So far on Do the Math, I’ve put out a lot of negative energy—whatever that means. Topics have often focused on what we can’t do, or at least on the failings or difficulties of various ambitious plans. We can’t expect indefinite growth—whether in energy, population, or even growth of the economic variety. It is not obvious how we maintain our current standard of living once fossil fuels begin their inexorable decline this century. And as I’ve argued before, achieving a steady-state future implies approximate equity among the peoples of the Earth, so that maintaining today’s global energy consumption translates to living at one-fifth the power currently enjoyed in the U.S.
In this post, I offer a rosy vision for what I think we could accomplish in the near term to maximize our chances of coming out shiny and happy on the tail end of the fossil fuel saga. I’m no visionary, and this exercise represents a stretch for a physicist. But at least I can sketch a low-risk, physically viable route to the future. I can—in part—vouch for its physical viability based on my own dramatic reductions in energy footprint. I cannot vouch for the realism of the overall scheme. It’s a dream and a hope—a fool’s hope, really—and very, very far from a prediction or a blueprint. I’ve closed all the exits to get your attention. Now we’ll start looking at ways to nose out of our box in a safe and satisfying way.
The Chief Problems
To recapitulate, the principal challenges we face in confronting our transition from fossil fuels while living on a finite planet are (with links to earlier posts):
- The growth paradigm must end. A finite world with finite resources will not continue to support growth. Fossil fuels enabled a growth explosion, but those days are closing out. Even futuristic energy sources cook us in mere centuries on a continued growth trajectory. Folks who think the solution is to expand into space can step off the train now, since my primary interest is in addressing this century’s problems. Adios, space-migos.
- Conventional oil production will soon begin terminal decline. Our most important energy currency will no longer keep up with demand. This will quite possibly be accompanied by instability and loss of confidence in long-term growth, bringing damaging economic consequences.
- Alternatives do not stack up to the practical perks of fossil fuels. We will not simply migrate to the new sources without discomfort (in part, higher or even unaffordable costs).
- Transportation is hard. Most alternatives allow direct production of heat and/or electricity, but few result in liquid fuels to perpetuate our mobile economy. Electric vehicles offer expensive work-arounds for some parts of the transportation sector, but not without sacrificed capabilities.
- The Energy Trap exacts a toll on a late realization that we really should take energy resource shortages seriously. Given the tendency of societies to react to crises, rather than anticipate them, we will likely find ourselves wishing we had started decades before the crisis—preparing for a transition of unprecedented scale.
- Complexity cannot be ignored. Before we actually get off our duffs to address a decline in liquid fuels, economies may already be reeling from energy shortfall, and may not be in a position to carry out an expensive, large-scale build-out of a new energy infrastructure. This is exacerbated by the likely situation that we will not collectively agree on the route forward, and market omniscience will be similarly confused by volatility and the inability of a high-unemployment society to afford the more expensive alternatives.
- Many people point to the global population boom as the fundamental problem that must be addressed. I have not covered this directly in Do the Math, except in the context of evaluating exactly what sustainability means. I see the population explosion as a predictable reflection of surplus energy, which revolutionized agriculture and promoted more mouths in the world. On the flip side, energy scarcity translates to ugly population pressures via reduced food production and possibly hoarding.
Be Positive, Dude!
There I go again. I promised to offer a rosier picture of the future, rather than keep pounding the problematic side. But what I am going to propose may not sit well with the average citizen, so it is important to remind everyone what we are up against: a host of interrelated problems that are not easily waved off. I like the characterization that what we face here is a predicament, rather than a problem. Problems call for solutions. Predicaments must settle for responses. Our predicament is that we rode the fossil fuel bonanza to the highest possible heights, without a plan for what to do when the inheritance tapers off. Surely we mustn’t entertain the notion of getting a job when the inheritance wanes!
So imagine a world where we responded to these challenges: not by technology fixes, but by altering our expectations and behaviors.
If we elect to abandon growth as a central tenet of our existence, we would immediately veer from our collision course. We would still likely need to reduce our physical throughput of natural resources and services, but adopting a steady state economic platform would be a vital first step.
At the same time, we would be wise to take deliberate steps to arrest population growth—for instance by consciously deciding not to have kids, recognizing that the world of the future may not share the prosperity and stability of today. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair that we should cede part of the core nature of being human. Perhaps it helps to consider that we didn’t choose to come along just in time for the biggest transition humanity has faced, but oh well—here we all are. Are our brains big enough to offset our primal directive? Many Americans huff at the suggestion that we need alter our own population trajectory, when it is the developing world that hosts dangerously high birth rates. Yet a newborn American will use 100 times as much energy as an infant born to a poor village, leveraging the resource burden squarely back on home soil.
Continuing our adjustments, if we suddenly made choices that resulted in half as much transportation, we would just as suddenly put off concerns over oil decline at the level of a few percent per year. Much of our transportation is discretionary or can be consolidated (pooled) without ruinous consequences.
If we tended to focus more on needs vs. wants, we could eliminate unnecessary and resource-wasting consumerism. Ideally, the things we buy would last decades, and would be built to support repair rather than disposal. No more planned obsolescence.
If we did not demand as much electricity and heat at home and at work, we could more easily tolerate the relative shortcomings of alternative energy sources, while taking our foot off the fossil fuel gas-pedal. It is generally far short of debilitating to reduce home energy use by a factor of two or more (I’ve done a factor of 3–4, and could easily do more). It’s not what we’re used to, but no matter what choices we make, we’re going to be dealing with new challenges we’re not used to. I, for one, want to be in control of my adaptations.
If we changed our diet expectations, so that meat is a treat reserved for special occasions, or as an accent in our dishes rather than a main course, we would dramatically ease pressure on our lands, water resources, and the energy required to support our food industry. Many people in the world live this way already, without shriveling up.
By voluntarily adopting substantial reductions in energy in the manner described above, we free up significant amounts of energy to dedicate toward building an alternative energy infrastructure of solar, wind, etc.—thereby evading the jaws of the Energy Trap. It’s only a trap if energy shortages are imposed by failure of the supply to meet demand. But if demand melts away faster by voluntary means, we’re fine.
The secret for the raccoon to get out of the nail-in-hole trap described in Where the Red Fern Grows is to first let go of the shiny trinket inside. Unrelenting demand is our enemy here, and completely under our own control. Want phenomenal gas mileage? Slow the truck down. The velocity-squared term in drag/energy matters. There’s a gas pedal. We have control.
What’s Rosy about this Picture?
Maybe this “future” doesn’t sound all that great to the average reader. But consider it in this light. If we step off the growth train and simultaneously reduce our material demands, we won’t have to work quite as hard to keep life on an even keel. The competitive urge for a business to grow disappears, so that employees would spend less time slaving for the boss in the name of profit, and more time enjoying friends and family. In this world, people are interested in satisfying their needs rather than their wants, and people already know what they need, so there is no need to advertise in order to create demand for a product. The economy settles down into a system where needs are met by normal (more often local) market forces, but the ambition to grow for the sake of growth (and shareholder dividends, etc.) is gone. The 99% take the driver’s seat.
As part of the rubric for achieving a steady state economy (see Herman Daly’s ten-step plan), labor is not taxed, but resource extraction and disposal carries a stiff charge. Incentives shift to providing quality goods that will last a lifetime, since buying new items will invoke the resource charge, and it is simultaneously costly to dispose of the old. Repair returns as an industry, since labor is cheaper than new materials. The satisfaction that accompanies quality and craftsmanship return, in lieu of mass production.
More people would occupy their time with the art of living well. They would farm their yards (rather than mow grass?) and feel more intimately connected with the land. The world would become less abstract and more rooted in intrinsically meaningful activities (investment, marketing, office work, etc. occupy less attention).
Rather than isolating ourselves in self-sufficient castles, we would work together more often to complement each others’ talents, resources, or tools. The emergent sense of community may make us happier people and more resilient during tough spells. We would more often see neighbors gathering for community projects, potlucks, and inevitably more games of horseshoes and croquet.
In many ways, what I describe is a return to a simpler time. But with some key differences. We have made important advances in science, medicine, and technology that we treasure and would work hard to maintain and improve. The future I imagine does not give up on all our pursuits—just the ones aimed at growth and commanding a high resource throughput. Those activities centered on developing knowledge, and understanding what it means to be human, would thrive.
I know. What I describe may cut against human nature. What business owner would not want to expand territory, income, power, etc.? What about the people who would not welcome a simpler lifestyle? What about the folks who already live in a manner somewhat like what I describe and would actually prefer a more go-go lifestyle? Politically, what competitive party would adopt no growth (or negative growth) as a primary platform? Okay, the Green Party has done so, and hats-off to a courageous stance—attracting 0.2% of registered voters in the U.S. (although implementing instant runoff voting would unmask more true supporters). Business interest—which finances both political and advertising campaigns—would be hard-set against this folding-the-tents approach. There are all kinds of reasons why this future path has little chance of deliberate adoption.
Yet, from a physical point of view, I feel very strongly that we should ease pressure on the system and free up resources to make a more viable, sustainable, long term plan. That’s the first necessary condition to meet: a future compatible with physical and resource constraints. I know from personal experience that it’s possible to cut energy use substantially and still be a scientist doing real research. Whether this is possible to maintain on a societal scale, I am not able to say.
One key point about reducing demand is that it becomes far easier to accomplish a transition to alternative energy if we ratchet down the target level. Many posts that exposed shortcomings of wind, battery storage at a national or personal level, etc. were predicated on maintaining our current scale. Reduce the scale by a goodly factor and suddenly an alternative energy future is vastly more feasible. I am not going to be specific about a technology prescription that accompanies this future, but decentralized resources fit most naturally. So solar and wind do well (and other backyard-compatible approaches, as described in the alternative matrix). Self-sufficiency—at least at a community level—is most attractive to me in this “vision.”
But if a physically viable future is fundamentally incompatible with human nature, we may be fated to boom and bust cycles. To say this is to proclaim that humans are incapable of achieving the feat called “sustainability”—a disappointing shame, if true. We’ve seen civilizations boom and bust repeatedly through history, but the civilizations were always somewhat isolated, preventing the busts from being global. This time, more is at stake in a bust. Frustratingly, I know there is a way for us to do better. I hope we find ourselves to be capable of taming our expectations and desires and moving in a smart direction.
A Values Shift
So if we want to guarantee our ability to cope with physical constraints, we increase our chances of success if we change our values first. Today, we admire the individual who rises to the top of the corporate ladder—owning mansions and yachts and a business empire. What if our values shifted so that we considered such extravagance to be immoral? Today, we esteem the premier status of the frequent flyer racking up 100,000 miles each year. What if we considered this level of travel inexcusable? No red carpet for you! You must board the plane through a gauntlet of passengers swatting at you with boarding passes! Presently, we feel that eating meat at every meal means we’ve earned a desired status in the world. But what if it was considered indulgent to do so, unless you or your immediate community raised the livestock yourselves. Today, driving solo at freeway speeds is seen as an inalienable right and a reflection of our freedom. What if the prevailing attitude was that such activities on a routine basis were wasteful and selfish? Rearing families of two children is currently considered to be a responsible, replacement practice. If replacement is ultimately understood to be too taxing, we may come to value numbers like zero or one more than we do two. Consider the leisure activities of jet skiing, motorcycling, or snowmobiling and compare to kayaking, mountain-biking or cross-country skiing. Now imagine that the former activities are not considered to be responsible ways to enjoy yourself in nature.
Sure, some people have similar sets of values already today. We have names for such people. Surely I’m not suggesting that a world filled with “those people” would be a better place? Well, if the only way to assure that we do not overshoot and collapse is by adopting less obtrusive behaviors, then I would rather those behaviors stem from within as part of a values system than be imposed on us by some authority—even if said authority has our best interests at heart. The latter situation is unstable, albeit often effective.
Along the same vein, I initially wrote this post as a set of rules that, if adopted, may put us on a sustainable path. Then I realized that if I were a reader confronted with a list of rules for how I should modify my behaviors, I would likely chafe at being told what I should do, and dismiss the “rules.” It’s much better to set out the goals and the rationale, and let people invent for themselves ways in which they can meet those goals if they decide that the rationale is desirable. In this way, the responses become personal ones, bringing with them a vested interest in seeing them succeed. In posts to follow, I will outline some of the adjustments I have made that may serve to seed ideas for others: suggesting rather than bossing. I recognize that I’m falling into the classic mind-trap: if everyone would just behave like me, the world would be a fine place.
Worth a Try?
If we alter our values and behaviors, only later to develop technologies and solutions that obviate the need to maintain such a lifestyle, then fine: get on with the new ways—to the extent that the proposals are sound. A population sharing the new value set will be better able to judge the sustainable nature of some new direction (fusion, or what have you). Perhaps the very act of easing off the pressures on society are the thing that frees us up to find better ways or technologies. And as long as I’m dreaming—more time devoted to living well may also mean a better-educated, better-read, critically-thinking society; less obsessed with maintaining a frantic pace of life. Taking the growth imperative out of life will shift focus to content rather than profit. News will be about substance and informed debate rather than about entertainment for bucks. We could build on the better angels of our nature, rather than appealing to base instincts like greed.
And in the end, what would be the downside of slowing down for a bit? The natural world will obviously thank us. We may be more fulfilled as humans because we are operating in a community-oriented mode harnessing traits of the tribal crucible in which we evolved. As long as we do not lose valuable knowledge/lessons in the process (as we risk doing in a collapse scenario), what is the harm?
When the World Trade Towers were attacked on September 11, 2001, I was at a technical conference on Maui. Air travel stopped for the next several days, silencing the skies. Only then was I aware of the absence of the drone that had been a companion of normal life. I felt stuck, and no one knew what might happen next. But pretty soon, people realized there was nothing to be done, and lived in the moment. I spent a lot of time breathing through a snorkel. The pace instantly slowed, and this brought with it a few perks.
A Conservative Road
The picture of the world I paint here is unfamiliar, and quite frankly, unlikely. But my motivation is to devise a strategy that is not a game of chicken between growth and finite resources. I advocate swerving away—the sooner the better: what have I got to prove? Otherwise we are destined to lose the fight with nature. My suggestions may not represent an optimal response, but the benefit is that it’s an approach to life that I believe is far more likely to succeed than is the current path of trying to maintain business as usual. In that sense, the plan is a conservative one. Pulling back on the throttle gives us the opportunity to take stock, collectively assess what a viable future looks like, and plot some sensible course. It’s a plea to use our big brains rather than enslaving ourselves to a trajectory out of our control.
As pointed out in the post on sustainability, while I focus most of my attention on energy as a tangible physical concept, our challenges extend far beyond energy into long-term maintenance of fisheries, forests, soil, fresh water, climate stability, and other vital natural services that we may not yet appreciate.
When we reflect on the fact that we are at a special place in history approaching the peak rate of our one-time fossil fuel inheritance, it is hard to swallow overconfident statements about how our amazing ingenuity will propel us into a spectacular high-tech future beyond our dreams. The narrative is an attractive one, I’ll admit. The fact that we cannot plot an assured map along this route even for the rest of this century could either tell us that we lack faith, lack foresight, lack imagination, or that perhaps we should call for a timeout and regroup. I’m gonna vote for the timeout. But enough of us need to heed the call to make it effective. Future posts will explore specific ways in which we might collectively give our future a better chance at a fulfilling life.
A Better Future; More or Less
I’ll leave with a montage to illustrate why the slower world I describe may in fact be more fulfilling than the current scheme: emphasizing the good of one and the bad of another. One could naturally make up an inverse set. If you’re looking for utopia, you’ve come to the wrong shop—sorry.
Reading; story-telling; gardening; connection with nature; community; fishing; whittling; lemonade; sitting on the front porch; cross-breezes; seasonal adjustment; blankets; wool socks; sweaters; connection to sunrise/sunset; local governance; mom & pop stores; crafts; goats and chickens; bicycles; train rides; pies cooling on the sill; music; singing and playing musical instruments; rain catchment; canning; craftsmanship; repair; durable goods.
Waiting for airplanes; commuting; abstract/meaningless jobs; Wal-Mart; fast food; strip malls; four-car families; climate change; dominance of banks; capital gains; disposable junk; junk mail; species extinction; minibar charges; traffic jams; identity theft; freeway noise; advertisements; consumerism; faddish gizmos; cheap plastic crap; outsourcing; industrial effluent; credit card debt.
Last week, I let off the brakes a bit on the discussion, and allowed the topic to veer pretty far off track—also allowing some to post dozens of times (which I normally curtail). This week I’ll run a tighter ship. The Oil Drum is a good place to go for meandering conversations on anything related to energy and associated issues. Keep comments short and to the point, and consult the discussion policy for other tips as well.
We face an interesting paradox. While there are certainly people like you and me…well, there’s no way a civilization could advance the way we have without exponential growth, and yet the very drive that powers our growth is our biggest enemy.
Individual organisms experience exponential growth and then reach adulthood, when growth plateaus before decline and death. Can we, as a species, transition from our adolescence to a stable maturity? I hope so, but I’m not at all sure.
I really like the idea of taxing extraction and disposal instead of labor. It makes sense practically and morally. It’s also a massive change to our tax system, likely to be strongly opposed by industry. In the U.S. we can’t manage even a mild carbon tax. What’s the plan for making it happen?
Advanced nuclear power has turned out to be “abundant.” The main objection was political difficulties. But what’s more difficult: changing attitudes on nuclear, or attitudes governing our entire way of life?
I tend to be a belt-and-suspenders person on these issues. Sure, let’s try for the Daly tax. We’ll need it sooner or later. But in case we can’t manage it over the next few decades, let’s also work hard on developing and deploying the only abundant, reliable, non-fossil energy source we have.
We might even get a little lucky. Most wealthy, urbanized populations are reproducing well below replacement rates. According to Stewart Brand, urbanization trends means human population is projected to peak around the year 2050, and drop rapidly afterwards. That’d be a pretty big interruption in the exponential growth curve. If we can keep civilization going that long, we’ll have some breathing room.
Nothing is growing exponentially. The population is not growing exponentially–population growth rates have been in decline for decades and will peak (as you said) around 2050 at current rates. Energy consumption is not growing exponentially– it has flatlined in all industrialized countries, years ago, and is not even growing at all, much less exponentially. The economy is not growing exponentially–the rate of economic growth has been declining for decades in the advanced countries, and economic growth includes things like efficiency improvements and new medical treatments, etc, without which economic growth in the industrialized countries would be less than 1%/year and falling.
“If we can keep civilization going that long, we’ll have some breathing room.”
Civilization does not face unprecedented challenges, in my opinion. It has undergone many energy transitions before.
Although some places do have rapid population growth, those places are almost all in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia. The danger is a return of famine there, not industrial collapse here. Of course we must work hard to avert disaster in Africa or South Asia, but that would be accomplished by providing aid and not by preparing for industrial collapse.
I’m afraid you’re not quite right, Tom. Global population growth remains exponential with an exponent of approximately 1.1 as of late 2011. Saliently, national population growth in the United States remains *very* exponential with an exponent of approximately 22.5 as of late 2010 — the third highest national population growth rate in the world.
Assuming linear decrease of the growth rate and no abrupt discontinuities, global growth is projected to remain exponential through 2050. However, it’s not necessarily clear that linear decrease is a valid assumption. Populations subject to external existential stressors often respond with increased population growth (e.g., Palestine, Chad). While sensible from the local perspective, it’s unclear whether such responses satisfy the diminished capacity of a finite biosphere.
“Global population growth remains exponential with an exponent of approximately 1.1 as of late 2011.”
No. The term “exponential growth” refers to a mathematical function like: f(t)=b^t where b is constant and t is time. If b is not constant, then it’s not exponential growth. In other words, if the rate of growth is declining, then it’s not exponential growth, by definition. Exponential growth doesn’t mean any function with an exponent in it.
I realize that the definition of exponential growth is tricky, and lots of people have a good intuitive understanding of it without knowing the precise definition. However the definition requires a constant _rate_ of growth relative to the amount already (like 1% per year).
Here is an explanation from purplemath.com: “This is the definition of exponential growth: that there is a _consistent fixed period_ over which the function will double (or triple, etc; the point is that the change is always a _fixed proportion_).”
Importantly: you must define exponential growth in this way for the doom conclusions to follow. By this definition, nothing important is growing exponentially.
“an exponent of approximately 1.1 as of late 2011.”
I assume you mean a _base_ of 1.1. The exponent is time. In an exponential function, the exponent is the variable, not the rate of growth. If you mean it’s growing by 1.1% per year, then the exponential function could be: f(y)=initial*1.011^(y-2011), but only if 1.011 (1.1%) is constant! (I’m not using e here just to keep it straightforward).
From purplemath.com: “Exponential functions look [like other functions with exponents] but there is a big difference, in that the variable is now the power, rather than the base. ”
“national population growth in the United States remains *very* exponential with an exponent of approximately 22.5 as of late 2010 — the third highest national population growth rate in the world.”
Remember that the exponent is the variable (time in this case)!
Population growth in the US is not exponential, since the _rate_ of growth is declining.
Brass tacks. Until either B or T is negative, we’re history. Your argument is saying yeah, our growth is gonna taper off in the future. Sure. Big deal. It’s growing now. Now wether it’s gonna taper off gradually or suddenly is a real question. Wether it’s going to taper off in paralell with BTU per capita is much more salient to me that the magnitude of the exponent at any given time.
Excellent article. I love the montage. The least any of us can do is follow this for ourselves as much as we can. We each can save money but cutting back now, while others keep paying more for energy.
In the fall of 2005 I was fired from a horrible job and started to work from home. The rest of that year and half way thru 2006 I worked a lot less. At a rate that paid for what I needed to live on. I have to say that it was the most peaceful and relaxing time of my adult life. It took me that long to unwind from the stress of the job I had. Trying to find a balance of work for money and living life for me, has been a goal ever since.
There is little question whatsoever that reducing demand by changing our lifestyles and overhauling the fundamental principles behind current economic structures (i.e. deregulation, free trade, laissez-faire capitalism, debt-based monetary system, etc.) will allow us to reduce the amount of new infrastructure required. Reducing the size of the physical problem is a good start.
Given the manifold problems caused by unreliable sources of power, however, I think it is very dangerous to leave nuclear power off the table. We will still need process heat to manufacture things (industrial chemicals, synfuels, fertilizers, etc.), we’ll still need to heat our homes in the middle of winter, when solar panels are useless and wind-generated electricity is unreliable. There MUST still be a reliable, on-demand source of high-grade heat even in a world where we have cut energy demand significantly and done everything possible to harvest weak, diffuse and unreliable natural energy flows.
Next generation nuclear tech should be given top priority as closed fuel cycles (Th232-U233, U238-Pu239) solve the waste issues and provide scalable solutions to potentially *increase* energy availability to the billions in this world now living in energy poverty and do so on a sustainable basis without destroying the planet. Costs could be brought down significantly if modular designs and mass-production methods are *permitted*. Current regulatory and political environments, and general public ignorance and misinformation concerning low-level radiation and relative risk, virtually guarantee next-gen nuclear cannot go anywhere. Nuclear is controversial only because of politics, driven in large part by fears unsupported by scientific evidence. That has to change.
Since we will be starting a transition so late in the game and given the sheer enormity of the problem, conservation and lifestyle / cultural changes will have to be central. But, taking the benefits of new nuclear off the table in the process could make this difficult situation a lot worse.
[Note to moderator: I left the link off the dupe of this post, so please use this one if you accept the comment]
Right now the UK is looking for a way to deal with their plutonium stockpile. GE is trying to sell the PRISM to them (an integral fast reactor). From a blog post by Mark Lynas (author of several books, most lately The God Species):
“If all the UK’s spent fuel, depleted uranium and plutonium stockpiles are combined, they include enough energy to run the country for 500 years at current electricity use rates – without the need to mine another scrap of uranium, and without the emission of a single tonne of CO2.
“GE’s executives told me that they could get one up and running in 5 years – the PRISM is fully proven in engineering terms and basically ready to go. Nor will the UK taxpayer be asked to fund upfront capital costs – instead the proposal is for the NDA to pay a fixed price per kg of plutonium dealt with, whilst the PRISM plant will also generate a return by selling commercial electricity.
“Making plutonium unusable for bombs is only part of the deal, and not even the best part. For me, the most compelling reason to look seriously at the PRISM is that it can burn all the long-lived actinides in spent nuclear fuel, leaving only fission products with a roughly 300-year radioactive lifetime.”
If abundant, low-waste nuclear is five years away…doesn’t that change the calculation a bit?
That’ll be great if true. It’s a large ‘if’ though; a promise from executives that they can get it up and running isn’t the same as having it up and running and paid for. Could be great, could be another “whoops, how come it’s costing 9x as much as estimated, heh heh heh”.
May I be grumbly about your expect more/expect less lists? (Or perhaps, I am merely proposing a different low-energy future.)
Lowered energy consumption could easily occur in a world with all sorts of new-fangled communications and networking (and hence, opportunities for identity theft, an avenue for advertisements, etc.) And some of the things that we think of as low-tech (what caught my eye was home canning) are sufficiently energy-intensive that if energy were expensive, we’d notice it. (The energy required to raise 4 liters of water from 25C to boiling, 300 kCal = 350 watt-hours, is sufficient to charge a laptop battery 4-5 times. Canning might be better done in an industrial setting with economies of scale and process design.)
I also assume that anyone who’s made a business out of selling growth-growth-growth, is not going to fold up shop and say “golly, you’re right, this IS an unsustainable path”, and will instead market the heck out of what an anti-progress fun-killing luddite DFH you are, don’t listen to that guy, buy MOAR STUF NOW! It wouldn’t take large reductions to really ding the profits of the various consumption industries, either; they’re going to care about this.
A key difference is you can’t eat your laptop battery, but if you want to eat your home-grown goodies in the dead of winter, canning seems like a worthy expenditure of energy.
It seems like you’re assuming that food transportation is energetically expensive (thus food should be grown and canned locally) and I don’t see that it is, especially for canned foods, which can travel by slow boat anyhow. Perishable items, sure, but economies of scale will still be interesting whenever transportation is not too expensive.
Or, you take the approach my great-grandfather took; winter in Florida (fresh veggies still available), summer in Vermont. Two modest houses are not that extravagant, compared to how many of us live now. (Exercise: calculate how many liters of canning corresponds to a 1500-mile trip :-).
The other point you haven’t noticed is that you can boil your water using a cardboard box, some aluminium foil and sunlight (ie. high entropy energy), whereas charging a laptop battery requires electricity (very low entropy energy).
Energy is not expensive. Concentrated energy available whenever you want it is expensive. Choose to do your canning on a sunny day when your solar thermal panels are producing lots of hot water, say at 80 °C, and your PV can bring it up the last 20 °C to boiling.
In general, I think we’re in for a lot less travel (whether that’s daily commuting or annual holiday trips) and being careful to time activities for when energy is available (both domestically and in business) but if that really results in a substantial drop in the general quality of peoples’ lives then that’s their own stupid fault.
Choose your day, and your solar-thermal setup can boil the water for you.
I have lived with solar hot-water for some 16 years now. At this time of year (Souther Hemisphere late Summer) the water in my geyser boils (I hear violent bubbling!) by around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.
*nods* The capitalist class will not go quietly into Prof. Murphy’s proposed steady-state scenario. They live like kings glutting themselves with exploited labor and cheap energy.
I realize it may be a stretch, but when thinking about this problem it seems to me that we’re talking about a battle between neurotransmitters. You have the primal drives (sex, hunger, acquisition) that are fueled by dopamine, and the higher-order social drives (love, bonding, gemütlichkeit) that depend more on oxytocin and serotonin. The question is if we can wean ourselves off of what is very much an addiction to growth and energy and substitute what Prof. Murphy proposes. Looking at the way addicts tend to undergo mental collapse during withdrawal, and lash out against well meaning family and friends, gives me reason for pause. Also, consider the narcissism that seems to accompany great wealth/power and is fed by (and feeds) our consumption culture.
It’s not a problem of physics. We can handle that bit. Rather, it’s a question of whether we are slaves to our brains or their masters.
Well said. I see the possibility of steady state, but I do not realistically see the world getting there without going thru a gruesome Resource War.
We are humans and it is in out nature.
Unfortunately, we’ll always have politicians who figure out that they can get elected by promising growth and telling people it’s ok to be selfish. I just don’t see how to solve this political problem.
Meanwhile, Tom, since you’ve repeatedly mentioned your personal lifestyle, perhaps the following is a fair question–and I am genuinely curious: How many frequent-flyer miles to you rack up each year?
As it happens, you caught me at an airport!! But this is only my fourth trip in the last twelve months, with an estimated total of 10,000 miles. More than I’d like, but given the relative fuel cost of driving solo vs. a plane flight (factor of two), this is equivalent to a daily commute of 10 miles one-way.
I’m not happy about it, but I have shaved my air travel substantially in the last few years—probably by a factor of three. I routinely turn down invitations to speak at conferences or universities (especially overseas!). But alas my job requires some travel. My experiment is in New Mexico, for instance.
At the top, you remind us of your argument that conservation is insufficient, that energy use has to drop to the world average. That’s about 13,750 kWh (1.1 ton oil equiv/year/person). That energy budget doesn’t allow four flights / 10,000 miles a year (10,000 kWh) with work in an air conditioned office at the big American U.
True enough. For the energy in my direct control, I’ve dropped nearly the factor of five that would match global average. But I’m embedded in an energy-rich society that makes it hard to pull the same trick across the board. So while I do turn off my air conditioning in my office—thank you very much—I just load adjacent offices more heavily. Likewise, my job demands travel: not an easy thing to dislodge myself from the society I live within, as much as I try.
You hit on an extremely important point here. I see many naysayers asking people similar to you questions such as “if you care so much why do you still fly and use a computer.” You’re answer hits the nail on the head, it’s extremely difficultto completely opt out of society and still survive successfully. Many of us came to these realizations after we went to university and started our careersand withouta supportive community around us it is very difficultto earn a crust. So I believe your approach is makingthe best of a not ideal situation, makingenergy cuts where you can while fostering a community of deep thinkingand rationalpeople around you. Kudos. There is little to be gained from runningoff to a log cabin in the woods and shutting yourselfoff from civilization, in my experience bears and cougars care little for coal scratchings on the back of a price of bark, no matter how profound.
Thanks for the candor, Tim. In response to Andrew (…the “Reply” button has oddly vanished beneath his post!):
Define successfully. I live on about $3000 CAD in Southern Ontario, Canada. My partner lives on about $10000 CAD, enjoying a somewhat less ascetic lifestyle.
We find the substantially decreased pay to afford substantially increased freedom for worthwhile human endeavors. Neither of us consider conventional work worthwhile. Nonetheless, we remain enthusiastically productive. My partner recently publisher her first novel, “Life as Energy,” and routinely publishes peer-reviewed work on the liminal edge of biology.
We heartily encourage incremental dislocation from the economic mainstream. Time grows ever short and wanting for our attention.
This is where I think we have the most work to be done. When you speak of the “Energy Trap”, likewise, I think there is a “Reform Trap”
Personal adjustments that shrink your personal sphere of influence is a mistake. The laptop, the servers, the fiber that shares your message with others is a fine example. If you self-published on paper you made in your tub, how many people can you effectively reach.
Meanwhile you have shows of “Here’s my crib” displayed on Mtv for our future generation to watch…or my sweet sixteen party that’s an orgy of consumption.
The task is to make being green cool again. It was once, but the other side has been busy running a smear campaign. The task is to mobilize our communities. If the Green Party can’t win elections, then maybe they can being to work in communities, providing laying the foundation for the future one block at a time.
Thank you for this series of rational and well thought out posts. It is indeed a predicament.. I only wish I could shake people awake into realizing how real it is.
I like the future you suggest, we really need to find a way to spread these values, I will start at home.
Do you know of any countries or small regions that already operate on a near zero growth economy? Maybe that would be a way to get things started..
I see this perspective as naive as the spectacular high-tech future:
If we elect to abandon growth we’ll only address our physical and energy limits issue, not our societal problems. Such things as abstract/meaningless jobs, fast food, strip malls, dominance of banks, capital gains, identity theft, freeway noise, advertisements, consumerism, outsourcing, industrial effluent, credit card debt…. all them will be replaced with similar crap. To simplify, evil has existed since tribes ages.
On the other hand, I quote Georgescu-Roegen in his article “Energy and Economic Myths” (Southern Economic Journal 41, no. 3, January 1975)
Malthus, as we know, was criticized primarily because he assumed that population and resources grow according to some simple mathematical laws. But this criticism did not touch the real error of Malthus (which has apparently remained unnoticed). This error is the implicit assumption that population may grow beyond any limit both in number and time provided that it does not grow too rapidly. An essentially similar error has been committed by the authors of The Limits, by the authors of the nonmathematical yet more articulate “Blueprint for Survival,” as well as by several earlier writers. Because, like Malthus, they were set exclusively on proving the impossibility of growth, they were easily deluded by a simple, now widespread, but false syllogism: since exponential growth in a finite world leads to disasters of all kinds, ecological salvation lies in the stationary state.
Georgescu-Roegen also points out that it’s not just “growth” that is the issue, it’s “consumption”.
We have to end the consumption of non-replenishing resources, not just the growth in consumption.
The trouble with relying on a shift in values to solve our problems is that it goes against human nature. The currently unsustainable system is a reflection of widespread societal values, not a dystopia imposed from the top down by those who benefit from business as usual. The current mess, however bad it may be, is one which the broad public chose of their own free will.
While it might be nice to hope that eventual enlightenment will move our species away from creating certain problems, it simply isn’t how people wish to behave, which means that any attempt to change the BAU thinking will be met with resistance as a practical matter. While the wishes of the public can’t overcome certain physical realities such as the oil peak, those wishes will drive the public response to a resource crunch.
If resources become scarce, people will attempt to maintain their own personal BAU out of love for their jetskis and chilly A/C.
If we’re truly going to solve this problem, we must do so within the limitations imposed on us by human nature.
That means we must keep man’s engineering achievements available, but in such a way which meshes with the new normal. We can accomplish this through fewer people consuming resources for roughly the same benefit, but at a greater efficiency. While the limitations of Jevon’s paradox will reduce our gains, past a certain point, diminishing utility will preserve some of what was saved through efficiency.
We can trim the consumerism around the edges, but we’ll never gain widespread cooperation if we try and uproot it from the culture entirely. People will resist and we’ll continue racing towards the power down crash.
We can’t expect to solve the problem if we begin with the premise that everybody must adapt to a way of life they didn’t choose but are expected to enjoy. While that might solve the problem on paper, the competitive and self-centered nature of man will put up enough resistance to make that approach fizzle in the real world.
We need to start by identifying what standard of living is required to keep people content and peaceful, then determine how to support that through technology and changes to public policy, such as our current subsidization of reproduction.
Throughout all of human history, the human response to resource poverty has been fierce competition over limited resources. Just because we’ve advanced to the point where we can lament that on the Internet does not mean that fundamental drive has disappeared from our nature.
With fewer people competing for resources, and that competition channeled into productive ends such as technological improvement, we can salvage our future and our quality of life.
“The current mess, however bad it may be, is one which the broad public chose of their own free will.”
Since the 1920’s, US corporations have spent literally cumulatively trillions of dollars on advertising to persuade Americans to buy goods and services they would otherwise not buy or would not even know existed. The various techniques to coerce and cajole people (females increasingly since the 1970’s) include guilt, fear, envy, social mimicry, dissatisfaction with one’s socioeconomic status, appearance, stature, and so on. One is never thin or wealthy enough. The car one drives is not large or sexy enough. One never has enough kitchen gadgets, consumer electronics, clothes, shoes, sq. ft. in which one does not occupy in a dwelling, and the list is endless.
One is not successful enough, therefore, one is not as happy as one should be; therefore, one needs “therapy”, a “life coach”, or the myriad pharmaceuticals to “balance brain chemistry”.
Three-quarters of married females work at wage/salary employment in order to be able to afford to work, i.e., an additional auto, work apparel, meals out at work, child care, etc. Only 10% of US males today earn a sufficient after-tax income to support a household consisting of a spouse and children, including saving for university “education” for children and “retirement”.
On the basis of net energy per capita and material and exergetic waste per capita, we do not have an unemployment problem, we have an “overemployment” problem in that a majority share of what eCONomists refer to as (un)economic “growth” is COLOSSAL waste. No competent, self-respecting engineer or scientist would ever design an eCONomy like that of “capitalist” mass-consumer eCONomies of the West; they would be fired for incompetence.
Yet, US supranational firms have been busy for the past 20 years investing more than $1.9 trillion in foreign direct investment to produce cheap goods in China-Asia and to develop markets in order to convince the Asian elites and professional middle class to “be like us”.
And then there is the issue of Jevons Paradox. If we in the West reduce our consumption of energy and other resources per capita, that only frees up an incremental share of finite resources for US, Japanese, and German firms to promote consumption in Asia to grow profits and capital accumulation in Asia.
Regrettably, and with apologies, I have little confidence that there are a sufficient number of sapient human apes in positions of influence and power to redirect the trajectory of oil- and auto-based “civilization” to a more “sustainable” path for the benefit of even an infinitesimally small share of the planet’s 7 billion human apes.
Sadly, you may be right. It’s worth the fight, is my only response.
That’s not really Jevons Paradox — JP states that you yourself will increase your resource consumption after improving efficiency, not somebody else because your reduced demand lowered the price. It’s also only partially true — if I replace an incandescent light bulb that runs 5 hours a day with an LED fixture that is 5x as efficient, it’s not possible to use it 25 hours in a day. Or, if I started to carpool with three people, I would not then search for a place to work that was more than three times as far away; there’s still travel time to consider. If I replace my car with an electric scooter, it is so much more efficient than the car that there’s simply no way for me to consume as much energy as the car did. Supposing I eliminate meat from my diet to reduce that energy impact — how does that work, do I replace each 100 kCal of meat in my diet with 1000 kCal of potatoes? There’s other constraints besides just resource consumption, and when those other constraints bite, Jevons Paradox is not a problem.
There are also indirect “leakages” to consider. If I spend my savings from replacing light bulbs on an energy-intensive activity, I could have a net negative effect. Buy a more efficient fridge and move the old one to the garage (to keep beer cold). Consolidate shipping, and Amazon, etc. spring up to take advantage of the more efficient situation, creating more transport.
Had to laugh at the Fridge thing. My parents and brother have done this. They now have 2 full size fridges running 24 hours. LOL
Jevons Paradox is a problem.
“If I replace my car with an electric scooter, it is so much more efficient than the car that there’s simply no way for me to consume as much energy as the car did”
You are only thinking of the small picture. By using the scooter, you now have approximately some $500 odd dollars each month. You obviously aren’t going to bury your money. Do you take an extra vacation or two? That’s 10K tons of carbon. Are you going out to eat at a business that needs employees, cars, heat/ac etc? Even if you leave it in the bank, that money is in turn lent out to buy hummers or McMansions.
Jevons Paradox is alive and well.
Lots of romanticism and idealism here, IMO. People tend to follow incentives, not altruism. Shunning and opprobrium do provide one such incentive, but getting that started is hard, and risks creating a new kind of puritanical society.
Doesn’t have much mention of public policy, but I think that’d be essential. Pollution tax yes, and maybe that resource/labor tax shift, though I doubt not taxing labor at all is feasible. But I think a rising fossil carbon tax, buffered by a fee and dividend model, would be rational policy number #1. Have the unsustainable energy price rise faster than it has to, while giving people the resources to adjust. Coupled of course with public investment in the means of adjustment, like public transportation, and capital for capital-intensive renewable energy and building retrofitting.
Also, if climate will be more unstable, rediscovering public granaries (conservatives! it’s in the Bible!) seems like a basic step.
Reworking water rights, incentivizing non-soil erosion farming, and return of waste nutrients from cities to farms, yes.
But fundamentally, tax the carbon and fund the alternatives, and a lot of social adjustment will take care of itself. Markets, yay.
Changing the voting system would help a lot, but instant-runoff voting isn’t the best option. Countries with IRV still have two-party dominance. Mathematicians who study voting systems have identified serious problems with IRV. For example, ranking your favorite candidate at the top can sometimes hurt that candidate.
In general, Arrow’s paradox proved that any system involving ranking candidates in a particular order will have problems.
Better options are approval voting (simply mark whether each candidate is acceptable) and range voting (give each candidate a score, like Olympic gymnastics). In computer simulations, measuring how well a voting system reflects the true preferences of the voters, range voting is as big an improvement over plurality as plurality is over monarchy.
More information is at rangevoting.org. For comparison with IRV, go to the “SV versus _” menu item on the left. For a more in-depth look at a variety of systems, Poundstone’s book Gaming the Vote is excellent.
Oh yeah, I forget to pick the IRV nit. What Dennis said, except that for legislatures, you don’t want any of that, you want some form of proportional representation.
Came to say exactly the same thing.
IRV has, unfortunately, grabbed quite a bit of mind-share, but on false-premises. It does not help third parties, does not reduce negative campaigning, does not save money, and does not increase turnout.
Approval voting, and score voting, could. And we know this, because we, too have Done the Math: http://rangevoting.org/BayRegsFig.html
You rock for pointing out the Bayesian Regret stuff! Are you on our discussion list?!
An old Brave New Climate article contains an interesting footnote:
… when the reserve estimate for a limiting cost of $130/kg was 5.4 million tonnes. Earlier you remarked that you had allowed for a threefold increase in reserves in reaching the conclusion that fission energy from conventional water-cooled reactors was a niche option rather than an abundant one, and also, if I recall, that a factor of three was not very impressive.
Indeed it isn’t. It is much less impressive than the reserve growth that actually happened in the 32 years after 1978, a period in which the stuff’s price did not rise above roughly $3.50 per barrel-oil-equivalent. So it seems like a tendentious assumption.
The above-linked mining industry association page notes that
What’s normal is that, even if the cost of finding new reserves is — as with uranium — exceedingly low, people rarely intentionally pay it more than 80 years in advance.
What sort of evidence, short of their doing that, would persuade you that abundant uranium will be found promptly, when it is worthwhile to look, even if the goal is to allow everyone in Asia to drive something like the background vehicle here on oil synthesized from dolomite-derived carbon dioxide and hydrogen electrolysed from water?
Yes, I get it. Nuclear is THE answer. I’m reluctant to start yet another nuclear thread. Let’s talk about the implications of ramping down energy (subject of post).
Did you do any posts on what we spend our energy on? It would probably make more sense to talk about ramping use down once we know where we’re spending it now, at a more detailed level than electricity/heat/transport.
Related math: how much would it cost to disentangle from oil, or from fossil fuels, with minimal lifestyle change, for various levels?
US uses 3 TW, much lost as waste heat. Say we can get by with 1 TW of electricity, or 1000 GW. New nuke plant is supposed to be $7 billion/GW, which seems high to me, but is a real number. That scales naively to $7 trillion, which over 20 years would be $350 billion/year. A lot, but not that much, especially with how much we waste on a poor heath care system (6% US GDP) or on the military (arguable, but I’d say at least 2% GDP). Note I say nuke because it’s not intermittent, and is cheaper than the new solar thermal plant, and I’m trying to be simple (handwaving peak power), not because I strongly advocate 100% nuclear power.
Skipping math to keep this short: geothermal heat pumps for all (overkill) might be another $2 trillion. High speed rail a la the Interstates for another $2 trillion. Probably another 2 or more trillion for mass transit, whether by buses or light rail; hard for me to estimate. OTOH, some of all this offsets current expenditures on cars and roads or new coal and gas plants.
So I’m adding up to an amount comparable to our GDP, or 5% GDP over 20 years, partially offset by current expenditures on stuff we’d be replacing.
What happened to other biological species that were caught in a situation that didn’t allow expansion?
The size of there bodies became smaller, as can be seen in our very close relative,
H.florensis. The human being, is, of course peculiar in a way, for we use technology to satisfie our needs for food, the right temperature, mobility an so on, but if we were ever to reach steady-state economy, perhaps evolution will make us shorter and or our metabolism slower. If we also lived longer, why not accept longer travel times in slow trains or ships during which we partially turn off our brains and awake on arrival?
I’m shocked by this post. I greatly admire the rigor and objectivity of your other posts discussing the promise, or lack thereof, of various alternative energy sources. But this one (and really, I love your other stuff!) is totally unrealistic and misguided. The solution it proposes is unlikely in the extreme, while completely ignoring the implications of your earlier posts.
For example, I gather that the development of a suitable algae biofuel, if one can be discovered, would almost completely solve our energy problems in one fell swoop. Maybe such a thing is possible, maybe not. But surely the promise is worth a MASSIVE social bet on this possibility. And likewise with other promising alternatives. There are particular policy responses that could make such investments possible, such as policies that increase energy consumption costs (carbon tax, etc.). Spend your energy and unique expertise advocating for those policies.
I’m all for aggressive pursuit of energy alternatives. It’s a desperate situation. At the same time, let’s give ourselves some breathing room. We may fail. I’d rather not approach the future with a damn-the-torpedoes attitude. Let’s test the brakes rather than keeping the pedal to the metal. AND get peoples’ attention that we need to address our energy problems. Right now, the response is lame.
As for rigor and objectivity, the statement that easing off will relieve pressures on the system seems perfectly fine (and obvious) to me. I agree that the chances we could accomplish anything of the sort is near zero. A fool’s hope.
Hmm. I thought the whole point of this blog was to avoid fools’ hopes.
We can actually do the math on this sort of thing too. This is basically a public goods problem, well-studied by game theorists. My personal choices alone won’t change the global outcome, but they will affect my personal utility. Given this fact, it’s to everyone’s advantage to freeload…with the result that the public good doesn’t get provided.
Human nature isn’t quite so rationally selfish as game theorists assume, but close enough. I figure if we assume that it is, we’ll get a solution we can be confident in, and any altruism will be a bonus.
There are various ways to solve public goods problems, such as taxes. Figuring out how to get new tax laws passed is a much more complex problem, which needs to take into account a lot of different self-interested actors.
I had promised to offer some hopeful picture to counter the otherwise dismal assessments. It may be foolish to hope that we’ll gracefully avoid overshoot and collapse, but I have personally modified my behaviors to that end. If we become acutely aware of our choices, we may be able to formulate sensible reactions. This slim hope I offer serves in some sense as a slap in the face: you call this hope? I’m just trying to contrast our assumed ever-upward trajectory (with increasing complexity and challenges) to an alternative that is more physically assured to work—even if culturally impossible.
Dennis, and several other are trying to tell you that your proporsals are unrealistic on the physical level, and it does not reflect well on other good ( realistic and up to the point) posts.
As many natural scientists do ( myself included ) we ignore human nature of ordinary people. Your suggestions to sociologist of altering people beahvior sounds like a suggestion of a perpetual motion machine: “IF only all fast molecules went to one side of the vessel, and all slow to the other side – IF onle people slowed down … “. We don’t discuss the IF in physics, we just say – it is a LAW, end discussion. The same is true ( 99.99%) for people. ( The 0,01% is on this forum and similar ones 🙂 )
So, let’s try to tackle the problem from an engeneering point. What can be done with the people as they are?
I appreciate the feedback. If you read my words, I am careful not to say I have a realistic solution. In many places, I acknowledge that this is a fool’s hope that will almost certainly not work. Why do I put it out there? Because it needs to be said that there is a physical way out of the problem. It’s just that people will stubbornly choose not to pursue this common-sense path.
@Alexey. What strikes as you unrealistic about this post? Homo sapiens preemptively adapts and mitigates collapse, or adapts “in situ” and fails to mitigate collapse.
Given the scope of change ahead, all cards are on the table. I’m reminded of the Michael Ruppert reply that best stuck with me from Chris Smith’s “Collapse”:
“Everything is on the table. God is on the table. Every religion in the world is on the table now. They’ll all be measured as standards by ‘This is reality, and this is what the religion says.’, and every religion in the world is going to be under a huge microscope. This is going to be the greatest age of evolution in human thinking that’s ever taken place.”
“””…I see the population explosion as a predictable reflection of surplus energy …”””
The developed countries (i.e. OECD) along with their rate of energy consumption have birth rates at 2.1 or below (replacement is 2.1). per World Bank data this is the case for all of them without exception. Most OECD countries have birthrates far below replacement – Japan, S. Korea, etc. Some of those nations are on track within several generations to disappear as we know them today. Japan in particular is predicted to lose 87 million people by 2060 (a third).
By contrast, in sub-saharan Africa where energy is mostly for subsistence, the birth rate is at ~5 so the population in that area of the world really *is* in danger of exploding.
One thing that needs much more attention is the overhaul of the monetary system. This is the driver of the freight train of growth. It is literally a ponzi scheme, conveying bond holders artificial signals of their true wealth holdings. To transition to a zero growth monetary system, the ponzi scheme must end, and as we all know, they collapse violently. This will destroy the vast majority of the world’s financial wealth. Hence, the can kicking we are seeing. But the longer the ponzi scheme lasts, the worse the collapse will inevitably be.
Consider this: we have 50 years of technological automation to make us more “productive” workers. But conversely, those who have jobs work more hours per week than in the last 50 years. Therefore, we should all be much wealthier than we were 50 years ago. But we’re not. Inflation adjusted wages are now the lowest in 50 years. Debt burdens are off the charts. But overall, energy costs are not very high historically so this disparity cannot be due to lack of resources.
What gives? Where has that wealth gone? The answer? It has been stolen from the middle class. This is what our monetary system is designed to do. This is why, more than any other reason, our economies must grow (the 3%-return-on-investment explanation is just the popularized false diversion from the real problem, since real inflation is artificially held higher than interest, and this could theoretically go on forever even in a finite world). The reason we need perpetual economic growth is to replenish the middle class’ wealth that is constantly stolen by the wealthy via our debt-based monetary system. Without growth, the middle class would end up poor.
I somewhat disagree that the masses are by nature crazy consumption machines — I think this behavior has been programmed into us to serve the monetary system. If presented with the real facts, most people would voluntarily give up this mad consumptive hamster wheel lifestyle. More than anything, we need to replace income tax with a wealth tax. If we do not get runaway wealth concentration under control we have no hope.
“I somewhat disagree that the masses are by nature crazy consumption machines …”
You’re probably right. In the 1930s, for example, there was serious talk about reducing the work week to 30 hours. Kellogg famously implemented 6-hour shifts in 1930, and several holdouts stayed on that system till the mid-1980s. Even though employees lost money by reducing their hours, they had more time to garden, play with their kids, etc. Reducing hours across the board also allowed the mills to employ more people overall.
I find it odd that we still haven’t had a grown-up, public discussion about why we really need a 40-hour work week, especially given our huge increases in productivity over the last few decades.
(Source: “The Gospel of Consumption.” See also: Kellogg’s Six-Hour Day.)
[shortened by moderatpr]
40-hour work week? Ha! Most people I know would love to only put in 40 hours a week. In reality, 40 has become the bare minimum, and only putting in 40 hours means you’re a slacker who’ll be first on the chopping block.
Now, add in another hour or two in commuting time — time that, as far as I’m concerned, should be as billable as anything else done solely for the employer’s benefit — and you’re looking at most people needing a 26-hour-day just to get eight hours of sleep after they’re done working, commuting, eating, and bathing.
I think many (if not most) people, if given the choice between working fewer hours and earning less money or keeping their current schedules and income would choose to work less. The problem is, that’s not the choice they get; the choice is between devoting your entire life to the company or poverty. And those with children to support really can’t choose the latter, even if they’d personally be happy with a sustenance-level existence.
Part of that means compromises; would you rather spend $50,000 for a “modest” $30,000 new car (after paying for interest on the loan and all the higher insurance and taxes and what-not) over the next several years, or would you rather limp along in your current clunker, put the money towards your mortgage, and bring down your mortgage balance by even more than that — and save many thousands in interest and be that much closer to having all the money you currently spend on housing being freed up to play with?
…but, sadly, for whatever reason, almost everybody picks short-term instant gratification over long-term luxury. If we could solve that problem, we’d also solve the energy (etc.) crisis. But, of course, we also wouldn’t be facing the crisis in the first place….
The monetary system really is pretty strange, and makes a growth economy inevitable.
The money “printed” by the Fed is just a small portion of the money in the economy. The Fed’s money goes to the banks, which use it as reserves and make loans. “Fractional” reserve means they can loan out about ten times as much money as they have in reserves.
This means that most of the money in the economy is there because somebody borrowed it. Assuming they’re paying interest, either the economy grows or a lot of people go bankrupt.
The reason we haven’t been experiencing inflation, despite a lot of government borrowing and quantitative easing (ie., Fed printing), is that a lot of loans are going into default or getting paid off, shrinking the money supply to such an extent that the Fed and government are having a hard time compensating.
First of all, I’d love it if any of the suggestions in this post could become reality. Even if we weren’t staring down the double barrel of fossil fuel storage and climate change, they would still be nice changes in our way of life! I don’t want to live in a society where the only concern is “make as much money as possible as fast as possible and damn the consequences.”
That being said- there’s NO chance of that happening anytime soon. Certainly not in the US anyway, and I think that both Europe and Asia are too busy worrying about their sputtering economies right now to think about anything else. Not to mention the billions still living in poverty who (quite rightly) just want more resources for themselves. A few hippies swearing-off fossil fuels will do nothing for the big picture of the planet.
Right now in the US, congress is debating a new transportation bill that would basically gut funding for public transit and double down on highways/flying as our only option. Any form of tax increase is basically dead-on-arrival, even when (like raising income taxes on the rich) the majority of the public supports it. Anything like a carbon-tax or a resource-extraction tax would have absolutely NO chance of getting past congress.
Frankly it’s hard for me to imagine ANY scenario where the human race would peaceably transition to an economy where we use less fossil fuel each year. Maybe if there’s a war with Iran that spikes up the price of oil, we might see some more awareness? But probably not.
I think the idea that our current way of life is somehow in accord with “human nature” is a load of rubbish. We live the way we do primarily because of social conditions – but those social conditions are highly resistant to change.
Likely it will take a catastrophic collapse of our institutions (prolonged liquid fuels crisis perhaps, or maybe things with Iran will get way out of hand and NATO will end up at war with China?) to shake people out of their complacency.
This has been the case in the past; both world wars led to significant shifts in the post-war social order. Also, the rise of the current neo-liberal orthodoxy came on the heels of energy crises in the 1970s.
I would love to be optimistic. I commend Tom for his excellent analysis and this excellent blog. Unfortunately, I believe that the chances of a smooth transition to the kind of civilization we must have are virtually non-existent. Given history, how can anyone be optimistic? If we do make the transition smoothly, it will be a historic first for mankind. Just look at the obvious trainwrecks we should have avoided: World War I (everyone thought it was inconceivable that such a globalized economy would fall into the depths of war just months before the fighting began), the Global Financial Crisis (which was obvious to anyone who studied history and could see that the build-up of debt was unsustainable), and the euro (all the smart people predicted it would collapse into chaos eventually, as it is doing now).
Perhaps if one nation could make the transition to a sustainable existence and thus serve as a role model for the world, people would see that the choices were rational and clear and follow their lead. But, what nation could that be?
“Perhaps if one nation could make the transition to a sustainable existence and thus serve as a role model for the world, people would see that the choices were rational and clear and follow their lead. But, what nation could that be?”
Reminds me of the old communist debates about whether socialism-in-one-nation or international revolution would work better.
There are some countries like in Scandinavia that might try to move in that direction. Norway already made the wise choice to invest its oil wealth for the long-term, knowing that it wouldn’t last forever. But I really doubt it would inspire other countries to do the same- more likely it would just drop the price of oil slightly and encourage us to burn more.
Excellent post! Of course, this is not an objective judgment, because I have long felt the same way, long prior to all the posts thus far. They seem like different versions of the old church camp kids’ song, «You Can’t Get to Heaven», with the whole gamut of fixes being shown incapable of maintaining the Business-As-Usual of the industrial age. Now, to shift the analogy: to be healthy, we gotta quit smoking, we gotta lose weight. Previous posts tell us there’s no such thing as a safe cigarette, there’s no such thing as weight loss without dieting and exercise. In our case, we have to live with less consumption of renewable resources and drastically less of nonrenewable resources.
I suggest that bemoaning the political difficulties in effecting the changes called for is quite inappropriate for Do•The•Math at this stage. More appropriate is identifying those potential actions which are practical and realistic in the math•and•physics sense and are consistent with our needs (bearing in mind that «needs» are not limited to food, water, clothing and shelter). And allow for failure in some approaches. And do not preclude black swans, whether favorable or not.
On the list of what a nice future could involve, Prof Murphy neglected serenading. My wife is Latin American, and I can proudly testify that I got unimaginable mileage out of the serenades I courted her with. (I am certain it works on ladies of other origins, too.)
Stay tuned; much of this is on the way—at least as it relates to my limited personal experience.
I agree that the future is lower-energy per capita, at least for a time. I doubt that the lower-energy society of the future much resembles the olde-timey past, though. You can’t make solar panels, power inverters, or microcontrollers at a craftsman scale. It’s hard to imagine small scale enterprises repairing them either, except for simpler mechanical defects or swapping out full parts.
Dense urban living is more natural resource efficient than suburban or rural living, so likewise I expect a smaller proportion of people to have front porches to sit on, yards to garden in, or convenient wild areas to fish or simply revel in. Nature is putting out a restraining order against the bulk of humanity: do not approach within 100 meters.
It has been interesting reading the comments to this post. A lot of folks seem to have very strong opinions about what “human nature” is all about. I personally think that it is a lot more pliable. What is lacking IMHO, though are evidence of a viable alternative, a theory of human nature that allows for change, and, something like a plausible plan for the transition.
If people weren’t in the grips of capitalism and/or Christianity—both of which believe in very limited human adaptability—they might be more willing to consider alternatives. I think that the game plan that suggests people of intelligence should start to early-adapt offers the example that people need to believe that another world is possible. I think a plausible game plan for transition is going to have to bypass both big government and big business, and instead adopt a “small is beautiful” and “bottom up” approach.
The current economy/society is far too big and committed to the status quo to adapt. Instead, I think it will be superseded by alternatives that evolve in the margins of the larger world. What will the future look like? Maybe elements will be imported from the 3rd world, perhaps the dominant business model will be open source collaboration, perhaps there will be a lot of monastic communities, I don’t know but I think that there will be a lot of very rapid and substantial change in what people understand as “human nature”.
“If people weren’t in the grips of capitalism and/or Christianity—both of which believe in very limited human adaptability—they might be more willing to consider alternatives.” – as far as Christianity and the other great religions are concerned they are all doing a great deal of work in the sustainability field – it is within the remit of all religions to look after Creation, and to use its resources responsibly.
I think the ideas you’ve outlined in this post are in line with the most appropriate responses to the predicament we face.
Like you, my familly and I have been working at simplifying our lives – using less energy, producing our own food, building community relationships, etc. Over the last several years each new step locks in like a ratchet so that the change has been gradual. Nevertheless, it is not an easy journey to make and it has been made more difficult given the generally unsupportive attitude of many people we know. A few people have even seemed to be downright offended, as though our lifestyle changes are somehow making commentary on their lifestyle.
In the end, it may simply come down to this:
Those that get it will make the “gamble”, proactively seeking ways to make themselves and their communities more resilient to an uncertain future, and may find themselves relatively happy and less worse off than they might have otherwise been. Those that don’t get it and can’t see the point of making the “gamble”, will cling to the old paradigms to the very end, and will likely find themselves worse off than they might have otherwise been.
It may already be past the ideal time to choose the path less traveled. Regardless, I think we’re all just taking our chances anyway since collectively humanity is almost certainly going to keep jamming the throttles to full power – or at least to whatever power can still be achieved out of the sputtering engine that is our global economy.
This idea that you can set up something that keeps chugging along while things go to hell in a hand basket around you strikes me as pure fantasy. Making yourself self sufficient doesn’t make you more resilient in the event of a collapse unless you’ve set yourself up on an island somewhere. Otherwise it paints a target on your back. If the energy crunch comes I believe we’re going to see a situation not unlike post-colonial Africa: with the collapse of existing order there’s going to be a lot of have nots looking to get what they can from the haves by any means necessary. Asks white farmers in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe how well being self sufficient while those around them had nothing worked out.
I’m not sure it’s possible to say anything about the future with absolute certainty.You could be right and I agree with you that the world will probably end up in chaos. But I think a person’s experiences will probably have to do with individual circumstances.
If your ship is sinking underneath you, you can stay at the bar if you want. Personally, I would look for a life jacket. Once you are in the water, your chances of rescue might be slim either way, but you never know if the life jacket will make the difference.
This post is disappointing because it fails to “Do The Math”. As soon as you look at the economics of the situation you see that any significant number of people voluntarily cutting back means the shortage in demand decreases energy prices, which in turn allows someone else to buy another SUV to drive solo down the highway with their foot to the floor. An equilibrium will be reached, and it’s not going to look much different from what we have now, except you can join some mutual back patting society about how you’ve cut your energy so you’re not part of the problem.
There’s two ways out of this, either we find the new energy source we need (fusion, however unlikely, seems the only realistic candidate) or we undergo a painful involuntary contraction in energy usage which is unlikely to be peaceful or pleasant. There’s no option C where we all sing Kumbaya around the camp fire we’re using for warmth to save on electricity usage.
Here’s some advice for anyone thinking of scaling down their lifestyle: Think about the last time an appeal for people to voluntarily make major changes against their perceived self interest worked. Never right? However that’s what this whole scheme relies on. Unless the majority of people do it you’re wasting your time. The logical reaction for most people to our current situation isn’t conservation, it’s hedonism. The energy we have is probably going away no matter what you do so you may as well enjoy it while you can. Heck, if you don’t someone else will, and I see no reason to walk to the lima bean cafe to subsidise someone else’s drive to the steakhouse.
If you really want to give people hope, the best to offer is this: assuming you’re an adult now you’ll be dead, or at the least have lived a pretty full life, before the worst of it hits.
Pretty grim. And quite possibly correct. The very fact that people make that calculation: “why should I sacrifice if I’m all alone; it’s a wast of time” will hold us against the fire, giving us no chance for a graceful exit.
I made a choice: be cynical or try to be a role model (even if just to myself). The optimist in me has to believe that there is some way out, so I grab for it.
The point some of us are trying to make is that there *are* ways out, which will actually work…but altruistic conservation isn’t one of them. You can’t focus on physics alone and ignore economics, if you want a solution that works in the real world.
Conservation does not actually work and will not help get us out of the problem. I’ll write that down.
I don’t think he said that. *Altruistic* conservation is what does not work. And by “work”, I mean (and I think you mean) reducing aggregate fossil energy consumption enough to avoid a scarcity-induced economic crunch when we run short.
There are personal reasons for conserving on your own, there may be financial reasons for conserving like this, and when the crunch comes, you’ll be well-practiced and better off than all your neighbors who are scrambling to change quickly. You may learn stuff that will be valuable to your neighbors when the crunch comes (e.g., “you do not want skinny tires on your bicycle, fat tires are better for practical uses”). But averting the crunch or noticeably delaying it, no. For that, you need taxes and regulations — jackbooted enemies of fun, confiscating our FreedomMobiles. It will be very popular, I am sure.
Depending what you mean by involuntary, there’s a third option: collective action, e.g. fossil carbon taxes. Collectively chosen and equally enforced; better than the involuntary forcing of prices going up naturally.
I came to the same conclusion – enjoy life! Those of us alive now in the developed world may well be the luckiest ever to live. I actually enjoy many aspects of a low energy-use lifestyle, such as the taste of changing local seasonal produce and the health benefits of getting about by bicycle. In classic Jevon’s paradox style, it also saves me so much money that I end up spending my holidays doing some of the things on Tom’s ‘unsustainable’ list. The money I saved will be worthless if the economy collapses, except perhaps as kindling. And even if we do not collapse, air travel can only become more expensive as the liquid fuel crunch draws closer. It’s hard not to feel that I should see what I can, given I was lucky enough to be born at this time.
Those of you who have children, do you curb these excesses, knowing they will inherit the results of your mistakes? From the older generation, I often hear that “it’s up to you young people to sort it out”. If I were reaching my thirties just as collapse kicked in, I wouldn’t feel just a prickle of annoyance at that statement. I’d be incandescent with rage at the selfishness of the generations before me.
Prior generations have always left behind unsolved problems as a challenge for the present, as will the current one. To see only inherited problems to the exclusion of prior accomplishments*, often made at great sacrifice, is to elevate common myopia to the pathological, rendering the those in the present incapable of dealing with their own problems.
-Modern technology – medicine, the internet, the scientific method itself.
-Pluralistic societies, democracy, the rule of law.
-Elimination of abject poverty.
I’m talking about a time when those accomplishments are being lost; plausible in a collapse scenario. (Or maybe you disagree about that plausibility?) There will be a generation who actually has to live through the consequences of our consumption, while still being able to remember/ see evidence of how good things once were. I’d hardly call their focus on the problems ‘myopic’. It’s the tragedy of losing so much, so unnecessarily, that will hurt the most.
The heart of reducing consumption is the collective action problem. Individual reductions in consumption are meaningless unless they force many other people to reduce consumption. Suppose we got 25% of humanity to cut their consumption by a factor of 100, but the rest of humanity still had an insatiable thirst for more stuff and energy. All those 25% would have accomplished would be to lower prices for the other 75% temporarily until they could find new inventive uses for energy. But suppose that instead 25% of people agreed to push for laws and leaders that would force *all* people to reduce consumption or increase taxes on fossil fuels or something to discourage their use. They could have a meaningful political effect and make commitments that only hurt them if they are successful, thus avoiding the game theoretic bind and actually having some impact.
but in a democracy, all votes are weighted equally, irrespective of the information one has to cast the vote. The 25 % enlightened ones should certainly do what you mentioned in terms of becoming politically active, but also at the same time be culturally active, by changing their ways and expressing their values with joy and conviction, they are showing the rest that an alternative is possible that is more satisfying than the rot of immoral behaviors most of the society is engaged in. By rejecting the prevalent values through the daily choices and lifestyle, one is casting a vote in the culture all the time, which is as important if not more than a political vote.
The problem is particularly intractable because it is truly international.
Past revolutions in energy usage, the industrial revolution, and the agricultural revolution before that, have succeeded not because they immediately improved quality of life. Indeed, I believe both made life worse in the short term.
They succeeded because they enabled the societies that adopted them to be more effective in war and colonization. The agricultural revolution because it enabled much greater population density, and the industrial revolution because it enabled the production of war materiel. If there is a lesson to be learned from the past 200 years of history it is that a failure to consume more than one’s fair share of fossil fuels is to lose — to be at best a backwater, and at worst an abject colony. This lesson will be very hard to unlearn.
There are 7 billion people, probably cresting at at least 9 billion on sheer demographic inertia. If we want to hope to avoid a massive die-off, solutions need to include being able to feed them all. Stuff like more vegetarian diets can help, but we’re probably still talking industrialized agriculture, fertilizer and irrigation and all.
Manhattanites allegedly use 1/3 the power of the average American. Obviously rebuilding the US a la Manhattan would be expensive up front and not what most people want, or think they want. But worth keeping in mind; urbanization is actually pretty green. OTOH, not conducive to growing food locally. Maybe vegetables.
Be careful with your numbers here. I am not 100% sure that the Manhattanites don’t outsource some of their energy consumption through their material consumption (for example, forming steel takes a lot of energy. When a batch of girders are imported for new construction, is Manhattan dinged for the energy required to make the girders, or does that accrue to the places that made them?)
Industrialized agriculture itself is not necessarily bad, and the scale means that improved practices are improved on a large scale, if we improve them (*). A big hunk of that agricultural is used to grow food for meat, and another hunk for fuel ethanol. Cut out that consumption, and you similarly cut the amount of agriculture.
(*) backyard gardeners, not necessarily any smarter or cleaner than big Ag. My neighbor downhill, preparing for an outdoor party, liberally spritzed her whole back yard with some sort of household bug spray “to keep the yellowjackets away” — 30 feet upwind of our beehive, 30 feed upwind of our berries and fruit trees. Sigh.
Here’s a fresh idea…
How about we spend more on our military than all other countries combined because we know subconsciously that someday we will need to vaporize 80% of those foreigners that threaten our non-negotiable life-style.
Naw… We’d never get everyone to agree to that insane level of military spending.
Let’s ask them to put on sweaters instead. Should be an easier sell.
Unfortunately, that is the scenario that I think will happen. We are the world’s #1 user of oil. We have started two wars in the last 10 years to secure oil supplies. We are about to start a third war with Iran.
If anybody think that there will be no military conflict with the world’s #2 and #3 oil consumer, they are in living in fantasy land.
You’re counting Afghanistan as an oil supply war? Or Iraq and Libya?
Odd how these wars don’t actually make the oil supply more secure, rather the opposite…
I chuckled when you dismissed expansion into space. But I continued on to the end anyway.
Certainly, Star-Trek-fueled fantasies have no place in a discussion of a sustainable future. But if you look at the problems facing a Mars colonist or an interstellar traveler going 0.1c, our problems are pretty trivial. With a shipping cost of at least $25,000 a pound and shipping times of 6 months, a Mars colonist will have to rely on local resources as much as possible. And those don’t include an oxygen atmosphere, fossil fuels, or a magnetosphere, and even the Sun is 56% dimmer. An interstellar traveler will have to take every single physical thing he needs with him, and even getting a question answered will take years.
The perspective of outer space will also give us a greater appreciation of the bounty we have inherited, which is far more than just some fossil fuels. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the modern environmental movement picked up steam after we started seeing pictures of the Earth as a little blue ball hanging in space.
You are correct that these are not our most pressing concerns. I agree with just about everything you say we need to do. But as we come off of Hubbert’s Peak and slide down Seneca’s Cliff, what will be in shortest supply will not be oil or food but hope. If we have no brighter future ahead, then what’s the point of all this struggling? Why not just enjoy ourselves now and let everything go to hell later? I suspect that attitude is already a major factor. We need something to realistically hope for, even if it is thousands of years in the future.
“… not oil or food, but hope. If we have no brighter future ahead, then what’s the point of all this struggling?”
Yes! Thank you, John. I surely could not have said it better.
Personally, I think our gracious host underestimates the draw of the High Frontier. There are plenty of space cadets who’d simply say “No rocket fuel? No problem. Orion Shall Rise.”
Will we ever be in a position to make that happen? I don’t know. I do know that we’re in bigger trouble than most think if we lose launch capability– I’ve read estimates that up-to a billion people would starve next year if it weren’t for weather satellites to help guide planting and harvests.
Lemmie say that again: One billion. Starving.
That’s worth a few kilos of uranium, in my book.
I unwittingly let the cat out of the bag here, and let some space posts slip through. But it’s starting a debate that we’ve already had, and that’s what I had hoped to avoid by saying “adios” in the post. So I’ll not retract those already posted, but will stop the space thread here.
If you’re going to talk about world problems, then yes, upgrading to Score Voting or Approval Voting would probably be far and away the biggest bang for your buck.
Denial will power the momentum of consumption until its too late. We are truely screwed
All current forms of government and politics rely on the premise that infinite growth is not only possible but is required. This is a fundamental flaw that exists in denial that we live in a world of finite resources. The masses cheer on the ever accelerating expansion and exponential growth of the global economy at the encouragement of the leaders of our world who are the designers of the biggest pyramid scheme in all of human history. Without continued consumption at an ever increasing rate the world economy will collapse as our foolish embrace of fiat currency crumbles under the increasing burden of supporting what is a world wide ponzi economy. The tipping point will be the resource crunches which are nearly upon us. So few of us are truly aware of the imminent crash, lulled into denial by our continued conspicuous consumption. We are destine to hit the wall at full speed.
My great unachievable bunnies and unicorns hope?
If only, at a stroke, the planet were depopulated of religious believers, those “left behind” would be a few thousand years to the better. Sure, there would be some collateral losses of some valuable individuals, but as a whole …
(And what happens to the true believers of The Church of Thorium?)
One method of getting us to this utopia that you envision is through taxation. There are political parties that proposed this and a lot of this is already in place in Europe where I live. By taxation I mean the following:
* Impose very high taxes on gasoline (60-70% taxes like in Europe so that we pay $10 a gallon now)
* Impose very high taxes in water usage especially in factory animal farms. This has the effect of raising the price of meat and FORCE people to consume less meat.
* Impose very high taxes on garbage. I live in Switzerland and people pay for special garbage bags. You can’t just dump your garbage in any old bag. And there’s a high price for dumping big items like furniture or mattress. Tax consumption and waste!
* Impose high value added tax so encourage savings rather than consumption. Again, done in Europe already.
* Impose high taxes on non- or hard to recyclable products. Batteries, plastic bottles, etc. The cost of buying the items include the cost of disposing/recyling them.
The money collected from all these taxes would be used to fund public transportation like trains, cleanup of toxic waste, planting trees, and subsidize small scale family farms, etc.
And the list goes on. Europe is leading the way in many of these areas. Unfortunately in the US it is political taboo to talk like this. Gasoline is near $4 a gallon and NOBODY wants to talk about raising gasoline tax. It’s political suicide.
I have said this in other forums. Democracy in the US is a detriment to water conservation, energy policy, and public transportation infrastructure.
Dear Tom, as an scientifically inclined person that is trying to anticipate the path our society will take I would like to recommend to you the scientific field of cultural anthropology and the studies of Marvin Harris.
(Start here: http://www.faculty.rsu.edu/users/f/felwell/www/Theorists/Harris/Index.htm ).
The studies of how societies have faced times of declinig ressources in the past is very enlightening and Marvin Harris scientific methodology, “Cultural Materialism”, is very approachable for natural scientists.
I at teast can get hope there, because anthropology does not seperate betweeen the evolution of society and human individual. The decline of ressources is an evolutionary pressure, that will cause humanity much pain, but the outcome will probably be a new society that has adpted to the end of growth by inventing a sustainable economy.
The situation right now can be compared with the prequel of the french revoultion, that brought us democracy and the enlightenment. I guess it was no fun being part of this age but the n as today outcome is something worth suffering for.
I feel a barn raising, a cool glass of homemade lemonade and a date with Kelly McGillis is on the cards 🙂
Your work here at Do the Math is of much greater importance to humanity than almost any grant-winning, Nobel-awarded work. THANK YOU!
My hope is that each of us will take inspiration from your extraordinary commitment to this project and turn that into our own commitments: (1) choosing less un-sustainable lifestyles; and (2) taking Do the Math to a broader audience.
Thank you for putting things this clearly. Most people seem firmly entrenched in their belief that “someone, somewhere, somehow is going to invent something so I don’t have to do anything.”
Sometimes I play little “mind games” such as: “How would what I’m seeing now – this web page, this office, these people. this town – look like if there was no advertising at all?”
I’d say we would be able to live just as happy, if not happier, than now, but at only a fraction of todays’ consumption, of todays’ energy use.
An excellent essay with which I concur on many levels. The idea of Transition Towns, Community orchards, Green dollars and other local currencies, growing our own vegetables, cycling or walking if possible, having local community shops, etc etc – are all growing movements and can go a long way to building good local community and a better way of life for all those so involved. But there is plenty of work to do on changing the hearts and minds of people not already converted, and trying to get them to understand their responsibilities beyond their own selfishness. Saying why should I do this when no one else is going to is simply no answer at all. As Gandhi said, YOU must be the change you want to see in the world. That is the greatest challenge. And the great religions can and do and must play a huge role here.
These issues are simply too great in scope to be attacked solely by a groundswell of grass-roots efforts. Many of these issues require massive infrastructure realignment, with equally massive costs, that will not be undertaken by the private sector even in an era of growth. In steady-state (optimistic) or even shrinking economic conditions, there is simply not chance that capital will be invested by the private sector at the scope required.
The kinds of changes in attitudes are, frankly, unlikely absent crisis. People like their private cars. They like their flat-screen TVs. They like their thousand-mile Caesar salad. I see little reason to believe that people, at least today’s American, will voluntarily give these things up.
The obstacles to many of the potentially do-it-yourself solutions (gardening instead of lawn, animal keeping, etc.) are denied as a matter of course in many communities. True, with an appropriate level of awareness, commitment and time, it might be possible to overturn restrictive zoning and health laws. Or not.
In the end, government action at the higher level is required. But the kinds of actions necessary will be a) expensive, b) intrusive (rights of society over personal), and c) generally unpopular (especially with business). Even without rejecting growth outright, prudent responses would likely reduce growth, possibly to the point of recession or even depression, for a long, long time (read, more or less forever). Under our current system of government, with our currently established laws, this is, frankly, impossible. You would probably need (at least) a couple of constitutional amendments (organizations are not people, and money is not speech both jump out) to deal with reasonable campaign finance reform. None of this is theoretically impossible. However, it is all incredibly difficult and time-consuming. Again, absent crisis.
Every time I think about this from some new or different angle, I end up at the same place. Human nature, in general, and modern societal norms are simply not supportive of self-limiting behavior on a large scale absent crisis. We, humans, will not stop doing what we are doing until we can no longer do it, and, even then, we will probably continue to try for a while longer. Only when crisis becomes undeniable, unavoidable, and unbearable are we likely to see truly widespread change in attitude. By then, of course, all the predicaments will be that much worse, and the range of possible responses will be greatly reduced.
I have young kids, and I can honestly say that I hope I am proven wrong, that I hope we (humans) are really worthy of our name. I just haven’t seen much in the way of proof over the last 4 decades or so.
Excellent post! The first one I guess without math 🙂 I will write a couple of dumb equations related to what I call ethical sustainability:
P*C <= K, P = population, C = per capita average consumption [ideal society to have peak and average very close], K = long term carrying capacity of the planet [varies somewhat].
Ethical sustainability is defined as leaving part of K for non-humans [as their own right, not to serve humans]. Let the remaining K be Khumans, ethic component is Ek = K – Khumans.
Prosperity is defined as the buffer R = Khumans – (P*(Cneeds + Cpleasure)), P is the non-zero population which results in Cpleasure over the Cneeds without degrading Khumans.
Growth = increase in (P*C), growth reduces R because K, Khumans is finite.
Growth often decreases K, reducing prosperity even more.
K varies due to planetary and natural cycles and a wise society keeps a good gap between Kmin and P*C and building reserves that are used only in emergencies when K goes down temporarily.
This is a great post. Several observations and questions. I lived off the grid for 30 years. At no time was I disconnected/unconnected to the fossil fuel system. From my wood cook stove made in 1935 to my chain saw to my two man saws.
Behind any of the “renewable/alternative” energy devices is a massive infrastructure of machines, processing plants, manufacturing plants, their structures, installation, and all the transportation involved. With minimal to no fossil fuels, I don’t see how solar and wind devices will be available. Yes, old style wind machines and water wheels coupled with muscle energy and some biomass as was used 300 years ago and still is used by billions of people today.
I made this observation to you before at my machines making machines and my energy in the real world essays. http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/12/machines-making-machines-making.html http://sunweber.blogspot.com/2011/01/energy-in-real-world.html
Oil and plastics can be synthesized fairly easily from carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Hydrogen is easy to produce from electrolysis (lots of electricity potentially available as Tom points out). Carbon monoxide, I’m not so sure about, I haven’t looked into it in enough detail but I imagine it will be possible to also produce using electricity somehow. In this case, we will be able to build machines using electricity — indefinitely. This isn’t pursued now because readily available fossil fuels as competition make it cost prohibitive.
I don’t see the problem being technical really. It is mostly social and economic. If and when society collapses in the absence of liquid fuels, will it really be stable enough to be able to develop these alternative technologies? This seems to be the conclusion that most everyone here is coming to — the problem is largely social.
Sigh. Another anti-growth doomsayer that didn’t read Julian Simon. Your suggestions are a recipe for disaster.
Reading and swallowing are wholly different things, as you will easily affirm. It is easy to see the other’s “solution” as a recipe for disaster—even from diametrically opposed perspectives.
Sigh. One more person who believes that neoclassical economics has unlocked the hidden secrets of our universe.
Julian Simon is not neoclassical economics!
“Neoclassical economics” is an umbrella term that captures many schools of economic thinking that share common assumptions.
I’m not an expert on the works of Julian Simon, but I know most his writing was on economic subjects – developing ideas that were especially appealing to neoliberal economists.
Well, no one else mentioned it, so I will. The best way you can make a difference here is voting with your wallet. And no, I don’t mean buy the products that you think will help, or avoid products you think are a problem. If you think fossil fuel prices will skyrocket, buy futures. If you think we need to make much bigger investments in alternatives, invest in them.
Someone’s bound to make some joke about economists, but this is how the game is played. We’re not going to solve this problem outside the current system (unless the system collapses – but don’t hold your breath for that one), but you *can* help push the system in the right direction – just hold your nose and use your personal filthy lucre against the fossil fuel paradigm. The nice thing is you’re likely to make lots more filthy lucre this way, which you can then use to push things in the right direction even more. Much more likely to cause change than personal measures (and yeah, I bike to work too, so it’s not like I’m avoiding those.)
I second this. If I had money, I would bet on the collapse of the system.
One problem though, everybody is doing this allready, even the staunchest neo liberals and neocons.
For whatever it is worth, I read a lot of excellent blogs but Do the Math is a cut above. The combination of intelligence, integrity, truth seeking, open mindedness, humor, clear writing, and a beautiful web presentation are second to none.
Please consider packaging your articles into a book. Each article would make a nice chapter. Hand picking and including a few of the best reader comments would add depth and color to the book.
Please also consider producing more video. Your “Growth Has an Expiration Date” is superb.
First of several ideas submitted to ASPO-USA’s proposed “Menu of Mitigation”
Peak 102 – Menu of Mitigation – Electrified Railroads
Another quick, effective and indeed essential mitigation strategy is to electrify
and expand the existing freight railroads – and shift much of the current truck traffic onto electrified rail.
[moderator shortened lengthy comment: read more at this site]
Best Hopes for Oil Free Transportation,
That sounds promising. Do you know the cost per mile of electrification, or of double-tracking in existing ROW? Does all right of way have room for double or triple tracking?
This series of articles is a tour de force of lucidity, and the suggestions in this article are just as good.
However, even the author doesn’t profess to believe that this is what will happen, again showing that his inner heuristic filters (that is, his gut) are just as honed as his reductionist analysis skills and his systems-thinking pragmatism. The odds are quite high that we won’t do this stuff… perhaps no coincidence that the graphic features a unicorn.
One wonders if there’s a useful “do the math” exercise on the very basis of decision-making in a democracy. If so, I think one might find that large non-sentient hive-minds such as political parties tend to reduce things to binary choices and then contend like monstrous battling amoebas. Moreover, any decisions which are at odds with basic human nature are squelched without being considered because there is no place for them in such systems during peacetime and plenty.
Of course, “human nature” does phase shifts just as locust behavior does, but in predictable ways: a society gets to a “war footing” when there is fear and hatred of some “others”. If a problem can’t be characterized as having a vaguely simian scary-face, we won’t contend with it.
Thus we are left with democracy in a nation of silly narratives, which simply won’t do anything until a crisis hits, and then will want to know who to kill. And will find them. Once on a wartime footing, things like enforced mutual austerity can be tolerated, but grudgingly and only in the context of making sure the “enemies” have it worse. In my many decades as an activist, I’ve seen most people pin their hopes on universal enlightenment; but starting from where we are right now, there simply isn’t time for universal enlightenment to occur. You seek enlightenment starting with the narratives you already have, and those aren’t going away.
There certainly are large degrees of freedom left in how the human story rolls out this century; bounded by physical constraints but wildly unpredictable in particulars. For the most part it won’t be an upbeat story by current standards. There are limits to how far we take our shared prognosticating, and with this article we may have found the author’s. The actual tools which will steer things will be those used by Hitler and Gandhi: a seizing of the tools of popular narrative so that individual selfish decisions may be made to serve grander goals, for better or worse. This will affront some – heck, it affronts me – but lucid readers will recognize it as probably true.
Such realistic hope as there may be for mitigating the toll on the earth and humanity may rest with which machiavellian agendas steer us. Let’s hope for lucid ones, because we won’t be voting on them…
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I really like the problem vs. predicament distinction – Kunstler has been trying to nail this technium-vs-energy distinction for years. Well done 🙂
I have one quibble with your recap – the sum of our individual adjustments will not amount for actual change in the absence of equality, or at least reasonable bounds on inequality. From the percent of a percent, to the 20%, to US vs. the rest of the developed world, vs. the globe, there is a staggering hierarchy of unequal need satisfaction and disproportionate wants. I know I said this before, but the key to any change – individually and collectively – is education and empowerment of the citizenry. A thousand citizens cannot save or sacrifice what one oligarch will waste.
There is a corollary to this. The disgruntled conservative – Kunstler – and his back to nature low-topia has us picking weeds and living “in tune” with nature. But life “in tune” with nature is not what we have now, and there are reasons for that. For one, it is not fun at all, and no amount of Norman Rockwell coloring will change that. That is why many families in developing nations leave the farms for the slums.
For another, it means the slow death of science, because science, like any other organized activity enabled by surplus energy, is not compatible with “back to the roots, back to six feet under”. That does not mean that we could not do much more with much less, that we could not distribute and use our resources better and yet still have what matters. But it does mean that a lot of the localitarian “adjustments” are based on redefining what matters in a way that takes us back into a past that never was, not forward or even sideways. Nothing we do will matter without consensus, and consensus requires an end to oligarchy and to ignorance.
Instead of millions of little gardens, maybe we should focus on taking back the commons, and bringing back an engaged and informed citizenry?
“But life “in tune” with nature is not … fun at all”
Speak for yourself. It’s a lot of fun if you don’t *have to* do it full time.
“That is why many families in developing nations leave the farms for the slums.”
No, they leave the farms because they can make more money in the cities.
“For another, it means the slow death of science,”
I could have sworn humanity was making scientific progress before the fossil fuel era. Newton, Galileo, Darwin – I guess they don’t count, huh? We might not be able to carry on with high-energy physics, but much of the rest of science will do just fine with less energy, as long as civilization doesn’t come crashing down.
You capture the shift in mindset that can only be spread as a religion. There really isn’t going back from the no-growth mindset. It is a spiritual conversion. It changes how you see the world and your place in it.
Your spiritual sponsorship of the “religion of stasis” implicitly sacrileges the key tenets of monotheism’s trinity: that man is elevated above other creatures and nature. We must hold back on double-ply TP, for the good of the forest.
Abhorring the over-consumption of society in many ways makes you a pariah, an outcast, a reject.
It takes a strong will to continue to believe that BAU is unsustainable and destined to a physically permanent adjustment. Even with mathematics on your side, it still takes faith to go against the majority. Hopefully, we are more than the 1%.
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I see some problems with this scenario. You don’t have to have a zombie apocalypse to have a situation where you aren’t going to be able to do much in an orderly fashion.
What happens if someone wants to kill you and take your stuff? Here is a snippet from an old war nerd article:
“A war like that is just a big pyramid scheme: you take a village and distribute the loot and the women to your men. Then you round up all the surviving men and boys from that village and offer them a simple choice: join us and be reimbursed with the loot and women from the next village we take, or die right now. It’s a very effective sales pitch. Repeat until the whole Steppe is yours.”
Just saying that all sorts of problems are going to rear their age old heads as the grip of central governments loosen. In my opinion anyway. I think your solution depends on either a better populace or better leadership than the US in particular has. This kind of behavior comes out of the woodwork when whatever authority exists loses control.
Your post depressed me this time. Not because I think you’re wrong, and not because I think your vision is that horrible. It actually sounds rather idyllic, if you could get people to go along.
It depresses me because I have sitting on my bookshelf publications from the 1970s making the same argument, with the same reasoning. How far along this road have we come since the 1970s?
We’ve known what’s needed for the past 40 years. We’ve done the exact opposite.
History does not inspire much confidence in your great hope, Dr. Murphy.
And the fact that people have been sounding the alarm since the 1970’s has fostered a “boy who cried wolf” ho-hum “yawn” response by the masses. How many times have we been told we’re all going to die?!?!? I encounter this reaction so frequently, and it’s universally from people who do not understand energy, those who have watched too much Star Trek and maintain blind “hope and faith” in the magic of technological innovation. “The doomsayer Malthusians failed to factor in that human ingenuity will always innovate”, they argue. But we’ve always innovated within a backdrop of ever-increasing energy supplies.
Never mind the fact that Hubbert’s predictions have pretty much all come true; that oil discovery rates have been half of what we’re extracting over the last few decades. These facts mean nothing to the hopium addicts. Never mind the fact that the relative normalcy we have enjoyed over the last 30 years is a result of a ponzi scheme monetary system predicated on continually dropping interest rates from 20% to 0%, and they can no longer go lower. The scheme is finished.
In this context, most of the world’s current problems, problems that always existed but used to be buried under perpetual economic growth, are surfacing and can be explained as really just symptoms of Peak Oil. This is what Peak Oil looks like! But few out there understand this, and certainly not anyone in the mainstream.
The problem is, those writers from the 1970s made fairly specific predictions which later turned out to be totally wrong. Starting with “The Population Bomb” and going through the absolute worst of the lot–“Limits to Growth”–there was a long series of predictions of fairly imminent collapse which didn’t materialize.
Nor was that the first example. Frederick Soddy (the original “energy descent theorist”) confidently predicted collapse of civilization in 1938, yet he is still cited approvingly and very frequently by the peak oil crowd.
Nor were the 1970s the last example. As everyone here knows, most peak oil theorists, including Campbell, dieoff.org, LATOC, Heinberg, Orlov, Simmons, and many, many others, predicted with confidence that civilization would face severe difficulties or would collapse circa 2005.
There has also been a steady drumbeat of apocalyptic predictions on energybulletin and elsewhere. Almost every month there have been articles about how Coal has peaked, how Energy has peaked, how Natural Gas has peaked, how Uranium has peaked, how _everything_ has peaked (!!), and how we have reached a permanent downslope.
Bear in mind that world economic growth has been extremely rapid over the last 10 years. Do not pay excessive attention to the American housing bubble or the Greek debt crisis; the world economy also includes Chinese, Indians, Bangladeshis, and many others, who constitute the bulk of the world’s population. Their industrial growth was extremely impressive and not at all what had been predicted by the energy descent crowd. If energy descent is a matter of physics and thermodynamics then it should affect their industry also.
In short, energy decline is the theory which is raised anew every few years and refuted anew by events.
I don’t think this criticism is vitiated by “going on the attack” and claiming that the critics are all just dummies. Even if they were, it’s ad hominem and beside the point.
The question is: why didn’t energy descent happen? Where did the theories go wrong?
These questions are never asked. There is no discussion about what is wrong with energy decline theory, or why its predictions failed. Instead there is an increasingly vehement denunciation of economics, which frankly strikes me as strange.
To defend the limits to growth work, they were very careful to avoid claims of predictions. Their models showed modes of behavior, almost all of which resulted in collapse later this century. Those have not been tested. An investigation a few years back showed the nominal LtG case still being the best fit to actual data. So the primary conclusions of LtG are not at all tested/refuted.
The minerals table was used as the punching bag, and taken very much out of context to do so. The smear campaign worked, and now many believe LtG has been discredited. I recommend Ugo Bardi’s description of how this demonization went down.
From the back cover of the Club or Rome best-seller, “Limits to Growth”, 1972:
“Will this be the world that your grandchildren will thank you for? A world where industrial production has sunk to zero. Where population has suffered a catastrophic decline. Where the air, sea and land are polluted beyond redemption. Where civilization is a distant memory. This is the world that the computer forecasts.”
Any date on that prediction? Any falsification in hand? All the same, the cover warning is pretty dire. I’ve read the whole book cover to cover and found the approach within to be very measured and the doomsaying kept to an absolute minimum. What’s that saying about judging books?
Tom S, we DID see “civilization face severe difficulties or collapse circa 2005.” It actually happened in 2008. Apparently the central banks were hours away from preventing a complete collapse of the derivatives ponzi scheme that is our monetary system, but they managed to print enough money and distribute it to the right insolvent banks in time.
The growth you speak of in Asia has come at the expense of reduced economic activity in the west. The world HAS hit Peak Oil, since global extraction rates haven’t increased in 7 years. China’s rise was a direct result of decline in the US.
And we definitely should pay attention to the American and European financial troubles because they are symptoms of a GLOBAL debt-based monetary system that is in deep trouble because the real world supporting it simply can no longer grow.
We are now at Peak Oil. Peak Natural Gas and Peak Coal probably won’t be too far behind (2020-2040) because they will be called upon to take up the slack when oil extraction rates start their decline.
I characterize the previous Peak Oil doomsayers as having the correct UNDERSTANDING, but not the right FACTS about world fossil fuel reserves. And because the world is being scoured very intensely right now (since we are running out of oil), we now have both good facts about fossil fuel reserves, as well as good understanding that a fossil fuel based society cannot continue much longer.
Your story seems unsupported Mark, with many alternative explanations.
Difficulty and collapse? Yes — one very similar to the one in 1929, back when everyone used a gold standard instead of so called “ponzi schemes”.
Growth in Asia at expense of West’s activity? Bit of a leap; Asia, as developing countries, has had more and easier ways to grow than fully developed countries. Aging, and a rise in inequality due to neoliberal policies, can also take blame, and neither has anything to do with peak oil.
Damien, banks were loaning money into existence back then too. The Great Depression happened for a few reasons but in large part because interest rates had been lowered to unsustainable levels previously, then the Fed increased them in 1929, precipitating the Great Depression. Now, consider that we have had 0% interest for a while, and it’s explicitly stated by Bernanke to continue indefinitely. Why? Because if they raised them even one percent, we’d have the mother of all Great Depressions. This is a popular graph of credit debt to GDP. Notice where 1929 sits… (I just googled the chart, I can’t vouch for the article).
In the absence of a Great Depression we’ll get the Great Hyperiflation via money printing.
Now notice how US oil imports have been increasing steadily since about the 1970’s, around the same time credit debt levels got out of control.
I recommend Chris Martenson’s Crash Course as an intro to how the monetary system works. The whole thing’s being held together with scotch tape, rubber bands and zero percent interest rates. It will end … catastrophically.
I think it was Niels Bohr who said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.”
It is not enough to point to the failed predictions of the “energy descent crowd” because there are at least as many examples of failed predictions from “cornucopian” sources. Daniel Yergin springs to mind.
The world is an extremely COMPLEX place and as it grows in complexity over time, it gets all the more difficult to say anything about the future with any degree of meaningful certainty one way or the other.
I think it is important to remember that M. King Hubbert was vindicated in his prediction for the peaking of US oil supply, even if the model he used is now probably to simplistic to apply to global fossil fuel production – the concept was bang on.
Here’s a link to an interesting recent debate between John Hofmeister and Tad Patzek. Notice Hofmeister makes no attempt to refute “peak oil”.
Personally, I think Marc_BC is right. Look at what is happening around you – this is what peak oil looks like.
I don’t want to be a rah-rah economic cheerleader, but it’s possible to have growth (greater value from a unit of work) without added resource consumption. Take the example of automobiles. Among other things, in the last few decades we have traded efficiency for power. But we have also done a number of other good things — cars don’t rust out like they used to. ABS braking and traction control are useful, but not big energy consumers. GPS helps people waste less time being lost. All those details are a form of economic growth.
Or, in bicycle land, we have better alloys than we used to, and we have better designs for various parts (threadless stems, indexed shifting, better braking materials, better tires with various combinations of lower rolling resistance or puncture resistance). That’s growth — the bikes work better, roll a little faster, spend less time being repaired, have fewer accidents, are more repairable when they do break.
In electronics, ignoring fast-iron computers, we have much more accessible microprocessors, brighter LEDs, better ICs, better software for designing circuits, and a much improved ability for hobbyists and designers to get prototypes built (i.e., smaller investments are required to try stuff, we can build profitably build stuff in smaller lots). That’s economic growth that enables other economic growth. There’s bound to be some sort of a limit, but we’re still some ways off from the limits of how intelligently we use the resources we’ve got.
That said, it sure would help to make some of the smart choices and investments that are staring us in the face right now. (“Upside potential”, a euphemism for “if we stopped screwing up, it would be better”).
It is well understood that economic growth can come in varieties that do not involve energy growth as well. Note that such things cannot continue indefinitely, or the logical conclusion is that energy (a limited, vitally important resource) becomes essentially free. Obviously this can’t happen. So even the type of growth you speak of has limits. See the second DtM post for details.
Bummer. On the bright side, this would mean an end to Baumol’s cost disease ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baumol's_cost_disease ). No more whinging about increasingly “unproductive” teachers.
I believe this is also Jacque Fresco’s great hope as well. However I have to challenge the idea that exponential growth is what has advanced technology and our species. I suggest that it was competition among us that advanced our society to what it is today. Since biology and ecology can be manipulated by us humans money has become the measuring stick for us all. Those who are more productive make more money. If all inventors were told that they will not get any money from their inventions how many would still innovate? After all, it’s survival of the fittest no? As admirable as these ideologies are, it goes against the laws of nature so I really don’t see humanity evolving into a species that are equally productive, intelligent and caring. Even in the most homogeneous of species on the planet there exists hierarchies.
“Since biology and ecology can be manipulated by us humans money has become the measuring stick for us all.”
I find it tremendously depressing that you might actually believe this.
“Those who are more productive make more money.”
Not really, no; the richest fraction of the population make vastly more money just on the back of their own existing wealth and connections. They can make more money by doing sod all than the most productive working-class citizen can ever achieve going full steam.
“If all inventors were told that they will not get any money from their inventions how many would still innovate?”
Plenty. Much business, social science and psychology research has demonstrated that money isn’t the prime motivator in driving people to achieve. Very successful professionals routinely admit that they wouldn’t work twice as hard for a new company if it offered them twice their current salary, nor would they only work half as hard if the only job they could get doing the thing they are interested in / good at paid half their current salary.
“After all, it’s survival of the fittest no?”
No, it clearly isn’t. I’m assuming you were being deliberately facetious in offering such a justification.
“As admirable as these ideologies are, it goes against the laws of nature[…]”
It’s amazing how much of modern human behaviour (both at an individual and a societal level) goes against these so-called “laws of nature”. Just because our evolution has promoted certain competitive traits doesn’t mean we haven’t also developed altruism and cooperative mental processes that can counter them, if we bother to make the effort to change our priorities as a race.
“[…]so I really don’t see humanity evolving into a species that are equally productive, intelligent and caring.”
Nor is this required for humanity to dig itself out of our current hole. What is required is that a sufficient fraction of the populace moves slightly in that direction in order for a sea change of opinion and values regarding consumption and distribution of resources to begin.
The people arguing against a reduction in consumption have to overcome two things.
First: ethics. Irrespective of what others may or may not do, individually we must do the right thing. I applaud Tom and especially his family for their example.
(Beside the ethical aspect, the argument that “anything I don’t use will be used by another” has completely ignored Tom’s main proposal: to greatly increase resource prices by means of extraction taxes. The price mechanism will ensure that foregone resources remain unused — except if the use is very, very valuable to the user.)
Now taking the larger view, anti-reductionists must disprove the Netherlands. The Dutch choose to worker few hours per year – 1379 in 2008, according to the OECD – in exchange for a smaller income: in effect, choosing quality of life over maximising consumption. And of course the Dutch are by no means alone: Germans work an average of around 1400 hours per year (compared to Greeks’ 2100 and Americans’ 1780). The French, 1550 hours. And so on.
Reduction is possible. It can be done, because it _is_being_done_ by people not very different from Americans, and their quality of life is arguably better than the American one.
I’m just not getting the pessimism here. The main reason existing alternatives are not practical is that fossil fuels are so cheap. But that obstacle (unfortunately) will fix itself. If the price of oil were to double in ten years, we would find that existing solar technology would become economically attractive. At that point, you wouldn’t need altruism. Good old fashioned greed would prompt production of solar capacity. No?
Love the unicorn and rainbow Tom 🙂
There is little point in arguing about which details in your “hope for the future” I actually find counterproductive, since we agree that it won’t happen anyway. We should still lead by example and spread the word, and I congratulate you for doing both, especially since you probably do more for our future by writing this blog than by putting solar cells on your roof, thus easily making up for a few airmiles each year.
Other than that I mostly agree with one earlier poster about voting with our wallets, not just in principle but even on his specific example. I didn’t realize before that investing in oil futures can be considered environmentalistic. For those more morally inclined there is always wind turbines and solar cells to pour money into.
I have one more rather hopeful observation about our future: As you yourself so eloquently point out, what we are facing is primarily not an energy shortage but an oil shortage. Thus, the “energy trap” technically does not apply, or at least not as brutally as outlined in your corresponding article. Oil will likely decline rather slowly, albeit at steeply rising prices, and other energy sources will continue to be available in greater quantities, with prices on renewables at least currently still falling. As a result I am reasonably optimistic that market dynamics together with policy making may still be fast enough to shift us away from oil, and hopefully renewables will be improved sufficiently in the process, so that building more coal plants will simply become uneconomical in about 10-20 years.
The catch with this scenario is that it doesn’t do much to stop CO2 emissions, since we’ll likely burn more coal before we burn less.
But honestly, I’d rather drown a few island nations and the Netherlands than defend the solar panels on my roof with a shotgun against the Mad Max style apocalyptic hordes. Come to think of it, I’m surprised nobody mentioned “Mad Max” yet…
It is true that the Energy Trap post neglects the fact that other forms of energy will not be in decline at the same time. But I don’t think this erases the effect. In an oil shortage, when prices double, triple, and possibly worse, all activities are impacted. Less natural gas is produced; less coal is produced. Simply because the petroleum resources used in the extraction process is expensive and limited. Their prices also go up. If these obstacles are overcome and production of the coal, gas, etc. does increase, we’ll see limited production rates rear up there as well, raising their prices. If one energy form were directly substitutable for the other, I would say the Energy Trap is no concern. But that’s an economist’s world—not the real one.
“In an oil shortage, when prices double, triple, and possibly worse, all activities are impacted. Less natural gas is produced; less coal is produced. Simply because the petroleum resources used in the extraction process is expensive and limited.”
This seems a bit too strong. Between 1972 and 1981 the constant dollar price of oil in the USA rose more than 5-fold before descending again. In the same time period American coal production increased by nearly 50%. I don’t know if it was true in the 1970s, but today much (most?) energy-intensive mining machinery is electrically driven; maybe that’s why mining activities can grow even as oil prices shoot up.
At the same time, I freely admit that the historical increase in coal wasn’t enough to make up for the oil crunch. US primary energy use per capita peaked in 1979 and was about 15% lower 30 years later (EIA Annual Energy Review 2009). Even without an all-encompassing Energy Trap the challenge is quite serious.
Between 1972 and 1981, the shortages were temporary. Post Peak, the cost of extracting oil goes up, while at the same time the quality goes down. Exactly why do you think oil companies are closing refineries? AND not building new ones? (THREE oil refineries, out of seven nationally, are earmarked to be permanently shut down in Australia!)
BP, which has already written off at least £23 billion to meet claims (~$40 billion) after spilling some 4 million barrels has now had to pay some $10,000 per barrel for the pleasure of drilling in an unviable environment. Unable to sell its oil to cover the true cost of drilling, it cut corners leading to the disaster.
This begs the question, just how dear can oil really get?
I’m not saying that the problem is of no concern or not serious. I wouldn’t be hanging out here in that case. But I am hopeful that the other energy sources can sufficiently cushion the blow so that our established steering mechanisms – market economy and popular democracy – have enough time to react. Both are bad at anticipating problems and preparing in advance, but actually work reasonably well when faced with a specific crisis.
The Mad Max scenario was based on an unrealistic model of oil extraction, that imagined oil supplies as like a glass of milk shake with an exponentially-increasing number of straws in it. At one point, quite suddenly, every straw would begin to suck air, because the last drop of milk shake had been drunk up.
Luckily, it doesn’t happen like that. Oil reserves, like land productivity in Ricardo’s theory of rent, are arranged in order from easy to hard, and exploited in that order. Instead of running dry one catastrophic day, oil just gets produced in smaller and smaller quantities, declining with exponentially-decreasing speed, into an indefinitely-postponed future. So there will never be no fossil oil being pumped, unless something cheaper comes along which is a perfect replacement for it.
I would like to again suggest avoiding discussion of socio-political considerations for the moment, focusing instead on concepts involving physical constraints and human needs, in tune with the do-the-math approach that has worked so magnificantly thus far in this blog. Once there are some workable match-ups of physical constraints with human needs identified, argued about, real-and-imaginary considerations identified, we should consider implementations, real-and-imaginary socio-political factors, etc.
For instance, I have been favoring the «Carbon•Tax» approach for decades. But I do not think that this is the time or the blogosphere corner tavern for discussing it at this stage. Nor is it yet appropriate to discuss Scriptural insights of any religious tradition. I find Matthew 7:13 (“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction…”) an appropriate warning, but now is not the place to look into such.
The problems we are facing are socio-political foremost as they are the consequence of our economis system alone.
As long as the growth ideology rules our policy, its defendants (the ruling elites) will attack any form of coordinated action to prevent the energy crisis.
In full gear we have sped towards the edge of the cliff and toppled over it allready. To soften the landing we need a new found solidarity, worldwide. The solidaric movements like occupy wall street are indeed the ones that offer any kind of hope.
Looking for answers in economic market principles will fail utterly, as the ressource crisis itself is allready the essential failure of the markets, economy has no answer for us whatsoever (economist world wide even fail to see the problem).
Kenneth Bouldings famous words are more true than 30 years ago when first uttered: “Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.”
People will have to finally see that fixing the system will not work. Fixing russian communism would have been as hopless as fixing nazi fashism and fixing this capitalims is not going to work either.
I totally agree. We need to stop denying we have an energy and resources predicament, and THEN we need to stop denying we cannot ever repay all those trillions of dollars of debts…. it is mathematically impossible.
Once we agree we can’t repay the debts, they can be cancelled, allowing us to abandon growth (which is only needed to fuel more money creation to repay all the debts + interest).
Once we have abandoned growth, we can then focus on designing ourselves a truly sustainable future…. but abandoning affluence is the prime mover in all of this.
First off this is my first comment and what can I say about the blog other than superb. In regards to Chris’ answer, I too believe that fossil fuels are quite cheap and therefore solar energy is not seen a viable alternative however in the form of domestic solar use there’s no reason not to adopt. But I understand the UK is currently having problems regarding solar as the popular “fit” scheme was recently reduced. We need a reason to switch to renewable energy regardless of the financial benefits – in today’s society I understand that finances is always top priority and so the solar switch seems so far away but I think some form of renewable energy needs to be adopted on a wide scale.
Cost is NOT the issue…… solar will soon be cheaper than coal; however, the energy required, UP FRONT, to build the new Utopian Solar Civilisation is the problem. I suggest you read the energy trap.
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It seems, that the basis of the discussion can be reduced to one major postulate – human population is in overshoot (or overshoots in very near future) current planetary carrying capacity and faces decline in numbers.
From that base the question is rising – is there anything to be done to avoid cultural collapse caused by uncontrolled decline of population; might reducing resource consumption per individual avoid catastrophic collapse of current cultural and socioeconomic system and is there possibility of equilibrium point for population and resources available.
Might it be, that this way of erecting the problem is fundamentally flawed – that is, current individual human abilities (mental and/or physical) are already a growth limit in itself, making braking attempts to resource consumption irrelevant, even harmful. The explanation might be that the evolutionary adjustments do not work at individual level.
In this situation the actual best tactics may be the current one – to raise population numbers to widen the basis of technological advancements as much it is possible before approaching one of known or unknown limits. Given seriously complicated problems we do not have currently any other methods than iteratively approaching the solution. It also might be that conflicts among individuals rising from resource shortage are the only mechanisms triggering cultural changes significant enough to make any difference in longer perspective. The race might be not only against resource availability, but against time – “age/fitness” of population given changing environment.[…]
“to raise population numbers to widen the basis of technological advancements”
Even if one believes in this sort of Julian Simon panglossism, I’d think it makes more sense to educate and provide capital to the humans we already have rather than make new ones. We’ve got 7 billion humans and only a billion living in “first world” conditions, and the US has political trouble getting basic education/nutrition/health care to even its children. If you want more human potential, well, there’s a lot being wasted right now.
A-men. We are either strip-mining conveniently located “human resources”, or are ever more wasteful with “surplus people” than we are with fossil fuel and materials. And our priorities as expressed in the structure of our societies – see e.g. IP laws, Taylorism, health care tied to employment etc. – are to ensure that initiative outside the system is not possible on ingenuity and hard work alone.
Oligarchy requires this type of waste. Simon et.al. support population growth to ensure that surplus required to maintain every increasing inequality.
I would add that one expectation that needs to be overcome in the United States is the want of many people to have several domesticated dogs and cats.
A lot of our society’s meat and grain production goes into feeding tens of millions of dogs and cats.
I would like to know what “a lot” is.
Dogs aren’t obligate carnivores, and many are small, and all housecats are small, average 10 pounds, and eating 6 ounces a day it seems. Or 300 calories. That might be as much or more meat than their human, OTOH they don’t have to get the good cuts of the animal.
According to the 2007-2008 Pet Owners survey for the United States.
Cats = ~93.6 million
Dog = ~77.5 million
Total = ~171.1 million pet dogs and cats
Using your example of six ounces of food per animal per day give 1,026.6 million ounces of pet food per day.
This is 64,162,500 pounds or 32,081 tons (US) per day.
This is about 11,710,000 tons (US) per year of meats, grains, vegtables and clean fresh water processed as pet food for dogs and cats based on six ounces per animal per day.
I can only assume that the energy use for the growing, harvesting, transporting, processing, and shipping the final product for that amount of pet food is huge.
The only reason I bring up the issue of pets and their consumption of food stuffs and the energy costs is that the author stated the following;
“…we would be wise to take deliberate steps to arrest population growth—for instance by consciously deciding not to have kids,…”
It’s huge but so are our economy and resources; you have to compare it to what we’re already doing.
308 million Americans. If they eat a kilogram a day, that comes out to 110 million tons a year. 10 times your figure.
Many dogs will probably eat more — though not entirely meat — and I don’t know if 1 kg/person is high, so the numbers might end up more comparable. I guess I’ll have to remain open-minded.
Please keep in mind that my calculations assumed your six ounces of food per day per animal.
It is just as easy to assume that my numbers could have been doubled or tripled by just assuming 12 or 16 ounces of food per animal per day.
My point is, a couple hundred million household pets consume a great deal of our society’s resources.
If the human race is expected to shrink to “save the planet” maybe we should shrink (over time) our pet population as well.
There’s an order-of-magnitude difference between the lifetime resource consumption of a human child with a dog or cat, though. Probably more than one order of magnitude.
Even if every person who choses to remain child-free gets a dog or cat (and many don’t) it’s still a net gain for the environment and society.
When you consider that the love and companionship of a pet can serve as an outlet for nurturing instincts which might otherwise result in human offspring, I figure we should actually be encouraging pets.
Yes, and if we squeeze up and accept poverty in order to achieve more people, what do the next generation do to achieve the same? If they accept even more poverty, where does it end? At Malthus’s “maximum immiseration”, where a worker’s wages pay for exactly enough food to keep the worker alive, and not enough to have one more child? Then the end of having any more children has been arrived at anyway. If instead we accept the ultimate math (the ultimate physics), and arrange in advance not to have more children, before the Grim Reaper calls a halt to our birthing whether we want it or not, then the need to become poorer goes away, and we can all keep our dogs and fly our planes.
Not that I would advise any friend of mine not to have children; it can’t work voluntarily, as long as someone else can take the defector’s option in Prisoner’s Dilemma, and nullify the sacrifice.
Pets, plane journeys and other personal comforts aren’t luxuries we should be giving up for the sake of the future. They’re the luxurious future we should be aiming for.
Does this compare to just the amount of energy wasted on street lights?
Or residential lighting?
All of these (and a thousand more, i.e, wasteful government) will have to be drastically reduced.
The only pets worth having are those that produce for you! Chickens, Ducks, and Goats are my preferences… If you can’t grow the food your pet needs, you’re out of the ballpark.
I was interested in the EROEI for batteries, specifically, the lead acid and the LiFePO4. The lead acid can be used with solar (and efficient high power leds) to light up the houses and power laptops. I believe solar lighting uses TEN times less fossil fuels after considering EROEI.
This is doable before the crash because it is FAR cheaper.
Refrigerators may have to be replaced by canning and smoked salmon.
The LiFePO4 is good enough for electric cars since they last much longer and are lighter. When the oil dries up, people won’t mind driving smaller electric cars. Hopefully, electrified factories will have already started producing them… I guess that’s a big “if”.
If we can’t do (advanced) nuclear, then we must exponentiate solar (I have to have some hope!). This means putting aside about 20 or 30% of the electricity it generates… into making itself. I believe we should focus on building a solar collection scheme that uses concentrating optics, for two reasons. Reduction of GaAs (or whatever the highest efficient) material and thus reduction of time to EROEI.
In this way, we would only have to wait six months or so until it generated the energy to “build itself”, instead of 3 years (and would emit less infrared).
I am pessimistic, though. This requires coordinated planning which would most probably get kicked aside by the “99%” that are oblivious to energy concerns… Ok, maybe 89% (but I know most people don’t care).
“”” This means putting aside about 20 or 30% of the electricity it generates… into making itself.”””
That’s 16% at most for solar PV per Murphy and Hall, and falling.
Yep, (but I thought it takes only 10%, as in 3 years to 30 years).
I figure at 30%, it would exponentiate, not just replace what little we produce now.
The future could absolutely be rosy. It’s all about attitude. I discovered all the stuff Tom writes about twenty years ago, and Peak Oil twelve years ago. I am well past the denial/grieving/anger stage….. I’m actually looking forward to the crash now!!
As a society, we are hooked on the fossil fuel drug, and to get off, you first have to acknowledge that you are additced. THEN you can commence the therapy.
We actively and totally redesigned our lives around sustainability. There is a wealth of information about what we did on my blog http://www.damnthematrix.wordpress.com and you are welcome to using anything I’ve posted there, the pleasure is mine……
Setting up isn’t easy, but believe me, it is highly rewarding. It’s so rewarding, I’m planning to do it all over again in a cooler climate, this European was never meant to live in the sub tropics! Anybody want to move to Australia?
Don’t get angry and depressed about the fact the end of the world as we know it is nigh, do something about it….. downsize (financially at least), move out of the big smoke if that’s where you live, and find a rural community you can join. The earlier you start (yesterday!) the less hard it will be….. Plan your work and work your plan.
I can’t recommend it enough, and good luck.
Fantastic job, Mr. Murphy.
One thing though — kayaking, cross-country skiing and mountain biking, while relatively low on physical impact, are all heavily fossil-fuel dependent activities. (I don’t see too many people carrying their kayaks on their backs to the river, for instance.) These are already activities largely reserved for the well-to-do, and in the Peak Oil era they promise to become much more expensive. I say this with a heavy heart, as an obsessive mountain biker.
Valid and important point, Mr. Hurst! I feel it is important to weigh the consideration you bring up, and to even «do-the-math» on it (albeit not quite yet).
But I suspect it is not as dire as you mention. Think of skiing. Traditional skiing, in its original Karelian form, was pretty much what we call «cross-country» rather than downhill (or alpine). In its modern form, alpine skiing is dependent on non-muscle energy to get to the top of the slope. When I was a kid in rural northern Michigan, we sidestepped or herringboned our way up the hills (not mountains!), which took a seeming forever, and then were down the hill in a whoosh and a soon-gone thrill. But when we went skiing with our parents, it was strictly nordic. But Mom made sure our picnic lunches were an utter delight! (By the way, electricity could power a rope-tow, and there are other modes of transport to the slope than cars.)
I am sure kayaking has (or will have) its downhill-vs-nordic styles and tradeoffs.
Note that we could not have skied in either/any style had we grown up in Alabama rather than Michigan; we would have pursued other pursuits. Kids are inventive and adaptable. (As are their parents.)
My parents loved sailing. Noncomprehending friends asked them why they didn’t go motorboating instead, as that would be faster. My Dad would say, “Once we are under sail, we are already there!” Beauty is not in the gastank, adventure is not in the brochure.
Get a long-tail bicycle or a trailer, and you can carry that kayak in a low-energy fashion. For example:
(How to consolidate bikes at the pull-out? Big bikes can tow little bikes: http://www.flickr.com/photos/adriennejohnson/4084020395/ . Or, if you are traveling, load the bike onto the kayak: http://www.ridingthespine.com/gallery/kuna/kunagal.html )
Or, as happens to be the case in some established kayaking areas, rent the kayak when you get there.
And mountain biking. Is it not possible to ride the bike to the mountain? http://www.ridingthespine.com/gallery/tajumulcoogal.html
In a pinch, do the travel on slicks, swap out for knobbies when you get there.
This is a mostly-solved problem. This might not be your first choice, and there are bound to be other ways to do this, but people are using bicycles right now, and they’re extremely efficient.
And sailing (D. F. Collins suggestion), definitely. Not the fastest, but it goes, and you don’t need to stop for gas. Helps to have multiple pilots, or an autopilot, if you want to make best time (yes, I have traveled on a sailboat, 70 miles up the coast of Florida. When my dad was a kid, people sailed all over the place in the Gulf.)
What about cities? The picture painted by “expect more” seems rather suburban and/or rural. But I’ve read that on a per-capita basis, city dwellers use less energy.
Since a lot of commenters have said a lot of things like “it goes against human nature”, I’ll quote Social and cultural anthropology: a very short introduction:
“When someone begins a peroration with the phrase ‘but of course, it’s human nature to….’, start looking for the exit! Because what you are about to hear will most likely reflect the speaker’s most deeply held prejudices rather than the product of a genuine cross-cultural understanding. Every time anthropologists have attempted to generate universal rules governing human behaviour, the rules have either been proven empirically wrong or so trivial as to be uninteresting.”
A very valuable warning to us all! Thank you for contributing this. Indeed conditions may change drastically and we may see unfamiliar modes of human behavior crop up in very short order. Maybe it will even be in the direction of cooperation and reduced physical impact!
Another interesting post, thanks Tom.
I don’t know if you keep up with the TED conference talks, but this one came up last week: http://www.ted.com/talks/paul_gilding_the_earth_is_full.html The talk has to right sentiment, but I think you could have presented it in a much more persuasive and interesting way.
“A finite world with finite resources will not continue to support growth. Fossil fuels enabled a growth explosion, but those days are closing out. Even futuristic energy sources cook us in mere centuries on a continued growth trajectory.”
I really dislike this argument you’ve made. It falls under the true but obvious and uninteresting category, a sort of energy version of the Laffer curve argument. You might as well argue that Moore’s Law cannot hold forever because of E=mc^2. Of course no exponential’s going to rise forever, but that tells us nothing interesting about how long we allow it to rise; you say the world in steady state should adapt to a fifth of US power consumption today. But of course there’s no reason from earth-becoming-boiling-hot why the steady has to be at today’s consumption, rather than 1990’s in one direction or that of 2030 in the other. And speaking as an Indian (and you’d better believe we hope to be growing at a lot more than 2.3% for the medium term) those scenarios differ wildly in terms of their goodness.
Sorry for de-lurking for the first time with this critical remark; I enjoy your calculations and thoughtful posts immensely.