Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Too Much Energy?

One of the bits of mental flotsam that very often drifts to the surface in discussions of peak oil is the assumption, as common among diehard peakniks as it is among the most delusionally cornucopian of their opponents, that the “lottle” principle applies to energy: that is, if a little is good, a lot’ll always be better. Widespread though this belief may be, I’ve come to doubt it, and those doubts crystallized as I rode the train from my home in western Maryland to Minneapolis and back during the interval between this Archdruid Report and the last.

Yes, I took the train. To most North Americans – people on other continents tend to be more realistic on the subject – that’s a shocking thought, though these days the surprise often gives way to nostalgic wistfulness. The United States once had the world’s biggest and best rail system, and Canada’s wasn’t far behind. Quite a few people alive today still remember the days when fast, efficient rail service connected all but the smallest towns here in America. These days, you have to choose your location carefully to benefit from the scraps that still remain; one of the reasons my spouse and I selected the old red brick mill town where we now live was that, unlike dozens of equally pleasant towns nearby, it has daily train service on a major route connecting the east coast and the Midwest.

The reach of rail service even across North American distances in the first half of the twentieth century was made possible by the simple fact that on land, at least, rail transit is more energy-efficient than any other mode of transportation. Diesel-electric locomotives, the standard type in service nowadays, use essentially the same technology as a modern hybrid car, and since they don’t have to make sudden starts and stops, whip around sharp turns, or climb steep grades, the energy content of their diesel fuel goes a very long ways; as a rule of thumb, a locomotive can pull a ton of goods or passengers for not much less than a thousand miles on one gallon of diesel. That means, among other things, that it took less petroleum to get me from Cumberland, Maryland to Minneapolis than it takes a yuppie driving alone in a big SUV to go shopping at the local mall.

Still, the energy efficiency of train travel is only part of the picture. Another is the simple fact that train travel, even in these days of reduced budgets and limited routes, is among the few really civilized modes of travel left. Take a car and you can count on doing battle with traffic hour after hour on one freeway after another; take a plane and, after you trudge through the lines and get ogled or groped by government functionaries who apparently believe that the Fourth Amendment can be suspended by executive order, you get to experience the joys of being stuffed into a winged sardine tin, breathing your fellow passengers’ stale exhalations, and staring at blank cloudscape, for however many hours it takes to get where you’re going.

On a train, by contrast, there’s plenty of room and fresh air; you can sit back, put your feet up, watch the scenery roll by, and enjoy the experience. If the child two rows ahead gets fussy, you’re not stuck listening; there’s always the lounge car, where you can duck downstairs, pick up a beer at the cafe, and sit at one of the tables and read while four old guys at another table play pinochle. The food in the diner car’s on a par with most roadside restaurants and better than most of what you’ll find at an airport, and if you spring for a cabin in one of the sleeper cars – on long runs, I highly recommend this – the meals are included.

If all this suggests that I’m an unabashed partisan of train travel, well, that’s a fair assessment. There are good reasons for that just now, starting with the very high energy efficiency of rail travel, and the advantages of a mature technology that could be redeployed in a hurry without the bottlenecks and dead ends that are an inevitable part of bringing any new technology on line. Most of the world’s other industrial societies, and quite a few of the nonindustrialized nations, won’t even have to go through the redeployment process; they had the common sense to keep their rail networks intact when the United States was busy selling most of its own for scrap, and thus may end up with a critical economic advantage in the difficult years immediately ahead of us.

Here in America, by contrast, whenever passenger rail travel is discussed, two objections come up as reliably as a greasy airport breakfast on a rough flight. The first, mostly heard from the current crop of pseudoconservatives, is the insistence that passenger trains are creatures of government subsidies and should be abolished as a money-saving measure. This argument would have a bit more force if the modes of transport such people prefer didn’t get far more in the way of government largesse than the railroads do. Air travel is economically viable in the United States, for example, only because every level of government from the federal government right down to individual counties and cities carries much of the financial burden of the airports, air traffic control, and other services that make it possible, and subsidize aircraft manufacturers into the bargain.

As for automobiles, drivers pay only a tiny fraction of the cost of building and maintaining the network of streets, roads, and highways; they aren’t billed for the government money that goes to keep auto manufacturers afloat, and they don’t get charged for the immense direct and indirect government subsidies that prop up the oil industry. These subsidies include, of course, the costs of repeated military interventions in the Middle East; it will not have escaped the attention of my readers, I trust, that nations selected for liberation from tyranny by the United States and its allies are inevitably those who happen to sit atop large amounts of fossil fuels. If car owners had to pay all these costs themselves, you’d see very few cars on the roads, just as air travel would still be a prerogative of the “jet set” if corporate lobbying hadn’t pushed so many of the costs onto the government. Myself, I’d be happy to see all government subsidies for transportation abolished, and just as happy if they were set at a fixed sum per passenger mile and shared out on that basis among all transport modes; either way, trains would win hands down.

The second objection is not limited to any one end of the political scene; it’s found straight across the spectrum, and though it seems really rather frivolous at first glance, it leads into territory not often explored in the last century or so. This is the claim that train travel is too slow. It’s true, to be sure, that it took longer for me to get to Minneapolis from Cumberland by train than it would have taken by air. Counting a layover in Chicago long enough to meet a local friend for lunch, I was traveling some twenty-seven hours each way. It’s hard to judge exact times by air, since the Cumberland airport hasn’t had commercial service for nearly a decade, but before then, a puddle-jumper to Pittsburgh or Cleveland and a direct flight from there to Minneapolis, counting the likely layover, might have taken eight hours each way; add in two hours to get through security and the rest of it, and it’s still a good deal faster than climbing aboard the westbound train at 7 o’clock one evening and rolling into Minneapolis around ten o’clock the next night.

Granted, then, it takes more time. The upside, as mentioned earlier, is that the time you spend is less of a waste, since twenty-seven hours of train travel is on average less exhausting, more productive, and a good deal more enjoyable than ten hours of air travel. It’s an interesting situation. In theory, it would be possible to make air travel as pleasant as train travel, and once upon a time the attempt was even made – I recall airline ads from my youth that boasted about the amount of legroom passengers were allotted and the quality of the meals they were served, rather than talking solely about destinations, as they generally do today, and trying to make potential passengers forget about the unpleasant process of getting there and back. In practice, a flying experience more or less as comfortable as an ordinary coach ticket on a train will cost you close to an order of magnitude more.

It’s entirely possible that this is in large part an effect of industrial civilization’s overshoot of its energy resource base. In the realm of energy economics, after all, the primary differences between rail travel and air travel are first, that the latter uses a great deal more concentrated energy than the former – the equivalent in jet fuel of the fraction of a gallon of diesel that brought me to Minneapolis, after all, might not even have gotten me off the ground if I’d taken a plane – and second, that the latter technology is a great deal more complex than the former and thus demands much more in the way of energy and resource inputs. As resource limits clamp down, the more energy- and resource-intensive a technology is, the more likely it is to show the economic strain first; in the case of air travel, that strain shows up in the form of crowded seats, dwindling amenities, and repeated fiscal crises for air carriers.

If the same logic works on a broader scale, and it’s hard to think of a good reason why it wouldn’t, it may be possible to anticipate which industries will be hardest hit by the opening rounds of energy supply contraction by paying attention right now to which industries are slashing the quality of their products and services fastest. In an age when media spin and doctored statistics make it hard to see through the fog, this may be an early warning system worth cultivating.

Still, there’s another issue at work here, one that I’m still only beginning to explore. Most things in life have an optimum which is found considerably below the maximum. At some point in adolescence, for example, most of us find out that there’s such a thing as drinking too much beer. Most of us have eaten too much food at one time or another, and information overload – the point at which taking in more information becomes an obstacle to understanding instead of a help – is a familar state to many of us. Sort through the other activities of life, and pretty consistently there’s a point at which adding more takes away from the experience rather than adding to it.

Today’s economic orthodoxy, to be sure, denies this common human experience, and treats every increment as a benefit. That’s one of the reasons that Americans have created the first civilization in human history where storage units to stash all the things people buy and never get around to enjoying is a significant industry. Heretical as though it may be, though, I’d like to suggest the possibility that there is such a thing as too much energy per capita, and that America may well have been in that territory for a good many decades now.

I’ve mentioned before, and it’s worth repeating, that the average European uses around a third as much energy per capita as the average American, and has a better standard living by most of the usual measures. Until recently – more specifically, until I mulled over the subject while looking out the window of the lounge car while the woods and plains of Wisconsin rolled by – I’d assumed that this was simply a function of waste and mismanagement on our part, and a more efficient use of limited resources on theirs. Still, I find myself wondering if there’s a more direct connection between these two factors. Is it possible that Europeans have, by and large, a better standard of living because they use less energy, not in spite of that fact?

Ask the question and it’s not hard to find obvious examples. Consider the way that so many Americans buy gasoline-powered riding lawnmowers, and suffer the health impacts of a flaccid middle age – with attendant costs to the economic system – that could have been avoided by the moderate exercise gotten by using a push mower. Consider how much of the industrial world’s intractable unemployment has been driven by the replacement of skilled human labor with machines made possible by the availability of cheap abundant energy. For that matter, consider the way that the availability of energy correlates with the civilian death toll in wars. Before the age of fossil fuels, the annihilation of the entire population of a city happened relatively rarely, and took an extraordinary amount of hard labor on the part of the attackers. By the twentieth century it was relatively easy, and therefore routine.

Yet my sense – and it’s no more than an inchoate sense as yet, needing further exploration and definition – is that these examples don’t touch the core of the issues involved. Those of my readers who have put into practice some of the ideas discussed here in the green wizardry posts of the last eight months or so, or who didn’t need those reminders to try out some of the practices in question, have already come closer to that core. I have yet to meet anyone outside of an advertisement who was exhilarated by the act of cranking up the thermostat when it gets cold, say, or getting groceries from a store. I have known quite a few people who were exhilarated, and more, when a passive solar panel or a garden bed that was the work of their own hands warmed a house or contributed to a meal.

It may simply be that evolution didn’t prepare our species for the impact of our brief and self-limiting encounter with the Earth’s carbon reserves. Doubtless, as industrial civilization gradually comes apart and the flow of energy to individuals and communities falters, most of us will find ourselves at least as far below the optimum level of energy per capita as today’s SUV drivers are above it, and a good many will find themselves facing, abruptly or slowly, that zero-energy-per-capita state we normally call death. Still, for those who are willing to consider the possibility, there’s a chance that learning to use a lot less energy on a daily basis may have compensations at least as great as those involved in taking a few more hours to ride the train.


Ruben said...

JMG, Civilized is exactly the right word for train travel.

Robo said...

It looks like the Japanese will be one of the first high-tech societies to be permanently throttling back their energy use. They've already got a very fine railroad system and they are an industrious nation, so they will do better than the US in the long run.

Excepting the Fukushima region, of course.

Richard said...

I've had similar thoughts since about as long as I've been aware enough to think them. If only more people in America thought the same way, we might be in for much less of a mess than we are.

I guess I'm admitting my social naivete by saying this, but I've just never been able to understand at all the unquestioning more is better mindset, and discussions about these with those of that mindset never lead to any understanding on either of our parts. It's like we don't live in quite the same universe. I feel if I had more of an understanding for why the mainstream thinks the way they do, I might have more luck in stating my position.

xraymike79 said...

A surfeit of cheap energy leads to a more mechanized society with physically atrophic citizens. I imagine it would also lead to a mental atrophy or blindness because people cannot imagine a transition to a much lower energy-consumption society from which they have become accustomed. Thus the phrase, "The American way of life is not negotiable."

Kevin said...

I think there is something to your thesis. In the United States we seem to make a fetish of the pursuit of consumption as a measure of well being, with conspicuous consumption of energy as a natural concomitant. The quest for glut is also something of an exercise in status-seeking. For many Americans a car isn't just a vehicle, it's an ego-vehicle, as in the phrase "you are what you drive."

We're also prone to the delusion that the hovel we live in now is a just a stepping stone on our way to better things, as implied by the term "starter home," often used by real estate agents to describe modest dwellings purchased by young families. I suspect this cultural compulsion is one reason Americans tend move so much more than Europeans, typically in pursuit of career. I noticed while in Italy that people there who live in tenements try to make them as pleasant and habitable as possible, rather than treating them as dumps to be left behind on some imagined road to Beverly Hills.

I hope I get the chance learn to live with less energy rather than with none at all.

Avery said...

I was able to operate a push lawnmower at the age of 10, although it gave me a nice workout. Your ode to trains is right on the mark as well-- I live in Japan where trains are an everyday part of the landscape, and the affordable comfort of the shinkansen (no sleeper cars, it gets you anywhere in the country within 5 hours) impresses me frequently. These are perfect examples of overlooked solutions, the sort of things that could change entire worldviews. But I don't think mere education will change people's minds about the imagined benefits of subsidizing air travel or keeping gas cheap. There needs to be a paradigm shift, either from following the example of observers like yourself, or with new guidelines and a little social engineering from political leaders or respected people at the top.

Jason Heppenstall said...

A nice reminder of the joys of train travel. I too am a great fan of riding the iron rail. Indeed, a decade ago, my wife and I set out from England with the intention of making it to Asia solely on trains (we faltered somewhere around Iran and had to take a winged sardine can). At the risk of boring your readers, here's something I wrote at the time about travelling on Cambodia's decrepit rail system - a post I called 'The slowest, friendliest train on Earth'.

Fast forward a decade and we decided to take the train down to the south of France last summer with our two kids, instead of catching a flight. The cost was roughly the same as flying or driving (approx 900 euros in total or $1,300 at today's exchange rate, for four people) but ... what an adventure.

Travelling from Copenhagen, where we live, we were allocated our own sleeper car. No security check-in, no limits on baggage and no feeling cramped. Rolling through Germany with the window down and watching the sunset as a peak-capped (slightly befuddled) conductor brought us our evening meal and a glass of wine ... how could planes possibly compete? Oh, and along the way we effectively got two free nights' accommodation and two 'mini breaks' of several hours in Hamburg and Geneva. Needless to say, the kids want to do the whole thing again and have no desire to go on a plane again.

My only gripe with many modern trains is that, inside, they are too sterile and are beginning to resemble airplanes, which they must compete with.

I'm sure many of your readers will have heard of The Man in Seat 61 before, but here's a link to his site anyway for those who haven't:

Stephen said...

Greetings. I've followed the Archdruid Report for about a year and a half and I find it to be the most helpful and sensible blog, both in understanding and anticipating civilizational decline in a broad historical context, as well as the more practical matters involving getting dirt under one's fingernails.

I live on a small Canadian island off Vancouver Island with a year-round population of about 400. The entire island is off-the-grid and people use modest amounts of electricity from solar panels and micro-hydro (supplemented by gasoline generators for some). The island is serviced by a passenger only ferry that runs three times a day, five days a week. Living here has been a lesson on getting by on modest flows of energy. While not always easy or convenient, I find the quality of life here to be better than any community I've lived in.

Professor Vaclav Smil, of the University of Manitoba, while not so much in the peak oil camp, has written about energy use per capita and the quality of life. In one study, he shows that for countries all around the world, quality of life indicators (such as infant mortality, female life expectancy, and nutrition levels) rise sharply along with per capita energy use until about 50 or 60 gigaJoules per year. Beyond that level of energy use, the indicators rise less steeply. Beyond about 110 GJ per capita, Smil finds no quality of life gains and that pushing beyond 200 GJ per capita is counterproductive. In comparison, the per capita energy use in Canada and USA is well over 300 GJ per year, and even the efficient Japanese use close to 200 GJ per capita. Somehow this reminds me of Tainter's thesis of diminishing returns and eventually negative returns on increasing complexity (and energy consumption). It seems clear that we in North America have reached the point of negative returns on energy consumption. That is, our quality of life is now in decline while our per capita energy use is at its peak.

The Smil article I referenced can be found at
Smil, V. 2010. Science, energy, ethics, and civilization.
This is a PDF document. The section on energy use and quality of life is on pages 14-19.

Ainslie Podulke van der Stam said...

I can tell you the joy I felt when my husband and I resolved to take our first step in Green Wizardry- a large grass basket with a nicely fitting lid, mostly used for clothing storage, will double as a haybox- and now, onward and upward!

BrightSpark said...

Incredible post. I was actually sitting here at the bottom of the world in New Zealand contemplating the demise of our once extensive railway system (and indigenous engineering workshops that supported it) and went online to read your post.

Railways have a special symbolic place in people's hearts and it's probably no accident that a substantial degree of insight can be gained by riding on them and thinking. My path into peak oil understanding came from an interest in railways.

I'm heartened by the possibilities of railways in the de-industrial future. A well-maintained steam locomotive burning wood (perhaps mixed with a bit of locally available coal) could last 200 years, and given the fact that most railway formations were built with human labour, there's nothing to stop that from occuring again if the will is there.

Conchscooter said...

I put my motorcycle on the Auto Train last Fall and took my first Amtrak ride. I enjoyed the overnight trip just fine, and it reminded me of my youth in European trains. I love road trips, by motorcycle when alone, by car en famille. I am will sadly give them up when we are reduced to hair shirts and whale oil.

Thijs Goverde said...

Very interesting, this contrast of optimum vs. maximum.
I'm reminded of the Japanes fellow who reportedly said : always eat till you're three-quarters full.
Same principle, I guess.

As for trains: I love the look on people's faces when I tell them I use trains to save time. 'But a train trip takes 1 1/2 the time of a road trip,' they protest. 'Sometimes even twice the time!'
To which I reply, of course: 'During an hour of driving, I can write exactly zero words on my laptop. I can read zero pages of any book. I can sleep for zero minutes. During a two-hour train journey, however...'
They always look annoyed and awed at the same time - as if I found a great big loophole in the rules of a game they thought they were pretty good at.

JimK said...

An absurd idea, similar to your hypothesis here: there is such a thing as too much money. Here is an example, though: winners of big lotteries. It has frequently been observed that major lottery winnings tends to harm people more than help them.

Don Plummer said...

Excellent defense of the energy-saving benefits and the civilized nature of rail travel.

John Michael Greer said...

Ruben, my only concern there is that neoprimitives might take it as a criticism!

Robo, I'm beginning to think that that'll be the case. The economic fallout from this cascade of disasters -- and of course the other kind as well -- is far from done with yet.

Richard, understood. I've had the same experience.

Mike, Cheney was quite correct that the American way of live is non-negotiable; no possible negotiations, or anything else, can keep it going for much longer.

Kevin, the whole point of learning to use less energy now, and bringing at least some of that energy under your own control, is precisely that your chance of having some rather than none goes up sharply.

Avery, I don't think we're going to get any help from the top, so it's up to individuals to lead the way by making changes in their own lives and showing that it can be done with panache.

Jason, that's one of the reasons why I'm not a fan of current moves toward high-speed rail here in the US. Let's get the ordinary kind running again; then we can talk about imitation planes.

Steven, thank you! I hadn't heard of that paper by Smil, and it's a very useful addition to my current mental fodder.

Ainslie, excellent! You get today's gold star for doing the work.

BrightSpark, bingo. My guess is that liquid biofuels running something like today's diesel-electric systems will be more viable in the long run, but one way or another, it's quite possible that trains could be an enduring part of the ecotechnic future.

Conch, no need for hair shirts, and the whales ought to be allowed to keep their oil!

Thijs, good. Very good. The transformation of travel time from an annoyance to an opportunity is a major point in favor of trains.

Jim, a very good parallel. I've known several people who grew up with too much money, and it seems to have made them clueless.

Michael said...

So much wisdom in today's post.

Which is why I was so disappointed in the POTUS's "new" energy policy speech. When you cut through all of the grab bag of things he says we should do it boils down to the fact he wants us to believe we can have business as usual. All we have to do is a bit of everything - nuclear, coal, biofuels, natural gas, oil.

The political class will never have the courage to say - let's rethink how we are living.

Edde said...

Good morning John Michael,

A better way of examining life style.

Do I detect a slight change in your willingness to see some aspects of the future as reason for optimism? To be sure, the future is filled with difficult challenges, we need not become engulfed by despair and unhappiness.

Not going for poly anna here. Just that there will be reasons for celebration.


Jason said...

Edward de Bono used to call this the "Salt Curve" -- salt on food is good, more salt on food is not always better.

It may simply be that evolution didn’t prepare our species for the impact of our brief and self-limiting encounter with the Earth’s carbon reserves.

This is what I've been assuming. It's like the periodic cicadas that appear once in seventeen years and completely cover the forest. All the insectivores glut on them, and then just sit around feeling ill, whilst the cicadas continue to swarm. Then it's over, they recover their digestive systems, and another seventeen years go by. But if they got all-you-can-eat cicadas every day, there would be major intestinal difficulties.

gaias daughter said...

My husband and I spent over 20 years living in Germany and can personally attest to the benefits of a 'less is more' approach to life. The wonderful train system is just the beginning. Energy in all forms is much more expensive in Germany -- Germans don't drive if they walk -- so there is almost always at least one bakery, market, bank, restaurant, grade school, church, community center, and town woods within a few blocks of every home. Children don't have unlimited access to TV, video games, and year-round indoor climates set artificially to 72 degrees, so they play outside more. Homes are smaller with less storage space, so people tend to have a few things of very good quality instead of great quantities of junk. Life is slower there -- people congregate in outdoor cafes, take long walks in the local woods, shop at the weekly farmers' market, and gossip with their neighbors over a glass of liquid bread.

There is a lot we could learn from our European friends . . .

RedGreenInBlue said...

Thanks for yet another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

If it's any consolation, the UK (and certainly its government) shares to a great extent the USA's collective blindspot when it comes to the direct and indirect benefits of taking the train.

I use a somewhat similar argument when people tell me that it would take them too long to cycle to work etc.:

Me: But cycling saves me time!
Driver: But you can't go as fast as a car!
Me: Erm, traffic jams, parking hassles...
Driver: Sure, but that's only in rush-hour.
Me: OK, but I don't need to go to the gym three times a week. And I can afford to work a few hours less because I don't have that gym membership to pay, or a car to run. [c. £3500/annum for a small car in the UK]
Driver: Hm.
Me: Isn't it nice to be able to hear the birdsong on your way to work?
Driver: Er...

In other words, a lot of people seem to have forgotten in this high-speed age that the fastest way to do something is not always the most time-efficient (let alone the most pleasant) way of doing it!

PS. Going on holiday by sleeper train this year - never mind the destination, I'm looking forward to the journey!

John Michael Greer said...

Don, thank you!

Michael, I'll be talking about Obama's energy nonpolicy next week.

Edde, I've been saying all along that the future is going to be harsh, but with some compensations for those who get off their butts and get working now. This is more of the same.

Jason, I think we've got the intestinal difficulties!

Daughter, true enough! The sooner people on this side of the pond start learning those lessons, the better off we'll be.

RGB, for all the UK government's blindness to the value of its rail system, you've still got a system that's orders of magnitude better than ours over here. Have a great vacation!

gaias daughter said...

Changing the topic somewhat, I have been reading up on the Big Island of Hawai'i as a potential place to relocate. Hawai'i is both cursed and blessed with higher energy costs in the here and now and extreme vulnerability to disruptions in the supply-line. Consequently, the interest in alternatives and local solutions has been strong for some time, especially as many homes are located in areas so rural that off-the-grid and grow-your-own are the only sensible options.

What I find fascinating is the way in which locals are meeting their challenges. For example, Richard Ha, an organic farmer, is leading a consortium committed to buying out the local electric company and converting it to renewable forms of energy, most especially geo-thermal. Of course, not all have his resources or vision, but small, community efforts are springing up all over.

There is a lot we could learn from Hawai'ians.

K said...

I don't think Europeans can fully get their heads around just how limited passenger-train transportation is in the United States. Except in the Northeast Corridor (and even there train travel is nowhere near to the saturation point it's at in European cities with similar population densities), most Americans consider intercity train travel at best to be a curiosity of an earlier age or an eccentric hobby.

Cities as populous as Phoenix, Las Vegas, Columbus, and Nashville have NO intercity passenger-rail service. And even in cities that do have such service, it can be as limited as one train per day in each direction -- that's the case where you went, Minneapolis-St. Paul, with a metropolitan population of over 3 million people. There is ONE Amtrak train eastbound and ONE train westbound per day.

In the not-too-distant future, we Americans are going to wish we had in place the extensive and everyday passenger-rail systems that Europeans take for granted.

Bob said...

A VERY important and provocative topic! The book "The Paradox of Choice" also argues this Less is More thesis regarding consumer choice (consider just how many kinds of STRAWBERRY jelly there are in a typical supermarket, let alone all things that a person might spread on a piece of bread). I do think our mental health has suffered immeasurably by our species discovering fossil fuels, which has in turn led to our sick and dying society: "Growth" and "Consumption" are seen as more worthy of attention and measurement than "Joy" or "Peace of Mind" or (gods forbid)"Love." This comic is a favorite of mine regarding our consumer-obsessed culture:
Finally, while evolutionary psychology has its limits and problems, it seems logical that - in the absence of speed, strength, climbing ability, camouflage, etc. - humans evolved a powerful, multi-purpose brain to allow us to survive. Unfortunately, one of the characteristics of that brain that served us quite well until recently is GREED. Just as a fondness for salt or sugar may have had an evolutionary advantage before those substances became so easily available as to cause us health problems, a relentless striving for more and better and faster and more efficient ways of meeting our needs probably helped our species kill the meat, find the plants, and build the shelters and tools that kept us alive. I believe that that DRIVE (what used to be called the libido, before Freud fell out of fashion) is what has led us to the current predicament. It is even possible that those who first fled Europe to "found" America had more of this drive than the people they left behind, and created a governmental and economic system EXPLICITLY based on the notion that humans are innately selfish (we are, but we are also innately altruistic, a trait suppressed by this system). Now, of course, generations (and the discovery of fossil fuels) later, the culture simply feeds on itself, co-opting that drive so that millions of perfectly sane babies grow up having this drive channeled into a desire to Possess and Take and Use, rather than Be and Give and Make (this is called "School"). Extreme speculation, to be sure, but America does seem to be notable in its consistent abuse of anything and everything: energy, drugs, food, guns - you name it, we will find a way to overuse it until people are literally marching in the streets demanding it be taken away from us forcibly. Well, now it is all going to be taken away, but not at all in a way anyone wants. The Long Descent can be viewed as a kind of planetary (cosmic?) fix - the ultimate Market Correction to history's ultimate Exuberant Speculator: America.

Zach said...

Economists have known about the Law of Diminishing Marginal Utility for a long time -- and wisdom has known about it for far longer.

I suspect a share of the blame goes to the 'Greed is Good!' propaganda, and the de-listing of Avarice as a Deadly Sin.

I wonder if the billions spent on advertising to get people to want "more More MORE!!!" might be helping to fuel the cornucopians. There's a lot of effort and skill put into those incantations!


Jeremy said...

Re. the idea of the optimum level of energy use being somewhere below as-much-as-possible and the optimum speed of doing things being somewhere below as-fast-as-possible, may I suggest a look at Energy and Equity and/or Tools for Conviviality by Ivan Illich.

I have been working on a new railing for a deck off the back of our house, and decided to use a hand-saw instead of a power saw to cut the posts. It is slower, but I don't have to wear hearing protection and the dust falls straight down instead of being blown into the air for subsequent inhalation. And the cuts are straighter too.

A British architect once wrote something like "Ten men with shovels can do perfectly well in a week what one man with a backhoe can do badly in a day." Something to consider in these days of un- and underemployment, when we really shouldn't be loading the atmosphere with any more carbon than we absolutely must, anyway.

Terry said...

Reply to Stephen

That island wouldn't happen to be Lasqueti, would it? I lived there for a while in the 1970's, and got a taste of low-energy life, off-grid and hand-built.

No TV -- we entertained each other. No cars -- we were already where we wanted to be.

It made a lasting impression. It doesn't take much to live well.

Bill Pulliam said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Richard Larson said...

Every time I hop in my truck and put fire to burn the fuel, I will be thinking about that train...

I have to check into that!

Excellent post, do very much agree, ending all the various subsidies to fossil fuel burning will change energy use up. And yes, it is not a coincidence the US Military is heavily involved with the oil-producing areas. They came out with a forward-looking report last year that spelled this all out. Internet search keywords: JOE Report.

Had not thought about the human condition in relationship with carbon fuel sources. Very interesting.

Glenn said...

Good basic thesis, but I think your fuel efficiency number is too high. CSX (rail freight) advertises that they move a ton of freight 442 miles on a gallon of diesel fuel. I don't think they have any motive to low-ball this figure. Your thousand miles is a bit of a stretch.

Europeans move most of their freight by truck. Here in North America most long distance freight still moves on trains. It's a lot cheaper.

All rail passenger service is subsidized. More rational societies than mine (Yay, yay, U.S.A.){note sarcasm} do so because of the social and economic benefits of passenger rail.

150 years ago the U.S. was becoming a continental (sea to shining sea) empire and needed reliable, fast long distance transport to hold it together. The Federal Government offered the railroads free land along the route if they'd build and operate the lines. One of the conditions was that they railroads must offer passenger service.

For a century the railroads subsidized passenger service losses with part of their freight profits. In the 1950's they successfully lobbied to be released from the passenger service requirement. Part of their argument was that the build out of Eisenhower's new National Highways system made rail service redundant.

In terms of fuel per pound moved it takes _roughly_ the same amount of fuel to ship (by ship, not plane) cargo across the ocean, down the railroad track, down the highway, and finally home to my house in my car. That is, each step takes roughly the same amount of fuel as the previous one for successively shorter distances.

This may mean a period in the reduced energy future when import and export is largely limited to regions within 50 miles of a major port. In another century or two ocean freight may move out of many smaller ports, and consist primarily of luxury goods...

Marrowstone Island

Lynford said...

If the train had to go to Maryland to Minneapolis then taking you along did not cost much energy wise. The first 500 tons for the engines and cars used quite a bit of fuel. The ton for 800 miles/gal is railroad Kool-Aid. If the airplane has to go from LA to NY it doesn't cost much to carry one passenger. If I have to drive a 100 miles, taking a passenger doesn't use much energy. POTUS (and family) think it would be nice to visit to Argentina so they go for a visit. Now that’s a serious energy loss, no airport pat down and no airport delay. Large Corp CEO’s are treated about the same though AF-1 is really the most impressive private jet in the world.

The key is to elect not to go at all. Personal travel is rather unimportant. The average potato travels 800 miles from where it is grown to where it is consumed. Mine travels 50 feet. J

Lance Michael Foster said...

I totally agree. We need to focus once again on trains. Both you and Kunstler agree on this.

I only had the occasion to ride Amtrak once in my life. I had only driven, taken a bus, or flown previously and wanted to have the experience of riding a train. It was the mid-1980s and I was in my 20s. I lived in Montana and I was going to visit relatives in Los Angeles.

It took a long time. I checked the current schedule which seems to be different from what I remember, as we actually got into LA in the afternoon then, not later at night like now.

Day 1: Bus trip from Helena to Big Sandy took a day, from just before dawn, and what with bus changes and stops, and waiting for the train for about 4 hours once I got there. The train arrived at sunset. It was the "Empire Builder." It is advertised heavily for its route through Glacier National Park. Unfortunately it was nighttime when we got there and pitch black outside. We rode all night on the train until dawn in Seattle, where I changed trains to head south to LA. It wasn't too crowded and I found a quiet row to sleep in. Add 24 hours (running total in transit 48 hours).

Day 2: Arrive Seattle at dawn. Boarded the "Coast Starlighter" from Seattle to LA. 35 hours of train travel. Another night sleeping, this time more crowded so upright, like on a plane. Dawn in Oakland I think.

Day 3: Oakland and more industrial zones. The only actual coast I actually saw on the Coast Starlighter going south was starting at San Luis Obispo for a couple of hours. Then we crashed into a semi running a crossing signal and killed the truckdriver and injured the engineer. Took a few hours to clean up that mess. Rolled into LA three hours later than the scheduled 35 hours from Seattle to LA.

Total from Helena to Los Angeles via bus/train = 24+24+38= 86 hours (about 3 1/2 days)

Total from Helena to LA via Grayhound = 48 hours (2 days; due to 6 hour stop in Salt Lake City and other stops along the way)

Total from Helena to LA via private car = varies but less than 24 hours worth of driving at highway speeds, with whatever stops one wants/needs. So if it's just you, it can take 2 days with a motel break, or even more if look at stuff along the way, but switching drivers, you can make it in 24 hours or so.

Total from Helena to LA via jet = No direct flight, but with change at Seattle or SLC, about 6 hours flying time, plus 2 hours of lines, security, waiting at departure gate = 8 hours or so.

Anyways, except for the train trip, I have made those other versions of the trip in my younger days dozens of times and am pretty familiar with all the pros and cons.

My own one-time experience with the train?
The food was very expensive and limited in choice. I wish I had had the money to get a sleeping bunk. Interesting people to talk to, you can walk around and hang out in different cars. The price of the ticket was as expensive as a jet, but the trip took almost 4 days instead of 1 day, each way. More room and easier to sleep on a plane but 4 days trapped anywhere in constant transit is pushing it. If you don't have a car, the bus is cheaper than a plane and faster than a train. Of course the social scene on a bus can be -ahem- interesting.

I am glad I did the train thing and I agree we need to focus on trains for the future. But they really need to build out more connecting passenger service routes in the West if they expect more people to travel that way very much, at least as long as people have alternatives in the jet or car, or even bus. Of course when there are no alternatives, people will do what they have to do.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Hello JMG,

Yes, trains! Minneapolis is an ok town, hope you enjoyed your stop in Chicago, at one time the rail hub of the Midwest. If only Mayor Daley had invested more in railroads instead of trying to expand O'Hare Airport.

I love your last thoughts about reaching for the core that the examples point to. That there is a deeper core is my sense, as well, though I'm not sure how to articulate it.

Top of head, I think it may be related to the values and practice of many religious and spiritual traditions--at least those that understand our connection to the living earth and the necessity, physically and spiritually, for living within the limits and patterns of Earth's systems.

What can be called "slow living" could involve a re-connection with the sacred and could be profoundly regenerative. At least that's how I experience it.

Of course, though fairly low on the American material/energy-consumption curve, I'm physically comfortable with enough warmth, good food, and shelter, so it's easy for me to think this way. But still, there's something there.

Dennis D said...

A major factor in the longevity of air travel is that it is an integral part of the imperial war machine. Whenever there is a requirement to move large quanities of troops around the world, civilian airliners are "chartered", along with their regular pilots (members of the air reserve) to do so quickly. This will extend it's life support long past it's "best by" date

greatblue said...

Re flying: JMG said "you get to experience the joys of being stuffed into a winged sardine tin, breathing your fellow passengers’ stale exhalations, and staring at blank cloudscape, for however many hours it takes to get where you’re going."

Not to mention, being exposed to more radiation than staying on the ground and, at least in my part of the world, having a pretty good chance of being bumped from a flight to rural areas by freight, which is more profitable. Oh the indignities....

frijolitofarmer said...

John Michael, are you familiar with a book called "The Continuum Concept," by Jean Liedloff? It's presented mostly as a parenting manual, but it all builds on a central theme that I think can be applied much more broadly to understand this idea you're talking about here, that maximum energy does not equal maximum quality of life.

The Continuum Concept is based on the idea that all animals, including humans, are most contented when doing the things their species has evolved to do. Horses like to run, dogs like to chew things and chase squirrels, cats like to sharpen their claws and stalk small animals, and so on. When they're prevented from doing these things, they're unhappy and may exhibit odd, even neurotic behaviors. Today's house cats will "sharpen" their clawless paws and chase around a red dot from a laser pointer in lieu of any more suitable prey.

The same applies to humans. A curious example is the plethora of farming-themed video games currently available. You take a fundamentally human behavior--digging in the dirt and growing food--and make an electronic simulation of that to be experienced by apartment dwellers while seated comfortably in front of a computer, and it occupies people for hours. It's the same as giving a caged bird a cuttlebone to peck at.

How much happier would these people be with the opportunity to garden a small allotment? I'm guessing the video game would lose most of its appeal.

There is a balance point, of course. Most of any species' adaptive behaviors exist for the purpose of survival, and they're a lot more fun when your survival isn't dependent on them.

Indeed, I took exception to your two examples of what doesn't exhilarate people--turning up the thermostat and buying groceries--because I've lived in situations where I didn't have these luxuries. I once lived in a dilapidated, uninsulated house with only a very inefficient wood stove for heat. It was so cold that I remember once leaving a pot of beans to soak by the fire overnight, and in the morning they were frozen. When I moved out of there into an apartment with central heat, it was a thrill to lie in bed and hear and feel the warmth automatically blowing out of the vent, coming down like rain after a drought.

Likewise, I lived for a few months in an "efficiency" apartment that had no cooking facilities and no refrigerator. We had what was essentially a coffee maker that we used to heat water to cook noodles. If we wanted fresh food, I had to hike a mile to the store, purchase amounts small enough that we wouldn't have leftovers to refrigerate, and pack the food home on my back. When I finally had a full kitchen and my own car to transport all the groceries I could buy, I felt ridiculously wealthy. It was an exhilarating feeling. But now, years later, now that shopping has gotten to be a chore and most of the things in the store are full of ingredients I'm trying to's not so thrilling anymore. I prefer gardening and foraging.

So there's a balance point in there. If we want a good standard of living, we need enough bounty that we don't feel anxious about our survival, but still have enough of those survival-driven behaviors (like finding food, building shelter, etc.) in our lives to make them fulfilling. I think this is the appeal of camping. Given the choice, most people wouldn't choose to sleep on a hard, damp cellar floor getting eaten by insects. But erect a tent and build a fire out in the woods or someplace equally scenic, and people consider it a privilege to be able to sleep in those conditions. It's because our energy saturated lifestyles have cut us off from what instinctively feels right to us, and getting to reconnect with nature--our own human nature--helps put us back into balance.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Regarding the different energy use between Europe and North America: something occurred to me when a German friend of mine showed me his home town on Google Maps. the Population density is so much higher that towns are closer together than they are here. There is a little town, surrounded by farms, and then a few more farms around the next little town. From the centre of either town, you could get to the farms on a bicycle quite easily (or with horses, which would presumably be how it originally worked). This kind of arrangement means that the stuff you need is actually within easy reach, and with the longer growing season, those few farms can probably support the population of the towns they are near.
Look at a Google Map image of northern Alberta in comparison. Towns are far, far apart, and it would be a big trip to get to the nearest 'central city' without a vehicle. Admittedly, it was done - our part of the world was populated before cars were common, too, and back then there were spur rail lines linking smaller towns to the larger ones, and one big rail line east to west across the southern part of Canada - it's still there, and I travelled the whole thing once ... delightful way to travel, I agree.
Back when you took the train or a horse cart for the 'big trips', people planned their shopping runs a couple of times a year, or had things shipped in (old Eatons catalogues are fascinating!). I suspect that with our climate we need more acres to feed a town, and that accounts for some of our sparser population. I'm just guessing, though.
Both geographies can work in a low-energy world (they worked fine a hundred years ago), but they work differently. If things are all nearby, you can walk and shop every day, getting food as you need it. If things are spread out, you need to do more for yourself (mixed farm, garden, etc) and plan carefully for what you don't produce yourself (it's not like you can just walk to town and get it), and you need excellent storage. The advantage way up here, I suppose, is that Mother Nature provides a deep freeze for half the year! ;)

Villager said...

A single locomotive pulling a medium length passenger train at 50 mph burns 150 gph. That's 3 gallons per mile, or 1/3 mile per gallon. If there are 200 passengers then each passenger is getting about 1/3 times 200 or 70 mpg. Two people in a VW TDI diesel Jetta can get 40 mpg overall for a per passenger rate of 80mpg.

You can't equate the marginal per ton cost of hauling freight with the ACTUAL and REAL cost of hauling humans.

sofistek said...

Yes, using less energy can lead to a higher quality of life.

On the subject of rail's efficiency, I was reminded of a UK study, several years ago, that found rail travel to be one of the least efficient modes. I found an article on it, here. I also found a more recent article about the increasing environmental impact of trains, here.

But I wonder about the future of rail infrastructure in the much more localised future that we face. Will the number of people travelling large distances be enough to make the maintenance of such infrastructure worthwhile? Most people, surely, will be living, working and playing locally, with community interactions being more regional and only very occasional wider travel.


h2-1 said...

Trains are great, as anyone who has lived in Europe can tell you. I feel the current emphasis on highly inefficient, resource/energy intensive 'high speed rail' is a major mistake however, we should be rolling out 'normal speed rail', with priority for passenger trains.

High speed rail I believe has few of the efficiencies of normal speed rail. Then there is the matter of those hundreds/thousand of miles of copper cables, that are increasingly being targeted by copper thieves, here and abroad. Makes the whole complicated future world seem maybe not so practical.

Michael Tweiten said...

Last weekend I attended a workshop at a local Korean-community church on "Natural Farming" a farming system promoted all over Asia and Africa by Korean farmer Cho Han Kyu. I prefer to think of it as "Korean-style Permaculture". It was a pleasant jolt to suddenly find one of Master Cho's farming principles articulated in this week’s Archdruid report! One of the Natural Farming principles is to respect the life energy of your flocks and crops by NOT pushing them to the maximum possible yields. Practically speaking it means adjusting the feed of a flock chickens if they are bearing too many eggs so that they bear no more than 75% of the size of the flock per day (9 eggs from 12 chickens per day; try substituting wheat mill run and more greens for some of your corn mash); planting rice (or other crops) sparsely to minimize competition between plants; plucking unripe fruit from overbearing cherry tomatoes or apples so they are bearing three-quarters as much. These are all a rule of thumb; you need to be in communication with your plants and animals. The goal is higher quality produce, longer lived plants and animals and less pest or nutrient problems because of less stress from overproduction. As Stephan wrote quality of life goes up with energy use and income to a certain point then declines (Have you read the book “Your Money of Your Life?”). So too does the quality, and some times the ultimate quantity, of agricultural produce.


Petro said...

Thought-provoking, JMG - thank you.

(The joy of stoicism?)

I am sure many of limited means like myself find your posts very encouraging. You provide a healthy perspective on the "collapse."

nuku said...

Re International travel: I traveled the Pacific by yacht for 17 years, what a lovely way to arrive in a country. I dislike International airplane travel, not only for the obvious reasons of being stuffed into an noisy alloy tube breathing foul air, wasting huge amounts of energy, airport security hassles etc, but mainly because it it TOO FAST. There is no time to savor and integrate the experience one just had in country A before you find yourself hurled into country B. A few days a sea on a passenger carrying freighter (12 passangers max) give one the time to unwind, clear the mind and actually experience the physical distance.
Cost wise, freighter travel is equal to or not that much more than air travel considering you get meals and a place to sleep included in the fare for those wonderful days at sea. By air, food and hotel are an extra cost for those same days after you arrive at the arport all jet lagged.
If we really must travel by air, why not just stack the people horizontally on tiered bunks, flood the entire cabin with nitrous oxide for the whole trip and laugh all the way?

Twilight said...

An interesting proposition. I'm not sure if one should compare access to energy to standard of living or quality of life, nor really how to define them. It's easy enough to see a connection between access to energy, a more sedentary lifestyle and decreasing physical fitness. But what about a more direct connection?

I think that perhaps one candidate would be that access to too much energy brings isolation and destruction of cultures and social structures. Once you have enough energy to satisfy your basic needs and a bit extra, further access means more isolation - to the point where today we need very little interaction. With that goes the local cultures that had evolved, to be replaced by artificially generated alternatives that are wholly dependent on energy (and will disappear along with it).

What brings real happiness are the moments we can connect with others and with the world around us, and access to too much energy blocks that.

Thomas Daulton said...

As another viewpoint which leads to the same conclusion... there's a quote about car ownership (I think it was Ivan Illich) which says, if you take the average American's miles travelled per year, and then divide that by not only the hours spent driving, but also the hours stuck in traffic, looking for parking, and also the hours spent working at an average salary to pay the average American's costs for insurance, gas, and maintenance... then the average motorist is really only travelling six miles per hour. The apparent velocity of the automobile gives you a rewarding feeling, and offers you some options, but ultimately you pay for it at the back-end of the deal. Cars are not a way to get around the law of conservation of energy.
Train (and bus) travel is a little bit different. With public transportation, you are sharing those abovementioned burdens with a lot of other people, rather than shouldering each one individually yourself, so you reap certain specific economies of scale.
Thanks for these interesting columns. And now I'm hooked on "Star's Reach" as well. I am very tempted to volunteer to read and record "Star's Reach" as an audio-book. That might help it get a wider audience. But I'll make that offer again when you're closer to concluding the novel! Releasing half an audiobook while the rest is a few years off, might raise more frustration than fandom!

C. G. Orcutt said...

Wonderful post! I also share your love of train travel having grown up in Germany. I sincerely hope that there will be a revival of train transportation, at least on a regional basis. Just like we see some cities re-invent their trollies aka light rail.
I am intrigued by the idea of an energy optimum and will read Smil's article. thank you Stephen and thank you JMG for your stimulating thoughts.

beneaththesurface said...

Excellent post!

I too am fond of trains and do not mind the longer time it takes me to get to my destination. To travel to a camp on the West Coast where I worked one summer, I took a 3-day train trip across the U.S. Twelve years later, I still have pleasant memories of that trip.

In the past month, I have decided not to fly anymore anywhere in the U.S. (though I'm not ready yet to say no to flying internationally ever again) My last plane trip was in August, and felt uneasy about that. I'm very committed to living a low-impact lifestyle in so many ways, yet flying (even just once a year on average as it had been) seems to put all the other little things I do seem very little in perspective. I feel I'll be happier with myself by living more according to my values now. And also by explaining why I didn't fly somewhere to others, it perhaps might promote the idea to a few others.

I encourage others to forgo flying whenever possible!

Mark said...

Try this game. See if you can figure out what types of businesses will go away first as energy gets more and more expensive.

The demise of Harry & David (You know, the company that packages up the best looking fruit and ships it all over the place for big bucks...) got me thinking that we might be able to do this. FYI, in a high-cost-of-energy world, wouldn't shipping pretty pears across the country seem insane? (For that matter, it's insane even when energy is cheap.)

I thought of an approach - construct a ratio of "Value provide" divided by "energy use" for each company or industry. Companies with small ratios would be closest to extinction in an energy-expensive world.

To test my approach, I raised the question in the office this morning. My business partner immediately suggested "NASCAR." We all agreed that NASCAR uses lots of energy. What we couldn't agree on was the "value provided." Another co-worker joked that we should count gallons of beer consumed. If beer consumption is valuable, then NASCAR is going to be around a long time. On the other hand, if we base value on "helping mankind survive in a low-energy world," NASCAR's gonna score pretty low.

How would you value a business or industry? What industries do you see going away first in a high-cost-energy world?

Here are some I came up with:
Indoor sports arenas for amateur athletics (big heated shells so kids can play soccer indoors when it's lousy outside)
Dollar Store crap manufacturers
Ski areas
Malls and Big Box stores

You can add to the list at my blog The Energy Miser -

Houyhnhnm said...

Thank you, Archdruid, for talking about trains. Why this isn't on everyone's lips, I do not know.

Regarding, push versus power lawn mowers, however, I have a question:

How about neither?

My rant about lawns is here:


Reinier said...

Many thanks JMG, for your continuing interesting posts.
For what it's worth, the European Union recently presented its "Roadmap for the Future of Transport 2050" white paper. By 2050, one of the key goals is "A 50% shift of medium distance intercity passenger and freight journeys from road to rail and waterborne transport."
For more details, see

Rich_P said...

Historian Daniel Boorstin notes in The Americans that we love traveling everywhere in a hurry, oftentimes to the detriment of our safety and comfort. Take, for example, the steamboat passengers who would encourage the crew to steam ahead at full speed -- boiler explosions be damned. Or the foreigner who was utterly amazed at how Americans would disembark from passengers trains at mealtime and eat like savages just so they could get moving again.

And as long we have that attitude about travel, Amtrak's mostly a novelty. It's one thing to leisurely ride a train across several states -- it's quite another to constantly yield to freight trains because Amtrak doesn't actually own the track.

Jason Heppenstall said...

How much is too much?

I remember a girl from the then East Germany telling me about how her head spun the first time she walked into a West German supermarket circa 1990. How could anyone possibly consume all those products? she thought.

I had a similar feeling circa 1991 walking into a US supermarket circa 1992 and looking at it with my British eyes. How could any society possibly need 40 different brands of peanut butter all under one roof? I wondered.

Now, everywhere is like those US supermarkets of 1992. Well, perhaps not everywhere. Here in Denmark the choice is very limited and I've heard visitors compare it to old style communist countries.

Ask a Dane about this 'limited choice' (only two brands of peanut butter available nationally!) and they'll look confused and say 'But we have all we need'. My American friends here shake their heads sadly and say that Denmark 'just doesn't get it'.

But I wonder if they do ...

Regarding trains: I've seen convincing stats that say the new generation of very high speed trains actually use more energy per passenger than jets.

Cherokee Organics said...


Really enjoyed hearing about your rail journey.

The core themes of your posts are about using less energy. Grow your own vegies and fruit (don't forget the fruit trees - they need years to fruit properly!). Reduce the amount of energy that your household requires. Basically, it's a process of adaption, which is an excellent strategy.

Individual households have no chance of affecting the swirl of events that are going on around them. Adaption is the best approach, I can't think of any other more successful strategy.

Petrol (gas) is nudging about AU$1.50 litre (there's about 3.78 litres to a gallon) here this week and the Aussie dollar is now buying more than the US dollar which is pretty scary given our tiny population.

Whatever, I'm four months into my chicken adventure and I must say that I'm rather attached to my chooks! I don't know why I never had them before?



Cherokee Organics said...

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Karen said...

To quote Gaias Daughter:

"My husband and I spent over 20 years living in Germany and can personally attest to the benefits of a 'less is more' approach to life. The wonderful train system is just the beginning. Energy in all forms is much more expensive in Germany -- Germans don't drive if they walk -- so there is almost always at least one bakery, market, bank, restaurant, grade school, church, community center, and town woods within a few blocks of every home. Children don't have unlimited access to TV, video games, and year-round indoor climates set artificially to 72 degrees, so they play outside more. Homes are smaller with less storage space, so people tend to have a few things of very good quality instead of great quantities of junk. Life is slower there -- people congregate in outdoor cafes, take long walks in the local woods, shop at the weekly farmers' market, and gossip with their neighbors over a glass of liquid bread.

There is a lot we could learn from our European friends . . .

I still live in Germany (over 10 years now) and can confirm that this way of life continues.

I will soon be traveling by train from Munich to Leipzig for a "Fiber Arts Festival" where weavers, spinners and vendors of hand dyed wool will be present.

Six of us will be traveling comfortably by train (and of course will have our knitting projects with us).

Jason said...

@Bill Pulliam:

when you dump a lot of new energy rapidly and unexpectedly into an ecosystem it will disrupt it [...] But if you give an ecosystem more energy gradually, or you give it big pulses of energy in a quasi-predictable fashion, it will adjust to them.

Any more reading on that specifically ? Paper or book chapter etc.?

Happens to be a perfect description of the difference between doing chi kung well or badly -- or any other energy meditation such as kundalini yoga for that matter.

All very much in line, too, with JMG's ideas on Tao Te Ching as a work of systems theory.

On that BTW, JMG, you probably know this site already, but in case not. Twenty or more DDJ translations presented interlinearly, useful for comparison work!

DaShui said...

I think our post WWII efforts at counter-insurgency is a good example of having too much energy at our disposal. We or consistently stalemated by poorly equipped soldiers despite our use of massive amounts of ordinance and fossil fuels. And the answer is always to pump more firepower into the battle space.

tom rainboro said...

About railways:
Railways are most vuseful if there is a good network and not just one or two lines. The present UK network is about half the size it was in 1913. One controversial UK project at present is the building of a new high-speed line from London to Birmingham. I suspect that, post peak-oil, we should be more concerned with reliability and energy use than speed. Rail transport also suffers badly from competition with road transport where door-to-door transport is required. Therefore an integrated public transport system is required.
In England most railway stations used to have a goods yard or coal yard where freight was transferred to local carriers. Many of these sites have disappeared under developments of apartments or shopping malls - a long-term error I believe.

tubaplayer said...


Probably a bit late for this weeks post, but yes I share your love of train travel.

It is also cheap here in Hungary. I recently went from where I live to Budapest and back - about a hundred and seventy miles each way - for US equivalent $40. That's for return trip, not just one way.

Looking some way into the future I would suggest that a good rail intrastructure would still work even in serious times of depletion of oil fuels and electricity. How many tons could a team of six horses pull along a railway line? Easy grades and lack of rolling resistance. Slow, but a lot better than nothing.

Matthew Heins said...

Villager and sofistek,

The question isn't whether one trip is more efficient, but whether the entire system is more efficient.

Taking into account the entire system, automobiling is a higher energy user and societies employing automobiling are higher energy users, the more so the more they depend on automobiling.

Don't think of one train and one auto, each going from one place to another place.

Think of one train going from one place to another place and 100 autos going from 100 places to 100 other places.


Rita said...

I wonder how much of US energy consuption can be attributed to our exagerated belief in cleanliness? I remember a survey several years ago about frequency of bathing, changes of underwear, etc. in various European countries. I don't recall the details, but it had most American's going "Euggh!" Yet there doesn't seem to be any evidence that Europeans suffer more dirt borne disease than Americans. There are many still living who recall Saturday night baths and wearing items of clothing more than once before tossing them in the laundry.

Jeff Z said...

JMG- I wish you had said on this site where you were speaking in Minneapolis- I would have liked to come see you in person!

As some commenters have said- Minneapolis is a good town- I'd add that it's almost as good as St. Paul.

Which will soon have a proper rail terminal again (I apologize for the station you probably had to disembark at- makes bus stations look nice.) St. Paul is in the process of renovating the WWI era depot which has been mothballed for 40 years, and turning it into a rail/bus hub for the whole metro area. The new light rail line connecting downtown Minneapolis and downtown St. Paul will terminate there, Amtrak will have a station there, and most east metro buses will make stops there as well. Come back in 3 years and you will be treated to a very different rail experience!

BTW- I had the chance to ride the same section of Amtrak's rails in 1993 and loved it- esp. the mountianous portion in West Virginia and Maryland. I was coming back to the frozen north on the winter solstice, making my way back from Puerto Rico, where I had been an exchange student for a semester. It hadn't gone very well, and I was looking forward to being back in a cold, but friendly environment. I had to fly to Miami, but then took Amtrak back to Minneapolis, via Washington DC and Chicago. The trip took a little over two days if I remember, but it was a wonderful way to see a part of the country that was new to me, and to ease back into the cold and grey, after four months in the tropics.

What I'm up to now is at:

John Michael Greer said...

Daughter, if you're going to relocate anywhere, do it soon. Otherwise, hunkering down and coping in place is probably your best bet.

K, true enough.

Bob, thanks for the links. I think every civilization pushes its fixations to the breaking point.

Zach, the point that too often gets missed is that the curve of marginal utility can get into negative territory.

Jeremy, thanks for the reading suggestions! I've been arguing for a while now that deindustrializing is, among other things, the one viable way to deal with systemic unemployment.

Bill, of course there'll be difficulties of various kinds, but the point I was trying to make is that they're known issues -- nobody has to figure out from scratch how to upgrade a section of track to passenger standards, or how to build a locomotive, while most of the vaporware out there in the field of transportation is full of unknown and untested links.

Richard, yes, I saw the JOE report. Refreshingly honest, in a way.

Glenn, efficiency depends largely on the number and angle of grades; the figure I was using assumed mostly flat, which from here to Minneapolis is largely the case.

Lynford, of course you're right that decreasing the amount of travel you and your potatoes do is the best move of all, but if you have to travel -- and in my line of work, it's hard to avoid -- might as well use the most efficient method available.

Lance, west of the Missouri River, American train service sucks. I've also taken the Coast Starlight, and it's not my favorite route by a long shot.

Adrian, the more people choose to be low on the curve of energy consumption, the easier it will be to help as many people as possible get that basic level of food, shelter and comfort. Thus the current series of posts!

Dennis, that may be true, but it's no reason for the rest of us to support it.

John Michael Greer said...

Greatblue, getting bumped by freight isn't something that's happened to me, but it certainly sounds annoying.

Farmer, I have basically no contact with the world of video games, so hadn't heard of farm-themed video games. Talk about living life as a representation of itself...

Apple Jack, there's also a major difference in history. If Alberta had been settled by its current population, more or less, for the last 2000+ years, I bet you'd have lots of little towns close to one another, too.

Villager, now factor in the system costs for 200 people in 200 cars making the same trip -- this is America, remember, so nearly all of them will be driving alone, and not generally in Jettas!

Sofistek, granted, a general decrease in travel is pretty much baked into the cake at this point. Here and now, though, we've got a choice inb the modalities we use.

H2-1, I'm not in favor of high speed rail, for precisely those issues among others. Let's get a rail system as good as the one we had in the Second World War, which we're nowhere near to having now, and then we can talk about the fancy stuff.

Michael, Cho Han Kyu is quite right, of course. Lao Tsu said it well a couple of millennia ago: "Better stop short than fill to the brim."

Petro, as long as you don't confuse stoicism with puritanism, no argument there!

Nuku, thanks for a different perspective on the same principle. I haven't traveled by sea, but it seems sensible enough.

Twilight, yes, that's certainly part of it.

Thomas, that's a great way of looking at it! As for Star's Reach, you've got a couple of years to wait -- it'll finish with right around 60 chapters, so we're not quite half way now.

John Michael Greer said...

CG, it makes me roll my eyes when cities insist on coming up with some fancy hypermodern light rail system, instead of simply rebuilding a trolley system using proven technology, and then marketing the retro aspect of it to attract tourist dollars.

Beneath, I've all but given up on flying. It's just too miserable, and where I live, it's a 3-hour train trip to the nearest airport anyway. Why not just stay on the train?

Mark, watch which ones are cutting quality and service the fastest and you'll know which ones will go away soonest.

Houyhnhnm, we've almost finished replacing our lawns, front and back, with garden space. My comment is purely for those people who want a lawn, despite its uselessness.

Reinier, thanks for the link! That's very promising. I wish we had governments with that much of a clue over here.

Rich, that's a fascinating point. I sometimes wonder if we obsess so much about speed because we're frightened of the sheer scale of this continent.

Jason, Denmark gets it. It's America that doesn't get it.

Chris, toss the chickens something tasty for me. We're a few years out from adding a henhouse -- just got our apple and quince trees and grape vines in the ground this week -- and I'm looking forward to hens and fresh eggs again.

Karen, my spouse envies you that trip! She'd make a good addition to the party, too, as she spins and crochets.

Jason, thank you! That'll be useful for the TTC project.

DaShui, true enough.

Tom, very much a long-term error. As population declines, though, a lot of housing can be torn down to make room for freight yards and the like.

Tubaplayer, that's quite true. Early trolley cars in the US were often pulled by horses.

Matt, quite true also.

Rita, it's been suggested -- though I can't find the reference at the moment -- that a significant number of Americans are ill because they're too clean, and don't get the normal immune system stimulation that good healthy dirt provides.

Jeff, the St. Paul station was better than many I've been through, though of course it's not a patch on the grand old stations of a half century ago. Glad to hear they're rebuilding.

John Michael Greer said...

Ponter (offlist), your email address doesn't come with your post. I can be contacted offlist c/o info (at) aoda (dot) com.

Hawlkeye (also offlist), er, you know the rules. If you'd like to trim the profanity from your post I'd be delighted to put it through.

team10tim said...

Hey hey The Archdruid,

A thought occurred to me on my second reading of this post. The consumption of more energy than the optimum generally leads to obesity. Ipso facto the economy is overweight, possibly morbidly so. In individuals obesity leads to physiological issues. I think that the parallel for a fat economy would be sociological issues.

Here is a fascinating paper that compares biological metabolism to industrial metabolism Energetic Limits to Economic Growth. Economies appear to scale with increased energy consumption at the same rate that biological organism do based on the simple geometry of distribution networks for information, energy, resources, and waste.

Figure 1. The relationship between per capita energy use and per capita gross
domestic product (GDP; in US dollars) of countries, plotted on logarithmic axes,
from 1980 to 2003. Note that the slope or exponent, 0.76 (95% confidence interval 5
0.69–0.82), is close to three-quarters, which is the canonical value of the exponent for
the scaling of metabolic rate with body mass in animals.

A half baked idea from Tim

Rob said...

I think you are on to something with the less is more theme. Here is one more dimension to explore...

Despite many quack diets and pseudo-science prescriptions my understanding is that the only proven method to extend longevity is to adjust your calorie intake such that you are frequently a little hungry. Apparently the human body was not designed to be completely satiated all of the time.

hawlkeye said...

There’s a revolting little cartoon show in America called Bratz that teaches young girls how to be self-absorbed, acquisitive, consumer b-allerinas (and I’ve heard that grownups have something similar called Kardashianz). I’ve never seen the cartoon, but have seen enough of its ghastly toys to be sure and prevent my six-year-old daughter from ever knowing anything about it until she’s thirty.

Instead, I repeat the parable of the Three Bears until hopefully its refrain settles somewhere deep in her little brain like a mantra; too little, too much, just right. Who better than Goldilocks to impart the wise blessings of a balanced approach to life? And perhaps also learn how to avoid the traps of binary ill-logical thinking.

In a recent series of popular spiritual books, the wealthiest people in the world read about how to remedy what’s lacking in their lives by reflecting on the polarity of “enough/not enough”. But balance is not something attained by two objects on their own little teeter-totter, it’s something that is revealed along a continuum. There are always three bears, never only two.

Draw a long horizontal line across the paper; on the far left is “nothing” and on the far right is “everything”. Make a dot somewhere for “enough” and then another one for “not enough”. So what? Then place dots wherever you think they should go along the line for “poverty”, “affluence”, “destitution”, “opulence”, “starvation”, “indulgence”… and any more that come to mind. Now, where do you live?

I think too many modern folks have been languishing in excess for so long that we can’t recognize all the ways we’ve turned “too-muchness” into one great malaise, a handicap becoming our undoing.

Unlimited growth has gotten into our bones and brains, and it’s not an evolutionary advantage.

NoLNG said...

I quite regularly take the train from Portland, Oregon to Washington, DC to visit my daughter and her family (after first taking the Amtrak bus from Astoria to Portland.)

Cumberland is a beautiful little town, and the history of the C&O canal is fascinating. Everytime I go through there I wonder who lives there -- but I suppose it is a bedroom community to the D.C. area. The nice thing about taking the train is that you can be in a parallel universe, totally unaware of cars -- I have no idea where Cumberland is in relationship to D.C., because I have never driven that distance in a car!

Such is our modern life -- reality is determined by the geography is determined by the geography of roads.

Glenn said...


Yes, the 442 (varies from 338 to 445, call it 440) ton/mile freight figure is from West of the Rockies where we have mountains worthy of the name.

FWIW I live on the NE corner of the Olympic Peninsula, they shut down our last railroad, from Port Townsend to Port Angeles (There was a ferry that carried the trains from the East side of Puget Sound to Port Townsend) in the '80's. The right of way is slowly becoming rails to trails. Slowly because it was allowed to revert to individual property owners. One way or the other I think we'll want it back as a route. The grades are a lot gentler than Highway 101.

Marrowstone Island

Joe Miller said...

Excellent and sobering post, JMG.

Are you aware of Nietzsche's conception of Greek and Baroque art as the ability to "dance in chains"? It's another variation on the "Less is More" theme. Basically, the strict formal guidelines that the Greeks adhered to gave rise to that distinctive clarity, originality, and intensity found in all great Hellenic art. This is in contrast with the decadent (as he saw them) aesthetic ideals of the Romantics, who sought to express themselves in an unfettered and "organic" fashion.

Cherokee Organics said...


It's a bit off topic, but Quince's either cooked or in cakes are outstanding. The trees are givers too. I used to glean Quinces trees overhanging back alleyways and they were always good!



Bryan Allen said...

JMG, the medical term for the apparent rise in auto-immune diseases, from asthma to MS and beyond, is "Hygiene Hypothesis." See Wikipedia for an overview of what has become an ever-broadening inquiry. The evidence all seems to be pointing to over-cleanliness, in the sense of keeping kids from playing around in the dirt, as being the cause of numerous diseases for both children and, later in life, for adults. This quite possibly means that The Long Descent is much less to be feared in the medical sense, as it appears a challenged immune system is a healthy immune system. A rapid descent, OTOH, would be less pretty, since you'd see lots more people with compromised immune systems that suddenly had the medical support-system rug pulled out from underneath them.

John Michael Greer said...

Tim, well, the argument would work if obesity was primarily a function of too much intake, which it isn't -- I don't know if you've seen the range of studies showing that obese people eat about the same number of calories as thin ones, and that dieting is an effective way to teach your body to gain weight -- simulate famine, and you trigger processes that stash calories in fat preferentially. Other than that, though, the point's relevant.

Rob, that's quite a valid point. Food also tastes better when you allow yourself to stay slightly hungry...

Hawlkeye, I haven't been exposed to Bratz, which is probably a good thing. As for your broader point about three-value logic, excellent -- and it's absolutely typical that the folks playing mental games about "enough" and "not enough" have forgotten about "too much." Most Americans have -- a lesson we may just learn in a hurry.

NoLNG, fortunately, Cumberland hasn't become a bedroom community for anywhere; it's just one more pleasant old red brick mill town in the middle of nowhere, with about half the population it had fifty years ago and a deindustrial economy about fifty years ahead of the rest of the country.

Glenn, the mountains out here used to be taller than the Himalayas, but that was a little while ago -- say, 300 million years. Now it's a bit more sedate.

Joe, I hadn't encountered Nietzche's melodramatic phrasing, but the concept is familiar. I've argued (in a book not yet published) that beauty is inseparable from limitation: the stricter the limits, and the more fully they're accepted, the greater the beauty. That's why art becomes truly great when it embraces formal structure, and also why so much modern poetry is so awful; a really great poet can make the limits of language provide the necessary limiting factor, but anybody else needs structures (say, the sonnet form) or they just produce shapeless mush. In my opinion, of course!

Chris, I know! We used to get quince at a farmer's market in Seattle, and adored it. No such luck here, so planting a tree was the obvious solution. We'll have quince-raisin pie, quince jelly, and a dozen other scrumptious quince dishes in a few years.

friendlyD said...

What a thoughtful and engaged discussion of trains and train travel! (one I share)

For those interested in an eco-psycho-social perspective on trains:

Jason said...

@JMG: I've argued (in a book not yet published) that beauty is inseparable from limitation: the stricter the limits, and the more fully they're accepted, the greater the beauty. That's why art becomes truly great when it embraces formal structure...

... a viewpoint that's very much in keeping with this post -- after all, sonnets are not vaporware! Meaning, when culture produces artistic forms that can reliably do a certain job, they are just as much resources as a farming method or an Ostrom-style CPR arrangement.

You probably know that, on the purely aesthetic question, you have more than just Nietzsche for company here. A favourite statement of these principles:

The more art is controlled, limited, worked over, the more it is free... If everything is permissible to me, the best and the worst; if nothing offers me any resistance, then any effort is inconceivable, and I cannot use anything as a basis, and consequently every undertaking becomes futile... I have no use for theoretic freedom. Let me have something finite, definite—matter that can lend itself to my operation only insofar as it is commensurate with my possibilities. And such matter presents itself to me together with its limitations. I must in turn impose mine upon it. So here we are, whether we like it or not, in the realm of necessity. And yet which of us has ever heard talk of art as other than a realm of freedom? This sort of heresy is uniformally widespread because it is imagined that art is outside the bounds of ordinary activity. Well, in art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible.

My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings.
I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint, diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one’s self of the chains that shackle the spirit.

Stravinsky, Poetics of Music, 1947

Stephen said...

Reply to Terry: Yes, the island I live on is indeed Lasqueti. Still off the grid and no car ferry, but the island has probably much changed since the 70s. There is even an internet centre here now (where I'm currently sitting). But Lasqueti is still "off the grid" in other ways and attracts more than the usual share of people who care about ecological matters, home food production, low-impact living, etc.

das monde said...

There is a nice article Spiegel on steam locomotives and trains in the communist DDR. The article is in German, but you can go through a great sequence of pictures if you click just below the title.

Joe Miller said...

@Jason: Darn it, I wanted to mention Stravinsky in my follow up post :) Do you know if Stravinsky was influenced by Nietzsche? The Rites Of Spring would seem to indicate that.

"I've argued (in a book not yet published) that beauty is inseparable from limitation: the stricter the limits, and the more fully they're accepted, the greater the beauty. That's why art becomes truly great when it embraces formal structure, and also why so much modern poetry is so awful; a really great poet can make the limits of language provide the necessary limiting factor, but anybody else needs structures (say, the sonnet form) or they just produce shapeless mush."

I feel that the best case that could be made for the Apollonian perspective on art would be the works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina. They strictly observed the limitations of the diatonic scales while allowing for brief periods of dissonance in their compositions, and achieved sublimity as a result there of. Dante's masterpiece would also be a great case in point. I remember that William Blake and Leonardo da Vinci also mused on the importance of form on numerous occasions as well.

Zach said...

Zach, the point that too often gets missed is that the curve of marginal utility can get into negative territory.

It's right there front and center in the economics textbook I'm using for my students with the introduction of the concept of marginal utility -- the example being a steak dinner.

If you are hungry, the first steak has high marginal utility. The second will almost certainly have a lower marginal utility (after all, you're probably very nearly full from the first steak). By the fifth or tenth steak, the marginal utility has become negative (because you're eating yourself sick!).

Sadly, I have no idea how many students simply nod, accept that theoretically the curve can go negative and can answer test questions correctly, but don't really internalize the implications.


Karen said...

JMG said, "Karen, my spouse envies you that trip! She'd make a good addition to the party, too, as she spins and crochets."

She would be a welcomed addition. I also have my set of crochet needles but my knitting needles are seeing more action these days.

Jason said...

@Joe Miller: Do you know if Stravinsky was influenced by Nietzsche? The Rites Of Spring would seem to indicate that.

No I don't think so -- certainly not directly. Stravinsky was deliberately un-German in everything he did anyhow. Nicholas Roerich was his main thematic influence for the Sacre.

sebzefrog said...

Hi all.
Thinking about "how much is enough energy, and is there something like too much energy ?" has proved to be a very fertile ground.

I couldn't find an absolute definition of how much energy is too much. Where I stand now, it seems like it is the same than for food. Too much food doesn't exist. What exists is too much eating. The problem doesn't come from the fruit of the land, but from the eater wisdom.

On the other hand, I think that there are clear symptoms of an over-indulgence in energy use.
The one I have in mind here is planned obsolescence.

It is one of the very obscene findings of our modern times: use energy to actually *increase* entropy actively... That's when using energy has become an end in itself. "Il faut manger pour vivre et non pas vivre pour manger" as the saying goes, getting us back to the food analogy.

On a different line, there is a question that I am lacking data to answer. If any one here has it, I would be delighted if he or she would share. The question is:
In the european middle ages (or any other pre-oil civilisation) what was the fraction of people well of versus the people in misery ? How does it compare to today's world average ?
And in absolute value, how many humans were in misery or well of back then, compared to nowadays ?

I don't pretend it is a simple question, but it is one that I find very interesting.

Have a great day
Sebzefrog at

Cathy McGuire said...

Great topic, again! Love the description of the train trip -- I keep wanting to try that when I go back east, but it's so hard finding chicken-sitters even for a quick trip (my "solution" has been to postpone the trip completely), yet I really, really want to avoid flying (for many reasons). It's sad and odd how lives get so full up that taking 3-4 days to get across country (and yes, round trip makes it 6-8 days just travel) is out of the question. But it might be the only option one of these days...

Going back to an older topic, I just found what looks a lot like an electric haybox - I posted quick pictures on my website:
Looks like it might have once had two of the tins rather than just one. The cord included is wrong (no way it plugs in that I can see)but even without the electric starter heat, the heavy outer container seems to be insulated (can't get inside to check)and tonight I will test it with some oatmeal... pretty cool find! :-) Anyone ever seen one of these or know what it is?

Joe Miller said...

@Jason:"Stravinsky was deliberately un-German in everything he did anyhow." As was Nietzsche (other than the fact that he still wrote in German, after all).

The reason I asked was because The Rite feels VERY Dionysian to me, what with the emphasis on "the violent Russian spring" and all that.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

For those interested the U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Railroad Administration
Track Safety Standards Compliance Manual details track standards classification.

What it boils down to is the allowed operational speed limit, which can differ between freight and passenger service for a class of track.

In summary:

Class , Speed in mph
For Freight - Passenger

Excepted , 10 - N/A
1 , 10 - 15
2 , 25 - 30
3 , 40 - 60
4 , 60 - 80
5 , 80 - 90

For All
6 , 110
7 , 125
8 , 160
9 , 200

It seems that most of the existing (remaining) rail in the US is actually usable for passenger service, albeit at a relatively leisurely pace. The problem is that usable or not, at whatever speed - there just isn't any. For the hardy, desperate or otherwise non risk averse, hoping the freight has always been an option. But for most of us such extra-legal arrangements are not on the radar - yet.

Perhaps too much speed is just another manifestation of the problem of too much energy. Even if there were many times more track connecting much more of the (sub)urban build out of the recent past, how much passenger capacity is really needed. Some, to be sure; but how much traveling to distant or even relatively nearby places do we, and more importantly will we, really need to do? Surely the primary purpose for trains will remain freight transport, and accommodating travelers but a secondary concern. Moreover, the necessary speed of those journeys is probably relative to the other options available, say an animal drawn coach or wagon over rough road with few facilities or protections, or perhaps with a few other riders on the backs of animals, or alone, or by the means of one's own feet. A couple of months wages for a space and maybe a seat in a re-purposed box car attached to a train that takes the better part of two weeks to go from Cumberland to Minneapolis will seem like a fantastic opportunity. And for those with enough disposable income to afford such luxury, it will be.

So, as much as I appreciate even the marginal level of passenger service currently available in the US, I think we might be less concerned with wishing for something that few now see as either desirable or necessary, and that might not actually be all that viable in our inevitably much reduced individual and collective circumstance. However, an expansion of rail service in general, but primarily for freight, will doubtless enhance our options for dealing with a range of collapse scenarios. The initial rail build out in the USA was a national security objective, it bound widely separated population centers economically and politically into one nation. A useful mental exercise is to step back from the very possibly ephemeral internet age and remember that trains were once also a communication conduit, a means for delivering correspondence and news. While it may be difficult for the USA to retain its' current configuration, without a functioning national transportation system dissolution seems a near certainty. Regardless of where one stands on the ultimate disposition of the present political union, retention of the best aspects of our cultural heritage very probably will depend on maintaining our ability to communicate with one another.

Lidia17 said...

I had the opportunity to take a trip to Amsterdam to pick up an item I had ordered, but the cost to take the train from where I am, in Central Italy about 20 minutes from the train station, was over €500 for one person r/t. Even when we have to travel to Rome or Florence, it's usually cheaper for two people to drive, even with the high price of gas and the high tolls on the highway. I don't know whether this is just an Italian phenomenon.

Mr. Clark, I think you make good points and, if you have not, you should check out the writings of Ivan Illich (many of his writings can be foudn online for free), who very much gets into issues of energy and speed. One aspect that he deals with are the ways that higher-speed modes of transit crowd out more efficient and 'democratic' modes, not just in terms of energy but also of time and space. His "Elogio della bicicletta" (I do not believe this book, Elegy of the Bicycle, has been published in English) asserts that "…to move forty thousand people from one side of a bridge to another in one hour would require twelve lanes if they resorted to using cars, and only two lanes if the forty thousand were pedaling bicycles."

High-speed rail is a good example, too: it sounds progressive, but I believe that giving them priority at the stations and on the tracks suppresses slower local trains, actually reducing transit availability to those people with less money and more time on their hands.

Cathy McGuire said...

Here's an interesting article about the possibility that wind and wave energy are not sustainable - at the levels we'd need... all you who are good at that pesky Law of Thermodynamics, check it out and weigh in here! I don't have enough experience with it.

…Axel Kleidon of the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, Germany, says that efforts to satisfy a large proportion of our energy needs from the wind and waves will sap a significant proportion of the usable energy available from the sun. In effect, he says, we will be depleting green energy sources. His logic rests on the laws of thermodynamics, which point inescapably to the fact that only a fraction of the solar energy reaching Earth can be exploited to generate energy we can use….

deft said...

The elimination of entire civilian populations in cities was rare by dint of war but not by disease. And genocide has a history predating war which is allied with the rise of phonetic literacy. Just adding a bit here, no disagreement with your hypothesis which makes sense to me.

M said...

I think you are again spot in discussing what some have called the inevitability of reaching points of diminishing returns. What throws a kink into this realization, from my point of view, is the role of power - the immediate competitive advantage that can often be had through intensive exploitation of power. I don't see how you get around that, the most ruthless in dealing with nature (as well as with people), may have immediate competitive advantages that skew peoples' perceived incentives.

Zach said...

Cathy - New Scientist has updated that article (after what sounds like vigorous "feedback") to the less misleading "Wind and wave farms could affect Earth's energy balance".

My comments from a Facebook discussion of the article:

"Backed into that catastrophic assessment is a big whopping assumption: that wind is being used on such a massive scale that it's the sole replacement for all of our civilization's energy use. That's... pretty fantastical."

To a friend's reply that "If his idea holds water, you wouldn't have to have replacement-level wind usage to experience problems", I add:

Humbug, I say. He's doing some straightforward back-of-the-envelope calculations starting with 17TW of wind power generation, scaling for efficiency losses, and then saying "gee, if we suck that much energy out of the atmosphere, it might have an effect."

Man, I need to get in on that academic stuff -- sounds easier than real work. :)

As reported it doesn't compare that to the total energy of the global atmosphere, and I don't see a good accounting for the thermodynamics of it -- sure, your wind farm is going to generate waste heat, but that energy was already part of the planetary system.

But I scoff at a 17TW buildout. How will that be paid for? Can that much neodymium be located economically? (I'm sure China will be happy to share - they sit on the majority of the world's supply...) How much steel will those wind towers consume? (That takes energy to produce in the first place...)

I suspect "well, we can't afford it so we'll end up using less energy in the future" will be the real"renewable" plan.

Yes, there is probably a lower level than the "set to ludicrous speed!" that might be problematic. Wonder where that level is? I suppose the value of this might be as a thought experiment to say "look, if we go gonzo we could get into bad territorry, so let's figure this out before we count on wind power letting us ride the happy motoring utopia forever." But then my engineer brain kicks in and I think "OK, but if the practical rollout level of wind is orders of magnitude below the problem level, then how can it be a real problem?"


sofistek said...

My thanks to Cathy, who linked to that New Scientist article. "At last", I cry. I've been saying for years, to the renewable energy cornucopians, that we can't just assume that our diversion of energy from the natural energy systems of the earth will have no impact, even if the diversion is a tiny fraction of the total. That kind of assumption has led us to our present predicament and is not a good strategy for the future.

All of the energy from the sun, that is not reflected back into space (and retaining some of that reflected energy is problematical also), powers the natural energy systems of earth and all life on earth. In nature, you can't do just one thing; there are always consequences. So I say let's goo slowly with renewables. Let's not assume renewables can take over our current and future energy consumption. This caution applies to solar, as much as to wind and other renewable energy sources.

I want to see full, comprehensive environmental impact assessments for all energy projects (renewable or otherwise) and a programme of constant observation and research, as we move along, to ensure that we aren't simply creating another AGW scale problem for future generations.

Adrynian said...

Regarding airlines advertising leg-room, etc. in your youth, I learned that this was because the industry was regulated. That meant that companies couldn't compete on price so they had to find some other way to differentiate themselves to attract customers.

As a result, they competed on who offered the most pleasant travel experience: best food, comfort, etc. Post-deregulation, companies resorted to competition solely on the basis of price.

It's actually an interesting lesson about economics all on its own: take away companies' capacity to compete on the basis of price (e.g. through industry regulation) and they will still find ways to compete through other means.

The airline industry shows that this isn't necessarily a bad thing, however; I would personally prefer to see companies competing over whose product is best rather than cheapest.

Ian Bicking said...

I am a late comer and haven't even read through the comments (so many!) but I wanted to note that the efficiency of passenger rail is nothing like the efficiency of freight. You can see the numbers here: table 2.12, BTU per passenger mile. Cars are 3437, air is 2995, and intercity rail is 2398. Rail is best, but not by a lot (is uses 70% of what a car does, 80% compared to air). In past years they've had intercity bus, but they didn't for this report -- but when recorded it was considerably more efficient than rail.

It is a reasonable argument that rail is inefficient because there's little incentive to be efficient, and rail is no less apt to waste energy than anyone else when it is convenient. So perhaps it could be efficient if they tried. But for right now, they aren't.