Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Santa Isn't Bringing Gigawatts

Through the clouds of wishful thinking that too often make up what we are pleased to call a collective conversation on the subject of energy, a ray of common sense occasionally shines through. This week’s ray came by way of a study on the Earth’s thermodynamic balance, soon to be released in no less a scientific publication than the Proceedings of the Royal Society. The study found among other things that there’s a fairly modest upper limit to the amount of energy that wind farms can extract from the atmosphere without changing the climate.

So far, at least, the peak oil blogosphere hasn’t responded to this study at all. That’s not surprising, since the idea that renewable energy resources might also be subject to environmental limits is about as welcome in most alternative circles these days as a slug in a garden salad. These days, for many people who consider themselves environmentally conscious, a vision of giant wind turbines in serried ranks as far as the eye can see fills a pivotal emotional need; it allows them to pretend, at least to themselves, that it’s possible to support today’s extravagant lifestyles on renewable energy – to have our planet, one might say, and eat it too.

In the real world, things don’t work that way, but we’ve had a long vacation from having to deal with the real world. Three hundred years of ever-increasing production of fossil fuels have misled most of the population of the industrial world into thinking that it’s natural and normal to have as much cheap energy as you want and are willing to pay for. As petroleum production wobbles along a bumpy plateau and approaches the point of irreversible decline, and other fossil fuels move implacably toward their own peaks and declines, one of the prime necessities of sanity and survival involves unlearning the mental habits of the age of abundance, and coming to terms with the fact that all human activities are subject to ecological limits.

It’s as though we’re a bunch of children with very, very short memories, who wake up one morning to find that it’s Christmas Day and there are heaps of presents around the tree. Giddy with excitement, we open one package after another, revel in our shiny new toys, then delight in the holiday atmosphere of the rest of the day. As night falls, we doze off, thinking happily about how there will be another round of presents and another big meal the next day. Then the next day comes, and it’s not Christmas any more; search as we will, the area around the tree stubbornly refuses to yield any more presents, and if we strain our memories as far as they will reach, we might just remember that the other 364 days of the year follow different rules.

Especially in America, but not only in America, a great many people are basically sitting around on the day after Christmas, waiting for Santa Claus to show up with gigawatts of bright shiny new energy in his sack. The people who insist that we can keep our current lifestyles powered with giant wind farms or solar satellites or Bussard fusion reactors or free energy devices – thatt latter is what they’re calling perpetual motion machines these days, at least the last time I checked – are right in there with the folks who chant "Drill, baby, drill" in the fond belief that poking a hole somewhere in a continent that’s been more thoroughly prospected for oil than any other part of the Earth will somehow oblige the planet to fill ‘er up. I have too much respect for magic to dignify this sort of logic with the label of magical thinking; an initiate whose grasp of occult philosophy was that inept would be chucked out of any self-respecting magical lodge on the spot.

The realization that has to come is the realization that most current chatter about energy is trying desperately to avoid: that Santa isn’t bringing gigawatts or, if you prefer, that no law of nature guarantees us a steady supply of enough energy to maintain the fabulously extravagant habits of the recent past. Once people begin to grasp that the only meaningful answer to the question "What energy resources will allow us to keep the electricity grid running and cars on the road?" is "There aren’t any," it’s possible to ask a different question – "What energy resources will allow us to provide for the actual necessities and reasonable wants of human beings?" – and get a more useful answer.

That’s more or less the discussion I’ve been trying to further with the posts on energy here in recent months, in the course of surveying those ways of working with energy with which I have some personal experience—conservation first and foremost, but also homescale solar and wind power. There are also plenty of other other options that I haven’t worked with personally, and they also deserve to be brought into the discussion.

"Micro-hydro" and "mini-hydro," for example, are potentially options of great importance in the broad picture of a post-abundance energy future, but they’re not options I’ve explored personally. The "hydro" in each of these phrases, of course, is short for "hydroelectric;" micro-hydro is homescale hydroelectric power, usually produced by diverting a small amount of a stream or river on one’s property through a small turbine and using the latter to spin a generator. Back in the day there was a certain amount of work done with simple undershot waterwheels made from scrap metal, hooked up to truck alternators of the sort discussed in an earlier post on wind; I have no personal experience with how well these worked, but the concept may well be worth revisiting.

Mini-hydro is the next step up, hydroelectric power on the scale of a neighborhood or a rural town. Unlike what I suppose would have to be called mega-hydro, this doesn’t require damming up whole river basins, devastating fish runs, and the like; a small portion of a river’s flow or a small and steep stream provide the water, and the result under most circumstances is a supply of sustainably generated electricity that doesn’t suffer from the intermittency of sun and wind. Of course it depends on having the right kind of water resource close by your community, and that’s a good deal more common in some areas than others; it also requires a good deal more investment up front; but if you can get past those two obstacles, it’s hard to think of a better option.

Small amounts of electricity can be generated in a variety of other ways. Still, one of the great lessons that has to be grasped is that the thermodynamic costs of turning some other form of energy into electricity, and then turning the electricity back into some other form of energy such as rotary motion or heat, can be ignored only if you’ve got a half billion years or so of stored sunlight to burn. There are situations where those losses are worth accepting, but not that many of them, and if you can leave the energy in its original form and not take it through the detour into electricity, you’re usually better off.

Methane is an example. Methane production from manure on a small scale is a going concern in quite a few corners of the Third World; you need more raw material than a single human family will produce to get a worthwhile amount of gas, but small farms with livestock yield enough manure to keep a small kitchen stove fueled on this very renewable form of natural gas. (The residue still makes excellent raw material for compost, since only the carbon and hydrogen are involved in methane production; the nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and other plant nutrients come through the process untouched.) Since cooking fuel is higher on the list of basic human necessities than most things you can do with modest amounts of electricity, this is probably the best use for the technology.

Flatulence jokes aside, I don’t have any personal experience with small-scale methane production. Wood heat, on the other hand, is a technology I’ve worked with, and it’s probably going to be a major factor in the energy mix in North America in the future. It’s a simple, robust technology that works very well on the home scale – in fact, it’s not too easy to use it on any larger scale – and many wood stoves come with what’s called a waterback, which uses heat from the stove to heat domestic hot water. (Combine solar water heaters with a cooking stove equipped with a waterback, and you’ve basically got your hot water needs covered year round.) The problem here is that wood heat is a major cause of deforestation worldwide; whether or not too much windpower can mess with the climate, as the study referenced earlier in this post suggests, it’s a hard fact that too much harvesting of wood has devastated ecosystems over much of the world and caused a range of nasty blowbacks affecting human as well as biotic communities.

There’s at least one way around that problem, though it needs to be implemented soon and on a large scale A very old technique called coppicing allows for intensive production of firewood off a fairly small acreage. The trick to coppicing is that quite a few tree species, when cut down, produce several new shoots from the stump; these grow much more rapidly than the original tree, since they have their root system already well in place. When the shoots get to convenient firewood size, the coppicer cuts them again, and yet another set of shoots come up to repeat the process. I’ve dabbled in coppicing – the vine maple of the Pacific Northwest, which grows like a weed and produces decent firewood, made that easy enough, and other regions have their own equivalents. As other fuels run short, the owner of a few acres who uses it for coppicing and sells dry wood nicely sized for wood stoves may have a steady income, or at least a perennial source of barter, on his or her hands.

Biofuels such as ethanol and vegetable oils are another source of heat energy that will probably see a great deal of use in the future, though here again the limits on production are not always recognized. In a world with seven billion mouths to feed and an agricultural system at least as dependent on fossil fuels as any other part of industrial civilization, diverting any substantial portion of farmland from growing food to producing biofuels risks a substantial political backlash. I wonder how many of the proponents of biofuels production have thought through the consequences of a future in which the hazards of driving might just include being stopped by makeshift barricades and torn to pieces by an impoverished mob that is all too aware that every drop of ethanol or biodiesel in the tank represents food taken from the mouths of their children.

Biofuels are likely to play some role in the early stages of the end of the age of abundance, then, but thereafter, at least until the world’s human population and post-petroleum agriculture have settled down into some sort of equilibrium, it’s unlikely that this role will be very extensive. Later on, it’s anyone’s guess, and the answer will be up to the people of the twenty-fourth century and onward, not us.

Methane, wood, and sunlight, then, will probably account for the great majority of heat energy in common use in the centuries immediately ahead of us. What about mechanical energy? The breakthrough that launched the industrial revolution was the discovery that heat from burning coal could be turned into mechanical energy by way of a steam engine, and much of what sets our civilization apart from other civilizations in history is precisely the ability to put almost unimaginable amounts of mechanical energy to work. If a car with a 100-horsepower engine literally had to be pulled by a hundred horses, for example, and each of those horses required the care and feeding that horses do, the number of such cars on the roads would be a very small fraction of the present total.

There are good reasons, some historical and some pragmatic, to think that the major source of mechanical energy in the post-abundance future will be what it was in the pre-abundance past, that is, human and animal muscle, amplified by a variety of clever tools. If anything, some of the more ingenious inventions of the last few centuries make muscle power even more useful now, and in the centuries ahead of us, than it was before the first steam engine hissed and groaned its way into a new age of the world. The extraordinary efficiency with which a bicycle converts muscular effort into movement is a case in point. The relatively simple metallurgy and engineering needed to build a bicycle is very likely to survive into the far future, or to be reinvented after some more or less brief interval, and the sheer value of a technology that can move people and supplies a hundred miles a day on decent roads will hardly be lost on our descendants. It’s far from unlikely, for example, that wars will be won in the post-petroleum era by those nations that have the common sense to equip their infantry with bicycle transport.

More generally, the invention of really effective gears may turn out to be one of the nineteenth century’s great contributions to the future. The Roman world had some very complex machines using cogs and gears, but the designs used at that time did a poor job of transmitting power; gearing systems originally evolved in the late Middle Ages for clockwork underwent dramatic changes once steam power created the need to transfer mechanical motion as efficiently as possible from place to place and from one direction to another. Once invented, effective gears found their way back down the technological pyramid to the realm of hand tools; anyone who has ever compared beating egg whites with a spoon to doing so with a hand-cranked beater will have a very clear idea of the difference in effort that such simple mechanical devices make possible.

That difference may not seem like much in comparison to the gargantuan achievements of current fossil fuel-powered technology, or the even more grandiose fantasies served up by a good many of those who insist that the end of the age of petroleum must, by some kind of technological equivalent of manifest destiny, usher in the beginning of the age of some even more titanic energy resource. Still, if these claims amount to sitting around the chimney on December 26 waiting for Santa’s boots to appear – and I think a very good case can be made for the comparison – it’s past time to shelve the fantasies of limitless energy and the hubris that goes with them, and start paying attention to the tools, technologies, and modest but real energy sources that can actually have a positive impact on human existence in an age when only natural phenomena have gigawatts at their disposal any more.


Bill Pulliam said...

Fascinating about the wind power study! I have always kind of wondered about this. As for pedal power, I have started looking around the house at all the electric conveniences that could be pretty easily converted to pedal power. The Cuisinart, for example, complete with the grain grinding attachments. Pretty much any small intermittent electric motor could be replaced with pedals by a clever tinkerer. Or by a properly geared water wheel, using torque directly without the electric intermediate. Imagine walking out to the mill house with whatever it was that needed torque, connecting the right tool to the proper drive shaft, closing the clutch, and watching your fruit get pureed or your peanuts get ground or your lathe get spun or your holes get drilled.

risa said...

There are a few examples of working micro hydro around here. They are mostly high-head Pelton wheels. There used to be an old gentleman over on the coast north of Florence who had a 32-volt Pelton system without batteries. It ran year round; in summer he simply threw off the switch but in winter the current all ran to a heating element in a hot water heater in the living room that had had its jacket and insulation removed. It was the household's "furnace."

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, pedal power and hand crank power are going to be major in the future. If you've got a water wheel, of course, you've got the power for almost any kind of craft work.

Risa, that's good to hear! The Pelton's a good waterwheel; I hope enough people relearn how to build them.

BC Richardson said...

A good read & wind study results makes common sense. I have been making changes for the better in my daily life since joining AODA last year.

Bill Pulliam said...

Am presently delving more into the Kleidon research you cite initially. I was not aware of it before (but I ran screaming from Academia about a dozen years ago). It sounds very much like the sort of true big-picture energy-based ecosystem ecology that I always thought we should be doing (when I was a professional ecosystem ecologist) but we never get around to because biologists are not so strong on physics and thermodynamics. This work looks at a more total picture of the thermodynamics of the planet, not just the raw calories in/calories out. It relates to all that energy quality stuff that we wrangled with here a while back. Still gathering info, but at this point I might slightly rephrase the real fundamental lesson here:

Santa DOES bring us gigawatts, but they are already occupied in doing work that is absolutely essential to our survival -- powering the atmosphere, hydrosphere, biosphere, pedosphere, etc. that make it possible for us to exist. And he's not going to bring us any more than we already get. Every gigawatt we divert for ourselves is a gigawatt taken from those processes; in the long run it is not going to be a positive sum game. If you push here you have pulled there, and likely weakened something you really cannot do without. This is true regardless of where the extracted gigawatts are taken from. It doesn't matter whether you are bleeding from your toe, your neck, or your nose; you are still losing the same amount of blood. We are part of the biosphere and the energy flows through it; even fossil fuels originally came from the biosphere. Moving an energy flow out of one part of this grand process and in to another gains nothing overall.

Interesting stuff...

Glenn said...

"Bicycles in War" - Martin Caidin 1974

A.K. McKay said...

I can see the need for an industrial design student or someone else so inclined to turn the bike blender idea into something more practical. I can imagine every kitchen in the future have a fixed bicycle with a flywheel and a universal mounting system onto which you can attach all manner of contraptions.

Kevin said...

I would particularly like to find a concise refutation of the claims made on behalf of biofuels by David Blume, author of "Alcohol Can Be A Gas," and like-minded people. A friend of mine is particularly susceptible to fantasies that he and his partner can power their two cars and urban condo on fuel distilled from lawn clippings or corn or whatever.

I recently heard Mr. Blume on the radio (again), and he stoutly denied that there exists any conflict between corn ethanol and food production. Specifically, he asserted that vast productive yet (evidently) unused areas of Brazil which are not in the Amazon region are readily available for ethanol production. I have a feeling that someone could poke some rather large holes in these claims, and imagine that this would be a useful exercise.

Blume is apparently helping Amazonians to free themselves from dependency on outrageously overpriced petrol for their river traffic, so I don't want to diss him entirely. But I have the impression there must be limits on what can realistically be done with biofuels, and it would be useful to have a reasonably accurate idea where those limits lie.

Serried ranks of giant windmills reaching as far as the eye can see are UGLY. "Eyesore" is the pertinent term here. I have always felt that gross violations of aesthetics in the service of human industry ought to serve as some kind of clue.

greatblue said...

Here's a video I ran across while researching grain mills. It proves that using mechanical energy directly is workable.

Grinding Flour with Horse Power

Paula said...

I'm typing this in the dark because I'm trying to use less energy. We finally got around to replacing the battery in my laptop after figuring out that me working on the battery uses less energy than me working directly off current. The new metal roof has just been contracted, and the husband is getting bids for a solar system. Once the solar's in, the insulation guys will come and blow in some more. We are looking at more comfortable winters and summers, in addition to a quick payback (relatively).

But I'm curious- how many watts does your household go through in a day, and how do you get them down there?

Paula said...

Oh, and I'm convinced coppicing is the way to go. I chose to go with cider gums (Eucalyptus gunnii) because they will coppice, they grow fast, and all eucalyptus are really, really hard, so they make great firewood with a lot fo BTUs in them.

The trick with coppicing species that will coppice (oaks, maples, ash, willows, poplar, hazels, and some eucalyptus) is to cut them at the right time of the year, which is just before they start to grow again in the spring. Otherwise, you could wind up killing the tree.

Experts have determined that the practice of coppicing goes back to the bronze age (in Britain, anyway) and it was only the advent of coal in the mid 1800's that made coppicing fall out of favor. However, coppicing is a super-sustainable practice whose time has come again.

i just wish I had more than a quarter-acre suburban plot so that I could coppice enough for all my wood-burning needs.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Hah! The image of battalions of bike-equipped infantry is quite spectacular. It is worth noting, however, that the Japanese did exactly that when invading Singapore in 1941.

On the topic of mini and micro-hydro, I thought I should point out that they suffer from similar upper limits to those for wind power. They're well and good in moderation, but each steals a little energy from the stream's flow, and I'd imagine that if, say, every property down a stream took a kilowatt or two, pretty soon the stream would slow and maybe even stop running...

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Bill What I would really like to see, but have not (yet) is a pedal (or treadle!) powered system with some form of standard mechanical interface that a range of appliances could hook up to.

In the meanwhile, here's a bunch of guys using a pedal powered mill to grind flour which they sell at the local farmer's market.

Susan said...

Well, obviously what we need to do is send in fleets of orbital scoop ships to mine hydrogen and methane from the atmospheres of Jupiter and Saturn, transport these to earth using huge solar sail ships, and burn these hydrocarbons in our internal combustion engines here on earth.

Of course, this will ultimately increase the mass of the earth, but we can solve that problem by building a Dyson Sphere of solar panels to capture the entire energy output of the sun, convert the accumulated energy into antimatter, and use that to power the fleets of star ships that will take our entire population to the next star system... Rinse and repeat as needed for the next billion years or so, and ...

Or not.

So, here is the problem as I see it: We have been living beyond our means for hundreds of years, and it appears to be a part of the nature of human nature to continue doing so until our means are completely used up, and then, maybe, we'll start thinking about what to do next. The carrying capacity of our planet is significantly less than our current population, so we probably should all start behaving like the Italians and the Japanese and having no more than one kid per family until the total population of planet earth drops below the planet's carrying capacity, which will take, what? about two hundred more years?

Of course, we'll run out of fossil resources (not to mention fish in the sea and fire wood) before we reach that equilibrium point, so there will be wars and revolutions and social disruptions as we fight over a shrinking pie...

Oh, boy, it looks like we're going to need more guns to defend our little self-sufficient farms, because the numbers just don't add up to allow a smooth transition to that wonderful ecotechnic future that we all hope to see in the great bye-and-bye. If we limit the sizes of our families we may have to take in some refugees and orphans to have enough hands to work on our farm. (So, should we treat them as family, or indentured servants?)

I can sort of imagine how our great grandchildren will live two hundred years from now; it will more than likely be like the Middle Ages, plus scientific knowledge and a little elecricity (or maybe slave plantations where most of us will do all the work while a small elite live like kings). What I have trouble imagining is what is going to happen in the next thirty years or so. All I can see are Really Bad Things on the horizon...

If we break down the possibilities into categories, we may get a better idea of what the rest of the 21st century is going to be like. There are some things that will almost certainly happen: peak oil, financial collapse, etc. There are some things that are probable, but not guaranteed: wars over dwindling resources, environmental degradation, and so on. There are a few events that are definitely possible, but not necessarily probable right away: nuclear war, plagues of various types, and the inevitable giant meteor impact.

The end result, as you pointed out last week, will be a total population of under a billion, with an average standard of living close to what our ancestors enjoyed a thousand or so years ago. Getting there from here is going to be really interesting...

Don't the Chinese have a famous curse about living in interesting times?

Rhisiart Gwilym said...

Don't forget the Tesla Turbine, as a simpler-to-tinker cousin of the Pelton Wheel! Nice demonstration here:

Works with water/hydraulic drive too.

I'm just getting back into coppicing and charcoal-making (mainly for terra preta) now, in a friend's wood, to help keep those skills alive on his CSA farm.

Cherokee Organics said...


What, there's no extra gigawatts?

It's funny how most of the large scale projects currently being touted as solutions involve substantial quantities of energy themselves. Not to mention large quantities of resources too.

Backwards is the only way forwards.

Another useful store of the suns energy is food preserving. Preserving is really all about storing collected energy when it's abundant for later reuse.

For anyone contemplating eucalypt species for coppicing purposes, it's worthwhile pointing out that they are amoung the best. You can guarantee at least 6 coppicing harvests from members of that species.

This is also why they survive bush fires so well. You'll see after a bush fire that they have epicormic shoots (I think that's the technical term anyway) all over the trunk. It's a survival strategy and it's very successful.

However, please don't grow eucalypts next to or in falling distance of your dwelling (or shed etc) though! As a survival strategy, the trees can drop large branches (or the entire head) when stressed.

Still, great for fast growing hardwood firewood. Now that I mention it, don't ever camp underneath any eucalypt species (they're also known as widow makers).

Oh yeah, don't plant them near either an orchard or a vegie patch as they are amazing at strip mining any possible water or nutrients from the soil.

On the positive side though, they used to distill eucalyptus oil here (which is pretty easy to do) and the oil is a powerful cleaner and antiseptic. You can also burn it (hardly surprising really) which they also used to do. The leaves are about 4% oil - over summer you can see it and smell it in the air.



Karim said...


If we add solar power + wind power + hydro + methane,then it stands to reason that we have reasonably enough energy to power our civilisation provided we minus the millions of cars, trucks and aeroplanes that cater to wasteful lifestyles that are so destructive to our souls and to our relationship with the planet anyway. So let's get going!

Rialian said...

===Speaking of coppicing:

===Jacke's work in permaculture is excellent, as I highly recommend his books on forest gardens for North America (website is here: )

(this also looks promising, which I found when looking for the link to the kickstarter site for the project:

===I am starting my work with this by letting some black locust come up in a section of one of my fields...I needed a windbreak for my garden, and black locust is excellent for fixing nitrogen in the soil...not to mention the btus of the wood...and the various other uses for the wood.

===Also of interest in terms of woodland work is the stuff by Ben Law : ( )...I have the woodlands books he has done, and they are wonderful (and his recipe for oak leaf wine is great...(grins)

Angus Wallace said...

Hi there,

Hi JMG, I've recently discovered your blog, and have been going through and reading your posts as I can. Your first posts don't seem to be available any more online, but I've read most of the rest.

It seems to me that the future you are envisaging is a consequence of (at least) two events:
1) a decrease in the availability of fossil fuels
2) a great loss of US power and wealth, partly as a consequence of (1)

My feeling is that the world will not be as energy poor as you suggest, though I definitely agree that the days of cheap energy are nearly over. Has anyone heard of the 2000 Watt society? (
This may be somewhat generous, and I think it is quite possibly unsustainable in the long term (if we are unable to find any other concentrated energy sources, which I agree is by no means certain), though it would certainly mitigate the effects of global warming, and greatly extend the life of our remaining fossil fuels.
But, currently Chinese people use 1500 W on average, and their lifestyle is much easier than what you think likely in the future.

I know this is a little rambling (home from work, and tired), but perhaps you get the gist. I'd be interested to hear people's thoughts about this.


Mean Mr Mustard said...

Santa's Boots? A most unexpected reminder - only 183 days left to get the forgettable/unwanted gift shopping done!

I was expecting a passing mention of Solstice - only reminded of it myself by a South African friend asking for the Sun back, as we'd made so little use of it here in the UK.

Happy Midsummer, JMG and all.

macsr said...


I've been reading this blog for a few months, as you have one of the few voices that combine a real appreciation of peak oil (and other sundry issues du jour) and yet maintain a sane, balanced, and above all, practical response to them. I've finally been moved to get an OenID to join the discussions!

I will certainly look up the RS report cited in this week's piece, as it would be interesting to see where they draw the line regarding extracting wind energy. The viewpoint I'd taken is that a certain amount of windpower acts as a double benefit against climate change -- firstly and obviously by displacing fossil fuel use (Jeavons not withstanding) but also by extracting surplus energy from the atmosphere. As the major climate issue results ultimately in the atmosphere becoming more energetic ('warmer'), leading to extreme weather events, it can only help to suck some of the trapped energy back out again. So in the short term (ie 1-2 generations) there must be added benefit to wind power no-one seems to be accounting for... Part avoidance, and part remediation.

The second point I'd raise is that the biosphere clearly DOES operate at a current energy surplus. If this were not the case then there would be no fossil fuels in the first place. Not to mention limestone or other carbonaceous deposits. Of course this doesn't imply Santa's gigawatts, as those various deposits are laid down from 100 million+ years of surplus. I know it's a fiendishly complex calculation, but that should somehow set an upper bound to our total available extractable energy budget which doesn't otherwise disturb other global systems.

But generally, in the absence of that fiendish calculation, I try to go on the touchstones of 'less is inevitable' and 'the future is low-tech, low-energy, and local'. Anything I can do that aligns with those signposts must be (hopefully...) a step in the right direction.

Finally, I'd like to add the Green Wizardry project has greatly imppressed me and it has pointed me to some interesting avenues (thermoelectrics, for instance). And of course, belated solstice greetings!

Robo said...

It's probably true that widespread wind power extraction could upset global weather systems and intensive solar power collection could alter climatic heat distribution. However, the Royal Society report seems to use the current worldwide rate of energy consumption as the basis for its conclusion.

Given our current and future economic and mineral resource limitations, it's unlikely that humans will ever be able to build that many wind turbines and solar collectors. The closest we have ever come to this sort of climate changing construction is the 'heat island effect' caused by the extensive paving of urban areas. This will probably be a decreasing factor in the centuries to come. In the not-too-distant future, it's not inconceivable that all those cubic miles of asphalt might be strip-mined to reclaim their meager fuel value, since that's essentially what we're doing right now with the Alberta tar sands.

Our cultural memory of the the old ways of doing things is not entirely lost. Besides the Amish, the last Americans born in horse & buggy times have only recently passed away.

I remember sitting with my two elderly maiden aunts, watching with them the telecast of the first space shuttle mission returning to Earth. I vividly recall being very conscious of the huge changes in their lifestyles that had occurred between their youth in the 1890's and their dotage in the 1980's. It's very possible that my own children will experience the reversal of many of those lifestyle changes within their own lifetimes.

In so-called First World cultures, only four or five generations have lived totally within the fossil fuel bubble. In the Second and Third World many members of those same generations have always plodded along with their draft animals and done their work with hand tools. The future will not be a big surprise to them. The rest of us will be able to call upon the memories and methods of our great-grandparents to make the adjustment. We'll complain and we'll fumble, but we'll do it.

There are already some encouraging developments. In the Northeast US, many cities were built around water power sources. Here in Rochester NY, the Central Library building was built right over the old Erie Canal after the canal was rerouted in the 1920's. Water still flows through the old canal bed and pours out of spillways under the library. Just this week, the Library announced plans to install a micro-hydro turbine in the basement to capture the energy of that current. I was amazed that they even thought of such a thing and was surprised to learn that quick approval of the project by County authorities was expected. The output of that turbine would be added to the power generated by the three existing hydroelectric plants on the lower Genesee River.

Then there's the Erie Canal itself. New York State has maintained it in pretty good working order. I'm sure it will once again become a valuable regional transportation resource as we head back towards living "la vida local" and "la vida lento".

"La vida loco", the fossil fuel era, is almost over.

PhilJ said...

"The extraordinary efficiency..." of the bicycle is only possible with smooth surfaced roads. Roads made mainly with tar from fossil reserves. Ah well. Welcome back Dobbin the mule!

Thijs Goverde said...

Well, this is good. Ask a farfetched, seemingly irrelevant question one week - and bang! The next week, you get your Kleidon study, with a few JMG remarks on its relevance thrown in for free.

This Blog is making me lazy (exactly the opposite of what it purports to be doing, I'm sure... There's the Law of Unintended Consequences for you).
On the other hand, the Internet is a gruesomely unsustainable thing, consuming more energy than we like to think about with every little click.
Best have one archdruid doing the clicking for us all, I guess.

Well, back to my solar panels.

Andy Brown said...

In the fall the Energy Bulletin re-published a Low-Tech Magazine article on boat mills that floated on rivers. I found it fascinating for a lot of reasons, not least of which was that I'd never heard of such things in my life. It made me wonder what other inventions and adaptations out there just vanished without a trace. When I come across historical photos I find myself scanning the backgrounds for all the everyday devices and jerry-rigs that people used in what is going to be our future.

Planner said...

I think the handwriting on the wall regarding the future of energy use reads something like this:

People are waking up to the fact that oil is peaking. Their response to this is to shift to electricity. Never mind the fact that bottled lightning is a secondary source, or that the grid infrastructure is supported by the energy subsidy oil indirectly provides.

Regardless, once a significant portion of everything is running on electricity, our vastly complex civilization will attempt a massive push to support itself via massive windfarms and ultra-aggressive natural gas extraction. This of course will leave poorer regions (those who are financially unable to protect themselves from environmental exploitation) with devastated water supplies. Who knows how long that can last. Hopefully many of us will be ready when it does so that we can help maintain high quality of life long after the lights go out.

Cloud said...

Combined 'appropriate' tech is the wave of the future for many small farmers, and the future is now. See the draft animal/small engine powered hay baler at this site;

Thanks for another thought provoking post!

hawlkeye said...

I've always imagined on-farm methane digesters powering the remnant tractor during the long transition curve bringing the return of real horse-power. As some-time poster Houynihim (the guy with a horse-sounding name impossible to spell) has often pointed out, getting back to real horses will be a bumpy ride for most of us pedal-pushers.

Meanwhile, keeping all the noisy little engines running somehow with methane can buy us a lot of time to snap out of Santa's pantry-trance delusion of endless food.

But when I talk about on-farm, small-scale methane, all the green gobblers with wind-farms on the brain figure the food problem's all solved, bio-diesel can keep ALL the air-conditioned tractors tracking their laser lines to the horizon, no problem... But, but, but...

Mainstream grasping at the straws of biodiesel is building to an inevitable clash between starvation and mobility. Right now, our energy predicament looms for most as an inconvenience to driving around as much as today's life requires, when in fact, it's already pinching our ability to remain nourished.

Very few understand that we're facing the choice of "do I drive or do I eat" in the very near future, because driving is now required for eating. Turns out agriculture actually IS a transportation issue after all, the way we do it now. Both in the growing and in the shopping.

I'm fond of pontificating that the last drops of gasoline I use will be in my roto-tiller and not my truck, usually in a desperate attempt to steer a conversation away from carbon toward calories.

But contemplating even your theoretical "last tank of gas" is akin to wondering how old you'll be when you die. Very few folks take Don Juan's advice to "make friends with Death" as a way to live an authentic life. It's high time for Petroleum Man to make friends with his last tank of gas before his kind blinks out in the twilight.

Very few drivers can pull their heads out from under their hoods long enough to make the connection. Cars are no longer viewed as complex tools of utility, but an essential fetish on the altar of one's self-identity.

Is the Indy 500 under water yet?

John Michael Greer said...

BC, that's good to hear!

Bill, bingo. The universe is not just sitting around waiting for us to use it; everything in it is already doing something, and quite a bit of that "something" is playing a role in keeping us alive.

Glenn, thank you -- I was trying to remember that book, having read it a couple of decades ago.

AK, some basement entrepreneur is going to make a good living off that idea.

Kevin, the soaring price of corn right now says that Blume is dead wrong -- "dead" being the operative word, as people in the Third World are being pushed over the edge of starvation by irresponsible fantasies like his.

Greatblue, thanks for the link! I hope our horse contingent is listening...

Paula, at the moment we're still clearing our debts and concentrating on conservation retrofits, so putting in the PV panels is having to wait; we get our power off the grid. I'll have to check with my spouse and bookkeeper to see exactly how much power we use on an average day; it'll be more than you use, but a fraction of what the average American does.

Kieran, exactly -- the keynote with extracting energy from natural systems is to do it modestly.

Susan, it's going to be a mess, but I don't think it's going to be quite the same sort of mess you've outlined here. I've sketched out my ideas about the future in my book The Ecotechnic Future, which you might want to have a look at.

Rhisiart, that's an excellent point.

Chris, I don't encourage anyone to plant trees that aren't native to the area -- but if you're in an area that has eucalypts, they're a good option.

Karim, nicely summed up. Thank you!

Rialian, many thanks for the links! This is great.

Matchstick Warrior said...

Interestingly, the report quoted that referes to limits on ecological resources harks back to the days of water mills in the UK, especially where I live in Edinburgh. Mill owners would vociferously oppose the building of any new mills on "their" stretch of the river as the new mill would be "stealing" what they considered to be their hyrdro energy. The idea of ecological limits is still within the historical time frame of the spoken word amoungst some here.

GHung said...

"What energy resources will allow us to provide for the actual necessities and reasonable wants of human beings?" – and get a more useful answer.

There's a cozy feeling when one has nestled into one's day to day and seasonal energy allotment, though perhaps not always as warm and cozy as one would prefer. So be it. Why insist on heating the whole building into the comfort zone when an extra blanket will do? Why run the air conditioner on a rainy day just because it's too humid to handroll a good smoke? This too will pass. I came to the conclusion some time back that I wasn't going to spend much of my time and energy forcing things that were'nt meant to be. Once I adjusted my expectations, I was no longer slave to my sense of entitlement, no longer in such obscene competition with Mam Gaia.

"....since the idea that renewable energy resources might also be subject to environmental limits is about as welcome in most alternative circles these days as a slug in a garden salad."

Well, duh! (meaning no disrespect to JMG for, again, stating what should be obvious.) In a nutshell, it comes down to choosing between limits or forcing. Why use only part of the flow of a river when you can have it all? Matters not if the river no longer reaches the sea. If it mattered, it would be part of our story, the biggest part perhaps, enculturated and infused into our thinking and habits, our stories and songs.

This too will pass. Mother Earth is doing a bit of forcing as I type, and is far more patient than her thoughtless, souless, impetuous child. She has all the time in the world.

One of the Remnant said...

Thanks JMG - excellent piece - many lines of personal research are indicated (at this point, these are *really* adding up! keep 'em coming :).

I had not heard of coppicing, and I also had not thought about efficient gearing, which has obvious significance in a mechanically powered future.

Regarding the latter, are we talking about basic principles, such as precision machining, or more specialized, perhaps metallurgical principles, which are necessary to achieve those high levels of efficiency? I guess I'm wondering whether your average village blacksmith could turn such cogs and gears out, or if we need a higher level of technology to achieve?

Are there books or papers out which go into detail in this area?

- Oz

Bill Pulliam said...

Susan -- guns require access to supply chains (even the biggest store of ammo will deplete eventually). Think archery.

RPC said...

Here's a link to a report on mini-hydropower: This in turn contains a link to an Idaho National Labs study that pinpoints locations across the United States that are practical for mini-hydropower. In my more optimistic moments I conceive of the U.S. with hardly any transportation fuels, but a quarter to a third of present electrical generation. You wouldn't get around much, but you could live in a manner anyone from before the Enlightenment would consider opulent. (Heck, mechanical refrigeration alone would do the trick!)

Calum said...

PhilJ: There's a lot of cyclists on dirt roads in South East Asia who would disagree you need tarmac to use bicycles as an effective and low energy means of transport! That said, having recently experienced a broken spoke and ruptured rim on my own bicycle - caused by the poor state of repair of the roads here in north west England - it's unclear how many bicycles will make it through the time of breakdown of our roads and still be functional when cheap aluminium replacements are no longer available for these sorts of parts.

JMG: One of the really important advances in bicycles is the development of modern ballraces which dramatically reduce bearing wear and friction losses compared to plain bearings. I'm not sure just how manageable the manufacture of ball races would be in a post-oil world - along with vulcanised rubber tyres and bicycle chains. I suspect that bicycles will become prized possessions that are carefully nursed along to keep them usable.

dltrammel said...

The nice thing about hydro power is the additional advantages if you add a small dam and resultant lake.

It doesn't need to be big either. Adding just 5-10 feet in height, allows you to harness gravity to increase the effectiveness of the water flow. In effect adding to the net energy of the stream since river flow energy is just gravity but spread across a farther distance.

I had many years ago a book, circa the 40s which used an auto generator and a vertical turbine arrangement. The spillway, which went straight down, had a door which opened when electricity was needed, and closed when it wasn't. This allowed the water level to rise over night a small bit, and then drop as needed.

Small dams like you see all over the Northeast are well within a limited communities capacity to build. Now a days trying to build one, runs you into a host of bureaucratic rules and regulations, something I expect we'll see less of as things wind down.

In addition, if you situate the dam in a narrows, the water will create a lake. You can introduce fish as an added food source, and a large body of water attracts frog, turtles and other local wildlife. Throw seed grain on the banks to grow and migratory birds will stop by in the Fall and Spring.

And having a good size pool of water for irigation and drinking in dry times is a sizable plus as well.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Greetings to all--

Ecology, bicycles and coppicing--some of my favorite subjects.

Re coppicing: eucalyptus might be good in Australia, but it's done harm elsewhere. I highly advise people to find out what's native in their own place! Here in the Midwest, willow and silver maple are two species that immediately come to mind.

Coppicing is also useful for providing bean poles, basket materials, fencing materials and various items that today we make of plastic but could be made of wood.

Your coppiced area could be part of a woodlot, but could also be part of a hedgerow. I live in an urban area, but I have a willow that I've coppiced at intervals.

An ecologist friend and I were recently discussing that question about what massive wind projects might do to the ecosystem--I'll send that link to him.

Craig said...

Enjoyable as always. Telling the junkies the junk has run out is always an interesting exercise.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

A slug in a garden salad may be unwelcome, not least because it is indicative of the care taken with the produce betwixt the earth and the serving bowl. Ingesting raw slugs carries risk of parasitic infection. But properly prepared, cooked slugs can be a valuable protein source. Still, while I have enjoyed the occasional "hors d'oeuvre d'escargot", I'd save that particular survival trick for when it is really needed.

That is an interesting perspective on 'magical thinking', Archdruid. I suppose that in the sense that you use it magical thinking describes a focused contemplation of the thermodynamic equilibrium that is the realm of our physical existence. That magic is real enough. In contrast the supposition of limitless concentrated energy availability is the essence of unreality. Fantasy and magic are not equivalent. In complement magic and imagination can enable perspective and the discovery of pathways, but fantasy coupled to denial is a well-trod road of disappointing illusion.

The corruption of the Christian St. Nicholas myth that is the Santa Claus fantasy warps a good lesson on the purpose of charitable giving into a purported tool for behavioral control through material reward that actually functions to validate and exacerbate consumptive excess, a dark mirror of the original intent. There is no magic there either. Santa Claus is a particularly useful example for exploring with our children the pervasive and malignant power of the claws of fantasy in our culture.

Bill Pulliam said...

OK here's quick summary info I have gleaned on Axel Kleidon's work. There is a PDF file of a presentation he gave in 2010 available here:

By the way, though it may be controversial, this is mainstream science. It is not fringe stuff and stays firmly within the well-established laws of thermodynamics.

The presentation includes a lot of technical and mathematical stuff that will lose most readers who do not have a good background. But there are good summary slides, too. I would point you past the derivations to the summaries, conclusions, and implications. I suggest skipping to these pages:

49: Estimating that the maximum useful power that the earth system can generate is an average of 2 watts per square meter, which is only about 2% of total incoming solar energy.

53-58: Diagraming the power generation and transfer within the earth system

62-64: Add the geothermal system of the earth's interior, the biosphere, and human activities to the picture

74-77: Addressing the difference between impacts on global temperature versus global power generation, diagraming how renewable energy systems draw power from existing earth systems and cannot be without impacts on the larger system

Though I can see that there is room to argue about magnitudes and particulars, I don't see how one can assail the fundamental conclusion that power flows within the earth system are limited and any power that we extract from it for our purposes means less power for natural processes (on which we depend utterly).

So if you think your solar panels are generating 1000 watts per square meter, or your wind farm is generating 10 watts per square meter, via the incredible network of interconnections in the earth system you are actually borrowing most of that power from other systems (climate, hydrology, life, soil, etc.) that were already using it.

John Michael Greer said...

Gus, winding down to a Chinese standard is a good start. The problem that's not often recognized is that all current energy sources get an "energy subsidy" from petroleum -- coal would cost a lot more and yield much less net energy, for example, if it had to be excavated without diesel machinery, and wind turbines rely on a lot of fossil fuel inputs for raw materials extraction, fabrication, installation and maintenance. All of that has to be factored into an energy analysis -- since all of it is part of the real energy cost.

Mustard, and a happy solstice to you as well!

Macsr, actually, wind power doesn't take any energy out of the atmosphere, since all the energy it extracts is returned to the atmosphere in the form of waste heat in fairly short order. As for the current energy surplus of the biosphere, most fossil fuel deposits were laid down in certain distinct periods of geological history when the biosphere, in effect, used a bunch of energy to dump excess carbon into geological storage. That's not the case at present, and we have no way of knowing when it will again be the case.

Robo, the Erie Canal is a treasure, and it's a very good thing that it's been kept open. There are a lot of other canals that will have to be redug and rebuilt in the centuries ahead of us. As for the library, good for them! Somebody was thinking.

Phil, er, I take it you've never heard of dirt bikes or the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Thijs, one of the more than occasional commenters here spotted the article and forwarded a link to me; I'd been thinking about your comment, and so everything unfolded as though planned.

Andy, I saw that article. It occurs to me that floating mills of that kind in the Mississippi and other large rivers could generate quite a respectable amount of electricity, to say nothing of mechanical energy, while still being able to deal with the seasonal floods.

Planner, that seems pretty likely. Of course it may not work, in which case there'll be a lot of half-completed wind farms and drilling rigs available for salvage.

Cloud, thanks for the link!

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Regarding strip-mining asphalt for fuel, Robo: Sure tarballs, even with aggregate in them, can be burned, as can tires, and plastic. This is happening now in the more impoverished parts of the world, particularly those unfortunate to be at the receiving end of the wealthier world's toxic refuse exports. But the practice is truly a last resort, as the fuel value obtained is hardly worth enduring the oxidation byproducts. Asphalt is not very stable compared to a similarly purposed substance such as conctete. Much as ice cubes in a frost-free freezer shrink away through ablation, the aromatic hydrocarbons in asphalt volitalize, cracks form, water and ice break apart the loose elastic bonds, and opportunistic plants colonize the territory. Without regular travel and maintenance an asphalt byway in the temperate zone could last maybe a dozen years, in twice that most would no longer even be recognizable. Over the last several years I have literaly been watching this process in action, both on a little section of local blacktop, orphaned during an intersection relocation project, which now gets only sporadic foot and bicycle traffic, and on my own driveway which sees minimal vehicular use. I'll pile crushed stone or gravel in any potholes that develop and clear encroaching brush, but that is it. In 20 years there will probably only be a few lumps of tar left. Good riddance. Long before that I intend to reclaim for additional garden space the unneeded parking pad emplaced by the previous FUV-driving property owners.

Rochester, the Erie Canal, and mules (PhilJ) all look like good candidates for the transition to a diffuse energy source economy. Let us hope that the Alberta bitumen extraction insanity hits an EROEI wall sooner rather than later. See Deus ex Machina: Will economic collapse save us from climate catastrophe? at Energy Bulletin.

John Michael Greer said...

Hawlkeye, no question, the collective nervous breakdown when a hundred million American males can no longer drive their surrogate phalluses down the road is not going to be pretty. As for Houyhnhnm, it's a Joanthan Swift reference -- good heavens, doesn't anybody read Gulliver's Travels any more?

Matchstick, good. With any luck, that sort of cultural memory will keep Scotland from making the same mistakes we're all but certain to make over here.

GHung, no offense taken! Most of what I say here ought to be a matter of "well, duh" -- the fact that it's not is the reason why this blog is necessary.

Remnant, as usual, it's a mixture of both. Precision machining was done in the 19th century with hand tools, and there are still old manuals from the age of steam that teach the relevant skills. The very high-quality alloys used in the best machinery these days almost certainly won't be an option, but at a slightly less demanding level of efficiency, there are a lot of options -- a good mechanical engineer with a library of old books to hand could tell you a lot more about them than I can.

RPC, if we can keep a quarter of the current US electricity production up and running over the long term, we'll be doing very, very well. Even a small fraction of that will make the future a lot less wretched than it will otherwise be.

Calum, I'm not familiar with ballraces so can't comment on the sustainability of the technology. Chains can be made with relatively modest machinery, though, and vulcanized rubber requires only natural rubber -- with climate change, plantations of rubber trees in the American South are likely to be a growth industry -- and sulfur, which can be extracted from sulfates and pyrites in adequate amounts.

Dltrammel, I expect to see a lot of that in the years to come. Still, make sure there's nothing vulnerable downstream of your micro-dam!

Adrian, a good point. Thanks for the review of The Wealth of Nature, by the way!

Craig, and a necessary one.

Lloyd, most of the magicians I know roll their eyes when other people talk about magical thinking, because actual magicians don't think that way. Magic, as I've mentioned here before, is the art and science of causing change in consciousness in accordance with will. Used skillfully, it can cause dramatic change in any phenomenon that's strongly influenced by consciousness, but it can't change the laws of nature, much less make those laws cater to human whims. Capable magicians know this, recognize the limits of magic, and direct their efforts where they can have useful results.

Rialian said...

===To be a bit more fair to Blume, he actually has stated in the past that corn is NOT a good source for ethanol fuels, and actually encourages other resources...(my favorite is growing cattails to produce the feedstock. He suggests using cattails to actually treat grey and black water rather than how we have been doing, and getting fuel to boot.

===My overall impression is that he believes that there are better ways to produce fuel, not that ethanol will allow us to continue how we have been going. (the book is more permaculture-systems based,) ( is his site).

===All in all, his focus on getting fuel production to be a localized thing is a good step.

===I have not been following him recently, but his book is actually rather good....something I would suggest for a green wizard library.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, thank you for the summary! That was my takeaway as well -- open to debate on details, but unassailable on principles. (Have you considered writing an introductory ecology book for nonspecialists, by the way? I think you'd do a very good job, and there's a market.)

Lloyd, one of the few saving graces of asphalt roads is that they go away quickly. They're like Mcmansions in that; I take comfort in the fact that within a decade, most of the monumentally ugly and inefficient housing thrown up (in any sense you care to name) during the recent housing bubble will have collapsed into heaps, and will be serving mostly as den sites for raccoons and rooting areas for blackberries.

One of the Remnant said...

@ Susan

"We have been living beyond our means for hundreds of years, and it appears to be a part of the nature of human nature to continue doing so until our means are completely used up."

As I've commented before in response to this sort of statement, you seem to be confusing human nature with cultural nature. There is no evidence whatsoever to support your assertion that this is a "part of the nature of human nature," and thinking in this way only obfuscates, IMO, the ability to think clearly about the implications of the current set of converging crises. That is, assuming that characteristics which are cultural in nature (readily supported by even a cursory knowledge of anthropology) are in fact a part of our DNA only locks you into seeing the future in a certain way.

In this sense, it fits JMG's definition of a 'myth' which becomes so embedded that we become unaware of it. Clear thinking is called for, in terms of an appreciation of such myths and how they distort our thinking.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ hawlkeye

"Cars are no longer viewed as complex tools of utility, but an essential fetish on the altar of one's self-identity."

Wow, you have a way with words, H - nicely put.

@ Matchstick Warrior

"The idea of ecological limits is still within the historical time frame of the spoken word amoungst some here."

I think one of the delightful ironies of our situation is that our astonishing voraciousness wrt energy has resulted in a depletion so rapid that some folks who remember the 'old ways' (and can thus teach them) remain with us. :)

@ Calum

"One of the really important advances in bicycles is the development of modern ballraces which dramatically reduce bearing wear and friction losses compared to plain bearings."

Great point - looks like a good tinkering project might be to look into fabrication of ballraces using salvageable materials and hand tools?


"The corruption of the Christian St. Nicholas myth that is the Santa Claus fantasy warps a good lesson on the purpose of charitable giving into a purported tool for behavioral control through material reward that actually functions to validate and exacerbate consumptive excess, a dark mirror of the original intent."

Beautifully put, Lloyd. Another one for the quotes file...

- Oz

DPW said...

Obviously most of what they sell is a little out of the price range of ordinary folks, but the ideas are solid.

They are sort of leading the "appropriate tech" movement when it comes to bikes.

As is "Velo-Orange".

Much of it is more fancy and consumeristic than need be, but the general idea is that bikes were better when they were less "new-fangled" and wimpy than the current crop of carbon race bikes and extreme-sports mountain bikes...shifters with three parts beat shifters with 200+ parts you can't service...etc.

People could also google any of the charities that send bikes to Africa...that's where we'll probably be during the long descent...repairing what we can with whatever's around.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

OK, I read the wind and wave farm article and--thanks Bill P.--looked at the pdf, utilizing Bill's guide.

The inescapable conclusion is--again!--too many humans using too much energy. Like Dan Allen I begin to see industrial collapse as really the only (nasty) option. But we know that anyway. Duh!

I agree, I'd like to see Bill write a book. And, JMG, thanks for reading my review. Wealth of Nature gave me much to think about.

Kevin said...

JMG wrote -

"Kevin, the soaring price of corn right now says that Blume is dead wrong -- "

Now I know I've chosen the right crop for my garden plot! *And* I have an excellent argument against that corny moonshine sophistry.

Those interchangeable universal pedal-powered gears and tools folks have proposed would come in mighty handy right now.

William Hunter Duncan said...

I am in fact quite optimistic that humanity can settle into a very beautiful existence indefinitely, provided we put aside the idea that any man or woman is justified in accumulating and hording the resources that could otherwise help provide a beautiful lifestyle for hundreds, or thousands, or ten's of thousands of others. And, the idea that it is ok for a perfectly healthy adult to exist indefinitely on the labor of others.

Even for seven billion people. Though I expect that number will eventually retreat to two or three billion. We may get there sooner rather than later, however, so long as the majority, as you say, remain tied to the delusions of this contemporary Western way.

Richard Larson said...

Picked up a good working stationary bike last week, a belt will fit perfectly on the flat surface of the iron wheel, and, the thing has a clutch! It is older, but was only 10 bucks at the thrift store. My first goal is hooking it to a grist mill.

The anaerobic digester is a terrific idea. To further enhance the energy production, if the digestate liquids were separated from the solids and fed into an algae pond/production facility, the algae could be converted into bio-diesel without having used any land space.

Methane from the digestion process, bio-diesel from the phosphates, and a cleaned up soil amendment for the land.

Oh, hey, is there some secret deal to get logged into the GW website?

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

JMG - Skillful manipulation of perception and will is not exactly my imagined Gaian philosophy, depending as it does on both a certain level of expertise in the functioning of physical systems and a certain facility with human psycology. Though I apparently initially grasped only part of the magic equation that did not seem to invalidate my further observations. Thanks for the clarification.

Re Mchousing: It really is amazing what wild berries and the critters that feast on them can do to in relatively short order to an untended shelter. Granted there is not much to the physical structures that comprise the potemkin communities of the recent RE speculation bubble. Many don't even contain metal plumbing or any solid structural support elements. About all that is salvageable is electrical wiring and facade brick. Once the water gets in and mold goes to work on the paper and glue these things are made from they literally almost melt apart. There are more than a few in my immediate vicinity that never occupied have already been empty too long. Meanwhile, after a short, economically wrenching, near cessation of such activity, zombie housebuilding is once again picking up. It is as if we just can't imagine that there could be anything else to do - other than driving hither and yon in unnecessarily massive vehicles and using vast amounts of irreplaceable resources to make things that we don't need and have to be persuaded to even want.

Apple Jack Creek said...

With the discussion of coppicing, I thought I would point out this program for Western Canadians - the government will give you free seedlings of various sorts to plant as windbreaks, livestock shelter, and hedgerows for wildlife. Many of the supplied trees are fruit bearing (chokcherry wine, anyone?), some are of the coppicing species mentioned here, and they are all grown specifically for our climate. If you have more than 5 acres of land, you qualify: you have to do up a plan and submit a request, but they really want the trees planted so it's not as though there is a fierce selection process involved. Start now while the program is still being funded - and so that the little baby trees have some time to grow! :)

Relevant to the discussion on micro wind and solar - we have two small wind generators that were actually gifts to us from a neighbour (nicest wedding gift ever, I think!) ... he has too many trees at his place and couldn't get enough of a breeze, but we have an open pasture and a road that runs in the prevailing wind direction, so we do get enough to make it worth having. Since we already had the solar panels up, adding the wind tower to feed into the same system (it's a full system with batteries and charge controllers and all that) was no trouble. We also rigged up the second wind generator on a pole that extends up above the shed/barn roof: it doesn't get as much spin as it's not as high as the tower, but it's enough to trickle charge an old car battery, and we have a 12V 'trouble light' that we can turn on in the barn so that we have light to see a sick animal or something.

We also ran a string of solar powered white Christmas lights (speaking of Santa...) along the inside of the barn ceiling: they provide just enough light to see where you are going and make sure everyone's all right. If you have a building (shed? barn? front entryway of your house? garage?) that would be nice to have lit up for a few hours every evening, do consider picking up a few strands of solar powered LED lights after the next holiday. Besides, it makes your barn look so cheery in the dark of winter! :)

Edde said...

Good afternoon, John Michael,

Indeed, happy Solstice!

Those interested in bicycle tech might like to read: Pedal Power, In Work, Leisure and Transportation, edited by McCullagh, published by Rodale Press, 1977. A nice collection of pedal powered artifacts from which to learn.

Best regards,

Justin said...

"So if you think your solar panels are generating 1000 watts per square meter, or your wind farm is generating 10 watts per square meter..."

Actually, if the solar panel was placed in a location that otherwise would have reflected the majority of the light back into space, this would cause a net increase in total energy in the system.

I have never seen anyone argue this, but it would seem that the widespread deployment of pv power stations would eventually cause major climate change if scaled up enough to contribute a significant proportion of the world's energy needs.

What would be interesting to me is to see a comparison of the relative warming caused by covering thousands of square miles of normally reflective deserts with black photo-voltaic panels and burning the equivalent amount of coal or natural gas.

-Justin G said...

re: coppicing. If you are in an urban/suburban area with small acreage, there is also an option as long as there are 'free' papers and newspapers. We are planning to install a wood stove this fall. In preparation, I have a large (and growing) stash of newspapers. We get the local paper delivered free once a week; I keep those as well as any magazines that come without glossy paper, and have a shredder for household papers. All of these will be used in a newspaper brick maker to supplement wood. I figure it's already taken trees to make the paper, I might as well use it rather than throw it away (we have absolutely no recycling program within 50 miles).

re: bicycles and bearings, and spokes. I began riding for mileage and as transportation as a teenager in the 70's. I still have several books, along with the specialized tools needed, for removing cranks and maintaining bearings. It's not hard, and if you do regular maintenance on the hubs and the cranks to keep the packing properly 'gooey', the bearings will outlast you, quite probably. Regarding spokes, see this picture:
It's entirely possible to use a bicycle without fragile spokes. Although the ride may not be the most comfortable :)
(whose dad and stepdad were both former military and grew up with the motto 'adapt and overcome')

Susan said...

Our local RV dealership has an amazing array of gadgets that run on low voltage direct current. If we can buy property in a rural county that has no local building code enforcement, we could probably wire the house for 12-volt DC and avoid having to put 3-prong 110-volt AC outlets every 8 feet in every room. If you can design the whole system from scratch, it would be relatively easy to survive in style with very little electricity. Certainly a lot less than what most of us use.

We are looking to buy some farm land and build an earth-bermed, passive solar, energy efficient home with windmills, solar cells, etc. If we can find some property with access to a stream and adequate terrain, we could build a reservoir at the top of a hill, pump water up there when the wind is blowing, and release the stored water through a turbine to generate electricity when we need it, not just when the wind is blowing. The up-front cost would be more than a bank of traditional storage batteries, but the long-term benefit would be enormous. Micro hydro can work even if the drop is only a few feet.

My husband is a retired civil engineer who has actually designed and built small dams in a previous life. He says the hardest part of such a project is dealing with the Corps of Engineers and other agencies that regulate every aspect of water flow in this country. Maybe in a Mad Max future, such bureaucratic red tape will be much reduced.

He has also designed and helped build tall towers used for microwave relay systems (for MCI, the railroads, etc.), so he should be able to build a decent windmill. He says once you get about 50 feet above the ground, the wind is always blowing.

He is working on a windmill design that uses magnets for frictionless bearings (magnetic levitation). This would tend to reduce the major cost of current windmill designs, which is the constant need for mechanical maintenance (which is why several of those big California bird blenders were not spinning when a good wind was blowing).

The bottom line here is that with a little ingenuity (and a little money) one could create a self-sustaining system (including methane digesters, solar hot water, 3 or 4 different kinds of electricity generation, etc.) and live happily ever after...

escapefromwisconsin said...

Hi JMG. I enjoyed your interview on the C-Realm podcast. Please do let us know what other media you’ll be appearing on in the near future.

For those of you who may doubt JMG’s prognostication skills regarding catabolic collapse and the salvage economy, may I point you to this brief post:

And see also:

Your predictions are already coming true. I see that one commenter (it wasn’t me) also made reference to your work. The word must be getting out there.

@ Cloud especially – this may be a bit off topic, but this fascinating op-ed appeared in the New York Times this week about how US authorities have totally eschewed appropriate technology and natural building methods that would actually help rural Afghans improve their lives and become self-sufficient in favor of an extractive fossil-fuel based economy based around concentrating wealth in urban areas, leaving rural farmers with nothing (except grudges). It’s actually rather heartbreaking; if there was anyplace that needed appropriate technology, it’s Afghanistan:
Afghanistan’s Last Locavores

Maybe it’s not totally off topic – small-scale wind and hydro would be idea for Afghanistan (as would solar). Too bad our leaders are more interested in looting.

A final note – per capita housing values have apparently fallen in real terms to what they were in 1978! In other words, all the “value” in houses since the 1970’s has already evaporated, and prices are still falling. Marginal Revolution (a popular economics blog) sounds a lot like JMG with their comment – “we were not as wealthy as we thought we were.” Here’s the link:

(For some reason it is not allowing me to code in the links - sorry for the inconveneince)

Kirby said...

JMG - I apologize if this has been covered in comments to some other post before, but can you (or anyone) recommend a basic book on electricity/ electronics that is designed to give someone a practical grasp of the basic principles needed to start generating power at home? E.g. how alternators work and how to choose between them, AC and DC, basic circuit wiring to understand how to build a controller to manage uneven energy inputs, batteries, etc.

One of the Remnant said...


"I am in fact quite optimistic that humanity can settle into a very beautiful existence indefinitely, provided we put aside the idea that any man or woman is justified in accumulating and hording the resources that could otherwise help provide a beautiful lifestyle for hundreds, or thousands, or ten's of thousands of others. And, the idea that it is ok for a perfectly healthy adult to exist indefinitely on the labor of others."

Those are some mighty huge 'ifs' fact, my read of this leads me to the pole directly opposite optimism.

@ thetinfoilhatsociety

" I still have several books, along with the specialized tools needed, for removing cranks and maintaining bearings."

Would you mind posting names and publishers of those books? I'd love to try to dig some of those up...

@ Susan

"the hardest part of such a project is dealing with the Corps of Engineers and other agencies that regulate every aspect of water flow in this country. Maybe in a Mad Max future, such bureaucratic red tape will be much reduced."

Doesn't need to be Mad Max for that to happen, methinks. Increasing energy flows result in societal complexity running into diminishing returns, and part of this is the hyper-complex, ultra-inefficient governmental structures. Given the demands on cities and counties, it's hard to imagine that code enforcement will be much of a priority in the near future, when keeping the water and electricity flowing begins to become a major challenge! Overly officious building codes will either vanish entirely, or be pared down to sensible size, one would hope.

@ escape

"small-scale wind and hydro would be idea for Afghanistan (as would solar). Too bad our leaders are more interested in looting"

Frederic Bastiat said it best IMO:

"When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it."

- Oz

Bruce The Druid said...

FUV? That's pretty funny!
In regards to a bearing race, I think this is standard. When people refer to replacing their wheel bearing, its actually the race they are referring to. Its simply a metal ring with the bearings contained, a cage if you will. The outer race is pressed into the hub. The axle passes thru the inner race and bearings. The races keeps the bearings rotating evenly around the axle. It also keeps the bearings from floating loose in the grease or whatever.
Go to your local auto parts store to see many examples.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Apple Jack--

That shelterbelt page is a good resource: even if the tree species should be different in different regions, the information about structure, spacing and care are relevant.

I'm right now working with a group on restoring an old hedge/fencerow and planning a new one, so I'll pass that link along to others in my group.

The only thing is, while I agree about European cool-season grasses being detrimental, our mature hedgerow is full of "weeds," or native forbs very useful to wildlife. It's the baby trees you must be particular with. I'm not sure you would want to eventually end up with a "clean" understory.

Susan said...

@ One of the Remnant:

"As I've commented before in response to this sort of statement, you seem to be confusing human nature with cultural nature. There is no evidence whatsoever to support your assertion that this is a "part of the nature of human nature," and thinking in this way only obfuscates, IMO, the ability to think clearly about the implications of the current set of converging crises. That is, assuming that characteristics which are cultural in nature (readily supported by even a cursory knowledge of anthropology) are in fact a part of our DNA only locks you into seeing the future in a certain way."

"In this sense, it fits JMG's definition of a 'myth' which becomes so embedded that we become unaware of it. Clear thinking is called for, in terms of an appreciation of such myths and how they distort our thinking."

I'm sorry, but this strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Maybe I was inexact in my choice of words, but the end result is the same. Whether it is the nature of human nature, or simply a cultural construct, everybody wants more than they have, and very few are willing to voluntarily give up very much of what they have without a fight, and most people will avoid having to make hard choices (or even relatively easy ones) until their backs are literally up against the wall (look at the US Congress and its pathetic attempts to come to grips with the fact that we ARE living beyond our means).

Why would cultural nature be significantly different than the human nature that underlies it? Human beings are greedy, envious, slothful, etc. All those "sins" are part of the nature of human nature, right? And the cultures that we humans have created throughout history exhibit the same properties, but on a much larger scale. Why should I cut back on my own unsustainable lifestyle when I can just tax the rich, or print more money, or max out my credit cards and then declare bankruptcy?

It really doesn't matter what the root cause is; the bottom line is still going to be the same. With the exception of a relatively small number of people who, like JMG, have seen the light, our whole civilization is accelerating toward a cliff, and most people are in a state of denial or worse. And most people are not going to even start trying to change their lifestyles or beliefs until it is too late, and even then most of them will expend most of their energy pointing the finger of blame at whatever scapegoats come to hand.

I stand by what I wrote.

@JMG: Thanks for the suggestion. I am ordering The Ecotechnic Future AND The Long Descent from Amazon. BTW, I wonder how long the Amazon business model will last after the UPS trucks run out of gas...

Kyoto Motors said...

Re gears: I often wonder just how dependent (on petroleum-abundance) my considerable use of bicycles is. You suggest "relatively simple metallurgy" behind the bicycle. I hope this is true. The bearing (a proverbial keystone), of course, will probably prove to be the biggest challenge. Good bearings make the ride easy and allow the machine to last longer. Can one easily make good bearings in the tinkerer's shed?

Ventriloquist said...

Susan said:

Of course, we'll run out of fossil resources (not to mention fish in the sea and fire wood) before we reach that equilibrium point, so there will be wars and revolutions and social disruptions as we fight over a shrinking pie...

Your comment of running out of fish in the sea is of interest to me personally.

At this time I live in a coastal community, a short walk from the ocean. I surfcast for saltwater fish, as a source of food for the table. My thoughts regarding the sustainability of the ocean fishery are as follows:

If peak inexpensive oil has arrived, how will this affect the commercial fishermen and women? For example, I was down at the harbor a couple days ago, watching a diesal truck filling up the tank on a medium-sized lobster boat. The total bill for 1400 gallons was almost $7000. And that will last the captain and crew less than a week of work.

Now, if gas becomes prohibitively expensive, and causes the price of seafood to become completely out of reach for the vast majority of consumers, how will that impact the commercial ocean fishery? My thinking is that it will drastically reduce the harvesting capabilities of all these major corporate fishing fleets, and that their activities will plummet. This would severely reduce the gross overfishing of the world's seafood stocks, and over time the ocean fish populations would rebound naturally.

Now, this may be completly wishful thinking on the part of someone who can supply a major part of his daily protein requirement for very short money. But I would appreciate any exposure to the flaws in my logic.


Petro said...

Sir, you have once again inspired a post over at my place:

The Secularization Of Reverence

Thanks aforehand for moderating this link into your thread, if it be so.

Don Mason said...

Back in the ‘60’s, I recall reading a book on building dome houses (perhaps Domebook 2) which had a brief comment by a woman who thought that building dome homes would be a good idea because they were more aerodynamic; she was concerned that all these rectangular houses with their sharp edges were creating too much wind resistance, and thereby slowing down the rotation of Mother Earth.

I chalked her comment up to the general drug-induced wackiness of the time.

Perhaps – who knows? - her comment may have originally inspired the study about limits to wind and wave energy about to be published in a reputable scientific journal.

If an aging hippie scavenges an old alternator and perches it on top of a disused utility pole, the effects on the climate are negligible.

But when you build row after row of 400 foot-tall towers, each topped with a set of blades 400 feet in diameter, then effects will be felt at multiple points.

The area around the wind turbines will heat up due to the inherent energy inefficiencies of converting air movement into mechanical rotation into electrical generation, while the wind effects downstream will be reduced.

After those high-kinetic energy molecules of nitrogen and oxygen have slammed into the propeller blades, forcing it to move, they are too dazed and confused to do any more useful work.

If they hadn’t hit the propeller, then their energy would be available to push a dust particle higher into the atmosphere, or blast a water molecule from a lake into the air and increase the humidity, or simply heat up an immovable rock somewhere many miles away. But after transferring their energy to the propeller, they’re as useless as stoners.

Predicting the exact effects on climate is impossible. But with enormous amounts of wind and wave energy doing different things than before, it could make for a somewhat different climate.

Farmers, however, do not generally like "different"; they prefer "predictable". Farmers need stability to produce a dependable, bountiful harvest; they are at or near peak food production, and the last thing they need is more man-made climate destabilization.

Kieran O'Neill said...

@Calum "cheap aluminium replacements"? For most of the history of the bicycle, up until the late 60s, steel has been used for pretty much everything. If we lose aluminium smelting, we'll have no difficulty falling back on steel.

Thanks for the mention of bearing races. It's been educational learning how they're made. But I don't see anything in that process that couldn't be pedal powered (lathe + grinder) or performed with whatever technology we have left for smelting steel (hardening and tempering). This goes for the bearings, too.

As for your rim breaking, have you considered getting tougher (wider) rims and tires? There's a tendency on high-end bicycles these days to use components that are marginally lighter or more aerodynamic but much, much flimsier.

Bill Pulliam said...

Justin -- I'd refer you to page 79 of the above referenced presentation. Exact point is made.

The only extensive surfaces on the earth that reflect most of the incoming sunlight, though, are ice and snow. Even pale soils absorb quite a bit of sunlight and turn it in to heat. Vegetation absorbs a great deal of sunlight and turns a much of it into transpiration which drives the global hydrologic cycle -- your solar panel does no such thing. But whatever additional power you do funnel in to the earth system, it is in an "unnatural" form (electricity). Nuclear fission has the same effect.

Why anyone thinks we can pave Nevada with solar collectors (algae farms, whatever the current fad is) and NOT alter the climate over a good portion of North America is beyond me. The huge temperature and precipitation swings we have seen across the continent in the last 6 months have been caused by modest realignments of the atmospheric circulation (not suggesting they are anthropogenic, just pointing out how big an effects you can get on the ground by a moderate shift in the continental circulation patterns from natural variability). Alter the energy balance of the intermountain deserts and you can bet your sweet boopie that the atmospheric patterns will respond -- somehow.

sofistek said...

It's not just the peak oil blogosphere that has been silent on that Kleidon study I mentioned last week. I've mentioned it to Greens (with a capital G) and they don't want to know about it either. They want to believe that switching to renewable energy, adding more public transport and becoming world leaders in electric cars will allow current lifestyles to keep going indefinitely. They just don't think things through.

I hope there is more science done on the safe rate of renewable energy extraction. It doesn't take much intelligence to realise that our only true everlasting (from a human species perspective) is the sun and that all (i.e. 100%) of that energy is currently employed in keeping our habitat in roughly the right state for our existence (though our actions are making it less and less likely that such a situation will continue). We simply haven't done enough research into figuring out the safe level of diversion (if there is a safe level beyond eating plants and animals). But so many people think that such a low percentage of diversion (a fraction of a percent to a few percent) can possibly have any impact, even when concentrated over small areas. I kind of hoped we'd learned enough to stop making assumptions.

The latest saviour seems to be the only other energy source we have, geothermal. The same assumptions abound. No matter how much heat we extract or how much fracturing we do to extract it, there will be no impact (so the myth goes).

When will we learn that, in nature (is there anything else?), you can't do just one thing?

Red Neck Girl said...

With the mention of coppicing I was reminded about how I want to fence my pastures. If anyone here has heard of a Mormon fence that's what I thought I would do. A Mormon fence was built using found wood, crooked poles and branches. Usually started with a long pole laid in the crotch of a tree or on a rock with two of the shorter pieces of wood with the tops crossing across the starter limb. You lay another long limb in the crotch of the two side limbs and repeat. Wild roses, berry vines and hazelnut bushes growing up in the fence further anchor it creating a hedge. I want to do this to encourage song birds, pollinators and small wildlife and plant alternate food source plants as well as herbs horses can eat to self medicate. Herbs which I can also harvest and dry to medicate a sick horse when such herbs are out of season.

I also want to 'farm' the grasses in my pastures, running cows after horses and maybe a mobile hen house trailer for free range eggs to break up manure and distribute it more evenly into the pastures. I can also sell some eggs on the side, perhaps to some of my boarders less inclined or able to achieve self sufficiency.

I want everything set up to support each other or another purpose. The less work I have to do the happier I'll be. But then the real work will be in the initial prep of the property for each use.

Upon reading the comments on coppicing trees I could plant them inside the Mormon fence and would fit well with my intent for the fence. Besides, I want to build a Russian type stove into my house and wood burned in that would create heat piped in the floor of the house as well as give me heat to duct into a green house built directly behind the main house.

Regarding bicycles in war, refer to the Swiss.

For people thinking of draft stock perhaps you should think of steers or bullocks as they're called in other countries. I have a picture of a great grandfather in 1920 or so with his ox team (two span or four oxen), used in logging. Horses can get pretty snippy, especially when you don't quite know what to do. They also require well fitting collar and harness while oxen just need a wooden yoke you can carve out with a chainsaw, add trace chains and you're good to go. When starting out use common sense and follow the kiss principal, you can get fancy later.

I suggest you buy a SHORT bull whip and learn how to use it without wrapping it around your neck! That's not as easy as you'd think! ;)

Wadulisi Tsalagi

GHung said...

Metane, or biogas is the next big project a plan to tackle. My plan has always been to wean ouselves off of propane, even though a little propane goes a long way around here. My main goal is to have gas available for cooking, as it's far too efficient and convenient to give up without a fight. I've cooked with wood and it's a real chore; energies I hope to apply to other chores. During canning time (already underway this season), having a couple of good gas burners is a big advantage. Being able to can things as they come in, in small batches, is for me, preferable. A good gas stove makes this much easier and efficient.

I just came in from picking an overflowing 4 liter bucket of some of the finest wild grown blackberries I've ever seen, enough for about 2 dozen jars (or more) of jam. I hope to get them all put by before bedtime. Better get to it.

BTW: I always pick in the evening (cooler and the berries are sweeter), and take a good shower to rid myself of the ticks and bugs that come with picking berries; part of my strategy to try and coexist with God's other little creatures.

I expect a post on home remedies, medicinals, personal hygene, health and first-aid in a post-industrial society wouldn't be inappropriate at some point. (Reminds me of the old westerns: "Saddle yer horse and go fetch the doc, quick..") So many things we take for granted these days.

Any links on small scale methane production would be most welcome.

Sololeum said...

If I was a conspiracy theorist I would say that Traditional Rotational Agriculture as practiced by the Amish is a technology that has supressed.

At the moment I'm trying to get copies of relevant research - it is niot easy as it is NOT ON THE WEB!!

Me thinks that it is societies inbuilt sense of propriety that prevents non-progressive responses, thus Monsantos No Till gets all the credit even though it is an inferior technology!

idiotgrrl said...

The President of the United States has just acted like an idiot. He has released 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve - I quote the newscaster directly - "To bring the price down in time for the summer driving season, in order to kick-start the economy."

And here I once had him pegged as a strategic thinker who takes the long view of things. There are too many things wrong with this action to detail in one comment.

At least his opposition is running true to form with "Well, just 'produce' more at home!"

Alex said...

I've been following your blog for a year or so, and it makes for fascinating reading.

One issue that I've been hoping that you would address, and perhaps you will in a subsequent article, is the North American-centric nature of your solutions to a post-industrial future.

Lets face it, the fact of the matter is that the area within the national boundaries of USA+Canada, plus a handful of other regions, have a very favourable ratio of natural resources to population (excluding oil, that is). That means about half a billion people in the world could, if they had the will, spend a very tough decade or so adapting to a low-energy lifestyle, and in principle could end up with a quality of life that is actually slightly more pleasant than what we aspire to now. So far so good.

But what about the other six billion people? My take on the thermodynamics is that there is basically no way that they can continue to exist without a die-back on an apocalyptic scale that most of us can't even imagine. Even if we privileged few were sociopathic enough to be inclined to sit back and watch it happen, it's not like they're going to politely starve to death behind the lines of their national boundaries.

Considering the fact that the population continues to grow without constraint, and acknowledgment of this problem is even less accepted than climate change, do you really think that setting up an energy-independent hippy shack in one of the few remaining forests is good advice for the survival of civilisation? I wish it were, but I'm not seeing it.

Would be really interested to hear your thoughts on this.

Bill Pulliam said...

Sololeum -- if you mean corn/beans/tobacco I didn't think there was any big secret there; you just grow in rotation a grain, a legume, and a vegetable/herb/specialty on a three-year cycle on each plot. Different plots can be on different cycles, so you can grow each crop every year somewhere. The nutrient demands are balanced, and the pathogens do not build up as there are two years off before the same crop is grown again. Is there more to what you are thinking of than this?

DIYer said...

There are a few rare exceptions to the "progress" theme, in which the industry may simply disconnect the electric motors, build a new sluice and wheel, and reconnect the old millworks to the adjacent stream:

sgage said...

"Why would cultural nature be significantly different than the human nature that underlies it?"

Human nature is a ball of potentials. Various cultures seem to emphasize, draw out, certain aspects of "human nature".

Some cultures empasize cooperation and care for their commons. Others adopt a "every man for himself" fantasy.

All talk of "human nature" is not particularly useful. People seem to like to conflate "human nature" with late industrial consumerist crap.

This is an abberation. Trend is not destiny...

mageprof said...

There used to be iron cookstoves for kitchens that used wood as the only fuel. You could put cook in pots of skillets on top of them, and they also had a reservoir to keep water hot. And of course they also heated the kitchen, like it or not. When I was a teen back in the '50s we spent a summer once in a house with such a stove, and I watched my mother cook on it. (Her grandmother had used one a long time ago.) It wasn't particularly hard to get the hang of using it.

I wonder whether stoves like that are still made, or can be found in "junk" stores. Has anyone else ever seen or used one?

One of the Remnant said...

@ Susan

"I'm sorry, but this strikes me as a distinction without a difference. Maybe I was inexact in my choice of words, but the end result is the same. Whether it is the nature of human nature, or simply a cultural construct, everybody wants more than they have, and very few are willing to voluntarily give up very much of what they have without a fight, and most people will avoid having to make hard choices (or even relatively easy ones) until their backs are literally up against the wall (look at the US Congress and its pathetic attempts to come to grips with the fact that we ARE living beyond our means). "

You aren't grasping the central point. Human nature spans all humans. Cultural conditioning doesn't. Depending on how one describes it, there are hundreds of thousands of cultures extant - and if we include the past, many, many, many more. There is only one human species. There's a vast difference in that distinction.

I'm curious to know if you've ever been outside the US to a non-industrialized country, because what I'm hearing is an extrapolation that goes like this: humans everywhere are the same as humans in the US (and selected other industrialized nations) - and always have been for the life of the species.

I suggest you take a look at this just to get an idea of the vast differences between cultures (and the rate at which they are being extinguished).

In times past, there were many cultures based on gift economies, barter economies, etc. Those examples would not exist if you were correct and humans across the board were invariably greedy, avoided hard choices, etc. My sense is that you are generalizing in wildly erroneous ways and thus coming to conclusions which are not supportable in light of what we know about human cultures across history.

"Why would cultural nature be significantly different than the human nature that underlies it? Human beings are greedy, envious, slothful, etc. All those "sins" are part of the nature of human nature, right?"

Ummm...gotta say: wrong. Personally, I don't think the Bible had a very solid grasp on human psychology, and it provides a poor reference for understanding human nature.

"And the cultures that we humans have created throughout history exhibit the same properties, but on a much larger scale."

Again, I think this is simply false, and that we have abundant evidence that it is false. I'd suggest you take a look at that evidence instead of just making assertions.

As one example among many, the Iroquois Confederacy lived by their 'Great Law' which insisted that decisions made in the present which affected their people had to consider the impact seven generations hence. How is this 'avoiding hard choices' or 'greedy'? It is, in fact, the opposite.

This example alone suffices to falsify your proposition. But there are many more such. Look into potlatch ceremony-based cultures.

Bottom line: our present cultural deficits are not so necessarily deterministic as you suggest.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Rialian, that's a bit better, but at this point anything that increases the arable land footprint of humanity needs to be weighed against the needs of the rest of the biosphere, as well as the food needs of human beings. A little biofuel here and there, sure, but beyond that, we're in difficult territory.

DPW, that's true -- but up to now, most of the market has been trendy yuppie stuff. We need to downshift from Cadillac systems to Volkswagen ones.

Adrian, it is kind of hard to miss that conclusion, isn't it? Still, it gives us all something we can do, which is...use LESS.

Kevin, somebody has to be the first to start making them. Why not you?

William, er, yes, and if pigs had wings we'd catch our breakfast bacon with butterfly nets. Every human society that's had the capacity to produce a surplus has had class differentials, and some people living higher on the hog than others. I don't expect that to end any time too soon, and so it seems more useful to me to concentrate on things that can help, given that humanity is what it is.

Richard, yes, you could certainly do that, though I'd rather cycle the other nutrients into the soil to grow vegetables. As for the forum, is it having that problem again? I'll check with the forum staff and see what they recommend.

Lloyd, magic is a practice, not a philosophy, like blacksmithying or swordsmanship; there are certainly philosophical dimensions to each art, but they can be approached through various philosophies, and it's the philosophy that determines how and to what ends they're used. Thus not all Druids are mages, and not all mages are Druids.

A crucial point very often missed nowadays, though, is that when magic's approached as a means of manipulation, it's weak by definition. Strong magic is worked by participation, not manipulation -- the more thoroughly you can become the change you seek to bring into manifestation, the more powerful your working will be.

Apple Jack, that government program is great -- I hope anyone in that end of Canada who has some land takes advantage of it.

Edde, thanks for the link!

Apple Jack Creek said...

Mageprof, wood stoves for cooking are still made - and newly made ones are more fuel efficient (i.e. take less wood) than the old ones.

We have a Bakers Oven from Pinnacle, an Australian maker - it is nice and small and fits in the space that used to house our heater stove. The oven is tiny, so this wouldn't work if you were cooking for a large crew, but if you have a small space it is wonderful.

The heat stove that it replaced is going to be installed in the addition we built, so that our entire house (which is very spread out, in part so that it could comfortably house multiple families/generations) will have wood heat, not just natural gas.

Modern cookstoves are very expensive (on the order of 4-8K) but they're a great investment.

My neighbour found an old one somewhere and installed it in an enclosure outside: it can serve as a 'summer kitchen', and the fact that it might not be as airtight as one might hope is not really a big deal outside in the summer.

John Michael Greer said...

Justin, that's an interesting point. You'd need to know the difference between the albedo (basically, reflectivity to sunlight) of the land that's being covered with solar panels, and the panels themselves; even a modest difference could add up on a large enough scale.

Tinfoil, are those books on bearings still in copyright? If not, do you have the facilities to scan 'em and put 'em online? You may be doing some basement mad scientist a huge favor!

Susan, that's exactly the plan. And if you can teach your neighbors how to do the same thing, as conventional energy sources run short, that sort of patchwork of homescale energy sources could become standard practice for an entire region.

Wisconsin, that's fascinating! Thanks for the references.

Kirby, the way I learned it was to get involved in ham radio. If you're in the US, the American Radio Relay League is the main ham organization, and they can direct you to local groups that would be delighted to point you to the learning resources you need to pass the radio license exams -- which also happen to involve exactly the knowledge you're asking about.

Bruce, thanks for the info! My strong suits are gardening and conservation methods, not machinery.

Susan, I'd make friends with the people at your local full service bookstore. They'll be around long after the word "amazon" goes back to meaning a river in Brazil.

Kyoto, they made 'em with hand tools in the 19th century. I don't think it's going to be a problem, unless nobody takes the time to learn how it's done.

Petro, nicely blogged. You're right, of course, about the vulnerability of coppicing to issues of scale. The problem here is that people are going to need fuel to cook their meals and warm their homes; wood is the most easily accessible source; that being the case, gearing up to take as much pressure as possible off the forests is essential, even if it has problems of its own.

Don, exactly. When someone gets around to raising a tombstone for industrial society, "died of unintended consequences" will probably be carved on it.

Sofistek, I've forwarded the link to a bunch of people -- and thank you again for forwarding it to me! The utter silence on the subject suggests to me that a lot of people grasp instantly what the implications are; they may not want to face those implications, but they're going to have to deal with them. An effort to rub some noses in the study might be worth making.

Girl, I've heard lots of good things about oxen, though I have no experience with any livestock larger than goats!

Ghung, here's a bunch of info on the subject, with book references.

Sololeum, I think they're using a variant of late medieval three-field rotation -- you might be able to find info by searching for that.

John Michael Greer said...

Grrl, as I see it, he's just trying to boost his ratings out of the dumpster in order to get his reelection campaign under way. The lesson to take home is that we can't expect the political system to make the changes that have to be made, so it's up to individuals like you and me.

Alex, my discussion focuses on the United Statee because that's where I live, and because the last thing the rest of the world needs right now is one more clueless American telling them what they ought to be doing. There are plenty of thoughtful writers and thinkers in the rest of the world, proposing plans and policies for their own countries and regions, and that's as it should be; here in the US we've got our own serious problems, and since I've had the chance to see those close up, that's what I address.

DIYer, thanks for the link! That's very promising.

Sgage, I'm going to stay out of this one. I think I've made my own views clear enough in previous posts!

Mageprof, they're still made -- try Lehman's or any other Amish or Mennonite supply house -- and I've used one, with good results. That's a standard wood cookstove; they come in many different sizes and styles, and you can still get 'em new or used.

John Michael Greer said...

Mageprof, for some reason that last link didn't work. Let's try it again: Lehman's

papabear said...

To readers, someone at another blog is defending nuclear power plants. One of his arguments is that the wastes of a nuclear power plant pose less of a health risk than those of a coal or natural gas or petroleum-burning plant. He also writes: "A 1000 MWe PWR or BWR nuclear power plant annually produces 27 tons of used fuel that can be recycled and consumed in a fast neutron burner reactor, obviating the need for Yucca Mountain." Is he correct on both counts?

Loch said...

Converting any kind of energy into electricity is a huge waste. An overshot waterwheel is the world's most efficient machine, running between 85 and 95% efficiency. Coupled to a gear ad belt system, energy loss to a milstone is negligible, likewise to a reciprocating saw for a sawmill, a bellows (or rather, a blower) for a forge or foundry. A 16 foot overshot waterwheel can run all these things at once, making about 25 horsepower.

But just try to gear it so it produces electricity. It WILL NOT produce any suitable amount of electrical power.

Just imagine if we saved all the energy we used to generate electricity! It's the biggest waste and most inefficient use of energy known to man.

Loch said...

Consider as well the economic implications of Peak Oil. The current global economic dislocations are the early warning signs of peak oil. Consider the most, (above all others,) environmentally destructive force know to man- COMPOUND INTEREST.

Where am I going to get the resources to convert into money to pay back a banker four times over for a loan?

Until now, oil helped me, but with that running out, the Kondriatef Wave of debt and deflation is about to crash onto our global heads with a vengeance.

We'll run out of $$$ before we run out of oil!

John Michael Greer said...

Papabear, he's wrong on both counts. On the first point, if you sit next to a pile of coal ash for an hour you get grubby; if you sit next to a pile of used nuclear fuel rods for an hour, you collapse and die. That does seem like a bit of a difference. As for his second point, fast neutron burner reactors don't exist yet, nobody knows if they can actually be made to work, and if they do, they'll produce hideously dangerous waste of their own -- all fission reactors do. So the person's shoveling smoke.

Loch, while your points aren't bad ones, you're not helping yourself with all the superlatives and extreme statements. Most people will tune those out and decide that you're a kook, you know.

Ruben said...


Pedal Powered Kitchen Center

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

I see. The opportunity for participation offered here is potentially consciousness altering. Within prescribed bounds we who do can make of that what we will. And charmed I am; compliments Archdruid, on the subtle execution of a worthy and enduring conjure.

papabear said...

Mr. Greer, to be fair to him I should say that he was arguing that nuclear waste is contained and can be sequestered (or disposed of with the use of the fast neutron burner reactors), while the waste from fossil fuel plants is just released into the atmosphere, and thus nuclear power plants are safer. But I think you have provided an adequate rebuttal concerning the fast neutron burner reactors. Are there any studies or risk analysis papers dealing with the storage of nuclear waste that you would recommend?

Cherokee Organics said...


I have a bit of an ethical question for you.

As a druid, are you OK with the use of timber as an energy source? The question only occured to me today as I was splitting up the next months firewood (I use either a manual or an electric 9 tonne log splitter).

Trees are one of my favourite topics and I'm doing some interesting things here to bring back the rainforest that would have once covered this mountain range not so long ago (before people of course).



Cherokee Organics said...


The other question that I was wondering about today (sorry to hassle you) was:

I wonder whether people (including the commenters here) actually understand what it would be like to live through a massive downturn in the population? The reason I ask is because, well, energy is like magic to most people and I don't think most people have any understanding how dependant we all are on it.

A lot of the comments display the same sort of disconnect that people have when the drive a vehicle. It's a dangerous activity and quite a large number of people die or are seriously injured as a result.

But, a lot of comments sort of read to me like, "Well, I'll be allright, this is something that will happen to other people".

I don't really understand the whole disconnect thing that people do.

PS: I opened my first bottle of preserved Apricots this morning and I'm still here to write about it too. It was a little taste of summer. As long as I don't keel over in the next few days I thoroughly recommend getting an understanding of various preserving techniques.

PPS: I saw my first Powerful Owl last night zipping silently through the trees. I often hear them, but they are really hard to spot. They are part of the night time reason for having bird netting over the chook run and chook shed (the wedge tail eagles are the day time predators).



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi William,

Your quote - "I am in fact quite optimistic that humanity can settle into a very beautiful existence indefinitely, provided we put aside the idea that any man or woman is justified in accumulating and hording the resources that could otherwise help provide a beautiful lifestyle for hundreds, or thousands, or ten's of thousands of others. And, the idea that it is ok for a perfectly healthy adult to exist indefinitely on the labor of others."

I agree with you in principle, but have you ever looked at the distribution of wealth in the US? Most cultures that were sustainable indefinately have poverty and intricate social structures at their core.

An interesting side issue (but not totally unrelated) comes to mind. I'm quickly learning what the Abroiginals here already knew and also learned. Any eco system that has been disturbed to any large extent (both flora, fauna and soil) will require large efforts to maintain until such time that it is brought back into an equilibrium. Also that equalibrium may also involve large quantities of human labour to maintain too.

I'm thinking about the massive reduction in the number and distribution of herbivores (both here and in the US) and I can't quite see the beautiful lifestyle that you speak of. I'm thinking it'll be more like a short life and hard work.

Also, downturns tend to be very bad for the very young, the very old or the disabled and infirm.



Cherokee Organics said...


The other thing that I was thinking about in relation to trees was the bit in your comment about "only trees native to the area".

Err, well, if we stuck to that over here then the majority of people would probably starve. I've got two Macadamia nut trees growing here (they don't like the cold, but are dealing) which are from Northern Australia, whilst the remainder of our fruit and vegetables come from overseas.

I can't really afford to be ideologically driven on that issue.

The rainforest trees which I'm giving a bit of a go to are sourced from the remaining best stock in the local area. Fortunately, there are still some stands around if you know where to look - you just have to collect and propogate the seeds.

Before 1788 when the British arrived the population was estimated at around 1 million. It was a truly sustainable culture - although they too had their share of ups and downs. We're about 22.3 million now and without fossil fuels there is no chance of feeding them all.



Twilight said...

And here I thought Santa delivered coal!

There's no way for us to obtain or use as much energy as we do without a huge impact from either step. The use of stored energy from fossil fuels is easier to grasp (although it usually isn't), but I've long thought that diverting the real-time flows from whatever they were doing in such a magnitude much also have an effect.

Rialian said...

"Rialian, that's a bit better, but at this point anything that increases the arable land footprint of humanity needs to be weighed against the needs of the rest of the biosphere, as well as the food needs of human beings."

===Agreed...especially in the HOW it is produced, which is why I like the "stacked function" aspect of the water treatment producing fuel. Of course, cattails production at that level might be better to channel into food use for said town.

===The side-effects of biofuel production are a worry to me, I will admit...I would prefer alcohol over some other variants. The wood-gas for cars would be terrible for forests, and I have health trepidations in regards to biodiesel.

===I am allergic to soy (which would be the oil most used in the short-term).I do not know if the combustion would be complete enough to take out the effects of the proteins going into the air, which have sadly made soy candles a bit of a bane, and places that cook with soy oil rather unfriendly to me. My reaction to airbourne soy is not standard: I get very tired and sometimes achey, like I have the flu, and crash out for hours. (this also happens if I eat bread made with soy oil) My wife calls it the soy coma. This reaction shifts slightly it seems depending on the quality of soy used.

====There are aspects where more processing is preferable to less....(chuckles)

Les said...

@Andy Brown - thanks heaps for the link to the ship mill article - way interesting. The video that is linked towards the end of the article blew my mind. The epitome of salvage industrialism and the most amazing low-tech drive mechanism. Sadly my French is totally not up to spec, so I have no idea what the narrator is trying to tell us.
For those who want to see the vid *now*, here's a shortcut.

Les said...

@papabear - in *theory* a fast neutron reactor can "burn" most types of radioactives and leave a very small amount of waste. The waste is incredibly radioactive, but with a short half-life, so you have a 300 year probem rather than a 10,000 year problem. The proponents of the technology will tell you that a 300 year problem is managable. I'm sure the custodians of the waste 200 years hence will disagree, as the reactor would have, 100 years earlier, ceased being useful for anything other than disposing of political prisoners.

One of the Remnant said...

@ papabear

As is usual with such theoretical proposals, the problem is that he is focusing on technology alone. In doing so, he ignores the crucial economic and political contexts. Not to mention simple practicality.

For example, David Korowicz has defined our society's 'operational fabric' as comprising "the given conditions at any time that support system wide functionality. This includes functioning markets, financing, monetary stability, operational supply-chains, transport, digital infrastructure, command & control, health service, institutions of trust, and sociopolitical stability. It is what we casually assume does and will exist, and which provides the structural foundation for any project we wish to develop."

So I'd ask the poster:

Given that the operational fabric - i.e. the technological, transportational and economic infrastructure - is disintegrating as we speak, how could such a scheme - which would rely on supply chain stability, monetary and credit stability (how much does an IFR cost to build anyway and what companies are willing to risk that capital - even if they can get the credit needed to break ground), and other pieces of this fabric - possibly be successful? Even if IFRs were proven to work as promised out of the box (an obvious misapprehension), everything else that's needed for such a scheme to work is absent, or soon will be.

Where are the resources, capital and financing supposed to come from to engage in a full-on build out of a brand new, never been real world tested network of IFRs (not to mention the hundreds of non-IFR reactors needed in conjunction to provide replacement power for declining oil)? Is he unaware that the world is for all intents and purposes insolvent and sliding into a monetary and economic abyss?

In the 2005 DoE report, Robert Hirsch famously noted we needed a decade or two of a full-on wartime mobilization to avert the worst implications of peak oil. Given that this has not happened and is not happening, and that we've flatlined in net energy, how can the pie in the sky dream of untested IFRs powering the world be seen as anything but pure fantasy?

That is, there is neither the time, nor the capital, nor the political motivation, nor the proven technology needed to move forward on such a hare-brained scheme.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ sgage

"Trend is not destiny..."

Nicely put. Concisely, too. :)

DIYer said...

This talk of windmills has reminded me of some idle thoughts I have had on the topic.

I wonder if the windmills won't encounter an effect (in the really long run) akin to the silting-up of lakes behind hydroelectric dams. The dam stops the water, from which mud settles, which would otherwise pass on downstream to build a delta.

With windmills, we could see a gradual buildup of the land around the mills as dust settles out. If there is a prevailing wind direction, you'd find a mound or a range of dunes downwind from the wind farm. Or you might generate a giant "donut" with the windmills in the center. An idle thought.

However, I'm inclined to think: serried ranks or isolated poles, unsightly, noisy, or beautiful, our current and foreseeable crop of windmills will extract such a tiny percentage of weather energy that it will not be noticed. If you have some land and the energy source is there, go for it.

It will be insignificant compared to the AGW calamity we will encounter over the next 50 or 100 years. And that's baked into the cake already -- we'll see less ice on planet earth, and shifting rainfall patterns, and probably a dramatic failure of industrial agriculture.

Will the surviving human population learn to better conserve? Will they retain some of the knowledge discussed in this forum? I hope so.

Mauricio Babilonia said...

There's already a good book out on the topic of pedal power, titled The Human Powered Home by Tamara Dean. For this winter, I'd like to start on a project using a discarded stationary bicycle as a power source for a variety of devices. In my spare time.

Tyler August said...

While it's not santa's gigawatts, this article might prove useful in the ongoing discussion on thermoelectricity:

Using a special alloy that magnetises at ~125C and a biasing permanent magnet, you get a thermoelectric generator an order of magnitude higher in power density than even Seebeck Effect units-- I'd imagine, then, it's better than the bimetallic devices previously discussed here. I think the alloying is within reach of a basement/backyard metallurgist, too.

justjohn said...

Paula says " We finally got around to replacing the battery in my laptop after figuring out that me working on the battery uses less energy than me working directly off current."

I suggest you re-check your work, since you seem to be violating a basic law of thermodynamics. Charging a battery, and then using the battery, instead of using the electricity directly will always be less efficient. (unless you have some un-explained other issues going on?)

Papabear asks about nuclear power: "One of his arguments is that the wastes of a nuclear power plant pose less of a health risk than those of a coal or natural gas or petroleum-burning plant."

I don't really want to get into defending nuclear power, but to date, I think that quote is accurate. I suspect that actual human death toll from nuclear (so far) is less than 1000 people. I understand that the *annual* death toll of Chinese coal miners is over 7000. But maybe I shouldn't be counting the input side of the resource? And, of course, the nuclear waste will be with us for millennia, so it is hard to quantify that. (against coal, what is the number of respiratory deaths in China due to dirty air?)

Thanks to our host for another interesting Report!

PhilJ said...

My thanks to Bill Pullham for the Kleidon link and Cambridge University Webinar. Some sources of information have more credibility, even if they are strongly associated with an elite that wants to preserve the status quo.

PhilJ said...

JMG, please if you publish my last comment would you correct my spelling of Bill Pulliam's name. How short sighted of me!!!
Andover, UK

Ruben said...

@Chris re: living through a population downturn.

I think people are going to be struck by limits on that to which we feel entitled, and then are going to start noticing their sick friends not getting better. I think this will have deep mental impacts. Perhaps we could call it The Great Unhinging.

Has JMG mentioned one of the effects of this blog is to vaccinate us just a little against the impacts?

Thardiust said...

@ Wisconson

Actually, it looks as though the current housing crisis may be worse than the great depression's especially since more houses were used as currency in today's economic decline than back then.

EBrown said...

Just read your post - great stuff. I have a friend who is in the process of writing a book on coppicing and coppice management.

At the link there is some neat preliminary material (I only know one of the authors, Mark, but I bet he'd answer questions people have about coppicing)

One of the Remnant said...

@ papabear

"Are there any studies or risk analysis papers dealing with the storage of nuclear waste that you would recommend?"

Terrific documentary that just came out: Into Eternity.

Compare and contrast what the responsible Finns are doing, vs some band aid solution like Yucca Mountain.

I think the film says it all, when it comes to nuclear waste and what is necessary to approach it in a way that could conceivably be called 'responsible.'

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ Chris

" I'm doing some interesting things here to bring back the rainforest that would have once covered this mountain range not so long ago (before people of course)."

Have you read the story of Gaviotas? Much more than simply bringing the rain forest back, but that in itself makes for a fascinating story.

- Oz

One of the Remnant said...

@ justjohn

"I don't really want to get into defending nuclear power, but to date, I think that quote is accurate. I suspect that actual human death toll from nuclear (so far) is less than 1000 people."

Actually, recent studies of the Chernobyl fallout over 25 years put the number who died as a result at up to half a million or even a million. One example here.

As this article makes clear, the long term effects are very difficult to pin down, epidemiologically speaking. This means that comparing death rates from nuclear and other sources is problematic in the extreme.

Consider: how many Japanese have by now ingested iodine 131 and/or cesium 137 and are effectively 'walking dead' - but won't die for a decade or more?

How does such a comparison account for something like this?

All in all, I think arguments which seek to compare death tolls which do not have a very strong epidemiological basis are fraudulent on their face.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Lloyd, thank you for getting it! Far too many would-be students of mine don't.

Papabear, I haven't kept up with the recent literature -- if anyone else here can recommend some nonpartisan work on the subject, that would be good.

Chris, from my perspective it's important to keep a whole systems perspective. I use wood in any number of ways, from paper to write on straight on to 2x4s for building things, and we're planning on installing a wood stove down the road a bit, when funds permit. I also eat plants and animals; that's all part of the cycle of existence. The point that seems crucial to me is that I work to minimize the amount of harm my actions cause to the biosphere, accepting the hard fact that perfection isn't attainable.

Nobody anywhere in the industrial world understands what the process of decline and fall ahead of us is going to be like, unless they've spent some time in one of the more impoverished corners of the Third World and have the imagination to apply that to industrial nations.

As for my comment on native trees, I was speaking specifically of coppicing, and more specifically about the fact that eucalypts have become a real problem in some ecosystems to which they've been imported; most of Southern California is one big firetrap these days because eucalypts imported for erosion control, with their very high oil content, go off like Molotov cocktails whenever they get a brush fire. My take is that it's always a good idea to check what your local native (and longtime naturalized) plants will do before importing an exotic from the other side of the world!

Twilight, if you can get gigawatts out of the one piece of coal per misbehaving child he's supposed to hand out, I'm impressed.

Rialian, allergies do make things complex! My wife has wheat and dairy allergies as well as celiac disease, which has involved some complicated adjustments.

DIYer, I don't think the kind of basement-workshop wind turbines I'm recommending here will have any significant impact; it's the huge power-the-grid variety that pull enough energy out of the wind to matter.

Mauricio, thanks for the reference! Good to know.

Tyler, most interesting. That could be very useful indeed.

Justjohn, you'll notice that none of that includes the cancer deaths from uranium mining and mine tailings. If it's relevant to include coal mining deaths, it's relevant to include the equivalent toll from uranium mining and processing.

Phil, I can't alter people's comments -- all I can do is approve or reject them!

Ruben, I rather like "the Great Unhinging," not least because of the way it riffs off contemporary prattle about "the Great Turning." Thank you!

Ebrown, many thanks! That ought to be very useful.

John Michael Greer said...

Les and Susan, I just had to delete one comment from each of you for namecalling. For heaven's sake, that's schoolyard behavior, not the sort of thing that should go on in a discussion among thoughtful adults! Les, if you want to disagree with people who are concerned about disrupting local ecosystems by bringing in plants not native to the area, that's fine, but please do it without the heavyhanded jargon and gratuitous insults. Susan, the fact that you don't like some of the world's political leaders is fine, but could we please do without the insulting names? Thank you.

One of the Remnant said...

Since we're talking about nuclear power, thought this update on Fukushima might be useful, especially for those who thought lack of media attention meant that ongoing calamity - "the biggest industrial catastrophe in the history of mankind" - was all over and done with.

I admit to a high level of amazement that, in light of what continues to emerge from Japan, anyone in their right mind could be arguing for *any* form of fission technology. A manifestation of what Chris has rightly called a total 'disconnect' from reality.

- Oz

Wandering Watcher said...

@ One of the Remnant

That Frederic Bastiat quote is brilliant. We grow up in a cultural and assume that the laws and morals shape the way of life, but a longer historical view shows it’s usually the other way around.


While you’re right that there’s a negligible practical difference between behaviors stemming from human nature and cultural nature, I think one thing lends significance to the distinction; culture is more malleable in the long run. It’s human nature to try to protect the survivability of your in-group; that can develop into a plunder-centric culture, but once plunder is no longer adaptive (i.e. resources and neighbors are gone or have fortified), culture can change in the course of only decades. Changes in our essential nature require millennia. So the tiny difference between the two is hope.

Wandering Watcher said...

@ Ventriloquist

“This would severely reduce the gross overfishing of the world's seafood stocks, and over time the ocean fish populations would rebound naturally.”

Seems like sound reasoning to me…only downside is you’ll probably have a lot more competition for your favorite fishing hole when more people catch on to what you already know.

@ someone who know fluid dynamics better than I

Don’t streams and rivers have a “terminal velocity” depending on the slope of the ground and the amount of water in the river? So waterflow would be slowed by the work of turning a waterwheel, but there’s a certain distance over which it would recover that speed, and not detract from another wheel downstream as long as they are far enough apart.

Kieran O'Neill said...

Re: bicycle maintenance resources

I see a few people talking about these, so I thought I'd respond with a few tips (most of which I've also posted on the Green Wizards forums).


Sheldon Brown (RIP) was a bike mechanic who maintained a website considered the go-to Internet resource for anything technical and bike-related. is a massive and heavily-frequented website full of discussion about bicycles and bicycle components. Their reviews section is huge, and probably covers a good fraction of all bicycle components made by any manufacturer in existence, making it a good place to look for advice on specific parts.

Parktool are a high quality North American bicycle tool manufacturer (admittedly, the tools are often imports). Anyway, they have a very comprehensive set of step by step, illustrated tutorials on bike repair.


Your local public library should have a host of bicycle repair and maintenance books. I can't recommend any specifically as I have mostly learned from others or the Internet.

Most cities will have some form of community bike program, who have a full range of specialised tools as well as experienced mechanics to help you carry out any common repair on your bicycle.

Maker Faires are a relatively recent phenomenon bringing together JMG's "basement mad scientists". I mention them here because, looking at the Vancouver one I'm likely attending this weekend, a good fifth to a quarter of the makers are doing bike-related mad science.

DIYer said...

I had a comment about the nuke industry a while ago, and got a '503' error from blogspot. Apparently blogger ate it and barfed, and it was sad because it was the loveliest, most eloquent comment ... anyway, I'll retype it in a less-perfect form.

In another forum, I can't remember which one just now, a commenter was saying something to the effect that she'd neutralize that cesium with a trip through her compost heap. Although a healthy compost heap can handle things like bones and wood and feces, it has no effect on cesium. It will still be radioactive and still bioaccumulate and still be dangerous in the form of compost.

The other misconception I have seen is that since cesium has a 30 year half life, it will be around for three decades. Of course the correct answer is that half of it will be around for 30 years. After 60 years, half of the remaining half will decay, and so forth. After twenty half lives, approximately one millionth of the original stuff will remain. So 600 years later, if you had a smallish amount of cesium from Fukushima fallout, it would be down to negligible, probably undetectable, levels.

In Fukushima itself, or in parts of Ukraine, or wherever one of these power plants blows up (and we are brewing some Fukushimas here in the US), there are millions of lethal doses of cesium on hand. So some of these places will potentially be dangerous hundreds of years later (neglecting the other isotopes for now).

Greenpa reckons that it will take about five Fukushima/Chernobyl type events before the top level polity wakes up and determines to shut down the nuke industy for good. He also says that there will probably be about 15 or 20 of them before they finish, simply because shutting them down is not a trivial task. These things do not behave well when you just walk away from them. I think he might be a little pessimistic, but he may be about right.

Sololeum said...

Bill, its not just the rotation, but the manure application, and the lighter machine weights - less impacts and not having glyphosphate drowning the soil biota!!!

Doctor Westchester said...


I’ve been very busy with my vegetable garden and planting fruit and nut trees recently, so I have only been able to follow these excellent posts most of the time.

If I could go back to Orlov’s review of your recent book, I must say that his “preaching to the sharks” passage is somewhat opaque to me. I didn’t think that many bankers and other elites read you, so I don’t that allusion is what he had in mind. Another explanation is that no one is actually listening to you. However, the commentators on your blog and the audience that you are obviously reaching through it and the Energy Bulletin show that there is clearly many that are listening and many times also doing. Unless there can be a better explanation, I think that he was going for effect rather illumination.

From what else he wrote, I think that was your last chapter, “The Road Ahead” that got his goat. I too am tired of books that describe major problems in great detail and then delve into “solutions” in the last chapter that seem to consist of writing to your congress critter to save the world at the eleventh hour.

Since as you have pointed out, it is already just after midnight, I thought of what you wrote as being things that might happen at six in the morning. Since Dmitry thinks that we all might be nearly practicing cannibals at that point – well, that is probably one reason why you have disagreements with him – the idea that we might have a functioning government of some sort still at that point which decides to take now unthinking actions against what is now consider untouchables is probable an unlikely one for him. I respect him a lot, but it is not as if something like that happened didn’t in Russia recently. Oh yes, it did, didn’t it?

Speaking of nuclear vaporware, I think that it might be time to sing its praises. With the flooding along the Missouri threatening to create the fourth big nuclear incident of all time, there is the possibility that we in the U.S. might finally come to our senses about the inevitable hazards/disasters that are involved with fusion. However, I won’t hold my breath on that one. So, if we are fated to throw untold treasure down a rat hole in an effort to make up the coming energy shortfalls, let’s make it a rat hole that has the potential to do the least harm.

So the fact that molten salt reactors/fast neutron reactors/rings of power are a technology untested on a commercial scale and might never go anywhere despite sending zillions in research and testing is a feature, not a bug. It much is much better to have empty concrete hulls that never got finished, rather than another 100 mile dead zone from the light water reactor that did.

Therefore, if push comes to shove I am all in favor of thorium, fusion or fairy dust reactors.

I will end with something remotely connected to this week’s post. If the article from the Proceeding ever gets noticed widely, I’m sure someone (a speech writer for a pro-alternative energy political candidate or organization head) will claim that trying to extract too much energy with industrial windmill can affect our weather, that this is a solution to global warming. After all, two plus two equals ten.


Ozark Chinquapin said...

JMG, have you read "The Resilient Gardener" by Carol Deppe? Not only is it a wonderful gardening book, the author has celiac disease and has lots of gluten free recipes that she makes from her homegrown ingredients, and in her chapter on corn she goes into the cooking and eating qualities of different varieties when you're baking with all corn rather than the "cornbreads" people are used to that are really just corn-flavored wheat breads. Just thought I'd bring it up since you mentioned your wife's celiac disease.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Faint proxy for actual experience with impoverishment: collapse in The Megacity, a report from Lagos.

For the more rural perspective: Darwin's Nightmare or Ballad of Narayama

Thanks for illumination of the precepts JMG. I try to learn something every day and this forum is a real boon.

dragonfly said...


Your response to papabear r.e. the technological, economic and political contexts within which decisions to develop nuclear energy are made has reminded me of a chilling thought I had recently, to wit:

I know precious little about all the myriad details in commissioning a nuclear power generating facility. But I can assume that in addition to the engineering of all the physical systems that make up the plant, the countless safety regulations that must be adhered to and the contingency plans that must be in place, there must also be a multitude of financial calculations that need to add up properly over the lifetime of the facility to guarantee both "safe" operation and eventual "safe" decommissioning of the facility. After all, decommissioning is part of the life-cycle of the plant.

I am forced to wonder - in such financial calculations and projections, is any thought ever given to the possibility that when a plant comes due for decommissioning, there may not be any economy left to speak of ? What happens when the financial means to decommision a nuclear plant are limited or non-existent ?

Needless to say, the events unfolding in Japan have seeded this line of thought. And, apologies to all for veering a little off-topic.

SophieGale said...

human nature vs cultural nature: read about Dr. Robert M. Sapolsky's study of savanna baboons in Kenya. The Forest Troop lost its most aggressive males to bovine tuberculosis. Almost half the male population died. The females, infants, and less dominate males not only formed a remarkably civil (for baboons)society but "educated" normal "jerky" males who have joined the troop. The Forest Troop culture has endured for more than two generations.

In talking about wood and coppicing, no one has mentioned bamboo. I know there are species native to the U.S, though I don't know if they are as versatile as many species in Asia. Bike frames can be made of bamboo. I was aware of a project to introduce them in Haiti. And in Ghana...

Cherokee Organics said...


Thanks for your thoughts - I look to you for spiritual guidance, which is why I asked the question about trees - the modifications to the forest here even though they have worthy long term goals, sometimes leave me feeling a little guilty. The topic of trees in Australia is mostly ideologically driven rather than evidence driven so it's a delicate topic.

You're right about perfection too. A lot of people for some reason seem to expect perfect solutions to all sorts of things even though the world we inhabit is clearly imperfect.

I received a lot of flak from all corners about solar power when I wrote the series of articles on solar power and living with it and what it all means. There's this mentality that says, "if I can't power my McMansion, then what good is the system?". People haven't yet quite come to terms with living with less and what nature can provide. Fossil fuels are a crutch and it's also the elephant in the room that few people (outside the peak oil scene) tend to discuss.

By the way, there is no possibility that the current electrical grid will ever provide a replacement source of energy for a large private vehicle fleet.

As to the eucalypts, well I've seen them personally in India, Peru and Vietnam - all presents from the Australian government. They're a scary present. During bush fires, because of the oil content in the leaves, if the fire gets into the crown of the tree, then the flame height is usually about 50% higher again than the highest point of the fuel. Now some of the trees on my block(eucalyptus obliqua - messmate) are around 50m tall and will eventually grow to around 90m. Food for thought. Unless you can contain them, please don't grow them - there are plenty of Australian rainforest trees which have evolved to be quite drought hardy (Australia works on a boom and bust cycle which has gone on for millennia) and they are far less flammable.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hi Ruben,

Yeah, I agree with you. The entitlement thing is kind of strange behaivour from people, but it is there. A couple of my mates have type 2 diabetes and I worry what the future holds in store for them.



Cherokee Organics said...

Hey Remnant,

Thanks for the link to Gaviotas. I'd never heard of them. Tell you what though, I thought the trees here were dangerous neighbours, their neighbours are even scarier. Maybe they provide them with organic gardening advice to keep them at bay? Still, they're onto something - like the monastery's - and if you're known around the traps to be poor, then no one will think to come around and take your stuff - what little there is anyway.



GHung said...

@JMG,Thanks for the biogas links. Fred M, over at TOD posted a link to this 1981 Reader's Digest article: Jean Pain: France's King of Green Gold, about producing one large annual batch of biogas while heating water as well (which may have been linked to here previously). I imagine he had some mechanized assistance, creating his large "cake" of biomass every year, but this is something I've considered; creating a huge compost pile to generate heat, for a greenhouse perhaps, and compost of course. With over 60" of rain most years, we certainly have enough veg matter. An ongoing system of soil manufacturing while reaping the energy byproducts seems doable. This may be a better option than the continuous feed idea I've been considering.

Some great links at the bottom of the article.

Regarding the debate about fission:
Count me with the naysayers. Seems humanity is once again at the crossroads (on one foot, hand in pocket, all that), renegotiating its bargain with the Devil. No worries....the Devil will continue to exact his payments long after any of us are around. So easy to discount the future....

One of the Remnant said...

@ DIYer

"it will take about five Fukushima/Chernobyl type events before the top level polity wakes up and determines to shut down the nuke industy for good. He also says that there will probably be about 15 or 20 of them before they finish, simply because shutting them down is not a trivial task. These things do not behave well when you just walk away from them. I think he might be a little pessimistic, but he may be about right."

In fact, if we look at this map, it seems very clear to me that he's being wildly optimistic.

What I mean is that there is built into that position the assumption that we'll have the capability to decommission nuke plants, whereas it seems likely that we'll lose that capacity (politically, economically, technologically), and most of the 100+ plants in the US will simply be left to meltdown at some point in the decades to come. With severe economic and energy declines underway, the 'operational fabric' - including all of the pieces needed to decommission those plants - degrades, rendering us as a society unable to either run or shut down such plants.

Can anyone really imagine those in political power devoting massive resources to such projects in the face of the multiple, inter-locking threats which are heading our way? I see no good evidence to believe that, and plenty which tells us it just ain't gonna happen.

The decision, as in so many other areas, will no longer be ours to make, and we'll simply have to adapt to the bitter consequences.

My guess is that the next few decades will witness the beginning of mass migrations of people away from meltdown areas (or they'll die in-place), and that this will be a driving feature of human settlement for the next several centuries.

- Oz

papabear said...

Thank you to everyone who has responded to my original query!

One of the Remnant said...

@ Chris

"I thought the trees here were dangerous neighbours, their neighbours are even scarier. Maybe they provide them with organic gardening advice to keep them at bay?"

In fact, the Gaviotas community predated the narco-terrorism that swept Colombia, but they found themselves in the dead center of activity in this regard once it came into existence, as they had chosen the most inhospitable section of Colombia in which to launch their project.

For years, Gaviotas had been regularly sending teams of mechanics and doctors to all the neighboring villages, installing their innovations (e.g. ram pumps), treating the sick, etc, and many villagers visited the Gaviotas community for classes in horticulture, irrigation, wind power, for medical treatment, etc. Thus, they had fully integrated themselves into the surrounding communities, and were highly regarded by all sides.

So, like the Red Cross, all sides in the political turmoil that erupted respected Gaviotas as neutral and humanitarian, and did not assault or threaten them, at least for the most part.

The book says "It became known throughout the region that no one came to Gaviotas armed.' Of course, it was not the FARC (who respected the no arms rule) or other guerilla orgs, but the Army that threatened them the most, landing armed helicopters and soldiers from time to time, bivouacking on the air strip, asserting government authority over the community. After one such incident, the Army engaged guerillas twenty kilometers away, and commandeered Gaviotas' all-solar hospital as emergency medical support to treat their casualties. As the book puts it:

"In the meantime, a coincidental surge in the arrival of injured civilians suggested that the guerillas were also bringing their casualties. At times it was not simple to maintain this equilibrium. Once Magnus Zethelius discovered that he had bedded two opposing combatants in the same room. One had seventeen lacerations; the other a bullet in his neck. Magnus had worked so many hours straight that he forgot which was which. Earlier they had been trying to kill each other - now the one who could still walk was bringing the other water."

In fact, this is one of the reasons I recommend people - especially those who tend toward the survivalist mentality - read the book, because it highlights what real community can achieve even in a milieu of war and social tumult.

So many Americans, in particular in the 'green' camp, are utterly at a loss to understand examples like the one given above, assuming that "human nature" is fundamentally evil, greedy, violent, and that mass mob violence is inevitable as economic and energy decline sets in. I think this is possible, but I know it is not necessary, as examples like that of Gaviotas demonstrate.

In fact, I would argue that such evidence makes it clear that it tends to be those in power - specifically, government at all levels - who demonstrate evil, greedy, violent intent in desperate times, and that it is from this direction where the primary danger lies - not nearly so much from one's fellow citizens.

- Oz

John Michael Greer said...

Remnant, the mess at Fukushima Daiichi won't be over in any real sense for generations. As for the fission boosters, I'd have a scrap of respect for them if just one volunteered to go over there and help clean up the mess.

Watcher, it's my understanding that you're right about waterwheels; the crucial point is not to put in too many wheels over too little space.

Kieran, many thanks for the links!

DIYer, oh man. Anybody who thinks that radionuclides can be neutralized in a compost heap is deep into cluelessness. (To be fair, the same is true about toxic heavy metals; composting is great, but there are things it can't get rid of.) As for Greenpa's estimate, I'm sorry to say that he's likely right about what it'll take to end the nuclear age, but the chance that existing nukes will be decommissioned safely is pretty small. In my blog/novel Star's Reach, set about four centuries from now in the deindustrial future, one of the less pleasant features of the landscape of Meriga is the dead zones around old nukes -- and there are quite a few of them.

Dr. W, yes, it was the fact that I proposed solutions that seems to have irritated him. If I understand him correctly, he's into the One Big Crash theory of decline, and so my thesis -- that the crisis we're approaching is one phase of our decline; that we'll come out the other end of it, and not as cave dwelling cannibals, in a few decades; that there will be a period of stabilization and partial recovery at that time, and getting ideas into circulation now, so that the new governments of that time may be able to use them, may be a useful stragegy -- is not something he's going to appreciate.

As for windmills as a solution to global warming, well, it's already been proposed by a commenter here, so you're probably right. Why let simple absurdity stand in the way of fantasies of business as usual forever?

Ozark, I have indeed -- in fact, thanks to an enthusiastic and generous reader, I have a copy. Still, thanks for the recommendation!

Lloyd, thank you. Those are good antidotes for twinkle dust logic.

Sophie, thanks for the links!

Chris, I've come to think that it's going to take really hard times to make the value of a comfortable tarpaper shack with a waterproof roof and a single 12 volt light bulb visible to today's spoiled middle classes. We may not be too far from that experience, either. Thanks for the feedback on eucalypts, also!

Ghung, I'm probably going to have to bring up Faust again one of these days, as part of the discussion of nuclear power. It's hard to discuss just how ghastly the reality of a nuclear future is without referencing both the mythic archetypes that serve as bait for it, and the ones that are active down there underneath the illusions.

Ozark Chinquapin said...

The health of the soil can in fact dramatically affect the level of radioactivity in crops after contamination. This is a story of one farmer in Austria who's produce tested negative for radioactive contamination following Chernobyl while everyone else's in his area were contaminated. No, the radionuclides are not neutralized, but it seems when the microbial activity in the soil is optimal the plants tend to not absorb them.

P.S. I have posted before as Richard, my actual name, but I've recently changed my blogger name to avoid confusion among the other Richards.

GHung said...

Faust- from the producers of The Pied Piper and The Brothers Grimm.
Now showing at a Planet near you..

Don Mason said...

Re: Economics of Nuclear Power Plants

When nuclear plants were first proposed back in the 1950’s, the insurance industry took one look at the enormous risks involved and refused to write liability coverage for any accidents. But the electric utility companies got Congress to pass legislation which limited their liability. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been economically viable.

Although the National Academy of Sciences disagreed, the cost of decommissioning the plants and the long-term storage of the nuclear wastes was essentially defined as an insignificant factor.

Decommissioning really boiled down to three simple steps:

1) Turn the switch “Off”.
2) Close the door behind you.
3) Grab the money you made and run as far away as possible.

hawlkeye said...


What better conjure than one that conjures more conjurors? It must compound the spell, kinda like a reverse Ponzi, or perhaps the inverse antidote to the trance of unlimited growth itself, which certainly has a solid grip on far too many...

One of the Remnant said...

@ Ozark

"The health of the soil can in fact dramatically affect the level of radioactivity in crops after contamination."

Good point - and to take it one step further, I ran across this fascinating article by Paul Stamets, a permaculturalist, who has suggestions for mycoremediation of contaminated soil using fungi.

The sad thing, of course, is that his protocol has virtually zero chance of being implemented.

- Oz

dltrammel said...

Add this nail to the whole "fraking" mess. Looks like they're padding their books, if not outright lying about the amount of usable gas and life of the wells.

"Insiders Sound an Alarm Amid a Natural Gas Rush"

Kind of the next snake

DIYer said...

Ozark and One,
Indeed, bioremediation is the only way to remove radionuclides from the soil once they have become dispersed.

I have a family relation who did research in bioremediation back in the '70s as part of an advanced botany degree. Funding for that sort of research dried up after the '70s were over and the insanity or "Reaganomics" began to take hold. She had to get a real job...

But hopefully some of that knowledge will survive. There are plants which are known to accumulate things like selenium, arsenic, and lead. The Paul Stamets article was quite interesting.

Doctor Westchester said...

It appears that we might get the fourth big nuclear boo-boo: and Zero Hedge, while not always right, does call things correctly often enough to make me very uncomfortable about what is happening in Nebraska.

I look at what is happening there with extreme mixed feelings since I live in a future nuclear dead zone and I wonder what it will take to safely shut down the bloody past-its-design-life thing sitting upriver from me.

BTW, in the earlier comment I speak of "inevitable hazards/disasters that are involved with fusion". I meant fission. It is usually late when I wrote these comments and someone is telling to get to bed now. She is right of course.

John Michael Greer said...

Ozark, yes, and there are several other low-tech tricks that can be used to minimize uptake; still, I'd rather not have to gamble my life on them.

Ghung, when Spengler referred to western industrial civilization as the Faustian Culture he was far more accurate than he ever dreamed.

Don, I've long been in favor of legally requiring the promoters of nuclear power to keep the wastes in their own basements.

Dltrammel, yes, this is what I've been hearing all along -- the whole thing is being wildly inflated to boost the stock prices of natural gas companies. We probably have about five years of cheap natural gas, total, and then production falls off a cliff. Those of my readers who use natural gas should have wood stoves installed by then.

Doctor W, if commercial fusion power were possible -- I'm convinced at this point that it's not, for reasons based on the physics of plasma confinement -- it would have plenty of disaster potential, too. As it is, well, fission seems to be making up for the lack. I hope people in Nebraska are quietly packing their bags and heading off to visit relatives three states away; I certainly would be.

Bill Pulliam said...

JMG -- speaking of Star's Reach and nukes... isn't it more than a little spooky how you described essentially the exact Fukishima Daiichi accident (other than the triggering tsunami), including both reactor core and spent fuel rods issues, but about a year before it actually happened? You'd think if some blogging druid could have anticipated that scenario so accurately, a bunch of nuclear engineers should have been able to do likewise...

I'll be very curious to see where you go with the central plot there, by the way, considering your well-known views on UFOs and the prospects for extraterrestrial intervention in earthly affairs.

John Michael Greer said...

Bill, it astonishes and appalls me that everybody else doesn't instantly grasp the obvious gargantuan problems with fission technology in an age of technological decline. Of course admitting that we're already in such an age is the first step most people aren't willing to take. As for the extraterrestrial dimension of Star's Reach, I hope you'll find it entertaining; I'm doing my best to make it fit the universe as we know it, which is, of course, a universe in which the energies needed for interstellar flight aren't in reach of human beings or their more or less equivalents, but the energies needed to send a radio message from one world to another might well be.

Sayash said...

Researching renewable energy like biofuels, it soon becomes very clear that the gap between total world agricultural production ( ~ 5 billion tonnes) and the production required to meet today's oil demand ( ~ 30 billion barrels of oil), via plants with a process similar to Brazilian ethanol will need a LOT of agriculture, more than 10 times that of today's world agriculture (~ 70-80 billion tonnes).

An interesting aside is that total photosynthesis on Earth is ~ 100 billion tonnes of carbon, so roughly ~ 200 billion tonnes of biomass. And its funny how most people don't talk about this.

Bill Pulliam said...

Let's just hope your climate scenarios are not so prescient -- they would lead to the extinction of nearly all the native flora and fauna of the southeast and midwest. I actually find it hard to imagine any meteorological scenario that could really bring such extreme and persistent drought to the region, given the boiling cauldron of the Gulf of Mexico so nearby. Even in the driest years of the long-term 20th century droughts, places like Tennessee still managed to squeak out 20-30" of rain, and Pleistocene climate reconstructions don't ever push it all the way to hard desert, just to grassland/savannah. You're just hard pressed to make the blocking of the Gulf and the capping high pressure NEVER weaken enough to let the steam burst through and the storms start popping up. Now, the second phase, with an intense monsoon climate, is easier to picture; though without the Himalayas to cut off the arctic I bet there would still be some pretty significant cold outbreaks, and probably some winter rains near the repositioned coast. The same pattern that would cut off winter rain would probably bring down polar air (in the Indian Subcontinent the mountains block these and create warming downslope effects in winter).. And even an Arctic that is much warmer than at present would still be pretty dang cold in January!

Bill Pulliam said...

...which actually segues into something that has always bugged me about the "greenhouse warming will lead to more intense storms" hypothesis. Greenhouse warming does not increase the input of energy to the earth's surface. I don't see an a priori reason why warming the globe as a whole should increase the rate at which that Kleidon power-generating earth system should run. Weather is not driven by temperature and moisture per se, but by GRADIENTS in temperature and moisture. All the models actually predict that temperature gradients will DECREASE with increasing greenhouse gases -- more warming in the poles than the tropics. When you have decreased thermal gradients plus increased atmospheric moisture, I'm not sure what comes next. Change, sure, but in the direction of greater intensity? Don't know. The energy available to evaporate water from the oceans is the same; you might wind up with higher global humidity (on average) but no increase in global precipitation.

What might increase the total energy to drive the system would be increased absorption of incoming sunlight. This gets in to the snow-and-clouds feedbacks. Snow/ice should decrease, certainly; but it tends to already be in areas that don't receive much incoming solar radiation in the first place. Clouds are a real wild card, and probably one of the major long-term stabilizing negative feedbacks in the system (hotter - more evaporation - more clouds - more reflected sunlight - not so hot).

Change, for sure.. but the details..???

GHung said...

JMG: "Bill, it astonishes and appalls me that everybody else doesn't instantly grasp the obvious gargantuan problems with fission technology in an age of technological decline."

Gosh, it doesn't astonish me one bit. Proverbs, folklore, legends, myths about 'foxes guarding henhouses', faustian deals with devils, metaphoric heros arriving just in time to save the day, life beyond a suffering human existance, have been recuring themes since well before these qualities were encoded into literature, or, as they say, since before time itself. Humanity had itself figured out early on.

What is clear is that, collectively, we'll keep doing these things until we can't, and what astonishes me is that folks think we won't. At least some of us learn to heed the warnings, sent forward in time, about ourselves. Therein lay my hopes, as silly as it may seem. But then again "humans don't have to make sense..."

'Sleep, my little one, sleep. Thy father guards the sheep'...

[funny, my verification word is 'rhoped']

Tracy G said...

JMG wrote: "I hope people in Nebraska are quietly packing their bags and heading off to visit relatives three states away; I certainly would be. "

Whatever do you mean, my dear treehugging friend? Nuclear power is perfectly safe! As long as it's 93 million miles away.

I live over 150 miles from both plants, in a direction that's more upwind than not. But I am supposed to travel to Omaha in a month's time for continuing education to renew my professional license.

A change in careers is looking more attractive than usual right now.

DIYer said...

I have thought the same thing about the "greenhouse warming will lead to more intense storms" hypothesis.

The temperature difference that runs our climate is between the sunlight pouring down on one side and the 4.2°K cold of the cosmos on the other side. By forming an infrared blanket, greenhouse gases raise that night-sky background temperature. It's more like warming the cosmos than it is like heating up the Sun.

So it means perhaps more cloudy weather (lousy news for PV solar), but not so much hurricane intensity. Less wind energy as well, but it's doubtful that it will ever fall into a planetwide dead calm.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Bill Pullinam:

Most interesting comments re GW that make sense to me.

Near Chicago we are already seeing a trend of more humidity, increased cloudiness, more rain, and the intense (lots of rain/high winds) storms are more statistically frequent. (Some of the extra humidity is driven by corn/soy evapotranspiration, of course, but not all--our Midwest di-cropping is changing local weather/climate)

The other odd thing, at least around here, is that warming is showing up: in an increase in night-time lows in summer, more than daytime summer highs; and in a 2-4 (F) degree increase in winter average temps over the last decade, but not overall average summer temps.

I'm not sure how that fits in with your scenarios, but our weather is also somewhat gulf driven. I also don't quite understand why the the Great Lakes' water levels would necessarily go down, as predictions say (except for we humans thinking of them and using them as an infinite resource).

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Re nuclear--

The take-away quote from that NY Times article on the Nebraska reactors:

One of the things we learned at the Fukushima event is the importance of dealing with natural hazards... (the NRC chairman)

What kind of worldview is this? How many levels of irony are we dealing with here? (rhetorical questions)

Twilight said...

I found this article on TomDispatch to be timely:

It is an article written by Michael T. Klare entitled The New Thirty Years’ War. He gets so much of it right, understanding the driving forces, likelihood of conflict, and even (eventually) getting around to listing energy efficiency as an important strategy and betting on decentralized sources. But the idea that our energy sources might not be replaced at all is simply dismissed. Santa will eventually bring those gigawatts, because,well, because he has to. Because we really really want him to. After a long period of conflict things will settle down again to a familiar industrial civilization powered by renewable energy.

Reading things like this is frustrating – you can almost hear the door slamming shut. It's a great example of how people can have the knowledge and information, see and comprehend it, and yet still simply refuse to recognize the limitations.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

True, Bill, anthropogenic enhancement of the atmospheric greenhouse function does not increase input of energy to the earth's system. But it does decrease the output, to a point. That is why the system gets hotter, to the new point of equilibrium with the extra-planetary thermal gradient. The anticipated increase in the frequency and intensity of storms is in part predicated on the behavior dynamics of perturbed systems. Increased storminess would be a local manifestation of a re-balancing system. This is why climatic destabilization is a much more descriptive term than global warming. So, while the global temperature gradient should decrease during and as a result of re-balancing, the same is not necessarily true of more local gradients. For instance the latitudinal gradient of the oceans should be reduced due to their thermal mass, while the longitudinal continental effect is increased, particularly at high latitudes. The moisture and cloudiness elements of the equation are indeed difficult to incorporate into a functional model, but there doesn't seem to be any reason to suspect their influence to be particularly stabilizing on a local scale. It is also important to consider that gradients, whether of temperature or moisture, are temporal as well as spatial phenomena.

In my estimation the potential for successive damaging weather events to erode unprepared infrastructure and consume resources that could otherwise enable a less chaotic and destructive re-balancing of the human element of the earth's system equation is quite high. The treasure that will be squandered desperately trying to control the Daiichi nuclear disaster could have been much more effectively employed decommissioning that and many of the other ill-conceived time bombs littering the landscape. Never mind that here in Fantasialand the Japanese multi-meltdown and the current nothing to worry about folks threatening to decimate large swathes of some of the most productive industrial agriculture in the world, has had virtually no impact on plans to double down on the Faustian bargain already made.

Ruben said...

This Kunstler article in Orion mag really knocks it out of the park.

Back to the Future | James Howard Kunstler | Orion Magazine

JohnGoes said...

On bicycles - I recently came across an Austin inventor who has revolutionized bicycle gearing and it's also being applied to trucking. Gone are sprocket gearing, replaced by ball-friction gearing. Supposed to have massive increase in efficiency.

Doctor Westchester said...

In regards to the "fission" vs. "fusion" comment, I was merely correcting a typo I made in an earlier comment. My sardonic "support" for alternate nuclear is based on taking a gamble that these technologies will never be commercialized no matter how much people might try, whereas upgraded conventional fission reactors are on the drawing boards and could still be built.

I am quite aware that, despite the green wash, fusion energy would create a large amount of at least low level radioactive waste - the reactor itself. As for as any other danger, the best that can be said is the "unknown other hazards/disasters that are involved with fusion" since we have no clue what is required to make the technology viable. Sacrificing virgins perhaps? Hey, that might solve the population problem!

Sadly enough, if the “we must have nuclear” meme can’t be killed, getting the industry to settle for the safer, but actually unbuildable, nuclear alternates may be all we have left. said...

@One of the remnant:

Glenn's Complete Bicycle Manual: selection, maintenance, repair. By Clarence W. Coles and Harold T. Glenn, copyright 1973. ISBN 0-517-50093-0

Bicycling Magazine's Complete Guide to Bicycle Maintenance and Repair for road and mountain bikes. By Jim Langley, copyright 1999. ISBN 1

The Glenn book is better overall, I think, but the Langley book does go into detail on how to fix the 'click' type of derailleur.

Hope this helps!

GHung said...

Ha! Twenty-Seven: On Gasoline Oceans

Nicely played Greer.. When are you going to make your Faustian bargain for Stars Reach,, and pay for those solar panels you're going to need? Is it "keep the paper", or the finder's rights?

The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

On the topic of nuclear power, I've just read that inhabitants of Taos, New Mexico, are evacuating. Why? Because wildfires are getting close to plutonium waste protected only by tents. This seems to me to be even more scary than what's happening in Nebraska,

Here's a blog post from one of those affected: More fire, more dangerous. said...

@John Goes -

I read the first article and I see big problems with this in a resource constrained world - electronics? plastic covered dial? special 'tranny fluid'?

Also the article gets it wrong regarding derailleur technology. They've been around for more than 100 years, not 60, and there was a revolution of sorts when Shimano came out with their 'click' type system in the early 80's (I'm sorry, I can't for the life of me think of what it's called). To me, derailleur technology is the sort that will outlast resource constraints for quite a while, because it's high technology but low resource intensive; it doesn't depend on electronics, synthetic fluids, or other 'gizmos' likely to wear out or break before the rest of the product does. I even have my doubts about the 'click' technology -- once those babies go out, they're pretty much done, and you may as well get a new one. Plus, there are a lot of plastic parts on them which do degrade due to environmental exposure, and they won't be easily replaceable in the not too distant future.

The old style may take time to shift, which is maybe a problem if you're a racer, but isn't much of an issue if you're riding to work or from the store. I'll take the old technology over the new, even if I add a few ounces and sacrifice a few seconds. Reliability trumps convenience to me.


One of the Remnant said...

@ Ruben

"This Kunstler article in Orion mag really knocks it out of the park."

Agreed. IMO, JHK is at his best when he sticks to what he knows, and when he manages to avoid getting wrapped up in Nascar-Nazi apocalypticism! :)

- Oz

GHung said...

Some links on farm/village scale biogas digesters in Costa Rica:

Biodigester Design & Construction Be sure to see the link for how the Santa Fe Women's Group produces and uses biogas in rural Costa Rica.

..and here's a village construction video in spanish, with english transcription (youtube).

These are simple biodigesters made with plastic sheeting, plastic buckets and fittings. The design could be made more robust with locally sourced or salvaged materials. Rather than thin sheet plastic I would use heavier mil sheeting such as pond liner. Old buckets tend to get brittle so I would scrounge heavier PVC pipe.

This shows how simple the process can be, and this system could be connected to a community low-water toilet in addition to adding manure and vegetable matter.

Kieran O'Neill said...


From another review of that CVP gearing, they actually say it's perceptibly less efficient, and much, much heavier.

Something else worth noting, from the first link in your post: "A kit costs $595 and includes a CVP transmission hub, speed sensor, integrated wiring harness, software, and an electronic shift controller with a 32-bit microprocessor, among other things."

That's an awful lot of complicated digital electronics adding extra points of failure that might require skills not normally found in a bicycle shop to correct.

In fact, it's very similar to Shimano's coasting gearing system, which I have seen on a few cheap bikes, but which has since been taken off the market. When I first mentioned it to a bike mechanic her response was something along the lines of "Oh dear. In a year from now we're gonna have people coming in saying 'My automatic electronic transmission isn't working, can you fix it for me?' and we're gonna have to say 'Nope. Sorry.'"

Anyway, if what you want is internal hub gearing (which has a range of benefits and disadvantages over a dérailleur system), planetary gear-based systems have been around for nearly as long as the bicycle, and, while complicated, do not require a laptop to repair.

LewisLucanBooks said...

@ Adrian Ayres Fisher - Well, you probably haven't heard much about our weather out here (wet side of the mountains, western Washington State) because we haven't had any outright disasters. But last year and this year have been decidedly odd.

Wet, coolish and cloudy. WAY more than usual. I'm a native and I like the rain and gray, but this is making even me, twitchy. Our local rivers are behaving, but I hear the Columbia is running very high. Close to flood stage, but the dams are barely keeping that under control.

Talk around the Farmer's Market is poor crops overall. A lot of them are shifting to raised beds to keep the vegi's feet out of the wet. This week the forecast is for showers, all week long. Right not it's not raining, but gray and overcast.

We're past the solstice, so we're on the downhill run to winter. But, we could still end up with a scorcher over the next few weeks. Reports of very few bees about, this year.

idiotgrrl said...

6/27/11 8:44 PM
The carp who jumped Hukou Falls said...

On the topic of nuclear power, I've just read that inhabitants of Taos, New Mexico, are evacuating. Why? Because wildfires are getting close to plutonium waste protected only by tents. This seems to me to be even more scary than what's happening in Nebraska,

Here's a blog post from one of those affected: More fire, more dangerous.

Los Alamos. Not Taos. Taos is nowhere near the fire, neither the town nor the pueblo. But yes, Los Alamos has been evacuated. A very orderly evacuation, from all I hear, with Espanola - up the road and out of the fire's path - offering a hotel for the evacuees and the valley Animal Humane for their pets.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Thanks for Orion link Reuben. JHK certainly does have a knack for descriptive. But other than the introductory touchstone of yesterday's tomorrow-art, most appears essentially vintage prose repackaged. Then in concluding he makes several references to magic; saying both that we suffer from too much and that we don't experience enough. Oh dear. Given my schooling this week by Prof Greer I'm reticent to opine, but methinks it a bit of a muddle.

Ruben said...

@Lloyd Lincoln

Well, Kunstler does not put bread on the table with moderate prose. The thing I loved about this article is how he talked truth about sacred cows.

Density, for example, is untouchable by city planners and greenies--an absolute good. Unless, of course, you actually believe in peak oil, in which case density has to be a lot more nuanced.

And speaking of peak oil, what are we going to run all that mass transit on? Oops. Maybe we need some more nuance in that conversation as well.

Les said...

@Bill & the others thinking about planetary warming and the implications on weather in your neck of the woods:
Warming is predicted to (at some point between next week and next century) dump the Greenland ice sheet into the Atlantic and shut down the North Atlantic Conveyor.
There's lots of speculation I've seen about a new ice age in Europe caused by the collapse of the Gulf Stream.
What I have not seen is any speculation of how it affects you on your side of the pond.
So what happens when you shut down the current that carts enough warm water from the Gulf of Mexico to Spain to stop all of Europe freezing through summer?
Does the Gulf then heat up even more than it has already?
Increased water temperature is a given for increased cyclone/typhoon/hurricane severity. Does this mean that your Katrina is just a harbinger of things to come?
Exciting things to come in the Confederate states, methinks...

DIYer said...

When I was a kid I had this bicycle that had a 3 speed transmission in the hub of the rear wheel. To shift it, you'd pedal backwards briefly... a quarter-turn backwards and it would kerchunk into the next gear. As I recall, it worked until I took it apart to see HOW it worked. :-)

Now I have the usual assortment of sprockets and levers to flip the chain from one to another. It's a bit awkward, but if I take it apart, I can put it back together with simple hand tools, no problem. Somehow I think the derailleur is the gearing system of the future.

Lloyd Lincoln Clark said...

Ruben (sans the extra e), I've been a fan of Kunster prose since "The Geography of Nowhere". Though the concept of peak usage of the finite resources powering exponential human expansion has been well ingrained for me since at least "The Limits to Growth" and Small is Beautiful", "The Long Emergency" really pulled it all together. I read JHK's blog regularly because I appreciate his willingness to come out swinging, and his ability to land solid punches, the gratuitous culture and ethnicity based disparagement excepted. As was noted in the Orion comments on the "Back to the Future" piece, habitual repetition of the tenents central to his thesis is having an impact on the wider discourse.

Regarding transit options for the masses, more shortly than most are willing to aknowledge there will likely be but one: one foot in front of the other. The imposition of that reality will be a critical factor in determining the density of the human inhabited landscape. JHK and JMG are among the few making regular reference to the necessity for making arrangements accomodating of that eventuality.

Cows are sacred for a very good reason. They are more valuable alive as self reproducing converters of browse to muscle power, to high quality fat and protien (dairy) for human consumption and to fertilizer and fuel (manure), than dead as meat. Only the truly starving or the too rich eat their cows. I count myself among the latter.

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

Les and Bill--

Here is a link to an interesting article that talks about the gulf stream and the movement of heat through the atmosphere. Some studies indicate that it's the Rocky Mountains more than the GS current that are responsible for warmer European winters (except for Norway).

Glenn said...


The thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic is critical to the operation of the Gulf Stream, and significant melting of Arctic sea ice or the Greenland ice sheet, or both, will slow it down a lot. There will still remain a wind driven clockwise current similar to that in the North Pacific. But it will be an order of magnitude smaller, and Europe will indeed get a lot cooler and could have another "little Ice Age". I don't know how it will affect the U.S. and Canadian Northeast, but I don't think it'll make anything warmer.

I think you're right about the Gulf of Mexico warming up, which may increase hurricane and tornado intensity in the SE U.S., it might also decrease same for Atlantic storms...

In terms of the over all global climate, the cooling of Europe won't be able to overcome the huge amount of CO2 currently in the atmosphere though. An interesting contrast, and the new heat differential between a cooler Europe and it's Asian and African neighbors might do _interesting_ things to weather patterns in Eurasia and Africa.


Petr said...

Hello there,

I have just small comment on the theme of water turbines, maybe someone will be interested in this kind of turbine:

google translate from Czech:

I think it is very interesting device, despite quite low efficiency, it has other important advantages: it is able to operate with water height as low as 0.5m, but it is capable to utilize much higher water column. It is really simple, easy to build even withnout metallurgy I think. And it is cabable to suck dirty water with leaves etc. without damage. Also it provides VERY high torque with low speed, which may be advantageous for some purposes (but it needs gearbox for electric power generation).

The pity is that it is patented meanwhile.

Cheers, Petr

One of the Remnant said...

@ Les

"Warming is predicted to (at some point between next week and next century) dump the Greenland ice sheet into the Atlantic and shut down the North Atlantic Conveyor.

There's lots of speculation I've seen about a new ice age in Europe caused by the collapse of the Gulf Stream."

I think you can safely dismiss this speculation as nonsense, inasmuch as climate scientists have demonstrated that the notion that thermohaline circulation is NOT responsible for Europe's temperate climate. See The Source of Europe's Mild Climate: The notion that the Gulf Stream is responsible for keeping Europe anomalously warm turns out to be a myth for details.

This is one of the issues I have with the current state of public "thinking" on climate disruption - it's shot through with myths and non-evidence-based claims, which 'true believers', as with all ideologies, do not think to question.

Don't get me wrong - I studied the evidence for 'global warming' (better: climate disruption) for many years in an attempt to get at the truth of such a politically polarized topic, and came to the conclusion (based on a preponderance of scientific evidence - really, a consilience of inductions approach) that climate disruption is underway, accelerating, and that anthropogenic factors play a large part.

But fear mongering and speculation (on both sides) has become such a part of this debate that it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

As an example, the demise of the global conveyor belt is not at all as likely as many claim - it is in fact a hypothetical, speculative, without any firm evidence (to my knowledge), and has all the hallmarks of what HL Mencken referred to as one of the 'endless series of hobgoblins' with which the public is 'menaced' in order to control them.

One thing that my studies of the global climate system convinced me of was that it is an astonishingly complex system about which we, as yet, know very little, while pretending to be able to make definitive predictions (with very, very rarely being presented with associated error bars, especially in the mass media reports). We're just not that smart or knowledgable.

The reasons for us to be cautious in regard to the conveyor belt hypothesis have a heck of a lot more to do with the precautionary principle than with solid human knowledge about that aspect of the climate system and how we are impacting it. In other words, as in so many other areas, an uncertain reality trumps our desire for certainty.

- Oz

Glenn said...


Thanks for the link to Richard Seager's article in American Scientist. Interesting, but fundamentaly flawed.

First of all, having had the chance to study this first hand with some of the Climate Scientists we carried on the icebreaker HEALY; no scientist I've met says that failure of the Thermohaline circulation will result in Europe having a "New Ice Age". But they did all say that Europe might get much colder, as it was during the late mediaval period.

The flaws I noticed in the article:

Mr. Seager is not the first person to figure out that in the mid-latitudes of the Temperate Zone, with the wind and weather primarily travelling from West to East, the West side of the continent, down wind of the ocean is warmer than the East side, which gets continental air. (Though he seems to imply it in his article) The refinement of what happens when air is sqeezed over the Rockies is nice, but a refinement of general principle. The sufferings of the Plymouth Pilgrims at the same latitude as Spain was noted at the time (early 1600's) and was an early piece of data for the difference between East and West coasts.

He sets up a straw man: why is the NE Atlantic Coast so much colder than Europe, and proceeds to demolish it with a computer model.

You might have noticed the caveat he provides that his argument only applies to Europe South of Norway, but does not explain why. It might have been awkward for him to explain the Northeastern arm of the Gulf Stream that keeps the North Cape ice free, while Barrow, Alaska at the same latitude is icebound in winter.

What he does _not_ do is directly compare an ocean with a thermohaline circulation (the North Atlantic) with one that does not (the North Pacific).

If he had, the question would have been "Why is the Pacific Coast of North America Colder than the Atlantic Coast of Europe for a given latitude?"

One answer might be that the Pacific is much wider, and more heat is lost from the Kurishio Current before it gets to us (I live on the Olympic Peninsula); but he would have to admit that heat might indeed be transported via an ocean current (water conducts heat 25 times better than air).

Another answer might be that due to geographical differences, such as the Aleutian Islands and the narrowness of the Bering Straits, warmer water is prevented from reaching much of Alaska, as opposed to the more open Denmark Straits and the Norwegian Sea on the Atlantic side.

I posit that the difference is the Thermohaline Circulation in the Atlantic, and the lack of it in the Pacific.

The source of the water for this is the water entering the Arctic from the Pacific side through the Bering Straits. As sea ice forms in the Arctic the remaining water becomes cooler and more saline. It exits along the bottom on the Atlantic side, driving the thermohaline circulation when it drops off the continental shelf of Northern Europe into the Atlantic basin.

I agree with you and Mr. Seager that failure of the Gulf Stream will _not_ cover Europe in glaciers. What is more likely is that Western European climate will change from similar to Oregon and Washington to similar to British Columbia and Alaska.

I like Les's hypothesis about hurricanes and tornadoes though.

Continued Global Climate change and reduced sea ice in the Arctic might counter this to a certain extent, especially for Scandinavia.

Marrowstone Island
Olympic Peninsula
Washington State

Glenn said...


As you say, weather is driven by heat _differences_. As sea ice is lost, the albedo of the Arctic will be reduced; the angle of incidence is so low that I'm not sure how much that will add to warming. It most certainly will make the Arctic Ocean a much more effective _radiator_ of heat. This may tend to increase the difference between the Tropics and the Poles (at least the North Pole; until the mass of the Antarctic melts off, effects in the Southern hemisphere will be minimal) So, I expect that northern hemisphere weather will indeed become more violent as the Arctic sea ice diminishes in area.

Marrowstone Island
Olympic Peninsula
Washington State

Joel said...

Wouldn't a unit of soldiers that maneuver on bicycles but fight on foot, count as dragoons, rather than infantry?