Why I Don’t Believe Randers’ Limits to Growth Forecast to 2052

Jorgen Randers published a book in 2012 called 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years. A note on the front says, “A report to the Club of Rome, Commemorating the 40th Anniversary of The Limits to Growth.”

If we compare the new book to the book from 40 years ago, we see some surprising differences. In 1972, the analysis suggested that serious resource depletion issues would occur about now–the first part of the 21st century. In comparison, current indications look much better. According to Randers’ current analysis, world GDP growth will continue to rise through 2050, and energy consumption will continue to grow until 2040. While a decline in oil supply will take place, it will not occur until 2025. When it does happen, it will occur sufficiently slowly and incrementally that other fuels can replace its loss, apparently without disruption. Renewables will ramp up far more rapidly in the future than to date.

Figure 1. Comparison of oil and renewables forecast in 2052, based on spreadsheet from www.2052.info.

Figure 1. Comparison of oil and renewables forecast in 2052, based on spreadsheet from http://www.2052.info.

A person reading the front cover of 2052 might think that the model is quite close to the model used in the original The Limits to Growth analysis. My review indicates that the current model is fairly different. The book talks very little about the workings of the model, so doesn’t let us know what changes have been made.

It is possible to do some detective work regarding how the current model is constructed. Dolores “Doly” Garcia, who worked on the model, wrote three posts published on TheOilDrum.com explaining the model.  There is also a website (www.2052.info) provided by Randers giving the numerical output of the model in spreadsheet form.  Together, these point to a methodology which assumes that if world oil supply declines, the decline will be slow and will be quickly offset by a rise in the use of renewables, coal, and natural gas. Changes in the model, which I will describe further in another section, are the first reason I don’t believe Randers’ Limits to Growth forecast.

A second reason why I don’t believe Randers’ forecast has to do with limitations of the original forecast. These limitations did not make much difference back in 1972, when researchers were trying to estimate approximate impacts 40 or 50 years later, but they do now, when resources are becoming more depleted. One issue omitted from the model is a price mechanism. A related issue is that there is no true calculation of demand, based on what consumers can afford. The model also omits debt, and the role debt plays, both for investment purposes and in order for consumers to afford products made with oil and other energy products. Research regarding past collapses indicates they were financial in nature–the model should not overlook this important issue.

A third reason why I don’t believe the forecast in 2052 is because a model of this nature necessarily cannot model events that are important to ultimate collapse, but which happen on a smaller scale, and trigger cascading failures. An example might be oil depletion in Egypt, Syria, and Yemen. All of these countries were at one point oil exporters. They each now have substantial financial problems because of the loss of oil exports. The population of each of these countries has now grown, so there are now many more mouths to feed. Unfortunately, without oil exports, the financial situation is such that it is not possible to provide the level of food subsidies and other benefits that an oil exporter can provide. The result seems to be serious civil disorder that threatens to spread beyond these countries own borders. See my post Oil and Gas Limits Underlie Syria’s Conflict. The 1972 Limits to Growth book warned readers that the report likely missed issues of this nature. The current book lacks such caveats.

A fourth issue is that the 2052 report is very much the work of a single individual, Jorgen Randers, while the earlier report was a committee report. Randers makes statements in the book that make it sound like he already knows the answer before he does the modeling. On page 61 he says,

I basically believe that we will see the same rate of technological and societal change over the next forty years as we have seen over the last forty years. That is because the drivers will be the same and the organization of global society is unlikely to change discontinuously.

Thus, Randers tells us he believes that he already knows that no swift change will take place. That is fine–unless the belief is based on a misunderstanding of real relationships.

On page 56, in a section called “The Deterministic Backbone,” Randers explains that some variables including population, industrial infrastructure, energy consumption, and GDP growth change very slowly, over periods of decades. With this view, methods are chosen so that none of these can change very quickly.

Oil Drum Posts by Dolores “Doly” Garcia

Dolores “Doly” Garcia published three posts on The Oil Drum related to versions of the model she was working on that ultimately was used in 2052. These posts are

A New World Model Including Energy and Climate Change Data (April 3, 2009)

New World Model – EROEI issues (Aug. 24, 2009)

An alternative version for three of the “key graphs” in IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook (July 7, 2011)

In these posts, especially in  New World Model – EROEI issues, Garcia explains why world energy supply now falls much more slowly than in the 1972 Limits to Growth scenarios. In her words, these are the three reasons:

  1. Renewable energy sources
  2. The decline of non-renewable energy sources follows a logistic curve. The exact equation is:Increase in production = 0.2*(fraction of fossil fuel remaining-0.5)*current production. .  . .
  3. Switching from some energy sources to others makes for a gentler, staged decline.

EROEI has only an effect on this last point, in that it’s the cause that drives the switching from one energy source to another.

What Doly Garcia is writing about is not exactly the model that is used in 2052–in fact she gives a range of outputs. But looking at the data from the spreadsheet associated with 2052, it is clear that some approach similar to this is being used. Using the revised approach, oil supply now declines relatively slowly, from an assumed peak in 2025 (Figure 1 and 2) and other fuels (coal, natural gas, renewables) rise in consumption relatively more quickly than in reports published by other forecasters (IEA World Energy Outlook, BP Energy Outlook, Exxon Mobil- A view to 2040). As noted in Figure 1 above, renewables ramp up very quickly.

Figure 2. Energy Consumption to 2050, based on spreadsheet data from www.2052.info.

Figure 2. Energy Consumption to 2050, based on spreadsheet data from http://www.2052.info.

Assuming that oil supply will follow the logistic curve on the down-slope, as well as assuming easy switching among fuels and a rapid ramp-up of renewables is basically assuming a best-possible outcome. It is basically assuming that a shortfall of oil won’t be a problem, because there will be a way around it–substitution and new fuel sources, until investment capital runs short.

I wrote a post recently called Stumbling Blocks to Figuring Out the Real Oil Limits Story, in which I talked about the common (incorrect) belief of many that M. King Hubbert  claimed the downslope of world oil supply would follow a slow curve, such as the logistic. As far as I know, he claimed no such thing. When population has risen because of the use of these resources, even a slowdown in supply is a huge problem, as we recently witnessed with the Great Recession that accompanied the 2008 run-up in oil prices.

There are some situations where such a logistic curve might be appropriate, for example, if we can make electric-plug in cars as cheaply as oil powered cars, and we don’t need to change over to plug-in electric cars until the oil-powered cars wear out, so we don’t have extra costs. But in general, there is no reason to expect a logistic curve on the decline. What I said in the post linked above is

If there is not a perfect substitute for oil or fossil fuels, the situation is vastly different from what Hubbert pictured. If oil supply drops (perhaps in response to a drop in oil prices), the world economy must quickly adjust to a lower energy supply, disrupting systems of every type. The drop-off in oil as well as other fossil fuels is likely to be much faster than the symmetric Hubbert curve would suggest.

In the above discussion, Doly Garcia mentions that the distribution of energy is determined based upon Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). These are values calculated by Dr. Charles Hall and various others with respect to the amount of energy needed to create new energy, with the idea that the types of fuels that need relatively less energy for new production will be exploited first.

The danger in using this approach is that a person can push off assumptions into variables in models without any real analysis as to whether such increases make sense in the real world. For example, hydroelectric is mostly built out in the US, and it is our largest source of renewable energy. Unless analysis is done using disaggregated data, with some tests for reasonableness, one can get very much overstated renewable energy estimates.

Financial Issues that the Model Misses

The model, when it was originally constructed in 1972, was mostly a model of amounts of industrial production and amounts of pollution, and numbers of population. It did not include much of an analysis of the economy, other than investment and depreciation, and these may have in fact been in units of production, rather than as monetary amounts. The new model has something called GDP (which Doly Garcia says she added), and something which is called “demand,” based on an estimate of the quantity of energy products which people might use, but which does not correspond to what people can actually pay for (which is likely quite different).

Recent research (Secular Cycles, by Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedof) suggests that when civilizations collapsed in the past, it was generally for financial reasons. A shortage of resources per capita led to increasing wage disparity, with falling wages for the common worker. The government was called upon to provide more and more services (such as bigger armies), leading to a need for higher taxes. The increasingly impoverished workers could not pay these higher taxes, and it was this clash between needed taxes and ability to pay these taxes that brought about the collapse. In such a situation, there was more of a tendency toward resource wars and revolutions, leading to deaths  of workers. Workers weakened by poor nutrition because of inability to afford adequate food also had higher death rates from disease.

The fact that we seem to be reaching very similar symptoms gives a hint that resource depletion may, in fact, already be playing a role in the economic problems we are seeing today. Perhaps analyses today should be examining the financial health of countries–the ability of countries to find enough jobs for potential workers, and the ability of these workers to earn adequate wages.

Labor Productivity

Randers assumes that Labor Productivity will continue to grow in the future, but that it will grow at a slower and slower rate, following a linear pattern. It seems to me that this linear pattern in optimistic, once oil starts reaching limits. Human productivity reflects a combination of  (a) human effort, (b) the amount of capital equipment people have to work with, and (c) the amount of energy products at the disposal of humans. If there is a shortfall at all in the energy products, we could see a big cutback in labor productivity. Already, countries with intermittent electricity are finding that their production drops as electricity availability drops.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum

A strong case can be made that a shortage of one energy product will have cascading effects throughout the economy, which is closer to what the original Limits to Growth model assumed. We often talk about Liebig’s Law of the Minimum being a problem. This law says that if a particular process is missing some essential ingredient, it won’t happen. Thus, if delivery trucks don’t have oil, the effects will cascade throughout the system, causing what will look like a major recession. All types of fuel uses will drop simultaneously.

The effect of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum is difficult to model. The existence of this issue is a major reason why models assuming rapid substitutability are likely optimistic.


When reasonable forecasts don’t look good, it is hard to publish anything. A person doesn’t want to scare everyone to death.

We don’t know exactly what thought process went through Jorgen Randers’ head in putting together this projection. Is this truly Randers’ best estimate, based on an optimistic view of substitutability, rapid ramp up of renewables, and assumption that no unforeseen problems will come along? Or did he not understand how optimistic the forecast was, perhaps because he was unaware that one cannot count on energy declines following a logistic curve? Ugo Bardi instead talks about the Seneca Cliff, a far steeper curve.

Or did Randers pick his estimate from a range of estimates, knowing full well that it is optimistic, but feeling that this is all the American public can be told? Stranger things have happened in the past.

This entry was posted in Financial Implications and tagged , , , by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

291 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Believe Randers’ Limits to Growth Forecast to 2052

  1. What happens when we get down to every country for themselves? I think in 08 the FED opened up its window for European banks, how can they do that? but also will they do that in the future? I also noticed that after a long investigation into the silver trading they “US.” found no wrong doing. What is to stop governments from manipulating markets and the truth. If it is “for everyone own good” belief even the most rule abiding person might sway. It almost seems like they say well lets make the market go up today…..If world leaders get together and say look you can take your medicine or we can continue to lie to the masses and keep things as they are. I think the leaders would choose the latter.

    • All of the quantitative easing is an attempt to hold interest rates down and help banks out, and also raise stock prices. So in a sense we are already into planned manipulation of the markets.

      Chinese governments seem to provide incorrect information about their economy. For that matter, there are quite a few people who would say that the information we get has also been manipulated to make it look as good as possible.

      I think many of the world leaders are already guilty of these practices, so it is hard to get leaders to come to an agreement to do away with them. Politicians will do as much as they can get away with.

      • In Argentina, anyone who publishes inflation data which differs from that proclaimed by the government (ie the real rate, which is very much higher than the official one) is being prosecuted.

        There was a very amusing incident recently when a foreign journalist asked the economics minister what the real rate of inflation was, and he beat about the bush and then ran out of the interview on the excuse of ‘an urgent meeting’. He actually started to sweat when he found he’d been cornered on the issue.

        I’ve noted general scepticism about nearly all government announcements in the UK, and of course in Spain it’s take as read that lies predominate: a minister said a few days ago that ‘Spain’s economy is the wonder of the world’!! Not quite all the statistics are falsified yet, but give them time…..

        This is the end of effective democracy and has all the characteristics of totalitarianism: we mutter in private about the disparity between the official statistics and the truth, and some journalists will point it out, but the State machine grinds on into fantasy land…….

        • And in the USA the Federal Reserve magically reports exactly 0.2% monthly inflation every single month. Their “preferred gauge” (CPU-I) excludes food and fuel and can be manipulated anyway they please. You buy pollock instead of salmon because the salmon got too expensive? Then that’s not inflation, they call that “substitution”. Did some technological device gain some improvements or features, even though it is essentially the same device? The government writes down the cost of the device because of the extra features. This is called hedonics. Is the price of something rising a bit fast (housing for example, but could be anything)? The government discounts it. This is called geometric weighting. There are many accounting tricks built into USA inflation numbers (officially CPI-U) to placate the masses and to save the government money on any payouts or securities tied to inflation. But that’s not all, the official GDP to is subject to many accounting gimmicks as well, once again to placate the markets and maintain control over whatever perceptions the populace and markets might have as to the true state of things.
          But the government can only stave off panic for so long. The clock is ticking…

            • Hello Xabier, Do not get me started on the Fed, a subject that upsets me. Yes the Federal Reserve is not even a government entity, but instead a group of private banksters that are fleecing us. I think you have an equivalent in Europe with the EU Central Bank. They sure have done a good job putting most of the developed world into deep unserviceable debt while they print so much money and keep some for themselves and give it to their 1% Elite Banker or businesses friends.

              Inflation is a thief in the night, or some could call it a secret tax. The financial situation we face has been engineered by the central banksters and will likely bring most of us to our knees in the years ahead.

              You know JFK had signed an executive order prior to his death to close down the Fed and take away power and return the power of money to the US Treasury. After his death the order was never implemented…

              In my opinion the Fed is just a bunch of Crooks and thieves. Modern day white shirt and tie Mobster Thieves that do not belong in power.

              These entities represent themselves as helping us and pretend to be trying to fix things, but instead they are a shadow group of thieves. Many of the elites have off shore escape plans already and houses on remote islands and who knows what else.

              It kind of started with the old rail road and casino bankers in the 1900’s, these guys ended up forming the Fed in 1913 and ever since it has been downhill for the dollar purchasing power.

              I think it is not hard to predict our coming financial collapse given that we know these people are in power. This could go on for a lot longer since there is no one strong enough to shut them down… but I do think we will see inflation in Europe and in the USA in the years ahead.

              Best Regards,

          • The Federal Reserve has no exit strategy from its QE and other policies. The world has no exit strategy from its addiction to fossil fuels, the clock is ticking on everything and everyone. It is just a matter of time before it all goes “boom”.

          • I think that there is also the issue of what people are actually buying, in what proportions. People are buying homes and cars and medical care, but I don’t think the proportions are right. And the CPI looks at some sort of rent equivalent, instead of housing costs.

  2. Dear Gail and Others
    There were some questions about life without fossil fuels. The BBC documented a one year reconstruction of life on a 1620 farm in Wales:

    The linked video covers the month of September. There are apparently other videos for the remaining months in the year, but I don’t have links to them. I particularly recommend the remark at the 21 minute point where the young man says that he now sees his daily experiences as ‘normal’. Also, near the end of the video, the young man says that the food is really good.

    It takes them a while to get skilled at plowing and other tasks, but I think you can see that they would improve with experience.

    Don Stewart

    • Hello Don, that was good – Doco: a Farm From 1620… – I watched the first one, looks like much work in the old days for sure. A good portrayal or the past. I will check out the other months, now that I am hooked on the show.


      • Scott

        I was discussing Europe and its problems with one of my banker friends. The constraints of the Euro, which has been badly constructed, are a big problem for ordinary people and businesses in Italy and Spain for instance. He agreed, but then said: ‘Nothing will change, because the Euro suits the politicians and, more importantly, it suits the rich very well indeed. ‘

    • All 12 episodes are available as torrent downloads under the title “tales from the green valley”. Not that I’m suggesting that anyone actually pirate copyrighted video.


    • I think this video is very interesting. We should be doing more of this.

      One of the questions I have is with respect to the amount of metal being used–for the cooking pot, the front end of plows, and a tool the farmer’s wife uses with the pigs. How much wood would have to be burned to make the charcoal to create all of this metal? How much was metal was really used in 1620–was this just something the rich could have? How scalable is this for 7 billion people.

      I was also looking at things that are “sort of” peripheral to the tasks. The boots look pretty modern to me. What kinds of boots could really be made back then, with the tools that were available then? I know when I visited a recreation of an early farm in Norway (earlier than 1620) one of the big issues was inadequate footwear for cold weather, according to the historian giving tours there. Boots were very expensive in times past, I understand.

      How much land would be required to support the whole system? How many people could this system really feed? There is a need to make a whole lot of things used, but not made here (rope, baskets, metal, feeding the various animals). Also, crops would need to be rotated. Research seems to say population was much lower per acre back then.

      The method of plowing and sowing seed is quite erosion prone, so the method shown was not really sustainable back then. How would we go about changing it?

      • Gail
        I will have some more to say, but for now I suggest reading:

        The current ‘best practice’ is to drill seeds into a cover crop. Thus, the land never needs to be tilled. Carbon sequestration can proceed rapidly with drilling and no till. You can think of the complications, such as metals. The idea is ancient, but it wasn’t used in England in 1620.

        Would we be able to utilize drills and no-till into cover crops if we had no fossil fuels and no new metals?

        A reminder. Toby Hemenway thinks that practices such as drilling seeds and not tilling and stopping herbicides and pesticides can feed billions of people. When asked about the very long term, he suggests somewhere between 500 million and 2 billion. The 500 million might be a rough guess at a very primitive agriculture while the 2 billion might represent a world where we figure out the drill problem. You will note that the Wikipedia article suggest that China rose to power on, among other things, the efficiency of the seed drill.

        Don Stewart
        PS And I am not trying to put words into Toby’s mouth. They are my own speculations.

        • I can see the advantage of using a seed drill with a cover crop. It is hard to see that the plant would grow as well, though. For example, a person is told to keep grass away from the trunks of small trees. The same principle would seem to be an issue when the new seed being planted is is for a plant much smaller than a tree.

          Or does the cover crop die off on its own?

        • Don:
          That Tudor farm video is superb. To the question of ‘how small’ is enough to survive, perhaps a partial answer can be sourced in Haiti, where most farms decreased in size to about 1 to 1.5 hectares. They mostly sewed rice (I think mostly dry, as much of the land is hilly) and planted fruit hedges, and could provide enough for their family and for the non-farm population, about half of the 6-7 million souls.
          Of course, USAID came along with great advice that they import rice from the US that would be cheaper. The result was 3 million Haitian farmers disenfranchised, now living in urban slums. But some American farmers got moderately rich…
          Viva the Washington Consensus!

          • The size of the acreage depends a lot on the climate. In Haiti, a person can grow two crops a year. Little of the produce needs to be traded for houses or clothes. They can get by with much less than in cold countries.

      • Gail
        Regarding the boots worn on the 1620 farm. I can’t find anything specific, but a quick search yields this from Wikipedia:

        Early boots consisted of separate leggings, soles, and uppers worn together to provide greater ankle protection than shoes or sandals. Around 1000 B.C. these components were more permanently joined to form a single unit that covered the feet and lower leg, often up to the knee. A type of soft leather ankle boots were worn by nomads in eastern Asia, and carried to China to India and Russia around 1200 to 1500 A.D by Mongol invaders. The Inuit and Aleut natives of Alaska developed traditional winter boots of caribou skin or sealskin featuring decorative touches of seal intestine, dog hair and wolverine fur. 17th century European boots were influenced by military styles, featuring thick soles and turnover tops that were originally designed to protect horse mounted soldiers.

        Here is a picture from that article showing some Chinese boots from around 2000 years ago:

        There were plenty of animals, and it seems that tanning leather is very ancient:

        Ancient civilizations used leather for waterskins, bags, harnesses, boats, armour, quivers, scabbards, boots and sandals. Tanning was being carried out by the South Asian inhabitants of Mehrgarh between 7000–3300 BC

        Rawhide, which I think was used by Native Americans, does not involve the tanning process, and is thus simpler. Which I guess accounts for the wearing of moccasins rather than what we think of as boots.

        So, where did these guys on the farm get the boots? If you search for 17th century boots, you will find people who will make them for you. Apparently, they are popular at costume parties and, I suppose, period movies. Whether the people in the documentary made everything the traditional way or whether they went to someone who used modern methods to create a reproduction, I have no idea. If you use a power saw to cut a replacement board for Williamsburg, VA, is it still a historical place?

        Don Stewart

        • footwear has always been the reaction to the ground you walked on, and how you earned your living
          Roman soldiers had metal studs, essential because their marching standard was 30+ miles a day on hard surfaces.
          same with all manual workers
          hunter gathers moved over soft ground generally, and in any case iron was too scarce a commodity to wear out on foot wear
          your social status was always defined by clothing, soft light footwear if you didn’t need to work for a living, or as now, because we use wheels instead of feet

        • Don

          Indoors and in the summer at home I always wear Spanish peasant shoes, entirely woven with ties that go up the calf.

          In bad weather, they used to wrap a piece of water-proofed tanned leather around them.

          All very simple and easy to repair.

      • Gail
        As promised, here are a couple more thoughts.

        Do we really need to reconstruct a farm from 1620 to try to get pointers? I don’t think so. Agricultural societies and the industrial societies they support have destroyed their own foundations. Why repeat those mistakes? Toby Hemenway talks about this in:

        Start at the 39 minute point. At the 41 minute point he moves into the alternative of a Horticultural society. At 58 minutes he lists a number of horticultural societies which survived for thousands of years.

        While the details doubtless varied, we can assume that these horticultural societies had no fossil fuels and little in the way of metals. For example, the Hopewell people did not smelt metals, but did trade for copper nuggets and did harvest iron from space debris and worked the metals into decorative objects. Their cutting tools were hard rock with an edge. They used bone for things such as needles for sewing. The evidence is that their health was good and they didn’t work very hard.

        If I were Bill Gates and felt like passing out some money, I would buy some land and offer it to people who were willing to become a self-reliant community while doing without fossil fuels and metals. There would be no taxes levied by external governments, no external money, no external rules and regulations, etc. What would flow across the borders would be information and very raw materials (e.g., salt).

        A reasonable prognosis is that the group would either kill each other, or else develop a horticultural society utilizing very gentle ways of steering Nature in a direction favorable to human life. In short, a New Horticulture utilizing the knowledge that we have developed, especially since the rise of science.

        I do not think it is possible to perform such an experiment if the founding group has to pay ten thousand dollars an acre for the land, has to pay taxes, has to abide by a bunch of laws and regulations, and can sign away their land in ‘treaties’ with the US Army which promises to feed them in perpetuity on a miserable reservation, or can open a casino to bring in cash.

        One of Toby’s concluding remarks is ‘we aren’t going back’ to the horticultural societies that came before us. We will, instead, rediscover the principles and use everything we now know to build a society which fits our needs and is consistent with current environmental reality.

        Don Stewart
        PS For survival over the next hundred years, I think that models provided by Biological Agriculture may well work. Perhaps, if these were adopted, they could migrate to a New Horticulture with no fossil fuels and no metals over the decades and centuries. However, it would be helpful to have the discoveries of the radically New Horticulturist society to show us where we need to get to.

        • Hello Don, I surely agree we can do better than the 1600’s but sometimes we can glean things from the old days. I like to read lots of books about the old days and sometimes I learn a thing or two. Plowing sure looks tough, seed drilling looks better, but the weeds need to be cleared as part of the plowing process or do they? Perhaps the land could be mowed to clear weeds first then seed drill…

          I do not think it is going to return to those simple times exactly since so much has been invented since then and stuff will be hanging around for years even if we stopped making it now, part will be a problem though.


        • “I do not think it is possible to perform such an experiment if the founding group has to pay ten thousand dollars an acre for the land, has to pay taxes, has to abide by a bunch of laws and regulations, and can sign away their land in ‘treaties’ with the US Army which promises to feed them in perpetuity on a miserable reservation, or can open a casino to bring in cash.”

          I guess there are other planets out there, then.

          But for now, the things you decry are the way things are.

          Sitting back and wishing for Bill Gates to give you some land doesn’t seem like a possibility, either. But it’s probably a bit more likely than paying no taxes or not having to at least work within the spirit of the laws and regulations of The Unreal World.

          We’ve been trying to recruit partners/members/funders for nearly eight years now, and have noticed a theme: 1) there are plenty of unskilled people who want you to “give” them a situation like that; 2) there are some skilled people with no money who want to take part; 3) there are virtually no people — skilled or no — with seed capital willing to risk it on such a venture. 4)And those with both skills and resources are astonishingly rare.

          I could write a book on what’s behind Door Number One. Unfortunately, no publisher would touch it, because it would not seem “credible.” People With Nothing Who Want Something For Nothing are in vast surplus these days, and they tend to have the most outrageous sense of entitlement from among the three groups.

          Behind Door Number Three, People With Something Who Play It Safe are much less common, and they often come with a ton of attitude, as well. We just evicted one such who had two million in gold. He made his fortune selling real-estate, but fancied his 50-year-old memories of a farmhand youth as justification that his “battle with the earth” style of farming was the One True Way. He lived here for five months for nothing, because he was a “potential investor.” His excuse was that gold was down at the moment, and he would invest Any Day Now when the market picked up. He was constantly working hard at counter-purposes, such as when he dug up our bed of sun chokes without asking, raking out all the organic material and leaving “scorched earth” for planting.

          He ended up stealing potatoes, beets, and carrots (that he had no hand in growing!) the day he left, furtively sneaking armloads of root crops around like a common theif. He justified it because he had worked so hard (even though it often produced more work for us), and he calculated that at $15/hr, he was owed something more than room and board for his stay. Like farm workers get $15 an hour! (Our average return on labour last year was $3.61 an hour.)

          Behind Door Number Two, People With Practical Skills But No Money are the most useful, but they don’t reduce the mortgage nor pay the property tax. But at least they increase cash income in other ways, and are generally a joy to work with. But they are rare. I think most of them are out on their own, renting property that they will get kicked off of sooner or later. And we have limited capacity to take them in.

          People With Money And Practical Skills don’t exist, for all I can tell. People With Money are so used to hiring the skills they don’t have that their brains have atrophied for anything that doesn’t involve a keyboard. And the skills they have rarely map into sustainable subsistence agriculture very well. Or their success in The Unreal World has made them cocky and arrogant about succeeding in The Real World To Come. Or they’re off trying to do the same thing — there seems to be a glut of ecovillagy projects out there looking for fiscal partners.

          What’s the answer? If I knew, I wouldn’t be whining about it here! Are you behind Door Number Two or Door Number Four, looking for a situation? We could use some help!

          • Jan

            Just human nature. Those who want to build something of value, and are prepared to put in as well are very rare birds indeed.

            The old Sufi proverb ‘Don’t be the one who wants to put one grain of rice in the pot, but take out a whole bowl’ has applied for how many thousands of years now ?!

            Every enterprise attracts free-loaders and spongers, and even worse I think, dreamers without staying power. The promises of the ever-providing welfare state have perhaps made the problem greater, but somehow I doubt it……. to get a great deal of return for little effort has been the spur to much human ingenuity after all.

            I put all my savings into learning my craft and ten years to get good at it, and now it supports me at a very modest level – not a rent-seeking attitude.

            Keep going!

            • Thanks for the encouragement, Xabier, but I don’t know how much longer I can keep holding this space. Things are not crashing quickly enough for people to consider alternatives. We’re deep in the “boiling frogs” stage.

          • Dear Jan
            I wish you luck. I will not personally become an investor. First, I’m not rich. I do give small amounts to local people and organizations. Since I don’t give much money away, I try to target it to things and people I know about. A friend of mine is attempting to get an intentional community started. While I am always skeptical about them, I will keep an open mind and might put some money into it.

            Another issue is the willingness to work. I worked part time at a small farm for a number of years. But now I am approaching 73 and I just don’t do the stoop labor graciously any more. One of my depressing days at the farm was when I was working with a 25 year old named Chris and he was going down a row straddling it with his long legs and harvesting with a big tub and working all his limbs simultaneously and bent over from the waist continuously. He was three times as fast as me. If we were drinking a beer, I would claim ‘better quality’, but the reality of aging dawned on me that day.

            So now I focus on my little garden at home, and my community garden plot. My home garden is on the south side of my house, so it gets reflection from the low sun. That is a godsend in March as it warms things up. But when the official air temperature gets to be the 86 that it will be today, the garden close to the house will be over 100. So the plants suffer lots of stress. I am trying to figure out what to do about it. My tentative plan for next year is to plant some moringa trees in a bed to the south. They are a tropical tree which can grow as an annual here. They make lacy shade, extremely nutritious edible leaves, and grow 20 feet tall from seed. So they wouldn’t shade the bed by the house in March, but would partially shade it in August through mid-October. You might say that ‘having failed to save the world, he is trying to stop killing his own plants’.

            Don Stewart

            • You don’t have to stoop all day to grow food!

              The power of an age-diverse community is that younger others can do the heavy lifting, while the elders do the intellectual and wisdom-based heavy lifting.

              Or we can simply all go off and try to do it ourselves. Good luck with that one.

          • Your stories are part of the reason that I have a hard time thinking Permaculture will save a huge number of people. The hurdles (financial and skills) are awfully high.

            • “I have a hard time thinking Permaculture will save a huge number of people. The hurdles (financial and skills) are awfully high.”

              That leaves me wondering about the viability of other alternatives. If not Permaculture, what? Resignation? Technological hopium? It’s like someone once said of democracy: “It’s the worst possible system, except for all the others out there.”

              I don’t think anything is going to “save a huge number of people.” But I feel strongly that whomever controls productive farmland will control the survivors. I guess I’m relatively alone at that, or people would be clamouring for a chance at some control over their future.

              We all eat for a living. Henry Kissinger knew this when he said, “If we can control fuel we can control the masses; if we can control food we can control individuals.” Every day, the noose tightens.

            • Permaculture or horticulture or food forests may still be the best we have. It may still be very difficult to transitions to.

              I really don’t know how a transition from current property ownership to something else can/will take place. I imagine it will work differently in different places.

              One part of Secular Cycles talks about the good farmland at times being abandoned, in favor of areas that could be easily defended (tops of mountains, for example). One book I have from a writer who lived in Argentina talks about the people in the cities of Argentina being much better off, as the economy fell apart, compared to the people by themselves out on farms. We have a hard time understanding what the real issues will be and how we can solve them.

            • “One book I have from a writer who lived in Argentina talks about the people in the cities of Argentina being much better off, as the economy fell apart, compared to the people by themselves out on farms.”

              And yet, those in cities had to get food from somewhere, no?

              I think the key phrase here is “by themselves.” We’ll need collaborative efforts. Witness Greece and Spain, where many young people who are unable to find work in cities are moving back to their traditional family villages — except such villages no longer exists in North America. We’ll have to re-create them.

        • Thanks! I agree that horticulture has more to recommend it than agriculture. As you say, ” …it would be helpful to have the discoveries of the radically New Horticulturist society to show us where we need to get to.”

          We seem to have discovered a number of modern-day hunter-gatherers, but not horticulturalists. I wonder why.

          • Gail
            We do discover people and places who are practicing a horticultural lifestyle. Two examples come to mind, both from Geoff Lawton. The first is a 300 year old food forest in Vietnam (about 6 minutes)

            The second is also Geoff Lawton, but is in Morocco and is 2000 years old (5 minutes)

            Both of these are, of course, embedded in a broader culture which has adopted chemical agriculture and industrial production. They are both in relatively poor countries where the financial pressure to sell the land for development was not as high as in the OECD countries. There are still horticultural communities in Africa, but as we know they are being displaced as the land is sold to multinationals who bring in chemical agriculture.

            Putting these examples in the ‘horticultural’ category doesn’t necessarily mean that they are using the best practices. But, having survived for hundreds of years without chemical inputs tells us that the practices aren’t terribly destructive, either.

            Don Stewart

            • Gail
              This will be an excursion into the soft science of changing perceptions and behavior. To set the stage, let’s agree that no government decree can install a biological farming and gardening and home economy system. It has to come as individuals and families and small groups invent it on their own.

              As Exhibit 1, let’s consider David Holmgren’s current essay in praise of his pocket-knife:

              Now, all the people who are disconnected from reality, and are puppets on the string of some grand cause such as taking knives away from people, won’t get it at all. They will huff and puff and dismiss David as some relic from the Stone Age. They also can’t do a tenth of the stuff that David can do with his Leatherman. In a tough spot, I’d rather be with David and take the chance that he won’t knife me in my sleep to steal my loaf of bread. I would be pretty sure that the clueless people wouldn’t have any bread, and no idea how to get any.

              As Exhibit 2, let’s consider a passage from Rebecca Solnit’s book The Faraway Nearby, page 193:
              ‘To hear is to let the sound wander all the way through the labyrinth of your ear; to listen is to travel the other way to meet it. It’s not passive, but active, this listening. It’s as though you retell each story, translate it into the language particular to you, fit it into your cosmology so you can understand and respond, and thereby it becomes part of you….You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it, often in terms of your own experience, until it becomes vivid to you.’

              The readers of these comments will all have the experience of hearing (unless they skip over comments by the usual suspects), but few will have the experience of listening. Probably fewer will have the experience of actually learning.

              The preceding thinking is how I can both claim that there are good ideas and practices in biological farming and gardening, but also that perhaps 99 percent of the people in the US will die. (I find your collapse scenarios to be persuasive.)

              Don Stewart

    • Don and Gail,
      I found the video interesting because I enjoy historic reenactments. However, I don’t think it is useful to pick apart the video and try to use it as a blueprint for what to do in the future. We will do whatever we can with whatever we have. It may look a lot like this, or it may look entirely different.

      I also don’t believe it is useful to evaluate a system by the criteria “can it save 7 billion people?” Every region will be different. What works will be adopted. What doesn’t will be changed to fit the needs of that region. In the absence of oil, there will be an absence of central planning, so we shouldn’t be overly concerned with what will work for everyone.

      Regarding boots and metal tools: we will wear out what we have, then salvage whatever we can find (there will likely be lots of metal laying around rusting), and finally we will have to make do with what we need from whatever natural resources are available. Necessity is the mother of invention.

      Regarding seed drills: Farmers will do what works the best with the tools available. Yes, knowledge is vital. And in this regard I think everyone would be wise to collect good books on all these topics so that you can find answers when the internet dies. Look at all the practical information that is currently available on line, through workshops and YouTube videos. Our biggest problem right now is the lack of small farmers that can support themselves marketing their products. I see many small farmers still relying on an outside salary to keep the farm going. Unfortunately, they currently have to compete with industrial agriculture for customers. Some day when they don’t, they will easily be able to sell their products.

      Gail, I’m curious what you meant by “we should do more of this?” Were you referring to making or watching videos, or were you referring to farming like this? I think more people should get out and start a garden. That would be a great first step!


  3. Any analysis of energy depletion and growth that omits the question of cost is for the following reason, bound to fail. Money is embodied energy. When we buy manufactured goods or food we pay not for the raw materials, the wind the rain the sun etc, but for the energy that has been expended in their sourcing, assembly, production and transportation to the consumer. So a simple model can be constructed from this obvious fact. Money is energy, energy is money. $100 is a barrel of oil a barrel of oil is $100. By using this model the current global economic situation falls into place.

    In the early years of the oil age,free money gushed out of the land in the USA and more recently the Middle East. Oviously we deducted from the value of the money coming out of the ground, the cost of its procurement. In the early days with an EROEI of around 100 the nett money gain was huge. Gradually that has abated, to in some cases 2 or 3.We have less free money. In response to this a number of courses of action can be taken.

    1. Making artificial energy by printing money. THis is the course currently being pursued by all the advanced world economies, in particular the EEU, the USA and Japan. In the UK the artificial inflation of house prices is being used as a refinement to the cruder tactics employed in the USA and Japan. Of course energy produced in a few nanoseconds on a computer screen is not the same as the real thing and accordingly despite massive injections of this phoney energy the economies are flatlining.

    2. Reducing the value of human energy. Wages for the productive clases, those who actually do things as opposed to those who juggle with phoney energy (bankers, hedge fund managers, financial consultants and their ilk), have fallen and are continually being down. In the EEC the euphamism for this procees is “structural reform”. At the same time the benefits enjoyed by these productive clases are being cut. In this way at least a portion of our nett energy fund can be restored for the benefit of the non-productive clases.

    3. Fighting over the remaining sources of cheap energy/money

    4. Devaluing the cuurency in which we pay for our money/energy (the petrodollar) It is interesting in this respect to note two things. First that the motive for the invasión of Iraq was at least in part because Saddam Hussein was considering pricing Iraq’s oil in Euros. Second that currently Russia and China are trading energy without recourse to the dollar.

    5.Becoming more energy efficient.

    In short everything that is of concern that we note today in the world’s geopolitics is related to the fact that the free money/energy flow is drying up. Expensive energy =less energy. Less growth

    • correctly observed
      but I’ve given up trying to point out that money isn’t wealth.
      there remains that certainty among those who find themselves in public office, that spending money creates prosperity. Krugman, who got the Nobel prize for economics, is on record as saying just that.
      its called ‘kickstarting the economy’
      we see those words used time and again, and the vast majority of people believe it to be true…..as I must confess I did, until I peeled away the claptrap and discovered the reality of it

    • “5.Becoming more energy efficient.”

      Be careful about that one. Achieving 100% efficiency could require infinite resources. Most transfer curves have a “sweet spot,” also called “maximum power point,” at which you get the biggest bang for the buck. Beyond that point, you’re embedding more energy than the added efficiency buys you.

      Take incandescent bulbs. (Please! Cha-boom! 🙂 They can be made in a small town or large village of mostly local resources. Their efficiency sucks, but their embedded energy is small.

      Now take a modern LED bulb. It has wondrous efficiency! But it essentially requires all of modern civilization behind it in order to exist. It requires a billion-dollar semiconductor wafer fabrication plant, rare-earth materials from around the globe, many of which come from unfriendly places, necessitating a global military force. And of course, the global financial system built the plant and keeps it operating. It also needs 400 highly trained employees (and 400 SUVs parked inside of 400 suburban houses, with 400 big-screen TVs and 800 kids driven to soccer practice…)

      Don’t get me wrong — I love LED lights — but like the proverbial ice berg, most of their energy cost is hidden, and all we see is the end efficiency. Thank you, future generations, for letting me light so efficiently!

      There is a reason why 3.5 billion years of evolution has not come up with more than about 6% efficiency in capturing sunlight. We ignore such examples at our peril.

    • Kurzweil is the poster-boy for cornucopians.

      Kurzweil should have stuck to synths. His vision is the vision of “more.” He hasn’t really accepted finite resources — by the time we hit them, we’ll be off to the other planets for resources! He hasn’t even accepted death, with plans to freeze himself post-mortem so he can be unfrozen when his singularity arrives.

      • If Kurzweil were to freeze himself right now, he’d be unable to put such foolish fantasies into circulation.

  4. Dear Gail
    You asked about grass under trees. I know you have a copy of Gaia’s Garden. Look on page 187 and you will find a section titled Grass Suppressing Bulbs.

    Toby is suggesting how you might design a guild based on an apple tree. Shallow rooted grass would compete with the shallow tree roots, and you will get fewer apples. But if you put a ring of bulbs (such as daffodils) around the apple tree, the bulbs will suppress grass. I’m not an expert, but I hypothesize that the bulbs are also very early spring feeders who soak up the photosynthesis opportunities in early March. They go dormant by the time the apple tree really gets its photosynthetic engines going. So they aren’t taking up much of the root space and they are not competing during the apple trees peak growth period.

    A shallow rooted lawn tree will react similarly if grass is growing under it.

    In addition, grasses like bacterially dominated soils, while trees prefer fungally dominated soils. Jeff Lowenfels gives some advice to homeowners who are determined to have grass under lawn trees. You can consult Teaming With Microbes for Jeff’s advice.

    Please note that Toby has recommendations for plants which DO grow well under apple trees and form a symbiotic community.

    Don Stewart

    • We use sunchokes and chickens in our fruit tree guild. The sunchokes are planted in a circle along the “drip line,” or the edge of the leaves of the tree if you look up.

      The sunchokes suppress grasses, and the chickens dig up the grasses and eat them. They also eat coddling moth pupae that cause worms in fruit. The tree and the sunchokes make a barrier against chicken-eating hawks.

    • For what it’s worth, in the Memoirs of Madame de la Tour du Pin, ( a fantastic read available in a good translation) – stuck by her man and left Revolutionary France to farm in America – she mentions the, to her peculiar, habit of American farmers in hoeing the ground for a large circle around apple trees, and manuring it. This was unknown in France at the time (although one might doubt that as she was a very grand aristocrat and may not have been well-informed on such matters, who knows?)

      Tulips under the trees sounds very attractive, I’ll try it!

  5. It occurs to me that the government shut-down is a golden opportunity to do some measurements. Surely, 800,000 fewer consumers will leave a signal on the economy and biosphere? Can we measure the blip in the steady up-tick of CO2 caused by the shut-down?

    • One of the first things to go is our ability measure things like unemployment–something that is already fiddled with to make look as good as it can.

      But I agree that the government shut-down will have a big effect, especially if it is in place for very long.

  6. A Question, Gail.

    You often quote “Secular Cycles” by Turchin and how it might explain what currently happens to our society. You also said that the U.S. entered Stagflation Phase in the 1970ies. Is it possible that Crisis Phase has already begun?

    • Yes, I think that we are already at the beginning of the Crisis Phase. It may be that the Great Recession was the first step in that direction. It is only be looking backward that we can really see what the steps were. Even then, different people will have different interpretations.

  7. “Now take a modern LED bulb. It has wondrous efficiency! But it essentially requires all of modern civilization behind it in order to exist.”

    Very interesting explanation that follows the above comment regarding what it takes to make LED bulbs. I wonder how long we can hold on to this level of complexity to support such an efficient bulb. If a descent from peak civilization results in greater simplicity, so much for LEDS and many of the other sophisticated modern techno devices taken for granted.

    • If the crash is slow enough, I hold out some hope that halogen lamps can hold on a while.

      But with their long lifetime, LEDs biggest challenge may be finding a source of electrons for them!

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