What is the correct way to model the future course of energy and the economy? There are clearly huge amounts of oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground. With different approaches, researchers can obtain vastly different indications. I will show that the real issue is most researchers are modeling the wrong limit.
Most researchers assume that the limit that they should be concerned with is the amount of oil, coal, and natural gas in the ground. This is the wrong limit. While in theory we will eventually hit this limit, because of the way fossil fuels are integrated into the rest of the economy, we hit financial limits much earlier. These financial limits include lack of investment capital, inability of governments to collect enough taxes to fund their programs, and widespread debt defaults.
One of the things I show in this post is that Economic Growth is a positive feedback loop that is enabled by cheap energy sources. (Economists have postulated that Economic Growth is permanent, and has no connection to energy sources.) Economic Growth turns to economic contraction as the cost of energy extraction (broadly defined) rises. It is the change in this feedback loop that leads to the financial problems mentioned above. These effects tend to lead to collapse over a period of years (perhaps 10 or 20, we really don’t know), rather than a slow decline which is easily mitigated.
If, indeed, most analysts are concerned about the wrong limit, this has huge implications for energy policy:
1. Climate change models include way too much CO2 from fossil fuels. Lack of investment capital will bring down production of all fossil fuels in only a few years. The amounts of fossil fuels included in climate change models are based on “Demand Model” and “Hubbert Peak Model” estimates of fossil fuel consumption (described in this post), both of which tend to be far too high. This is not to say that the climate isn’t changing, and won’t continue to change. It is just that excessive fossil fuel consumption needs to move much farther down our list of problems contributing to future climate change.
2. It becomes much less clear whether high-priced replacements for fossil fuels are worthwhile. In theory, they might allow a particular economy to have electricity for a while longer after collapse, if the whole system can be kept properly repaired. Offsetting this potential benefit are several drawbacks: (a) they make the economy with the high-priced replacements less competitive in the world marketplace, (b) they tend to run up debt, increase government spending, and decrease discretionary income of citizens, all limits we are reaching, and (c) they tend to push the economic cycle more quickly toward contraction for the country purchasing the high-priced renewables.
3. A large share of academic writing is premised on a wrong understanding of the real limits we are reaching. Since writers base their analyses on the wrong analyses of previous writers, this leads to a nearly endless supply of misleading or wrong academic papers.
This post is related to a recent post I wrote, The Real Oil Extraction Limit, and How It Affects the Downslope.
Types of Forecasting Models
There are three basic ways of making forecasts regarding future energy supply and related economic growth:
1. “Demand Based” Approaches. In this method, the analyst first decides what future GDP will be, and uses that estimate, together with past relationships, to “work backwards” to figure out how much energy supply will be needed in the future. The expected needed future energy supply is then divided up among various types of fuels, giving more of the growth to types that are favored, and less to other types. Very often, estimates of growth in energy efficiency, growth in “renewables,” and growth in the amount of GDP that can be generated with a given amount of energy supply are included in the model as well.
This method is by far the most common approach for forecasting expected future energy supply, especially at high levels of aggregation. One advantage of this method is that can provide almost any answer the analyst wants. Governments are paying for reports such as the EIA and IEA forecasts, and oil companies are paying for forecasts such as those by BP, Shell, and Exxon-Mobil. Both governments and oil companies prefer reports that say that everything will be fine for the foreseeable future. Demand Based approaches are good for producing such reports.
Another advantage of this approach is that the analysts don’t have to think about pesky details like where all of the investment capital will come from, or how large an improvement in the ratio of GDP to energy consumption can actually occur. They can simply make assumptions and point out that the forecast won’t come true if the assumptions don’t hold.
2. “Hubbert Peak Model”. This model is based on an interpretation of what M. King Hubbert wrote (for example, Nuclear Energy and the Fossil Fuels, 1956) . The basic premise of this model is that future supply of oil, coal, or gas will tend to drop slowly after 50% (or somewhat more) of the fuel supply potentially available with current technology has been extracted.
In fact, we don’t really know how much oil or coal or natural gas will be extracted in the future–we just know how much looks like it might be extracted, if everything goes well–if there is plenty of investment capital, if the credit system works as planned, and if the government is able to collect enough tax revenue to fund all of its promises, including maintaining roads and offering benefits to the unemployed.
What most people miss is the fact that the world economy is a Complex Adaptive System, and energy supply is part of this system. If there are diminishing returns with respect to energy supply–evidenced by the rising cost of extraction and distribution–then this will affect the economy in many ways simultaneously. The limit we are reaching is not that oil (or coal or natural gas) extraction will run out; it is that economic system will at some point seize up, and rapidly contract. The Hubbert Peak Method shows how much fuel might be extracted in each future year if the economy doesn’t seize up because of financial problems. The estimate produced by the Hubbert Peak Method removes some of the upward bias of the Demand Model approach, but it still tends to give forecasts that are higher than we can really expect.
3. Modeling How the Economy Actually Works. This approach is much more labor-intensive than the other two approaches, but is the only one that can be expected to give an answer that is in the right ballpark of being correct with respect to future economic growth and energy consumption. Of course, observing signs of oncoming collapse can also give an indication that we are nearing collapse.
The only study to date modeling how long the economy can grow without seizing up is the one documented in the 1972 book The Limits to Growth, by D. Meadows et al. This analysis has proven to be surprisingly predictive. Several analyses, including this one by Charles Hall and John Day, have shown that the world economy is fairly close to “on track” with the base scenario shown in that book (Figure 1). If the world economy continues to follow this course shown, collapse would appear to be not more than 10 or 20 years away, as can be seen from Figure 1, below.
One of the findings of the 1972 Limits to Growth analysis is that lack of investment capital is expected to be a significant part of what brings the system down. (There are other issues as well, including excessive pollution and ultimately lack of food.) According to the book (p. 125):
The industrial capital stock grows to a level that requires an enormous input of resources. In the very process of that growth it depletes a large fraction of the resource reserves available. As resource prices rise and mines are depleted, more and more capital must be used for obtaining resources, leaving less to be invested for future growth. Finally investment cannot keep up with depreciation, and the industrial base collapses, taking with it the service and agricultural systems, which have become dependent on industrial inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, hospital laboratories, computers, and especially energy for mechanization).
Jorgen Randers’ 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years
In 2012, the same organization that sponsored the original Limits to Growth study sponsored a new study, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the original report. A person might expect that the new study would follow similar or updated methodology to the 1972 report, but the approach is in fact quite different. (See my post, Why I Don’t Believe Randers’ Limits to Growth Forecast to 2052.)
The model in Jorgen Randers’ 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years appears to be a Demand Based approach that perhaps uses a Hubbert Peak Model on the fossil fuel portion of the analysis. One telling detail is the fact that Randers mentions in the Acknowledgements Section only one person who worked on the model (apart from himself). There he thanks “My old friend Ulrich Goluke, for creating the quantitative foundation (statistical data, spreadsheets, and other models) for this forecast.” Ulrich Goluke’s biography suggests that he is able to prepare a Demand Model spreadsheet. It would be hard to believe that he that he could have substituted for the team of 17 researchers who put together the original Limits to Growth analysis.
The Need to Add to the Original Limits to Growth Analysis
The original Limits to Growth analysis was primarily concerned with quantities of items such as resources, pollution, population, and food. It did not get into financial aspects to any significant extent, except where flows of resources indicated a problem–namely in providing investment capital. One thing the model did not include at all was debt.
In the sections that follow, I show a model of how some parts of the economy that weren’t specifically modeled in the 1972 study work. If the economy works in the way described, it gives some insights as to why collapse may be ahead.
Economic Growth Arises from a Favorable Feedback Loop
Economic growth seems to arise from a favorable feedback loop. While it is beyond the scope of this post to show the detail of the feedback loops, I illustrate some causal relationships in Figure 2, below.
This model above is intended to reflect the situation from, say, 1800 to 2000. The situation was somewhat different before the use of fossil fuels, when far less economic growth took place. Furthermore, as we will see later in this post, the model changes again to reflect the impact of diminishing returns as the cost of energy production increases in recent years and in the future.
The critical variables that allow economic growth to take place are (1) cheap energy available from the ground, such as coal, oil, or natural gas–if cheap renewables were available, these would work as well (2) technology that allows us to put this cheap energy to work to make goods and services, and (3) a way to pay for the new goods and services.
Debt. In this model, debt plays a significant role. This happens because fossil fuels allow a huge “step up” in the quality of goods and services, and debt provides a way to bridge this gap. For example, with fossil fuels, we have electric light bulbs, metal machines in factories, and farm machinery, all of which vastly improve efficiency. The ability to pay for the new fuel and the new devices using the fuel, is much greater after the new devices using the fuel are put in place. The way around this problem is simple: debt.
The use of debt becomes important at many points in the economy. Increased debt can theoretically help (a) the companies doing the energy extraction, (b) the companies building factories to create the new goods and services, and (c) the end consumers, since all of these benefit greatly from the services that cheap fossil fuels provide, and can better pay afterward than before.
Government debt, such as debt used to finance World War II, can also be used to start and maintain the cycle. John Maynard Keynes noticed this phenomenon, and recommended using an increase in government debt to stimulate the economy, if it was not growing adequately. The detail he was unaware of is the fact that the debt only works in the context of cheap energy supplies being available to make use of this debt, enabling growth.
How the Causal Relationships Work. The loop starts with the combination of a cheap-to-exploit energy resource, technology that would use this resource, and debt that allows those would like to gain access to the resources to have the benefit of them, before they are actually able to pay cash for them.
This combination allows goods to be produced which initially may not be very cheap. Over time, new methods are tried, allowing technology to improve. Consumers are able to buy increasing amounts of goods and services, both because of their own increased productivity (enabled by fossil fuels and new technology) tends to raise their wages, and because the improving technology lowers the cost of goods. Government services are expanded as tax revenue per capita increases higher than gold or diamonds export. Infrastructure such as roads are expanded making the economy more efficient.
In this context, profits of companies grow, allowing reinvestment. Investment is also enabled by increasing debt. This allows the cycle to start over again, with better technology and more infrastructure in place. Each time fuels are extracted, the cost of extraction tends to ramp up a notch, making the needed selling price higher. But as long as the cost of extraction remains low, the economy tends to grow, and the standard of living tends to rise.
Overview. One way of explaining the tendency toward economic growth is that a cheap-to-extract fossil rule has an extremely high return on investment. This very high return enables benefits to all: workers receive higher wages; businesses receive higher profits; and governments receive both higher tax revenue and the ability to build new roads and other infrastructure cheaply.
Another way of describing the tendency toward economic growth is to say that the value to society of the (cheap) energy product is far greater than its cost of extraction. This difference provides a benefit which flows through to many parts of the economy. Economists do not recognize that this situation can happen, but it seems to be a major source of economic growth.
The Spoiler: Diminishing Returns
The problem with energy extraction is that we extract the inexpensive-to-extract energy sources first. Eventually these sources get depleted, and we need to move on to more expensive-to-extract energy sources. I illustrate this situation with a triangle that has a dotted line at the bottom.
Businesses start by extracting the cheapest to extract resources, found at the top of the triangle. As these resources deplete, they move on to the more expensive to extract resources, further down in the triangle. Looking downward, it always looks like there are more resources available–it is just that they are more expensive to extract. This is why reported reserves tend to increase over time, even as supplies are depleted. The limit is a financial limit, illustrated by a dotted line, which is why virtually no one can figure out when the limit will actually arrive.
One somewhat minor point: When I say, “Cheapest to extract resources,” I am referring to broadly defined costs. What businesses want is resources that produce goods and services most cheaply for the consumer. Thus, they are really concerned about cheapest total cost, considering the entire chain that goes all the way to the consumer, including refining and transportation. The costs would include energy used in extraction, labor costs, transportation costs, taxes, and the cost of debt. It probably should include the cost of mitigating pollution effects as well.
A major problem is that as the cost of energy extraction grows, the favorable gap between the cost of extraction and the benefit to society (as mentioned in the previous section) shrinks. There are many ways that this problem manifests itself in the economy. Figure 4 shows a list of such problem with respect to higher oil prices:
One indirect impact of these issues is that there are more layoffs and fewer new job opportunities. If we calculate average wages by taking (total US wages) and dividing by (total US population), we see that during periods of high oil prices, wages tend not to grow, as they had in periods when oil prices were lower–just as we would expect (Figure 5, below).
Another issue is that it is not just the price of oil that rises. The price of natural gas rises as well. We have not felt this in the United States, because demand has kept the price down below the price of shale gas extraction. The cost of coal, delivered to its destination, has risen because transport uses oil, and transport costs are a significant share of total costs. The cost of base metals has also risen since 2002, because oil is used in metal extraction. Food prices in general have tended to rise as well, because oil is used in production and transport of food. When wages are close to flat, and the cost of many goods are rising, workers find that their paychecks are increasingly squeezed.
While costs of making goods in the US are rising, and paychecks are stagnating, an increasing amount of goods are imported from areas around the world where energy costs and wage costs are lower. This helps keep the cost of consumer goods down, but it makes the problem of lack of jobs for US workers worse.
With all of these things happening, the government has more and more problems with its funding. Expenditures continue to rise, but taxes flatten, as the government tries to help the economy grow by not raising taxes to match expenditures (Figure 5, below).
Government expenditures can be thought of as expenditures out of the surpluses of the economy. As indicated previously, these are to a significant extent possible because of the favorable difference between the cost of extracting fossil fuels and the benefit those fossil fuels provide to the economy. As the use of fossil fuels has grown over the years, these government services have grown. In recent years, the presence of more unemployed workers has driven a need for more government services.
Since the early 2000s, government revenues have flattened. The lack of revenue, together with the ever-rising government spending, is what is driving continued big deficits. The danger is that this difference cannot be fixed, without huge cuts to programs that people are depending on, like unemployment insurance, Social Security and Medicare.
How the Economic Growth Loop Changes to Contraction
In my view, what causes a shift to contraction is a shift to higher energy costs. With higher energy costs, there is less surplus between the cost of extraction (broadly defined) and the benefit to society. Because of the smaller surplus, the parts of the economy that use this surplus, such as government spending, must shrink. Causal relationships gradually shift from the ones shown in Figure 2 above, to the ones shown in Figure 7 below.
We gradually find that all the great things we had learned to enjoy–inexpensive roads and other infrastructure, cheap goods, rising wages, and rising government serves–start going away. We increasingly find consumers maxed out on debt. We also find companies (especially energy companies) reporting lower profits, so they have more trouble investing in new energy extraction. The government cannot collect enough taxes for all of its services, so finds itself needing to keep raising its own debt levels.
The government can kind of “paper over” its difficulties with growing debt levels for a while, by using Quantitative Easing (QE). QE has the effect of making the interest the US must pay on its own debt lower. It makes the cost of business investment in new plants and equipment (including shale oil drilling) cheaper. It also helps stretch the incomes of increasingly impoverished workers by allowing monthly payments on homes and cars to be lower than they would otherwise would be.
The Party Ends With a Thud
Most readers can deduce that a shift from a growing economy to a shrinking economy is not a pleasant situation. It has all of the makings of collapse.
One of the big problems is debt defaults, as it becomes increasingly impossible to repay debt with interest. This creates conflict between borrowers and lenders. Debt defaults are also likely to cause huge problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension plans, because of the impact on their balance sheets. Some institutions may close.
To the extent new credit is cut off, the lack of credit cuts off new investment in energy extraction, in buying new cars and trucks, and in almost everything else. Such a cut-off in credit is likely to increase job layoffs and to lead to yet more defaults. Lack of investment in new energy extraction causes oil supply to fall quickly–far more quickly than standard “decline” models would suggest.
Businesses that in the past found that they could benefit from “economies of scale” as they grew find that fixed costs stay the same, even as sales shrink. This means that they either need to raise prices to cover their higher per-unit costs, or lose money.
Governments find that they need to cut government services to balance their budgets. Discontent grows among citizens as those who lose their benefits become very unhappy. Discord grows among political parties, because no one can agree how to cut programs equitably.
We don’t know how this will end, but we do know that the Former Soviet Union collapsed into its constituent parts when fossil fuel surpluses were reduced, prior to 1991. Egypt and Syria both have had civil unrest as their oil exports ended. Clearly very large government changes are possible, as surpluses disappear.
This list of potential impacts could be expanded endlessly, but I will spare readers from a more comprehensive list.
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Late night session on OFW…
Can any of us really call modern industrial multicultural cities “home”? True many of us have never known anything else and what lies outside the cities is often not much better but even so… Home is where one’s own people and culture lie not everyone chucked together in the name of profit and “rights”.
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Gail, have you read Daron Acemoglu & James Robinson (2012) “Why Nations Fail”? The name of the book promises interesting arguments but myself was deeply disappointed. It seems to me to be merely another tribute to neoliberalism. There are some reviews of it freely available and last year it was possible to download the whole book. However, I only read its prologue and a part of its introduction and then I decided that reading further would be waste of time.
No I haven’t read “Why Nations Fail.” I looked at a few reviews on Amazon. It may have some worthwhile things in it, but from the examples given, the authors didn’t seem to understand the importance of inexpensive energy. I noticed one reviewer said, “the book can be a bit of a maddening slog in order to find some enjoyable nuggets of information and/or wisdom.”
Given the number of books I already have that I should read, I will hold off on reading it. It may have some helpful things in it, but I am one who reads books by paging through them and finding charts that look helpful. If I have to slog through a lot of text, I have a hard time reading the book unless it has a lot of good stuff in it.
Why Nations Fail is one of the best books ever written – Jared Diamond was involved (I think as a consultant) and he admits that this book raises a lot of issues that he did not think of in Guns, Germs and Steel.
It doesn’t go into energy – but it is still a very worthwhile read to get an understanding of why nations fail – but also why they succeed.
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Well this guy died 3 years after this interview, all his wealth could not keep him alive. While I agree with him…… so what! We are already in this problem. But reading some of these apocalyptic responses I am reminded of a cult out here that was called Church Universal Triumphant they moved into bunkers and waited for the world to end. What if you are wrong or what if the collapse is 20 or 40 years away and you have spent your time wringing your hands waiting or maybe you will die tomorrow in a car accident or like this guy you will die 3 years from now. Spending time trying to guess how this falls out is not healthy mentally. We know the current system is screwed but I think the predictions of Billions of people dying by 2040 are a bit premature and maybe off base and quite unproductive. Ted
This is perhaps the best interview in history – all parts are worth watching – and it gets better as it goes – in Part 4 that Goldsmith introduces the theories that are particularly relevant to the oil issue (i.e. how globalization was opposed in the developing world because their leadership had observed the destructive power of the infinite growth model).
This is the first I have heard of Mr Goldsmith – he is indeed a true visionary (although I am sure there are plenty of others who warned that globalization would be the end of us)
Paul — how do you embed video and pictures here?
I tried the proper HTML tags once, and nothing showed up.
Jan Steinman asked”…how do you embed video and pictures here?
Jan, try putting the following in a post:
See what happens.
Actually Jan, try:
‘LT’iframe width=”640″ height=”360″ src=”//www.youtube.com/embed/IDxufaKZLjc?feature=player_embedded” frameborder=”0″ allowfullscreen’GT’ ‘LT’/iframe’GT’
but substitute a ” where there is a ‘GT’
For an example see: http://bambuser.com/api/embed_htmlplayer
Not sure – I just pasted the link and it displayed as embedded video
Thanks very much. He seems to have died three years later, in 1997.
It would be fascinating if had lived longer to see him inviting back onto the Rose show with the Clinton flunky — it would have been short and sweet — only four words needed:
I told you so
Gail, of course I do not see any socialist revolution at the door, even if wealth concentration is a trend that started some years ago (and will not change under the circumstance of peak oil). More than ever socialism seems to be outdated, and everybody wants just more growth (this “red” girl at Seattle says nothing about PO, neither our “red” Pope). I was rather pointing to a mental revolution, specially to realize that things are not necessarily black or white, that if the financial system falls may be something can replace it, even if casualties are counted by thousands.
I insist that you in the States have the very habit of historical continuity. Economically: you have had just one national currency, but may be 12 in our case; you have had no serious economical disruptions since a lot of time, excluding the great depression, but we have known this one and at least three others since. Politically: you have never been throught a revolution (Secession was and was not), we have had seven in the XXth century (five coups d’état from the military and two economical coups d’état). In the US you have been choosing a new president every four years, since? (Even if TPTB kills one of them two times each century, as a nation you don’t care so much) And we can continue: how many hours of electricity outage has known NY in its whole history? Not to talk about a war at home.
It is not that we foresee a nice future, and I wonder if I will have to assist to the death of my son, for instance, and don’t have a clue about how to wheight the balance on this. But I have come to believe that among the blogs about this topic existing around the world you are the most pesimistic ones. Is this rignt? If it is, there is an explanation: you are very used to a predictable future. I wonder if the heads of US military are equally shaped. Because perhaps they are the most qualified to save your lives when the system cracks. Or perhaps not, you know them better than I do. And this is not important just for you. Given the US is still Big Brother and Big gun, and that the world still look at you as a reference, it is important to us too.
TPTB are still running this world, but will no longer do I guess. This is the most imortant political thing that will happen. How the world will look like? Complete financial collapse may bring complete social collapse. Or may not.
And Gail we don’t need “to make the whole system work” (I quote you and higlight the “whole”). Neither will we need “new computers”. We will need just food, shelter and some peace and freedom. I’ve never had a credit card. Will I need it now when ressources start falling? International trade could turn barter, direct exchange of goods or goods for metals. And degrow.
The big miss of Obamacare has been not to look for a cheap way of mantaining people healthy (do you know Cuba ranks just as the US in health issues, but with a system 20 times cheaper?) Of course TPTB would never allow, because of pharmaceutical profits.
It seems I’m turning red at the end… I don’t know what foreign people may think about my latest post (in spanish anyway), I’ve said it’s capitalistic but i’is a kind of joke. The idea was to push some acquaintances and local politicians not to waste our latest bricks, writing in a capitalistic language they understand.
Hope being helpfull
One more thought about your proposed response to De Souza. Lenton and Watson say, page 48, that ‘Our food energy derives from the one-part-in-a-thousand of the total sunlight falling on the Earth that is captured by green plants through the mechanism of oxygenic photosynthesis’.
If you are going to argue that it should be illegal for people to capture more of the sunlight to generate electricity, then you have a tough case to make. Illegality is different than simple ‘uneconomic’. Unless you are going to appeal to ‘might makes right’, then you have to show that people should be required by force to abstain from using what appears to be a very abundant source of energy.
If you are going to argue that people are doing it who are content with interruptible supply, but that action removes the subsidy from them to the people who can’t deal with interruptions (such as oil refineries and other continuous processes), then you have to carry the burden of evidence that ordinary citizens should be required to subsidize oil refineries.
Just some thoughts….Don Stewart
Here’s what I think may be a ‘tell’ (as the term is used in poker) that this end game being played with increasing debt/QE printing is stuck. Right now QE is being tapered, starting this month, Jan., from 85 to 75 billion. The plan as I understand it is to taper 10b a month until it reaches zero and end the QE program. If during the taper process at say 35-45b the asset bubbles start to deflate, unemployment starts to rise, the 10yr. treasury rate rises well above 3% and the Fed in turn decides to stop taper and keep QE at that level, i.e. 35-45b a month, then they will be stuck. It will be a tell that end game is cornered with no way out with time ticking until collapse.
I point this out because of all the various comments made by Bernanke (soon to be Yellin) of the factors going forward to taper QE and end the program. If those factors change, I would suspect they could stop the taper. We shall see but my prediction is they will get stuck about 1/2 way down to zero.
I wonder if they will get as far as half way down.
There have been numerous comments about the likely behavior of people as the Industrial System begins to collapse. I would like to suggest that we look at the history of life to get some clues. The following quotes are from Revolutions That Made the Earth by Lenton and Watson. Pages 38 and following:
‘All animals, and also plants and many fungi, are multicellular, made up of trillions of cells (about 10 trillion in humans) which act in supremely close cooperation, mostly using chemical signalling mechanisms to coordinate their actions. The adoption of multi-cellular habit has enabled a huge increase in the complexity of size and form of living things….It is worth pausing for a moment to consider what a wonderful thing it is to be multi-cellular. Those ten trillion or so cells in your body can be any of about two hundred distinct cell types, each with its own role in the body. All of them ‘know’ precisely where and when they can and must grow and divide, where and when they cannot and must not, and when they must commit suicide to end their lives….
The cell itself is also a community…’organelles’, different kinds of internal structures bounded by membranes that separate them from the cytoplasm in which they reside…mitochondria…are critical in producing the energy that the cell requires, by the carefully controlled burning with oxygen of molecules derived from the organism’s food…ancestrally, some of these organelles were derived from free-living bacteria…chloroplasts in plants are also descended from free-living bacteria…Though they retain some of their own genes, both mitochondria and chloroplasts have transferred many important genes to the cell nucleus. They now rely on the cell to supply most of their needs, so they can no longer survive outside the host cell.
transitions in which simpler structures combine to make more complex ones such that entities which were previously able to reproduce independently before the transition can only replicate as part of a larger unit after it.’
I’ll draw a few conclusions.
(1) The only reason any of us are here to discuss things is because of a truly staggering amount of cooperation…both within our bodies and between our bodies and other living and non-living things. (If non-living chemicals can be said to cooperate).
(2) The cooperation within living things was built up bit by bit. Probably a great many ventures ended badly. What we see today is what worked.
(3) Cooperation requires specialization. We have two hundred different types of cells for a reason. An ‘intentional community’ where nobody has a useful speciality is almost certain to fail.
(4) Carbon is the exchange medium for almost all biological life. Humans amuse themselves by thinking it is paper money or promises to pay paper money.
(5) Can cooperation which will be effective at a lower energy level be invented? Or do we have to regress to the level of bacteria and rebuild everything? Or perhaps disappear altogether? I argue that we have to try to invent efficient cooperation at lower energy levels. The alternative is hopelessness, depression, disease, and death. The suite of techniques I describe as ‘biological farming’ are examples to study. Perhaps the transition movement is also worthy of study. Some Ecovillages are worth studying.
(6) It isn’t really very informative to get hung up on words such as ‘freedom’. Have the mitochondria and chloroplasts been ‘enslaved’, or have they found a cushy environment, relatively safe from the perils of solitary existence? Whichever words you choose, it worked. In a low energy environment, efficiency and carbon to trade will be the keys to survival. Cooperation will be the enabler of efficiency and carbon to trade.
I suppose we could observe that the collapse of the Soviet industrialised economy left many formerly ‘useful’ and functioning individuals without any useful speciality to contribute in a lower/disrupted energy context.
And so they lost heart and drank themselves to death. Warning to us all……
One thing is clear: our politicians are preparing to 1/ Sweep our bank accounts in desperate measures to shore up a failing system, and 2/ Shoot us if we get anxious and fractious.
It is up to US to make the real plans.
Interesting points! I hadn’t realized that carbon was the exchange medium for all biological life.
I would like to interject a very few thoughts into the discussion about David Holmgren’s recent article on Brown Tech. If you haven’t followed it, a good entry point is here in Resilience.org today:
You can read the articles by David and all those who have weighed in, which will take you a while. I suggest that you read David’s article, which has been placed at the top of the page at Resilence today, plus take a look at Kurt Cobb’s article which is over on the right hand side of the page, and then look at Albert Bates diagram, which you can find at his blog:
Recently I was listening to the audio from a session that Darren Doherty from Australia did for ranchers in California. One of the things that struck me was that the tight web of water use regulations in California don’t even permit these ranchers to improve the infiltration rate of water into their soil. I suppose the authorities in California are willing to sacrifice topsoil to water lawns in Los Angeles. Darren had some clever ways to circumvent the regulations (tilting roads in such a way that you maximize water retention, etc.), but what I really learned is that these ranchers are NOT living in a free country anymore. If we look at Toby Hemenways’ essay on The Last Nomads and the Culture of Fear, we find the natives who fought Custer at Little Big Horn described as ‘the freest people in the world’. Nobody would describe those California ranchers as ‘free’.
Darren mentioned in his talk the maximum dimensions that a house in Australia can be before it has to comply with a boat load of regulations. So…if you are willing to live in a minimum sized house, you can do what you need to do. In my county, those dimension are twelve feet by twelve feet.
Tad Patzek has an interesting article
If you are a cog in a machine you are not ‘free’.
My point here is that people who are still relatively free, such as Albert Bates in rural Tennessee and David Holmgren in rural Australia are going to see different possibilities and different limitations than someone like Rob Hopkins in densely populated and highly regulated Britain. Holmgren can contemplate many ways to do without the Industrial Machine that Tad Patzek describes, while Rob Hopkins is going to struggle for a little wiggle room.
Here is the point I would make about Kurt Cobb’s essay. It is in response to an article in the New York Times claiming that humans have so mastered biology and chemistry and physics that the only limitations are social sciences, e.g., live peacefully with each other. If you delve into the various studies that Kurt references, you will find that the addition of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer destroys soil fertility. Now I suppose that the Times article will just assume that sterile soil pumped up with plenty of fertilizers is enough to grow an infinite amount of food. I imagine that Albert and David would regard you as insane for having that opinion.
If you are of the opinion that fertile soil is important, and that the rotational use of animals and perennial grasses are essential to maintaining fertile soils, then you see limitations on population density that are invisible to the writer of the Times article.
Finally, just a comment about why Albert might have left Gail off his chart. As near as I can summarize her position, I think Gail believes we are quickly headed back to the Stone Age, and the people trying to do something to change our course are wasting their time. In fact, we are going to be worse off than Stone Age humans because we will be subjected to nuclear waste we won’t be able to deal with. So she doesn’t belong on the chart, unless Albert could add an additional dimension. If one perceives that nothing can be done, either because of the hard limits of human nature or the hard limits of physical constraints, then all the sturm und drang is just a waste of time.
I think we are going to have to take each day as it comes. Different people will try different things. Perhaps some of them will work, at least temporarily. But long term, I really have doubts as to how much difference sustainability efforts are really going to make. Once Humpty Dumpty falls down and breaks into 1 million pieces, I don’t see how we put Humpty Dumpty back together.
Most of the others are talking about “If we do _____, then things will be better.” I am not really convinced we have a whole lot of control over the situation. Maybe some wealthy readers have the opportunity to move to an area where they can grow crops, and perhaps can even improve the soil. I don’t have a problem with this. Maybe it will work for a time–it is worth a try. Government are not rich enough to buy up huge tracts of land, and do anything on such a basis. So it pretty much has to be individuals, working with their own wealth, trying to make a difference.
Each analyst has to specialize in what they are good at. Looking at farming techniques is out of my area of specialization. I can only tell you where your reasoning seems to miss apparent pitfalls–like neighbors without food, and a lack of security.
Thanks for the links Don – some tremendous wisdom there.
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The funniest thing is my later’s post aproach is… capitalistic!
Gail, I think this post of yours and many of its comments highliht a very simple issue. It’s a kind of paradox, because being physically possible to undertake a smooth landing or such (at least in a place like the Americas), and continue to feed ourselfs peacefully for not a short time, it seems we are condemned by our social habit of money to disappear. That’s quite bizarre, but right now this is a really possible outcome indeed. But I wonder how many people is aware of this situation (maybe we can even guess a number?). Ourfiniteworld counts a lot of visits, and so Auzanneau’s blog at Le Monde, the main french newspaper. At The Guardian there is another one, too (called earth-insight). It’s owner, Ahmed, has recently posted an interesting warning. Christian Science Monitor has also been working in this for a while. May be some other one.
Of course the most pressing issue we face is not fossils disappearing tomorrow noon but our inability to interact without money. I understand people in the US find it completely impossible, because you are the core of capitalism, and that people feel deeply the sky falling upon them, because you are the most powerful and nature-distanced country. So, I wonder too if you don’t need a piece of third world way of thinking. By instance, I’ve come to imagine that, in my country, a kind of emergency post capitalist government could be achieved integrating energy workers, food chain workers and the military. Doctors would continue to work, because this is the only thing they know to do for living (and the State employs a lot of them), and really many people have the experience of having worked for free for a while in their lives. May be that’s what I will point out in my next post. Remember in Argentina we have had five presidents in exactly two weeks 12 years ago, and have lost but 40 citizens meanwhile. A main cause for this situation was the national debt, and many people will find it cool eliminating all kinds of debt, trust me. A lot of poor people has no credit card, also.
If we are to overcome this challenge we must all start thinking differently.
Start the revolution, now.
Here is my blog, or a kind of: http://ecoentropia.blogspot.com.ar/
I would just as soon wait as long as possible on any revolution.
The issue isn’t so much the loss of money, as our need for a very complex system linking the entire world together to make most everything–for example, replacement parts for wind turbines, and new computers, and any kind of vehicle. The problem as much as anything is that governments will disintegrate into much smaller pieces. Each of these smaller pieces can have its own currency. The problem is facilitating the huge international trade system needed to make the whole system work, with each of these tiny currencies. Also, the sort of debt repayment system that seems to be needed to allow people to pay in advance for goods and services. Without growth in the economy, it is hard to make such a system work–interest takes too much out of the system, and transfers it to a wealthy class.
It will be interesting to watch Greece, Portugal, Spain. Perhaps later: France and Italy.
If the public demonstrations there gather momentum and force their governments to exit the Eurozone, this would confirm what Gail says. But if the Eurocrats can force their deflationary regime on them until 2020, that would be a case for a strong central government on the back of a starving population.
Agreed. If someone wants a vision of what the world might look like I suggest examining Haiti, Somalia, or any other failed state.
Think that can’t happen? It’s already happening – see Detroit.
The only thing that is holding back the hounds of hades is QE – without QE and Central Bank guarantees present day Haiti would appear prosperous by comparison – because they are at least receiving some aid money.
When the entire world busts up – there will be no aid money – there will be no emergency food distributed. You will be on your own. The grocery stores will be empty – permanently.
Dear Gail and Others
Here are a few thoughts about solar PV. If this sounds like I know what I am talking about, I assure you I am no expert.
I will weave together Ugo Bardi’s current post:
plus some self-congratulatory remarks by the publisher of Mother Earth News plus David Holmgren’s plea that a couple of billion conscientious consumers bring down industrial civilization by refusing to buy its products..
Bardi points to Luis de Sousa’s article which predicts that the future of solar PV in Europe is off-the-grid. Electricity will change from something you do to make money to something you do to avoid paying for grid electricity. At the present time, a basic solar system can avoid as much as 0 .15 Euros per kwh. Some of the avoided cost is taxation.
Now let’s look at the peculiar case of Mother Earth News. Most magazines in the US have been declining dramatically. Mother Earth News, by contrast, is flourishing. The magazine is largely driven by surveys of the readership. ‘we know that you love photos of heirloom tomatoes, you love gardens, you love barns and farmhouses, you are suspicious of the industrial food system, you enjoy growing your own food and making your own furniture; you believe natural remedies can cure most health problems (and you generally prefer those remedies); you are concerned about the future of our planet and our habitat; and you want very, very much to preserve a beautiful and abundant place where our grandchildren and greatgrandchildren can live.’
Ten percent of the readers report that they are ‘very liberal’ while 21 percent report that they are ‘very conservative’. The relevant statistics for the public at large are 5 percent and 12 percent. So the readers of the magazine are considerably more ‘political’ than the population at large. But the things they are interested in tend not to be among the factors which govern our ideas about ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ in politics. ‘We used to feature pictures of people on our covers, but you told us you prefer pictures of vegetables and farmhouses’. (Aside: I find this hilarious. We hippies can’t stand people, anymore.)
‘We have good news for you. New wind and solar technologies are close to making homemade electricity affordable for many Americans. A new generation of automobiles can be efficiently powered with that homemade electricity. More and more communities are fostering local business and local food. Companies are conducting business more transparently, by letting consumers choose products that are conscientious as well as beautiful and durable…Watch a half-hour of commercial television any time, day or night, and you might come away with a substantially different impression of our society. From the seat in front of your TV, our modern society may seem shallow, materialistic, oversexed, undereducated, and ill-mannered….Our research and our evolution as a business show otherwise.’
So…one of the few magazines in the US which has doubled its readership in the last few years is promoting ideas of self-reliance and community and suspicion of the medical and industrial establishment. Which brings me back to the De Sousa article. Are there enough people, in Europe, the US, and elsewhere, who are willing to cut the ties to the electric grid? We can think of both residential and business customers. The Mother Earth News readers are residential and small farmers. But several good sized businesses around here have begun to install solar PV. In addition, we are getting our first ‘group of neighbors’ installations. I think the ‘group of neighbors’ is probably significant, because most houses are not properly situated to take advantage of solar. Can solar move from homesteads into the rigidly laid out suburbs where the developers have given zero consideration to solar exposure?
How does this relate to EROI? As I commented in an earlier post, the art lies in posing the questions correctly. Most studies assume that they are comparing the current system to some proposed alternative. But let’s first recognize that generating electricity with fossil fuels will likely lead to the extinction of humans…not an acceptable outcome. Let’s also take Gail’s assertion that there isn’t going to be enough energy to decommission nuclear plants. Which argues that new nuclear plants are a terrible idea. All that leaves us with a much simpler set of alternatives:
1. Solar power plants made entirely with solar energy with a grid system serving as a utility, with heavy taxes.
2. Solar power plants made entirely with solar energy with a grid system, but taxed lightly or not at all.
3. Off grid systems made entirely with solar energy, but taxed heavily.
4. Off grid systems made entirely with solar energy, but not taxed.
5. Off grid systems made with large fossil fuel inputs, and taxed heavily.
6. Off grid systems made with large fossil fuel inputs, but not taxed.
The data points I have are Bardi’s assertion that a PV system made with fossil fuel inputs can produce 6 times more electricity than if the fossil fuels were simply burned. And the data in De Sousa’s article. And the results of the reader surveys at Mother Earth News.
It would be nice if someone really smart would do a realistic evaluation of the alternatives. But I don’t know of one. So I will guess:
1. Heavy taxes on electricity are a thing of the past. Governments have to shrink.
2. Off grid and community grid make sense.
3. It makes sense to use fossil fuels to construct the PV panels.
4. Storage is likely to be rudimentary, such as lead-acid batteries.
5. Very simple electric cars and motorcycles and bicycles will become dominant in terms of personal transportation.
6. We will order our lives, in part, by whether the sun is shining and thus we have electricity. We will have less electricity, and sometimes we won’t have any. Electric clothes drying is a thing of the past.
“Now let’s look at the peculiar case of Mother Earth News.”
I’m proud to be a life subscriber since issue #31! That’s the best $400 I ever spent! (That was a lot of money in the 70s to a 20-something kid with his first real job!)
Of course, it’s changed hands about six times since then, and each time, the new owner throws the life subscribers under the bus. I have been insistent, sending them copies of receipts and postal labels that say “99/9999” in the “expiration date” field, and they have reluctantly reinstated me each time.
TMEN is a rather strange, eclectic rag. About 75% of the ads are for energy-intensive or energy-consuming products, such as mini-tractors, various small farm machinery, and energy-consuming (but “green”) doo-dads. So my guess is that the biggest fraction of subscribers are “wanna-bees” who live in suburbia and have a few beans and tomatoes in back that they tend with $20,000-worth of CO2-belching gadgets.
I don’t know how useful this demographic is for meaningful change. I’m sure that, whether Red or Blue, TMEN subscribers vote for green things and carefully compare the emissions of the CO2-belching garden tractors they buy. They’ve changed all their light bulbs and dutifully drive their kids to soccer practice in hybrid SUVs.
But are they ready for Holmgren’s “forced crash” message? Probably not. Their skeletons may be found clutching the last tomato from their 100′ x 100′ suburban lot.
I subscribed to MEN many years ago. Then let it drop. Got a fantastic offer, signed up again. Let it drop. About 2 years ago, another fantastic offer. Signed up again. Was just about ready to drop it, when they announced that they were going to have one of their fairs in Asheville, NC this spring. I have always been curious about the fairs. It cost me a few dollars to sign up again, and I am looking to see whether the fair is worth attending.
While the magazine seldom tells me anything useful, I am impressed by their business plan. Much of the magazine is now written by the readers. So it is like social media…the users make the message. Professional authors hate it, but entrepreneurs love it when amateurs make the content.
Sometimes I amuse myself by looking at advertisements for ‘off grid homesteads’ which can be yours for 5 million dollars.
Nevertheless, I think that what sells tells us something about the psyche of the public. Charles Hugh Smith followed that track over the weekend in his subscriber letter, asking ‘what do TV and movies tell us about the state of the mass American mind?’ One of his conclusions was that people mostly don’t get a chance to actually exercise any agency, and they get virtual agency from entertainment. I suspect that MEN is tapping into the same sort of need, but the avenue offered is different. Instead of blowing away dozens of enemies, one is living in harmony with (virtual) Nature.
As for the tractor ads, there must be people buying them or the companies wouldn’t pay to run the ads. The people doing the buying may be Darren Doherty’s prototypical ‘city people who won’t make it’. Darren says that when he first goes to a client’s property, he looks to see if the client has just bought a shiny new tractor. If so, unless the client is super-rich, he is likely to go broke.
But sometimes there are things that may make sense. For example, MEN ran an article on solar tractors a while back. A small tractor works mostly on the homestead, so it is never far from the charger unit. Homesteaders also don’t do much plowing, so the tractor is not used for really heavy lifting over extended periods of time. You can wrestle a load around and then go recharge the batteries. I know a couple of small farmers who are thinking about them.
I think I stand by my analysis. Just as the success of Facebook and Twitter must tell us something, I suspect that the success of MEN in the last few years tells us something. Suburban people may be getting some ideas, no matter how superficial, of a way down.
Don, ” Heavy taxes on electricity are a thing of the past.” You could not be more wrong. Let’s see here in Dutchess County, New York, the county just added 3.4% tax to all home energy to fill their budget gap. The FERC, federal government, just added 10% punishment tax to force us to build more electrical generator here in the north country to service New York City. The 10% will not be removed until two years after the new generators are in service. That is two 1GW frack gas fueled generators emitting radioactive waste because the frack gas input is radioactive. Plus new transmission lines for said plants.
I do not agree the solar panels and the system they support are helpful, as part of the electric grid. Wind turbines are even worse. EROI calculations tend to be misleading. I need to explain this in a post.
Your thoughts are, of course, welcome. But please note that De Souza is predicting that solar panels will be used in off the grid situations. Analyzing them as ‘part of the grid’ seems to me to be something else.
I would argue that the issue is the grid not the source with respect to intermittency. Consider that if we went to true real time energy pricing for everyone and considering the current makeup of the grids sources the initial incentive and opportunity for energy arbitrage would be very large. The first in would reap the highest returns and those returns would diminish as the numbers of customers get into the game. To be clear what I mean by energy arbitrage is medium term storage – fill up the storage unit when the price is low – at night typically and in some location they pay you to take the energy off their hands to maintain grid stability. And you sell it at the peak hours or just use it instead of paying peak rates. For the retail market this could be a box about the size of half to a whole refrigerator with a capacity of say a day or 1/2 days energy consumption.It would require a disconnect to the grid like a back up generator, a controller and converter, a battery, a smart meter, a spot price market and away you go. Of course the last person in doesn’t really get any benefits as the price fluctuations have now been damped out. At some penetration level of this sort of device the impact on the grid to accept any source of energy is very robust and its properties are almost irrelevant if it size of the generator to the average demand is small. The grid itself would be become a far more robust piece of kit in terms of dealing with outages, power quality etc.
If you blame it all on the intermittent sources you can make an argument to saddle all of the grid modifications on them and you can argue they are not all that attractive. If you say our grid control and management is not sufficiently robust then maybe you can spread the cost over all the sources as they will all benefit – the nuclear stuff can run flat out like it needs to, same for the coal, and the need for spinning reserves is significantly reduced. Home charging electric cars would have a similar impact. Grid control and management might get a lot easier – you could have the price slaved to the voltage level locally, regionally etc. I am not advocating in any direction, just encouraging consideration of a different perspective. The highly conservative industries have a very hard time thinking about such things but it doesn’t mean they are not worth thinking about. An ice storm is helpful in motivating one to consider such options.
I am gathering info on solar for our property in Canada – from the supplier:
“battery life ranges from 3-15 years…. if you use the batteries constantly then they will need to be replaced after about 3 years”
Also in winter months the system would generate minimal power – not even enough to power a water heater.
These are deal killers.
The only way that solar makes any sense is if you sell excess power into the grid and do not use batteries.
But I am doubtful that there will be a grid when the storm hits – so nothing to sell into.
Your expectations of the whole system imploding seem overdone, at least in my humble opinion. Then again I am not prepared to be highly convicted to it not happening either – I am in the seems a bit unlikely in the short term camp. Also, societal collapse in not something that happens fast at least in my estimation. The decline of the Roman empire took hundreds of years and it faced similar challenges. Our situation is different – might take 50 years for a reset. And you never know maybe the people at CERN (or somewhere else) can pull a rabbit out of the the hat but it seems like a low probability bet.
On battery systems – it depends on the batteries you deploy in the device, the control strategy, and production volumes matter a great deal in the cost for a given cycle life. Stating absolutes based your buying of a cottage off grid solar installation is not the same thing as contemplating a grid revamp and wide deployments of medium time frame storage. As a plot of energy return ratios clearly shows the issue on energy in is the magnitude of the return ratio on powering a modern society. Society wide investments in energy need to return a sufficient return to have the surplus to enable all the other stuff that gets done in an economy. The shap of the curve suggests somewhere near the steep decline in returns is where we need to be for a least painful impact – around 15 to one or so. An economy is nothing more than an energy conversion machine – that is what it does full stop. The return ratios for solar, which might be rising of late is in the order of 6:1 as near as I can figure out. Wind is similar as are most renewables. The oil sands are in a similar range. The stuff coming out of the ground at Gawar in SA might be in the order of 100:1, likely somewhat less now. Based on calc’s I have done renewables of any form (done by professional developers) come in around 300- 500 W/m^2 give or take and output would then be scaled by the capacity factor ~typically somewhere around ~0.25, likely less at least for terrestrial applications. It would be far more productive to work on mitigating declining energy return ratios than running off to the hills. The first job though is getting the power structures of the world to actually recognize what the issue is and this requires, in my humble opinion, a rationale that they can agree with based on evidence and not conjecture. I think it is just obvious but most people haven’t a clue.
“societal collapse in not something that happens fast at least in my estimation. The decline of the Roman empire took hundreds of years and it faced similar challenges.”
Rome had fossil sunlight? Didn’t know that!
Satire aside, I think this situation is very different, in that we have always approached current solar energy income limits before crashing. We are arguably well over current solar energy income, and have been living on “savings” for a hundred years or so now.
So I tend to be of the “fast crash” mindset, although probably not as fast as many who would see it happening virtually overnight. I think things are beginning to unravel in the middle east and southern Europe already. Want to see your future? Look at Greece or Spain.
Rome ran on wood and deforestation did them in as their organizational complexity out ran their energy system/supply so it is loosely similar in that respect. The time scales will be different and I don’t have a good handle on them in any way, shape or form quantitatively. We need to see real multiple points of stress before we can entertain societal collapse as imminent, at least that is my speculation. We are still burning ~85 million barrels a day. It takes a pretty robust economy to do that, though its vulnerabilities are not at all well understood.
The financial system is what can lead to issues as it has all these claims on future energy – but the time scales for most debt are less than 20 years and much of it is of much shorter duration. They need to stop digging the hole any deeper though. They need to start the dialog with the populations about what is going on but nobody wants to do that yet. The most hopeful outlook is that they haven’t figured out how to keep it together (or stay on top of it) and the worst case is they don’t see it coming (the more likely scenario). It will take some sort of ah ha moment and given the options to blame – bankers and climate change seem like popular choices depending on the nature of the ah ha moment. They still might get it wildly wrong. If this conversation doesn’t get some traction before that in the places of power, then there will be no understanding of what is going on and hence the propensity to do something fantastically stupid will rise. That is my biggest fear but I am a bit philosophical about the whole thing as my faith that sense and reason will prevail in an era of hyperbolic bombast suggests we will end up in a jamboree of vocalized stupidity. It will be very hard to tell who is making sense. Just look at journalism – how many them are into sense and reason? They get taught not to reason it out for themselves – no they do balance – which means anybody with a megaphone gets equal coverage. That approach is going to be really helpful as shown by where we are on global warming. Now we all are just fatigued on that one and the environmentalist don’t help in my view because they don’t educate they just grab some bombast and a mega phone. I have to stop as I have entered the same realm……see, its a hard one to escape.
“will end up in a jamboree of vocalized stupidity.”
But how will we be able to tell? Seems to me that’s the present condition!
Whether it came from running out of forests, or running out of farmland, or depletion of farmland, my point about Rome is that whatever did them in had to do with overshooting their solar budget by what seems like a relatively small amount. First off, they were running on a solar budget, so they couldn’t exceed it by too much to start with.
Contrast that to today’s situation, where North America consumes 50% more energy than that gathered by all the plants in North America! That’s an incredible capacity overshoot, thanks to the Earth’s “energy savings account” gathered over some 100 million years.
That is why I think a fast, hard crash is possible. Sure, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and it didn’t crash in a day, but each Roman didn’t have access to some 200 energy slaves, either, slaves that are about to revolt and “go away.”
How did you figure that out – that our solar budget has been exceed? Just from a philosophical perspective the solar flux is about 1000 w/m^2 and say if average that via a sinusoid ~ 0.707 times the projected area of the earth our extraction rate is not even in the ballpark of that number. A good fraction of that heads off back to space by way of reflection and its interaction with the atmosphere is, you know, that global warming thing. I must misunderstand something? Fill me in, if you would. All the energy sources are solar in origin – all of them some might be from a previous sun but a sun none the less.
“How did you figure that out – that our solar budget has been exceed?”
I believe I said that our energy use has exceeded “basic productivity.” That’s a term of art in ecology for the amount of sunlight captured by plants. I got that data from The Oil Drum.
Please don’t quote the amount of solar energy impinging on the Earth to me. That is nearly as meaningless as quoting the amount of uranium in seawater as justification for using nuclear energy.
The best sugar cane is about 8% efficient in converting sunlight to chemical bonds. Other C4 grasses can approach that. C3 grasses top out at 4% or so. Most other plants only capture 0.5% to 2%.
I submit that 3,500,000,000 years of evolution trumps 60 years of fossil-energy-driven technological development. I do not take for granted that we will be able to manufacture, install, service, and maintain photovoltaic panels without petroleum. Rather, I assume that humanity will once again be dependent on the planet’s basic productivity, as is all other animals and fungi.
“All the energy sources are solar in origin – all of them some might be from a previous sun but a sun none the less.”
(You’re forgetting tidal energy, which comes mostly from the moon’s receding orbit.)
I also mentioned “current solar energy,” as opposed to fossil solar energy. That is an important distinction!
If you don’t plan to live forever, you can draw down your savings to live off of. But if we expect civilization to continue, we shouldn’t be drawing down our savings account like that!
I agree the amount of solar energy is well not a nuanced response but I still don’t get what you are getting at with any precision? Is it we should only convert energy at what we can harvest from biomass with no reduction in biomass or something? Can you layout what the relation is that I am not getting?
“Can you layout what the relation is that I am not getting?”
Bill, my point is that it is it is difficult or impossible to “amplify” basic productivity without an additional source of energy.
We should not count on any more energy than what we can get from plants.
Of course, this is controversial, with the vocal “green tech” crowd weighing in heavily that all will be solved by technology, and everything will be alright if we switch to biofuels, solar panels, and wind turbines, and change our light bulbs and buy electric cars.
But all those things require significant inputs of fossil sunlight. Biodiesel requires about 20% methanol by volume, which comes from steam reformation of natgas. Of course, the “green tech” apologists point out that we “could” get the needed feedstock from wood gas, or compost, or this or that. But this is no different from nuclear apologist who claim we “could” get all our energy needs from thorium, or the uranium in seawater, or, or, or.
We are past the time of “coulds.” If it isn’t working now, it’s not likely to work in a low-energy world.
So that’s how I come up with an energy budget that is no more than about 1% of total insolation — and that’s leaving half for the rest of nature to get by on, which is pretty arrogant.
I’m sorry I can’t locate the reference for North Americans consuming 50% more energy than that collected by all vegetation in North America. It came from The Oil Drum, and had a nice graphic with it.
I don’t have a figure for North America. The book Revolutions That Made the Earth by Lenton and Watson quotes a figure of fossil fuel energy to photosynthetic energy of 1 to 10. So…if
Earth’s current energy budget is 11 and fossil fuels go away, we will still have 10. How efficiently we use the 10 is up to us.
The book also details the increase in photosynthetic efficiency since the very early days. It’s a factor of several thousand. Life started with non-oxygen photosynthesis and proceded to the photosynthesis we are most familiar with today. Current photosynthesis actually has a lower EROI than what Life started with. The big increase came from the fact that water is abundant, and thus supplies plenty of oxygen, so more production was possible using water as a feedstock. So, No, Virginia, EROI isn’t the whole story.
If you read Lenton and Watson’s book, it becomes apparent that the increase in the productivity of the Earth has been enabled by technological innovation (different types of photosynthesis), advances in recycling (999 out of a thousand carbon atoms are recycled) which have kept raw materials available, and improvements in information transfer (such as genes and chromosomes and social structures).
If you think about our current situation relative to those basic things which Nature discovered, you can find some things humans are doing well and some we are doing atrociously. Permaculture, for example, focuses on all three factors. The focus on perennials and layers and edges increases photoynthesis by achieving more exposure to light. The focus on water management and hydrating the soil focuses on keeping the raw materials available. As does the focus on recycling carbonaceous material. Nitrogen fixation by bacteria keeps that nutrient available. Failure to plow has a multitude of nutrient benefits. And the ability we moderns have to simply turn on an inexpensive computer and see Geoff Lawton or Darren Doherty explaining things makes information transfer immensely more efficient.
On the other hand, you can look at the horrors of the Industrial world.
Thanks for your research, Don.
“the ability we moderns have to simply turn on an inexpensive computer and see Geoff Lawton or Darren Doherty explaining things makes information transfer immensely more efficient.”
Indeed, that will be one of the most difficult things to give up! I’ve been collecting paper books, which I’m certain will outlive glowing screens.
I think you can successfully argue that all life on this or any other planet is a form of damping that emerges when energy goes from a high potential to a lower one. Conditions have to be in the right range (temperature) for the kind we call life to emerge. I am pretty agnostic as to what form of damping emerges. don’t get this to mean I am disagreeing with you. I just haven’t got a reasoned position on the plant thing in respect. You could argue that taking some of the fossil resource and say building wind turbines to dampen the energy being dissipated in the atmosphere might be a good way to harness energy for useful work while being in line with the “program” so to speak.
The paper Approaching a State Shift in the Earth’s Biosphere by Barnoskyetal et al. talks about this issue. It talks about 43% of Earth’s land already being converted to agricultural or urban landscapes, with much of the remaining natural landscapes reworked with roads.
The paper warns of a potential “tipping point” that might be reached that might be as low as 50%, when the natural ecology cannot handle the other forcings. It estimates such a level could be estimated to occur before 2025. Under some models, humans would use 70% of earth’s surface by 2060.
“I am gathering info on solar for our property in Canada… Also in winter months the system would generate minimal power – not even enough to power a water heater.”
No! Don’t go there!
Solar electricity is precious, high-grade energy. Heat your water with wood! The last thing one should consider with off-grid electricity is heating needs, with the possible exception of using heat as a “sink” to dump excess — most likely with water power.
Do you have any micro-hydro potential? If so, that’s where to put your money for electricity.
Use a solar hot-water heater that uses the sun’s heat directly. There are set-ups that protect against freezing. It is much more efficient and much less costly than using solar electricity.
Bill – one big difference between the situation today and the fall of Rome – the Romans did not use oil and gas to farm increase crop yields resulting in a global population of 7.2 billion people who can oil be fed if the inputs are cheap.
And the inputs are no longer cheap – and QE (which primes the pump a bit longer) is the only thing that stands between us and mass starvation and chaos.
When the QE stops – or no longer has any effect – then food production will get crushed – very quickly. We have perhaps a few months of emergency food stocks?
The fields will stop producing when the economy crashes. Then all best are off.
During the Roman empire things were not nearly as complex as they are now – nor globalized – you pull out one key piece of the puzzle and the whole thing implodes – and there will be no putting it back together.
I wish I didn’t – but I have strong convictions that there is no soft landing option. All hell will break lose – but then again my normalcy bias is different than most – I saw all hell breaking lose last year when I was in Egypt – and I was in Jakarta in 1998 during the financial crisis….
I saw the face of desperation – highways devoid of cars – beggars on every street corner – street lights not even turned on – fuel supplies stopped – people lost everything – one could feel the devastation in the air.
And that happened literally overnight – now imagine the enter global financial system going bust – with no way to revive it?
Some parts of the world are going to go through a lot more upheaval than others. There are too many people to sustain them all with high energy life styles. Mayhem, will exist but I still can’t see it all going in the ditch licktey split. Peoples overall standard of living is going to fall but I really doubt it will be in any way and even distribution of decline. It will be composed of declines of varying magnitudes, with some geographic distribution, and some aggregate phase distribution. How it impacts you will be highly dependent on where you live and what you do or what your situation is. Some places are going to see a lot more disruption than others and the more mouths you have to feed the more sensitive your situation as a country probably is. the more poor you have and the higher the availability of alternate means of acquiring food, the more precarious things will get as the stresses emerge.
Jan – needless to say I am not going in that direction. Solar would be a complete waste of money
“it is it is difficult or impossible to “amplify” basic productivity without an additional source of energy.”
Jan – I think that is the defining statement regarding the problem with ‘green energy’ – they simply cannot exist outside of our current energy/economic paradigm.
From the article and comments I’ve read a collapse is at hand, either a financial or resource based because of exploitation and overpopulation. Gail stated that without fossil fuels the world’s population level would carry only one billion or less human souls. At the height of the Roman Empire, the city of Rome had a population of say 5 million and it needed to colonize the Mediterranean world to support it. After the fall of Rome, only a few tens of thousands resided in Rome!
So, that is what we are facing….The WORLD has been colonized and drained and we will see a similar dieback.
I noticed several comments that pointed out the aged will die first and the young will have the edge.
Perhaps so, question is how much longer do we have. Gail thinks it may be sooner and if so, hope luck is on our side of the 50 plus generation
This is Darwinian Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection in action. Survival of the fittest. The old/weak/vulnerable will die off in the fight for resources.
Yup. Plus a fair amount of dumb luck.
Actually, it’s more like non-survival of the least fit. That seems to sound a lot better to me for some strange reason.
Speaking from a biological point of view, “survival of the fittest” is a tautology. The only way we can define whether is species or organism is fit, is if it survives. If a zebra has longer legs it may be more fit because it can outrun predators better, or it may be less fit because it need more food to support the increased leg muscles. We have no a priori way of knowing.
So I should cancel my Human Growth Hormone treatments? 🙂
Richard Dawkins was on to something with the “The Selfish Gene” in the 70s. His message was simple. We’re driven to survive by our genes and via competitive and selfish natural selection; we follow our own self-interest in order to survive and procreate; genes that adapt more quickly/effectively in an ultra competitive world survive at the expense of the others. The state of nature is a Hobbesian nightmare of there being “no society and worst of all, continual fear and the danger of violent death. The life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Survival of the fittest.
Given Gail’s analysis, I’ll DO EVERYTHING IN MY POWER to survive using all available means over anyone else making attempts to deprive me of life. I need food, I need water and I’m going to take it by force if necessary. I think for most alpha male bulls this is the future.
The vulnerable, aged, female cows and those herbivore males are screwed.
Sounds horrific when you read that back!
How the hell do you stop people’s desperate but entirely natural will to survive in the vacuum of such chaos?
The only light shining at the end of the tunnel are the Japanese and their dignified responses during multiple crisis and a zero growth economy. Gail may wish to research what I term “The Japanese Herbivore Effect” on young males. It seems as a defense mechanism to low/no/declining growth many young males have developed certain traits giving up relationships entirely. As a result of an impossible highly pressurised environment more people in Japan are dying than being born hence the aging population and robotics! This naturally has the political elite (mature generation) up in arms.
Young “straight” guys have assessed the environment and have given up on procreation. I wonder if this altruism or selfish gene in action?
Interesting phenomenon but predictable.
That’s certainly an unappealing view of things. I won’t need a reminder to stay out of your way!
It’s also a pretty limited and limiting view. Humans are one of a very few species in which males have much power. It only takes one sperm; millions are “wasted.” Likewise with males — only one is “needed” to impregnate hundreds of females, so males tend to “waste” themselves in needless, unproductive competition.
In ecology, energy-rich environments tend to favour competition, while energy-poor environments tend to favour cooperation. Birds in the tropics exhibit high sexual dimorphism and are promiscuous, competing for mates, who quickly leave after their job is done. Birds in arctic and alpine biomes have low sexual dimorphism, and tend to mate for life, with the male sharing in rearing chicks and gathering food.
Daniel, I think your thinking is an artifact of cheap energy. I have no doubt that there will be “wars and rumours of wars” on the backside of Hubbert’s Curve, but neither have I any doubt that the downslope survivors will tend to be those who are best able to cooperate.
I am in the 50 plus generation myself. I have no idea whether luck will favor us.
One only has to read the classic book on a deprived society in Turnball’s “The Mountain People”, to realize the depths of behavior individuals will resort to in order to maintain oneself.
As far as altruism is concerned, read the account of George Price in the book, “The Pricer of Altruism”, there is a survival reason behind it all, mathematically speaking.
If one is tied to a clan network is of some “value” to its function for survival, there may be exceptions to the rule.
All depends on how dire it all gets and desperate people become.
I remember the gasoline lines back in the 70’s, it was indeed ugly and stressful
That was only a blimp and did “we” learn by such, obviously nothing at all.
I haven’t read all the comments above so these comments might have already been made but here it goes anyway.
For starters you talk feedback loop but in your diagrams you don’t show the loop. You just show some causal relationships. Here is the bit that, in my humble opinion, everybody can’t get there head around: nothing happens unless energy moves from a high potential to a lower potential. This is so basic it defines the direction time moves. Hence, it terms of economic modeling the simplest economic transaction can be modeled with the following elements.
1) as Alan Greenspan calls them “animal spirits” but more generally I would call this desire. To make an economic transaction you need a human who has motivation to get an outcome.
2) you need energy,
and that’s it.
An embodiment of this would be an idea. To use the example of primitive man catching the proverbial rabbits that sustain themselves. Everyday the group catches rabbits which they consume. As they are doing it occurs to one of them that say if they a net it might be more effective at getting more rabbits with less effort. However, there is no surplus food (energy) to invest in the development of the tool. Then say one day they get lucky and get some surplus food and can afford to have idea man make the net. Low and behold the net is fantastic, such that now only two of them can catch enough food to sustain the group. There standard of living has gone up and now they can have more rabbit and have more savings that they can use for more investment that can lead to more productivity improvements and that is the positive feedback loop that powers progress. Extending this line of thought we can consider that conservation of mass isn’t a flexible thing unless a nuclear reaction occurs but even then it is governed by conservation of energy. Thus, all the stuff we have in a modern society was and is always here. We apply energy and desire to transform the raw materials present in our environment via the feedback loop previously described to get all the stuff around us today. This is not some big insight. This just obvious. In my experience though economists have a really hard time with this. And frankly it is very simple to adjust economic theory to included it. Essentially money is, in addition to a means of exchange, a store of value and a unit of measure, it is also the ability to allocate and/ or endorse an expenditure of energy. This obvious as well. Further, the energy return ratio – the amount you get out vs how much you have to put in to say get a barrel of oil – is a significant contributor to the gain function in the feedback loop. The other factors that make up the gain function have to do with the economies ability to absorb and transform energy into productivity improvements that yield the ever increasing standard of living. As you obviuosly ascribe energy is not just like any other commodity as economist tend to think. It is essential to every economic transaction bar none. The other thing is if it gets more expensive, the energy return ratio falls there is less surplus ebergy and hence a reduction in the historical average productivity increase. As Greenspan reminds us in his latest book the role of finance is to channel saving into the best candidates for productivity improvements. However, with an arbitrary fiat money system coupled with fractional reserve banking the money supply can be a nything it wants. If it was appropriately slaved to the energy throughput it may offer a mechanism for stability and control. This not the same thing as energy production. This energy consumption – it is the ability and capacity to exectue useful work to enable consumption and savings. The above lays the prospect of developing a macro economic model that accounts for the economies connectiophysique physical worldnew ith it’s intendent impacts that are currently unaccounted for.
Excellent commentary – this is why this is the best energy blog on the net
I probably need to change the wording from “Feedback loop” to “Causal Relationships”. Trying to insert a complete feedback loop layout and description is beyond what I was trying to do in this post.
Thanks for your thoughts. I agree with most of what you are saying. At the end, you seem to argue in the direction of laying out the argument in a purely in terms of energy, rather than in terms of money.
The issue I have with this is that while it theoretically can be done in practice, and a lot of people have tried to do it in practice, using such techniques as EROEI and Life Cycle Analysis, I find the methodology very unsatisfactory.
The issue I have is the EROEI and Life Cycle Analysis only measures the energy for a tiny tip of the iceberg so to speak. The part of the iceberg showing varies considerably for renewables relative to fossil fuels, so it is very easy to get misleading indications. Parts of the system that are important (and thus have extensive energy connections for renewables) do not play nearly as big a role for fossil fuels–for example, balancing for intermittency, financing costs, labor costs, and rental for land. It is for this reason that I purposely use costs in money of the day, since that is the way the economy works. Money is what ties the system together in practice. Even though values can and do change in a fiat money system, for short periods of time, their values determine how distribution is done. Perhaps the model has to be more complex. It is likely beyond my capabilities to model it precisely.
I wasn’t really making a case for anything other the way we currently model the economy for predictive purposes could use a significant rethink based on exhibited perforamnce. The “economy” is a complex dynamical system, as is the earth in general, whose current modeling is reliant on probabilistic approaches to solving economic equations that have first order effects that remain unaccounted for. How are we ever going to figure anything out with a situation such as that? The assumption that energy is just another commodity being just one of those first order effects – the fact that we don’t know what the quantitive economic “drag” effects of a lowering of the energy return ratio are seems like something we should get a handle on, no? If you know anyone who is thinking about this in quantitative terms based on some stated rationale theoretical basis (and isn’t a crack pot) I would to know who they are and how they are making out at it. It sure isn’t the economics profession, I am pretty sure on that one. I am not saying any of this is easy but it seems to me, and I don’t get paid to work in this field so my ignorance could be as significant issue here, that the complete lack of integration of any physical constraints in economic modeling seems like a route for improvement. I don’t have a problem with Adam Smith, John Locke or David Hume and the rest but it seems to me a more complete systemic description needs to be developed to try and figure out how we manage our way in the complex situation we find ourselves in. Maybe it is asking too much?
On all this collapse business. I am as keen to consider a catastrophe as the next guy but I doubt we are going to have some sudden plunge into the dark ages with complete anarchy like what is depicted in the “Road”, at least not from any sort of energy reset. The classic equation used in population and resource studies is the logistic difference equation – – you know the fruit flies in the proverbial lab beaker. When this is put in recursive form and stressed the response is very interesting – it produce numerous non unique responses past a certain point – chaos. After observing that and considering how I think the work works I suspect what we are going to see as energy returns decrease is a series of spikes and crashes. Activities that are currently “affordable” but say on the bubble are going to be exterminated from demand on the next spike, which will lead to a new cash in price. This will repeat in small and large scales over a myriad of applications big and small and as they emerge they will have some sort of phase distribution that will manifest in a variety of crash sizes for the economy. Needless to say this will be onerous to predict in anuthing other than in a speculative relating to the general trend. Another factor upcoming shortly is hte presence of the drop off in demand due to the baby boomers moving out of their peak life cycle spending years – this is lining up to be in phase with dropping average oil/energy returns which might be significant enough to trigger social unrest in the west. Collapse is going to take a while, though it could have some exciting espisodes.
On an administrative note, this blog is pretty hard to navigate around. I hit reply in the email and trying to to this location was a discouragingly arduous task. Am I missing something on how this thing works? Is there a log in or something that lowers the burden?
Thanks for your comment.
There are some UK actuaries looking a bit at models, but I don’t think they are very far on their effort.
I don’t think an immediate plunge into the dark ages is in the offing, but the fact that the financial system and governments are involved makes the situation more “dicey” than otherwise. With the use of fossil fuels, we have had a very long “run” of good luck. That won’t continue forever.
Regarding the navigation issues, I don’t think that WordPress blogs were set up for this many comments. Given what I am paying WordPress (very close to $0), I can’t complain that the service isn’t in line with what I am paying. If I were a commercial entity, I would be paying another service to host my site elsewhere. There are then a new set of security issues, among other things. I have not investigated that route, although it would be possible.
Gail; in Missouri the gas price used to be the New York Mercantile exchange price plus 35 cents for state and federal taxes, plus maybe a bit of profit. I have notice lately that the price at the pump tends to be less than the New York Mercantile price plus 35 cents, state and federal taxes. Could you give me your explanation.
I do not know how to send you a copy of John Williams, 2014, End Game PDF; My synopsis would be that he sees some event triggering a sell off of the dollar globally this year and because of the size of the M-3 money supply this will trigger hyper-inflation. He has free older papers of his hyper inflation out look on his website that say a good bit of the same thing. My own view which changes frequently is that we are headed into powerful deflationary forces.
I expect that the lower gasoline price reflects the fact that oil companies are losing money on their refinery operation. Consumers cannot afford today’s high prices, so the soft demand has somewhat lowered sales prices below what oil companies really need (both for exploring for new oil supplies and for refining the oil). Oil companies who do not make enough money cut back operations, return more money to shareholders as dividends, and “fix” the situation from their perspective. Unfortunately, such a solution is strictly bad news from the point of view of the consumer.
My email address is given a couple of places on this site. It is GailTverberg at comcast dot net. I think deflation is going to be a big part of what we see as well.
During a discussion this morning with a friend the issue of is what Bernanke is doing a good or bad thing.
I used to thing it was insanity because he was blowing an even bigger bubble than in the run up to 08 – but I know applaud Bernanke – because I am sure he knows that the crash that is coming will be on a biblical scale – and QE will make it no worse – so he is doing his best to buy us as much time as possible.
My friend’s opinion is that he is making things worse because the transition to what is next will be more difficult.
I believe we are well past being able to engineer some sort of soft or even bumpy landing – when this lets go it will be catastrophic – billions will die – misery, suffering and starvation for those who survive past the first few months.
I think the last chance we had to soften the landing was at the point we starting industrial agriculture – the minute we poured gas and oil onto the land it was game over.
Because that made it possible to realize massive population gains. If we had not done that then food limits would have stopped growth then – yes it would have been devastating but I suspect we could have adapted and to a great extent reverted to a more sustainable existence.
But we now have 7.2 billion people – so there is no rolling things back because the earth could never have fed anywhere near that many people.
And compounding things, we have ruined much of our farmland with chemicals – without oil and gas inputs nothing will grow for years.
So here we are with way too many people – and a fraction of our land that will support crops (i.e. that is framed using organic methods).
There is not going back – there is no way in hell there will be anything but utter chaos.
And thus Central Banks have my full support for their money printing, ZIRP – and they can tell the sheeple that we are recovering all they like – if that means that extends the road so we get a month – or a year – or even a day to accommodate our can kicking – I am all for it.
Because at the end of that road is a cliff – and at the bottom of that cliff is a moat full of crocodiles.
There are no soft-landing options.
And yes people have been saying for years this has been coming – but we know it is coming soon because oil prices tell us this is dire – that banks are printing trillions tells us this is dire – the end of the road is almost certainly approaching. If the miracle man is going to make an appearance and save us – tick tock tick tock — hurry it up.
Paul, I’ve not had time to read your whole comment but I’m in complete agreement with you re: Bernanke. At first I was against him given all the confusion but now I’m beginning to understand exactly why he did what he did. These guys know exactly what’s coming down the line and are making desperate attempts to delay the day of reckoning. I think I would do the same. I’m not sure when the collapse will happen but I think the next one due will be the mother of crashes. It’s going to be unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.
Shell just announced the mother of profit warnings and this is exactly what Gail has been saying. s.
strictly speaking, it was game over when we learned to control fire at will.
that gave us and edge in the acquisition of energy sources that belonged to other species—meat and hides, and the means to preserve them.
that gave us time to think, talk, build artificial dens and the means to protect ourselves from bigger animals.
we just progressed from there to get hold of more and more energy to further tribal success.
Our cities and finance houses are just part of that progression.
Yes but we could have always gone back to the earlier paradigm with necessarily having a catastrophic outcome.
We can’t wind the clock back and go back to sustainable farming – because we’ve ruined the soil and we have too many people now.
I am afraid I agree with you Paul. I wish we had an Option B.
Showing on YouTube: HOME
Home is a 2009 documentary by Yann Arthus-Bertrand. The film is almost entirely composed of aerial shots of various places on Earth. It shows the diversity of life on Earth and how humanity is threatening the ecological balance of the planet. The movie was released simultaneously on June 5, 2009. More info at http://www.home-2009.com
” Scientists tell us that we have 10 years to change the way we live, avert the depletion of natural resources and the catastrophic evolution of the Earth’s climate.”
That was in 2009 – so I guess we now have only 5 years…maybe even less if you throw economic collapse into the mix.
View it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jqxENMKaeCU
Thanks! It is hard to do anything other than move the problem from one part of the system to another.
May I offer a framework for thinking about solutions to our current, multiple, predicaments? My main source of inspiration is Revolutions That Made the Earth, by Lenton and Watson, who are in the lineage of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis. That is, they study how Earth changed from a pile of dead rocks (such as Venus and Mars are today), to a planet with vibrant life, with the life pretty much being self-sustaining. That is, no pollution, abundant energy, negative feedbacks, synergies, niches, and all the rest of the ways we might characterize Nature. Then they look at the ways that humans have destablilized that system, especially by harnessing fossil fuels.
Page 6 and following
‘In this book we want to weave many strands of science together to present a narrative of Earth’s history, and how we came to be here. It is a ‘systems view’ in that it considers the evolution of life and of the non-living environment as one coupled, indivisible process. This process has not been smooth and continuous: a series of just a few revolutions have created us and the world we enjoy today. Each revolution was inherently difficult, and each was built on the previous one. They all had to occur in the sequence they did to allow us–a conscious ‘observer’ species–to evolve…
Though each revolution is different in detail, they share an overall pattern. Each has involved major reorganization in the system, and at each it has moved stepwise towards greater energy utilization, greater recycling efficiency, faster processing of information, and higher degrees of organization. Each revolution has been characterized by near catastrophes and with no certainties of successful outcome–the revolution only appears ‘successful’ because we are looking at them with hindsight, and because had they failed, we would not be here to remark on them….
there are important lessons to be learned from a study of the past revolutions for our relationship with the planet. These lessons could be vital–they may help us to navigate the dangerous transition that we represent, in safety…’
Now the book is concerned with physical realities, and not with human inventions such as debt or delusions. For now, let’s assume that debt and delusions will fall victim to the ‘major reorganization in the system’ which has been our several billion year history.
At the current time, photosynthesis provides most of our available energy. Fossil fuels account for one tenth the energy available from photosynthesis. It is likely that, one way or the other, the proportion of energy from fossil fuels will decline in the near future (next year, next decade, 22nd century). Fossil fuels have the power to make our planet uninhabitable for humans, through carbon dioxide pollution. Despite the furor over fossil fuels, we remain primarily dependent on photosynthesis by bacteria.
There is enormous energy locked inside atoms, but whether humans will be able to economically and safely access such energy remains in doubt.
So…what tentative rules for evaluating proposed courses of action might we draft? I propose:
1. Any course of action which relies primarily upon photosynthesis, rather than fossil fuels, is to be favored.
2. Manufacturing, with its attendant pollution, should be done so that pollution is minimized, and should be directed at activities which facilitate photosynthesis and the effective functioning of the natural world.
3. Recognizing that, so far, humans have used fossil fuels mostly to disrupt the functioning of the natural world, we need, for the foreseeable future, to focus on the regeneration of natural capacities.
4. We should not get trapped into saying that we will focus on feeding and amusing however many people happen to live on Earth. The focus is on regeneration and then sustainability.
5. Humans have both an outer life (e.g., staying warm and fed) and an inner life (e.g., social relationships, learning, mastery, etc.) We should favor activities which provide a basic physical safety in terms of the outer life, but does not sacrifice our goals of regeneration and resilience in order to provide illusions of an inner life.
6. Money, debt, and power are all illusions. Deadly force, such as is exercised by governments and bandits, should not be used in defense of money, debt collection, and power.
7. Our actions should further greater energy utilization, greater recycling efficiency, faster processing of information, and higher degrees of organization.
As I said before, crystal balls are fallible instruments. We simply cannot predict with any certainty exactly how events will play out. It is pretty clear that we are in a revolution, right at this moment. And that this revolution is fraught with the risks characteristic of previous revolutions. All we can say is that energy, recycling, information, and organization have gotten us to what is at least rare and may be a unique planet in the Universe. It makes sense to stick with them. But we need to achieve them with a minimum reliance on fossil fuels. And the carbon released by fossil fuels needs to be recycled with activities such as carbon farming.
The main one I would disagree with is “Money, debt, and power are all illusions”. Power is very much related to having energy in the physics sense. Money and debt are ways of reallocating resources among people, and facilitating a government which can keep order. Money and debt are important to keeping the current system operating. A new system will need some corresponding relationship, or it will have no way to keep order. Cheap energy provides the surpluses that allow us to have our current governmental system. It will be very difficult to transition to a different system. Hunter gathering doesn’t require much of a system. The participative approaches that I understand many ecovillages have tried has not worked very well, I understand.
Gail this is a phenomenal analysis and you’re right on cue. Shell just issued the mother of profit warnings. It seems the USSR mark II is on the cards for America. It’s starting. The politicians will send the printing presses into overdrive and I’m starting to think hyperinflation doesn’t seem so far out.
I got the following from this document
The Population Cycle Drives Human
History – from a Eugenic Phase into a
Dysgenic Phase and Eventual Collapse
That you can find the document at this link.
Here is the quotes:
The Great Chaos that I foresee does not mean an apocalypse. In the
cataclysm, the large and highly specialized animals always disappeared,
but many smaller, unassuming species survived. The question is actually
only whether after the Great Chaos a new Dark Age will last for a long
time, and much of our civilization will be lost or whether a sufficient
number of capable engineers, artists, and thinkers will survive. Whoever
predicts that the earth will have only 2 billion inhabitants at the end of
this century, contrary to a maximum of 9 or 10 billion around 2040, would
not like to have his hopes confirmed, but rather hopes he will be
Whoever has travelled across Australia or British Columbia knows
that a highly developed civilisation is compatible with a small population
density. Until now, no disaster could throw mankind back to the era of the
hand-axe. Hitherto, the course of technological evolution was not a cycle
but a spiral. In the lap of our old world the new one is to be recognized by
the fact that millions of lowly qualified are set free and become
unemployed forever. Worldwide, billions of humans will become
superfluous. History must pass through a bottleneck that may turn out to
be the passage through the purgatory of a Great Chaos
My belief is that with energy comes overpopulation combine with natural resource depletion. Overpopulation triggers biological survival mechanism that eventually leads to die-off. This apply to all species. Anyway, this document explain collapse from a more biological point of view
The last paragraph is from me not from the document.
I did not know what dysgenic means so I look at the definition. Here it is:
1. (Anthropology & Ethnology) of, relating to, or contributing to a degeneration or deterioration in the fitness and quality of a race or
Oh no, please no ‘artists’ surviving to plague us: Tracy Emin’s un-made bed and other installations still with us post-Apocalype? God forbid!
Thanks! This looks at the issue through the lens of the natural increase in population causing the problem. This is a point that those attempting to look at the situation based on EROEI alone can easily miss. In fact, this is a big piece of what has happened in the past.
Declining EROEI only adds a second problem that overlays the first. What ultimately brings the end is high cost of energy production and related drop in per capita production. In ages past, this drop in per capita production had to do with too small of an area to farm, as population grew. Now we still have the population problem contributing to our other problems.
Seems a bit like Panarchy Theory.
Yes, a lot of elements of the panarchy theory seem present in the document. The document seem to be the panarchy theory explain in more detail.
I got this document from a youtube page that was talking about feminism. There seem to be a small group of young man that are awake and understand what is going on.
For the one, interested about what is going on with the youth, go there
and search for Nualaboala in the comments page.