Reaching Limits in a Finite World

We don’t usually think about it, but we live in a finite world. In other words, in theory we can count precisely how many atoms make up the earth. We can also theoretically count how many humans live on earth and how many of any other species live on earth at a particular point in time.

At some point, in a finite world, we start reaching limits. There are now about seven billion people in the world. We could probably add some more, but how many? What is it that limits our ability to add more people to the world we live in today?

Too Much Population “Morphs” to an Energy and Financial Limit

One obvious guess as to what might limit world population is the amount of fresh water that is available. If we don’t have enough fresh water available, we can’t continue to expand population.

The amount of fresh water that is available can be changed, though, by adding desalination plants. There are many other ways of getting fresh water. To give an extreme example, the amount of fresh water available could be increased by melting ice in Antarctica and importing it by ship. Either of these solutions would require energy in an appropriate form—either to run the desalination plant, or to melt the ice and transport it by ship. Thus the fresh water shortage, at least for the foreseeable future, can be worked around if there is sufficient energy available of the right type.

The other not-so-minor detail is that the cost of desalination or of importing melted ice from Antarctica needs to be inexpensive enough that users of fresh water can afford it. In order for this to be the case, the cost of the appropriate type of energy must be extremely inexpensive.

We can think of other kinds of limits to population growth as well. For example, carbon dioxide limits. In theory, there are ways around carbon dioxide limits. For example, assuming current research projects are successful, we can build carbon capture and storage facilities and change our electricity generating plants so that the carbon dioxide that is emitted can be captured and stored underground.

Here, too, there are energy limits and cost limits. Carbon has a molecular weight of 12, while carbon dioxide has a molecular weight of 44. Because of this, if we create carbon dioxide from coal, the carbon dioxide we produce is much heavier and bulkier than the coal that we burned to make the electricity. It will take a lot of energy to store this gas underground in a suitable place. Thus, we have another problem that can be handled, if there is enough cheap energy of the right type available.

Almost any kind of obstacle to increased human population that we can think of has an energy-based work-around. Will people be so crowded that disease transmission will be a problem?  There are workarounds: better water treatment plants and sewer treatment plants, especially in the poorer parts of the world; more immunizations; more and better hospitals; antibiotics for all those who need them. These solutions also require energy, as well as other inputs (which indirectly require energy as well). The difficulty is making them affordable for the people who need them.

If the problem is not enough food, perhaps because of degraded soil, there are energy-based workarounds as well. Food can be imported from a distance. More fertilizers and soil amendments (either made using fossil fuels, or transported using fossil fuels) may be used. Irrigation, which uses either diesel fuel or electricity to pump water may be used to pump water to too dry areas, to increase food production per acre. In some cases, artificial soil can be created, and plants grown in a green house—again requiring much energy.  The issue again gets to be whether consumers can afford the food produced using this more energy-intensive procedure.

The Problem With Degraded Resource Supplies

Degraded resource supplies occasionally run out—for example, an aquifer may run dry. A more common situation, though, is that resources become progressively more expensive to extract as we approach limits. We tend to extract the easiest to extract (and thus cheapest-to extract) resources first. These resources are the highest quality ones, in the easiest to access locations. We then move on to more expensive to extract resources. A similar pattern applies to many types of resources, including ore used in making metals, oil, gas, coal, and uranium.

When we analyze resources of a given type, say uranium, we find that there are always more resources available. The problem is that they are increasingly expensive to extract because the ore is of lower concentration, or is located in a harder to reach area, or there is some other problem involved.

We have illustrated this situation in Figure 1, as a triangle with a dotted line at the bottom, because of the uncertain cut-off regarding how much is available. The cut-off is really a price cut-off. At some point, the resource becomes too expensive for customers to afford products made with it.

FIGURE 1 – Triangle of Available Resources

Resource triangle, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

Figure 1. Triangle of available resources, with dotted line indicating uncertain financial cut-off.

A company starts from the top of this triangle, extracting whatever resource is involved. A company can “see” a little way ahead, as it looks down toward the bottom of the triangle. The company will report reserves which are continually increasing because the width of the triangle keeps getting wider, even though these reserves are of lower quality and can only be extracted in a more energy-intensive way. The question then becomes whether customers can really afford products made with these expensive-to-extract resources.

The Broader Energy Picture

Energy is pretty amazing. Energy is what allows work of any kind to be done, from making a clay pot by hand, to baking a cake, to creating a carbon capture and storage facility. Humans by themselves are able to produce some energy, because of the food we eat. But we are also able to leverage the energy that our own bodies produce with energy from other sources, such as from burning biomass. We learned to burn biomass a very long time ago, over 1,000,000 year ago.

If humans were like other large primates, there would be only 100,000 or 200,000 of us, rather than 7 billion of us. We would live in an area to which we are biologically adapted, most likely a very warm part of Africa. Humans’ population is much higher, because once we learned to control fire, we were able to settle areas of the world that would otherwise be too cold or dry to live in, and we were able to increase population densities through energy-related techniques we developed.

One thing we learned to do was cook part of our food supply. This had many advantages. Unlike apes, we no longer needed to spend literally half of our day chewing. This freed up time for other activities, like tool-making, hunting, and clothing making. It also allowed the human body to evolve in a way that allowed a bigger brain and smaller digestive organs. Gradually we used our improved brain to develop other techniques such as making heat-tempered stone tools, which were sharper than other stone tools, and teaching dogs to help us with hunting for food. All of these approaches to using external energy allowed humans to leverage our own puny energy supply from food with energy supply from other sources and gain an advantage over other animals.

Human prosperity was able to increase and population was able to grow as we learned to use increasing amounts of energy from outside sources. Energy sources we gained control over included domesticated plants and animals, facilitating agriculture. World population by the year 1 C. E. reached 200 million, or over 1,000 times the population level before the leveraging impact of external energy supplies began enabling greater human world population.

Fossil fuel (coal, oil and natural gas) use became common after about 1800 C. E., and population grew very quickly. In fact, when population is graphed, it looks like it went straight up starting when fossil fuels were added.

FIGURE 2 – World Population

World population based on data from "Atlas of World History," McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978  and Wikipedia-World Population.

Figure 2. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and Wikipedia-World Population.

Use of fossil fuels did not grow by themselves. Their use was facilitated by the development of improved technology, which provided the vehicle for their use. Increased debt also facilitated fossil fuel use, because it allowed potential buyers to afford the new products being developed, and provided companies doing energy extraction funds for their work.

Our ability to do physical work using human labor is quite limited. For example, if we want to dig a well for water, the depth that humans can dig without the assistance of a machine intended for this purpose is only about 20 feet. With mechanical drilling equipment, typically powered by oil, we can quickly and cheaply dig a well many hundreds of feet deep.

As another example, if we want to transport goods a long distance without external energy,  we can only push a cart at the speed at which we can walk. Oil or another other modern fuel allows inexpensive long-distance transport of goods.

Adding energy use changes costs. There is a two-way tug on costs:

1. Costs are typically reduced when fossil fuel energy or electricity from any source can be substituted for human energy. This allows greater leverage of the energy of the remaining humans doing the “work”.

2. Costs tend to increase, as the cost of the energy source in (1) increases. Such an increase in costs occurs as we approach limits of a finite world, partly because extraction is from more depleted resources (farther down in the resource triangle shown in Figure 1), and partly because we reach increased problems with pollution, such as the BP Deepwater Horizon well blowout in 2010. The cost of mitigating pollution problems also adds to energy costs.

Up until about the year 2000, this tug of war had a favorable outcome. An increased amount of fossil fuel energy was substituted for human energy, leading to lower costs. As mentioned previously, improved technology and additional debt enabling this substitution played a role as well.

In recent years, the tug of war has started to go the other direction. The cost, particularly for oil energy, has tended to rise far more rapidly than costs in general (Figure 3). This has produced many dislocations within the economy, making countries that use a lot of oil less competitive in the world marketplace and reducing economic growth rates, especially among  countries no longer able to complete. The higher cost of oil products reduces disposable income of citizen, leading to recession and to deficit spending by governments.

FIGURE 3 – World Oil Price in Current $

Figure 3. Brent-equivalent oil price in current $, based on data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3. Brent-equivalent oil price in current $, based on data from BP 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy.

In future years, we can expect that two way tug on costs will increasingly be lead to higher costs, because of greater impact of limits of a finite world. This will tend to send economies increasingly into recession.

Our financial system has been built assuming that economic growth will continue indefinitely. There is significant risk that the recessionary influences of high oil costs will bring down the current economy. We know from a recent analysis by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov (Secular Cycles, Princeton University Press, 2009) that historically, when civilizations collapsed, they did so for financial reasons, as the cost of government became too great for citizens to fund with tax revenue. There would seem to be a significant risk that today’s economy will reach the same end.

Why didn’t others recognize this issue?

Reaching limits of a finite world is a subject that does not easily fit into any one subject area, so the subject tends to be missed by researchers concentrating on one field of study.

The closest fit came in the analysis The Limits to Growth (Donella Meadows et al, Universe books, 1972).  This analysis came very close, but did not quite hit the nail on the head because it missed the connection of debt to limits to growth. (The model was of course not expected to be complete.) More recent analyses along this line to miss the debt connection as well, pushing the likely date of collapse forward.

There is much confusion about the question of what limits, such as oil limits, mean. Many people believe that rising oil reserves (which are a given when the problem is ever-more expensive to extract oil, as illustrated in Figure 1) mean that our oil problems are solved. Our problem is not a lack of oil reserves; our problem is that the selling price needs to keep rising, to cover the rising costs of extraction and to cover government dependence on tax revenues. This increase in selling price makes oil ever less affordable, which is our real problem.

Even when oil price drops, this is not necessarily a good sign. It may mean that some oil extraction companies will no longer be able to afford to add new wells, because production will not be sufficiently profitable at the new lower price. It may also mean that some oil exporting nations will

not be able to get enough tax revenue from oil operations to fund programs (food subsidies, for example) that prevent revolt.

Reaching limits in a finite world is a scary issue. The book Limits to Growth was not well received when it was published. Governments have tried their best to avoid the issue. No president or prime minister wants to announce, “We have a problem that we have no way to solve.”

Why might I be able to shed light on the real impact of finite world limits?

My background is as a casualty actuary, doing financial forecasting for insurance companies. Thus, I started with somewhat of a financial background, but did not have the usual “brainwashing” that comes when a person has studied the economy from the perspective of today’s economists. My background gave me a great deal of experience hunting for  publicly available databases, making graphs, doing analyses, and explaining the results to lay audience.

I got interested in the issue of oil limits and what impact they might have when read the book, The Empty Tank: Oil, Gas, Hot Air, and the Coming Global Financial Catastrophe (Jeremy Leggett,  Random House, 2005). His view comes from the “peak oil” view, which is close to my view, but not quite the same.

When I read Leggett’s book, it hit a responsive chord because I had had first hand experience with the impact that high oil prices had on insurance companies in the 1973-1974 period. In 1973, I was the actuary for a small insurance company that ultimately went bankrupt, at least partly because of the indirect impact of higher oil prices. Reporting to the president of the company, I got to see up close what kind of havoc high oil prices could cause in the financial world.

After I read Leggett’s book, I started researching the issue on my own. I wrote an article for insurance executives in early 2006 and an article for actuaries in early 2007. In March 2007, I decided to take early retirement, and work on the issue full time.

I set up my blog site, in March 2007. I soon was asked to help with the website, where I wrote under the name, “Gail the Actuary,” and made many contacts with others interested in the issue of limited oil supply.

To make a long story short, over the past several years, I have made many contacts with researchers who have discovered at least part of the story of oil limits and energy limits. Through my blog posts, I also received much valuable input, including suggestions from readers regarding academic books that might be helpful.

My work is now being published in the academic world as well. I wrote a paper, “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis,” published in the journal Energy in January 2012. It has so far been cited by 10. I was also a co-author of “An analysis of China’s coal supply and its impact on China’s future economic growth” (Energy Policy, June 2013). My most recent publication is an article called, “Financial Issues Affecting Energy Security” in the soon-to-be published book, Energy Security and Development–The Changing Global Context, (B. S. Reddy and S. Ulgiati Eds., Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

About Gail Tverberg

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

  1. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    In one of your previous posts, the issue of the sailing barge shuttling food from Lake Champlain down to New York City came up. A number of people didn’t thin much of it. For a good explanation of why a flat bottomed sailing barge is a good idea, see Dmitry Orlov’s post today:

    I covered in the previous post the fact that water transport of staple foods is the cheapest method to move them. Dmitry explains why a square bottomed boat is well adapted to moving freight on most any navigable waterway. A square bottom is adapted to rising sea levels and poor channel maintenance and unreliable channel markers.

    I observe that the kind of world he is describing is labor intensive. You beach the boat or barge on a sandy beach and then you load it or unload it by hand. (Think of Harry Belafonte working on the banana boat ‘all night long’.) The kind of degraded infrastructure Dmitry is describing is inconsistent with big fixed cranes effortlessly lifting pallets from the holds of gigantic container ships. But it may well be the kind of world you expect.

    Sailing barges may be the triumph of resilience and adaptiveness over highly designed efficiency.

    Don Stewart

    • Thanks for the link. Regular barges are of course rectangular. With rectangular solid pieces of wood, they are obviously easier and cheaper to make.

  2. Scott says:

    Hello Don,

    Yes, I brought that up a while back and had posted this link to James Howard Kunstler where he talks to the guy building them.

    Interesting story. I had commented that they are great, but I did not think we could feed all folks in New York with them. But they could help.

    Seems to me they would work better in world less populated, if many of us were gone and a group of survivors had to start over, kind of like in the story of Kunstler, “A World Made by Hand”.
    Here is the link to that interview again if anyone is interested.

  3. “As another example, if we want to transport goods a long distance without external energy, we can only push a cart at the speed at which we can walk. Oil or another other modern fuel allows inexpensive long-distance transport of goods.”

    Well Gail, I don’t think this is a very good example. First, where did the energy come from to build the cart ? How many times have bloggers said ” but solar panels can supply energy” and you say “there will be no means in the future to produce the solar panels with oil”. But this is not my main problem with this statement.

    If I’m going to get a cart to move my freight. Then why couldn’t I get a bike to tow the cart with ? Bikes can multiply human efficiency by a factor of 5 without oil. I can walk for 2 hours and cover 6 miles, but I can ride my bike for 2 hours and cover 30 miles. All without fossil fuels, but I do need a paved road and so does your cart.

    My main point in this is that technology without oil can improve humans lives. As for me, I’m looking forward to the day when oil companies stop selling guns for killing, I mean oil for cooking the earth and ourselves.

    Life will be better with a lot less oil. It will be the future. Drive 55 today.

    • its QWERTY time on my forehead again!!!!!!
      this is a difficult truth to get across
      fossil fuel provided the means by which 7 billion people are alive on the planet right now—discounting a few aboriginal tribes– and fossil fuel is the only life support we have, not riding bikes or pulling carts,—exactly where are you going to pull your ”freight” to? The flat bottomed barges being toted down the river?—and what’s going to tote them back upriver again—the same method being used when toting barges and lifting bales was done by more ‘traditional’ means?
      It makes me want to volunteer to be one of the six billion disposables

      • Oil is no different than drugs. Use a little for recreation and you will be fine. Use more and more of it everyday only to become sick and die. Humans are addicted to oil and currently on a 7 billion person “high” killing the earth. It’s all about how we get clean or die.

        Which brings me to another topic. The only human organization that can fix this addiction is Government for the people (not for profit) with education, trust, regulation and will of the people. Of course when was the last time a group of addicts trusted a doctor to get them clean. And Gail wonders why I think she leans right. Of course you can pray to God, but history shows for the last 200 years, that’s how we got into this mess.

        Start today by driving 55, it’s the first step to getting clean. Oil is too important of a finite resource to be burned for personal transportation.

        • nope—in 1776 Watt got the working function of the steam engine right, since then we have burned more fuel to get more fuel to get more fuel….and more people, the fact that the American nation was conceived in the same year is interesting to say the least.
          That’s what happened 200 years ago, praying had nothing to do with it—quite the opposite, it was the age of enlightenment.
          now that fuel is running out, we seem to be reverting to the age of darkness—praying to refill the oilwells
          This blog doesn’t lean left or right, it leans towards inevitability
          hoping that governments can suddenly reverse the entire process that has sustained governments since they were conceived is taking optimism beyond any point of credibility

        • Start today by walking or riding a bicycle. Driving 55 doesn’t do enough.

          • Walking or riding a bike is great if you only have a few miles to travel. 55 is only the beginning of how to get to a non oil based transportation system. Most likely to eliminate oil from transportation speeds will still go a lot lower, but your going to have to train the public.

            Gail, your always looking for a silver bullet and because you can’t find it, you see failure. It’s going to take hundreds of different solutions(bullets), time and life style changes. The sooner humans transfer to a non oil based transportation system the less painful it will be. Life will go on, you’re so negative. An enforced 55 could save this country a million barrels of oil a day. That’s a great start.



            Do the Math

            • I see very basic problems–(1) a financial system that depends on growth, or it will collapse (2) a depleting resource base that is ever more expensive to extract, because we take out the least expensive to extract first, and (3) human population that like the populations of all other species, will grow as long as resources are available. The whole system is by definition unsustainable. What you are talking about is small bandaids that may slightly fix one part of the problem, but tend to make other parts of the problem worse. Transferring to a non-oil based transportation system means that we use up coal and natural gas more quickly (since we don’t have “renewables” without fossil fuels). Considerable energy (and $$) are needed up front to make the transition, taking resources away from other uses. If governments participate, this makes their financial situations worse. In the end, it is not very clear that anyone is better off. It may very well make collapse happen more quickly.

        • xabier says:

          Chief Engineer

          It’s a nice dream, but since the people had the opportunity, they’ve voted with their feet for cars, international vacations, wide-screen TV’s and consumerism. We can’t blame TPTB for that.

      • xabier says:

        End of More

        The best one can say for bikes – and that’s all I use for local journeys – is that 1/ It keeps you fit, and 2/ It’s cheaper than a car and requires no finance.

        My bike costs at most £50.00 per year to maintain, total replacement is still an insignificant sum, and in the context of rapidly rising basic living costs which have to be met, and declining income, it’s useful to be able to excise the whole car thing from one’s budget.

        But you are correct, it only works in the context of the whole oil-driven economy – how was the bike made, using what energy, where was the factory , how do I get the spare parts? how is the cycle path constructed and maintained, and so on. None of it coming even from Europe, let alone Britain or my local town.

        Given the economic context, it is surprising to see how low the take-up of cycling still is -but then again, it’s very dangerous in a car-based city, and country roads are even worse!

    • You are right. It takes energy to make the cart and even more importantly to create and maintain a road.

      I would say that a bicycle takes a whole lot more energy, than even the cart and road. I am doubtful that you can make and maintain any of these systems without oil. Maybe less oil, but I am not sure we are being given the option of “less oil”.

      • as I keeping banging on—as oil gets scarcer, fighting over whats left will proportionally increase—it has to
        Yet people keep imagining ‘less oil’ as a gentle downward slope giving us decades to adjust to it not being there

        • “fighting over whats left will proportionally increase”

          Just another reason to stop using oil for personal transportation. It’s much gentler to go willingly down the slope than being forced. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

      • There will be “less oil”, but there just will not be enough for todays kind of personal transportation which consumes about 75% plus of todays oil use. Humans have to change and the sooner the better.

        • yes—but you make the point about ‘having to change’ as if there will be some stupendous collective and universal decision to ‘change’.
          man has been inclined towards collective homicide since we came down out of the trees, even more so since we start acquiring ‘assets’ that could be of use to someone else.
          it is this fallacy that after millions of years of a certain evolved line of behaviour, sometime in the next 50 years we are going to change our ways. No one willingly gives up his living standards–to do that you have to look at you r wife and kids and say–sorry, we’re screwed, get used to going hungry. .If personal transportation stops, our functioning economy stops. It’s that brutal I’m afraid.
          we are not going to do that., and no government decree will make it so, no matter how dictatorial.
          to paraphrase Dylan Thomas: we will not go gentle into that good night, we will fight fight against the dying of the light.

          • I’m not sure if I read you right but I don’t think just because people don’t accept change they won’t change. When fuel doubles in price and wages are stagnant you have few choices- but if you want to go to work or go shopping you either do it less, or cycle or walk, or shop locally or get deliveries- the other choice is you vote for change.

            The popular vote can work several ways- we collectively could demand imperial expansion and steal the oil and continue a war economy [unfortunately it works for a short time in recessions] or demand cheap fuel now [like the Iranians] or demand a green transport system/economy.

            Humans do adapt- it is just whether we do with the least casualties to ourselves or the planet. [planet in this context is our one in the near geological future!]

            • I think our image of the change is wrong. It is not that the price of oil goes up much–it is that more people are unemployed, and it is that government benefits for seniors and those on welfare go down.

              If we still have a job, we are torn between taking care of our relatives without income and being able to afford oil. They will likely want to move in with people with income, to keep their living expenses down.

        • Personal transportation does not consume 75% of oil use. My estimate in the US is 44%. (This is based on comparing gasoline consumption (excluding ethanol) to total liquid fuel use ex biofuels). My 44% percent is probably high, because there are a lot of sales people and delivery vans that use gasoline, even though they are commercial vehicles.

          Relative to the world, the US percentage of 44% is very high. Other countries would be lower, because fewer people have cars, and they tend to drive less.

          • Gail I am curious to know why you feel pessimistic about US economy and adaptation- I see a country with huge potential [at least a decade or 2 of abundance]- a skill base and huge room for reducing consumption through conservation measures. Fuel is stupidly cheap whether for cars or the home so there seems zero incentive to energy efficient homes- and my trip to Texas was almost always air conditioned to the point I had to wear jumpers in August. No one needs a 2 ton semi to pick up the shopping or for that matter to take a few construction tools to work [as a UK builder most of the crews I work with use public transport in cities or small saloon cars].

            In the UK home electricity is 20 cents Kwh [13p] plus service charge- UK average home heating/energy = $2000 [£1400] a year. of which £70 at most is paying green subsidies- so even without solar subsidies for home pv a £5000 4 kw system will pay for itself in 20 years and with subsidies you make money after 10 years.

            Britain’s manufacturing is surprisingly successful, despite myths we make twice as much [in value] as we did 20-30 years ago so paying twice for power as much drives efficiency.

            BTW I do take onboard your point [fact] that Euro fuel duty is a tax so it gets fed back into the system- but electricity/gas is only 5% tax.

            • The problem is that the economy has no “reverse” switch. Our current economy is fueled by debt. Without the government’s attempt to keep employment up through deficit spending and QE, everything would fall apart. Many more would be unemployed. There is a significant chance that international trade will be severely disrupted. The issue then would be a lack of jobs, and quite possibly oil prices that are too low to encourage extraction. Interest rates would likely be way up, discouraging investment in new drilling or new investment in natural gas for automobiles. If there is a problem with international trade, it is likely that we would find ourselves without replacement parts for essential things, perhaps parts needed by US workers drilling for oil, for example. New computers may not be available. Even if our bank accounts look OK, we may find that there is not much to buy with the money (except lots of unoccupied houses, because so many are out of work, and cannot afford their own home).

              The government, in its grab to get funding, is likely to raise taxes on oil and gas companies, further discouraging extraction.

              All of the oil and gas that looks like it is there, will be found to be much less accessible than most people thought.

            • Thank you- put like that I can appreciate your concern. If there is no reverse will taking the foot off the accelerator bring about a more ordered slow down?

            • No, taking the foot off the accelerator doesn’t bring a more ordered slow down. Think of our economy as a stack of children’s blocks, built into a tall tower. You can pull out a block from the bottom slowly or quickly, but the effect is pretty much the same. The tower falls over.

              Our economy is built in a way that it needs growth. You can paper over the problem for a while (with ultra low interest rates and QE), but at some point the smoke and mirrors are not enough to cover up the problem, and the whole tower falls over.

        • jules
          all those ‘demands’ constitute a single demand: that we go on using energy as before—somehow.
          the concept of ‘voting’ in this context means voting for the politician who promises the change the laws of physics. (I recall Bachmann got a big following because she promised to reduce gas to $2!)
          You cannot ‘vote’ for change because politicians are as helpless as the rest of us to change events, they just get carried along on the tide and hope at best to stay in office or at worst to at least dodge the assassins bullet
          Yes we will change, but I maintain that wont happen until it is forced upon us, and not in any political sense, but through unavoidable circumstance,

  4. Stu Kautsch says:

    Yes, you’re right about the Club of Rome not making the connection with debt, and this may be the biggest omission I’ve seen pointed out. The last time I read it (maybe 5 or 6 years ago) I was also struck at how little they treated the “Law of Natural Resource Extraction” (as Heinberg calls it): “We take the best stuff first, and the easy stuff first.”, which you always include in these types of analysis. About all they had to say about this in the original report was that geometric growth in slag and other detritus from mining operations would lead to insurmountable environmental problems and vastly increased energy usage. I agree with you that the original report, at least, was probably too conservative due to both of these points.

  5. Keep up the good work Gail- and I agree with the other posters who appreciate the importance of the negative message. Personally, I care- I have a child and have friends of all ages which requires a positive outlook.

    picking up on the historical narrative mentioned at the top: I don’t think any society has chosen to down size but plenty of civilisations have had to modify behaviour. I think after a few economic shocks in the coming decade [few months!?!] decline will be long and slow.

    We do have the advantage of a technical and knowledge base compared to previous civilisations: in the developing world basic sanitation is poorly understood although having run festivals I can vouch for educated people to be able to ignore those basics too!

    Roman decline has a resonance in that the farms were big estates with slave power rather than oil but the same could happen in that farmers with 1000s of acres will not be able to manage them allowing them to be squatted or sold off in to small units.

    I feel the adjustment is happening now- already fuel use is reduced- not using the car is an option as is home delivery. We have been rich enough to waste energy and having just seen this winters household fuel bill the solar option is no longer an option. When meat becomes too expensive we will eat less or substitute it with horse or rat!

    the market works to a degree but I fear the political backlash and scapegoating rather than the truth.

  6. Ikonoclast says:

    I live in Queensland in Australia. Queensland incoporates both tropical and sub-tropical zones. Queensland at 1,723,936 sq km, with an additional 6712 sq km in island area is much bigger than Texas at 696,241 sq km. However, Qld’s population is 4.56 million and Texas’s population is 26.1 million which incidently is greater than Australia’s total population of 23 million. Australia’s total land area is a little smaller than the USA’s lower 48 states contiguous area.

    There is a great difference in our continents though. The USA lower 48 area has a rich hinterland all the way from the east coast to the west coast. You have some significant arid zones mainly in the south-west in Arizona, New Mexico and perhaps Colorado. Australia on the other hand has the so-called “dead heart” and very huge arid zones around that. As a rule of thumb you could say the area of Australia with useful and reasonably reliable water supplies for urban areas and agriculture is about the size of France 674,843 sq km or Texas 696,241 sq km.

    So Australia’s great size is somewhat illusory in this context. It’s better to think of us a France or Texas sized country getting towards 25 million people but that also happens to have a large arid mineral province beyond the most habitable coastal areas. Those deposits are good but widely scattered. One thing we are poor in is oil reserves. Our biggest field (tiny by world standards) is in Bass Straight. Australia is already past domestic peak oil production. However, our natural gas reserves are large, as are coal reserves, iron ore, non-ferrous metals and uranium. That gives a quick picture of Australia and how it is placed.

    Thus, even for Australia, the wisest thing we could do would be to cap our population at 30 million. 25 million would be even better but we already almost guaranteed to overshoot that. So any illusions that even Australia is under-populated should be dismissed at once. I am not saying that anyone who visits this blog has those illusions but you might be interested by the this thumbnail sketch of Australia with regard to limits to growth.

    • Stopping the growth is a real issue. Part of the growth of most countries that have jobs comes from immigration. Trying to stop both births (over 2 per family) and immigration is tricky.

      • xabier says:


        Big business wants immigrants for cheap and willing labour. Politicians want them for votes and to maintain welfare systems by their labour. The welfare systems let them have large families, with no financial downside for so doing – so the high birthrate in the lower classes of society is a common phenomenon in Britain, Europe and the US, driving a population growth which otherwise wouldn’t exist.

        • I think there are policies but an agenda! There is no agenda in the UK for immigration- in post war Britain we needed extra workers- in the 80 to 90s we were short of medical staff so we imported them [all had been trained at their own government expense- in the 00s we needed dentists, fruit pickers and builders and Eastern Europeans filled that role.

          As for big families- well rich people can have more kids than average too [I know- my sister is one], the fear now is Muslims- it is telling the idiot ‘lord’ Monckton cites the UK will be half Muslim in 20/30/40 years [completely false- do the math currently 1.5 million in the UK of 70 million] [many of the myths seem to stem from a right wing youtube movie – ]. Back in the 1970s it was Irish families who were feared.

          The press now focus on young unemployed single mums on welfare with 3-4 or more children from different dads- I don’t having lots of kids on welfare is a good thing but the problem is education and relative poverty and not the biggest drain on tax- old people in the UK take most of the welfare budget.

          The only agenda is with corrupt business who pay below legal wages and have little worker welfare standards and the ultra religious.

          There is enough problems coming our way without scape goating minorities as right thinking politics try to do.

          • xabier says:


            I’m certainly not scapegoating anyone – but the mechanics of immigration (like globalism, no bad thing in itself) are very clear, and the consequences for population growth.

            The very rich having large families is of no importance.

            Ultimately, big business just wants cheap labour, easy to manipulate, and doesn’t care where they originate, at home or abroad, it’s just that immigration delivers that in an ideal fashion.

            The dilution of national cohesion based on race and culture is also part of an agenda, in Europe and Britain certainly (with benign intentions, but misguided.)

            All these factors make a sane population policy of the kind suggested by Gail and others impossible.

        • Of course, the minor detail is that most of us in America have grandparents or great grandparents who came here for a better life. They, too, had big families, leading to the big population growth in the past.

          People do what they are used to from the past. And the small children that might not have survived in the “old country,” now survive to adulthood.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        I believe Australia could stop growth at 25 million to 30 million people. All it would take is a cut in our immigration policy and birth rate such that immigration + births = emigration + deaths. This is axiomatically true of course but the question is how to do it?

        Australia’s population grew by 1.7% during the year ended 30 September 2012.
        Natural increase and net overseas migration contributed 40% and 60% respectively to total population growth for the year ended 30 September 2012. Thus we need a cut in immigration such that immigration = emigration. We also need a relatively modest cut in birth rates to the replacement rate of about 2.1 births per woman. Of course, no individual woman can have exactly the replacement rate of births. 😉

        The policies needed are a committment to a population ceiling, a reduction in voluntary immigration by restrictions, no reduction needed in taking bona fide refugees, even better health, eduation, employment and welfare rights for women and a phasing out of some absurd middle-class welfare policies we have like baby bonuses.

        Politically, the greatest obstacle is the nationalistic and vainglorious belief that a bigger population will make us bigger and more powerful on the world stage. Australia suffers from little brother syndrome compared to the UK and USA. Along with that is a belief our economy will benefit from economies of scale and a larger domestic market. In a world far from limits these latter beliefs might be reasonable. In a world and country close to real limits these beliefs are incorrect and indeed counter-productive.

        There is also significant political pressure from immigrant ethnic groups who want more people, especially but not only relatives, from their old country to be allowed permanent residence in Australia.

        • xabier says:


          A perfect example in Australia of where the issues are crystal clear, a reasonable population policy could be constructed, and yet progress looks to be impossible.

    • Scott says:

      Interesting to hear about your country Australia. From what I have seen and read, It is a wide country and one of the driest for the most part. I think it is a good place to ride this out compared to other populated parts of the world also a beautiful place.

      So I imagine water is hard to come by to irrigate crops etc. in many areas, so they will remain unchanged with out water to come in and bring development. So many lands will stays as is. I used to live in California and many of the valley farming communities there are pumping out the deep water wells so fast and levels are dropping. So much land could go out of production if those wells go dry and they are fighting about Desalination projects now. A desal project almost needs its own power plant.

      So many places in the world like the cities of Tibet in the shadow of the melting glaciers or countries pumping from depleting deep underground aquifers will face severe shortages of water. Gail wrote about this and water shortages may show its face right along with peak oil.

      There Australia, there must be some of the last vast unexplored areas there for resources.

      • xabier says:


        In the south of Spain they’ve really been abusing the water supply, taking too much from the aquifers for an extremely intensive system of agriculture that historically never existed there.

        In the past, these places were poor, for a good reason – modern technology has given us the power to abuse what resources they did have.

        Unemployment there is already up to 60% for the young, when the agriculture starts to go, no prizes for guessing what will happen.

        • Scott says:

          Besides the dying Honey Bees, Water is going to be more and more of a problem for farming and clean drinking water.

          In Spain it sounds like they are pumping out the ancient water aquifers, once that is gone those farms will dry up too. They are over pumping the worlds aquifers and many areas these may take perhaps a thousand years to replenish these aquifers in dry areas. But at least water wells do recharge from the rains – unlike oil and gas wells.

          In the a California City where I used to live, they had drilled wells for city water that were 3000 feet deep and the water was sometimes hot coming out of the cold water tap because of the deep pumping and all the energy it takes to pull it up from that far down. The over pumping on the coastal areas also is causing seawater intrusion and I have seen them offer Desalination as the only option to stop the over pumping.

          So now we have unsustainable farming too in many areas.

          • xabier says:


            Regarding the dying bees: only 2 observed so far this Spring!

            And that’s in a garden with a lot of attractions for them. Not so long ago, it was humming with bees and clouds of butterflies, too.

        • I think the craziest aspect of Iberian farming, is exporting crops to the rest of Europe. If I buy Spanish tomatoes or whatever, I’m buying 98% Spanish water, trucked in over 1500 miles.

            • Globalization seems to encourage a race to the bottom. Our standards for living conditions and salaries don’t mean much in a world market.

            • witsendnj says:

              I feel pretty stupid not to have understood that globalization meant outsourcing pollution and exploiting slaves. When it was happening I wasn’t really paying attention to why people were protesting. Of course, it’s all coming home to roost, because international corporations are more and more blatantly giving the same treatment to the US – look at fracking, MTR, and our abandoned manufacturing centers. And the pollution floats right across the Pacific from Asia, raising ozone levels globally and adding to epidemics of cancer, heart disease, asthma etc. We all breathe the same air, eventually.

      • Ikonoclast says:

        Out Great Artesian Basin is much depleted and much water from it is now brackish from excess salt. Australia’s rivers, while often long are usually narrow and shallow with very slow flow rates and low volumes. The exception is when we have cyclone, storms and floods.

        A famous old Australian verse goes;

        “I love a sunburnt country,
        A land of sweeping plains,
        Of ragged mountain ranges,
        Of droughts and flooding rains.”

        The words “droughts and flooding rains really sums us up. We can have droughts that last for many years in regions and then have a huge wet season and very large floods that spread out far over our “sweeping plains”. This kind of rainfall pattern is not nearly as useful and amenable as more regular annual rains.

        Statistics of our average annual rainfall in various regions don’t nearly tell the full story. In the early 1800s in South Australia, graziers spread out into bountiful seeming grazing lands far north of Adelaide. The real fact was that climate there ran on about 20 year cycles and they were seeing the last years of the 20 good years. What followed was about 20 to 30 bad years, mostly drought years yeart after year and all the cattle stations failed. Americans would call “cattle stations”, ranches. (Not sure if you are used to our lingo.)

        • xabier says:


          You are very right in what you say about fracking in the US (and now in Britain) -the companies are showing that will do right on home ground what they’ve always done abroad among the poor and defenceless: take the resources, make a quick killing, and to hell with you if you are worried about the loss of good land and the pollution of water aquifers.

          Maybe this will wake people up? But the truth is being drowned out with the propaganda about ‘energy independence.’ And the workers, often driven there out of desperation as their home cities crumble, receive great pay cheques while it all lasts.

          I know what you mean about feeling stupid, but there’s no point in beating oneself up over it: our whole public culture, all the MSM, is one lie.

          • witsendnj says:

            Anecdotally, I’ve been involved in some activism around MTR and fracking and Tar Sands, and especially with the first 2, but to some extent the 3rd, I have found to a troubling degree that even among those who are aroused and educated (still the minority – most, as you say, are looking for a pay check however short-lived) really don’t get the big picture. They are concerned about local impacts on health – via polluted soil, water and air, and ruined terrain – but very few connect it to any larger geo-political or ecological issue. If they could make the drillers or miners go to the next state, they wouldn’t mind it if the coal plants continue burning coal, because they can’t directly see it impacting their lives.


  7. Ikonoclast says:

    This rain-days map of Australia tells the story. Go to it and scroll down to see the legend. Only areas with 80 rain days per annum or more can usually support people and agricultural or pastoralism in any significant way. And some of those areas have other problems which make them unviable, from excessive seasonality of rain or excessive heat to inappropriate geography and soil types.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    You have recently become interested in the issue of water pipes freezing in cold climates. There are two frameworks for dealing with the issue. The first is the Industrial Model where somebody invents something which ‘fixes’ the problem. As we know, most ‘fixes’ end up requiring more energy and a more complex society. The other model is to go back to basics and decide whether water pipes in a house in a cold climate are really a good idea and what the other alternatives might be.

    The second model doesn’t require that all 7 billion people be smart enough to figure out an alternative–it just requires that a few people be inventive and willing to try out their ideas. The rest will copy successful innovation.

    For an example of the sort of person who is willing to go back to basics and innovate, see the first video of Eustace Conway speaking at a TED talk in Asheville. (Please note, very early in the talk, how at the age of 3 Eustace learned to roll heavy objects. Dmitry Orlov learned a very similar lesson in terms of rolling heavy, square bottomed boats, as his current post makes clear. Are we smarter to build giant machines to move pine logs and boats, or would we be better advised to learn how to roll them?)

    Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a book about Eustace, The Last American Man. To Elizabeth, Eustace embodies some of the best traditional virtues of American Manhood, and many of the not so admirable–at least to modern eyes. For example, his relationship to women. But there is no question that Eustace would survive long after most of us had lain down to die.

    Eustace sees his calling as teaching young boys to be real men. The things he learned early in life roaming around the swampy land and teaching his dog to find turtles. Self-sufficient, inventive, working toward goals, etc. If you want to see how that adventure ended, see the second video.

    The State simply cannot tolerate people like Eustace who have a self-sufficiency which makes the State largely irrelevant. Elizabeth Gilbert relates the story of how Eustace deliberately bought land so that he controlled his watershed–ridgeline to ridgeline. You will see that thinking reflected also in Geoff Lawton’s advice on water. The control of his watershed makes him quite independent if he so chooses.

    But to the issue of indoor plumbing. Eustace has built a lot of very sturdy buildings which don’t have flush toilets. The State looked the other way for years, but then decided to ‘throw the book’ at him. They would charge him with failure to plumb a dog house, for example. Of course, that charge wouldn’t stand up in court, but they could create a financial burden for him that he could not bear. Eustace, foreshadowing the concern on your blog about freezing water pipes, reasons that using a 5 gallon bucket as a compost toilet is a well-proven technology and boys ought to learn how to do that. Besides avoiding the issues with bursting water pipes, it is also the ecological thing to do.

    The State seems unable to tolerate people like Eustace.

    Don Stewart

    • witsendnj says:

      Ha, I just watched this video about him (never having heard of him before)

      and not to denigrate him at all, I admire his efforts but if you just count the number of objects in his lifestyle that are dependent and derive from industrial civilization – from his clothing to the plow to the gun to the chainsaw – he simply is not living “sustainably”.

      How we love to deceive ourselves!

      • Don Stewart says:

        You are deceiving yourself, in my opinion. First, there is no reason to live without simple products that you can afford. And you probably won’t be able to do so in the modern economy. For example, one really can’t participate at all in the modern economy without a vehicle or dependence on someone else’s vehicle. Your comments remind me of the people who throw stones at Thoreau because he walked into town to have dinner with friends. Thoreau didn’t set out to be a hermit, and neither did Eustace.

        Eustace was once asked whether, if a helicopter dropped him into the wilderness, he could survive. He thought for a minute and responded ‘I could survive…but it would be a lot easier if I had my knife with me’. Eustace from childhood developed what we now call ‘primitive skills’. He taught them to Native Americans who had forgotten them. Read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book for details. Elizabeth, by the way, met Eustace and his brother in a bar in Brooklyn.

        Take a 5 gallon bucket compost toilet. Of course the 5 gallon bucket is a product of industrial civilization. Adding some sawdust probably represents a trip to a sawmill to get some waste. But if the collapse that Gail anticipates happens, those who know how to do it are going to be infinitely better off than those who don’t.

        People who set up straw men and then knock them over haven’t thought about the issues very clearly.

        Don Stewart

        • witsendnj says:

          “People who set up straw men and then knock them over haven’t thought about the issues very clearly.”

          You haven’t read my comment very clearly. I was simply observing the irony in the fact that, as you say, “one really can’t participate at all in the modern economy without a vehicle or dependence on someone else’s vehicle”. And talk about straw men, I never said or implied “there is no reason to live without simple products that you can afford.”

          My understanding is that we are locked into and totally dependent upon the conveniences of modern life which relies upon cheap energy, and that is impossible to escape, try as one might to survive independently – and this is largely because as Gail points out, debt, and also, the environment is so degraded by exploitation and pollution that it cannot possibly provide sustenance to humans, certainly not 7 billion of us. So you can “prep” all you want but ultimately it will avail only the smallest advantage because the ecosystem – clean water with fish swimming it it, clean air with birds flying through it, and living forests with healthy trees providing habitat, lumber, fruit and nuts – is disappearing fast and there’s no halting the 6th mass extinction which is well underway.

          This terrible truth is what drove the Unabomber mad.

          • Don Stewart says:

            I don’t think Eustace is trying to save 330 million people. He’s not a dear friend of mine, so what I say is only my opinion. I think he wants to set an example of what is possible and teach some children what he knows how to do. I believe he is realistic enough to know that 99 percent are going to reject his advice. I think he also believes that whatever remnant of humanity survives is likely to have absorbed some of his advice.

            ‘Saving 330 million’ is another straw man that is always set up and knocked over. I can’t do that. Eustace can’t do that. Maybe you can? Can Ben Bernanke do that?

            As for the ecological crisis. There are scientists who volunteer for duty at the South Pole because they think that humanity is on a one way trip due to heavy metals. Others will come up with Zombie scenarios, or global warming, or (insert your favorite doomsday scenario). But, at the end of the day, it all comes down to what you, yourself and a few people around you can actually do. One can, in my opinion, do a lot worse than study primitive skills. If Elizabeth Gilbert were giving Eustace advice, she would probably advise him to work on his interpersonal skills. Those are going to be critical also.

            The point of my post is that, at least in the US, the government’s attitude is that ‘you have to get approval to do anything differently’. I doubt that survival is possible unless either the government just collapses and can’t enforce its idiotic regulations, or else the government suddenly has a Zen moment and achieves enlightenment. ‘The rats will continue to run in the wheels…or else’.

            Don Stewart

      • My guess is that Eustace Conway uses more energy than the majority of humans on earth. When I compare to what I saw people in India had, what he has is much better. A fence is an extravagance in much of the world. Horses take a lot of area to grow their feed. Not many people in the world can have a horse. The plow is also an expensive fossil fuel-made object.

        Look at an animal living in the wild, and you will see exactly what is sustainable. If we could live on raw food that we gathered with our hands, without clothing, and without homes, we could live sustainably.

        People in India harvesting rice.

        • xabier says:


          You make the good point that ‘sustainability’ is a nonsensical concept, above all the Green version of electric cars and solar panels with a bit of recycling added in (oh, and holidaying on an Asian beach resort made from ‘sustainable’ materials.) It’s all delusion.

          Any human civilization has to be unsustainable by definition, but ideally as one civilization goes down, others would remain untouched, and others arise. Over-population and advanced technology has made one global unsustainable civilization, which will lead to global, not localized collapse.

          Eustace really only stands for a kind of self-reliance which only a hundred years ago was second-nature to most rural people in the West, and which welfarism, mass production, and hyper-organized states have deprived them of. Even urban people did so much more for themselves within living memory: families making their own clothes (particularly females), keeping rabbits and hens for food, and so on. My own mother was dressed entirely in pretty clothes made by an aunt who was talented at that sort of thing. My grandfather knew how to repair shoes (something I intend to learn myself!) So much lost in so short a space of time.

          • Any human civilization has to be unsustainable by definition,

            I hadn’t quite thought about it that way, but you are right.

            The point about smaller civilizations going down before, as soil was degraded and population limits reached, has been talked about many. Putting nearly everyone into the same globalized pot makes for a huge potential disaster.

          • don’t forget the DIY dentistry and kitchen table surgery and dirt floor childbirth—they were the most exciting parts of frontier life. No wonder everybody wants to return to such happy times

            • Scott says:

              I have been reading books of Zane Gray and Louis L Amour about the old frontier days, it is amazing the changes that have happened in just a couple hundred years. Those were tough and dangerous times then and life was a challenge. Most men did not even see 40 or so.

              On the subject of change, I found this website that has some graphs on CO2 etc, in case you have not seen this yet. I know someone post chart like these before, but here it is all one place.


            • And here you can follow it weekly as well and see we had a day of above 400 ppm already:


              Other than that I feel NASA’s summary page is always good to look at:


              What’s missing in these summary pages is some other graphs of importance:

              – SO2 levels (China has been doubling their coal burning these past 10 years – this actually cools the planet and can explain the last 10 years flatliner)
              – AO (Arctic Oscillation tell us a lot about La Niña and El Niño which cools and warms)
              – Sea acidification levels (the rate of change is worse than past extinction events)
              – Sea temperatures (the majority of heat is absorbed by the heat, there is too much focus on surface temperatures IMO)
              – World Population (the most important factor for the health and stability of the planet)

              Perhaps I should set up such a page? Hmm… I guess it would be a rather depressing page though. 🙂

        • xabier says:


          Looking at those Indian villagers, it reminds me of the Spanish saying that all such people had were; ‘Day and Night, the Sun and Moon.’ ‘People of Nothing’ was the dismissive phrase of Spanish aristocrats: it was literally true. In our region, some peasants lived in caves until the 1960’s – actually, better than a hovel!

          • We drove past and briefly stopped in one Indian village where each home seemed to consist of a single room, without kitchen or any other type of specialization. The huts were very simply built. We were told that these were people who had previously been hunter-gatherers, but had been forced to settle in homes. Now they make a living by gathering sticks to sell as firewood, or by making bricks of clay and letting them dry in the sun, or by working as day laborers in farmers fields. Cooking seemed to be done outside, on the sticks they had gathered.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Gail
          This little clip from the news back in 2007 has some interview and historical footage of Eustace. He walked into the woods with what he could carry, and built what he has.

          He made money by teaching primitive skills. Since he was buying practically nothing, he was able to save everything he made from students. And with that money he was able to buy his watershed (with the tribulations outlined in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book). And also go off on his adventures (floating the Mississippi in a hand made canoe, crossing the US on a horse, hiking the Appalachian trail from Maine to Georgia (starting in the winter) and living off the land (and gradually starving in the winter woods until he got to Pennsylvania, as Elizabeth points out).

          Here is Eustace teaching students how to make fire:

          If you watch the three episodes, you will note a careful attention to the efficient use of energy and an excellent understanding of the chemistry and physics involved. Also note that he suggests the sharing of fire–since it is so energy intensive to get it started.

          The horses fulfill three purposes, I suspect. First, Eustace simply likes horses. Second, he logs with horses (there are now a half dozen good horse loggers around Asheville–all of them booked up.) Third, the horses pull the buggy that he uses to ferry tourists around and make money. They are a cash crop.

          One can always throw stones and ask why there are chain saws around. He lived for a dozen years in a teepee built without a chainsaw. I believe his barn was built without a chainsaw. But if you are going to run a school and charge students, you have to condense time and a chainsaw certainly does that. He is not an ideologue about the ‘primitive’. For example, in the fire episodes he mentions credit cards as something that can level the base on which he is working.

          So why would someone use a chainsaw and a horse to log? And part of the answer is that a horse logger is trying to make a living in the modern world. They are not museum pieces. A chainsaw is an efficient way to cut down a tree. So why not get a multi-ton vehicle in to drag the tree, or just build a road to where the tree is with a bulldozer. And now you get to the ecological devastation wrought by such mechanized practices. A landowner who is in it for the long term will want to do as little ecological damange as possible–and that means horses. So it’s practical–not ideological.

          Don Stewart

          • witsendnj says:

            At this point of denuded forests, logging by any means is just another foot in the grave for humanity. The entire Eastern seaboard was clear cut without mechanized equipment powered by fossil fuels, and the mideast was turned from a dense cedar forest that the sun never penetrated into a desert because of logging. I don’t begrudge Eustace his horses or his trees or his watershed or his chainsaw. But I can’t think of his lifestyle as any more sustainable or superior than the billions who live in cities, because given the depauparate ecosystem, it isn’t.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Forests and grasslands are healthier when human intervene intelligently (as measured by biological activity). A grassland is designed to flourish when it is grazed by big herbivores which are preyed upon by carnivores. A grassland left with no herbivores, or lots of herbivores but no carnivores, will degrade. We can approximate naturally productive systems with human managed intensive grazing.

              Similarly a juvenile forest is more productive than an old growth forest. Harvesting selected logs with horses can improve the productivity of the forest.

              Clearing a forest to plow the hillsides is suicidal–which is what mostly happened in the East.

              Don Stewart

            • Clearing the forests on the hillside even happened in the Old Testament. When the Israelites found the promised land, the valleys were already inhabited. Joshua 17:17-18 says:

              Then Joshua said to the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of Joseph, “Since you are so large and strong, you will be given more than one portion. The forests of the hill country will be yours as well. Clear as much of the land as you wish and live there. And I am sure you can drive out the Canaanites from the valleys, too, even though they are strong and have iron chariots.”

            • Scott says:

              Not a good summer to visit Pakistan. It just seems like it is going to be a hot summer everywhere even here in the the Pacific Northwest. I hope we do not have another drought because food prices are already very high especially corn feed and that raises beef and chicken prices.
              This news is from Pakistan. Signs of shortages already surfacing in areas that are financially stressed first—–
              “ISLAMABAD — Pakistan’s prime minister has decided to ban the use of air conditioners by government offices to help cope with the country’s pervasive energy shortages.

              A statement issued Wednesday from Prime Minister Mir Hazar Khan Khoso’s office says the ban will go into effect on May 15 and will continue until the energy situation improves.

              Pakistan faces serious shortages of electricity and natural gas.

              The ban could make for a very uncomfortable summer since temperatures in Pakistan often reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

              The prime minister also issued a summer dress code recommending light-colored, loose-fitting clothing to help combat the heat.

              The Associated Press”

          • xabier says:


            Thanks, a fascinating man. And yet he is just what nearly everyone out of town was until just yesterday. Our societies have undergone a terrible and tragic change.

            Logging with horses still goes on in some places in the Basque mountains, where the mechanical things can’t get through and the gradient is too steep. The old woodsmen up in my grandmother’s smuggling village on the frontier with France were hard, fine men but well-mannered like all country people: just the sight of them in the old photos does one good.

            I think in Romania (or Bulgaria) horses and carts were recently banned from roads, which led in part to the influx of horse meat into food supplies……….

            As for building regulations, here in England a house built according to all the latest regulations is just flimsy rubbish, not destined to last for long. But all those lazy little inspectors from the local authority live very nicely off them.

            Please keep supplying stimulating stuff.

          • xabier says:


            I don’t really think Don is saying that Eustace is superior or his life a model for the teeming billions of which you and I are part. We are probably nearly all going down in the not too distant future, and we are trapped in the machine.

            But he’s made a life.

            One finds very few men of his calibre in cities, in my experience. I don’t think you’d see Eustace rioting at a store on sale day, or even if the heavens fell in. It’s good to see a real man – and if you see how good he was teaching a little girl to ride on one of the films, he can be gentle.

            When people ask how did anything rise up out of the Dark Ages in Europe – well, it’s because the ‘primitive’ rural people were of the calibre of this man.

          • Eustace makes money—
            but money is just a token of someone else’s energy use, and that energy use is certain to be derived from the consumption of fossil fuels…i imagine people drive to where he is, to sample what he does, then drive home again.
            So Eustace is living a fantasy world, supported by everybody else.
            And when he falls ill, if possible he will drag himself to the nearest hospital unless he keels over with something immediately terminal (granted he would probably prefer that)
            These ‘new frontiersmen’ simply cant be held up as an example to the rest of us, unless they are doing something that the rest of us can do—which we plainly can not.

    • we should all buy our own watershed–ridgeline to ridgeline, I like his ‘frontier’ thinking
      Am just trying to work out how 330 million people can do exactly the same thing.
      No doubt Eustace has an answer to that

      • Don Stewart says:

        In my opinion, we should all do what we can do. As exemplified by this:

        Eustace is trying to do what he can do–but the Government won’t let him.

        Don Stewart

        • xabier says:


          In our student hostel was a medical student from the Highlands of Scotland. His father was I think an oil man, not educated beyond school. Now, his son was an excellent student, having turned to study after joining the Army at 18, and his father was very proud of him, but he always used to say: ‘Tell me what you can do, son?’

          Now, if we ask ourselves that question, what answers can we give? It’s a good test of where we are. It seems to me that trying to expand our competencies, above all in practical ways, is a fine human endeavour, and that is what Eustace embodies in one important direction.

          ‘So, what can you do without an oil-slave?’

          • Growing up with punk in the 70s I live to the mantra of DIY. Ultimately knowledge is power and that practical application of knowledge may just be the new currency in the post peak world.

      • I have a similar question with 7 billion people.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear End of More
        Eustace has to make money for, among other things, paying his taxes. He amply demonstrated his ability to live off the land on the winter hike from Maine to Georgia. He and his companion were losing weight until they got to Pennsylvania. The tops of mountains where the Appalachian Trail sits are not friendly places in the winter. If they had been willing to go down to the valleys, they could have found food easily. But they were young men on a mission, covering 20 or 30 miles a day. So they just starved until the weather warmed up a bit and spring growth began on the mountain tops.

        Again, you come back to saving everyone. Perhaps that is just not possible–the same way having all the fish eggs grow to be adult fish is not possible. This is a competitive world heavily reliant on the luck of the draw. You don’t have to like that situation to recognize it. The question is, What Are You Going To Do About It?

        Don Stewart

      • xabier says:

        End of More

        Of course, hardly anyone can live like Eustace. We have few options if any. We are all probably going to have very much harder lives, quite soon, and then die nastily, and that is what we have to face. And all to the sound of government propaganda and lies.

        But it’s worth while to be reminded what a Man is like. He’s not in a fantasy world: I’m sure he knows very well, like all people who know nature, that one day an illness or accident will overwhelm him like any other animal. Total solutions with a happy ending are a delusion.

        We tend to live with the fantasy that drugs will cure all, while often they poison us, and usually bankrupt us. And to hope for a long self-indulgent retirement living from the labour of others, from which we will pray, we will beg, to be released if it lasts long enough.

        His fate will be our fate, all ends in the grave: but perhaps the bit between birth and death will have been less of a mockery of life for Eustace than our own?

        In the end, its’s surely a matter of taste and inclination what one makes of this way of living.

        • Scott says:

          Well, we chose to move to a remote part of Oregon in a small town, It seems the best we can do is little things that help us like I will try to grow the veggies that are the same as ones I buy and pay a high price for.

          I have put a lot of work into our gardens this year, now you got me thinking I need a barn!
          I could raise chickens and store grains for their food grown from my corn. I am slowly working to put these systems in place, but I only have an acre, but I can do a lot with that. I do know that I will not be able to raise enough food on this property alone, unless I had some super duper system. But a good portion of the property is a forest which not useable unless I cut down trees which I am not in a hurry to do.

          I have a plan to pump water from my little well if needed. Even our small city water has gotten expensive to the well is a real asset. I can only supplement with my gardens but do have lots of food store mostly freeze dried which I hope I do not have to eat.

          If things really get tough and the the gas gets shut off —
          On a winter day I am going to miss those hot showers. But instead have plans to heat water on my little wood stove.

          Firewood is going to be tough to cut by hand and hunting will almost impossible as we will be looted if go away. So, storing some food will be wise I believe along with growing your own food if you have a spot to do so.

          In the larger cities these activities will become impossible with no running water and sewer systems overflowing.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Scott
            Passed along without comment from me. Caveat Emptor, I suppose.

            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Sorry, picture won’t copy. The words:
            Show me a ¼-acre backyard, and I’ll show you a ton of vegetables. Literally.

            As in 2,000 pounds!

            And that’s just the beginning! It has never been so EASY to get the most from your garden.

            Add a few chickens to that same ¼ acre, and in one year you’ll have 1,400 eggs. A couple of beehives? 100 pounds of honey!

            And I’m still just getting started!

            With THE BACKYARD HOMESTEAD at your side, you can unlock the potential of your little corner of the world — with bounty you simply never imagined could be possible.

            • Scott says:

              Thanks Don,

              Yes we can do a lot with just a small piece of ground and it is good that I am home and have the time because that is what is needed to tend to this. Important to compost and have good dirt!

            • Scott says:

              I did a bit of gardening when I was younger, but then got busy working in the city, now retired I am starting over. Have been seriously doing it for about 6 years now and learning more each year. This year my Peach Trees have the fungus and I will have to buy some copper spray but that is not until next fall. So many things to learn when you do this it does take time and year by year we do a bit of a better job. Sometimes bugs eat all of your new seedlings.

              The last couple of days I spent some money and much time and effort to make deer covers for my raised planter beds after the deer came through and ate most of my seedlings. The covers are for things that the deer and bears eat like strawberries and greens. Building simple things like frames covered carefully with chicken wire take time and money and also buying stuff to care for a sick tree can cost money and research time.

              I have four pets and love our animals, but have not done chickens yet for meat, but am thinking about it. I buy them any way – and, I think I will have to deal with butchering them too eventually or maybe just pay one of those mobile butchers that will come by and “do it”.

              I continue to expand my garden and experiment what I can grow here and seems to change each year with the weather. I was surprised to see the peach fungus here on such a dry spring, but I guess the tree caught it over the winter. Many unexpected things will come up in my tiny farm.

              The harvest is therefore unpredictable so when the big harvest comes in the fall, we do dry some of the garden, corn, squash and peppers etc or anything you want in our food dehydrator. This dried food can be stored in jars after being dried, preferably with Oxygen removers in the jars will keep it much longer, you can buy the Oxygen removers online, (they are the tiny envelopes you drop in the jars and then seal them airtight they suck out all the air). I also have parts and plans to build a solar dryer if needed but the electric dryer is best as it runs all night and all day and no mold. Nothing like dependable power… But the solar dryer I plan to build can be deployed in the hot fall and will work but may not be as consistent for sure.

              So I see a problem and have been busy working for about 7 years now to make our way during these times ahead. We still buy lots of stuff at the stores — but trying to learn to grow food etc.

            • Scott says:

              A local news story on weather here….More evidence of an unusually warm spring, looks like another drought year in the USA unless things change fast.

              “Unusually warm weather combined with a far below average winter snowfall means one of the expected impacts of federal sequestration will not slow the opening of roads and facilities at Crater Lake National Park.

              Park officials had planned to allow portions of Rim Drive and North Entrance Road to melt with only limited snowplowing to save on cost of fueling the bulldozers and rotary snowplows. This will help offset the loss of $264,000 from federal sequestration.

              The much lower than usual snowfall and weeks of warmer than usual weather have sped the melting process. As of Wednesday morning, the park had received 347 inches of snow since Oct. 1, 2012, well below the 524 inches received in an average season that will end May 31. Wednesday, the park had 36 inches of snow, only about a third of the 92 inches that is normal for this time of year. No snow and relatively mild temperatures are predicted the next several days, too.

              “The low snow year helps, but we also didn’t get any late spring storms,” said Vicki Snitzler, the park’s interim superintendent.

              “This couldn’t have happened at a better year for me,” said Ray Moore, Crater Lake’s facilities manager/chief of maintenance, who oversees the road department. “The biggest part of our budget is snow removal and the spring opening.”

              Moore said it costs $35 to $40 an hour in fuel to operate each snowplowing rig _ two bulldozers and a rotary snowplow _ or about $100 to $125 an hour for all three. “Fuel is one of the last things I have left to reduce my costs.”

              Moore and Snitzler said they had considered allowing the north entrance to melt out with only minimal plowing. The impact of delaying opening the north entrance would have hugely affected sales at Park Service outlets and for the park’s concessionaire, Xanterra, which operates Crater Lake Lodge, the Rim Village Cafeteria and lake tour boat operations.

              Based on historic averages, park visitation more than doubles when the north entrance is open because travelers can enter the park through the south entrance near Fort Klamath and proceed along Rim Drive and out the north entrance while continuing on to the Rogue Valley or north along Highway 97. Snitzler and Moore said they expect the north entrance will open late next week, much earlier than usual.

              Under tentative plans, plowing will continue on Rim Drive past the North Entrance and Cleetwood Cove, where a trail leads to the lake, and Skell Head, which Snitzler described as a good turnaround point for Crater Lake Trolley tours.

              “We’ll take stock on fuel and equipment,” Snitzler said of plans to open the road beyond Skell Head and along East Rim Drive.

              “We’ve been able to go on a clip we haven’t seen for a long time,” Moore said, noting the usual distance a snow clearing team can clear in a day is two-tenths of a mile. Crews have been routinely opening a half-mile a day this spring.

              “For a year that could have been problematic, Mother Nature has been very helpful,” he said.

              Along with clearing roads of snow, road crews also spend considerable time removing rock fall, installing signs and repairing damaged road surfaces.

              “We want the road to be safe and well-maintained,” Moore said.”


              Information from: Herald and News,

            • Don, I see you have a lot of experience with “backyard gardening”. Unfortunately I live in a terraced house, and our garden is hardly big enough to do much. But looking around the area (I dont want to move the kids too far away from friends and school) I saw a place – and like all here they just have a very big lawn instead of growing anything. Here is a picture of the place. I believe this should be 1/4 acre (1000 square meters for us in metric land) :

              Anything else I should be looking for in the hunt for a place that could support food growing as well? Any way of measuring the soil quality? I have no experience whatsoever in this but my wife has grown up in eastern Europe and their dacha where they grow all kinds of food (which we get to enjoy parts of every summer).

            • Don Stewart says:

              It’s always true that the first thing to worry about is water. After that, the path gets multi-branched real fast.

              It looks like this has a pretty steep slope. So you need to spend some time during pretty heavy rains just observing how the water crosses the land. Your goal is to slow the water down so it doesn’t erode your soil and so that it sinks into the soil which waters not only your plants but also the soil food web. Just from looking at the picture, I would say you are going to need to move some soil into things like swales and perhaps a small dam or two.

              I wouldn’t recommend just starting out by plowing or rototilling everything because you could very easily wind up with all your soil at the bottom of the hill.

              Once you have the pattern of water flow firmly in your mind, but before you do any work, you need to decide whether you want to do mostly annual crops or mostly perennial crops. The arguments for annuals is that they are real productive real quickly. Annuals are really domesticated weeds, and weeds thrive on disturbed space and produce a lot before the perennials get a foothold and outcompete them. The annual tillage ritual is about setting back the perennials–as well as trying to get ahead of the weeds. Because they are so productive, annuals also require a lot of fertilizer. One reason for skepticism on claims about how much you can produce on a quarter acre is that such numbers usually include unlimited fertilizer bought at the garden center. If one of your reasons for gardening is that you suspect collapses of various kinds, being utterly dependent on the industrial system for delivering fertilizer may not sound too good to you.

              The argument for perennials is multi-faceted. Take the weather, for example, Several people in the US have commented on this blog that they are experiencing hot, dry weather (the fires already in California, etc.). The Southeastern US has had a very cold and wet spring. It is so wet here it has delayed planting and we had a late frost that killed a lot of peach blossoms for the second year in a row. Annuals require just the right amount of heat and water at just the right time–they are opportunists. Perennials, once established, are much less affected by the vagaries of the weather. Perennials tend to respond to climate, not weather. Perennials don’t require nearly as much fertilizer as annuals. With a little skill and by recycling everything that comes off the land back onto the land, you basically never have to buy fertilizer (after perhaps some initial amendments to correct poor soil). But you will have to plant some nitrogen fixer plants as part of your suite. The treatment of nitrogen and phosphorus are quite different between annuals and perennials. Perennials prefer nitrogen in the form of ammonium, which is what a nitrogen fixing microbe makes. Ammonium is pretty stable in the soil due to chemical attractions to clay and humus. Phosphorus is tightly bound to the soil. But certain fungi can break the bond. These same fungi form a symbiotic partnership with your plants. The plants make sugars which they trade to the fungi for the phosphorus. In a typical commercial farm, of course, both Nitrogen and Phosphorus are dumped on by the ton, it leaches out quickly, and ends up in the Gulf of Mexico and causes dead zones. Soil tillage, of course, destroys the myceleum (the long strands the fungi send out looking for nutrients). An annually tilled bed simply cannot develop a healthy network of symbiotic feeding. So you can see that ‘organic’ or ‘restoration’ or ‘permaculture’ gardening or farming with perennials is quite a different game than conventional gardening or agriculture.

              Since you don’t own this property (at least not yet), you also have to consider whether you are willing to invest any money in capital improvements, or wait a few years for the perennials to get really productive. If you go to the expense of contouring the land, and are able to grow bountiful crops with good water management, the owners may simply take it back and do it themselves or decide that they are going to up your rent.

              Once you have a pretty good idea what you want to do, the real work starts. You have to map the area and describe pretty carefully what mix of perennials and annuals you want, what needs to be done first, how you are going to keep the costs down (propagating some of your own plants?), or whether you just want to hire a professional to come in and give you pretty much a turn-key job.

              I went through all the initial steps for my very small home garden several years ago. I knew pretty much what I wanted and had the water system thought through. I was getting lost in the plant manuals trying to sort through what I should plant. I turned to a small company called Bountiful Backyards who had been successful in a number of small garden situations and who impressed me as really bright people who knew a lot more than I ever would about plants. They did the work and gave me a huge boost that it would have taken me several years to achieve. Meanwhile, I was working part time on a farm, which gave me a glimpse into the farmer’s view–which is a lot different than the gardener’s view. I learn best by tinkering with a pre-existing system–as opposed to building from scratch. Now that I have been observing how my garden functions for several years, I am increasingly under the delusion that I am somehow in control of all this and understand it.

              When I started, the soil was just dead stuff the builder’s bulldozer left. Now I can take a bulb-planter sized sample and find a dozen earthworms. I speak knowingly about sheet mulching, because I have seen it work wonders. I even begin to tell myself (and, unfortunately probably, other people) that I understand the connections in the soil food web. Cardboard, used in the sheet mulch, is mostly carbon. Carbon is the energy molecule that almost all living things need. So when cardboard comes in contact with the soil, it not only stops weed growth, it also feeds the microbes and other members of the soil food web. The soil food web makes topsoil out of builders detritus. So I finally talked my daughter into using some cardboard on a bad patch in her yard. Her complaint was that the chickens reduced it to shreds. I said ‘what is the problem with that’, reasoning that the chickens are after it because of the carbon and are turning it into rich chicken manure which is speeding up the whole soil food web process. (See how dangerous a little learning, combined with overweening arrogance, can be?)

              In short, I suggest you think about the issues I have outlined. If you decide to proceed, think about whether it is ‘do it all yourself’ or ‘professional help’. Then get started. You will never reach the end of the journey.

              Don Stewart

            • Thank you Don for the lengthy and detailed reply! I can see your heart is into it. 🙂
              I do not own this piece of land and neither can I rent it – it was really just to hear if the size of that area would be enough to do some good home grown crops. I know very little about what plants to grow and all, but I know this year we will experiment with some soil filled bags and see if we can get that working. Last year we created a smaller box for strawberries and herbs just for fun and although the strawberries werent exactly a success the herbs were nice. 🙂 – I guess starting small is good now and see if we get “the bug” and need to move to a place with more room for growing.

              As for water, I live on the west coast of Norway, which it generally pours down a lot – so the main concern here is really to figure ways to avoid drowning the plants. Those (hemp?) bags were said to be good as they drain the water out naturally. At least I have read many growing potatoes in these.

              But climate is changing, these past 3 winters has been unusually cold due to the malformed jetstream – so that really would ruin any sustainable living in this part of Norway unless we have access to some energy. Not so sure that the energy crisis will hit us here in the near future, as we basically have an abundance of it compared to our small 5 million population. For what I know our government might figure ways to stretch that out. Norway has generally been socialistic country and no doubt changes in energy and resource availability will push us further towards more socialism. It might be that my interest in growing for myself will not be very fruitful or meaningful within my lifetime – although it would have been good to pass on some knowledge to my kids besides hacking on computers which I do for a living. 🙂

            • Don Stewart says:

              Here is another thought for you. Have you tried container gardening? Containers aren’t ‘real’ gardening in much the same sense that annual agriculture isn’t real. Neither is sustainable over the long term. But it might be appropriate for you in the near term.

              The Earth Box people revolutionized container gardening in the US a few years ago. They designed a plastic box which provides water and air to the plant roots, while a strip of fertilizer works its way down from the top. The box is covered with plastic, into which you cut some holes and insert transplants. So the only water loss is from transpiration through the leaves. You add water through a tube which goes to the bottom of the box.

              If you don’t know very much, I would suggest buying a couple and trying them out. You won’t learn anything useful about water management on a large scale or about nourishing the soil food web in order to nourish your plants. But you will get first hand experience with a lot of other issues such as effective use of microclimates (perhaps that spot that gets afternoon shade is perfect for leafy greens?), growing plants right up against the house under the eave (no rainfall on the leaves to foster disease, good use of otherwise dead space, lots of radiated heat and light off the house), and you will have the pleasure of harvesting something and bringing it inside and eating it. In the next month, not the next few years.

              Other people have copied the Earth Box idea. Look for a water basin in the bottom, with a plastic barrier above the water (with holes drilled in it) which holds the planting medium up out of the water, a tube which extends from the top of the box down to the water basin, and a plastic cover into which you can cut holes to insert plants. Also lots of accessories such as wheels, trellises, etc. The planting medium must be capable of wicking water up from the basin at the bottom to roots–likely a lot of peat moss or coir.

              Don Stewart

            • Ah yes Dan, you posted two replies! 🙂 Indeed its the Earth Box thing I was thinking of. Some bags to grow crops in. I think I will get a couple of those this year and try it out.

              Sorry Gail for turning this into a home growing chit-chat thread. 🙂 – I hope its related though, I believe Don and many others here sit on experiences which can at least give us some false confidence that living with less and being able to sustain yourself at some levels is possible. After all thats where we came from. I guess I am mostly concerned about figuring out ways that doesnt need a big fossil fuel input like fertilizers from the shop and all that. I guess I could get some bags of cow manure from some of the local farms (although they are still a few kilometers away). I am quite sure my neighbours would be happy. 🙂

      • xabier says:

        End of More

        Perhaps solutions for the 330 million are just a – literally – dead end?

        It’s not an important objective.

        We have to salvage if we can, something worthwhile, not crowd the lifeboat.

        And no, I don’t regard my own life as particularly worth saving, though I’ll do as much as I can, as to do otherwise would be apathetic!

    • I live between my holding off the grid and the town and yet the luxuries are similar- I now have a internet connection in the wild [not broad band but good enough] but the cost difference is huge. In the first instance local rates on the house and none on the holding. But you draw a good point- When oil was $30 b we could take expensive options.

      I use an earth loo on the holding and I can vouch that humans produce a little under 100 litres of solid waste a year- and lots of wee. Wee is great, it is sterile, makes for great plant food or compost digester- the solid stuff can be buried, I bury it near trees rather than food areas and am looking at batching for gas although it will take years to collect enough. In an energy rich world this resource is flushed away with 1000s of litres of drinking water. 1000s of litres of water [ average is up to 100 litres a day for toilet in US] to deal with 100 litres of solids and a lot of sterile pee.

      Given the energy cost of that clean water and its better use elsewhere and then add the sewer costs and processing it seems entirely mad to approach sanitation in such an energy intensive way. There are other in built problems with our current system- in floods it is flushed into the street or the rivers or oceans. It also allows for the mixing of chemical waste such as road spills, oil, fats, industrial chemical etc.

      it needs a redesign but people are conservative. and you could focus on any aspect of our lives and see room for improvement.

      • Scott says:

        Yes, the problem is the pollution is terrible in places like the so called “Third World Countries” such as South East Asia areas where toilets will have pipes that barely make it out of the house sewage runs in ditches everywhere. I have seen it on my trips. Also rivers full of trash and plastic bags and bridges you would not want to cross because of the stench. I saw this kind of problem wide spread and mostly in larger cities but also smaller ones.

        There were some nice areas with decent looking beaches, but you had to drive an hour or two to get out of town.

        I do value my sewer system in our little town and the clean water that we have here, because it is not everyone has that anymore.

        • i agree with you
          Most people won’t accept the amount of energy needed to create and run a sewage system. Pipes need heat to manufacture, that comes from hydrocarbons, and you can’t have a large scale sewage output ie–getting rid of it, without a large scale water input.In the 19th c London’s sewage system needed 315 million bricks, all fired by heat from coal. Without that scale of energy input excrement just sits there, whether from animals or humans
          It will eventually be disposed of naturally of course, but that takes time, but again we come back to overpopulation, there’s just too many of us producing too much, and urban societies simply get overwhelmed. It i

          it is perhaps an irony of our time, that just as our cities were getting overwhelmed with horse excrement at the end of the 19th century we invented the motor car and got rid of the horses, now the car has polluted our cities all over again

          • Don Stewart says:

            A few of the testimonials for Gene Logsdon’s book Holy Shit:

            Joseph Jenkins, author of The Humanure Handbook: This could very well be one of the most important books ever written.

            Joel Salatin, farmer: Gene Logsdon, in his naughty and inimical style, has captured the essence of soil building, pathogen control, food ecology, and farm economics. What a great addition to the eco-food and farming movement. Read and heed.

            David Orr, Oberlin College: No one knows more about the backside of agriculture than Gene Logsdon, truly one of the shrewdest practioners and wisest observers of farming and agriculture. This is Logsdon at his best; Holy Shit is a national treasure.

            Wes Jackson, the Land Institute: Gene Logsdon is one of only three people I know who are able to make a living exclusively out of writing what should be common sense. Here he has done it again.

            Woody Tasch, Slow Money: In the revolution Gene Logsdon envisions, we need pitchforks, but not to mount the barricades. And what a joyful, reverent, irreverent, hard-working, down-to-earth, realistic, Whitmanesque, animal loving, microbe-nurturing, compost-making, farmer-sensical, manure-pitching revolution it is!

            Are all these guy crazy? Is Logsdon crazy? Was our second president, John Adams, crazy when he walked the streets in London and inspected the horse manure piles awaiting transport to the countryside and found them inferior to the horse manure on his farm in Massachusetts? Why do we keep claiming that horse manure was a deadly toxin in New York City which was rescued by the automobile? The problem is that urine and manure need to be rapidly returned to the soil from whence they came–otherwise nutrients deplete. We must have a closed system. (That’s the common sense that Wes Jackson is referring to.) Of course leaving manure on the streets of New York is not a solution to any problem we humans have. It needed to be moved out to the farms. But New Yorkers were unwilling to pay the price to do that.

            Does this mean that cities of 30 million people are inherently unsustainable? My guess is that the answer to that is ‘Yes’. Should we wring our hands over it and pretend that ‘some solution must be found’. I think that we have to begin with realism and ‘the law of return’–what is taken from the soil must be returned to the soil. Anything else is going to be destructive. Don’t try to shore up destructive behavior.

            Don Stewart

          • It is perhaps an irony of our time, that just as our cities were getting overwhelmed with horse excrement at the end of the 19th century we invented the motor car and got rid of the horses, now the car has polluted our cities all over again.

            Good observation!

    • Don,

      There are no doubt ways around the indoor plumbing problem. Quite a bit of the world today does not have indoor plumbing, in any reasonable sense.

      I think a bigger issue is what happens to fresh water supply. In the winter, homes may need to drain their pipes, and get their water somewhere else. Where? How? There are at least a couple of other things that can go wrong–(1) treatment plants no longer may be able to handle purifying it, or (2) pumping plants may no longer have the electricity they need to pump it where it is needed–for example, in high-rises in buildings. (Some places, gravity fed systems from great heights may fix this problem). So somehow, people will need to obtain water, apart from the central source we have depended on, and will need to be able to boil it or purify it using alcohol.

      • Don Stewart says:

        At least here in non-Arctic regions, it is relatively easy to put in pumps which don’t freeze. You see them in places like state and national parks. Which requires people to go out and get their water and bring it back home. Which is what happens in a lot of the third world now.

        I know a college teacher who lived for several years in a converted animal shed which had no inside water. He lived in the mountains and went out in sub-zero weather to get water for breakfast. He and his wife built a house by hand with proper insulation. He said the thing he enjoyed most about the house was not having to fetch water on frosty mornings.

        My point relative to Eustace Conway is that if someone knows HOW to do it, then the prospect of the collapse of the municipal water system may not be quite so life threatening. But people who don’t have a clue are likely to be overwhelmed and succumb.

        In North Carolina, at the farm I work at, we can keep water in shallow pipes from freezing just by covering the hole in the ground where the spigot is with a piece of plywood and some other junk (always plentiful at a farm).

        Don Stewart

        • xabier says:


          All agriculture used to be about shit and sweat, (if you were lucky enough to be a landowner, the sweat of others of course) quite right.

          ‘Shoring up destructive patterns of behaviour’ is exactly the point we are at.

          It’s curious that the IMF sponsored approach to the challenges of today seems to be more mega-cities. It’s all crazy and bewildering.

        • Each of these solutions works as long as it does–until some part of the pump breaks that can’t be fixed, or until the water level drops enough that the pump doesn’t work any more, or until calcium in the water clogs up something so it won’t work.

          If our concern is for our own lives, or the lives of our children, these pumps may in fact be reasonable solutions (especially if we can continue to live in the areas where these pumps are). In terms of hundreds of years, we will need a different work-around, though.

          • Don Stewart says:

            I will sound like a broken record. Pay attention to water. Geoff Lawton says it, Toby Hemenway says it, Eustace Conway sacrificed to get it. What you want is gravity feed. If you have a roof, and are in a rainy climate, and are frugal with water, and have or can make a storage vessel, you should be OK. Getting infinite amounts of water through pipes from somewhere else, with all the water chlorinated, and all the water from the house going into a ‘treatment plant’ is not a reliable plan.

            For example, I was walking through a new subdivision here the other day. At the bottom of a ravine I see a chain link fence with electric lines coming into it, some big metal cabinets, and the words ‘pumping station’ with the name of the subdivision. What they are doing, I am almost certain, is pumping sewage uphill with electricity. The sewage gathers in this low spot by gravity, then is pumped. I used to live in a town in New Jersey that was located in a low swamp surrounded by hills. They had to pump their sewage out. In the hurricane of 2011, they were without power for a week. So no one could use their toilet because they couldn’t pump the sewage. I hope some of them had paid attention to the 5 gallon bucket composting toilet solution.

            Probably make separate provision for drinking water and gray water. Eat lots of leafy greens to avoid sickness.

            Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        For those in single family houses or small apartment complexes in the East, roof catchment is the answer. So far as I know, there is no answer for Phoenix.

        If indoor water survives, then the separation of gray water and drinking water becomes essential. Almost all cities legislate against such separation.
        Don Stewart

        • There is a big energy cost of switching from current roofing materials to metal or tile, needed for rainwater catchment for drinking. We also need to install cisterns. If one has enough money/energy, it is a solution, until some other part of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum is reached.

    • Eustace Conway Blog-a-thon

      After reading Don’s post I read up more on Eustace Conway and what is going on with Turtle Island.

      I started a Blog-a-thon on the Diner this week to raise awareness and get the 25,000 Signatures on the Petition. You can find the Petition at

      Get the word out in any way you can.


  9. BC says:

    Speaking of limits in a finite world:

    Global food production per capita has peaked (not coincidentally with crude oil extraction per capita), and growth of consumption against supplies could result in acute shortage conditions in the marginal areas as soon as this year or next, with China and parts of SE Asia experiencing intractable shortages as soon as ’15-’18. The risk of “permanent drought and famine” in parts of Africa is very real.

    The situation is being reported by the UN and World Bank, but the implications are potentially so dire for a majority of the planet’s population, and the capacity of the developed world does not exist to relieve the worst of the conditions for the hardest hit areas, that officials most informed about the situation are effectively powerless, muzzled by political and business leaders, and thus reluctant, or unable, to make more urgent public appeals or focus increasing attention on the issue.

    Lester Brown describes the situation as a “genuine tipping point” for food security for a majority of the planet’s population.

    Add another primary limiting factor to the list that ensures that global real GDP per capita growth is done.

    Farmland Bank Credit Bubble

    No bubble can occur without banks participating and exacerbating conditions until it all blows up.

    But this bubble is a function of the greatest bubble in world history: human population.

    • Scott says:

      This was written in one of the links you sent, interesting, what fast rate of land loss of land in China and I am sure elsewhere too.

      “According to a report by the Vancouver Sun, every year China loses about a million hectares of agricultural land to urbanisation – the country’s emerging cities have eaten away about nine million hectares of land between 1996 and 2006.

      Coupled with this, marginal land that can be used for farming is being threatened by pollution from China’s booming industrial sector, although China is not very open on this matter. The results of soil contamination tests conducted by the Ministry of Environmental Protection and the Ministry of Land and Resources in 2010 remain undisclosed.”

      Well, even if the there is a solution out there held in secret, I am not sure it would stop this land eating machine that seems to exist on every continent.

      Now, I wonder if a new fuel source could even speed this process up which would present many challenges as time goes on as we reach limits.

      • xabier says:


        A lot of good land near me is being taken out of farming by the landowner, the University, to build apartments for over 4,000 students – it’s going to have an ‘urban vibe’, so no gardens or tree planting, and they will mostly be occupied by ‘international’ students (who pay huge fees) which means these days ……..Chinese! So, China is swallowing up land everywhere! It’s going to be hard watching the diggers cut up that land.

    • Scott says:

      Yes BC,

      I also three new bubbles forming,


      Bonds (Bond market is a huge one)

      Student Loans (Also huge about a Trillion)

      Farm land values (Although it is a good investment – I would rather be in this one of the four)

      Not sure about housing it has recovered a bit, but people need to live somewhere. I will get hit too likely (again).

      These bubbles collapsing are deflationary events which bring upon us a monetary response from central bankers which is inflationary. The two forces at work.

      I do not expect much of the student loan debt may ever get repaid. But the Bond market is the big one to watch, the US and many countries have very large debts to refinance and if rates rise the bonds will collapse, that is the problem now rates can never rise again or we will be done.
      So expect to see the Federal Reserve keep playing games to keep rates near zero, they have no choice now as they cannot afford to pay the debts at market rates. Watch the Bond Market and if those rates rise suddenly, then I am looking for trouble soon and perhaps dollar collapse or new currency that will be expensive and not purchase as much as the old one.

      The Trillions cannot be rolled over in the USA and serviced with minimum payments at much higher rates. So they are trapped, they cannot let rates rise or game over.

      The USA is not alone on this problem, Japan, UK, Euro Zone are in the same boat.

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      BC, that’s quite a comprehensive list of authoritative articles, essays and papers. I have seen similar lists and read portions of the copious writings about the coming (rapidly arriving??) regional and global water shortages that will certainly impact food production limits. It appears that the links of oil, food and water to financial activity are also under-appreciated, both in the individual and the group sense.

    • Thanks! I hadn’t read recent information about farm loans and value of farm land. It sounds like an expiring tax credit at the end of the year plus ultra low interest rates is pushing up the value of machinery purchased, and QE is pushing up farmland prices.

    • xabier says:


      I suspect one of the Four Horsemen, or maybe the whole team, will be correcting these issues quite soon………

  10. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail

    This will be a little essay on the necessity for being practical. I will first use plants as an example, since they are everyone’s poster child for sustainability. A plant uses a sizable fraction of its photosynthetic energy to make root exudates which attract microbes to the root zone. The microbes perform a number of functions that the plant cannot perform for itself–both in life and in death. Plants have a screen called a plasmalemma which controls the substances which can get into and out of the plants cells. The exudates must pass through the plasmalemma to get out into the soil.

    There are two broad methods for getting the exudates through the plasmalemma. Carbohydrates and amino acids require transport proteins which use energy. Lipids (fats) will pass easily through the plasmalemma if they are small and do not require external energy. But some lipids are too large to pass without energy, and must be pumped.

    Plants choose the most efficient method for getting the job done. If the job can be done using physical phenomena such as diffusion, then the plant uses diffusion. But if the nature of the job requires pumping, then the plant diverts energy to pumps.

    Sometimes, on this blog, the plants would be criticized for using energy to get the job done. And someone would be sure to point out the ‘lack of self-sufficiency’ implied by that dependence on microbes. But the physical facts require the use of energy if the plant is going to exist in a competitive world, and so far evolution has favored symbiotic relationships rather than rugged individualism..

    When we look at humans who are trying to survive in the competitive world of 2013, we find that some of them have figured out how to use the equivalent of diffusion, but some things still require external energy. Most people in the US just turn first to external energy because that is the simplest, most unthinking, thing to do, and would see using something like diffusion as beneath them or primitive. A wise person will examine the alternatives and select a mix of methods which makes the most efficient use of energy–just like the plants do. Some people will make wise choices, some will make disastrous choices. Some will be lucky, others unlucky. In a world (such as plants live in) where energy is not unlimited, there is no alternative to a world of choices and consequences and luck or the lack thereof.

    A logger may combine chain saws and horses. Eustace Conway may combine living without electricity and having more horses than anyone really needs. Eustace may make the sacrifices he made to get his watershed, while people in London may put all their investments into the City. What is required of us is some humility as we admit that we are not walking in the other person’s footsteps, that they probably have some good ideas as well as some bad ones, and then we try to see if there is something we can learn from them. What I think the young Eustace teaches us is that one can accumulate some physical assets if one cuts ones cost of living to the bone and has some small cash income. And still make enough money for adventures. I think Eustace also teaches us about the advantages of having a ‘less industrial’ solution to our problems. Anyone who knows how to make a compost toilet with a five gallon bucket is better prepared for the future than someone who is clueless–regardless of whether the knowledgable person REGULARLY uses a compost toilet.

    What Eustace’s problems with the County teach us is that governments detest the idea of simple living. Simple living doesn’t generate GDP or tax revenue. Governments mostly don’t care a fig about the welfare of their citizens, and use ‘freedom’ as a meaningless slogan. Governments would rather have destitute people living in subsidized housing and getting food stamps than living simple, self-reliant lives.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:


      Well said! It’s notable that all initiatives to turn suburbs and waste plots in cities into productive gardens for food (and pleasure) come not from governments, but from private individuals, despite the obvious problems we face.

      In the same way, the British government is trying its best to shoe-horn unsuspecting schmucks into shoddy new-build properties with gardens the size of postage stamps (but all of course ‘eco-friendly and sustainable according to the regs. ) that take you a working life to pay off. That’s what the banks want, so that’s what government throws its weight behind.

      It’s worse even than the 1930’s and 40’s, when they did at least build workers’ houses with big gardens to grow food. Still, if we blame governments, we should also blame the fools who buy the human battery farms, and who believe themselves to be above manual work by virtue of their education or vanity.

      This all underlines why there will be no wise and considered transition to a different and more resilient society. And that people won’t have the space to do so even if they see the need…..

    • In today’s society, I expect those expecting to live simply will still be forced to pay real estate taxes. If governments are short of money, these may well rise. This is one area where the idea of living simply may run into an obstacle.

      • xabier says:


        Yes, I can foresee that: the danger point will be when real estate taxes are levied regardless of income (as today exemptions are made for those with low incomes.)

        As the majority of people today, and even more in the near future, neither have savings nor property, it will be easy for governments to seize deposits and tax property without electoral consequences. This is how the middle class have been destroyed in Argentina.

        • xabier says:

          As an example of the dumb things desperate governments can do: in Italy a substantial property tax was introduced to help balance the budget, as people are so good at hiding other forms of wealth.

          This has as a side-effect ruined the real estate market and pushed property values right down in most areas (and there was never a property bubble in Italy, unlike Spain , the UK, the USA.), and of course, leading to the government getting less tax on the sale of property. They are now having to withdraw the property tax, after causing a lot of damage.

          That excessive taxation can devalue the asset being taxed is something governments seem to have trouble grasping.

          • Michael Lloyd says:

            The purpose of taxation is to raise money for the exchequer. Of course, politics requires that any tax is sold to the electorate in many different ways but always remember the bottom line.

          • xabier says:


            I agree: you can get anything past the electorate under the ‘it’s only fair’ plea, or references to spurious economic theories if the electoate think they are intelligent, but a government machine will try to keep itself going even when it just drives the citizens into the ground, or wrecks a whole society which it is meant to safeguard.

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