Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

Does a fish know that its nose is wet? Probably not. It swims in water, and assumes that is the only way any animal lives.

We live in an economic world. Economic models that were developed years ago were created based on observations of how the economy seemed to work at the time. As time goes on, it is becoming clear that early economists missed important connections. The most important of these is the role of energy and its connection to the economy. It takes energy to make anything, from a piece of steel to a loaf of bread. It takes energy to transport anything. Humans need energy in the form of food to continue to live. Clearly, energy should have a place in economic models.

In this post, I explain some of the basic principles as I see them:

1. Humans have evolved to be dependent on external energy.

2. Humans now supplement their own limited energy supply with external energy of various types. In general, the more external energy used, the more humans are able to control their environment.

3. Over the 1 million+ years during which humans have been able to control fire, humans have generally been in situations with favorable feedback loops, due to increasing efficiency in producing goods and services required to meet basic needs. Such loops allowed continued population growth and economic growth.

4. We are now reaching limits on these feedback loops. The result is feedback loops that are changing from favorable feedbacks to contraction.

5. Part of the change in feedback loops relates to the cost of energy sources, such as oil. A rise in the price of oil tends to reduce salaries of workers (because of layoffs) as well as reduce discretionary income (because of higher price of food and commuting), contributing to the trend toward contraction.

All of this is very concerning, because in the past, adverse feedback loops of this type  seem to have led to collapse.

The Many Types of Energy

The most basic type of energy, at least from a human perspective, is human energy. This is the energy we as humans have that allows us to move our own bodies and allows us to think. Each of us is given approximately the same amount of energy, with males having somewhat more energy for lifting and pushing objects, and females having the special ability to give birth to new humans.

In order to use human energy, humans need to eat food of appropriate kinds. Most of this food is from plants and animals that we process in some way for this purpose. (This processing normally requires some type of energy.) The only food that is not from plants and animals is mother’s milk. Women need to increase their own intake of food from plant and animals, in order to produce enough milk for their babies.

Humans are able to leverage their own energy with many types of external energy. One very old source of external energy is burning wood and other plant matter. Such energy is used in keeping warm, cooking food, making sharper tools, and warding off predators. Another very old source of external energy is energy from dogs, trained to help with hunting, and from draft animals, trained to help with plowing and grinding tasks.

Humans have learned to harness various other forms of other energy, such as wind, water, and geothermal energy. In the last 200 years, the use of fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and oil) has greatly expanded the amount of external energy available to humans.

Fossil fuels are important, not just because they can be burned directly, but because they enable the use of electricity from a wide range of sources—including hydroelectric, nuclear, and solar photovoltaic. While we think of these latter sources as non-carbon fuel sources, they are today available only within a system powered by fossil fuels. It takes fossil fuels to create metals in the quantity needed for electrical transmission; it takes fossil fuels to make and transport the type of concrete used in hydroelectric dams and wind turbines; it takes fossil fuels to purify silicon and other materials used in making solar PV.

While people talk about a system that does not require fossil fuels, no one has mapped out how the world could in fact transition from a system that uses fossil fuels to capture these types of energy to a system that would work without fossil fuels. The best we can hope for within the next 100 years is to use fossil fuels more sparingly.

One specialized form of energy is embedded energy that has been stored up in goods for the long term. Examples of early embedded energy includes heat-sharpened stone ax blades, used by hunter gatherers, and clothing, whether made by hand or machine. Today, there is much embedded energy in roads, pipelines, and electrical transmission systems. The vast majority of today’s embedded energy is derived from fossil fuels.

External Energy as a Human Need

Most animals seem to get along fine without external energy, other than the sun’s rays. They live in the parts of the world where they are adapted. They more or less live in balance with their predators. The number of a given species may rise for a while, but if the number grows too much, the species will exhaust its food supply, leading to population decline.

Humans have moved to a different model. The change came when humans (or predecessors to humans) first learned to control fire, over 1,000,000 years ago. Being able to control fire gave humans many advantages over other animals. Humans were able to cook part of their food. This had many advantages: It greatly reduced chewing time, allowing time for other activities, such as making tools and clothing. It improved nutrition, by making food more digestible. It allowed the human body to evolve in ways that used more energy for brain development, and less for chewing and digestion. [i]

The way the natural order works is that each species gives birth to far more offspring than is needed to survive to adulthood. “Natural selection” determines which of these offspring will survive. If humans had been like apes, chimpanzees, or gorillas, total population might have reached a plateau of perhaps 3,000,000, (based on historical animal populations). This limit would be reached because of competition with other species, and because climate is less hospitable outside of a narrow range.

With the help of external energy, such as the controlled use of fire and the use of dogs for hunting, humans were able to gain an advantage over other species and spread to all areas of the globe. This is what allowed population to grow, and continues to help it grow.

The natural order assures that far more human offspring are born than are needed to survive to adulthood. If humans are intelligent, they desire to extend their own lives and the lives of their offspring. The result of this dynamic is that there tends to be continual upward pressure on population.

There is a second dynamic as well. Because of humans’ intelligence, humans have the ability to over-consume at least some of the wildlife in the areas. For example, we learned on our recent visit to Iceland that when Vikings first discovered the island, there were both walruses and the flightless bird, the auk, on the island, but both disappeared soon after humans moved to the island.

Because of these dynamics, there has been tendency to need more food, and more energy supplies of other types, over time. To meet the need for greater food supply, humans began using agriculture about 10,000 years ago. With the advent of agriculture, the amount of human food available per acre was greatly increased.

The availability of agriculture added to the two dynamics noted previously for hunter-gatherers. As before, (1) population tended to increase, because the natural order provides for far more births than are needed for replacement, and because humans, with their intelligence, now had a way to provide more food per acre. Also, (2) there was a tendency of the amount of food available from a given acre of land to degrade over time, because the methods used for agriculture were less than perfect. Erosion was a problem, especially when planting was done on slopes. If irrigation was used, salt deposits often became a problem. Rising population combined with degrading resources led to a need recurring need for additional energy, since supplemental energy could indirectly add to food supply. In situations when additional energy was not found, populations had a tendency to collapse after many years of growth.

Besides the two basic dynamics of rising population and degrading resources leading to a need for additional resources, there were other forces that tended to add to the need for increasing amounts of energy:

a. Cheapest resources used first. Soon after agriculture began, humans began to use resources of other types, such as wood from forests and metals such as iron and bronze. With any of these resources, there is a tendency to use the “cheapest” (easiest to extract, closest at hand, highest ore concentration) first. If extraction is to continue, increasing amounts of energy per unit extracted are likely to be required for later extraction.

b. Increased disease transmission when population is packed more closely together. This issue can be overcome with techniques that kill germs and that keep humans separated from waste products of other humans. The need for these techniques adds to the need for external energy.

c. Deforestation. Without fossil fuels, there was a severe tendency to overuse forests. Deforestation occurred as early as 4000 B. C. E., according to Sing Chew. Historian Norman Cantor writes, “By 1500 Europe was on the edge of a fuel and nutritional disaster [from] which it was saved in the sixteenth century only by the burning of soft coal and the cultivation of potatoes and maize.” The use of coal allowed more energy per person, and took pressure off of limited forest resources.

d. Pull of Technology. The availability of fossil fuels, starting around 1800, has allowed much of what we now call “technology.” Without fossil fuels, our ability to make materials such as metals and glass is severely restricted. Without fossil fuels, we are also lacking for the basic building blocks for plastics, synthetic fabrics, and even modern medicines. Technology provided ways to use fossil fuel resources in ways that helped overcome many human limits. The desire to use more technology led to increasing use of fossil fuels in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Hunter-Gatherer Economies

There were no doubt many different types of economies in the over one million years when humans and pre-humans were hunter-gatherers. One documented approach is the gift-economy. With this approach, those who killed animals shared what they obtained with others in their group. Status was gained based on how much an individual was able to provide to others in the group. Members of the group played different roles—some were involved with caring for children, or too old to work, but what was available was shared with the group as a whole.

In the days of hunter-gatherers, the function of the economy was not too complicated. There was little need to “save for tomorrow,” because it was difficult to carry anything during travels. The amount of food an individual could eat was pretty much limited by appetite, so having “more food” for one individual wasn’t particularly helpful. If one person was the leader, he (or she) might have special adornment.

If population rose too high, relative to resources, this may not have been apparent in “normal” times—when weather was good, and when a particular hunter-gatherer group had an area to itself. But if there was a major weather problem or an encounter with another group needing space as well, population pressure could lead to a crisis. It seems likely that die-offs occurred from time to time, especially during natural “bottle-necks.”

A Simple Agricultural Economy

Thinking about a simple agricultural society gives us some insight as to how early economies must have operated.

Consider a simple economy in which some members produce barley; others produce fish. The fish can be salted and dried, so both the fish and the barley can be stored, if desired. The big issue in such a system is how efficient the barley and fish operation is. If in order to feed the group, half of the group must work full time growing barley, and half of the group must work full time catching, salting, and drying fish, then no matter what kind of economic system is in place, the result will simply be trading fish for barley. Everyone will continue to have to work at either producing fish or barley. The economic system will simply move some of the fish to the barley producers, and some of the barley to the fish producers.

Let’s suppose instead that the barley and fish producers are much more efficient. Suppose that with 10% of the population working at barley production and 10% of the population working at fish production, the population can provide enough food for the full population, leaving 80% of the population (100% – 10% barley producers – 10% fish producers) to pursue other activities. How the remaining 80% of the population will spend its time will depend on resources available and the desires of the citizens. Perhaps 30% of the citizens would make goods of various types (build homes, make clothing, and make furniture) and 20% of the citizens would provide services of various types (education, health, artwork, and hair cutting). This would leave 30% for government and finance. The government portion would include pay for government officials and police and transfer payments to the elderly and disabled.

The total wealth of the community is then the sum of all of the goods and services in this community. The financial system will redistribute the goods and services produced among the members of the community, perhaps allowing some “savings” for future consumption. Those producing goods and services will expect to be included in the redistribution, but so will others, if this has been the tradition in the community.

If the economy operates without fossil fuels, the quantity produced is limited by the speed with which biomass regrows. Thus, unless the community is willing to live with deforestation, it can’t use much wood each year. This puts a severe limit on the amount of goods produced. Printing more money does not change this dynamic.

In the example above, I suggested an efficient economy might need only 20% of its population for food production. In fact, the percentage of the population involved in food production varies greatly across economies. Before fossil fuels use, typically 80% of the population of a country was involved in agriculture. With so many involved in agriculture, the number who were involved in manufacturing and services of all types (including government services) was necessarily very limited, because they needed to be “squeezed into” the remaining 20% of the economy.

Figure 1. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

Figure 1. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

If, in our hypothetical community, population rises because more children live to maturity, this adds a new dynamic. There is a need for more food, clothing, and housing for the growing population. Unless land area keeps increasing, there becomes a need to grow more barley per acre. In a world without fossil fuels, increasing grain yields becomes difficult. More farmers can be added to a given plot, but the additional yield for additional manual effort (perhaps picking off insects that might eat the crop) is not very high. This dynamic tends to lead to what we think of as falling wages of the common worker, when population becomes high relative to resources available. As I have mentioned in previous posts, based on the book Secular Cycles by Turchin and Nefedof, collapse often occurs in such situations. Governments have promised significant services, but it becomes difficult to collect enough taxes to pay for these services, with falling wages of the common worker.

The dynamic is similar if energy supplies of types other than food (such as oil and coal) does not rise as fast as population. The amount of goods produced using these energy supplies will tend to fall, unless technology advances are able to offset the decline in energy consumption per capita. Such technology is normally fossil fuel dependent. If goods per capita falls, this will be reflected in what we think of as falling inflation-adjusted wages, since it is not possible for workers to have more than what is produced.

Adding Fossil Fuels

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 2. World Energy Consumption by Source, Based on Vaclav Smil estimates from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements and Prospects and together with BP Statistical Data on 1965 and subsequent

Figure 3. 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 3. 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.

If metal tools can be used—say metal plows—these metal tools can greatly ramp up efficiency of farming, allowing fewer people to work in the agricultural sector. If we think about the result in the last section, this situation allows a greater proportion of the population to be employed in producing discretionary services, and thus more wealth for the community as a whole.

The problem with making metals such as iron using renewable resources is that huge amounts of charcoal are needed to make even small amounts of iron. If one wants reasonable quantities of metal, or modern alloys such as steel used in plows and trucks, a person needs fossil fuels.

If a person wants to add fossil fuels and the things that fossil fuels can make to a community that does not have fossil fuels, the question becomes how to pay for the new goods using fossil fuels. As an extreme example, if farmers have always planted barley with a stick, the amount of barley each farmer produces is tiny, and the population is likely mostly farmers. If a farmer can use a new tractor, with the latest equipment, a single farmer can perhaps feed the whole community. The tractor will provide the improved efficiency needed to free up a whole community of workers for other purposes.

The secret to adding fossil fuels (or any kind of energy source that can improve efficiency, and allow fewer people to produce essential goods and services) is debt. While the farmer cannot pay for the new tractor with his earnings from growing barley using a stick, the farmer can indeed pay for the tractor with all of the goods and services that the whole community can produce, as the result of the tractor handling work that now takes many workers to do. By growing much more grain, and selling that grain to all of the workers who are now freed up to provide discretionary services, the farmer will have enough funds in the future to repay the loan for the equipment which will allow much greater efficiency. (The problem is that the tractor requires a huge amount of embedded energy from fossil fuels. Workers who have been working without fossil fuels will not be able to earn enough to pay for this embedded energy without debt.)

Salaries of Workers

In my imaginary simplified economy, there is only one country. In such a country, the amount of salaries that workers receive then is closely related to the amount of goods and services that the economy produces. There will be part of the production that goes to the owners of factories, farms, and other sources of production, but they cannot eat any more than anyone else, or sleep in more than one place at a time. If they get paid much more than others, some of it must be in the form of “paper income” that they can theoretically use at some time in the future, but does not involve current consumption.

In general, the more goods and services produced relative to the population, the more workers will receive in inflation-adjusted salary. If the economy is so distorted that most of the goods are made with machines, the government must play a much bigger role, providing transfer payments to those who cannot find employment (unless the government is prepared to handle uprisings by citizens). If workers are not receiving adequate wages to pay the taxes, taxes will need to come from some other source–possibly from the owners of the sources of production.

To see how a rise in oil prices will affect the economy, lets consider what can be expected to happen to a manufacturing company. Suppose that for a particular manufacturer, costs are distributed as follows (the actual percentages aren’t important–just the point that wages tend to be a big piece of the total):

  •  Wages 40%
  • Oil products 10%
  • Electricity 5%
  • Raw Materials other than Oil 20%
  • Rent 15%
  • Profit 10%

If the cost of oil doubles and the manufacturer is not able to raise prices, the higher cost will wipe out profits. In fact, the cost of other raw materials is likely to rise as well, because oil is used in extracting and transporting raw materials. This will make the impact on profit even worse than the oil-only comparison would suggest.

To “fix” the problem, the manufacturer has to make some sort of adjustment, and the adjustment will almost certainly lead to less dollars being paid for wages. One such approach is to “make a smaller batch,” with the amount produced equal to what can be sold at the higher price. If this is done, the manufacturer will employ fewer workers. It will also cut back on oil consumption, other raw materials, electricity consumption, and rent. The result will look like recession.

Thus, a rise in oil prices, such has happened since the early 2000s, can be expected to affect feedback loops for countries that use very much oil.

Figure 4. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

Figure 4. World crude oil production and Brent spot oil price, both based on EIA data.

The Positive-Feedback Loop

When can an economy grow? If an economy can grow in efficiency—that is, fewer and fewer people employed creating the basic requirements for life, then more of the population can be employed in providing discretionary services. In total, the wealth of the economy will grow. Historically, this has happened as increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy is added to supplement human energy.

If an economy can increase its debt, and that debt can finance equipment or infrastructure that will allow greater efficiency in producing basic services, this will also allow an economy to grow.

In economic analyses, increases in population are counted as part of economic growth. The problem with population growth is that it leads to more population per acre available for cultivation, and more population relative to external energy sources of all types. This sets up a competition: can enough external energy be added to maintain (and even increase) goods and services per capita?

Economies of scale are also important as producing positive feedback loops. Once an energy investment, such as a road, is made, it can be used for an increasingly large population, often without much additional cost. Businesses also find growth beneficial, since they can build a factory, and operate it more hours, with little additional cost.

The combination of all of these favorable feedbacks leads to the pattern of growth that economists seem to think always occurs.

What Can Go Wrong?

The big “oops” that takes place happens when we start hitting natural limits:

1. The cost of oil extraction goes up, because we pulled the easy-to-extract oil out first. This means that workers start having less discretionary income, rather than more, because they now needed to spend more on commuting to work and on food. Wages tend to stagnate or decline, for reasons described above. A larger percentage of the population needs to work in oil extraction, and more fossil fuels of various types must be used in oil extraction, leaving fewer workers and less energy supplies for other purposes.

2. The economies of countries consuming large amounts of oil are disproportionately affected by rising prices, and oil consumption begins to drop in these countries, even though world oil consumption in total is still rising.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

3. Debt added to produce oil tends to produce fewer and fewer barrels of oil per dollar invested, as the cost of oil extraction rises. With fewer barrels of oil produced per dollar of investment, less goods are transported per dollar invested. If other energy products also rise in cost of extraction, or if the cost of making metals increases, we reach a situation where increasing debt, in general, starts adding a smaller and smaller quantity of goods per dollar of investment. (Substituting a different high-cost source of energy does not fix the situation.) Eventually, so little benefit is gained from additional debt that huge defaults occur. These huge defaults are likely to lead to higher interest rates and more layoffs.

Of course, during favorable feedback loops, the economic growth that comes with increasing energy consumption plays a major role in permitting debt to be paid back with interest. If energy consumption, in fact, starts contracting, this contraction will contribute to debt defaults.

4. As the economies of individual countries got richer and richer, the natural tendency was to add more government services. Pensions and health care were promised, based on what looked possible when the economy was growing rapidly. Now, the economy is not growing as rapidly, and increasing wage disparity is occurring. There is no way to tax the common people enough to pay for the benefits promised to people. People become very unhappy when told that the government cannot pay promised pension benefits. The tendency is toward increasing unhappiness with government status quo, perhaps even leading to new (cheaper) forms of government.

5. Because of energy limits, we find a need to conserve, but in the process discover that we are inadvertently hitting “diseconomies of lack of scale” instead of “economies of scale”. Instead of continually adding new jobs based on construction of new infrastructure, job opportunities for young people start to disappear. This adds to the dynamic of contraction, even if changes are planned.

6. All the time, natural forces are eroding the huge amount of infrastructure that has been built. Hurricanes and earthquakes cause destruction that must be fixed, if the current system is to be maintained. Lesser forces, such as freezing and thawing and roots of trees growing tend to ruin roads over time, and cause buildings to need repairs. While this has always happened, if the government is poorer, the cost becomes an increasing burden.


As a result of these influences, the natural feedback loop is now changing to contraction, instead of continually adding a positive increment. This is an unknown situation relative to what we are used to. There is no “reverse gear” on the economy.

We know that in the past, economies that have hit these adverse feedback loops have tended to collapse. The situation is indeed worrisome.

[i] Despite evolving in the direction of requiring external energy, there is still a possibility that a few individuals in particularly advantageous parts of the world might be able to “get along” without external energy. These individuals would probably live in areas where raw fish is available for food, and where predators are not particularly a problem. If these individuals are able to use stored energy in the form of modern knives, shoes, and clothing, such stored energy may take the place of other external energy that ancient people normally required.

315 thoughts on “Energy and the Economy–Basic Principles and Feedback Loops

  1. Pingback: Energy Products: Return on Investment is Already Too Low | Our Finite World

  2. Gail those charts are hard to argue with. A divergence of two forces that are in opposite directions. Supply vs Demand, a pretty simple problem that more should be seeing…

    Crisis surely lies ahead unless some magical replacement is unveiled.

    Thanks for another good educational article.


  3. I have not seen anyone mention TWR nuclear power (see: Bill Gates did a Ted Talk on it 3 years ago. Does anyone think this tech would give us breathing room while searching for a “Plan B”?


    • The Wikipedia article mentiones that: “Kirk Sorensen of Flibe Energy has criticized the TWR as “a particularly difficult implementation” of the fast breeder reactor, which he characterizes as “already hard to build in the first place”, as well as for plans for its eventual nuclear decommissioning.”

      Sorenson is a hardcore pro-nuclear guy and in the LFTR camp. I would take his criticism seriously – and liked his presentation of LFTR ( I do not like the nuclear route at all, but I think that LFTR will put to trial if the energy situation gets more tight. At any case, LFTR (if it works) is preferable to the current reactor types in operation.

    • Hello Stan, this group has studied Thorium with concern and also hope, can you explain more on that to us?

  4. To Stan:
    The problem is not a lack of electricity or nuclear reactors. There’s plenty of electricity and some of it’s even not terribly expensive. But electricity has only so much utility; there’s only so much we can do with it. The biggest shortcoming is electric vehicle use. If half the vehicles in the world were running on electricity right now, and we were producing just as much petroleum, then the price of petroleum products would probably be much cheaper; perhaps in the range of $50/BBL rather than $104/BBL Last year about 50,000 ev’s sold in the US; this year that number may double, and double again for several more years. The problem is they’re very expensive and only sell because of subsidies. They’re gradually improving, and if, if, if.. (there are many interrelated if’s) ev’s can reach sales in the low millions (globally), then pressure on petroleum prices would be reduced.

    Gail explains the situation nicely: our economy was designed to work efficiently on $20/BBL oil. At multiples of 3,4 and 5 of that, our economy starts to seize up. But OPEC wants to keep prices in the range of $120 or more, which squeezes the whole world.

    Here’s another couple of if’s: if the state of California allows fracking in the lower Monterrey and offshore near Santa Barbara, perhaps lots of oil and gas will flow. New petroleum and gas discoveries are occurring continually. But more and more newly enriched ’emerging economy’ residents want more and more cars. That keeps petroleum prices tight; there’s not enough cash to pay for anything else after buying the fuel… (that’s an over-simplification, of course).

    Additionally, political factors affect us all. Wealth and income distribution has gradually drifted toward the already rich; in the USA wealth distribution is about the same as it was in 1929. It’s much less ‘egalitarian’ than 10, 20 or 30 years ago. I can’t address Europe’s situation, but we know some parts are suffering badly.

    Bottom line: if we’re going to ‘muddle through’ these difficult times and come out the other side without suffering a collapse, we’ll probably want to install a somewhat modified system that treats people more like people than digits.

    Cordially, Chris

    • If there is not enough to go around, in the world of animals, the result is increased hierarchical behavior. This increased hierarchical behavior is one of nature’s ways of squeezing out those at the bottom, so that the number of animals is not too high for the available resources. See my post, Human Population Overshoot-What Went Wrong?

      Humans, with enough energy supplies, have managed to work around this. The “catch” is that more equitable distribution of resources tends to use them up faster, because when the very rich receive a lot of money, they really can’t spend it on anything–just save it for the future. Also, more equitable distribution prevents those at the bottom from being squeezed out.

      I agree more equitable distribution is a nice idea. It unfortunately doesn’t work in the direction of solving our problem of not enough resources per capita, and it is contrary to built-in instincts.

      • Gail,
        I think I agree in general with the thrust and direction your argument regarding distribution of resources. It would be churlish to deny the fundamental basis of economic activity: trading from relative advantage. The hard part is convincing the 1% ‘haves’ that increasing the volume of resources controlled by the ‘have less’s’ or ‘have nots’ actually serves their purposes better than depriving the less fortunate. This is Econ 102,
        Lesson 3, but modern society seems to have forgotten.
        Our society now posts ‘wealth distribution’ numbers the same as they were in 1929. The wizards of the financial realm now control almost everything, including the productive manufacturing enterprises and the state congresses and governors’ mansions. One tenth of one percent of the population control something like 99 percent of it. It will be interesting to see how long these conditions persist.

  5. “If the cost of oil doubles and the manufacturer is not able to raise prices, the higher cost will wipe out profits. In fact, the cost of other raw materials is likely to rise as well, because oil is used in extracting and transporting raw materials. This will make the impact on profit even worse than the oil-only comparison would suggest.”

    Isn’t it the case that despite increased per barrel oil prices, the United States still spends relatively less on energy than it did several decades ago? The energy intensity (energy use per unit of GDP) has declined significantly, perhaps 75% since the 1950s in the US, it is declining dramatically in China, and is slowly declining globally ( So increasing energy cost doesn’t automatically spell economic doom. This is a familiar argument made typically by pro-growth economists and I’m surprised that the author doesn’t address it. I don’t subscribe to that rose-tinted view but I do think that a steady increase in the cost of energy is a good thing because it leads to improved energy efficiency while avoiding Jevons’ paradox. It may be the only mechanism that could save us from global warming.

    • Yes, I think we need more financial engeneering and burger flipping 🙂

      The problem is probably the GDP expansion and what parts of the economy that do not physically produce anything do count to the GDP.

    • To Toni Menninger:
      The link between manufacturing and energy use plays largely in those statistics, as I suspect you know. From the 1950s onward the US stopped making steel and more people became accountants or teachers than autoworkers, so energy use declined. Manufacturing an automobile now uses less than 20 hours of labor, and the engineers have also figured out ways to reduce the energy usage, so even as US industries expand output, the economic effect of energy use is lower.

      That’s probably not the root of the problem, however, which is portrayed by the global use of petroleum over time, and the correlation between economic development and gasoline usage. Newly enriched citizens of emerging economies all want a car, and we can’t blame them. Demand will continue to grow, just as it has over the last 10, 20, 40 and 60 years. More cars are sold in China than the USA right now; but China has to import almost all its oil. And while China’s GDP has improved, the amounts they are paying to commute to work (“the modern lifestyle”) are sizeable. Kinda like the traffic coming into NYC from Long Island, or into LA from the Valley.

    • I agree that higher energy prices don’t automatically spell doom, but at the same time, James Hamilton found that 10 out of 11 recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes. (Simple article here, original here.) The economy can be arranged in an of a many different ways. A spike in oil prices will tend to have an adverse impact, regardless of how the economy is structured, prior to the change. In the early 1970s, oil was very cheap, and we used it for everything–heating homes, making electricity, and for driving cars. We figured out when oil prices rose that it was necessary to do things differently. We figured out how to use uranium for making electricity, and natural gas for heating homes and making electricity. We sent production of vehicles and much other manufacturing overseas. We learned how to make cars that weren’t so big, and were more fuel efficient. So we figured out a fix for the situation.

      This time is different for several reasons:

      1. We don’t have more cheap oil supplies coming online. We have more expensive-to-extract oil supplies coming online. This means the problem is more of a permanent one, rather than a temporary one.
      2. We have already picked the “low hanging fruit,” in terms of home heating and electricity use, and even some of the efficiency in automobiles. You get more impact in raising MPG from 8 to 16, than from 16 to 24, for example. Higher cost means that businesses have been making their vehicles more fuel efficient for years. There has been switching from oil to electric for years, if this is possible.
      3. We now have competition from China, India, and other nations, that use more coal and less oil, and have lower wages levels. If oil prices rise, it tends to make countries that use a high proportion of oil in their energy mix competitive relative to countries that use other cheaper energy sources. This tends to reduce US employment, just as high oil prices reduces employment. This magnifies the impact of high oil prices.
      4. Debt plays a big role in our problems. As we add more and more fossil fuel use, we also add more and more debt. In a way, debt is a Ponzi scheme, if we don’t have continual growth. It is harder and harder for developed countries to grow, with high oil prices, and competition from countries that used cheaper energy sources. This means that governments need to keep interest rates artificially low, so things don’t completely fall apart. This in turn puts pressure on pension plans.
      5. Governments end up getting squeezed more and more, just as they were in previous collapses. Part of the problem is a drop in the wages of the common worker. Governments find that they have to pay more benefits, but cannot collect enough taxes.
      6. It looks at this point as if we are getting caught in a cycle of contraction, instead of expansion. Such contraction cycles have happened before, when wages of the common worker are low relative to the cost of goods. The government has been trying with little success to get us out of this contraction mode. If interest rates go up, it looks like “game over”.
      7. If we look at gallons of gasoline per hour of minimum wage, there has been a huge drop since 1998. This is part of what has been keeping the common workers so poor, and what looks like it likely won’t get better.
      Gallons of Gasoline per Hour of Minimum Wage

      • Thank you, Gail. Excellent explication of what we’re up against.

      • Gail On Oil, Gas and Coal, I saw those charts a reader posted yesterday on new discoveries vs usage, very bad. We really are not finding any more big fields like we did in the 1950’s and 1960’s, but people drive around in the largest trucks made and are still buying them, few see the problem, which makes the problem we face even more troublesome. Mainstream media and our leaders have not been honest on this issue with us and it is time for us to take this into our own hands and be ready the troubles ahead with oil and gas etc.

        On the financial side, the other thing is all the greed and corruption in the system. I used to think this stuff only happened places like the middle east but the USA has its fair share now and so does every country it seems. It is a hidden tax on us.

      • “We have already picked the “low hanging fruit,” in terms of home heating and electricity use, and even some of the efficiency in automobiles. You get more impact in raising MPG from 8 to 16, than from 16 to 24, for example.”

        I don’t agree that “we” have picked the low-hanging fruit, if “we” refers to the United States. The US still has twice the per capita energy use than most European economies. With respect to home heating and transportation efficiency, the US is decades behind. Building insulation is a joke compared to standards in Europe. My family’s car 30 years ago in Germany (the car was Japanese) was significantly more efficient than the average *new* car bought here today.

        There is plenty of low-hanging fruit that the US has just not been interested in, one could even say has been too arrogant to pick, precisely because energy prices have been, and I would argue are still, too low to really impact consumer behavior and business decisions. It may be that “10 out of 11 recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes”, but notice the emphasis on spikes: it’s the volatility, not the price level, that causes these disproportionate effects. If energy prices were rising slowly and predictably, there would not be the same response. Energy prices in Europe have been much higher than in the US for decades. What happened is that they just used less energy.

        • Chart #11 was of particular interest to me in that article. It was about new discovery.
          We are just not discovering those big fields anymore.

          There are a few left in wilderness areas such as the Arctic, I think those of us that are older say in our 40’s or so may make it but we will see shortages in our life time for sure I believe.

          What a shocker the world faces when they learn the lie.

          • Thanks for looking at my slide show. Please also note what I wrote on slide 9:
            “Fossil fuels are nonrenewable resources and their continued use is not sustainable.
            The Fossil Fuel Paradox: There is too much and not enough of it…
            More than enough to destabilize the climate system but not enough to preserve our current oil-dependent lifestyle much longer.”

            The big problem with the “end of oil” argument is that there is still a large amount of recoverable fossil fuels in the ground. Yes, extraction becomes more expensive, yes, EROI is declining – but the fear/hope that the fossil fuels system will unravel by itself is so far unsubstantiated. Even plain old-fashioned coal (yes coal isn’t as good as liquid oil but technically its shortcomings can be overcome) will go on to be available until Manhattan is flooded by rising sea levels. It’s not a matter of availability but of the political will to sacrifice the future of humanity for a few more years of fossil-fuel driven development. And boy you better believe that there is plenty of political will to do just that. For perspective:


            • Great Slide show, many thanks. I wonder if Gail has some updated charts such as the one we just looked at about new discoveries over time vs consumption? I would venture to say that it would be ugly.

              I do think we have enough oil for say 25 years, but the question is will the finances be there – or will war or likely financial crisis to block the exportation and development? I do not like the financial outlook right now. Too much debt…

            • I forgot to mention that just like Gail said we have large lump of coal out there that will likely get burned so we must brace for climate change and we may have to change our growing plans on crops. Wild weather in some places will get bad. Be ready to be nimble.

            • In my view, it is the financial system that determines how much we will get out, and that is far less than what people expect, based on what is in the ground. We are reaching limits right now.

  6. Gail, one can also compare the productivity per agriculture worker as an alternative way of showing your case. In reality workers in some developing countries are competing with their muscle power with fossil fuels, and in that competition oil is certainly still very cheap….You can check a table on: The basic fact that productivity in agriculture provides the foundation for the rest of civilization is important. One should realise however that there ARE good forms of agriculture that can produce relative great surpluses. There is no need to come down to 1-2 percent of the population engaged in farming to run a civilization. Already 20% is a good step, and I do think it is possible. But as long as fossil fuel is as cheap as they are other solutions will not be tested. Farming and gardening is also a nice a healthy activity that can save a lot of peoples efforts in useless exercise and gym cards….

    • You linked to an interesting article. It makes the same assumption that 99.9% of sustainability articles make–that somehow, we can simply use less, and get along OK.

      The problem is that we have to keep our current system together, in order to have such things as our current government, roads, bridges, electricity, international currency, and many other things we take for granted. It is keeping our current system together that is the problem. There is a myth that if we just use less oil/ energy, everything will be all right. (It sort of goes with the peak oil myth–oil production will rise to a peak, then decline, and price will be higher, so we will need to use less oil, and perhaps more electricity.)

      Farming and gardening are nice ideas, but I am not sure that we have the option of simply adopting lower-energy approaches, as this article suggests. Economic systems have two modes–increase and collapse. The idea that somehow one can steer the economy toward a nice middle ground is appealing, but not something that looks to be possible in the real world. How does one deal with all of the debt defaults, for one thing?

      • Plan B:
        If we start with the premise that we cannot keep our current system together, the logical next step is to decide what from the current system we can live without.

        We can live without dishwasher and clothes dryer and use a clothes line and drying racks.

        We can produce more food at home, eat less meat. We can plant more gardens, add season extension, orchards, and maybe animals (chickens and dairy goats). Or we can shop at farmer’s markets, eat organic foods and thus disconnect from our industrial agricultural system.

        We can reduce the amount of energy we use to heat and cool our homes by adding insulation, programmable thermostats, high efficiency windows and doors. We can buy or build smaller homes that use less energy and resources.

        We can add renewable energy, solar water heaters, wood stoves, solar PV systems to our homes.

        We can eliminate the need for personal automobiles by moving into a small house or apartment in a community and walk or use public transport. We can drive smaller cars that get better gas mileage.

        We can share housing with extended family or friends, finding new living arrangements that allow us to reduce the need to pay excessive rent or obtain a mortgage. Eventually children take over the head of household caring for their parents and removing the insecurity of old age or the need for government funds.

        We can get out of debt, live more simple, less stressful lives, walk with our dog, talk with our neighbor and feel better and be healthier, thus reducing chronic disease and age related decline. This reduces our dependance on the financial system, the current health care industry and the government medicare system.

        We can shop for clothes and household items at garage sales, Good Will, Salvation Army, or trade with family and friends, thus eliminating the need for importing so much new goods. This reduces our need for retail stores and shopping malls, but it establishes thriving new businesses in second hand stuff.

        The less we buy, the smaller our needs, the less money we require. Eventually we will not need a high paying job or even a full time job, or two incomes, and we can look for work we find meaningful, a parent can afford to stay home and raise their children, cook their food, clean their home.

        Step by step we climb back down the energy ladder, reducing our consumption of energy and goods, and hopefully, slowly dismantling our modern economic system. As we become less dependent on the existing system we become more resilient to shocks and economic decline. As more and more people follow this path to a lower energy lifestyle, our economy will change and shrink. Eventually some parts of it will cease to exist.

        Whatever requires large amounts of energy or debt will end unless we as a society choose to support it. Personal automobiles, large numbers of roads and bridges, will probably not be supportable. Industrial agricultural also not supportable. American Health care system also not. Electric grid, trains and rail transportation, the internet, community health care, schools, libraries, museums…these things have value but will probably change shape to reflect our lower ability to pay for them. We will get to know more of the people in our community and support each other in times of need. Churches will become an important part of this networking, community building. I am a member of the Unitarian church because of its inclusiveness of all the worlds religions.

        There will certainly be discontinuities; damaging weather patterns, disasters, civil unrest, oil price spikes (and other commodities), painful recession, maybe even depression. But our civilization still has a tremendous amount of embedded energy, there is still much that works, and resources available for us to continue using. But we can’t continue to live the American lifestyle because it is not supportable. The sooner we get on with living a lifestyle that requires more of our own energy to provide what we need, and less from fossil fuels and the global market place the better off we will be.


        • You missed the only action that might improve the future: have one or fewer children.

          • RobM

            On the contrary, having more children who can labour or go out thieving to supply wants, or even be sold, might be a decent survival strategy in a degraded and poorer world.

            • With respect to number of children, we have a conflict between what it would take to get the world’s population more into balance with resources available and what is best for the individual. With few other sources of entertainment, and little birth control possible, number of births per family may very well rise. The labor from these children can be helpful to the parents, both early on, and in their declining years. The result is the out of balance we have had since the beginning of time.

          • RobM,
            The plan I listed was only the broad strokes, not all the details. I was mainly thinking of the US, where I live, so I expect other countries and regions will be different. With regard to the number of children we have I’m not sure that this will be as important as it might have been 40 or 50 years ago, but it will certainly vary from country to country.

            The world is going to change dramatically over the next 10 to 20 years, the span of one more generation. During this time the natural law of survival of the fittest will begin to work more efficiently, removing large numbers of our population. Warfare and fighting will also work to reduce population. This is why I don’t think over-population will be as important an issue as it once was.

            The build up of human population was a result of access to food, better sanitation, immunization, hygiene, nutrition, and medical care making it possible for more people to survive childhood and to live longer. This will no longer be the case. I think that in the US and perhaps other developed countries we have an over-developed desire to save life no matter the cost, and in many cases that has worked against us.

            In the world ahead, we will no longer have the luxury or the choice of caring for those that cannot contribute to our survival. With the decline of fossil fuels, the energy slaves we have talked about, the world’s population will come to a lower population level that can be supported by the seasonal input of solar energy to supply life with food and energy.

        • Unfortunately, we don’t have a choice on what parts of the system decide to leave us, and in what time frame. I expect roads will be one of the things that leave fairly quickly, making long distance transport of all kinds of things more difficult, including replacement parts for things we expect to work. International trade will likely go downhill as well, as will political stability. To the extent we can plan to get along completely without the current system, we are protected.

          It is a nice idea to use less, but because of diseconomies of lack of scale, doesn’t really help the system as a whole. The extent to which these ideas are really helpful will depend on the extent to which there are major breaks in the system, early on. A small fuel efficient car doesn’t run any better than a large car without needed replacement parts, for example.

          • Gail,
            This is why it is important to start this process while we still have a functioning economy. This is why my husband and I started this process 10 years ago, and now live just like I described. Every point you make is true only if one waits until the system is collapsing. The longer you wait, the fewer will be your options.

            • Dear Gail and Jody
              Here is an example of what every gardener and small farmer should be doing right now:

              Selecting and Managing Cover Crops
              to Maximize Benefits to Soil and Cash Crops

              The quadruple issues here are nitrogen fixation, prevention of soil erosion, lessened dependence on fossil fuels, and and putting more organic matter into the soil..

              In order to really understand what is happening, you need to look at it from an evolutionary standpoint. Alex Hitt, one of the presenters, is one of the most respected elders in the local small farm community. When Alex talks, people listen because he has been successful now for 30 years. So what he is doing works right now with the economy we presently have.

              Second, once the basic learning and skills are absorbed, any farm will be more resilient to future shocks. For example, you see a picture of Alex on his old tractor mowing a certain cover crop. That cover crop is making so much organic matter that mowing it with scythes would be impossible in the current economy and not very much fun at all in an economy with no tractors and no fossil fuels. But there are other cover crops which make less organic matter which CAN be dealt with by hand tools. If you go to this class, you will learn about them.

              Another factor is that as collapse happens, a local economy is required for the system to work smoothly. The tractor can be maintained for a long time by a good mechanic. So we need mechanics. The tractor can be operated on diesels made on farms. So it would be advantageous if somebody locally specialized in making diesel. A third factor is the seed. Many cover crops deposit the maximum load of nitrogen before they set seed. You will see that part of the presentation covers the ideal time to kill the cover crop. And so we need a local farm which is growing cover crop seeds. That farm will probably rely heavily on animals because it is harvesting and selling seeds. None of these things are impossible. They happen infrequently right now, because the globalized economy makes it very hard to make a living doing these functions. But they are not rocket science, and, absent the heavy hand of government or bandits or banks and lawyers, these occupations will fourish.

              The largest dependency on fossil fuels in the agricultural system is NOT in primary production, but in transportation and packaging and retailing and home refrigeration and cooking. Our local farmers are acutely aware of that fact. They have cooperatively banded together to build more efficient distribution networks. The biggest threat here is Federal Food Safety regulations which are mostly put in place to serve the giant food companies and exclude small farmers and local networks from the marketplace. Nobody is happy to learn that a Tyson executive is in charge of the process.

              A huge amount of the fossil fuel dependency is under the control of the consumer. Smart gardening can dramatically cut the dependency on fossil fuels and global supply networks. Smarter food storage and preparation can do the same. Everyone should sign up for a fermentation class this fall.

              Do any of these steps insure that the current system will survive? I would turn that around and say ‘the current system won’t survive, so what are you going to do about it?’. Beginning to build local food systems which can evolve to much less dependence on fossil fuels and global supply chains seems to me to be a completely sane thing to do.

              Don Stewart

            • It is hard to get the new systems in place, while the current system is operating. And it is hard to see what the real problems will be. For example, if a mechanic has to walk from farm to farm with no equipment to do his repairs, his productivity will be very low, and his charges will necessarily need to be very high. Some equipment can be fixed, but without parts and computer diagnostics, the amount of fixing of modern equipment that can be done will be limited.

              I looked up classes on fermentation. These may be available in areas with high interest in sustainability. For the rest of us, I expect the only option is online courses or books. I ran across a couple of such courses. Nourished Kitchen seems to offer a very comprehensive course of 13 workshops for $147 (or perhaps it is $197). Another organization God’s Natural Organic Whole Foods, Grown Locally in Season offers a series of classes for $17 or $37 month, depending on what else is included in the package. The impression I got was that they were hoping you would permanently become a member. There is a discount for annual membership.

              With respect to books, The Art of Fermentation: An In-Depth Exploration of Essential Concepts and Processes from around the World is highly rated–it is reported to be winner of the 2013 James Beard Foundation Book Award for Reference and Scholarship, and a New York Times bestseller. It is $28.35 for hardback or $21.97 for Kindle version.

            • Gail
              I don’t deny that one can think of scenarios where mechanical equipment of all kinds won’t work. Old tractors are the least subject to the kinds of problems you describe. Small farmers don’t need computerized tractors. But, as I said, it is also quite possible to grow cover crops which put less organic matter into the soil, but which can be killed with a scythe. An alternative, which occurred to me after I wrote on the subject, is the crimper designed by the Rodale Institute. It is a hollow metal drum which has ridges on it which are in a chevron shape. The drum is filled with water to make it heavy, and then it is pulled across the cover crop with a tractor. But, of course, it could also be pulled by oxen. The ridges crimp the cover crop and kill it. One can buy simple manual crimpers for garden sized plots. My point is that the broad statement that ‘our systems can’t operate in reverse’ may be wrong. I agree that it is hard to see how a highly leveraged, computerized, entirely fossil fuel dependent system can go into reverse. But if you look at what Alex Hitt is doing, and what the class can teach any farmer or gardener to do, it is quite possible to visualize them running in reverse. That is, starting out with an old tractor pulling a crimper and progressing toward oxen pulling the crimper.; The crimper should last a hundred years. It is even possible to imagine the skill of cooperage being reborn (as blacksmithing has been reborn) and wooden crimpers being made. The difference now is that we have a lot of scientific knowledge about nitrogen fixation, crop requirements, and the optimum time to kill the cover crop. Unless we hit a truly Dark Age where that knowledge is forgotten, then clever people can figure out how to go in reverse in terms of electronics and fossil fuels. As for the financial aspects, if there is a collapse such that debts disappear…then that probably takes care of the financial problems.

              As for the high wages of the mechanic. First, high wages (relative to food) will likely be a thing of the past. In Amish communities it is common to see someone in the community who has a special skill. The Amish don’t uses tractors for farming, but there are other things that they need which are best done by skilled craftspeople. So a person may farm half-time and work his craft half-time. The mechanic might also keep a graveyard of old tractors to supply parts. In short, I wouldn’t just assume that there is simply no reverse gear for a small farmer in 2013.

              Don Stewart

            • The issue I see is that the mechanical equipment we have is precisely what has been made, that hasn’t already been recycled. If we want a much larger inventory of, for example, scythes, or of old tractors that are easy to repair, we need to build those now. If we want more plows that are optimized for pulling behind horses or oxen, we also need to build those now. There are many other things that we theoretically could make now, to stockpile, such as replacement parts for electrical transmission systems. There are so many of these, of so many different types, it would be very hard to get enough in the right locations of the country.

              Clearly, whatever extra we make now of “retro equipment” has to compete for funding and for resources (steel, oil consumption, factory space) with modern equipment that is being made now. Somehow, factories for this equipment must be made again, warehouses for this equipment must be built, and someone must have the job (and be paid) for overseeing this new extra equipment. This new equipment must be widely distributed, so it is available for use in the parts of the country where it is needed.

              In theory, we can make more retro equipment from recycling, but I expect this is much harder to do in practice than it looks. I understand that it is very hard to make a good sharp edge, such as in a knife, from recycled metals–at least one that will hold its edge for very long. I also understand that there was a big improvement in productivity when we could go from iron plows to steel plows, because of improvements that could be made in the plows. It is possible to bang on the hood of a car with a hammer, and reshape it into a different shape but making high-tech goods from it is likely not possible. We have had a lot of experience using charcoal for making metals and glass, but we know that this approach quickly leads to deforestation.

              The point about high wages of the mechanic relates to the fact that the mechanic would need to be fed, clothed, and housed on what he earned. If there is much less fossil fuels to run society, farmers would be earning much less, so would be able to support only a small number of non-farmers of various types. I expect that in practice, the only way such a mechanic could make a living is as being a farmer most of the time, and as a part-time mechanic hobbyist the rest of the time. There would need to be a lot of these people, who could help their immediate neighbors in time of need. In fact, most people who have tractors might need to be knowledgable about what is going wrong with them, so that they can inquire of junk yards whether spare parts of the right type might be available (without the extra step and cost of calling a mechanic in).

            • Gail
              One of the differences between you and me is that I don’t expect most people to do any of these things. If collapse happens slowly, maybe they will adjust. But if collapse happens rapidly, as you expect, then most of them will meet the fate of the Irish during the Famine. They will lay down beside the road or in their field or in their hut and simply die. I think you are looking for something that will somehow prevent this from happening.

              I think the small farmers with old tractors and scythes that they have hanging in the barn and who know something about seed saving will be the survivors. Probably also the good gardeners. Therefore, the population will be very much smaller than it is today. Some of the problems one might anticipate in such an environment will be much lessened. Trees, for example, will grow rapidly with the decline in population and so shortages of timber won’t be a problem for centuries. There was coal mining in this county back in Colonial times. I imagine some enterprising people might begin to dig it again for things like blacksmithing. Scythes and sickles and even sharp kitchen knives will be treasured. (I take very good care of the edge on my main kitchen knife). I think you count the scythes and say ‘there won’t be enough of them to feed 7 billion’, while I would tend to project the number of survivors as a function of available scythes. Those are very different ways of looking at the issues.

              I could be wrong.

              Don Stewart

          • Don,
            “‘the current system won’t survive, so what are you going to do about it?”

            I was trying to find a way of expressing exactly that thought. Thanks for being so succinct.
            Wonderful post by the way.

          • @Gail

            I think roads may not be the primary things to desintegrate. Roads are still quite simple to construct and in many cases to repair over a time-frame of 10-20 years. A huge problem are big trucks that are very much stress to the road-surface.

            What I see will be a problem is the ultra-high complexity of todays products, including vehicles. 20-25 years ago I could understand and fix most of the electrics and electronics used. Circuit boards where often simple, microprocessors sparsely used and in most cases had simple functionality (compared to today). Some basic tools, a soldering iron, an oscilloscope and a multimeter could do wonder.

            Today, our system-complexity is greatly enhanced. Voice-Over-IP Telephones, Washingmachines with microprocessor control, touch panel controlled ovens, cars with over 50 embedded control units (each having its own CPU), home- and climate control systems, zero-energy homes which depend on computer controlled air-flow management, ultra-high efficient gas- and oil burners (computer and sensor controlled) to heat the home and so forth.

            If one big supplier collapses this has critical ripple effects. You may get no replacement parts anymore, the responsible people laid off – with no chance of recovering that knowledge. I see that as extremely critical in case of a financial down-turn, if ressource-caused or not.

            A road can be fixed locally for some time – but the overall infrastructure and big corporations depend all on a global supplier network. That is, for me, also one big reason behind the saving of General Motors. With the collapse of such an entity lots of suppliers would have collapsed – that are in turn suppliers of other global operating companies. The ripple effect would have been not ‘nice’.

            • In fact, farm equipment now has fancy controls on it as well, making it hard for a someone with a few simple tools to fix. At the same time we become more efficient, our systems become less resilient.

      • Gail, I agree totally with “There is a myth that if we just use less oil/ energy, everything will be all right.” I have worked for years in the “sustainability industry”, “green economy” sphere. And most proponents try to sell the idea that it is just about some adjustments to green tech that is needed. And I don’t believe in that. But something along the lines of what Jody writes can work.

        You write: “The idea that somehow one can steer the economy toward a nice middle ground is appealing, but not something that looks to be possible in the real world. How does one deal with all of the debt defaults, for one thing?”
        I say, let them go bankrupt….It is true that this system is stuck, and we can’t unstuck that system I believe, in particularly not the core of the system, the US Empire and the global financial capital. But in the end, it is not that system that generates wealth, it is real things, peoples labour etc. But it is also likely that the longer we/you/they take all kind of measures to avoid the inevitable, the crash will just be harder. Of course, a crash will hit hard and a lot of “innocent” people will be harmed.

        But I don’t think the 2 billion dead poor will be hit. on the contrary. As my post was about, they today compete with their muscles power with oil for 100 dollar per barrel, which is just not possible at all.

        I think we both agree that it will not be easy.

        • Gunnar,
          This is indeed the raisers edge. It would be nice if we all could go the route of Iceland and tell the banks to shove off. I think we should all watch carefully how the financial system and our government proceeds with any bankruptcy, deciding who gets to pick the carcass.

          But no matter how hard the financial industry tries to preserve the system there isn’t enough real wealth (not electronic or paper) to pay off the debt bubble that continues to grow. This tertiary wealth is going to evaporate because it is nothing, it produces nothing, it is no different that Monopoly money expect that we all agree to exchange it for our labor.

          Most of the financial products we buy now are really just a Ponzi scheme and the last in or those still in will lose their money. Even if you want to remove your money, it is still paper or electronic wealth. What do you do with it? I find it interesting watching how hard the 1% scramble to “invest” all the money they accumulate, trying to make it spin more wealth. But more of nothing is still nothing.

          Sadly, people (Americans in particular) need to understand that this is going to affect our savings, insurance funds, social security, pension, retirement, college funds, etc. We’ve been duped into letting the government dismantle the safe guards and now we will all pay the penalty of allowing the fox to guard the hen house. A failure of the “too big to fail” is going to affect us all and very painful. I think Gail, being an actuarial, probably understands the ramifications better than anyone.

      • Gail

        Yes, it would appear to be the case that every individual effort towards a saner, less consumption-orientated, way of life is another nail in the coffin of a conventional, highly-geared business, and, consequently, of the tax-gathering and immensely indebted State.

        • Yes, that is pretty much the issue. And some of those businesses are ones that we have grown to expect and need–electric utilities, and ones that transport goods of all kinds. Manufacturing of basic clothing and many other goods we need on a day to day basis have already moved overseas, where they are vulnerable to international trade problems. But the real problem is the immensely indebted State. Cutting back in its revenue makes its situation worse. The tendency of states with huge problems is to disaggregate into smaller, more local governments, likely with much fewer services, and less in the way of trade agreements. Such governments are a big unknown.

  7. Dear Gail and Others
    Regarding my frequent references to hormones. Please read this post today on

    The essay is a better scientifically informed essay than anything I have written, although I have touched on many of these topics.

    I would add this to the essay. Daniel Kahneman showed in his book Thinking: Fast and Slow that our rational brain is far too slow to be a reliable guide in the real world. Instead, we rely on a variety of mechanisms which operate very rapidly. I argue that hormones are one of those mechanisms. We are designed to do things that make us feel good. But, as the essay points out, the organism can learn new ways of semi-automatically responding, society can imprint new ways of semi-automatically responding, and evolution can find new ways of semi-automatically responding. So there is a reason why Sara Gottfried is carrying a yoga mat in the picture on the dust jacket of her Hormone Cure book.

    Most people reading this will agree that the richer parts of the world have run the course on atomization of the individual (richly explored in Dmitry Orlov’s Five Stages of Collapse), the worship of financialization (as measured by GDP), and debt as the doorway to happiness, with fossil fuels as the enabler. Those paths aren’t going to work for us very much longer.

    So it is time for the organisms called humans to take a hard look at the science (as laid out in the essay) and figure out what we are going to do next. The new science should be very liberating to your thinking. And remember Tishmack’s First Law.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,
      Very interesting essay! The location you included is only for Chap. 3. If you want to read the entire essay it can be found here.

      The essay coincides quite well with another book I am reading
      “The Phenomenon of Man” by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1955). What a mind he had; far ahead of his time.

      What interests me most about this thinking is that it gives us a new story, a new way of understanding our selves and our relationship with each other and the world we live in. If Carbon Man is going to find reasons to change, we need a new story, one that gives us a reason to create a world without fossil fuel, debt, and overshoot…a world in which we find joy in living, satisfaction in simple work and meaningful relationships. I believe it will be our hope for the future that prevents us from deteriorating into savages.

      As an aside, I must say that I am having difficulty reading and digesting all the information and ideas I find on this website. But isn’t this an exhilarating ride…re-imagining a way into a new world!


      • Jody

        I can highly recommend Teilhard’s Letters from the First World War ( this is how his thought took shape, witnessing the great battles), his Travel Diary -lots about China in the 1930’s – and there is an excellent short Memoir by an American who knew him well. Unfortunately, all my books are packed up in cases so I can’t be more precise as to titles I’m afraid.

        • Tielhard Admirers:

          Why am I not surprised that you admire him? Or how could you not? He truly was one of the great men of science and religion of last Century. I heard a story — cannot confirm — that Pope John Paul II was asked whether he believed in Science or the Bible. He responded quickly: “Why both, of course.”

          It appears that the RC Church has evolved more than just a little bit. From condemning Tielhard to embracing his interpretations is a big step. Now even open-minded evangelical churches claim that Genesis is not a scientific treatise and there’s no calendar affixed. But I just saw a news article from ‘Catholic Online’, a Los Angeles blog, that brought a smile: the subject was that a Third Van Allen Belt has been found further out and will affect electronics and people, so be careful. But we can expect more such discoveries, since science is always ‘revising upwards’ is understandings. Or, you can say that science is always wrong. Same thing, right?

      • Dear Jody
        The positive openings science is revealing also have a dark side. Get into this one only if you have an hour or so.

        You can click on the link for a radio interview, which lasts about 50 minutes.

        Briefly, if an expectant mother is subjected to bad experiences (stress, obesity, drug use), then the umbilical cord recreates that same experience in the fetus. The fetus carries an exaggerated reaction to the bad experiences through life, which affects everything from socialization to the potential for drug addiction and ability to learn. In the US, the statistics on the fetal environment are pretty scary.

        Staci gives the obligatory nod to potential drugs to treat the adult disorders, but then adds right at the close that prevention is always the best. She is a yoga instructor, by the way. She is a strong believer in the Mind-Body system.

        So the newly discovered ways that the mind and the body interact can work for good, or can damage a fetus for life.

        Don Stewart

        • Don,
          I understand this on many levels. Things I do that I have seen in my parents but do not seem to be a behavior that can be genetically transmitted. And several incidents I experienced while I was pregnant that I believe led to latter maladaptive behaviors in my own children. It’s a mystery!

          I have also read that if a mother eats a varied diet while pregnant her offspring will be more inclined to eat a variety of foods. I attribute my sons willingness to eat almost anything I set in front of them to my own eating habits!

          Wouldn’t it be nice if we were an given owner’s manuals with our children, so that we knew just what to do right and what to avoid. Instead, we are left to struggle along doing the best we can. Sigh….

      • Jody

        Tielhard de Chardin said somewhere that ‘if we lack hope for the future, it really is time to lie down and die.’

        Despite what we face, I can’t see any reason to lose that hope.

    • Don

      Watching the honey bees in my neighbour-displeasing wild flower patch seems to be doing something to please my hormones: I keep going back to watch, and not to the shopping mall in town…… and feel a lot better for it.

      • Xabier, the bees came late this year, but it appears they were too late to get on my flowers to pollinate my trees. I just have three fruit trees but this year two of them are bare with no fruit. I noticed they showed up late this year, like month late to do the job on the trees. Too late for this year. But they are here now but not in large numbers like before. I have been reading that half of the hives died last winter. We need these guys. I also read an article about anti fungal sprays on trees are also perhaps to blame in addition to pesticides and perhaps even the vibrations from cell phone towers I even read once was being looked at?

        A canary for sure.

        • Scott,
          Plant more herbs. I have noticed an increase of bee population in my garden since I started growing more herbs. Hyssop is a particular favorite.
          Sorry to hear your area is having a bad fruit year. Our trees and vines are loaded so heavy some of the branches are laying on the ground. We’ll be harvesting a bumper crop this year!

        • A Tale of Two Apples

          I have an old apple tree which in a good year gives me about 400 apples (it’s looking good this year, so I’ll have to finally get down to finding recipes for preserving those we can’t eat. No chemicals used at all.

          A few years ago, I tossed a commercially grown apple into what I used to call my compost heap, but which was just a kind of dump for garden waste (this was before I got serious about such things) together with some apples from the tree.

          Turning over the heap I noticed that the organic apples were rotting as one would expect, but the doctored one just kept on bouncing up bright and shiny. This went on for a long time: it seemed to possess the Secret of Eternal Life. Since then, I haven’t been able to touch any fruit not grown by me and Old Mother Nature.

          As a foot-note. A customer recently told me that his children wouldn’t touch home-grown apples, because ‘bugs might have landed on them.’ This is the generation which will have to deal with our predicament………..

          • @xabier

            The apple story is quite worrying – but reflects my experience. You can eat around a worm – or be happy for it’s proteins.

            The thing is, that the kids that currently grow up do not have exposure to the natural reality – and role-models are missing. If you grow up an your father and mother eat the apple with a worm – or cut around it and eat the still fresh parts, then this becomes what normal is. But even my father – a farmer – prefers the shiny apple instead of the natural and blemished one.

            The last two years of gardening have normalized my attitude very much. Now there is my work connected with what I harvest, store, etc. Throwing away something that is still perfectly eatable is connected with my time, effort and work – so I connect totally different with It as the stuff that I bought and can re-buy.

            Tip: You can dehydrate the apple! Cut it in slices are dry the parts… that is what I do with a big part of my apple harvest and apples I can not store.

  8. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but energy IS our economy, and vice versa.
    Our prime function, on which (unless you’re a professional hermit) all our employment depends, is burning fuel at an ever increasing rate.
    It must constantly speed up, because therein lies the % growth that politicians are so fond of promising us. Our GDP depends on extracting greater quantities of fuel from the earth.
    No matter how many ‘shovel ready’ jobs are created, shovels means earthmovers. Without oil they are just so much scrap iron. Job creation schemes to ‘kickstart’ the economy are effectively taking in each other’s washing. No matter how elevated and seemingly remote from the unwashed herd you think your employment is, it depends on someone, somewhere burning hydrocarbon fuel to support that status.
    This has held true throughout the ages. The hypocausts that kept the Romans warm and clean only functioned by slaves throwing wood onto fires.-they didn’t get to use the hot baths.
    The medieval lord needed armies of serfs to do much the same thing.
    The great mansions of 18th c England were built with ‘invisible’ back stairs in the walls, so that ‘energy sources’ (the servants) need rarely be seen.
    For the past 100 years vast numbers of us have been able to live like Roman emperors and medeival lords, but only because energy drove the economy that made it possible, and because we could remain detached from their source. (imagine having to light a fire under your own bathtub)
    Economies grow with increased fuel use and retract without it.

    • End of More,
      I understand the logic of your argument but I also disagree with the ultimate direction it takes us. What you are saying, in effect, is that we are nothing more than machines that use energy. We cannot live without energy (in the form of our economy) and our economy cannot live without fossil fuels. Followed to its logical conclusion, therefore, we cannot live as other than slaves. How sad that would be if it were true!

      It’s a difficult concept to grasp, but life is not a machine. Life is not reducible to its smallest parts. It cannot be dissembled, examined, and reassembled to function as it was. Life is more than the energy it uses, the things it creates, the form of its habits, what it does to survive. I am more than what I do, what I eat, what I think.

      I do agree that human achievements are a marvel to behold. We should all be thankful if we have had the opportunity to live like kings. But what cannot be sustained, will not be sustained.

      For those that can’t imagine a meaningful life beyond the fossil-fueled, debt-driven economy…it may seem impossible. But I think many of us that read Gail’s posts, feel that there is a different way. Maybe the answers aren’t obvious yet, but the signs are there. The wisdom of great thinkers, poets, scientists, religious teachers is available to us to as never before. We just need to take time, step back from the stress and worry; time to study and reflect, to let it sink into our conscious mind. We are more than machines!

      The answers lay within our ability to see life with our heart as well as our head, for as it has been said, “the essentials are invisible to the eyes”.


      • Jody
        we can live other than slaves, but only in an aboriginal context
        taken to fundamentals, we embarked on the route that brought us here 10000 years ago.
        As soon as we domesticated animals, or grew food deliberately–(same thing), we needed fences. When you have fences you need guards because there will always be those wanting what you have produced. the (stronger) guards must live on the surplus of the (weaker) workers, and guards need a commander—pretty soon the commander takes command of everything and you have a fiefdom. once that is established we begin the process of consuming surplus energy—it is inevitable. They run out of surplus energy, so must appropriate that of their neighbours, if they can. Thus all fiefdoms have run on until their energy supplies have run out, or been overwhelmed by a stronger force (think ww2) thats why I called my book ‘The end of More’, ( ) we’re just running out of everything we need to sustain our civilisation, yet there is a constant denial of that and a demand for more.
        the romanticism of ‘another way’ is really a legacy of the life we are about to leave, looked at from that perspective. I also love the arts, but they too are the legacy of a ‘surplus’ society.
        from the point of view of someone untouched by civilisation, we were idiots to try to outsmart nature in the first place. One can imagine some untouched tribe in Amazonia saying–‘told you so!’
        we are not machines exactly, but we are certainly organisms that consume fuel as vehicles for the genes that drive us to reproduce and diversify. In many ways we have upset the balance of nature by living beyond our reproductive/childrearing cycle.
        our consumption of fossil fuels has enabled us to live better than kings used to—better food, health, instant transport and so on. The problem now is that it has become an expectation, To paraphrase the moving words of Dylan Thomas: We will not go gentle into that good night, we will fight fight against the dying of the light. That much is made clear by riots that kick off when living standards fall beyond tolerable levels.
        As to Gail’s point about trained animals or slaves, that doesn’t work either because that puts us back on track for an acquisitive society again
        it could well be than humankind has been a dead end…who knows?

        • E-o-M,
          “the romanticism of ‘another way’ is really a legacy of the life we are about to leave…”

          I can’t deny that some of the ways I view the world are romantic. But is this so bad! To have a hope for things unseen. To find joy in life no matter how short it may be.

          Our view of life; yours, mine, everyone’s “views” are just stories we have constructed. We gather “facts”, we are “educated” formally and informally, and we construct them into our mental blueprint. This mental map tells us “This is true. That is not. This will help me. That will not. This is important. That is not.”

          Humans are story tellers, no matter how we expert or true our facts. No matter if we are scientific or religious, our truth is still our story. We use our stories of what is “true” to inform our decisions, but we have a limited ability to see beyond the constraints of our “stories”, to think outside the box we live in. When our stories are different from reality (such as there is plenty of oil, debt isn’t a problem, resources are infinite) we eventually experience a correction. Life intrudes on our story. Perhaps we die. Perhaps we live and reproduce.

          The important thing, I think, is where our stories lead us. Your story, while very logical, leads where?

          “it could well be that humankind has been a dead end…who knows?”

          I prefer a different story, because my story give me hope. It allows me to believe in things unseen. It allows me to see beauty in the natural order of the world. It allows me to love my children, even if they may not survive to reproduce. It allows me joy in simple things. It allows me to experience my reality today, unworried about a future time when I and all I see may cease to exist.

          • Me too Jody
            The verse of Shakespeare, Housman, Thomas, and many others can reduce me to a wreck, I too see beauty in the natural world. My herb garden is loved by bees, and I take it as a privilege to take time out to watch them, but in a sense that privilege is a product of leisure. My herbs are running wild, but the bees need them more than I do
            I think my main point was that humankind has disturbed nature’s flow by outliving our childbearing-rearing span. Hence there are too many of us.
            Until we made ourselves healthy, our average age was 48 or so—which is roughly the period necessary to have several kids and hopefully rear them to maturity.
            your point about experiencing reality today expresses humanity very neatly. We are by definition consumers of fuel, whether from fuel pumps or the carcasses of dead animals. We have not evolved sufficiently to concern ourselves with ‘a future time’, we consume what we see in front of us.
            Considering that our ability to have artifial light has been only a century or two, I would the logic of my story is that we are headed back whence we came. I seem to have exhausted all other possibilities

          • Dear Judy
            I want to elaborate on the ‘story telling’ angle.

            I am presently reading The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane, who is at Cambridge in the UK. So he is a combination of very learned man, one who finds comfort sleeping outside in the winter, and who is also thoughtful, and a wonderful writer of the English tongue.

            One of the places he and a friend visit is The Burren, on the west coast of Ireland. Here is a passage (page 166):

            Limestone, I found during my time in the Burren, demands of the walker a new type of movement: the impulse to be diverted, to wander and allow the logic of one’s motion to be determined by happenstance and sudden disclosure. We learned, or were taught by the ground, how to walk without premeditation: turning corners when they came, following bends in valleys, our paths set by the ancient contingencies of geology and the immediate contingencies of footfall, our expectation quickened–ready for surprise when it happened….It happened often…

            (page 168): Near the center of the pavement (rocks arranged like pavement by geology), we reached a large gryte running north to south. We lay belly-down on the limestone and peered over the edge. We found ourselves looking into a jungle. Tiny groves of ferns, mosses, and flowers were there in the crevasse–hundreds of plants, just in the few yards we could see, thriving in the shelter of the gryke: cranesbills, plantains, avens, ferns, many more I could not identify, growing opportunistically on wind-blown soil. The plants thronged every available niche, embracing one another into indistinguishability. Even on this winter day, the sense of life was immense.

            On page 182 he describes his wading out to a small island in the Atlantic and spending the night: I felt a calm descending into me; there was no way of leaving the island now, and no easy way onto it, and the impossibility of either escape or disturbance had a tranquilizing effect, quite different to the alarm I had felt on the summit of Ben Hope. This was a happy marooning. Find beauty, be still.

            I would draw several conclusions from the stories here:
            1. When confronting a long term trend pointing to the end of debt as a way of life and ever greater energy availability and careless exploitation of natural resources, we have to think as if we are traversing a limestone formation. Limestone is dissolved by the acids in rainwater, and thus we experience the patterns that Macfarlane describes on page 166. Rather than just calling up Google Maps and having it connect the dots for us, we will have to be exquisitely attuned to the world as it actually is. Pontification doesn’t get you nearly as far as feeling your way. And the whole current obsession with efficient supply lines will be forgotten.
            2. Both Thoreau and Macfarlane are repelled by true, geological wildness. Macfarlane spent an unhappy night on Ben Hope in the far north of Scotland, and Thoreau did not enjoy Mount Katahdin in Maine. Thoreau enjoyed the wildness he found in Concord, and Macfarlane enjoys the wildness in a crack in the limestone. I suspect that humans, like crows, are best adapted to a world which we might call ‘partially civilized’. An abundance of wild vegetative growth comforts humans, while the naked geology of recent creation makes us uncomfortable. So…think permaculture.
            3. Humans are most content when they don’t have to decide between too many choices. Once we have decided to wade out to the island, and the tide comes in, we don’t have to decide whether to wade back to the mainland and find an inn for the night. Market researchers have determined that too many choices just irritate potential customers. I have always enjoyed canoeing down rivers because the river tells you what to do. I think we will find our choices restricted by the evolution (or collapse) in front of us, but that the unexpected result may be tranquillity;

            Finally, if you are really interested in how starving people behave, I suggest reading his account of the Irish famine beginning on page 163.

            Don Stewart

          • I too have walked on the Burren.
            As for how the starving Irish behaved in the famine years, they were too weak and subjected to British military power to do much about it.
            Their diet was the potato, they starved because that failed, Food was being exported from other areas in Ireland.
            The same thing happens in African states right now

    • I am afraid you are right. Without energy, the economy disappears. If we don’t have fossil fuel energy, we need slaves or at least trained animals to help us do all of the work.

    • I think I am going to look for one of those old wood fired bath tubs I can put out back! My neighbor has an old hand pump well that he will share and we may need to haul buckets up the hill if needed. But you know most do not have these back up plans, I was thinking that bath tub would be needed though. Or perhaps a metal animal trough that you can put up on some bricks and build a fire underneath. If I come across one I will buy it and put it in the shed, just in case it is needed someday!

  9. End of More

    Being my own serf, I make very careful calculations as to how much wood to chop for the winter, and indeed how much to use on any given day – is it justified, will a woolly jumper do? The relationship between energy, labour and benefit is very clear.

    Unfortunately, the 20th century developed push-button delivery of mass heating and light, completely obscuring these fundamental truths which you state from the mass of people, making it almost impossible for them to grasp the issues.

    (I read an account of great house life in 1920’s England, and an old lady who’d been a servant said that she saw her employers only once or twice, and certainly never spoke to them. Those houses were incredible well-oiled machines for delivering service with most of the human actors being completely hidden from view.

    The European aristocrats were noted for being perhaps a little more human towards their retainers. I suspect it was partly because so many British aristocrats were really only new money from trade and industry and so also needed to define the class barriers more sharply: most European nobles have been such for a thousand years or more and were more comfortable with their status).

    • Xabier
      not sure about Europeans being nice to their servants.
      I seem to recall the guillotine seeing off a lot of them.
      Somewhere I read an authentic account of a local lord and his male relatives playing cricket in England with a team recruited from his servants, while the guillotining was in full swing in France. You cant stop a cricket match to have a revolution—just not done.
      no doubt things varied a lot between houses
      perhaps the best movie made on this subject was The Shooting Party, not sure if its ever shown outside uk, but try to see it. brilliant
      you have the energy balance thing right–up to now its been too easy to drag a ton of steel 2 miles to get a newspaper

    • Xabier, we easily burn 2-3 cords of wood here in Oregon in a given winter. If we had to do this wood task by hand – it would be a huge job (without a chainsaw/power splitter). So even oil is needed to cut wood.

      • Scott

        I get sawn logs delivered – half-rounds really, two feet long as that’s cheaper for me than the ready-to-use size – and split them by hand with a sledge-hammer and wedges, and then cut down to stove-size with the axe. Great exercise……when the east wind isn’t blowing But it is truly a lot of work if you do the splitting by hand.

        • Hello, Xabier, we have about 7-8 cords of wood here now, Five cords is wet from last year but nearly dry now from our hot summer this year. That is kind of my energy reserve, we can cook on it and heat our homes. We can get by here only wood if we had to.

          My back yard which is large and full of flowers now due to late spring rains was supposed to be mowed but I am holding off because the Bees are here and they need the nectar.

          Three trees and blue berries strangely did not have fruit this year. I think the bees were hurt over the winter as I had read.

        • I expect if a woman had to cut and split the wood herself, the effort might be too much, especially if it was alongside other needed efforts for taking care of a family.

          • Gail

            Not so! Traditionally, cutting down, dividing up and hauling the trees was work for men (and other animals), but splitting logs of the right size for home use with an axe was ‘woman’s work’. As was feeding the fire.

            If you are fit and the axe is a good one, it is not particularly hard work if a little is done every day.

            Of course, it presupposes quite large households of a family plus servants and workers, with multiple males and females, as a heavily pregnant or nursing woman could not do this and cook, etc, as you say.

            If you look at the build of a woman of peasant descent, you will see that she will tend to have strong arms and big hands, and be short and rather stocky like her man.

            The mother of a friend of mine is a very tall woman from a Dutch peasant family, but my God you should see her hands!

            The women in the valley of Baztan in the Basque Pyrenees, a very in-bred lot, are like mountains themselves. Capable people, and I doubt domestic arguments last for long, if the men are wise…… I’d call that Rural Feminism.

            • Dear Xabier
              I work at the farm almost entirely with people 50 years younger than me. What I see is quite an equal distribution of work between the girls and the boys. We were building trellis which involves driving T posts into the ground and then attaching wires to them to which the plants can be tied with twine. To drive a T post in the ground, it helps to have one person hold the post while the second lifts a special heavy pipe which is closed on one end up in the air above the post and brings it crashing down on the post with some force. One small young woman was having trouble lifting the heavy pipe up in the air. I told her to hold the post and I would do the pounding. None of the young men present jumped to her rescue. The young people today seem to assume that everyone is ‘equal’. 50 years ago the boys would have been eager to demonstrate their strength to the girls, as a method of accomplishing I forget exactly what.

              If you want to read something really funny, go to James Kunstler’s article for Chris Martenson.
              In it, Kunstler defends his rather peculiar vision of how the relative roles of men and women will revert back to traditional norms. He refers to an interview with a young woman farmer….who eats his lunch. You can find that interview on his web site. She talks about ‘butch’ women who dominate the current small farm scene in the US. (Being long ‘out of it’, I would never try to use any current language to designate a young woman or a hispanic or a black person…it’s all a mystery to me.) In the article, Kunstler reveals just how confused he is about the whole issue, and then blames it on the feckless young men who have made the young women the way they are.

              If you have watched a 110 pound young woman castrate a hog, you probably won’t talk about things the way Kunstler does.

              Don Stewart

            • It was still you, a man, who ended up doing the heavy lifting. It is hard to find a woman with the upper body strength of a man. I know I am not very good in this regard, even though I do some weight lifting. Men start out with a biological advantage.

            • Gail
              (Slightly tongue in cheek) I have been lectured by females now for over 70 years who have pointed out the many frailties of the male race. It seems that the only time a female will agree that males are good for much of anything is when something heavy needs to be lifted. A joke in our house is how skillfully my wife manipulates men she doesn’t know to get them to do the heavy lifting!

              Don Stewart

    • It’s very true that if a person has to do all the basic work around the house (inside and outside) then a person is very careful about creating extra work. Having servants (humans or electric and internal combustion engines) makes a person both lazy and extravagant.

      If we can move to lower energy use and more equitable lifestyles (less of the rich and poor divide) then the economy will be more efficient albeit at a much lower level. It’s hard to see a dieoff being avoided though. The population overshoot and resource depletion overshoot is too great.

      • have to agree about the dieoff
        In past times whoever was in charge—Lords, Masters, Emperors–you name it, simply absorbed the spare energy of the lower classes to act in a servant role. Reading up on the hierarchy of the great houses of Europe is both fascinating and hilarious by our standards. But of course that is our big mistake.
        The hundreds who had employment running those great houses had a roof and food even if it was very basic. The alternative could be much worse. The lord of the manor was thus a job creator. There are hundreds of examples here in UK of wealthy men building ‘follies’ in the 18th/19thc, the basic purpose of which not vanity but to give employment in times of hardship. (the equivalent of our ‘shovel ready’ jobs). It was not thought prudent to just hand over subsistence money. There are still thousands of ‘almshouses’ here built by socially aware gentry for the elderly 150 years ago. They are now very desirable residences–they don’t fall down!
        But of course the other side of the coin was that numbers were balanced out by disease, the inflow of energy in the form of servant muscle was counteracted by early death.
        So society was more or less in equilibrium.
        We’ve lost that now because we’ve outrun our energy supplies

        • End of More

          A great English house like Knole in Kent housed some 200 or more servants, all fed and housed, as you say, in at least decent conditions – the higher servants lived very well indeed, particularly when they could massage the accounts! Of course, that was the very pinnacle of feudalism, it took many hundreds of years to develop after the fall of Rome.

          I’d much rather that, than be someone trying to get by on an inadequate welfare cheque in a time of rapidly rising inflation in some miserable inner-city housing block, menaced by drunks and addicts,without any hope of employment, with only the lies of politicians ringing in my ears, which is sadly what so many face now and will face in ever greater numbers as this progresses.

          Not long ago I went around one of the great Spanish monasteries, where an enormous hall was built to house all the estate workers: it was very fine indeed: again, I very much doubt they regretted the style in which they were fed and protected. They were a supremely important asset to the monks.

          Then, the nobility, Church, and the great merchants, were judged by how they fulfilled their obligations to house, feed and clothe the poor and reward their dependants. Today, we have ‘jobless recoveries’ and exhortations to ‘lifelong re-skilling.’

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