What Would it Take to Get to a Steady State Economy?

Humans live in equilibrium with other species in a finite world. In such a world, there is never really a Steady State. Instead, there is a constant ebb and flow.  For a while, one species may be dominant in an area, and then another. If populations are closely matched in “ability,” then the ups and downs aren’t too severe. If a predator depends on a particular type of prey for its dinner, it can’t eat all of the prey, or it will go hungry.

When the populations of various species are graphed, they rise and fall.  We usually think of a close match, such as depicted in this graph:

Figure 1. Volterra_Lotka equations used to illustrate situation where population of predators and prey do not vary over too wide a range.

Figure 1. Volterra_Lotka equations used to illustrate situation where population of predators and prey do not vary over too wide a range.Source: Wikipedia.

In fact, the variability of the many species over time tends to be greater than this, as illustrated by the following model that started with 80 baboons and 40 cheetahs:

Figure 2. Lotka-Volterra equations used to illustrate situation that begins with 80 baboons and 40 cheetahs. Source: Wikipedia

Figure 2. Lotka-Volterra equations used to illustrate situation that begins with 80 baboons and 40 cheetahs. Source: Wikipedia

If species evolve together, a natural balance tends to remain in place. If a species suddenly finds a new, better source of nourishment (really, energy supply, since food supplies energy), its population may increase greatly. For example, yeast may metabolize the sugar in grape juice, converting it to alcohol. The yeast population temporarily rises and then declines, as the food source disappears and alcohol pollution poisons the yeast. Or bacteria may multiply rapidly inside the human body under certain circumstances (including  adequate nutrients and a compromised immune system).

An example is sometimes given of reindeer introduced to St. Matthews Island near Alaska, where there was considerable lichen on the rock. The reindeer ate the lichen at a speed faster than the lichen could reproduce. Soon the lichen was gone, and the reindeer population crashed.

Figure 3. Assumed population of St. Matthew Reindeer herd, with actual counts given. Based on research of  David R. Klein.

Figure 3. Assumed population of St. Matthew Reindeer herd, with actual counts given. Based on research of David R. Klein of University of Alaska.

The reindeer example is similar to a very severe predator-prey curve. The reindeer ate a renewable resource faster than it could reproduce. There were a few other food sources a reindeer could eat, so a few reindeer remained, but there was a very sharp drop in the number of reindeer.

The population of humans has ramped up greatly in recent times:

Figure 4. World population based on data from "Atlas of World History," McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978  and Wikipedia-World Population.

Figure 4. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and Wikipedia-World Population.

The most recent growth coincides with the addition of fossil fuels to the energy supplies used by humans, starting about 1800. If we look back, we see though that human population has been ramping up for a very long period. Humans discovered how to control fire over 1,000,000 years ago. Since 75,000 BCE, there has been fairly consistent population growth, if we look at the data on a log/log graph.

Figure 5. Log/log graph of human population growth, with energy sources giving rise to this growth.

Figure 5. Log/log graph of human population growth, with energy sources giving rise to this growth.

The initial growth of human population occurred with the discovery of how to burn biomass, and how to use it for such purposes as cooking, keeping warm, honing stone tools to a sharper edge, and scaring predator animals away. All of these uses allowed ancestors of modern man to spread over a wider area of the globe, while at the same time wiping out many species of animals, as humans spread to new areas. Biologist and paleontologist Niles Eldridge says that Phase One of the Sixth Mass Extinction began when the first modern humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago when humans turned to agriculture. Even at these early stages, energy use by humans allowed human population to grow at the expense of the population of predator species.

There was a lull in human world population growth between 1 CE and 800 CE (Figure 5). In this period, there were many local collapses, so growth in one area tended to offset collapse in another area. When these collapses happened, they generally looked financial in nature, according to the research of Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov in Secular Cycles. Populations had found a new resource that allowed them to have more food supply–for example, they cleared land of trees so that it could be farmed or learned to use irrigation.

But over time, population grew and caught up with available resources. At the same time, the resources started degrading. The soil started eroding, or became less fertile, and or salt built up from irrigation. Wages of the common worker dropped, and it was hard for them to get adequate nourishment. Epidemics became common. The general shape of these collapses was approximately as follows:

Figure 6. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

Figure 6. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov.

So even in the Year 1 CE to Year 800 CE period, there was not a Steady State. Instead, there was a combination of overshoot and collapse type waves of the types seen with other species in different parts of the globe, which together averaged out to relatively flat world population growth.

Angus Maddison analyzed GDP growth in the 1 CE to 1000CE period. He concluded that the per capita GDP was slightly lower at the end of the period (453) than at the beginning of the period (476). He doesn’t give amounts at the Year 800. But assuming that the change was fairly representative, the period 1CE to 800CE or 1 CE to 1000CE was close to a Steady State economy (with lots of collapses), considering the lack of both population growth and GDP growth per capita.

In more recent times, humans were able to add more energy sources (including peat moss, windmills, and water mills). They also developed better ocean-going ships that allowed them to make colonies, and spread agriculture further, and demand that these colonies extract resources to support the home country. Also, with a more globalized world, agriculture could be improved through a wider choice of domesticated plants and animals, by introducing species from other parts of the world.

Since 1800, the growth in fossil fuels has helped ramp up both population and standards of living.

Figure 7. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

Figure 7. Per capita world energy consumption, calculated by dividing world energy consumption (based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects together with BP Statistical Data for 1965 and subsequent) by population estimates, based on Angus Maddison data.

What Are Humans’ Options for Living in a Steady State Economy?

I am not sure there are many good choices:

1. If we went back to the period before the ancestors of humans discovered fire, about 100,000 to 200,000 of us could live in the warm areas of the world, eating raw food, and living much as chimpanzees and baboons do today, based on populations of those primates today. The population of humans under such a scenario would fluctuate upward and downward, perhaps as in Figure 1.

Because of the availability of cooked foods for many years, the bodies of humans have adapted to the improvement in diet. It is not clear that our teeth and internal organs could handle a purely raw-food diet, unless we happened to live in a part of the world where a soft diet (berries, fish and worms) was available. The areas where humans could live would also need to be warm, so our lack of fur would not be a problem. To meet these criteria, the population might need to be even lower than 100,000 to 200,000.

2. Having no humans at all is by definition a Steady State. I am doubtful that most people would consider this an acceptable Steady State, however.

3. If we did not have globalization and stopped adding energy supplies, we might continue to have local collapses, as in the 1CE to 800CE or 1000CE period. In this way, we could approximate a Steady State. Of course, now with globalization, a problem in one part of the world quickly spreads to other parts of the world.

4. If we want 7 billion people to be able to continue to live, we will need some basic level of energy supplies for these 7 billion people. If we assume that as a minimum, people today will need at least the 1820 level of energy consumption (based on Figure 7), we will need total energy consumption of at least 22 gigajoules per capita. This would amount to about 7% of the current energy consumption of the United States. It would not be enough to perform what we now consider basic functions such as maintaining roads, electrical systems, water systems, and sewer systems, so would be a major step down for US residents.

At the 1820 level of energy consumption, we would still need to continue a portion of fossil fuel consumption, since there are now so many of us that biofuels would no longer suffice (Figure 7–read across at 1820 level). Also, renewables, including today’s modern hydroelectric and solar panels are made and transported with fossil fuels, so in order to have what we now consider renewables, we would need to continue to have some fossil fuel use. Also, electricity from wind and solar PV needs to be backed up with natural gas electricity generation.

In addition to needing energy to maintain a population of 7 billion people, we would also need a way to

(a) keep population down, and

(b) keep people from using available energy supplies (beyond the 22 gigajoules per capita allotted), to improve their lifestyles.

The way we often hear proposed for keeping population down is more education of women together with availability of birth control measures. Unfortunately, this approach is energy dependent. Unless considerable external energy is available, women will have to work in the fields to produce food.  This will give them little time for education or the jobs that education would provide.

There are some cultures that have been able to keep population down by less energy-dependent means. For example, China uses strict governmental controls. Cultural and religious practices may also be used, such as delayed marriage and long breastfeeding. In some cases, abortion or infanticide may be used.

Keeping people from using available energy supplies to improve their lifestyles is even trickier. Some central authority can dictate that the US will use only 7% of the energy the population used in the past, meaning that everyone has to give up nearly everything. But enforcing this will be a real trick, unless energy supplies really are constrained.

There seems to be a common belief that cutting down on personal transportation fuel would have a big impact on total energy consumption. In the US, gasoline amounts to about 44% of US oil consumption. If we eliminated all gasoline consumption (even that by police, ambulances, and sales people), it would only reduce US energy consumption  (all types, not just oil) by 16%. On a worldwide basis, much less oil is used for personal transportation, so eliminating all oil for personal transportation would likely reduce world energy consumption by something like 10% to 12%.

Is There a Reason for Aiming for a Steady State Economy? 

At this point, we seem to be headed for collapse, because the number of humans is so far out of line with the population of other species. There are many other limits we are reaching as well, including the cost of oil extraction, the availability of fresh water, and the amount of pollution (including CO2 pollution). Also, governments are in increasingly poor financial condition, because when there are not enough resources to go around, governments tend to “come up short”. They can’t collect enough taxes relative to the benefits they pay out and all of the government programs they administer.

The only way a Steady State would make sense would be if there were some level of Steady State that humans could fall back to, instead of collapse. Unfortunately, it is hard to see a good place to fall back to. The only period during which human population was relatively constant was the period 1 CE to 800 CE, when frequent collapses kept population down. It is difficult to see any point at which humans have not increased population, or increased resource use, if resources were available, except when frequent civilization collapses overwhelmed the system.

If our civilization does collapse to a lower level, but not all the way back to zero, it seems likely that humans will again repeat the pattern they have experienced, over and over. They will again increase population and resource use, if resources are available. This pattern seems to be an instinct for all species, which is why it is virtually impossible to eliminate. Humans will then again collapse back to a more sustainable level.

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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441 Responses to What Would it Take to Get to a Steady State Economy?

  1. Leo Smith says:

    Jules: I think you are confusing fascism with democracy. The rule by diktat – which is what I primarily associate with Fascism, is wholly the province of the Left these days.

    And is totally antithetical to the new (not very) right as evinced by UKIP.

    It is in fact the EU itself that most resembles fascist style communism.


    Centralised undemocratic rule by diktat and a police state cannot survive in a society which depends on the consensus of the people to support the state. If they withdraw their support the state collapses. As the Soviet Union did. Fascism works – if by fascism you mean the capturing of resources by a small elite – only when the resources are there to be captured, and can be held by a small elite. Resource poor nations simply disintegrate into brigandage, and whatever works at whatever level is what goes on. I mean the nomadic tribes of Mongolia are all that are left of a once great Mongol Empire that spanned all of Asia. Where are the Empires of Rome, Of France, Of the Islamic Caliphate, of Britain, Of the Third Reich, Of the USSR? All gone. Once areas are not worth conquering and the cost of administering them is greater than the value that can be extracted from them these areas are abandoned.

    Once Saudi Arabia and Persia looked like places the west wanted to own. Today with dwindling oil reserves who gives a s**t? No one wants Libya, Syria Palestine,., Egypt, Morocco.. They are not assets, they are liabilities. If some neo Ghengis Kahn wants to run them as slave camps, frankly let em. ONSIs. Of No Strategic Importance. And without anything to trade for Western arms, their populations should have no trouble in getting rid of whatever mean bunch of thugs try to take over, yea even the Taliban, in time. Because they are funded by oil money, and oil money is running out.

    So its a great mistake to label the ‘freedom’ parties of Europe as Fascist. That’s simply a term used by the big state Left to describe anyone who isn’t Big State Left. Was Lech Wałęsa a Fascist when he wanted independence from the USSR?

    Its probably better to see these political movements not as fascist, but as highly democratic. They are of course populist, in that they have the support of the people, which increasingly the old big state parties do not, but that is merely a symptom of the fact that – as this whole blog appreciates – Big State has failed to deliver on its promises. And what it has delivered is total anathema to the people it has delivered it to.

    The rise of these nationalistic parties and the impending disintegration of the EU is simply a sign of the sort of thing Gail is talking about. A natural transition to a more localised and efficient method of governance. Rather than total collapse and no governance at all, except by local warlord, as is happening in the Islamic world.

    • When someone votes ‘democratically’ they are voting for the political system which ultimately puts their best interests first, the rest of the population second. if a politician promises to keep your coalmine open, and you’re a miner, you vote to keep your job. particularly if there’s no other work available. The state of the environment is secondary.
      ultimately big states must fail to deliver on promises, because all political promises depend on the ongoing prosperity of the state. when that fails,–as it always must– then politicians get thrown out either by the ballot box or the bullet, then another lot of wishful thinkers gets voted in.
      political systems by definition cannot work, because we expect political dogma to control what is essentially a system dependent on energy input.
      Put simply, that means we expect oilwells to get refilled and we go on finding ever more oil, because our leaders legislate that it should happen.
      And of course the stupid majority believe this because it is in our short term interests to believe it

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        I don’t know if you had fun writing that, but I had a good time reading it. And please distinguish between realism and cynicism…

        • it’s a subject that I find genuinely fascinating and at the same time deeply worrying.
          Can you please point out anything that is ‘unrealistic’? it wasn’t intended to be cynical, maybe it was the way I put it together. A miner will not vote himself out of a job, neither will a politician do anything willingly that will unseat himself. when states fail to prosper, their leaders are overthrown,,,some violently (always after hanging on to power till the bitter end), some not, but the rule is inflexible.
          Right now jobs (energy consuming job creation schemes) are being legislated into existence even though cheap energy is no longer there to support them. We are therefore using political means to alter geological reality, hence wishful thinking. which must by definition fail. We built our infrastructure by using cheap energy, now we are trying to keep it going by using expensive energy. This is why the system is collapsing, but we insist that prime ministers and presidents ‘do’ something. They are as helpless and hopeless as the rest of us. Geology and the laws of physics cannot be altered by acts of riot or political will, unfortunately humanity will never be convinced of that

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            To End of More:

            Anything unrealistic? That’s a fairly tight net. How about if we add ‘cynical’ to give me more targets?
            I would propose that other motivations besides ‘me first’ self-interests can motivate voters in a democracy. Not that all voters are worthy of being called intelligent, but it doesn’t matter. I would disagree strongly with you that all governments are ordained to fail. Granted, Europe’s history is pretty grim, and the conquistador mentality that still infects much of Latin America needs serious work, from the grass roots up. Our European friends have interpreted democracy as packing as many over-educated dilettantes into one parliamentary union as could possibly be packed, while leaving a handful of Germans to actually address the problems.

            Of course politicians make promises and ignore realities. Note that yesterday Ben Bernanke mentioned off-handedly that it might be too early to throttle back on the stimulus. Immediately the markets dropped due to his merely mentioning it.

            For any society or government to work, I think it’s essential that the voters be willing to consider broader interests than merely their own bread and butter issues. If they do, then ‘enlightened self-interests’ can emerge and guide the society. If not, then it will remain dog-eat-dog and last man standing.

            Apply that to a smaller ‘post apocalyptic’ society (at the county level) and tell me it doesn’t pertain and then I’ll know you truly are a cynic.

  2. Gail,
    Given the existence of nuclear power plants and spent fool containment, all of which need constant maintenance based on constant electricity supply, is the supposition of humankind somehow “collapsing back” to a smaller population that remains viable realistic? Nuclear power plants do not shut down in “failsafe” mode. If the systems and personnel that maintain them fail to do so, the fissile material will escape containment, there will be melt down and radiation release. Can and will the roughly 430 presently operating stations and the hundreds more now on the drawing boards be maintained through any conceivable trajectory of descent contemplated in the supposition that humanity can get to steady state at 7% of our current energy budget? Or must we face the reality that in the course of that descent 430 (or many more) nuclear power plants will melt down and render some unknown portion of the earth uninhabitable?

    And how many other fatal flaws are built into a supposedly simplified, much contracted world? Can humans, now evolved to live as we do, really “adapt” to a world in which they are reduced to hunter/gatherer status whose game to hunt and wild produce to harvest has been dramatically reduced in quantity and scale even before the run on resources that must be presumed in what would be an horrific population die off?

    You have noted that an implication of a lack of fossil fuel is a failure of the so-called “alternative” energy devices, since the construction and maintenance of these depends upon fossil fuel. Nuclear power is also a “fossil fuel extender”. The workers don’t drive nuclear cars to work. The back up generators are diesel. Nuclear plants cannot supply their own power needs, they require grid power to function and prevent melt down. Hence back up generators.

    What are the implications of constrained fossil fuel availability, of a “steady state” civilization? Can municipal water and sewer systems be maintained on that power budget? Or should cholera be expected? At what level of descent does the grid fail, and how does any remnant of humankind really get to anything vaguely resembling a stead state if the very process of descent unleashes all the forces of war, famine, pestilence and disease that can be expected in such a descent?

    I suggest that one of the frightening realities we face is that there is no turning back: the monstrous and intricate machine we’ve created must be preserved as its collapse will kill us all.

    • Scott says:

      Richard what you said about the machine is so true. If we kill it then we kill most of us too. It is also too bad that there is not an easy way to reduce the population without the horrors. Looks like it is going to go the way of the natural course, the question is when and how.

    • xabier says:


      This is what Bernanke and Draghi and others are tying themselves in knots to do: keep the machine running.

      But not only can we not, as a society, make the transition to some other less destructive form of economy peacefully, but if we all as individuals just consume less, the machine will eventually collapse as companies see their profits fall and go into default…… This is what is happening now in Europe.

      The Collapse which so many fear is here, but as we can see, at the moment it’s very unevenly distributed.

      But I think one can change one’s way of living within the context of a doomed structure, and be a lot happier for it, and more resilient when faced with problems.

      Preparing in itself toughens up the mind.

      Look at history: every castle fell eventually, but it was never a reason not to build castles.

      Who knows what the time-line on all of this really is?

    • You may have seen this article today: Countdown to Nuclear Ruin at Paducah.

  3. Schuyler Hupp says:

    The idea of “steady state” is similar to the notion of “sustainability” in that it must be defined according to a sufficiently long time frame to be meaningful. Human societies, from what I’ve read are a “bottom up” phenomenon, emerging as a result of collective, individual behaviors with reactions to very short time scale environmental factors as their impetus… It appears that computers and Science are serving to amplify our ability to see at larger time scales, but this amplification is not ubiquitous enough, nor sufficiently user friendly to result in the consensus needed to prevent or mitigate large scale decline or collapse.

    • Don Stewart says:

      The Edo Japanese understood the very long time spans involved in forests. Read the book.

      Don Stewart

      • xabier says:


        I think that if one looks at really good and comprehensive collections of proverbs, drawn from lots of cultures, one can see that our ancestors had a much better understanding of reality than the basic economic and political concepts upon which we have based our societies. I’ve never found a really good collection of Japanese proverbs, though.

  4. Schuyler Hupp says:

    What happens when virtually an entire planet and it’s ecosystems become the “prey” of one particularly consumptive, essentially irrational and pervasive species?

    I saw the new Star Trek film yesterday and though entertained and greatly impressed by the result of such wonderful and creative talent, I can no longer suspend disbelief sufficiently to fully enjoy such things. The myth of Humanity having fundamentally conquered nature, the narrative by which western societies live and dream, I now understand to be far more ridiculous than I did a decade ago. A universe populated by and at the disposal of human beings, to do with as their reptilian brain cores direct them, is a fairy tale born of aspirations and a kind of childish glee. Having been immersed in the wonder of a fossil fuel powered world for well over a century now, our connectedness with nature, and the finiteness of fossil energy, the physical and economic limits of such an arrangement, seem entirely to have escaped inclusion our cultural myths! 😛

    • xabier says:


      Interesting thoughts!

    • Scott says:

      Yes, a trip to Disney Land can put in you in fossil fuel heaven. You mentioned the Reptilians. That is an alien species that many believe to be real and on our planet now. Sometimes Hollywood hints at things that could even really exist.

    • I think you put it well. An awfully lot of green things we see are about how we can use just a little energy to get around this or that limit. Use electric cars, if oil powered ones are a problem. Import solar panels from China, so we can have theoretically better energy (in addition to all of the other energy). No one talks about going to a more vegetarian diet, or not having large pets, or talking to our children about family size. (Most of us are too old to do much about the situation ourselves.)

  5. thinking along the lines of what will bring us to a steady state economy, on UK radio 4 tonight tuesday 21st, 8 pm uk time (Called file on four) is a programme on the resurging power of mutating bacteria and how we are losing the battle against them.

  6. tmsr says:

    Gail, to answer your question “what would it take to get to a steady state?”. For the U.S. just make living condition hard enough that the survival rate including endless immigration first has a die off of 80% and then has a growth rate of zero. This most likely will require no action on the part of governments, corporations, rulers. What they will have to do is protect infrastructure and the political power structure that serves them so well. This would require a heavily armed federal police force of some kind along with large federal prisons of some kind. This all seems to be in place.

    There will be no roving bands of hungry people the DHS will protect us. Everyone here reading this blog is most likely in the top 20% so no worries. How to survive, suck up to the alphas. My grandparents survived the first great depression by being maid and gardener for the president of Chase Bank. There was no storage of food coming from the masters private farm.

    Ed Pell

    • YOu may be at least partly right. Sucking up to the alphas may in fact work.

      I don’t think we will be able to protect infrastructure for very long, though. Entropy wins.

      • xabier says:


        Quite, infrastucture is all: if you look at Europe during the Dark Ages, the barbarian chiefs and what were left of the Roman officials started off with magnificent fortresses, and nice villas, and ended up living in wooden stockades and wooden huts, in quite a short space of time.

        I’ve wandered through deserted villages in Spain, abandoned some 20 years ago, and it’s interesting to see how these fine strong stone buildings, many hundreds of years old with walls several feet thick, decay.

        Our buildings are much flimsier, even designed to last only 20 or 30 years at most with maintenance, quite apart from the advanced wiring, heating and water systems which break down so easily.

        And yet what do we hear from politicians trying to ‘kick-start’ their economies? More expensive infrastructure projects reaching decades ahead! I rub my eyes in disbelief.

  7. Dan Hood says:

    Following on from my last post I then came across this interesting reviewer by the name of John Walsh on a book entitled “The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future”

    “This Halloween (2011) the neo-Malthusians, many dressed up as environmentalists, will have a big scare for us – the birth of the 7 billionth person on “space ship” earth. We will hear again of the demographic disaster sure to befall us with yet another mouth to feed. But a wondrous antidote to such fear mongering is one of the best books of the last year, The Coming Population Crash, by Fred Pearce. The book begins with a sound thrashing of Malthus and satisfyingly exposes the historical and conceptual links between his failed ideas and some unsavory strains of the current environmental movement such as the Carrying Capacity Network and Sierrans for U.S. Population Stabilization, an anti-immigrant group.
    At its heart the book conveys a simple fact. The rate of population growth has been decelerating for decades – well before the publication in the 1970s of Paul Ehrlich’s alarmist, implicitly racist and dead wrong neo-Malthusian tract, The Population Bomb. It is amazing that many environmentalists are unaware of the crucial fact of slowing population growth, and that some react with hostility to it. Further, somewhere between 2050 and 2100, growth will stop and then come crashing down. It is not the sky that will be falling but the population. From Eastern Europe to Southern Italy to Singapore, that day has already arrived and sooner or later it will come to all parts of the planet. In fact, it may well be that in the next century the problem will be a population that is not large enough to be optimal; but that will be for the 22nd century humans to decide and act on.

    And why has this happened? The key is the successful assault on patriarchy by women determined to control their fertility and their lives. Yes, prosperity helps; and population control programs, most notably in China have had some effect, but they are not the essential factors. In rich countries and poor, religious and secular, Isalamic and Christian, the trend is under way and irreversible. Of that there can be no doubt

    The reason is simple. In the latter half of the 20th Century the survival rate of infants increased dramatically so that women did not have to continue to have children for a reproductive lifetime to replenish the population. At the same time the sexual revolution and easy contraception came along. Now bearing children takes only 10-15 percent of the adult lifetime of a woman.

    As Pearce puts it, “Women have grabbed the chance created by that change. While having children remains important to most women’s lives, it is no longer the only thing or even the main thing they do. They cease to wield power only within the home. Now they are out of the front door. Across the rich world and in much of the poorer world too, women outnumber men on university campuses and dominate entry to professions like medicine, media and the law. They run the farms and even the governments, sometimes. The reproductive revolution has created a feminist revolution that has a long way to go. But it has already changed the world…. For thousands of years men ruled the world. Patriarchy was regarded as necessary to produce the next generation. It was deeply engrained and tenaciously defended by men,” their social institutions, both church and state, and mores that condemned lesbianism and homosexuality. “The reproductive revolution kicked away this system of patriarchy, because it was no longer necessary to sustain populations. Women have always wanted equal rights. Feminism is not a new idea And some women have always broken free. But for most women the reproductive revolution has taken feminism from the `realm of utopia to practical possibility’.”

    So while we hear a great deal of alarmist talk about “peak oil” from certain quarters we scarcely ever hear of “peak population.” Fertility in the world peaked at between five and six children per woman in the 1950s. It is now down to 2.6 and still dropping. Replacement is about 2.1, and we are almost there.

    What about the aging of this population? The other side of contemporary Malthusianism is the claim that an older population means more mouths to feed and fewer younger working hands to feed them. But that is also false. We have gone from a revolution in agriculture, where it takes an ever smaller fraction of the population, and an ever smaller amount of land per capita, to feed us, to an advanced technological revolution where, for example, productivity in manufacturing in the U.S. is growing exponentially with a rate constant of .035 per year and in all areas at an exponential rate of 0.02 per year. Productivity here is output per person hour. So when you hear a voice telling you that we cannot afford Social Security or Medicare benefits for all that is the voice of Malthus, always wrong, quavering from his grave.
    In fact Pearce sees a great benefit in an older population. Not only will it be healthier than in the past and capable of making contributions well into the eighth decade of live. But it will be less testosterone driven, with more historical sense and more wisdom and less given to the calls of demagogues. Let us hope so.

    In the end the greatest philosophical debate of the modern era may be the one between Marx (and Godwin) versus Malthus. Marx famously labeled Malthus’s views as a “slander on humanity” and its capabilities. Malthus’s views have been used, explicitly or implicitly, to justify some of the worst atrocities in human history, way beyond that of the great Irish famine. But in addition to being cruel, Malthus has always been wrong. He remains so to this day. If we ignore his false prophecies and those of his heirs, we have a very bright future indeed.”

    Is it me or is this guy completely ignoring the fact we live on a finite planet with rapidly dwindling resources and a level of complexity that’s taking us to collapse?

    • xabier says:


      A finite planet produces an infinite number of fools, like that chap.

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Well Dan, that was quite a rant. Well composed and good to read, and a good argument in support of cheerful hope. What’s a well-intentioned Malthusian to do? Surrender to the forces of ‘inevitable continuing human innovation’? Acknowledge that the doomsayers have been wrong continually (except that populations of African and Asian poor countries continue to double every 40-50 years and will lead us to the 9 Billion level). Or should we just just acknowledge that somehow we’ll all be okay? You may enjoy Ben Bernanke’s recent speech at Bard College, which was a tad more optimistic than most of this site’s bloggers.

      • Dan Hood says:

        I read what that lunatic said and thought to myself….we’re all screwed now. They’re accelerating the Titanic head on towards the iceberg whilst deck chairs are being rearranged and the band plays on. What was it that Chuck Prince was famously quoted as saying….”As long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance.” We’re all partying like crazy and it’s one minute to midnight.

    • agricultural output depends of fossil fuel input, not old folks with hoes
      i give up

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        To End of More and Dan Hood:

        At Dan’s prompting I looked for the book he noted: ‘The Coming Population Crash and Out Planet’s Surprising Future’. The author is Fred Pearce; in 2010. The book deals with current efforts (mostly successful) to increase food output, but also discusses the coming water shortages that are likely to impact that.

        Bottom line is that for the Bernanke beloved optimistic innovators to maintain the upper hand against the pessimistic petroleum peat and pooh propagators will require some more ingenuity. But we already sorta knew that…

  8. Dan Hood says:

    Hi Gail, another solid analysis. Keep em coming. I think the bellwether has to be Japan. Are they not suffering a collapse in demographics as we speak? Simply put, more people are dying than being born causing a demographic nightmare later down the line. They’ve experienced little or no growth over a sustained period. Surely reality has had to effect the minds of young men and women who are experiencing mounting pressures of job insecurity, higher costs of living, having to work harder and harder for less return on working captal. The concept of marriage and commitment seems to terrify the younger generation in Japan. Intuitively they feel uneasy about the future. Could this not be the same fate for US/UK/EU? In a period of stagnant growth or let’s be honest…permanent decline, are the youth giving up on the real world pressures of having a family due to population overshoot which as you suggest has now morphed into an energy and financial crisis?

    Personally I think the West will suffer a dramatic collapse in population very soon. Think of the massive energy/financial related problems in America, UK, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, France, Spain, Italy et al. Massive youth unemployment. Young males are being accused by young females of “not being man enough” today. Could it be these young males don’t stand a chance with the massive economic pressures of today’s consumer society in the West?

    We keep hearing about a rise in total global population to 9 billion by 2050 from our current 7 billion. Would we even hit 9 billion? If so what proportion of those 9 billion would be “Westerners”. You see where I’m heading with this right? Personally I think the West is about to die out. Be interesting to see what effect a declining West has on BRICS. Cut through the mustard for me.

    • xabier says:


      I’ve read all that about Japan, too: an interesting development from the ‘career men’ of the 1980’s to young people with precarious incomes avoiding marriage and breeding, and indulging in narcissistic fashions and cult behaviour – a rational response to lack of career prospects.

      Interesting to note that in Europe, in the richer countries with elaborate welfare systems, (France, Scandinavia, Britain, Germany) immigrant populations mostly from Africa and Asia who are generally supported by such systems, are breeding very actively indeed, far outstripping the indigenous population: so, for instance, you might find a district of London with average family size of three to four children and 85% of births being among people of foreign origin. (The children also guarantee bigger pay-outs from the State, whereas to those not on welfare, a child is a considerable cost-burden.)

      So a die-out’? Perhaps not, but in urban areas a very profound change.

    • tmsr says:

      Dan, countries that do not have large immigration may decline in population (die-off if we want to be dramatic). But the U.S. is a business it uses immigration to make up for the fact that living condition for working people are so hard that they can not reproduce. The U.S. will continue to grow. People from India, China, Indonesia, Africa will replace the frail unable (or unwilling) to reproduce people from Europe. It is evolution in action.

      Unless of course we run out of energy in which case only the southern half of the U.S. will grow. The northern half will contract left to farms and resource extraction.

      Ed Pell

      yes I seem to be torn between contraction and growth — basically predictions are hard especially about the future

      • We decided to stay where we are when we realized the problems ahead. In the Atlanta area, it is possible to have a second food crop in winter. It is not really necessary to have heat in winter. Summer is not nearly as hot as near the coast.

        • tmsr says:

          We have considered moving to some place warmer. I have mixed feeling about it. If the cold drives down the population density then maybe staying right where we are has positives. My wife is half Swedish. I am 1/8 native to this area going back, who knows, could be 4000 years. I have never had Lyme Disease, I like to believe it is due to a native immunity. 🙂

          Ed Pell

        • Scott says:

          The winters should not be bad in Atlanta but I bet the summers are warm without power.
          I was thinking about all the little machines that used mostly gas powered, we have been talking about cars and trucks, but what about lawn mowers and all the tractors in the fields. They are all so dependent on gas or diesel and are heavy and expensive to replace. There are so many little machines out there that run on gas and diesel. To forestall the crisis, perhaps the coal to liquid, something that would run these things may buy us some time? Something that our current gas stations could keep pumping using the current infrastructure?

        • xabier says:

          I think one has to consider economic factors and social stability as well as climate and growing seasons: the warmer areas of Spain I could move to based on family links have even now 50 to 70% (!) youth unemployment, and the locals and the Arabs who have settled in large numbers just don’t get on – it could all explode tomorrow.

          I could live there without heating for nearly all the year, and rentals, etc, have hit rock bottom.

          But this warmer climate brings up another factor: drought – a year ago everyone was getting really worried about lack of water with nearly empty reservoirs, from the north to the south of Spain. .

          There is also the possibility of a real police state developing in Spain with the Crisis, it’s very much taking shape now, and – I’m not joking – death squads and that sort of thing are always just under the surface in such countries, the political hatreds run very deep with Latins. Get a Spaniard excited enough about politics and he really will want to shoot people. Some senior politicians have been caught joking about it (surreal, I know.)

          Relations of mine in politics get death threats even now…… My grandfather was chased by assassins in the Civil War, so one always has this sort of thing in mind in Spain.

          I’m keeping a close eye on how the weather patterns develop on the island of Mallorca, where I have nice half-gypsy cousins, who keep goats and grow their own food, but that island can be damn chilly in winter and very damp.

          So I’m opting for high heating costs and perhaps greater stability (for a time?) in Britain, near a town with no real racial problems.

          I’d be very happy to be a US or Canadian citizen and have quite a wide geographical are to choose from and huge climatic variety…….

  9. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Several people have commented that without antibiotics and pesticides, humanity is doomed. I have held my peace on that topic, but fortunately Michael Pollan has attacked that view head on:


    Antibiotic residues and pesticide residues upset the microbial population which accounts for most of the genetic material in and on our bodies. But our immune systems depend on the stimulation of living in a ‘dirty’ world…but one without antibiotics and pesticides.

    Eat more beans! Don Stewart
    PS I would add to Pollan’s summary a plea for minimal tillage. Tillage destroys the soil microbes which are fungi (mushrooms). It results in a huge bloom in bacteria, upsetting the soil food web balance. As with our guts, we need balance in our soil.
    PPS Read Teaming With Microbes by Jeff Lowenfels.

    ‘The successful gardener has always known you don’t need to master the science of the soil, which is yet another hotbed of microbial fermentation, in order to nourish and nurture it. You just need to know what it likes to eat — basically, organic matter — and how, in a general way, to align your interests with the interests of the microbes and the plants. The gardener also discovers that, when pathogens or pests appear, chemical interventions “work,” that is, solve the immediate problem, but at a cost to the long-term health of the soil and the whole garden. The drive for absolute control leads to unanticipated forms of disorder.

    This, it seems to me, is pretty much where we stand today with respect to our microbiomes — our teeming, quasi-wilderness. We don’t know a lot, but we probably know enough to begin taking better care of it. We have a pretty good idea of what it likes to eat, and what strong chemicals do to it. We know all we need to know, in other words, to begin, with modesty, to tend the unruly garden within.’

    • Scott says:

      Hi Don, I was wondering about your work in the past what did you do in your past work? You have a voice of reason on this blog. We sure have seen some changes.

      I was born in 1960 – in the age of antibiotics. And, I am not sure if they saved me, or are killing me now.

      They sure did help me through some bad infections and cured me, but I found later in life the these infections were caused by an allergy to Wheat. So all I really needed to do was to go off of gluten but in those days no one knew.

      The antibiotics they gave me caused damage to my gut and immune system so I have been trying to eat well and I am one of those people that have to avoid gluten. Even though I had a wheat allergy, I underwent extensive allergy test in the 1990’s nothing was detected, just more prescriptions for antibiotics which made me sick over time.

      I do think I had a food allergy which led the doctors of the 1970’s and 80’s to over prescribe way to many antibiotic pills for what was really a food allergy, not I have Celiac disease thanks to the improper treatments. So I do okay on a special diet these days.

      So our world is also challenged with illness that has been caused by bad science.

      I am doing better now cooking my own foods from scratch and on the treadmill for many miles.

      It helps to cook our own food from scratch but who has time these days it is hard to do. Just another bad warning sign flashing.

      • Don Stewart says:

        It’s the same old story about antibiotics….follow the money.

        One of our local pioneer organic farmers just died. He was an MD, treating poor people in the mountains of eastern TN back in the early 1960s. He pretty quickly figured out that most of their problems stemmed from eating a poor diet of industrial junk food.

        He told me: ‘I thought about whether I wanted to spend the rest of my life giving antibiotics to children or doing something to actually help people…so I started my organic farm.’ Smart doctors knew a long time ago…but a lot of them prescribed antibiotics just to get the patient to go home with a pill while Mother Nature (the immune system) did it’s thing.

        We still have a lot of antibiotics prescriptions written for things we know they are not effective for (e.g., the flu and colds) and the CAFO (confined animal feeding operations) use 90 percent of the antibiotics produced in this country. If money weren’t involved, we might use 5 percent of the antibiotics we actually do. And the antibiotics would work as advertised. And then, of course, the patient would need sound advice from their doctor about rebuilding the gut bacteria. We don’t do such things because of ignorance and greed.

        Don Stewart

      • xabier says:


        A customer told me that his father, a very distinguished doctor, gave him one piece of advice for life: ‘Stear clear of physicians as much as possible!’

        (It’s good to hear that your new way of life is healthier for you.)

    • xabier says:


      I take the point about the chemical fixes we rely on: I was severely ill last year and the very powerful drugs did the trick, but at the time I had some difficulty in distinguishing the effects of the illness from the side-effects of the drugs (which carried a 5% risk of mental illness for God’s sake! Some readers of my comments might say the % risk was much clearly higher!).

      But this is what we have based our societies on: clever interventions in complex and delicate systems – effective in the short-term, maybe utterly destructive in the long-term.

    • Thanks! I had read a little about the subject, but that article added more.

      I have not been eating a “standard American diet.” That article gave me more ammunition for sticking to home-created (sometimes cooked) food.

  10. Don Stewart says:

    I mentioned Edo Japan as an example of a sustainable society which nevertheless encouraged innovation. I can see now that I should give some more feeling for Azby Brown’s book. So here is enough to give you the feel for the book. I will get briefer as I go on.

    Brown aspires to show us what it ‘feels like’ to live in this particular sustainable society. So this is not a ‘scholarly work’. It is several stories based on a wealth of scholarly research. The first story is a visit to a farmer, then a story about a visit to a carpenter in Edo, then a story about a visit to a samurai neighborhood in Edo. The stories contain a lot of facts, but the facts are marshalled to help us understand how these people lived. In addition, Brown is an accomplished artist, and there are hundreds of line drawings to help us see what the words describe. After each story, Brown draws lessons for we modern people suggesting how we need to change our thinking and our actions in order to live within our ecological budget.

    Brown justifies his study by pointing out that in 1600 Japan was on the verge of ecological collapse. The fact that it did not collapse, and in fact prospered over the next 250 years, should intrigue us and inspire us to look more closely. Brown shows that Edo Japan meets the Hanover Principles for sustainable design (page 13).

    Pg 40 More prosperous families with much larger landholdings might be able to consider allowing a second or even a third son to build a house and start a family, and many are taken into childless households or those with only daughters as adopted heris. But the second son’s lot is assumed to be a solitary, if not strictly celibate, one. This value system definitely sacrifices a large measure of personal liberty for the greater common good. It may seem unfair, and some aspects of it, such as infanticide, even extreme. But the voluntary limitation of birthrate and family size has led to a stable population nationwide for nearly two hundred years, to the benefit of all.
    pg 42 The early eighteenth century witnessed an agricultural revolution, however, when cotton was grown on a large scale with the encouragement and support of the government. As cotton has become more widely available, it has declined in cost to the point where even commoners can afford more than one set of clothes as well as bedding, and everything can be repeatedly washed at high temperatures. Mortality records show that the overall health of peasants has improved with the introduction of cotton.
    Pg44 To the household, the toilet has an essential and positive economic value. Human waste has become an irreplaceable fertilizer, and considerable ingenuity has been expended on toilet design to allow these waste products to be easily collected and processed.
    Pg 44 At Shinichi’s household, once a week a large tub is dragged either into the doma or outside, filled with water heated on the kamado and over the irori, and everyone, including the neighbors, takes turns washing themselves and soaking. Bathers scrub themselves with small cloth pouches filled with rice bran, which provide the perfect amount of abrasion. Because no soap is used, the waste water maty be safely collected and sent to the pond. Heating this much water is laborious and consumes as much fuel as a day’s worth of meals. There are bathing methods that use less energy, the most common being the steam bath.
    pg 47 (Rural households and villages are self-sufficient in terms of food, water, and fuel, except for salt.)
    Pg 64 (The presence of the central government is mostly felt at tax time and when conflicts arise which cannot be resolved at the village level.)

    Having described in some detail the life of a farming community, Brown draws some lessons for us:
    Pg 92 let gravity do the work
    Pg 93 understand that without cooperation, nothing happens.
    Pg 94 rethink the meaning of ‘comfort’
    Pg 98 increase the use of unrefrigerated, uncooked food

    Brown then turns to the commercial district in Edo.

    Pg 120 Wherever one turns, one finds places to eat, drink, rest, watch, learn, and discuss. For inhabitants and visitors alike it is an intellectual and creative powerhouse.
    Pg 125 these townhouses are models of natural climate control for high-density urban areas

    And a few lessons:
    reinvent the urban waterway
    pedestrian space solves problems
    maintain waste collection and scavenging as economic opportunities for marginalized populations

    And finally we visit the Samurai district. I’ll cut it short to say that the Samurai class had quite elaborate kitchen gardens (they had a lot of land, while the merchant class of commoners did not).

    Pg 199 (While the Samurai were supported by taxes paid by farmers, they were finding it necessary to supplement their income. Brown gives us line drawings of five popular Samurai Cottage Industries: umbrella making and repair, basketry, loom weaving, lantern making, and letter writing and calligraphy.)
    Pg 217 It is ironic that it was the ruling class, underfunded, suffering from inflation, and deprived of real opportunity to improve its financial situation, that felt compelled to grow it’s own food.

    And lessons from our visit to the Samurai district:
    aim for a locally sourced lifestyle
    micro-economies result in better service
    understand the meaning of ‘good’ light

    I hope this overview and selections will prompt some of you to read the book yourself…Don Stewart

    • THanks! I need a few more hours in the day.

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Thanks, Don. Truly a unique period in history, and probably incapable of replication save by the exceptionally dedicated.

    • While the review of Japan from 1600 onwards is fascinating, it falls into the realm of wish politics and wish economics
      The population of Japan then would have been in the region of 10 million? perhaps the oriental mind is more open to collective thinking—hard to say. But there is much reference to ‘class’, which itself implies superiority and inferiority. Every organised society seems to organise itself along those lines, one way or another, only the input of colossal amounts of excess energy allowed the class system to break down. (by offering security of living and alternative employment other than under the class system–fewer people wanted the jobs as servants anymore)
      If the Samurai were supported by taxes on farmers, they were living on ‘excess energy’ produced by food output. Europe had much the same system, a warrior caste supported by a food producing caste, held in place by serfdom.
      this system is likely to return as energy goes into depletion, but to suggest that people will joyously embrace the intellectual pursuits of weaving, umbrella making and basket making is taking wishful thinking to the point of hilarity.
      The insular life of the Japanese lasted until western industry showed up on its doorstep in the shape of iron ships and cannon. 50 years later, the Japanese had transformed themselves from medeival backwardness into a power able to defeat Russia in a naval battle. Long term, embracing those things might have been a bad idea, but human beings think in the immediate short term, we do not possess the mental capacity to imagine results of our actions, a year ahead, let alone centuries. The Japanese wanted the western lifestyle, like everybody else. And just like everybody else they will not surrender it lightly.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear End of More
        Brown makes it very clear that the Edo Japanese had no choice but to behave sustainably. At bottom, the big decisions were made by the Government. Close the borders so that very little comes in or out of the country. Take the big warrior class and their regional lord employers and put them in cities where they can be controlled and won’t start wars. Subsidize them with taxes on the farmers to keep them in a lifestyle to which they have become accustomed–but gradually reduce the real value of what they are getting from the farmers. Which causes the ruling class to do things like make baskets to sell and to grow their own food. To take control of the forests so that they regenerate, but to establish simple rules by which the farmers can use the products of the forest. To govern mostly through village governments and mostly through consensus building. To promote agricultural education and innovation through pamphlets very similar to what the Land Grant Colleges in the US produced a hundred years later.

        You can similarly look at the practices and innovations by families and villages and artisans and merchants more or less independently of the government. For example, the sanitation measures which kept their cities relatively disease free were a matter of free dealings between farmers and city landowners with apartments, as well as individual households. As a matter of interest, samurai humanure brought a better price than that of the commoners–the farmers understood the concept of nutrient recycling and knew that if the samurai were eating better, then their manure would be richer.

        There is a lady out in Washington state who has just finished a year of eating only food from a ten mile radius. What she has done is comparable to what the government of Edo Japan did: create an island standing apart from the world. That may be one of the conclusions in terms of the search for sustainability. It has to be very local. Another is that people stop thinking about solving their problems with more fuels. If you read Brown, you will see that the farmers carefully weighed the value of burning wood and used all sorts of ingenious methods to make it go farther. Why? Because the Government would only let them burn forest wood which had fallen from the trees. They could manage coppice on the the lower slopes and they could gather fallen wood and that was all there was. If people internalize the ‘that’s all there is’ message, then their behavior changes.

        Don Stewart

        • Don Stewart says:

          One more thing about Edo you might like to contemplate. The farmers had two sources for borrowing money. They worked much like the fraternal societies that John Michael Greer has been talking about in recent months.

          The farmers with land in a village formed an association with a pool of money. The money could be loaned out to a farmer who needed to borrow money to build something. When the money was paid back into the pool, then they could loan out for the next project. (This isn’t Wall Street, creating money out of thin air.)

          The unmarried men who would someday establish their own farm and family also had an association which operated similarly. I suppose they loaned money to acquire things like tools.

          These ideas are similar to Slow Money in the US…Don Stewart

          • xabier says:


            And Greer also makes the good point that the old mutual-help associations distinguished between worthy and unworthy recipients, and thereby reinforced decent social behaviour and the ethic of hard work: whereas the modern welfare-for-all model seems to reward anti-social behaviours and attitudes, and is accessed by being utterly unsuitable for any kind of work or decent human society (I of course do not refer to those who are being crushed by our disfunctional economies and would dearly love to work and are thrown back on a welfare existence which they hate.)

        • xabier says:


          The ‘That’s All There Is’ message certainly works as an excellent regulator.

          I don’t get heat by flicking a switch: I have to go to my log pile.

          I made that log pile by a lot of labour with wedges and axe (which I enjoy and keeps me fit and strong): I consider before lighting a fire, and assess whether it is really necessary when I look at the level of cut logs which I have left (particularly at the end of Winter) , and also it determines what time of day I might light the fire.

          I also light fires later in the Autumn than I would have switched on the gas heating – it’s a labour/benefit calculation.

          In the Autumn, I think ahead carefully and assess whether it’s going to be a hard winter of not, and cut logs accordingly. I discuss the prospects coming winter with my timber supplier who also loves watching the Seasons. We both look ahead.

          I rarely light a fire just to ‘feel a bit warmer’, as one does with gas or electricity. I use less, I think more.

          This is in sharp relief to the oil-based heedlessness on which the modern economy is based. In a way, we need to lead physical lives and to labour in order to think……..rather than be mere automata flicking switches in a system that actually controls and represses us while appearing to serve us.

          Having said that, it is a universal experience that peasant families have nearly always abandoned the land for the city lights, once the option became available, because under the old system with lots of manual labour, you really are done for quite early (in our eyes, but of course ‘old age’ to he eyes of the past, 40 to 50 years old!) I suppose the problem here is the level of urbanisation – once cities are big enough and attractive enough, they drain the land of the young.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Xabier

            Your phrase ‘to labour in order to think’ is very timely. Are you aware of the movement to build desks which fit over treadmills which keep people moving at one or two miles an hour? It has been shown that thinking happens best when we are moving–not sitting. There is a good article in the May 20 New Yorker magazine. The prestigious office furniture company Steelcase offers a couple of models. Search on ‘steelcase walking desk’.

            Of course, this is all an expensive, high-tech solution. The ancient Greeks used to go for a walk when they needed to think. I believe Einstein and Wittgenstein used to walk when they were trying to think. There is a play called A Walk In The Woods about the 1982 encounter between an American and Russian arms negotiator which resulted in the first nuclear arms limitation initiative. It failed because the bosses of the two men wouldn’t accept the results…but later sanity did prevail and their initial understanding formed the basis for the treaties which limited nuclear weapons. If they had been confined to a dreary conference room watching PowerPoint slides, I doubt they would have accomplished anything at all.

            Don Stewart

        • that works fine until thousands of other ten mile radii overlap yours
          as to using fuel, naked human beings have a slight problem. we evolved into what we are between the tropics of cancer and capricorn, ie, where enough heat is supplied by the sun year round. if we stray too far outside that zone permanently, then we have to find an external energy source to stay alive, that means stealing the skins of large furry animals, and using their body mass to supplement our own, or setting fire to our environment.
          There is no other way of doing it . Burning coal and oil just means setting fire to a 200m year old environment thats all.
          You might manage a sustainable environment where it’s warm and fertile –ie cuba–but not where it’s freezing half the year–northern Japan for instance, not with presnt populations anyway

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear End of More
            If you will just read Brown’s book, you will find out how they did it. With 35 million people. In 1850.
            Don Stewart

          • Don Stewart says:

            Also, even in Edo most food came from a ten mile radius. Rice was an exception. For the samurai class, a lot of food came from their kitchen garden.

            Don Stewart

      • xabier says:

        End of More

        Well, on my Spanish side I come from an old aristocratic family, (knights and professional soldiers who then became farmers and lawyers when the wars stopped) – I suppose exploitative loafers in some ways – and I’m a practitioner of an ancient craft which I also teach, and I suspect if more people sat down to make things with their hands, they’d be a lot happier! Of course, they might not want it, you are probably right.

        Skilled craftsmen, with work to do, are among the happiest and nicest people I have ever met. And you stay useful: I learnt from a man of 80 who was put to his trade to keep him out of the bomb factory in WW2, and who has thanked his mother’s memory ever since. Of how many ways of life can one say that?

        It’s amazing to me how many people spend their whole miserable working lives longing to do something like that, and then take it up in retirement and try to make up for their ‘lost’ lives (as they tell me.)

        There is nothing like making something fine to make the day worthwhile.

        Curiously, it was a tradition among the Ottoman sultans and also many European royal families to learn crafts (poor old Louis XVI who lost his head loved tinkering with clocks, I think.)

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        To End of More:
        Enjoyable analysis. One small item I would dispute is the notion that Japanese wanted a western lifestyle. It’s probably accurate to say that they wanted wealth and power, but their internal personal motivations and psychologies were, and remain, very Japanese. Granted, the differences may be less conspicuous today, but they should not be overlooked. Ditto with China, which could prove to be an unhappy camper in the event of collapse.

        • in 1860 or whenever, I don’t think they did, but with American cannon shoved up their noses, I think they came to see its benefits pretty quickly
          As you say, the culture is very different and may lend itself to internal malleability

    • xabier says:


      Thanks for the image of samurai weaving baskets and making umbrellas! I must get that book.

      The same thing happened in Old Spain: the gentry were restricted by their caste from carrying anything other than a sword, and it was forbidden to take up any manual work: hence the figure of the knight in a fine cloak and with his father’s sword, and just rags underneath!

      Sadly, instead of a eco-friendly version of Edo Japan, I think we will just be living in decayed societies, half-functioning, with corrupt and interfering governments: a dystopic BAU on the western model – like Argentina. Or maybe New Zealand can become the new Edo?

  11. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Someone asked about the labor force participation rate. I can’t find the question. Here is some data:

    Here are a few references to jobs, dependency, ability to pay taxes, and the like:





    To my way of thinking, you have to put at least three things together to assess the health of the society. Look at the labor force participation rate and then look at the dependency statistics and then look at the indicators of societal disintegration. I have given references for some of the data on those three topics.

    Then you put on your thinking cap and try to think in terms of lasting values:
    1. What does it mean that most people are not making enough money to pay the income taxes that support an enormous military machine? Does the military become a private army for the elites?
    2. Is an ever increasing labor force participation rate a good thing? Should we encourage a more robust home economy which is less dependent on the vagaries of the marketplace?
    3. If the government stopped persecuting it, could more people make a living in the gray economy?
    4. Is it wise to let the dependence economy continue to grow? What steps could be taken to curb dependency?

    Lots of other questions you can think of for yourself….Don Stewart

    • Scott says:

      Interesting, Labor Participation is another way to look at employment and unemployment. That Zero Hedge article indicated the real unemployment rate is closer to 12% if you look at that. Which is less than shadow stats shows it as high as 23 percent So like Gail said the real number is somewhere in between. The government reports 7 and the most extreme estimate is 23 percent. So the real number is 15 or more percent for US unemployment which is not yet at the magnitude of the Great Depression. If the real unemployment rate was as high as 23 percent then we would be in Depression.

      I wonder what the unemployment rate would be without all those government sponsored jobs, defense contractors, student loans. I bet it would be very high.

      Surely tax revenues will suffer as this persistently high unemployment continues which will cause governments to print money and buy their own bonds. It is hard to imagine that going on for long and have low inflation rates with so much new money chasing the same amount of goods.

      The thing that concerns me the most in finance for the nation is the trillions that have to be refinanced as the bonds mature. The bond market is the mother of all bubbles. If rates go up the cost to roll over our national debt will skyrocket and if rates go higher that could cause us to default on our debt. So it seems they have to keep these rates at near zero or game over.
      If our government had to pay a fair market rate on on the money it borrows by issuing bonds the trillions they owe in-refinance-able. They would be forced to print even more money pay the interest cost which could cause hyper inflation, falling dollar and eventual default of the nation.
      I just wonder how much longer they can hold rates this low before creditors start demanding fair market rates for the money they loan us.

      So an event like just rising rates could be spark to light the fire for our next big leg down. Because of the huge debt, our system has become broken. They believe in infinite growth which includes infinite money creation to make it all happen. About a hundred years ago there was no borrowing of money unless there was sufficient gold or silver to back it up. Killing the old gold standard enabled the US and other countries to print as much money as they liked with nothing backing it. In the old days there was silver or gold on deposit for each dollar issued. Some of the old money even says Silver Certificate on the face of it. Gold and silver coins were used to buy goods. It was a more stable system then and prices remained stable too. But killing the gold standard as they did enabled them to build the military industrial complex, fight wars all over the world and now we are left with the huge debt bomb waiting to implode. Today I do not think there is enough gold and silver in the world to go back to the gold standard, if we did it would have to be priced many times higher than it is today and the coins would be much smaller than those of the old days.

      So I am watching the bond markets for rising rates at some point which could signal that trouble is near, no sign of higher rates yet but that does not mean they will not rise at some point and break the back of those governments that owe to much including the USA and much of Europe except Germany.

      All fiat money systems have a time come when they must die. Sometimes default is an only option if the bill is too big to pay. Default could also mean new kind of money, I am not sure what they will call it but it has been referred to as the “Amero”. Partial default could be in the form of devaluation where we turn in our old money for something new that will surely have less value. So we may see a partial or full defaults happening sovereign debts. The citizens of those countries will experience economic downturns as result, things will get harder for the people, so it looks like we will all be the losers in this game of money printing.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Scott
        I agree with much of what you say.

        The most relevant employment statistics are two that we don’t have:
        1. If government and private debts began to be paid down, what would the employment rate be?
        2. If government and private debts began to be paid down, how many people would make incomes adequate to pay the taxes required to support the government as we know it?

        I suspect that the answers are very scary….Don Stewart

        • Scott says:

          Hello Don,

          Did you agree with the part about national debt being difficult to refinance and market rates? And that could be inflationary?

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Scott
            You can come up with some very, very scary scenarios when you start playing around with a rise in interest rates. From the numbers I have seen, Japan is perhaps in the most precarious position. The tricky part is figuring out whether it would be inflationary, or simply be the final push to default. We could get default, chaos, and deflation. Precious metals might be a good thing to have…or the governments may just seize them and make it illegal for anyone to take them in payment.

            If you look at the statistics that Charles Hugh Smith presents, the vast majority of the assets in the country are in the hands of a tiny minority of very rich people. We could get a ‘French Revolution’ where debts are simply not paid, the very rich suffer, and perhaps many of them lose their heads. Or we could get a military takeover with a Fascist government. Who knows? I don’t!

            I’m not much help…Don Stewart

            • Scott says:

              Yes Don

              I think we can all agree that we are in the dark a bit on all of this.

              We hold a bit of precious metals food and goods needed because we are not sure what to do.

              I guess this is a bad situation that really none of us know exactly what is best. But we feel we must do something. I am humming to music and working in my gardens mostly.

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Here is an interesting post from Dave Cohen summarizing Ben Bernanke’s recent address at Bard College.


    I am sure that when Gail reads this, she will feel very sorry for her nitpicking at Economists, and will come to the realization that free markets (as manipulated by the Federal Reserve) solve all conceivable problems and give us the best possible world which is going to be fabulous if we live that long.

    Don Stewart

  13. tmsr says:

    Gail, the human population was in check for all of human existence except for the last 300 years. It happens automatically. We could call it the four horsemen disease, war, starvation and pestilence (I would replace this with pollution and pollution inducted deaths). Those who can work, cooperatively build, scheme, claw their way high enough up the social ladder have food and do not starve. Those who do not die. It is evolution in action. Personally, I would prefer a more humane system. I would like to offer every citizen lifetime welfare in exchange for having zero children (sterilization).

  14. tmsr says:

    Gail, I think you live in the south. Here in New York state 100 miles north of NYC it gets to -10F in the winter. Without some heat in the winter life is going to be very hard on ones health. Yes, there can be far less heat say 50F in the one heated room the kitchen and no heat in all other rooms. But no heat I can not see working.

    • You are right. No heat would be a problem in very cold areas. I expect there will either be deforestation or a rapid drop in population in very cold areas.

      There was a reason people lived in very small homes in the past, when they lived in cold areas. It took much less fuel to heat them. Igloos “worked” because they retained body heat plus a little extra added warmth. With today’s large homes, and large populations in the North, it would impossible to have enough fuel.

      • “You are right. No heat would be a problem in very cold areas. I expect there will either be deforestation or a rapid drop in population in very cold areas.”-Gail

        Unlikely. Alaska never got Deforested in 15,000 years of Human Habitation. Heating and Cooking do not deforest, Smelting Metal, building large Naval Armadas and Glazing Ceramics and Glass do that.

        Stick to the Actuarial Arguments Gail. Your Anthropology as always has more holes than Swiss Cheese. 😉

        Try Paleo or Phyle: Part II for another perspective.



        • Scott says:

          Hello Reverseegineere

          This may sound weird but I had to ask. Your online name is interesting to me as in reverse tech. as in taking apart a space ship of an alien craft and reverse engineering it. Do you think there is something out there that has already been reverse engineered without our knowledge?

          You know I think sometimes Hollywood has references to things that are interesting and may be clues to the future as in Star Trek. I guess I will remain the weirdo on this blog to believe that something else is out there to help us. Time will tell all.

          Were are the Di-lithium Crystals when we need them?

          • Actually, originally my Nom de Plume was Rogue Economist, not Reverse Engineer. I still use Rogue Economist on Zero Hedge. Long story from the pages of PeakOil,.com.

            Anyhow, no has nothing to do with Alien Technology. The reference is to Reverse Engineering to more sustainable technologies and systems we used before the Dawn of Industrialization with the invention of the Steam Engine.


        • Alaska wasn’t overpopulated, and wasn’t trying to do extensive agriculture. You need metal tools for agriculture, and you are right, trying to make metals is what wipes out forests.

          If we want anything high-tech, we need high quality alloys. Recycling is not good enough for that, even if it is nice to think that way.

          • We’re not debating keeping anything High Tech, merely whether it is possible to live in the Far North without deforestation, which it clearly is possible to do since it was done for 15,000 years quite successfully.

            Precisely how many people can live in this environment without negatively impacting the total ecosystem is open to question, Traditionally the total population prior to European Invasion and Genocide is estimated at 60-100K Human Souls. Less than live here now, but its likely with permaculture and better knowledge you could probably double that number.

            Your Odds of Survival up here are at any rate far better than they would be within 100 Miles of any Metro area down in the Lower 48. Probably the only other place you do so well would be in Siberia. You did read about the Ruskie Family that lived on their own for 40 years up there, unaware WWII had ended I trust?



            • I will agree that some people can live in the North without deforestation. If anyone wanted to keep the current population living in anything like their current homes, that would be out of the question though.

              It sounds like the Russian family went through some pretty hard times. The mother starved.

          • 40 years in complete isolation, it is remarkable any of them survived.

            The Individual Paradigm generally is not very good. You need to work at decent Tribal sizes for good survival odds. Also for genetic diversity. This bunch would have died out anyhow in a generation, 2 at the most with Inbreeding.

            Agreed, the current structures suck, but they can be Cannibalized to make better ones for quite some time.

            As mentioned also, Alaska has tons of coal, seams at ground level you can chip out fuel by hand if you want. It will be quite some time before the wood has to be burned for heating and cooking.


      • xabier says:

        There was a reason why peasants lived in the very same rooms as their livestock, too. Lots of lovely warmth and company!

        In bigger farmhouses, life pretty much went on in the kitchens, where a fire would burn all day. Not so bad to be granny by the pot then……

        From personal experience of ‘fuel poverty’ in a northern winter, very warm under-clothing is essential, and above all a hat, and even the smallest source of heat somehow helps one get by.

        It’s best when heat is scarce to spend most of the day outside working in some way to keep warm, or even walking the dogs.

        But, No heat at all? No way!

        • tmsr says:

          Yes, I already wear thermal underwear Dec-Feb and there is no shortage of home heating oil just a shortage of dollars to buy it, as Gail points out. I just installed an electric heat pump so now I will effectively be burning cheap coal rather than premium oil.

          I hear there is 5000 giga tons of coal in Alaska. No, I do not want to have a discussion of global climate.

          Ed Pell

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            There are reasons, but no excuses, for all the green tree huggers to have ignored, over the last 20 years, the tremendous benefits of geothermal for heating and cooling the home. Our total (aggregate) energy bills could be 10% – 20% lower, our use of fossil fuels reduced, and our environments more comfortable. Like you, I’ve been wearing long johns for a long time…

          • Scott says:

            Hello tmsr, This may be a question for Gail and others, but is there a process to make coal into clean energy somehow? Can coal be used in a different way somehow and burned cleanly after this process if it even exist, or perhaps there is a technology to be explored, does not sound like it so far but it may be out there. We certainly have enough coal. Also does anyone know how far we are along Thorium, has a test reactor been built? Interesting subjects in search of solutions.

            • I was at an electricity conference last week, where some were talking about a chemical process for using coal, that would be different from burning it and much cleaner.

            • Scott says:

              Cleaner Burning Coal Liquid fuels ?
              That could be something there, but I imagine anything made from coal would still be a carbon based fuel even if it was made into something like the gas we burn in our cars today. Then we will have not solved the problem of warming but I suppose we could live on a warming planet for some generations to come if they develop coal to liquid fuels perhaps. This may be the most promising thing we have looked at aside from Thorium and all that but does not solve the acidification and warming issues. Only Hydrogen could do that if we could make it without carbon based fuels.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Hi Scott:

              A couple of quick thoughts about coal and other pollutants. In the first place, buddy, if we get into a moderate collapse, which we could define generally as ‘announced unemployement’ of 15-20% in the USA (and similar stats in the other categories) then nobody’s going to worrry about a little more black carbon in the atmosphere. Goodness knows the Indians, Chinese and Russians have not cut back their coal burning, and the relatively small amount that the USA contributes to global pollution will offend only the most hypersensitive tree hugger. Besides, if we’re headed for the big collapse, then none of those things matter anyway. Rather, how you make weapons from coal will be a more pertinent question. Maybe I can use it to filter some of my corn-squeezings. Oh, no, that’s charcoal…


            • Scott says:

              Hello Chris, I guess I could burn coal in my wood burning stove in pinch. It stores well, perhaps I should lay in a coal bin to store some significant BTU’s. I do have five cords of wood and and live in an area has lots of trees, so I will stay with the wood. But I lived in an area where there was not much firewood, then coal would be great to put in a little stove for a stir pot and a house warmer.

              I have seen coal used before in little stoves, only a few lumps goes for a long time and puts out lots of heat, just do not hang out on the roof near the smell, I much prefer the smell of wood smoke.

              Kind Regards,

  15. I key point I take from this blog is that the system [our system] was designed around $30 oil [and a little more in Europe] and once it has tripled the system is showing real cracks which will/is lead to decline/collapse.

    I do wonder if we are seeing a evolution in the system in the developing world who counter to convention are prepared to pay more for oil/energy despite being poorer because they just get so much more bang for their buck. Therefore are economic limits more of western problem than a global one and are we simply seeing a switch in economic power to the East? Are the rules being rewritten? [I would caveat this with same switch that Rome faced when the West went into decline and the Eastern Empire took over that it was a delay in the inevitable]

  16. This is a fairly easy problem to resolve, in several possible ways.

    1- Introduce a Predator for Homo Sapiens we can’t knock down. Call it MRSA or H9N14, whatever, with sufficient Infection and Mortality rate to knock down Homo Sapiens as fast as we can breed up.

    2- Determine what the Carrying Capacity for your patch of Land is. Once determined, each year you count up the number of children born and then Terminate With Extreme Prejudice an equal number of the oldest folks in your society.

    3- Give everyone IQ Tests and TWEP the lowest scoring percentiles until you hit your Target Population Size (The Eugenics Solution)

    4- Introduce a Test for Survival at Puberty. Send all the Adoloscents in your society who reach Breeding Age out into the Bush for a Year with nothing but a Knife and the Clothes they are wearing. The ones that come back Alive at the end of the Year can then Breed.

    You just have to think like the Illuminati. 🙂 Ruthless.


  17. Christopher Johnson says:

    In response to Don Stewart, re Edo

    Unfortunately I have not read Brown’s book, which sounds authoritative. I have read other histories of the period, however, and can proclaim without hesitation that the degree of government control of the population was far higher than anything most Americans could tolerate. It would be more similar to Stalinist Russia. So, if you want to trade in The Enlightenment, the Rights of Man and the kinds of freedoms Thomas Jefferson (inter alia) thought important then that’s your vote.

    • xabier says:


      At the heart of Stalinist Russia lay a basic, savage, anarchy – the threat of arrest and execution or condemnation to the Gulags at any time, for any or no reason. Life or death at the whim of one man and his cronies, also liable to a fall from grace and execution. I had the good fortune when a student to meet a man who’d known Stalin in person, and he told me some stories that chilled the blood, in a way more illuminating than all the statistics about number of deaths, etc.

      That is quite distinct from Edo Japan. Or other customary rule-bound societies like the Aborigines in Australia, where if you misbehaved you had a bone pointed at you: but all the rules were known and were not random and capricious.

      I agree, no-one who is prosperous now in the USA would accept it, although circumstances might force them to – and those who live off food stamps and government programmes, what difference would there really be for them? Might well do them some good to have a more rigid social structure…… I’d say the same for Europe, too.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Gracias Xabier,

        You are quite right that societies facing crisis may be more willing to accept severe changes. The point I was trying to make is that the feudalistic social structure of Edo Japan was exceptionally rigid without the least bit of liberality, not far different from the life of European serfs. Now, for a member of this blog community to recommend such a ‘social circumstance’ because it ‘protected the natural environment’ and ‘maintained the population at a level’ arbitrarily agreeable to a certain somebody is eminently worthy of immediate forceful challenge. If a person is so uncommitted to the principles of personal freedom, liberality and social accommodation that they would recommend its antithesis, then he should quickly learn to not be offended by the mounting objections. And to ignore those mournful features or pretend they don’t exist is just plain ludicrous. Sword fighting class begins at 7:30.

        • xabier says:


          I’m a classical liberal I suppose, but I suspect our old friends Plague and Famine will soon be determining what form of society we are to live in, irrespective of our personal preferences!

          At the moment, I find myself, as a ‘citizen’ to be the utterly helpless victim of whatever lunatic or misguided, or plainly corrupt, regulation is imposed on me by supposedly ‘representative’ institutions,( in a economic structure which is destroying the Earth,and, in a sense, eating itself) which are in the hands of ideologues, bankers and other vested interests, so I don’t feel particularly more free than a ‘serf’, whatever my nominal freedoms and possessions……..

          At any moment, a government official, pleading ‘supreme national interests’, can take away everything, give me a number, put me in a cheap uniform and send me to die or labour or just rot.

          Serfs at least were let off going to war or labouring on fortifications when there was the harvest to get in. The Russian Tsars never created anything as horrible as the Gulag system or the Great Leap Forward.

          But all our theories and philosophies will soon be in the dustbin, I suspect, as we ask where the next meal is coming from, and wonder when the storms will cease or the drought end – just like any peasant.

          • Christopher Johnson says:


            I am not as pessimistic as some. In fact, it’s possible to see a very interesting future emerging. For instance, if you are familiar with 3D Printing, it turns out that some smart DIY folks in Australia have just figured out how to ‘print’ your own solar PV cells. And then someone will figure out how to use 3D Printing to make everything you find in a well-stocked hardware store, etc.

            Betting against human ingenuity (for bad as well as good), is a fool’s errand.

            The other thing re our ‘philosophies’ is that they are rooted in our most fundamental beliefs. We ‘liberal’ in that we believe in fairness and honesty, as dictated in scripture and woven into our society for at least 3 millenia. It would be misleading to ignore potential threats, but it would be terribly demeaning, and therefore wrong and probably immoral, to think that the thugs will inevitably win…

            Cheers, Chris

  18. Pingback: What Would it Take to Get to a Steady State Economy? Humans live in equilibrium with other species in a finite world | alternative renewable energy Pakistan

  19. Don Stewart says:

    On a number of occasions you have mentioned that humans are probably a K Selected species. The great scientist Stephen Jay Gould was fond of pointing out that statistical ‘facts’ could be disproven with a single example from the real world. If the Japanese of the Edo period were able to avoid behaving like a K Selected species, then it proves that being a K Selected human is not necessarily our fate.

    In the last 20 years science has shown that our genes are just blueprints for making proteins–not fate. What really counts (in most cases) is gene expression–is the gene turned on or off at the proper time. And environment can play the dominant role in gene expression. For example, one can have genes which predispose one to breast cancer, but if one carefully controls the environment (say, through diet), then the genes are never expressed. And genes which boost the immune system can be stimulated through environment (things like adequate sleep, lack of social stress, exercise, and good diet).

    I (who don’t know anything about this for sure) speculate that environment can turn on the genes which account for much of the bad behavior of K Selected species by expressing hormones. At the bedrock, I think humans respond to hormones. Yet sometimes societies figure out ways to cause hormones to be expressed in better ways than naked aggression. The Edo period Japanese had many insitutions and cultural practices which gave a reward for ‘good behavior’. Good in the sense that the society as a whole was better off.

    I am sure there are people who know more about this than I do. But just as the Human Genome project was misguided when it thought that simply decoding the genome would tell us everything about humans, I suspect that the ‘statistical fact’ of K Selected doesn’t tell us everything about the potential of humans. Perhaps we should study the environmental factors which control the gene expression we associate with ‘K Selected’–and then modify that environment to the extent we can.

    Don Stewart

    • I am not as convinced as you are by one temporary counter-example. THis group lived on an island, and could see that they could not support much more population.

      I do agree thought, that there are factors other than instincts playing a role as well.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Regarding the word ‘temporary’. A quote from Brown, page 10. After recounting the dire situation in 1600:

        ‘All the more remarkable then that 200 years later the same land was supporting thirty million people–two and a half times the population–with little sign of environmental degradation. Deforestation had been halted and reversed, farmland improved and made more productive, and conservation implemented in all sectors of society, both urban and rural. Overall living standards had increased, and the people were better fed, housed, and clothed and they were healthier. By any objective standard, it was a remarkable feat, arguably unequalled anywhere else, before or since.’

        My argument is simply that before we say ‘Well…what do you expect from a K Selected species?’, we take a careful look at the specific measures the Japanese took to achieve what they did. There is no guarantee that any methods can sustain 7 or 10 billion humans, but we ought to be looking carefully at what is sustainable and, I argue, Edo Japan is a good place to start.

        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        After making the nearby comment, I saw Adam Taggart’s post:
        ‘The stories we tell ourselves have great influence over our destiny. These narratives shape our belief system and thus, in turn, the decisions we make.’

        If our narrative is ‘K Selected…Too Bad…End of Story’, we may miss a lot of opportunities. If we look at Edo Japan and see the situation they overcame and study the specific methods they used, we may come out in a very different place.

        Don Stewart

        • xabier says:


          In a way I am with you: if we look at sites like McPherson’s it’s just full of lamentations over how awful humans are, how it’s inevitable, how we went wrong 100,000 years ago, and how we deserve to perish horribly for having wrecked the planet, etc. It’s a harmful and pernicious narrative, full of bizarre self-hatred.

          Equally, I’m also inclined to sympathise with Gail when she puts emphasis on the isolated nature of Japan, it does make strict and sensible policies possible and enforceable, without pressure from outside groups. ( Look what happened when that isolation crumbled, we now have the mess that is modern Japan, although without the racial problems that stem from mass immigration to areas already settled by advanced societies.)

          We can see how the small societies of Switzerland, and Scandinavia have evolved in interesting ways, and how the British created a mode of politics in the 17th and 18th century which saved them from the revolutionary horrors of much of Continental Europe: island status had much to do with that.

          Possibly a breakdown in our communications systems might make semi-isolation the rule again, and so communities might diversify in a positive way (as well as extremely negative one.) Equally, just look at what harm the Mongols did to everyone around them only riding those little shaggy ponies of theirs…….

          It’s a world in which everything beautiful and good that we have ever made is always broken and smashed. But the potter shouldn’t think of the fragility of his work and be dismayed by it, and should go on creating.

          Otherwise let’s just shoot ourselves in the head and have done with it all!

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Xabier

            Consider a little the notion of an island. The poet William Butler Yeats, early in the 20th century, wrote about escaping from the gray stone streets of Dublin to the Isle of Innisfree. In his poem, he described how differently he would behave if he could simply get to Innisfree. At the end of the poem, of course, he is still stuck in Dublin.

            What does Eustace Conway know that led him to label his place Turtle Island, and to post all those No Trespassing signs and to insist that he is not offering any accommodations to ‘the public’ (‘public’ being a key part of his persecutors’ legal foundation).

            Gail has made a point about the high cost of fences and the likely disappearance of fences after the Collapse. Yet, if you subject yourself to an Island experience, you can travel to Karen and Oscar Will’s farm in Kansas, you can learn how to ‘Plowing With Pigs: And Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions’. Among the things you can learn is how to build a fence with Osage Orange, a tough and useful tree native to the Midwest and now grown in 48 states. Osage Orange was one of the trees widely planted during the dust bowl.

            ‘We learn from the Wills how to macerate the large green fruits and sprout their seeds, how to tip-root the young shoots to form a thicket of stems near the ground that will keep out virtually all animals larger than a field mouse, and how to weave second and third year growth into tought, self-renewing fences. You can harvest the stout stems of this excellent coppicing wood for your gates, stanchions, and field corners, and we learn as well how to make these useful structures with little more than trees and some stone and wire….making hurdles (movable sections of fence), a variety of gates, a loafing shed for animal shelter, and even a rather sophisticated kitchen counter island.’ Osage orange is not subject to drought or pests and will last for 30 years if stuck into the ground.

            My point about Osage Orange is that you will probably never learn these skills if the Farm Supply store is a short drive away in town. Yeats and Conway and the Wills have found it necessary to put themselves on Islands in order to speciate. The Wills found it necessary to locate ‘beyond the reach of small-minded suburban zoning officials’. Conway tried to build his Island with fences (and failed because he did not get beyond the reach of idiotic suburban zoning officials). Yates created his Island in his imagination–but did not succeed in getting to the physical Island.

            I have tried for the last 50 years to largely isolate myself from commercials. I just don’t watch TV. I was tempted several times (when Kennedy was shot, when the first space shuttle exploded, when the Trade Center was brought down), but I stayed on my Island and have been very happy here. I think, like Yeats, that being on my Island keeps me more focused on the important things in life.

            It’s amazing how putting yourself on an Island can change hormonal reactions. For example, I decided some years ago that putting my urine back onto my small plot of land was a very good idea. So I got a little bucket and peed in the bucket and dumped the bucket on my land. At first, I was not very faithful in the execution. But now, I have a pang of resentment when I am away from home and have to pee in someone’s toilet where all that valuable urine is going to go into the ocean with nutrient content that we need here on the land.

            I guess I would call recycling urine a Functional Island. The other day I saw a car with a Hawaii license plate that said ‘Slow Down…You’re Not On The Mainland’. Think how much better off we would all be if we could create our own mental Kauai and slow down…when driving fast creates a negative emotional space where we sense that we are imprisoned in The Madhouse of The Mainland.

            Why is going camping at Four Quarters in a fairly remote part of Pennsylvania a good place to contemplate the future of the world? Perhaps because it has many of characteristics of an Island.

            Don Stewart

  20. Mark says:

    So the tendency is for the world to become more right-leaning as the time goes on?

    “Men who are physically strong are more likely to have right wing political views”

    If you consider hierarchy a hard-right position, then we can think of the world leaning more to the ‘right’ as resources deplete and people start losing confidence in the democratic institutions. This phenomena can be observed in some European countries already.

    I would say that I quite like liberalism — but I have an intense dislike for mass immigration (which I dare say is totally undemocratic and harmful), centralization of power by federal authorities and regulation of speech (censure) which fortunately didn’t arrive in U.S… yet, thanks for the Constitution.

    • xabier says:

      Left or Right, every government will break your skull if you oppose it……
      Spain is becoming very authoritarian, but that’s the fault of the party in power, who like that kind of thing: they are mostly the grandchildren of the people who ran Franco’s dictatorship.

      • Christopher Johnson says:

        Xabier and Mark:

        I believe Mark proclaimed his appreciation of and affiliation with liberalism, which I share. However, please note that the kinds of social and political structures most likely to emerge in a significant collapse will not be motivated by ‘rights of man’ and other enlightenment claptrap. The biggest packs of the most vicious dogs could well be the most common local rulers.

        • Ed Pell says:

          The Russian who wrote the book about collapse suggested one should makes friends with a former soldier rather than buy a gun. He has a gun and knows how to use it.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            Thanks for the reminder, Ed. Maybe a good idea to keep some sippin’ whiskey available for special friends.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Or better yet, build a still and learn how to use it.

              People will always be willing to drown their troubles. Alcohol could become a currency in local economies.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Yep. An even better idea. Hey Jan, years ago when I was young and in the service we had some find Norwegian fellow trainees. Fine lads who you must have known, as they could hold their likker. The father of one ran a dairy farm, 60 miles north of the arctic circle. In light of all the recent discussion here about cold climates, security, etc. would you find northern Norway suitable?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “In light of all the recent discussion here about cold climates, security, etc. would you find northern Norway suitable?”

              Personally, no.

              None of us have a perfect crystal ball. I selected a location that I thought would be the “least bad” in just about any scenario I could think of.

              My criteria included access to my family without airplanes, or I might have included New Zealand or other far-out places.

              I also selected for winter agriculture potential. In the far north, you’re limited to hay and livestock for winter food supply. Here, we can harvest kale, carrots, and a number of other things year-round — as well as livestock.

              A nice corollary to winter agriculture is easier personal heat needs. We can get by on ½ to ¼ of the energy needs for heat that is required of a more northerly climate.

              Selecting for multiple scenarios, I thought an island near smallish cities would be good. While things unravel, we can market agri-tourism and workshops to a market of a 2.5 million people, but if (when?) the ferries stop running, we’ll be fairly isolated, except for the occasional pirate, who will probably stick to looting rich people’s houses on the waterfront.

              No one has a perfect crystal ball. I recommend examining as many different scenarios as possible when scouting a location. I used a spreadsheet with weighted scores for individual items to come up with this location.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Thanks Jan. Well begun is halfway done…

    • I think the tendency is for central governments to fall apart (because it takes a lot of energy to run a wide ranging government). Rulers are likely to become more of local rulers. I would guess that bribery will become more the rule than the exception. Perhaps you would refer to the governments by these local strong men as “right wing”. I am not sure that they would fit into our current political vocabulary. It may be more like rule in Afghanistan.

      • xabier says:


        The Left and Right categories are already long past their sell-by date,as many -like you – realize, and in a collapse situation they will become irrelevant (unless we see civil war based on political allegiances rather than struggles over resources.)

        The only thing that matters is not what a regime calls itself, but what reach it has, and what it intends to do to you: most ‘preppers’ for a step-down scenario seem leave that out of their calculations – even if there isn’t a descent into anarchy, property rights might disappear, and forced labour and group resettlement be imposed.

        In a ‘soft’ collapse like Argentina where a semblance of normality is retained and the State is still in existence, corruption is certainly a huge problem, and also police allied with criminal gangs in order to extort money or protect the gang members.

        • Left and right seem a bit old hat now given they are both based on growth and how wealth is distributed. The new left is perhaps the syndicalist model, more personal responsibility for the collective good and the right is an odd mix of libertarian and fascism harking back to a golden age of $30 a barrel oil. On the fringes of the ‘green’ is the pacifist survivalists and on the fringe of [old right] libertarians is the guns and ammo survivalists.

          the choices would appear to be semi totalitarian which would either be imposed, welcomed, or widely accepted as the only choice.- a decentralised communitism with a high level of personal responsibility and common purpose- or a failed semi functioning state like Afghanistan or Pakistan.

          My personal view is the best form of survival is collectivism although how strict or liberal [in the european sense] would depend on circumstances. In some ways it would reflect the original notion of the US and EU in that local ‘states’ would recover more control and look to association with a larger united states for trade and security.

          • states evolved and grew as the energy to support them grew.
            thus the nomadic tribes of the Sahara (say) migrated to the Nile valley, found that its fertility could support a vibrant ‘economy’ (ie excess energy output) which allowed the necessary free time and expertise to build the pyramids. Egypt is one example, there are hundreds more. As excess energy from improving agriculture grew, so did nation states, and eventually empires. Empires came and went, but all survived on a–the output of energy of the home state, or more usually b. looting the energy sources of the subject state.
            It follows then, that as energy sources begin to fail and contract, so will the nations that depend on them. Size is irrelevant, government is impossible without the energy sources to support its military and social infrastructure. Thus the EU is fragmenting because the energy input to support it is failing, as are individual parts of the EU, Spain for example has powerful separatist movements, as does the UK (Wales and Scotland). large nations cannot survive poverty, states will break up because they see a better chance of survival.
            what they are in fact doing is slowly reverting to the original tribalism from which we all came.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            Well stated Jules:
            Local communities composed of committed, ‘liberal-minded’ citizens intent on cooperatively addressing their needs and problems is one of about three options. The others may be less attractive: 2) Thuggery rule (aka feudalism) 3) chaos. Obviously, chaos would increase the odds of local barons (or knights or thugs, whatever fits), which means that a premium effort must be made to quickly organize the protection and functioning of the local community. It may be that the local communities (towns, counties) may be the most important building blocks of the post-collapse state.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Chris,

              In the last few years I have been learning about life in rural America.
              When we first moved to this small town in Oregon – from larger town in California one of the first things we noticed was the air raid siren.

              Anytime something happens here like a house fire or big emergency they blast off this loud old WWII Siren which can be heard for miles away. Volunteers race to the scene of a fire or crash. Kind of a strong group of folks up here many are from families of loggers and hunters in this small mountain community.

              I did not grow up here – but, instead the mountains of California, so my wife and I are outsiders and new comers to this small town so it takes time to meet people, but locals sure seem to know each other here as they went to school together etc. But I have met some really good people here.

              This is not quite an Eco Village, but in time of emergency, I do feel this community will pull together to a point and help one another as they did when all the logging shut down due to spotted Owls in the 1980’s, it brought tough times here suddenly and their are stories of the community helping one another. So I chose small town like this relocate to. Not a perfect place as even in a little mountain town like this there will still be groups of good and bad folks that will surface in times of trouble.

              Good to know there are still some good halfway decent places to live. We do have to drive far for big city items which we only go for once a month. So we use the little Honda car which gets 40 mpg.

              In recent years, many here have become far more dependent on Walmart and government cards that buy stuff for welfare sadly. But many are working too and for many of these young hard working families they find that things are expensive and it is hard to avoid debt and credit for many too.

              Since there is no university here and not much logging anymore, we do have far to many in our little town on food stamps and government aid which worries me but the area is kind of getting by compared to the booming college towns about an hour away. But there are some services jobs working retail stores and a few other places that fix things.

              Some even commute to those I am sure which could get harder in the future. The student loans are a problem for many – but, I think fewer families here trust those systems rightfully so.

              What I call is is the Big Squeeze, kind of like a big vise tightening and things are slowly getting tougher each month for many and suddenly tougher for many that have no work. In the USA the wealthier are healing but not too many others. I imagine it is the same in Europe.

            • The personal message I take away from this blog [and others concerning peak oil/agw/economic collapse] is not so much the when and how bad but more the need to prepare now in a social sense.

              The alternatives- green growth, guns and survival or veg patch and survival are all flawed. I think Gail’s comment that there is no reverse gear in the current economy or even working brakes requires the recognition that when change happens an alternative needs to be available. Currently the only things on offer are either a Cuban or NKorian model in the event of collapse and a German model if we manage remaining resources and spend. I think fascism will be a popular response [think tea party in the US, Ukip in UK and neo nazis elsewhere in the PIIGS [excluding Ireland].

              I don’t have answers- but an intelligent and educated wider community is a good place to start.

          • Leo Smith says:

            I think it may be foolish to look back at the past to see what types of hierarchy might emerge in a post semi-collapse western world.

            We can say some things more or less definitely: without significant energy surpluses towns and cities will be death traps. They cannot survive without it.

            But realistically some stuff that is low energy/high tech might well survive., Digital electronics and computers for example. The internet may well make it.

            And that is a great boost to co-operative ventures without central government at all.

            We may not be able to move goods around, but we might well be able to move information around. Ideas, good useful ideas, could spread like wildfire.

            What I can see, is collapse of the great Left ideas of huge planned economies. To be built wastefully using the wealth created by excess energy. Libertarian is likely to be a more successful strategy and a return to free markets. 10 sacks of potatoes for one pig and to hell with the sales tax.

            I remember talking to the man who owned the local store about politics ‘well we have to have a government’ he said ‘why’? ‘ I asked. He didn’t immediately have an answer.
            I think that is a question many people will be asking. Never mind how much givernment we would LIKE, how much do we actually NEED. and at its most basic, it boils down to a bunch of local thugs who are paid with whatever surplus you have to keep someone elses thugs from stealing your pigs and potatoes.

            Such manufacturing as is still done, is simply done as an economically viable ‘city state’

            We make ploughs, each plough costs ten pigs. Our thugs have rifles. Cos we make em. Your thugs have tree branches. Don’t mess with us.

            Social security? what social security? raise pigs or starve. Your choice. The multinational corporation is likely to outlast the government as we currently understand it. Because they actually operate more, or less, effectively.

            • I would disagree on what libertarian actually means, or has come to mean. All economies have traded since the moment we humans started to wander- axe trading was popular in neolithic times.

              Libertarian has become unbridled capitalism and it seems they are the ones most averse to any message of climate change or peak oil. A real libertarian is closer to a socially responsible anarchist [in the political sense] – I would be an anarcho syndicalist- Most democracies are dependant on capitalism for the growth and taxes with more left leaning ones regulating them to varying degrees. This dependence [capitalism needs the state to raise tax to pay for the things it doesn’t want to] of state and capitalism is the problem that will either be resolved in chaos or transition.
              A cooperative commonwealth makes a lot more evolutionary survival sense than warlords or tyrants, or kleptocrasy. History shows the whole breadth of human solutions and mistakes- the Diggers of 16th century England are interesting.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Is it fair / congruent with your understanding of the word that a libertarian wishes to preserve the liberty of whether he pays taxes or not, and how much. In other words, he wants to determine his personal obligation / munificence to society and not have some power crazy politician tell him what he must do?

              Now let’s see, the Greeks grappled with that one and lost. And I mean everybody in the whole society lost: kings, wealthy merchants, landed aristocrats, manufacturers, bourgoisie, proletariat, small farmers. The Romans made it work pretty well for almost 1,000 years by increasing the power of the aristocrats (Senators) and maintaining high taxes to support a large standing army. Most of the other civilizations up to 1800 didn’t do so well: lots of breakdowns.

              Since 1800 we’ve tried again: a few philosophers and leaders convinced lots of people that the rich and powerful should be more willing to share with the poor and weak. And they tried, occasionally with some success, to distribute the wealth in ways that keep even the poor marginally satisfied rather than preparing to revolt. But it’s kinda touch and go, and getting worse. Wealth distribution in the USA recently dropped to 1929 levels. After ’29 the USA went through a few tough decades and WW Twice, then led the world (through no virtue of its own) from 1945 to 1975, by which time it was starting to lose its power margin.

              Since the 1975-1990 transition (collapse of Marxist based economics & CCCP bloc), the USA and its European and Asian allies have generally prospered, but with increasing drag and friction from the petroleum producers who had belatedly become aware of their power.

              The capitalist world still has not come to satisfactory grips with the problems that stumbled the Greeks 2500 years ago. Rather, they’ve created such institutions as the European Parliament, stuffed with unelected, well-educated and probably unemployable aristocrats whose task it is to approve or disapprove of Europe’s democratic experiment. Makes sense to anyone who believes in the inalienable rights of kings or aristocrats or both.

              Yup, I’d say we have a few issues to work out, ladies and gentlemen.

  21. Richard Steinberger says:

    Gail – Can you provide some historical sense as to what “living on 7% of our energy” means? For example: Is there a chart which shows historical energy consumption (and by type of energy) in the US, that goes back at least ast far as 7% of today’s value? Is there a chart with those values in energy per capita? I’m trying to get a sense of what 7% means at current population levels, at projected levels over the next few decades, and at reduced levels (should epidemics, wars, famine, civil violence and/or other Malthusian “conditions” take effect).

    I think most Americans – if it were a matter of survival – could “go back” to the 1950s, or even the 1920s in terms of energy consumption… If we had: indoor plumbing, some indoor heating, safe drinking water, some aspects of modern medicine (e.g., blood transfusions, anesthesia, antiseptics, antibiotics, aspirin, maybe X-rays, basic surgical procedures), a mostly vegetarian diet with enough calories, a somewhat representative government, one able to provide a functional defense, public health policies, means to support themselves, etc. But if that’s too much energy, or requires an EROI we couldn’t achieve, are we pushed back to the 1880s? 1860s? Impossible questions, to be sure. But I think if people have some sense that economic contraction and partial collapse doesn’t have to mean a plunge back to neolithic life, there’s a chance we could, without enormous chaos, transition to a much lower level of energy consumption… and live reasonably meaningful, safe, healthy lives.

    • I don’t think that US energy consumption ever went that low. In 1800, the US per capita energy use was about 25% of the 2010 level country. (Based on US census data compared to US BTU consumption.) (We import a lot of goods made overseas, so the 2000 energy consumption is actually somewhat higher than the reported level. Taking that into account, the 1800 ratio is lower than 25%.)

      I think part of the reason why US energy consumption has been high for a long time is the fact that that the US is a country that gets cold. In the earliest days the United States used wood energy for heating. Later, it used coal and gas for heating. One of the issues is that I didn’t go into is that cold countries tend to use a lot more energy per capita than warm countries. Getting more energy from the sun is a big bonus, so it is almost impossible for the US to get as low as warm countries get. This makes it hard to come up with a world-standard for energy consumption. THe US and Scandinavia would never make the grade. Southeast Asia will always look like winners.

      In the 1950s, US per capita energy was between 65% and 70% of the 2000 per capita level. The 1860s and 1880s were at about 28% of US 2000 per capita energy.

      We are already dropping from 2000 energy usage. 2012 energy per capita energy usage is about 86% of its energy usage in 2000. Part of the drop is related to a drop in the proportion of people with jobs in the United States. With fewer jobs, less energy products are used. The people without jobs cannot afford cars, either. In the 1860s and 1880s, few worked in cities–most worked at home or on the farm, and thus used less energy. Few women worked outside the home, either.

      • Leo Smith says:

        One of the main reason US energy use is so high is simply because it is CHEAP. I remember travelling across the Mojave desert in summer, and looking at flimsy trailers with AIRCON strapped on (we never used aircon on the RUV at all the whole trip).

        A ling time ago people learnt how to build for hot dry climates: massive walls, thick rooves, overhanging eaves to provide shade and thermal mass that kept internal temps down to the average of the day/night. The USA simply threw in aircon instead, because its CHEAPER.

        In Europe, with gasoline taxes always high, we built cars that could do 40, 50, 60 and now, maybe 70 mpg. The US car was a gas guzzling 15mpg on a big SUV.

        Sitting on the worlds largest coal reserves with a population density about one tenth of the European norm and with texas oil leaking out of the ground.. I mean what incentive had the USA to save energy at all?

        The US is more short of water than energy. It could, by analysing the problem and optimising the way things are done easily slash energy use by a half. With no gross reduction in living standards. And probably it will, as energy prices rise.

        It is also well placed to develop new nuclear, and as fossil prices rise the first of the new generation nuclear plants should start to roll out in the early 20’s.

        As usual, spoiled for choice , with fracked gas coming along nicely. Only oil is tight – in every sense!.

        That does mean a fairly deep shift in the way of doing things, but its not nearly as acute as in other parts of the world. Europe is practically energy bankrupt, as is Japan. And don’t even think about Arab states close to running their reserves dry.

        Interesting to see where new nuclear is being built


        • Scott says:

          We all would be better off moving into adobe huts, but it is not going to happen voluntarily only unless the collapse and the fall out happens and it leaves us with a small group of survivors.

          Where I live in this rural community few people drive the smaller cars but I do, the trucks are huge. So most do not yet see any problem. Some are buying smaller cars but most like their old big trucks. I have a truck but we use it when needed to haul and it is a 4 cylinder Toyota.

          If we had to live in Adobe Huts we would all need ponies or horses and there are far to few of them available.

        • Christopher Johnson says:

          Well stated, Leo. The USA is generally blessed with resources and climate, and we have often been unappreciative and wasteful.

          Perhaps the most important shortage humanity faces is water supply, which is also increasingly strained in the USA, some years worse than others. Access to clean drinking water is declining almost everywhere, especially in the temperate and warm zones. Globally the quantity of desalination plants is increasing, and new less expensive processes are being developed. There are volume written about this by UN and World Bank and such. Africa is probably the biggest problem, as its population is expected to double again in 40-50 years to 2 Billion.

          It may require many more nuclear power plants to power the desalination plants and pumping stations to move the water where it’s most needed. Engineers get to play in sandbox!

  22. Dana Mayson in the SF Bay Area says:

    The world we are headed towards is going to be similar to the feudal one in Game of Thrones (excluding the magic, although considering how uneducated most will be, we’ll probably have fake “magic”). It is going to be very very very nasty and revert to survival of the fittest in some sort of warlord/feudal battle where ruthlessness is the method for solving issues.

    Of course first we have to get past the period in which an increasingly corrupt, dishonest, intrusive and control freakish federal government (and States in California like where I live) dictates the way life must be to folks and ruthlessly punishes any who step out of line. Of course, in rural areas, nobody listens because they don’t have too. Hence, another beauty of living somewhere rural…ignoring the corrupt busybody bureaucrats that so many of your geniuses vote into office.

  23. “Humans live in equilibrium with other species in a finite world. In such a world, there is never really a Steady State. Instead, there is a constant ebb and flow.” In chemistry and thermodynamics, dynamic equilibfium somewhat encompases this. There is a difference between steady and static. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynamic_equilibrium

    • The folks proposing a Steady State economy aren’t in physics. I think this distinction is too fine for them. I don’t think that they have ever stopped to think that a finite system is substantially different from one without limits, so that there is a need for equilibrium with other species.

  24. Richard Steinberger says:

    One of the very negative things anxiety of a possible/likely collapse (or at least major economic contraction) is that large numbers of people start believing irrational, crazy beliefs. When it seems that there is no hope, there are always people to peddle false hope and crazy beliefs. For example:

    Jesus is coming back any day now to save the righteous and destroy everyone and everything else. Tens of millions seem fine with this latest spin on the Book of Revelations

    Nuclear power must be radically ramped up ASAP. Simply not possible. Not affordable, far too dangerous (radiation lasting many thousands of years, and high likelihood of accidents)

    Travel to other planets. Really? Do you even remember the last time humans traveled to the moon? The nearest earth-like planet seems to be 1200 light years away. Don’t have a warp drive spaceship? Then better get used to staying here.

    Some new, as yet undiscovered, miracle energy source, like cold fusion. Not impossible, but no evidence at all to support this.


    Somehow humans will have to on their own, or be forced into, a new kind of dynamic balance, almost certainly at far lower of population and energy consumption. This will happen at best under very challenging climate conditions. It’s not going to be fun for anyone, and we’ll probably scramble like crazy for what remains of resources needed to keep industrial civilization alive and growing. But what’s like to happen are wars for land, water and other resources, epidemics as sanitation systems break down due to lack of energy and supplies, famine as the “green revolution” of industrial agriculture cannot any longer be supported.

    Not all of these “Four Horsemen” scenarios will happen at once – at least I hope they won’t. Now will they happen everywhere or with similar ferocity. There’s still time to prepare for economic contraction and partial collapse. But we have to start by being real about the predicaments we are in and ruling out fantasy “solutions”.

    • Scott says:

      Richard, After I saw the space craft in August 1976 in the Sierra Mountains I would venture to disagree with you about the warp drive. Some one has it. Is it our government or aliens, I do not know, but I do know I saw it.

      • Richard Steinberger says:

        Believing in space aliens, UFOs, government controlled secret energy supplies, cars that run on water but the oil industry suppresses, are yet more of the many delusions of the human species that have cropped up now that the threat of collapse or severe economic contraction is more widely appreciated. [Scott – You may have seen “something”, but it wasn’t aliens, and there’s no warp drive. Please give up these fantasies and come back to reality.]

        The more we get diverted by, or allow ourselves to be held hostage to, irrational delusions, the less time and effort we have to focus on rational ways to respond to our predicament.

        • Scott says:

          I respectfully disagree with you Richard.

          There were four of us and one person collapsed to the ground when he seen it.

          • Leo Smith says:

            Well lets hope he doesn’t get more brain damage from landing on his feet again.
            Id love there to be a warp drive. Sadly the science says its beyond us. If someone else has one, well they don’t seem to really be using it to help us do they? probably they decided that people who believe, rather than assess the actual facts, are not worth saving. They just chew the alien popcorn and fall about laughing.

        • Scott says:

          Richard, I do think we should not depend on unseen people aliens to save us from this, I was just pointing out the things that may be out there.

          God gave us all two feet and two hands for a reason to help ourselves. I am not expecting the aliens to land and ship us away to a garden planet and I do agree we all need to take this task upon ourselves to complete.

          I have have just have some unanswered questions in the reality of what can be done and what is really available to us to fix this thing in our tool box.

          I for one am not expecting an alien savor, but instead I am on this site because I do a collapse coming and it is going to be hard. But there is a glimmer of hope out there and there things we do not yet understand completely I believe. Our galaxy is large.

          • xabier says:


            Well, my cousin in Spain assures me he saw something similar, over the sea, and it made his dog run away. Was the dog crazy? I don’t think he’d ever read about UFO’s! I’m a pretty sceptical, rational kind of person, and I’ve seen other things (not UFO’s) that make me very humble indeed in contemplating the nature of the Universe we find ourselves in. And also hopeful: I’ll still plant my garden though, just like you.

        • Tony says:

          I completely agree, Richard. I’ve heard these alien stories for decades (and was, for a time, part of a hobby group that studies these things). I’ve even seen a few odd things myself, all unidentified. Whilst I think that life exists elsewhere in our galaxy (and in other galaxies), Star Trek technology is only found in fiction (however many small similarities exist in laboratory experiments). I have long concluded that travel between star systems is impossible, especially between star systems that might harbour intelligent life, which must be a small subset of all star systems. Of course, we don’t understand everything in the universe but what is true is that all planets will certainly have limited resources. We’ve already reached our limits when we’re still far from true intelligence and intra-galactic travel.

          Scott sees a glimmer of hope. Derrick Jensen defines hope as wishing for something over which you have no agency. We really can’t be relying on wishes and magic to address the predicament we now face.

    • Scott says:

      Ray of Hope.

      I did not mean to say that the there is group out there ready to save us from this problem, but there may be.

      I only wanted you to ponder the thought of what is possible. It does seem like we are on our own here as I have not seen any group yet to the rescue.

      Time will tell. It is just nice to know that there are things out there that we do not yet understand and that offers a ray of hope.

      There is truly much secrecy on our planet right now.

    • Leo Smith says:

      “Nuclear power must be radically ramped up ASAP. Simply not possible. Not affordable, far too dangerous (radiation lasting many thousands of years, and high likelihood of accidents)”

      very possible, eminently affordable,and chances of accidents very low. And will use up the natural radiation that has lasted billions of years already.

      You have been misinformed. Nuclear power is in fact the safest form of energy in terms of overall death rate per unit energy produced. Nuclear power contributes less than one percent to overall natural radiation levels, and indeed with a suitably favourable regulatory environment the UK could have built an totally nuclear grid (like France) for only slightly more money than it spent on bailing out the banks. And arguably with far greater national benefit.

      At its peak France was churning out a couple of power stations a year. As is China now. Overall nuclear power generates about 13% of all the worlds electricity.


      And has the best safety record of any power generation industry.

      Hydroelectricity is 16%, and most of the rest is coal with a smattering of gas.

      ” large numbers of people start believing irrational, crazy beliefs” is correct. Large numbers of people believe that nuclear power is expensive impractical does not work and causes massive deaths from radiation and will poison the earth for millenia.

      The facts on the ground refute that.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Nuclear power is in fact the safest form of energy in terms of overall death rate per unit energy produced.

        It’s worthwhile to note that Leo’s position is that of the establishment, and is not without considerable controversy.

        I know people who have died because of nuclear power who are certainly not accounted for in the official statistics.

        The problem with this sort of thing is that the effect is so widely separated from the cause that it is easy to dismiss any link. It mostly depends on whether you embrace the precautionary principle or not.

        Peer-reviewed statistical studies by prominent epidemiologists lend credible doubt to the safety of nuclear power, and even aware lay-people can make useful correlations. Following Fukushima, the infant mortality rate doubled in British Columbia, only to fall after about ten half-lives of I-131 had passed, but the provincial coroner chalked it up to “poor parenting skills” — very odd that parents suddenly got bad at keeping their infants alive when Fukushima melted, then got better about 80 days later!

        Yea, “correlation is not causation,” but sometimes it’s a damn good hint! And science and statistics can be abused by both sides.

        • xabier says:

          I’m wholly with you Jan. Nuclear power: just too awful if it goes wrong (and it must.)

          Compare walking with riding: taking a walk there’s a very limited chance of a slip or miss-step, maybe leading to a twisted ankle, maybe severe injury if elderly or frail or very, very unlucky. But on the whole, the down side of a walk is very minimal.

          Make the same journey by horse and if you have a mishap, the injury-level climbs right up the scale – broken back, neck, collar bones, legs, smashed skull, etc: death or permanent injury are most likely to result. I’ve known even very skilled, tough, riders who at a certain point in their lives decide that the risks are just too great to bear anymore and give up riding: ‘Too many broken bones, I don’t want any more.’

          ‘I’ve never fallen of a horse yet!’ in no way diminishes the inherent danger. But that is all that nuclear apologists can come up with.

          Our economic and financial systems are hugely unstable, and as we clearly will not relinquish our propensity to senseless wars, nuclear just has to be ruled out. It has been one of the worst gifts in the 20th century Pandora’s box. To point to the pernicious nature of the big coal and oil-fired power plants in comparison is simply a red herring, like justifying a massacre on the grounds that your opponents have historically done worse.

          • Scott says:

            I said I was for nuclear, but it is not my first choice, if there was a better known option but we have come up with one yet. Burning the dirty coal is not a good option. If the power plants could be located farther from population bases it would be better then you have the problem moving the power. Perhaps hydrogen could be a way to store the power and make it on site. Then you have to transport the hydrogen which poses its own challenges.

            Having to choose between coal and nuclear is a tough one. both not my favorites but the nuclear does not put green house gas. Here in the USA it is so tough to build a nuclear plant looks like they will go with the coal and natural gas. Or I should say the natural gas and when that runs low then the coal. I think coal is providing most of the worlds power right now especially in China.

          • Leo Smith says:

            When people stop looking at facts, and start listening to groundless fears, one realises all hope of rational solutions to problems have gone, and that indeed, people want their religions back, and their science gone.

            One wonders how it must feel to be in a country where the Taliban have taken over.

            One now appreciates how it feels, exactly.,

    • When there are dire outcomes, there are all kinds of suggested solutions. One of them too has been, “Get a gun and lots of ammunition, and stockpile a lot of goods.” I guess this is a natural response.

  25. p01 says:

    Excellent post, except it did start with agriculture, not with fire; it all started when humans said to the other species: this is our food and you cannot have any! And we will hunt you down if you try to take it, and we will use poisonous plant seeds as our food to further deny as many organisms.as possible access to our new food. Then came money as a proxy for the poisonous seeds, and the rest is (recorded) history as they say.

    • Scott says:

      What you said reminded me of a book I read, called Ishmael which described how we changed from hunter gatherers to farmers etc. The book discusses the “Takers and the Leavers”, we became Takers. Has any one studied this book? It was very interesting.


      • p01 says:

        Quinn did not appreciate the effect the poisonous seeds had in denying most organisms and even most microorganisms access to our food (I suspect this is what really did us in, because it allowed long time hoarding, the introduction of money, then debt which led to the assured exponential food production (and population) increase, under the narrative of heaven at some point in this or the other life. The only true period of heaven, for the vast majority of humans, in all recorded history has been the short one that is ending now.

        • Scott says:

          The of Ismael was a difficult read and the author Quinn’s message was that of two paths. As hunter gatherers we had very little but we did exist on a sustainable level much as the American Indians and other did elsewhere in those times long ago.

          The message I got from Quinn’s book was once we became takers and farmers we took a different path, one that last some thousands of years but would not be sustainable for future generations. Perhaps one does not care if things happen after our generation, but that would be short sighted as it affects our children and grandchildren etc.

          So Quinn’s message was that once we left the garden as hunter gatherers and we started damning creeks and diverting water to crops owned by people using money and took from the wanderers that had herds went thirsty in those old days things changed gears.

          They were the takers and the leavers started to die off. That was the message I got from reading his book a few years ago.

          • xabier says:


            I read on another blog that there is meant to be some evidence for the theory that long ago the agriculturalists actually exterminated the hunter-gatherers whenever they could.

            In the same way, rice-growers in Laos and Cambodia are seeing their ancient rice paddies destroyed by the rubber planters, and left to starve. Same process I suppose.

            Hunter-gatherers against farmers, farmers against cattle-men, house builders (‘developers’) against country people, and so it goes on. There is no end to the evil that humans will do to ensure their group will flourish and profit be made.

          • I haven’t read the book, although I have heard others talk about it.

            I think hunter-gatherers were also “takers,” although perhaps not on as large a scale as farmers. With the use of fire and a larger brain, they were able to deforest large areas and kill off major mammals. Quinn probably wasn’t aware of this.

            • Scott says:

              Yes Gail, once we had the ability to make fire and weapons that kind of launched everything. Although the hunter gathers in those days were much kinder to the land than today’s factory farms and factory fishing vessels.

        • xabier says:


          If this was ‘heaven’, and it’s ending, I wish I’d raised Hell a bit more! Oh, well……….

          Seriously, I do think we tend to exaggerate the evils of the past, looking back from too-great comfort and abundance as those of us in the advanced economies do.

          I suspect the ratio of happiness to misery has more or less been constant, whatever the form of life.

          Religious beliefs, sincerely held, (whatever view one may take of them) have often been a counter-weight to suffering.

          Life could be quite jolly at many periods of history, (I should have liked to live in 12th century Provence like my ancestors for instance!) and if they died, so do we, and it’s rarely a pleasant process.

          And a little suffering is good for one. While a great deal of suffering soon ends, unless we are very unlucky indeed!

    • I don’t think so. Humans got started, long before agriculture. Agriculture moved us along the way.

  26. tmsr says:

    It looks like 7% of US energy is renewable and 8% is nuclear. So we can support 15% of the population at the current level of consumption or 30% at a 50% reduced rate which seems not that terrible (bike to work rather than drive for a hour, no jet travel, etc.).

    Ed Pell

    • ricst says:

      Almost all US nuclear plants are near the end of their sustainable life. No new ones are being built for safety and economic reasons.

      So far, no company or government has tried to build a solar photovoltaic breeder plant – basically a factory that runs on solar electricity, and that electricity is used to process the silicon and/or other solar cell materials into new solar cells. The idea being that the solar breeder factory could be part of a sustainable supply of modern electricity generation… Solar could move from simply being renewable energy with a fossil fuel subsidy to “real” sustainable energy.

      There are a lot of buts and asterisks: One has to assume that the raw materials to build new solar cells are available. Not a slam dunk, as some solar recipes use rare earths, almost entirely from China at present. One needs an ample supply of trained staff and physicists/engineers to improve the process and solve ongoing production issues. One also needs glass and either steel or some other kind of solid framing material. In other words, this approach needs at least a scaled down version of industrial society plus ample supplies of raw materials and protected trade routes to deliver them.

      Could this actually happen? There are a lot of reasons why it might not, but there is also potential worth exploring. As Gail makes clear, it’s not like the human race, especially those of us in industrial nations, have a buffet of options.

      • Brian Hanley says:

        Those are regulatory and perception reasons, not safety. The death toll from every coal fired plant over its lifetime is equal to the high estimate (4,0000) for Chernobyl over multiple generations. (90 people per year.) (I am finishing up a book an treatment of radiation exposure.) There is, right now, 4.2 billion metric tons of uranium (30 million+ tons of U-235, the fissile bomb material) dissolved in the ocean – billions of curies of radioactivity. Coal plants release 4,300 curies per year (uranium, thorium in coal), which is, each year, 1% of the curies in all the 67,500 nuclear weapons ever made. (It’s actually more, because there is also radium.)

        A 1.5 pack a day smoker gets a radiation dose each year into their lungs approximately 3 times the yearly maximum prescribed by the NRC for nuclear workers. That radiation standard was set based in large part on Haldane’s 1950’s estimate of the human mutation doubling rate from radiation being 0.05 Gray. But we now know that the mutation doubling rate is at least 2 Gray and probably above 4 Gray.

        And in homes that were remediated for radon, lung cancer rates went up. That is probably because of the well documented effect that cancer rates go down at lower levels of radiation exposure – probably for the same reason that radiation therapy works.

        It now takes 5-10 years for a solar panel to pay back in energy what it cost to make it. Many solar installations will never pay back their energy cost. That means those solar panels are like batteries delivering coal power. Solar panels also have special exemptions for toxic heavy metals. Without those exemptions, they wouldn’t be legal in the USA. Someday the bill is going to come due for disposal.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          The death toll from every coal fired plant over its lifetime is equal to the high estimate (4,0000) for Chernobyl over multiple generations. (90 people per year.)

          I have no quibbles if you say, “the high estimate from one study,” (specify which!) but you make it sound like 4,000 deaths is the highest of all estimates, which it clearly isn’t. Unless you’re cherry-picking your data, you should include the New York Academy of Science book, which puts the “high estimate” closer to a million.

        • “It now takes 5-10 years for a solar panel to pay back in energy what it cost to make it. Many solar installations will never pay back their energy cost. That means those solar panels are like batteries delivering coal power. Solar panels also have special exemptions for toxic heavy metals. Without those exemptions, they wouldn’t be legal in the USA. Someday the bill is going to come due for disposal.”

          due you have a source for this information?

          • Brian Hanley says:

            The most recent is: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es3038824
            A brand new paper that suggests we might be near break even. However, they have serious caveats to that. And it’s theoretical. Many are not installed optimally, nor maintained optimally.

            • it is behind a paywall but the abstract seems uncontroversial in saying that energy input has just [2013] been paid off. It doesn’t mention dangerous chemicals, recycling or whether pv power can make more pv. On that note the big German PV manufactures are part of the German grid which has anything up to 50% pv [during midday in summer!]. Even glass foundries can be electric although getting the raw materials still requires diesel however, they could load panels directly onto electric freight trains with electric forklifts and distribute the panels via electric vans- nothing is impossible [well, yes plenty of things are but you get my meaning].

              Even space travel using lasers could be used at midday when there was a really big load and surplus power from solar pv.

            • The intermittency issue is left to be handled by other providers, so there is a large subsidy from that point of view.

              Unless we have solar panels made by solar panels, it is also necessary to maintain industrial production capability and roads. Solar panels are not a substitute for our electrical system; they are a substitute for the natural gas needed to run back-up generation. The Solar PV electricity cost should be compared to the cost of natural gas, not to the cost of electricity.

          • Brian Hanley says:

            That’s a quick cite, and I thought it was better to use a brand new one, than a bunch of old ones. Their 50% confidence is roughly equal to my doubling figure. When I looked at other studies, my estimate was that they were overly rosy by about half. And many installations, (particularly residential) don’t come near to optimum. So, applying that, Their graph should go from 6 years down to 1 year. If that’s accurate, it’s not bad, and better than I thought it would be by now. (The last time I dug into this was 4 years ago.)

            Heavy metals – http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0040609006016361

            It should, however, be noted that coal releases on the order of 7500 metric tons of uranium and the same amount of thorium, plus thousands of tons of mercury, arsenic, etc into the air every year. The problem could come later, in 30 years, when all these photovoltaics are disposed of in landfills and then start leaching. The answer to that is a good recycling program – and it may happen – if the technology hasn’t moved on too far.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            The energy production efficiency of solar panels and wind turbines also degrades significantly over time due to abrasion, dust collection and related phenomena. In fact, some are now questioning whether they’ll every break even…

    • Leo Smith says:

      well that misses a crucial point. The renewable energy is largely if not almost completely hydroelectric. And all the best sites are taken ..so there is no expansion possible. Whereas nuclear expansion is fully possible. And indeed the USA probably has – in the limit – total self sufficiency in nuclear materials.

      But there is no need to panic. There’s 200 years of cheap coal in the USA. As far as electricity goes, no need to rush into nuclear. Just burn the coal. And shoot Al Gore.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        The renewable energy is largely if not almost completely hydroelectric. And all the best sites are taken, so there is no expansion possible.

        I think the notion that “the best sites are taken” is only true of mega-projects.

        There are a half-dozen sites suitable for small amounts of power for a household within a mile of here.

        The problem is not so much lack of energy, as unrealistic expectations. Most scenarios assume energy consumption at close to today’s levels — that simply isn’t going to happen!

        • Christopher Johnson says:

          Besides large scale hydroelectric, there are numerous systems that offer far greater potential, including geothermal.

          Most of us forget that about 1/3 of our energy use is for transportation 1/3 for home heating and lighting, and 1/3 for commercial and industrial use. (All the 1/3s are approximate). Using geothermal for all heating (home, commercial, industrial, public, etc.) would make a huge impact, and would put a lot of currently unemployed bodies to work for a long time.

          Don’t worry about the financial cost. Paul Krugman will figure out a way to fund it.

    • Not really. Renewable energy needs fossil fuel back up, for making all of the replacement parts needed to keep it operating, and for making new (so-called) renewable energy. Also, the transmission lines and the backup power all requires fossil fuels. In fact, transmission of electricity requires that roads be maintained, and that vehicles that operate on roads be available to transport repair parts.

      We will not be making bicycles on renewable energy either. This takes fossil fuels, and maintaining the roads that the bikes go on takes fossil fuels.

      They system is very dependent on particular kinds of fuels.

      At the conference I was at last week, I talked to a fellow who was involved in insuring wind turbines. He remarked that with all of the vibration, they chew up replacement parts on a regular basis. The may not need oil or gas directly to run, but they need it indirectly, through a steady flow of replacement parts and an infrastructure that allows these parts to be created and transported to their needed location.

      • Scott says:

        Gail, I get you, A World Made By Hand for those that survive. I do picture it could be nice though as things come back into balance.

  27. tmsrEd Pell says:

    Gail, let’s remember resource constrained societies are more hierarchical than resource rich societies. A vast part of “American democracy” was due to the excess resources available for the taking. In a post contraction society there will still be rich people and they will still have mansions, electric lights, air conditioning, private chefs, maids, gardeners, etc. Just as the rich always have had. They may not fly to Europe, they may have to rough it on a luxury boat.

    The average American in cold climates will be chopping trees down with a hand ax and pulling them with horse or ox for winter heating fuel. Not to mention planting seeds by hand (some thing my grand parents had to do during the first great depression), etc.

    Ed Pell

    • Per Fagereng says:

      Who will feed the rich? Who will provide their luxuries? Somebody has to do the work. Who will feed the armies and prison guards? Doesn’t sound very sustainable.

      • Leo Smith says:

        See the ‘feudal system’

        Stability is achievable by having a warrior/ruling class that can enslave and subjugate the general population. At its best, it is a symbiosis, at its worst its total subjugation.

        Europe only broke out of it post the rise of the start of the industrial revolution. Then the rise of two new classes – the merchant class, trading the products of the artisan class, led to a whole new arrangement and balance of power.

        • xabier says:


          Feudalism was only very short lived, embraced many forms of society and social relations , and perhaps only existed in a pure form in one or two kingdoms for a few centuries…..

          Maybe we should simply just let go of the idea of ‘stability? Viability is much more pertinent, as I think your posts imply.

        • Per Fagereng says:

          In a collapsing society there may not be enough oil for our ruling warriors’ planes, ships and armored vehicles. Meanwhile the “peasants” might have a lot of infantry firepower. Sort of like the Battle of Agincourt where the bowmen knocked the knights off their horses.

          In a collapsing society liberated farmers are likely to be the important class, out-producing the serfs in prison farms and welfare plantations.

      • tmsr says:

        “Who will feed the rich?” You and I. It will be called tax paid in exchange for defense. That may be defense from the enforcers of the rich.


        • Per Fagereng says:

          What kind of taxes will people pay in a collapsing society? Income tax on no incomes? Sales tax when few people are buying things?

          • Ed Pell says:

            It used to be 1/3 of the crop to feed the working animals, 1/3 of the crop to feed the family and 1/3 of the crop to pay the ruling thug with his band of armed thugs.

            • Per Fagereng says:

              What kind of arms would the thugs have? As it is now, a cheap roadside bomb can knock out a $500,000 tank. In a collapsing society would there be any fuel for planes and ships and tanks? At the same time the peasants might have automatic rifles and grenade launchers. I see a more equal battle field.

          • Ed Pell says:

            What kind of weapon? How about a baseball bat? What will you do when 10 guys with baseball bats show up surrounding your bed at 1am?

            • Per Fagereng says:

              Does the feudal overlord have a palace guard armed with baseball bats? Or are these just wandering bandits? What happened to the king’s planes and tanks? Hopefully the peasants will have rifles and shotguns, and be on guard night and day.

    • Yes, we can continue to expect hierarchical societies, probably more so than now. I am not sure where the horse or ox will come from. I expect many may be doing without winter heat, even in cold climates.

  28. jphsd says:

    I recommend that anyone not familiar with the Lotka-Volterra systems Gail mentions take a look at the NetLogo site where they can play with the models themselves.

    The oscillating equilibrium Gail shows is actually quite unstable – you need to get the conditions just right to avoid going to one of the more stable equilibriums (death of all predators and optionally prey). What this indicates is that dynamic systems are finely balanced. Shocks to them, even small ones, lead to very different outcomes.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Fairly good points although its not quite as bleak as you make out. Years ago when personal computers first arrived, and the ability to program them to create a graphical display two friends and I spent an fairly stoned evening and most of te night creating a program we called ‘planets’

      In essence a random number of celestial objects of random masses and positions and velocities was created, and we did stepwise integration on them to see ‘what happened’ using basic Newtonian physics..

      ..to discover that, the ONLY quasi- stable arrangement was when the objects had one large, a few smaller, and those all more or less in a plane , arrangement. In short a solar system.

      The point? things in the solar system is the way it is, because if it was not, there would not BE a solar system at all! And it is extremely vulnerable to any reasonably large object on a massive elliptical orbit disrupting the arrangement and causing the whole solar system to fly apart.

      So it is with the eco system, which is subject to the same sort of mathematical analysis., Things are the way they are, because it is (one of) the (meta) stable solutions to the mathematics.

      Historical species extinction shows that the system is not and never has been fully stable. It evolves, and life forms that exploit niches, transform them and die when the transformation is complete, are the rule rather than the exception.

      And during that evolution, there are massive oscillations about quasi-means as well.

      To imagine that any given snapshot in this process represents a ‘normal’ ‘balance’ of ‘Nature’ is arrogant and stupid in the extreme. As is imagining that life or nature is in any sense ‘renewable’ or ‘sustainable’ over long time scales.

      But then arrogance and stupidity are defining characteristics of the Green Faith.

      Which probably will be seen of itself as an arrogant statement, but at least its not stupid 🙂

      The wild card in this is that we as a species are almost aware of ourselves as a species: Correctly applied this should make our survival somewhat more likley. Incorrectly applied it will of course hasten our end.

      • xabier says:


        I fear that only a very small % of human beings are aware of themselves as a species, to whatever degree: I see an awful lot of merely instinctive, destructive, behaviour around me. ‘Know thyself’ is not something most people are that keen to apply……..

    • THe point that dynamic systems are finely balanced is a good one. Humans are shocking systems of other species, which is a big part of why there are so many extinctions world-wide. Our own system is no doubt finely balanced as well. Take away the external energy, and things won’t work so well.

  29. Dan Fouts says:

    Gail and all,

    I only recently found OFW and am now thoroughly enjoying both the substance and presentation.

    For energy and power matters, you should find value in Professor Tad Patzek’s work: http://patzek-lifeitself.blogspot.com/

    Thank you and dogspeed.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Anyone who says “Energy supplies are infinite. ” is essentially someone whose views you can dismiss without further comment.

      Beyond remarking that the best physics we have is able to put a reasonable figure on the entire ‘energy’ of the Universe, and it is not infinite.

      Even if we could convert the entire mass of the Earth into energy,. it still wouldn’t be infinite, and we would have nowhere left to live.

      That leaves me with a choice between believing the laws of Physics, such as we understand them, or believing in Tad Patzeks drivel.

    • Thanks! I know Prof. Tad Patzek, and have read some articles on his blog. (Actually, I have run into an awfully lot of folks over the years.)

  30. ricst says:

    Something else that makes steady state even more difficult: If a relatively small population of humans were able to develop an ecologically sustainable environment, including limiting their own population numbers, then they could easily become a target for the remnants of industrialization, starving and well-armed. So not only would a modest sized human population practicing sustainable agriculture (or even hunter gathering) need to been keenly in touch with their environment and staying in balance. They would also need to have the ability to defend themselves against more aggressive groups of humans who are likely to be better armed and better skilled at fighting. Their only chance might be to inhabit a location so isolated and/or naturally defended that invaders were unlikely to successfully find/attack it. That means islands, deep in remaining jungles, high up on difficult to access mountain areas, or Arctic regions. Only islands have the ability to support more than very tiny populations. So, off to New Zealand anyone?

    • Brian Hanley says:

      This is already true in Papua New Guinea. Over 800 languages and cultures. People born in adjacent valleys have clear phenotypic differences and are unable to communicate except in pidgin English. There may still be a tribe or two deep in the interior to be discovered.

      But seriously, having worked and operated in broken down, lawless areas, people survive by working together. All this survivalist stuff in the USA is mostly baloney. Nobody, no matter how well armed, can hold out against a community outside. Those people are some of the first casualties. If they stockpile weapons, they are even faster to go because weapons have high value to others.

      • absolutely- survivalist mentality is counter productive and self defeating even on a super nation level . Sure, I’m convinced countries will look to protect their borders and bigger ones and blocs will seek to secure limited resources as is happening now- the British tried it once and got chucked out. The US and China [and stateless multinationals] may not have it all their own way. Social justice and the rule of law always do better than armed self interest survialism.

        • xabier says:

          That’s a very valid point.

          Survivalism is nuts, and a bit of a fantasy, except perhaps in the short-term: if someone intends to kill me, here and now, then I am justified in attempting the same against him, and if successful, that’s a very positive outcome for me! Similarly, if they know that I am armed and ruthless, and that deters them, then again the survivalist thesis is sustained.

          Of course, groups can play this game better than individuals.

          Clearly it is no basis for any society, except the most degraded. And we can see in Latin America, South Africa, India, Pakistan, etc, that societies can survive with truly dreadful murder rates, but of course the co-operative elements still outweigh the violence, even if the rule of law actually no longer applies and the police and government are corrupt beyond redemption.

          But what if you wish, as an individual or nation/region, to follow a rule of law and negotiate, but your neighbour adopts a posture of aggression and wishes to dominate? Then, the option of the sword is imposed on you…….

          There will, I fear, l never be one high-minded global belief system and a peaceful code of behaviour. Many of our problems can be addressed rationally, I agree, but mankind is simply not rational enough to do so. And under great stress will react with great violence, both individually and institutionally.

      • Vazzelinn says:

        Don’t know much about New Guinea but the second paragraph is the best thing I’ve ever read on this issue. Not sure how the author came to this conclusion but I can attest its 100% validity. I know what I am talking about ( lived through 90s in Russia… )

        • Brian Hanley says:

          I saw this in 90’s Russia and Central Asia up close. This was also where I realized that what we call PTSD is a valuable adaptation, and probably the norm for the human race through most of our history. I think modern, predictable, safe America is the weird one, not the other way around.

          PTSD makes people hypervigilant, able to respond with violence instantly, wake up when a leaf falls, and be nearly incapable of keeping a schedule. The last thing you want in a dangerous environment is to be predictable.

          • tmsr says:

            Indeed, I remember a talk by a member of the Latin Kings who would sleep in a different location each night so the FBI would not know where to find him. He stayed out of jail while many of his fellows were rounded up one night.

        • xabier says:


          As someone familiar with Russia, may I ask what view do you take of Orlov’s presentation of those times?

        • It is helpful to get some on-the-ground views on this. I can’t imagine trying to guard anything with a gun 24/7. I personally don’t have a gun–haven’t felt it would be all that helpful, except perhaps for killing an animal for dinner.

          • xabier says:


            Well, property defence against determined robber bands is a no-hoper unless you have quite a team to do it round the clock. Attrition wears any defence down eventually.

            The best hope is that the threat of violence deters and they move on quickly: most people just do not want to get hurt, least of all those who live by theft.

            The fantasies of many survivalists are just that. Might as well grow roses as get a gun perhaps!

            I read somewhere that when Weimar Germany experienced its great inflation, gangs went out from the cities to take crops from farmers. What can you do against a mob?

            People can live in the context of high levels of armed tension. In a region of Greece, the Mani, the level of feud between clans was so great that each built a tower, and when things got hot they’d take refuge and even fire little cannon at one another from these towers, in the same village! When men went out to work the fields, they were armed to the teeth. They actually lived like this for some centuries. But this was a system of blood feuds, no-one actually tried to take land or produce, and it had its codes of behaviour.

            • Christopher Johnson says:


              After the Roman collapse, brigadage was rampant. Local strongmen had their serfs and bonded helpers build strongholds that became increasingly capable. We call them castles. The greatest threat to human life in those centuries was other human beings. Yes, disease was also a threat. I don’t know if any authoritative historians have ever compared deaths from plague versus deaths from brigandage and war. Neither is very appealing.

          • xabier says:

            I forgot to say: putting questions of guns on one side, I was talking to an old soldier friend about this, and he advised concentrating on putting as many impediments as possible in the way of ill-intentioned people. All defences can be breached, but people do look for the easy targets first. Common sense really, but one can get too hung up on desperate shoot-out scenarios!

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “concentrating on putting as many impediments as possible in the way of ill-intentioned people.”

              That’s why I moved to an island. It has nice aspects in multiple scenarios:

              1) Business as usual: Leo’s nukes come on line, or aliens descend and give us the secret of zero-point energy (equally plausible in my book) and tourism increases, and life is good.

              2) Slow or delayed crash: it costs an extra $40 in ferry faire for anything you buy at Costco or Mall*Wart, so islanders tend to do business with islanders first. Life is good.

              3) Quick, hard crash: it’s nice to have a moat around you if roving bands of starving zombies start raiding farmland.

              The negative is if you can’t supply your own food and don’t own a boat, you’re subject to the cost of bringing stuff to you. Those stuck in that paradigm are already beginning to leave.

              Our “pulsating steady state” here is the seasons, preserving food in the fall to get through the winter, and the every-other-year rhythm of the pear trees. I plant a couple hundred trees a year, some of them slow-growing food trees, others fast-growing coppicing firewood trees.

              The “steady state” I seek are local relationships, which are going to be much more important in the future, especially on an island.

            • Scott says:

              Sounds line you are doing a good job Jan and you have found your spot. You guys planted all those acres. It should pay off soon. Has any one seen anything in the skies?

              I do watch the skies more ever since I saw the alien craft in 1976 as a teenager. That has given me some hope here. They are out there. There have been so many sightings and mine was not really that spectacular compared to some of the abduction stories accounts I have read about.
              I do not know who they are but there is something out there, no sign of them saving us yet though.

      • tmsr says:

        YES!!! The fools who think they will fight off the whole world are sadly mistaken. They will go down the first time an ORGANIZED GROUP shows up to fight them.

    • Leo Smith says:

      Essentially correct.
      the survivors will have to defend any technologically advanced enclaves against the barbarians at the gate waving model windmills and chanting ‘Gaia’.

    • You point out some reasons why I have been less than enthusiastic about spending huge amounts of time and energy trying to take care of myself for a long time in the future. If only 1% (or whatever) are prepared, then that 1% will need to spend an inordinate amount of energy building walls around its forest gardens, or laying up huge stores of ammunition to protect its fields 24/7 (and of course guarding the ammunition against theft). Even with these approaches, if there is a government in place, it can take what you think you have saved for yourself, perhaps through taxes.

      Some think we are going through a temporary bottleneck–perhaps so many will die from lack of water the first week or month, that others will not have a problem, if they can make it through the bottleneck. It seems to be that an epidemic could provide the same result. Maybe it is fortunate that we don’t know exactly what is ahead.

      • xabier says:


        I’ve come to much the same conclusion: it’s possibly worth preparing for short-term emergencies and disruptions in food, water, fuel, bank closures, crime, etc, on the Argentinian model, or for a slow-burn degradation of the economy, but anything more serious and long-term is probably impossible to overcome through preparation now, at least in the circumstances that I find myself in now. In other regions, and with other assets, it might well be different.

        It’s worth noting that even the very efficient use of resources, rationing and command of labour used by the British in WW2 was effective only up to a certain point – if the Germans had pushed for longer, and in different ways, then Britain would have starved and crumbled, it would only have bought a little time.

        So with everything else I’m doing, I make sure to enjoy myself, too, and balance spending on present pleasure against defensive preparations.

        • Scott says:

          Yes Xabier,

          The gardening is good for us and good for the soul. I am not one to sit idle wait for collapse, I know there is only so much I can do but we have been preparing for about 6 years now and still learning to garden. Growing organic is tough as bugs just ate a good portion of some seedlings.
          Learning to know what is best to grow in your area takes years and in a changing climate it is even harder.

          Doing something about it on a personal level does make me feel better that at least I am trying and we some food set aside that we hope we do not need. That is about the best one can do in the face of this. Will it be a bottleneck we can get through as Gail said? Not likely, but let us hope so. I do however believe that some will get through and hopefully and enjoy each day we have as a good day.

          • xabier says:


            That’s the sane approach: when one feels that nothing can be done, and one gives up, essentially that’s being as good as dead.

            Even when you suspect or even know you’re going to lose there’s usually something to be done: there’s a famous Spanish story (true) about a king who was losing a battle against the Arabs, he called for a horse and his body guard said: ‘It’s not time for horses now, my lord, it’s time for us to die.’ The point being that, even knowing what they did, they didn’t throw their swords away, panic or run, they still fought on.

            And the other point being, for us, is that what is going to happen even in the next few years is completely impossible to calculate. In fact, I don’t even know that my bank will exist next week, or that a long-standing customer will be able to pay me. So I’m not going to throw away my spade and garden fork just yet. And why I’m planting as many roses for pleasure as I am planting food crops.

            • Scott says:


              I also planted some flowers for my wife aside from the food garden. Sure, we are not going to sit idle I am studying the situation and acting accordingly to be sure we can get through a period of time just in case we need to, we may be extending our misery, but my natural response is to do what I can. At least we will be a bit more resilient. Which Gail said sounded like a natural response when a coming crises is perceived.

              I was looking at that article about Spain today and I read that younger people unemployment is closer to 50 percent. I wonder what all the kids are doing with their time? It would be good if they could be productive but just hanging around with no money is surely not fun for any kid. When I was younger I worked so hard and bought my car because I lived 10 miles from town. But the opportunities existed, my first job was when I was 12 rebuilding antiques and I have enjoyed wood working ever since. These skills have helped me carry through life, and if you are able to build or fix something you are that much farther ahead. I am not sure how many of our youths have these skills to build or fix, but they better start learning fast!

        • Scott says:

          Sorry I made a typo about Gail saying it is a bottle neck we can get through, I meant the opposite I understand Gail is concerned that we will not get through this bottleneck.

          • xabier says:


            In some areas of Spain, the youth unemployment is really heading towards 70%. Even the ‘rich’ areas are getting much worse.

            It answers the definition of a collapse in my book.

            But then there is a big black economy: however, this pays less and less and for the ordinary man is not as good as for those higher up – they’re the ones who get the envelopes with thousands in…….

            Certainly the young are staying at home or even moving back having tried to go it alone. It’s a desperate situation: quite a few of my Spanish family are thinking of moving away – but it could be out of the frying pan into the fire as I tell them.

            I agree, this is probably one of the worst -prepared young generations ever to have trod the earth, if life gets more basic. Well, they’ll have to learn.

            • Scott says:


              That sure does sound like a serious situation in Spain. Yes, that is collapse in my book too. Unemployment far exceeding that of the Great Depression and it also sounds like few were prepared without savings or supplies. I am sorry to hear that news.

              Kids moving back home is happening here too but nothing like what is happening in Spain, although the media says the recession is in the rear view mirror. Also, here the government has changed the way they calculate inflation and unemployment rates etc. to make things look better than they are.

              A website called shadowstats calculates it the old way and it appears the true unemployment rate in the USA is approaching 25% and inflation is really closer to 10% which is much higher than the government reports. Here is the website, Gail may find this interesting too


            • Thanks! I haven’t looked at Shadowstats recently.

            • Scott says:

              Gail, do you agree with John Williams and Shadowstats numbers? That type of math is beyond me. But I have listened to him in his talks and explains he did it the way they used to calculate before the government jaded things.
              Unemployment is an allusive figure since so many just give up and go uncounted.

            • I expect the truth is somewhere in between. I prefer to look at the percentage of the population that is employed, and that is way too low now.

            • Scott says:

              Thanks Gail, I was wondering what is that number of percentage employed? That does sound like a significant number to look at.

            • A person has to calculate it, from the number employed and total population. In the US, this ratio hit a peak in 2000. This is a chart I put together a while ago.

              Number employed divided by US population

            • Scott says:

              Gail, it looks like peak everything, employment and resources! I do not see that chart turning back up, but instead down because of financial reasons and government dependence. It shows that there are really not enough people working to support our needs.

  31. Ravi Nathan says:

    Gail, yet another excellent post. I would like to ask a personal question. What motivates you to write this blog? After reading you, William Ophuls and Bill McPherson, it appears that we are toast. So why bother? Deep down you must believe that there is a way out, that a less traumatic way down is possible if a critical mass of people get it. If so, what does the path out of the predicament look like to you? If you had your druthers, what needs to happen?

    • I got involved in writing “Our Finite World” because I could see that there was a problem and I wanted to figure out what was really happening. I could see that the story Main Street Media and the economists were telling us was wrong. I gradually realized that the “Peak Oil” story is not quite right either–it is more of a “Limits to Growth” story, caused by financial limits. What I could see is that there are a lot of versions of wrong (or not quite right) stories “out there,” and I wanted to figure out the right version. I discovered that with a blog, I could learn from my readers, too, either directly, or indirectly through books and articles they refer me to. I also discovered I could meet a lot of interesting people along they way, including quite a few in academics.

      Once it became clear that there is a collapse ahead, then the question is what a person does. My answer is to keep discovering what is really happening, so that we can seek answers to the right questions. If a person has only the wrong story to work from, it is pretty clear the person will not even be asking the right questions.

      I haven’t get heavily into giving advice on what to do next. If we define salvation is taking care of ourselves for the next, say, 30 years, then it may turn out that quite a few people can be “saved”. Salvation in this way seems to mean gathering up a bunch of stuff with embedded fossil fuel energy (or modifying landscape using fossil fuel energy) so that it can provide for our needs for a time. Learning to use this energy sparingly is also part of the picture. But I don’t see this as an obligatory response. It may make more sense to put the emphasis on the present, and how we cope with a world that is falling apart around us. All of us are going to die at some point. World collapse doesn’t change this; it just moves up the date for some of us. We can still have a good life while we are alive.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail,

        I can not believe I am saying this! But, I am happy to be older in my fifties instead of my twenties starting over in these job markets and collapsing societies in an overpopulated world.

        The young people are facing this thing and many of them do not know a thing about it as it is not broadcast by educators and government. I wonder when we reach that point when the problems are spoken about in a truthful way by governments, media and educators.

        I have found this site quite informative, the most interesting part for me is to talk to people from around the world and get their views, it does provoke thinking and thoughts and ideas. Everyone on this blog has been very polite and to me it is interesting learn about place too and developing situations in other countries. I am sure all this talk here may give you some ideas on subject that come up.

        I always enjoy your comments and writings.

        Have a nice weekend.

        • xabier says:


          Yep, I wouldn’t want to be 20 yrs old today in a declining advanced economy.

          The news is such a nonsense, with so much propaganda, that increasingly I ignore the journalists and just scan the comments by posters to see where people are trying to describe what their particular country is like. Some interesting things come up that way.

          • xabier says:

            And I agree, we owe Gail a huge vote of thanks both for the objective content of her posts, and this whole forum.

        • Thanks!

      • xabier says:


        Maybe we can say that it’s when you start to find yourself going nuts worrying about how to survive The Collapse, that’s the time to switch to looking at what’s actually good in your present life, or could be made better, and get down to enjoying it?

        I look at McPherson’s blog from time to time, and am shocked to see it’s full of people talking about suicide and actually quarrelling with one another! It’s a great shame and does no-one any good as far as I can see. (I am not saying anything against Prof. Mc Pherson here.)

        People can end up like the legendary king, who knowing that it was forecast that he would die on a certain day, built an impregnable sealed room. Feeling safer, but still anxious, he looked around and saw a chink of light coming through a gap, so he blocked it up….and died on the day of the prophecy.

        Sharing accurate information and perhaps hopeful and practical ideas is the best response to everything that’s unfolding.

        • I personally do not dwell on the bad things that might be ahead. I find a lot of good things to enjoy every day, especially in nature. I enjoy being with family and friends. I am not one who wears head phones or listens to music all of the time; I tend to hum songs to myself–quite a few of them are songs I hear in church. These are songs of joy and hope and comfort. I tend to smile a lot. I find that the act of smiling by itself makes me happy.

          • xabier says:


            Well, trying to look ahead and see what’s taking shape can get a bit like sitting down with a medical dictionary – you lose all will to live when all the things that might happen are set out before you! Living for the day has everything to recommend it.

      • Thanks for that summery Gail- I think a purely pessimistic message of doom would turn me off, however asking the right questions even if they don’t result in an ‘answer’ is the stage we are at, collectively at one humanities most historic cross roads. Just like the phrase from the film ‘The Truman Show’ -how does it work out? [or how does it end? I can’t recall!]

  32. Brian Hanley says:

    I think the solution is to move off the earth. There are massive amounts of resources in our solar system waiting to be used. A simple first step is geosynchronous orbit solar power satellites. Those designs were worked out in the 1960’s. At the time, the microwave rectennas in pasture lands generated a hue and cry about radiation (microwave). But it is innocuous. Orbiting solar power is the most efficient, amenable to economies of scale. It also has the lowest environmental impact. Farm, pasture and park land can hold the receiving antennas.

    Following on an orbiting solar power system, the methods for colonizing Mars have been worked out in great detail. Planets, moons, planetoids, all the way out to the Oort cloud, are a good place for human engineering to work its magic and create new places to live.

    In the long run, we must manage the whole of planet Earth as a park, and move the bulk of population off of it. That is the only way forward that I can see which is not terrible.

    • Scott says:

      Hello Brian,

      What a nice thought, we could all board the space ships for our new “Garden Planet” somewhere out there. I think we would be fools to think that we are all alone. I saw a UFO when I was 16 in 1976 and the power and speed of it was amazing.

      I do believe there universe is full of life out there and there are advanced civilizations that have and visiting Earth and likely may be amongst us now. There have been so many sitings of their crafts that can fly at incredible speeds. I think we could use that power source about now to solve our own problems. I have not given up on this yet since I saw the UFO. I think there is something out there that has not yet been revealed to us.

      I would like to see an option like this for most of us to leave — as it would be better than death for us all.

      If we were able to relocate most of us off the planet, I think it would be amazing how fast the Earth could heal. I bet in five or ten years the oceans would once again be teaming with fish and wild life and forest would regrow and once again the Earth would become a wonderful place in perhaps just a decade.

      A good example is the DMZ between the two Korea’s a place where no one goes and it has changed back and become full of life again.


      • xabier says:


        My cousins in Spain built a small high-end vacation resort in the mountains, but they got the timing and the location wrong, and hardly anyone bought. Now just one or two oddballs rent there in semi-derelict houses, and it was fascinating to see how the trees have pushed up through the roads and houses, breaking up the tarmac and concrete. Soon it will be forest again (or so I hope.)

        • Scott says:

          Hello Xabier,
          Yes, if a good many of us left the Earth (one way or the other) it would heal and I would love to see that sight. Oceans and rivers once again teaming with fish withing a decade or so I believe. What a sight to see that would be to watch.

          Then, I would like to stay behind – as I kind of like it here that is if most of you guys are leaving for that garden planet we dreamed up!

      • Alien visits may or may not happen I’m open minded but mainly sceptical but nonetheless if they were present they would most likely not intervene- primary directive and all that.

        At worst super natural, alien and fantasy are a distraction. Fusion is not going to happen for at least 50 years [if it ever works], thorium and large scale nuclear are limited and there is no magic fix. What we have now is the tools we have- what is stopping us is fear and short term interest.

        • Scott says:

          Yes, seeing is believing when it comes to the UFO. I have for one seen one and am a believer since 1976 when I observed the technology up close enough to know that things exists that we do not yet understand – at least most of us.

      • Brian Hanley says:

        I’m talking about us doing it. We could. For instance, with lasers from space, lightcraft could be used to shuttle from earth’s surface into orbit. Once in orbit, cycling transports can take people anywhere in the solar system with very little energy cost. Really, next to nothing. See Lightcraft, Liek Myrabo. It’s development has hit a lull, but it’s probably the best choice in the long run. Requires almost zero onboard fuel.

        • Scott says:

          These things if they exist are not yet mostly known to us. There may be portholes for time travel. I have read some things on that. Once again it reminds me of the show I grew up watching Star Trek, the power of the Di-lithium crystal made space travel possible and also powered the transporter beam that they used to beam themselves places. It gives me hope to think of it.

        • Christopher Johnson says:


          Two items for your interest:
          1. You may wish to check out the Skylon spacecraft being designed in the UK. They recently had a major success that enables single stage to orbit and much lower costs to put a given mass of gear into space.
          2. Recent confirmation by NASA that considerable quantities of water exist on the moon, integral in the regalith (soil). Facilities / bases can be made using 3D printers.

          I cannot comment on Scott’s (or anyone else’s) postings about UFOs or similar phenomena, but it’s clear that humanity is getting a little closer to taking some big steps.

          • Richard Steinberger says:

            You can pretty much forget about “energy from space” schemes. Same for water on the moon. The EROEI would be less than 1, meaning in a full systems analysis, it costs most energy to create, support, and eventually replace any space based systems than the energy they could possibly deliver. Much better to develop decentralized earth based energy supplies

    • Tony says:

      This is possibly the major mindset that is causing our predicament:

      “There are massive amounts of resources in our solar system waiting to be used.”

    • Leo Smith says:

      Cat belling par excellence.

      Who will bell that cat?

      How much energy will it take to get off planet?

      Where will you get it?

      Honestly, I don’t want to be rude, but seriously. This isn’t a kindergarten game of ‘lets see who can come up with the most imaginative and impractical idea’.

      This is the total future of the human race, which stands at a crossroads.

    • For those who are interested, there is a conference on Space Solar Power in Houghton, Michigan, on August 8-9. This is a link to the website telling about the conference.

      I presume you are kidding when you are talking about moving the population off the earth. Not likely, in my view.

  33. dashui says:

    Hi GTA!
    I work in a small bank, I know that the cost of overhead(buildings, lights) is 3%, meaning the bank needs to charge at least 3% interest on every loan just to break even. So does this mean the bank needs the overall economy to grow at least 3% in order to remain open, a one to one relationship, between economic growth and interest ?

    • good question- the way I read it is to do with amounts: if as a small independent bank all the employees wanted to drive luxury cars and own big houses with servants then a small community you served would be hard pressed to meet that need. Imagine your small bank in a smallish community just large enough to support a small staff and bank overheads: I as a farmer [as an example] want a new machine and the loan will give me a 10% increase in production so over the loan period the cost is paid with interest. The machine may last for 20 years and may be superseded by better efficiency [I would hope research would be supported] but it returns the expense in 10 years- every one is happy and it is sustainable.

      In good years as a farmer I would hope to see research to solve problems and as a responsible farmer I would look to invest surplus into that research. A steady state no growth economy would still take opportunities that came its way- this could lead to taking farmland out of production and building a lake to provide wildlife and a fishing pond. Or invest in cleaning up a post industrial plot of land.

    • Christopher Johnson says:


      What about the other costs: salaries, repaying loans, etc.? If 3% is your bank’s load, then you’re in supergood shape, no? What’s the difference between a money-lender (ancient) and a bank (modern)? Volume and overhead, no? And more recently, the ability to print money…

    • No. I don’t think there is an exact relationship. What will happen is that a smaller and smaller percentage of loans will make economic sense at a given interest rate, because the default rate will rise.(You will need a much higher insurance charge to cover loan defaults.) It may always make sense to have short term loans for good in transit, and long term loans for investments with a very good rate of return anticipated.

      • xabier says:


        Which, if I understand you correctly, means the collapse of the high mass-consumption economy based on increasingly high-default-risk personal loans?

        Which is what we are seeing the unravelling of right now, as far as I can tell, even though governments are putting all their energies into promoting this failed and dangerous model of finance and economy, and the MSM propaganda machine is reinforcing the message.

        We forget how recently this readily-available cheap consumer credit came about: it has caused immense damage, masked problems and cannot last.

        Non-performing loans are rising at alarming rates in Europe, above all in the periphery countries like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal. Whatever the politicians and central bankers attempt to do, it’s unwinding from below as defaults grow.

        Add to which rapidly diminishing discretionary spending as the masses are squeezed by rising fuel, food and clothing costs, and it’s not a pretty picture…….nor a hopeful one.

        • Leo Smith says:

          Xabier: I would concur. Here in a less hard hit part of Europe what is noticeable is that nice to haves are doing badly, but have to haves are doing well.

          The lifestyles are being managed back to near survival levels, rather than affluence.
          When faced with falling net access to funds, the simplest thing to do is cut out the non-essentials. Like excess travelling, eating out, retail therapy, holidays in the sun, the latest gadget when the existing one still works (I sighed and didn’t buy an E-book reader, because my third hand ten year old laptop can read books in bed just as well, and its backlit too!).

          Austerity forces us to spend time on finding the cheapest way to achieve the essentials of life. And with little work around, we have the time.

          It is the unwinding of the consumer society, but not of civilisation. Not yet. My three nest performing investments are in engineering companies specialising in support from energy industries. Like the Victorians who made money not out of railway companies, but out of iron and steel, or the gold rush pioneers who made money out of running stores, not mining gold, its a smarter money investment I think 🙂

          I don’t see high debt as an intrinsic problem – its the oil on the gears of a highly geared society expanding rapidly and exploiting new resources. But when that resource runs out, its a curse.

        • Scott says:

          Hello Xabier, That does not sound good to me. Here in the USA the student loans have supported huge institutions and colleges and nearly entire towns in some areas with all the faculty. All from easy government funded student borrowing. More and more graduates each year finding themselves deep in debt and with out the career they had hoped for. These institutions have instituted their model for young people and this way the government is able to influence young minds to “it’s” way of thinking and to promote their political agendas etc.

          I our state of Oregon college towns are booming while the rest of the state is struggling for jobs. Most of the mills have closed because over over logging. There is a college town near me and when we visit there, the place is buzzing, restaurants are busy lots of people in cafe’s and all the fancy stores are there. There houses costs much more than in the surrounding towns and faculty buy these homes. There are also large medical facilities there. So the whole town seems to be fueled by the university and university is funded by student loans which many likely will never be repaid. Just another way to print money. This particular town really has no other industry and without the university and all the bureaucracy is really the only thing going in this town. Otherwise it would just be another poor town like the towns nearby. When the student loan bubble pops I wonder what will happen to this town?

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            Good observation, Scott. Over the last decade or so employment has increased notably in two areas: education and elderly care. Neither pays well, but a meager income is better than none. One feature of our current condition that’s very interesting is the contrast between our perceptions, hopes and plans now versus a mere five years ago. Up until mid-2008, most Americans were confident, almost insouciant about the general economic condition. People bought loads of junk at big junky stores, never questioning that such purchase might not be necessary. While few have actually fallen into ‘depression era’ poverty, the psychological impact has been severe throughout the ‘rich world’. Perhaps we needed this slowdown to gain a more realistic perspective.

          • xabier says:


            I live in a village on the fringes of a major university town, but it has an international student body, and high-tech industry, and it’s booming and becoming over-populated. Open a coffee shop and you can fill it instantly, same for restaurants, etc, and house and apartment prices are crazy. But the smaller towns in the region are dead as a dodo economically speaking, except the ones with their own universities.

            In many ways now, higher education is viewed by governments principally as a regional employer and an ‘industry’, regardless of the quality of teaching and research carried out in them, and it’s an industry with ‘customers’ supported by loans, effectively hugely subsidized, just as you say. And this also masks unemployment in a key segment, 18 to 25 which is alos good for governments.

            Not many of these places will survive what’s coming I’m quite sure.

  34. Paul E Condon says:

    Good analysis, but you largely ignore a major cause of instability in human civilation, namely disease, epidemics, and pandemics. These can appear to be financial crises, as is mentioned in the Wikipedia article on pandemics. The mechanism by which an epidemic morphs into a pandemic is highly dependent on population density and on the degree to which people move from place to place, but also depends on a long list of other factors that vary according to the exact nature of the particular disease involved. Since pandemics do not happen often, it is unlikely that lessons learned in one pandemic will be remembered and applied in the next pandemic.

    From the point of view of people who are not scholars of history, don’t read Wikipedia, etc., Steady State surely means living like one’s parents and grand-parents lived, except a little better, because of modern technology in limited amounts, and well regulated by people who know. For this meaning, Steady State is surely not possible for reasons discussed by you and others. If we want to keep Steady State as a term in our discussion, we will have to endow it with a new, more realistic meaning.

    I wish I knew what the new meaning should be. I’d surely tell, if I did.

    • xabier says:

      Pandemics, epidemics, natural disasters, and the inclination of human beings to violence and malice, and irrational longings to dominate, do seem to militate against a Steady State ever being attainable except for brief periods and regionally rather than globally!

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Going back to year 1 CE, as Gail did, or starting even sooner, the greatest threat to human life has always been other humans, not epidemics or pandemics. And that includes human behavior of the last half century. Even if you don’t want to be a student of history, the facts are simply impossible to ignore.
      The concept of Steady State implies fluctuations within a bandwidth. Also, as Toynbee and others pointed out, societies are composed of various groups: elites, worker bees and proletariat. If they function effectively the society can achieve a degree of satisfying degree of harmony.

      • Leo Smith says:

        I cant agree with that. The patterns of migration in the so – called Dark Ages show that by and large, what killed people prematurely was disease and starvation: the population levels were so low that most migrations proceeded almost unimpeded. Only when there is no more ‘lebensraum’ do wholesale slaughters occur.

    • As I see it, population that are weakened by rising disparity in wages and rising taxes are more susceptible to epidemics. We already are reaching financial issues similar to the issues that countries reached prior to their collapse (and these collapses often involved epidemics or pandemics).

      • xabier says:


        Spot on: in Argentina a rise in the incidence of diseases hitherto not at all common accompanied the financial problems.

        Basic hygiene became neglected as water became expensive or often unavailable or erratic. The other symptom was widespread violence and insecurity.

        They all in fact run together: highly stressed population, malnutrition, (above all in rural areas curiously, for those without good farm jobs) disease, squalor, violence and corruption.

        It’s never just people having less to spend, the ramifications are considerable. In a way, we should be grateful that the central banks have ‘kicked the can’ over the last 5 years, keeping businesses and banks open, because otherwise we could be experiencing this
        already….. (Above all, once the police and public officials stop getting paid, and turn to corruption to feed their families, all hell breaks loose.)

  35. Electric Economy.

    Gail, you are not optimistic about an electric economy so perhaps it can be pointed out [by anyone] where I am going wrong.

    In the first instance part of the post peak/AGW reality is we will continue to use oil for another 100 years but at an equally diminishing level. Essential use like military, shipping, farming, mining could be sustained [only] at current levels. Each decline in yearly oil production would have to be replaced by an alternative but not all at once.

    Transport- our flirting with private transport is only decades old: I lived in south Wales which had an extensive rail network up to the 1950s. Nearly everywhere was connected and at each station there were smaller retail outlets and factories that have now been converted to housing. Once they were part of thriving communities and you can see the wealth in how well they built municipal works. A rail network could be predominately electric.

    We have replaced local retail and work near our homes to distance that requires a car. Reversing this trend primarily requires easy of mobility within housing. Shanty towns without roads can [I stress this as there are other big issues] be essential assets to cities, offering low cost housing close to work. [another issue perhaps]. Localism : food/work/housing etc by its very nature reduces oil use, the US example of ‘burbs’, geography and crazy places like Las Vegas is almost the opposite extreme.

    Heavy industry- I would include solar and wind in this but even smelting can be electric. Only 1% of coal is smelting coal so this could be safely burnt if the power coal was eliminated. The market has shown that higher prices for minerals reflects in more recycling- 10 years ago I had to pay to have a scrap car removed now they get stolen!. We could go further as the EU has tried and make goods easier to dismantle and recycle and save energy. I don’t know the energy savings of recycling steel vs mining from ore but in stable population energy/material losses could be minimised.

    We can also do a lot more for less- cars don’t need to weigh 2 tons, the problem lightweight electric G-wizz cars have is when they get hit by a 4×4. In house building [outside of earthquake zones- environmental stresses etc] you don’t need huge foundations or marble columns for that matter. The market is already being driven by shortage/price with timbers being made from waste wood into composite engineered materials.

    Shipping, planes, farming and forestry and heavy mining vehicles.- Globalisation and cheap energy has encouraged more trade but most is not essential. If people paid more iPhones could be made in the US. There will be a point when outsourcing will no longer be competitive- there is no point in having cheap goods if the home market is unemployed. Modern sails have been looked into and offer some savings in big ships. Richard Branson of Virgin is looking into post peak alternative non bio aviation fuel, but ultimately cheap flights are going to get more expensive. [besides I could never see the point of flying to a resort that looks exactly the same in every other country]. For Northerners most holiday Sun is really just a high speed train journey away anyway. And oil for things that can’t be converted like firetrucks there would be plenty for decades [as long as competition is reduced].

    Farming- fertiliser is from gas not oil- small farmers could use small electric to ship to the train station just as carts were used to move to the trains in Victorian times. Farm machinery is a trade off for human labour, some is essential. In an oil free world I don’t know how many acres are required to grow enough oil [veg oil is as good as diesel and not energy intensive as corn to bio fuel], but oil will still be around for decades. In the Philippines and China small farmer fuel their machines with bio gas and wood gas.

    Industry mainly uses non oil fossil or electric. as for oil derived products there are vegi plastics and bacteria that ‘could’ replace it. Roads- if we reduce the amount of casual traffic they will last longer but I take Gail’s point. In Rome the roads were the first to decay. I saw a sand bacteria solution for roads- no tar required.

    The Home: I’m just about to embark on a super insulated electric home. It won’t be 100% natural but it will be a single investment- solar thermal and pv providing half the electricity in the 30 year lifetime. I’ll let you know how it pans out but it designed to have a annual energy cost of £250 for cooking, lights, and heating. It is a big investment, I will use oil and oil based products [most will be German solar, electrics etc- I used to work for Bosch!], but we do have some CO2 credits left and cheap energy now.

    Sorry for such a long post but I want to challenge the mutually exclusive ideas that all electric is either possible or not. How we generate it is another matter.

    • Leo Smith says:

      I am working on a study of an ‘all electric’ society. Obviously the amounts required make nuclear the only option post fossil. Renewable is simply inadequate on every respect.

      The biggest problem boils down to ‘off grid’ power: hydrocarbon fuel is massively transportable and a lovely balance between energy density, safety and cost right now.

      There is no direct replacement. Batteries don’t cut the mustard except for light duty close to the grid. And they never will. Fond hopes from the non scientific hopefuls of the greener side of life, will be dashed because the underlying physics and chemistry of batteries is known. They may get better, but they cannot – repeat CANNOT – get good enough to replace a tank of diesel. Short range electric cars to get you to the railways station? yes. Electric aircraft to fly the Atlantic? Nope. Not with a payload.

      At the larger scale nuclear ships work well. And indeed portable nuclear power plants already exist – especially shipborne ones. In principle you could trundle a nuclear truck or ship to where power is needed and run fat cables to e.g. mining equipment.
      But aircraft remain an almost insoluble problem, and rail is expensive and energy intensive to build and maintain.

      Therefore I foresee a society where people and goods move as little as possible. WE stay at home, and the work is brought to us by the internet. Surgeons can almost conduct operations now on the far side of the world using micro-manipulators remotely controlled. Warfare is increasingly conducted in front of a computer screen. You do not go shopping in a mall, but on a computer, and the postal or courier service becomes the daily way in which your food arrives. On a short range electric van. Quite possibly unmanned.

      If you have need to travel, its by electric taxi to electric train, to nuclear ship. Synthetic fuel will allow aircraft to fly, but the cost will be an order of magnitude higher than now. Or more.

      And the international unit of currency which cant be inflated or monetised, will be the Kwh. WE will all, willy nilly, be part of that de facto currency union.

      There is enough fissile and fertile material in the planet to keep a western style – modest, but western – civilisation going for several thousand years. Then there is fusion, with the promise of virtually unlimited (by today’s standards) energy. It is actually economic too, but demands a high level of technological sophistication to deploy.

      These are the ecological niches we will exploit if we survive at all as a civilisation.

      There is no guarantee that we will of course, the de facto fallback is wandering tribes of hunter gatherers and peasant agriculturists farming and hunting with sticks and stones. That’s the reality of the ‘renewable’ society beloved by the guilt ridden Greens.. a populations in the UK of probably less than a million uneducated people wandering round the ruins of a ‘Golden Age’ society whose principles of operation have been completely lost. And are completely irrelevant anyway.

      Sadly I fear it will be the latter: People are too lazy, too ignorant and too superstitious to grasp the next stage of technological society. They would rather die as faithful ‘greens’ than live with safe nuclear power. And sadly also, they believe that it wont come to that. That’s what they believe. I don’t do belief, I do science and engineering.

      And that tells me there is only one alternative to mass population losses and all the nice things civilisation brings. And that is going to require massive investment and commitment to make it work. But at least it CAN work, unlike most of the alternative solutions proposed, which can never ever work.

      In short post fossil we have two alternatives for a SUSTAINABLE society.
      We go massively nuclear for primary energy supply, and have enough to do about 1-3000 years more or less at western standards of living for more or less the population we have now. Or we can dispense with technology altogether and go back to pre industrial lifestyles population levels and death rates : the ‘Green’ alternative. Where human pollution and resource stripping and all the other ‘bad’ things are irrelevant, because there are not enough humans left to even dent the ecosphere.

      *shrug* I wont be here to see more than the start of it. In a sense its really not my problem. No doubt I will be dissed as someone with a vested interest in something or other, and no faith trust or belief in the future of ‘renewable energy’: I can only reply that the latter statement is entirely true. I have no faith trust or belief in renewable energy, but I have not arrived that that position as a matter of adopting some alternative faith. I have arrived at it as the result of years of experience in matters technological. And a deep study into the holistic appraisal of power generation by all the options currently available, or available in the future.

      Philosophically you might say that the difference between me and the green, is that after a lifetimes deep exposure to technology, I am acutely aware of its theoretical and practical limitations, whereas those who espouse the fantasy solutions of ‘new’ technology believe that, given enough people, money and time spent on it, anything is possible. Including breaking the actual laws of physics.

      Curiously, that hasn’t yet worked for fusion energy.

      And it took at least two thousand years to achieve flight. Post Icarus.

      For those of you young enough to be experiencing the next 50 years, I have one message alone. If you make the wrong decisions now for reasons of emotional adherence to a comfortable lie, you will in proper Karmic form, suffer the consequences. And remember, the people who tell you they are the vendors of inconvenient truths, may actually be the ones who are selling you convenient lies.

      The only way you can finally discern the truth, is not to accept received wisdom, but actually get to grips with the underlying sciences and technologies, and make your own judgements. If you are too lazy or incompetent, then you will by deualt create a society which you are competent to handle. Hunter gathering in the wreck of the 20th century.

      • Christopher Johnson says:


        Please do a google search for ‘graphene’ and spend the following 4 to 48 hours absorbing all you can. Then readdress your concern regarding storage of electrons. This is not going to happen overnight, but graphene development is happening. And it is also sparking numerous other related and similar material designs that may have equivalent impact.


        • Leo Smith says:

          I know ALL abut graphene, have read ALL the papers and trust me., its nothing much to sing about.

          Its just another dielectric. Another thing to keep the myth of renewable energy and so on alive.
          – the hydrogen economy
          – windmills
          – solar panels
          – smart grids
          – tidal power
          – wave power
          – bio-fuels
          – supercapacitors
          – electric cars
          – trans national grids immune from terrorist activity.

          All of these things WORK, but they none of them work WELL ENOUGH to make more than a tiny difference to the overall problem. But to People Who Dont Do Sums that is a distinction it is sadly, not possible to convey.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            Thanks, Leo. I’m not so discouraged as you. In fact, the more recent analyses of electric power for vehicles generally emphasize two points: 1) the progress in power density has improved every year for the past 10; 2) within 5 years or so the power density will approach that of gas/diesel.
            The other important feature of graphene is its strength-weight characteristics, which will enable much lighter weight vehicles that are therefore, safer and require less power. The combination will gradually shift the economics away from ‘big oil’.

            If we could reduce energy consumption by 5 to 10 percent, would that not have an impact? Just look at how the recent growth of nat gas and shale oil — of merely a few percentage points — relieved the high market pressures. No, it doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods yet, but it is an improvement.

            Graphene filters for water desal is another breakthrough. Water is our biggest looming shortage, though most Americans (particularly East of the Mississippi) are not attuned to the growing global shortage. Graphene — and perhaps some other materials that have been formatted to mimic the hexagonal mesh (chicken wire) format — can reduce significantly the power required to desalinate seawater, brackish water, grey water and even black water.

            You may wish to pooh pooh the efforts or the continuing progress or the targeted goals, as is your right. And you are correct in noting their limitations: ‘they work but “none of them work WELL ENOUGH to make more than a tiny difference to the overall problem. But to People Who Dont Do Sums that is a distinction it is sadly, not possible to convey.” Well, if you want to focus on sums, great. But you sounds like a Dayton banker who told the Wright brothers to cease and desist, refusing too acknowledge that the same laws of physics and economics that dictate our current realities are continually accommodating newly emerging realities of new materials and methods. So if you prefer to mimic Ebeneezer Scrooge, you won’t have to ask twice for my support.


      • I think the question is how you finance all of the new electric devices, especially if you have to replace existing devices before the ends of their useful lives.

      • My view on nuclear whilst open [compared to a very anti nuclear stance in my youth] is aware that it is very expensive. The other issue related to Gail’s view of the future is the likelihood of societies taking a downward trend. Nuclear requires a high level functioning economy and society otherwise mistakes/accidents and the unsolved problem of waste remain yet another challenge to a struggling humanity.

    • I differ from many writers because I believe that issue relating to getting reserves out of the ground is a financial issue. It has to do with whether buyers can afford to buy consumer products of all kinds, thanks to a continued increase in debt availability, and thanks to continued availability of good-paying jobs. It has nothing to do with the amount of reserves in the ground–this is why there is so much confusion. The oil, gas, and coal reserves in the ground will pretty much stay in the ground. This means that one of the chief concerns of AGW goes away (including the reason for the switch to gas, and the reason for the switch to intermittent renewables).

      In order to have adequate demand for goods made with oil (or anything else), we need to be competitive in the world market place, so workers in this countries have good paying jobs, so that they can afford to buy goods of all types. There also has to be increased debt availability, so these potential buyers can afford big ticket items. But wages are not rising much, and debt is not rising much either, except at the government level. Governments can’t keep raising debt though. They are already at levels that lead to financial trouble. I showed before that the West is already past peak oil demand. Peak Demand is Already a Huge Problem.

      When civilizations reached collapse before, they reached collapse for financial reasons (due indirectly to rising population and degrading resources–the same problem we have now). As limits were reached, there was greater and greater disparity between the wages of the high paid workers and the common workers. There was increasing amounts of debt. It became increasingly impossible for governments to collect enough taxes, to cover all of their programs. (Joseph Tainter calls the situation one of increasing complexity to solve their many problems, but more complexity means higher cost.) Exactly how this worked out varied. Sometimes governments went to war, to get more resources (raising further the need for taxes, and killing soldiers in the process). Sometimes there were revolutions. Sometimes, epidemics spread, because workers could not take adequate care of themselves, thanks to rising taxes and lower wages. All of these effects led to a rising death rate.

      I am saying that the collapse we are reaching is this kind of financial collapse. A financial collapse hits electricity exactly the same way it does anything else. If there are no loans available to buy big consumer goods, it will affect electricity as well as gas. Banks may close, or if they are available, the money from them may not work to buy much of anything from overseas, because of problems related to many debt defaults. This means it will be very hard to buy replacement parts for important things–even oil drilling equipment, or electrical transmission equipment. Computers may not be available because of the need for robust international trade to make computers. Without computers, controlling the electrical grid will be impossible, with all of the intermittent renewables added.

      As I see it, the view that oil extraction goes up and goes down based on what is in the ground is just plain wrong. The amount in the ground acts as an upper limit to what can be extracted. If people cannot afford to pay for the oil (or goods made with oil), it will stay in the ground.

      • Scott says:

        Gail, I understand you on the financial issues being the point of breakdown. In my old job I worked for a county treasurer and he was worried about the state of the markets, about ten years ago I began to look at it too as it was concerning my job and the more we looked at it the more concerned me and my boss became as we saw multi million dollar investments in banks going bad in the portfolio with banks like Lehman, Washington Mutual going under. Those were some shocking times and I do believe the next step down will be larger, that was the first step down and it has changed the USA and world.

        The complexity, the flash trading, the paper vs. physical markets, the derivatives and complex financial instruments and the unpredictability makes investments almost impossible. It is unstable. I hate to say this to my friends in Europe, but it seems the crisis that has been there could elevate and spread to the west in few years or even sooner, seems like a bunch of dry brush in search of a spark. So it may start in Europe or a war in the middle east or the Korea’s.

        It just seems like a pile of dry brush that is in danger of fire.

      • Thanks for your detailed response- and a lesson from history is that the collapse of Rome despite all its problems really came down to paying the legions.

        when things work we tend to ignore them despite their flaws- I think the money market/debt etc has shown up to be completely inadequate and ultimately the weakest link.

        On a pragmatic level I have tried to work out just how much oil is worth to me in a farming context. If I value a tractor and harvest/sowing etc tools in fuel value over a 10 year period + repairs + fuel and one farm worker at current rates it works out at around £/$ 25,000 per year with half the cost being the worker [a tractor would be used about 1/3rd of the year in hours]. The HP is huge but a team of 20 horses and 5 men or over a 100 workers could possibly replace the tractor/fuel/ one worker. So paying survival wages say £$7,000 each- fuel and machinery [built with fuel] would have to be very high to switch to human/horse power. The other alternative is I divide my land up into 5 acre plots and retire- or sell to a big farm who uses their tractor twice as much.

        Where I see the problem is the large ‘service sector’ population who are not engineers, or farmers or teachers doctors etc. They are the bulk of consumers – even in my small rural community the agriculture and forestry sector is just 7% with other vital workers being below 50% and that doesn’t include the unemployed or retired.

        Cheap energy is evidently sustaining a huge population and market that doesn’t do much. In Egypt it was these people who hit the streets, and in N Korea they are drafted into the army. In OECD countries they are employed in ‘service sector’. And I agree there is only so many haircuts you can have. My sister is a multimillionare- she sold a photo business and has set up a new one- but business is not good [despite claims of success] as businesses don’t need to buy $200 pictures if they can do their own or by them on the internet for $20 or if they go out of business.

        I’m rambling, sorry, but it is a very big concept to get one’s head around. I do appreciate that the post oil world transition I expected [from 1970s futurism] was basically the current system but an electric one and required fuel to remain at $30 as we switched to a new energy equivalent. I seem to come away with more questions than answers.
        all the best J

  36. Hello Gail- provocative as ever. What I take away is the fact that we could possibly be a sustainable species at between 7-8 billion but everyone in the world has to play fair. We cannot have big rogue states flexing their muscle and invading other countries or exploiting carbon or societies believing they can have more children and a bigger share of a finite cake.

    The US with its technological and military might be a new Rome- the voice of the people could demand- no change- others would compete and we would ultimately be bombing each others nuclear power stations to stay top dog.

    The future will be a test of ‘humanity’ are we compassionate, rational and intelligent or are we selfish, superstitious and believe we have a god given right to be superior over each other?

    • xabier says:


      Looking at history, I think we can answer your question! We won’t be sitting down in love and harmony in Strawberry Fields forever…….

      • Human nature being what it is would suggest that we are doomed. But I ask you- what do want?

        6 or 7 thousand years ago the climate changed because of the natural Earth tilt- humans were stressed, our resources started to die off so we turned to agriculture. If they had an idea about human history they would say we are probably doomed- 100,000s years of human history suggest the only way to live is as a hunter- this agriculture you speak of is madness: imagine us giving up being nomadic it is crazy to believe we could go against ‘human’ nature and settle down.

        • xabier says:


          My point was about the savagery and violence of human nature, which we always tend to underestimate. This violence only grows under severe stress. Severe stress is coming, therefore…… but really I’m quite optimistic, as irrational as that may seem. Maybe because the sun shone today?!

          • I would add that on top of AGW/Peak/pandemic we also have religious and political extremes which will be turned to out of fear. Fascism will rise again- without doubt in my humble opinion, it will fail but how big a hurdle it will prove to be is another matter.

            There is the joke about two survivors of a ship wreak in a life raft, one an optimist the other a pessimist:- they both died.

            I think the challenge is for optimists [and well informed ones aka pessimists] is to able to offer alternatives.

          • Leo Smith says:

            two people and only enough food for one tends to bring out a most useful and natural savagery.

    • I am not sure that we could be a sustainable species at between 7-8 billion. There are not enough cheaply available fossil fuel resources to get out, and once we start having trouble with debt, it becomes much harder to get fossil fuels out.

      If we could subdivide the world into small sections, each with dictators over them, and the dictators held down population and energy usage to a very low level, maybe we could continue for a long time, in the way the Japanese did.

      But we are already deeply into financial problems. The first question is how we transition over these financial issues. It seems like we need debt to continue increasing and world trade to continue at a moderate level. If the financial issues put an end to rising debt and drastically cut back on world trade, it will make it hard to get more fossil fuels out, and this will ultimately cause the end of our civilization. The question is what can rise afterward.

      • xabier says:


        Well, a rational, self-denying global dictatorship system isn’t on the cards. So we better fasten our seat-belts. This juggernaut is going flat out until it crashes.

      • Thank you as ever for the courtesy of reply in detail, your diligence is much appreciated.

        Dictatorship is the likely response although I do hope for a more commonwealth approach which would require a much greater level of personal participation. Even after the fall of the Soviets people longed for a return to former security and I think the Communist party still has followers. The current Russian leaders seem to have slipped back into the former role except they are voted in now.

  37. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Another excellent post.

    If we want to, first, imagine, and, second, build a steady state society, we need to look at Edo Japan. During the Edo period the Japanese achieved a high level of culture with a stable population of 30 million. They had virtually no foreign trade, and so were entirely dependent on what they could produce on their own islands and surrounding seas.

    The source for what I will claim they achieved is from Azby Brown’s book Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan. The format of the book is a travelogue. We visit first a farming family, then an urban business family, then a samurai family. We begin to understand how they lived and thought by examining the daily lives of these representative people.

    The current population of Japan is trending to about 125 million. Lets suppose we make three rather heroic assumptions:
    1. Climate change does not severely damage the ability of the Earth to support humans.
    2. At least some groups of people are able to recreate the social and psychological patterns which prevailed in Edo Japan.
    3. At least some groups of people are able to recreate the physical understandings and skills which were common in Edo Japan and modify them with current scientific knowledge.

    Given those assumptions and with the notion that we are better scientists than the Japanese were in 1850, then we might think that Japan might support a stable population of perhaps 40 or 50 million people. By extension, perhaps the Earth can support a population of 3 billion or perhaps 4 billion.

    Lest we underestimate the difficulty of achieving the social and psychological changes required. In the 16th century the Japanese had guns. During the Edo period they eliminated guns from their society. It is hard for any US citizen to think that we might be able to do the same today. In The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura, he remarks that when the Japanese had eliminated guns they were considered ‘uncivilized’, but now (early 20th century) that they were engaged in wholesale slaughter in Manchuria, the world considered them ‘civilized’. Azby Brown’s book gives us a good idea of the social and psychological changes which will be required to avoid a total collapse in human numbers.

    It also gives us a peek into the technologies that were once used regeneratively. At the beginning of the Edo period, Japan was suffering from severe environmental degradation. The Edo period ended with a very much improved environment. Page 7: ‘They tell of a people who overcame many of the identical problems that confront us today–issues of energy, water, materials, food, and population–and who forged from those formidable challenges a society that was conservation minded, waste-free, well-housed and well-fed, and economically robust, and that has bequeathed to us admirable and enduring standards of design and beauty.’

    I will add one observation of my own. Speciation in the Darwinian sense requires an isolated population. It is hard to imagine speciation in the Global Financial Economy. Anyone who does attempt it (Eustace Conway and Peter Bane are current examples) are severely punished by the Powers That Be. So I would add to the challenges that any group which hopes to speciate and survive must overcome is the need for relative isolation. Only in the kind of isolation that Edo Japan experienced can the new (or, old) ways of being develop. I don’t think there is any chance at all that Society with a capital S is able to change. For a counter argument, see:


    The author argues that small groups should set living examples, which will, when the stars are aligned, be adopted quickly by the majority. (a two part essay)

    Don Stewart

    • that is an ideal answer to our problems, however it requires absolute dictatorship.
      But absolute dictators never subscribe to the living standards they inflict on their subjects.
      Eventually the Japanese were forced to accept western technology, and in so doing made an outward explosion inevitable

    • xabier says:


      Traditional Japan gives much food for thought. European society was like that in the 14th century, but then some of us got inventive – which the Japanese were not. And so we are in this mess.

      It was a hard life though: the traditional making of paper in Japan, which is a rural family pursuit, is dying due to the fact that the young just don’t want to endure the labour and harsh physical conditions, both during work hours and after. Traditional life holds no attractions once you’ve glimpsed something easier. Hence the whole world dreaming of the American Way, just as it is itself dying.

      • the Japanese were not sitting on a Saudi’s worth of coal
        we were,
        we just invented the means to use it

        • Besides inventing a way to use the coal, I think we figured out how to finance all of this–how the buyer could afford to purchase the coal driven device, and factories could afford to set up operation. Certainly, by the time we got to oil, debt played a big role.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Xabier
        The Japanese were quite inventive about a lot of things. For example, like everyone else they had deforested the mountainsides. Which caused all kinds of problems. And they came up with a legal/sociological solution which brought back and sustainably managed the forests.

        Life was not ‘steady state’ during the Edo period–it got better. But the sociological and psychological constructs plus the isolation and lack of fossil fuels kept them from exceeding ecological limits.

        IF they had had fishing trawlers powered by diesel, they might have overfished the oceans–just as they had once overlogged the forests. Societies usually learn the hard way. But they did learn about a lot of things and make up rules and life was much better than what you see depicted in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.

        For example, Kurosawa made several movies about the lawless period in the Middle Ages. By the Edo period, the nobility were required to live in Tokyo (where the Shogun could keep an eye on them and where they were physically isolated from their regional power base) and the samurai were being systematically reduced to having to work. So the Shogun, with some fairly simple regulations, greatly reduced the conflict and thus the waste in the society.

        I strongly suggest reading the book, to see just how elegant many of the solutions were.

        Don Stewart

        • As I understand it, the Japanese are among the most profligate overfishers right now

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear End of More
            Brown makes clear that there are few remnants of the Edo era in the thinking and actions of modern Japanese. There is, however, a wealth of built structures to study and surviving art and scholarly studies of various kinds.

            In fact, Kakuzo Okakura was part of a modest counter-revolution in the early years of the 20th century. When Edo ended, the Japanese moved en masse to Westernize. Japanese cultural artifacts became worthless. Okakura was involved in the purchase of many art works which ultimately ended up in places like the Boston Museum. It was mostly Westerners who placed a value on the art.

            So the old culture died and the people turned wholeheartedly toward the West. Is it possible to reverse the gears and convert rapidly back to some version of what used to be? It’s bound to be harder to move toward a lower energy society. But perhaps not impossible.

            Don Stewart

        • vyselegendaire says:

          Hi Don, it’s nice to see someone bringing the Azby Brown book into this discussion. I first saw the Ted talk about it and read up on it a few years ago and was very impressed with what they were able to accomplish in the Edo. However I seriously think that it is a flawed assumption to think that its even possible to ‘return’ to a past set of living arrangements.

          I don’t think any such experiment has been tried or been successful in the past. History continually presents us with peculiar circumstances that we must adapt to as they are. It’s wishful thinking to imagine that a previous period of sustainability can be ‘recreated’ because such cataclysmic change would have to take place before the conditions are even possible for that project to be undertaken…

          • Don Stewart says:

            I can think of people who adapted to much lower standards of living–some voluntary and some involuntary. A few examples:
            The doctors in Korea in the movie MASH
            Missionaries or medical people who went from Europe to Africa or America
            Many middle class boys who were drafted in WWII
            The civilian populations of lots of countries in Europe and Asia in WWII
            Iraqis in the last couple fo decades
            Anyone who goes backpacking or mountain climbing
            Many people who volunteer to work on organic farms
            People who took tramp steamers a few decades ago
            Most people moving into a college dormitory

            In some cases, the people are in the midst of enormous energy (e.g., a battleship), but little of the energy is directed to their ease and comfort.

            The people in the Mediterranean adapted to the end of the Bronze Age with 500 years back in the caves. Populations declined. Many hunter-gatherers lived worse lives after agriculture–although I have heard that the genetic evidence says the hunter-gatherers were simply killed by the agricultural people–so they didn’t really adapt.

            It seems to me that there needs to be some scholarly work around the conditions under which people are able to make satisfying lives under conditions which are ‘worse’. Why did so many WWII vets call the war ‘the best years of our lives’?

            But I agree that an undisciplined mob can’t do it.

            Don Stewart

          • It seems to me that as we move on, we remove the conditions necessary to recreate the past–things like draft animals, and customs that trained children to behave in a certain way.

          • vyselegendaire says:

            While you offer many real examples, Don, I should have clarified that I meant ‘as a society’ or ‘as a species’ that the precedent appears to be almost nonexistent, for ‘gracefully’ falling back from a high energy to a low energy period.

            The evidence for this is in the types of charts Gail provided in her post.

            Human beings of course have the intellectual ability to think their way out of almost anything, and to act uniquely on the basis of abstract virtue. however you have to wonder where that ability was before we started this grand experiment in state-driven fossil fuel abuse.

            Maybe this is just history’s way of putting us in our place. Start, stop, try again.
            We gave the ignition keys of civilization to the insane psychopaths since the dawn of history, I personally believe this is the genesis of the downfall of modern man.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear vyselegendaire
              I share your pessimism that anything as grand as ‘the United States’ or ‘Europe’ can think its way out of the problems. As I have said elsewhere, I think that the biggest challenge to a small group which IS able to think and act its way out of the problems is achieving ‘isolation’. A short list of ‘isolation’ problems:
              1. How to make a living in the short and medium terms while waiting for the total collapse
              2. Avoiding the persecution that the majority seems to enjoy heaping on the minority
              3. Creating emotional bonds which are not centered on family relationships
              4. Avoiding the environmental pollution and its consequences which the majority is generating

              I am sure you could add other things to that list. While I am not truly ‘optimistic’ about the survival of small groups (due to the magnitude of the problems listed above and others), I do have some hope that doing something is better than doing nothing. Doing something sure feels better than doing nothing.

              Don Stewart

        • xabier says:

          Thanks, I’ll get the book. Of course, I’m not dismissing the Japanese, far from it.

          In a way, the Japanese quite deliberately froze their civilization and cut it off from foreign influences at a certain point in the early 17th century, until the West battered its way in.

          If only we hadn’t…….

          The Dutch, after tremendous growth and experimentation in the 16th and 17th centuries, similarly froze in time in the 18th century, but out of simple laziness: they stopped updating their maritime charts, stopped developing new ship designs, only took the same old routes across the sea, etc, and thus fell far behind England and France, and eventually the American sailors.

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            There are some other aspects of Japanese culture that need consideration. In the first place, it was (and remains largely) exceptionally hierarchical. The Confucian ‘five great relationships’ are still fundamental to all interaction. Secondly, the mentoring system ensures a tightly knit society: each person belongs to a triangular heirarchy, both as a mentor of others and a disciple to a superior. Behavioral do’s and don’ts are well defined. The treatment for a nail that is sticking up is to hammer it down. Hasn’t changed in hundreds of years…

            Do you really want to try to graft that onto other societies?

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Christopher Johnson
              My argument for studying the Edo period is simply that it worked. In contrast, I don’t see that the ‘free for all’ which characterizes most internet discussions works at all. It seems that everyone states their position, someone else challenges, everyone shores up their own position, no one has a change of heart, and nothing happens.

              I was talking with a friend just now and lamenting the non-productivity of internet discussions. I draw unfavorable comparisons to ‘problem solving’ in a corporate setting. At least some of the corporate sessions are productive. IF people perceive that:
              There is a problem
              Our future is at stake
              We are in this together
              There are always plusses and minuses
              Let’s take what we know and do something reasonable and innovative,

              then a pretty good plan may emerge. I challenge anyone to find any problem that the United States government, or the people of the United States, actually have that our current political process is doing anything about. So what we have is disfunctional from the top of the heap political process to we bottom feeders who spend a lot of time developing solutions which don’t go anywhere.

              If we look at Edo in the detail that Brown does, we can find very practical things that they did to limit their ecological footprint and to regenerate their environment (e.g., the forests and soil fertility). Japanese today are not doing those things. Arguing that something unique about the Japanese accounted for the success of Edo seems to me to be pretty far fetched. It’s the same genes operating now as in 1800. Confucius predated both by a couple of thousand years. I don’t think there is any substitute for the hard work of looking at the specific mechanisms Edo used to encourage innovation and local initiative but also to keep the ecological footprint stable. (Or studying any other society which achieved a stable ecological footprint along with a robust culture.)

              And then, we hope, figure out how we might do something similar.

              Don Stewart

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Thanks for your comment and interest, Don.
              Starting with Confucius, about -500 CE, he ‘relationships’ still dominate East Asian behavior. If you have such a relationship (father-son, husband-wife, teacher-student, older friend-younger friend, ruler-people), then your responsibilities, rewards and punishments are clearly delineated. Today as well as centuries ago. If you have no such relationship, then the other is a ‘non-person’. Believe me, the difference between East and West is immense.

              You are absolutely correct that the US (or other government) is properly addressing the problems. For a number of reasons, the first of which is that they’re not even aware of the problem. Gail and some Oil Drum ink-stained and maybe some of the Limits to Growth group and their followers are the only people that have any idea this stuff is gathering momentum. Right? If you google ‘Limits to Growth’ or ‘End of Prosperity’ or anything like that, you’re not going to get a strong answer. People are not aware of the problem.

              If people were aware of the problem, the government would go full court press denial mode. They are politicians, and their future depends on keeping as many people happy and satisfied as they possibly can. If you come on the 6 O’clock news for Ashville that you’re taking applications to join the group that will live like Amish in the coming ‘post-Industrial world’ then I think you’re going to be disappointed with the results. But if you try to sell a Japanese samurai society you can expect the cops to come a-calling real soon. Goodness know, we all could use the exercise; hitting the dojo for a few hours a day, and practicing with wooden swords is great stuff. Our waistlines would tend to shrink, our blood pressure fall, and we’d all be somewhat more content. Maybe. But can you really sell that to post-modern America? I’ll be one of your first recruits, but don’t expect many more.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Christopher
              Here is my objection to your explanation in a nushell. How do you explain the dysfunction in Medieval Japan, the success in Edo Japan in establishing a peaceful and relatively prosperous society living within ecological limits, and the failure in modern Japan to live within ecological limits? If Confucianism is the explanation, I haven’t heard it.

              I think it much more likely that you will find certain explanations such as the self-imposed isolation and the policies which curtailed the samurai and the policies which protected and regenerated forests and soil fertility.

              A thoroughly Western culture COULD do all those things without studying Confucian theory.

              Don Stewart

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Well stated, Don.

              Please understand that I specialized in China, not Japan, but read and visited and worked in Japan as well. I’ll give this my best shot without resorting to Wiki or other sources, which we can both do to find my errors.

              The dysfunction in Japan up until around 1600 was caused by the feudal daimyo system that included a ‘son of heaven’ emperor and five major daimyos – one for each of the main islands except two for Honshu. The Japanese were allowed to trade (ie buy silk cloth from) with the Chinese during one week long period per year. Kinda like the origin of the Canton Trade Fair. Besides that, the Chinese didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to even know they existed; they were considered ‘Eastern Barbarians’ and lots of other bad things.

              In about 1600 one of the southern daimyo’s (BA – ‘bad ass’ for short, because I can’t remember his name and I hate getting old but haven’t read this stuff for 30 some years — but as soon as you hear the name you’ll recognize him as one of the great historical military figures). Anyway, BA began taking on and beating all the other daimyos. The emperor at that time lived in his palace in Kyoto. The new BA became the ‘Tokugawa Shogun, and he put an end to all the rivalries. Much like Charlemagne in 800. He then threw the Christian missionaries (mostly Franciscan and Dominican) out, and closed up Japan. He moved the capital to Edo, and the named changed to ‘Tokyo’ or ‘Eastern Capital’. 250 years later (13 years after the Brits forced open China via the Opium War), Admiral Perry sailed into Tokyo Bay and gave those proud warriors the shock of their life. They couldn’t recall such power in the past encounters with the ‘gai jin’. That’s when the whole country climbed on board the ‘modernize now’ wagon. They send delegations to Europe and the USA to find out who the modern world worked, and they selected the best they could and adapted it.
              Clearly they admired the Germans — Bismark was just uniting Germany, and recognized their similarities with England.

              In the great battle of wherever in about 1600, more than 1,000, 000 Japanese soldiers fought. They had muskets as well as swords, cavalry as well as cannon. The Tokugawa Shogan recognized the threat of firearms — where a peasant could easily slay a highly trained samurai — and outlawed them. His entire social and governmental structure was designed to maintain the status quo and prevent any disruptive change. The that jerk Perry had to show up… I’m sure you’ve read more scholarly stuff, but that’s the story in a nutshell.

              As far as Confucianism goes, it’s more of a social psychology organizational tool. They are very serious about their obligations; we Westerners do not have any such set of demands. And their heirarchical structure causes them to all walk in lockstep once a decision has been taken. They will easily give their life to avoid dishonor, a motivation that is pretty rare in the West.

              Is there a Western social structure that could better organize our efforts during/after collapse? I don’t know. Surely the Amish and Mennonites have a head start. How about monks and nuns in cloisters? How about Mormon agrarian societies? I don’t know, Don. What I do know is that the discipline demanded by a strict military cum monastic society may not be very popular and whoever tries to impose it may end up getting shot.


            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Christopher
              I am not very interested in who won the battles. I am interested in policies such as this one, described on page 64 of Brown’s book:

              ‘The government’s presence is also felt in its gathering and dissemination of information. Surveys and censuses are carried out periodically, and the government requires village headmen to make fairly detailed reports of economic and environmental conditions, the condition of forests and rivers, factors affecting agricultural productivity, unusual weather. The government also issues proclamations of which all villagers are to be made aware, such as the closure of forests to logging, restricted consumption of particular resources, or increased production of others. When the system works well, which is most of the time, the government makes good use of the feedback it receives from the villages…All in all, the relationship between the government and villages has transformed agriculture into a very information-intensive activity.’

              and on page 67:
              In practice, the mutual assistance the kumi provides, institutionalizing a dual labor system that benefits from having both a household and a communal workforce to rely upon, has an extremely significant positive effect, and most exist for generations without their police function ever being exercised’.

              These are just two of many, many examples of institutionalized practices whose net result was a prosperous, healthy society with a vibrant culture living within a strict ecological budget. It’s not all roses, of course, and Brown points out things that did not function optimally. But, on balance, they were far better off than Europe in many respects. For example, on page 136:

              ‘Clearly a mutually beneficial symbiosis has been allowed to develop between Edo and the villages. The benefit for the farmers is obvious, in increased yields and therefore in income. For the townspeople, the steady income from the sale of human waste…may be less significant than than the health benefits that accrue to all from not having human waste accumulating for very long inside the city. Most European cities are dumping their night soil onto the street or in the water supply, both of which contribute to high disease rates and render entire cities noxious to occupy. Edo has escaped this fate by once again making a virtue of necessity.’

              I submit that if any group of people–family, village, city, or nation–is contemplating survival in the future with some semblance of civilization, there are a whole lot of patterns from Japan in the Edo period which are likely to repay close study. Not that all them have to be slavishly copied.

              Don Stewart

          • Christopher Johnson says:


            One other aspect was that Britain, France and Spain all were ascending, controlling more colonies, and not allowing the Dutch to play outside of their ‘East Indies.’ The Brits took over Malacca (Singapore didn’t exist), and their small colony on Taiwan was uneconomic, as were their other colonial efforts in the Caribbean and South America. Their Capetown colony was ignored until the Brits wanted it later. Similar fates befell Portugal.

            But you should also know that during the centuries that the British and French were not allowed to trade with each other, the Dutch filled the gap. Brits still love French wine; smart Dutch shippers learned to boil it down on the mainland side, then add water once across the Channel. Then some sailor with a yen and an attitude tried the ‘brandt wein’ (burned wine) in the keg before watering and found it tasted pretty good. Ergo: brandy.

            The other thing the Dutch did well was financial manipulations, and they passed that skill along to the British after the Glorious Revolution in 17th Century, which then used them to finance their colonial expansion.

    • As long as economists are convinced that our economy is part of a global economy, and the global economy can magically provide, no one will worry very much about anything. We can always print some more money and go and buy what we need–in theory. At the same time, there is no point in limiting our own population, because no one else is. And with no resource limits, there is no need to limit population.

      It seems like most examples of civilizations that limited populations successfully were island nations, so they knew that they had no option but limit population. Of course, China is not an island.

      It is hard to see anyone stepping in an advocating population control, unless we have gone through a Crisis period, and already sustained a big drop in population, so the population is already near a sustainable level. If population is already much lower, it is much easier to say, “Let’s keep it that way,” than suggest a way to get the population down.

      • xabier says:


        You are quite right once again. Our governments are not addressing the key issues: print money (I know it’s far more complicated than that but it’s good short-hand), fudge the debts, lure more people into high consumption and low-interest loans, and import masses of cheap workers to ‘kick-start’, etc, etc is all they have to offer.

        They cannot see beyond a social and economic paradigm long past its sell-by date. Nor can the overwhelming majority of their electorates.

        There is a total absence of long-term strategic thinking, and no attempt to address the major issues of population over-shoot and likely decline in food production capacity due to climate changes. In respect of these issues, there is a lot of wishful-thinking and wilfull blindness.

        Perhaps very small nations who still value something more than merely commercial relations -ie a national existence – might be able to grasp the issues more clearly, but as for the larger states and unions, it seems akin to trying to turn a super-tanker away from collision when all steering mechanisms are broken (and the crew discount the need for them!)

        So I am just waiting to see what happens after a big ‘collision’: a major, global, food shortage event that can’t be ignored, or something of the kind. But I suspect that by the time real starvation occurs in advanced nations, it will be far too late to do anything meaningful.

        Latest policy in Britain, for instance: taking large areas of prime agricultural land out of production to build shoddy housing for sale, and calling those who oppose this ‘enemies of social mobility and economic recovery.’

  38. Edward Kerr says:

    “2. Having no humans at all is by definition a Steady State. I am doubtful that most people would consider this an acceptable Steady State, however.”
    I have often used the deer on Matthew’s Island as an analogue for why we should be concerned about population. The deer, obviously, did not drop to 0. That is because the environment was still able to support a small number of deer.
    For humans I’m concerned because we are in a situation where the energy that has allowed (supported and fueled) the massive exponential population growth that has more than doubled the worlds population just since I was 15 years old now threatens (and surely will) to render the planet uninhabitable. Consequently, a drop to 0 is all but assured. True, a vestige will develop a quasi steady state economy after the “big drop” in population but they will not be able to overcome or adapt to the planets remorseless compliance with the laws of physics. It’s happened before there were humans and is happening again right before our eyes. (we can argue this more intimately at the conference. http://ageoflimits.org/

    Until then,

    • In the past, humans have adapted well to climate change. Of course, they were hunter-gatherers then, and moved on to different locations. We have farms and machinery, and expect to use them where they are.

      I expect other issues will be of more importance in humans’ continued existence than the ability to adapt than climate change. Loss of much of sea life could be a huge problem, for example. The fact that humans have moved to areas of the world where they are not well adapted (for example, I am a blonde of Norwegian ancestry in the Atlanta area) is a problem, as is the density of population, enabling the spread of disease.

      • xabier says:


        In a way, one could say that one of the defining characteristics of civilization, and above all our oil-based variety, is to greatly reduce the true adaptive capacity of humans to their environment.

        It started with Greece and Rome, who built more or less the same temples, baths, stadia, everywhere they went, and gathered pace from the mid-19th century onwards.

        The triumph, so short-lived, has been that of our technology which steamrollers local variations, creating the identikit societies we know so well – every in the world, the tendency to the same architecture whatever the climate, same dress, same commercial zones, etc.

        Leading, to give one example, to the Arabs and Spaniards boiling to death in their skyscrapers and apartments if the air-conditioning doesn’t work, when they previously had perfectly well-designed local forms of building well-adapted to the regions they live in.

        Equally, mental adaptiveness to environment has also suffered.

        • That is a good way of describing some of our maladaptation to our surroundings.

          At the same time, medicine has been making sure the least-fit survive, and we keep elderly Americans alive beyond the time they can take care of themselves.

          • xabier says:


            The Western Way of Prolonged Life-in-Death, (if that isn’t too flippant) only made possible by the oil-economy, is the opposite of some earlier, resource-scarce, societies.

            I was reading about the ancient Laplanders: when someone looked to be terminally ill, they didn’t try to do a thing to save them, or even keep them company, but rushed off to prepare the funeral feast in order to see them off to the Other World in appropriate style. An interesting use of resources! (Only with conversion to Christianity did they show more attention to the dying.) One would be thrown in prison for taking this attitude to a dying relation today.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Reminds me of an “Olie & Lena” joke I heard. If you’re from an area with Scandanavian immigrants, you’ve heard these.

              Olie is on his deathbed when he smells his favourite cake wafting out of the kitchen.

              “Lena, if I could just have a slice of that cake, I could rest in peace.”

              “Shush, Olie — that’s for the funeral!”

            • Being of Norwegian background, I appreciate Ole and Lena jokes.

            • I can relate to the issue of Prolonged Life-in-Death. I am of an age where I have had to deal with several ailing elderly relatives (and my mother is alive, but wheel-chair confined, at 91).

  39. Bruce says:

    An interesting article that can not be easily dismissed. However; what is important is not “what is going to happen” but instead “WHEN is it going to happen”. Any speculation on a time line?

    • Leo Smith says:

      over the next 100 years
      It has started already. The ‘global financial crisis’ is a symptom. In the middle east declining oil revenues are already leading to civil unrest and outright rebellion, and the winners are not nice people, they are cynical ruthless killers. Which is what they need to be to survive in a declining economy.

      Radical Islam with its vicious code of morals will win, to preside over a collapsed civilisation. They are the barbarians at the gates.

      Elsewhere globalisation will start to fragment and splinter. In Europe the EU will collapse. In the USA the deep divides between the productive rural areas and the unproductive and overpopulated urban areas will increase. More ghetto-isation, more urban violence, more no go areas.

      The stark fact is that most urban enclaves have no real economic reason to exist any more. The industrial mill towns sited where iron coal steel and water all came together, have passed their sell by date. Old port towns unsuited for modern container ships are superfluous.

      They have become dormitories of the hopeless. As with the Mayans, the cities will be abandoned, the glory that one was Chichen Itza will be abandoned to the jungle, and the twin towers of New York will lie rotting in the pale sunshine of a world that didn’t actually suffer climate change after all. Just too many people.

    • Bruce,

      I keep thinking that the timing is very soon. In fact, I expect the 2007-2009 recession was the first step down in the Crisis phase shown in Figure 6. We are in a temporary lull, while financial problems of countries get more severe and are covered up by Quantitative Easing, low interest rates, and easy credit. Once these cover-ups fail, we are likely headed downward again. The whole process will likely go faster now than many years ago, because we have so many interdependent linkages. So the next steps down could be quite severe.