Humans Left Sustainability Behind as Hunter-Gatherers


Many people believe that humans can have a sustainable future by using solar panels and wind turbines. Unfortunately, the only truly sustainable course, in terms of moving in cycles with nature, is interacting with the environment in a manner similar to the approach used by chimpanzees and baboons. Even this approach will eventually lead to new and different species predominating. Over a long period, such as 10 million years, we can expect the vast majority of species currently alive will become extinct, regardless of how well these species fit in with nature’s plan.

The key to the relative success of animals such as chimpanzees and baboons is living within a truly circular economy. Sunlight falling on trees provides the food they need. Waste products of their economy come back to the forest ecosystem as fertilizer.

Pre-humans lost the circular economy when they learned to control fire over one million years ago, when they were still hunter-gatherers. With the controlled use of fire, cooked food became possible, making it easier to chew and digest food. The human body adapted to the use of cooked food by reducing the size of the jaw and digestive tract and increasing the size of the brain. This adaptation made pre-humans truly different from other animals.

With the use of fire, pre-humans had many powers. They spent less time chewing, so they could spend more time making tools. They could burn down entire forests, if they so chose, to provide a better environment for the desired types of wild plants to grow. They could use the heat from fire to move to colder environments than the one to which they were originally adapted, thus allowing a greater total population.

Once pre-humans could outcompete other species, the big problem became diminishing returns. For example, once the largest beasts were killed off, only smaller beasts were available to eat. The amount of effort required to kill these smaller beasts was not proportionately less, however.

In this post, I will explain further the predicament we seem to be in. We have deviated so far from the natural economy that we really cannot go back. At the same time, the limits we are reaching are straining our economic system in many ways. Some type of discontinuity, or collapse, seems to be not very far away.

[1] Even before the appearance of hunter-gatherers, ecosystems around the world exhibited a great deal of cycling from state to state.

Many people are under the illusion that before the meddling of humans, the populations of different types of plants and animals tended to be pretty much constant. This isn’t really the way things work, however, in a finite world. Instead, the populations of many species cycle up and down, depending on particular conditions such as the population of animals that prey on them, the availability of food, the prevalence of disease, and the weather conditions.

Figure 1. Numbers of snowshoe hare (yellow, background) and Canada lynx (black line, foreground) furs sold to the Hudson’s Bay Company. Canada lynxes eat snowshoe hares. Image by Lamiot, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons. Link.

Even forests exhibit surprising variability. Many undergo regular cycles of burning. In fact, some species of trees, such as the giant sequoias in Yosemite, require fire in order to reproduce. These cycles are simply part of the natural order of self-organizing ecosystems in a finite world.

[2] A major feature of ecosystems is “Selection of the Best Adapted.”

Each species tends to give birth to many more offspring than are necessary to live to maturity if the population of that species is to remain level. Each of the individual offspring varies in many random ways from its parents. Ecosystems are able to keep adapting to changing conditions by permitting only the best-adapted offspring to survive. In favorable periods (suitable weather, not much disease, ample food, not too many predators), a large share of the offspring may survive. In less favorable periods, few of the offspring will survive.

When selection of the best adapted is taken into account, a changing climate is of little concern because, regardless of the conditions, some individual offspring will survive. Over time, new and different species are likely to develop that are better adapted to the changing conditions.

[3] The downsides of living within the limits provided by nature are easy to see.

One issue is that every mother can expect to see the majority of her offspring die. In fact, her own life expectancy is uncertain. It depends upon whether there are nearby predators or a disease against which she has no defense. Even a fairly small injury could lead to her death.

Another issue is lack of shelter from the elements. Moving to an area where the weather is too harsh becomes impossible. Our earliest pre-human ancestors seem to have lived near the equator where seasonal temperature differences are small.

Without supplemental heating or cooling, humans living in many places in the world today would have a difficult time following the way of nature because of weather conditions. As we will see in later sections, it was grains that allowed people to settle in areas that were too cold for crops in winter.

In theory, there are alternatives to grain in cold climates. For example, a small share of the population might be able to get most of its calories from eating raw fish, as the Inuit have done. Eating raw fish is not generally an option for people living inland, however. Also, in later sections, we will talk about the difference between the use of root vegetables and grains as the primary source of calories. In some sense, the use of grains provides a stepping stone toward big government, roads, and what we think of as a modern existence, while the use of root vegetables does not. Eating raw fish is similar to eating root vegetables, in that it doesn’t provide a stepping stone toward a modern existence.

[4] Animals make use of some of the same techniques as humans to compete with other species. These techniques are added complexity and added energy supply.

We think of complexity as being equivalent to added technology, but it also includes many related techniques, such as the use of tools, the use of specialization and the use of long-distance travel.

Animals use many types of complexity. Bees build hives and carry out tasks divided among the queen bee, drone bees, and worker bees. Many birds fly to another continent in winter, in order to gain access to an adequate food supply. Chimpanzees use tools, such as waving a stick or throwing a rock to ward off predators. Beavers build dams that provide themselves with an easy source of food in winter.

Some members of the animal kingdom, known as parasites, even leverage their own energy by using the energy of other plants or animals. Such use of the energy of a host is subject to limits; if the parasite uses too much, it risks killing its host.

While animals other than humans may use similar techniques to humans, they don’t go as far as humans. Humans employ a variety of supplemental materials in their tools. Also, no animal other than humans has learned to control fire.

[5] Pre-humans seem to have learned to control fire over 1 million years ago, allowing humans to gain an advantage in killing wild beasts.

Richard Wrangham, in Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human, makes the case that the controlled use of fire allowed the changes in anatomy that differentiate humans from other primates. With the controlled use of fire, humans could cook some of their food, making it easier to chew and digest. As a result, the teeth, jaws and guts of humans could be relatively smaller, and the brain could be larger. The larger brain allowed humans to compete better against other species. Also, cooking food greatly reduced the time spent chewing food, increasing the time available for making crafts and tools of various kinds. The heat of fire allowed pre-humans to move into new areas with colder climates. The heat of fires also allowed pre-humans to ward off some of the impact of ice-ages, which they were able to survive.

James C. Scott, in Against the Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States, explains that being able to burn biomass was sufficient to turn around who was in charge: pre-humans or large animals. In one cave in South Africa, he indicates that a lower layer of remains found in the cave did not show any carbon deposits, and hence were created before pre-humans occupying the cave gained control of fire. In this layer, skeletons of big cats were found, along with scattered gnawed bones of pre-humans.

In a higher layer, carbon deposits were found. In this layer, pre-humans were clearly in charge. Their skeletons were much more intact, and the bones of big cats were scattered about and showed signs of gnawing. Who was in charge had changed! We know that human controlled fires can be used to scare away wild animals, burn down entire forests if desired, and make sharper spears. It shouldn’t be surprising that humans gained the upper hand.

[6] Grains, because of their energy density, portability, and ability to be stored, seem to have played a major role in the development of governments and of cities.

Scott, in Against the Grain, also points out that early economies that were able to grow grains were the economies that were able to place taxes on those grains, and with those taxes, were able to fund governments offering more services. Grains are a storable form of energy for humans. They are portable and energy dense, as well. It was grains that allowed people to settle in areas that were too cold for growing crops in winter. The year-to-year variability in production made storage of reserves important. Governments could provide this function, and other functions, such as roads.

If we analyze the situation, it is apparent that the existence of grain crops provided a subsidy to the rest of the economy. Farmers and their slaves could grow far more grain than they themselves required for calories, leaving much grain for trading with others. This surplus could be used to feed the population of cities, such as Rome. It was no longer necessary for everyone to be hunter-gatherers or subsistence farmers. There could be new occupations such as merchants, teachers, carpenters, and sailors. Many more goods and services in total could be produced, and the population of cities could grow.

Cities, themselves, provide benefits, because they allow economies of scale, and they allow people with different skills to mix. Geoffrey West, in his book Scale, notes that larger cities produce disproportionately more patents. Thus, technology is advanced with the growth of cities.

It might be noted that root crops, even though they could provide most of the same food energy benefits for humans as grain crops, did not help economies grow in the same ways that grain crops did. This, likely, was part of the reason that they were not taxed: They produced no excess benefit to give back to the government.

Root vegetables are not as helpful as grains. They are less energy dense than grains, making them heavier and bulkier for transport. They do not store as well as grains. In early days, root crops could be about as efficiently grown by individual families as by farmers specializing in such crops, making it hard to leverage the labor that went into growing root crops. In fact, there was less real need for government with root crops: There was no way to store supplies of root crops in case of poor harvest, and there was little need for roads to transport the crops.

[7] The added energy benefits of grain crops created a situation where the grain was “worth” far more to customers, and to the economy as a whole, than what would be indicated by their cost of production.

There is a belief among economists, and among much of the population, that the selling price of a commodity will be determined by its cost of production. In fact, the example given in Section [6] indicates that back in the early days of grain production, grain’s selling price could be far greater than its direct cost of production, with the difference going into taxes that would benefit the government and the economy as a whole.

In fact, there was a second way that the usage of grain was helpful to governments. The efficiency of grain production, transport, and storage reduced the need for farmers. Former farmers could offer services not previously available to citizens, often in cities. Income from the new jobs could also be taxed, to give governments another stream of income.

[8] The use of coal and oil also produced situations where the value of energy products to the economy was far higher than their direct cost of production, allowing these products to be heavily taxed.

Tony Wrigley, in his book Energy and the English Industrial Revolution, indicates that with the use of coal, farming became a much more productive endeavor. The crop yield from cereal crops, net of the amount fed to draft animals, nearly tripled between 1600 and 1800, which was the period when coal production ramped up in England. Coal allowed the use of far more metal tools, which were vastly superior to tools made from wood. In addition, roads to mines were greatly improved. Prior to this time, few roads were paved in England. These improved roads helped the economy as a whole.

Oil is known today for the high taxes it pays to governments. The governments of oil exporting countries are very dependent upon tax revenue relating to oil. When the selling price of oil is low, this results in a crisis period for oil exporting countries because they have no other way of collecting adequate tax revenue to support the programs for their people. For a short time, they can borrow money, but when this alternative fails, governments are likely to be overturned by their unhappy citizens.

[9] The economy tends to move further and further away from the natural order (described in Sections [1], [2], and [3]) as more energy consumption is added.

Even though the natural order would be sustainable, it doesn’t represent a situation that most people today would like to live in. In fact, most humans today could not live on completely uncooked food, even if they wanted to. While a few people today eat “raw food” diets, they often use a food processor or blender to reduce the amount of chewing and digesting of raw foods to a manageable level. Even then, their weights tend to stay low.

If energy products are available at an affordable price, humans find many ways to use them, to stay away from the natural order. Some examples include the following:

  • To provide transportation, other than walking.
  • To pipe clean water to homes.
  • To make growing and storage of food easy.
  • To allow homes to be heated and cooled.
  • To allow medicines and vaccines.
  • To allow most children to live to maturity.

[10] Because energy consumption is important in all aspects of the economy, the economy seems to reach many kinds of limits simultaneously.

There are many limits that the world economy seems to reach simultaneously. The underlying problem in all of these areas seems to be diminishing returns. In theory, these issues could all be worked around, using increasing energy consumption or increasing complexity:

  • Too little fresh water for an increasing population.
  • The need to keep increasing food production, with the same amount of arable land.
  • Increased difficulty with insect pests, such as locusts.
  • Increased difficulty in dealing with viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
  • Overfished oceans so that farmed fish are required in addition.
  • Ores of metals of ever-lower grade, requiring more processing and leading to more waste.
  • More expensive techniques required for the extraction of fossil fuels.
  • Many unprofitable businesses; much debt likely to default.
  • Too few jobs that pay well enough to support a family
  • Governments unable to collect enough taxes

Energy and complexity work together to leverage human labor, in a way that the economy can make more goods and services in total. Unfortunately, we cannot use complexity to make energy. Technology (which is a form of complexity) can convert energy to useful work and, through efficiency gains, increase the percentage of energy that is available for useful work, but it cannot make energy. If we add more technology, more robots, and more international trade, we likely will need more energy, not less.

The net impact of all of these issues is that to maintain our economy, we really need an ever-increasing quantity of energy. In fact, energy consumption likely needs to grow more rapidly than population simply to keep the system from collapse.

Wind and solar certainly cannot meet today’s energy needs. Together, wind and solar amount to about 3.3% of the world’s energy supply, based on BP estimates for 2019. Furthermore, wind and intermittent solar certainly cannot be sold at a price high above their cost of production, the way grain, coal and oil have been sold historically. In fact, wind and solar invariably need the huge subsidy of being allowed to “go first.” They actually are reliant on a profitable fossil fuel system to subsidize them, or they fall completely “flat.”

[11] The problem, as the economy reaches limits, is too few goods and services being produced to satisfy all parts of the economy simultaneously. The parts of the economy that especially tend to get shortchanged are (a) governments, (b) energy producers, and (c) workers without special skills who are selling their labor as a form of “energy.”

When economies are doing well, the price of energy products tends to be high. These high prices allow very high taxes on energy products. They also allow significant funds for reinvestment for the energy companies themselves. Indirectly, these high prices allow a significant share of the goods and services made by the economy to be transferred to these sectors of the economy.

In addition, energy products allow non-farm workers in many areas of the economy to produce their goods and services more efficiently, thereby helping push up the wages of common laborers.

As economies reach limits, there is, in some sense, a need for more energy in many sectors of the economy. The catch is that the “wages” and “profits” needed to purchase this energy aren’t really available to provide the demand needed to keep energy prices up. As a result, energy prices and production tend to fall. Government-imposed limitations, intended to stop the spread of COVID-19, may also keep energy demand down.

Governments often fail, or they get into major conflicts with other governments, when there are resource shortages of the kinds we are currently encountering. Today is in many ways like the period of the Great Depression, which preceded World War II.

[12] Perhaps warm, wet countries will be somewhat more successful than cold countries and those without water, in the years ahead.

I showed a chart in my most recent post, Energy Is the Economy, that illustrates the wide range of energy consumption around the world.

Figure 2. Energy consumption per capita in 2019 for a few sample countries based on data from BP’s 2020 Statistical Review of World Energy. Energy consumption includes fossil fuel energy, nuclear energy and renewable energy of many types. It omits energy products not traded through markets, such as locally gathered wood and animal dung. This omission tends to somewhat understate the energy consumption for countries such as India and those located in Middle Africa.

If fossil fuel energy falls, I expect that the parts of the world with cold temperatures will experience particular difficulty because they tend to use disproportionately large amounts of energy (Figure 2). Their citizens cannot get along very well without heat for their homes. Winter becomes very dark, if supplemental lighting is not available. Walking long distances in the cold becomes a problem as well.

The warmer countries have a better chance because they do not require as complex economies as cold countries. They can feed at least part of their population with root crops. Walking is a reasonable transportation option, and there is no problem with months on end of darkness if supplemental lighting is not available. For these reasons, warm countries would seem to have a better chance of passing through the difficult times ahead while sustaining a reasonable-sized population.

About Gail Tverberg

My name is Gail Tverberg. I am an actuary interested in finite world issues - oil depletion, natural gas depletion, water shortages, and climate change. Oil limits look very different from what most expect, with high prices leading to recession, and low prices leading to financial problems for oil producers and for oil exporting countries. We are really dealing with a physics problem that affects many parts of the economy at once, including wages and the financial system. I try to look at the overall problem.
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2,604 Responses to Humans Left Sustainability Behind as Hunter-Gatherers

  1. givemefuelgivemefire says:

    Another Knockout Gail. Where going to have to start calling you iron Tverberg like Mike Tyson.

  2. modelspecies says:

    We all know population has to drop. We hate the elites for having their ideas about managing it perhaps planning it. We dont want it to happen although we know it will. We want it to happen in a natural manner any human management seems patently suspicious. To the managers. You first. At the same time we observe how cruel nature is by human aesthetics. The more you bypass limits the crueler she is. At the same time we understand that she represents something larger than our petty human endeavors. We want to die in our sleep at 109 surrounded by a a bountiful prodigy expanding infinitely into infinite resources. We are wired for that belief genetically and now wired genetically for fossil fuel use due to the rapid evolution most all species exhibit. The thing about evolution. It sucks being last years model.

    • Mirror on the wall says:

      I am all for a managed decline if that means that some semblance of BAU can go on for a bit longer for some people.

      I am not persuaded by people who would seem to prefer that we all died quickly so long as we all did it ‘equally’. Like it would be ‘better’ if no one ever lived because then there would be no ‘immorality’.

      ‘Elites’ do not bother me, they exist in every sort of society.

      Resentment is no objection to life and its conditions.

      I struggle to understand why some people think that their resentment is even relevant, let alone would I rather die to satisfy them.

      • Kowalainen says:

        Why they think their resentment is relevant?

        They are self entitled princesses of IC, spoiled and envious beyond belief, expecting all or nothing.

        And by nothing, it is eternally for everyone.

        The only thing that worries me is suffering. Even though it is hallucinated by the brain, let me tell you, it is mighty convincing.

        Thus I rather participate in a 1/6 probability of survival “lottery” than a managed Calhoun dystopia or full bore BAU over the Seneca and into total dystopian collapse.

        How to manage it into a controlled decline without the horrors? Ideas?

        • Artleads says:

          Work like one possessed toward good local governance–units not exceeding 200. And have those units fit (or be consistent with) concentric larger ones. But it’s not rigid. Outer rings that preclude proper formation of inner ones need to be attacked like in a war, and brought into compliance. So it can be sort of top down and bottom up at the same time. It requires great effort and great unity.

      • Artleads says:


    • A dissipative structure is going to maximize energy dissipation. This probably means that as many people as possible, extracting as much fossil fuels as possible, will be kept alive, perhaps in a stair-step down fashion.

      It may be that plans of the elite play into this situation.

      It is doubtful that the whole economy runs to an edge and then falls off. We may get small avalanches, but different parts of the world are sufficiently separate that we should expect different results in different places.

      • maybe I’m missing a trick here–but I can never see this ‘plans of the elite’ thing.

        Who qualifies as elite for a start?–Her Maj Queen Elizabeth?Rupert Murdoch?–Biden?–Bezos, gates, Musk? Trump’s kids?

        there has to be something that says you’re ‘elite’—and so by definition says you’re not.

        Is it money–class– brains?

        Does one volunteer or is one ‘recruited’? Can it be bought? Trump might try that if he had any actual money

        All that has to be resolved before they can begun to ‘plan’ the future for the rest of us. And themselves.

        Which is why I think such a notion is vanishingly unlikely.

        The only guarantee of the future is that it won’t be what you plan. Even if there was ‘plan’ it could only involve some kind of elevation of the aristos into walled enclaves while the rest of us were doomed to the rank of serfs.
        In that event the aristo need guards, lots of them.

        Who will only stay loyal as long as they are paid well.
        And the guards wages can only be paid by the labour of the serfs.—who quickly figure out that they are paying to be oppressed and subjugated.

        That is an arrangement that never ends well.

        the trouble with that idea is that the serfs of the 14th c saw their ‘lot’ as ordained by god.

        Now the proposed serf class would know differently. The result would be bloody carnage.

        • Lidia17 says:

          Norman, you are like the Dems/MSM who keep saying, “where’s the evidence!?” of election fraud…

          -Shaping the Future of Advanced Manufacturing and Production
          -Shaping the Future of Consumption
          -Shaping the Future of Cybersecurity and Digital Trust
          -Shaping the Future of Digital Economy and New Value Creation
          -Shaping the Future of Energy, Materials and Infrastructure
          -Shaping the Future of Financial and Monetary Systems
          -Shaping the Future of Global Public Goods
          -Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare
          -Shaping the Future of Investing
          -Shaping the Future of Media, Entertainment and Sport
          -Shaping the Future of Mobility
          -Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
          -Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Blockchain and Digital Assets
          -Shaping the Future of Technology Governance: Data Policy
          -Shaping the Future of Trade and Global Economic Interdependence
          -Shaping the Future of the Internet of Things and Urban Transformation
          -Shaping the Future of the New Economy and Society

          The Davos Agenda is a pioneering mobilization of global leaders to shape the principles, policies and partnerships needed in this challenging new context. It is essential for leaders from all walks of life to work together virtually for a more inclusive, cohesive and sustainable future as soon as possible in 2021.

          You’re closer by than me, so maybe you could swing on over and see who shows up…?

          These people see *their* lot as being ordained: tikkun olam for bililionaires (if one believes their advertising).

          But I’m not so charitable. In a business setting, I was given an informal view of the ins and outs of charitable foundations as conceived by a small HBS-alum group including “Nobel” prize-winning economist Michael Porter (a hot commodity at the time). Rich people set up charitable foundations because they make more money doing so than not doing so.

          The Davos crowd sees collapse as just another opportunity to make money.

          There won’t be bloody carnage.. you’ve mostly all disarmed yourselves. You’ll die of starvation and dehydration in a bed-sit and like it, once they’v invested your pension in TSLA and the Amazon drone deliveries peter out.

          • Lidia

            I understand, on general terms, the points you make


            All the interests you list are dependent on the continued availability of cheap surplus energy.
            (check them out, one by one, and let me know if one isn’t)

            You, together with the assorted interests you list, make the assumption that money will continue to be some kind os asset, where if I possess a billion I am wealthy, whereas you don’t and so are poor.

            Whereas the reality is, that if fungible energy continues on its current downward curve, that list will make as much sense in economic and physical terms as it would have had that it been offered in the 16th c.

            I have no doubt that the seriously wealthy strata in our society make plans to conserve and increase their assets, which inevitably means that we serfs must continue to labour to prop up those assets. (twas ever thus).

            Obviously, the ultimate stash for cash is in land. And the super rich do just that.

            But that doesn’t work either.

            The value of land is entirely dependent on the energy that can be extracted from it.

            So without cheap oil, the energy available depends on how much muscle power you put in. If you employ 50 farm labourers you will get a small surplus, over and above the food energy consumed by those workers. But nothing like the surplus you get from a gallon of diesel.

            Our planet isn’t property, to be torn apart then bought and sold. Being a multi billionaire doesn’t let you off that hook.
            The interesting list you make demonstrates that people still don’t understand that. And probably never will.


  3. Fine fine post Gail. Just when I’m sure that I have learned everything there is to know from you , a post like this comes along to prove me wrong. The best thing about these posts is that they are written by someone who just doesn’t know how to stay within her envelope! So thank you for broad new perspectives.
    I am not so sure about the comment of yours and others that we humans may be moving closer to the equator to take advantage of the light and water available. My guess is that the climate near the equator will become unsuitable in most regions as the jungles turn into steppes and grasslands and the deserts turn into terrain like Mars. If its cold you can put on a sweater. If its 120 degrees in Dubai or Phoenix and the oil is gone, you die. Energy is key to all understanding about this human experiment and the final chapter could be fossil energy which IS the economy. The declining net energy available to the civilization and our ecology will tell the tale. Thank you for trying to put nails in the coffin into which solar and wind will need to be placed because renewables as the bridge to a heavenly future is one of the biggest fake news gambits going. Wind and solar hasn’t worked so far as a replacement for oil and coal. It has merely added to supply. It would take some kind of world government with world consensus to rein in the demons unleashed by fossil energy combustion but without that combustion, there would be almost no economy as currently constructed. I guess we know where you stand by the graphs you posted in your last post of world energy consumption per capita plummeting along with population by 2050 to under 3 billion humans. We live and will die in interesting times indeed.

  4. musingsinSHTF says:

    7 hours of testimony on detroit shenanigans

    Trump comes out of silence the speech not seen on any network.
    A speech Trump calls his most important and not viewable on any network.

    Pretty wild folks.


    I cant help but wonder if we are heading for lockdown one way or another. Covid vs martial law. I have my opinions of course. So does everyone else. They seem to be divided straight down the middle. Half the people of the USA different opinion than the other half. And they are BOTH failed models. BOTH models of infinite growth. Its pretty hard to give up your opinion. We all want what we want. My opinion aside I wonder if its not all so much blah blah blah. The real truth the real outcome based not on this or that opinion but on the realities of infinite growth in a finite world. We are all so cocksure of our opinions. Failed models but we have no others. But hey ive got a hammer so everything is a nail. Rock n roll.

    I heard that radical Islam hates atheists more than other infidels. Worshiping the “wrong” god is not as bad as denying god. Thats what its like not worshiping infinite growth. The worst sin is not believing in one infinite growth model or another. Then everyone wants to string you up.

    • Ed says:

      You might enjoy Scott Adams daily youtube postings. His take the republic is already lost, democracy is already lost. He does hold out hope that we can get it back.

    • Thanks to the link to the Trump speech. I listened to some of it.

      I am afraid I don’t have time for seven hours of testimony on Detroit shenanigans.

      A self-organizing system will work however it works, which may not be we the way we hope or expect. It may be that after the Biden is elected, the truth will start becoming clear, for example.

      I don’t know if there are parts of the US that can “work,” after substantial collapse. The energy and agricultural states tend to be pro-Trump. The financial, medical care, and technology states tend to be pro-Biden.

      Georgia’s leading industry is agriculture. It is also a leading transport state and the regional headquarters for quite a few businesses. The city of Atlanta is Democratic; outlying areas tend to be more Republican.

  5. musingsinshtf says:

    Off topic. On a personal level wouldnt a straight EV not hybrid make sense if it was charged from home PVs not the grid? Were talking about the possibility of a DC to DC charging system here via buck boost not ac inbetween. DC out of the panels slightly regulated to dc into ev batteries.

    Of course the sun shines during the day. The panels would have to be where the user was during the day.

    THe batteries could be used as the energy storage for the abode.

    I am not so naive as to propose that this setup would be net positive EROI. Yet it would seem that if the user of a ev could accept power going off in totality during trips to town a properly designed PV bank that utilizes duel purpose batteries could “make sense”. Whatever that is. It could be as simple as a golf cart if law enforcement doesn’t trip on you getting groceries with that in a rural setting.

    Assuming there are actually groceries to buy with a currency that still has value of course. 🙂

    • Dennis L. says:


      Batteries degrade with each cycle of charge, discharge; the more you use them the faster they reach their end of life.

      “The typical estimated life of a Lithium-Ion battery is about two to three years or 300 to 500 charge cycles, whichever occurs first. One charge cycle is a period of use from fully charged, to fully discharged, and fully recharged again.” Google search.

      Regarding electric cars in 1912, Edison:

      “The inventor had said that electricity was the future since “all the oil would be pumped out of the ground”, but inevitably it was decided that more money could be made taxing gasoline and the electric car ideal dissipated. It’s a story that echoes the fate of General Motors’ EV-1 back in the 1990s, something insiders at GM admit was a mistake.”

      We have heard the end of oil for over 100 years now,

      NiFe(Edison batteries are almost bullet proof) but they are inefficient, very heavy and very, expensive.

      There are seemingly no magic bullets, but should you find one, please inform(zero sarcasm), I am open to all suggestions. Laughing quietly, I personally have no interest in a bow, arrow and loin cloth as a hunter gather. I see myself running through a thicket with thorns, you get the picture.

      Dennis L.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Dennis, you might like to check out Murdoch Mysteries season 5 episode 6: “Who killed he electric carriage”.

    • Wolfbay says:

      We recently bought an old plug in hybrid Prius that works well with our off grid pv system. it only has an 18 mile range in all electric but works fine for local grocery shopping etc.

    • Making batteries is an expensive process that takes resources from around the world. Hybrids like the Prius make very efficient use of what batteries are available. Plug in hybrids need much more batteries. The whole idea of scaling batteries up, plus providing charging capability for all these vehicles, seems bizarre to me. Rich people who have inside garages can charge their vehicles, but the many people living in apartments will not.

      Lithium prices have been having the same problems as oil prices: too low for producers. As lithium extraction rises, prices to producers need to rise, but they don’t. They fall. Prices of electric cars need to fall, and it is hard to keep battery prices high enough. Also, the production of

      EVs tend to be bought by high-income people for commuting. With commuting down, the need for EVs drops. Trying to convince others to buy them, when people are out of work and gasoline is $2.00 per gallon, is an uphill battle. The economics makes no sense.

  6. Ed says:

    I believe it is all part of the same thing. That is CV19, lockdown, great reset, election fraud in US, idiot Boris. If I have to pick a planner I pick the CCP. In a world with declining resources the best move is to crash your competitors for resources.

    Will the west respond? We will know in the next two months.

  7. Ed says:

    I believe it is all part of the same thing. CV19, lockdowns, great reset, vote fraud, UK Boris.
    I would pick China as the planner. The best way to deal with declining resources is to crash your competitors for resources.

    Will the west respond? We will know in the next two months.

  8. Duncan Idaho says:

    Our historical population over the last 200,000 years has been 1-10 million, with a near extinction 65,000 years ago.
    7.7 billion in a collapsing ecosystem?

  9. Shawn says:

    Further to my comment above regarding genetic changes to human beings to support the move toward civilization and increased energy use.

    The traditional historians, the social sciences in general, and the humanities, have missed parts of the big picture. They don’t incorporate the hard sciences in their studies and thinking. E. O. Wilson made this specific point in his book “Consilience” some years ago. Before that, more broadly in his books “On Human Nature” and the last chapter of his book “Sociobiology”

    But I don’t think the even E.O. Wilson specifically conceived of the Energy framework in which to view human history and economics. Gail is one of the few folks who has connected these dots and this recent post is one more excellent example. Thank you Gail.

    Connecting genetics, and behavioral changes, to this energy framework seems like an additional piece of the big puzzle. There is probably a lot of randomness in the driver’s of genetic changes, such as parasites, or rapid climate variation regionally or globally, but the capacity to extract energy from the environment, and greater energy, would seem to be a driver of many human ancestor and modern human genetic changes. The story would make a good book.

    I think there is a related framework in which to view human evolution, although I am not yet sure how to link it to these other frameworks.

    COMPUTATIONAL POWER, or perhaps more correctly Pattern Recognition, Prediction, and Generation/Simulation power, seems broadly to have been on the rise in evolution, and specifically human evolution. Computational power is probably connected to the power consumption of the organism.

    Now, such computational/simulation power is poised to take an exponential leap with Artificial Intelligence.

    In an earlier comment above to Gail’s post, the comment sort of poo poo’d the recent development of Google’s DeepMind AI that it can now determine a protein’s shape from its amino-acid sequence. This is in fact a big deal. Really big. And one of the first demonstrations of the potential leaps that AI can make with scientific and technological discoveries.

    Presumably we have just created multiple vaccines to a novel corona virus, in less than 1 year. That is a big deal too. The vaccine solutions to this problem of biological complexity, has been enabled by deep, accumulated knowledge of the fundamental machinery of the cell and bio-chemistry, and the computational power/software now available to manage the complexity of the problem to be solved. (And yes, all of that, and the means to store and deliver these vaccines, is enabled by the vast surplus energy from fossil fuels and our industrial civilization).

    Near term, say over the next 20-30 years, IF we can keep the electricity flowing and the lights on, AI could solve many “hard” science and technology problems, including problems in new forms of energy production. “Renewables” might move well beyond the solar panels and wind mills to things we have not conceived of yet.

    For the gloomers and doomers here, I am not claiming a complete replacement to the one-time bounty of fossilized sunlight we are now rapidly burning up. I am saying the energy fossil fuel energy decline might go differently than just straight down to hell/Mad Max world for everyone everywhere. Whether the citizenry are divided up into the haves and have nots, or nations so, I don’t know. The future might just play out in unexpected and unimagined ways.

    In the meantime, I will make sure my provisions are stocked. 😊

    • Very Far Frank says:

      “For the gloomers and doomers here, I am not claiming a complete replacement to the one-time bounty of fossilized sunlight we are now rapidly burning up. I am saying the energy fossil fuel energy decline might go differently than just straight down to hell/Mad Max world for everyone everywhere. Whether the citizenry are divided up into the haves and have nots, or nations so, I don’t know. The future might just play out in unexpected and unimagined ways.”

      God I hope not… The current cultural lunacy has to end at some point soon or the planet will become genuinely uninhabitable.

      • you can always rely on the future in one certain aspect:

        it will be different. to what you expect.

        isn’t there an old jewish proverb–if you want to make god laugh, tell him your plans

    • Dennis L. says:

      Yes, we will make it with new tools.

      The Chinese seem to recognize the issues with a finite world. There is a great deal of prospecting now going on, off earth. The second richest man on earth is heavily investing in space ships – the darn things work and are reusable; they rely on the work that has gone before.

      We are almost out of “stuff” here on earth, it seems well accepted here that collapse is inevitable, so delay collapse a bit(this is exponential so there is less time that were it linear), or throw the dice. I think humans will win.

      Never give up,

      Dennis L.

      • at least we’ll never run out of hopium

        the Americans brought back lunar rocks 50 years ago

        one would have thought the lesson was obvious—had they been other than just ‘rocks’ commercial ships would have gone back almost immediately.the only ‘usable part of any cosmic body is its biosphere.

        Earth is the only one with a biosphere that we can make use of.

        bring back a billion tons of rock. It is of no use unless we can convert it to something else and create wages out of it

        • Dennis L. says:

          Not all rocks are created equal. I have an area on my farm with sandstone rocks, some had found areas of land with gold rocks, some rocks rock, some rocks are just rocks.

          Dennis L.

          • Lidia17 says:

            Dennis, if you grabbed a gold asteroid.. then what? The value of gold decreases proportionally.

            You can’t breathe in a vacuum, and you can’t eat rocks. All of this SF nonsense exists in a mindset that is 99.9% inorganic, with the only organic inputs being the human beans.

            • Lidia

              You must cut down on those reality pills

            • Dennis L. says:

              I would plate my car with gold so it didn’t rust as zinc is gone in 17 years and we need it for our diet. Gold is a wonderful, useful metal. In dentistry for durability, compatibility nothing is better than gold, high content gold, 78% plus.

              Wealth is what is between our ears, it is the wonder of life, it is music from Bach to Beethoven and if you are more modern Santana or Ricky Martin.

              Did you know Bach once walked a considerable distance(about 200km from memory) to study with a certain organ master? Well, he also got lucky with either the wife or daughter of the organ master and completed that piece in the organ loft. Kind of a catchy use of words, don’t you think? Beats the heck out of hunting and gathering.

              Dennis L.

          • I’ve laboured this point to exhaustion:

            if the moon was made of solid gold, it wouldn’t be of the slightest use on earth, except to remodel Donald Trump’s toilet. (if anyone could be persuaded to go there and bring that much back.)

            How is this so difficult to understand?

            Everything has a price

            But nothing has a value until the precise instant in time when it is converted into something else.
            It isn’t possible to extract $xx trillions in value for xxmillion tons of gold extracted from the moon—or anywhere else.


            The paints sitting in Rembrant’s studio had a ‘price’

            They didn’t acquire ‘value’ until the man took his brush and added it to canvas.

            I can go out and buy the same ‘equal’ paints. I am never going to add Rembrant’s ‘value’ to them. How difficult is that to understand?

            Whatever is brought back from the moon, has to acquire ‘value’ that exceeds the cost of the journey there and back.
            Otherwise, they are what was brought back 50 years ago:


            They will never be more than that.


            The Chinese are engaged in a vanity project. Their unthinking masses will be fooled into thinking that ‘the moon’ is their financial salvation. Much like the Saudis and their ‘techno cities’ for when their oil has all gone.
            Moontrips burn resources, they do not earn/create resources.
            Saudi tech cities have the same non-function.
            and the same purpose.

            it’s the same mindset, created for people who lack the ability for rational thinking

            • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:

              “… the craft could return to Earth “around December 16th or 17th” and that “China is targeting somewhere in Inner Mongolia for the landing spot.”

              with 4 pounds of rocks!

              “The U.S. Apollo missions had previously landed 12 astronauts and brought back a total of 842 pounds of rocks and soil. The Soviet Union’s Luna missions had brought 6 ounces of samples in the 70s.”

              but then comes the future:

              “China says it has plans to establish a “robotic base station” on the moon within the next decade. It plans on doing so using its Chang’e 6, Chang’e 7 and Chang’e 8 missions.”

              it’s an energy sink, using far more resources than it could ever obtain, and costing the equivalent of billions of US dollars.

              it’s entertainment.

            • Bei Dawei says:

              The nearest real-world analogue (to the asteroid, assuming it is reachable) might be when Spain began colonizing the New World, and bringing gold back to Europe. Suddenly the Atlantic European countries became the center of the world.

              On the other hand, the supply of gold hasn’t been so much as to make it not valuable any more. For an example of that, there is aluminum (aluminium).

              If anybody wants to make a killing, short gold–hell, short national economies–then spread rumors that cheap transmutation has been achieved in a lab somewhere.

            • as I understand it, the sudden influx of gold did crash the Spanish economic system until things levelled out again

          • Robert Firth says:

            Dennis, in 1705 Bach walked from Arnstadt to Lübeck, about 400km, to meet Dieterich Buxtehude. He was 20 at the time. And the story about the daughter is an urban legend.

    • Robert Firth says:

      “Now, such computational/simulation power is poised to take an exponential leap with Artificial Intelligence.”

      Again, colour me skeptical. I have been following (and at times working in) this field for some 50 years. I remember “Machine Intelligence I”, and the predictions of people such as Herbert Simon and Marvin Minsky that computers would be cleverer than humans in ten (or maybe 15) years. I attended the Royal Institution debate on this subject as a student of Christopher Strachey. I penned for him my own refutation of the Church Turing thesis (“A Turing machine cannot even predict the behaviour of a single photon”).

      And in all that time, the hype has been evolving and the algorithms have been evolving, but the brute fact that human consciousness is associative, not algorithmic, has never been recognised.

      • Malcopian says:

        Computers can’t be clever, because they don’t have a mind or personality and never will. However, they can crunch masses of data in short order and spot trends that humans never do. It is then for the humans to analyse the trends presented to them.

        Example: a woman goes online and changes her shampoo brand from scented to neutral. After a just a few months, she starts buying baby goods. In fact, lots of women do this. A computer spotted the trend. It took a human to explain it. When pregnant, a woman’s sense of smell becomes ultra-sensitive. Predictive intelligence then allows online sellers to target her with offers for baby goods / gifts.

        • Lidia17 says:

          Yep, and they are trying to make AI stupider so it doesn’t become “racist”. They want it to recognize patterns, but not patterns that are inconvenient.

          • Dennis L. says:

            You picked that one up too, seemed to have happened twice, MS and perhaps fb?

            Dennis L.

          • I listened to a talk to actuaries about the problems of using AI (as actuaries have been doing all along). The algorithms seem to invariably discriminate against the poor and the Blacks, even when some other intermediate variable is used to try to capture propensity to have claims.

            • Lidia17 says:

              In your understanding, though, were the algorithms ultimately incorrect in their discrimination?

              If they didn’t match up with reality, I doubt the companies would have continued to use them.

        • nikoB says:

          AI making the world great. (sarc)

        • Robert Firth says:

          Thank you, an excellent point. Here is another example. If you write a computer program to play chess, it has to know what is on the chessboard. Simple:

          type Board is array (a..h, 1..8) of Square.

          But that is not how a human chess player thinks. Show a chess player a board from a real chess game, and he will be able after a couple of seconds to duplicate it exactly. But show him a board with a random arrangement of pieces, and he will fail.

          He sees the board not as an array, but as a collection of fields of force, based on the motion, capture and defence abilities of the pieces. After the two seconds, he has built a complete ‘Gestalt’. As I mentioned earlier: associative, not algorithmic.

      • Shawn says:

        From what I have read, some AI researchers are also very cautious in making claims for what AI can do. Some are not.

        Maybe exponential leap was too loaded a phrase. But it does seem that the cumulative AI/software knowledge and increasing raw processing power of computers is now bearing fruition. As you probably know, in the 50 years you have been following the AI, the number of transistors on integrated circuits has doubled about every two years, roughly following Moore’s law. Manufacturing is down to the 5 nanometer range now. Crazy stuff.

        Using the broadest definitions of AI, we broadly now are digitizing/software enabling vast portions of business services process (SaaS). Digital helpers, advertising targeting, self-driving autonomous vehicles, etc. Bigger more transformation stuff is coming in machine learning, machine vision, basic discoveries like the DeepMind proteins shape determination algorithm and new applications for old drugs, new molecules for new drugs. There was a recent article on using AI and 3D printing to create shapes part shapes for rockets that are beyond standard manufacturing processes. More AI is coming.

        But for this computational power increase to be sustained (and reach the so-called singularity or whatever), it seems like AI will have to produce breakthroughs in energy efficiency or energy production. Without that, it seems like it will all wither on the vine.

        The other alternative is those sci-fi scary AI wakes-up stories and does what it will, but for now according to most AI researchers that does not seem likely.

        Personally, I am actually a fan of some of the ideas in the Sci fi “Dune” novels. All computing machines are banned, and only natural procreation is allowed.

        • Robert Firth says:

          Shawn, a brief reply: I find your views most persuasive. Indeed, computational power has grown dramatically, but is it able to compute better, or only faster? That is a problem i ave been struggling with for a long time. Thank you for your insight.

          • Malcopian says:

            Faster equals better, if it can analyse masses of data in a far shorter time. Of course, it then needs humans to analyse the trends that AI presents to them. Before we had a magnifying glass. AI now gives us the equivalent of high-powered microscopes and telescopes, so that we can see further and eventually understand more.

          • Thierry38 says:

            Robert, this is only one exemple but in chess IA compute better, not faster than former softwares. I have studied AlphaZero games and this like chess from “another planet”. I can tell you absolutely no one on earth is able to understand what happened on the board. Crazy games. And AlphaZero calculates much less than other softwares. (80 000 moves per second against 70 millions!)
            They did the same with Go,
            Now I’m sure that deep learning can bring IA much further that everything our limited imagination can predict.

            • Lidia17 says:

              Thierry38, I still wonder what the point of AI is when it can’t really “think” better than us. It can only do better at the games we ourselves design. If we design our games or identify goals poorly, we’ll only get a poor thing accomplished faster and more wrongheaded-ly.

              This is pretty well covered in folklore with the many tales about “magic wishes”.

            • Kowalainen says:

              Lidia, I view AI as the proverbial prodigy child of mankind. Sweet, innocent, inexperienced and naive.

              And it is okay being young.

        • Bei Dawei says:

          Uh, “natural” needs a big asterisk beside it, considering all those Ixian factories made from evolved uteruses or whatnot.

          We’ll have plenty of time to discuss all this after 2048, when the Singularity makes us immortal.

      • Dennis L. says:


        I think AI has changed, the earlier era was LISP(logical reasoning, if A, then B) which was hopeless although I think AutoCad was written in Lisp. Modern data mining is looking for associations which seems a recognition that correlation may not be causation, but betting against it may not be a wise idea.

        “A Turing machine cannot even predict the behaviour of a single photon” Of course, Heisenberg as always, think of the photon as the feminine.

        Dennis L.

        • Robert Firth says:

          Dennis, a great idea. Let’s refer to photons as “she”. The problem of transgendered photons can be left to the future.

          Another true AI story. A lecture by a computer nerd who modelled the behaviour of ants. After expounding his brilliant work, he closed with the claim: “Give me an ant, and I will predict his actions better than an entomologist.” A member of the audience beat me to it: “But at least an entomologist would know better than to call a worker ant ‘he’.”

          Yes, never let brute reality interfere with your algorithms.

        • Lidia17 says:

          “Biden’s transition team has announced they will be appointing an all-female communications team. According to sources, the team will not tell the nation what’s wrong, since the nation should already know.” (Babylon Bee)

    • AI and electricity are both examples of complexity. It takes energy for complexity. In fact, it looks like it takes a global economy for both.

      I have a hard time seeing a way that network electricity will last very long. It takes an increasing amount of maintenance. Those who add large amount of intermittent electricity to their grids are the worst off. California looks like it is leading the way down with respect to electricity reliability in the US.

      Without network electricity, AI cannot last very long, I am afraid.

  10. Robert Howell says:

    I just struggled through a company wide zoom call from the executive team about the future strategy of our company. I work for a very large oil company in Canada.
    The future we were told is now going to focus on a hydrogen and renewables (wind and solar) and a reduction of focus on oil and natural gas. The new goal is carbon neutral (whatever that means) by 2040 and reduction of gasoline by half by 2030.
    I can’t respect these people, they know nothing of thermodynamics (I’m no expert but damn, run the bloody numbers) and are running a business on virtue signalling. Hard times are upon us!

    • Ed says:

      hope you are close to retirement

    • gruvhell says:

      Ahh the corporate environment. At first in a healthy corporate environment there are protests from the grunts. “Thats the stupidest thing I have ever heard”. Then there is only silence. People file into a meeting silently the newest insane idea is presented there are no comments and people leave silently.

      Yup. Transition to hydrogen. Were not in the oil business. we are in the energy business. All the same. Transition to hydrogen. Make it so. chop chop.

      After all its the IDEA that has value. Just like its their resume portforlio that has value with thousands of pictures taken until they got just the right pose.

      Value it does have! The press release and the stock will go up. The board happy. Whats not to like?

      Im afraid your skill set may not be up to par. You need to cheer those proposals. You need to thank the originator of those proposals for his vision. Gratefully. Learn to grovel. Groveling is a underrated skill for survival. Your future depends on it.

      Every minute you spend groveling while collecting compensation is a victory. You must not pretend that their ideas are valid you must BELIEVE they are valid. And not just valid ideas. GREAT ideas. VISIONARY ideas. Abandon all of your training education and experience. Abandon the respect of your peers. They are your enemies. You must BELIEVE. That is your sole value now. Increase your skill in it and prosper.

      • Robert Firth says:

        Thank you. I have lived through this scenario. A startup company (IT of course) in the US, run by a former professor and with his best tame graduate students as project managers. First round of venture capital funding exhausted. Second round (on worse terms, of course) running out.

        Company meeting to reassure the worker bees (yes, we were indeed called that): “Not to worry, I shall secure a third round and, if necessary, a fourth”.

        Sighs of relief. And I looked around at the reassured faces, and thought, “something is wrong with this picture”. So I spent a couple of weeks researching capitalism, finance, and the Innovator’s Dilemma, and then updated my resume.

        That made me perhaps the second rat to desert the ship. As you have probably guessed, it sank. But later I wrote a bitterly satirical fictional interview about the company, which several friends with similar experiences appreciated.

    • My sympathy!

      It is amazing what people believe today.

    • but imagine if they’d just said:

      ‘the party’s over–please turn off the lights as you leave.’

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