Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past

At the Age of Limits Conference, I gave a talk called Converging Crises (PDF), talking about the crises facing us as we reach energy limits. In this post, I discuss some highlights from a fairly long talk.

A related topic is how our current situation is different from past collapses. John Michael Greer talked about prior collapses, but because both of our talks were late in the conference and because I was leaving to catch a plane, we never had a chance to discuss how “this time is different.” To fill this gap, I have included some comments on this subject at the end of this post.

The Nature of our Current Crisis

Figure 1

Figure 1

The first three crises are the basic ones: population growth, resource depletion, and environmental degradation. The other crises are not as basic, but still may act to bring the system down.

Figure 2

Figure 2

Humans have found a series of ways to keep deaths down, each adding more control of external energy.

  • Control of fire, starting over 1 million years ago. This allowed humans to cook their food, making it possible for more energy to go to develop the brain, and less to developing teeth and digestive apparatus. Humans could also extend their range into colder areas.
  • Agriculture, starting about 10,000 years ago. We grew desirable plants and animals and excluded other species, thus increasing the amount of food produced.
  • Coal, starting around 1800 C. E. With coal, we could make metals in quantity since we didn’t need to cut down trees for smelting. We could also make concrete and glass in quantity. With these, we could build hydroelectric power plants, and build electric transmission lines.
  • Oil, ramping up after World War II. Oil allowed the use of cars for personal transport, plus trucks to deliver goods precisely where they were needed. It also improved agricultural productivity through irrigation, refrigeration, herbicides, pesticides. The ability to use airplanes enabled globalization.

As humans’ control of energy improved, human population grew and the population of other species fell. According to Niles Eldredge, the Sixth Mass Extinction began 100,000 years ago, when there were fewer than 100,000 people on the planet, back in the days of hunter-gatherers. The extent of die-off of other species has grown as we added agriculture, and later added coal and oil use.

Humans are not doing anything “wrong.” Humans are reacting to the same instinct that all species have, namely to make use of available energy to allow more of the species to live to maturity. Population growth stops when a species reaches a limit of some sort–lack of food because the species eats too much of its would-be food supply; too much pollution; epidemics (related to crowding and poor nutrition); or limits associated with gathering external energy.

Individuals can change their personal actions, but built-in instincts tend to guide the direction of civilizations as a whole. Thus the population of civilizations tend to rise until bottlenecks are reached.

Resource Depletion is Particularly a Problem for Oil

We are seeing depletion in many areas right now, including fresh water aquifers, soil erosion, the number and size of fish in the ocean, the number of pollinators, and deforestation. The mineral concentration of ores we are mining keeps getting lower as well. For the purpose of the talk, I will concentrate on oil, however.

Right now, oil is suffering from depletion but prices don’t seem very high.

Figure 3.

Figure 3

The cost of extracting oil keeps rising, whether or not the prices consumers pay rise, because the cheapest to extract oil was pulled out first. The problem now is that oil prices are too low for producers, at the same time that they are very high for the consumer. The low prices for producers mean that oil companies must take extraordinary measures, such as adding more debt, or selling land they planned to develop, to have enough money to pay dividends. Companies extracting oil from shale formations are in particularly tough shape because they tend to be small and have poor credit ratings.

The low-price oil situation looks likely to reach a crisis stage in the near term. What has been holding the situation together is today’s low interest rates. With these low interest rates, investors who are desperate for higher yields will invest in “iffy” companies, like shale oil companies. In addition, oil producing companies can borrow at low rates, helping to keep costs down.

It is hard to see a fix for the problem oil producing companies are now having. If oil prices rise to help them, consumers will find that the higher oil prices “squeeze” their discretionary income. As a result, we will be pushed back into recession. So no oil price works.

How Decline in Oil Supply Can Be Expected to “Work”

Many people are of the view that if oil production declines, it will decline slowly, more or less over the same time-period it rose, in a symmetric “Hubbert” Curve. My expectation is that the downslope will be much steeper than the upslope. I also expect that all fuels will fall in use, more or less simultaneously. This pattern occurs because of the networked way the world economy is constructed and because of the role of debt, which I will describe later.

The Hubbert Curve was constructed in the special case where another fuel took over before fossil fuels started to decline (Figure 4), a situation which does not exist today.

Figure 4

Figure 4

In my view, a more realistic view of the expected downslope is shown in Figure 5, below.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

It is my expectation that the supply of all fuels will decrease in use, more or less together, because of credit related financial problems that will affect the economy as a whole.

Peter Turchin and Surgey Nefedov analyzed how eight agricultural civilizations collapsed  in the book Secular Cycles. First, there is a long period of growth and population expansion, as the group makes increasing use of a new resource available (such as land cleared for agriculture). This is followed by a “stagflation” period of 50 to 60 years after population reaches the carrying capacity of the new resource. Stagflation is followed by a crisis period of 20 to 50 years, when debt defaults became common, governments collapse, and population decreases. I show this pattern in Figure 6, below.

Figure 6

Figure 6

My forecast energy downslope in Figure 5 is  intended to follow roughly the shape of the curve of prior collapses, depicted in Figure 6. The sharpness of the points in Figure 6 occur because I plotted only 5-year points–annual points would have produced a smoother curve.

Environmental Degradation Takes Many Forms

Figure 7

Figure 7

The environmental degradation issue that gets the most “press” is climate change. If any one limit is modeled, whether it is soil problems, or the mass extinction of many species that seems to be currently taking place, or ocean acidification, it is likely to show that that particular problem is likely to take civilization down. To get a balanced view of what is ahead, a person would need to model all limits at once.

Climate change modelers are of course mainly interested in their limit. They have started to incorporate some information of the effect of other limits into the “low end” of their range (that is, the 2.6 degree scenario), but the “high estimate”–which gets much of the press–assumes no limits of any other sort. It includes far more carbon from fossil fuels than seems reasonable, in my view.

The Financial System is Terribly Important, and Debt Problems Can Bring it Down

Today’s economy is a network of interconnected businesses and consumers, regulated by governments. The financial system is extremely important to this network. In a way, the financial system is like the operating system of a computer. It telegraphs what products are needed, where, and what resources are available to meet these needs from one part of the economy to another. It allows businesses to profitably meet these needs.

Debt plays a surprisingly important role in our current economy. Increasing the amount of debt available increases the amount of goods a person can buy. For example, if a consumer has a job paying $40,000 a year, and gets a loan for $20,000 to buy a new car, the effect is similar to having $60,000 in income for that year. Similarly, if a business can borrow money for a new factory, it can add to jobs to the economy.

When the growth in debt turns to contraction (this happens if consumers default in large numbers, or if they buy fewer homes and cars), it has a huge impact on the economy. The shrinking debt tends to push the economy into contraction. Because there is less demand for commodities like oil, coal and natural gas, the prices of these commodities tend to fall. In fact, a credit contraction seems to be precisely what happened in July 2008, when oil prices took a steep drop. Prices of other fuels also dropped at the same time.

Figure 8

Figure 8

In fact, since 2008, the US economy is still struggling with inadequate growth in debt. The underlying reason is that consumers’ wages are lagging, so they cannot afford more debt. The government tries to make up for the lack of growth in consumer debt by borrowing more money itself and by keeping interest rates artificially low, through Quantitative Easing.

A basic underlying issue is the fact that our salaries don’t rise as oil prices rise. Similarly, our salaries don’t rise with rising interest rates. Both oil prices and interest rates very much affect what we need to pay, however. Oil prices affect food and transportation costs, and interest rates affect mortgage and auto loan payments. If interest rates rise again, or if oil prices rise, many consumers will be forced to cut back on discretionary spending. As a result, the economy is likely to shift back into recession. Prices of commodities such as oil, gas, coal, and uranium are likely to fall again.  Ultimately production of these commodities can be expected to fall, because without debt, they become unaffordable for most consumers.

Government Funding Issues

One issue noted by Turchin and Nefedov is that in prior collapses, government funding is generally a problem. This occurs because the government is funded by surpluses of an economy. If an economy is reaching diminishing returns, citizens find it harder and harder to get good-paying jobs at the same time that the government needs more funding to handle the problems it is confronting, such as the need for a larger army. As a result, it becomes very hard to collect enough taxes. If tax rates are raised too high, citizens find themselves unable to afford an adequate diet. With poor nutrition, citizens become more vulnerable to epidemics–one of the major causes of die-offs during collapses.

We are seeing the issue of inadequate government funding now. US publicly held debt has been soaring since mid 2008 (Figure 9).

Figure 9

Figure 9

Inadequate High-Paying Jobs Go with Too Little Energy

Figure 10

Figure 10

An early sign of lack of adequate energy is a lack of good-paying jobs for young people. Also, the jobs that are available tend to be low-paying service jobs that don’t require much energy.

Of course, if we have to go back to growing food without today’s energy inputs, there will be a huge number of manual labor jobs available. But these are not the jobs most people are thinking about.

Electrical Grid Problems

Figure 11

Figure 11

There is a popular myth that electricity will save us. This view is based on the belief that our problem is simply a liquid fuels problem. Our problem is really very much deeper–a systems problem that threatens to take down the financial system and the consumption of all types of fuels simultaneously. Thus, the same problems that bring down oil consumption threaten to bring down electricity consumption.

But even apart from the systems problem, it is clear that oil problems lead to electric grid  problems. The electric grid needs constant repairs. New parts must be transported using oil, and the supply lines of companies manufacturing these parts must continue to operate, again using oil. Trucks or helicopters using oil products are needed to put grid replacement parts in place. Workers need transportation for their work on the grid, as well.

The claim that wind and solar PV will save us is silly, if we have an unsolvable grid problem. The place for solar PV is off-grid. Wind also works off-grid, in uses such as pumping water. Of course, wind turbines used for this purpose are tiny compared to today’s electricity generating turbines.

Geopolitical Problems

Figure 12

Figure 12

As we become more resource constrained, we can expect more fighting among countries. Perhaps new alliances will  be formed, in an attempt to squeeze our current energy hogs–US, Europe, and Japan. It is possible that the US dollar will lose its status as reserve currency, leading to a lower standard of living for US citizens.

Solutions to Converging Crises

Figure 13

Figure 13

You may think I am kidding with respect to the last item, “We need help from a Higher Power,” but I am not. Our universe seems to have been created by a Big Bang. But big bangs don’t just happen. We live in a very orderly universe. According to Newton’s Laws of Motion, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. We also know that useful energy is balanced by friction. This, in fact, is a necessary balance, or the system would spin out of control. We also would not be able to drive down the road in a car without friction.

If a big bang happened, it seems likely to me that there was a major force behind the big bang. We can call this force Nature or a Higher Power. I am doubtful that the force behind the big bang would fix the world situation so that humans can continue along their current destructive path on earth. But the force might fix the situation in some other way–perhaps make the transition for humans easier to bear, or produce a new kind of big bang supporting an afterlife for humans as envisioned by various religions.

How This Time is Different

Greer, in his talk, mentioned several points about prior collapses:

  • Typically 95% of the population died off.
  • The time between civilizations tended to be about 500 years.
  • The 5% who survived were able to go about doing things, pretty much as had been done in the past.
  • The downslopes often had jogs and bumps in them, and could be slow.

The question arises as to how helpful this information is with respect to what is ahead. As I see the situation, civilizations that failed in the past were not fossil fuel dependent or electricity dependent. While there was specialization of labor, there was much less specialization than there is today. While there was some trade, the majority of food and clothing was locally produced. The biggest problems were

  • Growing population
  • Arable farmland that did not expand to meet growing population
  • Soil problems (loss of fertility, erosion, salinity)
  • Deforestation
  • Competition from neighboring civilizations
  • Government collapse
  • Debt problems

I view the 500 year gap between civilizations as including what I show as the “inter cycle” period between civilizations in Figure 6, above. This is the gap that took place before new growth could occur.

The big problem in the past with civilizations that collapsed was that humans were using renewable resources faster than they could renew. Population continued to expand as well. The combination of rising population and depleting soil and forest resources led to diminishing returns, lower wages for many workers, and difficulty funding governments. A 500 year gap between civilizations took the population pressure off an area. Forests were able to regrow, and soil was able to renew (at least partly through regeneration of soil by erosion of base rock).

Today, we sill have the problems we had in the past, but we have some new ones as well:

  • We are depleting aquifers much more rapidly than they regenerate. In many cases, the water table is far below what can be reached with simple tools. It will take thousands of years for these aquifers to regenerate.
  • We are depleting minerals of all kinds, so that we now need “high tech” methods to extract the low ore concentrations. These minerals will be out of reach, without the use of electricity and fossil fuels. In fact, the vast majority of fossil fuel energy supplies will also be out of reach, without today’s high tech methods. Eventually this may change, with new fossil fuel formation and with earthquakes, but the timeframe is likely to be millions of years.
  • Most people today do not know how to live without fossil fuels and electricity. If fossil fusel and electricity disappeared, most of us would not know how to produce our own food, water, and other basic necessities.
  • Most of us could not just “pick up and do as we did before,” with respect to our current jobs, if the government and 95% of the population disappeared. Our jobs are often supported by global supply chains that would disappear, as well as direct use of fossil fuels and electricity.
  • The world is sufficiently networked that most of it is likely to be drawn into a world-wide collapse. In the past, areas that did not collapse continued to function. These areas could act as a back-up, if functions were lost.

In the past, the 500 year gap was enough to allow regeneration of forests and soil, once population pressures were reduced. If that were our only problem now, we could expect the same pattern again. Such a regeneration would allow a reasonably large group of people (say 500 million people) to get back to a non-fossil fuel based civilization in 500 years, with new governments, roads and other services.

In such a new civilization, we would likely have difficulty using much metals, because ores are now quite depleted. Even reprocessing of existing metals is likely to require more heat energy than is easily available from renewables sources.

We are now so dependent on fossil fuels and electricity that any collapse that does take place seems likely to be faster than prior collapses. If the electric grid goes down in an area, and cannot be repaired, most business functions will be lost–practically immediately. If oil supply is interrupted, it also will bring a halt to most business in an area, because workers can’t get to work and raw materials cannot be transported.

We are bing told, “Renewables will save us,” but this is basically a lie. Wind and solar PV are just as much a part of our current fossil fuel system as any other source of electricity. They will only last as long as the weakest link–inverters that need replacing, batteries that need replacing, or the electric grid that needs fixing. We are being told that these are our salvation, because politicians need to have something to point to as a solution–not because they really will work.

 

749 thoughts on “Converging Energy Crises – And How our Current Situation Differs from the Past

  1. http://www.fashiontimes.com/articles/8236/20140608/immigration-crisis-1-000-migrant-children-headed-arizona-shelter.htm

    Immigration Crisis: 1,000 Migrant Children Headed to Arizona Shelter

    “The current surge of unaccompanied children crossing the border has overwhelmed the Border Patrol and is unable to hold the sheer number of illegal immigrants being caught.

    Just this Friday over 400 children were sent to a holding center in Nagoles, Arizona where they will be checked medically and vaccinated before they are released or deported. An additional 600 children were taken in this Sunday.”

    Hispanic people that base their lives on Familia sending their beloved children unattended across the border? Is this another new layer in the step down of collapse? Does it have anything to do with Cantarell descending from peak?

      • From your more detailed article tim, there’s this: “The young migrants’ ranks have tripled in five years, and could reach a new high of 60,000 this year — and more than double that the following year (120,000). By then, the costs of shelters and resettlement could reach $2.28 billion.”

        I thought the border had been better built up to be better protected. Anyway, it’s just another cog in the ongoing saga of declining net energy.

    • The CBS nightly news had a story on this very subject tonight with Scott Pelly.
      Seems Hondorus is a very dangerous place and THE WOMAN SAID THERE IS NO WORK, who was interviewed.
      Wonder what will happen when these United States HAS TO stop them crossing the border? By what means?

      • After spending billions of dollars to secure our borders, we are being overwhelmed by CHILDREN!!!

  2. There is a lot of “shale boom” starting here (Norway we(l)lfare and 400 years of gas are on the headlines). “Resources” estimates are within a range, while Monterey’s affair possibly sets a wider base in Argentina. On a per capita basis and considering income differences the impact would be greater than in the US.

    On the other hand, fracking is doing 25 Kb today (total domestic: 540 Kb). Gas is still not doing much, and total oil dropped 1,7% and gas 4,4% last year. YPF is still almost the only player and says the activity is overall profitable, while they half financed such operations selling bonds to the state’s retirement fund. Real market investment, while exponentially growing, is still drilling to find the sweet pots.

    Of course the point is not how much oil gets up but rather the financial conditions. EROEI is important here. While it is not easy to estimate for fracking, is it there some not so much unreliable source?

    Some comparison could be attempted through US fracking. Norway: 5 million people, peak 3,5 Mb, average EROEI last 20 years: 37. US LTO EIA’s forecasting peak 5 Mb, average EROEI for the last 10 years, 7? Population…

    Argentina’s population is 9 times Norway’s, and if we take an EREOI of 7 and say the 5 Mb EIA’s peak to contrast with Norway’s 3,5 peak we get each of us 25 lesser rent on oil revenue than Nordics. This, including all high return remaining fields, which could level up EROEI a very few points.

    On the other side, fracking will surely be cheaper than importing LNG and LTO is not yet dead in the US… May be Vaca Muerta could add a couple of weeks for the hamster to see the sun

  3. Dear Gail and All

    Collapse may be fast or it may be slow, but the day to day grind goes on. It would seem that using our energy resources as efficiently as possible is a perfectly sensible project that we should be paying much attention to. Recently, I wrote about Toby Hemenway’s talk to a permaculture gathering where he identified those industrial modes of production which have very high Transformity (after Howard Odum). A high Transformity score means that the mode of production uses a lot of energy, probably in a long chain of production. One of the high Transformity modes of production is industrial education.

    I live in a center of high Transformity industrial education…Chapel Hill North Carolina, home of University of North Carolina and neighbor of Duke and North Carolina Central and North Carolina State University. Chapel Hill imposes a local tax to support the schools, in addition to the state taxes. Pretty regularly, an Asian student at one of the high schools will score a perfect SAT. But when US News and World Report issued its list of top performing high schools, our schools did not make the list because of the gap between white and asian students and black and hispanic students. I’ve lived here almost 20 years, and the gap has been in existence for at least that long, and one of the previous Superintendents vowed to close the gap, and did not.

    It will take you just a few minutes to read the current Superintendent’s plan to deal with the gap:

    Tom Forcella: Owning up to our ‘Best Schools’ omission
    http://www.chapelhillnews.com/2014/06/06/3914466/tom-forcella-owning-up-to-our.html

    So far we have two dots: industrial education is extraordinarily expensive in terms of energy use, and whatever it is we do in schools isn’t working for a signficant part of the population, and hasn’t worked in a long time.

    Here’s another dot. Deb Tolman is a retired professor from Oregon who moved to a very small town in Texas where she grows vegetables and some livestock. Her claim to fame is a raised keyhole bed for vegetables. Here is a video of her talking about her work:

    Deb also sells a DVD which shows Deb and a homeowner building a keyhole garden. Deb has built around 70 such gardens in her small town. I heard about the DVD a year or so ago, and bought one. Now my granddaughter is entering 9th grade and will be studying biology. As I watched the DVD, it occurred to me that it is filled with biological science. It’s usually not explicit, the way Elaine Ingham’s lectures are explicitly about science, but it bubbles right below the surface. So I annotated the DVD explaining just where I thought science was guiding each step in the construction of the bed, bought another DVD, and sent them to my daughter. Then it occurred to me that Deb might be interested, so I emailed her with my annotation and explained the 9th grade biology connection. Deb got very excited, and said that I was one of the few people who seems to connect the construction process with science.

    I told Deb that I was so confident that her methods could be used to teach biology in a very immediate way, and stimulate intellectual curiosity which could lead to more work in the classroom and laboratory, that I would give her a small amount of money if she could find an opportunity to tie her work into the educational process. Deb thanked me for the offer of money, but said that ‘breaking into the school curricula is very hard’. So we are pursuing other options.

    So a third dot is the notion that education is something that happens when a student is actively involved in making something or doing something and also has access to academic studies and laboratories.

    A fourth dot is Dmitry Orlov’s comment that several educators told him at Four Quarters that ‘education is totally broken’.

    A fifth dot is the fact that many people do not see growing food in one’s backyard as a meaningful undertaking. If one is the child of rich parents, and uses one’s advantages to move ahead in industrial society, then all is well (except that one becomes a prisoner of industrial chemicals, and unless collapse also happens to the well-born). If one is the child of poor parents, and doesn’t get lucky, then the inability to grow food in the back yard consigns one to lifelong dependency. And so we get gardens constructed by well meaning middle class people sitting idle in poor neighborhoods where people live on food stamps.

    You can connect all these dots in various ways. But I don’t see any way that the initial article lays out a reasonable program.

    Don Stewart

    • For what it is worth, I have one brother with school age children, and the family is home schooling their children. The oldest graduated from high school this year. I have one nephew who is married, and he and his wife are homeschooling their children. On my husband’s side, we have a married nephew, and they were talking about home schooling, but decided not to. If things go badly, I wouldn’t be surprised if they switch to home schooling.

      I homeschooled my daughter one year (8th grade) while I was working part time. Things were clearly not working at the school, and she was having a problem with migraine headaches. The year off gave her time to set up her own blog on the Internet, and learn HTML, among other things. Not the usual 8th grade pass times.

      Home schooling is becoming very common, as people get disgusted with the schools. It may increasingly be the way of the future.

      • We homeschooled all 3 boys until middle school, taught them how to read and basic geography and history, and then moved them into a very small, rural public school where we thought we would have more control. Wrong. So we homeschooled the younger two again. Now we’re sending the oldest to a private, jesuit school 5000 miles away so that he can experience a quality education. We will probably go back to homeschooling permanently. The national standards are so dumbed-down now in the US that they can learn twice as much from us, twice as fast.

      • Hi Gail, you have a very informative blog! I come here each day to learn something new about our situation.
        I also read dissenting views that LTO will provide an abundance’s of oil for a long time & won’t peak until after 2030. The LTO charts for the projected production curve goes straight up.

        The main problem I see with home schooling is that too many parents are shorting their children in science education. I see a lot of christian fundamentalist “teaching” their children about the faith of the parent & too little on subjects children need to know.

        What kind of books & educational material do the home schooling parents use? Is it religious propaganda or do parents try to teach crafts, arts, science, history, math etc ?
        How can a parent take time to home school their children if they both have to work?

        • Everyone has their own idea of what is “wrong” with the current system. I imagine people who think the world was created in seven literal days will adjust the science curriculum accordingly. I will have to admit that I have not studied the books available to home schoolers. I know that public school books are increasingly affected by what school boards think is “right,” so they have local biased built into them.

          History is spun in ways that most of us would find offensive, now that we understand the role of fossil fuels.

          My husband tells me that he was taught in school that the civil war was “the war for Southern Independence.” His mother (from New York) set him straight on that.

          • The great thing about home school is the flexibility you have as a parent. Most states and school districts give you a wide variety of approved curriculums to choose from, or you can make up your own. Some are Christian, or religion based, some are strictly secular. We used a mixture because some of the Christian curriculums had individual segments that were really good (we’re not religious), such as geography or history or math. The thing that non-home schoolers don’t usually know, is that even if you’re teaching your kid, they still have to pass national standardized tests in order to graduate, so there is still more or less consistency in what people need to learn.

            • My niece took some courses for combined high school/ college credit from a local college, so she would have some grades from an outside source on her record.

              I expect there is some variability from state to state on what is required to graduate from high school as a home schooler. It seems like a home schooler I ran into working at a local store planned to take the GED, to show that he actually knew what is taught in high school.

            • Interesting. I guess Homeschool is just like anything else. It is what you make of it.

          • Dear Gail
            One advantage of home schooling is that knife-edge questions are permitted. For example:
            1. In response to the notion that the Civil War was about ‘Southern Independence’, a knife-edge question is: ‘Were the slaves Southerners, or three-fifths of a Southerner, or not Southerners at all? Did their descendents become Southerners when they started winning football games? Were those slaves who escaped to Canada still Southerners, never were Southerners, or were traitors to the Southern cause?’

            2. Relative to a hydrogen economy and the statement that hydrogen is hopeless. ‘Does photosynthesis use hydrogen from the air to make stored energy? Such as carbohydrates? Do plants use the stored energy when the sun is not shining or is shining weakly, as in the winter? Is that what starch is?’

            3. Relative to statements that ‘we are running out of energy’. ‘How much of the energy used every year is in the form of fossil hydrocarbons, and how much is from the current photosynthesis budget? How sure are you that we are making the best use of solar heating and the sugars created by photosynthesis? Are there characteristics of fossil fuels that plants don’t do very well? Compare the liquid carbon created by plants with jet fuel.’

            Questions like these, I think, get us out of our ruts. But they will not be tolerated in most schools where the curriculum is tightly controlled.

            I do agree that thinking about knife-edge questions puts a heavy burden on the parents. I suspect that home schooling as a small group exercise is best, because small groups can think creatively about what they are reading or doing or hearing about.

            Don Stewart

            • Thanks for your thoughts. My home-schooled nieces have been much more involved in the adult world than most children. I am not sure their parents are quite up to those kinds of questions though.

  4. ‘”except that one becomes a prisoner of industrial chemicals, and unless collapse also happens to the well-born). If one is the child of poor parents, and doesn’t get lucky, then the”

    Please explain how this happen…is there another planet for the “well-born” …..I think the “well-born” believe this or climate change will never touch them. And that is why we are where we are…the problems have been known for a long time..The well-born graduate from ivy league schools and become president and what not thinking this is a problem for the people of color elsewhere. There is nothing new here other than we are now closer…Should I keep dumping money into my 401k as well? I am over 20 years away from retirement….

    • “I am over 20 years away from retirement….” drink some more Koolaid, come back after a bit 🙂

      • “drink some more Koolaid, come back after a bit :)” That was sarcasm….maybe it does not translate well into English?

      • I have sporadically stopped and started my contributions to a 401K depending on my level of “freak-out” about the coming crises. I no longer contribute and no longer plan to add a dime. If I could get it all as cash now, I would, and invest it in solar panels, seeds, gas and gold. At least then you might get your value back.

    • If you can use the money now, I wouldn’t be dumping it into a 401K in your situation.

      But often it is a hard decision to make. How will things turn out? Will investments continue to have some value, even if not very much?

  5. Hi Gail

    Your “Tverberg estimate of future energy production” (Fig. 5) that mirrors the Turchin and Nefedov “Secular Cycles” analysis reminded me of the the WEAP model done by Paul Chefurka in 2007 http://www.paulchefurka.ca/WEAP/WEAP.html (“World Energy and Population – Trends to 2100”). Paul has a similar graph (/Users/GHS1/Desktop/image013.png) but goes on to project human population decline due to declining net energy or “toe/capita”. His graphs show a population decline of from a maximum 7.3 or so billion in 2015 to 1.0 billion in 2095 and 6.0 billion in 2035. /Users/GHS1/Desktop/image016.png. That means 1.3 billion fewer people over the next 20 years which will be from a VERY big die-off not a reduction in birth rates. And Paul does not factor in methane release of more Fukushimas due to grid failures. Yes, I would agree we have a real “CRISIS” brewing and that does justify your call for help from a higher power. Unfortunately that is not going to happen. It will be either mass die-off (Greer) or extinction (McPherson). The undertaking business would seem to be a good one to get into!

    • Thanks! I have seen some of Paul Chefurka’s work before. It is usually pretty good. He seems to have more faith in non-hydro renewables than I do (or did back in 2007, when this was written). I don’t think he sees the financial connections either.

      The undertaking business would seem to be a good one, especially if you can get folks to pay for your services. Also, if the cause of death is an epidemic, I am not sure that it would be a very long-term job.

  6. Let’s just take it as read that collapse is imminent.
    What comes next?
    Somewhere I came across the notion that humans can maintain a complete knowledge of all members – including their roles in various relationships within the group – for a group of up to about 200 people. Beyond this, we start to need administration systems in ever-increasing complexity – which is the start of the slippery slope of energy/resource loads just to administer these increasingly complex groups..
    So, how about villages of up to c. 200 people, with some relatively low tech specialisation enabling low key (wooden boats, horse/donkey cart distances) trade between villages for some greater economic/energy efficiencies?
    IF IF IF we can maintain some low tech long range radio links between some of these groups then there will be some hope that humanity doesn’t sink into complete, isolated ignorant peasantry.
    I have lots more thoughts around this basic notion, but interested to hear others’ views on how to build the foundations of what comes next.

    • Interesting idea. I think 150 is usually given as the “Dunbar Number”. In that case, groups might need to be a little smaller than 200. The most efficient course of action is if all members share everything that have with the group–a “gift economy”. The group has to be kept small to keep the system honesty. There need to be negative sanctions if people get windfalls they don’t share, built into the system. Dmtry Orlov has looked into some groups that have worked in the past.

  7. Simply Simon,

    I have been thinking along the same lines regarding communication between groups.

    Keeping radio going is going to be the key. Even tube radios need repair, maybe crystal sets? Then the issue of broadcasting from a transmitter gets the same drawback, what to do about parts? Can a lab make tube sets by hand? And where to get the raw materials?

    Or telegraph system à la 1860?

    • Thanks hebertmw
      I was vaguely thinking Marconi morse code type stuff as being very low tech – but I’m pretty ignorant on details.
      Anyone suggest place to get simplest construction details at both ends.
      I would like to start getting people thinking on these networks under way fairly soonish – so that they can be up and running asap.

      • Simon and Herbert

        This issue has been discussed on the Archdruid’s site.

        • Thanks Xabier – had a good trawl through the site. Lots of good stuff – though Gail’s clear rationality, and the responses usually engendered by her approach mean this blog remains “home”.

    • In Norway there’s been a lot of talk about modernizing the emergency communication networks. It all about super high tech solutions, of course – guaranteed not to be repairable when the economy contracts and the spare parts are no longer available…

  8. Excellent and very chilling piece Gail. I notice you do not mention growing inequality as one of the crisis. I believe it will be as important as some of the other ones because it has political and economic consequences Speculative bubbles, recessions, revolutions, civil wars, fascism and totalitarianism all can be encouraged by inequality. People can survive economic crisis by pulling together, sharing, retooling, etc. It’s not so easy to survive death camps and ethnic cleansing.

    • I always considered growing inequality a distal symptom rather than a proximal cause of our troubles. Important to those at the bottom and ignored by everyone else.

      • Correct. The proximal cause being chronic overpopulation. Too many humans. However, even in small populations of various mammals there is some subtle social stratification, a natural result of the interplay of various genetic and environmental factors with various social structures. In human civilization, the magnitude of it seems quite extreme.

        • I think the cause might in part be too little resources/animal, which is what you get from overpopulation. You are right about overpopulation being important.

    • I ran out of space/ time. Growing inequality was part of past collapses. It is part of this one now.In many ways, it is more a symptom than a cause. As there are fewer good paying jobs, young people and handicapped people especially have a hard time finding good-paying jobs.

  9. Ok,
    let’s summarize:
    1)Collapse will be faster, maybe 15 years or less.
    2)human dieoff will be harder , maybe will survive around 1 to 0.1% of current population, that is from 70 to 7 million people. Eventually, these are the global population numbers around 1000 BC.
    3) Environment carrying capacity hugely depleted. This tend to support more 7 million survivers than 70.
    4) Help from Superior Being. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe a collapse could be some sort of necessary event. Or maybe that a shift in the human behavior could ensue, just on the brink of collapse. See http://www.nderf.org for some hints.

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