Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Cussedness of Whole Systems

There’s an interesting divergence between the extreme complexity of the predicament that besets contemporary industrial civilization, on the one hand, and the remarkable simplicity of the failures of reasoning that have sent us hurtling face first into that predicament, on the other. Nearly all of those failures share a common root, which is the inability—or at least the unwillingness—of most people in the modern world to pay attention to the natural cussedness of whole systems.

The example I have in mind just at the moment runs all through one of the most lively nondebates in today’s media, which is about peak oil.  I call it a nondebate because those who are trying to debate the issue—that is to say, those people who have noticed the absurdity of trying to extract infinite amounts of petroleum from a finite planet—are by and large shut out of the discussion.  Those who hold the other view, for their part, aren’t debating.  With embarrassingly few exceptions, instead, they’re merely insisting at the top of their lungs that peak oil has been disproved by some glossy combination of short term factors, speculative bubbles, and overblown hype about the future, and can we please just get back to our lifestyles of mindless consumption and waste?

Behind the cornucopian handwaving, though, is a real debate, one that those of us who are aware of peak oil need to address. The issue at the heart of the debate is the shape of the curve that will define future petroleum production worldwide, and the reason that it needs to be addressed is that so far, at least, that curve is not doing what most peak oil theories say it should do.

The original version of the peak oil curve, of course, is the one sketched out by M. King Hubbert in his famous 1956 paper. Here it is:
That’s the model that underlies most of today’s peak oil analyses.  It’s a good first approximation of the way that oil production normally rises and falls over time on any scale—a well, a field, an oil province, a country—provided that external factors don’t interfere.  The problem here, of course, is that oil production doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and so external factors always interfere.  It helps to rephrase that last point in systems terms: the production of oil takes place within a whole system and is always influenced by the state of the system. That’s why at best, the history of oil production from any given well, field, oil province, or country only roughly approximates the ideal shape of the Hubbert curve, and many real-world examples stray all over the map in their wanderings from the zero point at the beginning to the one at the end.

It’s the failure to appreciate this point that has left a good many peak oil analysts flailing when global petroleum production failed to decline according to some predicted schedule. Anyone who’s been following the peak oil blogosphere for more than a few years has gotten used to the annual predictions—they tend to pop up like mushrooms every December—that the year about to begin would finally see rates of petroleum production begin dropping like the proverbial rock. Tolerably often, in fact, the same predictions get recycled from one year to the next, with no more attention to the lessons of past failure than you’ll find in one of Harold Camping’s Rapture prophecies.  Even among those who don’t go that far out on a limb, the notion that global production of petroleum ought to start dropping steeply sometime soon is all but hardwired into the peak oil scene.

The peak of global conventional petroleum production arrived, as I hope most of my readers are aware by now, in 2005. The seven years since then have given us a first glimpse at the far end of Hubbert’s curve, and so far, it’s not following the model. Conventional petroleum production has declined, and the price of oil has wobbled unsteadily up to levels that mainstream analysts considered impossible a decade ago; that much of the peak oil prophecy has been confirmed by events.  Overall production of liquid fuels, though, has remained steady and even risen slightly, as high prices have made it profitable for unconventional petroleum and a range of petroleum substitutes—tar sand extractives, natural gas liquids, biodiesel, ethanol, and the like—to be poured into the world’s fuel tanks.

It’s only fair to note that this was among the predictions made by critics of peak oil theory back when that was still a subject of debate. The standard argument economists used to dismiss the threat of peak oil was precisely that rising prices would make other energy sources economical, following the normal workings of supply and demand.  For all its flaws—and I plan on dissecting a few of those shortly—that prediction was rooted in the behavior of whole systems. 

The law of supply and demand, in fact, is one manifestation of a basic principle of systems theory, a principle pervasive and inescapable enough that it’s not unreasonable to call it a law.  The law of equilibrium, as we might as well call it, states that any attempt to change the state of a whole system will set in motion coutervailing processes that tend to restore the system to its original state.  Those processes will not necessarily succeed; they may fail, and they may also trigger changes of their own that push the system in unpredictable directions; still, such processes always emerge, and if you ignore them, it’s a fairly safe bet that they’re going to blindside you.

The law of equilibrium is what’s behind so many of the failures of technological progress in recent years.  Decide that you can just go ahead and annihilate pathogenic microbes en masse with antibiotics, for example, and the countervailing processes of the planet’s microbial ecology are going to shift into high gear, churning out genes for antibiotic resistance that spread from one bacterial species to another and render antibiotics less effective with every year that passes.  The same is true of genetically engineered plants—one of the ugly little secrets of the GMO industry is that one insect species after another is doing exactly what Darwinian theory says it should, evolving right around the biotoxins released by Monsanto’s supposedly pestproof Frankencrops, and chowing down on the otherwise unprotected buffet spread for them by unsuspecting farmers—and of any number of equally clueless tinkerings with natural processes that are blowing up in humanity’s collective face just now.

The global industrial economy is also a whole system, and though it’s countless orders of magnitude less complex and sophisticated than the biosphere, it still responds to changing conditions with its own countervailing processes.  That’s what’s been happening with global liquid fuels production.  As the rate of conventional petroleum production peaked and began its decline, the countervailing processes took the form of rising prices, which made more expensive sources of liquid fuels profitable, and kept total production of liquid fuels not far from where it was when conventional oil peaked in 2005. The wild swings in price since then have provided the thermostat for this homeostatic process, balancing the ragged decline of conventional petroleum and the equally ragged expansion of substitute fuels by influencing the profitability of any given fuel over time. In its own way, it’s an elegant mechanism, however much turmoil and suffering it happens to generate in the real world.

Does this mean that peak oil is no longer an issue?  Not by a long shot, because the economic shifts necessary to bring substitute fuels into the fuel supply don’t exist in a vacuum, either. They also put pressure on the global industrial economy, and generate countervailing processes of their own. That’s the detail that both sides of the peak oil nondebate have by and large been missing, even as those countervailing processes have been whipsawing the global economy and driving changes that seemed implausible even to most peak oil analysts just a short time ago.

The point that has to be grasped in order to understand these broader effects is that the higher price of substitute fuels isn’t arbitrary.  Tar sand extractives, for example, cost more to produce than light sweet crude because pressure-washing tar out of tar sands and converting it to a rough equivalent of crude oil takes much more in the way of energy, resources, and labor than it takes to drill for the same amount of conventional oil. Each year, therefore, as more of the liquid fuels supply is made up by tar sand extractives and other substitute fuels, larger fractions of the annual supply of energy, raw materials, and labor have to be devoted to the process of bringing liquid fuels to market, leaving a smaller portion of each of these things to be divided up among all other economic sectors. 

Some of the effects of this process are obvious enough—for example, the spikes in food prices we’ve been having since 2005, as the increasing use of ethanol and biodiesel as liquid fuels means that grains and vegetable oils are being diverted from the food supply for use as feedstocks for fuel.  Many others are less obvious—for example, as energy prices have risen and energy companies have become Wall Street favorites, many billions of dollars that might otherwise have become capital for other industries have flowed into the energy sector instead.  Each of these effects, however, represents a drain on other sectors of the economy, and thus a force for change that sets countervailing processes into motion.

Those processes are a good deal more complex than the ones we’ve traced so far, since they involve competition for capital and other resources among different sectors of the economy, a struggle in which political and cultural factors play at least as large a role as economics.  Still, one result can be traced in the unexpected decline in petroleum consumption that has taken place in the United States since 2008, and that precisely parallels the similar decline that happened between 1975 and 1985 in response to a similar rise in oil prices.  To describe this process as demand destruction is an oversimplification; a dizzyingly complex array of factors, ranging from the TSA’s officially sanctioned habit of sexually molesting airline passengers, on the one hand, to shifts in teen fashion that are making driving uncool for the first time in a century on the other, have fed into the decline in oil consumption; still, the thing is happening, and it’s probably fair to say that the increasing impoverishment of most Americans is playing a very large role in it.

Thus the simple model of peak oil that dates from Hubbert’s time badly needs updating. Ironically, The Limits to Growth—the most accurate and thus, inevitably, the most maligned of the various guides to our unwelcome future offered up so far—provided the necessary insight decades ago. By the simple expedient of lumping resources, industrial production, and other primary factors into a single variable each, the Limits to Growth team avoided the fixation on detail that so often blinds people to systems behavior on the broad scale. Within the simplified model that resulted, it became obvious that limitless growth on a finite planet engenders countervailing processes that tend to restore the original state of the system. It became just as obvious that the most important of those processes was the simple fact that in any environment with finite resources and a finite capacity to absorb pollution, the costs of growth would eventually rise faster than the benefits, and force the global economy to its knees.

That’s what’s happening now.  What makes that hard to see at first glance is that the costs of growth are popping up in unexpected places; put too much stress on a chain and it’ll break, but the link that breaks isn’t necessarily the one closest to the source of stress.  The economies of the world’s industrial nations are utterly dependent on a steady supply of liquid fuels, and so a steady supply of liquid fuels they will have, even if every other sector of the economy has to be dumped into the hopper in order to keep the fuel flowing. As every other sector of the economy is dumped into that hopper, in turn, the demand for liquid fuels goes down, because when people who used to be employed by the rest of the economy can no longer afford to spend spring break in Mazatlan, or buy goods that have to be shipped halfway around the planet, or put gas in their cars, their share of petroleum consumption goes unclaimed.

This process is, among other things, one of the main forces behind the disappearance of "bankable projects" discussed in last week’s post.  The reallocation of ever larger fractions of capital, resources, and labor to the production of liquid fuels represents a subtle drain on most other fields of economic endeavor, driving costs up and profits down across the board. The one exception is the financial sector, since increasing the amount of paper value produced by purely financial transactions involves no additional capital, resources, and labor—a derivative worth ten million dollars costs no more to produce, in terms of real inputs, than one worth ten thousand, or for that matter ten cents. Thus financial transactions increasingly become the only reliable source of profit in an otherwise faltering economy, and the explosive expansion of abstract paper wealth masks the contraction of real wealth.

When systems theorists explain that the behavior of whole systems can be counterintuitive, this is the sort of thing they have in mind. It’s quite possible that as we move further past the peak of conventional petroleum production, the consumption of petroleum products will continue to decline, so that when the ability to produce substitute fuels declines as well—as of course it will—the impact of the latter decline will be hard to trace. Ever more elaborate towers of hallucinatory wealth, ably assisted by reams of doctored government statistics, will project the illusion of a thriving economy onto a society in freefall; the stock market will wobble around its current level for a long time to come, booming and crashing on occasion as bubbles come and go; meanwhile a growing fraction of the population will be forced to drop out of the official economy altogether, and be left to scrape together whatever sort of living they can in some updated equivalent of the Hoovervilles and tarpaper shacks of the 1930s.

No doubt the glossy magazines that make their money by marketing a rose-colored image of the future to today’s privileged classes will hail declines in petroleum demand as a sign that some golden age of green technology is at hand, and trot out a flurry of anecdotes to prove it; all they’ll have to do is ignore the hard figures showing that demand for renewable-energy systems is dropping too, as people who have no money find solar panels as unaffordable as barrels of oil. For that matter, the people who are insisting in today’s media that the United States will achieve energy independence by 2050 may just turn out to be right; it’s just that this will happen because the US will have devolved into a bankrupt Third World nation in which the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty and petroleum consumption has dropped to a sixth or less of its current level.

That’s not the future that comes out of a simplistic reading of Hubbert’s curve—though it’s only fair to mention that it’s the future that some of us who used to be on the fringes of the peak oil scene have been discussing all along. Still, it looks increasingly likely that this is the sort of future we’re going to get, and it’s certainly the one that current trends appear to be creating around us right now. No doubt cornucopians in 2050 will be insisting that everything is actually just fine, the drastic impoverishment of most of the American people is just the sort of healthy readjustment a capitalist economy needs from time to time, and we’ll be going back to the Moon any day now, just as soon as we finish reopening the Erie Canal to mule-drawn barge traffic so that grain can get from the Midwest to the slowly drowning cities of the east coast. With any luck, though, the peak oil blogosphere—it’ll have morphed into printed newsletters by then, granted—will have long since noticed that whole system processes do in fact shape the way that the twilight of the petroleum age is unfolding.  How that is likely to affect the twilight of American empire will be central to the posts of the next several months.

End of the World of the Week #28

It’s a repeated source of embarrassment for scientists of all kinds that the culture in which they live is so much less comfortable with hypothetical statements and tentative suggestions than the internal subculture of science tends to be.  Witness the embarrassment of the solar astronomers and atmospheric physicists who suggested, back in the late 1990s, that the upcoming solar cycle 23 might see some disruption of Earth-based electronics by the electromagnetic effects of solar flares.

It was a reasonable supposition, since strong solar flares have a solid track record of frying sensitive electronic systems and disabling satellites. Still, it didn’t take long before their tentative suggestion was inflated into apocalyptic prophecy.  Web pages screamed that before cycle 23 was over, an immense solar flare would inevitably bring down the electrical grid worldwide, turning computers and other electronic devices into useless silicon fritters, and plunging the world into an instant dark age complete with roving hordes of starving survivors.  The popular online sport of apocalypse machismo—"I can imagine a cataclysm more horrifying than you can!"—went into overdrive on this one, spawning no end of highly colored accounts of just how everybody else was going to die.

As it happened, cycle 23 did see a couple of spectacular solar flares, including two of the largest ever measured, but none of the big ones happened to be pointed anywhere near Earth. (If the Earth’s orbit was as big around as a football stadium, remember, the Sun would be a beach ball sitting on the 50 yard line and the Earth would be a marble perched somewhere on the last row of bleachers.) When solar cycle 23 came to an end in December 2008, as a result, the Sun shone down on a world not noticeably more devastated than it had been when the cycle began.

—for more failed end time prophecies, see my book Apocalypse Not


I've observed that commentors seeking to deny the conclusions in Limts to Growth will pick up on any deviation from the predicive curve of any resource they can -- no matter how statistically insignificant -- to triumphally 'prove' that the whole conclusion must, therefore, be completely wrong, &c. &c.
Same thing with Peak Oil. Production is not falling exactly as Hubbert predicted, therefore the whole prediction must be wrong and everything is OK.
Carry on.
Sort of like the knight in Monty Python losing all his limbs and insisting that he's won the fight...

6/27/12, 9:25 PM

Leo said...
Me and my twin just learned this in Chemistry. Le Chatelier's principle "If an an equilibrium system is subjected to a change, the system will adjust itself to partially oppose the effect of the change."
in the graphs we've looked at 'partially" translates as 99% opposing.

i guess that's part of the reason that Australia hasn't been hit by most of the financial shocks yet. the changes are muted when the hit us since we're a periphal part of the system.

6/27/12, 9:43 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
Thank you!
This post made me think of a news story from a few weeks ago. A report had just come out that announced that the number of highway traffic jams in the Netherlands had fallen slightly.
This was generally seen as a sign that the hotly debated policy of building more and more highways was actually working.
The report had been controlled for the following variables: 1) The weather.
2) the number of roads.
And it turns out that it wasn't the weather. So it had to be the roads, right?
I almost laughed at the simple-mindedness.

Oh wait, I almost forgot: The number of cars had also been taken into account. That hadn't fallen, so it just had, had, had to be the roads, yes?
The fact that it hadn't grown either, and the reasons there might be for that, didn't get much air time somehow.

6/27/12, 9:58 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Renaissance, exactly. Funny you should mention black knights on this blog... ;-)

Leo, thank you! I hadn't encountered the chemical version of the law of equilibrium -- my scientific background, such as it is, is in ecology rather than chemistry.

Thijs, that reads like a first-rate Monty Python skit! When the news stories are more parodic than anything a parodist can manage, we're getting into interesting times.

6/27/12, 10:47 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Reaper (offlist), you can't subscribe by posting a message labeled "subscribe" to this blog, and I can't subscribe you -- you have to use the "subscribe" button on the main page, right above the tip jar button. Many thanks!

6/27/12, 10:49 PM

Unknown said...
I think that this is your best yet and explained to me why some of the things that I had expected would have happened by now havent.
My own personal 'Aha!' moment was when you explained the concept of declining net energy in a way I hadn't (quite) heard before(Chris Martenson explains it well but this was better imo).This means that nominal GDP can keep rising(almost)indefinately even as thing are getting worse for the mass majority of the populace right?
As an English teacher here in Japan I can actually see this firsthand. The reason that I say this is that Japan has been in what the rest of the world has called a 'Depression' or a 'Great Stagnation for the last 22 years and even during this period has still managed an average GDP growth (according to my slightly biased,cornucopian friend) of approximatly 1-1.5% per year,even with persistant deflation.Yet for most people things have got relatively worse.
For my part,when I got here in 2002 there were a vast number of easy to find and easy to acquire English teaching jobs.Things have changed dramatically! In the ensuing 10 years the oppertunities have contracted unbelieveably.On Mondays the Japan Times(the main English language newspaper) used to have between 2 and 3 pages of jobs(mainly English teaching),now there are maybe 5-10(rarely)jobs,with maybe 3 of those being English teaching.I look at this situation and come to the conclusion that because,in the private sector,spending on English language teaching is discretionary(there's a public sector too in elementary,JHS and SHS which is virtually unchanged with maybe a little decline)then people simply have less money to spend and so cut back on luxuries first(Being an eikaiwa(private English school) student used to be a sign of social prestige and wealth and therefore a luxury).When I first got here I lived very well ,now my existence is much more hand to mouth and precarious(though some of that is my own fault...).
Do you see my argument?Even though the wealth of this society has nominally increased,the amount of actual wealth owned by the general population is seen (anecdotally)to have decreased and that therefore maybe the increase has(maybe) been consumed by increased energy costs.Is that a fair enough conclusion?
I know that some people will point to last years disaster in Tohoku as maybe a factor but I can assure you the trend had been in process for a lot of years before that and hasn't substantially increased after ,though there was a jarring disconnect for about 2 months(no bread,butter,my favourite alcoholic beveridges disappearing from the shelves for prolonged periods and short term powercuts)things seem to have just continued their steady decline.

6/27/12, 11:42 PM

seeker77 said...

I am fairly certain that this week's post will go down as one of your classics, as it describes so well how and why liquid fuel production specifically, and global economic events generally, are trending the way that they have been in recent years.

The challenge for readers like myself is to distil and simplify your essays down into a paragraph or two so that we may try and communicate the information to those we care about and those who make decisions on our behalf.

I think there would be a sizable market for a book called “Peak Oil for Dummies” or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Catabolic Collapse”. Just putting it out there ;-)

An analogy I have come up with to try to explain the immature and absurd logic upon which the paradigm of infinite growth on a finite planet rests, is as follows:

Ask a denialist to imagine a 6-year-old happily munching his way through a box of Smarties (the equivalents abroad would be Skittles or M&Ms). Now imagine that you tell the boy, “Hey, little buddy, munch away, because for every piece of candy you take out of the box, 2 more pieces will magically replace them!” Even though he is only 6, he will look at you quizzically and tell you in his 6-year-old vocabulary that it just isn’t possible, and that you’d be crazy to think it was. He’s scoffed many packets/tubes/boxes of candy before, and each and every time the box ended up empty!

All the best,

6/28/12, 12:42 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Your essay was a very insightful analysis.

It is hardly surprising to me that people fail to consider whole systems. This is probably due to most people falling into the trap of specialisation. Ecologists aside, even the experts are specialists. Specialists become bogged down in detail and tend to miss the big picture.

I've noticed that experts in the media have been relying on this focus on the detail to soothe and dismiss arguments that they don't agree with. It is also then followed up with a display of value (e.g. I'm an expert). Their arguments are a mere puff.

Your background in ecology provides an antidote to this sort of thinking and I get why you asked us to read up on basic ecology. On an organic farm, you can't ignore the big picture. On the other hand, industrial farmers are all about keeping farms simple (just like a factory).

The other technique we employ here is that when things go wrong (as inevitably happens), we acknowledge the error. After the acknowledgement comes a post mortem analysis and we try and see whether there was anything to be learned from that error.

PS: This technique was employed yesterday to good effect after I accidentally squashed a plum and crab apple tree. Ooops!

PPS: Congrats on both your 50th and the AODA's 100th.



6/28/12, 2:03 AM

Alexander Carpenter said...
The Tao maintains the Center

Lao Tsu

6/28/12, 2:10 AM

parus said...
Thank you JMG! This post touches on something that's been bothering me as of late.
Basically, looking at the people around me, I've (painfully slowly) come to realize that the vast majority will never go through the "peak oil initiation", as you termed it last year. Instead, things will get worse and worse, and people will adapt as they go along, some doing better and some worse.
The progress meme will live on, most likely with the official line about how things are going getting more and more absurd and delusional, until one day, when it's far enough removed from everyone's daily existence as to be completely ignored and forgotten.

Nothing wrong with this per se, but I'm sure I'm not the only one hovering around the peak oil scene, who often thinks thoughts along the lines of "one day things will have gone bad enough that everyone will sit up, take notice and realize that this is what I was talking about and preparing for all along". That kind of vindication and sudden shift seems like just a variation of the apocalypse meme -- an abrupt break in what is otherwise a continuous development, and to the extent it happens, it will happen gradually and one individual at a time.

Just trying to structure my thoughts here, unashamedly in front of everyone...

6/28/12, 2:17 AM

phil harris said...
You provide a timely reminder for those of us who have been sitting on the edges of our seats. The world is a cussed place.

Exponential growth was something I taught in biology classes as a very young man in the ‘60s, and I was persuaded by the ‘Limits to Growth’ hypothesis in the early 1970s. (BTW, the LG hypothesis is well summarised just now by your good self, if you don’t mind my saying so). I was dismissively sceptical in the early 1980s of the claims that ‘we’ (industrial civilization and my fellow technocrats) would provide modern resource consumption for everybody on the planet, and I absorbed the essential facts of climate change science in 1985.

Timing the oil depletion curve, however, did appear problematic, as did forecasting the end of the era of expansion, and these futures seemed somewhere beyond my own lifetime. The wakeup call came in early 2000 via Campbell & Laherrere when the Hubbert curve for US production was clothed with new data and projected worldwide, but it was reading Jeremy Leggett’s book ‘Half Gone’, while on a plane going to work in 2005, that convinced me we were going to see imminent ructions. It was time I retired and stopped flying anyway. The notion seemed sufficiently explanatory: ‘peak oil’ was when we could no longer increase the amount we were getting out of the ground each year (despite the amount still left in the ground).

I mistakenly thought though, along with Leggett, that it would be the perception of the permanent end of oil expansion that would spook politics and the markets and ‘the public’ and bring about the first of the stepwise economic ‘crashes’. We are somewhere in there at the moment, but cunning plans and technological ‘magic’ still monopolise public discourse, and ‘normal’ continues as you describe. The decline and fall of the American empire might be happening as we speak, but is anybody going to believe it, at least in my lifetime? (Er ... rhetorical question.)


6/28/12, 2:25 AM

dltrammel said...
As for some sectors using their political clout and resources to clammer for their share of the decreasing pie, I listened to an NPR segment yesterday. Seems the Defense industry here is required by law to notify person 60 before a layoff.

Since Congress has done nothing to stop the sequestering from the so called budget deal earlier this year in cutting future defense spending, the Industry plans to send out layoff notices on November 2nd, two days before the election.

Lockheed Martin plans to send layoff notices to all 100 thousand of its employees. That most cuts and layoffs won't happen until late 2013 or beyond doesn't matter, especially when you can frighten a significant portion of the middle class voters.

I'll leave it up to others to figure how this will effect the election.

6/28/12, 2:27 AM

MawKernewek said...
@Thijs - did they control for the amount the cars were being driven, or just total car ownership.? I seem to remember reading something saying that car ownership is just as high in Netherland and Germany as UK, but the proportion of journeys made by private car is less.

JMG - may it be that sky-high car insurance costs for young drivers are the problem for those considering motoring today?
Plus high youth unemployment, that's before you mention the fuel costs..

6/28/12, 2:37 AM

russell1200 said...
I just saw this.

It regards issues to scaling in civilization. I am still puzzling through it, but it looks like it may be addressing issues as to society self-deception.!/2012/06/issues-in-scaling-civlization-monsters.html

hat tip to Naked Capitalism

6/28/12, 3:06 AM

ando said...
Brilliant! The rest of the 'sphere probably resents it when you confuse the issue with facts.



6/28/12, 4:48 AM

Bill Blondeau said...
Wow. Guilty as charged, JMG.

I had been, all along, seeing homeostasis as a force that would keep pushing us in the direction of unrelenting resource extraction no matter what. My application of systems thinking seems, in light of this week's article, embarrassingly superficial: I was treating the consumptive aspects of our civilization as being somehow privileged, as if they were the only part of the entire system subject to the Law of Equilibrium.

Well, with great embarrassment comes great responsibility. Much food for thought, this week, about the nature of countervailing influence. Thanks for that!

In the meantime, though, Professor Ugo Bardi, who is no slouch when it comes to Systems Theory, has written up a first-order approximation for the Seneca Cliff, the concept that we may indeed be looking at the kind of frenzied rush to exhaust everything that results in an eventual hard collision with Liebig's Law, rather than the comparatively soft landing you speculatively describe. Any thoughts on that?

6/28/12, 5:29 AM

Don Plummer said...
Interesting comments about the decline in petroleum consumption here in the USA. Another factor that will be playing a role in the future decline of the same, and one that hasn't been given a lot of attention, is the already noticeable crumbling of highway infrastructure. Since road repair and maintenance is based on fuel taxes, less consumption means less money for maintenance. Less money for maintenance means road serviceability will decline. As serviceability declines, fewer people will risk taking their cars on the pothole-ridden roads, which means less money for maintenance, further decline in highway serviceability, and less driving. And so forth--a vicious cycle. Anyone who has been paying attention has already seen the beginning of this decline.

6/28/12, 5:48 AM

Fleecenik Farm said...
Your last paragraph was probably pretty accurate. With one minor exception...I think the civil strife will be significant. Already in my relatively low crime state of Maine we have seen a 5%increase in the crime rate over the last year. Most of this was as a result of an increase of drug related property crimes. But at the same time this was occurring the state was cutting funding for drug rehabilitation. As local governments struggle with trying to provide basic services they are redefining what basic services government should provide.

6/28/12, 5:54 AM

Avery said...
Hey, I am also an English teacher in Japan -- funny how these jobs give you the free time to read peak oil blogs. This year I will enjoy for the first time in my life rolling blackouts due to insufficient energy supply. Irrational anti-nuclear protesters (seriously, they think MIT and Nature magazine are part of an enormous conspiracy) caused an overreaction from government and industry, and now all the nuclear plants are off.

I was under the impression that I'd be experiencing a major economic backlash in Japan that won't happen in America, owing of the social aftereffects of the nuclear accident. But then I Googled it up and saw something shocking:

American outage graph

Yes... America isn't doing prepared blackouts like Japan, but its energy grid is just as weak! Is this story in the news, I wonder? Well, if I look it up I see scattered stories here and there, but nobody seems to be getting the big picture.

6/28/12, 6:00 AM

Nathan said...
I was also thinking about the shape of the Hubbert Curve today and how we need to stop waiting for production numbers to decline before we start acting seriously. Serendipity!

I realized that I have been waiting for oil production to decrease so I could 'prove' Peak Oil to skeptical people in my life -- I am sure there are many other people waiting to do the same. However, I expect in the near-to-mid future that the 'liquid fuels production' numbers will stabilize or slightly rise, whether or not more liquid fuel is actually being produced. Just like unemployment % and GDP, these production numbers have serious political effects, and therefore they will be subject to the cussedness of the human systems behind reporting them. Economic vindicators indeed.

So stop waiting everyone! The evidence is all around you -- waiting for a bunch of industrial bureaucrats to admit we have been right all along is a monkey trap, and the way out is ignoring them.

6/28/12, 6:00 AM

Rashakor said...
Le Chatelier principle and the Law of Equilibrium in ecology are actually both corollaries of the 2nd law of Thermonadynamics (there is no way around this B****!!!). All dynamics systems where a disturbance introduces a higher state of energy will tend back to the previous state unless a higher entropy equilibrium is achieved. In which case the system may cascade to increasingly low energy levels. The easiest way to illustrate this is to balance a ball on top of a mountain (unstable equilibrium, high energy,). Left to itself the ball would roll downhill until it reaches a valley or a depression on the side of the slope (stable equilibrium, low energy, low entropy). You need to expend energy to bring back the ball to a higher point in the slope or the top. Furthermore the ball may gain so much momentum while rolling downhill that it passes the formerly stable states of the small cavities on the slope and roll all the way down to the bottom of the valley (ultimate equilibrium, infinite entropy, zero energy)

6/28/12, 6:02 AM

. josé . said...
Forty years ago, I translated Forrester's World Dynamics program (the foundation of the Limits to Growth report) from DYNMO to Fortran, and then spent months messing with the values and even some of the algorithms, trying to achieve stability at a higher level, or to postpone the inevitable change in the directions of the trendlines, generally projected for ... round about now.

Of course, I failed.

Thanks, John Michael Greer. In this post you clearly describe the situation in readable English. This is something I've tried to do for years, with very limited success. I'll be sharing a link to this post to any of my family, friends, and acquaintances who are willing to listen.

6/28/12, 6:03 AM

Lauren said...
Wonderful article - especially Edifying is the concept of throwing more, variable resources into the hopper to keep the oil/gas industry more productive.

We are in the middle of the Eagle Ford Shale and there is at least one death a month directly related to the oil/gas production in our three surrounding communities. (these communities may total 10,000 population). The deaths are caused by the literally tens of thousands oil-related trucks new to our highways, blown gas lines or even just heart attacks working on the lines in 100+ degree heat.

So, in a very literal way human lives are being thrown in to the hopper as well to keep our oil production increasing. But employment is high here - not only the oil workers, but the increased work to maintain the roads, feed & service the new workers, etc. Even new jails and more police as our crime rates are going up as well. Single-handedly raising the GPD! Meanwhile, the scars and disfigurement of the landscape grow at an even faster rate. The changes are mind-boggling. No matter how the appearance of all the new-found production pleases many, my fears for my grandchildren & their children are not lessening.

6/28/12, 6:35 AM

Jim R said...
Somehow I feel compelled to respond to this essay, as it speaks to the primary reason I keep reading your well-thought-out missives.
I have been closely following peak oil since 2005, when that year's hurricane season awakened some old memories. Yes, I'm old enough to remember the '70s.

So far, the peakists' predictions, (at least the ones not involving lizard people) starting from the late '90s have been hitting pretty close to 1.000. The effects of peak would be masked by "above ground" factors; would be denied by TPTB; would be blamed on prominent politicians; would correlate with economic contraction; would inspire resource wars.

One of the ones I found counterintuitive was that the economy would exhibit DEflation. Our friend Stoneleigh nailed that one. The deflation is just getting started, by the way.

One aspect of all this, which was covered in a short course I took in 1971, was from the study of sociology. Our lecturer described how the indigenous people of North America reacted to the destruction of their way of life. It fragmented their religious beliefs and practices. They went from a more or less consistent and organized philosophical view of their world, to a larger number of local cults. A trend of which we see only perhaps the tiniest thread currently, but one that I expect to really take off soon.

And Lauren, I really want to come visit your place some time, but for various local reasons I have not been able to do so. Water is certainly the limiting resource in this climate, isn't it?

6/28/12, 7:01 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
"I'm not running out of money, I have tons of it. I'm running up my credit cards, I sold off all my furniture for Mall*Wart gift cards, and I've leased out my backyard as a garbage dump. My finances are just fine!"

6/28/12, 8:09 AM

monsta said...
While much of the peak oil ground were caught flat footed by the extended plateau in peak oil production and thus been incorrect in their initial assumption, their predictions of oil production and prices have been much closer to the truth than the models followed by the cornucopian.

The shortcomings of the peak oil community described in this blog entry is certainly true; by looking at oil in isolation to the larger system they neglected to mention the effects prices would have on the larger system. The higher prices have resulted in much demand destruction in the West but at the same time that money has been used investing in oil development. Whilst this development has not seen the world "flooded with oil" as the cornucopian insisted would happen the production gains have been greater than the peak oil community had expected. A combination of reduced demand from high prices and a growing supply in unconventional oil (more accurately liquid production) has been the chief contributor of this extended plateau.

However, to believe this liquid plateau can last decades seems rather fanciful. As time goes on the geologic factors constraining supply will begin to play a greater force in determining production numbers than increased investment. In other words there are two forces at work when looking at liquid supply. There are geological forces that act as a drag to oil production while investment is the counter force to the geological force. The peak oil crowd insist geology is the determining factor and the investment/money force cannot overcome this geological force. The cornucopian crowd insist the opposite is true, that investment (and human ingenuity) will ALWAYS win out. At this moment of time, both forces would appear to be matching each other fairly equally hence the plateauing production.

However it is my belief that overtime the geological force will exceed the investment force on production resulting in declining production rates. Plus if we consider the economic system we find this system has been weakened considerably in the last five years so its ability to support the investment side will be reduced in the coming years. Also for production numbers to maintain this high rate and not decline sharply the economic system has to be maintained.

As we live in a zero sum world (perhaps it is even slightly less than zero sum) then the facade that all is well and everything is still growing can be maintained. But if there is a breakdown in the financial system then it is likely this will result in economic or other systemic failures which will cause failures in the oil system.

Now I am not well-versed in system analysis but one thing I do know about complex systems is they operate with various negative feedback (stabilising) loops and positive feedback (self-reinforcing) loops. Complex systems also contain tipping points where the system reacts to a certain stress in a disproportionate manner once a certain threshold of stress is reached. It is my belief the overall economic system is under stress and the system is using various negative feedback loops to maintain its structural integrity. However as these stress build up (which they will) I am sure there will be some tipping point where some sudden change occurs as the various negative feedback loops can longer cope with the stress load. It is for this reason I can subscribe to the stair-case model you put forward of relative stability followed by periods of sudden declines. However after the next big drop I have a hard time believing the governments can pretend things are as good as they were before. They may be able to fool the public today but a lie is only believable if it is sort of close to the truth, not miles off. Once the disconnect gets large enough you cannot lie and have people believe you. To attempt to do so and insist on it would mean the speaker loses credibility. At most, the government can downplay the level of decline that took place.

6/28/12, 8:38 AM

Charles Hugh Smith said...
A succinct and brilliant essay, which is to say I wish I'd written it.

6/28/12, 9:00 AM

Yupped said...
Well, we are talking about the breakdown of the world’s most complex (human) system – global consumerism/capitalism – here. So I suppose it’s fair for it to be unpredictable!

I can’t even begin to get my head around the details of what’s going to happen, so all I can do is watch the bigger picture and take steps from that. And the bigger picture seems startlingly clear - goodbye cheap credit, energy and growth; hello hard work. Even if industry manages to keep it ticking over for a few more years by pressure-washing gravel, the big picture is the one that matters.

But it does appear reasonable that the core of system will hold together well enough over the next few decades for certain competitive and privileged people to go on living much as they have, while an increasing number are cast outside the gates. That’s always been true, and is particularly true in poorer societies. That’s going to be an ugly process to watch – the increasing separation of the have-nots and the have-mores. I wonder when the pretense that we can all have it all will be publically jettisoned? When will politicians and leaders start to acknowledge more directly that we are a society of winners and losers and that some children will be left behind after all? That sort of language was much more prevalent before the current age of illusion. I wonder when it will return?

Finally, as a parent, I’m supposed to encourage my kids to succeed at all costs, to compete and join those winners. But I’m actually encouraging my kids now to take their own path and to aim for less. Don’t tell DCF. Mind you, the kids probably won’t listen, them being kids and me being a parent. So, we’ll see.

6/28/12, 9:07 AM

simon.dc3 said...
Wonderful post.
So over the coming months your posts will consists of intro to Complex Systems, Systems Thinking, System Theory? I hope is what you mean. That would be wonderful to read from the perspective of one more clear candle amidst the enveloping dimming.

This will contribute to basic grounding in systems thinking and complex systems for the herd being led to the bottleneck, hearing it from the point of view of diverse people learned in different fields; not just mathematicians and geologists, but paleontologists, historians, linguists, sociologists and story tellers.

Thank you.

6/28/12, 9:57 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Very interesting.

I got into an online debate recently where the old hydrogen economy chestnut was getting dusted off again. Predictably there were those who insisted that readily accessible hydrogen was a primary fuel source and the only thing standing in the way of us exploiting it on an industrial scale was spoilsports like me droning on about those boring old laws of thermodynamics again.

This, I figure, is the way it will pan out. I can imagine those same people sitting in wheelchairs made from abandoned shopping carts in the year 2050 dreaming about the golden future of hydrogen/thorium/algal biodiesel etc that awaits them.

Thanks for pointing out that the global biosphere is immeasurably more complex than our economic system - I wonder how many people would agree if you asked them straight up.

6/28/12, 10:14 AM

jollyreaper said...
the peak oil blogosphere—it’ll have morphed into printed newsletters by then, granted

Your article brings to mind a quote from Hayek: "The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design." We get that in spades with futurism and all the the zeerust. (Zeerust is "the particular kind of datedness which afflicts things that were originally designed to look futuristic.") This also applies to ideas and assumptions.

I have a suspicion that we'll be surprised by what seems high-tech that's cheap to operate and what seems simple enough that's energetically challenging.

E-paper displays like the Kindle draw very little juice. Thumb drives can hold entire libraries of data and are cheap as dirt. So even as the 3,000 mile salad goes away and taking a 50 mile road trip is a considerable expense, we might still be communicating cheaply enough with high-latency packet radio networks. (I do see you have an article a few years back on that.) It might not be good for streaming HD video off of Youtube but more than sufficient for disseminating newsletters.

I would not be surprised if it's cheap to recharge a 2030's-era handheld terminal off a simple folding solar mat but a cold beer is a real luxury.

*runs off to check state of the art for solar-powered refrigeration*

Wow. Solar refrigeration is quite affordable at the moment. But there will doubtless be other things we can't anticipate and, after they happen, we'll see in hindsight why their occurrence should be headslappingly obvious. Digital information from around the world, cheap. Air conditioning, extravagance.

6/28/12, 10:58 AM

MawKernewek said...
The gross inequality of wealth and income in democratic societies is only sustainable if politicians at least pay lip-service to the fiction of equality of opportunity.

When that comes apart it will not be pretty.

6/28/12, 11:50 AM

Michael Petro said...
@monsta said:

They may be able to fool the public today but a lie is only believable if it is sort of close to the truth, not miles off. Once the disconnect gets large enough you cannot lie and have people believe you. To attempt to do so and insist on it would mean the speaker loses credibility. At most, the government can downplay the level of decline that took place.

Yes, but it's what the "people that matter" believe that carries the day. Since many people are going to be ignored as factors in our decline (as long as the "right people" can "flourish," the useless eaters can be left to twinkle out) then, short of revolution, the fiction will most likely be successfully "catapulted."

6/28/12, 12:19 PM

Tony said...
JMG: Good post, very clear ideas.

I have quite often had difficulty in interesting people in reading your posts because of their length. You might be able to reach a wider audience if you posted a short summary before each article. For example, here’s my shot at a summary for this post:

+ Many societies are likely to decline toward impoverishment of all except for a small elite, without necessarily a decrease of per capita GDP, due to the following factors:

- Increasing costs of producing energy and dealing with its consequences (unconventional oil and gas, renewables, military spending, climate change mitigation) will leave fewer societal resources available for other sectors of the economy.

- Societal wealth and services can be concentrated in a small elite by control of politics and the media, debasement of the educational and medical systems, etc, as appears to be happening in the US. In addition, technical advances (AI, robotics) may remove the need for many jobs.

- The financial sector can artificially increase GDP with very little consumption of resources.

6/28/12, 12:45 PM

Thijs Goverde said...
By the way, I came across another news story today. Slightly off topic, but I thought it might interest you: over here there's talk of a grand effort by builders, investers, large companies and the government to start the large-scale...[*drumroll*] demolishment of office buildings.
The story in a nutshell: in the past decades, building office buildings was thought of as a certain way to make money. The growing economy would make sure there would always be a demand, so all a municipality had to do was make a fast buck selling land to developers, who would then make a big buck selling the land, now plus an office building, to investment funds, who would make long-term bucks renting it out to companies, who would then create jobs, supposedly out of thin air, thus adding to the tax revenues. There would have been glorious bucks for everybody, if only the economy had done its part.
As it is, there are huge numbers of empty office blocks dotting the Dutch landscape. Letting them crumble where they stand is cheaper than tearing them down or repurposing them, so crumble they do.
They are waste capital, costing everybody involved with them money.

Now the plan is to start a 'wrecking fund' into which everybody owning or building an office building is obliged put some cash. The money is then used to reward those who demolish or repurpose office blocks so that that becomes profitable.

Now if I understood The Long Descent correctly, purposefully destroying waste capital might be the smartest thing a society can do at this point, although this is probably a textbook case of 'too little, too late'. Still, it's interesting to see catabolism in action.

6/28/12, 1:09 PM

blue sun said...
"No doubt cornucopians in 2050 will be insisting that everything is actually just fine, the drastic impoverishment of most of the American people is just the sort of healthy readjustment a capitalist economy needs from time to time, and we’ll be going back to the Moon any day now, just as soon as we finish reopening the Erie Canal to mule-drawn barge traffic so that grain can get from the Midwest to the slowly drowning cities of the east coast.... "

No doubt.

Most days I can swallow the conventional wisdom, but some days the gag reflex kicks in. Checking the headlines this morning, I saw pictures of crowds cheering the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the central irritant in the Obamacare cocktail. Today must be one of those days.

6/28/12, 1:24 PM

Mark Luterra said...
This may not be entirely on topic but as I read this it occurs to me that oil (or more generally energy) is not yet the largest squeeze-play acting on the economy. That position is occupied by health care expenses, which have ballooned from 5% to around 20% of GDP and continue rising steeply. While some portion of that rise can be blamed on greed (i.e. unfair salaries for executives of hospitals, insurance firms, and pharmaceutical companies), a large fraction of it has a more intractable cause.

Advances in modern medicine have largely not enabled us to live longer, healthier lives without treatment. Rather these advances have produced expensive long-term physical and chemical treatments that succeed in prolonging life by 5-20 years, often in a state far from optimum health. If this trend continues, we will continue to toss more of our economic resources into the medical "hopper" as new technologies emerge, trying to keep ourselves alive just a little longer.

I suspect that if and when rising energy costs eclipse rising health care costs as the primary driver of economic contraction, we will see more media and political attention on "peak oil" issues. Not that said attention will succeed in changing anything.

I guess my point (trying unsuccessfully to be concise) is that I feel the current lack of debate surrounding peak oil is not entirely outright denial; as high as energy costs are, they are not yet the primary financial concern for a majority of Americans.

6/28/12, 1:45 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Unknown, that's exactly the sort of thing we're seeing here in the US; notional (that is, hallucinatory paper) wealth has supposedly increased, but the actual availability of goods and services to most Americans has dropped steadily for decades, and the decline is accelerating.

Seeker, that's a great metaphor. As for the book, hmm. No way I could get the "For Dummies" franchise or its equivalents to hire me for one of their books -- I'm way too far out on the cultural fringe for their tastes -- but I'll consider the possibility of a primer, in simple language, that could be produced cheaply and gotten into circulation. I'd need a first-rate illustrator to do line art, though -- such a book would need good images -- and publishers rarely provide such things these days.

Cherokee, exactly. In the real world you can't ignore whole systems and you can't ignore the lessons of history. This leads me to the unavoidable conclusion that today's cornucopians live in La-La land, or perhaps in padded cells.

Alexander, good. Measure the distance between that statement and Yeats' "the center cannot hold," and you've measured the gap between a sustainable world and where we are now.

Parus, everybody in the peak oil scene wants to see The Moment when everybody suddenly wakes up and realizes what idiots they've been. It's a common daydream; still, I'm sorry to say it's unlikely ever to come true. The best we can hope for is to make connections and build community among those who do get it, offer a coherent and livable alternative to a failing system, and welcome those who do wake up as they arrive, one at a time.

Phil, I think the decline and fall of the US empire will eventually sink in, though it may take the collapse of the US into a half dozen quarreling successor states to do it. More on this as we proceed.

Dltrammel, fascinating. It'll be interesting indeed to see who succeeds in spinning that to their benefit.

MawKernewek, that's certainly part of it, but there've been plenty of teen fads that cost lots of money.

Russell, thanks for the link.

Ando, I do have that bad habit, don't I?

6/28/12, 1:48 PM

MawKernewek said...

I would not be surprised if it's cheap to recharge a 2030's-era handheld terminal off a simple folding solar mat but a cold beer is a real luxury.

There are millions of people right now in the poorest nations of Africa with internet on their mobile phones but without adequate sanitation or access to clean water.

6/28/12, 1:57 PM

tubaplayer said...
Thank you JMG. I read every week and ofttimes it is your weekly offering that lifts me from the slough of despond as I watch the world crumble from my relatively safe haven.

@Yupped: My children are grown. All of them know my views on Peak Oil. Some have taken it in, some think that it is bollox and one just does not care - bless.

As to the haves and have nots it has been an interesting couple of years. Syria remains a disaster. Egypt was relatively peaceful. Libya was only possible with massive military intervention. I just wonder about how long and what it would take for a "US Spring" or a "UK Spring" to happen. We have seen OWS. The undercurrents rumble on. I also do not see anything good happening. Especially in the US, where the right to bear arms is enshrined in the law!

6/28/12, 2:00 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Bill, I've read Bardi's papers on the Seneca cliff, and don't find them convincing, precisely because they ignore the tendency of systems to attempt to maintain their own equilibrium. Among other things, there are immense sectors of the economy -- think of tourism, the world's largest single industry, for example -- that can and will be catabolized to keep more critical sectors going. Seneca's entitled to his opinion, but history isn't on his side, you know.

Don, an excellent point! Of course you're quite right; decreasing funding for road maintenance is one of the ways in which the cannibalization of the rest of the economy will circle back to cause declines in petroleum consumption. You get today's gold star for catching that.

Fleecenik, of course! The cornucopians will simply insist that the regrettable rise in crime, banditry, insurgency, etc. is a minor speedbump on the road to a bright shiny future, and it's going to go away soon, anyway.

Avery, welcome to Third World America. Our grid is a ramshackle mess, not unlike the rest of American society.

Nathan, another excellent point. There are already very curious divergences between the amount of US oil production from Texas reported by the Texas railroad commission and the amount being reported by the relevant federal bureaucracy.

Rashakor, I'd say rather that the laws of thermodynamics, Le Chatelier's principle, and the law of equilibrium are all conceptual models, in different spheres of knowledge, of a common pattern in experienced reality. Still, to some extent that's just philosophical quibbling.

Jose, I didn't have the computer skills to do that, so I simply went back through history to try to find any society that overshot its resource base and survived. I didn't find any, so drew the same conclusion you did.

Lauren, that's got to be a ghastly experience -- especially knowing that it's a short-term bubble that's going to pop soon, leaving a permanently disfigured landscape and epic poverty behind it.

Jim, it's already happening. The US is full of groups of people with radically different ways of looking at the world, who can barely talk to one another because their basic presuppositions are so different. More of our "cults" tend to be secular rather than religious, but that's the only difference I see.

Bill, I think I heard a politician say that a few days ago, or next thing to it...

6/28/12, 2:02 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Monsta, of course -- in the long run, geology always wins. What I'm suggesting is that petroleum consumption will decline ahead of petroleum production, so that we'll never quite get around to hitting the brick wall of too little oil for too many cars, tractors, etc.; instead, the cars will be abandoned, the tractors sold for scrap, and the economics of running an industrial society just won't work out any more, so that the last umpty-however barrels of oil will sit forever in the ground because it's impossible to make a profit extracting them any more.

Charles, thank you!

Yupped, that's a fascinating question. My guess is that the current holders of wealth and privilege are facing an assortment of horrific fates in the years ahead; they have no concept of the fragility of their privileged status, a whopping case of entitlement, and -- based on personal conversations I've had -- a complete inability to recognize that their paid thugs could very easily point a gun in the wrong direction and take everything. They don't know how to build the kind of relationships that foster personal loyalty, which is the foundation for a feudal society; all they can do is throw around money, and you can check history to see how well that works.

Simon, I'm considering a series of posts and a book on systems theory, but that isn't this one; what's next on the agenda is the rest of the exploration of the decline and fall of the US empire.

Jason, that's what I expect to see, too. People will be babbling about algal biodiesel long after they've forgotten how to spell the words.

Reaper, that's the common fallacy of high tech -- if you only notice how much energy it takes to power the end product, sure, it looks easy. How much energy, raw materials, and labor had to go into manufacturing the product, including extracting and purifying all the raw materials, maintaining the clean rooms, etc? How much has to go into maintaining the global network without which the end product is a lump of useless plastic and silicon? In a world where there are too many depands on every available scrap of energy, raw materials and labor, do you really think people are going to privilege thumb drives over, say, food and shelter? While you're right that some of the things that are lost, and some that are kept, will doubtless be surprising, that chestnut -- which keeps on being proposed here every couple of months -- strikes me as way off in the direction of wishful thinking.

MawKernewek, that's my guess.

6/28/12, 2:26 PM

don bates said...
As someone with a background in chemistry, I'm familiar with the concept of stability of systems. Free-energy diagrams for chemical compounds look similar to what you describe. Most compounds are stable- until they're not. An example would be an explosive. If you push it too far past its point of stability (such as with a shock), it goes dramatically unstable. Natural systems have parallels. If you push them too far, they tumble out of their zone of stability, and fall into some totally different space. Climatologists, et al, typically refer to these as tipping points.

A point I like to make about complex systems is to think about the two space shuttle disasters. In both cases, we had complex systems which were operating perfectly, until one single part failed (in one case, an O-ring, and in the other case, a tile.) Then the entire sysem failed to work in a very short time.

On another point - far too much weight is assigned to Hubbert's curve. If you go back and look at the mathematical origins of this curve, you will see that they were very simplistic. No one should even expect that reality will follow this closely, and yet most pundits (both pro and con) seem to ignore this.

6/28/12, 2:31 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Tony, I'm not good at summarizing; I need to think at length, in coherent essay form, to get any degree of clarity. I'd suggest instead that you think about the points that I (and other peak oil writers) are raising, come up with your own conclusions, and post them somewhere in a form as short and punchy as you prefer!

Thijs, that's excellent news. Here we've got bulldozers leveling empty housing in Detroit and other rust belt cities, and of course fire doing the same thing with not-yet-empty housing in Colorado Springs; the program on your side of the pond sounds much more proactive.

Blue Sun, it's not too hard to hire a crowd these days; the media is fairly good at it, and so are any of the various political factions. Still, watch the aftermath; I suspect that Obama's just lost his last shot at a second term, because the arrogant absurdity of claiming to deal with the fact that people can't afford health insurance by requiring them to buy it anyway is an amazing giveaway to the GOP on the brink of a tightly contested election.

I can all too easily imagine the attack ads: a couple sitting around the kitchen table in 2014, say, discovering that they can't afford health insurance and still pay the mortgage, and the law requires them to pay for the health insurance, so they're going to lose their house. As the wife bursts into tears and the husband drops his face into his hands, the screen goes black and the words "We have a better choice. Romney 2012" come up. Expect things like that all over the airwaves in September.

Mark, I'd challenge your theory about the reasons for soaring health care costs; plenty of other countries have at least as sophisticated health care as the US, but don't pay 20% of GDP for it. Right now health care, including its insurance and pharmaceutical aspects, is arguably the most corrupt sector of the American economy, and has spent the last fifty years engaging in spectacular profiteering at the expense of the rest of us. That's going to change, if only because a bankrupt nation can't afford the world's most overpriced health care system.

Tuba, an American Spring will happen the same way the Arab Spring did, with massive funding from one or more foreign powers who have an interest in destabilizing the status quo. If that suggests that the end result may not be entirely in the best interests of the people, you're beginning to catch on. Thus it's crucial to make the changes that have to be made beginning with your own life, where you have some control over the outcome.

6/28/12, 2:33 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Don, granted, but there are also systems that change in more gradual ways, either because the countervailing processes aren't strong enough to counter the pressures for change completely, or because the pressures for change and the countervailing processes synergize unpredictably. Not every chemical reaction causes an explosion, after all -- some take a good long time to complete! The question is whether industrial society is facing an explosion or a less sudden sequence of changes, and for reasons I've discussed here at length, I consider the latter much more likely.

6/28/12, 2:36 PM

Ceworthe said...
If anyone wants to have a preview of what the highway system might look as the money to repair it goes away, take a ride on Route 86 in the Southern Tier of New York State, through the section that is in the Seneca Nation Territory (one of the 6 nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). I was driving what I imagined to be a scenic route diagonally from Syracuse to Chautauqua County (yup, I was driving, my bad. I tend to go to places that are in the middle of nowhere) The Seneca Nation and NYS have been having a little tiff about sovereignty and not paying taxes, and have also sent the State a bill for tolls they believe they should be due from the NYS Thruway, part of which goes thru their territory along the Lake Erie side. The upshot of it all is that the roads have not been taken care of by the state for many years, this road much less so than the Thruway, and it is a potholed mess. The Senecas should run many tire repair places, as I am sure that anyone who goes the speed limit of 55 there would lose a few tires. A shocking mess. Saw my first bear crossing sign there too.

6/28/12, 2:53 PM

Josh Floyd said...
This is a wonderful illustration of how a systems view can lead to a very different interpretation--and one that accounts far better for what might otherwise appear to be confounding observations--of any given situation. It's just terrific though to see such a view being applied so effectively to the broader situation of energy use. We're following closely related paths here--my most recent post at Beyond this Brief Anomaly ( deals with closely related themes also explicitly from a systems perspective.

It's noteworthy that the value and utility of approaching energy situations in systems terms goes well beyond better appreciating supply-demand behaviour--in fact, the systems view is fundamental to the very concept of energy in the first place. The energy concept is itself a resultant of viewing physical phenomena specifically in systems terms, rather than in terms of discrete entities. Of course, we're almost completely unaware of this when we talk about energy now as if it's some sort of discrete entity. This isn't just an obscure philosophical point--it has profound practical implications. My own assessment is that this absence of appreciation of energy as a systems concept is central to the complete absence of any acknowledgement of EROI in any of the International Energy Agency's publications. It's also why International Energy Agency (and Energy Information Administration for that matter) is such a classic misnomer. International Fuel Agency would be closer to the mark. To earn its present name, it would need to engage in the type of inquiry that you deal with in this post.

All the best,

6/28/12, 3:07 PM

jollyreaper said...
Concerning a post-oil Internet --

I'm aware of the money and resources that goes into putting the system together. That's why I'm not going out on a limb and saying with certainty what will and won't happen. The only certainty there is that I will be wrong!

I have a suspicion that some form of global communications will be preserved. Not a certainty, not incontrovertible proof, just a suspicion.

Projections can generally be classed as best, worst and middle-case. Alarmists and optimists go for the fringes and are usually wrong. Usually, that is. I never thought we'd have made it out of the Cold War without it going nuclear and was happily proven wrong. In sure the philosophers of many a dead civilization told the alarmists they were full of it.

I'm suspicious of the technotopians as well as the doomers but an emotional bias doesn't count for squat. I know just enough to know how much I don't know and be intensely worried. We are at the mercy of our experts and lack the baloney detectors to professionally vet their claims.

The point I'll make in favor of a low-tech Internet is the presence of cell phones which double as computers in the third world. Many of those countries bypassed landlines and are able to keep these things operational without an expensive and all-pervasive energy grid.

Of course, their access to that tech may be subsidized by the existence of developed world markets so it's still precarious. Many variables go into this.

If we do hit the worst case and absolutely nothing can be built new with computers, I wonder how long scrounging and repairing can keep things going. If we have a hard crash like Kunstler's World Made by Hand, we might be back to small circulation papers with 19th century tech but the news wire is via the international HAM operators.

I make no predictions, just speculate and wonder. It's all I can do.

6/28/12, 3:55 PM

Mean Mr Mustard said...

If one considers two UK banks as complex systems, both appear to have entered a different state in separate self-inflcted crises this past week. One due to apparent sacking of experienced IT staff and offshoring, only to find a simple error and lack of robust recovery procedures led to cascading failure, affecting millions of its customers.

The other - manipulating global interest rates in a staggering failure of propriety and internal oversight, that even our politicians can no longer ignore. In both cases, customers are alienated and the public relations attempts to salvage reputations has been atrocious.

The all too common cause in these failures - greed and hubris.


6/28/12, 4:17 PM

Joel said...
It's funny how the global ecosystem's responses to perturbations of climate get labelled the Gaia hypothesis, and the system's responses to each new species as its own sort of perturbation are labelled the Medea hypothesis. If only there were a simple answer to the eternal question, "What do whole systems want?"

6/28/12, 6:33 PM

Richard Larson said...
Doesn't matter what the cost of oil is if one doesn't have any money. To the point of your post, the list of people unable to buy ready energy is continuing to grow.

There is still enough in the system to gather the necessary tools to become less dependant on these depleting energy resources.

Better hurry!

6/28/12, 6:47 PM

xhmko said...
This is all very reminiscent of the hole in the bucket saga isn't it.

What I'm seeing is also the misconception of waste as applied to the search for viable agricultural and water sources.

For instance, The World Bank considers land according to it's ability to produce something tangible in the market place. It doesn't matter if it sustains 100,000 villagers, populations of rare animals and plants, and is a catchment area. If it's not making money, it's not making sense.

The same goes with water. As floods surge through rivers and across floodplains, emptying into the sea, there are a whole bunch of people who say that this is just going to waste. The problem is though, this process actually injects nutrients from the terrestial into the marine environment and sustains reefs and the like which are the ocean equivalents of rainforests; biodiversity hotspots. Damming these waterflows may help you in the short term, but I dread the consequences of endangering the reefs of the world and the immense impacts on static and migratory sea life. This is obliviousness to whole systems at best, and selfish ignorance at worst.

To add clarity to my understanding of the world, I like to make up words, and I've combined symbiosis with homeostasis to make symbiostasis - the process of to-ing anf fro-ing that sustains all relationships within the biosphere. It is my way of conceiving the actions of whole systems and process of (not progress) evolution. In this way, I'm using symbiosis in a general way, to suggest the interconnectedness of all things on Earth, not just a relationship between two organism, but the relationships between all organisms and their physical effects on air and water currents. A large forest for instance has an immense effect on things like air flow, water drainage and humidity which in turn effects, where and how, cold and warm fronts interact and therefore cloud formation, rainfall patterns and so on and so forth. These flows, and the organisms who must live within their parameters - whilst also giving them their definition, are a part of what I've called, for my own sake, symbiostasis.

6/28/12, 7:00 PM

Repent said...
I read the 30 year update to 'The limits of growth' this month, and watched the 40 year summary online by the 3 surviving authors hosted by the Smithsonian institute.

They surviving authors clearly state 'We have made our choices, we could have mitigated growth and staved off collapse, but now it’s all but inevitable that the world will return to the sustainable limits of the planet eventually', to loosely paraphrase them.

I work for one of the largest mega-corporation food wholesaler's in North America accounting for 20% of North America's food supply. The company has stated, and states at the beginning of each fiscal quarter 'We expect 15% growth in earnings', and they’re not afraid to fire people to obtain that goal. Last quarter results were 'Terrible' only achieving 7.9% growth- heads are already rolling.

As a small part of the JIT delivery system I can already see cracks appearing. Any costs from supply disruptions are billed back to the originating vendors. So strikes, transportation delays, weather problems are all carried by the actual producers. I feel the decline in JIT food supply will be expressed first in major financial losses of the primary producers.

And of course, I can't say anything to change the course of the company's decisions; they fire anyone not in compliance with company goals. As Dmitry Orliv once stated 'You can't tell them anything- you just have to wheel them out with the furniture', like they did with the communists in Russia after the collapse of the USSR.

6/28/12, 9:06 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Re: Obamacare and electoral politics; actually I think the 5% in the middle who now decide national elections are likely tired of all the health care yammering, and go blank whenever they hear the words "individual mandate" and "job creators." They are going to vote on their gut feelings about the two center-right candidates they are being offered, just as they did in 2008.

You can also forget about the specifics of Obamacare or any other national health care plan; being post-peak oil means we are also post-socialism, whatever your feelings are about the "S" word. Socialism was a response to a time when the sources of inequality were political, financial, cultural, hereditary, etc. It worked when there were fewer people and more resources to go around. Now that "wealth" is imaginary and fundamental resources are truly becoming limiting (and expectations in the western world are for a lifestyle that can not possibly be sustained), socialism no longer has the capability to level the playing field at an elevation that the masses would find acceptable. Socialism was a product of the growth phase of the industrial economy. It is in the process of being disassembled worldwide now, not expanded.

The time to institute a national health care system in the U.S. passed decades ago. We no longer have the surplus wealth (of the non-imaginary kind) for this sort of thing, no matter how you design or attempt to fund it. We'll be lucky to keep our existing (and highly popular) socialist programs afloat for another generation.

6/28/12, 9:20 PM

DeAnander said...
Wow. As it so happens, I've been fascinated by homeostasis in complex systems for a long time -- specifically the cussedness of humans encountering "safety" equipment and precautions. There's a guy called J Adams who did a lot of work on this one.

Basically, the literature supports a fairly obvious (when you think about it for more than 3 seconds) pattern: every person tends to have an idiosyncratic "risk thermostat" set to a certain (perceived) point of hazard. If you, say, change external conditions (or inner perceptions!) by installing an airbag or antilock brakes on a person's car (or just tell them you have!), the response is cussed indeed. Drivers tend to drive faster and handle the car with a bit more panache, according to their inner risk thermostat.

The famous study is the Berlin (iirc) taxi driver study, in which a fleet of taxis were equipped with sophisticated antilock braking systems, and a subset of drivers were told about the new systems, while another subset was not, or was led to believe that their cars had not been upgraded yet. Anyway, the onboard telemetry revealed that those who believed their cars to have ABS started driving faster and braking harder: they *absorbed* the incremental safety improvement by behaving a little more riskily until they had restore risk homeostasis (in their own perception).

Similarly, straightening roads, widening the radius of curves, removing obstacles to long sightlines, etc -- all intended to improve "safety" -- all tend to result in higher driving speeds, rendering life more dangerous for e.g. pedestrians and cyclists in the area of the "improvement". When seatbelts were first required by law for drivers only, the immediate result was a spike in passenger deaths -- safer-feeling drivers drove a bit more riskily, and unprotected passengers experienced more fatal crashes. And so on. It's really, really hard to *make* people safe!

There are a few other interesting studies, which you can track down without too much effort; but the basic lesson is about countervailing forces, very much like the adaptation of bacteria to antibacterial treatments and the evolution of bugs to pesticides (whether external or genetically jiggered). When we push a complex system at a single control point -- treating it like a simple machine -- it tends to push back. (A related cussedness is the Jevons Paradox we all know and love: increase efficiency, thus decreasing the cost of energy, and people tend to consume more and more energy until they are once more paying the max cost they feel comfortable with!)

Road safety campaigns that treat a neighbourhood or town as a *whole system*, rather than trying to find single control points to push, have had more success; it turns out that global design parameters (the overall design and "feel" of a cityscape) affect people's behaviour in subtle ways. There's a lot of literature on this as well, on everything from "traffic calming" to urban forms and practises that tend to discourage vandalism and crime. There's a famous old book called "A Pattern Language" that explores some of the subtleties of *influence via design* (a kind of societal permaculture) vs single-point interventions which tend to hit the cussedness wall (aka diminishing returns and unforeseen consequences). Pls excuse the length, but I'm rather keen on this topic and JMG's latest ties it in to bigger pictures very nicely.

6/28/12, 11:11 PM

DeAnander said...
One more response about the vexing issue of people in a declining empire becoming too poor to invest in gee-whiz energy efficient tech. This is already happening, in a way, to me :-)

I'm living on very hilly terrain and my middle-aged knees are tired and easily strained. But I'm ethically vexed by driving our work truck for minor errands (it's a 2.6l Mazda but on these country roads we're not doing much better than 19 mpg, drat). The guilt is uncomfortable. So I'm thinking of putting a motor assist on my cargo bike: pride takes 2nd place to mobility :-)

I have some choices. Here are two I'm considering. I can buy a good, Canadian-made e-bike conversion kit (installed) for about $2000. But setting up our little homestead has eaten a lot of my capital and my pension is not as secure as I'd like -- I'm feeling a little worried about cash flow. Plus, the range on the Ebike option is a bit limited for my circumstances -- a 30 km round trip with cargo may be more than it can handle. It's not a sure thing.

OTOH, I can buy a Chinese-made 2-stroke gas engine retrokit for about $175 incl postage (no, that isn't a typo), and it will get something like 150 mpg (I think that's about 60 kpl), so the cost in liquid fuel is minor and the guilt factor way smaller than driving the truck. I can (still) get fuel on the island, so my range is theoretically unlimited. And it's less weight on the bike :-) I don't know how to do the math, but it might possibly use less energy in 3 years than the energetic cost of manufacturing the fancy E-bike kit with its Li-Ion battery and so forth. Who knows.

OTOH, it's noisy, and pollutes a bit. But... I'm feeling unwealthy (though of course not poor, because in non-cash terms we are very well off indeed). So here's the point where principle becomes (a) very expensive and (b) interferes with actual function, as in wanting to get the "green" ebike kit (to make a statement, to show the flag, because it's so darned kewl) even though its range may not be sufficient to make the journeys I want to make and complete the tasks I want to complete.

I'm leaning towards the gas engine -- me, who calls them Infernal Combustion and was a bicycle purist when I was a bit younger and on somewhat flatter topography! And that's where the "green energy revolution" cheerleaders I think are overly optimistic: at this historical moment their offerings are generally "overpriced" compared to severely downscaled versions of the old tech -- such as a 60cc two stroke velomobile kit, as opposed to a $60K 4 tonne SUV. Most of us, for whom price really is an issue, will tend to choose "less of the fossil option" because it's still so much cheaper than the dandy new tech option. This bugs me, but I can feel myself making the decision... in just the same way that any person with limited resources would: the money I can save by sticking with a minimised version of the old technology would buy a lot of food.

Anyway, clearly I'm feeling a bit compromised and tetchy about it, 'cos the article twanged a nerve there.

6/28/12, 11:33 PM

GuRan said...
JMG, you continue to impress me with your very concise and clear explanations of concepts that would take me twice as many words to express not half as well! I usually have at least one light bulb moment each week too. This week's: your "law of equilibrium" holds because most complex systems will be somewhat close to a state of dynamic equilibrium most of the time. So any changes directed at a complex system will invariably be trying to push it up out of a valley, so to speak, rather than off the top of a hill.

On the accuracy or otherwise of the limits to growth projections, those who haven't seen it already might like to check Graham Turner's comparison of the LTG predictions with 30 years of subsequent data - performance since LTG best matches the "business as usual" scenario.

@ Parus - "the man who knew" myth. I'm partial to that one myself, but the likely reality is as you've suggested - there won't be a light bulb moment for most.

6/29/12, 1:33 AM

Seb Ze Frog said...
Do it at home Thermodynamics

Even though this isoff topic for this post, it is I think bang on the general topic of the blog. I thus couldn't resist sharing it with those of you who might have missed it.

Have a nice day
Sebzefrog (at

6/29/12, 2:00 AM

phil harris said...
I hesitate to think of complex systems as like chemical equilibrium reactions.

We do have really very complex systems in nature, including our own bodily systems, nested within often highly variable complex natural systems with their own more regular long term trajectories, (e.g. like short term complex 'weather' experienced within long term systems, the carbon cycle and climate).

Complex systems in the form of individual bodies at some point just pack-up and die, having a finite lifetime, even though most parts of the system might be still in very good condition and worth a few more years. Starved of energy, of course, such complex systems will just stop like a thunderstorm. A less complex system such as, say, a broom, or George Washington’s axe, might with a little help last centuries, even though it has needed 6 heads and 5 handles.

JMG seems on the right track to look at historical examples of complex bundles of interactive institutions with their own memories, civilisations, or whatever we call them. Parts of India and China, I am told would still be recognisable to a Roman visitor from AD 100, but by hindsight we know these were never going to expand into a global model, though one might have thought they had many of the ingredients. History, like evolution, does develop ‘path-dependent’ structures.

On top of an existing expansionist trans-oceanic trajectory, our recent ancestors discovered some vast global fuel stores that substituted for the sunlight economy and detached us from the natural complexity humans at large are more ordinarily nested within. This must be a one-off situation like no other, but as we are reminded, cannot change the more fundamental rules, no matter how complex these fuel stores have allowed us to become.

PS, JMG, you said you are not good at summaries and need the whole essay. Well, yes, but you do a hundred or more quick summaries every week, often very good ones. I guess an anthology of some of the pithier nuggets might well suit your enquirer. He could do his own selection. (My own comments are usually way too long.)

6/29/12, 2:13 AM

phil harris said...
Last week, or the week before, I blamed hydroponics, or hybrid modern chemical growing systems for the taste of non-tomatoes.
It seems that I should have nailed the wider system. There is a parable in here somewhere.
This via this week’s edition of Science
The grocery-store tomato that looks beautiful but tastes like tart cardboard arises from selection processes favoring phenotypes that make commercial production more reliable. Significant in that selection process was a mutation that reduced the mottled color variations of unripe green tomatoes, leaving them a uniform, pale, green. Powell et al. (p. 1711) analyzed the molecular biology of the mutation. The uniform ripening mutation turns out to disable a transcription factor called Golden 2-like (GLK2). GLK2 expression increases the fruit's photosynthetic capacity, resulting in higher sugar content.

6/29/12, 3:23 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

I might have mentioned it before, but there is a good book written by Dr Tim Flannery called, "The Future Eaters" which documents how the Aboriginals on this continent overshot their resource base and yet adapted and formed a very successful and stable society for many tens of millennia. It is written from an ecological and historical perspective. Well worth your time. (This was in reference to your comment to Jose).

On another note, I've never quite understood why people have to go from one extreme to another. For example, a meme I see repeated here regularly is that if your office fauna job disappears then the only alternative is unrelenting hard work. This is simply not the case and these opinions are usually offered from a base of no experience.

People forget their history. Working in agriculture, you do go through periods of long hard work, but there are other times when not much is really going on – like over here in Winter, where it is clean up and fertilise time! It is a more natural cycle for humans and I can see from hindsight that the whole 8.30am to 5.30pm meme is an artificial construct. It is a pattern so deeply entrenched that no one seems to even question it.

Also, plant and animal availability means that you have a world of plants and animals to choose from right now. People don't quite understand that a diverse farm, whilst not being efficient, is actually a resilient farm. Also, diversity means that ripening periods are spread over a longer period of time thus spreading out the work and providing some insulation from weather shocks, which happen regardless of your best intentions.



6/29/12, 3:25 AM

Don Plummer said...
Given that the health care law that was enacted in Massachusetts with the full support of then-governor Mitt Romney is virtually identical to the federal law that the US Supreme Court just ruled on, and given that now said former Governor Romney has to oppose and vow to repeal the same idea that he vigorously supported in Massachusetts in order to win support from the far right and pseudoconservatives, I don't think the outcome of the November election is a foregone conclusion by any stretch. We can be assured of hearing about Romney's about-face, flip-flop, hypocrisy, etc., etc., from now until Election Day.

6/29/12, 5:12 AM

Jim R said...
Going back and looking at the title of this essay, and further reflecting on it, I am reminded of a peak oil model we discussed a year or two ago.

Hubbert's peak is like earth's horizon as viewed from a small plane.

You may see Venus out there, and it looks close enough to touch, but if you keep flying toward it you will never catch it. It will simply continue to set, or rise and get lost in the glare of the Sun.

The horizon remains this blue curve beyond which you cannot go. No air there.

Oil production is that way. As it has gone up, so has the human population and the economy. More stuff for everyone. As it goes down, so will everything else, regardless of whether more dollars are printed, even if they are handed out on street corners.

The economy (tied as it is to liquid hydrocarbon production) is constrained to follow the blue curve of the horizon.

6/29/12, 7:52 AM

Andrew said...
Thank you for this post. I'm exploring the peak oil controversy for the first time, and it's been surprisingly difficult to find clear and coherent predictions from either side of the "non-debate." Or perhaps my Googling abilities are sub-par. Either way, this cleared up a lot of things for me, and gave me a framework for understanding the Hubbert Curve much less literally.

Reading your blog, though, I've often been confused by the certainty with which you gloss over alternate energy sources as if they weren't really worth considering. For example, here: "...when the ability to produce substitute fuels declines as well—as of course it will—the impact of the latter decline will be hard to trace." Either you're overlooking something, or you know some things I don't. So I was wondering if you might be able to point me to the sources or arguments that have led you to dismiss alternate energy so completely -- either things you've written, or other trustworthy authors on the issue. I'm new here, and I'd appreciate any help you could give me.

6/29/12, 8:12 AM

Tyler August said...
One element of the cussedness of human systems that I should have seen coming is that the very things we will need more of in the future are first on the cutting block to be catabolized.

My province, for example, selling off the crumbling and underfunded Ontario Northland Railway, just before it was about to become a lifeline for the communities along it. (moreso than it already is) The national passenger rail service, ViaRail, just shed several hundred jobs and is reducing operations as well.

Much to my dismay, I expect smallhold organic farming to actually shrink in the face of industrial agriculture until industrial agriculture's fossil fuel inputs make it no longer viable. Fresh, organic produce is a luxury fewer will be able to afford as we continue to deteriorate as a culture, until suddenly! The reverse.
That "suddenly!" could make for some very hungry years. An urban backyard is starting to look a little small to me, now.

6/29/12, 8:14 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Ceworthe, good -- I'd also suggest people look into the number of states that are turning formerly paved roads back into gravel because they can no longer afford the repaving costs.

Josh, a nicely drawn distinction. Of course you're quite right; the International Highly Concentrated And Globally Marketed Fuels Agency may not be as snappy as its current name, but would be a good deal more accurate!

Reaper, if you want to talk about ham radio, I'm all ears; I've been arguing for a long time that a global communications net using handbuilt radio equipment is one thing that could very readily survive, given a little hard work. It's the equipment necessary to do any kind of computing that's the bottleneck.

Mustard, it's usually greed and hubris, isn't it? The old Greeks were right to point out that the future tense of hubris is nemesis.

Joel, good!

Richard, excellent advice.

Xhmko, "symbiostasis" is a useful coinage -- a reminder that homeostatic processes can involve a wide range of apparently separate factors working together as a whole system.

Repent, the logic that insists on 15% growth per year is exactly the sort of purblind thinking that leads to sudden collapse. I'd like to propose a new rule, modestly labeled Greer's Law: any process of exponential growth carried far enough ends either in absurdity or in disaster. I hope you've made plans for a second job when your current employer implodes.

Bill, I'm by no means sure you're right about the election. More broadly, of course, you're quite correct; modern medical care is one of the most energy-dependent sectors of the economy, as well as the most corrupt, and the chance that it'll be available to anybody but the well-to-do for much longer is minimal.

DeAnander, precisely! Trying to change a system by pushing on one variable in an obvious way is very nearly a guarantee of failure. As for the bicycle, my advice there is the same as my advice for those people who actually need a car: skip the overpriced electric or hybrid with its spectacular up-front cost in energy and raw materials, get a cheap (and if possible used) item with good gas mileage, and then use it only when you really need to. You'll use less energy and put less of a burden on the biosphere that way.

6/29/12, 9:15 AM

John Michael Greer said...
GuRan, exactly.

Seb, Murphy's posts generally are excellent, and that one was better than most. Thanks for the link!

Phil, there's definitely a parable in that tomato story. Notice that the breeders got fixated on one variable without paying attention to the effects on the whole system -- a common story.

Cherokee, I've always thought that the notion that "office job" and "exhausting manual labor" are the only two options is an exact equivalent of the notion that continued progress along current lines and total catastrophe are the only two options. In either case, it's an attempt to pretend that the status quo is the only acceptable choice.

Don, no doubt! Still, we'll see.

Jim, did that metaphor come up here? I don't recall it -- and I think I would, since it's an excellent one.

Andrew, I don't dismiss alternative energy at all -- it's the only thing we'll have left when the age of fossil fuels is over, abnd it's crucial to develop as much sustainable alternative energy technology now as we can. What I dismiss is the claim that we can run our current society, which depends on extravagant use of highly concentrated fuels, on the much more diffuse and intermittent energy we can get from renewable sources. I've discussed the reasons for that in several of my books and about a hundred blog posts here; you might also go back through Tom Murphy's blog Do The Math, which covers in detail the reasons why alternative energy sources will never provide more than a small fraction of the energy we currently use.

Tyler, the problem with most of today's organic farming is that it's become a source of boutique crops for the upper middle class, and as that class goes under, it's going to lose most of its cash flow. That's why the backyard gardens are so crucial -- they're there to maintain the tradition, keep skills and knowledge alive, and not incidentally keep a steady flow of good nutrition coming into households, while corporate agriculture finishes its saurian life cycle and lumbers off to die.

6/29/12, 9:27 AM

John Michael Greer said...
El Emer (offlist), er, four long and not very coherent posts on one partisan issue is way past the screed point. A short, clearly expressed comment to the effect that you disagree with my views on Obama's health care legislation would have been put through. Next time, you might consider getting those Zzzs first!

6/29/12, 9:30 AM

team10tim said...
Hey hey JMG,

I often explain the importance of EROEI to society in terms of agriculture. I start by explaining that the number of people in a society who are not engaged in farming is determined by how many people each farmer can feed. If each farmer can only feed himself then everyone is a farmer. If the farmer can grow enough food to feed two people then half of the society is free to pursue other activities. At ten to one 90% of the population can become priests or warriors, sculptors or accountants, etc. I usually try to frame the 90% as 'specialists' and their activities as the 'real economy' to help people understand the economic dependence on energy, in this case calories from food.

Then I draw the connection to fossil fuels and their EROEI. From the 100:1 oil in West Texas and Saudi Arabia 80 years ago to the 10:1 off shore rigs like Deep Water Horizon to the 5:1 or 3:1 for tar sands and lower still for oil shale. I explain that technology extends our reach which allows us to access more remote and lower quality fuels like the deep water Brazilian field Tupi but that extended reach doesn't come for free. It costs more to develop and process those resources resulting in a lower EROEI.

When I'm sure that they have really gotten the concept I explain that we started out with an economy fully based on renewable energy in the form of agriculture (quibbles about sustainable agriculture aside for the moment) and that when we discovered how to utilize fossil fuels we aggressively perused them because of their much higher EROEI. Since we went after the most abundant and accessible high quality fuels first we are now chasing smaller, harder to access, poorer quality fuels. This is exactly equivalent to reducing the amount of food that a farmer can grow which reduces the number of specialists that can be supported. The falling EROEI results in exactly what we are seeing happen in the metaphor: a shortage of food and a surplus of specialist. Or in modern economic speak high inflation (food and energy) and high unemployment (surplus of specialists).


6/29/12, 9:34 AM

Jim R said...
In fact there wasn't much discussion of it before. Because I am not in the habit of writing, and have a short attention span my comments tend to ramble.

As I recall, at some point I said "like the curvature of Earth" and you said "good" and that was it. I just wanted to expand on it a little.

We don't notice the curvature, because it is slight and we are in it.

It is extremely unlikely that any of us, no matter how young we are now, will live to see the end of the downslope.

6/29/12, 9:47 AM

Global Nomad said...
Just as an experiment, I searched "fedex profits graph" and looked at the google version:

If you set the zoom to all data, you get a nice graph showing the last 12 years of fedex profit.

It's interesting to compare this graph to Hubberts peak oil graph. It also shows a stair step pattern similar to what JMG describes as the way the long decent will appear.

I chose Fedex because its a huge corporation whose profitability is directly tied to the price of fuel.

I realize this is just one isolated example but still interesting.

6/29/12, 10:11 AM

dltrammel said...
"I listened to an NPR segment yesterday. Seems the Defense industry here is required by law to notify person 60 before a layoff."

Should have read "required by law to notify any person who might be laid off, 60 days before the layoff."

Teach me to post before first cup of coffee. Still it will be fun to watch the way each side of the election spin as to why the other side is to blame.

One could hope that the voters would see thru those spins, but the Defense Industry is even larger than the Auto Industry, and we saw what lengths were gone to keep them afloat during the recent chaos. Add to that will be all the scared workers, who first the first time see their jobs going away as well.

BTW here is an interesting read about how many of the unemployed, especially those who have exhausted their unemployment compensation, are finding work in the informal economy.

"Where Are the Missing 5 Million Workers? In the Underground Economy" by Laura Flanders

"In the past two years, the number of people in the U.S. who are older than 16 (and not in the military or prison) has grown by 5.4 million. The number of people working or looking for work hasn’t grown at all.

So, where have all the workers gone? Have they retired, suspended their labors temporarily or are they languishing on public assistance? asks Wessel.

There are some other possibilities. Since the crash of 2008, there’s no question that millions of Americans have indeed stopped looking for a job. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not working. Look around, it’s much more likely that the officially “unemployed” are busy, doing their best to make ends meet in whatever ways they can. Sex work, drugs and crime spring to mind, but the underground or “shadow” economy includes all sorts of off-the-books toil. From baby-sitting, bartering, mending, kitchen-garden farming and selling goods in a yard sale, all sorts of people—from the tamale seller on your corner, to the dancer who teachers yoga—are all contributing to the underground economy along with the “employed” who pay them for their wares."


Very nice article.

Also check out Sharon Astyk's comments about this article.

Casaubon's Book"

6/29/12, 10:13 AM

Mean Mr Mustard said...

I was musing some more on the incompetent/corrupt banking developments of the past week here in the UK, and see today that one papers is asking their readers in an online survey if they will stay with their bank. Many, now sufficiently inconvenienced or angered, say they plan to move.

Liebigs' Law of the Minimum tells us that plant systems collapse through lack of a single vital input.

It seems that in our increasingly dysfunctional global economy, that the vital commodity might not be oil, but confidence and trust?


6/29/12, 10:50 AM

DeAnander said...
Re: expectations of linear (let alone exponential) monotonic progression in complex systems...

time and tides : a nice little meditation on the cyclical nature of everything, the inevitable pulse of life.

the error of naive extrapolation : another timely comment on the folly of simplistic extrapolation (keys in nicely to the previous link). when you're on the uphill side of a pulse, it's a serious error to project that slope into Forever. what goes up...

I'm currently re-reading "A Short History of Progress" :-) Wright's graceful prose and kindly, long-view perspective are somewhat comforting as I watch the empire crumble. I feel I should start a sort of Collapse Weather Watch, documenting the straws in the building wind: here in Canada, the immediate agents of catabolic collapse (the neolib hatchetmen) are starting to eat away at things like emergency services, lighthouses, coast guard... and of course, defunding climate research, decommissioning arctic telemetry stations... it would be hilarious if it were someone else's planet.

as Wright points out, the people who cut down the last tree on Rapa Nui must have known it was the last tree -- it's a small island, you can see the whole shebang in one view from the highest terrain. so they knew what they were doing -- and yet they still did it. not an encouraging precedent. the pulse or tide of "high" civilisation seems consistent. can we beat it this time? why should this time be any different?

6/29/12, 11:11 AM

DeAnander said...
oops, forgot a connection I wanted to make wrt Cherokee's notes on effort and labour: that the natural agrarian life pulses -- more labour now, more idleness then. the "office job" is regimented and standardised, exactly N hours of labour per week all year, with exactly N/R "vacation" days carefully scheduled. somehow this regimentation, flattening, simplification seems to be part of the heart of our problem, whether we're talking about the institutionalisation of human relations, the commodification of everything, the alienation of labour, the futile attempt to regiment and dominate all the "lower" phyla (not to mention "lower" races)...

6/29/12, 11:14 AM

jollyreaper said...
Post-oil communications: With your HAM license, you probably are more up on this than I am. I first got into the computer scene with the family XT back in '89. Didn't even get a modem until almost a year later, a birthday present. The wide world of 2400 baud and ASCII graphics, baby!

While there was an Internet at the time, I'd never even heard of it. It was the heyday of the BBS run out of someone's bedroom. Message boards could be local to a single BBS or shared via a network of BBS's like with FidoNet.

Back when I got my own computer, an upgrade over the family model in the living room, I still didn't have enough money for my own modem. So I'd get home from school on Friday and download my mail updates by BlueWave, an offline mail reader. I'd copy it to a 3.5" floppy and carry it back to my room and reply to my messages. Afterwards I'd take the send file back to the family computer and upload it to the appropriate BBS.

Now a desktop computer back in the day sucked down an appreciable amount of juice. The two first computers I'd ever used were an Atari ST with a crummy old color TV for a monitor (a friend's house) and the IBM PC XT with stunning CGA graphics. That XT had a 130 watt power supply. Not sure how much juice the CRT used.

By comparison, a Tiny Linux Plug Computer will give you a full server with 512MB RAM, 512MB flash storage, and 5 watts of draw.

If we do find ourselves on a stair step decline, big new expenditures like cars and tractors might not be possible. Small expenditures might still work. So what's the potential of combining AX.25 protocol packet radio networks with the same low power tech used by the "radio in an Altoid tin" guys?

Granted, you're not getting funny cat videos in HD but it might just be a callback to the days of the BBS. A continent-wide mesh system might see your 1000 character message make it coast to coast in an hour.

A thought experiment.

6/29/12, 11:25 AM

michael menkevich said...
A most insightful blog on the web, and very thoughtful and sensitive comments. I await every new post.
So, we have been warned of the coming storm, just like a weather prediction of an approaching hurricane. Now it is up to us to get ready and be prepared to help each other survive and rebuild after the torrent.
As a guitar maker, the situation calls to mind the endangered species.
Brazilian rosewood was used on high end musical instruments, as well as other wooden objects. It was over harvested to the point of extinction. It was put on the CITES list, like elephant ivory tusks, etc. and restricted in international trade. It has not come back into commercial use, but has gotten more rare and expensive, and actually increased in mystical allure and is very high demand, like Rhino horn.
Now poachers are digging up old roots and finding barn timbers, and any scrap to fill the demand.
The same thing will happen with fossil fuel. We can only hope that a small reserve is available for continued research and development for things like medicine and chemical regents that require very specific elemental material.
Otherwise, we may find a way to welcome a brave new world, in which we optimize our potential without so called modern devices.

6/29/12, 12:48 PM

Odin's Raven said...
Have the dangers of radiation been exaggerated, and the public deceived about the need for costly regulation? Is it another intellectual, financial, political, bureaucratic and criminal scam?

Here's an amazing story from Galen Winsor:

6/29/12, 1:18 PM

el emer said...
OK, JMG. I'm disappointed that you saw all four posts as partisan, incoherent AND only on that one topic.

When I talked about ideas & topics in them with others today, the interactions were more fruitful.

I'll have to sleep more if I plan to post here in the future.

Sooo: I disagree with you on O'bama's "Affordable Care Act'...and that my offlist posts were partisan and only about that single topic.


6/29/12, 2:36 PM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
Well said, JMG, from someone who has spent quite a bit of time lately trying to explain to various people various bits of the Limits to Growth premise.

Right now I'm thinking about how weather/climate change is one place where the ecosystem and financial/economic system interact and interconnect. Ecosystem trumps economy! Here in Illinois, something like 13 million acres of corn were planted this year (more than any other crop), we're having a drought, corn isn't growing and corn futures are skyrocketing. It will be interesting (and no fun) to see how the effects of a reduced crop will ripple through the economy, and where the unexpected effects and countervailing forces will pop up. A parable might be written.

6/29/12, 3:19 PM

MawKernewek said...
The banks in question with the software issues will take a hit to their cashflow - firstly the immediate costs of dealing with the problem - then recompensing customers who had losses in consequence of it, which they have at least committed to do - then the cashflow hit they'll take as people expecting a payment or starting a new job have it paid into a different account.

The other thing that certain banks had fudged interbank interest rates, has been played down in some quarters - yes its criminal fraud and bankers made improper gains at the investment end, but that the changes to the rate were only 1 or 2 basis points (each is 0.01%) so wouldn't really affect what people were paying in credit cards and mortgages - but I'm not entirely sure about that to be honest.

It is important to get this in perspective - certain companies who can only be described as online loan sharks - offer short term loans at 4000%.

6/29/12, 4:17 PM

MawKernewek said...
@jollyreaper - roll on ASCII art cat animations.

Well, if the internet is now mostly silly cat videos that's progress for you when 20 years ago it was mostly pornography.

6/29/12, 4:19 PM

Robert Mathiesen said...
@ Odin's Raven (and Galen Winsor's view):

One pioneering nuclear physicist, Luis Alvarez, used to tell how he and his laboratory mates kept a small ball of pure plutonium sitting out in the open, on a shelf in their lab, and they would play catch with it when they got bored. I went to high school with Alvarez's son Walter, and I'm very much inclined to think that his father was telling it like it was.

6/29/12, 4:34 PM

Jim R said...
Oden's Raven:
On the other hand, this guy:
Алекса́ндр Ва́льтерович Литвине́нко
was poisoned with a speck of material probably no bigger than the head of a straight pin.

"Drinking reactor water" is nothing but a publicity stunt, since the cooling water they use is essentially just ultrapure distilled water. If that guy actually eats any high-level radioactive waste, he will die from its effects in less than 5 years.

6/29/12, 4:53 PM

Jim R said...
One could go into a long lecture on why natural uranium or natural thorium may be safely handled, while used nuclear fuel is deadly, but it is mostly outside the scope of this blog.

With that said, of course there is a lot of hysterical hype in the anti-nuke blogosphere. Some of it is probably misinformed ignorance, and others are simply attempting to amplify and emphasize their message.

The biggest problem with nuclear energy is that the byproducts are dangerous for many centuries, while the happy energy effect only lasts for one century or so. That, and the sheer size of nuke energy projects is somewhere near the upper limit of humans' ability to build and manage in our current energy-profligate economy.

If nuke plants become our sole source of energy, they will be unmanageable. As it is, we'll probably see a few more catastrophic failures before there is sufficient political will among the "movers and shakers" to start safely disassembling the rest of them.

6/29/12, 5:08 PM

Allison said...
Hopefully the movers and shakers get the message on nuclear sooner rather than later, given the size of the current protests in Japan:

6/29/12, 7:01 PM

DeAnander said...
@michael M -- that perverse incentive feedback loop has always depressed me, i.e. that as any endangered species becomes rarer, it acquires more and more "rarity value" -- until some sicko gadzillionaire will pay an unspeakable amount of money for the skin of the very last snow leopard, or a plate of sushi made from the very last bluefin tuna.

the fact that we set arbitrary value on rarity (and that seems to be wired deeply into our brains for some reason) creates a devastating runaway feedback loop: as you document wrt Brazilian rosewood, the scarce resource is hunted with ever-greater fervour and escalating profit motive as it approaches liquidation; the pressure towards piracy and corruption becomes more intense as the resource shrinks. the only solution seems to be to "uncool" the product by swaying the global conscience -- but convincing several billion ordinary people that elephant ivory is a tainted product and uncool to own doesn't help if there is even one sicko gadzillionaire out there...

6/29/12, 11:29 PM

phil harris said...
@ Global Nomad
I don't know about these things but I think you pointed to a mutual fund called MUTF:FEDEX which is a mutual fund, not the delivery / shipping company.
The investment seeks to provide capital appreciation. The fund invests primarily in common stock of domestic companies with large and medium market capitalizations that offer superior growth prospects or of companies whose stock is undervalued. It may also invest in common stocks of foreign issuers, and may also invest in convertible securities and preferred stocks of these domestic and foreign companies.

6/30/12, 1:26 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

Ha! The myths roll from one end of the spectrum to the other sowing the seeds of fear. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between.

The ripening here of fruit and vegetables really does occur over a period of many months (all year really) because of all the different varieties growing. This past year has seen a massive increase in the number of self-seeded varieties too (a bit of slackness on my part) and it is really quite funny to see them popping up literally all over the place. I found an apple seedling today.

PS: Another wombat has finally turned up to call the place home. I’ve missed having a grumpy wombat loitering around the place.

Hi everyone,

I have a couple of almond trees that have yet to go deciduous in mid-winter, despite the rest of the orchard going deciduous. Does anyone have any idea why this may be the case? They are in a sunny spot, but so too are a lot of other trees.

Hi DeAnander,

Not to stress, I'm no purist and would go for the small motor option on your push bike. Adaption is the best course in most situations and 63km/l is truly remarkable economy. The LiPo batteries are incredibly complex to manufacture and won’t really last that long on an electric vehicle given that they are regularly completely discharged (no battery is made to be completely discharged, people confuse a batteries life cycle with liquid fuel tanks when they are not the same at all). At least a small two stroke motor can be repaired and will have a long life if looked after.

Hi Phil,

The varieties of tomatoes commercially available are grown and picked so that they can travel well without bruising. Taste is not a consideration. For fruit to ripen, it requires sunlight and heat to produce the sugars that give the fruit their flavour. However, ripe fruit is also very soft and does not travel well, which is why it is generally unavailable.

So, you have been trained very subtly over time to pick fruit based on how it looks. The green fruit is generally gassed with stuff like ethylene (yes, the same stuff as used in welders) to give the fruit some colour.

Ha! I could go on about the soil they are grown in too and the effect it has on the final product but I don't want to scare you.

Hi Andrew,

I live with solar PV in an off the grid arrangement. Renewable energy is only massively promoted by people who have no contact with it on a day to day basis. Yeah, it's great, but it won’t power an average person’s household. Over here the average household uses about 17kW/h per day. I'm happy to live with about 3.5kW/h per day (with a 3.4kW PV array). Being only a week from the winter solstice there are only two lights in the house on right now. It suits me, but it wouldn't be for everyone. I will say no more on the subject.

Hi Adrian,

If everyone is planting corn and there's a drought, well time to plant another type of crop. Seriously, they can't keep that up for too long, soil is not an inexhaustible resource.

Hi MawKernewek,

As a general note, I can't speak for the US situation but, it is illegal in this country to offer interest rates on loans greater than 48%.



6/30/12, 2:28 AM

Chris Balow said...
One of the things that is surprising to me, when looking at this post-2005 world, is how the Rust Belt hadn't yet gone into a recovery--at least in my neck of the woods. Lexington, KY, where I live, still seems much better off than nearby Rust Belt cities like Ashland, Huntington, or Portsmouth, which remain mired in high unemployment, prescription drug abuse, and general decay.

I've wanted to follow your advice in moving to the Rust Belt, but when all the jobs remain in a city like Lexington, which has allied itself with the globalized economy (horse racing, banking, health care, etc.), it's a tough move to make. Maybe I had expected such a change to happen too quickly, and perhaps the Rust Belt recovery is further down the line, awaiting a more thorough implosion than what 2008 had to offer?

6/30/12, 6:27 AM

dltrammel said...
BTW, we have a thread over on the Green Wizards' Forum where we are discussing what you are doing to "Collapse Now and Beat The Rush" here:

Some interesting things people are doing now.

AND we now have a forum set up for "Communication", so all you HAM radio enthusiasts, feel free to stop by and share tips and information, as well as your call signs there. If we want to still receive the ADR when the Internet finally goes down, we need to start working on the replacement.


Here is a sobering look at the future for graduates of 2012 by Thomas Eaglehardt

"Kids, The Country Isn't All Right."

I could almost imagine this is one JMG would give, the ending is similar but I expect JMG would have expanded on working locally.

6/30/12, 7:41 AM

clementine said...
Let me get this straight. We've passed peak oil (conventional), and the only reason we currently aren't sliding down into the abyss is that we are now extracting unconventional oil. This is only possible because high oil prices make this expensive process economically feasible. And the only reason the high prices can be maintained, is the bailouts, quantitative easing and massive debt spending.
So, it is only a rickety structure of financial legerdemain holding up modern life as we know it. If the economy really hits the skids, post-peak oil will be brought down on our heads, as we will no longer be able to afford to extract shale oil and tar sands.

6/30/12, 9:54 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Tim, that sounds like a very cogent way to explain it. Anything that helps people grasp the fact that there are no free lunches in the cosmos is a good thing.

Jim, good. Very good. My take, as I've mentioned a good many times already, is that we're facing a decline one to three centuries in length, followed by a dark age of maybe another four to six centuries. Yes, I know that's about the least popular vision of the future there is, but to my mind it's also the most likely.

Nomad, are you sure that's Fedex? It looks like a mutual fund.

Dltrammel, thanks for the link! That's normal in a Third World economy, by the way -- a very large number of people are employed off the books, or in other ways that don't show up in official statistics.

Mustard, Liebig's law says nothing about collapse, despite the way it's been manhandled by recent collapseniks. What it says is simply that the maximum level of growth is determined by the scarcest ingredient. That could well be confidence and trust -- and a sharp downturn in that could cause a sharp decrease in the economy -- but that's not the same thing as collapse.

DeAnander, please do start such a blog. It would be very useful to have a running account of just how many things are being tossed into the dumpster!

Reaper, a BBS using packet radio technology would be entirely workable, until the infrastructure needed to keep you supplied with computer components goes away; at that point it's salvage time, and eventually enough computers give out that you're back to the old-fashioned message traffic system. Mind you, as a transitional technology, a global packet radio BBS would likely be a very good thing, but you'd want to make sure to keep up the skills and knowledge base so that you could discard it gracefully when it finally sunsets out.

Michael, my guess is that every last economically accessible drop will be extracted and burnt by people who simply don't care about the consequences. If any of those processes matter to you, now's the time to find substitutes.

Raven, you'll notice that none of the people who are promoting that line of thinking are volunteering to go clean up the mess at Fukushima Daiichi. Honestly, the things people will claim!

El Emer, so noted.

6/30/12, 10:36 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Adrian, a parable should be written. In the meantime, your comment "ecosystem trumps economy" ought to be made into a branding iron so that the words can be brutally burnt into the backsides of a good many economists I could name.

MawKernewek, granted, but the more people realize that banks are gaming the system for their own benefit, at everyone else's expense, the better.

Jim, good. I've always been of the opinion that people who support nuclear power ought to volunteer to store the wastes in their basements. If it's as safe, clean, etc. as they say it is, what's to worry?

Allison, my guess is that the economics of nuclear power (unaffordable without massive government subsidies, on a scale that governments increasingly can't afford) will put an end to the nuclear age long before protests will.

Cherokee, glad to hear of the Return of the Wombat! As for self-seeded varieties, what's not to love? We get volunteer tomatoes every year, and inevitably they're stronger and more productive than the nursery plants we bring home to add to the mix of varieties.

Chris, good heavens, we're talking about something that will unfold over decades, and is only just getting under way in scattered places. If you want to move to the Rust Belt now, you need to choose your location well, and have a job you can take with you.

Dltrammel, thanks for the heads up! It's a delight to watch the Green Wizards forum find its own voice and directions in all this. As for the Eaglehardt speech, it's good; I'd have done something a little different, but it's still good -- and it's not as though anybody's going to invite an archdruid to give a commencement speech any time soon.

Clementine, yes, that's about it. Remember the hoary old bit about living in interesting times?

6/30/12, 10:46 AM

MawKernewek said...
Why not just use it all up to power interplanetary space probes?

Just a bit of Russian roulette for when rockets occasionally blow up on the launchpad, but there's no other viable way of powering things like Cassini....

Though this is the kind of crazy technofix comparable to suggesting the EU gets the European Space Agency to find an asteroid made of solid gold to fund the next euro-bailout....

The issue with nuclear waste is that peak oil means that the great big safe as can be geological repository for the long term storage of high level nuclear waste will never get the political will and capital it would need to get built.

In any case, I believe the really high level stuff needs 50-100 years under actively cooled water to cool down before geological storage can be contemplated.

One of the most damaging effects of nuclear power may be psychological - people will say - oh, well nuclear means we can keep on with "business as usual".....

6/30/12, 11:50 AM

Lance Michael Foster said...
hey John you busy man!

Just wanted to say I am really digging your Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth, and ordered Blood of the Earth. When I get some dough I'll get the Picatrix Green. May I recommend Daniel Altschuler's "Children of the Stars"?

I learned a lot from AODA and miss being a druid, and my friends there. Ahh, but there is always Flow and Evolution in any case, right? :-)

Your friend, Lance

6/30/12, 11:51 AM

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...
you said, If everyone is planting corn and there's a drought, well time to plant another type of crop. Seriously, they can't keep that up for too long, soil is not an inexhaustible resource.

Yes! Exactly! And of course it's industrial farming which requires huge fossil fuel inputs while depleting the soil and, well, I'll stifle my rant before it gets out of hand.

Many folks here have been working on all kinds of alternatives, but it's not called King Corn for nothing. Corn/soy production helps drive the Midwest economy, with global ramifications.

The laws are stacked against small family produce and mixed farms, while subsidizing corn/soy and thence the CAFO meat and ethanol industries. Some laws are being changed, but not fast enough. Yet I know some folks that grow corn--they aren't evil.

Also, good for you, getting volunteers. I agree with JMG about volunteer tomatoes often being stronger than nursery seedlings. Do you plan to save the seeds of the volunteers for next year?

6/30/12, 12:12 PM

Rita said...
I had an interesting sample of current unrealistic urban planning this past week. Aerojet/GenCorp owns a large facility near Sacramento, which is becoming redundant since the end of the space program. Now much of this land is a Superfund site and intense cleanup is necessary to save local groundwater from continued contamination from the underground plume of toxic chemicals. Nevertheless, GenCorp has spun off Easton Development, a company devoted to real estate development of the land. One of the current light rail stations is near the planned development and Easton sponsored a public meeting with presentations and opportunity to comment.
The essence of the presentations was that Easton planned several developments on the former Aerojet land and that the one near the Hazel Ave. station would be a “Complete Community”, the current buzzword for planned communities that integrate high density housing, retail, commercial, workplaces, and transit, and transportation infrastructure incorporating the “Complete Street.” The “Complete Street” concept includes wider sidewalks with separation from the street by grass strips, trees, etc., bike lanes, curb extensions at corners to slow traffic and make crossing safer, planned transit corridors, and a number of other features to make walking, biking or taking transit more hospitable. I think these were the sort of provisions that have been recently trimmed out of the federal Transportation bill. (Because we know suggesting people might walk three blocks for a gallon of milk instead of getting into their Escalade is equivalent to using the flag to wipe mud off your bicycle.)
The talks were amply illustrated with photos of similar developments elsewhere and artist’s conceptions, maps, etc. Needless to say, the “Complete Community” is a reinvention of the “town”. Progress indeed.
Missing from the whole talk was any discussion of practical obstacles. It was simply assumed that the economy would improve, that all of this new housing, retail and work space will be needed in the next 20-25 years and that the funds would be available to build it. Even the most concrete obstacle, the need to complete cleanup of the site, which may take more than 10 years, was glossed over. Remember that the Sacramento area has been hard hit by the recession. There are many foreclosures and much empty retail, including entire shopping malls left uncompleted. I was really left wondering about the purpose of the meeting—which included a free pasta dinner—since those attending were local citizens, not movers and shakers of any kind. I think the Easton people are just trying to create some buzz; get people thinking the whole project is a good idea before any hard questions of permits, subsidies, etc. start to muddy the waters.

6/30/12, 12:26 PM

John Michael Greer said...
MawKernewek, only if we can send the cornucopians in the same space probes. Preferably to another solar system, one without life, so their fantasies won't continue to harm a living planet.

Lance, glad you're enjoying them!

Rita, that one's a classic. Keep the paperwork for future reference; it'll be worth a laugh in a decade or two.

6/30/12, 2:03 PM

John Michael Greer said...
In other news, Sara and I (and our house and garden) came through last night's big storm in good shape; we lost power for a few hours, but all that amounted to was a candlelight dinner and getting to bed earlier than usual. Our thoughts and best wishes are with everyone who got hit more forcefully than we did.

6/30/12, 2:04 PM

phil harris said...
Hi Chris
No need to worry about me and cellophane wrapped shop tomatoes - not on our shopping list. We mostly eat veg and fruit stuff grown in our own garden (tomatoes are tricky though in our summer), though we buy large tins of Italian orgsnically grown tomato paste.
We do our best to avoid being subtly trained by anyone!

6/30/12, 2:08 PM

goedeck said...
Have you ever heard of Alexander Barry and his views on technology (he coined the term technosophy?
Not convinced on his overall view, but his ideas are fascinating.

Barry Alexander on technology

6/30/12, 3:24 PM

Glenn said...
For those of you in the _other_ 46 continental United States; Oregon & Washington continue our trend of cooler and damper springs and early summers than normal, and UW climate professor Cliff Mass predicts that's what the first 50 years of global climate change in the Pac NW will look like. So it's more cold frames and a bigger greenhouse on our work list.

I predict climate refugees arriving from the east and south within a decade. Mild winters, cool summers, Bonneville hydropower and even some of the salmon runs seem to be recovering.

Marrowstone Island

6/30/12, 4:11 PM

Edward said...
Off topic, but speaking of tomatoes, I'm having the same experience with volunteers. This is my first year composting and gardening since moving to this location. The volunteer tomatoes are definitely from store bought tomatoes in the compost. They are indeed more vigorous than the heirloom tomato plants I bought from a nursery. I'm getting all kinds of diversity of volunteer plants from the compost and for the most part I'm letting them do what they will. It'll be interesting to see how they turn out. It's also interesting that my parents called them volunteers too - 45 years ago!

6/30/12, 6:21 PM

Jennifer D Riley said...
Giving thanks you survived the derecho. In North Carolina, yesterday afternoon, because of the extreme heat, the pavement heaved and buckled on the Raleigh area major beltline. Road was shut down for hours while the DOT had to remove the buckled pavement and replace it. Thank heaven none of the bridges buckled. Don't think it buckled today...not certain. Coupla years ago, ice storm caused a complete gridlock. Draw you own conclusions about what to call this! On a lighter note, yesterday afternoon someone actually baked cookies on the dashboard of a car, using cookie sheets and chocolate chip cookie dough, with all the windows rolled up. Internal car temperature reached nearly 200'

6/30/12, 6:23 PM

Edward said...
Here in Rural Central Pennsylvania, there are lots of opportunities to salvage good stuff. I got a push-type (human powered) reel lawn mower from a second hand shop in Williamsport. It's almost comical to see people in this mobile home park get on their riding mowers to mow their 15x60-foot lawn.

There is an indoor flea market in Hughesville that has an amazing selection of old-school tools. I got a human powered weed whacker - it resembles a golf club with a straight blade - I'm getting to work on my "swing" - (It's all in the wrists.) My wife wanted a motorized weed whacker and she was not thrilled when I brought that thing home.

Do you want to guess who gets to do the mowing and whacking now? It's good though - these tools are less expensive, don't have any trouble starting, and are easy to operate and maintain. A little work is good for you.

JMG, your blog has helped me focus some thoughts that I've had for years. Being "cheap" is good practice for future hard times. Even if they don't come soon, being cheap has merit. It's just another expression for a lower energy life.

6/30/12, 6:41 PM

Gideon's Laptop said...
Opps, I forgot the link:

Speaking of nuclear power, here is an interesting street performance on the subject by a Japanese chap in Amsterdam.

I got the link from Sean Lennon's twitter feed.

It's quite a drama rant and a very sad comment on nuclear power and Japan but well worth the listen.

6/30/12, 7:46 PM

michael menkevich said...
Hello Duids and other human beings.
The garden is doing great. best of luck to all of you.

6/30/12, 7:47 PM

xhmko said...
To Allison and Avery and anyone interested, Japan is actually reopening some of their nuclear power plants, or so I read in New Scientist. I think three or four will be reopened.
And I was just saying the other day how awesome it was that they'd just turned their back on those radioactive techno-cysts.

6/30/12, 8:30 PM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

Here in my corner of Britain we had a rare sunny day yesterday, and I took the opportunity to do some tidying up. The front hedge needed trimming; I cut the sides with shears, and the top with a billhook acquired from the local agricultural supplies store. It worked out ok, though I need to work on my technique (also useful for my martial arts training), plus I'll have to learn how to properly sharpen the blade. It looks ok for a first attempt, though.

After that, I cut the front and back lawns with a hand-powered mower like yours. I didn't get blisters this time, so my hands must be getting used to it! The two little boys next door were hanging over the fence, watching in astonishment!

It didn't take any longer than it would have using petrol-powered tools, it all looks just as good(ish), and I got a good work workout. Seems like a good result!

Oh, and as regards being cheap, I'm on a campaign to find as much vintage tweed that fits me from eBay as I can.... Fairly low-cost these days, but it'll last and last... Fortunately tweed is back in fashion, to an extent, so I can get away with it....

7/1/12, 1:07 AM

MawKernewek said...
Is there anything equivalent to these maps for other parts of the world:

Looking at that, it can be seen there hasn't been an unusually hot summer in the UK since 2006 really, and a winter in 2009-10 that was unusually cold (for recent times) may suggest to the uninformed that climate change isn't happening...

7/1/12, 1:12 AM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi John,

The news of the storm in your area even reached our shores. Glad to hear that you and Sara are OK. The high temperatures sounded quite extreme even for here which regularly gets a few days per year over 40+ degrees Celsius.

There must have been some serious winds as well to knock over all of those trees. Be careful too, because trees often fall over in the days following a big wind storm, especially if it is followed up by rain which is the usual series of events here.

PS: One of the local markets has a herb lady where I purchased: selfheal; rupture wort; and speedwell today. Even over winter the herbs are starting to go feral (salad burnet has turned into a weed - very exciting given its Vitamin C content).

Hi Adrian,

Thanks. Yeah, I ended up with 50kg (110 pounds) of tomatoes a few months ago from about 50 heirloom plants (kept finding more of them, for a few weeks until even the chooks had had enough!). It made for a lot of tomato chutney. I'm having to seriously consider setting up a cantina in my shed to store all of the preserves + preserving equipment as it is taking over the kitchen! With the seed saving I've just been letting nature do its thing, bringing in the mulch and compost, plus simply throwing around the tomatoes and gone to seed vegetables. It's amazing what is turning up: carrots; broccoli; nasturtiums; potatoes; mizuna; bok choy; and celery to name a few. I'm thinking of putting up a monthly digital video of all of the food stuffs growing here which should be interesting.

Hope your forest is going well too.

Hi Phil,

Glad to hear about your efforts. Hey, I'm on the southern edge of tomato growing and tend to grow only cherry tomatoes (yellow, yellow/green, black and red) as they ripen easier in marginal conditions being a smaller fruit. They also taste better too. The yellow heirloom tomatoes are awesome and well worth a try.



7/1/12, 1:54 AM

Bill Pulliam said...
Glenn -- I would not put too much stock into the details of any long-range climate prediction, considering that so far many of the effects seem to be earlier, stronger, and in unanticipated directions. My horticulturist friends in Oregon have not found this string of cold wet summers to be any kind of a good thing.

Alternative energy -- I look at ecological biochemistry. Microbes have proven incredibly adaptable at extracting energy from many different sources. They have had billions of years and very short generation times to evolve pretty much anything that can work. And where the fossil fuels naturally reach the atmosphere, they do burn them. They burn naturally occurring methane, inorganic fuels, and of course are expert at using sunlight to drive several different kinds of photosynthesis. Some things they have never used:

Nuclear energy. Even in naturally concentrated deposits, nothing uses the energy from nuclear reactions to fuel its metabolism. Nor has any microbe ever invented cold fusion. If it were possible, there's no reason why a microbe would not be able to evolve the enzymes and paladium catalysts to power itself on an atom-by-atom scale. Never happened. Biochemistry all functions on redox and electron transfer, nothing nuclear.

Zero-point energy or any of the many other pie-in-the-sky fantasies about free limitless energy everywhere you look.

Happy thoughts. All biochemistry functions on physical processes. No magic has ever been detected to yield a net energy gain for a cell.

So all these innovators, given unimaginably long time scales, have powered themselves by sunlight and geochemistry, including fossil fuels. Nothing else. I take this as a pretty good sign that in the long run and the big picture, nothing else works. They don't even use winds, tides, and rivers for anything but transportation, not for anabolic energy.

And as for sunlight, they consistently only convert a few percent of it into net usable Gibbs Free Energy. Again, why have they not become more efficient? Probably because in the long run and big picture, with all the feedbacks and externalities internalized, this is the best you can do.

Why on earth should anyone think we can do better?

7/1/12, 7:02 AM

Lauren said...
@JimR - drop me an email and y'all come visit. Just had over a half-inch of rain so grass will green up again this week

7/1/12, 8:05 AM

Don Plummer said...
@MawKernewek--one of the reasons I've heard that young people aren't taking up the automotive culture with enthusiasm is that with phones, I-pads, and other electronic means of connecting, driving isn't the necessary social activity it once was. Why "cruise" the neighborhood picking up friends when one can just text them or say hi to them on Facebook? Another reason, and this is my own conjecture, is that driving just isn't much fun anymore with traffic congestion in the suburbs the way it is.

John, I was musing about your initial thoughts here--the fact that Hubbert's bell curve isn't behaving the way peak oilers have thought it would--and was wondering if the "liquid fuels" statistics are gross or net? In other words, do they account for the (increasing) need to input more liquid fuels in order to extract the same volume as before? (As you have noted, it takes a lot of energy input to turn those tar sands into refineable crude.) If they aren't, and if we subtracted the actual energy cost on energy production, we might be observing a net decline in fuel production, and therefore we might already be on the downslope of Hubbert's curve. Just a thought.

7/1/12, 8:05 AM

GHung said...
@Chris Balow: Funny you failed to mention the university (UK) and its associated inputs to Lexington. (medical center, etc.).

Ask yourself what happens when the student debt bubble implodes, grants and scholarship funds dry up, etc.. A large number of the 26,000+ students and 11,000+ employees currently in the area will be seeking other jobs or bailing out of the academic life they now enjoy (and the area). Billions of dollars now supporting services and businesses could go poof overnight. It may be better to establish one's self in an area already bottoming out. Something to consider...

7/1/12, 9:56 AM

Ceworthe said...
"Human powered weed wackers" are otherwise known as grass whips (as in you whip the thing back and forth to cut the grass) Familiar with them from needing to cut the grass around the electric fences in my youth on the farm. Got a charge out of the new name ;-)

7/1/12, 10:40 AM

Steve W. said...
Has anyone seen those bumper stickers cropping up lately? "Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less." I'm not sure that most Americans understand that sticking a pipe into oil shale or tar sand will NOT give you usable crude right away. As you pointed out in your column, you need a whole bunch MORE energy to convert it. And it's a time consuming process. I don't think even the oil company executives claim that we can get 20 million barrels a day out of this stuff, which is what we're using here in the USA right now. And, unfortunately, I'm one of those 300 million that continues to use it every day.....

7/1/12, 10:47 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Goedeck, thanks for the link. I hadn't heard of him, no. He has some good insights, but there's a core principle of sane occult practice he doesn't seem to have grasped: you can't treat visionary experiences as factual accounts of the material plane unless they check out when compared to material evidence.

Glenn, well, we'll see where the refugees come from...

Edward, it's a very Darwinian approach to raising vegetables -- and like most things Darwinian, it works quite well.

Jennifer, I'd call it rising costs due to pollution, exactly as predicted by The Limits to Growth. I suppose "blowback" is a decent term, too.

Edward, excellent! I'm going to look for one of those handpowered weed whackers -- I've got weeds in our unused driveway that could use its gentle ministrations. (I'll have to get half a mulberry tree out of the way first; yet another reason to be glad not to own a car, as it would have been crunched good and proper.)

Gideon, thanks for the link!

Michael, glad to hear it. Ours has settled into its summer lull -- peas are over, beans, peppers and summer squash are coming in, tomatoes aren't quite ripe yet, and the grape vines we planted last year have a few bunches this year, which was unexpected.

MawKernewek, the northwest of Europe is getting a lot of cold and wet, just like the northwest of North America. One of the things that a lot of global climate change rhetoric missed is that it's not just a matter of uniform warming.

Cherokee, thanks for the tips! I'm used to trees, though, and to windstorms; we're staying indoors out of the sun, and occasional plummeting branches, for the most part.

Ceworthe, thanks for the info. Now I know what to ask for.

Steve, I hadn't seen 'em yet. What a testament to human stupidity.

7/1/12, 1:23 PM

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

"the northwest of Europe is getting a lot of cold and wet, just like the northwest of North America. One of the things that a lot of global climate change rhetoric missed is that it's not just a matter of uniform warming"

Bingo. My father and uncles, farm boys all, keep on commenting about the strange weather of recent years. AFAIK, the best projections for the UK are global warming + declining Gulf Stream. meaning we'll stay at about the same historic temperatures (better by far than many or most areas) but perhaps not in the same way. I gather there are gardening books specific to the Pacific Northwest and, to be honest, I'm beginning to suspect that I might need to invest in those, as our weather seems to be going in that direction.

7/1/12, 1:48 PM

Ron Broberg said...
An elegant reduction from a systems view of cities worth watching (or skipping) to the end.

7/1/12, 4:16 PM

Jim R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

7/1/12, 4:33 PM

Jim R said...
@Bill Pulliam,
Thanks for pointing that out, it had not occurred to me. Even though Deinococcus radiodurans can endure the rigors of a nuclear reactor, it does not derive any benefit from it. It must wait for the radiation to die down, repair its DNA and get on with the usual chemosynthetic activities of a bacterium.

@Lauren, thanks. I'll get back to you offline. I'm not sure if it was a Druidic blessing, but that rain was certainly a blessing, even here in the city. The Mediterranean Geckos are finally making a comeback, and hopefully will put a dent in the fly population in our yard.

7/1/12, 4:39 PM

Ceworthe said...
You can get grass whips at your local Tractor Supply, or on, or at farm yard sales. New, they run $12-20.

7/1/12, 5:11 PM

SeaMari said...
FWIW - I have used a grass whip ("human powered weed whacker"), as well as gas powered string trimmers, and much prefer an Austrian-style scythe fitted with a 24" - 26" bush blade to both of those tools for weed/grass control and cutting paths through the meadow.

7/1/12, 6:13 PM

wall0159 said...
Hi Bill Pulliam,

Regarding evolution to explore other power sources, that's an interesting observation. I wouldn't say it necessarily precludes other things being possible though. The reason for this is that evolution can only "pursue goals" (to anthropomorphise a bit) that are advantageous every step of the way.
Say, for example, that nuclear fusion was possible but that every interim step to evolve it representated a competitive disavantage to the organism. If this was the case then it would never evolve.

Having said that, I'm more convinced by those who claim that photosynthesis is the best (whole lifecycle) way to turn the sun's light into chemical energy (eg. better than solar PV, once one considers cost of manufacture, distribution, installation, maintenance, etc). Time to plant a woodlot!


7/1/12, 7:53 PM

Mark Luterra said...
@Bill Pulliam.

As a biological engineer myself, I agree with your assertion that attempting to improve on three billion years of evolution often leads to failure. But I would add one caveat. When humans try to engineer something that nature has never had any reason to design, then all bets are off.

Not surprisingly, human attempts to convert sunlight into chemical energy haven't gotten much higher than the ~6-10% maximum efficiency of photosynthesis. However, living bodies have no need of electricity (aside from small electrical potentials in cells and nerves), so evolution hasn't really explored possible ways of making it. Thus I wouldn't conclude that just because no other organism uses hydropower or wind power for energy that these technologies are fundamentally incompatible with the biosphere.

With regard to Oregon climate, we are subject to the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which cycles between warm and cold phases on the scale of 20-30 years. While recent springs and summers have been cool relative to the past 20 years, they are on par with the last cold PDO phase from the 1950s to the 1970s.

It may be that climate change is going to bring cooler springs/summers to Oregon, or it may be that we won't really see the effects until the PDO warms and the summers are hotter than any on record.

7/1/12, 8:19 PM

team10tim said...
Hey hey Avery,

Re: American outage graph

I thought you might like this graph of grid reliability vs GDP. See figure 4. Apperantly, high per capita GDP only occurs in countries with a reliable grid. You outage graph implies that we are fast on our way to a 3rd world country. There is a more thorough treatment in their Low Carbon and Economic Growth – Key Challenges (PDF warning) publication which is quite good. It is an economic analysis of the substitution of human labor for work done by machines powered by fossil fuels. The empirical work is excellent and it concludes that resource depletion (peak oil) means that the best hope for developing nations is pretty much the appropriate technology advocated by Schumacher.


7/1/12, 8:53 PM

GS said...
Excellent post and you are one of the best writers around, JMG.

Everywhere I look I see the signs of decay, though life seems to be OK at the top.

And I look at the children and teenagers and think, they're going to outlast me, no matter what I do.

Do not ask for whom the bell tolls!

7/1/12, 10:08 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Mark -- True that biology has not seemed to have any need for bulk electric current, getting everything done with electrochemical potentials and current flows only on a microscopic scale. But of course a lot of what we do with electricity is to use it to produce torque, heat, and light -- all things that biology accomplishes without it. The roadrunner runs, the hummingbird flies, and the tuna swims, all driven by electron transfer on a molecular scale. We heat our bodies and fireflies flash their signal lights using the same method. One wonders if the system we use, of converting wind and hydrostatic pressure into electricity, then transmitting it long distances, where it is reconverted to torque, heat, and light, is really a good bet in the big picture. Might it not turn out that in the end (after the salvage economy runs it course) we'll get light, heat, and torque through biology again (i.e. biological fuels and muscles)? And we'll use the wind and water mostly just to power our long-distance travel?

7/2/12, 7:12 AM

Kurt Cagle said...
JMG - Glad to hear you survived the Derecho. Given the topic of systems from you post, I found the storm a classic example of a system at work that could prove very destructive long term.

In Mexico, there's a very tight circulating high that has been sitting there for about a week and will be sitting there another week easily. To the north of that there's another high circulating in the opposite direction feeding the hot dry air of Mexico into a loop centered over Colorado, which at this point is an open, fiery oven. Above this is the jet stream, which is pushing this oven in the other direction like a circular gear on alternatively moving gear trains. The Jet Stream picks up that heat and lets it build up just west of Chicago, with the cold wet atmosphere of Lake Michigan acting like a giant wall.

Last Friday, the dome of hot dry air eventually breached this wall, and came rushing down a pressurized trough towards Washington DC at more than 80 miles an hour. The resulting Derecho, or Land Hurricane, created a swath of devastation across much of Maryland and DC, felling trees, dropping power lines, and frying transformers already straining against the 100F+ degree heat.

For many of us in that region, we got a cold hard taste of what's coming in the 21st century. I'm from the Pacific Northwest, which is currently experiencing Junuary - temperatures more consistent with March than late June. Air conditioning is pretty much required, though usually most heavily towards the latter part of July, but even without AC, fans can at least help to cool things somewhat. Without electricity, there were no fans, and the two story house we rent became unliveable. You cannot store food, because there is no power to the refrigerators, you cannot cook food, because there is no power to the stove. Houses in the area were designed with air conditioning in mind (at least those post 1980) - these became stifling ovens in triple digit temperatures.

The Derecho caused a massive power surge in the system because of all of the AC being used, and then compounded this with damage to overhead wires. We were fortunate to get power back in three days - others may wait more than a week. Most of the supermarkets in the area were throwing out all of their perishables - likely several billion dollars in food that depend upon the miracle of freezers. Gas stations started running out of gasoline as everyone stocked up for generators or to insure that they had gas to get away if necessary, and batteries and water became scarce.

What many people, even those who follow the peak oil movement closely, frequently fail to recognize is the degree to which we are dependent upon reliable energy. We have few ways of storing or preparing feed that doesn't require a power cord of some sort, we lose contact with one another very quickly, we can't even count on the water being safe to drink (the sewage treatment plant's power failed and it was running on generators - when energy ran out for those generators (two to three more days), people would be dealing with sewage tainted water, and cholera would become a real problem again. The storm ended up with a couple dozen casualties, but these didn't account for poor seniors who died of heart attacks and strokes induced by heat.

The morning after the first storm, people flocked to one of the few coffeeshops that still had power, desperate for caffeine and news in that order. Annapolis tends to be a weird mix of poor black Democrats and upper crust white yachtsmen Republicans, and two of the latter were sipping coffee and staring out at the heat coming off the concrete amidst the downed trees, when I heard one say to the other "You don't think there might actually be something to this global warming stuff, do you?"

7/2/12, 10:15 AM

phil harris said...
Thanks very much for that link to the IIER report funded by the UK Department DIID. I have met one of the authors, Rembrandt Kopelaar, and trust his brains, and the whole team are to be congratulated on setting it so straight. The cow milking 'worked example' is brilliant. Takes me back to the early days of mechanization - I was no great shakes at hand milking myself I have to admit.

Seriously. even my brain can get round the general import of the arithmetic they do on our behalf. Oh boy!


7/2/12, 1:29 PM

Renaissance Man said...
OK, I've had time to digest and think deeper and realize: of course! -- this lies at the core of the idea you describe in Catabolic Collapse.
This would be why civilizations, when they recover temporarily from some disruptive shock, tend to try and re-create the same form that they had before the shock-of-loss. The form is as close as they can make it, but, because it is so close in form, it still requires more resources than is really available, setting things up for the next shock/decline step. It's about psychological comfort driving a systemic behaviour, as human society is itself a system.
As for Bardi and the Seneca Cliff, how would you compare that theory against the actual sharp decline experienced during the last years of the Soviet Union? Because that decline looked a lot like Seneca's Cliff to me.
Or would you say that it was more of a sharp step down, as they didn't actually decline into a post-industrial society, given that they maintained the form of government and maintained things such as transit, elecricty, &c. and 'came to rest' on a new plateau as it were?

7/2/12, 1:54 PM

John Michael Greer said...
Carp, there are indeed. Talk to the folks at Seattle Tilth and Oregon Tilth; they can give you good advice on year round gardening in a damp gray maritime environment.

Ron, thanks for the link.

Ceworthe, thanks for the tip! I'll go looking for one shortly.

SeaMari, if I had a meadow, I'd want a scythe, too, but in my case it's a matter of keeping weeds in check in an old driveway with lots of broken concrete, and other environments where you wouldn't want to risk a scythe blade. (I'm almost tempted to sing: "If I had a meadow, I'd scythe it in the mo-or-ning...")

GS, thank you!

Kurt, many thanks for the description. This sort of thing is exactly why those of us who are aware of the shape of the future ahead of us need to start learning the skills and acquiring the tools that will make life viable in a deindustrial society. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe Annapolis was a thriving town in the days before air conditioning and electric fans, right? If people like you start learning how to live comfortably in summer in your location without a/c and electric fans, you're going to be much better prepared for a future where grid electricity is going to be increasingly intermittent -- that is, of course, before it goes away altogether. You're also going to be able to help other people make that change, of course.

Renaissance, excellent! You get today's gold star. The collapse of the Soviet Union was in fact a classic self-limiting catabolic collapse; as you point out, they didn't revert to a deindustrial society. Russia underwent a sharp decline, then stabilized and have even had a modest upswing in recent years, just as the catabolic collapse model predicts. The next round of collapse will hit them in due time--just as it will hit us, of course.

7/2/12, 4:34 PM

DeAnander said...
"You don't think there might actually be something to this global warming stuff, do you?"

-- brilliant, sounds like the caption to a classic cartoon from Punch or the New Yorker. In the cartoon, the two gentlemen would perhaps be standing in ankle-deep water at the bar...

captcha; "somebod 22" -- I find myself singing "somebod' sing hello, hello, hello" :-)

7/2/12, 5:15 PM

Cherokee Organics said...
Hi Mark,

Bill is spot on. Living with an off grid solar power system, you quickly become aware of how inefficient the whole system is. Potential power is lost at every point in the system. It is akin to trying to catch water in a leaky sieve.

However, the inefficiencies I experience are nothing compared to the inefficiencies in the grid system. A huge proportion of the electricity generated at a large scale generator is lost to heat and sound even before it gets to the consumer. Transmitting electricity over long distances is a losing game.

As to your own house, you may be surprised to find that 110v wiring is also inefficient and I'd safely bet that you are losing quite a bit of energy to heat, particularly if you employ large loads such as electrical heating or cooling.



7/2/12, 5:33 PM

Bill Pulliam said...
Kurt -- your meteorology is only off on the actual triggering event and driving force behind the derecho (which TV meteorologists still cannot pronounce -- it's Spanish). It is actually what happens in an atmosphere that is hot and humid but only moderately unstable, on the north edge of a high pressure ridge, with a well-developed northwest flow aloft but not directly under the jet stream. These situations are generally fairly placid, but they are just stable enough for substantial low-level heat to build up, then when something finally does punch through and go unstable... well, it can set off a chain reaction. The triggering event is often an otherwise unordinary "mesoscale convective complex," known to the rest of us as a "clump of thunderstorms." The energy lines up just right, and it sets off a cascade much like a string of dominoes toppling. This sends a self-propagating wave of convection racing towards the east/southeast/south at phenomenal speeds, heralded by a truly spectacular gust front. It's not really a large-scale collapse of the system, but a mesoscale process; indeed the large-scale conditions often are much the same over the subsequent days, and another derecho can get set off again if the cards fall right. They are a relatively recently described phenomenon, but looking back through history they turned out to not be something new at all, just previously unrecognized. A famous one blasted Memphis a few years back, got dubbed "Hurricane Elvis." There are multiple ones most summers, this was not even the first one for 2012 but was definitely stronger than average and hit many big population centers. June-July is the peak season; they especially like to demolish 4th of July celebrations.

This is a good example of the "who knows what might happen?" aspect of climate change. The triggering mechanisms for derechos are poorly understood and difficult to forecast, so how can anyone say if they will become more or less frequent? Extreme events are often balanced on a knife-edge, it is all but impossible to say which way they will be tipped by complex changes.

One of the major patterns that looks like an early manifestation of CO2-induced climate change that is having major impacts on the northern hemisphere was entirely unpredicted. The huge jet-stream meanders that usually move ponderously around the planet are getting stuck in place. These are what cause the shifts between persistent warmth or cold or wet or dry, often lasting for weeks at a time. But now the patterns are locking in place for months at a time, not progressing, causing entire subcontinents to get locked into extremes of temperature and precipitation for very long times. This caused the "Snowpocalypse" in the northeastern U.S. a couple of winters ago, and is causing the persistent and abnormal warmth in the same region for most of 2012 so far. And it is causing the persistent cold and damp in the PNW at the same time. It could easily flip, dumping the eastern U.S. into a suddenly cool late summer and bitter cold winter, and putting the PNW in the furnace. Or it might not. The old well-known patterns seem to be fading.

7/2/12, 9:18 PM

PhilJ said...
"Maugeri's analysis of projects in 23 countries suggests that global oil supplies are likely to rise by a net 17m barrels per day (to 110m) by 2020. This, he says, is "the largest potential addition to the world's oil supply capacity since the 1980s". The investments required to make this boom happen depend on a long-term price of $70 a barrel – the current cost of Brent crude is $95. Money is now flooding into new oil: a trillion dollars has been spent in the past two years; a record $600bn is lined up for 2012." George Monbiot,
Me-thinks a re-think is required.
Phil Joyce
Andover, UK

7/3/12, 2:51 AM

John Michael Greer said...
DeAnander, I was thinking much the same thing!

Phil, yes, I saw Monbiot's latest, and also the Maugeri piece he quoted. It's based on the same wildly distorted projections of yield from fracking and other bottom of the barrel techniques, on which I've commented here several times already. Maugeri's article should be taken in the same spirit as those claims by economists in 2006 and 2007 that real estate prices would infallibly continue to rise for the imaginable future. No doubt you recall how well those worked out.

7/3/12, 11:07 AM

phil harris said...
JMG (and PhilJ)
For what it’s worth, I am with JMG on resurgent oil production in the USA and its meaning for future oil production.
George Monbiot has always been wobbly on the future of oil production - he used to witter on about all that future Russian supply - so his present article is not exactly a 'Damascene' moment. The guy he quotes who wrote the report seems to have a history of producing optimistic forecasts for increased world oil production.
So maybe there is not a lot new.
‘Unconventional oil’ where you must run very hard to keep up production year by year is not an obvious candidate to substitute for ever and a day for the now declining conventional supplies that have supplied 40% of the world’s energy and almost all transport. I just wrote a bit on the numbers for increasing production of unconventional oil in North America, but have cut it. We will see where these numbers go in the next few years, but it is safe to say they cannot substitute for the vast daily net imports that make up the majority of the US oil supply.

7/3/12, 2:43 PM

SLClaire said...
I just returned home (St. Louis, MO area) from a wedding in New Jersey. This required a drive along I-70 from western Pennsylvania clear to St. Louis. We saw the first derecho damage in Wheeling, West Virginia. From then on we saw it in various places and degrees all the way through Ohio and Indiana to the eastern edge of Illinois. Most of what we saw were trees topped by the strong winds. Had the soil been wet, most of those trees probably would have uprooted. The dry soil kept the root ball in place, however, causing snapped-off limbs and trunks. We also saw a few damaged billboards, two partially peeled-off roofs, and one building under construction that collapsed. All this was just what we could see as we drove along the interstate.

We've had derechos here too, the last ones in 2006. I know many people in the southern part of the derecho area, such as Maryland and Virginia, are suffering from near 100F heat. But what astonished me was the complaints from folks in Ohio, where highs are only in the low 90s, easily livable without AC. I got to feeling pretty grumpy about it. We hadn't used our AC at all this year before we returned home today, and it's been much hotter here; I wouldn't have turned it on except that our highs have run 100F+ for the last 6 days and we're under an excessive heat warning. I worry about our collective loss of ability to muddle through without AC under conditions where most people can manage quite well without it.

What upset me more than that, however, was the state of the corn crop. I've lived in the Midwest all but 8 years of my life; I know what healthy corn looks like in early July. I have never seen corn look so bad as it did along I-70 in Illinois, however, not in the whole 55 years I've been alive (and it didn't look much better in Indiana or Ohio). Even if it does start raining normally - and it's not supposed to rain at all until at least early next week - it's hard to imagine getting a crop at all. I wonder if the plants might be dead before we get more rain. Very few farms practice irrigation in the Corn Belt because it rains during the growing season. At least most years it does. There aren't enough days left to the growing season to grow more corn, if you could germinate the seeds to begin with, which you'd have to have some rain to do, which we aren't getting. And this is the material that gets turned into most of our meats and processed foods ...

7/3/12, 7:38 PM

Diane said...
Monbiot has been riding on his past reputation as an ecological warrior of sorts, the ageing generation X-ers love him, because he eases their disquiet about what really needs to be done. The same applies to the Guardian, its establishment bias is really starting to show, but its readership has grown old and wants reassurance that middle class affluence is an untouchable. I stopped reading Monbiot and the Guardian a long time ago

7/4/12, 12:45 AM

John Michael Greer said...
Phil, it's interested me for a long time that the environmental mainstream loves to talk about climate change, but shies away from peak oil. I've argued before that the difference between the two is that climate change is a narrative about human power -- look at us, we're so mighty we can destroy the Earth! -- while peak oil is a narrative about human limitations -- oops, all that power we thought was ours was simply pilfered from the planet's carbon reserves, and what will we do once it's gone? Thus it's not surprising to me to see erstwhile environmentalists such as Monbiot jumping onto the peak oil denial bandwagon, the way they jumped onto the nuclear bandwagon a little while back. They're still caught up in the same weary narrative of human omnipotence.

SLClaire, welcome to the future. As for air conditioning, I'll be discussing that in this week's post.

Diane, thanks for the perspective. The Monbiot article that, to me, was a dead giveaway was the one where he admitted that his own home leaks energy like a sieve, but fixing it would cost a lot of money, and since it wouldn't add anything to the resale value, well, he couldn't justify th eexpenditure. And this man calls himself an environmentalist!

7/4/12, 8:01 AM

Jason Heppenstall said...
Regarding George Monbiot, on Sunday I wrote this blog piece featuring him, in which I said that he and others didn't understand peak oil.

Two days later he wrote *that* article rubbishing peak oil. Coincidence? I dunno ...

I'll leave it to Rob Hopkins and Sharon Astyk to point out the flaws in his arguments.

I would however say - and I think this is a factor that bypasses many American readers - that the key environmental spokespeople in Britain come from the upper echelons of the class system and are nearly all Oxbridge educated. Combine that with our recent imperial past and you've a recipe for the kind of omnipotent assumptions that JMG rightly points out the environmental movement is prone to. Nuff said.

@Diane. I used to write for the Guardian but they were not interested in anything to do with peak oil. The editors regard it as a theory, rather than a measurable phenomenon and said as much to me in a (politely worded) email only a few months ago.

7/4/12, 10:01 AM

Bruce Wilder said...
At the risk of making a completely obvious point, the whole infrastructure of fossil fuel distillation, distribution and use extends well beyond the bounds of the oil field, per se. Much of this infrastructure represents a sunk cost investment, earning substantial economic rents (or, if you prefer, quasi-rents).

The shape of the production decline is going to be conditioned on the demands and possibilities of that infrastructure. Filling the "pipeline", so to speak, will remain an economic imperative for a while, even as disinvestment from that infrastructure accelerates. The economic rents of the infrastructure (the "pipeline") constitute a kind of force, an attractor, stabilizing a homeostatic equilibrium, and creating significant economic pressure for a prolonged plateau in fossil fuel energy production/consumption.

Maintaining an output plateau, against the Hubbert factors, which would, by themselves, lead to gradual decline, are part of what, I think, make the Seneca Cliff model plausible. Maintaining a whole-system equilibrium, in the form of an output plateau, comes at an increasing cost to the whole-system. That cost can be paid, in a financial sense, out of economic rents and the political exploitation of externalities (e.g. frakking poisons ground water; deep-sea drilling kills tuna).

7/4/12, 11:09 AM

Arthur Johnson said...
I've been reading your blog for the past two years, and this my first comment posting. First off, I want to commend you for all the time, effort, and deep thinking you've invested in this truly outstanding blog. Your success in constructing a persuasive, compelling narrative that binds together peak oil, resource depletion, the ideology of progress, and past, present and future of industrial civilization is truly remarkable.

Second, I wanted to say something about Monbiot. Yes, there are some problems with his perspective on environmentalism; I think he's far too optimistic that a workable, long-term solution can be found for nuclear waste management. And the personal issues concerning the energy inefficiency of his farmhouse in Wales are duly noted. Environmentalists do need to "walk the talk" a lot more than they have been.

That being said, Monbiot's voice in the environmental and climate change movements remains a very thoughful and valuable one. After reading an essay of his, I've always come away with a little bit more than I had going in. His latest essay is no exception. Despite the hyperbole about the Bakken oil reserves, his basic point is well taken:

The automatic correction – resource depletion destroying the machine that was driving it – that many environmentalists foresaw is not going to happen. The problem we face is not that there is too little oil, but that there is too much.

The only change I would make is to substitute "fossil fuel" for "oil". Over the past 10 years, the world's political and business leadership has moved to an unshakeable commitment to a fossil-intensive world. While it is true that at some point, the EROEI of extracting unconventional oil and natural gas will reach zero and make it unprofitable to extract, because of "the cussedness of whole systems" we may not reach that point for some time.

Is there enough fossil fuel remaining in the ground to deep-fry the planet, as Monbiot claims? Yes, basically. The combination of slowly declining conventional oil and just the Canadian tar sands, by themselves, is probably enough to do it.

7/4/12, 12:03 PM