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. ravinathan says:

    An excellent book review by Alice Friedeman summarizing the difficulties in the long run storage of nuclear waste. This is a good counterpoint to the nuclear hopium comments that continually creep in even in this blog. Not only do we have serious legacy issues with the existing nuclear reactors and associated wastes, the add on risks of ever more reactors is terrifying. Hopefully increasing energy costs of mining and diminishing natural reserves will put the kabash on further nuclear growth.

  2. Don Stewart says:

    Dear All
    If you want to get a pretty good idea of the world of the Australian Aborigines up to European contact, see this 15 minute talk by Bill Gammage:

    Gammage is very clear that the Australian landscape was the creation of the human inhabitants. The principle tool used was fire, but they also managed water with dams. One of the nice features are the paintings and drawings done by Europeans which show the Aborigines hunting.

    Don Stewart

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    One of the basic tenets of this blog is that we are reaching financial limits, which are likely to lead to collapse well before we reach any physical limits. I have been doing some reading which I think may shed some light and offer some productive ways of thinking about the subject. The book is Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.

    From the chapter on The Evolution of Religion:

    Fist, he notes (page 358) that small bands used relgions for only two purposes: supernatural explanations and defusing tensions through ritual. But then the emergence of chiefdoms and States required additional functions which were satisfied by reworked or newly invented religions: providing comfort about pains and death; standardized organization; preaching political obedience; moral codes of behavior toward strangers; and the justification of wars.

    Second, if you look on page 367, you will see his impressionistic graphs of the influence of religions up to 5000 BC in bands and tribes, from 5000 BC to 1 BC in chiefdoms and states, in European States around 1600 AD, and in modern secular states. He shows that religion’s influence has declined for all the purposes in modern secular states from the previous high points, many of which were reached in Europe in 1600..

    So how did chiefdoms and early states get a bunch of anarchist tribesmen to submit to external authority? ‘The solution devised by every well-understood chiefdom and early state society… was to proclaim an organized religion with the following tenets: the chief or king is related to the gods, or even is a god; and he or she can intercede with the gods on behalf of the peasants, e.g., to send rain or to ensure a good harvest; the chief or king also renders valuable services by organizing the peasants to construct public works, such as roads, irrigation systems, and storehouses that benefit everyone. In return for those services, the peasants should feed the chief and his priests and tax collectors. Standardized rituals, carried out at standardized temples, serve to teach those religious tenets to the peasants so that they will obey the chief and his lackeys. Also fed by food collected from the peasants are armies obedient to the chief or king, with which the chief can conquer neighboring lands…or put down revolts by the peasants themselves’

    If you think about the exaltation of the Federal Reserve and the other central banks today, it looks very much like the promotion of the state religions. Ben Bernanke is adored for having ‘saved civilization’, paper money is seen as a very real and valuable substance, derivatives go to the head of the line when Detroit goes bankrupt, the Greeks are starving themselves to pay back loans that their fraudulent leaders signed on to, people think that the promises to pay in the future for retirement benefits and medical care and future food consumption are actually going to come true, people think that taxing the working class to recapitalize the banks is a good thing to do. Taking an African peasant’s land is ‘a moral thing to do’ if paper money is given to the thug who rules the country so that a proper deed is issued to some global corporation. Traditional crops bred for generations by peasants can be patented by global corporations and turned into monopolies because patents carry the approval of the gods. The parallels to religion are uncanny.

    On page 368, Diamond asks ‘What about religion’s future? That depends on what shape the world will be in 30 years from now. If living standards rise all around the world, then religion’s functions 1 and 4-7 will continue to decline, but functions 2 and 3 seem likely to persist….If, on the other hand, much of the world remains mired in poverty or if (worse yet) the world’s economy and living standards and peace deteriorate, then all functions of religion, perhaps even supernatural explanation, may undergo a resurgence.’

    The last hurrah of the Plain Indians’ religion was the Ghost Dance, which was supposed to drive the white men back to where they came from. When it failed, we got the miserable fate of the reservation Indians. Suppose QE is the equivalent of the Ghost Dance. What do you think will come next?

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:

      In the city of Baghdad a dervish was challenged by the Caliph to state an absolute truth about religion, on pain of a very painful death if it could be disproved. His enemies the religious hypocrites wanted to get rid of him.

      He walked into the Royal Palace shouting out ‘Your God is under my foot! I trample your God into the dirt under my foot with every step!’ (Imagine saying that now in a pious neighbourhood in the Islamic world and you will get an idea of the uproar!)

      Seized by the guards, the outraged Caliph threatened him with crucifixion and a few other little extra treats if he couldn’t come up with an explanation, a good one. His enemies were delighted by this turn of events.

      ‘Take off my left shoe then, and you will find my explanation.’ said the dervish.

      In doing so they found a golden dinar.

      ‘That is your God, is it not, which you think about all day? And that is the Truth you wanted from me!’

      Richly rewarded by the now abashed and embarrassed Caliph, he went free on his way.

    • Stan says:

      Don Stewart noted:

      “…was to proclaim an organized religion with the following tenets: the chief
      or king is related to the gods, or even is a god; and he or she can intercede
      with the gods on behalf of the peasants,”

      Perhaps technology has become our new “religion”? I’m reminded of a quote from Arthur C. Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Maybe this culture has a belief that the magic of technology (as our beloved diety) will always rescue us from whatever we have gotten ourselves into. Gail may be doomed as a present-day. And voices such as Gail’s will be ignored like the phrophetess Casandra.


    • I am afraid I haven’t read Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”. I read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” and parts of “Collapse”. I remember reading some negative reviews of the book at the time the book came out, and didn’t get the book. Perhaps I should now reconsider.

      I agree that religions now have a great many functions. Without the book, I am not quite sure what his list is, or which functions you are referring to.

      I expect my list would contain many functions not on his list–many of which have nothing to do with desires of leaders to control their populations. So you may be right–but there may be other functions as well.

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Folks
    Someone recently commented that this blog has become one of the most negative on the Internet. Well…here is something different.

    This is a lecture in Vermont by Dr. John H. Todd. He talks about a lot of subjects. I particularly want to call your attention to a couple of items. The first 15 minutes or so is about the Eco Machines which produce pure water from toxic waste, including sewage. He talks about the system installed at Omega in Rhinebeck, NY. A number of people dismissed it as ‘green porn’. Please take another look.

    Culminating at the 30 minute point, he shows the results of rehabilitating terrible land in West Virginia left from the ‘mountaintop removal’ disaster. Note the role played by biochar, at about 29 minutes.

    The common denominator is the use of biological methods to clean up after humans. Nature could do this job without human intervention, but it might take thousands of years. Intelligent design and implementation by humans can speed up the process quite significantly. (Which is the core concept in Permaculture). I would hasten to add that the ability to restore is no excuse for destroying in the first place…but it does give us some hope.

    Please note that some products of modern technology, such as PVC pipes and solar panels are used. If you are a dedicated doomer you may immediately dismiss everything else you see. But if you are a realist, you may see some things which give you hope and, perhaps, determination.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:


      Thanks again. Keep them coming.

      Maybe we should aim to be Pragmatic Adaptors, rather than slip into the muddy valley of pessimism and depression.

      In Britain, there’s quite a bit of work underway now encouraging people to increase their resilience and grow food, some sponsored by the BBC.

      Now, It’s notorious that people will spend hours watching cookery programmes on how to prepare good real food, and then simply put a frozen meal in the microwave oven when the time comes to eat, so the take-up will naturally be modest.

      But I’m sure quite a few people will take up the challenge. And then friends might follow them. Of course, most won’t. And many who would, can’t. But that’s no reason to dismiss it.

      Little by little we can do what we can while our ‘leaders’ try to keep the failed globalized economy project on track and pursue the will-o’the-wisp of ever-increasing GDP as they stagger through the marshes to their doom.

      The odds of survival are slim. But they always have been for human kind, and it’s no excuse for doing nothing.

    • Thanks for adding a bit of positive outlook!

      • xabier says:

        My pleasure. If our ancestors had lain down and given up, we wouldn’t be here, after all!

        • you me and everyone else are the pinnacle of our ancestors achievements, often agains all the odds of war and diseases.
          their genes had a slightly stronger survival rate—hence you are here

          • That was true in the past. I’m not so sure now. There must be many people alive today purely because of medical intervention (whether it is help with fertility of their parents or keeping people alive into their child bearing years).

  5. Stan says:

    Here’s an interesting article that explains while “Saving up energy generated in bright and windy conditions and using it when the sun stops shining and the wind stops blowing feels like a no-brainer” the realities of the technology involved points to a different answer.


    • I agree. The only reason wind and solar look good as energy sources is because most analysts forget that dumping the electricity on the grid without storage is not a good idea. Once the storage costs get added, the result is very bad.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, you are right about storage for 24/7 driving the cost way up. This is why I think we will have to change to working when the sun shines. The future energy system may not be 24/7.

        • The question is whether we can in fact make the system operate on a system that works only part of the time.

          Oil is pushed through pipelines, using electricity. If this is not available 24/7, I expect this would be a problem, especially where the oil moves uphill. A bigger problem is that refineries have to be kept going 24/7 using electricity. A shut down leads to a long start-up period–this has been a problem after hurricanes. Intermittent electricity would likely result in pretty much zero oil for consumption, leading to problems with lubrication, for example. Transportation would become a huge problem.

  6. timl2k11 says:

    I think I should start a blog on absurd assertions I come across on the internet. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities states here: “Studies show that in a distressed economy, every dollar of SNAP benefits creates at least about $1.70 in economic activity”. They do not reference the studies.
    Well there you have it, the solution to all our problems! Put everyone on Food Stamps!
    I assume the economic benefit assumes people are more productive when they’re not starving, but when the food is free are you encouraged to be productive? I doubt that. I know I wouldn’t be.

    • Scott says:

      Hello, I have really noticed how much more I spend on food these days, took a trip to three stores to do my monthly shopping since we live far from a large town and easily spent $600 to get most of our stuff for two people in the US and we will have to go back again to get more before the month is over. A trip to the large store can really cost big bucks and if you want good food like Organic you will really pay these days. I try to find a happy medium, I buy as much good foods as we can afford and then try to grow some too.

      About 30 years ago when I was much younger, I was on food stamps (briefly) before I got a job at a muffler shop when I moved to Montana (I now live in Oregon Retired), but back then – they the food stamps really bought so much food. more than we could eat then and then they were paper certificates. These days I do not think they will buy an excess of food like I saw in the 1980’s when I used them for a few months.

      We surely are spending more of our income on food these days, especially if you eat right, another good reason to grow those veggie gardens! But here in Oregon, it is now winter the garden is over, we have some frozen and dried foods in the pantry, everything else fresh will cost big bucks for imported fresh veggies in the winter. I suspect this trend will get harder and worse in the years ahead.


      • Scott, you’ve nailed the ultimate problem that humanity faces. Particularly in big countries, but ultimately everywhere
        In previous times, energy was cheap, so people pushed further and further out into territories that would not have supported them without access to cheap fuel and food. In the northern wilderness, trees were limitless to convert into a means of survival, then oil began to be converted into food and fuel, and also seemed limitless. No matter where we lived, a means was always available to travel back to our food (and heat) sources.
        There is an exact parallel between humanity and the business of sinking oilwells:
        If it costs more to pump oil out of a well than the energy value that can be extracted from that well, then the well is shut down.
        If our travel to get food costs more than the value of the food we can carry home, then we either die or move.
        By travel of course I mean walking. We might think of food as ‘expensive’ but right now it is heavily subsidised by the input of cheap fuel into vehicles. No doubt you recognise this weak link in our living system, the majority don’t accept that every gallon of fuel is like having 50 men carrying the food you need, while being paid the price of that gallon split between them. As the cost of fuel rises, we will no longer be able to pay for the effort of those ’50 slaves’ and so will be unable to live at a distance from our heat/food sources.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear End of More and Scott
          It’s easy to oversimplify things. For example, Jared Diamond in The World Until Yesterday, around page 303, discusses the curious case of Andean peasants. They farm numerous small plots which are scattered about. When a Western Ag expert looks at it, he immediately concludes that the arrangement is stupid and that the peasants should consolidate their small plots into one large plot. But close study shows that many small plots serve as an insurance policy against total crop failure. Spotty rainfall, pests, frosts, theft, etc. may affect one plot but not the others. When a scientist studied the system in detail, they found that the peasants had developed a system which guaranteed sufficient nutrition with a high degree of probability. But if the peasants followed the Western Ag advice, they stood a 37 percent chance of starvation in any given year.

          The peasants have to walk between their various plots, and carry their tools with them. ‘However, Goland calculated that the extra calories thereby burned up were only 7 percent of their crop calorie yields, an acceptable price to pay for avoiding starvation.’ Please note that no fossil fuels and very small amounts of fuel wood are used.

          It pays to be very careful when drawing any parallels between mechanical and biological energy systems. There are important differences. For example, see this announcement of a book and a talk in Australia:

          The author’s thesis is that the Australian Aborigines were ‘farming’ the continent of Australia, and the author claims that they were ‘more efficient than the Europeans’. The Aborigines used fire (which suppressed trees) and very simple wooden tools. The current generation of Australians are using fossil fuels, metals, and plowing and irrigation and have subjected themselves to bush fires and climate change and the perils of depletion.

          My point here is that if one wants to micromanage Nature, it is best to confine oneself to a window box. On the other hand, managing a continent to be more hospitable to humans–and not destroy it– is actually pretty easy IF you know how to do it and humans are able to cooperate in the enterprise. Toby Hemenway frequently refers to the same phenomenon…for example his talks with jungle gardeners in Central America.

          Don Stewart

          • xabier says:


            It’s all about micro environments.

            Just by observing the different zones in one’s garden the point can be grasped.

            I climb up the small hill just a few hundred yards from the depression in which my village sits, and it’s a markedly different environment.

            The snow and ice lingers longer in the neighbouring county, for the most part, but longest of all in our depression when the rest of our county has thawed.

          • until the Middle Ages, and a change in farming methods, UK peasant farmers used the same ‘small plot’ system, where big areas were divided into long strips. You can still see those strips today,grassed over as pasture.

          • That is a good point about small crops. I expect it is especially important with respect to insect pests and animal pests.

            What might stand in the way of this working is if there is a need for fences to keep out larger animals or human thieves from the crops. Then the embedded energy in the many fences would be a problem.

            • Don Stewart says:

              The small plot system in the Andes, and also I think in Europe, were strips of land mixed in with strips of other people’s land. So we could think of a large field which had multiple tenants. Fences wouldn’t have been much good in terms of keeping out serious thieves, since chain link fencing with razor wire wasn’t available. Probably the best defense against thieves was simply the fact that multiple farmers visited the field most every day and would be likely to notice any thieves. Justice was probably swift.

              In terms of large herbivores such as deer, they were usually just exterminated, or very nearly so. The historical farm near my house used fences only to keep livestock inside–not as protection against deer. When times get tough, the deer will be one of the first casualties. Small pests such as groundhogs wouldn’t do the systemic damage that deer can do today. A plague of grasshoppers might strike one field, but not a field half a mile away.

              Don Stewart

        • xabier says:

          An instructive mental exercise is to look at any activity being carried on with oil-power (transport of food, construction) and then to imagine it being performed by men or women alone, or with draught animals.

          I’ve just been watching an old BBC series ‘In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great’, it’s on YouTube. In it one can see people still living more or less in a human and horse and donkey-powered economy, juxtaposed with the toys of modernity powered by oil.

          Not only is it a superb historical documentary, but very instructive.

    • xabier says:

      ‘Economic activity’ is to be distinguished from people actually being active and enterprising……

      ‘Multiplier effects.’ Snake eating its own tail. In the old mythologies that could go on for ever, but this kind of economic cycle can’t!

    • I presume they mean that if they spend $1.00 on SNAP (food stamps), the food stamp recipients will give them to a grocery store, who will get real money for them. The grocery story will use them to pay its employees, and the employees will in turn use the money to buy food and clothing. The recipients of those dollars will again pay their employees, who will pass them on again.

      At some point, the government will have to get the $1.00 back in taxes to pay for SNAP. In fact, it will have administrative expenses as well. If we followed those transactions through, I expect we would somehow come to a similar impact, except that there is friction in the system. There are a number of employees of the Federal Government who are only adding value by the effort of administering the system.

  7. Scott says:

    Hello, In regards to living in the wilds without clothes and shelters, modern humans will surely perish. As some have mentioned – we no longer have much fur and — in the old days they wore heavy animal skins like Buffalo in the old west, they were very heavy – but life saving and warm.
    I also agree our stomachs and have been severely weakened by modern antibiotics and modern processed foods especially fast foods etc, but a walk through most stores reveals a host of poison foods for those who know what is in them. We have weaker immune systems now – due our industrial world than the tough folks I read about in my books from the past days.

    I know this first hand as I was given too many antibiotics in my younger years which I now suffer stomach troubles from. I would warn folks not to take to many of them and also be careful if you can by more unprocessed meats and foods. I have noticed in recent years even many fresh meats have additives which we should avoid.

    Without shelter and cooked foods modern man would perish in many areas of the world today.


    • jal says:

      if there is to be any long term human survivors, it will take the fortunes of the richest people to find the right DNA that can be modified.

  8. jal says:

    “… 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. …”

    The naked ape would do much better if our DNA was tweaked so that we would have some of our recessive genes activated and improved.

    ie. a beautiful fur coat, a better digestive system and a better immune system.

    • Interesting points. The fur coat would be helpful for the colder climates, not so much the warmer ones. The better immune system would be helpful for living so close together.

  9. Ted says:

    I just read on the Automatic Earth that the worse is over for Japan! I am dumbfounded by this comment; seems to me that tough times for Japan are just beginning. Some of the actions they have taken make our QE look small by comparison. I don’t have time to list all the headwinds for Japan. Am I reading that comment right?

    • I’m not quite sure which TAE article you are looking at, but I would agree that tough times for Japan are just beginning. Their amount of government debt is just astounding. They have essentially no energy sources of their own, so everything is imported. Without nuclear, they are in tough shape. They have too much population for such a small amount of arable land.

      • ted says:

        Well here is the comment “Jim Puplava welcomes back Nicole Foss, Senior Editor at The Automatic Earth. Nicole is currently lecturing in the US, and believes that not only is Europe the leading edge of a developing depression, but other bubbles are in the process of bursting around the globe. Nicole is relatively optimistic about Japan, where she feels the worst is over. ” Comments like these are very dangerous and are not unlike what you see on CNBC and Fox news when they want to manipulate a story to fit their angle. The masses are going to read that and think “well Japan is not doing so bad so we will have a little rough patch and bounce back too.” Disinformation….Shame…shame….Ted

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear ted
          Here is a link to Nicole talking with Radio Ecoshock very recently. At about 14 minutes, she begins to talk about Japan. Not behind a paywall.

          I will paraphrase:

          What is about to happen to Europe, the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand is not really what happened to Japan. At the time of their financial collapse, Japan was still able to export into the most gigantic bubble the world has ever seen. So, to the extent that things sort of worked for them, they won’t work in 2014 as there won’t be any places left to export to. Then she notes that Japan did not really avoid a depression, they just avoided total collapse (thanks to their ability to export).

          Here whole talk has been about collapse with a capital C, so I think it would be misreading her comments to say that she thinks the US, Europe, etc., will simply slide into a ‘lost decades’ scenario.

          Don Stewart

  10. Buford Holt says:

    It seems we are more likely to have controls imposed by disease, starvation, etc. that apply to animal populations that drastically exceed the populations their environments can sustain long term. These cultural mechanisms will work long term, but we don’t have the time for them to take effect. I suspect we will encounter economic collapse first, followed by at least natural challenges we will face will resemble those of the Medieval Warm Period which was characterized by a 1 degree rise in average global temperature. That episode took out civilizations all along the west coast of the Americas and will hit us hard again as California is already exploiting virtually all the water it economically can obtain. Reductions in supply will cause real problems in food supply for the nation as California will lack the resources to overcome the water supply and delivery problems to come without slashing services elsewhere in the economy. The question of immediate concern to individuals seems therefore to be how to prepare to survive amidst food and income shortages should the economy collapse suddenly as Gale and others have suggested is a very real possibility. As one who has been looking for work for some time, it seems to me that it will require building a tad of experience in a number of entry level trades so who has a chance of getting some sort of work somewhere no matter what. The question of concern for society seems to be how to maximize the number of survivors and the amount of culture/technology we save. We will face not only the problems of the Middle Ages but we may face changes in the acidity of the surface waters of the ocean and certainly will face problems arising from depletion of stocks of the fishes comprising the more sophisticated elements of the biological regulatory systems of the oceans. Then, there is nowhere left to go that can hold the populations that might need to migrate. It would seem the answers lie in community and spirituality.

    • I would agree that community, and perhaps spirituality and/or organized religions may be helpful in getting us through this.

      The catch with the number surviving is that while we would all like as many as possible to survive, in many ways it would be better if not quite so many survived. Resources per capita are higher with a lower population. This is what allowed hunter-gatherers to live pretty well without a whole lot of work. As we get closer and closer to maximum capacity, an increasing amount of work to maintain an adequate lifestyle seems to be necessary.

  11. As usual Gail, your ability to summarize complex issues is stunning.

  12. edpell says:

    I like Gail’s take on anthropology. Sounds pretty reasonable to me.

  13. edpell says:

    Switzerland is small and has little farm land. If they wish to remain rich they will need to address population density. Good luck. I would say only three countries have done it so far Japan, North Korea, and Cuba.

  14. Stan says:

    Is there an antrhropologist in the house?

    After reading Gail :”I thought the late 1700s to early 1800s might be a target too, until I realized that fossil fuels is not really the sole issue…Another reason we can’t make the assumption that we could go back to that period is because that period depended on particular systems they had in place then–draft animals and built infrastructure to accommodate those animals, for example, and apprentice programs for workers in different fields. We don’t have any of those now.”

    Yes we do…find a community of Amish and observe. First objection I hear is that many Amish employ new technology (post 18th century). Well then, let’s get a project going to send an anthropologist to an Amish community and ask them how will they survive without any outside technology (like kereosene, etc). The results would make for a good starting point for what many think that will need to happen – and it will settle many an arguement. Does anyone know how to start a KICKSTART campaign?


    • edpell says:

      There are groups of smart people doing things to prepare right now. The Bruderhoff religious group is heating their winter green houses with wood. They replace electric golf carts for mobility of the old community members with hand pushed wheeled chairs. It both reduces their consumption of things made outside the community like batteries and links young people with old people. They make the wheeled chairs themselves in house. Yes still tech they need welding gases from outside and metal pipe stock from outside.

    • At this point, a large share of small farms have been demolished in the Midwest. There are no barns left, or fences, or houses for that matter. It would take some sort of construction to build new houses and barns, and fences.

      The number of Amish is small, and they are using many current technologies. I don’t know the details, but I would be willing to bet they use metal fences, for example. I would not be surprised if they also use metal tools pulled behind horses. Using those technologies puts them well in to the 19th century.

  15. Stan says:

    Gail wrote” “…All we have to do is leave our homes, take off all of our clothes…”

    Solves the sky-jacking problem, doesn’t it?


  16. Stan says:

    Earlier PeteTheBee asked: “wow – the Africans are starving because the West is helping them?”

    For an example see:

    A short quote: “…multinational milk companies (Nestlé mentioned) were causing infant illness and death in poor communities by promoting bottle feeding and discouraging breast feeding.”


  17. timl2k11 says:

    I think the unique problem for humans is death, or rather our unique-among-all-other-animals awareness of it. It could be argued that everything we create is in protest to our inevitable demise. See the Pulitzer prize winning “Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker.

    • I agree that denial of death is a big reason behind a lot of our actions. (That and “making a profit” for companies and “getting reelected” for government officials.)

      The comment you sometimes see is that the hunter gatherer lived very much for today, rather than planning for the future. But if they were doing birth control, there certainly was some planning for the future.

      • Anna says:

        “I agree that denial of death is a big reason behind a lot of our actions”

        So the elites of the world offer internal life to the masses for the control of their behavior and organized religion is born.

        • Government and religions have been paired for a very long time. There are a lot of convenient synergies. If the priest blesses what the King does, it looks right in the eyes of the people. The temples can run useful stores.

    • It’s not so much an awareness of death, but perhaps an awareness of past and future.
      We can remember a past, and anticipate a future that will be an improvement on that past
      Animals cannot do that, or have ambition, or worship ancestors/deities, or imagine their fate is determined by a supreme animal-being, the concept of which has been created by themselves in a distant past.

  18. SteveK says:

    Excellent video here.
    Four Horsemen – How The World Really Works

  19. dashui says:

    Talking about deforestation, I was wandering up in the mountains of Korea and I noticed all the trees were crooked, I thought it was because of the heaven snows, but actually it’s because over the centuries shipbuilders and carpenters took all the straight trees to make boards, so only crooked trees were left to multiply. Humans, we can’t get anything right!

    • xabier says:


      Amusing. Makes one think of Kant the philosopher’s saying: ‘Out of the crooked timber of Man, you will never make anything straight!

  20. Good Evening Gail, regarding demography, to be down to earth, Switzerland voters voted last spring to implement new rule allowing the shareholders to have a look on board managers wages and declare them excessive if necessary. In addition, voters will vote on nov 24 if they want a law limiting in a company the gap between the lowest and highest salary by 1:12. The Swiss knive maker victorinox has this policy since decades. And finally, a group is collecting signatures to bring a national vote setting a limit of population growth by 0,2% maximum (today 1% per year) to match with environmental capacity and resources…

    • xabier says:

      Swiss Coaching

      Interesting. How do they propose to implement the limit?

      I suppose most growth in population in Switzerland now comes from immigration and high birth rates among the lower classes (often immigrants?) as in the UK?

      What is the euthanasia position in Switzerland?

    • A small country can perhaps do this, but it seems like it would be harder for a larger, more diverse country to do something like this.

      How do you limit population growth? Cutting off immigration is pretty easy; requiring prospective mothers to get permission in advance or to have abortions would be unpopular, to say the least. Publicity about the need to keep population down can be helpful though.

      With respect to wages, large companies can fairly easily move their domicile to a country where rules are to their liking. Some businesses have to stay put, but others would move, in today’s world.

      • xabier says:

        I can’t really see how the Swiss can do this under current conditions.

        Historically, the Swiss kept their population down to some extent by stratagems such as sending the excess of young men off to war as mercenaries, between the 15th and 19th centuries. If they came back, they had usually acquired gold as payment and plunder, and so contributed to the economy. The sheer hardness of rural life then also no doubt restricted growth.

        Similarly, the mountain Basques went into the military, emigrated to the Americas (the famous Basque shepherds of the US) or to work as higher servants in the towns of Spain for which they had a high reputation. I suspect you would see the same in most hard rural areas. Same thing for the upper classes sending sons and daughters into the Church, (often against their will) or off as knights errant.

        Again, if they returned, they brought wealth with them. I’ve referred before to the Basque system of near-slavery by which non-inheriting siblings stayed on the family farm to work, but had no children: food and lodging for life, but no sex for them except in the brothels of the market town every now and then. This is perhaps why the ever-realistic Catholic Church gave an acknowledged place to prostitutes in society. and within its system of theology.

        I think we have to admit that the only society capable of fully adapting to its limits, is a strictly hierarchical, agrarian or hunter-gatherer society, with maybe limited urbanisation, intelligently and ruthlessly directed by those with an awareness of limits and the power to enshrine the solutions (infanticide, suicide/euthanasia/exposure/customary starvation of the elderly and the incapable) and sensible custodianship of natural resources, in rigid custom. It has to be a customary society, and free-thought and individualism have to be crushed for it to work.

        It is obviously not compatible with the Western ‘progressive liberal’ conscience or modern urbanised life. We have constructed a totally non-adaptive social and economic model based on an ignorance of limits, even a defiance of them.

        Even then, climate change causing environmental degradation and failure of agriculture and livestock herding could force such societies to go on the move to pastures greener, as occurred with the move of the ‘English’ (really Danes and Swedes) to the British Isles in the 5th century AD.

        • I agree, “We have constructed a totally non-adaptive social and economic model based on an ignorance of limits, even a defiance of them.”

          The Chinese have come closest to doing something about the problem with a one-child policy, but they are growing greatly in other ways, and backing away from the one-child policy, so are not really doing it either. Fossil fuels have allowed us to ignore limits.

      • Scott says:

        Hello, Don Stewart recently mentioned about the Andes, that region seems to be threatened by melting glaciers which supply so much water now for their fertile farm lands, I guess just another sign of global change and warming. It looks like a nice place now, but seems poised to dry out which will be tough.–melted-just-25.html

        more pictures.


  21. A societey can choose between birth regulation by religion or by law and the restricted use of resources , also by law, which is the better option, or by keeping the people as poor and uneducated as possible. Or… they use weapons and hostile activities in general to deny the resources to competitors. Economic activities of all kind, especially the market but also corruption as part of the market can be very hostile too.
    It is very civilized that a society regulates its birthrate and its use of natural resources, but it has to make sure it has enough powerfull weapons too.
    When the entire global resource systems tend towards collapse, it may be of huge importance to strike first, complete and without warning and afterwards maintain an (airborne and field tested) automatic system of suppression.
    Gail, most of your writings are so clear, and sound, that you give us a more complete but scaring background view on the other, more popular news of the day.
    A friend advised me to eat more vegetables, which I do now for most of the time, and I also prefer to buy (and sell) second-hand stuff if possible. Both can be, on very short terms, a real and feasible solution.

    • Excellent text Koen, I agree with you.

    • Ert says:


      Yo wrote: “When the entire global resource systems tend towards collapse, it may be of huge importance to strike first, complete and without warning and afterwards maintain an (airborne and field tested) automatic system of suppression.”

      I think that we are seeing that now, especially with drones and the Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) – with no oversight of the US congress. JSOC is active in over 70 countries, does sabotage, directed killings, drone attacs, etc. – this is also discussed in the Sundance wining documentary “Dirty Wars”:

      It may be, that there are some people who have figured out what Gail and we (commenter’s) have figured out a long time ago. The difference is: “They”, who are in control, have more to “loose” by the required change then “we”…

      • Yes, indeed. I share your opinion. But there is no choice. It is “survival of the fittest” or “all go down together”. “They” try to do the first. It will be a pointless effort, in my opinion. They will have to make an exact estimation of how many can survive and how they will organise the remains and the remaining resources. If they overestimate, a second die-off will be necessary, but the surprise effect will be gone, and there will be war until the end. If a wrong place of survival is chosen, or if too few survive, they could be to weak to withstand the forces of (new) nature.

        • Ert says:


          Thanks for your reply. The dramatic part of that what happens is that precious life’s, resources, efforts and infrastructure are wasted for “nothing”. If “we” (globally) would put that effort and those wasted resources into joint efforts to scale back/down and reduce the population by societal contracts and understanding of the global matter….

          But I am no day dreamer and see what is happening. Even in Germany, where I live, they still try to encourage people to extend our population. There is lots of news that we have to few skilled workers in the future if we do not increase our population – and on the other side our whole educational system gets dismantled and family income erodes, to that kids are a luxury for an ever increasing part of the population.

          The whole system is schizophrenic – the most I (from my current point of view – which may change in the future 😉 can do is to scale down and not to support it by reducing taxes that I have to pay and not getting into the child business at this point in history.

          • xabier says:


            Yes, it’s rather crazy in North-Western Europe.

            High taxes, but still ever-more social cuts; and politicians then lecture us on not saving enough and also not spending enough for the economy.

            Worries about falling birth-rates, but the old industries are shrinking all the time and most replacement jobs are of low quality and poor prospects.

            Pressure to send all the young into higher education, while the quality of that education and fewer jobs await them on graduation.

            The least-capable sections of society living on welfare and reproducing at a high rate, while those who have invested in education and a profession can hardly afford one child.

            While we are spied upon all the time for no reason by our own governments and the US.

            If it were a satirical novel, it would be rejected as over-done and exaggerated……..

          • Ert says:


            Thanks for your reply yeas you brought what I pointed out to a point.

            And many people are worring, but don’t get it. There are many “normal earners” that would even slash the rudimentary so called Harz4 social benefits – while they cost in total for Germany, including all the administration (which accounts for approx 1/3 of the costs) only 45 Billion € a year. Bailing out the HRE bank alone was until now approx. 120 Billion €. There is absolutly no realization what costs what and who gets fleeced by whom.

            But “divide at impera” fully works.

            The have-somethings look down to the nave-nots and think they are the problem. Zero realization in the mass, re-enforced by the mass-media.

          • xabier says:


            The same in Britain: welfare support costs next to nothing (pensions and healthcare are the big costs, and as you say, bailing out the banks!) in relation to total government spending.

            But there is a really nasty, mean-spirited campaign led by the press and government against the unemployed, and no recognition at all of the damage done to employment by mass cheap-labour immigration and automation/globalisation.

            Cuts are being made which will have a deep effect on already poor people, and they are being told that they are morally at fault.

            It disgusts me deeply.

            • Economists are very confused about the source of jobs. They somehow think they come from everyone cutting everyone else’s hair. This contributes the belief that somehow the jobs will materialize from nowhere.

          • I don’t think we can create jobs by cutting each other’s hair, but I know for certain that we can all get rich by taking in each others washing

    • I am afraid I don’t have good answers. I personally eat very little meat.

      I am not advocating “striking first without warning”. I am not sure that gets us anywhere either–other than a lot of pollution from nuclear bombs.

  22. I feel that many of the issues can be addressed by widespread adoption of veganism, along with proper development of centralised solar power. Unfortunately much of the green movement are dogmatically opposed to any form of centralisation, or any large scale project it seems.

    Estimates are that 3% of equatorial desert is all we need for polution free, unlimited in duration, supply of 3 times or more of current global energy needs; if we adopt csp.

    I don’t like arguements that promote suicide I just don’t trust them.

    • timl2k11 says:

      “3% of equatorial desert is all we need” You make it sound like that is a trivial amount of land. That is a truly massive amount of land, a feat that likely could not be accomplished even if every person on the planet devoted their resources towards it, not to mention a maintenance nightmare.

    • We need liquid fuels–in fact, cheap liquid fuels. Solar doesn’t get us cheap liquid fuels. It might save a little coal/natural gas, if we can keep it going long enough.

      If there are too many people for the world, adding all kind of domesticated animals makes the situation worse. So from that point of view, eating less meat is a good idea.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail, We just watched that Super Typhoon hit the Philippines and they said it was three times stronger than Katrina. I married there in the 1990’s and my wife spent some time in the area that was hit during her High School Years. 195 – 235 miler per hour winds. I am sure my home would not withstand that and it would be flattened. But it was sad for us to see those simple island huts blown down and the huge waves that swept over some cities.

        I remember when I lived in Texas briefly as a younger man and I noticed all of those brick homes that are built in the South where the storms hit. It seems that our modern stick built homes are ready for this climate change that seems to be coming on very fast. Places that were formerly calm may become new storm zones and the building codes will not be up to date. Just looking at my stick built wood home with super large trees looming around and if these storms start hitting farther and farther north they areas may be vulnerable.

        Folks really do not have the money to go out and build or buy a brick home, but I think if I was in the market right now I would look for one or build one, because the future will be different in the weather world. I have followed weather for years as a hobby and I noticed this year the tropical pacific was extremely active and a storm this late in the year is strange. It just looks like that area is getting hotter and more wild and wooly.

        Waters are rising and many islands are only a few feet above sea level and they will continue to be lashed more and more by rising water in storms.

        These types of Super level 5 Hurricanes and Super Typhoons see to be new to the world and are connected to change and limits.


        • I really think that we have to go in the direction of simpler homes that we can reconstruct after storms flatten them. Either that, or just move to another area.

          The idea that we can outbuild nature was a temporary one. Most of our time as humans was as hunter-gatherers. We simply moved as storms hit. Less than half of the world’s population can afford big sturdy houses. I expect that the percentage will go down over time, rather than up.

          • Scott says:

            Just like with Katrina this big one in the Philippines many will just leave to other places and join extended families. When I was there on my two trips in the 1990’s, I noticed the Filipino’s were a very helpful and giving even though they had little money. Unlike the USA, there it is not uncommon to see three or four generations living under the same roof.

            They are talking about even bigger storms in the future, also just look at what we had last summer in the US, the super tornadoes! I guess this is thanks to passing the 400 PPM on CO2 recently. Article link below.

            It may be wise to rebuild on higher ground for many that are hit, or better yet move to higher ground if you can if you live in an area prone these storms. If you live in tornado country, perhaps smaller fortress type homes along with a sturdy shelter below.

            My neighbor here in Oregon has a relative from Oklahoma where there are many tornadoes recently. Well, he parks his RV here and he comes up to Oregon from Oklahoma with his family each summer to escape the tornado season and then goes back in the late fall. Next summer could be tough for the South tornado alley.

            It looks like the tropics and areas already subject to storms are going to get really stormy in the years ahead, I am not sure about the North West US where we live our weather still seems fairly normal. I love my huge trees in my yard, but in a bad storm they could wipe out our home.



      • Scott says:

        Hello For those that are watching the Super typhoon heading now towards Vietnam, here is a link to the satellite. It looks like it is going to hit Hanoi Vietnam tonight pretty hard, it has gone quite a bit north so it should weaken a bit hopefully. I have never seen one this big…


  23. KevinB says:

    Gail youre a great analyst but a bit outside of your wheelhouse w this essay.

    • LOL. I love Gail’s Economic Analysis, but when she ventures into Anthropological arguments, her conclusions are questionable at best. Over on the Diner I sometimes Parody her “Gail the Actuary” title as “”Gail the Failed Anthropologist”. LOL.

      AS Jimmy Kunstler likes to say though, “It’s All Good”. 🙂


  24. dolph says:

    In my opinion there is too much emphasis here on speculating how people lived in the past. Is history important as a guide? Yes, but that’s it. The further you go back in history, the less we actually know about what was going on. We began to really ramp up the fossil fuels in the 19th century. So we can use the late 1700s/early 1800s period as a rough estimate of what human civilization is sustainably capable of. Not too great, but not exactly going all the way back to hunter gatherer times.

    Complexity as it stands now is unprecedented. So we don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, it’s all speculation. However, we can make educated guesses.

    I suspect collapse, once it begins in earnest, will have its own dynamics that sweep away everything in its path. American empire, corporations, and financial and business expansion will be thoroughly discredited. Trust and time horizons will shorten. Local resources wars are likely even as global power projection declines. The global currency system will fail, and the value of all financial instruments including bonds and stocks will prove to be zero. As a result, trade will slow to a crawl. Death rates will increase, and the medical establishment will be discredited. Alienation and depression will increase with each step down. Expect mass numbers of people in their 50s and beyond to give up altogether. The young won’t know any other world, and their survival instincts will kick in. They are not going to accept starvation so grandma can stay hooked up to the vent and the billionaire’s portfolio can remain intact.

    We face relentless contraction going forward, it’s never going to “get better” in any meaningful sense. But then again, even during the best of times, our lifespans are limited, and our lot in life is mostly one of blind chance.

    • justnobody says:

      I agree. Personally I expected that once the collapse begins in earnest it will take about 1 year to kill 90% of world wide population.

      American empire, corporations, and financial and business expansion will be thoroughly discredited. Look at rating of main street media such at CNN, MSNC. The main street media is very close to be completely discredited.

      Trust and time horizons will shorten. It is already the case in Greece where the time horizon is about a week. How will I can food next week in the time of horizon of the poor in Greece

      Expect mass numbers of people in their 50s and beyond to give up altogether. The young won’t know any other world, and their survival instincts will kick in. I agree.
      Look at how the young is addicted to their ipad.

      Good summary. I 100% agree with you

    • I thought the late 1700s to early 1800s might be a target too, until I realized that fossil fuels is not really the sole issue. For one, we know that people were not living sustainably then. Deforestation was a big problem. It would be an even bigger problem, if we even tried to emulate that period.

      Another reason we can’t make the assumption that we could go back to that period is because that period depended on particular systems they had in place then–draft animals and built infrastructure to accommodate those animals, for example, and apprentice programs for workers in different fields. We don’t have any of those now.

      If we were to try to come up with a new agricultural system without fossil fuels, we would have a tough time doing it. We might have some general ideas, but when it comes to the actual tools for millions of would-be farmers and suitable education for these would-be farmers, we aren’t very far. Most people don’t know permaculture techniques, and even permaculture is not designed for a world without fossil fuels. Permaculture generally seems to assume “less” fossil fuels, a condition I don’t think is really the issue, at least not for very long. Making metal tools rapidly depletes wood supplies. Wooden tools don’t work nearly as well. Even the sharpened stones from the hunter-gatherer era were made by heating the stones. If such a technique were used with today’s population, it seems like it would deplete wood supplies.

      • What metal tools do you need to do Permaculture? Really you just need to know WHAT to plant, WHERE to plant it and HOW to take care of it so it survives to bear food stuffs. Perennials rather than annuals are the key here, establishing them is the hardest part but does not require metal tools. Besides, the old metal tools we HAVE will last a while here anyhow.

        You can most certainly grow food without metal implements, it was done for 1000s of years,overall pretty sustainably though bad practices and War Making that accrued from this caused a lot of problems.

        The real issue here that makes this unsustainable is Climate Change, which if it is not halted or ameliorated when the Industrial paradigm collapses likely makes the old ways impossible to reproduce. However, if collapse mitigates the climate change, then there is no in principle reason the whole trip cannot be run sustainably. Not at current population levels of course, but I do not think you would have to drop below 100M Human Souls. Quite a few more than survived the Toba Bottleneck. Only 10,000 made it through that one.

        Homo Sapiens is HIGHLY adaptible. We do not NEED Fire, we do not NEED to cook food, we do not NEED metal. We do not NEED powerful Jaws to rip meat off bones. We have HANDS. We can use ROCKS to substitute for teeth.The things we have become accustomed to are all Add-Ons we accumulated over the millenia, but I assure you we have not so “evolved” we cannot do without them. Well maybe YOU can’t, but I can. And so can many others like me who are better than me at it. There ARE still some Inuit who live by the Old Ways. There ARE still some Kalahari Bushmen who do also. There ARE Amazonians who do also.

        You are immersed in the paradigm of Industrial Living, you never even TRIED to eat Raw Worms. You are out of your element Gail, and until you go into the bush and give it a go, I suggest you stick to Economics. You FAIL in Anthropology.


        • xabier says:


          Gail is quite right as she is merely stated that the majority of people today in the advanced societies which most readers here inhabit are not capable of adapting in this way. Most would find it hard to adapt to rural life in the 17th century, let alone 17 AD. She doesn’t go further than that as far as one can see.

          And most of us would have to die asap for such a transition to occur. I would make a good 17th c wheelwright or similar, and have strong calloused hands after years of cuts and burns from my craft, but don’t have the right build for a ploughman or road-mender – squat and broad makes the best peasant.

          The near-universality of fire-making making among humans also indicates that it is pretty useful, and the same for metal tool-making (including weapons). All these things were viewed by our ancestors as conferring benefits. They also appreciated that life would be immeasurably harder without them. The development of these trends has lead toour present cul-de-sac, of course.

          There is in fact, no conflict between what she has surmised and your assertion that a very small number of humans, in a very limited area, could live without tools and fire as some still do.

          • I don’t think the number is as small as Gail makes it out to be, which is close to Zero.

            I know what I can eat, and I don’t think my gut is THAT much different from most of the rest of people with my genetic background (white european).

            I read here all this stuff about how the Gut size has decreased, tooth size changed yadda yadda, but how many of you folks actually ever tried EATING some worms? I have found a few plants fairly indigestible, but never any bugs. Well, cockroaches I never tried, they are just gross. lol.

            In the event you had NO availability of fire (this is pretty extreme even here since you can burn dung), you still can ferment which makes a lot of stuff digestible for your gut, having first been digested by some yeast of course.

            The whole argument that we are DOOMED because “evolution” REQUIRES Homo Sapiens to use fire is BULLOCKS, as the Brits would say. Fire is the least of our problems here. Cesium flowing into the pacific from Fukushima is a way bigger problem.


        • edpell says:

          RE, human gut length has genetically reduced in response to cooking. We might be able to do without cooking but it would require work on our part such as pre-hammering our food to make it soft and more digestible.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear edpell
            For a good history of the human body, see The Story of the Human Body, by Daniel E. Lieberman.

            He traces how our forest dwelling ancestors were almost entirely fruit eaters, so had dainty teeth and jaws, evolved into eaters of tough and fibrous plants out on the savannah with big teeth and strong jaws, and then somewhat reduced our teeth and jaws during the ice age. But we still have more capability in terms of tough food than a chimp.

            He also discusses the finding of very ancient grinding tools which would have been useful to soften up food.

            He points out that evolution is particularly guided by ‘the foods you’d rather not eat’. When times are tough, the survivors are able to eat foods which aren’t the first choice, and they survive.

            Don Stewart

      • When I think of forest (food) gardens, I think of one of the earlier pioneers, Robert Hart. His only tools for maintaining his food forest were a wheelbarrow and what looked like a small pruning saw. Of course, more tools would be needed to start the forest garden, in the first place, but not much. It seems to me that even just wooden tools and sharp stones could probably maintain a forest garden, once established. Admittedly, this is just a guess and retaining some kind of simple metal working would probably be a big boon. I think forest gardens could feed a lower population (and possibly even the current population) but we’d need to start now.

        • There is about no tool needed currently made out of Metal that was not first fabricated out of stone. As the saying goes also, the Stone Age did not end for lack of rocks. There are still plenty of them.

          Mainly, Metal tools don’t fracture as easily and with copious energy available to melt and forge the metal could be made into tools easier than rocks can.. Once the forges got going Stone Tool Knappers went outta biz. Couldn’t compete. Once the energy is not there to run the forges, stone tool knappers are competitive again.

          Starting NOW is very important. That is what we are engaged in with the SUN Project, Sustaining Universal Needs, Inc. You’ll be hearing a lot more about this once we get the Website finished. I may run a website called the Doomstead Diner, but I am not an Uber Doomer. I still have hope, and still believe some people will make it through the Zero Point.


      • Scott says:

        Hello, I was looking at this today, it shows our galaxy in size compared to the others. Such a wide world out there it is hard to imagine we are alone. Check out the zoom at the bottom of page to see the study this it is interesting. Notice Andromeda is close.


        • xabier says:


          I’d fancy my chances with an alien over a politician any day. They might just make me a pet and give me a nice death at the end.

          Whereas our politicians scare the hell out of me.

  25. “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.”-GT


    Actually your northern territories like Norway, Sweden, Siberia, Finland, Alaska & Canada remain forested. Deforestation took place in the WARM areas like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Italy etc. Reason? This was where metal smelting was first developed, followed soon thereafter by large Naval Armadas. Trees were cut down to build the ships and smelt the metals.

    Cooking food and heating dwellings did not deplete this resource faster than it regenerates. The energy intensive technologies related to War , which developed as a result of the Land Ownership paradigm of Agriculture is what burned down the forests.

    You don’t need to live naked in the Banana Latitudes to live sustainably. You just can’t harvest the stuff faster than it grows back. Give up metal working and ceramics, there is plenty of energy for heating and cooking which grows back plenty fast enough for a sustainable system.


    • xabier says:


      Very true.

      People will still point out areas in Spain deforested to build the Armadas – ships and cannon – of the 16th century.

      Some of this is apocryphal, but the folklore understanding of the dynamics is correct.

      • The opposite is true for Britain that planned for coming centuries and planted New Forest to make up for the lack of sustainability of oak trees for ship building. The difference is Britain remained a navel power and Spain slipped behind.

        • Quitollis says:

          The Victorians cut down and burned 90% of our woodland to fuel the shipyards. Only a small fraction remains in Britain.

          • I wonder where you get your information

            The Royal Navy plantations in the New Forest.

            Following the Enclosure Act 1808 much of Britain’s common land [open country and lots] was hedged off. The landscape of hedges that have been ripped up in the last 50 years is a product of the act.

            Mass deforestation of the British Isles appears to be very early in Neolithic /Mesolithic times with nothing more than stone axes. Despite popular belief the prevailing forest tree was Lime not Oak.
            there are quite a few studies on Britain’s changing landscape-

            As with the Romans, the Victorians [and countries today] saw an expansion of population, timber consumption increase, more towns and agriculture. I don’t know where you get 90% of forest loss in Victorian times. Earlier in the Highland clearances landowners moved people out and sheep in which graze saplings and cause forest loss.

    • OK. Maybe I should say “middle latitude” countries instead of cold countries, regarding where industry grew up.

      Cold countries, as you say, are still not very industrialized. They also are not very populated, so they don’t have problems with their forest.

      The deforestation problem comes partly from pressure for the need for more agricultural land, rather than cooking food. David Montgomery notes that when the Israelites reached the promised land, the better cropland in the valleys was already occupied. In Joshua 17:14-18, Joshua instructs descendants of Joseph to clear as much of the forested land in the hill country as they wish, so they will have a place for their families to live. In the cold country of the North, this was less of a problem, but that was because of the lesser usefulness of the land for crops. Fishing often worked better.

      • “The deforestation problem comes partly from pressure for the need for more agricultural land, rather than cooking food.”-GT

        Definitely the type of Ag pursued in most of the world was of the type that required clearing forests, but all Ag doesn’t have to do that. Permaculture “Food Forests” for instance can augment rather than degrade a forested area while producing food.

        In any event, even Ag did not clear the land of forests as rapidly as Metal smelting and Ceramics. You still are mssing the most energy consumptive processes that began along with Ag in the *formerly* Fertile Crescent. These are not “middle latitude” countries, they are near Equatorial. Yet these places were first to denude of Forest. It wasn’t because they were heating their homes or cooking a lot. It was because they were making the Implements of War, using the Forests as the resource base for that. They were making the War because the type of Ag they pursued always required still more land and new neighborhoods to grow into.

        Take away the metal, take away the ceramics, you have a sustainable system on a pay-as-you-go basis. In principle anyhow.


        • You show me groups who would be willing to give up metal working and ceramics. Even recycling metals that we have today would take quite a bit of heat, probably from wood or charcoal.

        • Nobody except your real hardcore primitivists WANTS to go back to Stone Age technology, but it is not a matter of wanting to once the availbility of energy is too little to continue on with metallurgy and ceramics.  Then you either return to this tech or you go the way of the Dinosaur.

          The question we are dealing with here is whether it is POSSIBLE for Homo Sapiens to survive with just this type of technology and little to no use of fire.  Several people in this thread maintain that due to evolutionary changes in tooth size, digestive system adaptations etc it is not possible to live by stone age methods.

          My point is same people who make this claim have NEVER gone out into the bush and tried it for a while.  Probably not everyone can survive on these types of foods, certainly the many diabetics we have now would not be able to survive.  However, I suspect at least 25% have a good enough digestive system to do it.

          Anyhow, as I said concerning yourself with this problem is not very important in the face of Fukushima and accelerating climate change, which might make living by any means impossible.  Not just for Homo Sapiens either, but every living creature above the level of the Tardigrades.

          Doomstead Diner

  26. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    Might I suggest that rather than go back to the shadowy period when humans began to wear clothing and began to start fires, we should probably begin any analysis of sustainability with the Edo Period in Japan. Why do I say that. First, there are abundant records available from that period, which have been studied by scholars. Second, it is much closer to us than the shadowy earlier periods…1603 to 1867. Third, Japan had no fossil fuel energy to speak of…something we can anticipate in our own future.

    Azby Brown, in Just Enough: Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan describes the situation in 1603:
    ‘Japanese society once faced collapse due to environmental degradation, and the fact that it did not is what makes it such an instructive example. Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber, suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production to feed a growing population….At the start of the Edo period, nearly all of the potentially arable land had already been opened to cultivation and was feeding, just barely, a population of about 12 million. Agricultural land in many areas was showing signs of exhaustion, and output was declining…Two hundred years later the land was supporting 30 million people with little sign of environmental degradation. Deforestation had been halted and reversed.’

    Brown credits Edo Japan with ‘sustainable and renewable forestry, sustainable agriculture, sustainable architecture, sustainable city planning, sustainable transportation, and sustainable use of energy and materials’ and ‘it sustained its high population of 30 million and kept it stable for 200 years’.

    How did they accomplish it? Brown credits technological advances, government direction, and the pervasive sense of the limits of natural systems.

    And now I will add my two cents on the virtues and perils of government. Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday makes it very clear that strong governments are needed if we are to avoid falling into pervasive violence, with a death rate from violence ten times what we experience today. On the other hand, the US government today tries to micromanage its citizens lives in ways which will be profoundly harmful as the citizens try to adjust to the problems of financial and fossil fuel collapse, along with other challenges. The Edo government, for example, strictly regulated the use of forests, but did not meddle in family decisions such as infanticide. The Edo government did print agricultural pamphlets, but did not try to prevent families from killing pigs and selling the meat to neighbors. The government did restrict movement from country to city, but it didn’t try to enforce detailed restrictions on how people actually lived in the countryside.

    Instead of passing laws which are composed of thousands of pages of text, we are going to have to have governments which make few, but leveraged, rules. And, of course, our citizens are going to have to begin to understand the limits of natural systems.

    Perhaps Americans and others cannot achieve what the Edo people achieved…time will tell. But I suggest that using Edo as the reference rather than a period lost in pre-history is likely to give us a better place to begin.

    Don Stewart

    • xabier says:


      Edo Japan is highly instructive: the pre-requisites are intelligence, nearness to the soil, a beneficially- functioning hierarchy, and (I imagine?) very severe penalties for infraction but reinforced by a general social consensus.

      For too long the successful economies of the West have sought resources abroad when domestic ones have been exhausted or, -even worse – taken from abroad and neglected the homeland if he imports were cheaper.

      The history of Britain reflects this very well. China is now following this model on a gargantuan scale, while exhausting and poisoning its natural resources.

      Edo Japan is also to be clearly distinguished from the Soviet-type model, which was ‘Impose a plan and kill anyone who points out it’s not working’ combined with the Western contempt for natural systems: an example of highly- centralized primitivism.

      The US and the West are by and large micro-managing their citizens into conforming with a failing model, urban zoning excluding livestock and food culivation being the great offender which could be swept away in a moment if sense were to prevail.

      But then, most people want to believe that the current model will last, so they are the willing dupes of bureaucracy.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Xabier
        I am reading Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday, which recounts what we can reconstruct and what we have observed about simple societies…those without chiefs or States. In the chapter on the raising of Children, he observes:

        ‘All States want children who, as adults, will become useful and obedient citizens, soldiers, and workers.’ [Note the ‘obedient’ part. Snowden wasn’t obedient)

        He relates the story of a twelve year old girl in New Guinea that he hired to do his cooking and other housework. When his observations were complete, he returned to the US. In two years, he was back in New Guinea and found that the fourteen year old girl was married and had a child. Then he observed that she was a more competent mother at 14 than he had been when he became a parent at the age of 49. In general, he finds:

        ‘A recurring theme is that the other Westerners and I are struck by the emotional security, self-confidence, curiosity, and autonomy of members of small scale societies, not only as adults, but also as children.’

        This is not to say that there is some cookie-cutter approach to raising children. As a rule, children are more regulated in dangerous environments such as the tropical rainforest. But even there, a child of 4 may be sent out into the rainforest under the supervision of a 10 year old. I think it is a pretty good guess that no 10 year old from London or Park Avenue would last half an hour in a tropical rainforest. And we surely don’t seem to be doing very well growing those ’emotionally secure, self-confident, curious, and autonomous members’ of our best-of-all-possible societies.

        If, as I think, we will no longer be able to afford an adolescence extending from the age of 12 to the age of 30, studying what Diamond has to say about the raising of children might be a good investment of an hour or so.

        Don Stewart

        • Stan says:

          Don Stewart says:
          (re Jared Diamond’s new book The World Until Yesterday,)
          ‘All States want children who, as adults, will become useful and obedient citizens, soldiers, and workers.’ [Note the ‘obedient’ part. Snowden wasn’t obedient)

          Unless you consider he was obedient to the principles that formed the basis of the US Constitution.


        • It seems like the lack of readiness of young adults to settle down now has as much to do with a lack of jobs and thus an inability to support a family as it does with their prior training. If you can’t support a family, it is easy to take up way too many hours playing video games.

          It may be that traditional societies give better roles for young people to fit into, so that 14 year olds can succeed. Finding a wife on one’s own, without a very good job, and with a tax code that penalizes marriage for two people who both work, keeps quite a few people away from marriage, I expect.

          • edpell says:

            The problems you mention are real. I think it will take new modes of living for the successful to make it.

            Basically a family being as close to self sufficient as possible. That being an extended family, four generations. No idea what you do in a city.

    • Part of our problem now is that we are already beyond the limits, as opposed to just reaching them. If we were just reaching them, it would be possible (although not easy) for a government to say, if we just do the following ten things, we will be able to get along pretty well–and then organize a plan in this direction.

      Once we seem to be beyond the limits, and once the world economy is very much integrated, it becomes very much harder for governments to find any solution that will work. An economy can decide to only use its own resources, but that will create problems in an integrated world economy. Perhaps a few countries have enough resources (in theory, with enough planning and education) to feed their own populations on internal inputs. But most countries do not. The whole transition to local agriculture would require a great deal of planning, and some way to pay current farmers. No government seems able to tackle all of these issues, even if they understood them.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Gail
        I take your collapse scenarios very seriously. I don’t spend much time trying to figure out how to keep the current system working. I spend more time thinking about how to have a pretty good system post-collapse. There are some things we might learn from Edo, including what to do with a heavily armed military.

        One more comment about the tendency of populations to grow to the limits of the food supply and the evolutionary trend to increase the efficiency in the use of energy. Edo increased efficiency through several mechanisms such as better farming practices, plant breeding, the use of gravity in water systems, good town planning, intense recycling of biological nutrients, etc. The initial effect was an increase in population. I’m not sure, but I imagine that a reduction in violent deaths after the wars of the preceding period plus more food led to decreased deaths which, with the same birth rate, will yield an increase in total population. Then the population leveled off and stayed put for 200 years. Why? Peasant families knew that they had to feed any children they ‘kept’, so surplus children were ‘sent back’. And the Samurai class were being squeezed financially and also had reason to keep the number of children down. There was nothing like what we would call ‘welfare’, so the limits on population were evident to every family and every village. Individual and group incentives reinforced each other.

        But technology wasn’t stable for the 200 years. The government continued to support better forestry and agricultural practices. So, to some extent, the Edo people simply chose a higher standard of living than more children.

        I’ll also point out that better farming practices don’t necessarily lead to a collapse in biodiversity. The European effort to measure, and ultimately reward, biodiversity in the farmlands is a hopeful sign:

        Many people who practice biological farming point to higher biological activity and diversity in well managed productive land than if the land were simply left fallow.

        Consider the wolves and the elk in Yellowstone. Elk were destroying habitat along the rivers in the valleys. So wolves were reintroduced. The wolves prey on elk which loiter in the rivers. So the riverine habitat is returning. Humans COULD play the role of top predator. For example, bow hunting permits could be issued. Better would be to introduce humans living ‘off the land’ in Yellowstone and harvesting elk and fish and wild plants. There couldn’t be a lot of humans, but it could be a very good ecological development.

        Don Stewart

        • xabier says:


          Agreed, Welfare is the great obfuscator today – in fact, breed beyond your means, and you’re much better off if you are the bottom of the social scale than if you worked, as is well known.

          It’s a sensible choice in gaining access to the othat are offered by the State, but disastrous for a rational society.

          Well, it will all come out in the wash won’t it?

          Alas, bow-hunting is illegal in England, regarded as ‘cruel’. Which obviously in the hand so of an incompetent it might be.

      • xabier says:

        Yes, quite right that is the other pre-condition for the Edo-style solution: to be approaching limits, not wildly in over-shoot as we in fact are.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Japan WAS in overshoot prior to Edo. Their forests and farmlands were in decline and they were having trouble supporting their population. The reforms which were implemented with the Edo period resulted in a much higher carrying capacity, which allowed a more than doubling of the population.

          The difference was in the better technology which was applied to both forests and fields, as well as the social and political changes. With better technology, forests and fields could produce more, and they were no longer in overshoot. Same as, today, when a pasture is converted to rotational grazing and the stocking rate is tripled, or a field is converted to a terrace or swale system with the creation of organic matter in the soil and the water holding capacity is increased and the field produces more food, or a forest is managed as a food forest. To a considerable extent, the extent of any ‘overshoot’ is a product of the technology used.

          It should be noted that the ‘technology’ used in Edo was biological knowledge. It didn’t have anything to do with fossil fuels. Most modern people think of ‘technology’ as synonomous with ‘use of fuels’, so they can’t get their heads around the notion that just doing things smarter and less destructive could more than double the carrying capacity.

          Don Stewart

  27. Gary Reber says:

    We have the resources and talent, if managed properly, sustainability without the sanctimony can be evident in our FUTURE production and manufacturing. The key is sustainable design that does more with less. Future projects need to be designed in a way that allows their constituent materials to be infinitely recovered, recycled, and recombined into new products. At the same time this the future wealth-creating productive capital assets must be broadly owned with full distributive income to the share owners and full voting rights.

    • Recycling always involves a loss of the beginning materials. It also requires energy inputs.

      Without high-tech equipment, it is doubtful that materials which have been can combined can ever be brought back to their original level of purity. It may be possible to make wheelbarrows indefinitely, but I am doubtful about computers.

      The issue we run into is that it is necessary to get the whole system to function. Humans need to be earning enough wages or getting enough government transfer payments, so they don’t revolt. Governments need to be collecting enough taxes from somewhere, to make the transfer payments. As growth flattens and declines, businesses can perhaps hold their own, but governments and wage-earners get cut out.

  28. PeteTheBee says:

    It’s funny, to read your last paragraph you’d think the shale industry in the US was stagnating.

    In fact, energy production from shale in the US is growing by leaps and bounds, with infrastructure hurrying to catch up. The Eagle Ford shale is the leading destination for investment dollars of any sort in the entire world. The US is now the world’s leader in pure natural gas, and combined oil and natural gas production. The US is poised to be the world leader in pure oil as well within 5 years, and to stop importing oil within 15.

    The only thing that could stop this would be a collapse in the price of oil, which is more-or-less priced globally and would thus kickstart the global economy into high gear where it to occur.

    But either way the US is basically sitting pretty – either cheap energy or an abundance of profitable production and associated economic growth … or both. At this particular moment, with natural gas and coal both cheap here and wet shale booming, it’s both.

    So sorry to burst your doomer bubble Gail.

    • Ert says:


      Please read: for a beginning and check your facts. There is absolutely no data that I know of that is indicating that your statement “The US is poised to be the world leader in pure oil as well within 5 years, and to stop importing oil within 15” is correct. I know only data that points to the contrary.

      • PeteTheBee says:

        Do you deny that we are currently the leader in both combined natural gas as well as oil+natural gas? These facts are well documented with urls more trustworthy than those starting with “peakoil”.

        I can’t really help you if you get your news from fringe internet sources.

        • Pete, what is combined natural gas?.
          Even if the US is ‘poised’ to be a leader in pure oil in 5 years, would that necessarily prove that it will stop importing oil in 15 years? One does not need to read a ‘fringe’ report to know that we consume more than we produce and that our population is growing.
          — For an interesting take on world pure (and impure) oil production I recommend Stuart Saniford’s Early Warning Blog. On his blog you can observe actual monthly data as well as that of impure liquid fuels that have reduced or zero energy content. Stuart’s reports have been generally available at or shortly after the middle of each month.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            Sorry, “combined natural gas” is a typo.

            We are the world leader in “pure natural gas” and “combined oil and natural gas”.

            The trendline for the US is strong decline of imports.

            To be clear, we will probably import Canadien oil in 15 years. Ex-Canadien imports are what will be terminated without 15 years. The Canadien and American economies are so closely intertwined that Canadien imports, while not as good as zero imports, are much, much better than Saudi and Venezulean imports. The Canadiens tend to spend a fair bit of the $$ on American goods.

        • Ert says:


          I did/do not speak about the current oil production – I asked about you future comment, which I even quoted, so I could not be misunderstood.

    • timl2k11 says:

      “The only thing that could stop this would be a collapse in the price of oil, which is more-or-less priced globally and would thus kickstart the global economy into high gear where it to occur.”
      Now that is a great example of a self-refuting statement.

      • PeteTheBee says:

        What do you mean?

        Do you deny that a collapse in the price of oil would be a huge win for global economic growth?

        Or do you deny that, barring such a collapse, American oil production will continue to skyrocket?

        Or do you agree with both these facts, yet somehow insist on clinging to your Malthusian preconceptions re:less.

        • A collapse in the price of oil looks highly unlikely unless preceded by a collapse in the world’s economies. So it would be more a signal of struggling economies than a huge win for global growth. Also, if the price did collapse, production would likely start to decrease as investment is withdrawn from the more costly developments (unconventional oil).

          I think “American” (presumably you mean US) oil production is increasing but “skyrocket”? Hardly. Do you really expect that increase to continue with the very high decline rates of shale oil and the exploitation of the more promising areas first?

          The increase is certainly bad news for the environment, however. I think I’d prefer a liveable environment, but maybe that’s just me.

    • The big issue I see ahead is a collapse in the price of oil. Credit availability is likely to dry up as well. So I am not sure we see things that differently.

      The question in my mind is the extent to which part of the world can go forward without the United States, Europe, and Japan. For example, can world food supply stay together? How about the making of computers? Will it really be possible to bring the price of oil up to a high enough level to make things work for the rest of the world?

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail and all, Here is a good article from Chris Martenson about the state of the US Financial System.


      • PeteTheBee says:

        A collapse in the price of oil would be a big win for the global economy. It would be a huge blow for drillers in the US, but a huge win for China and India, really all of ex-Russian Asia. Maybe a wash for Brazil, and obviously a blow to Russia.

        But, on sum, lower oil prices accellerate global GDP, and will likely result in a return to the current, moderately high, oil prices.

        The point is fracking has put a ceiling on oil prices. It won’t go much above $100 for any length of time. The futures market is doing it’s job, insuring long term production at a reasonable price. This is why “peak oil doomerism” is a dying movement, although the “peak oil” theory in general does have one or two hands on the elephant.

      • Scott says:

        Hello Gail, what you said about the debt needing to keep expanding I wonder what the limit will be. Just today I read something A US Fed Governer said about Japan and how far they have gone with it and the Fed governor said that we can go farther into debt with regards to debt vs GDP. Keeps me wondering if we can keep adding zero’s and perhaps take the national debt into the hundreds of trillions someday.

        Interesting that prices are falling and even in Japan they have not had hyperinflation (yet). Today, I read that gas prices for unleaded regular is under three dollars in many parts of the US so the margins must be getting slim, but oil stocks are holding up okay. I guess we should enjoy these last years of having no shortages of oil and gas because in a few short years things may change very fast.

        This short video is on a different subject — about ocean acidification for anyone interested.


  29. tmsr says:

    I see no reason we can not support a technologically advance society indefinitely on Earth. It is only a question of how many people can be supported in a high life style. There is a fellow with the S.U.N.Y. college of environmental science and forestry that concluded 50 million people could live indefinitely on Earth at a high EU/US/Japan lifestyle. We all know IPAT, the more A the less P and visa versa.

    • edpell says:

      the above edpell

    • One reason would be that sustainable societies need to consume resources (of any kind) only at, or below, their renewal rates and do so without degrading the environment. Do you think a high tech society can do those things? Using technology efficiently and trying to maintain a stable “economy” (what that word may mean in a sustainable society) and society might be maintained for a while but I can’t see it being indefinitely.

    • We may know IPAT (Impact = Population x Affluence x Technology), but as far as I am concerned, it is a bunch of baloney. Hunter-Gatherers were wiping out whole species and causing climate change with a worldwide population of less than 100,000 people, Affluence of close to zero, and Technology = Controlled use of fire. The continued replication of such nonsense is an example of the way our peer reviewed academic papers simply repeat what we would like to hear. No one looks very far outside their own field, when putting together a paper.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, I agree with your point about humans killing off many large (and tasty) animals with little tech and small numbers.

        I think we are talking about world carrying capacity after “the event” (what ever that turns out to be). I believe if people choose to they could self (by force of social custom and law) limit their number and limit their impact on the non-human world. We it is possible that at some point in time they get greedy and starting taking more and more of the global resource from the non-human world. It is also possible they divide into factions and start waring which would drive all out use of every resource they can lay their hands on.

        How do you see human life going in the long run. Boom and bust?

        • It seems like population has continued to grow with few exceptions (through births or through migration from other areas). This leads to boom and bust problems. If population drops below carrying capacity, I expect it will stabilize and begin rising again, until it again collapses. So more boom and bust, regardless of our good intentions now.

  30. edpell says:

    Gail, on your point #5 at the beginning. Jane Goodall, one of the most important scientists of the 20th century who never gets the credit she deserves, found that when chimp groups grow too large they divide into two groups. In her observation one group moved off a ways. After a while the first larger group hunted down the members of the smaller group and killed them. Goodall was reluctant to publish for fear that it would be used to justify humans doing the same. To her good credit as a scientist she did publish the truth.

    • There are definitely mechanisms built in to keep total population down. This is really part of natural selection. This is a depressing issue to think about.

  31. Comparing our modern world with our ancestral past demonstrates that we cannot have sustainability unless we return to a pre agrarian lifestyle and only marginal sustainability returning to the land. However, although true the issue is not entirely about the impossibility of true sustainability in today’s world the principle issue is just how unsustainable our current system is. Any kind of improvement no matter how imperfect is better than BAU.

    • Part of the problem is that we need a whole system put together. In the past, each system we had “sort of” worked, because it was built on top of the previous system, and parts that were unneeded were gradually removed. We can sort of remember how the system of draft animals worked, but we don’t have draft animals to speak of any more. We can understand how hunter gathering worked, but much of the wild flora/fauna that supported that lifestyle is gone, and most of us don’t have the skills to access that flora/fauna.

  32. Stilgar Wilcox says:

    Gail, you wrote: “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.”

    Diminishing returns is a different perspective with which to look at it, and very accurate. Sometimes a single word or term can really drive home a point. And in a way we are all competing for a diminishing pie while at the same time increasing in population. Whenever I see people with very young kids, I wonder what kind of life they will live. Certainly not the one we did.

    And it’s amazing how fast things have changed. My wife and I saw a movie this evening from 1978 (that reminded us of our youth) and even in L.A. traffic was sparse and the surrounding landscape open in areas which are surely filled with homes now. It was so easy to cover expenses then. I had an apt. in Sausalito in 81 that was just 250 a month and included all utilities including TV cable and garbage pick up while I made 1800 a month + bonuses that included a company car for a job today that would pay less with no car. Now I’m sure that same apt. is at least 2k a month and the utilities are separate and add up to about 500 a month. So that job I’m sure would not allow a person to live in Sausalito, so they would have to room with someone in an outlying area barely scraping by. That’s how much things have changed.

    During my 4 year college education at a state university, the tuition was 250 a semester! The dorm that included all food was 650. The only homeless back then had to insist on being homeless because housing was abundant, cheap and jobs were plentiful. Everything is competed for now to the nth degree. So much change in such a short period of time. All the best to those coming up now.

    • The ‘beauty’ of exponential growth. If you’re interested in how diminishing returns with respect to declining marginal return you should read some Joseph Tainter, especially The Collapse of Complex Societies. 1988 but still a good source.

      • Ert says:

        Its a very good book and gives a great insight into the history of the world, too – as it’s attributed to archaeological studies.

    • xabier says:


      The screws have tightened that’s for sure.

      Back in the 1950’s an Englishman wrote a book based around what one could buy with a gold guinea back before 1914 – what an average, modest, middle-class family could eat, wear and enjoy. Quite an eye-opener!

      And now we get spied on, too……..great isn’t it?

    • When I started work in 1970, my starting salary was equal to four times as much as I paid each year to go to a private college. I later bought a new car, for the equivalent of three months salary. Working on actuarial exams was (and still is) close to free. But it is a huge amount of work.

      I had gone to graduate school as well for two years, and they paid me enough to live on as a stipend. The first year I didn’t do any work–I had a fellowship. The second year I did some teaching.

  33. MarkU says:

    I am sorry Gail but although your analysis is good as far as it goes, it is massively flawed in a very fundamental way. The flaw to which I am alluding is the use of GDP as a measure. As it stands GDP is measured by turnover, not by actual productivity, this is a fundamental error which is leading us astray every time we discuss the economy. It is the emphasis on turnover which implies that it is ‘good’ for the economy to have people beavering away in factories producing shoddy disposable goods over and over again, instead of producing a much smaller volume of more durable goods. The result of this fatally flawed economic model is a massive waste of human life and effort and of natural resources. Unless we can get away from the idea that the turnover so beloved by the parasitic middlemen is somehow ‘good’ in itself we are doomed.

    Like it or not, in order to be sustainable without a drastic decline in living standards mankind must do a lot less but make it count. Our current economic system does not allow for the necessary reduction in economic activity. We can retain our current economic system or we can save the world, we cannot do both.

    • GDP does measure in some way what we are doing now. You are right though, that it would be a lot better if we didn’t have so many shoddy disposable goods. People can’t afford high-priced goods either, and I am afraid that would be the alternative. For example, I know cars have gone up in price a fair amount in the last several years, partly because of rising costs of inputs, and partly because of attempts to make the cars more fuel efficient. A further rise in price would put them completely out of many people’s ability to pay for them.

      • Ert says:


        People can afford higher prices good – but less or smaller of it. The problem is that most people won’t scale-down to what they really need if there is an immediate “cheap fix”.

        What I don’t get in the US: Why the cars are in average so big? And why is the housing in the US and also Europe so spacious (measure per person)? It’s because we can and live at 120% of the affordable limit. The mindset has to change! – We (all) do not need what we currently do, but must of us live the super-hedonistic-lifestyle.

        To back up the hedonistic live style: Guy McPherson was ask if one should live the rest of the days in a hedonistic lifestyle – since we are doomed from the McPerson perspecive. Guy said then the problem is that we all are living the hedonistic way already!

        • I guess we all have different views of what is hedonistic. When I saw photos that Guy McPherson showed of his would-be long term home in New Mexico, it struck me as having been made with much fancier materials than would be necessary for the purpose. It had a lot of stainless steel and nice modern looking materials, where I thought wood and pottery might be more repairable with local materials for the long-term. So we come with different views as to what is hedonistic and what is practical.

          I find it hard to understand why people want such big homes. My husband and I made a decision to buy a considerably less expensive home than we could afford years ago (and continue that way to this day). When our children asked why, we said that we didn’t see any point in such big houses. When one of my neighbors asked me what I thought of their new Ford Explorer (a big SUV), the thought that went through my head was, “I wouldn’t take one of them if someone gave it to me.” I don’t remember what I really said, but it wasn’t what she expected.

          I suppose that if you buy into, “Keeping up with the Joneses” or “He who dies with the most toys wins,” then having the biggest, fanciest, and best is important.

          • We probably have what many would think of as a large home. It would be regarded as a moderately sized family home here, these days, where huge monstrosities seem to be the order of the day. However, I would like it to be smaller. The reason it isn’t is that we had it built to house us and our two adult children with a view to their having their own families one day. Of course, following the current paradigm, they have both moved out, looking to eventually have their own places. But I think they may well have to eventually move in with their parents (or their partners’ parents), so we’d like to retain that capability. It could still be smaller, though, I can’t deny that.

          • Ert says:


            The issue with McPherson (and in reflection myself) is: We can afford it – or it is currently more convenient or time-saving to do it! For one part we live in the now – and for another we prepare or assume the “right” things for the future. So the steel applications may have saved time… and even McPherson knows that when climate changes kicks really in (if it does as he predicts) – he may have to move and abandon his house.

            In regard for myself: I do not plan to build my own house, as I see that many people will not be able to pay the utilities, heating and upkeep for theirs in the future. So I see housing prices fall in alignment with the cost of keeping that house “operating”.

            There is currently no point for me, to go into debt for such an insecure investment – especially since no one knows which industries will have to reduce their operational size at some point in the future – which will also affect regional housing prices. And I live in a very “automotive” industry area – which footprint I do not see sustainable in current terms after the mid-twenties.

            • I think you are right about things changing so much in the future, that it doesn’t make sense to go into debt building a house now. We probably have plenty of houses right now, if they were in the right places. If more people need to live new farmland, then more homes in that area may need to be build. But if they are built, they should be built with an eye to what will really be sustainable then.

          • xabier says:

            Guy Mc Pherson fundamentally fails to convince.

            He thought he’d live a virtuous and pure life ‘out of Empire’ , like the ancient anchorites of the desert, and then found that it made him miserable: he’s admitted this being ‘the biggest mistake of his life.’

            And I agree, his place is a bit swish given his aims!

      • MarkU says:

        Hi Gail

        Thank you for your response but i feel that the point has been missed, my fault for failing to be specific.

        In the section titled dividing “Dividing Up the Economic Pie” you state that “GDP, as you recall, is the total amount of goods and services produced”. In the context in which it appears I think that it might encourage people to think of GDP as something which might be somehow ‘shared’, this would be very wrong.

        We must change the way that people think about the economy. One way could be to get people thinking in terms of NDP (Net Domestic Product) instead of GDP (NDP = gross domestic product (GDP) minus depreciation on a country’s capital goods). If NDP was used as a measure instead of GDP the folly of shoddy construction and short termist thinking might be a bit more apparent. If in addition, a nations natural resources were counted as part of their capital goods we might even start thinking more in terms of sustainability.

        Anyway, keep up the good work, I was particularly pleased that you noted the fact that the advent of agriculture was a public health disaster, very few people realise that.

        • Let’s put it this way. When actuaries think about putting together programs to take care of the elderly (or any other group), they think about sharing an economic pie. While there is a small accrual aspect, programs are mostly pay as you go. If one group gets money, someone else loses it.

          There is an intent that business investment will have a favorable effect on the economy as a whole. To a significant extent its success will depend on the availability of cheap energy to operate its programs. If such cheap energy is not available, the net effect is that the new spending will result in something that is not competitive in the world marketplace, or products that workers cannot really afford. So it is not so much what business does, as the availability of cheap energy that make a difference.

  34. Jason Y. says:

    Unfortunately, our “least bad” solutions are the only ones we have. There are no good solutions to this mess grown out of cheap oil and human success. At least solar, with the help of Moore’s law, will offer the lucky some energy independence.

    • Lindon says:

      Solar is the one constant, reliable and practicle source of energy for humans going forward, I think. Others seem to think so too. I remember as a kid, I used to take a magnifying glass and focus the sun’s light into a beam of intensely hot radiation. Probably we’ve all done that at some point in time. Imagine an array of a thousand or so immense magnifying glasses out in the desert, aimed at hot water tanks, creating steam to drive electrical generators day after day. That COULD be a huge and highly sustainable source of electricity, far less dangerous and far more sustainable than nuclear, requiring little or no maintenance as wind turbines or other renewable systems. And that is just one of many ways that solar energy might be harnessed in the future.

      • Every last drop of energy on this planet is solar- even uranium that was spewed out of the dying sun that gave birth to Sol. Coal, oil, gas – half a billion years of sunshine- burnt in a few hundred years, wind and wave are the sun with tides being the only thing that is perhaps detached enough to be the only non solar source of energy.

        And with CO2 there is an excess of energy of 4 Hiroshima bombs every second hitting the Earth. Now if only we could harness it.

    • xabier says:

      Yes, it’s a mess.

      Sometimes I think that people look for comforting solutions equivalent to hoping to find a nice quiet place to have a cup of coffee in the middle of the Battle of Gettysburg or Waterloo…….

    • Solar inverters stop working quickly, and batteries do as well. The solar panels themselves might continue working for quite a while, if there are still applications to run, and the owners don’t mind toting them to new locations as they go.

      • Ert says:

        A close person to me (bigger installation) had to change 3 of 8 inverters of a market leading and experienced company within the first 18 months. If they work under full load in the summer – you can hear it… and from all I heard you need approx two inverters to cover the 25 years minimum-lifetime of the panels.

        Further, if a panel goes bust – you need an electrical-exact replacement panel, which most don’t have! This to balance the strings. So If you loose panels through weather (hailstorm, freezing, demolishing, etc. pp.) it will become harder with the time passing by.

        • Inverters need replacing as components that have a fixed life every 7-10 years which is no different to replacing blades on machines or tyres on cars. A reason for high failure rates in previous years was poor placement: the tendency was to install inverters in the roof space close to the panels which would then overheat and fail. New installations try and get them into a cool place.

          Failure of panels is very low- currently the problem is quality control particularly the cheaper Chinese units that have faults on despatch. Although panels do best in cool sunny environments and hence they give good returns in high latitudes- intense heat is stress, hence the new development of combining thermal and pv. The local eco centre which was the first in the UK set up in the 70s has had solar installed for 40 years in rain, wind, snow etc with good reliability with additions and replacement to more efficient panels in each decade.

          However any scientific study that looks at reliability and returns would be welcome so do link them if you can.

          • This is a New York Times article talking about quality control issues:
            According to the above article:

            All solar panels degrade and gradually generate less electricity over time. But a review of 30,000 installations in Europe by the German solar monitoring firm Meteocontrol found 80 percent were underperforming. Testing of six manufacturers’ solar panels at two Spanish power plants by Enertis Solar in 2010 found defect rates as high as 34.5 percent.

            If solar panel companies go out of business, you will lose your warranty. This is an article about a particular company BlueChip Energy failure leaves solar-power customers up in air Homeowners wonder about safety of solar panels.

            This is a more general article on quality, and the problem of so many failures in the industry resulting in few warranties being helpful.

            • The article specifically mentions the poor quality control of Chinese manufactures- which is a known problem- German and Japanese solar panels are around 20% more expensive [and will always be my first choice].

              The same can be said of Chinese scooters, power tools, Li-ion batteries- I have been trying to fix a friends diesel generator- a near perfect copy of an old British diesel engine, except it is not designed to last particularly long but is 1/4 the cost.

              Th Enertis Solar paper is poorly represented- the 34.5% defect rates applies to one manufacturer out of 6, with the lowest rate of thermographic defects being only 3.1%- importantly the thermographic quality is a reference to using thermography to detect faults- and the paper links the level of degradation of power production to thermography ‘scans’. The losses of generation vary from expected – 1% -0.5% in first year and then declines of about half- from expected to the worst – 3% which also showed up the most defects according to the thermal imaging.

              An interesting paper although I am not big on the stats- but the findings [which is actually about using thermal imaging to test pv panels] seem similar to quality and reliability test for automobiles.

              The business is a fast moving- price crashing one and although bankruptcies and QC are issues it should not deflect from the current potential. PCs, phones, cars had all had their turkeys.

              The message is buy quality- and not simply buy the cheapest. The biggest problem is when to buy- assuming there isn’t massive economic collapse- in 5 years the industry has transformed, the coming 5 years looks even more exciting.

          • xabier says:

            The problem is that the bad tends to drive out the good in mass manufacturing, particularly when the quality issue is opaque, to say the least. The panel market is being kept deliberately opaque.

            Keep out sub-standard goods and you have trade war.

            Let them in, and you have a massive mis-allocation of resources.

            • I recently wrote a post on retrofitting passivehaus standard to old homes- coming from the construction trade [and agriculture/forestry/conservation- you have to be jack to make a living] the problem in the area is one of quotes- unlike cars or pcs or phones where the price is clear and the gains more obvious the building trade and solar are like Olympic or space shuttle purchases. People look at the quote and get the cheapest one. The price difference between Chinese and German is 20% or more- so £5000 rather than £7000 for the same output. Likewise builders don’t encourage house owners to put the best insulation in because the cost can be reduced – at least in line with the competition if short cuts are made.

              Buyer beware- but the main point is that it is not the technology but the market that is at fault- but I’m open minded- no point in deluding ones-self just because it appeals to one’s bias.


        • I think with all of these, you pretty much have them until you have to repair them and you can’t. That may not be very long.

          • Ert says:


            Thanks for your PV links in regard to failure. Even if only 20% of the PV panels fail before amortization – it will be hard for the owners, this most PV installations are debt financed. And if the collateral goes… the manufacturer is “not anymore”…

            An additional aspect is: The deconstruction of the PV installation cost also money which most do not put into the calculations. If the Inverters are only living 7-10 as expected life-cycle it gets more tricky still – I have to ask the people I know if they have calculated with 2 to 3 inverters over 25 years.

            So if your system of complexity and globalization may fail – the installed PV capacity gives us at max a decade before the high-tech inverters are gone. And the input of PV and Wind to the grid is a also complex, since its “jumpy” nature has to be balanced out with elastic gas powerplants and a lot of regulative tech complexity.

            Here is a document that presents the whole of the energy production (and their source) in Germany with basically hourly resolution: – the benefits and issues of PV and Wind should become transparent for everyone.

            • I agree with you that it is hard to estimate the true cost of solar over a 25 year lifetime, and that the cost is likely often underestimated. Also, not having a warranty is a problem. If a panel fails, and needs to be replaced with a matched panel, that may very possibly be a problem. In the absence of replacement parts, the lifetime of the system isn’t very long.

              There is also the issue of how solar integrates with the rest of the grid. In Germany, natural gas plants are now losing large amounts of money, making a person wonder whether the current financial arrangements allow natural gas utilities to remain solvent. Also, if the current arrangement leads to rising coal use.

      • Technological advancements in carbon based electrodes and supercapacitors, in the form of graphene and nanotubes, are right down the road. We’re already seeing massive disruption, war and starvation in many parts of the world that are experiencing high energy and food prices due to declining energy resources and the effect of oil prices on agriculture and transportation. Not to mention the carry trade, where cheap US debt due to quantitative easing is leveraged in the repo market and used to drive speculative bubbles and inflation in emerging markets as the hot money seeks higher yields.
        My point is, that while the capital is there, it would behoove us to use it, and the oil resource, to produce products which will return the energy investment somewhat, instead of burning it outright. I’m already seeing farmers using both biodigester gases to offset electricity, and growing cover crops from which they can produce biodiesel to run their own equipment.
        I see solar following Moore’s law, similar to the computer chip, in that as production costs scale down, efficiency gains are increasing, and we’ll see the price per watt drop by half every couple years. I hope that carbon based electrodes, which are much better, cheaper and environmentally benign, prove themselves out in the real world within the next 5 to ten years. But, having grown up on a farm during the age of consolidation and globalization in agriculture, and having done medical research, I am very aware of what is going on at the basic level of our plight. It has already started, and even if we are to redouble our efforts (the caveat being old money/power preventing a consensus), it is only going to get worse. Indeed, the best of our options will not sustain the economic and population growth that cheap oil has ushered in, and I can see more violence and starvation down the road.

  35. Leo Smith says:

    One of your best posts Gail.

    One nitpick. Businesses are not necessarily geared for growth. Although that is a mistake that, given where you live, is very forgiveable. Many businesses are created and run solely to provide a livelihood for a single family – I believe the US term is ‘Mom & Pop’ businesses.

    And it is access to cheap capital that allows larger businesses to take on year of losses in a competitive situation to drive such businesses out of operation, before ratcheting the prices up once they have gone.

    Oddly the advent of the Internet as a commercial trading platform has to an extent altered that. It allows small family businesses to trade on even a global basis at very little actual capital investment.Especially using such clearing houses as as the commercial intermediary.

    So whilst I am utterly in agreement with 99% of the post, that is one slight comment to make. Businesses can and (I believe increasingly will) be created not for growth, but to meet steady needs over a period of decades. And the capital barrier to entry is falling all the time. These businesses will not, by the very nature of the access to capital, be capital intensive large manufacturing plant type businesses, but small service and specialist niche product companies will I thunk flourish. Facebook is a typical example of a business started on peanuts, that has in this case exploded into massive growth (but probably never profit) and I cold cite a thousand more little companies selling ‘things you didn’t know you could get’ all over the internet.

    The other nitpick is the somewhat gloomy analysis of the west, and in particular the USA’s energy prospects. The USA has enormous reserves of quality, easily accessible, coal. If you disregard CO2 as the demon pollutant its opponents make it out to be, then there is at least one primary energy source with a hundred years or more to run. I suspect the USA will in the end be forced to utilise it. synthetic gasoline and diesel/kerosene/AVJET is not cheap, from coal, but it is reasonably possible by established technology, and if that’s all you got to burn, baby, that’s what you will burn.

    Likewise nuclear power is ready and available for when peoples’ fear of dying from starvation and cold outweighs their fear of radioactivity 🙂 Nuclear power OUGHT to be cheaper than coal, and at one time it was. I direct you to a fascinating on-line book, which outlines why it no longer is, but could be again.

    the short answer is that it is irrational fear and over-regulation – and unnecessary regulation – that has driven costs up.

    That’s the end of the nitpicks, and if I may, Id like to summarise what you say along a slightly different perspective, that reflects my personal perspective.

    Nitpicks aside, I agree broadly with your analysis of where we are, and how we got there. It was a masterful review of civilization. I may well steal it for use elsewhere 🙂 The difference is in future prognostications. I tend to hold to the Churchillian perspective that any society (not just the Americans!) will, in the end, do the right thing, after they have exhausted every other possible alternative. In the UK for example, a givernment formed with a coalition with probably the greenest party we have – the Liberal Democrats – and a party which has dominated our Department of Energy and Climate change and whose energy policy, pre-election, consisted of little more than ‘no coal, no nuclear, lots of windmills’ , resulting in a pernicious rash of windmills being planted everywhere, has been forced by the reality to actually negotiate the construction of new nuclear power – albeit at a monstrously inflated price – because the choice between abandoning a commitment to renewables and emissions reduction, or embracing nuclear, came down rather firmly on the side of nuclear, if they wanted to actually keep the lights on.

    So where I see things heading is that accepting your broad conclusions that fossil energy is in a deep mess, and we have to change, but viewing it through the cold hard logic of political expediency, is that in the end ‘renewables that don’t actually work’ and even ‘climate change that seems to have stopped happening’ will be quietly phased out of the great propaganda machines that comprise the state and corporate interest, and you might well see ‘American coal for Amercan Jobs and American Power’ or ‘US nuclear the key to industrial renaissance’; or some other BS headlines and soundbytes starting to dribble from the political cesspit. Followed by a massive media campaign to tell everyone that what they really want is, after all, not what they thought they wanted at all. So it always goes.

    And don’t underestimate the Internet either. You make a massively fundamental and sound point that governments could not afford to fund education at the back end of the agrarian society as the industrial revolution took hold. But today, education COULD be something that was no more and no less than an ‘University of the Internet’. And indeed for many of us, it already is. You are a lecturer in it, on the topic of peak oil and beyond, and we are your lippy students!

    So I maintain we have several things going in our favour in he way of alleviating the transition from industrial to post industrial societies.

    – we have coal and uranium. Not what we wanted perhaps, but they will have to do if nothing better comes along.
    – we have a culture that used to understand small businesses and steady state businesses – and the ethics to go with that. The morality of the despised ‘Petit Bourgeois’ that Marx so hated. The Petit Bourgeoisie may in fact be our saviours, in the end, not the big state, big corporations that dominate today.
    – we have human nature itself. You can’t fool all of the people all of the time, and if one nation somewhere in the world comes up with a better solution, it will be copied. Against that of course is the equally true statement that you can fool most of the people most of the time, and certainly long enough to create a right buggers’ muddle, as we say over here. It takes time to ‘exhaust all the other alternatives’ and we have to sit through the ghastliness of watching mistakes being made, simply because no one else has thought the thing through the way we have. Or hope we have.
    – we have the Internet. This is a wild card that has really made mincemeat of traditional ways. Not since the invention of the printing press has there been such a revolution. The Internet has smashed the boundaries of the state completely. I can sit here and write this, and people all over the world will be able to see it more or less instantly. More to the point I can in principle sit here and fly an aeroplane across the other side of the world, drive a orbit excavator deep into a mine or indeed (if I had the skills) operate on a patient in the middle of Africa…these are all things that are just about either happening or could happen within the limits of the technology we already have. As a small densely populated country, the UK has been effectively cabled up to the point where most people have pretty good bandwidth to the internet. Its the preferred method of communicating, its rapidly becoming the preferred method of shopping, and its becoming very much a useful way to do business and to work as well. Why is this important? because it leverages the personal investment people have in a place to live, and a broadband line, into what amounts to a vast distributed shopping mall and workplace. You don’t NEED massive capital to work online, or to sell online. And its far more energy efficient not to leave a house your apartment you still have to heat and light, get in a car bus or train to travel to ANOTHER place you have to heat and light, to do work you can perfectly well do at home. The same goes for shopping. Even the argument that if your task is controlling large capital equipment , you need to be there to do it, is looking misplaced. With remote robotic control, you don’t need that either. There is potential to knock about 30% off a post industrial nations energy budget simply by ‘not going out to work’ and ‘not driving to the shops’..

    What lies against us chiefly is nothing more or less than inertia. Sticking to the ideas and ethics that ‘worked all right 50 years ago’ when patently they are not working today. Big state, Big Corporation, Big Capital…Limitless Growth – these all need to be removed from our thinking or highly modified. We wont find the answers we need there. Small state, small corporation, small capital and flexibility and de-regulation to allow whatever it is that can work in post modern terms, find a place to prosper and set the example. Neither can we afford to spend a fortune eliminating all risk from society, if that creates a bigger risk to society altogether.

    I can see the start of these changes happening, and am in the end optimistic for the ultimate ability to make the transition to a steady state world economy with limited but reasonably prosperous populations, but the in between times are going to be very dark indeed. Not the least the moral choices facing the West, which may have to abandon those struggling in the water, in order that the lifeboat reaches dry land at all, as the great ship of Globalised Civilisation sinks on the icebergs of inevitability….

    • Lindon says:

      Leo, I have read in multiple sources that, just like oil, all of the easy-to-access and high-energy coal has already been mined, leaving only the bottom of the barrel stuff which is very expensive and difficult to get to. Also, even if had unlimited amounts of coal to burn, we are still up against the hardcore fact that burning more coal and dumping more CO2 into the atmosphere is nearly suicidal in terms of global warming effects. Coal does NOTHING to replace oil/gas, which propels 90% or more of worldwide transportation. Without that oil/gas, the remaining coal will just sit in the ground because there won’t be enough slaves/workers with shovels to dig it out. Your enthusiastic endorsement of coal as an answer to the world’s energy problems (and forget about uranium) needs re-evaluation, I think.

      • Coal can be made to a liquid, but the process is fairly expensive, and is worse for green house gases than just burning the coal.

        I agre that quite a bit of the best quality, easy to access coal is gone. There is still a fair amount of poorer quality, harder to access coal. For example, I believe that Alaska has a fair amount of coal, but it has never been economic to build mines and railroads and ship it anywhere. If the price were higher, perhaps it could be shipped.

        • Scott says:

          Hello Gail and all — It looks like folks should get smaller cars if we have to make liquid from coal and the oil sands.


        • Scott says:

          Hello, Gail it looks like to me that there are enough resources laying around, the coal, the uranium and gas and oil still in the ground to allow us to limp through this current generation of life, but I think the next generation is really going to see the shortages or perhaps will we see it in our life times say if we are already in our 50’s, hard to say, that is a big question, we see trouble in a few years, hard to say.


          • Whether or not the system stays together doesn’t depend on whether it looks like there are resources in the ground; it depends on whether we can get them out in an economical way. If it is so expensive to extract them that it is always a money-losing proposition, the resources will stay in the ground, even if it looks like there are plenty of them in the ground.

            The financial system falls apart first. We can hide the problems with the financial system for a little while, but then they come out in full force. In fact, that looks like the point we are reaching very soon. Without our current system, how do you propose to get the resources out? With a shovel you personally dig in the ground with?

    • Leo- if CO2 was not a problem the 100 years of coal is-
      As Al Bartlett has said- people don’t grasp exponential growth. That 100 years of coal [or 400 as it once was in the 70s] is at today’s current extraction rates- and a modest 7% growth means that in 10 years time consumption is twice the rate. Assuming coal quality remained the same [it doesn’t- energy value as halved in 20 years for the same amount of extraction] to keep up with demand for coal to liquid fuel production would need ramping up. That 100 years quickly become 50, then 25 and then what?


    • I am not sure the financial system will hold out long enough for the fixes you suggest.

      By the way, the insurance industry has some examples of businesses without much growth planned–mutual insurance companies and reciprocal exchanges. And mom and pop businesses probably don’t have much growth planned as you say. But even with a mom and pop business, if the economy cuts back and the business suddenly has only have 80% of it customers but 100% of its fixed costs, it is not a good model for earning enough to provide a living for the family. So I would still contend that most family businesses cannot deal well with shrinkage, and likely most insurance companies set up for members.

      The timeframe for adding coal or nuclear is quite long, so even if a decision were made to go this route, it would take a while.

      I don’t know how one reaches a “steady state” economy. A steady state requires constantly increasing inputs of fossil fuels and resources, because of diminishing returns. Thus, “garbage” or pollution is constantly increasing as well. At some point, not far down the road, the system can’t work–diminishing returns plus more pollution push the system over the edge.

  36. Steve says:

    As usual a great summary of some of the variables and feedback loops that impact the complex world we live within. As I’m currently reading Sing Chew’s trilogy, Secular Cycles, and The Fourth Turning, I’m wondering if these ‘cyclical’ approaches might add something to the discussion in terms of wave theory. Could our ‘situation’ be nearing a tipping point (if we haven’t already passed it) as these ‘waves’ come together and increase significantly the amplitude of the wave/impact? Environmental degradation, generational conflict, and secular cycles (includes economic) all ‘peaking’ at the same time…just a thought.

    • I think it is the financial situation that will push us over the edge. One of the basic problems is that we can’t balance the budget financially any more. This is being covered up by Quantitative Easing, Very Low Interest Rates, and continued Deficit Spending. All of this could come apart quite quickly–rising interest rates could do it for example. There are a lot of problems in Japan and Europe as well. Oil companies are not earning enough profit from current oil prices–this is another problem related to our current situation. Big Oil Faces Pressure From Shareholders Over Costs.

      • Ert says:


        Yeas and Peter Voser from Shell states the same and they reduce their current investments in worry about future prices and stock holders. Here is an Interview with Shell’s Voser:

        That makes me cautious… what’s with the supply we need in 5 to 10 years? China on the other hand does not care about the price – they need supply! If a state owned China oil company make 1-3% all is good – but Shell & Co. would be decapitated by the ‘Market’. So your “I think it is the financial situation that will push us over the edge” argument is very plausible for me – from very much viewpoints.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          @Gail @Ert

          ‘There are a lot of problems in Japan and Europe as well. Oil companies are not earning enough profit from current oil prices–this is another problem related to our current situation.’
          Not only in Japan and Europe, but essentially all over the globe. The only places that are booming are African oil states — Angola, Tanzania, et al. On the Eurasian land mass it’s Mongolia (lots of resources) and Central Asia, where the Chinese are out-hustling the Russians to ensure a continuing petroleum flow eastbound. South America’s economies are almost all dead, ditto to Central and North America. Ditto China, as will become clear when truthful accounting methods accurately depict the extent of China’s slowdown…
          The fact is that the stagnation of the last 5 years has become the status quo.
          If you disagree, please say why. I’d be very happy for some smart fellah to prove that we can expect serious growth to resume within a certain time frame. Until someone can make such a case, however, we might have to accept that we are currently stalled, with no end in sight. Sure, Germany’s okay, but so what; who else can afford to buy anything from them?
          The set of questions that follows realistic acceptance of this status quo could focus on: whether / how economic dynamism can be reignited? Will it take a sharp blast or slow, steady pushing? What are the upside potentials? risks? downsides? how will we know if we’re making progress? how will we know if it’s about to explode or implode?

          • The big risk I see now is that the US will default on its debt, due to inability to agree on a way to fix it. Or the EU will fall apart. Or Japan will not be able to repay its debt.

            Things will go along on a steady level, until there is an implosion. We have all too many areas ready to implode.

  37. GDP is misleading as it doesn’t determine what is actually constructive or destructive or beneficial to society.

    A country may develop a billion $£ industry that makes fast food, or preprepared meals- turning low cost agricultural basics like starch into profitable products. They sell well, but then the health of the nation decreases- diabetes becomes almost epidemic. The pharmaceutical industry is also doing well producing medicines – medicines that treat diabetes. The UK NHS spends nearly £10 billion on treating diabetes with half the cost being medication [obviously it is not all type 2 and type 2 can also occur for other reasons beyond diet]. Somewhere a pharm company is registering a big profit and increased productivity of its medicine which shows up in the GDP along with the fast food retailers.

    If there is a riot and windows are smashed then the glazing companies will have increased sales- more sales, more production increased GDP. The trick is evidently to serve negative consumption like diabetes treatment from another country. I am unsure how well GDP is calculated with things like prison populations, or crime, or insurance, or medical insurance profits.

    The bizarre economics of growth is the underlying military complex of countries like the US- who after having a slow task of tooling up for war in the 1940s decided that peace could only be achieved by being a constant state of war. At $660 billion the budget services a huge industry supplying everything from aircraft carriers to paper clips and each private company contract contributes to GDP.

    What would be possibly more useful than GDP or gross domestic consumption is a kind of real understanding of ‘product’ is. Before the Crash the UK had a healthier GDP driven in part by ‘financial products’ most of which were illusory.

    best Jules

    • Indeed, GDP is really just a silly constructed number that really doesn’t tell us much about the state of the system after something is created and consumed. If we factor in externalized costs, we might find that the cost of the repercussions of CO2 emission for the production and use of the iPhone is higher than what you made on creating and selling the iPhone. In this case we really have negative GDP.

      Perhaps we should rather invent a new measuring method or rename GDP to “Globe Domestic Product” – although that would be a contradiction unless we start treating our planet as a domestic measure instead of just being a silly number for governments in a country to deceive the public that the virtual value business is going well.

      • The point about CO2 is apt. The point of GDP is to measure- the problem appears to be it is not very good.

        I suppose the first question is ‘what do we want to measure?’

        planet destruction? energy consumed? energy to product ratio?

    • Whether what GDP is spent on is useful or not, it does represent where resources were spent–whether we like it or not. Jobs come from bad outcomes as well as good. I think it was Don Stewart that observed that actuaries make their livings because of bad outcomes.

      • Quite: however different activities consume resources at different rates [and pollute or degrade at different rates].

        forestry could be benign- reclaiming land and increasing the amount of forest, producing ‘sustainable’ fuel and building materials- but it could also be destruction of virgin rainforest, illegal logging [that goes to Western manufacturers] and or consuming large amounts of water resource.

        Likewise the contribution of the City to the UK economy was around the 15% mark [from vague memory] and relative to electricity from coal the City is not a big consumer of energy [of course they spend their wealth, drive big cars, own jets, run big computer systems etc- but they don’t directly consume as much resources].

        GDP is a pretty basic measure and I wonder how much it actually tells us.

  38. MG says:

    “Japanization” is the answer of the world of today to the process of the resource depletion. The cannibalism is the integral part of this process. The cannibalism on the various levels of the society – the young people will care for the older people instead of getting married and caring for offspring, rising use of electronics as the replacement for the reality, lawsuits, mafia etc.

    The idea of the hunter-gatherer society seems to be a better tactics in the era of decline/collapse than an agrarian society. An agrarian society is endangered by the soil degradation, while the hunter-gatherer society, living in a “garden environment”, has better outlooks. It means, that the human civilization should concentrate on converting the fields into gardens (i.e. the combination of fruit trees and crop plants) to mitigate the shocks connected with the resource depletion.

  39. Interesting figure regarding energy and economic growth. I suspect that if it were possible to calculate the real economy (actual goods and services supplied and consumed), the correlation would be even better. It’s hard to imagine, without across the board increases in efficiency, that energy consumption could ever go down during economic growth, leading me to believe that official government statics that show exactly that are, at best, misleading.

    By the way, nature doesn’t have a plan, nature isn’t organised, nature doesn’t build in redundancy, nature doesn’t have instincts, nature doesn’t deal with issues, and so on. It’s probably just poetic licence here so apologies for the comment but nature is just nature (which all life is part of) and, at any time, has the characteristics we observe. Lifeless planets are also part of nature (they are natural).

    • No doubt, looking at our planets – no life is a more likely outcome by natural orders. But I also believe life is extremely resilient on Earth, and most likely even the most cataclysmic events would still have a pocket for life on the planet, and indeed earlier mass extinction events show how resilient the system is. But naturally this does not include human beings as we are on the top of the food chain, and those are usually the species to go extinct first. Very few scientists believe humanity can trigger anything close to a runaway greenhouse situation on the planet, the kind that evaporates water or livable atmosphere out to space. But no doubt we can most likely alter the composition to our atmosphere enough to tip it into a mass extinction state – and to me it looks like we are fast on track for just that scenario.

      But in geological time, nature has a “plan” – much like the Gaia theory speaks of. Earths system is constantly seeking for some sort of equilibrium with the natural forcings around – with human beings being the biggest forcing factor towards a new state today. Some states of the system are less able to carry a diverse set of life than others, but all are still capable of carrying simple life – even if it basically means resetting evolution to some root organisms again. But considering it took 4.54 billion years for earth to form and evolve something like a Homo Sapiens, there seems to be just enough time for one more round of evolution to create something like us again, before the sun swallows the earth in 7.6 billion years.

      • MarkU says:

        We don’t have 7.6 billion years, the Earth will be rendered uninhabitable by increased solar output well before the sun moves into the red giant phase. The last estimate that I remember suggested that around 0.5 billion years was the limit.

        • 300 million years is more than enough for one or more of the surviving animals to evolve unless everything is wiped out leaving only simple animals and plants which would need half a billion years and time perhaps to move to Mars or a moon of Jupiter.

      • Well, a runaway greenhouse effect may be unlikely but still possible, especially as the methane clathrate gun may have been fully loaded by now. I don’t expect it either but there are many scenarios that may be even worse! At least extinction means no more struggling for survival. The Permian mass extinction event came close to wiping out life on earth. Can we do better?

        I don’t think the earth is “constantly seeking some sort of equilibrium”. That implies agency. I see no evidence of that but ecosystems that do get to an equilibrium will be maintained for a while. Those that don’t, won’t, thus leaving room for other ecosystems to emerge.

    • As I explained in an earlier post( Two Views of our Current Economic and Energy Crisis, humans think that they are in charge, but it is really Nature that is in charge. Perhaps I should have said the Laws of Thermodynamics or something similar, but the situation is really broader than the Laws of Thermodynamics. The way the world currently in organized, the laws that are built by Nature determine a lot of what happens.

      • Again, “laws” aren’t built by anything, they just are. Laws are what we’ve discovered about the universe, rather than placed here by some agency.

        • I don’t think we know for sure. Perhaps they are placed here by some agency.

          • Hmm. Perhaps, but if one is trying to present an analysis of our situation, one has to provide evidence of the points one makes. Or one has to state the unverified assumptions up front. The assumption of agency might lead one in a different direction to that arising from the lack of that assumption.

            • I will think about that. Assuming all of the natural laws appeared from nowhere takes some assumptions as well, it seems to me.

            • Quite right, but those assumptions would be based on observation and the lack of evidence of a known agency to bring them into being. So they would, it seems to me, be reasonable assumptions. We observe the universe (as much as we can observe it) to have these characteristics, so let’s go with that.

    • BP Energy Outlook 2030 is showing a GDP growth and a energy intensity decrease and a very smooth CO2 emission increase…. Not credible.
      Regarding Nature, if we read James Lovelock, we actually don’t know if Nature does not have instincts or thoughts… trees are reacting to emotions… So the Nature maybe… More seriously I just read the blog of Matthieu Auzanneau “oil man” in French giving additional information on third law of thermodynamics: if on a runway, a plane speed up, there is a speed limit where it can still break up, slow down and change direction. This limit passed, the plane must take off with 100% speed and energy consumption. Economy runs the same way. More energy, more speed and more turnover in shorter cycles. This is leading to entropy. Soft landing and managed crash would be better then a hit in full speed, no?

  40. Timothy says:

    “Health was much worse than in the Hunter-Gatherer Era. This occurred partly because of a change in food eaten, and partly because of 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.”

    Did you mean “Health was much worse than in the Agricultural Era.”?

    • No, I think Gail means what she wrote. Hunter-Gatherers were more healthy and lived longer than people in the early Agricultural Era. Milling grain and farming by hand took its toll on peoples health as well as bunching up in “towns” made the spread of disease easier to a bigger group. Especially when we domesticated animals there was a rise in new diseases – exactly the kind that prepped Europeans in time to wipe out 90% of the South American native population with diseases when they started colonizing that continent. Its really just with the invention of better hygiene, antibiotics and vaccines that humans lifespan became longer than that of the Hunter-Gatherers. Naturally with advanced medicine and surgery we can stretch most people to ages where only the shell remains functioning while the brain withers away. No doubt humanity has taken “evolution” into his own hands.

    • No, I think what I am saying is exactly what I mean. The Agricultural era was a disaster for human health. Humans had been much healthier as hunter-gatherers. In large part the health downgrade occurred because humans lived too close to each other and to domesticated animals, allowing greater disease transmission. Maybe I should reword this.

      Humans were forced into agriculture for one or more reasons–rising population may have been part of the problem, and changing climate was another part of the problem.

      • PeteTheBee says:

        “Humans had been much healthier as hunter-gatherers. ” That is so false as to be laughable. There is literally a mountain of evidence that hunter gatherer societies had high child and infant mortality rates and low life expectancy,

        Dead is the most unhealthy state there is, and pre-industrial societies simply died with greater frequency. The populations as a whole had higher turnover , with, proportionally, many more births and deaths than we see now. So not only was human health demonstrably poor, women who survived were essentially pregnant throughout their childbearing years.

        Doesn’t sound like fun to me at all.

        • p01 says:

          “There is literally a mountain of evidence that hunter gatherer societies had high child and infant mortality rates
          That’s not what Gail said. The living, breathing humans who made it to puberty (usually the biggest hurdle) were healthiest, fittest human specimens available by definition.
          <and low life expectancy
          No, really?

          • PeteTheBee says:

            Gail is saying less death is bad for human health. It is hard to imagine anything so nonsenical as this. She is literally saying “black is white”.

            I agree that some subset of the pre industrial population was superfit. Some subset of the current post-industrial population is also super fit. Even been to a Crossfit studio? Those dudes would do fine hunting down the antelopes.

            The difference is, now everyone gets to enjoy life. Back then, it was only the superfit that survived. I have quite a few non-Crossfit friends whose company I cherish, so no, I don’t think their survival is a disaster at all.

          • p01 says:

            You assume your crossfit pals would be as fit. HG people WERE fit and adapted. Fit does not mean crossfit. It cannot be defined, except as living in that environment: not the fastest, not the smartest, not the strongest, but the one who makes it and lives there.
            Don’t assume they were not happy or constantly depressed, also. For them, it WAS fun.

          • p01 says:

            Can you possibly imagine that humans who live right IN the world have a completely different view about the world than you we have? I have met some pastoral people, and they have such a different conception of life, that it would twist your brain inside your skull and you’ll start calling them names the next second. I never met a HG, but I’m sure they worldview is completely alien to everyone I know.
            Different lives, different views. One is sustainable. One is not. One is fun trust me, they LIKE it), but a bit smelly. One is with happy pills and hot showers, and no hope.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            One of my college pals did peace corps with what was basically a subsitence based society. She was so moved by the genuine emotional trauma felt by mothers watching their children die that she took her expensive Ivy League degree to work for the Gates Foundation.

            “They don’t feel pain like is, their mind set is different”. That’s your point. I think planation owners used to say the same thing.

          • p01 says:

            Your colleague was in an area were food was pumped from the West, agriculture was forced from the West, and the population exceeded the carrying capacity. All countries were food aid is constantly shipped are kept in the same situation, after being taken off the sustainable path they were on.
            It was also quite possibly a country were the West decided to teach people how to live the “right way”, because what they did there was not up to their standards.
            The starving millions are the result of us “aiding” them.

        • “Dead” is not really a state at all, but it’s impossible to be healthy or unhealthy when one no longer exists.

          I think there needs to be a distinction between health and average life-span (sometimes referred to, misleadingly, as life expectancy). Obviously, without much in the way of medical expertise, certain injuries that might be minor today might be fatal in hunter-gatherer times but their day to day health would have been much higher than what we experience today.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            wow – the Africans are starving because the West is helping them?

            Even if that were true (earth to poi – it isn’t) how do you explain the fossil record? It seems pretty clear that death usually happened early in pre-industrial times.

            I admit, it is somewhat odd to see someone state that “death” is something other than a very unhealthy outcome. Again, we are talking about humans dying as infants, as children, in their 20s, in their 30s. This used to be common, now it’s rare. Some people (aka those not insane) consider this change to be a good thing.

            • I believe the fossil record shows that long lived (50/60/70) hunter gatherers were not rare but early deaths did reduced the average lifespan. I wouldn’t argue that most people see longer life as a good thing. That’s the way we’ve been conditioned. My priority would be a healthy life, however.

            • It doesn’t help at all for the West to undercut local food production with cheap fossil fuel produced food. Instituting practices that increase life expectancy without simultaneously reducing birth rate sends a population into overshoot (or more likely, further into overshoot) if these practices aren’t sustainable.

        • With natural selection, population will admittedly die at earlier ages. In fact, quite a few will die young.

          Life expectancy dropped as well. I don’t have the numbers with me (I am on an airplane), but my recollection it is from a life expectancy of about 30 to about 25. There seems to be evidence that some groups planned fewer children (perhaps through sexual abstinence during several-year nursing periods), rather than resorting to infanticide. People who were too large to carry and couldn’t walk necessarily got left behind.

          While people were alive, they seem to have been in good health. There wasn’t the problem we have today, of many people in failing health, living in Assisted Living Centers and Nursing Homes.

          • PeteTheBee says:

            Right, only the health lived. Now, people with health problems are allowed to live.

            BTW, I’m a father of two, I’m fit enough to run a 4 hour marathon (are you?) and I have a blood clotting disorder that would likely have killed me years ago were it not for an inexpensive medical test and some even cheaper long term medication. So, yeah, I guess I’m biased, in as much as I’m glad to be alive, and my kids are glad about that as well.

            • If you can run a four hour marathon then you’re fit to run a four hour marathon. I don’t think humans have ever had to do that, so probably wouldn’t have been a measure of fitness for life.

      • Neolithic Civilization was primarily based on slavery. All of the other domestications of animals and plants had the domestication of humans as their basis. Agriculture was an energy system made possible by human slavery systems. Irrigation systems paid off, but the original investment appears to have primarily been the form of slavery: “Do what I say, or I will kill you.” Thus, the foundation of human civilization was organized lies, operating organized robberies. Thus, the basic nature of our current civilization is legalized lies, backed by legalized violence, in which general context evidence and logical arguments get deliberately ignored.

        Although I enjoy reading the articles on “Our Finite World,” I tend to agree with the cynicism of RE, expressed in comments below, that our society is controlled by the people who are the best at being dishonest, and backing that up with violence, so that nothing much about any longer term consequences matters to what actually gets done. The REAL anthropological situation is too screwed up to be willing to accept! The REAL world actually is an insane asylum controlled by the most criminally insane people, in which context attempting to rationally understand things tends to get bogged down in the systems of deliberate ignorance which actually control things, through backing up lies with violence, in ways which deliberately ignore evidence and logical arguments which the established systems do not like. That collectively enforced social insanity makes the ways that we will adapt to real limits become much more problematic!

        Most humans were forced into the Neolithic Civilization systems, which overall made them individually worse off, from the point of view of individual health. However, the collective benefits of bigger systems of organized lies, able to operate organized robberies, drove them through nevertheless. That basic problem continues to be the primary one at the present time, regarding possibly moving towards some kind of Translithic Civilization.

        Some of my favourite sayings are that energy systems are controlled by their most labile components, which in human terms are the most dishonest and violent people. Energy systems flow along their path of least action, or least resistance, which in human terms is the path of least morality. The increment of short-term expediencies appears to be the only thing that usually matters. Only in the much longer term, whereby mass extinctions repeatedly wipe out those who did not have more general abilities to adapt, does anything like concern for a longer term intelligence appear to significantly emerge.

        Apparently, tragically, the domination of Neolithic Civilization by lies and violence has to play itself through, and have the consequence of that wiped out, before more collective human intelligence MIGHT emerge. Right now, I would have to agree with one of Albert Einstein’s jokes, that the only thing which seemed to be infinite was human stupidity. The ability to back up legalized lies with legalized violence almost totally dominates everything that our Neolithic style of Civilization does, through the established social pyramid system. The main characteristic of triumphant systems of organized lies operating organized robberies is their ability to deliberately ignore all evidence and logical arguments that they do not like. From an abstract point of view, I enjoy contemplating the kinds of rational arguments presented on this Web site about “our finite world.” However, from a more practical, political point of view, I have been gradually force to face the social facts that that kind intelligence appears to be almost totally irrelevant to the anthropological or sociological realities.

        A novel which I found presented an entertaining view of these issues of the transition from hunter/gather, to Neolithic Civilization, was called Evolution, by Stephen Baxter. A while ago, I was able to download an ebook of that for free … but, I currently find no such source by a quick search. (Also, I noticed there was a sequel.) … Anyway, Stephen Baxter is one of my favourite living science fiction authors, and his novel presents a lot of the points made in a more academic way in the article above in the form of an entertaining novel.

  41. Timothy says:


    I finally found something to disagree with you on. You state:

    “Some religious teachings also helped mitigate the tendency to fight–for example, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 22:39).”

    However, I would say that religion has caused more death and wars then could ever be compare to the amount of lives it has supposedly saved.

    • I quick review of the Bible both old and new, or the Qoran or any ‘organised’ religion will frequently speak of ‘love thy neighbour’ ‘look after the poor’ ‘care for widows and orphans’ and plenty of ‘good’ stuff. The weight of the other text and history demonstrate that this love is for the group. It makes sense that the group extends its care to other members with Christianity benefiting the most from such strategy. Growth in Christianity occurred most during the Roman Plagues – Antonine Plague, AD 165–180, 251–270 ,443–446 and circa 455 – with another occurring a century later. In the early years Christians were just another religion competing in a cosmopolitan world- Mithra was more popular but restricted to men and particularly the military. When plague arrived via the military and contact with the east – Mithra suffered most, i.e. the military transmitted it, they travelled and lived in close nit quarters. The Roman pagans fled the cities but Christians expecting the end of the world [beginning with plague] stayed and expected to die- caring for fellow sick Christians- and actually faring much better in survival terms than pagans. a great advert. although in later plagues the gleeful Christians who welcomed the plague as prophesy were persecuted by pagans for being smug.

      The extreme of ‘love thy neighbour’ is found between the sects so Protestants fought Catholics and Sunni are at war with Shite.

      The bigger international issue is our ancient desire to have a territory bigger than we need- we just can’t seem to be content with what we have- Germany in the 1930 called it ‘breathing space’. America will ‘defend’ its interests which currently means a bigger take of the resources- 4.5% of the world population consuming 20%.

      • Chris Johnson says:

        @Jules, on ‘loving thy neighbor’: A few matters were overlooked, to include:
        It was not the gospel of Matthew that originated ‘love thy neighbor’. Rather it was Leviticus (ie, Moses era). The other portion of ‘the two great commandments’ was ‘to love God with all your heart mind and strength. Christians believe it is impossible to love your neighbor without first loving the Almighty as He demanded. Please note that similar sayings / commands do not occur in the Quran (Koran) or Hindu or Buddhist scriptures (which are not ‘revelatory’ in that they are not founded by a self-proclaimed Supreme Being.
        That humans fail to measure up to these standards should not alarm or alert. Rather, the opposite — people acting in loving kindness — might be very frightening for it might indicate that the end is near.
        Cheers, Chris

    • If one believes that Nature’s intent is that population be held down, I would hypothesize that Nature is behind all religions, and fighting among religions is part of the natural order, helping to hold population down.

      I do not understand all of the workings of Nature, however. It may be that Nature’s intent is to favor humans, and thus design religions that help increase human population.

      • “Nature’s intent” Does nature have intent? Are you not anthropomorphizing? Amazon is generous with excerpts from one of my favorite books. Incidentally Dawkins has a new book which I hope to read soon.

        • Timothy says:

          I am pretty sure Gail does not intend to give nature human characteristics or conscious intent, I think she is just saying it that way.

        • The world we are in was “put together,” with built in laws such as Laws of Thermodynamics and Laws of Evolution, and Expected Chemical Reactions. For purpose of discussion, I will refer to Nature as being behind these laws, and perhaps other laws we are not aware of.

          Humans have tried to convince themselves that they are in charge, but in fact, they are to a significant extent ruled by these built-in laws.

          • Chris Johnson says:

            That, Ms. Tverberg, is the great human illusion. And the more ‘alpha’ the greater the conviction that ‘I’m in charge’. I thought the ethologists and evolutionists had demostrated that the human animal was a social being just like the baboons and chimpanzees, and that they competed and erred and obeyed their ‘instincts.’

      • Scott says:

        Hello, Thanks for the new post, it is hard to imagine being outside living with out shelter and clothing. In the books I have read about the old days they wore some very heavy animal skin type robes in the colder climates. Humans would perish with out them and without fire in many areas of the world.

        The most concerning problems I see aside from the financial house of cards… The C02 levels and and acidification of the seas and of course over population resulting from years of easy abundant energy.

        The world would be a much more sustainable place with a lower population, but none of us want to be the first to go…

        I am hoping we have a bit more time to work things out, but am seeing the problems develop especially when we discuss countries like Mexico, Egypt and Saudi and how they are soon not to be exporters anymore. I think we will soon see a shorter supply line and fewer choices of goods. The unhappy fact is that many exporter countries will be looking to buy energy in just a few short years. We do have the ability to build some high power systems to make electricity, but failed to do so due to fear of Thorium Nuclear and also due to the greed of the oil monopolies of the world.

        But even if we had lots of cheap abundant electricity from Thorium Reactor Stations, we still have a battery problem and problem running cars, trucks and farm equipment on electric power.

        The days may be gone soon when you can buy foreign fresh vegetables in the dead of winter.


        • More electricity doesn’t really solve our problem. We need a source of cheap liquid fuel. The problem oil companies are running into is inadequate profits. This is a hard one to overcome.

  42. “4. Nature has built-in instincts to prevent depletion of shared resources, sometimes called Tragedy of the Commons.”
    Although I am one of your dedicated fans, I do not accept this as a proper definition.

  43. And yet, as “dissipative structures”, stars, life and societies may work just the same way. Hence the trap of the “Red Queen Effect” :

    “Thermodynamics of Evolution”, by French astrophysicist François Roddier. Groundbreaking (I guess) :

    • Thanks very much for the link. Human civilization is a dissipative energy structure, just as a cyclone or star is. Human civilization thus follows the laws of thermodynamics.

      Some quotes (translated to English):

      “The dissipative structures self-organize in order to maximize the flow of energy through them,” writes François Roddier. So, they “maximize the rate at which energy is dissipated” through them.

      In an article published in 1997 , American Rod Swenson said that the law of maximum entropy production “explains why, instead of living in a world where the appearance of an order is highly unlikely, we live and are Products of a world that we can actually expect it to happen as much order as he is able. ”

      François Roddier dares to present the maximum entropy production of dissipative structures as the true “third law of thermodynamics.”

      “Human societies (…) self-organize to form a” global brain “can always store more information. This information allows them to dissipate more energy. This is what we call the scientific and technical progress. ”

      A self-organizing dissipative structure – star, living organism, etc.. – Is able to reduce its internal entropy, in exchange for an increase in the entropy flow therethrough. It “exports its entropy,” writes François Roddier. Everyone knows that nature abhors a vacuum. It also seems that as soon as it can, nature reveals these structures struggling against the inexorable increase their own levels of entropy maximizing the entropy of their environments.

      The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) of a company is a measure of the rate of entropy production. (…) By maximizing its profit, the producer maximizes the rate of entropy production.

      We cannot reduce social inequalities, or protect our environment without slowing our economic growth. Yet we are all competing to maximize the dissipation of energy.
      Are there are articles in English I should be reading?

      • Eric Thurston says:

        Gail, the book ‘Into the Cool’ by Eric Schneider and Dorian Sagan goes into the basic relationship between energy and life. The only quibble I have with them is the key phrase they use, “Nature abhors an energy gradient.” While I understand what they mean, It is kind of like saying that I abhor food so I try to get rid of it as quickly as possible.

        Anyway, I recommend the book highly.

  44. 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.”

    We have one heart, one aorta, single vena cava, one brain and numerous vulnerable end arteries.

    • Stilgar Wilcox says:

      Yeah, but some redundancy can make or break a person. I fell down a ravine and wrapped around a tree, flattening the left kidney causing it to bleed internally for three days. It finally stopped bleeding just as they were prepping for surgery to remove it. It still works sort of, but without a 2nd one I would have needed a transplant which in 1966 which I’m not even sure they were doing then or very dangerous because anti-rejection drugs were still in their infancy.

      My wife lost vision in one eye three years ago and would not have been able to do the work she does and been completely blind without a 2nd eye. Not everything is redundant but enough is that it helps a lot.

    • Hey, give it a few more million years and some successor of humans (or other species) may double up on all of those things. Actually, we kind of have two brains now; there have been many examples of people losing half a brain (through strokes, other conditions, even operations) and eventually getting full function back, with the remaining half.

    • Agreed. But humans have many children. The loss of any one of us isn’t a big loss to the system.

      There is also redundancy in food supply, and in ways to respond to danger.

    • Thomas Larsson says:

      Also, having two of some organs is not just a matter of backup.

      Two ears allow you to figure out the direction of a sound, and not just its intensity.
      Two eyes give you depth information.
      The left hand is not really a replacement for the right hand. When I write with my left hand it looks like a five-years-old did it.
      Two feet are necessary for walking and running.

  45. “2. Animals tend not to kill all prey available because if they did so, they would have no food source in the future.”
    Are you suggesting that this is a conscious decision.? Or is it that species are generally incapable of killing ALL of their prey?

    • Ert says:


      I think the correct way to look at this might be that Animals kill their prey when they have to eat – since they can’t store their prey for future use somewhere externally as we do. If a species will overuse – and kill of their kind of prey, the predator species will collapse, too.

      The problem with the human species is, that we use tools, enabling us to do much more harm and devastation without carrying the risk of inflicting direct harm to us. Furthermore we can “storage” our prey and we heavily defend our territory against predator specie – may even do a genocide on them, to get rid “of the issue” once and for all (e.g. killing of foxes big time, to protect our sheep).

      In addition the animal world plays that game in more localized regions. Our localized region is now the whole world – and every corner of it!

      • xabier says:

        Crocodiles will drown you and sometimes stuff the corpse under some rocks, going back for a snack now and then, nicely softened by decay.

        I presume that in the intervening period they don’t kill some more and go for a full larder, which would be our behaviour.

    • I think that mostly what happens is that animals are so spaced out (often by territoriality), that there is no need to eat more than a tiny fraction of the prey inside the territory. There are just too many prey.

      Some of the hunter-gatherer material I ready talked about a similar situation. Populations often seemed to be very much below what we today would consider carrying capacity. People could eat to capacity, without making more than a tiny dent in the food supply available. This seems to be the situation nature intends, if the various species are to remain in balance.

      • Quitollis says:

        The availability of food limited the density of the HG population.

        As Thomas Malthus pointed out, population naturally grows in principle exponentially but the availability of resources only incrementally. Of course in a HG scenario resources would grow or shrink naturally. If two people have four kids, four have sixteen, sixteen have sixty-four: from two to sixty-four in three generation. A limit is set to population growth either by resource availability, which is normal, or by government policy or cultural changes, which are exceptional in human history and that is not the norm or anything instinctive. Starvation and conflict over resourves is the normal way that a limit is set to the growth of the human population. Humans will naturally breed until some limit is externally set.

        A single HG generation might not make a dent in the food available but the population would continue to grow until the availability of food set a limit by way of starvation and conflict. The population grew rapidly during the Neolithic because pastoral and farming techniques allowed us to produce (more) food and to support a larger population. As (nearly) always, the population then grew as fast as it could according to the availability of resources. The population continued to grow in principle exponentially and in reality was limited only by the incremental increase of resources. That is why living standards did not improve before 1900 and many died young: the population simply got bigger as more food became available and yet that availability still set a limit to the size of the population. Oil allowed our resource utilisation to (briefly) grow faster than the population and that gave us the surplus labour to expend on more ever-more relatively luxurious consumables.

        In other words, exponential breeding patterns in the long-term overrided any hypothesised instinct to rational food consumption with a view to the future. Culture allows us to maximise the use of our resources but the population still continues to grow. Thus the Malthusian catastrophe scenario. Eventually the population grows beyond what we can support and the population is reduced through famine, war, pestilence and death (the four horses). Today is exceptional and our aspirational, consumerist, career-orientated society uses contraception and abortion to stem the growth of the population — but the population continues to increase anyway through mass immigration. The population of Britain is still expected to double within 70 years. The economy needs more workers if it is to expand and so the population continues to increase.

        What this tells us is that people left to their own devises are not instinctively rational when it comes to population levels, at least over generations. Either government imposes reason (something like what China has done) or else nature provides constraints that brutally impose limits on the population. Thus we are faced with rational “eco-fascism”, that constantly promotes and imposes a sustainable culture or else we are faced with periodic Malthusian catastrophe.

        Btw, I agree with you Gail about the joy that elderly parents can bring yet it is interesting that abortion is not seen as problematic in the same way as the (voluntary) termination of the elderly. Kids also bring joy. The most rational way to improve a population would be to constantly have as many kids as possible, to select only the best from among them (say 5%) and to terminate during infancy the mass left over. Most human problems would likely be solved if we did that for a few centuries. Of course that goes entirely against modern notions of human rights and may even be counter-instinctive however rational it might be. (Yet most kids are aborted in the UK for personal convenience, not for the good of the breed. Modern liberals seem to be OK with that, so maybe it is not counter-instinctive, just contrary to the dominant liberal ideology.) Likely only a hard state could ever accomplish such a feat. It remains to be seen (by those who survive) how rationally society will act post-peak oil collapse.

        • Quitollis says:

          correction: living standards did not improve before 1800 not “1900”. Oil came into play immediately after Malthus made his prediction of catastrophe. There is no way that he could have foreseen the contribution that oil would make to population growth. Peak oil collapse would imply that boost has hit its limit. Tnen Malthus may not have been so much “wrong” as premature. Oil is a finite resource, the economically viable portion of which we have now largely used up and we have created a much larger population. A collapse in oil production would seem to imply a collapse in the population.

          I did not find any papers that assessed whether historical hunter-gatherer populations were subject to Malthusian catastrophe scenarios. We can to some extent trace population expansions and contractions by the mark that they leave in the genome. I will have another search another time.

        • Even if we set out to pick the top 5% of infants, I am doubtful we could do it.

          When companies hire new employees, those who try to hire based on a job interview (or even a more extensive procedure) often discover they have made a mistake. So even with adults, we aren’t very good at picking out the best.

          Nature has figured out a way that works pretty well over time–let the person experience the natural conflicts that develop, and see which ones hold up best.

          • Quitollis says:

            I found your comments about hierarchy interesting. Primates naturally tend toward hierarchical behaviour in times of shortage and that ensures that some survive. That likely has a eugenic effect. If those most successful in human society tend to survive in times of shortage and those at the bottom have higher death rates, then those who have proved themselves in society are more likely to be preserved. Of course it is not a perfect eugenic mechanism but it is likely positive. That is likely nature response’s not only to a failed social situation but also to a failed population. After all, it is the population that creates the social circumstances. Capitalism has bred an unsustainable mass urban lower class population that would no longer be needed after collapse. Nature then reduces the lower classes and preserves the upper. (It is easy to blame the elites when society fails but this is a democracy after all.) Nature approximates to a solution in its own way, which is to preserve the more successful members of the group. I actually agree with Nature, the simplest and the best way to improve a population is to preserve the upper classes. Society has already provided meritocratic selection, not perfectly but positively nevertheless. Nature then reinfoces that social selection by hierarchical behaviour in time of shortage. Likely we would also employ other old eugenic methods like infanticide of the sickly post-collapse. Harsher conditions would also progressively thin the herd.

            We would need a sophisticated physical anthropology and genetic understanding before we could posititvely select the best 5% of infants and that would likely prove contentious and problematic. Perhaps we would be capable of that one day. In the meantime, nature can do its age old thing.

        • edpell says:

          Quitollis, there is an idea out there that a couple could artificially fertilize many eggs and let them grow to 128 cells and then take one cell from each. Then completely sequence the genome and score them and implant the one with the highest score. This pushes the killing of young humans to the 128 cell level which some people find acceptable.

          There is also the idea at a societal level to take cells from many 400 people force them into stem cells then force the stem cells to egg and sperm. Then make fertilized eggs from many combinations. Then select as above but do not grow to adulthood instead force back to stem cell and repeat. In effect you can get a whole human generation in two weeks. You could do 100 generations of highly selected stock breeding in just 2 years. Will China, North Korea, Israel, Manhattan, Washington D.C. and everyone else be able to avoid the temptation to create uber citizens?

  46. Excellent piece Gail. I like how you tie it all – ecology, human evolution, and modern finance- together. I disagree with you on the subject of government. The U.S. federal and state governments could be doing so much more to ensure people’s health and well-being. A single-payer medicare system, as every other industrial country has, would lower medical and business costs and create a healthier populace.

    Cuba is an example of a poor country without fossil fuels that has a decent system of medical care for all its citizens. It may not be as high-tech as the United States but it has better coverage for the poor, and that’s at a fraction of the cost. Government does make a difference.

    • I have not never been closer to Cuba than Florida. I claim no expertise but I do suspect that Cuba has a two tier medical system.

    • Ert says:

      Cuba is no Panacea. For me, it is more an example what happens to a country that has to heavily reduce its oil consumption and looses its ties to the globalization. They manage it far more intelligently and have come – considering the circumstances very far. It may be a look into our future – if you live in a region, that is as warm and generous to you as Cuba.

      But like any agricultural society, even that level is not sustainable as Toby Hemenway presents here:

    • I agree with you about healthcare. I just didn’t try to cover the subject in this post.

      I think our current medical system is pretty close to absurd. The only kind of healthcare system that seems to work is a single payer system. The benefits can be changed over time, as the resources of the economy change.

      What doesn’t work is adding on coverage for the many uninsured while healthcare is in its current bloated state.

      • Absurd, yes. But modern medicine has become too complex and too specialized. There is also arguably too much emphasis on saving 500 gm preemies and the near terminal elderly. I am planning to have a knee replacement soon. The large orthopedic group I use has fellowship trained super-specialists that concentrate on one or two special areas – back, hand, foot, joint replacement etc. Is this bad? Not necessarily. I prefer having my knee replaced by a surgeon who does this procedure once or twice a week as opposed to once or twice a year. This trend to specialization and super-specialization has contributed to a growing shortage of primary care physicians. I checked out the new book “Heart” by Dick Cheney and Jonathan Reiner MD. Regardless of how much one hates Cheney, the book is an interesting primer on modern high tech cardiology. The subtitle is “The Story of a Patient, A Doctor and 35 Years of Medical Innovation” Cheney medicine is compared to Eisenhower medicine. (Which can include a full time experienced cardiologist to follow one around on the golf course.). Eisenhower would have had unlimited resources for the time but not the possibility of interventions such as LAVD (left ventricular assist device) and 21st Century transplant surgery.
        –Whether we eventually have single payer or a totally bureaucratic military/VA system, I suspect that medical care will be rationed in one was or another

  47. Jan Steinman says:

    It’s clear that US shale production is going to peak fairly soon and then begin a steep decline.

    Assuming other parts of the world that have not developed their shale resources come on-line at similar pricing (~$100/barrel oil), is there any reason why IEA’s “undulating plateau” can’t be achieved, at least on a global perspective?

    • Ert says:


      The status on Shale is the “Low hanging fruit”. Baken, etc. are known since decades – but it was to costly to tap those “ressources”. The Shale deposits in China, Australia, UK, Germany, Poland, etc. are much harder to come by and it is not really clear how much is there… but many speculations to promote capital investors to pump their money into that adventure.

      Look at Australia – in beginning of 2013 a company named “LInc Energy” said that there is a new Saudi Arabia in Shale there 233 Billion Barrels in equivalent! Nothing has happened… instead Linc Energy is delisted at the Australian stock exchange:

      China has the problem that their supposed shale is in a region far away and without water! Thy develop new Fracking technologies that work without water… using sonic waves, but still some fluids are required.

      So I think the global plateau is a myth! Currently even Russias Vankor oil field seems to have problems: And if we should enter a deflationary phase – what the FED tries to push into the future – then the money for new exploration to secure future oil will vanish in no time. And thats I think a concern even greater than the question when the shale hype breaks.

      Its all as Tainter is saying… we increase out complexity with trying to fix our technology problems with technology. M. C. Ruppert calls those “Technofixes” and for him, the invention of the automobile was a technofix, because the larger cities where awash in horse shit. Actually London had that problem and some people supposedly had already calculated how high the horse shit would be when horse traffic would have continued to grow the next 20 years.

      Now we have the car (and roads!) that needs fossils (gas and tar) and shale is a technofix with dimishing returns. We are expanding as global society and loosing energy efficiency at the same time – not becuase the things do not get more efficient, but instead of one tube-tv per family all 10 years we now have 5 LCD-TVs per person (including phones, tables, notebooks) that we exchange in a frequency of 12-48 months.

      • Thanks for the link to the article about the Russian field that is not living up to expectations. I see debt is mentioned as part of Rosneft’s problems.

        Rosneft has cut its output forecast for a field that is pivotal to its Asian export strategy, even as boss Igor Sechin pledges more oil for China and seeks cash backing from Beijing to fund ambitious expansion plans and ease debt.

        • Ert says:


          A very important issue is that China is securing future oil everywhere – cash and investment now – oil much, much later. In addition China gets the option to get additional output first.

          Also the Chinese Oil-Companies often underbid most of the western, since they do not have to make a (huge) profit – they primarily have to secure future supply for China…

          • Ert says:

            Oh.. I forgot an mention an important aspect!

            Lots of people look to the ELM (Export Land Model) and the Oil that is ‘available’ on the export market – or traded within the world.

            This simplistic picture becomes problems, when a country like China secures future oil supply or secures options to take/get additional future oil supply first. The resulting oil is still exported – but basically not at all available to others.

            I think that will be an issue that will become very fast very problematic – especially as China CAN pay for its Oil, since it has a surplus-stash of 3,6 trillions in foreign currencies.

          • I am not sure how China’s securing of these oil fields will work. There is huge debt somewhere in the system. The problem US oil companies and some other oil companies are already encountering is profit that is too low for the system–even with ultra low interest rates. These other oil fields may still have exactly the same problem. Part of the problem is not just the cost of the extract; it is also the cost of keeping the local people pacified with enough good things that they do not revolt.

            There is also an issue that oil extraction really requires close to a world-wide system. Computers are made with natural resources from close to everywhere. Experts are flown from around the world. It is hard to see how it will continue to work.

      • RT says:

        I think LInc in Austrailia was about “oil shale” not “shale oil”… big difference.

    • I think the big issue is how long the economy can stay together. I am afraid that problems will either bring oil prices down well below $100 barrel, or interest rates will go up, or both. Thus, I think that the big issue is that the $100 pricing won’t be achieved or that companies won’t be able to get financing, or financing will be too expensive.

      To get shale oil to work outside the US, we will need a price even higher than $100 barrel. I have a hard time seeing that happening.

      The front page of the WSJ today has an article that mentions a credit crunch already occurring in Europe. One of the folks from The Oil Drum mentioned in an email yesterday that he was not able to rent a car in the Canary Islands, because credit was not available to the auto rental companies there, cutting off the number of vehicles available to rent below the number of tourists. With credit crunches already occurring, trying to ramp up all this production on credit sounds impossible to me.

      • Misha says:

        How much time do you think we in the USA have and have “business as usual”? Is it months, years, or decades?
        My life hasn’t been touched personally by any of the crisis that have occurred in the last 6 years – while I have a stable job and an apartment to rent, life is going by normally. Do you think big changes are more than 10 years away or are in our immediate future?

        • Because of the financial problems governments are up against, I am afraid problem are coming in the next few years. The ultra low interest rates in place right now are not really sustainable. It is hard to believe that the Quantitative Easing is sustainable. Even “little things” like the cutback in food stamps and the cutbacks in government spending that are gradually taking place take a toll.

          Oil companies are having a hard time making money at current oil price levels. Their temptation is to just give the money that has been invested back to stockholders. See Big Oil Faces Pressure from Shareholders Over Costs.

      • xabier says:

        In Europe (including the UK!) it does seem to be agreed that financing to SME’s has more or less dried up. Or iif available, the interest rates are high.

        But the SME owners will probably say that their real problem is a lack of customers, and getting full payment from those customers.

        In Spain the head of the association of SME’s recently caused a stir by pointing out to the Vice-President that over 400,000 small businesses had gone bust in this crisis, with no sign of improvement.

      • Ert says:


        Europe’s periphery is in deep depression and a deflationary mode.

        For example Spain: New hosing permits are down to 1.585 in August 2013 – down from approx 130.000 in September 2006 and an average between 20.000 and 30.000 in the 90’ties. The numbers for concrete production, etc. are problematic as well. You may figure out the rest yourself – what it means to jobs and ability to pay debt for former employees and companies that have no customers.

        The retail numbers in Greece are contracting the 41th month in succession! They have halved in comparison to the top and are on a level of the 80ties and 90ties.

        Italy has now the highest unemployment they ever had: 12.5% for the general population and 40% for the youth. And that are “ILO”-Numbers – if you work 1 hour per week – you count as employed!

        Germany is kind of stable – but from the export boom only a minority profits. The average (inflation adjusted) income is as “flatline” since 20 years. Therefore the retail numbers suck – and are only exaggerated in the press (the real and nominal and adjusted game).

        Fredmund Malik (St. Gallen Management Institute) and Dr. Dr. Prof Heinsohn see real bigtime deflation looming – only pushed away by the liquidity operations of the central banks. But if one does not only look to the stock and bond prices and some prime housing areas – the deflationary trends become more clear (link only in German).

        • Thanks for your on-the-ground report. This gives support for my view that the big problem will be keeping the price of oil high enough.

          • Ert says:


            Thanks for your thanks. I see that we may have another 2008/9 for oil-prices if the next deflation/depression wave hits us. Unemployed people must not drive to work – and have no money anymore to do other consumptive stuff. All the OECD economies are already fiscally stretched out so far – they will have problems to intervene in the next (even bigger) crisis.

            What happens is quite transparent in Greece:
            – Increasing of the VAT
            – One-time housing tax (based on valuation above the market)
            – Energy tax (Heating-Oil above 1,4€/Liter > approx 6,5$ per gallon)
            – Entitlement reduction (Healthcare, retirement, etc.)
            – Unemployment benefits for only 12 months – then nothing at all
            – Double digits income cuts
            – Lots of other taxes

            So the fix in Greece is: Earn less and pay more to make the bond holders happy – so that no one has to acknowledge that the debt is unrepayable and has to be wiped out. But this would trigger a chain reaction on failures (which Cyprus banks stumbled over – which some of their Greek bonds that where partially wiped out).

  48. timl2k11 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.”
    Would we really have to go that far? If the the human population is small enough wouldn’t the use of fire and gut for clothing be sustainable? Or perhaps you are referring to how the current population could get to sustainable levels. Is it your opinion that once we discovered fire we ceased being at equilibrium with our environment? Thanks in advance for any clarification you can provide. Another wonderful article with much food for thought. If we could live off that kind of food you might on your own be able to feed quite a lot of people! 😉

    • timl2k11 says:

      Sorry, fur for clothing, not gut.

    • Perhaps not quite that far but much further than most people would like to contemplate. Very few people could live sustainable on the planet that humans have fashioned. We have to remember that sustainable living requires the consumption of resources only at the rate that those resources can be refreshed (renewable or non-renewable), and only provided we consume those resources in a manner that doesn’t degrade our environment. I suspect that sustainable living arrangements probably aren’t possible though, with low enough populations, some arrangements may appear to be sustainable for a long time. Thus all species will probably go through booms and busts.

    • The use of fire gives us too much advantage over other animals and plants. We seemed to be burning down forest during the hunter-gatherer period, to get better access to animals for prey. This was leading to climate change. Also, using heat, we could sharpen stones and make much better tools, even back in the hunter gatherer period.

      Perhaps clothing would be available from skins of animals, but for the most part, the animals we would catch would be far too small to be very useful for clothing–more likely insects and very small animals, and perhaps larger animals that were already dead. Without good tools, it would be harder to make clothing. Once we start depending on clothing, we can move to wider territory than we are really adapted to.

      • John C Green Jr says:

        Huh? Just because civilization collapses doesn’t mean hogs and cattle go extinct. Local agriculture and local tanning factories could provide hides for leather clothing. Local sheep and local cotton could provide fiber for cloth clothing.

        • Agreed, hogs and cattle will not go extinct. But hogs and cattle living in stalls in big industrial buildings very much need electricity to control their surroundings and shipped in food and water. On the diet cows are on, and the close quarters, they need a steady supply of antibiotics to keep them alive. At some point, all of these inputs will stop.

          We used to have cows and pigs in fields by people’s homes, but most of the fences needed for this are now gone. So are the barns for keeping equipment. If people are hungry, they will kill off what cows and hogs they are able to find. You are right, some will try to keep them. But the transition will not necessarily be an easy one.

          • John C Green Jr says:

            Gail, I’ve just re-read your post. Perhaps I was too influenced by your two paragraph introduction. My comment supposed a post civilization collapse era. In 1800 the planet supported ~1 billion of us on sunlight which grew food and wood and powered draft animal and human muscle to tend, harvest, and cook on wood stoves and fireplaces.

            With our degraded soils and oceans (particularly fish populations) a near term post collapse Earth might support half a billion of us.

            I wasn’t discussing the transition. Of course it will not necessarily be an easy one as it might include a 90+% die off. We live in interesting times.

          • Hartley Schultz says:

            Hello Gail,
            During the depression dad and I ran a dairy farm and a tannery without any of these modern methods you talk about. It was very tough here in Australia, and everything was done by hand, but we got by, and made a living of sorts. However, what you young people don’t appreciate is how small scale everything is without electricity. We also had a lot of skills and expertise that have now disappeared and were used to doing it tough. When things collapse, people will die like flies around the empty supermarkets, waiting for the water and power to be restored. I am 94, so none of your dire predictions are going to affect me. However the main worry, as I see is not financial, it will be the inability to control all these new pests and diseases, using the old farming methods.
            Kind regards

            • Thanks for your real-world perspectives. My mother is 91, and grew up on a farm. She talks about getting the first electricity at home at 10.

              We are already having trouble improving antibiotics, as fast as germs evolve. Without fossil fuels, we will lose the ability to fight them completely. Not a good situation.

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