Sustainability: How Humans’ Economy Differs from Natures’

A few years ago, I had an ah-ha moment when it comes to what we as humans would need to do to live in a sustainable manner. It is very easy. All we have to do is leave our homes, take off all of our clothes, and learn to live on the raw food we are able to gather with our own hands. We have a built-in transportation system, so that is not a problem.

Some animals are eusocial, that is, organized in away that allows for cooperative brood care and other joint tasks. If we follow that approach, we would get our extended families to join us living in nature, au naturel. We could then co-operate on tasks such as child rearing and gathering food.

Nature’s Provision for Order

Nature is organized in a number of ways that make certain that there will be modest change over time to adapt to new conditions, but that no one species will dominate. These are a few of the basic parts of the system:

1. Animals tend to have more offspring than required to replace the parents. Through natural selection, offspring that are best adapted to changing conditions tend to survive and grow to adulthood.

2. Animals tend not to kill all prey available because if they did so, they would have no food source in the future. Species are usually fairly balanced in their abilities, so that population will fluctuate within a range, rather than result in a total die-off.

3. Nature provides a great deal of redundancy, both in number of offspring, and in back-up systems. We have two ears and two kidneys, and two of many other parts of the body. The goal isn’t maximum efficiency, but to have a good chance at survival, even in the case of injury or damage to one part.

4. Nature has built-in instincts to prevent depletion of shared resources, sometimes called Tragedy of the Commons. Among primates, one of these instincts is an instinct toward territoriality. Males of the species tend to mark off territory much larger than they would need simply for gathering food, and will fight others to death who try to enter to their territory (Dilworth 2010).

5. In primates, another instinct that prevents excessive population of any one species is a tendency toward hierarchical behavior when population becomes too crowded for resources  (Dilworth 2010). Nature’s plan is that if there is an inadequate amount of resources, there will still be some survivors. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy will lose out, but those at the top will survive.

6. Each plant or animal requires energy-related inputs (food for humans) and eliminates waste. What is waste for one species acts as an input for other species. For example, plants need carbon dioxide, even though it is a waste produce for humans.

Using Nature’s approach, there is a balance over time. One species may dominate for a time, and then another.  The world tends to cycle from state to state. There is never a complete die-off, no matter how bad things get. Because of natural selection, species evolve to fill new niches. Climate change is a concern from humans’ perspective, because we are the potential losers. But Nature is probably equipped to deal with the issue, in one way or another.

The Hunter-Gatherer Economy

Humans, as hunter-gatherers, were “sort of close” to following Nature’s pattern. Man’s big deviation from the pattern of other animals was learning to burn biomass over one million years ago. Burning biomass made man better able to cope with cold weather. Humans also evolved a higher level of intelligence, perhaps in part because cooked food allowed better absorption of nutrients, allowing humans to put energy previously used for creating big jaws and digestive apparatus into a bigger brain.

As humans became smarter, they found ways to circumvent survival of the fittest, both to live longer themselves, and to allow more offspring to survive to adulthood.  (Dilworth 2010)  If hunter-gatherer groups wanted to avoid over-population, they had to adopt customs that would keep population down. Such customs might include infanticide, sexual abstinence during nursing, or frequent wars with neighboring tribes.

Research on hunter-gatherer groups that have survived until modern times suggests that very often they spent only a few hours a day hunting and gathering food, allowing much time for leisure activities (Sahlins 1972). Humans were tall (men averaged 5’10” in height), had few dental cavities, and showed other signs of excellent health (Wells 2010).

As hunter-gatherers, there was no need for money or land ownership. Sharing within the clan seems to have been typical, perhaps as a gift economy, where status is gained by how much one can give away. Thus, all had access to food. There was no storing up goods for a “rainy day.” The only “storing up” was what nature provided in terms of stored body fat that prevented starvation if food was unavailable for a short period of time.

Early Agricultural Economies

With settled economies came a whole host of complications. Food from crops needed to be stored, so storage facilities were required. Families staying in one place needed homes. There was more division of labor, so there was a need to pay workers so that they could purchase a share of food produced by others.

With fixed areas of land being used for crops, there came a need for “ownership”of land.  There also came a need for government for various reasons–to solve disputes, to set up rules, to mint coins, to make infrastructure such as roads, and to provide defense against neighboring groups. With such government, there came a need for taxes.

There also came a need for a means for financial transactions. Contrary to common belief, barter was never widely used. One approach that was used involved a temple acting as a central clearing house that both bought and sold goods.  The temple would convert all goods to a common basis (say, bushels of barley or shekels of silver), and run a tab for each patron. In a way, this was an early form of credit (Graeber 2011). Very little silver actually changed hands. Making enough coins to cover all transactions would have been cumbersome.

As in the Hunter-Gatherer Era, families tended to have more children than needed to replace the parents because of Nature’s plan for natural selection. Humans as in earlier times outsmarted Nature’s plan, putting upward pressure on population. Some  groups instituted customs to keep population down, such as sacrifice of first-born infants to the local deity.

As population pressure grew, farmers found temporary solutions to the need for more cropland–for example, cutting down trees on hillsides, even though this would lead to serious erosion, or irrigating crops to increase yields, even though this would eventually lead to salt deposits and loss of fertility. David Montgomery, in Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations (2007) discusses the serious erosion and soil degradation issues that resulted. Deforestation seems to have occurred in many areas as early as 4,000 B. C. E. (Chew 2007).

As mentioned previously, there is a natural tendency of primates is to be territorial, as a way of limiting population. Human increasingly overcame this tendency through trade relationships. Some religious teachings also helped mitigate the tendency to fight–for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39). Wars still continued, very often over resources, helping to hold population down.

With additional food provided by agriculture, individual civilizations still tended to grow. They very often eventually collapsed, as growing population eventually led to diminishing returns in food production in a given area (Tainter, 1988).

During this period, the vast majority of workers were involved in agricultural work, likely 80% to 90% during peak agricultural work periods. The need for so many workers meant that those who were in charge were strongly motivated to make certain that workers received an adequate wage.

The need for so many agricultural workers tended to limit other activities. Government could not grow above the level the tax base would support. Services, such as education and medicine, could not expand very much, because agricultural surpluses necessary to pay for these services were small.

Health was much worse in the Agricultural Era than in the Hunter-Gatherer Era. This occurred partly because of  a change in the food eaten, and partly because living so close together promoted greater germ transfer with other humans and with domesticated animals (Wells 2010). Average height of men gradually dropped by 6 inches relative to the Hunter-Gatherer Era.

Spread of disease was a problem, especially in cities. Diamond reports that it was not until the early 20th century that European cities became self-sustaining for population. Before then, a constant immigration of healthy peasants was necessary to make up for the  many deaths of city dwellers from crowd diseases (Diamond 1997). This flow of immigrants had an upside–it provided a source of jobs for the growing rural population. Growth in job opportunities also took place after major epidemics reduced population.

The Fossil Fuel Age

The availability of fossil fuels ramped up humans’ ability to quickly turn natural resources into goods and services. In particular, fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to grow food and transport it to consumers. The “catch” is this creates a fossil fuel dependency–it now requires from 7 to 10 calories of fossil fuel energy for every 1 calorie of food energy produced (Heller 2000). With better nutrition, heights of men increased again. In recent years, heights in the United States are back up to those of the Hunter-Gatherer Era (Wells 2010).

By ramping up production of goods using fossil fuels, we also greatly increased the amount of pollution. (See The Story of Stuff by Leonard 2007 or here.) Many of goods we make using fossil fuels are not easily biodegradable the way plant or animal products would be. Also, separating desired natural resources from the materials they are found with leaves huge amounts of polluting bi-products, such as mercury found with coal. There is also the issue of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels.

The availability of fossil fuels led to the ability to make metals, glass, concrete and many other materials in great abundance, without the problem of deforestation. This ability allowed humans to adopt many types of technology that would have been impossible without fossil fuels, such as cars and trucks, electricity transmission systems, huge-ocean going ships, and nuclear power plants.

The growth in “stuff” led to much greater accumulation of wealth by a select few. This accumulation of wealth led to a need for a financial system that would allow people to hold onto this wealth and to transfer that wealth from person to person. While early debt corresponded to simply “running a tab,” without much time-transfer involved, the time-transfer aspect became increasingly important with greater wealth accumulation. Of course, this time transfer aspect only works if the system is growing. If the system is shrinking, time-transfer is like playing musical chairs, with ever-fewer chairs.

Debt tends to play a big role in fossil fuel extraction, for several reasons:

  1. Debt allows potential consumers to afford new technology that was enabled by fossil fuels, such as cars and refrigerators.
  2. Debt provides businesses with funds to build factories to make new devices enabled by fossil fuels.
  3. Debt can provide funds for extracting fossil fuels. This is often not an issue initially, but becomes more of an issue as extraction costs rise, when diminishing returns set in.

Both governments and businesses grew greatly in size, as the growth in fossil fuel use  allowed the work force to move out of agriculture into other fields. In the United States, only 1% of the work force is currently engaged in agricultural work, while 19% work in industry and 80% in services (CIA Fact Book).

The removal of the workforce from being directly involved with food production means we can’t directly count on our work providing the food we need. While hunter-gatherers could depend on their own work supplying their needs and early farmers weren’t too far removed from, we have now created a huge system of intermediaries that together are supposed to supply our needs.

Looking Closer at the Economy, Governments, and Businesses

In general, world GDP growth tends to correlate highly with energy consumption.

Figure 1. Growth in world GDP, compared to growth in world of oil consumption and energy consumption, based on 3 year averages. Data from BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy and USDA compilation of World Real GDP.

Figure 1. Growth in world GDP, compared to growth in world of oil consumption and energy consumption, based on 3 year averages. Data from BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy and USDA compilation of World Real GDP.

There seem to be two reasons for the correlation:

1. It takes energy to make anything, even services that don’t seem to use much energy.

2. The amount of energy products that governments, businesses, and individuals can afford is determined by wages, taxes, and business revenue. As these sources of revenue grow, potential purchasers can afford more fossil fuels. Economists call this “demand,” but I think that “amount affordable” is a better description of the nature of the relationship. Oil is the highest priced of the fossil fuels, so its growth has been least. Businesses substitute away from oil wherever they can, and consumers buy more efficient vehicles.

Because of the importance of energy price, economic growth tends to go to the countries where energy costs are lowest. These countries tend to be the countries that use the least oil as a percentage of their energy mix.

Figure 2. Annual percent change in Real GDP by part of the world, based data of the USDA.

Figure 2. Annual percent change in Real GDP by part of the world, based data of the USDA.

The United States, the European Union, and Japan tend to get a much larger share of the energy they use from oil than the rest of the world. It is these countries that especially have had a problem with falling GDP as oil prices have risen in recent years.

In fact, if we look at detail data, we find that this relationship of poor growth going with countries with the highest oil percentage of energy use from (high-priced) oil tends to extend to smaller groupings. For example, the PIIGS in Europe (Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain), known for their job problems and economic distress, are also  countries that were characterized by unusually high percentages of their energy consumption from oil. On the other hand, China gets most of its energy from coal, which is quite cheap. It has been able to soar ahead economically, with job opportunities for its people.

Figure 3. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3. Energy consumption by source for China based on BP 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 3 shows a clear “bend” in China’s coal consumption usage after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. This bend points out another issue. Countries with access to cheap coal and cheap labor are now able to compete with the historically industrialized countries, and tend to do very well in this competition. The cheap labor costs are to some extent a reflection of a subsidy by Nature: People living in warmer parts of the world (with more solar energy!) don’t need as much fossil fuel energy to heat their homes and for heated transportation, so can live reasonably well on lower wages. The new competition from inherently lower-cost producers is another reason for the shift of economic growth away from the developed world.

What we end up with in the United States is a trend toward ever-lower economic growth:

Figure 4. US Ten Year Average Real GDP growth, based on BEA data.

Figure 4. US Ten Year Average Real GDP growth, based on BEA data.

Dividing Up the Economic Pie

If each of us were growing our own food, or leading a life of hunting and gathering, there would not be an issue of dividing up the economic pie, because our claim on the economic output would be clear.

GDP, as you recall, is the total amount of goods and services produced. If the amount of such goods is growing rapidly, there is not a huge problem with dividing up the output, because the situation is more or less following “plan.” A problem arises when the rate of enough growth shrinks, and there is not really enough for everyone, including government, wage earners, businesses.

Let’s think about some of the pressures. Business investment is part of the total use of GDP. If the cost of oil extraction is rising, the cost of oil investment tends to squeeze other investment–either that, or lead to a great deal more debt. Interest payments are part of the total as well, transferring wealth around the system. It is doubtful that wage-earners get much benefit from this transfer. It is more likely that the transfer takes funds from wage-earners and transfers them to financial institutions.

Why should wages rise? Most wages are paid by businesses, and businesses see profits as their primary reason for their operation. Businesses have no particular motivation to raise wages. In fact, as globalization allows the pool of low paid workers from around to grow, businesses have little need to raise wages on jobs that can be transferred to parts of the world where wages are low. Businesses also have the option of replacing workers with technology, such as computers handling task formerly handled by humans. Governments are employers as well, but they find it hard to take up the slack in wages, because they have difficulty collecting enough taxes to cover current operations.

Businesses do their best to cut governments out of tax revenue, as well.  With their world-wide operations, businesses can choose an appropriate domicile and avoid most taxation. There is also the opportunity to use investment approaches that avoid taxation, such as Real Estate Investment Trusts and Master Limited Partnerships.

These actions by businesses leave governments and workers mostly on their own, when trying to deal with inadequate growth in GDP. Governments find themselves getting most of their tax dollars from wage earners, rather than corporations. Workers, whose wages are not rising very much, find it hard to pay what is asked.

Figure 5. Based on Table 2.1 and Table 3.1 of Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Government spending includes Federal, State, and Local programs.

Figure 5. Based on Table 2.1 and Table 3.1 of Bureau of Economic Analysis data. Government spending includes Federal, State, and Local programs.

Figure 5 shows the long-term trend in government spending, compared to wages. There has been a long-term trend toward ever-increasing government expenditures. In fact, expenditures in recent years have come close to those during World War II, as a percentage of wages. Revenue collection has fallen off since 1997. The gap in recent years between revenue and expenditures leads to ever-increasing governmental debt. As the government’s share of the economy gets larger, it leaves less for wage-earners, on an after-tax basis.

At least part of the problem governments are facing is the fact that since 2000, there has been a decrease in the percentage of the population with jobs. This time period matches up closely with the big growth in China’s economy shown in Figure 3. US baby boomers are also starting to retire, adding to the effect.

Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census.  2012 is partial year estimate.

Figure 6. US Number Employed / Population, where US Number Employed is Total Non_Farm Workers from Current Employment Statistics of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Population is US Resident Population from the US Census. 2012 is partial year estimate.

Programs such Social Security, Medicare, and Unemployment Insurance were set up without explaining to the general population that we live in a finite world. Because of this, at some point, growth is going to have to slow and even turn to contraction. All that is available to pay out is what is paid in (plus perhaps funds accumulated in a trust fund, if these funds are truly available). This means that it is likely that at some point, benefits will need to be cut from current levels, even if this is terribly painful.

A System Set Up for Growth

Businesses in general are set up with the expectation of growth. Businesses have fixed costs. If they can grow, profits tend to increase disproportionately. If businesses shrink, profits tend to drop disproportionately.  So businesses have a very strong bias toward growth.

Financial institutions have even a bigger problem with needing growth, for two reasons. First, if the economy doesn’t grow, there is a much higher probability of loan defaults, because of the issue mentioned in the preceding paragraph–businesses don’t grow, so their profits are squeezed. Some of these businesses default on loans. These defaults affect the income statements of the financial institutions, and also their equity positions.

Second, financial institutions need to be considered “healthy” to continue lending. It doesn’t take very many defaults before the equity that allows the financial institution to continue lending becomes impaired. So once the economy slows down, there is a significant chance of bank failures, and a need for bank bailouts, similar to what we experienced in 2008.

We are now at a point of falling economic growth, partly because we are being squeezed by high oil prices, and partly because we are being squeezed by globalization. The oil price issue is really a manifestation of diminishing returns. Oil companies are making increasingly large investments, but are getting fewer barrels of oil out per dollar of expenditure.

Globalization problems reflect the fact that industrialization grew up where deforestation was the biggest problem–that is, where cold weather led to excessive use of forests. Coal use solved the deforestation problem, and brought the bonus of industrialization without much competition from elsewhere. Now, as globalization brings industrialization to the rest of the world, we are discovering that the developed world cannot really compete with the rest of the world’s cost structure.

When there is not enough economic growth, someone gets squeezed. The way the system is set up now, it is wage earners that come out especially badly. Governments also get squeezed, because their tax revenue drops, at the same time citizens need more benefits because a large number of citizens cannot find good-paying jobs. If banks default, this adds a new set of problems for governments.

The situation looks very brittle. Recently, the US Federal Government came close to defaulting on it debt, supposedly because of differences between Republicans and Democrats. It seems to me that the problem is much deeper than this–there is a huge mismatch between revenue and expenditures that cannot be fixed without cutting major programs. Adding Obamacare, even if some type of health insurance program is badly needed, makes the situation worse.

Since only 1% of us work in agriculture, nearly all of us depend on the system working in order for us to have food to eat. Keeping the system together is difficult, though, because businesses of all kinds–especially financial institutions–depend on economic growth, and economic growth is what is failing.

The government can do what it can to disguise our current problem–ultra low interest rates, continued deficit spending, and continued Quantitative Easing–but none of these really fix the problems. What is really needed, if we are to continue our current system, is a return to economic growth–something that can’t happen with diminishing returns in oil production and with continued globalization. Without a return to economic growth, a financial and/or governmental collapse looks likely.

How about other solutions?

We hear endlessly about wind and solar PV, as if they might be solutions to our energy problems. They are basically irrelevant, or act to make the situation worse. I will try to address them in another post.

We also hear about oil from shale formations, as if that oil will solve the world’s economic problems. It is basically too late, and the price of oil extraction is too high to make any difference. We are basically into a situation of diminishing returns.  A recent article from Rigzone says that in order to do the additional development planned,  companies developing US shale formations may suffer a two trillion-dollar investment funding shortfall, relative to the amount of capital they have been able to raise in the past.

With this kind of shortfall in the US, a person can only wonder how much funding, from where, will be needed to develop shale formations around the world. This issue arises at the same time that world economic growth is slowing, reducing the overall size of the global economic pie for development of all kinds.

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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354 Responses to Sustainability: How Humans’ Economy Differs from Natures’

  1. Hello Gail. You showed financial collapse had come to PIGS countries because of oil weight in their energy mix. Do we know what for did they used so much oil? Was it to produce electricity? Thank you

    • Some oil was used for electricity, especially for nations with a lot of islands, like Greece. It is easier to transport, and easier to use in small local power stations. Coal fired power plants tend to serve large areas, because they require a lot of expensive construction.

      I think a bigger issue was that the economies have developed in a way that did not use much coal for manufacturing things. Instead, they tended to rely on tourism, which is very energy dependent. Farming is also very oil dependent. Ireland became a home for foreign businesses–something that is also oil dependent.

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Dear End of More
    One of the points that Simon Fairlie makes is that the yield of a grain is dependent on the percentage of seed of the total biomass. For example, if you look at 16th century European paintings, you will see that the grains the peasants are harvesting are taller than the peasants. We have now bred grains which are very short with very large seed-heads. Assuming no change in the efficiency of converting sunlight into biomass, the yield of seeds is going to go way up.

    Therefore, it is simplistic to simply quote statistics on yields from hundreds of years ago, note the absence of fossil fuels, and predict that we will return to those yields. If we keep the current breeds of seeds, then our yields will be much higher than the 16ths century yields whether we have any fossil fuels or not.

    In life, of course, nothing is a free lunch. The medieval farmers were putting lots of biomass back onto the land, which has all sorts of benefits. Today, we have much less biomass going back onto the land, even when we don’t collect it and use it for something like biofuels. However, a lot of the biomass is composed of carbon and nitrogen from the air, so the loss isn’t as great as you might think.

    Let’s suppose that a plant needs a certain amount of zinc, and it needs the same zinc now that it needed in the 16th century. Then the key requirement for sustained productivity is to make sure that the zinc gets recycled. So the non-seedhead biomass needs to be returned to the soil and the human waste which will contain most all of the zinc in the seeds which the human ate, needs to be returned to the soil. Compost the dead human and you have closed the loop on zinc.

    I thought I could find Fairlie’s discussion of the ‘percentage seed head’ phenomenon, but I can’t. Trust me, it’s there.

    Don Stewart

  3. Quitollis says:

    UK Economy?

    The TV news headline today in the UK is that the economy is set to grow over 1% next year. All looks well. But is it the full story? What is the pattern here? More workers with lower living standards to compensate for high energy costs and falling GDP per head? I invite other people to post stats and to interpret what is happening in the UK economy. I am not an economist, just interested in what is going on in the UK (and global) economy. I heard them mention that the historically low interest rates may soon rise, which would presumably be bad for private and government debtors and also for discretionary spending and therefore for business profits. Do we now have a short term artificial boost that will soon be spent?

    quote from the BBC in July:

    The Institute for Fiscal Studies’ figures (which suggested a squeeze in living standards of 3% a year) typically measure the average – or, more precisely, the median household income (that’s the income of a household halfway through the income distribution).


    Growth in the population is why real incomes – GDP per head – have even further to catch up with where they were before the crisis than the economy itself.

    Our GDP is 3.3% below its peak. Our GDP per head is 5-6% below where it was at the start of 2008.

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dear End of More

    I will also point out two interesting current blog posts. The first is Mary Logan, partially responding to David Holmgren’s book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability. (Many permaculture people now use ‘regeneration’, implying restoring the Earth where it has been damaged, as the goal. But regenerative steps can also increase the biological productivity of land and water beyond what unaided Nature has accomplished through human design)

    Few quotes:
    Changing things within our personal realm, that we can control, also provides psychological resilience, as apathy can lead to helplessness and depression. (compare to Joel Salatin’s comments about Monsanto in Sweden)

    And treat the remaining non-renewable fuels with great respect, avoiding waste by considering their highest and best use in working towards a goal of a new, lower energy society. (consider Joel Salatin’s use of energy, or David Holmgren living the life of ‘an enlightened peasant’)

    If you live in a suburban neighborhood, you might consider converting some or all of your lawn, either through sheet mulch, or back to native vegetation and vegetable gardens. Plant more trees to shade the house. Reforest in native vegetation where possible. If you live in the desert, you can xeriscape your lawn. If you live in the subarctic, strive for more energy efficiency for the home. Compost, and cut your waste streams by monitoring the trash. Consider how you can cut what comes into your house, too. If your house is too big, add some tenants or extended family. Build your community, by stepping across polarized political lines at your local level to make friends. Share information freely and widely. And if you live in a big city, consider whether living there is even sustainable in an era of energy descent. Care for the earth will eventually mean going back to the earth, back to the land. Choose and rank actions according the empower basis, which reflects the relative impact of your human actions on the earth. (consider rotational grazing at the large scale, permaculture and forest gardens at the intermediate scale, and backyard gardening at the small scale, and a focus on water use at all scales)

    Western medicine is one of the most energy-intensive constructs on the planet, and it is not sustainable in energy descent. And the kinds of health problems that we will be dealing with in energy descent may not even be solvable or available through traditional healthcare fixes. Protect your health through preventive means such as weight control, a good local diet, and regular exercise. Consider your coping mechanisms and whether you have addictions as a substitute for life. (consider the lessons to be learned from Lieberman and others)

    Passivity at this point is either denial, or a fear of the need to change our way of living and being. Changing ahead of the crowd allows us to learn and adapt in a calm, controlled, fashion, avoiding the rush when a crisis comes. (consider Dave Pollard, below)

    Creating an ethic of limits is the right thing to do, for us and for our children’s children. It is time to write new stories for ourselves that describe our care for the earth. (consider the dangers of anarchy as illustrated by Diamond’s book, and currently by the events in the Phillipines; ponder what Carolyn Baker has to say, and if you don’t like her methods, develop better ones)

    Now to Dave Pollard:

    What you have to do, I think, is give up hoping and trying to bring the systems back into balance through interventions like progressive voting and activism and composting and solar power, and instead start learning to be resilient so that when these crises hit, you and those you love will at least be better equipped to cope and respond to them than most of us are now. (compare to my assumption that a very high percentage of people won’t make it because they are unwilling or incapable of doing anything at all, today, when they still have some flexibility; trying to ‘feed 9 billion’ is a lost cause, not because it can’t be done, but because it won’t be done).

    We live in a time when nobody knows what is going to happen. So the path that each of us should take as individuals and families and clans is quite unclear. I applaud the efforts that people like Mary and Dave and David Holmgren and Joel Salatin are putting into actually figuring out a way to live today with an eye on the future.

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      And how could I forget our own wonderful example: Jody Tishmack. (sorry for others I may have missed)…Don Stewart

  5. Don Stewart says:

    Dear End of More
    Did you see Dmitry Orlov’s post today? He reviews Carolyn Baker’s new book on collapse. His concluding thought:
    ‘There are quite a few books on collapse that provide “food for thought.” Baker’s does some of that too; but more importantly, she guides the reader in feeling about collapse, progressing from hopelessness and helplessness to hope, self-realization and a sense of belonging. And this, I think, is a singular achievement.’

    I think that the four resources I recommended that people read or listen to also get at the same points. They start with ‘what does it mean to be a human?’, and the answer is not ‘it means to go shopping’. It seems to me that clearing away the underbrush is necessary if one wants to achieve ‘hope, self-realization and a sense of belonging’. Considering the life of the Stone Age people of New Guinea, the nomadic life of the Plains Indians, the last millions of years which have made us human and current mal-adaptive behavior, and one man’s concrete plan for doing something right now might help with the hope, self-realization, and sense of belonging task.

    We will always seek comfort…but there are many ways to skin that particular cat….Don Stewart

    • interesting link and book review Don, thanks, but the gist of it, as far as I can read into it, is somewhat ethereal in its context, that impression was confirmed at the bottom by references to ‘sacred activism’, whatever that might mean. Anything ‘sacred’ sets off my personal alarm bells I’m afraid
      It seems to lean towards the ‘gentle downsizing’ idea where everybody is nice to one another.
      This notion might work well for PhDs and others able to think logically in a crisis, but it wont work for the hungry mob when that crisis hits.
      She guides her readers from a point of view based on her own intellect (and wishful thinking), rather than a realisation of collective survival behaviour.
      People whose existence is threatened do not care about sacred activism.

    • Another aspect of our future can be seen in the Philippines right now
      Chaos has resulted from a natural disaster, and the people there know aid will arrive from outside. Yet armed gangs are already looting what supplies there are
      Imagine what it will be like when we’re in a situation where people know there’s no help coming from elsewhere..

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear End of More
        In my estimates of survival (2 percent or 1 percent or whatever), I always make a generous allowance for people who are trying to do the right thing, but die anyway. Due to violence, bad luck, lack of skill in the crunch, being in the wrong place, etc.) Consider a collapse. People riot, then its all gone, and they starve. For the two percent or one percent who survive, there is peace and abundant resources.

        I don’t have any illusions about mobs. I doubt I could sit still for one of Carolyn Baker’s drumming sessions. But I do agree with the words I cited in the conclusion. If you make it through the crunch, and given that ALL hunter gatherer and small farmer communities we know about require social cooperation in order to survive, then what does it look like and feel like? I have commented recently about the great dangers posed by village or clan or tribe warfare. But one hopeful thing is that simple people living amidst abundant resources tend to live quite peacefully. Diamond mentions some people in Paraguay and my sister, who lives in LA, cites the natives who lived there at European contact. So…maybe it will be Collapse plus a few thousand years before serious warfare starts again.

        Don Stewart

        PS I found my Simon Fairlie book. He first takes inventory of the rural land in Britain, divides it between arable and mountainous, develops certain substitution factors (how much grain to feed an industrial cow, etc.). He looks at yields from different methods (organic vs. chemical). Then he calculates various scenarios for land requirements, calories yielded, fiber and fuel provided, wild lands preserved, etc. In all cases, there is some surplus land. After a cursory review (after not picking this book up for a couple of years), I would say that his Permaculture scenario with integrated animals and crops provides a pretty good diet for everyone living in Britain. It assumes no fossil fuels at all, which means that the energy available will be like Cuba during the Special Period. The lack of surplus energy and external fertilizers means that nitrogen must be fixed with bacteria in symbiotic relationship with legumes, that animal/ crop rotations must be practiced, that wood lots are required, that wool and flax be grown for fibers, and that assiduous recycling of nutrients be practiced. The recycling requirement works for dispersal of the population across the rural landscape and against cities.

        There are any number of obstacles to achieving his scenarios. Among them are the opposition of people who think they have a right to live in cities and ‘work’ at computer terminals and politicians who are clueless. One of the more humorous endorsements for the book is by someone who says ‘it should be read by all governments and candidates’…as if governments can do rational things.

        Don Stewart

        • Don

          I think the way we see ‘wor’ is a problem for most people. Ultimately work is pointless unless it is linked to the necessary production of energy to enable people to do more work. Hence the hunter kills an animal to provide the energy to go on hunting for the next kill.
          There are necessary ancillary trades of course, blacksmith, childcare, and so on, but sitting at a computer terminal isn’t one of them
          hence self is disposable

  6. Jarle B says:

    “All we have to do is leave our homes, take off all of our clothes, and learn to live on the raw food we are able to gather with our own hands.”

    The other day I watched a TV program about different animals and their houses or lack of such. David Attenboroughs narrative left no doubt: Houses are good for shelter, but they are a problem because food than have to come from the near surroundings, and that often isn’t sustainable.

    The program also reminded me about an important aspect of our near relatives, the apes: They don’t make houses. Maybe it was there it all went wrong?

    “Many were increasingly of the opinion that they’d all made a big mistake in coming down from the trees in the first place. And some said that even the trees had been a bad move, and that no one should ever have left the oceans.”
    – Douglas Adams

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Dear All

    I stated that belly fat is considerably more dangerous than subcutaneous fat. Someone asked me for a reference. I didn’t have one. Now I have one.

    In The Story of the Human Body, by Daniel Lieberman, the author includes a chapter titled The Vicious Circle of Too Much. It begins on page 251. One page 252 he asserts that visceral fat is more dangerous than other types of fat. In the following pages, he takes us through a complete layman’s analysis of how the hormones and cells and organs and microbes are reacting to food. The story is far too complicated for me to try to summarize here.

    The book is new and is currently on the shelves in good bookstores. So you can go and browse a bit and see if you think it is worth purchasing. I like it.

    Don Stewart

    • Don Stewart says:

      One more addendum to this before I drop it. Lieberman has two sections on the perils of Disuse. For example, if the bones of young people are not stressed, they do not develop properly and the person is much more likely to be stricken by osteoporosis late in life. More generally, many conditions that we go to doctors and dentists and opthamologists to get corrected are the result of not living the way Nature planned for us to live.

      Lieberman begins by contrasting the design of the Brooklyn Bridge with the design of bones. The Brooklyn Bridge was designed with much surplus materials so that it can bear a load 6X the anticipated load. Nature builds bones with quite a different method. Rather than just build much bigger bone, it builds bone adapting to the growth of the person and to the stresses encountered as the person goes about their life. Lieberman discusses a number of conditions, of which I will talk about only a few.

      Consider the collapse of the electric grid. Air conditioning will be an early casualty. Let’s suppose you are a parent or grandparent and you would like to help your children or grandchildren adapt to the lack of air conditioning. You MIGHT try to teach them to construct solar panels. But the straightforward way to do it is to expose them to hot and humid weather as children. Children in hot climates grow more sweat glands. But once puberty is past, no more sweat glands are added. If you raise children basically inside an air conditioned house, playing with video screens, then you are not preparing them for a hot, non-air conditioned future.

      Another example. It is unlikely that dentists offices would survive the collapse of the grid–at least not with the sophisticated equipment they have today. Yet a very high percentage of children today grow impacted wisdom teeth. Practically no hunter-gatherer children grew impacted wisdom teeth. The difference is in the amount of hard chewing done as children. Hard chewing creates bigger and stronger jaws so there is plenty of space for the wisdom teeth. Chewing on a gristly piece of meat is not at all like eating a Little Debbie cake. Chain restaurants today have concrete mixer type machines that ‘tenderize’ meat, so that it doesn’t have to be chewed significantly. If you wanted to prepare a 6 year old to live until 25 without benefit of dental surgery, then it would be important to give them some tough food to eat. (Lieberman blanches at this thought, being a parent himself, and hopes that perhaps chewing some hard gum will serve the purpose.)

      The second chapter takes on shoes, chairs, and books. You get the idea.

      A takeaway from this is that a grandparent or parent who is anticipating the end of sophisticated medical treatments in the next couple of decades should be raising their children quite differently than is currently the norm.

      Don Stewart

      • agreed—examination of 14th c skeletons clearly shows which one are those of archers, their shoulder/arms bones are developed for more than their counterparts in other jobs

      • dolph9 says:

        Growing up, I have to say, I had good physical education, and good medical care. We were very active in elementary school, I remember. It started to taper off during middle school and by high school there was a clear division between athletes and everybody else, and it was easy to get out of physical education.

        I personally think robust physical education should have continued throughout high school, but there are all sorts of psychological implications for teenagers because some develop into muscular athletes and others do not. This creates resentments that can last a lifetime.

        However having said that I am also quite soft. I have never experienced deprivation or hardship, and have always had access to heating and cooling and food on demand.

        I think economics, the supply/demand in the real world, will sort it out. I mean, what good does it do for a child to whine if there is literally no more money in the family to keep the candy coming. Kids do adapt.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All
    I promised Gail I would stop talking about solutions to the problems she has identified in her blog space. But I would like to summarize some things I think are more likely to be right than wrong. All of these assume that there will be a financial collapse and that resource limits and environmental changes are going to take away a lot of our maneuvering room.

    1. Gail thinks that financial collapse is going to stop civilization in its tracks. She might be right, but also consider Chris Martenson’s comment about the Weimar Republic inflation in Germany. Chris says that after the hyperinflation, the real assets were still there…they just belonged to different people. It may make sense to try to accumulate some real (not paper money or promises to pay) assets and then, somehow, protect them from the government.
    2. Read two books. Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday and The Story of the Human Body by Daniel Lieberman. Diamond gives us a survey of small scale societies functioning without anything like an authoritarian government. Pay particular attention to the high levels of violence in such societies. Lack of government has positives and negatives, which Diamond explores pretty well. Lieberman’s book is about a lot more than what you may think of as physical evolution. Our physical evolution has enabled cultural evolution to become a major player, and much more important in terms of short term changes Lieberman says ‘an evolutionary perspective predicts that most diets and fitness programs will fail, as they do, because we still don’t know how to counter once-adaptive primal instincts to eat donuts and take the elevator’. Lieberman traces the ill effects of the adoption of agriculture, but then shows that in the last hundred years remarkable improvements in public health and treatment of infectious disease have returned us to the level of health that hunter-gatherers had, and perhaps a little more. We have essentially inverted the landscape: hunter-gatherers died quickly from infections while we die slowly and expensively from chronic disease. A concluding quote from Lieberman:

    ‘Clever as we are, we cannot alter the bodies we inherited in more than superficial ways, and it is dangerously arrogant to think we can engineer feet, liver cells, brains, or other body parts any better than nature already does. Like it or not, we are slightly fat, furless, bipeadal primates who crave sugar, salt, fat, and starch, but we are still adapted to eating a diverse diet of fibrous fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds, tubers, and lean meat. We enjoy rest and relaxation, but our bodies are still those of endurance athletes evolved to walk many miles a day and often run, as well as dig, climb, and carry. We love many comforts, but we are not well adapted to spend our days indoors in chairs, wearing supportives shoes, staring at books or screens for hours on end.’

    Voltaire concluded Candide with ‘We must cultivate our garden’. To that I would add ‘We must cultivate our bodies’.

    3. Listen to this interview with Joel Salatin, the rebel farmer from Virginia. Joel is a rare mixture of high principles and practicality. Whatever happens, we are going to need both: Pay attention to his experience with Monsanto in Sweden.

    Notable quotes from this episode:

    “What’s wrong with us creates more GDP than what’s right with us.” Wendell Berry
    “If you keep giong the way that you’re going, then you’re going to end up where you’re headed.” Chinese Proverb
    “Be the change that you want to see in the world.”
    “With good herbivore management, a perennial system will out compete an annual system of any stripe. Any stripe. And in fact that’s what built the soils of our prairies that we are now mining with annuals.”
    “So yeah, if you’ve got the infrastructure, and it’s paid for, and you have this unfair advantage of being able to do the water, go ahead.But it’s a perfect example where so many times our infrastructure, our highly capitalized infrastructure, begins to dominate our decisions.So what we buy, that was supposedly bought to liberate us from the constraints of nature, and from the constraints of the ecological balance sheet become actually then an enslavement in the future, because we are emotionally and economically enslaved to that highly capitalized infrastructure.”
    “Now, if you go to a diversified operation where you have stackable symbiotic enterprises and you for example integrate plants and animals in the system then you can compete as a small producer because your value adding all of your production through to a final product. And then if you direct market, then you even become more financially successful.Because the average farm is getting all of it’s income off of just production. Well that’s only a ¼ of the retail dollar, the other ¾ come from processing, marketing, and distribution.So if you start wearing all of those other hats, from the evil middleman who makes all of the money; if the middleman makes all of the money, then I want to be one. Pick me, pick me.So if you start taking some of your dollars, not just from production, but from processing, distribution, and marketing, you can sit on a four legged stool instead of a one legged stool and reduce the risk of your income.”
    “The point is that the corn and beans are being grown to be mechanically harvested to be shipped somewhere to be fed to herbivores. Why not just forget planting the annual, plant the perennial… or replant the perennial, let the animal self harvest, self fertilize. The efficiencies of self harvest, of self fertilization, and elimination of all of the equipment for tillage and fertilization is astronomical.”
    “A farm that is conventional and wanting to make a change didn’t get wherever it is overnight, and it won’t get out of wherever it is overnight. And the bigger the farm it is, the harder it is.”
    “I would advise them to sell some land to create a cushion to make the change. That creates some wiggle room that is needed, because changing is financially disturbing.”
    “If everyone of us would do what we know we could do if we really got passionate about it, it would so change our world that we can’t even imagine what tomorrow’s dawn would bring.”

    4.If you haven’t listened to it, find an hour to ponder Toby Hemenway’s lecture ‘How to Save Humanity, But Not Civilization’. I think you will find it complements the first three exercises I recommend. Same discussion about the perils of annual agriculture, but adding more depth in terms of potential solutions.

    Good luck with whatever the future brings….Don Stewart

    • I think the thing that is different now than in prior collapses is the fact that we are having real problems with energy, especially oil, besides a problem with the money supply. When our problem was “only” a problem with money, then the assets were still there, they just got transferred to someone else. Now we have a different problem–the oil and electricity systems are in danger of not working, perhaps not immediately, but in not very many years. The two are tied together, so if one stops working, the other will as well. The assets that got transferred in bankruptcy are likely to stop working when the oil and electricity stop being available.

      Besides the oil and energy issue, there is also the extensive international trade that our manufacturing depends on today, that we did not have years ago. If international trade is disrupted to the point where new computers cannot be made, that by itself could put an end to both oil production and the electric grid.

      I expect that processing, marketing and distribution will need to mostly disappear quite quickly, in a much simpler economy. Families will be sufficiently poor that they cannot afford to pay others to handle these functions.

      I suppose the question is how slowly things fall apart. If they fall apart slowly enough, then perhaps strategies to try to continue what we are doing today, or slightly improved versions of them, will work. If things fall apart quickly, our options are fewer.

      • Don Stewart says:

        If you are talking about Joel Salatin’s system as being a ‘slight improvement’, I think you should look again. (And I know you don’t have time to investigate it.) Joel is talking about dismantling the current agricultural system. He is replacing it with something that is radically local in terms of processing, marketing, and distribution. The technology is, as he says, very light and portable. It’s just about the opposite of capital intensive.

        But as long as electricity works and conducting wires are available, he will use portable electric fences. If the grid collapses, he has other alternatives such as dogs and herdsmen. Distribution is currently by truck to a central location where people come to pick up their orders. The truck is air conditioned to prevent spoilage. If air conditioned trucks are no longer available, then I suspect he will revert to the old way of doing his butchering in the cold weather. He can do that provided the ‘USDA Inspected’ apparatus also disappears. A farm in our area is doing a workshop in January with traditional hog butchering…but they can’t sell you any of the meat, just teach you how to do it.

        The hunter-gatherer solution with meat was to have a feast for the clan rather than to try to save meat for a long time to feed a nuclear family. That may become the new norm. I have heard that old-timers in Montana remember when everything was dried. People were scattered and the ‘clan feast’ wasn’t very practical. It could be that Joel will distribute jerkey. It’s important to remember that, in his system, there are very few steps between the consumer and the producer. He is integrating ‘middle man’ functions on his farm, many of the functions being performed by semi-independent craftspeople. Joel might slaughter a cow, and a craftsman on the farm (but not related to Joel) would make and sell the jerkey.

        It would be suicidal to take the steps required by the disappearance of the electric grid so long as the grid continues to function and trucks continue to roll. He wouldn’t have any customers and no cash flow. But that doesn’t mean that a rapid transition is impossible. What makes it possible is the dismantling of the extremely complex supply chain which leads to supermarkets and its replacement with a very short chain dependent on skilled people.

        Don Stewart

        • Quitollis says:

          Don, it is estimated that the UK could feed a maximum of 1/3 of our present population with present technology and full use of land but without the mass of food that is imported from around the world. Oil — if global trade ends, we have to revert to pre-oil fetilisers and we make do with non-oil machines and technology, then we could feed a only a fraction of that, maybe 5% of the present population to pluck a figure out of the air. 95% then would starve.

          And then there is the consideration of social chaos, violence, riots, cannibalism, the spread of disease from corpses, the collapse of sanitary conditions, food hygene etc. Nearly everyone is going to die.

          Our population is totally unsustainable come peak oil (fracked oil will peak within a few years) yet we still welcome half a million new immigrants per year. That is the sort of thing that I meant when I said that we can be relied upon to make all the wrong decisions at the wrong time. Society will continue to act as if it is business as usual, the system that has brought us to the brink. We seem set on making the collapse as bad as we possibly can.

          I want to make sure that I am well away from any cities when the starving urban millions start flooding out into the countryside,.Remember this is a small, densely populated island and one can only get so far away from any cities. The government may be forced to bomb the cities, Dresden style as damage limitation before they flood out but I doubt whether the British establishment would ever be capable of such an act. They will maximise the collapse.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Quitollis
            You should read very carefully Simon Fairlie’s book Meat: A Benign Extravagance. He takes apart the statistics on available land and the ‘best practice’ productivity of that land and comes to the conclusion that Britain can feed itself, and can also afford the luxury of some meat.
            Don Stewart

          • The UK was last self sufficient in food around 1820, feeding about 6 m people
            We might in theory be able to feed ourselves, but that ignores human nature
            To feed ourselves from our own resources would require everyone to reduce to a low median in every respect, probably a diet of potatoes at best.
            Food intake is a form of energy consumption, but we enjoy consuming energy to support all our other activities.
            All that would have to stop.
            Which would mean that virtually all employment would have to stop except that concerned with food production.
            Which, going back to 1820, is what 95% of the population were engaged in.
            Expecting the same activity to feed 60m is stretching things a bit far.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              I can only reiterate that you ought to read Simon Fairlie’s book. He does a very thorough job–and its not all about potatoes. The high productivity food production that would be entailed for Britain to feed itself would require more people living and working on the land. I forget the exact numbers, but it is significant. He leaves a significant amount of land wild. Beef cattle are significantly reduced, but dairy is retained.

              (As I remember, he included Ireland in the term ‘Britain’)

              Don Stewart

      • it might be said that the essence of what we think of as ‘civilisation’ is being able to pay other people to carry out functions that you normally do yourself.
        In basic terms, that means supply of food/water/heat, and removal of wastes.
        Those factors have always defined wealth and status.
        (the first flushing toilet in England was installed for Elizabeth 1st)
        In early civilisations, it was confined to the wealthy, kings, aristocracy and so on.
        As long as the means to pay (either in cash or kind) was there, then status could be maintained.
        When a king/emperor/dictator no longer has that means, status vanishes.
        The means to sustain that ‘civilisation’ is of course an endless supply of energy,in previous times, that was commanded by the wealthy. (Elizabeth needed servants to carry water up to her toilet to fill the cistern)
        In the last hundred years, we have all had that army of servants to do our work, so we’ve all lived like aristos (in relative terms). As that wealth-support is removed, we will revert to the poverty of a previous era.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear End of More
          Let’s ask ourselves a hypothetical question: Suppose oil had always cost 400 dollars a barrel…would we still have developed a market for oil? And the answer is ‘of course’. We have developed markets for platinum and silver, which are a lot more expensive than oil, volume for volume. We would not be using oil for some of the low value (or negative value) things we use it for today, but we would be using it for high value things.

          What might be an example of a high value use? Bill Clinton talked about one of them at Omega. His foundation is trying to demonstrate that small farmers are a viable solution to the food problems in Africa. So they make agreements with (mostly) women farmers and agree to pick up their products and take them to market with trucks. This simple step has quintupled the income of the women. And because it pays better, the women have greatly increased production.

          Clinton also said that the richest billion people on the planet have enough money to simply buy all the farmland in the world and use it to grow biofuels to power their vehicles, leaving the remaining 6 billion to starve. Now what is this ‘money’ that the rich people have? It is the financial bubble which has been blown by the central banks. Suppose that bubble bursts. The paper and debt assets are revealed as being worth pennies on the dollar. The rich people no longer have the money to buy up all the farmland and starve the poor people. How you view that prospect depends largely on which side of the income divide you are on.

          I think everyone would agree that we COULD have developed an economy which used 400 dollar oil. If that was all we knew, I imagine we would be about as content as people usually are. But now some will claim that there simply isn’t any way to get from a 100 dollar oil economy to the 400 dollar oil economy which we would have otherwise constructed. When asked why we can’t transition to the economy we could have constructed to begin with, they point to all that phantom wealth which might be used to starve 6 billion people and lament that it is at risk. At bottom, I think it is not an engineering issue, but a social issue. We could solve the engineering problem. We don’t know how to wrest control from the super-rich.

          Don Stewart

          • interesting concept Don, in fact in the very early days of oil production, 1860s, oil was around $120 barrel at todays cost, had it stayed there and risen consistently in real terms, we wouldn’t have had an ‘oil economy’. It wouldnt have been a viable product other than for high end luxury use. Gasoline was a waste product until Henry Ford came along.
            Precious metals are marginal, they cannot be used without heat input of some kind. Their value depends on scarcity. You cannot support a viable economy by exchanging gold artifacts. If you doubt that, try eating some.
            The reason the price dropped was because the power of oil did 2 things, it provided the energy-impetus to sink more and more wells, (and deeper mines) and provided the collateral on the investment needed to sink those wells and mines. Investors got an eventual return of 100:!. on oil, 50:1 on coal.
            So the real cost of oil dropped by 90% in 100 years, because of its colossal increase in volume. Rockefeller still became the richest man in the world.
            Our money supply increased at the same rate, because no matter how much money was printed, there was always more oil to back it up. (producing ‘stuff’ which we bought with pretend money.)
            This was what happened in the oil embargo in the 70s, The Arabs tried to squeeze the west by quadrupling its price. Then they found they’d cut off their noses to spite their faces, and had to increase to oilflow to maintain their own lifestyle, So everybody got back to square one.
            Few grasp the truth: that money is worthless unless it is backed up by ever increasing volumes of oil coal and gas energy.
            This is why we cannot run on $400 oil. The $$$ number is irrelevant, what matters is the excess energy available from the fuel we burn.
            If we had 4X as much oil available we could price it at $400 and things would just balance out. We can’t do that, there isn’t any cheap oil left.
            You are perfectly correct about ‘phantom wealth’ if the economy does an oilcrash, it will vanish overnight. We cannot solve the ‘engineering problem…but the social issue will solve itself. Starving populations have always reacted in the same way.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              Nate Hagens discussed the ‘energy slaves’ issue on the Oil Drum. See the link. His conclusion is that oil is worth around $200,000 dollars per barrel in terms of displacing human labor. So I think we would have found ways to build an economy which used oil at $400 dollars a barrel.

              Don Stewart


              The average american uses 60+ barrels of oil equivalent(oil, gas and coal) per year (360 billion joules), which implies a fossil fuel ‘slave’ subsidy of around 60-450 ‘human years’ per person. Depending on assumptions another way to look at it is to take a midpoint of 10,000 hours per barrel. At $20 per hour average payroll compensation, that is $200,000 per barrel, not even quality adjusted….

          • Don
            The critical factor regarding the ‘energy slaves’ factor in oil, is that they are slaves who don’t have to be fed.
            A sugar or tobacco plantation, say, in the 18/19th c had thousands of slaves, and many people think we have simply replaced one source of energy with another.
            Not so, Plantation slaves needed another energy source, food. So essentially human slaves convert one form of energy into another.
            whereas oil energy needs no additional ‘food’. I assume this was the meaning in your last comment.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              I haven’t actually studied Nate Hagens analysis in several years. He’s a smart guy, gives a range of estimates based on what it is you are trying to accomplish, etc. Perhaps I should go back and look again.

              But as a preliminary answer. The value of oil mostly presupposes the existence of combustion engines. Natural gas and oil are also made more valuable by the existence of petrochemical plants which can produce an astonishing variety of products such as plastic and nitrogen fertilizer and so forth and so on. Just simply burning oil, in a whale oil lamp, for example, doesn’t actually create a lot of value. And the value of a truck, for example, is highly dependent on the geometry of the society. Today, we think that oil is absolutely essential because we have constructed our societies to be absolutely dependent on trucks. There is more than a little circularity here.

              The alternative is to build our society as a collection of largely self-sustaining villages. Then trucks become far less valuable and consequently oil is far less valuable. The same arguments can be made about the petrochemicals. If we used more biological methods to solve our problems and fewer petrochemical based methods, then the value of oil would decline. I have pretty frequently been among those who argue that those who actually think that trucks and petrochemicals are absolutely essential are just not thinking broadly enough–that the future may well be dispersed villages relying mostly on biology.

              However, as Lieberman discusses, the quest for comfort is a constant of the human condition. He uses a quote from De Tocqueville: ‘Consider any individual at any period of his life, and you will always find him preoccupied with fresh plans to increase his comfort.’ And so the potential of oil to ‘increase our comfort’ would have been a powerful driver toward the commercial exploitation of 400 dollar oil, since it can do what it would take many, many humans to do. (Lieberman then gives abundant examples of how this search for comfort has led us into many traps.)

              A human is valuable because it can turn food and water into work. A transport machine (and the oil which powers it) are valuable because they can do a lot more work than a human or mule in terms of moving freight from Point A to Point B. Petrochemicals are valuable because they give us at least the illusion that we have a ‘miracle product’…but Lieberman casts some doubt on that when he talks about the necessity for stress…as in the bones and shoes and other examples. The plastic which covers a hoop house which grows winter veggies is sheltering those veggies from stress, which has some pernicious effects in terms of the value of the phytonutrients to humans. It may be a good thing on balance, but it isn’t all a gain.

              Does this evade or answer or at least hint at an answer to your question?

              Don Stewart

          • I don’t think our economies and global societies would look anything like they do now if oil had always cost $400 per barrel. However, it’s hard to imagine just what they would look like, though there would definitely be a lot less people in the world.

          • Don
            It’s such a wide ranging question, that any single answer seems to throw up a whole raft of other questions. It’s very much a chicken and egg problem
            Perhaps instead of oil, I should have used the term ‘hydrocarbons’ as our energy source. Coal enabled mankind to produce iron in vast quantities, before we used coal, it took 1000 tons of tree to produce a ton of iron. that was our critical limiting factor. We were reliant on growing our energy source. (renewables) We also had to use wood for everything else.
            We were running out of trees basically.
            Once Darby had perfected his smelting process,(1709) using coal as the heat source to produce iron, then mankind had the material to begin the alter his environment.
            With iron, you can build everything else, so our petrochemical plants, car factories, ships and wartoys derived exclusively from the breakthrough in iron smelting.
            The particular ‘driving force’ was of course the steam engine. (1774) The power of steam essentially drove the first hundred years of the industrial revolution, the power of oil drove the second hundred years. Neither would have been possible if iron could only have been produced using charcoal.
            Until around 1900 oil was used for heating lighting and lubrication, but the processing plant needed to produce it was made of steel, as were the railways and pipes needed to move it. Rockefeller got rich by piping oil direct to Chicago from the oilfields, long before the car was a practical reality.
            Hydrocarbon-sourced energy is self perpetuating, provided enough can be got hold of to drive the system forward.
            This is where ‘renewables’ fail, you cannot construct a windfarm using the energy output of a windfarm.
            Another mistake we seem to be making, is deluding ourselves that we can have a third hundred years of progress just powered by gadgetry…now that really is the scary bit.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              I agree that reinforcing loops are at work. Once coal becomes available, more uses for coal are developed, human systems adapt to the coal, and a dependence is born.

              It is like cigarettes. The invention of the cigarette makes addiction possible and addiction makes them necessary. A billion people on the planet experience that everyday.

              Lieberman describes similar things. The invention of the escalator made it possible for mobility challenged individuals to get to the second floor, but humans’ proclivity for comfort rather than health means that 97 percent of the people will take the escalator rather than walk up adjacent stairs, which leads to more overweight and mobility challenged humans. If you put up a sign reminding people that a little stair climbing promotes health, another 2 percent will take the stairs.

              Lieberman also describes how 2 year olds are very good ‘systems thinkers’. Any two year old can manipulate the adults to get what it wants. It also has a pretty good idea about consequences–just how far can I push them before they push back. Then, Lieberman says, we send them to school and systems thinking is beaten out of them somehow. Lieberman’s book is an exercise in, among other things, systems thinking.

              I accept that most people will not survive any very fundamental change in the world. The world is too brittle and people have, as Lieberman says, lost the capacity for systems thinking and most are poorly adapted by being raised in a stress-free environment and comfortable environment. If the escalator/ stairs statistics are any indicator, perhaps 5 percent will try to do the right thing, but half of them will probably be swept away by bad luck and unfortunate situations and poor choices. So maybe 2 percent of we 7 billion will survive? But there are likely to be some survivors. That is one reason I post things such as the Australian historian talking about how the Aborigines used fire to make Australia more hospitable to humans. The Europeans despised them for being lazy. They weren’t being lazy, they just knew how to use fire and dams to greatly increase the productivity of the land and didn’t take the next step of destructive agriculture. To the Europeans, if one wasn’t practicing destructive agriculture, one wasn’t doing God’s bidding.

              It’s also why I suggest, as my final thoughts on the subject, a couple of books and Toby’s essay that look pretty deeply at the fundamentals of humans existence with a variety of approaches to life. And Joel Salatin’s subversive methods which are profitable even today.

              Don Stewart

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              Just a couple more things to ponder. First, a scientist at the USDA research center in Maryland took three different plots of land and planted some plants in them. Two of the plots were ‘normal’ and one was selected to represent what Maryland will probably look like in 30 years. The plants which were still ‘wild’ thrived in the ‘climate change’ plot…evidently because they contain a lot of genetic diversity and Darwinian processes result in adaptation. Now think about Monsanto essentially buying and shutting down the ecological agriculture section in Sweden, that Joel Salatin talks about. Monsanto’s whole deal is genetic poverty and ‘trust us’ and everything is patented. The Obama administration calls the Monsanto strategy ‘science based’ and tries to force it on the whole world.

              Now consider this clip from an orchard in Quebec. This is the opposite strategy. Construct an ecosystem and watch it function.


              You can see that only 6 or 7 years have elapsed since they replanted the orchard as an ecosystem, and it is functioning beautifully. There is nothing impossible about this, and it produces huge amounts of food. The limitations are ignorance, Monsanto, the governments, and the other usual cast of criminals. In the US, I expect that having an open day and inviting people to eat fruit right off a tree will soon be illegal. Some microbe might be lurking there. Despite Lieberman having pointed out that exposing children to a wide variety of microbes is essential to their adult health, our government wants them to grow up in a sterile environment so they can become good customers for Obamacare.

              We are dealing with corporate money and insanity. As I said, the engineering problems we can solve. The social problems are the real issues.

              Don Stewart

          • Don
            on the escalator problem, this is probably the answer

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear End of More
              I agree on the fun theory.

              But imagine Obama’s Food and Drug Administration watching helpless young children eating plums right off the tree…and who know what sorts of vicious microbes might be lurking there. Have to stamp out the fun and make sure the plums are thoroughly dead before they get to any consumer.

              Of course, there isn’t a shred of evidence supporting the Monsanto/ FDA/ USDA position. For example, some very new research on prairie health:

              A couple of years ago I recommended that everyone read Teaming With Microbes. But people are reluctant to actually accept that we can gently nudge ecosystems and let them produce abundance. They believe deep in their hearts that sledgehammers are the only things that work…’sweat of brow’, etc. Most people are very comfortable wallowing in hopelessness. People can become addicted to the hormones of hopelessness.

              Don Stewart

  9. Quitollis says:

    Evolution works best upon a small population with harsh conditions. It works worst on a large population with soft circumstances. The modern lifestyle may be considered the ultimate historical opposite of ideal evolutionary conditions. Society has done everything that it can to make life as secure as possible for as many people as possible. A population long at odds with the most basic principles of Nature can be expected to make all the wrong decisions at the wrong time. They have long departed from a sustainable natural path, become detached from all natural wisdom and common sense, They are a product of the negation of nature’s upward path and they embody the wayward lapse. Liberal capitalism is a dysgenic catastrophe. There is only one way that will end. When the oil is done, the population will crash back down to levels more amenable to nature. Like st. Paul said, “it is hard to kick against the goads”: nature can be mocked for only so long. We will just have to hope that humanity will not do too much damage to other species before nature restores the balance. Man is supposed to be a rational animal, well we had better start acting like it.

    • I guess I am not too worried about other species–nature seems to have them pretty well covered.

      I do worry about poisons being spread all over, though. Mercury and arsenic are two such poisons, and the many byproducts of mining. I suppose that other materials will settle over such substances pretty quickly, but they still make life much worse for many kinds of species at the same time.

      • We should all be worried about other species, Gail. Nature doesn’t “have them covered” because humans (we) are altering their habitats at an alarming rate. We’re altering our own, too. But humans aren’t separate from the rest of nature, they are part of it, with interdependencies that are still poorly understood. Without the biodiversity we evolved into, it is unknown whether humans could survive as our artificially maintained bubble begins to disintegrate.

        • I guess I am assuming that human population will drop greatly, allowing other species to grow in numbers.

          • Tony says:

            That’s a big assumption, Gail. Some surviving species may grow in numbers as their predators become extinct but climate change and habitat loss will march on for some time after our societies disintegrate. It might get even worse depending on how that disintegration plays out.

            Of course, eventually new species will evolve, habitats/ecosystems will reach new equilibria and climax states, and the earth will have a different mix of creatures and plants. Whether that includes Homo sapiens is an open question.

            Yes, we should be worried about what we are doing, and will do, to other species. We almost certainly need a high bio-diversity to give us, or our decendants, the best chance of survival.

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