Monday, 14 December 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 7, Agriculture: Details

We'll get to the "political fantasy" part of agriculture in my next post, but for now I think it's important to set down a clear idea of what traditional agriculture was like and how it has changed in the last couple of centuries with the emergence of modern agriculture.

As I said in my last post the industrialization of our society, driven by abundant cheap energy from fossil fuels, made possible better nutrition, cleaner water supplies, improved sanitation and medical advances including vaccines which resulted in a quickly growing population, mainly due to reduced infant mortality.

The industrialization of agriculture is the main thing that has allowed us to feed the ever growing human population. But because that industrialization is dependent on non-renewable resources, we find ourselves in an overshoot situation, where the fast approaching depletion of those resources will leave us unable to feed a large portion of humanity.

Let's look at traditional and modern agriculture in greater detail.


In 1750, there were around 750 million people in the world, all of them feeding themselves by various traditional means: hunting and gathering, fishing, nomadic herding, swidden (slash and burn) agriculture or fixed field agriculture. Most civilizations were quite isolated and if they did not practice sustainable agriculture and forestry, they would collapse back to a lower level of energy use and a lower population that the local environment could support sustainably.

Western Europe had been running out of forests for some time. They could have adopted the more rigidly regulated forestry and more sustainable agriculture used in some parts of the far east and got by for a few thousand more years, but instead chose to use coal instead of firewood, and with the invention of the steam engine, to industrialize.

Improved sailing ships opened up large areas of "empty" land in North and South America, Africa, Australia and New Zealand to Europeans. The indigenous people in those areas no doubt think we had a strange idea of what "empty" means, but that is another story. Those same sailing ships, and eventually steam ships and railways made it possible to grow food, especially grains (which store and ship well) in these new agricultural areas and ship them to areas of high population density where there was not enough farm land to feed the people.

Eventually, refrigeration and fast transportation made it possible to do the same with more perishable forms of food, even between the north and south hemispheres, enabling us to have fresh produce flown in from half way around the world in the middle of winter.

Of course, in the process of bringing so much new land under the plough, a great many habitats were destroyed along with the species who inhabited them. Despite our supposed mastery of the planet, even the most modern economy relies to a great extend on services provided by the naturally occurring biosphere: fresh air, clean water, fertile soil, forests full of timber and rivers, lakes and oceans full of fish. The cost of providing those services by our own efforts would be crippling. We have already placed so great a burden on the environment that its continued ability to support us is in serious question. If we continue to convert what little is left of the as yet untouched environment into farms and cities, there will be no question left.

Of particular concern is the acidification and heating of the oceans due to increased CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Ocean phytoplankton (plants) are largely responsible for maintaining the oxygen level of the atmosphere. If conditions reach the point where they start dying off, we will have a serious, well nigh insoluble, problem.

And yet our population still grows. Currently, about 370,000 new hungry mouths are being born every day and only about 150,000 people are dying to make room for them. But those numbers get larger every year, with the margin between births and deaths increasing as well.

Worse still, in the developing world, land is being converted to growing foods to ship to the developed world (at a profit) while poor farmers who had previously been able to feed themselves are left with nowhere to go but the cities, where they become jobless, hungry urban poor. It may be true the that bringing this land under modern cultivation methods enables it to produce more food per acre, but this is of very little help to the people who are in greatest need of the food.

Traditional farms were, and still are quite small, a few acres at most. Modern farms are much larger. It is well established that small farms perform better. There is lots of discussion about why, but the answer is obvious to me: a small farmer can devote more concentrated attention and care to his crops and livestock.


In many parts of the world the supply of water is a limiting factor for agriculture. Irrigation has been the solution to this problem for thousands of years, usually using gravity fed water from rivers that continue to flow during the dry growing season, also by using muscle powered pumps to move water to where it is needed. This has been possible because, at higher elevations where the rivers arise, precipitation falls as snow in the winter, accumulates and then melts gradually during the spring and summer. With climate change, warmer conditions mean more of the water falls as rain and what does fall as snow melts more quickly, reducing the amount of river water available during the dry season when crops need it.

In the last century or so, motor driven pumps have made it possible to tap into underground aquifers for irrigation on a scale that uses up fossil water much faster than it is naturally replaced. Already wells are running dry and soon large areas of highly productive irrigated land will have to be abandoned or switched over to much less productive dry land agriculture.

Soil and Fertility

Soil is much more than an inert medium in which to plant our crops. In addition to providing essential nutrients, good soil has a high content of humus, decaying organic matter that provides nutrients, holds water, resists erosion, and causes soil to clump and form soil aggregates, which improves soil structure. Humus is also a major reservoir of carbon and the reduction of humus content in soil under modern cultivation techniques has been a major source of the atmospheric carbon dioxide which is causing climate change. Farming techniques which increase humus content in soil hold great promise for sequestering CO2. This is one area where "organic" farming does show promise, but those methods could just as easily be applied to conventional farming.

When we grow crops they take up nutrients from the soil, eventually depleting the soil of those nutrients if measures are not taken to replenish them.

Traditional agriculture used several different approaches.

  • When you farm on the flood plan of a river, the soil gets replenished every spring when the river floods.
  • Swiddening involves slashing down an area of vegetation in a forest or jungle, letting the "slash" dry and then burning it. The ashes enrich the soil, the slash and burn clears the area so minimal cultivation is required. After a few years the soil is depleted and you move on, slashing and burning a new plot. Your old plot gets over grown by the forest and after a few decades can again be slashed and burned. This actually works pretty well, provided the population density is low enough.
  • Maintaining fertility in fixed field agriculture is trickier. The main nutrients that are needed are nitrogen, phosphorous and potash (N, P, K), and organic matter to maintain the humus content of the soil. Legumes, working with microbes growing in nodules on their roots can turn nitrogen in the air into nitrogen compounds that can be used by plants. There are minerals that are high in potash and phosphorous, though most traditional farmers did not have access to them. But for the most part the idea was to recycle the nutrients used by the plants. This means that the waste from the animals and people who eat those plants must go back into the soil along with the organic waste (straw) left over when the crops are harvested. Nightsoil was traditionally used directly and in some places it still is. This can contribute to the spread of disease. Or waste can be composted, which if properly done eliminates disease micro organisms, and then applied to the soil. In parts of the Far East land has been under cultivation pretty much continuously for 4000 years. Even with nearly complete recycling of waste, some nutrients are lost, leached into the ground water and carried away, so they must be replaced from elsewhere, but at nothing like the rate we see in modern agriculture.

Modern agriculture uses "fertilizers" which contain the necessary nutrients. Phosphorous and potash come from minerals, which are mined using machinery powered by fossil fuels and shipped (again using fossil fuels) from where there are rich deposits to the farms where they are needed. Nitrogen from the atmosphere is converted to ammonia using the Haber–Bosch process. Fossil fuels (natural gas, specifically) provide energy and hydrogen for this conversion, and then nitrogen fertilizers are made from the ammonia. Using these fertilizers, plant nutrients can be supplied in quantities that ensure excellent yields.

There are, however, some problems with these fertilizers. This is a "once through" use of material resources, which has all the problems you might expect, primarily the depletion of non-renewable resources, and pollution of water courses downstream from the farm.

Modern fertilizers are highly water soluble and as such readily available to be taken up by plants, but also to be dissolved in rain water and washed away into water courses where they are potent polluters, fuelling the explosive growth of algae and eventually leading to dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico downstream from the Mississippi River. There really isn't a sweet spot where yield is maximized and runoff minimized—to get good yields you have to accept quite a bit of runoff. They also fuel growth of soil micro organisms, leading to more rapid breakdown of organic matter in the soil.

Of course these plant nutrients do not just disappear when they get washed out to sea. The nitrogen rich chemicals mostly end up breaking down and returning to the atmosphere as plain old N2. The phosphorous and potash end up in the sludge on the bottom of the ocean and via plate tectonics will eventually be accessible once more as minerals, but on a time scale of many millions of years.

The use of non-renewable resources to feed the human population and that of our domesticated animals has enabled a population explosion over the last few decades, to the point where we are in an "overshoot" situation. Those non-renewables are being rapidly depleted and the renewable resources that are available are no longer sufficient to support us, indeed they too are being depleted by overuse.


A farm or garden does not exist in isolation—it is part of an ecology and interacts with it. Organisms from that surrounding ecology see our crops as a wonderful source of food. We tend to see them as pests, especially in modern agriculture.

Traditional agriculture was less susceptible to pests because its crops were more diverse and planted in smaller plots. The pests' predators were allowed to thrive, as well. None of this resulted in a 100% elimination of pests, but it did lead to somewhat fewer problems than we have today.

Modern agriculture has specialized in crops with much less diversity and plants them in much larger fields. Often we have thousands of acres planted to genetically identical plants, and the same plants year after year. This is immensely attractive to pests and once a pest arrives that those identical plants are susceptible to, they may all succumb. This necessitates the use of pesticides.

The way modern agriculture interacts with pests is essentially an arms race. Whether farmers use "natural" pesticides as in organic farming or synthetic ones as in conventional farming, pests adapt, evolving resistance to whatever pesticides are being used. Then new pesticides are developed and work for a while, but eventually the pests develop resistance to them as well. And so it goes.

In the case of insects, insecticides have a tendency to kill not just the pest, but the pest's natural predators, which were keeping the pest somewhat in check. Take the predators away and the pests multiply out of control unless you use even more pesticides. Or in one case, when a very specific pesticide which only kills insects was used, slugs, which are mollusks and not bothered by that pesticide, increased in number, doing as much damage as the insects had been doing.

And of course, pesticides are largely made from fossil fuels and using fossil fuel energy, so the day is coming when we won't be able to use them so generously, if at all. Their availability also depends on modern infrastructure, finance and shipping. And modern labs to keep developing new versions when pest evolve and the old one are no longer effective.

There is something called "integrated pest management" which seems to have potential to control pests without the arms race, but it isn't gaining acceptance very quickly in modern agriculture.. Perhaps because pesticides are so much easier to use in the short run. Wikipedia has an excellent article on IPM, with abundant references for further reading.

Seeds and Breeding

Traditionally farmers saved seed from this year's crop to plant the next year. Such seeds are what is known as a "landrace", well adapted to the local conditions, but still having quite a bit of diversity to cope with varying conditions. They practiced selective breeding—saving seeds from plants with the desired characteristics, so that the landrace improved. Using this technique, domesticated plants underwent some pretty drastic improvements over their wild ancestors. The same can be said of the animals we have domesticated and selectively bred.

Modern plant breeding, developing along with the science of genetics, found new ways to increase variation and select for desired traits.

One of the major advances of the twentieth century was hybrid seed: two inbred strains of a crop are crossed, producing a hybrid with greatly improved characteristics. The large increases in yields during the latter half the last century (the green revolution) were achieved through the use of hybrid seeds.

There are a couple of downsides to hybrid seed:

  • the improved characteristics are not preserved in the next generation of plants, so farmers can't save their own seed and must buy new seed each year, an added cost and off-farm
  • dependence. In the context of modern farming, of course, this is not a major issue.
  • there is very little diversity within any particular strain of hybrid seed—all the plants grown from it are pretty much genetically identical. This means less resistance to pests and less resilience to varying growing conditions, compared to the traditional landraces.

It took only a few decades after the discovery of the molecular basis of genetic inheritance (DNA), before we began to directly engineer genes. Genetically modified crops offer great potential, even though most of the ones developed so far have been an integrated part of the "arms race" against pests. But it is possible to use genetic engineering to introduce almost any trait you might wish.

Genetically modified seeds have usually been welcomed by both modern and traditional farmers, who are a pragmatic lot. Organic farmers have greeted them with fear and loathing, which is largely unjustified. It is important to note that each new genetically modified organism is just that, a new organism, and needs to be to be evaluated on its own merits. But in the years since genetic engineering started our understanding of genetics has grown immensely and we now have a much better idea of what problems can be caused by inserting new genes in an organism. In fact, variations caused inadvertently by genetic engineering are no more than what occurs in conventional breeding techniques. It appears to be time for a relaxation of testing standards for genetically modified crops. The scientific consensus is that the genetically modified organisms that are currently available commercially posed no threat to human health and no more threat to the environment than any other aspect of agriculture. Which one must admit is not zero, but we're hardly going to give up on the whole project of agriculture at this point, not intentionally, anyway.

With all these advances in plant breeding, we have concentrated on producing new strains of crops which produce well when given ideal conditions: adequate water, no pests, and lots of fertilizer. Modern farming has succeeded so far by providing all these conditions. There is good reason to doubt that it can continue to do so, in the face of financial disruption, resource depletion and climate change. That being the case, it is likely time to switch the focus of plant breeding to coping with the challenges that lie ahead.


Humans are omnivores, and we certainly seem to have a built in love of meat. Traditionally farming included the raising of livestock and provided meat, though in relatively small amounts. Meat is a concentrated source of nutrition, easily digested when cooked, and it provides some nutrients that are hard to get from vegetarian sources.

Modern agriculture has responded to the demand for meat by industrializing its production in CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), making generous portions of meat available to all but the poorest of people in the developed nations. But it takes a lot of inputs, grain and soybeans mainly, and it is not good for the animals, who are grazers and evolved to eat grass, not grain.

Since it takes ten pounds of feed to produce one pound of beef (somewhat less for a pound of pork or poultry) this is a pretty inefficient way to feed people. If the food used to produce meat was used to feed people instead, we could feed a larger population. This is true on the whole and I would agree that we should stop using CAFOs to produce meat, and eat less meat on the whole. But there is considerable land that is not suitable other crops, but can grow pasture for animals. And grassland ecologies need herbivores, so they had might as well be used to feed people. Dairy and eggs can be raised on pasture as well, with only a small amount of grain added to increase production.

And as a the ocean fisheries become more depleted by over fishing, aquaculture offers a way to maintain that high protein food source.


Traditional farming uses mainly human and animal muscle power and very little in the way of other energy inputs. This is part of what limited the size of farms. My father did not acquire a tractor until the early 1950s, and managed to work a 100 acre farm with a team of 2 horses, but that is close to the limit.

Machinery powered by fossil fuels has greatly increased the amount of land that a farmer can work and freed up the 1/4 to 1/3 of farm land that had been used to grow feed for draught animals. This is what is meant when it is said that the efficiency of modern agriculture has greatly increased.

But labour efficiency is only one measure. if you look at energy efficiency, or EROEI, modern farming is much worse than traditional farming. For every unit of food energy produced, modern farming uses about 10 units of energy, mostly from fossil fuels. That's an EROEI of 0.1 — yes, "point one". This works well enough in a context of expensive labour and abundant and cheap fossil fuels.

But we are in a situation where energy is growing short in supply and we have an excess of people looking for work. It's well established that small farmers get better yields, so I think it's time we reconsidered the wholesale automation of farming. More on that in my next post.


Currently, about one third of food grown is wasted. When you start looking at different regions of the world, it is somewhat surprising that the less developed areas, where traditional agriculture is still practiced to a greater extent, actually waste less food per capita than the developed parts of the world. And there is a much less waste once food reaches the consumer. I would guess this is because poorer consumers simply can't afford to waste food.

In the developed world where modern agriculture dominates, even with better equipment for harvesting, shipping and storing food, there is still more waste per capita in those stages of the process than in the less developed parts of the world. And consumers in the developed world, who can afford to be lazy about making every crumb of food count, waste even more again.

Tempting as it is to think about eliminating waste altogether, it probably isn't realistic and more important, optimizing for efficiency tends to make a system less resilient. Our food system is going to face a lot of challenges in the next few decades from things like climate change, resource depletion and financial breakdown. It would be a good idea to leave some slack in the system, rather than optimizing it to the point where it is extremely fragile.


Traditional agriculture was (and still is) mainly a subsistence activity—even when it produces a surplus to support the rest of society, traditional farmers usually eat what they grew and grow much of what they eat. Most of the inputs for traditional farming come from the farm itself and this sort of farming is not highly dependent on the financial system for its continued operation

This is not the case with modern agriculture. Machinery, fuel, seed, fertilizer, pesticides and labour all must be purchased before a crop can go in the ground, and credit from the bank is necessary to get the process going. Farmers also rely on markets which are part of the financial system to sell their crops. When the financial system is not functioning well, modern farming suffers.

Well, I could go on at considerably more length, but I think the information I presented here sets us up nicely for my next post, in which I will discuss what lies ahead for agriculture. And returning to the theme of political fantasy, I'll consider what governments can do to improve the situation.

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

Thursday, 3 December 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 6: Agriculture, an Overview

In this series of "Political Fantasy" posts I've been talking about how enlightened government policy could smooth the upcoming transition to a sustainable, low energy economy. Of course, this is clearly a fantasy, since political realities make it extremely unlikely that governments will do anything but continue to support "business as usual". It's a nice fantasy to play with though, and I find it a good way to discuss the issues that we'll have to deal with ourselves when it finally becomes clear that our governments aren't coping effectively.

Long time readers of this blog are aware that I see climate change, resource depletion and fundamentally flawed economic systems leading to a slow collapse of industrial civilization. This collapse is, in fact, already underway and it is not something we can fix or avoid. We just have to adapt to it as best we can. That's where the "sustainable, low energy economy" comes in.

We'll have to switch over to renewable energy sources and this is going to leave us with a lot less energy to work with, 10 to 20% as much as we are currently using. In my last post I talked about how various sectors of our economy will adapt to use less energy. The big one that I left out, and promised I'd cover soon, was agriculture.

Turns out, I have a lot to say about this subject. Enough, it seems, for 3 posts rather than just one. In this first post of the three, I'll give a quick overview of the subject.

The modern industrial agriculture which dominates food production in the developed world and is currently striving for a similar position in the developing world, is not well suited to adapt to the challenges that lie ahead of us. It is just one more industry doing its best to continue with business as usual and headed directly towards disaster because of it. One expects that, because people do need to eat, governments will make some particularly heroic and misguided efforts to keep industrial agriculture going, when what they need to do is lead the transition to a more sustainable way of feeding ourselves. Unfortunately, the word "sustainable" has seen so much abuse that it's going to take a bit of effort to explain what I mean by that.

The subject of agriculture and food has become very much politicized, with various different ideologies determined to win the argument regardless of what the facts, evidence or reasonable scientific conclusions might indicate. A number of "hot button" issues, false dichotomies, really, have become central to the debate, even though they are not even close to the main things we should be worried about. I firmly believe that whenever you see a situation being described as a conflict between opposing two sides, what you are actually seeing is a set of distortions that do not accurately reflect a much more complex reality. These distortions have been created by people who have chosen up sides and are determined to have their side win, regardless of the consequences.

These ideologies are supported by all sorts of biases and fallacies and by what I call framing errors—focusing on the part of the situation that suits your argument, drawing a frame around it that excludes the inconvenient facts that would favour the other side, or perhaps even discredit both sides. I'll try to avoid such distortions in what follows.

Today's agricultural discussion tends to be framed as industrial versus organic, but this is in itself a distortion. With apologies to many friends, gardeners and farmers, who are practicing sustainable agriculture and calling it "organic" with the best of intentions, the label has been co-opted over the last few decades by a branch of industrial agriculture which uses the positive connotations of the word "organic" to get better prices for their "organically" grown products. In other words, organic food has become little more than a lucrative marketing strategy. Just about the only difference between these people and the rest of industrial agriculture is that the pesticides they use are from a list which is supposedly "naturally sourced". But the chemicals on this list are in many cases more toxic, less specific and more persistent in the environment than the synthetic pesticides used by non-organic farmers. If you take a close look at that list, you'll quickly become confused about what the words "natural" and "organic" actually mean. In their current usage, they don't mean very much. other than what suits the business plans of those "industrial" organic farmers.

The fallacy here is known as an "appeal to nature", and is based on the idea that anything which is "natural" must be good, particularly when it comes to food and the sorts of "chemicals" which are used in agriculture. Of course all matter is made up of chemicals, but what the people who fall for this fallacy mean is "synthetic chemicals". A couple of centuries ago people believed that it wasn't possible to synthesize the chemicals involved in life, but this was soon proved wrong. Today, with sufficient effort, any naturally occurring chemical can be synthesized, so the distinction is largely meaningless. Further, there are many naturally occurring chemicals which are highly toxic and many synthetics which are of low toxicity and considerable utility.

Another fallacy is that there is no safe dose of harmful chemicals, however small. In fact, toxicity is indeed determined by dose. The level of pesticides that one is exposed to via food is so low as to be of no concern—and that is true whether the food is grown conventionally or organically. Exposure of agriculture workers is another matter and one of real concern.

In my experience, the people who are most in love with the idea that "nature is good" are city dwellers who have very little contact with nature. When they think of nature, they are picturing a park, the sort of place they imagine people lived before modern civilization came along and disturbed things. Of course, this is pretty far from the truth. Humans haven't lived naturally since we started to use fire and make tools, around 2 million years ago.

People who have more experience with nature have more respect for it and are well aware that that it can be powerfully destructive. Mankind is definitely part of nature, but the idea that there is a "balance of nature" and that we once lived in harmony with it is in itself a fallacy. Nature is always being disturbed and responds by moving toward a new equilibrium, only to be disturbed again and so on. Today humanity is doing much of the disturbing and it looks we may well come out on the short end of the changes we are causing. But nature doesn't care.

So, I think it would be much better to discuss agriculture as modern versus traditional, since this is where the real conflict is going on in the world today. But even then, we'll see that neither side is really sustainable. What we very much need in order to feed the world's population in the decades and centuries ahead is something new.

According to UN compiled numbers, modern industrial agriculture feeds about 30% of the world's population while consuming 70 percent of the resources used by agriculture. The other 70% are fed by traditional agriculture, using the other 30% of the resources. For these purposes traditional agriculture includes urban gardening, gathering, hunting and fishing. A little arithmetic shows that modern agriculture uses about 5.4 times as many resources as traditional agriculture for each person fed. If we were to completely replace traditional agriculture with modern agriculture, we'd need about 4.5 times as many resources as are currently being used to feed humanity. There simply aren't that many resources available, nowhere near it.

Why then are so many people in favour of expanding modern industrial agriculture and eliminating traditional agriculture? Based on the numbers in that last paragraph, it might seem that we should be doing just the opposite. It's not that simple, of course. Modern agriculture gets higher yields per acre than tradition agriculture, by about 33%. So, doing a little arithmetic again, we see that by these numbers, if we switched over completely to traditional agricultural techniques, we could only feed about 92.5% of our current population. Where modern agriculture, if it were to replace traditional agriculture entirely, could feed about 20% more people than the current population of 7 billion.

That amounts to about 8.6 billion people, still not as many as the 9 billion that the UN predicts we'll have the 2050, but close. And so the business as usual people are keen to expand modern agriculture—they promise that with a few refinements, modern agriculture could feed 9 billion or more people. No doubt it helps that there are profits to be made while doing this. But of course to support this plan requires that you have a complete blind spot for resource depletion and the limits to growth. That you completely ignore sustainability, in other words. And the opposite of sustainable is terminal.

Traditional agriculture isn't fully sustainable either, and neither of these approaches to feeding mankind has the flexibility and resiliency needed to cope with climate change. So, to be honest, we need both fewer people and a new approach to farming that requires much less in the way of inputs and can still function when the climate is much less reliable. I suspect the UN's population predictions are ridiculously optimistic, no doubt based on "all other things being equal". It won't take a lot of ingenuity to get fewer people— war, epidemics and famine will do the trick just fine it we continue on as we are today, though admittedly with much more misery than is really necessary. Educating and empowering women and giving them control of their reproductive lives would be a much better plan, but there is some doubt that it will be applied soon enough.

Fixing our agriculture system is going to be a much taller order. And that's what I'd like to talk about now.

It is important to consider a farm as an integral part of the ecosystem it occurs in. And in order to understand an ecosystem it is useful to be aware of the flows of energy and materials within it. I've talked a great deal about energy and EROEI in this blog already, but I've said relatively little about the role of material resources in the economy. To really understand agriculture, we have to look at how it uses material resources as well as how it uses energy.

Energy flows through a system from higher or more concentrated places to lower or less concentrated places. On the way through, some fraction of that energy can be harnessed to do work, but once it is gone, it's gone. The concept of EROEI applies to the survival of plants and animals just as it does to industries and economies. Every living organism must collect as much or more energy than it needs to live and produce offspring, or it will not manage to survive and reproduce.

Material resources work differently. Materials usually don't flow into an ecosystem in any great quantity and if you don't want to quickly run out of vital resources, it is important that they do not flow out after their initial use, but are reused again and again. I first came upon these ideas about how energy and matter flow in ecosystems in a blog post by John Michael Greer, and I want to give him full credit for introducing me to the concept.

It is interesting to note that modern industrial systems, agriculture included, in addition to being extremely profligate in their use of energy, often take a "once through" approach to the use of materials. Materials come in from what are viewed as bottomless sources and eventually flow out to become waste in what are viewed as infinitely large sinks. Both those views are wrong. Since the most easily accessed resources are used first, when they are depleted we turn to less readily accessible resources, which are more expensive. Eventually, this starts to affect the economic viability of the industries involved. Economists would have us believe we can always find a substitute for any material that is becoming seriously depleted. Sadly, it just isn't so. Nor is it so that there is an infinitely large place called "away", which can just go on forever, absorbing our waste without negative effects.

For millions of years our ancestors fed themselves by hunting and gathering, which worked with an EROEI of around 10. This was a highly skilled way of making one's livelihood and usually fairly low in yield, supporting only very spread out populations which had to move around a lot. It was also at the mercy of weather and variations in the populations of edible plants and prey animals. But hunter/gatherers did succeed in spreading to every continent (except Antarctica) with no more than stone age technology and they did it while working fewer hours per week than most of us do today.

Starting as long ago as 9500 BCE, agriculture was invented independently in half a dozen different areas around the world. Agriculture has a lower EROEI than hunting and gathering because it is more complex, but it does give higher yields in smaller areas, which enabled the development of more complex societies. For many of the people involved this was not necessarily an improvement. But for those in charge, it certainly was.

It is interesting to note that during history, many civilizations that practiced unsustainable agriculture and forestry eventually collapsed. That is, after all, the definition of unsustainability. But regardless of that, we eventually ended up where we were a couple of hundred years ago, just before industrialization started. The EROEI of pre-industrial agricultural systems was around 6. Much of this traditional agriculture was not sustainable and even where it was, it already supported just about the maximum population that it could.

Looking at this situation Thomas Malthus said, "The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man." He predicted that if the growth of population was not restricted, it would eventually outgrow the means of supporting it. This makes complete sense to me, but two centuries later, we can see that Malthus' predictions have not come true, and we seem to be doing fairly well, even with 7 billion mouths to feed and growing. How can this be so? Well, like most of the changes in our society over the last 200 years, it's mainly down to fossils fuels, and the cheap abundant energy they have provided.

The industrialization of our society, driven by that abundant cheap energy, greatly improved our standard of living. This made possible improved nutrition, cleaner water supplies, better sanitation and medical advances including vaccines which resulted in a quickly growing population, mainly due to reduced infant mortality.

The increased agricultural output which has enabled us to feed that ever growing human population has been due mainly to the industrialization of agriculture. And I want to make it clear here that this is not a rant against farmers. I grew up on a farm and think that farming is a fine way of life. But farming, like every other branch of industry during the last couple of centuries, was caught up in the seemingly endless growth driven by cheap and abundant energy from fossil fuels. This growth was effectively an irresistible force—it did no good to talk about limits to growth or sustainability, the individual people caught up in this process had very little choice. And if they did choose not to take part, others were lined up to take their place.

In my next post, I'll be going into considerable detail about the changes that took place in agriculture over the last two centuries and where that leaves us now. In the post after that, I'll talk about what lies ahead for food and farming.

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

Sunday, 20 September 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 5: using energy wisely when we don't have much

In this series of "Political Fantasy" posts I've been talking about how enlightened government policy could smooth the coming transition to lower energy use. Of course, this is clearly a fantasy, since political realities make it extremely unlikely that governments will do anything but continue to support "business as usual". It's a nice fantasy to play with, though, and I find it a good way to discuss the issues we'll have to deal with when it final becomes clear that our governments aren't going to.

In my last post, I talked about having to switch from non-renewable energy sources to renewables, and how this will necessitate a big drop in per capita energy consumption. Now it's time to start talking about how exactly to get by on less energy and what sort of government policy could help make this happen.

It seems that renewable energy sources are only going to be able to supply somewhere between 10 and 20 percent as much energy as we are using today. That is a big change and I know there are people who will say that life wouldn't be worth living under such conditions, that it would be "the end of the world". While it may well mean the end industrial society in its present form, it is certainly not the end of the world, nor does it mean that we need to give up on the advances in social justice that have been made over the last century or so.

It will mean living through lots of changes, but if you don't want the world to change, you're living in the wrong world. Our world has been changing more and more quickly for the last few centuries and we've got a way to go yet.

One big part of the change we'll experience is in the level of technology that will be available to us. This is mainly because technology uses energy — it takes energy to build it and energy to operate it. Modern thinking tends to get this backwards — because we access energy via various sorts of technology, we think that technology makes energy. This is not so — even the tech we use to access energy uses up some of that energy in the process.

Indeed that is the problem with high tech but low EROEI renewable energy sources—they don't produce enough surplus energy to support a high tech civilization, and yet without a high tech infrastructure they cannot be maintained and replaced when they wear out. As I discussed in my last post, many renewables fit into this category and they aren't going to be much use to us.

If we are going to have a lot less energy available, then we are not going to be able to keep on using all of the technology that we have today. In our current globalized civilization everything is connected together on a worldwide basis and it may seem that technology is all one thing, to be lost as a whole if we are cut off from the worldwide trade network. You may feel, for instance, that without access to semiconductor factories, we'll be back to the stone age. Fortunately this is not so. Technology is really many separate pieces, some of which we will be able to maintain even if others are lost. We just have to determine what technologies we could support with the quantity and types of energy we have available and then choose which of those we actually will support.

Very likely we'll have to choose just a few of the many alternatives, but our loss of technology doesn't need to be an outright collapse. Instead we should plan a deliberate and controlled step down to technology appropriate for the energy we can produce. This change has a lot more chance of being "deliberate and controlled" if our governments understand all this and take steps to implement it. It is very important that we don't waste resources on trying to keep everything working, which will instead just lead to everything falling apart.

The other thing needed to make this change go smoothly is people with education and training appropriate to the level of technology we're aiming for. There's going to be fair bit of chaos as a result of prolonged economic contraction and given the current anti-science bent of much of the population, we may end up with no one trained to use the technology we're aiming for. An example of this is the way the potter's wheel was lost to Britain for centuries after Romans pulled out. Things like this can happen randomly when the knowledge is concentrated in a few people who didn't manage to pass it on to the next generation. Avoiding this sort of thing is going to be a big challenge. At the very least, maintaining literacy and libraries would be a big help.

So, where are we likely to end up at the end of such a step down? Well, we are entering a period of economic contraction which will continue until our energy use matches what is available from renewables. But abandoning the growth economy, whether willingly or not, will do a great deal to reduce our energy consumption because growth is a very energy hungry activity. What governments need to do is quit wasting money and energy on trying to restart growth, and instead focus on winding things gently down to a more appropriate state.

Of course, economic contraction will have negative effects as well, such as unemployment, weakened social support networks and stranded debt due to reduced productivity. I believe a clever approach to energy descent can, and must, address these problems. Exactly how to do this is one of the biggest challenges we face. I'll talk about how I think it can be done at the end of this post, after discussing specific measures to reduce energy use.

Beyond the energy savings that come with a non-growth economy, many current energy uses do not support anything positive in our society and could be abandoned with little in the way of ill effects. Most of these come under the headings of luxury and/or waste.

Luxury, of course, is relative. Especially in our consumer society where luxury is defined as the next must-have thing that you don't yet have. That's a treadmill that is pretty hard to even realize you're on and much harder to get off, but it's well established that once the necessities are securely taken care of, having more doesn't make people any happier.

The problem with waste is that much of it is seen as "the cost of doing business", an unfortunate but accepted necessity. In most cases a closer examination will show that the benefits of "doing business" are outweighed by the cost of the wasteful process. It's only when businesses are allowed to externalize costs that this isn't obvious. Even when waste is recognized as such, we tend to focus on gaining efficiency by adding complexity, rather than just eliminating the practices causing the waste in the first place, and switching to something that is both less wasteful and less complex. One example would be building cities in deserts, because people enjoy the warm dry climate, then using air conditioning to make buildings livable and pumping water in from far away to maintain bright green lawns. Yes, we could invest in more efficient air conditioning and water use. But, especially as climate change progresses, many locations will prove simply not feasible for large populations of people to inhabit. Abandoning them will save huge amounts of energy. Another would be the extreme lengths we go to to safely dispose of human wastes, when they are in fact desperately needed as inputs (fertilizer) for our agriculture. More about that in my next post.

Government policy should be to abandon consumer culture, to focus on meeting human needs rather than growing profits, and having done that, to use any surplus to increase resiliency. Much of this could be achieved by placing much tighter restrictions on the marketing industry, who work hard to create the demand for luxury, (especially banning advertising to children, so they don't get turned into good little consumers at an early age), and changing regulations concerning the operation of corporations which currently exist only to make a profit, regardless of the costs to society as a whole.

But let's look at some specific areas where we could get by with much less by reducing luxury and waste.

The first would be transportation. We are currently moving both goods and people around the world in ways that make little sense and waste a great deal of energy. There aren't any high EROEI renewable liquid fuels to replace the oil based liquid fuels such gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and bunker oil that our transportation network relies on, so we really will have to make some changes in the near future, like it or not. And high tech solutions, like electric cars and trucks, nuclear powered cargo ships and so forth, cost a lot and don't have a commensurate pay back. Also remember that high tech solutions use materials and energy at a time when both are becoming ever more depleted, and reduce jobs when we already have an unemployment problem. We need solutions that do just the opposite: put people to work while conserving energy and materials.

When the price of oil started to go down in the fall of 2014 and gasoline prices started to follow, sales of big fuel hungry vehicles began to increase. The price of transportation fuels has, more or less, continued to follow the dropping price of oil. This does not encourage the sort of behaviour that would benefit us in the long run. It would be a really good idea at this point for governments to increase fuel taxes to make it clear that we need to adapt to a world where these fuels are not readily available.

Of course, more than just fuel and lubricants directly used in vehicles is at issue. There's the embodied energy of the vehicles—the energy it took to build them, to mine, process and move the materials, to build the factories and deliver the vehicles to where they are being used. Then there's the material and energy used to maintain vehicles and beyond that there is the energy it takes to build, operate, police and maintain seaports, airports, railways, roads, bridges and parking facilities.

Several aspects of "business as usual" are particularly wasteful uses of transportation.

Globalization is one of these, in addition to being an economic disaster to the developed countries, impoverishing the workers who are also the consumers that make the system work. Its apologists say that we all benefit when each country specializes in doing what it does best, without artificial barriers to trade. But in practice what a great many countries do best is supply very cheap labour and very relaxed labour, safety and environmental regulations. So globalization has been embraced by transnational corporations as a way to reduce costs and increase profits, subsidized by cheap transportation fuels, with no for longer term consequences, economic or environmental.

This means getting materials where they are cheap, moving materials to where labour is cheap and then moving finished goods to where there is demand for them, even if the distance is thousands of miles — half way around the world and back in many cases. But if we are going to be forced to substantially reduce our consumption of transportation fuels, moving freight by ships, airplanes, trains and trucks simply doesn't have much of a future.

Already demand destruction is putting the brakes on economic growth everywhere and the demand for shipping is starting to taper off. Rather than signing free trade agreements to keep globalization going, governments should aim for relocalization.

I suspect that as demand continues to decrease with economic contraction, many goods will simply become unavailable because the overseas manufacturers have gone out of business due to lack of demand. In such a time of economic contraction, it will prove too expensive to rebuild or restart the factories in our own countries that were shut down, or torn down when manufacturing went overseas. This will eventually lead to us finding ways to make vital goods locally, using local materials and simply abandoning the manufacture of a lot of luxuries.

Commuting to work is another part of business as usual that doesn't make sense when cheap transportation fuels aren't readily available. Of course, we've set up our businesses and our cities to make commuting a necessity. This is going to have to change, and with it the whole of "car culture". Just as we'll have to stop moving goods around unnecessarily, we'll also have to stop moving people around unnecessarily. And our definition of what is "necessary" will get narrower as less energy is available to support it.

Already we are seeing people who are making barely enough to get by forced to drop out of the car culture. Usually because the old car they are driving finally has a breakdown that would cost more than they can afford to fix, and replacing it is out of the question—simply beyond their economic means. At the same time municipalities with dwindling tax bases are doing less maintenance on roads and bridges, which also discourages driving.

Government can play an important role in the end of car culture. They need to quit bailing out bankrupt auto manufacturers and assist in moving workers to localized industry.

It follows pretty clearly that long distance business travel and travel for entertainment (tourism) are luxuries that will see a drastic reduction as well. The airline industry doesn't have much of a future.

Of course, it is not clear yet just how local we'll have to go, and this will vary in different areas. Where we have to fall back on food and firewood as our only energy sources, goods and people will be moved by the muscle power of humans and draft animals. Pack sacks, wheel barrows, carts, wagons and so forth are very low tech, and can be made locally under such conditions, especially with the leftovers of our current civilization available for salvage. But this does limit the distance that people and goods can be moved and leads to a very localized way of life. While such radical relocalization is an effective response to energy shortages, it does have some disadvantages.

It is not at all certain that large cities with millions of people can function at all with so little energy available for transportation. There might simply not be enough energy to transport food, materials and firewood into the city from the surrounding area. And as the city gets larger, the surrounding area is even further away, especially in sprawled out cities like we have here in North America.

At the other extreme, isolated small villages are also less than ideal. In the few square miles around such a settlement it is unlikely that all the various materials needed to operate at even a moderate level of technology will be found. With a small population a village cannot support specialists in a wide range of technologies, even if it has energy enough to support the technology itself. And it will only be able to support teachers for fairly low level of education, and medical practitioners for a fairly limited level of medical care.

Regardless of the size of settlement people are living in, if all their food is being grown locally then their whole food supply can suffer from various sorts of bad weather and pests. It would add greatly to resilience if there was energy enough to support occasionally bringing food in from areas far enough away to not be affected by whatever has caused local crops to fail.

In many areas water transportation is also feasible at such low levels of technology and energy use, using either existing repurposed boats or newly built wooden boats. The Great Lakes area where I live is a prime example. As well as the lakes themselves, there are also a number of navigable rivers in this area, as well as canals that were built in the nineteenth century and could be converted back to run on water and muscle power.

This would allow for a few small and medium size cities at locations with good access to water transportation, as well as many smaller settlements. It will still be very much limited by energy considerations when it comes to how much people can travel and the extent that materials and goods can be shipped around. But it would overcome many of the limitations of having nothing but small, isolated villages.

In order to have more transportation, we need energy to power it, which is challenging to do with renewables. Rail seems to be a much better possibility that road transport. Wood powered steam trains are possible, but to move much with them requires a lot of wood, more than will likely be available, especially where it is needed for winter heating.

Electric rail is a good alternative where electricity is available, and offers the possibility of tying together fairly large areas with a transportation network that can move generous amounts of people and goods. Please note that I am talking about conventional light rail powered by electricity via a third rail, not high speed rail or maglev which needs even more energy and a much higher level of technology.

Electric rail would work best in close proximity to generation, since transmission lines have built in losses and take a lot of effort to build and maintain. But there are quite a few areas in the world where there is sufficient falling water to make this viable.

The technology for generating electricity using water power dates from the late 1800s. A great many medium to large size hydro generating stations already exist. And there are many small hydro sites that were developed in the past, then abandoned when grid power became available, that could be redeveloped. Hydro electric generation is superior to many other renewables, providing power round the clock, though it does vary somewhat on a seasonal basis. With sufficiently large head ponds, it also can provide some storage of power.

Of course, there are many other uses for which electricity is an ideal power source, and with only a limited amount available, decisions will have to be made as to the most important way to use it.

The bicycle makes very efficient use of human muscle power for transportation and bicycles can be built with a relatively low level of technology, late 1800s again. A source of rubber for tires in problematical. A little research seems to indicate that rubber trees are threatened by blight and in any case they only grow in the tropics. There are a couple of other plants that also produce rubber. One is a flowering shrub known as Parthenium argentatum, or guayule, that grows in hot deserts. The other is a type of a dandelion called Taraxacum kok-saghyz that grows in temperate climates. Unfortunately neither is actually in production as yet, and we are entering a period when research and development will be harder to afford.

If there were energy left over to use for transportation, there are lots of technologies we might consider: internal combustion engines using wood gas, battery powered electric vehicles and so forth. I suspect that only a few areas, particularly well endowed with renewable energy sources, will have the luxury of implementing these technologies.

Of course, luxury and waste are common in sectors other than just transportation. And "business as usual" is a major contributor to waste and supplier of luxury in those areas as well.

Our buildings consume a lot more energy than they really need to. It is possible, with currently available technologies to build buildings that have a net positive energy budget, even in hot or cold climates. But completely replacing our stock of buildings during an economic contraction is not likely to happen.

There are ways to make housing more energy efficient, ways that are low tech and simple. The foremost of these entail having more people per dwelling, turning thermostats down in winter and turning the AC off in the summer. People can adapt to a much wider range of temperatures than we have become accustomed to in the last few decades. It is only since I retired and no longer have to work in an air conditioned office that I have really been able to enjoy summer, even though the last few summers have been the hottest on record.

Beyond that, things like caulking and other measures to reduce drafts, insulating shutters for winter use, shade trees and awnings to keep the sun out in summer and added insulation where it can be done without major reconstruction.

When we do construct new buildings, we will have to use low energy building materials and designs that inherently use less energy.

Lighting has seen big improvements in energy efficiency in the last few years, but every step has been achieved using more complex high tech types of lighting. We desperately need something that is both low tech and energy efficient. Perhaps a way of making LEDs at an "appropriate tech" level. This may seem unlikely, but remember that all our efforts are focused on economies of scale in manufacturing in large complex factories, to improve corporate profits. We haven't even tried to make semiconductors in a less complex, small scale, localized way, and we don't really know what is possible. Improvement in areas like this is something governments should be investing in.

Manufacturing is another major consumer of energy, and materials as well.

We need to eliminate planned obsolescence and the regular release of "new and improved" models for the sake of keeping sales up. We're going to have to make some hard choices about which things are so important that we'll decide to keep on making them even when energy is in very short supply, eliminating a great many luxuries in the process, as well as things that are wasteful to manufacture or are generally used in a wasteful way.

The things we do decide to keep making will have to be durable and easy to fix when they do break down. They should be designed to that spare parts that can be made locally when needed.

Products made to use once and throw away, like a great many containers and packaging will have to be abandoned. This will mean revising our ideas about recycling, make things to be reused many times, be repaired when they break, and only after completely worn out finally recycled. And what must be recycled must be made out of materials that are easy to recycle.

As we have done in so many other areas, we have set up our manufacturing to use energy and machines instead of labour. Modern businesses are judged on their "labour efficiency", aiming to produce a much product as possible with a few manhours as possible. Now we have a situation where energy is soon to become scarce, and we have a surplus of labour. So it is going to be necessary to move in the other direction, using more manhours and less energy. This is known as rehumanization. We'll find it is possible to make high tech stuff in the "developed" countries, and we'll find low tech, low energy ways to make the things we need.

Currently in the large nations, particularly the U.S., the military is a huge part of the economy, a huge consumer and a huge waster. Especially since much of what it does is stir up trouble internationally and thus justify its own existence. We can save a lot of energy by downsizing the military and converting it to a civil defense and emergency response organization. If this is not done, the U.S. may one day soon find that it doesn't have the wherewithal to wind down its international military operations in an orderly fashion, and is in the position of having to abandon both materiel and personnel at overseas bases.

Agriculture is another sector that has been using energy to increase its productivity, while reducing the amount of manpower used. In fact there is good reason to doubt that we can continue to feed the planet's population without access to plentiful cheap fossil fuels. This is such an important issue that I'll be devoting my next post entirely to it.

As the economy contracts and the amount of energy we are using decreases, the electrical grid, which relies on economies of scale, will become less and less profitable to operate. Currently power grids tie together huge areas, provide essential infinite amounts of power and with nearly complete reliability. Much of this will have to change. The grid company I used to work for has already cut back significantly on maintenance of grid infrastructure and there is no doubt that it will be forced to cut further and begin to abandon the less profitable parts of its operation altogether.

Rural service, which involves a lot of miles of lines delivering a relatively small amount of power, will be the first to suffer. Already interruption times have grown longer due to reduction in staffing and inventory of repair parts, rural power rates are higher than urban rates and the customer pays for building new lines to areas currently without service. Soon we will see decisions made not to maintain or repair lines which service few customers, and the definition of "few" will change to encompass larger numbers as time passes and the power company profits decrease. Large areas of the countryside will find themselves going "off grid" whether they intend to or not.

Something similar will happen in the poorer sections of cities. Especially when municipal government doesn't have enough tax revenue to maintain infrastructure, and the amount of power being used shrinks along with the customers' ability to pay for it.

Eventually, even in those localities fortunate enough to still be generating electricity, only relatively small areas will be tied together in anything resembling a grid.

The internet is an extremely useful thing, but most of the cost is hidden from its users. I am told that 2 to 3% on world energy use goes to support the internet. When we are down to 10% of our current per capita energy use, that would be 20 to 30% for the internet, which might well change our thoughts about how important the internet really is.

Long before then, though, most people will probably lose access. The net has never really been a paying proposition, and has largely financed by debt. This worked as long as the net was growing, but that will come to a halt somewhere along the path of economic contraction and we'll have to start paying for the real costs. First the net neutrality wars will be lost and then the cost of service will shoot up. As more and more people are forced off grid, the economies of scale will disappear and the cost of access will go up even more. Finally only government, military and the very rich will have regular access to the internet and at some point even they may not be able to afford to maintain it on a world wide basis or with anything like the speed we have become accustomed to.

In both the cases of the power grid and the internet, a wise government will not waste precious resources in trying to maintain "business as usual", but will expend what resources it has to conduct an orderly descent to a lower level of energy use.

As I said near the start, economic contraction will have many negative effects, such as unemployment, weakened social support networks and stranded debt due to reduced productivity. I do believe a clever approach to energy descent can, and must, address these problems.

Neo-liberalism has become the default politics of most of the world, valuing the ability to make a profit above everything else. When times get tough under such a regime, the poor are called on to accept ever more severe austerity in order to support those at the top of the heap in their accustomed style. At this point, it's pretty obvious that I think a quite a bit of austerity is going to be unavoidable. The only way people are going to accept this without a great deal of conflict is if the pain is equally distributed at all levels of society and if steps are taken reduce the economic inequality that has grown to ridiculous levels over the last few decades.

No doubt we are all going to be a lot poorer, walking a lot more and doing a lot more physical labour. But with relocalization and rehumanization, there will be enough work for everyone to have the necessities of life. It is critical that people have a useful role to play in society which allows them to provide for their needs, according to their abilities and talents. And people need to be able to rely on support from society at times when they cannot support themselves, according to the resources that society has available.

When working in small groups, less than 200 people, it seems that we have the natural ability to arrange this for ourselves. Living in small isolated groups has enough disadvantages, though, that we should aim for a more connected and organized society, to the extent that energy resources allow. And that is where good government comes in. One can only hope that among with the many changes that lie ahead of us will be some changes in the present day "political realities".

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

Saturday, 4 July 2015

A Political Fantasy, Part 4: Renewable Energy Sources

This is another in the series of posts where I've been talking about things a government might do to ease our transition to a low energy economy, if it (the government) wasn't shackled by political realities.

The depletion of fossil fuels, and the economic contraction it's causing, is at the core of our current problems. Coming up with an energy policy which solves those problems is a major challenge, and perhaps it's a political fantasy to think it can be done.

In my last post I talked about non-renewable energy sources and "energy sprawl", which is what happens when we try to keep up with the demand for energy without considering the quality as well as the potential quantity of the energy sources we are trying to tap into.

In this post, I'll be talking about renewable energy and its limitations.

Renewables would seem to solve the major problems with non-renewables – that the supply is finite and the easy to access portion of that supply is becoming depleted, and that, in the case of fossil fuels, that burning them is causing climate change. But renewables come with a whole new set of problems of their own, and learning to live within the constraints posed by renewable energy is going to be one of our major challenges in the coming decades.

First, let me clarify what I mean by "renewable". Energy sources that are based on the sun, not just solar power, but also biomass and biogas, and the power of falling water, the wind and ocean waves, are called renewable. The sun keeps coming up every day and will continue to do so for a few more billion years. Technically, that's not forever, but it's good enough for me. The same can be said for other renewables like tidal power, which comes from the orbit momentum of the moon around the earth and the earth around the sun, and geothermal power which, depending on how deep you go, either from the sun shining on the ground or from the heat of decaying radio isotopes deep within the earth.

The tie between the quality of energy and the economy is something that governments, most economists and indeed most people in general, just don't get. It's central to thinking clearly about the energy problem and renewable energy, so I think it is worth repeating this part of what I have to say again (and again). It may even be that I'm getting better at it with practice (I hope).

The economy is actually about people working to produce goods and services that other people need and/or want. “Working” is the key word here. To accomplish work, energy must be consumed, be it food powering muscles, fuel powering engines or electricity running motors. So energy is the essential resource that enables all production. I would say that wealth in our growth based economy can largely can be defined as claims on future productivity. So if wealth is based on productivity, then it is a actually based on energy.

And it’s not just the amount of energy that we can access that's important, 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”. When there is an abundant supply of surplus energy economic growth is essentially unstoppable.

In the last century, when fossil fuels were cheap and available in copious quantities, economic growth came to be accepted as the normal state of affairs. Our financial system adapted to the demand for a constantly growing supply of money by creating money out of thin air, as debt. For providing this service, banks insisted on being paid back with interest. This worked fine as long as the economy was growing and the cycle of borrowing and paying back with interest could go on. But when growth slows, we have no elegant way of dealing with debts that can no longer be repaid. Demand for goods and services decreases, companies shut down, unemployment grows and demand for goods and services decreases even further.

A good way of looking at the quality of energy is to compare the cost of energy with what it's worth – what can be accomplished using it. This is clearly expressed in the ratio “Energy Returned on Energy Invested” or EROEI, calculated as Energy Returned divided by Energy Invested. 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. And actually, because of losses in processing and distribution (which aren't usually included in EROEI numbers), it takes an EROEI somewhere between 3 and 5 to really break even. But what isn’t so obvious is that an energy source must have an EROEI considerably higher than one (or even five) in order to drive the kind of economy to which we’ve become accustomed. 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 drive growth, and as the EROEI falls even further, there isn't even enough surplus wealth to maintain existing infrastructure.

In our current circumstances, it is very important to understand why that last bit is true.

When our average EROEI is well above 15, sufficient wealth is created to pay for the ongoing search for energy, accessing it, converting it into useful forms and moving it to where we need it. There is sufficient energy (wealth) to provide the necessities of life, with lots left over to keep productivity high and build more of the machinery of production, so the economy keeps growing. But as the EROEI drops off, a larger and larger portion of the wealth being created is used up just supplying the energy. When we get into an energy sprawl situation such as we have at present, so much wealth (and energy) is being put into building new energy infrastructure (energy sprawl) to access low quality energy sources that there is barely enough left over to supply the necessities of life. Economic growth has slowed down and the infrastructure of our economy is being allowed to crumble. Many governments are borrowing immense sums of money in an attempts to "jump start" the economy. But this isn't working because, to continue with the automotive analogy, the problem is not that the battery is dead, but that the gas tank is empty.

Indeed it seems very unlikely that a "business as usual", high tech, global, industrial society can be sustained with an average EROEI of less than 15. Efforts to access even more low EROEI energy just make the situation worse by gobbling up more wealth with insufficient return to improve the situation. This is what I've been calling "energy sprawl".

There's one more non-obvious aspect of this situation is that we really need to be aware of. Many of the possible renewable energy sources that we'll be talking about in a moment have an EROEI of less than 15, which means they won't support a growth based high tech industrial society, but at the same time they require a global high-tech infrastructure to support them. Let's be clear on the way this works. Yes, we could use what remains of high EROEI fossil fuels to set up the infrastructure for such renewables, solar panels for instance. And I think that, technically speaking, after the fossil fuels are depleted, the energy from these renewables would be sufficient to maintain them and even to replace them as they wear out. But there would not be sufficient energy left over to support an industrial society if we did so. And if there is no industrial society, the large scale manufacture of solar cells would not be feasible, so that "technically speaking" doesn't really help. By pinning our hopes on such sources, we're heading straight for collapse.

It is time now to talk about specific renewables, their EROEIs, and the problems and limitations that come with them.


Biomass is sunlight (solar energy) converted by plants into sugar, starch, cellulose, lignin and so forth. People has been using biomass as an energy source for a very long time, first as food and then as firewood.

I will cover agriculture in another post, but food as a source of energy should not be forgotten. Of course, modern agriculture has an EROEI of 0.1 (yes that's "point one", and it's not a mistake), so energetically speaking it is an abject failure. But even traditional agriculture had an EROEI of about 6 and with judiciously chosen modern refinements we should be able to do even better. Food converted to muscle power, both of people and draught animals, is low tech and very effective in many situations. It is under-utilized today, because we have accepted labour efficiency as the main metric for judging success in business.

Firewood has an EROEI range from 13 to 40, depending on the type of wood and how far the tree is from where it will be burnt. But it can be used at the very lowest levels of technology, by anyone who can pick up deadwood and start a fire. With modern, clean burning, high efficiency wood stoves (which certainly aren't high tech) it can be used quite effectively and at fairly low levels of air pollution. Of course, people do have to be trained to burn wood properly. And firewood is still probably not suitable in areas of high population density due to air pollution and having to ship the wood a long way from its source.

Wood, unfortunately, has a lower energy density than any of the fossil fuels, and it isn't nearly as convenient to handle as any of the liquid fuels that can be refined from crude oil.

We are, in fact, quite desperate to find a renewable replacement for those liquid fuels. So far, the results are not encouraging. Ethanol from corn has an EROEI of around 1.3. Corn biodiesel has an EROEI of 3. Ethanol from sugar cane has an EROEI of around 5. Ethanol from cellulose has an EROEI of around 4. These low numbers are a reflection of the reality that sunlight is not a very concentrated sources of energy, that plants are not very efficient at converting it into sugars, starches or oils, and that growing these plants and turning them into alcohol or biodiesel takes energy as well. It also takes a great deal of land to produce to produce liquid fuels in the quantities we've grown used to.

It is possible to make biodiesel from algae grown in clear tubes to maximize their exposure to sunlight, but thus far the EROEI is less than 1, so that clearly is not going to help.

There are a couple of other ways of turning biomass into fuels, but in both cases the fuels are gases.

Biomass that is decaying anaerobically (without oxygen) gives off methane gas, in this case called "biogas". The EROEI of this process is about 7.9, so it is probably worth doing in cases where the gas would just be released to the atmosphere anyway, on farms with lots of manure, or in cities where human waste could be collected and used for this purpose. Unfortunately, current sewage systems add too much water to the waste stream.

Biomass can also be broken down into a flammable gas consisting of hydrogen and carbon monoxide(wood gas), simply by heating it in an oxygen starved environment. This gas can be used directly or processed into more conventional liquid fuels. I haven't been able to find any EROEI figures for this process, but indications are that it would be better than cellulosic alcohol, somewhere between 5 and 10 for direct use of the gas, lower if further processing is done.

There are a few other things to remember about using biomass as an energy source.

Forests grow at a certain rate and if we harvest wood at a faster rate, soon the forest is gone. If we were to switch over much of our current energy use over to wood the countryside would soon be completely stripped of trees. We need to engage in a urgent program of reforestation if we're going to start burning a lot more wood.

While vast plantations of the same type of tree planted in nice rows at the same time are easy to harvest, after a generation or two yields decrease, and if the trees are all cut at once, the land is left unprotected from erosion until more trees are planted and grow. A mixed forest that supports a more complete ecology is more sustainable, especially if harvesting is done by "single cutting" trees as they mature. And the nutrients taken out of the soil by the trees need to be replaced, at the very least by returning the ashes to the forest.

Indeed, when any plant grows, it take nutrients from the soil and those nutrients must be replaced be replaced if the practice is to be sustainable. Modern agricultural practices don't do this, so alcohol from corn grown using non-renewable fertilizers can hardly be called a renewable fuel.

A certain amount of organic matter needs to go back into the soil to maintain healthy soil, so all the biomass that is produced on a piece of land can't be burnt, or the organic matter content of the soil drops off, reducing its ability to hold water and nutrients and resist erosion.

So, desperate as we are for a renewable, high energy density liquid fuel than can replace gasoline and diesel, especially for use in transportation, it seems that biomass isn't going to supply us with one at a suitably high EROEI. We'd actually be better to concentrate on not needing nearly so much of the kind of transportation that is powered by those fuels. And return the land that is currently being used to grow corn and sugar cane back to growing food.

Firewood does seem to be such a practical, high EROEI source of energy that every bit of land not suitable or needed for growing food should be reforested.

Wood gas and biogas are in that intermediate range of EROEI between 5and 15, and the technology needed to make and use them is not extremely high. So where the feedstock is readily available, perhaps as a byproduct of process we already want and need to be doing, then it is probably worth developing these sources of energy.

On top of all this, it is important to carefully balance biomass production with food production, lest the demand for energy drive up the price of food and leave more and more poor people hungry.

This is probably the right place to mention the idea of burning garbage to generate electricity. This can certainly be done, with equipment that isn't particularly high tech. But it is not scalable because we can't readily expand the supply of garbage and indeed we would like to eliminate garbage as much as possible, because of the waste it entails, both of materials and energy.

Direct solar

What about using energy from the sun directly? There are several problems with that.

Solar energy is quite diffuse so large areas of collectors are needed to capture a significant amount of energy. Solar energy is intermittent, on the regular day and night cycle, and randomly as clouds obscure the sun, so if you want continuous power some form of energy storage is required, which reduces the EROEI by approximately half. At high latitudes the sun is at a lower angle in the winter, providing less energy exactly when more energy is needed.

Photovoltaics (solar panels which generate electricity) have an EROEI of only about 6.8, perhaps half that if you include storage, and require a high level of technology to produce. So despite their great popularity, they aren't at present the answer to our energy problems. Perhaps more research should be done to develop solar cells that can be manufactured using a lower level of technology, so that they can fit into the kind of tech level that can be maintained at an average EROEI somewhere between 5 and 15. But it doesn't seem that this has occurred to anyone in a position to do something about it.

In the face of seemingly boundless enthusiasm for solar electric power, I'd like to do a little "back of the envelope" calculation. I happen live a few miles from one of the largest nuclear power stations in the world. To match Bruce Nuclear's output (over 6 gigawatts) would take an array of solar cells over 400 square kilometers in size (a square 20 km on a side), and cost over $3 trillion. And that is only at noon on a clear summer day. To match BNPD's output round the clock would require a much large solar array with storage facilities that are beyond current technology.

By way of comparison Bruce Nuclear Site is around 900 hectares (9 square kilometers) in area and cost less than $15 billion to build. I make this comparison not as a booster of nuclear power, but to give some idea of how large and expensive utility scale solar power installation would be, if we were foolish enough to try to build them.

Solar CSP has an EROEI around 19, half that with storage. This is a moderately low tech system where mirrors focus sunlight on tubes full of fluid which boils and drives turbines which power generators.

Solar water and space heating have EROEIs around 10 and are moderately low tech.

Hydro Power

Water power has an EROEI ranging from 11 to 267, depending on circumstances. The technology required to harness water power (dams, turbines and generators) is not terribly high, late 1800s level for electrical generation, much less if the energy is to be used directly for mechanical purposes as in a water mill. The flow of water typically varies somewhat on a seasonal basis, but is much less intermittent than solar or wind, and with a large head pond this sort of energy can actually be stored. The limiting factor is that there is only so much water flowing downhill and only in specific locations.

There are also some environmental impacts of large hydro developments that need to be considered. Depending on the geography, large areas may be flooded when a dam is built. Fish that spawn upstream can't get around dams, unless special "fish ladders" are built. Silt which would normally be washed downstream by the river will build up behind the dam. This is a long term problem for the power station itself, and it can also have negative effects downstream where that silt would have enriched the fertility of the soil on the river's flood plain. But there are ways to mitigate these effects, if we care about the environmental side effects of our energy system, rather than treating them as externalities that can safely be ignored and dealt with by future generations. And we certainly should care about that.

There aren't a lot of large scale hydro power sites that haven't yet been developed, but there are lots of small scale sites, which haven't yet been developed or, more commonly, were abandoned when grid power became available and they were no longer competitive.

There are a few locations (3 or 4) in the world where there is a sufficient concentration of water power to support a localized high tech civilization of a few million people, about 50 million total. This has been studied in some detail by Jack Alpert, a fellow I met at the Age of Limits conference in 2014. The practical stumbling block is reducing our population down to that level, which makes me doubt it will ever be attempted. But if we are willing to accept a somewhat lower level of technology we can get by with smaller concentrations of people and power, spread over more of the world, and a large total population supported, especially if we add a few other reasonably high EROEI sources of energy into the mix.

Wind Power

Wind power has an EROEI of around 18. It is randomly intermittent and varies according to location. It is low tech if it can be used just when the wind is blowing, but a nightmare to hook up to a power grid and by the time measures are included to cope with the intermittent supply, the EROEI is much lower.

Wave, Tidal and Geothermal Power

Tidal power, wave power and geothermal power all have EROEIs ranging in the range of 5 to 15. This can vary quite a bit depending on the location. So too, can the level of technology required to access the energy source. In a world hungry for energy, any moderately plentiful local resource that can be access at a fairly low level of technology and has an EROEI above 5, should be developed.


When formulating an energy policy, it is extremely important to keep in mind the debilitating economic effect of investing in lower EROEI energy sources. It is so tempting to spend a lot of money on "energy sprawl" in an attempt to tap into those resources, especially if you're trying to keep "business as usual" alive as long as possible. But it won't work.

We are currently observing this with oil. Conventional (cheap) oil peaked around 2005 and since then we've been using various type of unconventional (expensive) oil to keep up with demand. Initial this drove the price up over $100 per barrel, but this had such a negative effect on the world economy that demand fell off and with it, the price of oil fell to around $50 per barrel, below the cost all unconventional sources of oil and many conventional ones.

If we were to develop any of the low EROEI renewables something similar might happen, but more likely since energy demand has already started to fall, we will never have the where-with-all to do so in any large way. The future of corn alcohol, for instance, is determined largely by how long the American government can keep up the subsidies.

So, what renewable energy sources we should be investing in?

Based on EROEI and the level of technology required, the main ones would be food and firewood, hydro, wind, solar CSP and solar heating. Biogas, wood gas, tidal, wave and geothermal should also be considered depending on local circumstances. The result of switching over to these renewables with be two-fold. First, we will probably end up with an average EROEI below 15, or at best not far above it. Second, the total amount of energy available will be much less than we are now using, perhaps 10% to 20% of our current energy consumption. Taken together, that means the economy will not only have to quit growing, but will actually have to contract significantly.

It seems unlikely to me that large scale electric grids will be sustainable under such conditions. The so-called smart grids that are being developed will prove too complex and not resilient enough due to their high level of optimization and efficiency. Because of the intermittent nature of many of the renewables, and the lack of suitable storage technology, we will have to change our energy use to match energy availability.

All of this means backing off from our current addiction to high tech and adopting more "appropriate technology", at a somewhat lower level, adopting the "LESS" approach to consumption: less energy, stuff and stimulation, and deciding to be happy with having "just enough". I'll talk about how our patterns of energy use need to change in my next post, but I will say now that I don't believe we need fall back to anything like a medieval level and certainly not to the stone age. In fact, I am willing to say that we need fall no further that the level of Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). This was a society with a steady state, sustainable economy which relied on food and biomass for energy. And which was in many ways more civilized than Europe at the same time. Of course, this is provided we can respond to our current challenges in a reasonably intelligent fashion (though no more intelligent than the Japanese of 400 years ago). I can highly recommend the book "Just Enough – Lessons in Living Green from Traditional Japan", by Azby Brown.

Note that on my list of the renewables that we should be using, "food and firewood" come first. This is because, while I don't believe we need fall very far, if we keep on the way we are going things could fall considerably further. Food and firewood can carry us through with very simple technology while still yielding a fairly high level of EROEI. With what we now know (that we didn't 1000 years ago) and with modern industrial civilization as a starting point, we should be able to do rather well for ourselves and go on to redevelop the rest of that list of energy sources. Of course, if we are fortunate, or if our governments were to plan ahead and develop suitable energy policies, the switch over to renewables and the descent to lower levels of energy use could take place in a more organized fashion with a lot less pain involved. And under such ideal circumstances, we may indeed manage not to fall nearly as far as Edo Japan's level.

Having food and firewood as an energy safety net will be especially important for those who fall out of the consumer economy. It seems that this economy is bent on keeping itself profitable by eliminating its labour expenses, even though this at the same time eliminates the consumers on which it depends to maintain the demand for its products. But rather than worrying about keeping the consumer economy going, we should be concerned with how to carry on without it, and access to energy is an important place to start.

In order for food and firewood to serve as an energy safety net, we need to undertake a major program of reforestation and get started switching over to sustainable farming methods, the subject of my "post-after-next". Both these items should be a major part of our energy policy.

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