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.

354 thoughts on “Sustainability: How Humans’ Economy Differs from Natures’

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

      • 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

        • 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.
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          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

  3. “… 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.

  4. 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.


    • 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.

  5. 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.

    • 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.

        • 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

          • Don

            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.

            • Gail
              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

        • 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.

    • ‘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.

    • 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.

      • 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. 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

    • Don

      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.

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

          • 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).

  7. 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

    • 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.

    • 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.

  8. 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

  9. 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.

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