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.

About Gail Tverberg

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

  1. Pingback: Good things I’ve read this week | Foodnstuff

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Gail and Others
    You might be interested in reading this rather brief article by Paul Chefurka:

    The subject is humanities inability to avoid hitting the wall despite all the evidence. He refers to ‘fish in water’, very like this post by Gail. He also alludes to life as being about a phenomenon that Adrian Bejan refers to as the Constructal Law. Bejan is optimistic about the Law, Chefurka quite pessimistic.

    I’ll place myself in this discussion also. I tend to agree with Chefurka that humans are facing collapse. I think most people will die. I think that as individuals and small groups we try to figure out how to get through the bottleneck and come out the other side…with a lot fewer humans in the world. I don’t think we can ‘save 7 billion people’. I don’t share Bejan’s optimism that the world is going to get better and better from a technology perspective. I hope that Chefurka is wrong that a bad mistake by most humans will drag down all of us. Best to get prepared as best we can. And have fun and don’t worry too much in the meantime.

    Don Stewart

  3. Don,

    Thank you for sharing those passages from The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane. Here is a bit of story telling of my own, passages I wrote almost 30 years ago, when I lived on the edge of Phoenix, AZ. My favorite past time was hiking alone in the desert.

    Desert Solitude

    The heat shimmers across the air; flies carry on a monotonous drone.
    Some people say the desert is empty, but I call it home;
    for it is in the desert that I awaken and open,
    and know that I am home.

    I walk into the desert in the early morning,
    seeing ridges of rocks standing off in the distance.
    I look with wonder and anticipation, judging their distance and difficulty to climb.
    Moving forward around cacti and thorn bush, ever watchful for signs of life,
    I walk into the desert farther and farther;
    allowing myself the freedom of letting the moment pick its own goal.

    I love the desert, so full of rocks and sand!
    When I sit upon a ledge and look across the desert I feel energy
    that comes from the rocks, the sunshine, the air, and the plants.
    It is an energy that is everywhere at once, moving and pulsing, almost alive.
    And when I feel this energy in me, I am glad to be part of it, and able to be here in this moment sitting on a rocky ledge, over-looking the desert.

    When I look at life I see a flow that is neither mindful of my existence,
    nor separated from it. We exist as a totality, a mass that does not hearken to my cry
    but goes on unimpeded, leaving me to walk as if alone.

    Silently I have listened to the emptiness that fills the void.
    Patiently I have waited until the sunshine lifts me out of another dreary day,
    and laughter overflows my soul. And it is enough just to sit on a ledge
    and watch as life unfolds.

    At night the desert comes alive.
    My eyes and ears strain to perceive the eternity that stretches away in all directions.
    Perhaps that large a space is why so few people come to the desert alone,
    especially at night. It is an overwhelming solitude, an emptiness with which few people can feel comfortable.

    Some people listen to the silence and say “Oh, how quiet it is in the desert!”
    And then head back for the campfire to fill the quietness with conversation.
    Some people listen and say “I don’t hear anything!”
    And that is why they never come again, once was enough.

    Even within myself, when a pain is too great to bear amidst the hustle of the city,
    I come to the desert only to find it is actually too little a pain
    to offer up to the solitude of the desert.
    And so I head back to the city,
    where I can be comfortable with my misery.

    Life is strange that way.
    What we think we want, we can’t accept when it comes,
    Yet we go on asking for it all the same.
    And we find ways to overlook the answers just so we can be confused.
    Whoever thought that when we came here we would forget how we arrived?

    regards to all,

    • Don Stewart says:

      Macfarlane uses the opportunity of a late blizzard to go to the Lake District and go for a night walk on a high ridge. He sleeps for a while in his bivvy sack and sleeping bag, wakes to find the snow has stopped and the moon is out, and goes out walking. His comments about how night is different from day and how we are depriving ourselves by putting electric lights everywhere would resonate with you.

      He’s one tough professor. In the morning, he walks down the mountain, finds an iced over pond, breaks the ice, and goes for a swim. Grumbling about how modern conveniences have separated us from Life.

      Don Stewart

  4. xabier says:


    There is no little irony in a farmer eating ‘perfect’ apples rather than the imperfect natural ones…..! Its really very curious, because the apples from my untreated tree seem fairly regular and attractive. But of course, not all…. Giant agri-business and the supermarket have distorted so many of our perceptions.

    De-hydrating the apple slices seems to be the order of the day: maybe I can use them to make apfel strudel like my dear old Viennese honorary ‘mama’? Now that would be a good thing!

    Thinking back to distortion: it’s all a bit like what happened in bookbinding (my craft) in the 19th century: everything became too regular, losing the little irregularities which made the charm of older books.

    But of course it’s far worse: the ‘perfect’ books didn’t poison one, although they did change the way in which the eye functioned……

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    I have, inexpertly, referred to epigenetics and the notion that life generally doesn’t involve stand alone entities. ‘You’ are really a collection of ‘thems’.

    Here is a much better explanation courtesy of Albert Bates and Sandor Katz:

    This thinking is generally along the lines of the article
    Life-as-Meaning: Biopoetics as Paradigm for Living Relationships
    that I referred to earlier in this discussion.

    Let me add to this that the more we learn, the more we are inclined to see all the ‘great leaps forward’ in terms of irradiated food and skyscraper farms and soilless agriculture and lots of antibiotics as mirages in the desert. Industrial food we are likely to see as poisoned water-holes in the desert. It goes back to my point that food is, firstly, information for our bodies and only secondly plain calories. Calories are relatively easy, excellent information is much harder to come by.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:


      Maybe an irradiated Deathless Apple has the same relation to a real apple as a printed reproduction has to a real painting………..

    • Yes. Our economy is adapted to what food is cheapest, but that is far different from what food our bodies are really adapted to. We are only now beginning to figure out the relationships.

      • xabier says:


        On the same theme, my relations who work in a hospital in Spain inform me that corpses are so full of preservatives now, ingested from food, that they are taking much longer to rot, like the apple.

        And for those of a more macabre turn of mind, medical schools in Spain are inundated with corpses ‘left to Science’, as it significantly cuts funeral costs, (the State pays to bury what’s left after the students have had their fun); so much so that they are now turning them away…… An economic indicator not often taken into account. One of my cousins had signed up with this in mind, I fear he may be disapppointed.

        Will the next stage of economic decline be do-it-yourself cremations in the sierras? Will impoverished Spaniards be cremated on the beach like the poet Shelley?

        • Interesting about corpses taking longer to rot now. Perhaps we are getting the “benefit” of the preservatives in food.

          The direction we will need to move in for almost everything is “cheap” (very little energy inputs). I was told in India that each town in India has its own site for outdoor cremations. In fact, I saw such a site in the village I visited.

          With outdoor cremations, I would worry about all of the mercury in fillings and perhaps other metals in people’s bodies today ending up in the smoke everyone else gets to breathe.

  6. Mary Lehmann says:

    Once again you have presented a clear explanation of how our ecology and economy got the way they are. I have forwarded it to people still hoping that something can be done. One such group I have just found out about calls itself the Citizens’ Fee and Dividend Lobby, supporting James Hansen’s plan called Fee and Dividend, which I believe has some real merit. Its weakness seems to be that he makes some naive assumptions about what citizens receiving the dividend would do with the money (from an equal division to all U.S. adults of a gradually stepped up fee (tax?) on CO2 emission per unit of electricity or fossil fuel at the mine or port of entry) which he said could approximate $3000 per capita.

    If you know about the plan, I would be interested in knowing what you think. Why couldn’t recipients decide they could afford a bigger SUV than before? A “cure” might be to issue coupons instead of cash, redeemable at specific types of enterprises that really do help reduce CO2 emissions because they, for instance, are constructing shops in the midst of housing projects in suburbia, or houses in the parking lots of the malls? That could get people using their car less, and job seekers might like the savings prospect even at reduced wages.

    Please keep writing and sending us your highly readable big pictures, Mary Lehmann

    • You sent me an e-mail, and I responded to it earlier. I am afraid the plan worn’t really work.

      The major problem I see is that the carbon tax makes US goods less competitive in the world market, because the tax applies to goods made in the US (that are manufactured using imported or US produced fuels). There is no such carbon tax on imported goods, which are often made with coal. Goods from China, India, and other countries using coal as a primary fuel are already cheaper than what we can produce. The carbon tax will thus reduce the amount of goods made in the US, increasing the US unemployment rate. (In my view, the carbon tax has contributed to Europe’s unemployment problems, for this reason.)

      To the extent goods are still made in the US, they will become more expensive for the consumer. Foreign goods will not be affected. A rational US consumer will take the dividend and buy more imported goods, because they are increasingly cheaper than US goods. This will help increase the demand for good manufactured outside the US, while pushing the US economy downward. The effect will be to help the economies of countries manufacturing goods using coal, because demand for good produced by them will increase.

      I wrote a post about this issue last November. Climate Change: The Standard Fixes Don’t Work.

  7. Bicycle Dave says:

    The two sides to our predicament seem pretty obvious.

    OOH, we have science and math detailing the downward trajectory of natural resource supplies. Gail does a good job of distilling much of this stuff down to simple concepts and charts. Although Gail emphasizes the depletion of fossil fuels and sometimes the capacity of the atmosphere to absorb GHG, the depletion issue is much broader. Aquifers and glaciers are shrinking, soil is eroding and losing nutrient value, forests are shrinking and deserts are growing, oceans are acidifying and fisheries depleting, the extinction rate of other species is rising at an alarming rate, mineral deposits are depleting, etc. Although some of the available data is questionable, it is pretty hard to argue that the crust and biosphere of our planet will continue to produce abundant supplies of new resources. Even if the dubious claim for a 100 year supply of NG was true, what happens after that? And even if the even more dubious claim that thorium-based nuclear-power-for-all dream came true, how much would that alleviate all the other resources issues? Probably a little – but do we really want to bet the fate of the planet on this unproven wish? The science and math are clear: the rate of natural resource depletion can’t indefinitely support BAU and no amount of efficiency and technology can change that calculation.

    OTOH, we have metrics that detail global per-capita consumption of resources (and all the attendant items mentioned above). These metrics make it clear that the planet simply can’t support 7 to 10 billion humans at current consumption rates for very long. Reducing the number of humans and scaling down their consumption practices has a strong potential for avoiding the serious consequences that seem most popular on this blog. There really is no shortage of ideas for how to accomplish this feat (humanely) over the coming decades. There is an abundance of Plans – both B and C (the books Plan B and Plan C are good reading). And, most of the really useful plans don’t have much to do with individual survival ideas. Home gardens, bicycles, solar heat, etc might be well be part of the overall plan – but pretty useless on an individual basis if we are talking about some semblance of well-being for the bulk of humans and our flora/fauna fellow travelers. Right wing conservative and Libertarian ideas aren’t useful either because, above all, we need a massive level of human cooperation – not rugged individualism. Any effective plan would need broad global understanding and support.

    So, assuming people would like to avoid collapse of various sorts and a nasty form of human die-off, what kind of activism is needed? What’s a better approach than buying guns and sacks of rice or joining your local church? I’d suggest understanding meme theory and how people are motivated to make their most important decisions – the ones that affect the fate of the planet. Whether it’s called “conditioning by propaganda”, “cultural meme”, “ideology”, or “human nature” – the end result is the same: most people are motivated by their ingrained political, religious and economic belief systems. These belief systems generally serve the small minority of people who personally benefit from them – people who control police and armies, clergy, and the hierarchy of corporations. Power over mind and body seems to have become very popular since the advent of agriculture allowed for the development of nobility, warrior and shaman classes of people. There is little evidence that hunter-gatherers operated with the kind of class systems we have developed since agriculture came on the scene.

    Activism can take many forms. My main hope lies with young people, many of whom seem to understand that the political, religious and economic systems they’ve been born into are failing and need to be replaced – and I’ve met many who actually understand what is happening. I don’t know if there are enough of them. For an old guy like me – I try to support organizations and politicians that are consistent with my thoughts – and I always vote. I support organizations like “Population Connection” and “Americans United for Separation of Church and State”. I vote for trains and against new expressways. I try to be realistic about what I can and can’t do. And, I do take seriously Gail’s advice about enjoying the life we have while, at the same time, not excessively contributing to the problems.

    • Hi Dave

      I would like to thank you for introducing two needed organizations. Population is the key to solving the heart of the world problem. You just can’t stop the damage to the earth without eliminating a lot of humans. We are just eaten, blogging, crapping, sex texting, production, earth destruction machines. If we don’t do it willingly, it will be forced on us because of our own actions. Trek 5000

      • I can only agree with you—but I can never get my head around the ‘willing’ part.
        we are the mechanism by which our genes move forward and evolve, that fact forces us to eat and procreate as a first priority.
        nature doesn’t care much what we do with our time when we’ve done that. If we die–too bad, if we live, well that improves the gene pool.
        People have a suicidal habit of viewing nature from our own perspective, we marvel at its beauty, and so imagine that nature looks on us in the same way. with much the same kind of emotion as a married couple for example.
        as far as nature is concerned we are plant food

        • EndMore, The “willingly” part is the problem. We know how to do it. But, Dave clearly points out the road blocks in the way. The Affordable Care Act is a prefect example. After three years, the self interest are still fighting a watered down version of simple healthcare for all. The pathway is education and again that’s another special interest fight.

          • Affordable healthcare has nothing to do with it.
            Except that we have used improved health to breed more people. We all want to be healthy–but that is the consequence—unpleasant as it may be.
            Prof albert Bartlett puts it very well
            and sets it out as a matter of simple arithmetic. Healthy mothers have more children, and the mothers of the next 2 billion are alive right now, they are not going to forgo their chance to breed no matter how much contraception is available, neither are the people who are destined to live to be 100 going to roll over and die.
            Post 2050/70 may see a natural dieback, but by then we will have traumatised ourselves in the fight over whats left.
            Which solves the problem in natures way.

          • The ACA and your comment are a perfect examples of the headwinds and lack of education needed to solve the problem. Advanced society have lower birth rates. The ten years before the ACA the cost of healthcare had been growing at a 10% rate which is Dr. Bartlett’s Exponential Function. The ACA is designed to limit/lower the growth rate and cost of health care, but the self interest of some have poisoned the well of information of the truth in their political quest for power. One can be part of the problem or part of the solution.

            I will stand by my example

            • Advanced societies use a huge amount more fossil fuel energy than less advanced societies. The use of fossil fuel energy allows a very different distribution of labor. Instead of nearly everyone, children included, needing to work in the fields, some people can specialize as teachers; others can write and print books; and children (freed from farm labor) can go to school. Fossil fuels also allow birth control. Countries using fossil fuels often make promises to their citizens with respect to pensions and health care for the aged. This frees families from needing to have enough children, to make certain that children will be available to support them in their old age. (Of course, these promises really cannot be kept, but people generally don’t realize this.) Fossil fuels also provide lots of distractions, so that sex isn’t the only easy, cheap form of recreation.

              Without fossil fuels, we have a very different world than we have today, with much less education, birth control and recreation available, and much fewer promises for retirement income.

        • I am afraid you are right with respect to, “As far as nature is concerned we are plant food”.

          • xabier says:


            ‘All Flesh is Grass’, as the good Book has it.

            It’s going to be very hard for people in the advanced economies to grasp that all the ‘social conquests’ (as they call it in Spain) of the 20th century, – ie birth-control, mass education from 5 to 21 and beyond, unemployment and sickness welfare, mass medical care, freedom of women from life-long childcare or domestic labour, taking the whole of August as a holiday, pensions from the age of 55, etc, international holidays, the universal franchise and end of slavery – were just, in many ways, the social by-products of a cheap and abundant fuel source: first people were liberated by coal, then by oil.

            The perception gap is so great that, frankly, it’s not even worth raising the issue with most people. Well, events will teach us all, won’t they?

            • Scott says:

              Xabier, We have a rather large back yard which is a garden and a grass area. We had a late bloom of flowers since we had late spring rains, The bees came and I have left it un-mowed so that the bees can have the nector. Hoping to help the Bees a bit by not mowing my flowers.

              On the financial side of things Gail and others have foreseen a collapse in the bond markets, and leading sovereign defaults even in the USA eventually. Looks like Spain is already there almost.

            • It seems like Europe is expecting even more of these things than the US. It is hard to even contemplate the needed changes. Everyone is thinking only about the solar panel they can add, or the new “green” dishwashing liquid. Certainly, their lives will not change.

    • Thanks! Each of us try to do what we can. I wish the economy had a “reverse” mode, that would allow easy shrinkage. Without one, even if we can succeed in reducing the population and the amount of resources each uses, it will leave us with a need for very different political and financial systems. These would need to be part of any new plan as well.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail and Bicycle Dave
        Forgive me for piggybacking on this response. But an example of ‘going into reverse’ happened during the Depression of the 30s. The Southern US had a ‘pellagra belt’ which was caused by people eating a diet really high in processed corn which lacks a certain nutrient that humans need. With the collapse of agricultural markets, the farmers stopped growing corn for processing and reverted to growing food for subsistance. At the same time, relatives came back from the cities to work for food.

        The pellagra disappeared with the improvement in diet. The needy relatives provided additional, very cheap, labor. The thing that didn’t disappear was the knowledge of how to grow a subsistence diet and how to live very frugally and self-reliantly.

        The Depression era farmers simply did not know many of the things we know now. And so we got things like the Dust Bowl and terrible water erosion. Good small farmers now know a great deal. The limits on how much of what they know they can actually put into practice are mostly financial. One has to be competitive in order to survive. A farmer like Alex Hitt has shown he can survive with pretty darn good practices. If fossil fuels largely go away, if electronics disappear, if tens of millions of people die from starvation and disease, if the cost of labor falls precipitously as desperate people look for work, and if rural communities begin to reformulate the economy which was destroyed mostly after WWII, then I think Alex could cope with the changes.

        Don Stewart

      • Gail I’m going to disagree again with you here. I wouldn’t throughout the baby with the bathwater here. I think our political and financial systems are the best there has ever been. But in both cases there are some with self interest that have gamed the system. Like an airplane at 35,000 feet, repair is difficult. But crashing is not an alternative.

        • you have no alternative if the plane runs out of fuel
          planes with big engines dont glide

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            People who spend(t) portions of their lives at the controls of planes, large and small, might dispute your characterization. Such craft do indeed glide, but like a rock.

            Notwithstanding, the metaphor is terribly flawed. We are much more like the guests on Noah’s ark, for far too long, and none of us need list all our complaints as we’re quite familiar with them.

          • Well Chris, maybe it wasn’t the best example. But the goal is to get the aircraft safely to the ground, repair it and fly another day.

            Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, III is a retired airline captain would be my hero.

            • Christopher Johnson says:

              Yes sir, I agree. The ark metaphor leaves us totally at the whim of the Almighty and that’s probably unacceptable to many readers for all the reasons we don’t need to list.

              Sully done good. He kept his head and quickly achieved optimal glide rate, which is at an airspeed defined as “L over D Max” — Lift Over Drag is at its lowest point. It’s the speed an airplane has just as it crosses ‘the fence’ onto the airfield, just before landing. For a 737 just after takeoff and heavy, it’s probably around 220-230 kts.

              For the purposes of this analogy, it might be useful to say that it’s not a good speed to try to maintain or to cruise at. It’s kinda slow and uncomfortable, and a bit noisy; all the passengers start shouting “are we there yet?” and they all have to stay strapped in without beverages and you know what crybabies they are. If the engines are powerless (which is not the case) then the best we can do is find a place to touch down and glide in at L/D max.

              If we are getting some power from one or more of the engines, even if it’s sporadic and can’t be easily anticipated which of the several might feel virtuous when, then the problem is one of managing the intermittent failures. It’s often a good idea to keep the passengers well-briefed under such conditions, because they’re crybabies (you already know that) and some one or two might have overpowered the air marshall and got his weapon, which means things could get nasty.
              But that assumes that all the passengers know we’re sort of in a bit of a mess and that they oughta be praying and stop complaining and shut up. Please. Don’t wanna hafta tell you again.

              But what do you do when one of the pilots returns from a stroll down the aisle and informs the other gals and guys up front that there is a very serious problem (take your pick — engine mount breaking, some skin ripping off, a potty vacuum relief tube frozen and ready to explode the rear — use your imagination…) that could precipitously terminate the aerodynamic portion of the flight. But you can’t say a friggin’ word to the crybabies back there enjoying their meals and highballs. Why not? Well, for whatever reason, management wants to keep sales high, costs down, and confidence up. So don’t scare the customers, especially if you’re not 120% certain. Call headquarters (or the White House) for instructions if you run into a real problem and are too dumb to figure out what it means to keep your mouth shut! Just don’t scare the people or give them some reason to vote for somebody else. Shhhh!

              We can start writing Act 2 next week.

              Cheers, Chris

        • Our financial system cannot work without economic growth. Economic growth has been slowing greatly, especially in the “developed” countries, because we are no longer competitive with the part of the world that use primarily coal for manufacturing, and where people (in part because of the warmer climate) can live much more simply–without cars, in houses without much heating or insulation, etc. Higher oil prices have accentuated this disparity, and changes toward globalization have made this a reality. See my post, Twelve Reasons Globalization is a Huge Problem.

          Energy consumption is required for economic growth, but in recent years, the growth in energy consumption has been shifting away from the developed world, to other parts of the world–the energy exporters, and countries in warm climates with low per capita energy use, that often is coal. As economic growth is moving away from us, all kinds of distortions are needed to hide this fact–artificially low interest rates, very easy access to loans, and continued government borrowing, to pay out benefits it really cannot afford to pay. These distortions cannot continue forever, however. Already interest rates are beginning to rise. And low interest rates are likely to blow bubbles, as investors increasingly invest in projects that cannot pay back. These may include tight oil and shale gas wells, that decline very quickly. Investments also include buying up and fixing up housing that has been foreclosed, without realizing that low income people cannot really afford even to rent these properties.

          Eventually, the whole mess must fall apart. THe current rise in interest rates is one issue. The continued government debt problem is another. Problems in Japan and Europe are others.

          If we have a new system, it will be with a world which is in collapse, because of declining fossil fuels use, so declining economic growth. Very little debt can be used in such a system. What debt is used will need to be primarily very short-term debt–for example, covering goods in transit, as with old Lloyds of London insurance policies. We will have to recognize the fact the nature does not do accrual accounting. The amount of fossil fuels we can pull out of the ground each year pretty much puts a limit on how much can be produced in a given year. If the amount goes down, we will need to cut back to essentials. This make the developed countries, with their focus on services, the most vulnerable.

          • it doesn’t matter who’s wall you damage with your head, you will not convince the majority that growth is directly and specifically linked to energy input.
            time and again, I have exchanged viewpoints with seemingly intelligent people who insist that spending money is all that is necessary to create prosperity (Krugman being the most well known in that sphere)
            With economists like that, who needs a flat earth society?

          • Chris
            I disagree on the closeness of our (as yet unknown ) problem
            The world / aircraft needs oil to function. We are agreed on that. An aircraft might have a million parts with backups, but…no fuel–and it falls out of the sky.
            Right now, the middle east is a powder keg, with country after country slipping towards anarchy, to a great extent because muslims are fed up with keeping us affluent westerners afloat on their oil. their leaders sell their oil cheaply, rather than funding home needs with it first. (that goes back nearly a century with accumulating grievances)
            at any moment. we could have another pearl harbour, when an insurrection shuts down the saudi/iraqi oilfields.
            that could happen overnight, When it does, it might be because Saudi supplies are getting tighter, and they can no longer buy off all their idle young men with glitzy lifestyles. They might be expected to work! they will not go on supplying the west as their oil drains to nothing
            You will see a repeat in Riyadh of whats happening in Cairo and Damascus and elsewhere.
            When that happens, our plane falls out of the sky. Strategic oil reserves are for essential government use, not general commerce
            Oh and I came up with another option, the 630 weak passengers turn on the 70 strong ones–and throw them out of the plane, insisting the arithmetic is wrong.
            They still crash into the ocean.

        • to take the plane/planet earth analogy a logical step further:
          You have a plane with 700 passengers on board (add noughts yourself) flying over the ocean
          the pilot discovers a leaky fuel tank, and realises that he can only fly the plane on to its destination by lightening the load . His does some quick calculations, and works out that with 10% of the weight, he can make landfall, any more and he will crash into the sea.
          he therefore asks for 630 volunteers among the passengers to jump out, or they are all going to die. (add the necessary noughts again)
          The radio is dead, so they cant put out a distress call. (just to complicate matters)
          Now , the passengers have a choice…do they draw lots, or do the 70 stronger passengers gang up and throw out the weaker ones?
          the third option is to hope the pilot has got his sums wrong, and sit it out.
          Please submit all other options for consideration

          • Christopher Johnson says:

            To End of More:
            Sir, I posted my opinions last evening, a few paragraphs above. Keeping with the airliner analogy, we are not, I believe, anywhere near a point where the powers that be would allow open and repeat trumpeting that ‘earth, we got a problem…’ I might well be wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine any political leader repeatedly and willingly shooting his feet and his partners and his constituents.
            Another analogy, however imperfect, is of FDR knowing beforehand that the Japanese Fleet was headed for Hawaii, but he couldn’t tell the people until after the attack.
            Cheers, Chris

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  10. xabier says:


    ‘Gliding like a stone’, exactly describes our situation, how perfect!

    Will anyone call the truth of the situation? Of course not: as Kyle Bass remarked not so long ago, ‘the politicians and bankers will tell you everything is just fine until the crash, they’ll lie and lie.’

    But thankfully, despite the MSM propaganda machine, we still – as individuals – have access to enough accurate data, if we ferret it out, to assess our prospects objectively and take whatever action we care to, or indeed none at all if we think it all too hopeless.

    To that extent, we are a little more fortunate than the citizens of a totalitarian state obliged to applaud the next 5 Year Plan and its promises of abundance and the earthly New Jerusalem.

    • Christopher Johnson says:

      Don Xabier,
      You flatter me unnecessarily, sir, but I’m glad you got a chuckle. Aviation has some delightful sayings, such as ‘running out of altitude, airspeed and ideas…’
      I’m not sure exactly where our general human society is on the ‘C’ timeline that Don has mentioned. Has our situation declined seriously, markedly, over the last 2 years? 10? What bad things are coming next? When? One-time bad ouch or irredeemably bad and nowhere to go but down (like a rock) thereafter? I, for one, have no idea, and I’m skeptical of almost all potential answers. I appreciate your analysis regarding our freedoms and access to information, and of course I agree with you entirely. The first thing I’m going to do when the balloon goes up is kidnap Don Stewart because he’s the best qualified to do the ‘survival farming’ he seems to think might help us live for a few more years. (Just joking, everybody!)

      Cheers, Chris

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