What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs

Nearly everyone believes that oil prices will trend higher and higher, allowing increasing amounts of oil to be extracted. This belief is based on the observation that the cost of extraction is trending higher and higher. If we are to continue to have oil, we will need to pay the ever-higher cost of extraction. Either that, or we will have to pay the high cost of some type of substitute, if one can be found. Perhaps such a substitute will be a bit less expensive than oil, but costs are still likely to be high, since substitutes to date are higher-priced than oil.

Even though this is conventional reasoning based on experience with many substances, it doesn’t work with oil. Part of the reasoning is right, though. It is indeed true that the cost of extracting oil is trending upward. We extracted the easy to extract oil, and thus “cheap” to extract oil, first and have been forced to move on to extracting oil that is much more expensive to extract. For example, extracting oil using fracking is expensive. So is extracting Brazil’s off-shore oil from under the salt layer.

There are also rising indirect costs of production. Middle Eastern oil exporting nations need high tax revenue in order to keep their populations pacified with programs that provide desalinated water, food, housing and other benefits. This can be done only through high taxes on oil exports. The need for these high taxes acts to increase the sales prices required by these countries–often over $100 barrel (Arab Petroleum Investment House 2013).

Even though the cost of extracting oil is increasing, the feedback loops that occur when oil prices actually do rise are such that oil prices tend to quickly fall back, if they actually do rise. We know this intuitively–in oil importing nations, deep recessions have been associated with big oil price spikes, such as occurred in the 1970s and in 2008. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton also showed that the effects of the oil price spike were sufficient to cause the recession of that began in late 2007 (Hamilton 2009).

In this post, I will explore the reasons for these adverse feedback loops. I have discussed many of these issues previously in an academic paper I wrote that was published in the journal Energy, called “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis” (available here or here).

If I am indeed right about the path of oil prices being down, rather than up, the long-term direction of the economy is quite different from what most are imagining. Oil companies will find new production increasingly unprofitable, and will distribute funds back to shareholders, rather than invest them in unprofitable operations. In fact, some oil companies are already reporting lower profits (Straus and Reed 2013).  Some oil companies will go bankrupt. As an example, the number two oil company in Brazil, OGX, recently filed for bankruptcy, because it could not profitably find and extract Brazil’s off-shore oil (Lorenzi and Blout 2013).

Oil companies will increasingly find that the huge amount of debt that they must amass in the hope of producing profits sometime in the future is not really sustainable. The Houston Chronicle reports that an E&Y survey of Oil and Gas Companies indicates that the percentage of companies that expect to decrease debt to capital ratios jumped to 48% in October 2013 from 31% a year ago (Eaton 2013). If companies with huge debt loads cut back production to the amount that their cash flow will sustain, oil extraction can be expected to fall–just as it can be expected to fall if oil and gas companies go bankrupt or give back investment funds to shareholders.

The downward path in oil production is likely to be steep, if oil prices do indeed drop. The economy depends on oil for many major functions, including most transportation, agriculture, and construction. Increasingly expensive to extract oil is a sign of diminishing returns. As we utilize more resources for extracting oil (oil, steel, water, human labor, capital, etc.), there will be fewer resources to invest in the rest of the economy, reducing its ability to grow. This lack of economic growth feeds back as low demand, bringing down the prices of commodities, including oil. It is because of this feedback loop that I believe that the path of oil prices is generally lower. This path is the opposite of what a naive reading of “supply and demand” curves from economics textbooks would suggest, and the opposite of what we need if the economy is to continue on its current path. 

Adverse Feedback 1: Wages stagnate as oil prices rise, tending to slow economic growth.

Suppose we calculate average US wages over time, by dividing “Total Wages” by “Total Population,” (everyone, not just those working) and bring this amount to the current cost level using the CPI-Urban inflation adjustment. On this basis, US wages flattened as oil prices rose, both in the 1970s and in the 2000s. The average inflation-adjusted wage is 2% lower in 2012 ($22,040) than it was in 2004 ($22,475), even though labor productivity rose by an average of 1.7% per year during 2005-2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 1973 and 1982, average inflation-adjusted wages decreased from $17,294 to $16,265 (or 6%), even though productivity reportedly grew by an average of 1.1% per year during this period.

Figure 1. Average US wages compared to oil price, both in 2012$. US Wages are from Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 2.1, adjusted to 2012 using CPI-Urban inflation. Oil prices are Brent equivalent in 2012$, from BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 1. Average US wages compared to oil price, both in 2012$. US Wages are from Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 2.1, adjusted to 2012 using CPI-Urban inflation. Oil prices are Brent equivalent in 2012$, from BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

To see one reason why wages might flatten, consider the situation of a manufacturer or other company shipping goods. The cost of goods, with shipping, would rise simply because of the cost of oil used in transport. Companies using oil more extensively in producing their products would need to raise prices even more, if their profits are to remain unchanged. If these companies simply pass the higher cost of oil on to consumers, they likely will sell fewer of their products, since some consumers will not be able to afford the products at the new higher price. To “fix” the problem of selling fewer goods, companies would likely lay off workers, to reflect the smaller quantity of goods sold–one reason for the drop in wages paid to workers shown on Figure 1. (Note that Figure 1 will reflect reduced wages, whether it results from fewer people working or lower wages of those working.)

Another approach businesses might use to deal with the problem of rising costs due to higher oil prices would be to reduce costs other than oil, to try to keep the total cost of the product from rising. Wages are a big piece of a business’s total costs, so finding a way to keep wages down would be helpful. One such approach would be a wage freeze, or a cut in wages. Another would be to outsource production to a lower cost country. A third way would be to use increased automation. Any of these approaches would reduce wages paid in the United States. The latter two approaches would tend to have the greatest impact on the lowest paid workers. Thus, we would expect increasing wage disparity, together with the flattening or falling wages, as companies try to hold the cost of goods and services down, despite rising oil prices.

The revenue received by businesses and governments ultimately comes from consumers. If the wages of lower-paid consumers flattens, these lower wages can be expected to reduce economic growth, because with lower wages, these workers will have less income to buy discretionary goods and services. The higher-paid workers may have more income, but this won’t necessarily feed back into the economy well–it may inflate stock market prices, but not feed back as spending on goods and services, necessary for growth.

There is even a feedback with respect to debt. The portion of the population with falling inflation-adjusted wages will find it harder to borrow, making it more difficult to buy big-ticket items such as cars and houses.

Adverse Feedback 2: Consumers cut back on discretionary spending because of the higher cost of food and oil, leading to more layoffs and recession.

Clearly, based on Figure 1, consumers cannot expect wage increases to match oil price increases. Even workers who work in the oil industry cannot expect wage increases equal to the increase in the price of oil, because part of the increase in cost comes from the need for more workers per barrel of oil. For example, it is more labor-intensive to extract oil from a large number of small wells, each of which require fracking, than it is to extract oil from a few larger wells, none of which require fracking.

One cost that tends to increase with the cost of oil is the cost of food (Figure 2). The cost of food and the cost of commuting are necessities for most workers. They will cut down on discretionary expenditures, if necessary, to make certain these costs are covered.

Figure 2. FAO Food Price Index versus Brent spot oil price, based on US Energy Information Agency.

Figure 2. FAO Food Price Index versus Brent spot oil price, based on US Energy Information Agency. *2013 is partial year.

If wages are inadequate, workers will cut back in such area as restaurant meals, vacation travel, and charitable contributions, leading to even more problems with a lack of jobs in these and other discretionary sectors.

It might be noted that even countries that export oil can encounter difficulties as oil prices rise. These countries need a way to get the extra revenue from selling high-priced oil over to the many residents who must buy higher-priced food, but do not benefit from the wages paid to oil workers. It is not a coincidence that the Arab Spring uprisings took place in several oil exporting nations in early 2011, when food prices peaked on Figure 2.

Adverse Feedback 3: Higher oil and food prices together with stagnating wages lead to cutbacks in spending for new cars and new homes, falling prices for new homes, defaults on home and car loans, and banks in need of bailouts.

Purchasing more-expensive homes and new cars are types of discretionary spending. If consumers find their incomes are squeezed by high oil prices, they will cut back on  expenditures such as these as well, leading to layoffs in the home construction and auto manufacturing industries.  Such cutbacks can also result in bankruptcies of auto and home builders.

If people buy fewer move-up homes, the price of resale homes will tend to fall. This in turn makes defaults on mortgages more likely. Layoffs will also tend to make defaults on mortgages more likely, as well as missed payments on auto loans.

Figure 3. S&P Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, using seasonally adjusted three month average data. April 2006 is the peak month.

Figure 3. S&P Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, using seasonally adjusted three month average data. April 2006 is the peak month. Data is latest shown on website as of November 2013.

Most people do not associate the drop in US home prices with the rise in oil prices, but the latest rise in oil prices began as early as 2003 and 2004 (see Figure 2), and the drop in home prices began in 2006. Some of the earliest drops in home prices occurred in the most distant suburbs, where oil prices played the biggest role.

Banks increasingly found themselves in financial trouble, as defaults on mortgages and other loans grew. These defaults are often blamed on bad underwriting. While bad underwriting may have played a role (and may also have helped prevent the US from falling into recession even earlier, when oil prices began rising), the falling prices of homes created part of the default problem, as did job layoffs associated with higher oil prices.

All of these feedbacks led to a need for more government involvement–lower interest rates to try to hold the economy together, get spending back up, and raise home prices.

Adverse Feedback 4: Cutbacks in consumer debt combined with flat wages appear to have led to the decline in spending that precipitated the July 2008 drop in oil prices. Consumer debt still remains depressed.

Oil prices started falling in July 2008, and did not hit bottom until the winter of 2008 (Figure 4).

Figure 4. West Texas Intermediate Monthly Average Spot Price, based on us Energy Information Administration data.

Figure 4. West Texas Intermediate Monthly Average Spot Price, based on us Energy Information Administration data.

What could have precipitated such a fall? Many people consider the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 to be pivotal in the financial crisis of 2008, but the drop in oil prices started months earlier. What could have precipitated such a steep drop in oil prices?

It seems to me that the real underlying cause was a mismatch between what goods cost (such as high food and oil prices) and the amount consumers had available for spending. There are two basic sources of consumer spending–wages and increases in debt. If consumer debt suddenly starts decreasing, rather than increasing, consumer spending can be expected to fall (especially if wages are not rising).

In fact, consumer debt did start falling at precisely the time that oil prices crashed. Mortgage debt started falling in the third quarter of 2008, reflecting a combination of falling home prices and mortgage defaults. As noted previously, both of these were indirectly related to high oil prices.

Figure 5. Us Home Mortgage Debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

Figure 5. US Home Mortgage Debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

Other consumer debt fell at the same time. Revolving credit (primarily credit card debt) hit a peak in July 2008, and began to fall (Figure 6).

Figure 6. US Revolving Credit outstanding (primarily credit card debt), based on Federal Reserve G.19 Report.

Figure 6. US Revolving Credit outstanding (primarily credit card debt), based on Federal Reserve G.19 Report.

Adverse Feedback 5: Even after high oil prices have been in place for several years, many governments find themselves trapped by the need for deficit spending and ultra-low interest rates to cover up problems with stagnant wages and inadequate demand for homes and cars at “normal” interest rates. 

With the slack in consumer debt, US government debt soared (Figure 7). Governments in Europe and Japan found themselves in a similar bind.

Figure 7. US government publicly held debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

Figure 7. US government publicly held debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

Even as US Federal Government debt soared, it was not enough to fully make up for the cutback in debt elsewhere in the economy (Figure 8).

Figure 8. US Debt based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

Figure 8. US Debt based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.

How do governments get themselves caught in such a bind? Businesses can to a significant extent overcome their problems with high oil prices by laying off workers and finding lower cost methods of production. Individuals, however, find that the wage problems persist as long as oil prices remain high and businesses have the option of replacing their services with lower cost workers elsewhere. Globalization definitely makes this problem worse.

When workers have job problems, governments find themselves in the unfortunate position of trying to fix the situation by providing more unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability benefits. Governments also find themselves with lagging tax revenue, because businesses increasingly are located in offshore tax havens, and workers’ incomes are lagging.

Adverse Feedback 6: Rising prices of oil have contributed to long term inflation. If oil prices start falling, this tends to create the opposite problem–deflation. Once oil price deflation starts, it may lead to a self-reinforcing debt default cycle.

Not all inflation is related to higher energy prices, but some of it is. This is one reason the US government sometimes gives an inflation estimate “excluding volatile food and energy prices.” Inflation over the years appears to be one way that a small amount of diminishing returns has fed into the economy.

The concern a person has is that deflation will tend to lead to debt defaults. Clearly lower oil and gas prices mean that oil and gas businesses will become less profitable, and loans in this area will tend to default. But loans related to other types of commodities may tend to default as well. There will also tend to be layoffs in these industries, and in surrounding communities.

Also, with deflation, the low interest rate policies of governments no longer have the stimulating impact that they would have without deflation. So governments will have to concoct negative interest rate plans, and see if they can make these work, to take the place of current plans.

One question is how effective today’s Quantitative Easing and ultra-low interest rate programs have been. We know that they have tended to blow bubbles in asset prices, such as stock market prices. But are ultra-low interest rates part of what allowed oil prices to re-inflate after the July 2008 drop? Certainly, they have helped hold up auto and home sales, and have supported oil drilling operations that rely heavily on debt.

To some extent, the current system appears to be held together with duct tape. It looks like it could fall apart on its own, or it could fall apart as governments try to reduce their deficits by higher taxes and lower spending (See Figure 7). Adding deflation to the combination would seem to be another way of making the current approach for covering up our problems even more vulnerable to collapse.

The frightening thing is that there is already some evidence that oil prices (and commodity prices in general) are starting to trend downward. The chart I showed in Figure 4 showed West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices–a price that is often quoted in the US. On Figure 9, I show WTI oil prices alongside Brent, another oil benchmark. Brent reflects world oil prices to a greater extent than WTI price does. It seems to be showing a recent downward trend in world oil prices. To the extent that this downward trend in prices feeds back into inflation rates and makes Quantitative Easing work less well, this downward trend becomes a potential problem. Its effect would tend to offset the stimulating effect on economies that lower oil prices would normally have.

Figure 9. Brent oil price compared to West Texas Intermediate oil price, based on EIA monthly average spot prices.

Figure 9. Brent oil price compared to West Texas Intermediate oil price, based on EIA monthly average spot prices.


Oil and other fossil fuels are unusual materials. Historically, their value to society has been far higher than their cost of extraction. It is the difference between the value to society and their cost of extraction that has helped economies around the world grow. Now, as the cost of oil extraction rises, we see this difference shrinking. As this difference shrinks, the ability of economies to grow is eroding, especially for those countries that depend most heavily on oil–Japan, Europe, and the United States. It should not be surprising if the growth of these countries slows as oil prices rise. The trend toward globalization can only make this trend worse, because it gives businesses an opportunity to lower wage costs by outsourcing part of their production to lower-cost countries (that use less oil!). When costs are reduced in this manner, businesses are also able get the “benefit” of more lax pollution laws overseas.

We saw in Figure 9 that global oil prices seem already to be trending downward, as growth in countries such as China, Brazil, and India is faltering. At the same time, oil from easy to extract locations is depleting, and oil companies have no choice but move on locations where more resources of all kinds are required, leading to diminishing returns and ever-higher cost of extraction. The way I view our predicament is shown in Figure 10.

Figure 10. Our Oil Price Predicament. Over time, the amount affordable by consumers at a given price falls, while the price required by producers to earn a profit rises.

Figure 10. Our Oil Price Predicament. Over time, if we want to maintain constant oil consumption, the price consumers can afford tends to fall, while the price required by oil producers in order to earn a profit tends to rise.

Over time, in order to maintain constant oil production, the price consumers can afford tends to fall, because governments need to “take back” the huge deficit spending they are using now to prop up the system. At the same time, prices required by producers tend to rise, as the mix of oil production moves to more difficult locations.

While in theory oil prices could spike again because of rising demand of the less developed countries, it is hard to see how this price spike could be sustained. We would likely run into the same problems we had before, with more layoffs and plus credit contraction leading to a cutback in demand in the US, the European Union, and Japan. These users represent a big enough share of the total that their drop in demand would tend to bring world prices back down.

The problem this time, though, is that governments seem to be getting close to being “out of ammunition,” in trying to fight what is really diminishing returns of one of the major drivers of our economy. I don’t know exactly how things might play out, but experience with prior civilizations suggests that “collapse” might be a reasonable description of the outcome.

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 inadequate supply.
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428 Responses to What’s Ahead? Lower Oil Prices, Despite Higher Extraction Costs

  1. Dave says:

    As long as the price of crude is above the marginal cost of production then everything should be ok for oil companies. Currently this seems to be the case as the latest estimate I have seen of the non-Opec marginal cost of production is $104.5 a barrel (May 2013 – Sanford C. Bernstein, a Wall Street research company) and the price of Brent crude is $111 (Nov 22nd). Recent decreases in the price of oil seem to be bringing the price of oil closer to the marginal cost which what one would expect. The last time the price of oil dropped below the marginal cost was during a “global recession”. Any forecast that this will happen again is predicting a recession.

    • When you calculate the marginal cost of production, you need to consider the tax needs of oil exporters in this calculation as well as the direct cost of production. We are already reaching the point where oil exporters (including Venezuela and Russia) are not getting enough taxes to keep up their growth.

      If interest rates were not so low, we would already be well below the marginal cost of production in the tight oil formations (like Bakken and Eagle Forde). There have been recent comments from Statoil in Norway about challenges of oil extraction and a need for more focus on return on employed capital.

  2. Don,
    I came across this quote from John Ruskin. I used to have it hanging on the wall of my office and every time I read it I thought of men who labored with their hands cutting, shaping, and laying stone on stone to build some of our worlds breathing structures. I used to think of this when the university was trying to “slap up” a building in 18 months or less. It gave me a respect for the art of stone masonry. Do you think someday when all the dust has settled and we are forced to build by hand once again, that men will remember and practice such respect for the art of their work?

    “When we build … let it not be for present delights nor for present use alone. Let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think … that a time is to come when these stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor, and the wrought substance of them, See! This our fathers did for us!” —- John Ruskin

    I don’t know why but this quote made me think you might enjoy it.

    “Life without industry is guilt, industry without art is brutality.” —- John Ruskin


    • typo…breathtaking not breathing.. 🙂 Give new meaning to living structures!

    • xabier says:


      Ruskin saw very clearly the horrors which would result from the industrialized civilization which was being built in his day. Another quote I greatly like is:

      ‘If only the paintings of Turner didn’t fade, and every child could have a full stomach and not go hungry to his bed.’ (From memory so not an exact quote).

      How few of the rich – and he was very wealthy – would subscribe to those sentiments even today: a love of art and beauty, and a desire to see one’s fellow men healthy and happy and both feelings inseparable………

      • we cannot ‘consume less goods’ in the sense of it being an act of free will
        we are riding the economy like a bicycle, we put energy in via the pedals, to get forward motion out via the wheels.
        we do not have any other means of propulsion. if we stop pedalling for any length of time (we call it recession) our bicycle begins to wobble. If we dont start pedalling again (we call that energy shortage) we fall into a ditch.
        If the energy shortage is prolonged, as it eventually must be, (when we can no longer afford it) then we stay in the ditch in a literal sense
        Like it or not, we live and function in a wheeled society, everything depends on the maintenance of rotary motion. Your job, my job, the support of the young and old who do no work, depend on the employment we gain (our pedalling) from the ‘forward drive’ of our ‘economy’.
        Everybody expects employment to go on into infinity, along with payrises and an infinitely increasing standard of living. In other words, always staying out of the ditch no matter how long the road is. To do that we must continue to consume, we cannot stop.
        We convert energy into work and sustenance; to fantasise about being able to obtain anything close to our current level of sustenance is making a leap from fantasy into dangerous delusion….particularly the healthy part. If nothing else, our health is directly and specifically linked to our industrialised way of life.
        the delusion of that future of bucolic peasantry that Ruskin fantasised about is in effect near starvation and unemployment. Living for the vast majority was literally hand to mouth, with draconian laws to make sure things stayed that way. Man enslaved his fellow man for profit. Don’t imagine that in a post oil society our habits of millenia are going to change. Like Ruskin we can perhaps indulge in wish-economics, but it won’t make it happen

        • xabier says:


          Right, I’m going to top that for pessimism. Spanish proverb:

          ‘Your conception was a Sin. Your birth was the cause of Agony. Your life will be lived in Anxiety and Fear. And Death and Judgement are inevitable!’

          We Spanish have been there, done that, hundreds of years ago. Probably said the same things in 2013BC. You English are just amateurs at gloom. Maybe if you drank strong wine – or Xabier’s magical home-brew Patxaran – you’d do better, instead of that weak, warm beer…….

          (Only joking, I love ale).

          • Xabier,
            You are right, the Spanish quote above takes dark to a new level!

          • xabier says:


            ‘Out of Darkness cometh Light’ !

            I have a wonderful old book of ancient Dutch/German/Spanish/Italian/Danish proverbs. Probably easy to find a copy in the States second-hand for nothing.
            Many are more or less the same in all cultures, but I’d say the Spanish take the prize for bleak cynicism (with a pithy and gracious wit which is untranslatable).

            Quite a few of those come from the Arabic, and so, who knows, from Egypt and Babylon…….? Our ancestors had it all worked out long ago. If I were a God, humans would make me yawn and create another world, there’s nothing very much that’s new! 🙂

        • EOM,
          One doesn’t have to be an idealist to enjoy Ruskin’s views. My enjoyment of the quote had to do with craftsmanship. In our world of rapid industrial production, craftsmanship has become a lost art. Art, music, cooking, working with wood, metal, or stone, to mention just a few, are things we can take up as a hobby that gives us personal satisfaction, as well as objects of beauty and function. I have a braided rag rug made by my grandmother that is very precious to me simply because she made it with her hands. These thoughts and feelings are why I enjoy his words.

          “we cannot ‘consume less goods’ in the sense of it being an act of free will..”
          Why can’t I consume less goods produced by the industrial society? I agree that we will always have to consume something. We need to eat, we need clothing, we need shelter, etc. But fossil fuels are going away, and without them it will be impossible to continue “pedaling” our bikes. Our industrial economy will cease to exist. So what do you propose to do?

          We certainly can’t replace the industrial economy and support the 7 billion people on this planet with the same level of goods and services. But we must transition to a lower energy economy. What would that lower energy world look like? What might we need to survive? I like some of the degrowth strategies and I think it gives us some ideas. If we can grow food, maintain some form of community that can help each other, eventually a new economy will form. What joys can life hold that don’t require a car to get to it, or electronics to hear it, etc.?

          I think it is very possible for Americans to consume less! We already are, and yes, it is resulting in a world wide recession. What else can be expected? Our nation was consuming 20 or 25% of the world’s goods. If we stop consuming then the economy shrinks. And as expected there are less jobs. So if people have no job, why can’t they find ways to grow food, why can’t they cook from scratch? If you are homeless then maybe that is a problem. So maybe one should start learning to cook before they become homeless. Maybe one should start thinking about who owns a small farm and needs some labor in exchange for food. Maybe people should start working at something that will provide a means of surviving the end of more!

          Some of us are already surviving consuming fewer industrial products. My family has significantly decoupled from the industrial agricultural system just by our food choices. I buy very little processed food. I produce food at home and I know who produces it nearby. I maintain a deep pantry of dry goods in storage. I cook from scratch and preserve food for the winter. My family isn’t the only one doing this. Just look at all the urban farmer magazines and websites on line. When I needed to have my goat bred the informal network of word-of-mouth got it done very easily. There are many, many people who think they can consume less, produce more, and are doing just that!

          If you believe that there is nothing you can do, and you do nothing, then you have already given up. I believe in trying because it may just soften the landing enough for some of humanity to retain some of the knowledge, science, and art of our current civilization.


          • as individuals we can elect to consume less—that was so obvious I took it as read.
            My point was made in a collective sense. pretty much any comment I make is a collective one because we are a herd species.
            Collectively we will go on until we are physically prevented from doing so by the limits of nature, because we do not have the ‘collective intelligence’ to do otherwise. I try not to think in ‘maybes’ but in realities. becoming homeless can be very sudden, if you become homeless from a 5th floor apt, where do you suggest learning to grow food beforehand? Evening classes? That is the reality I deal in.
            I can maybe survive a year on the food I have. Ive tried to drop gentle hints to intelligent friends on the subject, but i dont offer anything more than a hint —theres just no point. I get the same blank out reserved for jehovahs witnesses.
            This doesn’t stop me from feeling deep emotion when I see a Shakespeare play, or listen to Mozart, or look at my beloved England, but as an individual I can only prepare for a collective catastrophe and hope I survive it. Again, mankind is collectively unpleasant when driven by forces beyond his control, almost always in the pursuit of someone elses resources. This is what we are engaged in right now

          • EOM,
            “pretty much any comment I make is a collective one because we are a herd species.”
            Probably a good idea to stop thinking like a herd when the herd is going over a cliff!

            Ok, if I understand you, I believe what you are saying is that people don’t live on a deserted island. We live in a very highly connected society and the choices others make affect us all. Even if I decide to change my life, the masses of other people who continue to live ‘business as usual’ will be the driving force that decides our collective future. Assuming I have summarized your position correctly, I will admit you are probably right.

            Although I do realize that we humans are social creatures, I don’t particularly like the image of ‘Herd mentality’. It gives too much power to group think. Personally, I’ve never liked being in a crowd. I’ve never wanted to visit New York City or live in a city larger than 100,000. Maybe some of the ‘herd’ don’t have herd mentality! 🙂

          • Jody
            Hermits don’t have a herd mentality either, but there’s never been enough hermits to affect the outcome of mankind’s actions
            I don’t like the herd mentality , we can deny it, but I think we’re stuck with it.
            If I have responsibility for a young family and live in a city apt, then my ‘herd reaction’ is going to be different than if I live alone in a forest somewhere. I cannot avoid that, because I am programmed to protect my offspring in a different way than i would just protect myself.
            Not saying what those reactions would be, only that they would be very different, because driving forces would be different between circumstances.
            I would suggest a city or town of any size might be dangerous.
            I think that most people would deny being part of a herd, but we are

  3. Pingback: futures, real and imagined- part 5 | Brain Noise

  4. Don Stewart says:

    Dear All

    Here is another little exercise in putting together the theories and research represented in the books I recommended. In Joshua Greene’s book Moral Tribes, he gives us quite a good discussion of the difference between a sin of commission and a sin of omission. On page 242 he states ‘the fact that action representations are more basic can be seen in infants’ (action as opposed to failure to act). He then describes the clever experiments with 6 month olds which show that they understand consistent actions (always picks the blue ball) but fail to understand the negative…always avoids picking the blue ball. Greene gives a pretty detailed theory with supporting evidence about how the dual mind (part unconscious and part rational) has an instinctive moral overseer monitoring actions but must rely on the much slower rational system to work through indirect effects such as failing to take action. Today, if you kill a person, you will receive widespread condemnation. But if you fail to send money to a ‘Phillipine Relief Fund’, nobody will criticize you. Much less if you go out and drive your car and put more carbond dioxide in the air, making things worse for the next victims of hurricanes and typhoons.

    Now let’s loop back around to the Scarcity theories. Scarcity tends to narrow our vision, reduce our IQ, and drive us in the direction of instinctual behavior and reduce our ability to reason. Think back to the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). It was passed by a vocal group of advocates at a time when our material standard of living had been rising for decades. I remember a builder friend warning me that the US was committing itself to spend lots and lots of money for little return. I hadn’t thought much about it one way or the other. I wasn’t handicapped myself, so had no personal interest in the law. Neither was I excessively concerned about the cost. The rising tide would float all the boats, wouldn’t it? The Stern Report on climate change in Britain similarly minimized the climate change problem by assuming that the tide of real wealth per capita would continue to rise exponentially and so spending money to ameliorate climate change only required diverting an insignificant amount of the increasing wealth to dealing with climate change.

    I am sure you can think of lots of things that we are spending money on today to ameliorate conditions THAT WE DID NOT DIRECTLY CAUSE WITH OUR OWN ACTIONS. But, as we see from the infant studies, and other evidence, it is not the most natural thing in the world for humans to think about indirect consequences. Greene gives a very neat solution involving the dual brain to all the various forms of the Trolley problem that have been studied experimentally…you’ll have to read his conclusions, because they exceed anything I want to try to summarize here.

    My point is simply this. In a world of Scarcity, we will be less inclined to pass things like the ADA, less inclined to send money to the Phillipines, and probably less inclined to invest anything in climate change amelioration. Let me give you a concrete example. The City of Chapel Hill located its garbage dump in a black community. The dump operated for 30 years, and has now been moved. The City, during a time of prosperity, promised to make amends for the 30 years of abuse by extending sewers to the community. Now they find out that the bill is more than five million dollars, and the waffling and sidewinding and hiding under rocks and blaming it on predecessors starts. After all, none of the present city commissioners was involved in the siting of the dump 30 years ago. This is exactly the nature of the discussion in United Nations discussions on climate change between the rich countries and the poor countries.

    I believe that, on the way down, scarcity will be felt more intensely by more people, and will thus lead to the narrowing of vision, the loss of IQ, and the failure to take action based on reason. In short, the dynamics on the way down will lead us to a worse outcome than we would have had at the same level on the way up. This is, again, Seneca Cliff like.

    Don Stewart

    • Jan Steinman says:

      “Scarcity tends to narrow our vision, reduce our IQ, and drive us in the direction of instinctual behavior and reduce our ability to reason.”

      Don, you’ve said this in various forms several times, but I seem to have missed the attribution.

      Forgive me if you’ve explained already, but how do you come to this conclusion?

      My thoughts are nearly the opposite, that excess energy (abundance) leads to specialization (which leads to narrow vision), and favours extrinsic knowledge, which leads to reduced IQ.

      Perhaps “IQ” is a poor term. A brain surgeon probably has a very high IQ, but probably could not survive a month in the wilderness, whereas an indigenous native, living off the land, is “at home” in the wilderness, but you probably wouldn’t want him holding a scalpel over your head! Perhaps we need a better term, such as “RQ,” for “resiliency quotient.”

      Or perhaps you’ve generalized the situational. Sudden loss of product on supermarket shelves would be a form of scarcity, and I agree that such an event would tend to make people brutal, rather than rational. But is that not because our “RQ” has fallen, and we no longer know how to obtain food except in exchange for coloured bits of paper?

      I think the sort of scarcity that is coming will favour those who are adaptable and resilient, which is not necessarily the brain surgeons, rocket scientists, and others generally regarded as having “high IQ.”

      Or perhaps I completely miss what you’re saying. But it seems that “rising IQ” means we’ve learned more and more about less and less until we’ve learned absolutely all there is to know about absolutely nothing.

      • Don Stewart says:

        The words are a quick summary of the book Scarcity, by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir. One at Harvard, the other at Princeton. Sendhil is a MacArthur recipient.

        Daniel Kahneman: The authors are stars in their respective disciplines, and the combination is greater than the sum of its parts. Together, they manage to merge scientific rigor and a wry view of the human predicament.

        Richard Thaler: What does a single mom trying to make partner at a major law firm have in common with a peasant who spends half her income on interest payments? Read this book to learn the surprising ways in which scarcity affects us all.

        Daniel Gilbert: Scarcity is the book you can’t get enough of. It is essential reading for those who don’t have the time for essential reading.

        Does this help?
        Don Stewart

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear All
        In addition, there are many cross connect points between this essay:

        by John Thackara and all the books I recommended. I particularly call your attention to the experimental results in Greene that just thinking about harming someone or watching someone get harmed on a video screen is not at all like hitting them with a blunt instrument. Our physiological response is quite different. How do we know? It is possible to simulate physical violence in the lab, with careful controls, and monitor the physiological response. Seeing starving people in the Phillipines is not like living in close contact with a starving person.

        So Thackara’s plea for returning reality to our education and daily experiences strongly cross connects with Greene’s book.

        Don Stewart

      • Jan and Don,
        I agree with your thinking on specialization, Jan. I’ve seen it first hand. I believe that what the authors are talking about when they say that IQ decreases as people experience scarcity might be what happens when people become desperate due to pressing needs not being meet. They don’t have the luxury of sitting back and “thinking” about it. Thus, their responses are more instinctive not rational.

        Instinctive reactions tend to get short shrift from academic types. I liked your comparison of the brain surgeon and the indigenous native. I think this is exactly why IQ will become almost irrelevant when we move into times of scarcity.

        There is a true story about a certain Noble Laureate winner at my local university who periodically would go walking while he was thinking. Several hours later students in his lab would receive a call for help. “Please come and get me. I’m lost!” “Where are you?” “I don’t know, I’m lost.” “What street are you on?” “Street?” Hmmm….

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “There is a true story about a certain Noble Laureate winner at my local university who periodically would go walking while he was thinking…”

          Then there’s the counter example of Richard Feynman, a truly “curious fellow” who didn’t let thinking get in the way of problem-solving! He seems to be proof that IQ and “RQ” aren’t necessarily inverse-correlated.

          Too bad he died so young. Feynman would be on my short list for someone to recruit for a collapse team.

        • xabier says:

          When I had an apartment in London near a university campus, I used to say: ‘How do you know you’re in a University district? Everyone’s walking into the lamp-posts!’ I saw it so many times…….

    • Don,
      I agree that scarcity will be felt by more people. I agree that more people will react based on instinct rather than reason. But I tend to believe that instinct can be just as valid as reason. I think the survivors will be the ones that use their knowledge, experience, and instinct to attain wisdom, which is not the same thing as IQ. I don’t feel confident that rational thinking is always our greatest survival tool. Sometimes it gets us into trouble!

      “That oil should be useful for something.”

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Jody
        No offense, but it isn’t worthwhile arguing with someone who hasn’t read the books. Starting with Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, it is very clear that humans have a dual approach to problem solving. There are evolutionary reasons why the dual approach is good for our survival prospects. The trick is in being able to switch between them. Instincts 99 percent of the time, but reasoning things out when that is advantageous. Doing ONLY what our instincts tell us to do gets us into all sorts of terrible binds because the world we live in now is not the same as the world those instincts evolved in.

        I do agree that we can develop instinctual behavior patterns which are not imprinted on our genes. For example, when I was a child, we were deeply taught to help old ladies and blind people cross streets. I cannot stand beside a blind person or old lady, to this day, who is trying to cross the street with no assistance. But our evolutionary history clearly did not involve automobiles and the dangers they bring. But it is also true that simply following our instincts has brought us to the brink of extinction.

        Don Stewart

        • Don,
          No offense taken, I am sure the books are worth reading but I haven’t finished the stack of books I am already reading. Sorry if my comments were off target. I wasn’t arguing with you, just expressing my views based on your summaries.


          • Don Stewart says:

            There is a pile of research supporting the dual mind theory. In order for us to have any productive discussion, it would have to start with the experimental results and go from there. And if you became an expert on the experimental results, and conducted some of your own experiments, you would likely not want to waste your time talking to me!

            My point is that these theories have a lot of experimental support. They are not just introspective ideas that people have. So the two of us talking about our differing introspective theories isn’t very productive.

            You don’t have to read the books unless you find the ideas so intriguing that you really want to know more.


        • xabier says:


          Good example: ancient and primitive cultures show many instances of mockery and cruelty to the old, lame, sick, mad and blind. Classical Greece and Rome included.

          Those who condemn Christianity/Islam, etc, without thinking should bear that in mind.

          Kindness to those who suffer, as to other animals, is not natural or instinctive: quite the reverse in fact.

    • xabier says:


      Part of the narrowing of vision will be the simplistic and self-serving explanations of the causes of scarcity and suffering offered to the masses by self-serving and ambitious politicians – from the old parties struggling to maintain their hold on power, or revolutionary upstarts of the Hitler/Stalin/Mao type.

      ie. ‘You are suffering because that group there did it to you! Let’s eliminate them, expropriate them! ‘

      I suspect many will buy that.

      The history of Europe before WW2 shows that even if people don’t believe the ideology offered, they will sign up if they see personal survival advantage (even before the regime starts killing). Many ardent Nazis were previously ardent Communists…..

      As soon as the chanting people in uniforms and badges appear, time to get measured for one.

      • Hitler was a practising catholic until 1929

        • timl2k11 says:

          He felt compelled to get married just before his death, (though not by a priest), so perhaps he thought himself a catholic until the very end.

          • xabier says:

            I believe the Catholic theologians would say that not even Hitler would certainly go to Hell.

            He controlled the levers that enabled him to kill millions, but how many of us have wished people dead and not been able to do anything about it? And without willing helpers he would have been powerless….. like Stalin. The little people make the dictators.

          • timl2k11 says:

            xabier, you are very insightful. In the Hitler biography “Wounded Monster” by Theo L. Dorpat, you see the transformation of a perfectly innocent child into a monster. Hitler did not choose to be mercilessly beaten by his father with his mother standing by and doing nothing to stop it. He did not choose, after suffering terrible battle trauma after WWI, to have a psychiatrist brainwash out whatever ounce of humanity he had left in him, and so on. Who, having the humanity beat out of them and brought into circumstances Hitler found himself in, would not do the very same things he did? We are all in so many ways helpless products of the environment we are brought into, unwittingly thinking we’ve been in control all along.

        • xabier says:


          No, not at all. Just the superficialities of the Faith: like saying he was a ‘painter’! Like Stalin at the seminary.

          Good try though! Next you’ll be saying that Hitler wasn’t a Left-wing revolutionary……

          Now how about this:

          ‘Until Mosque and Minaret have crumbled;
          This Holy Work of ours will not be done:

          ‘Until ‘Faith’ becomes Rejection;
          And Rejection becomes Belief;
          There will be no True Believer.’

          Omar Khayyam.

    • timl2k11 says:

      A recurring theme that often comes to my mind is that the people that screwed us over will be long dead before we can “exact justice”, or that they would otherwise suffer any consequences for their actions. I think one fact of life is for most people to simply not care about what happens in the world after their dead (it surely won’t affect them!), so we get a terrible lack of long term planning. So what if sea levels are 3-6 feet higher in 2100, I’ll be long dead!, etc.

      • xabier says:

        I saw a lovely quote attributed to one of Bush’s circle: ‘What does it all matter? (ie the mess we are in) Jesus is coming back soon!’ It’s a gem. Between materialist atheists and fundamentalists we are a bit stuck for rational attitudes!

        The short-term thinking of people in finance is certainly shocking.

        The generation in power in c 1900 were also blamed for being short-termists: ‘If it lasts me out, I don’t care what happens after’ was a popular phrase.

  5. Scott says:

    Hello Gail and All, We have talked much about the seas and how the fishing is in decline, an important thing as many of us eat fish daily or weekly.

    This article here makes it clear that modern farming fertilizer run offs are polluting our seas and causing corral die offs,

    After reading this, the question I had that came to mind was why no mention of the C02 passing 400 PPM? The oceans have been the huge carbon sponge for years and it is getting to point that shell fish like Oysters cannot even grow in vast areas of the North West US Coast.

    I do agree modern agriculture is mostly responsible, but one cannot ignore the C02 which this article makes no mention of unless I missed something.


    Any thoughts on this anyone?



  6. There might be something else to worry us as oil becomes more expensive – feral dogs.
    When times get tough, the first thing to go are pets & too often, they are simply turned loose. Dogs being pack animals, will join up into packs to hunt & smaller dogs & easy prey. They could also be a danger to small children & people alone & vulnerable. They would also steal your food & fowl the water.
    Dogs can also be of value in protecting your home & garden. Even if small, their bark can alert us to pests or worse. Feeding those dogs could be a problem, so how would we feed our guard dogs while protecting their food from others?

    • a couple of winters ago, i noticed prints in the snow under my bedroom window (in semi-rural UK) which were obviously made by a cat
      They measured 4′ 6″ from front foot to back foot, and each print was as big as my fist.
      That is going to make an interesting future too

    • I would add, “How do we walk around safely, with all of these feral dogs around?”

      • We will have to go about armed to the teeth & I hear that dogs make good eating thus solving that problem. Cats, the other white meat.
        We will be eating anything that can’t out run us or avoid our traps. You can’t afford to be too picky when your really HUNGRY. If your hungry enough, even roaches could look like food.

        There are many ways to get a dog for food, snares, traps, bow & arrows, spears or a rifle if you still have ammo.
        As the economy fails, there will be many more dogs & cats running loose & when the catchable ones run out, use the smart survivors to help find other animals for food.
        As a last resort, there will always be “long pig”, I hear that tastes like pork.

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Dear All
    Since the internet is a miserable device for conveying the nuances of human expression, try to imagine a rather dizzy elderly gentleman who is basically a happy guy (perhaps because he just doesn’t understand how desperate things are) but who gets easily befuddled when he tries to comprehend the utterances of his betters. Then take a quick glance at this link:


    Don’t any of these people ‘get it’? Then, at least today, you will find a video link in the upper right hand corner of the page where you can get a video tour of a 60 million dollar Manahattan penthouse. Amazingly, I once lived in New York when it was a real city doing real work…not an international destination for conspicuous consumption.

    Xabier, I do not know if frying pans are included for the glitzy kitchen appliances. I suspect only the hired cooks will ever know.

    Don Stewart

    • Cities (or any conurbation) have never been anything other than consumption sinks.
      In order to survive, the city has to suck in resources from its surrounding area, somehow rework those resources into a profitable venture of some kind and resell it. It has to keep on doing this ad infinitum. As profitability increases, then the city size increases to accommodate its own enterprises. If a city stops its infinite consumption, then it dies.
      Thus the majority think of the city as a wealth creator, when in fact it is a wealth consumer.
      The difference in modern times is perhaps that wealth consumption has become more conspicuous

  8. xabier says:

    tim l2k11

    In many ways, Hitler was just an ordinary man who got his hands on the State killing-machine. I’ve met so many people from all walks of life, rich and poor, Left and Right, who privately say ‘If only we could get rid of…… this or that group of people.’ One of the diseases of over-crowded societies perhaps. He simply got to put his fantasies into practice. Quite a lot of people joined in: what was he without them?

    I’m paying a lot of attention to the Nazi dictatorship at the moment, in diaries especially rather than the big academic histories which miss a lot about how these things work out. Also, the lives of people during the Russian Revolution: poverty,disease, the desperate search for food and the crazy politics and ideologies. Not that I’m expecting a re-run of the 1930’s, so many factors are different, but…….

  9. Scott says:

    We have enjoyed the times of the “HARVEST YEARS”

    Hello Everyone, I have been looking at some of the interesting replies from many of you about our remaining options as the oil and gas slowly runs out.

    Well we got lots of coal but we know it will further poison the air and water and Earth.

    Many of us have some hope for a new source of Clean Energy like the Hyper Drive or the more realistic Thorium Power Plants that can produce lots of electric power.

    As I have written before I believe we are very able to produce ample electric power, but the main problem how to transfer this power cheaply to run things like cars, trucks and farm tractors that now use diesel as diesel looks to be soon in short supply.

    We have discussed the shortfalls in batteries and also the only real option may be the Hydrogen Fuel Cells.

    But all of this comes at a time when finance is not supportive of moving ahead as all of those Trillions of Dollars have to be refinanced. More over, the Acid levels (CO2 in the Sea) has moved above 400 parts per million and is climbing like a staircase. The die off in the seas are catastrophic and will cause world wide hunger as so many of us eat fish and shell fish from the sea for dinner.

    I do not see a world that is going to die tomorrow, but I see each generation experiencing harder times, less food and less choices. Just getting harder and harder from here on…

    We surely saw the best of times for the “Harvest Years”


    • I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me ( and I’ve struggled to think of exceptions to this) that to make stuff, we must use heat in one way or another. This applies to making horsehoes on an anvil, or running a nuclear power station. We’ve become very good at using heat to multiply ourselves, this in turn is affecting the global thermostat.
      Problem seems to be that the majority of people regard electricity and ‘stuff’ as the same thing, as though they are somehow interchangeable. Another problem is that money and physical energy are seen as interchangeable, that somehow power (and thus everything else) can be produced if we throw enough cash at the problem. If we dont have enough energy (think closing factories), we print some more money to keep them running…easy. (Think quantitative easing).
      There is a disregard for the problem of transforming electricity into food on a plate, which is essentially what we have to do to survive. (diesel shortage is an intermediary factor) Again, that problem of interchangeability, that one form of energy must transform itself into another, if for no other reason than we say so. That disregards the inconvenient laws of physics

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear End of More
        It seems to me that, in the practical world, there are gradations of heat needed, which has profound implications. For example, bacteria can fix nitrogen, or the Haber-Bosch process can be used to fix nitrogen. Bacteria are extraordinarily efficient in their use of energy, while industrial nitrogen plants are energy hogs.

        As another example, one can long for a beach and fly off in a jumbo jet to the South Seas. Or one can take a radio up to the roof in Brooklyn, set up one’s beach chair and cool drink, and enjoy the sunshine. The two experiences are similar, but the energy cost is quite different.

        It can be argued that the bacteria and the sunny day in Brooklyn wouldn’t exist except for the most colossal heat engine in our part of the multiverse…but that is of doubtful importance in the practical world.

        The Aborigines ‘gardened’ the continent of Australia simply by setting fires very judiciously and by building dams to store water. The immediate energy cost of starting a fire is very small. The dams costs a little more energy because they involve more exertion of the human body. But human bodies are extraordinarily efficient in converting calories into work–which makes it hard to exercise enough to lose weight. Again, one could say that fires and Australian flammable foliage and humans and human brains all depend on our colossal heat engine in the sky, plus eons of energy consumption by Mother Nature as she used Evolution to craft plants and humans. But, again, that is of doubtful importance as a practical matter.

        I think that a shorthand answer is that industrial processes are heavily dependent on heat engines, while biological processes are far less dependent on heat…because biological processes both use the (practically) inexhaustible energy from the Sun and because biological processes use heat extraordinarily efficiently in terms of proximate causes.

        Don Stewart

        • Don
          While I must agree with you in broad terms, it’s important to remember that aborigines didn’t consume ‘stuff’ nor did they expect to.
          Thus their food intake and energy output had no sidetracks. As with any other animal species they ate and slept and reproduced themselves for 000s of years without regression or advancement. However skilful their ‘gardening’ might have been, it didn’t produce enough surplus to grow cities, Australia was simply in the wrong climate zone
          we all did that until we learned how to harness heat for other purposes other than direct food intake. Thus we built cities and complex civilisations

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear End of More
            The aborigines obviously did advance. They mastered the use of fire and they learned how to store water effectively. Life was good with an abundance of natural resources and they didn’t work very hard.

            I think it is a mistake to think that Victorian London was an ‘advance’ on the life that the aborigines were living.

            If you look at Albert Bates’ The Biochar Solution, you will find that the Amazon had a high civilization before European contact. It was fundamentally based on biology, including biochar. The Amazonians cultivated or managed at least 138 of the 257 plant species cultivated in the
            Western Hemisphere.

            However, contact with Europeans was quite deadly. Native Americans have a very narrow ability to deal with pathogens, as explained by Albert…much narrower than Africans. European diseases plus the succeeding repression by the conquerors may have killed more than 99 percent of the Amazonians. The die off also resulted in a regression in their level of civilization. Just a few years later, they were cultivating only a tiny subset of the plants they had been cultivating at European contact. The cities disappeared and the jungle grew. The growth of the jungle may be a contributing factor to Europe’s Little Ice Age, as much carbon was stored in woody plants.

            In short, a lot of very useful work can be accomplished by biology using freely available resources, especially when augmented by strategic materials such as biochar which is produced in a kiln but which acts biologically.

            Don Stewart

            • One question is how much of the biological diversity was killed off as aborigines did their gardening and trained the water to flow in the ways they wanted it to flow. The changes no doubt increased the carrying capacity for humans in Australia, but at the cost of reducing the carrying capacity for some other species. Arguably, the total amount of organic matter might be increased, if the climate was favorably impacted. The same questions applies for Amazonians.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail
              Your response leads me to believe that you think that if something is good for humans, it must be bad for other creatures…a zero sum game. That is not true in the world of biology. Beaver, for example, build dams which conserve water high up in the landscape–as opposed to having the water rush to lower elevations as rapidly as possible by the most direct route possible. The work of the beaver increases the biological capacity of the environment.

              Similarly, when a Permaculturist or an Aborigine builds a dam, mimicking a beaver, they increase the biological capacity of the environment. Elaine Ingham says that ‘life promotes life’. In the absence of beaver and permaculturists and aborigines, we get erosion and gullies and less biological productivity. See Toby Hemenway’s essay on ‘the wisdom of the beaver’.

              By using fire and water, the Aborigines created a ‘savannah like’ gardened continent. A savannah is the most biologically productive system in the natural world. The absence of Aboriginal style management in modern Australia is responsible for the current dominance of brush and the regular occurrence of destructive brush fires. (I’m not an expert on Australia…I’m just trying to repeat the story that I think Gammage is telling.)

              Don Stewart

            • I see the whole world as in balance. If there is more of one species, it generally reduces the opportunities for other species. There is competition for food and water, and the greater density of the species that has larger numbers leads to more disease transmission (within the species, and to similar species). My expectation for humans is that they will number no more than a few million world-wide, if they truly follow the pattern of species such as chimps and gorillas.

              The March 23, 2012 issue of Science has a Perspective article called “The Hunters Did It” by Matt McGlone, which discusses the loss of 55 large mammal species in Australia many years ago, among other things. The same issue also has a technical article called “The Aftermath of Megafaunal Extinction: Ecosystem Transformation in Pleistocene Australia” by Susan Rule et al.

              The perspective article says,

              The Australasian megafaunal extinction story now seems clear. Shortly after their arrival, small bands of hunters had a devastating effect on large animals, whether it as ~41,000 years ago in Australia or ~750 years ago in New Zealand. Any climate change at those times was modest and highly unlikely to affect the outcome. Fire and massive biome disruption followed human arrival in regions where there had previously been little or no fire, such as wet tropical Queensland and eastern New Zealand. But large animals were eliminated just as efficiently from regions with dense untouched rain forests, such as New Guinea and western Tasmania. Human hunting was a new, more intense form of predation that was particularly dangerous for large, slow-breeding animals. Human-lit fire, deliberately targeted in time and an order of magnitude more frequent that natural lightening ignitions, had a devastation effect on plants hitherto protected by climate and location.

              The same article later says,

              The central question now shifts to the ecosystem effects of eliminating large herbivores while increasing targeted, more frequent fire. Large animals are more efficient than fire at recycling nutrients. They encourage some fast-growing or well-defended plants and disadvantage others. They disperse seeds and spores. To what extent were these functions picked up by other, smaller herbivores? Do global ecosystems function differently now that megaherbivores are gone and human fires are common? New results strongly suggest that they do. Human-lit fires removed drought-adapted Australian woodlands and grasslands, replacing them with fire-adapted chenopod/desert scrub and grassland. . . More responds are needed from South America, Asia, and Europe to elucidate the effects of megaherbivore declines in different settings and at different times.

              If what this article says is correct, early settlers set in motion changes which led to serious loss of species and degradation of the climate. The later Aborigines no doubt did what they could to “fix” the situation, but I would expect that their “fixes” had unintended consequences as well. It is easy to look at results from the perspective of humans, and say that the results were beneficial. I agree that what the later Aborigines did seems to be generally beneficial, relative to the bad situation that they had been given to work with thanks to the actions of their ancestors. But from the perspective of other species, we don’t really know. We know that when we install buildings and stores and roads in our own economy, it has a disruptive effect on ecosystems. We weren’t there to run the experiment two ways–with and without humans and their fires and dams–to know how ecosystems would have fared without the actions of the later Aborigines.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail
              I guess I have to buy Gammage’s book and study it.

              I do know that humans CAN design in such a way that biological activity is increased. My sister in LA did some permaculture landscaping, at my urging, and is amazed and delighted at the increase in plant and animal and bird life on her small lot. Now one might say that, perhaps back in the very olden days before humans, that lot had even more biological activity. I don’t know about that. I do think that human intervention can store, spread, and sink water more effectively than simple gravity flow. Water is frequently a limiting factor. So things like dams and swales and keyline plowing increase biological activity in the dry areas to which the water is directed.

              Darren Doherty from Australia was in California recently. After looking at the dry ravines from erosion, he recommended the planting of trees in the ravines. The trees would slow down the water, let the silt drop, and increase the bird and animal life as well as life in the soil. Whether the ravines were originally created by human activity, or are just the result of winter rains running down hill, I don’t know. But Darren’s advice would be likely to make things a lot better than they are today.

              As for the big herbivores. Their descendents are our domesticated cattle. Grasslands require ruminant grazing in order to be healthy. There are more cattle than we can graze on existing grasslands, which causes me to suspect that we have more tonnage of domesticated big herbivores than tonnage of wild herbivores before humans evolved. So we have probably replaced some wild herbivores with even more domesticated herbivores. We have also used terribly damaging damaging practices with the domesticated herbivores, which people like Alan Savory are trying to fix with rotational grazing.

              Don Stewart

              Don Stewart

            • sheilach2 says:

              Trappers almost wiped out the Beaver for their fur which was used in beaver hats.
              The Aboriginals of Australia use of fire & their hunting of the megafauna caused their extinction as did the native americans hunting of our megafauna & fire caused their extinction.

              That’s why we no longer have mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths, ground sloths, glyptodonts, camels, horses, saber toothed cats, lions, elk-moose etc & Australia no longer has it’s giant kangaroos, carnivorous kolas, marsupial wolves, giant wombats etc.

              Everywhere humans went, the large animals were wiped out as they had no fear of humans & along with the natural changes in climates that these animals had survived before, the could not survive the addition of human hunters, their fire setting & their dogs.
              Those changes caused by humans happened too quickly for the wildlife to adjust.

              Humans, especially the males, are the most dangerous predator to have ever evolved. If T-rex still existed, we would have hunted them to extinction as well.

              The great extinctions now being caused by human activity continues & is accelerating.
              We are scheduled to cause the extinction of all big cats, all rhinos, all elephants, larger primates & fish & countless other species that cannot tolerate the destruction of their environment or our excessive hunting.

              We are man & we are DEATH!

              After we collapse, the survivors will include some humans, rats, mice, cockroaches, ticks, our parasites, & if we don’t eat them all, some domesticated animals.

              The earth will be left in ruins & it will take millions of years for it to fully recover from our fossil fueled presence.

        • The victorians were not able to free themselves of disease and make real progress untill they could make bricks by the million and use them to build sewers (Bazalgette et al)
          Australian aborigines by and large lived in deserts. Deserts, whether hot or cold, do not produce sufficient resources to sustain great cities and civilisations.
          Latitude has a great deal to do with how civilisations grew

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear End of More
            I suggest you look at the Amazon ad for:

            The Biggest Estate on Earth: How Aborigines Made Australia
            by Bill Gammage

            Gammage also has a YouTube video lasting about 15 minutes where he discusses his findings. Australia under management by the aborigines resembled a gentleman’s ‘estate’.

            Don Stewart

  10. xabier says:

    A book worth reading is ‘A Way of Life’ by Alec Rainey: describes his encounter in the 1960’s with Aborigines when he went to learn to be a stockman in Australia. He was interested in their lives and ways and they responded to some degree: as an archaeologist and anthropologist by training he made a good observer.

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