High Oil Prices are Starting to Affect China and India

Update: Not long after I wrote this post, the EIA revised the oil consumption amounts by country that they had published a few days earlier. The numbers changed substantially for quite a few of the countries outside the US and Europe. While the trend is still to lower growth in oil usage in 2011 and 2012 in China and India than in 2010, the trend is less pronounced.

Furthermore, we now have another set of numbers to check against EIA’s oil consumption amounts. BP released Statistical Review of World Energy 2013 yesterday, June 12. A comparison of annual increases in oil consumption (on a barrels of oil per day basis, not adjusted for population growth) from the three sources is as follows:

Comparison of growth in oil consumption, based on EIA original 2012 numbers, EIA revised 2012 numbers, and BP new Statistical Review of World Energy data. (All amounts based on "barrels per day" consumption.)

Comparison of growth in oil consumption, based on EIA original 2012 numbers, EIA revised 2012 numbers, and BP new Statistical Review of World Energy data. (All amounts based on “barrels per day” consumption.)

There seems to be fairly consistent reporting of oil consumption for major OECD countries, but this is  less the case for non-OECD countries. The lack of stability in reported oil consumption, both between reporting organizations and between reports, suggests that oil consumption numbers have “large error bands” around them. Below is a revised version of my original post.

Revised post. Based on revised EIA data, it appears that at current high oil prices, oil  demand the United States and Europe is being reduced. There are some indications that oil demand in China and India are flattening, but these are preliminary. For those who are wondering how high oil prices need to be, to be “too high,” the answer is, “We are already there, for the United States and Europe. We are getting there for China and India. In fact, continued high oil prices are a big reason behind the recessionary forces we are now seeing around the world.”

China and India, like the United States and most of Europe, are oil importers. Over time, we should expect high oil prices to have an impact on all importers. While the original EIA data suggested that China and India were affected in  2011 and 2012, the impact is much more muted using revised data.

In this post, I also explain why a person might expect a difference in the impact of high oil prices on oil importing countries compared to oil exporting countries.

Figure 1 Rev.. Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption for China, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

(Figure 1 Revised). Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption for China, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 2 (Revised). Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption for India, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 2 (Revised). Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption for India, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

We can see from Figures 1 and 2 that at $100 per barrel prices, there is a flattening in per capita consumption, particularly for India. Per capita consumption is used in this analysis, because if total oil consumption is rising, but by less than population is increasing, consumption on average is falling.

Some Other Countries with Declining Consumption

There are many other importing countries with sharper drops in consumption than China and India. These declines started in the 2005 to 2007 period, as oil prices rose, and continued as oil prices have remained high. One example is Greece. [Note-European amounts did not change with the revision in EIA oil consumption amounts.]

Figure 3. Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption of Greece, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 3. Liquids (including biofuel, etc) consumption of Greece, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

In fact, all of the PIIGS (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Spain, known for their problems with recession) have shown steep drops in oil consumption:

Figure 4. Per capita oil ("liquids") consumption for countries known as PIIGS, based on EIA data.

Figure 4. Per capita oil (“liquids”) consumption for countries known as PIIGS, based on EIA data.

Europe in total shows a somewhat less steep drop in oil consumption than the PIIGS:

Figure 5. Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Europe, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 5. Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Europe, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

The US shows a similar drop in consumption to Europe:

Figure 6 Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for United States, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 6. Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for United States, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Where is per capita oil consumption rising?

Oil consumption is rising faster than population in quite a few oil exporting countries. If we look at OPEC in total, we see an increase in per capita oil consumption particularly in 2008 and 2012.

 Figure 7 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for OPEC, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 7 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for OPEC, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

According to revised EIA data, the increase in consumption is solely from Saudi Arabia.

Figure 8 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Saudi Arabia, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 8 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Saudi Arabia, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

For Saudi Arabia, 2012 oil consumption per capita is nearly five times as much as that of Europe. Outside Saudi Arabia, the original EIA data showed a definite upward bump in consumption, both during the 2008 price run-up and corresponding to the higher price in 2011 and 2012. With the revised EIA data, per capita consumption is still shows an upward bump in 2008, but is down in 2011 and 2012. Unfortunately, BP does not put together data in the detail necessary to monitor OPEC oil consumption in total.

Figure 9 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for OPEC ex Saudi Arabia, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 9 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for OPEC ex Saudi Arabia, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

One reason why oil exporters might be expected to show higher growth in oil consumption than other countries is because oil is becoming more difficult to extract, and because the easiest to extract oil was extracted first. There are often indirect needs for oil as well, such as desalinization to have sufficient water for a growing population, or a new refinery for difficult-to-refine oil. I talk about these issues in my post, Our Investment Sinkhole Problem.

A second reason why oil exporters often show higher growth in oil consumption is because exporters often provide subsidized prices on oil products, so their citizens do not have to pay the full cost of the product. Thus, their citizens do not really experience the high oil prices that most importers do.

A third reason why oil exporters show higher growth when oil high prices are high has to do with all of the money these exporters receive when they sell high-priced oil. The Economist recently had an article “Saudi Arabia risk: Alert – The next property bubble?” It talks about the huge number of office buildings, schools, low-priced homes, and other building projects underway, thanks to a combination of easy credit availability and lots of oil money. The article indicates that citizens rarely put their new-found wealth into paper investments. Instead, a significant part of their wealth ends up in building projects that require oil use.

Norway is an exporter that does not subsidize oil prices (in fact, it has quite a high tax on oil use in private vehicles). It shows higher per capita oil consumption in the past two years, despite higher world oil prices.

Figure 10. Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Norway, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 10. Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Norway, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Brazil is not an oil exporter, but it has been trying to ramp up its production. Its per capita consumption has been slightly rising recently. Earlier EIA data showed more of a rise in Brazil’s consumption.

Figure 11 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Brazil, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

Figure 11 (Revised). Liquids (oil including biofuel, etc) consumption for Brazil, based on data of US EIA, together with Brent oil price in 2012 dollars, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy updated with EIA data.

In fact, Central and South America in total and the Middle East in total show oil consumption rising faster than population, in 2011 and 2012. These are areas that, in total, are oil exporters.

Some very low oil-use countries, such as Bangladesh, are showing rising per capita oil consumption in 2011 and 2012, even with higher oil prices. This could indicate that some  manufacturing is shifting to even lower cost areas than China and India.

Australia is showing growing per capita oil consumption, perhaps because of oil’s use in resource extraction and transport.

Why would a drop in per capita oil consumption for oil importers matter?

A drop in per capita oil consumption is a likely sign that oil is becoming increasingly unaffordable. We know that oil is used to make and transport goods. If less oil is used, or if oil use is growing less rapidly than in the past, there is a real chance that an economy is slowing.

Figure 12. World growth in energy use, oil use, and GDP (three year averages). Oil and energy use based on BP's 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. GDP growth based on USDA Economic Research data.

Figure 12. World growth in energy use, oil use, and GDP (three-year averages). Oil and energy use based on BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy. GDP growth based on USDA Economic Research data.

There are a number of reasons why oil consumption may be down. Fewer goods for sale may be being transported, perhaps because European demand is down. Citizens may be driving less in their free time. Or many young people may be unemployed, and be unable to afford to buy a car or motor scooter. Any of these changes could mean a slowing economy.

Obviously, there are situations in which reduced oil consumption doesn’t mean a slowing economy. A shift from manufacturing to a service economy could lead to lower oil consumption; a shift toward more fuel-efficient cars and trucks could lead to lower oil consumption. But these changes tend to take place slowly over time, not all at once, when oil prices rise.

Another way oil consumption can be reduced is if a country has in the past generated electricity using oil,  and such generation is shifted to another fuel, such as natural gas. This type of change is being made in Greece, but seems unlikely in China and India. Similarly, if homes are heated with oil, sometimes an alternate fuel can be used, reducing oil consumption. China and India aren’t areas where oil has traditionally been used to heat homes, though.

In general, though, sharp reductions in oil consumption in a growing economies, such as China and India, are cause for concern, if one was expecting growth. Are high oil prices stressing the economy?

United States  and European Oil Imports

The US oil consumption pattern looks very much like that of an oil importing nation, under stress from high oil prices. Recently, there has been a lot of publicity about higher US oil production, but this does not really change the situation. If we look at US oil consumption and production (actually “liquids” production and consumption since all kinds of stuff including biofuels are included), we see that the US remains an oil importer. In fact, it is still a long way from becoming an oil exporter. (And, importantly, oil prices aren’t down by much, and high oil prices are our real problem.)

Figure 13: US Liquids (oil including natural gas liquids, “refinery expansion” and biofuels) production and consumption, based on data of the EIA.

The European oil import situation is worse than the United States liquids situation, and no doubt contributes to its current economic problems. A graph of its recent production and consumption is as follows:

Figure 14: European Liquids (oil including natural gas liquids, "refinery expansion" and biofuels) production and consumption, based on data of the EIA.

Figure 14: European Liquids (oil including natural gas liquids, “refinery expansion” and biofuels) production and consumption, based on data of the EIA.

Difference Between Oil Importers and Exporters – Additional thoughts

The cost of extraction varies widely by country and by field within country. In order to provide a large enough quantity of oil in total, the world price of oil has to be high enough to provide an adequate profit for the highest cost producer. Clearly, if every oil company charged the price needed for the highest cost producer, many would be collecting far more than they need for future oil extraction and payment of dividends. Where does all of this extra money go?

To a significant extent, this money is “latched onto” by governments. In the case of oil exporting countries, governments often own oil companies directly. But even if they don’t, governments tax oil extraction at very high rates, to make certain that the government gets the benefit of any extra revenue available. Sometimes Production Sharing Agreements are used. A chart by Barry Rodgers Oil and Gas consulting (Figure 15 below) shows that for many oil exporting countries, the government “take” is 70% to 90% of operating income (that is, net of direct expenses of extraction).

Figure 15. Chart showing "government take" as a percentage of operating income by Barry Rodgers Oil and Gas Consulting.

Figure 15. Chart showing “government take” as a percentage of operating income by Barry Rodgers Oil and Gas Consulting.

Even in the case of the United States, the government take is significant. Barry Rodgers, in an article in the May issue of Oil & Gas Journal, calculates that for tight oil (such as oil from the Bakken), the average government take is $33.29 per barrel. This compares to $19.50 per barrel, for tight oil extracted in Canada. These amounts include payments to state governments as well as the federal government. If extraction costs are low, as in the case of Alaska, the state adjusts its tax accordingly.

Oil importing countries would like the world to have a level playing field with respect to the price of oil. In the real world, this doesn’t happen. Oil exporting countries get huge benefits in the form of the tax they collect from the oil they sell abroad. Often, this tax revenue amounts to 70% or more of a country’s tax budget from all sources. If oil exporters have small populations, they can afford to offer oil at subsidized rates to their own populations. (If they have large populations relative to exports, offering a subsidized price would soon eliminate all exports!)

Economists would like us to believe that many of the differences between oil exporters and oil importers will even out because money spent by oil exporters to purchase goods and services together with purchases of government bonds from oil importers should mostly make their way back to oil importing countries. There are several differences though:

(a) Oil exporting countries can choose to charge their citizens a lower price oil, thus insulating them from the high world oil price, and raising their demand for oil (that is, the amount of oil they can afford). This higher demand allows these countries to increase their oil consumption, even as other countries, subject to higher prices, reduce theirs. Evidence presented in this article suggests that this, in fact, is happening at high prices.

(b) Oil exporting countries need not tax the income of individuals and businesses, or institute value added taxes, because their tax needs are mostly met by the taxes they collect on oil that is exported. This gives them a competitive advantage in making goods from oil or natural gas for international trade.

(c) Since world oil supply is limited, the oil that the oil exporting countries are able to purchase at subsidized prices (even if to build unneeded office buildings in Saudi Arabia) is removed from the world market, further driving up oil prices, and leaving less for other countries to consume.

(d) The money that is spent by oil exporters rarely makes it back to the salaries of individuals in oil importing nations who are faced with buying high-priced oil products. In fact, I have shown that in times of oil prices, Unites States salaries tend to stagnate:

Figure 16. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.

Figure 16. High oil prices are associated with depressed wages. Oil price through 2011 from BP’s 2012 Statistical Review of World Energy, updated to 2012 using EIA data and CPI-Urban from BLS. Average wages calculated by dividing Private Industry wages from US BEA Table 2.1 by US population, and bringing to 2012 cost level using CPI-Urban.

At best, the money makes it back to financial institutions and corporations selling products such as exported grain. The higher demand for grain tends to raise food prices, putting another stress on the economy.

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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259 Responses to High Oil Prices are Starting to Affect China and India

  1. xabier says:

    Literary recommendation of the week: ‘The Making of the Representative for Planet 8’, by Doris Lessing. A very short novel about human beings coming to terms with a hard Fate. I think it’s rather beautiful.

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail

    I newly noticed this passage in George Mobus’ blog:

    ‘Most of the forces that have affected the environment have acted over very long time scales compared with a human lifetime. Notable exceptions, such as the meteorite that crashed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 mya, have brought on rapid stressing of existing systems. It is this stressing that affects selection.’


    And you may find Stuart Staniford’s reporting from the Global Futures Conference currently in Manhattan to be interesting:

    One report by Stuart: ‘Giving a straight up “The future will be Utopia” pitch. No-one will die, everyone will be happy, we will all spend our time working on our spiritual growth, we’ll be able to travel holographically everywhere.’

    It occurs to me that the scientist looking through the lens of evolution sees the kind of events that you are expecting as ‘just another round of selection pressure’. Evolutionary scientists have studied a lot of ’rounds of selective pressure’ and this one probably won’t give them a professional shock (perhaps a personal shock).

    A second category of people are the Techno-Optimists. What we need is more of what we have been doing so well. But I think the Techno-Optimists have trouble reconciling their vision of a wonderful future with the reality observed by careful people today:

    Dmitry Orlov: ‘ I recently told an audience a few things about their own country (the United States). I pointed out that their country is number one among developed countries in quite a few categories, such obesity (Mexico is number two), divorce rate, one-person households, children being raised fatherless, child abuse death, sexually transmitted disease infection rate, teenage pregnancy rate, incarceration rate, depression and stress-related ailments. I pointed out that one-third of the children in the US are fatherless, that one-quarter of teenage girls in the US have at least one sexually transmitted disease, that a quarter of the women in the US are prescribed antidepressants at one point or another, that a third of all the employees suffer chronic debilitating stress and one-half experience stress that causes insomnia, anxiety and depression. I told them that they are killing themselves in record numbers, suicide being the leading cause of injury death, ahead of the also plentiful car accidents and gunshot wounds. I told them that the extent of their social inequality and societal neglect is worthy of a third-world banana republic. And I told that audience what they, according to numerous opinion polls, think of their government: their Congress is less popular than cockroaches, lice, root canals, colonoscopies, traffic jams, used car salesmen and Genghis Khan. And they took all that on board and even chuckled. Yes, it’s all true.’

    and Jo Robinson writing in Eating on the Wild Side: ‘We will not experience optimum health until we recover a wealth of nutrients that we have squandered over ten thousand years of agriculture, not just the last one hudred or two hundred years.’

    Perhaps it really is all about the Narrative. Would it be a catastrophe if we fail to reach 10 billion people on the planet? Or, alternatively, are we about to experience some ‘selection pressure’ which will result in far fewer humans living lives much more in accordance with the way Mother Nature designed them? Would you choose 10 billion miserable, sick people or 500 million happy, healthy people?

    That question is sufficiently difficult to answer that I don’t expect any rational response by large groups. What is going to happen will simply happen and perhaps some small groups will make it through the bottleneck in better shape than the average human today. I don’t expect the ‘spiritual awakening’ that several of the speakers at Global Futures are calling for.

    Don Stewart

    • I don’t think I could have put up with the Global Futures Conference. I suppose that is how you get 800 attendees and 200 media from around the world. Tell a story people want to hear.

  3. In his book “The Transition Handbook; From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience” (2008) Rob Hopkins describes how he went through the stages of grief as he came to terms with the ramifications of peak oil. I certainly have felt similar stages and I think it is worth reading about because I think it explains so much about how we deal with change and loss.

    I’ve taken the following information from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stages_of_grief

    “The Kübler-Ross model, commonly referred to as the “five stages of grief”, is a hypothesis introduced by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and says that when a person is faced with the reality of impending death or other extreme, awful fate, he or she will experience a series of emotional stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in no specific sequence).

    Stages include:
    1. Denial — “I feel fine.”; “This can’t be happening, not to me.” Denial is usually only a temporary defense for the individual. This feeling is generally replaced with heightened awareness of possessions and individuals that will be left behind. Denial can be conscious or unconscious refusal to accept facts, information, or the reality of the situation. Denial is a defense mechanism and some people can become locked in this stage.
    2. Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who is to blame?” Anger can manifest itself in different ways. People can be angry with themselves, or with others, and especially those who are close to them. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a person experiencing anger from grief.
    3. Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more years.”; “I will give my life savings if…” At this stage the individual believes they can somehow postpone or delay the inevitable.
    4. Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with anything?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my loved one, why go on?” It is an important time for grieving that must be processed. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for the ‘aftermath’. It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. It’s natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage. Feeling those emotions shows that the person has begun to accept the situation.
    5. Acceptance — “It’s going to be okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for it.” In this last stage, individuals begin to come to terms with the situation.

    Kübler-Ross originally applied these stages to people suffering from terminal illness. She later expanded this theoretical model to apply to any form of catastrophic personal loss.”

    • xabier says:


      It’s funny, but looking at that, I see that my instinctive response is always to go to Stage 5 straight away: ‘don’t fight, but prepare.’

      I actually like difficult and daunting situations when they come up, although I lead a quiet life in a peaceful country. I come from a long line of soldiers, maybe that’s why.

      I think we all have different temperaments, which is what the plan leaves out. Some will get stuck at one phase, – ‘denial’ – others move on quickly, and so on. The MSM keeps people in the total ignorance as much as possible.

      But the key thing for everyone who becomes aware is to move out of the ‘depression’ phase as soon as possible, and to get doing something positive (like, for instance, you, and Scott and Don and Jules, and others.) And to get in a battling frame of mind.

      If we don’t act, we’ve lost the battle before the first shot has been fired……and who can hold their head up then?

      • Xabier,
        I think most people move in and out of the different stages. Most of the time I feel positive about doing the things I can. I like how my lifestyle has changed….so much healthier overall. But there are some issues that can tip me back into the depression or anger stages. For example, discussion of rioting and violence, thievery and thuggery, all leave me feeling rather depressed. I just don’t know how I will deal with it when it comes, and I’m fairly certain it will. Guns are a solution I suppose. My husband and I both have a permit to carry one and practice regularly. Of course that isn’t the most popular thing to talk about in the U.S. right now. As a soldier I’m sure you must be comfortable with weapons. I just don’t know if I can use one against a person. I don’t imagine anyone really knows until the moment arrives.

        Politically I’m a moderate independent and I get frustrated with all the posturing and polarizing of our ultra-Liberals and -Conservatives. The Democrats and Republicans are so far apart they can’t come up with viable solutions to even simple issues. The idiocy of fiddling while Rome burns tends to make me feel angry.

        • xabier says:


          Oh, I’m not a soldier: but I have a soldier-like attitude, which I think is inherited from my ancestors. There are some good family stories about fighting against the odds: actually the family history is a list of soldiers getting killed all over Europe!

          Like you, I find the idiocy of politics now very depressing, so I just glance at the news now and then (but less every week I have to say,it’s all propaganda now) to see what nonsense is going on and then put it out of my mind. We are mis-governed, and the State is everywhere corrupt, more or less, and there is nothing we can do about it.

          A constant diet of politics and news can make you give up the will to live. Time spent making and growing things makes life worthwhile.

          I think there is too much speculation on the internet about revolution and violence, and worst-case scenarios, and too little about practical ways in which to avoid it. We are all descended from people who lived in violent and unstable times: we can cope now just as they did.

          As regards riots, etc, I think it’s all about positioning: if you are in a rural or semi-rural location and lots of people are buying into the idea of growing their own food and co-operating, and have more traditional values, and no racial or religious antagonisms then that is a population that is going to be less likely to riot, and less likely to rob and kill unless it gets really bad. So that’s good positioning, in fact the best one can have. I think if Welfare stops, then people left with nothing will head for the cities to get fed and not turn against their neighbours (unless it’s really bad, when all bets are off.) It’s all about trying to side-step trouble.

          Guns are probably essential, although my own option is body-armour and other types of weapon, as gun-ownership is very restricted in Britain, where I mostly live. If I moved to rural Spain, which is one option for me, I would certainly arm myself to the teeth, as the Police there actually encourage that for dealing with roving gangs of Eastern Europeans. I view killing as sinful, but it’s a fact that the knowledge that you are armed will often deter people, and then no-one gets hurt. If guns really do scare you, then there is probably no point in having them, as you won’t be able to use them well.

          If things really deteriorate, then body armour is essential: anti-stab vests and maybe heavier stuff if the threat of armed assault or mugging is very great: they save life and help you to feel prepared. Nothing worse than to face a knife and be aware that only your shirt stands between it and vital organs.

          I have recently improved the overall security of my small property, in a low-key not very obvious way, and am making plans to take that to a higher stage of real security if needed. A lot of self-protection is a matter of attitude and organization, and observing others: I also know who the small-time criminals are in my community, and will never make the mistake of trusting them in the future, or doing anything to assist them (unless I have to buy them off, but I’d rather intimidate them!) Again, this is very different to the cities, where you are literally surrounded by anonymous criminals and potential felons, even now when things are ‘good.’

          All these things are then put at the very back of my thoughts so I can get on with living and enjoying now. There’s no need to be fearful or neurotic as many people seem to be, after all, our ancestors all kept weapons at hand and stock-piled foodstuffs, it was just common sense. The words ‘Zombie Apocalypse’ should be eliminated from all discussions of the future, it does no good!

          • Xabier,
            I liked your comment “We are all descended from people who lived in violent and unstable times: we can cope now just as they did.” We so often forget that the fossil fuel era has been only a brief part of human history. I think that humans have hidden reserves of strength and ingenuity and that some of us anyway will be able to cope with what comes.

            I will look into body armor and discuss it with my husband. It sounds like a good option. I don’t like to kill either, not even for food. My ancestors on my fathers side were French-Canadian hunters and trappers. My grandfather, father, brother, and sons like to hunt, fish, and trap. The skill of being a woodsmen can certainly come in handy. Although I love to be out in the woods and wild places I don’t like to hunt. If I was hungry enough I know I could though.

            I think where and how we position ourselves is very important, as well as our relationship with neighbors and a network of like-minded friends. I think it is important to find or develop a skill which others value and something you can use for barter. This idea of making ourself useful was one I got from reading James Howard Kunstler, John MIchael Greer, and Dimitry Orlov. These and other authors point out the fact that we can’t make it on our own and being part of a community will make life better in the long run. Not to mention more socially enriched.

            I have been collecting many good books on various skills such as seed saving, fermentation, gardening, herbs, orcharding, bee keeping, tools, etc. I especially love reading books written 50 years or more ago by herbalists, agronomists and farmers. Their knowledge of plants and soil have been invaluable to me as well as the simple way the looked at the earth and our relationship to our natural environment.

            My love of gardening and cooking makes herbal wisdom seem the most likely fit for a skill I can develop. I am disgusted with our current “illness” industry and I like learning alternative practices for maintaining our health. I’ve been experimenting with herbs and planting more and more in my garden. I’ve even learned to eat plants that I once considered weeds. It’s amazing how prolific nature is at supplying food and medicine freely to us.

            We seem to have a propensity to write long letters. Perhaps others that read this blog aren’t as interested in our musings. If you would like to communicate with me directly I would enjoy continuing our discussions. My email address is soilmaker@mintel.net.

          • Scott says:

            Xabier, I liked this post and the things you wrote and the one Jody posted in response. You know what else can we do. I do believe we stand a much better chance on a small place in the country instead of a city flat.

            I have told my story, how I left I left my management job in the city and we vied for the Small town in Oregon and put all of our savings into buying this old home with a bit of land.

            Since my wife and I moved to this small mountain town we will not go back for anything. I have had a chance to work my land a bit and get back into building things again which I have always loved to do even though I made my living in an office, I grew up in the country so the city never suited me. In California we had a cabin there were redwood trees there much like the place I grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains near the Monterey Bay and that is where I introduced my wife to country living as it was about and hour from our city home and a world away.

            Our trips to the cabin helped learn about country living. Up there I practiced many skills and collected my books on edible plants, and worked on fixing up the old cabin. We had the cabin for about ten years and then sold it to move to Oregon. Sometimes I had some coworkers from the city visit up there and they felt weird, their cell phones did not work and it was too quiet, they could not surf the net or their I-phones.

            I have been working on learning how to garden do as much as we can, but we still buy so much at the stores even with our gardens. We have to learn how to preserve our food we grow as most of it will come in the fall, but I have been growing things like Artichokes and Asparagus, they are ready for harvest in the spring so it takes time to learn everything, we also compost for the gardens.

            There is only so much we can do as individuals and it sounds like that is the best thing to do.

            I am not really a hunter, but could be if I had to be and I do have guns and have shot guns before since I was raised in the mountains. I also have little security plan, I bought some remote sensors that I will put outside to alert me of strangers on the property that I have not yet put out, but will put them out if the time comes. As long as I can get batteries for them.

            Well until then, I am just going to keep doing what I can for us to become more self sufficient, but we are still a long way being totally, from it looking at all the things we still buy. I think we could be forced to do better if the emergency was thrust upon us and that may be the time we see world make some changes or face the decline in our numbers, but I do think that die off will first hit the remote corners of the earth, an uneven collapse and those with the most resources will prevail for a time.

            The middle east is really in a place that is hard to live without lots of oil and air conditioning, and they have depleted much of their water reserves, if energy becomes short there they will surely lead the way to trouble.

  4. Pingback: A long thread on Our Finite World leading nowhere | eroeistar

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others

    Some angry words have been exchanged on the subject of EROEI and related concepts. Fearlessly, I will wade in those same waters with a few thoughts about ‘how to think about energy and survival’.

    I’ll pick just four aspects of survival to focus on:
    1. Surviving in a world awash in fossil fuel energy…but which is depleting, which depletion may well cause a financial debacle.
    2. Managing a post fossil fuel environment (or very low fossil fuel environment) to enable a harvest of surplus energy.
    3. Avoiding chronic disease.
    4. The society is stable
    My belief is that all three problems must be addressed by any proposed solution. If you don’t survive in the short term, you won’t make it to the long term. But short term survival doesn’t insure long term survival.

    One of the basic building blocks of a solution is to create guilds. For example, a very broad cross-section of Native Americans grew corn, beans, and squash as a guild. From Jo Robinson’s book Eating on the Wild Side: Throughout the summer, the three vegetables grew in sisterly symbiosis. The corn stalks grew tall and sturdy, providing support for the limply twining beans. The beans made their contribution by drawing nitrogen dioxide out of the air and converting it to a stable form of nitrogen that could be used by all three plants, but especially by the nitrogen-hungry corn. The broad squash leaves fanned out beneath the corn and beans, preventing weeds from growing, cooling the soil, and slowing the evaporation of water. When the corn ripened enough to tempt the crows, young and old tribal memebers kept watch on platforms and scared them away. In some tribes, trained hawks aided the effort. Watering, staking, weeding, feeding, and pest control took minimal effort. (pg 180) Robinson also notes in her book that the vegetables that were grown were much higher in nutrient density than their contemporary cousins, and supplied the micronutrients necessary to avoid chronic disease.

    The Three Sisters Guild is perhaps the poster child for sustainability in a post-fossil fuel world. The Guild produces a surplus of energy which can be harvested by humans. The energy is consumed in a form that prevents chronic disease. And the Guild is consistent with a stable tribal organization.

    If we wanted to look further, we would find that the products of the Guild need cooking. So we would have to include some forested land to supply firewood. In Edo Japan, the regulations permitted villagers to harvest mostly dead wood–not mature living trees. So far as I know, there were no such regulations in the Americas. So, as a thought experiment, we could think about being members of a Guild which included The Three Sisters, a tribal organization, and regulations restricting the harvest of firewood.

    If we think about a Guild, as I have just described it, there is no need for an EROEI greater than 1. So long as the energy is coming from the sun and natural sources such as gravity, then living within the energy budget is sufficient.

    Let’s add a little to our thought experiment. I participate in a small farm listserv. A new farmer recently asked for advice about a farm dog. Here is one response:
    I have two English Shepherds who announce visitors, protect the free-range poultry from hawks and other varmints, hunt moles, voles, rabbits and mice, keep deer out of the garden, keep stray dogs away or warn me if they can’t handle it. Anything that is out of order on the farm gets their attention and they let me know about it. If I need to shut the chickens up during the day for any reason, they can put them up for me. Yay! I’ve worked one of them on sheep with the hope of including sheep here as soon as I can afford fencing. Although I don’t have children, they are good with them and used to protect visiting kids from the (now former) obnoxious rooster. They stay home, although I have no dog-proof fencing and with only minimum boundary training, chase deer to the boundary and turn around.

    Does this sound like what you need? You could start your research here.

    This is reminiscent of the tribes who used trained hawks to protect their corn from crows. Do you think these English Shepherds are earning their keep? What is important is the fact that a farm with English Shepherds is able to generate a surplus which the humans are able to harvest. Trying to put a number on the EROEI of the dogs is probably a thankless, and useless, task.

    Let’s add a little more to our thought experiment. Charles Hugh Smith sent his subscribers today some thoughts about the Internet and how that is paying off. He notes the increasing sophistication of targeted advertising, but then opines that the biggest payoffs come from informal networking. Such as the exchange above on farm dogs, I would think. Let’s look at Networking and Jo Robinson’s book.

    In the section on apples, she notes that most modern apples are so nutrient poor that some studies have shown that they actually promote cancer. We know that many of the oldest varieties of apples were quite nutrient dense. Now we have the Networking:
    More good news comes from New Zealand. In April of 2000, Mark Christensen, an accountant and longtime advocate of heirloom fruits and vegetables, discovered one of the most nutritious apple varieties in the world. Chistensen was driving on North Island when he spotted an old apple tree growing by the side of the road. He stopped to take a closer look at the fruit. The apples were unlike any variety he had ever seen. Intrigued, he ate one of the apples and was pleased with its juiciness and flavor.

    In addition to being a connoisseur of apples, Christensen has a keen interest in nutrition. He operates on the belief that ‘for every disease affecting human health, there will be a plant with the necessary compounds to treat the disease’. To test the disease-fighting potential of his apples, he sent some to the New Zealand Institute for Plant and Food Research for nutritional analysis. The institute tested the apples and compared them with 250 other varieties. The apples from the roadside tree had exceptionally high levels of phyto-nutrients. In fact, the skin of the apples had more flavonoids than any other known variety of apples and the second highest amount of beneficial compounds called proanthocyanidins. In 2006, Christensen sent the apples to the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research to see if the fruit had any potential to fight cancer. Lab tests showed that extracts of the apples reduced the growth of many different types of cancer cells. And then Robinson describes how Christensen put the apples in the public domain and started a foundation to promote them.

    While propagating apples from the mother tree by cloning is not a particularly difficult or energy intensive process, the testing process brings some definitely high tech capabilities into this Guild. In a world with clueless governments, it is not at all clear that the research institutions that Christensen used will continue to exist in a financial or energy crisis.

    While post offices and research institutions do require some fossil fuels to do what they do, we can think of even more fuel intensive Guilds. For example, consider the Permaculture practice of forming the earth to slow down and sink water so that biological life, and thus topsoil formation, are maximized. Which highlights the first point we started with. Some things are possible today which may not be possible in the future. David Holmgren has talked about this. If we have any foresight, we will use fossil fuels now to prepare for the time when we need the maximum fecundity of Nature and won’t have fossil fuels to help us. Forming the earth to control water CAN and HAS been done with human labor, but clearly bulldozers do it a lot more effectively. So we can imagine a Guild in 2013 which includes earth, water, biological activity, and bulldozers which may not be possible in 2020.

    We can also apply Guild thinking to social organization.

    For example, the simplest Guild is a single individual or nuclear family which is striving to be entirely self-sufficient. But who will shoo away the crows?

    We can think about hybrid organizations which involve both gardening and commercial farming. For example, Jo Robinson makes the point that broccoli (the poster child of healthy food) isn’t usually very nutritious if it is purchased in supermarkets. It is best when grown in a kitchen garden and harvested and eaten promptly. See her book for the details. Grains, on the other hand, lend themselves to commercial farming. So we can mentally construct a Guild which consists of many, many kitchen gardens do what kitchen gardens do best and commercial farms doing what commercial farms do best.

    I know that I am not smart enough to foresee the future with enough specificity to state absolutely what anyone should be doing. I do believe that thinking of oneself as part of a Guild which has to have an EROEI of at least 1 is helpful. I suspect that we will find the right mix to achieve efficient energy usage by both thinking and research and also trial and error. Neither denial nor hubris are likely to stand us in good stead.

    Don Stewart

    • Hi Don and others,
      I have never had any luck growing the “three sisters” together. The beans always strangle the corn and the squash don’t seem to thrive either. I’ve tried planting them at different times and other options, but it never really works as well as separate plots. I don’t know anyone who has actually done it successfully and I’m not sure if our modern varieties are the problem. I would love to have seeds from a good hardy nutritious apple tree. The trees I planted 7 years ago weren’t the right variety unless you spray. We’ll be cutting them down for firewood one of these days and replanting new varieties.

      The idea of living in “guilds” sounds like the same thing as a community, but maybe the idea is that we recognize our mutual interdependence. Yes, more children are moving back in with parents because they can’t find a job, but we are going to need more extended families working together. Having grown up in small community I see the benefits (and the drawbacks) of small town living, where people really get to know one another.

      We live in the country but near a mid-sized city (100,000 or so) and have the benefits a bit of land (2.5 acres) where we can have a large garden and a few small farm animals yet be close enough to work in the city. As long as gasoline is affordable and available we will continue to travel to town. There is a university there so our children can get higher education while still living with us, although I’m not entirely convinced it will be worth the investment.

      Not knowing when travel by vehicle will be less viable, we also have bicycles as well as kayak’s for travel. We live near a creek that runs to a river and through the heart of the city. A long day’s travel would allow us to travel by bike (road) or Kayak (creek/river) to the city for trading if we couldn’t use cars or trucks. We have appropriate camping gear.

      I will really miss some things about “town” such as the libraries, which is why I’m making a collection of my own. I like to trade and barter even now, while our economy is still “hanging on”. It’s good practice. A local restaurant owner trades gift cards with me for compost. We get to eat out at a nice restaurant, and the owner and his wife use my compost to grow lots of nutritious greens and vegetables for their restaurant. A good trade!

      We have two mixed bred dogs that seem to keep the varmints at bay and bark when they hear something outside. I feel more secure having dogs around the place and I like dogs. But when they were puppies the chickens were in danger. I can’t imagine my dogs putting the chickens away for the night, at least not in the way you mean it! The English shepherd sounds like a really nice dog.

      I’ve been surprised at the amount of firewood we can harvest from trimming trees and bushes around our property. We get an abundance of volunteer mulberry trees that have fairly hard wood. I find that rather than digging them out I let them grow and cut back heavily every now and then. Their branches make a really hot fire fairly quickly. It puts down a good bed of embers for then burning harder, bigger pieces of wood. Several years ago I bought a book showing how to make cob ovens from clay (mud), straw, and sand. You build a fire in them using kindling and in an hour or so they are at 450 degrees and you can cook all day starting with pizza, then breads, then casseroles. Neat idea especially for summer cooking when you don’t want to heat up the house.

      I’m trying to figure out how to use more passive solar energy. Clothes drying on a line or racks inside during the winter is a no-brainer. Dehydrating herbs and vegetables in screen-covered boxes (some people even do this in their car in the summer). Solar cookers and water heaters. I’ve noticed that a 75 foot black hose laying on the driveway can produce really hot water. I’ve even tried freezing water in jugs to supplement my refrigerator. But in the winter it is easy to keep things cold in an unheated garage. My mother told me that when grandpa butchered in the fall he would store the meat in the seed boxes of the corn planter. I remember grandma also had a spring house for keeping milk and eggs cool in summer. I’ve learned that two clay pots and some sand in between can be used to make a very efficient evaporative cooler.

      When the kids have friends over, I’m sure they scratch their heads or think something worse! I’m glad that my kids don’t mind the way we live. We haven’t had cable T.V. for 17 years so they didn’t grow up as watching commercials or brainless media news. We actually forced them to read books! Imagine that. A few years ago we finally broke down and replaced dial up with high-speed internet access. I have enjoyed using the internet and my kids like to communicate more with friends. I hope the internet stays working for a long time. Wonderful source of information (as well as crap!).

      We will never be able to maintain our current level of energy consumption or produce enough renewable energy to keep our current economy running without oil. We can’t replace fossil fuels and without oil our modern food industry goes away. Jobs are already disappearing and good ones aren’t coming back. As long as we keep our family’s debt level low, and we learn that we don’t need to buy so many things, there is plenty of labor to do when you work with your hands. And it is good work! Americans live such stressful, unhealthy lives. I am amazed at how hard people keep running just to stay in the same place. People have no idea of what their needs truly are, just what they want…and the wants never seem to end. It is best to just let go of our expectations that the future will be like the past and get on with re-making it in a smaller more beautiful way.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Jody
        Here is the way Jo describes the Native Americans doing the 3 sisters.

        The Wyandot people (renamed Hurons by the French), were masters of this art. Each spring the Wyandot women would walk to a cleared field and spread a mound of fish waste every three or four feet. They covered the fish with dirt and then planted a few corn seeds in the center of each mound. When the corn leaves reached hand height, they planted beans next to the corn, then sprinkled pumpkin seeds between the mounds.

        She has many stories like this one taken from European observation of the Native American ways. Some of them from the Pacific Northwest–where I seem to remember that you live. She has a garden on Vashon Island.

        My point about Guilds is that you sort of start out with a minimal design (such as a homestead) and then you add in complexity. But every step of complexity you add has to pay its way. If you add dogs, you expect them to increase productivity by more than you have to feed them. If you add in lawyers in the town, then they should add more than they cost. If you can afford Goldman Sachs….well, that is too horrible to contemplate.

        Don Stewart
        PS She also give the history of how corn went from a non-descript wild plant to providing 25 percent of the calories the world currently consumes. There were several crucial changes along the way. The Native Americans were obviously not using modern GMO corn. Just as an example, the whole trend toward shorter plants would work against the original notion of providing a trellis for the beans to grow on. Also, the Native Americans planted roughly 15 different kinds of beans.

        • donsailorman says:

          Fish guts work just as well as whole fish for fertilizing soil. During World War II my mother had one of the biggest and best Victory Gardens in all of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. The fish guts were used for planting corn especially, and the rest of the fish went to feed our cats. We children caught large quantities of perch and sunfish year round.

        • Thanks Don. Maybe my problem was not waiting long enough for the corn to get hand height. I assume they planted pole beans. I wonder if two corn plants per hill are enough for pollination? Must have worked for them I guess.
          I live in the Midwest not the Northwest. Funny thing, there was a Wyandot Indian village not far from where my home is now located.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Here is Toby Hemenway’s advice on the Three Sisters, page 184 in Gaia’s Garden:

            Mark out a series of planting mounds about three feet apart, a couple of inches high, and a foot or so in diameter. Then poke three or four kernels of corn into each mound. Your favorite sweet corn variety will do, although Native Americans developed shorter, multistalked cultivars specifically for this guild, such as Black Aztec, Hopi White, or Tarahumara sweet corn, so you might consider a similar multi-stalked variety. When the corn sprouts, just build up earth around the base. These mounds, by exposing soil to the air and sun, will warm the sprouts, speeding their growth. The mounds also improve drainage. Don’t thin the corn–you want two or three stalks per mound, hence the greater than usual distance between mounds.

            About two weeks after planting the corn, select some pole beans, rather than a bush variety. Common pole bean varieties such as Blue Lake work well enough, although I’ve been told that very vigorous hybrid pole beans clambering up skinny hybrid corn stalks can pull the spindly corn down. Again, old-style varieties used traditionally in the Three Sisters work best. These include less-vigorous climbers such as Four Corners Gold and Hopi Light Yellow. But plants are forgiving and most varieties will work well enough.

            If you can, use the bean seeds with an innoculant specific for beans. This ensures that the all-important nitrogen-fixing bacteria will find a happy home among the bean roots. Plant two or three bean seeds near the edge of each corn mound.

            At the same time you start the beans, plant squash or pumpkins between each mound. Don’t plant zucchini, as their tall stems will push the corn aside. Grow a vining squash variety that will sprawl over the soil.

            After harvest, leave the stalks, vines, and other organic debris on the ground to compost in place. This returns some of the extracted fertility to the soil and protects the ground from erosion. Although much of the bacterially fixed nitrogen will be concentrated into the protein-rich bean pods, plenty will remain in the vines and roots, ready to go back to earth.

            Don Stewart
            PS If I had fish residue, I would certainly put it in the mound when planting the corn.

            • Scott says:

              Hi Don and others: We are on our second planting as the bugs got the first batch. We do not want to use pesticides, so hoping on a second or third planting! That is how it is with organic, unless you want to spray, but we have noticed that there are less problems with aphids here in the North west (colder). We planted some things three times hoping for a crop. Most city dwellers are unaware of these difficulties.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Jody, Yes it takes years to know what you can grow in your area and each year is different from the next. We took away the internet from our daughter for a couple of years in her teen age years, but they are all now glued to the little tiny screens. You are doing as much as you can and that is all each of us can do. Some of us may have inventions but they are not welcome in this world of monopoly’s. So you could even have the answer such as some scientist my have and the would not pay you the time of day. The world of corporate control is upon us.

        Looks like we are doing the best we can do — and also we are discussing “the problem” which few do. I just came in from moving in firewood even though it is June, time to get busy!

        Keep up the good work Jody and family.

        Regards, Scott

        • Thank you for the information Don. I can see what I did wrong. I planted too many bean plants per mound and I didn’t hill up the corn before planting the beans. Seems like a lot of space for corn though. I’ve heard that the squash vines keep the racoons at bay. I also heard that the Indian women danced naked in the field before planting the seeds. A fertility dance to call upon the gods to make their crops grow well. I’m not sure what my neighbors would think of that! It would certainly require a lot of wine or beer! 🙂

          Scott, yes I agree that in the garden there are many things we learn from experience. I have had a mole eating off my peas for the last three years. I planted them three times last year and never got one plant. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong and even when I saw the mole tunnel I didn’t associate moles with pea eating. Finally I dug some planting boxes into the ground and planted peas in them. I have a nice stand of peas and the frustrated mole is going up and down outside of the boxes. Crazy mole!

          You are right, it is time to move firewood into the shed and start splitting a new pile. Not anyone’s favorite chore but it sure feels good to see that nice pile of dry wood ready for winter. I don’t think I ever felt as much satisfaction at any of my previous jobs in life as I do when I finish these kind of chores at home; planting a garden, putting up canned goods, or stacking firewood. There are many yearly tasks that require hard work but when I am done I feel like I’ve really accomplished something. Seeing the shelves in the basement filled with canned goods at the end of the summer also gives me a feeling of security. There is something deeply rewarding about being able to gather our own food and energy (wood). Work like this is much more meaningful to our life than the meaningless robotic tasks most jobs now require and the frequent trips to the grocery store or gas station.

          I think deep in our subconscious humans still have memories of when we lived off the land; when our life depended on our own efforts and we were connected in a vital way to the animals, the soil, the trees and plants around us, the camp fire burning brightly. I think this is why I feel healthier and happier doing what I am doing now than what I did before. And there is no one to blame but me if the work isn’t done. I can’t get frustrated at the lines in the grocery store, or the idiot boss, or the annoying person in the office.

          • I have heard that spacing plants out is one way of dealing with potentially inadequate rainfall. The plants have a wider area to spread out their roots and get more moisture that way.

            • Scott says:

              Hi Gail, This may be a bit off subject as there is lots to talk about Iran etc. But on our garden, one thing I have been experimenting with spacing plants in the garden. Right now we have planted a raised bed with good soils and planted asparagus about 40 percent closer than recommended. It really does take years to learn this stuff.

              We will see what happens, right now the first year is in full growth but we cannot harvest until next year and in the third year it really kicks in. A food that is early to harvest may be good – besides I like it. I think if you have good soils you can plant your seeds and plants a bit denser.

          • Scott says:

            Hi Jody, yes this is a busy time of year for us gardeners, homesteaders etc. and everything is happening fast right now, the springtime is such a magical time of year. The long winter is ahead after our Indian summer, we will feel healthier eating our preserved food we grew ourselves and for some the meat they raised. Jody, we have a really nice lake near here and I have been wanting to go camping but have been too busy with chores. hopefully in a few weeks! This work in the garden and walking to exercise keeps us away from the doctor.

    • Thanks for your interesting post.

      The only thing I would suggest is staying away from talking about EROEI of 1. It has a very specific meaning (at least to me). EROEI = 1 is terrible in my mind–it just means that energy of one form is transformed to energy of another type. A common example is corn ethanol, created using fossil fuel energy (including some irrigation). While the amount of fossil fuel energy “in” equals the amount of ethanol energy out, there are invariably many other inputs, such as land use, human labor, water, financing, and government structures that allow the whole process to take place. None of these gets any return. Thus, there is no output available for buying land, or clothing and educating humans, or building water systems, or building roads.

      If “energy in” is only “energy from the sun” plus “human energy,” neither of these seem to be counted in most EROEI calculations. Thus, EROEI approaches infinity (not 1) in the situation you are describing because “energy out” is positive, and “energy in” is zero. Thus, you are attempting to evaluate (1/0), which I would call infinity. EROEI (the way it is standardly defined) is only meaningful when you have energy inputs in the denominator to evaluate.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail
        Sometimes you quote a fraction for the amount of fossil and nuclear energy we can expect to have in the future…one sixth, I think. What I am trying to get at is the question ‘how would a rational person/family/society structure an economic system if they are limited to one sixth of what they use today. And my answer is that one begins with a system which uses only the available natural energy (such as solar and gravity) and then carefully adds things which require the external energy. But there is no reason to mentally construct a world which uses less than the available energy. (Excluding considerations such as climate change).

        Some things are pretty obvious, such as adding a dog or two to a farm. While the dogs don’t generate energy, and they do cost energy, it might seem foolish to have a dog. But dogs facilitate the production of energy, as seen by the job description.

        A more difficult problem is the use of the Internet to trade information about farm dogs. In the old days, a conversation at the local grange took care of that information sharing. Now we have harnessed a very complex system to replace the meeting at the grange. My guess is that if we were starting from a very simple system (such as an extended family which is largely self-sufficient), we would never add in the industrial system which has produced the Internet. There are other necessary things we would add in first and we would never have enough spare energy to build the industrial system which built the Internet.

        If we think about the economic system which produces the energy and the outputs, it seems to me that they have to be in balance at equilibrium. Otherwise, we would be warming the world or the world would be getting colder (physicists can correct me). Is the farm dog part of the economic system which produces oil wells? I would say that it is, just like the human farmer is part of the economic system.

        It is my understanding that, to avoid turning into an ice cube, the Earth has to generate some greenhouse gases. Historically, large herds of herbivores released methane. Now we have cows releasing methane and we are burning fossil fuels, so we are warming the Earth.

        The way EROEI is calculated today is to begin with the base case of current or historical data. If we really believe that we are in for a shock which reduce the energy we pay money for to a fraction its current level, it seems to me that we need to begin with the contemplation of a simple system which can survive without those sources of energy we pay money for. Then carefully add things we can afford. I believe it may lead to more realism.

        Don Stewart

        • Scott says:

          Hello Don, You know I was thinking the other night, if we could direct the power of our world military industrial complex away from war.. Could we could actually put a solar system on most houses and covert over “the new power”? Gail commented that even with that – if we directed the might our military and industrial complex towards building the new solar system etc, we likely cannot do it due to financial reasons.

          I think we could have a chance if we were able to do so, but they are still fiddling while Rome Burns.

        • I don’t think I have been one who has said that we will continue to have some fraction of the amount of energy we have today. I expect the system will “break,” and we will (probably gradually) lose our ability to harness external energy. The sun will still shine, the wind will still blow, trees will still grow, water will still flow, and fossil fuels will still reside deep inside the earth. It will be our ability to harness these energy sources that will disappear.

          We will likely still have the plants that nature gives us that use the sun’s power, no matter what happens. (Maybe different ones, with climate change.) As long as we don’t use these faster than they regrow, these can be a source of food and fuel. Dogs were used for hunting early on, and animals have been used for labor, so these will likely stick around, both as sources of food and labor.

          Apart from plants and animals that nature gives us, it will be harder to maintain energy sources. It is possible to make simple water wheels and windmills with local materials. It is also possible to make simple wind-owered boats. These may stick around, more or less indefinitely.

          The things we have grown to depend on, like electricity, oil, coal, gas, and modern renewables are likely to gradually disappear. The speed with which they go away will vary by the part of the world. Some electric power lines will be knocked down in storms, and never be replaced, probably pretty early. The other methods of energy conversion will gradually disappear, as well, perhaps for financial reasons, or because the political system of the country is badly disrupted. We will continue to have individual solar panels, as long as they continue to function, and as long as there is some electrical object to connect them up to. Wind turbines probably will stop functioning when the system they are part of stops working (unless someone repurposes them for, say, making fertilizer).

          So what you can count on for the long term, is pretty much the part that doesn’t depend on the modern industrial system. The part that depends on the modern industrial system will likely disappear, over a period of years (20?, 50? more?). “Using less” will primarily come into play as a strategy if that is all you can afford, because you have a small income. If your income disappears altogether, then you will probably have to make do without purchased energy. Affordability is likely to play a big role in the disappearance of energy sources.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Here are a few more thoughts on this subject.

        I went to a composting workshop for community gardeners this evening. Composting sounds like the sort of thing community gardeners ought to do. However, to do it correctly and kill pathogens and weed seeds, the gardeners need to be pretty highly organized and dedicated. The brown material needs to be stockpiled and it needs to be pretty coarse to allow airflow, the brown and green material need to be layered as green material becomes available, the minimum size for a pile is a cubic yard, the pile needs to be turned perhaps 5 times, water may need to be supplied, and the pile needs to be monitored to make sure the temperature stays above 147 degrees for 3 days to kill all the weed seeds. Grass clippings can’t be used if the lawn was treated with Monsanto’s pre-emergent (which is almost indestructible).

        The best food waste is from the kitchen, not the dining room. Trimmings from vegetables are fine, but the mixing of animal and vegetable on the dinner plate is a bad thing.

        The current answer is commercial composting. This has become a big business. The commercial guys have agreements to pick up things like kitchen waste from the restaurants and institutions. They also have access to plenty of brown material from city leaf pickup and tree trimmers and the like. The commercial guys form the material into long windrows and turn it with machinery and meticulously record things like temperature and water content. New competition for the composters is emerging in the form of biodigesters which create methane from food waste. The biodigesters are fed by a fleet of trucks picking up waste.

        The point of this is to think about the infrastructure which is necessary to produce the compost or the methane. If the community gardeners are making the compost, then they have to be pretty rigidly focused. The compost business or the biodigester business are both highly organized and dependent on fleets of vehicles.

        The way we have usually used the EROEI term only applies, I think, to the biodigester. But all three approaches are really getting at the point of using the waste. And what Mother Nature accomplishes effortlessly in a forest is definitely not free for any of the three. For example, if a gardener collects the kitchen waste for the day and then drives a mile to the garden to put it in the bin, and if 25 gardeners do the same thing, then considerable fossil fuels are burned and there is considerable wear and tear on cars and insurance must be carried and roads maintained and cops hired and so on and so forth. The commercial composter is using quite a bit of fuel to run some fairly expensive equipment and then has to deliver the compost to the gardener or farmer. The biodigester is running a fleet of vehicles and operating a digester and is stealing organic material which needs to be recycled back into the soil to maintain fertility.

        Let’s suppose we take my suggestion and start from a reasonably self-sufficient homestead. I would nominate Emelia Hazelip in France. She gardened an acre of land in France with a no-till, lots of mulch system. She did make some compost to start transplants in, but that is small potatoes compared to the commercial compost guys or the biodigesters. When Emelia harvested a plant to eat, she trimmed off the excess and dropped it in place. Geoff Lawton later christened this ‘chop and drop’. On the side we have a simple 3 bin system for making enough compost on site to start our transplants. Some brown material such as straw or leaves is gleaned from the neighborhood. The fertility of Emilia’s garden increases every year. She uses no compost or fertilizers or pesticides on her field.

        If it is true that we face a crisis in terms of finance and energy and water and soil and fertilizer, then I think it follows that we would stick with Emilia’s system. We wouldn’t want to jeopardize the fertility of our soil by diverting the carbon material to the biodigester, we wouldn’t want to pay for the industrial system that makes the mechanized agriculture possible, we wouldn’t want to fund armies to fight for oil and phosphate rock.

        In short, if we are forced to live on a fraction of the energy we have today, I don’t really care what EROEI is calculated for the biodigester. It’s just not a good idea. Emilia’s system used a tractor at the beginning, but has not seen a tractor or a draft animal since. So she elected to construct, using fossil fuels and the fruits of the industrial system, a capital asset in the form of raised beds. Since then, she has relied on human power, the sun, the rain, the wind, gravity, electrical charges in the soil, the amazing stuff Mother Nature stores in a seed, etc.

        I think that we can waste a lot of time and generally confuse ourselves if we start by assuming that ‘of course we need to keep doing everything the way we are doing it now’ and then debating which of various alternatives has the highest EROEI with some calculation which doesn’t take into account strategic choices. I think we need to start at bedrock and add complexity sparingly. If we look at it that way, I think we come out with different and perhaps better answers.

        Don Stewart

        • Scott says:

          Hello Don, I really think we could do something if we could give every one a hundred acres of their own of decent land. I wonder how much good land is available for each of us 8 billion? That is if we divided up the last good land that could be worked. But you know without water pipes and pumping water much of it is not going to be good.

          I was just thinking and wondering how many people are reading our post, maybe Gail knows? I think most that read this are not posting? Maybe there are many people reading our posts which is good but they are not posting on the site?

          • Don Stewart says:

            Several smart people who have looked at the question have concluded that one human requires about one acre. Roughly half that acre may be devoted to growing mulching or composting material or be in rotation and just growing alfalfa to fix nitrogen.

            Don Stewart

            • I think one thing that recent research has shown is that the amount of acreage required to grow the food required by a person has changed greatly over time. It was highest in hunter-gatherer days. Early agriculture reduced it somewhat. Adding irrigation and watering helped (temporarily, until soil was wrecked) reduce that amount significantly. Modern fences, herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and hybrid seed reduce that further.

              While we see one-acre estimates, that depends on specific things–for example, having enough water to grow desirable crops, and fences to keep out predators. The truth is probably more nuanced. Just as the amount needed to feed one person has gone down in the recent past, we are likely to see it go up again.

            • Don Stewart says:

              See this article on rice. It IS true that industrial agriculture gets more yield per person employed, but NOT true that industrial agriculture gets more yield for acre or per unit of capital investment. As human labor becomes abundant and land is scarce and capital hard to come by, I suspect we will see a lot more of this type of rice and other grain crop farming:

              It IS true that in order to get these kinds of yields one has to pay meticulous attention to things like the carbon content of the soil. And so farmers will once again become experts in things like cover crops and no till-no herbicide methods will again be used.

              The people I am thinking of who make the one acre estimate are talking about a largely human centered agriculture in relatively fertile land–not deserts or mountains.

              The fecundity of Nature is astonishing when it is treated right…Don Stewart

        • Don,

          I agree with you. EROEI calculations are deceptive. They forget that you have to have the whole system to support whatever add-on you are hoping will be a bit better. This is the major failing of the approach.

          I personally do not see having a few “weed seeds” as a huge problem. We have the amazing plant shown below that is now growing by our mailbox, a gift from the compost pile. I think it is a cantaloupe. The trellis is intended for tomatoes. I added it, because the volunteer plant has huge leaves, and has a tendency to blow over in the wind. It also has big yellow flowers.

          Volunteer plant - probably cantaloupe

        • Don,
          Since I own a commercial composting business and compost at home, I can say something about this business.
          1. Commercial composting operations require large diesel powered equipment and are not likely to make it post-oil. We may be able to convert to some type of biodiesel for some time, but parts to repair equipment may eventually become unavailable.
          2. The value of a commercial composting operation is diverting organic waste from landfills, sewage treatment plants, or incinerators (including back yard piles). Organic matter that has been properly composted and used to improve soil is probably the most valuable commodity that can be made from these waste materials.
          3. It takes less gasoline for a city to send a fleet of trucks out into neighborhoods to pick up yard waste, grind it, and compost it using large machines than if 10,000-50,000 homeowners grind branches into mulch using small chippers. But eventually we won’t be able to build or maintain any such equipment.
          4. It takes considerable patience and skill for a homeowner to get a backyard compost pile up to 140 F and keep it there for 10 days. This is relatively trivial for a well-run, commercial composting operation.
          5. Backyard compost piles are very forgiving when it comes to recipes and management. The easiest method is to pile it and let it rot. Heat in a back yard pile isn’t really necessary. I agree with Gail, a few weed seeds aren’t a problem. But obnoxious weeds are a different story; best to burn them, as well as anything that might carry viruses or disease causing organisms. Sometimes even a commercial composting pile cannot get rid of these.

          Here is my website if you would like to see pictures of my operation. We sit on 25 acres and handle about 20,000 yards of organics each year.

          • Sounds like an interesting operation in West Lafayette, IN.

            • Scott says:

              Well you know in the old days this stuff was all done by hand and there are far too many of us to do that now unless we can all become field workers and some hand pumping wells which would only support a small percent of the people that live today. We can keep it going for awhile with these fuels that are still around, but I am not seeing a massive conversion to things like natural gas, or coal liquid fuels. I wonder about coal to liquid fuels, what do they need to make that and is that process possible?

            • Coal to liquid requires quite a lot of water. It also requires a big front-end investment and time to build the investment. Even at today’s oil prices, I don’t think making coal-to-liquid is profitable. That is the major reason we aren’t seeing it. If someone subsidized it, we would see it.

          • Scott says:

            Hello, Looks like you have a nice operation Jody. Yes it is hard to do that without diesel tractors for sure or at least natural gas powered tractors. Looks like good stuff, we have a local company like yours here too which we have bought loads from which I haul with my pickup or have had them deliver a larger load when I built my 6 large raised garden beds.

          • I think the important thing to remember is that without fossil fuel work will be done by hand, gravity, or animals. How we transition to such a different lifestyle is very important for the stability of our communities. Learning to make compost (or buying it) will help families produce humus for improving soil and growing food, fuel, and fiber. Historically, families depended on small livestock for food ever since we started domesticating them. Wild edible plants are another valuable source food. When modern industrial agriculture ceases to be affordable there will be millions of acres of depleted farm land that will be taken over by weeds and brush. Knowing how to deal with this land and find food from it will be a valuable skill.
            EROEI is a valuable concept in helping us to think about how much energy it takes to get energy; and to make good choices in how we use the remaining fossil fuels available to us (not even factoring in climate change). Unfortunately, too many people are doing everything possible to keep the system going as is as long as possible. Their decision to ignore the situation we are in is likely to push us into a hard collapse. I think this is why Gail’s posts and our discussions are important in helping inform anyone who chooses to read them. Most people are woefully ignorant of where resources come from and how they are used.
            Don, I appreciate your discussion of the need to start with a simple system and add only the complexity that is supportable or sustainable with a lower money and energy budget. We must all learn to live on less energy. I know that my solar panels are only a temporary transition that will help us maintain energy to our home for maybe the next 20 to 30 years if we are lucky, 10 to 15 if things really hit the wall.
            While our economy is still functioning we should all be gathering tools, books, skills, etc. that will take us into the next economy, probably very, very local, and mostly done by hand. We should be planting trees, shrubs, and herbs that will provide food and fuel. We should all be learning how to use passive sunlight to do work for us. This should become our “normal” life.
            Those who assume that the forests will be available for wood, the fields for planting, plentiful game for hunting, and abundant clean water will be in for a shock. A hundred years ago this might have been the case, but our population is too large and our natural resources have been depleted and/or weakened to such an extant that it is not likely they will support the masses of humanity trying to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, even if they knew how.
            This is why I choose to live as I do now, and hope that others will become interested. I try to emphasize the positive benefits of a simple, healthy lifestyle because people are less likely to retreat into denial or fear.

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