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. John says:

    Cuba attempting to join the “system” at this stage of the game is tantamount to boarding the Titanic just before it hits the iceberg after being informed that it’s just about to hit the iceberg! The system is dying thank G_d. Cuba is one of the few countries well placed to survive the coming tsunami of excrement heading our way simply because for the most part it hasn’t been a part of our ridiculous system. Some can mock now but I suspect most will be crying soon enough. Cuba will need a deterrent though because the US is going to drag everyone down with them if they can. They will “liberate” as many countries as possible (of their natural resources) before this unfortunate saga ends. In a nutshell, intentionally or unintentionally, Castro was a genius.

    • VPK says:

      Good post. Castro knows the real deal and I agree, a genius in some areas. Too bad he had Uncle Sam to contend with and tried his hardest to monkey wrench

      • Fast Eddy says:

        I’ve often wondered what the various socialist leaders would have achieved if were it not for the CIA’s efforts to destabilize and undermine them…

        They usually ended up paranoid (for good reason) and turned to violence against their opponents — who were usually supported by the CIA…

        Thus, these revolutions were bound to fail from the get go

        • VPK says:

          Too bad Lenin had to rely more and more on Stalin because of the West and their efforts to undermine the Soviet state. What if Stalin did not come into power…

    • I mostly agree with you:

      Cuba attempting to join the “system” at this stage of the game is tantamount to boarding the Titanic just before it hits the iceberg after being informed that it’s just about to hit the iceberg!

      In a nutshell, intentionally or unintentionally, Castro was a genius.

      I don’t think Fidel really minded the blockade. It kept the Americans out.

  2. urbangdl says:

    Maybe that is why we haven’t found any other civlization similar to ours in space nor they haven’t found us, complexity goes into diminishing returns regressing any type of progress till the planet replenishes the consumed resources and energy. But just what kind of civlization can be sustained following the natural Cycle time spans of an earth like planet?
    And to what extend science must go in order to harness the ultimate known sources of energy to us?.. nuclear fusion… antimatter, before even considering bending time and space to fit natural timse spans to our needs and neglecting enrgy loss or escaping from dying stars.
    there must be a way and I hope teh best of humanity finds it, not with our current mindset, maybe we are just strings in the fabric of the universe potentially able to change our destiny or only capable of imagining the ilusion that we can… not giving up as long as my body, mind and spirit are allowed to be together.

  3. Miguel says:

    Maybe that is why we haven’t found any other civlization similar to ours in space nor they haven’t found us, complexity goes into diminishing returns regressing any type of progress till the planet replenishes the consumed resources and energy. But just what kind of civlization can be sustained following the natural Cycle time spans of an earth like planet?
    And to what extend science must go in order to harness the ultimate known sources of energy to us?.. nuclear fusion… antimatter, before even considering bending time and space to fit natural timse spans to our needs and neglecting enrgy loss or escaping from dying stars.
    there must be a way and I hope teh best of humanity finds it, not with our current mindset, maybe we are just strings in the fabric of the universe potentially able to change our destiny or only capable of imagining the ilusion that we can… not giving up as long as my body, mind and spirit are allowed to be together.

    • kulm says:

      It is actually much closer than you think, although the politicians and the media do not understand that.

  4. kulm says:

    There will be no collapse and no derivative bomb.

    granted life will be horrible for most people. but the few who do matter will be fed and protected, and insulated while the rest of the world die, kept unseen by the elite’s loyal and ambitious servants.

    • Brunswickian says:

      There can’t be any doubt that economies of scale will collapse and mass produced items will no longer be cheap, if available.

      Actually, I am surprised some depopulation plan has not already been implemented.

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Will it be kinda like Downtown Abbey?

      • Kulm says:

        Downton Abbey would look extremely egalitarian in this situation.

        As late as 1909, Korea, hardly not a wilderness, had a strict hierarchy in which only a few thousand people among the top echelon were treated as human, slaves were casually traded with cattle, and the aristocrats could beat those of lower rank without impunity.

        And North Korea still adopts it. Although it also has the dubious distinction of the only country in the world which is not affected by Central Bankers and is probably free from any changes caused by the Finite World.

    • garand555 says:

      Elites come and go. They always have and always will. I don’t know why you think that our current crop will fare so well, considering that they depend on the very same globalized trade networks that we do.

      • Kulm says:

        Not really. Some lower elites do go. But the ‘core’ still stays. There are still quite a few landowners in England whose ancestors came with William the Conqueror.

        The higher-IQ people will stay that way and become eternal elites.

        the truly chic, the top out of sight, will never be destroyed because they have a higher standard of education and intelligence from the rest of the humanity.

        >We need less democracy and more free markets. Instead of a constitutional republic we should have a technocracy or a plutocracy. Only people with a certain threshold of Reddit Karma, a sufficiently high IQ, a net worth in the top 1%, more than 5,000 Instagram or Twitter followers, or a STEM degree should be allowed to vote.

        • garand555 says:

          Yet Roman elites are gone, and so are 18th century French elites. The elites in Italy and other parts of Europe lost significant portions of their power in the late 1340s throughout the rest of the century because they depended on the surfs, and ~50% of those surfs got wiped out by the plague. Some elites died, some retained power, some lost some power, some lost all of their power and new elites arose. Your premise that they will always drop out of sight is historically false. Nothing is permanent. What happened after the fall of Western Rome and the French Revolution is that new elites came in and replaced the old ones. Being at the top can be dangerous if you don’t have what Sun Tsu called “way.”

          And it still boils down to the elites depending on the same global supply chains that we do. Neither their wealth nor their knowledge will allow them to violate the laws of nature, and that is, in part, what they are going to be up against.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Ancient chinese proverb: first generation makes the money — second maintains things — third blows the lot.

            Not many families prove that wrong.

            When the global economy goes there will be no chance to blow the family fortune — the trust funds go — the property assets are worthless — the stocks bonds even gold silver — everything will be worthless.

            A friend’s wife is head of trusts at a big bank — and is the gatekeeper to a lot of massive fortunes — she tells the tale of one 40ish fellow who’s never worked a day in his life who comes in begging for more than his regular stipend — one time he asked for USD150,000 for an overseas yoga weekend…

            One of the upsides of what is coming is people like this will get a taste of what it is like to live in desperation — without food — without clean water or medical care — (without 150k yoga weekends).

            • kulm says:

              Rockefeller. Rothschild. Morgan. Koch.

              Pritzker (Hyatt).

              The old money in northeast few people would have heard about although they are active in instagram among themselves.

              Europe is even worse.

              I am sorry but if you go to higher echelons they tend to be descended from someone powerful.

              and they now are armed with the latest genetics tech which is out of reach from ordinary people.

            • garand555 says:

              The latest genetic technology isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

          • kulm says:

            18th c French elites came back on 1815 and their descendants are still doing great.

            • garand555 says:

              Except for the ones who were guillotined. Not all made it. Nothing is permanent. They are not omnipotent.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          “the truly chic”

          Somehow I don’t think being tres chic will get you far post collapse.

  5. Artleads says:

    “However, the drought and the poor state of the water pipe system in Havana, population 2.2 million, are conspiring against stable distribution. Water authorities have acknowledged that about half the water pumped nationwide does not reach its destination, due to leaks in the pipes.”

    • Fast Eddy says:

      We seem to forget that Cuba has never been unplugged from BAU. Havana’s sewers function because there has always been electricity available. They still traded.

      I do not think using the situation when Russia stopped supporting Cuba is a good benchmark. It will get a whole lot worse than that

      • The drop in Cuba’s energy consumption was not all that great, about 1991. Look at Figure 1. By 1997, they were most of the way back up to where they and been before. The drop in energy consumption was actually worse in the 2004-2006 period, which is a time when they were having disruptions with their electric grid.

        There was a lot of trade with the Former Soviet Union that they lost, though, that doesn’t show up in Figure 1. The Soviet Union provided Cuba with a lot of canned food, particularly fruit and vegetables. This disappeared, and needed to be replaced with permaculture.

    • Artleads says:

      Just about every dry place could use this idea. It also shows that cities don’t always need to import water from outside:

      This is within Cuba’s capability to do.

  6. Kulm says:

    In every collapse, the periphery will collapse first.

    The so-called third world, which contains more than 70% of the world’s population, will collapse but its richest and most intelligent will move to New York, London and Sydney.

    Economic collapses will occur in the poorer countries but the sufferings will be localized and BAU will continue to be strong in countries which do matter.

    Remember, about 2-3% of the world owns about 95% of the world’s wealth. The rest of the world is, I have to say, largely irrelevant.

    • John says:

      I don’t say this lightly. I have studied the problem for years now and I keep coming back to one scarily obvious solution and there is only one solution, short of a miracle. About 6 Billion people have to die. As you correctly point out. I don’t think it will be the power elite. In the name of the “greater good” most of us are going to be exterminated. There is no other way. The simplest way is disease probably a virus. By the way. This is the best case scenario! Simply letting things unravel will be far worse.

      • Kulm says:

        They already gave us a warning at the Georgia Guidestones.

        The Dark Enlightenmenters might just be those who struggle to be in one of the blessed 500,000, 000 who will have to ‘Leave Room for Nature”.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          Based on their understanding of scriptures such as Revelation 14:1-4, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that exactly 144,000 faithful Christians go to heaven to rule with Christ in the kingdom of God.

          Damn… I should have opened the door and listened so I could have got my lottery ticket.

          • Kulm says:

            Except in that case only 144,000 Jewish men (12,000 from each tribe) who never had sex qualify.

            In any case, whoever built the Georgia Guidestones did announce the elites’ plans already to the entire world.

          • It also says the chosen are virgins who have never lied. Elsewhere, it also says it is made of 12,000 from each of the 12 tribes of Israel, but the Jehovah’s Witnesses insist that is symbolic.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Just as when Christians claim when absurdities in the bible are pointed out….

    • Fast Eddy says:

      Wishful thinking (as usual). The elites will be eating rats roasted over fires fueled by plastic (because the trees will be gone in about 3 months post collapse)

    • I suspect that you are right, about the periphery collapsing first. In fact, it may already be collapsing, and we don’t recognize it. Some of the periphery may even be within the United States–the uneducated and the poor.

      • xabier says:

        Part of that internal periphery would be the people in Europe (including Britain) relying on food banks as the social security system fails them. One of the few growth industries we have.

        • Kulm says:

          Tesco (Britain’s largest super market chain) estimates the actual population of the Great Britain island (England, Scotland and Wales) as at least 70 million, based upon food sold, rather than 57 million as reported by the agencies.

          The population of the so-called first world is at least 10% – 20% higher than it shows on the official reports, since there are so many undocumented people living in one kind of dole or another.

          Also it is probably that the number of African-Americans are much more than what they say at the statistics.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          If there’s money to be made Goldman Sachs surely will see an angle! (soylent green…)

    • James says:

      Or is that just old-fashioned western linear thinking giving way to that which gave it birth in the first place?

    • VPK says:

      At least they need not be concerned about freezing and thawing of the roads as Gail mentioned. Oh my!

  7. Fast Eddy says:

    “The problem with capitalism, and socialism, and communism and every ism in between is that you eventually run out of cheap to extract resources” Fast Eddy, 5/29/2015

    • James says:

      LOL! Indeed! The problem with all “isms” is that you eventually run into the hard ground of “realism.” Only it ain’t an “ism” at all, it’s just plain real.

    • I agree. I expect that capitalism generally gets to the end first, though. It allows the natural self-organizing system to do its magic. Attempting to command a different structure from above doesn’t work well.

  8. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail

    (Started a new comment to get space for a lengthy response).
    Regarding BW Hill’s model. I am, of course, not the expert. BW Hill is the expert.

    However, I must admit to considerable confusion about your rejection of the model. Much of your concern seems to stem from long-standing concerns about Charlie Hall’s studies. But I don’t see any very close connection between Hill and Hall

    One of your objections is the mixing of different energy sources, such as coal and oil and gas. Here is an excerpt from The Energy Factor, Part I:

    ‘Over the forty six year period that the process was evaluated, on average, it required 4.9 BTU (see section 5 of Study for details) taken from the extracted crude to provide 1 BTU of work in the form of goods and services, which then could to be put back into the well head.’

    Since I don’t have access to Section 5 of Study, I am not sure what is calculated. From the way the analogy to the efficiency of an internal combustion engine is used, I assume that the 1 BTU of work is that performed by oil. On the other hand, it could be that the 1 BTU of work comes from a mix of energy sources. I don’t think that makes any substantial difference. The basic question is whether oil can continue to serve as a producer of net energy to the economy. In order to answer that question, we have to compare the energy we get from oil with the energy inputs required to get output energy. If oil is no longer capable of being a source of energy, then we will have to find other sources of energy, and perhaps use oil as an energy carrier. For example, coal fired electricity can be used at the well-head, to produce diesel fuel which is far more adapted to use as a transportation fuel than electricity from coal fired plants. HOWEVER, oil is no longer serving as a net energy source…which is a profoundly important conclusion. This is the same phenomena as using hydrogen as an energy carrier for transportation. Hydrogen is not a source of energy, merely a carrier.

    Hill concludes Part I with the statement:
    ‘Declining production volume is only one possible effect of the petroleum depletion event, and undoubtedly the lesser of them’

    It seems to me that this statement puts Hill’s study in a different camp than normal peak oil studies, including those of Charlie Hall.

    Part II includes this sentence:
    ‘ETP is an acronym that stands for Total Production Energy. It is the total energy needed to extract, process, and distribute a unit of petroleum. It is a computed value derived from the solution of a thermodynamic equation: The Entropy Rate Balance Equation forControl Volumes.’

    This doesn’t sound at all like a Charlie Hall study to me. It is closer to what Tim Garrett does with his model…although the two are different.

    He explains why the model is important with these paragraphs in Part II:

    ‘The energy to produce petroleum, and its products is increasing. As shown on the graph in 1960 it required 8,600 BTU/gal to extract, process, and distribute a gallon of petroleum, and its products. By 2012 that had increased to 70,900 BTU/gal. By 2030 that will have increased again to 99,400 BTU/gal, at which point there will remain no energy from petroleum to be used by the general economy. These values represent average units, some barrels will fall below the 99,400 BTU/gal level, and some above. The increasing energy costs of producing petroleum is the result of increasing well depth, increasing viscosity, and most of all increasing water cut. In 1960 the average world water cut for conventional crude was 22.8%, by 2012 that had risen to 46.9% (see study for details).

    As discussed in Part I, as the energy to extract petroleum increases by one BTU the energy delivered to the general economy declines by almost five. When the energy to extract a gallon of petroleum reaches 20,327 BTU/gal the energy remaining for the general economy falls to zero. Many of the substitutes now being used to replace conventional crude are already close to that value. It is the lower production energy of the remaining legacy fields of conventional crude that are providing the energy consumed by the general economy. As the energy to extract conventional crude increases, the energy available for consumption by the general economy will continue to decline. Petroleum depletion is an ongoing event!’

    The 5 to 1 multiplier is important (and, as I discussed above, it is important whether only petroleum or some mix of energy sources is used). And a really important output from the model is a measure of the ‘energy available for consumption of the general economy’. I would call this a ‘Net Energy’ model rather than a Peak Oil Volume model or a study of EROEI.

    In Part III, we find these statements, along with Graph 9:

    ‘The cost of producing petroleum can be determined from the energy required to produce it. This statement has several implications that are not generally recognized. It indicates that the quantity of petroleum that remains to be extracted is not just a property of the volume of the resource that remains in the ground, but that it is effected by the quantity that has already been removed. The total quantity of extractable petroleum is a specific value determined by the properties of the fluid, and the rate of entropy production in the system. This is equivalent to stating that the price will continue to increase until the product becomes unaffordable to the end consumer. The ETP equation gives a means to determine when that point will be reached.

    To extract petroleum, and to produce its products requires energy. As the extraction process progresses the energy required per unit increases. This occurs because the petroleum industry is always first removing the highest value oil available. This can also be shown from the entropy production that must accompany any process for it to go forward. The fact that the energy to produce energy increases with time is a thermodynamic certainty. It is assured by the Second Law. As energy is a necessary component of the economy (nothing can be accomplished without it) acquiring it comes at an increasing cost, and that includes the energy industry.’

    In short, the cost of producing oil has been increasing exponentially. Cost increases after we produce each incremental barrel out of a field. For example, the water cut increases as we pump a barrel, and the water cut inevitably increase the cost of producing the next barrel.

    In part IV, we get the interplay of value and cost, with projections for the future:

    ‘The Petroleum Price Curve, shown below, reflects the two factors that have, and will continue to control petroleum prices. The ETP derived Cost Curve is constructed from the ETP model, and has mapped the price of petroleum since 1960 with a correlation coefficient of 0.965. It is the most accurate pricing model that has ever been developed, (see report)*.

    The Maximum Consumer Price curve was also developed from the ETP model. It represents the maximum price that the end consumer can pay for petroleum. It is based on the observation that the price of a unit of petroleum can not exceed the value of the economic activity that the energy it supplies to the end consumer can generate.’

    After the year 2012, the consumers ability to pay became the dominant factor. The ability to pay is now less than the cost of producing an incremental barrel (according to the ETP model). Therefore, while cost will continue to increase exponentially, the price will fall because the consumers cannot generate enough GDP from the oil to afford to pay for it. I’m not familiar with everything Charlie Hall ever did, but I don’t think he did something like this.

    Hill’s model is related to Tim Garrett’s model. Both are thermodynamically based. But Garrett is using oil production, while Hill is estimating what I would call Net Oil…the amount of energy which can be delivered to the non-oil economy. Garrett’s variable and Hill’s variable may have been close in the past, but they now seem to be diverging rapidly.

    You object that the real problem is diminishing returns. And yet it is diminishing returns that are at the heart of Hill’s model (at least as I understand it). Arguments against Hill’s model might take the form of technical quarrels, or the more general claims that technology will trump thermodynamics. I don’t think comparing Hill to Charlie Hall is very informative.

    Don Stewart

    • edpell says:

      Don, Gail, clearly both diminishing returns are happening in terms of how much energy is needed to extract and deliver a barrel of oil and in terms of things like how much energy is needed to produce one pound of copper. Copper from ore that is 10% target material takes far less energy to process than copper from ore that is 0.1%. Farming depleted land takes more energy inputs. Getting water when the easy local sources are tapped out takes much more effort. It is both sides of the equation.

      It may be that Hill and Gail see one of the two sides are the predominate cause.

      For myself without detailed computer model calculations I do not know what the answer is.

      • We are talking about details of how the limits scenario takes place. A model has to be really good to get this right.

        There are EROEI limits and there are financial limits, but connecting them is very tricky. What we are approaching in my view is financial limits–economic growth that does not occur fast enough to allow our system of paying back debt with interest to continue to work. The symptoms we are seeing right now (low commodity prices, low wages growth, increasing difficulty with increasing debt) are precisely the kind of symptoms we would expect to see as we approach limits. I don’t see the model leading to the symptoms we have today.

    • Our real limit is a financial limit. I am not convinced that this model gets us to these financial limits properly.

  9. Jane O'Sullivan says:

    Gail, thanks for drawing attention to Cuba’s near-stable population as a contribution to its success. Both Puerto Rico and Cuba were early family planning adopters, but Puerto Rico was already very densely populated. Cuba, as you mentioned, had the added bonus of mass emigration. The education program helped, and probably the general hardship following the revolution also changed traditional attitudes to responsible parenting. Maybe the revolution also suppressed the authority of the church – I don’t know, but it was a very serendipitous combination of factors for Cuba’s development. The improvement in housing that was achieved post-revolution could not have happened with high population growth. The legacy of all those old buildings (now crumbling) would have had little benefit if the population had quadrupled. Nor could the level of entitlements to education and health care have been maintained. The role of population growth in generating poverty in places like Haiti is very under-recognised.

    • I agree with you here too. The main religion in Cuba seems to be Santeria, which is primarily African with some Roman Catholic elements. It doesn’t seem to have any problem with birth control.

  10. edpell says:

    Talk of more efficient food production is fine but it fixes nothing. It might provide a 30 year reprieve but then we will be back with the same over population problem.

    We have only one problem limiting the number of humans. This is the issue that needs to be addressed.

    Should this be done locally or globally? If it is done locally then the stable population areas and declining population areas have to hold back the tide of high growth population areas that want to come in. This is best for island. If it is to be done globally this requires a one world dominant military force. Which I do not see emerging in less than 100 years.

    • edpell says:

      There are two island nations that are declining their population Japan and Cuba.

    • James says:

      More efficient food production actually continues to compound the problem (as Catton pointed out so well), as efficiencies are always plowed into either more consumption for the few or more of the many, usually a combination of both. But you’re right, limiting the number of humans is the real problem now, just as it always has been. And no, no force, method, or policy today is even remotely up to the task, except, ahem… the tried and true method we’ve always used: war on a massive scale.

      Just for fun I Googled “population numbers if wwii hadn’t happened” and came up with this return,
      mostly a bunch of chat boards speculating on the numbers. Long story short, 80M dead would have turned into ~250M alive now, given population growth rates in the interim. All that assumes that another war wouldn’t have happened in its place, which it probably would have, and that current growth rates would have occurred regardless, which they probably wouldn’t have, given that those 80M lived in areas that were for the most part already fully populated.

      Sad to say it, but from a purely biological standpoint, war among humans serves a valuable purpose in somewhat limiting our numbers, albeit one that has a lot secondary unintended drawbacks for the biosphere as a whole as well. In fact, our technology seems to be at odds with itself mostly, doesn’t it? Especially when you consider that most truly paradigm shifting projects these days are (and have been for quite some time) funded by/in the name of US Military interests, and most of that off the official books at that.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        80M dead would have turned into ~250M alive now, given population growth rates in the interim.

        Probably not.

        Columnist Marilyn Vos Savant was asked by a reader how big the population would be if all the men who had died in all the wars had instead lived. Her surprising answer? About the same!

        Her reasoning is that women have ample opportunity to produce offspring — men are not the limiting factor! If sweetheart Johnny didn’t come back from the war, well, Charlie did. History shows periods when women were not above sharing, when there was a lack of men.

        So women control population growth, who’d have thought? Isn’t that what demographers have been telling us?

        For most species, males are somewhat irrelevant, and there is always an excess. We keep one rooster per dozen hens. We keep a buck and a spare for two dozen does.

        It always amazes me that, for whatever reason, humans have made men so damn important. Seems to be part of the problem, not part of the solution.

        • James says:

          Excellent points. Perhaps (western) humanity’s effort to establish male supremacy has been merely an effort to forestall that which it at some level recognizes as inevitable?

        • James says:

          Perhaps even more important/surprising is that humans have persisted in asserting their own importance – regardless of sex, race, or any other distinguishing characteristic – in the overall importance of things?

        • Stefeun says:

          Yes Jan,
          Homo sapiens is a highly reproductive species; a woman can have 20 to 30 babies during her lifetime, and one male is probably sufficient for 20 or 30 females (both are extreme theoretical figures).

          Few months ago there was a paper stating that world population was on tracks for 11 bn in 2100, and an additional die-off of (up to) 2 bn people would NOT change the outcome.
          I assume that the study didn’t take into account the energy and resource problem, though, which is likely to keep the mortality rate very high once our global system is no longer there.

          • VPK says:

            Speaking of which here are the record keepers of bearing offspring
            Leontina Albina (born 1926) married in Argentina in 1943 and gave birth to her 55th registered child in San Antonio, Chile in 1981, aged 55.[6] She claimed to have another 9 children, but none of them were registered.[7][unreliable source?] Gerardo Secunda Albina (born 1921) stated that they had five sets of triplets (all boys) before coming to Chile. Eleven children were lost in an earthquake. Only 40, 24 boys and 16 girls, survived

        • xabier says:


          If we are irrelevant, perhaps, as a salve to our wounded pride, we should regard ourselves as… ornament?

          • Jan Steinman says:

            we should regard ourselves as… ornament?

            Ha! Yet another inconsistency with the natural world!

            In many non-human animals, the males are flamboyant and brightly coloured, strongly scented, or loud. But in humans, they pretty much wear uniforms: dark jacket, white shirt, dark tie. Or blue jeans, checkered shirt, and a cowboy hat. Or some other conformity within a given trade or practice.

            And in humans, the flamboyant ones are the females! They are the ones who wear bright colours or provocative clothing; they are the ones who put on strong perfume. And at least in porno films, women are the ones making all the noise. 🙂 Whereas in most non-human animals, the females are drab and boring, fairly scentless, and quieter than males of their species.

            In ecological terms, females are a treasure, whereas males are expendable, so the females don’t do anything to attract predators. But this pattern tends to hold true even in top predators. There are excepttions, such as matriarchal hyenas who have developed large penis-like vaginal structures, but it does appear that some male-female characteristics have been flipped in many ways in humans.

            (An aside: animals with low “sexual dimorphism” tend to be monogamous, whereas species with flamboyant males tend to be promiscuous. For example, the Canada Geese, in which genders look alike, mate for life, whereas ducks, with drab females and flamboyant males, are promiscuous. How does this pattern relate to humans?)

        • Also, I am sure you are aware that Indians (from India) have historically limited the number of girl babies for this reason. I suppose the Chinese preference for boys also acts to keep population down one generation later.

          Peter Turchin of “Secular Cycles” observes that allowing rich men to have four wives increases population growth. If a one man/one woman system is followed, then many women are left without husbands because many poor men cannot afford to have wives and families. If rich men can have four wives, this practice absorbs the would-be excess women, and lets them have children.

          • Artleads says:

            Maybe serious consideration ought be given to encouraging polyandry (I think that’s the term), which allows one woman to have several “husbands” or mates. I believe that, too, would bring the population down. I’m not kidding, BTW.

          • kulm says:

            Many Chinese emperors, with all the women they could have, still left few children.

            go to wikipedia and look up chinese emperors. only a few have lots of children.

            quite a few emperors lost all of his children and had to leave the throne to a nephew.

        • garand555 says:

          Not to mention that populations tend to put reproduction into overdrive after large tragedies.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            populations tend to put reproduction into overdrive after large tragedies

            Coming soon to a former civilization near you!

            I’ve long asserted that demographers’ oft-repeated claim that “women’s education” is what controls birth rates was a second-order effect.

            Rather, it is access to energy that impacts birth rate, and education is merely a result of that.

            I fear that, in a future with vastly fewer fossil sunlight slaves and pensions, women will once again go back to breeding their labour force and retirement plan.

            The WORLD3 models in Limits to Growth show increasing births, even as increasing deaths outpace them.

            • garand555 says:

              “Rather, it is access to energy that impacts birth rate, and education is merely a result of that.”

              Bingo! This relationship holds across the entire animal kingdom when averaged across entire populations too. Lifespans are also tied to access to energy, at least in human populations, and likely across the animal kingdom as well.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              Generally yes… but birth rates have dropped for the more affluent, educated these days…. one would think the opposite would happen given they have access to substantial resources…

            • The most affluent women have the most opportunities to do other things than raise children. I have a sister with a Ph. D. who says, “If I had gotten married and had children, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities I do to fly around the world and do interesting things.” (Maybe I represent a counter-example, but I waited until my children were grown.)

              Any woman who wants to rise to the top in her organization can’t have more than one child, as a practical matter–in fact, having none at all works better for many long distance trips, and late night meetings. I know I personally took the “mommy track” while my children were growing and even in high school. I worked less than full time (but full time was something like 60 hours a week, for those who wanted to be stars). I tended to remain in the local office, and refused opportunities to “move up” to be a location manager elsewhere. I very often ghost-wrote presentations and reports that were often by others who only briefly stopped in the office as they flew from meeting to meeting.

              I have seen enough insides of hotels in my life, and even insides of board rooms, to realize that this is not necessarily where a person wants to be all of the time. The amount of money I received for working “part time” was still plenty for my needs, especially since my husband and I chose not to have the most expensive houses and cars available, and felt no real urge to send our children to the most expensive private schools.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
              You may find Natalie Portman’s address at Harvard relevant. At 2:10 she describes a trip to an amusement park with her 4 year old son. He is not interested in mastering the game, but in getting the shiny trinket.

              Our modern economy is mostly defined by ‘shiny trinkets’ for the fairly well-to-do. For those working in the ‘Salt Mind’, its about getting enough to pay the bills and fall into a ‘shiny trinket stupor’ in front of the TV. I don’t want to overstate the negativity, but thinking that ‘we have too keep doing what we are doing’ is insane.

              Don Stewart

            • Also, promises by governments of retirement benefits reduce the number of children. No one stops to think that these are just promises, however. If birth rates drop, or the world economy fails, the planned benefits cannot really be available.

    • “Talk of more efficient food production is fine but it fixes nothing. It might provide a 30 year reprieve but then we will be back with the same over population problem.”

      Population growth is already slowing all over the world. Whether a collapse in BAU reverses that trend or accelerates it, maybe we’ll find out.

      • James says:

        Yeah but… “Already slowing” certainly doesn’t equal “stopping or leveling off,” now does it? And there’s a world of difference between the two when you’ve already exceeded carrying capacity a few(!) times over solely on the basis of technologies enabled by a one time only shot of millions of years of stored sunlight energy, wouldn’t you agree?

        Maybe we’ll find out? Yeah, you could probably hazard that guess.

      • Slowing growth is not enough. We need lots and lots of shrinkage!

  11. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders

    Two brief items of interest. First, scientists are discovering how to study the human microbiome from people who died thousands of years ago. Unlike our own DNA, which has changed little, the DNA in our microbiome has changed radically over the millennia, with profound implications for human health and behavior.

    The second item of interest is Charles Hugh Smith’s essay on the brick wall of health care costs which we are accelerating directly toward. Charles blames it on some factors which you can read. I will just point out that our microbiome is also directly implicated in chronic diseases of all kinds…which now account for the bulk of health care costs.

    A visitor from Mars might look at the US and conclude that its most pressing problems are a bad microbiome and runaway military expenses plus a predilection for starting wars it can’t seem to end.

    Don Stewart

    There is now a wealth of ancient human microbiome information available to us, which is providing a more complete picture of human biology and evolution. The future for ancient microbiome research is very bright indeed.

  12. Robert Wilson says:

    Can the health care statistics provided by the Castro regime be trusted?

    • It seems like I have read that quite a few countries exclude very small babies from their reporting of infant mortality. These babies tend to die within the first hours. So if Cuba is doing this, it no doubt has a lot of company. The US’s practice of trying to save every very tiny baby drives up health care costs, and leads to more children with life long problems. I don’t really think that the US’s approach is one to be encouraged.

      On other things, I am sure Cuba (like many other countries) will massage the numbers to look as favorable as possible.

  13. Rodster says:

    “Switching to biofuels could place unsustainable demands on water use”

    “As the world moves towards renewable sources of energy, it faces an accompanying challenge: water scarcity. The intensive water use in the coal, oil, gas and nuclear industries is well-documented, but if we want to encourage a faster transition to renewables we must also contemplate the water use of the alternatives”

    • Jan Steinman says:

      we must also contemplate the water use of the alternatives

      With each statement like this, there’s an implied notion that 1) industrial methods must be used, and 2) the alternative must serve over 7,000,000,000 people.

      The biodiesel I make uses no water whatsoever in its process! Perhaps if it were made from virgin oilstock, one could include the water that went into growing the oil seed. (I only use waste fry oil.) Perhaps they’re counting the water that went into the methanol production, which currently comes from steam reformation of natgas.

      I’m not saying that water isn’t a problem in the solution proposed. I just think they constantly propose the wrong solutions.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Jan – do you also make bio-lubricants for vehicles… (transmission fluid, engine oil, etc…)

    • garand555 says:

      Renewables are only as renewable as the equipment used to harvest them. Without an oil based infrastructure, that equipment is not renewable, and none of the gains in technology have been made to fix that, so renewables aren’t. As for going to “water alternatives,” seriously, WTF?

      • I agree that renewables are only as the equipment used to harvest them.

        There are work-arounds to using as much water in the electricity production process, which might perhaps be called “water alternatives.” So it is not entirely a crazy idea.

    • Biofuels use both crop land and water. It is hard to make them work.

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  16. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders
    For some reason, Gail’s comment that Cuba may have some light, tight oil prompted me to go back and look at BW Hill’s model again. I recommend it to others of you also. I have tried to organize some of the comments from various places below. Briefly, Hill now estimates that increasing oil production actually costs the economy money. Therefore, Cuba could only make itself poorer by going into LTO (assuming the US experience with LTO is typical). By the way, his calculated maximum affordable price this year is around 75 dollars. 65 dollars in 2016.

    Don Stewart
    PS On second thought…selling leases to North Americans might be good idea.
    Note particularly:
    Between 2015 and 2020 the energy supplied from a unit of petroleum to the end consumer will fall by 12%. If production has declined by 4 mb/d (conventional) by that time the total decline will be about 18%. The impact on the world’s economy will be a negative $5 trillion per year if no other energy source can supplement oil’s decline.

    (See comments section)

    As per RBN Energy, 1.2 mb/d of LTO has an API over 50. Our estimate is 1.4. Using that 1.2 mb/d figure 37% of LTO won’t produce any kind of transportation fuel. It is strictly feedstock material:

    From an energy perspective, it takes as much energy (probably more) to extract LTO as it does conventional crude. But, 37% of it never takes part in the energy production process (it has to be used in a combustion process to get energy out of it). If 37% of conventional crude was removed from the process stream that would leave an energy content of 88,200 BTU/gal; something just slightly better than ethanol.

    The shale industry has gone out of its way to obfuscate the true merit of LTO. Some simple calculations prove otherwise. This stuff has done nothing to drive the economy except produce a credit crisis for the petroleum industry. Laharrere was correct when he stated that the US would have been better off if it had never got involved in the shale industry!

    From The Energy Factor, Part V

    The energy half way point is a critical junction for petroleum production. From that point forward production can no longer be increased utilizing only its own energy content. Increased production beyond that point has to be powered by energy delivered from a secondary source. Thus, any increase in production beyond the half way point would become an energy sink. Its economic value would be limited to acting as a feedstock material for the production of other products, and It would have no capacity to power the NEGs (non energy goods sector) of the economy. The maximum production point where petroleum could act as an energy source was reached when that capacity had fallen to where one barrel had the capacity to produce two. That occurred in 2012. Production above the 2012 time frame must have a negative overall impact on the economy. Whereas, production increases before 2012 added to overall economic activity, production increases after 2012 reduce it. That reduction is now equal to $219/ barrel when production is above the 2012 level.

    (I have puzzled over this ‘half way point’. Hill thinks it is obvious, but I am a slow learner. We start with a barrel of oil, and we produce 2. But we have to reserve 1 of the 2 barrels to produce the next barrel of oil. So all we have accomplished is the replace the 1 barrel we had at the beginning. We have not been able to use our oil for anything except producing oil. Eventually, we cannibalize our barrel of oil and have no oil left to produce any more oil….Corrections to my logic are welcome!)

    • edpell says:

      Don, one barrel makes two barrels is fine. Use one get two, save one and ship one, repeat. If one barrel make one barrel then there is no excess to ship the business is dead. Even at one barrel make one and one tenth barrel it is possible to ship oil. The price will be ten times higher due to labor, capital and materials costs incurred by passing our one barrel through the process ten times to get just one net barrel to ship.

      • Stefeun says:

        Yes Edpell, I tend to agree with you.
        This “sort of” EROI 2:1 means that for every barrel invested, you get 1 as surplus, which can be used for any purpose (while the 2nd barrel must be reserved for further production).

        That said, BW Hill talks about impossibility to INCREASE the production, once this half-way point is crossed.
        Let’s see: start with 1 barrel, make 2. You want to use say 1.5 as surplus for other purpose (that is the increase in net production), but then you only have half a barrel left for further production. That half-barrel will allow you to get 1 barrel only. You’re at same status as starting point, and got 1.5 barrel as surplus.
        Without increasing your take you would have got, at same stage, 2 barrels as surplus and 1 barrel left for further production.

        So, as I understand it (maybe wrongly), when you’re beyond this half-way point, any increase in net energy production is made at the expense of further production capacity (unless you bring additional energy from elsewhere, of course).

        Similar process of energy-guzzling growth is described as “Energy Cannibalism” in this article:

        • I think that this article is talking about something different–the fact that the energy spent on manufacturing a solar panel is up front, and the payout is over the lifetime of the panel. I think that this is a different issue (that may be going on at the same time) as the issue Hill is talking about.

          The issue Hill is talking about has to do with a total system. If too much of the energy goes toward energy production, it is hard to have enough for the rest of the system. As EROI goes down, this gets worse and worse. Human labor increasingly must be used in energy production as well, leaving fewer human workers for producing goods besides energy products. (This is really a separate issue, not considered in EROI.) It is as if “intermediate products” (really the high amount of energy consumption used in making net energy) begins sucking up too much of the economy’s total resources, leaving less for making goods and services that we count as GDP.

          • Stefeun says:

            I agree that the parallel with solar panels production was a bit confusing.
            My comment was purely theoretical from algebraic point of view, and didn’t take into account any of the diminishing returns elsewhere in the system.
            The point is that when EROI is 2:1 or lower, you have to voluntarily reduce your net energy take, at least for a while, if you want to ramp up the production (as Edpell states below).

            I didn’t check this out, but I feel like diminishing returns are cumulative, i.e. you have to ramp up total production in bigger proportion than the net amount you losed, just to stay even with the amount of net energy. This proportion starts to rise very steeply -exponentially- once you need 50% or more of your total production just for further energy production. Just a feeling.

      • Stefeun says:

        One barrel makes two is fine as long as you don’t want to take more than one barrel for other purposes.
        If you increase your net production (surplus > 1 barrel), then you’re left with less than 1 barrel to invest in further production, and that will give you less than 2 barrels.
        Repeat and the net production decreases along the way. You cannot increase net production.

      • edpell says:

        I both agree and disagree. If one stop shipping excess out for a day during which one barrel produces two barrel we now have two seed barrels of oil. This of course can be extended to several days and we can ramp up the seed barrels on hand to any number we want. This does suppose the world world will not come to a halt by feeding some production back to seed (oil used to make oil). It does not need to be a complete halt it could be a 1% feed to seed and 99% continued supply to the economy. Yes, the economy may have a slight price rise and slight usage decline but that is OK.

        Every existing seed barrel was created in exactly this way by not supplying it to the economy, by saving it instead. It can be done again all the way until one barrel return only one barrel. Of course it may be impractical at say one barrel produces 1.2 barrels for economic reasons.

    • I am not willing to accept more than small parts of Hill’s views. Like all EROI studies, it subtracts one kind of energy (say coal) from another kind of energy (particularly oil). Saying that there is such and such amount left, when it was not of the same kind in the first place, is a problem for me. This happens regularly with oil refining because the electricity is from the grid, and grid electricity is often from coal. I know that this was happening when I visited the Daqing Field in China.

      There is also too much averaging. Thus, what it can say about tight oil is suspect when, say, energy costs of refining for oil sands are averaged in with those of everything else. I don’t know how they get to world numbers either, if they have mostly US numbers (which are not typical) to work with.

      In my view, the diminishing returns issue is really a financial issue. EROI is not a good approach for analyzing the problems that occur today. It was a good first step in the 1970s when Charlie Hall came up with it, but unfortunately, it was not based on an understanding of what limits we are really reaching. If the problem was “running out” of fossil fuels, then maximizing EROI would be useful. This is not the case though. There is plenty of expensive to extract oil, natural gas, and coal left. The issue is instead financial limits that we reach through diminishing returns.

      • garand555 says:

        EROEI and finance are tied together. The need for bigger, more sophisticated drilling rigs both costs more in currency, and energy to produce. The need for deeper wells both costs more in currency, and in energy expended drilling. If steel well casing is needed, that’s more energy expended and more currency expended. EROEI is a major factor in how much of our economic input goes into producing energy.

        Another way of putting it is that a high energy lifestyle coupled with a low EROEI means that a significant portion of our economic input is going to be sucked up by chasing energy. I just don’t see how you can separate the two. EROEI is going to be a major factor in how the economic situation unfolds.

        Now, whether published EROEI figures are accurate is another story.

        • I agree that EROEI and finance are tied together. But the way EROEI is calculated is based on a particular narrow range of inputs. There is actually a fair amount of discretion in the calculation, so a person can get almost any number he or she wants.

          Part of my objection to EROEI is in the details. It is sort of like sausage–you don’t want to know what goes into it. It is more the opposite here–it is what doesn’t get put into it that is a problem. Charlie Hall had a reasonable idea in the 1970s, but he missed important pieces of the way the economy really works. For example, there is no time consideration of time in EROEI calculations. Human energy is not considered at all, even though the wages that workers obtain are used to buy energy products.

          The general idea is OK, but what it gets used for is all out of proportion to the quality of numbers calculated.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, indeed. There is some level of EROEI needed to fund all of society somewhere in the 12:1 to 8:1 range. Then contraction happens before collapse. I think we are well into contraction. For example school teachers in New York used to receive 100% salary and 100% medical for themselves and their spouse as a pension. Now it is a 401K and medicare at age 65 for new teachers.

        At some point the comfortable pensions, medical, schooling, military will have to collapse. But even then martial law will keep a core of the economy going for some time. Also it will not be uniformly distributed across the planet. Places with still easy to extract oil Iran, Russia, KSA will hold on longer than say Europe, Japan, New Zealand, England, South America. Yes it is a networked system but people can create local drill head manufacturers if need be. Yes, it may not be 100% as good as a global product but it just needs to be good enough.

        • I do not agree with the statement, “There is some level of EROEI needed to fund all of society somewhere in the 12:1 to 8:1 range. Then contraction happens before collapse,” whether or not it has been printed in some journal. Unfortunately, required EROEI changes over time–in fact, required rises over time, because of diminishing returns in other parts of the economy–fresh water, mineral extraction, soil quality, and growing promised pensions. If a value of 10 was really right when it was calculated, it won’t be a few years later. It is not possible to made a (true) statement such as the one you have mede. There is way too much faith in some quoted EROEI as being the answer, IMO.

          “But even then martial law will keep a core of the economy going for some time.” Maybe, and maybe not. If banks are closed, I am not sure how those administering martial law will be paid. That makes it hard to keep up martial law.

          “Also it will not be uniformly distributed across the planet. Places with still easy to extract oil Iran, Russia, KSA will hold on longer than say Europe, Japan, New Zealand, England, South America.” I agree that it will not be uniformly distributed across the planet, but I don’t think that we know how it will be distributed. The pattern you suggest is a possibility, but so are other possibilities. If banks are closed, there are a lot of the parts of the world that could have major problems, regardless of how easy it is to extract their oil. How long do workers work without being paid? What happens if electricity can’t be maintained? What if needed parts break? These issues affect countries, regardless of how hard oil is to extract.

          I do agree that contraction is occurring now. There is a good chance we are not far from collapse.

          • ““But even then martial law will keep a core of the economy going for some time.” Maybe, and maybe not. If banks are closed, I am not sure how those administering martial law will be paid. That makes it hard to keep up martial law.”

            Money is no longer a physical thing. Simply nationalizing an all-digital currency and the debit and credit card system means we could survive without banks – in fact, they are probably already obsolete and unnecessary, other than perhaps as originators for new loans. The electronic EBT system can simply be scaled up, so everyone gets their money automatically, electronically, and without physical banks.

            • garand555 says:

              Currency is only a claim on future resources. If those resources are unavailable, then it doesn’t matter if it is physical notes or electronic notes. If currency is no longer a physical thing, what does it matter if we lose 30% of our oil in the blink of an eye? There goes much of our food. That is what matters. Who is going to extract the resources with that much food missing from the supply chains, because this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.

              Going to 100% digital currency breaks black markets, or it destroys the currency. If I am wrong on that, then it means that there is corruption in ways that you don’t want to contemplate.

            • “Currency is only a claim on future resources. If those resources are unavailable, then it doesn’t matter if it is physical notes or electronic notes. If currency is no longer a physical thing, what does it matter if we lose 30% of our oil in the blink of an eye? There goes much of our food. That is what matters. Who is going to extract the resources with that much food missing from the supply chains, because this doesn’t happen in a vacuum.”

              Well, half the fuel goes to passenger vehicles, so there’s a huge chunk right there. Nationalizing the money system when the banks inevitably go under may buy time, to allow a decline rather than an instant cliff. This is important, since once it is obvious the collapse is happening, order and the industrial system in some form must remain for at least 10 to 20 years to wind down the nuclear power plants and dry cask the rods, otherwise nothing else really matters much.

            • “Currency is only a claim on future resources. If those resources are unavailable, then it doesn’t matter if it is physical notes or electronic notes.”

              I agree 100%.

            • Fast Eddy says:

              If you are talking about credit cards you are talking about credit — it does not matter if we still have physical banks — ‘banking’ will still exist — loans and debts will still exist… interest will still exist… banking has little do with the physical bank … in fact most banking already happens digitally

            • I am talking about banks closing for good. Nothing to pay anyone with through the banking system.

      • Creedon says:

        The hillsgroup study is predicting 12 dollar a barrel oil by 2020. We will be able to see how accurate their study is by what happens to the price of oil over the next five years.
        Maybe the way that the lower oil price comes about is through financial collapse. Your views and the hillsgroup view may not be mutually exclusive. Their price projections for oil currently is not far off. I think that Steve Ludlum is also of the view that the price of oil will continue to drop. A continued drop in the price of oil will have to lead to a financial collapse at some point, although it doesn’t seem to be happening right now.

        • richard says:

          Even a small contraction in GDP over a year or two will be enough to push the financial system into unknown territory. The system is like a shark, it eats, swims, and makes little sharks, or it dies. Reverse gear is unavailable.

  17. Pingback: Guest Post: Cuba – Figuring Out Pieces Of The Puzzle | JPPress

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  21. Don Stewart says:

    Jan Steinman
    Regarding the situation in China and grasslands versus forests.

    The situation is not unique. I heard Darren Doherty say that in some parts of grassland Australia so many ranchers are using holistic grazing and water conservation earth works that they are drying up the streams.

    Mollison may have pondered the question of what to do if he was too successful, but I am not aware of it.

    Don Stewart

  22. Kulm says:

    I am not denying that the resources will be drained.

    However, since only about 2% of the world’s total population control maybe 95% of the world’s wealth, they will probably choose to cull the less usefuls to maintain the consumption style of the ‘better’ people.

    • kesar says:


      The social pyramid has its’ mechanics. To some point you can bend the pyramid to serve the upper class, however you define it 10/1/0,1/0,01/0,001%. At some point though, the lower classes revolt changing the game rules. The only way to retain the power is to start internal/external conflict. It obviously has to have consequence for the elite. They will not be able to keep their standard of living. The political power is much more useful in these times, than the financial power. One enactment can deprive the wealthy of thier fortunes. We’ve seen this many times in the past.

      • Kulm says:

        Technology can destroy any lower class revolt.

        No peasant revolt ever succeeded in the West.

        A King is always a King and an Emperor is always an Emperor. Even Putin has to defer to the current heir of the Romanovs, who is actually a Hohenzollern (German Royal Family).

        • kesar0 says:

          No peasant revolt ever succeeded in the West.

          That is why we can’t agree. You assume the elites were never changed and we have continous reign of the same dynasty of the most powerful. There were many revolts – some of them were revolutionary (French and Bolshevik’s Revolution), some of them were evolutionary (like integration of Germany then Hitler’s rise, even United Kingdom is the example). The pyramid has its vertical mobility – some families/genetic lines are degenerating/loosing the position, some of them are quite stable for some time, even a political era.

          Technology can destroy any lower class revolt.
          Technology is tool operated by people. People are controllable to some point. Additionally certain level of technology to be maintained needs certain social complexity (exergy flow). It can’t be maintained when the underlying resorces are not consumed. And the resources are more and more scarce. We can’t keep the complexity at the same level. Technology will break at some moment for the ruling class. What then? How they control the technology operators against the revolt? The pyramid destroys itself from the bottom, through the revolts.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            No peasant revolt ever succeeded in the West.

            I guess that depends on how you define “West” and “peasant.”

            From the French Revolution, to Oliver Cromwell, to the US Revolution, to Nicaragua, there have been numerous revolts that had a significant peasant content.

            No revolt succeeds without money. If you are demanding that peasants revolt without any money, then of course, your argument stands.

            But there are always those with money who are willing to back the peasants. Sandino had Soviet and Cuban help, but that does not change the fact that it was a peasant revolt.

            Of course, one might choose to re-define “the West” as the present US and Canadian governments, in which case, you win.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Technology can destroy any lower class revolt.

          Your insistence in other threads about an energy crash and population decline are at odds with this statement.

          Do you agree that technology is a function of energy, and that as energy declines, technology must, as well?

          Do you agree that, beyond a few smart people coming up with brilliant new ideas, it takes all of our present civilization to produce and maintain technology?

          In this non-revolt future, controlled by technology, who will service rich people’s Xerox machines? And without photocopy technology, how will they communicate their orders to their minions?

          Or are you assuming the revolt will be quashed by smart phones?

          • Kulm says:

            Revolt will be quashed by drones.

            Quite most things will be automated, and with population already about 1/10 of the present, not much energy wil be needed.

            Only about 15% of the present population are needed to produce and maintain tech.

            Read Tyler Cowen. He said the ‘average’ people have no place in today’s world, let alone people who are ‘below average’.

        • Fast Eddy says:

          Endless silliness you post…

  23. VPK says:

    Thank you, Gail, for another revealing article.
    I remember that Fidel Castro lectured the Pope (of all people) regarding population on his visit to the island nation. In so many words he commented that to be fruitful and multiple was OK centuries past, but now a days things are very crowded to say the least and we act accordingly.
    I believe the current Pope expressed the same on a recent trip to the Phillippines, though he did not go into details. I wonder what would be different if there was no embargo in place.
    Should be interesting when relations between the US and Cuba more open.

    • Kulm says:

      Gitmo will be Cuba’s Saigon if that happens.

      Gitmo already has the infrastructure, and if the relationships get better the first pleasure domes will be built near Gitmo which will gradually destroy Castro’s realms.

      The people around Gitmo are less hostile to the Americans – taking their land won’t be so tough.

    • I hadn’t remembered/ heard the statement Fidel Castro made to the pope about population.

      In many ways, I think that the embargo worked to Cuba’s benefit. The lack of industrialization has act to hold population down.

      • philsharris says:

        I am coming very late to this post, but will add my thanks you for again sharing with us your experience and investigations.

        Cuba is an example of how to do more with less (I suggest in particular with regard to human health). Of course in most ways Cuba is not a ‘3rd World’ country, and I guess makes it to ‘middle-income’ status; more on a par with the Balkans (excluding much better-off Slovenia) and with Costa Rica, which all have 100% access to electricity. Actual electricity consumption per capita however in Cuba is on the low side – much lower than in the Balkans and even in Costa Rica. CO2 emission per capita is a reasonable proxy for fossil fuel use is 3.4t per annum, which is on the low side. (I see 86% of Cuba’s energy comes from fossil fuels.)

        Where Cuba is outstanding is in health. I hope you find this link interesting – it was written in 2006, so could do with some updating. I was impressed with development work in vaccines and I note also the Cuban response last year to the Ebola crisis in W Africa.
        This startling quote is from the paper.
        “If the Cuban experience were generalized to other poor and middle-income countries human health would be transformed.”

        best wishes

        • I agree that healthcare in Cuba is good, but that is to some extent related to how resources are allocated. They aren’t able to make goods for trade because their costs would be too high (high electricity costs; high wages of non-elite workers, because everyone gets pad the same). What they can do is provide services, including healthcare.

          If other countries tried to do it, because they too were unable to create goods for export, it wouldn’t necessarily be a good situation. Being able to support your country financially has value too.

  24. Don Stewart says:

    In my previous response, I said that permaculture ideas from the 1970s may no longer be ‘state of the art’. For a concrete example, see:

    One of the conclusions is that grasslands are probably preferable to forests in the Loess Plateau, because forests keep too much water in the soil and prevent it from flowing to the rivers, which become stagnant and dry up. IF the population of NW China were much lower, and agricultural and industrial need for water was lower, then forests might be the correct answer. But in the current circumstances, a grassland is better. I don’t think Mollison and Holmgren knew this back in the 1970s. Which is why I think that the focus should be on ‘biological solutions’ rather than ‘permaculture’, and on a Systems View of Life in the broadest perspective.

    Don Stewart

    • Steven Rodriguez says:

      Loess soils in regions receiving less than about 25 inches of rain will naturally host tall grasses. Above that precip threshold vegetation trasitions to Savannah and then solid forest. However ground and surface water availability does not change linearly or in lock step with precip and cover type due to a host of other factors related to and independent (to some extent) of soil, such as topography. More water in general is better in terms of productivity. Drier landscapes are more difficult to manage for multiple benefits (natural habitats and farmed). Better to learn the necessary edible plant pallettes than to go against the grain of nature. You want Favas, lentils, garbanzos or Tepary beans in the mediterranean to arid climes. Or try mesquite, Acorns and American chestnust along a similar cateana of moisture regimes if you prefer trees.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      in the current circumstances, a grassland is better. I don’t think Mollison and Holmgren knew this back in the 1970s.

      I don’t think you’ve actually read Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual.

      There’s an entire chapter (Chapter 11, over 100 pages) devoted to Permaculture in arid regions, and most of the other biome-specific chapters talk about the importance of grassland. Mollison does talk about the careful use of trees to achieve particular goals, but he never asserts that a forest should be planted where none existed before humans arrived.

      Many of the other chapters cite the importance of grasslands, as well.

      People misinterpret Permaculture as being a template. Rather, it’s a meta-template, a way of observing natural patterns and adapting them or to them. Many people make an herb spiral or dig a swale and say they’re doing “permaculture,” when they are doing nothing of the sort!

      • Don Stewart says:

        I have read The Designer’s Manual. I don’t have a copy…they are now very expensive. My point is that Mollison and Holmgren were never asked to solve the particular problem that now confronts NW China….at least I am unaware if they were asked to solve it.

        Permaculture is broad enough to encompass many different ways of looking at things…particularly if the Ethics are included. I don’t see that the team working in China is doing anything in conflict with Permaculture…but they may not think of themselves as being in the permaculture tradition at all. It’s sort of like somebody who arrives at a basically Buddhist view of our situation, but does so independently and following a different tradition and doesn’t want to be labeled a ‘Buddhist’.

        I don’t mean to split hairs. I want to be inclusive of other traditions.

        Don Stewart

  25. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail and Finite Worlders

    This will be a note about the possible application of Permaculture to ‘solve’ Cuba’s problems…and by extension to ‘solve’ the problems of other countries, including the United States. I will use Capra and Liusi’s book, The Systems View of Life as my primary source of inspiration. I will not use any of the founding books of Permaculture as my primary reference, which indicates that I see the particular practices we call ‘permaculture’ as subordinate to larger principles.

    The problem of change is dealt with on page 315: ‘The core problem seems to be a confusion arising from the dual nature of all human organizations. On the one hand, they are social institutions designed for specific purposes such as making money for their shareholders, managing the distribution of political power, transiting knowledge, or spreading religious faith. At the same time, organizations are communities of people who interact with one another to build relationships, help each other, and make their daily activities meaningful at a personal level.’

    The building blocks for a living entity are described on page 303: ‘A living cell consists of a network of chemical reactions (processes), which involve the production of a cell’s components (structures), which respond cognitively—that is, through self-directed structural changes (processes)—to disturbance from the environment.’ And, relative to human organizations, ‘we see that culture is created and sustained by a network (form) of communication (processes) in which meaning is generated.’

    We need also to note John Kenneth Galbraith’s formulation of the exercise of power (page 311): ‘The exercise of power, the submission of some to the will of others, is inevitable in modern society, nothing whatever is accomplished without it…Power can be socially malign, it is also socially essential.’ The means of exercising power include coercion through sanctions, the offering of incentives or rewards, and by changing beliefs through persuasion or education.

    Capra and Luisi conclude (page 318), that ‘Working with the processes inherent in living systems means that we do not need to spend a lot of energy to move an organization. There is no need to push, pull, or bully it to make it change. Force, or energy, is not the issue; the issue is meaning. Meaningful disturbance will get the organization’s attention and will trigger structural changes.’ My note: This was the advice of Donella Meadows, also: find the leverage points. Also note that government can and does make lots of laws which inhibit change. Through control of the Media, governments also attempt to control the individual’s perception of reality…generally in the direction of continuing BAU rather than changing.

    From these foundations, let’s think about the problems involved in moving from the current system in Cuba, or from the current Global Financial Capitalism which rules in the West and China, to something else. We will assume, of course, that we are Enlightened Monarchs, and we can simply decide to do things and something actually happens.

    If we buy into the basic notion that Declining Marginal Returns are dooming the underpinnings of Global Financial Capitalism, as well as the ‘we want to be like Europe’ style of industrialism which has ruled Cuba since the Revolution, then the obvious alternative is a Biological system. On page 132, Capra and Luisi define ‘Life is a factory that makes itself’. So we abandon the notion that humans will make an infinite variety of factories using fossil fuels which free us from biology, and instead adopt the strategy of modest interventions in biology which facilitate human life. In short, we adopt strategies much more akin to those used by ants and termites than those of the Industrial Revolution or Artificial Life.

    Where does Permaculture fit into such a hypothetical redirection of our basic strategy? We can note that any self-organizing network MUST adapt to the overall situation. One CANNOT actually live in some network which does not reflect the reality of all the connections that we make with both the living and non-living world. Whether we approve or not, the fact is that there is a vast network of industrial material and relationships in the world. So a successful permaculturist (or any other ‘biologically based system of production’) will doubtless happily use drip tape to distribute irrigation water. The use of drip tape DOES NOT preclude the forward thinking gardener from also constructing passive water retention systems, such as swales, or from gardening in such a way that soil organic matter is steadily increasing, so that the ability of the soil to store water is steadily increasing. In short, a successful strategy probably consists of using the best that Industry has to offer, along with a focus on steadily building a biological system which does not depend on Industry.

    We can also note that Permaculture was a child of the 1970s. Science has moved along since then, and the specific practices which were deemed state of the art in 1970 may no longer seem to be the best way to move Meadows’ leverage points. For example, the 1970s ‘best practices’ in terms of rice may now be obsolete with the development, particularly in China, of perennial rice.

    At a very fundamental level, governments are about power. The US government is very much into coercion and incentives. I imagine the discussions with Cuba are very much along the lines of removing sanctions and offering credits so that ’the wonders of Industry’ can be brought to Cuba. I seriously doubt that there is any serious discussion of the ability of Cuba to repay the debts. The Cuban government has, in extremis, permitted the self-organization which is a characteristic of living systems. However, my perception is that the government is still pursuing ’the European/American dream’. I think both you and I think that that dream is a mirage, which just leads to misallocation of resources.

    Are there any alternatives for a government? As a matter of fact, there are. Edo Japan was very active in circulating agricultural information, so that ‘best practices’ could be adopted in remote villages which were not subject to the sorts of top-down control which are characteristic of corporations. The New Deal in the US had a large educational component. Fidel Castro still reads a lot, and periodically posts things on the Internet about promising new crops, such as mulberries. Government, in this conception, is not about a Welfare State or about sanctions to force compliance. It may or may not be about offering incentives (more in next paragraph). It probably does have a role in education.

    What about the incentives. The ‘European/ American’ dream leads a government to think that a glyphosate factory is a great leap forward. But a truly enlightened government would reward farmers with quite different incentives. For example, government land would be rented cheaply to farmers who agree to improve the infrastructure which control the flow of water across the land, increases the soil organic matter and biological life in the soil, and does not generate water pollution for downstream farms and towns and deltas.

    In short, I think that the most reasonable way forward for the Cuban and the Western and Chinese governments is to take to heart the message of Systems View of Life. Debates about ‘can we feed 7.3 billion?’ and ‘how can we repay the debts and promises of entitlements?’ are distractions. Government needs to get out of the way and let people do what they do best, which is figure out what to do in their current and anticipated circumstances. Government also needs to deal with systemic problems such as CO2 in the atmosphere, soil erosion, pesticide poisoning, and the like. The farmer of a small plot of land should understand that the destruction of the life in the soil, soil erosion, and downstream pollution are NOT part of any solution he should be thinking about. The program sounds very much like the Anarchism that Orlov has, sometimes, written about with approval.

    Don Stewart

    • It seems like somehow, Cuba needs to focus on what it can really do for itself, not following in the footsteps of Europe or the US.

      I agree that incentives are important. It has been hard for Cuba to provide proper incentives in the past, with everyone paid the same.

      • edpell says:

        Except for a few corners of the world where people are living as they lived 1000 years ago and a few permaculture folks in the rich nations, the whole world is devoted to the oil age paradigm. Cuba seems to fit in with the world as wanting to be developed.

        I have to admit I still want many (not all) of the features of the oil/industrial age. I want a house, electricity, pumped water and septic systems. I am willing to give up living in cold places that are too much effort. I am willing to give up all but basic medical and dental care and eye glasses. I even entertain the idea of using force so that some may live well rather than all living poor. Along the lines of population reduction and keeping “others” out, not slavery. Though sadly I guess that is the historical norm (slavery). I am willing to give up fast transportation of all sorts. I want automated (to some degree) farming be it little or big be it permaculture sensitive or otherwise. I still do not want to be a farmer (yet).

        I am willing to bet the Cubans are thinking; how do we grow/enrich the economy rather than how do we maintain the economy and/or improve it by reducing the human population load. As Don’s points out you only get what you dream about.

        • xabier says:


          Sounds to me as though most Cubans are probably dreaming of more pleasure and less dullness, if not exactly pain…..

          I’ve never met the peasant who, if given the choice of the delights of oil-fuelled modernity, wanted to go back the the dirt and hard labour: ‘I’ll have an (unsustainable) city apartment please, and no aching back and crippled hands please, thank you very much!’

          This is of course the problem of Greece, trying to live a different life to their grandparents.

          • Daddio7 says:

            I know I’m personally responsible for burning over a quarter of a million gallons of diesel farming and still ended up with crippled hands. But I enjoyed every moment of it and cried when I was forced to stop.

        • Steven Rodriguez says:

          re mechanized farming…sure is nice to have big machines to do the big jobs required in farming. On the other hand, they built stone henge without tractors. Googel this guy can move anything

          • Steven Rodriguez says:

            In fact, to all of us unable to restrain our most cynical impulses, the guy who can move anything in the video shows what human ingenuity can do. Do not write civilization off just yet. we have so much more to invent. Processes and materials that that are energetically, thermodynamically more resourceful than what has been witnessed so far….

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Steven Rodriguez

              If one is an optimist, one takes heart from what bacteria are able to accomplish. Mother Nature figured out nitrogen fixation a couple of billion years ago, in a single celled creature with no brain. Surely there is hope for us?

              I find the recent consensus on how the ancient monuments were built to also be a source of hope. It used to be thought that massive numbers of slaves were involved. Now we know that they were built by skilled craftspeople, who were paid for their work. Perhaps they knew the same principles as the guy from Michigan.

              And, as Nate Hagens reminds us, we devote an enormous amount of energy to triggering neurotransmitters and hormones…surely there is an easier way?

              Don Stewart

          • Steven Rodriguez says:

            that link was not a ggod copy try this one

        • Artleads says:

          I hope the Cuban leadership (whatever that is) at least retains a dual approach to the future: 1) letting the “playground” scenario play out within some kind of boundary, and 2) continuing full steam ahead on the idealistic social and environmental programs Cuba is ahead on.

          1) allows an outlet (much like the Mariel) for those who aspire to the American Dream, and brings in money. (It also frees up travel and different kinds of potential to use Cuba’s human resources for its benefit. More on that below.)

          2) The idealistic aspect of the Cuban program has the potential to benefit and confer benefit through easier access to America. Maybe Cuban influence, especially in US inner cities, where its experience in education, health care, and self-sufficiency could be most useful, could be established. The relationship doesn’t have to be one-sided.

    • xabier says:


      The rulers of Old Europe, in say the 12th century, did actually give land to people and the Church in return for doing just what you suggest: improving fertlity and productiveness.

      Of course, this was just to make it possible to raise money, to pay soldiers, to fight wars, to acquire more land……

      Human beings will always be ‘the cow that kicks the pail of milk over.’

      • Kulm says:

        And when the land was well developed the kings and nobles, always needing more land, took them away, as many Flanders peasants who emigrated to the Baltics for land found out the hard way.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      a successful strategy probably consists of using the best that Industry has to offer, along with a focus on steadily building a biological system which does not depend on Industry.

      Worth repeating!

      Despite the “perma” in its name, Permaculture is more about adapting to change than anything else. It’s about observing succession — and then tweaking it a bit to have it better fill your needs.

    • Artleads says:

      “So we abandon the notion that humans will make an infinite variety of factories using fossil fuels which free us from biology, and instead adopt the strategy of modest interventions in biology which facilitate human life. In short, we adopt strategies much more akin to those used by ants and termites than those of the Industrial Revolution or Artificial Life.”

      This attempts to describe two contrary ways of using science. It is most important to distinguish between them, as the above tries to do.

    • Artleads says:

      That distinction again. Governments need to get out of the way on one hand, and see to the health of the system on the other. I hope for ever clearer explanations of this seeming contradiction.

      • garand555 says:

        Governments need to be neutered. We will have some form of governance, but governments start wars and send people to gulags. I would rather my woes come from myself and mother nature.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Governments need to be neutered.

          The purpose of government should be to protect the weak from the strong.

          It seems to be pretty much the opposite these days!

          • edpell says:

            Governments could (we hope) do good. Currently governments do evil. What to do? Less government? More government? Different government? If so, how different? An endless good topic for debate. I do not think I have ever heard a good answer.

            • Artleads says:

              Maybe you’d have to look at how current government paradigms got started? I heard someone say recently that representative government was the problem. Although the reasoning sounded OK at the time, I don’t recall the details of it now.

              I wonder how a network of smaller-than-300-people (or thereabouts) communities could get together to see to their mutual interests? What if governance were largely based around watersheds? Then when groups got together, the health and consistency of watersheds would be addressed? What about bioregions instead?

              But GT seems to be saying that big governments will be among the first things to collapse. Solution? Small networks of networks instead of “government.” There. Problem solved.

            • I think local leaders/king/dictators are likely the solution. We have seen a lot of them in the past.

            • garand555 says:

              A good starter would be to introduce a mechanism by which the number of laws that can be on the books is limited. Another option would be to style law enforcement after the Roman Republic. I’m not talking about issuing the same punishments for the same crimes that the Romans did, but rather, that it is the people who enforce the law through what could be thought of today as torts. (Although I think people’s trees would be safe with people knowing that the penalty for cutting down a person’s trees was 25 asses per tree!) You might have to tweak the legal notion of what constitutes standing a bit to make that work. While this is a bit vague, the people making decisions need to have some skin in the game beyond just reelection. It is vague because I don’t have any good suggestions.

            • Artleads says:

              The more smart and powerful people would need to lead from behind. I don’t know anything about the Roman system. It sounds useful.

          • Kulm says:

            No. The purpose of government is to keep things stable, and let the week never even think about challenging their betters.

            • kesar0 says:

              I guess, you are both right. Both things – defending rich against poor and vice versa – defending weak against strong (however you call the elite vs. other classes). Because both things are non-optional pre-requisite for stability (as Kulm stated). And stability is the most crucial to properly functioning society. In stable society all necessary functions are developed – culture, science, agriculture, industry, military, religion, exploration, judicial system, etc. Without stability society uses much of its energy for conflicts and continous struggle. That’s why the most stable monarchy won the title of the first truly global hegemon – British Empire.

            • Defending the weak against the strong works best when there is plenty of energy to go around.

              The strong today are the big corporations. I don’t see governments doing a very good job of defending the weak against the big corporations. The big corporations are in some ways almost like economies of their own. Their leaders are chosen from within, but not by the workers.

            • kesar0 says:

              I am not saying that the defence system of the poor/weak works. On contrary, the system is trying to defend the wealthy (corporations, banks, tax heavens, stock exchange, etc.). The system has it tensions and these will be increasing until the system breaks this way or the other. Internal or external anger. Revolution or war.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              These is a difference between “should be” and “is.”

              Governments’ constitutions generally embrace the “should be” part. Our job as citizens is to hold them to it.

    • bwhill says:

      Don Stewart said:

      “What about the incentives. The ‘European/ American’ dream leads a government to think that a glyphosate factory is a great leap forward. But a truly enlightened government would reward farmers with quite different incentives.”

      The oil age is coming to a much more rapid conclusion than most assume. By 2030 the US will be functioning on 4 to 5 million barrels per day (if that). Reliance on any government initiative would be a mistake. The governments that we have become accustomed to will no longer exit in just a few decades. Their continuous is dependent upon the oil that in the very near future will no longer be there.

      Since a government is incapable of perceiving its own extinction, any policy it sets in motion is doomed to failure. Its own dismantling would need to be incorporated into its policy. Any policy that a bureaucracy adopts will be a matter of more extend and pretend. Like the population at large it will refuse to just roll over, and die. It will maintain the policy of absorbing more of the available resources to insure its own survival. That will do little to insure the continuation of the present society.

      Like Dmitry Orlov’s extinction discussion, the question of government addressing our current situation is a question without an answer. It is an intellectual exercise that can produce no meaningful determinations. Gail’s approach of seeking out societies that have already gone through what Western society is soon going to be experiencing may be the best approach. By ignoring the actions of the post oil Cuban government, and concentrating on the actions of its people we may find lessons that we will be able to bring into the future. What remnants of government that may remain will be playing a very small role, if any, in the future individual’s survival.

      • “The oil age is coming to a much more rapid conclusion than most assume. By 2030 the US will be functioning on 4 to 5 million barrels per day (if that). ”

        Don’t worry, in 10 years Lockheed-Martin will have 100 Mw fusion reactors running out of the back of tractor-trailers:

        However, these are the guys behind the F-35, so probably take with a grain of salt. I think 100 Mw is a pretty massive amount of energy for such a small area, and even if possible would be problematic. I think 10 Mw would be a much more realistic goal, or even 1 Mw.

      • Don Stewart says:

        Dear BW Hill
        Thank you for your response.

        Both Dmitry Orlov and myself are basically Anarchists. The less government bureaucracy, the better.

        However, even a dedicated Anarchist has to pay taxes, whether he gets any benefits from the government or not. Exactly how to cut the government down to size has been the subject of debate. David Holmgren, the Australian Permaculturist and Anarchist, started a discussion by suggesting that a determined number of people executing a boycott could bring the currently stressed system down. While his suggestion sparked discussion, it attracts very little support in the public at large, or even in the ‘green’ sector.

        Which leads pretty directly to the notion that everything will continue until it collapses (very possibly with a push from the decline in oil which you mention). If things are going to collapse, then a rational strategy is Lifeboats. David Holmgren coined that phrase (to my knowledge). A Lifeboat strategy requires the ability to produce food, clean water, shelter, and community and security. We have very recently had a discussion about Lifeboats here, and Dmitry has discussed them on occasion. Trying to keep your Lifeboat free of government entanglements is difficult…particularly taxes. There are, nevertheless, models right here in my neighborhood which reward study.

        I don’t know exactly where Dmitry will take his discussion, but based on past performance I would guess it will be things that the individual, families, and small groups can do, while staying under the radar.

        When I mention government incentives, I have little expectation that any incentives for rational actions will be forthcoming. It’s all well and good that people like Rattan Lal, the professor, and Albert Bates and some others promote carbon farming with government incentives as part of the answer to many problems And carbon farming is a recognized program in Australia. But I don’t expect much to happen in the US, because it doesn’t make money for large corporations.

        Don Stewart

        • edpell says:

          Don, lifeboats are a great idea. Whenever I talk about that idea people get super pessimistic around issues of security. Never the less it seem like the best practical thing people can actually do for themselves here and now.

          If you are willing I would love to hear more about lifeboat efforts in your area.

          • garand555 says:


            When you say “issues of security,” do you mean security against bandits and roving bands of starving zombie like people?

  26. edpell says:

    Gail, you are the first I have read that mention the use and wearing away of previously invested capital in Cuba.

    Let’s not forget the fish. Fish must be a big part of the food supply?

    OK, forgive my knee jerk reaction about nuclear. The chart shows 100 people per sq km. Have many people can be supported per sq km by permaculture?

    • Fish seem to be rarely eaten by Cubans. There is some served in restaurants aimed at tourists. Frommer’s Guide says, “Oddly, Cubans do not eat large amounts of seafood, although fish and lobster dishes are on the menu at most tourist restaurants.”

      This is one article on the subject.

      I think historically, refrigeration and storage issues have been a problem. Also, Cuban’s buy their food in a variety of different stores–ration stores for dry goods from the booklets; grocery stores for canned goods and dry goods; meat stores for meat; and fruit and vegetables at separate stands. I am not sure whether any stores really deal in fish. I also doubt that ration booklets provide fish cheaply.

      • edpell says:

        Thanks Gail, low use of fish is a real surprise to me.

        Don’s point that attitude is important is a good reminder. Cuba will not be going green/permaculture/low energy/low tech/zero population growth if that is not what the people are thinking of doing.

        • Exactly! “Defense of the Revolution” neighborhood groups are in some sense, “Defense of our standard of living” groups. The 1959 revolution brought energy products to a lot of poor people. People don’t want to give that up. They think in many ways like Europeans, and want to be well to do, like Americans and many others.

      • xabier says:

        Interesting and surprising. Sounds like cultural prejudice.

        The Romans solved this problem of storage by turning fish into a long-lasting paste which was exported all over the Empire.

        • Steven Rodriguez says:

          if you are a country with closed borders, you might not encourage people to leave in boats on a regular basis….?

        • If Cuba felt it was rich with sugar revenue, it may have thought it could buy whatever it wanted. Developing a fishing industry was never high on anyone’s list of priorities.

      • Rodster says:

        My (Miami) cousin’s husband is from Cuba and I can confirm that Cubans are not big fish eaters. Cubans tend to prefer pork and chicken with rice and beans as well as plantains, avocados, yucca and other tropical fruits and vegetables.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          Cubans are not big fish eaters

          What a strange lack of adaptation to local conditions!

          That’s what happened to the Norse colony in Newfoundland. They were sitting on top of the Grand Banks, but starved to death because they didn’t eat fish.

          • Rodster says:

            If you’ve ever had Cuban style (lechon asado) pork along with white rice and Cuban style black beans and home made Cuban style bread, you wouldn’t never touch fish again. It’s that good. 🙂

  27. Rodster says:

    How low can humans go? Just continue killing off the oceans and all life in it.

    “Japanese fishermen vow ‘to never stop’ dolphin huntingJapanese fishermen vow ‘to never stop’ dolphin hunting”

    “”We used to harpoon dolphins but that’s several decades ago. Now we sever the spinal cord in a moment and there is not much blood,” said Kai.”

    • xabier says:


      Well, one must just agree with George Mobus, that humans are – in general – just too damn stupid.

      If only one could sever the spinal cords of these ‘hunters’, with little blood.

  28. RobM says:

    Brilliant Gail, thanks. You continue to be a calm refreshing breeze of insight in an ocean of noise.

  29. Artleads says:

    Work Around for Some Mentioned “Problems”:

    Shacks built from local materials and off the grid.

    Since Cuba has been significantly enmeshed in Industrial Civilization (IC), “local materials” doesn’t necessarily mean trees. It could be paper pulp, cardboard or tin. Trained artists, artisans or architects can make elegant structures from such materials (I’ve seen it done in a Kingston ghetto). And if Cubans can handle looking at used toilet paper in a bucket, they can deal with improvised compost toilets too.

    Crumbling Buildings:

    I’ve been practicing transferring art conservation methods (in which I’m trained) to masonry buildings (like many in Cuba). Paper pulp mixed with glue or (I’m told) cow dung makes a durable patch that will hold the structure together.

    Acacia Overgrowth

    I’ve also been working on promising fixes for any form of overgrowth that could be transformed for growing food. My approach is somewhat inspired by Fukuoka’s methods: No digging. Cut the overgrowth and lay it on the land. Cover that with layers of food scraps and cow/horse dung. Cover that with more plant cuttings and let sit for two years. That will be ir choice.fertile ground for growing food sans commercial fertilizer. (I think) Work on changing the diet too.

    There are many social and cultural adaptations that Cuba could make, some simple, some complex, many based on what they’ve already accomplished, that could help it to cope with its pressures. (Maybe) Things like adapting indigenous techniques from far and wide to reduce education/health care costs. Later for that. It will help if they get a new epiphany: that they are Africans and not Europeans. Their choice.

    • garand555 says:

      If those acacia trees are legumes, then, while it would obviously be necessary to cut some down to provide room for growing crops, some should be left. So should anything that they deposit on the ground. They’ll fix nitrogen, pull nutrients up from deep in the soil and deposit them when they shed leaves, starting the beginnings of soil rich in organic material.

      • Artleads says:

        I looked at the Geoff Lawton link Don posted. Despite my awe and admiration over his long record of success, something about the segregation from wildness in the growing space disturbs me. It’s just too human centered for my taste.

        Your point above made me me reevaluate the cutting-acacias idea. I can’t say I know where it has ever worked successfully, but I wonder about inserting human food production into these wild spaces. Fukuoka talked about clay pellets with seeds being thrown onto the land to sprout by themselves. He might have proposed that as a follow-on to preparing the land through various means. But what about distributing high-nutrient clumps in the middle of the wild space (clearing only minutely here and there) and planting in them? If you don’t plant in rows, irrigation becomes harder. So I’m wondering if your dry farming techniques would be a solution to that?

        • garand555 says:

          It’s not just about dry farming. It’s also about letting the leaves from a leguminous tree deposit nutrients from deep within the earth onto the soil where other crops can use them. And you also don’t need to plant in rows for irrigation. I plant in blocks in depressions because I do live in a desert. It is very managed, even looking to the geometry of various patterns in planting schemes to make the most of the space. But if you’re planting crops, you’re already pushing towards being separated from what nature would do without you in it. It’s a matter of degree. If you want to go back to total wilderness, expect to have a population of no more than 1 human per square mile on average. Being part of nature and leaving space for nature does not necessitate having everything that you do be wild and unmanaged.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Artleads

          A few thoughts about the ‘segregation from wildness’.

          First, have you read E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth? The social species, ants, termites, and humans, among others, have reconfigured the planet. Ants farm and wage war. Termites do some pretty sophisticated passive solar designs. Humans we all know about. Whatever Earth looked like before, the social species have changed it dramatically. Are the social species part of Nature?

          Second, I worked on a project to try to get control of invasive species (some of the same ones that Geoff turned his goats loose on). This was land belonging to the University. It had been ‘wild’ for about 60 years, and was probably farmed before that. It was overgrown with the same sorts of things you see in Geoff’s video. A PhD candidate came in and did some careful census work and found many plots where there were zero native plants. The biodiversity was very low.

          A guy from the Botanical Garden led our efforts at eradicating the invasives. His idea was that just cutting them back would allow the natives to regrow from the seed bank. (Spoiler Alert: It didn’t work.) So he is using volunteer human labor, who drive there in cars burning fossil fuels, to laboriously cut down the invasives. We did not make any use of the ‘waste’ wood. Two years later, it was hard to see that we had done anything. The invasives came right back. There were also more vines choking tall trees. I quit the project about then, because it looked to me like endless labor without any progress. As I look at it today, I still don’t see any progress.

          I think the Botanical Garden guy would have been horrified at the idea of bringing in goats. Everybody (including Geoff) has a horror of what goats have done worldwide when they are not controlled. What Geoff brings to the party is both careful control of the goats with the portable electric fencing, and knowledge about how to weaken the invasives through repeated cropping so that plants which are more favorable to humans and other living creatures can return, and also a good idea what to do with the ‘waste’ wood. (The obvious value of the solar panel powering the electric fence is one of the reasons I keep pestering Gail about distinguishing the various uses to which PV panels can be put.)

          I am sure that the biological diversity in Geoff’s finished property will be several multiples of what it was in the invasives jungle.

          Another example arose out of a hurricane. We had Stillhouse Bottom, where, legend says, there was once a still. James Taylor sang about it ‘down on the copper line’. The trees were very tall with very little understory. A classic climax forest. The hurricane went through and toppled many of the tall trees. What sprung up was scrubby pioneer species. Give it a hundred years or so, and the cathedral quality which was there before the hurricane might return (don’t know about climate change!). But clearly a human effort (which might include goats or sheep) can speed the evolution back to the cathedral.

          Most of the conservation groups around here have come around to the notion that it is a bad idea to claim that humans should just ‘leave nature alone’. Courtney White recently had a video on where he took city slickers from Tucson out into the countryside. The least biodiverse area (classified as poverty-stricken) was on a federal game preserve, which was enjoying benign neglect. The best biodiversity was found on a ranch practicing holistic management.

          Don Stewart

          • Artleads says:

            “First, have you read E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth?”

            Haven’t read it, but if I follow you correctly, you’re saying that wise human (and other) intervention in nature is better than none at all. As you make clear, the learning curve is steep, especially where tried and true, age-old practices (like in ancient Britain, I’m told) are unknown. Here, it sounds like the blind leading the blind.

            Unlike you, I learn from isolating myself instead of from reading or associating with others, relying heavily on intuition and aesthetics. (So it helps to communicate with people who pursue knowledge.) This blog is helping me to see the logic behind my intuition. Going with the grain, using as little energy (of any sort) as possible is a reasonable response to our energy reality. So the wildness aesthetic that I wouldn’t disturb to plant food COULD perhaps have some validity. (I’ve seen where Lawton extols some of this, but he is full of knowledge, while I’m completely ignorant.)

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Artleads
              Have you read Marshall Sahlins essay on The Original Leisure Society? You can find it on the internet. It’s about 30 years old. His thesis is that humans reached a sort of peak during the hunter-gatherer phase. Life was easy and we were pretty healthy, with no chronic diseases. No tooth decay, for example.

              Once we began to cultivate plants, rather than just take what Nature provided, things began to go wrong. Grinding grains or corn between two stones gave us back problems and ground down our teeth (you can see this at Mesa Verde).

              Some people read the first couple of chapter of Genesis as the story of the conflict between the hunter-gatherers and the agricultural people. In any event, the agricultural people won the war.

              Many parts of Earth simply won’t support a very high population of hunter-gatherers. New England, for example, had very few native Americans when the Pilgrims landed. And even those few grew corn. A dense forest with more or less continuous canopy is not very favorable to humans.

              If humans suffer a bottleneck event where the survivors number in the millions, then hunting and gathering may very well be a reasonable approach to life. Today, only a very rich person could afford to buy enough land to support a hunting and gathering lifestyle, with no agriculture. The people I know who try to do it live near public lands (such as national forests) and do a considerable amount of poaching. In a crunch, lots of people would try the poaching and the game would disappear. In one of Terry Tempest Williams’ books she describes the abundance of game animals that the first Mormon expedition to Utah found. But when the bulk of the settlers came a year or so later, there were few game animals. The problem is that the density of game animals is small, and their reproduction rate is slow. Fishing is more productive, I think.

              When I consider everything, I come out on the side of intensive gardening, with the ‘intensive’ part implying not only high production of what I need to eat and the fiber I need but also a very dense layer of biodiversity from the microbes up to the birds. I don’t include wild bison or wooly mammoths or groundhogs or weasels in my plan, because they will quickly destroy a garden and domesticated animals. Sort of like the ants and the termites modifying the world to suit themselves.

              Don Stewart

            • Jan Steinman says:

              New England, for example, had very few native Americans when the Pilgrims landed.

              This statement may be accurate, but it is not true that a climax deciduous forest cannot support a large population.

              By the time “the Pilgrims landed” in 1620 (or even the non-Pilgrim settlement at Jamestown in 1607), there had been over a hundred years of contact, since 1492. Europeans brought disease, and the natives were decimated.

              I’ve read (sorry, can’t find an attribution handy) that, pre-contact, the area supported a native population of perhaps some 60 million, which was reduced to perhaps a few million by the time settlers (versus explorers) arrived. They arrived and found a continent that seemed strangely deserted, free for the taking.

              I imagine history might have been very different if the first colonists had been met by 60 million natives.

            • garand555 says:

              What we all need to understand is that we aren’t above nature, we are part of it. The very act of survival will alter nature. We have been unconscious of this for much of our history. It is for this reason that our species must either go the way of the dodo, or we must consciously learn to manage ecosystems, to both the benefit of ourselves and to the benefit of the ecosystems that we are managing. We are part of the ecosystems that we live in, and we should look at playing a positive role. Right now, most either live a hand-to-mouth existence, or they try to outright control nature. That is very different from working within its bounds, managing what we can manage successfully and dealing with what we cannot.

            • Artleads says:

              I loved the Marshall Sahlin publication I just came upon on my first look. Thanks much.

              The Original Affluent Society
              Marshall Sahlins

              This explains a lot of our misconceptions about HGs

              “The entrepreneur is confronted with alternative investments of a finite capital, the worker (hopefully) with alternative choices of remunerative employ, and the consumer… Consumption is a double tragedy: what begins in inadequacy will end in deprivation. Bringing together an international division of labour, the market makes available a dazzling array of products: all these Good Things within a man’s reach- but never all within his grasp. Worse, in this game of consumer free choice, every acquisition is simultaneously a deprivation for every purchase of something is a foregoing of something else, in general only marginally less desirable, and in some particulars more desirable, that could have been had instead. That sentence of “life at hard labour” was passed uniquely upon us. Scarcity is the judgment decreed by our economy. And it is precisely from this anxious vantage that we look back upon hunters. But if modern man, with all his technological advantages, still lacks the wherewithal, what chance has the naked savage with his puny bow and arrow? Having equipped the hunter with bourgeois impulses and palaeolithic tools, we judge his situation hopeless in advance.”.

          • Stefeun says:

            Large herbivores too are (were?) ecosystem engineers:

            Then predators too, by regulating the populations of herbivores. It’s all about balance, ecosystems are always moving from an equilibrium to another, when the changes are gradual; and collapsing, if they’re too steep/radical.

          • Artleads says:

            As I’ve said before, mine is not a model of successful food production. I try to be as opportunistic as the birds and insects in the yard; using whatever niche or resource I can. With that approach, there is no concept of “aesthetics” (which is paradoxical for me to say, since I’m all about aesthetics). There is no need (apart from the neighbors and my spouse) to make the growing space resemble other growing spaces. For instance, after Lawton’s clearing with the goats, the planting we saw them doing looked exceedingly unwild. I can’t accept that as a model. The aesthetics are offensive.

            Part of what I avoid in concept is centralization of food growing. My model are small wild creatures (birds, insects, lizards, etc.) who coexist with us in the urban sphere. They use what they find. They don’t (generally, “intentionally”) cultivate food producing areas. Yet, their regular, “unintentional” activities might be consistent with producing more of their food? (Birds replant seeds and control insects?) I try (not very successfully) to emulate these critters. For the second year in a row, I’m harvesting wild dandelion just as if I’d planted it myself. It isn’t as excessive as last year’s growth, but it ain’t bad at all.

            I want everybody to grow food, which is sure to lighten the need for the professionals doing the permaculture and bio-intensive and greenhouse growing that I see us very much needing as well. Depending on one in no way precludes depending on the other.
            So, to correct myself, I suppose I see a joint need for centralization and distributed food production. All as small-scale, local and oil independent as possible.

            • garand555 says:

              What we have right now is largely centralized food production. It is successful if you use amount produced as the metric for success. It is not resilient, however, and going to localized food production is not a guarantee of resilience. It can only be resilient if the understanding that what is taken must be given back one way or another.

    • Cuba has a lot of educated people. I agree that there may be work arounds for at least some of their problems, if they realize that they are not Europeans.

  30. kulm says:

    Since the police and military were in cahoots the man at least had ties with the state govt.

    Nd the standard procedure if the man is unidentified is torture every one jn the village until someone fesses up.

    if these men are not punished that is probably because they were tied to some other powerful guy who wanted that operation fir himself.

    the bau is not stupid or careless. the means of control has been there since ancient babylon and it will survive peak energy.

    • James says:

      I think it’s time to admit that BAU is essentially the *true* highest achievement of mankind, regardless of all the rest of the techno mumbo-jumbo we’re tossing about here. The fact that a lot of really smart people can argue technical points of the highest precision on boards like this, albeit with the tacit admission that they are powerless before their peers of infinitely less intellectual horsepower to actually enact meaningful change of any substance, should tell you all you need to know.

      Most times these days, I regard my intelligence, limited as it is, as a curse.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        “Most times these days, I regard my intelligence, limited as it is, as a curse.”

        I reckon it would be better to be a bird — perhaps an eagle … or a hawk… where pleasure is derived from a gust of wind on which I could float along… dipping and turning with the slightest adjustment of a wing… in the direction of interest…

        • VPK says:

          Japanese Zen
          Is it because of your wisdom the eagle soars?

        • xabier says:

          Fast Eddy

          Very true. The birds are free and don’t give a hoot for human beings. I always think the rooks are having a good laugh at us from their rookeries.

          Ever looked straight into the eye of a raven; not the slightest respect for us, and perhaps even mockery…….

          After all, over the millennia they’ve fed on countless corpses after all our senseless ‘nation-building, destiny-seeking’ battles.

          The best lesson they give, apart fro proper humility at our true place in the world, is to live in the moment, and be aware; very aware.

          • Robert Wilson says:

            As with most organisms the birds live a true free market life. They do not organize seed distributions for weak or elderly birds. Bacteria implanted on a petri dish grow until they can no longer be supported by their food supply. The same can be said for cancer cells. In nature the free market ultimately wins.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              In nature the free market ultimately wins.

              Perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t see how nature is a “free market.”

              Are you saying Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” somehow manages trophic exchanges, the way it does financial exchanges?

            • Daniel Hood says:

              We’re all part of nature and its elaborate network, not seperate from it. Everything we see today that forms modern civilization has “evolved” as part of nature’s many processes.

              I diagree with the statement “In nature the free market ultimately wins” because nature is nature, it’s not fighting some kind of battle, it simply IS and will continue to be.

              Mankind has this silly god complex.

            • “I diagree with the statement “In nature the free market ultimately wins” because nature is nature, it’s not fighting some kind of battle”

              Plants grow to block out their neighbours; they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle, it just happens at a pace that from our perspective, makes it seem so peaceful. Everything is fighting to grow, kill off the competition, and reproduce, all the time.

            • Daniel Hood says:

              “Plants grow to block out their neighbours; they are engaged in a life-and-death struggle”

              MK: You have to be so careful making pseudoscientific claims/assumptions like that.

              How do you know “why” plants grow? You don’t know, you’ll never know why plants grow. You know they do grow, you know how they grow, when they grow, where they grow, but you will NEVER know why they grow.

              You don’t know that “plants grow to block out their neighbours; they’re engaged in a life-and-death struggle”

              Nature simply IS and always will be, you will NEVER know why. This is true scientific understanding.

              Don’t believe me, nor take my word for it, rather listen to the likes of Richard Feynman, he knows a thing or two about the universe.

            • You’re talking about some nebulous Nature as a whole, a philosophical concept or something. I am referring to individual plants and animals, doing their thing. Of course, anthropomorphization is a way of describing what is happening; whether the plant itself has “intent” or not, it is doing what it is doing. The Pine tree sheds needles, which happens to suppress plants around it. Whether it actually intends to kill off the competition, or whether that is simply an emergent property of its functions, is not so important.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Matthew Krajcik
              You are focusing on one level of behavior. But as I have shown previously, at the next level up may be a very different emergent property. My prime example is the soil food web, where everything eats everything else, but the emergent property is an amazing abundance of life. You can also see the video I recently posted on the release of wolves in Yellowstone for the first time in many decades, and the increase in the abundance of life there as a result of the release of a predator.

              If you focus narrowly on something you dislike (e.g., wolves killing deer), and ignore the emergent properties which are beautiful, you tend toward insanity and counterproductive behavior.

              Don Stewart

            • “If you focus narrowly on something you dislike (e.g., wolves killing deer), and ignore the emergent properties which are beautiful, you tend toward insanity and counterproductive behavior.”

              Sure, and from the other side of things, humans competing produces cities and civilizations as emergent properties. Whether or not that is beautiful, and what you like or dislike is entirely up to you.

              The question is, does the little things create Nature as an emergent thing, or does Nature create the individual pieces?

              The conversation started with whether plants and animals have a “free market”; unless Nature or God or some other force is manipulating everything, it appears as if each thing is acting out of its own selfish self interest, and the natural world emerges from that, without any central command.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Matthew Krajcik
              If you read Capra and Luisi, you see that there is both a bottom-up and and a top-down influence. They are working simultaneously. Neither is ‘in command’.

              With humans, I think it is somewhat different. Humans have gained control over fossil fuels and fire, which has made us ‘lords of the universe’, and we have the power, in the short term, to direct the course of events. The question is, do we direct events toward the destruction of vast swaths of what Nature has created, or do we manage a balance so that humans can flourish along with much of the rest of Nature? (I don’t claim to be the first person to pose the question that way.) Biological farming and gardening, for example, by whatever name you want to call it, can give the result of a great mass of biological life, plus food for humans. But it doesn’t provide a place for the large herbivores that Gail is always talking about…except on preserves. Wooly mammoths don’t coexist with kitchen gardens. Neither do deer in the absence of wolves. Humans know quite enough to have a very diverse world, and also grow a lot of food for humans.

              Don Stewart

            • garand555 says:

              ” Humans know quite enough to have a very diverse world, and also grow a lot of food for humans.”

              But I think that a lot of us are greedy enough that we’ll choose not to see that until we as a species, have suffered severely. I don’t have the means to change anything but my own small corner right now, but I will act within my means.

        • Daniel Hood says:

          Check out latest Washington, Moscow, Beijing war machine ramp up FE!

      • edpell says:

        There was a movie, 1973, titled “Oh Lucky Man” the theme song was
        O Lucky Man!
        Song by Alan Price

        If you have a friend on whom you think
        You can rely
        You are a lucky man!
        If you’ve found the reason to live on and
        Not to die
        You are a lucky man!
        Preachers and poets and scholars don’t know it,
        Temples and statues and steeples won’t show it,
        If you’ve got the secret just try not to blow it
        Stay a lucky man!
        If you’ve found the meaning of the truth
        In this old world
        You are a lucky man!

        If knowledge hangs around your neck like
        Pearls instead of chains
        You are a lucky man!

        Takers and fakers and talkers won’t tell you.
        Teachers and preachers will just buy and sell you.
        When no one can tempt you with heaven or hell
        You’ll be a lucky man!

      • edpell says:

        The world of meaning is something we make for ourselves. One can see knowledge of a blessing and a privilege. Yes, a storm is coming but knowing that does not make it our fault nor our obligation to stop it. Its dramatic, its tragic, its sad, it is sometimes mildly humorous when juxtaposed with oblivious statements by the unseeing, it is the human condition, smile, cry, live, love and work.

      • Stefeun says:

        it’s been said that “Intelligence is a lethal mutation”…

      • kesar0 says:

        Lol! It alienates sometimes, I agree.
        I on the other hand am proud to be a member of this small intellectual community. It is pleasure to read all of you. You are the brightest people I met. I’ve learnt a lot from all of you.

  31. Robert Wilson says:

    Excellent article. You covered much material. You mentioned that there was “free modern medical care for all” but that as with other issues it might be vulnerable. I have read that Cuba has a three tier system. Special care for Castro and associates in Havana, tourism fee for service – especially eye surgery, and a lesser degree of care for the poor. I know that you did not have time to investigate everything but I doubt that a farmer living 200 miles from Havana would have easy access to modern specialty care.

      • Very interesting! Thanks!

        It seems like a big thing that under Communism, there is a tendency to stay away from debt, and because of this not finance any new infrastructure. Instead, old building are used until they fall apart. Of course, Cuba has still ended with a huge balance of payment deficit, so still has a big debt problem. At this point, it really can’t afford all of the things that we expect, like computers and the Internet for university students.

    • I am sure that someone distant from Havana would likely get different medical care than those in Havana.

      I was told that I would receive free medical care with my visa issued by Cuba, but I didn’t test that out. I am sure that they didn’t intend that folks come to Cuba for cataract surgery that was not covered on a plan elsewhere. I am not sure whether I would be considered a “tourist” by Cuba. The US doesn’t allow people to travel to Cuba as tourists. Our group had eight hours a day of scheduled activities, and little free time. We were given booklet to document our notes and observations. We are to keep these for at least five years, in case the US wants to audit the fact that we were there to learn, not vacation.

      • Robert Wilson says:

        I question whether or not there are “plans” that would cover cataract or other eye surgery in Cuba. My guess is that the tourists generally pay cash. Venezuela did have anarrangement involving subsidized oil.

      • Fast Eddy says:

        My wife tested it out when we were there… she was after something for a bad cold…

        The hotel sent their doctor to the room — a rather dodgy looking women with an assistant — the first thing they asked was were we covered by insurance — (which put me on my guard) — when we said yes then they prescribed a battery of blood tests and an injection … made me wonder if they had trained in the American system…

        Needless to say that didn’t happen and I arranged for some Tylenol…

  32. Don Stewart says:

    Dear Gail
    A very good post with first hand observation. I would like to comment on one particular angle, which happens to have been discussed by Dmitry Orlov in his current post:

    ‘But there are many of those for whom extinction will be a matter of cultural preference. Like the Greenland Vikings, who could very well survive by emulating the Inuit rather than trying to exterminate them, many people will refuse to survive because the sort of survival that is possible will be below their high cultural standards. In the best traditions of the British navy, they will prefer to “drown like gentlemen” rather than grab a piece of flotsam, wash up on some wild shore, and quietly go native.’

    I have heard from a number of people that one of the problems the Cubans face is that they regard themselves as ‘Europeans’. Che Guevara had an epiphany somewhere along his motorcycle trip and found that ‘we are one Mestizo race’. Not looking back toward the culture of the Native Americans, but forward to what the mixed blood Mestizo’s could accomplish. And what they could accomplish was seen to be a very modern and rich culture. And so we got the excellent education and the excellent health care and ‘enlightened’ birth control and many of the other cultural markers of the Europeans. Which also included eating what the Europeans ate.

    One fly in the ointment, of course, was that a tropical island nation with no indigenous sources of fossil fuels simply couldn’t generate a lot of surplus…unless it somehow became a colonial empire and was able to reap a harvest from somewhere else in the world. Some of the islands tried to become a sort of colonial empire with very loose financial restrictions…but you can’t outdo the City of London for loose for very long.

    There is a loose partnership between some small farmers in North Carolina and small farmers in Jamaica. I will get a better report from that effort in November of this year, but what I hear is that being a small farmer in Jamaica is about the bottom of social ladder. Food is what comes on a big ship.

    If living in a ‘shack’ near where one grows the foodstuffs which are appropriate to the soils and climate of where one actually lives is in our future, then Orlov’s observation about humans in general and the very specific problems facing the islands, and people’s cultural inhibitions to do what they have to do becomes very relevant.

    Don Stewart

    • Artleads says:

      Excellent post, Don. I don’t know how it stacks up against mainstream ideas, but Rastafari in Jamaica tend much, much less than “average” citizens to identify with colonial values. But since European values-via-IC are in such ascendancy there, I don’t know whether, or to what extent the Rastafari “alternative” is succeeding.

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree that the Cubans think of themselves as being like Europeans or even Americans. The feel that they need to eat the same food as these countries do, even if such food doesn’t grow well in Cuba. They also expect to have electricity and running water. These are nice ideas, if you can afford them, but it is pretty clear from the balance of payments figures that Cuba hasn’t been able to afford these things for quite a long time. But changing thinking is not easy to do. Educating leaders in college probably works the wrong direction.

      In some ways, the “sin” Cuba is guilty of is, “Not acting like a former colony.” Instead, it is trying to act like a developed nation.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      there are many of those for whom extinction will be a matter of cultural preference.

      I gots no probem wid dat!

      It’s clear that we’re headed for a bottleneck. What could be better than self-selection out of this mess, so those who actually want to go through the bottleneck have a better chance?

  33. Kind of a footnote to Gail’s piece, above:
    Why Venezuelans worry more about food than crime

  34. David L. Hagen says:

    The drop in oil ~ 1990-1993 was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union and Cuba’s loss of subsidized fuel. See: “Special Period in Time of Peace
    Cuba has already experienced “peak oil” when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990. The collapse was an economical disaster for Cuba. Cuba lost its primary trading partner, oil imports were cut by half and food by 80%. The United States made it even worse for Cuba by banning any ship that came from Cuba from entering the U.S. for 6 months. Cuba’s economy shrank by almost 35% within a year.

    Cuba Permaculture
    crop fields in Cuban cities became a common picture
    The crisis is known as the ‘Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba’. During this time Cuba was forced to change its society and its economy radically. The major changes were the introduction of sustainable agriculture, decreased use of vehicles, and a different approach towards health, diet and industry. The Cubans had to live their life without many goods they had become used to.” Cuba and North Korea epitomize the consequences of rapid loss of available fuel.

    • Yes, I have seen many comments about these things in the past. I wasn’t trying to evaluate what happened then–only where Cuba is now.

      • David L. Hagen says:

        Understand – Just reminding readers as 24 years ago was before most college graduates were born.

  35. Gail,

    I would strongly recommend that you watch some videos form Humberto Rios Labrada (, a Cuban agricultural engineer, who won the Goldman Environmental Price for his works on the “periodo especial” crisis in Cuba and how they went on them.

    I had the privilege to share with him a conference in Spain (Murcia, Caravaca de la Cruz) and his videos are in the Internet. Unfortunately, they are in Spanish, but any effort to understand what he says is worth it.

    He lives in Cuba although he travels a lot, specially to Spain, where his wife is from. He is very critic with his own government and the Party cadres, who did not know how to face the problems of this special period and then, fortunately, they decided to give command to old farmers who knew how to do things when fossil fueles agricultures is not available. He openly admits that this was very painful and still is.

    It was a privilege to listen his conferences.

    • Thanks! I wish I could understand Spanish, or that there would be a Google translate for speech.

      • edpell says:

        Gail, in 12 years every cell phone should be able to do translation.

        • Jan Steinman says:

          in 12 years every cell phone should be able to do translation

          In twelve years, a five-year-old will say, “Mommy, what’s a ‘cell phone?'” 🙂

          • edpell says:

            Jan, you Canadians start out all polite and then zing “Mommy, what’s a ‘cell phone?'” 😉

            On the serious side it is hard to keep in mind the disparate inputs I receive daily. Cellphone industry news letters about the unbounded future, OFW about the bounded future. It is as bad as facebook. I have people from all over the planet. One post here is my cute new kitten playing with string. next post, here is my cousin Yusif lying on the sidewalk with his brains blowout by the dictatorship in Egypt. Next post from former male student now working as fashion model in Japan. Here I am modeling a leopard print jacket. Complete chaos.

        • Sure thing–as long as we keep the system together, and we don’t run short of materials to make cell phones. Recycling doesn’t work well.

          • edpell says:

            Gail, my guess is the cell towers and electrons and internet for cell industry consumer the majority of energy and materials versus the handsets. I think the backbone will fail/be uneconomical first. This may explain the strong interest in using wifi to pull cellphone traffic off the air in as short a distance as possible, that is less cell tower expense/free ride on already existing wifi hotspots.

    • Jan Steinman says:

      I would strongly recommend that you watch some videos from Humberto Rios Labrada

      Humberto came to EcoReality for a brief visit in 2011, and I was very impressed!

      If you find videos with translations, I would like to see them.

  36. Pingback: Cuba: Figuring Out Pieces of the Puzzle |

  37. Fast Eddy says:

    A good article re Cuban farming methods … unlike most countries they have not engaged in wholesale industrial farming so they have not destroyed their soils… however it is starting …

    “Last year it was announced that the pesticide enterprise “Juan Rodríguez Gómez” in the municipality of Artemisa, Havana, will produce some 100,000 liters of the herbicide glyphosate in 2011

    And one can imagine opening up the US means opening up to Monstanto in a big way….

    Will the collapse of BAU come in time to save Cuba?

    • Daddio7 says:

      Practically everything we (maybe not you) eat is grown on land sprayed with glyphosate. Farmers will spray land before planting to kill standing weeds. Cultivating to control weeds uses more fuel, dries out the soil and exposes more weed seeds that sprout leading to even more cultivating. You can try actually proving harm and getting them banned or compensate farmers who do not use them. Otherwise use will continue.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Practically everything we (maybe not you) eat is grown on land sprayed with glyphosate.

        Practically nothing I eat was grown with glyphosate!

        It’s not hard to do. Make sure you only purchase organic in the “Big Three:” corn, soybeans, sugar beets.

        Unfortunately, RoundUp Ready™ alfalfa has been approved in the US. That pretty much rules out non-organic meat and dairy. (There’s a one-year moratorium in Canada.)

        • Daddio7 says:

          A few weeks ago I was walking through organic section of a local food store. Note I said through. A stunningly beautiful blonde girl holding a small bunch of green organically grown bananas approached me and in all seriousness ask, “Will these turn yellow and be good to eat?” Being stunned all I could do was mutter, “eventually”.

          • Fast Eddy says:

            Sounds like she might have been hitting on you 🙂

          • Jan Steinman says:

            Yea, there’s a lot of weird stuff going on in the organic sector. On the one hand, there are producers trying to milk the “organic” appellation for all it is worth. On the other hand, Mall*Wart is busy homogenizing and industrializing the organic sector.

            At least for now, “organic” is at least “non-GMO.” I’m just saying that’s how one can avoid glyphosate-soaked food.

            (You should have said, “I’ve got one that’s already ripe, baby. Wanna come to my place and try it out?”)

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Unless you grow it yourself or pay big bucks at Whole Foods… you are definitely eating this stuff.

        Every meal in a restaurant will pretty much contain plenty…

    • I ran across that article as well.

      Rainbow Chemicals lists a long list of chemicals for sale in Cuba, including glyphosate.

      Jeff Siegel in “Energy and Capital” writes: (

      Agriculture giants such as Cargill, Monsanto, and DuPont have been very aggressive in their quest to have the embargo lifted. After all, Cuba represents a multi-billion dollar opportunity for them in both import and export opportunities.

      Getting rid of all of the acacia is a huge problem. I am sure herbicides will be used in many cases.

      • Steven Rodriguez says:

        Acacia is a fast growing tree. Its wood is gummy but burns hot. Better than sugar cane as an electricity “program”?

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Getting rid of all of the acacia is a huge problem.

        Not if you run goats through your fields once or twice a year. They’ll control the shoots before they become trees.

        • Don Stewart says:

          Dear Gail and Jan Steinman
          I don’t know enough about Cuba to label the acacias as ‘weed trees’. However that may be, Geoff Lawton has a nice video on the use of goats to clear land of weed trees:

          The video puts a lot of different things together: solar powered electric fences, goats, coppicing, rocket mass stoves, meat from the goats, and the eventual production of highly productive forest or grassland or cropland on fertile soil.

          I want to add one observation about Cuba. I know a couple of Permaculture people who were touring Cuba (they weren’t Americans, so it was OK). Their guide was lecturing them on the virtues of ‘central planning’. I imagine the guide was completely clueless that he was talking to a couple of confirmed Anarchists. In any event, what Geoff has done on his property with the goats is almost inconceivable as some sort of deliberate government strategy. Obama wouldn’t consider it unless it somehow made money for Monsanto. I doubt Raul Castro would give it a second thought. Ironically, the United Nations might actually be interested.

          Don Stewart

          • I did see both goats and sheep in Cuba. Lamb was on the menu several times (never goat, and rarely beef).

            I saw a huge number of scrawny cows. We were told that Cuba doesn’t have many veterinarians. The cows seem to have worms–at least that is what one visiting cowman thought.

        • All you have to do is find some goats that you can transport to your farm. If all you have to work with is horse and buggy, the range over which you can seek them out is fairly small.

          It didn’t look to me as though live goats would stay in the buggies very well either. When you finish, you have to transport them back again. It is not clear that the process would be all that easy without today’s vehicles.

          • edpell says:

            I think this is where the specialty worker, the goat herd, comes in to play.

            I have been thinking a lot about all the specialty skills/knowledge that we do not have today. My grandfather kept two horses. He would have the farrier in to care for the horses hooves. Who among us knows how to trim a horses hoof without damaging it?

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Who among us knows how to trim a horse’s hoof without damaging it?

              This is not for a newbie, but neither is it rocket science. You “pick the frog” and then use end nippers on the hoof, followed by a mill bastard or even a rasp. I find Stanley Surform Planes work great.

              Horses are easier to trim than didactyls, like goats.

              Shoeing is another matter, though. Shoes are only necessary if the horse will be on pavement much of the time.

            • Can you use a dremel on horses and goats hooves? It works wonderfully for dogs’ nails.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Can you use a dremel on horses and goats hooves?

              Not after power-down.

              I mean, why would you? You’d have to run an extension cord, or make sure batteries are charged. End nippers work just fine, thank you. Even when the grid goes down.

          • Jan Steinman says:

            All you have to do is figure out how to find some where there are some goats that you can transport to your farm.

            On foot! (On hoof?)

            A goatherd can easily rotate a flock of some 20-30 goats over a 100 square kilometre area. Tht would require a two-hour walk from corner to corner, but generally, much less, as one would want to service adjacent farms. They would visit a farm for 3-5 days or so, then move on to the next. This would require paper and pencil, some shoe leather, and some means of communication among farms.

            During inclement weather, the goatherd might want a small trailer.

            In exchange, the goatherd would have meat, milk, and whatever crops the farms had on hand.

            Sign me up!


          • “It didn’t look to me as though live goats would stay in the buggies very well either. When you finish, you have0 to transport them back again. It is not clear that the process would be all that easy without today’s vehicles.”

            Goats are actually capable of autonomous perambulation. Especially once the roads are deserted of motor vehicles, herding the goats down the road should be quite feasible. It may take several people, or the use of herding dogs, but doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              It may take several people, or the use of herding dogs

              Not if your goatherd is any good!

              They are herd animals, and have a hierarchy. You control the leaders, you control the flock. Just like people. 🙂

              One person can manage 20-30 goats. I do it all the time.

            • Right. Either human energy, or energy of animals, or energy of some other kind. The process requires some type of energy inputs. The goats don’t just wander to their new location by themselves.

            • momist says:

              On holiday (vacation) in Bavaria three years ago I saw a goat herd with his flock wandering slowly along a ridge. I hadn’t realised that this scene was still viable, but it seems that it is there . . .

  38. Fast Eddy says:

    Somehow… I don’t think the theory of cooling one of these with a garden hose…. would stand up to reality:

    • Do you know the difference between a nuclear reactor and a spent fuel pond? Apparently, not.

      • Nevermind, I thought this was an old link about the original explosions. As your own previous link about Sellefield shows, spent fuel ponds can be cooled passively with open air provided they have enough water. Fukushima, there are so many problems. Such as the containers constantly leaking, and the rods being damaged from the previous hydrogen explosions. As well as sub-par contruction, both in the 1970s and now during the emergency.

        Why are they using sealed containers that build up gases? Why did they do the exact same thing in 2011? Japanese corporate culture is truly bizarre.

    • Rodster says:

      Thanks for that, it fits in with David Stockman’s analysis of:

      “China’s Monumental Debt Trap”

      “China’s Monumental Ponzi: Here’s How It Unravels”

      • Fast Eddy says:

        Thanks – this one lays out the problem rather starkly:

        China is the greatest construction boom and credit bubble in recorded history. An entire nation of 1.3 billion has gone mad building, borrowing, speculating, scheming, cheating, lying and stealing. The source of this demented outbreak is not a flaw in Chinese culture or character—nor even the kind of raw greed and gluttony that afflicts all peoples in the late stages of a financial bubble.

        Instead, the cause is monetary madness with a red accent. Chairman Mao was not entirely mistaken when he proclaimed that political power flows from the end of a gun barrel-–he did subjugate a nation of one billion people based on that principle. But it was Mr. Deng’s discovery that saved Mao’s tyrannical communist party regime from the calamity of his foolish post-revolution economic experiments.

        Just in the nick of time, as China reeled from the Great Leap Forward, the famine death of 40 million and the mass psychosis of the Cultural Revolution, Mr. Deng learned that power could be maintained and extended from the end of a printing press. And that’s the heart of the so-called China economic miracle. Its not about capitalism with a red accent, as the Wall Street and London gamblers have been braying for nearly two decades; its a monumental case of monetary and credit inflation that has no parallel.

        At the turn of the century credit market debt outstanding in the US was about $27 trillion, and we’ve not been slouches attempting to borrow our way to prosperity. Total credit market debt is now $59 trillion—-so America has been burying itself in debt at nearly a 7% annual rate.

        But move over America! As the 21st century dawned, China had about $1 trillion of credit market debt outstanding, but after a blistering pace of “borrow and build” for 14 years it now carries nearly $25 trillion. But here’s the thing: this stupendous 25X growth of debt occurred in the context of an economic system designed and run by elderly party apparatchiks who had learned their economics from Mao’s Little Red Book!

        That means there was no legitimate banking system in China—just giant state bureaus which were run by party operatives and a modus operandi of parceling out quotas for national credit growth from the top, and then water-falling them down a vast chain of command to the counties, townships and villages. There have never been any legitimate financial prices in China—all interest rates and FX rates have been pegged and regulated to the decimal point; nor has there ever been any honest accounting either—-loans have been perpetual options to extend and pretend.

        And, needless to say, there is no system of financial discipline based on contract law. China’s GDP has grown by $10 trillion dollars during this century alone—that is, there has been a boom across the land that makes the California gold rush appear pastoral by comparison. Yet in all that frenzied prospecting there have been almost no mistakes, busted camps, empty pans or even personal bankruptcies. When something has occasionally gone wrong with an “investment” the prospectors have gathered in noisy crowds on the streets and pounded their pans for relief—-a courtesy that the regime has invariably granted.

        So in two short decades, China has erected a monumental Ponzi economy that is economically rotten to the core. It has 1.5 billion tons of steel capacity, but “sell-through” demand of less than half that amount— that is, on-going demand for sheet steel to go into cars and appliances and rebar into replacement construction once the current pyramid building binge finally expires. The same is true for its cement industry, ship-building, solar and aluminum industries—to say nothing of 70 million empty luxury apartments and vast stretches of over-built highways, fast rail, airports, shopping mails and new cities.

        In short, the flip-side of the China’s giant credit bubble is the most massive malinvesment of real economic resources—-labor, raw materials and capital goods—ever known. Effectively, the country-side pig sties have been piled high with copper inventories and the urban neighborhoods with glass, cement and rebar erections that can’t possibly earn an economic return, but all of which has become “collateral” for even more “loans” under the Chinese Ponzi.

        China has been on a wild tear heading straight for the economic edge of the planet—-that is, monetary Terra Incognito— based on the circular principle of borrowing, building and borrowing. In essence, it is a giant re-hypothecation scheme where every man’s “debt” become the next man’s “asset”.

        Thus, local government’s have meager incomes, but vastly bloated debts based on stupendously over-valued inventories of land. Coal mine entrepreneurs face collapsing prices and revenues, but soaring double digit interest rates on shadow banking loans collateralized by over-valued coal reserves. Shipyards have empty order books, but vast debts collateralized by soon to be idle construction bays. Speculators have collateralized massive stock piles of copper and iron ore at prices that are already becoming ancient history.

        So China is on the cusp of the greatest margin call in history. Once asset values start falling, its pyramids of debt will stand exposed to withering performance failures and melt-downs. Undoubtedly the regime will struggle to keep its printing press prosperity alive for another month or quarter, but the fractures are now gathering everywhere because the credit rampage has been too extreme and hideous. Maybe Zhejiang Xingrun Real Estate which went belly up last week is the final catalyst, but if not there are thousands more to come. Like Mao’s gun barrel, the printing press has a “sell by” date, too

        Of the more than US$562 million (RMB3.5 billion) that it owed to debtors, US$112 million was borrowed from 98 private parties with annual interest rates of up to 36%, according to recent revelations from Chinese media. Under that kind of pressure, the only surprise is that the default didn’t happen sooner. The company struggled to find capital for years; the chairman is suspected of borrowing up to US$38.6 million with “fake mortgages.”

        But before Xingrun gets branded as China’s worst small, private homebuilder, it’s important to understand how it ended up in the mess in the first place, and what specific factors brought the operation down, or at least to the brink of collapse (local government officials insist it hasn’t officially defaulted yet).

        Xingrun’s business in Fenghua, a county-level city that is part of Ningbo in a manufacturing belt on China’s east coast, ran into trouble through a renovation project starting in 2007, Chinese media pointed out. The company attempted, after securing government support and taking over for another distressed local property company, to build high-rise apartment blocks in a village called Changting. The project required the company to build homes for the original residents before the existing village could be torn down and the new buildings built. Construction was slated to start in the first half of 2012. Xingrun projected that it could pay off its debts within three years.

        The project never got to the construction phase. In fact, the small village homes are still standing. Xingrun built the replacement homes for the villagers but there’s no sign of its main housing product, high-rises. Nothing has happened because the residents of the village have tangled the project and the company in a lawsuit that has stretched for years.

        That explains why Xingrun was unable to pay back its loans. But why has it come so close to keeling over now? Its troubles with the Changting project persisted for years but the company simply rolled over loans and borrowed at high rates from private lenders.

        One problem for capital-strapped developers in the Ningbo area is that private lenders no longer want to lend to highly risky companies. In fact, they are calling in their loans. This is just one of the problems afflicting Xingrun. The value of property in some areas of Fenghua is decreasing and that trend has lowered confidence in developers’ ability to pay dizzyingly high interest rates.

        Banks aren’t hot on lending to this kind of developer either. In the past, a developer such as Xingrun could ask the local branch of a commercial bank for more credit. The local branch would take that risk because loan officers there knew that, somewhere much higher up the chain, officials promoted the lending.

        That support exists no longer. Now, when small developers beg local banks for credit, they will likely be turned away. Local bank managers are reportedly being told that they may lend to risky borrowers if they wish, but they will be held accountable.

        High risk is something no one seems willing to stomach these days – in stark contrast to just a year ago.

        Fenghua is a small town, and Xingrun’s reach beyond that area is limited. Analysts have come out strong in saying that such a default has little systemic risk. The bigger picture in the region, however, can’t be ignored.

        Xingrun’s woes are still the woes of the local authorities. The default will add US$305 million (RMB1.9 billion) to Fenghua province’s non-performing loan portfolio, pushing up the rate of toxic assets to 5.27% and making it Zhejiang province’s most indebted government, according to calculations by The Economic Observer newspaper.

        Add Fenghua’s problems to those of the greater Ningbo region. The area reportedly has at least six years of housing stock either sitting empty or under construction. The massive buildout will put small developers under great pressure to pay back loans, especially if private debtors are calling in high-interest loans. A slowdown in property prices won’t help either. Without a rescue from provincial-level banks, Fenghua won’t be the last local government stuck in a jam.

        • edpell says:

          Fast Eddy, sure China is a command economy but isn’t the US close to the same? We are seeing how close to the edge command can drive the world. It only stops when we hear that sucking sounds due to the well being empty.

        • historian says:

          One of the most serious problems we don’t care much about is over-capacity which is prevalent now in many industrial regions including China. Such a problem is derived from over-investment, which, in turn, is attributed to decades-long debt expansion. I think the primary cause of the coming financial problem as Gail has predicted would be over-capacity, excess part of capacity useless in repaying the debt with interest.

          • I hadn’t thought of expressing the problem that way. As changes are made to move from human energy to automated systems, more and more of our capacity becomes excess capacity–stranded assets, in a way. This happens in many ways, in fact. If we have to move downward, there will be more and more stranded assets. Proposals to move quickly from a fossil fuel based system to one based on modern renewables (something that can’t really be done in my opinion) are in effect proposals to greatly increase stranded assets. The only work around would be to make the transition very, very slowly as productive assets reach the ends of their normal lifetimes.

            • Don Stewart says:

              Dear Gail and Historian
              Haven’t you guys drunk the Kool Aid from Silicon Valley…it’s all about Disruption.

              Which, in some cases is a good thing, in others not so my opinion. But if you want the ‘markets’ opinion, start comparing the market caps of companies that don’t really do much of anything with the market caps of those that turn raw materials into goods. And if you aren’t really doing much of anything physical, just providing a platform for advertising and selling your customers’ data, I think that there is a slippery slope to destruction. Particularly if the world gets a lot poorer.

              Don Stewart

            • historian says:

              No, Gail. I am not focusing on transitions of any kind. I am focusing on the coming inevitable financial failure caused by over-capacity, which you already said many times in your previous posts. I just add the term, over-capacity, because i thought such term would be helpful to identify more clearly the path to the failure, I mean a mechanism. Let’s say there is a massive shopping mall in a city that was built with borrowed money, it failed to operate properly and to repay the debt with interest as expected, and it is eventually abandoned. It can be the case of over-capacity. At the moment, there are many shopping malls abandoned in US, many production facilities idling in China and other countries, and many newly-built houses left unsold. They effectively fall to over-capacity and obviously they can not serve the debt with interest, eventually giving a lot of pressure to the financial system which is intrinsically fragile.

              “Proposals to move quickly from a fossil fuel based system to one based on modern renewables (something that can’t really be done in my opinion) are in effect proposals to greatly increase stranded assets.”

              Yes, you are right. I had to read the above sentence several times to catch the point. Another possible debt serving failure being made with another over-capacity case. You are brilliant.

    • One of the reasons why the stock market is being pumped up so much is because people are pulling money out of the failing housing market, and investing in what is touted as the new best investment available.

      By the way, China is funding quite a big of Cuba’s buying today. (I am not sure how they expect to be paid back.) The bus we rode in was from China. Many other imports are from China as well.

  39. MG says:

    The warm and reasonably wet weather of Cuba and its relatively flat countryside is an advantage not only from the point of view of food production, but also in keeping the buildings and infrastructure in operational state longer.

    The membership in the EU and its funds are the temporary rescue for many post-communist countries in Europe, as the varying temperatures between the summer and the winter and the rainy seasons in the mountains destroy the infrastructure faster. Without these subsidies, the crumbling of the infrastructure continues much faster:

    The living in the mountains also brings floods to the valleys:

    It is highly probable that these factors, together with the reasonable population density, contributed to the fact that Cuba could continue having relatively human communist regime (in comparison to North Korea) also with lower levels of oil consumption.

    • I could not believe what good shape Cuba’s roads were in, but not having freezing and thawing temperatures no doubt helped that situation.

      I am sure that there were other ways the lack of freezing temperatures were helpful with all of the cars from the 1950s. In the United States, the bodies would have rusted and fallen apart years ago, from the impact of salt used on the roads.

      The comment I heard was that the building collapse situation was worst near the ocean, because of the impact of salt water.

      • garand555 says:

        Not having a lot of traffic on them probably helps them last a long time too. How long would an interstate highway last if it were built, then subsequently closed off permanently?

        • It depends a lot on where it is built. In Minnesota with its freezing and thawing, I expect not very long. Florida with its sink holes has a different problem.

          • garand555 says:

            Certainly, freezing and thawing hurts that kind of infrastructure, but in order for it to really take its toll, cracks must be present for water to enter. Big rigs seriously contribute to the formation of cracks. Sink holes are another story, but in the grand scheme of things, they are going to be something to go around. If you take industrial society away, I bet there will be many examples of paved roads 1,000 years or 2,000 years from now. Even in FL and MN.

      • edpell says:

        I have seen asphalt roads in Arizona that are paper thin but in perfect condition due to a combination of no freezing, no frost heaves, light traffic, little water erosion.

    • xabier says:


      Excellent points about Europe: one only has to compare the state of surviving (until ISIS, ISIL or whatever one is supposed to call the CIA these days) Roman cities in North Africa and the Near East, with those in North Western Europe – barely existing in the latter – to judge the effect of climate and the need for constant energy inputs to repair concrete, stone and brick, or even wood without adequate preservatives.

      It’s very noticeable in the Pyrenees that floods are increasing in incidence and severity. Major roads connecting France and Spain are regularly destroyed in the winter and spring, and are very expensive to rebuild. Very few reflect on this.

      Of course, in the recent past goods were carried on human backs and those of mules, along narrow trails, or went by river and sea, not land.

      When your mule dies, you can eat it, and use its hide; and when the porter grows old or sick, if poor he soon dies and doesn’t live to become a drain on the state budget: that was Old Europe, and living within the constraints of the solar budget…..

      The Cubans are not living within that budget at all.

      • edpell says:

        Xabier says “The Cubans are not living with that budget at all.” I agree. They will loose all of their housing stock, except those make of solid stone if any. They will loose the cheap oil from Venezuela. They will loose the electric system. Then they will be getting close to budget.

  40. Jan Steinman says:

    The “take away” I get from this is that things will continue to get worse in Cuba — but probably not at the rate that things will get worse in the developed world.

    When you start your fall closer to the bottom, it doesn’t hurt as much when you hit bottom.

    • It certainly helps to not have as many people as many tropical areas have. The tropical weather provides for a growing season that is only limited by rainfall.

      • garand555 says:

        I have some stuff that would only be limited by land area there, not rainfall. I have some dry beans that can be dry farmed in NM, and they go absolutely ballistic on yields when it is lightly irrigated.

        IMO, matching the topography of your land to the amount of water that you get is important. Do you get too much or too little water? Sculpt your land accordingly.

        • Kowabunga says:

          “I have some dry beans that can be dry farmed in NM, and they go absolutely ballistic on yields when it is lightly irrigated. ”
          It would be useful to me if you identify the species. Thank YOU

          • Jan Steinman says:

            dry beans… identify the species

            Phaseolus vulgaris is the species of most beans.

            But you probably meant the variety, rather than species.

            • garand555 says:

              I meant the species. Phaseolus acutifolius, aka tepary beans. Most people haven’t heard of them, but they used to be a staple in parts of the southwest. Now, if you want to talk about varieties of tepary beans, there are cultivars that are dry farmed in the Sonoran desert with clever management of water flows from rains. FYI, I like them better than most common beans.

              And if you ask whether they are a bush or a pole, I’m going to say “yes.”

            • Ann says:

              I grow black mitla tepary beans in B.C. I grow a double row and they intertwine to form what looks like a huge swath of plants, all tangled together. The flowers are lilac colored and the beans form inside the pile. I water them very sparingly. Pull up the plants in the fall and let the swath dry. Then pile it between two tarps and walk on it. The dry beans fall out and land on the bottom tarp. They taste great, require no soaking, and can be cooked with short grain rice at the same time, in the same pot, for the same amount of time.

            • Jan Steinman says:

              Cool! I’d like to get some seed from you.

              If willing, please send me a message so we can figger things out. I have lots of locally-adapted seed to trade.

            • garand555 says:

              @Jan Steinman,

              I don’t see the black mitla in here, but here is where you can get an assortment of tepary beans:


              And Ann’s description of them growing like a huge swath of tangled plants is correct. They look like a solid mat of leaves and vines. If you have something for them to climb, they often will. I’ve also gotten several hundred beans off of one plant. Last year, that seemed to be the norm, so they are very productive under the right conditions. I have the Sonoran and the blue speckled varieties, and they have zero issues with the NM full sun.

            • Kowabunga says:

              “If you have something for them to climb, they often will.”

              Hmm wonder if they could double as cover for a sod roof
              Thank you for the reply

        • Artleads says:

          Glad to hear of what you can do in NM. I guess you mean “sculpt your land” in the permaculture sense? As with swales? I try for an alternative to swales: piling up cut weeds, putting earth on the pile, hoping that these piles will eventually act like swales as growth starts to take hold in them. .

          • garand555 says:

            There is no dominant slope on my land for water to flow. It just spreads out and soaks in, so I try to keep it from spreading out away from where the plants are. IMO, in my immediate location, a swale would be useless because of this. 1/2 mile to the west, maybe a swale would be the thing to do, but I’d have to convince the people who owned the land to not press charges when I showed up and started digging for “an agricultural test.”

  41. kulm says:

    scarcity can be overcome by ruthless supression, a la stalin.

    north korea’s elites live as well as the west’s. they usually carry chinese passports when they feel like going overseas. perhaps 5, 000 nkers out of 30 mil do that, or about 0.017%.

    That will be the future.

    few people know that castro and dave rockefeller watched baseball at yankee stadium before.

  42. Mike says:

    Thanks for another insightful post Gail.
    I think cuba’s food problem can be overcome somehow as you pointed out, as a matter of fact it was almost selfsustaining while it was a spanish colony, I don’t see why they would not be able to do it again.
    Regarding energy with their current consumption I think renewables could easily cover their needs but not create growth, even if they cannot manufacture a wind generator I think they could easily make a bargain with any country for new ones and spare parts when needed.
    Possibly cuba is ahead of us experimenting what real sustainability is.
    Humanity did not rise thanks to oil there are thousands of years of history to prove it.
    A question for cuba would be if they are able to create a loop between energy generation and harvesting energy tech manufacturing, although they will answer fisrt the limits and offers of permaculture.

    • My impression is that Cuba has started burning sugar cane bagasse for part of their electricity needs, or perhaps started using co-generation where this bagasse was only being burned for the heat energy it provided previously. If so, that would be a smart move, assuming that they plan to continue to grow lots of sugar cane. (Using the land for food that would actually be good from them to eat might be a better idea. )

      Cuba has been experimenting with wind/ solar. You can see from my chart that it had made no discernible impact, up through the end date shown (2012). With any of these things, there is long-term upkeep required. I don’t think any country can count on electricity for the long term. These so-called renewables may only lead to big expenditures now, but a system that cannot be maintained for long. The result will be a net high cost with only very temporary value.

      • Jan Steinman says:

        Cuba has started burning sugar cane bagasse for part of their electricity needs

        This would make a lot of sense!

        Sugar cane is the most efficient collector of solar energy, reaching 8% or so.

        By comparison, a hayfield collects about 3-4% of the sunlight falling on it, and tomato plants collect less than 0.5%.

        • This is an interesting link about electricity generation that didn’t get into the published version of my article.

          EIA data indicates that electricity consumption is actually rising, even as oil consumption has dropped. If this is really true, it seems to me that they must be using some form of combined heat and power with sugar cane bagasse, and not recording its value very well. (Of course, if it was already being burned for heat, it is not “new” energy supply. The other thing that they may be doing better is reducing line losses.

          The small rise in renewables didn’t make it like wind and solar were doing very much, through 2012.

          • Other than cooking, I don’t see how they would need much in the way of heat? Other than perhaps odd Arctic Outflows.

            • If anyone wants metals, or wants to reuse old metals, heat helps a lot. Heat is also helpful for making glass, and for a lot of other products, such as “fired pottery”. Even back in the stone age, hunter-gatherers used heat to make sharp knives. Refrigerators work the opposite direction. They are helpful if someone wants to keep meat or produce fresh.

              You are right, that people in Cuba don’t need to use heat to heat their homes. Practically no one has glass windows–just louvered windows. With louvered windows, it seems like it would be hard to either heat or air condition.

          • richard says:

            Thanks for the link Gail, it explains a lot, though the amount of diesel based generation is stunning. I noted that the article is from 2008, so I’m guessing that the forecast of growth in renewables has not worked out as expected. I’d also guess that some of the numbers are similar to Japan, though Japan has the advantage of importing LNG for more efficient generating plant. Diesel maintenance must be an ongoing industry.

            • Japan hasn’t been doing well financially either, as you have no doubt noticed. LNG has been expensive for Japan, not giving a lot of savings over oil prices, although perhaps the efficiency is better. LNG’s cost has dropped with the drop in the price of oil recently, though.

        • Steven Rodriguez says:

          C4 grasses…

        • Steven Rodriguez says:

          Grasses also store mega Carbon, creating the highly fretile “molisols”. Still, one has to wonder about nutrient depletion with such an elctricity ‘program’

          • Jan Steinman says:

            one has to wonder about nutrient depletion with such an elctricity ‘program’

            If the ash is put back on the land (carefully, so as to not disturb pH), then there’s no problem. Especially if the humans consuming the sugar put their waste back on the land.

            In other words, remove nothing from the land except carbon bonds, which the sun and photosynthesis will replay.

            • momist says:

              Unfortunately, sugar has zero nutritional value in and of itself, although a source of ‘energy’ for the human. Once the fall comes, the consumption of sugar will fall faster than that of other foodstuffs, since you can’t live on it, and this will both solve the obesity problems, and cause pain for Cuba.

            • In a world without fossil fuels, food energy becomes more valuable, not less. You don’t need twice as much iron, or most other nutrients, when doing manual labour. You do, however, need a great deal of energy; from ~2200 calories for passive living, to more like 3600 calories.

              The Welsh women made a delicious high calorie snack for their miner husbands, which became the famous Nanaimo Bars. Men digging several tons of coal or cutting trees by hang appreciate a few hundred empty calories along with their lunch.

            • I understand that slaves were fed sugar water in Cuba. I presume they were fed other things as well.

              The custom is to serve fruits in sugar sauce, even if they don’t need it.

          • I know that Brazil is burning bagasse for electricity generation.

            I believe that the ash is put back on the fields, so as not to lose too much in minerals.

            • Jane O'Sullivan says:

              Yes, but nitrogen and sulfur are lost when biomass is burned. Nitrogen can, in theory, be replaced by biological fixation (growing legumes – such as those weedy Acacias, or more efficiently with an appropriate legume cover crop) but adding that process to the system drops its overall productivity of biomass or food a great deal. Land that is regularly burned (such as may have been the case for generations of cane farming) is often sulfur deficient. Permaculture doesn’t have answers for chronic mineral deficiencies, other than concentrating the nutrients from the wider landscape into small production areas (eg. grazing and collecting animal manure for fertilizer, or harvesting green manures for mulching the garden) – then claiming that this system of creating fertility can be scaled up to the whole landscape, which of course it could not.
              Getting nutrients from human sewage back onto the land is the big Holy Grail of sustainable agriculture. But the cycle can never be entirely closed – some inputs from somewhere will be needed.

            • Fortunately, volcanoes erupt fairly frequently. Rocks contain lots of minerals that fungi and bacteria can extract and process for plants. Other than the slow, continuous loss of atmosphere into space, the Earth as a whole is a fairly closed system.

            • Good points!

            • Sulfur is rarely if ever a deficient mineral in any soil. If it is missing simply watering replaces missing sulfur and if you happen to be near a high pollution zone the rain itself will leave you with more sulfur than you will ever need. Any island can get all the sulfur they would ever need from the ocean I imagine.

            • I read that we never had a sulfur deficiency in the days of high sulfur diesel, but the situation has changed. I know I take turmeric pills, precisely for this reason.

            • Elizabeh says:

              The plant material makes humus (soil organic matter) in the soil which retains water, so the nutritional value of the plant residues is not the only reason to hesitate about burning. This is especially important if your are not irrigating (or using fossil fuels to pump water).

      • Robert Wilson says:

        I can’t resist mentioning that circa 1957, as Baylor Med sophomores we were taught new diseases every day. One of my favorites was bagassosis, an occupational disease occasionally encountered in the New Orleans area. Basically a pulmonary allergy “allergic alveolitis” and not a true infection.

        • I am sure workers in Cuba and Brazil got the disease too.

          • houtskool says:

            Gail, energy is like all other things, it’s seasonal / temporarily, like a crop. It’s not for storage. When you see energy like it is, there’s no need for storage; that eliminates the storage problem and gets us right to the core. No wind, no energy. Go to bed early….

            Lot’s of sun? Wind? Produce, consume, and store a little food until the next flow of energy; it’s about the flow, not about the stock. That goes for food, energy, and people.

  43. Robert Wilson says:

    Perhaps I was too influenced by Garrett Hardin. Whether discussing drought in California, traffic in Los Angeles, immigration, conflicts involving Israel, or poverty in Haiti; I tend to think population. I recall once hearing that aid to Haiti was to be refused if it included funds for birth control. Cuba has been blessed by relatively low growth.

    • I don’t know whether there was any real plan for low growth, but it was furthered by many things (1) the assumption that everyone needs a concrete block house or apartment to live in, (2) not building any more of these, especially after 1990, (3) people wanting to leave Cuba, (4) free contraceptives, and (5) education of women.

      Regarding birth control, the Catholic religion isn’t really strong in Cuba. Instead, quite a few folks follow a Catholic-African blend call Santeria.

      Refusing to provide funds to Haiti if they included birth control funds in simply crazy, in my view.

  44. Artleads says:

    Thanks. This is my favorite OFW article thus far. 🙂

    • I am glad someone likes it. I maybe should have chosen a “Zippier” title.

      • Artleads says:

        I appreciate your approach to things. Please don’t change.

      • Elizabeh says:

        I liked this post very much. It was very insightful into the many elements of life. It interpreted how each thing would play out. I could feel the implications for the US. In Cuba primitive sustainable living might be possible because the population is reasonable, although with all the food imports (and all the modernity they must see elsewhere in the world) they haven’t gone there (back in time).. Population is a problem elsewhere to get to such a solution of survival post oil, post finance systems, etc..

  45. I much appreciate your info about Cuba (it modifies some claims of several years ago, in which Richard Heinberg claimed Cuba had successfully “powered down”).
    On a more international note, I posted the following at
    “9.6 billion
    Estimated number of people worldwide who will need to be fed in 2050”

    Really? Maybe see,, &

    “If you close the door on reality, it comes in through the window.”

    • I suppose I should have looked back at Richard Heinberg’s “powered down” claim.

      In many ways, the many concrete block homes built for Cubans not long after the 1959 revolution look much more like “powering up”–that is, moving from shacks they had built themselves to nice concrete block homes with electricity and indoor plumbing. New paved roads were added at this time as well. Presumably the Soviet Union helped Cuba in this early endeavor.

      But that is not the timeframe Heinberg was looking at. I wonder if Heinberg looked at all of Cuba’s deficit spending from the 1990s onward.

  46. edpell says:

    I suggest Cuba needs six 1GW (electric) nuclear power plants. Say from China or Russia or India or South Korea or even the US is it can offer a fair price and does not demand the monopolistic bundling of fuel supplies and processing.

    • edpell says:

      maybe 12

    • edpell says:

      The Chinese cost is 1.5 billion dollars per 1GW (electric) plant. So, to start with 6 costs 9 billion dollars. Say Cuba borrows at 4% from the new development bank that is 36 million per year interest plus say 1/30 capital 300 million for a total of 336 million per year. how does this compare to the cost of imported oil? Oil at 50$/B would cost 1935 million dollars per year. Assume the discount price from Venezuela is $20/B still 774 million per year. It is a big win. Yes, some uses need oil so keep 10% of the oil import, still a big win to go nuclear.

      • You point out the financial reason why a lot of countries purchase cheaper nuclear reactors than mandated by the US and Europe.

        There are in theory a huge number of island nations that could benefit from cheap nuclear electricity, if diminishing returns with respect to uranium supply is not a problem, if disposal of waste is not a problem, and if financing could be arranged for all.

        • jithin says:

          Hi Gail

          I assume by diminishing returns you are referring to less output from the effort that is being put to extract the oil, i.e. diminishing return of oil refers to oil companies in the UK going more offshore to produce oil.

          In the case of Uranium, firstly you need only a small amount of Uranium to generate electricity,can be avoided if the island nations have local uranium or are able to arrange affordable uranium from say Canada. I mean to say, could you explain how uranium can be considered as a diminishing return, i.e. the extraction processes are similar to the past and also I don’t think the Uranium supply will be reduced in the future

          I agree with other points as well, also I think building a nuclear plant takes a lot of time and expertise (may need to import foreigners for the initial phase of the reaction).And also Cuba might face similar difficulties that Iran faced to receive permission to start enriching uranium. Also in order to reuse the waste , we will need to build fast breeder reactors(another type, which I think is still not commercially viable) , have reprocessing facilities and again consider transporting the waste to and from abroad for reprocessing if it cant be done locally. The other option is to store the waste, and as the UK shows, understandably it is difficult to get public approval to store nuclear waste in their backyard.

          I think all countries, especially island nations have to start considering solar. The transportation of oil, electricity inter connectors from other countries, pollution (accidents such as Deepwater Horizon or Fukushima will have far more severe concerns for island nations- it could lead to tourism reduction, water problems which in turn lead to fishing or even agriculture) . Though unlikely, what would happen to an Island nation if a nuclear accident Chernobyl were to occur? I agree storing energy is a concern, but I think it can be overcome over time

          Another reason is that continued use of fossil fuels has a more pronounced effect on island nations ,e.g. Tuvalu due to climate change slowly eroding the low lying islands bit by bit.( I know I have strayed away from the topic, but I thought this was worth sharing

          • What we have is a total world economic system. It must grow, or we cannot pay back debt with interest, and the financial system fails. Wages of young people fall, and prices of commodities fall below the price level needed for extraction. It is this world situation we are reaching right now. See my recent post Why we have haven oversupply of almost everything

            We can talk, in theory, about uranium being separate, but without banks, and without governments, we can’t extract any uranium at all. Uranium companies cannot pay their workers. That is the true diminishing returns problem. It is that our world-wide financial system cannot be maintained, and it pulls down everything at once, including uranium.

            • historian says:

              One of the remarkable characteristics of the era of over-population we are in now is diminishing wage of workers because over-population causes over-supply of workers. This results in forming vicious feedback loop within the economic system. The ultimate problem is over-population as it always had been in history

            • I agree overpopulation is a major problem. If population is low relative to resource level, things work out much better.

            • historian says:

              Almost all the countries around the world are now suffering from over-population and other accompanying problems.