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, OurFiniteWorld.com in March 2007. I soon was asked to help with the website TheOilDrum.com, 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:

    For a discussion of Peak Consumption from a slightly different angle than Gail, see:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FmFMlYtrnyM

    This is a discussion between Charles Hugh Smith and Gordon T. Long. You will find a lot of familiar topics.

    Don Stewart

  2. xabier says:

    Scott

    The Pakistan news is very interesting. In Spain now, heavy air-conditioner usage already causes power cuts due to excessive summer demand. So something will have to be done to limit usage.

    However, modern concrete and glass buildings, many with sealed windows, are often unusable in high temperatures, unlike the old construction in stone with thick walls and small windows, and shaded balconies to catch the breeze. In an old Spanish or Italian house, I’ve never suffered from the heat, and even here in England – through a careful use of blinds and doors, and small vents, – I can keep one main room as a cool room even on the hottest days.

    I once visited a friend in London who had a super-luxury apartment in a converted office block by the river (should have been lots of cooling breezes there!) but with sealed windows and a broken air-conditioning system, even being there for a short time was very uncomfortable. He had to check out and stay in a hotel until the block system was fixed. In a way, illustrates Gail’s point about the whole system being fragile.

    • Scott says:

      Yes, you are right it sounds very fragile, I had not thought about skyscrapers and how they are like giant greenhouses with their sealed windows that do not open. In warm southern climates these buildings would be uninhabitable without power to cool them.

      It seems they had it right in the old days with the old stone buildings like you described.

      In the American West they used to build the old Adobe Clay buildings that also stay very cool I have stayed in one and they are very good keep both warm and cool.

      • xabier says:

        Scott

        After an hour in that sealed building with a failed cooling system I could only think of getting out: so a million dollar apartment becomes a tomb if a part fails and cannot be supplied, or the power goes out. I’d rather have the adobe hut!

        Think what could become of most our cities with intermittent power and breaks in the supply chain.

        And that’s what Gail is pointing out with her theory of financial collapse.

        • Scott says:

          Xabier,

          That is interesting what you said about the High Rise Buildings and even most larger apartment complexes and government housing projects. Without power, water and sewer even for a day or two the people would be in the streets and if the stores empty out fast in a few days, most would destitute within a week. Most of them, they have not prepared nothing and do not even have a five gallon bucket.

          This kind of reminds me of the Carnival Cruise ship incident recently, look how fast things went down hill. Once toilets stop flushing, and Aircon and power is out those places are a real hell. Maybe if they can get water in these skyscrapers they can become food growing greenhouses in all window offices! Not likely though.

          Once food starts running out they will be destitute very fast and I recognized this years ago and made my decision to leave the larger city where I lived.

          I do get Gail’s Message about how fragile things are and I cannot think of much else to do but have some preparations and systems in place to grow food like we have been talking about.

          It surely will also be good to have things that are trade-able, desired canned goods, coffee, tobacco, liquor, and dried goods and household items. I like to buy things that keep well in cans or 5 gallon buckets with oxygen removers.

          Not to be a doomsayer but —I do not think we can stop this “train” that is coming… but we can prepare a bit and also work on solutions and ideas, but as an individual with limited means each of us have only a limited abilities to carry out these grand ideas like the Thorium Reactors and Hydrogen Highways, so it may not happen, more likely it go the way of Gail’s predictions.

          Looks like money spent during the last 40 years could have otherwise been better spent and invested such projects, but now it is late and the money is spent.

          • Don Stewart says:

            I guess I just don’t have much imagination. I was thinking about storing stuff like food and water. It makes a lot more sense to have a stash of booze and cigarettes. I figure the illegal drugs would probably just mark you as someone who offers a good target for robbery or worse Maybe booze and cigarettes make you someone to negotiate with.

            Don Stewart

            • Scott says:

              Food and water are surely on the top of the list, the other stuff is to barter for things you may have run out of needing to trade.

              Without our monthly or weekly trip to a store. Although I think In a situation like that I would most likely hold on to the booze and may even smoke up the tobacco too.

              I am a wine drinker and I would like to have my own winery but may have to trade something for some bottles from a local guy that makes wine.

              I did leave out something important in my last post in regards to making trades. I am also a believer in silver and gold coins (and even Ammo and guns) to trade in addition to food and needed household items as I am not a big believer in our current paper currency systems.

              Just think practically what would people need, it depends on where you live.

          • xabier says:

            Scott

            Well, governments have screwed up in a big way, so it’s down to us. Maybe the problems coming will be too big, – environment + economy + social disorder and crazy politics – but it seems to me to be better to do something for oneself rather than give up, even just out of self-respect.

            If it comes to a shortage of money, experience in the recent Balkan wars, and other disturbed regions, shows that these things trade very well: cigarettes and cigars; alcohol (smaller bottles for bartering purposes); medicines and medical supplies; batteries. Much more useful on a day to day basis than gold and silver.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Xabier,

              I agree that governments and all of us have made a mess of things and the years ahead will surely be tougher than the years behind us already. There is far to much secrecy in our world governments and there are things out there not yet disclosed to the general public that are going on, I am not going to give examples but many know a bit about them.

              On your view of Gold and Silver I disagree. It is the oldest currency known to man and has been for many thousands of years. If the Euro or Dollar other currencies collapse it has been shown time and time again from Zimbabwe to Argentina the metals will trade for goods and food, But gold and silver prices have been manipulated in price by governments in recent years in hopes to keep the paper currencies stronger. If a fair market prevailed the price would most likely be much higher, much like fuel and food in some countries that are controlled in prices, price controls by governments.

              I do agree if things get to a worse stage which is what I think you were describing then it will be food to mouth and goods like food and small bottles of liquor etc will be sought after more. I do believe it will help one acquire things needed in the early stages, and will be the only money left standing after all else falls. If gold and silver are no longer trade able for goods then we are surely at deaths door.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            Fragile? What’s fragile? We did just great in the last few hurricanes. Then a little snowstorm or two shut down a quarter of the (US) economy. Let’s see, how many votes do we give to FEMA for being such skillful planners and executers?
            Hmmm, where do you keep your booze stashed?

            • Scott says:

              Hi Chris, Yes, even if you do not believe in peak oil and the financial problems looming, just the weather changes are enough to rock our world.

              Whether it is shortages of oil and gas, earthquake, storms etc. – it is good to be prepared to deal with these things as they seem to be here to stay.

              Not to sound paranoid but have been reading much on FEMA, Yes – I too am worried about FEMA and their Covert activities, they are acting as if they are expecting some kind of trouble or are planning some kind of take over against us. There is not a lot of honesty these days about the intentions of these many Federal Agencies.

          • xabier says:

            Scott

            I think the FEMA preparations which worry so many people have a lot to do with empire-building by ‘security’ providers: like the spooks, and the arms industry in general, it’s good business to stoke fears and get hold of public money. Great for suppliers of body bags too – I wish I were in that business, as well as baton rounds, body armour and razor-wire!

            I also suspect that the authorities in the States realize that there is a very good chance of some really destructive weather events/disruption in food supplies, leading to temporary civil breakdown, riots and looting, and mass gang violence, so in many ways it’s just good sense to prepare for that. The increase in extreme weather events is acknowledged by everyone.

            High secrecy certainly doesn’t build the trust of citizens, but governments don’t want to learn that lesson. It takes me months to get even a small piece of information about street lighting from my local county government…..

            On gold and silver: in Argentina, people did get by trading in gold for cash at little dealers disguised as candy and newspaper shops, (as it was illegal). Like the thieves who did the same, they traded junk jewellery, not coins, for enough cash to get through the week. Bars and coins are a little more problematic, due to their high value, but as a long-term store of wealth there seems to be much to be said for them. In the Balkans, when the economy really broke down, food, medicines and liquor were the real currencies. On the subject of gold, I always think of those buried treasure hoards from the past which get dug up all over old Europe – the owners never came back to claim them! But I agree, it’s wise to cover all options……… severe economic disruption is, as Gail says, very likely indeed: even if it lasts only for a short time like Weimar Germany in the 1920’s, before a new currency is introduced, it’s good to be prepared for it.

            And in the meantime, let’s get planting and enjoying the good things if we are lucky enough to have them!

          • having studied the calorific values on the back of foods, the most concentrated and longest lasting would seem to be peanut butter

            • Scott says:

              I want to talk about the “Crisis Window” on this short post.

              Yes – Peanut butter is a good food, too bad it does not keep for more than a few years. In Oregon, we have a lot of Filbert (Hazel Nut) Orchards which are good eating. But they only keep for a year or two even if you freeze them. Jarred peanut butter maybe a few years, but it is good stuff. That is why I plan to deploy some silver/gold (which do store well) to trade for goods like these at first sign of collapse to acquire large stocks of such things. Buying too early will not be good, the stuff just goes bad. If you are planning to stock up now, the freeze dried is your best bet as the cans have 25-30 year shelf life. Timing seems to be everything here.

              I know it looks like the crisis will hit any day but… Looking at the crisis window that is opening, we do not know the time frame. I bought many cans and freeze dried foods in 2007 and the freeze dried is still okay but the cans, they have to be eaten by now, I keep some of the canned fish in the fridge, which helps store things like tuna longer. Soldiers have told me that the cans can be eaten even after 20 years in some cases.

              One thing that has amazed me is how long things that are in disrepair (economies etc) can go on and even when it seems that collapse is imminent things can continue for a long time.

            • Why the state of disrepair can go on for so long? One word that springs to mind is “stimulus package”.

              Although this video (below) didnt make the link between energy and the economy, its clear that what keeps things chugging along for a bit longer now is the debt based stimulus mega bubble. Its like the financial markets are holding their breath for something fantastic to come along to save the market with new growth – while the energy piece of the puzzle is still unsolved.

            • Scott says:

              Yes, Our Crisis Window is open:

              It is interesting to see how long they can keep the smoke and mirrors game going on, I just wish we had a more sound financial and energy system etc. And, that we all did not have to face these unhappy realities.

              If we had enough oil and gas coming on line and no financial emergency – then this could go on for several more generations. Although, I do not think Gail would not agree with me the longer time line, I do think we could have some time before this really hits.

              Let us hope so for our kids sake. I think many of us on this thread see something sooner than than later.

              The storm could still be a bit far looming that is generations away most believe today-but and that seems to be the problem of ignorance.

              My son’s wife is going to have a child and I worry that this child will not see the same world as we did.

              At some point it will break, kind of like the aging timing belt in my old Honda Civic that could go a long ways further or just up the block. That is the crisis window we are in.

            • Scott says:

              Did anyone notice that Gail has been quiet lately? She must be working on a new article?

            • I am trying to work on a new article. Also have four talks in four weeks, and a lot of traveling, which cuts in my time for comments.

            • Scott says:

              Thanks Gail,

              Sounds like you have a busy month ahead, best wishes on your talks and hopefully all of us have “stirred up” some ideas that may come up.

              You have a growing concerned following group and I am sure there will be many new pieces of information from your upcoming talks.

              The charts in the links we shared today on carbon dioxide readings are of much concern, that graph is straight up, if it were a stock it would be one to own.

              We will talk to you when you get back!

              Scott

          • it’s as well to look on food stores like any other insurance policy
            you take out house and car insurance every year, chances are you never use it, then it’s gone. Same with food reserves, you may have to throw out some food after a few years, but then you take out a ‘new insurance’ of a fresh supply. A waste I agree, but so is any other insurance premium, but you wouldn’t be without it

            • Scott says:

              Agreed Xabier,

              Most of that food out there in my storage room, I hope I do not need to eat as I prefer fresh healthier foods than you will find in cans etc.

              I keep replacing it and sometimes donate some too before it goes bad and buy new. It is expensive, but a worthwhile thing to do.

        • Much talk on here about using gold to acquire ‘stuff” as if gold itself has a value.
          it doesn’t, the only reason gold is used as the ultimate means of exchange is that
          1. It is scarce and represents a lot of energy to get hold of it
          2. However long you keep it, bury it, or whatever, it is still exactly the same when you dig it up, it is the only mineral we can get hold of that does not deteriorate over time.
          But it is still only a medium of exchange as a token of work done, paper money started out as an iou for gold and to a lesser extent silver, we should not run away with the idea that gold has value per se.
          When the fan really starts whirling nasties around the room, only food and the means of producing food will have any tangible value. You can’t eat gold

          • Scott says:

            Yes, I understand you cannot eat gold and silver, but I do believe there will be a period of time following a financial emergency where it will be useful to acquire goods during a time when paper money is no longer of value or no longer in favor.

            That is kind of phase one of the crisis, during phase one barter will also be in use and gold and silver will be traded. I think as things get worse then phase two will ensue that would be when only needed things and food would and like you said food production. During these final phases food water will be king and also medicines, perhaps ammo for hunting and self protection will also be desired.

            I do store some freeze dried food in the #10 cans mostly dried meats because I can grow most anything else, I have been enlarging our garden plots and establishing ways to preserve and dry the harvest.

            Like someone said earlier, we feel like we need to do something and it may not save us – but it feels better to do something about it as an individual to perhaps help us make it through it if that is even possible I do not know. It makes me feel better to do something on a personal level.

            James Howard Kunstler does believe the crisis will hit us on the head fast when it does happen. And the other think he says it that most will not see it coming and we will be just be hit by it fast.
            That could be true, but so far what we are seeing is kind of a slow grind, a slow squeeze where things get slowly harder. A financial crisis can develop almost over night and a sudden sell off in the Bond Markets, or runs on banks could be the catalyst to launch crisis of peak oil as it would shut exploration as it takes money and credit which we briefly saw happen in 2008. That would be phase one.

            It is during those times when I would pull out a few silver coins etc and start trading them for more supplies as it is hard to keep a lot of food on hand that does not spoil. So I would not wait until total collapse and phase two in order to barter with silver etc. There will be a time when it may help me acquire goods so I am going to also keep a little silver and gold as part of my plan to try to try get through this. But yes as the crisis progresses food and needed things like water and medicines will be #1.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    A little more stuff for John Christian

    John

    Some visitors from Scotland write about their visit to a Permaculture farm in southern Norway. Note the mix of perennials and annuals. The pastures and animals and fruit trees are perennials and probably occupy the steeper slopes. The annuals are probably on relatively flat land, or land which has been terraformed to control erosion. Anytime you are selling produce off a farm, you are losing nutrients. They are close to the ocean, so may be mulching with seaweed to replace losses.

    http://goneroaming.blogspot.com/2009/09/permaculture-at-luregarden-southern.html

    Slides from a Permaculture Design Course in Norway. Note especially the student projects. They take a piece of land like yours and plan out how they are going to develop it.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xApUzqJWrZQ

    Also, I see that Albert Bates will be at:
    Oslo Norway, Carbon Farming Course, July 5-6

    You might be very interested in hearing what Albert has to say about one of your favorite topics. The last time I heard him talk about this, carbon farming is an important wedge, but can’t solve the climate problem all alone.

    One final note. If the land you are looking at is on a south slope, it will have quite a favorable microclimate compared to what is around it. It will not only get more solar energy, it will also shed frost down to the lowlands. So it will have a warmer, longer growing season. Regarding the changes in the Arctic circulation, the last I heard is that Springs are likely to become cooler and wetter and more erratic (not good for early fruit trees), but falls are likely to be long and balmy. In a far northern country like Norway, a warm fall may not mean very much in terms of agricultural productivity, because there just isn’t a lot of sunlight. But a south facing slope will harvest all of what there is.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:

      Don

      Coping with changing weather patterns and more extreme weather is going to be the challenge, even in temperate zones.

      The trend in Britain is towards harsher winters, more snow, more floods, and a much colder wetter spring and summer, interspersed with some blistering hot episodes (the Spaniard in me likes that!) Last year gave me a splendid crop of apples in my south-facing plot, but friends who have established vegetable gardens had a lot of trouble -too much rain, not enough sun. They are people who really know what they are doing, and it was a real struggle for them.

      The lack of sun and low temperatures was a real problem for us: I try to eat every meal outside from April, and only managed it a few times last year. This is dispiriting in itself! The year before was worse: I saw whole fields of cereals left to rot due to the rain – a tragic sight. In Spain the weather this winter and spring have been devastating: with some crops, 50% have been destroyed by floods. This accelerates the trend of people leaving the land for a city life…..

      I’m taking all these problems into consideration when planning what to try to grow myself. More rain at the wrong times seems to be a constant, and lack of ripening sun.

      • Yes rain is what my wife usually comments is the problem here. So if anything we would have to plant in raised containers with clear plastic roofs to reduce the amount of water. We have been snooping around a bit but I guess the best is to build it yourself with some clear plastic and some wooden frames. Still, more water is better than none. Areas that are subject to drought will no doubt have a bigger food production impact than rise in precipitation (although serious floods are ofc devastating to agriculture many parts of the world).

        Norway on average as a whole has seen a 20% increase in total precipitation over the past 100 years, and climate scientists predict even more. No doubt there has been a substantial rise lately, and places like the western Norway were I live has had some periods of serious increase (and we had a lot of rainy days already as it was due to our high mountains and facing the Atlantic). If there is a trend in longer winters as well due to wobbly Arctic weather from a weakened jetstream I guess it will be a smaller window for growing as well. This winter was very special, some places that normally grow food here had to delay their planting by a full month as the ground was still frozen solid well into April, and that is a major change. Its also interesting to see what happens with the Gulf stream if more water shoots into the Arctic instead of the classic “conveyor belt” in ocean streams we have been fortunate to have in present times. The climate “dice is loaded” as James Hansen say.

        http://www.columbia.edu/~jeh1/mailings/2012/20120105_PerceptionsAndDice.pdf

        • xabier says:

          John Christian

          I’m thinking of temporary roofs to protect plants from very heavy and persistent rain, and diverting that water into butts for storage. This is for the ‘summer’ months when it never stops………

          I do think the growing window is narrowing considerably here in the north of Europe. But more rain is a problem I’d rather have than drought.

          At least the Vikings could go plundering when crops failed! (With family from the north of England, I definitely am of Viking descent, as well as the Saxon pirates, so that’s a friendly observation.)

          With food growing presenting so many little problems, there’s no time to think about Collapse…..

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Xabier and John Christian
            Out of curiosity, I have tried to see how Martin Crawford’s two acres of perennial food forest have done these last two years. He is in southwest England. I haven’t found anything, but maybe I am just not looking intelligently.

            Here is the best way I have found to construct a plastic tunnel very cheaply. Buy some 2 foot long pieces of rebar, some 10 foot lengths of plastic electrical conduit, and some 6 mil plastic. Drive the rebar in the ground so that about 6 inches is above the surface. Drive another rebar about 4 feet distant from the first. Bend the conduit between the two pieces of rebar and you will make an arch (make sure that your rebar fits snugly inside the conduit). The plastic will then stretch nicely across the arch. String arches together the length of your bed or containers. Use electrical tape to tie a straight piece of conduit to the apex of the arches for sturdiness.

            There are all sorts of variations on this theme. Instead of plastic, you can use row cover material to keep out insects or shade cloth to prevent excessive heat (which doesn’t sound like your problem). You can extend the fabric to the ground or you can just cover the top. Get some clamps to let you attach the fabric to the arches. If the fabric extends to the ground, just put some rocks or bricks on the edges.

            What you have is a primitive greenhouse. If you have a sunny day, it will get hot inside. So this works best for people who have a way to monitor the temperature inside the greenhouse and take corrective action. Such as broken down retired people like me. There are fancy greenhouses with automatic ventilation, but they are a lot more expensive. With those, the trick is to use all the vertical space so that you are getting maximum solar harvest to help offset the initial cost.

            You can also use the arch scheme on a hard surface. Get some lumber and drill holes near the ends. Insert the conduit to make an arch. You will have to put something really heavy on the wood to keep the whole thing from blowing over. Concrete blocks work well. If you put this on a wooden deck, the cold air will come up through the planks and the benefits won’t be as great. But it works really well on a patio.

            From Maine down to North Carolina, these plastic greenhouses will keep hardy leafy greens ready to harvest from mid-November to mid-February. But nothing will actually grow very much during that period. So you have to essentially plan to have a crop by mid-November which you will harvest during the winter. Eliot Coleman of Maine, in The Winter Harvest Handbook, found that he could get a microclimate in his unheated plastic greenhouses of Zone 8, roughly a thousand miles farther south. Maine is not noted for winter sun.

            At least some parts of England have always had a reputation in the US as God’s Favorite Gardening Plot. It all sounded so easy to us. It seemed like there was rain and sun and good soil and wise people. Maybe that is changed for the worse.

            Don Stewart

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  7. Don Stewart says:

    My copy of Permaculture Activist arrived today and has several tidbits which will be relative to some of our recent discussions:
    (1) Eustace Conway isn’t the only one to anger the government. Peter Bane and Keith Johnson have created a paradise on a derelict suburban lot and are being punished for it. http://housesandbooks.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/lawns-versus-ideas/

    (2) I mentioned Albert Bates’ appearance in Oslo to talk about carbon farming. Albert has an article which talks in detail about his personal forest designed to offset his carbon footprint. I get easily confused by the numbers, so discretion is advised. Albert’s conclusion is that carbon farming in the narrow sense is two orders of magnitude less effective than planting forests.

    ‘We, the humans, might be able, under optimal conditions, to sequester as much as 1 gigaton of carbon (a billion metric tonnes or a quadrillion grams, designated as petagram C or PgC) annually by switching our agriculture to ‘carbon farming’, that is, using holistic management, applying compost teas, and implementing keyline water management, aquaculture, and organic no-till practices. Forests, under an all-out program of reforestation and afforestation, have a potential yield of 80 PgC/yr, two orders of magnitude more.

    …We have to go negative for at least the next 40 years. Organic gardening and soil remineralization, as Vandana Shiva, Alan Yeomans, and others are so enthusiastic for, will not get us there, although it is a good start and an important wedge…Biochar, whose potential is estimated at 4 to 10 PgC/yr, could get us there, but the industry is immature, poorly understood by environmentalists, and dependent on a change in agricultural practices by hundreds of millions of farmers. Tree planting is our best bet….’

    (3) Regarding Albert’s own personal forest which will erase his carbon footprint over its lifetime:
    ‘If you appreciate the effort it takes for a single individual to become carbon-neutral, you can appreciate what it might take to balance the carbon footprint of a modern city of tens of millions of individuals. Reports that city dwellers are more ecological than their country cousins often overlook this kind of calculus. Cities may plant and care for trees, but climate abatement will require action on very large and mostly rural areas. And that work is physical and unavoidably requires human labor and caretaking….Planting trees helps. More forests are better. That just may not be enough.’

    (4) I find a report from Cuba to be relevant to the implications of Gail’s view of financial collapse as opposed to ‘running out of oil’.
    ‘Currently about 50 percent of the Cuban food supply is grown locally. That is down from 80 percent at the peak during the Special Period. Subsidized oil from Venezuela has made a difference in the structure of the economy, allowing the government to buy more imported food.’

    There are also some statistics about the aging of the farm population, the high salaries being paid to try to lure young people into farming, and the plain fact that most young people have no interest in farming regardless of the earnings. The conclusion I draw is that fossil fuels enable people to behave in ways that are ultimately destructive but are attractive in the short term. Someone else who had visited Cuba told me that the young people are about like American teenagers in 1970: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that human nature is an unfinished, or flawed, product.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:

      Don

      The Cuban information is fascinating. Interesting that it should be such a decadent society no different to the ‘capitalist’ West wallowing in consumerism.

      It makes me think of Spain: a young man would rather be a bar-tender, paying through the nose for an over-priced apartment and a car bought on credit, than get his hands dirty on the land. Nice to go to a family place in the country for a barbecue at weekends, but that’s the limit of their interest. (I’m thinking of cousins of mine here.)

      Now, I can fully understand that with young people who have seen the hard work of a small farm and actually decided to go for a much easier life (and in the old days, farmers in their 40’s were seen as ancient and relegated to easier tasks while their sons and daughters took over the main work); but the kids who want to bum around town have never tried that work, nor have they seen their parents do it.

      And when that bar job folds, they expect free housing and hand-outs ‘to preserve their dignity.’

      I’m not sure that we are flawed as much as the oil-based globalised system gives our biologically pre-determined tendency to get as much as we can for as little work as possible free rein. This applies to bankers and bar-tenders equally: knowing people at the top and the bottom of society, I’ve never observed much difference in their mental attitudes.

      After all, doesn’t the Bible call the necessity of labour one of the greatest evils of life? In the 20th century, hundreds of millions have been lulled into thinking that they have escaped that iron law……

      • Yes xabier, you perfectly describe what “200 fossil fuel slaves” does to your behaviour. Our western way of living has lulled us into relying on these to be around at all times. As we have no connection to the real physical and natural world any more – we don’t see the amount of energy that goes into a sandwich packed in plastic in the local 7-eleven. While we have been eventually good at writing what calories and stuff goes into the product, we still don’t write how much energy goes into getting that particular product on that particular shelf for you to purchase. This delusion is really what is breaking us today and will continue to do.

        Same with the service and repairs, its almost non-existent today – its even hard to find a store that fixes shoes as we are used to buying new ones when the cheap “made in China” crap goes up in the seams because they saved on thread and glue costs. So we use massive amount of energy into making a system that is inherently flawed in that it constantly needs to be replaced.

        In Norway we have a saying: “Nød lærer naken kvinne å spinne.” – translated its like this “In distress the naked woman learns how to make whool thread” (cant recall the English word for this). I guess for a lot of young people they really should consider learning a craft that only needs their hands and some simple tools again. No doubt it will be needed as service and repairs again become the way we maintain our things.

        • xabier says:

          John Christian

          I couldn’t agree more with you: the disconnect is huge, and yet it’s grown up only since WW2 for most people. Great proverb!

          I work with my hands in an old craft, unfortunately (come the crash) it’s very much at the luxury end of things with no value in a very basic economy, but I’m looking at branching out if and when. At the moment though, making more basic craft goods wouldn’t be viable for me, with the low demand and the high cost of living here. Not until that rubbish from China stops arriving……..

          Regarding repairs, so many things now are made either to be thrown away, or are simply too expensive or even impossible to repair. My half-gypsy cousins in Spain used to make a living wandering about and repairing tin goods, none of them does that now.

          It’s worth noting that in Argentina after their devaluation crisis, people who could repair everyday things did well, or at least managed to get by. Office workers sank into beggary if unlucky: a crashed economy can only find work for just so many taxi drivers……..

          • Scott says:

            Yes, it grew up like a mushroom and caused massive changes in the night and yes the oil and gas is like having 20 or more slaves each. It accelerated everything from mining to fishing exponentially. It has provided us with invisible horses under our hoods and unseen slaves harvesting our foods and making things for us.

            I worked for a brief time as a young man in a factory and it was not fun and many doing this and go home feeling sick from the fumes in the factories in places like Asia.

            In history I had read about Europe, they already had some crowding problems a hundred or more years ago and when many all came west to America they found a wide open land – but they destroyed the Indian and their land in the name of progress. Manifest Destiny – they said. The Indians were able to live here for many thousands of years with out harming the planet and I wish they had left them alone here.

            So, I guess it will end as it began and we will again be like the Indians, if we survive. Than means fire wood to heat your water and cook and warm your homes, hand carried water or a pump if you are lucky.

            I had a friend that passed away few years ago, but his family owned large orchards of Almonds and they had a mechanized harvesting system where they had machines to shake the trees harvest all the nuts with little human involvement.

            He had told me that a group of Chinese Farmer Businessmen came to to his Dad’s farm to look at the modern operation and after they saw the mechanized operation they left and all they said was “What are our people going to do?”

            So truly energy, oil and gas has given us a short breather from the plow. Things were hard before going back into the 1870’s or so as I have read in many books of the old days of the Frontier Towns.

            It looks like we are going to be revisiting those times again, I am just not sure on the timeline whether in our generation or the next. That is the question. But surely the changes seem to be looming out there.

            Scott

            • Indeed. I recently posted a reply on an article about how young people have become lazy here, written by a the leader of the (left)-center youth party here in Norway. The article is good in that many youths today live with disappointment because they have set their goals of success too high. But like many others it fails to address the fact that current civilisation is based upon lots of cheap fossil fuel and the reason why we have problems are because its getting hard to get. You cant talk to youths about lowering their goals without pointing to evidence that there is no other way. I posted a link to Rune Likvern’s forecast at oildrum about Norwegian oil along with an explanation that we can no longer assume civilization can have any growth based on old fossil fuel paradigms. My reply only got one reply: “Oil hasn’t been harder to get” – completely missing all the stuff I wrote about ERoEI. It seems most people still havent connected the dots with regards to the energy you have to put in in order to get energy out – they think its all about what it costs on dollars (or NOK). Clearly the public need to be better educated in how we got to this point in civilisation.

              Norway is clearly in a dilemma as the government clearly see that our oil adventure is fading as we are producing half the oil we did 10 years ago. So there is a lot of discussion back and forth whether to allow drilling in the Barents sea. Naturally the environmental movement is opposing this, but the media seems confused at the reason, making a lot of emphasis on environmental damage through pollution – and not really connecting it to the point that we need to leave the oil and gas in the ground for us to get any control over the CO2 emissions. I guess the media does that as the truth about global warming haven’t really sunk in, but a oiled and greasy bird on the shores is something everyone has seen and can imagine. Although both are important, the bird doesn’t stand a chance with huge climate change if the planet warms up +6C at the end of the century. We need to address this issue at the root.

              Furthermore the news could report that “Arktisk Råd” which was initially created for advising about environmental issues in the Arctic – now has a lot of members trying to figure out how we can harvest the new resources and sea routes that open up when the ice melts. Its such a complete disconnect from the problems at hand that I am just shaking my head here for the human race. Clearly someone needs to shake these people out of their economic growth delirium which leads the discussion. I wonder if 350.org could apply for a membership at “Arktisk Råd” as well, as I think its important that they have a clear presence in areas of huge climate significance.

            • witsendnj says:

              Unfortunately 350, and all the major environmental/climate groups (also known as GangGreen) aren’t any more willing to address the problem of growth than the corporatocracy who, after all, fund them via their “charitable” foundations so perhaps there should be no surprise in that. 350 et al concentrate on blaming the elites in business, media and government and steer away from any hint that ordinary people in developed countries need to be prepared to drastically reduce their consumption and population to sustainable levels. They pander to the notion that so-called clean, renewable (which isn’t really, but that’s another story) will substitute for dirty energy and the party can rock on indefinitely. Anything more draconian and they fear they will scare of their donors and supporters, so they are playing the game as much as Exxon but give the impression they are doing something to save us from climate chaos, when what they propose is wholly inadequate. Does anyone notice the irony that they are called 350 and we just hit 400 with no signs of a global slowdown in emissions?

            • Scott says:

              It would be nice if we could leave the oil alone in the ground but I do not see anything stopping it. Companies have become almost like growing entities that use more do more and grow ever larger. So only by force will it change.

              In the USA we do have groups of people that believe in sustainable life styles but the vast majority does not even believe there is a problem. Most probably have not seen that CO2 Chart that is going straight up and hitting 400. That chart is very telling, each a step up on the ladder. So undoubtedly the Earth will get warmer.

              More CO2 in the air means more forest fires too which will even make things worse. The Western United states sure has seen more fires in recent years.

              Before I retired and moved to the mountains of Oregon we used to live by the ocean and we lived near this beach for almost 20 years. When we first lived there the beach was wide and after almost 20 years the beach had become narrow and steep. Rising ocean levels perhaps along with changing ocean currents probably due to warming eroded the sand away and now the water is almost up to the parking area, not much beach left.

              Wow, According to the EPA, the Earth projected to get 4 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer by the year 2100 that is going to be a massive change in a very short time. It is also hard to believe that we really almost killed the oceans by now and by then it will really change things. The Hurricanes will be reaching farther and farther north in the Norther Hemisphere and the cyclones in Southern Hemisphere creep farther south. I can only imagine the scary weather then, monster hurricanes etc.

              To a point farmers can relocate crops as they already are now, like wine grape vineyards moving farther and farther north in the western US. People in some areas will have to move to higher ground, it does not look like there is anything stopping this Freight Train that is rolling, so the best we can do is try to adapt. I do not think the factories in world will listen to us and shut down and if they do people will not have things they need or think they need that they have become accustomed to expect. Children are raised taught to be consumers and pretty much expect things to remain the same.

              Most people out there that I talk to do not think there is an energy problem coming but, many do notice the weather and perhaps may believe in global warming. So it seems few believe in peak oil but many acknowledge global warming and the prevailing attitude is that not much can be done about it.

              From the EPA:

              http://www.epa.gov/climatechange/science/future.html

              ” Key Global Projections

              Average global temperatures are expected to increase by 2°F to 11.5°F by 2100, depending on the level of future greenhouse gas emissions, and the outcomes from various climate models. [3]
              By 2100, global average temperature is expected to warm at least twice as much as it has during the last 100 years. [2]
              Ground-level air temperatures are expected to continue to warm more rapidly over land than oceans. [2]
              Some parts of the world are projected to see larger temperature increases than the global average.”

  8. xabier says:

    We’re doing the young a great disservice to the young if we don’t inform them as to the likely new reality: scarcity of jobs, ever-rising cost of basic living, maybe food shortages, probably not much of a Welfare State: but then again, I find that people can’t take in the whole picture very easily, or shut their minds to it (it is after all dispiriting!)

    It’s going to be a shock for them: the short working day/ long holidays (thinking of Europe here!) apartment/car/foreign holidays/consumerist paradigm just doesn’t have much life left in it now, but that is what society is educating them to expect for themselves.

    It’s made even more difficult due to the fact that no-one can say quite how things will work out: the Near-Term-Extinction people have talked themselves into certainty, but I think one has to keep a much more open mind about all the issues.

    Our flick-of-a switch society hides the energy foundations of our society from people: everyone in the advanced economies has grown up with the expectation of power abundance, with no personal effort. Warning of changes sounds as loony as saying that the sun might not come up tomorrow!

    • Michael Lloyd says:

      For me, the most difficult question to answer is the likely rate of change. If it is rapid enough, then it will be possible to determine ‘when’ things change (yes, I know change is happening all the time).

      Hence, I agree that Gail is correct to emphasise financial collapse or probably a series of step changes down. I would say that we have already had one recent financial step change down and more to come.

      Other step changes looming are the exportable oil supply, the fracking bubble and the long lead times and costs for replacement energy supply and infrastructure.

      Personally, we want to pass on as much as we can to our family whilst we still can.

      • on the point of imminent ‘change’, which would appear to be obvious, many people I try to talk to about it, ranging from 20s to 60s, give a shrug of the shoulders, say they never watch the news or read a newspaper (and I know that to be literally true) and change the subject. To quote verbatim: If I don’t hear about it, then as far as I’m concerned it isn’t happening, nothing I can do anyway even if it is.
        I’m starting to feel like a sunday morning doorstepping evangelist.

  9. Hello Gail,

    We met in Austin at the recent ASPO-USA conference there. To get rapidly to the point, I wish to demonstrate numerically that market economies are inconsistent with sustainable economic life in a finite world; however, a planned economy can be devised that will sustain civilized society on Earth long enough to improve renewable energy technologies enough to achieve a sustainability that will last until astronomical events intervene. And, that’s as good as it can get. Although I have done the work to construct such a proof, it would be nice to pull it altogether in a single document for print publication. For the present purpose, a brief outline of the steps in the argument and, for each step, a hyperlink to a file where the step is carried out (proved) will have to suffice.

    Present-day market economies must be regulated to eliminate the four major reasons for the necessity of growth. http://dematerialism.net/growwth.htm

    Materialism, which is basically any deviation from equal sharing of the community’s sustainable dividend, causes excessive procreation. http://dematerialism.net/selected_passages_from_Chapter_9_of_On_the_Preservation_of_Species.htm

    In a non-growing market economy, those adept at the money game will eventually have almost all of the money leaving nearly everyone with almost nothing. Anyone who doubts the existence of such adepts needs to explain the existence of billionaires. (This argument needs to appear in many more places in my own writing and elsewhere.)

    Market economies are (thermodynamically) inefficient. http://dematerialism.net/ne.htm

    Currently, a renewable energy technology that is truly sustainable according to http://demateraislism.net/eroeistar.htm (and does not require a fossil fuel subsidy) cannot be found because of the inefficiency of markets; whereas, in an efficient and un-corruptible planned economy, one or two renewable energy technologies with ERoEI*s over 1.0 might be found.
    http://dematerialism.net/Mark-II-Economy.html

    • Thanks for your comment!

      I am afraid that at this point, it is a little bit late to be looking for a sustainable renewable technology that does not require a fossil fuel subsidy. We really need one with quite a high EROEI, to support the whole system. In particular, it is necessary that such a technology produce enough energy (using few enough resources) that it can sustain governments and other necessary parts of the economy. Space solar would like to be able to fill this niche, but it is 20+ years away.

  10. You answered my question just like Charlie Hall did. Is it possible – even likely – that you are more influenced by him than you are by me? (ha, ha) Nevertheless, the vagueness of your answer should offend your actuarial instincts. If you compute ERoEI like Charlie does, you will be compelled to hope for “quite a high” ERoEI to support the whole system. By the whole system, you mean business, finance, marketing, etc. replete with deals. You mean people buying things cheap and selling them dear. This means everything for the rich and nothing for the poor in a finite world. Regardless, of how high the ERoEI gets when its computed with the most important energy expenses omitted, it will never be high enough to achieve sustainability in a world where intelligent people who do not wish to be poor produce nothing we actually need to live and, instead, perpetrate so much wickedness that they begin to confuse it with virtue.

    Indeed, space solar is about twenty years away and it always will be. (I was introduced to space solar by Criswell himself.) In the meantime, people who have the resources to reasonably hope to escape to outer space will continue to be part of the problem.

    I appreciate the courage displayed by approval of my comment. Now, can you think through the thought experiment in http://dematerialism.net/eroeistar.htm and give me your understanding of it?

    • I am personally not as convinced of the importance/ usefulness of any form of EROI analysis. Timing of investment is very important. EROI loses this variable. Price is also–it is related to the right conversion factors among different types of energy. Also, the calculation of EROI tends to be very Western-centric. I don’t think it represents world values.

      • I don’t think you know what it is that I am talking about. This is not about capital investments in the usual sense. That’s why we dropped the term “EROI” in favor of “ERoEI”. For example, the talk by the young man who works at the U. of Texas that we both attended during the last lunch period of the ASPO conference was completely irrelevant. You need to read more about ERoEI at http://eroei.blogspot.com/ because ERoEI is not just important and useful – it is the only measure of sustainability there is. If you don’t believe in that, you are wasting your time. I think you are still very much in the world of money and finance.

        • Scott says:

          Double Whammy-Yes, it is true the deeper we go, the more takes out of each barrel to get it up to surface. More resources, like steel expended also takes a bite out of each barrel, so our barrels get lesser in volume and smaller size too and if you account for the investment needed to get each barrel extracted they are slowly getting more expensive… So we are getting less and it takes more to get it at the same time, a double whammy!

        • Yes I agree with the fact that ERoEI is the most important aspect for our energy future, but I guess Gail is more focused on the imminent and very likely collapse in the world economy due to that fact that our system is arranged in such a way that most of the oil left in the ground requires a high oil price in order for anyone to bother. Ofc this directly translates to the actual energy cost involved in getting and processing the oil that is left (with e.g. tar sands being really the bottom of the energy-chain).

          This is partially why I wonder if some countries have a possibility to create a more sustainable cycle of energy generation. I mentioned this in a previous comment with an example being Norway which gets 99% of its electricity from hydro electric. Naturally this is because Norway has both the topology for easy damming and gets its fair share of rain due to its location. So I like to play with the idea that the hydro electric dam has enough energy during its “lifetime” (as in before it needs service) to create enough energy for making the parts that goes into its maintenance. If the energy needed to maintain it is less than what it generates you theoretically have an infinite source of energy. Ofc, nothing is really infinite as the creation of the dam and parts that generate electricity also requires all sorts of raw materials that needs to be mined and processed. And one could argue that the whole chain of factories that is needed to even handle electricity in any form is so long that the dam alone will never be able to power the operation for all of these. This is essentially where we need to do serious analysis as any prospect of a sustainable future with any form of “advanced technology” in it hinges on this problem.

          But again nothing is really possible with a growing population, as we would just experience what any bacteria population in a petri dish does. So for any sustainable future to work, we cant really solve this by technology alone, but it needs serious thought into the social issues and how we as human beings relate ourselves to the natural world as being a part of it and not above it. I believe this is close to impossible, as you can see people even with enough food on their platters today riot and put fires to cars because of “lost dreams” and other kind of non-survivable issues in life. Human beings is just a very complex organism to “teach appropriate behaviour”, and it would seem the only way to really get some stability is by serious regulation and policing of people for them to act within certain boundaries. The free market economy and globalism doesn’t have any room for such ideas as it often implies socialism and constraint in behaviour and consumption. There is a reason why we all aren’t flocking to monasteries to become monks – as the way we would have to live in order to have any sustainability might look a lot like a munks life but not necessary with the belief of a god – unless you regard our earth and its nature as your god – which is really what more people need to believe in and should “pray” for. The “finite earth god” if you like.

          Unfortunately its easier for people to believe there is something better “on the other side” which sort of removes our responsibility to act with any decency about how we treat the real physical world we all live in.

          • Bravo, John Christian, very well said.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Thomas
              I was having a hard time following all of your arguments. I did find the graph which shows GDP increasing as energy productivity declines to be intriguing.

              It seems to me that GDP and ‘deflated’ GDP don’t mean much of anything in the real world. GDP measures the cost of running our economy the way we choose to run it. As the cost goes up, GDP increases. Which is how economists come up with the absurd notion that Super Storm Sandy was a very good thing. Back when one member of a marriage could work and support a family, the GDP per capita was lower. Now that we think that both members have to work and hire child care, the GDP per capita is much higher. But is it really better…or is it worse?

              But GDP has assumed the status of something Moses brought down from the mountain inscribed in stone. What I see around me is that people are working harder and getting less for their labor. GDP just obscures things.

              Don Stewart

          • Yes Don, very good example about the income and child care. Humans have just made their life more complex in the way that we buy a slot for our kids in society and not really make room for them in our lives through our own time. Naturally this again has created an insane energy cost in both running the places that take care of our kids, but also the transport involved which happens every work day. Fortunately for many, the kindergardens and schools are within walking distance, and I have always felt that this is what most people need to think carefully about when they choose a place to live at. But its a sign of our odd relation to the energy-glut that we eat a lot of food with fat and sugars and then drive to a gym to work out trying desperately to get the fat off our bodies. In reality a lot of people should just leave their cars at home and walk, run or bicycle wherever they need to go – and the whole exercise and trying to get fat of their bodies is solved through daily activities. Urban hunting for food. 🙂

            Another part of this energy black hole is the fact that we have made education an artificial system to keep people “away from work” or at least doing anything meaningful in society until they are 25-30 years of age. Of course our world is rather complex, which means we generally need more information and knowledge to function in it, but the school system has grown into an absurdity in the amount of energy needed to sustain such a big part of the population for so long. I feel specialisations should be introduced way earlier, perhaps even a whole field of work that deals with sustainability, teaching kids to take more care of the planet and learn how to enjoy nature. At the moment we seems to be more and more distanced from it as we are taught about economy and consuming – educated that we need well paid work in order for us to consume like the others in society. When the high education jobs go away in an economic crisis like in e.g. Greece and Spain you end up with a lot of disillusioned youths with no practical skills whatsoever besides being able to consume. I do believe society should really start educational programs for these that learn them to find a better way of sustaining themselves and forming a future less dependent on the old paradigm. But as long as governments are still in denial about the predicament of our energy future, they will still “hope” it can be fixed by economical means (as in, we just need more oil or some other miracle energy source we can put a straw into).

            • John, I can’t help wondering if you were named for Johann Christian Bach. (Obviously you were named *after* him.) I think we should thank Gail for providing such a vigorous forum for so many converging ideas. By way of agreement with your remarks on education, I take the opportunity to place before you my recent addition to Dematerialism and Energy, a website that satisfies me without having nearly as much impact as Gail has had in her brief time in the Peak Oil (finite world) community. I suppose I could change the name of dematerialism.net to Dematerialism, Energy, and Education; but, it all redounds to the very great evils inherent in Capitalism or any materialistic system based upon one of the seven deadly sins (greed) and a basic human weakness (fear). Years ago, I imagined that I had discovered the one and only feature of human society that had to be changed to achieve “universal sustainable happiness”, which term had a technical meaning. My imagination failed me only with respect to the part about the world flocking to my banner.

            • Those are good points you made about the education and child care systems. My brother’s wife is home-schooling their children, and the system is much more sane and seems to have a better outcome. I am not sure the kids are learning too much very practical though.

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