Why a Finite World is a Problem

Why is a finite world a problem? I can think of many answers:

1. A finite world is a problem because we and all of the other creatures living in this world share the same piece of “real estate.” If humans use increasingly more resources, other species necessarily use less. Even “renewable” resources are shared with other species. If humans use more, other species must use less. Solar panels covering the desert floor interfere with normal wildlife; the use of plants for biofuels means less area is available for planting food and for vegetation preferred by desirable insects, such as bees.

2. A finite world is governed by cycles. We like to project in straight lines or as constant percentage increases, but the real world doesn’t follow such patterns. Each day has 24 hours. Water moves in waves. Humans are born, mature, and die. A resource is extracted from an area, and the area suddenly becomes much poorer once the income from those exports is removed. Once a country becomes poorer, fighting is likely to break out. A recent example of this is Egypt’s loss of oil exports, about the time of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 (Figure 1). The fighting has not yet stopped. 

Figure 1. Egypt's oil production and consumption, based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

Figure 1. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.

The interconnectedness of resources with the way economies work, and the problems that occur when those resources are not present, make the future much less predictable than most models would suggest.

3.  A finite world means that we eventually run short of easy-to-extract resources of many types, including fossil fuels, uranium, and metals.  This doesn’t mean that we will “run out” of these resources. Instead, it means that the extraction process will become more expensive for these fuels and metals, unless technology somehow acts to hold costs down. If extraction costs rise, anything made using these fuels and metals becomes more expensive, assuming businesses selling these products are able to recover their costs. (If they don’t, they go out of business, quickly!) Figure 2 shows that a recent turning point toward higher costs came in 2002, for both energy products and base metals.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100.  Data source: World Bank.

Figure 2. World Bank Energy (oil, natural gas, and coal) and Base Metals price indices, using 2005 US dollars, indexed to 2010 = 100. Base metals exclude iron. Data source: World Bank.

4. A finite world means that globalization will prove to be a major problem, because it added proportionately far more humans to world demand than it added undeveloped resources to world supply. China was added to the World Trade Organization in December 2001. Its use of fuels of all types skyrocketed quickly soon afterward (Figure 3, below). As noted in Item 3 above, the turning point for prices of fuels and metals was in 2002. In my view, this was not a coincidence–it was connected with rising demand from China, as well as the fact that we had extracted a considerable share of the cheap to extract fuels earlier.

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.

5. In a finite world, wages don’t rise as much as fuel and metal extraction costs rise, because the extra extraction costs add no real benefit to society–they simply remove resources that could have been put to work elsewhere in the economy. We are, in effect, becoming less and less efficient at producing energy products and metals. This happens because we are producing fuels that are located in harder to reach places and that have more pollutants mixed in. Metal ores have similar problems–they are deeper and of lower concentration. All of the extra human effort and extra resource expenditure does not produce more end product. Instead, we are left with less human effort and less resources to invest in the rest of the economy. As a result, total production of goods and services for the economy tends to stagnate.

In such an economy, workers find that their inflation-adjusted wages tend to lag. (This happens because the total economy produces less, so each worker’s share of what is produced is less.) Companies producing energy and metal products are also likely to find it harder to make a profit, because with lagging wages, consumers cannot afford to buy very much product at the higher prices. In fact, there is likely to be the danger of an abrupt drop in production, because prices remain too low to justify the high cost of additional investment.

6. When workers can afford less and less (see Item 5 above), we end up with multiple problems:

a. If workers can afford less, they cut back in discretionary spending. This tends to slow or eventually stop economic growth. Lack of economic growth eventually affects stock market prices, since stock prices assume that sale of their products will continue to grow indefinitely.

b. If workers can afford less, one item that is increasingly out of reach is a more expensive home. As result, housing prices tend to stagnate or fall with stagnating wages and rising fuel and metals prices. The government can somewhat fix the problem through low interest rates and more commercial sales–that is why the problem is mostly gone now.

c. If workers find their wages lagging, and some are laid off, they increasingly fall back on government services. This leaves governments with a need to pay out more in benefits, without being able to collect sufficient taxes. Thus, governments ultimately end up with financial problems, if extraction costs for fuels and metals rise faster than can be offset by innovation, as they have been since 2002.

7. A finite world means that the need for debt keeps increasing, at the same time the ability to repay debt starts to fall. Workers find that goods, such as cars, are increasingly out of their ability to pay for them, because car prices are affected by the rising cost of metals and fuels. As a result, debt levels need to rise to buy these cars. Governments find that they need more debt to pay for all of the services promised to increasingly impoverished workers. Even energy companies find a need for more debt. For example, according to today’s Wall Street Journal,

Last year, 80 big energy companies in North America spent a combined $50.6 billion more than they brought in from their operations, according to data from S&P Capital IQ. That deficit was twice as high as in 2011, and four times as high as in 2010.

At the same time that the need for debt is increasing, the ability to pay it back is falling. Discretionary income of workers is lagging, because of today’s high prices of fuels and metals. Governments find it difficult to raise taxes. Fuel and metal companies find it hard to raise prices enough to  finance operations out of cash flow. Ultimately, (which may not be too in the future) this situation has to come to an unhappy end.

Figure 4. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Figure 4. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.

Governments can cover up this problem for a while, with super low interest rates. But if interest rates ever rise again, the increase in interest rates is likely to lead to huge debt defaults, and major financial failures internationally. This happens because higher interest rates lead to a need for higher taxes, and because higher interest rates mean purchases such as  homes, cars, and new factories become less affordable. Rising interest rates also mean that the selling price of existing bonds falls, potentially creating financial problems for banks and insurance companies.

8. The fact that the world is finite means that economic growth will need to slow and eventually stop. We are already seeing slower economic growth in the parts of the world  that have seen a drop in oil consumption (European Union, the United States, and Japan), even as the rest of the world has seen rising oil consumption.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP's 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Figure 5. Oil consumption based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.

Countries that have had particularly steep drops in oil consumption, such as Greece (Figure 6 below), have had particularly steep drops in their economic growth, while countries with rapid increases in oil and other energy consumption, such as China shown in Figure 2 above, have shown rapid economic growth.

Figure 6. Oil consumption of Greece, Based on EIA data.

Figure 6. Oil consumption of Greece, Based on EIA data.

The reason why we are already reaching difficulties with oil consumption is because for oil, we are reaching limits of a finite world. We have already pulled out most of the easy to extract oil, and what is left is more expensive and slow to extract. World oil production is not rising very fast in total, and the price needs to be high to cover the high cost of extraction.  Someone has to be left out. The countries that use a large proportion of oil in their energy mix (like Greece, with its tourist trade) find that the products they produce are too expensive in a world marketplace. Countries that use mostly coal (which is cheaper), such as China, have a huge cost advantage in a cost-competitive world.

9. The fact that the world is finite has been omitted from virtually every model predicting the future. This means that economic models are virtually all wrong. The models generally predict that economic growth will continue indefinitely, but this is not really possible in a finite world. The models don’t even consider the fact that economic growth will scale back in mature economies.

Even climate change models include far too much future fossil fuel use, in both their standard runs and in their “peak oil” scenarios. This is convenient for regulators. Oil limits are scary because they indicate a possible near-term problem. If a climate change model indicates a need to cut back on future fossil fuel use, these models give the regulator a more distant problem to talk about instead.

10. Even the most basic economic relationships tend to be mis-estimated in a finite world. It is common for economists to look at relationships that worked in the past,  and assume that similar relationships will work now. For example, researchers like to look at how much debt an economy can afford relative to GDP, or how much debt a business can afford. The problem is that the amount of debt an economy or a business can afford shrinks dramatically, as the economic growth rates shrinks, unless the interest rate is extremely low.

As another example, economists believe that higher prices will lead to substitutes or a reduction in demand. Unfortunately, they have never stopped to consider that the reduction in demand for an energy product might have a serious adverse impact on the economy–for example, it could mean many fewer jobs are available. Fewer jobs mean less demand (or affordability), but is that what is really desired?

Economists also seem to believe that prices for oil products will keep rising, until they eventually reach the price level of substitutes. If people are poorer, this is not necessarily the case, as discussed above.

11. Besides energy products and metals, there are many other limits that are a problem in a finite world. There is already an inadequate supply of fresh water in many parts of the world. This problem can be solved with desalination, but doing so is expensive and takes resources away from other uses.

Arable land in a finite world is subject to limits. Soil is subject to erosion and degrades in quality if it is mistreated. Food is dependent on oil, water, arable land, and soil quality, so it quickly reaches limits if any of these inputs are disturbed. Pollinating insects, such as bees, are also important.

Probably the biggest problem in a finite world is the problem of too high population. Before fossil fuel use was added, the world could feed only 1 billion people. It is not clear that even that many could be fed today, without fossil fuels. The world’s population now exceeds 7 billion.

Where We Are Now in a Finite World

At this point, the problem of hitting limits in a finite world has morphed into primarily a financial problem. Governments are particularly affected. They find that they need to borrow increasing amounts of money to provide promised services to their citizens. Debt is a huge problem, both for governments and for individual citizens. Interest rates need to stay very low, in order for the current system to “stick together.”

Governments are either unaware of the true nature of their problems, or are doing everything they can to hide the true situation from their constituents. Governments rely on economists for advice on what to do next. Economists’ models do a very poor job of representing today’s world, so they provide little useful guidance.

The primary way of dealing with limits seems to be “solutions” dictated by concern over climate change. These solutions are of questionable benefit when it comes to the real limits of a finite world, but they do make it look like politicians are doing something useful. They also provide a continuing revenue stream to academic institutions and “green” businesses.

The public has been placated by all kinds of misleading stories about how oil from shale will be the solution. Quantitative Easing (used by governments to lower interest rates) has temporarily allowed stock markets to soar, and allowed interest rates to stay quite low. So superficially, everything looks great. The question is how long all of this will last. Will interest rates rise, and undo the happy situation? Or will a different financial problem (for example, a debt problem in Europe or Japan) bring the house of cards down? Or will the ultimate problem be a decline in oil supply, perhaps caused by oil and gas companies reaching debt limits?

2014 will be an interesting year. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed as to how things will work out. It is surreal how close we can be to limits, without major media catching on to what the problem really is.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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437 Responses to Why a Finite World is a Problem

  1. Pingback: Misunderstood Crisis Book

  2. xabier says:


    Hence the once well-known Victorian painting: ‘Death of the Road Mender’ (of hunger, slumped by the roadside!).

  3. edpell says:

    Thank you to Gail and all who post here. It is a pleasure to have a discussion on the internet where people are informed, thoughtful and polite.

  4. danny says:

    Unfortunately roads will be the last thing to go….ever here of shovel ready projects? No matter how broke this country is it will always throw money at the roads…whether it makes sense or not. Every politician will get behind building new roads. Danny

    • Unfortunately the people who ramble on about ‘shovel ready’ jobs, really mean ‘excavator ready’.
      Stop and take a look at any major building project, it’s mostly men driving machinery of one sort or another. You cannot build interstate highways or anything else with sufficient strength to withstand modern usage, using picks shovels and human muscle.
      That means putting fuel into the excavators.
      When fuel gets too expensive, road building/maintenance on the scale we have known it will cease.
      To an certain extent we see this happening already, roads don’t get fixed because the money/energy supply chain is failing. That supply of money/energy comes from the taxes of joe public, his money in turn is derived for the raw energy that powers the systems of our civilised infrastructure. So ultimately everything depends on that infinite supply of cheap energy.
      But we’ve burned it all. Still, it was good while it lasted

      • xabier says:


        I agree: I have been very struck by the very rapid disintegration of the main road to my village and the cycle path to town caused by winter frosts, etc.

        Just a few years unrepaired would make both unusable for cyclists, and probably for many ordinary vehicles.

        Still, a community effort to patch it up could probably keep the path to a fair standard, if not the road.

        Maybe I’ll be village road-mender?

        • xabier
          good idea!
          Every town used to have a roadmender/s which generally consisted of a horse and cart and a load of stones.
          After the Romans left that was about it for about 1700 years, hence the Roman roads fell apart because no incentive was there to fix them. (as opposed to the central initiative of the Roman army).
          This is always my point about our wheeled society, it takes a lot more to keep it rolling that inflated tyres

          • xabier says:


            I’m always preaching the value and pleasure of working with one’s hands……!

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Xabier and More
              You may remember that Thoreau observed that maintenance of ‘roads and all cross-lots paths’ paid very poorly in Concord. He never got his statements ‘audited, much less approved and paid’.

              Don Stewart

  5. Stilgar Wilcox says:


    Gail and anyone else interested, the above link is a great summarization of the reasons building towards our impending collapse.

  6. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All Interested

    For an example of biological complexity which has been newly discovered, see:

    Scroll down to the pictures of networks with and without parasites. You will see that, in the presence of parasites, Nature builds more complex networks. Do humans understand the networks? Not at all. Are humans smart to pour on the poisons to kill the parasites? Well….

    Don Stewart

  7. edpell says:

    Can someone explain city farming to me. New York City is about 20 miles by 20 miles. The sunlight can fall either on farm plants or on providing day lighting to houses, apartments, businesses, streets, parks. If we use half the sunlight for the non-farm uses that leaves 10 by 20 square miles of sunlight. The rest of New York state is about 300 miles by 150 miles roughly. That is 225 times more sunlight area. What fraction of NYC food supply can be provided by 200 square miles of sunlight.

    • Don Stewart says:

      Dear Ed

      I don’t claim to be an expert, but perhaps I can shed a little light on the ‘urban farmer’ question.

      First, anyplace there is soil and available sunlight and water, food can be grown. It doesn’t have to look like a Kansas wheat field. It can be a beautiful, multi-purpose garden. ‘SPIN farmers’ (Small Plot Intensive) farmers are young people who grow food intensively in other peoples urban or suburban yards. Of course, the homeowner could garden the plot themselves, and we might call the gardener an ‘urban farmer’ if we wished. Here is a video of a beautiful suburban yard:

      Second, a neighborhood may be designed to grow food which is largely available to the public. Here is a beautiful example of a neighborhood in Davis, CA, which is now about 30 years old.

      Third, food can be grown in very dense urban areas such as Brooklyn. Here is Geoff’s video of one of these farms:

      Fourth, it is important to distinguish between calories and health supportive micronutrients. For example, see:

      Read the first few bulleted points, and then scroll down the page and pay particular attention to the cancer section. In a word, broccoli (and other brassica) are an essential ingredient in any realistic cancer prevention program. But any green plant begins to die when it is harvested. It will steadily lose its powerful properties as it sits in storage or in transit. The most powerful cancer protection you can get is to go out in the back yard and harvest some broccoli and bring it inside and eat it. Eating a wheat berry is quite a different kettle of fish. Wheat is a high calorie but low micronutrient density food which is easily dried and shipped great distances at slow speeds.

      So when we are thinking about urban gardening or farming, we must, I think, distinguish between foods which have a high water content with low calories, which makes them quite perishable, many of which perform very valuable health functions for us, and foods which basically provide us calories and can be dried and shipped easily. An urban garden should focus on the first group and the vast wheatfields on the second group.

      Consequently, looking simply at calories isn’t very informative. If you want the people in New York City to be healthy, then they have to have a steady supply of fresh brassica. Most of the brassica in New York City are currently shipped in from California. So the current strategy is to harvest the brassica in California, ship it by land to New York City, distribute it to grocery stores, have people eat it, the people defecate and urinate and the waste is taken to a sewage plant, and the sewage is dumped somewhere.

      You can work out the vulnerabilities in each of those steps for yourself. For example, your neighbor the Omega Institute tackled the last step in the cycle with their biological sewage treatment system which produces drinking quality water and fertilizer.

      In the Geoff Lawton video of the Brooklyn rooftop, he observes that there is abundant waste in New York City. That waste can be used to grow food, and you see a neat composting operation. One of the principles of Permaculture is to look for energy gradients and to harvest the energy. Food trimmings and human manure and urine are essential ingredients in a composting system which produces a lot of heat. Thus, they are part of an energy gradient. The Brooklyn farm is harvesting, rather than dumping, the ingredients of that energy gradient. (Not making any accusations about humanure in Brooklyn. A really good system would use something like the Omega system.)

      Cornell recently did a study to determine if New York State’s cities could feed themselves. I didn’t read the study, but what I did read said that NYC cannot supply itself with enough calories, but all the other cities can be largely self-sufficient if they work at it. Could NYC be self-sufficient in brassica, thereby stopping cancer? People seldom ask that question.

      Don Stewart

    • Anyone concerned with the science and common sense of sustainability should read Prof David Mackay’s book, Sustainable energy, without the hot air’ Its available free to download http://www.withouthotair.com/
      it details every aspect of where energy comes from and where/how it’s used, how much is available per sq metre on the planet
      Also I strongly recommend watching his lecture

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Others
    Sorry, but another little editorial about complexity and Nature. George Mobus has written about complexity and collapse and our human bandwidth to deal with information:

    I want to weave together a few strands in addition to Mobus. First, a TED talk about why diets don’t work:

    Then an observation from Jonathan Bailor’s book, The Calorie Myth:
    ‘There is no pill, product, or service that comes close to providing the health and physique benefits you will get from eating so many non-starchy vegetables, nutrient-dense protein, and whole-food fats that you are too full for starches and sweets.’

    He then adds: ‘ Why do I say this? At least 95 percent of people avoided obesity and over 99 percent avoided diabetes for all human history before (insert name of new pill, product, or service) existed.’

    Third, a recent TED talk by the commander of the nuclear submarine which went from ‘worst in the Navy’ to ‘best in the Navy’ over a two year period. The Captain delivers the talk, and says that the secret was forgetting about the Navy’s manual which describes 400 commands that only the Captain is allowed to deliver, and instead counting on people to do their jobs proficiently. He says that the only commands he reserved to himself was the firing of deadly weapons. (I can’t locate the talk, trust me.)

    Fourth, the ongoing debacle of Obamacare.

    Fifth, the previous video I recommended featuring Will Harris III of White Oak Pastures.

    What these have in common, I think, is the exhibition of the limits of bandwidth in human intelligence, which is explained in detail in the book Scarcity, which I have recommended on several occasions. That is, humans get overloaded and don’t function well. Scarcity and Mobus describe the phenomenon a little differently, but it comes out to the same place.

    So, relative to dieting, let’s ask the simple question ‘Why would Nature leave something as important as weight to human thinking? (as in calorie counting)’ Nature doesn’t leave other essential functions to the Slow Thinking that Daniel Kahneman has described. And we get the answer from Jonathan Bailor: eat the stuff that Nature designed you to eat and forget about calories. (There are also some complexities having to do with resetting hormones if you have already gotten overweight…we humans do make complexity for ourselves). So, essentially, Bailor is saying ‘live the way Nature designed you to live and you don’t have to spend precious cognitive resources on calories and weight and nutrition’.

    Will Harris doesn’t have any illusions about issuing 400 command decisions at White Oak Pastures. He knows that the microbes are going to do their thing if he just treats them decently. He doesn’t know exactly what they are going to do, couldn’t issue orders which would be effective, and doesn’t try to. He sits in his pastures and drinks some wine and has fun watching the show. The commander of the Navy submarine does roughly the same thing and tremenedously improves the performance of the Sub.

    Will Harris knows that the microbes built a tremendously productive ecosystem long before humans appeared on the scene, and that he can pretty much trust them to do what they need to do. The Navy Commander knows that humans want to do a good job, and that if he has given them the right tools, they will strive to do a good job. Neither man has to consult the Navy Manual and issue 400 commands.

    What went wrong with Obamacare? The Senators were told that the fundamental problem with American health was pretty much as Bailor describes it…eating the wrong stuff. Of course, they ignored that message. Instead, they let lobbyists write thousands of pages of micro-management legislation which is totally disconnected from any real, resource constrained, world. Is anyone surprised by the debacle?

    The Industrial System depends on a human issuing commands for the tiniest operations. A machine can be exploded into a drawing of thousands of individual parts. If you are going to manufacture that machine, you better have each and every part. I think that some of the strains we are currently experiencing are due to the fact that our reliance on this ‘command and control’ method has reached its limits, is paying reduced marginal returns, and is subject to horrendous failure in the face of resource shortages.

    Therefore, what makes sense is to rediscover the biological solutions to our problems and to stop poisoning the ecosphere so that the biological solutions can operate effectively.

    Does my recommendation just make things more complicated? I don’t think so. It is more like a religious conversion…just let go and let (Jesus, Allah, the gods on Olympus) take charge. Try biology!

    Don Stewart

    • Paul says:

      More on complex systems and what happens when they bust…. if you don’t care to read it all I think page 56 plays out what would happen if one of the key hubs busts — the EU


    • edpell says:

      If the federal government can force the purchase of health insurance maybe it should force the purchase of healthy food and gym memberships.

    • xabier says:


      There are two Imperial options for dealing with tribal societies if you wish to modify their politics:

      1/ Negotiate, bribe, use existing structures to promote your aims, not impose.

      2/ Spend a fortune in lives and equipment in an invasion designed to dominate – and get beaten in the end.

      With Nature, we have tried the invade and dominate option, and as in Iraq, Afghanistan, the result is chaos, death and sterility.

  9. Creedon says:

    Bicycles; local parts and repair; its all about being a quasi prepper and simpler trying to be prepared for worst case scenarios. A fifty pound bag of rice stored in the garage. Lots of material could be done on preparation for worst case scenarios.

    • SlowRider says:

      RUNNING OUT OF A STABLE INCOME will be what collapse looks like for most of us. The economy will still be there to buy things for a while, the problem will be not enough money. If you have a job, you can drive a small old car or a scooter without a problem. If you have no job, where do you go with your electric bicicle?

      So, my prepping list would rather include
      Being useful to my customers and my company
      Downsizing my live (house, car, vacations, food…)
      Saving currency, buy some gold
      Not going into consumer debt, morgage loans etc.

      • tmsr says:

        I think it is as slowrider says. If you have a job and/or own income producing property (stock, apartment, farm, …) things are working for you and your concern is keeping the system going. You do not want it to break due to excessive borrowing.

        If you do not have a job and do not have income producing property you need government welfare to avoid starvation, freezing to death in the winter cold, etc.. You want the government to shell out even if that involves borrowing that may crash the whole system. A risk of future disaster is better than starving or freezing today.

        Both parties are rational economic consumer. No one is misinformed, no one is miscalculating. People just have different goals.

      • danny says:

        It does not matter what you have…..if the crash is as big as we are talking about here…it will be taken from you.

      • danny says:

        If the Titanic is sinking it won’t matter how much money you have…you will still drown eventually….you might just live a little longer…..or maybe not….

  10. Christian says:

    Hi, Forbes is against QE and taking more debt. I used to believe they were just a part of Wall Street, they don’t? They are even supporting a change in US Constitution in order to really put limits on federal debt (have a problem inserting the link): http://www.forbes.com/sites/ralphbenko/2013/12/09/the-big-political-story-of-2016-will-not-be-about-who-replaces-obama/

    • Interesting! What the article is talking primarily about is the fact that US spending is out of control, relative to receipts. They are taking the view that the spending must be reigned in–a typical Republican position. A person can quite easily get to this position, looking at the numbers. I am not sure that the author has thought through the ramifications for the economy, though. Of course, one can also look at all of the people depending on the programs, and come to the opposite conclusion.

      • Christian says:

        Of course this position seems not to get the consequencies for the economy as a whole, and seems not to care about programs. In case such a proposal goes on and seems to reach constitutional force, I wonder what a government which believes QE is completely necessary would do to maintain it, specially given the new proposal does not have a positive program. But , is QE really essential to US economy going on?

  11. Creedon says:

    I have recently gotten into studying battery powered bicycles. Supposedly in Belgium and L.A battery powered bicycles are an up an coming thing. I don’t think that electric cars are economically viable. I am not yet convinced that battery powered bicycles are not a possibility. The Asians appear to be gaining on us in the development of battery and solar technologies.

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Gail and Others
    Here is perhaps some food for thought in terms of biological solutions being the only hope for achieving order of magnitude improvements. This University of California study shows the household carbon footprint for most all zip codes in the United States. You can put your cursor anyplace on the map and get the footprint in that particular zip code. In the article, they give the Washington DC area footprint, which is quite typical of large cities in the US. That is, a low footprint inner city with a very high footprint suburban fringe. The numbers generally range from around 35 in the city to 80 in the distant suburbs. You can find this pattern, with comparable numbers, in Chicago, Dallas, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. New York City is distributed somewhat differently, and you can explore that for yourself. New York is different because some very high income places (such as Manhattan) are also very low carbon footprint.


    Let’s assume that we have to get the carbon footprint down to perhaps 25. That would require cutting 65 tons from the rich suburbs and 10 tons from the poor inner cities. Can you think of any industrial or political solution which would accomplish that. I am pretty sure that building high speed rail lines isn’t going to do it. And I can’t see those suburbs giving up control of the political system or agreeing to severely penalize themselves.

    So…can we think of any ‘biological’ solutions? Let’s consider a few facts.
    1. Up until the invention of the elevator, the poor people in Paris lived in walk-ups on the top floors of houses owned by the rich people who lived on the ground floor. So we might consider that a sociological and political change whereby poor people live in the surplus square footage in the houses of the rich. In many rich suburbs, you see a constant stream of service trucks bringing blue collar people to work in the big suburban houses, along with Molly Maid cars, professional dog walkers, and the like. Moving these service people right into the neighborhood cuts a lot of carbon, and is comparable to the way plant polycultures function. It is ‘biological’ thinking.

    2. Food is a carbon footprint for both rich and poor. While it is possible to ‘farm the vacant lots and rooftops’ in the cities, as David Holmgren has observed, the bulk of the land is tied up in suburban lawns. So, suppose that an urban farmer (more accurately, a suburban farmer) lives in a small house and farms all those suburban wastelands we call lawns. The farmer can live in a tiny house constructed in the neighborhood…see

    Such a solution both cuts out a lot of commuting, results in the consumption of biological food rather than junk food, and perhaps achieves carbon negative food.

    3. I asked my sister in LA about one of the zip codes which has a footprint of about 35. The rich zip codes, as expected, have footprints in the 70s. She characterized the low footprint zip code as ‘a lot of immigrants’. If you have been around an immigrant community, you know that they are generally pretty pleased with their lives. Do you think the rich zip code people are twice as happy? So how are the immigrants managing to find happiness with a lot less consumption of stuff? It must be because they have found ways to tickle the biological keys which control the feel good hormones without a lot of reliance on carbon intensive stuff. Can the rich people accomplish a similar feat?

    I don’t want to minimize the difficulties. There were reasons why the rich Parisians bought elevators and evicted the poor people from the top floors. There are reasons why the people in the rich suburbs enact exclusionary policies. There are reasons why the owner of a 6000 square foot house wants an immaculate lawn and doesn’t want it farmed by some poor family living in a tiny house on the property. There are reasons why the cops in the rich zip codes are always patrolling for anyone who looks ‘poor’.

    But I draw two conclusions:
    1. Green Tech isn’t going to get the job done.
    2. When we are forced to do something, we need to think about biologically modeled solutions. As Geneen Benyus asks, ‘What would Nature do?’

    Don Stewart

    • danny says:

      Hey I got an Idea! Why don’t we just get rid of the “rich” people…..

    • Cutting wages is the usually the most effective way to cut footprint. I am afraid that that usually happens through layoffs, though. Then there are a lots of people with no source of income, and a government headed further toward collapse, because it cannot support all those laid off.

      Job sharing instead of full time jobs would almost work, but that doubles training time for companies and can double energy for commuting. Also, two people working half time will spend more on goods and services than one working full time, because the rich spend more, but not proportionately more. Quite a bit of their wealth is in paper investments, which will evaporate. If we all invest more in paper investments which will evaporate, the environment would be better off!

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Lotta meat there, Don — thanks!

      I’m saving that first link to rebuff those defending city life as somehow “more sustainable” than rural life.

      And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. The Alexanderian pattern: Interlocking City-Country Fingers could give us the best of both worlds, no?

      To bad no one has really implemented it, at least, not in North America.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear Jan
        Christopher Alexander was one of the smartest people of the last 50 years. If you look at the U of California data, you find that transportation is frequently the biggest source of carbon. This is because people think they need to get in the car and drive somewhere. Sometimes, of course, they are commuting to work. But an awful lot of trips are just because people want to get out and away from home. I particularly noticed that phenomenon when I moved to this place 15 years ago. Retired people, who didn’t actually have to go anywhere, were itching to get in the car and just get a change of scenery every day. If we had fingers of country life extending into the urban residential areas, then just walking a few blocks would put people in a different environment.

        I used to drive 8 miles to walk in the woods at a botanical garden. Now, I almost always walk through the woods along a creek near my house on a trail we constructed a few years ago. It isn’t quite as remote as the botanical garden, but I can just walk from my front door and soon be walking along a bubbling creek falling over rocks. It satisfies my need for a change.

        I think that, as things get simpler, of necessity, then the kind of thoughtful design promoted by Alexander and the Permaculture people will become more important. And the notion of mixed neighborhoods where blue collar and rich people mix together again will happen whether the rich people want it or not. I do see that all the government enforced restrictions which tend to segregate people by economic class will be major obstacles. Gail is terrified that the governments will fail. I fear the consequences if they don’t fail.

        Don Stewart

        • Jan Steinman says:

          “Gail is terrified that the governments will fail. I fear the consequences if they don’t fail.”

          I think governments — especially big ones — will devolve. We’re already seeing that as the Democans and Republicrats gut the Federal Government, forcing States to pick up the slack. With any luck, big countries will end up like Switzerland, a loose federation of bioregion-based, interrelated, largely-autonomous cantons. With less luck, places like Vermont and California and BC and Quebec will just secede.

          I just don’t see that the transportation needs of a continental nation can be met in an energy-constrained future.

          I’m hoping to be part of Callenbach’s Cascadia, myself.

          • Don Stewart says:

            Dear Jan
            I think you can do a lot worse than Cascadia. For example, you have a fine water transportation route up and down the coast, with pretty good access to hinterlands by water. Plenty of wood, moderate climate. Washington and Oregon have historically had the best school systems in the US. A relative told me that Portland, OR was a ‘redneck town’, which I regard as a positive.

            Lots of microclimates to get diversity of agricultural production. If you can just keep the oceans from being killed by Fukushima or more ordinary pollution or greed.

            The East Coast of the US has the waterways, but the crush of people and urban sprawl and heavy metal contamination will make it difficult. Along with the chaos of rising sea levels.

            I live within 15 miles of what was once the head of navigation on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. This was the river route the Scotch used to settle North Carolina in the years before the Revolution. Will we have to reconstruct the dams and canals?

            I like to poke around the old canals. Now, they abound with wild raspberries. Good thing to know. But I have never seen wild berries such as one can find in June and July in Cascadia.

            Don Stewart

          • My big concern about lack of governments is lack of laws, and lack of anyone to enforce anything like laws. Security becomes a huge issue. It becomes hard to do anything. And that is apart from the lack of government programs like Medicare, Social Security, and unemployment insurance which disappear, if government disappears.

            • Don Stewart says:

              My concern is that Medicare, Social Security, and Unemployment are going to disappear regardless, as there simply won’t be the resources to keep them alive.; What I fear WILL be kept alive are the repressive practices which both keep in power a kleptocratic aristocracy and also a bunch of idiotic laws which prevent people from doing what they need to do, now that government transfer programs are bankrupt.

              Don Stewart

  13. Creedon says:

    I think that the inflation that everyone is talking about is happening currently and that as we more and more run up against the limits of our wages and the number of jobs. Deflationary effects will more and more be the rule. The money in the central banks and the debt of the federal government are bubbles that will have to pop. As Gail has shown us, death, depopulation and poverty are what ensue at some point.

  14. Don Stewart says:

    Dear All

    This post will try to explain a new verbalization of what I think is a reasonable response by an individual or family or small group to the challenges in the current economic environment, the continued deterioration in the built environment, the continued deteterioration in the ecological environment, the continued deterioration in terms of chronic disease, and other negative trends..

    I was putting together, for a friend, a review of the book The Calorie Myth: How To Eat More, Exercise Less, Lose Weight, and Live Better by Jonathan Bailor. The friend and I were discussing some aspects of the book, when I said, ‘It’s like comparing cancer surgery to cancer chemotherapy…neither is the solution…you have to use biological methods to achieve order of magnitude improvements’. As I blurted out those words, it occurred to me that I had just said something profound. I had never verbalized it quite like that before.

    This morning, I took a look at John Michael Greer’s post and found these words:
    ‘A few years ago, I coined the acronym LESS—Less Energy, Stuff, and Stimulation—to summarize the changes that we’re all going to have to make as things proceed, and began pointing out that any response to our predicament that doesn’t start with using LESS simply isn’t serious.’

    There are at least two ways to visualize the future. The first is collapse, with chaotic events which one cannot really plan for, and thus working to prepare for that future is likely to be futile. The second way is to realize that substituting biological for industrial solutions is the way to get order of magnitude improvements. As a simple example, watching sunrises and sunsets for amusement as opposed to playing video games. As another simple example, eating lots of green leaves rather than relying on cancer drug therapies. Or carbon farming rather than ‘clean coal’.

    Now the objection is always raised that biological solutions, as we implement them today, almost always involve some elements of the industrial world. If I go outside to watch the sunrise, I almost always wear clothing produced by the industrial system. Even if I wore homespun, there would be fiber shaping machines involved. But the inevitable use of machinery should not distract us from the major point. Going outside to watch the sunrise is completely different than flying to Tahiti to be entertained at a cost of a few thousand dollars a day. And carbon farmers are substituting natural sources of energy for the bulk of the fossil fuel sourced energy that conventional farmers use. So what if a carbon farmer uses a solar PV cell to electrify a fence? The carbon farmer obtained his order of magnitude improvement by simply changing the paradigm to biological solutions rather than industrial solutions.

    Obtaining a second order of magnitude improvement (100X) will naturally be more difficult. For example, if the industrial machines decline so far that electricity conducting wires and solar PV panels become entirely unavailable, then entirely biological solutions will be required. That would likely involve something like what the Aborigines did in Australia. We mostly have forgotten how to do that in detail, but we can surely rediscover those skills if we have to.

    So I suggest that some of us might want to think as follows:
    1. Does the proposal substitute biological for industrial processes?
    2. Does the proposal obtain an order of magnitude improvement?
    If so, don’t sweat the the ‘collapse of civilization’ and ‘zombie apocalypse’ issues. And don’t get hung up on whether the solution generates enough to feed 20 billion people or industrial jobs for everyone.

    Don Stewart

  15. Quitollis says:



    Early eighties. The earliest peak oil music?

    Track 14 on the cd.

  16. Stilgar Wilcox says:


    Gail, the above link has the exact same photo at top as your website. Deja vu! Are you connected with that site?

    • Both the other web site and I are cheap and lazy. The photo is one of the “free” photo options that WordPress offers. I could have put together something original, or paid to purchase a photo from one of the sites that sells them, but I thought this one “worked” well enough.

      There are a lot of people who are willing to spend a lot of time and money trying to impress others. I am afraid I am not one of them.

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  19. xabier says:


    Excellent summary if I may say so.

    On WW2, a German diplomat (executed by Hitler in 1944) wondered why Hitler declared war, as he could have got everything he wanted without it. The desperate German need for oil certainly arose after the commencement of hostilities, to fuel his armies, and was not a prime cause. Of course, in a global sense it was a clash of established empires and would-be empires (even ‘indirect empire’ like the USA. But some very odd psychological currents were flowing in Germany and Japan. Hitler’s death wish?

    The irrationality of the Sunni-Shia dispute is reminiscent of the persistent and deep hatreds in Spain which so exasperate me: curiously, Spain also lacked that Enlightenment, and is very Arab in culture! I just can’t get anyone to understand the spirit of compromise……….

    Interesting that Germany, and Europe as a whole,still coasts along with low military expenditure relying on the Pax Americana to keep trade routes open and peace in Asia, which is so important now to German exporters.

    • Chris Johnson says:

      Thank you, Xabier:
      In at the Army Show in October 1991 I had a long talk with a very impressive French officer, a colonel who commanded the paratroop regiment that screened the left flank of the allied invasion of Kuwait and southern Iraq. It was a fascinating time in Europe: the Berlin Wall was down, Moscow was rearranging all its pieces and had taken no steps to support its client / ally Iraq, and Germany was beginning explorations of reunification. The French colonel was concerned that US troops levels would drop to levels where German nationalists would be able to take control and begin to shake things up again. I was a bit dumbstruck, as I thought Europe had moved beyond that point of almost continuous fear of neighbors. Well, maybe it has by now, but nothing should surprise us…

      Most Americans don’t think very much about Europe, or Asia or anywhere else unless they have some reason to. So we don’t appreciate how difficult it has been — and is — to bring all those disparate peoples together. How much should each party be willing to surrender? to demand? Why should a whole new class of ‘eurocrats’ — apparently living high on the hog — be permitted to suckle at the great continental teats when ‘the common people’ can only dream of such access to wealth and lifelong stability? What are the alternatives? Do we need more or less Europe? More unification or less? More liberty or more control? Etc. ad infinitum. Should the UK bail out?

      Xabier, I don’t know of any comparable period in human history. The stupid neareast wars of the last decade were ill-conceived and futile — expecting Shias in Iraq to treat the Sunnis as kindred democratic spirits was not quite as wrong-headed as expecting the King of Afghanistan to actually try to rule his realm rather than merely buy off the various power holders. (His writ has never extended beyond the Kabul city limits.) The period 1900 – 1914 has some parallels, but few. The most important one — inability to anticipate extended horacious violence — generally does not apply. The only power naive enough or sufficiently self-deluded to think they could easily win a conflict, appears to be China. The rest of us have had our fill, but the PRC propaganda machine
      is powered by non-normal means.

      It’s gonna be an interesting century.

      Cheers, Chris

      • edpell says:

        China does not fight wars. It has not done so for thousands of years. They do know how to bribe politicians and that seems to be working well for them. They also know how to man the fortune 500 corporation with employees that are chinese even if they are naturized citizens. They also know how to buy controlling interests in fortune 500 corporations. The only reason Iran is free is thanks to the protection of the middle kingdom.

        China wins the old fashioned way, hard work.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          @edpell re his brief ‘Chinese Machiavelli.’
          Thanks much for a very concise, and powerfully concentrated description. Having studied and worked the China problem for more than 40 years, I am pleased to acknowledge your brief statement as one that should be memorized.
          Notwithstanding, I disagree with your notion that the Chinese don’t fight wars, as history shows that they do know how and certainly have done so and will continue to do so in the future. Sun Yat-sen said, inter alia, that China is like a plate of sand, and needs to become a plate of concrete. That hasn’t happened and won’t, as the Chinese social system of interpersonal bonds are not nearly as strong as those of Japan in the East or Germany in the West. It’s every man for himself unless you have a more compelling relationship (cf 5 Confucian relationships).
          The scary part comes when the Chinese renaissance leads them to believe they are the natural leaders of their region or the world, ala Japan in the 1930s. If such impulses are allowed to blossom (and we see instances of that now), then the results could be very bad.
          Dennis and Chin Ping Bloodworth wrote The Chinese Machiavelli in the 70’s. Too bad nobody reads such things anymore. But I’m glad you ‘get it.’ They are a tad too manipulative…
          Cheers, Chris

          • danny says:

            Chris, The Automatic earth has discussed China recently that there are problems with the political leaders and the military leaders. This struggle could lead to civil war and have grave implications for that country and thus sink other countries like the U.S as they call in loans etc and lack the ability to produce all our products that we expect to get a low. low prices! What say you? Danny


            • Chris Johnson says:

              @ Danny re China
              Danny, You’re going to get a reputation for asking good questions. And that’s not all bad, as the question is usually more important than the answer. Here are a few perspectives:
              1. It sounds as if the Automatic does not have an experienced China watcher providing analysis. They may want to remedy that by seeking a retired China Hand with government and commercial experience; he/she would surely improve their analysis.
              2. To wit, the ‘struggle for power’ in China is much more complex than ‘civil’ vs.’military’. What has emerged over the years are semi-permanent factions of political, military and (more recently) commercial organizations. The ‘parties’ or ‘factions’ operate at the provincial and municipal level, as well as the national level. And there is tremendous cross-fertilization with military commands owning commercial money-making entities, and not just for munitions and military items but for whatever they can get funding for.
              These State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s) are eligible for central banking funding and financing, and have grown annually by huge rates. However, like all government owned enterprises, they are famously inefficient and most western economists believe they have actually cost the central government more than they contributed positively.
              These various factions and parties are best understood as non-permanent alliances. They shift according to the whims and winds of current fortune. But they have graced their senior cadre with huge fortunes. China crowned more than a 100 Billionaires last year, for instance, and several thousand millionaires annually. Not as many as the US produces, but a lot. Check Forbes.. And they all know how to get their money off-shore whether legal or not…
              3. The current internal conflict is between the elite 1% who want to continue their self-enrichment versus those who seek to raise the general living standards and build a strong state. President Xi Jinping wants economic reform as soon as possible that will deny the SOE leeches their lucrative allotments while investing more in the economy and social conditions. They still don’t have universal medical care or old-age care, largely because of all the embezzlement and ‘tax fudging’ of the rich SOE firms. The one thing the communist party is afraid of is turmoil and unrest that could lead to rebellion and overthrow of the party.
              Now President Xi is a right smart fellow, and he also knows exactly what cards the opposition will play when he tries to clamp down. That includes pandering to the PLA (military), and firing up nationalistic sentiment by harping on historical sins of Japan and the USA and the UK and all the other nasty people who the propagandists portray as trying to prevent their national rise. Chinese Communist propagandists have practicing their art since 1921, and they’re pretty good at it. I hope this helps you understand the bubbling cauldron. We should always remember that their bark is far worse than their bite, and that they need us desperately.
              4. Note also that China’s economic growth is not expected to continue to climb at earlier rates, but will level off or climb at a 3 to 5 percent per year rate. (Don’t believe their propaganda rates…). The reason is their wage have gone up, and PRC manufacturers are beginning to offshore their production in countries such as Vietnam, Indonesia and Burma, where wages are still lower.
              Perhaps this explanation will underline the necessity for ‘Old China Hands’ getting involved in such analyses. Keep asking good questions Danny.
              Cheers, Chris

            • Chris Johnson says:

              I wrote the preceding paragraphs before reading the Automatic earth article that you referenced. The author of Automatic earth is one very intelligent person and I’m impressed that he reached the clear conclusion that Beijing is currently in serious power struggle. I don’t participate in the China game but spent enough time doing so that I can only agree with his overall assessment. Things could get a bit dicey and some sacrifices will have to be accepted by various factions. But much of it is like a Chinese opera with great kung fu dances and loud music. Just remember that they need us desperately, not vice versa.

          • Paul says:

            Correct – ask the Vietnamese about the Chinese and wars (and occupation x 1000 years)

            A cab driver in Beijing when I asked him what he thought of the govt said ‘we hate them – we can’t stand them – but so long as we can prosper we will tolerate them – but if they no longer deliver – they better watch out’

      • Paul says:

        The goal has never been to introduce democracy into Iraq (or anywhere else for that matter) – the goal is as always to divide and conquer – to install compliant puppets – to keep the ‘tribes’ busy at each others throats while we extract their resources on the cheap.

        This is the formula the US has used the world over – the last thing they want is a peaceful effective democracy in any of these resource rich countries – because that would mean the countries would control their own resources and choose the buyer.

        • Chris Johnson says:

          Regarding US intentions in Iraq and elsewhere, I would caution you equally against excessive cynicism and excessive polyannaism. Elements of both can be found in all policy decisions, from the 1948 installation of Shah Reza through the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War and the Vietnam War, etc. ad infinitum. You should know better than to assign any single objective as the key goal of the operation.
          Moreover, you should be a tad more restrained in your overall approach to a subject, although this blog format does not easily lend itself to more than a few caveats. Notwithstanding, most people don’t know or don’t pay attention to such events as the continual Soviet & domestic Communist Party political efforts in Western Europe, as well as Central and Eastern Europe. Stalin did not rest in 1945.
          Regarding Iraq, I recommend you read Andy Bacevich’s ‘A Letter to Paul Wolfowitz’, in which he traces the US neoconservative campaign to ‘bring Iraq into the democratic fold’.
          Cordially, Chris

    • tmsr says:

      Xabier, I did not appreciate the Arab influence in Spain until your post. I guess I should have, the Moores were in Spain long than the English have been in England!

      I would say we can see the same in Egypt. No coalition formation, just five or more group that want sole power without guaranteeing any safety, freedom, participation, or rights to any of the other groups members.

      • xabier says:


        Paella, which is in a way a national dish of Spain today (in the past it was roast pig) is amusingly what the Arabs regard as a typical poor man’s ‘ leftover dish’, made from all kinds of scraps left over from a proper meal! Much of Spanish culture is like that……. 🙂

        Very strong in Spain is the Berber element, that rather mysterious people from North Africa who fought so hard to resist the Arabs when they invaded the old Roman Empire and then were given all the worst land after the Arabs conquered Spain. Great soldiers and farmers.

        The savagery of the Spanish Civil War was thoroughly Middle-Eastern.

        • Didnt Franco import North African soldiers to do his dirty work?

          • xabier says:


            Yes, he used troops from Spanish North Africa (brought over in German aircraft) who were both superb, brave, front-line soldiers and also terrifying on account of the rape and torture they perpetrated after the battle, which was encouraged by their Spanish officers. People still pass on accounts of their savagery: I spent part of my last trip to Spain visiting sites of massacres in the hills with my cousin, who knows all the local stories.

            However, it should be remembered that the Guardia Civil, the paramilitary rural police, were entirely Spanish and equally adept at torture and rape, working in mountainous rural areas for many years to clear up residual resistance. The film ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’ is actually a very fair portrayal of this.

            The ruling party in Spain now, the PP, are the direct descendants of Franco’s people. (This is not to say that the massacres of innocent people committed by Communists and Anarchists were not truly horrifying, too). Such is Civil War.

            • Chris Johnson says:

              Xabier wrote: “But such is civil war.” Most respected teacher, I certainly appreciate your mastery of the historic facts; most of us can only say we’ve read a few Hemingway stories that, good as they may have been, is now near your fluency with the events. Notwithstanding, I am not convinced that all civil wars are so horrid. Were they earlier? Universally? Or were the 20th Century civil wars particularly severe? Certainly the emergence of political absolutes — fascism and leninism — tended to stimulate the ‘all or nothing’ nature of the battles. But were they among the worst? In retrospect, perhaps they were…
              Cordially, Chris

        • Paul says:

          I detect a bias against Arabs in your posts – which if so – I do not share.

          Which country has been more brutal in its war methods that America.

          How many millions has America murdered with its cluster bombs – their F16’s – land mines – drones — etc… How about their ongoing torture programs?

          This industrial scale of murder and mayhem are sanitized with such terms as collateral damage. What’s the difference if you slice a head off with a knife or slice 100 heads off with a daisy cutter bomb? Daisy cutter heheh – sounds almost nice – let’s have a look http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AiP7-HBHwPc

          The Arabs are no different than any other peoples of this planet – we are all vicious mad dogs when our bones are taken away.

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