A new theory of energy and the economy – Part 1 – Generating economic growth

How does the economy really work? In my view, there are many erroneous theories in published literature. I have been investigating this topic and have come to the conclusion that both energy and debt play an extremely important role in an economic system. Once energy supply and other aspects of the economy start hitting diminishing returns, there is a serious chance that a debt implosion will bring the whole system down.

In this post, I will look at the first piece of this story, relating to how the economy is tied to energy, and how the leveraging impact of cheap energy creates economic growth. In order for economic growth to occur, the wages of workers need to go farther and farther in buying goods and services. Low-priced energy products are far more effective in producing this situation than high-priced energy products. Substituting high-priced energy products for low-priced energy products can be expected to lead to lower economic growth.

Trying to tackle this topic is a daunting task. The subject crosses many fields of study, including anthropology, ecology, systems analysis, economics, and physics of a thermodynamically open system. It also involves reaching limits in a finite world. Most researchers have tackled the subject without understanding the many issues involved. I hope my analysis can shed some light on the subject.

I plan to add related posts later.

An Overview of a Networked Economy

The economy is a networked system of customers, businesses, and governments. It is tied together by a financial system and by many laws and customs that have grown up over the years. I represent the economic network as a child’s toy made of sticks that connect together, but that can, if disturbed in the wrong way, collapse.

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks

The economy is a self-organized system. In other words, it grew up gradually over time, one piece at a time. New businesses were added and old ones disappeared. New customers were added and others left. The products sold gradually changed. Governments gradually added new laws and removed old ones. As changes were made, the system automatically re-optimized for the changes. For example, if one business raised its price on a product while others did not, some of the customers would move to the businesses selling the product at a lower price.

The economy is represented as hollow because, as products become obsolete, the economy gradually adapts to the replacement product and loses support for earlier products. An example is cars replacing horse and buggy in the United States. There are fewer horses today and many fewer buggy manufacturers. Cities generally don’t have places to leave horses while shopping. Instead, there are many gasoline stations and parking lots for cars.

Because of the way an economy adapts to a new technology, it becomes virtually impossible to “go backwards” to the old technology. Any change that is made must be small and incremental–adding a few horses at the edge of the city, for example. Trying to add very many horses would be disruptive. Horses would get in the way of cars and would leave messes on the city streets.

The Economy as a Complex Adaptive System and Dissipative Structure

Systems analysts would call a system such as the economy a complex adaptive system, because of its tendency to grow and evolve in a self-organizing manner. The fact that this system grows and self-organizes comes from the fact the economy operates in a thermodynamically open system–that is, the economy receives energy from outside sources, and because of this energy, can grow and become more complex. The name of such a system from a physics perspective is a dissipative structure. Human beings, and in fact all plants and animals, are dissipative structures. So are hurricanes, galaxies, and star formation regions. All of these dissipative systems start from small beginnings, grow, and eventually collapse and die. Often they are replaced by new similar structures that are better adapted to the changing environment.

The study of the kinds of systems that grow and self-organize is a new one. Ilya Prigogine was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for his pioneering work on dissipative systems. One writer (in French) about the economy as a dissipative structure is François Roddier. His book, published in 2012, is called Thermodynamique de l’evolution.

Why Energy is Central to the Economy

If the economy is a dissipative system, it is clear that energy must be central to its operation. But suppose that we are coming from a step back, and trying to show that the economy is an energy-based system that grows as more external energy is added.

Let’s start even before humans came onto the scene. All plants and animals need energy of some kind so that the organism can grow, reproduce, move, and sense changes to the environment. For plants, this energy often comes from the sun and photosynthesis. For animals, it comes from food of various kinds.

All plants and animals are in competition with other species and with other members of their own species. The possible outcomes are

  1. Win and live, and have offspring who might live as well
  2. Lose out and die

Access to adequate food (a source of energy) is one key to winning this competition. Outside energy can be helpful as well. The use of tools is as approach that is used by some types of animals as well as by humans. Even if the approach is as simple as throwing a rock at a victim, the rock amplifies the effect of using the animal’s own energy. In many cases, energy is needed for making a tool. This can be human energy, as in chipping one rock with another rock, or it can be heat energy. By 70,000 years ago, humans had figured out that heat-treating rock made it easier to shape rocks into tools.

A bigger step forward for humans than learning to use tools–in fact, what seems to have set them apart from other animals–was learning to use fire. This began as early as 1 million years ago. Controlled use of fire had many benefits. With fire, food could be cooked, cutting the amount of time needed for chewing down drastically. Foods that could not be eaten previously could be cooked and eaten, and more nutrition could be obtained from the foods that were eaten. The teeth and guts of humans gradually got smaller, and brains got larger, as human bodies adapted to eating cooked food.

There were other benefits of being able to use fire. With time freed up from not needing to chew as long, there was more time available for making tools. Fire could be used to keep warm and thus expand the range where humans could live. Fire could also be used to gain an advantage over other animals, both in hunting them and in scaring them away.

Humans were incredibly successful in their competition with other species, killing off the top carnivore species in each continent as they settled it, using only simple tools and the burning of biomass. According to Paleontologist Niles Eldridge, the Sixth Mass Extinction began when humans were still hunter-gatherers, when humans first moved out of Africa 100,000 years ago. The adverse impact of humans on other species grew significantly greater, once humans became farmers and declared some plants to be “weeds,” and selected others for greater use.

In many ways, the energy-based economy humans have built up over the years is simply an approach to compensate for our own feeble abilities:

  • Need for warm temperature–clothing, houses, heat when cold, air conditioning if hot
  • Need for food–metal tools, irrigation, refrigeration, fertilizer, herbicides, pesticides
  • Knowledge/thinking ability of humans–books, schools, Internet
  • Mobility–airplanes, cars, trucks, ships, roads
  • Vulnerability to germs–medicine, sanitation

A key component in any of these types of adaptations is energy of some appropriate kind. This energy can come in various forms:

  • Embodied energy stored up in tools and other capital goods that can be reused later. Some of the energy in making these tools is human energy (including human thinking capacity), and some of this is energy from other sources, such as heat from burning wood or another fuel.
  • Human energy–Humans have many abilities they can use, including moving their arms and legs, thinking, speaking, hearing, seeing, and tasting. All of these are made possible by the energy that humans get from food.
  • Energy from animals – Dogs can help with hunting and herding; oxen can help with plowing; horses can be ridden for transportation
  • Energy from burning wood and other forms of biomass, including peat moss
  • Energy from burning fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, or oil)
  • Electricity produced in any number of ways–hydroelectric, nuclear, burning coal or natural gas, and from devices that convert wind, solar, or geothermal energy
  • Wind energy – Used in sail boats and in wind powered devices, such as windmills to pump water. Wind turbines (with significant embodied energy) also generate electricity.
  • Solar energy – Most energy from the sun is “free”. It keeps us warm, grows food, and evaporates water, without additional “help.” There are also devices such as solar PV panels and solar hot water heaters that capture energy from the sun. These should perhaps be classified as tools with significant embodied energy.

One key use of supplemental energy is to reduce the amount of human labor needed in farming, freeing-up people to work at other types of jobs. The chart below shows how the percentage of the population working in agriculture tends to drop as the amount of supplementary energy rises.

Figure 2. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

Figure 2. Percent of Workforce in Agriculture based on CIA World Factbook Data, compared to Energy Consumption Per Capita based on 2012 EIA Data.

The energy per capita shown on Figure 2 is includes only energy sources that are bought and sold in markets, and thus that can easily be counted. These would include fossil fuel energy and electricity made from a variety of sources (fossil fuels, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, solar PV). It does not include other sources of energy, such as

  • Embodied energy in previously made devices
  • Human energy
  • Animal energy
  • Locally gathered dung, wood, and other biomass.
  • Free solar energy, keeping people warm and growing crops

Besides reducing the proportion of the population needed to work in agriculture, the other things that “modern” sources of energy do are

  1. Allow many more people to live on earth, and
  2. Allow those people to have much more “stuff”–large, well-heated homes; cars; lighting where desired; indoor bathrooms; grocery stores filled with food; refrigeration;  telephones; television; and the Internet.

Figure 3 below shows that human population has risen remarkably since the use of modern fuels began in quantity about 200 years ago.

Figure 3. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

Figure 3. World population from US Census Bureau, overlaid with fossil fuel use (red) by Vaclav Smil from Energy Transitions: History, Requirements, Prospects.

Besides more and better food, sanitation, and medicine, part of what allowed population to rise so greatly was a reduction in fighting, especially among nearby population groups. This reduction in violence also seems to be the result of greater energy supplies. In the animal kingdom, animals similar to humans such as chimpanzees have territorial instincts. These territorial instincts tend to keep down total population, because individual males tend to mark off large areas as territories and fight with others of their own species entering their territory.

Humans seem to have overcome much of their tendency toward territoriality. This has happened as the widespread availability of fuels increased the use of international trade and made it more advantageous for countries to cooperate with neighbors than to fight with them. Having an international monetary system was important as well.

How the System of Energy and the Economy “Works”

We trade many products, but in fact, the “value” of each of these products is very much energy related. Some that don’t seem to be energy-related, but really are energy-related, include the following:

  • Land, without buildings – The value of this land depends on (a) its location relative to other locations, (b) the amount of built infrastructure available, such as roads, fresh water, sewer, and grid electricity, and (c) the suitability of the land for growing crops. All of these characteristics are energy related. Land with good proximity to other locations takes less fuel, or less time and less human energy, to travel from one location to another. Infrastructure is capital goods, built up of embodied energy, which is already available. The suitability of the land for growing crops has to do with the type of soil, depth of the topsoil, the fertility of the soil, and the availability of fresh water, either from the sky of from irrigation.
  • Education – Education is not available to any significant extent unless workers can be freed up from farming by the use of modern energy products. Students, teachers, and those writing books all need to have their time freed up from working in agriculture, through advanced energy products that allow fewer workers to be needed in fields. Howard T. Odum in the Prosperous Way Down wrote about education reflecting a type of embodied energy.
  • Human Energy – Before the advent of modern energy sources, the value of human energy came largely from the mechanical energy provided by muscles. Mechanical energy today can be provided much more cheaply by fossil fuel energy and other cheap modern energy, bringing down the value of so-called “unskilled labor.” In today’s world, the primary value humans bring is their intellectual ability and their communication skills, both of which are enhanced by education. As discussed above, education represents a type of embodied energy.
  • Metals – Metals in quantity are only possible with today’s energy sources that power modern mining equipment and allow the huge quantities of heat needed for refining. Before the use of coal, deforestation was a huge problem for those using charcoal from wood to provide the heat needed for smelting. This was especially the case when economies tried to use wood for heating as well.

Two closely related concepts are

  • Technology – Technology is a way of bringing together physical substances (today, often metals), education, and human energy, in a way that allows the production in quantity of devices that enhance the ability of the economy to produce goods and services cheaply. As I will discuss later, “cheapness” is an important characteristic of anything that is traded in the economy. As technology makes the use of metals and other energy products cheaper, extraction of these energy-related items increases greatly.
  • Specialization – Specialization is used widely, even among insects such as bees and ants. It is often possible for a group of individuals to obtain better use of the energy at their disposal, if the various individuals in the group perform specialized tasks. This can be as simple as at the hunter-gatherer level, when men often specialized in hunting and women in childcare and plant gathering. It can occur at advanced levels as well, as advanced education (using energy) can produce specialists who can perform services that few others are able to provide.

Technology and specialization are ways of building complexity into the system. Joseph Tainter in the Collapse of Complex Societies notes that complexity is a way of solving problems. Societies, as they have more energy at their disposal, use the additional energy both to increase their populations and to move in the direction of greater complexity. In my Figure 1 (showing my representation of an economy), more nodes are added to the system as complexity is added. In a physics sense, this is the result of more energy being available to flow through the economy, perhaps through the usage of a new technology, such as irrigation, or through using another technique to increase food supply, such as cutting down trees in an area, providing more farmland.

As more energy flows through the system, increasingly specialized businesses are added. More consumers are added. Governments often play an increasingly large role, as the economy has more resources to support the government and still leave enough resources for individual citizens. An economy in its early stages is largely based on agriculture, with few energy inputs other than free solar energy, human labor, animal labor, and free energy from the sun. Extraction of useful minerals may also be done.

As modern energy products are added, the quantity of energy (particularly heat energy) available to the economy ramps up quickly, and manufacturing can be added.

Figure 4. Annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Wrigley

Figure 4. Annual energy consumption per head (megajoules) in England and Wales 1561-70 to 1850-9 and in Italy 1861-70. Figure by Wrigley

As these energy products become depleted, an economy tends to shift manufacturing to cheaper locations elsewhere, and instead specialize in services, which can be provided with less use of energy. When these changes are made, an economy becomes “hollowed out” inside–it can no longer produce the basic goods and services it could at one time provide for itself.

Instead, the economy becomes dependent on other countries for manufacturing and resource extraction. Economists rejoice at an economy’s apparently lesser dependence on fossil fuels, but this is an illusion created by the fact that energy embodied in imported goods is never measured or considered. The country at the same time becomes more dependent on suppliers from around the world.

The way the economy is bound together is by a financial system. In some sense, the selling price of any product is the market value of the energy embodied in that product. There is also a cost (which is really an energy cost) of creating the product. If the selling cost is below the cost of creating the product, the market will gradually rebalance, in a way that matches goods and services that can be created at a break-even cost or greater, considering all costs, even indirect ones, such as taxes and the need for capital for reinvestment. All of these costs are energy-related, with some of this energy being human energy.

Both (a) the amount of goods and services an economy produces and (b) the number of people in an economy tends to grow over time. If (a), that is, the amount of goods and services produced, is growing faster than (b), the population, then, on average, individuals find their standard of living is increasing. If the reverse is the case, individuals find that their standard of living is decreasing.

This latter situation, one of a falling standard of living, is the situation that many people in “developed” countries find themselves in now. Because of the networked way the economy works, the primary way that this lack of goods and services is transmitted back to workers is through falling inflation-adjusted wages. Other mechanisms are used as well: fewer job openings, government deficits, and eventually debt defaults.

If the situation is reversed–that is, the economy is producing more goods and services per capita–the way this information is “telegraphed” back to the people in the economy is through a combination of increasing job availability, rising inflation adjusted-wages, availability of new inexpensive products on the market place, and government surpluses. In such a situation, debt is likely to become increasingly available because of the apparently good prospects of the economy. The availability of this debt then further leverages the growth of the economy.

External Energy Products as a Way of Leveraging Human Energy

Economists tell us that value comes from the chain of transactions that are put in place whenever one of us buys some kind of good or service. For example, if I buy an apple from a grocery store, I set up a chain of payments. The grocer pays his employees, who then buy groceries for themselves. They also purchase other consumer goods, pay income taxes, and perhaps buy oil for their vehicles. The employees pay the stores they buy from, and these payments set up new chains of transactions indirectly related to my initial purchase of an apple.

The initial purchase of an apple may help also the grocer make a payment on debt (repayment + interest) the store has, perhaps on a mortgage. The owner of the store may also put part of the money from the apple toward paying dividends on stock of the owners of the grocery story. Presumably, all of the recipients of these amounts use the amounts that initially came from the purchase of the apple to pay additional people in their spending chains as well.

How does the use of oil or coal or even the use of draft animals differ from simply creating the transaction chain outlined above? Let’s take an example that can be made with either manual labor plus some embodied energy in tools or with the use of fossil fuels: shoes.

If a cobbler makes the shoes, it will likely take him quite a long time–several hours. Somewhere along the line, a tanner will need to tan the hide in the shoe, and a farmer will need to raise the animal whose hide was used in this process. Before modern fuels were added, all of these steps were labor intensive. Buying a pair of shoes was quite expensive–say the equivalent of wages for a day or two. Boots might be the equivalent of a week’s wages.

The advantage of adding fuels such as coal and oil is that it allows shoes to be made more cheaply. The work today is performed in a factory where electricity-powered machines do much of the work that formerly was done by humans, and oil-powered vehicles transport the goods to the buyer. Coal is important in making the electricity-powered machines used in this process and may also be used in electricity generation. The use of coal and oil brings the cost of a pair of shoes down to a much lower price–say the equivalent of two or three hours’ wages. Thus, the major advantage of using modern fuels is that it allows a person’s wages to go farther. Not only can a person buy a pair of shoes, he or she has money left over for other goods.

The fact that the wage-earner can now buy additional goods with his income sets up additional payment chains–ones that would have not been available, if the person had spent a large share of his wages on shoes. This increase in “demand” (really affordability) is what allows the rest of the economy to expand, because the customer has more of his wages left to spend on other goods. This sets up the growth situation described above, where the total amount of goods and services in the economy expands faster than the population increases.

Thus, the big advantage of adding coal and oil to the economy was that it allowed goods to be made cheaply, relative to making goods with only human labor. In some sense, human labor is very expensive. If a person, using a machine operated with oil or with electricity made from coal can make the same type of goods more cheaply, he has leveraged his own capabilities with the capabilities of the fuel. We can call this technology, but without the fuel (to make the metal parts used in the machine, to operate the machinery, and to transport the product to the end user), it would not have been possible to make and transport the shoes so cheaply.

All areas of the economy benefit from this external energy based approach that essentially allows human labor to be delivered more efficiently. Wages rise, reflecting the apparent efficiency of the worker (really the worker + machine + fuel for the machine). Thus, if a worker has a job in the economy affected by this improvement, he may get a double benefit–higher wages and plus the benefit of the lower price of shoes. Governments will get higher tax revenue, both on wages (because of the new value chain and well as the higher wages from “efficiency”), and on taxes paid relating to the extraction of the oil, assuming the extraction is done locally. The additional government revenue can be used on roads. These roads provide a way for shoe manufacturers to deliver their goods to more distant markets, further enhancing the process.

What happens if the price of oil rises because the cost of extraction rises? Such a rise in the cost of extraction can be expected to eventually take place, because we extract the oil that is easiest and cheapest to extract first. When additional extraction is performed later, costs are higher for a variety of reasons: the wells need to be deeper, or in more difficult to access location, or require fracking, or are in countries that need high tax revenue to keep local populations pacified. The higher costs reflect that we are using are using more workers and more resources of all kinds, to produce a barrel of oil.

Some would look at these higher costs as a “good” impact, since these higher costs result in new payment chains, for example, related to fracking sand and other products that were not previously used. But the higher cost really represents a type of diminishing returns that have a very adverse impact on the economy.

The reason why the higher cost of oil has an adverse effect on the economy is that wages don’t go up to match this new set of oil production costs. If we look back at the previous example, it is somewhat like going part way back to making shoes by hand. Economists often remark that higher oil prices hurt oil importers. This is only half of the problem, though. Higher costs of oil production result in a situation where fewer goods and services are produced worldwide(relative to what would have otherwise been produced), because the concentrated use of resources by the oil sector to produce only a tiny amount more oil than was produced in the past. When this happens, fewer resources (including workers) are left for the rest of the world to produce other products. The growing use of resources by the oil sector is sort of like a growing cancer sapping the strength of a patient. Oil importing nations take a double “hit,” because they participate in the world drop in output of goods, and because as importers, they miss out on the benefits of extracting and selling oil.

Another way of seeing the impact of higher oil prices is to look at the situation from the point of view of consumers, businesses and governments. Consumers cut back on discretionary spending to accommodate the higher price of oil, as reflected in oil and food prices. This cutback triggers whole chains of cutbacks in other buying. Businesses find that a major cost of production (oil) is higher, but wages of buyers are not. They respond in whatever ways they can–trimming wages (since these are another cost of production), outsourcing production to a cheaper part of the world, or automating processes further, cutting more of the high human wages from the process. Governments find themselves saddled with more unemployment claims and lower tax revenue.

In fact, if we look at the data, we see precisely the expected effect. Wages tend to rise when oil prices are low, and lose the ability to rise when oil prices are high (Figure 5). The cut off price of oil where wages stop rising seems to be about $40 per barrel in the United States.

Figure 5. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

Figure 5. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.

What if oil prices are artificially low, on a temporary basis? The catch is that not all costs of oil producing companies can be paid at such low prices. Perhaps the cost of operating oil fields still in existence will be fine, and the day-to-day expenses of extracting Middle Eastern oil can be covered. The parts of the chain that get squeezed first seem to be least essential on a day to day basis–taxes to governments, funds for new exploration, funds for debt repayments, and funds for dividends to policyholders.

Unfortunately, we cannot run the oil business on such a partial system. Businesses need to cover both their direct and indirect costs. Low oil prices create a system ready to crash, as oil production drops and the ability to leverage human labor with cheaper sources of energy decreases. Raising oil prices back to the full required level is likely to be a problem in the future, because oil companies require debt to finance new oil production. (This new production is required to offset declines in existing fields.) With low oil prices–or even with highly variable oil prices–the amount that can be borrowed drops and interest costs rise. This combination makes new investment impossible.

If the rising cost of energy products, due to diminishing returns, tends to eliminate economic growth, how do we work around the problem? In order to produce economic growth, it is necessary to produce goods in such a way that goods become cheaper and cheaper over time, relative to wages. Clearly this has not been happening recently.

The temptation businesses face in trying to produce this effect is to eliminate workers completely–just automate the process. This doesn’t work, because it is workers who need to be able to buy the products. Governments need to become huge, to manage transfer payments to all of the unemployed workers. And who will pay all of these taxes?

The popular answer to our diminishing returns problem is more efficiency, but efficiency rarely adds more than 1% to 2% to economic growth. We have been working hard on efficiency in recent years, but overall economic growth results have not been very good in the US, Europe, and Japan.

We know that dissipative systems operate by using more and more energy until they reach a point where diminishing returns finally pushes them into collapse. Thus, another solution might be to keep adding as much cheap energy as we can to the system. This approach doesn’t work very well either. Coal tends to be polluting, both from an air pollution point of view (in China) and from a carbon dioxide perspective. Nuclear has also been suggested, but it has different pollution issues and can be high-priced as well. Substituting a more expensive source of electricity production for an existing source of energy production works in the wrong direction–in the direction of higher cost of goods relative to wages, and thus more diminishing returns.

Getting along without economic growth doesn’t really work, either. This tends to bring down the debt system, which is an integral part of the whole system. But this is a topic for a different post.

A Note on Other Energy Measures

The reader will note that in my analysis, I am using the cost (in dollars or other currency unit) of energy production, including indirect costs that are hard to measure, such as needed government funding from taxes, the cost of interest and dividends, and the cost of new investment. The academic world uses other metrics that purport to measure energy requirements. These do not measure the same thing.

Caution is needed in using these metrics; studies using these metrics often seem to recommend using a source of energy that is expensive to produce and distribute when all costs are considered. My analysis indicates that high-cost energy products promote economic contraction regardless of what their EROEI or Life Cycle Assessment results would seem to suggest.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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727 Responses to A new theory of energy and the economy – Part 1 – Generating economic growth

  1. edpell says:

    Political groups are blaming OPEC for falling oil prices. Oh dear me the big boys can’t take their own medicine. If the Us or EU want higher prices they can put their money where their mouth is. Set a price and start stockpiling. Since we are all printing money it won’t actually cost anything. Just make the Saudis richer.

  2. Quitollis says:

    Syriza is maintaining its lead in polls with three days to go to elections in Greece on Sunday.

    The centrists (almost) managed a single parliament since austerity before the “extremes” took over.

    http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/uk-greece-election-polls-idUKKBN0KV21020150122

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and All
    One of the questions addressed in this post is whether ‘retro-evolution’ is possible as fossil energy declines. Here are two videos which may give you some food for thought…relative to food. So far as I know, there is no substitute for actually looking at the videos rather intently and thinking about the question that you are interested in. You have to see how it works, not my summary of how it works.

    The first is a video of the legendary gardener Ruth Stout using mulch in her garden:

    I want to call your attention to the fact that, for some reason, the Ruth Stout videos have been suppressed on the internet. So consider yourself lucky to see this video coming from some place beyond the long arm of the law.

    I want you to particularly notice the simple tools that Ruth uses, and the relative ease with which this elderly woman avoids supermarkets.

    The second video is a very recent farm extension podcast, which features a young German who has spent the last few years intensively researching mulch as used in both tillage systems and in no-till systems.

    http://www.extension.org/pages/71822/rotational-no-till-and-mulching-systems-for-organic-vegetable-farms-webinar#.VMJYllqaDu0

    (I am registered, at no cost, to see these videos. I think you will be able to watch them. If they want you to register, then register.)

    I want to call your attention to the parallels and the divergences between the young German’s methods and Ruth Stout’s methods.
    *Both are using hay mulch to conserve soil structure, conserve water, suppress weeds, avoid erosion, and provide fertility. The German points out that you need one acre to grow hay to mulch one acre of vegetables.
    *The modern farming system is much more reliant on industrial equipment. The modern system produces lots more GDP, but probably not too much additional food.
    *The modern system DOES mean that people don’t have to get out in their garden and do something. Ruth Stout says ’99 people out a hundred won’t do what I do’.
    *Gardens in natural settings, such as Ruth Stout’s, have more trouble with animals such as deer and raccoons. Expansive, clean, farms leave much less room for animals and so have less trouble. Wire fencing or dogs or hunting or something needs to be done to avoid simply growing crops for wild animals if one is gardening in a natural setting. There will be far more wild critters around, but you have to keep them away from your garden…which is the easiest, most abundant place to find food. Make them work for their food.

    Can a Ruth Stout method feed the world? I think that is the wrong question. The question should be, ‘Can a Ruth Stout system feed the One Percent who are willing to garden?’ The answer to that question rests on land access. When the 99 percent have died, then there will be plenty of land. But there are obviously bottleneck issues. These previous statements apply to the industrialized citizens of the world. Those countries which still have lots of subsistence farming and gardening will obviously have different answers.

    Don Stewart

    • VPK says:

      Don, that 1percent that survives will unlikely have not even heard of Ruth or Any of your brillent informational comments, nor have any idea or care to know.

    • Thanks for the link.
      What’s interesting is that webinar by Jan-Hendrik Cropp (DE) presents several diverse options how to proceed with “mulch and no till system” or combinations of methods thereof, usually people only push their limited single link avenue for particular climate site etc.

      Interesting part where US small scale farmers are not aware of that low cost diy covercrop silage as widely practiced in Europe/World for decades, while on the other hand Europeans are in need of reimporting the knowhow of intensive grazed pasture management from the “first adopters” of US/NZ.

      Overall, many of these “permaculture” techniques were tested and adopted very successfully decades ago, but unless the current system and its hooks (subsidies, cheap fuel and chemicals, longdistance JIT/supermarkets) goes away, the mass adoption will be slow. But in the end, it will probably take just one “alternative” farmer per each given local and the criticial mass of “aha moment” would be reached, getting closer bit by bit, not there yet though.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear worldofhanuman
        Glad you liked it and found it provocative….Don Stewart

        • JMG claims in his latest blog post that right time to relocate to farmland count(r)y is almost exhausted, perhaps long ago and now we are past the optimal entry point. Now Gail alarms the bell we are likely hit some severe financial system dislocation around 2015-16..

          I guess it depends what are your plans, abilities and possibilities.
          Perhaps, true statement would be if your plan was to slowly build a farmstead full of new/hitech stuff, lets say over the span of 10yrs starting now, that’s pretty risky/silly adventure anyway.

          On the other hand, people willing to relocate in the style of “collapse now – avoid the rush” meaning re-using older (servisable) equipment, adopting very low tech lifestyle including fewer m2/person space arrangement demands etc., … might still put lasting roots before the grand fireworks “guaranteed” before say 2020-25.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            “JMG claims in his latest blog post that right time to relocate to farmland count(r)y is almost exhausted, perhaps long ago and now we are past the optimal entry point. Now Gail alarms the bell we are likely hit some severe financial system dislocation around 2015-16.”

            This makes it sound like it must be an individual action: “Yup, got my 40 acres and a mule and a wife and two strong boys, and we gonna weather this storm!”

            But there are people who have started planning and working on such things quite a while ago, which means there may still be time if one is willing to give up the high-energy notion of “the rugged individualist” and is willing to cast one’s lot in with others. Indeed, that’s the only way I see for survival, but I am certainly biased.

            “people willing to relocate in the style of “collapse now – avoid the rush” meaning re-using older (servisable) equipment, adopting very low tech lifestyle including fewer m2/person space arrangement demands etc., … might still put lasting roots before the grand fireworks “guaranteed” before say 2020-25.”

            That’s our agenda, but we could use some help!

            • garand555 says:

              Jan, I think that the trickiest part will be making it past the initial shakeup. If we get a sudden break in JIT supply chains, a lot of people won’t be feeling too cooperative. A sudden breakage would lead a lot of people to regressing to greedy, scared and unthinking animals. A gradual breakage with unreliability appearing more and more frequently might be a lot different. It would give people time to prepare both physically and mentally.

    • garand555 says:

      Don, I think that part of the problem with people not be willing to garden is that the very concept of producing their own food has never occurred to them. Many in the developed world are that disconnected from their food supply. I think that if JIT supply chains start to become unreliable, once the idea caught on regarding producing at least some of one’s own food, it will be more than 1% who are willing to do it. Of course, there are people who will want to “head to the mountains” and hunt their food too, but the idea of setting up a reliable system for always having at least something without industrial support is something that would seem ingenious and revolutionary with a lot of people today, even though doing this would simply be a reversion to the mean of the past 10,000 years of human history.

  4. Christian says:

    Great post Gail. Liked oil cons vs pop at ag

  5. VPK says:

    Listened to the BBC last night regarding Greece. Collapse in the making. Featured story regarding a car business own by a Family. Had over 200 employees and the crisis hit. over night half of their customers disappeared and now they are down to only 28 employees they consider family.
    The problem they encounter is corruption and namely extortion by tax officials who use the 40,000 page tax code to shake down bribe money out of their pocket to allow them to stay in business.
    It has gotten so bad that the owner interviewed stated not one more euro will be paid. She will shut down the business and let it go at that because enough is enough.

    • Quitollis says:

      Syriza is maintain their lead in the polls with three days to go.

      It should be entertaining to watch Greece on the news anyway in the coming weeks and months,

      http://uk.reuters.com/article/2015/01/22/uk-greece-election-polls-idUKKBN0KV21020150122

      • edpell says:

        Not sure how interesting. There seems to be a common playbook. The global bankers will call their loans, cut off credit, and cancer the Greek leader. They will then offer to take,…, well.., all of Greece as partial payment for their loans. A new puppet will be installed and a serve military dictatorship will kill any Greek who opposes the government.

        Lots of nice Greek islands for sale to the 1%.

        Unless Greece joins the BRICS and the SCO.

        • VPK says:

          The owner later in the story admitted that the Greece crisis was the fault of the voters ‘everyone’ knew what was going on or at least half of the population. Reminds me here in the USA, everyone I talk to about the government KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON on let the political system continue to march in the direction of collapse. Most adults realize the public funds will not cover their coverage or that the deficit will ever be paid back with money that is worth anything. Greece today, United States tomorrow!

  6. edpell says:

    At some point a system is beyond repair then it requires policy by other means to change.

  7. Quitollis says:

    This article in The Times gave me a giggle in the café today.

    https://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/news/politics/article4331944.html

    Brighton Greens at war over tax rise

    Last updated at 12:01AM, January 23 2015

    Britain’s only Green-led council is in turmoil over a planned referendum on a council tax increase and anger about parking charges and overflowing bins.

    The local party has called on Jason Kitcat, leader of Brighton & Hove council, to resign immediately, after voting down his proposals to balance the budget and put up council tax.

    Mr Kitcat is also blamed for industrial action by bin men that has led to rubbish spilling onto the pavements. He is under fire over the authority’s recycling record, which has slipped from one of the best to one of the worst in the country. Parking charges and permits have doubled in the past four years, cycle lanes have increased congestion, and a 20 mph limit has been widely opposed.

    Nationally the Green party is polling better than ever and could beat the Liberal Democrats at the general election in May. However, in Brighton the Greens — split into warring factions called “mangoes” and “watermelons” — have been described as a “pantomime” administration.

    Tony Mernagh, executive director of the Brighton and Hove Economic Partnership, said the Green councillors were too ideological and inexperienced. “There is huge political naivety and they haven’t helped themselves. Half of them are very good but the rest are destructive,” he said.

    Mr Kitcat has proposed a 5.9 per cent council tax rise to ensure that he can balance the budget — a legal requirement — without cutting essential services. Any authority that plans to increase council tax by more than the government’s 2 per cent threshold is required to hold a referendum. If the decision is backed by the full council next month, the referendum will be held on May 7, election day.

    Labour, which has 14 councillors, has opposed the referendum on the grounds that it would cost £1 million to hold it and to rebill taxpayers. However, the Tories, with 18 councillors, may abstain, pushing the idea through.

    Privately the Tories, who are pressing for a council tax freeze, admit they are keen to split the left-wing vote and argue that a referendum on election day would get their own voters out. Graham Cox, Conservative candidate for Hove & Portslade, said: “Our citizens should have the opportunity to vote in a referendum on the level of council tax.”

    The Greens appear likely to lose control of the council in May while Caroline Lucas, the former party leader — who has distanced herself from the council — is fighting to retain her Brighton Pavilion seat.

    Mr Kitcat, 35, a Mango (green outside and yellow inside, “with a Lib Dem core”), is seen as a pragmatist, prepared to work with other parties. He is often thwarted by a “socialist faction”, led by Phélim Mac Cafferty, a Watermelon (green outside and red inside) said to be in hock to the trade unions, who opposes austerity measures.

    Mr Kitcat has recently had to broker a deal with unions over equal pay, to avoid a £700 million legal bill. The settlement meant some groups of women got a rise and three years of backdated pay, but it infuriated the bin men, who went on strike before Christmas.

    “Phélim and Caroline Lucas and the Watermelons were all out on the picket line, opposing Jason’s deal on equal pay,” said Warren Morgan, Labour’s group leader. “It’s an experiment that has failed. Unlike the rest of the country, where people are looking at alternatives to the main parties, here people want a return to normality.”

    Peter Kyle, the Labour candidate for Hove & Portslade, said the “pantomime council” was both “damaging and silly”.

    Mr Morgan claimed that the Greens had reversed a 40 per cent recycling rate to 26 per cent, pushing it down the recycling league table to 305 out of 350.

    Mr Kitcat, who has already said he will stand down in May, defended his record while admitting that his councillors regularly voted against him. “It is a high-profile thing being the only green council,” he said. “It is challenging for our party in terms of philosophy and experience. We have not been in charge before.”

    He claimed that a new decision to add a common recycling bin and remove individual ones was beginning to improve recycling rates. “We have reduced the carbon footprint year on year. We have installed solar panels, insulation and efficient boilers into council homes and we are launching a new low-emission zone,” he said. “We have changed parking tariffs to push people off the roads and the air is cleaner.”

  8. jyl1st says:

    Gail – Dr. Tim Morgan, Global Head of Research at Tullet Prebon, took a look at this problem in his “Perfect Storm, energy, finance, and the end of growth” letter to investors. It can be retrieved here: https://www.tullettprebon.com/documents/strategyinsights/tpsi_009_perfect_storm_009.pdf
    “The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one….”

  9. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    I have a suggestion. I would like to see you and Mr. Hill collaborate on a little study of debt and the thermodynamic limits to oil production as described in Hill’s model.

    For example, Hill’s model shows the end of the oil age around 2030, with a pretty steep decline between now and then. From the volume of oil produced, I believe that the model can produce a GDP for the global economy. From GDP, one can reasonably predict the components such as income. You know how much global debt there is today. As the income falls, how much of the debt can we reasonably expect to be repaid?

    My gut feeling is that, with falling incomes, no debt will be repaid. There may be some shuffling of the cards between different classes such as workers and retirees, but no net repayment. But we are probably also near the end of our ability to increase debts. How much of the debt (including unfunded liabilities) will be repaid?

    We might be approaching a ‘Weimar Moment’. Even if the debts were to be cleared following a global monetary collapse, the continuing decline in oil production would not permit a restart of the credit based economy.

    That sounds like a good actuarial question.

    Thanks…Don Stewart

    • The implosion tends to come right about the point where the trend changes from positive to negative in terms of energy consumption, as far as I can see. This is why I am worried for the banks this year and next year (or alternatively, for funds held by individuals and businesses in banks–more or less same difference).

      The Hill model does not consider the debt-based financial system, so does not recognize the fact that a financial system does not work in “reverse gear”. We are already seeing beginnings of the reverse gear on the financial system in Europe.

      One point I have made is that a major reason why oil from shale formations cannot restart is debt-related. Already, interest rates are higher. Even more importantly, the amount of debt that companies can borrow will go way down once the possibility of low oil prices is worked into the formula of how much companies can borrow. With this combination, there is no way that these companies can come back, or that new companies can come in.

      Also, the possibility of shale production has been part of what has led to possibilities of rising world production. But if the US can’t “make a go of it”, with laws that favor it, and lots of built infrastructure, neither can any other country.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Gail
        If it is possible to use a thermodynamic model to illustrate what is possible physically, and then trace that through a debt system and show the effects on debt, then some rather startling Headlines might come out of the analysis.

        The Climate Change people started getting more attention, I think, when they began to talk about ‘stranded assets’ …reserves which can never be produced for environmental reasons.

        It seems to me that one could come up with a scarier set of financial headlines. E.g.,

        All new loans in 2015 with multi-year maturities are likely to default.
        Central banks will have to confiscate X percent of personal wealth to save banks
        Unfunded liabilities must be written down by Y percent
        Boone Pickens to be selling pencils on street corner by end of year

        Don Stewart

        • richard says:

          “Central banks will have to confiscate X percent of personal wealth to save banks”
          Not necessarily Central banks. The numbers are already available if you know where and how to look. A while back it was ~50% for Japan, and ~25% for Europe IIRC.
          So maybe ~35% for Japan, or another ten years or so at the present rate.

        • All a person has to do is put a different title on my existing posts. Business Insider got 122,000+ hits on my 2015-2016 forecast under the title, “The Current Oil Crisis is More Dangerous Than You Think.”

          • deathbyungabunga says:

            If you were to title it “sustainability a focus on solutions” you might get a million hits! Its actually not a bad idea. Dont change a thing with your analysis just add one sentence at the end something like this. “luckily thorium reactors show great promise for allowing energy independence in the future” . Just one myth at the end of the article.

  10. Day Brown says:

    LFTR, the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, is both the fastest way to reduce CO2 emissons by replacing fossil fuel boilers at power plants that run the turbines that are already hooked to the grid. Unlike Solar, Wind, or the others, no new transmission lines would be needed. In fact, because LFTR is scalable, it can be installed at points where the grid is already stressed, eliminating the need for more transmission lines.

    If we add on the cost of fossil fuel development, delivery, reclamation, and insurance, a LFTR unit at the same site and scale has a better ROI to venture capital. Furthermore, when fracking output declines, we know OPEC is right there ready to jack the price. But that wont happen if LFTR is there to replace energy production. Because LFTR can operate at a fixed price ($0.03 to .05/kwhr) it’ll stabilize the cost of fossil fuels, and every other sector of the economy sees more predictable profits.

    • edpell says:

      Except for the small prototype built at Oak Ridge in the 60s has anyone built one? I am a fan and disappointed with the delay.

      • garand555 says:

        Not to my knowledge. The Oak Ridge reactor was a good proof of concept, but there is still a lot of work to be done to get to a reactor design that is good for commercial use. I suspect that is one of the reasons that it wasn’t developed. Why sink the costs when the costs for working uranium reactors have already been sunk? It didn’t make for good bomb material either, due to U232 contamination.

        But even if we installed thousands of the things, we would still have to worry about converting that energy into a form that allows for mobility to keep things running. IMO, reverse combustion would be required. I’m not saying that such a thing is technologically impossible, but we should have had the technology developed and the infrastructure for it going in at least a decade ago. Even if we managed to pull it off, it still does not solve the other problems with our modern society, i.e. general environmental degradation and the depletion of other resources.

        I guess the point is that, even should we save some form of industrial society, it will not be without a lot of pain first, and we must learn to limit our growth, or mother nature will limit it for us, and she can be the harshest mistress of all.

        • edpell says:

          “we must learn to limit our growth, or mother nature will limit it for us” Yes, exactly. This should be a major part of the discussion here at “Our Finite World”.

          • garand555 says:

            I think that the human race will need to feel the wrath of mother nature before it will seriously entertain such a discussion. IMO, we don’t need draconian population controls, we need a population that gets to see firsthand what their growth at all costs meme leads to. I will lay one thing out here though: Should we manage to retain some vestige of industrial civilization or even simply some of modern medicine, 3rd world countries should NOT get any of the benefits of developed countries.

          • Day Brown says:

            NASA has nuclear engine design software its been using for years, and sent up many probes with nuclear engines that were never tested on Earth. 100% success rate. It’ll work for LFTR. Lets not forget the Oak Ridge shutdown had nothing to do with the performance of the reactor, and everything to do with Nixon getting to shut down what started out as JFK’s baby, which would have also exposed the fact other reactors were favored because he wanted bombs, and besides, both he, in CA and before him LBJ in Texas, wanted to protect oil industry profits.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “NASA has nuclear engine design software its been using for years, and sent up many probes with nuclear engines that were never tested on Earth.”

              Sorry, claims like that are going to require citations, my friend.

              To my knowledge, the only “nuclear engines” NASA has ever used were plutonium thermionic generators used for deep-space probes, where solar panels would be too far from the sun to work. These use the thermal energy released by spontaneous fission of plutonium to generate tiny amounts of electricity via bimetalic devices (thermocouples). They are horribly inefficient, but they work where the sun don’t shine. They are certainly not examples of technology that can be scaled up to the 2,000 gigawatt scale needed for large power projects, and they have nothing in common with LFTR technology.

            • Day Brown says:

              I havta leave this thread cause I cant find Jan’s post to reply to. But Kirk Sorensen had a Ted talk about LFTR. Turns out, he was a NASA engineer looking for a way to power a moon base. No wind, no water, no geothermal, and no sun every two weeks. Somebody turned him on to the Oak Ridge work on the Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor.

              Now, if LFTR had been shut down for safety, engineering, fabrication, or materials reasons the debunking would all make sense. But Nixon shut it down because 1- it was JFK’s baby. 2- it didnt produce the isotopes he wanted to build bombs with. 3- if developed, it’d produce power so cheaply it’d reduce oil profits. Which was still a big deal in his home state, California.

              The good news was that Oak Ridge took the trouble to do a very careful tear down to identify any deterioration or other risks, and that Kirk was able to get a copy of that report (which I think is now online.) and plug it into the engineering tools we now have.

              But it damn well better work because there isnt the time and money needed to deal with the fossil fuel problem on a global scale. Governments are too corrupt, inept, and near bankruptcy to be able to try anything else. Climate change is only going to make them even more stressed, so the solution has to come online before they crash.

            • “NASA has nuclear engine design software its been using for years, and sent up many probes with nuclear engines that were never tested on Earth.”

              Radioisotope thermoelectric generator, or RTG, simply use the decay to make heat to make electricity; quite a bit simpler and safer than a nuclear reactor, more like a really long lasting battery.

              http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioisotope_thermoelectric_generator

              Not really comparable to LFTR, which has a lot of challenges, especially if you are trying to turn the Thorium 232 into U233 inside the reactor, instead of having that as a separate process.

    • DRC says:

      @ Day Brown

      LFTR is a good Molten Salt Reactor (MSR) technology. But it is true that it requires substantial R&D before it is ready for commercial use (c. 2025-2030). However LFTR is only one among many MSR designs; arguably the best but still… Closer to market are http://thorconpower.com/ from Martingale Inc., and the IMSR (Integral Molten Salt Reactor) from http://terrestrialenergy.com/, a canadian cie. These emphasize mass produced, factory or ship-yard assembled ‘modular replaceable units’ with a ‘no new research’ approach in order to lower capital costs and reduce build-time schedules. Both cies state a goal of four years to commercial prototypes (c. 2020). Of course, if collapse occurs within two years, even this may be too long. But I suggest that the following references are good reading pieces, even if only to cheer you up periodically after pondering on the deadly serious contents of this Blog.

      ThorCon : http://atomicinsights.com/thorcon-demonstrated-molten-salt-tech-packaged-modern-construction-techniques/
      IMSR : http://atomicinsights.com/terrestrial-energy-molten-salt-reactor-designed-commercial-success/

      The details can be retrieved on the aforementionned Web sites.

      This Blog is good stuff, but it’s a tough read. Not intellectually, because Mrs. Tverberg is an outstanding communicator, but it is tough in other ways. It would serve no purpose, I think, to worry yourself sick. I know I need the periodic break (nobody’s perfect I guess), and MSR stuff is, intuitively speaking, my favorite kind of ‘distraction’.

      Of course the two years before collapse timeframe does rule out _any_ (full-fledged) technological solution. But one can convincingly argue that such a short timeframe precludes pretty much _any_ type of solution at all (at least in the usual sense of the word ‘solution’); therefore collapse would seem to be unavoidable. By what I’ve read on this Blog, Mrs. Tverberg is well aware of this, which makes it a little difficult to figure out what the ‘intention’ behind this Blog is at all. Perhaps it is just an ‘urge’ to spread the information in a clear format to cause a form of stirring in the readers in the hope that ‘something’ comes up. This would be in line with the ‘dissipative structure’/CAS (Complex Adaptive Systems) noumenon. In a CAS no single ‘unit’ can ‘compute’ the global solution to a problem on its own; the CAS itself ‘computes’ the global solution. Of course no ‘unit’ of the system would call the systems’s global solution a ‘solution’ at all. They probably would not even have enough local resources to conceive (i.e. build a model of) it. Well, being a (conscious) ‘unit’ of a CAS and know it must feel strange indeed. But that is beginning to sound real silly now, so I will stop here.

      I hope you enjoy the references to MSRs and, as a member of CAS-Humanity, I wish you farewell.

      DRC

      • Jan Steinman says:

        “two years before collapse timeframe does rule out any (full-fledged) technological solution. But one can convincingly argue that such a short timeframe precludes pretty much any type of solution at all (at least in the usual sense of the word ‘solution’); therefore collapse would seem to be unavoidable.”

        Yes! You got it!

        The problem is thinking of this as a “problem,” because “problems” have “solutions.”

        John Michael Greer taught me to think of this as a “dilemma,” “quandary,” or “predicament.” It has no “solutions.” It has no solutions!

        Rather, we just might come up with useful “coping strategies.” For heaven’s sake, figure out how to feed yourself. Wean yourself off your automobile. Downsize your house. Learn to grow food. Reduce your expenses. Quit any full-time employment and replace it with several part-time jobs, preferably ones you can do without traveling. Grow food. Find others of like mind to work with. Heat your house with wood. Grow food. Make yourself useful to a younger person, possibly an unrelated one. Learn to repair old stuff. Stay out of Mall*Wart. Grow food!

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Jan and DRC
          A few additional thoughts. I have previously recommended John Ehle’s novel of the settlement of a remote mountain area of North Carolina at the time of the Revolution. I recommend it again…it contains so many gems to think about.

          Second, I recommend Rob Dunn’s book The Wild Life of Our Bodies. Rob is a professor in Biological Sciences at North Carolina State University. From his introduction to the book:

          ‘Through the stories of a handful of half-wild visionaries, I will consider some of these radical options that include giant living buildings, predators in our cities, and the restoration of parasitic worms to our guts’ wild plains.

          In the end, what we need in our daily lives is not quite wilderness. Wilderness is what we did away with to allow ourselves to live free of malaria, dengue, cholera, and large carnivores eating our loved ones. We need a nature managed so as to complement our happy lives, a kind of wildness, perhaps. It is taboo (only in the ecological circles Rob inhabits…my note) to say that we should manage the nature closest to us for us, but ever since we first started to farm or control pests that is what we have always done. The step we must take now is to manage with more care and nuance. We can favor good bacteria in our mouths and discourage bad bacteria. We have just chosen not to. We can introduce harmless nematodes into our bodies to restore our immune system. We can expose ourselves to the species in which we find joy, curiosity, and happiness. We can even, more ambitiously, create green cities, cities more revolutionary than just buildings with green rooftops, cities in which entire walls are built out of life….

          In the last century, we used antibiotics to kill all of the bacteria in our guts in order to get rid of a single problematic species. It was the century in which we killed all of the insects in our fields in order to control the few pest species. It was the century in which we killed wolves everywhere to save sheep in some places. It was the century in which we scrubbed our counters clean to ‘get rid of germs’. All these actions saved tremendous numbers of lives but also left us with new, more chronic problems and a nature devoid of its richness. We know more now and can act more wisely to create for ourselves more natural and healthier lives. The solution to the problems caused by our ‘clean living’ is not as simple as just playing in the dirt. Our task is to create a new kind of living world around ourselves, one that we interact with in many different ways, a living world that is not just the species that survive deforestation, antibiotics, and disturbance, but instead some more intelligent and lush garden.’

          Like all good ecologists, Dunn thinks in terms of Systems. What function did hookworms perform when they accompanied humans on their journey up until the last 50 years in the industrial countries? Why did humans evolve an appendix? Can we eliminate human death by carnivores and still have a healthy ecosystem?

          I think you will find his perspective a challenge to the linear doomster thinking that ‘everything has to continue just as it is and humans are awful’ which is so prevalent. Being a radical, of course, has its risks. So best to begin to do real things…but also, I believe, to step back and look at some broader picture as laid out by Ehle and Dunn.

          Don Stewart

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