Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Energy Follows Its Bliss

Industrial civilization is a complicated thing, and its decline and fall bids fair to be more complicated still, but both rest on the refreshingly simple foundations of physical law. That’s crucial to keep in mind, because the raw emotional impact of the unwelcome future breathing down our necks just now can make it far too easy to retreat into one form or another of self-deception.

Plenty of the new energy technologies discussed so enthusiastically on the internet these days might as well be poster children for this effect. I think most people in the peak oil community are aware by now, for example, that the sweeping plans made for ethanol production from American corn as a solution to petroleum depletion neglected one minor but important detail: all things considered, growing corn and turning it into ethanol uses more energy than you get back from burning the ethanol. It’s not at all surprising that this was missed, for the same variety of bad logic underlies an astonishing amount of our collective conversation about energy these days.

The fundamental mistake that drove the ethanol boom and bust seems to be hardwired into our culture. Here’s an example. Most bright American ten-year-olds, about the time they learn about electric motors and generators, come up with the scheme of hooking up a motor and a generator to the same axle, running the electricity from the generator back to the motor, and using the result to power a vehicle. It seems perfectly logical; the motor drives the generator, the generator powers the motor, perpetual motion results, you hook it up to wheels or the like, and away you drive on free energy. Yes, I was one of those ten-year-olds, and somewhere around here I may still have one of the drawings I made of the car I planned to build when I turned sixteen, using that technology for the engine.

Of course it didn’t work. Not only couldn’t I get the device to power my bicycle – that was how I planned on testing the technology out – I couldn’t even make the thing run without a load connected to it at all. No matter how carefully I hooked up a toy motor to a generator salvaged from an old bicycle light, fitted a flywheel to one end of the shaft, and gave it a spin, the thing turned over a few times and then slowed to a halt. What interests me most about all this in retrospect, though, is that the adults with whom I discussed my project knew that it wouldn’t work, and told me so, but had the dickens of a time explaining why it didn’t work in terms that a bright ten-year-old could grasp.

This isn’t because the subject is overly complicated. The reason why perpetual motion won’t work is breathtakingly simple; the problem is that the way most people nowadays think about energy makes it almost impossible to grasp the logic involved. Most people nowadays think that since energy can be defined as the capacity to do work, if you have a certain amount of energy, you can do a certain amount of work with it. That seems very logical; the problem is that the real world doesn’t work that way.

In the real world, you have to take at least two other things into account. The first of them, of course, has seen a fair amount of discussion in peak oil circles: to figure out the effective energy yield of any energy source, you have to subtract the amount of energy needed to extract that energy source and put the energy in itto work. That’s the problem of net energy, and it’s the trap that’s clamped tightly onto the tender portions of the American ethanol industry; ethanol from corn only makes sense as an energy source if you ignore how much energy has to go into producing it.

The second issue, though, is the one I want to stress here. It’s seen a lot less discussion, but it’s even more important than the issue of net energy, and it unfolds from the most ironclad of all the laws of physics, the second law of thermodynamics. The point that needs to be understood is that how much energy you happen to have on hand, even after subtracting the energy cost, doesn’t actually matter a bit when it comes to doing work. The amount of work you get out of a given energy source depends, not on the amount of energy, but on the difference in energy concentration between the energy source and the environment.

Please read that again: The amount of work you get out of a given energy source depends, not on the amount of energy it contains, but on the difference in energy concentration between the energy source and the environment.

Got that? Now let’s take a closer look at it.

Left to itself, energy always moves from more concentrated states to less concentrated states; this is why the coffee in your morning cuppa gets cold if you leave it on the table too long. The heat that was in the coffee still exists, because energy is neither created nor destroyed; it’s simply become useless to you, because most of it’s dispersed into the environment, raising the air temperature in your dining room by a fraction of a degree. There’s still heat in the coffee as well, since it stops losing heat when it reaches room temperature and doesn’t continue down to absolute zero, but room temperature coffee is not going to do the work of warming your insides on a cold winter morning.

In a very small way, as you sit there considering your cold coffee, you’re facing an energy crisis; the energy resources you have on hand (the remaining heat in the coffee) will not do the work you want them to do (warming your insides). Notice, though, that you’re not suffering from an energy shortage – there’s exactly the same amount of energy in the dining room as there was when the coffee was fresh from the coffeepot. No, what you have is a shortage of the difference between energy concentrations that will allow the energy to do useful work. (The technical term for this is exergy). How do you solve your energy crisis? One way or another, you have to increase the energy concentration in your energy source relative to the room temperature environment. You might do that by dumping your cold coffee down the drain and pouring yourself a fresh cup, say, or by putting your existing cup on a cup warmer. Either way, though, you have to get some energy to do the work, and that means letting it go from higher to lower concentrations.

Any time you make energy do anything, you have to let some of it follow its bliss, so to speak, and pass from a higher concentration to a lower one. The more work you want done, the more exergy you use up; you can do it by allowing a smaller amount of highly concentrated energy to disperse, or by allowing a much larger amount of modestly concentrated energy to do so, or anything in between. One way or another, though, the total difference in energy concentration between source and environment – the total exergy – decreases when work is done. Mind you, you can make energy do plenty of tricks if you’re willing to pay its price; you can change it from one form to another, and you can even concentrate one amount of energy by sacrificing a much larger amount to waste heat; but one way or another, the total exergy in the system goes down.

This is why my great discovery at age ten didn’t revolutionize the world and make me rich and famous, as I briefly hoped it would. Electric motors and generators are ways of turning energy from one form into another – from electricity into rotary motion, on the one hand, and from rotary motion into electricity on the other. Each of them necessarily disperses some energy, and thus loses some exergy, in the process. Thus the amount of electricity that you get out of the generator when the shaft is turning at any given speed will always be less than the amount of electricity the motor needs to get the shaft up to that speed.

This gets missed whenever people assume that the amount of energy, rather than its concentration, is the thing that matters. Post something on the internet about energy as a limiting factor for civilization, and dollars will get you doughnuts that somebody will respond by insisting that the amount of energy in the universe is infinite. Now of course Garrett Hardin was quite right to point out in Filters Against Folly that when somebody says “X is infinite,” what’s actually being said is “I refuse to think about X;” the word “infinite” functions as a thoughtstopper, a way to avoid paying attention to something that’s too uncomfortable to consider closely.

Still, there’s another dimension to the problem, and it follows from the points already raised here. Whether or not there’s an infinite amount of energy in the universe – and we simply don’t know one way or the other – we can be absolutely sure that the amount of highly concentrated energy in the small corner of the universe we can easily access is sharply and distressingly finite. Since energy always tries to follow its bliss, highly concentrated energy sources are very rare, and only occur when very particular conditions happen to be met.

In the part of the cosmos that affects us directly, one set of those conditions exist in the heart of the sun, where gravitational pressure squeezes hydrogen nuclei so hard that they fuse into helium. Another set exists here on the Earth’s surface, where plants concentrate energy in their tissues by tapping into the flow of energy dispersing from the sun, and other living things do the same thing by tapping into the energy supplies created by plants. Now and again in the history of life on Earth, a special set of conditions have allowed energy stockpiled by plants to be buried and concentrated further by slow geological processes, yielding the fossil fuels that we now burn so recklessly. There are a few other contexts in which energy can be had in concentrated forms – kinetic energy from water and wind, both of them ultimately driven by sunlight; heat from within the Earth, caught and harnessed as it slowly disperses toward space; a handful of scarce and unstable radioactive elements that can be coaxed into nuclear misbehavior under exacting conditions – but the vast majority of the energy we have on hand here on Earth comes directly or indirectly from the sun.

That in itself defines our problem neatly, because by the time it gets through 93 million miles of deep space, then filters its way down through the Earth’s relatively murky atmosphere, the energy in sunlight is pretty thoroughly dispersed. That’s why green plants stockpile only about 1% of the energy in the light striking their leaves; the rest either bounces off the leaves or gets dispersed into waste heat in the process of keeping the plant alive and enabling it to manufacture the sugars that store the 1%. Sunlight just isn’t that concentrated, and you have to disperse one heck of a lot of it to get a very modest amount of energy concentrated enough to do much of anything with it.

All this explains as well why the “zero point energy” people are basically smoking their shorts. The premise of zero point energy is that there’s a vast amount of energy woven into the fabric of spacetime; if we can tap into it, we solve all our energy problems and go zooming off to the stars. They do seem to be right that there’s a huge amount of energy in empty space, but once again, the amount of energy does not tell you how much work you can do with it, and zero point energy is by definition at the lowest possible level of concentration. By definition, therefore, it can’t be made to do anything at all, and any attempt to make use of it belongs right up there on the shelf with my motor-generator gimmick.

The same logic also explains why projects for coming up with a replacement for fossil fuels using sunlight, or any other readily available renewable energy source, are doomed to fail. What makes fossil fuels so valuable is the fact that the energy they contain was gathered over countless centuries and then concentrated by geological processes involving fantastic amounts of heat and pressure over millions of years. They define the far end of the curve of energy concentration, at least on this planet, which is why they are as scarce as they are, and why no other energy resource can compete with them – as long as they still exist, that is.

As concentrated fossil fuel supplies deplete, in turn, a civilization that depends on them for its survival will find itself in a very nasty bind. If ours is anything to go by, it will proceed to make that bind even worse by trying to make up the difference by manufacturing new energy sources at roughly the same level of concentration. That’s a losing bargain, because it maximizes the amount of exergy that gets lost: you have to disperse a lot of energy to make the concentrated energy source, remember, before you can get around to using the concentrated energy source to do anything useful. Thus trying to fill our gas tanks with some manufactured substitute for gasoline, say, drains our remaining supplies of concentrated energy at a much faster pace than the other option – that of doing as much as possible with relatively low concentrations of energy, and husbanding the highly concentrated energy sources for those necessary tasks that can’t be done without them.

This is where E.F. Schumacher’s concept of “intermediate technology,” which was discussed in last week’s post, can be fitted into its broader context. Schumacher’s idea was that state-of-the-art factories and an economy dependent on exports to the rest of the world are not actually that useful to a relatively poor nation trying to build an economy from the ground up. He was right, of course – those Third World nations that have prospered are precisely the ones that used trade barriers to shelter low-tech domestic industries, and entered the export market only after building a domestic industrial base one step at a time – but in a future in which all of us will be a good deal poorer than we are today, his insights have a wider value. A state-of-the-art factory, after all, is more expensive in terms much more concrete than paper money; it takes a great deal more exergy to build and maintain one than it does to build and maintain a workshop using hand tools and human muscles to produce the same goods.

My readers will doubtless be aware that such considerations have about as much chance of being taken seriously in the governing circles of American politics and business as a snowball has for a long and comfortable stay in Beelzebub’s back yard. Fortunately, the cooperation of the current American political and executive classes is entirely unnecessary. In the next few posts, we’ll discuss some of the ways that individuals, families, and local communities can make the switch from economic dependence on highly concentrated energy sources to reliance on much more modestly concentrated and more widely available options. The fact that most of the energy in our highly concentrated energy sources has already followed its bliss into entropic ecstasy puts hard limits on what can be achieved, but there’s still plenty of room to make a bad situation somewhat better.


The Onion said...

I find that the concept of energy's tendency to seek equilibrium seems to apply to social organization too.

For example, it seems to me that it takes extraordinary amounts of energy and resources to maintain despotic forms of government. There are so many different arms of the state required to maintain the fear of authority so that people will continue to act against their own interest; the secret police, gulags, propaganda, managing external threats both real and imagined, etc.

This can be maintained for a while, but eventually the combined passive resistance of many individuals against the state will help remove the walls that prevent entropy from its fulfillment of equilibrium. The people are like gravity, a relatively weak force in the mass of an individual, but powerful in the combined mass of many working in concert, or even unknown to each other. Perhaps this is a bit simplistic.

The United States differs from the despotic state in obvious ways, freedom of speech, assembly etc. but in politics and economics, people often pursue actions that ultimately work against their interests and maintain the concept of the state. This is the power of the American Dream. The State need spend vastly smaller amounts of energy to maintain its social hierarchy, because the amount of passive resistance is very small. People believe in the system that ultimately holds them down and thereby help the State maintain the anti-entropic social system where the few enjoy the surplusses created by the many.

I think this is what makes the situation facing the US the most perplexing, because the prospects of a change in thinking among the many who can turn the course of the country are caught up in the myth of progress. How do we get people to see that we need a social change more than a new miracle widget?

Lamb said...

Brilliantly written, first of all. I, too attempted as a youngester to make a perpetual motion mechanism..and hopelessly failed---several times. I was quite the hard-headed youngster and was convinced if I kept at it, I would eventually succeed.
And so it goes with the folks in the ethanol business.I guess they never out-grew their youthful hardheadedness!
I recently had a conversation with a friend who is a peak oil advocate and insists we should all run our vehicles on waste oil, EVOO, and such. I have tried to point out the production of said oils would use more energy than the oils would provide, but they can't seem to wrap their head around that concept.
I shall point them in the direction of your blog where you have explained it much better than I ever could!

greatblue said...

It always seemed kind of insane to me that we go to the infinite trouble of splitting atoms in nuclear power plants to do what is essentially a pretty low-concentration task, that is, boil water to make steam. Couldn't we do the same thing by concentrating the sun's energy using parabolic mirrors or fresnel lenses without the nuclear waste?

If you want to use the sun's energy when the sun isn't shining or the wind isn't blowing or the tides aren't running or the lava isn't flowing, why not pump water to an uphill reservoir? Or wind up weights in gigantic grandfather clocks installed in skyscrapers?

Some tasks like jet travel require high-concentration fuels like petroleum, but aren't those tasks really the exception?

What am I missing?

John Michael Greer said...

Onion, it's a workable metaphor. Still, in some ways despotism is much simpler than democracy; that's one of the reasons despotisms flourish in times of crisis.

Lamb, by all means have your friend take a look at the blog, but don't expect him to change his mind. Most people -- on all sides of any controversy, not just this one -- decide what they want to believe on the basis of emotion, and then look for evidence supporting that belief. That's one of the reasons that peak oil is such a challenge to communicate -- most people don't want to believe that it's possible, and given the future that peak oil is giving us, it's not hard to understand why.

Greatblue, the funny thing is that when you have huge amounts of cheap fossil fuels, it's actually easier and cheaper to disperse huge amounts of highly concentrated energy than to employ lower concentrations to do the same thing. Of course you're right in the long run -- since fossil fuels are available only in finite and rapidly depleting amounts, we should be using them only for those things where they're needed, and using solar energy to heat our household hot water, etc. Our descendants will think the way you do -- but then they'll never have the experience of living in a society where wasting energy is more economical than saving it!

madtom said...

I fear that people's failure to accept the second law and peak oil is not primarily based on ignorance, stupidity, contrariness or politics, but on simple self-deception.

Even my high school chemistry class had no trouble understanding the peak oil concept back in about 1971. Energy in vs. energy out is a pretty clear concept, and Science magazine did a nice job of presenting Hubbert's logic back then.

Of course a little self-interest creeps in, and even people who clearly know better, like Amory Lovins, publicly buy into nonsense like Bush's "hydrogen economy" because there was a lot to be gained by going along for the ride. I haven't heard much about hydrogen since the Bushies left office, though.

A book 25 years old, Daniel Goleman's "Vital Lies, Simple Truths" is still a classic description of our tendency to deceive ourselves.

Thanks for continuing to present important truths in very clear prose.

Cherokee Organics said...

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with a mate who banged on in glowing terms about the coming hydrogen economy. I didn't really have the heart to tell him that it takes more energy to produce the hydrogen than is released by burning it. Exergy neatly sums up this predicament.

People don't really think much about energy at all. It's one of those things that is reasonably transparent to the end user.

If you look on the Internet you'll see that in Victoria, Australia in 2003 the average household consumed 17.5kWh/day most of which is generated by burning brown coal (pretty scary in itself and thankfully no longer exported to China). I'd be pretty certain that it's much higher now as the market here is being flooded with cheap air conditioners which chew up huge amounts of power. Most people however, pay their bills, switch on appliances and don't think much about it.

A few years ago as training for living in a house that is not connected to the power grid we cut our useage to 3kWh/day and maintained this (more or less).

It seems to me that we could do far better with energy conservation than burning ethanol in vehicles. In Australia, you can buy between 10% and 90% ethanol petrol which is predominantly made from plant wastes. The sad fact though is that it would be far better to put these plant wastes back into the soil to reduce useage of super phosphates, build soil carbon etc. Energy conservation, whilst mostly overlooked and being a dirty word, will delay and soften the inevitable shift to a low energy world.

I recommend all readers to have a good look at their electricity bills. Good luck out there!

William T said...

I think that one of the problems we have today is that we (in general) have no idea how concentrated the energy in fossil fuels really is. For instance, I recently came across a calculation that really astounded me. That is, the amount of energy being delivered into your car by the petrol bowser (assuming it pumps out at 1 L/s which is about the maximum rate they do) is equivalent to the full output of a 30MW power station - a reasonable sized hydro station. So to fill your car you're taking the full output of a small power station for about 1 minute.

That's the main reason that electric vehicles haven't taken off - there is nothing like the concentrated energy of liquid fuels. And because the full cost of these fuels - taking into account the time that they took to be produced, and the effects that their burning has on the future environment - is not being paid, we have been wasting them profligately

Kevin said...

Re Lamb's post: This blog changed my mind. I wasn't trending toward this mode of thought, and had no predisposition to it: quite the reverse. I simply stumbled upon the blog and read. The cogency of the arguments employed here made the difference, and the reasonableness with which they tend to be put.

One canard I'd like to see you shoot down again is that promoted by the book "Alcohol Can Be a Gas," whose author argues with great enthusiasm that we can supply our cars and household energy needs by fermenting the leaves that fall from our neighborhood trees and the like:

I mention this for the same reason as Lamb: a friend who doesn't want to hear the bad news. In particular it's necessary to address the tree leaves issue, as he's mentioned that more than once. As I recall lawn cuttings and other garden detritus have been mentioned as potential bonanza energy sources. I find it incredibly difficult to get people to listen to something they don't want to hear, especially when everyone else thinks that way too.

I receive a newsletter from a "bright green" group but pay only limited attention to what they have to say. They seem to suppose that all we need to do is make a few lifestyle changes and a newly adjusted green industrial high technological civilization can carry on indefinitely. A deeply problematic future is something they seldom evince a desire to look at squarely.

DeadBeat Dad said...


The attempt to concentrate diffuse energy to the concentrated liquid seems like an uphill battle. It's a Sisyphean task.

But the best way to fight a Herculean battle is with the tiniest weapons. This company uses microbes. to convert Brazilian sugar into biodiesel.

Here's a great video on their process.

They use Brazilian sugar fed to genetically mod yeast to make biodiesel in a few easy steps. Just like making beer.

They have already done it in their test facility, the only question is can they scale it to power the world's ONE billion cars, trucks, and buses.

And what if a batch of wild yeast contaminates their specialty GMO yeast?

"...One concern: wild yeast strains could ride into the fermentation tanks along with the sugarcane juice. In sterile lab experiments, that's not a problem. But in a sugarcane mill, yeast that doesn't make farnesene could easily overwhelm the lab-created variety. "

tgmac said...

Tbfair, the 2nd law of thermodynamics takes a bit of thinking about. Once understood, it seems almost self evident. It's getting people to think about it that's the problem. It's not something that pops up casually in pub conversation, and no one is willing to listen to complex theories. Such coversation is limited to sound-bites these days.

I cut my own heating power supply from turf. I'm the only fool cutting by hand because the machine cut turf is highly damaging to the enivornment. Yet last year more turf was cut than anyone can remember. Why? We built huge homes and now the cost of heating oil is high. Therefore, we find another way to damage the environment for convenience. And still they're building even bigger homes in my locality.

When people can't connect their home size and energy efficiency against gathering an old form of fuel to cut fuel bills what chance does the 2nd law of thermodynamics have?

(Btw I return between 40-60% of the material back into the environment in such a manner that the plants growing on the "pared" sods go on growing and propogating so that the natural process remains relatively undisturbd in the long run.)

James Bromfield said...

Dear Sir

With no deliberate intent to offend yours or any other evolved thinker on peak oil, I think the solution is easier than we think.

Grow hemp, like the good old days. Make biodiesel, locally, with all the unemployed people who are sitting there idle. They then grow their own wealth and the wealth of the nation. we need to create.

I think the issue here is with individual independence and freedom, which has to be earned, not given to you by someone else. There is plenty of land in america, if its used intelligently, there is no problem.

Best Regards and all the best


LS said...

JMG, thanks for another thought provoking post. I have wondered for some time what is the highest level of technology that a de-industrialised, post Peak Oil world can sustain? Clearly the answer is dependent upon the energy gradient of available fuels.

My intuitive response is that at best you end up back in the steam age (if you have lots of something available to burn), or more likely for most of the world, something even more primitive (think whatever a blacksmith can make).

Where I live (NSW, Australia) we have vast coal reserves that we love digging up and burning to power aircon and ipods. I can see a time when the men with picks, go back into the mines here to dig out the coal by hand.

A couple of years ago I toured the ruins of what was once a massive shale-oil refinery in the mountains near here. The photos of the place when it was running were of an utterly apocalyptic moonscape. I dread the day that even the comparatively low energy gradient of shale oil becomes tempting again.

xhmko said...

The energy input required to make concentrated energy is one of the strongest arguments against nuclear expansion, apart from the disastrous longterm effects of storing the waste which still no one can sort out. But let's not let the idea of creating unihabitable wastelands get in the way of bad idea. You start explaining how the nuclear process actually requires extra ordinary amounts of fossils fuels to produce the raw material required to boil water with isotopes, and people are like "Wha??? It's a green alternative".
Maybe radioactive green. Maybe greenback green. Certainly it has nothing to do with the ecological sense of the word. Nuclear energy doesn't run vehicles, or lube them or make the paint or plastic insulation for the wiring or any of the other assorted necessities invovled in the process of extracting this "killer stone". It is a drain on resources, histroically, currently and most definitely in the future where our descendants have to expend valuable, precious whatever they have to deal with our the radioactive discharge. And I don't think they'll be shooting it at the sun in a rocket either.

Not to mention it is also a dwindling resource, somewhere on the downward slope of its own Hubbert's curve, which requires crushing or dissolving more and more ludicrous amounts of rock in order to extract smaller and smaller quantities of this "industrial Jesus", our saviour.

But the notion that physical labour, applied to tasks that provide the goods you and your communities require, is more energy efficient than building factories a couple of thousand miles away to ship your raw materials to just so you can ship it back again still seems lost on people. The current form of international trade relations and short sighted energy policies aimed soley at maintaining and even expanding our current disposable lifestyles will not see us through an energy crisis. They will spur it on and feed our delusions.
But learning how to straighten a buckled bicycle rim will help. Getting used to pushing a trolley full of goods across town will make sense later on. Creating or at least partaking in local networks of food supply; food that is suitable to your area in order to minimise the energy needed to grow it, will definitely help see you through. Getting used to seasonal fruit amd vegatables in other words. Like static nomads. Like farmers. You need to find a niche or two that you enjoy and that are of service. Even if your just looking after yourself and don't wan't to take part in any networks, communities or politics in fact especially if your going to take this path, you need some survival ability. Some subsistence mentality. And this is something you need to practise. Not just practice. You have to live it.

But if you are not going to hermitize, then you will find division of labour is essential, even if we at some stage revert to hunter gatherers. The willingness to foster your own talent and a healthy critical mind is the sharpest tool known to humanity. So nurture something you can be good enough at that others will want, be it skills or produce because we need Masters of trades for the future, not IT geniuses, and Masters need time and a community that is set up to support and profit from their existence in order become highly skilled.

Conchscooter said...

There really is no way of explaining to people that society has to change. It will change and drag the survivors with it. I am getting to be a fatalist in old age and the "debate" about Global Warming is increasing my despair, not to mention the lack of debate about Peak Oil.
I can't make up my mind if I want to survive to see the brave new world or swirl down the plug hole of history, by living and dying as a firmly 20th century, energy-wasting human.

Resurgent Viking said...

While this week's topic might not be news to long-time readers of this blog, it is still a great contribution with so many great details (love the coffee cup example). I've read this blog for about a year now, plus The Long Descent, and I have to say that I'm truly grateful for these calm and thoughtful articles.

On topic: Understanding the implications of these thoughts and seeing a future (as far as that's possible) that is devoid of today's highly concentrated energy sources has -- over the course of the past months -- convinced me that there will be no high-tech future like now, "only more so", as you've put it several times. I haven't even lived half of my expected lifetime, and I'm sure that within 10 or 20 years (or much sooner, if all doesn't go well), I won't be earning my living by sitting in front of a computer in an air-conditioned building, or worse, traveling halfway around the world to sit in other companies' air-conditioned buildings.

I'm on the verge of quitting my quiet job that, all things considered, is part of extravagant energy usage. Developing electronic devices with microchips and other components containing rare and toxic materials takes high energy input and pollutes third world countries. This is definitely not going to go on for much longer, as one of your past posts pointed out.

I'm seriously considering going back to university, picking up silviculture and on the side learning some other useful skills that puts me back in touch with the first economy. I strongly believe that it's not too late to make such a change now, but it may get rough in the bumpy times ahead of us. I'm considering myself lucky to live in Germany that has very well-kept forests. But given that energy demands most certainly can't be met by oil and gas within a few years, there may be the need for keeping people from over-exploiting them in the transition from the oil/industrial age to whatever comes next.

Antony said...

Thank you for another wonderfully enlightening essay. It was one of the best explanations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics that I've seen. At least you have me convinced that the days of happy motoring are going the way of the Hummer- RIP (Recycle In Pieces). You may be right in that 'believers' make their decisions based on emotion, then cherry pick 'facts' that support their beliefs. To me, that sounds like a lack of critical thinking, which apparently is no longer taught in schools today.

I'm looking forward more on Schumacher and intermediate technology. I first discovered the concept in college, and made the naive mistake of bringing up the topic in the Industrial Technology department. I was wondering why it wasn't used more often in Appalachia and other parts of America that have been poverty stricken long before the latest financial kerfluffle. Of course, I was told that appropriate technology wasn't 'appropriate' for the Western world, but rather only for use in Third World 'pits of despair'. Apparently, in the developed world, we are supposed to solve all of our problems by taking out loans and throwing massive amounts of capital at them. Rather than a spring-pole-lathe (which any hillbilly with an axe and a pen-knife could make in less than a day), I was told that an 'appropriate' solution would be a quarter-million-dollar CNC lathe, and a battalion of engineers to operate and maintain it. Apparently, the more expensive, hi-tech solution would result in more higher paying jobs, than a bunch of rednecks with home-brewed lathes in their backyards. Then again, these same people were teaching just-in-time inventorying and worshiping the almighty Toyota management system. We've seen where those two schools of thought have gone recently...

Greatblue- I remember seeing a turn-of-the-(19th)century illustration from a world's fair which featured a solar powered steam engine with parabolic mirrors. Steam power was another topic that interested me in college, but I was told that it was 'hopelessly outdated' and would never again see the light of day.

BruceH said...


Of course the laws of thermodynamics apply to all systems, not just the mechanical. We're all made of "stuff" and all "stuff" requires energy to get anything done. We've only recently come to see entropy at work in shaping living systems.

This is still a monumental blind spot, however, even among people who get Peak Oil, Energy Return on Energy Invested, Greens, etc. Many bright people fail to see entropy at work in their own bodies and in our social systems even after they have become aware of its effect on ecosystems.

In 1989, the leaders of the old USSR finally figured out how to modernize their system of social control. Turning everyone into a spy and an informant, running a secret police and staffing gulags requires much more energy than the way we do it in the US. You don't need an old-fashioned police state when everyone is self-policing.

But even our system of self-policing has its entropic limits. It can only be maintained as long as there is a mass media and mass education to spread and install the necessary memes in the general population that are required for it to work. These institutions, however, are also just as dependent of concentrated energy to continue to function effectively. They will eventually succumb to the Second Law as well.

John Michael Greer said...

Mad Tom, true enough -- and thanks for the reference.

Cherokee, I'll be making that point in some detail in a later post!

William, bingo. People don't realize, to give another example, that when a plane full of tourists flies from LA to Cairo so they can visit the Great Pyramid, that one flight uses as much energy as it took to build the Great Pyramid.

Kevin, I'll check it out, but the short form is scale -- yes, you can get some energy out of it; no, you can't get enough to allow us to keep wasting energy as extravagantly as we do nowadays.

Dad, see my response to Kevin above. Also, look into the net energy involved.

Tgmac, that's certainly viable. Another option is coppicing, which produces firewood on a very quickly renewable basis. Do you return your ashes to the soil?

James, it sounds really good until you do the math and discover that if we planted every single acre of arable land in the US in hemp, leaving not one square inch to grow food, and turned it all into biodiesel, we still wouldn't get more than a relatively modest fraction of the energy we currently get from fossil fuels.

Of course there's a second issue as well. Most people who suggest projects like this aren't actually doing anything to make them happen; it's as though bringing up an imaginary solution makes it easier not to worry about the really very challenging mess we're in. That's not going to help anybody, other than as a tranquilizer.

LS, my guess is you end up with something close to 18th century technology where society is stable enough to maintain it, and something closer to Dark Age levels where it isn't. But we'll see.

Xhmko, you won't find me climbing onto the nuclear bandwagon! No nation has been able to run a nuclear power industry without huge government subsidies, and that suggests to me that the net energy from nuclear power is very low, quite possibly negative.

Conchshooter, by all means plan on surviving.

Viking, that sounds like a good plan. Those who can produce goods and services without the benefit of a fully functioning industrial economy will likely do well in the years ahead.

Antony, if intermediate tech took off in the US, there would be much less need for Industrial Tech graduates. As the US becomes a Third World country, people who know how to build spring-pole lathes -- yes, and solar steam engines (that's a technology I would love to see back in use!) -- are going to be much more valuable, but they're likely going to have to train themselves.

Bruce, good. It would be possible to start from White's Law (the principle that the level of development possible in a society is limited by energy per capita) and build an entire theory of social thermodynamics.

Eremon UiCobhthaigh said...

Chillingly simple is all I can add as a comment on your latest post. This is the best and most irrefutable explanation of the second law that I've ever come across.
I can only add that I'm leaving work in a few moments in my gas-burning car for a 7 mile commute. In the course of my epically long drive I will pass Tucson's annual rodeo parade today, which is the largest non-motorized parade in the world. Neither the irony, nor the tragedy, is lost on me.

Evan said...

Haha. I remember being about eleven and working on a design for a perpetual motion automobile. The errors in logic were immense, but boy did I think I was something! Now I am thankful that I had that opportunity to put my creativity to the test and learn lessons about 'zero-point' energy then.

At this point in society, speed and efficiency seem to be their own ends. But one of the teachings I've gleaned from permaculture is the abundance that unfolds when things slow down. Energy follows its bliss, but following one's bliss is probably best taken slow. The quick road to the infinite is exactly that, the quick road to oblivion. The slow road may be finite and full of the seemingly mundane (not another swale!), but who knows what of that nameless tao one might happen upon along the way.

in good heart,

JohnM said...


A faithful reader for about two months now and I love your stuff, but I belive you are wrong about the fundamental issue here. The ethanol boondoggle was not the result of anyone missing anything about the laws of thermodynamics or self-deception. What drove the short-live ethanol boom is what drives anything: someone thought they could make money from it. I think it was pretty widely understood from the very beginning that the net energy value was close to zero, but if there is a buck to be made, and often times there usually is, if only in the short term, some pretty stupid stuff gets done. Anyone for some

RPtizzle said...

Dear JMG,

A brilliant post - I so admire your writing style and great ability to explain things.

I do thought I'd challenge you, though. While we currently do not have a replacement for fossil fuels (and are unlikely to find one) I'd like to know if you agree or disagree that the possibilityof coming up with a way/technology that accomplishes that still exists.

While oil is the energy source of highest-density known to man because it is energy that was collected over millions of years under conditions we cannot emulate in the lab... you fail to address the efficiency (for lack of a better word) that nature used to accumulate such energy and concentrate it in the form of oil. Look at it this way: coal is a also fossil fuel. But coal's energy density is not as high as that of oil. So nature failed to be "as efficient" in the case of coal as it was in producing oil.

Now, in the form of a metaphor (please, indulge me) let's say that the process through which nature generated oil was this: suppose an oil field could be seen as a mountain of sand. And every 1,000 years a bird flies to a particular spot with a grain of "sand energy" on its beak, and then drops it. Every 1,000 years another bird does the same flight, and drops that grain of sand in the same spot. How long will it take for a mountain of sand to be formed in that spot? Well, million of years for sure.

Then one day, millions or billions of years later, a new species comes a long with the ability to walk, and discovers that mountain of energy. Now, it took millions of years for that mountain to be formed - would it be wise to use up that mountain of energy in just a few decades or few hundred years? Of course not.

However, here is the point that you fail to address: what if we learned a process through which we could build such mountains? What if in our process, instead of moving a grain of "energy sand" every 1,000 years, what if we moved it everyday instead? Such process would be more "efficient" than nature's formula for producing oil, wouldn't you say? (and the word production is being used in its true meaning here).

I end my analogy here. What I am trying to say is this: the sun radiates more energy on the planet in one year than we have in "known reserves of fossil fuels". But the problem is we don't know how to harness that energy yet. However, the possibility does exist that we could. Are we likely to discover a way?

Probably not. The reason is that we are a lazy species. Fossil fuels, rather than helping us evolve made us devolve, I would argue. Thus we are unlikely to have the ingenuity necessary to come up with such a process/technology - because the "energy" necessary isn't going to come from a species that has trained itself in being lazy by using the free energy of fossil fuels to build and run their societies.

It is indeed a paradox. If God is omnipotent, can God create a rock that is so heavy that He/She cannot lift it? That metaphor is the same as what we are discussing here. We are unlikely to be able to accomplish such thing, however, the possibility still exists (in a parallel universe it may be happening).

For the record, I'm not advocating that we pursue a new source of energy in order to do business as usual. I'm actually against nuclear and coal liquefaction. The challenge appears to be that not only would we have to find another energy source that can keep business as usual, but also reduce our carbon emissions at the same time.

This makes life very interesting right now.

And I just hope that you don't close your mind to that possibility. You are the best Peak Oil writer I know.

RPtizzle said...

"a reasonable sized hydro station. So to fill your car you're taking the full output of a small power station for about 1 minute."

To fill "my" car? And what about to fill your car? Or are you claiming that you do not own a car and do not drive?

Mark said...

So while we're on the topic of thermodynamics -- have you heard of or researched rocket stove and rocket mass heater technology? I think you and my fellow readers would be intrigued by them, here's some cool videos and links on the topic:

& here is a cool "Rocket Shower" made by some friends at Milkwood Permaculture:


Seaweed Shark said...

This argument does not convince me, because I think it confuses technical feasibility with social feasibility. There are a number of widely discussed approaches to concentrating energy from earth, sea and sky that have a higher chance of succeeding than the ridiculous corn ethanol. There are many ways to support a technically advanced civilization on a much tighter energy budget than we have today. These approaches fail to get traction not because of technical limitations but because they require life changes that people currently resist, and that consequently their politicians don't support. But societies and attitudes and life expectations can change -- sometimes quite wrenchingly -- without actually collapsing. If a time traveler could vault from Europe 1910 to Europe 2010, he might be forgiven for concluding that overall conditions had been on a steady upward climb throughout those years. A wrenching transformation in a dynamic society can look and feel a lot like collapse without actually being collapse. Good Lord preserve us, it's been tough before and people somehow got through.

Ariel55 said...

Dear Archdruid Report,

Trying to contribute to the topic:
Perpetual motion was even mentioned in the show "The Music Man", and as a child, I thought it was something every American should try. I once owned a "photometer" which spun a wheel in sunlight. I heard a physicist on the radio last night suggest that we need to do this energy thing "like the stars" do it. Huh.

John Michael Greer said...

Eremon, a keen appreciation of irony and tragedy is a good quality to cultivate just now. It will get plenty of exercise.

Evan, you've just defined the most efficient way to use modest differentials in energy concentration -- slow things down, so the energy flow has time to do a lot of little jobs on the way to waste heat. That's what insulation does, for example -- and yes, it's also what an ecosystem (natural or human-designed) does when it works well.

John, of course that was a major driving factor. What I was addressing, though, was the extent to which a lot of intelligent people, many of whom haven't made a cent off the ethanol industry, jumped on that bandwagon (and are jumping on others of the same kind right now). In their case, a failure to grasp the laws of thermodynamics and the realities of net energy has a lot to do with the mistake.

RPtizzle, er, I think you've missed one of the central points of the post. When you say "the sun radiates more energy on the planet in one year than we have in 'known reserves of fossil fuels'" you're making exactly the mistake I was trying to critique -- confusing the amount of energy with its capacity to do work. Sunlight is a diffuse energy source by the time it reaches us, and the exergy it has available is simply not that great.

Green plants have been perfecting photosynthesis for something like two billion years, under evolutionary pressures that would make any possible increase in efficiency of energy storage a huge selective advantage. It's thus safe to assume that we're not likely to manage dramatic gains in efficiency over what nature's managed, unless we're either importing exergy from elsewhere (for example, using high-exergy fossil fuels to build solar panels) or ignoring some of the energy costs (for example, not including the fossil fuel used to provide the infrastructure for making solar panels in their net energy calculations). Now of course in actual practice we're doing both!

Ultimately, though, your metaphor of the heap of sand misses the central point at issue, which is that the energy expended by the bird bringing that sand has to be factored into the equation. Sure, we can make high-exergy fuels -- but we have to use very large amounts of concentrated energy to do so, and it's precisely our ability to get large amounts of concentrated energy that is fading out. Thus the repeated efforts to find some high-exergy fuel to replace fossil fuels, I argue, is a fool's errand -- and we need to accept that and put our efforts into something that can possibly do some good.

Mark, thanks for the links! I'd heard a little about rocket stoves, but it's good to see that a very simple and efficient technology of this kind is getting some attention.

Shark, no, I've already discussed the social feasibility issue in other posts. Here I'm pointing out that most of the supposed replacements for fossil fuels also fail the test of technical feasibility. Of course they're two different issues, but I do believe I've addressed them as such. As for your example from European history, er, do you think things would have gone the same way if (a) the Marshall Plan hadn't poured billions of dollars into rebuilding shattered European nations after 1945, and (b) energy use per capita hadn't skyrocketed in Europe over the course of the 20th century? It seems to me that you're confusing one example under extremely favorable terms with a law of history.

John Michael Greer said...

Ariel, yes, there's a long and gaudy history of perpetual motion machines in the US and elsewhere. I should probably do a post on that, if only because most of the failed ideas from the past are still in circulation, still attracting the enthusiastic, the greedy and the gullible, and the current crop of "zero point energy" projects is making all the same mistakes. I didn't remember the reference from the Music Man, though -- thanks for that!

J Hill said...

This writer argues against the idea that we can extrapolate accurately from the past to the future, and, consequently, says that predictions of American decline are at best unreliable. What do you make of his argument?

MilesL said...

Seaweed Shark said...
“This argument does not convince me, because I think it confuses technical feasibility with social feasibility”

I agree with this statement. Having heard of Peak Oil for at least the last 10 to 15 years, personally I have not done much to learn more. Most of the arguments come across as religious arguments of "mine is the one true answer", therefore the other is wrong. Being a non-denomination apocalypse kind of guy myself, I don't believe any of the arguments are the one true answer. Hence the reason for my avoiding much of the peak oil arguments. So thank you JMG for a well reasoned post that has brought me back to being willing to understand these issues.

Is there a better way to pull apart the technical arguments from the social arguments? It would be greatly helpful. (that was a general statement to both the Peak Oil and the “Green” communities)

jagged ben said...

I think I was younger than ten when I tried to make my perpetual motion machine...I got out my Legos, put a gear on both axles of a Lego "car", and then another gear connecting them. I thought the front axle would drive the back axle! Instead, the thing stuck in place like it had no wheels at all.

If I ever have a child, it will be a proud day when I explain to them why their brilliant invention didn't work.


I was going to wait to ask this question until I finished "The Ecotechnic Future" (I'm currently half way through "The Long Descent"), but this post has made me jump the gun.

JMG, what do you future holds for electricity? It's a far less concentrated form of energy than liquid fuels (btw, thank you WilliamT), and yet capable of concentrating energy from sunlight (from solar PV or wind) at greater levels than photosynthesis, however temporarily. Do wind and solar not therefore hold out some prospect of holding their own going forward? I would further point out that most of the operating inputs for manufacturing solar PV panels are in the form of electricity.

The kicker, I think, is whether society can maintain the necessary complexity and knowledge. (Also, people might have to get used to the radical idea that they should do things that require solar power only during the daytime!) But the point is, based purely on the thermodynamic issues raised here, it would seem that in fact these technologies are quantitatively competitive with photosynthesis. Everything I've read says that solar PV is at least twice as efficient, if not more.

Anything to help people consume less of the biosphere's carbon can't be that bad.

Bill Pulliam said...

A bit of a digression, but still related to the lack of comprehension of energy matters among the public at large -- even the educated public. I heard a factoid yesterday (have not been able to track the source and verify it, but here it is anyway):

When you replace an existing house with a newly-constructed "energy efficient" house, it takes 35 YEARS before the energy savings pay back the energy consumption and carbon emissions created by building your new "green" house. What few people grasp, even environmentalists, is the massive amount of embodied energy already invested in our existing infrastructure. It is almost always a better idea to repair and upgrade rather than to build new from scratch, preserving all that emergy rather than sending it to be buried in the landfill and replacing it with an even bigger hunk of emergy. How many environmentalist-terribly-concerned-with-peak-oil-and-global-warming folks do we all know who have built a brand new green house rather than finding an existing house they could have tightened up and retrofitted at a far lower energy and carbon cost?

Just trying to picture the process of building three of those 30MW power plants William mentioned to replace each and every gasoline filling station in this country so we can all just transition to electric cars without "sacrificing our standard of living"... oh, look, a flock of unicorns just landed in my candy cane orchard!

sgage said...

I had a 10-years-older brother who was a physicist, so I didn't get to go through the "inventing a perpetual motion machine" phase :-)

As someone who has taught college courses in ecology, energy, and sustainability, I can attest to the difficulty of getting people to understand Thermodynamics.

In one Energy class that I taught, a fellow had picked up on a news article about a compressed-air powered car, and had the bright idea of having an air compressor in the power train somewhere, so you could just go and go.

This was after our lengthy and detailed discussion of the Laws of TD. The rest of the class was shaking their heads and tittering. He was impervious to reason, and I think to this day he probably wonders why no one makes such a car.

Such is the power of wishful thinking.

John Michael Greer said...

J Hill, it's always easy to insist "it's different this time," and to find a flurry of minor differences that appear to justify the insistence. The promoters of bubble economics in the recent housing boom, for example, made exactly that claim in arguing that housing prices, unlike every other asset class in history, really could go up forever. We know what happened.

The thing that interests me about the author's claims is that he provides some very good evidence against them, citing the many voices who predicted the fall of the British Empire in the years when it was at its height. There were plenty of people who insisted that those prophets of imperial decline were wrong, but once again, we know what happened.

Miles, it's a real challenge to keep the technical and social arguments straight, because you're quite right -- there are a great many true believers on all sides of this particular debate, and a lot of them are good at cherrypicking factoids to support their views. Beyond reading as many books as possible, especially the ones you disagree with most fiercely, I don't have many suggestions.

Ben, I think it's entirely possible that some level of electrical generation can be kept going over the long term; the question is how much. The vast majority of the electricity we now use in the US comes from burning fossil fuels, and replacing that is going to be a bear. That said, as a short term measure to cushion the decline, wind and PV are excellent choices.

Bill, your crystal ball is in good working order today. I'll be talking about that in a forthcoming post.

Sgage, our entire economy these days runs on wishful thinking; it's not surprising that Mr. Compressed Air couldn't be talked out of his fantasy.

Laura said...

Maybe we can take Onion #1's comment a step further, and suggest that thermodynamics can apply to economics too. Your comment on third-world countries that develop intermediate economies spurred this thought. These intermediate economies involve lower concentrations of funds, distributed across more people and land. But a single high-tech factory is a higher concentration of investment. The funds concentration of that factory will result in a smaller proportion of funds turned into concrete gains in quality of life.

It certainly brings home the concept of "think globally, act locally." (or "think globally, act within local variable scope" for all the programmers out there)

J Hill said...

What makes those differences (internecine strife in Rome vs. political stability here) minor?

Lynford1933 said...


Background: I’m an old guy so I won’t be around for most of the fireworks celebrating TEOTWAWKI, though Dec 21,2012 might be a good, very old, WAG. I build high end furniture and have all the tools to do that by hand though I must say it will be much slower than my present powered shop. When I can get my grandson off the cell phone, I teach him some of these skills.

I am more than halfway through your 'Ecotech Future' and have read 'The Long Decent' and this blog for quite a while. I think I understand where you are coming from, i.e. slow collapse even if it comes in steep ’L’ steps. I am PO aware and ELM makes sense and I have good knowledge of solar and other technologies. We have a solar powered golf cart which will operate our well and a few other things for quite a while. We grow most of our vegetables and can or solar dry them. I believe the solar cooker can do canning though I haven’t tried it yet. We have lots of stored food to get us well into the time of chaos which I believe will happen. Think Watts on steroids in every major city.

My concern is: In two or three hundred years humans will be into a very different energy circumstance. What real difference does it make what we say or do now? The inertia of the world of humans is such that it will do what it wants to do, which IMHO is crash and burn. This is not a lazy excuse for non action but a result of attending various “sustainable” meetings. When the first white explorer arrived in this area there were about 3000 Indians in a thousand square mile area from Lake Tahoe to the Pine Nut Mountains east of Winnemucca. There are more than a half million people in this area now. In three hundred years with all our knowledge for that time, this place may sustain 6000 to 10000 or even 20000 Indians. The high desert is not a very good place for sustainability. 20,000 people 300 years out is not a big deal to get one’s shorts in a knot. I think I will just keep preparing for my extended family and bad times for a few years, like, just drop out and just forgetaboutit. IMHO, people talk too much and do too little.

Ian said...

In a small way I'd already discovered this. I have a kitchen full of gadgets, but I mostly use hand tools to beat eggs, etc, simply because the work involved in getting them out, setting them up and cleaning them afterwards was more than just doing whatever by hand. The same applies to most domestic and craft activities. A few are made much easier or quicker by use of power tools, but on the whole it's simpler to just grab the hand tool and get on with it.

yerocus said...

If only more people understood this.

I read an article on some obscure web site today which stated that British Airways would like to source some of their fuel from municipal solid waste gasification plants.

Gasification has been tried and has failed most every time - trash is just too heterogeneous to make it work. Incineration, however, works beautifully - but it will only give a little bit of electricity (~20% of the waste's heating value) and a whole lot of low-grade heat (the other 80%). But it seems that some people continue to chase the dream of filling up their cars (or jets) with fuel made from trash.

Why not use trash for space heating (through incineration and district heating), then use the oil and gas that otherwise would have been used for low-grade space heating to make high-grade jet fuel, gasoline, etc.?

We could, but that would make sense...

bryant said...

For those of you who are interested in rocket stoves, Stovetec now sell the Aprovecho-designed rocket stove.

I just picked up the wood/charcoal version for $40 and sent a $9 one to someone somewhere in the global south.

These are much better than the home-made ones consisting of a #10 can and a regular can... those work but they don't last very long.

Chris said...

This essay supports a contention that I have held for a while, that my environmental friends, in enthusiastically supporting solar and wind as the solution to energy supply problems are unintentionally promoting a nuclear powered future. They don't believe me.

But I persist... the worst possible thing society can do now is to try to make dilute energy sources do what concentrated energy sources have done for us up to now. The sums just don add up. It can't be done.

So what happens when we try... we fail, but in the meantime we strengthen an illusion that we can just keep society going as it is by switching energy sources.

Electric cars and hydrogen economy are often touted as things that can be driven via wind power. The reality is that wind power growth is not even matching growth i normal power demand, let alone becoming a source of motive power via car engines.

5 car manufacturers are putting all electric cars on the market this year, and energy utilities are all trying to plan for the extra load that this will put on their grids. This is why, for all the wrong reason, nuclear energy is going to be pushed like crazy.

We're creating the rod for our own backs.

DIYer said...

Beautiful synthesis, JMG -- Joseph Campbell and Gibbs Free Energy in the same thought.

Naturally I see everyone proposing a fix of some sort or other... from what I know of my electric bill and looking around my street, I'd say that we could power the _neighborhood_ with solar. There's lots of sunlight here in south central Texas and if everyone were to chip in, the neighborhood might be able to afford a sodium-sulfur battery or two for nights and cloudy days.

But aside from transforming our profligate culture and upgrading our household technology, we can't run an industrial economy on it. Two examples that come to mind are the calcining of limestone for cement, and the smelting of iron ore into steel. Without huge amounts of concentrated energy, we can't do these things.

frijolitofarmer said...

I'll have to meditate on this. It feels like some pieces are missing. Human or livestock muscle power is being offered as a solution on the basis that the Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to all modern energy sources. But it applies just as much to muscle power. We have to eat, regardless, but we have to eat more when we do hard physical labor like working a garden by hand. We talk about the amount of energy needed to extract and refine fossil fuels or fissionable materials, but how much more garden must be grown simply to fuel the gardener?

An important consideration here is the fact that muscle power isn't the only thing making the garden yield energy. It's just the means of extraction, whereas the sun is the real energy source in food. The sun shines on the garden even when we sit idle.

I think this principle--that the sun shines on our planet even when nobody's bothering to use that energy--is something to key in on. I'm not suggesting that one year of sunshine is going to replace one year's worth of our present level of energy usage, but I think the amount of energy available in one year's worth of sunshine is grossly underestimated. It's just a matter of getting more efficient in collecting it and turning it into work.

This is where I question Kevin's scepticism about using leaves and grass as fuel. No doubt, one city's annual vegetation isn't going to replace one city's fossil fuel consumption. I think, though, that it could go quite a long way in providing energy for prioritized projects. And if we're using muscle power to harvest and process it, how is that any less efficient than using muscle power to harvest food?

A worm farmer in my neighborhood (she sells both worms and their castings) was telling me she was planning to get food wastes from local restaurants to feed to her worms. I suggested instead that she give me those wastes to feed to my chickens, and I'd give her chicken manure to feed to her worms. In each case, it looks like we're getting something from nothing, but of course, that is not possible. We're getting something from waste, and wringing out as much use as we can from it before letting it go.

Think of how much sunlight is wasted! How much is bounced back into space without doing any work? By wringing every bit of work out of those light waves that we can before letting them follow their bliss, I think we can concentrate a lot more energy than previous civilizations have.

It's not a simple matter of "either" massive fossil fuel consumption "or" resigning ourselves to living in the Bronze Age. There's a considerable margin there that's being overlooked, perhaps being too quickly dismissed as a perpetual motion machine because it commits the sin of giving people hope of something more sophisticated than a medieval existence. If the Myth of Progress is the religion of the mainstream, it appears that the Myth of Apocalypse is the religion of those who oppose it. I'd suggest there's at least a third option we should embrace: the Paradigm of Stinginess. :)

xhmko said...

Glad to to hear, though I wouldn't have expected you to anyway. I was extremely surprised and disappointed a few years ago when James Lovelock threw his weight behind the scam. The man who tried so hard to suggest that we live in a complex and self regulating biosphere somehow has concluded that creating toxic waste with a practical shelf life of eternity will be good to smooth the transition to a low energy world. A real shame.

By the way, have you read much of David Holmgrem's work. I once saw both he and Richard Heinberg share the stage at a conference about peak oil and such back in 2005 I think. Holmgrem actually referred to something equivalent to a long descent, though he didn't use those words and really was promoting the idea of a stewardship that incorporated his expended twelve permaculture principles. An awesome night it was.

Coy Ote said...

JMG - "Sunlight is a diffuse energy source by the time it reaches us, and the exergy it has available is simply not that great."

An excellent point, and one which reminded me of some so-called "occult" literature I read many years ago, about one Edgar Cayce who was termed THE SLEEPING PROPHET.
Anyway, one of his "theories" or statements was that the ancients used large prisms to focus solar energy to power their civilization. An interesting concept, that it might take that diffused energy and focus it into a more concentrated and practical medium.
This is strictly rhetorical of course, not scientific. ;-)

John Michael Greer said...

Laura, that's exactly what I plan on talking about in the next few posts.

J Hill, glad you asked. What makes them minor is that they're present in some examples of imperial collapse and absent in others. (The British Empire managed a very nice decline and fall without civil wars, you know.) If the fall of empires is the work of a single process, you identify the major factors in that process by figuring out which factors are present in every case. If the fall of empires is the result of more than one process, you identify examples of imperial decline that have as much as possible in common, and work from there. In either case, you discard the statistical noise and focus on the common factors.

Lynford, you're quite right that people talk too much and do too little, and most of what they do isn't going to mean much in a few centuries. This is one of the reasons why I've been concentrating on two main themes here: first, the steps that can get as much of value as possible through the immediate round of crises, and second, the steps that can preserve worthwhile knowledge for the long term. That's something that can have a huge benefit centuries or millennia down the road.

Ian, good. I do exactly the same thing; my hand tools get used twenty times for every time I break out something that plugs in.

Yerocus, a very good point. Low grade heat gets neglected because what it can do isn't exciting, but space heating and domestic hot water (two good uses for low grade heat) are very, very good to have around! Myself, I'm much more interested in having a warm house in winter and hot baths than in keeping jetliners in the air -- but that's just me.

Bryant, thanks for the link.

Chris, excellent! You're quite right, of course -- and this is why there's been a steady trickle of big name figures from the green movement going over to the pro-nuclear camp. Mind you, that won't work either, but it's an easy mistake to make if you're committed to business as usual but you figure out that renewables just aren't going to do the trick.

DIYer, exactly. There's a huge amount that can be done with renewable energy; it's just not sufficient to enable us to live the profligate lifestyles we've gotten used to living.

Farmer, you're trying to score points again instead of responding to what I actually wrote, and that's not a useful habit. You know perfectly well that I'm not suggesting or predicting a return to the Bronze Age. Of course there are options that don't amount to the total abandonment of any technology more complex than a digging stick; I've discussed that point in detail in The Ecotechnic Future, and also in dozens of posts here.

Xhmko, I haven't read anything like as much Holmgren as I probably should. Thanks for the reminder.

Coy, now there's a blast from the past. Yes, a lot of the 20th century Atlantis mythology talked about solar energy in those terms. I have no idea if prisms would work any better than those complicated mirror arrangements they're testing these days in the southwestern deserts; my guess, though, is that simpler technologies -- solar steam engines using simple parabolic dishes to focus sun on a boiler and turn a modestly sized engine, of the sort that were successfully used in the 1880s -- would be a better way to go about it. More on this in a forthcoming post.

quaker gardener said...

Yet another thought-provoking post.

A question: does observing what humans tend to do when confronted with natural areas, reading up on subjects such as the carbon cycle and photosynthesis, decline of resources, and so on, and then realizing that one's own ideas have names like peak oil and destruction of biodiversity count as choosing what to believe through emotion? One so wishes that so much of what one has learned about human impact (Erlich's i=p x t x a) wasn't true!

Meanwhile, as I perfect my antique homemaking skills like cooking, sewing, crocheting, baking, gardening, darning socks (!), and nurturing community while living in my century-old house (no remaining embedded energy--and little to start with--no gas-powered bulldozers in those days): I look forward to reading future posts about how to prepare. One of the central questions of my life these days. ;-)

MilesL said...

Thank you for your continued repeating that we as a society need to get our daily energy expenditure down. This cannot be repeated and we cannot be reminded of this too much. Your teaching that in order for our society to continue it has to be one that uses less energy has gotten through to me.

Personally I like Biodiesel. So to hear that the math doesn't equal out is very disappointing. So my curiosity has me asking this question: If the underlying principles are changed, does that change the math?

By this I mean that I understand that the current math is based on current farming techniques using fertilizers made from oil and all of the other non-sustainable practices of modern culture. But what happens if that underlying principle is changed? What if farmers were using compost from waste for fertilizer and were using organic growing techniques that follow sustainable principles. Would this change be enough to change the math so that Biodiesel becomes more viable? Especially for a society that is using less energy overall.

Alan said...

The thing is, the people who are making ethanol from corn don't care that it takes more energy to make it than it contains. What they care about is that it is liquid and portable, that is, they can use it to drive around in the motor vehicles they're addicted to. The fact that they're beggaring the economy, raping the environment, and starving millions of people is of no consequence to them.

I am reminded of the fuel factory in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. Aunty Entity, the ruler of Bartertown cares not a whit that the methane fuel her factory is making from pig manure is only possible by ruthless and brutal exploitation of slave labor and, presumably (although it's never really explained) food for her pigs stolen from the starving subjects of her "realm".

As long as elites (and even somewhat poor Americans qualify as elite compared to most of the world's people) can stand behind the wall of American military might, they can continue to convert any energy source they want (natural gas, coal, hydropower) to liquid fuel to continue our "happy motoring" ways.

It's really just one more way we flip the bird at the rest of the world. Of course, like all such profligacy, it will eventually come to an end, but they way it's looking, it won't be until the world is a very depleted and barren place indeed.

Draco TB said...

What I am trying to say is this: the sun radiates more energy on the planet in one year than we have in "known reserves of fossil fuels". But the problem is we don't know how to harness that energy yet. However, the possibility does exist that we could.

And most of that solar energy that does impact the Earth also leaves again. What do you think would happen to the Earth if it didn't (which is basically what you're suggesting to happen)? I'm pretty sure Mercury has the answer.

Modern civilisation may collapse but that doesn't mean that a lot of the advances made during the present Age of Waste will be lost. Places with these or similar will be able to maintain a reasonably high energy civilisation. It won't as high now due to their being very few cars available.

I live in NZ where about 2/3rds of our power supply is renewable so maintaining most of the present life style isn't beyond imagination. What we will see coming back down to a more moderate size will be the farms. Once oil becomes scarce our farms become uneconomical due to lack of energy available to harvest the crops, milk the cows, run the slaughter houses and get the produce to market especially considering that our markets tend to be on the other side of the world.

dltrammel said...

Very illuminating post as always.

BTW, I liked the newest Star's Reach post and look forward to more.

Edde said...

Greetings John Michael,

Good post, as usual.

One poster suggested waste-to-energy incinerator as a future energy source. PLEASE encourage folks to look at the waste stream from these incinerators - toxic chemicals in the ash, air & water pollutants of various sorts, particle pollution.

Biomass generation, another alt-energy scheme, requires careful scrutiny. It is NOT carbon neutral, it destroys forests & usurps farmland, as polluting as coal, etc. Even high tech, high temp gasification can't stand close scrutiny.

There is no "forest waste" in nature. And there is no away in which to hide those toxics.

Industrial era humans are desperately grasping at any straw (literally) that may extend energy profligate lifestyles.

Save our forests, save our future, live a 5% lifestyle.


marielar said...

You wrote the best piece for laymen I ever read on thermodynamics. Kudo.

Deab beat dad wrote:
"They use Brazilian sugar fed to genetically mod yeast to make biodiesel in a few easy steps. Just like making beer."

My biggest concern with that kind of scheme is the huge potential for human exploitation of third world workers so that we can drive our cars to the malls. Sugar plantations have been notorious through history as the sites of the most rabid, most rapacious form of slave work. I think the developped world has enough on its conscience to indulge on that kind of "development". It would amount to masses of people doing hard labor to produce liquid fuel for the rich.

On the other hand, I think what James Broomfield proposed with hemp make a lot of sense if the biodiesel is produced for local consumption and put to very high priority, targeted uses. But it cannot sustain the present lifstyle. I am afraid with the way most people understand it, it will be taken as a excuse to pursue business as usual until we have exhausted the ressources to the point we will have very little to mitigate the mess we are heading toward. It will be spending our last dollar to on a lottery ticket.

Lynford1933 wrote:
"I think I will just keep preparing for my extended family and bad times for a few years, like, just drop out and just forgetaboutit. IMHO, people talk too much and do too little."

That is where my husband and I are at. And we raise heritage breed animals adapted to our climate and intensive grazing and grow heirloom vegetables to preserve a genetic that those after us may need to feed and clothe themselves. One can theorize all day long and not solve anything because realistic solutions are found by doing, not dreaming utopias which fall apart as soon as the rubber meet the road.

John Michael Greer said...

Quaker, one of the few saving graces of our species is that now and again we do pay attention to the facts before us, instead of listening exclusively to our cravings and our fears.

Miles, shifting to organic methods does change the math somewhat, but the hard limits of how much energy you can get out of how many acres remain in place. I think biodiesel is a good idea on a small scale for essential uses, but of course it's not going to power an economy like the one we've got.

Alan, granted, people want ethanol because they want something they can pour in their gas tanks. Combine the negative net energy with the dependence of modern agriculture on the same liquid fuels we use for our cars, though, and you get a lose-lose situation. As for the ability of the US to display an upraised middle finger to the rest of the world, well, we'll see -- I have my doubts that we'll be able to continue that for all that much longer.

Draco, good. Legacy technologies such as hydroelectric plants will likely play the same role as Roman aqueducts did in the Middle Ages, improving quality of life for societies that couldn't build a new one but can maintain the existing stock.

Dltrammel, thank you! I've got the next one in process, though finishing up a big writing project is taking a lot of my time just now.

Edde, excellent points. I suppose you can sum it up by saying that it simply isn't possible to live a profligate lifestyle cheaply!

Marielar, you're welcome. Good points, also.

greatblue said...

My worry about using genetically modified microbes to create fuel is **not** what happens if the wild microbes get in to spoil the batch, but what happens if the genetically modified microbes escape to the wild. Plagues? A universe of gray goo (think miniature Asian carp eating everything)? Or worse, no beer!

greatblue said...

Re Perpetual Motion, I remember being intrigued by the idea in high school when I heard about trains in Japan that float on tracks using electromagnets. I always figured if you could reduce friction to zero, you could get Really Long-Enduring Motion, if not Perpetual. Reducing friction using electromagnets or getting out into space would do it. Or even melting dry ice (we had a demonstration in physics class that included a dry-ice hockey puck zipping along a surface).

It did finally occur to me, alas, that it takes quite a bit of energy to run the electromagnets, get us out into space, or create dry ice. Very disappointing!

Ric said...

In reading this latest post and comments, I've realized the genius of Robert Heinlein's famous phrase:

There ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

It can be applied to so much of the conversation here, not just this post, but previous posts covering everything from food production to politics.

That's not to say that by limiting one's attention in space or time that an apparent free lunch cannot be had by a small percentage for a limited time. But, just as is the case with those ubiquitous bits of plastic we all carry in our wallet, eventually the bill comes in the mail.

Maybe we should get t-shirts made up: The Archdruid Says, "TANSTAAFL"

jm_superjoe said...

Re: Nuclear power

Part 1

Dear JMG,

By a stroke of luck, your present entry is relwvant to the question I've been wanting to ask for a long time. And I have just read further material relevant to the question. As others have pointed out, you are one of the most level-headed peak oil commentators out there, so I'm hopeful I'll get an insightful response from you.

You are not alone in asserting that oil contained more energy in higher concentrations than any replacement we have found or will ever find, nuclear included. I have always wondered about the last point, but since world leaders, no doubt aware of our energy crisis, do not seem to be in a hurry to build nuclear reactors all over the place and the economy of the last few years have roughly followed the path leading to collapse predicted by the Peak Oilers, I assumed that their assessment of the situation should be roughly correct.

However, tonight I dug a little into the topic on the net, and this somehow led me to read M. King Hubbert's original 1956 essay on Peak Oil. Curious as to what this essay had to do with nuclear energy, I searched for 'nuclear' and this led me to the last section of the essay. What I found was astonishing, mostly by virtue of the fact that I have never seen it before, despite having been to dozens of sites dedicated to the Peak Oil theory originating from this essay.

To cut to the chase, here's the conclusion of the essay regarding nuclear power:

"it appears that there exist within minable depths in the United States rocks with uranium contents equivalent to 1000 barrels or more of oil per metric ton, whose total energy content is probably several hundred times that of all the fossil fuels combined. The same appears to be true of many other parts of the world. Consequently, the world appears to be on the threshold of an era which in terms of energy consumption will be at least an order of magnitude greater than that made possible by the fossil fuels."

This is in stark contrast to the conclusion of energy doom that Peak Oilers attributed to his essay.

There are caveats, to be sure. The energy figures assumes the use of breeder reactors to consume non-radioactive U-238 and Thorium as well as actual fissionable isotopes, and includes uranium derived from low grade sources where there only exist a hundred or so grams of uranium in a cubic meter of rock. However, breeder reactors have already become proven technology (they just aren't economically superior over non-breeding reactors because nuclear fuel availability hasn't yet become enough of a concern), and using the numbers provided in the essay, even digging up 1 ton of this low-grade ore (assuming a conservative 3 tonnes / m^3 of shale) would be the energy equivalent of the improbable feat of digging up 175 tons of pure coal or 758 barrels of oil from 1 ton of ore.

I fail to see how this puts nuclear fuel in the position of 'less energy in lower concentration' than oil.

jm_superjoe said...

I don't see part 1 of my comment appearing; I hope this will appear after part 1...


True, there is the task of extracting these minute concentrations of uranium from the ore, building and maintaining nuclear power plants and nuclear fuel reprocessing for the breeding process. But I have not found a detailed analysis of these factors that starts with the massive uranium quantities and energy concentrations shown above, deducts the energies required as listed above, and concludes that uranium has a lower EROEI than oil or coal.


It would seem to me that perhaps no such analysis has been made by any Peak Oiler, or they have only been made without taking breeding into account, assuming that it can't be practical, if thought is given to it at all.

Perhaps they are in denial because the prospect of a nuclear-fueled future with nuclear reactors and reprocessing plants in every town, trucks hauling tons of purified plutonium from reprocessing plants through city streets to god-knows where, and a population further doubling and redoubling in nuclear-fueled largesse until some other 'limit to growth' has been exceeded, international tensions flare, and nukes made from those wayward plutonium trucks fly in all directions in that War to Finally Really End All Wars is a prospect too awful to contemplate, even worse for them than the mere prospect of major dieoff and return to Stone Age that they are trying to come to grips with.

True, that future may be too terrible even for the world leaders to contemplate, which may be why few reactors are being built, fewer of them being breeders, but from what I've seen so far, it is a future we are energetically capable of carrying out, and indeed will probably carry out when push comes to shove and energy shortages from the current fossil fuels and the useless renewables really begin in earnest.


I don't know what response to expect from you, but at least I'm confident you won't give me the same kind of response that radio talk show host gave you when you presented your theory on the non-extraterrestrial origin of UFOs :)

John Michael Greer said...

Greatblue, well, yes, you're not supposed to wonder what could go wrong. Murphy's Law is not something today's fans of technology like to contemplate.

Ric, I like it! "TANSTAAFL" is indeed the central lesson of the laws of thermodynamics.

Jm, in point of fact the logic of nuclear power has been discussed at great length all over the peak oil community, and I've referenced it here a good many times. if nuclear power were as good as deal as its proponents claim, it would be commercially viable, and it's not -- no nation on earth has been able to run a nuclear power program without vast government subsidies. No matter how much electricity costs, nuclear power still fails to break even. This suggests to me -- and to a lot of other people in the peak oil scene -- that nuclear power produces very little net energy, and may well be a net energy sink rather than a source.

It's not as though the pronuclear side isn't getting every possible chance to prove their case, after all -- Obama's merely the latest president to throw billions of additional dollars down that rathole. Will the result be a solution of the peak oil problem? Don't hold your breath.

hapibeli said...

I was wondering about the energy efficiency, therefore the life span, of cell phone tech, as well as land lines as our industrial world heads to 3rd world? It would seem to need less energy input than the vast server farms of the internet, or are landlines so tied to the web these days, that they will go down as well?

DIYer said...

I think the biggest problem with nuclear energy is that it doesn't scale *down* very well. And we humans aren't particularly good at building projects with a time horizon of a thousand years and on the size scale of a mountain.

Our most reliable nuclear reactor is safely located 93 million miles away, where we are relatively safe from its violent outbursts and harmful emissions.

But the bottom line is that we haven't really gotten around to implementing either a solar- or fission-powered plan 'B' and are already entering the initial stages of collapse. So in the really big picture, it looks like we'll follow the oil production curve as it tapers off.

Danby said...

Cell phone tech is operationally very efficient. The signal wattages are measured in milliwatts, and the long haul fibre used to connect cell sites is also very low-power. A cell tower can provide phone coverage over a 4-5 square mile area for a kilowatt or so per hour, although it is a lot more if it is linked into the network via microwaves. In remote areas of Indonesia and China they are already run entirely with photovoltaic systems, covering just the roof of the equipment shed.

The problem is the enormous cost of building and maintaining the network. Around the US, the cost of network maintenance runs into the tens of billions each year. The data warehouses and billing systems that make providing cell phone service profitable consume VAST quantities of power, in the gigawatt range.

Another problem is with the enormous investment of energy represented by those cheap little handsets. Handsets wear out fairly rapidly and have to be replaced every two or three years. Granted , some of that is planned obsolescence, the military uses cell phones with a 5 year rated life. Most of it though is the confluence of miniaturization and hard use. Hard to get past that without an entirely different way of thinking about portable communications.

The typical plain-vanilla cell uses about a barrel of oil to manufacture. between the glass, plastics, silicon foundries, etc. Smart phones, like the iPhone use much more. Cheap models sold in 3rd world countries run about 1/4 of that.

My thinking is that there will continue to be cell phone service well into the downslope of peak oil, but it will be limited in coverage and very expensive. Like the 1980's.

jm_superjoe said...

JMG said...
"if nuclear power were as good as deal as its proponents claim, it would be commercially viable, and it's not -- no nation on earth has been able to run a nuclear power program without vast government subsidies. No matter how much electricity costs, nuclear power still fails to break even. This suggests to me -- and to a lot of other people in the peak oil scene -- that nuclear power produces very little net energy, and may well be a net energy sink rather than a source."

Care to back this assertion with a little hard data? The fact that they are uncompetitive with coal and oil-fired stations could simply mean that politicians are averse to the front-heavy costs of building nuclear power plants and the backlash from various green groups. As I understand it, the running costs of a nuclear plant once it has been built is low compared to alternatives.

My guess is that when push comes to shove, the latter concern will vanish when those SUV drivers with green bumper stickers realize that it's a choice between embracing nasty nukes or living a very green Stone Age lifestyle. The costs of building and running nuclear plants may also suddenly be quartered as draconian safety measures that simply can't be maintained in an age of impending energy scarcity are thrown out the window--with dangerous consequences, to be sure.

I for one would love to see an analysis of a nuclear plant nearing decommission to see its energy usage and output throughout its lifetime.

Stephen said...

In a few centuries time I think the few economical uses of electricity will be wireless telegraphy, radio, and lighting the emporers palace. All powered by generators attached to traditional wooden windmills and waterwheels. All over uses of such renewable resouces will likely be more effieciently done by making use of the mechanical forces by direct mechanical conection rather than via the medium of electricity. Hydroelictric dams will eventually become covered in wooden waterwheels where there is demand as the precision turbines require a large industrial base for the manufacter of such items. The weapon of war will be the muzzle loading riffle with a spark gap ignition powered by either a simple batery or piezoelectrics. Radio will make the manufacture of chronometers for ocean navigation unecisary. If soils recover the popuation could be larger than the 18th century as then there was still lots of land undiscovered by farmers or crop rotation.

das monde said...

Absolutely, the second law of thermodynamics is underappreciated. But that only raises the question of education, since you can't expect people to know that law from their everyday problems or social experience. Why there is no educational effort visible to stress implications of this law?

Most interestingly, what are the people with influence, power, money and other resources thinking? One way or other, they are generally smarter and better educated people. Yet the behavioral standard that they demonstrate (and which is massively copied and valued socially) is an antithesis of the law. Among the elites we have most vigorous enforcers of the reckless course. In fact, those who achieved stupendous wealth and social status have best reasons to be concerned about the future, as other "investment" games just don't make much objective sense to them. How much can we believe that the elites are that blind or still narrow-minded? Or do some of them think that a global overshot offers the best long-term "peaceful" scenario?

sebzefrog said...

Good day to all.
First of all, let me state that I am french, which I'll shamelessly use as an excuse for any grammar, spelling or cultural mistake I might commit in this message.

Second, I am a physicist. Yeah a real life one. Talk about a practical skill...

Third, I am writing this in the train, so please don't feel offended if I just share a piece of information with you without joining to the discussion that probably has been taking place since last wednesday.

The fact that I wanted to share with you has to do with when His Archdruidry (sorry for that. Please read it as it was written, with all my affection, as I really like how you think and write.):

"They define the far end of the curve of energy concentration, at least on this planet,[...]".

There actually is one source of energy on Earth that is far far higher on the curve of "energy concentration". It is hydrogen, as in "let's transform hydrogen in helium as it happens at the center of the Sun".
Thus, there is on Earth a source of energy that pales every other one, and in very very large supply. Problem solved, see, you peak oilist, we always told you there was a solution...

Not so fast.

Let me add three concomitant pieces of information.

The first one is that transforming hydrogen in helium in a controlled way is a tremendous technical challenge. Tapping this energy is even harder. We know how to do it. Ask me. The answer will begin by "In theory...". The difference between science (understanding stuff), and technology (the art of making stuff)....
The most recent project trying to make such a power plant is called ITER( So far they are just at the level of achieving a way to hold the hydrogen while it fusions. Yes, it might sound silly but once you light up a little sun (which is in itself a challenge), how do you hold it ? Therefore we have a vision of a solution to the problem of getting lots and lots of energy, but we are far from being there yet.

The second piece of information is that to achieve such a technical feat is very very costly. I completely concur with Mr Greer that the level of technology we reached is due to the incredible amount of energy we used in the last three centuries, and not the other way around. This raises the question of wether or not we will be able to develop the technology needed to get fusion.

The third piece of information is more of an opinion than a fact... It has to do with the question of "we could do it, but should we ?". I have mixed feelings about this one. To me, modern civilisation is a metaphoric 3 years old playing with a loaded gun. Hhaving more free energy to support us in our current permanent-increase way will end up with us blowing ourselves up. And that well before we consume a centimeter of ocean water and start speaking like Donald Duck because of the helium rejected in the atmosphere.
Getting a very large source of energy might well not save us at all.

Maybe lots more of energy will help us grow up. Or maybe the peak oil decline will help us change. Or maybe not. That's where my cynicism and my optimism (This used to make me schizophrenic, but we have been much better lately, thanks) give me contradictory answers.

As a conclusion I would just say that if we really want to continue with infinite development, there is one land accessible from Earth, that is not bound to the laws of thermodynamics (or maybe it is and it is just infinite). It is the land of the mind. There is plenty of room for development there. That would be a solution. And the cynic side laughs.

SebZeFrog (at

Mike Monett -Dayton, Ohio said...

Mr. Greer,

I just started a new blog in February, Mike Monett -Thoughts and Essays.

I listed The Archdruid Report as one of my three favorite links.

Keep up the good work.

John Michael Greer said...

Hapibeli, Danby's comment below covers that better than I could.

DIYer, that's pretty much my assessment.

Danby, very much so. There may be quite a few situations like this, where technology seems to run in reverse.

Jm, the numbers vary in each case, and you can easily look them up. The point I'm trying to make, though, is that governments have poured trillions of dollars into nuclear power, covering those front-end costs and then some -- France is a good example. Even with those subsidies, and even in times of very expensive energy, nuclear power is a money-loser. That communicates a message that the pronuclear types are not willing to hear.

Stephen, yes, this is basically the model I'm using for the future.

Das Monde, my guess is that the people with power and influence believe those things that make them feel good about their power and influence, irrespective of the facts. But that's just a guess.

Sebzefrog, your English is one heck of a lot better than my French! In theory, granted, nuclear fusion has a lot of energy potential -- but the energy cost of getting that energy out is tremendous. I'm by no means convinced that fusion, even if it turns out to be practical anyplace other than the sun, will yield positive net energy after all the costs of building, running, and fueling a fusion reactor are included. And of course there's the little difficulty, as you point out, that we're nowhere near a functional fusion reactor yet!

Mike, thanks for the link.

Antony said...

Back to the solar powered steam engine, I just came across the Green Power Science Youtube Channel (, which has a number of videos on the topic. I'm going to have to download their collection and burn it to DVD.

jm_superjoe said...

"Jm, the numbers vary in each case, and you can easily look them up. The point I'm trying to make, though, is that governments have poured trillions of dollars into nuclear power, covering those front-end costs and then some -- France is a good example. Even with those subsidies, and even in times of very expensive energy, nuclear power is a money-loser. That communicates a message that the pronuclear types are not willing to hear."

If those numbers are so easy to look up, why haven't I seen them in 5 years of reading on Peak Oil?

Since France generates nearly 80% of its electricity from nuclear, if it is a money loser or net energy loser, that would probably mean that France as a whole is running on negative net energy generation, which would mean that it accordingly has negative economic output--ie an economy like quake-hit Haiti, dependent on UN aid for everything. Is this happening?

Resurgent Viking said...

The discussions about "sunlight hitting the earth" reminded me of something that may work as a nice little thought experiment. A few years ago, a professor told our class how he'd traveled to Africa, to a village where people used to put bottles of water on their roofs to let the heat kill off most of the bacteria. The visitors introduced a new way: They painted a kettle all black and built a parabolic mirror from some available materials, bringing water in the kettle to a boil in a rather short time. The villagers were so impressed that they immediately wanted their other kettles painted black as well. Purifying water this quickly is great when it comes to cleaning wounds, etc.

But that's not the point. What I want to say is that this is probably the most direct use of sunlight you can find, heating water without first transforming the sunlight's energy to electricity (I believe solar ovens may use a similar principle? I haven't looked into these). Here's the thought experiment: Try using a similar assembly to melt ore. Think it will work? I think it's clear why blacksmiths used to burn wood and charcoal.

Occasionally I try to tell people that regardless of what you want to put into your car's tank, you can't build a car from sunlight and wind. It's as simple as that. Most of them just shrug it off.

RPtizzle said...

To jagged ben:

"JMG, what do you future holds for electricity? It's a far less concentrated form of energy than liquid fuels"

Your statement is incorrect. Electricity is not a source of energy. Electricity is a means of trasnferring energy. Not a source

AS for the comment that perhaps we can build wind and solar infrastructure by using the electricity provided by wind and solar power... no offense, but that shows a great lack of understanding on the subject. If that were true we could easily solve our future transportation problems by driving electric cars - as long as people get used to having shorter range - which will become a luxury in the future.
I just needed to point that out.

RPtizzle said...


"Alan, granted, people want ethanol because they want something they can pour in their gas tanks. Combine the negative net energy with the dependence of modern agriculture on the same liquid fuels we use for our cars, though, and you get a lose-lose situation. As for the ability of the US to display an upraised middle finger to the rest of the world, well, we'll see -- I have my doubts that we'll be able to continue that for all that much longer. "

There's a great interest on the part of some Brazilian businesses to export ethanol to the Americans for transportation. The ethanol produced in Brazil does have a positive energy return. Of course, it comes at the cost of deforestation and human exploitation. I know this from first-hand experience. But the interest does exist. If Americans can be oblivious to large number of killings (how many Iraqi lives have been lost since the Iraq war started), then the mere exploitation of other foreigners can be even more easily ignored by the American public and even labeled as "providing them with jobs".

Keep in mind that cars in the US run on gasoline, not ethanol. The government does already add up to 20% of ethanol to our gasoline, but beyond that you start having car problems. For ethanol to be truly viable in the US as a replacement to gasoline, you'd have to replace the US auto fleet. There are very few vehicles that run on flexfuel in the US (whereas in Brazil flexfuel vehicles are much more common).

The US gov was interested in importing ethanol from Brazil only until Brazil recently discovered large reserves of pre-salt oil. The US gov is already discussing the sale of F-18's and other military weapons to Brazil in exchange for the oil. I am currently researching this topic.

John, I encourage you to not try to predict the future as looking in any particular way. You do not know what plans the gov has. For all we know, industrial society can still be developed for hundreds of years if you significantly lower the number of people on the planet. Besides, for the elite, industrial society does not need to flourish everywhere. It's very likely that the world will have more inequality than ever before due to Peak Oil. And to think that the powers that be would simply lose power is extremely naive.

Danby said...

It is certainly possible to concentrate enough sunlight to make a solar forge. The question is how may square meters of mirror it takes, and the tech challenge of getting them all lined up properly. Sunlight is so dispersed that it would take literally square kilometers of mirror to smelt any appreciable amount of iron. And then, when you've taken into account the amount of glass, silver and other resources, have you really saved anything?

A hard question, and if I were a student instead of a part-time farmer and full time system administrator with too many irons in the fire, I would try to get a grant to investigate the problem.

Ruben said...


I have no idea why you haven't seen numbers on nuclear in five years of reading about peak oil--I found several relevant links in 15 minutes of googling to prepare for a conversation with my boss.

Here is one link

And here is another, on the Oil Drum--perhaps in five years of reading you forgot you read it?

That last one is not discussing thorium, but does reference thorium, and gives some sense of issues facing nuclear.

And, of course, both this blog and all other peak oil blogs discuss the suitability of energy sources for the task at hand. Thorium is really not that convenient a fuel for cars, but if you want to run cars on thorium, you need either really small reactors or electric cars. If you want electric cars you need batteries. All of the rare metal extraction and processing necessary for batteries currently runs on oil, and will be subject to peak curves as well. So, you need extraction and processing to run on batteries, which will hasten the peaking of the resource we need for our new cars batteries. And of course all the machines to build all your new thorium reactors need to run on batteries.

Jeff Vail has discussed the difficulty, or impossibility, of a renewables build-out, as have many others, for this reason--you need a surplus to allow the transition.

Enjoy the next five years of reading.

mczilla said...

I guess a good number of us tried our hand at perpetual motion as kids. Some of us learned something. And the hypnotic allure of progress has tainted a lot of things, mostly for the worse. I fondly remember the original counterculture and Back-to-the-Land movement of the 60's & 70's. It was going to be woodstoves and kerosene lamps. Now it's $50,000 PV arrays and satellite internet. Schumacher was right. We have a lot to unlearn, get over, and let go of.

greatblue said...

@dasmonde, most people with power and influence are lawyers and bankers, not engineers. Just because you're smart and can get people to do things doesn't mean you're scientifically inclined. Sometimes they all go together, but usually they don't. Also, in America, well-educated does not necessarily mean well-versed in math and science.

strang LA said...

It seems from my reading that even if nuclear is significantly cheaper (and this seems debatable), it isn't cheaper by all that much as far as the "end-user" would be concerned when the cost of construction and waste disposal is included. But I believe that the debate about the nuclear power issue is a bit over-focused on the economics of it all, and not on the practicalities of trying to revamp our energy economy in our present economic and political climate. The interests of Big Oil and Big Coal are powerful in the US, and the fact of the matter is that we
have enough coal here to generate power for a long time to come, as long as we don't mind destroying our environment to do so. Granted, as oil gets increasingly scarce, it will drive up the costs of mining and transporting coal, as well as building more coal-burning stations (and the coal industry does not mention that fact, of course). But the same will also be true for the
nuclear industry as well, with added costs for disposal of waste for the next few thousand years.
Without oil, the expense of mining, transporting and building more power plants of any kind will
begin to rise beyond what any company can afford without huge government subsidies. And does
anyone seriously think we are living in a political climate -- for the foreseeable future -- in
which people will support tens of billions more in government handouts of any kind?
The first link and quote is from a pro-nuclear interest group's website:

"Nuclear power is cost competitive with other forms of electricity generation, except where there
is direct access to low-cost fossil fuels."

The last half of the sentence surely leaves the US out of that argument, with our vast reserves of
coal and natural gas. Whether France and Japan subsidize their nuclear power isn't all that
important -- it may be cheaper where they would have to import coal and gas. In the US, it's not
an issue, as we have plenty of both.

strang LA said...

One more point:
This study is quite informative, as it is more concerned about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, rather than costs, but it still concludes that nuclear power is slightly more costly:

From a study at M.I.T. : "We built a model to compare the costs of producing electricity from new
nuclear, coal and natural gas plants. The model focuses on economic cost, not regulated or
subsidized cost. According to our study, the baseline cost of new nuclear power is 6.7 cents per
kilowatt-hour, compared to 4.2 cents for coal and natural gas (when the price of gas is $4.50 per
thousand cubic feet). Plausible, but unproved, technology could reduce nuclear costs to those of
coal and gas. However, if a cost is assigned to carbon emissions — either through a tax or some other way, as in a current Congressional proposal that would limit emissions but allow companies to buy and sell the right to discharge more pollutants — nuclear power could become an attractive economic option. For example, a $50 per ton carbon value, about the cost of capturing and separating the carbon dioxide product of coal and natural gas combustion, raises the cost of coal to 5.4 cents and natural gas to 4.8 cents."

But my opinion is that even if nuclear power is in fact cheaper, we lack the political will, and
possibly the means (because of the national debt), to get nuclear power off the ground in this
country. Add to that fact the waste disposal factor ("not in my back yard") and the fact that we
would see ever-increasing fuel costs before we got enough nuke plants started and actually
operating, and the subsidies already given to coal and gas -- I'm quite pessimistic about being
saved by nuclear power.

sebzefrog said...

After last post, I did some research about fusion and it's practicality. They are well summarized by this quote from ITER website which show that fusion is much closer at hand than I thought:
" ITER has been designed to produce 500 MW of output power for 50 MW of input power. The current record for released fusion power is 16 MW "
By no mean I said it was a done business though.

Now, all this got me thinking. It is a scientific fact that nuclear power wins over oil as far as "energy concentration" is concerned. It is a hard fact that there is so much Sun light impacting on Earth that it could provide all the work we need, were we to collect all of it. And it is a hard fact that fusion wins over nuclear power as far as "energy concentration" is concerned. Then why oil ?

This question underlines lots of the ongoing discussion I have now read about the total failure to find an alternative to oil. In my opinion the answer is not only "energy concentration" even though it was brilliantly presented and definitely plays a role. Why oil ? Because it is *free* energy. Almost free. Because it is trivial to use.

Why would oil win over nuclear power (let's assume it's true, for the sake of demonstration) when physics tell us that it shouldn't ?
To build an engine powered by oil, you need blue prints that one (bright) man can make. And then a quite skilled blacksmith. The energy needed is arguably lots of woods but not more than I burn during a winter to heat my house. Then digging out oil is (was now we used this one up) easy. Refining it is not very hard if you don't shoot for high yields or fast turn around. Put all that together and you get within one year, from muscle power, some wood and some water an engine that can do an incredible amount of work.

Now nuclear power. We can scale the cost of building a nuclear plant based on muscle power by comparing it to cathedrals. It is of the order of a half a century for hundreds of people. And cathedral are far less complex buildings than nuclear plants. Add to that the energy cost of the blueprints. They need computers, which are very costly in energy to build because you need very complex production plants.
Loads of the incredible amount of energy you'll produce with the nuclear plant is thus eaten up by building the plant. Of course, if you have enough energy produced, you get over the building cost, and open a new era of "free" energy.
Oil just is so versatile and easy to use that it didn't take lots of effort to get there.

My conclusion to all this is that even if we have within our reach an "infinite" amount of energy, we need to rely heavily on oil to get to it and maintain it.

This last point leads to the second thought I was lead to following the reflexion sparkled by Mr Green post:
We rely on oil for everything. And therefore, the existence proof of alternate energy sources is only marginally relevant to the real problem.

We depend on oil so much that the mere logistics of changing to other sources of energy is tremendous. Think how many cars, machines, planes, plants would have to be rebuilt. At this point alternatives to oil are as good as if they didn't exist. Switching to them would require a society able to produce much more energy than its running cost. And unless I am completely mistaken, our can't.

The crude fact is that our society consumes way too much power for its running cost. Because it's running relies so heavily on consuming. It is a *feature* of our society: use as much and as fast as possible. With a feed back loop: when you get more efficient at consuming you can consume even more even faster. As much as I love computers, they are a very good example. A I-Phone is a very efficient way of having one person consume an amount of energy that would probably run a steam-age village for decades. And the really sad part that it is made it so that it won't last more than 3 years.

sebzefrog said...

Sorry if it borders on flood, but now that I have read the rest of the posts here, I think I can contribute to the question raised by jm_superjoe.

At first I was also very surprised by Mr Greer numbers about nuclear energy. Not that I doubt him (more than anyone else I mean) but making good accurate balances is hard enough when the topic is not as emotional as nuclear power.

I haven't looked up the numbers and I am not a peak oil expert. Nevertheless, I think that one piece of the answer lies in the difference between how energy efficient is a nuclear plant and how much it costs (in money) to produce electricity with it.

To calculate the plant energy efficiency, you need to count all the oil you need to run it, maintain it, etc. This is completely hidden, and can amount to a lot. And since oil is free energy, it costs next to nothing (relatively speaking).

Therefore you could hide lots of energy inefficiency and still have low cost electricity.

Now, before anyone blows up...

Let me tell you about some hard fact to backs up my assertion.
It is a story about onions.

Last time I bought onions I was presented to 2 different packs. One from France and one from New Zealand. Same onions really.
On second thoughts, as I saw that someone from New Zealand follows this thread, lets say that their onions are better. Slightly better.

Still, these onions come from roughly 20 000 km away (in miles that's a "heck of a lot" ). And fast, because I am not speaking about rotten or grown up onions. Genuine nice cute onions.

This proves without a doubt that oil is virtually free energy nowadays. I am speaking about 1 kg of onion that travelled through *half of the World*. This is an incredibly inefficient way of using energy.

And still both onion packs were the same price.

Now, make the intellectual leap of transforming the onions in energy producing plants. Coal plant would be the home made onions and nuclear plant would be the other-side-of-the-world onions, and you get my point.

I am not saying that's the full story, but it is part of it.

Thermodynamics gives you insightful vision into the world because of its laws, but also because it teaches you about calculating a balance. And how tricky this seemingly simple exercise is.

SebZeFrog (at

Jason said...

Word on peak itself I think is building nicely now, anyway here in the UK.

As we are on the brink of a possible resource skirmish in the Falklands between the UK and Argentina, the UK Financial Times reports the US will mediate between the nations if desired:

... and the report contains the following interesting sentence:

The drilling has sparked a frenzy of excitement over the possibility that the waters could contain 60bn barrels of oil and gas – a potential bonanza at current oil prices and with world fossil fuel stocks declining.

When the FT says it, it's official.

Tiago said...

I generally agree with jm_superjoe's comments on nuclear, and I would like to add in a few arguments:

1. You seem to fall on one of the traps that you talk about: being emotionally committed to something seems to create an environment where you reject the other side's arguments. This is quite normal: just because one detects problematic mental patterns, doesn't make person immune to such patterns. The real mistake is in believing that one is impermeable to classical human limitations just because they were detected and noted.

2. The argument of "just go and google for it" is particularly problematic: in fact, in this topic there is lots of credible information pointing in the opposite direction: That Uranium (235 _OR_ 238) and Thorium might be fairly abundant. Even the best post about this issue on TOD has been under fire and somewhat discredited. Suffice to say that planet nuclear reserves are far from being a settled issue.

3. Saying "one of these days I will have to do a post on that" is a nice rhetorical artefact, but doesn't really settle the question.

4. While it is comprehensible that you want to maintain your great essays clean from data points (as they are clearly good pieces as they are), it somewhat weakens your argument that you don't provide even minor references and citations to the more contentious parts of your essays. At least in the comment boxes.

5. Regarding subsidies, my country is highly subsidizing wind power (we are currently on the Top 5 per capita). For instance, this year the public is seeing a 3.5% increase of energy prices in a deflationary environment (with salaries flat and most other prices also flat). Feed-in tariffs and such. Subsidies are a necessary part of a transition, if such transition is to go smoothly.

PS - I abhor nuclear, but the point here is not about nuclear, but about having sound arguments grounded on a realistic view of the world.
PS 2 - I would imagine that you are that kind of people that appreciates constructive criticism above all (especially above unsubstantiated praise)

gardenserf said...

John, you wrote:

"all things considered, growing corn and turning it into ethanol uses more energy than you get back from burning the ethanol."

I'm curious if there's an equation available online for this. Does this include the fuel used to plant the crop, fuel used for the harvesting, and the fuel/energy used in the actual production of the ethanol?


team10tim said...

Hey hey JMG,

I would like to request a new word from you. A replacement for the word 'economics' to refer to the evolution of economics into an actual science. Much like alchemy gave rise to chemistry, economics will give rise to 'blank'.

The analogy seems very apt to me. Alchemists trafficked in the same trade as chemists do, but alchemists started with faulty assumptions and worked toward impossible goals like the sorcerer's stone and the potion of immortality. They refused to let reality impinge on their model and consequently didn't make much headway in their understanding of the world.

So what word would you use to describe the new economists who incorporate energy, dismiss the notion of infinite growth and finally start on the equivalent of mapping out the periodic table and thinking about electron orbitals.

Thanks in advance,
Tim (I'm getting a degree in economics with the hopes of one day becoming a 'blank')

RPtizzle said...


John, jm_superjoe makes a very valid point about the potential for nuclear power. Even you acknowledge that nuclear power technology has potential. Like I said before, I admire your great writing ability, and also your brilliant mind. My goal with my posts has been to "keep you in check" (with all due respect) in my efforts to remove bias from your materials.

The point I originally made is that the mere possibility that we can find a replacement for the high-energy density of oil and other fossil fuels does exist. Should we invest our efforts towards finding it or developing technologies that may allow us to find a replacement for oil so we can continue to do business as usual? I'm of the opinion that we benefit more from not going in the direction of doing BAU.

You have a lot of credibility in the PO community, and you will enhance your credibility by admitting that other possibility (not the probability) to discover another energy source that will save us from going back to the stone/bronze age exists. In my opinion, your writing would be even more interesting if you took that approach.

I also, in all humility, encourage you to not predict the future to be any particular way. I'm sure you know that the future is pure possibility. The elites aren't going away any time soon - at least I don't see any progress happening in that regard (if anything, the rich Americans have gotten richer, and the poor have gotten poorer).

My best regards,


John Michael Greer said...

Antony, thanks for the link!

Jm, France generates 80% of its electricity from nuclear power, but electricity is far from the majority of the energy used in France, or any other nation. There, as here, nuclear power is receiving an energy subsidy from fossil fuels, as well as a financial subsidy from governments. I've discussed this at length already. As for your inability to find the figures, that's not exactly my problem, you know; other people don't seem to have that difficulty (see Ruben's post below, for example).

Viking, excellent! You get today's gold star, for understanding the difference between energy quantity and energy concentration -- a simple concept, but one that seems to evade almost everybody in this debate.

RPtizzle, attempting to anticipate the future is central to this blog's project. If you find that unwelcome, you're not likely to enjoy reading this blog.

Danby, good. My guess is that the best way to do a solar forge is to plant a coppice lot in trees that make good charcoal, let them gather the solar energy through photosynthesis, and then turn the wood to charcoal and use it in your forge. It's a mature technology and very resilient, unlike complex solar mirror arrays!

Ruben, thank you! My catabolic collapse theory, for what it's worth, also supports Vail's argument that building a renewable (or nuclear) economy would require an energy surplus we don't have any more.

Mczilla, I still think the woodstoves and kerosene lamps were the better idea.

Greatblue, frighteningly true. In fact, most of the contemporary American political class is amazingly ignorant about science; they think of it as a convenient source of miracles, pretty much.

Strang LA, as I've pointed out before, I'm by no means convinced that nuclear power produces a meaningful amount of net energy at all; once again, even in countries with no cheap fossil fuels, nuclear power has been possible only with massive government subsidies. That said, you're quite right that even if nuclear power were a viable option, America lacks the money, resources, and will to do it.

John Michael Greer said...

Sebzefrog, notice that the figures for energy in vs. energy out for fusion only take into account one small fraction of the entire energy cost of building, say, the ITER reactor. If they get 500 MW of output power from 50 MW input, good -- and of course that's much more than anyone else has achieved -- but how many megawatt-hours are needed to build the plant, refine the fuel, deal with the waste, etc., etc., etc.? All that has to be factored into a net energy accounting. With nuclear power -- fusion or fission -- it's these secondary costs that are usually left out of the analysis, and that's why nuclear power seems to make sense on paper and fails so dismally in practice.

That, in turn, is why oil wins over nuclear power; its secondary costs are much, much lower. One way of measuring that is to think of the energy concentration of nuclear fuels before they're refined, and compare it to that of petroleum or natural gas, say, right out of the well. A pound of pitchblende contains only a very tiny percentage of fissionable uranium, and it takes energy input to concentrate it to the point that the energy in it can be extracted.

Jason, yes, the brick wall of denial has really started to slip. Whether or not the UK and Argentina can settle this one amicably, expect more skirmishes -- and full-scale shooting wars -- as that reality sinks in.

Tiago, I've given the reasons why I think nuclear power isn't going to save us. If you find those reasons insufficient, that's certainly your right, but it doesn't change the fact that I find them compelling. If you want to dismiss as a rhetorical device the fact that I only have so many hours in a day, and aren't interested in spending them doing research for people who can just as well do it for themselves, well, once again, that's your right -- but it's not going to affect how I approach these issues. Ultimately, this blog is what it is -- a conceptual exploration of the future using the tools of history, philosophy, and ecological theory -- and if you don't find that satisfying, you know, there are plenty of other blogs you can read.

Gardenserf, yes it does, and The Oil Drum has quite a few detailed discussions on that topic, which I'd encourage you to check out.

Tim, hmm! That's a fascinating challenge. I'll put some thought into it.

John Michael Greer said...

PRtizzle, I don't know where you got the idea that I think that nuclear power has potential; I don't, and it doesn't. The fact that there's a lot of potential energy in the nuclei of radioactive elements doesn't mean that we can extract that energy and exploit it to any useful degree.

In my experience, talk about the "possibility" of finding some new highly concentrated energy resource is simply an excuse not to think about the implications of the fact that there is no such animal, at least in this small corner of the universe. Granted, it's impossible to prove a negative; insist that the world is going to be rescued by a vast herd of pink unicorns whose digestive tracts produce enough methane to keep our cars fueled forever, and I can't prove that you're wrong. That fact doesn't make it a good idea to wager the world's future on the arrival of all those unicorns.

It's probably also necessary to note here that I have never said that we are going back to the stone age or the bronze age; in fact, I've repeatedly explained why I think that's perhaps the least likely future ahead of us. Waving around that particular straw man does not lend any particular dignity to your argument.

Finally, as I mentioned a little while back, the project of this blog focuses on trying to anticipate the future. It also focuses on trying to make sense of what we know about the predicament of industrial society, rather than hypothesizing that somebody might somehow pull a rabbit out of a hat and save us from the consequences of decades of bad decisions. If you don't find those approaches interesting, well, as I said to Tiago above, there are plenty of other blogs you can read instead.

bryant said...

"and if you don't find that satisfying, you know, there are plenty of other blogs you can read."

Had to laugh. The "polite" and "dowdy" version of a bum's rush.

pentronicus said...

When we evaluate energy collection and conversion technologies, I think a common mistake we make is to use dollars as the yardstick. The assumption is that if something appears economically viable, then the actual energy used vs energy produced must have been better than a break even.

This is not necessarily so, partly because the energy going in can be much cheaper than the energy going out. A kilowatt hour's worth of diesel fuel to run an earth-mover digging a Nuke plant's foundation is less expensive than a kWh of electric power the nuke plant will eventually sell. Financially it may work out, but if the total kWh's that went in over the plant's life-cycle exceed what came out, then what was the point?

Another obfuscating factor is government subsidies anywhere along the production process. These can make a project look financially viable when it is an energy loser. Just because certain energy costs got shifted to taxpayers, does not mean the energy used was decreased.

John Michael Greer said...

Bryant, that's one way to put it. The point I wanted to make is that I'm not in the entertainment business; I don't write because I want to appeal to the largest possible audience, or to "enhance my credibility" (sic) by kowtowing to whatever the bandwagon of the moment happens to be, and when people tell me I ought to write what they want to read, rather than what I want to write, I think the best advice I can give them is to go looking for a blog they'll find more congenial.

I'm increasingly convinced, for what it's worth, that nuclear power is going to be the next big bandwagon in the energy field. The pronuclear types are going to get their chance, just as the ethanol lobby did, and my guess is that the result will be much the same: dozens of abandoned, half-completed nuclear power plants dotting the American landscape, side by side with the current crop of abandoned, half-completed ethanol plants, along with a flurry of bankrupt utility companies and another round of missed opportunities and wasted resources.

Pentronicus, excellent. You've summed up very nicely the two big problems with most proposed solutions to the emerging energy shortage: net energy, and the energy subsidies other resources get from fossil fuels.

Tiago said...

JMG, you are being unfair in your criticism - to the point that that unfairness is probably making you avoid the important part of my message. I have no problems that you consider that message irrelevant, but I would like to draw your attention to the core of it.

I suppose you know by now that I appreciate reading your essays more than anything else on the Internet. That does not mean of course, that they are beyond criticism. There is, most unfortunately this idea that criticism is a form of personal attack, while it might be just the offering of subjective points of view for improvement (take it or leave it).

Isn't it you that says that people will have to stomach putting up with lots of unpalatable things in a future that will have to be more communitarian? It is interesting (and not in a good way) that you immediately point the way out ("and if you don't find that satisfying, you know, there are plenty of other blogs you can read.") to criticism that is offered in good faith.

It seems to me that your essays sometimes fall in the same traps that you point, correctly, in others.

In fact, this reminds me of what is the number 1 sin of liberals: spotting problems in others and thinking that themselves are impermeable to them.

If you allow me some speculation: you are only human and the boost in self-esteem that you might be getting from the social recognition of your wonderful essays might do as much harm as it does good.

I do imagine that you appreciate the idea that between destructive criticism and uncritical praise, there is a plethora of other approaches and attitudes possible.

Some of us might even believe that the BEST they can offer is honest, upfront, well meaning constructive criticism. If you cannot grasp this idea, they you might be correct: maybe I should be reading something else.

Coy Ote said...

Team10 - Barter

John Michael Greer said...

Tiago, it's an old and shopworn rhetorical gimmick to accuse those who disagree with you of thinking themselves infallible, or reacting on a purely emotional basis, simply because they disagree with you. I've stated the reasons why I think nuclear power is a losing option; you've indicated that you don't accept those; I have no problem with that -- but I do have a problem with your insistence that I must have an infallibility complex because I don't agree with your assessment. "Nuf said.

Coy, I think he's looking for a more general term. I'm working on it -- though I'd happily take suggestions from the floor.

Ana's Daughter said...

@RPTizzle: goodness, I didn't know you were JMG's employer and were paying him to write this blog.

@sebzefrog: thank you; your comments are excellent and informative. Good to hear from a physicist about some of these issues.

Generally: it stuns me that so many people can't grasp the issue of concentration as core to the problem. Insisting that sunlight will replace petroleum is rather like insisting that you can run your car on a sunburn.

RPtizzle said...

Dear JMG:

In response to your response to my suggestions that you "consider the alternatives", I would like to say one more thing.

First of all, I acknowledge the world-class blog that you have, and also the excellent comment area that you offer to the general public. What makes a blog popular these days (in my experience) is not only the quality of the content of the blog, but also the quality of the discussions in each blog post - which some times generate ideas that are more valuable than the ones in the original content of the blog post. I see that while you moderate the posts, that you still post comments that are in disagreement with your views, and just as important, you address each one of them.

The majority of Peak Oil writers who have blogs also moderate their blogs, and they will not post any comments that are in disagreement with their (often doom and gloom) views. I could name some renowned Peak Oil writers that come to mind, but it's not necessary. For you readers out there, just beware when you read a blog post and then only see comments that praise the author. Rest assured that when my disagreeable comments are not posted, that I no longer and am reader of that blog. Personally, I am interested in reading content and commentaries that promotes critical thinking; and I'm not all interested in reading content that is purely an author's personal agenda followed by a bunch of comments that are nothing but mindless praise for the author. I'm more interested in the challenging comments than the praising ones, because it says a lot about the author (in how he/she responds them).

Thus my interest in encouraging you to be as unbiased as possible. I do not mean to waste your time in offering views that are opposed to yours for the sake of it. I merely wish to be a contribution to you. As someone here said earlier, "you can take it or leave it". I'll not be offended if you don't take my suggestions, and I will happily continue to read your blog which I very much enjoy. BTW, I'm not trying to change the direction of your blog by any means.

You must be aware by now, that the breakthrough and development of any future technology that could allow us to harness energy in a way that leaves us independent from fossil fuels would undermine all the work that you have done thus far. That is what I have been wanting to point you to. Is that likely to happen? I think not. But it is possible, and if the flying unicorns do show up, then all of your work will immediately be discredited and ignored. That is the risk that you are taking. That said, I have great admiration and interest in your work, so much so that I have recommended your blog and book (The Long Descent, which I've read) to many other friends, and will continue to do so.

Lastly, I wanted to say that our personal agenda does have a direct and indirect effect on the future of humanity at large. I.e., if you convince enough people (and you only need to convince a small minority in order to reach critical mass) that there's no chance at all that something will happen, then because everyone *believes* that - that outcome is never produced as a result of no one believing it. The less energy that goes towards something, the less real that thing is. This is the work of Quantum Physics, which is a fairly new science.

Anyway, please move forward with your work. I look forward to more thought-provoking material from you. And I do not mind if you do not accept my suggestions, especially now that you've made your position clear (so I know where you're coming from). I respect your position. Thank you very much,


MilesL said...

RPtizzle said...
"But it is possible, and if the flying unicorns do show up, then all of your work will immediately be discredited and ignored."

Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.

Using that old statement is what I believe JMG is doing. He has already theorized in The Long Descent that we will move slowly in steps. So his theory already includes unknown flying unicorns that will show up and sustain us for short spurts.

But in order to be effective as a leader he needs to convince a majority to do those things that will prepare us for when the new flying unicorns give out. Also what do we do if those flying unicorns are only offered to the rich who can pay for them? The possibility that we have American cities with a functioning industrial society for the few and a vast majority living in pre-industrial conditions is a very real possibility. In that case both are correct. No one seems to take into consideration that 3 or 4 possible outcomes as mentioned in the responses in just this blog alone could all be true at the same time. The difference is where you are standing at the moment.

So I heartily thank Mr Greer for sticking to his guns and attempting to get a system into place in which a large majority may be able to live more comfortably than if we continue doing the same. Unless my lottery retirement plan comes through, it looks like I may be one of the huddled masses living in pre-industrial conditions while I work for those who can afford to live well with the energy from the flying unicorns.

Ariel55 said...

Permit me to enter the stirring brouhaha in order to heap an oodle of mindless praise upon the Archdruid Report's author. Thank you for your wonderful personal agenda!--Sorry, I couldn't resist!
I'm tempted also to caution against trying to "waltz" the Archdruid's content. I'd hate for him to find a better use for his time. Peace.

mageprof said...

RPtizzle wrote:

"I also, in all humility, encourage you to not predict the future to be any particular way. I'm sure you know that the future is pure possibility."

What I particularly like about JMG's blog is precisely that he *does* attempt to predict the future, and the harshness that he briongs to the task. He insists that we face a predicament to be endured and survived, not a problem to be solved.

Personally, I neither value nor trust hope, whether it eventually proves true or false. It lulls and disarms. I gain much of value from being made to consider a hopeless future, for then I turn my mind to the tasks of endurance and survival. Perhaps it is a legacy from my ancestors in the frozen North, who supposed that even the Gods themselves perish at Ragnarok.

gardenserf said...


Thanks --you inspired me with some more thinking on the ethanol and energy efficiency topic which produced this piece:


Bernd Jendrissek said...

An interesting thread, and I can completely relate to the frustration of trying to explain thermodynamic limits.

But I have to take issue with your sloppy notion of "concentration". It doesn't matter that surface insolation is only around 1000W/m^2. In fact sunlight is quite high on the scale of available energy: in principle it's nearly 100% available as work. What you have here is a hot-side reservoir (the sun) that's at a much higher temperature than the cold-side reservoir (the earth's surface), so your Carnot efficiency approaches unity. The inefficiency is that it's difficult to extract the energy at a *continuum* of wavelengths, instead of at just one. With wind, OTOH, I can agree with you: it has already gone through a energy->heat->work cycle, and that at a very very low efficiency, before you can extract the energy from it.

benofactor said...

Hi onion:) I believe Eckhart Tolle is helping tremendously with that change, his teaching is very simple, be here Now:) as more and more people become aware of the present moment, more and more people will most likely make better choices like spending less eating less drinking less and thinking less. I believe he is showing us the way to peace as others are doing as well:) being here Now can be found in every religion so it is not a religion, just a way of being:) My answer to you is, people are already waking up, from their ThoughtFull slumber so when a good portion of our USA becomes aware, that they are the observers of those thoughts, they will most likely turn away from our government and peacefully ignore them while promoting and being the needed chang in others around them:)
Hope this helps:)

Eduard said...

It seems perfectly logical; the motor drives the generator, the generator ...