Based on the sound of the name renewable, a person might think that using only “renewable” energy is ideal–something we should all strive to use exclusively. But there are lots of energy sources that might be called “renewable,” and lots applications for renewable energy. Clearly not all are equally good. Perhaps we should examine the “Renewables are our savior,” belief a little more closely.
1. Renewables that we have today won’t replace the quantity of today’s fossil fuels, in any reasonable timeframe.
Figure 1, above shows the distribution of fuels used since 1965.
Other renewables, which includes wind, solar, geothermal and other categories of new renewables, in total amounts to 1.6% of world energy supply in 2011, according to BP. The light blue line is not very visible on Figure 1. (The blue line that is visible at the top is “Nuclear.”)
Biofuels, which would include ethanol and other types of biofuels, such as palm oil, amounts to 0.5% of world energy supply. Its orange line is not very visible on the chart either.
Hydroelectric, shown in purple, has been around a long time–since 1880 in the United States. It amounts to 6.4% of world energy supply. Its quantity is not growing very much, because most of the good locations have already been dammed.
In total, the three categories amount to 8.5% of world energy supply. If growth continues at today’s rate, it will be a very long time before renewable energy supply can be expected to amount to more than 10% or 15% of world energy supply. We very clearly cannot operate all the equipment we have today on this quantity of energy. In fact, it is doubtful that we can even cover the basics (food, water, and heat to keep from freezing) for 7 billion people, with this quantity of energy.
2. If there is a huge collapse scenario, there is a possibility that those who are in possession of renewable energy technologies will be able to use these technologies to their own benefit, when others do not have such options.
There are many ways that today’s technologies may benefit a few hundred thousand or a few million people who happen to have use of them, for perhaps a few decades. A person who has a solar panel and backup battery may be able to operate an electric light, when no one else has one. A person living near a large hydroelectric plant may expect to have electricity, when other parts of the country do not. A person with a solar thermal hot water heater may be able to have hot water, when others do not.
There are of course limits to this. If the solar panel depends on battery backup, the battery may wear out pretty quickly. We know from the Second Law of Thermodynamics that everything degrades over time. This includes solar panels, hydroelectric plants, transmission wires, and even the solar thermal hot water heater. So at most, the benefit of today’s technology is only likely to last for a few generations, unless we are able to repeat making new units.
There is considerable misunderstanding regarding the availability of electricity from solar PV panels on roofs of houses. Usually, these are operated with an inverter (to produce alternating current) and connected to the electric grid. These units cannot be used if there is an electrical outage in the area. With some rewiring, the panels might be used on a stand-alone basis. On such a basis, their use would be much more limited. They could only be used for devices taking direct current, and only when the sun is shining (unless backup batteries are available).
3. Renewables can’t be expected to operate on a “stand-alone” basis, in any reasonable timeframe.
Each energy source is quite specialized. In the past, human and animal labor played an important role in growing crops. Charcoal made from wood was used in making a very limited amount of metals and glass. It was possible to use traditional sources of “renewable energy” to power society, in large part because only a small amount of non-human and non-animal energy was used in total. World population was 1 billion or less, not 7 billion. The standard of living was quite low.
In India today, the crops are grown primarily with human and animal labor, two sources which could be considered “renewable”.
Even with this low standard of living, there is a substantial fossil fuel contribution that would be difficult to eliminate. The hand tools that workers use are sickles, which are made using coal. India uses nitrogen fertilizer made using fossil fuel (natural gas or coal) as well as irrigation pumps (manufactured using fossil fuel, and fueled by diesel or electricity). Only the electricity component would be fairly easy to eliminate with today’s renewable energy (if scaled up sufficiently).
Some seem to believe that renewables can power the world on a stand-alone basis. The tiny quantity of renewable energy currently available is, in and of itself, a huge limitation in making this happen. Furthermore, today’s solar PV panels and wind turbines are made and transported using fossil fuels, and most of our transportation industry uses petroleum. In theory, we could develop new devices that use only electricity, or create enough biofuels to make a complete closed loop (devices made and transported only with renewables). In practice, we have trillions of dollars of cars, trucks, airplanes, and construction machinery built to use oil. Because of this, a complete changeover to renewables is at best decades away.
At this point, renewables are only “fossil fuel extenders.” They operate within our current fossil fuel system. They cannot be expected to reproduce themselves without the benefit of fossil fuels.
4. Some renewables are economic in today’s world, while others require subsidies.
There are clearly many types of renewable energy that are economic in today’s world. Geothermal is economic in some locations, because there is underground heat that can be used to boil water to create electricity, or to heat homes directly. Solar PV panels, together with back-up batteries, are often the lowest-cost electricity source in remote locations (Figure 3, below). This is why energy companies use them to provide power in remote locations. Solar thermal energy is inexpensive for heating swimming pools and for heating hot water in warmer climates.
Other renewables require subsidies. We usually think of intermittent renewables, such as wind and solar PV panels, as requiring subsidies. In fact, it is often difficult to tell how much subsidy is truly required. Part of the subsidy comes in the need for upgraded grid transmission; part of the subsidy comes from the need to run fossil fuel back-up stations fewer hours and ramp them up and down more often, making them wear out more quickly; part of the subsidy comes in the form of increased complexity, that makes it more difficult to maintain electricity supply for the long run. There is no obvious reason to believe that intermittent electricity will make the electric grid last longer–if we are increasing the complexity of grid regulation at the same time we are reaching limits of many types, adding more intermittent renewables would seem to increase the likelihood of early failure.
As long as there are renewable energy mandates for renewables, and costs divided among many different payers (most of whom are not reimbursed for their payments), it is hard to tell how much today’s subsidy actually is. Energy return on energy invested (EROEI) calculations of intermittent renewables do not look at the whole system cost, including impacts on other players, so overstate economic benefits and understate energy costs. In the end, we do not have a good measure of how much mandated renewable energy supplies cost us. Also, as we add more intermittent renewables to the electric grid, the cost to other players can be expected to escalate, making the understatement of costs (and overstatement of EROEI) greater over time.
5. High-priced renewables help some of our problems, but make others worse.
Inexpensive renewables–ones that require no subsidy or mandate–are not a problem from a financial point of view. Many of these can help the environment without providing economic challenges.
The ones that tend to be problematic are ones that require subsidies, especially when we have no idea how much the subsidy really is. Figure 4, below, gives my view of how some of the various limits we are reaching act together.
In my view, the limits we hit first are the limits on the outside of the chart on Figure 4: financial issues and political issues. (I introduce this chart in my post Our Energy Predicament in Charts.) Disease susceptibility enters in, as there are more unemployed and as the government finds it necessary to cut back in financial programs for the poor and unemployed.
If the price of renewable energy is high, it tends to exacerbate the problems on the outside of this chart, even as it reduces CO2 contributions within the country, and reduces local pollution as electricity is made. There may still be pollution issues associated with making the rare earth metals that go into the wind turbines or the solar panels, but these are conveniently in China or another remote location. Making devices themselves also requires fossil fuels–usually coal if the devices are imported from China.
The way our current financial woes work out can be represented by Figure 5, below:
High priced renewables tend to exacerbate the poor financial situation of governments represented in Figure 5 in several ways:
- Wage earners are even more penniless, thanks to the higher cost of these renewables,
- Companies tend to move their manufacturing to cheaper locations (often using coal). This both reduces (a) taxes paid by the company to the US government, and (b) wages paid to US workers,
- The government pays out more benefits to the unemployed workers, and
- The government pays out more in funds for subsidies.
In the end, when we look at world CO2 emissions, we discover that they have in fact risen relative what would have been expected prior to the Kyoto protocol (signed in 1997), rather than fallen, as the emphasis on renewables grew (Figure 6).
A major reason for emissions growth shown in Figure 6 seems to be globalization. I wonder, though, if globalization was pushed forward by the practice of looking at emissions within a country’s own boundaries, while excluding emissions associated with imported manufactured goods. The pushed developed countries toward renewables, at the same time Asia increased market share greatly through its use of coal.
Germany is now the leader in the use of renewable energy. Recent reports say that there are 800,000 German households that cannot pay their electricity bills, because of the high cost renewables add. There are also reports that German natural gas producers want to close back-up plants for wind/solar, unless they too receive subsidies.
6. Even if renewables look to be cheap and non-intermittent, there still can be problems with their use.
Unfortunately, nature doesn’t really provide us with a free lunch. If we use growing plants–such as trees, corn, palm oil trees, or other biomass, we start reaching limits as well. It is very easy to cut down trees more quickly than they regrow. We know from research by Sing Chew that deforestation was already a problem 6,000 years ago, when there were only 20 million humans on earth. Deforestation also leads to soil loss and erosion, which is also a huge problem. Plowing of fields for crops of any kind in fact tends to lead to soil loss.
Hydroelectric, as good an energy source as it is, has its downsides as well. In the early years after its construction, it tends to increase CO2 production in the flooded areas. It tends to interfere with fish migration, and with the normal balance of species. Building large hydroelectric plants can take huge amounts of arable land out of cultivation and displace large populations. It can lead to earthquakes and landslides. One country can sometimes “steal” the water of another, by building a hydroelectric facility.
Our whole ecological system, including animals and our climate system, requires a balance among the various species. We are being warned by scientist today that humans cannot simply commandeer all of the natural resources for our own use. Renewables often use natural resources that other species also have a need for-especially biofuels, wood and biomass. Biologists tell us we are in danger of reaching a tipping point due to overly high use of “net primary productivity” (Barnosky and Haberi).
It truly would be convenient if nature had provided us with a free lunch, in the form of renewables. At best, we were given something that if we use wisely, can add a little to what we have today. Renewables may, in fact, “save” some remnant of humanity, if limits truly become a problem in the near future.
If renewables are truly to provide widespread benefit for the world population as a whole (going beyond the measly 2% for non-hydroelectric renewables), we need to develop renewable energy supplies which are much lower in resource use than the renewables we have today.1 Such lower resource use would have several benefits:
1. It would reduce the pollution impacts of making the renewable generating devices.
2. It would reduce the cost of making alternative energy.
3. It would improve the scalability of such renewables.
4. It would improve the EROEI of such renewables.
There seems to be widespread belief that an EROEI of 3 or 4 or 5 is “good enough” for renewables. The economy is showing signs that our current cost of fuels is already way too high. What we really need to do is bring our energy cost level down. Thus, what we really need is renewable energy sources that will reduce our average energy cost and raise our average EROEI of fuels.
 The name renewable unfortunately doesn’t equate to low resource use. In some cases, such as solar and wind, it means “front-ended fossil fuel resource” use. In other cases, such as biofuels, it means “using soil, fresh water, and fossil fuels to provide an oil substitute.”
Pingback: How Resource Limits Lead to Financial Collapse | Manuel G Fermasis
I’m sorry I’m late to this discussion as it has been enlightening. I’m not sure if I entirely support Gail’s view that green energy would be unable to fill the gap as there another studies that are more optimistic. There is still a few gigatonnes of CO2 we could burn and enough oil to make a transition over the next 35 years. Over that period most of what we have today will be replaced anyway. I do agree transport offers the greatest obstacle and as a small farmer the value of liquid fuel is immense. The work my tractor does even if fuel were £20 a gallon out performs human labour so perhaps the last of the oil could be traded for CO2 sequestration in bio-char for soil enrichment.
Most productivity and even some smelting can be done with electricity so at some point, tide, wave, wind, solar and some nuclear would power the economy, with the last of the oil, or expensive air to fuel tech running the mining, agricultural, shipping and aviation industries. And all of it will be more expensive so the biggest loss will be the middle-classes. Oil has supported a plethora of hairdressers, gym trainers, service sector and service professionals [although I think the service professionals who warned of the limits to growth should keep their jobs and those who dismissed it should be sacked!]. As you have pointed out- developing countries have a bigger population of manual low skill workers and they also have few unemployed at least few who are paid not to work.
I side with the whimper rather than the crash bang crisis. Things will just get more expensive, jobs will get crappyer, you will have more friends who won’t go on holiday or lose their jobs, your children will earn less than we did and the best pensions were had by our parents.
Whoa A Second! Some respected oil analysts now think ‘Peak Oil Is Dead…’ They believe the financial pressure is relieved with the increase in production from fracking, etc. See:
http://peakoil.com/production/peak-oil-is-dead and pour yourself a martini…
Peak oil is dead? The only thing that I see dead in that propaganda piece that you reference is the brain cells of anyone who believes such drivel. The industry trolls have been telling us for years that there is plenty of oil. In the face of evidence to the contrary one might ask why. It boils down to “share price”…If investors knew what a crock it was the share price of oil companies would tank. The inflated prices are based on the assumption that they will be able to economically bring their ‘stated reserves’ to the market. It’s a pipe dream Chris. And even if it were true, a martini would only be justified if there were no problem in continuing to pump CO2 into the atmosphere. Better stick with beer…right after a cold shower.
I suppose I should be writing another article on why this thinking is wrong.
You appear not to have read the comments appended to the article you link us to, otherwise I am sure you would not have wasted our time with it.
Mel, I read the article cited and several others the resulted from a google query, all claiming similar enlightenment. Not just one but several highly respected members of the financial community. men whose daily income may well far exceed that of us mere wage slaves. If you object to being so enlightened, then you are welcome to deal with it.
Possible Solution: Considering Human Population as Too Big To Fail Rather than Banks as Too Big To Fail
Dmitry Orlov has written about ways to change the way you think, He said, “When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money.”
Banks are corporation and not people. Yet banks and the money they create out of credit are valued more than the people on this earth. If the above was not true there would not be talk on this blog about reducing world population as a solution to the “energy crisis.”
If Orlov’s ideas were to take hold here (this blog) then posters would be including in their discussions of gardening, for example, their plans to grow a surplus portion of their crop for barter-trade transaction with friends, family, and other (most valued) people.
Participants on this blog would be saying, for example, “I have made agreements (promises) with other gardeners to exchange some of my carrots for some of their potatoes. That is because my neighbor has been successfully growing potatoes for several seasons and I just don’t have the resources to give them a try…”
I for instance have been making yogurt and hard cheese and passing out these products for free as sample during my encounters with strangers and acquaintance during local business trips. I am always in the process of picking up information and leads on resources from others that might have goods or services I need for advancing my particular business.
But to begin to accomplish the above one has to develop some skill, product, or service that could be desired by others.
Lifting up (re-valuing) mankind is the solution to our energy crisis (and other related problems).
This essay has been kidnapped. Get your own blog or group
Ignore it if you are not interested. I guess I need an “open discussion” thread, similar to Drumbeat on “The Oil Drum.”
in basic terms, every previous generation has left the next to its own devices—what choice is there? Sounds callous I agree, but we are conditioned by the economics of the next kill. (energy source)
We consume what is in front of us, it has not been to our evolutionary advantage to set aside any portion of our kill for generations yet unborn . Our immediate offspring yes—those unborn, no. We can leave an inheritance in trust, or land but thats about it, and it isn’t usual. The cash benefit of an inheritance just buys more energy to survive.
Collapse won’t wipe out our species, just reduce our numbers below the point where we can no longer keep on wiping out other species.
End of More
You make me think of an old Sufi song, if I remember it correctly:
‘It may be said that we came in vain;
Let it not be that we came in vain;
We did what we could;
The rest, we leave to you!’
Or something like that.
Too many people (now) or too many people in the future is not the core of our current problem with expensive liquid fuels. Rather, we should consider that from this abundance of people will come solutions to the expensive liquid fuels problem. Mankind can be creative and generate solutions to our problems.
Therefore, it is advantage to have more people (working on solutions to the problem) coming out of the current seven billon world population. On the other hand, if we begin to think that too many people is our problem then we will next think, for example, that solutions like war (to reduce population) is a better way to solve our energy problems.
“Soylent Green is people!”
The only way “this abundance of people” will provide “solutions” is if the fattest ones get loaded on boxcars heading to the biofuel plants.
There are no solutions; only coping strategies. Human fat would make a dandy feedstock for biodiesel.
If you are circling the Earth in a spacesuit stuffed with millions of dollars and you have ten minutes of air left, how much will you have to spend to get another minute’s worth of air?
If you are stuck on a planet with seven billion people, and enough fossil sunlight for, let’s say ten years of food, how many people will it take to come up with an extra year’s worth of fossil sunlight?
Cornucopians just don’t get it!
Jan…you saved me the trouble of saying that—thanks (in despair)
No despair necessary. Go out and grow food. That’s everyone’s homework assignment for the foreseeable future. Class dismissed. (I gotta go start some more peppers and tomatoes.)
It is getting rather late to find solutions. Even if a solution is found, it takes a long time to implement it. This is a problem. Also, we are reaching other limits.
The very title of this blog, ‘Our Finite World’, spells out that resources are not limitless. What concerns me is that you and others who comment on your posts are of the view that we have little time and perhaps little chance of fixing what appears to be a broken system.
If I look at the U.K. government, who are talking about a major new railway infrastructure project to service London for the remainder of this century, it is clear that they don’t see it the way you and others do. I suppose my question is this: Do we just accept the status quo, wring our hands and say nothing can be done? Or do we take a more pro-active stance and at the very least ensure that we have governance that can see the light and thus manages the decline so that the transition to whatever lifestyle awaits our species in the short term is as gentle as possible?
For example, we can take the view that nuclear power plants take too long to build and thus have a plan where they are ignored, or we can take the view that while they do take too long to build, we could at least make a start and ensure that their fuel supply is protected throughout the period of turmoil so that future, wiser generations can get them up and running quickly as part of foundation for the development of a sustainable society.
I suppose what I am saying is that if we view ‘Our Finite World’ as a community which sees a future that governmenst seem unable to, and we know that there is a sound foundation for our vision (simply view the prodigious output of blog posts on this site) then aren’t we obliged to take that knowledge and pro-actively spread the word? Perhapse simply posting it on the web is doing so to some extent, but it just doesn’t feel like it is enough. I feel that it should be much higher up the political agenda, especially if time is as limited as some forecast.
At the very least, if we can delay collapse and inform people of the inevitablity of its occurance, then they can decide not to have children. That strikes me as better than their children having to die from starvation. What I fear is that certain countries will take their current dominance to ensure that they are fed and fueled first and the rest of us can go hang. If such is their policy, it would explain a lot, to me at least.
“future, wiser generations…”
Type 1 error. If your major premise hangs on this assumption, we must agree to disagree.
“Type 1 error” means nothing to me. Please spell out where I am going wrong and I will add it to the list of things this site has taught me.
From Wikipedia: “A type I error, also known as an error of the first kind… is asserting something that is absent, a false hit… A Type I error occurs when we believe a falsehood.”
In this case, I think that “future, wiser generations” will do things better than we have done is a belief in a falsehood.
Actually, this discussion is getting into a deep question. Some French philosopher once said it is best to be a Christian, because, while the probability of it being true is very small, if the Christians are correct then the rewards are very great.
So…we can’t imagine a future generation being dumber than we have been. So there is pretty near zero chance of dumber, which must mean some small but positive probability of smarter.
Hence, Mel’s statement may make a lot of sense?
“we can’t imagine a future generation being dumber than we have been. So there is pretty near zero chance of dumber, which must mean some small but positive probability of smarter…”
Except the human brain is shrinking. Some theorize that increasing specialization and reliance on extrinsic knowledge is responsible. Better hope otherwise, because I think we’re going to need more generalists Real Soon Now.
This seems like a prime reason to use the Precautionary Principle. Yes, perhaps humans will keep getting smarter, out-smarting the difficulties we cause ourselves. But the consequences of that assumption being faulty are dire.
(Oops. Forgot to close off the anchor tag… sorry about that mess… illustrates my point nicely: we’ve created complexities in communications that we can no longer easily manage!)
Don, It may have been DesCartes, who was responsible for a few great concepts, including what we now call ‘Cartesian geometry.’ Many laud him as linking the principle goods of Christianity to mankind as a whole, thus beginning the ‘humanist’ movement: ie, Christian virtues without Christian orthodoxies and hierarchies, rules and bureaucracies, or Supreme Being, which is why Christians don’t particularly like him.
If you were correct, then we would still be up in the trees wondering what fire was. Perhaps you did not see the report recently that human IQ is increasing on a generation by generation basis. Thank goodness I have more faith in the human animal than you have. Yes, we have made a mess of things, but to think that we are incapable of learning from our mistakes is to fundamentally misunderstand what it is to be human.
“human IQ is increasing on a generation by generation basis…”
Another Type 1 Error, perhaps?
Perhaps what you mean is that humans have become better and better at taking human-designed IQ tests?
If one defines “intelligence” as “ability to create more and more complexity until we can no longer maintain it” (Joseph Tainter’s explanation for collapse), then I think you’re right.
But if one defines “intelligence” as “ability to survive without the resources we are destroying,” would you say IQ levels are going up, or down?
From a long view, intelligence does not appear to be a huge selection factor in evolution, except that it has enabled hairless monkeys to spectacularly overshoot their resource base. Most less-intelligent creatures manage to reproduce until they overshoot current food sources, but we’ve managed to do so with a food source that was stored some 300 million years ago! Clever monkeys!
My bet is on the cockroach over the human as the inheritor of the earth. Intelligence is a fun conceit for them that got it, but it’s pretty over-rated in the bigger picture, no?
Jan, I cannot remember where I saw the report on our getting smarter, but it really is unimportant compared to the general thrust of what I was raising for discussion. That is that if this site is correct in saying that based on proper analysis of our resources, human society is headed for collapse we have an obligation to raise that prospect with the wider society, assuming we can drag it away from worrying about what their favourite celebrity is up to, so that it can develop a strategy to facilitate the softest possible collapse.
Personally, I find it very difficult to believe that the collapse will wipe out our species. If I am correct, surely we should be steering the manner of the collapse so that the survivors have the best chance of recovering and learning from our mistakes.
There are some ideas on measures that might make sense buzzing around in my head, but I was hoping that my comment would generate a wider discussion and thus give more people the opportunity to contribute. I honestly don’t think that we can take a “Well, who would have thought it!” approach when it all falls around our ears, at least, I can’t. But perhaps I am wrong and we should adopt a policy of leaving future generations to their own devices. Ideas, anyone?
Earlier today I was invited to participate in a group which will be trying to address the problem of food and climate change in our local community. I told them I would think about it.
Perhaps my misgivings on the subject will shed some light. Like an Economist, I have two hands: on the one hand, and then on the other hand.
In terms of climate change, I see the food issue as involving several crucial ingredients:
1. Relocalizing. Moving our 2 percent local content up much higher.
2. Gardening. More people growing more perishables right outside their door or else in their neighborhood. Preparing their own food.
3. Water management on farms. Storing water in the soil with small ponds and keyline systems and swales and lots of organic matter in the soil. Stop erosion. Water management in home gardens with similar but simpler ‘store it in the soil’ techniques.
4. Turn subsoil into topsoil. More water, more organic matter, and no deep tilling. Rich microbial life in the soil.
5. More perennials and more trees. Food forests to maximize photosynthetic efficiency.
6. More intelligent use of weeds as edibles. More intelligent use of tropicals as annuals.
7. Better distribution systems for whole local farm products and better entry into the industrial food system of fractioning agricultural products into packaged foods.
I see all these steps as related to Peak Oil, Peak Finance, and the end of unlimited taxpayer funded health care. They also relate to my belief that utter reliance on the market economy is not good for man nor beast–some self provisioning is healthy.
Some may favor political agitation. I have little faith in that and wouldn’t give much of my time to it. Besides, others can do that a lot better than I can.
I can imagine politically inclined activists not wanting me to come up with this list because it is ‘off message’. If the message is ‘we are all going to die’, then most likely some may not be very happy with me proposing a bunch of changes to assist adaptation. And I could be tragically wrong to think that these things will help.
So besides my personal shortcomings being a barrier, I think about wasting a lot of time and effort in what I think will be a futile exercise. If I could wave my magic wand, I would ask the Land Grant college to build a demonstration farm or three around the state demonstrating the responses I listed above. Of course, we have a legislature which is busy passing laws forbidding the ocean level to rise…so the college may have its own ideas about self-preservation.
When I step back and look at it, I come to the conclusion that the easiest thing is always to give advice if asked, but to let everyone do whatever it is they want to do. Some of the most dysfunctional organizations around are ‘intentional communities’ where everything is discussed to death and little gets done. (Diana Leafe Christian has written about this the last couple of days at resilience.org.) 65 years ago a preacher I knew advised me that ‘most things will die before you can kill them’. Perhaps lecturing people really doesn’t accomplish much. Perhaps most people must learn by experience.
I haven’t responded yet and I’m still thinking.
I wish you luck with your decision on climate change. I don’t know what sort of information you have access to on that side of the pond, but if you have any points of concern, perhaps you might like to visit this website. There is also a good book called ‘Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet’, which is very informative, but I guess they are looking for you to make your decision sooner rather than later, unless you are very fast reader.
One thing your list of considerations does not take into consideration is the weather volatility that results from climate change. We on this side of the pond are currently stuck with a northerly airflow down from the Arctic because the jet stream has meandered and got stuck in an unusual location for this time of year. Where I live, everywhere is white and the farmers are not able to do anything about their crops and livestock, except feed them using money they can’t afford to spend. Last year the jet stream meandered to another unusual location and caused the U.K. to suffer torrential rainfall. The cause of this unusual meandering is being put down to the fact that the Arctic has done exactly what the models said it would, warmed at a much faster rate than the rest of the planet, thus reducing the temperature differential between pole and equator, which according to the experts, has reduced the constraints on the movement of the jet stream, hence its tendency to meander and screw up the weather (food production problems might be upon us sooner than first thought – farmers need to be able to plan).
I fully understand your reluctance to take up the political cudgels. I spent some time in a political organisation once and found myself among people not particularly to my liking, but decided to stay on because I had a particular motive to my madness, so to speak. In industry, to call someone a ‘politician’ is an insult and one can understand why. However I am sure that you will make the right decision in the end and from what you write in these columns, I am also sure you have a lot to contribute.
Once again, good luck
The jetstream is currently under the control of high pressure in Alaska and Greenland. During March, that forced cold air down over the eastern US and then down over Britain after swinging up over Greenland. A couple of days ago, I found a Greenland weather station (on the ocean, I assume) that was warmer than we were. My natural gas usage was 2.5 times what it was last March.
Perennials are generally more resilient to climate challenges than annuals. Martin Crawford, who has a perennial garden in England, has noted that spring drought doesn’t have much effect on his established perennials, while it is devastating to newly seeded annuals. But last year and again this year we combined a pretty warm winter with a late freeze which played havoc with our fruit trees. The solution is to forgo the ‘early peaches’ and settle for late bloomers which are less susceptible to late freezes (at least I think so).
My problem is that I just don’t have green fingers. We actually had gardening at school, with each pair of students allocated a plot to themselves. It seemed enormous at the time, but I expect it was only about three yards by four. Whllst everyone else bought seeds and tended them, all we did was dig it and water it and dig it again when the weeds popped up. Come the end of the school year, we had to go round begging flowers off other students, which we just stuck in the ground, no leaves, nothing but the stalk and whatever flower there was. I came bottom in the exam and my partner next to bottom because he knew more about the theory of these things. I think I will probably starve if the collapse comes before the grim reaper comes for me. Perhaps engineering was a good career choice.
I think that there is information available about Israeli Kibbutzes. I remember hearing once that a board needed to decide what kind of tea pot that all would have, so that everyone would be identical in the resources they obtained.
I have also talked to someone who is involved with a group of 10 that lives in a single house and shares the use of three vehicles. There are issues of various sorts. One is how much to allocate for young people to start them off going to college (or to give them an alternative way of earning a living). I imagine there would be an issue if there were uninsured health care costs. Probably any issue of a family, only more so.
Gail wrote: “[in] Israeli Kibbutzes… a board needed to decide what kind of tea pot that all would have… There are issues of various sorts… how much to allocate for young people to start them off… uninsured health care costs. Probably any issue of a family, only more so.”
Yes! It is only excess energy that has allowed many such issues to disappear into bureaucracy that we pay for with taxes!
As things necessarily simply, we will not only have to be responsible for more of our own food, but we’ll have to be responsible for more of our interactions with others. If as a society, we cannot afford a dozen levels of bureaucracy to mediate our personal interactions, we’ll have to (gasp!) actually work them out between us.
But it’s a tough sell in today’s energy-fat fiercely individualistic society. I am convinced fierce individualism is an artifact of high energy availability, and will not continue.
Yes, you are quite right, my apologies, I did misunderstand you. Good luck with your work. I guess you are more of a biologist than an engineer, but I can appreciate your argument, now that I understand it!
I think you are right about fierce individualism being an artifact of high energy availability. Back a few thousand years ago, Jews believed that salvation was for the Jewish people as a whole, not for an individual. Chinese and Japanese both value conformity with the group. It is only in recent years that the US has found such individualism important.
“But perhaps I am wrong and we should adopt a policy of leaving future generations to their own devices.”
I would do no such thing. My biggest quibble is when people think technology will save us. What will “save” us is if each person takes personal responsibility for providing a fair bit of their own food.
This is just right on so many levels. For example, Eliot Colman wrote:
All well and good and in fact very sensible words, but I am an engineer and I need problems to solve. That is true of every engineer that I have ever known (at least the proper ones, not mechanics with posh job titles). The upshot is that I would find absolutely no satisfaction to my life if I were stuck doing the same old same old, day in day out, which would appear to be the case with a small organic farm, but admittedly based on a somewhat distant view of a farmer’s working life. In my time in industry I had a rule: Am I still learning sufficient new things to make it a joy to go to work? If not, move on, unless there is something that can be done about it, and quickly.
You just will not be able to suppress the technologists and indeed why should you? I don’t consider that I have the right to suppress the artists among us, no matter how much I might think their work pretentious tosh on occasion. By way of example, for some reason people like reading about hosts of golden daffodils, and though I have never understood why, I would not do away with it while there is a demand. In the end Maslow’s hierarchy dictates that we will only be fully satisfied if we are doing what it is in our nature to do. In short people must do their own thing. Stasis is for the birds. You cannot allow technology to take you so far, such as the development of the wheelbarrow and then ban it. Life is just not like that.
Gotcha! I’m an engineer, too.
You’re right that you have a “somewhat distant view of a farmer’s working life.” Forcing electrons through tortuous paths in doped silicon is trivial compared to what 3.5 billion years of evolution has created.
I could figure out a transistor. I could figure out a microprocessor. I could figure out distributed systems built from thousands of computers. But I still can’t figure out why some natural things do one thing, while others do something different.
Permaculture is the ultimate engineer’s wet dream. A lot of what I do is think up new systems for growing things, rather than actually doing the growing, like designing and building field irrigation without the use of fossil sunlight. There’s not a boring minute!
If you are an engineer, Jan, you will be able to understand that people have different competences. I am useless at gardening and have been so since I was a child. I fully expect to have major problems come the day when I have to feed myself. Currently, I have two hectares of land which have a nice show of weeds on them. There always seems to be something more important (i.e. more fun, if I am honest) to put my mind to. I doubt that I am unusual, except in the amount of land that I have available to play with. On the other hand I am very good with my hands and can turn myself to make almost anything out of metal, and wood to some extent, that a small basement workshop is equipped for. I know many people who are good in the garden, but positively lethal near anything sharp.
We have evolved past the point where humans all have one set of skills, if ever such a time existed. The reason we are not still swinging from branch to branch is because we have evolved and developed a society that recognises the differences between us and encourages us to explore those differences to the full. For me, a life spent mucking out the cows and wheeling it round to the cabbage patch would not be fulfilling in any way, shape, size or form, period. Quite frankly, if you expect all of us to spend our lives living such an existence, then I sincerely hope that you fail.
Quite frankly, Jan, you have already nailed your colours to the mast. You were the first to respond when I suggested that we need to take some control over the coming collapse and manage it in such a way that assists those that follow us so that they can stand the best chance of surviving. Your response was that I was making a “type 1 mistake.” We are very different people, Jan, very different.
To Mel and Jan and all who agree that we’re going to need to expand our skill sets, some advice from one of Heinlein’s more lovable characters may be appropriate:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects. ” — from the Notebooks of Lazarus Long
Thanks, but I gave up reading science fiction when I realised what an unadulterated load of nonsense it was. It would seem you have yet to reach that stage.
Shucks Mel, I haven’t either (read a Science Fiction book in a few decades), but I’m not convinced that we’re not entering an era where such a thing might be useful. You may not like Heinlein much, and that’s okay, it’s your choice.
What I am more interested in is what you think we as a species should do if, as Gail and others seem to think, we are headed for the collapse of society as we currently know it. We can all make plans for ourselves and our families, but that means that all the rest of society seemingly oblivious of the coming collapse will likely founder. In that circumstance our individual preparations will need to be exceptionally robust.
We will have to be able to resist hungry mobs from nearby towns, some of whom will almost certainly be armed, that will mean a 24/7 armed watch and good luck with that in a country that does not allow guns, and even more good luck in one that does. We will have to plan around not having any machinery, especially any that is reasonably modern, seeing as it is common for today’s goods to be designed as unrepairable as much as possible (no profit is made if someone repairs something instead of buying a new replacement.). Even equipment that is designed for easy repair will most likely require some new parts, but there will not be any shops from which to buy them. Worse still, there will be no manufacturers to make any. Nothing lasts forever, so what happens when something vital and irrepairable breaks?
We could ensure schools had preparation lessons in survival skills. We could ensure that our current knowledge base is protected so that when society rises from the ashes, it can stand metaphorically on our shoulders and thus leap forward much quicker that we did in the past. It is obvious that I prefer that we openly discuss the potential for collapse and as a species we do our utmost to a) delay it and b) make it as smooth as possible. I believe that we should have in place a massive development programme, similar to the Manhattan Project, but this time directed towards nuclear power instead of nuclear weapons, and preferably employing LFTR technology using small modular designs. We may not be able to complete them in time, but we would have done the hard preparatory work, such as not siting them in seismically active areas with a potential for tsunamis etc. etc. My guess is that human ingenuity will rapidly find a way to use electricity for heavy vehicles and tractors when it realises that oil is only going to go into the sump, not the fuel tank when the collapse gathers momentum.
This is not a political site, but surely there is an obligation on all who realise that there is at least the potential for society to collapse in the near future to provide some serious input to the political process based on our knowledge. I know of no public discussion of the collapse except at Chris Martenson.com a.k.a. peakprosperity.com. It is like climate change. We can ignore it and let our own children suffer more they would if we acted on it. The same goes for any collapse of society. We can ignore it and suffer more than might be the case if we give proper management to the collapse process and have in place sufficient contingency plans.
i suppose the biggest problem is the imminent financial collapse. Currently we are all running around with bits of paper nicely reinforced with cotton that have a value written upon them. The moment we see the ’emperor without his clothes,’ i.e. realise that these bits of paper are not even much use for their most basic function, society could simply crumble, not to recover any time soon. Everything is ‘just in time’ these days and it will only take a few days of non-delivery (delivery drivers will not work for nothing) for the shops and garages to be out of stock. In that circumstance, all resources might just as well be thought of as exhausted because we won’t be able to make much use of them.
One of the problems with trying to reform a society that doesn’t want to listen to you is that you waste your time and energy and don’t accomplish much. For example, consider this blog entry from Mark Hyman, MD
‘I just returned from China where they are experiencing the same chronic diseases and obesity we find in the West, because, on every corner, at every turn, our industrial food culture has permeated their world—KFC, McDonald’s, Subway, Coke, Pepsi are everywhere. Today, China has the most type 2 diabetics in the world. Yes, they have more people, but their diabetes rate is about the same as that of the United States: about 10 percent. Thirty years ago, I traveled to China and saw only one overweight woman, and she was riding a bicycle. In 30 years, the rate of diabetes there has gone from one in 150 to one in 10, and now, one in five people above the age of 60 in China are diabetic—and 60 percent are not even diagnosed. Obesity and diabetes are rampant there, increasing at a far faster rate than in the United States, and this shift can be tied directly to how fully they have embraced our processed, industrial, high-sugar diet.
I am the chairman of the Institute for Functional Medicine, and we were asked by the Chinese to come and teach their physicians how to deal with lifestyle-related chronic disease. A group of us went to show them how to return to their traditional ways of using food as medicine.
It’s sad that a country in which food has long been considered medicine—with specific care taken to include special foods with healing properties at every meal—would need to relearn this knowledge.’
Now ask yourself how many well-meaning Americans have warned the Chinese about bad eating habits. Did any of it do any good? One can occasionally find a political campaign which paid off (such as the anti-smoking campaign in the US), but generally political movements which go against entrenched interests or which aren’t what most people want are doomed to failure.
There are some individuals and families who will make intelligent choices. Perhaps even a community. But I think that the impetus for change almost always comes from personal experience or watching other people’s disasters. I saw my father die of lung cancer and never smoked a cigarette in my life. At the time, doctors blathered on about how cigarettes were ‘kind to your T zone’ and such nonsense, but anybody with any brains could see it was lies.
Relative to climate change and farmers. Farmers are a little like trained seals. The trainer throws out the fish and the seals perform as instructed. Farmers have gotten used to harvesting the money provided in the farm bills. So, yes, they will plant riparian buffers IF they are paid to do so. In theory, we could have an ‘enlightened’ farm bill. But farm bills are almost always written in the proverbial smoke filled room where money talks. Joel Salatin, who’s not a fool, thinks Abraham Lincoln was a very poor president because he established the Department of Agriculture. Connect those dots.
The article today, http://www.resilience.org/stories/2013-03-29/it-can-happen-here-the-confiscation-scheme-planned-for-us-and-uk-depositors , showing how the scheme to fleece the depositors to keep banks operating was not a one-off for Cyprus, but instead is getting consideration in the US, the UK, and New Zealand. It really IS a template, as DieselBoom said and then denied that he said. Anyone who can read that article and fail to conclude that governments are our enemy is someone I can’t understand.
As I see it, our situation is pretty desperate. There are things that we could do, but we can’t expect the governments to do anything to help. And we can’t expect most of the people to do what needs to be done. As you point out, a single family can’t survive very long. A small group is our only hope, I think. And small groups are quite contentious places, as we have discussed.
One of the problems with trying to reform a society that doesn’t want to listen to you is that you waste your time and energy and don’t accomplish much
Don, isn’t that a bit like NIST missing all the explosive residues in the WTC dust because they did not look for it on the basis they did not expect to find it? For a scientific take on such a philosophy Jump to 7 minutes in this video and see Lynn Margulis’ views on the subject.
I think the public would very much like to know that their way of life is possibly about to collapse and with it their dreams and aspirations for not only themselves, but for their children and their grandchildren. Yes, like climate change, there will be vested interests who will want to maintain the status quo, particularly the very wealthy who will not want anyone to rock their particularly lucrative boats, but, as with climate change, they will have to live with their consciencesa and the opprobrium of their offspring. For some idea of wealth distribution watch this video.
All that being said, I have just noticed that Gail has posted more on this issue, so perhaps it will be best if we take this discourse to that posting so that we can let it inform our discussion.
“A small group is our only hope, I think.”
Thanks for that, Don! That’s what I keep trying to convince people, but even those who seem to be enlightened about what’s coming at us down the road start talking about appreciation and return on investment.
I think being able to feed yourself may well be the most precious return on investment there is. The value of feeding yourself will be independent of inflation or deflation, independent of the cost of gold or petroleum.
And on that note, thanks to the eight people who showed up at our work party this morning, we now have 5,983 seeds started in the greenhouse! But we could use more help!
(Sorry for changing the subject, Gail. Obligatory on-topic content: isn’t growing food the ultimate “renewable?”)
“We are very different people, Jan, very different.”
Yes, we are, Mel. For one thing, before replying to someone, I re-read the thread and try not to misquote them or quote them totally out-of-context. Try it.
Possible Solution: Considering Human Population as Too Big To Fail Rather than Banks as Too Big To Fail
Dmitry Orlov has written about ways to change the way you think, He said, “When faced with a collapsing economy, one should stop thinking of wealth in terms of money.”
Banks are corporation and not people. Yet banks and the money they create out of credit are valued more than the people on this earth. If the above was not true there would not be talk on this blog about reducing world population as a solution to the “energy crisis.”
If Orlov’s ideas were to take hold here (this blog) then posters would be including in their discussions of gardening, for example, their plans to grow a surplus portion of their crop for barter-trade transaction with friends, family, and other (most valued) people.
Participants on this blog would be saying, for example, “I have made agreements (promises) with other gardeners to exchange some of my carrots for some of their potatoes. That is because my neighbor has been successfully growing potatoes for several seasons and I just don’t have the resources to give them a try…”
I for instance have been making yogurt and hard cheese and passing out these products for free as sample during my encounters with strangers and acquaintance during local business trips. I am always in the process of picking up information and leads on resources from others that might have goods or services I need for advancing my particular business.
But to begin to accomplish the above one has to develop some skill, product, or service that could be desired by others.
Lifting up (re-valuing) mankind is the solution to our energy crisis (and other related problems).
I expect we all will need more than we can produce ourselves. This is part of what makes the task so daunting.
Growing a little fruits and vegetables gets us only a little ways. Somehow we need to pay for (or barter for) other foods, like grains or meat. We also need fuels, both for cooking our food and for keeping warm. How do we get them without completely deforesting the land? Our clothes are good enough for now, but they won’t last for the long term. In cold climates, we will need to be able to make clothes as replace current ones. (I suppose in warm climates people could get along without.) Transportation will be an issue, unless all transportation is foot transportation.
People seem to assume that we will continue to have our current jobs, and these will provide enough money to buy whatever else we need. We will just grow a little fruits and vegetables on the side. Maybe this will work for a little while, but as a long-term solution, it doesn’t seem like it will work.
thats the headbanging part that very few understand
the crisis in any sort of severe terms will always happen elsewhere—to other peoples in faraway places
at least thats the theory
dont know the exact figures, but the usa is probably supplying food aid to as many of its own citizens as it supplies to the destitute elsewhere
another tick on the poverty clock here in the uk for instance–the government is about to issue foodstamps too.
the bottom line is that we are not generating enough energy to convert into food to maintain our basic civilisation, so its falling apart
it hits the very poorest first, then climbs the ladder of prosperity as the growing poor majority begin to kick away the ladder itself …or more likely set fire to it…to get at the sustenance held by those higher up
thats a certainty—people do not starve to death quietly if they see an alternative
@end- “people do not starve to death quietly if they see an alternative”, How true, I see this fundamental truth as what is behind the new tyranny of the NDAA and fema crap. They know that the fan is going to be hit soon and they are saying, “well yes, you’re going to die but you’ll do it in an orderly fashion”…
Growing a little fruit and veg on the side is a good short-term plan if one has the space: beneficial time in the open air and a little to help if supermarket supplies get low. I see that in Argentina, the agricultural provinces fell into deep poverty after the Crisis, – all the produce going abroad to earn dollars, or to the towns to avoid mass revolt. Rural life is no sinecure. (What happened in Argentina is well worth studying, although all the stats are false – anecdotal stuff is best.0
Friends who grow their own, with care and knowledge, are always getting wiped out by the weather here in Northern Europe. It’s not easy. Self-sufficiency = starvation, every now and then, for sure. This is what modern transportation served by first coal, and then oil, eliminated.
Clothes can last perhaps 20 years or so, if chosen with great care and for durability, maybe even 30. I doubt much more. Best to learn how to make them – not a rare skill even 50 years ago.
There is, perhaps, no point in thinking too far ahead: as Horace the Roman poet said,
‘The fine wine you put in your cellar will be drunk by someone else.’ So, drink that glass today!
Yes, I agree that growing a little food is not a bad idea, if you have the space. Look for perennial crops especially. I bought a red raspberry bush today. Dmitry Orlov tells that in Russia, people always knew some hunting/trapping skills, and knew about wild plants, to supplement bad harvests. Those are probably not bad skills to have, especially in areas which have quite a bit of wild area to grow food.
A good point. But if I look at my village, the people fall into 3 groups: 1/ Fine types, with every interaction you esteem them more; 2/ Unknown quantities, to be investigated; 3/ Scumbags – it has to be said, there are many people who even when things are peaceful and going comparatively well, are useless to themselves and others, they will be dangerous in times of crisis. As a Christian one may forgive them, but they can get the hell away from my turnip patch!
And it is hard to say how groups 1 and 2 will act when it really goes wrong…..
Personally, I take a hopeful view, co-operativeness is hardwired in Homo Sapiens as much as cruelty and violence and lies, and has clearly predominated or we wouldn’t be here, would we? Everyone in the Middle Ages had a sword and dagger, but it wasn’t a massacre every day.
Try standing in a crowd: an abundance of people does not mean an abundance of intellect!
Thanks Gail. Yet another good post.
Aside from the problem of conversion between electricity, chemicals, fuels and foods – and the (less fundamental) problems of up-front capital costs – renewables face severe problems with *availability of materials* for their implementation on the TW scale.
I’ve written a scientific paper on the topic for fellow researchers in these things which I think that you and many of your readers might find interesting.
It should be open access, but if you can’t get the download to work try this link:
THanks! I agree that availability of materials is likely to be a problem for scaling up renewables. It is good to find a more recent paper related to this subject.
Great paper, great content – a thing that I actually need for an paper in the company I work – for which nobody will like me. Still remember a talk where I got a ‘official version’ reply: Solar will save us and energy will be stored in batteries to be developed.
Some people drink a lot of ‘hopeium’ these days 😉
Great word, ‘hopeium’, but I think we all don’t even know we’re consuming it. What percentage of normal, educated people have ever heard that the minimum EROEI of 6 is required to maintain civilization? Or that ‘the end of civilization as we know it’ will probably occur within 20 years? This is not going to be an easy sell…
our predicament is unsellable. I told so many people the mechanics behind EROEI, then depletion, discovery and production rates, export land model…. and Martenson states the minimum EROEI to support our lifestyle as ‘7’ – even worse.
The mass simply does not ‘grok’ it – to say it in R.A. Heinleins words. The implications are so dire, that even I do not know what really to do. My current solution is so to scale down and use the time for more non-destructive things. So I will soon earn less money – consume less, feed less money in mandatory retirement, taxes etc. pp.
Where is Heinlein when you need him, anyway? Or L. Long or some of the others? I don’t know whether to join the crash crowd or not. Just when I was telling my children and grandchildren that technology is booming — material science, new rocket science has a single stage to orbit (runway takeoff and land, 4 hours to anywhere on earth, a few more hours to the orbiting space station and/or the moon. Etc. They’ve found abundant water on the moon, and are figuring out how to ‘print’ pressurized structures.
Then some kind fellow (or lady) starts explaining EROIE while counting down from 20, people talk about populations imploding.and no, we’re not going public with this because …. why? will every ‘non-cognizenti’ (EROIE illiterati?) think you’re nuts? I’m nuts?
What would Lazarus Long do? Get out while the gettin’s good, I suspect.
“we’re not going public with this because…”
Huh? What makes you think there’s some code of silence? Rep Roscoe Bartlett has talked about it on the floor of Congress!
Maybe I missed a few beats earlier in this conga line. The first of Gail’s blogs I read was about how the Chinese were able to optimize their economic returns using Western energy and manufacturing methods (or that’s what I think I was reading about). I had no idea that the ‘severe’ (??) Peak Oil perspectives were in vogue here, or that the ‘collapse books’ Gail referenced in her latest blog even existed. Jared Diamond’s ‘Collapse’ doesn’t appear to apply to modern global society — unless of course someone wants to stretch the Papua-New Guinea complexity into a representative microcosm.
In other words, I was unaware until very recently of the notion that the participants in this blog possess some unique knowledge that they might want to share with the rest of humanity. We might want to test that hypothesis, however. Do we affect the situation merely by describing it? Could a ‘newsfeed’ not serve to precipitate — as in the ‘Martian invasion of New Jersey…’
Actually, the question of adversely affecting the situation has come up among the staff members on The Oil Drum website, and concern about causing a problem is one reason for generally not discussing the issue on TOD (even if staff members discuss the issue among themselves, off-line). I try not to discuss collapse in terms that are too over-the-top.
We are dealing with a phenomenon which has been described in the literature many times. The normal response is, “This Time is Different. We are ________________ (smarter, more inventive, etc).”
Unfortunately, the dynamics are still the same. We need cheap energy to keep our economy going, and to make the food. Earlier civilizations pretty much all went on until they collapsed. We think we are different, but it is not all that clear that we are. The collapses didn’t happen overnight. They happened over a period of years.
By the way, I noticed The Christian Science Monitor had my post up today. How High Oil Prices Lead to Financial Collapse. I thought that maybe they would consider it a little extreme.
Talking with a fellow from Portland, Oregon just a little while ago raised again the specter of a different approach to modern urban life. Some decades ago Portland decided to install street cars. Part of their strategy was to provide incentives to developing otherwise unattractive areas. It apparently worked, and the streetcar system is a hit.
I believe the primary consumer of energy in modern life is the automobile. Is this correct? Well, if it is correct, can it be changed? Will you readers / contributors to this blog be willing to rub elbows with hoi polloi on streetcars, subways and buses? Would this save bucks? Save the planet? Put big oil out of business?
Rural areas don’t have access to streetcars or subways. But those who live from the land don’t have much reason to leave.
I go into town 2-3 times a week, totalling 40-60 km (24-36 miles) a week.
I find it hard to make predictions, especially about the future…
I am reading Coming In From The Woods, the memoirs of a college professor who bought some land in my county and developed it as a sort of eco-retreat 40 years ago. The land held huge trees, because it had not been farmed or logged for a hundred years or more. He finds all sorts of clues in the woods about former inhabitants. Native American artifacts plus the traces left behind by the Europeans and Africans who came into the county during the Colonial period.
He finds road ruts 4 feet deep. He remarks that, in those days, the settlers basically couldn’t get to town for several months during the winter. The road ruts are reminders that driving heavy wagons through wet soil was destructive in terms of erosion. I saw the remains of the Colonial era road from Columbia, SC to Charlotte, NC just south of Charlotte. The rut is about 6 to 8 feet deep.
How good will overland transport actually be in 50 years? Will we be back to where our Colonial ancestors were? Which is why, if I were much younger, I would be thinking about navigable water.
Hi Don, “navigable water” is 2.5 km away. If the worst-case sea-level-rise comes true, it may be at the lowest corner of our property! But we’ve got a 2,000 foot mountain behind us to retreat up if sea-level-rise gets too intense.
I’m just speculating, but I think overland transportation may be easier fifty years in the future than it was 200 years in the past. They didn’t have today’s roadbuilding technology and the ability to haul vast amounts of suitable materials. Long after the asphalt has worn away, the compacted gravel subsurface should be navigable, no?
I guess, as with almost everything, it depends on how hard and fast things come. In a fast/hard crash scenario, there may be a lot of good resources available to the survivors. I think a lot of “doomers” are making plans based on the “fast/hard” scenario — survive for a while on hoarded stash, then live on dead people’s stuff.
The much more difficult scenario is the “boiling frogs” scenario. If road maintenance fails while there are still plenty of cars, the roads may well become impassible. Witness things like the bridge failure in Minneapolis. This is happening as higher unemployment cause reduced taxes and lower infrastructure maintenance, while at least some people — who don’t want to be saddled with all the maintenance costs — still drive and use services.
I think “boiling frogs” is the most likely, most unpredictable, most challenging, and most scary scenario. We all think we’re too clever to succumb to a fast/hard crash, but most of us are marginally better prepared for a long/slow crash than your average citizen.
A road (like a chain) is only as good as its weakest link. A couple of years ago my wife and I were walking on a canal tow path paralleling the Delaware River. We walked about half a mile, eating wild raspberries and hoping we didn’t meet a bear who had the same idea, when we came to this enormous gully. We could see that the tow path continued across the gully. But it was impassable to strollers (scramblers and climbers would have done OK). It was an object lesson to me about what happens when maintenance is neglected.
We HAVE moved an awful lot of gravel and compacted an awful lot of soil. But I also have great respect for the powers of running water to reconfigure our handiwork. Most modern roads are built on the principle of overpowering Nature. Old ridge roads were built to avoid water crossings and were at the top of the ridge to avoid erosion. I don’t know a lot about the history of road building. My guess is that the old roads which have left such big ruts were also following a sort of Roman Legion type of thinking, while the ridge roads perhaps resulted as people figured out that ‘straight across the landscape’ might be the shortest way to get from A to B, but not necessarily the best.
One more thought. I live in a subdivision where the builder has provided some very nice walking trails. I have to say that I don’t think the builder understands water and erosion at all. He builds trails headed straight down hills and puts gravel on them. The first hard rain and the gravel is at the bottom of the hill and the trail is deeply cut with erosion. So the builder comes in with his tractor and some fill and some more gravel and puts the trail back the way it was. This happens once or twice a year.
There is a whole science of trail building–a lot of which is about avoiding water erosion. But so long as fossil fuels are cheap, our builder just isn’t interested. He may also think that an ‘erosion proof’ trail might give some hint of ‘danger’ to the prospective home-buyer. And what he is selling is ‘happily ever after’ and doesn’t want the smallest cloud on the horizon.
Mark Shepard talks about the way clay soils which are exposed to the sun and water sort themselves into layers, the top one of which becomes an impermeable layer like pottery. So the water sheets off it. Few people understand that, either.
Many things for you young people to think about…Don Stewart
As a nation expands it can only be held together by the continuing input of the forces of energy that drove that expansion in the first place.
Thus the Roman empire held together only as long as the marching legions found new territories to conquer and exploit. The Roman army had the latest in military technology, and they were fighting little better than stone age tribes—no contest. Roman citizens had subsidized food (their energy sources) from the provinces of North Africa shipped in as tribute to Rome itself.
When the out thrust of the Roman armies weakened and stopped, the Roman empire ceased to be a unified whole and split into independent states, and Rome itself collapsed and ceased to be the world’s superpower.
Now fast forward 2000 years. The empire of the contiguous land area of the United States finds itself in exactly the same situation. It is a nation that was created only because sufficient energy was available to do it. The US army used the energy of their modern technology to wipe out stone age tribes—again, no contest.
But the main out thrust of nation building energy derived from the steam engine and the technology that could deliver thousands of miles of rails, followed by thousands of miles of roads. That allowed territories to be exploited, and just as with ancient Rome, energy sources are shipped around the country to give people an unreal concept of the real cost of their food intake.
Right now, everyone is realising that roads have to be maintained, involving still more energy input. But suddenly we find that there’s no cheap energy available any more, so the communications network that built the American empire is starting to collapse—just like the Roman one.
Energy collapse means nation collapse, and again, reflecting the Roman model (remember the distances involved are comparable– 900 miles Rome to London) the nation will disintegrate into disparate states. The differences in language geography and culture are already in place.
Just as with ancient Rome, there will be violent resistance to this, but it’s not a political or military problem, it’s that old killer, the laws of thermodynamics and the energy returned on energy invested. Rome couldn’t afford to keep its empire together. The Spanish and the Brits tried it and failed too, and so will the USA.
Few people understand what you have so concisely explained. The dissolution of this present empire is going to be traumatic at best and if the carnage weren’t going to be so ugly it might almost be entertaining to watch.
Thank you Edward—can I offer your letter as evidence in court? My neighbour is suing my head for damages to his wall
Of course you can….lol
Not to impugn Edward, but if you need “evidence in court,” perhaps you should cite Joseph Tainter, who has sorted all this out in The Collapse of Complex Societies.
I personally haven’t read Tainter’s work (though I will) but, off the top of my head, it occurs to me that any historical look at former collapses hasn’t needed to include the issues of peak oil and climate chaos in their assessments. Most civil dissolution’s of the past have come from internal
political corruption. While that is certainly an issue in our present situation (maybe more so than any in the past) external physical forces will, most probably, make this collapse global with few options. None the less, I’m sure that “end of more” might find support for his case in your suggestion.
“Most civil dissolution’s of the past have come from internal political corruption.”
Not according to Tainter. He claims that collapse is always caused by the overhead of administering empire becomes too great for the energy available.
Interesting, I’m definitely going to need to read it now.
Thanks for the info.
That is similar to what Turchin and Nefedov say. They say that wage disparity increases, and it becomes impossible to raise taxes enough to cover the funding for the now larger group of people paid by those taxes. The price of grain also tends to spike, furthering the plight of the wage-earners.
Anyone concerned with the looming collapse should sign up for the Tullett Prebon newsletter, its free and contains a lot of good material, the link below is typical
Thanks Mr. Steinman,
Would you agree that the main population growth over the last 100 years has occurred mostly in urban settings? How does that affect our need for automobiles (or some form of transport) and the growth of sales? Ditto for the growth of suburbs and ‘bedroom communities?’
Is there a better way to organize those assets that would avoid the EROEI cliff that we’re now starting to slide over?
Certainly, growth has been primarily urban. Before the use of fossil sunlight, it took fifteen people on the land to support one in the city; now, one farmer supports about 700 city people. A reversion to the mean is inevitable!
Currently, rural people do a lot more travel than city people. They may be in a big hurt when they can’t walk to a store for food. I think the politicians will do everything they can to make sure food still gets into cities, but the suburbs and non-farming rural folk will be triaged out. I think the worst off will be the exsuburban “hobby farmers” who have pet animal that they buy feed for. Are they going to butcher and eat their horse when times get bad? I don’t think so.
As for “better ways of organizing assets,” I don’t think so. I think we are headed into the disassociation/disorganization phase of a panarchy loop, and there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it on a large scale. The best we can do on a small scale is grow food.
Unless perhaps I missed the meaning behind your question. Of course I think there’s a “better way of organizing assets,” since I started a co-op for land sharing and collaborative farming. But people don’t seem to be hungry enough yet to give up their illusion of independence. We can put people in a house on a beautiful property for $200k or so, but people still want their own five acres and a mortgage at over twice that amount.
recently I saw a picture of a horse pulling a plough on a ‘city farm’, with normal city buildings all around; nobody seemed to think it odd that the horsefeed had to be trucked in
If I understand your remark about a land cooperative, I wholeheartedly agree. In Coming Out Of The Woods, Wallace Kaufman writes his memoir of life at Saralyn. If you want to see what it looks like today, use Google maps and search for Saralyn Road, Pittsboro, North Carolina. A few scattered houses in a dense forest.
Kaufman went into this adventure with more knowledge and skill than most people, yet he still learns hard lessons. He wrote the book back in 2000, so some of the things he says aren’t exactly what current science tells us, and sometimes I think his characterizations are wrong headed. But overall, this is a story about how hard it is for humans to actually live in a wilderness.
For example, instead of building a community, with foot trails into the forest, he decides to sell individual plots of land on which people can build anything they want to. Then he finds that the ‘individual plot’ decision requires clearing lots of trees for roads and electric lines and building expensive bridges across normally placid creeks because bridges have to be sized for floods. The settlers tend to fight over the behavior of their chosen domestic animals. Few marriages survive (including his own–his wife becomes a lawyer working for the University of North Carolina.)
He discovers that it is a lot easier to garden in suburbia than it is to garden in a wilderness because wilderness is well populated with critters that see your garden as a gift from heaven. (It is amazing to read that back in 1970 there were virtually no deer in this county. Now this county has perhaps the highest density of deer in North Carolina.)
My characterization (not the authors) is that humans are a peculiar species that needs to live in small groups in order to survive. But few of us are truly skilled in managing the conflicts that arise in groups, and, if we have enough fossil fuel energy, we will move off onto our own piece of (tamed) Nature. The conflicts which arise in ‘intentional communities’ are evidence that we don’t socialize too well.
Consider two of his examples of really hard work. For the women, it is doing the laundry. For the men, it is making boards with a two-man saw. Women historically used ‘wash day’ as a time for socializing. I’m not sure about the board making, but I suspect that a work crew where people took turns working the saw would have been the preferred alternative. We know from Wendell Berry’s stories in A Place In Time that the men and boys enjoyed getting together to work in the fields. And we have the old saw that ‘many hands make light work’, which survives today in Crop Mobs and in Permaculture Blitzes.
In the 13 years since Kaufman wrote the book, we have learned some things. For example, see the article How Plants Defend Themselves in the current issue of Mother Earth News (reprinted from The New York Times). ‘Maybe it’s time to reconsider what we think about plants. They hear, touch, see and even talk in order to survive.’ One great hope for the future is that we will learn to make use of the native behavior of plants to harvest more surplus–as opposed to thinking that we have to beat plants and their predators into submission. As another example, the ‘micronutrient revolution’ was just getting underway when Kaufman wrote his book. Briefly, humans need calories in order to survive, but in order to thrive we also need an abundant supply of micronutrients which plants provide–particularly in green leaves. Green leaves have few calories, but plenty of micronutrients. And so our agriculture must supply both calorie crops and also micronutrients. Some of the current thinking in my neighborhood is that sochan and chickweed should be the dominant winter greens, while amaranth should be dominant summer green. Kaufman hints at this when a Korean asks to ‘weed his garden’ and, to his amazement, harvests his ‘weeds’, the abundant amaranth which he has been trying to eradicate. But 13 years have passed and we now understand these things better than Kaufman did when he wrote the book.
Until not so long ago, even towns in Europe had fields within their walls, to provide harvests during siege. We have moved very far so rapidly……….the disconnect is too great.
I am not sure we have very much time and resources to add large amounts of new rail, subways and busses. Long-distance passenger trains are difficult to run full, 24/7, because people don’t like traveling at night.
I am afraid even such a level may involve more resource use than we can truly afford, at this stage of the game. We are probably best off using what we already have (with say, ride-sharing plans for cars), and perhaps some more busses, to keep spending low.
We live in a car world. Driving their car is very much part of people’s identity. They don’t care how ugly and faceless the landscape, as long as they can hop into their nice car and go anywhere. If the road surface and general security begins to deteriorate, they can compensate with SUV’s and pickups, look at Russia. Look at China, now the biggest car market. The price of gas would have to go 5x before that changes, or massive unemployment where people cannot buy cars anymore. Public transport won’t play a major role.
Again, you point out the obvious. The problem boils down to population at it’s core. We have overshot the planets ability to support us all in the manner to which we have become accustomed or wish that we were accustomed. Sorry for the anthropomorphizing but the planet will be remorseless as it imposes it’s discipline.
One could argue that you have failed to include some technologies that could capture as much of the suns that we get from fossil sun today, Such as concentrated solar molten salt plants. Bio-fuel from algae (which produced all of the fossil oil) and a few others. However, food and water problems have no technological answers and at present/projected populations are unsolvable. As you point out the picture is bleak and if McPherson (he will be at the memorial weekend conference) is correct we won’t even have a remnant to ponder these issues.
None the less, it nice to read an article that is not replete with the BS that has become so prevalent these days. Your ‘matter of fact’ no ‘agenda’ point of view is a breath of fresh air.
Looking forward to the conference,
Thanks! The conference Ed is talking about is the Age of Limits conference over Memorial Day Weekend in Southern Pennsylvania.
The movie ‘Lincoln’ depicted life (filmed in Richmond, Va) 148 years ago. Dimly lit, no central heating, horse-drawn, no electricity (except telegraph, which was the one modern implement), the same as 2000 years earlier. Big changes began within 50 years. How many years will it take to regress to that level of civilization? When do you expect the armageddon to begin? Will onset be slow or rapid? Is it time to start dusting off some 50 year old apocalypse literature? Boy scout handbook?
I think one of the best lines to cover that thinking comes from Dylan Thomas, in a poem to his dying father, but unwittingly he made it equally applicable to all of us:
Do not go gentle into that good night
Fight, fight against the dying of the light.
Nobody will accept that their living is no longer easy, the violence kicking off everywhere right now is a clear indicator of that. Once living standards drop—somebody has to be blamed, usually violent—depending on the level to which living standards fall. In the USA, those standards haven’t dropped far enough yet.
We may talk about ‘regressing’ to that level of 19thc civilisation, as seen in the Lincoln film, but it is, if one reflects on it, a very high level indeed in historical terms!
It’s too easy – and depressing – to get worked up over all of this.
After all, individually we are all doomed to death and disintegration.
Our biggest challenge is perhaps to keep a sense of perspective that helps us to stay sane and useful……
To Xabier from Christopher:
Sir, I agree that an apparently bleak future can spawn depression, but I’m not sure what to do about it. How will the most dynamic portion of humanity respond when their digital toys are inoperable? When little electricity flows, and less tomorrow than today… Apocalypse literature became quite popular in the1950s and 60s, envisioning a post-holocaust world. Should we begin dusting it off? Writing new dystopic stuff like Hunger Games?
I think we are headed for a financial crash in the near future. The downfall will probably take 20 years or less. Maybe it is time to dust off some of the resources you mention. See my post, 2013: Beginning of Long-Term Recession?
We need 10:1 and over in order to sustain any semblance of civilised existence.
If we slip below that figure, we are essentially on a permanent treadmill, turning it in the futile delusion that that is our prime function in life.
our prime function would be to produce energy in order to go on producing more energy.
We created our civilisation in its present form because we need 2% of our population to produce our food, and a fraction of 1% to produce our energy, coal oil and gas etc. The rest of us are free to develop other commercial business. As more and more people are drawn into the actual business of energy production, fewer of us are available to maintain the rest of our infrastructure.
the concept of ”renewables” is bandied out in the general media, and lulls millions into thinking we can go on with our industrialised lifestyle irrespective of oil depletion and expense.
Energy is energy after all
Except that it isn’t
Renewables , almost universally, deliver electricity, and while we can do a lot with electricity, we can’t eat it.
On the other hand we can convert oil into food. That is the critical difference
neither can we rearrange it in some physical sense to form objects that we need to carry our our daily living tasks, which is what we do at the molecular level with hydrocarbons. No other product of our industry allows us to do that
The critical factor, as has been stated so many times in these posts, is EROEI. Currently our combined energy sources of all types—oil, renewables, coal and so on is still holding up our civilised existence with a return of something between 20 and 30 to 1. That excess supports our health, government, military and basic infrastructure.
Few realise, and still less accept, that when we (humanity in a collective sense that is) drop below 10:1 our 5000 year experiment in civilisation is over. We will not have enough excess energy to provide any more than we need to feed ourselves.
I agree with your conclusion, but if we had an unlimited amount of electricity, we could do without oil. Plastics, etc. can be created from plant oils — they don’t do that only because fossil sunlight is so much cheaper.
That’s not to say we should go hell-bent on increasing non-fossil electricity generation. I just wanted to point out that energy is energy, and if you have enough of one form, you can afford the entropic losses in converting it to something else.
Of course, there is never “enough” energy, no matter the form. Garrett Hardin said, “Given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation.”
Making automobiles run on electricity is a challenge. Making heavier vehicles do so is an even greater challenge. Making airplanes run on electricity is a bigger stretch, So far we’ve just begun taking the first steps.
The hunt for Rare Earth Elements is gathering momentum. Japan last week reportedly found great deposits at 4 miles depth in the Pacific. Making billions of EVs will require lots of REEs.
I agree wholeheartedly that there are huge — insurmountable — challenges. I was just pointing out that, given an infinite amount of electricity, we could build hydrocarbon molecules for jet fuel atom-by-atom, if necessary.
Again, not at all practical. But you’ll get such arguments from Kurzweil types, and it is best to be prepared for them.
You may be pleased to know that considerable effort is being expended in the development of algae-based jet fuels. I’m not sure who has the lead, but I’ve seen reports about Navy R&D projects.
Oddly, I have seen very few references to algae based fuels in these pages, despite the general consensus in the renewables community that algae has strong potentials, much superior to corn or soybean.
Our current problem is that oil supply is too high priced. It is the high price that is disrupting the economy. I have not seen any evidence that fuel from algae has any chance of bringing the cost down below the current oil price. Can you show evidence that we can develop $20 or $30 /barrel algae based fuel?
Re Gail’s question to Christopher Johnson regarding price targets for algae fuel.
Gail: I have not asked or addressed that question previously and do not know the answer. But I will research the question.
Don’t need an infinite amount of electricity for this. I think the most likely (and nightmare) scenario we will see soon is
Coal gasification + Fischer-Tropsch.
This would provide liquid fuels for a very long time at relatively reasonable costs (not much more than today). Of course that means the amount of CO2 released…
Electricity for many applications has to be transported and stored. That means a huge need for other resources like copper, lithium… These have to be mined and transformed into industrial commodities… The transport and storage facilities have to be built and maintained… Companies want a profit to do it… The people to do all that must be educated and paid…
any species will maximise its numbers up to and just beyond the point of sustainability
That is Malthusian law
It has a purpose that we may not like very much, but he only put a name to it, don’t blame the poor guy
By obeying our genetic forces (over which we have no control) we ensure that the strongest of us gets the biggest share of finite resources. The scarcer the supply, the harder the fight to acquire them.
Let’s not pussyfoot around with polite words for this. Nature intends us to pass on that strength, or die in the attempt. The ones who don’t make it are irrelevant in the natural system of things.
Human beings have developed an altruistic side, but only because we have been able afford to. In more primitive societies altruism stops at tribe or family level.
Right now our species is crowding around the feeding stations (we call them oilwells) and all wars fit the Malthusian law—we are fighting to get hold of resources, and have been for a century with increasing frequency and ferocity. Unconsciously or not, we recognise that food resources are diminishing and too many of us are showing up every year to get fed
How do you compute and rate the relative economic efficiency of an urban rail / subway system versus personal vehicle use? Is this a EROEI exercise or something else?
Part of the feasibility of any alternative is timing. If we are approaching collapse very quickly, it becomes impossible to do do enough in the time-frame available.I am afraid that is the big issue today.
Gail, I just saw a recent OECD study that talked about the effects of wind and solar renewables on nuclear power production. Apparently, the variable power of the renewables causes the nuke plants to ramp up and down, which they apparently prefer to avoid. I had heard about this in the USA; now this from Europe.
The one thing that a person has to be somewhat cautious about with that report is the fact the Nuclear Energy Association is one of the authors. They will have a tendency to paint the story in the direction they would like to tell it. Ideally, a person would like a neutral author (hard to find) or a second author biased in the other direction. It is hard to tell if there is exaggeration in their stories.
At least for CO-2 it’s not much better, according to a study I read. Average CO-2 footprint of high-end intercity railway in Germany (roughly 30% nuclear / 50% fossil fuel / 20% renewable electricity) was about equal to 2 persons in a car. They didn’t include railway or car infrastructure, just the energy use while driving. And bus travel with 20 passengers was the most CO-2 friendly, which suprised me.
It is really hard to run passenger trains full, unless they are simply commuter trains running during rush hour. If they run long distance, they necessarily run at night when no one wants to go. I think this is part of the reason it is hard to keep their CO2 footprint low.
Thanks for your response. The reason for the question in the first place was to search for ways to reduce the ever-increasing traffic, for environmental as well as other reasons. Is it right to say that most people use their cars to commute to work and back. Are there greener alternatives?
NYC is not a good place to drive a car, so many people don’t. Ditto with Tokyo, et al crowded cities. London had to add taxes to cut down the number of commuters. Many big cities have subway systems that do a reasonable job of getting people from A to B. The question is, how do we improve on that?
I suspect the answer is not EROEI manipulation but something more basic, such as expanded public rail that is inexpensive, perhaps combined with UK-style ‘city commute taxes’ combined with higher gas taxes that can finance rail systems. The minute we stop building, improving and refurbishing infrastructure.social entropy strikes. The public transportation system must be pervasive and effective.
Those still wedded to their automobiles will benefit from our gratitude.
I’m not sure we know the exact level when EROEI is too low. I would argue that we are pretty much already at a point at which overall EROEI is too low, because economic growth is now possible with high levels of deficit spending by governments as well as artificially low interest rates.
The statements about what happens at what EROEI levels are only illustrative–no studies have been done to “prove” what happens at different EROEIs that I am aware of. We built our economy with a fairly high EROEI. As the available EROEI declines, it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain the economy we have built. Eventually we hit the collapse part of “Overshoot and collapse,” likely because of financial reasons.
“economic growth is now possible with high levels of deficit spending by governments as well as artificially low interest rates”
We could call that a euphemism. The QE-sponsored government spending is not really designed to get economic growth or to improve employment, although that’s what they say. It is the last effort to prevent the collapse of the debt-based economic and financial system that started in 1695 with the establishment of the bank of England, lending paper money to the king. When England finally ran out of countries to conquer and exploit to pay back credit, they lost the ability to borrow and soon lost their empire.
Ever since modern banking exists, our standard of living was enabled by the expansion of credit. Even fossil fuel extraction depended heavily on credit. Look at the early history of oil, there were huge financial constraints and bankruptcies before the banks believed in the oil story. Look at shale gas now – purely based on credit. Look at subsidized renewables.
The US started borrowing from the Fed in 1913, and is meeting the limits of debt since 1970, extending the game with many (sometimes dirty) tricks at the expense of the rest of the world. Now the way into hyperinflation is very clearly visible, only nominally avoiding insolvency.
When the dollar-pound-yen system collapses, Europe+China+Russia+Middle East+Africa could form a better world. So never wonder why the US military system will be maintained even with people starving in the streets.
And all that with nuclear weapons on both sides having minimal C.E.P.s and M.I.R.V. delivery. Life today is akin to travelling over a bumpy road in a lorry loaded with nitro-glycerine (shades of ‘The Wages of Fear’ if anyone remembers it). The term ‘hair trigger’ hardly does justice to the situation, yet there is little or no public discussion of the fact that a ‘winner take all’ philosophy has replaced that of nuclear deterrence. On balance, I think I prefer M.A.D. At least there was time to use the hot-line to cool things down before it got hot, very hot. Today, if Russia and America come to blows, it will be essential to fire first or lose the ability to fire at all.
Mind you, a full-blown nuclear exchange would do wonders for the problem of over population, and the subsequent nuclear winter would at least delay climate change for a while at least.
Such hyperbole! And the Russians would do this because their 1% wants to change the status quo? And the Americans would out of neocon principle? And the Chinese would because they’ll be able to monopolize commerce everywhere? Slim Pickens had the right approach.
I could accept your criticism if you had provided some facts to support your opinion, just one would be a start, or don’t nuclear weapons deserve sufficient study to acquire them? The problem is that with today’s missile technology there is the great danger of an accidental nuclear exchange. A danger that did not exist in the Cold War, at least not in anything like the form we live under.
Perhaps you are unaware of the number of full scale nuclear alerts that we had during the Cold War. In today’s world with its ‘use them or lose them’ launch policy – the necessary response to a foe equipped with a pre-emptive first-strike capability – any false alarm will produce a full scale launch with no ladder of escalation, as advanced by Herman Kahn. It seems to me that the peace that broke out in the late eighties is slowly drifting from our grasp and the more it will do so as the world’s resources become ever more scarce. If the Cold War returns, I cannot see it fizzling out the way the last one did. I think that has to be discussed, obviously you don’t.
The daft thing is that if we had technically aware politicians, they would have negotiated the banning of more than one warhead per missile and in a flash we would all be a lot safer. Incidentally, the reason I was so specific about the technology was to tempt anyone not up to speed with the new generation of nuclear weapons a route into the topic. It doesn’t take much to see that having the ability to destroy the other side’s launch infrastructure and thus its deterrence capability cannot be a good thing. If I am wrong, give me some facts and believe it or not, that would make me very happy.
Oh, by the way, China does not have a pre-emptive first-strike capability, though give it time and it will, unless the world bans the capability beforehand.
Offending you was not my intent. But I’m curious, are metaphors being mixed, or am I missing something? Although ascribing certainty to anything related to elite behavior, or even assuming that elites actually control or even influence policy may be ultimately unsupportable, I tend to believe that leaderships here and abroad tend to behave rationally. That is, in their best interests. And yes, we must be careful to remember that what one might consider rational might not be so regarded by the other.
And yes, I am well aware of the repeated efforts by Canada Geese (in the decade before fed-up Germans ‘tore down this wall;) to trigger nuclear exchanges. In fact, I used to work in the five sided puzzle palace and occasionally participated in the kinds of endeavors for which Dr. Strangelove should have received more than a few rewards. (Can you imagine fighting in the War Room? — AKA NMCC)
Perhaps I was somewhat shocked, sir, because I had not heard such a reference in more than 20 years. I am aware that we still maintain a relatively short fuzed alert status, and that the strategic game has not abated. Perhaps I am naive to think that nuclear armageddon is unlikely so long as we avoid ‘eyeball to eyeball’ on the plains of Europe. Or perhaps we can be more optimistic because more Russians, especially the elite, are discovering the pleasures of rich Western life.
So then the question becomes one of what to do with our MIRV’d, 1m CEP missiles? Stand some down? Increase the number?
Should we go clandestine, like the Chinese, who reportedly have constructed vast subterranean networks to manufacture, assemble, store and launch ICB Ms? Are those reports credible? Verified? But then, while clandestine may be possible in China, the TV networks would not permit such things here…
I don’t know any rational person who would want to push the button. Do you? Should this keep us up at night the way it did 30 years ago? I think not, and that we have some other problems to solve.
Cordially, Christopher Johnson
I am not a newspaper editor, nor am I a surgeon, so the salutation ‘Sir’ or even ‘Mr’ is inappropriate. They would be even more inappropriate had I been female.
On a visit to NATO headquarters in August, 1990, two days before Werner, the then Secretary General was due to meet Gorbachev, a small party of us had a series of meetings with NATO personnel to discuss nuclear missile strategy. Due to the above impending meeting with Gorbachev the top line were briefing Werner and we met people obviously less briefed in the techniques of dealing with the likes of us. The result was that one of them let slip that “Despite the fact that peace had broken out, NATO was having meetings at the highest level about the destabilization that was going to result from the deployment of Trident D5.
If NATO was concerned then, when the Cold War was still fresh in their minds, I see no reason for them not to be concerned now. The danger is not that someone will press the button, so to speak, but that the button will be pressed automatically. The flight time of a nuclear missile is at most something in the region of 30 minutes, and possibly a lot less for any nearer their targets. A pre-emptive first-strike would be timed to begin when surveillance mechanisms, such as satellites’ orbital positions, allowed maximum flight time prior to detection. Even thirty minutes would hardly be long enough for someone to reach the Commander in Chief, a.k.a. the President, and get a response. The only sensible solution would be to automate the launch with all the decision making already having been done at the design stage.
We must not forget that the more a pre-emptive first-strike comes out of the blue, the more successful it will be, so it is no good thinking that the automated response will factor in tensions and be more likely to believe ‘evidence’ (even if in reality it is only a flock of geese) if it happens when tensions are high. It will have to launch all of the response regardless.
What i cannot understand is why you think we need more than one warhead per missile. Heavens above, there is even one version of Trident that has no warhead. It fills the weapon bay with augmented GPS and such like, giving the precision of one meter of which you talk (100 meters being the norm for a normal missile). It then relies on kinetic energy to provide the destructive force. Trident is designed to carry 12 warheads to separate targets, but currenlty limited to eight under the START treaty. With only one warhead per missile, there would be no chance of anyone launching a pre-emptive first-strike because the targets would outnumber the warheads and two per target is the normal assignment. In those circumstances the Cold War can come back and we can manage it as we did successfully before, geese or no geese to provide false alarms. The President could even wait until he or she heard the bang so they knew for certain that the warning was real and then launch a measured response, or negotiate. I.e. Herman Kahn’s ladder of escalation would come into play. When some glitch in an automated launch mechanism has launched the lot for you, there is not a lot left to negotiate. And possibly not a lot left of your country.
I know which I prefer and think I know which the public would prefer if they were made aware of the realities. A nuclear weapon is not just a nuclear weapon, they vary tremendously.
I am afraid you are pretty much right. I recently saw an article about Russia and China agreeing to co-operate in the Arctic. A person wonders why these countries would want anything to do with the US, Europe, and Japan. The one shortfall might be food production though. The US and South America is better situated for arable land per capita. Food is really critical. Food imports are also a way of getting around water shortages.
Gail, did I read the story wrongly, or did Shell really make a botch of their effort to drill in the Arctic a few months ago? Did you see the story? Well, if Shell couldn’t manage it, should we think the Russian ad Chinese drillers can?
I know I should not be dismissive, critical or pompous, but we continually read that
“the Russian ad the Chinese oil giants ‘are hoping their deal with ___ name the company___ will yield technological improvements”
There’s a political aspect that I don’t quite understand, and needs analysis. There’s a move afoot at the UN to open the Arctic for ice-free travel in the summer and oil exploration whenever they can. The USSR has the longest shorelines up there the Chinese have none, obviously. There is some European resistance to the Russian plan, but I don’t know the details. However, the czar apparently wants an ally.
You may wish to look at The Diplomat.com, which has posted a few articles about China’s ‘inland empire’ to its West. Both China and Russia share a ‘central land mass’ overall strategy, which automatically puts them in competition with the US and European maritime strategy. Note that China also has an East Asian maritime window, but it is much more troublesome especially when compared to those wide open spaces to the West.
It is my understanding that Shell has been having difficulty with its arctic drilling. Whenever we go into more difficult drilling scenarios, we seem to have a lot of setbacks. Getting some more experienced company to help is one strategy to try to overcome these setbacks, but it doesn’t necessarily work.
Opening up the arctic to summer travel will likely change weather in ways which we cannot fully understand in advance. We are playing with fire. If we were hunter-gatherers, we could simply move to a better climate (if we knew which direction to go), but it is more difficult when we have land ownership and farms set up in specific locations.
Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) shapes our lives. ERoEI says it takes energy – mining, drilling, refining, transporting – to make energy.
“The EROI for oil in the US during the heydays of oil development in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana in the 1930s was about 100 returned for one invested. . . . declining to about 20:1 in the first half decade of the 2000s.”
The shale oil ERoEI is around 1 to 5; this is the minimum needed to maintain life as we know it. However, the decline rate of an individual well in the region is very high, and thus the industry has to continue to drill wells at a rapid rate, just to replace the decline.
“From Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll: Red Queen ‘It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place’ ”
Presently the estimated breakeven price for the “average” well in the Bakken formation in North Dakota is $80 – $90/Bbl. In plain language this means that presently the commercial profitability for new wells is barely positive.
The “average” well now yields around 85,000 Bbls during the first 12 months of production and then experiences a year over year decline of 40% (+/-) 2% .
Here are some ERoEI calculations for selected energies.
EROI (for US) Fuel
3.0 Bitumen tar sands
1.3 Ethanol corn
5.0 Shale oil
1.6 Solar collector
1.9 Solar flat plate
It is important to understand that the “renewable” energies like wind use lots of fossil fuels to mine, process, manufacture, transport, assemble and do multiple maintenances during the year. They have an estimated 20-year life span. Where will the energy come from to manufacture the next batch? They do not reproduce themselves like a horse or an oak tree.
Even the electricity from the Becker, Minnesota, plant requires not just coal but diesel to run the huge trucks, scoops for mining and three 100 car trains to bring the coal.
Easily accessible oil peaked in 2005. We now are finding only the hardest to retrieve and lowest ERoEI in the oceans, the artic, in shale, in tar sands. It endangers the environment now and for your grandchildren’s future.
We will do anything and everything to maintain our present personal level of energy use and the comfort it affords us. We will do anything and everything to the earth, to other people, and even to ourselves to continue on this path. The proof of this assertion is simple; we are doing it.
You have more faith in the statement, “The shale oil ERoEI is around 1 to 5; this is the minimum needed to maintain life as we know it.”
As far as I am concerned, the second half of the above statement is simply untested hypothesis, that is not based on the way the world actually operates. Even though the statement has been made by very influential people, I think it is wrong–probably a misinterpretation of what they were really trying to say.
WHat has been shown is that the EROEI needs to be at least 3.0 to have a transportation system. But coming from a higher EROEI, it is not at all clear the world can scale back to a lower EROEI, without breaking the system.
“You have more faith in the statement, “The shale oil ERoEI is around 1 to 5; this is the minimum needed to maintain life as we know it.””
Gail – I saw ERoEI of shale much lower.
Transportation may be the least of our problems – food, clothing (not from petroleum), shelter, heat, just add to the list.
I agree with you that we will poorly adjust to a lower ERoEI. We will work from the top down – what can we do without? Instead of what do we need to not have a brutish life. Even a horse has an ERoEI.
I wrote about this:
We will go kicking and screaming down the path to the new Middle Ages as fossil fuels desert us. With the decline of available energy, those of most of us who have sat at the top of the energy pyramid will become the new peasants. With the popular view of the Middle Ages as a brutal and dirty time filled with famine and disease and at the mercy of armed overlords. We cringe at the thought.
With great sadness, we must recognize the direct connection between present day population levels and the use of fossil fuels in food production, medical procedures, medicines and hygiene. With the fall in fossil fuel availability there will be a reduction in population. Population soared with the industrial revolution and the development of industrial, fossil fuel based agriculture. It cannot be sustained.
From: The New Middle Ages
A return to something like the Middle Ages is a possibility. The catch is that doing such a thing requires a lot of skills that we don’t have. Many of the soils are quite depleted now, and aquifers are deeper now. The oceans are “fished out” of may of the large fishes. Medieval techniques would catch many fewer fish.
My guess is that we wouldn’t have very many living in a Medieval like existence. Another possibility is a return to hunter-gatherer existence. That is where humans spent most of their historical existence. Humans were taller and less subject to diseases as hunter-gatherers, than in the Middle Ages.
A blend is possible too. If there is severe climate change, or other changes that would make it hard to live, perhaps humans won’t survive at all.
I have been reading Coming Out of the Woods. Written about 10 years ago by a man who developed a sort of eco-retreat in some very old woods near my house. The development is still there.
He mostly builds his own house, but uses modern materials. He compares his situation to Thoreau building his cabin at Walden Pond. Both used the materials that were available to them. In both cases the materials are a result of the civilization they live in. ‘The plaster that Thoreau paid contractors to spread on his interior walls was the product of chemistry and engineering developed over centuries.’ And ‘Where is the civilized man or woman who has ever set out over the desert, into the forest, or across the ocean in the manner of our primitive ancestors? …try as we might to disguise our modern advantages, we depend on them for our very lives.’
While building his house, he builds multiple flues into his stone chimney. This allows him to have a fuel efficient Franklin stove and also an inefficient open fireplace. He uses the fireplace 4 or 5 times a year, while relying on the Franklin stove for day to day heat. He points out the enormous savings in forests made possible by the Franklin stove. He similarly compares the cost of Thoreau’s cabin with his own modest house built with modern materials and finds the modern materials are cheaper.
What I think we are seeing when we look at things this way is the Constructal Law described in Design in Nature by Adrian Bejan. The Constructal Law states that designs should emerge and evolve in time to facilitate flow access. In other words, better design, by tree roots seeking water and nutrients or bacteria evolving or humans thinking about building materials makes things flow more efficiently. Our society has simply evolved better building materials than were available to Thoreau.
Lest we be complacent, I think we need to consider the Constructal Law in the context of resources which are becoming scarce. For example, an agriculture evolves which produces more food, but also requires new, virgin land or requires irrigation or requires synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. And now suppose that the supply of the essential ingredient on which the system has come to depend begins to decline.
Consider, for example, the Franklin stove. The Franklin stove is only useful so long as:
population doesn’t outrun available wood
fuel is available to smelt metals
metals are available from either recycling or mining
If any of those three things begin to go into reverse, then not only may Franklin stoves become scarce, but anything dependent on the Franklin stove may be endangered. So society is vulnerable to cascading failure as one system fails which undermines the ability of a second system to function and so on. Ironically, the system many of us would pick as the poster child of failure is fiat money–which really doesn’t exist at all.
In short, I am not sure that any of us are smart enough to describe ahead of time the implications of something like Peak Oil, or Peak Water, or Climate Stress, or Ecosystem Stress brought about by massive herbicide and pesticide applications. We have built a more efficient system (e.g., we can build more efficiently than Thoreau could build), but the system is probably quite brittle.
You give a good example of why our current system is quite brittle. A lot of people seem to believe that we can build on our current knowledge, even with less resources per capita, but I expect that we will reach limits such as these.
Gail, in response to your question about the cost of algae biofuel, I regret to report that the libraries are not full of data. At its current stage of development, it’s mostly quite expensive – some over $100/gal. Those in the industry are hoping to achieve $1.50 – $2.00 per gallon by 2020.
A recent Cornell report (http://www.greencarcongress.com/2013/01/sills-20130101.html#more) assesses a range of EROEIs associated with algae fuels .9 at the low end to 4.8 at the most positive. And these appear to be based more on optimism than experience.
I know Robert Rapier has written about many kinds of biofuel, including algae. He has talked about the high cost of algae. This is a link to one of his posts on the subject.
Yea, it’s pretty difficult to “prove” what happens at different ERoEI values.
However, we do have one well-documented, long-running experiment that should perhaps be our guide. It seems to indicate that an ERoEI of about 13 to 50 is necessary to sustain life over the long term.
This experiment has been running for quite a while – some 3.4 billion years, in fact — using a process of continuous refinement that modern businesses embrace as their model for improvement.
And yet, with all this time to evolve through competition and survival of the fittest, why has photosynthesis not gone beyond some 2% to 8% efficiency? Surely, if there were not some need for the excess energy, selection pressure would have evolved super plants with efficiencies that rival today’s PV cells.
But of course, we arrogant humans can do much better in a few decades than nature has done in 3.4 billion years. Yea, right. When nature talks, listen, dammit!
I’m afraid that, based on this long-running experiment, we’re hosed. The best estimates of our current ERoEI are very near the most efficient use of sunlight that nature has managed to produce.
I am not sure that what you are calculating is EROEI, but you are right that nature does very well, using only a small fraction of the energy it receives. We shouldn’t be shocked if we can’t do a whole lot better.
I was using the inverse of efficiency, which I now realize is flat-out wrong. Sorry about that! (It seemed rather brilliant at the time… 🙂
Here is a link to Mark Shepard giving a lecture.
You will also see links to his web site and an interview.
In addition, I looked up his book on Amazon. They are selling it for about 23 dollars.
Pingback: Links for Week Ending 23rd March | The Rational Pessimist (formerly Climate and Risk)
To Gail et al:
Water limitations have been cited by World Bank, UN, and many other knowledgeable (or reputed to be) organizations. The data is grim and conditions are forecast to deteriorate in the next few decades. In fact, I’m surprised to have seen only very few references to water problems in these blogs, despite the linkage between water and energy.
The discovery of graphene a few years ago has spawned asymptotic increases in research activity. Here is one of the first fruits:
The designer who still hasn’t begun serial production of the F-35, the most expensive weapon system the world has ever seen proudly presents: the world’s first ambient pressure desalination system.
What this means is water desalination and purification (probably not thorough purification) at ambient pressures, 14.5 PSI not 1000 PSI, which can reduce the cost to nearly zero, the cost of just pumping the water through the pipe.
Cordially, Chris Johnson
Thanks! I agree that if this can really be done, it would be a great advance. Scaling up seems to be a challenge with many of these inventions. The article says,
Right you are, of course. This particular technology has such significant potential that the efforts to finish and continue improving can be expected.
Yesterday I happened to notice an advertisement for a Dr. Blaylock’s monthly health and wellness letter. He has a particular interest in those brain disorders that we associate with old age, such as Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Curious, I listened to a long commercial (which you can’t fast forward through) and then got to his list of the factors in modern life which promote these disorders:
The story is pretty typical. He was a practicing neuro type doctor who believed the drug companies and prescribed their medications. But when his own mother and father were struck with these diseases, he stood by helplessly and watched them deteriorate and die. Which experience prompted him to actually read the research literature. He found, as many others have, that these disorders are not a result of getting older–they are a result of certain toxins and certain lifestyle factors. His newsletter and the advertisement tell you what those toxins and lifestyle factors are and how to avoid them. He says that just as heart disease is not caused by a lack of cholesterol suppressing drugs, so the brain disorders are not caused by a lack of brain drugs.
Yet I recently saw some poll results which indicate that the American people think that ‘more drugs’ are one of the best expenditures our society can make. So…if I were advising some aspiring politician, I certainly wouldn’t advise them to tell the truth about drugs.
We could make a pretty long list of things which it doesn’t pay a politician to tell the truth about: oil depletion and energy subsidies, industrial food production, how happiness arises, chronic disease and its causes and prevention, security in old age, how the sausage actually gets made in Congress, what years spent in school actually accomplish, and on and on. We can rail about Citizens United and blame that, or blame the constant barrage of advertisements on television, or come up with deeper flaws in human nature. I leave that to people who understand human psychology better than I do.
But if we are talking about our own survival and happiness (as Dr. Blaylock is apparently trying to do), then it makes sense to separate the wheat from the chaff. And try to put things into the most holistic framework we can. For example, Dr. Blaylock notes the critical role played by glutathione in preventing the diseases which result from oxidative stress. He recommends a pill of some sort. But it is well known that fresh brassica leaves from your garden (and the green parts of green onions from your garden) promote the production of glutathione in your body. If the leaves are eaten raw in a salad and thoroughly chewed, then the production of glutathione is maximized. This is an argument for a garden which you control yourself from which you can harvest leafy greens and be eating them in a salad 15 minutes later. It is also an argument for learning how to prepare delicious salads and the massaging of fat into the leaves which makes them chewable and delivers the most fat soluble nutrients to your body. You and I can review the facts as we see them, let our decision making apparatus go to work on the issue, and probably come out with different solutions which fit our own personalities, talents, and assets. But to me it seems very important to begin with good facts–more drugs are not going to cure Alzheimer’s or heart disease or cancer; industrial agriculture and more subsidies to Monsanto and the chemical makers will not feed us well, happiness and GDP are not the same thing, the FDIC does not give our savings real security, and the Social Security program is not a reliable guarantor of income in old age.
You will note that Mark Shepard does not grow leafy greens. Mark wants to sell into commodity markets, not from a farmstand or at a farmer’s market. He probably also thinks that a small vegetable garden at home is the right way to grow leafy greens.
My point here is that there are multiple levels on which one may approach a subject such as food, or oil and transport, or electricity production and use, or health and wellness, or happiness. Those who want to save society will be forced to deal with the mass delusions which currently dominate public thought. You can see this turn in the writings of people such as Ugo Bardi and Joe Romm. Kunstler and Greer have been there for a long time. Those who don’t think they can make the delusions go away need to figure out a strategy which gives them a fairly good shot at living through the multiple crises and actually harvesting some happiness along the way. If one’s task is the latter, then one needs to clearly assess the delusions and which way they will push society, the likely actual evolution of the environment in terms of climate, food production capacity, limitations to health and wellness and how to ameliorate them, and multi-generation units of production. One also needs to have a clear understanding of where happiness comes from.
I believe that a number of people are demonstrating that Nature, gently and intelligently steered, can produce a great deal of food for humans and a vibrant ecology. I don’t think primary production is the issue IF we get busy and IF we have enough time left. Worrying that lack of oil is a severe limitation on primary production just, in my opinion, diverts our attention from the real problem areas and plays into the hands of the delusion spinners. The phrase that gets constantly repeated that ‘the food you are eating is just oil’ is not helpful in sorting out the truth. There are still plenty of issues around food such as transport, cooking, refrigeration, eating for health, etc., as well as dealing with the delusions promulgated by Big Food and Big Chem.
If people indeed understood where true happiness lies, there would be none of the buying and selling of immense quantities of junk, and travelling far away from home on an idle whim, and promotion of medical panaceas, that make only some people very,very rich, and makes most people creators of landfill, and which defines our culture.
Maybe we will be extinguished because just too many people wanted this season’s handbag, or techno gadget, and couldn’t resist……
It seems like a big transformation is needed. It is hard for most people to do a whole lot at once. Now in the spring seems like a time that people can think about doing something, if they haven’t already. It is an interesting hobby, if nothing else.
Another way to look at the ‘can we feed the world’.
Shepard has a section titled The Case of the Holstein Steers on page 181. He describes a nearby 90 acre farm which is grazing 12 cows, which will yield ‘a pathetic 65,000 calories per acre’. The land is too hilly to safely operate a tractor, although it was once plowed with horses. Most of the topsoil is in the Gulf of Mexico.
And herein lies a wonderful opportunity to apply Restoration Farming. Besides supporting the Holsteins, this land could ‘simultaneously and symbiotically support 24 hogs, 24 sheep, 250 chickens, 7488 chestnut trees, 37440 raspberry bushes, 22464 hazlenut bushes, 7488 grape vines, 29952 currant bushes, and 3744 apple trees’.
‘Can you NOURISH the world? Can you restore ecosystem function? Can you remove carbon from the atmosphere? Can you increase the population of native pollinators, amphibians, and other at-risk wildlife? Can you naturally aggrade soil over time without massive external inputs? Can you prevent runoff? Can you detoxify ground and surface water? Can you increase the number of wetlands? Can you restore springs, prevent erosion and floods? Can you do any of this while only planting your crop once every thousand years?’ And he observes that it can be done without fossil fuels.
My editorial: We mesmerize ourselves by telling ourselves that our education system, our medical system, our government system, and our agricultural system are ‘the best ever devised’. We see any change as a threat to ‘our way of life’. And so we resort to things like Monsanto Protection Bills and printing money by the bale and pouring money into moribund systems which don’t produce very much and making regulations to insure that they aren’t wiped out by real competition.
Shepard and Toensmeier and Bates challenge us to see abundance. The abundance comes from the fecundity of nature coupled with human design which mimics certain highly productive natural systems such as the Oak Savanna which was once dominant across much of the Corn Belt. It should be clear that Shepard is NOT advocating a historical exercise in recreating an Oak Savanna. In his discussion he shows exactly why he chooses tree species other than oaks. Oaks are better at feeding squirrels than humans. So he chooses chestnuts which are mixtures of oriental and American to gain resistance to the chestnut blight. What Shepard IS advocating is adopting the same design principles that Nature uses to maximize solar powered productivity. (I suppose you would call that ‘renewable’.)
In addition, he strongly advocates the water management principles laid out by P.A. Yeomans–which do not have an analog in Nature (so far as I know). Using those water management principles results in the rapid turning of subsoil into topsoil by increasing the life in the soil. ‘It is a practical short term goal to increase the living top soil to 30 or 45 cm (12 or 18 inches).’ All this without making any compost or hauling stuff around in big trucks. It does require a subsoil plow and either a small tractor or a team of oxen–and the knowledge to know what to do.
I will simply add that the book Teaming With Microbes makes many of the same points about using the life in the soil to create the conditions for even more abundance–with the focus on gardens instead of farms.
To make a change, we need time quite a few other things: enough widespread knowledge to be able to have a large number of people to do this; funds to buy up lands as needed; resources to do whatever moving of soil and species are needed; time to make the physical changes needed. It is not something we can do overnight. It is hard to see such an effort happening given governments poor financial condition.
I don’t think it is about government action. I think most advocates of this do not think that governments are capable of doing what needs to be done. Instead, it would become a Monsanto Forever bill in Congress.
It is true, however, that the Farm Bill is the Central Planning of the industry. For example, if you grow corn and soybeans you can get government crop insurance and if things go really bad the President will declare a ‘disaster’ and you will receive financial help. If you emulate what Mark Shepard has done, you should not expect any help. It is true that there are some programs which can be tapped for money, and Shepard describes them. If the government is pouring subsidy into what your competitors are doing, you better figure out a way to get some money yourself.
In a sense, the solution is first, the collapse of the US government so that it stops distorting agriculture in harmful ways. Second, a sort of Henry George land tax. Suppose one’s taxes were based on the productive potential of the land–not how you are using it. The miserable 12 Holstein farm would be taxed as if Mark Shepard were farming it. Of course, in the real world, neither of those is likely to happen.
I think it is important, however, to identify the actual problem. The actual problem is not the niggardliness of Mother Nature in allowing food to be produced. The actual problems are political and psychological and financial–and we are running out of time. By shifting the attention to the supposed niggardliness of Mother Nature, Monsanto and its friends convince everyone that it takes breakthroughs in secret laboratories to keep us all from starving.
Think, for example, of The Limits To Growth. They model pollution and food production AS IF the only option is the continuation of industrial agriculture. Shepard and others are demonstrating that that assumption is simply false. Many ‘environmentalists’ pose the problem as ‘food versus Nature’. But Shepard’s farm is an island of Nature in a sea of deadness.
It may be true that nothing will be done. But for sure nothing will be done unless we accurately identify the problems.
Yes, we do need to accurately identify the problem. I am afraid though, that if the US government falls, starting at that time to fix up land and plant permanent crops is going to be kind of late. And paying taxes, when all one has is the beginnings of output from perennial agriculture, may be difficult.
It seems we in the most complex human societies are at a tragic point: possessed of powerful technologies, wide information and the ability to correlate it, and so on, we also have the mental capacity to project ahead for decades, hundreds, even thousands of years, and the spiritual capacity to wish our own successors well in addition to seeking our own survival (and even able to contemplate curtailing our pleasures and making sacrifices for the greater good, if identified convincingly).
But our political and financial systems seem ever more focussed on the extremely short-term – the next election always being at most a year or two away (as campaigning for the next one begins almost as soon as an election cycle has ended.)
I suppose we are fated to fall far, far short of our possible best: the best that we can imagine and the best that we possibly could achieve.
What we lose site of is the fact that we live in a finite world. A finite world is set up to cycle from state to state, in terms of climate, top species, and other balances. We envision it staying the same, and our being about to change ourselves in such a way as to make it stay the same, but that is not the way a finite system is made to operate. So our long-term vision is completely out of sync with what happens in the real word.
I’d challenge you to get a raggedy bit of land, and develop it into abundance. Then live of it as a sole food source. You have a pretty limited variety of perennials compared to annuals. Nuts sound great though, and many societies have lived off a single type of staple crop. Not only will you discover the timeframe and land area required to support yourself, you will be able to supply this information for study, research and distrubution.
I am 72. And land around me is grossly inflated because much of it is held by builders. I would have to get 10 miles away from my house to find land that is only highly inflated. I have been working with a very smart young farmer who is looking at land 30 to 40 miles away. I have reluctantly concluded that it won’t be me that sets any good examples.
I do work at a farm part time. I see a lot of things go wrong at that farm which I think could work a lot better if some Agroforestry, or Polyculture, techniques were used. And the water management at the farm is very poor. I have never seen an earthworm there. So I think about what could be, but I don’t think I will be the guy to do it. I have built some mighty fine topsoil very quickly at my house in what was terrible red clay subsoil.
Shepard gives a pretty good discussion on his choice of crops. Some yield oil, some carbohydrates. Those can be sold into the industrial food system, fractioned, and turned into packaged products.
He does have a few acres of annuals, but his focus is clearly on the perennials. He also remarks that a disproportionate share of his annual cost is accounted for by the small acreage of annuals.
I am in the process of experimenting with a small bed of perennials. What I want to do is get the plants started and then try some neglect and see what happens. I am also going to use cover crops pretty aggressively.
I was at the Organic Growers School’s annual get together in Asheville a couple of weeks ago. The people out in the mountains are excited about a perennial cool weather leafy green. They pair that with Amaranth (annual but self-seeds prolifically) for the hot months. I’ll probably try that out here in the Piedmont, also. I grew Amaranth last summer and was pleased with it. I took some down to the farm I work at and now the farmer will grow it and sell it. We also sell some weeds and now sell sweet potato greens. So horizons have definitely broadened in the last few years.
I wish I was 10 years younger.
Fair call Don,
All the best for your efforts.
The biggest pollutant on this planet is Man. Unrestricted breeding coupled with insatiable demands has led us down this path. Try telling the just one religion to practise family planning and see where that gets you ! We have just experienced “Red Nose Day” here in the UK. A fine attempt to make life better for those less well off and to save lives in the Third World, a basically fine attitude but to save lives today may be the catalyst for even more hunger and misery in the not too distant future
The thing that most of us forget is that what is unnatural about our current situation is what fossil fuels have permitted: better food supply, better sanitation, and modern medicine. If we wanted to go back to the natural order, we wouldn’t reduce births, we would increase deaths by leaving behind fossil fuels. I don’t think very many of use would agree to this voluntarily.
With respect to religions, I think it is unfair to judge by what some religions would do. Other religions (at the liberal end of the spectrum) are very different. I have had pastors ask to read my posts in church.
WE ARE HERE
My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness in the face of what is necessary—but love it. Friedrich Nietzsche
Kaufmann, Walter. 1967. Basic Writings of Nietzsche. trans. and ed. p. 714.
If we don’t blow ourselves off the face of the earth in the struggle for diminishing scarce resources, humanity will survive. We are a powerfully resourceful and inventive animal. However, if we don’t address the issues below then in the long run it will be same old, same old. We will repeat what all animals do and what is particular to us humans.
As an expression of life, as a representative animal and as ourselves, we are exactly how we would end up. We are not dysfunctional, as some would have it. We did not take a wrong turn in the past, ten thousand years ago at the agricultural revolution. We are not a cancer on the earth and we are part of our environment.
There are several natural factors that have aimed us at this particular moment in human history, where population pushes against resource availability, where as a social animal we stand against each other, where we are immersed in an environment of our own creative making and where our brilliance threatens us.
We are exactly where we have to be. It is the nature of the beast. Every life form, amoeba, oak tree, aphid, mouse, will make as many of their kind as the resources in the environment permit. And they will use those resources until they are no more and they either die out or relocate to more resources.
We are no different. We have population density because we can. Unlimited growth is written into the code of life. In the universe’s ironic wisdom, not only are we driven by this code, but also it feels good. And, oh my, we know it feels good. So we mate and we do what we can to be able to mate.
And as any lifeform will do, we will use all the resources available to us both for propagation and for enduring in the present. Here enters the second prong of overshoot – population pressure. We are devouring our environment as fast as we find ways to use it.
A few paragraphs from: http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/05/we-are-here.html
I am afraid you are exactly right, about humans doing what all life forms were intended to do – make as many of their kind as the resources in the environment permit.
At least with other life forms, there are some checks and balances before things get completely out of hand. If a type of animal eats nearly all of its food supply, then there is likely to be die-off of the predators. Eventually, the prey will regenerate themselves, and the number of predators can rise again.
With humans, the over-run is even greater than with other life forms. We are “too smart for our own good”. We have managed to populate the whole earth, and set up systems very dependent on fossil fuels. If we lose fossil fuels, there is a possibility that the die off could complete, especially if there happened to be other changes that happened at the same time–extreme climate change, ocean collapse, soil problems, for example.
humankind killed off all the other top predators, and that made us top predator
now it is being left to the ultimately-dominant species…bacteria… to kill us off
Im not a ‘believer’ in any sense, but ”the meek shall inherit the earth” is an interesting idea
I hadn’t thought about bacteria being the top predator, but you may be right.
My concept about bacteria…being the ultimate dominant species… is that they were here for 2 billion years before we were, and will be here long after we’re gone.
It is important to consider what bacterial life forms actually do…as opposed to thinking of them as just ‘bugs’. Their combined support system keeps us alive….is this for our benefit, or are we just their prairie on which to graze and find sustenance? It is a certainty that if we were not here, bacterial life would continue unchanged. If bacteria vanished, we would all be dead in less than a week. So are we or they the most important in the grand scheme of things?
Also they have the ability to kill off any other animal, and use its carcass for their own purposes, ie to render it down into raw energy for re-use by other life forms—which bacteria then colonise and expand their numbers to continue their own life cycle.
Every living organism needs energy input to support itself, so that seems to make us their ultimate renewable energy source. (together with all other animal species of course)
We have spent the last 100 years trying to kill off bacteria, wiping out good and ‘bad’ alike with our pharmaceutical industry. Their numbers and breeding rates are so incomprehensively vast, that all we have succeeded in doing is clearing spaces for them to mutate into new and more lethal forms with which to renew their reassertion as ‘top predator’.
As our industry declines, we will lose the means to interfere with the bacterial life cycle, and as I see it, they must reoccupy their territory
You are most likely right. Every time I buy soaps and detergents, I carefully look to find ones that do not claim, “Kills 99% of germs,” but there are obviously people who do not. Mutation develops so rapidly, that we have to keep adding to our arsenal if we expect to somewhat keep up with the bacteria.
This will be a comment on how Mark Shepard’s Restoration Agriculture and Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates’ Miracle Lot intersect with a collapse scenario in which transport becomes very difficult.
Shepard is a proponent of farms. Toensmeier and Bates are proponents of gardens. But the dichotomy should not be exaggerated. Shepard points out that, unlike a corn farmer, he and his family can actually profitably eat some of the food they produce. One way of looking at it is that Mark has a very large and professionally managed garden which is capable of producing a large surplus which can be sold to people in towns. Eric and Jonathan’s garden is producing a great deal of nutritious and delicious food, but it is not producing adequate calories to feed them, much less sell a lot of calorie dense food to others in Holyoke. So Eric and Jonathan, in a collapse scenario, would need to import staples. Staples are generally high in calories per unit weight, and are dry so they are not perishable. Staples are transportable in ways that fresh lettuce profoundly is not.
If one is an optimist, then one thinks that enough transport will survive such that staples will continue to be produced and some of them will find themselves on sale in Holyoke and Eric and Jonathan will be able to buy them. If one is a pessimist, one tends to think that we will all be back in a medieval situation where serfs on polyculture farms, along with the masters of the farm, are the only ones who will eat well. (And the ideal medieval farm was largely a self-sufficient place, not only in food, but also in trades such as blacksmithing. If you look at the large estates built by the Gilded Age Barons, you will see that ideal of a self-sufficient farm built with huge amounts of mostly ill-gotten gains. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, for example).
Shepard acknowledges early in his book the inestimable value of the fresh fruits and vegetables harvested from one’s own yard and brought inside and eaten immediately.
So what we have are two models, both of which are vastly superior to our current industrial model in terms of survival in a crisis and which regenerate the productive powers of Earth and harvest solar energy more efficiently than industrial farms. Unless someone has a crystal ball, I don’t think we can confidently predict the future with enough precision to absolutely favor one model over the other. My guess is that both are ‘good enough’ to survive in any realistic scenario which does not involve the complete breakdown of society. If society does break down completely, then everything becomes quite speculative.
I personally would feel more comfortable with a polyculture farm supplying all my needs nearby, than a mixture of shipped in staples and locally-grown perishables. We know that at some point, our ability to transport even staples long-distance will nosedive. We also know that it takes a long time to establish the trees that need to be part of a polyculture. So to me, it makes a lot more sense to work on as broad a system as possible now. We are likely to be even less able to change, later.
Well, Gail, facts abound in this post…but since facts don’t agree with my agenda, I am going to call you a racist now. RACIST! Guess which political party I support? 🙂
I don’t have to guess, your a Republican
Journal of Power Sources – Cost-minimized combinations of wind power, solar power
DOE TEF project finds US can eliminate petroleum and reduce GHG by more than 80%
Let’s take a look at your claims;
“1. Renewables that we have today won’t replace the quantity of today’s fossil fuels, in any reasonable timeframe.”
There’s no discussion of what is ‘reasonable’, nor any projection of renewables growth based on recent profiles, so this is a completely unsupported claim.
“2. If there is a huge collapse scenario, there is a possibility that those who are in possession of renewable energy technologies will be able to use these technologies to their own benefit, when others do not have such options. ”
If there is a huge collapse scenario, *no one* is going to have coal powered electriciity (the entire supply chain will not be able to function fully end to end), hence there will be little to no electricity available to anyone, except perhaps in the renewable hydro-powered PNW. You must be referring to people that have residential solar/wind with battery backup only. I see no real point here.
“3. Renewables can’t be expected to operate on a “stand-alone” basis, in any reasonable timeframe. ”
It’s not clear what the point here is. There are solar powered water pumps, for example, and all sorts of off-grid systems. One doesn’t require battery backup if electricity is not absolutely needed at night.
On top of that, I’ve provided two references that show that we can drastically reduce our ‘demand’ for oil, and virtually replace fossil fuel electricity generation. So your claim is again unsupported.
“4. Some renewables are economic in today’s world, while others require subsidies.”
All fossil fuels require subsidies today, some explicitly, others through the lack of compensation for external costs. And my second reference shows how renewables are indeed ‘economic’ today, especially when external costs are taken into account, not just shoved off onto those near powerplants and future generations.
“5. High-priced renewables help some of our problems, but make others worse.”
This presumes the same demand, and ‘high priced’ renewables. Neither are substantive premises.
“6. Even if renewables look to be cheap and non-intermittent, there still can be problems with their use.”
Hydro facilities do not necessarily create more CO2 generation in the early years if the forested area is completely harvested beforehand. And dams normally allow far more agricultural yield in the surrounding regions due to the favorable irrigation. I glad you brought up species balance because we are destroying ours around the world with global warming,*far* in excess by several orders of magnitude that are caused by dams.
Conclusion: The points you have attempted to make are extremely short on actual substance, so the conclusions reached are without grounds.
We will continue to have our different views, I see.
My reference to a stand-alone basis meant “act as the sole energy source for society”. This is related to not being able to reproduce themselves, unless there is a great deal more scale and a great deal of work to convert all types of machinery to use the new reduced fuel set. It has nothing to do with a single farm producing its own electricity with solar PV panels.
I see no reason why a mix of renewables is invariably precluded from being a basis for the sole energy source for society. There are any number of scenarios of energy generation build-out, demand management, demand reduction, and so forth – no one has a crystal ball that says any particular one is the only valid one.
So yes, we have different opinions on this topic, and assign variant values for both the desirability and likelihood of a high percentage of renewable energy generation in the overall consumption mix.
Amazing post Gail! I think this is further evidence we need more of a all of the above approach to energy. Cleaner is always better but the cost/benefit analysis and law of diminishing return always comes into play.
Thanks for your vote of support.
Pingback: Contrasting Views on Renewable Energy and Obama Administration Energy Security Trust Proposal | kakoluri.com
Are these long-winded pieces really necessary, when all you have to do is come out and say what you truly believe – regarding world population reduction and where you think the elites of the world should start first…? Why continue to present all of this ‘supporting data’, when what you’re really after is plain to see between the lines…? Just come out with it already – scope & approach – the whole enchilada, and let everyone hash it out from a clear baseline. You’re in good company, and definitely not a lone voice in the (undisturbed) wilderness.
Because people like me appreciate this very careful presentation of data – which is not elswhere in the MSM propaganda/opinion machine!!!
My sentiments exactly, Gail! Ignore the trolls. Keep up the good work. All but one of us love what you do!
“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.” — Dr. Seuss
Gail goes through the work to present the story from many different angles, so we can better understand it. I prefer the economic/financial perspecitve, others prefer something else. I appreciate this blog a lot!
As usual Gail, you are right on.
Solar and wind energy capturing devices as well as nuclear are not alternative energy sources. They are extensions of the fossil fuel supply system. There is an illusion of looking at the trees and not the forest in the “Renewable” energy world. Not seeing the systems, machineries, fossil fuel uses and environmental degradation that create the devices to capture the sun, wind and biofuels allows myopia and false claims of renewable, clean, green and sustainable.
Energy Return on Energy Invested (ERoEI) is only a part of the equation. There is a massive infrastructure of mining, processing, manufacturing, fabricating, installation, transportation and the associated environmental assaults. Each of these processes and machines may only add a miniscule amount of energy to the final component of solar or wind devices yet the devices cannot arise without them. There would be no devices with out this infrastructure.
A story in pictures and diagrams:
From Machines making machines making machines
An oak tree is renewable. A horse is renewable. They reproduce themselves. The human-made equipment used to capture solar energy or wind energy is not renewable. There is considerable fossil fuel energy embedded in this equipment. The many components used in devices to capture solar energy, wind energy, tidal energy and biomass energy – aluminum, glass, copper, rare metals, petroleum in many forms to name a few – are fossil fuel dependent.
Wind used by sailing ships and old style “dutch” wind machines is renewable and sustainable.
From: Energy in the Real World with pictures of proof.
Lived off the grid for 30 years with solar electric and wind. Manufactured a
solar hot air panel. Chairman of the one of the Minnesota state solar
organization for 3 years. Have a 3kWh grid-tie system at my home now. Have a
greenhouse at our farm with solar electric running grow lights and irrigation
pump for the orchard.
Thanks for the very fine links. I agree with you 100%. I think a marketing salesman came up with the name renewable. The devices are anything but renewable.
I always laugh inwardly when I see all the various builders’ vans and so on parked at a building site where they are installing ‘renewable’ technology – all powered, and manufactured, with non-renewable resources.
How much gas do the numerous builders of an ‘Eco-house’ use to get there and back every day, how much to transport the components, etc? This is one of your points really.
At Pyrolysium.org we are developing open source technology to turn human remains into biochar powered by solar concentrated energy or infra-red heaters working on renewable generated electricity. Experiments with little animals already proved conclusively that the principle works well. Now the big struggle is getting enough funds to scale it up to human scale and convince governments to make it legally possible. But 80+ years after the second billionth world citizen was born and penicillin was discovered we are in the foothills of the Corpse Mountain combined with energy getting scarce en expensive and CO2 concentrations rising in our atmosphere we need sustainable solutions that solve problems one by one.
The human race will learn to live within it’s solar income or it will deal with an extinction challenge. Currently there doesn’t seem to be a third option.
Actual growth of new power production, not capacity, production, in the U.S. is coming from renewables and methane. Nuclear power is in decline, coal is in decline and oil is in decline. I can tell you what the fuel cost of a wind turbine or pv array will be for the next 20 years; zero. Nobody in their right mind would offer you even a ten year contract price on methane.
Almost completely unused and ignored is the massive capacity of geothermal heating and cooling. Using the ground under buildings as an energy battery significant increases in energy efficiency can be achieved in most buildings.
Nuclear power, rather than being cheap and safe is expensive, dangerous and slow to implement. Nuclear power is also subsidized to a massive extent that wind and solar power producers could only dream of. No wind or solar project was allowed to charge customers for ten years before it ever produced a kilowatt-hour of power as Georgia’s new nuclear plant will. No private agency would ever insure the liability cost of a nuclear power plant so the U.S. government insures them and without government subsidies nuclear power doesn’t exist at any scale.
There are no perfect solutions. There are only options.
U.S. Electricity Generation Renewables
There are several options. Renewable energy is not one of them though.
We know precisely how to live on what energy the sun sheds on us. Essentially as hunter gatherers or dirt grubbing peasant farmers.
It may come to that, however I am not embracing it. Neither would I wish to condemn future generations to such a legacy, as many ‘greens’ seem to wish to. Not while there’s several thousand years of nuclear fuel scattered round the planet, and it is after all nuclear reactions inside the earth that keep it warm and molten inside and allow geography to do its things by way of continental crusts and plate movements. Without nuclear energy there would be no mountains left, and no chance there fore of hydrolelectricity 🙂 Or indeed agriculture. There would be no dry land at all.
The renewable myth is based on some erroneous picture of the universe as a steady state mechanism. It is not. In the end the sun will die and the earth will cool. It so happens that at this point in time its covered with humans larking about sending stupid messages on their I-Blings. If we want to continue to do that we need to grab what’s around to do it with.
And wind is simply too weak and too intermittently available – as is sunlight – to allow the present population to survive.
We can’t suddenly use less energy. Not the majority of us. What savings can be made, are being made. I drive less than a tenth of the road miles I did 30 years ago. In cars that are slightly more efficient than they were. But I cant exist without a car at all.
And I still need to get food produced somewhere, and get it to my door somehow.
I can’t stop taking a dump just because the wind isn’t blowing and the sewage pumps have stopped. Unless I stop eating as well. Then I just die.
Its all very well to consider the next 10,000 years. But first we have to get through next year.
I think this is the issue:
A lot of people seem to think we have some very amorphous distant challenge that we can work our way through over the next 50 years or so. I think we are facing a real possibility of collapse beginning in the next year or two, and proceeding quite quickly. If this happens, there will likely be a lot fewer of us, very quickly. It seems quite likely that the electrical system will stop working fairly quickly (five or ten years?), and our concerns will change rapidly. We won’t be quibbling about whether we should build nuclear power plants or wind turbines; we will be wondering where our next drink of clean water and our next meal is coming from. We won’t have a lot of options left. It will be too late.
Do a book on how you think such a rapid collapse could soon occur, sell it to Hollywood, and you might make a LOT of money. And warn Washington into action? A retired late night radio talk show host, Art Bell (The Master of Late Night Alternative Radio) coauthored the book about the super storm leading to a new ice age, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. They made a big chunk of change when they sold the movie rights.
The only way I can see your imminent collapse scenario playing out would be a war cutting off Middle East oil, or a financial collapse as nearly happened in 2008. Fiat money can be created with a few computer keystrokes. It will cause inflation, but I don’t see all the central banks doing nothing as the credit markets start to freeze up again, like in 2008. The Lehman bankruptcy blindsided the big boys in 2008. I doubt they will let that happen again. They will cut everyone a check before letting the economy collapse. Inflation beats starvation.
Other than a major war, I can’t envision a rapid collapse happening. Too much fossil fuel remains. In 10 or 15 years when oil production starts to fall, sure, but I think your year or two, is a bit on the apocalyptic side. How am I wrong?
Financial collapse is what I am talking about. It is what is brewing in Europe, with the stories of this country and that country having problem. It is also happening in the US. The research by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedof in Secular Cycles indicates that when civilizations collapsed in the past, the symptoms prior to collapse were very similar to the ones we have today (high and volatile food prices–(now energy prices as well)–increased wealth disparity–government growing as wealth grows–wages of the commoners not growing with the cost of living. When collapse comes, it is very much financial and political in nature. Governments cannot collect enough taxes for all of their programs. The people revolt, and throw current leadership out. More die of disease, because with poor wages, their diets are less good. See my post, 2013: Beginning of Long Term Recession?
I agree, I can’t see the physical mechanisms that will force me to stop work.
Suppose you are in a country that suddenly goes to an all cash basis, because of bank problems, as seems to be happening in Cyprus. It becomes very hard for your employer to pay you.
Or suppose the asset bubble from money printing collapses, and we suddenly have a major collapse in housing prices again.
Or suppose that for some reason, interest rates suddenly go up. Or that oil prices go up again, because of a drop in the dollar.
Of that Euro falls apart, thanks to all its problems, and we suddenly have a drop in exports to European countries.
It doesn’t take very much of a financial disruption to ripple through the economy and lead to many lay-offs.
The money system will collapse because it is based on unsustainable mountains of debt. I agree they will go for the printing option. And price revolts on the streets of core economies would have to be HUGE, to make a difference. In Spain the protests of millions have been without any effect on austerity policies. Of course they will throw the government out, and vote for someone who PROMISES more benefits 🙂
The timing? Nobody can really know. It could be tomorrow or in 20 years. My guess is 2017-2021. Watch Japan and England, they are in the final stage of open money printing, no way out for them, while the US and Europe can still buy time. Anyway, complacency seems not a good strategy to me.
It may be that a financial event could trigger a daisy chain of events. I’m not convinced that it wont feel like more of the same though. The Greeks are doing it pretty tough, though I personally don’t call it a collpase.
I would argue that the human race has never lived within its solar income. It has been commandeering energy from external sources since it first learned to control fire over 1,000,000 years ago. Now man is adapted to using external energy, and there are so many of us, that it is hard to do anything other than use every external energy source around. I would agree with you that man does need to live within its solar income, or face an extinction challenge. It is just that we have never lived within our solar income in the past–just kept finding more external energy sources.
I agree that geothermal is probably better than most energy sources, especially in areas with hot spots. Dave Summers (Heading Out of The Oil Drum) has written about the potential of geothermal in a couple of fairly resent posts here and (here.
If you are right, Kyle Bass who made hundreds of millions betting against housing in 2007, agrees with you. He gave an interview on CNBC to David Faber last October from the Barefoot conference down in Texas, in which he said that Japan will soon be toast because they won’t be able to service their debt in a few more years because of their aging population, combined with their record debt level of something like 230% of GDP. (I located his ranch on Google Earth after they listed a nearby town name on the TV screen.) You can see the video on the CNBC TV website. Just search Kyle Bass in the video section. He spoke for about 8 minutes. He painted a pretty scary picture of the US budget deficit problem saying, “I sat down and took a pencil to the Federal budget, and I can’t even fix it.” IF he gets the timing on a Japanese debt collapse right, he and his Texas oil money investors will make billions. Just like they did in 2008. He gave an estimate of around 2015 for the Japanese collapse. Since Japan is the third largest economy, a collapse over there could go global and take everything down. You might be right. I think the apocalypse will strike sometime between 2020 and 2025 after peak oil drives liquid fuel prices way, way up, destroying demand for everything discretionary. Having been around since 1950, I’ll be lucky to still be here to see it. Or maybe not so lucky?
There’s very clear evidence of a steady decline in discretionary spending in Britain by those who already feel very hard-pressed by heating fuel and travel/commuting expenses, and of course the general tax burden. Some of these burdens are made heavier by investment in ‘renewables.’ A 10% rise in heating costs is now a general annual expectation. And yet still politicians talk about ‘growth.’ These burdens will destroy much of the economy in only a little time, as wages have stagnated.
the driving force of any ”national economy” has to be expansion.
no nation can stand still or retract itself because that throws everyone out of work.
think back to the 30s. Japan had a outward thrusting militaristic economy that could only survive by sucking in more and more energy from its neighbours, China, Manchuria Korea were systematically looted to support the home economy. finally Japan had to gamble everything on Pearl Harbour to keep everything going
This time round, Japan cant do that, but must try to do the same thing with trade and industry, building an outward thrust of colossal debts that are ultimately unsustainable, just as Japans war output (a colossal drain on the economy) was unsustainable,
Collapse is certain
Several interesting publications have appeared recently which reward study by anyone concerned about survival in tough times.
First, I was born in Greenville, Texas before WWII. Someone who lives there, who obviously had a lot of time on his hands, put together this remarkable photo comparison of Greenville when it was a prosperous, thriving town and the way it looks now (as if a neutron bomb had removed most all of the people). I visited the town recently, for the first time in 60 years, and found that the old buildings I remember are all still there–just vacant.
I encourage you to think about the vibrancy of life in this town when fossil fuel use was quite low. It wasn’t zero, but it wasn’t high either. My parents did not have a car. They had no debts. My mother sent me to walk downtown with a dollar and a shopping list. My father walked to work. When we visited family, we walked. Compare the vibrancy of that period with the deadness of what exists now with abundant fossil fuels.
Second, look at this video of old and new Jersey City, New Jersey. This is my wife’s home town. Look especially at the railroad and water infrastructure which has now been virtually abandoned. Replaced by things like the Goldman Sachs tower. Which is sustainable in a declining fossil fuel world?
Notice that the young people who look at these pictures see the Goldman Sachs tower as a tremendous advance over the old rail and water and manufacturing economy.
Third, Barbara Fredrickson, PhD, is a psychologist at the University of North Carolina. She has just published Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. You will find that it all turns on Loving Kindness Meditation (or equivalents). The classical meditation was invented thousands of years ago and had nothing whatsoever to do with fossil fuels. I would argue that fossil fuels just get in the way. Read Barbara’s book and get in touch with Life with a capital L.
Fourth, in Flourish, written by Martin E.P. Seligman, he refers to Barbara Fredrickson as one of the superstars in the younger generation of psychologists. Martin’s research, while older than Barbara’s, is still worthwhile and will astonish the average Wall Street speculator.
Food is a hot topic when we think about the end of fossil fuels. Typically, people think that without fossil fuels we would all starve because farms and gardens could not produce enough food.
Fifth, read Paradise Lot by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates.
‘When Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates moved into a duplex in a run-down part of Holyoke, Massachusetts, the tenth-of-an-acre lot was barren ground and bad soil, peppered with broken pieces of concrete, asphalt, and brick. The two friends got to work designing what would become not just another urban farm, but a “permaculture paradise” replete with perennial broccoli, paw paws, bananas, and moringa—all told, more than two hundred low-maintenance edible plants in an innovative food forest on a small city lot. The garden—intended to function like a natural ecosystem with the plants themselves providing most of the garden’s needs for fertility, pest control, and weed suppression—also features an edible water garden, a year-round unheated greenhouse, tropical crops, urban poultry, and even silkworms.’
Sixth, read Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard. Shepard makes the distinction between gardening, which is what Eric and Jonathan do, and farming, which is what those who grow our staples do. Shepard shows that our current system is destructive–but that the alternative is pretty well understood despite official neglect if not downright hostility. Yes, we can produce enough food to feed the world without fossil fuels while building soil and sequestering carbon and restoring ecosystems and not working nearly as hard.
I will now summarize my take on all this:
1. There are no physical reasons why we cannot produce plenty of food. There is reason to believe (from history) that many will starve due to stupidity and lack of adaptability.
2. Some people will have chosen bad places to live when fossil fuel decline bites. They will have to move or die.
3. While soil can be built quickly, it doesn’t happen overnight. Therefore, those who move away from the destructive gardening and farming practices first will likely benefit.
4. Perennial plants take time to get established. Those who begin now will benefit.
5. Basic mindset is important. Those who ‘get it’ will benefit.
6. Learning curves are important. Those who expect instant mastery are in for a shock.
7. Water is extremely important. Remaining fossil fuels should be used to form the land to make the best use of water. Those who can’t use water effectively will be penalized.
8. Don’t expect official agencies to help you. As abundantly demonstrated in Cyprus, the officials want to prop up the powers that be and will confiscate your assets to do it.
9. Laws and regulations are severe impediments. For example, cities generally try to regulate urban gardens right out of existence. And watershed management, such as Mark Shehard practices, frequently doesn’t fit with surveyor’s lines. It may be that we can survive only if our governments fail.
From Page 298 in Restoration Agriculture
‘This too shall pass…it is over. The dinosaurian, industrial, big-ag, mono-crop agriculture is screaming in agony and gasping its last breath….the new lush, living planet is being born. I know this because this one little mouse, me….I plant trees. Won’t you join me? It all starts with you.’
Bad link above for Greenville, TX. Should be
You can get pretty close to instant soil with biochar (dry ground charcoal), ruminant poo and any kind of sand or clay. All the tools needed are a goat, an axe, a shovel and a lighter. I still don’t have a solution for instant water; that’s a much harder problem.
I will soon be starting a kickstarter project for an open source air condenser to generate enough water to run a good sized aquaponics system in the vast majority of areas. Biochar becomes a negative aspect at greater than 5-10% concentration, but with aquaponics what you describe should be sufficient to get going.
You burn hydrogen., There, Instant water!
I think that possibility of doing the things you suggest in any quantity depends greatly on the slope of the downslope. If it is a fairly gentle downslope, and current systems hang together, probably quite a bit can be done along the lines you suggest, for at least a few years. If things fall about quickly, and there are way too many people fighting over too little resources, the result could be much less good.
Consider these facts about the US corn crop:
5.9 million calories are fed to animals
4.7 million calories are converted into fuel
1.1 million calories are converted into industrial ingredients
1.4 million calories are exported or used as direct human food
If things fall apart very suddenly, and if we have some attack of sanity, we will
stop feeding corn to animals (two steps up the trophic levels)
stop making ethanol out of corn
stop making industrial ingredients out of corn, and
stop exporting corn
So even if the ability of industrial corn farmers to plant, harvest, and distribute corn is severely disrupted, then we may very likely have enough corn to eat.
We may also be better off According to Texas A&M, ‘These industries that produce the by-products of ethanol and high-fructose corn syrup would be devastated if they were forced to landfill and not feed these products to livestock’. (Mayor Bloomberg will be pleased).
Now Shepard is not at all endorsing corn. He considers it empty calories from a plant which wreaks devastation on the environment.
My point is that we have such tremendous mis-allocation of resources that a shock to the system which forced us to behave more rationally might be more of a wake up call than a sign of imminent starvation.
I will have to agree that there is pretty bad usage of corn calories. Whether or not a rational plan to fix the situation will come about is not clear. Hopefully, someone would have some sense.
Perhaps this will clarify a little about the farming system that Mark Shepard is using.
First, he derives the fact that the human food value that each acre of corn is actually producing is a fairly small fraction of the total caloric value of the corn (the rest going to animal feed, industrial products, etc.).
Then he describes this system which is typical of his farm in southwest Wisconsin to develop comparison statistics.
Our modern oak savanna replication consists of the following plant species: chestnuts, apples, hazlenuts, raspberries, grapes, cuirrants, and forage. Our simple oak savanna mimic can be home to an integrated animal system that consists of cattle, pigs, sheep and chickens. He also harvests honey from bees and grows mushrooms in woody waste. Since he is growing an excess of wood, he is in the process of generating electricity with the excess wood.
He shows that the corn is not a good source of nutrition for humans, while his system provides everything that humans need in abundance. His system does not import any nutrients to feed the animals. There is no plowing. Topsoil accumulates. Water is distributed across the farm and slowly makes its way downhill. Shepard’s system produces roughly twice the actual calories of food as the corn currently grown. And his system builds ecosystem strength rather than destroying the ecosystem.
Much of his requirement for fossil fuels comes in the form of harvest equipment. Since he is using perennials, there is no annual replanting and there are no pesticides or herbicides or fertilizers used. But the realities of labor costs make it such that crops like the chestnuts must be harvested with machinery.
In the olden days, of course, the chestnuts would have been harvested by villagers who would have been rewarded with part of the crop. In my youth, migrant workers from Mexico would have done the job–or maybe high school students. In a future of reduced expectations, we might very well see town people coming out to harvest chestnuts in return for part of the crop–a return to 3 centuries ago.
So…it is a fact that highly destructive practices based on the mining of minerals and the use of extravagant amounts of fossil fuels can produce more total calories of corn than can a Mark Shepard style poly-culture. But it is also a fact that if we adopted Shepard’s method we would produce twice as much food as we currently produce. That is because so much of what we produce now is wasted. The better health of the population, the better ecosystem health, the failure to deplete our mineral and fossil fuel resources, the building of topsoil, and all the other benefits make this no contest.
Truly interesting Don, thank you.
I’d like to see some evidence of a polyculture producing twice the Calories of a corn crop before I believe it. As was stated above, only a fraction of the corn harvest is used for food, try the comparison with wheat, rice or any other staple. I think you will find that modern ag is the most productive system we have in terms of Calories per area. It’s unsustainable and destructive, doomed to failure, but still #winning in terms of food production.
A quick check shows several sources on the internet estimating wheat at 3 to 4 million calories per acre. Shepard’s polyculture is yielding 6 million calories per acre.
I have already explained his yields in relation to corn.
Equally important to Shepard is the nutritional value to humans beyond mere calories. His polyculture promotes health by supplying all the nutritional needs of the families in his area. Local people could eat solely from the products of his farm and be healthy. The same cannot be said for a wheat farm or a corn farm or a rice field. So if one is worried about the collapse of transport, then living near a polyculture farm might be an excellent survival strategy.
I have some experience farming, and the record wheat crop was over 15ton per hectare which is about 18million calories per acre. Wheat is not the only crop to be grown on a peice of land in the majority of farm systems, average barley production yields about double wheat. Wisconsin wheat yeilds were over 3.5ton per acre, so over 10.5million calories per acre. Comparing apples with apples there, as Shepard also farms in Wisconsin. So you could happily double that yield with another crop, though I’m not sure what rotation they mainly use in Wisconsin.
All that aside, what I would like to see is some hard evidence of polyculture perrenniel, organic systems outperforming comparable standard ag systems. By comparable, I mean same soil types and climate. I would like to see some kind of study done on his system. Research that proves he is making legitimate claims, not just another hustler selling his book. There is a world full of them, and permaculture is not immune. I have heard some pretty extravagent claims from permaculture, unfortunatly false, unprovable or untested.
I am not saying polyculture is a bad idea, or it doesn’t work. That remains to be seen, and if a clear format could be produced, that was demonstrable, repeatable and affordable. I would happily join along. What I am saying is that the yields are smaller, and in most cases vastly smaller then conventional ag. I’m a farmer and if I could make a low input, high output system work, then I would be doing it now. We can’t all be selling food for $10 per 3000 calories. Many would starve at that price.
You can check his book for the details on revenue per acre, cost per acre, and profit margin per acre.
He has been farming for quite a while. If he were a fraud, I think he would have gone broke by now. He comes from a farming family.
He reviews the few scholarly studies. The ones he likes best are from the U of Missouri Agroforestry Institute. The U of Illinois has begun studies, but nothing definitive yet.
A lot depends on future developments, as I see it. The advantage he calculates for his system is dependent on lower input costs, as well as the production of secondary crops such as the raspberries on the same land. Will input costs continue to escalate? That may make his system more attractive.
The 12 Holstein example he uses is applicable to a lot of land near where I live. The land was farmed before the Revolutionary War and abandoned quickly. His claim that water management can stimulate life in the soil and the conversion of subsoil to topsoil could be very useful on a lot of land here. The evidence I have seen says that good water management coupled with untilled perennials really can produce a lot of topsoil pretty quickly. My area produces locally about 2 percent of the food we consume. If a keyline water management system plus perennials can increase that to 40 or 50 percent local production, then that would be a tremendous achievement.
I was at a presentation by the manager of the farm at Clemson. At his house, he has done the keyline system. He said that before he did the keyline, a one inch rain filled the swale at the bottom of the property with water. After the keyline, a 3 inch rain did not fill that same swale. So a lot more water is being sunk into the soil. Water in the soil means more life in the soil, and more rapid conversion of subsoil to topsoil.
If you are in Wisconsin, you should visit his farm.
You can read his book for the details on revenue per acre, cost per acre, and profit margin per acre. One of the things that he says increases his profit is his lower cost of inputs. That in addition to his secondary crops such as the raspberries grown on the same land.
He has been farming in Wisconsin for quite a number of years. If he were a fraud, I think he would be broke by now. He comes from a farming family, but grew up, I think, in suburbia.
On page 185 in his book, he provides some profit comparisons. He also refers skeptics to the U of Missouri Center for Agroforestry. But if you are in Wisconsin, you should visit his farm.
Whether he can produce more food than a level, irrigated corn and soybean field I don’t know. To me the most compelling argument is his 12 Holstein example. Where I live, the land was farmed before the Revolution, worn out, and the farmers moved west. Later on, we had tobacco doing its worst. So we have a lot of very marginal land with some rather poor grass and a few cattle. Our area grows about 2 percent of the food we eat. Let’s suppose he is right about water management and the regeneration of topsoil (and my experience says he is right). Then if his methods were used in my area, we could greatly increase our food production. If you give any credence at all to what Gail has been saying, that would be a very good thing.
I was recently at a presentation by the farm manager at Clemson. At his private home, he keylined his very large front yard where he is establishing a U Pick berry patch. When he first bought the property, he built a swale at the bottom of the hill. A one inch rain filled the swale with water. After keylining, he reports that a 3 inch rain did not fill that same swale with water. So a lot more water is sinking into the soil–which should boost soil life and the production of topsoil.
We have one of the pioneers in the grass fed cattle movement in our neighborhood. His hilly, eroded farm became a lot more attractive. Then he discovered mob grazing and it is now simply beautiful. Grasses which haven’t been seen on the property in a hundred years are back. His drought resistance is increasing year by year.
So…I don’t make my living farming so anything I say is suspect. But what I see with my eyes tells me that these new methods of managing water and land and grass and perennial crops is doing some very good things. It also tells me that a lot of marginal land can be made a lot more productive if we do the right things with it. Which means our local area can become a lot more resilient in the face of climate change and oil supply problems and even financial problems.
When i first learnt about peak oil, I looked into various methods of food production in a post peak oil world. Including permaculture, natural farming and organic. They all have great concepts. What I found dissapointing was that few people were doing them, in the case of organics, the low yeilds are compensated for by higher prices. With permaculture it’s all about the courses, and I couldn’t find any real example of someone making a living from natural farming other then Manasubo Fukuoka. “Natural way of farming” and “one straw revolution” are good books if you want to be inspired, both available free online at soil and health library.
I experiment a bit, but nothing too committed, it all takes time. I think if the methods were out there in the open, and up front it would be possible to scrutinise it further. It seems like it’s all about selling books, consultations and tickets, which is why the claims are so extravagent. Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me. I havn’t seen any type of non conventional food production system that has an equal or greater yield then modern ag. I’d much rather see hill covered in trees with integrated species, and I’m sure that farming marginal land more intensivly with new methods will help, but it’s not on the same scale as modern ag. I also don’t see Americans sufering much from a lack of food for a very long time, currently a net exporter of food with pleanty of very fertile land, and the worlds top energy producer. By that I mean there are pleanty of worse places to be.
The methods are great, and do great things in terms of improving the environment, but a total transition to this type of food production will see less food produced.
Mark Shepard begins his history with Thoreau, who had a vision of living more in tune with the natural world–but had to work way to hard for his food. He progresses through the publication of Tree Crops (1920s, I think) and then Masonobu Fukuoka’s farm in Japan. Both were advances, but neither achieved the ideal. Robert Hart and Martin Crawford in England have done very good work, but both are working on small plots of land. Dave Jacke (with Eric Toensmeier) put together a lot of information but it has been applied mostly at the home landscape level.
Shepard thinks Bill Mollison and PA Yeomans in Australia actually put the conceptual pieces together for the first time. Shepard will modestly admit that he is one of the first to demonstrate at the farm scale how everything can work.
As I said in one of my earlier comments, it is easy to overemphasize the differences between Restoration Agriculture and Paradise Lot. While the Paradise Lot guys have only one tenth of an acre, they do calculate how many calories could be grown if the purely ornamental street trees were removed and nut trees replaced them. In some sense, there is a continuous gradient between the home garden, edible street plantings, and commercial farms. A couple of decades ago Berea College in Kentucky built an ‘eco-village’ for family housing which features a lot of ‘green’ technology such as on site sewage treatment with biological means and backyard garden plots. It also features fruit and nut trees as the ‘landscape plantings’ in the front yards and along the street. So here is a whole neighborhood which was conceived as part of the food web. It is easy to make fun of gardeners who manage to grow extravagantly expensive food. But if we do it right, then everything from backyard gardens to street trees to neighborhoods to commercial farms may come to be seen as a continuum.
If you read his book, you will find that Shepard finds some fault with organics. He is not a fan of chemicals which destroy the life in the soil whether those chemicals be labeled ‘conventional’ or ‘organic’. Shepard’s idea is that we want tough perennials which can survive on neglect–such as you would have seen if you had walked on an Oak Savanna 300 years ago. Maybe minimal maintenance such as periodic fires and some pruning. He gives a dissertation on the McIntosh apple. All McIntosh apples are clones of an original tree which dates from the founding of the US. The problem is that pests have evolved enormously since then–while the apple has not. So Shepard thinks we should be constantly looking for new, disease resistant, plants which are evolving along with the pests. His hero, in this regard, is Luther Burbank–plant thousands of seeds and look for the ones that work. It doesn’t take a lab and complex recordkeeping–just observational skills.
Andy, have you looked at the Shepard book? Me neither — can’t afford it!
But an Amazon.com review says, “He spends a great deal of time demonstrating with chart and figures how, exactly, a more perennial agricultural model can generate more nutritious calories per acre than the current single crop.”
Sounds exactly like what you’re asking for. I think you need to do a book report. 🙂
Unfortunately, I think our ‘leaders’ are not preparing in any intelligent way for the downslope: too many vested interests, too little imagination……….
You so very rightly point out that there was Life before fossil fuel abuse. Abundance of energy has created a form of inhuman wilderness.
A great problem in discussing these issues is that lot of people seem get in a funk when they contemplate their own deaths: they just have to get beyond that ( the sort that say: ‘Oh, so we go back to the 18thc? Count me out of that one!).
Who ever told them they were so important in the first place?
Who ever told them that life should and ought to be free of pain and labour?
Having enjoyed both great luxury and poverty, I have a right to make these observations!
“read Restoration Agriculture by Mark Shepard.”
I’d love to, but holy crap — it’s over $50 used! Copyright 2013, I guess no one is parting with used copies yet.
I’ve been experimenting with a modified keyline water management scheme. I’m on clay, and you can’t get into most place until June or later without coming out wearing Frankenstein boots.
So I put swales on-contour, to create alternating wet and dry zones. (Yeomans makes his swales drain, slightly off-contour.) These are on 80 cm intervals. The plan was to connect them with rip-rapped sluices, to be able to control the water level, but even now, after a few days of heavy rain, the ditches are full, but the beds beside them are dry enough to start working them, weeks ahead of last frost.
So I’m looking forward to getting thing into this field weeks earlier than I’ve ever done before.
It’s just been published by Acres, USA. List price is 30 dollars. I would check the Acres web site. Perhaps they don’t do much distribution through Amazon.
I will agree that 30 dollars is real money.
Shepard was educated as an engineer and an ecologist. But he decided to go into farming.
I live in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Originally, there was no standing water anywhere here. Anywhere you see standing water, you know that humans with bulldozers have been active. So our problem is retaining water. A few weeks ago I was at a seminar and a woman who manages a couple of acres in eastern North Carolina (the coastal plain) began to talk about water. Everybody in the small group except her was from the Piedmont. So, naturally, we are thinking ‘drought survival’. She began to talk about some intricacies of drain tiles and how they interact with the plow pan which covers a lot of eastern North Carolina. All of us are looking at her very puzzled. Slowly, it dawned on me: she is trying to get rid of water.
What a novel thought for someone from the Piedmont. Which, I guess, just goes to show that what works in one place doesn’t necessarily work in another.
“2. It would reduce the cost of making alternative energy.
3. It would improve the scalability of such renewables.”‘
Would removing transmission and synchronizing (in the time domain) local use with local generation get us to the requirement? Had we built say, PV on all the schools who had roofs that faced “south” instead of focusing on other boondoggles in PV would we now be better off then the 250MW+ systems in the middle of the deserts long distances from the ultimate users?
I’d like to point out that the sickles could be made out of Iron which could be fashioned using charcoal, a renewable.
Regarding the placement of solar panels, it is my understanding that in Spain, bigger installations were used because then it was possible to get some control over orientation, cleaning of the panels, and other variables. People still wanted to put panels in less than ideal locations, though, if the reimbursement was the same. So it is hard to get around that problem. It seems like rooftops of schools would be good locations. Around here, they are usually flat, so apparatus could be used to tilt them in what ever way is needed–even change the orientation during the day. I am not really in the solar PV panel business though, so I am probably missing something.
The first 500 (or some small number) sickles could be fashioned using charcoal, but to keep up with the iron needs of 7 billion people, and not wipe out forests, we would quickly need to move on to something besides charcoal.
In California the parking lots of schools are rapidly turning into solar panel farms. This is a typical installation a few miles from me.
Another installation at Butte Community College’s Chico facility. Note the solar panel installation doesn’t even cover the whole parking area and it provides 100% of the energy needs for that building. Butte Community College’s facilities produce a net surplus of power at the same latitude as Cincinnati Ohio.
Gail If 7 Billion of us are left to compete over relatively small plots, then the number of scythes and sickles will likely be much smaller than the quantity of knives and swords. At least for the first few months.
Reblogged this on evolveSUSTAIN.
Renewable energy advocates greatly overlook a host of problems with trying to do 1:1 replacements of fossil fuels. Germany now has so much solar power that it not only destroys the market pricing model for electricity (leading to losses for the base load providers) but is causing voltage fluctuations that ruins industrial equipment. The problems are only going to get worse as more and more intermittent power is added.
The only long term source of energy that can plug into the current system is nuclear done right e.g. with internal reprocessing that raises total energy extracted to 99+% and low radioactivity instead of the current 1% with tons of high radioactivity waste.
That said, I believe the more interesting question is what a society would look like that can only use intermittent renewables with geographical base load of geothermal/hydro and eventually ocean waves.
A lot of the usage for coal mentioned above is to burn it for heat, but heat can easily be garnered through concentrated solar. Instead of having manufacturing be a 365 day a year process anywhere in the globe, it may need to occur in places that have more sun or at least during clear periods. With solar furnaces in place, a huge amount of basic manufacturing can take place without coal.
It is similar with heating and cooling of buildings: good passive solar design and basic heat exchange loops makes the total energy needed drop almost to zero in many climates, and in the places where it doesn’t, high efficiency wood burners (like rocket stoves) with distributed thermal mass will do just fine and not cause mass deforestation.
I could go on, but the point is that after looking at where energy is used and separating out the thermodynamic processes from the electrical processes then the amount of energy needed changes substantively.
The biggest issue that remains is then transportation, but this is largely a social issue. We might just need to go back to rail and sail as the primary modes of fast transport, and even here you can imagine some interesting solutions such as rail that uses concentrated solar as much as possible to heat the furnace while using biofuel as an extra on top of that. Even cars could do a similar thing and move off ICE with the sacrifice of acceleration. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if driving were automated and thus there was networked control.
Of course this would involve a massive restructuring of society over the next few decades, but it’d be on par with the beginning of the 20th century and now we have automation to help. Instead of focusing on what renewables and intermittence can’t do, focusing on how to live with it and a concerted effort would work wonders.
[And yes I’m aware I left food out, but there would long be enough fossil fuels for fertilizer production in the above scenario — which if undertaken with permaculture designs would leave us in a bountiful situation by the time fossil fuels got really scarce.]
The creativity of your flippancy does wonders for your constant assertions that obviously nothing different will work because it would have been done already.
BTW – This was to a comment that appears to have been deleted
I have observed that renewable energy is not something different. It is very old hat, its been around for a thousand years or more, and it is extremely well understood(by engineers) in its physics and its engineering.
The speed with which it was abandoned when steam power became available should tell you all you need to know.
“The first commercially successful steamboat in Europe, Henry Bell’s Comet of 1812, started a rapid expansion of steam services on the Firth of Clyde, and within four years a steamer service was in operation on the inland Loch Lomond, a forerunner of the lake steamers still gracing Swiss lake”
At that time warships sailed by wind.
By 1850 no self respecting warship lacked steam, and by the end of the 19th century sail had all but vanished from any serious sea transport.
‘renewable’ energy was abandoned in the space of really less than 50 years.
On the east Anglian fens thousands of windmills were used to pump the water up into the rivers to drain them for arable farming. These are built in the 17th /18th century, By mid 19th, they were all replaced by a few tens of steam engines of vastly greater power and reliability. In the early 20th century they were replaced by unmanned electric pumps, which remain to this day.
Once again ‘renewable’ energy was abandoned as fast as possible once something better came along.
Up to the 19th century, the horse, possibly one of the more efficient converters of biofuel to mechanical energy – ruled supreme. The advent of the steam railway destroyed the coaching services, and the canals with their horse drawn barges, and the advent of the internal combustion engine obliterated the horse from all commercial transport for the next 100 years at least.
There is nothing new about renewable energy. Its all been tried. And that is why one can say with some certainty that it it worked better than it does, we would still be using it.
Only to uneducated people with degrees in arts and pseudo science (or no degrees at all), does it appear when painted with hi-tech paint to be something new, exciting or the way of the future.
During the period of industrialisation made possible by coal, and then oil as a fuel, England’s population grew from 8 million in 1801 to over 50 million in 2011. The limited land area was able to support 6 times more people.
We know where renewable energy would take us. Back to the 18th century. That may happen anyway. But I see no reason to condemn 85% of the population to certain death just to please a few environmentalists. fir reasons ..allegedly to do with the nonexistent global warming we aren’t having that isn’t caused by CO2…
…according to the latest data..
“Only to uneducated people with degrees in arts and pseudo science (or no degrees at all), does it appear when painted with hi-tech paint to be something new, exciting or the way of the future.”
I agree, and everything you say up to the conclusion is totally correct. If you notice, most of my speculations for renewable energy were about replacing coal as part of a thermodynamic (rankine/stirling) cycle. 1000 W/m^2 is a lot of energy when stored in molten salts and the like as long as you don’t aim for high impulses…although it’s still by far most likely that transport would need to run of biofuels and the like.
The conclusion is total BS for a number of reasons. First of all, antibiotics, vaccines, nutrient enrichment, refrigeration, sanitation and the like have made the 18th century comparison moot. If you’re talking about food production, then it is historical fact that many places had problems not from physical reasons but socioeconomic ones that forced monoculture for market production so that the lords of the culture had more stuff. That’s not even counting the massive increase in knowledge about biology and botany, so that higher yields can be gotten through closed loop nutrient cycling. Simply capturing human waste and processing it so nutrients can be reused gets us very close to a sustainable system.
And a lot of optimization of systems are about building automated and predictive control, which again did not exist back then. I’m not a Luddite, I’m about using technology to replace energy flows with information ones as much as possible.
The way I see it, history played out like it did because a small group of people wanted to get rich as fast and lazily as possible and so plundered as fast as they could get away with. Now we are hitting limits and all of a sudden being told that we have to continue doing what got us here (but more so) or else we’re going to fall back to a terrible age….discounting the last few centuries of increased knowledge and opportunity to cast off social systems that are based on extraction.
I stated up front that this sort of vision cannot provide enough energy to support the status quo and how it’s constructed, but I also strongly believe that the only reason 85% of people will die is because they are blown to bits or needlessly starve due to panic, NOT because there is any inherent physical limitation.
The only cornucopian book I’ve read that is anywhere plausible is Prescription for the Planet by Tom Blees. If people jumped behind that sort of thing then I’d be all for it, as the science seems to completely add up and it’s largely an engineering challenge. But the debate going on isn’t about whether to throw up breeder reactors as fast as possible or throw it into “renewables” (the breeders nearly count as renewable considering how long it would last), it is whether to throw it into fossil fuels or not…which even discounting GW is a fools’ errand that guarantees destruction.
Since I can’t very well sit here and make my own breeder reactor, but I can teach people about 150 year old technology and make that accessible, then I choose the latter…showing how people can transition to a livable state in the case that the nuclear stork doesn’t make an appearance and magically drop the things in our back yards.
If the nuclear industry and governments hadn’t f-d up the whole premise of nuclear with inherently costly, unsafe and polluting designs over the last 50 years then we’d be in a lot different position. The reaction to Fukushima was just a nail in the coffin.
I would point out that hierarchical behavior is a feature of many species of animals when there is a shortage of resources. Humans are no exception. Changing human nature (or in fact, instincts) is the problem. I don’t think you can count on a lot of change in behavior.
I haven’t studied most of the issues that you talk about Leo, but from what you say about climate change, something that I have studied, I am inclined to dismiss your comments about them until I can be assured that you have studied them in more depth than you appear to have with global warming.
If you have evidence that global warming is not caused by CO2, contrary to Fourier’s thesis and Tyndall’s proof of same, please let us have the data to which you refer.
Regarding it not happening at all, have you seen this? Please can we see your reasons for disagreeing with it.
I think what impressed me was this image by Wrigley.
The above chart shows annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70.
Even in the earliest times of fossil fuel usage, wind and water energy was tiny compared to fossil fuel and even animal energy. Wind and water seemed to provide only mechanical energy. This was somewhat helpful, but could not provide the heat energy that was really needed. I talk about the issue in The Long-Term Tie Between Energy Supply, Population, and the Economy.
‘Hierarchical behaviour’ is not necessarily an evil: in certain circumstances, it is an essential organising tool, whatever sentimentalists might think.
I am not sure it is necessarily evil. As you point out, it is a necessary organizing tool. If there is not enough to go around, it seems to be nature’s way of allowing the strongest to get a disproportionate share of the resources. This is part of the way natural selection takes place, and, from that point of view is good for selecting what nature considers best to survive and parent future generations. But as humans, we find this distasteful because we believe everyone should be given an equal chance. It is not a system we like. Most of us would end up at the bottom in such a system, if nothing else.
You destroy your credentials by deriding ‘uneducated people with degrees in the arts’: heard of History by any chance? Quite respectable at some universities I believe. Mediocre ‘scientists’ are not much to write home about.
“Only to uneducated people with degrees in arts and pseudo science (or no degrees at all)…”
It’s sad really.
It will be interesting to see how the German electricity situation works out. My expectation is that GDP will be badly affected, within a year or two.
I am not convinced your plan would work. Transportation would be a huge issue, to get raw materials to where the heat would be available. Clearly, food would need to be cooked locally, all around the world. We don’t have time and energy resources to put good passive solar design to work. Buildings with bad orientations are hard to fix. We will need fewer buildings in the future, not more, because we will be poorer, so we don’t really have a need to build lots of new buildings.
Outside of skyscrappers and the like, buildings can be quickly torn down and redone with rammed earth, strawbale, etc. with interiors redone with the materials used from the old building. This would not be nearly as energy intensive as trying to retain existing structures.
As for transport, I don’t see how trains/ships would fail to supply what is necessary. The total amount of consumption is obviously going to drop 80-90% and it’ll be largely constructed materials/high technology as well as a few luxuries.
I’m not saying that we’d keep up modern GDP, it’s just skeptical of the baseline you’ve set in the past of having complete grid meltdown due to inability to keep industrial life going at all.
“buildings can be quickly torn down ”
No without a diesel or electrically powered crane they cant. YOU try doing it with a pick and shovel.
Nonsense, picks and shovels do a lot! nI our part of Spain, after the conquest by the Castlians in 1512, the castles – massive and very strong, with multiple concentric rings of defences – were torn down within a few months using forced labour. The key is, of course, forced labour…….
My guess is that the buildings we have now will not be in the right locations. We won’t need big cities–we will need a lot more people in the farm areas. If we find ourselves needing to build new buildings, they will be very limited in services. More likely, people will be crammed together in buildings that happen to be available, and have been repurposed–old sheds for farm equipment, for example.
What happened in Europe in the 18h and 19th ceturies was that the landed families moved out of their old stone manor houses and, if they didn’t demolish them, turned them over as farm houses and stables, and so on – housing a farmer and all his farm hands, or a whole load of peasants in squalor. I think this is your scenario. Back to the future!
As an aside, I’ve seen commentators in Europe recommending that new housing should only last for about 20 years (!) so that it can be torn down to ‘make employment.’ A builder friend tells me that the build-quality is indeed so bad that 20 years seems a reasonable estimate, without constant repairs and refurbishment. Insane.
In the 18thc, Casanova, who wrote a good diary as well as chasing the ladies, compared the brick house of England (now so expensive to buy) with the solid stone houses of northern Italy, and said the English were short-termists ‘content to build for only 200 years or so.’ Now it is 20 years……this is why I have no faith in our surviving this!
I didn’t realize that the landed families moved out and poorer newcomers moved in in Europe. I know that in Russia, huge apartments were broken up and used as communal apartments.
In terms of making things last for a long time, it seems like it is vehicles as well as houses that we should make long lasting. Ideally, there would be only a small number of different types of vehicles–small, medium, and large with parts that stay the same for years. A person wouldn’t replace a car, just find replacement parts. Of course, car companies would find this objectionable, and it would be hard to make cars more efficient over time.
I agree, I view cities as a disaster waiting to happen. In a low energy future, why would I, a farmer, get up early in the morning and work all day so that people in the city can have cheap food? What are they all doing that is so valuable that they have something of value to trade with me? The way it works at the moment most farmers have so much debt that they can’t afford to not get up early and produce as much food as they can. In the future if people want food they are going to have to live closer to the source, and contribute a lot more to the production.
“In the future if people want food they are going to have to live closer to the source, and contribute a lot more to the production.”
Andy, I think that, in the future, people will grow food for feudal lords who own the land and will allow the serfs to keep some small portion of the food they grow. Sort of like today’s wage slaves, only without health insurance.
I think you might be right. People will be happy to have the jobs, because the alternative may be starvation. Individual small plots don’t work well, because a small plot has several deficiencies:
(1) Many plots will have no access to water
(2) Individual plots will not be large enough to support having an animal on the plot from time to time, to help with fertilization
(3) Most people will not have the skills needed.
(4) Most people will not have the tools needed.
The life-expectancy of things we make seems to have grown ever shorter. We can all think of instances.
Up until WW2, there were windmills and watermills in operation in Britain, and I am sure elsewhere, that had main working parts, apart from the buildings housing them, some 500 years old.
It has recently been discovered that many houses in England thought to be of the 17thc are in fact as old as the 12thc: the timber frame survived, the infilling and flooring changed.
In the craft from which I make my living, all the (expensive!) equipment will easily last several lifetimes, with no maintenance and only careful use and storage.
Even clothes were handed on from one generation to another.
Swords were passed down the generations, and so on……
The mindset that produces such durable goods comes from an awareness of resource constraints and the desire not to waste the expensive human and animal labour that produced them.
It is very hard not to see the current – and historically very recent – squandering of labour and resources as anything other than madness.
My wife and I made a bicycle trip around England in 1976. Just at the beginning of the North Sea oil. I did some reading on architecture. I remember in one town seeing a single dwelling which began at one end with a cruck house (A frame construction with sills to deter rot), a middle section of half timber (Shakespeare’s time), and a final section of modern post WWII brick. The three blended together seamlessly and were not particularly noticeable unless you were looking. I amazed my friends back in the US by taking four photographs. One photograph of each section cropped so that the other sections were not visible. Then the final panoramic view of the whole. I pointed out that the sections were built by generations of people separated in time by at least a thousand years. Americans can’t really comprehend such thinking.
In another instance, I was sitting on the side of the road watching a farmer get a combine into a wheat field. There were two stone pillars which gave him just a very narrow clearance on each side of the combine. He worked for perhaps 20 minutes to get the combine exactly in the right place and then drove it into the field. Then he came over to talk to me. I asked ‘why don’t you just knock down one of the posts?’ He looked at me as if I were a crazy American and said ‘those posts have been there a thousand years’.
As we were bicycling around through small towns, I would frequently stop at the post office store and buy something for lunch and then go eat it sitting on the front steps of the village church. In many instances someone would come along and want to talk. In many villages they would proudly note how many structures still survive which were recorded in the Domesday Book in 1067. And offer to show them to me.
Good story, Don. The 1067 date is key, since the civil wars fought in England, while bad, were not nearly as catastrophically devastating as those which wracked the continent in the following centuries.
That does sound very different from the US!
You are right. In the United States, we don’t have anything as old. Styles won’t change very much, if we have to keep reusing what our parents and grandparents had. I have remarked previously that if we wanted to conserve materials in building cars, we would only build a small number of car models, each with parts that can easily be replaced, year after year as they wear out. They could all be a single color as well, so it would be easy to swap a part from one car to another. No one now would even consider that a possibility.
As an ex-vehicle research engineer (cars), I could not agree with you more. The problem is that the car industry is both a fashion industry and one that provides toys for overgrown boys. The philosophy you advance is not limited to cars. A lot of what used to be called consumer durables are today produced with built-in obsolesce and are not durable at all.
Despite legislation to the contrary, it is still extremely difficult to dismantle many houseold items because their fastenings have unique fixings that require special tools to undo them. If the argument is that they are made that way for reasons of public safety, then we need to educate the public to be able to repair, or at least stand a chance of repairing, items that have failed and do it safely. Very often it is almost certainly something very simple that can be easily fixed. (I, and many others I am sure, would find repairing such items a great source of pleasure, but perhaps that is just the engineer in me rearing its head yet again.)
I live quite close to an old Roman city, unique in the UK in that it was never built over by subsequent city development
However the walls of the city were just used as quarries for later buildings in the vicinity,…could be an interesting take on our future
I understand the Great Wall of China has been used as a quarry as well, in quite a few places. In some places, it has been restored.
i can see little alternative to working directly for food either
ultimately we all work for food of course, but the complexity of our civilisation has allowed us to distance ourselves from it by several steps
we still need to kill animals for instance, but a money economy allows it to be delivered to us neatly wrapped in plastic packs—but back down the line, somebody is sourcing our meat energy on our behalf
remove that cash economy. and we have to get more messily involved with our food
I reminds me of that xkcd cartoon.
Which might be rephrased thus
“Do you seriously expect me to develop a new economy based on mud, straw bricks and organic farming strapped to a windmill as my only source of power”
“NO Mr Bond. I expect you to die”
And do you know how the throw weight of the Space Shuttle main engine was determined by the width of a Roman mule? The hint is at End of More’s post on 24 Mar, 6:44PM, about old Roman cities in the UK. The answer is that after the empire collapsed the roads went into disrepair; their flagstones liberated by local residents in need of building materials. The roadbeds soon were rutted, and mostly to a well–defined dimension — the wheelbase of a Roman cart, the type pulled by two or four mules. Fast forward enough centuries to see English carts in the colonies, and tinkerers replacing mules with steam engines, then adding rails for a smoother ride. Building railroads across a continent through mountains required limiting tunnel diameters. The dimension of the Space Shuttle Engines shipped from Utah to Florida was, thereby, determined ultimately by the size of the hindquarters of the average Roman mule.
Nice article! I like the inside/outside figure 4: It’s not about what is technically possible or desirable.
Households, corporations and governments are broke, trying to maintain the status quo. How can anybody invest in anything? Wordwide currency debasement. Bursting investment bubbles.
Financial limits anyone?
And we should always remember, as someone commented recently: even IF we had the perfect renewable source, we would encounter other limits even faster, as we all now things like population growth, soil and fresh water! Then I imagine the answer will be to scale up ocean desalination and carry fresh water across the continents, using maybe natural gas energy for pipeline production, solar for moving the pumps, the solar panels being produced, shipped and maintained by… etc. etc.
Or think of some kind of free “green” energy replacing gasoline: No more pollution, no more gas stations, driver’s paradise! And then we get exponential increase in the number of vehicles (including planes) on the planet, soon running short of steel, copper, rare earths, lithium…
Like someone invents a pill that makes you live forever: very nice for the individual or a small group, but a little problematic for society as a whole.
I like your last analogy,
In fact, our long life span is part of the reason the world is so crowded today.
Couldn’t resist the opportunity to comment.
1. R&D is on-going on many technologies that can significantly alter the dire outlooks. Just because one person or all of us don’t know about it right now doesn’t mean the efforts are not being made.
2. We won’t be running out of coal or iron so much as other things. Once we learn how to harvest / manufacture graphene and its cousins cheaply, many new doors will open.
In the general discouragement that attends many of these sour assessments, one items seems to be overlooked, despite its importance: water. The UN, WB, OECD et al agree that it is and will continue to be an even bigger problem than energy.
This might be pedantic, but when you say “graphene” right after coal/iron, I assume you are referring to carbon nanotubes? Graphene itself is by definition one atomic layer thick, so not so useful for structural stuff.
Graphene has amazing potential for electricity generation, transmission and storage. It’s not mentioned on the wikipedia page, but there is also a possibility it can replace platinum in fuel cells, which may make them practical when combined with work on lowering the voltage needed for electroylsis so that direct solar cell output is sufficient and hydrogen storage in carbon nanontubes.
And then of course advanced composites and carbon nanotubes have the potential to replace most uses of steel and the like.
Whether it’s using old tech or new tech, concerns about energy should be far below those about soil viability and climate change, both of which are exacerbated by fossil fuel use.
Water certainly is a very large problem already in many parts of the world. If there is enough very cheap energy, it is possible to desalinate water or ship it in from a distance. So a shortage of energy tends to exacerbate a water shortage.
If (intermittent) renewables had ever worked we would be in the position we are now, except we would be running on renewables instead of oil coal gas and nuclear energy.
The position is simple:
# Renewable energy is either already doing the best it can, or is a total frivolity.
# The only substantial cheap non renewable source we have not already fully exploited is nuclear
# There are not on;y no solutions on the horizon to make renewable energy work better (storage) there are not even any that are theoretically capable of doing the business at sane costs and sizes and safety and efficiency.
# Coal and nuclear remain the most cost effective ways of generating baseload electricity, but neither will power cars or aircraft directly.
# The only current technology that looks like it has > 100 year lifetime is nuclear fission.
# The only new technology that might come on line in the next 20 years is nuclear fusion.
# The only avenue of research that looks potentially capable of unlocking more energy beyond that, lies in quantum level research: WE don’t know how to tap the binding energy of the atom beyond nuclear fissions and fusion and we don’t know how to tap the energy that binds the quark universe together. But we might find out. I wouldn’t hold my breath though.
# we do know the limits of chemical mechanical and thermal energy storage to the level where we can predict the likely sizes, scales, costs and safety factors of any given technology of harvesting renewables and storing the result, without having to build it. The answer is that all are wanting.
If God didn’t want us to use nuclear power, He wouldn’t have put us in a position where we have ultimately no choice. 🙂
The cost of trying to major in renewables will be the death of billions. To date nuclear power has killed about 200 people. Your choice really.
I see the USA is pouring concrete for two new reactors..
I live in the area that will be served by the new Vogtle reactors.
Georgia is not a great location for wind, so that possibility never really came up.
“To date nuclear power has killed about 200 people.”
I was with you up to this point, but it appears you’ve been drinking the same Kool-Aid as all the other fossil fools — just a different flavour.
What you are citing are obviously the pro-nuclear lobby figures. You should at least split the difference between that and the anti-nuke folks, who claim that Chernobyl alone has killed nearly a million. (And actually, that study was published by the prestigious New York Academy of Science. But of course, you’ll rebut that the NYAS back-pedalled their support when the pro-nuke money machine threatened them.)
The “problem” with nuclear is that the link between cause and effect is impossible to verify outside of statistics. University of Pittsburgh Medical School Professor of Epidemiology Dr. Ernest Sternglass showed that 400 “excess” infant deaths took place following the Three Mile Island meltdown during the time I-131 would be active. None of those dead babies were likely even autopsied, let alone had little red flags inside saying, “Three Mile Island did this!” (But of course, you’ll rebut that the pro-nuke money machine hired their own studies — not to rebut the data, but to pillory the scientist who did the work.)
But weak linkage is no “problem” to nuclear proponents — it’s a blessing! It means the father of a high-school buddy of mine who died in his early 50s of leukaemia can’t be linked to the Fermi I meltdown that almost wiped out Detroit, even though as a plant engineer, he worked around the clock without a dosimeter during the melt-down. The official NRC line, “No radiation was released,” even though the engineers turned off the distracting radiation alarms in order to work on the problem without distraction.
Have you seen the “death maps” surrounding Handford, Washington? Deaths from various forms of disease associated with radioactive contamination are 100 times greater downwind from Hanford as they are upwind. But of course, those are not included in the “200 deaths” figure.
The rest of what you wrote is so reasonable that I won’t accuse you of being disingenuous about the industry-lackey “200 deaths” figure, but rather invite you to dig as deeply into this as you obviously have into other aspects of our current predicament.
Finally, there lurks the spectre of multiple nuclear melt-downs in a world with unstable electrical energy. We saw what happened at Fukushima. Nuclear power is dependent on 1) a functional electricity grid, and lacking that, 2) a reliable supply of diesel fuel. Otherwise, the pumps stop, and the fuel melts down.
A formerly “incredible” scenario now seems more credible: a Sandy- or Katrina-sized natural disaster causing extended electrical grid disruption, combined with infrastructure issues that constrain backup generator fuel. Prepare for double-point-of-failure scenarios to become more common, and pop goes the nuke plant!
Thank you for your analysis Gail. You bring up some great points that must be mentioned in some of the debates that are taking place across the country. The actual amount of renewable energy that is produced, energy density, and existing fossil fuel infrastructure are common themes that are often omitted from dialogue.
You bring up a good point about the number of people in Germany unable to pay their energy bills. This is the case in many countries and I predict that there will continue to be a blow-back effect to this.
It is going to take a while to see how the German situation really works out. I am happy it is not my country being experimented on in this way.
In the German renewable story you can really do a good meditation on subsidies! Not only direct subsidies like paying farmers for putting solar panels on the roof of cheap artificial buildings spoiling the countryside.
Germany is at the heart of the “old” economy, and it can use each and every advantage this position means for trying new high-tech solutions.
The car manufacturer BMW is now taking a huge bet on a mass-produced electric car (as to how renewable and “green” that is, we can debate), to get an edge over the other producers like Daimler and Audi. The costs and risks are of course heavily subsidized by BMW’s normal business. But still in this favourable position, their success isn’t guaranteed. Having lived in Germany, knowing some BMW car owners (“The joy of driving”), I somehow doubt they will like it, even if it looks the same and costs only slightly more.
I would agree, BMW car owners don’t seem like likely prospects to buy expensive electric cars. But they may be the only ones who can afford them plus a house with a garage, so they can charge the cars. Of course, when it comes time to sell the electric car, and replace it with a newer model, it may be hard to find a buyer who can afford a high priced used car that has his own home.