Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

Strangely enough, the limit we seem to be reaching with respect to fossil fuel extraction comes from low prices. At low prices, the extraction of oil, coal, and natural gas becomes unprofitable. Producers go bankrupt, or they voluntarily cut back production in an attempt to force prices higher. As the result of these forces, production tends to fall. This limit comes long before the limit that many people imagine: the amount of fossil fuels in the ground that seems to be available with current extraction techniques.

The last time there was a similar problem was back in 1913, when coal was the predominant fossil fuel used and the United Kingdom was the largest coal producer in the world. The cost of production was rising due to depletion, but coal prices would not rise sufficiently to cover the higher cost of production. As a result, the United Kingdom’s coal production reached its highest level in 1913, the year before World War I started, and began to fall in 1914.

Between 1913 and 1945, the world economy was very troubled. There were two world wars, the Spanish Flu pandemic and the Great Depression. My concern is that we are again headed into another very troubled period that could last for many years.

The way the energy problems of the period between 1913 and 1945 were resolved was through the rapid ramp-up of oil production. Oil was, as that time, inexpensive to produce and could be sold for a very large multiple of the cost of production. If population is to remain at the current level or possibly grow, we need a similar “energy savior.” Unfortunately, none of the alternatives we are looking at now yield a high enough return relative to the required investment.

I recently gave a talk to an engineering group interested in energy research talking about these issues. In this post, I will discuss the slides of this presentation. A PDF of the presentation can be found at this link.

The Low Oil Price Problem

Oil prices seem to bounce around wildly. One major issue is that there is a two-way tug of war between the prices that citizens can afford and the prices that oil companies require. We can look back now and say that the mid-2008 price of over $150 per barrel was too high for consumers. But strangely enough, oil producers began complaining about oil prices being too low to cover to cover their rising cost levels, starting in 2012. Prices, at a 2019 cost level, were at about $120 per barrel at that time. I wrote about this issue in the post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. Oil prices now are in the $40 range, so are way, way below both $120 per barrel and $150 per barrel.

Interest rates and the availability of debt also play a role in oil prices. If interest rates are low and debt is readily available, it is easy to buy a new home or new car, and oil prices tend to rise because of the higher demand. When prices are too low for producers, central banks have been able to lower interest rates through a program called “quantitative easing.” This program seems to have helped oil prices to rise again, over a three-year period, after they crashed in 2008.

OPEC producers are known for their low cost of production, but even they report needing high oil prices. The cost of extracting the oil is reported to be very low (perhaps $10 per barrel), but the price charged needs to be high enough to allow governments to collect very high taxes on the oil extracted. If prices are high enough, these countries can continue the food subsidies that their populations depend upon. They can also sponsor development programs to provide jobs for the ever-growing populations of these countries. OPEC producers also need to develop new oil fields because the old ones deplete.

Oil production outside of the United States and Canada entered a bumpy plateau in 2005. The US and Canada added oil production from shale and bitumen in recent years, helping to keep world oil production (including natural gas liquids) rising.

One reason why producers need higher prices is because their cost of extraction tends to rise over time. This happens because the oil that is cheapest to extract and process tends to be extracted first, leaving the oil with higher cost of extraction until later. 

Some OPEC countries, such as Saudi Arabia, can hide the low price problem for a while by borrowing money. But even this approach does not work well for long. The longer low oil prices last, the greater the danger is of governments being overthrown by unhappy citizens. Oil production can then be expected to become erratic because of internal conflicts.

In the US and Canada, oil companies have been funded by bank loans, bond sales and the sale of shares of stock. These sources of funding are drying up, as many oil companies report poor earnings, year after year, and some are seeking bankruptcy protection. 

Chart 6 shows that the number of drilling rigs in operation has dropped dramatically in both the United States and Canada, as oil companies cut back on drilling. There is a lag between the time the number of drilling rigs is cut back and the time production starts to fall of perhaps a year, in the case of shale. These low drilling rig counts suggest that US and Canadian oil production from shale will fall in 2021.

Of course, unused drilling rigs cannot be mothballed indefinitely. At some point, they are sold as scrap and the workers who operated them find other employment. It then becomes difficult to restart oil extraction.

How the Economy Works, and What Goes Wrong as Limits Are Reached

Slide 7 shows one way of visualizing how the world economy, as a self-organizing system, operates. It is somewhat like a child’s building toy. New layers are added as new consumers, new businesses and new laws are added. Old layers tend to disappear, as old consumers die, old products are replaced by new products, and new laws replace old laws. Thus, the structure is to some extent hollow.

Self-organizing objects that grow require energy under the laws of physics. Our human bodies are self-organizing systems that grow. We use food as our source of energy. The economy also requires energy products of many kinds, such as gasoline, jet fuel, coal and electricity to allow it to operate.

It is easy to see that energy consumption allows the economy to produce finished goods and services, such as homes, automobiles, and medical services. It is less obvious, but just as important, that energy consumption provides jobs that pay well. Without energy supplies in addition to food, typical jobs would be digging in the dirt with a stick or gathering food with our hands. These jobs don’t pay well.

Finally, Slide 7 shows an important equivalence between consumers and employees. If consumers are going to be able to afford to buy the output of the economy, they need to have adequate wages.

A typical situation that arises is that population rises more quickly than energy resources, such as land to grow food. For a while, it is possible to work around this shortfall with what is called added complexity: hierarchical organization, specialization, technology, and globalization. Unfortunately, as more complexity is added, the economic system increasingly produces winners and losers. The losers end up with very low wage jobs, or with no jobs at all. The winners get huge wages and often asset ownership, as well. The winners end up with far more revenue than they need to purchase basic goods and services. The losers often do not have enough revenue to feed their families and to buy basic necessities, such as a home and some form of basic transportation.

The strange way the economy works has to do with the physics of the situation. Physicist Francois Roddier explains this as being similar to what happens to water at different temperatures. When the world economy has somewhat inadequate energy supplies, the goods and services produced by the economy tend to bubble to the top members of the world economy, similar to the way steam rises. The bottom members of the economy tend to get “frozen out.” This way, the economy can downsize without losing all members of the economy, simultaneously. This is the way ecosystems of all kinds adapt to changing conditions: The plants and animals that are best adapted to the conditions of the time tend to be the survivors.

These issues are related to the fact that the economy is, in physics terms, a dissipative structure. The economy, like hurricanes and like humans, requires adequate energy if it is not to collapse. Dissipative structures attempt to work around temporary shortfalls in energy supplies. A human being will lose weight if his caloric intake is restricted for a while. A hurricane will lose speed, if the energy it gets from the warm water of the ocean is restricted. A world economy with inadequate energy is likely to shrink back in many ways: unprofitable businesses may fail, layers of government may disappear and population may fall, for example.

In the discussion of Slide 7, I mentioned the fact that if we try to “stretch” energy supply with added complexity, many workers would end up with very low wages. Some of these low wage workers would be in the US and Europe, but many of them would be in China, India and Africa. Even though these workers are producing goods for the world economy, they often cannot afford to buy those same goods themselves. Henry Ford is remembered to have said something to the effect that he needed to pay his workers enough so that they, themselves, could buy the cars they were making. To a significant extent, this is no longer happening when a person takes into account international workers.

The high interest rates that low-wage workers pay mean that loans don’t really help low-wage workers as much as they help high-wage workers. The high interest on credit cards debt and personal loans tend to transfer part of the income of low-wage workers to the financial sector, leaving poor people worse off than they would have been without the loans. 

COVID shutdowns are extremely damaging to the world economy. They are like taking support sticks out of the dome on Slide 7. They produce many more unemployed people around the world. People in low wage countries that produce clothing for a living have been particularly hard hit, for example. Migrant workers and miners of various kinds have also been hard hit.

We Seem to Be Reaching a Major Turning Point

Oil production and consumption have both fallen in 2020; oil prices are far too low for producers; wage disparity is a major problem; countries seem to be increasingly having problems getting along. Many analysts are forecasting a prolonged recession.

The last time that we had a similar situation was in 1913, when the largest coal producer in the world was the United Kingdom. The UK’s cost of coal production kept rising because of depletion (deeper mines, thinner seams), but prices would not rise to compensate for the higher cost of production. Miners were paid very inadequate wages; poor workers regularly held strikes for higher wages. World War I started in 1914, the same year coal production of the UK started to fall. The UK’s coal production has fallen nearly every year since then.

The last time that wage disparity started to spike as badly as it has in recent years occurred back in the late 1920s, or perhaps as early as 1913 to 1915.  The chart shown above is for the US; problems were greater in Europe at that time.

With continued low oil prices, production is likely to start falling and may continue to fall for years. It is hard to bring scrapped drilling rigs back into service, for example. The experience in the UK with coal shows that energy prices don’t necessarily rise to compensate for higher costs due to depletion. There need to be buyers for higher-priced goods made with higher-priced coal. If there is too much wage disparity, the many poor people in the system will tend to keep demand, and prices, too low. They may eat poorly, making it easier for pandemics to spread, as with the Spanish Flu in 1918-1919. These people will be unhappy, leading to the rise of leaders promising to change the system to make things better.

My concern is that we may be heading into a long period of unrest, as occurred in the 1913 to 1945 era. Instead of getting high energy prices, we will get disruption of the world economy.  The self-organizing economy is attempting to fix itself, either by getting more energy supply or by eliminating parts of the economy that aren’t contributing enough to the overall system. Conflict between countries, pandemics, bankruptcies and economic contraction are likely to be part of the mix.

Coal Seems to Be Reaching Extraction Limits as Well 

Coal has essentially the same problem as oil: Prices tend to be too low for producers to extract coal profitably. Many coal producers have gone bankrupt. Prices were higher back in 2008, when demand was high for everything, and again in 2011, when quantitative easing had been helpful. 

There have been stories in the press in the past week about China limiting coal imports from Australia, so as to make more jobs for coal miners in China. The big conflict among countries relates to “not enough jobs that pay well” and “not enough profitable companies.” These indirectly are energy issues. If there was more “affordability” of goods made with high-priced coal, there would be no problem.

Coal production worldwide has been on a bumpy plateau since 2012. In fact, China, the largest producer of coal, found its production stagnating, starting about 2012. The problem was a familiar one: The cost of extraction rose because many mines that had been used for quite a number of years were depleted. The selling price would not rise to match the higher cost of extraction because of affordability issues.

The underlying problem is that the economy is a dissipative structure. Commodity prices are set by the laws of physics. Prices don’t rise high enough for producers, if there are not enough customers willing and able to buy the goods made with high-priced coal.

We Have a Major Problem If Both Coal and Oil Production Are in Danger of Falling Because of Low Prices

Oil and coal are the two largest sources of energy in the world. We can’t get along without them. While natural gas production is fairly high, there is not nearly enough natural gas to replace both oil and coal.

Looking down the list, we see that nuclear production hit a maximum back in 2006 and has fallen since then.

Hydroelectric continues to grow, but from a small base. Most of the good sites have already been taken. In many cases, there are conflicts between countries regarding who should get the benefit of water from a given river.

The only grouping that is growing rapidly is Renewables. (This is really Renewables Other than Hydroelectric.) It includes wind and solar plus a few other energy types, including geothermal. This grouping, too, is very small compared to oil and coal.

Natural Gas Has a Low Price Problem as Well

Natural gas, at first glance, looks like it might be a partial solution to the world’s energy problems: It is lower in carbon than coal and oil, and it is fairly abundant. The problem with natural gas is that it is terribly expensive to ship. At one time, people used to talk about there being a lot of “stranded” natural gas. This natural gas seemed to be available, but when shipping costs were included, the price of goods made with it (such as electricity or winter heat for homes) was often unaffordable.

After the run-up in oil prices in the early 2000s, many people became optimistic that, with energy scarcity, natural gas prices would rise sufficiently to make extraction and shipping long distances profitable. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly clear that, while prices can temporarily spike due to scarcity and perhaps a debt bubble, keeping the prices up for the long run is extremely difficult. Customers need to be able to afford the goods and services made with these energy products, or the laws of physics bring market prices back down to an affordable level.

The prices in the chart reflect three different natural gas products. The lowest priced one is US Henry Hub, which is priced near the place of extraction, so long distance shipping is not an issue. The other two, German Import and Japan Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), include different quantities of long distance shipping. Prices in 2020 are even lower than in 2019. For example, some LNG imported by Japan has ben purchased for $4 per million Btu in 2020.

The Economy Needs a Bail-Out Similar to the Growth of Oil After WWII

The oil that was produced shortly after World War II had very important characteristics:

  1. It was very inexpensive to produce, and
  2. It could be sold to customers at a far higher price than its cost of production.

It was as if, today, we had a very useful energy product that could be produced and delivered for $4, but it was so valuable to consumers that they were willing to pay $120 for it. In other words, the consumer was willing to pay 30 times as much as the cost that went into extracting and refining the oil.

With an energy product this valuable, a company producing it would need virtually no debt. It could drill a well or two, and with the profits from the first wells, finance the investment of many more wells. The company could pay very high taxes, allowing governments to build roads, schools, electricity transmission lines and much other infrastructure, without having to raise taxes on citizens.

Besides using the profits for reinvestment and for taxes, oil companies could pay high dividends. This made oil company stocks favorites of pension plans. Thus, in a way, oil company profits could help subsidize pension plans, as well.

Now, because of depletion, we have reached a situation where oil companies, and in fact most companies, are unprofitable. Companies and governments keep adding debt at ever lower interest rates. In fact, the tradition of ever-increasing debt at ever-lower interest rates goes back to 1981. Thus, we have been using debt manipulation to hide energy problems for almost 40 years now.

We need a way to counteract this trend toward ever-lower returns. Some people talk about “Energy Return on Energy Investment” or EROEI. I gave an example in dollars, but a major thing those dollars are buying is energy, so the result is very similar.

I think researchers have set the “bar” far too low, in looking at what is an adequate EROEI. Today’s wind and solar don’t really have an adequate EROEI, when the full cost of delivery is included. If they did, they would not need the subsidy of “going first” on the electric grid. They would also be able to pay high taxes instead of requiring subsidies, year after year. We need much better solutions than the ones we have today.

Some researchers talk about “Net Energy per Capita,” calculated as ((Energy Delivered to the End User) minus (Energy Used in Making and Transporting Energy to the End User)) divided by (Population). It seems to me that Net Energy per Capita needs to stay at least constant, and perhaps rise. If net energy per capita could actually rise, it would allow the economy to increasingly fight depletion and pollution.

Conclusion: We Need a New Very Inexpensive Energy Source Now

We need a new, very inexpensive energy source that buyers will willingly pay a disproportionately high price for right now, not 20 or 50 years from now.

The alternative may be an economy that does poorly for a long time or collapses completely.

The one ray of hope, from a researcher’s perspective, is the fact that people are always looking for solutions. They may be able to provide funds for research at this time, even if funds for full implementation are unlikely.

This entry was posted in Financial Implications by Gail Tverberg. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

979 thoughts on “Fossil Fuel Production Is Reaching Limits in a Strange Way

  1. A complex crop circle was created in 2020.

    The field was later harvested.

    The energies that created the crop circle stimulated grass in the field to grow and create a mirror image of the original crop circle.

    The ghost crop circle later even changed colour.

    • Yoshua, this is in Wiltshire, England, where there are military bases. In this case I suspect they are testing their hi-tech weapons: infrared laser beams, etc. See:


      Yes, I do think we have entities operating on Earth and in our skies, but not in every case. I think they would have better things to do than put on crop circle shows for humans.

      Anyway, Joshua – can you identify the episode of ‘UFO Hunters’ (I think it was that) that starts with two young American lads (possibly twins) recounting how they saw a large UFO swoop noiselessly into the sea and without making a splash? A young soldier at a nearby military base appears in the film, telling of how he saw a similar UFO disappear into the sea.

      I expect you will have read: ‘Invisible Residents: The Reality of Underwater UFOs’ by Ivan T Sanderson ?

    • As an Englishman, I can tell you authoritatively that crop circles are made by hedgehogs. If you want to know why, ask any hedgehog.

  2. Gail, sometimes the knowledge and insight freely given on this site by your readers is quite simply stunning. Many thanks for your hard work.

    • Yes, I too am thankful for all of the ideas from my readers. I would never come up with all of these things myself. I don’t find the work all that hard. I have many people helping me.

  3. What I love about this site, people ask intelligent questions that invite further exploration.

    Another Wikipedia quote:

    “Space elevator designs for Earth typically have a taper of the tether that provides a uniform stress profile rather than a uniform cross-section. Because the strength requirement of a lunar space elevator is much lower than that of an Earth space elevator, a uniform cross-section is possible for the lunar space elevator. The study done for NASA’s Institute of Advanced Concepts states “Current composites have characteristic heights of a few hundred kilometers, which would require taper ratios of about 6 for Mars, 4 for the Moon, and about 6000 for the Earth. The mass of the Moon is small enough that a uniform cross-section lunar space elevator could be constructed, without any taper at all.”[1] A uniform cross-section could make it possible for a lunar space elevator to be built in a double-tether pulley configuration. This configuration would greatly simplify repairs of a space elevator compared to a tapered elevator configuration. However a pulley configuration would require a strut at the counterweight hundreds of kilometers long to separate the up-tether from the down-tether and keep them from tangling. A pulley configuration might also allow the system capacity to be gradually expanded by stitching new tether material on at the Lagrange point as the tether rotated”

    Thank Keith for that one, I didn’t know what an L1 point was.

    A guess about the last economic miracle, China. Much of what we did was turn it into a dump, recycled plastics from the US most likely were dumped in to the Pacific, has anybody ever looked into the origin of that mess? This is strict “Limits of Growth” stuff, the earth can take no more pollution, but the solar system, the universe, that is where the action is. The universe runs fusion reactors on a routine basis, and when they are done some times they go bang, instant heavy metals, messy, but very efficient, no EPA even on site. This is alchemy, it is possible, the scale is a bit larger than a witches cauldron that is all.

    My friends, we are selling hope, we are selling a refurbished earth, we are selling luxuries without the pollution. It is a hell of a lot easier sell than spears and loin clothes. When we have polluted to the edge of the galaxy the doomers can once again emerge and peddle their wares.

    Dennis L.

    • People do need hope, and over the very long run, there certainly is reason for hope. We just don’t know exactly what will happen.

      Dissipative structures have a miraculous way of emerging, wherever there are energy-related materials to dissipate. It just may not be humans, in our particular circumstances. We assume that we can come up with all of the ways of looking at things, but we really can’t.

    • there must be a purpose to energy conversion (from one form to another.)

      Which is the reason behind the fantasy of orbital tether-elevators. Leaving aside the daftness of it, let’s look at the practicalities:

      ‘stuff’ is mined on the moon or wherever, winched up into orbit, slingshotted to Earth, and winched down another elevator.

      Why? The great unaswered question. Lots of assertions about doing it. That it is possible (sometime) Nobody questions why.

      There has to be commercial purpose, or it will not happen.

      We earthlings exist in our current situation by working at our various jobs, some high paid, most not. But that exchange pf wages created our ongoing ‘purpose’

      A——If we mine the moon, and ship finished goods back to earth, do we then become a cargo-cult of 8 bn people? With means by which we labour to produce our own goods and services?

      or B—-If we only mine ores, and ship ores back to Earth, then we must rework those ores into finished goods here on Earth.
      Which requires heat and factories. (and pollution)

      I may have missed a trick, but the above seems to offer the only two options (tell me otherwise somebody?)

      If we take option A, and all enjoy permanent idleness, do we then just eat and fornicate ourselves into oblivion? (that seems a good idea)
      Or is the idea that an elite remains idle, while the rest of us have to work anyway? (which sounds more likely)


      leaving aside the above insanity, the elevator(s) must be constructed with what is available to us right now in terms of residual energy and materials, but using ‘techniques’ as yet uninvented. We cannot do it by printing money to pay wages (sorry).

      But already our energy output/usage is slowing down because we cannot afford to use it. It costs too much to produce. That doesn’t seem likely to change.

      We have no ‘new energy source’ on the horizon.

      So can somebody explain the profitable enterprise by which it might get made?

      • So let’s look at things one step at a time.

        Most refining, mining processes on earth require oil which perhaps we can agree is solar energy concentrated over millions of years. The original source is close and a guess on my part doesn’t take much energy to get to once things are in space, out of the gravity well; many deep space missions use a gravitational sling shot effect. Refine with the direct, concentrated heat of the sun, up close and personal.

        Forget an earth elevator, use the moon, check out the Wikipedia article on a lunar elevator, one is at the poles, sell it as a gaucho twirling bolas over his head only this time refined, finished products dropped at your door step thanks to Amazon. Run everything on nuclear close up, and fusion far off – a guess is doing it this way makes fusion energy closer than 25 years, we have a perfectly good fusion reactor, the sun.

        Yes, for all purposes, it is incredible wealth for all, most of the sun’s energy bypasses earth and indeed our solar system, it is wasted on space, we need it here on earth with out the waste heat(pollution) we currently have. Ah, we have solved global warming and improved living standards. That is a sure election win, it can be done politically, bipartisan don’t you know.

        From what I see this uses off the shelf technology, has significant energy gain from the sun(we are green, we are using solar energy), is an engineering problem only and offers hope which man desperately needs right now.

        The questions this site asks drive the ideas, the ideas which are shown to be impossible also serve a valuable purpose, don’t waste time on them.

        Gates is probably right on small reactors, but put the damn things on the moon, only deliver the finished products to the earth without all the pollution. For the academically minded, do a calculation of the energy savings in not doing any pollution control, any safety control, let the process rip. That is a great deal of energy which can be used somewhere else, a wild guess is nuclear finally becomes very economic. Much of the sentence on energy savings might well describe China’s ascent, they took the pollution hit.

        Lastly, for a short period of time, do what FE thought impossible, clean up the existing nuclear mess on earth and ban it forever. It is too dirty, too inefficient and too damn dangerous in human hands. It is still a beautiful world, we have a right to be here, it can be better.

        Dennis L.

        • your reply still doesn’t deal with the question of what we should actually do with ores and/or finished goods when they are delivered back to earth.

          do we have cars, furniture, kitchen sinks arriving down the elevator (don’t worry, I’m laughing as I write this)

          If so, are they free?

          If they are not free, then somehow wages must be created to pay for them.

          We have established that money has no value if it is merely printed to pay for goods. If we could just ‘print’ money the best place to put it would be on rolls in public rest rooms.
          Just tear off what you need.
          Incredible wealth for all, demands incredible energy for all. Immutable law I’m afraid.
          Somehow I don’t think that is going to happen.

          So recipents of the goods must expend energy in order to create wages to pay for ‘stuff’ arriving from space.

          If you live 1000 m from the nearest Eleport (I just created that term, please do not infringe my copyright, Bezos take note) how exactly will the goods reach you?
          Unless we all have Eleports in the back yard.—-No that would make Earth into a pin cushion.

          I’ve just decided to go out in my garden and plant some beans

          The return on my investment will be more certain

      • Exactly, Norman..
        Is our current predicament really a lack of heavy, energy-intensive-to-mine-and-process, ores? Wouldn’t it be more energy-efficient to repurpose and recycle the metals we have on the surface? From what I understand, it’s not even worth recycling cans; at the same time, NASA is supposedly offering a moon-rock bounty of $25k/pound. That sure sounds promising!

        The bizarre disconnect between those who understand ‘life’, and those who don’t is exemplified in the article by the “NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine”: “We do believe we can extract and utilize the resources of the moon, just as we can extract and utilize tuna from the ocean,” he said.

        Let them eat moon rock!

        • they want to mine the Moon’s regolith (fine rock powder) for its content of solar 3He. only problem: no one has proven the fusion reactor to burn 3He. but, it doesn’t produce (as much) neutrons, so we’ll be well on the way to Mister Fusion for your flying car.

      • “If we take option A, and all enjoy permanent idleness, do we then just eat and fornicate ourselves into oblivion? (that seems a good idea)”

        Norman, exactly this question was asked by Damon Knight, in a science fiction novel called ‘A for Anything”, published in 1959. The MacGuffin: a small device that could duplicate anything, with no energy input. What sort of society would then evolve? Answer, a slave state, since people need services as well as goods, and only people can provide many of those services. (Anyone volunteer to be given a massage by a robot?). The result was a fascinating piece of world building.

    • Dennis, there is another great advantage to a moon based elevator: there will be far less Coriolis force acting sideways on the stuff moving up and down. That I think is the Achilles heel of the terrestrial elevator: the vertical portion is under huge stress, but it is constant stress collinear with the elevator. We can handle that. But the Coriolis forces are at right angles, and constantly moving as the payload climbs or descends. That is a much harder problem. Think Tacoma Narrows bridge where every car crossing creates a huge transverse force. It wouldn’t last ten minutes.

  4. From Amazon: «Western culture is infatuated with the dream of going beyond, even as it is increasingly haunted by the specter of apocalypse: drought, famine, nuclear winter. How did we come to think of the planet and its limits as we do? This book reclaims, redefines, and makes an impassioned plea for limits―a notion central to environmentalism―clearing them from their association with Malthusianism and the ideology and politics that go along with it. Giorgos Kallis rereads reverend-economist Thomas Robert Malthus and his legacy, separating limits and scarcity, two notions that have long been conflated in both environmental and economic thought. Limits are not something out there, a property of nature to be deciphered by scientists, but a choice that confronts us, one that, paradoxically, is part and parcel of the pursuit of freedom. Taking us from ancient Greece to Malthus, from hunter-gatherers to the Romantics, from anarchist feminists to 1970s radical environmentalists, Limits shows us how an institutionalized culture of sharing can make possible the collective self-limitation we so urgently need.»
    A review:

    • When baby birds become too big for the parents to feed, and too big for the nest to hold, do they limit their growth and share with their siblings their limited food. No, they take flight! We must take that flight to the stars, and if we do not succeed, we hit the ground hard and become food for future scavengers.

      • “We” as mankind, the rapacious primate, is going nowhere from earth.

        Our children, the Machines, will head for the stars.

        You might disagree with me, but then you’d quickly discover how it feels being wrong.

        Enjoy the show, BAU, until it gets quite gritty and grimy for mankind.

      • “take flight to the stars,” LOL, is this sarcasm? Only one country even made it to the moon, that was nearly 50 years ago, and NASA admits it could not do it today because it has literally lost the technology! Temporary growth is possible. Eternal growth is not. Forward to the Middle Ages!

          • Oil and other FF’s wasn’t part of human business for the better part of some 300 centuries.

            Nuclear energy is some 70 years old now. The microprocessor 50. The Internet 30. Mobile communications 20. AI, less than 5.
            Spot a trend here? It seems to accelerate, no?

            The tragedy of the “obvious” is staggering.

          • Norman,

            What I am posting are guesses, but the questions asked here have me doing a bit more digging, again Wikipedia and lunar resources,


            It is of course optimistic, so I also found this and Google’s prize was not won, but that was then and this is now.


            This last link is from 2014 and it is important to see what has not happened as well as what has or can be. Optimism does not always carry the day, but being an optimist perhaps the decade?

            We have to have hope or we are all going to go nutz. It is not going to be easy, is failure really an option?

            Dennis L.

            • Dennis, why do we “have to have hope”? Do you hope to live to be 200? I don’t. The only relief to be found (imo) is an understanding of limits. Otherwise, nothing but pain and confusion when cornucopianism doesn’t pan out.

            • Lidia, truth.

              People want to believe in delusion because the alternative to their frivolous jank lifestyles are detrimental to their well being.

              From watching the fakery on the telly to the fake operatives on YT, FB, Twatter and so on. It is despicable.

              Follow the herd so that the perpetual racket can have another swing in the orbit of grand delusion.

          • Norman,


            1. 40 years ago there was not the concentration of wealth present today, much space exploration, etc. is not being privately funded and with much less bureaucracy.

            2. The easy natural resources were still present, more or less, not so much so now.

            Sorry, no time to chase down links, done from memory, if I am wrong, please correct.

            Dennis L.

            • as i see it, the necessary factor is concentration of energy, not concentration of wealth.

              the great concentrations of wealth we see now are the result of commercial enterprise and the natural gift of ‘smartness’ of a few exceptional individuals, to whom the means of wealth creation presented itself, and to which most of us acceeded.

              In the last century it was Rockefeller Ford and Carnegie et al.

              It was they who created the necessary realtime wealth (energy conversion) base for 2 world wars, The ‘American Dream’ and ultimately moonshots by the 1960s,
              We got richer because the available net energy (oil input) INCREASED year on year.
              We deluded ourselves that it was our technical expertise etc.

              There was enough concentrated energy in our 1960s system to commercially exploit the moon, had it been worthwhile
              It wasn’t, and isn’t.


              This century it’s Bezos, Musk, Zuckerberg and co

              Only their ‘wealth creation’ is similar to a game of ‘pass the parcel’ where the only wealth being created is going to those who are playing the music to keep the game going. (hence the world’s wealth now being in the hands of 0.01% of the population.

              We parcel passers are getting poorer because available net energy is DECREASING year on year.

              Bezos passes his parcels around as we spend money of stuff we don’t need, and creams a minute amount off the top of each transaction.

              There are no ‘concentrated energy resources’ this time round. But we are told this can go on forever. And we can inhabit other worlds.

              If my negative explanation is wrong, I’d love to be shot down in flames?


              This is why there will be no moon mining or space elevators. There isn’t enough concentrated energy in the system to pay for such fantasies, even if they were possible.

              But that won’t stop the wishers. No telling how long we will go on rubbing our personal lamps.

          • Norman, whose word should I take, yours or NASA’s? NASA says they have lost the technology–destroyed it by mistake some time in the last 50 years. Could they be lying? Sure, but what would they have to gain by admitting to such a goof up? (Not that I am implying that trips to the moon are commercially viable even in theory–that is not my point; just that it would be difficult to return even if we wanted to.)

    • Malthus has yet to be right on a macro basis as commonly understood.

      Assuming a choice is assuming a great deal, it is every bit as reasonable although not as agreeable to assume we really don’t have choices, we react to what is before us and deal with it.

      “Limits shows us how an institutionalized culture of sharing can make possible the collective self-limitation we so urgently need.” It sounds wonderful, very utopian, can you give a real world example?

      Dennis L.

      • And not only an example of such a society – but an example of such a society as ours that has transitioned to such a society as that.

        Otherwise it is the realm of ‘fiction’ rather than any sort of fact, little different to painting a nice picture – the real world is not so easy to make conform to ‘ideals’.

        Our present society tends to reward naivety with ‘moral’ ‘brownie points’ for ‘good intent’. But we should never confuse the ‘nice’ with the ‘true’, which simply would not be practical.

      • Think about the example of a situation in which, instead of 2000 calories of food available is available for people, only 1000 calories of food is available (or 500 calories of food is available) on average. How is an institutionalized culture of sharing possible? It is only when there is more than enough of the basics to go around that an institutionalized culture of sharing makes any sense. Everyone starves when all share and there isn’t enough to go around. At least some survive, if only a smaller amount of sharing is done.

        • I read somewhere that, in spite of the contemporary obesity “epidemic,” caloric consumption in Britain is quite a bit lower in Britain than it was in the 1940s. That is because people are more sedentary, with much muscle power of the past (fueled with calories from food) having been replaced by machine power (fueled with calories from fossil fuels and uranium). When energy becomes much more scarce than it is today, I expect muscles to start substituting for machines again, and caloric needs to rise sharply just as food production becomes more costly and difficult.

          • Ain’t going to happen, the arable land is simply not enough, no matter how much muscle you put into it. There is no substitute for fertilizer made from natgas.

            Die off is what you are thinking, right?

            Ain’t gonna happen either. Too much hydro, natgas, coal and fissile material left on earth.

            BAU, however, kiss farewell to that lifestyle of yours. Enjoy the train and bicycle ride.

          • About human muscles shrinkage in the last decades, we have an anedcotal evidence in the weight of cement bags. In my country, forty years ago cement was sold in 50 kilos bags, now it is sold in 30 k bags. So even the sturdy construction workers are weaker now. Forty years ago, a construction worker would laugh like crazy if somenone showed him a paint mixer.

      • Dennis, almost any feudal society will serve, but I would pick Edo Japan, since it is perhaps the best documented. Of course, the shares were very unequal, but they were established by law and almost always observed.

      • Malthus had a perfect description of the economy of all plants and wild animals, and of man from Adam to about the 1820s. Then something strange began to happen. In the same decade in which coal extraction began rising to unheard of levels, average wages began to rise. What a coincidence. Yet this “escape” from the Malthusian trap no more refutes Malthus than would the discovery of a vast new continent of uninhabited but fertile land.

        Physicist Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute says the average human’s natural metabolic processes burn the equivalent of a 90 Watt light bulb for a day, but for the average 21st century America, that number is about 11,000 Watts, and the rest of the world aspires to a similar level of energy expenditure. Three Americans are the metabolic equivalent of two blue whales, the largest animals that ever lived. How many blue whales can the earth support? And for how long?

  5. Dennis, I can not find the right place for this so it goes here. Yes, we can manufacture in an orbit just leading or trailing Earth. It would have the same orbital velocity as Earth and we can just nudge the product to Earth where it will fall in a fiery slow down (from fall into Earth gravity well) as we see on space capsule returns, but “free”.

    • Think about all the materials that will have to be constantly “trucked” up to the orbiting factories, and the employees who must commute back and forth to earth. Daily I assume–or will you build homes in space and move their whole families up there with them? Which will require schools, churches, medical, and recreational facilities in space. Yeah, I know, robots, but robots can’t do everything, except in movies. And then there are the lawsuits when people develop osteoporosis and other space-related problems. Or what happens when an intense space weather episode knocks out all the manufacturing all at once, along with our satellites, which will surely happen one of these days.

    • Ed, a good idea, but I fear orbital mechanics are against you. The only stable points in Earth orbit are the Lagrangian L4 and L5 points, and they are not “just” leading and trailing; they are leading or trailing by almost 150 million kilometres. And how will you send parcels back to Earth? If launched spinward (from L5) they will climb off into space; if launched antispinward (from L4) they will drop towards the Sun. Now I personally believe that the only sane place to put a space manufacturing plant is indeed at L4, but what it should be manufacturing is spaceships, to go elsewhere and bring stuff back.

  6. The IEA report assumes economic growth for the owning class, job growth for the laboring class, and promised resilience for the military and political classes.

  7. Some fairly wild comments going down. Not sure if they’re leg pulls or serious.

    We’re just fulfilling our genetic destiny, which is to grab as much energy/stuff as possible and then die back. Rinse and repeat. This guy nailed it:

    Energy historically manifested as food, more recently as various fuel sources, which adds more ‘toys’ and complexity to the process.

    I can drive my 2 tonne car 100kms on 6.5 litres of diesel. The embedded energy in that diesel is incredible and (currently) irreplaceable.

    Unless we can conjure up a zero point-style energy source that is simple and affordable we’re cooked, but even if we do we’ll continue to mess up our environment, so we’re still cooked.

    If we could create an incredibly efficient, affordable, portable battery just maybe we could continue some form of IC, but only for a much smaller no of people and how we could get from here to there is unclear.

    Decline always send people nuts, as it conflicts with our genetic grow-grow-grow programming, so our ability as a society to act in any coherent way is rapidly dwindling.

    That’s the end of the good news broadcast. You may now carry on partying.

    • Maybe for some, not for all. There is a point where more more stuff is a pain, once it is collected maintenance begins. Too much energy into one human leads to self destruction – the metaphor of a fast motorbike comes to mind.

      Life is changing before us, perhaps it does require less energy, for much education traveling to class is no longer necessary probably much to the chagrin of educational professionals.

      If everything that can be done electrically is done electrically, there is most likely enough with long extension cords(mining equipment), run it with nuclear, move it off the earth. People are earth centric, machines maybe not.

      Genetically growth does shut off, that is fairly well documented in lab experiments with rats, see Callhoun.

      Dennis L.

  8. Gail writes: “One major issue is that there is a two-way tug of war between the prices that citizens can afford and the prices that oil companies require.” — That exact same tug of war exists for all commodities, including food. Many farmers are able to stay in business only by holding outside jobs in the city, which they commute and from in a timely manner by motor vehicle. Do you suppose that food prices will settle at a perverse equilibrium where they are too high for consumers yet too low for producers and therefore food production will fall to zero? Of course not. Food is an energy source.

    Fossil fuels are also energy sources. Just as we shall continue to extract minerals from the soil, and carbon from the air, and energy from the sun, via food production, we also shall extract a lot more oil, coal, and gas before the industry ceases to be viable, and prices will continue to ride a boom-bust roller coaster of volatility. Indeed, supply squeezes are likely to make the volatility worse.

    Because buying power among the bidders is variable, prices can and will rise very high indeed before all bidding is exhausted. Prices are relatively low now because we are not yet post-peak, not because we are observing a new supply-demand pricing phenomenon never before seen in economic history. In ancient times, a contraceptive herb was discovered in North Africa. It became so popular, that prices rose higher and higher, but never so high that all bidding stopped. Instead, prices rose until it was harvested to extinction.

    I do not hesitate to predict (ad nauseam, I know, people are probably tired of listening!) that fossil fuels will continue to be harvested until the EROI falls too low to maintain a civilization that can exploit them. Falling energy return, not falling financial return, will kill the industry globally. I think that will become increasingly obvious once we are decisively post peak, but we are not quite there yet. The world’s current problems are still largely due to debt and demography, so we are still in the late stage BAU phase.

    • As an addendum to my previous comment, I would like to add that I think “big picture” energy analysts should be paying more attention to man’s primary energy source that makes al the others possible–namely, food–and the mutual dependence that has evolved between the food supply and the hydrocarbon supply such that neither can continue without the other.

      By the way, the same mutual dependence has evolved between electrical distribution and the internet–as the system is currently structured, neither can continue without the other. Other indispensable components of our civilization, including the monetary system, also depend on both the grid and the ‘net. The way we in the most advanced countries have rushed to make our survival totally dependent on both a functioning grid AND a functioning internet shocks me. Some complexity research indicates that “networks of networks” are especially vulnerable to sudden collapse. And of course, it all depends on energy.

  9. As an addendum to my previous [and significantly longer] comment, I would like to add that I think “big picture” energy analysts should be paying more attention to man’s primary energy source that makes al the others possible–namely, food–and the mutual dependence that has evolved between the food supply and the hydrocarbon supply such that neither can continue without the other.

    By the way, the same mutual dependence has evolved between electrical distribution and the internet–as the system is currently structured, neither can continue without the other. Other indispensable components of our civilization, including the monetary system, also depend on both the grid and the ‘net. The way we in the most advanced countries have rushed to make our survival totally dependent on both a functioning grid AND a functioning internet shocks me. Some complexity research indicates that “networks of networks” are especially vulnerable to sudden collapse. And of course, it all depends on energy.

    POSTSCRIPT: I originally posted this addendum as a “reply” to my own comment, but I think that must have triggered a spam filter for some reason, because not only did the reply never appear, but the original comment to which I was posting this addendum abruptly disappeared! Technology is great when it works, but when it behaves in unpredictable ways, aaarrrggghhh!!! Artificial “Intelligence” my arse.

  10. A major problem that could be overlooked when supporting a virtually unlimited (cheap) energy supply is that the more energy available, the more live biomass is consumed, mainly from large natural forests.
    Recent evidence points to big troubles with forest degradation, such as and In other words, the dilemma of energy availability and dramatic, life-threatening environmental degradation is emerging, adding to the issue of current decline in energy resources.

    • The loss of forest is occurring in spite of carbon offsets aimed at planting more trees. Loss of tree cover affects many things, including ability to reprocess CO2. It is another limit we are reaching.

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