#214. Needed – a new model tin-opener


Logically considered, 2021 ought to have been the place where old assumptions go to die.

In many ways, it is.

Specifically, orthodox, money-based economic interpretation is being debunked. Current events are demonstrating that the economy isn’t, after all, entirely or even primarily a financial system. The proposition that demand produces supply is being discredited, because no amount of stimulus can deliver low-ECoE energy where that energy does not exist. In short, we’re discovering that the economy is an energy system.

Since the start of the Industrial Age, that has meant, overwhelmingly, a fossil fuel energy system. We’re in the process of encountering two constraints to the continuity of an economy built on oil, gas and coal.

The well-known constraint is that we have reached (or passed) the limits to environmental tolerance of our use of fossil fuels.

The second, barely-recognized-at-all constraint is that fossil fuels’ ECoEs – their Energy Costs of Energy – are rising exponentially, in a process that would destroy the fossil-dependent economy even if we were so unwise as to ignore the environmental issue

The consensus answer to this situation is that we must endeavour to transition from reliance on fossil fuels to an economy based on alternative sources of energy.

This, undoubtedly, is a realistic conclusion.

The snag, though, is that the consensus view combines the logical conclusion of transition with the unfounded assumption of an economy which, far from contracting, continues to expand.

A balanced assessment of the issues indicates, rather, that a sustainable economy will also be a smaller one.  

An appraisal of outcomes

At the level of theory, there’s nothing much wrong with the idea of outdated notions undergoing a mass extinction event.

Our understanding, and our ability to plan ahead, can only benefit from the discovery that the economy isn’t, after all, ‘a wholly monetary system, capable of infinite growth’, but is in fact an energy system, limited by the laws of physics as they apply to the Earth’s energy resources.

It is, after all, hard to plan effectively when your base predicates are false.  

In practical terms, though, we’re faced with something that moves beyond an inconvenient truth into what is for most people an almost inconceivable one. This is the proposition that there may be no wholly sufficient replacement for the fossil fuel energy on which the economy of today is based.

Put another way, the desirable – indeed, imperative – de-carbonization of the economy is likely to involve shrinking it as well.  

If you held any leadership position, you’d have to think long and hard before going public on any of this. Your wiser course of action might be to talk up the positives in the current situation whilst preparing, with the greatest urgency, for the new one.

Essentially, this comes down to a probability assessment of two possible outcomes.

The first is that alternative energy sources – primarily wind and solar power, but perhaps with a role for nuclear as well – can provide a complete and timely replacement for fossil fuels.

The second is that no such complete replacement exists, and that we have to plan for a smaller economy.

The latter needn’t be a disaster, so long as we prepare for it, and travel to this destination gradually.

But we have far too many growth-predicated systems and assumptions for any kind of sudden recognition to be manageable.

Needed – a new tin-opener        

A story is told about three experts shipwrecked on a desert island. Their situation seems far from desperate. The island is well-found in fire-wood and fresh water. Washed ashore with them are thousands of tins of baked beans, offering nourishing if monotonous fare. They even have saucepans, plates and cutlery.

The one thing lacking is a tin-opener.

The chemist proposes putting the tins in water which, in due course, will corrode them. Unfortunately, they would starve long before this could happen.

The physicist suggests heating the tins to a temperature at which pressure causes them to explode. This, though, would splatter beans across the island, as well as subjecting the castaways to lethal shrapnel.

Appealed to, the economist has a simple solution – assume a tin-opener

This encapsulates the consensus line as the long era of rising prosperity created by fossil fuels draws to a close. If we assume a replacement for fossil fuels, and further assume perpetual economic growth, our problems are solved.

A hierarchy of challenges

Though an expansion of nuclear energy might help at the margins, the assumed replacement for fossil fuels is electricity from renewable energy sources (REs), principally from wind and solar power.

There are two little snags with this assumption.

The first is that replacing FF with RE energy might not be possible for at least 10-20 years. A great deal – little of it good – can happen over that length of time.

The second is that it might very well not be possible at all.

There’s a hierarchy of challenges to RE transition.

Used as inputs when the wind is blowing and when the sun is shining, wind and solar power can provide electricity at costs which are more or less competitive with traditional methods of generation. The main potential snag is the cost of replacing wind turbines and solar panels when they reach the end of their productive lives, which are somewhere between fifteen and twenty-five years.

In other words, is this transition sustainable, to the point where RE capacity can be maintained and replaced without assistance from fossil fuels?  

The second stage in the hierarchy of challenges is scale. In 2020, and despite the effects of covid-induced reductions in activity, fossil fuels supplied energy totalling 11.2 billion tonnes of oil equivalent (toe), or 82% of the total. Between them, wind and solar power provided only 0.57 bn toe (4.2%). The scaling challenge is largely a matter of accessing vast amounts of raw materials whose supply is – for the foreseeable future – dependent on the use of energy from fossil fuels.

The third challenge in the hierarchy is intermittency. If REs are to move from minor energy contributors to baseload suppliers, vast electricity storage is required. This would make enormous further demands on materials, some of which may not even exist, and would, again, make huge calls on the use of fossil fuels for their supply. Accessing many of these resources would have extremely adverse environmental and ecological consequences.

Even if all of this could be overcome, the cost of storing electricity is roughly 200x that of storing oil, gas or coal. This is why, taking America as an example, whilst fossil fuel inventories are measured in weeks and months, electrical backup is measured in minutes.

This cost differential may narrow, but the physics of storage processes limit quite how far the cost of electricity storage may fall. What this also means is that, to fill storage during periods when the wind is blowing and the sun is shining, generating capacity would need to be far larger – perhaps 60% greater – than the continuity-based equivalent. Costly redundancy, no less than storage capacity, would need to be built in to a system based on intermittent energy.

Next in the hierarchy comes the challenge of density. Oil, in particular, offers a very high ratio of power to weight. This density, which provides easy portability, is what makes today’s cars, commercial vehicles and aeroplanes practical. It’s at least arguable that an insistence on replacing these with battery-powered alternatives raises the power storage problem to ludicrous heights.

The fifth and – for now – final challenge in the hierarchy is adaptability. We might, for instance, find that, whilst grid-scale storage is feasible, self-contained storage is not, making trains and trams viable, but turning mass EV use into a pipe-dream.

Likewise, we might have enough continuous power to run necessary systems, but not to support much of what we now think of as “technology”. It might turn out that essential goods and services can be supported, but that many non-essentials (discretionaries) can’t.

The permutations are endless – but the potential supply of non-fossil energy, most emphatically, is not

As well as assuming the tin-openers of sustainability, scale, continuity and density, then, the idea of seamless and complete transition assumes some resources that cannot be provided, and others that, though they can, would make enormous demands on legacy energy from fossil fuels. All and more of this legacy energy is already accounted for by the continuity requirements of consumption and capital asset replacement. 

A new tin-opener is needed – but technology can’t supply it

Let’s be quite clear about the necessity for transition. As mentioned earlier, continued reliance on fossil fuel energy is a non-starter, for two reasons, both of which are so important that they merit reiteration.

First, there is the undoubted constraint of environmental tolerance.

Second, there’s the equally real issue of the rising ECoEs of oil, gas and coal. As well as wrecking the environment, continued dependency on fossil fuels would – assuredly, and rapidly – wreck the economy. The latter process has already started to happen, albeit thinly disguised, so far, behind increasingly desperate and harmful exercises in financial gimmickry.   

Prophets of seamless transition take refuge in the supposed alchemy of technology – much of it simply extrapolated – whilst ignoring the obvious (though inconvenient) fact that the scope for technological progress is bounded by the limits of physics.

Where wind turbines are concerned, Betz’ law states that wind turbines cannot capture more than 59.3% of the kinetic energy of wind. Current best practice has already reached about 45%, leaving no scope for a quantum (rather than a modest and gradual) increase in efficiency.

Similarly, the Shockley-Queisser limit determines the maximum theoretical efficiency of photovoltaic panels. This limit is 33.7%, not very far ahead of current best practice of about 26%. Again, progress can be made, but no quantum leap in efficiency is possible. Both of these issues are discussed in an instructive article published by the Manhattan Institute, which also explains limitations to the potential capability of batteries.

Not content with assuming resources (and their energy input requirements) which do not exist, then, cornucopian transition theory also requires us to assume that technology facilitates the abolition of the laws of physics.

Nil desperandum

It was a famous dictum of Sherlock Holmes that “[w]hen you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.

Objective assessment of the situation suggests that both (a) fossil fuels continuity, and (b) a cornucopian complete replacement of fossil fuels are impossible. What remains is the seemingly-improbable – and in many quarters the almost unthinkable – reality of a smaller economy.

To recap, we’ve noted the imperative of transition – an imperative imposed by environmental considerations and by ECoE trends – but we’ve also noted that there are limits to what transition is capable of delivering.

What this means is that we have to bend every effort to the achievement of transition, but that we must also accept that transition cannot maintain the economy at its current levels of size and complexity.

The energy-based SEEDS economic model produces case-studies which scope the issues involved. 

The central-case assumptions used by the SEEDS economic model project total energy supply 6% higher in 2040 than it was in 2020. Within this total, fossil fuel supply is projected to be lower by 3%, the combined contributions of nuclear and hydro-electric power are expected to increase by 21%, and a 2.4-fold surge in supply from wind and solar generation is anticipated. On this basis, energy supply per person would fall by 10%.

Over the same period, though, ECoEs are expected to rise from 9.0% to 18.1%, meaning that surplus (ex-ECoE) energy availability per capita would slump by 19%. This is reflected in a corresponding decrease in prosperity per person.

Putting practicalities on one side for the purposes of theoretical analysis, the complete replacement of fossil fuels with wind and solar power might deliver an overall 2040 ECoE of, at best, 15%. On this basis, surplus energy supply per person would still decline, but prosperity would fall by only 16%, rather than by the 19% projected under the central case.

Two important conclusions emerge from this assessment.

The first is that accelerated investment in RE capacity can blunt the rate at which prosperity declines.

This underscores the case for transitioning to REs at the fastest practicable rate.

The second is that, however we tackle the energy crisis, prosperity will be lower in 2040 than it is now.

This means that we need to temper commitment to transition with a realistic appraisal of what transition can be expected to accomplish.    

This changes the central question from ‘must we live with less?’ – about which there is no choice – to ‘how can we live with less?’

Re-design – not re-set

The much-vaunted concept of an economic ‘re-set’ is predicated on the idea that an economy which continues to grow can be made both more equitable and more efficient, as well as being made sustainable.

Unfortunately, the essential predicate of growth is fallacious, in that we cannot reasonably expect – still less assume – continuity of growth in a post-fossil economy.

This implies that what we need isn’t re-set, but re-design.

At a later stage we may revisit the taxonomy of de-growth but, for now, we can note that a contracting economy implies a process of de-complexification. The range of products and services available will narrow, and methods of supply will be simplified as producers try to work around the adverse effects of falling utilization rates and the loss of critical mass. The simplification process will involve substantial de-layering.   

The brunt of contraction in the private sector will be borne by sectors providing discretionary (non-essential) goods and services. Over time, we should assume that capital will be diverted towards sectors which supply necessities.

There are likely, also, to be sectors which expand, even as others are contracting. There may be a significant role to be played by venture capital and sovereign wealth funds in identifying and promoting activities whose potential has yet to be recognized by markets which remain fixated on “growth”.

Government activity, too, can be expected to contract, though less rapidly than the private sector. A trend already set in motion by the imperative of transition points towards reduced resources available to government, and a corresponding need to refocus questions of priority.

The critical question for policymakers now might be that of how we ensure that the essentials are available and affordable for everyone.

As so often, though, individuals will be called upon to accomplish much of the change if we’re to move to a system that, whilst being cleaner and more sustainable, is also likely to be smaller than that of today.

At all levels – households, government, business and finance – the challenge will be that of transitioning to an economy that, whilst smaller, need not necessarily be worse than the one built on oil, gas and coal.    


543 thoughts on “#214. Needed – a new model tin-opener

  1. I don’t see how anyone who professes to live in a world governed by determinism can be personally affected by the mention of suicide. It’s surely just a statistical phenomenon.

    And talking in abstractions, I’ve personally found Tim Garrett’s conception of the globe’s fossil-fuel driven civilisation (yes, Enlightenment and all) as a ‘heat engine’ remarkably useful.
    Imagine it as a viral idea that sits in our heads. It needs energy, it finds and produces energy, it uses us to reproduce itself and so grows our human energy use. The maximum power principle explains its onward relentless march.
    Early engines blew themselves to bits before we discovered the governor, which moderated the flow of energy through the engine.
    Here we have our very own Governor, Tim, who leads us beyond our personal reactions to the flow of discourse on the blog. A few of the many thousands here may speak, but their ideas are but evidence of this viral flow coursing through our collective imaginations.
    Love and peace, guys. And thanks, Tim.

    • I mentioned suicide as an exception to The Maximum Power Principle. Some on this list have little sophistication when discussing abstract ideas. It was Don who twisted my post into a personal reflection. Perhaps he has considered it himself.

      Anyone following my occasional posts here should remember that I am living a comfortable retired life, and that I expect massive die-off due to the domination of the reptilian brain in Homo superstitious. Short term gain rules behavior as I see things. And the gains are primarily material despite the spouted certitudes about supernaturals.

    • Steven. I thought you said the maximum power principle applies predominantly at the species level.

      In terms of your mass die out assertion, are you suggesting the application of the MPP at the individual level will override the application of the MPP at the species level and therefore no biological or policy mechanisms will be activated in order to curb mass die out.

      I’m not saying there won’t be localised die outs since this may well align with maintaining the MMP at species level. But to suggest that MMP at species level will be overridden by the tyranny of individualised small decisions implies that the MMP isn’t a species level principle after all.

      This means an alternative explanation is required for species levels of organisation like the State, the UN and other organisations which formally or informally confer species level authority.

    • Steve G
      What you thought I wrote isn’t exactly accurate. In earlier posts I explained clan and tribal responsibility in social mammals. Feedback works best when you know and trust the members of the group. Cooperation decreases as the village grows into larger towns and cities.

      Breeding is not a group event in general. So that element of MPP is personal for the two involved.

      Food, water, energy, defense, shelter.. are normally clan and larger group activities. Suicide and voluntary simplicity are personal (like breeding) but they are part of the behavior of members of the species.

      My view of course.

    • Interesting Steven.

      Currently I’m applying MPP at individual, class, ethnic, species and ecosystem levels within different analytical settings and it is quite extraordinary how MPP explains the hierarchical tensions between these levels.

      Maintaining available maximum power/work at species level seems to align with the Highest Good as represented by the top of the MPP bell curve which for me is particularly interesting.


      However, I should add that my analytical application of the MPP is still in its infancy.

    • @Steven Kurtz
      I intended nothing personal about you. If I used the word “you”, I mean any human. If I meant you as a specific person, I would have said “you personally”. My choice of words is a reflection of my lower class Midwestern roots.
      Don Stewart

  2. @Steve Gwynne
    Re: China and the US agreeing to work together on Net Zero. Is, as many have said, just an excuse not to deal with the real problems? Tom Vilsack, who heads the US Department of Agriculture, has said that North America, despite having way more animal consumption than any other region on the globe, does not need to cut meat consumption because “we can cool the planet in other ways”.

    Forgive my suspicion that Tom is spouting Net Zero. When he was at the dedication of Michele Obama’s organic garden on the lawn at the White House, he was asked about his steadfast support of chemical agriculture. He said “I love both my children”. So I suggest that one shouldn’t expect too much in the way of “making the hard decisions”. Kicking the can down the road…”Absolutely”. Just as Biden said that an additional trillion dollars of deficit spending on infrastructure will reduce inflation.
    Don Stewart

  3. Muddled, top-down, technocratic: why the green new deal should be scrapped
    Aditya Chakrabortty

    This is not about green growth versus degrowth, and all those old dichotomies. It is about recognising that large swaths of Britain are now effectively post-growth, and that the proceeds of whatever growth we have had has been very unfairly divided. So let us stop haring after “British-owned turbine factories” and “dominating the industries of tomorrow” and all the other boilerplate of politics. Let’s get real.

    In the past, I have pitched ECoE analysis to him on many occasions.
    Looks like we finally have a hit ☺️

    • @Matt
      I sense that Glasgow is the last gasp effort of the ‘fundamental change’ effort. Obama delivered an address to the young people which basically told them to keep agitating but that nothing much would change. We should note that Obama’s climate advisor has recently been telling people that it’s really not such a big deal. So the world will make big Net Zero promises which will not bend the Keeling Curve…which is pretty much what has been happening now for 30 years.

      The way I see it, our future is not being decided at COP meetings, but in the physics of ECoE and the physics of bursting bubbles. I hope that the intelligence report is wrong and a war of everyone against everyone else is wrong…but I wouldn’t bet on it.
      Don Stewart

    • The report seems to suggest that all the problems will be elsewhere. Social upheaval on the home front doesn’t get much of a mention.
      Those countries most relient on cheap energy have the furthest to fall. It’s going to be a shit show in the US as much, if not more, than anywhere else.

      I’m pretty sure there are more classified reports that spell this out.

    • @John Adams
      As I understand it, these intelligence reports are directly at foreign countries…not the US. I am sure that there are federal documents floating around looking at the US, but are classified. The cases of Edward Snowden and Julian Assange and the Pentagon Papers show just how far the PTB will go to obscure the issues. And not just the US, look at the complicity of other countries.
      Don Stewart

    • J.A., Re:

      “The report seems to suggest that all the problems will be elsewhere. Social upheaval on the home front doesn’t get much of a mention.
      Those countries most relient on cheap energy have the furthest to fall. It’s going to be a shit show in the US as much, if not more, than anywhere else.”

      That’s why a 15 acre farm with a good water source, 10 acre woodlot, super insulated house, solar, wind perhaps…is a rational idea for a young family. Soil can be amended if not great. I’d dig 4 ft deep trenches and put greenhouses over them. Can grow some crops all year. Steps down, and raised beds with irrigation built in.

      I realize it could be a target for desperate people, but better to have it than not. Chickens are good for eggs and eventual meat.

    • yes John, no doubt that is the case, I think this is probably a public facing document, otherwise we’d not have access to it,
      they do seem skeptical of carbon capture technology,
      express fears that a nation might embark on geo-engineering independently,
      they note the likelihood of major refugee migrations,
      there’s a mention of fusion towards the end, a clinging to hope….

  4. There are some lonely voices howling the truth at the moon, but probably few ordinary people notice even when they have establishment-blessed credentials. Here’s one explaining that the current real global power in the form of multinational behemoths is profiting again from the inflation they helped create. Meanwhile those nominally running the system kick up dust fireifghting the symptoms of neoliberalism in a game of whack-a-mole, instead of solving the real root cause problem, a savage imbalance of power with all the corruption and inequality that brings.

    For the winners though, the titanic band is striking up for the last waltz of the evening, this little number folks, is called ‘money’s tight, times are hard, grab your partner and party hard’


  5. Mark (Meldon), thank you very much for your clear explanations. As you have remarked previously, the tsunami of crushed pension expectations is now upon us. I fear greatly for my children.
    Some years ago I penned a piece titled ‘The New Monopoly’ to bring home top them the reality of the situation:
    First, the player that is ‘Banker’ collects £2000 every time they pass ‘Go’, whereas the other players collect £200, but immediately have £20 deducted to pay for their student loan.
    Secondly, the Red, Yellow, Green and Purple Sets (Strand, Fleet Street and Trafalgar Square; Coventry Street, Leicester Square and Piccadilly; Regent, Oxford and Bond Streets; Mayfair and Park Lane) are already owned by overseas ‘players’ from the Far East, Russia etc.
    Thirdly, the Utilities and Stations (Electric and Water Companies; Kings Cross, Fenchurch Street, Marylebone and Liverpool Street) are in foreign ownership also – owned by ‘players’ from abroad.
    Rent still must be paid on all the above property and companies by other players when they are on the property, and the money paid in rent goes to the Bank.
    The Bank has lent money in the form of bonds to some of the overseas ‘players’, and thus the Banker is entitled to interest that is at a rate of half of the rent collected from the companies. The money is paid direct to the Banker on demand.
    The rest of the rent money is then sent ‘overseas’, but the banker, acting as agent for overseas owners, has power to use any money held in trust to buy and place houses and hotels on property owned by foreign entities.
    Fourthly, the price of all the remaining property (Brown, Blue, Purple and Orange sets (from Old Kent Road to Vine Street) is trebled.
    The Bank is permitted to create credit without limit which the Banker is allowed to access as money on demand.
    Finally, the Banker has an unlimited supply of ‘Get Out Of Jail Free’ cards.
    The game ‘New Monopoly’ would not last very long.
    Ordinary players lose, and the Banker wins – every time. Every time.

  6. Tim.

    Is it possible that carbon tax increases acts as a sufficient proxy to calculate expected economic impacts of a rising ECoE as long as any expected fiscal revenue is omitted.


    And in particular the embedded PDF which states as a conclusion…

    In this Topical Feature, we explore the impact of a sudden and uniform $100 carbon tax applied across all economies. The effective oil price rises by around 70 per cent on impact, coal by more than 300 per cent and gas by 60 percent. The rise in carbon tax is accompanied by a temporary rise in global credit constraints, to capture the heightened uncertainty triggered by the sudden shift in asset valuations. The shock triggers a shift in the energy mix and decline in CO2emissions. It also raises production costs, reduces the available energy input into production, generates fiscal revenue and impacts a country’s terms of trade. We expect a transitory, but marked, impact on inflation and a decline in the potential output of all major economies.

    • Carbon taxes, if made workable, might be a way of making consumers pay for the rising ECoEs of FFs (internalizing the externality). My fear, though, would be that the authorities would try to ‘make it up to’ the consumer with even cheaper debt, or even more QE.

      This fits within the broad category of ideas for using money to fix environmental problems. Why do otherwise intelligent people actually believe this?

      To illustrate this fallacy, we need look no furher than the concept of ‘climate QE’.

      Let’s say we cost transition from FFs at USD 100 trillion. We give ourselves 10 years to do it so, each year, appropriate institutions are handed $10tn of newly-created money (about 11% of world GDP, BTW) and told to get on with it.

      Out they all go, fired with enthusiasm, and start buying up every tonne of copper, cobalt, lithium, steel, plastics, cement and so on that they can get their hands on. Because of this huge increase in demand, the prices of all these commodities go into the stratosphere, with consequences for anyone else already using these materials, or anything made with them.

      In short, ‘climate QE’ is not only totally unworkable, but a recipe for hyperinflation.

      There are no financial fixes for a non-financial (material/energy) problem.

    • I guess in theory, carbon taxes and border adjusted carbon taxes will finance government spending or tax cuts elsewhere and avoid the need for perpetual QE.

    • this is why I recoiled at the GFANZ proposal to throw $100-$150 trillion at climate change,
      I could see in my minds eye a period of furious activity building all sorts of infrastructure that either would turn out to be unsuccessful or if it was useful might not be possible to maintain or replace at the end of it’s service life,

      that sort of money can buy a lot of resources and transform them into fairly unrecyclable stuff and leave a trail of environmental destruction in it’s wake,

      then industrialised civilisations still collapses for want of enough energy to power it and leaves the survivors picking through the wreckage of a post industrial wasteland,

      I don’t quite understand how the GFANZ investors intend to mobilise that much capital,
      isn’t their wealth already invested?
      do they borrow the money using their current assets as collateral to back the loans they take out and spend ?
      aren’t they all really sitting on each others boards with their investments spread, it seems if you trace ownership of companies all the way up to the top of the pyramid you find Blackrock & Vanguard have a finger in almost every pie,

      what may attract them is the prospect of a frenzied period of economic activity where they have an interest in every sector involved,
      mining, shipping, haulage, construction, manufacturing, installation, retail, marketing, financial services etc.
      not only do they get to make a pile building Star Trek Tomorrow Land they also get to own it at the end and charge people to access it’s services,

      the Klaus Scwab “you will own nothing and be happy” world,

      am I completely off the track with this? it’s a world I struggle to comprehend.


      there’s an embedded Dutch video in the article above.

    • I think the $130tn is for the period until 2050.

      “GFANZ’s Call to Action recognises the critical role financial services firms must play to support the transition to a green economy, which requires annual clean energy investment to more than triple by 2030 to around $4 trillion”.


      Currently, the world energy investment is around $1.8tn a year
      with energy infrastructure and power generation around $1.2tn a year.


      So the ambition is to triple energy infrastructure and power generation by 2030 which in theory will presumably replace some large fraction of fuel production.

      It is interesting to note that around a third of annual investment goes into energy infrastructure which I’d assume is part of the ECoE calculation.

      However, you are correct, at least by Simon Michaux’s estimation, that there simply isn’t enough materials to achieve much of the Net Zero 2050 ambitions but in his opinion, Net Zero is best seen as a stepping stone to a fundamentally different energy system and way of life.

      (It’s only necessary to read the last chapter of this incredibly detailed and dense 500 page analysis).


      We are at an energy impasse. En masse, we can’t go forward with rapidly depleting fossil fuels and so all we can do is build out renewables as an interim strategy no matter the EROI.

      What happens next is anyone’s guess.

      I guess an alternative is no energy system at all by 2050, after proven oil and gas reserves have run out. Along with a climate emergency if modelling is correct.

      In my opinion, the chances of banning the discretionary energy consumption associated with high culture, the entertainment industry, the fashion industry, the media industry, the leisure industry, the travel industry and the marketing industry in order to implement a planned energy descent is zero since the middle classes would rather die than work in the fields.

      It is after all, the top 50% of global incomes that produces 92% of global emissions. The top 1% of global incomes produces 15% and the other 49% produces 75% of emissions. In other words, the main bulk of emissions are produced by the Western middle classes who predominantly comprise the professional class in the above industries.

      Degrowth won’t happen because it will mean the radical hollowing out of the Western middle classes. The main bulk of the working class are protected because they generally occupy essential roles. So the argument about protecting the poor from climate change and the need for Net Zero is simply deflection from middle class interests.

      This is why it is predominantly the middle classes that are the main supporters of green new deals and techno-utopian fixes and why there is so much middle class anxiety about achieving Net Zero 2030. The alternative is probably a life not worth living. Otherwise known as eco-anxiety.

    • “What happens next is anyone’s guess”.

      Permit me to say that we do know what happens next. Real economic output contracts. We don’t replace the energy value of FFs with REs. We don’t have over a billion EVs on the world’s roads. Technology doesn’t, as we’re told it will, ‘fix everything’. We don’t build a world awash with “green” energy.

      Knowing, at least in broad outline, isn’t the problem. Neither, in broad terms, is persuasion, because ‘what happens, happens’.

      The problem is that too many pre-conceived assumptions don’t fit predictable reality.

      Eventually, pragmatists take over from deniers. The really big unknown is how does that happen?

    • I guess there is a lot of background factors to take into consideration, such as whether the consumption of fossil fuels will actually reduce before depletion resulting in a 3/4°C warming (according to the modelling) which will precipitate huge migrationary flows.

      Similarly, at what point do the materials required for REs deplete and as a result what interim energy capacity would we be left with and how would that dissipative system be distributed globally.

      However in terms of energy capacity descent through a mixture of fossil fuel depletion, rising ECoEs and reducing surplus energy and the much reduced EROI of REs, then in my opinion, the resulting economic contraction will radically hollow out the middle classes as discretionary energy consumption dwindles.

      This I think will be preceded by a grief cycle for the middle classes as the working classes and the upper classes look on.

      Thus denial will be followed by anger which might need to be quelled by force. This is then followed by the bargaining stage and increased demands for monetary stimulus, research and development and techno fixes. If this produces nothing, then sadness and depression will set in with any survivors moving into acceptance and accepting a meagre working class life.

      The anger stage of revolt might seek to displace both the working classes and the upper classes in the guise of technocratic (autocratic) governance and media sophistry and media gaslighting will be rife. This may well require the need to nationalise the media.

      I think this journey from denial to acceptance, especially for the middle classes will be largely determined by the anger stage and whether it is punctuated by highly competitive tendencies or whether it is largely processed in a more cooperative spirit.

      Current examples appear to point towards the former and not the latter so I expect attempts to destabilise the energy system with unrealistic reductions in fossil fuel use will continue unabated. From this point of view, perhaps destabilising the energy system and causing widespread uncertainty (via carbon entanglement) is for the middle classes a better option than accepting a smooth descent since destabilisation provides them with a broader spectrum of opportunities to maximize power.

      This implies that the eco-radicalised middle classes are already in the anger stage and so have already moved on from denial and that their eco-activism is primarily about protecting their interests through destabilisation.

    • I suspect pragmatism will only kick in after a traumatic shock, like a cataclysmic financial crash, or an appalling natural disaster attributable to climate change like a heat wave leading to mass casualties, or both!

      it’s going to take something pretty big to punch the ‘big boys’ in the gut and take the wind out of their sail, force them to their senses.

      I think last summer in the northern hemisphere rattled plenty of people with the fires and floods but it just wasn’t horrific enough to drum some sense into their heads.

    • Indeed so.

      What I’m grappling with right now can be defined like this.

      First, the consensus or generality of opinion anticipates a future that cannot happen. This consensus is largely deaf to alternative, more realistic interpretations, mainly because what these realistic interpretations predict is not acceptable, and cuts directly across preconceived assumptions about what must (and therefore ‘will’) happen. These preconcieved assumptions include continuity – of current economic practices and systems, of “growth”, and of current power and wealth relationships.

      Second, as the gap between these assumptions and realistic probability widens, increasingly desperate and unrealistic claims are made in an effort to bolster the supposed credibility of the preferred narrative. We’re told, for instance, that current problems are no more than “transitory”. We’re further told that the economy can transition without contraction, and with “growth intact”, from an FF to an RE-based system. We’re told that, between them, “technology” and “stimulus” can make this possible.

      For those of us who understand the fallacy – indeed, the denial and the desperation – which now supports consensus assumptions, what do we do?

      Persuasion is unlikely to be effective until reality imposes itself on preconception. We can infer that a consensus disproved by outcomes will be replaced by something a lot more pragmatic*.

      In the interim – and I don’t think it will be all that long – perhaps the best thing we can do is intensify our analysis, providing the eventual emergence of pragmatism with effective interpretation.

      – – – –

      * If you want to see a powerful example of pragmatism imposing itself, you can do worse than watch the final episode of The Fall of Eagles.

      The action takes place at German HQ in the summer of 1918. The Kaiser, superbly played by Barry Foster, insists that the war can still be won. He comes up with increasingly unrealistic arguments for this mistaken point of view. The job of the pragmatists amongst his military and political retinue is to persuade him that the war is lost, and that a reasonably favourable armistice must be sought before Germany reaches the disaster of unconditional surrender.

    • Peak surplus energy is coming soon, along with the end of growth, I’m sure of that.

      Right now most of the world has no idea, but in relatively short time, no-growth will be an accepted fact.

      So how will it get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?

      And how will it maintain some normality?
      And how and when will it “get” the energy issues?

      In summary, it will be butchered mercilessly, banging and screaming all the way, the biggest denial in human history. (some would say that reality will impose itself on preconception 🙂 )

      (Oh, and GFC2 has still to pass through…)

    • Dr Tim, I’m fairly sure that governments are going to keep carrying on as if whatever happens is just a temporary glitch.

      At some point the ECoE, especially oil will get to a point that the price is vastly higher than present. Despite the obvious economic destruction that will happen as discretionary spending collapses and takes markets down as well, due to higher oil prices and therefore higher ‘everything else’ that relies on oil, governments and central banks will use the tools that saved the economic system last time, ie QE.

      Unlike prior events when markets crash, which usually happens after the real economy has been declining for some time, and energy prices also collapse, oil prices will tend to stay higher than in the past as quantity available is also on the slide. Governments/ CBs will continue as if it’s a normal recession, but high oil prices will stifle any economic recovery. Unemployment will stay high and go higher as the recession never ends.

      Oil is the master resource. All other resources can be obtained in enough quantity with enough energy. It is possible to mine copper in the parts per million range if we had unlimited energy. Mining 10,000 cubic kms every year of desert rocks that have only 10-20ppm of copper would give us all the copper we’d ever need, if we had unlimited energy to do it with. Of course we’d trash the planet in the process. They mine Gold at 1ppm currently, but only because it is ‘valuable’.

      When we get to real decline rates for oil, of something like 5-6% per annum there is no recovery and ramping spending on any type of renewable future will just cause massive inflation in those sectors without providing anything like the necessary energy to run a modern economy on.

      We’ll get the governments made up of politicians that promise the brightest future, most likely whoever is in opposition to the government that was ruling during the downturn. The public wont want to know that there is only de-growth ahead, so will vote in the biggest liar of a rosy future. They will blame immigrants, the unemployed, the poor, maybe bloggers, or other countries for the fall in the economy, and will promise too right the economy in their ‘special’ way. It wont and can’t work, but it will not stop politicians promising a bright future, just to get elected.

      People are the biggest obstacle to a steady de-growth situation (if it’s possible at all!!). They will wish to continue on with the energy spending party no matter what the consequences, and vote accordingly. Runaway inflation of everything is how the economies will bring in de-growth with less spending power to those that still have jobs, and with government handouts to the increasing masses of not employed, being less able to provide a subsistence living. Handouts from governments being tied to official inflation that falls further and further behind real inflation like it is currently doing.

      Governments have successfully hidden the declining net energy available for economies so far, so why should we expect them to do anything different even as the energy availability decline accelerates??

      BTW, shoot the messenger is still alive and well, so you should think very hard about trying to get the message ‘out’ about our predicament to wider audiences than just the blogosphere. Can you imagine a future where the ‘alarmists’ get blamed for causing panic in the economy that stopped ‘normal’ spending that brought down the economic system?? Such people might get punished for causing economic turmoil by their evil, misleading words. Throughout history we have always had people blamed for wrongdoing to explain the grief of the rest of the population.

      I can see the headlines, burn the blogger!! They burnt witches, gassed Jews, and tortured heretics, so why would messengers of decline be safe??

    • Not personally, but others might be. Any reason why?

      Mickey Newbury’s The Future’s Not What It Used To Be might be better (if anyone can find a video).

    • I’d like a cathartic moment where we confront the unavoidability of the coming crash, then get over it and move on to looking at what comes after,

      with acceptance comes the question ‘what next?’

      if I’m reading you right, that’s what you want to explore and I’m happy and ready to go with that.

    • Thanks. Where I’m at is:

      – The energy based interpretation is realistic

      – The cornucopian vision of perpetual growth is mistaken, but wishful thinking has fostered a remarkably tenacious (though wholly fanciful) narrative based on this presupposition.

      – Try as we might, we’re unlikely to persuade decision-makers about this – only events are going to shake the consensus narrative.

      – When that happens, we’re going to need a new pragmatism

      – That ‘new pragmatism’ is going to need effective interpretation, which we can provide.

      Rather than being discouraged by being ‘outsiders’, or ‘at the fringes’ of the debate, we need to explore, research and explain the reality as energy interpretation enables us to understand it.

      In one sense, this might mean we need to ‘get professional’ about this.

    • this new pragmatism may require completely shredding the existing rulebook and writing a new one from scratch,
      the unimaginable is about to become reality and we need to imagine it.

      people on the fringes might look like outsiders when viewed from the centre but living on the fringe feels like being a pioneer.

      I think a lot of things we take for granted today will simply not exist ‘apres le deluge’,
      Tesla has very little reason to exist after the flood except as a niche luxury car manufacturer,
      Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter etc. only exist because of their user base, their platforms could shatter and their users migrate to new platforms and services in a matter of months,
      rapid simplification might pull the feet from under many large corporate household names and there will be a huge vacuum to be filled with SME’s providing simplified and localised alternatives,

    • Politics, business and finance have always attracted some very clever people. Some of them are natural non-conformists, and almost all are motivated by the idea of profit, which may be political as well as financial.

      The best hope for pragmatism may lie in some of these people seeing ‘a profit in reality’. That doesn’t require on their part a public disavowal of the consensus myth, simply actions based on recognition of the mythology of the consensus.

    • “rapid simplification” is a very positive and pragmatic thought, and it is the destination of the future.

      My fear is that the PTB (for the time they retain their power) will try the old tricks, fail, waste a lot of time and cause more pain.

      It is politically very easy to blame the pandemic for all economic problems, at least for now.

  7. An illuminating explanation of the significance of the fall of Afghanistan, in terms of the health status of the Neoliberal empire vis-a-vis it’s opposition, in their global struggle to control crucial resources. A look into the future as to what is most likely to happen now, given we live in volatile times of great uncertainty. It examines some challenges to US (and their lackeys’) domination and how the reaction to their self-induced implosion will affect those of us forced to share the planet:

  8. Cop26 final draft text,
    The word finance is used 24 times.
    The word sustainable is used 4 times.
    The word energy is used zero times.
    It pretty much sums up it is all just blah, blah, blah.

    • Thanks. One of the finest ever singers and songwriters. The album Frisco Mabel Joy (from which this song comes) is terrific. The trademark rain sounds are there between tracks because, as a perfectionist, he thought this preferable to the hiss almost inevitable on vinyl records.

  9. Here’s ‘The other Tim’ in morbid mode, a particularly good article though, showing the implosion of healthcare in the UK as a symptom of the country’s rapid decline. Issues like this will force the people to realise they are not at the top table of world powers or economies, they are in freefall borrowing more than they earn every years for years now, with no sign something will come to the rescue, having squandered the north sea oil. We will have to live within our means now, like any other mid-level country with no energy resources or other valuables to trade for them. So we will continue to sink into genteel poverty, finding out the hard way that you can’t eat denial or hubris.

    As Dr T might have said, if you base your economy on low skilled, poorly paid jobs to become a sweatshop, thinking you’ll be successful, Uzbekistan would be wealthier than the UK. (Even if that strategy could work, continually antagonising all your neighbour in the biggest market on the planet couldn’t) So you get the leaders you deserve and we have the best politicians that money can buy:


    • In my opinion F1 this incoherent article fluctuates between a morbid despair in a lack of economic growth and a morbid despair of the realities of systemic entropy.

      He then finishes his grief processing with bargaining and the hope that “Governments could – but won’t – inflate debt away in a coordinated international currency creation binge. In other words, monetary stimulus on steroids.

      The only relevant point he makes in terms of reaching the acceptance stage of systemic entropy is the balance between efficiency and resilience with the EU single market constitutionally predicated on “highly competitive social markets” in order to maximise market efficiencies.

      From a systematic entropy point of view, what this article highlights is the systemic lag between the incremental collapse of discretionary middle class employment and the need for these unemployed middle classes to fill essential working class employment roles.

      It could be argued that debt and monetary stimulus in particular has increased that lag time, with that increased lag time being a perfect opportunity for politically motivated reasoning by middle class pundits.

  10. Also an excellent article from Gail Tverberg, detailing how the recent lockdowns exacerbated various existing serious problems and the consequences from those shocks to supply chains are going to be severe all round, but obviously worse for those countries not blessed with enough crucial resources. and/or badly run. The tone is similarly morbid to ‘The other Tim’, given she doesn’t see any reason for the trend to change and doesn’t believe in some fantasy rescue:


    • I’m not going to comment on articles by others. I respect the work and opinions of Tim W and Gail T.

      As a general proposition, though, I don’t see gloom as the antidote to the increasing absurdities of a cornucopian consensus based on limitless growth, the alchemy of technology and the magic of stimulus.

      Rather, reality can be expected to assert itself, because it always does. When this happens, the new pragmatism will need the very best analysis – objective, impartial and professional – that any of us can provide.

    • Supply Chains
      I am involved in a completely separate discussion of the various catastrophes which are unfolding, and what we might do about it. A leading participant is a university professor who taught technical subjects. He had an exercise in logistics which involved a moderately complex supply chain, which operated with each element in the chain doing optimal things from their perspective. The result was dysfunction for the total supply chain, with inventories building up and lack of parts and financial distress and so forth.

      I was never a fan of the lockdowns, because I was also a participant in a supply chain exercise around 55 years ago. Shutting something down creates all sorts of unanticipated problems. Whether those problems just go with taut supply chains or whether they are indicative of LTG type problems is not evident from casual observation. What is clear to me is that if the supply chain is fragile, and if there really are LTG limitations, we can expect more supply chain failures to increase. If a strike at a lithium mine, or a revolution against the government of that country, can shut down batteries, then the result is chaos in lots of things from cell phones to EVs. Could the US government even operate without the cell phones?

      Don Stewart

    • @ Dr T., I concur, I enjoy reading their research for my factual learning, the tone indicates their personal feelings towards the subject at that moment in time and as such isn’t my business, I was just stating how I found it came across. As for mourning the status quo, well, all through my life I’ve found this waste-for-profit system of neoliberalism repulsive in every way.

      So I’m merely observing the world around me and trying to work out what is likely to happen next, I’m painfully aware individually my power to effect anything is zilch. Personally, I’m not morose about what will come because I have no idea what that will be and was not winning in the last life.

  11. @ Hideaway,
    I think you made a valid point earlier about ‘shoot the messenger’

    I get irritated by all the pressure over the covid vaccine at the moment, I posted a response to a covid article on Reddit with Fauci imploring people to come forward for their 3rd jab and I got pounced on by the ‘vaccine faithful’ which isn’t unusual, then a moderator banned me for 7 days, then the moderator locked the thread, then while the faithful downvoted my post awards have been coming in from people supportive of my comment,
    I’ve received nearly 20 awards, about 500 Reddit coins, premium membership and private messages supporting standing up to bullies,
    they’re upvoting the thread and it’s currently trending as the hottest thing on the forum,

    I’ve been sent a message directing me to the Samaritans for suicide support and been contacted by someone who claims to be involved in clinical drug trials and is willing to talk to me,

    all this over a one line comment saying I’m not interested in the vaccine, it’s the most dramatic reaction I’ve ever experienced on the interweb, things are getting crazy out there!


    I’m not anti vax, I’m just being conservative about this new type, I’m more than happy for anyone who wants the vax to take it,

    • Yes, there’s normally severe social bullying about emotive issues, the more frightening the issue the more policing for conformity, not even necessarily by the rulers, useful idiots jump in voluntarily to ‘help’. It’s what underlies groupthink, like at work, a psychological illusion of safety in numbers in that if you’re all wrong and there are bad consequences, well, ‘who could have possibly foreseen it?’

      It allows for an evasion of responsibility to think for yourself, solve problems and face reality. This is how societies march off cliffs, through the tyranny of majoritarian rule. So if the pendulum ever swings the other way to a more natural balance where ~50% of the population feel free enough to simply ask questions, like ”Is this good for me or is someone just benefiting from this?” then you have a sane society. If whipping into conformity is exonerated, you slide into autocracy.

    • yes FI, you get my point, I wasn’t trying to turn debate here into some ridiculous vax debate but highlight quite how contentious issues get when people feel under pressure,
      for all the talk of a mental health crisis it seems to me a lot of it is generated by the establishment trying to manipulate opinion,
      I glance at the paper this morning and another General is talking up war with Russia,


      to quote Zoolander “it’s like everyone is taking crazy pills!”

    • @Matt, It’s cognitive dissonance, when people are scared they instinctively shout at whatever’s scaring them, instead of logically solving whatever is causing the risk of the outcome that scares them. We have this hardwired into our primitive brains, when we’re scared its the fight, flight or freeze reaction, rationality leaves the skull.

      Even in relatively civilised spaces like this that are great to learn from, you get shouted down on issues that trigger certain individuals, we all have our buttons. I never respond when it happens, because there’s no point in engaging with someone who wants to force you to agree so they can feel better at that moment in time. You can only have a discussion with a person who is listening as well as hearing, curious and actually wants to find the truth as opposed to just being right.

  12. Steven B Kurtz
    on November 12, 2021 at 2:34 pm said:
    “That’s why a 15 acre farm with a good water source, 10 acre woodlot, super insulated house, solar, wind perhaps…is a rational idea for a young family.”

    I have read most of your comments since you seem to have one of the best minds on the forum, and couldn’t help but notice several mentions of a small farm. I may have a way for you to make it work for yourself …

    A person of *significant* ( 😉 ) means could build 4 to 5 small houses, a greenhouse or two and do other things that you don’t need me to list including a clinic. Live in one house, use two for serf families, and leave one vacant for the MD that WILL join you after the collapse. (I don’t see the MD shoveling a lot of manure anyway.)

    Serf may be the wrong term, since the people that you “hire” are not bound to you or the land. After the crash, they would be bound to you and the land by circumstance. But, you would basically be setting yourself up as a “feudal lord”.

    Using 20 years experience, I can, and would enjoy providing lots more details in a more private forum.

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