Sunday, 31 August 2014

Technology Isn't the Answer, depending on what question you're asking...

In my last post I talked about how the economy and energy are linked together and how depletion of fossil fuel resources is effecting the economy. I promised to explain why I don’t think technology can solve the problem. So here we go...

When I first heard about Peak Oil, my reaction was basically, “That’s pretty bleak, but surely we’ll develop some technology to solve the problem”. I spent my working life in the power industry, I enjoyed learning the latest technologies and I thought I knew what we could potentially do. Fifteen years later, I am convinced that technology doesn’t hold the answer, at least not to the questions most people are asking of it.

For most people, I think the question is, “Can technology allow industrial civilization to keep growing, essentially without limits, as it was doing during the latter half of the twentieth century, so that we can carry on without a significant change in lifestyle, or better yet, with continued improvements in lifestyle.” The answer to that question is easy, and it’s, “no.” For anyone who grew up in the latter half of the twentieth century, though, this is a very counter intuitive answer, and I think it is worth going into some detail about why I say “no.”

Because of the way our financial systems are set up, industrial civilization must continue to grow. The kind of growth we are talking about is exponential and in the real world it always runs into limits. As I’ve commented before, people don’t have a good grasp of how exponential growth works, and we always seem to be surprised by where it leads. While it might be worthwhile revisiting the idea of limits to growth at some point, today I want to focus on technology.

First, let’s be clear how I feel about technology — it is an essential part of being human. When we are faced with a problem, we typically solve it by applying more complex technology. Sometimes this leads us into a corner, a “progress trap”, and we are forced to simplify. But we rarely do it willingly. It seems to me we are currently caught in one of those progress traps, based on our reliance on fossil fuels--a dead end because those resources are becoming depleted. The way out is through simplification of our technology, not further investment in complexity.

I think the enlightenment was a good thing--it added some very important thinking tools (critical thinking and the scientific method, along with all sorts of new mathematics) to our mental tool kit. The enlightenment and heat engines for converting fuels into mechanical power were two separate, necessary but not sufficient conditions for the development of industrial civilization. Put them together and voila, industrial revolution.

Many people who have thought about this are not convinced that it was a good thing. I'll agree that when taken too far, it has gotten us into trouble. And while that trouble is a major thing, I still think the benefits were worth it, though it is a pity we couldn’t have stopped before things got to the state they are currently in.

I am particularly irritated when I hear ivory tower intellectuals bemoaning the failings of technology when their lifestyle is completely dependent on very complex technology, of which they are largely unaware. Lewis Mumford’s book “Technics & Civilization” comes to mind--let’s just say I laid it down in disgust before finishing.

So, if the question is, “will our response to the challenges that face us involve the use of technology”, then I would say, “absolutely yes!”

But I am also pretty irritated with people who say “surely they’ll come up with something”, and are willing to just leave it at that, trusting that "they" will indeed look after it. A pretty unjustified leap of faith, I’d say.

Many people believe technological breakthroughs will soon give us access to sources of energy as rich or richer that fossil fuels and let business continue on as usual, or perhaps even better than usual. Others think that we can find a way to maintain our current lifestyle by using renewable energy sources and improving the efficiency with which we use that energy. I don;t agree with either of those ideas.

I’ve spent quite a few years researching this subject and I will share my conclusions shortly, but I can recommend a couple of writers who will lead you through this in more detail than I have space for here. Tom Murphy is a physicist whose blog Do the Math does an excellent job of just that--doing the math. David MacKay is an engineer whose book “Sustainable Energy -- without the hot air” is another valuable resource. It’s contents are available on line at Both writers are accessible to anyone who was comfortable with high school math, and even if numbers aren’t your friends, they also make their conclusions clear in simple English.

But now for my conclusions. One thing to get clear is that technology is not energy, indeed technology uses energy, rather than creating it. Many people are confused about this because we do use technology to access sources of energy and convert them into more useful forms. During recent history technological advances have allowed us to access more sources of energy than ever before. But make no mistake, if you don’t have a prime mover, a source of energy, all the technology in the world isn’t going to help.

So, can we find a way to make our “business as usual”, growth based economy keep going for the foreseeable future? This means finding a way to keep an ever growing population fed, housed, clothed and entertained to an ever improving standard. Energy seems to be the key and by looking closely at energy, we can find some answers.

There are indeed huge quantities of hydrocarbons (fossil fuels) trapped underground in rock formations where we can’t access them at the moment. Let’s assume technology improves and allows us to access those resources. Enough to last several hundred years, which for many people is effectively forever. At any rate, long before we run out of those resources, sometime in the next few decades, we will have released such vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that climate change will spoil the future we are trying to build here. I don’t usually argue that near term extinction for the human race is a possibility to take seriously, but that would be one way to make it a reality.

OK, can we tap into some cleaner sources of energy? What about nuclear fission or maybe even nuclear fusion?

Fissionable materials are pretty rare and every analysis I read says that if we built fission reactors to replace fossil fuels as our energy source, we’d run out of fissionable materials in a few decades. Yes, there’s thorium as well as uranium and there are breeder reactors. That would get us a few more decades. But not enough to last into anybody’s definition of the foreseeable future.

But there is enough fusion fuel (heavy hydrogen) in the oceans to last a very long time. We don’t have working fusion reactors yet, but maybe it’s time we doubled or quadrupled the research budget (instead of halving it, as we recently did to the funding for one fusion research project) and get the problem solved. Once we can tap into nuclear fusion as an energy source, our problems are solved, right? Wrong. The process of making usable energy from any of these resources, gives off quite a lot of waste heat. This isn’t some failing of insufficiently advanced technology, but a simple consequence the laws of thermodynamics. Typical power plants runs with an efficiency of 25 to 35 percent. The rest of the energy ends up in the environment. The downside of fusion is that it can keep us going long enough for that to be a problem. If our civilization keeps on as it is for a few hundred more years, we’ll have released enough waste heat to boil the oceans. This is quite a lot worse than the few degrees of warming we’d get from releasing more greenhouses gasses into the atmosphere. And it is not dependent of which energy source we choose — whatever it is, if it allows us to continue growing for a few hundred years, we end up with this problem. Another deal breaker, for sure.

What about space resources and generating power off the planet so we don’t have to worry so much about waste heat? Solar power stations in orbit, beaming energy down to receiving stations here on earth. This just puts the waste heat problem off for a few hundred more years, since we’d still be adding some heat to the environment. In order to radiate it away, the temperature has to go up. If we keep growing, eventually it becomes a problem.

Some of you will be jumping up and down in frustration at all the other problems with any of these idea, that I appear to be ignoring. I am aware of those problems, and I agree that the analysis above is pretty cavalier. But I’m trying to show there are fundamental problems that stop these ideas from working even before we consider more subtle issues.

Perhaps the problem is growth. I would certainly say so. What if we stop growing and switch over to clean, renewable energy sources? The wonderful thing about such a plan is that it is simplicity itself to implement. We just keep going as we are at present and let nature take its course.

Climate change and the end of industrial agriculture as fossil fuels run out would reduce the human population to a fraction of it’s present level. Before many decades passed, we’d be back to firewood and food as energy sources. Straight back to the dark ages, though with the benefit of what knowledge we can retain from the industrial era and all the refined metal and machinery that will be lying around waiting to be salvaged, maybe not quite as far back as you might think.

Still, I’ll bet you are not so keen on the idea. Well, neither am I. It seems to be where we are heading, though. Can we find some way to hold things together, solve, avoid or mitigate the many problems we’re facing and retain at least some of the benefits of the high tech society we are now living in, without its downside? To that I will answer, “maybe....”

I often think that if we had switched over to a non-growth based economy in the first half of the twentieth century, things would have been much simpler. With a smaller population and concerted efforts to conserve, to get by on “just enough”, the supply of fossil fuels would have lasted much longer and climate change not have become a problem until much later in the game. This would have given us a much better chance to succeed at a transition to renewable energy sources. The “just enough is good” attitude, especially, would make this easier to accomplish. As opposed to our current “more is always better” and “waste is our entitlement” approach to things. But...woulda, coulda and shoulda are futile words.

As I said earlier, many think that we can find a way to maintain our current lifestyle and continue with "sustainable growth"(whatever that may be) by using renewable energy sources and improving the efficiency with which we use that energy. That is not what I am saying “maybe” to. It seems to me that retaining the benefits of science and technology is a vastly more attainable goal than maintaining our current lifestyle. Let’s consider why renewables can’t support an industrial society of the sort we currently have.

When it comes to energy, it’s not just the amount of energy that is available to us, but also the difference between what it costs us to acquire the energy and the value of what we can produce with it – the “surplus energy”. This can be represented by a single number, the Energy Returned on Energy Invested or “EROEI”. This surplus energy is what fuels productivity, and makes our economy grow. You can average together the EROEI’s of all the energy sources that an economy uses. When that number goes below a certain level (around 15), the economy ceases to grow and goes into a recession. “Capital formation”--raising money to start projects becomes difficult. As the number goes lower, it becomes difficult even to raise enough money to maintain vital infrastructure and things start to crumble.

I scanned the graph above from Tim Morgan’s book, Life After Growth. The red line at EROEI=15 is mine. The horizontal axis represents EROEI, and that quantity decreases are we move from left to right. The vertical axis represents the percentage “profit” of gross energy extracted. The graph shows the EROEI of the various energy sources that are available to us. If a country is looking to develop new energy sources to improve its economic situation, it needs to pick sources that will improve its average EROEI. Spending money on energy sources with an EROEI of less your current average actually make things worse. Most of the developed nations have an average EROEI around 9 to 12 these days.

Nuclear fusion is not on the graph, presumably because there are no working fusion reactors to get data from. But it is proving much harder to build them than it was to build fission reactors, so it is a pretty good bet that if we do build them, their EROEI will be even worse that fission reactors, which are in the 8 to 10 range.

There are a few energy sources worth of mention that aren’t on the graph. A quick Google search led me to this website, which borrows a table from Richard Heinberg’s book, “Searching for a Miracle: ‘Net Energy’ Limits & the Fate of Industrial Society

The EROEI’s quoted there vary a little from Morgan’s diagram, but none of these numbers are meant to be taken a terribly precise. Heinberg tells us that wave energy systems have an EROEI of around 15, geothermal 2 to 13, and tidal around 6.

So, I have introduced several criteria for evaluating energy sources: long term considerations like waste heat, emission of greenhouse gases, availability of a long term supply or renewability, and perhaps most important, having an EROEI of greater than 15.

It is also important to realize that if an energy source requires the infrastructure provided by an high tech industrial economy to make it work, but has an EROEI of less than 15 then it cannot support the sort of economy that is needed to make it work. Eventually the infrastructure will crumble and that energy source will no longer be accessible. Off the top of my head I would say this applies to nuclear fission and solar photovoltaics in particular.

If we are looking to maintain a growing industrial civilization we can quickly eliminate all the energy sources to the right of the red line on the graph. High tech isn’t going to help with that, because using more complex technology will tend to lower the EROEI, not raise it, because of the extra energy needed to build and run such equipment.

So let’s look at the energy sources on the left side of the graph.

Wind is intermittent and I do not believe that this has been taken into account in calculating the EROEI shown on the graph. When you add in the cost of storage equipment or companion generation needed to fit wind into a grid that is committed to supplying continuous and reliable power, the EROEI is much worse. That is why I would move wind to the right of the red line on the graph.

1970s oil and gas finds are moving into the decline phase at the end of their lives and that is what is causing our current energy crisis. Non-renewable energy sources tend to move to the right on this graph as they become depleted, because we always use “pick the low hanging fruit first”, leaving the poorer quality, harder to access parts of the resource for later. Note also, that current oil and gas finds are over on the right side of the graph. The vast amounts of hydrocarbons still in the ground all have a very low EROEI, sometimes less than 1. Hypothetical discussion about there being enough fossil fuels left to last hundreds of years tend to ignore this.

Coal has a good EROEI, but that is for coal sitting at the mine head. Transporting it to a power station and burning it to produce electricity reduces the EROEI considerably, probably by a factor of 3, down to 25. Using it to replace oil and gas will result in vastly increased emissions of carbon dioxide. Schemes for capturing the CO2 and keeping it out of the atmosphere have been suggested, but energy is used in those schemes, from 10 to 40% of the energy in the coal being burned. So if we have to capture and store the CO2 released by burning coal its EROEI starts to get down close to or below 15. And the technology to do this hasn’t been developed yet. Further, coal extraction is moving toward a peak just like oil and natural gas, which may come as soon as 2025. Already we have used up most of the high quality coal and have been forced to mine the lower quality stuff.

Obviously, 1930s oil and gas finds are history.

Hydroelectricity is fine and no doubt the few remaining suitable locations will be developed. But there just isn’t enough to replace fossil fuels.

But what about proposed energy sources that haven’t yet been built, so there is no EROEI data to evaluate?

If you have a favourite one, feel free to bring it up in the comments section. I’ll let you know what I think of the idea and I’ll be very relieved if you come up with something that will work . But I am pretty certain that most such suggestions will fall into a few categories:

1) Energy sources which fail for the reasons I’ve already discussed, though perhaps in a less obvious ways.

2) Things that are science fiction--just not physically possible.

3) They are “academic or paper reactors”. This phrase comes from Hyman G. Rickover, who was a United States Navy admiral who directed the original development of naval nuclear propulsion and controlled its operations for three decades as director of Naval Reactors. In addition, he oversaw the development of the Shippingport Atomic Power Station, the world's first commercial pressurized water reactor used for generating electricity. Rickover is known as the "Father of the Nuclear Navy." Even though he was pretty clearly in favour of nuclear power, he had this to say:

An academic reactor or reactor plant almost always has the following basic characteristics:
  1. It is simple.
  2. It is small.
  3. It is cheap.
  4. It is light.
  5. It can be built very quickly.
  6. It is very flexible in purpose.
  7. Very little development will be required. It will use off-the-shelf components.
  8. The reactor is in the study phase. It is not being built now.
On the other hand a practical reactor can be distinguished by the following characteristics:
  1. It is being built now.
  2. It is behind schedule.
  3. It requires an immense amount of development on apparently trivial items.
  4. It is very expensive.
  5. It takes a long time to build because of its engineering development problems.
  6. It is large.
  7. It is heavy.
  8. It is complicated.

The tools of the academic designer are a piece of paper and a pencil with an eraser. If a mistake is made, it can always be erased and changed. If the practical-reactor designer errs, he wears the mistake around his neck; it cannot be erased. Everyone sees it.

The academic-reactor designer is a dilettante. He has not had to assume any real responsibility in connection with his projects. He is free to luxuriate in elegant ideas, the practical shortcomings of which can be relegated to the category of "mere technical details." The practical-reactor designer must live with these same technical details. Although recalcitrant and awkward, they must be solved and cannot be put off until tomorrow. Their solution requires manpower, time and money.

Unfortunately for those who must make far-reaching decision without the benefit of an intimate knowledge of reactor technology, and unfortunately for the interested public, it is much easier to get the academic side of an issue than the practical side. For a large part those involved with the academic reactors have more inclination and time to present their ideas in reports and orally to those who will listen. Since they are innocently unaware of the real but hidden difficulties of their plans, they speak with great facility and confidence. Those involved with practical reactors, humbled by their experiences, speak less and worry more.

Yet it is incumbent on those in high places to make wise decisions and it is reasonable and important that the public be correctly informed. It is consequently incumbent on all of us to state the facts as forthrightly as possible.

Sadly, the whole energy field, conventional and alternative, is littered with paper reactors. Don't be fooled by them

4) Similar to mistaking academic ideas for practical ones, is the tendency to assume that if something needs to be done, the means to do it will be found. In a failing economy (EROEI less than 15) finding the means to do anything much is very challenging. In fact it is a major concern that we won’t be able to scrape together cash to do many possible and practical things which would improve the situation.

5) Energy sources will scalability problems. Sources that pass all the other tests but exist such small quantity that they can’t be scaled up to solve our problems. Burning waste is one such example. Yes, some energy can be generated by incinerating garbage. But there is only so much garbage and scaling up the creation of garbage is not something we want to do. As the economy declines further, there will be less. Indeed much of what needs to be done will result in much less garbage being created. So its potential as a source of energy will decline as time passes, instead of increasing.

All of this is why I don’t think technology offers much hope of enabling “business as usual” to continue as usual. Indeed, I don’t believe there is much chance of that happening at all.

I’d like to close by suggesting that maybe we are looking at things from the wrong angle. What if we could change our requirements for energy to fit what’s available? I’m not primarily talking about efficiency here, especially the sort of efficiency improvement that adds complexity and cost and lowers EROEI. What I am talking about, yet again, is lifestyle changes. This seems to be a taboo subject, but I appears to me to be the one real answer. There just aren’t any energy sources that will support a growing high tech society on an on-going basis. But it seems to me we could have a non-growing (steady state) society at a somewhat lower level of population, technology and resource use, without falling all the way down to the seventeenth century, or worse yet, the stone age.

I am on record as saying that I expect our industrial civilization will collapse over the next few decades. But I am definitely not talking about some sort of apocalypse. I expect this fall will be a bumpy but gradual one. As it collapses the ability of our industrial civilization to provide the necessities of life will decrease and we will be left to fend for ourselves. There is much that can be done to reduce how far the decline goes and to lessen the abruptness with which it occurs. Efforts in that direction have to be applauded for their potential to reduce human suffering. In my next post I’ll consider what a government that wasn’t shackled by “political realities” could do to mitigate the effects of the collapse.

As an aid to those who are reading this whole series of "Political Fantasy" posts, here is a complete set of links.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Great Contraction

I sat down recently to write a blog post about what government could do today if “political realities” allowed politicians to acknowledge the “real” realities of life in the age of scarcity.

I quickly realized that before I could really address what might be done, it would be necessary to lay out clearly what those realities are -- that we are not recovering from a recession, but rather just at the start of what may come to be known as “the Great Contraction”.

Early in the history of this blog I wrote a post on economic contraction( That was two years ago and as events have progressed, it has become more obvious what the situation is and what lies ahead. I have to give full credit to Charles Hall, Tim Morgan, Gail Tverberg, Nate Hagens, Joseph Tainter and John Michael Greer among others for expressing this in terms that are pretty easy to understand.

Foremost among these would be Drs. Charles Hall and Tim Morgan. There is a bit of a controversy suggesting that Morgan may have borrowed most of his work from Hall without giving Hall any credit. I don’t know if this is so, but I think it is at least possible that Morgan developed his ideas about surplus energy independently. At any rate, Hall’s book costs about $80 and is quite academic, while Morgan’s costs about $20 and is a quick read, making these ideas accessible to many people who would never tackle Hall’s work. Morgan has also published excellent summaries of his ideas on the web, at various lengths:
a brief web page:
a medium length pdf file:
and this pdf file, with most of what is in his book:

For many years I found economics quite confusing -- there seemed to be something missing from the economic theories I was reading. For the average person, the economy is about money. You work to get it, spend it to live, save some for the future if you are lucky. But if you ever try to figure out where it really comes from and how its value is determined, you’ll probably end up with a headache and no satisfying answers. This is because, despite what many economists believe, the economy is not really about money – money is just a set of tokens used to keep track of what is going on at a deeper level.

The economy is actually about people working to produce goods and services needed and/or wanted by other people. “Working” is the key word here. To accomplish work, energy must be consumed, be it food powering muscles or fuel powering engines. So energy is the essential resource that enables all production. And it’s not just the amount of energy that is available to us, but also the difference between what it costs us to acquire the energy and the value of what we can produce with it – the “surplus energy”.

This is expressed in the ratio “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” or EROEI. Every energy source that is available to us has a certain characteristic EROEI. It’s pretty obvious that if it takes more energy to make a fuel than you get from burning it (if its EROEI is less than one) then you’d be wasting your time to use it. But what isn’t so obvious is that an energy source must have an EROEI considerably higher than one in order to drive the kind of economy we’ve had for the last couple of hundred years. It seems that if the average EROEI of the energy sources we’re using falls below about 15, the economy fails to generate enough surplus wealth to allow us to make capital investments, or even repair existing infrastructure.

Many people assume that technology can solve this problem for us. I don’t agree and I’ll be devoting my next blog post to why I don’t, but before going there it is important to look at the actual consequences falling EROEI has had over that last few decades.

Currently, most countries find their overall EROEI somewhere in the middle of the range between 5 and 15, and this is the source of the economic troubles we are having. This is a fundamental problem that doesn’t really have a “solution.” No amount of government borrowing to “jump start” economic growth, no amount of fine tuning taxation or the monetary system, or fiddling with banking or financial regulations is going to make any real difference. If we can’t find energy sources with a higher EROEI (and it appears that we can’t), then we’ll have to find a way to live with the consequences lower EROEI’s -- we’ll have to adapt to economic contraction.

I scanned this graph from Tim Morgan’s book, Life After Growth. The red line at EROEI=15 is mine. The horizontal axis represents EROEI, and that quantity decreases are we move from left to right. The vertical axis represents the percentage “profit” of gross energy extracted. The main thing to note is the way the profit drops off to the right of EROEI=15, and that most of the energy forms that people are proposing as replacements for conventional fossil fuels have EROEI’s of less than 15, the minimum required to keep “business as usual” purring along as usual.

It is also important to be aware of the relationship between surplus energy and techological complexity. When faced with a problem, we humans tend to find a solution in the form of a more complex technology. It is common these days to confuse energy and technology, because so much of our access to energy sources is mediated by complex technology. But technology is always just a way of using energy that already exists, and complex technologies always consume more energy than the simpler ones they replace. Of course the point of moving to more complex technology is that it gives us access to more energy than we currently have. Up to a point there is a net gain in tbe amount of surplus energy technology makes available, but beyond that point more complexity actually gives us less surplus energy.

I scanned this graph from Joseph Tainter’s book “The Collapse of Complex Societies”. The horizontal axis is complexity, increasing as we move from left to right. The vertical axis is the benefit we get on our investment in complexity. Note that as we move to the right of the origin, benefit initially goes up quickly, then less and less quickly until at point C2 the benefit reaches a maximum and further increases in complexity actually yield less benefit, until at point C3, benefits have decreased back to the same level as at C1, a much lower level of complexity. Looking at history there are many cases of a society reaching point C3 and then falling fairly quickly back to point C1 or below, drastically reducing complexity with little loss in benefits. This is what Tainter means by collapse.

For most of human history, stored solar energy in the form of food and firewood were the only available sources of energy. And muscles (human or animal) were the only way of converting fuel (food, in this case) into useful mechanical energy. Hunter gatherers, using the simplest technology, worked with an EROEI of around 10. Advanced agricultural societies, before the industrial revolution, had an EROEI of around 6. And today’s industrial agriculture, considered by itself, has an EROEI of around 0.1, using 10 units of fossil fuel for every unit of food energy produced. You may wonder why we went in this direction if the energy return for our efforts kept getting lower. While a hunter gatherer got a good return on his efforts, there was a limited amount of energy available to be had in his environment and the supply was for the most part beyond his control. Hunter gathers worked shorter hours than we do as long as times were good and when times weren’t good they either had to suffer where they were or move on to better hunting grounds.

With agriculture came greater control of the environment -- being able to plant whole fields full of nothing but edible plants, herding animals rather than hunting them. And it was easy to work longer hours, indeed in the busy season on a farm there is always more work to do. So the net result was the ability to support more people in a smaller area, with enough surplus food to support a class of non-farmers. And since farmers were not mobile, it was easy for the “upper” class to tax that surplus and live off of it.

Farming villages grew into cities and cities grew into empires. The surplus energy to fuel all this growth came from food and firewood, and once a city had maxed out it’s local farmland and forest, there was nothing for it but to expand farther into the surrounding territory. Due to the limitations of transportation technology, this had limits.

It is interesting to note many of these civilizations eventually collapsed, indeed very few are left today. There are many reasons for this including contact with Western civilization in the last couple of hundred years. But one of the most common causes of collapse is failure to manage agricultural land and forests (their only sources of surplus energy) in a sustainable manner. One might ask that if this is even possible. It has been done, though, by several societies at the agricultural village level and by at least one at the nation state/empire level. But that is another story. At any rate, the collapse of an empire is not the end of the world -- merely a step down to a less complex level of technology and a lesser degree of governmental centralization.

With the industrial revolution came some fundamental changes in the surplus energy equation. With the invention of the steam engine, heat could be converted into mechanical energy. Hardly enough can be said about what a game changing thing this was. Yes, late in the age of agricultural civilization, falling water and wind were harnessed to do work, but this was a relatively minor thing compared heat engines fueled by coal. Coal could be had for free -- you just had to dig it out of the ground and the energy needed to do that was a tiny fraction of the energy to be had from the coal itself. And the difference between the cost of coal and the value of the work it can do when burned in a steam engine made a huge difference to industries that had previously used human or animal muscles for mechanical power.

As an example, the cost of coal is currently around $64 per metric tonne. Burned in an engine that is 25% efficient, that tonne of coal will produce an amount of mechanical energy equivalent to around 25,000 manhours of strenuous human labour. Where I live, the minimum wage is $10.50 (Canadian dollars) per hour, so considered on this basis, the mechanical energy produced by burning $64 dollars worth of coal is worth $262,500 if it had to be replaced by human muscle power.

Similar calculations can be done for oil and natural gas. Of course that sort of calculation is a gross simplification that ignores many important factors, but it gives you some idea of the difference between the price and the value of fossil fuel energy. That difference was the engine behind economic growth during the industrial revolution and in the years since then.

So, the economies of nations that could take advantage of fossil fuels and heat engines started to grow much faster, and kept growing for the last 200 years. This is where money and banking came to play a larger part in the story. It is important to keep firmly in mind that money is just a marker for real wealth, which exists in two forms: real, useful goods and claims on future productivity -- the ability to make more useful goods down the road. Since productivity is based on surplus energy, the wealth available in a society is approximately equivalent to the amount of surplus energy available. As long as productivity was based largely on what could be done with human muscles, growth was slow. Money based on precious metals worked because we could dig them out of the ground approximately as fast as the money supply needed to expand to accommodate economic growth.

Economic growth really began to speed up in the 20th century and the money supply became a problem. After WWII, most countries switched over from the “gold standard” to fiat currency, which is basically money created by banks out of thin air when they lend it to you. A lot of people think this is crazy, but with a rapidly growing economy it is just about the only way for the supply of money to keep up.

So, in our current financial system, money is debt. Because debts are required to be repaid with interest, the economy must grow so that there will be more money to pay back the interest. Where does that money come from? More loans, of course. This means that if growth stops or even slows down, there will be many loans which can’t be paid back.

At the moment we have no idea of how to wrap this process up and switch to a zero or negative growth economy. Though very few people can imagine why we would want to do that, we have in fact no choice but to do so. It would be worth a quite a bit of effort to find a way to do it that doesn’t end in disaster.

The thing is, all this economic growth is driven by surplus energy from fossil fuels, but the supply of readily accessible fossil fuels is not infinite, nor is there any workable replacement in sight. Yes, there are huge fossil fuel resources buried in the Earth’s crust, but it is a serious error to divide the resource quantities by our current rate of use and conclude that we have decades or even centuries of supply left. The EROEI of most of these resource is so low that they will not sustain a modern industrial economy, nor can they be accessed at a high enough rate to meet current demand.

I am pretty sure that 200 years ago, when we set out on this course, it should have been obvious that someday the party would have to end. But as long as the end was a long way in the future, it was easy to leave it for a future generation worry about it.

When I first found out about Peak Oil fifteen years ago, I had a picture in my mind of big underground caverns full of oil, in places like Alberta, Texas and the Middle East. By drilling enough wells, you could keep up with growing demand--until getting to the bottom of the tank. Then supply would drop off very fast and the price would go through the roof, causing the economy to crash permanently.

Actually, that’s not what the petroleum geologists who were talking about Peak Oil meant at all. Oil is found in porous rock formations, in deposits of various size and quality, at various depths, and unequally distributed around the planet. This has some consequences, many of which have played out over the last 40 years or so.

What follows, by the way, are observations of what has been happening, not predictions. When I switch over to making predictions, I’ll let you know.

When using resources like fossil fuels, we tend to pick the low hanging fruit first. That is, the least expensive, most easily accessed resources are always used up first. The alternative would be to ignore them in favour of ones that are harder to come by. Which, when you think about it, would be pretty dumb. But going this way does have some consequences, in that by the time you have set up a system that is really dependent on the resource, the low hanging fruit is gone and what is left is more expensive and so the system faces some challenges.

What I think was not well understood initially (and is still not understood by all but a small minority) was the key role energy plays in the economy and the feedback mechanism that exists between the price of energy and economic growth. All but one of the recessions since 1950 were preceded by a spike in oil prices, in other words, a reduction in the availability of surplus energy. Well before we reach the peak of oil production, the EROEI starts to decrease, the price goes up and this slows down the economy. Demand for oil is reduced and the price comes back down. At this point the economy may start to grow again, as it did many times since the 1970s, or it may not, as has been the case since 2008.

Of course, since oil is not evenly distributed throughout the world, some countries have more, some less. And some use more oil than others. The significance of this can be seen by looking back over the last few decades.

What I am calling the Great Contraction really started in the 1970s when oil production peaked in the continental US.

The US was well endowed with oil resources, but it also was (and still is) a major user of oil. From the end of WWII to 1973, oil flowed freely and drove the American economy in an unprecedented burst of growth which seemed to be bring all things good to the American people. So it is not surprising that oil production peaked in the continental USA before much of the rest of the world, in the 1970s. But, hey, no problem, there was still lots of oil available on the world market, the price was low, and the USA was a very productive industrial country, so it could afford to import oil, right? Yes, except for OPEC, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, who saw the opportunity created by the situation, and spurred into action by the American and European support for Israel in the Yom Kippur War, declared an embargo which forced the price of oil from $3 per barrel up to $12 per barrel. This was a profound shock and sent most of the world reeling into a recession. Then the Iran-Iraq war in 1979 reduced the production of oil in both those countries and caused another oil shock.

Jimmy Carter was about to set the US on a course towards what we now call sustainability, but Reagan won the election in 1980, and with a last gush of oil from Alaska, kept the party going for a few more years. Something similar happened in Britain with Thatcher and the North Sea oil. But it should have been clear that this was a temporary reprieve. Governments have done their best to diddle with the economic indicators, but a close look beneath that facade shows that real growth stopped in the 1990s.

Since then we’ve got by on ever increasing debt, globalization, and the gradual elimination of the middle class, financing a few more years of partying for the rich. But all these stop gap measures were in fact huge mistakes, which have only made things worse, not better, for all but a very few people.

Countries like the “PIGS” in Europe with little or no fossil fuel resources have suffered greatly, as the rising cost of imported energy has forced them towards bankruptcy.

The oil exporting countries have found themselves temporarily rolling in cash and have even had trouble finding places to invest their money. Some of it has gone to subsidizing the cost of food and fuel for their own citizens. This is a bit of trap, for as their oil reserves decline and they have to start importing energy to keep up with domestic demand, they switch over very quickly from being rich to being poor, leaving their people very unhappy. Egypt over the last few years has been a clear example of this.

As the economy has slowed down, interest rates have been lowered in an attempt to keep things moving, and returns on investments in general have decreased. Those with money to invest have been left with a real problem of where to invest that money at a “reasonable rate”. They have been forced to accept higher risks, often buying into bubbles, and losing it all when the bubbles burst. Since the crash of 2008 markets have recovered nicely, even though the real economy has not. Much of this has been the result of governments printing money, which is just another sort of bubble. At the moment much so called wealth consists of promises that probably can’t be kept (debts that will never be repaid).

As more and more conventional oil fields go into decline, we are turning to fossil fuels with ever lower EROEI’s. Tight oil and gas, which have to be “fracked” from the shale formation where they are found are the current poster child for this. And in the last decade they have made a big difference, offsetting much of the decline in conventional oil. Fracking has been heralded as the solution to America’s energy problem for the next century, but in fact the decline rate on fracked wells in very high and the “sweet spots” in the shale formations have already be tapped. It also seems that original estimate of the amount of oil and gas available in these formations may have been rather optimistic. The estimates for the Monterey shale in California were downgraded by 94% this spring.

Here in Canada, Alberta’s tar sands are said to hold great promise, but the EROEI is in the range of 2 to 3, So this is little more than a way of turning high quality natural gas into low quality syncrude, and doing a lot of environmental damage in the process. And lowering Canada’s overall EROEI while they are at it. We have been told for years that there are hundred of years worth of coal left in the ground, but when you look at the coal supply situation, it seems not nearly so good, with most of the high quality coal gone and most of what’s left being the lower quality types, with a much lower energy content.

OK, that’s how things stand currently. Those predictions I was talking about start here. And some opinions as well.

Continual growth in on a finite planet is clearly impossible. But it seems that long before we ever get to outright physical limits on growth, the surplus energy available from fossil fuels--the resource that have been driving growth--will run out. Our economy shrinks or grows according to the amount of surplus energy available. For the last 200 years, there was abundant surplus energy and the economy grew. Now that abundance is dwindling and the economy will inevitably shrink until it matches the level of surplus energy that will be available without fossil fuels, basically from sunlight and its derivatives. We are entering a period of decline. There is no question of this. The question is how fast, how far and how much human suffering will be involved.

The fracking bubble will burst sometime in the next few years, causing financial havoc and in all likelihood a stock market crash. And when all those tight oil and gas wells go into terminal decline, there will be a real shortage of energy. Energy prices may temporarily shoot up, but demand destruction will slow the economy down and oil prices will settle out not much above where they are now, but at a lower level of energy use and a lower level of economic activity.

This contracted economy will not be able to support continued efforts to access low EROEI energy sources like the tar sands. We will turn to coal for more of our energy needs and very quickly use up the remaining reserves of coal.

All this will mean fewer jobs and more people looking for government support.

At the same time, governments are going to become less and less effective at providing that support, simply because their tax revenues are going to drop over the years ahead. First, as the economy continues to contract, the tax base contracts along with it. But beyond that, wealthy individuals and large corporations have the political clout to ensure tax cuts for themselves--they have the power to simply refuse to be taxed. And as the rest of us become poorer, we will have less income and less property to tax. The result of this will be tax starved governments, who will be even less capable of supporting the growing numbers of citizens in need.

As fossil fuel reserves become more and more constrained this will happen again and again. Demand destruction will continue until our standard of living has decreased to the point where it can be supported by renewable energy resources, where our energy income from the sun matches our energy use.

In the 1970’s there was sufficient oil, coal and natural gas left to fuel this switchover and “powerdown” the world economy in a controlled fashion, taking advantage of the full range of renewables. To initially set up the infrastructure for many of these renewables, a high level of surplus energy and a global network of suppliers maintaining a high level of technology is required. If we wait until economic contraction is well underway, the global network is starting to fall apart, and remaining fossil energy resources are further constrained, we may not be able to take advantage of all the available renewables, falling to a much lower level of technological energy use. Perhaps as far as firewood and muscle power, supplemented, if we are lucky, by wind and water power where that is most easily available. It seems likely that we will end up getting along with between 10% and 20% as much energy as we in the west are now using. Toward the upper end of that range if the decline is well managed, perhaps even below the lower end is it is not. Of course for many people in the developing world, this won’t be much of a change.

This decline will be relatively slow, taking many years. It will progress at various rates over time and hit some areas harder than others. Gradually, the highly networked global economy will breakdown and we will be forced to fall back to local resources. Occasionally that breakdown will come in larger, more catastrophic jumps. Occasionally there will be wars over resources, and revolutions when people blame their governments for the continued decline.

Now I think it is clear that a government which was aware of this decline (and its inevitability)-- even a tax starved government--could take steps to mitigate its negative effects. Very different steps from the attempts to use debt to jump start the economy that we are currently seeing. And very different from governments who choose to fight wars over resources that have almost run out anyway. I’ll be talking about that in a post coming soon.

But by this point many of you will be eager to point out that technological breakthroughs are sure to give us access to sources of energy as rich or richer that fossil fuels and let business continue on as usual, or perhaps even better than usual. Or perhaps you think that we can find a way to maintain our current lifestyle using renewable energy sources. Well, I wish it were so, but I really don’t think either of those scenarios is going to happen. In my next post I’ll be talking about technology and why I don’t think it is not the answer (depending, of course on what question we are asking.)

As an aid to those who want to read this whole series of "Political Fantasy" posts, here is a complete set of links.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Age of Limits 2014

I took off for a long weekend (5 days actually) by myself at the end of May this year. Most of my readers here are family or friends, and will be aware how unusual a thing this was for me.

I went to the Age of Limits Conference, at Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary near Artemas, Pennsylvania, May 22–26.

Three of my favorite bloggers (John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov and Gail Tverberg) were speaking at the conference, so I wanted to go, as I had wanted to go the previous two years. What tipped the balance this year was another speaker, Dennis Meadows, one of the authors of “The Limits to Growth”, a book that I read back in the 1970s, which dealt with the issues I’ve been discussing here long before I (or hardly anyone else) began to take them seriously. So this year I really, really wanted to go.

But... many buts…. I rarely go anywhere without Carolynn, my long suffering wife. I really don’t like driving, especially long trips and the US is certainly not my favourite place. It would be about a 12 hours drive, so I’d have to leave early, and I am not a morning person–single digit hours are NOT for me. Further, I would be camping out for the 4 nights. It had been over 10 years since I spent a night in a tent, much less 4 nights. Carolynn’s idea of camping out is staying in a three star hotel, and I have always been glad to support her in this. And the meal plan featured only two meals a day, which is definitely not my habit.

Still, by some miracle, I didn’t succumb to any of these excuses to call off the trip, gathered up the necessary camping equipment and headed out at 8 am on Thursday May 22. Fortified by a large cup of coffee, I managed to stay awake for the whole drive (I think). At any rate, I did manage to stay on the road. Crossing the border, despite all the stories I had heard, was no problem. Seems like border guards don’t see anything suspicious in old white guys with short hair (like me).

After several arguments with the GPS in my new smart phone, I rolled into the Four Quarters Interfaith Sanctuary, on a farm in the Allegheny Mountains, at the very southern edge of Pennsylvania.

The last few miles of roads, after making a wrong turn and having to follow the GPS since I had no idea where I was, reminded me of the township where I grew up: short on gravel and marked “no winter maintenance”, threaded windingly among hills and hardwood bush. And Four Quarters reminded me of the area just to the east of where I grew up in Ontario, where the land drops over on the edge of the Niagara Escarpment. It felt a long way from civilization, which suits me just fine.

I did survive the weekend camping out -- enjoyed it actually. It didn’t rain and the temperature, even in the middle of the night, never went below the mid forties (Fahrenheit). A good air mattress and heavy down sleeping bag kept me comfortable at night. There was one evening session when it got pretty chilly, but I put on the long underwear and heavy socks that I had brought along just in case, and was quite comfortable. I grabbed an apple each day at breakfast and ate it around noon. Breakfast and dinner were quite generous in quantity and excellent in taste, so hunger was no problem at all.

It was very encouraging, really, that an old codger like me who has been living pretty close to home for a long time, could actually enjoy an outing like this. But enough about my silliness, what is this Four Quarters place and what was the Age of Limits Conference actually all about?

My apologies to the people of Four Quarters for any undue simplifications or outright errors in what follows.

For those who haven’t clicked on the link (their website does present one with quite a lot of reading), here is an excerpt:

Four Quarters was founded in 1995 to provide safe harbor for the practice of both indigenous and modern Earth Religions, and to help preserve their spiritual roots into the future. The following years have witnessed the organic growth of a truly Progressive Community, one that is firmly rooted in the natural Land of Four Quarters. As we move through our second decade, we have made tremendous progress from our very humble beginnings, with almost 350 Members in support of this Community of Choice. A Community that incorporates progressive ideas of Family, Ecology, Culture and Tribe; bound together by our diverse Earth Based Spirituality.

You may wonder how I, an avowed atheist, felt going to such a place. But I am a lot less bothered by Earth religions with their immanent gods than I am by the religions of the Book, with their one transcendent God. Here is an excerpt of Four Quarters Constitution:

1.2.0···· * We do not attempt to define the belief of the individual, knowing that belief is a deeply personal matter, a part of our ongoing journey together.
1.2.2···· * We do recognize, support and incorporate into the body of our experience as a Church those practices and beliefs that we perceive are commonly shared and expressed among the many indigenous and modern traditions of Earth Religion.
1.2.4···· * These practices and beliefs include, but are not limited to: the manifestation of Spirit as a gender duality and polarity; our honor of the Circle in its completeness and its directions; polytheism and monotheism as accessible and understandable expressions of the divine impulse; the wheel of the year as a means of understanding ourselves and our world; and the recognition of nature as the source and endpoint, image and reflection, of ourselves and our experience of Spirit.
1.4···· * Our tradition is one of public service through work; on the land and amongst the public; to foster and protect The Standing Stones as sanctuary for all.

Hmmm… a church that doesn’t tell you what to believe, and concentrates on a progressive kind of public service. They seem to be making it up as they go along, but taking care to do a good job of that. Of course, in my opinion, all religions are being made up as they go along, but most are doing a terrible job of it and don’t seem to see what the problem is with that.

In the material sense Four Quarters is (again quoting from their website):

...150 acres of extremely beautiful and diverse land in the Allegheny foothills of south central Pennsylvania. We are located 15 miles west of the intersection of Interstates 68 and 70 at Hancock, Maryland, just a mile across the state line into Pennsylvania.
The Land is surrounded on three sides by a horseshoe bend in Sidling Creek, one of the cleanest free-flowing streams in the state as it cuts through Town Hill Mountain. The creek forms a naturally secluded retreat, framed by high cliffs and blessed with fine natural swimming.
The land features a broad range of ecological habitats ranging from creekside wetland to dry cliff face, mature forest to hilltop meadow. Four Quarters is listed as the most ecologically diverse tract of land in Bedford County, Pennsylvania by The Western Pennsylvania Nature Conservancy and we are ever mindful of this trust in caring for the Land.
Providing access to exceptional natural surroundings for individual spiritual growth is a primary purpose for which Four Quarters was founded.

Of those 150 acres, about 30 are suitable for farming and the rest is various sorts of bush, meadows and streams, parts of which have been set up as campsites, a dormitory, the Pavilion where the conference took place, the “Starvin’ Artists” kitchen and areas (such as the Stone Circle) for the ceremonial activities of the Church.

Four Quarters owns, free of mortgage, the 120 acres of the centre, where six adults live permanently in an income sharing community, working with the vital help of staff volunteers and 350 members. Everything is built and maintained by member volunteers who receive no monetary recompense for their labour.

My bad knee was acting up and didn’t like the 12 hour drive, so I didn’t get around the grounds of the place as much as I would have liked, and because I wanted to get back before too late on Monday I missed the tour that was offered Monday afternoon. Well, maybe next year.

I did get to set my tent up in a nice grassy area very close to the washrooms and showers and close to “Coffee Dragons”, where free coffee was on tap from early morning until much later at night than I ever drink coffee.

The thing about the people of Four Quarters is that, whatever else they may believe, they do recognize the reality of those limits that Meadows et al were talking about in “The Limits to Growth” forty years ago. Further they believe that as our industrial society runs up against those limits, the result will eventually be the collapse of that society. The only questions are those of timing and details and how we can hope to cope with the situation as it unfolds. This is why they are hosting “The Age of Limits”.

What follows is an outline of the conference and my reactions to it.

The Thursday evening Meet and Greet was nicely underway by the time I got my tent up and wandered down to the Pavillion. There was close to a majority of “old white guys” like me, with beards very much in fashion. Also a surprising number of women and young people. But very few people of color. People seemed quite eager to say hello and introduce themselves, something I find difficult to do. So I actually did get to meet a few people. One was KMO, of the C-Realm podcast. I had already visited the C-Realm website, but had somehow got the impression most of the podcasts concentrated on pretty flakey subjects. Since then, I have looked closer and found that while there is some of that, there are also a lot of interviews with very interesting people, discussing very interesting subjects. And KMO is a top notch interviewer.

Throughout the weekend being a Canadian proved a great basis for conversations, and I was surprised to find there were at least three other Canadians there.

Friday morning’s speaker was Orren Whiddon, Executive Officer of the Four Quarters Church. He explained the intended interactive nature of the conference with extensive question and answer sessions after each speaker’s presentation, and “conversations in the round” Friday and Saturday evening. Plus, of course, ample opportunities for one on one conversations with other attendees, even, as I found, the “celebrities”.

Orren also spoke about his own journey to being collapse aware, and gave a number tantalizing hints about the history and organization of Four Quarters. I did get one chance to speak with him one-on-one later in the conference, and thanked him for a job well done. But I would like to have a chance to talk to him quite a bit more. A very interesting fellow.

Friday afternoon Albert Bates gave us a short history of ecovillages. Bates was one of the founders of The Farm in Tennessee, one of the first ecovillages. An ecovillage, what we called a “commune” back in the 1960s,and what is now known as an “intentional community” is a group of people with a communitarian bent, aiming to live together in a way that both reduces their dependence on the “business as usual” world and the burden they place on the environment. Good goals, it seems, and also a good starting point for the kind of “lifeboat” communities that many collapse aware people are thinking about. Of course there have been many problems with setting up such communities and with keeping them running for extended lengths of time. But people are still trying and learning a lot in the process.

Friday night’s conversation in the round was entitled “Personal Collapse Mitigation Strategies” and was moderated by Peter Kilde, KMO and Whiddon. As an aid to getting the discussion rolling, this question was posed, “If you were given a million dollars, what would you do to mitigate collapse?” I may have the exact amount wrong, but in any case it seems like a dumb question to me, since the nature of collapse is such that coming into large sums of money is one of the least likely things to happen in the process. A better question might be what can we do with a minimum of cash. Nonetheless, the question did serve to get conversation going. Many people felt that consciousness raising efforts would be the way to go–after all, people who are unaware of what is coming can hardly plan to mitigate its effects. We are, however, working against a level of denial that is pretty amazing. I would have liked to hear more about “deliberate descent” sort of strategies, but oh well….

Saturday morning Dmitry Orlov gave a talk entitled “Communities That Abide II”. Part two because he gave a similar talk last year outlining the characteristics of communities that have been able to maintain a separate and different lifestyle across generations while living within but to at least some extent not being a part of industrial civilization.

Dmitry got a pretty negative response from the feminists in the audience, or perhaps more accurately from people concerned about social justice. Many such communities are patriarchies and he may have made some comments to the effect that the sort of social justice that progressive people expect these days is a product of our fossil fuel powered society and we can’t expect it to be maintained in a lower energy world. This is a common idea among old white male collapse niks. But it is not an idea that I accept, nor did the majority of people at Age of Limits this year. Dimitry was no longer pushing it (if he ever was) and may indeed have changed his mind on the subject, so he didn’t get such a negative reaction. It may be that those “negative” aspects of these communities are largely irrelevant. He did emphasize two of the more important aspects of such communities: what makes them successful (socially and economically), and what keeps them together.

Of course, communism is still a dirty word in the US. But call it what you will, communities whose members work together, pooling their resources and their labour and relying on the formal economy for relatively little, have a tremendous advantage over those of us who are stuck in the formal economy with most our relationships monetized. Being part of a group where you know you have a role to play, and that you know will take care of you simply because you are one of them is a hugely positive thing and one that most people is our society never experience.

What it is that keeps communities together is a more complex subject, best to get a copy of Dmitry’s book on the subject—I picked up a copy at the conference, and you can get it as an ebook at Amazon.

Saturday afternoon, Dennis Meadows talked about “The Dynamics of Societal Collapse”. He started by saying that this was the first time he had ever spoken to an audience that was already convinced that limits are real, so bear with him, because this would be a new version of his usual presentation. Here is a link to his usual presentation with comments on what was added at Age of Limits:

He said that he has boxes piled up to the ceiling of papers refuting the conclusions of The Limits to Growth, and only one small box of papers supporting those conclusions. Even so, the actual numbers plotted beside the Limits to Growth “predictions” show that the world is following their “business as usual” scenario, and appears to be headed for collapse, sometime between 2015 and 2020.

He said that he has boxes piled up to the ceiling of papers refuting the conclusions of The Limits to Growth, and only one small box of papers supporting those conclusions. Even so, the actual numbers plotted beside the Limits to Growth “predictions” show that the world is following their “business as usual” scenario, and appears to be headed for collapse, sometime between 2015 and 2020.

In 1972, we were at something like 90% of the planet’s carrying capacity. We could have switched to a sustainable lifestyle by simply slowing down. We are now at approximately 150% of carrying capacity and that overload is reducing the planet’s carrying capacity every day. So at some point our population will stop growing and decrease to a level that is sustainable. We are facing a period of decline, and while we still need to work on reducing pollution, changing our energy sources and reducing our reliance on violence as a way of solving problems, we more than ever need to work on increasing our resilience. If we go into the coming period of decline without being prepared for it, it will strip away our values and take us to a very unpleasant place indeed. But if we are prepared and resilient, it may be possible to retain democracy, equity and social justice.

Dennis explained we are facing two type of problems: easy ones and hard ones. For easy problems, the actions that solve the problem also make it better in the short term. The market and politics deals with this sort of problem quite well. Hard problems are the ones that require sacrifice now for benefits later. The actions that solve them make things worse in the short term, and this requires the sort of decision making that the market and politics invariably get wrong.

Meadows also did some practical demonstrations that I think are worth recounting.

First he asked us to cross our arms in the way that we usually do, and note which wrist was on top. Then he had us put our arms back down and cross them again, again noting which wrist was on top. Then he asked how many have done it the same way both times (everybody) and then how many had the right wrist on top and how many had the left wrist (about 50/50). He explained that the point of this was that you cross your arms when you aren’t going to be doing anything with them and it would be stupid to have to stop and think about which way to do it every time. So we form a habit. Over the last couple of centuries we have formed a complex set of habits to do with growth, and they have worked very well for us. But now the circumstances have changed and we need to develop new habits.

Then he asked us to cross our arms the other way. The result was amusing to watch, with many people having to try more than once to do it. He commented that we had probably noted three things: it is possible, it’s a little hard to figure out and we make mistakes in the process, and it feels uncomfortable at first. This is also true of the changes we need to make to build a sustainable society.

Then there was the hula hoop thing. Arrange 5 or 6 people in a circle facing inwards, supporting a hula hoop on one extended finger each. Tell them to lower the hoop to the ground. If any of the fingers drops too quickly, losing contact with the hoop, they must start again. This requires such fine co-ordination that it is very difficult to even keep the hoop still. Usually, it goes up and it is practically impossible to lower it. This is justy because of the geometry and physics of the situation. But lower the number of people to 3 and it works fine, again because of the geometry. The point being that there are many strategies that don’t work, even with people who have the best of intentions and work really hard, because the plan itself is not workable. But what’s wrong is subtle enough that people can’t see it.

I think that identifying strategies that don’t work and abandoning them for ones that do is going to be one of our biggest challenges and an area where we need to focus a great deal of effort.

His third practical demonstration might be called “One,Two, Three, Clap”. He told us that he would count to three, then say clap and we should all clap our hands together. Then he counted to three, clapped his hands and then said clap. About half of us clapped when he did, the other half clapped when he said “clap”. Dennis observed that we had understood what he had said, we agreed with it and we wanted to do it. But as soon as his actions were different from his words, we paid attention to his actions. He concluded by saying if we leave here promoting sustainable development, but our actions are consistent with overshoot, we’ll get overshoot. A sobering thought.

Meadows commented that the original simulation didn’t distinguish between energy resources and other resources. He would like to see the study redone separating out fossil fuels into their own category. But there is very little interest and no funding for such an effort today, so it won’t likely happen.

In the lull between supper and the evening session, a fellow by the name of Jack Alpert (link to his website: showed a couple of short videos about his plan to solve the problems facing the human race without reducing our standard of living. Apparently there are two or three locations in the world where there are locally concentrated water power resources enough to sustain a high energy use society. But not for billions of people. More like 500 million total. So if we reduce our population down to that level while setting up the infrastructure needed in those two or three areas, about 500 million of us can have our cake and eat it too. He proposed to achieve this reduction in population by reducing the birth rate, by convincing people that it is the right thing to do. The interesting thing was that the negative reaction to his ideas was all focused on that one aspect: that people could and should be convinced to voluntarily reduce our population to a small fraction of its current level. Particularly in the light of the discussion that followed later that evening (see below). Apparently people think that it is inevitable that human population will be reduced by disaster but highly improbable that it could be done intentionally. I felt kind of sorry for Jack, who while not exactly surprised by the negative reaction, was obviously disappointed by it. Just another great idea that’s not going to happen.

I talked to Jack later about the electrical system central to his plan and offered some of my experience with the maintenance and unplanned failure of grid equipment. Flocks of black swans seem to hover over electrical grids.

Saturday night’s conversation in the round was entitled “Timelines in Collapse”, and started with going around the room and having everyone give the date they expect human population would peak and optionally, how long after that it will have declined by 50%.

The average prediction turned out to be in the early 2040s, not far off my prediction of 2045. Of course, my prediction was entirely pulled out of my ass… more based on the fact that I expect to be long gone by 2045 than anything else. Later in the discussion Orren mentioned that he had expected us all to pick dates conveniently far in the future. But many, especially the younger folks picked dates that they will very likely live to see. So they had some “skin in the game”. As arbitrary as the dates we picked may have seemed, they did serve as a springboard for some lively discussion. One thing that was discussed is that most of the damage of collapse will have been done by the time the population actually peaks and starts to decline. So my prediction of 2045 means not that things won’t start getting bad until then, but that they will have gotten bad enough to actually stop population growth. John Michael Greer, who predicts a slow and gradual collapse, didn’t think the population would peak until much later in this century. I generally find his arguments pretty convincing, so maybe I was actually being too pessimistic.

Even though it took place in the U.S., there were very few overt, in your face Christians at this event (2 by my count), I guess it was inevitable that one of them would get up and say something about God saving us from the coming troubles. It was entertaining when John Michael Greer asked the facilitators if he could respond to this suggestion. He made the night for me with his comments about the unbelievable feeling of entitlement common among Christians and the extreme unlikelihood, in the light of the human race’s record over the last few hundred years, that the universe or God or whatever you will, is going to bail us out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

Sunday morning on the way to breakfast, I introduced myself to Greer and secured his permission to use some of his ideas in my blog. Very easy fellow to talk to.

Sunday morning Gail Tverberg spoke on “Converging Crises”. Here is a link to her blog entry discussing the presentation:

While she did give a good summary of the crises facing our industrial civilization, and had some wonderful graphs to illustrate them, she left me hanging without any unified picture of what comes next. Gail is an actuary and applies that expertise to talk about the economy and is certainly aware of the “Surplus Energy” interpretation of economics, but I don’t think she has fully grasped its strengths when to comes to explaining the mess we are in and predicting what comes next. Or perhaps, based on a recent blog post of hers, she knows more about this than I do. Maybe even at Age of Limits she mentioned the idea that the global economy is a network with fragile parts and delicate connections, which may quit working because of point failures long before surplus energy analysis would suggest it should.

She talked about the “Fracking Bubble”, which is set to burst shortly and that will probably lead to a stock market crash, if something else doesn’t trigger it first.

And she did bring up one idea that I found very intriguing: the predicament of oil companies as the cost of producing oil keeps going up, but oil prices are limited by demand destruction. At some point it just doesn’t pay anymore and this happens long before the oil has actually run out. Already many of the large oil companies are cutting back on exploration--it costs more than the value of the relatively small discoveries that are being made. I can’t help wondering what will happen when oil companies start closing up shop and and leave us with real, major shortages. The conventional answer has been that prices will go up enough to make the business pay, but it seems more likely that the economy will go into an even deeper recession, reducing the demand for oil to match the available supply.

Another realization came to me while listening to Gail, though it wasn’t something she specifically said. Governments are going to become less and less effective agents of change, simply because their tax revenues are going to drop over the years ahead. First, as the economy continues to contract, the tax base contracts along with it. But beyond that, wealthy individuals and large corporations have the political clout to ensure tax cuts for themselves--they have the power to simply refuse to be taxed. And as the rest of us become poorer, we will have less income to tax. The result of this will be tax starved governments, who will be even less capable of dealing with the coming crises than they are today. Looks to me like we will have to learn to take care of ourselves.

At noon John Michael Greer took over and talked about Dark Ages. Greer sees history as cyclical, and explained that our civilization has all the earmarks of one headed for collapse and a subsequent dark age. Based on previous dark ages, he presented a pretty detailed picture of what the next one will look like. Of course, many people are convinced that things are different this time, and by that they mean “not as bad”. John Michael has his counter arguments nicely lined up and is pretty adept at making fun of the “it’s different this time” attitude. Of all the speakers, John is probably the one who has influenced my thinking the most. Rather than going on at length about what he had to say, I’ll just advise you to read his blog.

He was followed by Mark Cochrane, a bona fide climate scientist. Last year at Age of Limits Guy MacPherson spoke about climate change. He is convinced that we are facing the near term extinction of the human race (by 2030). Many of us disagree. Here are some links to arguments against MacPherson:
MacPherson, it seems, is not really a climate scientist and his opinions are not backed up by real evidence.

Cochrane began his presentation with the statement, “We are all going to die.” Which, of course, is true, and was met with nervous laughter. He immediately went on to debunk the idea of short term extinction due to rapid climate change. Then he described the sort of climate change that we can expect to see in the somewhat longer term, for the rest of this century and beyond. And the news was not pleasant. Many changes will occur too fast for plants and animal to adapt or move. And hardly anywhere on the planet will not be affected. Many of us went away wondering how much better this picture was than short term extinction.

Sunday night, instead of a conversation in the round, there was a dance in the pavilion, “La Danse des Mortes Heureux” -- the Dance of the Happy Dead. There was a fiddler in the band, so I was happy anyway, though my bum knee didn’t allow me to take part. I wandered away from the dance fairly early and found myself under the tent next to Coffee Dragons, sitting at a table next to John Michael Greer and “shooting the shit” for an hour or so on largely non-serious subjects.

Monday morning I got Dmitry Orlov to autograph my copy of Communities That abide, had breakfast and left for home. For those who stayed, there was another conversation featuring attendees’ reactions to the Age of Limits, and that was followed by a “Closing Circle” in the Stone Circle.

The “Retro Progressive’s Practicum” followed for the rest of the week, with five days of BioChar hands on with Albert Bates, kiln fabrication in Four Quarters’ metal shop, visits to adjoining organic farms and night-time conversation on the practical aspects of communitarian living. Really wish I could have stayed for this.

After taking a few weeks to think it over, I have to say that Age of Limits solidified my thoughts on collapse. I’ve been entertaining thoughts in vein of “if only we could get our act together and do this, that or the other thing, maybe we could get through this with relatively little trouble.” Such schemes are extremely unlikely to succeed, but they do have a seductive appeal. One is better focusing on preparing for what is almost certainly coming.

One a more positive note, it seems that there may be something to the intentional community idea after all. I had grown very skeptical about the likelihood of finding myself in any sort of functional community, intentional or not. But it seems that some people, like those at Four Quarters, are making it work. Perhaps there is hope.

Here are some more links to blog posts and podcasts about Age of Limits 2014:
Albert Bates:
Dmitri Orlov:
Orren Widdon:

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Deliberate Descent, Part 3

Consequences—intended and unintended.

When proposing a course of action it is important, in my opinion, to consider the consequences. And not just the immediate, intended consequences. So often one hears some bright individual saying, “if we just did this, then that would happen and all our problems would be solved.” Unfortunately, chains of cause and effect don’t stop at the first step, even if we neglect to consider that there might be further steps. A simple change that we make propagates through the system in question and has results that we never imagined. Yesterday’s solutions turn into today’s and tomorrow’s problems.

I’ve done some computer programming in my day, both as a hobby and as part of my day job, and one thing I observed is that much of the discipline involved in programming is to write code in such a way that changes made later have predictable results. A huge amount of effort is expended to achieve this and yet many of the bugs that exist are there because a change made to fix one part of the program has broken another part, in a way that wasn’t anticipated.

I also taught a course in electronics to apprentice electricians for a few years. Part of that course was troubleshooting the kind of equipment that the students would be maintaining in the field. Beyond a standard set of faults that they had to identify and correct, it was always fun to pose more interesting problems for the brighter students. I thought I knew that equipment pretty well when I started and expected I could easily predict what would happen when I removed a wire or installed a defective transistor. I quickly ran into unintended consequences and learned more in the process than the fellows I was supposed to be teaching.

That equipment was supposed to be designed to work in a predictable way. The systems in our natural environment (ecologies) were not designed at all, but have evolved largely by chance. Their individual parts are interconnected in extremely complex and non-obvious ways and their behavior is nonlinear, even chaotic. If you change one thing, it affects many other things and you are guaranteed to have unintended consequences. Humans societies are similar and have the added twist that changes made by one agency may be anticipated and actively opposed by others.

One sees politicians running into this sort of thing quite frequently. The only surprising thing is that they are surprised and often indignant when things don’t go as they expected. I call these people “One Step Willys” because they are incapable of thinking a plan out beyond the first step. These days, political opinions tend to be very polarized and the notion that the party line could be anything other than the “one true way” is simply unthinkable for many people.

It seems that failing to think about potential consequences of our actions is a human weakness that we all share. But at the same time, we will act, even if only by doing nothing. Doing nothing allows the current situation to continue, which may well be as bad as the consequences of any action we are considering.

I am proposing Deliberate Descent as a solution to the the problems we face – economic contraction, resource depletion (especially Peak Oil), and environmental degradation (especially Climate Change). In brief this solution involves reducing consumption and debt, relocalizing business and industry and working together more closely in our local communities.

Have I thought about what the consequences of this course of action might be? Well, quite a bit, actually. I could go on at some length about the beneficial effects on individuals and families, and even communities, but that’s not really my focus in this post. I want to concentrate on the parts that are harder to consider seriously – the challenges that will make it hard to achieve and the negative consequences that would follow after initial success.

  1. Will it work?

    1. Even if we are wrong about the troubles ahead...

      What if I am wrong? What if the problems I’ve identified aren’t really so big and things aren’t really heading the the direction I think they are? What if things don’t get any worse and “business as usual” manages to make a recovery and continue on to deliver the future we dreamed of when we were kids? If you’ve already started working on deliberate descent, will the arrival of that sort of a future leave you disadvantaged in any way?

      Well, most of the things you’ll be working on will stand you in good stead, even if things don’t turn out a bad as we fear. You may have missed out on some investment opportunities, but the fact that you’ve minimized your debt load will make it easier to take advantage of opportunities should it become clear that the economy has turned around.

    2. And if we are right…

      If I am right, is deliberate descent going to be an effective response? In the short run it certainly seems that being prepared to get by on less—to be good at being poor, will be a help as the recession deepens and many of the necessities get more expensive. Reducing expenses, reducing debt load, reducing our involvement in the formal economy and finding alternative sources for the things we currently rely on the formal economy to provide – all this will help.

      I don’t for a moment mean to suggest that descending voluntarily will render us impervious to the perils of descent, but it should be a whole lot better than staying in a state of denial and trying to keep up appearances just as long as we possibly can, while going ever deeper into debt to finance the project. Though the latter does seem to be a popular response these days....

  2. Effects on the individuals and families involved.

    1. Challenges

      Perhaps it goes without saying that many aspect of deliberate descent will be difficult. But I think the hardest part will be breaking the many habits we have of consumption and waste, and changing the assumptions of entitlement that become part of our mind set. Most of these things we are hardly even aware of, and the first step on the road to change is awareness.

      Missing a meal, spending time indoors at other than ideal room temperature, wearing clothes that aren’t the latest style or that have been mended instead of discarded, walking more than a few blocks because we don’t have a car... all these experiences and more lie ahead of us, and none of them will kill us.

    2. Negative effects

      We tend to judge our well being not by it’s absolute level, but relative to our situation in the past or to that of those around us. This means that most of us try to live beyond our current means, so that we are always improving, relying on ongoing economic growth to improve our situation and keep us from going under. Or, at the very least, the hope of being able to improve our situation gives us an ongoing feeling of well being, whether it is real or not. But the idea of deliberate descent is just the opposite—living beneath our means to prepare for the day of expected decline and using the surplus thus created to pay off debts and fund material preparations. So, compared to our neighbours or our own previous situation, it’s going to feeling like we are doing even worse than we are.

      While you are working on the kind of things that I discussed in my last post, you’ll probably be watching your neighbours borrowing to buy new cars, wide screen TV’s and expensive vacations. All of which you can be pretty sure they can’t really afford. It will be fairly tough to keep clearly in mind the reasons why you are doing what you are doing and not to give in and enjoy some of the “finer things” that money can buy while you still can. Of course, you’ll be doing what you’re doing so that you don’t have to worry so much about what the future holds. The struggle is to keep that goal firmly in mind.

      And of course, all those other people are watching you, and you have to figure they think what you are doing is pretty weird. Why should you care what they think? A good question, but it is only human nature to do so and requires some effort to resist.

      Poverty tends to be very isolating. Of course, some of that is cause, not effect, in that people often fall into poverty because they are isolated, without a network of family and friends to help them out when they fall into difficulties. But I think there may also be a tendency, when descending deliberately to feel somewhat isolated and even to let oneself become isolated, because so few of those around us agree with what we are doing. This is a tendency to be resisted, by seeking out and working together with others of a similar mind.

  3. Effects on the physical environment.

    The lighter load on the environment due to reduced consumption should be a positive effect. But as we come to rely less on the conventional economy, which generally draws on resources from far away, we may draw more from the local natural environment. One hopes that the net result will still be a win for the environment, but it would help to be aware of potential problems and plan ahead so as not to make them worse.

    We’re likely to be turning more to locally grown biomass, mainly firewood, for energy.

    This is fine if it is part of a carefully managed forestry program, but if people just go cutting trees willy-nilly without any thought to replacing them, it won’t be long before not a single tree is left standing. We urgently need to start planting more trees now, on marginal and unused farm land, and not just monoculture stands of whatever grows fastest, but carefully thought out, ecologically sound forests.

    With modern high efficiency stoves and properly seasoned wood, air pollution due to woodburning can be quite minimal. But it is not hard to see a time in the near future when many who have never burnt wood before will be eager to switch over to it and there will be a desperate shortage of good stoves and dry wood. The result could be pretty ugly.

    One might think that gardening shouldn’t hurt the environment, but it is not without its pitfalls, as well.

    Vegetable gardening takes nutrients out of the soil and if one follows organic gardening principles, they will be replaced by compost. But where is the compost to come from? Ultimately, it must come from the waste of the animals who eat the vegetables, or the soil will be depleted, and the waste will cause pollution wherever else it is being disposed of. The use of “humanure” is practically a taboo subject with most people these days, but it is one we are going to have to get our heads around.

    In the area where I live we seem to be getting less rain when it is needed during the growing season, evidently due to climate change. This means that gardens need to be watered more, placing a greater strain on our groundwater resources, at a time when they are already strained by the reduced rainfall. Of course, there are techniques for gardening with less water and to make the water you have go further. We’ll need to learn and practice them.

    As food in the grocery stores becomes more and more expensive, some people are going to turn to hunting to add some meat to their diets. Where I live, hunting is well regulated by the government, enough so that poaching isn’t a very bright idea and game is not over hunted to any great extent. I expect this will change, as some begin to see hunting as a necessity instead of just a sport and as the government agency which regulates hunting and fishing has its budget cut and can’t enforce the rules as effectively.

    I have heard that the deer population in the eastern US took a long time to recover after the Great Depression of the 1930s. This sort of thing is a pity, as the hunters who deplete game populations are, so to speak, “shooting themselves in the foot”. We’ll need to practice some voluntary conservation, or there won’t be any game left to hunt.

  4. Effects on the social environment.

    1. Within the descending communities

      First, I should make it clear that I realize the path of descent is not a popular option – I’d be surprised if more than a small fraction of one percent of the population is attracted to it. In the attempt to attract support for the effort, it is tempting to sugar coat the prospects, out of concern that too abrupt an introduction to the harsh realities of the situation will drive people away. Personally, I think that such sugar coating is liable to attract large numbers of people who think that simply by switching over to renewable energy sources and recylcing we can basically carry on with a greened-up verison of business as usual, with only minimal personal inconvenience. Those of us who wish to find a survivable path through the end of industrial civilization would be sidetracked into trivial greenwashing.

      As I’ve said before, this is my main criticism of the Transition Movement. The leadership are solid people and know what the situation is, but the rank and file are largely in denial about what they are transitioning to, and what they will be leaving behind. This disconnect is a result of a deliberate policy of not being “negative” about the current situation.

      But while keeping the hazards of getting side tracked into a “popular movement” clearly in mind, it is also important to realize that people who are engaged in deliberate descent can benefit from working together in communities. Communal action is nearly always more effective than solitary action, especially from within a system that is meant to isolate and exploit us. But this is something we have been raised to be blind to, always counting the benefits of individuality and independence to be paramount.

      Our relationships with most everyone outside our nuclear families are monetized and mediated by the formal economic system. We have forgotten how to live in any sort of real community, working alone in cubicles, staring at screens and wearing earphones that cut us off from those around us.

      So we will have a lot to learn about the sort of give and take that is required to make a small community work. It is important to remember that this is the sort of social environment that we evolved in, and that our modern independence is gained by sacrificing benefits that we hardly remember the names of anymore. It seems likely that we can learn to live in small, close knit groups again, though the learning curve will be steep. As we do so, I can see a number of pitfalls to watch out for.

      It is often assumed that moving to a lower energy lifestyle, and consuming less, will carry us back in time to traditional ways of living. Perhaps so, but it is important to remember that those were the days of oppression, when the “upper” class maintained their privileged position by making sure that those below them didn’t gain the power or opportunity to challenge them. The story was that they were protecting the weak and less capable or in the case of some oppressed groups, protecting the rest of society from depravity. Some would say that the gains in social justice that have been made in the last century are just another benefit of our fossil fuel powered growth economy, and that they will disappear when we no longer have lot of cheap energy to draw on. Nonsense, I say, and convenient nonsense, especially if you are an old white guy wanting to retain your privileged position. What we have learned need not be unlearned, and if you are female, a person of colour, or not heterosexual, why should you give up what you have gained? In fact, the freedoms we have gained have allowed previously oppressed groups to make a greater contribution to society, to more fully realize their human potential, to the benefit of us all. But there are those who long for the “good old days” when such people knew their “proper place”. And I am afraid there will be a tendency for white, heterosexual males to get into positions of power and run the communities of descent. This is to be avoided at all costs. Being hijacked by “flakes” with a tenuous grip on reality is not what we want either. And there are lots of them around. More on this in another post.

      Relocalization is an important part of deliberate descent, but it is important to remember that the tying together of larger and larger economic regions that happened during our history was a solution to a set of problems that haven’t gone away and may indeed be getting worse.

      When your local area is subject to variations in climate, crops may fail. If you are completely isolated, this may well be disastrous. Another locality may have a surplus and if you can come to a mutual aid agreement, you will both be less vulnerable. This kind of problem solving, by adding complexity, is a basic element of human ingenuity. With complexity comes costs, and in the case of our modern global society the costs probably outweigh the benefits, especially when no longer subsidized by cheap fossil fuels. So we need to wind things back to a simpler form of organization, but hopefully not all the way back to the stone age.

    2. Reaction from the mainstream community

      “You’re taking my stuff away!”

      Most people respond to any talk about the changes that are going on in the world today by assuming it all means that their wealth and privileges are going to be taken away from them. Or, if they don’t feel very wealthy or privileged, at least that they’ll have to live at a level of comfort and convenience much less than what they have become accustomed to. Once they reach that sort of conclusion, they quit listening – “our lifestyle is not negotiable”, as the saying goes.

      Of course, those of us who advocate descent are not trying to take away anyone’s wealth and privileges (or even conveniences and comforts), but rather saying that these things are going to decrease for most everyone as part of the largely unavoidable course of events over the next few decades. We’d just like to soften the blow as much as possible and help people adapt. But I am pretty sure that such talk will fall on deaf ears and that descenders will get blamed for economic contraction because we are not supporting the business as usual economy with our shopping dollars and also just because we are different.

      Because of this, I am not at all certain that the consciousness raising efforts being pursued by some of the groups advocating direct descent are all that great an idea. Certainly, arguing with any of the denier groups that are springing up is a waste of time. Denial has become a multi-hundred-million dollar business over that last few years – denial of anthropogenic climate change, denial of peak oil, denial of the inherent structural problem of capitalism, even things as stupid as denial of the facts about evolution. If you’re trying to raise public awareness about any of these areas, going head to head with the deniers just gives them credibility and an opportunity to get their ideas in front of the public. This has got to be the opposite of what you want to do.

Well, I’ve about run out of steam, and I think it’s time to turn this over to my readers. I do hope to get some comments about things that I haven’t even considered so far; it would be a big help, actually!

This is the third in a series of three posts: