Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Energy Funds, Energy Flows

It’s a safe bet that whenever I post something here discussing the limits to energy resources, one result will be a flurry of emails and attempted comments insisting that it just ain’t so. I’ve long since stopped responding to them, since the arguments they raise – they’re always the same – have been repeatedly addressed here and in my books on peak oil, and endlessly rehashing the same really rather straightforward issues isn’t that productive a use of my time. Still, I keep track of them; it’s a useful reminder of just how many people have never quite grasped the fact that the laws of nature are under no obligation to cater to our culture’s emotionally charged fantasies of perpetual progress and limitless growth.

That failure to come to terms with the realities of our predicament is by no means restricted to internet bloggers, to be sure. The World Wildlife Federation, to cite only one example, has just released a lavishly produced study insisting that the world can replace 95% of its fossil fuel energy from renewables by 2050, with ample room for population increases, ongoing economic growth in the industrial world, and a boom in the nonindustrial world that will supposedly raise it out of poverty. The arguments in the report will be wearily familiar to anybody who’s followed the peak oil debate for any noticeable length of time; Erik Lundberg of Transition Milwaukee has already commented on these in some detail, and his points don’t need to be revisited here.

Underlying all the grand and sweeping fantasies of endless economic growth powered somehow by lukewarm sunlight and inconstant wind, I’ve come to think, lies the simple fact that the human mind never quite got around to evolving the capacity to think in terms of the huge amounts of energy our species currently, and briefly, has at its disposal. It’s one thing to point out that a planeload of tourists flying from Los Angeles to Cairo to see the Great Pyramid, back when political conditions in Egypt allowed for that, used more energy in that one flight than it took to build the Great Pyramid in the first place. It’s quite another to understand exactly what that means – to get some sense of the effort it took for gangs of laborers to haul all those blocks of stone from the quarries to the Nile, load them on boats, then haul them up from the Nile’s edge east of Giza and get them into place in the slowly rising mass of the Pyramid, and then to equate all that effort with the fantastic outpouring of force that flows through the turbines of a modern jet engine and keeps an airliner poised in the thin air 40,000 feet above the ground for the long flight from LA to Cairo.

Like the age of the Earth or the distance to the nearest star, that torrential flow of energy is on a scale our minds are simply not capable of grasping in any but the most abstract sense. From the perspective we inherit from our evolutionary origins, where the effort needed to chase down an antelope or fight off a hyena lies toward the upper end of our imaginations, the power needed to keep a couple of hundred tons of aluminum, steel, fuel, luggage, and human flesh in midair for most of a day is so close to infinite that it’s all too easy to confuse the two.

As we prepare to navigate the rough waters of the immediate future, though, confusing the two is a major mistake. The fantasy of infinite energy is what’s behind the assumption, common throughout the industrial world, that using as much energy as possible in as many ways as possible is an unqualified good. Once supply limits enter the picture, unlimited use becomes problematic, but it’s important to grasp that there are two kinds of limits to energy availability and two kinds of problems that result.

The best way to think of the difference I’m addressing here is to borrow a metaphor from money. One kinds of energy limit is a limit to energy flows, which works like the limit imposed by the amount of a weekly paycheck. If you make five hundred dollars a week, that’s how much you have to spend that week, and if the potential uses for that money amount to more than five hundred a week, you have to prioritize. So much has to be set aside for rent, so much for food, so much for utilities, and so on, before you decide how much you can afford to spend on whatever else you have in mind. Neglect to prioritize and you can end up scrambling to get by until your next weekly paycheck shows up.

The other kind of energy limit is a limit to energy funds, which functions like the limit imposed by the amount of an inheritance or a lump-sum lottery win. If you have ten million dollars in the bank from a winning lottery ticket, the kind of limit the fund’s size puts on you is very different from the kind that a weekly paycheck puts on you. Treated as a fund, that ten million dollars is all you’ll ever have to spend, and unless there’s less than ten million dollars’ worth of expenditures you’ll want to make in your entire life, you have to prioritize, just like the guy making five hundred a week.

Notice, though, that if you’ve got a fund rather than a flow, the temptation to ignore priorities and run amuck with your wealth can be very high, because payback doesn’t come midway through the week; it comes when your bank balance drops too low to cover your current expenses, and when that happens, it’s far too late to do anything about it. If you have more than the usual amount of brains the gods gave hominids, you can dodge this by turning the fund into a source of flow. In the world of money, this is called investing: you buy assets that give you a steady return, and the resulting flow becomes the bedrock on which you build your financial life; even if you mess up and have to scramble, there’s always the next check to help you out. Still, you have to make the decision to do that, and then keep your grubby hands off the funds you’ve invested.

Apply this to energy and you’ve basically got the history of the modern world. Until our species broke into the Earth’s store of fossil fuels and started going through it like a lottery winner on a spree, we lived from paycheck to paycheck on the incoming flows from the sun, and we got fairly clever at it. Growing food crops, raising livestock, building windmills and waterwheels, designing houses to soak up heat from the sun in winter and shed it in the summer, and a good many other ingenious tricks gave us the annual paycheck of energy we used to support ourselves and cover the costs of such luxury goods as art, literature, philosophy, science, and the occasional Great Pyramid.

With the transformation of coal from ugly black rock to energy resource over the course of the eighteenth century, that changed radically. Simply put, our species won the lottery, and it wasn’t a paltry little million-dollar prize, either – it was the great-grandmother of all jackpots, unimaginably vast enough that for most of three hundred years, the major constraint on how fast we used fossil fuels was the struggle to figure out enough clever ways to use it all. What nobody noticed at the time, or for a long time thereafter, was that we’d switched from a flow to a fund, and the faster our fossil fuel use accelerated, the faster the bank balance depleted.

We could have done the smart thing and converted the fund into a source of flows. That’s what the alternative energy scene of the 1970s was all about: figuring out ways to use the world’s remaining fossil fuel reserves to bridge the gap to a renewable energy technology that could last after the fossil fuels were gone. Even then, it was a gamble; nobody knew for sure if it would be possible, even using the world’s still-huge fossil fuel reserves, to create a renewable infrastructure sturdy and productive enough that it could keep providing ample energy into the far future. Still, it’s possible that it could have been done, if the initiatives launched in that decade had been pursued in the decades that followed.

The people responsible for the World Wildlife Fund study, and those people who deluge me with cornucopian screeds that aren’t simply chanting "Drill, baby, drill" or insisting that God Almighty will refill the world’s oilfields so that we can keep on living exactly the sort of life of extravagant luxury, wealth and pride their own Bible condemns in no uncertain terms, are basically insisting that this is still an option. It’s not, and the reason it’s not comes from the one major difference between money and energy resources: in the world of energy, a fund is also subject to restrictions on flow. It’s as though the bank account where you have your lottery winnings stashed has a regulation saying that you can only withdraw two per cent of your total balance per month.

If you’ve got ten million dollars in the bank, that limit hardly seems worth noticing at first, but as your tastes grow more extravagant and your bills mount up, the amount you think you need each month goes up, and the amount you can theoretically withdraw goes down as your balance depletes. Sooner or later those two lines cross, and once that happens only a drastic program of cutting expenses and prioritizing bills can save you from financial ruin. Unless you’re willing to suck it up and live very cheaply for a good long while, you certainly can’t afford to take the money you have left and sock it into an investment; you need the money to cover your bills right now, and the best you can probably hope for is that the remainder of your lottery winnings will clear your debts and maybe pay for some nice things you won’t be able to afford in the future, when you’re back to earning five hundred a week.

The restrictions on flow that affect fossil fuels are the product of geology and economics, not bank regulations, but the principle is the same. It’s simply not possible to extract more than a certain amount of oil from a given oil field per year – the amount varies from field to field due to fine details of geology – and trying to do so is a good way to exhaust the field prematurely, losing the chance to get some of the oil you might have had by doing things the right way. Despite all the ballyhoo about high-tech methods of extracting oil from the ground, in practice, those turn out to get about the same amount of oil as the old-fashioned method, just a lot faster; in practice, that means that the field keeps production at a higher plateau for a while longer, but runs dry sooner. The limits to coal and natural gas production are a bit more straightforward: neither one is cheap to produce, and the faster you want to produce it, the more it’s going to cost you and the sooner you run out of good places to dig or drill.

Thus you don’t have to run out of fossil fuels to end up in a world of hurt; you just need to get to the point where rising demand crosses decreasing potential flow. Worldwide conventional petroleum production passed that point in 2005; coal is closing in on the equivalent point, the point at which the cost of expanding production from depleting reserves will exceed the ability of the global economy to pay; natural gas is a little further off, though nothing like so far as the press releases from shale gas drilling companies hoping to buoy their stock prices would like you to think. In terms of the metaphor, our bills are mounting and our ability to withdraw enough cash to cover them from the First National Bank of Earth is starting to come into serious question.

Can we afford at this point to invest a very sizable fraction of what we have left in a project of the sort the World Wildlife Fund imagines? Not without a process of global economic retrenchment that would make the Great Depression – the last one, not the current one – look like a lawn party. Political realities being what they are, it’s not going to happen.

This means, as these essays have argued repeatedly already, that trying to find some new jackpot of energy to fuel our current lifestyles is not a viable response to our predicament. The foundation of any viable response needs to start from the other end of the equation, by changing our lifestyles to accept the drastic retrenchment that’s waiting for us anyway as fossil fuels continue to deplete. If our imaginary lottery winner wants to get out of the trap he’s made for himself, after all, the first thing he has to do is stop spending money so freely. Once that happens, the range of potential opportunities broadens significantly, but unless that happens, there’s no way that things are going to end well.

The distinction between funds and flows is important enough that I’d like to ask those of my readers who are working on the Green Wizards project to use it to expand on the list you made last week. That list, as you’ll remember, includes every way that heat enters into your house during the cold months of the year, and every way that it leaves. (If you didn’t think of the furnace, the stove, and other heat-producing appliances when you were coming up with ways that heat enters your home, by the way, you should probably do the list over again.) For this week’s work, take each of the ways that heat comes into your home, figure out whether it comes from a flow (for example, sunlight) or a fund (for example, natural gas), and if it comes from a fund, what restrictions affect your access to flows from that fund (for example, the cost of natural gas).

This may take you a bit of research. Your refrigerator, for example, puts a noticeable amount of heat into your home; if it’s electric, what energy source produces the electricity you use? If it’s coal or natural gas, it’s from a fund; if it’s hydroelectric, it’s from a flow; it may well be a mixture of these and more. Take the time to find out; it’s good practice, and will also give you a much better idea of what factors are likely to affect your electric bill in the future as different resources run short at different rates. More generally, go over your list from last week and see if you can expand on it. Next week, with the help of a pair of British musical comedians, we’ll begin applying this information to the next practical stage of the Green Wizards project.

My books on peak oil and the future of industrial society, The Long Descent and The Ecotechnic Future, are available from your local full service bookstore or direct from the publisher at the links just given. My forthcoming book on post-peak economics, The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered, will be available in June and can be preordered now from the publisher at a 20% discount.


John Michael Greer said...

A note to my regular readers is probably in order, since those of you who've been following the Report for a while will have seen me make most of these points already. Partly, of course, there are a lot of newcomers to the Report; partly, sustained cluelessness of the sort displayed by the WWF report suggests pretty strongly that an occasional repetition probably isn't out of place.

I'd also like to thank everyone who placed an advance order for The Wealth of Nature; to judge from the email I got from New Society, there were quite a few of you, which is guaranteed to gladden an author's heart!

tickmeister said...

My personal favorite illustration of the magnitude of energy derived from oil; A gallon of gasoline will move a medium size car 20 miles. Go out and find a level stretch of road and push your car 20 miles. When you get done, we will talk about renewable energy.

gordon said...

tickmeister makes a good point, just try pushing the car that 20 miles in 20 minutes to really appreciate how much work that gallon of gas did.

Tom Roark said...

Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture has one: A loaded eighteen wheeler can go a mile on something between a pint and a quart of diesel. Give the driver a hand truck, and it'll take him something like five hundred hours.

I drove interstate buses, so mine has forty-five passengers -- with luggage -- hoofing that mile.

Draft said...

JMG - great post lately.

Regarding your comment on the 1970s - I'm curious if folks back then (among leadership positions of various sorts) were speaking about a renewable energy future in the same language as they are today. Do you or others who post here know of any?

I ask because I think another way to snap folks out of a WWF-like eco-utopian mindset is to remind them of what was said 30-40 years ago, how much it sounds like what is being said now, and how nothing happened.

GHung said...

JMG: We could have done the smart thing and converted the fund into a source of flows.

A forest or wood lot, depending on one's time frame, is either a fund or a flow. While I've seen many sections of forest around me treated as a fund, clear cut or developed, I'm committed to treating our small sections as a flow. Deadfall for firewood (more than we need), fast growing locusts for fence posts, a source of food and habitat, all are possible if one adjusts to the forest flow. Add a few more people and it all falls apart.

The rub: Population is critical to establishing flows. The WWF report didn't have the courage to go there. Too many homo sapiens.

Richard said...

Yahoo news has this as one of it's top headlines that show up on the front page of, at least for a brief moment.

I've seen articles about oil depletion in the mainstream before. This one's brief and just specifically about Saudi Arabia, but one thing about it does make me take notice. Unlike most mainstream peak oil coverage I've come across, there's no cornucopian counterpoint toward the end of the article to serve as a lullaby. A positive sign or just an anomaly, I don't know.

John Michael Greer said...

Tickmeister, I like to use that as well. Then I point out how much extra energy it would take to push it that 20 miles at highway speeds.

Gordon, you beat me to it!

Tom, also good.

Draft, there were quite a few of them -- if you can find a copy of Rainbook or some back issues of Coevolution Quarterly from the late 70s, you should have no trouble finding good examples.

GHung, of course that's another wrinkle -- the difference between a flow and a fund is the replenishment rate -- but there's only so much room in one of my posts!

Richard, I noticed that. There have been a flurry of cornucopian responses in the blogosphere, but the news media haven't been piling them onto the initial report with anything like the usual enthusiasm. It'll be interesting to see what comes of it.

Michael said...

regarding the Wikileaks uproar about Saudi reserves the WSJ has already tried to throw a little water on it.....

.., these are not the droids you are looking for. Move on.

Paula said...

I'm not sure that money is a good analogy, given that more can be printed at any time. Maybe food in your cupboards, and you have no more money to go out and buy more- now you have to prioritize would be a better way for some people to 'get it'.

We installed a wood stove with the highest EPA ratings we could find. We still haven't managed to have enough fuel to keep the house warm all winter, but I suspect that if we don't get better at it, our winters are going to be a lot cooler indoors in the future. Right now we can heat with natural gas when the wood runs out. Maybe not, in the future. Probably not.

I for one believe in things humans learned to do for themselves before the Industrial Revolution, one of which was coppicing. That describes 'flow', because you not only burn that produced by the sun (and water, but that's another issue), you burn the same tree over and over and over again. Unfortunately, I can't grow enough fuel on the quarter acre on which my house stands, so getting used to colder winters may be in my future. But I'm still going to grow trees for coppicing and try my hand at it.

I guess that as long as our government is truly controlled by various corporations, real progress will never be made. People here in the States abhor socialism, but it's the Scandinavians that have the highest standard of living in the world, and are in a much better position than we to keep it in the very nebulous future.

Michael said...

The feature of the energy flows that I find most folks just don't think about have to do with scale. The total amount of fossil fuel energy the planet consumes daily is almost unimaginable. But I find when I try to explain that I discover people looking over my head and thinking about something else.

But when I ask them how they think we can continue to grow that flow they just say someone will figure that out.

Cathy McGuire said...

the simple fact that the human mind never quite got around to evolving the capacity to think in terms of the huge amounts of energy our species currently, and briefly, has at its disposal.

Well said! I fear that the only way people will begin to grasp this is to revert to manual function for several of their daily needs… and most of the people around me recoil if they even get close to this. For example, since I switched to cooking 98% of my meals from raw materials, it’s easier for me to imagine having to go the whole way – pump my own water, milk my own cow, etc…. and yet I know I am not near that now. But friends who microwave the part of their diet they don’t order out, have very, very little understanding of how much energy their food requires. Similarly, since I heat my house about 75% with wood, I see how many hours of chopping is translated into how many hours of heat… they don’t give it a thought, and when I push them on it, their estimates are wildly off. When people are forced to “downgrade” is when they will understand, not before. This is why I think your green wizards program/idea is so brilliant… you can’t teach them before they want to know, but someone needs to keep the information and skills alive, because they’re gonna want to know – desperately – at some point in time!

das monde said...

The evolved human mind indeed has difficulties with grasping large amounts of energy or even money. On the other hand, I claim that human societies are quite able to educate themselves and make sound decisions. The education and politics were rather close to collective rationality until the 1970s - perhaps not adequately close, but much much closer than now. The occasion of Reagan’s centennial gives an opportunity to look again, how things were changing then. The subject is politically charged, but here are a few facts that some people immediately paid attention to. Reagan not just made mockery of affirmative action, food stamps and federal job training projects, prenatal care and school lunch programs (with ketchup as vegetable to satisfy nutritional requirements). His appointments of Attorneys General and to the Environmental Protection and Interior Department agencies did selectively opposite of what they functions were supposed to be: civil rights undermined, natural resources auctioned. That is making the government a problem in full force. This turn in governing was drastic, but apparently well prepared and protected. We went a long way since then - Reagan’s type would be dismissed as unelectable now, as Sen. Graham (R-SC) observed.

So, political power picked its own interests and never looked back at pity concerns about growth limits. Was this provoked by intellectual envy? Was the political power that much sufficiently corrupted? Or was the global overshot a survival strategy (for power)? Why else were Clubs of Rome so suddenly ignored?

The situation of so many loosers (financially, in particular) does not make evolutionary sense. A big majority of people is supposed to be crafty in their own self-interest - yet there were never so many doomed as now. This is not evolution but con artistry on a global scale. You can see it in stock market and real estate bubbles, in nations and populations duped to astronomic debt, from information manipulation and pandering to supposed popular opinion.

Take, for example, Richard’s tip to the Saudi oil wikileak. It is freely reported in many places if you look. But not in the big media or public political circles. We have US officials concerned that Saidi oil reserves are grossly overstated - but this is not to be emphasized in public discourse. It is not so much that governments don’t want to be smarter than single human minds - it looks more like dumbing is where the effort lies.

sawbonessurio said...

Looong time reader (from India). I never left any comments till date because you confined the sample space to the developed world (specifically, USA) in your writeups; the points you raised were sufficient enough for me to understand and not ask more clarifications or raise contentions.

Of late though, I am beginning to see a convergence of these trends into developing countries' ways of life as well! While there are some cushions that the developed world can boast of, the developing world will be run amok when these events start overtaking us (yes, I am sure it will.... another 20 years at the most. I never doubt that)!

On top of that, there's an increased push to lull and opiate the chattering classes into complacency with urban bookstores stocking up on the likes of "Sceptical Environmentalist", "Animal Spirits" and "Rational Optimist" and their ilk! I might as well go bash my head against a brick wall to get a collective dialogue going! :-(. Or, whatever few like minded people there are, are usually several 100kms away!

As a compassionate druid, would you be able to suggest something of a concrete nature along these lines, for the "rest of us" too (I meant in a nice way) in your forthcoming posts/comments? :-)

Great posts BTW.

madtom said...

the power needed to keep a couple of tons of aluminum, steel, fuel, luggage, and human flesh in midair for most of a day is so close to infinite that it’s all too easy to confuse the two.

You probably just left out a word, but it may illustrate your point that the actual weight of a loaded 747 is more like a couple of hundred tons, but I see no other corrections in the comments so far. Who notices numbers, anyway?

I've spent many uncomfortable hours contemplating this miracle, zooming over the Pacific between LA and Auckland, when I'd rather have been asleep.

No matter how many times I make the trip, it seems like science fiction. I compare my brief discomfort with the real risks and months of travel that the trip required just a century ago, and what people will think of us in the future when such speed and ease are just a memory or a legend.

fourpie said...

"the transformation of coal from ugly black rock" au contraire! Have you seen any of the 0intricate carvings people have done with this beautiful shiny black rock?

Matt said...

Not a comment, just a correction: The fourth paragraph of your current post is missing a 'hundred' - "the power needed to keep a couple of *hundred* tons of aluminum, steel, fuel, luggage, and human flesh in midair" won't make my brain hurt, then. ;-)

Cherokee Organics said...


So, after the lottery winnings are spent and if we haven't damaged the biosphere irreparably, then we'll be back where we started?

It's interesting, but most people who actually win a lottery tend to spend all of their new found wealth very quickly and end up back where they started too. People aren't very good at planning.

Societies that actually transition to a sustainable state with their environment have to go through the process of a loss of resources before accepting the new sustainable state. Growth (or learning) through pain?

I reckon you may well also be touching on the point that people believe what they want to believe regardless of it's factual basis. The louder and more vehement they get defending their beliefs, the less those beliefs are based in reality.

Have you ever had a conversation with a believer in the hydrogen economy? Scary...

It's funny, but I rarely come across people who can envision a future any different from today.

I don't worry too much about it though because I'm too busy converting my resources from a fund to a flow.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey people!

It's worth remembering that a vehicle weighing about a metric tonne will consume about 300 watts of electricity to travel about a kilometre (1.6 miles).

My own vehicle consumes 6.3 litres of petrol (gas in US terms) to travel 100 kilometres. Travelling the same distance using electricity will consume 30 Kilowatts (30Kw/h). This also assumes no savings from regenerative braking which will add a small increase in the generating capacity.

If the batteries are lead acid they'll weigh in at about 1.2 tonnes. Probably a bit lighter for lithium ion or Nickel Metal Hydride.

That car is starting to get pretty heavy compared to the small weight of the petrol.

Also, the electricity grid cannot cope with everyone drawing an additional 30Kw/h a day from the grid - even if it is off peak. Some off peak - yes - Everyone - no.

I wouldn't bet my future on an electric vehicle.



Mean Mr Mustard said...


I see WWF have invited a debate.

I took the liberty of quoting your second paragraph and providing the link to this week's post, along with the link to Eric's detailed rebuttal.

It will be interesting to see if the post remains in situ and whether they are actually open to dissent...

PTW said...

WWF stands for World Wide Fund for Nature. The Federation thing was quite different.

Óskar said...

"Until our species broke into the Earth’s store of fossil fuels and started going through it like a lottery winner on a spree, we lived from paycheck to paycheck on the incoming flows from the sun, and we got fairly clever at it."

But, to complicate this a bit, you would likely agree that coal and oil aren't really the first "fossil fuels" that human civilization has spent recklessly... The other major forms of "fuel" being topsoil and old-growth forests. Those may not take millions of years to replenish but they take long enough that past civilizations have consistently treated them like funds rather than flows, leading to eventual collapses. One explanation for the development of coal and oil technology, which I find convincing, is that Europeans had depleted their sources of wood for charcoal, so they turned to coal. This unexpectedly led to the discovery of a vast and world-changing fuel resource.

I keep scratching my head over all of this and wondering whether human civilization can even function without a non-renewable resource to exploit... almost like a super-sized bacterium prospering in the presence of sugar, then falling back to a long dormancy.

Even so, you're right about the many successful adaptations of the past that contribute to sustainability. Perhaps this is a matter of semantics: human cultures, even civilized ones, may find staying power in sustainable practices, while empires will keep appearing once in a while as the "super-bacterium" I describe above.

I've posted about this subject before and you've replied to it before... as I say, I keep scratching my head over it ;)

William said...

Your article reminded me that when I was growing up more than 50 years ago, my own father would occasionally point out to me that it was amazing that a mere gallon of gasoline could move all that weight up hill and down for 20 miles. (Same figure) He grew up on a farm almost 100 years ago, and they used horses exclusively, perhaps allowing him some perspective on the power of gasoline.

enjoyed your column, but the force of public denial is overwhelming.

William said...

Clarity: watts measure the *rate* of using energy, not energy. It might take 300 watt-hours to drive a 1.6 kilometer, but to saying it takes 300 watts is like saying "It takes 30 mph to get to the supermarket."

kilowatt-hours (power in kilowatts multiplied, not divided by time in hours) is a common measure of energy, which can be converted into BTU's or calories or joules.

Jason said...

I thought Lundberg was very good, and particularly since he seemed to show that awareness in the states of how Transition rhetoric will play in reality; it's good to see sobriety. I liked his last thought too:

My concern is not that we will fail to maintain our growth economy on renewables—it is pretty clear we won’t. My concern is that the hyper-globalism suggested in The Report captures the imagination of those who will try.

I also just wanted to repeat the call from last week for your systems-apt translation of Tao Te Ching. I hope there are plenty of votes for that because I think it would be of interest to many, certainly to me.

Bill Pulliam said...

Re: classic physics songs, don't forget:


Cherokee -- units problems... 1 mi = 1.6 km not vice versa (mile is longer). And your vehicle can't have consumed 300 watts over that distance; watt is a measure of power (flow) not quantity. You probably mean watt-hours (a flow of one watt sustained for one hour). Kilowatts and kilowatt-hours are not interchangeable though they are frequently mixed up. That's like interchanging miles and miles per hour.

Mean Mr Mustard said...


Further to my last, the WWF Moderator quickly responded -

"There are some other interesting contra arguments here as well:

http://changeobserver.designobserver.... "

Interestingly, that blog also references your good self!

Fair play to the WWF for allowing 'dissensus', eh!

John Michael Greer said...

Michael, I was wondering when that would happen.

Paula, excellent! Coppicing is a very important skill and one that needs reviving, as much for the production of raw materials as for fuel.

Michael, they don't want to know. I've come to the conclusion that it really is as simple as that.

Cathy, that's the strategy!

Das Monde, the idea that people are motivated by rational self-interest was ideology, and dishonest ideology, from the very beginning. The trap into which our political classes have fallen is in part that when you spend all your time selling a line of nonsense, after a while, you start to believe it yourself.

Surio, the reason I don't address the situation in developing countries like yours, or in those countries that will never go through industrial development, is that I've never lived in one and I'd be far more likely to make a fool of myself than to say anything useful!

Madtom and Matt, I did indeed. Duly corrected.

Fourpie, no, actually, I haven't.

Chris, all too true -- and yes, I've had such conversations. It's like discussing religion with a fundamentalist...well, of course, in effect that's exactly what it is.

Mean, most interesting. I'll look forward to seeing what comes of it.

PTW, my error. Thank you for the correction.

Oskar, granted; there's only so much room for details in a 2000-or-so-word post.

William, your father was paying attention. A lot of people aren't.

Jason, Lundberg's by far one of the sharpest knives in the Transition drawer. As for the Tao Te Ching, it's underway -- finished in draft through chapter 5, with more to come shortly.

Gabriel Balaz said...

During 1st year in University (Physics as major) we had quite fun energy illustrations e.g we had to try to estimate how many beers you need to drink to cover energy expenditure to spade 100m^2 garden.
Very good sample for work that is strenuous but low power output and liquid that is pleasure to drink and rich energy content ...
coping with very large / small numbers is difficult, I was happy when my results in "try to estimates" tasks were correct in order of magnitude, which made my friends who studied economics laugh, I think they attitude towards numbers changed after 2008 when those billions and trillions hit the headlines worldwide.

Odin's Raven said...

If past be prologue, and people adapt more ingeniously than they plan, there may be some interest in this account of 'Britain After Rome', which shows how people adapted their stocks and flows of resources.

"Everywhere was reacting differently to the new shortages in supply and loss of technical skills, argued Professor Fleming, but the general picture is one of rapidly-developing material poverty being met with manifold and baffling ingenuity as each community made its choice between staying some kind of Roman or becoming early medieval."

Andy Brown said...

Much as I would like to be a cornucopian, the numbers they use and their notions of political realities both just grow more fantastical. The only thing that gives me any hope (and it's hope, not optimism) is the mind-boggling amount of waste that we wallow in.

In another flow-and-fund issue I remember once in the 1990's looking at the decrepit, leaking canals and conduits in use in Central Asia and thinking - we could probably save the Aral Sea without taking a single acre out of production - without anyone going thirsty - just by looking after the water a little better.

But of course, we didn't bother, and what was the Aral Sea is now a barren wasteland of pesticide-laden dust storms.

gregorach said...

Good analogies in this post. I've often thought to myself that the people waiting on a price signal to do something about peak oil are like lottery winners waiting until the money runs out to devise an investment strategy.

Roy said...

When it comes to calculating house energy fund and flow I came across some interesting science. Surface area to volume ratio. If your house is small it obviously heats up faster, however it cannot contain its heat due to the higher surface area. The volume is inverse to the surface area, therefore a larger volume yields a smaller surface area, and a smaller surface area has less contact with the outside environment. So, logically this would explain why so much energy is being wasted on heat. We live in small houses! So would it make sense to live in mansions? No. Not unless it was a commune. After thinking about this dilemma I continually thought about the "hobbit homes" depicted in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Building a house in the ground would effectively utilize maximum volume and minimum surface area, so the issue of heating a "hobbit home" would require very little energy. And without houses burdening the landscape we could grow crops right over our heads, similar to the hill farming methods of the Incans and Mayans. The only problem I foresee would be the water trying to make way into the underground home, I don't know of any energy efficient methods of removing the water without a subpump. Perhaps making a windmill on top of the house that turns a giant Archimedes Drill?

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, I hadn't encountered that one before. Ole! indeed.

Mean, that's a promising sign!

Gabriel, good. Of course the other thing that has to be calculated into beer per square meter is how many beers it takes to get someone fuddled enough that they agree to spade the garden for you. ;-)

Raven, thank you! That's a resource I hadn't encountered, and highly relevant.

Andy, the question is whether the waste gets treated as slack to be taken up by the system as a whole, or becomes the food chain for unofficial salvage economies that end up competing with the primary economy and assisting in its collapse. My guess is the latter.

Gregorach, that's a good metaphor.

Roy, no, you do what the hobbits did and dig your hobbit hole -- your smial, to use their term for it -- on a hillside well above the water table. Tolkien mentions that only certain places were suited to smials, and that hobbits used aboveground construction elsewhere. He didn't mention earth berms and green roofs, but I have my suspicions.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

Note to Roy:

One cubic yard has a surface area of 6 square yards.

1000 cubic yards has a surface area of 600 square yards.

A larger surface loses more heat.


Lance Michael Foster said...

hey JMG, could you send me a breakdown of or refer your source on how to compare the energy used to construct the Great Pyramid vs the planeload of American tourists that fly to see it? In my intro to archaeology class right now, I am using Diamond's "Collapse" (among other resources). Unfortunately the students think there is still plenty of oil (their fine science teachers etc inform them of this) it's just that those meanie oil countries won't cough up. If I could give an illustrated example of the pyramid vs plane model, that might help get around the programming and open some young minds.

genconc said...

tickmeister's illustration is powerful, yet it overlooks the huge amount of energy wasted in mechanical conversion. It's my understanding that an internal combustion engine is only able to convert on average about 10% of the energy embodied in the fuel to mechanical energy. The majority of the fuel energy is lost through heat dissipation. It's also my understanding that about 33% of worldwide fossil fuel consumption is in internal combustion engines.

If we factor this into JMG's money analogy, then out of a $10 million fund we're throwing away $3 million (90% of 33%).

Dale said...

Perhaps those who did not live through the '60's and '70's would enjoy hearing the words of Barry Commoner:
1. Everything is connected to everything else.
2. Everything must go somewhere.
3. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

Kevin Anderson K9IUA said...

In your examples for distinguishing between funds and flows, I immediately thought of the Ogallala Aquifer (or any aquifer for that matter). They very much need to be treated as a flow, and not as the fund that they are usually thought of. Towns and farmers in the High Plains are hurting badly now because they have severely overdrawn the Ogallala, with the trickle of a recharge rate ("flow") in comparison. Water is a far more serious resource to run short on than oil or coal.

Richard Larson said...

You're welcome.

In my studies it is interesting to have in my possession a few LED light bulbs that also emits heat. I will have to test them to verify the manufacturers representation of watts used per hour, as this bulb has the same or slightly better light - and gives heat - for about 10 percent of the wattage used by an incandescent.

The comparison between fund and flow is excellent, I will use it in my discussions with others! Thanks.

Lynford1933 said...

JMG: Be careful, the Tao that you can write about is not the real Tao. I'm quite sure Lao Tzu would be the first to admit the Tao he was writing about are simply pointers to the Tao not the real Tao. It follows, the systems you are discribing from 'the book of the way' are not the way. "Those who know the truth do not argue. Those who argue do not know the truth." The Tao is a slippery slope to argue or write about.

Bobby said...

The myth of progress is very strong indeed. I am reminded of it every time the family comes over to our place for a visit. They still don’t really get why we do what we do, and when my wife and I try to explain a new project and the reasons for doing it, the eyes of our family members collectively glaze over until they look almost zombie-like. What follows is silence, which I presume is some rather uncomfortable thoughts rolling through their heads, and then the sweeping proclamations that everything will be okay in the end, really, the nice government and the businesses that finance it will fix everything so that We The People can continue to consume poisoned food, plastic crap from the far ends of the world, and oh yes, the ever popular American land yacht will continue to function on a limitless basis. It is not just my family either; I see it all the time with co-workers and friends. The Force of market economics is strong, so much so in fact that it seems to cloud people's better judgment even though I know that deep down most realize something is seriously amiss and that the culture of consumption that is so common in the industrialized world cannot continue unabated forever. Yet they are fed the myth of progress on an almost daily basis. From the State of the Union address to the myriad of advertisements that intrude upon life in the industrialized world, if thoughts stray far from the goals of progress, even for a second, then there is always something or someone their just in time to sing a lullaby and place those ideas to rest.

Worried about the environment? Buy this and that "green" product, fresh off the boat from Taiwan. Think peak oil is a problem? Buy an electric car. Want to save the furry, cute animals? Donate to such and such organization. It drives me crazy that people continue to insist that the same systems that got us into this mess in the first place will somehow magically work to fix it in the end. It is the line of thinking that we can buy and spend our way out of anything that is a major part of the problem.

Perhaps it is fear of the unknown, fear of hard work, or fear that the "things" of their existence, which they think means so much, will disappear forever causing a vacuum of sorts as far as personal worth is concerned. When I think of how most people in today's industrialized world define themselves, which is usually based upon jobs and possessions, I cannot help but notice that if these elements of their existence were removed then, in their own minds anyway, any idea od self-worth that they had as a human being would be removed as well. They would essentially have no locus of control and I wonder if this isn’t at least part of the reason why, in the face of such overwhelming data, many go on living as if the earth can provide a burgeoning population base forever without any consequence or contraction. I believe that the urge to hang onto the comforts of industrial life is strong enough that even highly intelligent people will neglect data that contradicts their preconceived notion of the future, even though they know that the data does not lie and will not simply disappear.

I believe this is why so many cling to the idea that there will be more gadgets and gizmos in the future that will power industrial civilization forever. The mysterious cult known as "they" in modern parlance will come up with some solution because "they" always have.

With this level of collective cognitive dissonance in mind, I have to wholeheartedly agree with Cathy's point that we cannot teach those that do not want to learn, but we can do our best to preserve the skills and information that will be needed for the future so that when the time comes, we can help those who are in desperate need of assistance. While my family continues to insist that the world can be saved by simply shopping for "green" products at WalMart, we will continue to tend the gardens, clean the coops, and prepare.

Mean Mr Mustard said...

Someone who I presume is one of the WWF authors has now started to respond in depth, noting JMG's Pyramids vs Flying Hours contrast.

If a few commenters more knowledgable than me would care to join in over there, that would be good.

(Link is deliberately split, as I don't know how to embody it here)

John Michael Greer said...

Greg, but the heat lost per unit volume is smaller, which is I think the point Roy was trying to make.

Lance, I got that a couple of years ago from a book I no longer own. I'll try to find the details.

Genconc, good. We'll be discussing conversion factors again (they've been a topic of conversation here many times before) in upcoming posts.

Dale, is there any way we can brand the backsides of every member of Congress with those words on the business end of a branding iron?

Kevin, no kidding. You can do a lot without other resources; you can't do much without water but die.

Richard, the results of those tests will be worth hearing.

Lynford, understood. Still, just as Lao Tsu found it useful to write a book, I think it will be useful to rephrase that book in language that gets across some of what he was saying a little better than some of the standard versions do.

Bobby, just about everyone I know who's grasped the predicament we're in has that same experience. Those who don't get it, don't get it, and trying to explain it gets the same sort of thousand-mile stare you get when you disagree with a Moonie. I wish I had a better answer, but the only thing I can say is that people are making their choices now; some of those choices will likely lead to survival in fairly good shape, and some will not.

John said...

We are clearly headed for return to a future of low energy "natural flows" as fossil fuels pass from use. We have in our cultural record an astounding array of simple methods (from cultures past and present) for managing water, food, shelter, etc. Hopefully, the most appropriate of these methods will become commonplace and will make life much more comfortable, if we don't forget them. I fear the loss of libraries and recognize the loss of digital record-keeping. The distribution of (what will come to be) essential knowledge between the two realms is unclear. It is also unclear how much time remains to access digital knowledge and discussion. I fear we will be surprised at how fast we pass "peak digital communication"; and how quickly and completely it disappears. I suspect our current formal knowledge could pass into mere descriptive legend describing a fantastic and unbelievable golden age, peaking now. I am adopting what I see as post Fossil Fuel living methods, which has the laudable effect of costing less by switching to managing natural flows of water, heating, food production, etc. It has slowly dawned on me that I/we should be committing to (acid-free) paper as much as we can, while we are so engaged, and which should be an ancillary goal: we may otherwise be caught empty-handed when computers disappear.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

For Paula, and anyone else worrying about how you're going to keep warm enough in a northern winter:

The biggest single trick is a SMALL space -- a 'snug' is the British word -- with a seriously-thick, high-quality insulation rug wrapped ALL around it, including underneath, and STRICT control of air-flow through this space. (It does have to flow a little, though; complete flow-stopping doesn't work)

It's as simple as that, and I write right now in just such a very small (but very conveniently fitted out) insulated space.

The amount of fuel that you need to keep comfortable in such a snug is RIDICULOUSLY small, especially if you're using one of the latest developments in rocket stoves to heat/cook in it.

The problem, for most USAmericans, and an increasingly-ridiculous number of pampered Brits, is that a generation has grown up who have no experience, and no concept, of living in anything much less than a McMansion, with several megwatts of power at your beck, always, at the touch of a switch, and an entire retinue of in-house mechanical serfs to use it at your behest.

All I can say, to those whose ears are open and ready to hear, is that living in my size of space, without serfs of any kind, and only a minimal electricity flow (say about $100-worth a year, tops), and a bike, and NO car, is actually a superior, and much more (totally) comfortable and serene way to live than the McM life. Try it. Be agreeably surprised, and relieved.

A little coppice such as Paula describes, plus that snug living capsule, are enough for the basis of satisfactory comfort whilst the ice-storms rage. I do it, most winters.

rsuusa said...

Last year we did an experiment and heated our 105 year old house using only gathered wood and trash from our urban neighborhood. During that time it was never warmer than 50 degrees at night livable but not pleasant by any stretch of the imagination. Even though I live in Alabama with relatively mild winters I was never able to gather enough fuel or maintain the fire long enough to provide a comfortable level of heat so nights were for sleeping. It is very hard to harness the power of a modern natural gas heater using dead fall wood and refuse even if you have the time and inclination to do so it probably isn't really worth the effort.

Jim Brewster said...

Mr. Mustard, I've got your back. I also incidentally posted a blog post today briefly touching on the connection between the commodities market (aka another global casino), food prices, and the unrest in Egypt. Since Clinton, the Democrats are so in with globalization and the industrial food model it makes me dispair of political solutions and hold my nose at the polls. If Michele can get Barack out in the garden a little more maybe there's hope...

(Not to get too far off on a tangent here, but its seems to go deeper than that, at least back to FDR. I fantasize sometimes that if he had appointed J.I. Rodale as secretary of agriculture, and someone like Schumacher instead of Keynes as his economic adviser we would be in much better shape today...)

vera said...

Great analogies, I love the flow of the argument. There is one point, though, that I don't understand. When JMG says: "This means, as these essays have argued repeatedly already, that trying to find some new jackpot of energy to fuel our current lifestyles is not a viable response to our predicament" -- I am wondering why our lottery winner would not decide to get good at poker and try to hit another windfall... in other words, why not put at least some effort into looking for another source of energy?

If folks here would point me in the right way where this is explained well, I would be grateful.
Many thanks.

EBrown said...

Thanks for another interesting post JMG.

I've been thinking about intensive vs extensive systems recently, which you may have addressed in previous posts that I have yet to read as I am new to your blog.

Anyway, intensive vs extensive. I have two example that I will explicate in an attempt to demonstrate the differences. My first example is the home veg garden. There are many ways to garden - raised beds, organic, conventional, irrigated, mulched, etc. Currently the rage in most of the eco-world is some variant of the intensive raised bed, often double-dug with large amounts of organic material. Managed properly such a garden can produce an impressive flow of vegetables from a small parcel of land. The unfortunate part of it is such a system's brittleness. It mandates annual or biennial additions of organic matter. It requires careful monitoring of soil moisture and immediate application of water before stress sets in on the plants. To make the best use of such heroic management and inputs plants are generally spaced closely together thereby allowing proponents of "intensivist methods" to claim they have the best "efficiency per unit of land in production".

Extensive gardens on the other hand would be familiar to our ancestors. Growing by this method one spaces plants much more widely, may perhaps do a slight raising of a bed by digging path dirt onto the growing bed but nothing crazy, and fertilizes as materials are available. Even in a spread out garden one must still import organic matter if the quality of the crops is to remain high. If one is intent on growing the compost on site too then an area roughly the size of the extensive garden must be turned over to organic material production in the form of a fast growing plant such as comfrey or bamboo. I have no idea how big an area would be needed to keep an intensive garden "in compost", but I imagine it must be large.

Intensive gardening may appear to produce huge returns from small areas, but in my experience it draws on hidden stocks of fertility. I guess if one only has a small piece of earth to grow in and has ready access to organic material then intensive gardening makes sense. For those of us in the country though it often is more reasonable to spread things out and avoid the need to water garden veggies often. I suspect that many sources of concentrated organic material are going to dry up once fossil fuels become scarce.

EBrown said...

My other example of intensive vs extensive systems involves dairying.

The vast majority of milk produced in the US of A comes from intensive farms that use huge amount of diesel fuel and metal to grow annual crops. Those annual crops then get hauled to the cows, chopped by other big metal machines, and fed to the cows by big metal machines. After the cows have had their way with the feeds and turned in into a sloppier, smellier, browner, form it is again handled by big diesel powered hunks of metal. If one is willing to jump through the above hoops and has the right cows, one can produce mind-boggling volumes of milk.

The other of method of milk production allows the cows to do more of the work. It's called grazing. Good grazers make a lot less milk per acre of land in production as the intensivists do, but their costs are so much lower that often they are more profitable. To build a farm with a similar "flow" of milk produced, a grazing farm would need many more acres (twice? thrice?). The precise amount depends on the quality of the soils and other site specific factors.

I've simplified the examples somewhat. There are overlapping methods and options in both of my systems. Some extensive gardeners use organic material from the town leaf dump or a nearby brewery. Some grazers feed their cows grain thereby increasing their effective land base as well as their milk production per cow.

I suppose the point I'm coming to is that the intensive systems of food production which I'm familiar with have hidden subsidies of energy/materials/fertility that allow them to "produce more from less land". Extensive systems are more readily accessed in their production (flow) from their land base (stock of minerals).

christopher.polston said...

Another set of ideas discussed in the 70s (and not much talked about since), is getting into space.

Yes, it is big and dangerous. Yes, we have lots to learn, and yes, it is (currently) expensive. But there is lots of energy, resources on scales that we cannot easily imagine and plenty of sinks for waste.

Think about the diaspora(s) that populated the islands of the Pacific. Think about the levels of wealth that are accruing to the top 1%.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Bill,

You are quite correct! Apologies to all. Long physical work days in warm humid weather + alcohol = lack of coherence. hehe!

An electric vehicle weighing about 1 tonne requires about 0.3kW/h of energy to travel 1 kilometre.

Oops! 1 mile = 1.6 kilometres too.

Still doesn't change the basic premise though. The battery weight is the limiting factor in an electric vehicle. The more capacity you have, the heavier the batteries.

You can't also drain batteries to nothing for many cycles either before they become useless. This is completely different to a petrol tank which can be drained to almost empty without many ill effects.

People speak about new types of batteries, super capacitors and fuel cells, but forget that they include very exotic and rare materials. Unless these materials are found in abundance, the whole thing becomes uneconomical and just won't happen.

I'm on off grid solar power at my place and I wired it up myself. I often visit an Internet forum for these things to seek help. I saw a thread there the other week which was promoting fear about all sorts of things solar powered.

It struck me that the end user should have respect for the components produced, but they should also not kid themselves, because in any deindustrial future, none of those components would be repairable. What I'm saying is, that it's not the installers who are the clever ones, it's the people that develop and build the components in the first place. The knowledge is so specialised as to be like magic to the layman.

Maybe I could turn the transformer into fencing wire?



lagedargent said...

JMG + Roy,
Speaking of hobbits, many people love to read about them, but prefer to live like Elves, carefree.
I wonder, what made the Last Homely House so homely? Did it feature a trombe wall, or a hypocaust?

Great post, JMG. I read that WWFata morgana too, and was glad to find the Lundberg article. Apart from its last paragraph (quoted in one of the commentaries), I warmed to Lundberg's pointing out that is was all about technology and lacked in one very important presence: people!

John Michael Greer said...

John, that's a crucial issue. I've founded a nonprofit, the Cultural Conservers Foundation, to encourage the preservation of knowledge in less vulnerable forms; once it gets its tax exempt status -- a process that's under way right now -- the board and I are hoping to get some initiatives under way in that direction.

Rhisiart, an excellent point! Really, any decrease from McMansion scale is a step in the right direction; my spouse and I live in an old house that's distinctly small by modern standards, but it suits us and is a lot easier to clean, maintain, and heat than what passes for a normal house these days.

Rsuusa, we'll be talking about fixes for that. How's your insulation and weatherstripping?

Jim, it's inherent in the entire trajectory of the United States -- ask any Indian...

Vera, when you first start playing poker, the one thing you can count on is that you're going to lose a lot, and one thing you need to remember is that you might never get good at it. Thus it's not a strategy for a fast turnaround. You might put some time into if if you have time to spare, but you're going to be playing for pocket change at first, since that's all you'll be able to afford; getting a handle on your spending has to take priority over everything else until you're past the cash crunch and can start taking small risks again. (And yes, all of that applies just as well to energy.)

EBrown, of course there's a place for extensive growing as well as intensive. The reason I tend to stress intensive growing is that most people just now have very small patches of land to work with, and a lot of sources of organic matter available, ranging from autumn leaves to composting toilets; also, it's what I know how to do. If you're in a different situation, use different methods.

Christopher, why not space? Let's see. Quadrillion-dollar investments we can't afford? Check. Huge resource and energy needs we can't spare? Check. All the disadvantages of the WWF plan, with even less chance of paying off any time soon? Check. Gambling the future of our species on a fantasy out of bad science fiction? Check. I could go on, but I've already addressed this at length elsewhere.

Chris, definitely turn the transformer into something useful.

Laged, Tolkien mentioned fireplaces, so my guess is waterbacks for hot baths. As for the WWF business, as Lundberg pointed out, the only people their scenario contains are the omnipotent "we" who get to make the rest of the world do what we want it to. Fat chance...

Laura said...

Sir, wonderful piece. You truly are a treasure.

I ran your analogy past one of my 'hopeium' friends and they claimed it doesn't stand up for two reasons:

1. The assumption that the Lotto winner will necessarily exceed his/her means

2. The assumption that the Lotto winner can't ratchet back down without 'crashing'

If I maybe so bold, the analogy can be extended usefully. The Lotto winner is bombarded with suggestions to make life better & easier - to spend less time working and therefore have more time for 'leisure'. This is, of course, your point about having so much cheap oil that people/companies just kept finding better ways to use it faster. So, it seems to me, the Lotto winner will, most certainly, be brainwashed into the need for 'labor saving' because other people stand to gain from this. He/she will therefore get fat, lazy, deskilled and burn through the fund at a higher rate than otherwise might have been - whilst having time for TV and golf.

Regarding my friend's point #2, the inability to prevent crashing, given the extent to which Lotto winner over time 'outsources' all physical work & discomfort, he/she becomes soft and incapable. If, by 'crash' or 'collapse' we mean painful adjustment, then that's inevitable (working hard again, feeling discomfort, etc). However, it doesn't mean, for example, suicide for out Lotto winner. Though it might. I think that gets to your point about an ongoing collapse/adjustment (and Dmitry Orlov's essay pertaining to 'levels' of collapse and choices being available at each 'collapse floor' to prevent falling through to the lower floors).

Anyway, my thought is that one of the key entities our hypothetical Lotto winner would have paid for early on, when he/she felt flush, was for personal security. I mean, with all this new wealth, one needs protection, right? Later, when the fund is drying up and the providers are being let go, the security provider still wants its payola. Even if the Lotto winner may deem other needs more important, the security outfit will intimidate the other providers helping our, now sad and depressed former wealthy principal, to make sure they get their share first. All the way to the last red cent. We all know who will have dibs on the last vestiges of FF, no matter what!

Reader's maybe interested in a historic/chronological visual of JMG's flow/fund analogy on Folker Gunther's website. Mr Gunther refers to 'flow versus store'. See

Cherokee Organics said...


While the transformer is still working I may hang onto it for a bit.. It's quite good really, but completely irrepairable. I guess it buys some time - at most probably about 15 years.

Hey EBrown,

About your spacing advice for plants. That advice probably needs to be taken in context.

In Australia, I practice quite close spacing for both fruit trees (usually about 1 to 2 metres apart ie. 3 to 6 feet) and vegies (virtually on top of each other).

The reason for this is because of the harsh sun and higher general temperatures than you may experience in your climate. The closer spacing reduces evaporation and protects leaves during excessively hot days (I've seen 40 degrees celsius here on New Years Eve). You may want to think about this yourself if it hots up a bit where you are...

The other reason is that I'm aiming for a complete canopy of fruit trees. There is a lot of wildlife here who are all too happy to eat the nutrient rich produce. The wildlife will find an enclosed canopy confusing.

Also importing organic material is non negotiable if you are either starting or sending produce off site.

The reason this never occured in the past was that when produce left a farm, other produce would also be brought in. Also nothing organic would leave the farm. For example: you may produce a certain crop, but would have to buy in other organic products such as food for yourself or your animals. With no sewer or garbage collection to take waste elsewhere (like where I live), it all ends up in the soil.

Unless the nutrient flows are balanced and the top soil is improved you cannot farm long term. To do otherwise is strip mining.

Hey Rhisiart,

You can build a "snug" on a slightly larger scale. The house I'm building is small, but super insulated. The walls, roof, floor, and windows are all heavily insulated. It really reduces the flow of heat into and out of the house which is excellent for the climate I'm in.

I also had to build with bushfires in mind and reducing the flow of energy into the house is a very real concern. Have a look at the photo's in the paper from the recent fires in Perth and you'll get an idea of what it has to withstand.

There wouldn't be too many houses in the world that incorporate all of the strange things that I've had to build into it. Not to mention that I'm building it myself too - not contracting it out to others.

The great thing though, is that it requires very little energy to run on a day to day basis. Much like a snug! It is possible if it's designed an built correctly unlike most McMansions...



Jason Heppenstall said...

There probably aren't many examples of decisive political action being taken back in the 1970s to prepare for peak oil, but Denmark could be one of them. In response to the oil shocks the government took measures such as super-insulating buildings, builing cycle lanes everywhere (and giving cyclists priority over car drivers at lights), putting in a huge district energy heating system and investing heavily in wind turbine technology. They even banned driving cars at weekends and nobody grumbled (imagine that!)

One island, Samsø, had even gone 'carbon negative' i.e. they export more energy than they use. How did the man who organised this massive project get people to participate? Simple, he offered them free beer. I guess you would call his approach pragmatic.

Americans (well, okay, everyone) who comes to live here are staggered to find out that you have to pay a 200% tax on cars - but the end result is clean air, no congestion and about 50% of city journeys made by bike.

Of course, Denmark is far from perfect (people generate more trash than any other European country) but the government has always been 'for the people' and is never riven by infighting when there is some kind of national threat, such as that posed by peak oil.

Saying that, after 30 years of holding out, I'd say that around 2001 (when a right wing government was shock elected as a direct result of 9/11) the country has been trying to make up for time lost in terms of abandoning its sense. Huge fancy buildings have gone up everywhere and, in the case of the Copenhagen Opera House, the owners are finding them too expensive to run as heating and other maintenence costs have escalated.

The Danes are probably more prepared than most for peak oil, but saying that, it might all count for nothing is this (low lying, flat) country is under water!

divelly said...

Regarding heating efficiency in housing:I lived in a house in Truckee,CA-often the coldest locale in winter in the 48 states-1800 sq. ft.,burning 1 cord of wood per year.
Siting(long axis 15 deg SE),tile floor heat retainers,integral green house,etc.,etc.But equally important is the shape of the building.A sphere contains the ratio of greatest volume to smallest surface area.The cone or pyramid is the the obverse.Spherical houses are impractical,as are domes(ask anyone who has lived in one).
The next best shape is the cube.Look at all the American four square houses from pre-WWI when you travel in farm country.

Roy said...

JMG- Point well taken, thank you. That is something to look more deeply into now. Perhaps laying an interior of pave stones insulated with dried mud would be a good foundation and use geothermal piping for heat?

Greg- Your math proves my point, the ratio of surface area to volume is inverse, and the larger the volume has less surface area. Although heat is lost from the surface one has to also take into consideration all the area inside the structure that is not exposed to the elements. I have lived in an apartment complex using electric heat and a countryside home using firewood. In the apartment complex it was always warm during the winter even when the heat was off. In the countryside home I can't say the same. Therefore, the larger complex might use more heat than a home overall, but it retained the heat very well and proportionately per person it used less energy for heating.

Bill Pulliam said...

Oskar -- your point about the energy subsidy from exploiting forests and topsoil is valid, of course, but semantically it's not really correct to consider these as "fossil" resources. The reason for this is simple -- they will renew on the human timescale. Not necessarily a single lifetime (although you can get a pretty mature forest in good climates in 80 years), but within the timescales of human civilization. Old growth forests are typically on the order of 500 years old (natural disturbance cycles), the occasional multi-millennial stands being lucky outliers. Topsoil develops on a similar time scale, perhaps more like a few thousand years in particularly difficult situations. And though you cannot restore original soils or forests in your lifetime, you can grow wood, and you can grow soil, on a limited scale, with careful management. The real fossil resources take millions of years to replenish, far far longer than the time our species has been on earth, vastly greater than the lifespan of any human civilization. When they are gone they are flat gone, period, effectively forever.

Rsuusa -- I live in a 125 year old house in Tennessee. Weatherizing is a very long-term incremental project. I'm sure JMG will get in to this in great depth! An advantage of older houses is that they are usually built in such a way that they can be taken apart ant put back together without destroying their structural, architectural, and historic integrity. Anything that is broken or rotten can be replacedl; walls can be disassempled to put in insulation and then reassembled, etc. DON'T make the big mistake of replacing fixable older technologies (like clapboard siding, plaster, etc.) with disposable "modern" materials (like vinyl siding, drywall, etc.). Spruce up the old stuff and it'll last another 200 years, long after the vinyl siding and drywall are in the dump with no replacements available.

It's also good to focus on critical rooms and make them heatable, letting the rest of the house stay chilly until you can get to it. A house with a couple of 70 degree rooms surrounded by 45 degree rooms is a lot more comfortable to live in than a house that is 60 degrees in every room!

flute said...

Dear Mr Archdruid:
I just checked the airliner to pyramids example:
A 747 flies at about 950 km/h
Los Angeles - Cairo is 12231 km (which is within a 747's range)
12.87 hours needed
At 140 MW that means 1802 MWh = 6488867 MJ

A hardworking human (e.g. pyramid builder) needs 3000 kcal/day.
A human at rest only needs 1500 kcal/day.
Difference is 1500 kcal/day = 6.28 MJ/day.

This means that a 747 flying to Cairo uses the same energy as roughly one million man-days of hard manual labour, which sounds reasonable for building a pyramid (e.g. 1000 workers for 3 years).

Thanks for the example!

Twilight said...

Glad to hear your doing the Tao Te Ching translation. I'm interested because it sure looks like there's useful knowledge there, but I do not have the cultural and linguistic background (or time) to extract that from its exiting form and phrasing.

One of the pieces of baggage that comes along with our belief in perpetual progress is that we cannot conceive that there were smart people and wisdom in other times and other cultures. Of course there were, though much of it was lost and some of what remains is not very accessible.

flute said...

Oops! More fact checking...
The Cheops pyramid would have required on average 14567 men to work for 10 years which equals 53 million man-days.
The experimental mini-pyramid built for NOVA television would, sized up to Cheops size, need about 24 million man-days for a pyramid.
So the 747 comparison is out by a factor of 24 to 53.

JP said...

Much of what we are doing with energy is basically pointless, and is not producing anything enduring in the area of art, mathematics, science, etc.

See Madison Avenue for further details.

I still think we need to go through peak uranium first, but hey, this is a peak oilish blog.

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

For EBrown: My experience with my rows of two-truck-tyre, two-foot-deep raised beds is that I need a roughly equal surface area of comfrey plants to supply all the tea and mulch that the raised-bed soil needs to stay wild and healthy (I NEVER till soil! Why would I want to savage half to death something that I admire and respect, and which does fine if I just bring it tribute, and otherwise leave it in peace? Masanobu Fukuoka rules, OK!).

The comfrey -- Lawrence Hills' famous 'Bocking 14' variety if you can get it, but any is good -- is planted out in odd holes-and-corners near to my beds, on land which I don't control formally, but which no-one uses, so no-one cares about. There's also lots more growing wild nearabouts here.

Any other waste hay, straw, leaves, manure, humanure, etc. that comes available goes onto the beds also as deep mulch/soil-creature-feasts, pretty well at any time of the year that it can be had. It will all rot down into the soil over time, and feed it. Naturally, the raw manures need some composting in bins first, though.

In practise, this isn't an onerous technique, nor does it demand many days per year.

Comfrey, incidentally, will give you several cuts per year, in British weather conditions. I've never approached some of the Victorian specialist growers' achievements of over a hundred tons/acre/year of green foliage. But certainly there's always lots to feed and mulch the beds.

Incidentally, one drawback with truck-tyre-stacks for raised beds is that they can become rat-cities, in the lower reaches of the soil. Your have to think how you're going to approach that complication. I usually manage to get them to opt to leave, without persecuting them. It can be done.

tom rainboro said...

Hobbit houses: Not quite, but this worth a look, the history of the roundhouse at Brithdir Mawr,
(the house was only originally noticed by the planning authorities because of the sun's reflection from the solar panels).

Eric Lundberg's comments I thought were interesting because the WWF's 'business as usual with wind turbines' attitude seems very close to Transition's position to me.

Bobby said...

Wow, I don't know if anyone has already viewed these or not, but Grist has some very interesting visual representations from Saul Griffith that show the gigantic shifts that would need to occur if the industrialized world is to continue with its current rate of energy consumption by converting to clean energy.

As we all know, the numbers to achieve such a paradigm are quite sobering. While the author of the blog seems to be firmly in the "our technology will save us" crowd, the information he is citing is outstanding, especially for more visual learners.

Just figured I would pass this information along in case anyone else hadn;t seen it.

david k said...

But...but...but, they just invented a new way to squeeze even more oil out of the plantet:

They use fraking tech so I'm sure it's perfectly safe and won't pollute the water.


John Michael Greer said...

Laura, your extensions of the metaphor are good, but I'd raise two more points. First, in the present case, the lotto winner in this case has already exceeded his means, and second, he has passed the point where he can ratchet down fast enough without going broke.

Chris, I should have said "when it breaks down." As long as it works, you might as well use the thing.

Jason, smaller countries have certain advantages in dealing with the mess we're facing. Sea level rise is another matter, of course; I wonder if it's time to start thinking about communities on pontoons?

Divelly, or the row houses in towns, which save even more energy by having two sides the cold air can't get to! Older habits of housing design are well worth a second look.

Roy, that sounds both comfortable and esthetic.

Bill, we keep our house around 60, and wear sweaters and other warm things -- a nightcap, of the literal (rather than the alcoholic) variety, is particularly nice for sleeping. It seems to work fine.

Flute, thanks for checking this; I got the example from a book I read some years ago.

Twilight, that's a crucial point. As our energy supplies begin to dwindle, I suspect we'll begin to figure out that a lot of the ideas we've inherited from the pre-oil world are a lot smarter than we thought...

JP, we're not that far from peak fissionable uranium, and you need to factor in the huge energy inputs nuclear power receives from fossil fuels -- mining, refining, and transporting the fuel, building and maintaining the reactor and the rest of the power plant, dealing with the spent fuel rods, and decommissioning the plant all involve a great deal of fossil fuel, and as that goes up in price, nuclear power is going to become increasingly unaffordable.

Rhisiart, we've got comfrey growing in our backyard garden -- that plus composted kitchen waste and yard waste, plus humanure once the composting toilets go in, ought to keep our intensive garden in very good shape!

Tom, that sounds like a good argument for matte solar panels!

Bobby, thanks for the link! I hadn't seen those, no, though I've seen similar estimates.

andrew said...


I've heard that an icon of the Peak Oil theory said that it was the homosapien's evolutionary imperative to strip the Earth of its carbon layer and then die off. Can you expand on this idea?

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- we're lucky to hit 60 in weather like this! I suspect many of your readers will live to see the day when an inside temperature of 60 will seem warm and toasty.

Never fear, the Arctic Oscillation is headed more positive and the Pacific-North American pattern is going negative -- in other words, the eastern US will be warming up for a bit.

John Michael Greer said...

David, it sounds to me as though they're smoking frack.

Andrew, I don't happen to know off hand anybody who makes that claim. If anybody is doing so, I'd suggest that they go sit down with a copy of Darwin and read it until they grasp the fact that phrases like "evolutionary imperative" are simply handwaving. Evolution has no imperatives, destinies, or any such hogwash; it's simply a process by which living things adapt to their environments.

About three hundred years ago, in the process of adapting to its environment, our species stumbled across a way to vastly increase the energy available to it by raiding a fraction of the Earth's fossil carbon. That turned out to be a dead end, and the adaptations that grew up around it (broadly speaking, the human ecology of industrialism) don't have much shelf life left; as they break down, the human population is going to contract quite a bit.

Different versions of this same process have happened to many other organisms over Earth's evolutionary history, and they'll doubtless happen many times in the future as well. It's simply one of the things that happens over the course of evolution. My guess is that our species will come through the crisis, though with sharply reduced numbers, and the Earth has shrugged off cataclysms far more drastic than anything we can throw at her; she'll be fine long after we're part of the fossil record.

Bill, understood! We've been working on weatherization for a year and a half, so it's getting a bit easier to maintain comfortable temperatures even when it's cold out.

Roboslob said...

"Bobby, just about everyone I know who's grasped the predicament we're in has that same experience. Those who don't get it, don't get it, and trying to explain it gets the same sort of thousand-mile stare you get when you disagree with a Moonie. I wish I had a better answer, but the only thing I can say is that people are making their choices now; some of those choices will likely lead to survival in fairly good shape, and some will not."

JMG - wondering why you chose your present location over Oregon. It seems you're pretty close to major population centers and Oregon seems like it's at the forefront of "progressiveness" in the US (doesn't take much). what area of the world do you think would be ideal to live in in 30-50 years in terms of health and happiness of its average citizens?



hapibeli said...

Does anyone have an opinion on this Ted talk regarding using nature's architecture? I'm assuming that all of the previously discussed problems of human interaction will stifle such knowledge?

John Michael Greer said...

Roboslob, being close to population centers is only a problem if you expect a sudden crash, which I don't. As globalization sunsets out and the US has to make do with domestic production, I expect the Rust Belt to make a major comeback, while the west coast -- which has boomed by surfing the imnperial tribute/import economy from Asia -- is likely to suffer a long-term contraction. Agricultural areas with good rail service, close to population centers without being too close, are likely to thrive as well, as transport costs make locally grown food more cost-effective.

As for the benefits or otherwise of living in a more progressive part of the country, well, let's just say that I was underwhelmed by the extent to which "progressives" in Oregon and elsewhere were willing to put their money where their mouths were. There were some impressive exceptions, but frankly, I've met as many of those on this side of the country, and all things considered, living in a poorer and more conservative area where people already know how to get by with less, and old-fashioned social networking institutions such as lodges are still thriving, is probably a better bet.

andrew said...


Why do you expect the crisis not to include nuclear war and extinction?

Andrew H said...

Lance, one can make a quick and dirty estimate based on simple physics.

A fully laden 747 has a fuel consumption of about 4-5 US gallons per mile (Wikipedia). Our group flying to Egypt from Washington DC flies about 5800 miles non-stop, or about 11,600 miles return (Google Earth). The aircraft would then use about 58,000 gallons or 217,000 litres.

Now consider the Great Pyramid of Giza.

Possibly the largest component of the energy budget is the energy embodied in lifting stones from the base level up to their position in the pyramid. The pyramid is about 147 metres high with a square base of 231 metres. Each step (ie layer of stone) is about 1 metre high. So consider each layer in turn. At the top is one block about 1 metre square and 1 metre high. The stone has a density of about 2.5 so the block weighs about 2.5 tonnes. The amount of energy required to lift the stone from the surrounding plain is given by the formula

Energy (Joules) = mass (kilogram) x height(Metres) x g(accelaration due to gravity)

In this case it is 2500 x 147 x 10 = 3,675,000 Joules

The amount of energy in 1 litre of fuel is about 36,000,000 Joules (36 Mega Joules) which means that it would require 0.1 Litre of fuel to lift the stone from the base up to the top.

The next layer will be slightly larger but only 146 metres above the ground. etc Using a spreadsheet it is easy to calculate that the total energy embodied in lifting the stones from ground level is about 56,000 litres or about 14,900 US gallons. That is the energy embodied in the pyramid itself is about 25% of the single tourist flight. Of course more energy would be required to cut and shape the stone and transport the stone from the nearby quarries, although this could have been quite efficient using technology known at the time.

Thus it is quite easy to imagine that the total energy expended in building the Great Pyramid of Giza is less than the fuel used by a single tourist flight from the US.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi John,

No worries mate!



Jason Heppenstall said...

JMG, you said: "Sea level rise is another matter, of course; I wonder if it's time to start thinking about communities on pontoons?"

Which is amusing because the (newly built) Copenhagen Playhouse rests on hydraulic legs which will extend as water levels rise. Good forward planning, though I fear that audience numbers will be down as the 99.9999% of other buildings are not of the floating variety :-)

Speaking of low energy housing I'd like to recommend the movie/documentary Garbage Warrior ( your readers. One man's quest to build passive energy (and beatiful) housing in Arizona (I think). Certainly some useful things to know there as sections of the population move into a salvage society.

Vic said...


I don't know if he's a peakoil icon but David Price in an essay "Energy and Human Evolution", says:

The Human species may be seen as having evolved in the service of entropy, and it cannot be expected to outlast the dense accumulations of energy that have helped define its niche. Human beings like to believe they are in control of their destiny, but when the history of life on Earth is seen in perspective, the evolution of Homo sapiens is merely a transient episode that acts to redress the planet's energy balance."

He asserts that the species will not long outlast the use of fossil fuels. Price puts it this way,"If organic energy is sequestered in substantial reserves, as geological processes are bound to do, then the appearance of a species that can release it is all but assured. Such a species, evolved in the service of entropy ,quickly returns its planet to a lower energy level, in an evolutionary instant, it explodes and is gone."

He brings up many good points in the paper but it's a little over the top to wipe the species out over depletion. We'll continue in the service of entropy for quite some time methinks.

JMG, Catton, in "Overshoot" uses the comparison between the amount of energy released in the few minutes of the Saturn V's three stages and the building of the Great Pyramid at Cheops as an example of the illusion of limitlessness. I suspect it was an especially potent illusion for those of us brought up watching that whole tv space extravaganza in the 60's and into the 70's. Wow, I bought into the whole technological onward and upward hoopla for quite awhile after being subjected to that at home and in school. "But, I was so much older then I'm younger than that now." Couldn't resist winter makes me wax nostalgic?

NorthCreekNews said...

I love reading the discussions after a post almost as much as the original thinking. It contradicts the idea that I am alone in my thinking.
One of the ideas left out of the discussions of housing is putting more people inside each home no matter what the shape. People need to learn how to live together with smaller personal space. If you added one person to your house, you save almost 50%. What other changes could save so much?

hawlkeye said...

As a recent ex-resident of JMG's former digs in Oregon, I must sadly concur (although most times I do it far less politely).

Oregon's been pretty well Californicated in the south; equity emmigrants love the "community values", and just can't understand why all the young families are disappearing. The streets look like Miami; too many grey-heads in too-white clothes; lots of grandmas pushing walkers, but few moms pushing strollers.

Portland tends to sprout localizing intiatives here and there, and I have to hope that some residents there feel better about themselves because of them.

As for "speed of crash" I get that much of the suddenness feared is apocalyptic residue in the cultural brainpan. The speed of dissolution is one thing, but the more critical threshold for me is the "speed of freakout".

When the vast majority of neighbors anywhere are blue-pill munching, juvenile consumers locked into (nearly) endless cycles of entitlement, their mental health platform is rotten. This would be the foundation upon which common sense would otherwise be constructed.

In other words, we're all surrounded by lots of big whiny babies with lots of big shiny guns, growing increasingly cranky without their morning coffee/cig/med/sugar fix. And that's before bumping their heads on the glass doors of the grocery store, the ones that always opened every time before...

Hunger works its weirdness on even the strongest constitutions.

So it's not the fracturing of infrastructure that worries me these days, it's the fracturing of the sanity of everyone who has internalized the insanity of modern life. Including the soylent greenies.

It's not just that most folks won't know what to do; it's more that they simply won't know who they are anymore. Kind of like (oh my, sorry) yes, zombies. But scarier because they're real.

Glenn said...

I just read a disturbing article on homeless squatters in abandoned building in New Orleans. I guess catabolic collapse is getting a head start there. "The collapse will not be even" to paraphrase our good host.


EBrown said...

I guess my gardening example shed more darkness than light so I should try to go a little more in depth.

My gardening goals are to grow a lot (roughly half) of the food my family and I eat and to grow nutrient dense food. I also want to accomplish those two things without herculean efforts.

I live in a cool/cold temperate climate. My frost free growing season is only about 100 days. Peak temps during the summer occasionally climb into the 90s F, but not that often. I have never lived in a mediterranean, arid, desert, or tropical locale so the system I describe may have useful components, but lifting it wholesale into another climate is ill advised.

Before the days of inexpensive electric water pumps and city water utilities i.e. easy hose irrigation at virtually every house, home gardens spaced their plants more widely than is now recommended by most growers. There are two major advantages to this style of gardening. One is moisture availability. Contrary to popular opinion, the vast majority of moisture lost from the earth occurs via transpiration, not evaporation from a bare soil surface. This is even more the case if a thin layer of dust mulch is maintained with a light hoeing between rain events. By spacing plants widely to very widely dry spells don't pose much of a threat to the productivity of the garden even if the gardener is away for a few days. The capillarity of the soil keeps the plants in moisture for a good while. The fact that this type of management works well in a garden with wind breaks does NOT mean it translates appropriately to farm scale growing. The dust bowl of the 30s in the USA is a perfect example of people trying to give their crops moisture in exactly this way.

The other advantage of wide plant spacing has to do with plant nutrient uptake. Roots only absorb nutrients from very close to the tip, and the tips are always growing out. For plants to reach full potential they must not encounter much competition from other roots. They need to be able to expand until the near the day of harvest. It is possible to overcome the physiology of plants by providing super fertile soil and then a slightly stunted root system can take up the required nutrients for good growth. It is my belief though that it's better to provide both fertility and the space for full expression of genetic potential.

Continued -

Candee said...

Ran across this site and if you look at the slide show link under the video, Green Wizards are mentioned in the mix

EBrown said...

Continued -

Which brings me to fertility. I don't think it's possible to have a zero in-put garden. Veg crops are tender things that perform well in concert with human help. Even if every scrap of vegetation grown and all the humanure of the eaters goes back into the garden one still comes up with an organic matter deficit. Remember that dust mulch thing I just mentioned? It only works if there is sufficient organic matter in the soil to maintain tilth and prevent a hardpan layer from forming on the soil between veg plants. One must have an organic matter factory adjacent to the garden beds (comfrey or some other supremely productive plant), or an exogenous source like spent brewer's malt, town leaves, or large animal manure.

Fertility and organic matter are not synonomous. Howard, Rodale et al. did us a great service pointing out the short comings of industrial agriculture. However it is naive to believe that one has truly fertile soil simply by dumping giant loads of orgainc material onto a garden bed. Say you have a town leaf dump that provides all the rich dark compost you can possibly use. If you live in the eastern USA chances are better than not that rich dark compost does not have the proper balance of minerals to grow the most nutrient dense crops. The only way I know to ascertain whether one has really good dirt is to take a soil sample to a lab. In the eastern USA usually calcium is deficient as well as a number of trace elements. If one relies on local organic matter to supply trace elements those nutrients better be present in the local soils...

Finally, yes, it is in fact possible to have too much organic matter in a soil. Often a bed with too much organic matter will grow gorgeous flowers and lush veg plants. But a lush veg plant doesn't necessarily have the most bang for its buck, so to speak. As the great soil scientist William Albrecht routinely hammered home, quantity does not equal quality. As far as growing and maintaining a body is concerned.

Bill Pulliam said...

Vic -- Biologically we have changed little since our Cro-Magnon days. Our evolution since then has been cultural not biological for the most part. So, it's pretty silly to think that the species that evolved and thrived for hundreds of millenia before the fossil fuel era will somehow not be able to figure out how survive after it!

Roboslob said...

Thanks for the explanation. Did you consider any other countries?

andrew said...

Vic, thank you kindly for the lead on David Price. JMG, thanks for your response to my questions.

John Michael Greer said...

Andrew, why should it? It's quite possible that some nukes will be tossed one way or another, but the infrastructure necessary to launch a really large-scale nuclear attack is hugely expensive to maintain and operate, and we're already seeing a decrease in arsenals. Remember that the Soviet Union went under without a single nuke being fired, and the US will likely do the same. As for extinction, human beings are among nature's supreme generalists, right up there with rats and cockroaches; we're pretty hard to exterminate.

The craving for a whiz-bang ending for the modern age is, to my mind, simply the religious myth of apocalypse with the serial numbers filed off, and thus not a useful basis for planning.

Andrew H, thank you!

Jason, thanks for the link. I'd encourage the Danes to start getting the rest of their housing stock on floats...

Vic, once people start using phrases like "in the service of entropy," we're back in the realm of lightly rewritten mythology. Human beings are just another organism; it's only the astonishing hubris of our current culture that leads so many people to try to assign us some grand role in the scheme of things.

News, an excellent point.

Hawlkeye, I wonder how many will freak out, and how many will cling desperately to the fantasy that everything's going to be just fine.

Glenn, most interesting. Could you post a link? It sounds worth reading.

EBrown, no, your gardening example was fine; it's just that different people facing different conditions make different choices.

Candee, thank you! I hadn't seen that.

Bill, that's certainly my take.

Roboslob, no, I didn't, for two reasons. First, I know this is an outdated and unfashionable thing to say, but the US is my country, and I don't see a good reason to bail out on it as we move into a time when, to be frank, it'll need all the help it can get. Second, it amazes me how many people haven't thought through the implications of being an American expat in a foreign country at a time when the US empire is coming unglued. Depending on how things turn out, the chance of doing time in an internment camp as an enemy alien, running for your life from an angry mob that doesn't care if you disagree with the President, or even facing a firing squad on trumped-up charges of espionage or subversion, are among the possibilities that have to be taken into account. I suspect it's the notorious American arrogance overseas that makes this hard to see, but that's hardly a guarantee of safety!

Andrew, you're welcome.

Cathy McGuire said...

Speaking of hobbit houses and low-energy homes, this house hand-built in Wales is my idea of wonderful!!

I wants it, my precious...;-)

Richard said...

JMG, about expats, I have a peak oil aware friend who lived in Mexico for something like seven years. He came back to the U.S. a couple years ago because of the very issues you describe. The area he was was pretty far from the border and hasn't (yet) seen as much of the gang violence that gets the attention in many areas, but the reason he left is that he realized that being a gringo in Mexico wasn't a good idea in hard times. Even some of his Mexican friends asked him why he was down there and not back in America trying to change things in America. Many others were thinking much worse, and if America loses its political clout they're more likely to act out revenge against any American. To many, any American is a symbol of what the Americans as a whole have done to them, whether or not that person has different politics.

Actually, my friend does say that he thinks the area of Mexico where he was has a good chance of being better off during the coming hard times than most of America, but that doesn't mean you want to be there as an American.

Alice Y. said...

Glenn might have been referring to this?
'...homeless living amid ruins'. Several recent articles also point out fire hazards of similar conditions, worth thinking about when designing our more robust living conditions.

Karen said...

"..Second, it amazes me how many people haven't thought through the implications of being an American expat in a foreign country at a time when the US empire is coming unglued. Depending on how things turn out, the chance of doing time in an internment camp as an enemy alien, running for your life from an angry mob that doesn't care if you disagree with the President, or even facing a firing squad on trumped-up charges of espionage or subversion, are among the possibilities that have to be taken into account. I suspect it's the notorious American arrogance overseas that makes this hard to see, but that's hardly a guarantee of safety!.."

I emigrated from the U.S. to Europe over a decade ago and I do hope such things to do not come to pass however, I still have my U.S. Passport just in case.

Jason said...

JMG: As for the Tao Te Ching, it's underway -- finished in draft through chapter 5, with more to come shortly.

Ah, great!

When it comes to writing the introduction, I hope you'll clarify some remarks you made here on the Report a couple of years back, to the effect that any complete statement of systems is a statement of religious belief... very interesting! (And maybe mention Stoic Nature and Norse Wyrd as well. ^_^)

Tao Te Ching is so popular, apart from anything else, that I could imagine a lot of interest being generated. There's no end to the pap that poses as 'translations', although there are also some good ones that are aware of the interconnected, processual/cyclical nature of what Lao tzu was saying.

I had to laugh when I saw this, a quantum-field-theory-based translation of Tao Te Ching, complete with 'Feynman Diagrams of Chi Exchange' with the proton as 'Heaven' and the electron as 'Man'!... still it shows how much interest there still is in finding new ways to look at that text.

Gregg said...

hello jmg,

no need to post this.. sorry to go thru this channel, but i can't find another way to contact you.

i registered for greenwizards but did not get a password. i've tried to have another sent, but they do not show up (also not in spam bucket).

i'd really like to logon. please assist if possible.

thank you, gb

Glenn said...


Sorry no link available. It was on a rotating news feed on earthlink, and has gone. It was a human interest type story following a set of social workes whose job was to find these people and hook them up with appropriate services.

I thought the significant part was that NO officials thought they could make a "clean sweep" of homelessness after Katrina and most people left. Well, most of the homeless returned, and there was even less housing stock than before the storm. Hence, an even higher homelessness rate, as well as higher gross numbers. Camping in a ruined building in a great city that's still functioning is one generation ahead of camping in the same building after the city dies.

Of course, there will always be some settlement at NO, although "New New Orleans" may have to be a bit further up the old Miss' as sea levels rise.


Atavist said...

What amuses me is you'll see sites where Americans try to justify having more than 2 or 3 kids. "Oh we're frugal" they say. They have no idea what true frugality is. "We hardly consume any resources". They believe this, but in truth even if they consume only 1/4 of what the average American does, they are consuming vast amounts of energy.

The Internet alone must consume more energy than must of us would believe. How many Great Pyramids could you build each year with the energy required to keep it running?

And of course these people are quick to explain that they don't accept any welfare. They're proud of this. They don't understand how heavily their lifestyle is subsidized at every level by their government, and ultimately by grossly underpriced fossil fuel energy.

Tom said...

Unfortunately, what little habitat remains for endangered and soon to be endangered species will be destroyed or taken over for man's uses before we reach that magical day when almost all of our energy requirements are provided by renewable and other non fossil fuel based energies.

From the perspective, if their is one, of the non human species, their future existence would be enhanced by a catastrophic dieoff sooner rather than later.

Not that full or near full replacement of fossil fuel based energy is possible.

In any event, replacement of fossil fuel energy is not desirable given our current and future projected population.

And, of course, none of this will be done anyway because the power is with those who are convinced that somehow we can continue this madness without doing much of anything different than we are already doing.

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, that rocks. Thanks for sharing it!

Richard, I've heard the same thing from several other people. Unfortunately I also know a lot of Americans who have never processed the fact that the end of American empire means an end to their position of privilege overseas.

Alice, thanks for the link!

Karen, I hope it doesn't, either. Still, depending on just how our empire goes down, things could get very hairy indeed.

Jason, I just finished chapter 30 in draft. Mind you, there's going to be a lot of editing and revision once the draft is done; I plan on consulting as many English translations as I can find, focusing on those that have a solid familiarity with the Chinese text, and then reviewing systems theory texts to see what I might have missed. It's a very challenging project!

Glenn, by the time we lose all the icecaps, the mouth of the Mississippi will be around Memphis. Full fathom five thy French Quarter lies...

Atavist, I know. It's just one more example of the way that people will do almost anything rather than live according to their supposed ideals.

Tom, the issue's a good deal simpler than all that. Most so-called renewable energy sources depend on huge "energy subsidies" from fossil fuels -- think, for example, of the amount of coal- and natural gas-fired electricity and diesel fuel that goes into building, installing, and maintaining a big wind turbine -- and so most of them will sunset out as fossil fuels deplete. Since we're already more than five years past peak oil, peak population is not far off, and while I don't expect catastrophic dieoff, declining populations worldwide will take a lot of pressure off the biosphere during the current century.

Tz'ikin said...

Great analogy about funds and flows. It saddens me to think most of my country (The Netherlands) is running on energy funds even though we are made to believe they are endless flows.

In recent times, we have been given the technology to drill for natural gas in places we couldn't before, because it was not cost effective to do so. Environmentalists have been trying to warn our government about the implications for what little nature we have left, but any argument is discarded as ramblings of the "left-wing church". It will not be so bad, it will not be a problem, they keep telling us. They allow the drilling, they gradually increase maximum speed on our highways, they are preparing to build a new nuclear power plant, and so on. On the mainland, we have no nature except for the small patches of land we allow to remain, crammed in between highways, cities and industrial zones. And even those are under threat. If it hadn't been for the foresight of our founding father Willem van Oranje not allowing for certain patches of land to ever be sold, we would be in even worse shape today.

I am reminded of the answer given by a passer-by when asked by a reporter which he would prefer with regard to climate change:
a) a warmer climate and in a few generations we will all drown (we live below sea level), or
b) taking our consumerism back a few notches, and having a healthy environment.
His answer was "a", and with a smile he added, "I don't have any kids anyway."

I loved your post, JMG, and will definitely keep following your blog. Have a great day, to you all.

Jim Brewster said...

On the expat question, if it's a lifestyle change that's fine, but if one is trying to "escape the Evil Empire," you can't really escape it on this planet, at least not at the present time. I still think the best place to be is right here. I've often mused (sorry..) that the rest of the world has enough of a stake in US policy that they should be able to vote in US federal elections. Now that might really shake things up!

Vic said...

Bill, I agree.As I stated I think Price is over the top on his believe of species die-off over depletion. In his acknowledgments he thanks a number of people who read drafts and you would think,some were anthropologists,they would have pointed out precisely what you have. There are actually quite a few "intellectuals" in the peak-oil camp,who make the same claim as Price. Richard C. Duncan is also off the mark in my opinion.

However, Bill, on another note, the "Anna's hummingbird" with a very specific west coast range was found at a hummingbird feeder in Brownsville Trinity Bay Newfoundland on Jan. 24 now that's off course. Wow!

hawlkeye said...

Well, I'm deeply curious how on earth we can possibly avoid catastrophic die-off, with something like 80 per cent of humans clustered up on the coastlines, nearly all of them starving on natural gas made into nitrogen made into whatever, and shipped into whatever ports still function.

With those ice caps dissolving and raising coastlines, where will they go and what will they eat? Or will the weight shift on the planet cause increases in volcanos and earthqaukes, with equally chaotic results?

The breadbaskets are tanking; Brazil and Australia under water, Russia in flames, the Great Plains drunk on Oglalla Aquifer and now hung over awaiting the next dustbowl. At least China's solid.

The specific impacts of climate change are too vast to measure, of peak oil, too hard to figure without accurate reporting from the Saudis (for instance).

But the time frame of die-off is really simple: one growing season. Now, does the earth have two growing seasons because it has two hemispheres? I don't think so.

I think this coming growing season will be one that drastically re-asserts the importance of being personally involved in all the growing seasons to come.

Expatriation from your country at this point? Probably not; Mike Ruppert's adventures in Venezuela are nothing but a modern cautionary tale where gringo paranoia turns prophetic.

But abandoning your coastline can't hurt that bad.

Matt and Jess said...

I really like these "back to the basics" blog posts. Since you're getting some basic questions again, I'll add one to the mix. I live in a clearly unsustainable area and I fall under the category of Sharon Astyk's "need to get out of dodge." We realize that we need to relocate eventually. For people like me -- by when should we start making this happen? I think it would ideally be prior to any kind of huge crisis ...

sawbonessurio said...

Thanks for responding.
Despite the efforts of pioneers such as Helena Norberg-Hodge in Indian subcontinent and E. Wade Davis in South America, the World has been "successfully" "flat"tened and homogenised to the point of obliteration. I could go so far and say that living and working in urban white-collar India and China ( the ones who have the time for blogs like these, ironically) is no different to white-collar suburbia elsewhere. We've imported a slice of the decadent Western lifestyle, warts and all. Thanks to the stoic, simple lifestyles of our rural brethren, we arrogantly proclaim that the "Average" Indian produces 1/20th of an American. Tut Tut! And we go on to treat them as "Bottom of the Pyramid" and devise "selling strategies" for them. So, when they catch up, there's no basking in others' glory. The naked truth will be out.

All in all, here's my contribution to world jargon:
Imperialism 2.0 = Globalisation 1.0
Globalisation 2.0 = Microfinance/BOP 1.0

People, you heard it first here! ;-)

And so, we will land in the same wayside ditch as everyone else. Except no one even bothers to understand any of this.

Also, we have more of an oil-dependency/addiction than we care to admit. This hogged the news recently: Oil Mafia Maharashtra. But this is just the tip of the iceberg!

I wanted to post that link, but you beat me to the post. I have another ace up my sleeve though. ;-)

here's a self-sufficiency movement project from India in very early stages :-)

Since we're already more than five years past peak oil, peak population is not far off, and while I don't expect catastrophic dieoff, declining populations worldwide will take a lot of pressure off the biosphere during the current century.

I am impressed how you can write that with such dispassion!

@others, who think/hope people may not turn on you, we have people from different states who beat each other up for taking away odd-jobs that the locals feel beneath their dignity to do! I heard this type of tribe vs tribe is quite prevalent in SA and other similar nations too! The thin veneer of civilisation is thinner than we think and is not restricted to third world only. I wrote a brief post on it recently, if anyone is interested.


John Michael Greer said...

Tz'ikin, I see the same attitude a lot over here as well. The bitter irony is how few of these people will be able to keep what they've got.

Jim, the rest of the world does have a vote, mostly by way of economics, and it's being cast increasingly these days in ways that are not going to make life happy here. There's a reason why the US inow has to cover its deficit spending by having the Fed print money...

Vic, good gods. I'm familiar with Anna's hummers; if they're showing up in Newfoundland, the North American ecology has really been thrown into the mixmaster!

Hawlkeye, the crop failures aren't global; a shortfall is not a complete failure, though that's going to be cold comfort for the millions who won't be able to afford enough to eat. Still, if you want to suggest getting well above sea level, I'm not going to argue.

Matt and Jess, trying to time relocating prior to a collapse is as foolish as trying to time a stock market crash, and for the same reason -- by the time it's clear that the jig's up, everyone else is trying to get out, too. If you have someplace to go and either a job's waiting there or your income is portable, get out now. If not, it's already late enough in the game that you may well be better off staying where you are. If you wanted to move before the beginning of the crisis, you would have needed to move before 2008.

Surio, many thanks for the news from the rest of the world! The sort of tribal animosities you've mentioned are very much in evidence here as well; when my wife and I moved to the small town where we now live, people were a bit standoffish until they found out that we brought our income with us; they were worried that we might be taking a couple of jobs away from locals (who need them; this is an impoverished area by American standards). Once they found out that we're a modest source of additional cash for the local economy, though, all was well!

Don Plummer said...

Hawlkeye wrote:
"At least China's solid."

Maybe not.

Bill Pulliam said...

Please, a little background information to silence a lot of hyperbole...

Western hummingbirds (there are about seven common species with various distributions) have been observed with increasing frequency in winter in eastern North America for the last several decades. The reasons for this have not a dang thing to to with ecological upheavals. They have to do with two much more mundane reasons: hummingbird feeders and increasing observer awareness. A few western hummers have always been found on the gulf coast in winter ("always" meaning for as long as there have been birdwatchers looking for them). These birds are nearly always young-of-the-year birds in drab immature plumage which are not especially easy to identify and can easily be lost in the throngs of young Ruby-throated hummers (the only common eastern species) in the fall. What people farther north have figured out is that if you leave your hummingbird feeders up into the late fall and winter, after all the Ruby-throats have departed for tropical climes the lost western individuals stick around, gravitate to the feeders, and hence are much easier to spot. People have also learned a great deal more about how to actually identify these little buggers. Hence the explosion in records. 30 years ago these birds would have all starved to death after the hard freezes eliminated their natural food sources and caused the feeder watchers to take their hummingbird feeders indoors for the winter. They would never have been found, nor their whereabouts publicized on the (essentially non-existent) internet.

Anna's Hummingbird in particular has been expanding its range in the southwest, especially in to desert areas that once were the provence of the Costa's Hummingbird. Ecological upheaval? Yes, but not the sort you might envision. It's because of suburban expansion in the deserts with their associated irrigated plantings and their year-round hummingbird feeders.

Bird ranges are currently expanding and contracting to the north, south, east, and west, depending on the species. The big human effects on this are habitat change, human provided food sources (grain silos, feedlots, garbage dumps, bird feeders, etc.) and exotic species introductions. If there is a climate change signal yet, it is still much smaller. This is nothing new; it began when the first humans on this continent started setting fires to improve the habitat for desirable game animals thousands of years ago; it accelerated dramatically when the europeans and steel tools arrived many centuries ago.

No single incident is a meaningful sign of ANYTHING if you don't understand its context. That's just sound-bite hyperbole. You picked the wrong person to try to "wow" with a single out of range bird (follow my profile to get to my blog)!

Interesting biological note -- in fall migration there are always significant number of western birds that wind up in the east and eastern birds in the west; there are also smaller numbers of southern birds that wind up in the north. These provide vast amounts of excitement for birders; it's one of the things we look for in the fall. Research suggests that some of these are individuals that have inborn defects in their navigational systems and thus fly the wrong direction come migration time. Most of the time this takes them out of the gene pool, but occasionally it allows them to disperse into new areas and adapt to changes in the landscape.

Bill Pulliam said...

As a P.S.... Newfoundland is actually a famous trap for avian vagrants. As the easternmost large landmass of the continent, it is a funnel that collects those western wanderers heading east, as well as a first touchdown spot for european birds that have gotten off course and headed west across the Atlantic. So that wrong-way hummingbird is probably more likely to settle down there than in places closer to its "normal" range -- and perhaps cross paths with a european Common Swift when it gets there. Plus the very active birding community there has an "Anything Is Possible" attitude that makes them seek out the unusual and find it rather often.

Context, context, context...

Bill Pulliam said...

Not to beat the dead horse here, but this is actually a really good example of a pervasive and troublesome tendency in discussions from all "sides" in these sorts of discussions. This is the snatching of isolated bits of information and presenting them out of context to people who don't have the background information to evaluate them, in a manner that grossly misrepresents their meaning and their significance. Paste the following URL back together if it is split by wrap-arounds, put it in your browser, and you'll see a map of Anna's Hummingbird occurrence all across the US and Canada. You will clearly see how NOT unprecedented and NOT meaningful this factoid about that Newfoundland hummingbird really is. This is a bird well known to stray quite long distances.

hawlkeye said...

Sorry Don, a bit too dry on the sarcasm there; imo China's a monster mess, a Hydra-Dragon...

And to clarify, perhaps my usage is inaccurate, but when I say "die-off" I don't mean extinction, but rather a significant proportion of the population is bound to the arc of overshoot. Especially those with an ocean view.

Ruben said...

So Bill. How many isolated bits of information does it take to make a pattern?

Andrew H said...


The map you suggest is interesting but a little misleading if taken at face value.

I would suggest that anybody interested, try clicking on the 'Change Data' button and selecting whole year and the intervals 1900 to 1989, then 1990 to 1999, and then 2000 to 2011.

The three maps give quite a different story showing how the distribution has changed. It becomes immediately apparent that the out of range observations have increased tremendously over the last few years.


Bill Pulliam said...

I believe I covered the reasons for that in my first post. Plus,as eBird is a new thing there is much more data in total for recent years. Sorry to pull rank, but I've been doing this for 35 years I think I am in a better position to speak with knowledge on the subject. Expertize matters, even if the data blip sound bite and twitter world does not seen to recognize this.

pfh said...

John, I liked that you also mentioned the investment problems with limitless energy sources that cost more than they produce... The fundamental one is still that people don't see the energy in what they do... Very interestingly... that also applies to the scientists who are paid to measure the energy consumed by things. About 80% of individual energy uses behind business products are naturally untraceable, using any method we could devise. Essentially supply chains have information barriers that create untraceable regions, you might consider as pockets of "dark energy". Discovering why results in an easy way anyone can estimate the true scale of energy use for most things.

The world economy’s annual consumption of fuels is used to produce annual GDP. That ratio will give you the world's average energy/$ = ~8000btu (1). What you get when is very different when you trace individual energy uses, using LCA or other professional methods. Tracing energy costs going into a dollar of wind power, for example, will only identify ~160btu!! The reason would make the discrepancy similar for other things too.

The largest hidden energy use is the "consumption for production" used in the services that businesses employ that don't leave energy receipts for their work to be traced. So you just can't trace them.

For example if you counted the energy costs of slaves carting the stones up the pyramid as technology you'd have receipts for all their housing and food costs, and so you could add those energy costs to the total energy budget. That’s how LCA works for technology too. If the slaves were paid to provide their own housing and food etc, there would be no receipts to count! Then that would get left out of the energy budget for the overseer (and LCA), but not out of the environmental energy costs for the pyramid. See what I'm getting at??

I bet you if you check your calc. for the energy to build pyramids it includes only the potential energy for lifting stone in the air and does not count the costs for supporting the slaves and other operations. That would be treating them as all self-employed and make their energy costs seem to disappear, just by not telling you what they spent their earnings on...

simple examples
hard detailed example