How Energy Shapes the Economy

In the beginning, the Master Economist created the Economy.  He created businesses large and small, consumers, governments with their regulation, and financial institutions of all types. And the Master Economist declared that the economy should grow. And it did grow, but only for a while. Then it stalled. Then He declared that stimulus of various types should fix it, and it did, for a while. Then He declared that if humans would just wait for a while, it would fix itself, but it wouldn’t.

We all know that the foregoing isn’t the real story about the economy, but what is the real story?

I think if we dig deeper, we discover that energy plays an all-powerful role, just as it does in the natural world in general.

Population: How Inadequate Energy Acts as a Limiting Factor 

Human population is of course an important part of the economy. If population keeps growing, it helps the economy grow, because more consumers mean more demand.  Can human population keep growing?

Figure 1. World Population Growth, based on summary data provided by US Census. Population growth became much more rapid after fossil fuels began adding to food supply, in the 1800s. Coal enabled much greater use of metal and glass, allowing changes which permitted horses to do more work on farms, and innovations such as electric light bulbs.

The answer seems to be no. Here we find that researchers have found an extremely important role for energy. The relationship they have found relates to any species, not just to homo sapiens.

Ecologists often talk about the existence of a natural cycle between predators and prey. The predators eat the prey that is available, but in time, the predators drop in number, as less food becomes available. When the population of predators drops, the prey is able to expand its population. In fact, Lotka and Volterra created a model that has been used to model a number of predator-prey relationships, including the wolf and moose population on Isle Royal National Park (Lotka) (Volterra) (Jost).

Figure 2. Lotka-Volterra Predator-Prey Model
Source: Wikipedia

Humans are now the dominant predator species on earth. Our numbers have grown from a relative handful in our earliest days to over 7 billion in 2012. Other species have had to contract in relationship to the advances man has made.

The United Nations is now forecasting a world population of over 9 billion in 2050, and over 10 billion in 2100 (United Nations).  If this happens, the populations of other species will need to be pushed down to offset the growth in the human species. Eventually, this situation will reach a limit, since we need to eat other species, both plants and animals.

The situation is more complicated than Figure 2 suggests, because there are many species involved, and there are many other changes taking place—temperature of the sun is gradually changing, the earth’s orbit around the sun varies, etc. Also, external energy, including fossil fuels and nuclear, is adding to total energy available to man. But the point remains: we cannot expect population growth to continue indefinitely.

The situation in Figure 2 is described as a  predator-prey situation, but if we analyze the situation, it is really an energy situation as well, because prey is an energy source to the predator. Howard T. Odum has written extensively on this subject. Let me explain his view.

The Role of Energy in the Population of Species

Energy plays a major role in the balance between predators and prey. Natural systems, such as groups of plants and animals, arrange themselves to get the best possible use of energy resources available. All of us know that if there is a bare spot on our lawn, and enough sunlight and water, it is not long before some kinds of plants come along to fill the gap. Sunlight allows photosynthesis to take place, producing food for plants. If more sunlight is available, more plants will grow.

This tends to work with animals as well. Let’s take the example of wolves that are predators of moose (mentioned above as being modeled using Lotka-Volterra equations). From the point of view of a wolf, a moose is a form of stored energy, since eating it provides calories that provide energy to the wolf. If at some point more moose become available to eat, then more offspring of wolves will be able to survive to adulthood, under survival of the fittest, so the wolf population will increase. As a result, the wolves get as much use as possible of the energy available to them.

Howard Odum, in A Prosperous Way Down, credits Lotka with discovering the fundamental energy law that underlies ecological systems, which Odum calls the Maximum Power Concept and rephrases as follows:

In the self-organization process, systems develop those parts, processes, and relationships that capture the most energy and use it with the best efficiency possible without reducing power.[1]

This means that ecosystems (and in fact, other self-organizing systems, such as economies), will gradually adapt to get the best use possible of the energy available to them. Ecosystems are “self-organizing” in that with the abundance of offspring of animals, and the abundance of seeds of plants, there are always offspring available to move into available niches with excess energy. There are other ways of making use of  available energy—for example, selection of the fittest can lead to people with the right skin color being adapted to best using the intensity of the suns rays in their part of the globe.

Energy Use by Humans

Energy plays an important role for each of us as humans, just as it does for other species in ecosystems. The most obvious use for energy is in the food that we eat. Some of the energy we use is embedded energy—that is energy from the past that has been used to make something that we use today. The stored energy can be human energy, as in the energy it would take to shear wool from a sheep, make it into yarn, and knit a sweater from it. Stored energy can also be from other sources. For example, it takes a great deal of energy to extract and refine metals. It also takes a great deal of energy to make today’s concrete.

One type of stored energy comes in the form of education (Odum). Education is available because the student’s labor is not needed in the workforce to create the food and other goods that he consumes while being educated.  Education requires that teachers attend school themselves for many years, meaning that teachers must somehow be supported by the energy of the rest of society both during their own education and while they are teaching students.

Education also involves the concentration of knowledge in the form of books and on the Internet. All of this requires energy. Books require energy to support the people taking time to write the books, to physically make the books, and to transport them to the location where they are read. The Internet requires electrical energy.  Even thinking requires energy. The human brain uses a disproportionate share of man’s energy, up to 20% of the energy used by humans (Swaminathan). The people with the highest education tend to receive higher salaries than others, indicating that this form of embedded energy is highly valued by society.

The Role of Energy in Numbers and Types of Businesses and Governments

Businesses, governments, and consumers form another self-organizing system, not unlike ecological systems (Odum).  This system has gradually arisen over many years, and adapts itself as conditions change. The financial system is the part of the self-organizing system that keeps track of the energy costs of the system (as well as other costs), and pushes the whole system toward the lowest cost approach to creating goods and services. Businesses tend to succeed or fail in ways that make the most productive use of energy resources, according to the rules set out by the system.

Let’s consider a small-scale example of a potential addition to this self-organized system. An entrepreneur decides to plant a field of turnips. In this case, part of the energy for the business comes from the sun, and part of the energy comes from the labor of the entrepreneur. The calories the entrepreneur eats provide energy for his labor. The entrepreneur’s education represents another form of stored energy, affecting his success. If the entrepreneur buys fertilizer, it is an energy input as well, since energy was required to make and transport the fertilizer to the location where it is used.

Part of the energy used by the entrepreneur may come from mechanical equipment that was made in the past using heat energy, and part from fuels that power that equipment. If purchased energy is scarce, and because of this, high-priced, the entrepreneur will have to charge a higher price for turnips he sells in order to cover his costs. The entrepreneur has a much greater chance of success in selling his turnips to customers if energy is low-priced rather than high-priced because many more customers will be able to afford turnips at $1.00 pound than at $4.00 pound. So it is the price of goods, which is tied to energy costs, that helps determine both which goods are sold and which businesses will succeed. High energy cost tend to lead to business failures.

Governments, too, use energy, and fit in with the same self-organizing system as businesses. The type of government requiring the least amount of energy is one run by a single person, perhaps a king or dictator. In order to support the king, the economy needs to have enough spare energy (in the form of food) available so that the king or dictator doesn’t himself need to work to grow food. It is also helpful if there is excess energy generated by society to provide clothing, a home, heat for the home, and the many other things that the king or dictator expects to own.

More complicated governments require more energy. A government of elected officials requires not only the excess energy from society to feed and clothe the elected officials, it also requires the energy to build the buildings where polling takes place, and the energy for officials to travel to the location of the government offices. The offices themselves also require energy, both for their construction and their maintenance. If energy supply is constricted, the price of energy is likely to be higher, and thus the cost of government will be higher. Taxes will need to be raised. If there is a sufficient energy surplus elsewhere to afford these higher taxes, these higher taxes may be acceptable to taxpayers. If not, some government officials may need to be laid off, to balance the (energy) budget.

What Happens When Energy is Deficient?

Something has to “give,” when there is not enough energy.

A deficiency in solar energy would likely cause the world to get colder. Crops would fail, prices would rise, and the problem of low solar energy would affect both the natural world, and the economy consisting of businesses, governments, consumers, and financial institutions. The last time this was a major issue was during the Little Ice Age. The biggest impact seems to have been during the 1600s. I show in The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy that this seems to have been the case.

What happens when energy supply such as wood, coal, oil or natural gas is constrained?

Unfortunately, we are getting a chance to find out. There is considerable evidence that oil, our largest and most flexible source of energy, is now encountering supply issues.  Oil price in 2012 is more than three times the price it was ten years ago, in inflation-adjusted prices.

Figure 3. Historical inflation adjusted oil price per barrel, (Brent equivalent in 2011$), based on amounts shown in BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

It is during the time that prices have been high (indicating short supply) that the world has been suffering from recession. This is precisely the impact one would expect, if energy is closely tied to the economy. Adequate supply would be reflected in low price. When it is not, the economy of countries, especially of oil importers, tends to go into recession. We will discuss this more in future posts.

Figure 3 shows that there was a previous time, in the 1970s and early 1980s, when oil prices were very high in inflation adjusted terms. This was the time shortly after the United States discovered that its own oil supply was decreasing rapidly (Figure 4).

Figure 4. US crude oil production based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.

After United States oil production began decreasing in 1970, a huge amount of effort was put into finding more oil supplies, increasing efficiency, and converting oil use to other types of energy use. There was considerable success in these areas. The second “bump” in Figure 4 reflects the addition of oil from Alaska, something that is now in decline also. Oil uses that could be easily switched to another fuel were switched away. For example, where oil had been used to create electricity, new generation using nuclear or coal was built. In the case of oil for home heating, the switch was often made to natural gas. Cars became smaller and more energy-efficient during this period.

It might be noted that the period of high oil prices in the mid 1970s and early 1980s was also a time of recession. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes (Hamilton, 2011). He has also shown that there appears be a direct connection between the price run-up of 2007-08, cutbacks in consumer consumption and spending on purchases of domestic automobiles, and the economic slowdown of 2007 – 2008 (Hamilton, 2009).

The run-up in oil prices in the past few years seems to be related to a combination of (a) world oil supply that is not growing very rapidly, and (b) increasing demand from developing economies, such as China and India, and (c) higher production costs for oil, because much of the inexpensive to extract oil has already been extracted.

There is a great deal more that could be said about these issues, but I will save this information for later. I will make a couple of observations, however:

1. The United States has not been very successful in increasing its oil production, in spite of improved technology. The right hand side of the graph in Figure 4 is higher than what it would have been because of opening areas to drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, new technology, and enhanced oil recovery methods. But current production still lies far below the 1970 peak of oil production.

2. The government has not been forthright in telling us about this problem. Science textbooks don’t generally discuss this issue, nor do history books. Some things are embarrassing. This seems to be one of them.


[1] Power is the rate at which energy is used.  For example, a 100 watt light bulb uses more energy per unit of time than a 50 watt bulb, so has more power. Any organism has a rate at which it uses energy. For example, we may eat 2200 calories a day. This quote is just saying that the rate at which organisms use energy is considered in this self-organization process.


Lotka, A.J., Elements of Physical Biology, Williams and Wilkins, (1925)

Volterra, V., Variations and fluctuations of the number of individuals in animal species living together in Animal Ecology, Chapman, R.N. (ed), McGraw–Hill, (1931)

Jost, C., Devulder, G., Vucetich, J.A., Peterson, R., and Arditi, R., “The wolves of Isle Royale display scale-invariant satiation and density dependent predation on moose”, J. Anim. Ecol., 74(5), 809-816 (2005)

United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, World Population Prospects the 2010 Revision. Total Population – Both Sexes.

Odum, H. T. and Odum E. C., A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, University Press of Colorado, (2001)

Barnosky, A. D. et al., Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Biosphere, Nature, 486, 52-58 (07 June 2012)

Swaminathan, N. Why Does the Brain Need So Much Power? Scientific American, April 29, 2008.

Hamilton, J. D. Historical oil shocks. NBER working paper No. 16790.  Feb 2011. Available from

Hamilton J. H. Causes and consequences of the oil shock of 2007-08. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity:215e61. Spring 2009. Accessible at

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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68 Responses to How Energy Shapes the Economy

  1. Bicycle Dave says:

    When I’m elected Supreme Commander of the World :-), my cabinet will feature Ikonoclast as the technology czar, James as philosopher-in-chief, Ric as policy master, and Don Stewart as the “Steward” of our planetary resources. But, alas, these positions will never be filled as it seems that I’m persona non grata, even on this fairly radical forum, for suggesting the reasons why Ikonoclast’s (very reasonable) suggestions are impossible to implement. And, not because his recommendations are flawed.

    Over on TOD, the question is often posed: “Are we smarter than yeast”? Of course we are! We put a robot on Mars – something yeast couldn’t possibly do. The bigger question is what do we mean by “smart”? Yeast die when they overpopulate:

    Below is another example of a population overshoot and collapse scenario. This is the population graph of yeast cells in a 10% sugar solution. Note that the yeast population first explodes exponentially, and is then followed by population die-off as the finite nutrients are exhausted and their own waste products pollute their environment. [graph omitted]

    Humans have been clever enough to exploit their planet far beyond the normal Petri Dish analogy for yeast. But, this raises the difference between what is tactical and what is strategic? Clearly, humans have used very effective tactics to multiple and dominate the planet. These tactics will prove to be a very poor strategy if we suffer a very nasty die-off due to overshoot issues.

    Ikonoclast said:

    I agree that adding back in all the other problems we face (over-population, climate change, soil depletion, species extinctions, ocean acidification, metals exhaustion, fresh water exhaustion etc. etc.) then the problem looks far more difficult.

    I submit that these are the problems. No amount of abundant energy can fully remedy these problems as long as billions of humans keep contributing to these problems. I’m convinced that a great new energy supply would only exacerbate these problems. IMO, the problem is “Peak Everything”.

    It seems that we have an unprecedented dilemma. If we continue to believe in the idea of an inalienable right to breed without restraint, then we will prove to actually have no more “wisdom” than yeast. OTOH, to live in the world described by Ikonoclast, we would actually need to understand the fundamental problems facing the planet and our species; we would need to establish some fairly universal goals regarding population levels, consumption privileges, and a host of other things that impact the biosphere; and then we would bring forth folks like Ikonoclast to test a set of solutions.

    Brilliant solutions are worthless if they are not implemented. My life experiences inform me that broad-based solutions are almost never implemented without real teamwork and cooperation on the part of folks who truly understand the problems and agree upon the goals. Dictators may enjoy some short term success, but history does not support their long term record of success.

    The difference between yeast and humans is not “smarts”. We are clearly intelligent enough to solve our problems. IMO, there are powerful forces afoot that prevent us from using our intelligence to address the real long-term strategic interests of the human species. Least I start another flame war, I suggest investigating meme theory This wiki discussion also gets into the criticism of the theory. Obviously, such an insight into humanity and its traditions would not be without criticism. Judge for yourself – but, keep asking “why are humans unable to understand a simple concept like Limits to Growth

    I’ve come to the conclusion that there is only one useful course of action to mitigate what will most likely be some very painful consequences of our human behavior – and that is to focus on the root causes for our inability to approach our problems in a rational manner. Admittedly, it may be too late to make any meaningful changes.

    • James says:

      Hello Bicycle Dave, maybe people are no smarter than amoebas.

      People are basically chemotaxic. They will move in a direction(s) that will provide a release of dopamine or serotonin. Even the anticipation of reward will release pleasing neurochemicals until the actual stimulus is acquired. For instance, an advertiser will show people having a wonderful time with big smiles cleaning with a new brand of mop. The imagery of the mop and the release of pleasurable chemicals in the brain of the observer are associated and linked. The idea is to encourage the chemotaxic human to seek he pleasure of the mop, when in fact it does not really exist.

      The industrialized world has been sold on the idea that the middle-class lifestyle of the West will release more pleasure into their brains than could even be imagined. Some people make a lot of money convincing people to strive for the middle-class lifestyle by selling it to them. They also convince them that if they work hard the dream can be theirs. But we know that working hard in a Chinese sweatshop does not result in the American or Chinese dream, except for the few that own the enterprises that are selling the appurtenances of the dream. You may end up with a T.V., marginal water and intermittent electricity, maybe some AC in a cramped apartment in a cramped and polluted city.

      Additionally people are very competitive and know the feeling of “being on top” brought to you by serotonin. It feels GREAT to have a million dollars in liquid assets, a nice automobile, several homes, a boat and so on. Not that you could convert all of these into a dopamine experience, but because the possessor feels superior. It feels good to be superior. This desire is in our genes and biochemistry. With just that little feature of human behavior we’re set up for a never-ending material acquisition competition.

      The poor especially have been sold the idea of never ending life in the Kingdom of God and this is often enough when there are no other opportunities in the environment. Just imagining the illusory post-mortem reward is enough to release pleasurable biochemicals in the brain. You can also get some great serotonin release by striving to be extra good and climbing in God’s hierarchy of rewards.

      The entire capitalist system is built on selling one dream or another and when satisfaction is achieved they’ll come up with another, until the energy runs out.

      By observing the melting of Arctic ice, reading Nevin’s Arctic blog and the Methane Working Group, I would not be surprised if a drastic solution (reducing population by 50% or greater) would not have to be implemented just to save what remains of life. This would be accomplished by using a doomsday bug applied to the earth’s entire population with equal opportunity for all. Perhaps all of the preppers should be buying HEPA filters and masks or positive pressure homes with filtered air intake instead of guns and ammo.

      It seems obvious that government is beyond controlling most natural impulses of their citizenry, especially when their greatest industrial supporters are in the business of stoking the fires of desire.

      • trek5000 says:

        Great comment James, now my I suggest 40 mg of Paxil and/or a 70″ wide screen for your disposition. Now it’s time to get back on the treadmill and be a good little consumer.

        • James says:

          Well, Trek5000, I just can’t do that because the math just doesn’t add up. A 70” big screen plus the spectacle of unhindered mid-brain contortions in animated color equals 80mg of Paxil. I did recently purchase a Sony A55. I want the free .pdf I am preparing to come with eye-popping photographs combined with my fathoming insight to most effectively lay to rest any doubts about our origins and our likely demise. Not that it will be read and “believed”, but for those with a fairly advanced and broad education, it should be interesting.

          I’m lucky enough not to have been on the treadmill for most of my life (into my fifth decade now) but will grudgingly return soon to boost the capital account and tie up loose ends before the real show begins.

          • trek5000 says:

            I’ll bet that Sony felt good for a few days. I keep a big box in the garage to remind me of the consequences of falling off the treadmill. If you write it, it will be interesting and I would be privileged to read it.

            And by the way, try a little Republican arithmetic. You can have it all including another tax cut.

  2. Pingback: Another Week of GW News, September 9, 2012 – A Few Things Ill Considered

  3. Don Stewart says:

    I located some information from Soil Science class. These are from slides, so treat the numbers as approximate.

    First, the observation that:
    ‘Complex ecosystems have more functional groups and more energy transfers than simple ecosystems. In complex soil ecosystems, this reduces energy (ie, nutrient, water) losses from the soil system.’

    In other words, the more critters and different kinds of critters in the soil eating each other, the more energy will be retained in the soil

    Second. In a test of blue grass growth. Grass was planted in sterile soil, in soil with bacteria, and soil with bacteria and nematodes. Sterile yielded a crop of 20 units, with bacteria the crop was 175 units, and with bacteria plus nematodes the crop was 290 units.

    In other words, the more critters and different kinds of critters in the soil eating each other, the more nutrients a plant can absorb and put into growth which may, in the case of food crops, feed humans.

    What destroys soil critters? Plowing and poisoning and synthetic fertilizers–just the things Big Ag tells us is essential to feed the world.

    Changing gears to health care. A quote:
    ‘The basic fact is that one third of our economy profits from making people sick and fat.’

    Where will you find the post? At

    So if our GDP measures activities which are largely squandering our natural assets and making us fat and sick, exactly why is it that we want more GDP?

    Don Stewart

    • There are banks, governments around the world, and others that want the debts that are owed to them paid back. It is a lot easier to do this if a BAU direction is followed than if another direction is followed. That is part of why we do what we do.

      Also, there seems to be an awfully lot of need for humans to be in charge of everything. Ag science can figure out what chemistry is right for the soil. Doctors can figure out what pills / surgeries are right for the patient. Of course, the doctor is making money from recommending these pills/surgeries, and ag businesses make money from the products they sell.

      Another issue is that we don’t really have a Plan B–certainly not one that very many people have agreed to.

  4. Pingback: How Energy Shapes the Economy | Doomstead Diner

  5. Don Stewart says:

    A few more observations from Soil Science class as we contemplate the way Energy shapes the economy.

    We can observe in modern agriculture the way abundant fossil fuels have shaped agriculture and the larger environment–everything from moldboard plows and gigantic industrial model farms to desertification and global warming.

    Suppose fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow. What sort of energy might replace them? Consider earthworms. I will quote from Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, page 98.

    Vermicastings (the name given to worm poop) are 50 percent higher in organic matter than soil that has not moved through worms. This is an astonishing increase and radically changes the composition of the soil, increases Cation Exchange Capacity because of the greater charge-holding organic surfaces. Other nutrients, therefore, have the ability to attach to the organic matter that has passed through a worm.

    The benefits don’t stop there. The worm’s digestive enzymes (or, properly, those produced by bacteria in the worm’s intestines) unlock many of the chemical bonds that otherwise tie up nutrients and prevent their being plant-available. Thus, vermicastings are as much as seven times richer in phosphate than soil that has not been through an earthworm. They have ten times the available potash, five times the nitrogen; three times the usable magnesium, and they are one and a half times higher in calcium.

    Worms can deposit a staggering 10 to 15 tons of castings per acre on the surface annually. This almost unbelievable number is clearly significant to gardeners: the ability to increase the availability of nutrients without carting in and adding tons of fertilizer is about as close to alchemy as one can get.

    Back to me. So it’s not so much that the disappearance of fossil fuels would be a disaster for agriculture, it just means we couldn’t continue to do it the way we have become accustomed to. If we think about the sources of the energy deployed in a ‘worm powered’ agriculture, we can list at least the following:
    *the embodied energy in the DNA which defines not only the thousands of species of worms but also the millions of species of fellow soil creatures
    *the sun which powers photosynthesis and warms the air, soil, and water
    *gravity which sinks water into the ground
    *surface tension which retains water in tiny soil spaces and wicks water toward the surface in dry periods
    *the fine grained harvesting of energy embodied in soil critters and plants, thanks to an unbelievable abundance of niche feeders
    *the electrical charges
    *the liberation of energy when chemical bonds are broken
    *the embodied energy of human earthworks which slow the descent of water (responding to gravity) from highlands to valleys, keeping the soil moist for earthworms and other creatures
    *the embodied energy of human understanding of how to use worms (and biological activity in general) effectively
    *the work humans do, powered by plants and animals powered by the sun

    We can also think of energy saved as fossil fuels are not burned and global warming is lessened and pollution is not generated and cancers are reduced.

    If we try to trace through the implications of substituting earthworms for fossil fuels, we might list items such as these:
    *the immediate reversal of the generations long decline in agricultural employment
    *the immediate recognition that the breeding of perennial plants (especially grains) is important and the reallocation of resources
    *the immediate recognition that ‘forest gardens’ are important and the reallocation of resources
    *the recognition that rebuilding garden soils is important and the reallocation of resources
    *ceasing to use large quantitites of pesticides and herbicides and synthetic fertilizers
    *shrinking giant cities which have outgrown their ability to grow food
    *stop trying to reignite the suburban housing bubble by mortgaging the future of our grandchildren with additional debt

    Don Stewart

    • Recognizing these issues in advance, and acting on them, is the key. One reason why I expect this approach will not be taken is because working on one set of problems takes resources away from working on another set of problems. Also, in the immediate time frame, the current resource allocation keeps 7 billion people alive, whereas the method which has more hope for the long term, doesn’t necessarily keep the full 7 billion alive. (Short term vs long-term time horizons has been the problem throughout the ages. We keep making decisions which is best for the short term.)

      The issue of a ramp up period may also be a problem. For a while, resources may be allocated, but it takes a while for new approaches to bear their full fruit. (Literally in the case of trees planted.)

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Again from Soil Science class, here is an example of energy use which combines industrial electricity and manufacturing plus transport with solar energy harnessed by living things.

    For the sake of simplicity and conservation of industrial energy, I will divide this into two parts. The first part is the manufacture and distribution of 5 gallon plastic buckets and small aquarium bubblers and a couple of feet of plastic tubing. In addition, we need commercial electricity to operate the bubbler. We might be able to operate the bubbler with off-grid solar PV, but the bubbler will need to operate for 24 hours continuously–so storage batteries would be required, which add more complexity (Tom Murphy would know if he could make a bubbler work overnight on his batteries). A plastic sprayer is also quite helpful. A pair of the largest size panty-hose is useful.

    For the solar powered part. First, make some compost. This is a matter of stacking organic refuse into a pile using the knowledge you have acquired about how to do it–including the formulas for bacterially dominated compost versus fungally dominated compost and the knowledge of when each is appropriate. Then use dechlorinated water (which can be made from tap water by bubbling it for a few minutes) and add the compost to it. Put the compost into the panty hose and put the whole thing in the plastic bucket. Let it bubble for 24 hours.

    Remove the panty hose and you have a bucket of compost tea. Pour the tea into your sprayer. Spray on leaves, newly emerging buds, or on the ground.

    The tea will contain a dense concentration of bacteria and fungi which will crowd out many pathogens. Biological activity in the soil will be boosted many-fold if the activity level is low. The anti-pathogen activity and the boosting of biological activity are powered entirely by solar power and by surface tension in the water.

    I am not Tom Murphy…I can’t compute the savings in industrial energy used. There is no question, however, that this method uses less industrial energy than any industrial agricultural method. There are no industrial fertilizers, no herbicides, no fungicides, and no pesticides. No tractors or roto-tillers are involved. So not only is the soil food web not destroyed, the soil food web is actually enhanced with the result that productivity in terms of food and fiber beneficial to humans is increased.

    In a perfect world where only natural methods of agriculture had ever been used (the Garden of Eden), compost teas would not be required. But in our currently degraded environment, they are a very clever and effective step toward recovery. Their use will also sequester more carbon in the soil, which ameliorates global warming. A compost tea makes effective use of existing industrial infrastructure, while preparing us to live with a declining supply of fossil fuels.

    There is of course, a Seneca Cliff involved. If we fail to prepare the soil food webs properly, and squander our remaining industrial infrastructure and fossil fuels on frivolous activities, then we are likely to experience a lot of starvation as industrial infrastructure and fossil fuels both fail.

    You will note that I have used home scale methods to avoid as much transport as possible. I assume that you will rake leaves and collect kitchen scraps and plant refuse to make your compost. I assume you will turn the compost by hand with a garden fork handed down over the generations. I assume that you do not want to drive into town (with car or horse and buggy) to buy liquid compost tea from a commercial source. I assume that making your own in a 5 gallon bucket is more practical (for lots of reasons) than trying to operate a small business making it and then distributing it among neighbors.

    What does the bubbler do? The bubbler keeps the tea aerated which prevents the evil effects of anerobic activity. The bubbles also supply the energy which breaks the strong chemical bonds which glue the bacteria and fungi to the compost. Think of the dental assistant chipping the plaque off your teeth. (I assume that if you could stick your head in the bucket for 24 hours, the plaque might dis-adhere. But I won’t volunteer for that particular experiment.) There is no free lunch in terms of breaking the chemical bonds, but we are using industrial means pretty efficiently.

    Don Stewart
    PS For more details, see Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

  7. a really well thought out and written summary of our biological assimilation of energy.
    The problem in real life is, when trying to discuss this subject with friends (at the risk of friendships I might add) that the whole thing tends to be brushed aside, —“that doesn’t apply to people, only animals, people are different”—or something along those lines. trying to explain that people are just another animal species is next to impossible. I think this is where many of our environmental problems lie

    • Yes, you are right. People can’t figure out that we are an animal species as well. The idea that for example, “Survival of the Fittest” might apply to us is really, really weird to us. Our culture can’t even consider the idea.

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