#116: The way ahead


As a year draws to a close, it has long been customary for analysts to make predictions about specific events in the coming twelve months. That can be an interesting exercise, though perhaps one of questionable value.

But it’s a fair assumption that, rather than trying to pinpoint particular occurrences before they happen, many of the 36,000 people who have visited this site in 2017 are more interested in how new, energy-based thinking is making headway against the failing paradigms of the past and present. The aim here is to discuss with readers how this work has reached its present position, what has been learned from it, and where it might go next.

A learning and development curve

To look forward, it can be helpful to start by looking back. The position as head of research at Tullett Prebon was the best job that I had in a long City career. With the full support of management, the brief was to explore new ideas, and – to use a rather hackneyed phrase – to “think the unthinkable”.

This was a steep learning-curve, with an embarrassment of riches in terms of topics to investigate. Forever Blowing Bubbles asked if financial hubris and the abandonment of rationality was somehow intrinsic to our system. The Dick Turpin Generation looked into the transference of value from the young to the old, whilst Project Armageddon suggested that neither austerity nor stimulus might rescue the British economy from a structural trap. (In passing, there has been no reason to retreat from any of the conclusions reached in this research programme).

But it was Perfect Storm that really set out an agenda for the future. The central proposition was that the economy was a function of surplus energy, and that the exponential rise in the availability of energy since the Industrial Revolution had driven two centuries of exponential growth in population numbers, food supplies and economic activity. The contention was that, if the energy “master exponential” went into reverse, the same must happen in all related areas. It was further explained that a “peak” in the absolute availability of energy wasn’t the issue – rather, the real threat lay in the rising cost of energy, expressed as the proportion of accessed energy that is consumed in the access process.

The immediate objective after leaving Tullett Prebon was the publication of a book explaining and amplifying this thesis. This was Life After Growth, published in hardback in late 2013, and reissued in paperback, with a new introduction, in 2016. It should be emphasised that, although it followed much the same thesis, Life After Growth covered a lot of new ground, and was not simply an expanded version of Perfect Storm.

During the writing of Life After Growth, two immediate next steps became apparent. The first was the creation of this blog, as a platform for promoting these ideas and as a forum for discussion. Reader input has been hugely influential in establishing new areas of enquiry. Just one example is the recent venture into what the economics of surplus energy might be able to tell us about climate change and “sustainable development”. This simply would not have happened without input from readers.

The second, vital initiative was the modelling of the surplus energy economy. Life After Growth explained the issues, but couldn’t really quantify them, because the data required to do so did not exist. Setting out a thesis in a report, a book or an article is all very well, but the thesis can only become truly persuasive if it is put into a meaningful statistical format, including forecasting as well as analysis.

Doing this has taken a long time – about four years – but has been well worth it, as the Surplus Energy Economics Data System (“SEEDS”) has become an extremely powerful tool.

What we know

Based on the SEEDS platform, and helped enormously by reader input, we’ve reached a point at which our understanding of issues is very comprehensive, and can be considered leading-edge in providing interpretations unavailable to conventional methodologies. The system has proved itself a very effective predictor – so much so that some very general projections are made later in this discussion.

First, though, it’s well worth reminding ourselves quite how much we now know.

We know that the economy is an energy system, with a parallel financial economy attached to it in a subservient role. Most of us had long suspected that this might be the state of affairs, but we have now gone a long way towards demonstrating it. We can claim that our ability to predict has become superior to that of conventional thinking. The much-vaunted V-shaped recovery after 2008 hasn’t happened, and massive stimulus hasn’t restored robust growth. The surplus energy perspective always suggested that neither of these consensus expectations was likely to be proved right.

We have known for some time that, in the developed economies of the West, prosperity is deteriorating, something about which the consensus view is still in deep denial. Some of the consequences of waning prosperity have already become apparent, most notably in politics, where events such as “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump were wholly predictable on the basis of adverse trends in prosperity. Some other logical consequences, in business and finance as well as in politics, are eminently predictable, even though they still lie in the future.

Energy-based analysis, and recognition of the proxy nature of the financial system, have enabled us to understand policy, and its failures, over an extended period. We know that real or “organic” growth began to fade after 2000, and, because we understand energy dynamics, we know why this happened.

We can identify two phases in a process of denial-response to this basic reality. The first was the period of credit adventurism, a policy of unfettered and irresponsible debt creation between 2000 and 2008.

The second, beginning in 2008-09 and still ongoing, is monetary adventurism, and comprises the addition of the recklessness of ‘cheap money’ to the debt recklessness of the earlier chapter.

Just as credit adventurism led to the 2008 banking crash, monetary adventurism is highly likely to create a second and an even more serious (and potentially existential) financial crisis, this time extending far beyond banking, and into the fiat currency system. We know that this must have political and social as well as economic and financial consequences, and we know that the destruction of pension viability – a direct consequence of the crushing of returns on capital – will play a big part as this unfolds. Just as importantly, the conventional thinking which didn’t see 2008 coming is now in blissful ignorance about what is likely to happen next. This ignorance isn’t simply hubris or blinkered thinking. It reflects the breakdown of established paradigms.

Finally – for now – we know that the case for “sustainable development”, as it is generally understood, lacks demonstrated viability, and is a matter of assumption rather than analysis. In short, it is wishful thinking. We know this because energy-based economics, with its distinction between the real and the purely financial, requires us to understand the dynamics of credit, money and “growth”. This process strips away the claims made for growth upon which, in turn, are predicated assumptions about climate change.

Looking ahead

From this body of understanding, backed up by statistics, we are able to make some projections with high levels confidence about predictive accuracy. This article isn’t the place for detailed predictions, but there are a number of broad outlines which are worth noting.

Critically, prosperity in the developed economies will continue to deteriorate. This trend appears irreversible and, in some countries, is being exacerbated by mistaken policies. ‘Prosperity’, in this context, means average discretionary incomes – that is, the spending power of individuals and households, after the cost of essentials has been deducted from their resources.

We also know that this waning prosperity will be accompanied by further balance sheet deterioration, meaning that debt will continue to increase faster than economic output, and that provision for the future (most obviously, pensions) will continue to be undermined. The “global pension time-bomb”, for example, cannot be defused without the adoption of policies which would have crippling near-term effects. It seems highly likely that the public will, sooner rather than later, come to understand that their chances of enjoying a comfortable retirement are being destroyed. This recognition is likely to become a political factor of immense importance.

In a political climate characterised by deteriorating prosperity, worsening insecurity and growing resentment over perceived unfairness, the centre-right can expect to get the blame, and it can only make its defeat all the more comprehensive if it argues for more, rather than less, of failed policies like privatisation and deregulation. “Popular” or “populist” politicians can expect to make further gains, though this does not mean that their policies will always be implemented. Donald Trump’s budget, and the growing likelihood of “BINO” – meaning “Brexit In Name Only” – illustrate the determination of the elites to frustrate popular demands. These are promising conditions for the political Left, once it has purged its ranks of the “new” or “centrist” wings perceived by activists to have “sold out” to “liberal” economics in the recent past.

All of this has profound implications for business and finance. The established model, which remains built around the promotion of volume expansion despite deteriorating consumer circumstances, is going to come under increasing pressure. Any business whose strategy is founded on low wages, reduced security of employment, globalisation or the deregulation of consumer and employee protections is in urgent need of a “plan B”. Meanwhile, the near-certainty of a second financial crisis requires a rethink from financial institutions, whose assumptions about another taxpayer bail-out are, very probably, dangerously complacent.

Finally, public tolerance of wealth and income inequalities seems certain to deteriorate still further. Sooner rather than later, either Left or “populist” leaders are going to start asking quite how much money any individual actually needs. The ultra-wealthy might need to dust-off those plans for flight, though it seems increasingly likely that they can forget about New Zealand as a bolt-hole.

What do WE do next?

All of this poses a big challenge, but also a big opportunity, to those of us who understand the energy-basis of the economy. Knowledge may not be power, but it is certainly competitive advantage. It has to be admitted that the “road to SEEDS” began without a master-plan, not least because, at the start, there could be no certainty that codifying the logic of the surplus energy economy would actually be possible. This said, a plan is now necessary, and reader suggestions will be welcomed warmly.

What we’re witnessing, with the failure of established paradigms, is a period of enormous change in how the economy is understood – and with this go corresponding changes in interpretations of politics and society. From a thematic perspective, historians of the future are likely to regard the most important feature of the current period as the discrediting of economic “liberalism”, much as the late 1980s were characterised by the failure of socialism.

With each of these paradigms looking like a busted flush, it seems highly probable that something new will arise to replace them. The discrediting of ultra-“liberal” economics does not invalidate all market-based ideas, any more than the failure of state-controlled socialism invalidated all co-operative systems. There has to be a likelihood that a new ownership model will emerge from a debate stimulated not just by waning prosperity but also by new trends including automation and the “gig” economy. The neoliberal nirvana – of a wealthy elite controlling both automated production and a disempowered, casual workforce – is pretty unlikely to be realised. There is likely to come a point, too, at which delusion over the viability of “sustainable development” gives way to reality.

In this context, the understanding provided by the surplus energy approach to economics becomes ever more important. But how can it be progressed?

Publication of a sequel to Life After Growth may be a good idea, given how very much more is known now than was known then. One idea, under serious consideration now, is the production of targeted reports which readers can forward both to opinion-formers (such as policymakers, specialists, academics and the media) and to like-minded people. Co-operation with government and business is a possibility. So is the creation of a commercial version of SEEDS, though this prospect has not yet progressed beyond the scoping of ideas.

Essentially, it makes no sense to ignore potential for influencing government, business and finance at a time when all three need answers that conventional methods of interpretation are no longer able to supply.

It only remains to wish readers a prosperous New Year. It promises to be an interesting one…….


222 thoughts on “#116: The way ahead

    • Tim – after a bit more thought I have a some more serious points and suggestions regarding the future:

      Goals and Purpose:

      We discussed on #115 that you don’t have a specified statement of purpose with associated goals for your research enterprise, your comments suggest that your curiosity has been the primary motivator. I suspect the majority of the commenters, are like myself, primarily motivated to read your through our curiosity, fascination, and need to make sense of what is happening in the world around us.

      At the moment, from my perspective via SEE and Life After Growth, you seem to be playing the role of observer/commentator on the world and you have a unique insight which is appreciated by others who like to play that role too. I think there is also scope for a role as educator, strategist, leader, or all – but where you play that role and the problems you apply your toolset to will ultimately depend on what the goal is – again back to you:

      1. What do you want to see change?
      2. What role do you want to play in that change?
      3. How do the tools you have (previous publications, SEE and SEEDs) help you play that role?
      4. What new tools need to be developed to help play that role?

      I would like to be able to suggest some ‘Ways’ and ‘Means’ – but I still struggle to understand your ‘Ends’ – so cannot suggest anything that would help get there.

      Research Business Model:

      Leaving aside all the ‘wishy washy’ stuff above and being more pragmatic for a moment – your research enterprise obviously needs to fund itself.

      One of the difficulties with the subject matter is how to add value to people – ‘Why should someone sponsor me for this work, especially when I am telling people something they don’t want to hear?’. The only other ‘Seers’ who seem to be able to make a full time job out of it are the ones who tell everyone it is all going to get better/exciting (e.g. Kurzweil), or take the ‘Collapse’ hypothesising route (e.g. Orlov, Greer). Being more considered and moderated, is valued by few, and seems to work against you here.

      You would think that commissioned government research would be your best shot at a nice funding stream here. But as we have discussed previously – they also aren’t keen on funding studies that tell them things they don’t want to hear. I suspect that being found to be funding a study on “Life After Growth”, while pushing the ‘Growth Mantra’ would pass ‘The Daily Mail Test’ for most government departments.

      So – In conclusion I am stumped on new suggestions for funding side. This sort of work is a hard sell.

    • Greer and Orlov live on very little money. Greer does not have a car and does not fly. He lives in a modest house in an old brick industrial town. Orlov had lived on a sailboat for a number of years. Now he is in St. Petersburg. He used to do software, but quit out of dissatisfaction.

      Nicole Foss quit blogging when it became apparent that ‘the bond vigilantes’ could not prevent the central banks from doing their thing in terms of inflating the currency. She had been living on a largely self-sufficient farm in Ontario. Now she lives in New Zealand…I think very modestly.

      Choosing those routes is not for the faint of heart.

      Don Stewart

    • Thanks, Kevin. Your advice is a really helpful frame of reference, to which you have obviously devoted a great deal of thought. Don, thank you, too, for some sobering observations.

      Without going into my personal circumstances, I’ve no urgent need to finance this work, which isn’t to say that I can carry on doing this indefinitely. More immediately, limited resources set limits to what I can do. If I had the backing of a big organisation, there are areas which could be tackled which would make a big impact. Most obviously, SEEDS would become a much bigger, more powerful system.

      Just as importantly, research eminating from a big player would attract media and policymaker attention. I, of course, think this is desirable. Monetary adventurism, crushing returns on pension investments, deteriorating prosperity, lack of realism about sustainable development, and the erosion of accepted paradigms seem to me to call for action. But it’s not action that I can take, and I’m not going to lose sleep over that.

      An important point is that, if the thesis is correct, conventional interpretation is failing, invalidating much in the policy field. Logically, what then happens is some kind of ‘event’. It might be another financial crisis; palpable economic failure; or some sort of public/political reaction. I believe we’re already seeing the forerunners of these things.

      So, crucially, I’m not trying to persuade anyone to take on something that they don’t need. They may not, yet, realise that they need new answers, but that’s a rather different proposition. I’ve not “invented a better mouse-trap” when “we already have mouse-traps that work fine, thanks”.

      Neither am I any kind of doomster. I don’t wear sandwich-boards saying “the end is nigh!”. I try to see things as they are, explain them in moderate and reasoned terms, and suggest some answers, and some areas for further research. I’ve never yet suggested digging a nuclear bunker and stocking it with bottled water, tinned food and ammunition, and I never will.

      If politicians (for example) want to ignore this stuff, fine. If the public couldn’t care less about, say, ECoE, deteriorating prosperity, pensions destruction and the rest of it, and focus instead on football, soaps, slebs and the latest iFad, that’s fine with me. I think that, if we paid attention to these things, we might be better prepared for what I think is coming, but if people don’t want to see it that way, fine.

    • Don, Tim, thanks for the replies. It is not my intent to provide advice – only to ask some questions from my perspective to help elicit some ideas.

      One of the frustrations I have had over the years has been to apply this developing understanding in a purposeful and positive way. Things that have crossed my mind include studies for corporates, governments, and interest groups. I have struggled to identify a viable business model that doesn’t result in me living like a hermit (as Don alluded to) – so this interest will likely remain outside of the day job for the foreseeable future.

      On another note, a recent hypothesis influenced by some recent reading on game theory and human behaviour in conditions of scarcity. I wondered if readers might find it interesting, or would be willing to poke holes?

      Over the past 200 years cooperative strategies have dominated since they have generally been the best way to achieve increasing prosperity – since we were effectively in a non-zero sum game for a long time. Now with increasing ECoE and its resulting systemic effects we will transition in to a new phase which is a zero-sum game, so a transition to competitive strategies will generally be required by groups who want to maintain or increase prosperity.

    • Thanks.

      My way of remaining sane – if I have – has been to do this on the “Everest principle” of “because it was there”. I’ve consciously not thought about commercial or other end-use, just done this to see if it could be done. I’ve spent just over 4 years on this, and perhaps after 5 I think I’ll have done it justice. There are, as it turns out, a number of possible applications, on which I won’t enlarge right now.

      I know of game theory, of course, but don’t know enough about it to apply it.

      On another tack, right now I’m looking at ownership issues, whilst first of all investigating renewables and EV. The latter is a big number-crunching exercise, so is going to take some time.

  1. Thank you for the post Tim – have a good New Year – and to quote the former closing lines of Crimewatch ‘Don’t have nightmares’

  2. All the best for 2018, dear doc and readers.

    A new monetary paradigm awaits us. Monetary permaculture, money and currencies that do not depend on growth, but are sustainable. We need trade, another fiat currency would have a lifespan of 2 x 24 hours.

    From crypto’s to carrots, from silver to gold. Governments could support nessesary industries, while slowly bleeding out the nonsense like EV’s. The essential infrastructures have to be maintained. We can skip all commercial activities like vacations, perfume shops, Facebook, car races etc. The list of non nessecities is endless. Then, of course, comes the point that there are not enough jobs to sustain the monetary planes. Regions could trade with eachother simply by using physical gold, copper and silver. We used to trade like that in the past. That is, if we are able to maintain basic infra and dismantle nuclear facilities.

    We cannot manage degrowth, but maybe we can try controlled demolition and limit the number of casualties to, lets say, 4 billion people.

    • Christmas or not, readers are on absolutely top form today!

      Getting rid of the nonsense is indeed both necessary and likely – and I cannot see a broad case (though there are specialist, industrial exceptions) for self-driving vehicles, which seems to be a case of “we can do it, so do it”, rather than meeting an actual need. EVs, of course, still require energy, and, at present, only 3% of vehicles are powered by anything other than oil. When someone tells me that ‘the future is EVs, powered by renewables’, I don’t listen any further – we’re postulating amounts of electricity supply that are simply unachievable. Tech alone has huge electricity requirements.

  3. All very pertinent as usual, Tim, but I have to comment on some of your assumptions regarding in particular Pensions. There is no doubt that decreasing prosperity will drive pensions into the ground, but it applies to pensions based on contributions from workers and corporations, not to pensions funded through the Federal Government. This distinction hinges on the difference between the federal government, a monetary sovereign entity, and all other sectors which are users of currency.

    Being monetary sovereign under the constitution, means the federal government can create its currency through spending it into existence. About this there can be no doubt. As long as resources are available for sale – which is your point- the fed can spend to buy them. If resources run out spending will cause excess inflation and maybe even hyperinflation as the money increases faster than the available resources. This however is a politically induced problem.

    The conclusion follows that pensions can ALWAYS be funded by a federal government regardless of the current economic climate. It does not need saving or borrowing to achieve this. There is no associated debt burden. Pensioners get a cheque[so to speak] and can cash it and spend it into the economy. It has no matching liability, contrary to bank credit creation.

    Having a government means by logical extension that it will have unemployment. [There is no unemployment in first peoples’ societies]. So once again logically the government can be entirely to blame for excess unemployment. Neo-liberalism destroyed the post WW2 consensus for full employment right across the West. Today the scourge of unemployment is a blot the governments can remedy, except they choose not to. We need to hold them accountable. They can guarantee full employment again. There is plenty of fiscal space right now. Your SEEDS program may define a limit, Tim, but then the government can provide a pension to everyone needy.

    These are all paradigms that exist now. It just needs awareness of them to increase.

    • Ejhr2015, what makes you think there will be choices within the monetary spectre after the plane crashed and all bodies are eaten by wolves?

    • It only applies during our time on the way down.. Since we are not there yet, it can apply from today, or for umpteen years now. You are just suggesting we roll over and give up? This is not the site for you.

    • Thanks for accepting my invitation. Our time on the way down started long ago. 1971? The difference between you and me is a hard vs a soft fork. And since i won’t leave this website, you’ll have to deal with me in 2018, and beyond.

    • Cuts both ways. Yes, my opinion is 1971 and Gail Tverberg agrees as well. The moon shot was the high point of our civilization IMO. Now we grow on credit, which has to be paid back, until it can’t. Then there will be a jubilee to write it all off and if the’s time it will restart anew. Money, currency, is not going to be the problem, in case you are wondering.

    • How does a debt jubilee fix this?

      According to the OECD Economics Department and the International Monetary Fund Research Department, a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices. http://www.iea.org/textbase/npsum/high_oil04sum.pdf

      Steven Kopits from Douglas-Westwood said the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” he said http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/newsbysector/energy/oilandgas/11024845/Oil-and-gas-company-debt-soars-to-danger-levels-to-cover-shortfall-in-cash.html

    • You need a rethink. You are writing about the existing system of money representing value. The way we see it today. However in the future it will be seen somewhat differently. We tie debt with money creation but banks actually use money created through credit, not via the constitution which gives that power to the government. Government created money will continue to be a store of value, but bank created liability credit is more vulnerable to not being regarded as a store of value, if not now then into the future.

      A debt jubilee that will treat bank money as worthless is one option. Effectively numbers in account are what money is today. Simply the act of writing down lower numbers in the accounts is all one needs to do to write off value. Most of the excess in circulation is that kind of credit money and the large bank financial sector is not into real worth, but is in insurances etc.

      Read Steve Keen;
      Also David Graeber; “Debt. The First 5000 Years”

    • Money does not represent value — it represents energy.

      Gimmicks may allow us to produce oil at $60 when what is required is $120… but at some point the gimmicks will stop working …. and we will run into a brick wall.

      Running into the brick wall will not magically fix things.

    • The exponential growing gap between ‘money’ and economy brought us to where we are now. And it will bring us back to where we belong.

    • Agreeing to disagree is healthy. Nobody has the absolute truth, and progress is made by synthesis of disagreement (thesis, antithesis, thesis). Our society is already becoming intolerant of differing opinions, in an age of rising censorship which I think of as NSP (New Secular Puritanism). Do, please, all keep stating your views, disagree by all means, but with courtesy, as people do here.

    • @ejhr2015 – I see two issues with your contention that a monetary sovereign entity can simply indulge in unfettered money printing to cover, for example, deficient or under-performing pension funds. The first is that “unfettered” means “uncontrolled”, the ultimate result being that money loses all value: Think Zimbabwe or, more recently, Venezuela. What good is it to make pensions whole if the money printed to do so is worthless?

      Secondly, the elite will never stand for it. At the moment, the money-creation process goes through them, and they get their slice. Enough of a slice to more than cover the degradation of the currency caused thereby. So they’re happy. Just printing money that’s going to go to ordinary people and bypassing them completely means essentially that their monetary assets are being diluted with no offsetting advantages to them. In toady’s financial climate, I can assure you that that will not happen. In the US in particular, the sovereign money creating apparatus has been turned over to a quasi-private banking entity (the Fed), and you can rest assured that the officials of that organization will diligently look after the interests of the banks above all else. The financial elites WILL extract their pound of flesh.

      So in my opinion, the most likely course is we will just keep muddling along until some monetary or fiscal catastrophe makes it impossible to continue. Then — and only then — will the conditions be ripe to alter our course.

  4. Dr. Tim, thank you for this excellent synopsis of where we stand today.
    I have very much enjoyed reading your blog throughout the year, and I look forward to more great reading and discussions in 2018.
    Interestingly enough, I am starting to see more articles appearing on other websites which discuss the economy as an Energy Equation, and even referring to terms like EROEI etc. The word must be getting out !
    We have already had excellent discussions on where this Economy is heading under some of your previous articles.
    I think we all know deep down where this is going, but the big question for me is really;
    How do we get there ?
    What will be the dynamics of the impending breakdown, and what hair-brained knee-jerk reactions will the powers that be inflict upon us all.
    How is this all going to unfold and selfish as I am, how is this going to affect me and my loved ones !
    The impending implosion of the Pensions system will be a cataclysmic event, especially for those affected by it :
    ” Ah, old Jones, Happy Retirement !
    oh, and that pension you were promised ?
    Well, eh. … your not getting it.
    Here’s a balloon instead !
    soto voce : Hopefully your have an aneurysm trying to blow it up, and that will solve everybody’s problems.”

    I do not really see there being too much blowback from a collapse in the pension system. Anybody under 40 will be quite ambivalent about it, and they are the majority.
    Those of pensionable age will grumble and complain, but nobody will listen. They will be told that the money is not there, so what can anybody do ? Widespread poverty of the aged will ensue.
    I think that in the future, to be old and poor is going to be a very, very bad combination in some western countries, especially like the UK. The UK has low social cohesion, and little respect for family values. The national Celebrity Obsession has marginalised the Old. Elderly patients with no family will be particularly vulnerable to cost cutting, and I can foresee government condoned involuntary euthanasia being practiced by the NHS.
    Sorry to be so cheerfull at this time of year, but that is the reality that we all will need to come to terms with.
    The first lesson that we of pensionable age need to learn, is that we need to take control of our own finances for our retirement. Gold, Silver, Property, Crypto, Fine Art, Automatic Weapons with loads and loads of Ammo, and do a few favours for people that you can call in later, etc.
    May we live in interesting times ! – Ein Gutes Neues Jahr 2018 !

    • Thank you, Johan, and a very Happy New Year to you.

      Permit me to disagree about pensions. First, the “global pension time-bomb” is real, and the WEF, best known for Davos, isn’t into scare stories. The numbers, as presented by the WEF, are huge.

      Second, people don’t know about this yet, but it won’t be long before they do. In the US, pension funds have already cut payments sharply, and have been to court asking permission to slash payments, because otherwise they will run out of money very soon.

      Third, a prosperous older cohort aren’t too worried – yet – because they think downsizing homes will solve it. But we all know that you can’t monetize house “values” by selling them to each other.

      So when, finally, people of all ages discover that ZIRP has eaten their retirements, I’d guess they’re going to be pretty angry.

    • What you point out is the coming scenario, but that’s EXACTLY why my solution will be adopted.
      The federal government will simply step in to guarantee the pension payments. It’s a no-brainer.

    • Thank you Dr. Tim, and you have my unbridled permission to disagree with me at all times, and I openly encourage you and all my fellow commenters to do so 🙂 !
      It is only through disagreement that my inbuilt biasses and misleading trains of thought can be given new perspective and rational. It is all part of truth discovery, I see it like an iterative process, every mistake I make and, by recognising that it is a mistake, it brings me back onto the right path.
      As for pensions, what your saying is absolutely true, my comment was more in line with what is going to happen about it ? I see lots and lots of angry disillusioned people for sure, but what are they going to do about it ?
      As you say, many ongoing pensioners plan on releasing their main asset, their home, to cover themselves, but we both know that is not going to happen. When the SHTF, everybody will be selling all at once and the property market will crash.
      The younger generation will not see this as their problem, and the old – well they can shake their walking sticks at the Riot Police.
      But then again, this might awaken the general realisation within the population that our “growth” has all just been an illusion, and that our “Leaders” have been misleading us all along.
      There could be some blow-back from that.

    • @ejhr2015 re “The federal government will simply step in to guarantee the pension payments. It’s a no-brainer.”

      So you are saying that destruction of the currency will be the option taken?

    • You need to get up to speed with MMT. Then you might avoid elementary errors like yours. I’m not going to explain every time some uninformed person gets it wrong. Do your research as I have.

    • @ejhr2015

      Ooooh, I see. We think different outcomes will result from the policy you suggest, and since you’re right, I must be stupid, or at least ignorant.

      Listen, dude. I’m quite well acquainted with MMT and quite frankly, I think it’s going to prove to work a lot better in theory than in practice. It’s also beside the point, since MMT isn’t what we have at the moment, and I don’t think the people who are really calling the shots are going to just give away the goose that’s laying their golden eggs.

      Here’s the point: Pensions represent a store of value specifically because they are the fractional savings from productive activity in the past (plus productive investment of those savings up to the present). Making the pension funds “whole” by either printing or borrowing money to cover the shortfall is destructive either way you look at it. If you go with plan A — printing it — you’re paying out money that is not backed by productive activity, and so the money paid out does not represent wealth in the true sense of the word. More money with no additional wealth created = dilution of the value of money.

      If you go with plan B — borrowing the money — it will have to be paid back in the future with interest. Additional debt = diminished proportion of future revenues that can be spent operating the apparatus of government. Unless, of course, you’re going to resort to outright printing to cover THAT shortfall, and then we’re back to Plan A. In addition, given things as they stand now, those interest payments are going to go to a very small cadre of already unimaginably wealthy individuals and banks, thus exacerbating wealth disparity whose effects have been discussed elsewhere. Great for the stock market, but pretty sucky for anyone who has to work for a living.

      I do agree with you on one point. Government guarantees for pension funds is the likely course of action. In fact, it may be the best course of action, given the depressing alternatives available. So I predict either stagflation or increased wealth disparity and strangulation of the federal government, leading to its eventual default.

      Of course I have no crystal ball, so we’ll just have to see how it all plays out…

    • Thank you “Dude” for replying. Maybe you have done some research except you hid it away in your earlier comments. MMT is not a theory- i.e. an hypothesis. It is the existing world. China is thought to be MMT at work already. We only don’t have MMT at work here because the mainstream is fiddling with neo-liberal models that suit the wealthy and shaft the rest of society, and our woeful pollies have bought it as exemplified by the “household analogy’ of federal money. You should know all this if you truly have researched MMT. There are thousands of blogs, books and lectures about it out there. It’s far from new.
      So, therefore, you DON”T have to borrow money if you are the National, federal, government. That’s not a plan B. It’s just fake, which the banksters will push forward.
      It’s also silly because the debts eventually will not be paid back. Already we are in that vicinity, hence my recommendation of the debt jubilee model. Government will more than guarantee pension funds, it will be buying every last one. As I said to not do it would be political suicide.
      As to your plan A. that misses the point that creating jobs for all is exactly how the economy grows. Wages get spent into the economy. They may not be productive in the old fashioned way, industry and infrastructure, but we are not a productive economy now as we are in decline, peaking back in 1971. But the work is still valuable in other ways and we still need food production. So the extra money in circulation will cause no inflation as long as there are goods and services for sale. ETC

    • @ejhr2015

      I take your point about the demand enabled by cash handouts damping inflation. But as the Buddhists say, everything is connected. So I’m thinking “damping” rather than “quenching.”

      I also understand that MMT is a theory about how things work. I just don’t think it accurately models some key aspects of our current financial system. In particular, in the US anyway, the Federal Government is not the monetary sovereign. That privilege has been turned over to the Federal Reserve. The government can print up bonds and sell them for money, of course, and then use that money to, for example, make pension funds whole. But it’s going to be a ledger entry. There’s going to be an IOU as well as interest payments and a date that repayment is due. That makes it a much thornier issue than just printing money.

      The Treasury could theoretically reclaim its monetary sovereignty, but this would require a vote of congress. Given the cozy relationship between large financial institutions and members of congress, I think we can rule that out.

      But who knows? The current system in the US is clearly not functioning particularly well at the moment. Well, unless you’re on the left side of the assignment statement. Perhaps that will bring us to a point where changes will become possible.

    • Still some misses in your account. But without endlessly going back and forth ill be brief. ONLY the US Federal Government is monetary sovereign. Congress cannot change that without a referendum. Besides, it works. Banks create credit which is future money and is a liability. It is horizontal money and does not change the money supply. Only vertical money from the government does that. It is not a liability, it’s a net credit operation. This is why bank money does not show in the annual budget accounting. It balances to zero.
      I doubt you have any good evidence that MMT only models key aspects. The fed does not print up money, it buys debts with it. Congress has mandated it sell bonds to match the deficit, but it is an unnecessary operation. The bonds are auctioned off to investors and are stored in reserve accounts in the Fed. The fed pays interest, but the actual invested money is never spent. So, government debt is just an accounting term. Same as your deposit at your bank is a bank debt.

  5. Thanks Tim and a very Happy New Year to you and to readers.

    Just a thought – should the main relationship not be between the money supply and the number of people living?

    • Good point.

      The equations here are activity(output), population and money. Money supply, ideally, grows at roughly the same rate as output. If it grows more rapidly than output, we get inflation, and vice versa. So, if output grows in line with population growth, money supply should grow in line with both, with output being the main determinant. If population and money supply grew in line, but activity/output diminished, the result would be inflation.

      Additionally, we need to think in terms of what I call ‘effective money supply’. What really matters isn’t the quantity of $, EUR or £, but how often they change hands. Do we spend every $ within days of receiving it, or weeks, or months? Velocity (V) was high pre-08, but caution then drove it down, as people turned cautious, and sat on money for longer. This was why increasing monetary quantity (Q) was necessary. Essentially, effective money supply = Q x V

  6. Regarding future trends, it seems to me that social complexity is equally a function of surplus energy availability. Although probably a lagging indicator. In other words, history and common sense suggest that a multi-cultural, diverse society, with lots of single mothers, and state funded pensioners, is very energy expensive and only became possible in recent times because enough surplus energy was available.
    If so, then a post high surplus energy society would be forced to revert back to traditional morality. The only affordable society would be a homogenenous society with high social cohesion; post diversity, post multi-culturalism and post working women. In this scenario, women couldn’t be permitted to have jobs as it would be vital that all men had breadwinner jobs, but those men would then have to take full responsibility for both their wives, their children and their frail elderly parents. Probably all living under one roof. And so the wheel would have turned full circle.

    • Indeed so. Before the industrial revolution, numbers of job categories were limited, with farming predominant,and most other functions farming-related (making implements, building barns, processing tasks like butchers, bakers and brewers). With growth has come complexity. So, if decreasing surplus energy reduces activity, complexity will diminish.

      Morality is a question we’ve touched on here before, albeit in the context of commercial morality and probity. Whilst morality was implicit for Smith in the market economy as he described it – essentially, an effective market needed to be free, fair, and honest – this has changed, and I have come to see “laissez-faire”, “caveat emptor” economics as, at best, amoral. I’ve called this “junglenomics”. Whilst I have long-standing relationships with some (generally small) businesses in Britain, my policy now is to avoid UK and US suppliers, because integrity towards customers seems greatly diminished.

      Broader morality is a different issue, but seems closely related to how we think of others – if that is so, and concern for others strenghtens integrity, then selfishness, when pushed to extremes, is inimical to morality. Adam Smith explained how the hidden hand (of competition) reconciles legitimate individual ambition with the general good.

  7. The reason we come to terms with bad weather is that we all know there’s no alternative. That’s different with the economy in that politicians always have a better alternative to the reality.

    Many years pass before the majority of people realise that that’s not the case, during which time many opportunities to tackle the underlying problems are lost.

    From the article: “In this context, the understanding provided by the surplus energy approach to economics becomes ever more important. But how can it be progressed?”

    My suggestion is that the message needs getting across to Mr and Mrs Average in basic language they can understand. For example, paying back the UK’s national debt at the rate of a pound a second round the clock – assuming we weren’t adding to it or having to pay interest on it – would take over 50,000 years. Expressed as a pile of pound coins laid flat, it would be about 3,000,000 miles high.

    • Alas, Eddy,
      I am afraid that, that is a message that Mr. & Mrs Average do not want to hear !
      One of the great problems that we face today, is the feeling of Entitlement that most people have. It is engrained into their psyche, entitlement is simply a way of life for most people.
      Look at the UK’s benefit Junkies. Fending for themselves is a totally alien concept to these people.
      We live under times of Big Government, and people demand that the government take care of them. People demand that governments micro-manage their lives, and the lives of their neighbours too.
      The only thing that will shake people out of this mind-set is enforced Austerity, or a complete breakdown of Society as we know it.

    • Johan, your final sentence is a sad nonsense, sorry. The breakdown we are going through now is largely due to neo-liberal austerity. It’s not an either or problem. And Government is no way too big. It is too small. It needs to spend more, to increase jobs and reduce inequality. The “benefit junkies” as you perjorativly call them are the ones who can no longer get jobs. Over time this sort of institutionalises them. They never asked to be born and any worthwhile society has a duty to care for them. First by seeing they don’t starve and second by getting them back into the workforce. Instead opportunity is starved by spending cuts. Conservatives believe growth comes from spending cuts, but that’s their typical flawed logic. That feeing of entitlement is real enough, but it’s the conservatives who exhibit it, not the benefit junkies who are just trying to survive.

    • You’ve taken some of the words out of my mouth, Johan.

      I see adults in town – no impediments, no children – waiting till the green man tells them to cross the road. Meanwhile, the elderly person, having been taught how to cross roads and having seen there’s no traffic approaching, is over the road and halfway up the street.

      Such is today’s ‘don’t think, do as you’re told’ mentality.

      I mentioned Mr and Mrs Average because I think they’re blissfully unaware of the UK’s economic situation – due to not having been told, rather than not wanting to be told. For that I blame the politicians.

      How can you expect people to accept what’s necessary to get the UK’s finances in order when they’ve just been told the economy’s booming?

      As for the ‘austerity’ we hear so much about, I won’t tell you the response I get from my 85 year-old neighbour when I mention it.

    • @ejhr,
      Your whole paragrah is a sad nonsense, Sorry.
      Yes, we all know that you are a fanatical follower of MMT, but that does not make it, and therefore you, right.
      I am part Austrian, so maybe that is where I get my ecomonic leaning from.
      Now, you and I have been here before. My last new years resolution was not to take the bait again, but hey, I can always make a new resolution tomorrow.

      I have come to firmly refute the premises of MMT.
      I have studied all the links and post that you have made on it, but it has not, and still does not convince me.

      I know that you put this down to the fault lying with me, and my inability to understand it, but I maintain that I do understand it perfectly. I have followed its arguments and I have studied its premises and I have concluded that it is flawed.

      More government and more government spending is not the answer to our predicament.
      Who determines how much money is spent and where it is spent ? Who determines the beneficiaries of government spending ?
      We have already tried a system like that in the USSR.
      It did not work.

    • It is a complete waste of my time responding to you. You are just digging a deeper hole with every comment. I’ll let you wallow in your ignorance as there seems no remedy. Your belief is your problem. You cannot refute MMT. It describes reality. That is, what really does happen with macroeconomics. It is the real world, not some Austrian, or Chicago, school of economics hypotheses. Happy New Year!

  8. Interesting, I have the feeling that the situation will devolve unevenly. I’m not sure that peoples willingness or ability to accept the forced changes that are coming is universally the same in all areas. Perhaps this will be based on ‘alternate’ resource availability, population density, and makeup. I expect there will be a ‘cats in a sack’ type fight(s) at some point as all parties try to keep their share of a shrinking pie. Some people are moving in the direction of smaller – the tiny house movement, urban farming, re purposed materials.

    I fully expect that the US gov. will resort to $$$ printing as the least painful option. Have they done that to some extent already? Here is your pension – good luck buying anything with it.

    I think the biggest driver in all of the decisions and actions of the mass of people will be affordability. What cannot be bought – won’t, until a ‘clearing price’ is reached, and then only if that item has a practical value.

    I really enjoy your blog and find it clearly written which is a talent most do not appreciate for how difficult that is.

  9. Interesting post Tim.

    Reading through the comments it’s obvious that there is confusion on a path forward.

    First of all it’s clear that net energy per capita is in decline. To maintain growth there had to be increases in efficiency. Much of those efficiency gains were products of complexity.

    So we have Just in Time delivery avoiding costly localized inventory and warehousing. We have cloud servers rather then local servers. Giant warehouse/retail rather then the older wholesale retail system. This is now being displaced by direct manufacturers to end users like Amazon. All of it has been an effort to substitute energy growth with efficiency gains creating productivity growth.

    The problem is efficiency has limits and once they’re reached without energy growth the system crumbles.

    One idea that gets floated is to reduce population which would restore energy growth per capita. Some have postulated a good hot war or plague could facilitate that.

    Here’s the problem. Our present industrialized economy has become highly complex to maintain growth. It has been estimated that with only a 10% catastrophic population decline the entire system would collapse. Why? Specialization. To maintain the complexity you have to have increasing specialized training.

    Basically it is Liebig’s minimum principle. The system has become so specialized that with just a few removed the complexity collapses.

    In principle what if Japan lost its manufacturing base. That would end smart phone production. Without smart phones Amazon would decline. Just an example. But the point is the entire system is codependent. An across the board indiscriminate die off would collapse the system. But what if it were a discriminate situation?

    This is also an irrational thought. The elite economies of this world are more dependent than the third world developing nations. For example if one were to say population control should be implemented in Africa how would that work out? Africans use far less energy per person. So there is no great value there. Also they produce some of the lowest cost rare earths like cobalt. So the elite West is a benefactor from low cost impoverished productivity. Really it’s the elites of the western world who’s absence would be of the greatest value.

    So the reality is the ones who sit a top the food chain are the least valuable and least productive. Interestingly this played out in France many generations ago. As well as in Russia.

    As the stress of scarcity continues its relentless march history will repeat itself. The powers will become more totalitarian in an attempt to control the desperate masses in an attempt to maintain their prosperity represented by the economy afforded by system scale. In that vain there must be the illusion of cooperation which will be congered up by propaganda.

    The interdependence of the system allows for no other outcome. It’s a dissapative system that requires continuous energy growth to maintain minimum velocity. Once it is lost the elements lose there organized structure. The cohesiveness is already collapsing with alternative systems like Russia and China claiming their place in the world. This is purely a symptom of the primary collapse. Attacking the symptom will not change the trajectory and may likely quicken the pace rather then delay it.

    • I don’t buy into the idea that population reduction would solve anything. I also think you’ve hit the nail on the head when you suggest that the fundamental problem lies at the top of the food chain, but for a different reason.

      The problem of low demand — which is a severe problem for a market economy and thus a capitalist system built around one — has several possible causes, Among these is concentration of wealth and income in the top strata, which essentially deprives the productive class of the financial means to purchase the products it produces. Some stratification is tolerable and may even be beneficial as it presents a goal that people can strive for, but excessive concentration of income in the hands of the few is fatal. The concomitant deprivation of income among the working classes results directly in reduced demand, and reduced demand leads directly to reduced employment. Thus the vicious circle.

      Reducing population only results in reduced demand. Reduced stratification is much more likely to give a positive result.

  10. Helix

    Your correct population reduction isn’t a solution. That’s my point.

    However your mistaking the symptom as the cause. The accumulation of wealth at the top is a function of resource constraints.

    Because money can’t find its home in economic activity (AKA energy consumption) it puddles up in assets. So it isn’t because wealth is accumulating in the top 1% that the economy is failing. It’s because the economy is falling that the wealth is accumulating in the top 1%.

    Remember when anyone wins the game of monopoly the game is over. Is it because one person owns everything or is it because everyone else is broke?

    • It seems more like a casual loop to me:

      The other players are going broke, because of the increased rent seeking of the monopolists, because of the inflated price of assets the monopolists are accruing, because money is pooling in these assets, because there is no return on capital investment, because there is reduced demand in the wider economy for products and services, because the other players are going broke.

      This loop can be weakened through the use of control measures which dynamically set a limit to rent seeking, subsidise capital returns to incentivise job creation, and also redistribute asset wealth directly.

      Such strengthened controls implemented at national level could allow a more equitable decline.

      I believe in the UK we may be on the cusp of making these control strengthening measures, but it could go the other way through a protectionist wealthy successfully lobbying the opposite and not sharing the pie on the way down.

    • I should make clear that in my mental model every actor will ultimately ‘go broke’, due to increasing ECoE. What I am describing above is a model explaining the inequity of the decline as it stands, and how the decline could be managed better to reduce relative inequity, and hence tensions.

    • First off, conventional economics doesn’t really measure prosperity. Incomes, adjusted for inflation, are about as close as it gets. But prosperity isn’t the same as income. A nearer definition would be ‘discretionary’ income – that is, income minus the cost of essentials. ECoE shows up early in the cost of these essentials. In addition, though, we need to measure components like debt and, arguably, pension provision as well. If my income goes up, I’m not necessarily more “prosperous”. If my income net of essentials increases, that’s nearer to improving my prosperity – but still doesn’t count for much if my debt has soared.

      SEEDS is designed, amongst other things, to capture prosperity. It indicates that, in almost all Western economies, prosperity has peaked, and is now declining. (In the UK, peak was 2003).

      This has fundamental implications for attitudes towards inequality. If someone’s income or wealth (say) improves, he or she is relatively relaxed about a neighbour who is doing a lot better. So prospering societies have high tolerance of inequality. Once someone starts getting poorer, he or she becomes MUCH less tolerant of inequality. Even in temporary economic hard times, tensions increase around inequality. Britain and America in the 1920s & 1930s illustrate this, as does Britain in the years 1815-32, and much of Europe in the 1840s.

      This implies that, as prosperity decreases and hardship widens, inequality moves into hostile focus.

      On top of that is the rentier issue. That situation has been worsening in many ways. The older generation are perceived increasingly by the younger as rentiers. Big tech has taken on rentier characteristics. Automation and the “gig economy” could make this worse.

      In a simple phrase, ‘rentiers plus hardship = 1789’, especially if the authorities are too ignorant or too self-interested to appreciate what is happening.

      Politically, I’m not a socialist – I would be a conservative were I not so depressed by recent excesses – but I see real insight in Jeremy Corbyn’s ideas about a “new ownership model”. Collectivism failed a long time ago, and “laissez-faire” is failing now. So extending co-operatives might be a useful idea going forward.

  11. Just to follow up on the previous comment. I was subtly suggesting an economic reality but maybe too subtle.

    The fact is economy is a journey not a destination. If the destination is achieved the journey ends.

    Burn that thought deeply into our thinking and test it against all history and you’ll understand what is happening and why.

    And remember the journey is a race with entropy. Nothing more nothing less.

    • Yes JT. Flow vs stock. Once the flow stops, its the stock that remains. And a new flow starts. Maybe we will be part of the next flow, maybe not. The next flow will be less overwhelming than our current, so that leaves me to hoard some necessities from our current flow. I sometimes think about sustainable flows like sharecropping. Guess i have to stop thinking and start working on that. We’re all Zimbabweans you know.

  12. Dr Tim, thanks for sharing your essays with Joe Public. Why your work does not receive greater MSM coverage I just do not know. If I could nominate you for the Nobel prize in economics I would. Best wishes for 2018.

  13. Another great article, thank you.

    I found your point about monetary adventurism and a crisis extending into the fiat currency system particularly interesting. I was wondering if I could ask for your thoughts on the idea of energy-backed money:

    Imagine a monetary unit backed by a central bank which promises to provide the bearer on demand with a kiloWatt hour of energy in a previously specified form or forms. The value of this energy-backed monetary unit (EBMU) would therefore be fixed at 1kWh. The price of this EBMU in any fiat currency would be the price of 1kWh in that fiat currency.

    The principle advantage I see of this ‘Energy Standard’ is price stability:

    As the capability of a state’s economy to produce energy and thus to produce energy-intensive goods and services increases so the capability of the state’s central bank to back EBMUs with energy increases. In effect, as the productivity of the economy increases so the monetary supply increases, avoiding deflation.

    The price of energy is fixed in EBMUs, avoiding energy-price inflation. If the price of energy in a fiat currency rises then the price of the EBMU in that fiat currency rises too.

    The EBMU would also offer independence from the petrodollar, which could be appealing for oil-rich countries such as Russia and Iran.

    The principal disadvantage (from some perspectives) would be that there would be no ability for a state to devalue its money while on the ‘Energy Standard’.

    • I think the Venezuelan announcement is more rhetoric than reality.

      An ‘Energy Standard’ would seem to be only attractive to net energy exporting countries who want to avoid the petrodollar, although I could see a rationale for Norway going on the ‘Energy Standard’ if they wanted to create a further argument against adopting the Euro.

    • That’s why petrocoin Thomas. They cannot trade it for the ‘fogs of fiat’, because that’s not in the interest of importing countries that use fiat currencies to overcome their lack of available net energy. It won’t work of course, because importing countries cannot afford expensive energy. And here we are, prisoners dilemma, second law of thermodynamics, entropy, affordability, overshoot.

      What is true though, Venezuela brings back the connection between the economy and its intermediate of exchange aka money, or currency. We all think in currency terms, we should learn to think in money. Our current intermediate of exchange is dead, pensions, savings, debt, stocks, bonds, cash. It is based on trust and growth, in degrowth we will have distrust, so we need cold hard money that is broadly accepted. Or there will be no trade, not international, regional nor local.

    • “Our current intermediate of exchange is dead, pensions, savings, debt, stocks, bonds, cash. It is based on trust and growth, in degrowth we will have distrust, so we need cold hard money that is broadly accepted. Or there will be no trade, not international, regional nor local.”

      That does raise an interesting point, if a “trustworthy’ central bank (such as Norway’s) went on the “Energy Standard” then its currency might appreciate hugely against fiat currencies that didn’t enjoy widespread trust which might cause some monetary dislocations.

  14. houtskool

    Unfortunately you missed my point. There is no stock without flow. That’s the point.

    No flow No stock.

    • True JT. Food stock dissapears very soon after the flow stops. What i meant is there’s a stock of good quality handtools for example, we could use those during the next period of flow. When there’s no next flow, everything stops.

  15. Hi Tim

    Happy New Year and thanks for providing an intelligent forum fo the discussion of these ideas.

    I think that automation and AI will make a huge difference in the future and, as you say, the neoliberal idea of an elite feasting off a compliant workforce is nonsense; that doesn’t work almost any way you look at it.

    What I do think is that we will, like it or not, have to indulge in more fiscal activism in order to meet these challenges and, in this respect, the left wing has the easier job and the neoliberal meme is already a busted flush. I’m not saying that this will give us nirvana because politicians can always be relied upon to screw things up and indulge in fiscal profligacy at the drop of a hat, but we will have to see the state as much more of an enabler rather than an incubus if we are to stand any chance of meeting these challenges.

    • Thanks Bob, and a Happy New Year to you.

      We’re in a peculiar position – politically, we’ve had a contest between “socialism” and “capitalism” for as long as any living person can remember, yet the former has already been discredited and the latter is now going the same way.

      It seems that we ought to have adiscussion here about ownership, which,m of course, is closely linked to power. I’m pondering some ideas for this.

  16. First, great job on your innovative perspective and interesting insights. I have read some of your blog posts in detail, and have skimmed through many others. I think I agree with most of your arguments. However, what I am missing is detailed treatment of the future of renewable energy sources. You describe in detail the case of depleting fossil fuels and their declining EREOIs. But what about renewables (e.g. wind and PV), which currently exhibit small scale and low EROEI, but are steadily increasing in scale and improving in EROEI? Could you please point me to a blog post in which you elaborate on the future of renewables? Thanks in advance.

    • Thank you, and welcome to the site.

      Let me start by describing the trajectory of oil EROEI. It started at low levels – the industry began in Pennsylvania in the 1850s – then rose as big, technically simple fields were discovered, with huge economies of scale, most obviously in the Middle East. Now it is in a pronounced decline trend, with technology only partially blunting the effects of depletion. It is too often somehow assumed that technology can trump physics. It can’t.

      Much the same EROEI/ECoE trajectory applies to other fossil fuels.

      Renewables are mirroring the early upside course. Again, it is technical progress, and economies of scale, that are the drivers. In simple EROEI/ECoE terms, renewables are now fully competitive with oil, and pretty close to gas and coal.

      Personally, I see a lot more potential in solar than in wind. Properly understood, the economics of wind are very weak, because of smoothing requirements. I also believe that a lot more can be achieved in the emerging economies (where renewables can improve quality of life) than in the developed world (where renewables won’t prevent economic decline).

      But we cannot, from this – as so many seem to do – extrapolate a transition to renewables. Critically, renewables infrastructure is built on the fossil legacy. Scaling will become extremely difficult, and early growth rates cannot be applied once scale has increased from an initial low level. I’m convinced that generating enough power for a global transition to EVs simply isn’t feasible. Neither can we assume indefinite technical progress at the recent rate.

      On this latter point, dangerous assumptions are being made about extrapolation from recent (a) growth and (b) technical progress.

      What we have here is the difference between “tech-think” and “physics-think” – and energy is physics, not tech. We can extrapolate rates of progress in tech (say, computing power), but the world is so dazzled by tech that it is, all too often, assumed that such progression can be applied to the physical, such as energy supply. This isn’t the case.

      Technology determines how we work with physics (in this instance, thermodynamics). It doesn’t overcome physics. For instance, scope for improvement in batteries will in due course hit the edge of the physics envelope. Improving battery efficiency by, say, 5% in one year doesn’t mean improving it at a compounding 5% rate of progress indefinitely. Too many people seem to think it does.

      I sometimes use the analogy of naval radar – the tech part (the electronics) keeps getting smaller and more powerful, but the physics part (the size of the scanner, and the height of the mast holding it) cannot be miniaturised, but in fact keep getting bigger.

      I hope this answer helps. It’s something to which I’ve given a great deal of thought – and, of course, am still learning!

    • A lot of people point to computing power over time … and assume this applies to everything…

      That has not been the case with ‘renewable’ energy (which is not renewable because solar panels do not grow on trees)….

      And in fact it does not even apply to computing power….


    • Replacement of oil by alternative sources

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

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

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

      The world consumes approximately 3 CMO annually from all sources. The table [10] shows the small contribution from alternative energies in 2006.


    • “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today,” according to Thomas Graedel at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. So renewable energy resources like windmills and solar PV can not ever replace fossil fuels, there’s not enough of many essential minerals to scale this technology up. http://energyskeptic.com/2014/high-tech-cannot-last-rare-earth-metals/

      Renewable Penetration https://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/iea-primary-energy-suppy-1973-and-2015.png

    • Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers

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

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

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

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

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


    • “In simple EROEI/ECoE terms, renewables are now fully competitive with oil, and pretty close to gas and coal.”

      Isn’t it so that so called ‘renewables’ feed on oil? Renewables are derivatives of fossil fuels, like currencies are derivatives of money.

    • Maybe this is helpful; look at it as a car. Fossil fuels is the engine, finance is the steering wheel, technology is navigation, renewables is the driving power under 20 mph. The world needs 80 mph, the steering wheel gets greasy, your navigation gets you in the wrong neighborhood at night, and all of this on one cylinder with a corpse in the trunk and the cops checking your license plate for driving under influence.

    • Anyone interested in the practicality of renewable energy technologies in the UK cannot do better than read what the late and great David MacKay FRS had to say on the matter. Available for free here:
      or buy the book from Amazon.

      UK peak power demand is about 51GW on a cold winter evening (down from 60GW as our intensive power using industries have closed – steel, paper, cement, chemicals, aluminium. The installed capacity of wind and solar PV in the UK in 2017 is about 30GW. The 13GW of solar provides zero output at peak demand (it is dark) and if there is an anticyclone sitting over the UK wind output can be less than 3GW for days on end. UK grid data can be found here:

      If you want to see the future look at the situation in Germany. Peak demand is about 80GW (they still have industries producing stuff) and they have about 100GW of wind and solar installed. German grid data can be found here on the Agorameter (there are displays for 7 day, 31 day and 1 year time periods)
      You will clearly see that there are period when renewable energy output is trivial and thermal power stations have to fired up to meet demand and then shut down. You may be aware that the German people are saddled with just about the highest electricity prices in the world and disconnections because of non-payment of bills is increasing. There is an increasing backlash in Germany against Mrs Merkel ‘energiewende’.

    • Thanks for the reply, Tim. In general, your arguments seem to make a lot of sense– but there are plenty of techno-optimists who have handy rebuttals to each of your points. So it turns into a “he said-she said” argument, and I’m trying to drill down to the fundamentals. For example, I’d like to see the detailed reasoning (and the math) behind your comment that “I’m convinced that generating enough power for a global transition to EVs simply isn’t feasible.”

      I completely agree that the laws of physics provide ultimate limits to what is or is not possible. But given: 1) a sufficiently high EROEI for renewables, 2) enough fossil fuels to kick-start the process, and 3) no critical constraint on materials, then I don’t see a physical impediment to scale-up. (Of course, there may be economic/social/political impediments.)

      Regarding the above conditions:
      1) PV and wind electricity already have EROEI greater than 10, and EPBT shorter than 1 year. These will continue to improve further in the coming years (but as you point out, they won’t continue improving indefinitely). Electricity won’t meet all energy needs, but some can be converted to fuels, e.g. H2.

      2) We still have enough fossil fuels to provide the energy for the initial renewable scale-up (but at the cost of further climate disruption). Fossil EROEIs are decreasing steadily, but in general we are still an energy-abundant society, and we could devote resources to a transition if we choose.

      3) Critical materials are an issue for some technologies, but I am not convinced they are a show-stopper. For example, thin-film CdTe solar panels could be constrained by Tellurium supplies, but Silicon is abundant for making a-Si solar panels. Similarly, limited Cobalt supply could constrain LCO battery storage, but materials are plentiful for LMO or LFP battery chemistries.

      Finally, I don’t imagine replacing our current profligate energy use patterns by renewables. But a renewably-powered future including serious energy efficiency measures as well as more modest lifestyle expectations, does not seem unreasonable to me.

      Would appreciate your thoughts (hopefully backed up by data and analysis). Thanks.

    • Can you advise the point of EVs?

      Are they supposed to be green or something?

      Help me out will ya…..

      Electric vehicles in Hong Kong could be adding “20 per cent more” carbon to the atmosphere than regular petrol ones over the same distance after factoring in the city’s coal-dominated energy mix and battery manufacture, a new research report found.

      Investment research firm Bernstein also claimed that by subsidising electric vehicle purchases, the government was effectively “harming rather than helping the environment” at the expense of the taxpayer.

      “The policy is to encourage drivers to be green, but they are actually subsidising vehicles that create more emissions of CO2 and particulates from power plants,” said Bernstein senior analyst Neil Beveridge.


      “Whilst the electric vehicles and lithium batteries manufactured by these two companies do indeed help to reduce direct CO2 emissions from vehicles, electricity is needed to power them,” Morgan Stanley wrote. “And with their primary markets still largely weighted towards fossil-fuel power (72% in the U.S. and 75% in China) the CO2 emissions from this electricity generation are still material.”

      In other words, “the carbon emissions generated by the electricity required for electric vehicles are greater than those saved by cutting out direct vehicle emissions.”


    • Regarding EVs, I think I can help you out. There’s no question that they aren’t “green” unless they’re charged by a “green” energy source. Electricity itself is not an energy source — it has to come from somewhere. If the source of the energy is a fossil fuel, well, then we have an efficiency race: is it more energy efficient to generate electricity at the local fossil-fuel power station, transmit it to a charging site, charge a chemical battery, and then draw down the battery during transport (not forgetting the energy needed to manufacture and deliver the battery pack itself) than it is to simply burn the fossil fuel in an internal combustion engine? Probably not, as the Hong Kong study shows.

      But here’s the thing: We would certainly like to think that powered transport will be available after the heyday of cheap fossil fuels draws to a close. I think it’s an open question as to whether that will actually happen or not, and I’m pretty sure I’m not going to live long enough to get an answer. But if it’s going to, then there will have to be some means of powering those vehicles. It’s also pretty clear that, with any foreseeable technology, the power is going to be generated from some sort of fixed plant — a power station. Whether we’re talking about chemical batteries, fuel cells, or whatever else might be developed, that’s the essence of what’s going to go down. So if powered vehicles are going to survive the close of the oil age, EVs or something equivalent are the likely contenders. If anything at all, that is.

      I’ll let you fill in all the caveats about technological breakthroughs, etc. For all I know, biofuels may someday become cost-effective and then everything I’ve said above becomes moot. I don’t have a crystal ball. I just project from the current state of play and whatever trends I can discern. YMMV.

    • Replacement of oil by alternative sources

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

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

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

      The world consumes approximately 3 CMO annually from all sources. The table [10] shows the small contribution from alternative energies in 2006.


      “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today,” according to Thomas Graedel at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. So renewable energy resources like windmills and solar PV can not ever replace fossil fuels, there’s not enough of many essential minerals to scale this technology up. http://energyskeptic.com/2014/high-tech-cannot-last-rare-earth-metals/

      Renewable Penetration https://gailtheactuary.files.wordpress.com/2017/12/iea-primary-energy-suppy-1973-and-2015.png

    • Renewable energy ‘simply won’t work’: Top Google engineers

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

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

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

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

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


    • Yes, I saw that post the first time ’round — and replied to it. While I’m pretty sure renewables will be insufficient to meet the demand given today’s energy usage patterns, I’m also pretty sure that those patterns will not persist into the future.

      This assumes that no new and for all practical purposes unlimited new energy source such as fusion of deuterium comes online. But, I’ve been watching fusion energy technology for fifty years now, and for as long as I can remember, it always seems to be 3 decades away from being ready fro prime time. So I’m thinking the odds are against it. Even if it does eventually pan out, I’m pretty sure the side effects are going to be a lot scarier than anyone has been willing to admit to up ’til now.

      So, to reiterate the point, my guess is that, like it or not, we -will- live within the energy budget dictated by incoming solar power. We will utilize it in whatever ways are possible — photovoltaics, wind, hydro, passive heating, Stirling engines and the like. Perhaps we’ll even be able to tap into geothermal sources more extensively. Who knows?

      Assuming this scenario, we certainly will live on a more meager and not-always-on-demand energy budget. We will probably live closer together, rely on shared infrastructure to a much greater extent, travel less, make greater use of passive solar heating, have much better insulation in our houses, and, to use a quote from an earlier age, “make hay while the sun shines”. So be it. We’ll survive. And might even be better off for it.


      The problem we have in Australia is when we talk renewable energy we are talking wind and solar only — low value, expensive, unreliable, high capital cost, land hungry, intermittent energy.

      The energy supply is not dense enough. The capital cost of consolidating it makes it cost prohibitive. But they are not only much more expensive because of this terminal disadvantage, they are low value intermittent power sources — every kilowatt has to be backed up by conventional power, dreaded fossil fuels.

      So we have two capital spends for the same output — one for the renewable and one for the conventional back-up. Are you surprised it is so much more expensive, and inefficient, and always will be? So wind and solar, from a large scale electricity point of view, are duds. Now I know that will send the urgers into paroxysms of outrage.

      But have you ever seen an industry that so believed its own propaganda. Note, when they eulogise the future of renewables they point to targets, or to costly investments, never to the real contribution to supply.

      Let’s look overseas where many countries have been destroying their budgets and their economies on this illusion for longer and more comprehensively than we in Australia. The Germans are ruing the day they decided to save the world by converting to solar and wind. Germany has spent $US100bn on solar technology and it represents less than 1 per cent of their electricity supply.

      Energy policy has been a disaster. Subsidies are colossal, the energy market is now chaotic, industry is decamping to other jurisdictions, and more than a million homes have had their power cut off.

      It is reported electricity prices in Germany, Spain and the UK increased by 78 per cent, 111 per cent and 133 per cent between 2005 and 2014 as they forced additional renewable capacity into their electricity markets.

      More http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/solar-and-wind-power-simply-dont-work–not-here-not-anywhere/news-story/66f188a1399705745abc0f2663a4a9c3

    • Thank you, RS. I must admit to caution about techno-optimists who, back in the 1960s, thought that almost everything (including vehicles, aircraft and ships) would be nuclear-powered long before now. I think it was Bill Gates who once said that, if cars had progressed as rapidly as computers, they could by now cover the distance to the moon and back on a single gallon of fuel. That, of course, is the difference between tech and physics.

      On EVs, I’ll have to come back to you with figures, but the required generating capacity to replace transport fuels (of which the biggest slice by far is vehicles) looks an unattainable number.

      At present, 97% of vehicle power comes from oil alone. The energy equivalent stored in the full tanks of a 747 equates to the entire output of a large nuclear plant for 90 minutes. I can give you numbers for how many nuclear plants, wind turbines or acres of solar would be needed to replace our current use of oil, or of transport fuels.

      The steel alone required to do any of this does not exist, and neither does the energy to extract enough iron ore, smelt it, deliver it and so on. Then there is the amount of copper required. Copper is extracted from rock at 0.2% concentrations, which is hugely energy-intensive. Then there are plastics, but I think you get my point.

      I must find for you a study on the intermitency of wind. It looked at a North Sea wind turbine project costing, from recollection, £3.9bn. This will produce extremely intermittent power. In order to produce a stable quantity of output, it would require battery capacity whose current cost is well over £30bn. The authors concluded that, whilst no-one would spend £36bn on a pretty small generator, the takeaway is that wind will always require back-up, implicitly from nuclear or fossil.

      We certainly could use fossil fuels to kick-start renewables – but I’m not sure how feasible this is. Comparing 2016 with 2001, fossil fuel consumption increased by 38%, compared with a 19% increase in population numbers.This suggests that fossil fuel output is already “spoken for” by our day-to-day activities. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum concluded that China will soon need to make a huge switch to coal from oil, based on trend EROEIs. This, from a climate perspective, is a depressing thought.

      Please don’t think that I’m hostile to renewables – on the contrary, they are the future. But, from an economics perspective, some of the starry-eyed tech projections need a huge dose of reality-check. The public tends to be dazzled by tech, and by what a former colleague called “the fool’s guideline of extrapolation”.

      Instead of assuming that we can transition – without lifestyle changes – from fossils to renewables, I see an urgent need to make changes in our energy uses, and focus the renewables effort, not on keeping our SUVs running, but on life-changing applications in, for example, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

      I will get back to you with data on some of this.

    • Tim – I am assuming that you mean that the future – if anyone is alive – will be fueled by renewables… i.e. wood for cooking and heating…. and sunshine for growing food.

      Surely you do not see a world powered by solar wind and batteries?

      ‘Please don’t think that I’m hostile to renewables – on the contrary, they are the future’

    • Just to add that I think I now have to hand all the numbers I need to give you some detailed answers.

      As I’m sure you know – but other readers may not – there can be big differences between installed capacityand actual output.

      In 2016, wind power output was 23% of installed capacity. This number has crept up very gradually, from 18% in 1998.

      For solar, the ratio was only 13% in 2016. Again, there has been very little progress in this ratio, despite CSP.

      Another interesting point is the share of available fossil fuels being consumed by electricity. That share is rising pretty rapidly. This means that, even before any serious roll-out of EV, other demands being made on electricity are rising a lot more rapidly than primary fuel availability. We’re forever demanding more tech, appliances and gadgets. That adds to the diiculties with EV.

    • Dear Tim, I feel compelled to respond to your rather pessimistic comments on wind power, and in particular its “intermittency” (not a word that I like to use, as all power sources are intermittent to some extend – “variable” is a better description, and one that those working on renewable energy tend to use). I don’t think it’s particularly instructive to look at the output of a single wind farm, or to claim that this would need “backup”. The electricity system is operated as a highly dynamic system, where both supply and demand vary – sometimes much more unexpectedly than with the ramp down in solar or wind output, such as when a large generator trips, or is forced offline. With much more interconnection, greater emphasis on demand response and demand shifting (which has huge potential to be expanded), storage, and in the medium term more flexible thermal plant (although of course that will need to be eliminated if we ever decide to serious address climate change), I’m confident variable renewable energy can be accommodated. Whether you and others agree with this or not is perhaps a matter of outlook, and I agree with your scepticism on the raw material needs and the feasibility of achieving the scales required. But I would suggest that it is unhelpful to look at renewables in isolation, particularly considering that several territories (California, Denmark, Spain, UK) are doing a pretty good job so far at integrating increasing high levels of variable renewable energy without huge system costs or curtailment.

    • The Futility of Wind Power

      Wind power is so dilute that to collect a significant quantity of wind energy will always require thousands of gigantic towers each with a massive concrete base and a network of interconnecting heavy duty roads and transmission lines. It has a huge land footprint.

      Then the operating characteristics of turbine and generator mean that only a small part of the wind’s energy can be captured.

      Finally, when they go into production, wind turbines slice up bats and eagles, disturb neighbours, reduce property values and start bushfires.

      Wind power is intermittent, unreliable and hard to predict. To cover the total loss of power when the wind drops or blows too hard, every wind farm needs a conventional back-up power station (commonly gas-fired) with capacity of twice the design capacity of the wind farm to even out the sudden fluctuations in the electricity grid. This adds to the capital and operating costs and increases the instability of the network.

      Click to access why-wind-wont-work.pdf

    • “To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare earth metals that we are mining today,” according to Thomas Graedel at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. So renewable energy resources like windmills and solar PV can not ever replace fossil fuels, there’s not enough of many essential minerals to scale this technology up.


    • Why Germany’s nuclear phaseout is leading to more coal burning

      Between 2011 and 2015 Germany will open 10.7 GW of new coal fired power stations. This is more new coal coal capacity than was constructed in the entire two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      The expected annual electricity production of these power stations will far exceed that of existing solar panels and will be approximately the same as that of Germany’s existing solar panels and wind turbines combined. Solar panels and wind turbines however have expected life spans of no more than 25 years.

      Coal power plants typically last 50 years or longer. At best you could call the recent developments in Germany’s electricity sector contradictory.


    • Germany Runs Up Against the Limits of Renewables

      Even as Germany adds lots of wind and solar power to the electric grid, the country’s carbon emissions are rising. Will the rest of the world learn from its lesson?

      After years of declines, Germany’s carbon emissions rose slightly in 2015, largely because the country produces much more electricity than it needs. That’s happening because even if there are times when renewables can supply nearly all of the electricity on the grid, the variability of those sources forces Germany to keep other power plants running.

      And in Germany, which is phasing out its nuclear plants, those other plants primarily burn dirty coal.


    • Solar and wind power simply don’t work — not here, not anywhere

      The problem we have in Australia is when we talk renewable energy we are talking wind and solar only — low value, expensive, unreliable, high capital cost, land hungry, intermittent energy.

      The energy supply is not dense enough. The capital cost of consolidating it makes it cost prohibitive. But they are not only much more expensive because of this terminal disadvantage, they are low value intermittent power sources — every kilowatt has to be backed up by conventional power, dreaded fossil fuels.

      So we have two capital spends for the same output — one for the renewable and one for the conventional back-up. Are you surprised it is so much more expensive, and inefficient, and always will be? So wind and solar, from a large scale electricity point of view, are duds. Now I know that will send the urgers into paroxysms of outrage.

      But have you ever seen an industry that so believed its own propaganda. Note, when they eulogise the future of renewables they point to targets, or to costly investments, never to the real contribution to supply.

      Let’s look overseas where many countries have been destroying their budgets and their economies on this illusion for longer and more comprehensively than we in Australia. The Germans are ruing the day they decided to save the world by converting to solar and wind. Germany has spent $US100bn on solar technology and it represents less than 1 per cent of their electricity supply.

      Energy policy has been a disaster. Subsidies are colossal, the energy market is now chaotic, industry is decamping to other jurisdictions, and more than a million homes have had their power cut off.

      It is reported electricity prices in Germany, Spain and the UK increased by 78 per cent, 111 per cent and 133 per cent between 2005 and 2014 as they forced additional renewable capacity into their electricity markets.

      Much More http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/solar-and-wind-power-simply-dont-work–not-here-not-anywhere/news-story/66f188a1399705745abc0f2663a4a9c3

      ‘We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.’

    • @Thomas Malthus

      re: “Two highly qualified Google engineers who have spent years studying and trying to improve renewable energy technology have stated quite bluntly that whatever the future holds, it is not a renewables-powered civilisation: such a thing is impossible.”

      This “analysis” shows a complete paucity of imagination. What they really mean is “civilization with the power consumption patterns we now have.”

      I will submit that civilization — whatever that means by that time — will have no choice but to live on renewables. Unless you think that our current fuel sources are inexhaustible, of course. Or that some technological breakthrough will bring us a power source that is for all practical purposes unlimited.

      Well, I guess anything’s possible. But that window for technological breakthroughs isn’t going to stay open forever. My money is on civilizations eventually being forced to recognize that renewables are the only option. And civilization -will- adapt to that reality.

    • I could explain to you why what you are suggesting is impossible …. but I would be wasting my time

    • Hi Tim. I agree completely about the need for caution about techno-optimists. But there is also a need to be cautious about skeptics, who may have likewise jumped to conclusions without rigorous analysis. That’s why I’m seeking the fundamentals for a realistic understanding about future potentials.

      Toward that end, I’ve done some back-of-envelope number crunching on the PV scale-up required to satisfy the electricity demand of a (hypothetical) fully electrified road fleet. Would greatly appreciate your thoughts…

      Beginning with demand-side: Total current global petroleum use for road transport (heavy and light) is about 80 EJ/yr. Assuming EVs use about 0.33 J of electricity per km travelled, per each 1.0 J of fuel per km used by internal combustion vehicles, and also assuming 10% battery charge-discharge loss, that means about 30 EJ of electricity, or 8300 TWh, would be needed per year to power the global road fleet. Two caveats here: 1) Heavy goods vehicles are less amenable to electrification than light vehicles, but I am including them just to cover the whole road transport sector. 2) I am not including external storage, and assuming EVs can be directly charged when power is available– this would require a level of V2G coordination that does not currently exist, but is not unreasonable.

      Now the supply-side: Current installed PV capacity is roughly 384 GW. Assuming a capacity factor of 15%, that gives an annual production of about 500 TWh. (You mentioned a solar capacity factor of 13%, which seems quite low to me– maybe that is for cloudy UK, but sunnier locales can have capacity factors exceeding 20%.)

      Dividing 8300 by 500 gives a scale-up ratio of 16.5. Current PV capacity would need to scale up roughly 16.5X to meet the needs of a global electrified road fleet. This is certainly not unthinkable, given that we are still in the early stages of PV expansion. And it does not include wind or other renewable sources, which would make it still more accessible.

      Of course, this assumes that all PV electricity is used for transport, and none for residential, commercial or industrial uses. Current total global electricity use (for all those uses) is about 24500 TWh/yr, so a PV scale-up of about 50X (= 24500 TWh ÷ 500 TWh) would be required to satisfy all those uses (not including storage losses).

      So a 16.5X scale-up covers road transport, and another 50X scale-up covers all other electricity demand– call it a 70X scale-up requirement for current demands. Of course, global demand is growing, but so is efficiency at multiple levels (generation, storage, end-use…). Overall, this does not seem necessarily infeasible, since we are still in early days of PV expansion. Adding wind and other renewables would only make it more achievable. My guess (though I haven’t crunched the numbers) is that additional use of most resources (e.g. steel and copper, as you mentioned) would be minor compared to current consumption.

      I would greatly value your feedback on these ideas…

    • My postgrad and initial work in engineering concerned the manufacture of thin film hydrogenated amorphous silicon (a-Si:H) or polycrystalline silicon (pc-Si) for multiple applications including photovoltaics.

      Although I haven’t been able to run any numbers my experience with the process has made me wonder how dependent PV manufacture is on fossil fuel subsidies.

      Thin film silicon is ‘grown’ in what are basically high vacuum ‘cookers’ which allow the feed gases of silane, hydrogen and others to be decomposed into a film usually on a glass panel itself covered in a sputtered metal layer deposited using techniques such as plasma sputtering.

      The systems I used were to manufacture for research and no doubt economies of scale can be achieved.

      A quick run through of dependencies that come to kind:

      Manufacture of feedstock gases, delivered in manufactured pressurised containers (mining, processing, storage, transport)

      Manufacture of PV fabrication equipment (vacuum systems, pipes, control electronics.and computers, cooling systems, concrete building to house it all)

      Processing using high voltage, where does the electricity to make PV come from?

      Transport of everything involved at every step of the process.

      Intuitively it seemed to me that PV technology is currently dependent on systems that use cheap abundant fossil fuels and is hence a derivative of fossil fuel itself. I don’t have enough information to confidently draw any conclusions, but my experience with this process has made me wonder about the feasibility of PV manufacture in a scenario with increasing cost of fossil fuels.

      I am also sceptical of PV EROEI estimates. It seems obvious that a PV EROEI is a function of fossil fuel EROEI and other factors.

      Further questions I aspire to get answers to one day:
      1. What is that function?
      2. How sensitive is the function to decreasing fossil fuel EROEI? Does it become the dominant factor? If so, when?
      3. How much does technology improvement factor in?
      4. How long can technology improvement factor offset decreasing fossil fuel EROEI in this function?

    • RS:

      Thank you, and I agree that there can be too much skepticism, as well as too much over-enthusiasm, for tech. Although the press has, in the past, called me “Dr Gloom” and “terrifying Tim” (!), my aim is to be realistic, without being unduly pessimistic. Media coverage does seem to have a “positivity bias”, and too often fails to distinguish between tech and physics. Countering this may make me appear to have a negativity bias.

      I think that the topic(s) of EV and renewables need some dedicated analysis here, and I’ve already started pulling together the data I need for this (FYI, my models work mainly in tonnes of oil equivalent, and TWH). Putting up tables and charts here is difficult, so I might make this a downloadable PDF instead.

      One point that I think will need to be made is that, even without EV, demand for electricity is growing at around 2.5% annually. If we assume (comparatively) little scope for volume growth in nuclear and hydro, this this ‘ex-EV baseline’ demand is growing at just over 3% per year. We do, therefore, need to grow renewables pretty rapidly, even before we factor in a transition to EV.

      Through people that I correspond with, and others whose opinions I follow, I see very great scope for renewables contributing to improving lives in emerging economies, such as Sub Saharan Africa and the Indian subcontinent. I’m less convinced that they are going to keep our (Western) SUVs on the road, or provide us with replacements.

      But I need to present a statistical analysis before reaching any conclusions. That work is in hand.

    • Kevin, thank you. This is an area that I’ll need to consider when, as planned, I put together something on EV and renewables.

      I also need to work out the importance of humble copper in this – any thoughts? At present, copper is extracted at typical rates of 1 tonne of copper from 500 tonnes of rock, so is very energy-intensive.

    • In non-technical terms, the sun doesn’t always shine and the wind doesn’t always blow. Also, electrical power is only a part of our energy use.

      Regarding wind turbines, the relationship between wind speed and electrical output is non-linear. For example, a turbine with a design rating of 20kw will just about boil a 3kw kettle at half its design wind speed. At a quarter of its design speed, it will probably manage a few light bulbs.

    • @drkevinoneill

      Re: “my experience with the process has made me wonder how dependent PV manufacture is on fossil fuel subsidies.”

      That is, of course, the $64 million question when it comes to photovoltaics and other renewable strategies that require a hefty dose of manufactured structures. It’s pretty clear that significant power can be made available by photovoltaics, wind turbines, etc. Even now, there are “intentional communities” that are perfectly functional “off the grid”. But of course, these communities get their solar panels, wind turbines, hot-water panels, motors and the like from the technological community that surrounds them. In other words, those essentials were produced using energy sources not available to those communities. Will the systems used by those communities “scale up” to the level necessary to produce those essentials? As you say, how does operate a high-temperature oven on renewable energy?

      This could be a problem…

    • Hello Dr Tim. As you say there is a big difference between the capacity and output of renewables. Comprehensive data from BEIS can be found here:
      Download the MS Excel Spreadsheet, 627KB, and explore the tabs. Annual load factors for the various kinds of renewables can be found under the annual tab. For the whole of 2016 offshore wind output was 36% of its rated capacity, onshore wind was 23.7% and solar PV 11.1%.

    • Tim – regarding copper:

      I was playing with some electric motors the other day and seeing all those copper windings raised exactly the same thoughts about the future of copper.

      My first thoughts were to build an cost estimating model to answer the question: “How much could copper cost in X years?”

      Factors I am trying to include:

      – Decreasing copper yields from ore over time.
      – Increasing energy cost of energy used in processing.
      – Increasing demand for copper from developing nations.
      – Increased demand for copper for electrification of infrastructure from developed nations.
      – Offsetting of decreasing yields through ‘unspecified technological innovation’ (varying date and scale of implementation of the new tech)

      Ideally I would be looking toward a dynamic model which can show how price can vary over time given different starting assumptions and different degrees and times of offsetting.

      Then would come the consequences work – to try to imagine how various critical processes in our current operating system could be affected by the various cost scenarios generated by the model.

      Someone must have done this already though. I’m looking for this first before doing any proper modelling myself.

      Initial conclusions from initial reading so far are that the cost of copper is going to go up. The rate of increase being a function of the convergence of the factors mentioned above.

    • Peak mining & implications for natural resource management – Simon Michaux

      Former career mining professional Simon Michaux gives a public lecture describing the onset of ‘peak mining’ and its various implications for natural resource management. This talk was presented in Adelaide by the environmental group, Sustainable Population Australia. The presentation looks at the looming energy crisis, and plots peak gas, coal, uranium and other energy sources as we head towards a time of resource scarcity and radical societal change.

    • When Richard Buckminster Fuller came to Australia in the mid 1960’s I heard him say there was already enough copper in circulation and with efficiency improvements one could just recycle the existing supply. I’m sure its partly true even now.

    • However, I bet if this has been done before – it hasn’t factored in EcoE.

      The ideal would to be to take a validated model which has considered the other factors, and just add ECoE in.

    • Kevin

      Not really my field, but I believe that copper is utterly critical to anything we do in electricity. In nineteenth century America, it wasn’t uncommon to find boulders with huge concentrations of copper lying in stream beds – there exist some photos of these. Now, yields are down to about 0.2%, so the energy required just to access the ore is very substantial.

      I’m not sure how big an obstacle this is, going forward. But if, I as suspect, there is no alternative to copper, or at any rate no viable alternative, the question arises of whether renewables can power copper extraction operations. If not, then there is dependency on legacy energy, that is, fossil fuels.

      I’m going to look into the relationship between crude prices and copper prices over time – logically, that relationship is likely to be pretty close.

    • On your point about factoring EROEI/ECoE into the chain, this is exactly the kind of holistic analysis that we need and which, I suspect, isn’t done.

      This kind of thing crops up in input analysis. Let’s say an airline is making forecasts for its management. Obviously, oil prices are vital to an airline – but, critically, their people aren’t petroleum experts. So the input they use is likely to be a consensus set of forecasts for oil prices, perhaps with sensitivity studies around the central case.

      As for business, so for government. I very much doubt if any part of government actually looks at, say, the dynamics of oil, less still those of copper. They act as the airline above does. This makes them dependent on a gamut of consensus-based (or ‘narrow expert’) inputs. Critically, these estimates aren’t interconnected, but they need to be. So, government could be using optimistic forecasts for, say, electricity supply, whilst also using bullish estimates for copper prices, and not spotting the inconsistency.

      In Conan Doyle’s books, Sherlock’s brother Mycroft is described, vaguely, as having an eagle-eyed view over all of government, looking out for connections or inconsistencies, and acting as a “clearing house” for ministers. An equivalent is surely necessary now – good ideas “from the mouths of babes and detective-writers”, as it were……

    • ‘Cathay also recorded a fuel hedging loss of HK$3.2 billion in the first half of this year.’


      This demonstrates that they have not taken this into consideration:

      According to the OECD Economics Department and the International Monetary Fund Research Department, a sustained $10 per barrel increase in oil prices from $25 to $35 would result in the OECD as a whole losing 0.4% of GDP in the first and second years of higher prices. http://www.iea.org/textbase/npsum/high_oil04sum.pdf

      ‘We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.’

    • FYI, four useful copper-related publications:

      Harmsen et al. 2013. The impact of copper scarcity on the efficiency of 2050 global renewable energy scenarios. Energy 50:62-73.
      In the coming decades, copper scarcity is likely to result in deteriorating ore quality, which in turn will lead to a higher GER (gross energy requirement) for copper production. In this study, this increasing GER and the effect it has on the EROI (energy return on investment) of wind turbine technologies have been analysed. The GER of copper in a 2050 100% renewable energy system will be a factor 2–7 larger than it is today, depending on technological progress, the recycling rate and the future electricity demand. Because of an increasing in-use stock of copper, recycling will play a relatively small role even when the recycling rate is high. The future EROI of wind turbines is approximately 15% less than is currently often taken into account, mainly due to network losses. The GER of increasingly scarce materials can potentially be used as a more meaningful indicator for abiotic depletion in LCA studies than the current mineral reserve based practice.

      Elshkaki & Graedel. 2013. Dynamic analysis of the global metals flows and stocks in electricity generation technologies. Journal of Cleaner Production 59:260-273.
      The demand for energy and consequently the emissions from energy generation have been increasing in recent years at rapid rates, leading to an urgent need for cleaner technologies. Cleaner technologies, however, require scarce resources. This paper analyzes the future development of electricity generation technologies and the metals required for their components, using a multi level dynamic material flow model. The model includes ten electricity generation technologies and the most important factors determining the dynamics of their metals requirement. The analysis is carried out from 1980 through 2050, using two scenarios, termed Market First and Policy First, combined with specific scenarios for the technologies. The results show that no resource problems occur in production capacity or in the availability of resources for wind power technologies in either scenario. In contrast, each photovoltaic solar technology has a constraining metal supply in the Policy First scenario: silver for silicon based technologies, tellurium for cadmium telluride technology, indium for copper indium gallium diselenide, and germanium for amorphous silicon. The model results show that the most critical photovoltaic solar metal in terms of resource availability and production capacity is tellurium. The demand for the base metals aluminium, copper, chromium, nickel, lead, and iron needed for electricity generation technologies can be met in the two scenarios.

      Northey et al. 2014. Modelling future copper ore grade decline based on a detailed assessment of copper resources and mining. Resources, Conservation and Recycling 83:190-201.
      The concept of “peak oil” has been explored and debated extensively within the literature. However there has been comparatively little research examining the concept of “peak minerals”, particularly in-depth analyses for individual metals. This paper presents scenarios for mined copper production based upon a detailed assessment of global copper resources and historic mine production. Scenarios for production from major copper deposit types and from individual countries or regions were developed using the Geologic Resources Supply-Demand Model (GeRS-DeMo). These scenarios were extended using cumulative grade-tonnage data, derived from our resource database, to produce estimates of potential rates of copper ore grade decline.
      The scenarios indicate that there are sufficient identified copper resources to grow mined copper production for at least the next twenty years. The future rate of ore grade decline may be less than has historically been the case, as mined grades are approaching the average resource grade and there is still significant copper endowment in high grade ore bodies. Despite increasing demand for copper as the developing world experiences economic growth, the economic and environmental impacts associated with increased production rates and declining ore grades (particularly those relating to energy consumption, water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions) will present barriers to the continued expansion of the industry. For these reasons peak mined copper production may well be realised during this century.

      Crowson. 2012. Resources Policy 37:59-72.
      The paper examines trends in the average copper content of mined ores over the years. It has tended to decline over the long term, but by no means evenly. US averages are not typical of global averages, at least in the past four decades. Those have been both higher, and less volatile than in the US. One reason for falling averages is a change in the type of deposit mined, with a rise in the share of relatively low grade porphyry deposits. The different nature of their deposits is reflected in marked differences in grades between the different continents. African and Australian average grades are higher than the global average, and changes in the share of Central Africa in global output have affected the global average grade. Yields are have been consistently lower in North America than elsewhere, and Latin American average grades have trended downwards, reflecting both the ageing of mines and the rising share of production from porphyry deposits. Typically the yield of mines declines over time as mining proceeds. The average copper content of ore deposits is usually below the average yield of the ore accessed in the early years of production. The initial grades of new mines have not declined over the past forty years, and there has been no perceptible tendency for the average grade of porphyry deposits brought into production to decline over time. There is no apparent correlation between average grade and deposit size, but mine operators tend to exploit economies of scale to offset low grades. The relationship between the annual percentage yields (the head grade) and the reserve grades of deposits is not static. In recent years head grades have fallen closer to reserve grades. The relationship may be affected by movements in metal prices. Although the evidence about the influence of prices is not clear-cut, it does suggest that prices and cut-off grades may be inversely related. As many ores contain other valuable metals besides copper, copper yields will sometimes be subordinated to the extraction of these other metals. Copper equivalent grades have not moved in the same way as copper grades alone.

    • RS

      Thank you for this. I particularly appreciate these links, because I’m still endeavouring to trace the mineral and other input implications of switching from IC to EV. This is the delaying factor in completing my data on this.

      Copper seems critical here, not least because ore ratios are already very low, so expanded copper requirements may be problematic in energy terms, even if expansion of demand does not drive ratios lower.

      Electricity demand worldwide is growing at between 2.5% and 3% per year. Assuming the lower number as baseline, and further assuming 75% conversion of road transport to EV by 2030, rates of electricity demand growth rise to between 4% and 4.4%. I’m still working this through, but supplying all of this expansion from renewables is looking rather implausible so far. Initial data points to increased use of fossil fuels in power generation, made possible, of course, by the assumed decrease in requirements for petroleum in road transport.

  17. A discussion of ownership: Right on cue, John Michael Greer is discussing syndicalism, as in worker ownership of the means of production, as an alternative to the failed models of capitalism and socialism:


    Happy New Year Tim and thanks for your unfailingly thought-provoking, well-argued blog posts.

  18. Suggested reading: On Trails by Robert Moor

    Moor writes about all sorts of trails, from 500 million year old traces in rocks to the Appalachian Trail to links in the internet. One of the most interesting chapters covers the behavior of insects. We learn about how ants can be so stupid individually, and so smart as a group (it comes from following simple rules). We learn about the dreadful effects when their simple rules lead the ants into self-destructive behavior (such as circling endlessly until they are eaten by scavengers). We begin to think about the connection between the scent following insects and the fiat dollar following billionaires.

    We learn that it is usually the hungry insect or animal which breaks out of the rut. Scientists even discovered a ‘non-mycorrhizal plant living a hard life in central Spain which formed a mycorrhizal connection’…apparently out of necessity. And we learn that a storm-blown bird from South America made landfall in the Galapagos, mated with a different species female, out of necessity, and the two started a new species which now has 30 members.

    So, perhaps it might pay to contemplate how ‘the hungry’ might change the ways the games are played.

    Moor illuminates the spectrum from critters that mostly rely on what they, themselves, know and those, like the ants, who rely heavily on what others know (e.g., the way to the food as shown by the pheromone trail). His comment on humans:

    As a species, humans straddle a line between external and internal intelligence. With big brains and (typically) small clan size, humans have traditionally harnessed individual cleverness to outcompete rivals for food and mates, to hunt and dominate other species, and, eventually to seize control of the planet….we have also externalized our wisdom in the form of trails, oral story-telling, written texts, art, maps, and …electronic data….we still romanticize the lone genius….In our egotism, we have long remained blind to the communal infrastructure that undergirds our own eureka moments. …the reality of how most trails form–collectively, organically, without the need of a designer or a despot–has been increasingly apparent to scientists for centuries, but has remained invisible to most of us for too long.’

    Happy new year to Dr. Tim and All….Don Stewart

    • The famine in Ukraine provides a useful model to understand how people react when hungry.

      Part 1:

      “I know that we would eat weeds and crushed straw,” she says. “We would boil it and our mother would form them into patties that we called ‘matorzhenyki.’ There was no flour. We dried herbs and plants and pounded them in a mortar, and then Mama would make these matorzhenyki.”

      People foraged in creek beds for mussels, boiled bark stripped from trees, and hunted snakes and ground squirrels. Mykola Mykolaenko, a 93-year-old Dnipropetrovsk poet and playwright who has written extensively about the Holodomor, said he would furtively collect discarded fish heads from a cafeteria for factory managers and smuggle them home to his mother to boil into a weak soup.

      Such nighttime outings terrified his mother as rumors of cannibalism spread. Mykolaenko, who grew up in the village of Maryanivka, never saw actual evidence of people killing each other for food. But his mother warned him of the danger every time he went out, and he said paranoia in the starving village was rampant.

      “It began even before 1933,” he said. “One day, someone would go to a neighbor to ask for salt…and the next day they’d already be saying that someone in that family ate somebody else, that they killed a younger child in order to feed the older ones.”


  19. Part 2:

    Desperate hunger drove people to sell off all of their possessions for any food they could find. At night, an eerie silence fell over the village, where all the livestock and chickens had long since been killed for food and exhausted villagers went to bed early.

    At Dnipropetrovsk we got out of the carriages. I got off the wagon and I saw very many people swollen and half-dead. And some who were lying on the ground and just shaking. Probably they were going to die within a few minutes.

    The hunger drove many people to desperation and madness. Many instances of cannibalism were recorded, with people living off the remains of other starvation victims or in some instances resorting to murder. Most peasant families had five or six children, and some mothers killed their weakest children in order to feed the others.

    Burtianski said at one point, he avoided buying meat from a vendor because he suspected it was human flesh.

    Burtianski says during the trial one of the sons admitted in chilling terms to eating the flesh of his own mother, who had died of starvation.

    “He said, ‘Thank you to Father Stalin for depriving us of food. Our mother died of hunger and we ate her, our own dead mother. And after our mother we did not take pity on anyone. We would not have spared Stalin himself.'”

    Naumenko also witnessed instances of cannibalism. He said he first discovered that his neighbors were eating human flesh after one of them, called Tetyana, refused to share her meat with him despite the fact he had just helped bury her father.

    “I saw Tetyana eating chicken meat and saw there was a lot of it. I approached her and asked her for some, but she refused to give me any. Because it was human flesh.”

    Hundreds were executed or killed by other villagers for cannibalism. Soviet records show that around 1,000 people were still serving sentences for cannibalism in prison camps on the White Sea at the end of the 1930s.

    Olena Mukniak was 10 in 1933 and lived in a village in the Poltavschyna region with her mother, older sister, and younger brother. Her father had left for the Donbas area in search of food. In the village, Mukniak said people picked through horse manure to find grain, stewed leather boots, and toasted leaves and tree bark.

    “What do you do if there’s nothing to eat? We collected birch leaves and toasted them and ate them. What else could we do?”


  20. Reply to Thomas Malthus
    My purpose is to demonstrate that the best current science and practice of food and fiber production is quite different from the dominant, industrial system of production. And that the evidence we have indicates that moving toward the best practices has some very good effects in terms of everything from topsoil creation to primary productivity to reduction or elimination of toxins in the food supply to reduced chronic disease and carbon sequestration.

    What I have had to say has nothing to do with problems of distribution or processing or storing food. Those will remain heavily dependent on fossil fuels, unless significant life style changes are made.

    Why is it important that we understand what is at stake? Because there may be a very large difference between a sudden collapse of the fossil fuel economy and a gradual shrinking of the fossil fuel economy. If our future holds a steady increase in the Energy Cost of Energy, then shrinking the dependence of primary food and fiber production on fossil fuels, and replacing the production of nutrient deficient foods with nutrient dense foods may be a very good step to take.

    If one is convinced that a fast and complete crash is in the very near future, then probably nothing matters in terms of changing the agricultural and food system. But before concluding as much, one should examine other cases where monetary systems crashed but the real economy soldiered on, damaged but still standing.

    My goal is accurate information. What any particular person chooses to do with it is not my business.

    I believe Thomas Malthus tried ‘organic’ agriculture and failed. That is not surprising, since the ‘organic’ standards do not reflect the best current science. I worked on a farm which used organic methods, but failed. I think I know what does not work. I have tried to illuminate the differences between ‘organic certified’ and ‘best current practices’. In a nutshell, one has to adapt to fungally dominated soils…which is not mentioned anywhere in the organic standards.

    Don Stewart

    • Don…. where you have it all wrong is that the economy can NOT slowly collapse.

      The economy MUST grow — if it does not then within a fairly short period of time we enter what is known as a deflationary death spiral….

      Remember 2008?

      Growth stopped — and we were days away from the death spiral — literally millions of jobs were being shed globally every month….

      Then the CBs stepped in and rode to the rescue.

      And contrary to popular belief — the global economy has been growing since they stepped in.

      Yes I know … for many people things are getting worse….. but for a lot of people things are absolutely awesome —- for all those big-spending Chinese property investors things have never been so good.

      Global GDP is increasing.

      When it stops — the last thing anyone will be doing is reading your recommended books.

      They will be tearing each other’s faces off. They will be in your back yard tearing up your wonderful garden – killing and eating your animals.

      Then the disease and spent fuel pond radiation will arrive

      That is why I dumped the organic gardening nonsense.

      I came to my senses — had a big old chuckle about how much of a fool I was …. and now I live stress free understanding that no matter what I do — I die. Everyone dies.

      So no I won’t read those books or watch those videos — and I damn well will not be in the paddock pulling weeds and worrying about the lack of rain. What a total waste of time – when time is short!

      I’ll be doing things that I really want to do — like traveling — or mountain biking — or hiking — or fishing …. or skiing and playing ice hockey.

    • @Thomas Malthus
      Please check out this video on a project in Spain:

      The biologist who is doing the physical planning seems to have her feet solidly planted on the ground, and she seems to have a good understanding of the kind of economics which is required to make such communities function.

      I would agree that such a project cannot support an enormous overhead of speculative debt. On the other hand, if the current enormous overhead of speculative debt collapses, there is no reason why the project has to fall apart (once it is operational). As someone observed, the ‘collapse’ of the Roman Empire only looked like a collapse in northwestern Europe. In much of southern Europe it just looked like the bad guy had gone to their reward.

      You are welcome to your doom and gloom. I have no interest in trying to preach the gospel to you.

      Don Stewart

    • Don …. you are beyond delusional…. I can’t even come up with a word that describes you….

    • I seriously think that your awareness of the grim situation we are facing with respect to the end of civilization ….

      Has driven you off the deep end.

      I am not kidding when I think you have gone insane.

      However it appears to be a ‘good’ type of insane…. cognitive dissonance has kicked in …. and is protecting you….. from deep despair.

      So please continue reading those books and watching those videos …. they are very effective self-therapy…

      And I suggest you just ignore my posts… the last thing we want is for a bit of logic … or a fact… to puncture your fairy tale world….

    • I second Don’s comments. Knowledge of soils, soil biota, and plant chemistry has come a long way since the NPK regime that underpins current commercial agriculture. As time goes by, I think the odds are against the current industrial regime. It will come under increasing pressure from fuel scarcity and soil depletion, and a retrenchment -will- take place based on the practices that Don alludes to.

      Regarding Thomas Malthus’s comments on apocalyptic collapse, well, we seem to live in a age where dire predictions are de rigueur. While I’m pretty sure the downhill slide is not smooth, I think it’s more characterized by a sawtooth pattern down than it is by a cliff dive. So while there may be some tough periods ahead, I don’t see a descent into warlordism on the horizon just yet. The wild card being a world war, of course, but in that case, the issues we’re discussing here are going to become immediately irrelevant.

      Given that view, I think Don’s viewpoint makes good sense. Subject, of course, to personal interests. If you don’t like gardening and would prefer to go hiking, skiing, and travelling, then by all means go for it! You should certainly make the most of the time that you’re here, whatever that means to you.

      But at the same time, don’t put down someone else’s life choices. Don’s interests obviously run toward the long view, and so naturally encompass sustainable living. Thomas’s interests quite as obviously run toward enjoying the moment by engaging in activities that bring him pleasure. I don’t see anything wrong with either option.

    • Don

      I find this discussion very impressive and the number of references that would be interesting to follow up is mind boggling.

      However, as TM implies, in some respects this is missing the point entirely. It seems to me that the original question posed by Malthus has yet to be answered and the proximate cause of these various difficulties is not the system of agriculture but the fact that population tends to grow exponentially whilst resources grow arithmetically and there has to be a limit and that any talk of “sustainability” must ultimately fall on this fact.

      Now TM (the real TM) was not right in some of his original assumptions ( constant birth rate; falls in real wages…) but it seems to me that the conclusion does still hold and you are up against the ineluctable fact that “sustainability” is in fact a chimera without some means of limiting the growth in population.

      Now of course I’m not saying this is easy, nor that more “sustainable ” agricultural practice should not be pursued, but it seems to me that we simply will not solve this problem by changing methods of agriculture but merely postpone the denouement. We would be better off recognising what the real problem and try to tackle this as well.

      Am I wrong here?

    • @Bob J
      The issue of population is a complex one. The late Toby Hemenway was interested in how many humans the Earth could support in the absence of fossil fuels (and assuming no deus ex machines such as too cheap to meter fusion). The answer he came up with was somewhere between 500 million and 2 billion. He also did some estimates of human population assuming a ‘one child’ policy, and came out with population around 2100 not too far off his maximum sustainable numbers.

      Of course, things haven’t gone the way Toby thought they would. For example, Europe seems to have concluded that they need to import lots of people in order to keep their populations from declining. I see that as just insane. I believe a number of countries in Europe give bonuses to families who have more children.

      Iran dropped below replacement level several years ago.

      An interesting anecdote from Japan. I was taking a look at The Human Condition, an anti-war Japanese movie from 1959. It follows a young man who, at the age of 20, is drafted into the army and sent to China to fight. He is idealistic, and has left a lovely woman behind in Japan. The gist of the story is that his life is destroyed by the violence. In the final scene, he is walking across a snow-covered field, falls, and the snow covers him. He dies struggling to get back to the love of his life.

      The movie-maker was born in 1915. The movie commentator was born after WWII. The commentator did some research to learn what young people think about the movie today. He discovers that the young Japanese think that the premise of the movie…trying to get back to the love of one’s life…is ridiculous. The commentator, now perhaps 70 years old, says that he also thought that premise was not very credible the first time he saw the movie. Fit that in with the facts that population is falling in Japan, and many young people seem to have lost interest in sex.

      It seems to me that context has more to do with population than we generally think it does.

      The technology of birth control has also improved. The psychiatrist Kelly Brogan had a ‘religious conversion’ a few years ago and just absolutely stopped prescribing psychiatric meds, which have about the same effect as placebos. She also stopped taking birth control pills. Instead, she uses an inexpensive thermometer. What she and her husband do on days when penis-in-vagina is not permitted by the thermometer I leave to your imagination.

      In short, I think it is a mistake to simply take the Malthusian view from a time when the context was very different. But if I lived in Nigeria, I might be very pessimistic indeed.

      Don Stewart

    • Bob J

      At the risk of belaboring a point, I think there’s an implicit recognition of the fact that unconstrained population growth on a finite planet is a logical impossibility. In addition, we commonly observe that wherever birth control is widely available and socially acceptable, birth rates have declined to something approaching replacement level. Indeed below replacement level is some places.

      Regarding the number of people that can be sustainably supported on planet earth should the current NPK regime become untenable, I’m not so sure. Using some of the measures alluded to by Don, I think 500 million to 2 billion might prove to be a conservative estimate. I also freely admit that my view here is pure speculation, but I base it on my observation that a huge amount of land in the eastern US is vastly underutilized when compared to its optimal food production capacity.

    • @Helix
      Sepp Holzer puts the number at 16 billion. My own opinion is that it depends on just how dead the fossil fuels are. For example, if there are no fossil fuels at all, then we may not have much in the way of metal cutting implements. The easy sources of metals were exhausted long ago. But then, again, salvage may be a booming business. As you see, I don’t know.
      Don Stewart

    • @Don

      You say:”In short, I think it is a mistake to simply take the Malthusian view from a time when the context was very different. But if I lived in Nigeria, I might be very pessimistic indeed.”

      Now you are right here but this is a cop out.

      My point is that you don’t need to have the right assumptions for TM to be true; it’s more a matter of logic. If you have a functional relationship between population and land, to wit we need so much land per head to “survive”. and if land does not increase whilst population does then there has to be a point where there are too many people. In the past wars and famine have taken care of this and provided the necessary “balancing” mechanisms and this underlying logic has been obscured. But as we have conquered disease and are more inclined to peace in the context of nuclears war these “balancing” mechanisms have lost force and we are now faced with the steady creep towards the Malthusian Armageddon. Malthus may have been wrong in the context but the context itself is right and ineluctable.

  21. Comments close…

    Chris machin commented on #113: Death of a high-fashion model.

    in response to drtimmorgan:

    IS ‘SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT’ A MYTH? 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 … Continue reading #113: Death of a high-fashion model

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

    So I reply here:

    Same reason so many people reject Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy

    • Let me be clear that we do NOT – as a certain politician memorably put it – “do God” here.

      Fair’s fair – so far as I know, He doesn’t do a blog about economics.

      There’s a wise saying that, in polite conversation, one should avoid “religion, sex and politics”.

      Politics are relevant to economics, but the others are not.

  22. some collapse science
    See this 5 slide explanation of the difference between homeostasis and allostasis.

    Briefly, homeostasis can be counted on to deal with challenges in a fairly narrow range, such as the range of temperatures our body can adjust to. But if our experience goes out of the narrow range, we are impelled to do something about the environment. Emotions play a role in prompting us to do the things we need to do to change the environment: e.g., cower in fear, hit back in anger, become so dissatisfied that we move somewhere else

    The last slide shows the overlapping sources which can motivate our allostatic system:

    And under psychological, we get the note: Appraisal based on experience

    Now consider that you were living in the newly created community in Spain. The kinks have been worked out. Your community is not independent of the global society, but it is pretty self-sufficient. You get word that stock markets around the world are tanking and fiat currencies have become worthless. Now contrast your psychological stress with that of a very rich person living and working in the City in London or on Wall Street. In the case of the resident of the community in Spain, the allostatic stress is likely to seem manageable. In the case of the rich person in the financial capitals, it may well prompt suicide.

    Don Stewart

    • I’m sure you have read “Affluenza”, a book about stress and economic systems. One chapter, as I recall, contrasted the very low stress of a ‘poor’ (financially) NYC cab driver from Nigeria with the ulra-high stress of a mega-rich Wall Street wizzard. “Bonfire of the vanities”?

  23. I made the comment below at the end of the comments on the previous blog post so this may have been missed by Don.
    Tim and Don,
    I have read Don’s comments with great interest finding the videos of Gabe Brown particularly useful, where he demonstrates how he restores degraded soils with the aid of mycorrhizae. I’m now half way through reading my (Christmas present) of Mycorrhizal Planet by Michael Phillips. Thanks to Tim for hosting and for Don for the useful information.
    In reply Thomas said
    “What would one eat when restoring the soil?
    How would one keep one’s hoard from being eaten by ravenous violent hordes?
    Where would one obtain the manure and other necessary ingredients for restoring the soil when all the animals are killed and eaten by the hungry hordes?”
    And then in part of Thomas’ reply to Don today:
    “So no I won’t read those books or watch those videos — and I damn well will not be in the paddock pulling weeds and worrying about the lack of rain. What a total waste of time – when time is short!
    I’ll be doing things that I really want to do — like traveling — or mountain biking — or hiking — or fishing …. or skiing and playing ice hockey.”
    If Thomas had watched the Gabe Brown videos he would see that the soil restoration is based on nurturing mycorrhizae with maintaining crop cover and refraining from nitrate fertilizer and herbicide and fungicide use. It is also happening now, saving Gabe from the bankruptcy he faced by following the “conventional” farming methods and improving the soil before system collapse occurs, and making his farm less susceptible to weed and drought problems so that he “damn well will not be in the paddock pulling weeds and worrying about the lack of rain”.
    I personally find this more interesting than “travelling — or mountain biking — or hiking — or fishing …. or skiing and playing ice hockey “ and intend to put some of the ideas into action on a small scale.

    • ‘Nurturing the soil’….. hahahaha…. now that is FUNNY!!!!

      Think of me when you are trying to nurture — and the hungry violent hordes pile in tearing apart your tenderly nurtured soil…. rape your women… and enslave you ….. before the radiation rolls in and kills your soil — and you.

    • @Thomas Malthus

      We won’t have to think of you. We’ll be able to see you — among the violent hordes. That will be your only option. We’ll have others.

  24. Dear Tim, thanks for the excellent end of year summary – and Happy New Year!

    You asked for feedback on how to advance these ideas, and in particular you mention the importance of collaborating with government and business. I would like to ask you: If there are public sector institutions, international organisations, or think tanks interested in commissioning work in this area, what would you (and others) propose that they focus on? Are there specific sub-topics where some additional resources (monetary or otherwise) would be helpful? Of course one objective may simply be to help broaden the discussion and disseminate the work that you and others have already done, but my experience is that this works best when it is combined with a dedicated work program so that the evidence base and analysis is also broadened.

    All the best for 2018.

    • Thank you, and I wish you the very best in 2018.

      My thinking has covered quite a lot of ground on the subjects you mention, and there are a lot of things that would be very valuable, but that I cannot do alone within my limits of resources (financial and otherwise). I’ll get back to you on this.

  25. Just caught some of the comments on techno-optimism and physics-optimism. The points Tim is making are not pessimistic they’re realistic. Techno-optimism is often based on observed hypothesis not science.

    For example Moore’s law isn’t a law its an observation. Physics tells you that the size and speed will eventually be limited by atomic and molecular limits. And it has.

    Techno-optimists also forget what was promised and what was realized.

    For example when nuclear power was first introduced the public was promised that the waste would be of no consequence because technology would not only take care of it but find a profitable use for it. Now we have thousands of tons of radioactive waste just waiting for a catastrophic accident to occur.

    Technology didn’t get us to this point, cheap abundant energy did. So the solution won’t be technology since presently it can’t take care of itself. Energy is what drives the system and there is no substitute for oil for density stability and convenience.

    Is that pessimistic?

    Here’s some other news. There is no Santa Clause. The tooth fairy isn’t real. Perpetual motion machines don’t exist. You can’t mine asteroids. EV trucks can’t be built and powered. Tesla cars produce more CO2 in their life cycles the ICE cars.

    Credulity isn’t a virtue and reality isn’t pessimism.

  26. Why don’t they follow good advice?

    A few guideposts relative to the behavior of people when we smart people clearly explain the predicament to them:

    *Albert Bates discusses the illusions that both political parties in Mexico are laboring under:

    *Albert, of course, is all in favor of a downsized civilization which produces biochar. It appears that the Chinese have somewhat the same idea. One advantage China seems to have is that it can turn on a dime. Bill Gates was able to turn Microsoft on a dime:
    People’s Republic of China
    China Surges into an Astonishing Global Lead in Biochar Deployment
    By IBI Chairman Tom Miles

    China has invested in many biochar plants in Northern China, primarily to reduce air pollution, improve yields and soil fertility, and sequester carbon. They are currently building about 50 biochar plants, located in each of several provinces. They have tested the biochar fertilizer products in the field at more than 300 sites with impressive results and have set up farmer coops and businesses to collect and densify crop residues at harvest. Pelletizing allows storage of the feedstock and facilitates biochar production along with oil and vinegar extraction. With biochar, they grow more food using less fertilizer while reducing air pollution and sequestering carbon, which they track using standardized methods. Last year they converted 200,000 tons of crop residues to biochar. This year they expect to convert 800,000 tons. That is expected to grow up to three million tons within five years. It is profitable for the farmers and for the biochar fertilizer companies. (Note: if they are using the wood burning reactor that Albert has previously featured, they produce not only biochar but also heat and electricity and other economic goods. Albert mentioned that they have sold a number of them in Africa.)

    *And some of us labor under the illusion that if someone is smart, then they will understand what we are telling them and act accordingly. Not true?

    High Cognitive Ability Alone Does Not Protect Against Unfounded Beliefs, Psychologists Say

    We show that reasonable skepticism about various conspiracies and paranormal phenomena does not only require a relatively high cognitive ability, but also strong motivation to be rational

    PS It’s a frigid day here, so catching up on random reading.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,

      People don’t respond to “good advice” because people don’t like change. True, they do like variety in the stimulation-of-the senses type, but this is not the same as change. Watch any tourist as they gaze at wonder in a new place — and then go back to their 5-star hotel which looks for all the world like it could be right back home in their home town. You’ll see pretty clearly the limits of the changes that most people are willing to accept.

      “Good advice” does not work because it works at the level of logic and intellect, but consciousness runs much deeper than that. Fundamental changes come from the depths. Those depths have been constructed over a lifetime of experience and the various aspects of that construction fit together in ways that enable people to cope with the world they live in. If you come along with “good advice” that clearly implies that changes are in order, I think you can pretty reliably count on encountering resistance.

      So let’s take, for example, attitudes toward “renewable energy”. You would think that people would jump for joy over every kilowatt-hour of energy that we can squeeze out, regardless of its source, right? Wrong. Renewable energy implies fundamental changes in the way people live. They instinctively know that the renewable energy back story is that the energy sources we now use aren’t going to last forever, and there are going to be serious economic and social consequences as those sources begin to run dry. People want the lights to come on whenever they flick the switch. The want hot water whenever they want it, even, or especially if it’s been cloudy for days. They are comfortable with the daily routine of showing up at work at 9AM rain or shine. In the US, energy consumption is the equivalent of each person having dozens of slaves at their disposal to carry their water, chop their wood, carry them to far-off places, produce their food, and provide entertainments at near-zero cost. What’s not to love?

      And then your “good advice” implies that this all has to change?

      As another example, let’s take your comments about agriculture. Biochar? Nurturing the Soil? Right now, food is so abundant in the developed nations that obesity has become a major health issue. Nutritional content and toxic load may be suspect, but you have to admit those apples look absolutely gorgeous. And then your “good advice” implies that the system that produces this food has some problems and has to change?

      OK, so food production has changed over the years, but always in the direction of greater productivity — that is, more food produced by each farmer. On other words, greater surplus, freeing most of us for other pursuits (“travelling, hiking, skiing”). “Nurturing the soil” and “biochar” are implicit criticisms of the current system, and imply that people now have to start thinking about where their food comes from again. In their minds, this is a step backwards. It’s not going to sit well.

      So as the saying goes: First they ignore you. Then the ridicule you. Then they fight you. And then you win. From some of the posts I’ve seen here, I’d say we’re still a long way from the stage where you win.

    • @Helix
      Couple of trail markers. First, I watched A Night to Remember recently…the sinking of the Titanic. There was a lot of denial going on there, also. Second, I observe the efforts to start community gardens. Lots of them fail. For example, a local university has a beautiful garden. The young woman who runs it has done a magnificent job. They don’t sell the food. They give it to the lowest paid people in the University system….who are mostly immigrants from southeast Asia. Poor Americans will generally not accept the food….they have no idea what to do with a head of broccoli or a mess of purple peas. I have heard statistics on how many Americans don’t have a decent cooking pot…can’t remember it exactly, but it’s scary.

      I’m looking at it like the Titanic. Probably two thirds casualties. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t exert efforts to change things.

      I agree with you on the uselessness of most lectures. People can’t imagine how they might fit the advice into the complicated life they live…so they do little or nothing. On the other hand, lectures aren’t always wasted. In March I am off to our annual Agriculture meeting. One of the speakers is a young man who decided to get into farming a few years ago. He spun his wheels for a while, then Ray Archuleta, the local extension agent, said that he should get in touch with Gabe Brown in North Dakota. He visited Gabe, and came back a changed farmer. He’s been on his new path now for 3 or 4 years. He will be leading a half day workshop on what he has been doing and how it is working out.

      In the meantime, I have been getting older, so my days of actual farming are over….but I still garden. So I am involved in turning an old farm which has been given to a conservation group into a showplace for regenerative practices. So I will be going to the conference and paying very close attention to what the young man says.

      It all comes down to motivation, some modest amount of intelligence, a recognition that the old ways won’t work any longer, and a willingness to try new things. And don’t spend too much time on those determined to drown.

      Don Stewart

    • @Don Stewart

      I’ve heard the Titanic analogy many times. In retrospect, we see the actions of those many passengers as foolish and heedless of the danger.

      But… does this analogy really apply to our present predicament? Well, in many respects, it probably does. But there is one salient difference which I think is crucial: the situation on the Titanic presented a mortal danger to every passenger on it within their own lifetime — indeed, within the next few hours of their lifetime. This is not the likely case in the predicaments we’re discussing here. Soil depletion, exhaustion of energy resources, climate change, etc. are going to take many decades — perhaps even a century or more — to play out. The headlines scream “crisis!!”, but the reality is that life today is, in economic and social terms, much what it was like ten years ago.

      This provides the leeway for people here to scorn your views. Barring a nuclear war, they can go hiking, skiing, and travelling for as long as they want and the predicaments we’re discussing aren’t going to impact them all that much. Thus they can remain comfortably complacent and avoid the disquieting self-examination that responding to these issues will require over the long term.

      In my view, this is just as well. Regardless of these issues, we have been blessed with the opportunity to live in a golden age. It is right that we should enjoy it. It is also right that we should think about our futures and take steps to provide for it, which is what restorative agriculture and renewable energy — and this blog — are all about. Fortunately, it only takes a relatively few people to pursue those fields to make them either commonplace by the time they’re needed, or understood to be dead ends.

    • @Helix
      I also thought about the differences between the Titanic and now. But first, look at the similarities.

      The producer of the film went to the Rank Studio in Britain to try to raise money. In an interview in the 1980s, he recollected his experience. The studio said ‘its just another shipwreck and you don’t have any stars and you don’t have a happy ending’. He told the studio that it was a marker of the end of an era: when the upper classes were deemed worthy just because they had money. He pointed out that the Titanic memorial in Belfast listed the passenger in order of their social rank…Lords and Ladies first, steerage last. The nearby WWI memorial listed the casualties alphabetically. The producer thought that ‘never again would anyone assume that someone was of more value simply because they had more money’.

      One of the things we see in the movie is the grasping by the upper classes at their status symbols and the things which give them comfort. I believe that the same sort of thought process is going on today. And I believe the producer was wrong….,,many people do now assume that just because someone has grown very wealthy, they must have more value.

      Now to the difference, and perhaps the straw that breaks the camels back. I believe it was here that I remarked that it is the horizon of concern that causes people to continue to build and buy condominiums in Palm Beach. For the developers, the horizon is about 5 years from purchasing the land to selling the last condo. Why should they worry about the level of the sea in 10 years?

      For the buyers, the logic is about the same. The average condo turns over every 5 or 6 years. What do they care about what happens to the subsequent owner. The straw that would break the camel’s back is if the general public forms the perception that a Palm Beach condo is going to become worthless in 10 years. Which means that if they buy one today, they won’t be able to find a greater fool in 5 years when they want to unload it. Or if the people buying the bundled real estate packages become unwilling to loan money for 30 years on the assumption that Palm Beach will still be above water.

      So public perception is the weak point. It’s also the reason why governments and banks go to such lengths to discredit climate science. The goal of officialdom is to make sure that the rent comes due during the next guy’s watch.

      Wired Magazine had an excellent article on the current East Coast storm. It is being powered by a 100 degree F difference in temperatures. The ocean is very warm and the air mass over Quebec and the northeastern US is extremely cold (last time I looked it was colder than the actual Arctic). That temperature gradient generates ultra-violent storms. The gradient is, in the opinion of many climate scientists, directly attributable to global warming. Does Donald Trump want anyone to understand that? Absolutely not…so we get sorry jokes about ‘we need some of that global warming’ in his tweets.

      Don Stewart

    • I pay no attention to what Donald Trump or any politician says — Donald Trump because he’s a joke and other politicians because any correlation between what they say (to us) and what they do is only randomly correlated. I’m not in the class of people they care about. The only reason I can think of to pay them any heed at all is to know whether I need to duck.

    • ‘Mind you, as I’ve said all along, it’s just what we need to ‘save us’ from climate change, so I personally won’t mind. Check out this chart showing emissions growth on an annual basis..’

      I guarantee… that when the oil and coal and gas stop …. the author will ….recant

  27. Tim thanks for all your work. It has opened my eyes (as have the responses) to the world around us. Can I urge you to open a Twitter account? This will certainly get you more well earned attention. Best wishes Jonathan Tedd

    • Tim – please don’t degrade SEE and join the Kardashian Krowd with a Twitter account…. this is not a subject that lends itself well to LOL… TTL…. etc….

    • Jonathan, thank you, and I think we have some really excellent debates here.

      About Twitter, I’ve no strong views either way, but I simply don’t have the time – I struggle to fit everything in as it is!

  28. A few notes about engineering vs. systems

    I don’t mean that lead in to offend any engineers…you guys make things happen. However, I do believe that when we are thinking about the end of the fossil energy era, we need to look at the fundamentals first before we try to figure out ways to continue to fine-tune the existing system.

    I’ll start with the bigger picture for a couple of related but very different situations than an automobile. Robert Moor, in Trails, makes the point that some original pathfinder discovered a better way to get over the mountain or to locate a sugar cube. Once the original trail was laid down, every person (or ant) who followed the trail tended to improve it by finding shortcuts. The vast majority of us are simply working on shortcuts. But if we are at the end of an era, we need to stop and ask whether shortcuts are going to do the job, or whether we need to re-examine the NEED to get over the mountain or get to the sugar cube. And, parenthetically, in an existential crisis paying back bloated debts and supporting clueless governments won’t count for much.

    Another example comes from Caleb Scharf’s magnificent coffee table book, The Zoomable Universe: An Epic Tour Through Cosmic Scale, From Almost Everything to Nearly Nothing. On page 118 we learn that humans account for about 100 million tons of dry biomass, while our cattle amount to 500 million tons of dry biomass. We also learn that there is 1000 times as much plant biomass as animal biomass. At the present time, we spill a lot of ink trying to figure out how to increase the number of cows per human (protein, you know!). It should be clear that in any Reset, it is going to be the utilization of plants that tells the tale. Which isn’t to say that cows are evil. David Johnson, the soil scientist, calls them ‘nature’s perfect disturbance mechanism’…cows are good for grasslands. And pigs may play a role in forests. But we have to keep an eye on the real goal, which is more photosynthesis and more effective utilization of the plants which grow themselves using photosynthesis and the microbes which are the ancient synergistic partners of the plants.

    Now to the question of EV’s. If we look at the MacArthur Foundation estimates for Europe, we find that the energy derived from burning 100 units of fossil fuels is devoted 99 percent to waste heat, moving the dead weight of the automobile, building and maintaining roads, etc. 1 percent is devoted to moving the mass of the humans. So devoting all our attention to trying to replace that 1 percent with some other source of energy may be, in Jesus’ words, ‘straining at a gnat’.

    If we look at the payloads being moved by fossil fuels, we quickly discover that almost all of the payloads are carried by trucks and ships. If there is an existential threat to our ability to move payloads, then EV automobiles are not going to be any fundamental solution.

    Perhaps battery powered trucks will actually work, or perhaps the Toyota hydrogen trucks will work, or perhaps fusion will actually work. But if all those are speculative, then it makes sense to start looking at drastically reducing payloads.

    Don Stewart

    • Don, you give some nice examples of why it can be advantageous to question the way we currently do things, and step back to to some fundamental questions:

      Why do we do this?
      Do we need to do it this way?
      Do we need to do this at all anymore?

      I used this type of fundamental questioning to challenge many current ways of doing things in the UK military during my time as a ‘Systems Analyst’ employed at MoD. I was paid from the research budget to figure out how things could be done differently, or even if they needed doing at all. Sweet gig until it became frustrating.

      What I generally found was a number of resistances to change that I couldn’t overcome. People seem to be are heavily invested in the current implementation. Their identify, societal role, and hence their status is tied up in the role they play in the current process. Challenging the way things are done and even the need to do it results in an understandable defensiveness. (An example from the past – I was arguing for the managed dismantling of the Royal Artillery since it’s methods and reason for being had been made obsolete by the RAF through advances in close air support and the changing character of conflict.)

      People also seem to be irrationally influenced by ‘sunk costs. Previous investment in existing methods is often used as an argument in support of continuing to invest in the existing methods even though the argument can easily be made that the methods are obsolete and are actually impeding operations rather than contributing. (Basically the artillery and its associated logistic chain was slowing the pace of deployment and responsiveness of military operations, so was becoming a hindrance to modern military operations, particularly in dense urban environments).

      So, although I agree with the need for fundamental change, I am not confident in peoples ability to even consider the need to change before they are forced to by circumstance. This isn’t because we can’t change, as I’ve stated before we just don’t seem to be evolved to do this well as an individual, or as a collective.

      This is part of the reason why I have previously raised the question about a ‘enlightened dictator’ to force needed change rather than waiting for people to make it themselves.

      Although we as individuals should try, but manage expectations of our collective willingness to change realistically.

      (Included the military anecdote for Tim, since he likes that sort of stuff).

    • Thank you, Kevin, especially for the anecdote – I’ve flown on/off a carrier, stood on top of an SSN’s reactor, and done amphibious stuff with the hugely impressive RMs, so yes, I’m interested. I once asked an army officer to justify tanks in an era of missiles, and got no good answer. The RN, too, once had big, slow-moving armoured things, but disposed of them a long time ago…

      I’m investigating EVs and renewables for a future discussion, but it’s a big number-crunching exercise, and I’m keeping an open mind till I have the results to hand. On big trucks, it occurs to me that rail electricication works (and only works) because it runs on a direct power feed, not batteries.

      I also wonder why society seems so obsessed with cars. They are an old concept, after all, a total pain to own in cities, and not necessarily optimal in suburbia and exurbia either. A big FWD makes sense in rural Wales, but not in Knightsbridge – where, in a city, can one park the damn thing?

    • Tim, the tanks issue was another bug bear of mine. The best argument I had for their deployment in modern urban warfare was “presence”…??

      Although a jolly in the tank simulators during the study was good fun.

      I agree with your points about cars. Unfortunately I learned to drive recently, although I really didn’t need to, and turned in to a petrolhead practically overnight.

      My internal argument is that: ‘I am having my go at this while the fuel is still relatively cheap and before it becomes impossible’.

      No logic in that! Total cop-out! 🙂

    • Kevin

      Understood, as a sports car enthusiast myself.

      Here’s a minor mystery, though. Having generally had cars with big engines, back in 2005 I needed something smaller, and discovered that Smart built a roadster and a roadster-coupe. More interestingly, there were Brabus versions of both. Top speed was electronically restricted to 200kph, but that’s plenty, with acceleration concentrated in the 50-90mph band, where it’s most useful. Electronics were incredible; emissions remarkably low; driven carefully (which nobody would) it could return better than 45 mpg; and performance was outstanding (even in top – 6th – it accelerated up quite steep hills).

      What I’m coming to is:

      – Thanks to technology, all this was achieved with a tiny engine – and it’s fun burning off a 3-litre BMW in a 698cc car

      but the mystery is:

      – They stopped making it at the start of 2007!

      The point is, take something like this, make it a bit bigger and add hybrid mods, and we have a really viable alternative at maybe $30,000 to a Tesla at, what, $250,000?

    • Sports cars are an interesting enthusiasm. My passion was for Lancia Aurelia models. the best 1950’s engineering. They are too expensive now but were affordable in the 1970’s. I paid about 1,000 pounds for a B24 Spyder in 1971 but the latest sale was over $US 2 million. One starred in the 1958 film “And God Created Woman” with Brigitte Bardot. The new owner of my Convertible has restored the car I owned for 30 years and its now worth well over $A500,000. I paid $A900 in 1974. House prices were similarly realistic. All gone to pot now.

      Sounds like the housing market. I’ve never seen the Smart car you had. But that’s the best we can do today for most of us. Anyway this exaggeration is just another sign of too much money chasing value.

    • Tim – I have seen the Smart car models you mention.

      Maybe the Smart car business model was only viable in a world where a critical proportion of car buyers consider functional needs and through-life costs? (A person who analyses their needs and evaluates their options before purchase).

      Did the business model ‘architects’ underestimate the sensibility of car-buyers? (Why would they buy a Smart when they could just as easily get that BMW on PCP or PCH?)

      I haven’t done any research into this – I am just hypothesising on why such a sensible idea, that meets modern needs so well, just seems to have disappeared.

    • Very good JT, again, agreed!

      Doc, don’t waste your time on investigating EV’s and company. There are many good articles about this road to nowhere.

  29. @Helix
    One more observation. I heard somebody talking recently about ‘why do they keep building high-rise condominiums on the beach in Miami Beach’?

    He said that the whole thing boiled down to time horizon. The builders are looking at a horizon of 5 years from the day they acquire the property until the last condo is sold. The condos themselves turn over about every 5 or 6 years.

    The conclusion is that unless catastrophic sea level rise is going to be on everyone’s radar 5 or 6 years from now, it is irrelevant to someone looking to build or buy in Miami Beach. They WILL invest in raising sidewalks a couple of feet to keep people’s feet dry in the periodic flooding they already have…but forget about a decade or 3 decades from now.

    Which prompts the question ‘why do you give a damn?’ Without too much philosophizing, I want to try to make a difference….without becoming a martyr or being declared an ‘enemy of the state’. I don’t care enough to be burned at the stake. Some think the best thing to do is sit on a tropical beach and drink margaritas. I wouldn’t be happy doing that.

    Don Stewart

    • Don,

      I’m with you on making a difference. I see no scope for that on any scale larger than my local community and circle of acquaintances, except for maybe making my views heard through media such as this. But, well, I’ve been farming on and off my whole life and am an Electrical Engineer by profession, so these things of course are both of interest to me.

      You mentioned Gabe Brown in North Dakota. Another person whose work might interest you is David C Johnson in New Mexico. He has quite a few YouTube videos that describe his techniques and lay out his findings.

      Actually, my interest in modern food production stems from my growing concern with the nutritional quality and toxic load carried by our food. It started one late spring morning when I was driving by a wheat field on my way to work. I appeared that someone had driven a sprayer through the field. I could tell it was a sprayer by the spacing between the tracks and the regularity of the track pattern through the field. A few days later, I noticed the field had started turning brown. A few weeks after that, he harvested the field. I concluded that he had applied some hormone that made the field ripen faster. In that way, he could get his wheat crop in early enough to follow it with a corn crop, and thus get two crops off his field in one year. I wondered what hormone had been used. It was certainly not available to us back in the day when my own family was growing wheat.

      Fast forward a year or two when I came across an article describing the use of RoundUp to “desiccate” grain crops for harvest. So it wasn’t some hormone — it was RoundUp! Can you imagine spraying RoundUp on food destined for human consumption mere weeks before it was harvested? But lest you think that this was just some scumbag farmer who put profits before people, he wasn’t. I knew this guy. He had been a few years ahead of me in school and lived just down th road from our family farm. He was a strong, hard-working, straight-talking guy, and a darn good farmer.

      I eventually discovered that this practice was being recommended by the County Extension Services! Today, spraying RoundUp on grain crops before harvest is virtually universal in the US. And unless you’re getting organic bread, you’re eating it with every sandwich, slice of toast, hamburger bun, and dinner roll you bite into. And did I mention crackers?

      Suddenly, all the “gluten intolerance” and myriad other “syndromes” that no one had even heard of a few decades earlier started to make sense — maybe even Alzheimer’s disease, ADHD, and who knows what else? You cannot poison young children and aging adults and think they’re not going to suffer from it.

      The next spring, I planted my first garden in quite a few years. And started coming up to speed on some of the newer practices that you have alluded to. It’s a lifelong learning process, but I’ve already had some excellent gardens and the best hay crop anyone around here can remember. I’m hoping that as time goes by, these practices will continue to be refined and will eventually become common knowledge.

  30. For those hoping for a technological breakthrough… it better happen today:

    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 at Medium.com

    Discoveries Have Collapsed

    • Hi – well in a tweet on 29th December Nafeez says ‘Facebook will become more powerful than the NSA in less than 10 years — unless we stop it’ So he’s obviously expecting this social media giant to survive the apocalypse.

  31. Restoring Dirt
    Here is a short video with Dr. Elaine Ingham talking about how they are restoring some very degraded soil to productivity:

    A couple of comments:
    *Elaine describes the good fungal content in some of her compost. It isn’t clear whether she is using the same method as David Johnson. The wind-row is definitely not Johnson-style.
    *Elaine talks about how if you have made good quality compost, you don’t need a lot. This is similar to Johnson’s application of small amounts. I would say that Johnson is further out on the fungal spore option than Elaine.
    *Elaine talks about exhausting the ‘soluble nutrients’. The soluble nutrients are what a soil test measures. But as Elaine, Johnson, and Christine Jones all say, the soluble is only perhaps 3 percent of what is actually in the soil. So, if you have healthy fungi and healthy plants, the fungi will get the nutrients the plant needs from the part that has not be solubilized.
    *When Elaine talks about soil structure, think about David Johnson pounding the Ag School soil with a hammer on a desk top. Now you know why industrial agriculture is so devastatingly horrible.
    *Elaine seems to think that it will take about 3 years to turn this desert into a fully productive landscape. Gabe Brown says it took him 20 years to figure out WHAT to do, but that a young person can duplicate what he accomplished over 20 years in 3 or 4 years.
    *Elaine talks about the value of diversity. If you remember Johnson’s talk in Helsinki, he demonstrated outstanding diversity.

    Don Stewart

    • Oops! I see you’re already acquainted with David C Johnson. Please ignore that part of my reply to your previous post.

  32. Tim I wonder how much energy would be saved if there were no more wars. Energy and materials used in the production of tanks – jets – ships -weapons etc – oil used for transport – wounded troops that need operations – sometimes life long care for disabilities including mental health problems so include the building of hospitals and facilities and the rebuilding of destroyed towns / cities etc. This list could go on.

    Of course this is never going to happen.

    However perhaps some of the impact on energy saved would be very small as – for example –
    the US army has around 1600 tanks but there are 253,000,000 cars / trucks on the road there.

    The biggest saving would probably be the end to the human misery wars cause,

    • Donald, it really depends on what you mean by ‘war’. As an analyst at the HMG MoD I never used this term because it wasn’t helpful in research.

      I once used Soft Systems Methodology (SSM) to analyse modern expeditionary military forces. The working group I was leading, which included military personnel, developed a consensus view that an “expeditionary military force” was a ‘System for influencing others through the use or threat of force’. We accepted that it is sometimes used for other things (humanitarian operations) when it wasn’t busy training for or performing its function – but this role doesn’t influence its design.

      If such a system was applied to help extract mineral resources from another area of the globe then I suspect its Energy and Resource Return on Investment (EROI/RROI) could be very high, assuming a successful influence operation. I didn’t run any numbers on this but history suggests that this is generally the case – because we keep doing it and it seems to pay off. Ideally the threat of force is sufficient, but in order to threaten it you have to have the capability to do it.

      Steven Pinker has done some work in the past convincingly arguing that death and injury caused by “warfare” has decreased significantly over time. One factor Pinker doesn’t consider is the role of cheap and abundant energy. Something I think is worth considering. If the Energy Cost of Energy (ECoE) increases then could we see this historical trend reverse as more people are more willing to use force, or the threat of it, to maintain the prosperity they have been accustomed to?

      So, the argument I am making is that in an energy constrained world we may see countries that are able to investing a higher proportion of their surplus energy and resources into military and will be more willing to use it than in the recent past, because the risk is work the reward.

      Hopefully not though 🙂

    • @drkevinoneill and Dr. Morgan
      Let me examine a couple of guideposts, which will surely not give us the answers, but may give us a productive way to think.

      First, the book Trails examines ants who get themselves going into circles which they obsessively follow until either they die or a predator eats them. But sometimes a renegade ant breaks with the herd and goes off on his own. Sometimes a small group follows him.

      I am not aware of any studies of the survival of the renegades. We know that the herd mostly just dies.

      The book The Zoomable Universe describes cooperative vs. competitive behavior in chapter 7. First thing to note is that all multicellular creatures are the result of co-operation….’The cells of a multicellular life-form are as much about themselves as they are about their host’. But, somehow, the components have learned to co-operate and the cooperation has resulted in creatures spanning 22 orders of magnitude.

      We also read that ‘Natural collectives can also solve computational problems with elegant simplicity. For example, pheromone paths laid down by individual ants en route to food sources from their nest are reinforced faster when the round-trip is shorter. So over time more and more ants will follow the shorter path. Consequently, the colony ‘discovers’ the quickest way to feed itself.’ So now we understand why following the herd is usually the best choice for an ant. We might even apply that insight to stock market traders.

      But: ‘A calculus of cost versus benefit for group behavior works across all species. There are good reasons why some creatures are loners and some are best off in a swarm of millions. Our own societies, cultures, financial systems, and individual behaviors are certainly governed by these rules.’

      The existential question for all you guys who are younger than me is whether the herd is in a death circle and it is time to do the renegade thing. Or, alternatively, try to save the world….which seems to be a hard thing to do.

      Don Stewart

    • Don, your last point about choosing the whether to go “renegade” or “follow the heard” was very interesting and describes a number of dilemmas I have been had for some time (I am 36 btw).

      These dilemmas all seem to be related to decoupling from existing systems since my personal cost-benefit analyses sometimes concludes that I may lose from continued investment in these systems (this is dependent on starting assumptions, but when you factor in Tim’s thesis on an inability to grow ‘the pie’ any more then it usually suggests decoupling is the optimum strategy for people my age and younger.)

      Examples of decoupling/renegading I have done or am exploring:

      1. Avoiding/evading contributions for private and state pensions and redirecting those funds into developing family businesses or educating my kids. The hypothesis is that these businesses could employ my kids and pay me an income in my old age. A better investment than a modern equity heavy pension scheme assuming continuous growth?

      2. Alternative education for my kids. I am keen that my two boys learn or improve the basics from state schools (numeracy, reading, writing, and social skills). But outside that I question whether the national education system is aligned with ‘life after growth’. What would be more useful for my kids to learn? And could these learning serve them better over the next 80 years or more?

      3. Avoiding/evading tax contributions to unsustainable government schemes based on assumptions of continuous growth. I would like the unaware “herd’ to continue propping up failing systems since I benefit for now, but could I redirect these ‘saved’ funds in to more productive ‘life after growth’ investments.

      4. Letting go of personal relationships with the older generation. A lack of awareness and appreciation of the issues discussed in this blog by the older generation means they are unwilling to provide any emotional support or sage advice since they are somewhat insulated from these issues and it doesn’t their worldview. A lack of financial support or inheritance since their estate will likely be consumed in their lengthy retirement. A lack of ability to help with childcare due to distance, since young people need to be willing to be more mobile to find decent work. What is the benefit for younger people maintaining these relationships anymore? We seem to do it out of obligation purely.

      I wonder how many other younger people are considering these sorts of things? What happens socially if lots of young people reach similar conclusions.

      This is reply is very anecdotal but hopefully provides an insight in to how awareness of the issues discussed in this blog means younger generations may see benefits in ‘going renegade’.

    • Kevin

      You raise a number of interesting issues here.

      State pensions aren’t funded, but are paid from current taxation. Most public sector pensions aren’t funded either, but are paid from current contributions, topped up by taxation. Both depend on how much tax can be raised by governments in the future, to which “much less than we need” seems the only answer, even if govt bites the bullet on raising retiring ages, not gradually but quickly. I can’t see, though, how you can avoid or evade taxation or, if working in the public sector, contributions.

      The ability to save privately for a pension has been destroyed by ZIRP. Returns on capital are simply far too low for the sums to work.

      Together, these raise the issue of whether today’s teenagers and twenty-somethings will fund the pensions of today’s elderly and middle aged. If I were those youngsters, I wouldn’t – the older generation is perceived as having ripped off the younger right across the board, through: buy-to-let; inflated house prices; high rents; ‘nimbyism’ restricting the supply of new homes; exporting skilled jobs; QE; escalating govt debt; rescuing bankers as well as banks; student debt; flogging off assets to foreign investors…….the list goes on.

      I don’t know how you avoid contributing to daft govt schemes. If one could, someone in the UK might refuse to contribute to HS2, PFI – the list goes on – but I don’t think you’re given the choice, are you?

      The older generation belong to a monumentally selfish echelon – a big reason why Theresa May flopped in the election was older people’s outrage at having to contribute to their own care in old age, which is about as selfish as it gets. But surely we all owe our own parents something?

      If a young person is living in, say, the UK, has no dependents, and has marketable skills, emigration is an almost no-brainer – but how many youngsters have those attributes?

    • I’ve said this before but had no takers, state pensions are funded from state revenue, which includes state taxes. State governments are not monetary sovereign so they are like us, USERS of currency.
      Federal governments which are mostly monetary sovereign are CREATORS of their currency, so they don’t use taxes to fund anything. They do try to hide that fact with selling bonds etc, but it’s just a ploy to keep us in the dark. The Fed can never go broke. It can always pay. It already does it for US military pensions, all 21 million of them. That’s a big hole you’ll never find in the current accounts.
      This means federal or Commonwealth pensions are always viable as they can never go bankrupt [except by deliberate political decisions]. As I mentioned earlier if the Government wants to survive it will have to ensure it pays pensions continuously. And it will also top up state and industry pensions as well. That is it’s mandate via the Constitution. No ifs or buts!

    • Tim – Like yourself I have come to the conclusion that making contributions is unavoidable, if a person is to stay on the right side of the law at the moment.

      What surprised me on reflection was the fact that I even explored the feasibility of these things in the first place. It seems my willingness to contribute to ‘the greater good’ has changed over the past 10 years. If it has changed for me, who is living quite a nice life relative to my peers, then what could it be like for people in their early 20s or leaving secondary education with far less opportunity and feeling the effects of inequality. As you suggest – why should they contribute to or give loyalty to a system that doesn’t reciprocate?

      (Tangent: How enforceable is a complex system of law in a system with reducing surplus energy available to support a complex society? Would the need to prioritise resources result in individuals and groups effectively being able to break the law without repercussions as long as it stayed below a threshold? Could this create a positive feedback loop ‘vicious cycle’ that unravels the complexity event faster?)

      I am also looking in to emigration, since I also recognise it is a ‘no-brainer’. The only thing holding me back at the moment is the hassle of taking dependents through this process. However, I can see myself recommending it to my children.

  33. Oversight on my part
    Since we are humans, becoming a renegade probably means getting back to a society based on Dunbar number groups. This was covered in one of Dmitry Orlov’s books. We aren’t designed to be as lonely as a grizzly bear, nor are we designed to live like bees. Living in a group of 150 seems about right. But the group of 150 can trade with neighbors. And one spouse may usually come from outside the group.

    Don Stewart

  34. Thanks for your reply. Obviously the military can be used for other things rather than just war so that this has to be taken into account in terms of energy as well as its role in actually preventing conflict.

    Regarding your final paragraph perhaps that’s what Mr Trump has got in mind by ordering a large scale increase in military expenditure.

    I think 2018 is going to be a very interesting year.

    • My only comment here on Mr Trump concerns North Korea.

      Most critics urge him to exercise “restraint” and avoid “confrontation” with Pyongyang. That’s always the easier option. It’s what the US, and others, have been doing for years. At least, in confronting NK, Mr Trump is confronting a real potential threat to the US and its allies – which could never plausibly have been said about Saddam’s Iraq, for example.

      But another five years of conciliatory, non-“provocative” relations could see NK in full possession of really effective warheads and long-range ICBMs. Is that a good choice?

      My reading of the 1930s is that the democracies could – and should – have stopped German and Italian rearmament and expansionism, by 1936 at the very latest. With hindsight – though Churchill and others said so at the time – the “restraint” and “conciliation” of the 1930s doesn’t look all that clever, does it?

  35. Dear Dr. Tim
    Gail Tverberg has got the impression that you use ‘normal’
    eroei calculations to establish your assessment of the
    global energy balance. If that is the case you would not
    include (money) costs like wages, maintenance, operation etc.
    To my best knowledge I think you actually take all expenses
    into consideration in your calculations. But can you confirm that?

  36. The thing that Tim Morgan doesn’t get is that tight oil from shale has a fairly high EROEI. According to this study, https://ideas.repec.org/a/eee/energy/v93y2015ip2p2191-2198.html the share of energy used for extraction of oil in the Bakken 3.4% on a median basis, and 3.9% on an average basis. Since Bakken costs seem to be higher than those of the Permian Basin, we would expect the energy utilized in the Permian to be even lower. Compared to Morgan’s average cost of 7.5% in 2016, this sounds pretty good. I don’t know what basis Morgan is using, but most people never stop to look at academic articles on this subject. They just “assume” the energy cost of tight oil is high. Or they look at the cost of treating kerogen with heat (called “shale oil,”) which has absolutely nothing to do with tight oil from shale. A study that is often mistaken for a study of tight oil is this article. http://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/3/11/2307 It has an ERoEI of 2:1, or an energy share of 50%.

    (link follows)

  37. Tim – we can’t invade NK – so the only options appear to sanctions. The oil sanctions will hit NK hard – perhaps that why they’re making conciliatory gestures by having talks with SK at the moment regarding the forthcoming Olympics.

    I read somewhere that China is building refugee camps along their border to house a possible influx of refugees. This could of course have been fake news. If not China must feel that the existing regime may collapse. I doubt the camps are for a possible war.

    • I’m not advocating invasion (though it doesn’t seem wholly impossible, if preceded by devastating strikes from air and sea).

      Really effective sanctions are the best bet, together with using diplomacy to get China to cut NK adrift.

    • Dr Tim,

      Re “Really effective sanctions are the best bet, together with using diplomacy to get China to cut NK adrift.”

      Sorry, but the NK horse has already left the barn. There is now away that China is going to cut NK adrift. While NK is a problematic ally, it’s a better ally than it would be an enemy or rogue neighbor, so China is going to do what it can to keep NK in the fold. Furthermore, China is in a position to negotiate with the West as an equal, so China’s interests — and thereby NK’s interests — are going to come first an any negotiations with them. So, yes, international sanctions can have some effect, but IMO will not be decisive in the near term. China will see to it that NK has what it needs to survive.

      We suffer from being unable to “walk a mile” in Kim Jong Un’s shoes. The question Kim Jong Un must ask himself every morning is “Do I want to suffer the same fate as Saddam and Muammar?” It is clear from these two examples, as well as a depressingly long list of others, that those who cannot hit back live — or die — at the whim of the US. And as Iraq illustrates, all it takes is a whim.

      Saddam made two major mistakes: He did not have WMDs so his ability to punish an aggressor who did was nil. And he did not forge alliances with other powers in his region. In his case, this would have included Iran and Saudi Arabia. Such alliances would have made it virtually impossible for the US to mount an invasion against him. The result: his country was destroyed and he ended up swinging from a rope. On a whim.

      Kim Jong Un is making sure he has avoided Saddam’s first mistake. I’m pretty sure he’s also going to try to avoid the second one, too.

    • Perhaps all we can to is take out just the man himself although he does have plenty of Doppelgangers.

    • I’ve always believed two things about the Iraq War. The first was that it was a grave mistake. The second is that Saddam’s moves to price oil in currencies other than USD was a key factor in the US decision. I understood the US action, but opposed it. This said, the US followed its own best interests as it saw them. I have yet to see a convincing justification for countries that assisted them.

      The NK position seems to be that Saddam (and others) would still be in place if they’d been able to threaten nuclear retaliation. The support of China is an equally good defence, but isn’t controlled by Pyongyang – one day, for whatever reason, at a short notice, Chinese support might be withdrawn. Nuclear retaliation will remain in NK hands.

      This is a test of deterrence. At the moment, I doubt if NK has a really worked-up, reliable long range deterrent – but I’m pretty sure that, in a very few years, they will have.

      The Chinese position is uncomfortable. I don’t think they can control NK now that NK has the deterrent. It must be very uncomfortable having this regime for a neighbour.

    • Dr. Tim: re “The second is that Saddam’s moves to price oil in currencies other than USD was a key factor in the US decision.”

      Well, the US administration at the time was definitely top-heavy with former Oil Industry bigwigs. They would certainly understand the implications of conducting oil transactions in currencies other than petrodollars.

      But… is this giving too much credit for rational thinking in that administration? I suspect that personal factors may have been more decisive. It’s seems to me that the Rove-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice axis was squarely in the right-makes-right camp, and that the military power at their disposal was a heady brew. It’s a diseased mentality that spelled death and destruction for millions, and the savagery that it unleashed will echo down through the ages. As the saying goes, “You shall know them by their fruits.”

      Whatever else one might think of Kim Jong Un, he’s most definitely not stupid. He understands full well how easily the US could once again descend into this kind of hubris. It’s hardly lost on him that even if ordinary Americans want only peace, prosperity, and justice, their wishes seem unable to restrain the belligerent stance of their government. Indeed, with the POTUS feverishly tweeting out slogans like “my nuclear button is bigger than his nuclear button”, I’m quite sure that Kim Jong Un will pursue a nuclear deterrent at all possible speed.

    • @Helix and others
      As for Bush and Cheyney, or for that matter Obama, and all of the generals in the US military and all the US intelligence officers. I believe they are all convinced that loss of reserve currency status would be a heavy blow to the US. Some of them are convinced that God intended for the US to be the sole superpower. Some of them don’t care too much what God might think, but they will pursue the ‘sole superpower’ goal because it just makes sense to them. The sole superpower can do anything it wants to do and it is immune to threats from anyone else. Recently US officials have accused Russia and China of trying to ‘upset the world power system’ or words to that effect. It became very clear to me some years ago that the US will NEVER accept an independent Russia. I think China sneaked up on the US.

      I do not understand Europe. There is clearly some irrational hostility toward Russia, with a lot of clueless propaganda. For example, Russia just doubled delivery of oil to China via a new pipeline. The headlines read ‘European oil threatened by new Russian strategy’. Well…there is nothing new about it. When Europe insisted on sanctions against Russia, and blocked the construction of new pipelines…what did the Europeans think that Russia would do?

      A couple of years ago Putin, trying to calm the Europeans, compared the conventional military power of NATO and Russia. He said that obviously it would be suicidal for Russia to engage in a conventional war with NATO. The implications of what he said seem to have fallen on brain dead ears.

      The US and Europe seem to be following a strategy of trying to bleed Russia to death with attacks from terrorists…believing that Russia will not start a nuclear war no matter what some terrorists do. For example, some NATO country apparently gave a dozen or so drones to the remaining terrorists in Syria to fire at the Russian military bases in Syria. If Russia determines that the drones were acquired courtesy of the CIA, do you think they will launch a nuclear attack on Washington, DC? Or sink an aircraft carrier?

      Putin has spoken about the recent completion of the nuclear arms reduction program in Russia. The US has not kept its part of the agreement. I would imagine that 99 percent of the people in Washington are congratulating themselves that they outsmarted the Russians.

      China has chosen to arm itself with relatively few nuclear weapons. Apparently on the theory that just a few capable of being delivered to the US heartland are enough to deter gross aggression.

      What do I expect? The US will have to collapse before it will admit that Russia and China are free and independent states who will pursue their own self-interest. I expect the arming of terrorists and the fomenting of domestic insurrections and the attempt to exercise financial sanctions will continue to be pursued. It seems we can also expect military provocations. I see the situation as extremely dangerous.

      Don Stewart

    • Perhaps appeasement with the offer of a lot of economic help in exchange for cancellation of his nuclear program and a team or observers to ensure the aid is properly used and that his brutal prisons are closed.

      This of course will never happen and even if it did Kim – like Saddam – would find ways around the conditions.

      Again sanctions appear to be the only tool available. Perhaps his cult of personality is so strong that he would rather blow up NK and take South Korea with it if threatened.

    • Why would we try to either appease him or offer him aid? As far as I know, he hasn’t asked for aid. Nor has he made any overtly aggressive moves toward his neighbors which would set the stage for a Neville Chamberlain-style appeasement. So I can’t see where the appeasement angle really plays right now. And given that I live in the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world, I really think we should be thinking about cleaning up our own back yard before pointing fingers at our neighbors’.

      Your comments suggest to me that you still haven’t been willing to walk the mile in Kim Jong Un’s shoes. He’s the head of a country that made the Bush/Cheney “axis of evil”. Unless he’s a total imbecile, and I don’t think he is, he has to expect the same treatment at the hands of the US as the first country on that list has already gotten. Given that the US has 37,000 armed personnel parked on his southern border, US combat aircraft just a bit further south, his concern is hardly groundless. So his choices are to either bend over or toughen up. He can look to Muammar Kaddafi’s example to see what he can expect if he bends over.

      Here’s the thing about national sovereignty: a country is only sovereign if it’s free to make its own decisions about its domestic policies and its international relations. We might not like them, but, well, not everyone likes the way the US is run either. That doesn’t give them the right to bomb us.

      On a longer time frame, I think the two Koreas will develop progressively closer ties. Hopefully on some distant occasion, the two Koreas will be reunited just as Germany was after the Berlin wall came down. Unless the US interferes, of course, which will merely prolong NK’s anguish and possibly embroil the entire region in another war. In short, the US should shut up, man the 38th parallel, and join with South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the UN to do what it can to defuse tensions.

      The sad part is that it may be too late. The US’s military bullying over the last half century has eroded its legitimacy as an honest broker of international relations. It may be that Kim Jong Un has other and more expedient ideas about how to reunify the two Koreas. If that’s the case, Korean War 2.0 is inevitable, and perhaps WWIII.

    • @Don Stewart: re “Some of them are convinced that God intended for the US to be the sole superpower… The sole superpower can do anything it wants to do and it is immune to threats from anyone else.”

      The very essence of hubris. It takes a wise and disciplined leader to resist succumbing to its lure.

  38. Hi your response to my comments has some good points – but the real problem is the mindset of Kim Jong Un – Putin and Trump are bad enough but this man imprisons – tortures and murders any one he sees as a threat – regardless of whether they are relatives or innocent civilians.

    Not the type of person you’d want in charge of a long range nuclear arsenal as you have mentioned the possibility of another Korean war and even WWIII.

    Regarding any reunification the economic cost to the South would be massive. A North Korean population of 25 million plus – some of whom live in abject poverty – would be a huge drain on the South’s resources.

    I’m not sure any other countries – already suffering economic woes – would want to offer much help.

  39. A few notes about retro-evolution:

    Richard Fortey, a retired museum official from London, writes about the Chiltern Hills, 30 miles west on the Thames River, in ‘The Wood for the Trees, One’ Man’s Long View of Nature’. I want to pick out just a few items to help us think through our predicament with, perhaps, the end of thermodynamic gain from fossil fuels looming.

    We have a pretty good idea about hunting and gathering. There is a lot of documentation about the Hadza and the San peoples. Closer to home in the US, we have the example of ‘The Last American Man’ by Elizabeth Gilbert describing the life of Eustace Conway. Conway was once asked, if a helicopter dropped him into a forest, he could survive. He replied ‘yes, but I would have an easier time if I had my knife’.

    But what about, let’s say, Edwardian England. They had plenty of coal, not much oil or natural gas, and enough wood that woodcrafts still survived. The upper classes lived well, and starvation was no longer the common lot of the poor people. You can find a description of late Victorian and early Edwardian life in several places in Fortey’s book, as well as glimpses back to Saxon times and forward to today. Today, Fortey observes that the rich own the land and the great houses, and they seldom seem to arrive or leave except in helicopters. Back in the time we are looking at, the land was still in transition from a working landscape into the genteel retreat which it has become. Pubs thickly dotted across the landscape still served a purpose. ‘Edwardian Henley was a town of elegant indulgence and leisured luxury, and it was built on the back of an Empire that stretched its capitalistic tendrils over half the world.’

    In the section on February, Fortey gives us a description of one of the local industries, especially during both the first and second world wars: tent pegs. Tent pegs were made by harvesting beech trees, and sawing them into useful blocks of wood. The sawing was done by digging a pit and laying the trunk of the tree over the pit. The ‘underdog’ worked down in the pit on one end of a two man saw, while the ‘top dog’ worked on top handling the other end of the saw. Small pieces of beechwood were then manufactured into tent pegs and brush backs. For the brushes, ‘prizes were awarded to the company at international trade fairs in Paris (1878), Sydney (1879), and Melbourne (1880).’ As Fortey was examining an old catalog, a handwritten note fell out…’we do not make brooms’. Brush-back making survived in the Chilterns until 1982.

    ‘The harvesting of timber was sustainable; small trees were protected from damage to replace the felled generation’. But in 1934 a local author wrote about ‘a terrible and heedless devastation, and slopes once glorious with ash and beech stand riven and naked to the sky.’

    Fortey finds a couple of old bottles in his woodland. He determines that they were made of heavy glass, designed to be re-used. They have screw stoppers. They were probably filled at the brewery in downtown Henley. The brewery is gone, with the buildings converted to modern consumer society instruments. The bottles were probably filled about 60 years ago when the last serious cutting of trees in Fortey’s woods happened.

    World War I required lots of wooden items, including tent pegs. Making a good tent peg requires 24 separate movements. The ‘peggers’ had special tools, such as an odd-shaped wooden mallet called a ‘Molly’ that engaged with an iron splitter known as a ‘flammer’. Wives and children helped with stacking the finished products. The tent peg industry peaked again in WWII…and has now disappeared ?forever?.

    So there is no question that Eustace Conway, given his trusty knife, can make a tent peg. There are many, many devotees of hand-crafts who are willing to teach anyone how to whittle. But there is no place I know of where one can buy a ‘molly’ or a ‘flammer’. Once we get the handful out of the museums, we are stuck with handcrafts rather than machine assisted skilled artisan work.

    My conclusion is that it is easier for an individual or a small clan to revert to hunting and gathering than it is likely to be for a society of 7.5 billion to revert to 1900.

    Don Stewart

    • Interesting background, Don. I, too, think a lot about demand for wood when other biofuels begin to dwindle. Just in my own life, I have seen a vastly greater number of trees on the landscape than there were in my childhood. My father once told there were more trees on the landscape even back then than there were in -his- childhood. Hopefully by the time we have to fall back on reliance on trees for lumber and fuel, we will have matured enough to be able to balance our own interests with those of our environment. But I’m not betting on that.

    • I’m not keen on Kim Jong Un either. No question he’s a bad guy. But until he starts making overt threats to his neighbors, he’s -their- bad guy, not ours. So there are limits on what we can and should do. Sanctions, sure. invasions and assassinations, no.

      Systems like NK tend to collapse from within. People tire of regimes that impose strictures on ordinary human freedoms. We see this happening in Iran already. Eventually, the effects of corruption at the top and cynicism and hostility below destroy the regime. At that point, the people will (ideally) decide what system they find most appropriate for themselves, or a powerful opposition leader will decide for them.

      One hopes that this process plays out before Kim Jong Un feels he is strong enough to reunify Korea by force, if that is his intention.

    • I live in Chesham, mid Chiltern Hills. The town was known for the four B’s – Brushes, Boots, Beer and Baptists! It’s a wonderful little town, although of course all four B’s have gone. It has a tube station (one of the most outer stations on the network) and is a popular town for commuters. So war would have been good for Chesham – Boot making being a highly skilled job.

  40. Well as I mentioned in an early post – China maybe building refugee camps along their border with NK – so perhaps they know something we don’t.

  41. 3 part series on the ongoing strife in Saudi on the BBC starting tonight. Surely they will have time to mention oil, the Aramco part sale, the Ghawar, depletion etc. Perhaps a bit much to hope they will talk about EROEI.

    • Thanks for the reminder – it’s very interesting. Looking at a website I didn’t know that the Saudis use 1/3 of their oil for internal consumption to produce cheap power at an effective rate of $6 a barrel which costs them $45bn a year in terms of what they could earn on the open market.

      Not good economics and about time they switched fully solar energy.

    • No luck so far on the oil front – mostly just the usual religion and politics explain everything in that part of the world. No mention of the Yemen’s faltering oil production or explosive population growth. Hope for more next week.

  42. Young people with no job in Yemen. A fertile ground for recruitment then into unpleasant groups.

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