Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse

How does the world reach limits? This is a question that few dare to examine. My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes:

  • To extract oil and other minerals from locations where extraction is very difficult, such as in shale formations, or very deep under the sea;
  • To mitigate water shortages and pollution issues, using processes such as desalination and long distance transport of food; and
  • To attempt to reduce future fossil fuel use, by building devices such as solar panels and electric cars that increase fossil fuel energy use now in the hope of reducing energy use later.

We have long known that the world is likely to eventually reach limits. In 1972, the book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others modeled the likely impact of growing population, limited resources, and rising pollution in a finite world. They considered a number of scenarios under a range of different assumptions. These models strongly suggested the world economy would begin to hit limits in the first half of the 21st century and would eventually collapse.

The indications of the 1972 analysis were considered nonsense by most. Clearly, the world would work its way around limits of the type suggested. The world would find additional resources in short supply. It would become more efficient at using resources and would tackle the problem of rising pollution. The free market would handle any problems that might arise.

The Limits to Growth analysis modeled the world economy in terms of flows; it did not try to model the financial system. In recent years, I have been looking at the situation and have discovered that as we hit limits in a finite world, the financial system is the most vulnerable part of the system because it ties everything else together. Debt in particular is vulnerable because the time-shifting aspect of debt “works” much better in a rapidly growing economy than in an economy that is barely growing or shrinking.

The problem that now looks like it has the potential to push the world into financial collapse is something no one would have thought of—high oil prices that take a slice out of the economy, without anything to show in return. Consumers find that their own salaries do not rise as oil prices rise. They find that they need to cut back on discretionary spending if they are to have adequate funds to pay for necessities produced using oil. Food is one such necessity; oil is used to run farm equipment, make herbicides and pesticides, and transport finished food products. The result of a cutback in discretionary spending is recession or near recession, and less job availability. Governments find themselves in  financial distress from trying to mitigate the recession-like impacts without adequate tax revenue.

One of our big problems now is a lack of cheap substitutes for oil. Highly touted renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV are not cheap. They also do not substitute directly for oil, and they increase near-term fossil fuel consumption. Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,” but it is not cheap. Battery powered cars are also not cheap.

The issue of rising oil prices is really a two-sided issue. The least expensive sources of oil tend to be extracted first. Thus, the cost of producing oil tends to rise over time. As a result, oil producers tend to require ever-rising oil prices to cover their costs. It is the interaction of these two forces that leads to the likelihood of financial collapse in the near term:

  1. Need for ever-rising oil prices by oil producers.
  2. The adverse impact of high-energy prices on consumers.

If a cheap substitute for oil had already come along in adequate quantity, there would be no problem. The issue is that no suitable substitute has been found, and financial problems are here already. In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.

The Role of Inexpensive Energy

The fact that few stop to realize is that energy of the right type is absolutely essential for making goods and services of all kinds.  Even if the services are simply typing numbers into a computer, we need energy of precisely the right kind for several different purposes:

  1. To make the computer and transport it to the current location.
  2. To build the building where the worker works.
  3. To light the building where the worker works.
  4. To heat or cool the building where the worker works.
  5. To transport the worker to the location where he works.
  6. To produce the foods that the worker eats.
  7. To produce the clothing that the worker wears.

Furthermore, the energy used needs to be inexpensive, for many reasons—so that the worker’s salary goes farther; so that the goods or services created are competitive in a world market; and so that governments can gain adequate tax revenue from taxing energy products. We don’t think of fossil fuel energy products as being a significant source of tax revenue, but they very often are, especially for exporters (Rodgers map of oil “government take” percentages).

Some of the energy listed above is paid for by the employer; some is paid for by the employee. This difference is irrelevant, since all are equally essential. Some energy is omitted from the above list, but is still very important. Energy to build roads, electric transmission lines, schools, and health care centers is essential if the current system is to be maintained. If energy prices rise, taxes and fees to pay for basic services such as these will likely need to rise.

How “Growth” Began

For most primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the number of the species fluctuates up and down within a range. Total population isn’t very high. If human population followed that of other large primates, there wouldn’t be more than a few million humans worldwide. They would likely live in one geographical area.

How did humans venture out of this mold? In my view, a likely way that humans were able to improve their dominance over other animals and plants was through the controlled use of fire, a skill they learned over one million years ago  (Luke 2012).  Controlled use of fire could be used for many purposes, including cooking food, providing heat in cool weather, and scaring away wild animals.

The earliest use of fire was in some sense very inexpensive. Dry sticks and leaves were close at hand. If humans used a technique such as twirling one stick against another with the right technique and the right kind of wood, such a fire could be made in less than a minute (Hough 1890). Once humans had discovered how to make fire, they could use it to leverage their meager muscular strength.

The benefits of the controlled use of fire are perhaps not as obvious to us as they would have been to the early users. When it became possible to cook food, a much wider variety of potential foodstuffs could be eaten. The nutrition from food was also better. There is even some evidence that cooking food allowed the human body to evolve in the direction of smaller chewing and digestive apparatus and a bigger brain (Wrangham 2009). A bigger brain would allow humans to outsmart their prey. (Dilworth 2010)

Cooking food allowed humans to spend much less time chewing food than previously—only one-tenth as much time according to one study (4.7% of daily activity vs. 48% of daily activity) (Organ et al. 2011). The reduction in chewing time left more time other activities, such as making tools and clothing.

Humans gradually increased their control over many additional energy sources. Training dogs to help in hunting came very early. Humans learned to make sailboats using wind energy. They learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that they could provide more food energy in the location where it was needed. Domesticated animals could also be used to pull loads.

Humans learned to use wind mills and water mills made from wood, and eventually learned to use coal, petroleum (also called oil), natural gas, and uranium. The availability of fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to make substances that require heating, including metals, glass, and concrete. Prior to this time, wood had been used as an energy source, leading to widespread deforestation.

With the availability of metals, glass, and concrete in quantity, it became possible to develop modern hydroelectric power plants and transmission lines to transmit this electricity. It also became possible to build railroads, steam-powered ships, better plows, and many other useful devices.

Population rose dramatically after fossil fuels were added, enabling better food production and transportation. This started about 1800.

Figure 1. World population based on data from "Atlas of World History," McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978  and Wikipedia-World Population.

Figure 1. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and UN Population Estimates. 

All of these activities led to a very long history of what we today might call economic growth. Prior to the availability of fossil fuels, the majority of this growth was in population, rather than a major change in living standards. (The population was still very low compared to today.) In later years, increased energy use was still associated with increased population, but it was also associated with an increase in creature comforts—bigger homes, better transportation, heating and cooling of homes, and greater availability of services like education, medicine, and financial services.

How Cheap Energy and Technology Combine to Lead to Economic Growth

Without external energy, all we have is the energy from our own bodies. We can perhaps leverage this energy a bit by picking up a stick and using it to hit something, or by picking up a rock and throwing it. In total, this leveraging of our own energy doesn’t get us very far—many animals do the same thing. Such tools provide some leverage, but they are not quite enough.

The next step up in leverage comes if we can find some sort of external energy to use to supplement our own energy when making goods and services.  One example might be heat from a fire built with sticks used for baking bread; another example might be energy from an animal pulling a cart. This additional energy can’t take too much of (1) our human energy, (2) resources from the ground, or (3) financial capital, or we will have little to invest what we really want—technology that gives us the many goods we use, and services such as education, health care, and recreation.

The use of inexpensive energy led to a positive feedback loop: the value of the goods and service produced was sufficient to produce a profit when all costs were considered, thanks to the inexpensive cost of the energy used. This profit allowed additional investment, and contributed to further energy development and further growth. This profit also often led to rising salaries. The additional cheap energy use combined with greater technology produced the impression that humans were becoming more “productive.”

For a very long time, we were able to ramp up the amount of energy we used, worldwide. There were many civilizations that collapsed along the way, but in total, for all civilizations in the world combined, energy consumption, population, and goods and services produced tended to rise over time.

In the 1970s, we had our first experience with oil limits. US oil production started dropping in 1971. The drop in oil production set us up as easy prey for an oil embargo in 1973-1974, and oil prices spiked. We got around this problem, and more high price problems in the late 1970s by

  1. Starting work on new inexpensive oil production in the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.
  2. Adopting more fuel-efficient cars, already available in Japan.
  3. Switching from oil to nuclear or coal for electricity production.
  4. Cutting back on oil intensive activities, such as building new roads and doing heavy manufacturing in the United States.

The economy eventually more or less recovered, but men’s wages stagnated, and women found a need to join the workforce to maintain the standards of living of their families.  Oil prices dropped back, but not quite a far as to prior level. The lack of energy intensive industries (powered by cheap oil) likely contributed to the stagnation of wages for men.

Recently, since about 2004, we have again been encountering high oil prices. Unfortunately, the easy options to fix them are mostly gone. We have run out of cheap energy options—tight oil from shale formations isn’t cheap. Wages again are stagnating, even worse than before. The positive feedback loop based on low energy prices that we had been experiencing when oil prices were low isn’t working nearly as well, and economic growth rates are falling.

The technical name for the problem we are running into with oil is diminishing marginal returns.  This represents a situation where more and more inputs are used in extraction, but these additional inputs add very little more in the way of the desired output, which is oil. Oil companies find that an investment of a given amount, say $1,000 dollars, yields a much smaller amount of oil than it used to in the past—often less than a fourth as much. There are often more up-front expenses in drilling the wells, and less certainty about the length of time that oil can be extracted from a new well.

Oil that requires high up-front investment needs a high price to justify its extraction. When consumers pay the high oil price, the amount they have for discretionary goods drops.  The feedback loop starts working the wrong direction—in the direction of more layoffs, and lower wages for those working. Companies, including oil companies, have a harder time making a profit. They find outsourcing labor costs to lower-cost parts of the world more attractive.

Can this Growth Continue Indefinitely?

Even apart from the oil price problem, there are other reasons to think that growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world.  For one thing, we are already running short of fresh water in many parts of the world, including China, India and the Middle East.  Topsoil is eroding, and is being depleted of minerals. In addition, if population continues to rise, we will need a way to feed all of these people—either more arable land, or a way of producing more food per acre.

Pollution is another issue. One type is acidification of oceans; another leads to dead zones in oceans. Mercury pollution is a widespread problem. Fresh water that is available is often very polluted. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to concerns about climate change.

There is also an issue with humans crowding out other species. In the past, there have been five widespread die-offs of species, called “Mass Extinctions.” Humans seem now to be causing a Sixth Mass Extinction. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge  describes the Sixth Mass Extinction as follows:

  • Phase One began when first humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. [We were still hunter-gatherers at that point, but we killed off large species for food as we went.]
  • Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago, when humans turned to agriculture.

According to Eldredge, once we turned to agriculture, we stopped living within local ecosystems. We converted land to produce only one or two crops, and classified all unwanted species as “weeds”.  Now with fossil fuels, we are bringing our attack on other species to a new higher level. For example, there is greater clearing of land for agriculture, overfishing, and too much forest use by humans (Eldredge 2005).

In many ways, the pattern of human population growth and growth of use of resources by humans are like a cancer. Growth has to stop for one reason or other—smothering other species, depletion of resources, or pollution.

Many Competing Wrong Diagnoses of our Current Problem

The problem we are running into now is not an easy one to figure out because the problem crosses many disciplines. Is it a financial problem? Or a climate change problem? Or an oil depletion problem? It is hard to find individuals with knowledge across a range of fields.

There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem, if the answer appears to be in the “very bad to truly awful” range. Politicians want a problem that is easily solvable. So do sustainability folks, and peak oil folks, and people writing academic papers. Those selling newspapers want answers that will please their advertisers. Academic book publishers want books that won’t scare potential buyers.

Another issue is that nature works on a flow basis. All we have in a given year in terms of resources is what we pull out in that year. If we use more resources for one thing–extracting oil, or making solar panels, it leaves less for other purposes. Consumers also work mostly from the income from their current paychecks. Even if we come up with what looks like wonderful solutions, in terms of an investment now for payback later, nature and consumers aren’t very co-operative in producing them. Consumers need ever-more debt, to make the solutions sort of work. If one necessary resource–cheap oil–is in short supply, nature dictates that other resource uses shrink, to work within available balances. So there is more pressure toward collapse.

Virtually no one understands our complex problem. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we can fix our problem, none of which make sense:

“Humans don’t need fossil fuels; we can just walk away.” – But how do we feed 7 billion people? How long would our forests last before they are used for fuel?

“More wind and solar PV” – But these use fossil fuels now, and don’t fix oil prices.

“Climate change is our only problem.”—Climate change needs to be considered in conjunction with other limits, many of which are hitting very soon. Maybe there is good news about climate, but it likely will be more than offset by bad news from limits not considered in the model.

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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606 Responses to Rising Energy Costs Lead to Recession; Eventually Collapse

  1. Christian says:

    Excelent work, Gail! And do tell me, looking at world GDP rebound in 2010 and since then its continued and somewhat straight downfall, aren’t we entitled to just project the line and assume peak GDP will be happening around 2016?

    • If we are lucky, GDP will hang in there until 2016, at least for parts of the world. Our problems right now are debt problems. These could act to pull GDP down very quickly. In fact, governments that cannot pay their debt are often replaced by other ones.

      • Christian says:

        Debt, GDP, money, accounting… in a very few years, or even months, all this will not to be anymore. But in some cases (where renewable resources per capita are not so bad, as in the US and in my country, Argentina) societies survival is not an impossible task, at least theoretically. It depends on finding a way to continue using existing finite resources while working on transition, but this without the traditional burden-distributing tool: money.

  2. Don Stewart says:

    To Gail and All
    If you are a little weary of dealing with dreary facts and would enjoy a really funny rant, check out:

    And I thought college Professors were supposed to be reserved!
    Don Stewart

    • When I first met Tad Patzek, he was wearing a very brightly vertically striped dress shirt. It was not what I expected–in fact, I don’t think I had seen such a shirt before.

  3. Chris Johnson says:

    Mr. Josef Joffe, editor of Die Zeit, has written a book due to enter the market on 4 November. The Wall Street Journal published an early essay a few days ago that contained some delightful insights that even the august members of this blog might be inclinted to remember.
    The emphasis of Mr. Joffe’s essay was whether or not China and Russia’s form of ‘state capitalism’ will be able to continue providing the ‘value for money’ that they claim. He expands the comparison to earlier authoritarian German fascists and points out that:
    Begin Quote:
    Today’s declinists succumb to a similar temptation. They survey the crises of Western capitalism and look at China’s 30-year miracle. Then they conclude once more that state supremacy, especially when flanked by markets and profits, can do better than liberal democracy. Power does breed growth initially, but in the longer run, it falters, as the pockmarked history of the 20th century reveals. The supreme leader does well in whipping his people into frenzied industrialization, achieving in years what took the democracies decades or centuries.
    Under Hitler, the Flying Hamburger train covered the distance between Berlin and Hamburg in 138 minutes; in postwar democratic Germany, it took the railroad 66 years to match that record. The reasons are simple. The Nazis didn’t have to worry about local resistance and environmental-impact statements. A German-designed maglev train now whizzes back and forth between Shanghai and the city’s Pudong International Airport; at home, it was derailed by a cantankerous democracy rallying against the noise and the subsidies.
    End Quote:
    Maybe democracy’s greatest impact will be its restraining, civilizing effect that insists on including the votes of all participants. We’ve still got a ways to go, of course, but are we making progress?

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Chris
      Dwight Eisenhower went to Germany after WWII and saw the autobahns that Hitler had built. And so was planted the seed that became the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in the US. If you weren’t around for it, eminent domain was used to destroy established neighborhoods. Highway Departments ruled the world. Robert Moses had done similar things in New York. If there was democracy, it was pretty much ‘winner take all’.

      One of the commenters here is complaining about the use of eminent domain in New York to extend electric lines near his house. I bet eminent domain wins again.

      So the US isn’t as different from China as many people would like to think. For example, there are Federal restrictions on telling people that your product doesn’t have GMOs in it. Putin tried to explain to Obama that what Snowden had done ‘isn’t a crime in Russia’.

      It would be nice if there were good guys and bad guys, but I am afraid what we have is a bunch of grey guys.

      Don Stewart

      • xabier says:


        Exactly: Nazi Germany represented in embryo what the US and the ‘free world’ have become since 1945.

        The Soviet Union also aspired to give its people an abundance of material goods, it failed miserably, but the aim was little different to Hitler’s.

        Hitler partly lost his war because he refused to move over to a full war economy and continued to produce consumer goods and keep women out of the workplace until it was too late.

        Motorways, cars for the masses, sports and fitness culture, mass propaganda advertising, Nazi Germany was a dry run for them all.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          To Don and Xabier affectionately:
          Perhaps I should start by admitting to a lifelong admiration of DD Eisenhower, who some think was one of our best leaders. He was certainly smart and tough enough to keep the alliance together — both in WWII and in the 50s — against strong odds.
          According to a good biography of him, in the 20s he was tasked to lead an expedition to drive across the country — or as far as the expedition could get. In the ruts of the wagon trains their inadequate little trucks and tin lizzies made it all the way to Colorado, but not much further. A decade later Ike and others in the War Department pushed hard to expand and improve the railroads, because they knew war was coming. In the 50s Ike pushed the interstate highway system against the ‘rent seeking’ state authorities.
          America in the 1950s was a tad different from what it was in the 20s. For one thing, the nuclear stalemate was real, and the US was the only country capable of standing up against imperialistic communism. Sometimes we forget.
          Ike had the courage to stand against those who insisted, in the 50s that we devastate Russia. He also avoided calls to war in the Middle East, Europe and East Asia, while responding to challenges in Iran, Southeast Asia and elsewhere with unconventional methods that avoided large flows of blood. Note that his suc.cessors were generally unequal to many such challenges.
          More to follow.

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Don and Xabier:
        Regarding the subject of eminent domain, I think there has been a substantial modification of the original rule, which occurred about a decade ago. In the fair city of New Haven, one party sought town approval to purchase a structure which he planned to destroy and replace with a larger one that would pay higher taxes. The town council approve and the owner of the building sued, claiming that eminent domain was established to benefit the population, not a private enterprise. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where it was decided in favor of the entrepreneur who wanted to build a new building.
        I recently heard that the Canadian businessman who’s pushing the Keystone Pipeline is relying on that Supreme Court ruling to force right-of-way at bargain basement prices of the landownders in the path.
        So it appears you are right that we’ve got a hefty supply of ‘grey guys’, probably far more than we need. And this Supreme Court may be among the darkest grey ever.
        Cheers, Chris

    • xabier says:


      I think it was that arch-megalomaniac and greedy egotist, the global architect Sir Richard Rogers (not his real name too! should be Ruggieri I believe), who said that he liked China because they could knock down anything they liked and build just where they wanted ‘without the impediments that democracies suffer from’.

      Nice guy.

      That they might also poison him if they saw fit (like the British businessman who was held down in his hotel room and murdered by the wife of a top Party boss recently) seems to have escaped his notice.

      A true Albert Speer type. Nor are his structures any better.

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Unless you are attuned to the phenomenon, the idea of castigating an artist who serves mankind with his lovely structures is not normally considered a consummate egotitst willing to sacrifice his neighbors. Party functionaries and princelings, of course, know few restraints, which is what I think Josef Joffe’s point was. There is a plethora of challenging articles about China right now in anticipation of their big party meeting where they are prone to prove that Maoist democratic self-criticism will lead to some sort of nirvana… It’s not so much of an ‘if’ question any more, but ‘when’ the whole thing will collapse.

  4. poorboy says:

    Energy is certainly key. But I don’t necessarily agree we are running out of resources. Almost every atom that was initially on earth, is still on earth. Energy is the key to “recycling” i.e. recombining the atoms in a way that is productive. Will we have enough energy and knowledge to do this? I am an optimist who believes that our technology will keep ahead of our problems. I am also an optimist who believes that increasing population growth will increase the intellectual capitol needed to solve our problems. (I Recommend George Gilder’s new book called Knowledge and Power).

    • Denis Frith says:

      Recycling is often mentioned by those who quote the law of conservation of material. That is a selective argument that ignores those real physical factors that limit worthwhile recycing of materials. Recycling of hydrocarbons (in fossil fuels) is one just material that cannot be recycled. Many other materials are not worth recycling because the systems required use too much energy and materials in their limited lives.

      • If recycling is subsidized, it hides the fact that recycling is often not worthwhile, when all costs are included.

      • poorboy says:

        Looks like we are all in agreement that it may be counter-productive to subsidize recycling. As Gail says below, recycling can be wasteful when all costs are included. When resources become more scarce, sensible recycling (including all life cycle costs) becomes increasingly effective. It is interesting that competitive pricing of a product is one of the best measures of wise resource use (because energy use throughout the entire product life cycle is one of the largest contributors to cost).

        But the bigger point is whether we are technology optimists or pessimists. During the last 200 years the earth population has increased about 15 times. Interestingly, this is the same period in which technology has accelerated even more. The result is that even though the same physical resources existed, we have a much better standard of living for a much higher population.

        I admit that as a Ph.D. research engineer, I am a biased optimist. I believe our tremendous advance over the last 200 years is largely due to the increase in intellectual capital, and I am optimistic this can continue if we don’t screw it up with pessimistic constraints on innovation and development. Again, there are a lot of insights (whether you agree with him or not) in Gilder’s new book Knowledge and Power. Just one of his insights ties into Shannon’s information theory, which has transformed our communications industry.

        • Well, many engineers are optimists (I am a computer engineer), but we should really be the first to notice that none of this technology would have existed without abundant fossil fuels. So you can call it “intellectual capital” – I just call it “smart tinkering with abundant cheap energy”. No doubt there were very intelligent people figuring out cool things to do with sticks and stones back 10000 years ago – but its basically our easy access to energy that is the reason for all this technology we have around us. So that’s basically what Gail is doing here as well, constantly reminding us that we are on a finite planet, and that entropy will eventually make most things hard to recycle – especially the stuff we use for most of technology.

          Btw, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond has some very good info on why Europeans conquered the world with their technology, so no doubt access to lots of proteins kickstarted it all. Its sobering then to look at people in Papua New Guinea living practically the same lives they have for 10000 years and getting along fine. As an engineer its a bit sad though, as there is only so much you can do with sticks and stones. 🙂

          • xabier says:

            A friend of mine spent some time among the Australian Aborigines when he was starting out as a rancher ack in the 1960’s – he was something of a drop-out archaeology graduate, an unusual rancher. He was sympathetic to them, so they showed him a few things about their life – whites and blacks did not mix in those days on the ranches, so this was rather rare.

            My impression from his account is that they brought as much artistry to the making of stone tools, etc, as they could given the extremely tight energy limits under which they lived. But they took sticks and stones to the limit as it were!

            In contrast, I can paint oil paintings with first-class materials for a fraction of the cost of doing the same in the 17th century, due to our (temporarily) abundant energy and mass-production of materials. Even the best paper is inexpensive compared to, say, that available in the 16th century.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Looks like we are all in agreement that it may be counter-productive to subsidize recycling.”

          “We” who?

          Nature tends to optimize for materials. It took mathematicians decades, supported by modern civilization, to understand what honeybees have known about “packing density” for millions of years.

          “recycling can be wasteful when all costs are included.”

          I thought one of the things we were “all in agreement” about was that with debt-based, fiat currency, cost is irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things — unless, of course, you are caught up in modern civilization, and choose to optimize around cost at all cost!

          I think you’ll find one of the “hidden costs” of materials is transport and disposal. The transport end winds up in the product cost, but only because returnables are deemed too “expensive” in our paper-money ruled world. If things were truly priced in energy, I’ll bet returnables would once again make as much sense as they did on the upslope of Hubbert’s Curve.

          We must return to a “returnables” mind-set. “Recyclable” is a step on that path.

          Fourier, Nyquist, Shannon, et. al. have only codified and annotated what nature knew all along, that any optimally compressed signal is indistinguishable from noise. (Doesn’t that describe the Internet well? :-)) But attaining that requires embedded energy, or as Mary Logan says, “energy memory,” and that has been borrowed from the future, and it will not be paid back.

          And outside of finding more ways of burning energy faster, what has information theory really done for us? Illiteracy used to be a problem, but innumeracy still is. Most people have no idea that (for example) you are more likely to die in an automobile accident on your way to pick up some raw milk than you are to be sickened by that raw milk. And yet, raw milk remains illegal throughout Canada and much of the US.

          This is reflected in our lack of understanding of casualty-probability relationships. We build things with incredible casualty potential, based on a small probability of their happening. (I’m sure Gail could write a book on this!) We built over 400 nuclear power plants on the probability that the electric grid would never go down longer than the backup generators could get fuel. Fukushima should have been a lesson in our inability to properly balance casualty with probability, but instead, we had a “non-credible” event that will cause unmeasurable casualty for perhaps hundreds of years.

          Another example is nuclear weapons. No one’s tossed them at another country in nearly 70 years, but there’s a lot of them around, and there’s going to be a lot of desperate people willing to listen to anyone who says he can help them.

          Interesting times to be alive, for certain, but I must say I am not optimistic about technology being able to continue at anywhere near its current level, let alone its being able to “save us.”

      • poorboy says:

        It’s a little confusing to say that “Recycling of hydrocarbons (in fossil fuels) is one just material that cannot be recycled.” Actually the byproduct carbon is recycled all the time, naturally, by plants using energy from sunlight. Which is how the hydrocarbons came about originally. So burning of hydrocarbons puts them back into the biologic cycle, like they were millions of years ago (many people of course believe this has undersirable effects). We could do the same thing artificially, but presently it does not make sense because we would have to invest at least as much energy as we got out of them.

        So again, energy is key. With enough energy (which we don’t currently feel we have, and Gail feels we will run out of) plus the right chemistry and technology, we can theoretically recycle anything. As you point out, many materials are not currently worth recycling due to our limited energy or due to technology issues.

        • I didn’t say we will run out of energy–just that it has become increasingly expensive to extract, and that expense is what causes havoc with government finances. With lots of extremely cheap energy we can recycle anything. As the price rises, we find that recycling becomes more expensive. There is always some loss of the product in recycling, so that part doesn’t entirely work either.

    • Recycling never gets 100% of what is being recycled back.

      A major issue now is one of timing–governments are running into financial problems now. They cannot raise taxes enough to fund their programs, because workers are not rich enough to pay those taxes. So all of the things we could theoretically do in the future, are interesting, but don’t solve our current problems.

      • xabier says:


        Not only are most workers increasingly impoverished, but when politicians start to tax assets rather than salaries -such as property – the value of those assets falls dramatically. This was seen in Italy recently. The Italian property market (always somewhat opaque it must be admitted) more or less ground to a halt according to my Italian friends.

        One had an uncle, a canny old peasant who believed -fairly reasonably – that his property was ‘worth’ half a million euros. When he tried to sell, no one would offer more than half that. Old boy almost died of the shock. And so he didn’t sell, and hangs on in the hope of the value rising before the Grim Reaper takes his profit….

        They also fail to reflect the fact that the high valuation of such assets is largely a result of easy credit and part of a bubble. Taxing a bubble, ha! Only politicians could see that as a route to long-term prosperity.

        Raising sales tax has also been similarly destructive in the UK and Europe.

        So, salaries can’t be taxed more or consumption falls: assets can’t be taxed much more or they fall in value and the market is destroyed or freezes up.

        Doesn’t look good does it? I’d hate to be a politician just now – although the appetite of the masses for bull seems undiminished, and that is their main stock in trade after all.

  5. R. L. Hails Sr. P. E. says:

    And 2 + 2 = 4. For the most part, I found the article an exercise in the obvious, but perhaps in today’s society, it informs. I spent forty + years in energy engineering, a score of nukes, two score fossil fuel power plants and decades assessing advanced technology: what is coming, when, the barriers and the costs. For as far as experts can see, carbon and uranium are the only two fuels which can sustain human society for perhaps two generations. (There will be niche markets.) All other energy technologies cost too much and cost is the hard fact of life, or death. Thus if carbon combustion is a real and present threat to mankind, billions are doomed. The only real decision is who and when? The contribution of this article are the two curves, population vs time, and energy vs time, but I note that some three billion people are at subsidence level today. They are rapidly acquiring the two basic feasible technologies, Asia now dwarfs the US’ combustion of coal, and will walk away from us in the next decade. We can ask them to remain at starvation conditions due to our concern for climate change but I doubt this defacto policy of our government will work. What has historically worked is technology. It is the basis of the curves, but it is amoral. Some technical seers, with sound reason, predict the human population spike will plummet orders of magnitude due to WMD, particularly nanotechnology. They speak of the sterile battle field, and future battle fields will be ubiquitous. The other vital concept is the moral (religious control) and legal (governmental control) on reproduction which was not developed here. And finally, according to Catholic church dogma, man will not be the instrument for the end of the world.
    These are the boundary conditions for future energy uses.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I thought what I was writing was fairly obvious too, but most of the world doesn’t think that way.

      • xabier says:


        Wading as we do through a sea of propaganda, sloppy thinking and political rhetoric, it is nice to have ‘the obvious’ set out clearly, as you do!

    • Denis Frith says:

      That is an interesting comment on technolgy. It looks at only one side of the balance sheet, the goods and services it provides. The other side is that technology uses natural forces to irreversibly consume natural material resources and produce immutable material wastes during its limited life time. Technology creates nothing more than delusions absorbed by humanity. That physical process is unsustainable process but society does not take into account, as yet.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    Some Australians are beginning to build Earthships. A link to their website:

    Separately,. a southern Australian (which is the temperate zone) was prohibited from building with tires and earth, but finally got a permit, but was not allowed to use the water multiple times as greywater and blackwater. So bureaucracy is still a major obstacle.

    Now a few comments from me about what you see.
    1. This is a really cheap way to build a nice house which has high survival value in case of collapse. You are about as independent as anyone can be from the electric grid, industrial products, industrial food, industrial water, etc.
    2. Industrial products ARE used in the construction. So this is not a feasible plan for ‘wait until collapse happens and then figure out what to do’. It IS a feasible plan for ‘use what is available to me today to become more independent in the future’.
    3. The tropical houses (north of Australia) are much less concerned with building greenhouses into the structure of the house. Food can be grown year round in the yard. The houses built in the south of Australia tend to use more glass on the north side (where the sun comes from) for greenhouses.
    4. The situation of the house is carefully calibrated to get heat into the building only when it is needed. The houses are cooled in hot weather by the earthen berms and tires packed with dirt which keep the temperature at the level of the subsoil rather than the air temperature.
    5. In terms of electricity, the houses are completely off grid. There is plenty of sun in most places, so wind backup is not required (as it would be in Maine, for example).
    6. Notice the trouble they had collecting tires. As the economy has tightened, industries are paying more attention to recycling everything. People of modest means discovered that they could buy old shipping containers for a few thousand dollars, and convert them into houses. Now there are Starbucks outlets built in shipping containers. I am not sure what is happening with tires. It could also be that the huge piles of tires are being hidden by environmental regulations (Philadelphia had a huge tire dump…I don’t know if it is still there.) The world discards an astonishing number of tires every day, but reusing them for cheap housing isn’t on anyone’s list of ‘important projects’. So, hipsters should get them while they still can.

    Don Stewart

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Jan Steinman
    Reference on belly fat as an endocrine gland:

    Don Stewart

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    In response to someone, I mentioned that in the olden days there were small stores every couple of miles. Besides selling staples, they also served as social centers. I imagine a few of you thought I was crazy. Well, somebody took a picture in 1943 with a bus stop serving as a local social center. I wasn’t old enough to hang out at bus stops in 1943, but this pattern survived long enough for me to remember it….Don Stewart


    • that reminds me of that wonderful classic movie–The Last Picture Show

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear End of More
        The Last Picture Show is a big step up in sophistication from hanging out at bus stops, or sitting on a bench at the courthouse. I lived close to Archer City for several years. Understand it well.

        Don Stewart

    • I have run into a lot of small stores in my life, both in the small town where I grew up and in Chicago, where I went to graduate school and later worked for CNA Insurance Company. I would take the Elevated back to my apartment, and stop at a small store on the way home.

  9. edpell says:

    The governor’s energy highway plans are going to put a fifth power line through my town. I have been learning about the electrical system. Massive new frack-gas powered generators are planned all around the NYC area. There is no intent to close the three aging upstate nuclear plants but some thought to close the one down state nuclear generator. To support this “growth” new gas pipelines are planned and new electric transmission line are planned.

    I am particularly amused by the idea of massive wind generation 250 miles away from NYC to be delivered to NYC. No talk of wind mills 20 miles off shore at NYC. To bring the energy down new towers and cables representing large embedded energy are to be built.

    Its BAU here in New York State.

    • I am definitely opposed to offshore wind. Huge cost, won’t last at all in a time of crisis. Requires helicopters to keep it repaired. It is an illusion that this is favorable for the environment. It also tends to make the economics for electricity problematic.

      • xabier says:

        A part of the argument for the economic viability of an independent Scotland is based, I believe, on off-shore wind turbines and wave-power. Converting an awful climate to a positive. I find it terribly funny.

      • edpell says:

        I agree with you. Google is planning to start construction 2015 on its east coast off shore electric transmission line backbone to encourage off shore wind generation. It will go from North New Jersey to Washington D.C.. Oh well, what was that about mis-allocation of resource can not be undone?

        • The negativity towards offshore wind seems to be myth rather fact based. Onshore in Europe is competitive with advanced gas- bird deaths in scientific studies [I will dig them out if you like] demonstrate that coal, nuclear and fossil fuels cause far more but no where near the numbers caused by cats and windows. Failure rates of components according to studies [ some including 15,000 years of turbine operation] is low and power outages far lower than fossil fuel and nuclear.

          Offshore is a new technology – they don’t use helicopters but boats- and costs are coming down. compared to the impact of off shore fossil fuels they are benign and compared to costs it should be noted that North Sea oil required the investment greater than the entire Apollo program. I am open to new information concern wind’s limitation but please supply supporting scientific studies.

  10. timl2k11 says:

    As if we need anymore evidence that the mainstream media is mad and that economists are insane: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/27/business/economy/in-fed-and-out-many-now-think-inflation-helps.html?_r=0

    All we need is a little inflation to grow our economy, and it is the FED’s failure to get inflation high enough that’s to blame for our sluggish economy. The rationale presented for this borders on insanity. The people quoted in this article must be completely divorced from reality, perhaps they have to be to keep their jobs. I guess as long a things look good on paper to TPTB, all is well!

    • edpell says:

      Inflation destroys debt. In fact at 6% inflation ( a modest estimate of current rate) the US can borrow 1 trillion dollars per year and not be growing the debt in real terms. i.e. 0.06*17=1.02 which seems to be exact what they are doing. I wonder who read them the riot act?

    • dolph says:

      Ask yourself who calls the shots.

      You may come up with different answers depending on your point of view. But the conclusion one draws remains the same: the people calling the shots want infinite money. Infinite.

      Trillions and trillions is not enough.

    • Thanks! I saw that article. There is a need to keep coming up with new “solutions” to our problem.

  11. SlowRider says:

    Another “best article”!
    There is one thing, often when I talk to friends about these limits, they go like “It is all because of the rising inequality, there are hundreds of billionaires around the world, they have taken away all the wealth and spend it on private islands and planes, corporations pay no taxes anymore, so the governments have to take up all this debt, there is nothing left to invest in new technology, etc. etc.”
    Did you already adress this topic in one of your articles? I mean, if we are looking for solutions, there would be SOMETHING in getting all this luxury spending into more productive efforts?

    • I think that rising inequality is a symptom of not enough resources to go around. I have written about different aspects of this:

      Human Population Overshoot-What Went Wrong?

      If resources are shared equally, we all die from resource shortages at the same time.

      When we in fact hit diminishing returns with respect to energy supply (talked about in the current article), this plays out through not enough money to pay for higher priced energy, salaries, and profits for companies. The cutback, when it comes, is in salaries of the common worker, especially since now with globalization, we are competing with people who can live on much lower salaries than we do, in the warmer parts of the world.

      In prior collapses, we know that they way they actually took place was that as diminishing returns took place (population grew beyond agricultural limits, or beyond irrigation limits, etc.), what happened is that government grew in size/function to try to solve problems, at the same time the wages of the common worker stagnated. What eventually brought the system down was the inability of governments to raise taxes high enough to pay for all of the needed government programs. Also, workers became too poor to buy adequate food, and became to more susceptible to disease. This is a link to one of the posts where I talk about this issue: 2013: Beginning of Long Term Recession?

      I probably need to put more of these thoughts into a single article.

      • SlowRider says:

        It would be very much appreciated!
        In many parts of the world, feudalism represented the most extreme form of inequality, with medieval Europe the best known case. So it is nothing new, and in a way, resources have always been scarce. On the other hand, a king of ancient times couldn’t dream of all the things we enjoy today, so scarcity is very relative. Still, it seems disturbing to me to see that a small part of humanity is wasting vast amounts of wealth and resources just to have some fun, while we read of very small amounts of money when it comes to research and development and stuff like that. I mean, we (and you) are talking about the possible extinction of our species? Can we just dismiss the fact that wealth is concentrated in the hands of few people that don’t do much good with it?

        • Fixing inequality is very difficult. In the natural world, with other species such as dogs or chips, hierarchical behavior is a way of dealing with not having enough to go around. To the extent that animals are crowded, hierarchical behavior will tend to increase, to try to eliminate those at the bottom of the hierarchy, and make certain that at least some are able to survive.

          At this point, growth is slowing (because of diminishing returns), so there is not enough growth to fund all of the promises. Somebody has to be cut out. Businesses are getting more and more of the share, but they are not distributing wages very evenly, partly because the world has become more globalized, and the lower level workers are competing with the very poorly paid workers elsewhere in the globe. Governments try to provide services to unemployed workers, so they need more and more of the total. This puts workers in a poor position, after taxes.

          • I feel [an emotion admittedly] that you wallpaper over key facts when it comes to inequality. The US with 4.5% of global population consumes 20% of the oil, as well as huge amounts of global resources. The US is the superpower, many have been and gone including Egypt, Rome, Byzantine, Arab, Ottoman, British- the list goes on, and each struck it lucky with the right combination of technology, abundance and governance.

            I wouldn’t want to judge the rights and wrongs of super powers but the facts should speak for themselves. The US compared to other developed nations consumes twice as much as everyone else, but even within the US there is no average citizen. the top 1% own and earn 20% of the wealth [http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-24039202].

            1% of 4.5% of the top 10% – The developed nations frequently talk of the elephant in the room [and population has never been the elephant in the room] but 1 middle-income westerner will consume [waste] far more than the poor and their birth rates.

            just as green politics sells a fake solution that recycling or carbon offsetting or driving a Prius or owning a permaculture holding is the answer [rather than a small part of bigger answer] the developing world’s birth rate is not causing the problem- it doesn’t help of course and they will be the first to suffer.

            Inequality is an issue- trade agreements where the west [or China] exploits resources is not fair- it may be business, but it is not fair.

            The top 1% of the western world have no interest in economic stability, or humanity as a whole. No one in that 1% is there because they are special smart or gifted- they had lucky breaks with the first being the nationality they were born under. They don’t care about jobs in their town, or jobs in another.

            As for the idea that equality would lead to mass starvation and poverty I feel a link to study [or rather many] should go with such a statement.

            I’m not advocating communism or a desire to make the world a homogeneous place of mundanity- I don’t care if a footballer or musicians is so rich they own a diamond encrusted iPhone or coffin. I confess a sibling is stupidly rich- she earnt her fortune and personally she can keep her rather sterile home that looks like some international hotel. however I am lucky- we are relatively wealthy and I luckily bought land before it got stupidly expensive- and I would no intention of sharing my 15 hectares with the urban poor.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “I would no intention of sharing my 15 hectares with the urban poor.”

              Don’t know how old you are, but you might change your mind when it comes to old-age care. Social Security won’t be around that much longer. The only people able to pay strangers to wipe their butt in their dotage will be the ridiculously rich. The rest of us will have to prove our worth to someone younger.

            • you pick up on a whimsical point- but we do a lot in our community- lots of friends children can;t afford to stay in cities and are coming back- so we put them up in the eco cabins [I love building], one has a willow plot for their business, we run a festival and as a community we are a little odd.

              so maybe we will have a full time worker in return for accommodation and food – we will see what the coming decades bring. I have a barn to convert to a cinema- the nearest is 30 miles- friends will bring their cider, others will bring music. Might as well have a good time
              our community festival- all volunteer run and we made a very odd movie one year,


  12. Quitollis says:

    “Eventually we will reach the point where humanity itself becomes a dead end.”

    99.9% of species have gone extinct. I guess everything comes to an end sooner or later. Objectively speaking (whatever that means) it probably does not “matter”.

    A collapse could offer society opportunities for an ideological shift. In a finite natural world the population needs to be managed in its quantity — and quality, eugenic policies, upward breeding. Liberal capitalism sees people as inherently and equally valuable or else as worker-citizens on a wage level but strictly not in terms of their biological quality. That is all very nice but it has serious negative implications. Industrialism has bred a mass urban lower class population. Studies of reflex times in medical records, which correlates with genetic IQ, show that the British g factor IQ has fallen by the equivalent of 15 IQ points since the Victorians. Industrial capitalism is dysgenic, so is the welfare state. Humanity has biologically devolved rather than evolved. In biological terms, industrialism is the catastrophe and peak oil the opportunity.


    That is part of the reason why we cannot now solve the problems of our civilization, low IQ masses that cannot think objectively and holistically, they are naturally self-interested and petty labourers, not thinkers or leaders. The same goes for the democratic politicians.

    We are biological animals and the laws of nature apply to us. It is not just about fixing problems in the external world, it is also about improving ourselves. The global population has expolded because of oil and it is about to crash back down very hard. None of it was rationally thought through, we have based our civilization on the motive of short term profit. Our civilization is now biologically (IQ, character) in a much worse position to rationally revise itself than we were before the industrial revolution. But hope never dies. What comes next will likely be forced on us rather than planned but it may turn out for the btter.

    Read the “deep green” thinker Pentti Linkola.http://www.penttilinkola.com/

    • Loved the linkola blog
      A cross between Adolf Hitler and Pol Pot. with some Stalin and a visit from the Holy Inquisition thrown in for a bit of light relief

      • xabier says:

        Linkola’s programme is what would actually be realised anyway in a collapse situation…..

        I rather like his saying: ‘We still have a chance to be cruel’.

        All those hours with time to think fishing from his boat and jogging along in his pony trap have certainly borne rich fruit.

        Doesn’t mention whether he has a big dog who sagely nods at his every word. Old Adolf had an Alsatian who understood it all, I believe, so I bet the age of the Finnish Lakes does too.

    • edpell says:

      “Any dictatorship would be better than modern democracy.” writes Linkola. He is naive. Modern government is the government of the global ultra wealthy and their corporation. It is the fascism he wants and it does not work for me and mine nor for you and yours.

    • dolph says:

      I don’t agree completely, but our current predicament should, in my opinion, lead to at least a questioning of many of the assumptions behind modernity.

      In the past babies with obvious defects were quite simply abandoned, or eventually died in early childhood. The elderly and those with advanced disease died in their beds at home. The horror! Barbarians!

      Now, we spend billions of dollars, use tons of energy, and spend countless hours keeping such people going indefinitely. And call ourselves progressive and enlightened for doing so.

      Think on it.

      • xabier says:

        The old Finnish – pagan – way of dealing with the dying was apparently to leave them to it and go off to prepare a communal feast to speed them on their way to the Afterlife.

        When Christianity arrived, it became more important to stay by the dying and try to soothe them with companionship and care. Accounts of the deaths of monks and nuns, and kings, in the Middle Ages are very informative in this respect. Little could be done, but it was important to stay with the afflicted.

        Modern medical ethics is a product of Christian ethics (to treat and not abandon) and advanced -and expensive -technology.

        • I was told that at the time of Christ, it was the general practice to take babies/toddlers with obvious defects to the edge of the village and abandon them. A defect as minor as left-handedness might be an issue for abandonment.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Gail
            Turner Classic Movies has been doing a survey of film history. Recently, they showed The House is Black, made in Iran in 1963. It was the only film this woman ever made, as she was killed in a car wreck a few years later. The film consists of pictures taken in a leper colony, with her voiceovers reading from the Old Testament and the Koran. We see a lot of misshapen people in the pictures. Whether they are suffering, we really can’t tell. But what struck me was the passages from the Bible and Koran which detail the litany of woes to which humans are susceptible.

            Those books were written in tough times, and resonate with the images you see on the screen. The movie was financed by a charitable organization.

            Don Stewart

        • Quitollis says:

          It is important that the life-world is seen as a place of joy rather than misery. We all soon die but the joy of the life-world must go on. Death must not spoil things nor must the suffering of the wretched. Christianity is focused on death, a “good” death (salvation in “heaven”) and it is focused on suffering, “sin” and misery. We are redeemed from a wretched life of suffering and sin by the suffering of Christ on the cross so that we might have joy in “heaven”. All that really matters is our “faith” in the Christian beyond-place, our compassion for the wretched and our ultimate salvation. “Blessed are ye poor and wretched who mourn” etc. Arguably Christianity has a dismal view of life and it spoilt the old cheerfulness of pagan Europe. Likely it has profoundly influenced the course that life has taken to bring us to our present situation.

          Check out Nieztsche’s passage on voluntary death in Zarathustra, he talks about the need for communal festivals that celebrate life when people die. Perhaps he had in mind the old Finnish and other Norse death customs that you mentioned. Arguably the philosopher has influenced Linkola on the necessity that we make hard decisions about life, “cruelty”, if we are to again find balanced and the upward path. FN speaks to the matter of a reduced population of the fit and joyful, which now seems particularly relevant in view of peak oil and the imminent collapse of the global population. “Far too many live, and far too long hang they on their branches. Would that a storm came and shook all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!” Peak oil may be that “storm”. If the population is to be drastically reduced anyway because we can no longer support a mass population then it seems rational that we should preserve the best, healthiest, most intelligent, most social, biological elements as a nucleus from which to breed future generations — that the life-world might be a joyful place. That would be an act of charity and care for future generations. Arguably the chaotic course would be insane, selfish and totally immoral.



          I will give some brief quotes (but the whole passage is worth reading to get his full sense, the book is largely a critique of Christianity and the lingering influence that it has had on the course of life) :

          Many die too late, and some die too early. Yet strange soundeth the precept: “Die at the right time!”
          Die at the right time: so teacheth Zarathustra.
          To be sure, he who never liveth at the right time, how could he ever die at the right time? Would that he might never be born!—Thus do I advise the superfluous ones.
          But even the superfluous ones make much ado about their death, and even the hollowest nut wanteth to be cracked.
          Every one regardeth dying as a great matter: but as yet death is not a festival. Not yet have people learned to inaugurate the finest festivals.
          The consummating death I show unto you, which becometh a stimulus and promise to the living.
          His death, dieth the consummating one triumphantly, surrounded by hoping and promising ones.
          Thus should one learn to die; and there should be no festival at which such a dying one doth not consecrate the oaths of the living!


          To many men life is a failure; a poison-worm gnaweth at their heart. Then let them see to it that their dying is all the more a success.
          Many never become sweet; they rot even in the summer. It is cowardice that holdeth them fast to their branches.
          Far too many live, and far too long hang they on their branches. Would that a storm came and shook all this rottenness and worm-eatenness from the tree!
          Would that there came preachers of SPEEDY death! Those would be the appropriate storms and agitators of the trees of life! But I hear only slow death preached, and patience with all that is “earthly.”

          • xabier says:

            Interesting quotes.

            Certainly the welfare state of today keeps far too many anti-social and criminal people in existence, we are all aware of that problem in Northern Europe! And it seems to be the case in the US too. In the past, they would have been hanged quite early on or starved. This applies to only a small % of those on welfare of course, but they do a lot of damage to society at a lower level, much as bankers help to wreck it at a higher one.

            And yet at the same time it also embodies the principle of compassion which we should not lose sight of: Christianity did bring something valuable to ethics. It might have despised the world, but it did teach that one can show love and compassion amid the horrors.

            The solution? As resources decline, the struggle for existence will sort matters out and we will return – if we have viable societies at all – to the historical norms. Human groups, if they are to be viable, instinctively expel – by general consent – the ‘bad apples’, those who are sly, liars, thieves, non-co-operative, lazy and anti-social. In a harder world, they will do so again.

            It’s interesting to note that in Europe now, older, more natural, patterns of thinking are re-emerging, whatever one may make of them. Modern liberal culture is weakening: it has fouled its own nest. Some rather nasty things might emerge in its place however: and that is where one might see the value of Christianity in its simplest form – the exhortation to be charitable and forgiving while encouraging the individual to make themselves acceptable in the eyes of the Divine – to be just and humble.

          • xabier says:

            Of course, if we fall into atheist Totalitarianism, which is a possible reaction to societal stress, the ‘bad apples’ will be ruling the roost……

          • the problem with allowing people to die, rather than encouraging them to fight against the dying of the light, is that that’s ok for other people, not acceptable if it’s your sick child or grandma who is perhaps nowhere near any sort of ‘terminal age’

          • Life has many joys now. We can enjoy being with our family and friends; we can enjoy the beauty of nature and the changing seasons. For most of us, fresh air and exercise are readily available, if we take the time to look for them. Nearly all of us (at least readers of this blog, probably not the world as a whole) have plenty to eat and access to sufficient water.

            At some point, our bodies start to degrade and this is a major problem for some, influencing the quality of life. But for most, regardless of how badly the government is handling things and regardless how badly other things are going on a day to day basis, the pluses outweigh the minuses.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            Sir: Might it be possible that the addition of the words ‘Roman Catholic’ to Christianisty might be more accurate? I recall my Roman training as very ‘death centered’ as you mentioned, while reformed Protestants do not share those phobias (perhaps ‘concerns’ might be more appropriate and diplomatic).
            Cordially, Chris Johnson

        • xabier says:

          As an after-thought on dying, a very rich friend of mine who can certainly hope to have the best medical attention (if it doesn’t all collapse before then) confessed to me that what he feared most deeply -what horrified him in fact – was the hought dying in a hospital room with no family around, just bleeping machines……

    • There are a number of interesting changes over time. Brain size has fallen since the time of hunter gatherers. This change, if it is really right, would go in the same direction. Perhaps things are easier for us know.

      I would like to see another study coming to similar conclusions, using different methodology to confirm this.

      Edit: I looked at the summary of the ideas of Pentti Linkola this morning. Very interesting! I like the analogy of being on a sinking boat, but having a lifeboat that only has enough space for 1/100 of the passengers.

  13. xabier says:

    End of More

    Labourers died from their labouring, aristocrats from their fighting, (far younger, when you think about it – very young men fight the wars that the cunning old send them to, after all).

    There’s an interesting discussion right now on the Druid site about the role of monasteries. They weren’t all tricksters and spongers taking the peasants for a ride: worth considering perhaps…..

    Does the castle exist to protect or oppress? Both are possible.

    Viewing everything, reducing everything, to an analysis of labour and energy misses something out -the Spirit.

    • interesting twists in the subject there xabier
      The monasteries were given vast tracts of land by rulers who were genuinely afraid for their souls. They were trying to buy godfavours. The priests took everybody for a ride.
      those lands provided sufficient energy to build monasteries. Any stonemason must burn around 3500cal + a day at least—thats the bottom line. Call it spiritual if you like–but no food surplus–no building gets done.. Hungry people cant work hard. That’s basic physics. During WW2 my father got extra food rations as a miner, Same thing. He was a producer of raw energy supplies.
      Same economics applies to castles, excess food supplies allowed castle building, obviously they sheltered the serfs in times of trouble because they produced the energy the Lord lived on. If your serfs got killed off, your land couldn’t produce anything. The Black death had a similar effect.
      Aristos and labourers both went off to war, while maintaining their respective social status.
      I agree that reducing everything to energy factors and labour forces is somewhat bleak, but the two are inextricably linked. The spirit you speak of is I think our (genetic) urge to survive

      • xabier says:

        E of M

        What is a work of art? ‘Just marks made of processed earth on processed cotton, made by non-unionised labour for the benefit of rent-seekers.’ Yes, that and…..maybe something else.

        Your view is a perfect example of 19th century atheist materialist rationalism, and it’s very consistent and logical. I’m probably just a woolly-minded romantic I suppose. But I’ll raise a glass to calling a Truce of God with you!

  14. Nice post. One thought that has occurred to me is that there are several kinds of waste that we can look in the energy system (which includes all forms of production).

    The most obvious form are inefficiencies that can be squeezed out (increasing gas mileage, insulating houses, etc). These forms of waste can be reduced in a way that can absorb increases in energy costs. (my car today consumes less energy then my father’s from the 70’s, which is why I don’t worry as much about 4 dollar a gallon gas)

    The 2nd level of inefficiencies relate to how we consume. Today our consumption is driven by a “build, use, dispose” cycle. My computer lasts 3 years, my car 5, my washing machine 7.

    By simply increasing the length of time we can use these products, we can absorb increases in costs due to energy. For example, if my car could last 10 years, I could afford one that costs an extra 2 or 3 thousand dollars. But it needs to be built to last (or be reasonably repaired)

    The final level of efficiencies are structural in our society. These take 50 years or more to change. For example I own two cars because I live in the suburbs, in a 3000 square foot house. Why? Do I need the space? Do I need the back-yard? Not really. But it is what someone at my “level” has been conditioned to “expect”.

    Instead I could live in a 1500 square foot apartment with public transportation access to everything, and live a much more energy efficient life. How about work next to where I live? How about shopping near where I live? Reduce transportation, reduce shipping?

    The issue isn’t adapting to increased energy prices. I think our system (and its population) can adapt very well. The problem is when that increase occurs too rapidly for the system to adapt.

    The other issue you mention relates to wage stagnation? I think that has less to do with energy, and more to do with 2 circumstances:
    1) During the 50’s and 60’s the united states was the only major economy in the world. Thus it produced significant amounts of goods for a recovering Europe and an industrialization of the rest of the world. Today that is no longer the case. Wage stagnation would make sense when transitioning from “manufacturer of the world”, to “Much less”.
    2) During the 50’s and 60’s, for whatever reason, the distribution of income was much more reasonable. Perhaps it was tax policy, or more reasonable boards of directors, but the difference between those making the top money and those at the bottom were not so different. Now, the difference has reached levels not seen since the 1920’s.

    There is nothing we can do about #1, but #2 is a policy question. Whether by private means (let’s invest the capital back into the united states economy, creating jobs), or public means (lets tax the wealth and invest int he united states economy), one of these has to happen in order to reverse 2 decades of income decline.


    • Denis Frith says:

      Increasing efficiency does not tackle the fundamental problem that limited natural resources are being irreversibly used up. All improved efficiency can possibly do is decrease the rate of that consumption, so increasing the time for wjhich those resources will be available.

      • Your comment is the nub of the issue: the cliff is approaching but currently it is a reduced supply not an end and the first problem is the politics and economics of growth.

        ultimately all of human ventures are doomed- our sun will die, our planet will get hit by a extinction asteroid, and the universe will cool [that’s entropy]. What is better? reduced consumption and population in a managed way or enter an apocalyptic mass death?

        Even mass death and suffering is not going to fix the system- after the plague with 30% death in Europe circa 14th century the civilisation that followed was smarter, more resourceful and resilient. With careful management of half the resources we still have then perhaps we have a chance to kick the human species can down the road another few decades or centuries.

        I don’t know the outcome- no one does- but currently the problem is the economic system and the politics that relies on it.

        • Denis Frith says:

          I differ. The current problem is lack of understanding that the the technological systems are irreversibly using up the limited natural material capital and producing immutable waste material during their limited life times. That is an unsustainable process. So the collapse of industrial civilization is inevitable. And the populace will have rise to the challenge of powering down as painelessly as possible.

          • The current system is unsustainable- resources will diminish and part of that process- even in an ideal world will cause environmental destruction. Physical laws are not something to be argued over.

            What is up for discussion is the time period of industrial civilisation and its replacement.

            It may well be a bang- the death of billions and most of the problems afflicted on this planet cured in a short period. The seas will recover, the fish will return, CO2 will less of a problem, the forests will envelop the civilisations that removed them. Ive seen Mayan cities reclaimed by nature, on Cypress Famagusta was abandoned during the 1970s war and it is a post apocalyptic modern wonder and alongside it is the great Roman city of the same name that died following the collapse of another great civilisation.

            So it comes down to how painless that transition is. Civilisations fuel tank still has half the fuel in it, but we are driving faster and using it up more quickly and there appears to be no more filling stations on the horizon. We have more passengers and greater inequality.

            We need to slow down, but as Gail has pointed out, the current economic system has no reverse gear- it doesn’t even seem to have low gears or a break [beyond interest rates] only a carburettor fault. The drivers are us and we have spent a long time convincing every one else that the only route to security is to drive fast. A sudden crash is going to kill a lot of people, better then we slow down. And with time the population can slowly decline over a century or so alternatively we can change course with technology [or rather appropriate technology i.e. tools, that set us in the new direction].

            Technology- I know you are no fan- but who knows the outcome? There are exciting developments- thin film solar, huge developments in wind [despite what is said of it], tidal, recycling, recovery, reduced waste, reduced environmental damage. Most importantly is human attitude. The countries that will be hit hardest are the ones who drive everywhere, who live miles from their work, who do ‘service sector’ jobs that contribute very little.

            for those who think humanity is a plague on the Earth a crash is the last thing needed for the planet in the long term. The 14th century plague removed a third of the poor and weak in Europe and allowed the survivors to build a bigger civilisation that was more efficient at clearing woodland and wilderness. It may have also contributed to the Age of Enlightenment.

            • Denis Frith says:

              *julesbollocks, I share most of your views but I differentiate between the prospects of humanity and of the systems that have been installed in industrial civilization. Humanity is addicted to using the goods and services provided by the systems (machines, infrastructure etc). The construction, operation and maintenence of these systems using limited natural material resources is an unsustainable process. The technology that has produced these systems just uses the potential in natural forces. It has not created anything, despite the common view of its contribution. So the infrastructure will inevitably collapse this century. The population will have to cope with the loss of these good and services as best they can. How will the population of New York respond as the availablity of electricity, fuels, food, potable water, sewerage and hope declines? A dieoff of the population is quite likely but people naturally reproduce. Cities, however, cannot!*

          • xabier says:

            Understanding of the issues has been clouded by the false promises of the Green movement: do a little recycling, ride a bike, admire a wind-turbine -or get a green-collar job building one – and plant a tree if you take a flight, and all will be well. What arrant nonsense! But many have swallowed it.

    • I agree that there are different types of efficiencies we could theoretically add, especially if we had time. Such changes would allow us to tolerate higher oil prices.

      Part of our wage problem now has to do with globalization. Common labors in this country cannot compete with common laborer in India and Bangladesh and Philippines, and be able to survive. If nothing else, in a colder climate we need more expensive, durable housing, so wages need to be higher here.

      Part of the change in wages though is oil related. I have written some posts on the subject. One is The Close Tie Between Energy Consumption, Employment and Recession.

      • The current economic system is not fit for purpose- and as you point out that it lacks a reverse gear, or brake, just a fuel pipe problem that slows us down. Theoretically there should be solutions even if it is to buy time or for us to crash into a bush rather than a rock.

        The 2008 crash demonstrated that the wild gambling of the finance sector affected us all but it came down to house prices in one country. Globalisation does appear to make us all dependant on each other- which could be a good thing as well.

        I do wonder what theoretical strategies countries could take. The view in Europe is that transition [away from ff] could create the ‘growth’ in green jobs, whilst it assists in replacing lost jobs the whole point is that following efficiencies there isn’t much more growth. we have half the housing stock to insulate but at some point the job gets done. Evidently ‘green’ growth is not the answer, but a lower gear [to buy time] is.

        Without using interest rates to slow the economy what are the alternative? We are someway towards transition to steady state on a psychological level [I know you find it an oxymoron- but I don’t know of another term- ‘transitional steady state’!?!]. Expectations in OECD are lower- people don’t expect their children to buy a house or get better jobs or pensions or for themselves to be better off in the future.

        I see [and you will correct me I hope] two types of money- hard money which is real, it is energy used, food eaten, heating and living, and then the soft stuff. The arts, music, writing, even teaching- these rely on a surplus of human time.The value of facebook is entirely soft but the dotcom bubble caused a blip in the economy, the property values in the US before 2008 were artificial. Would it be possible to separate real value, hard money that does real things and the soft money that drives the derivatives markets? I suppose my bemusement is the nature of debt- is it simply a means to promise people they will be looked after in their old age?

        It has been asked many times before- what if we all defaulted on our debt? I do understand in the real world that even if I went to work, there would not be the raw materials, because the shippers would not deliver and the mines lacked spare parts to run the machines etc. I do get that. But the financial markets- the value of currency, the entirely artificial value of the dollar purely because it is the energy currency- a twist of history in the same way the dateline is in London [although not much GDP in that] is all beyond real value. Do we simply watch it crash and then see what system emerges? Is there an alternative system [and I don’t mean state control capitalism- that didn’t work either]?

    • xabier says:

      Waste: what if we cut out all cosmetics production? Consider the utter frivolity of it, the packaging, transport, display, etc. Al those plastic bottles and tubes, aerosols…..

      But then, if all the manufacturers, distributors and sales staff were laid off, consider the unemployment…….that is our quandary.

      We’ve charged down a cul-de-sac, and forgotten how to move on the old trackways.

      • In a post growth economy it may be possible to conserve fossil fuels for the important – survival stuff. At the moment huge amounts of energy resources go into junk, upgrades on things that worked perfectly, driving a tonne of steel to pick up dinner, burning twice as much fuel just so a tee-shirt can be worn instead of jumper, and have you looked inside a woman’s wardrobe recently? and the US – where some of 4.5% of world population consume 20% of oil, and of course there are plenty of poor in the US who do not consume such levels.

        So plenty of room for improvement- but what to do with the mass of humanity who will be under employed because people don’t need and can’t afford a new bathroom, a new car, a haircut, the latest cosmetics.

        I think a real possibility is a reduced working week- we dropped from 40 hours to 37 without fuss- it is closer to 35 hours now, so reducing it slowly to 3 or 4 days, and extending pension age is means, and a positive one to solve certain issues.

        Of course there is the what ifs, the buts, the ‘say I do overtime?’ or work self employed. As someone who works self employed the property crash reduced the amount of work I could find- and it is pretty common, but I invest in personal interests to the point the self employment really is a supplement for the nice things I want. I grow more food for personal consumption rather than sell it to buy things I don’t really need. Most importantly I have been able to be carer of my son especially in his early years and not a part time parent- always home late and too tired at the weekends.

        • Excellent suggestion julesbollocks! I have always felt that the biggest problem today is that we consume high amounts “because we can” and its “natural”. It’s a very odd life really, we work at least 5 days a week to make enough money to waste it on all sorts of silly things, while a lot of people could probably live perfect lives if they only worked e.g. 2 or 3 days a week and just got around with less stuff in their lives. You know keeping your iGadget for 5 years instead of 2, getting all your groceries once a week (and if you miss something you really want, be bold and make a simple pasta meal of what you got). If you really really need something, walk or bicycle to the shop. And basically stop being so bored every evening and weekend that you have to drive to someone, or somewhere, even driving 5 miles to a forest to hike to be “healthy” (and post your picture in the forest or some mountain on facebook) is also a disease in society. If people just cooled down a bit – dug a bit in your garden – started knitting – painting – drawing – or just stay around their local community – the consumption of the planet might have dropped dramatically. No wonder why people have to pop prozacs with all the stuff they “need” to cover in a day.

          As you say, there would be a lot of people out of a job, especially in the Cappuccino business, but hey, you can work there 2 days a week, and some others can work the other days. Perhaps we would realize that all these essentials in life are really meaningless stuff, and the reason for all our psychological problems and general unhappiness.

          • The 5 day [6 day] work ethic is a modern invention- as is the idea farm workers work every hour and go to bed when its dark. A complaint amongst aid workers particularly in Africa is they don’t do efficient hours of work- i.e they spend to much time chatting, drinking tea and don’t get with the program and that applies to farm workers, medics and teachers.

            The industrial revolution invented the working week, it invented the 8 hours of sleep [a surprise to me but we once used to have a fore nap in the evening and then get up at midnight for a few hours to go socialising [or thieving] and back to bed in the morning. Licensing for bars started in the UK during WW1 with a dry Sunday to ensure everyone was back in the factory.

            Throughout history though women have always worked longer hours than men.

            Countries that seem to be suffering / doing financially well include Japan where work is culturally patriotic but is really messing with people’s heads.

            In the UK the trend is for more part time work- but this is not a choice- rents and living costs are outstripping wages- the UKs welfare- tax credits which is simply benefits to top up wages is helpful. People like myself with property or a degree of wealth cope well and relish less formal work- and that is particularly amongst the retired who on taking a reduction of income go off and do vocational ‘work’. A neighbour made his fortune in business but wasn’t happy- when the kids left home he bought a woodland, lives off grid in a cabin and makes furniture with traditional tools- sells a few to pay for luxuries. Of course only the rebels, the outsiders and relatively wealthy can lead this life but a reduced working week and reduced life of consumption is a transition option.

            I got into food production because the super market sells salad in a bag for £1.50- with a spring the watercress just grows with only a little weeding from me- effectively free – I cycle to the shops and sell bunches to them for 50p in the summer season. I’m never going to make a fortune but I don’t need to spend one to enjoy good food.

            Must disagree on one point – Cappuccino IS essential.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “what to do with the mass of humanity who will be under employed because people don’t need and can’t afford a new bathroom, a new car, a haircut, the latest cosmetics.”

          Humans are the only species on earth that experience “unemployment.”

          Stop helping people, and they will have to learn to help themselves, or perish.

          I don’t mean this on an individual level. Indeed, I think a return to the “tribe” is inevitable. But if we stopped educating, feeding, and helping poor brown people, they’d be just fine, thank you. “Missionaries and pioneers are soldiers in disguise.” We’ve hurt them enough with our “help.” Let them get on with their healing, as best they can.

          • I have to disagree with you on that point.

            I do have mixed views on foreign aid work- I have close friends involved currently in aid and have some background on it.

            Humanitarian relief- disaster, war conflict and refugees are a collective problem- and expensive. It could happen to any of us and the response to help and offer assistance is what makes us human.

            Long term aid is another matter- much of the UKs work is related to many countries we are involved with are ex colonies -we did after all exploit the resources as an empire. So much of UK [EU- for ex Euro colonies] aid is reparations for cocking up countries that were never allowed to develop their own economies.

            The dark side is much of the aid budget stays in host nations- money is wasted and aid is a business with charity bosses earning very high salaries. I recently investigated one charity that was paid £20 million to train volunteers in country to promote human rights- a great program- but looking into the figures the cost of training each volunteer was only slightly less than training a UK doctor at university for a year.

            The US aid program dumps food on economies making local produce more expensive than subsidised US [gm] grain but it does support US farmers. where as China has a more capitalist expansionism- building railways, mines, and land along with Saudi and Gulf nations who are looking to the future for food production. And if that is not enough the rest of the world is looking to buy governments for resource rights.

            the main effort of UK and European aid is to promote human rights, anti corruption, women’s rights and soft politics so as to empower the disempowered poor and uneducated masses. Much of UK aid is under the radar- almost social aware and criticised for not getting arms contracts like the French who give aid in return for a helicopter contract.

            if there is to be any chance of humanity getting through the ‘transition’ without major deaths, migration and chaos then support for fellow humans to enable them to control their lives is essential.

  15. ravinathan says:

    Readers of this blog may be intrigued by the results of a series of experiments to create a mouse utopia. The scientists provided ideal environmental conditions including ample food and yet, as population grew, disaster struck! At a critical population level, mouse society fissured with random violence, loss of interest in sex, mothers attacking their young and surprisingly a group that the researcher called the ‘beautiful ones’ who checked out, kept to themselves, refused to fight, ate their food which continued to be available and groomed themselves. In other words, they dropped out and refused to hustle. In a utopia without food limits, space and population became the constraint. What intrigued me about this research is that even after the population crash, business as usual did not resume! The survivors appeared to have been changed irretrievably by their historical experience.

  16. As always, a great post Gail.
    Just a ‘short’ comment. As you close your discussion you discuss the various ‘problems’ that need to be addressed. I’m tending to view them as Chris Martenson suggests in his text, The Crash Course, as predicaments to be managed as opposed to problems to be solved. His analogy is jumping off a cliff: it makes no sense to spend time/energy trying to solve the problem of leaving the cliff and getting back to it while it makes more sense to spend the moments before hitting the quickly-approaching water determining how you will hit the water. Those in charge of the economic and political systems are likely to fight tooth and nail to maintain the status quo (i.e. kick-the-can-down-the-road) as long as possible, making our situtation worse. I think the best we can hope for is to begin with building resiliency/redundancy into one’s family situation and then work out towards one’s local community and then further afield if possible. The ‘system’ is unliekly to change until the various crises are no longer possible to hide through economic/political/media propaganda.
    I’ve also been wondering about Richard Duncan’s Olduvai Theory and its basic premise that: ‘once the electrical grid goes down, we’re back in the Dark Ages.’ The eventual loss of the grid may be one of the most impactful changes we might experience in the West…

    • its as well to remember that we are…at most… less than 10 generations removed from the time when the only light was that of a naked flame

    • Regarding predicament vs problem, I was assuming that researchers are trying to examine what is happening now, and don’t really understand the situation well. Once they understand the situation, they will indeed consider it a predicament, but until they do, it is still a problem.

      I agree that the collapse of the electric grid is likely to be one of the changes with highest impact that we are going to see–perhaps even greater than a governmental collapse. This is one reason I am very concerned about attempts to put large amounts of renewables on the electric grid, as in Germany. It seems to me that they are playing with fire.

  17. paul starling says:

    Always enjoy reading your posts Gail keep up the good work.Maybe we should look at the indigenous people of Australia who survived 40 thousand years before white settlement i think they understood sustainability better than us.

    • Denis Frith says:

      Being an Australian, I have some understanding of the life styles of the indigenous people before white settlement. They will find it as hard as most Australians to revert to the simpler way as the need arises. How will the millions who now enjoy a high material standard of living cope with the inevitable powering done as the stores of natural resources, including those supplying concentrated energy, run out.

    • we all lived aboriginal lifestyles to a greater or lesser degree until some damn fool lit a fire under a steam engine

    • Interesting idea. I looked up a little on Wikipedia. One question is how they kept population down. It sounds like warfare among tribes was part of the answer, with some cannibalism. If population rises too high (after the population discovers a new way of doing things which improves food supply, such as irrigation), then there tends to be an overshoot and collapse problem.

  18. Hickory says:

    The probability of collapse, and the timing is impossible to predict. But if it happens, and especially if it is quick, as I expect it will be for many in parts of the world and country, it makes sense to prepare for a graceful exit. And even if the world remains more stable than is expected, we all will need to prepare for our own exit anyway.
    With that in mind- consider spending some time trying to wrap your mind around a mechanism that works for you-
    Until then, Cheers,

    • xabier says:

      If I wanted to kill myself, I’d just read the Guy McPherson site, (above all the comments) it has terminal possibilities!

    • Unfortunately, you may be right. A difficult thought though.

      • Denis Frith says:

        Collapse is certain because the systems of civilization are irreversibly using up the limited natural material capital, including those materials that supply concentrated energy, producing immutable waste material and devastating the environment. Tainter in “The Collapse of Complex Societies” provides detail on the collapse of a number of past societies due to complex economic, ecological, political and social interactions. These forces are applying to our industrial civilization but that only adds to the prime reason that it will collapse this century because of the fundamental physical principle. That will happen whatever people think, say or do because natural force are in control.

  19. wanderingby says:

    Population reduction, in a gradual, benign, non-coerced fashion is possible, and should allow nations which undergo it to deal better with the natural limits to growth:


    • The problem that arises is that the number of workers drops faster than the population as a whole. In fact, many of the elderly may expect to have their own apartments. Actuaries get very upset when they have to divide up a smaller pie when there are fewer younger people. The tax burden on the young people becomes unbearable.

      • xabier says:

        Very much the problem in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and to a lesser degree in Germany, France.

        In Britain, the shortfall in the young has been made up by encouraging massive immigration from Eastern Europe and Africa/Asia.

        Which itself brings problems in a declining economy, and great social tensions in countries which do not see themselves as products of immigration (when the formative migrations occurred 1500 years ago).

  20. wanderingby says:

    Best of luck to Japan…and the Russians…they may achieve somewhat softer landings as the easy-to-extract and process resources are used up.


    Maybe Japan’s population will stabilize at Edo levels, with appropriate sustainable technology and lifestyles.

    • Denis Frith says:

      “sustainable technology” Explain please! In my understanding, all technological systems irrevocably age due to the operation of natural forces, including various forms of friction. Replacement of items as they wear out requires a continuing source of irreplaceable material in addition to the necessary energy. That is an unsustainable process in the long run this century.

      • xabier says:


        I’ve referred before to the old mills: by the mid-20th c many of them still had main (wooden) working parts dating from the 15th century, and were maintained and repaired by local men with local resources. Not bad.

        I myself regularly use tools which are 200 years old. They will wear out, of course, and cannot be called fully renewable, but are a tribute to the ideal of durability and quality which once informed the production of goods and tools, and which we look for in vain today.

        Making goods designed to fail in a couple of years is a moral crime worthy of capital punishment.

        • Denis Frith says:

          That does not address the issue I raised. You picked out insignificant items (while admitting even those items age) while I was referring to the holistic situation existing today. I have raised this issue on various forums over the years and have yet to see a constructive refutation. That does not surprise me as my assertion is based on sound argument and principles.

          • xabier says:


            I’m not quite sure what your point really is, as I do in fact agree with you (or thought I did).

            Yes, everything wears down; yes, all resources are finite, some more than others in practical terms. All very obvious to anyone who takes time to think.

            But I was simply pointing out that to make tools and equipment, etc, which can last several hundred years, and -in the case of the windmills for instance – can be repaired with wood grown and harvested locally (surely the definition of renewable?) – is a damn sight better than the current ‘consumer engineering’ invented in the USA, that destroys finite resources to produce sort-lived crap of doubtful utility except to swell the bank balances of a select few.

            And poisons the air, soil and water at the same time.

            Moreover, the mill that ground wheat was not ‘insignificant’, but quite as important to earlier economies as the nuclear power station is to ours. And, in fact, an advanced and complex technology introduced to Europe in the early Middle Ages. There is nothing insignificant about that.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I will use an example to make my point. Society has become addicted to using cars. That artificial species is doomed as irreplaceable natural resources, including those providing the fuel, are consumed in their maufacture, operation and maintenance during their lifetime. And they do not reproduce naturally. What will humanity do as cars die off? That, of course only one example of the holistic predicament ahead for humanity. How will people respond when airliners are so rare that only the elite will be able to use them?

            • Chris Johnson says:

              To Denis Firth:
              Denis, your comments have been interesting and represent a perspective not common among many of our compadres. It’s not clear how much experience you have in developing countries, but I can tell you truthfully that the one item any / all newly enriched poor person wants to buy is an automobile. It’s the same all over the world; read about China or Mexico or Nigeria; everybody wants a car.
              Now I don’t claim to have special insight into how this will actually evolve, but the ‘experts’ at The Economist magazine wrote a few months ago that the price of electric vehicles continues to drop, and the percentage of EVs grows every year. It could reach 5% within 5 years or so. The economic effect will be to reduce the demand for gasoline. As that percentage grows, so will the demand decrease.
              Cheers, Chris Johnson

            • Denis Frith says:

              Chris, you comment of the perceptions of people and how technology is responding to their unreasonable demand. I was commenting on the physical reality that most people do not take into account in their striving for a high material standard of living. How many drivers give a moments thought to the fact that the engine is their car is destroying a natural resource that it took natural forces eons to produce? They will probably fume at the traffic congestion as the fumes from their car makes its contribution to global warming. The emerging trend for more efficient cars done not change the principle that cars are inevitably headed for extinction. Car production, operation and maintenance is an unsustainable process. That is the stark reality even though very few people understand that bottom line at this stage. It will probably be a few more years before that reality starts to sink in! The number of smart people adapting to the demise of these voracios vehicles is miniscule at this stage.

          • As I keep banging on—ad nauseam even to myself, it’s not about respective technologies and eras, it’s all about numbers
            you cant feed the planet with windmills and horsedrawn ploughs
            You can feed maybe 10% like that, possibly even 20%, but not more.
            The remaining 80% or so are going to be seriously pissed off about that

            • A big part of the problem is things we don’t even think about today–lack of good fences and mesh nets to keep out birds, and lots of very easy theoretically low-tech stuff. And the difficulty of transporting soil amendments very far. Also, the difficulty of transporting food very far.

          • xabier says:


            Your point about airliners is most interesting: aeroplanes for mass civilian leisure travel, for frivolous uses, (as opposed to the very serious use of murdering civilians in their cities) are only a very recent factor in everyday life. And indeed cars. To state the obvious.

            The key point is surely the irrational psychological reaction of people who have been immersed since birth in the consumer culture and processed through a greatly degraded state education system to the disappearance of these ammenities, (as they cease to be able to afford them) and the illusion of importance and personal freedom that they confer, and the political ramifications of such a transition/collapse.

            Irrational expectations have been planted deeply in a poorly-educated and rather spoiled population (referring to the advanced economies). The reaction is likely to be equally irrational. It is not at all likely to be at all profound and reflective.

            I heard the other day ‘When’s this recession thing going away? They shouldn’t talk about it, it just makes it worse!’ More people than we might care to admit probably react in this fashion. The constant -and false – announcements of recovery by politicians (every month in Europe) follow the same line.

            And of course the old ‘blame the rich and their tax havens’ meme which absolves nearly everyone else of the duty of reflection and responsibility.

            Such people will probably believe a mere entertainer like Russell Brand to be a man making a serious contribution to debate – my God! Or follow any demagogic mountebank promising a Solution. Final, or not……..

            • Denis Frith says:

              xabier, you provide a realistic view of the delusion that most people have about how humanity can continue to ravish the environment. They enjoy the free lunch and do not take into account the fact that future generations will have to try to pay the price! I quoted airliners as just one example of what will happen as civilzation collapses. I find it ironic that many smart people have sounded out warnings for a long time without society at large stemming their irrational plundering. On the other hand, millions in the developing countries are doing their utmost to emulate those in the developed countries in their destructive life style. They will learn the irrationality of their behavior the hard way in due course.

    • I’d be more concerned about Fukushima than economics and demographics if I were in Japan…

    • Somehow, it is hard to see how increasing tourism to the countryside is going to fix the problem. The country’s debt situation is another issue. I expect that indirectly relates to the savings of a lot of elderly people for retirement. (The elderly folks hold Japanese bonds, or have deposited money in banks that hold bond.) If the Japanese government can’t really pay, that becomes a problem for the elderly.

  21. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    A few thoughts about Captain Kiefer’s article on biofuels. First, for the optimistic view on biofuels, see:


    Whether these guys have sold Snake Oil to Google and the other prestigious investors, I don’t know. I think that they are describing what Kiefer calls ‘Hydrotreated Biofuels’ in section 4.2.

    Second, I would like to offer a perspective from a biological farming and gardening position. See this article suggesting a Permaculture approach to resettling the plains of Alberta:

    If you read the article, you will see that it is a sort of hybrid approach. For example, note the phrase
    ‘fresh greens at $100k/acre for boutique consumption’.
    The people who live in this small town doing Permaculture jobs are mostly going to grow their own fresh greens in their own garden and most assuredly won’t have the money for ’boutique consumption’. I’m not knocking the plan. It represents some thinking about how one might escape some of the more noxious environments in urban areas while actually making a living in the current world. The current world imposes a pretty high cost of living on everyone, no matter how simply they try to live, and so coming up with cash crops which can be sold to urbanites is essential. But selling fresh greens to boutiques demands a very high level of transportation infrastructure. So this model is not the sort of thing you would design if you were planning for a complete collapse in 2014.

    The Kiefer article usually assumes that we must have a 6 to 1 EROI for our fuels in order to keep civilization going. And he assumes that we have to keep civilization going. A different tack is taken by Toby Hemenway in his talk at Duke titled How To Save Humanity, But Not Civilization.


    So Toby’s basic assumption is that civilization is going to crash, but that some significant number of humans can still live fulfilling lives if they have the right skills, attitudes, and resources in terms of plants and animals. The resources that Toby envisions do not include Iowa cornfields which are totally dependent on fossil fuels and in which the biology of the soil has been decimated and the topsoil of which has been eroded. Nor does Toby envision going back to Roman methods of production. The methods he does envision include things such as polycultures and rotational grazing and food forests. I don’t think that Kiefer would call these ‘cultivated’. For one thing, they are best suited to hand harvesting, and so are inconsistent with Kiefer’s notion of ‘civilization’.

    Toby’s methods expand the harvesting of solar energy with photosynthesis in several ways that Kiefer is probably not thinking about. Any polyculture, for example, features synergies between plants and animals. An Iowa cornfield is a stand-alone crop in a desolate environment, heavily treated with industrial chemicals. A biologically farmed or gardened field can produce more net energy, but not as a single crop of corn which is neatly laid out for mechanical harvest. And the human labor of harvest is quite efficient also–a pound of human fat can power a marathon run. Human labor is efficient, but it doesn’t deliver the power of diesel. When Kiefer says that ‘every cultivated crop competes with every other cultivated crop’, he seems to be ruling out the biology of synergy that is everywhere in the natural world.

    I pose a few questions and my answers:
    A. Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil fuels?
    I don’t think so.
    B. Will we have a collapse, Seneca Cliff, or Long Decline?
    My (not very confident) guess is a Seneca Cliff.
    C. Could biological methods feed 7 billion people if we did everything else right?
    Probably so.
    D. Will we do everything else right?
    A don’t think so. We are not making the changes or investing in the infrastructure that we would need. We are doubling down on the current system.
    E. So how many people will survive?
    In the US, I suspect about one percent with a Collapse, perhaps 3 or 4 percent with a Seneca Cliff, and maybe 20 percent with a Long Descent.
    F. Is there any way that a sensible person can both make a living but also prepare for what lies ahead?
    The proposed settlement in Alberta has some good ideas. In general, I suggest that people need to become more dependent on their Home Economy and far less dependent on the Market Economy, whether globalized or local. Learn how to do things very simply, even if you usually get the product in a store. Learn how to amuse yourself and enjoy life without the prosthetics of Disneyland. Try very hard to form face-to-face relationships which will permit specialization and trade (hard to do).

    Don Stewart

    • edpell says:

      Don, what proposed settlement in Albert? Please point in the right direction to find it. Thanks.

    • Chris Johnson says:

      HI Don:
      As usual, you illuminate a broad range of subjects that many/most of us hadn’t considered. A friend recently instructed that ‘discernment is not only determining between right and wrong but also between right and almost right.’
      It struck me that your first question, above, “A. Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil fuels? I don’t think so…” addresses only one of the important scenarios. Other scenarios for fuels include alternatives such as electric and hybrid vehicles that gradually relieve demand pressures. These are not expected to achieve more than a few percent of annual sales within the next five years, but even that is enough to affect demand for oil. When 10% of cars sold in a year are EVs, perhaps we’ll be able to say that the battle is largely won.
      Of course, I could be all wet and despite the slow progress of the past few years we never get EV annual sales to 5% or 10% of total. At which point we will all be forced to begin breeding and training big dogs and mules to draw hand-hewn wagons (replacing gigantic SUVs) to take the children to school and momma to the supermarket. Right?
      Cheers, Chris

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Chris
        Thanks for your kind words.

        Regarding ‘taking the kids to school’. I just point out that ‘schools’ pretty much requires that governments continue to exist and function, are able to collect taxes, etc. But perhaps the Internet still functions, and home schooling gets more and more attractive. I frequently run into a group of homeschoolers and it seems to me that what they are doing is at least as good as what the public schools are doing. And it seems to me that they are doing it in a fraction of the time. In short, they are at least as effective and are probably more efficient. In a world where full time jobs for two spouses are becoming scarcer, and governments may simply implode under their loads of debt, homeschooling may become the norm–with or without the Internet resources. So there is no need to build a dog cart to take the kids to school.

        What about the grocery store? If you travel around the countryside, you are likely to run into abandoned stores in lots of places. Rural people used to walk to the store, which might be 2 miles from their small farm. The store was a social center where they could meet neighbors as well as a source of staple groceries…not much fresh produce. My guess is that, in tough times and without onerous government restrictions and requirements, somebody will just open up a little store in their house and stock staples which don’t require refrigeration. Neighbors will walk to it.

        I don’t think people understand just how much government regulations inhibit small businesses. I was just listening to a woman hog farmer. She got a question about processing her own hogs. She said it would cost at least 100K in capital. Your grandfather killed hogs during the winter with a capital expenditure of less than a hundred dollars. The difference is that we now have all sorts of bureaucratic requirements that have to be met. The FDA is currently attempting to regulate as hazardous lots of practices which have been around as long as farming. Bizzarely, they are trying to classify compost tea as a toxin. The FDA is doing its best to kill small farms. As governments fail, these bureaucracies will go away and more sensible procedures will come back, I think. So yes, thank God, we can’t continue to do many of the stupid things we currently do.

        In short, I think it is a mistake to simply project the ‘way we do things now’ into a future with fewer fossil fuels. Governments and big corporations will go down fighting, but I think they will go down. People will operate little stores out of their houses and people will kill hogs once the frost is on the ground. That changes all the equations.

        Don Stewart

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Right, Don. Ain’t anarchy annoying! Parents teaching children, neighbors slaughtering animals, farmers demanding non-GMO seeds and using stuff not bought in the hardware store. What will those ungrateful dolts think of next?

      • xabier says:


        Wishing I’d never mentioned dogs by now!

        • Denis Frith says:

          “Can ‘civilization’ survive the end of cheap fossil […]” is ambiguous. Civilization consists of a population together with the infrastructure. It population naturally reproduces so long as basic subsistence products are available. The infrastructure has been produced, operated and maintained mainly by using irreplaceable natural resources to supply the energy and materials during its limited life time. The end of cheap fossil fuel will have a profound effect on the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure, so the goods and services the population have become so dependent on. The population will also be hard hit by the declining availability of food and other essentials so a dieoff amongst the disadvantaged this century is most likely.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Denis
            Since I formulated the question, perhaps I should clarify it. But since Toby Hemenway used the distinction between humanity and civilization in his talk, maybe we should go back to him, also.

            The best clarification of the term humanity that I have seen is contained in E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth, where humans are seen as one branch of the eusocial creatures who have come to dominate the Earth in the last couple of hundred million years. So humans have quite a few things in common with the ants that we don’t have in common with, for example, bears or fish. Civilization is, in some respects, a repudiation of our eusocial heritage. For example, Wilson points out that no eusocial creatures have evolved in the absence of a defensible nest. The ants have their nests and humans, historically, had a small village with a close knit society around them. The idea of Homo Economicus is pretty much every man for himself in a globally competitive economy. There is a downgrading of the idea of the defensible village, and the notion of intergenerational cooperation to accomplish common goals is mostly destroyed. Civilization, with these characteristics, is, I think, only possible with an abundance of external energy from some exotic source such as fossil fuels. Absent the large sources of external energy, humans will be forced back toward our evolutionary origins. The family homestead, the close knit community, and the multi-generation production group will once again be dominant.

            Now many commenters on this blog would see a reversion to the historical pattern as horrible. I don’t think it is necessarily horrible…but I do think it is inevitable.

            Which leads to my statement that ‘civilization can’t survive without cheap fossil fuels’.

            Don Stewart

          • Denis
            in describing civilisation as reproducing itself so long as basic subsistence is available, you have also described bacteria in a petri dish.
            The correlation is exact. Each expands to the limits of resources, the trappings we have created for ourselves are merely window dressing. As is all our ‘wisdom’
            At its fundamental level, all wisdom has given us is the ability to deny reality, and create a different reality that fits our circumstances. Our big brains allow us to remember the past and anticipate the future, In that we are unique
            The wisdom to be aware of ‘technology’ is a side issue.
            Thus we deny what nature is, and instead create a god that conveniently agrees with what we think nature should be, that somehow nature is something ‘created’ for our benefit. (Go forth and multiply etc) Written at a time when they didn’t know where the sun went at night. We still worship the gods of our own creation (technology) and delude ourselves that they will perform some strange feat of perpetual motion that will allow us to continue into perpetuity.
            understanding or not understanding of that is irrelevant, because your understanding will certainly clash (eventually with violence) with someone whose understanding is different.
            One gets the impression that anticipated difficulties might be expected to involve the wheels coming off someone else’s civilisation, but affecting our own to only a minor degree of nuisance if only we can get our ‘technology’ fixed.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I did not say that civilization was reproducing itself. I just made the point that people reproduce naturally but the technological systems society has become so dependent on cannot reproduce. Their operation is an unsustainable process. And future generations of people with have to cope with that realityas best they can. The population will be like bacteria in a petri dish, but with dish crumbling!

        • Chris Johnson says:

          For your penance you have to rent a Ford Expedition and drive it to the grocery store for one week, twice a day. I think big Mastiffs, St. Bernards and Pyranees are marvelous, but wouldn’t want to feed one.
          BTW, do you know the correlation between Roman mules and the throw weight of the Space Shuttle? If not, I’m sure you’ll love the story.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Xabier: Sometimes this website behaves as if it had been constructed by contractors for the goverment…so a ‘reply’ might end up anywhere, and definitely not where it was supposed to be put. Ergo, having found my comments misplaced, I’ll try again here:

          1. For mentioning ‘big dogs’ your penance is to drive a Ford Expedition to the grocery store twice a day for a week. Or two. You’ll be a real hit on tight English roads.
          2. Large Mastiffs, St Bernards and Great Pyranees are marvelous, but I wouldn’t want to feed one.
          3. Re mules, do you know the correlation between Roman mules and the throw weight of the Space Shuttle? If not, I’m sure you’d like it.

          • xabier says:


            As witty as one has come to expect.

            My faithful Sancho carries my gin flask in a pocket of his camo jacket – that’s as far as it’s going to develop I think.

            Saludos cordiales.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Chris, I appreciate your comments and I understand some this blog may not be religious, but given the recent events in the world I think many of us feel a bit more humble in the face of the our future. These huge storms and death and destruction, they do follow many of the old writings. The violence and death seem to have no target, but they sometimes hit some of the nicest folks on Earth. It seems to target any one with out regard to good or bad in many cases, although there have been many stories of miracles.

        I do believe there is something more out there than is known to us which can give us hope I think. Let us hope for a new power source. And also a new sense of love for one another which seems to be in short supply these days.


        • Chris Johnson says:

          Dear Scott:

          Thank you for your cherished thoughts. The devastation in the Philippines was massive, perhaps in the category of ‘worst ever’. I’m sure you wife and her family has been touched, as have most families in the islands, and those from the Visayas hit the worst. We can but pray for them.
          I certainly would not wish to insult anyone or be pushing some sort of religious doctrine on this website, and I apologize if any of my remarks were seen in that light. If the Christian scriptures are accurate, then there is no point in ever trying to guess the day or the hour of the next cataclysm. It will happen when it happens. If the Christian scriptures are not accurate, then it doesn’t matter anway, and anxiety about the end of days accomplishes nothing positive. Far better to plant a garden!
          Cheers amigo, Chris

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Let us hope for a new power source.”

          Ouch! How ’bout, “Let us hope for the smoothest possible transition back to the traditional, low-impact power source that humans have lived with for 200,000 years!”

          • Scott says:

            Hi Jan, I just thinking and was hoping we could find a clean power source to support all of those 8 Billion or so souls that are living on the planet now. I understand that most of us would need to die off if we were small enough to go back to a wood burning society of hunter gathers. Is that what you meant?

            I really do understand that the world is severely over populated and there may be no other option unless something drastic changes and fast.

            Our world is not set up to be this big under the current programs and energy setups that we are using as it is destroying our food supplies, our air and water etc. Just dreaming but perhaps if we had a Star Trek type system this planet could be clean and hold 8 billion or more. I do not see it out there yet but have discussed things like Thorium power stations.

            In closing, I do think the world would be a kinder place to live if things were like the old days and with an crowded Earth, simpler times would be nice, I would much prefer that to a Star Trek environment as guess as long as we did not need modern day medicines and things which will be hard for almost all of us,

            Best Regards,

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Scott, a basic tenant of ecology is that excess energy causes population growth.

              I see no reason why humans are more intelligent than yeast cells in this regard.

              If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. — Richard Dawkins

              It gives me no joy to say that, yes, many people will have to “go away” in order to live within our means — I may be one of them.

              On the other hand, much of this may come as “attrition” — restoring natural depletion rates. Living until you’re 90 is no great benefit if the last ten years see you bed-ridden and connected by tubes to machines, nor even if you are tied to medications that have unwelcome side-effects. We’ll probably see a lot fewer people living into their 90’s, 80’s, and even 70’s. And on the other end, infant mortality will likely increase.

              Given an infinite source of energy, population growth still produces an inescapable problem. The problem of the acquisition of energy is replaced by the problem of its dissipation. — Garrett Hardin

    • sponia says:

      I just note that Kiefer is referring to crops for use as fuel, not food. He specifically mentions that investing energy into food crops is a viable option with a desirable outcome – more food.It is just plain crazy to invest energy into a plant to try and get energy out of it, however. Thermodynamics, again

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear sponia
        I won’t try to speak for Kiefer. But the notion that current energy can be invested to increase future food is not crazy at all. Doing those Permaculture things such as terracing, sub-soiling, building small dams to rehydrate the soil, planting food forests, building the infrastructure for rotational grazing…those things all use energy now, but pay off in much higher yields in the future.

        Similarly, building a root cellar doesn’t increase the amount of potatoes grown, but it sure does keep more of the potatoes edible for a longer time.

        Building earth sheltered dwellings, such as Earth Ships, uses energy now to reduce the need for cooling and heating in the future.

        Don Stewart

      • Denis Frith says:

        I am bemused by this focus on energy as though it is the determining factor in all operations. The flow of energy is a neceassary but not sufficient condition for all operations of materialistic systems. My body operates through the input and output of solid, liquid and gaseoue materials. The supply of energy for internal and external operations is one consequence of that process. I know that the misleading use of the term “energy” is common in the mainstream and we have climate change as an unintended consquence of that lack of understanding of the role of energy in all operations.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “I am bemused by this focus on energy as though it is the determining factor in all operations.”

          Well, this is Ecology 101.

          Your body takes in solid, liquid, and gaseous materials — primarily, to drive metabolism. We consume carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. We inhale oxygen. Liquid water is the solvent of life that enables what we consume to be changed into adenosine triphosphate, which powers mitochondria to generate heat and muscles to contract, using the oxygen we breathe in a reduction reaction.

          So perhaps I missed what “it” is that you object to. If an “operation” is some form of work, then yes, energy is the determining factor.

          • Denis Frith says:

            You descibe facets of metabolism involving a range of materials. That was the point I was making. The flow of energy is a major factor in that process but so is a range of other activities including chemical reactions and the action of bacteria, cells etc. So describing operations as an energy process is misleading but it is widely employed, even today when there is increasing understanding that this focusing only on energy supply has had the unintended consequence of producing the waste materials that have contributed to climate change. How can you say energy is the determining factor after your sound comments on what happens in metabolism?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              I guess I don’t see your point.

              Einstein taught us that energy is mass, albeit on utterly unimaginable scales. A kilogram of water is30 exaajoules, about 5% of our current global energy use.

              “Chemical reactions” are the expression of energy. The “action of bacteria” is energy. Each time there is a chemical reaction or a bacteria takes some action, an infinitesimal amount of matter is converted to or from energy. So I don’t think “describing operations as an energy process” is misleading at all — in fact, quite the contrary; I think it takes people closer to fundamentals than they are used to thinking!

              We can resort to new-age spiritualism if you like. Mother Earth and Father Sun, matter and energy. Although Einstein says they are equivalent, one is the actor and the other is the action. For eons, they were in near equilibrium, except that mom kept banking part of dad’s paycheque. Now we’ve become unbalanced, with energy dominating mass. We’re spending down our children’s inheritance, and mom is getting pissed off about it, throwing temper(ate weather event) tantrums.

              Write a sentence. Unless the verb is a state-of-being verb, it generally describes the energy, while the subject and object generally describe the mass.

              Perhaps we’re in “heated agreement” here, but I think an increased attention to energy is entirely appropriate — nay, vital — to our understanding of our dilemma and to choosing actions for the future.

            • Denis Frith says:

              You do not address the fact that the past focus on energy without taking into account the associated production of the waste material that is contributing to cllimate change led to unintended consequences. It suprises me that on a forum like this there is that lack of understanding. What Einstein found has no relevance to this issue. A more relevant fact is that the various forms of energy are properties of materials and this relationship should be taken into account in any rational discussion of what is happening to systems.

            • CLimate change has been over-emaphsized on other forums, perhaps because it is a convenient distant limit that distracts people from thinking about immediate problems that are threatening to bring down the economy now. If the world economy collapses, a major cause of climate change mostly disappears–fossil fuel use goes to essentially zero very quickly, without government intervention. So all of the current hype about the need to do something to “fix” climate change is in fact irrelevant, in the whole scheme of things.

        • THe issue we are dealing with is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Indeed, there are other flows. Cheap energy seems to be the limit we are up against, however.

          • Denis Frith says:

            Quoting Liebeg’s Law is a selective argument. You presume cheap energy will be the limit. Others presume climate change will be the determining factor in the collapse. Toxic material wastes are causing many problems. So are declining fertile soil and aquifer water, to name just a few. And that includes obtaining the resources (additional to those supplying energy) to operate and maintain the cities and accociated infrastructure. I believe joining the dots to get the holistic scenario is a more realistic approach. It will help in making sound decisions to ease the powering down.

            • A big part of the question is what hits first. That is why I quote Liebig’s Law of the Minimum. Too much debt, and inability of governments to collect enough taxes from increasingly impoverished workers looks to be high on the list of what hits first.

          • Scott says:

            Hello, I was wondering about Canada, this article paints a rosy picture on their upcoming exports to the USA. I know Mexico has peaked in their production, but not sure about Canada?
            Now we are seeing oil trains coming south from Canada to the USA and USA Coal moving East to Asia on coal trains to load sea going barges.



            • Jan Steinman says:

              Canada may well be the final oil (tar) superpower, if Harper can figure out how to get it out of the country as quickly as possible without adding any value.

              It will take time and money to exploit the tar sands, and conventional oil may be in steep decline before tar sands can ramp up production much.

              If we’re gonna burn it up anyway, we might as well process it in-situ and get more jobs and income from it. But I say the same thing about raw logs, and nobody listens to me. 🙂

              There is huge public opposition to pipelining tar sands to ports, but the tragedy of Lac Megantic is making people think pipelines might be better than trains. I say, “leave it in the ground,” but like I said, nobody listens to me.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jan, I think we can agree that in 20 or 30 years fewer countries will be exporting oil, coal and gas etc. I was just wondering how close to peak Canada’s oil/gas is given the tar sands etc. I do believe these resources will be exploited. We know places like Texas, Mexico, North Sea, Egypt have already peaked and Saudi even looks to peak in next 20 years or so.

              I still think our generation is limp along with some troubles along the way. It will get harder in 20 years for sure. So many countries depend on the sea for food and I like seafood too, but it is already getting harder to come by. Our collapse may hit some areas harder first in the next 20-30 years, like we are already seeing in parts of Africa and the middle east.

              We will likely burn up the tar sands and most of the coal I believe but at a great cost of our oceans etc.

              Kind Regards,

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “I was just wondering how close to peak Canada’s oil/gas is given the tar sands etc.”

              Really hard to say, given the low return on tar sands.

              The tar sands are immense, and probably exceed Saudia Arabia’s petro resource, but it 1:3 (or less) oil, so it’s really hard to say when it will peak.

              If it’s going to get used, I just wish it would get used in Canada, but Harper is hell-bent on getting it away from Canada as fast as possible. Then Canada will have to import gasoline and diesel.

            • Scott says:

              Hello Jan and all just one more thought on the rail roads, I think it is good that trains are being used to move oil and gas as that will bring money to restore our old decaying railroad system, this oil money now pouring into the system will help us repair old rail road tracks, trestles and this renewed infrastructure will be very useful once the decline in fossil fuels is widely known, there will be a renascence in the Rail Roads and it will be once again a cherished mode of moving things as it should be.

              I do believe for this reason, it is wiser to for the USA and other countries to revamp their rail systems — instead of spending billions on pipelines that will someday run dry! At least this way we will be left with something we can use and we can even run the steam or coal fired trains if needed, but hopefully some thing better will be found.


            • I haven’t looked up the figures, but I believe coal is the biggest revenue source for train companies. Now that coal is being exported, it is both exported coal and coal that is used in this country that moves on trains. I haven’t looked up information on rail transport of goods recently, but my impression is that it is doing pretty well, compared to say, truck transport of goods.

              We don’t have steam or coal fired trains (at least in this country) any more. If we want them for later, we will need to build them.

              Train cars that are built for transporting coal or oil are not very helpful for transporting people. In the US, the rail system is basically a freight system–people mostly use other means of transportation. In Europe (because of “gage” problems), railroads are primarily for people; freight moves by truck. You almost have to pick one or the other. On single-track systems, they get in each other’s way.

            • Canada has Oil Sands production. Once the big upfront costs are sunk, it continues to produce for quite a long time. Canada has had problems with depressed prices for bitumen from the oil sands for the last two or three years, because of the lack of good transportation to heavy duty refineries that can handle this kind of oil. If sufficient transportation can be provided, the price of oil from the Oil Sands can rise, making it more economic to add more production from the Oil Sands. So no, Canadian oil production hasn’t peaked.

              Right now, the US is just about the only destination for oil from the Oil Sands. If sufficient pipeline capacity is available to send it South, it is possible it could be exported to China or India, both of which have heavy duty refineries to refine it. Gulf Coast refineries to handle this kind of oil tend to be close to full up, unless the Canadian oil substitutes for heavy oil from elsewhere–such as Venezuela. So it may be that the new exports go to China or India rather than the US.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. It is hard to know what to do. The government isn’t really in a position where it can back a big program which would “save” everyone, for many reasons–it can’t admit to a problem, it doesn’t have money to buy up farmland to convert to somewhat different uses, it doesn’t really have the detail knowledge of what to do–what crops to plant where, how this should be organized, what percentage of the population needs to be farmers, what kind of tools to plan for, and many other things.

      Of course, a government can’t really plan for a solution that only saves 1% or 20% of the population. And it is hard for individuals to put something together either.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “it is hard for individuals to put something together either.”

        True, it is hard.

        But individuals can try, something that governments can’t even attempt!

        If Obamacare can paralyze the US government, how far do you think a proposal for everyone to go off and supply their own basic needs would get?

        And yet, smallish numbers of people can come together to do such things. We could use some help!

        • xabier says:

          The problem with governments. Ostensibly all-powerful, in reality mostly hamstrung and hedged in by vested interests, ideology, the election cycle, etc.

          A bit like what they used to say about armour in the Middle Ages: ‘ A wonderful invention that stops you getting hurt, and also stops you from hurting anyone.’

          Without more or less effective government we would certainly be a complete prey to every psychopath and gang leader and raw capitalist out there But if you want to turn the ship around, it’s hard…..

      • xabier says:


        Good points!

        1/ The problem can’t be acknowledged by Government, as finance is now deemed to run on ‘animal spirits’ and ‘confidence’, ie blind faith in the future of BAU and easy acess to credit. Only people ‘on the fringe’ are permitted to question this.

        2/ Any Government programme would fail in so far as it centralized and commanded – see Stalin and Mao, etc. Propaganda would likely triumph over real achievement.

        But we can surely hope that Government will keep out of the way of those who wish to help themselves and others. An end to zoning restrictions on food growing and livestock in the suburbs would be a big step forward, for instance. So much wasted land…..

      • Scott says:

        Hi Gail, well our US Gov. seems to be acting like they are very rich these days rolling out a host of new programs weekly. I would be nice to think if they have enough revenues could take care of everyone, but I fear it will be short lived and short on promises. I am just not sure on the timeline, they may be able to keep this going for another generation. That is if there is no major shortages, but that seems unlikely given some of the models we have studied.

        Tax collections are falling and not keeping up with the spending, so at some point the pedal meets the metal — or sort to speak the rubber meets the road.

        Those who do not make large incomes are getting Obama care for a small costs which I also think will not last. But it will be nice while it last, I guess if you get it take care of some of your needs while you can before things get tough again.

        Those big doctor bills can really kill your monthly budget.

        Inflation is something to keep an eye on or for that matter Deflation, they are both tough on folks. I guess as long as they can hold rates down — things will remain calm, when rates rise, watch out!


  22. I very much enjoy Gail’s blog and the comments- I think if Gail does have an economic law named after her it must include the word Cassandra- but there seems to be a preponderance of defeatism, and even hostility to the human race that it gets all it deserves. At best a reluctant pragmatic acceptance or escapism to a ecotopia. I wonder how representative that is [and open to your views]. I am a born optimist but also political, I see the issue in as much as peak growth politics as peak oil or population. I don’t have the answers but change is needed now- heroes are needed now.

    The actor – comedian Russell Brand has kicked up a stir – an unlikely hero [he does swear if you are sensitive to that sort of thing!]

    and it has even led to wider debate-

    • I watched that on TV, Paxman deliberately let Brand rant on to reveal himself for what he is, a windbag with no awareness of reality, or of the causes of our predicament.
      Like others of his ilk–it’s all the fault of politicians. / millionaires//the ‘system’. He would ‘change things’, the rhetoric of the bar-room radical the world over.
      I am reminded of the classic line: As soon as this pub closes, the revolution starts.

      • ‘as soon as the pub closes the revolution starts’ 😉

        I don’t know- perhaps what is needed to start is simply to be told we don’t have to put up with it.

        The press certainly felt compelled to pour scorn on Brand – see Guardian link- so perhaps the message is something the system fears.

        • our ‘predicament’ is not political, it’s a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all.

          • ‘our ‘predicament’ is not political, it’s a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all”

            Well, End [do you have a real name?] I suppose that is a the nub of the issue.

            There are number of solutions [at least possible ones]- it all goes tits up- lots of people die, and a few survive in a Dark Age- perhaps to flower in the future as a truly sustainable culture.

            or – capitalism [corparatism greed ism etc] sees the up coming death of its self and changes its ways.

            or- the future is bleak but not catastrophic and we muddle along

            or – we have revolution [the style and nature to be determined at a later date.

            the predicament is the same and is not political- the solution is /or not depending on opinion.

          • Jules
            When we die back to numbers that balance resources, it will not be a voluntary thing, any more than the weeds I have just been attacking in my garden voluntarily keel over and die because they are taking up veg space.
            Next year they will be back, and if I leave them to flourish, they will eventually be climbing up my front door. Weeds cannot ‘change their ways’ any more than we can.
            That is what every species does, given free reign. Humanity is no different. We only think of ourselves as homo sapiens, whereas in fact we are too stupid to see that we are destroying our only means of survival.
            When our numbers have died back, our genes will see to it that we start over again. Eventually we will reach the point where humanity itself becomes a dead end. Nature has made lots of mistakes before, we are probably just another one.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I disagee! Our predicament is because we did not understand that the consumption by our technological systems of irreplaceable limited natural resources with the consequential production of toxic material waste is an unsustainable process. The belief that we could use ‘cheap’ energy out of the global store without dire ecological consequences is only part of the delusion.

              Ironically, that unsustainable process is under way now. The most that society can be if they can find a little wisdom amongst the clatter of dollars is gain some understand og fundamental physica priniples so they can make sounder decisions during the inevitable powering down.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            End_of_More wrote “our ‘predicament’ is… a lack of cheap energy because we burned it all.”

            Denis Frith wrote “I disagee! Our predicament is… the consumption… of irreplaceable limited natural resources…”

            Apologies if my eliding changes something basic, but I’m having trouble reconciling these two things.

            Denis, are you saying energy is not among the limited resources that have been consumed, or are you objecting to the “cheap” part?

            Because it sounds to me like you two are in “heated agreement.”

            • Denis Frith says:

              I was quoting a fundamental physical principle. Energy is a property of materials. It takes many forms (chemical, mechanical, thermal, electical etc) in its flow from source to eventual destiny as waste heat. The primary source of the energy used by the systems of civilization come from the stored fossil fuels and uranium. Solar energy is the source of a continuing supply from the Sun but needs systems made of materials to provide energy in a form that can power systems. Energy flow is a necessary but not sufficent condition to do work or provide some useful service. Material transformation is associated with that process. And the process occurs in a system made of materials and it ages. These fundamental principles, however, are not widely recognised in society largely because they are not taught in the education system. Even engineering in universities cover only some of the aspects, like the thermodynamice of energy flow.

    • That interview is fantastic, he is so well spoken and energetic, it might stirr something up.

    • edpell says:

      I love Brand. The interviewer is a fine servant of the owning class.

      • edpell says:

        He offers a solution socialism and massive redistribution. But two things are missing.
        1) How do you get the thug class (private security, police, sheriff, state troopers, army, navy, air force) to go along? They serve whoever has the money or control of resources (food, gold, etc).
        2) Even with equal distribution we are still getting poor due to declining resources and increasing population. For England the North sea oil drys up, all they have for export are BAE weapons. Half the food is imported but will not be in the future.

    • Brand’s chat with Paxman has as they say “Gone Viral” on the net now. Got up on Zero Hedge, and some Bitcoin Promoter got another one up applauding him. I myself dropped the Vid on Diner TV.

      What you should observe here I think is the Beppe Grillo effect. Beppe is ANOTHER comedian, whose Party now is a majority in Italian parliament. Why are comedians getting such political followings?

      It is simple really. Comedians of this type are iconoclasts deconstructing a bad system. People do see the problems, they actually experience them. So what the Comedians will say resonates with them,. It is the TRUTH.

      However, neither Beppe Grillo or Russel Brand IMHO really understand the underlying problems of resource deficiency, and both think if we could just rid ourselves of the corrupt scumbags currently running the system we could fix things. With Political following, they can leverage people into political office, but said people have not clue one on what to do to reorganize the system really. Less corrupt perhaps than those currently in Political Office, but equally ineffectual really.

      Still, this is an essential part of deconstructing the system. Certainly going nowhere fast with BAU.

      As always, I recommend you GTFO of Dodge if you can. Living the Full Primitive is close to impossible now, but you sure do not want to be deep on in a Big Shity when JIT goes down, which it will. Stay flexible, stay mobile, and build FRIENDSHIPS. Your Friends are your true WEALTH in this world.

      SUN is Coming Soon to a Theater Near You. Diners do not roll over and DIE without a fight.


      • Glad somebody else has pointed out the nonsense Brand was spouting—like I said, it was the rhetoric of the barricades.
        Here in UK we had a legendary raconteur. Joyce Grenfell (well Worth searching for on youtube) Who used to do a marvellous spoof of idiots like Brand. One of her most destructive quotes: “Yes dear, but who will look after the drains?”

  23. Thanks for the post Gail. Do you have any new projections for when you think the shit will start hitting the fan?

    • I can only speak on a hunch- I may write a blog for posterity and if we all do it one of us get it right.

      option 1 – a big lender of the US debt wants their money back [China, Japan, Brazil, UK and other nations owning 14% -http://advisorperspectives.com/dshort/guest/Craig-Eyermann-130823-Who-Owns-US-Debt.php ]- I don’t know if Japan’s 6.5% makes much difference. The US defaults and capitalism crashes to it’s knees.

      option 2- the shale- tight oil bubble bursts [18months to 2 years] could trigger a domino effect on world oil prices – recession- lower oil production- peak oil crash

      option 3- the debt illusion with other economic levers like devaluation of $, QE etc- continues for 10 -20 years. The inequality between rich and poor will grow and result in revolution and mass unrest- followed by dysfunctional governance and near anarchy.

      option 4- the warming ‘pause’ comes to an end [in the next 10 years] and climate disruption kicks in causing a panic- followed by rushed attempts to control CO2- transition is bumpy with no uncertainty as to outcome.

      option 5 – 5 years- Middle East conflict spills over into Gulf – either pre-emptive strike on Iran- or local revolution similar to Egypt’s. disrupted Gulf oil causes recession- the 1970s all over again but forever.

      option 6 – business as usual – i.e. decline rates of oil less than 3%-5%, slow growth and stagnation [see option 1]- a gentle whimper rather than a bang.

      option 7 – a post growth international enlightenment driven by a popular non violent uprising- inequality is tackled and a new social democracy is born- a wild dream perhaps but more likely than-

      option 8 – fusion is suddenly invented- or space aliens give us matter- anti matter technology. energy is so cheap no-one bothers with fossil fuels.

      • I left out one other ‘black swan’ in a kind of Star Trek themed plot-

        Imagine if Gail and other Cassandras warning of impending economic collapse because of limits was suddenly listened to. Imagine if like some viral information it spread across the web and a wave of panic or concern set in: people would de-invest in risky fossil fuels like shale and tight gas- the money would dry up, oil production falter, recession hit, oil prices collapse- peak oil impact.

        The very act of warning destroys the illusion that is just keeping things together.

        It reminds me of a sci-fi plot [usually involving time travel] where the rescue mission or what ever causes the catastrophe in the first place.

      • has there ever been a non-violent uprising? sounds like a contradiction in terms

        • Ghandi managed to defeat the power of the British Empire.

          Slavery was over turned by the British public.

          Post war Britain voted for the Welfare State [ok a vote but a revolution none the less]

          • there was a lot of violence in India before independence, even more when India/Pakistan separated The UK couldnt afford to keep ,its empire militarily, it converted itself into the commonwealth
            Ending slavery in 1833 UK was not an uprising, there was little direct impact here
            The welfare state didnt come about through violent protest, it came about because we could afford it (via fossil fuel energy input) it was perhaps a revolutionary idea—thats different

            • The welfare state came about because we thought we would have the high standard of living forever. Then comes the big “oops”.

            • bradbradshaw says:

              “oops!” What a great reply on the part of the government. Hits the nail on the head. As you know, I am writing a book on Sustainable Economics, and one of the key constructs is the idea that low cost energy has enabled surplus value creation. This surplus value creation has allowed us to build up a large amount of activities in our economy which are, for lack of a better word, but in no means diminishing their worth, parasitical from a value perspective. Parasitic activities, for example, include health care and the military, for example. Over time, the economy will naturally not have enough surplus value creation to support the high level of parasitic activities within the economy, which will become a very painful down slope for all. We will be able to band aid part of this pain through financial gimmickry, meaning increased taxes and more debt spending.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              Re ‘parasitical activities’, in which you included health care and military, two prominent ‘flavors of the decade,’ please accept a few comments:
              1) The cost of health care in 1990 was about 1-2% of GDP; it grew by almost 1% a year for the next two decades. It might be worthwhile tracking the growth trends of the main constituents: big pharma, big hospital, big medicine, big law (those that specialize in medical & tort), and big insurance.
              2) The abuse of military capabilities, primarily by the US but occasionally supported / egged-on by allies, flared in the last decade of the 20th Century, after Congress had already reduced active duty manpower limits. It was a simple trick to expad the reserves and the National Guard, and after 9/11 (or, more accurately, Wolfowitz’s success in convincing GWB to squash Iraq in retaliation for 9/11), and subsequently build a political slop tray that all Congress found bountiful as long as the wars continued. (Note that the D’s supported the Iraq invasion, and even pushed harder than the R’s to expand the futility in Afghanistan after the Nobel Prize president received his reward — thank you, Europe…). The bottom line, sir, is that severe military threats do still exist and appear to be growing: see Russia and and China, inter alia. So if you want to consider military expenditures an ‘economic parasite’ and not an ‘existential protection organization’ then please proceed. I already speak a little Chinese, but not Russian, which might mean I’ll be one of the first to be shot, or to get rich…

            • bradbradshaw says:

              Hi Chris,
              Great comments. My choice of the word “parasitic” is challenging. To try to be clear, I am not judging the decision to allocate resources to health care and the military (noting that some may argue that the level of expenditures in both areas might be a little high). The point is that our ability to fund health care and military expenditures is based on sourcing low cost energy into our economic system. Our challenge going forward is that as are access to low cost energy recedes, we will have to pull back on economic activities which rely on surplus value creation for their existence. Mark my word, we will see a requirement for the government to pull back on expenditures, and areas such as health care and military spending are going to be in middle of serious resource allocation and budgetary decisions.

          • xabier says:

            You are perhaps looking for the Chartist movement as the prime example of completely peaceful change due to popular pressure – although it did scare the hell out of the English aristocrats and business class for a time!

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Jules: Responses to just a few:
        Option 1: If there were a better ‘home’ for their money, those investors would make the switch. Are you aware that rich Chinese are paying fees of 20% to Macau smuggling artists to get their money out of China? The CCP doesn’t enjoy admitting their vulnerabilities, but the realities are stark. Ditto for Japan, Brazil, et al.
        Option 2: Possible but highly unlikely. Shale oil in China and Russia is immense. As oil prices fall economic growth increases, invariably for the last several decades.
        Option 3. Now that’s a serious problem in some places, less so in others. Can’t wait to buy the mansion in the Hamptons…and hire lots of well-trained trigger-men.
        Option 4. Climatologists would be thrilled, but most people don’t care very much…
        Option 5. Serious and protracted Middle East conflict is possible but relatively unlikely. Even the locals are getting tired of it. Slightly further east, however, Pakistan has a much heavier population and is cross-cut several ways by religious, ethnic and political conflicts. Ditto on smaller scale in Afghanistan. Iran fighting the GCC? No, that won’t happen — Uncle Sugar too militarily dominant, and the Iranians are realists! Saudi could possibly explode because their rulling elite is less flexible, more fragile than Iran’s.
        Option 6. BAU appears to be the most likely outcome at this stage, though that could change in a flash — eg, Saudi or Egypt eruption.
        Option 7. Ahhh, Elizabeth Warren for Pope and Holy Roman Emperor. I’ll vote for her.
        Option 8. Super-tech solutions abound, captains of industry and pirate chiefs of government agree how to develop and deploy the systems and split up the profits. Not realizing that they’ve been raped yet again, the body politic remains placid.
        Now that’s BAU!
        Cheers, Chris

      • What do you say about an alternative option 2 when the bluff on world oil-reserves is publicly revealed?

        • The BBC did a mini series drama back 2008-
          If I recall the hero doesn’t publicise his knowledge to avoid public chaos.

          Of course the OPEC states are lying- more importantly home consumption is causing exports to diminish.

      • timl2k11 says:

        I think the most likely outcome (surprisingly, given as cynical as I am) might be option 6. But it will only be BAU on the surface. It could be slow enough decline that people don’t panic, and never bother to consider the cause of it all, blaming the government, liberal agendas, conservative agendas, never considering their own contributions. The OECD countries especially are like the proverbial frog in a lukewarm pot that is slowly set to boil. We won’t realize what has happened until we are already “cooked”.

    • edpell says:

      I will throw in my two cents. I think it will be more like a plumb pudding. There will be small areas that fare better. It will be a slow decline over 40 years. Individual things will collapse as time goes on but “the system” will still be here in 40 years. The system will change to accommodate reality. If you are a geography that has some local energy you will be better off than places with none. You will not keep the current standard, style, of living but you will live. Hydro Quebec will still be functioning in 80 years. It may not be possible to build additions to it. The transmission lines will still work in 80 years. Splicing out breaks will be done. It may take a month rather than a day but it will be repaired. The hydro in the northwest will be a center of industry and relative prosperity. Any well maintained nuclear plant they stocked up on fuel rod before the failure of the supply chain can go on for 80 years and be a center of relative prosperity.

      Yemen on the other hand has no resources other than fish. It will be a country of fishermen as soon as the subsidies from Saudi Arabia stop, less than 20 years.

      China will build nuclear plants with a vengeance. Africa might have coal in areas and if they can stop China and the US from “buying” it from the ruling class they may have centers of prosperity.

      The not centers of prosperity will be empty or farm land owned and controlled by the rich in the cities. Currently today there is a federal program to pay farms to leave a strip of land unused around the farm to reduce runoff. The major recipients of the money live in Manhattan. They bought up the strip land and are now the owns. Smart folks. That pattern will not stop as the world gets poorer due to less energy.

      • Denis Frith says:

        I find it intriguing that even on a knowledgeable forum like this one, the focus is on energy as though the materialistic operations of civilization is determined solely by the flow of energy. Energy flow is a necessary but not sufficent condition for things to happen. Energy is only a property of material. The transformation of the materials in the process should also be taken into account in any rational discussion of what is happening. The functioning of the human body is not defined by how energetic the person feels!

      • Danny says:

        Wow slow decline over 40 years…is that your Gut feeling? What facts do you base this on? Are we going to find a huge reserve of easy to get oil. Because that is what is needed to have a “slow decline” and it aint happening. You can’t have a huge slowdown in china and india and think it will not happen here! I don’t think you have been actually reading the essays posted on this website. We are in an intrinsic system “all” will be affected and fairly soon.

    • Not really. I still think the first part of 2014 is a critical time, with the budget issues coming up again.

      It is really a question of how long until the duct tape and bailing wire stops holding the economy together. One question is how long interest rates can remain low, without QE going even further into overdrive. At some point things will fall apart. Not to mention the debt ceiling issues that keeps coming up, and Japan’s ability to keep raising its debt level. Of course, there is also the question as to how well the Eurozone can hang together as well.

      • bradbradshaw says:

        We are currently in the great decline. The paradigm for the United States shifted in 2000, migrating into a new low to zero growth energy paradigm. It is likely that we may have already hit peak energy and peak employment in the United States. GDP will grow moderately, due to improvements in productivity, which will expand revenues and profits at the expense of labor. Based on the EIA projection of primary energy use, our labor force in the United States will grow at 1/2% per year for the next 20 years, which is below the replacement rate. This projected growth rate is likely optimistic. Receding accessibility of cost effective energy is a wet blanket on economic activity. Unless oil gets below $80 per barrel in the next two months, we will likely see an economic contraction early in 2014. For more on the connection of employment to energy, please see: http://bit.ly/USEmployment

        • Thanks. I have been looking at some pretty similar data, and come to somewhat similar conclusions.

          The only way the economy gets more “jobs” (without more oil) is by making a bunch of part time jobs out of full time jobs. I believe some of that happened in the first part of 2013, in response to the health care law changes. When there was a delay in the implementation of part of the law, the shift to part time employment stopped.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail and everyone, I just wonder if there is a limit on the US debt limit and if they will likely take it all the way to 50 or 100 trillion, I do think so. How far can we go before the feared inflation blooms. Like you say about 2014 I do believe we may start paying more for needed items then as all of that printed money makes it’s way into the world.

        Our major governments in the world, the US and UK and Euro Zone Countries have become fearful of raising interest rates and rightfully so. They have over borrowed.

        I think we are heading into a period of rising rates, money printing and rising prices and scarcity in some things, energy being high on that list.

        I think if you have the cash sitting around in a bank it would be good to invest in a solar system or self sustained country property if you are able. But still not sure if you will survive the oncoming onslaught of City Zombies showing up at your place hungry.


        • bradbradshaw says:

          Hi Scott, I like your post. If federal government debt keeps increasing, it will hit a tipping point, where the cash flow burden on the government is too high, i.e., running beyond the capacity to support with tax receipts plus the addition of additional debt. One of the interesting twists, reported in today’s New York Times, but identified by Paul Volcker a few years ago, is a murmur of a drum beat to allow for inflation of up to 6%. The idea is that inflation will increase government revenues and move tax payers into higher and higher tax brackets. When anyone, including the government, has a fixed note debt instrument which has to be paid back to the investor, inflation favors the payer, in this case the government.
          As the debt and debt payments continue to take a larger and larger chunk of the government’s budget, the burden will be on the shrinking discretionary portions of the budget, and will hit those initiatives very hard. The hope that is perhaps implicit in deficit spending is that we will grow our way out of it. Unfortunately, I believe that we already hit our limits and are now in a low growth regime.
          With regards to the timing of inflation, please take a look at my post on the matter: http://bit.ly/Fed_and_Inflation I think we continue to be in a low inflation period, because of several factors, but most notably the the low level of inflationary forces in our economy and how low demand for energy. Our currency is tied to oil prices, inflation is tied to oil prices, and I do not believe that we will return to inflation at least until 2015, as we first have to see a reduction in oil prices below $60, a pull back in oil exploration, and a re-energizing of the global economy. Without those three factors, we will not see a return to inflation. If we had a manufacturing base to speak of int he United States, it might be a different story with the economy having a more robust recovery. As it is now, we will not see a return to pre-recession levels of employment until 2018 at the earliest. You can check out the analysis from which that deduction is drawn here: http://bit.ly/USEmployment

        • I don’t know exactly when the debt that is currently out there will implode. Rising interest rates would be one fairly quick way to make it implode. Not raising the debt ceiling would also tend to work that way. We are working in a short time frame–months to a couple of years, I would guess.

  24. David Gower says:

    I really like how Timothy phrased it, “…brute facts of our current predicament.”.

    Saudi rumblings may advance the timeline relative to petrodollars/debt financing, etc issues.

    Per Gail’s comments regarding maintenance factor/costs of Wind turbines: I have tried very hard to get people in the industry to provide the maintenance repair cost factor information without success. Maybe they don’t want people to know since tax money is obligated for ten years under the current subsidy program.

    Regarding Solar PV – Some thin film technology may have 50+ year life and have better sustainability characteristics than crystaline technology.

    Regarding EVs – They do provide a “common denominator” so to speak in that all electric generation types can be used interchangeably for the light transportation function. They also have potential to have a longer life than ICE vehicles (if the current battery technology is ignored).

    • I will get back to you on that- a friend [his surname is Breeze- made for the job] used to work for Vesta and now Siemans on the local wind farms- one is now 20 years old and was the largest at the time with around 200 turbines. I shall hunt down some insider knowledge.

    • Chris Johnson says:

      To David Gower:
      Sir, I have read some reports / articles that scouring by sand and dust cause serious deterioration of solar panel efficiency.
      Re EV’s, they are very slowly expanding sales — along with hybrids. The impact will be minor at first, but reduced demand for gasoline, even marginally, will be a major result. Note that this year Tesla sold more cars in California than several other major brands.

    • Regarding wind maintenance costs, Google offers some articles.

      One issue I see is that it will be very difficult to keep up repairs on wind turbines, so they will quickly become unable to deliver power. (Repairs are not something a person can do with small tools and local materials.) This will especially be the case on offshore wind turbines. They often require helicopters to access the wind turbines. I found it interesting that this article says:

      The blades are usually made from composite materials such as fibreglass reinforced plastic (see Figure 1) with an expected useful lifetime of twenty years. However, in offshore wind farms, the useful lifetime of a blade is significantly shorter than its expected lifetime. The reason is that the blades are “stressed” in a harsh maritime environment and extreme weather conditions and suffer from different types of damages (such as wear, fatigue, deterioration, crack, corrosion, and erosion) [13].

      With Solar PV, we need to distinguish on-grid from off-grid. Solar PV on grid needs an inverter, and the inverters have a short lifetime–less than 10 years, I believe. Off grid, the usefulness of solar PV may be limited by the length of time the applications it is running are available.

  25. Timothy says:

    In response to Stilgar, ” I think the techno-cornucopians are in for a rude awakening.”

    All of the necessary data is in, whether in regards to resources, or the side effects of there extraction (Pollution, depletion).

    The problem is that most people have become quite accustomed to the recent phenomenon of ‘Just In Time’ solutions. So much in fact, that they are blinded to the brute facts of our current predicament.

    I constantly have to remind myself that they are deluded and not me as I am scolded or snubbed for being too negative. I consider it my duty as a conscious human to express the reality when people get excited about ridiculous wastes of energy like the new high speed train project in California.

    This project will cost billions and in ten years or less CA will not have the resources to service it, let alone power it. They are already dependent on much of their electricity from other parts of the nation.

    Not to be too down on the religious (sorry as this will be offensive to you), but since people can still believe in fairy tale explanations for our existence and incompetent, jealous father figures that live in the sky, I have know problem understanding how people can so easily dismiss the seriousness of our current situation on planet earth.

    • Denis Frith says:

      People can easily dismiss the seriousness of the situation because they have not been taught the fundamental physical principles that govern all tangible operations, natural and those of the systems of civilization. They are conditioned to believe in the power of intangible money, much of which has been conjured out of thin air this century. The bewildered population will slowly learn that the technological systems that provide the goods and services they have become so dependent on use an unsustainable process to irreversibly divest natural material and wealth and produce irrevocable waste material while devastating the environment. Money will become impotent as reality strkes hard.

      • I think that there is a second part of this as well. There are a fair number of peak oil folks who go the opposite extreme. Their view is that all that matters is what is in the ground, and the fact that we have the technology to get it out. The fact that it is too expensive to get out is not an issue. If there is some problem with the money system (say all banks are closed, so no one can get paid), they don’t see that as a problem either. Somehow, everything will work out without money, or in spite of money.

        Part of the confusion lies with not understanding the networked nature of the system. If a necessary supplier is out of business (perhaps for financial reasons), this may cause production to stop.

    • In relation to technology as a saviour [and I am pragmatic yet slightly optimistic and no TC] we are metaphorically a plane crashing in the wilderness.
      Assuming many survive the crash- some will vote and wait to be rescued [eating the last of the inflight meals to survive, others decide to pursue an escape route- and there is the issue- the tricky route over the mountains may be the best way and another across the open plain may lead to danger.

      Technology as to what tools proved most useful is a rear view mirror job. Betamax was so much better than VHS: Also in the limited period of abundance -only half the oil is gone- we have no idea what will spawn what: The industrial revolution was helped greatly by the invention of the gun lathe- the problem was exploding cannons but it solved the problem of small energy efficient steam engines. [likewise superglue wasn’t invented to do emergency stitches].

      California’s dilemma [the UK has it’s own with nuclear and HS2] is what is going to work- do you have the answer? My brother back in the 90s was on a good wage but would not buy a house- he believed the prices would crash- 20 years later there is no crash and he still rents. If only hindsight could be turned into foresight.

      If people only offer in-action then they are offering no solution at all.

    • If we are going to make trains, what we need is the least expensive, easiest to fix, trains there can be. Ideally, they should run on any fuel available–including coal or wood. I am not even convinced these simple trains make sense. By the time we finally get them up and running we will have run out of the ability to keep them fixed. But I agree, expensive bullet trains don’t make sense. They won’t work for long, so can never payback their huge initial costs.

      • Denis Frith says:

        It is quite remarkable that the prime consideration with regard to proposals such as the bullet train refers to the (financial) cost rather than the more pertinent ecological cost. In addition, little consideration is given to the possibility of being able to replace them when they inevitably wear out. When wiil those who make decisions about such proposals wake up to physical reality. I expect they realistically appraise their health but for some incomprehensible reason thay do not take into account how the systems of civlization how tangible systems really operate. They seem to believe intangible money can do everything!

        • I don’t think bullet trains even have to wear out to stop working. It is Liebig’s Law of the Minimum that causes the problem–irreplaceable essential parts, or financial problems of the operator, or lack of fuel (electricity), or inability of potential riders to afford tickets.

  26. Chloe says:

    Great article, Gail! One of your best….and the comments are quite interesting also!

    As I was reading some of the above comments on renewables, I was reminded of a statement on solar energy that I heard recently (might have actually been from you, Gail). Note that I’m paraphrasing here:

    “When I see a SOLAR panel whose parts and assembly have been manufactured using only SOLAR energy, then I might consider solar power panels renewable. And that test should be applied to every “renewable”.”

    I agree with that statement. The question is, are any “renewables” currently really renewalble? I’d say not. Can you build complete nuclear power plants using electrical power just from nuclear power? Uh, BTW, that also means mining for uranium and transporting it using only electricity from “renewable” resources. Switchgrass to ethanol? Uh, now they say it will probably need “nitrogen” supplements (i.e., commercial fertilizers from natural gas) to achieve a profitable net energy ratio (i.e., enough easily extractable cellulose in the refining process)….oh, and you don’t mind food prices rising, do you? Switch grass does need farmland. And solar panels? Uh…ever see a rare earth metals mining operation? Think you can run that mining operation with just solar power? Sigh….and so it goes. What’s the solution? I don’t know…my head hurts already. But one thing I do know….you name it and somebody, somewhere is working on it. But they aren’t applying the “renewables” postulate above….and, IMO, few seem to be applying the KISS principle very well either. And, believe me, we’ll need KISS in the future.

    Not to say that I’m not “for” renewable energy. It’s just that all these supposed renewables are stopgap measures….perhaps helpful for individuals to bridge the gap when oil/gas systems start to short out…but not a permanent or systemic solution…at least so far.

    BTW, Gail had a great article on renewables a while back, but I can’t find the link to it…perhaps Gail could supply it? (She talks renewables a lot better than me!).

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “The question is, are any “renewables” currently really renewable?”

      The closest I can come up with is using biofuel to produce biofuel. I can do it, and I’m no rocket scientist. But even this comes with the help of the considerable embedded energy of diesel engines and other metal bits.

      I’m under no illusion that anything can allow us to continue our current life-style, but biofuel-sourced biofuel might be a transition strategy to a lower energy future. If they’re well-cared for, the life of diesel tractors and steel field equipment could see us through to a transition to animal power. My calculations indicate a direct† ERoEI of about 1:16 — one acre of oilseed could produce enough fuel for mechanized cultivation of another sixteen acres. I note that the ERoEI of a horse or oxen is not much different.

      A “prosperous way down” strategy might include numerous low-tech systems such as these. They won’t let us continue “business as usual,” but they may buy us time in transition.

      †Yes, of course, such a calculation does not include the production and maintenance of diesel tractors and steel farm implements, but if those are already sunken investments, the transition to even lower-energy methods could take place during the useful lifetime of those artifacts.

      • the interesting factor on what acreage can deliver what energy might refer us all back to Henry Ford himself.
        Ford came from the horse-powered era in its literal sense, he was basically a tinkerer with no concept of what motorised transport would bring to the world
        His original vehicle concept was intended to run on (literally) moonshine, because an acre or two of land could produce several hundred gallons of it, at a time when no other source of fuel of that type could be readily obtained. There were few adequate roads, so no long distance road travel was feasible.
        Ford himself said that ethanol was the ‘fuel of the future’. It was not until 1910 that gasoline production exceeded ethanol production. The first diesel engine ran on peanut oil. To say that we can power even a fraction of our present infrastructure that way is also moonshine.
        Ford didn’t have to worry about billions of people waiting for him to perfect his ideas so their lives could carry on as usual, which is where we are right now.
        Onto the second part of my comment:
        Is there any way we can rid ourselves (on here at least) of this insane notion of ‘transition through to animal power? Please?
        Any draft animal needs at least 2 acres for its energy source, You wont be able to buy hay from somewhere else.
        Not only that, you can’t stuff grass in a horse’s mouth and expect it to carry on ploughing your field or whatever indefinitely like pouring diesel into a tractor. It needs to rest for at least as long as it works–probably longer depending on conditions.
        Look at that date again, 1910. We started burning gasoline in earnest when the population was under 2 billion, now its 7 billion. The correlation is exact and the meaning is brutal. Without gasoline we feed 2 billion, maybe a lot less because the other 5 billion won’t go gently into that good night. When any resource goes into short supply, what’s left is fought over.
        We will return to animal power—if we’re lucky, but the transition isn’t going to return us gently to an era of bucolic peasantry. Collectively speaking, people under threat are not nice to each other. If you doubt that, check what’s happening in the middle east. They have resource shortages, religious differences are just smokescreens for what’s really going on. They also enjoy killing each other.

        • xabier says:

          Transition to animal power is a nonsense, at least in advanced economies, I agree – quite simply, the breeding stock isn’t there. The old draught animals were the result of centuries (in the case of mules, millenia) of breeding and training (no easy thing to manage the good health of these beasts!)

          These magnificent animals were mostly taken out and shot for dogmeat when farms went over to petrol after WW2. My great-grandfather had a stable of about 90 carriage horses, all gone by 1912. There’s no winding back of the clock.

          When the Roman cities and towns folded, the rural environment continued largely unchanged. We do not have that fall-back option.

          Hunting dogs, however, have been continuously bred for thousands of years, as they have served the interests of hunters, gamblers (greyhounds) and the rich for all that time, and are still in good shape. I think we could breed draught-dogs – once very common – quite rapidly, but in England at least they are now illegal.

          Hard to take a right turn, when we have taken so many wrong ones……..

          • I must get a mini plough for my Chihuhuaha. (no spelling of that looks right) at least my window box will then be productive. Provided he doesn’t fall off when he comes to the end of each furrow of course.
            if your g grandfather had that many horses, he would also have had an army of servants to look after them. and also bought in hundreds of tons of feed, and disposed of hundreds of tons of excrement. Servants were also the energy source. You should investigate their rates of pay.
            People harking back to the ‘old days’ blank out the muscle power needed to keep it going. City streets were literally coated with solid coagulated horse shit.
            We’ve now moved over to electricity and gasoline to get our work done

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            You are missing my point in your usual pre-occupation with the miseries of the past which we we all know but which are often exaggerated in a melodramatic way, it wasn’t all serfs and masters with whips. Admit it, for you the future is black, and the past even blacker…..

            Anyway, my point was that big heavy dogs were used for load-pulling in Europe (and I imagine the US?) into the beginning of the 20th century. Then they were eliminated by a combination of welfare legislation and the combustion engine. But they could surely be revived: we have big dogs, and just need to breed carefully from them. Photos exist showing the kinds of harnesses and carts that suit them.

            The bigger draught animals are more problematic.

            As for servants: clever ones knew how to steal from their masters!

          • xabier and Jan
            our forbears had a miserable existence (by our standards) which was only alleviated by the widespread availability of fossil fuels, nothing else.
            I knew my grandfathers cottage, it was tiny and had had 9 kids crammed into it somewhere. That was commonplace. I live in a warm nice house that they wouldn’t recognise. Grandad walked to the pit, I drive a Merc.
            No they weren’t forced to work with whips, but by the simple expedient of starving if they didn’t
            I have at least 5 generations of coalminers behind me, so I know something about fossil fuel extraction first hand and the near-slave labour needed to get hold of it.
            The dog usage thing has me mystified, the prime use of animal muscle has always been to help us obtain more energy–hunting/ploughing/harvesting and so on. Dogs will only run on meat-power btw. Which makes them a three stage energy source. (grass, grazing animal, dog) unless the dog is used to hunt meat
            I am doubting the viability of an easy transition to animal muscle use, because animal power cannot deliver the agricultural output that tractor power can. The problem as I see it, is that the vast majority of people seem to think that a transition back to animal power is somehow going to deliver what we have now, food etc.
            It isn’t, and just as we have deniers of all the other stuff, we have deniers of that too.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “our forbears had a miserable existence (by our standards)”

              I can’t agree. It was different, for sure, but we’re in the habit of “more is better.” Current happiness research seems to indicate that happiness is largely independent of physical conditions. Maslow teaches us that we really only need to meet very basic needs in order to thrive and be happy. And of course, we all know of people who are rich and miserable.

              Do people buy big houses because they don’t want to be crowded? I think they buy big houses because they’ve bought into the lie that therein lies the best return on investment. My partner raised “9 kids crammed into” a small house. Her kids describe it as a wonderful way to grow up.

              Perhaps “walking to the pit” had more to do with your grandfather’s “miserable existence;” my partner farmed, and while they were by all standards, “poor,” they always had food on the table and never felt deprived.

              I know nothing of your situation, but in my experience, the further one is from the land, the more one tends to think of the past as “miserable.” That’s why I spend a lot of effort encouraging people to get closer to the land now, while there’s room for mistakes. I have no doubt that life is about to get “miserable” for many people, but it need not be that way.

            • It is at least pleasant to work outside in a garden–certainly compared to working in a coal mine. Dave Summers of The Oil Drum worked in a coal mine in his younger years, and had many relatives before him who worked in coal mines. He talks about working hunched over in the dark. That would not be very pleasant.

          • xabier says:

            End of More

            Like many people in the developed (ruined) world you, understandably, view the past through the lens provided by the 19th and 20th century exploitation of human labour in the industrial system. Life was indeed terrible for the working poor – like miners – who had no land, no property, no rights and were wage labourers, Always exploited, always in fear of sudden death, terrible injury or being laid-off and left to starve or go to an inhuman and un-Christian institution. Their rightful sense of injustice still lingers. (One of my greatest friends comes from an old mining/mill-working family and he left to join the army after seeing a truly horrifying accident – he’d rather be shot at by Arabs in Aden and Northern Ireland !).

            Of course, this all helped create a large middle class who were cosily housed and comfortable, and helped the aristocrats build even bigger palaces for themselves (I have always regarded the mansions of families like the Sitwell’s and the Lascelles (mine owners in the UK) as being built with blood-money and a disgrace) and to develop their Empire.

            Housing conditions in the over-crowded cities were also left fester for a hundred years before the middle class reformers decided to help the poor with decent living conditions. And until governments softened in the face of revolutionary threats and the appreciation that better-fed workers would be more useful in imperial wars……

            However, step back a little and we can see a different world which preceded the industrialized and urbanized economy: very hierarchical, often barbarously violent, priest-ridden (but is that worse than manager-ridden?) not as comfortable as today, – how could it be? – but in many ways more human and more palatable. We might shudder, but that’s just hindsight and anachronism.

            I work with my hands as a book restorer, and at any time from the Roman Empire onwards my working conditions and status would have been very acceptable – probably very nice indeed in a Benedictine monastery! – with a sudden decline in the 19th century, unless I happened to be the Master of a workshop – things got much worse for journeymen in the industrial age, with longer hours and low pay, having lost the independence and ability to settle their own terms which skilled men always enjoyed in the ages we call ‘primitive.’

            In short: they still had fun in the 12th century.

            • Denis Frith says:

              Tainter in “TheCollapse of Complex Societies” provides well researched insight into the complex nature of the operations of societies in many civilizations. Many of the issues were similar to the ones mentioned in the post. However, today’s industrial civilization differs from those he considered in one dominant feature. Vast infrastruture has been built by irreversibly using resources out of the crustal store to supply the necessary energy and materials. That is an unsustainable process. Consequently, the demise of this infrastructure is certain while the population will dieoff to some extent. The issues that Tainter discussed will doubtless have an impact to some extent but it is to be hoped that some wisdom does surface to ease the inevitable powering down.

          • xabier
            It’s important to cover this energy use/who owns and uses it thing with the broad brush of history.
            First off, all our energy sources are drawn from the land, or from under it, one way or another.
            That land has been owned by a ruling class / looting class until our modern era. (think invading armies, settlement, tribal laws etc)
            I suppose the fundamental mistake lies in regarding land as private property, but that came about when the land (and thus the energy sources of the nation) was largely acquired by force of arms, (1066 invasion), by people who held on to it for centuries. (Many still do) The great houses of the mine owners were a direct offshoot of medieval castles of the previous era, both were constructed by drawing energy from the land and using muscle power to convert it into wealth.
            (We see the same thing happening, say, in Saudi, where the royal family own the prime energy source, and exploit it. Its the same situation, huge useless vanity buildings etc)
            The energy obtained from that land came via the hands of agricultural labourers who made up over 90% of the population. Their life expectation was around 30/40 years. That is your measure of life’s pleasure or otherwise given in broad terms. They did not live a life of bucolic bliss and keel over at 40.
            Their surplus energy supported everyone not concerned with food production, so you could have arts and crafts, kings and jesters. But not without the excess from the land. The benedictine monks exploited the gullible with the same determination as Bernie Madoff. (You cannot build a cathedral without spare food supplies and a belief that it will bring you some benefit in the future)
            As I’ve pointed out before, the great civilsations of the world grew around the line of the great food producing areas of the world. Eskimos never built cities, not enough spare food.
            Medieval people no doubt had happiness on their terms, my point throughout this exchange is to try to stress that reverting to pre-industry is going to make us most unhappy. We cannot ‘unlearn’ things we know about, and disregard them. We will know that diseases can be cured, but we will not have the industrial base to do it.
            It is an unfortunate result of our commercial system that we can now loot with our minds as easily as muscle now, but it still leaves millions disadvantaged among the less intellectually gifted.

          • I understand that the draft animals should be “right sized” for the job, so they don’t eat way too much relative to what they produce. Most of the horses we have today are too large, compared to what was used at one time in the past. A fellow from Finland that I talked to was trying to find draft horses that would work there, and the problem was finding small enough ones. In a better climate, perhaps bigger ones could be used.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Is there any way we can rid ourselves (on here at least) of this insane notion of ‘transition through to animal power? Please?”

          EoM goes on to describe the challenges and necessity of animal-powered agriculture, so I’m a bit confused as to what he’s asking for here.

          Are you doubting the necessity of returning to animal-powered agriculture, or the notion of a low-tech transition to such?

    • Thanks, Chloe. Chloe lives in the Atlanta area also, so I see her at “Atlanta Beyond Oil” meetings.

      No, I don’t know of any renewables that can be made from other renewables or themselves. In fact, it is hard to see that they ever could do so.

      Regarding renewables articles I have written, here several:

      Renewables – Good for some things, not so good for others

      Obstacles Facing US Wind Energy

      Some cautionary thoughts about wind

      What are the problems with using corn ethanol for fuel?

      Corn Based Ethanol: Is this a solution? (From 2007)

  27. Stilgar Wilcox says:

    “In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.”

    I suggested just such a scenario on The Oil Drum back in 08 and was read the riot act by a so called expert at the time, that I did not understand supply & demand, i.e. the basics of economics. In reality I have a business degree and several economics classes were part of the curriculum. My point was the economy can only support high oil prices if incomes rise with oil price, which of course they cannot because the higher the oil price the lower the profits and wages. So thanks for completing the loop on that dated exchange.

    Right now the fabric of society is being held together with bailing wire and duck tape (rising debt and QE) but at some point those efforts will either need to be curtailed or they will run their course. In any event, when artificial support wanes we will enter another recession, an economic step-down, and with it dropping oil price. I’ve even noticed oil price dropping recently in step with warning signs about employment and the overall economy.

    Dropping oil price will be the worse kind of news because it will greatly reduce marginal oil sources with supply dropping but worse of all exploration will be forced to curtail many operations. As an infinite resource one would presume oil price would rise with reduced supply, but it is a finite resource that is increasingly difficult to attain with lower price causing supply to dwindle.

    I think we are currently on a precarious edge. However, there are posters like Rune Lukvern at peakoil.com that are certain we will be saved by thorium reactors, cold fusion, hot fusion, fuel cells, etc. that will somehow replace oil as it depletes from a peak he suggests will not occur until around 2030. I think the techno-cornucopians are in for a rude awakening.

    There’s also scuttle-butt rumors circulating that the Fed under Yellin will opt to raise QE. Might as well raise a white flag if that happens.

    • Thanks for writing. Needless to say, my views haven’t been terribly well received by many of The Oil Drum staff, either. That was indirectly the reason I went back to writing on Our Finite World in 2010, and let them copy as much or as little as they pleased. My views have pretty much withstood the test of time, and readership keeps rising. The Oil Drum has stopped publishing new posts.

      I think your “bailing wire and duct tape” analogy for rising debt and QE holding together the economy is a good one. Many people don’t seem to understand this. Rising interest rates, however they come, will be a huge problem. Already, today’s WSJ reports, Mortgage Declines Spread the Pain: Bank of America, Other Lenders Cut Thousands of Jobs as Refinancing Slows and Bad Loans Shrink. When interest rates drop, this allows for refinancing. Borrowers often take additional money out to spend. Even if they don’t they generally end up with lower monthly payments, so that their spendable income is lower. This is one of many effects of low interest rates that is propping up the economy. As interest rates rise, even a little, this effect turns around. Rising interest rates are likely to cause huge problems all around the economy, when they occur.

      You might be right about Yellin raising QE. At some point, the whole charade has to come to a halt.

  28. dashui says:

    Cuba was in the best position possible, the autocratic government recognized the problem, brought in Australian permaculture experts, pulled out some oxen, legalized farmers markets, attempted to become self sufficient in food, doctors had to grow their own food, led the old die, ….. But self sufficiency didn’t happen, they are still dependent on imported food and energy donations from the UN and others.
    My father went there 10 years ago, he liked it, but he said electricity is rationed every day.

    North Korea discovered that high yield grains would not work in the absence of irrigation and chemical inputs. It seems that the genes that make a plant high yielding reduce its robustness in many ways. The NK had to go back to using lower yield heirloom plants. One of my friends who went there said he saw truckloads of soldiers being driven to work in the fields with hand tools. A doctor I know went to a commoner’s hospital there and said NK uses old beer bottles for IV bottles.

    • Thanks for the information. I know a National Geographic article is the last year or so talks about the rising need for food imports in Cuba.

      The impression one gets is that the Permaculture solutions were to some extent helpful, in that they helped the country grow more fruits and vegetables in the cities. But even these depend on irrigation, so aren’t really permanent solutions. The fixes never really solved the basic problem of getting enough food for the people.

      Cuba has a favorable climate and quite a bit of arable land per capita, so it would seem to be in a better position than most to be self-sufficient on little energy inputs.

    • edpell says:

      Dashui, thanks for the info on NK. It is disturbing and may be a view of our future.

  29. Don Stewart says:

    Here is a thought about the danger of debt, when coupled with an unrealistically rosy view of the future.

    The price one is willing to pay for an asset is a function of one’s expected future cash flows. If one expects to be doing financially better in the future, then what makes sense is to pay more for an asset today than one would pay if one assumed a steady state or falling income. So too big a house and too expensive a car are bought, and one overpays for an investment in rental property. If the reality is that we are now engaged in a downward trend in terms of economic prosperity (whether the trend be sharply down or gently down), then one is unlikely to be able to pay for the overpriced asset such as a house or car and one is unlikely to get the rents one expected from the rental property.

    In terms of fracked oil and gas wells, if one expects steadily rising oil and gas prices, then one will spend the money today to frack the wells, but the money will never be returned if poor economic conditions drive down the price of oil and gas.

    So we can see that the availability of cheap debt along with unrealistic expectations regarding future economic prosperity result in current economic activity which actually wastes money. The value of the assets held by our society is not what we think it is.

    For the past couple of hundred years, the assumption of greater economic prosperity in the future has generally come true. If the assumption now becomes only rarely true, then the delusion is causing us to squander current efforts to build assets which have less value than we think they do. The physical economy still works on current natural resources and labor, but the resources and labor are being misallocated to projects which are not worth the natural resources and labor expended. We have misallocation of resources. The misallocation of resources hurts us because, with the sad state of the natural world, the misallocation tends to further degrade the natural world and also because we could instead be directing the current resources toward restoring the natural world.

    If one assumes that economic decline is our future, then investing in expensive ‘renewable’ energies is a misallocation of resources. While investing in passive solar heating and earth insulation cooling probably both make eminent sense.

    So the crime that the Central Banks are committing is to foster the further degradation of the Earth that sustains us and to discourage efforts to restore the productivity of the Earth.

    Don Stewart

    • Those are good points.

      Everyone makes the assumption that somehow things will work out–they will be able to afford the too expensive house and car. And investments in oil and gas are based on a combination of today’s low interest rates and the expectation that prices will probably rise. (In the case of natural gas, the assumption is made that they will be able to export to countries that seem to be paying a higher price. However, these countries are skating at the edge of recession themselves. Whether they will really be able to afford the high gas price when the export terminals get built is not clear.

      The profits of oil companies were down this year in the US.

      In Europe, the electric utilities were doing terribly this year. The Economist has an article about European Utilities titled, How to lose half a trillion Euros–Europe’s electricity providers face an existential threat. This has to do with the way renewables are being favored in the pricing system.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Thinking a little more along these lines.

        We frequently hear that ‘running debts burdens future generations’, but a point I have made frequently is that bankruptcy laws are made to deal with unpayable debts. IF the bankruptcy process is working smoothly, unpayable debts vanish and the loser is the person who lent the money or invested in the business.

        But misallocation of capital is forever. If someone should have been investing in carbon farming to both sequester carbon and avoid some of the penalties of global warming, and also to increase the fertility of the soil, but instead puts their efforts into things such as building ghost cities or ever grander freeway systems, then the wasted resources can never be regained. Future generations suffer from the misallocations of previous generations. For example, if Kunstler is correct that suburbs are a fatal misallocation (I’m not sure of that), then all future generations suffer.

        If we think about the investments our children, looking back from the year 2025, would have liked for us to have made, it doesn’t seem like we are making very many of them. Consequently, we would have to say that most current investments are wasted. Our leaders who tell us cornucopian stories (if only we will trust them) are to blame.

        Don Stewart

        • I think you are right on “the misallocation of capital” is forever issue. People have their heads in the sand with respect to our current problems, and couldn’t even imagine how we might prepare. Meanwhile, we spend huge amounts of money not on only on ever-grander freeway systems, but also on educating young people about topics that are irrelevant for the future. We could be teaching them techniques that would be helpful. We could even be thinking about how reorganization might work, and what steps have to be taken in that direction.

  30. edpell says:

    There is nothing I like about North Korea.

    North Korea seems to be a place that is living within the limits of local resources(?). We might learn by studying it. They have the growing population problem just as any human (animal) society has. Their solution seems to be let the people at the bottom of the social hierarchy starve to death. There are some basic questions like what percent of the population is lost per year due to starvation and what is the age distribution and social distribution?

    What does North Korea do for energy? Oil/coal from China? Local coal?

    • North Korea’s is a country whose energy consumption per capita has dropped a lot, since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its energy consumption per capita isn’t terribly low by world standards (33.677 million Btu per person in 2010). For example, India was 18.865 in the same year; Haiti was 3.210; Ethiopia was 1.590; Somalia was 1.151. China’s per capita energy consumption was 71.299 in 2010, but it was at North Korea’s level in 2001.

      I think that part of North Korea’s problem is that its per capita energy consumption used to be a lot higher, and dropped after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. North Korea’s energy consumption per capita was 86.245 per capita in 1985, but dropped to 56.388 in 1993 and 33.794 in 1998. It has a lot of buildings and roads to maintain, but doesn’t have the resources to do it. It is fairly cold, so needs energy for heat as well.

      The energy used is mostly coal produced in North Korea. North Korea seems to export a little of its coal as well.

      By the way, the energy consumption per capita for Cuba in the same years was as follows: 1985, 48.098; 1993, 34.517; 1998, 40.964; 2010, 36.038. Cuba is a lot warmer country though, so doesn’t need energy for winter heat.

      The above amounts are EIA data. BP doesn’t give data for small countries, such as these countries.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, I guess the next question is when do they hit peak local coal?

        • North Korea’s coal production was highest in 1988. In fact, it seems to follow the approximately the same curve as the Former Soviet Union energy production–a big dip starting even before the collapse of the FSU, except they their production doesn’t pick up later. Without looking into this, it is hard to tell what is going on. Is it peak local coal? Or is it lack of industry because of lack of oil, that cuts back in need for coal as well? My guess is that it is mostly the later.

      • Wim Weber says:

        This is a side note, but interesting: the Cuban people actually were healthier when they were in economic hardship:

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Wim
          Many years ago I saw a documentary about Cuba with a title something like ‘How the Cubans Got Their Paunch Back’. Seems that a belly was a sign of prosperity, and they had all become very lean. The agricultural changes following the Soviet exit gave them, after a few years, their paunch back. But it is well established that belly fat promotes inflammation, and inflammation is a root promoter of most chronic diseases.

          Don Stewart

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “But it is well established that belly fat promotes inflammation, and inflammation is a root promoter of most chronic diseases.”

            Correlation is not causation. Do you have a reference for that?

            I’ve read that inflammation and “apple shape” have common causes in diet.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Jan
              I don’t have a reference. I have heard quite a few doctors say that ‘fat is an endocrine gland’. As such, it generates cytokines which cause inflammation. Fat around the organs is more dangerous than subcutaneous fat (which insulates us). Many of our organs are in the belly area.

              I’ve basically taken the statements as true…but I surely have not put some sort of meter reading on belly fat. Nor would I recognize a cytokine if it walked down the street.

              Don Stewart

            • I think the problem can work both ways at once.

        • I can very much believe that the Cuban people were healthier when they were forced to lose weight (eat less, exercise more). The poor US health standing is at least partly related to too much weight, thanks to too much/wrong kind of food, too little exercise.

  31. I think we have to face facts: the Earth has recognised humanity as a plague species, and is usinf heat wind and water to get rid of us, or at least our excess numbers

  32. David Gower says:

    “Virtually no one understands our complex problems. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we fix our problems, none of which make sense:”

    There is not ONE silver bullet. I don’t know if it is a human tendency or more here in the U.S.A./west or what, but the idea there is one magic “solution” is repeated over and over currently and throughout the very recent history. And complex does = interrelated! A lack of a “big picture understanding or overview” is particularly apparent in regards to economics.

    Gail, I don’t know how you can show the affects on a chart how much we humans are shooting ourselves in the foot over and over again. There is a certain “interference or friction” with the true economic and physical situations caused by human/social/governance factors at work. The difficulties of physical finite realities and economics have become accentuated more than they should due to lack of timely responses. It doesn’t take 5 years to decide if it is in the national interest of the U.S.A. to build the KeystoneXL pipeline. A decision we made in the eighties to extend our available oil with ethanol doesn’t have to live forever even when our situation has changed and unintended consequences have become apparent.

    I find it interesting that the internet has made so much information available to everyone yet we are more “decision paralyzed” than ever. The interpretation/filtering/slanting/propagandizing of internet information has been left to we lowly humans in our free societies. Group/committee decisions (democracy?) take longer to materialize than in an autocratic sovereign nation or Kingdom I suppose. It would have been / could still be beneficial if an “energy policy” could somehow be crafted. Or some reasonable “living” outline thereof.

    There is a possibility that methanol may become part of our energy mix.

    • The big policy change that is really needed is to get families to have fewer children, and work on getting other countries to reduce population. This is not something that is not possibly going to happen, though.

      • collectively speaking, humanity is programmed to have as may offspring as possible.

      • SG says:

        I wonder. Maybe financial decline is achieving this already.
        Japan is Deflation Central and appears to have a birth rate below the replacement threshold. And I think that’s also true for some states in Europe, which make up for it with open door immigration.
        So perhaps it’s a self-limiting system.
        And perhaps a declining birth rate is an effective proxy to measure the degree to which growth through state stimulus policies is illusory.

        • you could be right, for prosperous nations—on the other hand the birth rates across much of Africa is terrifying, they are the countries least able to support doubling numbers
          Nigeria’s is 3.3% meaning it will double in 22 years. Nigeria is already a basket case. other nations show similar rates.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            EOM: FYI, Africa’s population doubled to 1 Billion from 1960 to 2010, and is expected to double again in the next 40 years. There are some cases better than Nigeria. Nobody expected Angola’s GDP to grow at 15%, but that’s what’s happened the last few years, largely from oil. A few others are also doing well, but too many are still basket cases, as you said, and not expected to produce much other than refugees. The Chinese are well ensconced and extracting all they can as fast as they can, including deep forests that might never grow back. Maybe they can teach the Africans how to poison/pollute their soil, as they buy up African farms. And while the World Bank holds its nose, the Pentagon is the only USG agency with any heft trying to counter the Chinese influx. What a world!
            Cordially, Chris

      • Chris Johnson says:

        Gail: There’s a bit of a mis-correlation between your ‘fewer babies now’ ideas and your economic analyses wherein the ‘penalized’ society gets doubly penalized, as in ‘carbon taxes.’ Do we need more third world immigrants flocking to ‘rich world’ countries due to population vacuums? Or should we be as strict as the Japanese (though unable to replicate the insularity) , or as unfriendly as the Russians, in order to thwart migrants dreams?
        I believe most astute demographers agree that after societies reach a certain economic level they naturally begin reducing population growth. Surely that’s what happened in Japan, Taiwan and Korea, among others.
        Inchoate calls for ‘fewer babies right now!’ will not solve the human over-population problem but will cause plenty of others.
        Cordially, Chris

        • I am not convinced the rushing around to fill population vacuums will really happen. It seems to me that it is people from low energy consumption countries moving to higher energy consumption countries, to increase their standard of living. Once there is a big drop in energy consumption in the higher energy consumption countries, there will be a lot less point in moving there. There may be no one to make gardens (without fossil fuels) for the many elderly people, but without reasonable pay for the work, no one is going to want to take up the job. If there were good paying jobs, that would be a different matter.

          • xabier says:

            Latinos are leaving Spain en masse as the economy collapses, as they can get work and have family in their home countries, but not Arabs, Africans and Eastern Europeans (I think that’s a euphemism for gypsies!). Arabs are undercutting native workers ferociously as they need to eat.

    • Denis Frith says:

      A copious amount of sound information is available on: * the amount of a vast range of irreplaceable natural resources (fossil fuels, minerals, phosphorus, aquifer water, etc) that have already been used up and estimates of the reserves remaining * the problems of storing material waste in landfill, including the ecological and economic costs * the pollution problems created by the production of this material waste – climate change, ocean acidification, pollution of land, sea, air and organisms (including human beings) * degradation of natural resources such as arable land, soil fertility, rivers, forests etc at a rate far in excess of their ability to recover naturally * extinction of flora and fauna species that play an important role in natural operations * the vast infrastructure of civilization (cities, roads, bridges, tunnels, sewerage systems etc) that consumes natural resources for their operation and maintenance during their limited lifetime Society, however, is not connecting these dots so in the main continues to pursue economic growth regardless of the consequences.

  33. dolph says:

    In retrospect it was the production and widespread distribution of fossil fuel burning machines that got us into trouble in the first place.

    When we are going to grow up and learn to live in balance?

    Other sources of energy will have their role, sure, but they aren’t to keep industrial civilization going and quite frankly that’s a good thing. Our future is one of contraction and it is a necessary one. We shouldn’t grow the system, and destroy the planet, just to pay back these fake debts.

    It’s very frustrating to live in a world in which almost all concepts are basically wrong.

    • I agree with you with respect to

      It’s very frustrating to live in a world in which almost all concepts are basically wrong.

      It is amazing that we have gotten as far off base as we have. The Economist had an article recently about most scientific research being published probably being wrong. It is a lot worse than that. It is endless wrong theories that recycle themselves.

      • Denis Frith says:

        I have been a physical scientist for many decades so I do not like to recognize the the myopia of science. I find it ironic that society proclaims the value of scientists advancing the frontiers of knowledge. The reality, of course, is that scientists are improving their knowledge of how natural forces have operated for eons. They have yet to convince society at large that the operation of the systems of civilization entails the irreversible consumption of limited, irreplaceable natural resources and the irrevocable production of material waste. This failing of scientists is doubtless due to focusing on their specialist field rather than on the holistic scenario.

        • Timothy says:

          This also reminds me of another quote that I have forgotten. However the gist is that they aren’t going to make money using science to negate our way of life. Instead, the profit is in maintaining the illusion.

        • Part of the problem is that that part of the story is depressing. As another reader mentioned,

          As Jay Hanson put it, “Our present economic system is… little more than a well-organized method for converting natural resources into garbage.”

          • Denis Frith says:

            Of course it is depressing because people hope that their life style is sustainable. They become depressed when they understand that the operation of industrialized civilization is not sustainable. But that is the reality. Smart people will rise to the challenge of powering down as painlessly as possible. They will not hope or be depressed as they focus on being pragmatic.

        • timl2k11 says:

          Yes, many scientists I have great respect for don’t ever seem to bother for a second to think about our finite world. Perhaps reality represents an existential dilemma to them, as the decline of surplus energy and the contraction of the economy will nix a lot of scientific exploration and research. Right now, I put the odds of the James Webb Space Telescope ever actually getting into space at <10%. It is scheduled to launch in 2018 (that will surely be pushed back) and is already 8-12 times as expensive then originally planned. I think there is little room for doubt that our economy will be much worse in 2018 then it is now. I think a lot of astronomers and cosmologists would vehemently deny that our economy (i.e. our finite world and the resource limits we are running into) might imperil the endeavors of science.

          • Good point!

            • Denis Frith says:

              I am a retired aeronautical research scientist. During my career, I devoted all my time, knowledge and energy to the research in my field as well as the day by day living of my family. I expect all scientists are similarly occupied as circumstances force such a reductionist attitude. Few are in the position where they can gain a holistic view of what civilization is doing to the environment. The detail data and understanding is readily available for perusal but it is very fuzzy due to the impact of vested interests and ignorance of physical reality. The multitude of dots is not being connected – yet.

            • I think this is a big part of the problem. In fact, if researchers expect their work to be published, it needs to “fit in” with what others in their field are saying.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            Last week’s (19 October) The Economist main article was ‘How Science Goes Wrong.’ The only real difference between now and last year is that people are finally discovering how bad it is. For those in the know, we can joke that ‘science is always wrong’, by definition, in order to keep the order book full as well as other reasons.

            • I thought that was a good article in the Economists. If the Science is wrong, the other fields (economics, political science, etc.) are even worse.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              A decade and more ago I used to sell stuff to Uncle, and became familiar with some of the labs that generate the products our 20 year old kids have to use in combat. One of the things I learned was the ‘total time computation’ that determined the lifteime of a project. It was actually, more often than not, decided on ‘how many years till the kids graduate from college’ of the prime researcher. Which sort of explains why even such things as ‘Meals Ready to Eat’ were developed in time for the first joint exerccises in Kuwait in 1991, but not before that, even though C Rations and K Rations were well expired from their WWII origins…
              Perhaps we expect too much of our scientists, and our politicians, and our other leaders…
              Cheers, Chris

          • timl2k11 says:

            @ Chris Thanks a ton for the link. At the bottom there seems to be an unfortunate disregard for the scientific method among researchers. If I were in the position of hiring researchers for a project I would not care about those three letters “Ph.D”, I would care about how well they understood the scientific method.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              Well stated, sir. It’s somewhat similar to the code an officer of the law or the government is bound to commit to. It’s also a matter of integrity or honesty. Are you cognizant of the major challenges Chinese researchers have begun to pose to international scientific papers, patents filings, etc.? Their approach appears to be based on sicilian rules and optimum rapine.

  34. edpell says:

    To understand a complex system we need a computer model. Sad if humankind does not have enough surplus at this point to make a model and understand its fate.

    • Denis Frith says:

      There is nothing complex about the stark reality that the industrial systems are irreversibly using up limited natural material resources, such as oil, and producing material wastes, such as those that have caused global warming and ocean acidification.

      • justeunperdant says:

        /sarc on
        You are silly things are not that simple.

        Don’t say things like that. Don’t you know that everything can be explain using ecomonic theory and money. All problemes are related to money.

        Silly of you to think that waste have a impact on biological system. They ( I don’t who they are but some people brigther them me know) will find an answer.

        /sarc off

    • There are an amazing number of bad computer models out. A person who has worked with them learns to be distrustful of them.

  35. Tad Davis says:

    Good Evening Gail,
    Thank you so much for your supreme writings, intelligent analysis and huge personal efforts at educating the uninformed. Please keep up the information dissemination. Very many people appreciate your insights!!

  36. Scott says:

    I forgot to mention, but most know that If credit freezes up due to some financial collapse, we could surely see a very fast energy shortage and price spike. Very fast. Higher rates are surely a concern leading up to that as the debt load in many countries like the US and UK are not able to service the debts at higher fair market rates like say 6 percent for 5-10 year debt.


    • bradbradshaw says:

      Very good point. Today’s debt is premised on having surplus value creation in the future to service the debt over time. There is a very real prospect that the debt overhang will be too large, especially as surplus value creation diminishes. We also have a lot of parasitic activities in our economy that rely on surplus value creation. Finished economic activity iis going to be a real struggle going forward.

    • I was getting a little confused. If credit freezes up, we may have lower oil prices, but we will have higher interest rates. Higher interest rates are a big problem, as you say.

  37. Scott says:

    Hello, Thanks another Great One Gail. That really does sum things up very well. It seems to me that a major part of the problem is people getting used to things the way they are and assuming they will continue to be the same, kind of a sense of entitlement and that is especially seen in some cultures and in young people.

    Well the shocker will be out there to surprise them. I am not sure I am ready for it either as all my friends and some family relatives are mostly clueless.

    We may have some time yet for the wost of this, but we will all have to deal with it’s onslaught.


  38. George Vye says:

    Bill Catton ‘splained it all over 30 years ago. Too bad no one was paying attention.

    William R. Catton, Jr.
    Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change
    University of Illinois Press, reprint ed. 1982

  39. Will says:

    “Harvesting the easiest resources first” strikes again – it looks like the same effect has occurred with antibiotics as with peak oil: http://becomingantifragile.blogspot.com/2013/10/parallels-between-antibiotics-and-peak.html

    • You make a good point about antibiotics. I know I have heard of this issue before.

      With our high current population and the amount of crowding, it seems like diseases may spread pretty rapidly without antibiotics.

  40. I’m not giving up on humanity just yet. The warning is evident, the signs abundantly clear and the prognosis dire. But humans, us, are adaptable and curious.

    Prior to the industrial revolution- whose birth place is an hours drive from my home [Iron Bridge] – and during the early stages of it the population of the UK [including Ireland] had leapt from a gentle increase of around 6 million to 16 million just 50 years later [1750-1801]. This population explosion was not a direct consequence of coal becoming the new cheap energy.

    The 18th Century saw an expansion in enlightenment and science which were the very things needed to allow the industrial [the fossil fuelled growth] revolution. At the height of Empire [1870s] the population doubled and has since taken twice as long to double and stabilise.

    Fossil fuels [coal] was only part of the revolution- water power was intrinsic to the fabric mills- wind was the thing that held the Empire together- Steam ships only supplemented sails towards the end of the 19th century. The revolution in science was sanitation and understanding disease.

    Food production improved through better management and not directly through coal- where coal mattered was the ability to get produce to market via the railways. With limited fossil fuel direct inputs the UK was effectively able to be self sufficient with a population of about 44 million [60 million today].

    Where there is the explosive issue of population is in developing countries- Egypt in 1960, pop 26 million- doubling in 1987 [52m] and now 75 million. Unlike developed countries where wealth and education went roughly hand in hand, oil money by passed the slow evolution of population growth delivering cheap food.

    On a technical level places like the US have huge natural resources so feeding the nation [whilst limiting choice] and keeping them warm is not impossible. Egypt along with countries reliant on oil exports for food have a big problem. Technically even the cheap oil has not run out- most of US production is still the old cheap stuff but is in decline- so with rationing and fuel going to do the essentials there is decades still left. Even the UK has decades of oil in the North Sea- it peaked yes, but there is still huge amounts that could do the essentials.

    During the age of abundance the rich [and this blog is mainly addressing the economy of the rich- a couple of billion people live on very little energy] wasted it. We drive a ton and half of steel to pick up a few bags of groceries. We build cheap uninsulated houses and leave lights on- energy is so cheap it is wasted. Rather than living in walking distance of work we commute 10, 20 30, miles or more. We process all water to be drinkable and flush most of it down the toilet and if we are really wasteful we using it to clean the car and water the lawn.

    All politics in the developed nations- whether left or right is growth orientated- it is not enough that government guarantees human rights and security they are convinced to offer a capitalist utopia of endless wealth [and I include state capitalism:communism, or third way socialism etc]

    Capitalism will destroy itself- the question is what will replace it?
    North Korea demonstrates that it is possible to have a functioning nation that is impoverished- as does the anarchic Somalia.

    People [nations] will descend in to anarchy, a claptocracy [the Congo], totalitarian [most like fascist-&-militaristic], theocracy [fascist & militaristic] and all the other post economic collapse plot lines [although some may be disappointed in the lack of zombies].

    The alternative to hiding out in a permaculture ecotopia hoping the city folk don’t turn up in motorcycle gangs is a new wave of democracy where the purpose is to prosper in the old fashioned sense. And I don’t mean turning back the clock.

    The likelihood is a descent into the gross inequalities found in developing countries like Pakistan and Egypt. We already have a super rich in the US and UK who despite everyone else getting poorer are getting richer. At some point particularly in the US the slavish spell of the American dream of being part of that elite will be rejected. Capitalism [in its broad sense of eternal growth and riches] can only sell the lie for so long.

    Gail, the economy that you see collapsing [and I just wonder on the speed- will be 5 or 50 years?] has created its own culture. It is so strong that imagining a different world is impossible: the alternative to many is old skool communism [state capitalism]. In a world where we have only half the energy [which would make the US like Europe- not bad!]- OK, a quarter for the US- perhaps our idea of work and a 5 day week will have to change. Accommodation will have to change- houses like cars get worse as they age so why should they not get cheaper as time goes by?

    Who knows perhaps nano tech or graphene will be a new revolution. Perhaps we will abandon money like in Star Trek and receive the basics to live and choose are own destiny. I’m sure our ancestors would marvel at what has been achieved by their descendent. what was a mystery being common knowledge.

    It is an extraordinary time to be alive.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      As much as I’d enjoy doing a point-by-point rebuttal, have your read Gail’s “two views” blog entry? (Of course you have, you commented on it!)

      You seem to be more-or-less of the “predominant view,” that energy and population are independent variables, that technology will save us, and that life can pretty much go on as before — except with more solar panel, wind turbines, and perhaps a good dose of nano-tech. In short, human exceptionalism.

      Perhaps our ancestors would look at how we live, and say, “How did you pay for all that?” rather than marvel at what has been achieved. In the past, it was common knowledge that you don’t get something for nothing. That knowledge doesn’t seem to be so common any longer, substituted with, “My, aren’t we clever hairless apes! We can do anything!

      • No. I’m not saying that.
        I get Gail’s point clearly and it is only a matter of time- it may be that the illusion will spin for another decade or two and each year everyone has a little less. It may happen in a few years.

        If you hadn’t noticed we are the rich ones- I have travelled and even in ‘developing’ countries, even in China most people live in tiny apartments with few luxuries. I’ve met professionals, teachers, university lecturers, doctors whose standard of living is that of poor worker in OECD countries. My partner and I are on average UK income and in comparison we live like royalty- and we, along with a billion are the ones using the energy of 300 slaves.

        I have friends who appear to be similar to you- you are dependant on the tech world as everybody else. Medicine- requires blue sky research, just because big pharm is selling the same b/s mean it is some how redundant. Knowledge is power- ask your vet, or doctor or farmer. Technology is the end result of study and curiosity- I’m researching means to build using less stuff and less energy- and spare me the joys of adobe or traditional ‘wisdom’ or straw bails or sheep’s wool insulation.

        Technology may not work, but it has in the past and much of it has been of great benefit. – all the way up the beginning of the industrial revolution – and pre fossil fuels.

        I am planning for a solar system and small wind [I have an off the grid version in my other holding]- revolutionary high tech, low energy, low material house and it pays to do it. It may just buy 25years of comfortable draught free snuggly living- long enough perhaps for retirement and possibly long enough to see a transition. I’m no thorium/fusion enthusiast- there are limits to the practicalities of imagination.

        Wind is so old tech- the British built an empire across the globe with it.
        and the point of post is that life will be changed- just because the system crashes do you think those unlucky ones who don’t have a nice middle-class permaculture venture are just going to curl up and die?

        How we manage that change is the issue- turning our backs on acquiring knowledge and experimenting is something the religious devout can do lest we offend the gods.
        It is who we are as a species.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “turning our backs on acquiring knowledge and experimenting is something the religious devout can do lest we offend the gods.”

          By no means do I advocate “turning my back on acquiring knowledge and experimenting!” I’m doing that all day!

          But knowledge is not technology! That is where we appear to differ. HT Odum has convinced me that technology is a form of embedded energy. Technology must be maintained, and Joseph Tainter has convinced me that excess maintenance in light of declining resources is what kills civilizations.

          I’m a big believer in appropriate technology that does not depend on current energy levels. There lies the path of “graceful degradation” instead of a crash.

          • You have to be a lot more specific about the kind of technology you mean.

            Take solar- you don’t appear to be a fan- we live in a fossil fuel world so everything is going to have a lot of ff inputs- my only estimate on oil content is price- however in the last 5 years oil has hit regular highs and solar has halved in cost. [so ignoring rare earth’s and Chinese pollution- I buy German anyway]- solar has reduced it’s energy inputs by half in 5 years. They don’t need fixing because they don’t go wrong [the inverters need replacing every 7-10 years, but this is fixed with keeping them cool]. They give full output for 20 years and will run for another 20 at reduced -i.e. 70%] output.

            A house is another piece of technology- the plumbing system, the waste, the heating, the door handles. I’m planning on fitting a heat recovery module- it has a fan, and switch which could fail- the rest is a very clever surface which cannot fail.

            My partner has just come back from working at a hospital in Afghanistan- built by German aid, with solar because the electricity is so un reliable.

            when it comes to maintenance the VW is a mystery but never seems to go wrong, my landrover is always going wrong but it is simple and easy to repair. local workshops make parts for my ageing tractor that always goes wrong.

            Knowledge leads to technology- leads to improvements of bows and arrows, better ways to process timber, better ways to make a toilet. Better in the future should mean less energy.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “Better in the future should mean less energy.”

              “Less energy” will mean less energy in the future. We won’t be able to maintain anything more than the photovoltaic efficiency of plants (~6%) for very many years.

              Yea, solar panels are cool. I love them! I love LED lighting, too! I have some of each out of pure selfishness. But neither of them are sustainable in the long run. There is not a single 100% solar-powered solar panel factory on the planet. (There are some claims, but they appear dubious.)

              I’m afraid we must simply agree to disagree.

            • agreeing to disagree whilst polite isn’t why i seek a better understanding of the world and our future.

              you may be correct- I don’t know. for the truth to manifest requires evidence. I am cautious in using a single philosophy- no matter which bright person coined it. evidence based, even [or especially] if it is counter intuitive, is [in my opinion] the only way forward.

              We are collectively embarking on an incredible challenging future- the right decisions will only come from being challenged. surely this is the point of Gail’s blog- the convention of economics will fail and opinion, gut feeling, or wise words of a past economist is not going to change that.

              your approach does challenge me- I did read up on emergy. Not entirely impressed but perhaps I need to see the nuance of the theme.

              best jules

            • Denis Frith says:

              It seems that I need to repeat a fundamental physical principle because most people are unwilling to take this into account because they have not been educated about this reality. Technology does no more than use natural forces to irreversibly use limited natural material resources and produce irrevocable material waste. Society is addicted to the goods and services provided by technology but they are unwilling to believe that technology does not create anything. It just consumes to do work useful to society during its lifetime.

            • I think you are entirely focusing on one aspect of technology.

              Prior to the industrial revolution the enlightened countries did see growth in population, technology, and science.

              Take the water wheel- constant improvements of over centuries improved the amount of power that could be extracted from a stream. Iron was used to reduce weight and improve longevity- the initial iron water wheels used simple mining- animals and wooden railway tracks and carbon from charcoal to smelt. skill and technology and some still last today and work. Iron is everywhere and can be recycled, perhaps not at the scale to make 6 billion cars but most of the world does not live like you and me.

              Clean drinking water is a technological improvement, metallurgy that adds tiny quantities of elements and improves longevity is technology, combining bone, wood and sinew into a redesigned bow was high tech compared to the previous version.

              The democracy of technology allows people to free themselves of government and use social media to achieve change- you may hate the computer you use- but it uses less energy than your trip to the shops. It is a means for me to access latest research in wind turbine design- speak to people who recycle and reinvent.

              The energy we have is limited but how we spend our allocation is about weighing up evidence.

              It is as absurd to dismiss tech in a general way as it is to dismiss any wide ranging subject.

              Be specific. I don’t swallow everything tech. I think fusion whilst worth the research is as likely as warp drive.

              ‘technology doesn’t create anything’- I can’t see the logic- a hammer doesn’t create anything- it is a tool. Am I arguing for more of the same? no. Do I argue that blind faith tech will cure our ills. no.

              Technology is a tool- we can exploit resources more efficiently but we can equally harness renewable resources- like food and water, energy and human intelligence.

            • Denis Frith says:

              You focus just on the what technology has given society. I commented on the unsustainable ecological cost of the technology. That is a different issue and one that society does not address.

            • Denis, clearly you use a pc and the internet, and your english and grammar indicate that you have been educated to a high western standard. As for the rest of your lifestyle you are connected to the grid and directly benefit from the abundance of ‘excessive’ fuel use.

              For you to say all technology is bad and destroying the environment is from a position as a participant rather than observer. Which would logically require to renounce your privileged position as a rich westerner.

              I don’t disagree that ‘growth’ and its politics is extremely destructive and promotes human inequality as well. And some technologies- like military complex- don’t help us. Within the broad mix of tech their is evidently constructive and destructive tech [guns and ploughs] but even though a hammer [low tech] can be used for positive change it can be used to beat someone to death.

              Society does address some destructive tech- but as vaccines and GM are concerned that objection is not based in evidence based study. Society does have a habit of being selective though, overlooking how destructive some innocent tech is.

              My focus [in this instance] is identifying what tech is appropriate for transition. Overwhelming my focus is on the new politics to replace the politics of growth and exploitation. Tech is just a tool.

            • Denis Frith says:

              I am a realist. I use my advantaged situation to promote understanding of what the systems of civilization have done to its life support system. We are well aware of the contribution of technology to the living standards of many people. I was commenting on the other side of the balance sheet, the ecological cost of the technology and how it is an unsustainable process. The reality is that civilization will collapse in coming decades as a consequence. Drawing attention to the destructive side of technology can contribute to the challengs of powering down. My generation enjoyed the ‘free’ lunch. I aim to leave a legacy of understanding that will make paying for that lunch easier for the coming generation.

            • Good point!

          • Denis Frith says:

            All technology irreversiby consumes natural material resources, including those supplying the energy to do the work, while producing irrevocable material waste. That is the fundamental physical principle that few in society take into account.

          • We need to be looking to windmills and watermills that can be built with local materials and hand tools, not today’s high tech devices.

          • building local watermills and local windmills using local tools and local people will sustain…….only local people

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “building local watermills and local windmills using local tools and local people will sustain…….only local people”

              Yup. Ain’t it grand! The only ones left standing will be… local people, providing for themselves!

          • and technology is not energy, though billions of people are staking their lives on that simple statement being wrong.
            energy delivers new forms of technology, (basically through ever- improving methods of using energy itself), however that doesn’t work in reverse, you cannot create a technology where the end product is energy output. Technology is as Odum stated, embedded energy.
            fusion power might possibly refute that, but I doubt it.
            We Brits might have started our empire under wind power, but iron and oil was necessary to sustain it, just as the American empire needs iron and oil to sustain itself in one piece. When the oil runs out, the American empire will cease to exist, and yes I do mean the lower 48.

    • Thanks for your insights.

      It is hard for me to see the current economy staying together, if there are massive debt defaults, and the price of oil drops. Governments are likely to be the worst off–I am afraid the examples you give may occur elsewhere.

      It will be a real challenge to figure out a way around our problems. Perhaps some banding together, perhaps along religious lines, may allow some order to be kept, and a reasonable amount of food to be produced.

      • xabier says:

        Perhaps what we will get is not ‘no government’, but hyper- corrupt government – a whatever level operating in a purely parasitic fashion s it interacts with the people.

        I think people in highly corrupt countries such as India and Pakistan will be familiar with this. The lowly official is the scum of the earth.

        Also, police who fund themselves through bribes: a poor and discontented policeman is a dangerous person to encounter.

        • You may be right.

          I know that in China, I heard a lot of complaints about needing to bribe officials to get anything done. Bribes seemed to account for quite a bit of their compensation.

    • Denis Frith says:

      the sound comment on the developments of industrial civilization would provide hope of a sustainable future for those who not understand the fundamental physical factors that have always governed what happens. Technology employs natural forces to irreversibly use limited natural resources to provide society with goods and services. Technology has not and cannot create anything. At best it can make worthwhile use of the remaining natural resources.

    • to pick up on a few points there: N Korea and Somalia are no more ‘functioning economies than Hitler’s Germany or Japan were functioning economies. (they sustained themselves only by constant looting of other territories) N Korea is essentially a prison camp run for the benefit of a privileged elite, I understand the food ration is 1500cal a day. Somalia is a territorial area run by warlords. Neither can have a long term sustainable future. What they have in common is a form of twisted theocracy (ie–faith in an insane concept of infinite growth in return for unquestioning belief in the diktat of the ‘leader’)…think about that, and overlay it on the present faith in modern industrial politic/industrial systems. (we have ‘faith’ that they are infinite—they are not of course)
      The bottom line in all this is that democracy is the product of excess energy. Study recent history, the great democracies arose in parallel with increasing energy availability and use. Before then we had Theocratic or regal dictatorships or a mixture of both
      It follows then, that democracy will not survive energy depletion, because we will have anarchy in the struggle for what’s left (thats called survival btw).
      I live only 30 minutes walk from Ironbridge ( if I’m feeling energetic) where it all started. It was certainly cheap iron/steel that kicked everything off: Guns, ships, and all the rest—without iron we can do nothing. Before Darby (1709), iron was made with charcoal, after then it was increasingly made with coke….I often stand on the (stunning) bridge and think: Well here’s another fine mess you got us into!

      • justnobody says:

        /sarc on
        Democracy is the best gouvernance system.
        Don’t say think like that. It is too negative and depressing. Someone hide this comment.
        /sarc off

      • Without the excess energy we have from fossil fuels, something like 80% of 90% of us would have to be working in farming. The rest would be in manufacturing, services, and government combined. That doesn’t leave much for government. I agree that democracy cannot last without fossil fuels.

        • Do you have any calculations for the 80-90% number? Manual ecological farming without any energy use, (perhaps water pumps for irrigation aside but even this can be solved by collecting rain water at higher altitude and digging channels) can give bigger yields per square meter than we have today with fossile fuels. This is because we can plant much tighter and have multiple harvests and use a variety of tricks people in the 1900-century wasn’t aware of. I belive one person with hard work manually could produce food for maybe 4-10 people, even in Sweden where I live. You don’t need much tools (with embedded energy) either.

          • sponia says:

            Perhaps you are right, in a way. Modern cultivation methods do produce higher yields than were possible in the 19th century, after all. Intensive farming techniques can indeed grow a lot of vegetables. (Ask Gail about the invasion of the Purple Martin gourds!)

            A big problem comes up in processing, preserving, storing, and transporting the fruits of this labor. This is an often overlooked piece of the process that has not particularly benefited from modern advances – other than the application of fossil fuel energy, that is.
            Growing food is easy; nature is on your side at that stage of production. Keeping it from decaying – well then you’re fighting against nature, an entirely different kind of battle. (Old 1980’s joke: What do you call a pile of cabbages rotting in the village square? Chinese refrigeration.) It doesn’t do any good to grow ten times as much food unless you also have the ability to get it safely to the animals that it’s supposed to feed.

            A shift to moving either a) the garden into the suburubs, so it’s closer to the people, or 2) the people into the countryside, so they’re closer to the farm, can help alieveiate transportation bottlenecks. But everybody has to learn how to pick, process, can, dry, smoke, ferment, and salt food again too. New storage areas will need to be created, because this approach dosen’t work very well with a cinderblock warehouse full of steel shelving unless you also have enough energy to run a giant bank of air conditioners / heaters non stop for months at a time. All of this takes much more labor and effort than the gardening itself. Much more! I speak from personal experience. Everyone will need to adjust to a greatly attenuated diet, too. It is going to require an integrated approach to this lifestyle to ensure minimums of essential nutrients are available. And people are going to have to become skeptical of their food, too, because the processing is going to be somewhat more uneven in quality than we are currently used to.

            It’s a bigger adjustment than it looks like, if a superficial glance is all the attention you give the issue. It’s not simple at all, when you try to actually live this way. Or to raise children with it.

            • Thanks for the comment. I agree that storing and preserving is a major issue, and certainly or diet in march every year will be quite boring,. Transporting is less of an issue if we live closer to the land being farmed as you say. I also agree that it’s not a simple life, but does really 80-90% of the population need to be involved? Perhaps they will in the sense that 90% of the population will need to invest a lot of their free time in the late summer/ fall preserving the vegetables they just bought from their local farmer, but I can’t see the need for 90% of the population working full time with food production, but maybe that was not what Gail meant?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “but does really 80-90% of the population need to be involved?”

              I can’t put my finger on the reference, but I do recall reading that, prior to the widespread exploitation of fossil sunlight, it took fifteen people on the land to support one in the city. That’s 93.75%.

              Today’s numbers are somewhere along the lines of one industrial farmer supporting about 700 in the city, or 0.14%.

              Perhaps someone else can google around for some sources for those nu