Cuba: Figuring Out Pieces of the Puzzle (Full Text)

Cuba is an unusual country for quite a few reasons:

  • The United States has had an embargo against Cuba since 1960, but there has recently been an announcement that the US will begin to normalize diplomatic relations.
  • The leader of Cuba between 1959 and 2008 was Fidel Castro. Fidel Castro is a controversial figure, with some viewing him as a dictator who nationalized property of foreign citizens without compensation. Citizens of Cuba seem to view him as more of as a Robin Hood figure, who helped the poor by bringing healthcare and education to all, equalizing wages, and building many concrete block homes for people who had only lived in shacks previously.
  • If we compare Cuba to its nearest neighbors Haiti and Dominican Republic (both were also former sugar growing colonies of European countries), we find that Cuba is doing substantially better than the other two. In per capita CPI in Purchasing Power Parity, in 2011, Cuba’s average was $18,796, while Haiti’s was $1,578, and the Dominican Republic’s was $11,263. In terms of the Human Development Index (which measures such things as life expectancy and literacy), in 2013, Cuba received a rating of .815, which is considered “very high”. Dominican Republic received a rating of .700, which is considered “High.” Haiti received a rating of .471, which is considered “Low.”
  • Cuba is known for its permaculture programs (a form of organic gardening), which helped increase Cuba’s production of fruit and vegetables in the 1990s and early 2000s.
  • In spite of all of these apparently good outcomes of Cuba’s experimentation with equal sharing of wealth, in recent years Cuba seems to be moving away from the planned economy model. Instead, it is moving to more of a “mixed economy,” with more entrepreneurship encouraged.
  • Since 1993, Cuba has had a two currency system. The goods that the common people could buy were in one set of stores, and were traded in one currency. Other goods were internationally traded, or were available to foreigners visiting Cuba. They traded in another currency. This system is being phased out. Goods are now being marked in both currencies and limitations on where Cubans can shop are being removed.

I don’t have explanations for all of the things that are going on, but I have a few insights on what is happening, based on several sources:

  • My recent visit to Cuba. This was a “people to people” educational program permitted by the US government;
  • My previous work on resource depletion, and the impacts it is having on economies elsewhere;
  • Other published data about Cuba.

The following are a few of my observations.

1. Many island nations, including Cuba, are having financial problems related to dependence on oil. 

Dependence on oil for electricity is one of the big issues affecting Cuba today. Island nations, including Cuba, very often use oil to produce much of their electricity supply, because it is easy to transport and can be used in relatively small installations. As long as the price of oil was low (under $20 barrel or so), the use of oil for electricity was not a problem.

Figure 1. Cuba's energy consumption by source, based on EIA data.

Figure 1. Cuba’s energy consumption by source, based on EIA data.

Once the price of oil becomes high, the high cost of electricity makes it difficult to produce goods for export, because goods made with high-priced electricity tend not to be competitive with goods made where the cost of electricity is cheaper. Also, once the cost of oil rises, the price of imported food tends to rise, leading to a need for more foreign exchange funds for imports. In addition, the cost of vacation travel becomes more expensive, driving away potential vacationers. The combination of these effects tends to lead to financial problems for island nations.

If we look at current Standard and Poor’s credit ratings of island nations, we see a pattern of low credit ratings:

  • Cuba – Caa2
  • Dominican Republic – B1
  • Haiti – Not Rated
  • Jamaica – Caa3
  • Puerto Rico – Caa1

None of these ratings is investment grade. Cuba’s rating is the same as Greece’s.

Cuba’s credit problem arises from the fact that there is an imbalance between the goods and services which it is able to sell for export and the goods and services that it needs to import. As with most other island nations, this problem has gotten worse in recent years, because of high oil prices. Even with the recent drop in oil prices, the price of oil still isn’t really low, so there is still a problem.

Figure 2. Cuba balance of trade. Chart by Trading Economics.

Figure 2. Cuba balance of trade. (In US $. 000,000s omitted) Chart by Trading Economics.

2. Cuba has a low-cost arrangement for buying oil from Venezuela, but this can’t be depended upon.  

Venezuela is Cuba’s largest supplier of imported oil. The recent drop in oil prices creates a problem for Venezuela, because Venezuela needs high oil prices to profitably extract its oil and leave enough to fund its government programs. Because of these issues, Venezuela is having serious financial difficulties. Its financial rating is Caa3, which is even lower than Cuba’s rating. Cuba uses its excellent education system to provide physicians for Venezuela, and because of this gets a bargain price for oil. But it can’t count on this arrangement continuing, if Venezuela’s financial situation gets worse.

3. Neither high nor low oil prices are likely to solve Cuba’s financial problems; the real problem is diminishing returns (that is, rising cost of oil extraction).

Cuba finds itself in a dilemma similar to that that the rest of the world is experiencing–only worse because it is an island nation. The rising cost of oil extraction is pushing the world economy toward lower economic growth, because the higher cost of oil extraction is in effect making the world’s production of goods and services less efficient (the opposite of growing efficiency, needed for economic growth). The extra effort needed to extract oil from deep beneath the sea, or used in fracking, makes it more expensive to produce a barrel of oil, and indirectly, the many things that a barrel of oil goes to produce, such as a bushel of wheat that Cuba must import.

Figure 3. Cuba's oil consumption, separated between oil produced by Cuba itself and imported oil, based on EIA data.

Figure 3. Cuba’s oil consumption, separated between oil produced by Cuba itself and imported oil, based on EIA data.

If the price of oil is low, Venezuela’s financial problems will become worse, increasing the likelihood that Venezuela will need to cut back on its low-priced oil exports to Cuba.

Also, if the price of oil remains low, it is unlikely that Cuba will be able to increase its own oil extraction (Figure 3). The recent decline in US oil rigs and production indicates that shale extraction in the US (requiring fracking) is not economic at current prices. Cuba’s onshore resources also seem to be of the type that requires fracking. Thus, the likelihood of extracting Cuba’s onshore oil seems low, unless prices are much higher. Offshore, none of the test wells to date have proven economic at today’s prices.

Conversely, if the price of oil is high enough to enable profitability of oil extraction in Venezuela and Cuba, say $150 per barrel, then airline tickets will be very expensive, cutting back tourism greatly. The cost of imported food is likely to be very high as well.

4. One way Cuba’s problems are manifesting themselves is in cutbacks to entitlements.

Back in the early 1960s, Fidel Castro’s plan for the economy was one of perfect communism–the government would own all businesses; every worker would receive the same wages; a large share of what workers receive would come in the form of entitlements. What has been happening recently is that these entitlements are being cut back, without wages being raised.

Wages for all government workers are extremely low–the equivalent of $20 per month in US currency. This was not a problem when workers received essentially everything they needed through a very low-priced ration program and other direct gifts, but they become a problem when entitlements are cut back.

Each year, each Cuban family receives a ration booklet listing each member of the family, each person’s age, and the quantity of subsidized food of various types that that person is entitled to, based on the person’s age. Other items besides food, such as light bulbs, may be included as well.

Figure 4. Ration booklet being explained by one of tour leaders.

Figure 4. Ration booklet being explained by one of tour leaders.

The store providing the subsidized food keeps a list of foods available and prices on a blackboard.

Figure 5. Ration price list on wall of store we visited.

Figure 5. Ration price list on wall of store we visited.

One way that the standard of living of Cubans is being reduced because of Cuba’s financial problems is by cutbacks in the types of goods being subsidized. Also the quantities and prices are being affected, but the average wage of $20 per month remains unchanged.

5. Another way Cuba’s financial problems are manifesting themselves is as higher prices charged to Cubans for goods not available through the ration program.

Since 1993, Cuba has had a two currency program. Cubans were able to purchase goods only in stores intended for Cuban residents using Cuban pesos. (This situation is similar to a company store program, in which a business issues pay in a currency which can only be used on goods available in the company story.) A second currency, Cuban Convertible Pesos (“CUCs”), pegged 1:1 with the US dollar, has been used for the tourist trade, and for international purchases. Cubans were not allowed to purchase goods in businesses offering goods in CUCs.

Now the situation is changing. Goods in stores for Cubans are marked in both currencies, and Cubans are permitted to purchase goods in more (or all?) types of businesses.

The change that seems to be occurring in the process of marking goods to both currencies is that goods as priced in Cuban pesos are becoming much more expensive for Cubans. Cubans are finding that their $20 per month paychecks are going less and less far. This is more or less equivalent to value of the Cuban peso falling relative to the US dollar. This decrease is difficult for international agencies to measure, because the prices Cubans were paying were not previously convertible to the US dollar. The big impact would occur in 2015, so is too recent to be included in most inflation data.

6. Another way Cuba’s problems are manifesting themselves is through low traffic on roads.

How much gasoline would you expect a person earning $20 per month to buy, if gasoline costs about $5 gallon? Not a lot, I expect. Not surprisingly, we found traffic other than buses and taxis to be very low, especially outside Havana. Figure 6 shows one fairly extreme example. The three-wheeled bicycle in front is a popular form of taxi.

Figure 6. Example of low traffic on road. This road was not far from Havana.

Figure 6. Example of low traffic on road. This road was not far from Havana.

If a person travels away from the Havana area, transport by horse and buggy is fairly common.

 7. As a workaround for Cuba’s falling inflation-adjusted wages of government workers, Cuba is permitting more entrepreneurship.

Certain workers, such as musicians and artists, have always been able to earn more than the average wage, through programs that allowed these workers to sell their wares and keep the vast majority of the sales price.

Now, individuals are able to form businesses and hire workers. These businesses generally pay wages higher than those offered by the government. Many of these businesses are private restaurants and gift shops, serving the tourist trade.

In addition, many individual citizens try to figure out small things that they can do (such as sell peanuts, pose for photos, or sing songs) to earn tips from foreigners. The amounts they earn act to supplement the wages they earn working for the government.

Other new businesses are in the food production sector. We met one farmer who was growing rice, with the help of twenty workers he had hired. The farmer used land that he had leased for $0 per year from the government. He dried his rice on an underutilized two-lane public road. The rice covered one lane for many miles.

Figure 7. Rice laid on road to dry.

Figure 7. Rice laid on road to dry.

The farmer sold most of his rice to the government, at prices it had set in advance. The farmer was able to pay his workers $80 per month, which is equal to four times the average government wage.

8. Cuban citizens and its government are concerned about the country’s financial problems and are finding other solutions in addition to entrepreneurship.

Cuban citizens are concerned, because with only $20 month of spendable income and higher prices on almost everything, they are being “pushed into a corner.” The vast majority of jobs are still government jobs, paying only an average of $20 month. There aren’t very many ways out.

In order to make ends meet, it is very tempting to steal goods from employers, and resell them at below market prices to others. We were warned to be very careful about changing money, because it is very common to be shortchanged, or to receive Cuban pesos (which are worth about 1/24th of a CUC) in change for goods purchased in CUCs.

One legitimate way of increasing the wealth of Cuban citizens is to increase remittances from relatives living in the US. Legislation making this possible has already been implemented. Estimates of remittances from the US to Cuba range from $2 billion to $3.5 billion per year, prior to the change.

Another way of increasing Cuban revenue is to increase tourism. Selling services abroad, such as sending a Cuban choir to perform for US audiences, also acts to increase Cuba’s revenue. Getting rid of the US embargo would help expand both tourism and the sale of Cuban services abroad. This is no doubt part of the reason why Cuba, under the leadership of Raul Castro (Fidel’s brother), is interested in re-establishing relationships with the United States.

9. Most of Cuba’s accumulated wealth from the past is depleting wealth that requires continuing energy inputs to maintain.

Cuba has many fine old buildings that are a product of its past glory days (sugar exports, tobacco sales, casino operations). These buildings need to be maintained or they fall apart with age. In other words, they need the addition of new building materials (requiring energy products to create and transport), if they are to continue to be used for their intended purpose.

Cuba now has a severe problem with old buildings falling apart from decay. I was told that three buildings per day collapse in Havana. With a chronic shortage of energy supplies, Cuba has been able to use these buildings from past days to give themselves a higher standard of living than otherwise would be possible, but this dividend is slowly coming to an end.

Likewise, fields used for growing sugar or tobacco are assets requiring continued energy investment. If the Cuban government were to stop plowing fields and adding fertilizer to restore lost nutrients,1 nature would take care of the problem in its own way–acacia (a type of nitrogen-fixing shrub/tree) would overtake the land, making it difficult to replant. The fact that the Cuban government did not keep adding energy products to some of the fields is a major reason why the Cuban government is now leasing land for $0 an acre. Quite a bit of the land formerly used for sugar cane needs to be cleared of acacia before crops can be grown on it.

Even Cuba’s famed 1950s vintage autos are a depleting asset. Replacement parts are frequently needed to keep them operating.

The illusion that Cuba could afford to pay owners for the value of property appropriated by the Cuban government in 1959 is just that–an illusion. The wealth that was available was temporary wealth that could not be packaged and sent elsewhere. Sugar cane and tobacco had been grown in ways that depleted the soil. Furthermore, most workers had been paid very low wages. The buyers of these products had reaped the benefits of these bad practices in the form of low prices for sugar and tobacco products. It is doubtful whether Cuba could ever have paid the former owners for the land and businesses it appropriated, except with debt payable by future generations. It certainly cannot now.

10. I wasn’t able to find out much about the permaculture situation in Cuba, but my impression is that the outcome is likely to be determined by financial considerations.

Subsidies can work reasonably well, as long as the economy as a whole is producing a surplus. Such a surplus tends to occur when the cost of energy production is low, because then it is easy for a growing supply of low-priced energy to boost human productivity.

Now that Cuba’s economy is not faring as well, the government is finding it necessary to start evaluating whether the approaches they are taking are really cost effective. More emphasis is placed on entrepreneurs producing goods at prices that are affordable by customers. Thus, an entrepreneur might operate a permaculture garden. My impression is that permaculture will do well, if it can produce goods at prices that consumers can afford, but not otherwise. Consumers who are starved for money are likely to cut back to the very basics (rice and beans?), making this a difficult requirement to meet.

11. Cuba has done better on keeping population down than many other countries. 

If we look at the population growth trends since 1970, Cuba has done better than its nearby neighbors in keeping population down.

Figure 8. Cuba population compared to 1970 estimates, based on USDA population estimates.

Figure 8. Cuba population compared to 1970 estimates, along with those of selected other countries, based on USDA population estimates.

In fact, Cuba’s 2014 population per square kilometer is low compared to its neighbors, as well.

Figure 8. Population for Cuba and several nearby areas expressed in population per square kilometer.

Figure 8. Population for Cuba and several nearby areas expressed in population per square kilometer.

One thing that many people would point to in the low population growth statistics is the high education of women in Cuba. This is definitely the result of Fidel Castro’s policies.

It seems to me that housing issues play a role as well. Cuba has added very little housing stock in recent years, even though the population has grown. This means that either multiple generations must live together, or new homes must be built. Cuba hasn’t provided a way for doing this (financing, etc). Under these circumstances, most families will keep the number of children low. There is simply no more room for another person in state-provided housing. No one would consider building a shack with local materials, without electricity and water supply, as a workaround.

Also, US policies have allowed Cuban citizens who reach the United States to obtain citizenship more easily than say, residents of the Dominican Republic or Haiti. This has offered another workaround for growing population.

12. In many ways, Cuba is better prepared for a fall in standard of living than most countries, but a change in its standard of living is still likely to be problematic.

As we traveled through Cuba, we saw a huge amount of land that either was currently planted in crops, or that could fairly easily be planted as crops. We also saw many acres over-run by acacia, but that still could support some feeding by animals. Cuba is not very mountainous, and generally gets a reasonable amount of water for at least part of the year. These are factors that are helpful for supporting a fairly large population, if crops are chosen to match the available rainfall.

The Cuban population is also well educated and used to working together. Neighbors tend to know each other, and work to support each other through community associations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.

The problem, though, is that the changes needed to live sustainably, without huge annual balance of payment deficits, are likely to be quite large. Sugar production in Cuba began  in the early 1800s. Since that time, Cuba’s economy has been organized as if it were part of a much larger system. Cuba has grown large amounts of certain products (sugar cane and tobacco), and much less of products that its population eats regularly (wheat, rice, beans, corn, and chicken). Residents have gotten used to eating imported foods, rather than foods that grow locally. According to this document, the government of Cuba reported importing 60% to 70% of its “food and agricultural products,” amounting to $2 billion dollars, in 2014. Regardless of whether or not this percentage is calculated correctly, there is at least a $2 billion per year gap in revenue caused by eating non-local foods that needs to be closed.

In theory, Cuba can produce enough food for all of its current population, even without fossil fuels. Doing so would require changes to what Cubans eat. The diet would need to be revised to include greater proportions of foods that can be grown easily in Cuba (plantain, yucca, bread plant, etc.) and fewer foods that can’t. Many people would likely need to move to locations where they can help in the growing and distribution of these foods. Given the current lack of funding, most of these new homes and businesses would likely need to be built by residents using local materials. Thus, they would likely need to look like the shacks (without electricity or running water) that Fidel Castro was able to do away with as a result of his 1959 Revolution.

There might also need to be a reduction to the amount of healthcare and education available to all. This would also be a big let down, because people have gotten used to the current plan of free education and free modern medical care for all. Education and health care no doubt account for a big share of Cuba’s high GDP today, but Cuba may also need to bring down these costs down to an affordable level, if it is to have a sustainable economy.


[1] Alternatively, better practices might be used that involve crop rotation and permaculture practices. The effect would still have been the same–some type of energy, including a combination of human energy and other kinds of energy, would be needed to keep fields producing some kind of useful crop.

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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844 Responses to Cuba: Figuring Out Pieces of the Puzzle (Full Text)

  1. Pingback: Le PetroYuan est né. Gazprom règle maintenant toutes ses ventes de brut à la Chine en yuan | Arrêt sur Info

  2. Fast Eddy says:

    U.S. oil output will peak at a 43-year high in 2015 as producers work through a backlog of uncompleted wells before trailing off in the second half of the year.

    Conventional oil peaked a decade ago

    And there you have it …

    Frackers went hell bent to sink as many holes while the price of oil was maintained at a high price (with the help of QE ZIRP)….

    Unless there is another fracking-type miracle to buy us more years… this is an admission that peak oil will be with us later this year.

    Will 2016 go down as the year civilization ended and the worldwide famine and die-off began?

    Is 2016 the year that the doomsday groupies realize that doomsday is not quite what they expected – that rather than peaceful beatnik Edo-types dancing about the fire eating organic porridge and thumping on drums made from organically raised cows that died natural deaths…

    They instead get Samurai warrior-types (Mad Max version) kicking down their doors, chaining them like dogs and sending them out to the work the fields…

    Is 2016 the year that we find out that sticking a garden hose into the spent fuel ponds doesn’t keep them cooled — least of all because the pumps that push water through the garden hoses do not work because there is no electricity

    • No.

      The financial system may take some shocks, but we probably are not even at the point of nationalizing all the banks yet. Oil consumption will go down, while the price goes up, and nominal growth and inflation will paper over the shrinking economy.

      Worst case scenario is most of the developed world becomes made in the image of North Korea. The masses will rally around charismatic strong men, and most people will do what they are told. Even most of the radicals, when faced with the reality of the situation, will probably not cause too much trouble, or the masses will fully support the government dealing with them harshly.

      The potentially huge caveat to all that is if some other major shock happens, like mass starvation and die off in California, or WW3, or Saudi Arabia being full on invaded.

      I don’t understand why you are so worried about the spent fuel ponds, and not the reactors themselves. The reactors need ~5 years to burn through their fuel and be shutdown, and the fuel moved into the spent fuel ponds. They are the major, immediate threat. They must be actively cooled with electricity, or they will meltdown / melt through and/or explode.

      The spent fuel ponds, if not emptied and the fuel dry casked, will probably leak out into the environment within 50 to 100 years. Unless some idiots worried about losing face or liability trap hydrogen gas and then the roof blows off and the rods are damaged. Reactors and spent fuel ponds are all near rivers and lakes, barely above water level. Siphoning in fresh water is not a big deal. You’re the one who showed us Sellefield, where the spent fuel ponds sat basically without anyone maintaining the facility for ~40 years, and nothing bad happened. The ponds were kept topped up just by rain water.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        So rain water will keep the fuel ponds cooled… we just rip the roofs open and let the sun and rain in and all will be fine…

        Such an elegant solution … you should hire yourself out to TEPCO.

        • Is that not exactly what happened at Sellefield? Of course, within another 50 years without clean up and dry casking, it would have certainly leaked, poisoning the entire Irish Sea and causing the evacuation of the entire east coast of Ireland, and most of the west coast of Great Britain.

          TEPCO continually has a problem, where they choose to allow the tritium to build up and cause fires and explosions, rather than venting or flaring it off. If they did that in the first place, the reactors would not have blown up, the pools would not have drained and there would not be any meltdowns / melt throughs.

          Sure, flooding the air and sea with tritiated water is bad, but not nearly as bad as all the cesium, iodine, strontium, plutonium. Sometimes, you have to choose the least bad of two choices, when there is no good choice.

  3. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    When we look at Cuba, and try to think about what sort of behavior might make sense for them, we are confronted with some forks in the road. Similarly, if we examine the social and economic systems in Edo Japan, the differences between our current BAU and the strange way things were done back then come into focus. And as we try to read the tea leaves in terms of our own future, and decide what makes sense to do right now, we have to drop back to some very basic questions. I suggest the following as useful landmarks.

    First, listen to as much of this interview with Skip Laitner as you wish. The second link is a video presentation he made a couple of years ago. I will also give you my summary of some of his points:

    Don Stewart’s summary:
    *The US economy is about 15 percent efficient in converting energy sources into useful work.
    *In 1900, the US economy was only 2 or 3 percent efficient, in 1950 about 8 percent efficient, and now about 15 percent efficient.
    *Tracking only commodity production of energy (barrels, kwH, etc.) misses the major points. We need to track useful work.
    *Economic vitality requires understanding energy as work, not commodities
    *The keys to improved vitality are:
    #Better flow of information
    #Using energy efficiently in light of the information

    Now let me interject a few comments of my own. First, the focus on useful work is reminiscent of the models by BW Hill. However, second, I am not sure that BW Hill models the increased energy efficiency which we have achieved over the last hundred and fifteen years. Third, BC provided this comment in response to George Mobus’ essay on the futility of education:
    ‘Over half of equivalent GDP is in the sectors that are now a net cost (no longer productive) to the rest of the economy, ‘

    (You can find George’s essay here, and also look at the comments:

    At this point, simply looking at the experience of BAU in the industrial world, we have need of a model which is considerably more complicated than anyone usually talks about:
    *We have the raw production of commercial energy (excludes free sunlight) and the issues of resource depletion;
    *We have the question of how much commercial energy is required to produce commercial energy;
    *We have BW Hill’s ‘multiplier’ effect, where a one unit increase in the energy spent producing energy requires a 5X reduction in work in the general economy, and perhaps BW Hill’s number should really be 8X to reflect Laitner’s comprehensive studies (because we waste 85 percent);
    *We have the fact that nobody is really tracking work instead of commodity production, and then we have the question of whether all the activities BC identifies really count as ‘useful work’;
    *We have the question as to why energy efficiency in the US has multiplied by 5 to 7 times since 1900, and what the prospects are for increasing efficiency in the future using better communications tools.

    The most profound challenges to our current way of thinking come, I believe, from close examination of societies which were living on solar energy. The best documented case is Edo Japan (so far as I know about). Azby Brown’s book has a bibliography with 120 entries, so there is abundant scholarly work, plus surviving artifacts, to give us a pretty good idea how that society functioned.

    It would take me into far too much detail to consider all the facets of Edo that are in Azby’s book, much less the scholarly literature. So I will simply pick a few things to look at which focus on energy and food.
    Japan in the Edo Period: Global Implications of a Model of Sustainability

    ‘First, in respect of rice production, the basis of the economy, Ishikawa made the following assumptions. On average three persons working full time for about a half year (183 days) produced 2.4 tons of rice on one hectare of land. Assuming the energy required for one day’s work to be about 1,000 kcal/person, the total energy input is 5.5 x 105 kcal, and since the energy value of rice is about 3,400 kcal/kg, the total energy output is 8.2 x 106 kcal.Therefore, the energy efficiency of rice production in the Edo period can be estimated to be about 1,500 per cent, i.e., 15 times.

    How about modern rice production? The Science and Technology Agency of the Japanese government estimated that the production of 1 kg of rice requires about 2,300 kcal of energy, indicating that the energy efficiency is about 150 per cent or one tenth of the Edo period. About half of this energy is required to manufacture and use the various agricultural mechanical devices, and about one quarter for the production of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, etc. The issue of fertilizer in the Edo period will be discussed later. Suffice to say that the energy requirement for fertilizer in Edo was negligible.

    The major difference in these two situations is human labor. Farming was very hard work in Edo and is much less so today. In other words, an enormous amount of energy has reduced the human labor in farming in terms of both farmers’ work and the number of farmers. This is economically possible only because of the availability of relatively cheap energy source, i.e., fossil fuel.

    The energy efficiency of fishing in the Edo period attained a similar value: the energy value of fish obtained/the energy input (human labor) was 1,000-2,000 per cent. Fishing could be done only in lakes, rivers and the sea not too far offshore since fishing boats could only be operated by human and wind power. By contrast, the energy efficiency in today’s mechanized fishing industry seems to be about 50 per cent.

    Until quite recently, Japanese houses had no “space-heating”. Since Japan is located in a mild climate region, the severity of cold in winter is not extreme except in the North. Hence no very elaborate heating system was used in most regions. This is an advantage afforded by geography. In summer, however it is very warm and humid. The traditional houses and buildings were hence built in such a way to provide as much comfort as possible during the summer. The building material was and still is mainly wood. Because of earthquakes, brick and stone are not suitable for building, and wood also happens to be a better thermal insulator than brick and stone. The structure of the traditional Japanese houses is not suitable for space heating, being too porous and open. The traditional heating devices include “hibachi” and “kotatsu” (a foot warming device) which heat only locally those sitting nearby. People wore more clothes when cold. The other device, called “irori” (hearth) was a kind of fireplace, but it was used mainly in farmhouses. These devices may not have been as comfortable as contemporary space heating, but were very frugal in terms of energy use.’

    When we are trying to answer BC’s question about what is really valuable work, do we include the work of producing rice the industrial way, which is only one tenth as productive as the human labor of the Edo period? Do we include the space heating, which Edo never used? Do we include the pesticides and herbicides which are damaging to human health and the broader ecology?


    I think I have demonstrated that many current models of energy and work and the economy are woefully inadequate. Once we admit that more barrels and more GDP and more debt are not necessarily good for anything, the foundations of the models we are using dissolve under our feet. I don’t have any very clever suggestions about how to get people, and especially the politicians, to actually pay attention to the fragility of current assumptions. What I do suggest, as I have in the past, is that if you expect that BAU will collapse, you can do a lot worse than take some time to look closely at Edo. Azby Brown’s book is a wealth of information, presented as a ‘day in the life’ story.

    Don Stewart

    • Kulm says:

      Ochiai does not seem to be aware about the two major famines and the host of smaller famines during the Edo period,

      and he also does not seem to know Mr. Konyo Aoki, who introduced potato by leading books written in Holland and learning how to raise it, to Japan around 1735 which probably saved the Shognuate from destruction.

      • Don Stewart says:


        Perhaps you can’t read:
        ‘In a sense, Japan embarked on a large-scale survival experiment, based on the material and energy available on the four islands and the surrounding sea, which provided some food and other resources such as salt and also means of transportation. While living standards were far from low by Asian and even European standards at the time, many poor farmers barely subsisted, and some faced starvation when crop failures hit them, which happened often ( Pomeranz, 2003; Chapter 12, Totman, 1993).’

        And, yes, white potatoes may have come from South America via the Netherlands, but the sweet potato came from east Asia. And the interest in them was stoked by official support of innovative agriculture.

        see end of page 66 and beginning of page 67. I would say that potatoes planted inside the Edo Castle grounds and later distributed around the country counts for official patronage. Also note the concern about ‘people far from town and on the islands’. As Gail’s trip to Cuba illustrates, islands still have problems with food security.

        Don Stewart

  4. Fast Eddy says:

    It could be that Chinese stock market participants have no idea that there is something wrong beneath the officially rosy covers. Or they might already know in granular unofficial detail, and fearing the worst, they’re wagering everything they have, plus some, on stocks to get rich quick while they still can. They’re opening up brokerage accounts at record pace and borrowing on margin to ride the wave. If the limits in China get in the way, they head to Hong Kong to set up trading accounts and borrow even more.

    It has worked so far. The Shanghai Composite Index jumped 8.9% this week and 146% over the past 12 months. It closed above 5,000 for the first time since 2008. The valuation of companies with a primary listing in China skyrocketed by $4.7 trillion this year. People are feeling flush and are hoping for a another governmental tsunami of money to bail them out. What transpired in other countries over the past six years is now transpiring in China in condensed form. And the countdown for the crash has started [read… The Dumbest Man in China].

    One thing the Chinese authorities cannot do is crank up the global economy and demand for Chinese goods. These goods are shipped by container to the rest of the world. But containerized freight rates from China have totally collapsed.

    The China Containerized Freight Index (CCFI), operated by the Shanghai Shipping Exchange and sponsored by the Chinese Ministry of Communications, has not been put through the beautification wringer that other more publicly visible statistics, such as GDP growth, are subject to. It tracks spot and contractual rates for all Chinese container ports. And it plunged 3.2% this week to a multi-year low of 862, down 20% from February.

    The trajectory of this terrible 3-month plunge:


    • Interesting, there is indeed potential for yet another market dislocation around the corner, however don’t be naive, any potential crises to disrupt the core of the system will be papered over, again. The inertia of the system is there as TPTB control everything now, public is beyond docile and self crippled to react or self organize. We must bang into very hard limits first, which is not scheduled for now, perhaps 2020-25 when the y/y depletion of crude vs. fracking will be more evident on one hand and people finally being squeezed out of most easy options (savings, jobs, pensions, involuntary deconsumerism.. ) by then. The fall of Roman empire dragged for many many decades even at the crisis peak in those last two centuries, it’s a slow burn, rott and decay if you will.. while some technogadgets are still being innovated and put forward to marvel about (e.g. Tesla, and the internets today).

      • Artleads says:

        This sounds very intuitive to me. I think that we face the rolling out of what already exists, what we are conditioned not to look at minutely, everywhere around us.

      • ktos says:

        “, any potential crises to disrupt the core of the system will be papered over, again.”
        Global debt has to rise by 6-7% per year (double every 10-12 years). Last year it stood at 200 trillion dollars. So 7% of 200 is 14. So the CBs would have to print over 1000 bn dollars a month, if private and government sectors fail to grow theirs indebetness.

        • You make it sound like creating a trillion dollars out of thin air is difficult or even impossible. I don’t see any signs that the world needs real growth, just nominal growth, to keep the financial system going. We may be able to have de-growth with bigger numbers, so that the economy is nominally growing while physically shrinking.

          • Artleads says:

            VERY appealing vision. Growing, almost imperceptibly, in the cities. Degrowth in auto industry, etc.

          • Bingo. And that’s why even some of us learning about “finite world/peakoil” issues “early on” in late 1990s or 2000s were dead wrong for the near/midterm, which means at least two decades off, perhaps more. Not exactly small portion of human life and if you extend it to more generations in family, clearly huge opportunity for transition lost.

            I’ve had a great conversation on these topics with my former coworker, we both agreed on the general trajectory and debated likely future milestones (most spot on), but disagreed strongly on the timing and sequencing order, I was perhaps too stupid to be under the “guiding influence” of studies like made by prof. Hirsch, i.e. 2014-2015 visible total crash at the latest..

            Instead my former coworker saddled the tigger of housing bubble, then the QE stock bubble via TSLA, it was all quite obvious then. He scored ten-bagger and almost twenty-bagger for the latter one, I guess in aggregate it was roughly a dozen thousands percent profit in less than a decade for a guy with neither gambling or prior investing urges, just common sense and true “survival urge”. He found nice 250acres few years ago and can still afford to plan buy more, while very slowly building non conventional agricultural base there. Obviously, I’m not pushing this to be a prefered model how to return to land, but that guy is not a snob, he just leap frogged the brainwashed majority all around us, so they in a way deserve the final outcome. In contrast, I’ll be lucky to eventually escape as a mere tiny dirt poor homesteader, we had both the same info available at roughly the same time junction, but somehow in the end “nature” picks the real winners, it’s time to man up and face consequences of past bad decisions. Anyway, I’m very glad to have some knowledge of these finate world processes, but again it’s a long long race.. I’m just openly saying and admitting it is a bit silly to be marginalized even after the first easy round..
            PS Ugo Bardi recently posted nice links about the late roman empire elites escape to provinces as the world crumbled around them, some successes and failures..

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Without real growth you get no real jobs. As we are seeing… (although the Ministry of Truth is telling us there are plenty of jobs)

            And when you have no real jobs vs pretend jobs — what you get is deflation because when you only have a pretend job you don’t buy much — which means people who have real jobs providing goods and services get laid off…. and even if they pretend to have a real job (say mowing someone’s lawn one hour per week and claiming to be employed) — they buy very little as well…

            Which leads to more layoffs…

            Also keep in mind the population continues to grow — every day more people are entering the labour force…. no real growth means they won’t find much to do …

            And of course… as we saw in Grapes of Wrath… when too many people chase too few jobs… salaries stagnate then drop off… creating more deflationary pressures…

            In a nutshell — BAU needs growth — real growth … otherwise it fails.

            A rising stock market in an environment of no real growth is like the mirage of an oasis in the desert…. when you dip your cup into the pool … you find yourself spitting out a mouthful of sand

            • Soon enough, people will be kept busy growing their own food. Hopefully, when the next crisis hits some competent leaders will emerge, able to sell a vision to the people and get what needs to be done, done.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              So you think BAU can continue if billions of people are engaged only in attempting to life a self-sustaining existence farming a plot of land?

              You seriously have not a clue if you think that is possible.

              And of course they can try to grow their own food — but I am not sure where they will grow it because most soil will not support a crop — and even if it did what would people eat while they wait for the crop to grow?

              You are living in a fairy land of wishful thinking… like most people on this blog… you really need to think things through because when you do — you find that your initial expectations are silly … or in other words… you are living in a Joan Baez video

            • “So you think BAU can continue if billions of people are engaged only in attempting to life a self-sustaining existence farming a plot of land?

              You seriously have not a clue if you think that is possible.”

              Not BAU as we know it, as I said – like North Korea. Most people will probably be on 1100 calories a day, or maybe a bit more. The goal is to avoid catastrophic collapse. People will choose some food and security, over no food and chaos. People sit around in refuge camps and IDP camps all the time.

              Heck, a good portion of the population is already on bread, circuses and pharmaceuticals. People stayed home from work to hear Beyonce’s amazing announcement (she’s promoting vegan diet as a way to lose weight). The hard part will be the sudden psychological transition from “The American Dream” to reality.

              The real danger is that the people will revolt and install horrifically incompetent communists or theocrats or some other stupid ideologues that promise them they can bring back the “good old days”. Well, the real danger after global thermonuclear war.

              If you think millions of cops and soldiers are all just going to turn into The Last Man On Earth, rather than work to secure their towns and nations into absolute police states, I think maybe you don’t understand people very well.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              But earlier you said that BAU could continue with nominal growth and no real growth.

              So you are changing your mind?

              As for North Korea — you are aware that North Korea is plugged into BAU — they do have electricity and oil and cars and roads and fertilizers and tools made from metals which are mined using machinery and smelted using fossil fuels…

              And yet in spite of this the people of Korea sometimes eat bark and grass…

              So North Korea is not a good reference point (nor is Cuba) for what collapse looks like.

              If North Korea could someone remain in its current state when the global economy collapses..the survivors would be clamoring to get a ‘green card’ to North Korea…. it would be an oasis of prosperity in a sea of misery and suffering.

            • You seem to be changing what you mean by “BAU”.

              I’m talking about steadily falling quality of life, and a fairly rapid – one to three decade – drop in per capita energy by ~90% for those of us enjoying the developed Western lifestyle. So, continued exponential growth, nominally yes, but physically, no. Electricity and running water, for the most part yes, although outlying areas will probably be abandoned or scavenged to maintain core regions. Personal automobiles, self driving electric cars, no. Horse and buggy, bicycles for the masses, limousines and private jets for the elites, yes.

              So, not BAU and not collapse, but a slow, grinding decline downwards, hopefully without an abundance of nuclear incidents. Maybe even some dry casking and nuclear plant decommissioning.

      • Artleads says:

        “The inertia of the system is there as TPTB control everything now, public is beyond docile and self crippled to react or self organize.”

        Which lends itself to “going with the flow.” Some parts of the business sector–like the tiny house or slow-food industries, etc.–seem to be changing the system in small ways.

        So maybe not. Maybe the public isn’t as crippled as all that. But I still maintain that going with the flow (working around the glaring dysfunctions where possible)–subtlety–may be the model for our time.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Some things are too big to be papered over.

        The central banks can prop up the bond and stock markets — but if there is no growth then there are no jobs being created…

        And you end up with a deflationary death spiral that cannot be papered over.

        That is why China has been busy building ghost and:

        Clearly the Chinese government understand the limitations of such policies… you can only build so many empty buildings before you collapse your economy…

        If there were no limits then the Chinese government would be busy building even more projects that generate zero returns (leaving massive insolvencies in their wake).

        I suspect China is approaching the end of its rope — the mother of all stimulus programmes has hit the wall — and exports are deteriorating.

        People make the assumption that the central banks are all powerful.

        They are not.

        • The Central Banks are not allowed to directly pay people to do manual labour; the main problem right now is politics. I think the Chinese are better able to employ 100 million men with picks, shovels and wheelbarrows on mega projects, than the west. When a crisis hits, the demand for “shovel-ready jobs” will change the tunes of the legislators.

          Deflation can most certainly be overcome, by simply giving everyone $100 every day, and another $100 if they work on a government project. If this was done with digital money, taxes could be remitted instantly on purchases made with the money, so the same pool could flow around and around through the economy without needing to continually print more.

          Replacing all taxes with a flat 10% transaction fee would greatly streamline the system. That way, we don’t care if it was a sale or income or investment, the flat tax is instantly charged by the system. No need to employ armies of accountants and lawyers.

          This would also alleviate the need for minimum wage. People could choose to work at another job for less than $100 per day, if they felt they could learn skills that would benefit them more in the future. If their current job pays too low or has too few hours, they could just leave and go work on the public works project for the $100.

          The biggest barrier is psychological; there would have to be a big shock and panic, to force open the minds of the masses to accept, embrace and push for such massive changes.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            “Deflation can most certainly be overcome, by simply giving everyone $100 every day, and another $100 if they work on a government project”

            I will frame that and hang it on my wall. Because this is what is known as a perpetual economic motion machine. Prosperity unlimited.

            Do you mind if I borrow this idea and flog it to third world nations? I am thinking I will structure it as follows:

            I give them the printing press and the ideas for free. But I get 25% of every dollar they print (similar to the Nespresso model….)

            I also get 25% of all increases in GDP that result from the implementation of my (your…) plan.

            I will be like a mini Federal Reserve…

            • You know that it is energy, not money, that makes wealth. However, Universal Basic Income is a much more efficient system than having social security, welfare, disability, etc all these programs with government employees and paperwork and restrictions. The additional efficiency of replacing all taxation with the 10% transaction fee and remitting taxes in real-time means that if the velocity of money is high enough, you’d only need a month’s worth of money to do it.

              For the USA, for example, it may only need ~$1 trillion – which is less than current federal social programs cost every year. You can try to get someone to pay you for the idea, but it is available for free.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      containerized freight rates from China have totally collapsed.

      Your chart implies a “collapse” through graphical trickery of starting the y-axis at 850, rather than zero. This is one of my pet peeves about how people deceive with graphs and charts

      The drop has been more like 15% (low point on the graph of about 900, divided by the recent mean of about 1050) — which I agree, is bad enough.

      But when someone dramatizes a graph by offsetting the y-axis, I begin to wonder what else they’re dramatizing.

  5. Artleads says:

    I don’t believe this is how the entire world has to work, but I remain open to learning.

    Economics of Housing in San Francisco

    The author says little or nothing about the environmental effects of new development, or of the sense-of-place issues either. And it was the absence of those issue that usually set me at odds with the affordable housing advocates (with whom I shared much else).

    The author makes valid points based on affordability and the real economic system. It’s as if he might have the WHAT covered, while leaving out the HOW.

  6. Fast Eddy says:

    It really sucks to be a black person in America …. the action really gets going at the 3 minute mark

    It’s awesome to be white (so far…)

    What surprises me is that with so many guns in America … there are not more random revenge attacks against the police.

    • Siobhan says:

      This tells a very different story about the kids at the pool,–McKinney-Pool-Fight-was-started-by-White-Neighbors-who-racially-slurred-attacked-Black-Kids

      Austin police incident (censored version)

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Wow — that’s nasty stuff!

        Let’s go Big Picture here….

        When the SHTF …. the gloves will come off … and this is going to turn very ugly … not that the cops are a whole lot of use now (they frequently make things worse) …

        When BAU unravels — Conrad’s ‘veneer of civilization’ is going to be ripped off like the top layer on a cheap laminated counter top…. and we will see the true nature of the human beast…

        We truly are 3 meals from barbarism…

        7 billion people — grocery stores shuttered — that will be interesting… to say the least.

    • ktos says:

      “It really sucks to be a black person in America”
      Yes, it’s better to be a black person in their homeland – Africa. Such a wonderful place. Blacks just don’t fit to white made countries. They fit to African countries.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Not clear why you bring up Africa.

        Are the people in the video from Africa?

        They sound like Americans to me… with rights just like uh-hum — white Americans… but yes of course… they are black so they are not REAL Americans are they….

        And of course their ancestors hail from Africa — and we all know that they joyfully volunteered to be shackled into the holds of the Mayflower in their shit, piss, vomit and disease on a cruise to the land of opportunity where they were promptly auctioned off to the highest bidder who beat/whipped/raped/murdered them with impunity…

        So yes, their ancestors chose to come to America so they can bloody well put up or shut up — and get on the next refugee ship back to Africa.

        The cops in the video were in fact too kind…. can’t have those uppity Africans having pool parties … like America kids do …. the ought to be out in the fields bringing in the cane …

        By rights those cops should have laid down the lash on these Africans. And for those who spoke back to the massah well — I saw plenty of trees in that neighbourhood that would be excellent for lynching…

        I see where you are coming from. Thank you for opening Fast’s eyes.

        See you at the next Knights Party!

        • Artleads says:

          Great rant! But that might only get us to the next town. The reality is that most whites seeing the video see it the way the cops (and Ktos) do, and talk about rights and justice do little to change that. Even if those whites keep silent out of PC.

          Blacks–well, poor blacks, especially–don’t fit into America’s vision of itself. TPTB manage fine having the country so divided.

          If young Blacks grow up not knowing that their presence–especially in exuberant “oversupply” (like here) reserved only for Whites–is an offense and threat to Whites, then their education has failed them. Like Black kids not knowing they are forbidden to play with toy guns the way White kids can.

          BTW, the huge White guy in the jeans shorts keeping the kids at bay to enable the police punishment I found to be more gruesomely cruel than the police, who acted just the way the system prescribes.

          But if you don’t subscribe to Kumbaya, you might as well just twiddle your thumbs and look the other way.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            The reason I posted that is to provide a reality check for the Koombaya Krowd… that demonstrates our true nature… with fossil fuels providing the thin veneer of civilization that keeps extreme behaviour under wraps.

            The veneer is about to be stripped off. See Rwanda for what happens then….

            On a related note, I was listening to a radio programme on bullying … a problem that is of course widespread in all schools.

            My take on this is that bullying a human trait… a default position … you watch small kids and they engage in bullying…

            And how do we stop this behaviour? We educate them both in schools and using religion — we try to drive this behaviour out of children. We enact laws against this. Sometimes this fails and in the worst cases the offenders end up in prison.

            But in all people the beast is lurking in the background — and given the right circumstances we are all capable of extreme violence.

            3 meals from anarchy as they say…

            Throw a bone in the midst of a pack of starving dogs and they will rip each other apart… we would act no differently… the strongest would go at it … and the weak would stand to the side and hope for a few scraps….

            • Brunswickian says:

              The reason I posted that is to provide a reality check for the Koombaya Krowd

              I thought up a new term: “Edo frolickers”


            • Artleads says:

              “But in all people the beast is lurking in the background — and given the right circumstances we are all capable of extreme violence.”

              Sorry, FE, this is fairly obvious. But there obviously is some cooperation, stoicism and decency at work as well, since long before the advent of fossil fuels.

              While I hope I can avoid the situation where I’d have to prove it, I don’t in the least bit think I’d behave as you describe. Merely staying alive is not that important to me. And while I have often behaved like a “beast,” I’m now convinced that I behaved (behave) that way because of not thinking straight or connecting the dots.

              But this is a pointless discussion. I doubt that either of us will change our outlook. I’m looking for ways to be constructive. Whatever the outcome, or lack thereof, I see no harm in being constructive. I tell my children that there is no hope, but that it’s important to do the right thing. I don’t believe I’m spreading false hope. What I don’t understand is what is your purpose. Is it to say that there is no such thing as cooperation, stoicism and decency? That humans aren’t capable of contrary behaviors? AFAIK, simple common sense would say something different.

              And I don’t agree that the behaviors your videos describe are simple human responses. I see them as manifestations of a carefully nurtured system. This case is not based on scarcity, but on unconscious adherence to a set of values. Lynching was happening during the heyday of fossil fuels…

            • Fast Eddy says:

              I have no doubt that you’d not act violently.

              I will assume that for some reason you have determined acting violently would result in a quick death for you because you do not have the mindset or physical attributes to win such a battle.

              People tend to realize this rather quickly in life.

              It does not mean they are not capable — it means that they know they are unable to compete — that if they confront those who do have the mindset and/or physical presence that they will end up dead.

              Of course in our civilized world of plenty this competition does not manifest itself overtly in violence – that is not allowed – nor is it necessary when all the dogs get bones — some more than others.

              But it is there…

              Take pro sports for instance. I assume you do not attend a walk-on camp for the Dallas Cowboys because you know what would happen if you did…. there is no Koombaya in the sports world — and there are very few bones to go around — so we fight like wild animals for one of the bones…

              Let’s shift to the business world. Again — a limited number of bones. It is a world of uncertainty, and fierce competition — koombaya = bankruptcy (a lot of people I know in business played at a reasonably competitive level of sport — and the killer instinct serves them well)

              That is not for everyone — most people choose not to start a business because they do not have the mindset and/or they believe they cannot compete — not much different to why most people would not attend a Dallas Cowboys try out… they know they are not up to it.

              One of the best examples is banking — cut throat… And this carries across every profession ….

              It might work to adopt a pacifist non-competitive stance in a world of plenty — if one chooses not to compete at a high level for whatever reason — there is still a place for most people… a person has been able to get by… not so much these days as there are very few good jobs being created…

              If you choose not to compete at all you end up as a pizza delivery man — or in the worst case you end up on welfare…

              However post collapse there will be very few bones to go around…. and those ultra-competitive people will be coming after whatever is available including the ‘pizza delivery man’ opportunities…

              The meek will trampled by the stampede of the aggressive, strong — and quite possibly chained to a yoke and enslaved…

  7. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    Please see Charles Hugh Smith’s essay about China and chronic disease.

    It is ironic that it wasn’t that long ago that T. Colin Campbell went to China to study cancer and heart disease and wrote The China Study. Both diseases were rare in China, but one of China’s leaders was stricken with cancer and funded the study. There was an entire province which had never had a reported case of heart disease. As late as 1920 few American doctors had seen a case of heart disease.

    Very few countries have been able to combine industrial growth with good health. Very poor countries such as Cuba which have put their resources into infant health have greatly decreased infant mortality at relatively little expense. But when industrialization reaches the stage where industrial food replaces real food, then the chronic diseases become epidemics.

    Yet the desire to believe that everything is going to turn out OK is very strong. Recently I read somewhere that ‘advances in biotechnology’ will soon free us from any dependence on nature for our food. And the MD Anderson Cancer Center regularly invites me to believe that we know how to eliminate cancer.

    Don Stewart

    • “Recently I read somewhere that ‘advances in biotechnology’ will soon free us from any dependence on nature for our food.”

      Some Japanese have gone the opposite direction of permaculture, and made indoor farms that have no bacteria or other living organisms in them at all. The workers have to wear sealed suits, so they don’t contaminate the operation. Supposedly several times more efficient than conventional industrial farming:

      Within a few years, the humans will be replaced with robots.

  8. Siobhan says:

    Tumbling food prices:
    PracticalDad Price Index – June 2015: Crashing

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Thanks for the article — I’ve been following the cut throat competition in UK supermarkets (which is of course recovering …) and this explains very well what is going on.

      I suspect this also is an indication of why McDonald’s is coming apart … it is not that people have suddenly turned to healthy alternatives…

      They simply have no money to spend and they are buying the lowest cost options from the grocery stores.

      Deflation is a worthy adversary for the central banks — and it will eventually win out and take down BAU

      • Yep the deflation in food production is here, again. At least in Europe, partly because those stupid sanctions against Russia, so their imports switched to S. America etc. But the huge effect is also the recent (multidecade) growth in productivity, where one working adult (or small family) can now run a relatively huge farm operation thanks to leverage in printed money turned “efficiency” in gargantuan machines and processing on site. This situation will stay here as long TPTB will be able to paper over these problems and physical boundaries don’t apply (temporarily). In two or three decades there might be a shock, reversal, disruption as the capital stock and operatin model is obsolete and can’t be cheapily renewed.

        • kesar0 says:

          Between Guy McPherson and Greer is a lot of space. I would love to buy this idea of slow collapse, because we – at the keyboards are without the doubt beneficiaries of BAU. These people around the world are hurt – Syria, Jemen, Ukraine, refugees from North Africa and thousands of ghettos around the world. The problem with this scenario has two setbacks.
          First is the global political situation. Too many tensions – US-Russia-China-Europe. All these military actions cost – in $, in people, in intelligency power (NSA, CIA, etc.). BAU is becoming too costly to control. There are many symptoms, that the system is becoming unstable.
          The masses (electorate) is becoming also very angry. All those bottom-top parties, populists, fascists, alter-globalists, etc. are becoming also a risk. At some point they will have access to real power. And it’s easy to make some desperate moves.

  9. “Quest to Mine Seawater for Lithium Advances
    “Predicted lithium shortages are leading to novel technologies for recovering the element, now found mostly in salt lakes in South America.
    “… Benchmark’s tracking of lithium prices shows a steady rise over the last few years, and Moores doesn’t foresee prices falling anytime soon. That is fueling R&D at the most basic level, as with Hoshino’s work, and it’s driving new investment in salt lakes that could produce lithium—particularly in Nevada, where Tesla is building the Gigafactory. (See “Tesla’s Massive Nevada Factory Will Need Massive Results to Pay Off.”)

    “Vancouver-based Dajin Resources recently released lithium assay results from its Alkali Lake property in Esmeralda County, Nevada, showing promising concentrations of lithium. The company also owns acreage in the Teels Marsh region, in Mineral County. Dajin plans to recover the lithium using conventional methods, says president Brian Findlay.

    “`There are a number of different and interesting technologies, but they all start with high-concentration brine,’ says Findlay. `And the simplest proven technology is evaporation.’ Indeed, it’s hard to compete with a natural process.”

    — Can we count on selling prices for lithium, etc., staying up, to support rising extraction costs?

  10. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders

    I am going to shamelessly steal from Charles Hugh Smith’s weekend message to his subscribers. My justification to myself is that perhaps I will motivate a few people to subscribe.

    One of the reasons I post this is because it is so very much in the same style of thinking as Capra and Luisi and Azby Brown…everything works as a system. Changing one part, thinking you are very clever, may very well bite you in the ass. A healthy gut biome is not hard…we evolved to have a healthy gut. Fossil fuels have enabled us to create unhealthy guts. Ponder what Capra and Luisi are telling you, what Azby Brown is explaining, and what Scientific American laid before you.

    Don Stewart

    Why Working in your Garden Might Make You Healthier, and Other Mysteries of the Microbiome

    Like me, you probably probably associate “garden” and “health” through the positive psychological effects of nurturing and harvesting plants, or the positive nutritional effects of eating organic veggies and fruits you’ve grown yourself.

    But recent research on the human microbiome–the vast complex of microbes that live within us that help digest our food–suggests a much more intimate connection between our well-being and the health of our microbiome.

    The importance of the microbiome reached the public three years ago in a spate of articles such as Your Microbiome Community Brings New Meaning to “We the People.”

    Advances in our understanding since then were summarized in 10 short articles in the March 2015 edition of Scientific American magazine. I recommend reading the entire series. (Hopefully your public library has a copy, or you can buy a digital copy for $5.99.)

    It is now apparent that our microbiome affects not only our digestion but our immune system and response, our mental health and auto-immune diseases such as food allergies and asthma. What struck me as revolutionary is the synergistic feedback between our mind and body and our microbiome.

    It is increasingly clear that many of the lifestyle (non-communicable) diseases that plague the modern world (heart disease, diabesity, etc.) are directly connected to the poor health of our microbiome.

    Unsurprisingly, the more diverse the microbiome, the healthier it tends to be. Equally unsurprising, diets confined to a narrow spectrum of processed foods low in fiber result in an equally narrow spectrum of “good” microbes.

    In effect, the modern diet of low-fiber processed foods and carbohydrates starves our microbe to the point that it can no longer provide the immune protection it supplied us when we ate a wider variety of unprocessed foods.

    Our exposure to potentially beneficial microbes is also important–hence the health benefits of working with soil. Children who grow up on small farms where they are in close contact with soil and animals have a strikingly low rate of asthma and other auto-immune diseases compared to city-dwelling children who stay indoors most of their lives. This strongly suggests that exposure to soils and the outside world are critical in assembling a diverse, healthy microbiome.

    Our microbiome changes with what we eat and where and how we live. Unfortunately, once our microbiome falls into a funk (as a result of a diet stripped of fiber and diverse nutrients), it is difficult to re-establish a healthy microbiome.

    Fortunately, it is never too late to boost the diversity and health of one’s microbiome. Eating a diet rich in fiber helps, as does exposure to healthy soils and the outside natural world that harbors a wealth of beneficial microbes.

    It is thus no overstatement to say that the health of the soils we live with and nurture have a direct connection with our own health–not just nutritionally, but in our susceptibility to auto-immune disorders and digestive ailments as well as a host of other inflammation responses that characterize auto-immune diseases.

    The many links between the microbiome our our complex immune system were especially revelatory, and they reminded me of the strong connection between exercise and our immune system and diabesity. When we exercise to exhaustion, even in short bursts, that work signals the body’s immune system to rebuild tissues and reduce inflammation in positive ways.

    In auto-immune disorders and lifestyle illnesses, the body’s chronic inflammation is never reduced; the feedback provided by exercise and the microbiome are missing, and so the inflammation persists, deranging the immune response and degrading the organs and our well-being.

    The research into exercise and the microbiome are filling in the blanks as to why exercise, exposure to a variety of soils and outdoor life, and a healthy, diverse diet rich in fiber are all essential to health–not just of the body, but of the mind as well.

    Microbes in the Gut Are Essential to Our Well-Being

    Among Trillions of Microbes in the Gut, a Few Are Special

    Mental Health May Depend on Creatures in the Gut

    Dietary effects on human gut microbiome diversity

    • “It is now apparent that our microbiome affects not only our digestion but our immune system and response, our mental health and auto-immune diseases such as food allergies and asthma. What struck me as revolutionary is the synergistic feedback between our mind and body and our microbiome.”

      There is also now evidence that the lymphatic system connects directly into the brain, rather than ending at the neck as previously believed:
      Linked at many other sites as well.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      Children who grow up on small farms where they are in close contact with soil and animals have a strikingly low rate of asthma and other auto-immune diseases compared to city-dwelling children who stay indoors most of their lives.

      In particular, the GABRIELA study shows that children who consume raw dairy products have a 50% lower incidence of asthma and allergies.

      To those lucky enough to have the right forebears, raw milk provides a large number of health benefits. Even those who have experienced problems with industrially-assembeled milk-like products may find organic raw dairy products from grazed animals (particularly goats) may be compatible with their system. (True “lactose intolerance” is fairly rare.)

      The “milk problem” begins with grain-fed dairy. Grains are not good for ruminants, who normally get a small amount of seed protein from grasses and trees. It can cause boat and inflammation, which contributes to mastitis, laminitis, and other ailments. The resulting milk may actually have significant amounts of blood and pus, plus high levels of stress hormones.

      Contrast this with grass- and browse-fed dairy, which is high in beneficial conjugated linoleic acids (CLAs) and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, needed by your neural system to maintain myelin, the insulating sheath surrounding nerve cells.

      Confined Animal Feedlot Operation (CAFO) dairy has cows standing on concrete all day, which contributes to laminitis, which leads to inflammation and a build-up of stress hormones.

      Newer, high-output cow breeds produce a milk with A1 casein, which causes the build-up of bovine casmophorin-7 (BCM-7), which is correlated with numerous health ailments, such as irritable bowel syndrome, mucous response, and even memory loss and “mental fog.” Almost all commercial milk comes from Holsteins, the principle A1 breed. Choose milk from heritage cattle breeds, or goat milk, which have essentially no BCM-7.

      Milkfat is in the form of small packets, or globules, of fatty acids, which surround volumes of fluid milk. This is inconvenient for the shipment and storage of industrial milk, so processors “homogenize,” by stripping the milk of its fat, and forcing the fat through tiny pores, which break up the globules into individual fatty acid molecules. These are much more readily absorbed in the gut, and tend to provoke a mucous response and inflammation, as well as more serious problems like irritable bowel and diarrhea in susceptible individuals. Goat milk is better than cow milk in this regard, having globules than are 1/5th the size, and thus, more easily digested.

      Finally, industrial milk is heated to some 65°C (150°F) for some period, which totally destroys pathogenic bacteria — as well as beneficial bacteria and some 20+ enzymes. Some of these, such as lactoferrin and phosphatase, are potent antibiotics, while others, such as lipase, help the body digest milk fat without causing inflammation. It is ironic that one common test for pasteurization — ostensibly an antibiotic process — is to ensure than no lactoferrin (a potent antibiotic) is present.

      The myth is that pasteurization extends shelf life, but the reality is that it allows sloppy dairy practices, and carefully obtained and stored raw milk has a shelf life twice as long as industrial milk-like product. We routinely consume four-week-old raw milk, which would have been dumped down the drain two weeks ago, had it been industrial swill. And when raw milk “goes bad,” you make bread or pancakes out of it, rather than pour it down the drain. Raw milk ferments; pasteurized milk rots.

      We’ve all heard the vegan line that we should not be feeding domestic animals, but should rather consume food from the land directly. And yet, my four-legged friends go out on land that is unsuitable for agriculture, and gather current sunlight for me, while aerating the soil and sequestering carbon. Sounds like a “win-win-win” to me — good for the goats, good for me, good for the Earth.

      To come full-circle back to Don’s posting, raw milk is one of those things that builds and maintains a healthy microbiome. Most people who claim they are “lactose intolerant” are really “industrial dairy intolerant,” and could probably enjoy raw milk, particularly raw goat milk, and if one is truly lactose intolerant, one could still benefit from raw yogurt or kefir, in which all lactose has been consumed by beneficial bacteria — a component of a healthy microbiome.

      I recommend the fascinating tale, The Untold Story of Milk, by Ron Schmid, ND, for those who wish to learn more about this wonderful food, which is ideally suited to a post-carbon world.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Jan and Others
        I want to tag onto the notion that animals can graze land and produce products where row crops would only be a disaster. When F.H. King visited eastern Asia around the turn of the 20th century, he found that animals routinely grazed in cemeteries. These people, who revered their ancestors, weren’t going to plow those cemeteries, but gladly grazed them.

        A steep hillside is meant for grazing, not for plowing. If the need for arable land is desperate, then terraces constructed by hand may grow crops, but for many of us it makes more sense to let ruminants eat the grass. Domesticated animals have the great advantage that they can walk, and so can be harvested at home…as opposed to a bear which must be shot in the wild and lugged on the shoulders.

        When tables like the one posted by Albert Bates show very low energy return from animals, they are talking about animals which are treated as most Americans treat animals…not the way it makes sense to treat animals.

        Around here, you can go to jail for treating animals sensibly.

        Don Stewart

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Around here, you can go to jail for treating animals sensibly.

          Around here, too. 🙁

        • Artleads says:

          I’ve been friends with animal rights advocates who will go to the ends of the earth to help a single animal, but who express much less interest in action that would save thousands. It is the individual animal, and not systems dynamics (like land use), that gets their attention. Despite preferring a different emphasis, I’ve learned a lot from those friends. Rather than try to prove them wrong, I try to incorporate their individualist concerns into my systemic ones. Or maybe it’s more like easily switching between the two modes. Undoubtedly, there are issues that bring out serious conflict between the modes, but I haven’t experienced any that affect what I’m working on.

          We need to get everybody on the same page, despite huge differences in opinion…

        • I think the energy return we need to be looking at is return on human energy invested. Perhaps also return on arable land invested as well. If fossil fuels are leaving us, then return on fossil fuel use, as currently produced in the US, is essentially irrelevant. Animals come out very high on my metric, because they don’t use a lot of human energy. They also don’t use any arable land, except to fertilize it, unless they are horses and need to be fed grain.

          Another issue is storage, and energy and upkeep required for storage. Animals are “self-storing”. Grains are long-lasting. These are reasons they work well. Root vegetables work especially well where they can be grown year around, but it is also possible to store them, if a person can figure out a way to provide the right environment for storage (without fossil fuels–root cellar, most likely, or store the food dried).

          • Jan Steinman says:

            unless they are horses and need to be fed grain.

            Horses don’t require grain, but their digestive system is less efficient than ruminants, and they require more pasture for the same energy output. So working horses generally get grain to get more work out of them. Don’t want to grain them? Don’t work them so hard!

            Root vegetables work especially well… if a person can figure out a way to provide the right environment for storage

            That’s where “root cellar” got its name!

            Root crops need controlled temperature and humidity, of about 12°C and under 50% relative humidity. We use “sand beds” and underground storage. We make a table-like structure with shallow sides of 10-15 cm. We fill that with beach sand, and cover the root crops in the sand. The whole contraption goes into underground storage, to keep the temperature around 12°-14°C.

            A new concrete septic tank, bermed with soil, can make a suitable “underground” root cellar in areas with high water tables.

          • Artleads says:

            Cuba seems to be at the crossroads of many issues that divide and puzzle us:

            – Using animals for the economic/energy/environmental advantages GT describes
            – Animal rights
            – Anarchy vs Rulers
            – First world intervention
            – Impracticality of PV solar (and other “renewables”)
            – Economy
            – Conservation/preservation/innovation
            – European (vs Third World) identity
            – Systems
            – Philosophy/Culture
            – Food

            These are just a few issues that come readily to mind. There could be far more pertinent ones. But I wonder if we could even gain consensus for what are the “main issues for Cuba and beyond?” Much less come to consensus over what to do about them. So unless the point is forming debating clubs just for the mental exercise, some way to get everybody onto the same page could be considered.

  11. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    A follow up to my recommendation of the Azby Brown video. I mentioned that the attitude Brown brings to his study of Edo is related to the work of Capra and Luisi. Here, for example, is the way Capra and Luisi begin to study the process of life (page129 and following).

    ‘the main characteristic of life is self-maintenance due to the internal networking of a chemical system that continuously reproduces itself within a boundary of its own making….together with the question ‘What is life?’, there is another important concomitant question: ‘What is cognition?’

    The ‘systems view’ implies looking at a living organism in the totality of its mutual interactions.’ (Compare to Azby’s diagrams with vectors.)

    The authors then take us through a consideration of one of the simplest living creatures, a single celled bacteria. They print a diagram of the metabolic process of the single celled critter, which doesn’t look very simple at all. So we pretty quickly come to the realization that we are going to have to begin to look for some general principles.

    ‘The apparent contradiction between the internal changes (e.g., the constant metabolic activity) and the constancy of the overall structure. In other words, there are very many transformations continuously taking place; however there is cellular self-maintenance….the cell’s main function is to maintain its own individuality…This apparent contradiction between change and constancy is explained by the fact that the cell regenerates from within the components that are consumed away—be they ATP or glycogen, glucose or transfer-RNA. This, of course, takes place at the expense of nutrients and energy flowing inside the cell.’

    What Capra and Luisi are asking us to consider is how the cell uses the energy and materials from food and air and water, to form a living system. What Azby Brown is asking us to consider is how the Edo Japanese used water, sunshine, and wood to construct a society which maintained itself, including recycling its waste products.

    Both models can be perverted by Industrial civilization. Food can be turned into something which comes from the Haber-Bosch process (and gives us chronic disease), and societies can become dependent on oil from distant lands which must be ruled with military force (which generates all sorts of unpleasant effects, including climate change).

    Brown asks us to step back 500 years to look at the critical situation Japan was in: constant warfare, deforestation, low population, unsanitary living conditions, etc. Brown then asks us to consider how the Edo Japanese solved their problems by considering all of them more or less simultaneously…as a system. Capra and Luisi ask us to begin with the simplest organisms to see how they function, and then to build a scaffolding of understanding which brings us to the modern world and its discontents.

    If we are thinking about any of these strategies, I think that Brown and Capra and Luisi give us ways to organize our thoughts:
    *simplification of our personal lifestyles
    *political (group) action to construct a lifeboat group which is more sustainable
    *political (group) action to move our larger society in the direction of sustainability
    *recovery after a collapse

    Don Stewart

  12. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    I have recommended the book Just Enough by Azby Brown, which lays out in considerable detail how the people of Edo Japan lived in a sustainable society, based on wood, water, and sunshine. Some commenters want to talk about how the governing elite weren’t very nice people. Azby doesn’t address the morals of the ruling elite in any detail. He does talk about the specific ways the Shogun turned the samurai into gardeners and umbrella repair experts. He talks about the specific things which were done to reverse the destruction of the forests. He talks about the specific things which were done to make Edo a very healthy city as compared to London or Paris. In other words, he lays out the specifics. Azby is an architect and cabinet maker, so he has a keen eye for the way things fit together.

    I recommend that those who are interested spend a few minutes with this TED talk:

    Azby tells us how the Edo people solved multiple problems simultaneously, rather than tackle them in serial fashion. What he is describing is close to the thinking laid out in Capra and Luisi’s Systems textbook. If you think that your own survival or the survival of your children or grandchildren (or of society itself) might be dependent on making all the pieces fit together in a systemic way, I think a few minutes investment here will serve you well.

    Don Stewart

    • kesar0 says:


      Japan have the same process of increasing population with sometimes severe depopulation periods, as usual in “secular cycles”. Those happy, good, old days of feudal state model and “sustainable living” ended with Japan taking industrial path leading to WWII. Same story for all “developed nations”.

      • The demographics of Japan show a steady rise, from 11 to 22 million in ~1600, to 26 million in 1721, to 33 million in 1871. Slower than most of the world’s countries in the 21st century, but still 50% per century or so.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Matthew Krajcik
          From Wikipedia
          ‘The estimated population of Japan in 1600 ranges from 11 to 22 million, then a rapid population growth took place during the early Edo era to bring Japan to a country of about 30 million inhabitants by 1721,[9] though more precise total population estimates remain arguable.’

          Which is precisely what Azby Brown says in his book. The population grew strongly as the environment and society recovered from the destruction of the feudal period and the wars. Then the population leveled off in response to the policies of the government limiting families to the children they chose to take care of.

          Don Stewart

          • ” Then the population leveled off in response to the policies of the government limiting families to the children they chose to take care of.”

            From 1721 to ~1850 the population grew from ~26 million to ~33 million; not exactly leveling off. Slower than lots of other places at lots of other times in history, but still ~25% increase. I suspect Japanese expansion was more a response to population pressure, than the fault of a handful of Americans.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Matthew Krajcik
              The limit on population was ‘children you are willing to support’…not some government edict. Since we know that technological advances continued during that period, we would expect that people might also choose to have a few more children, or people were living longer. Zero Population Growth was not the goal.

              To me, the interesting questions are ‘Did the government get the incentives right?’ and ‘Did the incentives achieve the goals?’

              Don Stewart

          • It also sounds like the common situation throughout the world. Population somehow gets lowered and there are sufficient resources for the population to start growing again. Alternatively a population clears land for growing food that what not previously available for food, or a new way of producing food is discovered that raises the amount of food produced. Any of these approaches produces temporary “room” for a growing population. This room is just temporary. At some point, population growth has to level off. In many or most cases, a crisis is reached where the population must seek more resources through war, or there is a collapse of some other type–low wages of common workers, and higher disease levels. Governments that fail because they cannot collect enough taxes.

            • Don Stewart says:

              The key question is ‘why did the population of Edo level off? What was the mechanism?’

              Matthew Kracjik thinks it was a government plot to starve people.

              Azby Brown, based on his extensive research, says that the population of the farmers (85 percent of the population) was self-regulating, once the population reached the carrying capacity of the land after the disastrous middle ages. Among the factors that made it self-regulating:
              *the farmers could not just send surplus children off to the city
              *infanticide was accepted
              *each farm was self-reliant, in a largely self-sufficient village. Therefore, the connection between the harvest of food and other resources and the number of mouths to feed was evident to any peasant.
              *there were strict environmental controls on things like cutting firewood

              I think Azby has the better explanation. It may not be unique to Edo, but it is in contrast to much of the world today.
              Don Stewart

            • “The key question is ‘why did the population of Edo level off? What was the mechanism?’

              Matthew Kracjik thinks it was a government plot to starve people.”

              First, I never agreed that the population did level off; from the Japanese census records, I see the population growing constantly, other than the occasional set back from famine and epidemic.

              It was an article linked by another poster that suggests the government did not release food from storage, leaving people to starve, which lead to a failed rebellion, which eventually lead to a change in government.

            • Don Stewart says:

              And here is Azby’s summary of why we people in the 21st century should be interested in Edo:

              ‘Japanese society once faced the prospect of collapse due to environmental degradation, and the fact that it did not is what makes it such an instructive example. Japan entered the Edo period in 1603 facing extreme difficulties in obtaining building timber, suffering erosion and watershed damage due to having clear-cut so many of its mountains for lumber, and virtually unable to expand agricultural production to the degree necessary to feed a growing population.

              …All the more remarkable, then, that two hundred years later the same land was supporting 30 million people–two and a half times the population, with little sign of environmental degradation. Deforestation had been halted and reversed, farmland improved and made more productive, and conservation implemented in all sectors of society, both urban and rural. Overall living standards had increased, and the people were better fed, housed, and clothed, and they were healthier. By any objective standard, it was a remarkable feat, arguably unequalled anywhere else, before or since.’

              My complaint is that most commenters here are blinded by what they perceive to be our current problems. For example, stopping population growth. But a Japan with only 8 million people didn’t need to ‘stop population growth’. The society grew better as the population increased to 30 million. But then the rate of increase dropped quite sharply. Brown ascribes the broad changes to a distinctive way of thinking, which we might call ‘green’, for lack of a better word. I outlined some of the specific factors that led the population to stop increasing rapidly once ecological limits were encountered.

              So what we have is ‘rapid population growth up to ecological limits’ and then ‘slow or no growth once ecological limits are reached’. It’s the absence of overshoot that is remarkable. Such a pattern does not fit very well into the discussion here.

              Don Stewart

            • “So what we have is ‘rapid population growth up to ecological limits’ and then ‘slow or no growth once ecological limits are reached’. It’s the absence of overshoot that is remarkable. Such a pattern does not fit very well into the discussion here.”

              Unfortunately, statistics does not agree with you.

              From ~1600 to 1721 Japanese population grew from ~16 million to 26 million. From 1721 to 1870, from 26 to 33 million. Then from 1870 to 2000, from 33 to >120 million:

              The only set-backs they had in population growth was from volcanic eruptions, cold snaps, typhoons, earthquakes, famines and epidemics – nature, not choice.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Matthew Krajcik
              You can find different numbers for the population of Japan. Azby Brown is a college professor, and cites a vast amount of historical data. This particular source says pretty much what I said, except they don’t have the part about rapid growth coming out of the medieval period:


              This sustainable closed loop system worked on a much larger scale in Japan than elsewhere in the world. At the time, Japan maintained a steady population of 30 million people, meaning for 265 years the population did not increase beyond the small island country’s carrying capacity.

              With that, I leave it to you to argue with the experts, if you want to, about the numbers.

              Don Stewart

            • That seems to me to be a very bold and extraordinary claim, that a professor today has better knowledge of the population of Japan 300 years ago, than the government of Japan at that time taking the census.

              It also seems to be a very bold and extraordinary claim that they maintained a perfectly balanced population of 30 million for 265 years, without citing any sources or providing any charts, census data, etc.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Matthew Krajcik
              Asby Brown explains that he is not writing one more scholarly piece on Edo…he is trying to give a feel for the texture of life in Edo. Therefore, every claim he makes is not footnoted. However, he lists 120 articles in his references. Here is one which I have never read before, selected because it looked like ti might have something pertinent to your question.

              Don Stewart


              Once the Shogunal system was established, a peaceful condition persisted for the subsequent two and a half centuries. This was the single most important factor allowing Japan to sustain itself, for materials and energy did not have to be wasted, and the environment destroyed. In 1721 the government began to take a census every 6 years; hence there is a relatively reliable record of population thereafter. The population increased rapidly once peaceful conditions came to prevail during the 17th century, then it flattened out and remained more or less constant at about 30 million throughout this period, i.e., about one quarter of the current population of Japan. The constant population was not a result of governmental regulation, but of natural causes and intentional actions by people. Famines caused by crop failure s were a major reducing factor. It seems that people tried to lower the birth rate in general, and that some form of abortion and infanticide were practiced at times when increasing population pressure overwhelmed the food availability (Totman, 1993). It has been suggested that the Japanese system of inheritance may also have contributed to the stabilization of population, only first-born sons could inherit from their parents, and other siblings therefore faced heavy strictures not only on income and consumption but even the ability to marry and procreate.

            • As a side note, notice that World War 2, with all its casualties, only caused Japanese population to stay flat, and that by 1950, they were already back on trend-line.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              *infanticide was accepted

              As was, I believe, “senioricide.”

              Old people who were unable to at least care for themselves (if not contribute) were sent off to the mountains to die.

              I think old people have a great deal of value beyond chopping wood and carrying water, but when one is no longer able to look after children or even tell stories and impart wisdom, it’s time to go.

              Either of these are going to be a huge challenge in a world where “health care” has become synonymous with unreasonable expectation of heroic measures to support a few extra years of poor-quality life, or heroic measures to force an infant to live who will be a drain on society for the rest of their lives.

              And I say this as someone who’s best buddy in high school was a “biff” (congenital spina bifida) confined to a wheelchair, who probably would have died within months of birth without modern surgery.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Here, from page 39, is Brown’s report on his fictional farm family:

              ‘The couple has two children, the boy of twelve…and the girl of ten. Misaki was pregnant twice since, and while both came to term, they were ‘sent back’ by the midwife at birth. While not explicitly prohibited, large families are strongly discouraged by social norms, and adequate resources for all can only be provided if the population growth of the village is inhibited. This is also the reason the sixth member of the household, Shinichi’s younger brother Tsuyoshi, has never married and lives here in his brother’s house.

              More prosperous families with much larger landholdings might be able to consider allowing a second or even a third son to build a house and start a family, and many are taken into childless households or those with only daughters as adopted heirs. But the second son’s lot is assumed to be a solitary, if not strictly celibate, one. This value system definitely sacrifices a large measure of personal liberty for the greater common good. It may seem unfair, and some aspects of it, such as infanticide, or literally ‘thinning out’, even extreme. But the voluntary limitation of birthrate and family size has led to a stable population nationwide for nearly two hundred years, to the benefit of all.’

              I, as I have previously said, think that non-reproductive sex would be a better method. BUT, in a world with no fossil fuels, we are deluding ourselves if we think the issues will go away.

              Don Stewart

            • Brunswickian says:

              I imagine there is a threshold at which one recognizes that one is hopelessly out of one’s depth.

              Do you feel resonance?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              I… think non-reproductive sex would be a better method

              So did Ben Franklin!

        • kesar0 says:

          Right, let’s change the “depopulation” to “periods of much slower growth”.

          • Yes, because the Japanese Emperor was so powerful, he made the weather colder, he made the volcanoes erupt, he single-handedly caused the famines and epidemics, in order to control population.

            • kesar0 says:

              I am sorry, I can’t understand your point with emperor. Can you clarify, please?

            • Your use of the word “depopulate” seems, at least to me, to indicate human direction and control. Maybe you meant it to include natural declines as well.

            • kesar0 says:

              Well, I meant the broader meaning. In Wikipedia under “population decline” sometimes also called depopulation you have: large reductions in population due to violence, disease, or other catastrophes.

            • High population made the country vulnerable to any kind of environmental difficulty. In a sense, the problem was as much a population problem as it was an environmental issue.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          Japan has 127 million people now thanks to fossil fuels used to grow food. When the fossil fuels stop that should be interesting….

    • Artleads says:

      Nice video. Good to have affirmation for what I’ve been grasping at–trying to blog and talk about–that we are dealing with systems.

      • Artleads says:

        It isn’t JUST a question of FF running out. It’s also a question of dealing or not dealing with systems. Broadly speaking, no one deals with systems now (as, apparently, Edo did). And with extreme dearth of ff energy now and forthcoming, systems approaches are all the more needed.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Artleads

          May I use your comment to branch out in several directions. As I usually do, I will try to triangulate the truth, rather than try to look directly at the sun and more likely just blind myself.

          First, Matthew Kracjik claims that the Edo farmers planted too much rice. They should have had some other form of money to pay their taxes. Yet the rice they didn’t eat in their own family was also sold into the cities to feed the merchants and artisans and also to feed the aristocracy. Azby Brown says that there were only two commodities which were shipped in volume over considerable distances in Edo: rice and timber for building. All of the rice was eaten by somebody in Japan. By the end of the Edo period, virtually all of the Samurai class supplemented their ration of rice from a kitchen garden…you can read Brown’s book for details.

          My conclusion: people will make up complicated, but untrue, stories in order to avoid the hard work of looking in detail at what a society has to do in order to survive and thrive on a budget of sunlight.

          Second, I recommend a look at Albert Bates’ current blogpost:

          I particularly call your attention to the chart about halfway down which compares the food calories of several crops to the calories of fossil fuels used to produce those crops in the United States. The only really positive crops are maize (corn), wheat, potatoes, and beans. Please note that there are no calculations for crops grown in a kitchen garden. Yet the Edo ruling classes found it worthwhile to have a kitchen garden. Why does the US put out charts which exclude kitchen gardens? This illustrates another disconnect: the inability to imagine or the unwillingness to admit that the way things are done today isn’t the ONLY way to do things.

          Third, I will quote a little from Jane Hirshfield’s book Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World. Her subject is Basho, a poet during the late medieval period in Japan, before Edo. Basho’s father was a low-ranking samurai who made his living by farming. He died when Basho was young. Basho moved to Edo city when he was 28…far from the entrenched traditions of Kyoto. He worked for the city water company for a time…supplying better quality drinking water than was available in Paris or London. ‘Exposed early to uncertainty, loss, and disruption, Basho was, evidence suggests, susceptible to depression. Rather than distract himself from hardship, however, he turned toward its investigation….a period of intensive study of Zen…Zen is less the study of doctrine than a set of tools for discovering what can be known when the world is looked at with open eyes.’ These descriptive words could be applied virtually with no changes to Kelly McGonigal’s advice for making stress a source of strength.

          A headnote from one of Basho’s poems:

          The rich enjoy the finest meats and ambitious young men save money by eating root vegetables. I myself am simply poor.’

          The lesson to be learned here is that a clear-eyed look at how people lived in Edo, or any other society living on a solar budget, may very well reveal not only specific ways of putting life together that don’t fall into the traps illustrated by Albert Bates table, but that also address matters of the soul.

          Fourth, I have to relate that these thoughts were put together this morning at our usual food co-op Sunday morning concert. This morning we had babies, puppies, and Klezmer music. The babies were adorable and the new mommies and daddies were floating on air. The puppies were up for adoption, and my wife fell in love. If you aren’t familiar with Klezmer music, it comes out of Jewish music from eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These Jewish communities were poor and subject to religious persecution, but this is some of the happiest music ever written. To see the little kids dancing to it would bring tears to the eyes of the most cynical Doomer. At the table behind us, an older couple had a collection of friends celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first time they slept together. Also, their 47th wedding anniversary.

          How, in the midst of all this joy, can one be a Doomer?

          Don Stewart

          • First of all, it is not my claim, but that of the anonymous author(s) of the Wikipedia article on the Great Tenmei Famine:

            “Another cause of the famine was the government’s economic policies. During this period a mercantilist policy was implemented by Tanuma Okitsugu, a minister of the Tokugawa shogunate cabinet. This was intended to commercialise agriculture and thus increase tax income, which was paid in rice. This caused economic difficulties for many Hans and led to excessive encouragement of rice production (which was vulnerable to cold weather) in order to pay higher taxes. It also resulted in local emergency stores of food becoming depleted. These factors combined to result in poor harvests and a lack of emergency stores, which led to skyrocketing rice prices, so serious famine expanded to a national scale as a result.”

            “All of the rice was eaten by somebody in Japan.” Do you have records of rice production and consumption to show that none of the rice sat in storage while people starved? If it is true, if they were making more rice and all of the rice was being eaten, it indicates the population was growing (or people were working harder, or getting fatter – however, the population census charts show it is the former).

            “people will make up complicated, but untrue, stories in order to avoid the hard work of looking in detail at what a society has to do in order to survive and thrive on a budget of sunlight.”

            The thing they must do is control population, otherwise they will grow until there is too many, and they are forced to colonize or invade other places or have a civil war to bring the population back down.

            “The only really positive crops are maize (corn), wheat, potatoes, and beans.”

            Of course, if all you care about are calories, it will be the carbohydrate crops that have the most return on calories. Celery, you lose energy by eating it, but that doesn’t mean it has a negative value. Fiber, water, minerals and vitamins are all good, and it is good to fill with some filler rather than just pure carbs and protein.

            “How, in the midst of all this joy, can one be a Doomer?”

            You don’t have to be, you can choose hope, maybe even dream of utopia. It seems to me that the same lifestyle changes would be optimal, whether planning for doomsday or a brighter tomorrow.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              It seems to me that the same lifestyle changes would be optimal, whether planning for doomsday or a brighter tomorrow.

              Very astute!

              I think one can turn one’s back on civilization for better or for worse. It has certain advantages in either situation. The only disadvantage is that you aren’t distracted by all the things you never would have been distracted by if you hadn’t embraced civilization in the first place.

              Like the Internet. Which reminds me, I have to go check on a new baby goat, and get off this damn computer.

        • Artleads says:

          ‘m super limited, and have yet to figure out how to be less (simple mindedly) direct. Moreover, aesthetics–what I do or don’t find beautiful–provide my main guide. This has many limitations. Take this from the Bates article:

          “Making pig iron—the main ingredient in steel—requires blast furnaces.”

          I sort of like iron and steel, and haven’t seen close up how they are made so as to be turned off by the manufacture. But I imagine it depends on mountain-top removal, black lung disease and poisoned wells and aquifers…

          “Making cement requires 100-meter-long kilns that operate at 1500 degrees C.”

          I despise cement. I’ve seen the beautiful mountains it removes, and the cement dust it spreads across miles of landscape. But I also dislike cement because it is so cold and hard. Instead, I’ve invented (not in a business-like way) a kind of paper-crete that includes no cement in its construction, and that stands up well enough to extremes of weather.

          “Crucially, current manufacturing processes for building solar panels and wind turbines also depend upon high-temperature industrial processes fueled by oil, coal, and natural gas.”

          I dislike and distrust solar panels, since they are so insufferably slick. They just feel harmful manufacture-wise, with all the harmful, socially devastating stuff required to make them. But I have an array of panels on my roof. As almost never, I had a little money to spare, and I liked the feeling of not being completely dependent on the utility grid. (We’re still tied in to the grid, but I feel better for being partly independent of it.)

          I don’t have the money or know-how to retrofit my house to get us off FF-aided energy. But in theory, the solar panels will last as long as we do, and maybe I can bargain to get expertise needed to get us off the utility grid one day. That is a compromise with BAU.

          So there are the examples of steel, cement, and PV solar.


          – I like how steel can be used to gird up the infrastructure.
          – Would its manufacture be less destructive if it were manufactured in small quantities only for local use?
          – Is recycling automobile steel, etc. a means toward less harmful manufacture of steel?

          Conclusion: Steel is an open question, although small-dimension steel can be served by reusing abandoned vehicles far more extensively than at present.


          – As stated above, alternatives might be viable, especially through the use of steel rebar. This might suggest prioritizing some kind of steel production, since it can reinforce paper-crete construction, saving landfills, improving building and landscape aesthetics, saving hillsides, etc. Traditional adobe construction is perhaps as good or better an alternative, but I feel there is a better systems affect to taking paper out of landfills and revegetating the land . instead.
          – Convert to “tiny house” systems on a broad scale.

          Conclusion: I have some uncertainties as to adobe sans rebar, and paper-crete with rebar, but have more experience and confidence with the issue than with steel.

          PV Solar

          – I can imagine some small improvements
          – Replace solar farms on land with solar farms far out at sea
          – Instead of land-based solar farms, install solar ubiquitously on existing buildings and parking lots.
          – Retrofit buildings maximally toward passive solar and cooling towers, while maximally using efficient wood and passive-solar stoves for cooking.
          – “Socialize” the mining of solar materials to make it more just and less destructive.

          Conclusion: PV solar is gaining traction, and I’m not sure it’s the best use of time to oppose it. The industry can perhaps be improved.

          • “– Would its manufacture be less destructive if it were manufactured in small quantities only for local use?”

            The autoclave is one of the greatest inventions in human history. As I understand it, you need a huge pot, with about 20 tonnes of iron and 20 tonnes of coking coal, and you can make 20 tonnes of steel from it.

            If you try to do it at a small scale, you would need 100 to 1000 tonnes of firewood to process one tonne of iron into steel. So if you wanted to make a 100 pound steel plow, you would need to use 10,000 to 100,000 pounds of wood. The Chinese tried it under Mao, it did not work so good.

            You can efficiently recycle steel using electricity; you can pretty much do it with an arc welder and a graphite block:

            As for Photovoltaics, I don’t think it is the best use of solar energy. It seems to have potential, as long as you are not using batteries and not converting back and forth from AC to DC and different voltages all the time. On-Supply 600 VDC appliances could be amazing.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              As for Photovoltaics… It seems to have potential

              HA HA! I’m going to put that one in my electrical engineers joke book!

            • Artleads says:

              Well, the tons of coal would be out of the question for me. (I think of the book, Small is Beautiful). The arc welding, OTOH, sounds interesting.

              I’m in contact with an abandoned mining town. Economic/energy changes forced it to shut down decades ago, but dig one foot down anywhere, and it’s all coal. Whether there is technology for small, clean-ish, local surface-coal-produced electricity, I don’t know.

              If steel girders could be made from recycling abandoned machines with arc welding, that would be amazing.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              If steel girders could be made from recycling abandoned machines with arc welding, that would be amazing.

              Being familiar with both the techniques of extruding steel girders and arc welding, I must say that I agree that it would be amazing.

              Arc welding requires a stable power supply — such as the electric grid. That seems increasingly unlikely in a low-energy world. You won’t get much arc welding done with home-scale solar panels.

            • Brunswickian says:

              There are nifty little inverter/welders up to 140amp that run off 240vac 10a. Ok for small jobs. Not up to girders.

            • “You won’t get much arc welding done with home-scale solar panels.”

              Only during peak hours, in season, on a good day, with a decent system. An arc welder at 240v at 20 amps is only 4800 watts; a 10 Kw solar system is not unreasonable. Again, I think using the power On-Supply rather than removing all positive EROEI and spending tens of thousands on batteries to use solar On-Demand is a terrible idea.

              While it is a fun DIY project, the principles are similar to how steel and aluminum are properly recycled. It would be much better to have an industrial facility with a hydro plant. Some things just work much better at a certain scale. Recycling iron and copper has been done extensively for thousands of years, since it takes less energy than refining even high grade ores, let alone the left overs we have now.

              If things collapse to no industrial scale at all, making things in a backyard forge seems terribly inefficient, from time, energy, quality of product, throughput, pretty much any metric.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Do you think we could keep building Tesla’s with all this recycled material? That would be great

            • Brunswickian says:

              This is why Jay Hanson is so brilliant – he explains the manifest irrationality of people. ANYTHING that threatens gene propagation is EVIL!!!!

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Contrary to the received wisdom, people do not think and then act. They act and then rationalize.

              New data from the environment is routinely plugged into existing mental hardware (like entering a number into a spreadsheet), which is then followed by an appropriate thought. Since people have no wiring for “peak in oil and gas production”, news of the present energy crisis cannot generate the appropriate thought.

              Only prolonged reflection can grow the required mental hardware to place this critical piece of news in perspective. Unfortunately, only a few people can invest the thousands-and-thousands of hours necessary to see both the energy and evolutionary aspects of the human condition clearly.


              Got any other good links for Hanson?

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Contrary to the received wisdom, people do not think and then act. They act and then rationalize.

              New data from the environment is routinely plugged into existing mental hardware (like entering a number into a spreadsheet), which is then followed by an appropriate thought. Since people have no wiring for “peak in oil and gas production”, news of the present energy crisis cannot generate the appropriate thought.

              Only prolonged reflection can grow the required mental hardware to place this critical piece of news in perspective. Unfortunately, only a few people can invest the thousands-and-thousands of hours necessary to see both the energy and evolutionary aspects of the human condition clearly.


              SURPRISE! The sudden — and surprising — end of the fossil fuel age will stun everyone — and kill billions. Once the truth is told about gas and oil (it’s just a matter of time), your life will change forever.

              Envision a world where freezing, starving people burn everything combustible — everything from forests (releasing CO2; destroying topsoil and species); to garbage dumps (releasing dioxins, PCBs, and heavy metals); to people (by waging nuclear, biological, chemical, and conventional war); and you have seen the future.

              Envision a world utterly destroyed by a lethal education:

              Hanson forgot to mention the spent fuel ponds… and how starving people have in the past eaten their children…

            • Brunswickian says:

              Is there any point to it all? From what we already have the game is to cheat the genes. Considering the massive intelligence implicit in our genes this a struggle that is NOT FOR EVERYBODY!

              I thought you might like that.

            • Sure, we can cannibalize the many millions of cars already out there to make new Teslas. Just pass a law requiring everyone to recycle their cars every ten years. Recycle all the houses every 25 years. If we had unlimited energy, we could maintain current consumption indefinitely. Too bad the system requires perpetual exponential growth.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Solar is gaining traction? 0.17% is traction?


            This is traction?

            The German Solar Disaster: 21 Billion Euros Burned

            Spain’s disastrous attempt to replace fossil fuels with Solar Photovoltaics

            It is not possible for solar to ‘gain traction’ — there is are not enough raw materials to support any sort of traction:

            Replacement of oil by alternative sources

            While oil has many other important uses (lubrication, plastics, roadways, roofing) this section considers only its use as an energy source. The CMO is a powerful means of understanding the difficulty of replacing oil energy by other sources. SRI International chemist Ripudaman Malhotra, working with Crane and colleague Ed Kinderman, used it to describe the looming energy crisis in sobering terms.[13] Malhotra illustrates the problem of producing one CMO energy that we currently derive from oil each year from five different alternative sources. Installing capacity to produce 1 CMO per year requires long and significant development.

            Allowing fifty years to develop the requisite capacity, 1 CMO of energy per year could be produced by any one of these developments:

            4 Three Gorges Dams,[14] developed each year for 50 years, or
            52 nuclear power plants,[15] developed each year for 50 years, or
            104 coal-fired power plants,[16] developed each year for 50 years, or
            32,850 wind turbines,[17][18] developed each year for 50 years, or
            91,250,000 rooftop solar photovoltaic panels[19] developed each year for 50 years


            Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers
            Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.

            Both men are Stanford PhDs, Ross Koningstein having trained in aerospace engineering and David Fork in applied physics. These aren’t guys who fiddle about with websites or data analytics or “technology” of that sort: they are real engineers who understand difficult maths and physics, and top-bracket even among that distinguished company.

            Even if one were to electrify all of transport, industry, heating and so on, so much renewable generation and balancing/storage equipment would be needed to power it that astronomical new requirements for steel, concrete, copper, glass, carbon fibre, neodymium, shipping and haulage etc etc would appear.

            All these things are made using mammoth amounts of energy: far from achieving massive energy savings, which most plans for a renewables future rely on implicitly, we would wind up needing far more energy, which would mean even more vast renewables farms – and even more materials and energy to make and maintain them and so on. The scale of the building would be like nothing ever attempted by the human race.

            In reality, well before any such stage was reached, energy would become horrifyingly expensive – which means that everything would become horrifyingly expensive (even the present well-under-one-per-cent renewables level in the UK has pushed up utility bills very considerably).


            I’ve posted this perhaps a dozen times now …. yet people still believe solar is the way forward….

            Screw the facts. Koombaya overrides logic, science, facts, reality… Koombaya is a panacea…

            Whenever negativity creeps in (aka the facts start to get in the way) …. click here:

        • Artleads says:

          Systems require that every action has many applications, leading (I imagine) to symbiosis and wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts.

          • Artleads says:

            What little I know of Edo has appealed to me. Very advanced aesthetics. But here we are in the middle of monoculture IC. What we can learn from Edo has to be filtered through our very different culture. Much of it seems readily transferrable–like compost toilets and humanure. But I’m less clear about kitchen gardens, central government and population control.

            I’m proposing ways to not segregate gardening too much (through conscious aesthetic decision) from wildness. Modern Western dynamics are leading toward population control at some levels, while population keeps growing in other parts of the global system. What causes this to happen, how to benefit from it, and how it can be changed as desired are all things for discussion. I’m very anarchic by philosophy, and tend toward allowing problems to solve themselves, with only a nudge here and there.

            • Artleads says:

              “I’m proposing ways to not segregate gardening too much (through conscious aesthetic decision) from ‘wildness’, including encouraging and incorporating (hard to define) urban wildness.”

              Gardens everywhere then. Urban and rural, but without changing the character of the given urban, wild or rural spaces with which food growing is integrated. Heightening them, maybe. Enriching them, maybe. But not changing them.

            • ““I’m proposing ways to not segregate gardening too much (through conscious aesthetic decision) from ‘wildness’, including encouraging and incorporating (hard to define) urban wildness.””

              How do you deal with the deer, rabbits, birds and other creatures if your gardens are just open into the wilderness? I suppose you could kill and eat all the animals, but that seems an odd way to try to integrate with nature.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Good points…

              We are fencing shortly and these are all considerations in terms of the type of fencing we install… it is difficult to kill the vermin that destroy vegetable gardens unless you are going to put someone on watch 24/7…

              Of course there are also issues with cattle beasts, goats, pigs, sheep etc… fences break down … and replacement parts will not be available…

              Which means you eventually have to go back to the old ways of making fences… rather hard work…

              When one thinks these things through it is very easy to understand why farmers of old embraced the comforts and conveniences that BAU provided… chainsaws… fencing machines… tractors — these are all wonderful inventions…

              There won’t be much time for dancing about the camp fire thumping on bongo drums when BAU collapses … that will be the last thing on anyone’s mind after a full day of back breaking work…

            • “When one thinks these things through it is very easy to understand why farmers of old embraced the comforts and conveniences that BAU provided… chainsaws… fencing machines… tractors — these are all wonderful inventions…”

              Yes, it is too bad so much of this precious one-time gift of fossil fuels was spent on commuting around in cars, when a small amount of gasoline is so valuable in landscaping. Page wire and barbed wire fencing, electrified fences, all amazing devices to make life so much easier.

              If you are rural enough, I suppose you could just have dogs that run loose on the property all day and night, so they can chase off or kill and eat pests. On smaller land areas, that won’t be viable. Oh well, we’ll have our metal fences until after collapse, then the dogs can run loose.

  13. edpell says:

    A nuclear reactor for Cuba
    “”The key to this technology,” Khim explains, “is that the GeNiE reactor actually burns uranium 238 in a hybrid fusion-fission process that is clean, utterly safe, and secure. The reactor is cooled by helium gas – rather than water – which cannot become radioactive. There is no need for a separate heat exchanger or secondary loop, which greatly simplifies the reactor, increasing safety and reducing costs.”

    Global Energy Corp. is proposing to build a 50-megawatt plant as a pilot project on Guam, on a build, operate and transfer basis for which GEC would obtain its own financing. Guam ratepayers would pay only for the electric power generated. Khim says he will finance the estimated $250 million plant himself. “No initial money for Guam at all,” Khim assured. “I’ll pay all the money; I’ll run it; and give Guam cheap electricity.” He says once his company and the CCU enter into a memorandum of understanding, other issues, such as the location of the reactor, will be explored.

    “Our plan is to fuel the generator only once, and the fuel would last for 50 years,” Khim said. The fuel will be natural, unenriched uranium ore, which is mined in various countries including the U.S. and Australia.”

    • edpell says:

      That will teach me to reference an article before reading it. Please ignore the above. It is old and dead as far as I can tell.

    • Wow, so they are claiming all of the neutrons will be re-absorbed via fusion? Quite the claim. Maybe an island surrounded by fish bearing ocean is not the best place to test out an experimental reactor on a large scale.

      • edpell says:

        But if for some reason the islanders, Cubans, do not use the fish? I guess in Guam they do eat the fish.

        • If a nuclear reactor in Cuba leaked into the Caribbean, a lot more people than just the Cubans would be affected. How do we price in the negative externalities of nuclear power? How can they be insured properly? How can anyone ever afford to pay out to replace all that is lost in a nuclear emergency?

  14. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    For an angry/sad/resigned/hopeful take on sick care in the US, see this blogpost by a doctor:

    One thing about Cuba. They can’t possibly be doing it this way…they couldn’t possibly afford it.

    Now consider JMG’s current blogpost, which states that if we can’t afford to continue to do what we are doing, then collapse of the unaffordable systems is an essential first step.

    Don Stewart

    • With respect to healthcare, I think we have a several-way problem:

      1. Degradation of the underlying quality of people’s health, because of (a) forced lack of exercise because of desk jobs and long commutes, (b) growing contamination of food by antibiotics and pesticides, upsetting our own intestinal flora, (c) shift in food consumption to more over processed food, more sugar and high fructose corn syrup, and more artificial sweeteners, colors, and flavors, (d) push by marketers to too large quantities of foods and poor combinations of food.

      2. A medical system that rewards for lots of treatments of people, not for getting them well. The ideal patient comes back over and over, for more treatments of the same condition. There is no money to be made on a patient that permanently gets well.

      3. More and more layers of regulation and required record keeping. These drive up costs and take time away from patient care. They by themselves present a type of diminishing returns, since more and more layers of regulators need to be paid, and more and more physician hours need to devoted to creating computerized medical records.

      4. A medical system that has become so complex that it requires specialists in everything. At the same time, the underlying cause of problems is often from items listed in item (1). Each specialist dutifully treats his or her piece of the problem, without ever figuring out what is causing the problem. Patients are required to drive long distances to see the required specialist.

      The system may indeed need to collapse. At this point, the cost is too high for a large share of the population to afford. (This is why so many subsidies are needed.) I am not sure what it goes back to though–neighborhood healthcare works of whatever kind happen to be available?

      • Don Stewart says:

        Relative to health care and also the ancient middle east and a sort of middle ground between dictatorship and anarchism.

        When I was responsible for large groups (100 to 150 people) in corporate America, I used a hybrid model. If I knew what the problem was, and what to do about it, I simply told people what to do differently and set up controls to make sure they did it. If I knew what the problem was, but didn’t know what the solution was, I formed a task force. If I didn’t know what the problem was, and also didn’t know the solution, I had a group meeting. The group meeting involved putting lots of stuff on easel paper pinned up around the meeting room.

        What was common in all cases was that I made a decision. The group meetings were designed to get some convergence of all the minds on what we had to deal with and what the potential solutions were like. But in the end, I made a decision.

        I know some ‘permaculture villages’ that operate similarly. They are not ‘consensus’ or ‘majority rules’. Somebody is responsible for the overall effectiveness and makes decisions. If the decision maker is smart, they get a whole lot of people to give them advice. If someone is unhappy with the way the decision maker is doing things, they can always vote with their feet. The alternative….endless meetings which never resolve anything because a few people like to exert their ability to throw sand in the gears, is not attractive to me at all. I know there are theorists who try to work out better consensus models, but I haven’t really examined them.

        The saying about democracy is that it is a terrible system, but better than any other we have devised. I wonder. Perhaps the ancient middle east system where people voted with their feet, or the modern permaculture village where people vote with their feet, is a better system. I have seen the ‘vote with their feet’ work out pretty well in terms of charter schools. One school I am thinking of started out as an ‘iron discipline’ school, but found out pretty quickly that you can’t get more disciplined that the ordinary public school, and changed itself into an ‘artsy’ school for ‘creative kids’. I don’t think democracy is capable of behaving that way…other than deciding as a democracy that people ought to have the right to select the school their children go to.

        There certainly are problems with the ‘vote with your feet’ model. For one thing, it works much better if you have good transportation and there aren’t language barriers or religious barriers and the like. But I can’t think of any reason that we couldn’t have ‘health cooperatives’ which have behavioral rules, requirements for periodic testing of things like C Reactive Protein, monthly dues, and provide a pretty well defined set of treatments which will be paid from the co-op. For example, I know a person currently who has probably run up several million dollars in hospital bills, and is now going into Hospice care. Whether the co-op would pay for these kinds of expenditures in an elderly person or not would have to be laid out pretty clearly, and then people can take their choice in terms of willingness to pay.

        A decade or so ago, during the early debates about the health care bills, I had a discussion with a doctor along these lines. He said that I was too ignorant to even be uninformed. There is always a chance that the patient will recover, etc., etc. The bottom line, one size fits all. I submit that that cannot be the solution, as I think time has demonstrated.

        Don Stewart

        • Stefeun says:

          Democracy is NOT what we’re told it is.
          The rulers are Big Corp, and they certainly don’t defend the weak.
          We already knew that, but here’s a “scientific” confirmation.

          Some months ago a study was published, that showed that the US Congress “litterally doesn’t care what you think”.
          A short presentation:
          “Have you ever felt like the government doesn’t really care what you think?

          Professors Martin Gilens (Princeton University) and Benjamin I. Page (Northwestern University) looked at more than 20 years worth of data to answer a simple question: Does the government represent the people?

          Their study took data from nearly 2000 public opinion surveys and compared it to the policies that ended up becoming law. In other words, they compared what the public wanted to what the government actually did. What they found was extremely unsettling: The opinions of 90% of Americans have essentially no impact at all.

          This video gives a quick rundown of their findings — it all boils down to one simple graph:”
          The 6 min video (15 more links if you open it in Youtube):

          The rest of the presentation, with the key-charts:

          The Gilens & Page paper:

          • “Democracy is NOT what we’re told it is.”

            Correction: what we have is not democracy. Closer to Fascism, with Marxist influence, under Oligarchy / Plutocracy.

            • Stefeun says:

              You’re right, Matthew, your formula is clearer than mine.
              I’d add to yours, that socialism is for the uber-rich, while fascism is for the rest of us (maybe it’s the definition of pluto/klepto-cracy..?).

            • Jan Steinman says:

              “Democracy is NOT what we’re told it is.”

              Correction: what we have is not democracy.

              Democracy is not all its cracked up to be. Democracy is two wolves and a sheep, voting on what to have for lunch. It has little room for long-term implications. People vote with their stomach; democracy ensures a rapid draw-down or natural resources.

            • ” It has little room for long-term implications. People vote with their stomach;”

              I think that has more to do with the people doing the voting, rather than the system itself. If the people are flawed towards short term thinking, how can any system ran by humans expect to be based around long term planning?

        • Jan Steinman says:

          I know there are theorists who try to work out better consensus models, but I haven’t really examined them.

          In our model, those blocking an agreement have the responsability to come up with a better solution within a given time period. If they do not, the original agreement passes.

          • kesar0 says:

            In our model, those blocking an agreement have the responsability to come up with a better solution within a given time period. If they do not, the original agreement passes.

            Is it prepared for “do nothing” scenario as an alternative proposal?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Is it prepared for “do nothing” scenario as an alternative proposal?

              Certainly, and the “do nothing” alternative proposal must meet the same test as the original. If consensus is achieved to “do nothing,” that is what happens. Otherwise, the original proposal is passed.

              But consensus is not our primary way of getting things done, heaven forbid! It’s primarily used for delegation, ratification, and decisions that truly impact every single member.

        • You make some good points. I think that ultimately the model of decision making you describe works best–some chosen person has to make a decision based on the facts at hand. Trying to get everyone to agree is something that just doesn’t work.

          When it comes to what happens with a political system, we end up with politicians trying to please voters, and voters wanting promises that everything will be all right/better. We end up with two (or more) parties, each trying to come up with promises that are basically impossible, if a person thinks about it. The whole system becomes more and more distorted as the political system grants money to “prove” whatever needs to be proved to support their promises. There is huge emphasis on “science,” but a lot of this science is very iffy. No one can deal with the idea of living in a finite world, and limits being part of the “plan”.

          With respect to selecting healthcare groups that provide a certain level of coverage, I think in many ways that your idea makes sense. I think that the capping of the coverage needs to the at the “top”, or in terms of types of care provided to elderly and newborns, rather than huge deductibles at the bottoms. I think that this is what you are suggesting. I think that there are other problems in the system that need to be fixed as well: huge overhead costs if ICD 10 coding is used, huge use of physician time and over head costs of going to electronic medical records, also distortions in the system that come from a doctor getting paid more the more he/she does (surgeries, return visits, etc.). With a very many people without jobs (mostly not looking any more), the question of how to pay for any system becomes a problem as well.

  15. ekolojicevre says:

    Gail you said that: “dictators are likely the solution. We have seen a lot of them in the past.” Could you give some example? Which dictators solved these problems?

    • “Gail you said that: “dictators are likely the solution. We have seen a lot of them in the past.” Could you give some example? Which dictators solved these problems?”

      The King of Lydia, although how much is fact and how much myth, who knows. There was a famine in the land, with not enough food for everyone. So, his solution was to divide the population in two, and alternate between working and eating one day, and sitting around playing dice games and fasting the next. The people were able to ignore their hunger through entertainment.

      After 11 years, the famine was still ongoing. The King decided, since there was no way of knowing when it would end, to have a tournament between the two halves of the population, and the losers would have to be exiled and go live somewhere else. There is evidence that the side that lost became the founders of Rome.

      Castro did pretty good, keeping the population going for years on 1100 calories per day after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    • In small groups, there is usually one leader in charge, who might be a medicine man or other leader. I am not sure whether his role would be specifically as a dictator, but it is doubtful that he would be chosen by ballot.

      There are a huge number of leaders historically who have been kings or some equivalent type of leader. These certainly were not chosen by ballot.

      The type of government we have today requires a whole lot of energy to operate–representatives who have free time so that they can travel to the state or federal office building, where they meet. This requires that farming be sufficiently mechanized so that not everyone needs to be involved in farming. It also requires that roads and transport be available.

      The widespread use of representative governments has been permitted by the use of fossil fuels. Admittedly some used them earlier (including the US), but it is a difficult system to maintain. That is why systems which are cheaper, in terms of energy use have been used in the past. Kings and queens and similar rulers have been common around the world.

      It seems to me that as we lose energy, we are likely to lose centralized governing structures. In other words, the European Union is likely to disappear, somewhat analogously to the Soviet Union falling into its constituent pieces. We don’t know whether the United States will stay together, simply because smaller pieces are easier to govern when there are fewer energy resources. The smaller units, whatever they may be, may very well be ruled by a non-elected leader.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Some time ago I posted on your blog a link to a scholarly review of different aspects of the ancient middle east. For example, the big monuments were built by skilled craftspeople, not slaves.

        In terms of governance, things are a little more complicated. The governors are needed to enforce laws and to fend off foreigners. They weren’t exactly elected, but people could easily vote with their feet. If you didn’t like the way your local ruler was behaving, you simply moved somewhere else. There are episodes in the written records of rulers trying to appeal to the population, with things like land redistribution, etc. If a ruler can get an irrigation system built, and everyone can see that it is a common good, then they are more likely to remain in that ruler’s territory. Ruling simply by force of arms, when the population can easily pick up and move, was not an energy efficient strategy.

        To rule by force of arms, the ruler needs to have a captive group of subjects….which is why the Berlin Wall was built. If the US had free and open immigration, then regimes in Latin America would probably be more friendly toward their people. Part of the appeal of the Trans Pacific Partnership is that the elites will set up rules which favor corporations, and there will be no realistic escape for a dissatisfied citizen. Likewise, those who think that they will chuck it all and live on a homestead are confronted with the awful reality of property taxes and mandatory Obamacare and the like.

        In terms of individual freedom, the ancient world was something of a golden age. Frontier America was another golden age. But it is in the interest of the rulers to constrict individual freedom by making it impossible for Huck Finn to ‘light out for the territory’.

        Don Stewart

        • Don Stewart says:

          Also, consider the Dred Scott cases which dragged on in the state courts and the Supreme Court. It was vitally important to the southern slaveowners that their slaves could not escape. Little Eva couldn’t solve her problems by crossing the Ohio river on the ice. The Ohio police were bound by the Court decisions to hunt her down and return her to her owners. The Court imposed duty to hunt down escaped slaves was as intolerable to many in the North as it is intolerable to Moscow to see Kiev murder Ukrainians of Russian descent. Whether the ability of Ukrainians to emigrate to Russia proper can solve the problem, or whether the co-existence which was part of the Cease Fire will actually be accepted by Kiev, or whether the whole thing will erupt into WWIII remains to be seen. What is very clear is that the US will do nothing to force Kiev to live up to the co-existence agreements it made in the Cease Fire.

          Don Stewart

        • Maybe the word dictator has too many connotations attached to it.

          An effective leader is going to do things that the people he is leading perceive as being good for the economy. This is true whether the person is called a King or a President or Premier or something else, and whether he is elected or not. As a practical matter, it is not possible to impose programs by force against the people’s will–for example, one child families are very hard to implement. If families are only fined for having an extra child, the program only works for the middle class. The rich have enough money that they don’t care one way or the other about the fines; the poor don’t have money to pay the fine anyhow. (This was an explanation I heard in China as to how the program worked–or didn’t.) But partial compliance may still be better than no compliance.

          An economy involves a web of responsibilities and promises (for example, to repay debt, to take care of the younger generation, to take care of the older generation, to own land or buildings and what this requires–building maintenance, care of agricultural land, marriage vows, promise to show up for work and do a good job). These responsibilities and promises are in contrast to the desire for individual freedom. If a government takes over many of these responsibilities (pension plans for the elderly, free day care for children, ownership of businesses, ownership of land, ) then there is much less need for responsibility by people. Thus, people think that they have more freedom–no need to have children, no need to get married or stay married, no need to report to work on time, no debt repayment at the individual level. This freedom only lasts until it becomes clear that the government can’t permanently take over very much of the total because it is hard to get enough cheap energy flows for the government to actually “make good” on its promises. Governments tend to collapse, as limits are reached because there is not enough cheap energy to pay for its programs, as well as to provide energy to the individual people in the system.

          But people like government to take over their responsibilities, especially if they don’t have to pay the cost–it can be pushed forward to a future time/generation. This gets to be what political parties are all about. Who can tell the most convincing story about what the future will bring, and how growth can continue forever?

          • Artleads says:

            I’m very puzzled by the whole thing. First, you’re talking exclusively in terms of civilization. (And civilization is all that I and most people know.) But by many accounts, “civilization is a heat engine.” (Guy McPherson). Civilization can’t provide a viable long-term future. It requires unsustainable central governments, it destroys the environment, etc. But civilization is what we have, and some of us feel a need for it to last as long as possible, a viable alternative not having been found.

            We try to think of ways out of this conundrum. Edo Japan, which was highly organized and civilized, but used no fossil fuels, is one possible way. Nothing is certain. Could it be that western civilization has reached a standstill point where various out-of-the-box ways forward might still possible? So while there is debt and marriage and motor cars NOW, does it mean that we can’t go from where we are to something that is different from BAU?

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Edo Japan did not have a population of 127 million.

              Edo Japan did not farm the land with petrochemical inputs – which ruin the soil.

              Edo Japan did not use irrigation methods that were reliant on electrical pumps.

              It is ridiculous to compare Edo Japan to what is coming — in Japan – or anywhere else.

            • Artleads says:


              I grew up, a long time ago, in a non-urban area where the peasantry was still secure and stable (enough). The majority lived so far off the fossil fuel (FF) grid that I can’t imagine they couldn’t live without it entirely. (I’m quite certain that many did.)

              There are a lot more people today. They are a lot more dependent on FF today. STILL, a significant number of poor country people (and it “helps” that they are so poor) could manage without FF to a surprising degree. Many rural women in Africa STILL walk long distances each day to gather water or wood .

              Where I grew up was a small territory with an efficient government. But that was prior to the age of profligate FF use. There was sophistication from the rulers, but applied very sparingly, enabling a kind of hybrid situation. There was government and taxes, impacting peasants very minimally, and there was off-grid living, all coinciding. This modest use of FF affected the entire society and every class to some degree. As a youngster, I regularly pumped water by hand from a low lying tank to metal drums above that fed water to the house by gravity. Despite gradually increasing FF use, my family used kerosene lamps during my earlier days.

              What often happens by naysayers on this and other blogs is a rush to generalize. The requirement to use fossil fuels is seen as a universal trait–the same metric used for everyone everywhere. This is paralyzing. It skirts the truth, and therefore clouds imagination, creativity and mental clarity.

              The fact is that people worldwide have widely varied ways to cope with energy, and it would be best to allow them the freedom to take their varied paths, rather than impose on them a cultural monoculture. This cultural monoculture is, after all, the reason why everybody wants to drive cars and build roads today. People conditioned in the western way of thinking can’t imagine that there is such actual and potential diversity in the world, and they don’t see what they are doing to help snuff it out.

              The diversity in energy use isn’t limited to the third world. It is demonstrated by the many in the first world, including folks who live off grid or bike to work. But rather than support them with optimism, naysayers prefer to shower cold water on them. Devil’s advocacy is fine, I suppose. It helps keep us awake. But it must be challenged too.

            • ” Despite gradually increasing FF use, my family used kerosene lamps during my earlier days.”

              Kerosene is a “fossil fuel”. John D. Rockefeller was the one who made the big push to get people using kerosene instead of whale oil.

              I don’t think anyone here is going to be imposing anything on the people of the world, let alone trying to create a global monoculture. I could be wrong, there could secretly be plutocrats and world leaders posting anonymously here.

            • Yes, there are big differences, but I think that even rural Africa is affected by the much higher population today. Also, even if not a lot of fossil fuels are needed, there still are parts of the system that are supported by fossil fuels. Metal water tanks, and pumps to transfer the water from one tank to another would be an example. Workarounds would need to be found, before current ones start giving out from rust or friction or whatever else leads to degrading of the system.

            • Artleads says:

              “Kerosene is a “fossil fuel”. John D. Rockefeller was the one who made the big push to get people using kerosene instead of whale oil.”

              Good point. But using a kerosene lamp that requires no transmission lines, no central grid, and that you blow out when you go to sleep, must use a whole lot less FF than we use now?

              “I don’t think anyone here is going to be imposing anything on the people of the world, let alone trying to create a global monoculture. I could be wrong, there could secretly be plutocrats and world leaders posting anonymously here.”

              I’m not so sure about any of that. What anyone thinks or writes is having some kind of influence, however small. And when you aggregate this influence, it gets to be significant. And if some people who foresee collapse think in one (western)-size-fits-all terms, they may be unwitting lending support to BAU.

            • I think you have to have debt no matter what you do. It is not possible to pay workers in anything other than the goods that are being produced unless you have some form of money (and thus, debt) system. You need some sort of government, if you live at a level above hunter-gatherer level, and that requires some sort of taxation system which again requires money (and debt). Trading for goods also requires promises and guarantees, so tends to require debt. You can go back to a society where everything is shared, and there are rules for everyone to share everything they have. This probably requires less debt and less government, but it requires small groups, and strong rules within those small groups.

              It looks to me to be very difficult to get to a new system that is not BAU, and is at a very high level. If we had the skills to be hunter gatherers, and there were fewer of us, we could perhaps do this. Each step of advancement requires more and more similarity to current systems.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              If we had the skills to be hunter gatherers, and there were fewer of us, we could perhaps [develop a new system].

              There are not so many of us everywhere. I bet that a certain proportion is going to stay in the cities until the last moment.

              I’m cheering the end of “business as usual,” though. Food production as a deflation hedge only works as long as the population doesn’t crash. Dmitry Orlov’s observation that you don’t really miss those who “went away” during the fall of the Soviet Union is a bit scary. What if BAU survives a population crash somehow? Then those who are on dirt they haven’t paid for are going to lose it, as the remaining banks call in the loans of the now-worthless farmland.

              Hopefully, such a situation would make the banksters see the wisdom of at least partial debt relief, because if food production starts following oil into deflation while BAU survives, they should begin to see that they’re the next ones off the cliff.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Regarding debt. Here is the way Azby Brown describes things for the farmers and the urban artisans in Edo Japan.

              Page 67 for the farmers: ‘The shogunate has instituted a policy of mutual aid and responsibility called the go-nin gumi (five person group), which acts as a political and social unit between the household and the village. Many cooperative activities, such as planting, harvesting, clearing irrigation ditches, and major home maintenance are organized at the go-nin gumi level.

              In practice, the mutual assistance the kumi (village) provides, institutionalizing a dual labor system that benefits from having both a household and a communal workforce to rely upon, has an extremely positive effect.’

              The visit to the fictional carpenter in Edo city is described on page 144: ‘Sadakichi is a good carpenter, and he spent a long apprenticeship to become ‘full fledged’, able to perform all the tasks he might be called upon to do. He is 30 years old, and while some of his colleagues have already become independent, Sadakichi doesn’t yet have the capital or the backing from relatives to set up his own workshop. He is saving for that day, though, and his current humble lifestyle allows him to put away more money.’

              Whatever may have been true for the small number of rulers, the 90 percent who farmed or were artisans didn’t have much to do with banks and debt. The farmers could sell about a quarter of their rice crop, and could use the money to buy from peddlers. But I doubt the peddlers gave credit. It was not too long ago when you could find mountain people in North Carolina who had practically no money.

              Don Stewart

          • edpell says:

            Gail, you explained political parties perfectly.

      • Artleads says:

        “It seems to me that as we lose energy, we are likely to lose centralized governing structures.”

        For many years, and not through reasoned analysis, I’ve been passionate about the need to reduce government cost. I believe that the most useful activities of centralized government could (theoretically) be done at a small fraction of the current cost.

        The new (female) mayor of Barcelona was talking on the air today about reducing pay to representatives, taking away their spending accounts, etc. I bet Cuba has run on this model to a large extent. In the US, we should be preparing for how to transform governance once the money is removed from politics.

      • MG says:

        Last week, the Slovak media published the ideas of the mayor of the central town Trencin of the Trencin Self-Governing Region in Slovakia (where I live). His name is Richard Rybnicek and is a crisis manager who successfully saved the indebted Slovak state television (STV) in the past and now he has saved his indebted native town from defaulting.

        Here is a short summary:

        His idea is that Slovakia should abolish the function of the president of the republic and the current 16 self-governing regions. Instead, he would create 16 town cantons (inspired probably by Switzerland) and the capital of Bratislava. This would reduce the central government (i.e. the number of government departments, state offices, various state-financed organizations etc. Slovakia, with its distinct historical regions (shaped by its montains and valleys – my note) is better suited for such decentralized model, where only small government with maybe a yearly rotating function of the president among the small number of the government members would be a better solution.

        My conclusion:

        As a crisis manager who fights the debt, this guy seems to (at least partly) understand the situation of the world and its future of desintegration of the larger states into smaller units due to the contraction. His ideas are quite inspiring, when we take into account the fact that the towns constitute the historical energy hubs from which the civilization proceeded into more distant places. Now, when the contraction is here, the civilization will recede back into these centers, abandoning the less hospital areas, where the costs of transportation, infrastructure etc. will not be possible to be born with lower incomes of the people and their governments (i.e. less energy and resources) in the future.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          he would create 16 town cantons (inspired probably by Switzerland)

          A further observation from the years I lived in Switzerland: the Cantons (a.k.a. “states” or “provinces”) receive some 75% of tax money, and make essentially all the decisions that do not involve resourced beyond their borders. The Swiss Federal government is concerned mainly with statecraft, and the train/postal system, which are brilliantly combined into one function. (You can take public transport to anyplace a letter can be delivered.)

          The gemeinde (municipality) receives the next biggest share of taxes, with the Federal government getting by on 10% or less of the total tax burden.

          This seems like a better model for an energy-constrained world, unlike the US taxation model, where the biggest chunk of tax money goes to the Federal government.

          • MG says:

            Dear Jan,

            yes, the article mentions also the higher tax money allocation to the regions.

            What we see in the Ukraine is the same process. Unfortunatelly, this belief in big countries of the 19th and 20th centuries still persists and puts obstacles in the way of natural changes.

  16. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders, especially Ed Pell (the very reluctant gardener) and Artleads

    This essay will add to what I have previously said about Lifeboats. Please be aware that I am pushing into unfamiliar territory here. If it resonates with you, you can pursue the thoughts further on your own. I will use Capra and Luisi as my basic reference, but I will also refer to the work of Elaine Ingham, the soil scientist.

    Beginning around page 105 of Capra and Luisi, we get a discussion of the mathematics of nonlinear systems. Ian Stewart, the mathematician, said ‘As the world was a clockwork in the 18th century, it was a linear world for the 19th and much of the 20th century.’ But nature is ‘relentlessly nonlinear’.

    Capra and Luisi: ‘In the nonlinear world, simple deterministic equations may produce an unsuspected richness and variety of behaviors. On the other hand, complex and seemingly chaotic behavior can give rise to ordered structures, to subtle and beautiful patterns. The behavior of chaotic systems only appears to be random, but in reality shows a deeper level of patterned order.’

    and ‘In nonlinear systems, small changes may have dramatic effects because they may be amplified repeatedly by self-reinforcing feedback. Such nonlinear feedback processes are the basis of the instabilities and the sudden emergence of new forms of order, that are so characteristic of self-organizing systems.’

    If these nonlinear equations cannot be solved by analytical methods, how can we gain useful insights about them? Fast computers permit us to use ‘numerical’ methods which simply identify points which fit the equations. The points can then be plotted in what is called a ‘phase space’, with as many dimensions as necessary to show the relationships. Many systems will show a tendency to oscillate around ‘attractors’, which may be points, periodic oscillations, or chaotic attractors with definite patterns, which we call ‘strange attractors’. ‘One striking fact about strange attractors is that they tend to be of very low dimensionality, even in a high-dimension phase space. For example, a system may have 50 variables, but its motion may be restricted to a strange attractor of 3 dimensions…this, of course, represents a high degree of order.’

    ‘Chaotic behavior is deterministic and patterned, and strange attractors allow us to transform the seemingly random data into distinct visible shapes’.

    Now I want to consider a garden or farm, the plants and the soil, the nutrients in the soil, and the microbiome in that soil, and the other critters which want to live in the garden. There are a bewildering variety of microbes…change the temperature of the soil by 2 degrees, and the microbiome changes. If we compact the soil (with, perhaps, plowing or running equipment over it), then the soil becomes anaerobic and everything changes. If we add pesticides, then everything changes. Conservatively, we might say that we are in a situation with at least several hundred dimensions…and the events in any single dimension having nonlinear effects on all the other dimensions. What can a gardener do in such a situation?

    One strategy is to ‘kill them all and add to the soil only what we want’. One problem with this strategy, of course, is that we would be adopting a very high energy strategy, at a time when energy available for our use is likely to be declining. A second problem is that the complexity of the dimensional relationships exceeds our understanding, and so we really don’t have a clue how to begin to construct the world that nature presents us effortlessly.

    A second strategy is to look for the relatively few attractors, and then try to identify the leverage points which can shift the system toward an attractor which is favorable to human flourishing over the long term.

    For example, Elaine Ingham talks about how some crops thrive in bacterially dominated soils, some crops thrive in fungally dominated soils, and some thrive in balanced soils. She also describes how to move your soil into the dominance pattern you want for the crops you are trying to grow. In other words, she identifies the leverage points. (I see this as the collapse of a many-dimensioned system into 3 attractors).

    I don’t want to belabor all the advice Elaine gives, but perhaps one illustration will suffice. Elaine points out that the roots of the plants we want to grow will easily grow a dozen feet into the ground…provided there is no compaction layer. Deep roots have many advantages. They seek out water deep in the soil during dry periods. They bring nutrients up from deep in the soil. They hold the soil against erosion. And they crowd out weeds. But in order to get deep soils, we must avoid compaction. Which means that heavy equipment must not be used. EXCEPT that if you already have a compaction layer, you need to break it up with equipment while you still have the equipment and the fossil fuels to power it. Breaking a compaction layer by hand would be backbreaking labor.

    You really need to forget all the propaganda you have ever heard about Norman Borlaug and the Green Revolution. Elaine says that ‘the only time the Green Revolution has ever worked is in degraded soil’. Gardening in degraded soil with or without Norman Borlaug’s help is not the way you want to enter into the period of the decline of fossil fuels and other resources.

    What does this have to do with Lifeboats? Take a look at this essay by Courtney White:

    Note two items in particular. First, we already know what we need to do. But we mostly don’t do it. Second, he recommends working more with young people, who are more receptive to change.

    I think the hard-won pessimism that Courtney exhibits toward the possibility of change by those currently in power is accurate. (JMG’s current blogpost says much the same thing.) We do have to recognize that society is a living organization with nonlinearities. It might surprise us and suddenly shift gears. But at the present time, it seems that those driving the ship are determined to hit the rocks.

    Therefore, I conclude that anyone who thinks that food would be important in a collapse needs to be thinking in terms of Lifeboats.

    Let me give one example for why you need to get started now. Artleads is an artist and likes the ‘wild look’. He objects to neat rows. But it turns out that many pollinators are attracted by sight. What works best to attract pollinators are ‘drifts’. They are not straight lines, but neither are the plants scattered randomly. If you can find a natural meadow to walk across, in June, you are likely to see drifts of wildflowers. Many people find drifts more pleasing than random scatter. And the drifts are ideal for pollinators. This little tidbit of information is probably not knowledge you were born with. You might need to learn it by trial and error. So…it’s best to get started.

    Don Stewart

    • “In the nonlinear world, simple deterministic equations may produce an unsuspected richness and variety of behaviors. On the other hand, complex and seemingly chaotic behavior can give rise to ordered structures, to subtle and beautiful patterns. The behavior of chaotic systems only appears to be random, but in reality shows a deeper level of patterned order.’

      and ‘In nonlinear systems, small changes may have dramatic effects because they may be amplified repeatedly by self-reinforcing feedback. Such nonlinear feedback processes are the basis of the instabilities and the sudden emergence of new forms of order, that are so characteristic of self-organizing systems.’”

      For anyone who has not done so, check out Conway’ Game Of Life. A few simple rules can result in some pretty amazing emergent complexity, and the slightest change in a pattern can have massive effects. Any chaotic pattern eventually results in order, even if that order is eventually a static state. At the very least, it seems to me a great way to visualize how something so simple can make something so complex.

    • Artleads says:

      The main road I use into the city is rural, with large vistas of flat land framed by distant hills and mountains. While I don’t know exactly what drifts are, I note that the distant foothills have vegetation that runs horizontally as do the hills themselves. There is often a band of vegetation–not a rigid band, but flowing horizontally–interspersed with flat low growth, succeeded by other vegetation bands. This spectacle does have a drift-like feel.

      BTW, despite high hopes for my tiny garden bed served by the kitchen-sink gray water, that bed has been disappointing. Perhaps the gook from the kitchen sink plus the gook in the well water have served to compact the soil. And there is an aerobic stench from parts of the bed as well. I did sort of mulch the area, but nothing like another bed that I irrigates differently.

      This other bed is piled quite high with layers of stuff–cardboard, food scraps, horse manure, “weeds,” etc. Soil has been integrated with this pile, mostly from the top, and seedlings have been inserted where there is soil. The assortment of bugs and insects is amazing. (Oh yes, I also added worm casting close to the top.) This is as non-compact a planting arrangement as I’ve ever tried. So far, it feels like a breakthrough in art, when you discover a process that seems to suit you, that seems to be “you.” It’s then easy to irrigate by letting the hose drip where I need it to. Of course, proper drip equipment would be more efficient, but I’m cheap and a little crazy. I also aim to see how little “proper” technology I can get away with!

    • Thanks! Soil compaction is not the main issue, though, when soil is only about six inches deep over a layer of rock. So some fixes work in some places, but not in others.

      • Artleads says:

        Were I faced with the prospect of shallow soil over rock, the method I’m trying now would still be use–piling ON TOP a foot or more of added growing medium:

        “This other bed is piled quite high with layers of stuff–cardboard, food scraps, horse manure, “weeds,” etc. Soil has been integrated with this pile, mostly from the top, and seedlings have been inserted where there is soil. The assortment of bugs and insects is amazing. (Oh yes, I also added worm casting close to the top.)”

  17. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    Here is an article which reinforces many of the things I have said about the parallels between the gut microbiome and human health, and the soil microbiome and plant health.

    Please note the destruction of the gut microbiome by a diet of fast food. Industrial farming is the equivalent destructive practice in terms of the soil microbiome. I will write a few notes on that latter point sometime in the next few days.

    Don Stewart
    PS oats come in groats, not grouts. Bad spell checkers sometimes won’t permit one to easily type the word ‘groats’. The Apple spell checker seems to now permit me to type microbiome as one word that than two, but it still tells me I have a spelling error.

  18. Fast Eddy says:

    At first glance, the decline in the number of shares outstanding in ExxonMobil might make it look like a company that is slowly winding itself up.

    That is not how the group’s executives put it, of course. They talk about Exxon’s resource base of 92bn barrels of oil and gas, enough to sustain its production for 63 years at present rates.

    However, a company’s decision that it can find no more cost-effective place to invest than in its own shares tells you something about management’s views on its business and its industry.

    But the company’s focus on cash distributions to shareholders, and the fact that its oil and gas production is lower now than immediately after Exxon bought Mobil back in 1999, certainly look like evidence that it has given up on long-term revenue growth.

    Exxon is the world’s largest listed energy group, and like all big international oil companies it is facing structural challenges that make it difficult for it to grow. Stability while throwing off a lot of cash may be the best they can do.

    Critical strategic question

    Rex Tillerson, now in his tenth year as chief executive, faces a critical strategic question. Does Exxon accept that fate, curbing capital spending and returning cash to investors whenever possible? Or does it attempt to break out by making a large acquisition?

    The decline in Exxon’s number of shares outstanding has been dramatic. In 1999, the newly merged company had nearly 7bn shares. After repeated buyback programmes, that was down to just 4.18bn by March this year.

    The buybacks have been accompanied by growth in the dividend that has been much faster than for the S&P 500 index companies on average. Mr Tillerson told Exxon’s annual meeting last month that over the past five years, 46 cents in every dollar made by the business had been returned to investors in buybacks and dividends: almost twice as much as for its closest competitor.

    At the meeting, Mr Tillerson highlighted the strength of the company’s cash distribution and the growth in the dividend in particular, saying the 5.8 per cent increase in the quarterly payout even at a time of low oil prices demonstrated “confidence in our successful business model”.

    In the 15 years since Exxon bought Mobil, the company had returned $342bn to investors in dividends and buybacks, he added.

    The buybacks work for investors by boosting all their measures per share, including earnings. Between 2007 and 2014, Exxon’s total net income fell 20 per cent to $32.5bn, but its earnings per share rose 5 per cent to $7.60.

    However, a company’s decision that it can find no more cost-effective place to invest than in its own shares tells you something about management’s views on its business and its industry.


    They key sentence: However, a company’s decision that it can find no more cost-effective place to invest than in its own shares tells you something about management’s views on its business and its industry.

    If that is not an admission of peaked oil I don’t know what is

    • Agreed!

    • Exxon Mobil has a lot company doing this. I recently saw a chart comparing the sum of (buybacks plus dividends) to funds used for reinvestment. This might have been in a paper version of Forbes. As I recall, the lines recently crisscrossed, with funds buybacks plus dividends rising higher while funds used for reinvestment dropped. If this is correct, there probably is an online link available too.

  19. Siobhan says:

    Some recognition of your great work, Gail!
    Our Finite World was included on Peter Leeds’ list of Top Oil and Gas Blogs

    • Thanks for pointing this out. Someone wrote to me asking me to review a little summary that they had written about Our Finite World.

      I didn’t realize that I would be listed up on the “best blogs” list. I see Ron Patterson and Euan Mearns are listed too. I know Euan from the Oil Drum, and have read a lot of Ron’s posts.

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