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.

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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.

844 thoughts on “Cuba: Figuring Out Pieces of the Puzzle (Full Text)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Critical strategic question

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Don Stewart

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

          Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

            • Edo Japan did not have a population of 127 million.

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

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

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

            • FE,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

        Here is a short summary:

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

        My conclusion:

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

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

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

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

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

          • Dear Jan,

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

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

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

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

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

    Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

          The Gilens & Page paper:

          Click to access gilens_and_page_2014_-testing_theories_of_american_politics.doc.pdf

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

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

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

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

              Correction: what we have is not democracy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Don Stewart

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

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

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

          Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

              Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Don Stewart

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

              Unfortunately, statistics does not agree with you.

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

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

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


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

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

              Don Stewart

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

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

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

              Don Stewart


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

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

            • *infanticide was accepted

              As was, I believe, “senioricide.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Don Stewart

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

              Do you feel resonance?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

        • Dear Artleads

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

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

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

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

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

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

          A headnote from one of Basho’s poems:

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

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

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

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

          Don Stewart

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

              Very astute!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

          PV Solar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


              Got any other good links for Hanson?

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

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

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


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

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

              Envision a world utterly destroyed by a lethal education:

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

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

              I thought you might like that.

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

          • Solar is gaining traction? 0.17% is traction?

            This is traction?

            The German Solar Disaster: 21 Billion Euros Burned

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

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

            Replacement of oil by alternative sources

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            • Good points…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Don Stewart

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