#113: Death of a high-fashion model


For a long time now, “sustainable development” has been the fashionable economic objective, the Holy Grail for anyone aiming to achieve economic growth without inducing catastrophic climate degradation. This has become the default position for two, very obvious reasons. First, no politician wants to tell his electorate that growth is over (even in countries where, very clearly, prosperity is now in decline). Second, policymakers prepared to invite ridicule by denying the reality of climate change are thin on the ground.

Accordingly, “sustainable development” has become a political article of faith. The approach seems to be to assume that sustainable development is achievable, and use selective data to prove it.

Where this comfortable assumption is concerned, this discussion is iconoclastic. Using the tools of Surplus Energy Economics, it concludes that the likelihood of achieving sustainable development is pretty low. Rather, it agrees with distinguished scientist James Lovelock in his observation that sustainable retreat might be the best we can expect.

This site is dedicated to the critical relationship between energy and economics, but this should never blind us to the huge threat posed by climate change. There seems no convincing reason to doubt either the reality of climate change science or the role that emissions (most obviously of CO²) are playing in this process. As well as counselling sustainable retreat, James Lovelock might be right, too, in characterising the earth as a system capable of self-regeneration so long as its regenerative capabilities are not tested too far.

False comfort

Economics is central to this debate. Here, comparing 2016 with 2001, are some of the figures involved;

Real GDP, 2016 values in PPP dollars:

2001: $73 trillion. 2016: $120tn (+65%)

Energy consumption, tonnes of oil equivalent:

2001: 9.5bn toe. 2016: 13.3bn toe (+40%)

Emissions of CO², tonnes:

2001: 24.3bn t. 2016: 33.4bn t (+37%)

If we accept these figures as accurate, each tonne of CO² emissions in 2001 was associated with $2,990 of GDP. By 2016, that number had risen to $3,595. Put another way, 17% less CO² was emitted for each $1 of GDP. By the same token, the quantity of energy required for each dollar of GDP declined by 15% over the same period.

This is the critical equation supporting the plausibility of “sustainable growth”. If we have really shown that we can deliver successive reductions in CO² emissions per dollar of GDP, we have options.

One option is to keep CO² levels where they are now, yet still grow the economy. Another is to keep the economy where it is now and reduce CO² emissions. A third is to seek a “goldilocks” permutation, both growing the economy and reducing emissions at the same time.

Obviously, the generosity of these choices depends on how rapidly we can continue our progress on the efficiency curve. Many policymakers, being pretty simple people, probably use the “fool’s guideline” of extrapolation – ‘if we’ve achieved 17% progress over the past fifteen years’, they conclude, ‘then we can expect a further 17% improvement over the next fifteen’.

Pretty lies

But what if the apparent ‘progress’ is illusory? The emissions numbers used as the denominator in the equation can be taken as accurate, as can the figures for energy consumption. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the economic numerator. As so often, we are telling ourselves comforting untruths about the way in which the world economy is behaving.

This issue is utterly critical for the cause of “sustainable development”, whose plausibility rests entirely on the numbers used to calculate recent trends.

And there are compelling reasons for suspecting the validity of GDP numbers.

For starters, apparent “growth” in economic output seems counter-intuitive. According to recorded numbers for per capita GDP, the average American was 6% better off in 2016 than in 2006, and the average Briton was 3% more prosperous. These aren’t big numbers, to be sure, but they are positive, suggesting improvement, not deterioration. Moreover, there was a pretty big slump in the early part of that decade. Adjustment for this has been used to suggest that people are growing more prosperous at rates faster than the trailing-10-year per capita GDP numbers indicate.

Yet the public don’t buy into the thesis of “you’ve never had it so good”. Indeed, it isn’t possible reconcile GDP numbers with popular perception. People feel poorer now than they did in 2006, not richer. That’s been a powerful contributing factor to Americans electing Donald Trump, and British voters opting for “Brexit”, crippling Theresa May’s administration and turning in large numbers to Jeremy Corbyn’s collectivist agenda. Much the same can be said of other developed economies, including France (where no established party made it to the second round of presidential voting) and Italy (where a referendum overwhelmingly rejected reforms proposed by the then-government).

Ground-level data suggests that the popular perception is right, and the per capita GDP figures are wrong. The cost of household essentials has outpaced both incomes and general inflation over the past decade. Levels of both household and government debt are far higher now than they were back in 2006. Perhaps worst of all – ‘though let’s not tell the voters’ – pension provision has been all but destroyed.

The pension catastrophe has been attested by a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), and has been discussed here in a previous article. It is a topic to which we shall return in this discussion.

The mythology of “growth”

If we understand what really has been going on, we can conclude that, where prosperity is concerned, the popular perception is right, meaning that the headline GDP per capita numbers must be misleading. Here is the true story of “growth” since the turn of the century.

Between 2001 and 2016, recorded GDP grew by 65%, adding $47tn to output. Over the same period, however, and measured in constant 2016 PPP dollars, debt increased by $135tn (108%), meaning that each $1 of recorded growth came at a cost of $2.85 in net new borrowing.

This ratio has worsened successively, mainly because emerging market economies (EMEs), and most obviously China, have been borrowing at rates far larger than growth, a vice previously confined to the developed West.

This relationship between borrowing and growth makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that much of the apparent “growth” has, in reality, been nothing more substantial than the spending of borrowed money. Put another way, we have been boosting “today” by plundering “tomorrow”, hardly an encouraging practice for anyone convinced by “sustainable development” (or, for that matter, sustainable anything).

Nor is this all. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, we have witnessed the emergence of enormous shortfalls in society’s provision for retirement. According to the WEF study of eight countries – America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands – pension provision was deficient by $67tn in 2015, a number set to reach $428tn (at constant values) by 2050.

Though the study covers just eight countries, the latter number dwarfs current GDP for the entire world economy ($120tn PPP). The aggregate eight-country number is worsening by $28bn per day. In the United States alone, the annual deterioration is $3tn, equivalent to 16% of GDP and, incidentally, roughly five times what America spends on defence. Moreover, these ratios seem certain to worsen, for pension gaps are increasing at annual rates far in excess of actual or even conceivable economic growth.

For the world as a whole, the equivalent of the eight-country number is likely to be about $124tn. This is a huge increase since 2008, because the major cause of the pensions gap has been the returns-destroying policy of ultra-cheap money, itself introduced in 2008-09 as a response to the debt mountain which created the GFC. Finally, on the liabilities side, is interbank or ‘financial sector’ debt, not included in headline numbers for debt aggregates.

Together, then, liabilities can be estimated at $450tn – $260tn of economic debt, about $67tn of interbank indebtedness and an estimated $124tn of pension under-provision. The equivalent number for 2001 is $176tn, expressed at constant 2016 PPP values. This means that aggregate liabilities have increased by $274tn over fifteen years – a period in which GDP grew by just $47tn.

The relationship between liabilities and recorded GDP is set out in the first pair of charts, which, respectively, set GDP against debt and against broader liabilities. Incidentally, the pensions issue is, arguably, a lot more serious than debt. This is because the real value of existing debt can be “inflated away” – a form of “soft default” – by governments willing to unleash inflation. The same cannot be said of pension requirements, which are, in effect, index-linked.

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Where climate change is concerned, what matters isn’t so much the debt or broader liability aggregates, or even the rate of escalation, but what they tell us about the credibility of recorded GDP and growth.

Here, to illustrate the issues involved, are comparative annual growth rates between 2001 and 2016, a period long enough to be reliably representative:

GDP: +3.4% per year

Debt: +5.0%

Pension gap and interbank debt: +9.1%

To this we can add two further, very pertinent indicators:

Energy consumption: +2.2%

CO² emissions: +2.1%

The real story

As we have seen, growth of $47tn in recorded GDP between 2001 and 2016 was accompanied – indeed, made possible – by a vast pillaging of the balance sheet, including $135tn in additional indebtedness, and an estimated $140tn in other liabilities.

The only realistic conclusion is that the economy has been inflated by massive credit injections, and by a comparably enormous unwinding of provisions for the future. It follows that, absent these expedients, organic growth would have been nowhere near the 3.4% recorded over the period.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has an algorithm designed to ex-out the effect of debt-funded consumption (though it does not extend this to include pension gaps or interbank debt). According to this, adjusted growth between 2001 and 2016 was only 1.55%. As this is not all that much faster than the rate at which the population has been growing, the implication is that per capita growth has been truly pedestrian, once we see behind the smoke-and-mirrors effects of gargantuan credit creation.

This isn’t the whole story. The above is a global number, which embraces faster-than-average growth in China, India and other EMEs. Constrastingly, prosperity has actually deteriorated in Britain, America and most other developed economies. Citizens of these countries, then, are not imagining the fall in prosperity which has helped fuel their discontent with incumbent governing elites. The deterioration has been all too real.

The second set of charts illustrates these points. The first shows quite how dramatically annual borrowing has dwarfed annual growth, with both expressed in constant dollars. The second sets out what GDP would have looked like, according to SEEDS, if we hadn’t been prepared to trash collective balance sheets in pursuit of phoney “growth”. You will notice that the adjusted trajectory is consistent with what was happening before we ‘unleashed the dogs of cheap and easy credit’ around the time of the millenium.

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Flagging growth – the energy connection

As we have seen, then, the very strong likelihood is that real growth in global economic output over fifteen years has been less than 1.6% annually, slower than growth either in energy consumption (2.2%) or in CO² emissions (2.1%). In compound terms, growth in underlying GDP seems to have been about 26% between 2001 and 2016, appreciably less than increases in either energy consumption (+40%) or emissions (+37%).

At this point, some readers might think this conclusion counter-intuitive – after all, if technological change has boosted efficiency, shouldn’t we be using less energy per dollar of activity, not more?

There is, in fact, a perfectly logical explanation for this process. Essentially, the economy is fuelled, not by energy in the aggregate, but by surplus energy. Whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process. This is expressed here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy), a percentage of the gross quantity of energy accessed. The critical point is that ECoE is on a rising trajectory. Indeed, the rate of increase in the energy cost of energy has been rising exponentially.

As mature resources are depleted, recourse is made to successively costlier (higher ECoE) alternative sources. This depletion effect is moderated by technological progress, which lowers the cost of accessing any given form of energy. But technology cannot breach the thermodynamic parameters of the resource. It cannot, as it were, ‘trump the laws of physics’. Technology has made shale oil cheaper to extract than shale oil would have been in times past. But what it has not done is transform shales into the economic equivalent of giant, technically-straightforward conventional fields like Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Any such transformation is something that the laws of physics simply do not permit.

According to estimates generated on a multi-fuel basis by SEEDS, world ECoE averaged 4.0% in 2001, but had risen to 7.5% by 2016. What that really means is that, out of any given $100 of economic output, we now have to invest $7.50, instead of $4, in accessing energy. The resources that we can use for all other purposes are correspondingly reduced.

In the third pair of charts, the left-hand figure illustrates this process. The area in blue is the net energy that fuels all activities other than the supply of energy itself. This net energy supply continues to increase. But the red bars, which are the energy cost of energy, are rising too, and at a more rapid rate. Consequently, gross energy requirements – the aggregate of the blue and the red – are rising faster than the required net energy amount. This is why, when gross energy is compared with economic output, the energy intensity of the economy deteriorates, even though the efficiency with which net energy is used has improved.

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Here’s another way to look at ECoE and the gross/net energy balance. Back in 2001, we needed to access 104.2 units of energy in order to have 100 units for our use. In 2016, we had to access 108.1 units for that same 100 units of deployable energy. This process, which elsewhere has been called “energy sprawl”, means that any given amount of economic activity is requiring the accessing of ever more gross energy in order to deliver the requisite amount of net (surplus) energy. By 2026, the ratio is likely to have risen to 112.7/100.

The companion chart shows the trajectory of CO² emissions. Since these emissions are linked directly to energy use, they can be divided into net (the pale boxes), ECoE (in dark grey) and gross (the sum of the two). Thanks to a lower-carbon energy slate, net emissions seem to be flattening out. Unfortunately, gross emissions continue to increase, because of the CO² associated with the ECoE component of gross energy requirements.

Shot down in flames? The “evidence” for “sustainable development”

As we have seen, a claimed rate of economic growth (between 2001 and 2016) that is higher (65%) than the rate at which CO² emissions have expanded (37%) has been used to “prove” increasing efficiency. It is entirely upon these claims that the viability of “sustainable development” is based.

But, as we have also seen, reported growth has been spurious, the product of unsustainable credit manipulation, and the unwinding of provision for the future. Real growth, adjusted to exclude this manipulation, is estimated by SEEDS at 26% over that period. Crucially, that is less than the 37% rate at which CO² emissions have grown.

On this basis, a claimed 17% “improvement” in the amount of CO² per dollar of output reverses into a deterioration. Far from improving, the relationship between CO² and economic output worsened by 9% between 2001 and 2016. In parallel with this, the amount of energy required for each dollar of output increased by 11% over the same period.

The final pair of charts illustrate this divergence. On the left, economic activity per tonne of CO² is shown. The second chart re-expresses this relationship using GDP adjusted for the artificial “growth” injected by monetary manipulation. If this interpretation is correct – and despite a very gradual upturn in the red line since 2010 – the comforting case for “sustainable development” falls to pieces.

In short, if growth continues, rising ECoEs dictate that both energy needs, and associated emissions of CO², will grow at rates exceeding that of economic output.

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We are back where many have argued that we have been all along. The pursuit of growth seems to be incompatible with averting potentially irreversible climate change.

There is a nasty sting-in-the-tail here, too. The ECoE of oil supplies is rising particularly markedly, and there seems a very real danger that this will force an increased reliance on coal, a significantly dirtier fuel. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum predicted exactly such a trend in China, already the world’s biggest producer of CO². As domestic oil supply peaks and then declines because of higher ECoEs, the study postulates a rapid increase in coal consumption to feed the country’s voracious need for energy. This process is most unlikely to be confined to China.

Where does this leave us?

The central contention here is that the case for “sustainable development” is fatally flawed, because the divergence between gross and net energy needs is more than offsetting progress in greening our energy mix and combatting emissions of harmful gases. “Sustainable development” is a laudable aim, but may simply not be achievable within the laws of physics as they govern energy supply.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that growth in the global economy can be pursued only at grave climate risk. A (slightly) more comforting interpretation might that the super-heated rate of borrowing, and the seemingly disastrous rate at which pension capability is being destroyed, might well crash the system before our obsession with ‘growth at all costs’ can inflict irreparable damage to the environment.

102 thoughts on “#113: Death of a high-fashion model

  1. At the simplest level I suppose, Tim, your latest article here explains, to a greater or lesser extent, why companies like BiFab (http://tinyurl.com/y8taq5yo) will always rely on subsidies and similar economic crutches and smoke and mirrors to survive. Sustainable development, as you say, doesn’t really add up economically and commercially. It’s inconsistent with our preferred, massively energy-intense way of life.

    • Thanks, M

      This article was prompted by some points raised by a reader on the previous piece. This led me to wonder what SEEDS might be able to say about CO2. As with energy, so with climate change – ECoE is increasing faster than our ability to handle its implications. As the ECoE increase curve is exponential, we find ourselves running ever harder just to (try to) stand still.

      This doesn’t make me dismissive about renewables – they are sure to become ever more important. But I just don’t believe that we can make a seamless, pain-free transition to them without interrupting economic “development”.

      My thesis is that ECoE was already a powerful head-wind to growth back as far as 2000. That’s one reason – along with the ideology of “deregulation” – why we turned to the constant, ever-growing “stimulus” of easy debt and cheap money.

      Conventional oil, gas and coal started out with low intrinsic ECoE, but are suffering increases because of depletion. Renewables seem the other way around, commencing with high ECoEs and using technology to push them down. We’re at or near crossover, because fossil ECoEs have risen, and renewable ECoEs have come down. But I don’t think we can simply extrapolate “ever lower” renewables ECoEs as an assumption. There are physical limits. Meanwhile, renewables need financing, at least in the present and for some time to come, out of the surplus energy from the existing (fossil) slate. Hence subsidies.

      If, as I believe, that legacy (fossil) surplus is diminishing, we need to be ever more careful about how we use it….

    • Tim,
      Without giving away any secrets, could you outline where/how you get estimations for “Energy Cost” to then calculate ECoE for fossils and non-fossils?

    • Martyn

      I’m sure you’ll understand if I’m a bit cautious over this. Big interests – business and government – are already disturbed by how the effiicacy of purely money-based economic interpretation seems to be diminishing. If I’m right about why this is, they’ll need to bring ECoE (etc) into the equation. I’m not about to hand it to them on a plate.

      I will say that ECoE isn’t calculated as a single dataset. It’s constructed on a multi-fuel basis. I do publish ECoE estimates over time for fossil fuels, renewables and the overall number. But to publish fuel-by-fuel numbers would be to give away too much.

      The upside, I believe, is that SEEDS gives us – me, and readers – insights that those tied to the “flat-earth” thinking of conventional economics don’t have.

  2. Climate Change (previously known as Global Warming … until we had a two decade pause that persists to this day – where the climate did not warm) ….

    Is VERY LOW on my list of concerns. In fact I have zero concern about climate change

    Because – the bible of green – otherwise known as The Guardian has informed me of the following:

    Climate countdown: Half a trillion tonnes of carbon left to burn

    To avoid dangerous climate change of 2C, the world can only burn another half a trillion tonnes of carbon, climate change experts warn


    I am sure most people will be turning purple with rage screaming at our leaders DO SOMETHING!!! Before it is too late!!!!!

    However I read that and I feel nothing but complete and utter calm.

    Because I know that even if climate change were an issue (let’s say the global warming pause ended and temperatures started to edge higher…) the reality is that we are nearly done with our fossil fueled orgy of burning….

    There is no way in hell we are ever going to burn half a trillion more tonnes of carbon – NO WAY!!!

    Because — as we know here (I hope) that BAU – which requires CHEAP to produce fossil fuels to exist — is about to end.

    It is about to end of course — because we are out of cheap to produce fossil fuels. We are on the precipice…

    HSBC says the crunch comes next year

    HSBC: Brace for the oil, food and financial crash of 2018

    80% of the world’s oil has peaked, and the resulting oil crunch will flatten the economy

    View story at Medium.com

    Anyone who is concerned about global warming should rejoice on this great news. This is as splendid as it gets.

    Their dreams are about to come true….

    Of course the dream will quickly turn into a nightmare…. (but let’s not tell them that)

    • Climate change is a highly controversial topic, and one that I’ve tended to steer clear of hitherto. But it is so intimately connected to energy and economics that I didn’t feel we could go on ignoring it here.

      At present, we are pumping about 33 billion tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Even in simple pollution terms, that is scary – truly enormous numbers of deaths are caused annually by air pollution, irrespective of whether one believes in the warming effect or not.

      If the approach to the issue set out here is correct, rising ECoEs mean that we are not going to be able to combine continued economic growth with reducing emissions. Of course, what SEEDS is already telling is is that we can’t sustain economic growth anyway, in the face of rising ECoEs. A point made here is that the economic headwind of rising ECoEs is why we’ve been faking “growth” for some years now, using monetary adventurism to do so. This has already brought us one crash, and seems very likely to bring us another.

      Personally, I do believe the thesis of climate change. But I’m sceptical about willingness to do anything about it, because economic self-interest usually trumps responsibility. Environmental responsibility isn’t likely to stop the “growth at all costs” mentality, then – but ECoE, and financial crises, are likely to stop it.

      This puts us into a wholly new situation. This is where – from an energy and economic point of view, quite aside from climate change – James Lovelock is likely to be right about “sustainable retreat”. That’s where politics, and geopolitics, change completely.

    • If it is real then what could we do about it — that would not end civilization?

      As we know – ‘renewable’ energy is not helpful. In fact ‘renewable’ energy only results in even more carbon being burned.

      Take solar panels — they do not grow on trees — I understand that the energy that goes into making them is derived from filthy coal (see smog in China) — and that they barely produce the same amount of energy that went into making them over their life span.

      Throw in batteries and the carbon footprint of solar is enormous (and the nett energy return is deeply negative)

      In terms of large scale solar — we require alternative energy to generate electricity when the sun is not shining — generally coal is used…. (and these coal plants must be always on — you cannot just switch them on when the sun goes down)

      So two operating systems to do the job of one. Add mega batteries — let’s not go there.

      Then of course as the Google engineers have pointed out – the amount of materials required to switch from fossil fuels to alternative energy …. simply are not available – the whole idea is utterly ridiculous

      So alternative energy is no saviour.

      EV’s are no saviour — they are made using and powered by coal.

      What about cleaning coal? Massively expensive. And we are in the red zone already because of expensive energy….

      As for growth at all cost – what other option is there? If the global economy stops growing (actually when … not if) the mother of all deflationary death spirals will commence…

      Millions then billions will be left without means to support themselves…. the banking system will collapse … BAU will stop on a dime…. queue starvation … violence… disease … die-off

      Regardless of one’s position on global warming …. TINA – there is no alternative…..

      We must burn more coal – we must burn more oil – we must burn more gas —- we really do not have any other choice.

      But as I point out… I am not at all concerned about any of this — because the oil bottleneck is going to take us down long before global warming (if it is real) gets us….

      Peak oil is rattling the gates…. right now. HSBC says he busts them down in 2018….

      That is my primary concern. Actually it’s my only concern…. (although I am hoping the gates hold until April as I was hoping to visit Uzbekistan — it is one of the few remaining items on my End of the World Buck List)

  3. We have built an economic system with no reverse gear, no brakes, and very dodgy steering. This poses quite a problem now that we’re running out of road. I’ve read the HSBC report, but I’m not sure it tells us much that we didn’t know already. (I published Perfect Storm about six years ago, when I was head of research at a big City institution).

    Some very clever people have thought about this before, including James Lovelock with his “sustainable retreat”, and Dmitry Orlov in his book about the stages of collapse. The common theme is that we must ‘save what we can’.

    We may need to accept that our financial and trade systems may not survive. But the big danger is the loss of civilization in a descent into chaos and energy, and the emergence of warlords. Outlandish as that may seem, this is logically plausible.

    If we can preserve civilization, we have choices. We may be able to migrate towards a stable-state system not dependent on growth. To do this, we may need to promote new values as alternatives to consumerism, “me! me!” and “you are what you own”.

    • I see that an elephant has entered the room …. let’s discuss him…

      His name is Spent Fuel Ponds… 4000 of them…. they are far more dangerous than reactor cores because they contain thousands of fuel rods…. and they need to be kept cooled in high tech facilities… otherwise they catch fire and release massive amounts of radiation … and this floats around the oceans and air streams … and gets into everything….

      I will post my research on a following comment.

      Extinction is not necessarily a bad thing. Humans inflict a lot of suffering on other species… and we are responsible for the extinction of thousands of them ….

    • Spent fuel ponds aside…. I could see a hunter gatherer society surviving this…. they are already unplugged living to a large extend in a steady state (although they do like to slash and burn….) …

      I have been deep into Irian Jaya to villages that did not even have a plastic bottle… I reckon they wouldn’t even know the world had ended — although they might wonder what caused the big metal birds in the sky to go extinct.

      For me this is not an option — I once walked into the bush in a remote part of the south island of NZ…. just to see what it might be like…. had no idea what to eat …. was worried that if I drank water from the stream it would have deer sh it in it…. then it started to drizzle…. and I ran back into the arms of BAU…. she is so darn lovely….. right perty some would say.

      When this ship goes down …. I will not jump onto a floating piece of wood only to suffer… then die in the waves….

      I will pour myself another tumbler of single malt …. and enjoy the sunset from the front porch… then when things get too difficult…. I will go down … not swinging.

      Why bother.

    • It took a long time to dig this stuff up — you cannot just search for ‘what happens if civilization ends – the power goes off – and spent fuel ponds are abandoned’

      You actually get zilch. Says a lot for the hubris of man — we cannot imagine that civilization could collapse…. we won’t have it!

      Anyway — lots of sobering information is laid out here…. this process of discovery was one of the main reasons why I threw my hands up in the air and said live for today — because there is no tomorrow.

      If the hordes… the disease … or the starvation don’t get me…. the radiation will.

      I highly recommend a policy of enjoying what (little?) time remains with our darling BAU…. she is very sick…. dying in fact…. hold her hand…. take what little she still has to offer …. she has been good to her children…. she has given us great joys … and comforts…. we have lived the lives of kings because of her….

      But alas …. the blood drains from her body…. she grows pale…. she gasps…

      And to the grave we too shall follow.

      Kinda like how those women in India leap into the funeral pyres of their husbands….

      The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe could have been far worse, it turns out, and experts say neither the nuclear industry nor its regulators are doing enough to prevent a calamitous nuclear fuel fire in America https://www.publicintegrity.org/2016/05/20/19712/scientists-say-nuclear-fuel-pools-around-country-pose-safety-and-health-risks

      Japan’s chief cabinet secretary called it “the devil’s scenario.” Two weeks after the 11 March 2011 earthquake and tsunami devastated the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, causing three nuclear reactors to melt down and release radioactive plumes, officials were bracing for even worse. They feared that spent fuel stored in the reactor halls would catch fire and send radioactive smoke across a much wider swath of eastern Japan, including Tokyo. http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/burning-reactor-fuel-could-have-worsened-fukushima-disaster

      Assuming a 50-100% Cs137 release during a spent fuel fire, [8] the consequence of the Cs-137 exceed those of the Chernobyl accident 8-17 times (2MCi release from Chernobyl). Based on the wedge model, the contaminated land areas can be estimated. [9] For example, for a scenario of a 50% Cs-137 release from a 400 t SNF pool, about 95,000 km² (as far as 1,350 km) would be contaminated above 15 Ci/km² (as compared to 10,000 km² contaminated area above 15 Ci/km² at Chernobyl).

      A typical 1 GWe PWR core contains about 80 t fuels. Each year about one third of the core fuel is discharged into the pool. A pool with 15 year storage capacity will hold about 400 t spent fuel. To estimate the Cs-137 inventory in the pool, for example, we assume the Cs137 inventory at shutdown is about 0.1 MCi/tU with a burn-up of 50,000 MWt-day/tU, thus the pool with 400 t of ten year old SNF would hold about 33 MCi Cs-137. [7]

      Containing radiation equivalent to 14,000 times the amount released in the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima 68 years ago, more than 1,300 used fuel rod assemblies packed tightly together need to be removed from a building that is vulnerable to collapse, should another large earthquake hit the area. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/08/14/us-japan-fukushima-insight-idUSBRE97D00M20130814

      The problem is if the spent fuel gets too close, they will produce a fission reaction and explode with a force much larger than any fission bomb given the total amount of fuel on the site. All the fuel in all the reactors and all the storage pools at this site (1760 tons of Uranium per slide #4) would be consumed in such a mega-explosion. In comparison, Fat Man and Little Boy weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki contained less than a hundred pounds each of fissile material – See more at: http://www.dcbureau.org/20110314781/natural-resources-news-service/fission-criticality-in-cooling-ponds-threaten-explosion-at-fukushima.html

      Once the fuel is uncovered, it could become hot enough to cause the metal cladding encasing the uranium fuel to rupture and catch fire, which in turn could further heat up the fuel until it suffers damage. Such an event could release large amounts of radioactive substances, such as cesium-137, into the environment. This would start in more recently discharged spent fuel, which is hotter than fuel that has been in the pool for a longer time. A typical spent fuel pool in the United States holds several hundred tons of fuel, so if a fire were to propagate from the hotter to the colder fuel a radioactive release could be very large.

      According to Dr. Kevin Crowley of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board, “successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible. If an attack leads to a propagating zirconium cladding fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material.”[12] The Nuclear Regulatory Commission after the September 11, 2001 attacks required American nuclear plants “to protect with high assurance” against specific threats involving certain numbers and capabilities of assailants. Plants were also required to “enhance the number of security officers” and to improve “access controls to the facilities”.

      The committee judges that successful terrorist attacks on spent fuel pools, though difficult, are possible. If an attack leads to a propagating zirconium cladding fire, it could result in the release of large amounts of radioactive material. The committee concluded that attacks by knowledgeable terrorists with access to appropriate technical means are possible. The committee identified several terrorist attack scenarios that it believed could partially or completely drain a spent fuel pool and lead to zirconium cladding fires. Details are provided in the committee’s classified report. I cannot discuss the details here.

      If any of the spent fuel rods in the pools do indeed catch fire, nuclear experts say, the high heat would loft the radiation in clouds that would spread the radioactivity.

      “It’s worse than a meltdown,” said David A. Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer at the Union of Concerned Scientists who worked as an instructor on the kinds of General Electric reactors used in Japan. “The reactor is inside thick walls, and the spent fuel of Reactors 1 and 3 is out in the open.”

      If you don’t cool the spent fuel, the temperature will rise and there may be a swift chain reaction that leads to spontaneous combustion–an explosion and fire of the spent fuel assemblies. Such a scenario would emit radioactive particles into the atmosphere.

      Pick your poison. Fresh fuel is hotter and more radioactive, but is only one fuel assembly. A pool of spent fuel will have dozens of assemblies. One report from Sankei News said that there are over 700 fuel assemblies stored in one pool at Fukushima. If they all caught fire, radioactive particles—including those lasting for as long as a decade—would be released into the air and eventually contaminate the land or, worse, be inhaled by people. “To me, the spent fuel is scarier. All those spent fuel assemblies are still extremely radioactive,” Dalnoki-Veress says.

      It has been known for more than two decades that, in case of a loss of water in the pool, convective air cooling would be relatively ineffective in such a “dense-packed” pool. Spent fuel recently discharged from a reactor could heat up relatively rapidly to temperatures at which the zircaloy fuel cladding could catch fire and the fuel’s volatile fission product, including 30-year half-life Cs, would be released. The fire could well spread to older spent fuel. The long-term land-contamination consequences of such an event could be significantly worse than those from Chernobyl.
      Today there are 103 active nuclear power reactors in the U.S. They generate 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear waste per year and to date have accumulated 71,862 tons of spent fuel, according to industry data.[vi] Of that total, 54,696 tons are stored in cooling pools and only 17,166 tons in the relatively safer dry cask storage. http://www.psr.org/environment-and-health/environmental-health-policy-institute/responses/the-growing-problem-of-spent-nuclear-fuel.html

      Spent fuel fire on U.S. soil could dwarf impact of Fukushima
      A fire from spent fuel stored at a U.S. nuclear power plant could have catastrophic consequences, according to new simulations of such an event.

      A major fire “could dwarf the horrific consequences of the Fukushima accident,” says Edwin Lyman, a physicist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C. “We’re talking about trillion-dollar consequences,” says Frank von Hippel, a nuclear security expert at Princeton University, who teamed with Princeton’s Michael Schoeppner on the modeling exercise.
      ….the national academies’s report warns that spent fuel accumulating at U.S. nuclear plants is also vulnerable. After fuel is removed from a reactor core, the radioactive fission products continue to decay, generating heat. All nuclear power plants store the fuel onsite at the bottom of deep pools for at least 4 years while it slowly cools. To keep it safe, the academies report recommends that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and nuclear plant operators beef up systems for monitoring the pools and topping up water levels in case a facility is damaged. The panel also says plants should be ready to tighten security after a disaster.

      At most U.S. nuclear plants, spent fuel is densely packed in pools, heightening the fire risk. NRC has estimated that a major fire at the spent fuel pool at the Peach Bottom nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania would displace an estimated 3.46 million people from 31,000 square kilometers of contaminated land, an area larger than New Jersey. But Von Hippel and Schoeppner think that NRC has grossly underestimated the scale and societal costs of such a fire.

    • Traditionally, sailors don’t learn to swim – because it could only drag out death from drowning, if the ship goes down.

      I remember sitting beside my then-boss as we were about to fly from London to NY. The stewardess went through the safety routine. When she got to “and you have a whistle to attract attention”, my boss murmured: “and that’s going to be an effing lot of use in the middle of the Atlantic….”

      Seriously, I’ve not lost faith in human ingenuity. It’s the mental re-tooling that’s going to be difficult…

    • One opens the door to very dark places…. when one understands the true nature of our predicament… very dark … frightening… shocking places indeed…. unimaginable actually…

      This is the true Heart of Darkness…. we touch upon

    • Hello Dr Morgan
      Any stable steady state system would have to ban Usury as Christianity did in medieval times and Islam still does formally, otherwise the exponential function kicks in and in a short period nearly all wealth is in the hands of a few, which is politically and economically unstable. Banning Usury makes financing large scale trade, industry and infrastructure awkward, so little of that will happen except for those who retain or gain large wealth by other means. Further money will have to much more real (precious metals or paper notes), credit money will be gone, which today is 97% of money in the West. Money creation will be much more under the control of the issuer, usually a state, and they will have to balance the quantity in circulation carefully with economic activity or be swept away by rampant inflation or deflation, as a steady state economy has limited ability to expand or contract. Study of the economies of medieval China, Edo period Japan, and the Arab caliphate may provide a guide to what is possible in a steady state economy. They managed to run relatively stable steady state market economies with high levels of craftsmanship. However, even they managed only a couple of centuries or so of stability.

      To Thomas Malthus
      I strongly suspect that when collapse really starts on countries with nuclear power plants, the contents of their fuel rod cooling ponds will be dumped in the nearest oceanic trench, and then buried by turbidite flows (under sea mud flows) triggered by explosives. Out of site out of mind, difficult for the nefarious to recover, and will eventually be buried in the planets mantle, so problem solved, they hope! If a country does collapse before it has off shored its nuclear waste, the remaining powers will do it for their own self interest. Question, would you fight to stop them?

      Philip Hardy

    • Philip – I am aware that the Russians have dumped some radioactive materials into the ocean in the past.

      This article touches on the implications of dumping radioactive waste in the ocean — primarily contaminated equipment and materials….

      ‘It seems that the general consensus is that storing radioactive waste in the ocean is harmful to the organisms that inhabit the ocean and to humans as well due to radiation and in addition it is a rather expensive process. Poor insulation of the containers, leaks, volcanic activity, tectonic plate movement, limited locations, and several other factors prove that storing radioactive waste in the oceans has a potential of becoming a catastrophe.’


      But we are talking about hundreds of thousands of tonnes of spent fuel – here’s the figure for the US alone:

      ‘Today there are 103 active nuclear power reactors in the U.S. They generate 2,000 metric tons of spent nuclear waste per year and to date have accumulated 71,862 tons of spent fuel, according to industry data.[vi] Of that total, 54,696 tons are stored in cooling pools.’

      Keep in mind that the toxins released from spent fuel take centuries to degrade….

      Therefore if we were to dump such colossal amounts of spent fuel into the oceans… we would poison the food chain …. any organism consuming anything from the ocean would pass the toxins up the food chain …

      Would the radiation not spread as sea water evaporated and fell as rain on the land – poisoning the land….

      Meanwhile 4 other horsemen will be riding against human populations – famine, pestilence, war and death…… (the bible does not predict the 5th horseman — for the same reasons the bible states that the earth is less than 10,000 years old — and that the earth is flat… but I digress)

      It is very difficult to see how this is not an extinction event. Perhaps some remote hunter gatherer tribes have a shot at surviving — if they are miraculously untouched by radiation …

      But for the rest of us — who have lived our entire lives in an industrial bubble — we have zero chance of surviving this.

      I would argue that the hobby farmers who are preparing for the Big Day …. are completely unprepared… they THINK they are prepared — but they remain plugged into BAU – they use electricity and petrol – they cut wood with chain saws… and they use washing machines…. they buy stuff in shops… they use the medical system … they turn on the top when they need water etc…

      And they fool themselves into believing they are self-sustaining…. and even if they were — they would be overwhelmed by their hungry neighbours

    • Philip

      Thank you for some extremely important points which I will mull over when returning to the theme of collapse. That’s likely to be pretty soon, after I’ve written something about the UK and the so-called “productivity puzzle”.

      I’m reminded of how the Soviets disposed of redundant submarine reactors – they dumped them in the sea off Nova Zemlya…

  4. Hi Tim

    Thanks for another insightful piece.

    I mentioned on a previous post the view of some anthropologists that the agricultural revolution was a major wrong turning point in human evolution because it enabled the population to grow and it strikes me that a lot of this story involves population as the main driver of the difficulties we face.

    As you mention, in respect of the last few years, strip out the credit effect and you are left with growth that equals population growth and it is this which is bringing us to where we are. It may be trite to say that if we had a tenth of the population we have and with a more modest growth rate we would not have any of the problems you mention; trite but nevertheless true.

    Population is growing much more slowly in many parts of the World but it is still increasing overall and is this the real source of the problem? I appreciate that there is much more going on here but energy seems to me to be an effect rather than a driver itself. It may be self evident that if we had a much lower population we would not have at least some of these problems we have but how would we correct them? We in the West are heading down the route of a reduced population by accident and the Chinese, via the one child policy, have done the same thing deliberately but I don’t think either has these things right and we seem to be blundering into a situation in which the reduction will create mr problems than it solves.

    • Bob

      It’s true that agriculture started the ball rolling, giving mankind the first energy surplus, therefore the first economy and the first society, and the foundation technologies without which industrialization couldn’t have happened. But many thousands of years would follow before we started tapping fossil fuels. From recollection, agriculture began in around 9000BC in the “fertile crescent”, and possibly started at the same time in other places. But the industrial revolution is usually dated from about 1760AD.

      If we’d never discovered fossil fuels, there would still have been some growth and “progress”, but at a glacial pace. There are significant differences between, say, England in 1700 and in 1066 – but those changes happened over a very long period.

      Personally, I’d have preferred living in, say, 1750 to 1066 – think of the art, music, architecture and progress in other ways over that period. By 1750 we’d had Ancient Greece and the renaissance, plus significant advances in science. Either date would be better than the Dark Ages, and I can’t say hunter-gatherer life, with its tribalism, supersition and brutality appeals much. So I don’t “blame” agriculture.

      If there’s a “culprit” in this, it’s the steam engine, forerunner of the many heat engines that have tapped fossil fuels. It seems very possible that life would be better today if we’d remained agrarian, though continuing to progress – we’d have had less material wealth, but we wouldn’t know about what we hadn’t got.

      You’re on much more solid ground with population. My book contains a chart comparing population numbers with energy consumption, and the link is inescapable. Moreover, it was the increase in energy use that drove population increases, not the other way around.

      It seems equally inescapable that, if we reach peak surplus energy – that is, gross accessed energy less ECoE, and I think we may be nearing it now – then the population should be expected to decrease. I’ve heard 1.5 bn mentioned as the carrying capacity of the earth in this scenario. But getting to there sounds a horrendous process….

    • The arch villain https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug

      Norman Ernest Borlaug (March 25, 1914 – September 12, 2009)[3] was an American agronomist and humanitarian who led initiatives worldwide that contributed to the extensive increases in agricultural production termed the Green Revolution. Borlaug was awarded multiple honors for his work, including the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal

      Norman is responsible for my predictions being widely off the mark… nevertheless I will be right in the end… when the oil stops the food that supports 7.5B stops…

    • An alternative culprit, according to a friend of mine, is whoever invented the starter-motor. If all cars had to be crank-started, we’d all buy small engined models, and cut out trips that might not be imperative. I can’t somehow see parents hand-cranking a 4 litre SUV to drive 1/2 mile to collect children from school…

    • I suspect that the harnessing of fire was the ultimate culprit… that caused us to burn up the forests leading us to the use of fossil fuels…..

    • +++++++

      That was one giant kick of the can …. and now we are running out of road….

      7.5 billion people … with almost no food…. this will get very ugly… very fast… when the shelves are empty

    • I have read research – can’t recall the link but it was from Yale University — that population growth accounts for roughly 1/3 of global GDP growth…

      Clearly if we stopped population growth we would inspire the mother of all deflationary death spirals ….. this would collapse the global economy …

      So again TINA raises her ugly head 😦

    • Hi Thomas

      Re your deflationary “death spiral” it strikes me that it is a choice between a “deflationary death spiral” and vanilla flavoured “death”.

      As I said above your namesake, much derided may actually be right after all.

    • Dr. Tim Funny stuff on the the starter motor as that bastard Charles F. Kettering, namesake of my hometown outside of Dayton, Ohio also honchoed in the largest mass poisoning in the world by forcing tetra ethyl lead into gasoline.

    • I forgot to add in my piece that we may in fact go through the “Thomas Malthus ” scenario and we have been living in a “Malthus Postponed” World rather than a “Malthus Cancelled” one as most assume.

  5. What happens? And when? The financial system cannot survive without growth. The people in the know have plans on the shelves for when the system becomes unsustainable for all to see. Are they phasing out fiat currencies by creating blockchain currencies so there can still be trade, and everything measured in fiat currencies is wiped out, including the debt overload? First by soaking up the liquidity overload and then start regulating? Could be.

    My bet is not on one horse. In the worst case scenario, all bets are off, so we can skip that one. The other possibilities are not pleasant, but certain regions could survive, in a deep depression-like scenario. For that, i have taken, and still take steps. From collecting rainwater, good quality handtools and a food stack. To physical gold and silver, candles (the graveyard ones that burn at least 24 hrs 😁). Working my ass off so i won’t get fired in the first round. Having fun with my family. A good handcart. Few axes, some prep stuff, but not all the way, that’s nearly impossible. Stay fit, watch what they do, not what they say.

    Regions will burn, refugees will die, by the millions. The spice must flow however, maybe there will still be trade between regions, necessities. Keep your house maintained, start making your own booze, booze does very well during depressions. Do not participate in demonstrations, too risky. Buy some second hand leather army boots.

    Don’t bet on one horse. It might end at the butcher store.

    The system is in its last stages. Enjoy the ride.

    • I used to do all that … even moved all the way to New Zealand and set up a small farm in a fairly remote place on the south island…

      Then I realized:

      1. For every one of me there were thousands within walking distance of me – who were doing nothing – and hundreds of thousands within a tank of petrol of me… and there is no defending farm land from the hungry hordes

      2. I had a guy help with establishing a permaculture system – as we were working one day the topic of chemical fertilizers and pesticides came up — we were gazing down the valley from our hill side property and he see – see all those massive croplands down there —the soil is dead — it is like a sponge – it holds the plants up — and it absorbs the chemical… take the chemicals away and nothing will grow without years of organic inputs …. hmmmm….

      3. Then I read something from Orlov re: the danger of nuclear reactors …. I did a bit of digging and I found that reactors are the lightweights…. the spend fuel ponds are the heavy weights….4000 of them … that require computerized cooling for years before they can be dry casked… when the electricity goes off — they burn up and release epic amounts of radiation that will spread around the planet getting into water, air and the food chain….

      That was about the time I realized that I was wasting my time … and a lot of cash…. on a futile enterprise…. and I threw in the towel.

      I actually feel a sense of relief — because in the back of my mind I knew that even if it were not for all of the above — if I could make it through the bottleneck… life would be nasty brutish and short.

      For those who continue to prep I recommend the following – turn off the power and use no petrol for a week – buy no food – do not go to a doctor… everything by hand … chopping wood – washing clothes – the works…. then imagine that being the rest of your life … but with no police… the inevitable crop failure —- no medical care.

      It will not be like Little House on the Prairie… not at all.

    • I know that FE. Like i said, in a worst case scenario, all bets are off. So we can skip that part. It won’t be pretty, you certainly have VERY good points. When it fails, it fails. We’ll see. The people in charge will die too when it fails, and they know it. I won’t give up without a fight. Thank you for your efforts, your knowledge and your honesty. And good luck.

    • For essentials, there’s enough energy for the next 200 years, for profits, we’re 20 years short. So we still have a chance, profit is competition, and competition is for apes.

    • Thomas,

      I recognise where you are in Dimiri Orlov’s five stages of collapse scenario – I have been there too – but things are not as hopeless as you currently imagine them to be.

      There will not be a day when everything collapses all at once. Things will get worse – but governments and society will do their utmost to maintain the status quo – which is impossible – but what it DOES mean is that things will simply get gradually worse. And that is a situation that one can take steps to deal with.

      Thus you will not suddenly find yourself overrun by ravening hordes – though you may find you get offers of labour in exchange for some of your produce.

      Your farm and your knowledge of running it are worth much more over time than simply ransacking it once.

      Your concerns about spent fuel ponds are valid – but this will not instantly depopulate the entire planet.

      I have a family to care for. I hope you do too. I will be doing my best to care for them in any possible scenario. Including in a world suffering from increased radiation.

      Things will get tougher in the future; but a human’s needs are few and easily met. We have absurd expectations and wants – but all we actually NEED is food, water and shelter.

      These are not hard to provide.

      There may be a pretty major adjustment to the world population as time goes by, but collapse happens fairly slowly and the gradual attrition as health services decline and a decreasing standard of living takes its toll will be the most likely way that this comes about.

      What will be will be – all we can do is to do all we can.

    • Remember 2008? We were days away for everything collapsing at once…

      We were in economic limbo — trade had stopped — because financial institutions were insolvent.

      If that had persisted the shops would have emptied and there would have been total chaos.

      But what prevented that? The central banks back stopped everything.

      And they have continued to back stop everything.

      And then what happened was we had our shale revolution — which helped bring the price of oil down to a sort of manageable level for the consumer… but of course not manageable the producers.

      And now we sit in economic limbo – oil is priced so as to not take down BAU – but high enough to allow producers to barely stay alive. Producers have mostly stopped looking for new oil.

      As Tim has pointed out – and I agree — at some point we run into a bottleneck where energy supply is outstripped by demand i.e. peak total oil.

      That will result in a massive spike in the price of oil — which will destroy the economy.

      And at that point the central banks will be powerless to do what they did in 2008.

      ‘The economy is a surplus energy equation, not a monetary one’ – throw all the money you like at this — at some point plain and simply there will be a day when the equation goes so far out of kilter that growth stops.

      This will NOT be a gradual thing. Imagine a recession – remember those? — people losing their jobs – people pull in from spending – you can smell fear in the air….

      A recession ‘is fall in GDP for two consecutive quarters’ – CBs response to recessions with massive stimulus — including interest rate reductions.

      But now they are at or below zero everywhere — trillions of stimulus have been unleashed.

      The reason the CBs continue to throw ever more insane amounts at this is because they know that there is no escaping the next 2008 moment — a recession cannot be allowed.

      The global economy either grows — if it stops for a significant period of time – it will collapse. That is guaranteed.

      But at some point despite ‘whatever it takes’ — we will get that recession — probably brought on by the massive spike in the price of oil.

      The CBs will fight … they will claw and bite and fight like wild beasts to fend off that moment —but at some point it will arrive….

      And we will be back in 2008 with the financial system shredded — and the ships will not leave harbour — the transport trucks will not deliver — the petrol stations will quickly empty … as will the shops….

      The coal will not arrive at the generation stations… nor will the spare parts required to operate the grid….

      And the power will go off…. permanently …. an there is nothing anyone will be able to do about that.

      Because there is not defeating the physics and the math …. not enough energy to run this big old beast we call BAU — means a quick death to the system.

      Then the violence and the disease and the starvation will kick off …. literally one minute all will appear as it has ‘new normal’ – stock markets will be firing on all cylinders… MSM will be telling us to the last second how awesome the recovery is …. and the next … all hell will break lose….

      The spent fuel ponds and their toxins will not be far behind….

      And within a month — virtually everyone will be gone — I suspect that being down in here in NZ it may take a little longer because it will take time for the radiation to makes its way here to kill off anyone who is so unfortunate enough to have survived the starvation violence and disease….

      You are living in a delusional world if you believe that establishing a hobby farm is going to save you — just as some people believe owning gold and silver is going to save them …. just as billions believe that ‘renewable energy’ and Tesla are going to save them.

      If anything … your farm makes you a target… it would be a bad thing to have solar power … and turn on the lights at night….

      Hey if it makes you feel better and you enjoy that gig…. by all means forge ahead with your project hopium.

      But the facts and logic do not support that position … what you are doing is not going to save you…

    • Thomas,

      I suspect that you are too young to have lived through or learned about the 3 day week in the ’70s and the debt and fuel crisis that eventually forced the UK to go, cap in hand, to the IMF? Let alone to have been raised in the war years with rationing?

      What makes you think that everyone will just throw their hands in the air and give up when times get hard this time?

      And what on earth are you going on about hobby farms for?

      ‘Digging for Victory’ made a huge difference then. Our garden, orchard, chickens and rabbits fed us and gave us a surplus now and then to share with our friends and neighbours. Who would share their surpluses with us.

      I don’t mean to be harsh on you, but you seem to have thrown in the towel before the fight has even started!

      Man up!

    • Let me provide this brief CV of my encounters with grim situations:

      – I was born in the mid 60’s – so I do recall what happened in the 70’s

      – I have visited around 50 countries — many of the trips involved ‘adventure’ tourism… a few examples:

      > I was in Jakarta during the chaos during the Asian financial crisis – empty streets – thick with despair — in the bars young men were offering the services of their sisters

      > I visited Haiti 6 months after the quake — and saw the devastation — I spoke to the people who were and still are living under plastic tarps fed by aid agencies to this day

      > I have been in the middle of Shia Sunni riots in Cairo — literally in the middle — I have experienced the violence of desperate crowds…. the anger….

      > I have been in the slums of the philippines and jakarta and bangkok a number of times – I have seen what happens when people are hanging from threads

      > I have been detained at the Iraq border and questioned for hours — I have a pretty good idea of what a police state has to offer

      > I was in Yemen just prior to the outbreak of war with the Saudi’s — I met with the head of the Canadian economic division for the region and was told that the country was running out of oil — and that it would soon be ‘f789ed’ — he got that right…. even at that time the country was falling to pieces – kidnappings had driven off the tourists — and there were no jobs.

      > I was in Bahrain and observed street riots and the shooting of protestors— which continue to this day – but are not covered by the MSM

      I could go on … but that will suffice – because all of the above is not relevant to your question.

      Although things were grim in all these countries…. they all had one thing in common – they remain plugged into BAU – they had petrol and electricity and food and police security and medical care available – at least to some extent. There was help from the outside….

      There was still hope for a better day. That things would improve.

      You seem to have no understanding of what we are facing. Or perhaps cognitive dissonance and normalcy bias are clouding your perception.

      We are talking about the end of energy — no petrol – no diesel – no electricity – no coal — nothing.

      And that means disease – starvation – violence — and radiation.

      This is all the wars in all of history + all the famines + all the epidemics x 100000000000000.

      If you cannot see that then there will be no convincing you…. keep going on with what you are doing …. but do me a favour — print out my comments and put them in a drawer… then when you are eating boiled rat and your hair is falling out…. and you are trying to work out how to off your self….

      Pull these comments out … and think of me….

      Meanwhile …. for those of us who do understand the implications of ending BAU…. the dinner hour approaches…. time to open a nice bottle of that Otago red purchased on the ski trip on the cash that was not wasted on any more of this doomsday prepper nonsense….

    • “I used to do all that … even moved all the way to New Zealand and set up a small farm in a fairly remote place on the south island…”

      Ah! This is what you mean by a ‘hobby farm’?

      Thomas, you SO much going for you!

      Don’t just give up!

    • “Remember 2008? We were days away for everything collapsing at once…

      We were in economic limbo — trade had stopped — because financial institutions were insolvent.

      If that had persisted the shops would have emptied and there would have been total chaos.”

      Yeah, I remember 2008. I just carried on busking (playing music on the streets for money) and it all rolled over me.

      People were still giving me money / food / or something for seriously good music.

      Even in the midst of that.

      I did swap my van for a bike though – petrol was beginning to get a bit pricey.

      The world didn’t end.

    • No it did not.

      Twenty seven trillion dollars (and counting) have kept it alive.

      I applaud what you are doing — there is nothing that can be done about what is headed our way — the best course of action is to to enjoy life

      I use this as an excuse to enjoy live even more than I would if I did not know. Knowing = freedom.

  6. Thanks for another very interesting article Tim.

    Keen to see the overall argument you have presented to be challenged. I suspect you’re spot on, but a part of me is still hoping that some clever-clogs has a counter argument that at least allows us all to get up tomorrow and continue this charade.

    In an eerie coincidence I bumped into an old neighbour of mine yesterday who works for a consultancy who helps government organisations assess the effectiveness of their Sustainable Development policies and initiatives.

    We had our quick pleasantries and then got heavily in to the usual depressing stuff about unrealistic future scenarios and policy development gaffs. I made him aware of your tools and explained the conclusions you have drawn to him. He agreed with your conclusions in principle, with a promise to critically analyse your arguments.

    Interestingly he had been anticipating the emergence of such conclusions from people with better data than him and did not challenge it or defend his practice of sustainable development. He explained and that for some time the sustainable development community he works within have been going through a bit of a crisis – in that they’re gradually reaching a consensus that Lovelock’s ‘sustainable retreat’ might have to be the policy change they now need to advocate if they are to continue to work with some integrity.

    A strange conversation to have in the confectionary isle of Asda late at night, while we were both on a chocolate run for the better halves.

    (P.S. I find George Carlin’s comedy goes well with this sort of heavy stuff)

    • Currently … each year we had approximately 100 million nett people to the planet — that’s like adding another Philippines…

      We are so massively past the point of sustainability that we make a mockery of the concept

    • Thank you, Kevin

      Your observations are intriguing, especially on where expert opinion may be heading.

      What I’ve put forward here is necessarily polemical, and, as I’ve emphasised before, I’m not a climate scientist. I think that, if I was, I would be exploring the “sustainable retreat” concept. I would be delighted to be proved wrong about all of this. My only guideline is that, so far, my interpretations in the purely economic area looking pretty accurate.

      The next stage, were one to pursue this subject further, would be to work out what (if any) responses might be possible, at least in terms of mitigation.

    • P.S.

      I must check out George Carlin. I find Tom Lehrer and Bob Newhart timeless. The former’s “Pollution”, and the latter’s “Defusing a bomb”, are on my play-list for today.

  7. One takes it that our host views ‘the multiplier effect’ of debt , being enthusiastically touted by the anti-austerity Left at the moment – with some slight scepticism?

    • You are correct, though this doesn’t position me as either “right” or “left”. I aim to be as objective as possible, which requires a lot of political neutrality. That doesn’t prevent me from interpreting political developments, of course.

      The big problem is that politicians on all sides tend to think the economy is “simply a matter of money”, that monetary policy can “fix” things, and energy is “just one more input amongst many”.

      They are wrong, wrong and wrong about this.

  8. Taking a long perspective on things, it is clear that the failure of Islam to conquer Christendom between the 8th and 17th centuries was very significant in the development of industrial civilisation: mathematics, engineering and speculative natural philosophy (from which physics, chemistry, etc, grew) more or less died in Islam, smothered by an orthodox religion which prioritised the memorisation of the Quran (something similar happened in Spain, where the Catholic Church destroyed the universities in the Renaissance), and politics remained despotic.

    The Ottomans even needed Italian and German engineers to build their fortresses for them,and make their artillery, having been among the first adopters of gunpowder..

    In Western Europe, sophisticated legal and financial systems which could adapt readily to new developments, relative security of life and private property, and a lively intellectual culture, securely based in well-established universities, (where out of the reach of the Inquisition and religious looneys) meant that the steam engine, and its associated innovations, was a technology which would more likely prosper rather than be aborted. Without the steam engine, no pumping of very deep coal mines….and so on, until the antibiotics, oil and gas wells, and the Green Revolution.

    Another point: the empires of Turkey, Iran, and China were vast, and to that degree also rather static (there are some amusing texts showing what sophisticated Muslims thought of the ‘barbarian fringe ‘ of Western Europe in their days of power, and we all know how the Chinese viewed -and view – the value of other human communities) and were therefore not engaged in the ferocious and incessant struggle for survival among close competitors of the comparatively small European powers, which guaranteed a warm reception by the political and commercial elites for every innovation allowing greater access to energy, and hence military and commercial power.

    If looking for villains to blame, I suggest that we can let our Neolithic ancestors off the hook: field systems which they established were still being successfully farmed on the eve of the arrival of the tractor and chemical muck just after WW2.

  9. Pingback: The model is broken….. | Damn the Matrix

  10. Tim,

    I’ve enjoyed reading this article and the various associated comments. Can I ask a budget day question? There is a lot being said about the UK’s lack of productivity gain with several commentators noting that the year on year productivity increase is tiny compared with successive forecasts. Also seemingly an acceptance of this by Hammond and the treasury and we will see later today what he pulls out of his (rather small) hat. But how does this equate to the ECoE effects that you have so convincingly shown – are they one and the same or related?

    • David

      I’ve sometimes considered writing about the UK “productivity puzzle” (which isn’t that much of a puzzle, frankly) but I always seem to have something else on my “to do” list.

      Productivity weakness in Britain is a structural issue. Government could do something about it, but won’t, because (a) government might not really understand the issue, and (b) the required steps might not be popular, especially with certain interested groups.

      Three pointers:

      1. If you look at the structure of the UK economy, it’s very “frothy”, and a lot of it involves moving the same money around and around. A big chunk of the economy is real estate-related, and that includes a large sum (“imputed rent”, over £120bn) that is created by statisticians out of thin air. Financial services support of a lot of activity, and generate a lot of profit, but it’s not clear that they create a lot of value.

      To come at this another way, a manufacturer adds value by producing widgets, but he also adds value through his need for components, materials, distribution and other services. Manufacturing is roughly 17.5% of the Eurozone economy, but less than 9% in the UK, and is actually smaller now (in inflation-adjusted £) than it was in 2000. I’m not making a plea for manufacturing, but simply pointing something out. Germany’s strength isn’t just (or even mainly) its big engineering companies (etc), but the middle ranking companies that supply them.

      In short, it’s a compounding effect that you don’t get if you switch away from manufacturing towards estate agency, pizza delivery and beauticians.

      2. (This is where ECoE comes in). Britain has had bad luck with the timing of swinging from net exporter to net importer of energy, but has made some very bad energy decisions too. The public and business may not know what “ECoE” is, but it affects them every day. It’s there in household essentials, for example, and in businesses’ costs.

      3. The balance of incentives is wrong. Say you have £1m to invest. You have two options:

      A. Invest in value-adding activity. This brings you into the field of a lot of regulation, and pretty high taxation, including the rather ridiculous Business Rates, which are unrelated to turnover, let alone profits. Investment in innovation carries risks, and nobody backstops these risks for you.

      B. Put your £1m into property or other “speculative” activities (“speculative” isn’t meant pejoratively here – it simply means “investing in the price progression of existing value streams”, as opposed to “investing in creating new value streams”.
      If you take this route, you have far fewer regulatory issues, and your gains are taxed at rates lower than income. Better still, you can be pretty sure, especially in property, that government will backstop your risk – they do it routinely, as with slashing interest rates in 2008-09, “funding for lending”, “help to buy”, and so on.

      If we incentivize investing in existing value pools and penalise investing in creating new ones, we can hardly express surprise if the economy then doesn’t add much new value.

      There, as briefly as I can, are the causes as I see it.

    • P.S.

      I think I might write something about this, if there is interest in it.

      I see that Mr Hammond thinks he can address productivity with an investment fund. Daft.

  11. It really isn’t correct to say that a human’s needs are ‘few and basic’.

    ‘Food, shelter, heating and clothing’ is a simple sentence, but all are a product of very complex inter-relations, in our case now involving global supply networks.

    Self-sufficient life with nearly everything coming from within a radius of 6 miles at most ended a long, long time ago.

    We are a more or less hairless ape , which dies (horribly)from a drop of contaminated water, an infected scratch or bad bruise, or one cold and damp night.

    A little temporary hardship in the 1970’s (or in WW2) is no guide to what we may face: bumps in the ride, not real crashes.

    And it is foolish to ignore the desecration of the land as result of the use of chemicals.

    • Indeed so.

      Sombody once described the human being as “an ape in velvet” (that is, in fancy clothes”)

      I do draw some comfort from Disraeli – “we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

    • “We are a more or less hairless ape , which dies (horribly)from a drop of contaminated water, an infected scratch or bad bruise, or one cold and damp night.”

      And yet every single ancestor of yours survived long enough to breed!

    • “Every single one of your ancestors survived long enough to breed” – so presumably we ought to feel comforted that we’ll be able to do the same, right? Except that our ancestors partook of a culture that had evolved gradually within a landscape that remained relatively stable over time, so they had the time to learn how to feed and clothe and shelter themselves with the materials they had available. When the crash comes (and I agree that it might well be as abrupt as T. M. suggests it could be), do you honestly believe you’ll be able to learn the skills you need to keep yourself alive before you starve or freeze to death?

    • I was merely pointing out that humans are much tougher than Xabier seemed to be suggesting.

      I don’t think we’re in for an apocalyptic end-of-the-world. Crash.

      Seriously life-changing times – but it won’t be here today and gone tomorrow.

    • Try unplugging from BAU for a week – and by unplug I mean no electricity – no petrol – no buying stuff in shops…

      I know you will not do this … because it would shatter your delusions about what the end of industrial civilization looks like.

      And keep in mind if you do unplug — you won’t be attacked – the police will still patrol… food will still be available to those outside your dark space….

      Normalcy bias is a good thing… it protects you from bad thoughts that might drive you into deep despair and into the arms of Xanax… or in the worst case … land you on suicide watch at the local nut house

    • The nature and rapidity of any crash are pretty conjectural, and are, no doubt, something we should discuss here. I’d do that now if I wasn’t so taken up with other things, one of which is the predicament of the UK, which is far more precarious than seems to have been recognised so far.

      The issues pushing towards a rapid crash are interconnectedness, diseconomies of scale, the lack of a reverse gear in a badly designed economy, and the complete difference between society and politics (a) in an assumed growth state, and (b) in retreat from prosperity.

      Arguing for slowness are: experience, which suggests that societies decay pretty slowly; human ingenuity, which seems to increase under pressure; and intelligence (though, reading all the ‘Black Friday’ nonsense, and evaluating UK policy measures, I’m not quite so sure about this one!)

      If you’ve read the comments from another reader, you’ll note that ‘sustainable retreat’ seems to be moving up the agenda. Ideally, we’d embrace that concept, at least as a “plan B”.

      The test-bed for a lot of this could be the UK, which is one reason why an article is high on my “to do” list. It’s been remarked by well-informed people that deteriorating real incomes – expected to be lower in 2022 than in 2008 – are “astonishing”. But I still don’t believe that the magnitude of what is happening has sunk in. The British economy is falling apart, yet this is still seen as some kind of hiatus, albeit prolonged, before ‘normal service is resumed’.

    • Tim – with respect to the UK economy — it continues to expand — although feebly — and only because of massive stimulus https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/grossdomesticproductgdp

      But the reality is — it continues to expand.

      Without a doubt the policies that are contributing to this expansion are toxic — akin to pumping a staggered horse with a elixir of cocaine, heroin, adrenaline, and speed …. beating him hard … and winning the Kentucky Derby — after which he promptly collapses to the ground dead… and is carted off to the glue factory.

      At some point the stimulus will kill the UK economy ….expansion will stop — and the numbers will plummet …… and it will drop to the ground dead…. and be carted off to the glue factory

      At some point the UK will reach it’s straw on the camel’s back moment…. and it will explode into total chaos…. which will set the dominoes in motion…

      Of course it may not be the UK that triggers global collapse — it could be the oil bottleneck… or it could be China… or the US… of Italy … or Spain … or a hundred other things….

      Mark my word — when the horse goes down — the stock markets will have reached new record highs the day before. Because the CBs will be shooting record amounts of cocaine, heroin, meth, speed, etc… into their veins .. to the very end

    • I simply don’t see it as a case of BAU or Apocalypse. BAU has clearly run its course; but there is a whole spectrum of possibilities ahead apart from a full on end of the world apocalypse.

      We will simply have to get on with a whole lot less of everything.

      On a personal level I think it best to “Collapse now and avoid the rush!”

      And have, to a large extent, already done so.

    • At one point I was in your shoes — but then I read this:

      Skip to page 55 :

      This study by David Korowicz explores the implications of a major financial crisis for the supply-chains that feed us, keep production running and maintain our critical infrastructure. He uses a scenario involving the collapse of the Eurozone to show that increasing socio-economic complexity could rapidly spread irretrievable supply-chain failure across the world.


    • Yes Thomas – I read that years ago. I’m in no way trying to deny that things are bad, you know. Nor that they will, at times, get fairly dramatically worse.

      I’ll try to set out the sort of scenario that I envisage and post it later tonight to give you a better idea of where I’m coming from and why.

    • “Try unplugging from BAU for a week – and by unplug I mean no electricity – no petrol – no buying stuff in shops…
      I know you will not do this … because it would shatter your delusions about what the end of industrial civilization looks like.”

      Thomas! Why do you think that is so hard? It’s pretty much par for the course for much of the third world. I’ve spent significant parts of my life living in those circumstances.

      What makes you think that there is only one view of what the end of industrial civilization looks like? It hasn’t happened yet, you know! No one knows for sure!

      I haven’t yet posted how I think things are likely to play out – so surely you’d do better to wait and see rather than make too manywild assumptions about my ‘delusions’ or ‘normalcy bias’!

      Calm down dear!

    • And frankly Thomas, if you can’t see yourself past those few small hurdles – I can see why you despair!

  12. Re productivity: a very helpful reply again underlining why the structure of the economy is wrong and GDP, the way it is constructed, misleading. Although I can imagine that this is something of an old chestnut for professionals, I would encourage a post on this – especially for those of us who are non-economists. Is there a way of estimating the nonsense in GDP (in addition to the ECoE/debt adjustments that you have incorporated)? It seems to me to be important as this sort of data is driving so much decision taking at a high level, although I am sure Hammond must have a number of really knowledgeable and senior advisors aware of these problems. Perhaps political arguments trump the economic ones.

    • Thank you.

      One way of doing this would be a “full data” study using ONS stats and feeding SEEDS issues into the matrix. As a preliminary step, I’ve started downloading some of the main productivity series from the ONS. As you may know, these compare hours worked, numbers of workers, and so on against GVA (gross value added). GVA is a subset of GDP, with some technical differences between the two numbers.

      I see no conceptual problem with applying SEEDS methodology to this.

      However, it would be a big task, perhaps too big in relation to resources here, and competing projects. – we shall see.

      So, where a “full data” project is concerned, no promises – but I’ll at least look into it.

      The alternative – perhaps an attractive one – might be a more general article on UK productivity issues. I’ll investigate this as well.

      Finally, I’m prepared to give government the benefit of the doubt – I really think they don’t understand it, because, however many experts they have, they’re all on the same page (“the economy is entirely about money”).

    • Well there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since Greer first started writing about catabolic collapse. One could argue that we’ve been having the catabolic collapse for some decades, and that since 2008 it has really picked up in earnest. Hyper-financialisation of the economy and extreme income disparity being just two examples. Towards the end of his career as a doomer I believe he moved closer to the fast collapse end of the spectrum, perhaps one of the reasons for retiring his blog? May as well enjoy the living, while it lasts…

    • Well, psile, Greer gives his reasons for retiring his blog as:

      “Over the eleven years I spent writing weekly posts on The Archdruid Report, I said pretty much everything I can think of saying about the decline and fall of industrial civilization”.

      I’m pretty sure he didn’t move towards a fast crash view, but the whole of the Archdruid Report blog is available on the internet archives so you can check for yourself. Every time I try to post the link it is swallowed by the ether though.

  13. “We are a more or less hairless ape , which dies (horribly)from a drop of contaminated water, an infected scratch or bad bruise, or one cold and damp night.”

    And yet every single ancestor of yours survived long enough to breed!

  14. In a response to the George Carlin clip- on YOUTUBE,Why do so many people reject Christ? 4mins.

  15. Sustainable Development

    An oxymoron by modern definition. For any development to be sustainable growth must end.

    A simple definition of a sustainable system is one that provides more work than it consumes, can replicate itself, and is 100% recyclable.

    Other than biological life there is nothing on this planet that meets that definition. And I might add it is a product of geological life or the symbiotic relationship of the two.

    The fine tuning of the systems that have made life possible is truly awe inspiring. But as TM has demonstrated it doesn’t take a few morons long to muck it up.

    Will it be allowed?

    • JT

      You are right, of course. The frightening thing is how little, if at all, this is understood by those with any input to critical decisions.

      Let me give an example – an obvious one, which is the UK. Back in 2011, when I was head of research at a big City firm, I authored a report a report entitled Thinking the unthinkable – might there be no way out for Britain? Nobody took much notice, then or since. Yesterday, however, Mr Hammond announced big cuts in growth expectations. This followed a revision by the OBR, which advises government. Informed opinion is recognizing this as a really, really serious development. It is – but it’s not in any sense “new”.

      Cutting to the chase, productivity growth averaged 2.1% annually in the years preceding the GFC. Ever since, until now, the OBR has assumed that this trend would resume soon. It hasn’t. Instead, it has stayed stubbornly at 0.2% per year. Yesterday’s downgrades result from belated recognition of this issue. Again, there is nothing really new about this.

      So is this going to act as a wake-up call?

      I doubt it. Now the hunt is on to solve the “productivity puzzle”. But it isn’t a “puzzle”. Essentially, “productivity” is simply output (GVA) divided by hours worked. GVA is a subset of GDP, with some modest technical adjustments. Hours worked don’t fluctuate in any big way. So the “puzzle” is simply another way of asking “why is growth so weak?

      The point I’m coming to is that the SEEDS system answers this question. It’s been answering and predicting it for a very long time. It forecasts a lot worse to come. Only major policy changes can address this. These changes would produce losers as well as winners, and the losers would squeal louder than the winners would cheer. It’s not, though, that government won’t make these reforms. It’s worse – they don’t understand the issues involved.

      I could write a short paper – or a longer one, with a big data annex – explaining this. But do you really think they’d listen?

      I single out the UK because it’s further down the slope than most other comparable economies. But – and this question applies equally to “sustainable development” and the environment – quite how bad do things have to get before anyone “gets it”?

    • Exactly: to be ‘sustainable’, any human society needs to be as near to primeval biological life as possible. Housing? Tents of goat hair, houses of wood and plaster, which will all degrade naturally, leaving no pollution. And so on, for clothes, tools, transport, fertilizers…. Heat must come from biomass -and that doesn’t mean vast fields of maize.

      ‘Sustainable’ can not, therefore, apply to our urbanised age of non-degrading plastics and the vast range of substances derived from oil and gas.

      i live quite near to an abandoned village which was inhabited for at least 2,000 years, risng to 350 souls on the eve of the Balck Death (up from 35 in the 11th century) now just some bumps in the ground,and the thousands of peasants rotting anonymously in the churchyard.

      Sustainable, like ‘ecological’, ‘green’ and (of course!) ‘clean’ has been so abused and distorted by wishful thinking – and lack of imagination – as to be almost empty.

    • Hi Tim

      I think you’re being a bit hard on yourself here; I was following you back then and of course Terry Smith was regarded as a maverick as well so from your firm we had some powerful devil’s advocates.

    • Indeed so. The British, in particular, seem to have a history of leaving it to the last minute, and then getting away with it.

      The 1930s are the classic example. The democracies, and Britain especially, could have put a stop to Hitler and Mussolini at some point prior to 1936 (the Spanish Civil War), but they didn’t do so, and stubbornly refused to re-arm. Then Chamberlain bought a year (by fooling Hitler over “peace in our time”), and promptly ordered 600 modern fighters, 5 battleships and 6 aircraft carriers. If the Battle of Britain had been fought in 1939, rather than 1940, we would have lost.

      Even then it was “a close run thing”. Disaster at Dunkirk wouldn’t have lost the war, but a German conquest of Malta – giving the Axis powers uninterrupted supply routes to North Africa – very probably would.

  16. Reviewing newspaper headlines form the 1930’s, it’s remarkable how those who warned of what was -very clearly – about to descend on the British Empire were attacked forcefully as ‘warmongers’, and the feeling seems to have been that if one kept quiet it would all pass.

    Kill the messenger indeed!

    I would agree that, today, the economic commentators are wringing their hands over what is not, as you say above, a puzzle at all, and starkly evident both as to cause and likely effects.

    Your pessimistic assessment of the British economy is all too persuasive!

  17. Okay – I think that some other contributors to this discussion might understand my position more clearly if I briefly set out some of what I see happening on the way ahead. So here goes – in no particular order.

    A continuing series of sharp crises, followed by brief plateaus of stability at an increasingly lower level -and then rinse and repeat. This is already happening.

    Economic and financial shocks and collapses.

    Oil / energy shocks. Food / supply shocks.

    Big increases in unemployment and homelessness. ‘Hoovervilles’ like 30s America.

    Social unrest and upheavals.

    Collapse of the NHS. Increasing public health crises.

    Failure of the National Grid after a period of brownouts and rolling blackouts.

    Breakdown of mains water and sewage.

    Severe industrial and nuclear contamination.

    No more Internet or mobile phones.

    Severe shortages of food, clothing etc.

    Almost complete breakdown of transport and communications.

    Breakdown of government as we now understand it and increasing local, though fairly anarchic, autonomy – gradually consolidating into a basic, subsistence, third world economy.

    – – – –

    None of this is necessarily insurmountable at a personal or community level – though there will undeniably be a high toll from death and disease and social unrest.

    Though I see this as largely inevitable, I see no reason not to be optimistic and positive in my response to it – especially as we can see it coming and can prepare to an extent – and certainly no reason to throw up my hands and give up!

    I’ve previously outlined some of the steps that I think we can all take to best position ourselves to deal with this – and can do so again in more detail if there’s an interest.

    It pretty much comes down to meeting the few basic human needs as simply as possible. Its really not that hard.

    (For the benefit of Xabier: boil your drinking water, wash your wounds in saline solution, mend your clothes and find some shelter!)

    • Xabier said: “We are a more or less hairless ape , which dies (horribly)from a drop of contaminated water, an infected scratch or bad bruise, or one cold and damp night.”

      Hence my comment:
      (For the benefit of Xabier: boil your drinking water, wash your wounds in saline solution, mend your clothes and find some shelter!)

    • The whole history of humanity shows that meeting those ‘basic requirements’ is -generally, in most climates- very hard indeed, and life has been short and disease-ridden. Even medieval kings and queens.are riddled with parasitic infections when dug up.

      Apart from being an historian, I am the grandson of peasants from the Pyrenees.

      It is only modern civilisation which makes those requirements seem so basic and so easy to fulfill.

    • Xabier – I do actually agree with much of what you say. Life is tough – but we do now know that there are simple steps that can be taken to minimise many of the problems that plagued our ancestors.

      I merely wish to point out that a disorderly descent to a third world subsistence economy need not be the end of the world.

      And in any case – I fail to see why anyone should give up on life just because they think that the future may be tougher than the present.

    • Third World? If only that was the worst case scenario! Oh to live in a slum with brown outs and enough food to eat – what joy that would be!!!

      The third world is COMPLETELY plugged into BAU. I lived in the 3rd world (Indonesia) for 7+ years.

      They villagers used petrol and chemical fertilizers — most had at least some access to electricity – many had motor bikes — all used tools made in factories that were shipped to them from China – they bought food in markets — their houses were made from concrete ….

      They will be completely screwed when BAU goes down.

      I have also been to villages that were completely unplugged – in Africa and more recently in Irian Jaya – they did not even have a plastic bottle in the most remote village we trekked to in Irian….

      There is no way post BAU even remotely resembles a third world situation — and there is no way any person plugged into BAU now would survive in an ‘Irian Jaya’ type situation – unless they were born into that…

      But then the problem with these primitive societies is that radiation will enter their food chain… and they will die – along with the rest of us

  18. Thanks Dr Morgan for another well reasoned and thought provoking article. It did raise my eyebrow I’d like to know your rationale for believing that climate change is truly ‘man made’ ?.

    I do believe that a critical eye needs to be cast over the global warming industry. For me there are far too many unknowns for us to conclude that ‘the science is settled’. Anyone who really understands these issues knows that ‘settled science’ is a nonsense. Those that disagree with this doctrine face some pretty harsh treatment.

    That is not to say that the climate is changing – it’s an undeniable fact weather patterns follow a cycle. For a period in the 1800’s it was possible to ice skate on the Thames. Going further back England enjoyed a much warmer climate. The climate change lobby is just a collision between the modern world of supercomputers and the internet that has fixated on climate issues and arrogantly assumed that it’s relatively puny computers can model the worlds weather patterns. A case of ‘not being able to see the wood for the trees’ perhaps?.

    Until it is proven that the link with CO2 isn’t just an example of ‘conformational bias’ then I will remain sceptical. It is true that in recent times weather patterns have been more variable but we also have more climate scientists with better access to funding thinking about these things that need to justify their jobs and funding…..
    We have seen many examples of data sets being ‘manipulated’ to fit the consensus ‘group-think’ narrative that the Western world and capitalism is the cause of all the evil in the world.
    Man made global warming fits the PC agenda perfectly – Rich westerners (oppressors) damaging the environment for poor blameless nations (the victims). It’s a gift from the gods for the establishment elite .

    • I’ve had to ask myself many times whether – or how far – I accept climate change arguments, and, from this, whether it’s worth doing anything about it.

      I think it is, for three main reasons.

      First, the claim, made so often, that experts are ‘divided’ about this is misleading. It gives the impression that scientists are split 50/50, or maybe 60/40, about this. In reality, I doubt if sceptics account for more than 1 or 2% of those qualified to know.

      Second, pollution is part of this. Travel to, say, the mid-Atlantic, then return to northern Europe and you can actually see how dirty the air is. Travel from London to, say, Aberdeenshire and back, then notice how different breathing is. Pollution is said to kill at least 750,000 people annually in China alone.

      Third, in my experience vested interests on the climate change side are outnumbered by those who deny it. Big business wants growth – its PR may favour action over climate change, but that’s all too often just spin. I’d be prepared to bet that, when energy supply gets really tight, big business will discover that it likes coal after all. The governing elites almost all favour “growth at all costs”.

      So I’m left in this position. First, I have to admit to not knowing, since I’m not a climate scientist. Second, I favour the precautionary principle. If the climate change thesis is false but we follow it, we just lose a lot of money. If it’s true and we ignore it, the result could be catastrophic.

  19. I’ve got interested in this as some years ago I did a sabbatical in our local Oceanography dept where a lot of people do historical climate change research. What convinced me was the huge correlation between historical CO2 levels and temperature which went up and down in relation to each other over big time scales. I think final proof is going to be elusive but like cigarette smoking and lung cancer (still not a proven link and still some deniers mainly in the tobacco industry) it would be foolish to ignore it.

    • ‘Correlation is not causation. There is a correlation between the wearing of Rolex watches and middle aged men having heart attacks playing golf but the watches do not cause them. The infamous ‘hockey stick’ graph apparently proving the link between CO2 and temperature has been widely de-bunked. When it was exposed the ‘scientific community’ attempted to suppress the truth.

      Sun spot activity also correlates with global surface temperature…..

      A few years ago I was doing some research on vehicle drive cycles and real world emissions on the new Mondeo and a paper came out that concluded diesel particulate matter caused something like 29,000 extra deaths for people living near busy roads. How they come up with a number like this to an aburd degree of precision baffled me.
      People living near busy roads tend to be poorer, less well educated,have lower IQ, worse diet etc. …yet some boffin says his model can handle all those factors and predict how many deaths occur to the nearest thousand!. That’s just alarmist BS!. The media is woefully uncritical of what comes out of the ‘science community’ giving them a free ride as they share the same left wing bias. Of course our dim unthinking politicians often with a political agenda to follow lap it up….

  20. +Thomas Malthus, I agree with you. This is not the 1960’s. Almost the whole world today is plugged into the BAU model. Everybody is trying to urbanize, to develop, to get access to electricity and internal combustion engines and modern health care and all the rest. I can hardly blame them, but their timing is terrible.

    One of those places that is trying to escape poverty and become a modern nation modeled on America and Western Europe is Brazil. Here is a youtube link to a 2001 video about poverty, violence, and desperation in Brazil, and the lengths the police must go to in order to maintain some degree of public order today, under relatively decent circumstances. The reporter blames it on increased inequality caused by globalism, which may well be true, but I don’t think it is going to get better post-BAU.

    But what really got my attention was when the reporter left the notoriously dangerous streets of Sao Paulo and drove out to rural Brazil. Surely it would be different there, right? Seemingly not, and the little band of mixed ages and both sexes that took over a farm couple’s homestead at gunpoint until the police arrived to arrest them do not seem like bad people at all. I felt sorry for them. They were just desperate, so they took desperate measures. And this is while things are about as good as they are going to get.

    To whoever thinks the mad max scenario of desperate hordes descending violently on isolated farmsteads that are not sufficiently remote and well defended is a “doomer porn” fantasy, you really need to look at the segment of the video that begins at 17:00.

    • Thanks for the video — I visited Brazil in 2009 as part of the End of my World Bucket List … fantastic country…

      The video demonstrates the fate of the doomsday prepper — like flies to lights … the hordes will arrive… the neighbours… friends and family who ridiculed them will be pulling up the drive with the kids… wanting to be fed… vicious men will show up… bad to be a young woman on a doomsday farm…

      The thing that doomsday preppers do not seem to understand or do not want to understand — is that the things they take for granted now — including security — will not exist.

      This line from Yeats comes to mind…..

      ‘The best lack all conviction, while the worst
      Are full of passionate intensity.’

      The worst will be on the loose when BAU ends… there will be nobody to stop them… take a look at the people in maximum security prisons …. plenty of these types in the general population … wander through the rough parts of a city near you… observe bike gangs… check out the cops – particularly in the US…

      These are the types that will be coming for you… they will be desperate… they will want your food… they will want your women….

      Good luck….

      I’ll be checking out before it comes to that

    • I intend to write a piece on crash scenarios – bear with me, as this isn’t a quick or easy one to put together.

      What I can tell you is that it will stick largely to energy, economic and financial issues, as this is what this site is about. We may also need to look at the climate change aspect.

  21. Gee, I hope you check out from natural causes. Some of these NDE cases that were initiated by suicide attempts resuscitate with terrible memories of the interim. Just something to think about. I can’t imagine going down without a fight. The agents in complex adaptive systems are presumed by the models to adapt, and I don’t plan to let the modelers down.

    What I found especially disturbing about the video is that the attackers were clearly not hoodlums or gangsters or hardened, psychopathic criminals. These seemed to be genuinely normal people, just desperate. Just think about when life gets harder than it already is, when police departments can no longer fuel their fleets, or if the electrical grid stops functioning for whatever reasons. I can imagine all sorts of problems if the EROI for the total systems starts falling below 8 or so, in addition to the transport fuels crisis.

    I think the problem with doomsday preppers is that they rely too heavily on isolation to protect them. It certainly makes sense to be remote from the cities and paved roads, or at least the major thoroughfares, when things fall apart, but few livable places are truly remote these days (and especially not if apps like google earth are still functioning). Most preppers are thinking in terms of frontier homesteads in an early America, but sometimes those ended badly too, from outlaws or Indian raids. Preppers, if they thought this through, would be trying to form communities living in larger defensive compounds or walled villages. Although this would make them easier to locate, they would be much harder to attack successfully by small bands of marauders. There is definitely a sweet spot between a population that is too large to provide its own necessities and one that is too small to provide its own defense. A larger community also permits more division of labor and specialized skills. No individual can know or do everything.

    And many preppers understand the benefits of a larger community, but they also fear the USG would notice them, and they can’t fend off the professional armed forces. On that point, I think they are being unduly paranoid. Even a small agrarian village is so insignificant in the larger scheme of things that the Feds will not consider it worth the trouble, unless you are violating a particular law that some agency has to enforce in order to justify its existence. Those FEMA internment camps with the barbed wire facing inward are for dealing with urban unrest, not with the 2% of the population living on rural farms far removed from a major city.

    OTOH, the intentional community proponents have a more realistic assessment of government behavior and interests, but most of them seem to underestimate the opposite danger, a genuine breakdown of law, order, and economic exchange. IC’s also do a lot of things that social science research of IC’s has shown to be wrong. Their model seems to be a micro-Sweden that emphasizes economic cooperation over competition (or feminine over masculine behavior, as anthropologist Geert Hofstede preferred to call it), but individualism over cultural collectivism, while research says they should be emphasizing cultural homogeneity, high demand religion, uniform apparel (all characteristics of a culturally collectivist society), and some kind of decision making hierarchy in lieu of rule by consensus. They would also do well to screen their potential members with personality tests to avoid the lazy, the uncooperative, and the egotistical (or above average, or at least not far below average, on C, A, and H if you are using the HEXACO 6-factor personality inventory).

    Probably a few tens of millions just in the USA would survive even a worst case scenario, such as nuclear holocaust, but right now most of us have the odds stacked against us, gambling that BAU will continue for a long time to come.

    A question that often occupies my mind is when will liquid fuels production turn down, and here we face an interesting paradox in that longer may not be better. Land-based uranium is forecast by multiple sources to peak in the 2020’s, global natural gas by 2030 (possibly a little later if you are very optimistic), US gas sooner than world gas (maybe very soon), world coal circa 2030, US coal circa 2035, so the longer before liquid fuels peak, the closer together all these energy peaks will cluster. That is more dangerous than if the various peaks are more spread out.

    Add to that the real climate change problem. People need set aside this the-science-is-settled-and-this-time-we-really-mean-it groupthink and look at the work of scientists like Svensmark, Veizer, Shaviv, and Zharkova. They support a theory that explains both long term and short term climate change with a correlation of 0.90 (thus explaining over 80% of the temperature variances–both up and down) with out all the still unexplained problems of CO2 theory, or having to give precedence to admittedly flawed computer models over real world data. By that theory, temperatures should cycle down sharply in the 2020’s and 2030’s, probably giving us conditions intermediate between the Dalton and Maunder solar minima. Before he started pushing cryptocurrencies, adapt2030 produced a video (out of many) claiming that world population contracted about 10% during the Dalton minimum, and 25% during the Maunder. And that was without an infrastructure that was optimized for the warm and stable conditions of the 20th century, which was the warmest and most stable, predictable climate since prior to the 14th century.

    But back to peak oil. For a while the BAU proponents–I think of them as pollyannas–were telling us conventional oil would last too far into the future to worry about, and the stone age did not end because we ran out of stones. The the fracking boom began, and we heard these crazy claims of abundant oil and gas for hundreds of years to come. Now they have backed off of those ridiculous claims, and are telling us, “Don’t worry, demand will peak before supply, very soon in fact.” In ten years, or maybe a few more, we will all be driving electric cars and oil will be cheap for the few who need it.
    For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2b3ttqYDwF0

    Of course, that will require a huge and rapid increase in electrical production capacity, accelerating the peaking of gas and coal, to say nothing of copper, but, hey, don’t worry solar and wind, despite now providing less than 1% of global energy, are growing exponentially. Of course, solar is low EROI, and that is before installing storage to smooth out the intermittency. Wind is often cited at 18 EROI, but I have read quite a bit about wind energy over the years, and I don’t believe it, plus it has multiple other problems that are rarely discussed. And to whatever extent that non-conventional oil can compensate for collapsing megafields, the EROI is very low. Uranium from seawater might be a lifeline, but how fast can we build all those new nuke plants, especially if we wait until after the crisis hits to start? Also, some of those unconventional oil sources (and gas) deplete very rapidly. Either the fall off the plateau, by being long delayed, turns into a precipice, or we find ingenious ways to cushion the energy decline, but EROI falls too low to sustain industrial civilization.

    And there are other problems. Do we have adequate mineral wealth to scale up large battery production for hundreds of millions of cars world wide? As oil dwindles, how to we sustain long haul trucking and large scale air travel? Commercial shipping could go nuclear, but what are the economics of that? Globalization will retreat. One upside of that trans-global wars become less likely without cheap and abundant fuel, but that same weakening of the national state makes local and civil wars more likely. And then there is coking coal (anthracite). The US used its up (perhaps 99%) some years ago and now must import it. Other countries will go down the same path soon enough. I am sure there must be other ways to generate the necessary heat for large scale steel making, but there must be significant drawbacks or we would already be using these other fuel sources. And I am sure there are other problems I know nothing about, but they will become apparent when the peaks start hitting.

    One more peak: mainstream sources say that silver production has already peaked. This is important because silver (which, unlike gold, is not highly conserved and tends to be lost because the small amounts used in many applications are not worth retrieving) is a critical element in our high tech economy for things like computers and cell phones–and for high efficiency PV cells, so in this sense silver functions much like a rapidly depleting energy source. PV cells can be made without silver, but then the efficiency goes down, making the EROI even more dismal.

    Once the total EROI (or EROEI) of the system starts falling below 8, things start going downhill in a hurry, even if the total quantity of energy supplied is adequate on paper. Too many resources going into energy production leaves less energy for other things we used to consider essential for civilized existence.

    I could mention other problems, e.g., rapidly increasing antibiotic resistance, even as overuse of antibiotics, which accelerated the growth of this resistance, also has decimated the intestinal microbiomes of people in the developed world, making most of us more vulnerable than ever to devastating epidemics, and because the gut bacteria are passed on from mother to child across many generations, a young man looking to get hitched might want to consider meeting women from some poor country with limited access to medical science.

    Of course, humans are supremely adaptive agents, so I am not nearly as pessimistic as some human extinctionists, and life may well seem quite satisfying to most people born after civilization has stabilized somewhere at the bottom of Hubbert’s pimple (google it), but for those who are alive while the pimple is popping, life will get a lot harder than they/we are accustomed to.

    Until the pimple pops, it seems a bug-out property and a get-out-of-Dodge plan, for all their risks in an increasingly disorderly world, would be a better precaution than shelter-in-place for those who can manage it, but vastly better would be to join with like-minded people, preferably in a walled settlement, and pray for the decline to be as gradual as possible. The next best thing to a walled settlement would be for the “doomsday preppers” to concentrate in common area rather than spread out as far as possible. That way, at least many of their neighbors would be prepared rather than desperate. Preppers overrate the advantage that comes from keeping a low profile. There is more safety to be had in numbers than in obscurity.

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