2020: The Year Things Started Going Badly Wrong

How today’s energy problem is different from peak oil

Many people believe that the economy will start going badly wrong when we “run out of oil.” The problem we have today is indeed an energy problem, but it is a different energy problem. Let me explain it with an escalator analogy.

Figure 1. Holborn Tube Station Escalator. Photo by renaissancechambara, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The economy is like a down escalator that citizens of the world are trying to walk upward on. At first the downward motion of the escalator is almost imperceptible, but gradually it gets to be greater and greater. Eventually the downward motion becomes almost unbearable. Many citizens long to sit down and take a rest.

In fact, a break, like the pandemic, almost comes as a relief. There is suddenly a chance to take it easy; not drive to work; not visit relatives; not keep up appearances before friends. Government officials may not be unhappy either. There may have been demonstrations by groups asking for higher wages. Telling people to stay at home provides a convenient way to end these demonstrations and restore order.

But then, restarting doesn’t work. There are too many broken pieces of the economy. Too many bankrupt companies; too many unemployed people; too much debt that cannot be repaid. And, a virus that really doesn’t quite go away, leaving people worried and unwilling to attempt to resume normal activities.

Some might describe the energy story as a “diminishing returns” story, but it’s really broader than this. It’s a story of services that we expect to continue, but which cannot continue without much more energy investment. It is also a story of the loss of “economies of scale” that at one time helped propel the economy forward.

In this post, I will explain some of the issues I see affecting the economy today. They tend to push the economy down, like a down escalator. They also make economic growth more difficult.

[1] Many resources take an increasing amount of effort to obtain or extract, because we use the easiest to obtain first. Many people would call this a diminishing returns problem.

Let’s look at a few examples:

(a) Water. When there were just a relatively few humans on the earth, drinking water from a nearby stream was a reasonable approach. This is the approach used by animals; humans could use it as well. As the number of humans rose, we found we needed additional approaches to gather enough potable water: First shallow wells were dug. Then we found that we needed to dig deeper wells. We found that lake water could be used, but we needed to filter it and treat it first. In some places, now, we find that desalination is needed. In fact, after desalination, we need to put the correct minerals back into it and pump it to the destination where it is required.

All of these approaches can indeed be employed. In theory, we would never run out of water. The problem is that as we move up the chain of treatments, an increasing amount of energy of some kind needs to be used. At first, humans could use some of their spare time (and energy) to dig wells. As more advanced approaches were chosen, the need for supplemental energy besides human energy became greater. Each of us individually cannot produce the water we need; instead, we must directly, or indirectly, pay for this water. The fact that we have to pay for this water with part of our wages reduces the portion of our wages available for other goods.

(b) Metals. Whenever some group decides to mine a metal ore, the ore that is taken first tends to be easy to access ore of high quality, close to where it needs to be used. As the best mines get depleted, producers use lower-grade ores, transported over longer distances. The shift toward less optimal mines requires more energy. Some of this additional energy could be human energy, but some of the energy would be supplied by fossil fuels, operating machinery in order to supplement human labor. Supplemental energy needs become greater and greater as mines become increasingly depleted. As technology advances, energy needs become greater, because some of the high-tech devices require materials that can only be formed at very high temperatures.

(c) Wild Animals Including Fish. When pre-humans moved out of Africa, they killed off the largest game animals on every continent that they moved to. It was still possible to hunt wild game in these areas, but the animals were smaller. The return on the human labor invested was smaller. Now, most of the meat we eat is produced on farms. The same pattern exists in fishing. Most of the fish the world eats today is produced on fish farms. We now need entire industries to provide food that early humans could obtain themselves. These farms directly and indirectly consume fossil fuel energy. In fact, more energy is used as more animals/fish are produced.

(d) Fossil Fuels. We keep hearing about the possibility of “running out” of oil, but this is not really the issue with oil. In fact, it is not the issue with coal or natural gas, either. The issue is one of diminishing returns. There is (and always will be) what looks like plenty left. The problem is that the process of extraction consumes increasing amounts of resources as deeper, more complex oil or gas wells need to be drilled and as coal mines farther away from users of the coal are developed. Many people have jumped to the conclusion that this means that the price that buyers of fossil fuel will pay will rise. This isn’t really true. It means that the cost of production will rise, leading to lower profitability. The lower profitability is likely to be spread in many ways: lower taxes paid, cutbacks in wages and pension plans, and perhaps a sale to a new owner, at a lower price. Eventually, low energy prices will lead to production stopping. Without adequate fossil fuels, the whole economic system will be disrupted, and the result will be severe recession or depression. There are also likely to be many job losses.

In (a) through (d) above, we are seeing an increasing share of the output of the economy being used in inefficient ways: in creating deeper water wells and desalination plants; in drilling oil wells in more difficult locations; in extracting metal ores that are mostly waste products. The extent of this inefficiency tends to increase over time. This is what leads to the effect of an escalator descending faster and faster, just as we humans are trying to walk up it.

Humans work for wages, but they find that when they buy a box of corn flakes, very little of the price actually goes to the farmer growing the corn. Instead, all of the intermediate parts of the system are becoming overly large. The buyer cannot afford the end products, and the producer feels cheated by the low wholesale prices he is being paid. The system as a whole is pushed toward collapse.

[2] Increasing complexity can help maintain economic growth, but it too reaches diminishing returns.

Complexity takes many forms, including more hierarchical organization, more specialization, longer supply chains, and development of new technology. Complexity can indeed help maintain economic growth. For example, if water supply is intermittent, a country may choose to build a dam to control the flow of water and produce electricity. Complexity tends to reach diminishing returns, as noted by Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies. For example, economies build dams in the best locations first, and only later build them at less advantageous sites. These are a few other examples:

(a) Education. Teaching everyone to read and write has significant benefits because it allows the use of books and other written materials to disseminate information and knowledge. Teaching a few people advanced subjects has significant benefits as well. But after a certain point, the need for additional people to study a subject such as art history is low. A few people can teach the subject but doing more research on the subject probably won’t increase world GDP very much.

When we look at data from about 1970, we find that people with advanced education earned much higher incomes than those without advanced degrees. But as we add an increasing large share of people with these advanced degrees, jobs that really need these degrees are not as plentiful as the new graduates. Quite a few people with advanced degrees end up with low-paying jobs. The “return on investment” for higher education drops increasingly lower. Some students are not able to repay the debt that they took out in order to pay for their education.

(b) Medicines and Vaccines. Over the years, medicines and vaccines have been developed to treat many common illnesses and diseases. After a while, the easy-to-find medicines for the common unwanted conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure and inflammation) have already been found. There are medicines for rare diseases that haven’t been found, but these will never have very large total sales, discouraging investment. There are also conditions that are common in very poor countries. While expensive drugs could be developed for these conditions, it is likely that few people could afford these drugs, so this, too, becomes less attractive.

If research is to continue, it is important to keep expanding work on expensive new drugs, even if it means completely ignoring old inexpensive drugs that might work equally well. A cynical person might think that this is the reason why vitamin D and ivermectin are generally being ignored in the prevention and treatment of COVID-19. Without an expanding group of high-priced new drugs, it is hard to attract capital and young workers to the field.

(c) Automobile Efficiency. In the US, the big fuel efficiency change that took place was that which took place between 1975 and 1983, when a changeover was made to smaller, lighter vehicles, similar to ones that were already in use in Japan and Europe.

Figure 2. Estimated Real-World Fuel Economy, Horsepower, and Weight Since Model Year 1975, in a chart produced by the US Environmental Protection Agency. Source.

The increase in fuel efficiency between 2008 and 2019 (an 11 year period) was only 22%, compared to the 60% increase in fuel efficiency between 1975 and 1983 (an 8 year period). This is another example of diminishing returns to investment in complexity.

[3] Today’s citizens have never been told that many of the services we take for granted today, such as suppression of forest fires, are really services provided by fossil fuels.

In fact, the amount of energy required to provide these services rises each year. We expect these services to continue indefinitely, but we should be aware that they cannot continue very long, unless the energy available to the economy as a whole is rising very rapidly.

(a) Suppression of Forest Fires. Forest fires are part of nature. Many trees require fire for their seeds to germinate. Human neighbors of forests don’t like forest fires; they often encourage local authorities to put out any forest fire that starts. Such suppression allows an increasing amount of dry bush to build up. As a result, future fires spread more easily and grow larger.

At the same time, humans increasingly build homes in forested areas because of the pleasant scenery. As population expands and as fires spread more easily, forest fire suppression takes an increasing amount of resources, including fossil fuels to power helicopters used in the battles. If fossil fuels are not available, this type of service would need to stop. Trying to keep forest fires suppressed, assuming fossil fuels are available for this purpose, will take higher taxes, year after year. This is part of what makes it seem like we are trying to move our economy upward on a down escalator.

(b) Suppression of Illnesses. Illnesses are part of the cycle of nature; they disproportionately take out the old and the weak. Of course, we humans don’t really like this; the old and weak are our relatives and close friends. In fact, some of us may be old and weak.

In the last 100 years, researchers (using fossil fuels) have developed a large number of antibiotics, antivirals and vaccines to try to suppress illnesses. We find that microbes quickly mutate in new ways, defeating our attempts at suppression of illnesses. Thus, we have ever-more antibiotic resistant bacteria. The cost of today’s US healthcare system is very high, exceeding what many poor people can afford to pay. Introducing new vaccines results in an additional cost.

Closing down the system to try to stop a virus adds a huge new cost, which is disproportionately borne by the poor people of the world. If we throw more money/fossil fuels at the medical system, perhaps it can be made to work a little longer. No one tells us that disease suppression is a service of fossil fuels; if we have an increasing quantity of fossil fuels per capita, perhaps we can increase disease suppression services.

(c) Suppression of Weeds and Unwanted Insects. Researchers keep developing new chemical treatments (based on fossil fuels) to suppress weeds and unwanted insects. Unfortunately, the weeds and unwanted insects keep mutating in a way that makes the chemicals less effective. The easy solutions were found first; finding solutions that really work and don’t harm humans seems to be elusive. The early solutions were relatively cheap, but later ones have become increasingly expensive. This problem acts, in many ways, like diminishing returns.

(d) Recycling (and Indirectly, Return Transport of Empty Shipping Containers from Around the World). When oil prices are high, recycling of used items for their content makes sense, economically. When oil prices are low, recycling often requires a subsidy. This subsidy indirectly goes to pay for fossil fuels used to facilitate the recycling. Often this goes to pay for shipment to a country that will do the recycling.

When oil prices were high (prior to 2014), part of the revenue from recycling could be used to transport mixed waste products to China and India for recycling. With low oil prices, China and India have stopped accepting most recycling. Instead, it is necessary to find actual “goods” for the return voyage of a shipping container or, alternatively, pay to have the container sent back empty. Europe now seems to have a difficult time filling shipping containers for the return voyage to Asia. Because of this, the cost of obtaining shipping containers to ship goods to Europe seems to be escalating. This higher cost acts much like diminishing returns with respect to the transport of goods to Europe from Asia. This is yet another part of what is acting like a down escalator for the world economy.

[4] Another, ever higher cost is pollution control. This higher cost also exerts a downward effect on the world economy, because it acts like another intermediate cost.

As we burn increasing amounts of fossil fuels, increasing amounts of particulate matter need to be captured and disposed of. Capturing this material is only part of the problem; some of the waste material may be radioactive or may include mercury. Once the material is captured, it needs to be “locked up” in some way, so it doesn’t pollute the water and air. Whatever approach is used requires energy products of various kinds. In fact, the more fossil fuels that are burned, the bigger the waste disposal problem tends to be.

Burning more fossil fuels also leads to more CO2. Unfortunately, we don’t have suitable alternatives. Nuclear is probably as good as any, and it has serious safety issues. In my opinion, the view that intermittent wind and solar are a suitable replacement for fossil fuels represents wishful thinking. Wind and solar, because of their intermittency, can only partially replace the coal or natural gas burned to generate electricity. They cannot be relied upon for 24/7/365 generation. The unsubsidized cost of producing intermittent wind and solar energy needs to be compared to the price of coal and natural gas, not to wholesale electricity prices. There are a lot of apples to oranges comparisons being made.

[5] Among other things, the growth of the economy depends on “economies of scale” as the number of participants in the economy gradually grows. The response to COVID-19 has been extremely detrimental to economies of scale.

The economies of many countries changed dramatically, with the initial spread of COVID-19. Unfortunately, we cannot expect these changes to be completely reversed anytime soon. Part of the reason is the new virus mutation from the UK that is now of concern. Another reason is that, even with the vaccine, no one really knows how long immunity will last. Until the virus is clearly gone, vestiges of the cutbacks are likely to remain in place.

In general, businesses do well financially as the number of buyers of the goods and services they provide rises. This happens because overhead costs, such as mortgage payments, can be spread over more buyers. The expertise of the business owners can also be used more widely.

One huge problem is the recent cutback in tourism, affecting almost every country in the world. This cutback affects both businesses directly related to tourism and businesses indirectly related to tourism, such as restaurants and hotels.

Another huge problem is social distancing rules that lead to office buildings and restaurants being used less intensively. Businesses find that they tend to have fewer customers, rather than more. Related businesses, such as taxis and dry cleaners, find that they also have fewer customers. Nursing homes and other care homes for the aged are seeing lower occupancy rates because no one wants to be locked up for months on end without being able to see other members of their family.

[6] With all of the difficulties listed in Items [1] though [5], debt based financing tends to work less and less well. Huge debt defaults can be expected to adversely affect banks, insurance companies and pension plans.

Many businesses are already near default on debt. These businesses cannot make a profit with a much reduced number of customers. If no change is possible, somehow this will need to flow through the system. Defaulting debt is likely to lead to failing banks and pension plans. In fact, governments that depend on taxes may also fail.

The shutdowns taken by economies earlier this year were very detrimental, both to businesses and to workers. A major solution to date has been to add more governmental debt to try to bail out citizens and businesses. This additional debt makes it even more difficult to maintain promised debt payments. This is yet another force making it difficult for economies to move up the growth escalator.

[7] The situation we are headed for looks much like the collapses of early civilizations.

With diminishing returns everywhere, and inadequate sources of very inexpensive energy to keep the system going, major parts of the world economic system appear headed for collapse. There doesn’t seem to be any way to keep the world economy growing rapidly enough to offset the down escalator effect.

Citizens have not been aware of how “close to the edge” we have been. Low energy prices have been deceptive, but this is what we should expect with collapse. (See, for example, Revelation 18: 11-13, telling about the lack of demand for goods of all kinds when ancient Babylon collapsed.) Low prices tend to keep fossil fuels in the ground. They also tend to discourage high-priced alternatives. Unfortunately, all the wishful thinking of the World Economic Forum and others advocating a Green New Deal does not change the reality of the situation.

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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2,805 Responses to 2020: The Year Things Started Going Badly Wrong

  1. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Decision-time looms on EU budget rules as pandemic fallout grows: Positive developments for economy cannot mask long-term pain from soaring public debt.

    “Faced with a Covid-induced economic disaster last year, EU member states fired every fiscal weapon they had… The question facing EU finance ministries in 2021 is what comes next.”


  2. Harry McGibbs says:

    “British minister Rishi Sunak expressed concern that higher interest rates might one day jack up the cost of servicing government debt, in comments published on Sunday.”


    • Harry McGibbs says:

      “Councils across England are facing having to make unprecedented cuts to services in the coming years, after coronavirus left them with multimillion-pound black holes in their funding.

      “Early intervention and prevention projects for vulnerable families, as well as recycling schemes, are among the cutbacks most likely to be in the firing line as local authorities seek to claw back cash to avoid meltdown. And council taxpayers will be asked to stump up more…”


      • Harry McGibbs says:

        “Small UK businesses call for more support to face Covid impact: More than 250,000 companies at risk of collapse this year, quarterly FSB survey suggests.”


        • Xabier says:

          Here, the stall holders in the town market have put up pathetic notices promising to be back soon, and local people have posted messages of protest and support on the tall steel barriers erected without warning by the city council to ‘fight Covid.

          We had almost the lowest case-rate in he country, and not many died in he first wave last year! Totally unjustified measures.

          Klaus Schwab rubs his hands in glee. It’s all going to plan.

        • Xabier says:

          The businesses will collapse, as they are meant to, but the strong enforcement of the new laws against civil and human rights (aka ‘the Fight Against Covid’ ) will repress any protests.

          If I were to travel to London and stand alone in front of Parliament with a placard in protest, it is no exaggeration to say that I would certainly be fined and probably imprisoned.

          Such a danger to public health, a ‘granny-killer.’ …..

          Voila, your country as an open-air prison. And not much open air at that!

          • neil says:

            You wouldn’t. A man camped out there for several years just like that. Nobody seemed to mind.

            • Xabier says:

              No, not now!

              Only exercise is permitted,and that is not exercise.

              Moreover, even sitting on a park bench is illegal, because you are not moving.

              Walking with a drink is ‘having a picnic’ and that too is prohibited.

              I wish I were joking.

              I like to think of the people who make these rules as being one day paralysed, but fully conscious – that is what they are doing to us……

          • Tourists certainly wouldn’t want to visit under such restrictions. This makes enforcing travel restrictions easier.

        • The question is, “How long can this unsustainable condition continue?” At some point, the unsustainable businesses will fail and the workers will lose their jobs.

      • The amount of the shortfall in government tax revenue will depend on the source of that revenue. If the tax revenue is from liquor sales, these have risen in many parts of the world. Taxes on property will tend to rise, as the sales prices of homes rise, but it does remain to be seen whether homeowners can afford to pay these taxes.

        School teachers and police would seem to be at risk of layoffs. Perhaps subsidies for recycling, as mentioned in the article, as well.

  3. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Syria’s petroleum ministry on Sunday blamed U.S. sanctions for forcing it to cut by up to 24% its distribution of fuel and diesel because of delays in arrival of needed supplies.

    “The war-ravaged nation already is facing a severe economic crisis that has caused major shortages in wheat and fuel products. Long lines have formed outside of gas stations and bakeries.”


    • Harry McGibbs says:

      “At least 10 people were injured when an explosion rocked a warehouse storing gas canisters near Lebanon’s border with Syria, the Lebanese Red Cross and the army said…

      “The region of Hermel is known for its many illegal border crossings into Syria which are used by smugglers to move various types of contraband across the frontier.

      “Smuggling takes places both ways, but has been stepped up from Lebanon into Syria since the start of the war there in 2011 and as the country faces a growing economic crisis and international sanctions.”


    • It is always good to have someone/something to blame for lack of fuel and food. Here it is US sanctions.

  4. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Iran’s capture of a South Korean-flagged tanker at sea last week has been described by the US as extortion. But Tehran says it is Seoul that is the hostage taker — accusing it of holding $7bn of its cash.

    “Just weeks before US president-elect Joe Biden is due to take office, the Islamic regime engaged in two moves seen as highly provocative by the west.”


  5. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese enterprises are bidding farewell to China because of rising costs and trade tensions between Washington and Beijing, marking a dramatic shift for Taiwan’s corporate landscape with significant implications for global manufacturing.

    ““I see a structural collapse among the ranks of Taiwanese-owned businesses in China,” said Liu Jen, editor in chief at CRIF China Credit Information Service in Taipei.”


  6. Harry McGibbs says:

    “The global economy could be on the brink of a new commodity “supercycle” as governments prepare to use a green industrial revolution to kickstart growth following the coronavirus pandemic…

    ““Things like copper, nickel and cobalt are all likely to see a boost from the extra demand to build infrastructure. Even steel and petrochemicals will be needed,” said Chris Midgeley, the head of analytics at S&P Global Platts.”

    [Call me cynical but this doesn’t actually sound very “green”, whatever that means].


    • Tim Groves says:

      This is an unusually chirpy tidbit, quite out of character from you, Harry.

      But I do agree that it doesn’t sound particularly green—apart from copper, which takes on a beautiful pale green patina after a few years exposure to the elements.

      • Harry McGibbs says:

        I do generally try to keep my powder dry, Tim, but I must confess the absurdity of the “green” industrial revolution, the sanctimony of the masses who now blindly advocate it, and the cynicism of the profiteers behind it do, on occasion, rub me up the wrong way.

        It is, however, just the global economy self-reorganising as it struggles to maintain the growth-rate it needs to survive, just as it did with China joining the WTO in 2001 and just as did with the shale-boom post 2008. I know I shouldn’t take it personally.

    • The point of “renewables” is to point the economy toward resources that perhaps have not been as overused as fossil fuels. All of these resources are subject to diminishing returns, even the supposedly renewable ones. We quickly “run out” of nearby trees to cut down, and good locations to put wind turbines, for example. It is just a different version of diminishing returns that is perhaps not quite so depleted that we are being pushed toward.

  7. Tim Groves says:

    Apologies if this has already been covered> But while everyone in the West has been focused on the theater in DC, there has been a major development in China. According to Chris Patten (remember him?):

    “Mass arrests of Hong Kong democrats shows why EU Parliament must reject China investment agreement

    On the morning of 6 January, 1,000 national security officers and police officers arrested 53 people and searched 77 places, including homes, offices, and 4 media companies which were serviced with orders to hand over materials related to the case. Under direction of the Hong Kong Police, banks also froze HKD $1.6 million related to the 53 individuals.

    “6 of the organisers of last year’s primary were charged with “organising subversion” and 47 candidates were charged with “participating in subversion” under the National Security Law. Those arrested include the pro-democracy academic Benny Tai, an American lawyer John Clancey, and several pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers.

    “John Lee, Hong Kong’s Security Minister, in a news conference said that those arrested were suspected of trying to paralyze the government, via their plans to gain a majority of the seats in the legislature to create a situation in which the chief executive had to resign and the government would stop functioning.”

    There’s a lot more, and Mr. Patten doesn’t mince his words:

    “If this deal goes ahead it will make a mockery of Europe’s ambitions to be taken seriously as a global political and economic player. It spits in the face of human rights and shows a delusional view of the Chinese Communist Party’s trustworthiness on the international stage. Among other things it is extraordinary that Europe seems to believe that China can be trusted to sign up to international labour standards. Are we about to see the end of forced labour in Xinjiang and the development of a trade union movement in China? Forget it. It is also worth remembering, for all European politicians wherever they come from, that the Jewish community around the world has been outspoken about Xinjiang and in particular has drawn attention to the similarities between what is happening in that region today and the Holocaust in the 1940s.”


    • Jarle says:

      “Among other things it is extraordinary that Europe seems to believe that China can be trusted to sign up to international labour standards.”

      Labour standards don’t matter much, sorry at all for european super capitalist and they seem to have a lot more influence than us common people …

      • Xabier says:

        That’s exactly why they mention labour standards, and not human rights.

        Pure theatre.

        Hitler built nice new canteens for factory workers when he came to power, although he never looked at the plans………..

    • When there are not enough resources to go around for all of the people, labor standards go downhill. If people are given the choice of working for food and minimal housing (only), versus starving, I would expect that many would sign up for the arrangement.

  8. Mirror on the wall says:

    Spiked has a very interesting piece on humanism and environmentalism that touches on stuff that we discussed on here over the weekend.

    I think that the piece is philosophically very good, strikingly so. My guess is that they are overly optimistic about future resource extraction, for reasons that Gail and others have discussed.

    Either way, ‘all will be well’; things and their circumstances change, us and everything else – that is how the earth works. The cosmos is an eternal flux of ‘becoming and destruction’ in which all things become what they are not yet and thus become what they are yet to be.

    > Towards a humanist environmentalism

    We must stop treating nature as something to be saved at our expense.

    We are constantly told that climate change will destroy much of the natural world. But what gives the natural world its value? What, for example, makes a tree in bloom beautiful? Or a sunset sublime?

    It is not nature itself. Things in nature, from flora to fauna, have no intrinsic worth. They just are. No, what gives them value and meaning is us – humans. Things in nature matter because humans like them, or derive utility from them. That’s what it means for a thing to matter – it matters for us.

    This highlights the problem with so much environmentalist discourse today. It is not sufficiently humanist. It treats nature as if it has worth apart from us. As if the planet is worth saving for itself.

    But it is not. It is worth ‘saving’ on our terms, for us. I see a dog loudly snap its leg on a hard rock: I flinch, instinctively clasping my own arm or leg. I see a jellyfish harpooned: either I feel nothing, or I have to make quite an effort to generate some feeling. It is through our embodied existence, empathising with certain aspects of nature and judging accordingly, that the world around us acquires its significance and value. It is why we would mourn the extinction of some fluffy or useful species and not that of a parasite that afflicts said species. If informed by a doctor that our gut hosts a family of tapeworms, or informed by pest control that our home is rat-infested, we do not celebrate our ability to host additional life at little added personal cost. We shudder and then exterminate the critters.

    This is also why, when we hear that there is a new, highly infectious coronavirus, we do not celebrate easing Mother Nature’s burden. We think in terms of reducing human harm and expediting a solution. This inexorably humanist perspective is very different to that underpinning environmentalist ideas of ‘saving the planet’, ‘zero waste’, the ‘circular economy’ or ‘voluntary childlessness’. A more humanist environmentalism would accept that the standard by which we judge environmental success is provided by and for humanity. It is generated by humanity in nature, not an abstract notion of nature to be preserved as separate from humanity.

    Besides, nature is not an abstract, unchanging entity. When we were living in caves, we had the same amount of natural resources at our disposal – indeed more – than we do today. The difference between then and now is the way society is organised around technologies that allow us actually to make use of what was previously nothing more than ground gunk. Production, consumption and concomitant waste are therefore things at which we ought to marvel. They are signs of the extent to which we have humanised nature.

    Indeed, contrary to proponents of ‘zero waste’ ideas, waste itself is not a problem. It is how we manage waste that is the issue. In a futuristic society, we might produce a thousand times more waste than today because we consume so much more, and yet dispose of this waste in more intelligent ways that cause no unintended consequences. Massive amounts of straws stuck up sea creatures’ orifices is indeed a problem. A sprawling landfill turned into a beautiful nature reserve is not.

    This, I suggest, is the way we should view the broader problem of global climate change. We have to approach it as a problem for us. So we may lose species that cause knock-on effects on food chains. We may lose permafrost and see lush vegetation turned to desert. Island nations may be submerged. Yet, the Sahara would slowly attract monsoon rains and green; places like the Boreal Forest would gradually become relatively more hospitable; Antarctica would begin to reveal itself; and so on. The problem is not some zero-sum loss of lands; rather, the problem rests on whether human society is willing and able, politically and infrastructurally, to respond to the challenges thrown up by a changing climate.

    An additional benefit of combining environmentalism with humanism is that individualised and therefore futile quests, such as pledging on social media to cut down on personal waste, will lose their appeal. For such individualised pursuits to make any sense at all, one has to be deluded enough to believe that one might – just might – be able to convince a majority of people from all walks of life to follow one’s divine ecological example. Given this is highly unlikely, such efforts dissolve into the anarchy of individualised social-justice pursuits which now dominate social media.

    Humanism instead implies the adoption of a profoundly social view on ecology. Self-gratifying and self-righteous individual acts, divorced from the structural context within which those acts take place, have no place in a humanist ecology.

    It is possible to produce, consume and even to waste much, much more than we do today, and put no more strain on ecosystems. There is nothing in physics that precludes this. Malthusian arguments about the finitude of resources discount such elementary facts as our not having so much as scratched the surface in terms of resource extraction. Our deepest mine does not register as so much as a superficial pore on the face of the Earth.

    Whatever one thinks of this argument for a humanist ecology, there is no way around it. One cannot dodge the hard questions. For instance, should every Indian own a fridge and a vacuum cleaner? This is not a question that can be avoided. Either they should, and this implies massive increases in production, waste and – under present technology – CO2 emissions, or they should not, and then you would have to rationalise your anti-humanist stance.

    Once we think in terms of humanism, and therefore in terms of social solutions to social problems, we can start to pose questions that cut closer to the bone. For example, we might question the private and therefore anarchic nature of production, whereby each producer is concerned with profit to the exclusion of every other conceivable value. A rationalised, democratic system of production, coordination across industries, and appropriate levels of investment in technology, are not assured by the blind pursuit of profit. Instead, such concerns can only appear as external challenges to businesses and, ultimately, to the sphere of production itself.

    So if we are serious about overcoming the environmental challenges that are facing us, and coming up with social solutions to social problems, then humanism must be our starting point.


    • Thanks for these ideas. Certainly, part of the problem is the assumption that humans will continue to be the dominant species on the planet, indefinitely. This cannot be the case. Everything on a finite world is transient.

      Clearly, viruses, bacteria, funguses, and other small creatures play an incredibly large role, which we have chosen to ignore. They keep evolving to get away from whatever roadblocks we put in our way. Now, we have started a war on our terms with one tiny part of this system. We need fossil fuels to defeat COVID-19. But more fossil fuels to defeat COVID-19 leaves less for other pursuits, such as educating children.

      • Xabier says:

        Educating children?

        There’s an app for that!

        Who needs school buildings and lazy, pensioned teachers anyway?

        The lock-downs are conditioning for the New Education.

    • Robert Firth says:

      “Things in nature, from flora to fauna, have no intrinsic worth. They just are. No, what gives them value and meaning is us – humans.”

      I have a strong stomach; it is not easy to make me vomit. But, reading that, I came close. First, we are part of Nature. If things in Nature have no value, then neither do we. And if we ourselves have no value, neither can we give value to anything else.

      This article is human supremacism writ large, dripping with hubris. And we know what happens next; indeed, it is almost upon us.

      • Mirror on the wall says:

        A functional part of a system may be a part of a system that otherwise does not have that function. Eg. a computer screen is part of a computer; it does not follow from that the screen is a part of a system, without which part the system has no visual quality, that the screen, as a part of that system, has no visual quality and can bestow none on the rest of the system. On that contrary it does. A part of a system may bestow a quality on the system that the system does not otherwise possess.

        ‘Meaning and value’ are subjective human concepts that do not exist in the world without humans to bestow them. The world ‘just is’ and we give it meaning and value. Indeed, what else could those concepts possibly mean? What quality of objects could they point to beyond the other qualities? Nothing that actually exists. They have those qualities ‘for us’ and not ‘in themselves’. Things ‘matter’ to us and not in themselves. Humans bestow meaning and value on nature.

        As is said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, otherwise it is just shapes, sizes, proportions, distances. The brain adds colours and the overall pleasurable aspect, which is dispositional. Sounds also do not really exist, the brain constructs them from vibrations in the air, like colours, let alone do they have a musical or pleasant quality. The same is true of meaning and value, the person adds them.

        They are immaterial, subjective and relative concepts, purely mental phenomena, that are rooted in human physiology and human physiological drives – although it can ‘seem’ otherwise. Humans overcome the naïve supposition that everything mental corresponds to an identical quality that exists in the world. Daily human perception is typically as much self-centred romantic art as it is objective analysis and that gives the world its human quality. So, it is anthropomorphic to attribute meaning and value to the world itself.

        Btw. I would agree that humans themselves do not possess objective value and that they cannot bestow objective value on the world – and no one is saying that they have or can. They are subjective qualities, not objective. Things matter for us, and we ourselves matter for us. It is all a product of the human mind, it does not ‘really’ exist outside of that mind in the world itself. The subjective is distinct from the objective by definition but that in no way refutes the subjectivity of qualities that only ‘seem’ to belong to objects.

        • Kowalainen says:

          Yes, that is completely a correct analysis.

          However, as humans is being part of nature we thus must draw the inevitable conclusion that nature itself has intrinsic beauty and value. There is no escaping that.

          If we conclude that the human mind and its (hallucinated) experience is part of nature, then beauty as we experience it is by deduction part of nature.

          Nature is. The mind is. Beauty is.

          Now the question is, are we going to ruin that and in the process ourselves?

          I say no. Fuck that shit.

          • Mirror on the wall says:

            Beauty and value remain subjective, not intrinsic in objects but ‘for us’. Beauty and value are not possessed by objects, they are perceived by subjects – important distinction.

            • Kowalainen says:

              Absolutely, however it is not correct to reject beauty as non existing. It for sure in the eye of the beholder, but that doesn’t exclude its existence. Some people might view showy pieces as beautiful, while others view that as gaudy.

              Beauty exist exactly in the same manner mathematics exist. Thus beauty exists as a process, a subjective experience, a hallucination of ultimate reality inside the brain.

              And given that, it is. The same way Yoda and mathematics is real and exists.

              It is a possible outcome of the universe. The non observable processes of the universe thus has provisions for experience, such as beauty.

              One is then led to conclude that not all manifestations (such as qualia and mathematics) has a measurable property, yet exist in the universe.

              You might disagree with me, but then you’d be wrong.

      • Tim Groves says:

        Once one denies the existence of God as at least a supreme yardstick of value and morality, then Mirror’s view—which he expresses eloquently— is difficult to argue against and we do indeed open the gates of we know what happens next. Call me an old stick in the mud, but I’d much rather not go there.

        • davidinamonthorayearoradecade says:


          but TPTB have gone there ahead of you.

          Gail, Dennis et al are correct that the C religion is very helpful for the cohesion of societies (maybe other religions too).

          unfortunately, C and all the others have been found to be merely manmade and quite flawed.

          too bad that God didn’t see in advance that modern science would come along, and so He could have established a version of C which would have held up and fit perfectly with modern scientific discoveries.

          oh well.

          on to my main point:

          in particular in the USA there is no yardstick anymore for the MSM and the D party.

          while the Rs still have a somewhat large portion of the (shrinking numbers of) C believers, the D party has a reported 85% of the atheists and agnostics.

          and reminder, the MSM here is over 90% democrats.

          the horse has escaped the barn, and it’s too late to close the barn door.

          • seems a pretty simple explanation overall

            if you are a godbotherer, then you have the certainty that god is looking out for you, for your own best interests, (in general terms) and so life will pan out rather well.

            but that philosophy doesn’t match life itself. in fact it usually screws up.

            God cannot be at fault, that would be heresy.

            ‘you’ cannot be at fault, because you obey god’s laws and stuff.

            so it must be someone else.. ‘others’.

            so ‘others’ become the focus of your rage and hate, anyone who looks different to you, or lives elsewhere. or possesses what you do not.

            Al that is needed then, is a so called ‘leader’ to confirm this, and ‘licence’ to act as a mob, and you have mass hysteria and insurrection.

            The ‘mob’ on Jan 6th were screaming ‘god’ and carrying crosses. I doubt if any of them were card carrying atheists.

            As I keep saying, the USA will break up, and much of that breakup will be along religious lines, into Theo-fascist dictatorships.
            When that happens, god help us all.

            • and following on from my comment above, I was scrolling idly down and came across this link: (thanks Ed–loved it.)


              As well as the piece itself, read the readers comments, of at least some of them.
              4300+ comments in 24 hours!–that should tell you something.

              and yes–I do realise it’s an outlet for fascistic outrage. Giving voice to nutters mostly.
              And most, it would seem, in the vein of this charming individual, to copy just one:

              >>>>We will run all the filthy leftist vermin the he ll out of the new confederacy. (Texas and sh itloads of other states) Or we will burn the SOB’s out. They always said the south will rise again and now it will. I just didn’t know how it was going to happen until now. To hell with the lying thieving leftist swine!!!<<<<

              all happy christians of course, eager to do god's work. Fitting in precisely with my definition in my previous comment, and explaining how your religious wars of secession will start.

              With absolutely no concept of how civilised systems function in basic terms.

              They are hell bent on self destruction, in the name of 'capitalism'.

          • D3G says:


            It’s a messed up belief system which so indoctrintes a child that logic and reason are abandoned into adulthood.

        • Tim Groves says:

          One issue with many American Cs, even from the standpoint of other American Cs, is that they appear take their Bible literally.

          This DIY approach to interpreting sacred texts can get in the way of correct understanding and it has been a problem ever since the laity became literate.

          I have faith in my accountant, not knowing precisely how she keeps my taxes low. I have faith in my lawyer to protect my interests in court cases and with wills and probate, despite my own minimal understanding of legalize. I have faith in my banks and stockbroker and life insurance company to handle my finances, without the faintest idea of what a 401-K, a derivative or an over-the-counter option are. And I have faith in my computer to work when I tap the keyboard and click on the mouse, without an inkling of how the movement of electrons through semiconductor chips makes the onscreen magic happen.

          It is enough to know that these “systems” work reliably, I don’t have to be fully informed about how.

          Same with the divine. I have no idea how it works. But it does work because I experience a simulation of what appears to be external reality in my mind. There must be something making it work. Let’s call that something “God”. I have faith that it works and that this something will continue to work, so I have faith in God.

          I have no idea if God is alive or exists as an entity or resides in the Universe or has a gender, but being raised in a society long based upon a patriarchal religion, I’ve learned that God’s preferred pronouns are He, Him and His, and that He likes to be respectfully regarded as the Lord of all. Only God knows why. The Lord moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

        • Robert Firth says:

          Thank you, Tim. Your post triggered another thought: is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

          Music is not in the ear of the listener, it is based on the discovery by Pythagoras that strings in mathematical proportion sound in harmony. Nichomachus’ “Manual of Harmonics” put this on a solid mathematical basis, and all Western music was built on top.

          Architecture is likewise objective: almost every culture had a form of “sacred geometry”, built again on mathematical proportion, such as the Golden Section (found in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid, by the way, as is the Pythagorean right triangle).
          And again codified by Vitruvius in his “Ten Books of Architecture”.

          As for sculpture, just look at Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man”.

          No: beauty is objective, and is grounded in pure mathematics, which is likewise objective. As to what other supposed “values” are also objective: perhaps another time. But I doubt the Queen Bee invented the honeycomb.

          • Mirror on the wall says:

            It would not follow from that the perception of beauty follows principles like symmetry and health that the quality of beauty itself is objective. It would simply indicate that the brain follows principles, grounded in physiology, when it constructs the quality of beauty in order to orientate the person to the world.

            Everything is measurable, including the frequencies in the air that the perception of sound and colour depend on but it would be odd to argue that everything that is measurable objectively possesses all of the qualities that humans perceive in them. It simply does not logically follow.

            One might as well argue that perception of an object is consistently accompanied by the perception of certain qualities and therefore those qualities exist in the object – it does not logically follow.

            Btw. no one follows Pythagoras on mathematical music and Western music is in no sense derived from Pythagoras. Music is made intuitively, albeit classically with formal structure, not mathematically. Mathematical music simply does not ‘work’.

            The symmetry preferred in architecture is derived from the symmetry that all animals use to structure themselves, it is a perception of healthy organic formation. The pleasantness of symmetry, like all beauty, is ordered to good procreation or ‘eugenics’. The perception of beauty itself as a response to organically well formed objects remains subjective; again, the consistency of perception of a quality in an object does not make the quality itself objective even if that perception accords with principles be they mathematical or structural.

            I am not arguing that the perception of beauty should be ignored just because it is a subjective response; on the contrary, it exists for a reason, to orientate us to the world in a way that promotes healthy life. But we should also beware of surface perceptions; not all that is beautiful or pleasurable is good for us, eg. poisonous berries and flowers, and sometime the ugly or unpleasant is good for us, eg. medicinal roots. And nature often relies on deceit, eg. camouflage, attraction, masks; our surface perceptions are limited. We use reason and not just perceptions of beauty to orientate to the world. Beauty is suggestive of a helpful course but it is not infallible.

            At root, beauty is ordered to sex and procreation; it has extended further in humans to imperfectly promote life; it is rooted in physiological function.

          • Kowalainen says:

            In evolutionary terms we indeed got a sense of beauty and morality, with nuances of difference depending on cultures and regions. But that is merely a learned, trained concept in the neural net(s) that is a “beauty” and right/wrong processor.

            It is objective inside the human mind, it is what we are. For sure we can denounce that. But then, how does one explain away the feeling of it. It has subjective quality (qualia) that cannot be explained away without attributing it as a fact of the universe.

            It is thus a process inside the brain that is non measurable with an outcome that is the feeling of beauty.

            Trying to explain away that would be fools errand. I wish anyone good luck in that endeavor.

        • Mirror on the wall says:

          “we do indeed open the gates of we know what happens next. Call me an old stick in the mud, but I’d much rather not go there.”

          Actually, atheists have much lower crime rates than Christians, for murder, violent crime and crime in general. That is true in USA and throughout the world. The idea that religion makes people more ‘moral’ is contrary to the statistics.

          > Zuckerman analyzed a wide array of data comparing religious nations to less religious nations and also, interestingly, religious states within the United States (i.e. “Bible-belt” states) to less religious states. While I encourage readers to examine the article directly through the link above, here are just a few of the highlights:

          Criminal Behavior:

          Citing four different studies, Zuckerman states: “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread.” He also states: “Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries.”

          Within the United States, we see the same pattern. Citing census data, he writes: “And within America, the states with the highest murder rates tend to be the highly religious, such as Louisiana and Alabama, but the states with the lowest murder rates tend to be the among the least religious in the country, such as Vermont and Oregon.”

          And these findings are not limited to murder rates, as rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in “religious” states. Zuckerman also points out that atheists are very much under-represented in the American prison population (only 0.2%).

          Marriage and Family:

          Zuckerman cites a 1999 Barna study that finds that atheists and agnostics actually have lower divorce rates than religious Americans.

          He also cites another study, in Canada, that found conservative Christian women experienced higher rates of domestic violence than non-affiliated women.


  9. Harry McGibbs says:

    “Consumers should be prepared to “lose all their money” if they invest in products that promise high returns from cryptoassets such as bitcoin, the City watchdog has warned.”


  10. Tim Groves says:

    Denmark is now at war!

    This video shows scenes from a demonstration in Copenhagen on January 9 organized by The Men in Black. It was a mostly peaceful demonstration but the crowd and the cops and the agents provocateur (or is that agent provocateurs?) were all dogged and determined, so the situation got quite violent anyway.

    • Ed says:

      Why is the crowd chatting in English. This looks like a color revolution play book. Why are authorities world wide trying to provoke violence?

    • Ed says:

      “Most chilling, however, is the revelation that cabinet ministers have privately debated preventing people from talking to each other in the street and in supermarkets, and even preventing people from leaving home more than once per week, and introducing curfews.”


      THEY are not pushing this for health, they are pushing it for violent reaction. Why?

      • Tim Groves says:

        I agree with you, Ed. And I can only speculate as to why they might be doing this.

        Violent reaction would give them a pretext for cracking down hard and ending the current “free” society once and for all and replacing it with a system based on servitude, serfdom or slavery that they hope will be more sustainable under the low-energy-consumption conditions to come.

        They can’t afford to let the masses run around freely because today’s masses lack discipline and are likely to cause disruption when their living standards are slashed. The masses—or those among them who continue to claim freedoms and rights that are too expensive to grant—need to be taught a sharp lesson. They were allowed to run free in order that they might produce hard and consume hard, but the time when they were needed as consumers of services such as travel, tourism, wining and dining, etc., is now past. Basically, they need to be trained to be frugal.They need to be broken in spirit the way wild horses or camels need to be broken before they can serve as beasts of burden.

        • Xabier says:

          Wild horses bite and kick, even donkeys I believe.

          We may yet overcome their Satanic lack of humanity, love and the fear of God.

          I was struck by the emptiness of their lying faces today, our ‘leaders’: all hollow, puppet-like.

      • Xabier says:

        They are, of course, also planting fake comments on YT inciting violence and rebellion – very obvious ones. Rather a pathetic attempt at entrapment.

        Any violent reaction and they can represent Covid and vaccine ‘sceptics’ as dangerous, thick, loonies; and also justify troops on the streets or curfews, which they are clearly dying to do.

        They are concentrating on arresting women and the elderly at protests to spark indignation and also prevent them from being family friendly.

        If there are no violent responses, it just rubs our noses in it: win-win for them……

        • Artleads says:

          Still, it seems best to get the hell away from their media noise, and start something new.

        • Artleads says:

          “Any violent reaction and they can represent Covid and vaccine ‘sceptics’ as dangerous, thick, loonies; and also justify troops on the streets or curfews, which they are clearly dying to do.”

          I’ve been wondering what to say to deflect conversation on these issues. As in judo, get out of the way and make the opponent squander its own energy. If so, what talking points would be best?

          • hkeithhenson says:

            >what talking points would be best?

            I have been up against this kind of irrationality since the late 90s with the Scientology believers. I am not sure there is a way to reach people in this state.

            Almost as bad, I understand where it come from. In human evolutionary history it was often good for your genes to believe in nonsense and act irrationally..

            (I could try to explain this, but the gene model depends on Hamilton’s rule of shared genes and the common practice of taking the young women of a defeated group as wives. A lot of people can’t understand Hamilton’s rule and, even though there is an example in the Bible, most don’t think humans behave that way.)

            • Keith

              I caught this item on UK radio today on nanostructures, I sort of understood it,
              thought it might be interesting to you


              scroll to about minute 48

            • Bei Dawei says:

              You are a Suppressive Person!


            • Tim Groves says:

              Keith, their may be a gene that causes people to believe in Hamilton’s rule and lack of this gene causes people to be skeptical of it.

              In fact, there could even be a gene that causes people to believe that all human behavior can be genetically determined.

              I call Castor and Pollux on Hamilton’s rule because nurture, culture and learning plays such a big role in forming and guiding human behavior that genetics must take a back seat to them.

              Mr. DNA may predispose us toward acting in certain ways, but he has a lot of competition from other vectors and influencers.

              That UK ambassador in China last year who jumped into a river to save a drowning Chinese girl while dozens of her much closer “cousins” ignored Hamilton’s rule and stood around filming the entertainment on their smartphones teaches quite a bit this piece of alleged evolutionary biology.

              Also, I am quite certain that I would be more likely to save my close friends in Japan who have supported me for years than I would my brothers in England who have done diddly squat for me these last four decades. But the minute somebody gets on my ex-friend list, they will just have to save themselves. Genetic closeness has nothing to do with it.

              J.B.S. Haldane was pulling our legs when he said that he would willingly die for two brothers or eight cousins. Everybody knows it doesn’t work like that. Some people will jump into a river or rush onto a highway and risk their lives trying to save a complete stranger or even a dog or a kitten. Others will balk at the risk. And some will even enjoy the spectacle of other’s coming to grief.

            • Lidia17 says:

              I’ve been reading a fascinating series of somewhat obscure recent blog essays, which I should post about later on in a separate comment.

              Anyway, a bit I grabbed from one went like this:

              “..in many ways nonsense is a more effective organizing tool than the truth. Anyone can believe in the truth. To believe in nonsense is an unforgeable demonstration of loyalty. It serves as a political uniform. And if you have a uniform, you have an army.”

    • Disturbing! Remember that Denmark is the place with a high penetration of renewable electricity. It is really a transit hub, between seller and buyers. These renewables need more and more subsidies. The financial end of this is not going very well, I don’t think. I haven’t investigated recently.

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