on climate science. There is even less incentive to spend trillions of dollars of other people’s money (and some of our own) to ameliorate a “threat” that might well be pure moonshine, quite possibly ignoring an even greater threat of movement in the exact opposite direction to the one the IPCC anticipates.

            Why am I a skeptic? Because I recognize the true degree of our ignorance in addressing this supremely difficult problem, while at the same time as a mere citizen I weigh civilization and its benefits against draconian energy austerity on the basis of no actual evidence that global climate is in any way behaving unusually on a geological time scale.

            For shame.

            And there you have it. The more you know about the types of mathematics that really DO apply to analysing the ecosphere and the more you understand the number of possible drivers, some of which we certainly dont even know exist and even with the ones we do know, the exact effects are extremely hard to quantify, then the more we are inclined to say ‘just draw a random wiggly line – it wont be any less accurate than any prediction we might make with these models.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              I am not a scientist, but I am, like a great many others, a parent with concerns for my family’s wellbeing when it comes to climate change. With that in mind, I have been following the issue for some considerable time and have seen many posts such as Leo Smith’s one. They sound good, until one investigates a bit deeper. Then the doubts arise.

              I am not qualified to counter all of Leo Smith’s points, but I know that anyone who is now in doubt about climate change after reading them should visit, where they will find most if not all of them rebutted. I will, however, give my perspective on some of of them:

              In a recent post he stated; “Well it makes a change from letting Greenpeace write huge chunks of the IPCC reports on global warmiong” (copied and pasted, hence the typo, of which we are all capable, me especially). That is incorrect and he must surely know it. If the IPCC did happen to include “huge chunks” of Greenpeace material, the deniers would be out in force. The IPCC is simply an appraisal of the peer reviewed science to date. If it were anything else, it would be pounced upon. It is this body of scientific evidence that tells us that we have a problem. It is the fact that 97% of the world’s climate scientists are in agreement that we have a problem that confirms it. Personally, I find it a bit much to accuse people like James Hansen of lying in order to get research funds.

              In another post he makes the comment: ”(in a strangely cool world, considering the amount of carbon dioxide)” when discussing pre-historic conditions. This coolness is explained in large part by the fact that the sun was a lot cooler back then (up to 30% cooler). Mention of that fact would have rather ruined the object of the comment though.

              In this post we get, among a whole lot of others: “”the infamous Climategate emails? This leads me to think that he hasn’t really bothered to study the matter. One wonders if it is a case of “Don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind is made up.”The emails in question have been investigated by numerous authorities and the only criticism leveled was a reluctance to fully disclose a small amount of information. I assume that he is above resorting to dishonesty, especially having turned to Feynman for support. There was no doubt concerning the integrity of the authors of the emails, so the term ‘infamous’ is inappropriate.

              Leo is incorrect when he says that there has been a hiatus in air temperature rise. 2011 was as hot as 2005, which was only narrowly cooler that 1998, which was the hottest mainly due to a massive El Niño. Since then we have had a series of La Niña events which tend to put the heat into the oceans and as one would expect, the ocean temperatures have continued rising, as we have seen most recently with the record sea-ice loss in the Arctic. It is a fact that for ages now, each year the previous decade (specifically ten years, not 90s etc) has been hotter than the previous ten years.

              I repeat that I am not qualified to debate directly with Leo Smith, I am only a retired engineer without a degree from Cambridge. However, I do know enough about the subject to have noticed in his post a considerable number of contradictions with the IPCC findings. And some, as I have highlighted, that might be deliberate, though that might just be my past experience of discussing the issue with sceptics. Sufficient to say that I remain concerned about my family. Had I not seen so much that I know is contradicted by mainstream climate science, then perhaps I would have some doubts. For the sake of my family, I would dearly love Leo to be right, but I rather think he isn’t.

              When we get record ice loss from the Arctic, which is in line with the warming trend; when we get the summer we have just had, which is line with the projected meandering jet-stream; when we have, as I say, 97% of all climate scientists expressing concern; when James Lovelock, who has no research grants to chase and is completely independent, also very concerned, then it is better to err on the side of caution. Again, all I can recommend anyone to do is visit and investigate.

              On a personal note, I hope that Leo and I can just agree to disagree as far as climate change is concerned. He must protect his family his way and me mine.

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            The Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum might be odd, but it is generally thought to have been due to a ‘burp’ of methane (a potent greenhouse gas) that was released from frozen clathrates in the Arctic seabed. One concern today is that methane is again being released from the Arctic seabed. If the region continues to warm at its current rate, the very real danger exists that the current gradual release of methane could accelerate due to positive feedback and become another ‘burp’ with all that that could mean to us.

            The amazing thing is that so many people are prepared to take the risk by doing their best to hinder action to combat climate change. It is almost as though they think we have a spare earth to move to if we get the current experiment wrong. Would that we had.

          • Thanks for the suggestions!

            Maybe the situation is that the situation is one of natural cycles overlaid with one time events and spikes of various kinds. My concern is that there are too many people who are convinced that the future is going to look just like the past. If it doesn’t look just like the past, it is our fault, or the fault of the oil and gas and coal companies, or of someone else. It seems to me that to a significant extent, the way the world is now is the fault of how we are hard-wired to act, and the number of people we have on earth today.

        • Michael Lloyd says:

          Gail. In reply to comment (too many nested replies, hence repeating your reply here”):

          “Maybe the situation is that the situation is one of natural cycles overlaid with one time events and spikes of various kinds. My concern is that there are too many people who are convinced that the future is going to look just like the past. If it doesn’t look just like the past, it is our fault, or the fault of the oil and gas and coal companies, or of someone else. It seems to me that to a significant extent, the way the world is now is the fault of how we are hard-wired to act, and the number of people we have on earth today.”

          I’m in broad agreement with you here. I do, however, caution about taking natural cycles too far. You can look up Wikipedia for descriptions of the cycles for Carbon, Nitrogen, Water, Sulphur, Phosphorus, and even Iodine.

          Have you read: “Does God Play Dice, the New Mathematics of Chaos, by Ian Stewart”?
          It is quite an old book now. He has a chapter entitled the “Imbalance of Nature.” The book also covers the question: Is the Solar System stable?

          The book was recommended to me by lecturer in non-linear dynamics.

    • Humans are very much out of balance with the rest of the natural world. In the natural world, there would be something like 150,000 or 250,000 of us, not 7 billion. We wouldn’t have roads and cars and trucks and airports.

      The question becomes, “To what extent can we maintain the out of balance situation?”

      With concentrated energy resources, it is pretty easy to do this. With diffuse energy resources, we are pretty much in the same condition as the rest of nature. The net energy gain of the process is likely to fall to too low a level. Refining metals is one of the more energy intensive things we do. That is why it seems to be more at risk than other processes.

      Part of the issue is maintaining the complexity of the system, in order to do the many things you suggest. If we are to make these new things, we will need international trade and highways and trucks. It is easy to understate what the whole cost of the system we need is–it is not simply the cost of adding a new facility to make replacement product “x”.

      • Mel Tisdale says:

        It is interesting to note that human populations tend to stabilise and even fall when a certain level of prosperity is reached. Indeed, the falling populations in certain developed parts of the world are a reflection of just that phenomenon.

        Perhaps we have messed things up by not developing to such a level of prosperity soon enough to ensure that we did not ‘swarm’ to the unsustainable level we now find ourselves at, but instead kept our numbers within manageable limits.

        It may well be that what we should be discussing is how we, as a species, can reduce our numbers so that we can live in harmony with the rest of the planet and within its capacity to support us. Perhaps we should have let the boys play with their toys during the Cold War. Seeing as that would have also produced a nuclear winter, which would delay any global warming – assuming you believe in it, of course – we could even see it as killing two birds with one stone. (And to think I used to campaign actively against Trident D5 (not C4), but that is another story and a technological one at that.) Just to be clear, I am joking! (Sorry, colonel, perhaps you will be able to play another day.)

        • When I look at the places that have stabilized their numbers, and they are starting to fall, I see a pretty small set of countries.

          Ones that I see include Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Montenegro, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Armenia, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russia, Ukraine, and Japan.

          This list of countries seems to be heavily dominated by members of the former Soviet Union plus eastern European countries that were under Soviet influence. Many of them have never regained their lost footing. The only ones outside of the list are Germany, Italy, and Japan. I would argue that Japan has undergone its own economic crash. Germany includes East Germany, so has a tendency toward decline from the point of view of previously being under Soviet influence, and not fully recovering from a different society.

          I haven’t looked at Italy, but my guess is that it partly has to do with crowdedness of the people, and lack of jobs for additional citizens.

          I know it is fashionable to make statements such as you make, but the data doesn’t support them (unless perhaps you exclude immigration, which isn’t fair).

          • Leo Smith says:

            A rather ugly thing to have to say, but possibly factual nonetheless, is that the United kingdom’s population would be falling but for massive immigration.


            The e.g. Polish population may be falling, but that’s because they all moved to Slough. Where unlike Poland, having babies is a viable career option on Social Security and guarantees an income and a place to live.

            Not that the Poles are necessarily a nation I would single out, but the Catholicity is an issue.

            The problem to having a liberal open door policy across a disparate economic region like Europe, is that people naturally migrate to where they have the best options. In this case that means young people migrate to the UK, because we let them. Germany is less tolerant and Italy is a closed shop. So their populations are falling. France has issues with its ex colonies in N Africa as does the UK with its ex colonies in Africa, Asia , the middle east India and the Carribean.

            Its a problem that could get ugly.

        • Nuclear war would not just kill people but probably most life on the planet. Maybe the planet would rebound but we probably wouldn’t.

          • Mel Tisdale says:

            Did you not read the part that said that I was joking?

            That said, we have to remember that even today the world has enough nuclear missiles, each with a considerable number of very accurate, independently targetted warheads. They would enable the side that fires first to so compromise the others capability to launch an effective response that they would win with little loss of life on their part.

            When I read the last three posts that Gail has treated us to, I quietly wonder if one sunny day, when the wind is in the right direction, whether one of the nations with this capability might just decide to claim what remains of the world’s oil, uranium etc by launching a pre-emptive first-strike, thus leaving those that had the misfortune to live near a C3I installation (command, control, communication and intelligence) to cope as best they can with what little time they have left before the radiation does its worst.

            The world has missed a trick by not banning MIRV missile systems in the peace that followed the Cold War. (Yet another example of the need to re-examine how we govern ourselves.) No pre-emptive first-strike is possible without MIRV capability.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I don’t actually think a nuclear war would destroy the planet at all. It would destroy a lot of people though, and infrastructure.

              Which may be an attractive outcome for some.

              But really its a poor option. When biological and chemical warfare can destroy the people and leave the valuable infrastructure intact.

              A genetically modified virus that you have a vaccine for and place in your own nations water supply first…

              Or helicopters spraying nerve gas over those pesky natives who want a slice of your oil action, that’s what Saddam did, let’s face it. He wanted the oil, not the Kurds, so he gassed em. Rats deserve to be gassed don’t they? I bet he said that.

              You don’t need heavy weapons when you actually WANT to maximise civilian casualties. Carpet spraying with something lethal to all mammalian life works perfectly. You can replace that in 9 months with totally unskilled labour – it takes years to build an oil rig,…

              So politics and diplomacy is done by sniper, task force, drone and precision weaponry. Or a poisoned umbrella in the leg, or a polonium laced coffee.

              Restless natives you merely starve by killing the buffaloes, gas or infect with something nasty and make sure they stay in their place on the reservations…

              Really uranium and plutonium is better used to make electricity than war. Its very passé these days. Your sartorially elegant post modern dictator, terrorist or man in black has far more precise tools at his disposal.

              A – bombs make good spectaculars. But they aren’t much use in economic or political warfare. If Iran pops one off at Israel, Iran would be toast from three directions by lunchtime.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              I accept all that you say except that I believe it misses one essential point, namely that should America, say, decide that they are going to claim whatever rare commodities (that are not “passé”), they will need to remove Russia’s offensive capability, otherwise any seizure of said commodities will be the signal that big boys games have begun and that they, Russia, needs to play catch-up. Obviously, for ‘America’ it is possible to substitute ‘Russia’, which would mean that it would be America that needs to play catch-up. No other nation has such a capability.

              To me it was obvious that a pre-emptive first-strike was being planned (just look a the CEPs of Trident D5, MX and the Pershing II of the day). Had Gorbachev not come along and upset the applecart, we would have had it by now. In the meantime, Russia will almost certainly have caught up in terms of bunker busting accuracy. So, today we have a bunch of trigger happy military bods with some toys specifically designed to deliver a pre-emptive first-strike that they have been dying to play with for ages, but have been stopped because of all this pesky peace that has broken out (well, sort of).

              In the scenario where international relations will have broken down due to the state of world affairs, it will be almost impossible for one side or the other to resist firing first and thus save a lot of their public’s lives at the expense of the other’s and leave them to take whatever it is they are after secure in the knowledge that there will be no reprisal (without risking a massive response).

              Incidently, the last thing anyone should assume is that submarines are undetectable when submerged (think phased microphone arrays and unique sound signatures). And furthermore, a nuclear depth charge does not need a small CEP. One of six to ten miles will take out any submarine.

            • Mel Tisdale says:

              Specifically in relation to Iran and nuclear capability.

              Iran would be daft to fire an atom bomb in a missile when it is possible to put one in the boot of a car, or even a back-pack. (A modern battlefield nuclear weapon is delivered in the tip of a 155mm artiliary round.) There is no rebuilding an atom bomb the way they do with chemical explosive devices. Not that I am against Iran building them, if Israel is allowed to just because it is best friends with the neighbourhood bully then it is only fair that they should be similarly allowed to. Of course, the best solution would be a nuclear free Middle East, but that will remain a dream,I suspect.

            • Leo Smith says:

              Sigh. I think the best solution is a totally nuked out middle east meself.

              Devoid of people quarrelling over real estate and religion and all desperate to
              (a) preserve traditional values whilst
              (b) adopting as many Western things that they don’t know how to make themselves and whose scientific basis contradicts their deepest held beliefs,

              it could be a handy little holiday destination (provided Germans were banned from having beach towels..)

      • Leo Smith says:

        No I seldom disagree with you Gail, but here I must.
        Humanity IS the natural world, and numbers wise we are a drop in the ocean when it comes to e.g, plankton or bacteria or even insects.

        And the whole world that we know is formed the activities of all these so called ‘natural’ life forms. The very oxygen we breathe is plant excrement.

        The thin layer round the earth we call the biosphere is what it is because that’s the way the life in it has made it, and the life in it is the way it is because of the nature of the biosphere, and we are not so very different from any other species in that regard. Just rather more successful at survival. So far. 🙂

        And again I have to take issue with the concept of some form of balance, which has been disturbed. I know its a very fashionable way to view things in the concerned liberal sector of the world, but it is in the limit not borne out by any evidence and its not even very helpful.

        Chaos theory was originally used – or at least one of its early successes was – in modelling the behaviour of ‘natural’ systems using simple predator prey models with time delays between the appearance of prey, and the increase of predators, followed by decimation of prey and the collapse of predator populations.

        The nest overview I could find online rapidly is this:
        and that makes the point that as parameters change the most ‘stable’ system of a periodic fluctuation in predator/prey numbers, oscillates widely about a men – and that is the nearest you get to an ‘equilibrium’ or ‘balance’ – and in fact as more accurate terms and different parameters are introduced, the periodicity moves into chaotic realms,. with possibilities of flipping from one ‘strange attractor’ (a generalised average around which a value fluctuates) to another different one.

        Which is reflected in the time series into what appear to be massive and wild fluctuations in populations that will appear to be at least stable over many years at one average value, but than rapidly move to a completely different average value.

        The great problem appears to be that this behaviours is moderately unknown: Not that many people are taught or understand the implications of chaotic systems, and they therefore interpret these shifts as unnatural abnormal and a cause for concern. ‘Butterfly numbers down to 10% of last years Is This Global Warming? No its just that some random equation in the eco equations peaked last year and has troughed this year. Perhaps there were too many bats and swallows eating them… and the year before that a high population of bats caught bat-flue and died.

        European populations peaked before the Black Death and took several hundred years to recover thereafter.

        So there really is no ‘balance’ and we therefore can’t be ‘out of it’

        As some Locust said to another, ‘how long can we keep on eating these crops before there is nothing left to eat’? ‘ To which the other locust replied ‘if you don’t stop thinking and get eating, it’s you that will be dead’

        What you really means I suspect is how long can this particular species continue to exploit an ecological niche it has found before its population collapses’ which is not QUITE the same thing as saying ‘before the niche and the way of exploiting it is utterly mined out’ .

        The most chilling thought that occurs to me rather too often as I look at the UK equivalent of what you might term ‘trailer trash; is ‘if all these people simply vanished one day, everybody who actually does contribute to society would be immensely better off. ‘ Followed by ‘And look what happened last time someone got that idea’

        The terrifying facts is that we have constructed as society that is built and run at its core level by very very few people indeed. The majority of people are essentially parasitic upon it. And that goes from those at the very top, who are parasitic in the Marxist sense – the undeserving owners of capital – to those at the very bottom, who by dint of as multiplicity of factors consume, but do not produce, or aid in production.

        Applying Tainters perspective to this, we can see that our current society could easily exist at a much higher standard of living and lower level of population and resource consumption if about 80% of the worlds population ceased to be.

        I.e. population collapse does not equal civilisation collapse. As people discovered after the Black Death, suddenly skilled labour could set it’s own price…
        And a further harrowing thought as I checked the stats on the Black Death: The last outbreak of the Plague was the early 20th century – antibiotics made it pretty much extinct. Antibiotic resistant bacteria are on the increase….

        So my actual gut feeling is that we will see some dramatic population falls in the 21st century. Well I wont but others will. I’ll be part of them probably 🙂 But that civilisation wont collapse. We will do what we always have done, continue to exploit what is possible to exploit and build systems to do just that – we haven’t run out of energy by a long chalk yet, and we probably wont. Certainly there’s bags of nuclear material littering the planet. And the time to transition exists. BUT its likely that the centre of gravity of civilisation will shift from Europe and the USA to Asia. . As it once did from Greece, to Rome.

        • That is an interesting way of looking at things, and I have heard variations on that before.

          (If I remember correctly), I heard a presentation by Lisi Krall at the Degrowth Conference in Montreal relating to Leafcutter ants and their ability with agriculture. Their success has led to these ants having a relatively large ecological niche. It seems like there are some termites with very good success as well.

          Perhaps the issue is that we live in a world with cycles and niches. Our cycle is coming to the downside, as our huge niche is disappearing.

      • St. Roy says:

        This post ignited some fury in responses, both fun and entertaining to read. You sum it up nicely here. I will add. Man’s ability to find and utilize all that stored sunlight has really tipped that scales on species balance. The result hasn’t been good for other species, our species or the planet. I take the geological long view. Balance is now in the process of being restored. The culling (by resource depletion and environment poisoning) hasn’t begun yet, but soon will and a lot will take place in this century. That’s within the lifetime of many that read your post or their immediate descendants. Ala, the fire you ignite!

        • In a way, I am glad I am not in the younger generation. The more of your life you think you have ahead of you, the more a problem this gets to be.

          Of course, my mother is 25 years older than me, and is alive and well. So even those of us who are not-so-young are exposed to upcoming changes.

  32. reverseengineerre says:

    “These same techniques would also be helpful in countering changing climate and in mitigating deficiencies of man’s evolution, such as lack of hair to keep warm, limited transportation possibilities, and poor ability to attack large predators. “-Gail

    I suggest reading Marvin Harris’ “Our Kind” for a better explanation of the relative lack of body hair or Fur in Homo Sapiens. Have you read that one?

    More tonight when I have more time.


    • reverseengineerre says:

      Sorry for not getting back in here on this one. Things got BUSY in the Diner.

      There is not any physical evidence left available for when Homo Sapiens lost the Hair/Fur that the other Great Apes still have. All that is left are Bones now. Hollywood productions like 2001 a Space Odyssey all show Neanderthal and prior incarnation as having furry bodies, but more probable is that even the earliest versions lost their Body Hair once they went Upright walking/running on two legs. In the Hot Climate they were in, Heat DISSIPATION was more important than Heat RETENTION. Those early Humans were running down game on the Savannah, often for days on end. Developing Sweat Glands and being able to dissipate heat was the primary evolutionary driver there, and this likely occurred before control of Fire was achieved.

      Once succesful in that HOT environment, Homo Sapiens started moving outward, into some much COLDER climates, like the one I live in now. To substitute for Fur we do NOT have now, said Homo Sapiens developed Clothing, first just the raw skins of the animals they killed for food, but later using the many naturally growing fibers as well. As I have documented here numerous times already, generally speaking Inuit do not use Fire as a means for keeping an Igloo warm, the bodies of the people and the dogs inside do that just fine. So as long as there are still some OTHER creatures out there to Kill and Eat and make Clothing from, Homo Sapiens does just fine without the Energy of Fossil Fuels.

      While control of Fire definitely predated Agricuture and the plethora of “soft foods” we eat nowadays, the Evolution of Homo Sapiens into the non-fur encrusted small tooth and jaw version we have today likely predated fire by quite a bit also. We are able to substitute for our small Jaws and Teeth with Big ROCKS and hands that control them. We are able to substitute for a lack of body fur with the skins of OTHER animals that have it. In addition, Humans do adapt to climate, if you look at the typical Inuit they have a thicker subcutaneous level of Body Fat than the average Caucasian does (not talking about the massive fat induced from GMO foods here). This serves as another form of insulation, it is the one Marine Mammals like Dolphins and Whales which have no Fur use.

      The meme here seems to be “how can we KEEP extracting enough energy to maintain typical “Modern” lifestyle, rather than what should be the more correct focus, “how can we REDUCE energy consumption to what it really takes for a Homo Sapiens to live?” Nuclear Power, Fracking for more Fossil Fuels etc only further damages the overall ecosystem. It is not sustainable methodology over the long term.

      What IS sustainable is how the Inuit lived and how the Bushmen of the Kalahari lived. In both Cold and Hot environments, both these groups were able to survive with only the most MINIMAL use of fire. To make the case we NEED this form of energy because we have evolved into small jawed creatures who cannot chew anything tougher than a marshmallow is a CANARD. Plenty to eat out there soft enough, and the tough stuff can be made less so pounding it out for a while with some rocks. Can so MANY of us live at one time on Planet Earth? No Way, Jose. However, if we continue the folly of trying to produce energy from Nukes and Fossil Fuels, NOBODY will be left.

      Somebody left is better than NOBODY left.


  33. Ikonoclast says:

    My analysis of Two Key Ideas in the Post.

    1. “Economists seem to be of the view that GDP growth gives rise to growth in energy products.”

    GDP growth (from previous energy use) can give rise to further growth in demand for energy products. This is obviously a feedback loop. However, physics (as in the Laws of Thermodynamics) dictates that any initial increase in order (growth in equipment, product and human biomass) is first powered by exergy (energy employed for useful work). Physically, the exergy use comes first. I am being pedantic about using the term technical term “exergy”. Energy cannot be created or destroyed but only transformed. It is “exergy”, energy available for useful work, which is “consumed”.

    2. “The way forward is not entirely clear.”

    I have argued, in other blogs and perhaps on this one, that exergy is the Master Resource. I am sure Gail has argued the same thing. Exergy is the one resource which is required to acquire and utilise all other resources. It is impossible to propose a single case of the acquisition or use of any other resource which does not require the use of exergy.

    I think the way forward is clear but it is very difficult. It is possible for a task to be clear but difficult.

    Firstly, as exergy is the Master Resource we must solve the looming exergy crisis. Future exergy production (the employment of energy for useful work) must satisfy three key criteria;

    (a) the supply must be plentiful
    (b) the EROEI must be sufficient to power a modern civilization
    (c) the collection or generation infrastructure must be feasible (feasible energy density)
    (d) negative externalities (wrecking the biosphere and climate) must be avoided.

    The supply which shows best promise to meet these requirements is solar energy. I have, in general, very few criticisms of Gail’s major adopted theses. Ultimately, the Limits to Growth thesis is irrefutable. However, Gail is incorrect (IMO) to discount the viability of solar power and its capacity to ultimately power a large modern civilization.

    I would like to suggest, Gail, that you use your actuarial skills to fully investigate and post on solar energy. Let us look at each of the requirements above in a little detail.

    (a) the supply must be plentiful

    There is no doubt that total solar radiation energy (insolation) falling on earth is sufficient.

    “The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoules (EJ) per year. In 2002, this was more energy in one hour than the world used in one year.” – Wikipedia

    It is worth looking at the solar land area map with the black dots showing how much land area is required to provide all our energy needs.

    Point (a) is proven. The supply is plentiful.

    (b) the EROEI must be sufficient to power a modern civilization

    Modern solar PV panels and other technologies now produce an EROEI of better than 5:1 and up to 10:1 in the case of solar PV. A modern solar PV panel repays the embodied energy in 3 years and has a useful life of 30 years. Some sources indicate that an EROEI of 5:1 is sufficient to run a modern civilization with attendant energy frugality. We currently are very profligate with energy use and could save about 50% with little real reduction in our quality of life.

    (c) the collection or generation infrastructure must be feasible (feasible energy density)

    Solar energy utilisation will require very large collection infrastructures due to the low energy density. About 150 watts per square metre can be collected (at 15% efficency) on average in the best 6 hours of daytime allowing for all weather and sun conditions That is 900 watts. About another 100 watts can be collected in the remainder daylight hours unless at high latitudes. Thus a good round number figure might be 1,000 watts or 1kW per day per square metre.

    “China is quickly moving into alternative energy in monstrous proportions. There will be an open-bid competition in March to choose a project lead for the construction of a 10 MWp (megawatt-peak) solar power plant in northwestern China. The plant is estimated to generate 16.37 million kilowatt-hours of electricity a year. …

    The Chinese government expects the plant to cover a surface area of roughly 247 acres (0.38 square miles) in the desert of northwestern China, according to Digitimes.” – TG Daily.

    The article below has an interesting table for levelized costs for all forms of electricity generation. Find the first table about levelized costs.

    (d) negative externalities (wrecking the biosphere and climate) must be avoided.

    Solar and wind show much greater promise that fossil fuels to address this issue.

    Note: As an adjunct to point c it has to be shown that solar and wind collection infrastructures can bbe built eventually using many renewable and ubiquitous resources. Silicon (for solar PV) is one of the most common elements in the crust so no problem there. Frames could eventually be made of carbon fibre reinforced polymer. Carbon fibre will continue to come down in price. Carbon is a ubiquitous element. The most common polymer is epoxy made essentially from propene and chlorine.

    • SA says:

      Iconoklast – I’ve been trying to find studies on the embedded energy of solar PV. You note that panels repay embodied energy in three years. I’d be grateful for any references you might have.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I once had a link to a very good, reputable, German University study. The paper was published in english as well as german. I can’t find that link now. It indicated 3 years if I recall correctly.

        This article below mentions reviews of “51 different PV systems from thirteen distinct analyses, ranging in publication date from 1995 to 2010. A significant number of the studies we analyzed are based on conceptual models of PV systems due to the lack of readily available data from of operational systems. This survey shows average EROI for all studies (operational and conceptual) of 6.56 (n=60 std. dev=4.69). ”

        The key point there is average EROEI of 6.56.

        My claim of an EROEI of 10 assumes 3 years recovery of all embedded energy and 30 years average working lfe. This is probably a bit too optimistic at present, especially the 30 years working life part. However, further technological progress indicates, I think, that an EROEI of 10 for solar PV will be achieved very soon. All these figures hold only if the calculation of absolutely all embedded energy (which is quite a tricky and involved accounting process) is substantially accurate.

        • Leo Smith says:

          You should calculate the EROI of uranium. Or thorium. Somewhere in the thousands IIRC. Even with the insanely over engineered systems we use today.

          You only need look at the easiest proxy – actual cost per Kwh – to see that a reactor even as massively safe as they are, compared to anything else we do, is still about 10 times cheaper than solar energy. In short its more cost effective to build your own reactor locally, than rely on the fluctuating output of one 93 million miles away.

          Solar companies are now closing down worldwide in recognition of this basic fact.

          Hows that biofuel/hydrogen economy thing going for ya?

    • With solar, I have several questions. A big one is whether we can maintain a high enough level of complexity to actually “pull off” a project such as a large scale solar PV project. This would seem to require keeping international trade at a high level, and not having too many overthrown government.

      Another issue is the large investment $$, and the associated large amounts of real inputs from around the world. (Or we could ask the Chinese to build it for us, and make our balance of payments worse.) If we are getting poorer and poorer, where would this come from?

      A third issue is intermittency. With solar PV, there will be electricity when the sun is shining, but we really need load-following electricity. Our batteries today aren’t good enough or cheap enough. There are some technologies that might work, but they would bring the cost of the project up significantly.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Gail, in answer to your questions.

        Yes, I am of the opinion that we can maintain a high enough level of complexity to actually “pull off” a a project such as large scale solar PV transition project over the next 30 years. I have mentioned previously that the required inputs per year over 30 years are of about the same order as manufacturing 50 million autos a year. The world currently manufactures 60 million autos a year. It is arguable that 50 million of these new autos would not be needed if we repaired existing autos more, did away with discretionary auto travel and implemented proper public tranpsort plus bicycles and shanks pony for short journeys. It is a matter of political will and priorities not of actual physical resource and manufacturing possibilities. The world needs to re-tool to quite possibly survive instead of following Business As Usual which will lead to collapse and mass deaths with absolute certainty.

        On the financial question, the simple answer is that only material resource and energy constraints are real. Financial constraints are not real. It always possible for a government to fully mobilise national efforts (labour and capital) in a dirigisme and even conscription fashion. Faced with an imminent existential threat (just like a world war), government and public will for a full national survival effort can be of almost herculean proportions. The necessary levels of general conscription of labour and capital will find full political assent when the alternative is mass death for the bulk of the population.

        Intermittancy is an issue solveable with current technology. It can be solved by a combination of geographical spread of wind and solar in a national or contintental grid plus molten salt heat storage, plus hydro storage via pump-back uphill, plus battery storage, plus wind power at night, plus solar convection towers which generate power 24/7, plus biofuels, plus some nuclear power at safe sites, plus waste burning generators plus tidal generators plus geothermal plants plus thermal engineering and natural airconditioning of dwellings and buildings plus many other expedients. The key point is that it will be a distributed hybrid solution using every technology we have.

        Having said all the above we still face massive challenges and the ultimate limits to growth. I still agree with you on that. I simply argue that we need to engineer a lower powered, controlled descent to a lower level, lower population, sustainable civilization rather than stalling catastophically, by fatalistically deciding that it just can’t be done, and then plunging vertically to total destruction (to use an aviation analogy). The solar route will not salvage everything but it might salvage something; a sustainable and recognisable global civilization at a lower but still liveable level, ultimately for maybe about 2 billion people plus or minus 500 million.

        If one fatalistically says nothing can be done and nothing signifcant can be salvaged then one is effectively giving into BAU (Business As Usual) and TINA (There Is No Alternative) thinking. Such thinking just makes disaster certain; a real self-fulfilling prophecy.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Meanwhile, in the real world where costs matter..the world is finding that of all the possible ways to generate electricity solar power is the most useless and expensive with far too many suppliers chasing a dwindling demand as economic downturn forces the abandonment of yet another rent-seeking government subsidised political knee jerk response to an imaginary carbon crisis…:-)

      (I enjoyed writing that. Who says that renewable energy doesn’t have a feelgood factor!)

      • Ikonoclast says:

        In the real world costs do matter. And the costs that really matter are resource, material and energy costs and the pollution and damage costs of negative externalities. Monetary costs are just an accounting system which seeks to value (rather imperfectly) and sometimes fails to value these real costs. Those who can see past the fetishisation of money undersrtand these basic facts.

        Solar power is not useless and it is not the most expensive way to generate power. Anyone who has done even a modicum of serious research will understand this. I have already posted a link to information about energy costs.

        The problems attending the Chinese solar sector (if the Telegraph report is accurate) are more to do with fianncial and market failure in the current corrupted “free” market system than they are to do with any intrinsic non-viability of solar power. Coal, gas and petroleum are underpriced due to the high level of subsidies and assistance given to the fossil fuel industries. They are also underpriced because of the negative externailty damage they do, particularly to the climate system.

        Leo Smith needs to do some research on the vast range of complex empirical facts surrounding this issue and to engage in some thinking deeper than repeating an endless uncritical mantra of “nuclear good, solar bad” and “drill baby drill”.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Would approximately 4.5 years of detailed research plus a first class degree in engineering be enough for you?

          Actual real research and calculations? Not just reading renewable website propaganda?
          In the REAL world the ACTUAL costs reveal that for the short term, the world will run on coal and gas, and in the medium term on nuclear power.

          Because nothing else is capable of actually running it.

          Its pure green fantasy to imagine that one or two figures plucked from random bits of science and technology are a substitute for a thorough going engineering ,environmental and financial analysis. I am here because I can learn from Gail’s careful financial analysis, and because other people suggest useful other links so I can pursue some of the sociological impacts.

          Engineering is not a matter of Faith. Or wishful tthinking. Its a matter of identifying key elements in problem solving and seeing whether those key elements exist and if so whether they have any hidden drawbacks.

          Gail has raised the issue of EROI. Its highly relevant to fossil fuels, to the point where it may be said to dominate the equation. It is almost completely irrelevant to nuclear and renewable energy. In fact the issues that absolutely dominate the renewable energy so called ‘solution’, are in fact power density and intermittencey and lack of dispatchibility, which in themselves rule it out as a serious contender before costs are even taken into account, and they of course impact hugely ON those costs when you actually need a reliabale continuous source of energy – they impact on someone ELSE’S costs than the favoured wind or solar generator of course who is not required to pay for the other elements of the total solution.

          Neither is EROI relevant in nuclear power. The fuel costs and energy costs of extraction and refining are minuscule on terms of the available energy contained in the materials. In fact over 95% of the cost of nuclear power is in the construction and maintenance and about half of that is in terms of loan repayments on capital. Give nuclear power access to the sorts of zero percent interest rates that banks and some green energy projects enjoy, and its cheaper than coal!

          For example, the capital cost of a nuclear plant is around £3bn per GWe. on a 40 year life at 100% capacity factor (or a 60 year life on 66% capacity factor) that reflects as 0.85 p per unit electricity. The fuel cost is around .5p per unit. So the actual cost disregarding finance and O & M costs is something like 1.35p – maybe 2c a Kwh US.

          So how come the actual break even is around the 8p mark? simple. 7.5% on that capital cost compounded over 40 years multiplies the amortized capital costs by SEVEN TIMES.Likewise a more strict regulatory regime might raise O& M costs from a few percent to 10 percent or more, adding a 4 times increase to the final bill.

          Apart from the fact that wind energy is free, and capacity factors are far far lower and lifetimes much shorter on solar and wind, the same actual issues arise. Wind is, neglecting the costs of backup kit, around £1bn per Gwe onshore and £3bn offshore. But capacity factors are typcally only 25-30% and lifetimes less than 20 years and maintenance MUCH higher both in materials and in fuel – servicing a turbine – one of many stick out in the sea or in inaccessible mountain tops is a lot harder than in a machine hall with onside cranes. The capital costs for solar are even worse, and its capacity factor is typically 10% or less in northerly latitudes. It remains utterly economic – the typical SUBSIDIES that are needed for any kind of financial viability are in the 30-50p a unit area. That 6-10 times the current cost of energy from fossil fuels. And that doesn’t include the massive extra kit needed to replace it on-grid when the sun sets across a continent. Or the transcontinental links of undreamed of capacity and cost needed to make sure that ‘the sun is always shining somewhere;’ is connected to your nation by a cable unimaginably large enough to power the entire nation overnight – or the implications of someone with an axe to grind putting it through that cable. Or the cost of some as ye undreamed of energy storage system operating at whatever pathetic efficiency can be mustered .. I mean. lets take your won Lake Mead and Boulder Dam as a potential storage system We might consider an enormous channel dug to the pacific and seawater pumped into the lake by day, and emptied by night.

          there is perhaps 10Twh of storage in Lake Mead when full. Its probably the best site in the whole USA. The US consumes about 400GW on average, so in theory Lake Mead full of seawater and if adequate generators only about two hundred times bigger than the ones in place there – at a cost you don’t even want to think about would be capable of running the entire USA for 25 hours. Provided you had a connection to it capable of taking THE ENTIRE GENERATING CAPACITY OF AN ALL SOLAR USA – some 400GW – to it during te day, and having it all come back at night. Expect that even THAT wont work, because in winter there won’t be enough sun for a whole six months. Not 25 hours, *6 months* And if you try and build enough so there is, you will be having at least 10 times as much solar capacity as on average you need!
          That one awkward little fact that the sun doesn’t always shine, and shines a lot more in summer, than in winter, destroys what simple minded analysis makes look simple and almost cost effective, and renders it completely impossible.

          But that’s the difference between an engineer and a fantasist with a small understanding of physics. The engineer says ‘how are we going to build this’ not ‘will it in theory produce enough energy’. And takes 4 and a half years of calculating every single alternative to conclude that as with most things fashionable and green its an exercise in cat belling. It sounds brilliant, until you try and actually build it. You wont trust me, but I have been down every single proposed solution to intermittency – from ‘the wind is always blowing/sun is always shining somewhere ‘ – but that’s no good unless you have grids extending thousands of miles carrying far higher powers and at costs exceeding generation costs by an order of magnitude. And the USA hasn’t even by and large got its HV transmission underground to stop it being knocked out by storms, let alone under the sea to e.g China..the we look at storage. Synthesised fuels, hydrogen, spinning flywheels, car batteries in electric vehicles, water up a hill, molten salt ponds etc etc. yes, I have looked at every single one of them, and none of them are more than total fantasy when you consider the cost, the space, the efficiency and indeed the safety aspects. You may think its trivial to store 6 momths of the entire USAs electrical energy needs in some kind of device, but believe me, if it lets go in seconds you would hear the explosion round the planet. Collapsing dams in China killed more people than nuclear weapons, let alone in nuclear power accidents. Even hydrocarbon fuel synthetic or otherwise is not safe.

          Even a pathetically small oil refinery makes a big bang:

          (imagine if 41 people had died in a nuclear accident. Only 3 people died at Fukushima (not from anything nuclear at all) and that stopped a whole industry. )

          6 months of stored sunlight to take the USA through the winter JUST FOR ELECTRICITY has the potentially destructive power of the entire US arsenal of nuclear weapons. Do YOU want that in your backyard? There is a good reason why coal and uranium are favourites for stockpiling. They are very very had to make them do anything useful at all, let alone go bang. The thought of 6 months of energy in the form of natural gas, hydrogen, spinning flywheels or water behind a dam is ..far far more scary than anything you might imagine .

          So we cant realistically solve intermittency by either geographical diversity, or storage. Not economically on such a scale that would allow renewable energy of the intermittent kind to ever feature largely in a real-world grid. The only thing that works is to offset with another firm of already stored energy – like fossil fuel and/or nuclear.

          Offsetting with nuclear is pointless – if you already have the nuclear capacity or intend building it there is no single reason why you would want to add complexity and expense to it by adding intermittent renewables. Nuclear fuel is plentiful and cheap and causes no terrifying carbon dioxide ‘pollution’ And if you are concerned about radioactive waste you wouldn’t be building nuclear at all.

          Which leaves fossil fuels. BUT the problem there is you have to build as much fossil plant to meet peak demand with intermittent renewables as you do without them at all, since it is entirely likley that there will come a time when the sun ain’t shining and the wind ain’t blowing and its the middle of winter too. So you are doubling or trebling your capital costs to start with. Then there is the thorny issue of the fact that the fossil plant is underutilised, and therefore its capital contribution to cost is multplied by the capacity factor its operating at. Have the time the plant operates and you double the cost of the capital per unit generated. And there is more than a little evidence to show that plant that is operated in this way suffers greater maintenance costs as its put through one heat cycle after another. Finally ther is the issue of how much fuel is actually saved by replacing well constructed high capital cost efficient plant that can operate at extended periods at full output and realise a good return on investment and lower fuel costs, when its replaced by cheap capital plant that is required to operate intermittently and can only become profitable at electricity prices that reflect such operation and is therefore optimized for low capital costs, not high fuel efficiency. In short, adding renewable energy runs a grave risk of actually increasing overall fossil fuel usage. And the figures bear this out. Renewable energy of the intermittent kind, saves little or no fuel at all when co-operated with conventional fossil plant.

          There that is a brief summary of the last 4.1/2 years of research and calculation for you, which you will doubtless dismiss with a wave of a hand, but can be briefly summarised further by a statement backed up by 40 years as a professional consulting engineer a who does cost accounting as part of the job :

          “Renewable energy of the intermittent sort neither represents a viable option for large scale electricity generation, nor a secure, nor a safe, nor an economic one, in fact it has no place in a rational technologically designed power strategy at all.
          If carbon reduction is the name of the game nuclear is infinitely more practical,. safe, secure and cheaper, and if cost is the dominant factor then at current interest rates and fuel prices the optimal strategy is coal and gas.”

          Now I am sorry if that shatters your green dreams, but there it is. I can’t do more than speak the facts and the conclusions as I find them. That other engineers have made the same calculations and come to the same conclusions is evident from papers published around the world. That the renewable energy companies and lobbies are unaware of these basic limitations is also inconceivable. I therefore conclude that they are in fact engaged in fraudulent misrepresentations of the facts. And since the whole arena is highly politicized I take that as further and conclusive evidence that the technology cannot stand alone as any sort of cost effective answer to global issues of energy supply, but is in fact merely another example of the misuse of political power to go seeking rent.

          Yes we need energy to survive as a post industrial civilisation, yes oil is becoming a problem, but never ever consider that renewable energy is capable of replacing it in any meaningful way. That is simply fooling yourself over something deeply important.
          In practical terms we can’t make oil be where oil is not, we cant stop people burning fossil fuels and when they are gone we can’t run the world as it is now, or a world remotely like it – on renewable energy. No matter how fondly we may imagine that we can.

          I can build an aeroplane that files out of balsawood and tissue powered by a rubber band that I wind up. How renewable is that? But it takes duralumin and a jet engine to power a jumbo jet across the Atlantic,. For some inexplicable reason balsa wood tissue and a rubber band don’t cut the mustard. Likewise even duralumin and carbon fibre cant create an aircraft as big as a city block or bigger.

          Just because a little thing works, doesn’t mean big things made the same way wortk. These toy solar panels and windmills are very amusing but you cant power a country off them. Not now, not ever.

          Accept it and move on.

          • Tony Weddle says:

            In the real world, there is no sustainable energy solution except food (within the lifetime of a habitable planet). Nuclear might be thought of as a medium term “solution”, but it is not sustainable and not safe in a world that seems likely to break down within the lifetime of any reactors built now. Actually, if nuclear does “run the world” in the medium term, countries had better start building now because peak energy looks awfully close. I don’t see it happening, even if enough uranium (yes, uranium still seems to be the fuel of choice) can be found at increasing rates, because societies have already begun to break down and the appetite for nuclear has disintegrated since Fukushima.

            In the real world, we’ll have to make do with a lot less external energy. That’s what we really have to get used to. Industrial/technological society is in its final phase.

            • Leo Smith says:

              No, I can’t agree with that. If by renewable energy you mean energy derived from a (non renewable) nuclear sun*, yes that can and is a lot more than food. Sailing ships and water flowing down mountains is more than food. For example.

              I am not even saying that it doesn’t work at all. Patently you can sail ships with it and run turbines off water power. The problem is that we have developed a society that needs more than it can offer. In practice renewable energy cannot do the job we need, and its no good saying it can still do a good enough job with some minor tweaks to the way we live. Gails understanding that you need a rich energy abundant society to even build the technology is apt. My absolute polemic stance against renewables is not because they don’t work, its because we we are wasting valuable time and precious resources (and MY hard earned cash) on them, and they can’t work.

              Oil wont run out overnight. You would be surprised how quickly you can build a nuclear power station if you really really needed to. Or even adapt a coal power station buy fitting a nuclear boiler. There’s a lot of retired nuclear submarines with mothballed reactors that would make fine power plants for cargo ships. My most likely scenario is that a country like Germany – a big supposedly well organised technologically advanced society – has a major grid collapse caused by renewable energy. And the rest of the world clucks sympathetically and quietly moves in a different direction.

              to build a heath Robinson steam engine with nuclear power and no regard for radiation safety is something any person could do. It is more or less nothing more complicated than tossing some reasonably refined plutonium in a tank of water and watching it boil. And moving the chunks closer together or further apart to modify the power output. The real secret is in getting that relatively refined plutonium, not in building the reactor. The complexity there is designing it to last and NOT melt down and NOT dump radiation in the locality, not actually getting it to work at all.

              I remember my physics master getting two bits of U235 out of lead boxes and moving them closer together and hearing the clicks on the Geiger counter start to go mad. He carefully moved them a to about 1/4 inch apart before separating them ‘what would happen if they had touched ,Sir?’ long pause. ‘They’d get hot, I’d be sacked, and have to go to hospital and might get cancer, and you would probably be in some kind of monitoring program for the rest of your lives’

              They don’t make em like that any more. But he certainly knew far more about what he was doing than almost anyone I’ve met since.
              I also remember that when they were put back in their boxes the Geiger counter still clicked away randomly ‘that’s cosmic rays from outer space, and the radiation in you lot from what you ate’ he said. It didn’t kill us then and 45 years later I haven’t died from any of it.

              So really nuclear power is pretty simple once you have refined materials to work with. Its a lot simpler than trying to work out how to keep – in the UKs case – 70 million people alive without it and without fossil fuel. Its hard enough to do it WITH nuclear power. Without it its frankly impossible.

              And that is the point. No amount of change of lifestyle change can keep the UKs current population alive without either nuclear power of fossil fuel. I can just about conceive of doing it with, though. Given a decade to make the transformation and a ‘ wartime emergency’ footing.

              But no one wants to face that. They want to believe that a few hundred windmills and a few fields full of impossibly expensive solar panels can do it. I know they cant. I am not happy about that,.. I am less happy that the refusal to accept that fact is diverting effort away from what we could do.

              Things move slower than one expects however. The world wont collapse in one instant. Parts of it will collapse and serve as warnings, and be assisted by the parts that still do work.

              It will be rough, but we now what works and we should still have enough fuel left and infrastructure left to build it, even if we have to open up some old coal mines and build coal power stations to do it. Or even steam powered trucks. If we could build a 25 tonne coal and steam loco for road use – probably using a turbine and electrical transmission, ok it needs water every 50 miles, and wouldn’t be a sports car, but it could haul goods on the roads.

              Or plough a field

              There are also about 30-50 ‘heritage’ and ‘reproduction’ steam railway locomotives in better than new condition in the country too. and a couple of hundred steam road locomotives.

              Steam is still in daily use in parts of India and Africa too. As long as we don’t entirely run out of coal we could still run those. That puts a limit on how far we might slip back To a 1910 sort of level of technology. And believe me with some electrical power and some coal we can build nuclear technology.

              And there are still horses…more dangerous than nuclear power statistically by a factor of ten thousand or so, and grossly polluting and requiring acres of fodder crops, but if that’s all you have, that’s what you use.

              you worry about iron ore.,.well when there are 100 million cars that no one will be able to drive that’s a lot of steel you can get hold of before you need to mine ore.

              The USA is in a far better position. Its awash with coal at least for some time to come, and Canada has even more, and steamships work even if they are filthy dirty scrapheaps. Canada has fissile ores and both countries have very decent nuclear technology, and there’s decent hydro power in the great lakes region too. And most importantly places to build more rail if needs be. Given electricity and the sort of trains the French already build and decent electrified track New York to Los Angeles is about 15 hours non stop or maybe 24 hours with major city stops. As against 7-8 hours city centre to city centre with existing air transport.

              The major casualty will be the car. But who needs to drive to work anyway? the internet means that most office work doesn’t need an office anywhere but home. Heck there are even doctors performing remote operations over the internet. Remote manipulations means that even manual workers don’t need to be where the action is. So out with the daily commute. And as far as hitting the malls goes, that’s online as well, and the steam truck will deliver tomorrow. Or the trolley lorry. **

              All this stuff is here now ,or ‘in the pipeline’. I don’t do blue sky eco fantasy thinking. Reactors work. Steam trains work. Electric trains doing 200mph work. “Official absolute world record for conventional train is held by the French TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse). In April 2007, a specially tuned train, reduced to three cars with higher voltage, broke the world record, reaching 574.8 km/h (357.2 mph).” The internet works. Remote controlled drones work. Internet shopping works. Coal powered farm equipment has worked, and could again. Or perhaps battery powered farm equipment would be appropriate. or tractors dragging a cable.

              What doesn’t work is fantastic futures powered by windmills and solar panels and supercapacitors a million times better than anything we know how to build. Its a lovely vision, a grand hallucination, but sadly that’s all it is. The reality is a a lot of deeply dull; rather dirty and boring rather old fashioned coal gas and nuclear boilers driving steam turbines is still pretty much as good as it gets. Maybe something will happen to change that ‘up the line;’ but we daren’t rely on that. Maybe there’s a way to tap into not the nuclear level of energy, but quantum levels. a matter converter that you feed with any sort of ‘stuff’ and it instantly destroys it creating huge amounts of energy.

              But I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

              * which is what most people seem to mean by this otherwise meaningless marketing term.

              ** Is that something the US has ever had?rubber tired vehicles powered from twin overhead wires? Like trams but not on rails.?

            • Tony Weddle says:

              I don’t think any form of energy will keep our civilisation going, nuclear included, because our predicament is not one of energy only. We are hitting so many limits to what can be sustained that even if nuclear could, in theory, power a technological industrial consumer civilisation, that civilisation will collapse because of so many other issues. I sincerely hope nuclear isn’t seen as a silver bullet precisely because of collapse (which may take a long time but societies will slowly deteriorate over that time). It is unsafe for at least that reason.

            • Leo Smith says:

              I think you are (nearly) 100% right with that.
              My point was merely to attempt to shows that a society that adopts nuclear energy at least will cap its energy prices at the levels that technology can achieve. That whatever other problems it faces, energy wont be the ultimate limiting factor.

              And that once that is done continued industrial society at close to existing population levels is at least possible in some altered way.

              It wont solve the problems of other resource depletion or simply exceeding the ability to grow enough food or have clean water in a rising population scenario.

              Ultimately there is only so much solar radiation falling on the planet, and unless you do decide to use fossil or nuclear energy, that sets a limit on the amount of energy and life the planet receives, and can support.

              projecting my understanding of technology and agriculture etc forward, (always risky: no one knows enough of all the fields, but I have been pondering and researching this a long time) Gives two most likely scenarios. Which may both occur in different places.

              1/. Transition to a very tight ‘recycling is God’ resource constrained post industrial society, with absolute limits set on viable populations, which are (voluntarily I hope) managed down to a lot less than they are. for which I see the only viable power source as nuclear in the 50-100 year timespan. For reasons given elsewhere. .

              2/ Tainter-like complete collapse of less sophisticated societies that are hanging on by their fingernails anyway. Without access to resources, states like SOME of the oil states are going to be unable to meet the aspirations of their populations. (have already been found unable?) and will implode back to a lower population level and a simple tribal authority structure. As is say Afghanistan, in actual reality, if not reflected in the existence of a ‘central government’.

              My greatest concern is that that means contagious conflict: Even if a nation is able to manage its own transition to a stable population and a reasonable lifestyle, it is totally at risk from a neighbour who fails to do that. The temptation to move in and take what you have failed to build yourself, is very strong indeed. Civil war in Syria is making life hard for its neighbours. If they offer shelter to refugees, they will become bases for ‘insurgents’ – what better place for an insurgent to be>? – and then the risk of cross border attacks rises to near certainty, and escalation into open warfare between states a distinct possibility.

              And the cost of defense is high indeed, especially over land borders.

              Those places with high resource to population ratios – N America, Australia, N Zealand, parts of Asia – have the best chance to make the transition. They also have excellent natural borders.

              Those with high populations and high resources but lower ratios – China and India, parts of S America..are borderline. But they don’t need to make the transition so early – they still have resources.

              Those with high populations by dint of having HAD resources that are going or gone, are the most likely to face collapse. And I am afraid that includes my own country, and Europe, and much of the Middle East. Here we have populations that have developed on the implicit assumption that a high consumption low production society was possible, desirable and a god given right.

              Now its hard to avoid ‘confirmation bias’ but the sorts of things that are going on on the EU financially and socially, and what is happening in the Middle east states, are precisely consistent with the onset of such a collapse. The implicit assumption behind the social unrest is that the national administrations and institutions are in some way responsible for the state of affairs, anger at bankers, corporations and politicians spills over into civil disobedience, riots and in the case of the middle eastern countries, insurgency and open civil war. This is hardly surprising when one more or less socialist government after another has set itself up and represented itself as the one agency that can and has the moral RIGHT to, by virtue of a democratic mandate, cure all ills..and marketing by corporations has delivered the same message about multinational consumer product generators. Cf the parody on Apples products:


              And you yourself have clearly tacitly understood this in your use of the phrase ‘magic silver bullet’ with respect to nuclear power.

              Its not a magic silver bullet, its simply one part of a solution that may just work. You don’t need to step outside this blog to see what IS being touted as the magic silver bullet.

              Some states will face these issues earlier than others, their citizens will, in a random sort of way, try one thing after another, while other states more remote from the focal point of the crisis, will see what works and what does not, and eventually what works will be implemented and what does not, will be discarded and derided, BUT the changes cannot occur until and unless the populations are either undemocratically over-ridden by those who have the right idea, or the populations themselves come to understand what the right idea actually is.

              Again that’s playing out now in Europe. With nearly all sides claiming moral superiority and a monopoly on silver bullets.

              Pragmatic experience in management suggest that in the end, trying to second guess the right things is much much harder than eliminating the things that really won’t work at all.
              And from my perspective the greatest danger to civilisation of the western sort, is found in those who think they know what the silver bullets are, or who would tell you that they do, for reasons of greed, power and personal aggrandisement or simply because it supports a worldview that they fondly desire to be reality. . The reality is there are no silver bullets, but no one wants to hear that message. They are going to have to find that out the hard way.

            • One of the things I tried to point out in this post is the very many roles energy supply plays. If you have enough electricity supply, you can cover some of them, but it is still a lousy transportation fuel, and electricity does nothing for replacing chemicals (asphalt, plastic, medicines, etc.). Its passable at heat processes, if you have enough. But getting enough from nuclear looks to be a problem, with the huge up-front investment involved, among other things.

            • Leo Smith says:

              “One of the things I tried to point out in this post is the very many roles energy supply plays. If you have enough electricity supply, you can cover some of them”
              – So far, no argument.
              “but it is still a lousy transportation fuel”
              Not for trains or last twenty miles. Its the optimum for trains and its ‘just adequate’ for last ten mile cars.
              Ships would use direct nuclear propulsion.
              Where it hurts is cars and planes.

              “and electricity does nothing for replacing chemicals (asphalt, plastic, medicines, etc.).”

              Indirectly it does a very great deal. It makes the existing stocks of petroleum last massively longer. I THINK the actual use of petroleum as an industrial feedstock in the UK is less than 1% of the actual total. Also EROI is not relevant when considering material extracted as a feedstock. If a plastic bag costs 5c instead on 0.5c the world does not collapse. And hydrocarbon feedstock can me made from agricultural waste – plant cellulose – that is capable of being processed into many chemicals. Coal likewise has been a big feedstock in the past. So whilst it is correct to say that many industries currently depend on oil, they don’t need to, necessarily, and the actual amounts involved are small, and in many cases the industry is not that sensitive to the price,

              ” Its passable at heat processes, if you have enough. ”
              Actually its the single most efficient lowest polluting form of heating and most industrial processes that use a lot of heat are perfectly happy to use it. The problem is that its about twice or three times the price of burning coal or gas directly. I.e. it doesn’t make sense to burn gas at 60% efficiency or coal at 33% efficiency to generate electricity and use that to heat things when you can burn the fuel directly and get 100% efficiency. So the crossover point at which nuclear electricity is cheaper than fuel for HEATING (leaving out heatpumps) is when the raw fuel is about three times the amortized cost of the nuclear electricity per unit energy. We are a long way from that – that’s probably around $300 a barrel territory. Or more

              “But getting enough from nuclear looks to be a problem, with the huge up-front investment involved, among other things.”

              I don’t understand where you get that from. The up front for nuclear is comparable to onshore wind, less than onshore wind with additional co-operating gas , less than offshore wind and less than solar tidal etc. by a huge margin.

              I agree its more expensive than gas or coal though, if that’s what you meant.
              It didn’t bankrupt France to run its entire grid off more or less nuclear power.
              So its feasible economically if the will is there – which I accept in many countries it is not.

              However bear this in mind as well, every criticism and a few more as well that you have applied to nuclear is even more true of renewable energy.
              An all nuclear nation would take a hundred years to properly organise, and would require drastic changes at many levels. A silver bullet it is not, BUT it is just feasible.

              So its not being proposed – at least by me – that no change is necessary. Change is coming: the pragmatic issue is to decide what of various possible futures is simply unattainable and focus on the ones that are.

              Th USA right now has zero incentive to invest in nuclear. Gas is so cheap and so is coal there is no reason not to use it, and I cannot see the political will to impose across the board carbon taxes to make fossil fuel less attractive than the next most viable alternative – which is nuclear – especially when a political sea change could remove such a tax leaving nuclear operators high and dry. So I expect it will continue to depend on coal and gas whilst making token gestures at renewables to placate the greens and the rent-seekers.

              I would estimate – and be interested ion your view on that estimate – that a couple of decades of cheap gas and at least 50 years of cheap coal exists in the USA at current burn levels.

              The crunch of course will be in liquid hydrocarbons – gasoline kerosene and diesel. That will probably force a change in transport with a possible revitalisation of trains. So I would guess that thats’ where the changes will happen first: Fortunately there is a wealth of knowledge in this area from more resources stripped countries. Japan and France know their electric train sets very well indeed, and all European cars are and have been extremely fuel-frugal for years.

              This change is already taking place in Europe where transport fuel has been highly taxed for years. Simply put, people are stopping using or even owning cars at all. City dwellers can get around by walking cycling or using public transport, and country dwellers simply don’t go anywhere at all! Internet shopping is growing massively, and the malls are courier van replaces 30 or 40 car trips. Working from home is massively cost and fuel effective, and the Internet makes this possible in knowledge based areas, although traditional companies have proved very resistant to moving away from ‘attendance based’ remuneration to ‘task oriented’ rewards.

              All these changes are mandatory things if hydrocarbon fuel prices rise, irrespective of how you generate electricity.

              The greater danger is as you noted a financial collapse, but in the end that is soluble by mutual agreement: We know the worlds financial institutions are essentially bust. All of them. As are many governments. The argument is over who is going to take the hit.

              As long as fuel price rises are reasonable steady,. that allows people to adapt to them steadily. What is disruptive is price SPIKES or step functions, before the new fuel lean infrastructure can be constructed.


            • There are a few different issues.

              One is that businesses and governments self-organize themselves into systems that “work” properly. If we have less energy, there is a high probability that we will need to self-organize to a less complex structure–more like we had before fossil fuels. Manufacturing will need to near where most of the raw materials are available. It is not at all clear that we will be able to keep up the long supply lines needed to support nuclear (or for that matter, any of the high-tech energy sources we use today). Maybe we can keep up some low tech coal mines, which are typically in India and China, and create some more, if there is coal available in readily accessible areas.

              Governments are likely to be difficult to maintain with shorter supply of energy. This is likely to lead to break up of some countries, and more local kings/dictators/war lords.

              With respect to the high up front cost, I see this to be a problem will all of the non-fossil fuel sources you mention. You many have seen my post Can we invest our way out of an energy shortfall? In my view, we cannot continue to add debt on top of debt. Instead, we need real capital, and there isn’t enough to do all this up-front building, as far as I can see.

            • I am a little iffy on the food part being sustainable. To feed 7 billion people, we need to help out nature a lot, not to mention refrigerate and transport the food, and cook it at its final destination.

              Maybe your garden, in your back yard, is sustainable for some reasonable period (50 years, say).

            • Tony Weddle says:

              I meant that food as an energy source is sustainable. So long as (some) humans can find or produce food, they will have an energy source. Food is just some members of other species (sometimes the same species), so presumably it is sustainable for as long as there is life on this planet.

              Permaculture can provide food in some pretty extreme conditions – I’ve seen examples of food grown in a rocky mulch, in an arid area, where the condensation on the rocks at night provide the irrigation water. It may be that some areas just can’t be supported without importing food and so it may be that some areas will no longer be populated in future. I’m sure that’s likely to happen. But transporting food for survival may not be sustainable so local food production should always be favoured.

            • Leo Smith says:

              All you say is true– qualitatively

              But the numbers have to be run. the energy cost of transporting bananas from the Caribbean versus the energy cost of growing them locally etc etc.

              You only need after all minerals water and a power input – artificial light or sunlight – to grow anything anywhere, if you are prepared to throw energy at it, it will grow.

              The problem that has been identified here is that the levels of production we have of food, depend on an excess of energy other than from the sun. That arrive via greenhouses, artificial heating and lighting and irrigation, mechanical tilling and harvesting, fertilisers pesticides and herbicides. And that the processing and transport of food even into a city – which by dint of its actual surface area can never grow enough food to feed itself – represent an additional energy cost in terms of food.

              If you plant a potato, it will grow,. Why then does a potato cost so much to buy? Because there isn’t enough suitable land and sunlight to let nature take its course, and that potato grew other than in your own larder. And the steps involved in optimising that process are energy intensive.

  34. Leo Smith says:

    Usual excellent summary Gail.
    Interesting snippet for your files: gas is now cheaper than nuclear in the US to the point where its affecting new nuclear deployment.
    But there’s plenty of uranium at sane prices
    I think in theory MOST metal production is possible with cheap enough energy without using coal its really only a reducing agent and e.g. electrolytically made hydrogen might be usable. Some metals are made by direct electrolysis of ores anyway – titanium and IIRC aluminium. Its unlikely we would run out of aluminium and its a good second choice for a huge amount of manufacturing – most things made of steel could be made of aluminium – and its a good alternative to copper in electrical circuits although its harder top work with.

    In short although carbon based fuel is a cheap and convenient way to do ore reduction, its not the only way. Its more important when it comes to things like cement which actually use carbon as part of the chemistry, but even here given enough energy, carbon dioxide can be used as a feedstock.

    Right now gas – in the US anyway – is plentiful and cheap and its likely that it will be the driver for the next few decades. At around 5c a kWh it is about the same as coal an half the nearest non carbon alternative – nuclear power at 8c-10c a kWh. Its also reasonably amenable to polymerisation into longer chain hydrocarbons in the diesel/gasoline sort of range.

    Where this leads if political issues are stripped out, is that right now its business more or less as usual with coal and gas dong the electricity and thermal energy production and feedstock, and dwindling liquid hydrocarbons being used until prices rise beyond synthetic fuels an in the automotive and transport sector. Electricity production will use gas and coal and only switch to nuclear when the price of those doubles, more or less.

    In that context the interesting thing is that nuclear FUEL is extremely cheap (<0.5c kWh). The cost is all in plant capital cost and maintenance, decommissioning and financial charges. Plus regulatory issues like insurance. All of which are subject to change in different technical and political environments. Which may change from necessity and under development.

    Finally it can be seen that each level of technology bootstraps the next: Use of tools and fire begets the ability to use metals, and allow agriculture, creating surplus that allow industrial development that allows oil exploitation and so on. Societies that fail to bootstrap to the next level collapse: those that do survive and prosper. There are no guarantees.

    • I think one of the issues is maintaining our current level of complexity–Can we continue to import goods from around the world, and build complex machinery using a combination of metals from around the world? If we can, and if we can also make enough electricity, then, as you say, there is a way that we don’t need coal.

      If it is the level of complexity that drops, then I think we are forced to consider the old technology, something that is not as desirable. You may have run into David Korowicz’s paper, Trade Off: Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse

      • Leo Smith says:

        Interesting paper. I certainly sympathise with his aims in writing it, but I am more sanguine: war experiences show that in extremis, nations can and do re-structure themselves to cope – albeit at a lower standard of living – with a degree of isolation.

        The USA in particular is capable of surviving isolated from the rest of the world. Not as it is now, no, but it is capable potentially of doing so.

        The UK might also be, albeit at a very reduced level – much as Cuba is.. Europe is complex. Parts are self sufficient Russia and the Ukraine for example, have the food and the industrial production and indeed oil and gas.

        The greatest potential for collapse is Germany.

        Its not necessary to look at the froth of civilisation – its I-bling and its hi-tech toys – to determine its survivability. As long as it has energy and food and some means to distribute the latter, its viable.

        And MOST nations do. Some do not. And they are indeed very vulnerable.

        I totally agree with you that we may have to revert to old technology if we make a wrong choice in the new. In fact Germany is doing just that in its program to build lignite power stations to guarantee its electricity supply since it has no gas, its renewable fleet cannot be relied upon and political expediency is shutting down the nuclear fleet. There is no reason either that e.g. coal fired steam engines, built in local factories using quite basic machine tools could not be reintroduced. Dirtier, slower, less efficient, and hugely more labour intensive, yes. But they worked once, and could do again.

        And there is another interesting point there: the move from labour intensive to capital intensive technology reflects the fact that under a democratic universal franchise, labour made itself more expensive than capital and biased decisions that way. That may yet reverse if governments cannot fund welfare programs: then work at any level as the alternative to dying changes the labour dynamic. 50 men with shovels and picks may not be as efficient as a diesel excavator when it comes to digging holes, but if its a dollar an hour, they might well be cheaper.

        I think we will start to see this transition away from peak state and peak democracy and peak complexity when the head game changes from ‘what is the ideal solution that we should be considering;’ to ‘how exactly are we going to survive at all’ …and reading the output of Europeans and the USA it seems this is happening faster over here. Nations are reverting to ‘what works’ because they haven’t the money to waste on ‘what ideally we would like’ and rising food and energy costs is placing political pressure to deliver these basics, and to an extent, ‘and to hell with the consequences’.

        We are still enmired in political and financial fraud of course. The old dysfunctional institutions are still with us, even though they are essentially bankrupt, because nothing better is in place yet.

        I foresee a disintegration of many of these – The USAs centralised federal government may well weaken, and the EU will collapse as a political institution, simply because devolution is more functionally effective in delivering what the then reconstituted sovereign nations need.

        So a period of change as much as collapse. Essentially things that don’t work will go, and things that do, will survive. Democracy may well be on the casualty list. And so may the multinational corporation. In localised and fragmented economy, their economies of scale may no longer exist.

        • The issue I worry about is the international financial system. If that stops working the way it does now, it seems like imports could become much less.

          I think the big issue is getting people to think about what is feasible, instead of what they would like to have happen. High speed electric trains operated by wind turbines aren’t going to happen. I’m not sure that people would even be willing to consider simple coal-operated trains, perhaps with the simplest wooden (or reprocessed metal) seats and doors, but that would seem to be the kind of thing that could work.

  35. Mel Tisdale says:

    There is perhaps an overarching issue that this post implies, but does not mention directly, namely that of the suitability of the political systems the human species uses in order to define policy regarding energy and commodity supply and usage in relation to the needs of the population as a whole.

    We seem to have suddenly hit a brick wall in the form of peak (add your own choice of commodity or energy supply). Peak oil is the most discussed, but we are also at the limits of uranium production using current technology, peak copper is surely on us – just as we are planning a major move into electric vehicles, potable water is also scarce in many areas etc. etc. It almost seems a case of ‘You name it, and the particular ‘it’ will be in short supply.’) Yet the politicians on whom we rely seem as surprised by the situation as the general public is.

    Surely something is wrong when we are supposed to be advanced as a species, yet have let such a situation creep up on us to the point where drastic action is necessary in order to facilitate our continued development. I suppose what I am really saying is that we need to examine how we govern ourselves.

    Some thought starters, not thought through in depth, but enough to act as a basis for discussion:

    Is a terms of office of four or five years is too short to enable the long-term decisions to be made that this post would seem to call for? (Would fifteen years be more suitable?)

    Does the idea of a president or prime minister need to be replaced with an executive body of, say, five persons who each serve for five years, but on a rolling basis to that there is an election (if election is the way to go) each year for one of them?

    Should parliaments only elect a/the lower chamber? Would we be better served if all legislation proposed by an elected lower chamber were scrutinised by a revising upper chamber whose members were selected on merit, not on how good they look on TV or how glib they are? (Anyone who has heard the British House of Commons on BBC R4 will probably add: ‘or on how grown up they can behave.’)

    Should politicians have spent a minimum of, say, ten years in the outside world before taking up a career in politics, so they know what they are talking about (sometimes)?

    I guess that is enough to be getting on with. I have deliberately refrained from mentioning how we are managing climate change, but only to avoid the silly denial position some adopt, which only serves to make my point for me.

    • It is hard to know what system would work better. It is my impression that our current system seems to have the interest of businesses ranked above the interests of humans.

      Through history, there have been a lot of dictatorships, or something of that sort. Benevolent dictators may work in some cases. Leaders who are trying to please everyone have a hard time.

      It seems like hierarchical behavior and unwillingness to deal with survival of the fittest get in the way of pretty much every leader. I am not sure how to deal with the situation.

      • Leo Smith says:

        “It is my impression that our current system seems to have the interest of businesses ranked above the interests of humans.”

        That of course depends on which humans…the ones that are firmly locked into those businesses may well survive. Arguably the point of the rest has ceased to be meaningful. Once we have burnt all the fossil fuel we wont need consumers will we?

        Essentially some societies that have better access to resources and the willingness to use them and a social system of organisation that actually works to exploit them will survive: the greater mass of people who have no true understanding of the situation, and who are terminally gullible, will go down, probably together with the people who thought they were being so smart by beguiling them.

        The Kalahari bushman will survive, the metropolitan European will not. China will probably survive, because its nearer the harsh reality of what it takes to have a society that if not perfect, at least is fit to survive.

        Taking the long view, our society exists not because of its political institutions, but in spite of them. Up till now. What determines the shape of its existence is its access to energy and how it exploits that access. Not its politics.

        Big business is a relatively efficient means of exploiting access to energy. Large capital projects need to be organised, and that means accumulation of wealth into a few hands and the ability to organise are also necessary. What is not necessary is an enforced egalitarianism that dilutes capital and spreads it so thinly and the control of it so thinly that there are no more large capital projects, ever. Or accumulates it all in a centrist State that by definition has no experience of deploying capital at all to actually create more wealth, and will simply squander it as largesses to electoral groups with their hands held out.

        Forget peak oil, consider peak democracy and peak socialism. (which is the democratic result of giving people who have no understanding of the world they live in, the power to elect someone who will give them what they think they want).

        Civilisation and democracy will not survive the end of oil. Not in general. SOME parts will survive – those that are more right, more ruthless, or just plain lucky, will.

        • I got too thinking. Businesses may fit in with the hierarchical rankings of humans, if they are yet another way of concentrating energy resources.

          The idea of distributing land to everyone, and everyone working a plot is one that many find appealing, but I think it has huge problems. One issue is that if there is not really enough land for everyone, everyone will tend to work the land unsustainably, to get the maximum resources now. The only truly sustainable way seems to be with perennial plants, as planted by nature, with a mix that is suitable to maintain fertility. We can get closer to this, by making sure that there are enough animal wastes reprocessed into the soil, and by tilling the soil as little as possible. Small plots are not conducive to this behavior, except with respect to the owners of the plots.

          It seems to me that Haiti is an example of many people being able to have small plots of land by squatting, and this allowing the population to keep rising. The wood on the land was needed both for cooking and for charcoal (perhaps also for cooking, or for industry). Pretty much all of the trees got cut down, leading to erosion, and even worse problems. Outsiders keep sending aid to Haiti.

          Is there a good write up of the Haiti situation somewhere?

          One of the books I read (would have to look to figure out which one) suggested that back in the Middle Ages, the large common plots alleged to be problems in “Tragedy of the Commons” discussions were in fact used for the purpose of having an area where manure could be added to the soil, while peasants worked other small plots. Later, the common area could be moved to another large plot, and the manuring could begin on that plot. The problem with soil degradation became worse, as a switch was made to all small plots.

          Are there more references on this?

  36. Michael Lloyd says:

    Very nice summary. If I have understood you correctly, you are saying that how we live is defined by our energy supply and not vice versa. Therefore, as the nature of our energy supply changes, so will our way of life. Moreover, if the amount of net energy reduces, so will our population.

    I am familiar with a number of your references. Perhaps I can suggest some others of interest:

    Mount Toba eruption and human population bottleneck (

    Sustainable Materials (

    Oxygen: the Molecule that made the World, by Nick Lane

    • Thanks for the suggestions. It seems like I get quite a few good suggestions as to references from readers.

      I think I may have heard of the Toba eruption theory before. I hadn’t realized how small the number of surviving humans was believed to be.

    • St. Roy says:

      Thank you for the link on Toba. I was not aware of this event. I agree, the beginning of the decline in net energy available to human civilization is certainly going to initiate a great and long contraction, including depopulation. I also think that the contraction to a billion of so humans will be a lot faster than the 200 year expansion from that number to our 7 billion.

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