The Failure of Networked Systems

There are those among the Peak Oil community who suspect that we could be facing a failure of our interdependent society that may be sudden, profound, and complete. I have repeatedly said that I am not numbered among them. My opinion is that our way of life will have to change significantly, but slowly. I don’t expect to be clubbing anybody with a femur in any foreseeable future. This opinion is on record in both print and electronic media, and I don’t expect to be issuing a retraction any time soon.... but a recent event forced me to admit that I may have to hedge a little.


Our internal network here has been having problems. My email (and more importantly my access to TOD) has been very unreliable over the last two days. The network regularly flicked from "working" to "failed" in the blink of an eye. I was reminded that the speed of collapse in a network is often a function of the natural frequency (speed) of the network, while the breadth of failure depends on a number of factors, including load and the degree of interdependence within the network.

The problem was eventually traced to a problem with one piece of software on one machine on our intranet. The software drivers for the network interface card on one machine were corrupt.

This raised a question in my mind: The Internet Protocol was originally designed to be a robust, reliable, redundant system. How does one piece of software on one machine bring down a network with thousands of nodes?

The answer is easy: Cost efficiencies.

Our Intranet network could have been built to be reliable, but instead it was built to be "efficient". Far from being a network of fail-safe systems, our network is a network of interdependencies. When the system was loaded, a single failure brought the whole system down. "Business Efficiency" has brought our network to its knees for two consecutive days.

I have seen this pattern a lot recently. Last year the power went out in my city. The power transmission system was heavily loaded one afternoon, when a single failure brought the whole system down.

Academics have studied failures of complex systems with interesting results. One of the experiments they did will be familiar to anyone who has ever played with sand-castles as a child. Build a sand pile by gradually adding grains of sand. After a while, avalanches start to run down your pile. Sometimes they are minor, while other times they affect the whole pile. There is seemingly no way to reliably predict the outcome.

However Per Bak, in his book “How Nature Works” shows that there is an instructive way to look at this question.

There is a critical angle for piles of sand - a level of steepness that the slope cannot go beyond without sand starting to roll down the slope. Imagine that, as you add sand, you colour red all of the areas of the pile that achieve this critical angle (and are thus on the verge of an avalanche). You will notice that the red patches appear as tendrils running down the side of the pile. As you add sand to the pile it gets higher and wider – the pile gets steeper and more little tendrils of red appear. Eventually you will see the tendrils of red start to interconnect.

If you drop a grain of sand on a red area then you will precipitate an avalanche. If the red area is interconnected with other red areas then all these areas will be drawn into the avalanche. If the red area is isolated, then the avalanche will be confined to one red tendril running down the side of the pile.

This basic principal can be applied to my network problem. If one route on the network gets loaded to capacity (i.e. turns red), the system detects that it has reached maximum capacity and it delays traffic (piles it higher) or switches traffic to other routes (spreads wider).

If the other routes were new, unloaded and redundant parts of the network then this would not be a problem. But they are not. The other routes are simply other parts of the old, heavily loaded network. Pretty soon all routes are red, and they are all interconnected. So when one part of the network fails it passes the traffic to another part of the network, which fails and your avalanche starts. With all networks connected, all of them are vulnerable and all fail.

Our network operates at electronic speeds, and it failed with the same rapidity.

Understanding how this happened is critically important. There are four parts to creating the complete meltdown of a network:
1. Create a network by building connections between systems.
2. When a particular part of the network approaches overload (goes red), recognise that this is happening and use the connections you have created to allow you to switch load to another part of the network.
3. Continue doing this until all areas are red.
4. Now add more load.

When we poured sand on our sand pile we allowed the sand to fall randomly, and thus the avalanches seemed random. But once we had the ability to monitor (see our potential “avalanche” areas coloured red), we were able to carefully divert the sand into other areas. This delays the avalanche, but in the long run the avalanche is going to be much worse, because it will occur when all areas are red.

In summary: The ability to measure and monitor the system gives us the capacity to avoid small avalanches in individual areas. However, if we keep adding load without adding capacity we overload the entire network and thus make an all-encompassing avalanche inevitable.

If we can’t add capacity, then it would have been better to allow a series of small avalanches.

A look at the financial markets at the moment might illustrate the same point. When we look at the “sub-prime” issues that are emerging, we see that the market created a series of “Investment Vehicles” that allowed risk to be shared. A complex network of interdependencies was created to share this risk, but capacity was not added to deal with the possibility of default. The various institutions that bought these “Investment Vehicles” thought they were buying assets, not debts. The institutions failed to recognise that they needed to add “capacity” in the form of liquidity equal to the possible value of defaults on this debt. As a result, now that load is being applied (in the form of defaults) it threatens to bring down the entire network, rather than just the single “node” that originated the debt.

The critical concept is that monitoring and networking the system allows us to go right up to the edge of disaster, and then move load to another part of the network until it, too, is on the edge of disaster.

Now that the networking effects have been discussed, I would like to push the analogy a bit further and look at how this plays out from a Peak Oil perspective.

Several years ago, sweet light crude oil started getting a bit more difficult to obtain. In response, we stopped talking about “oil” and started talking about “liquids”. The word “liquids” covers Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), ethanol, heavy oils, tar sands, and an increasing number of other oil-substitutes.

Essentially the part of the network called “Sweet Light Crude” turned red, so we started connecting the "Oil Network" to other networks.

We connected oil to the “food” network by turning food into ethanol. Actually food was already connected because you need oil to make food in the modern world, but now the circle is complete – previously we used oil to create food, and now we use food (corn, sugar, palm oil, etc) to create oil (or oil-substitutes).

Adding LNG and CTL (Coal-To-Liquid) to the network connects oil to other energy sources. As this connection strengthens and load starts to be applied, a shortage of any of these sources would have an impact in each of the other sources. To some extent, this has already started to occur.

Adding tar sands and various other oil substitutes to the network has made a surprising connection between the environment and oil. This connection takes many forms, but the most interesting lies in the fact that oil substitutes are less efficient than light sweet crude – much more CO2 is produced for any given amount of work done. This connection is emerging, and could have interesting repercussions. The problem applies to virtually all the oil-substitutes, so the widespread adoption of substitutes (particularly CTL and tar sands) might cause an environmental disaster which in turn would suppress ethanol production and create knock-on effects in other parts of the network.

The financial system has an important role to play in this network. If energy, food and the environment can be considered 3 portions of the network, then our financial system can be considered to be both a form of network monitoring, and the communication medium that the network uses to pass signals around. Consider the financial system to be similar to the blue cable running out the back of your computer. Your computer’s blue cable isn’t likely to run hot, but our finance system is a network of networks, and it is glowing red. In addition to monitoring and communication, the financial system provides support for maintenance and upgrades of the energy systems, so capacity in the financial system is critical.

When one part of the network develops a problem (say production of LNG suddenly drops), then messages get sent via the financial system (in the form of increased prices), and the other parts of the system accept the load, if they can, by increasing production. When compared to an Internet Protocol network there are many faults in this system. High latency leads to slow responses. Poor monitoring leads to conflicting signals or a failure to detect faults. Bad messages are often not corrected, leading to incorrect responses, and so on.

The speed of a crash

The interesting point to note is that increasing demand past capacity will not immediately “crash” this system. Oil facilities that are working at capacity will not “crash” if demand exceeds the capacity, they will simply continue working at capacity. The crash may come, but it will come because demand heats up the financial system and crashes other systems that depend on finances. Since the oil production system is dependent on other systems, this could conceivably cause an eventual crash. Eventually lack of maintenance will degrade the capacity, but this is a process that occurs over a period of months or years.

Likewise, the process of adding capacity is exceptionally slow. Building CTL or NGL plants takes the best part of a decade.

The oil production system can certainly crash, but it would be a crash in slow motion.

The only part of the system that can crash quickly is the financial system. The financial system provides monitoring, communication, maintenance and upgrades. So a profound, complete crash in this area could conceivably bring down the whole network.

However, could such a financial crash occur? An immediate halt to oil production would require a crash far more profound than the Great Depression. The response speed of our financial system has been improved by linking many of the sub-systems electronically, but there are still a number of choke points, circuit breakers, and sanity checks. The Great Depression emerged over a period of months or years. Even with the electronic linkages in place today, a complete breakdown of our financial institutions is unlikely to happen overnight.

If this system crashes overnight, it will be because the plug got pulled – a breakdown of society external to the system.

The natural frequency for events in the oil and oil-substitute network is in the range of months at least, or more likely years. Internal stresses cannot cause it to crash overnight.

The Breadth of a crash

The breadth of the crash depends on the degree of linkage and the degree to which each part of the network is loaded. This is where I start to worry.

Oil appears to be at or near peak capacity - exports are dropping. As for the food network - world grain reserves are at historic lows, and expected to drop a little more next year. And the environment? Climate change is clearly with us, indicating that the environment has already gone past its capacity.

When looked at in these terms it appears that the network is already in decline. Each of these three parts of the network is at or past capacity. If a span of years is the natural time-frame for a crash in this system, then it seems quite plausible that we are watching a very broad-based crash of our energy systems - right now.

Our actions in increasing the connections to the food and environment networks will not help, and may simply speed the crash.

The signals indicating the start of a crash would be seen in the monitoring and communication system – the financial systems. Prices for oil would go up. Which we have seen… Prices for food would go up. Which we have seen....We might expect perturbations, volatility, and attempts to “price” the environment.... Hmmmm.


I am forced to concede that a broad-based collapse is a possibility. I still maintain that a sudden collapse is unlikely, but if it is already happening, then it could certainly look sudden when we eventually notice it.

I think we have to distinguish between a crisis and a collapse. By definition, you do recover from a crisis, whereas you don't recover from a collapse.

I think a series of crises which make each-other worse is definitely possible, or actually probably. I think a series of crises which turn into a general collapse is very unlikely.

This article of mine talks about a possible kind of multiple-cause crisis, where the drought and natural gas scarcity combine to create blackouts in Victoria.

Now, this is easily avoidable, we just need electricity generation which doesn't depend on fossil fuels and fresh water. That's wind, solar cells, concentrated solar, and tidal; geothermal doesn't fit in here, unfortunately.

But most likely we won't avoid it, we're SimplyHoping it won't happen again. Instead we'll get blackouts. And those blackouts will have other effects. The planned desalination plant for Wonthaggi will stop without electricity. Industry will die off in the state if blackouts are frequent, leading to economic troubles. That'll mean less revenue for public expenditures, making maintaining existing power infrastructure difficult, making it less reliable, and so on.

But at no point is it unrecoverable.

Another danger is recent moves to keep petrol prices low. This removes the market signal to encourage more efficient use, or alternate means of transportation. That means when the fuel shortage does hit, it'll be more of a shock. Instead of going from $1.50/lt to $10.00/lt over ten years, we'll hover around $2.00/lt for nine years, then in one year it'll zap up to $10/lt.

Again, not unrecoverable. A crisis, yes. A collapse, no.

Good points. I loved your SimplyHoping post, and I agree that the future holds a series of rolling crisis, not a collapse.

At least I hope that is the case.

It is probably of concern when an optimist such as myself feels that a series of rolling crisis is the best future we can hope for.

We are marching forward with our leaders trying to select actions based on appearance, not substance. We need water - fine, we build a desalination plant. This action has the appearance of addressing the problem - the defect in this plan is only obvious if you stop, gather all the facts, and think about it (something few people have the time to do).

Contrary to popular opinion, the job of a democratic leader is to be elected, not to take actions with a view to the long-term good of the people. Getting elected is about appearance, not substance.

So we march forward SimplyHoping....

There are degrees of crises, though. For example, I would call the current subprime mortgage dramas an economic crisis, but they're not on the same scale as the Great Depression.

The real danger is a combination of crises. It's not widely-appreciated that when the Depression hit, most farmers kept their farms - the bank isn't in the business of owning property, it just wants money, and even a small amount from a farmer in trouble is better than foreclosing and selling at a loss. But then the Dustbowl hit. What drove the farmers off their land was the combination of the economic and environmental crises. One was fixable and the other was temporary, so it worked out alright in the end, there was just a lot of suffering first.

What we have to remember is that it's not the new state that hurts, but changing from the old to the new. People are very adaptable given time. In economic crises they deveop alternate currencies (cf Austria in early 1930s and Argentina in 2000s), in environmental crises they develop new methods of growing things, and so on. But they have to have time.

As to our elected representatives, the thing to remember is that they're not actually leaders - they're followers. They follow public opinion. Even the unelected ones have limits, Hitler could not have converted Germany to Islam, nor Stalin made everyone speak French. But in a democracy they follow the public, not the other way around. So if we want change we must change ourselves - and the elected guys will follow along reluctantly.

Between 1930 and 1935, about 750,000 farms were lost through foreclosure and bankruptcy sales. No small number. To say that most farmers kept their farms is an example of happy talk often used by the media. When using such an indeterminate modifier as "most," you essentially imply that "few" farmers lost their farms.

Point in fact, there are two reasons that even more farmers did not lose their farms. First, radical action. The corporate ideologues who shape our school system are loathe to point out that the depression radicalized many. Farmers came together and blocked roads to farms up for auction, declared farm holidays (much like bank holidays) where they refused to participate in auctions, and generally threw monkey wrenches in the machinery of the corporation and its banks. The second reason there were not more foreclosures was due to the Frazie-Lemke Farm Bankruptcy Act (1934) which suspended farm foreclosures for five years.

As far as your declining to equate the subprime crisis with the Great Depression, you are right, so far. Remember, the full effects of the Great Depression did not settle in the day after the crash on Oct. 29th but developed over a year and a half. I have a feeling that, not withstanding the happy talk, we will see further problems in the banking sector, housing sector, and the level of consumerism. In short, all the ingredients for a spectacular crash.

Will we adjust? Of course. All of life, every second of it, is an adjustment. To say "we will adjust" is as meaningless as saying the sun will rise. The real question is how many will suffer and to what degree. The secondary question is who is responsible and to what degree must they pay. For the wing-nuts, the little guy is to blame for being so dumb as to take on such onerous loans. To the little guy, the bank is to blame for suckering him. What you will see in this corporate world is the privatization of profit and the socialization of loss. Corporations hate welfare when it goes to anyone but themselves.

There was a phenomenon known as a penny sale however:

Father says more people are going to lose their farms because of low prices. The newspapers tell about the Farmers' Holiday movement and how it is spreading over the corn-belt. Today's story is about a farm in northwest Iowa where a mortgage was foreclosed and the farmer's goods and livestock sold at auction. The neighbors made it a penny sale. Everything the auctioneer offered for sale brought a bid of one cent. When the sale ended, the livestock, grain, machinery and household goods were returned to the owner for pennies. The reporter said, " One look at the hard, determined faces of men surrounding the auctioneer discouraged any outsider from raising the bid." At the town of LeMars in northwest Iowa, a district judge tried to stop a penny sale with a legal writ and found a rope around his neck and the other end over a tree limb, and there were plenty of hands willing to pull it tight.

I don't know how many of these took place, but my Dad remembered similar such things while growing up in Minnesota.

LeMars is an hour and a half southwest of here. My mother's parents lost most of their farm in the Great Depression to a local banker. That fellow is long dead and the grandchildren farm the family land ... but everyone still remembers how they came by the property.

Cherenkov, great points once again.

Point in fact, there are two reasons that even more farmers did not lose their farms. First, radical action. The corporate ideologues who shape our school system are loathe to point out that the depression radicalized many.

That what gov’s (I know it is in the US) fear the most. Millions of people in the street and radicalized. All the repeals of laws on demostrating, Marshal law changes, etc.
Listen to a lesson learned by the establishment put into words by G. Gordon Liddy in his reply to Timothy Leary.

Leary "...During the Sixties an undeclared civil war took place and the right side won."

"Yeah, my side," says Liddy. "And we're not about to let it happen again."

"We're not about to let it happen again.

THAT'S when the start of the control of all media to a few companies became an objective of the people who Liddy was talking about.

Notice how we in the states NEVER saw on nightly news nearly ANYTHING on demonstrations on BUSH around the world a few years ago.

Radicalized people in the streets are their greatest fear.

Now, this is easily avoidable, we just need electricity generation which doesn't depend on fossil fuels and fresh water. That's wind, solar cells, concentrated solar, and tidal; geothermal doesn't fit in here, unfortunately.

There is a grid don't forget - SA geothermal can feed through to Victoria.

There is also some geothermal exploration going on in the Geelong area.

First up, geothermal requires water. How much, I don't know - figures for water use of the different types of plants are bloody difficult to come by. But it's not nothing.

Second, currently SA's a net electricity importer by a pretty significant amount. Olympic Dam already uses 10% of their baseload power, and is expanding which will require 30%. So unless SA really goes sick on the geothermal, wind, etc, most of their increased capacity will be used by Olympic Dam, and of course their own domestic power requirements, which like everyone's are increasing steadily. They look to continue being net electricity importers for some years yet. Not much help to Victoria if we bollocks it up.

If HFR geothermal is successful in SA there is no reason why it can't expand rapidly (there is a large region of hot rock to mine) and produce significant amounts of power - more than Olympic Dam or Adelaide need.

Water can come from the Artesian basin or from desalination plants on the coast if necessary - but I still haven't seen any numbers on water requirements and the Kalina cycle stuff is supposed to be water efficient.

Admittedly this is all 5-10 years out at a minimum.

Big Gav, IMO investment in desalination plants is just more investment in complexity. It requires a huge capital investment, lots of maintenance (replacement of RO membranes) and a steady feed of electricity.

There is already talk of desalination plants to provide the huge amount of water that will be required if Olympic Dam goes to open pit. It goes something like this: increased nuclear power plants require increased fuel which requires more uranium which requires Olymic Dam to go to open pit which requires more water which requires deslination which requires more electricity which requires more muclear power plants. This is a towering edifice of interdependency which seems, IMHO, to be just begging for something to go wrong somewhere.

Errol in Miami

I agree here - complexity is the enemy. Anything we can't build right now is likely not going to ever be finished at the rate things are going. We have to go hard and go at what we already know we can do. Its mindsets and vested interests that constrain us, not the technology necessary to remediate.

There is no gurantee that ODX will happen. They are still doing feasibility which is a four year project due 2009. I wonder how much diesel it takes to remove 350m rock cap? And what price the copper/gold and uranium need to be to make that investment stack up. The ore won't be reached for about four years after they start the thing which by my estimates means 2014 at the earliest.

Gold and uranium might be still looking good by then, but copper could be in the hole if the Mother of All Recessions/Depressions has kicked in by then.

SA is an energy distributers nightmare. I love Adelaide but firmly believe that they must become an energy producer or self sufficient. I cant see geothermal being a reasonable option. It might work for minning operations but I dont see it supplying the grid. There are also some serious environmental concerns with geo-therm that need to be addressed on a case by case basis.

Why can't geothermal supply the grid? It does in other countries. Ever heard of Iceland?

What are the environmental concerns, and are these greater or lesser than other ways of generating electricity and hot water?

Invalid argument.

Do you think the native Americans at Chaco Canyon were unable to alter their course? Of course they were but did not. Do you think that Rome was unable to alter its course? Of course it could have but it did not.

You make collapse sound as if it is unavoidable. It's always avoidable, if people make the right decisions. Rome did not make the right decisions. Chaco Canyon did not make the right decisions.

And we are not making the right decisions.

This is why I've always said this is not a technological problem, but is instead a psychological/sociological/political problem. In other words, it's about decisions that people make, individually and collectively, not about technology specifically. We have all the technology we need to solve these problems but do we have the individual and collective wisdom? So far the answer appears to be a resounding "NO!"

Rome did not collapse overnight. Neither did Chaco Canyon. Both experienced crisis after crisis. I suggest that your original premise is flawed, and should be revised.

GreyZone you have not fully internalized the fact that humans are NOT smarter than yeast.

When things are not going well, CARVE A BIGGER STONE HEAD.


That is BEAUTIFUL!!!

Carve a bigger stone head. Wow.

I see a t-shirt fortune in your future.

That completely sums up the entire techno-attitude. If that tech don't work, let's make more of it, with fins, and bells, and whistles, with secret x-ray vision, and sea monkeys.

Anyone here familiar with the Heechee?

Oh yes, excellent little worker drones. Just have to open an airlock now and then to keep the herd thinned out, lol.


An increasing number of venture capitalists are making right decisions on energy. Look at A123Systems, Nanosolar, and other companies the VCs have funded.

Granted, it would help if governments made far better decisions. But even there I see hopeful signs.

The UK government has decided to do a big build on offshore wind and will probably announce a big nuclear power plant program shortly. The UK government also is looking at its coal reserves in hopes that will cushion the shock.

I suspect some governments have cottoned onto the problem with Peak Oil. But they are using Global Warming as their justification for policies that they want to do for other reasons. Again, I think the UK government thinks that the Russian natural gas can't reliably replace North Sea natural gas for example. Hence the big push in wind, nuclear, and coal.

Making the right decisions can be a problem. Just yesterday, we were discussing the advisability of a big push in nuclear power. It was not clear to me that such a push by UK met with universal approval of the peal oil masses. Here it is being mentioned as an example of good government planning. Only after the fact can one get away to happy talk about making the right decisions. We don't know what kept the Easter Islanders from building boats and leaving before the last tree was gone. Maybe some of them did build boats and leave, but the record is incomplete.


Britain's problem is that it is far enough north and overcast that solar power isn't very attractive. Britain's two main non-fossil fuels energy sources strike me as wind and nuclear. Wind by itself isn't enough to shoulder the entire load.

Does Britain have any prospects for geothermal energy?

I don't know about geothermal, but we do have an enormous wave energy potential which is currently in the research stage. Wave energy is about 10 years behind wind energy.

I really hope you are right. The Pelemis developers are suggesting wave farms with 30mw of generating capacity deloyed per km2. In the celtic sea right now the waves are 10 feet plus. As they are in the irish sea. For the Uk I believe wave power is the only long term source that has the potenital to meet all our needs (unless fusion is cracked)

As for Australia I understand the Bight is 'big wave' all year round.Ok further away from the demand than in the case of Europe but I could envisage wave power supplying a significant proportion Of Perth, Adelaide, and Melbournes power.


I think you're right, but, surely a central question is, what are the right decisions, how do we identify them and agree on how to proceed? How do we adapt and change, and what if the right decisions come up against the vested interests of powerful groups in society who are satisfied with the way things are, and are not particularly enamoured with the idea of change?

Most crisis situations result in conditions that are averse or at least not advantageous to the existing elite in the current social order. Professor G. obliquely referenced this just a few days ago. Even a "successful" transition past peak oil is likely to disrupt the existing social order. That's not a guarantee but is often true as you can see by the change in power from the prior feudal order to a coal fired society and then again with the rise of oil power. Some older elites stayed in power. Some fell by the wayside. And those were all successful transitions.

Collapse, or unsuccessful transitions, generally wipe out almost all of society's elite because the elites are operating under a specific set of premises that no longer apply. Very few of those adapt sufficiently rapidly to avert losing power. Instead new power elites arise, adapting to the new conditions. Witness after Rome, after the Mayans, after Chaco Canyon, etc.

As for what is "right" and what is "wrong", we won't know until we try something and succeed or fail. We can guess. We can model. We can hypothesize. But we won't know until after the fact whether we've succeeded or not. A key decision before you decide on what is "right" or "wrong" though is what is the basis for deciding "right" and "wrong"? If your goal is to continue the existing civilization as-is, maybe that's the problem in the first place?

So tell me again, what's the "right" choice here?

GZ, I think I have to agree.
The problems we have now are global, PO, GW and Economic. Solutions will not be global.

Our attempts at mitigation, start at national levels and continue down by state, corporation, large and small business, county and family. We have forgotten how to cooperate. We have reared our children to be individuals and selfish.

When decisions are made at the national level there will be division and dissent. This division and dissent continues down through the various levels of collectivism until you reach the individual.

We no longer have a need for territorial defence and cooperation, we rely of government security. We are not like schools of fish, penguins, ants or bees or even a herd of eland that work for the common good.

Technology alone can't save us because we are jealous. We will not make sacrifices because most will think they deserve more, are more entitled or just plain better than another ethnic group, country or person.

Hardships forced upon us are not sacrifices. We would, albeit reluctantly abandon luxuries, if we believed everyone was giving them up.
Everyone won't accept sacrifice and give up luxuries though, and it will give rise to the insidious black markets.
As life becomes even harder we will still be looking out for number one until......cooperation out of necessity, becomes an actual survival mechanism once more.

The very sad affair is that we are enslaved by the compulsion to over consume. If we stop investing, using services and buying the myriad of fashionable items ranging from clothing, electronics, travel and personal transport, we doom the economy and our way of life anyway

Do we as humans have the ability to initiate, implement and seriously enforce hard decisions for the common good?
Is cooperation still a possibility?
Are our religious beliefs a help or hindrance?


As Kunstler is wont to tell us technology and energy are not the same thing. And I would argue that the Roman empire did not callapse at all and is still with us today. It is now more diffuse and it's influence more subtle, but we still have institutions i.e the Roman Catholic Church that can trace their roots to the Caesars. No one in AD 400 set out to continue the empire as it once stood, but the collective memory persisted and influenced the decisions of many individuals as they adpated to a new world order.

The same goes for the British Empire. I's heyday is long gone, but the dominace of the English language ensures that it's influence will persist in the same proportion as it dominated the world.

The American empire too will fall, but that won't diminish the influence of Americanism. The broken, the corruption, the greed, the gun culture and the avarice will be swept away as the energy for which the system was built to channel, eventually depletes.

But the American founding principal of freedom, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, a sense of duty to God and a pioneering and enterprising spirit are the enduring influences that will persist into history.

Unfortunately though, there is nothing that can save the empire as it stands. The only decisions we absolutely have to get right are the ones that avoid all out nuclear war. Every other mistake on the descent can and will be corrected eventually and attenuated by the enduring influences of empires passed.

Do you think that Rome was unable to alter its course? Of course it could have but it did not.

This is very contentious, you know. A good argument can be made that the Romans could NOT alter their course. Rome was a complicated balancing act: an extremely rapacious Senatorial class, an Emperor who might be able to restrain them from self-destructive excess perhaps temporarily if that, an army with its own complex dynamics, a number of powerful external enemies ... so yeah, maybe they sometimes had the choice to swim a couple of yards left or a couple of yards right, but they could not swim upstream, and eventually they went over the falls, as they were bound to do.

A common theme on this site is that we 'should have' made certain decisions thirty years ago. But that was never going to happen given our economic and political system of the time. We couldn't have made those decisions, so it is no surprise we did not. Now we will be forced to make those decisions. Is it too late? Who knows.

Path dependence. Human beings are smarter than yeast, but sometimes don't get much more in the way of choice.

You are arguing that there is no choice, that once a path is set upon that the results are a foregone conclusion. Yet as Diamond and Tainter have pointed out, that's not always true. Some societies do make the choices that let them alter their course and then survive. Perhaps they succumb later to another crisis but they survived others before that. Why is it that some societies can make those choices and others cannot?

I agree that there is a form of social inertia that makes such changes hard but I disagree that they are impossible. The Byzantine empire was proof that they are possible.

Yes, there is choice- but there are also points where choices made have unavoidavle consequences.
It is one's choice to jump off a cliff, but once done, the choice cannot be unmade.

This choice was made by our ancestors.

As for the Byzantine Empire, that fire continued burning because there was still fuel
for it to burn and the heat of its flame was enough to keep the combustion going.
(I could talk for a very long time about the byzantine empire, but i would save that for a
separate thread.. but the situation of the greek east was quite different and separate from that
of the latin west.)

Dmitri Orlov's analysis of the collapse of the Soviet Union is instructive:

Closing the 'Collapse Gap': the USSR was better prepared for collapse than the US

As he points out, civilizations fail rarely, but economies fail routinely.

See also

Brilliant stuff! The Russians were better prepared because they were USED to things not going well.

I used to do a sport which didn't take a lot of strength, but I learned the benefits of hitting the weights - because when you travel, you've always got to do stuff like pick up a bag in each hand and run the 1/4 mile to make your connecting flight and stuff like that, as well as being in good shape helps you handle the time differences better too. Not necessary for the sport. Very necessary for the intermittant "emergencies" caused by the ordeals of travel a few times a year.

This video spoofs just such such a cascade as you are describing. Very Funny! (But, not if it really happened.)

These forms of generation are indeed dependant on fossil fuels for their manufacture, emplacement, maintainence, and is the same as relates to the grid for the same reasons. Time to go back to the drawing board with these additional facts in mind to reassess your crisis scenarios.

Have you read The Upside of Down?

I fear we may be barking up the wrong tree, pursuing efficiency as the solution to peak oil.

Haven't read it, but I agree with the statement. Peak oil involves many things, but one is uncertainty. Under uncertainty, one should favor robustness over efficiency.

Like dinopello says, 'peak oil involves many things.' As oil gets scarcer and more expensive, it affects a myriad of other things in our network society, many, if not most, of these things already qualify for 'red tendril' status. The central and multi-faceted uses of oil are the reasons for this forum and the concern that oil scarcity can bring about a general collapse.

Yes, there's a good discussion of the complex interconnected networks we've built and how they're increasingly vulnerable to overload and collapse. Differences between redundant and efficient networks. Probably one of the best books you can read on the subject.

That sounds like a great book. Essentially that's what happened with my small biz - I'd optimised the effeciency so much that when sales went down the whole thing imploded. Less effeciency would have helped me a lot.

"Efficiency=1/Resilience" is the key insight of that book, and is fundamental to understanding the full danger of the converging (energy/ecology/economics/food/evolutionary psychology) crises.

This is one of the more insightful general-interest threads on TOD recently.

Very interesting analogy to our current predicament. Would you not agree that a series of inter-related crises together would constitute a collapse? Isn't the depletion of resources non-recoverable?

I would add one more thing to your analogy. The addition of grains of sand represent the ever growing human population. Once a crash happens it will cull members of the population. That will add a bit of breathing room to start adding the grains again.

Thus what I see over the next 1000 or so years is a series of mini to macro crashes with intermittent recoveries for a few generations, and crashes until eventually the population reaches an equilibrium. A number of dead cat bounces. But that could take a 1000 years or more before then. Thus academic. Thus we will see in our lifetime a crisis which appears recoverable, but in the long term of human history it would be looked back upon as a major collapse.

And remember the lilly pad analogy when referring to population growth as exponential: the day before the pond was full, it was half empty.

Yes, I would agree that it is possible that

a series of inter-related crises together would constitute a collapse

and I would further stipulate that "the depletion of resources is non-recoverable".

However, (warning: cornucopian alert) if mankind can find ways to harvest resources from outside of Earth then, for practical purposes, this limitation is not relevant. As a counter argument to the "find resources outside Earth" argument, there is a reference to "The Upside of Down" further upthread.

The dilemma is this: Adding complexity is not sustainable. But then neither is trying to recycle the same resources forever.

If the universe is finite and bounded, then so are we.

The addition of grains of sand represent the ever growing human population. Once a crash happens it will cull members of the population. That will add a bit of breathing room to start adding the grains again.

In other articles I have speculated that this might occur, and discussed the prospect for a recovery rather than a dead cat bounce.

However, (warning: cornucopian alert) if mankind can find ways to harvest resources from outside of Earth then, for practical purposes, this limitation is not relevant.

Agreed, though I suspect that, too, would turn out to be a short-term solution. As you note, even the universe probably won't sustain exponential growth forever.

I also think it is too late. NASA's funding is collapsing. I suspect private investment and donations, and other countries' ventures into space, will be too little, too late. Fred Hoyle thought we had only one shot to make it into space. Having wasted our one-time gift from Mother Nature, no other civilization will ever achieve our level of complexity.

Adding complexity is not sustainable. But then neither is trying to recycle the same resources forever.

Agree about the complexity. Disagree about recycling. Recycling the same resources is possible, at least until the sun dies. Jared Diamond discusses this in Collapse. Some societies have been sustainable for thousands of years.

The keys are limiting population, and limiting consumption. One of the examples he uses is a society that killed all the pigs on the island. Pigs ate food people ate, and only the rich benefited from it, since only the rich could afford to keep pigs. So the people agreed to get rid of the pigs. (Must have been one heck of a barbecue.)

This probably won't allow us to maintain the level of technological complexity to which we have become accustomed. I'm hoping for something along the lines of old Edo.

A long shot? Sure. But probably more possible than a Star Trek future of exploiting the resources of outer space.

Whose to say a benovalent race of aliens wont come to us / our rescue first;-)

I also think it is too late. NASA's funding is collapsing.

right on the money, Leanan

Believe me...I have no delusions that I will have a job after the collapse. NASA will be one of the first Gov agencies to be gutted.

EntropyBrain - NASA Engineer

In general I think you're doing well in exploring the idea of complex systems and network interdependencies with positive feedback loops.

However, I would dispute one statement - that the finance system is the only part of the system that can crash quickly. In reality the one thing that can crash quickly is the human system. Finance is just a manifestation of human interactions, teetering on the edge of multiple feedback loops and large amounts of money.

For an example of how and where human systems had a major effect on fuel you need look no further than the fuel protests in the UK. A stressed human system + efficiencies + a very small change in belief = major output changes and consequences.

The shock inherent in the general realisation of the change from 'increasing oil availability' to 'reducing' is an extremely major one - akin to a world war. It will result in a substantial set of changes in beliefs; with consequent changes in actions which reach into EVERY possible system via its human agents. It doesn't really matter what the numbers are, its the understanding that will have the effect.

Remember the MI5 maxim: any civilisation is only three meals away from revolution.

I agree, garyp. In his slide shows, among the things Matt Simmons mentions is panic.

I suggest Pakistan is instructive. When the masses go to the streets, they destroy infrastructure indiscriminantly.

I believe that if there are prolonged power outages in a predatory capitalist country, 'entrepreneurs' will steal miles of transmission cable.

As memory serves, the recent riots in France were sparked by the electocution of young men trying to steal wire. Instead of the disenfranchised uniting in condemnation of stealing from the commons, they declared a Burn-a-Bus holiday.

In human affairs, 2x=1/8y can change to 1/2x=8y in a matter of months.

Errol in Miami

My current focus is on 'rationing'.

Rather than let the market kill civilisation by degrees via staving essential uses of oil, we can expect most governments to implement rationing for 'essential services'.

However that acts in a manner akin to exportland for crude decline rates. What's left for 'nonessentials' will decline even faster. Think of it as compound decline - base decline rates X exportland multipliers x rationland multipliers. The net is rate of decline that could be considered cliff like for the common man - a few years to lose it all.

Somehow I doubt very much that most people will accept government officials/police continuing to drive around while they find it impossible to move and their life screeches to a dead halt.

Its not panic, its shock. People remember the world they know and understand. The expect that world and when it looks like its lost, when they feel they have nothing left to lose, they will do anything to take it back.

If a country is 3 meals from revolution in normal times - how many gallons is it if every system is dependent on that transportation energy input?

I heard that they were running from cops for something else and climbed into an electrical substation cage while trying to escape.

In human affairs, 2x=1/8y can change to 1/2x=8y in a matter of months.


Good comment, I was scrolling down and was going to mention this if no one else did. Humans in any kind of communication can "phase shift" very quickly. For instance, consider the phase shift from just-in-time just-enough purchase VS. hoarding behavior. A single rumor can transition a population in days from one which is well supplied to one which is wracked by shortage of nearly anything, and that commodity is reduced to barter. A population which hoards will need a HUGE oversupply and a lot of time to change modes back again. It is a more stable state. As crises perturb human society, a lot of things will refer to more stable and resilient states, which will in their turn collapse until stability is reached. Human brains are really the self-organizing criticality central to any upcoming collapse; electronic commerce, warfare, etc simply lubricate things. As I'll note below, though, this keypost is wonderful...

On "three", everybody move to the other side of the boat....

Zero degrees of separation. That's not a "bug", it's a "feature".

cfm in Gray, ME

Back in the 1970s there was a shortage of sugar in the UK. There was widespread hoarding. My mother kept
a couple of months supply at the back of the cupboard for years afterwards. One day a psychologist did an experiment. He went onto the TV and made a report that although supplies were adequate, if people started hoarding salt, there could be shortages of this product as well. Shops were sold out in days. Shelves empty for months. There was no shortage of salt.

You mainly talk about production systems. I'm more concerned about cascading failures in the distribution/delivery system.

The distribution/delivery system has become highly efficient through innovations like just-in-time inventory. However, because of costs, it is not at all redundant. A breakdown in one area, such as prolonged diesel fuel shortage, could cause the entire system to seize up. Food would in the hot sun as it waits for trucks, factories would shut down from lack of parts, etc.

In the US nearly all our distribution systems are decaying: bridge collapses, municipal water systems 50% beyond their life expectancy, a rickety electric grid, overloaded airports, rusting pipelines, etc. All those systems desperately need infrastructure investment. This has not happened because of short-term financial efficiencies, and it becomes less likely to happen as the financial system overloads.

A collapse in distribution could have profound and quite immediate consequences. Any modern city becomes uninhabitable within about two weeks if the food deliveries stop. Social unrest will reach a critical state long before the food actually runs out. Loss of water or electricity can have the same effect in even less time.

So, when you say "The oil production system can certainly crash, but it would be a crash in slow motion", I would point to Tabasco, MX. In Tabasco the flooding shut down the distribution system, and oil production turned off like a light.

So far all the distrubtion collapses I can think of were regional, and other parts of the system continued to operate at close to normal capacity. For the collapse to be more general, the overloaded tendrils would have to interconnect. The financial system could provide the interconnection, I suppose, as could a war, or maybe a big hunk of the Greenland ice cap suddenly sliding into the North Atlantic.

Personally, I'm expecting a slow-motion collapse, but I'm concerned about something very much faster.

This is related to something that I think bears on the original article. In addition to whether the regions in the network fail for infrastructure reasons, there's often a positive feedback effect when things appear to be failing: when something that people don't immediately need appears to be failing, people often try and grab whatever's remaining of that resource "before it's all gone", even if they don't need it immediately. In terms of a computer analogy, whenever someone in my lab says "I can't access the network", everyone who was doing something else immediately sees if they can access the web, even though this is dramatically increasing the load on the switches, caches, etc, which can only worsen things. In a more important case, shortage of food or petrol often leads to stockpiling, which exacerbates things. This is made worse by the fact information media, which reports on things like food shortages and bank queues, is almost instantaneous these days, something which isn't true in the complex physical networks people study (and was less true than today in things like the great depression).

The relevance of this to the just-in-time physical networks is that because switching to alternate equivalent parts of the network happens at a relatively slow rate, the "it's failing so stockpile so it's failing so ..." loop can grow much faster than the "transferring to equivalent areas" signal can calm things down.

I don't think society as a whole will collapse, but I'm a bit worried that local feedback induced crises may cause huge problems for individuals.

Embryonic - you're citing a well-known phenomenon, that happens in every emergency or large-scale event.

When something like an earthquake or something happens, everyone who is able to gets onto the phone system and plays "Let's crash the system". They've so far been always succesful.

Which is why ham radio ops are often the only communication - there's some degree of radio discipline, lots of frequencies and the stations are frequency-agile, and it's decentralized to the ultimate degree - power supplies tend to be car batteries out of cars working or not, a good number of us know how to wire up stuff (although I was surprised how many hams these days don't know how to solder) and most of us know - through practice - how to toss a wire up in a tree and lay a counterpoise along the ground, tune it up, and get talking.

But you don't run a complex society off of ham radio, we're about the equivalent of the old telegraph network circa 1870 or so, really. Not in sophistication of equipment, but in message distribution and throughput.

Anyone who's not done so really ought to read the Olduvai Theory paper and the update. They're not long, really, and quite entertaining.

Certainly, I wasn't claiming it was in any way a new idea. Just pointing out that in studying failures in human networks it's important to remember "human psychology" adds extra factors that aren't present in some of the purely physical systems, so take that into account when using research in physical systems as models (eg, there's no analogue of increasing external sand deposition as you reach the critical angle in the sandpile model).

"quite entertaining" Yes in some sort of morbid way it is. Necessary reading for all literates. As is Gaia Theory. And Shock Doctrine.

Here's another example:

In our area, the power companies have reduced tree trimming as a way of increasing profits. To them the costs of replacing lines that are knocked down by tree branches during a storm are lower than the costs of trimming trees as a part of preventative maintenance. They bear a small fraction of the cost of an outage - they fail to sell power to those customers that are out. But they don't bear the costs of businesses that are closed, and they don't bear the costs for restaurants that have to discard food because the refrigeration equipment stops working without electrical power.

In the old days, tree trimming was a normal cost of doing business. I suppose in a sense it was a predictable cost in that it was something you could schedule, and you didn't have to pay overtime to get it done (not like making emergency repairs after a big storm).

The net result of this is that the electricity delivery is now more fragile than it was before.

The other variant - the tree trimming is done poorly and they leave the brush for the city to clean up.

You are discovering something that I said years ago. People fail to realize that our grandparents and great-grandparents did not vote for government granted, highly regulated utility monopolies out of some misguided notions. No, they lived through actual problems with utilities that made them realize that the normal business process is aimed at efficiency, not reliability. If you want reliability, it's going to cost more, and by extension, does not fit into the normal business process at all.

Now, further add that the second half of the 20th century saw a wholesale abandonment of reliability in favor of efficiency. Further, remember that large scale global systems are not run on efficiency considerations, not reliability considerations.

You, sir, have only scratched the surface of what is possible and your mind recoils at what it sees. So you do some hand-waving, a bit of rationalization to protect yourself, and then go right on whistling past the graveyard (of efficiency).

You almost woke up, aeldric. Now if you want to really wake up, go start to look at what has been happening in grain production for the last 9 years. Go look at the arable land situation. Remember your statement about monitoring systems letting us see "red" areas? Are you seeing the red warning lights yet?

Indeed. Even the Cato Institute has concluded that (a) true deregulation of electricity markets in the US is politically infeasible and (b) given that, regulated vertically-integrated monopoly utilities are both the most reliable and lowest-cost method for overall electricity delivery. They also suggest that the costs of delivering a truly deregulated market to residential consumers (which would require at least time-of-day metering and might require delivery of minute-by-minute pricing information) would almost certainly exceed the value of any benefits those consumers would receive.

Both an excellent introduction for the neophytes, aeldric, and excellent comment, GZ.

I will also recommend you investigate the disease and disease vector situation. Cholera, meningitis, typhoid, hemorrhagic fevers, salmonella, E. coli, H5N1 flu, drug resistant TB. Insects, rodents, birds, and human population density.

And remember that cheap energy provides nearly all of our preventive care (hygiene; refrigeration and cooking food; pumping, purifying, and heating water; septic treatment; waste disposal; insecticide and pesticide) and all of our reactive response (antibiotics; healthcare; quarantine; more insecticide and pesticide).

Are we going to need more extreme warning lights, like into the infrared range? As if there weren't enough heat in the kitchen already.

Yep, if availability of clean water, food and sewerage (esp. in crowded cities) goes, so does the population's health...

Great post aeldric. Everyone should read this. The potential for cascading system failure is exactly what concerns me as well. Like you, I also fear that the financial system, which can crash very quickly once a critical tipping point has been reached, will be the trigger for a generalized collapse. For this reason we have been focusing on finance lately at TOD:C, but regular coverage of the credit crunch appears to have been deemed to be off topic. I personally think this is very unfortunate for exactly the reasons you present in this post, but it's not my decision to make.

Ilargi and I intend to set up our own blog as a home for the regular financial coverage we currently provide here.

Stoneligh mentions "The potential for cascading system failure is exactly what concerns me as well. "

This leads me to comment on an unexpected outcome here in South Africa due to the more than regular power outages ( loadshedding as it is called here) we are experiencing. The power companies are at the same time not delivering the correct voltage or allowing it to fluctuate out of the normal limits.

As a consequence we are seeing all elctrical clocks are starting to run slowly - maybe up to 5 mins per day and if one leaves a clock for a week it can be 10 - 15 mins out. I wonder if it really gets to be be worse how this lack of time synchronicity throughout will start to impact on the smooth running of highly integrated systems.

(I am not a regular poster so please forgive error if this posts in a unintended place)

This I think will also contibute to a point where there will some tipping point that in time will not be able to be corrected to bring the situation back to "normal"

I agree that this is a great post. The financial system is especially vulnerable, to very small changes. Even a 1% or 2% shortfall in oil production can have a huge impact on the financial system, even though one would think that a little conservation could solve the problem.

If there are financial system problems, it is very difficult to forecast how far the problems will spread. Will the financial problems affect imports, through a decline in the value of the dollar? Will some employers suddenly be unable to pay their employees, perhaps because they cannot roll over an existing loan, or because their bank has financial problems, and their bank account exceeds government insured limits?

Finance is such a web that it can act to bring distress to many areas of the economy at once.

.. we have been focusing on finance lately at TOD:C, but regular coverage of the credit crunch appears to have been deemed to be off topic ..

I love the financial roundup at TOD:C - I hope it continues. But if not, I hope that you will tell us where the new financial blog will be ..

Thanks :)

When we get something set up we'll announce it in the DrumBeat of the day. Likewise, when we're up and running and post something new, the link will go in the DrumBeat as it does now.

I have found the finance roundups absolutely relevant as inextricably interlinked with the subjects discussed here on TOD. I don't believe they can be separated from this point.

I hope they will continue to be posted here, but if not, that TOD will provide a prominent link to this indispensable complementary information.

The truth is that money has never been separated from energy.

Consider electricity. You use it for your computer, lights, fans, water pumping. Most people would say electricity is an energy source, right? Yes, they would, but that's wrong. Electricity is an energy carrier. Excepting the experiments to harness lightning into electricity, all of our electricity is generated by the actual energy sources of coal, methane, uranium, petroleum, solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal. And without something to plug into the jack, electricity is nearly useless, unless you want to stick your finger in there.

Money is the same way. You use it to buy food, corporations use it for exploitation both when they pay for your work and when you pay for their products, governments dilute it by printing more of it. Everyone uses it for nearly everything they desire or require. Money is an energy source, right? Nope.

Money is also an energy carrier, and the actual sources of that energy generation are people and the tools (hoes, hammers, computers, and microscopes) and resources (soil, nails, electricity, and bacterial samples) available to people.

Our perception of money has changed from being an energy carrier to being an energy source, like has happened with electricity, and this is disconnected from reality.

Being raised in our monetized and consumptive culture, most people believe that money is what's necessary to make the world go round. But it's always been human activity that makes the human world go round, people using tools and skills to provide other things and services to other people.

Money, as most people consider it, is actually an illusion and neither necessary nor sufficient for a stable human society, which only needs a human exchange of energy and resources.

Money does, however, enable large and complex societies. It does facilitate a far-reaching exchange of energy and resources (loaded with unintended consequences). But energy and resources are inherently and intrinsically useful even without money, and their ongoing exchange is what is required.

Money, without available, exchangeable resources and energy and other people, is nearly useless, like a live electrical jack lacking something to plug into it.

Stoneleigh, as one who greatly values the Round-Ups you and ilargi pull together, please post early and often (so I don't miss it) where the Round-Up will be appearing.

Errol in Miami

Ilargi and I intend to set up our own blog as a home for the regular financial coverage we currently provide here.

Stoneleigh, I read your financial coverage regularly. Could you give me a link to your blog?

David Clarke

I find it a shame that the financial reports are to be discontinued at TOD, and I think this is a relevant thread to mention this on.

One of the things that makes theoildrum a wonderful resource is that it actually does focus on the interconnectioned systems which affect the future. Inasmuch as the human financial system is one of the most finely-tuned evolved complex systems and it is broadly connected to all the others in very tangible ways, I think it's quite appropriate to discuss it. My own thinking RE the collapse modes of the human economy has been broadened by your efforts.

It doesn't take much insight to see the connections between human commerce, energy extraction, and environmental degradation. I hope that the environmental problems aren't the next to be dropped.

The single biggest topic of TOD seems to be the present and future price of oil, which I'd say offhand is determined by geology, technology, politics, and finance.

Would it be considered more on-topic if there was just a section called TOD:finance?

Thanks for your work, I'll visit it wherever it goes.

Compared to some of the nonsense that is tolerated on TOD, and must presumably be thus thought of as 'on topic', the finance postings of Stoneleigh et al are an oasis of quality. Clearly one cannot discuss oil in isolation from finance (and vice versa) so to my mind dropping the finance round up is a highly retrogressive step.

Surely you can see there's a difference between the comments posted by random vistors, and the articles posted by staff?

That said, this is the first I've heard of finance being deemed off-topic. I thought the finance roundups brought in some visitors that weren't necessarily interested in peak oil, and that was a good thing.

Leanan, If you are not the censor, who is? And can he be overruled?

I have no say at all about what goes on the front page, or what goes on in the "satellite TODs." I'm just the news editor. I only do DrumBeats. (I did post a couple of random articles to the front page recently, but that was basically because we were very short-staffed over the holidays, and I was asked to post them. I wouldn't do it otherwise.)

And I have no idea who decided finance was OT.

TOD's loss will be your blog's gain. Financial topics off limits on a web site devoted to peak oil?

Excuse me, Professor Goose and friends, but you are making a very big mistake.

I believe industrial nations face the greatest likeness of large scale famines.

Oddly enough, suburbia might be a saving grace if people start planting gardens this year. All that land locally producing zero-food-mile sustainable infrastructure would be very helpful.

My reasoning on the risk of famine, the shredding of the social network came into focus when I was asked, "Of the 10 worst famines of the 20th Century, how many happened in Africa?" My guess was 8. The answer is zero. Following is what I reasoned on this and would like comments on:

All economic power, the will and ability to win applied to achieving an objective comes from the individual

  • Self-interest drives everything. I profit by adding more value than my cost to compete.
  • Collaboration, trusting others, allows me to profit by focusing on my most competitive profitable traits. Collaboration forms companies, industries and communities
  • Churn is the constant scramble where the pieces adjust to change.

The economy is a confederation, a network of up-side-down pyramids:

  • Base of everything is natural resources, clean air, water, etc...
  • Bottom equals resources consumed
  • Top value added and willingness to risk
  • Technology allows us to leverage value of natural resource base building populations far more dense than would be allowed at subsistence levels. Example, sand has become valuable to make computer chips.

Networking binders are the abilities to:

  • Trust
  • Transact
  • Transport

Creating a really major famine requires a complex economy. This puts the population into natural overshoot and dependent on the social and technical resources which expand their economy beyond subsistence. Essentially we are addicted.

If there is a shift in natural resources or a failure of technology that happens faster than Churn can adapt to, the non-adaptive portion of the structures collapses. Everyone wants to profit/survive so Churn is has enormous drive. It is not monolithic, every person, every collaboration has drive to profit/survive.

The problem I believe we are facing is a Potato Famine. We have created monolithic regulated monopolies for power generation and transportation that have frozen linear extensions of 19th Century innovations into our ability to transport.

That infrastructure is the cause of climate change. Local oil-based, congested travel is less than 2% efficient. The monopolies have prevented incremental churn to increase efficiencies (Darwin economics, try a lot of stuff, commercialize what works). Waste from this inefficiency is powering climate change. We built the mechanism to destroy the underlying ability of nature to support us and we have locked out churn so we can adapt our technology to the changing reality.

If there is a failure to transport, vast numbers of people must compete for too little locally produced food, Trust and Transact shatter and the entire social network cascades.

Economic lifeboats will be very important in this situation. Germany's Feed-in Tariffs are a start to build these lifeboats. Break the power generation monopolies to allow individuals and communities to build lifeboats.

Ark-up, building 50% self-contained economic communities is very important. In a crisis, their lifestyles will change but Trust, Transport and Transact will still be possible.

I fear the brittle nature of our economic infrastructure and its depleting petroleum base and harm to nature are going to be very expensive to vast numbers of people. Unlike the grains of sand that are static on the edge of avalanche, we implement policies which can amplify overshoot (recent US interest rate drops). Short term avoiding of pain, expands overshoot.

Those that exercise significant foresight might be better off.

Thought provoking. As someone who has recently started growing my own food (albeit only a small percentage), I agree that people need to start immediately. The reason is, of course, because it takes time to learn how.

I am in my second year, and I'm still losing half of my crops to insects, lack of water, birds, etc, etc.

Throw in the fact that your perenials (fruit trees, grape vines, avacadoes, nuts, etc) take a few years to mature and it becomes obvious that you need to start long before the real need occurs.

David Clarke.

There is no way to build experience but to start building.

It is odd that mitigating global consequences of Peak Oil and Climate Change are so local as planting a garden and ending congestion. Time is so short.

Thanks for the comment.

Wonderfully lucid comments, Bill.

Creating a really major famine requires a complex economy. This puts the population into natural overshoot and dependent on the social and technical resources which expand their economy beyond subsistence.

I highlight this just so people will read it at least twice. You've said a mouthful.

Great food for thought. One thing that strikes me about the analysis of the systems here is how it is, in a sense, the flip side of the cornucopian argument that we will simply substitute another resource when a critical resource gets scarce or runs out. The 'other resource' is frequently one of these red tendrils running down the sand pile. We substitute ethanol for gasoline and the food and arable land tendril gets redder and wider. It might be interesting to analyze in some detail some of the energy substitutes, such as nuclear for example, and see if they are already up to 'red tendril' status or if they are truly viable substitutes.

The obvious solution is to quit adding sand, says the dune walker as he slides down the crest...

We respond to crisis, but we do not prevent them from occurring. Years ago, Congress asked the oil companies if they were going to build more refineries. They said no, because it was not profitable enough. In fact, they were selling off their refineries to other companies. Congress did nothing about this as more people bought large pickup trucks and SUVs.

This is just one example of part of the energy system being strained to the breaking point and no one doing anything about it until it breaks. Remember, the conservative point of view is, if it is not broken, do not fix it. This was way before anyone was talking about hybrids and ethanol. The oil companies were making a business decision for their companies and not the country.

Refinery capacity did rise though. Refineries are sulphur emitters and hence subject to the emission trading system for sulphur in the US. This system tends to favor existing emitters (a phenomenon called 'grandfathering') so not building new refineries and 'repairing' and 'refitting' them became the most efficient way to add capacity. Not as ecologically sound as newbuilds though. Grandfathering will also be a problem with future emission trading systems like the one for CO2.

Complex systems evolve naturally. The reason human made systems always break down is because there are always a bunch of stupid monkeys with hammers banging on them.

Great post - This is along the lines of what I have been contemplating lately.

Just watched a doc. about the collapse/crisis in Argentina.

Ahora O Nunca

So many parallels to here and now.

Add to this climate change and peak oil and things could get messy.

When ever I start talking about these big issues around my neighborhood one of my neighbors loudly states "viva la revolution! When you going to lead the march on city hall?"

He does this to get me to stop talking but it never works.

In Argentina many talked about how complacent Argentines
were, that they were all asleep but how that all changed on Dec.20

What will it take to get people into the streets?

I hope we don't have to wait until 30% unemployment.

I know a little bit about making IP networks behave, both fault tolerant carrier voice on a small to medium scale and defaultless internet routing. This being said ...

If you want to reduce your MTBF (mean time between failure) you can get a "carrier class" box. Dual power, dual processors, and if you go large enough you get a single physical interface to a circuit but dual hot fail line cards stand behind it. This costs a Damn Fortune(tm).

I go at it the other way, by using multiple smaller devices. A Cisco 7600 will cost $50,000? I don't know as I've never installed one. We get better performance in many scenarios out of a pair of refurbished Cisco 3550s - about $1,000/ea.

I like having what I call "turn off maintainability". There are a couple of facilities I've designed where you can walk up, yank the power plug from any one device, and the voice calls on the system just keep rolling with nothing more than a single click to indicate a failure has occurred.

As our cost for network links (trucks, trains, ships, planes) goes up we're going to need more local resources. A giant wind turbine with a 3.0MW faceplate rating will produce enough power for all of the homes in this town ... until a category three tornado turns the blades into confetti. A line of four 750kw turbines running from northwest to south east is much more likely to survive our south west to north east running tornadoes and five or six units would allow one to be turned down for maintenance as needed. Capital wise this costs a bit more as there aren't a lot of used wind turbines available here, but the survivability is much better.

Distance to resources is starting to be important. It'll be vital twelve months from now. We simply can't ship things hither and thither without experiencing serious financial consequences. Some are prepping in a small way but the real change will come when financial crisis sweeps away old, top heavy structures. We'll see transit oriented development then, but it isn't the sensible, orderly vision that Alan Drake has - we'll see meatball surgery first, and then perhaps things will get built as he envisions once people understand its that way or no way.


The fundamentals you speak of, are the constants, from the time humans began to move from one tree to the next. It is the Network of Transportation,,,most important to everyone and everything,,, that has brought us to the end road.

Transportation of sight (is that a Lion in the bushes or my mate?)

Transportation of sound (is that my mate calling me?)

Transportation of idea (should I wear the brown feather or the blue one?)

Transportation of product (I can trade my stone axe for another feather!)

The break will come with the Transportation "Network" failure of all goods and services, then the "Network" of Communication will also break. Not all completely. but with enough of a snap as to kick everyones ass back a few hundred years.


I agree the hard snap will be a cascading failure of transportation.

I assume you kayak. If the future were a river, we can see the canyon walls narrowing, we can see an event horizon and mist ahead. I wish I had some idea which line might work. And I have great sympathy for the people partying on houseboat travel in the river next to me.

Talk of kayaking when it is -3C will either make me angry or despondent. Please stop :-(

Crazy Weather

Ha, more boaters here than I thought - I watch this serious of storms hitting California and keep thinking "snowpack for the Kern river, maybe we'll have a real season this year...."

Life is dangerous, practice. Boating provides real opportunities to practice.

boater here as well.

i heard a roar once as dark was closing in & ended climbing up tree branches to get to a bit of a sleeping place rather than running w/o scouting [turned out to be a falls in a tributary].

i read tod with similar fears/concerns.

the human factor is the one that will be most crucial as grey zone notes.

as alan of the big easy says;

best hopes for good decisions in response to our upcoming crises [we sure ain't making them now].

thanks for this post! i have been focusing on the fast/slow; crash/decline issue as well.

Seems that a lot of people are thinking along the same line. Where one disaster precipitates another. George Ure over at urbansurvival seems to have reached the same conclusion. He calls it a “Crashcade“. (Monday December 31, 2007 entry)

Great post...I recently was explaining how physical structures collapse (I have an undergrad degree in civil engineering). It seems a network is a network is a network...

Normally the load of any structure is born by any way the building can manage it (forgive the personification of an inanimate object, there is of course no "managing" actually going on by the building but it's a handy way to talk about it). Various supporting beams, trusses and columns take varying amounts of load and the entire structure stays in equilibrium.

This is very useful because if one were to take out a single support the rest of the building reaches a new equilibrium to compensate, thus keeping the structure standing.

However, take out or weaken too many supports and the act of re-equilibrating will send excessive load to supports that weren't designed for it. If at that point a support fails, the building attempts to equilibrate again, sending extra load to the remaining supports, causing the next one to fail, and so on. That is the modality of collapse and once it has begun it is for practical purposes impossible to stop because eventually very few supports try to carry the entire weight of the structure. It would be like an adult trying to stand on a thin piece of cardboard placed vertically on its edge. The cardboard has no chance of supporting that much weight.

Best Of The Oil Drum Index

Thanks Andre. My background in Engineering has lain dormant and unused for over 30 years - I'd failed to make this connection. You are right, a network is a network is a network....

Connect this post with the discussion of nuclear power from yesterday. Nuclear power may be truly an efficient way to generate electricity, and it may be very 'safe', but when the various kinds of crises that are discussed here actually happen, they leave various messes that have to be cleaned up. Until these messes are cleaned up the system as a whole is not fully functional. I think a nuclear power plant in a region that suffers a crisis adds immeasureably to the required clean up. Even if it is totally undamaged by the crisis, it must be thoroughly checked to make sure it is undamaged (time and money lost). It appears to me that nuclear power tends to destablize the system by adding to the recovery time. In a very stable system, such a metropolitan France, nuclear power may be tolerable. But Englishmen and Americans are, perhaps, not so stable.

What I find lacking in the Peak Oil collapse discussion is the concept of triage. It seems like all the world is lumped together and when one country fails, then it is assumed that unless something is done all countries will fail. This is not the case. Some countries have to been written off as hopeless. Right now it looks like some in Africa are in this category.

Resources should be spent on those who have a chance of survival and not wasted on those who are terminal lest they drag down those who have a chance to make it. The United States has many resources that should be spent within our country and not wasted on wars and desperate attempts to save the hopeless. Sounds cruel but it is done all the time in medicine and it is a well established principle of dealing with a crisis.

For example I would like to see a discussion of whether or not Zimbabwe is a candidate for being written off, not for lack of resources in the country but because of it's dysfunctional politics.
As a practical matter I think it has already been written off.

The "Triage" issue is not one to discuss by most sheeple here....too many intellectuals, prowl these depths.

The basics of Biology will create the new society. Reason and planning will not have too much to do with it. You think road rage is a cultural or societal outgrowth? Basic Biology.


Kayakguy, I live on the Oleta River. Where are you?

Errol in Miami

Yes....Here in the sunny land of the "Blue Hairs" (South Florida) we can go every day.

May be a viable form of transportation in a few years (or less).


May be a viable form of transportation in a few years (or less).

Normally I kayak in the ocean off of Hollywood beach, today my girlfriend and I joined the boat traffic on the Intra Coastal for a bit, very nice day.

Now all I need is an office job on the Intra Coastal Waterway and a kayak trailer for my bicycle and I'm there!

I think a VERY good case could be made by the world that the United States should bear the brunt of reduced oil consumption (and all other types of consumption as well). We would be the ones triaged out.

If this leads to social collapse, then peacekeeping forces from China, Japan and the EU could be sent into the MidWest rural areas, California valleys, southern rice growing belt and other vital food exporting areas to keep the flow of food exports going and preventing any ethanol production or excessive influx of refugees.

Be Careful what you wish for,


though your first sentence is plausible, nukes fly way before the second sentence becomes reality

I fear that the USA WILL bear the brunt of reduced new oil exports.

It will not be by some overt UN resolution or direct method like that. but by collapse of the US dollar. We can be financially triaged to get SOME oil imports, but far less than 25% of the world's oil that we are used to.

Just apply "simple economic justice". Annual exports equal annual imports (no more US $ reserve currency). We empty Ft. Knox for some oil, but then it is gone. We export food, Boeing, Microsoft & Apple, Hollywood, and Britney Spears in exchange for coffee, oil & manufactured goods (after deducting debt service of course).

And if the rest of the world is "hanging together" who do we aim nukes at ? Canada comes to mind as the only viable target.

MAD works both ways and nuclear proliferation already seems to growing. And several other oil importers have nukes.

And do we attack the international economic system that we created ? *LOTS* of cognitive dissonance and changes in world view required in going that way. By Chicago School, IMF, etc. we are being treated fairly when we get, say, 6% of the world's oil exports. It is all we can afford to pay for.


1) its my belief that the OECD nations are another example of the 'red sand', as much as many people here would disagree, i don't see that huge of a collapse in US dollar - it will sell off - but anything much greater than 2$ per Euro and world economy comes apart. Despite the international dislike for american policy (I think its more that than americans themselves, though I could be wrong), at some dollar selloff level, all central banks act together to further broaden the network of 'red sand'. UK, France, China, Australia, Canada, Japan, Germany, etc. etc. all run sociopolitical economies now dependent on growth. China and Japan will be buffered because of their social history of following order, but if no one buys their products they are equally if not more dependent on imported energy than we are..

2)And I didn't mean who we aim nukes at, I meant who aims them at us?

The issue is not so much the exchange rate, but a balanced balance of payments. The oil exporters send oil to those that give them something that they want in return.

It is not outlandish for most oil exporters to demand payment in their own national currency. Germany sells 300,000 Mercedes to Russia and gets 50 billion rubles. It uses 40 billion to buy oil and the rest for trade outside the Euro zone. Both Germany and the USA sell magnetic resonance imaging equipment to all of the oil exporters, and collect the assorted national currencies. Etc.

In other words, reserve currencies (of all types) may fall out of favor under stress and the world could shift to a more current account system, where any national boom in exports is invested in durable goods (such as strategic oil reserves, but also copper, coffee, gold, wheat, etc.) Currencies are used for trading, with exchange rates between them of course, but the urge to accumulate foreign financial instruments is curbed after some bad experiences with the US $, mortgages, etc.

A dramatic drop in the US $ will have an impact, but losing it's reserve status (see UK sterling after WW II) will have an even more profound impact and make the exchange rate less relevant.

Bretton Woods may not have been the last word on world finance.


Alan, you are probably right, except that the Chinese and Japanese will be managers from the entities that have bought out US corporations. That's the way capitalism works with debtors: most US citizens may well end up sharecroppers.

Errol in Miami

Don't forget that the Chinese have a vast potential consumer market on shore and don't really need to sell off shore and methinks they know how to simulate local demand!!

Spoken like a true patriot Nate. And that is the biggest risk we face from PO, that the pressure inside the US will become so out of control that humanity will go down in a bizzarre murder suicide after some nut that you elect decides that it is better to destroy the world than to lose American hegemony. No other empire in history has had that option.

If this leads to social collapse, then peacekeeping forces from China, Japan and the EU could be sent into the MidWest rural areas, California valleys, southern rice growing belt and other vital food exporting areas to keep the flow of food exports going and preventing any ethanol production or excessive influx of refugees.

Ha ha ha ha! Yeah, all the military hardware, military conscripts, ex military, and privately owned guns held by bubbas very familiar with the lay of the land are suddenly going to disappear so that the foreign forces could just walk in with little resistance. With a huge landmass, some very difficult topography, dense urban areas, and long supply lines that would tax even the most advanced logistics foreign armies would be very loathe to even consider military operations on the continental US. It would be like Chechnya, Iraq, Algeria, and Vietnam combined. The casualties would be staggering. Only China has a large enough standing army to engage in such an enterprise, and their military tradition is not to engage in such foolish nonsense (see “The Tiger‘s Way H. John Poole, “Stillwell and the American Experience in China“, Barbara Tuchman). Nate is right, just lob some nukes. As a military historian you provided the biggest belly laugh I’d had all week. Thank you.

People dislike disorder and chaos. UNDER THE CONDITIONS OF SOCIAL COLLAPSE (INCLUDING GOV"T) with roving bands of brigands, waves of FWOs migrating towards food, and a global need for American food exports, a way could be worked out.

Set up "trading posts" at New Orleans, St. Louis, Cairo Il, etc. to trade food for luxury goods (antibiotics, toilet paper, etc.) and then enlist some local warlords into a peacekeeping militia supported by a modern military (French Foreign Legion ?). The guerrillas would spend most of their limited ammo in American vs. American firefights. Meanwhile the peacekeepers are the source of all good things (manufactured products, basic medical care, food processing, energy, law & order, migrant control). They carefully expand their area of control over the primary food growing areas. Keeping migrants out of their peace keeping areas might be a major challenge.

Read the history of the colonization of India for an idea of the basics.

Best Hopes that it NEVER gets to that,


Triage exists in a context where some overall organization is assumed, as in treatment by doctors of battle casualties. The doctors do the triage. The doctors are part of an army that has not lost its internal organization. For what happens as the world system decays into chaos, who would be doing the triage?

In the case of Zimbabwe, if there are resources in the country that could be used to mitigate local suffering, do we outsiders really have the information that is needed to manage those resources effectively? Maybe that we try to manage Zimbabwe now is part of what makes the current system unstable. But I really have no knowledge of the particulars of Zimbabwe. This is just an expression of my nature disinclination for meddling in other peoples' affairs.

Practical: Who told you the United States is "your" country? The persons that own the USA don't perceive the minor differences between the average American and the average African. The write off of human capital is going to be a lot larger than you think, IMHO.

Privately used terms are serfs (Rockefeller) or even worse, dumb stupid animals (Kissinger)

It's not that we haven't thought about triage. Peak oil writers like Greer have written about it (though he sees triage in terms of what technology should be saved, not what nations).

Me, I think Tainter is right. The next collapse will be a global one.

I hate to burst your bubble, practical, but the U.S. is not the paragon of virtuous giving that you seem to think. We abandoned the rest of the world the day GWB came to power. We will not be withdrawing our generous humanitarian aid as we aren't giving any. The only monetary resources we could withdraw is our ongoing support of various dictatorships through arms deals.

The real question will be, "Will the rest of the world write off the U.S.?"

Given that we are the 300 pound bully on the block, I think we may find ourselves on our own.

The financial system has an important role to play in this network. If energy, food and the environment can be considered 3 portions of the network, then our financial system can be considered to be both a form of network monitoring, and the communication medium that the network uses to pass signals around. Consider the financial system to be similar to the blue cable running out the back of your computer. Your computer’s blue cable isn’t likely to run hot, but our finance system is a network of networks, and it is glowing red. In addition to monitoring and communication, the financial system provides support for maintenance and upgrades of the energy systems, so capacity in the financial system is critical.

When one part of the network develops a problem (say production of LNG suddenly drops), then messages get sent via the financial system (in the form of increased prices), and the other parts of the system accept the load, if they can, by increasing production. When compared to an Internet Protocol network there are many faults in this system. High latency leads to slow responses. Poor monitoring leads to conflicting signals or a failure to detect faults. Bad messages are often not corrected, leading to incorrect responses, and so on.

This was an interesting passage to read in context to Taleb's The Black Swan. To Taleb, the physically restrained systems (production of energy resources, computer networks, etc.) would reside in his "Mediocristan" and the financial systems would lie with "Extremistan".

Black Swans (outliers, unpredicted events, etc.) have a much larger and more swift impact on systems and events within "Extremistan".

Here are Taleb's laws of Mediocristan and Extremistan (p. 32-33):

Mediocristan = When your sample is large, no single instance will significantly change the aggregate or the total.

Extremistan = inequalities are such that one single observation can disproportionately impact the aggregate, or the total.

I'm still in the middle of The Black Swan, but I find myself more and more applying some of his thoughts into ideas here at TOD. How does a "Black Swan" event within Extremistan affect a networked system residing in Mediocristan?

If it was a "Black Swan" event, we could not forcast it. I believe that is the point.
If we can think of a future solution, or effect, it is not a "Black Swan".
At least that is how I interpreted the book.

Black Swans are identified in hindsight, from a historical perspective. Taleb says that 9/11 was a Black Swan. Could we have prevented or forecasted it? Sure we could have, but it would have taken much foresight and cost to have implanted the necessary precautions to have prevented it. At the time, no one thought it as "likely".

The reason I bring up Taleb's Black Swans is not that we should try to predict them, but that we may be highly susceptible to one if all these other systems and networks are tied into systems that are prone to huge Black Swan events, like the global financial system. Within this sytem, it is possible for one outlier, a once in a lifetime event, one data point to come in and swamp the system so that all of the other data points do not matter. If tied, networked or somehow integrally-connected to other less susceptible systems, there could be carry over effects.

I will revisit this idea at the end of his book.

Just to point up, but this is a common fallacy.

Instances such as 911 were well understood and predicted. "Controlled flight into buildings" - it was one possible attack mode and had probabilities associated with it. The only area that was questionable was the necessity for a suicide bomber, since most aircraft hijackings to that point had focused on the hijacker attempting to get away. However even this was well recognised.

It was a nice hook for Taleb's book - but 911 wasn't really a black swan.

Yes...I'm sure this type of attack (as well as many other types)was thought about and discussed around think tank tables, but no one took action on it. It was passed over because it was a "highly unlikely" event. It did not fit the "mold" of past terrorist attacks and therefore got marginalized. This is exactly what Taleb is discussing. The outlier theories or data points are lost in the analysis of what fits a "normal" distribution.

How can you take action on ALL hypotheticals to terrorist attacks? In my mind, it does fit Taleb's Black Swan because it was one event that carried a lot of weight, it was big enough to change the course of events, and blind-sided "most" people.

911 was not a Black Swan. It and other events like it, (e.g. kobar tower) are logical results of 60 years of failed U.S. Middle East Policy as admitted to in a speech by U.S. Secretary of State Condelizza Rice in a speech in Egypt. What goes around, comes around.

This was a great post. Continuing with the red/sand analogy and finance, the powers that be (central banks, governments, etc.) will react to every 'red' they see in the financial system and 'solve' it by connecting it to some other part of the system that is not yet red (or at least not red-hot). Reducing interest rates, concerted currency intervention, Temporary and Permanent Open Market Operations, new discount window techniques, new rules for mortgage holders that had low teaser rates, new lower reserve requirements for member banks, etc. At each of these steps they alleviate the current pressure (as measured basically by DJIA and other public measures of financial 'health'), but thus assure that when the 'don't tip the waiter' moment finally arrives, it will be redder and more calamitous than it otherwise could have been.

In my opinion, the big problem we face, and have been aware about for decades, if not centuries (Malthus, etc.) is the problem of linear/exponential growth on a finite planet - biophysical meets neoclassical. The credit collapse is a symptom of the incongruency of those 2 different systems. Finite energy/resources vs infinite dollars (and heretofore credit)

Thanks Nate. You are right, Malthus said it best.

What we are doing is simply postponing the Malthusian Solution, but thus increasing the severity. We need to start looking for new ways to address the problem - ways that don't lead to an avalanche.

The solution is to address the underlying issue of exponential growth. Critics of Malthus point out that our population is no longer growing exponentially. This is irrelevant. Our population is no longer growing exponentially, but our GDP (and thus our consumption) still is!

If we want to hand a viable world to our children, the linear/exponential growth problem must be addressed.

David C.

I fear that the only viable method of avoiding an avalanche is to get completely off the sand pile.

true, but is there a 'path' for that? and does the path include everyone, or only those that have connected the dots and have the means?

No, there is no path, but that didn't stop us when we knew nothing 10,000 years ago and embarked on a now-failing way of life.

We must beat a new path to something else. Anything else, at this point. Since the collapse hasn't yet begun, moving in any direction off the sandpile is a direction toward survival.

Build a new sandpile network from scratch using tools, resources, and knowledge retained from the failing system. It's how humans have ever survived large-scale catastrophe.

The sooner action is taken, the more can be retained to build something else.

But, no, there isn't enough room for everyone. According to an interview with "Overshoot" author William Catton in "Life At The End of Empire", there wasn't enough room for everyone without resource exploitation and cheap energy about 150 years ago, when the population was 1.2 billion. If we were in overshoot then, we are so *&#$&^%!@ now that it's not funny, it's not even tragic, it is unprecedented devastation that defies real human understanding.

There is a silver lining to this mushroom cloud. We have the foresight to see how bad it will be, and the chance to work on it before catastrophe actually hits.

I think the Mayans would have liked the chance to see their demise coming and take action to save something and rebuild.

This may be a little theoretical but I think if you are going to use network theory to analyze situations it might help to have some basic principles at hand. For those who want to delve deeper let me suggest you explore Flow Networks theory, a branch of Graph Theory.

I will limit my comments to the problem expressly stated in the post, namely the notion of cascading failures through a network. The example of self-organized criticality is relevant but one must start with a reasonable representation of the system as a network. In other words one should first carefully find a mapping from the real system of interest to a network representation in which the nodes (vertices) and flows (directed edges) match up with the sub-systems and interconnections between them. Then you can see which overarching principles of complex systems dynamics correspond with the problem at hand.

There are two items which make systems crash that seem to me to be relevant here. 1) the strength of coupling between nodes; and 2) the degree of adaptability of nodes.

The first issue is relevant in the sandpile example. The sand grains are weakly coupled (and then only by gravity and friction). This means that the majority of failures at any given point are likely to be damped quickly, hence the 1-over-f noise characteristics of avalanches. If systems components are, in general, more tightly coupled (e.g. flow dependencies) then a failure at any node is much more likely to propagate throughout the network. I would suggest that very many aspects of the physical-social-political-economic system we call the human-built world are too tightly coupled for our own good. Someone mentioned the just-in-time distribution systems which is a very good example of coupling strength.

The second issue is best exemplified by living systems. The concepts of homeostasis and autopoiesis describe systems in which the nodes - in this case physiological reaction points - are resilient to many forms of disturbance. Living systems are highly adaptable and stable over a range of disruptions due to the adaptiveness of interior nodes. The example of a computer network is quite the opposite. Except for some playing around with adaptive routing, computers, software, and networks are pretty brittle components. Hence, for example, the flipping of a single bit in a crucial circuit can bring down a lot of components if not the system.

Now I suggest that many human institutions are to some degree adaptable, but the real question is over what time scale. If events propagate too quickly it is likely that these institutions will not be able to adapt in time to dampen the cascade. And how strongly are the organizations coupled to one another. There are some loosely coupled organizations, but most, like cities being dependent on long-distance hauling of food supplies, are quite dependent on flows and will thus incur shocks if and when those flows are disrupted.

It would be good to see more systems science applied to analysis of the problems humanity faces. If anyone is interested in general systems science we are beginning to develop a BA/BS degree at UWT for this purpose. I am also working on a MS in Energy Systems Engineering. Feel free to contact me:


Note that you also want to get a source of experimental data that captures human behaviour. (I trained as a mathematician so I enjoy doing modelling, but I'm the first to admit very often the sophisticated models don't apply to the real world.) Researchers are starting to use Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) to study some aspects of large scale human behaviour, but there are two problems: (1) the games companies are incentivised to "tweak the world" so players have a generally positive experience and (2) because it's not life critical, players engage in more risky, extreme behaviour than in real life.

embryonic, this is a thought-provoking sentence: "because it's not life critical, players engage in more risky, extreme behavior than in real life".

An autistic genius, Temple Grandin, has a different perspective on society than those of us who pass for normal. She has observed that American society suffers from what she calls "abstractification". As I understand it, she means that most Americans have so little contact with oil or soil or fetilizer or the other things that their lives depend on that they have oversimplified and sanitized the world to abstractions and symbols that they believe actually control the real world.

My notion: the reason that Americans took on WAY too much debt, the reason investors in the OECD seemed to have forgotten the word "risk" is abstractification. Credit cards made money seem an abstraction. "Money" has come to mean 0's and 1's displayed on a screen. As a result, many many people engaged in risky, extreme behavior because they thought it was not life-critical, but rather a multiplayer game.

Just a thought...

Errol in Miami

edited for spelling

There are deep ironies in the fact that it is economic failure or at least a major readjustment is what seems to be a necessity for avoiding the failure or major readjustment of the natural environmental system.

At least that is a view which would be shared by many here and most people who are not ideological conservatives.

It is difficult to imagine an American culture which doesn't depend upon traditional economic growth which in turn is dependent upon fossil fuel energy consumption.

My biggest fear is that the natural tendency of people to come together in difficult circumstances will be overwhelmed by those seeking political power and control, both internationally and domestically. In a sense I see the unilateral militarism of todays conservatives as the opening salvo or reaction against our diminished circumstances. The dire consequences of the Great Depression were causal in the development of European fascism. In America we took a different course. Will we next time, if there is a next time of major economic dislocation ?

Phillip Schewe, author of “The Grid: A Journey Through the Heart of Our Electrified World,” writes that the nation’s power infrastructure is “the most complex machine ever made.” In “Lights Out: The Electricity Crisis, the Global Economy, and What It Means To You,” author Jason Makansi emphasizes that “very few people on this planet truly appreciate how difficult it is to control the flow of electricity.” A 2007 report of the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC) concluded that peak power demand in the U.S. would increase 18% over the next decade and that planned new power supply sources would not meet that demand. NERC also noted concerns with natural gas disruptions and supplies, insufficient capacity for peak power demand during hot summers (due to air conditioning), incapacity in the transmission infrastructure, and a 40% loss of engineers and supervisors in 2009 due to retirements. According to Railton Frith and Paul H. Gilbert, power failures currently have the potential of paralyzing the nation for weeks or months.

If a prolonged power failure occurs in winter, millions of people in the U.S. and Canada will die of exposure. Read these two and you could get the willies:

Interestingly, Paul Gilbert did not focused on what would happen with a power grid failure in the dead of winter. Could be that most people in the big cities in the Northeast and Upper Midwest would die of exposure. Could happen tomorrow. Kinda makes ya stop n think.

And, cjwirth's first law of policy analysis is that if something can go wrong it will occur in a way that will cause maximum chaos and it will likley occur simultaneously with other disasters, like a massive earthquake on the San Andreas Fault that is so powerful it unleashes a massive earthquake on the New Madrid Fault.

There goes much of the U.S. Hey, ya gotta have a sense of humor ):


Aeldric, markets will crash once they realize that the shares no longer have long term "value". For instance you get out of tyres when you understand that there will be less vehicles post peak - the same applies to almost all shares, as most goods and services rely on oil..

they could crash LONG before then, because the belief that shares have 'value', and there is some natural law that human ingenuity pushes SP500 higher by an average of 8-10% over the 'long haul', is DEEPLY embedded in the institutions that call the shots, and give money to the electoral campaigns..

I must be having a stupid moment, but I don't follow this one Nate. You're saying that markets could crash long before the realisation spreads that shares no longer have long term value because the big institutions that fund electoral campaigns don't buy into that realisation?

I'm very interested in your conclusion, but could you clarify the logic for us slow 'uns - it's been a long day :)

Sorry, I was unclear. Thats what happens when I am on phone with my mom and typing comment simultaneously...;)

There are many reasons, especially this year, for equities to sell off. Credit has been grossly overextended in a highly interconnected system based on cheap energy. Removal of easy credit and easy energy is enough to 'dramatically lower' both earnings and stock market multiples, let alone any liquidity led forced selling.

But my point above was, out of all the possible future scenarios I envision, one where all the institutions and political leadership realize the end of growth, and the end of stock market appreciation is upon us, will be one of the last things to happen, because that meme is so ingrained in our culture.

Even my wall st buddies who understand peak oil, to a man, say: 'well SOMETHING will come around, some new technology, or conservation, and we'll wake up in 10 years and sure enough, stocks will have averaged 8-10% a year, even if there are some nasty years in between. In fact, down years are healthy for the market as they clean out the detritus', or some such.

My point was that the financial carrot, if things go badly, will be one of the last things to go.

Thought experiment- try this one on: what if peak oil is as bad or worse than people here think - and most companies go out of business and we are in depression,etc. But a few companies cater to what society needs at that time: food, energy, efficiency products, etc. EVEN IF 80% of the companies we know now eventually go out of business, the survivorship bias in the DJIA, COULD mean DJIA of 20,000 or 30,000 or some such in the face of peak oil, even if we counted the 30 stocks that are currently in the Dow, would have sent it to sub 2,000 or some such. In other words, as long as the financial system still functions (said differently, as long as people 'see' their store of value and power as 'money/digital wealth'), then there are ways for some stocks to make new highs even in the face of negative economic growth. Im not saying this is going to happen, but that its possible. In 2029 the DJIA might only be 3 stocks: Rapier Biofuels, Corsi's Creamy Nougat, and Darley Communications, and since every institution needs to be invested, they are each worth 3 trillion dollars.....Nah..after thinking about it, that won't happen...But a milder version might...

I wonder about Canadian Hydro Development (CHD on Toronto exchange). Their business model is to build or buy & rehabilitate ad then operate small hydroelectric dams in Canada, with all cash flow devoted to expansion (no dividends). Lately they have diversified into wind (much shorter life assets, ~25 years).

They seem a likely growth model and storehouse of value under almost any circumstances (being based in an oil self sufficient/exporter nation is not a bad thing). Low marginal cost zero-GHG electricity seems likely to have value long term.

Any thoughts ?


Yes, and pump it up to the point where the maintenance gear is built within easy reach. Ten years of frantic (war emergency) building, then a nice, steady flow of wind turbines going into place mixed with replacement of worn out gearboxes and the like.

I predict we're going to see a reduction in turbine size and an improvement in maintainability on the community sized wind front. Must be able to bring gear box bits up & down with onboard crane - none of this traveling maintenance circus stuff. It'd be great to see a design for maintenance that could bring the blades down by having the target blade perpendicular to the ground, using parts integral to the tower to get it on the ground, then rotating the remaining two down to the low stress position.

But I am not a turbine designer so this is just idle speculation ... thinking about ways to reduce VMT and crane costs associated with long term upkeep.

A few years ago, I saw the Kevin Costner movie 'The Postman'. While it did not go into the details of how the complete failure of the American way of life came to be, it did give some insight into what it may look like after the crash.

I watched the movie again last week, with Peak Oil and economic crash in mind. I recommend that whether you have seen the movie or not, it's worth watching it again. I know it's sicly sweet in parts, and heavily US egotistic, but the scenes of small communities do seem as likely as any other scenario.

Read the book, as it is far superior to the movie---
But if you are more "visual", the move makes a few good points--

I agree... the movie for flavor if not for story line. It was humorously called "Dirtworld" by most critics.

Yes, after the budget blowout for 'Waterworld', Costner got the nickname 'Kevin Cost-more', and 'The Postman' looks like it would have been expensive, too. Thus the 'Dirtworld' parallel with 'Waterworld'.

A WONDERFUL post, and great comments following it. This is why theoildrum is so addictive, there are real gems available, and frequently.... and the competence of the posters is quite high. It's a privilege to read this stuff, and some of the comments nearly give me goose-bumps, they're so right-on. Folks may initially come here for the oil, but I suspect they come back for the quality and breadth of all else discussed, and the amassed intellect of those attracted.

And being in the Hawaii timezone, many of comments I would make are often made before I get on, frequently better than I would, allowing me to be lazy and just say "yeah!" or avoid commenting altogether. A guilty luxury.

The only misc. thoughts I had which were not dealt with by the other commenters are a grab bag:

The perturbations to our systems are of varying sizes. One failure mode is unsubtle: nuke war. There is a finite chance, every day, that the semi-hair-trigger system for launching a large-scale nuclear assault could be triggered by any number of cascades within that system, human or electronic. Every day the dice are rolled. The odds of an all-out nuclear war from such a cause are disconcertingly high; indeed only a collapse of the system makes it non-inevitable. We don't walk around fearing this every day because of "abstractification" (great reference) and outright denial. That abstractification and denial make it more likely. The actuarial odds of an all-out nuclear war triggered by social and technical system breakdown are probably disconcertingly high if obscure. I suspect that the odds of having one before now were greater than 30%, and having one in the future may be similarly likely. Indeed, the "nuclear scenarios" and stuff which leverage counterforce against counterforce are another kind of network... a strategic one. Just as Kennedy "solved" the cuban missile crisis by connecting Cuba with a global thermonuclear war, he gained leverage on one issue by risking the whole world. The fact that it worked is beside the point - the fate of humanity rested on the decisions of individual boat officers which in retrospect was horribly near to collapsing into a very stable state since the game players had different information. We don't talk much about this now; the media don't really discuss it, it's treated as an old-fashioned worry. Yow. Talk about a large perturbation.

Another part of the system that is tick-tick-ticking away is the falling threshold of accessibility of biowar materials and tech to smaller and smaller groups of people. We are getting ever-closer to a world in which arbitrarily small groups of people, or even individuals, can destroy the human race in service of whatever insane religion or idiosyncratic notion occurs to them. This is about the networking of information and commerce. I'm amazed at how many students are now being graduted with the skills to destroy large swaths of the human race, just working at home the way internet hackers do. Biotech really is info tech when you come down to it. Again, only a general collapse of information systems and ubiquitous availability of resources will make "hacker plagues" unlikely. Various forms of collapse are racing each other to the finish line.

One good example of highly-connected systems which nobody here mentioned is forest fires. Humans in the USA 'abstractified" forest fires into a Smokey-the-bear motherhood issue, so they were extinguished, which allowed growth to get so dense that a higher level of "burnability connectedness" was created, for massive fires which would take out even the larger trees. This illustrates the non-intuitive fact that background stochastic collapses are a good thing for overall resilience. Systems which are too much under control will ultimately go out of control in a big way. I'll stop short of suggesting that small collapses in all human systems should be encouraged, but it arguably would help the resilience. And in case anyone hasn't said it explicitly, it is resilience vs efficiency. I wish someone would put that on a T-shirt.

One a perhaps more obscure note, having been recently taking care of some aging relatives I was struck by how modern medicine seems to leverage the body into older age by taking advantage of resilience in other organ systems to backstop those which are failing first... giving medicines which, say, support the heart and lungs at the expense of the liver and kidneys, etc.

All complex evolved systems collapse. That's why birth and death works so well. If human society ever starts planning a civilization from the outset with it's final modes of collapse in mind, we'll be a lot better off. A managed collapse is the best which can be achieved...

cheers, and again kudos on a great key-post and comments.

greenish, I think you mentioned something important:
"This illustrates the non-intuitive fact that background stochastic collapses are a good thing for overall resilience. Systems which are too much under control will ultimately go out of control in a big way."

IMO Alan Greenspan's aborting the recession after the dotcom/9-11 bust, by pushing interest rates below the rate of inflation, led investors to mis-price risk. Consequently, malinvestment piled up to towering heights and was spread around the world. I'm arguing that the Fed put the macro economy under too much control, and it is now going out of control in a big way.

Errol in Miami


Some excellent points! A highly intelligent friend of mine made a few similar observations recently, before going off to take an anti-depressant!

I sometimes think that I must have some kind of defect in my personality - as, unlike my friends, I can think about this stuff without requiring psycho-active drugs (as long as you accept that a liberal dose of red wine administered daily qualifies as a "tonic").

Is this the reason for the denial of PO and GW? Do our minds simply shy away from stuff that is so bad that our mind would rather not think about it? I believe there was an interesting post on this topic some months ago. I will have to dig it out...

Thanks, though you probably shouldn't encourage me. I have odd perspectives galore.

I think I actually do have a "defect"; mild case of something autism-spectrum. It was a problem when young, with the banging my head into things for hours and screaming heebie-jeebies, but I'm glad I was wired that way. I taught myself to run various 'emulations' on my brain hardware and have a very functional human-social version which is entirely sincere; but I can also slip into modes of thought which are quite alien, refreshingly so. I seem to not be as ruffled by social conformist needs as most others, or care what everyone else believes, or to shrink from logical conclusions. The world I see is quite different from that of most folks I know... but it seems to fit reasonably well on this site. I wonder how many others here may be similarly 'flawed'.

I think most people need denial about dangers and dire futures to function. People with dependent kids seem to be more likely to be in denial about future nastiness, so it's a defense mechanism and not a lack of intelligence. Could be that 'normal' folks don't have much ability to modulate their fear except in on/off mode. People don't even prepare for hurricanes here until they're 24 hours from landfall, if then.. and only when the TV tells them to. It's tempting to say this is what we're evolved for, except that while evolving our forebears presumably would deal with heirarchies of risk. Then again, perhaps the difference is "abstractified" risk versus visible risk; that may be why video presentations can be better at scaring people than facts. (I know, I've done it).

enough ramble for now

I think I actually do have a "defect"; mild case of something autism-spectrum.

LOL. Yup. That would be it. Many of my friends would fit into that category, and for my part I can certainly relate to your comment:

I taught myself to run various 'emulations' on my brain hardware and have a very functional human-social version which is entirely sincere;

A good healthy dose of Asperger's Syndrome seems to help when trying to analyse a range of possible futures that you really wish you didn't have to consider.

Could be that 'normal' folks don't have much ability to modulate their fear except in on/off mode.

I wonder if it is a fight/flight thing? The future is scarey, I can't fight it, so I will fly from it.

Certainly I find some of the future possibilities scarey, but I plod on, carrying out a series of iterations of analysis followed by action.

giving medicines which, say, support the heart and lungs at the expense of the liver and kidneys, etc.

Many of the social phenomenon discussed on this site, have at their core, The Maximum Power Principle, which is 'future costs be damned, I (evolved to) want and need power (energy, money, cocaine, water-cut oil, avocados, sex, coffee, heart and lungs etc.) NOW, and will worry about the future when it comes.

This is more than just an attitude- it is the only winning strategy in the immediate term.
and if you lose in the immediate term, it hardly matters that you had a great move planned
for next week.
You keep your foot ALL the way down on the gas, or you lose the race. This is an iterative game
with winner-takes-all stakes at every round. This strategy works fine in the natural world- when
the conditions for a technological feedback loop exist, there is a chance someone steps into the trap,
even by accident, and sets off a runaway escalation.

It's not by any fault of theirs that people follow this strategy, it is the only one that works in
the game they're playing.

The longer it goes before it breaks down, though, the worse it is when it does. And it always does.

A trend I have noticed lately and which seems to be accelerating is that, whenever an appliance or tool (or virtually anything else for that matter) wears out, it is impossible to replace it with something of equal quality and reliability. Sure they are prettier, fancier, even have cute bells and whistles, but they DON'T WORK AS WELL OR LAST AS LONG.

Not so, maybe with refrigerators and washing machines........but cars last much longer, engines go 200,000 miles, springs don't sag after 20 years, tires last longer, good power tools last much longer. Maybe you are buying no name stuff at Big Lots...ya get what ya pay fo.

cj, I agree with you about the cars (tho they cost as much as my house did not that long ago), I am referring to things like can openers, irons, desk lamps, etc. The little things that are going to break down in shorter and shorter times.

What I wonder: Will we get economic contraction larger than the size of the decline in available energy?

If we do get a larger decline I can think of three possible reasons:

1) Mass panic.

2) Vicious cycle of cascading financial failures. This is not quite the same as the first item because it could happen even if the masses stayed pretty calm about the oil production decline.

3) Decline in oil needed for key bottleneck industrial processes.

Out of the 3 items I think the third one is most amenable to rational analysis ahead of time. It is hard to predict mass reactions. Also, a lot of financial interconnections are not clear.

So do we face economic contractions due to loss of oil needed to operate key bottleneck steps in our economies?

I've been wondering about the networked failure of ecological systems lately and the Arctic sea ice melt rate.

The actual observed rate of ice melt this past season was a staggering and quite unexpected increase in view of all the fancy IPCC computer models. Most of the so called 'state of the art' computer models only showed this kind of melt rate occurring around 2070-80.

Geez Louise, if these ecological networked failure models are that far off the mark, imagine if they were tweaked to reflect current realities, and then projected forward to 2070-80.

I don't know about you but rapid unrecoverable collapse in this area is looking like a real done deal.

What does this bode for the sea level rise supercomputer models from the Antarctic and Greenland melt rates. Most generally accepted models are only predicting a couple of meters of rise by century's end. Are they as cock-eyed as the artic sea ice melt models?

What happens when the 'red tendril' of the Arctic Sea Ice Reality Meltdown manages to off-load some of it's stress on to financial systems, political systems, belief systems?

I've been fantasizing about some event that would wake the Sheeple from their Stupor. Something that would be really hard to spin away as just a natural cycle.

A rapid 2 or 3 meter sea level rise might do the trick. The slime bag wizards of Wall St would have a hard time selling New Yorkers on a cofferdam driven in around the entire edge of Manhattan to keep the Big Apple from becoming a Big Apple Bob.

The New New Orleans of the Northeast.

"I've been wondering about the networked failure of ecological systems lately and the Arctic sea ice melt rate."

I've been thinking pretty much the same thing since I heard about this on NPR the other day.
This might startle some of the sheeple a bit.

"ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — The disappearance of Arctic sea ice is leaving thousands of walruses stranded on land and leading to deadly stampedes, according to U.S. federal marine mammal experts in Alaska."

Finally someone has brought the REAL problem of PO into focus. This will not be like Rome or any other civilizational collapse before it. Rome and the others were still based on solar energy, were not as complex or specialized as we, and in a nutshell, were primitive compared to today. Not that they weren't great, they were for their day, but they were not as dependent on technology as we are.

Our world is exactly like that computer network. It works marvelously when all is functioning correctly and is a wonder to behold. But it is not built for shortage. Shortage of energy and all that it enables. We have all but eliminated shortage in the western world for the last ~100yrs and so have not built it into our systems or our vocabulary. It is unthinkable to most. But as the peak is now at hand it will raise its ugly head as a demon from our past which we were assured had been vanquished. The masses will not know how to cope with shortage. No one will.

Shortage will at first be random and easy to hide by the government but this will not last. Soon it will become pervasive and highly interrupting to life. But, like the computer network it will hit a point when it causes collapse. Highly complex systems don't just slow down and stop, the cease to function. That is what we are faced with.

There will be no slow gradual powerdown to enviromental bliss in this world. The world is not, cannot be, structured in this way. It will collapse. It was never built to powerdown because that was unthinkable in its creation.

Failure to recognize this could prove fatal...

Things may all let go with a bang. If this is the case yoga is the answer - get flexible now so you can bend over and kiss your hiney goodbye.

Spend too much time thinking about this and you'll develop some serious situational depression. I've decided that we're likely to have a slow motion collapse, with places like Zimbabwe and Nepal letting go first, and troubles coming to the U.S., but coming in a fashion that facilitates change rather than chaos.

Since I stopped wallowing in despair, around 12/1/2007, I have managed to create the Stranded Wind web site, recruit a couple of smart guys to write there, become a state level lobbyist, got myself involved with Energize America 2020's lobbying efforts, applied for a part time job as an instructor in Iowa Lakes Community College Wind Energy Program, begun the process of creating a creditworthy entity to handle a $300M wind to ammonia plant construction and operation, begun preliminary talks with small local manufacturers to create a small scale wind turbine manufacturing operation here, gotten a couple of diaries on the front page over at DailyKos, and most recently interviewed Paul Gipe, founder of Wind Works.

Anyone who can write a coherent three paragraph post here can become an activist of some sort in these matters. You lurkers out there, you need to get active, too. If nothing else go get yourself a DailyKos account and recommend anything that Stranded Wind, A. Siegel, or Jerome a Paris might write. You help our visibility and we'll try and make power, jobs, food security, etc a reality in a post peak world.


Good post, but I was fascinated by your sentence, "Rome and the others were still based on solar energy, were not as complex or specialized as we, and in a nutshell, were primitive compared to today."

I have always had this major difference with those who hate (or fear, whatever) technology. They seem to believe that we actually have seen technology. I would like to just for a moment to encourage folks to turn these assertions around the other way just as a "think outside the box" exercise:

What if what we have is not "technology" at all, but a conglomeration of primitive tools, assembled piecemeal, that were built onto out of a desire not to waste the "sunk costs" already invested?

Where I work, we have had never known (in 10 years) a period where our computer and IT system went long without failures. But why is the failures of networked systems so endemic there?

Simple: It's an old company. The first computers were put there in the 1960's, large servers of the first generation of computers, so large they consumed whole floors of the original building.

With each new generation and need to expand, we simply "bootstrapped" a new generation of technology on top of them (much as the keypost by aeldric describes, simply adding sand to the sand castle) so as to take advantage of the prior investment.

Some forty years later, we now have a system that is built up of mismatched components and software, that requires both hardware and software "translaters" to make it all communicate.

This goes back to the "efficiency" vs. "robustness" dichotomy. But the system, despite the thinking of the four decades since the original technology was introduced, is now niether efficient or robust! It fails on both counts.

This is the nature of the world's energy systems as well. It ASTOUNDS me to read in news articles of the number of nations that still provide electric power by way of Diesel generators! Now they suffer from the Diesel price. A modern generator engine can use Diesel, natural gas, propane, bio gas (methane) etc. with no great difficulty. The technology is not hard, and efficience AND robustness would increase.
But the investment is with the old (sometimes almost ancient) Diesel engine. Likewise, the "modern" automobile, with computers "bootstrapped" onto a combustion engine that is the same in it's essentials as the original Benz patent wagon of 1885, the attempt to adapt a primitive technology to a new age.

What we are seeing is what the great dissident Russian cultural historian Pitirim A. Sorokin referred to as the difference between a "cultural system" vs. a "cultural congeries". The original "fossil fuel system" was closeer to being a system in a true sense, but in recent years resembles more a "congeries" than a system. Why? Because demands are now placed on the original system which it was never really designed to cope with. The idea of "low carbon release fossil fuels" is an oxymoron.

We are now seeing the first developments of a new system, in low carbon and renewables, and high information added design (the role of information is always crucial, but always disregarded).

The problem is that we still have a HUGE sunk cost in the old outdated fossil fuel system.

The two systems (fossil non renewable with very little information added, in other words, primitive (very primitive) system is not built in any way to adapt to easy co-existance with the newer renewable high information added system.

The two systems begin from completely different premises: Renewable vs. non renewable, clean vs. no concern for expelled gases or Carbon, centralized vs. decentralized, maximized vs. appropriate output, distributed network vs top down control, etc.

Our problem is that we are at that fascinating moment in history when an old system, now fallen to the level of congeries, at risk of collapse into chaos, is being supplanted by the newer system.

The newer system will at first attempt to co-exist with the old decaying one, but will soon find that impossible to do. At that point, the power the struggle to maintain the old system will be huge by those with their whole careers and lives invested in it.

Likewise, a new generation is beginning to be "invested" in the new energy system. They are building their lives, their financial future, their energy around it.

(aside: This is the cause of many of the electronic shouting matches here on TOD. It has taken me the better part of two years to understand that clearly. There are many here who's whole lives are invested with oil alone. When any mention is made of alternatives to massive oil consumption, the shouts of pain are clear: "Don't you understand, there is no alternative!" "Your in denial, it's OIL or nothing!"
"Your a "technofixer' with your belief in technology, your toys are 'bb's, oil is the only solution!"
"When oil is peaked, it's over..."

Of course, as the peak thinkers so correctly point out, oil is a depleting commodity, it cannot last forever. If there is no alternative to oil, there is no real chance for "technology" or for "science" or for the continuation of "advanced culture" in any way we know it to exist. What people often forget is that oil is a "technolgy", and technology does not simply stop. Like any "system" it's first goal is continued self existance. Of course, technology in and of itself has no "goal". What it has is people who believe in it as a system who have the goal of it's continuation (and in the end, it is a 'belief' just as "primitivism" (non technology) is a belief. It is an aesthetic choice we must each make for ourselves.

As far as peak oil goes, we always must have known that the time would come that we would either have to develop the next technical step, or we would have to watch modernity and technology disappear. This is not new news.)

What the futurist Alvin Toffler called "the coming 'Super Struggle' is finally at hand. What he described as a new pattern of "Wealth development" will soon spread into every school, every household, philosophical inquiry, business, government and organization. This actually should have occured some 30 years ago, and actually has it's conception then. For various reasons, the gestation period was abnormally extended.

Toffler also describes the "camps" in the super struggle: Those who embrace the coming future vs. those who attempt one last defense of the status quo present, vs. those who dream of a return to a pre industrial utopian past (even if that means the destruction of human life on a vast scale). Ronald Reagan and "culture wars", the voice of the status quo oil based technology delayed the future, but cannot stop it.

In the most advanced nations (and this is not a description of "superiority" but simply the nations who got to this stage first because they were the earliest to industrialize...the United States, Western Europe, Japan) the oil age is already ending. As I have mentioned in other posts, the per capita consumption of crude oil has already began to decline. This has actually been going on for some time. With refined engineering and advanced energy systems, this pattern will accelerate, and begin to spread to the other "fossil fuels", i.e., natural gas and coal.
Poverty, energy poverty in particular, will see a new measuring stick: Those unable to make the change away from the fossilized fossil fuel system will be seen as "poor".

This is a huge change. People now are judged as "rich" if they can afford to consume large volumes of fossil fuel. Soon, the fact that they "must" consume (by which we mean "burn") fossil fuel to continue in the world will be seen as an admission of true poverty.

Crude oil and natural gas will move from being burned to being imput for chemical and high tech processes. In this role, there of course will be oil for a very, very long time. Oil is simply a "hydrocarbon", a combination of these two elements, Hydrogen and carbon. These are not rare elements, in fact they are two of the most common elements on Earth and in the Universe.

Using these two elements correctly will be the next great change in wealth production. It is this that will be soon considered the next "advanced" technology. We are already beginning to make these breakthroughs. In EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) the trend for oil is going down, and that trend is speeding up, while the EROEI trend for the renwables is going up, and that trend is accelerating.
Burning oil will soon be seen as not only primitive and barbaric but the most damning of all, unprofitable.

Soon "crude oil" will be seen by more and more of the world as truly that...."crude". Just as nations educated whole populations to make the change to "industrialism" in the prior centuries, they will now educate whole populations to the newer advanced technology in this century.

This is a "mega-trend" in history. What we have callled "technology" will soon seem as primitive as horse drawn buggies and steam engines now seem to us. Few except technical historians will remember that in a prior century, steam engines and horse drawn buggies were the dichotomy, the two sides in a prior "super-struggle".

I can only envy the young, who will see the unfolding of yet another historical turning point, and see the manifestation of something that will be one more step toward a truly "technological" age, instead of the primitive one we now know. How they will laugh at what we now call "advanced technology" with it's loud, smoky, dirty blunderbuss engines, our worship of crude oil, and love of centralized fragile systems!

I can do only what we all must do (and are doing now) in the coming super-struggle. Choose a side, make my "aesthetic choice" and defend it.

The past (neo-ludditism, primitive anarchism), the present (defend the oil age and dismiss all possible paths forward until the world leaves me behind, sulking in my hovel somewhere removed from the mainstream of cultural existance) or the future (applied elegant technology, renwable and decentralized clean power, appropriate scale, the correct and efficient application of two of the most abundent elements in the universe, carbon and hydrogen, to lead us to our ultimate destiny? Our destiny is not to be confined to this one planet, by the way. We are like children now, nervous, scared, because soon, we must leave home. But that is a discussion for another time, and a future that our children and grandchildren will build.)

I have made my choice. It rings in every world I write, in all that I find beautiful.
And whether you know it or not, you have made yours. None of the choices above can be called "wrong". It is a philosophical and aesthetic choice, a deep belief in what humans are and what they should desire to become. It determines what we consider beautiful and worthy.

For me, a return to the primitive would mean death. But that is as it should be, because to return to the dark ages of primitive existance would for me be a fate worse than death.

Others would make a different choice. This is why the super-struggle will and must occur.
I only hope and pray that it will be as humane a struggle as possible, fought with ideas and art and perceptions first, and if not that, then with money or ballots instead of with bullets and bombs (which is also already sadly beginning).

Let us learn, and hopefully try to take care of one another, whatever camp we are in.

Thank you.

Roger Conner Jr.

>For me, a return to the primitive would mean death. But that is as it should be, because to return
> to the dark ages of primitive existance would for me be a fate worse than death.

This is truly the kernel of what you say. You speak one of the most fundamental mantras of your culture, which we call civilization. This is the paranoid culture which cannot rest until it has conquered everything and commands everything, and has of course in its foolishness imagined that only
it (or, more properly speaking, its special experts and lords, because the common slob should just
do what he's told) has the knowledge of how the world MUST be, and sees itself on a divine mission to subdue and subjugate the world, and beat it into the superior image your people have imagined for it.

Civilized people learned this myth, that the world was destined to be ruled by them, and
they were destined to rule it, by living the reality of it through all the centuries of the agricultural revolution, fighting the land and each other.

Technology is quite simple: it is a reproducible, learnable means of tilting the balance of power.

It carries with it a deadly addiction: once you start tipping the balance of power, you set off a
positive feedback loop. While the failure of tha positive feedback in the early rounds is merely
painful, very quickly, like any other process involving exponential growth, the consequence of
failure, either of an individual player in the arena, or of the whole feedback loop, is death.
The reason is simple: after the first few rounds of the game, those involved are living _well beyond their means_ and well beyond the long-term carrying capacity of their environment. You can, for
a while, dig yourself deeper with new technologies to squeeze a little bit more out, and squeeze
it faster. But this is an exhaustive process not at all unlike the exhaustion of oil which has
brought us to this board in the first place. There is no such thing as an uncompensated process
in this universe. Any process which seems to evade it for a while is building up a significant
counter-movement, and the longer it goes apparently uncompensated, the more dramatic and great the
compensation will be in turn. That's just conservation. While most any child could understand
this mechanism and explain it to you, civilization has built a myth of exemption for itself from
this most basic physical rule of the universe. It teaches us, with the full force of cognitive dissonance that characterizes the religions of this culture, that there we are special and not
subject to conservation or the consequences of living beyond our means.

The boiling cauldron of cultural evolution has over the years selected only those threads which
were most vicious and enthusiastic in their pursuit of the next round of escalation - those who
were too slow on the trigger wwere conquered or exterminated by those who were quicker, and those
who have a cultural imperative that drives them on will usually be quicker on the trigger than
those who have some hesitation. By now, we only see in the dominant cultural variations in civilization, different flavors of aggressive divine missions of conquest.

One of the very key ingredients to these religious devotions to a failed cause is _fear_. Fear of
what? Fear, first and foremost, of that horrible 'dark' place outside of the Machine. Fear to instill the idea that no matter HOW miserable it gets inside, dont ever think of going outside.

Civilization is the culture of conquest and death, and yet by declaring the whole universe to be
its enemy, which need to be conquered, it has also developed a deep and paranoid fear of everything
in the universe not totally under its control. This is a symptom common to all dictatorial, totalitarian power-mongers. The more power they have, the more unreasoning and irrational they get-
the very idea of leaving anything up to, not even chance, but to anyone or anything but their very command is horrifying.

And the civilized culture as a whole is a perfect chorus to this paranoia.
You are terrified of a world where the 'experts' aren't in control- these experts might be
engineers, they might be politicians, they might be clergy, but they are ultimately there working
on your behalf to conquer and tame that horrible wild world that will devour you if you ever let down your guard. This is a key ingredient to your culture now.

And there is a nugget of truth to it- you have made an enemy of the whole world. You have destroyed
everything in your path and hungrily rake for the last morsels among the rubble (you call this
by proud names like enhanced recovery, these days, when for example talking about oil), and the
fear you have of the music ever stopping is justified- you have lived so far beyond your means by
now that the day the music stops you will die.

So many people think 'we need to fix this', and they of course are the sycophants of the conquering civilization culture. it is not even their fault- they have been taught that attitude from their
births. The practical reality is that your game is guaranteed to come crashing down sooner or later,
and as it gets more extreme, the time left on the clock ticks down much much faster. We have been
hearing the rumblings of the breakdown for a while now, with or without peak oil, and the civilization, in desperation, only tries harder to put off disaster for one more day.

Remember what you learned when you were little. What goes up, comes down.
If by the time you and i are around, this problem has been blown up to a global crisis, which it has, at least open your eyes and try to get out of the way of the falling pieces- statistically
none of our chances are so good, but individually we can try to put ourselves closer to the safe
end of the curve. Your faith in the religion of technology, though, will probably not even buy
you another round of the game at this point- it is exhausted- and will certainly keep you blind
and believing past the time when you would be able to do anything other than die when the music stops and the machine grinds to a stop.


Interesting post indeed.

For me personally, my statement "a return to the primitive would mean death" is a statement of fact, not belief. The life expectancy in 1000AD was about thirty years old. For medical reasons, I would have probably been gone some 10 to 20 years ago without modern medication. I share with many millions of Americans an absolute need for modern technology that keeps us alive past our natural due date.

"to the dark ages of primitive existance would for me be a fate worse than death." I say this only from personal experience and from my readings of history. The brutality of prior centuries, the lack of decend food, the lack of "culture" in the broad sense for most humans, but more....

My grandfather lived as close to the primitive life as anyone I can imagine. He was a farmer. Until the 1960's he farmed with mules. I can remember how he lived from my childhood. A life of drudgery, with no opportunity for outside experiences. I spent time on his farm. Time of nothing but labor. No thought. No ability to learn, and soon enough, no desire to learn anything but what maintained life. No reading, no "culture" in the broader sense. The one entertainment was the act of creating children, and praying for a better life for them. He had seven children. I have none, begging an interesting question as to who, in the long haul, placed more demand upon the Earth?

There were 32,439 suicides last year according to the National Institute of Health. Humans need more than food and water for life.

Of course, I would never have missed Beethoven had I never heard one of his works. I would never have missed a Broadway play had I never seen one. I would never have missed driving an automobile, or a nice meal in a fine restuarant, or an overnight stay in Chicago had I never done any of these things.

It is possible that I would not miss the "variety" of modern life had I never known it. I only know this: All seven of my grandfathers children left the farm as soon as it was possible, some even before completing high school. And the material security (food, clothing, clean water, safety) of my grandfathers farm was very good, probably better than the security of the modern in the city. Along with sex, I am sure one of the great joys of the blessed primitive was good food! Sadly, in many centuries and many places, even that was not available. My grandfather's farm was a beautiful, safe and sustainable place. I would not mind living there, if I knew I could go to something bigger when I chose, that my culture was still out there for me.

The great English poet W.H. Auden once said that the measure of a great culture was "variety achieved and unity retained."
IF one accepts the validity of culture at all, I can think of no better measuring standard.

In the end, we are a product of our times. Our life is brief. I can read about or dream of primitive worlds of adventure. But my mind, my experience, my aesthetic standards of beauty are built for the time I was born and educated into. If I can be only as good or slightly better than the system I was born into, I will be doing as well as most, better than many.

I think of a drive to Louisville KY, from out in the country, with a girlfriend, to see a Broadway play. Driving up I-65 at 75 miles per hour in a pouring rain. The car was a Diesel Mercedes 300SDL, long wheelbase, inline six cylinder turbocharched engine. Smooth as silk. On arriving, I recall sitting in the brightly lit lobby of the Kentucky Center for the Arts, behind a glass curtain wall, watching the cars drive by in the rain, the headlights and taillights glistening off the wet pavement, the city lights from the buildings adding to the muli colored glow. The women dressed in fine gowns, glistening jewelry on their wrists and necks. Staying overnight in a luxury suite before driving home the next day, when the rain had passed, and we opened the sunroof and let the sun stream in as we traveled a mile a minute back out into the country. I thought of my grandfather and grandmother, to whom such a modest little day of entertainment would have seemed like a scene out of a movie, a fantasy.

The age in which we live is an age of technology. But it is so much more. It is about an aesthetic, a philosophy built of thousands of experiences, moments. Is it worth fighting for, working for, thinking for? To me, it is, as much as life is, because it is the moments of my life.

But change will come. What that change should look like, feel like, we are deciding now. I dream of my drive to the city to see a show, in a hybrid car, lithium ion batteries of 5000 charge cycles that can last a decade before being recycled. A tiny gas turbine engine that can run on propane or perhaps compressed methane recaptured from waste as a "range" extender. The consumption of hydrocarbon fuel so low that it would be minute compared to today's car.

I drive past the newly installed PV farm next to the old declining coal plant of Louisville Gas and Electric, and see the sun reflect off them, looking like a large black lake. I see the railroad that runs beside Highway 31W, with it's electric lines over the trains, carrying freight and passengers, powered by the solar cells that I cannot see, the acres of them on warehouses, the roof of malls, office parks and stores. Out on the Ohio river, the barges powered by large fuel cells carry freight. Barges turned out to be one of the few places fuel cells would really work, using captured coalbed methane. A large enough engine bay so the size was not a problem, the fuel cells cost had finally gotten down to the level to be competitive with large Diesel engines.

This is the future I dream of, not living in a hovel. The technology is different, cleaner, more efficient, more restrained, more "quiet" in so many ways, but the goal is the same: Freedom to move about, freedom to learn, to experience, to contribute to Culture, "variety achieved with unity retained." Is it the correct vision of the future? I don't know. But in a world of limits and a life that is all too brief, I have found no better vision yet.


Yes, we live in an age of extravangance, all power concentrated to extreme densitites by technology
and the fuel that feeds it. Those who live closer to the 'enjoying' end of this thing certainly
have the most to lose, in terms of comfort, pleasure, ease, power, status, and predictability
in their lives. Most people, of course, dislike the unfamiliar and will fight to keep things
as they are, however they happen to be. But there is nothing that says that just because you
enjoy it, it has to last forever.

And, well, I would first of all consider the life your father led to be very much civilized - the life that most of the people in civilization live, working from dawn til dusk.

The life that Homo Sapiens evolved living is one which worked very well for us, and i'm not
talking about non-indystrial farming, but rather what is commonly called 'prehistoric' or 'hunter-gatherer'.. it was the easiest liefestyle humans have ever lived, the healthiest, and the
most sustainable. Hominids lived that life for something on the order of three million years,
and at the end of it we're still here to talk about it. Homo Sapeins lived that life for a quarter
of a million years, and here we still are to talk about it. Only the past 8-10 thousand years have
been the aberration. The escalation game is a natural phenomenon, albeit a very deadly and destructive one. It burns itself out, and is in the process of doing so right now.

By the way, the life expectancy thing is a bit more involved than what most people think.

The typical life expectancy of a healthy human is something on the order of 60 to 70 years.
If you took a simple average of lifespans in 'prehistoric' humans, then yes you might arrive
at something like 30- but if you looked at such a population you wouldnt find people dropping
dead at 30. You find that infant mortality was much higher. If you were healthy and lived into
your second or third year, you would live, barring things like accidents or being killed, into your 60s or 70s. The typical adult human was much healthier then than now.

A further distortion is that in the intervening time between the forager life we evolved to
liev and the industrial life we live today, the majority of society in the agricultural civilization
also had very reduce lifespans- they were the lower classes, who had a life of hard work, poor diet,
crowding, poor sanitation, absurd religions and other ideologies designed to keep them content
at the bottom of the pyrpamid, and on top of that all, they had a lot more children than foragers
do, spaced much more closely together, which tends to also lead to less healthy people from the
very start.... but don't look to 18th century peasants if you want to see what the natural
state of our species is... look to those 'primitive' peoples who have been all but exterminated,
and see what the archaeological record (and what we can tell anthropologically from the remaining
shreds of forager societies confined to the most marginal land) has to say.

One of the other things that goes along with the paranoia of civilized peoples is their irrational
and extreme fear of death, leading them to all sorts of bizarre religions on the one hand, and
all sorts of extreme measures to demand that it can never happen to them, on the other hand.
To a lot of 'primitive' cultures, the civilized people were percieved as being greedy, stingy,
and breaking the most basic bargain- wanting life for themselves, but not wanting to give it back
to the world when their time came.
Anthropologists find that consistently among the 'primitive' people still alive, the attitude
towards death is that it is a part of life. it is not shameful, and someone who would seek
to evade it would be considered a most obscene glutton.

It goes hand in hand with unwillingness to live within one's means- that that sttitude goes
hand in hand with reality catchign up with you if you ever STOP upping the stakes and playing
another round of the game.

You cannot just make a 'clean' power and wish all the bad side effects away. The most deadly
side effect of all is the escalation that tipping the balance of power technologically necessarily yields, because it _always_ will _guarantee_ that you end up in unsustainable conditions and collapse.

But zurisee, you have to admit, you might miss your computer just a bit if you were a hunter gatherer :-)

I know I would miss my Diesel Mercedes. But your point is well taken. The life of the tribal village has lasted longer than any "system" to date, so it surely passes on the sustainability test. But it is far too alien from my existance for me, at my late stage in life, to consider as a survivable option. Going to Mars on a rocket would more comprehensible.

Our children, or should I say, for those who have children, your children will have to make that choice, the hunter gatherer village or the rocket.

Of course, if one group chooses the "hunter gatherer" life, they must hope that all choose it, because the ones who do not may well still have the tools and the propensity to violence to liquidate the primitives, a repeat of history, as you say zurisee "Look to those 'primitive' peoples who have been all but exterminated"...apparently the modern "fear" of not being "in control" is well founded. Sad, but true.


I would happily turn off the computer and never touch one again if i could live in a world without

I am, however realistic - while the race is still on, letting your foot off the gas is
_instant_ suicide, while playing the game is _future_ suicide.. it is a miserable trap most people
find themselves in. Some of those people in your suicide statistics might have felt the same way.

And you clearly understand that self-restraint is a losing strategy in this game. If i
try to lead a foraging life, i will be exterminated by the industrial civilization, just as all
those less powerful peoples have been so exterminated.

Given that the industrial edifice is falling apart as we speak, some of us keep one foot
in the game and are trying with the other side of ourselves to hop out.
For some of us, there is hope of finding an out of the way niche to hide in is a possibility. I
myself am trying to work that angle. Some on this board are a lot further along in that respect.
Not that too many people will be able to successfully make this choice. but, nobody said _everybody_ is going to come out of this all peachy.

btw, having once owned a diesel benz myself, i do have to agree, they are the finest cars ever made.. enjoy it while you can! someday it will be a good source of scavengable scraps and metal.

Thatsitimout. Apart from being a highly qualified "I" specialist yourself you have elaborated the plight of humans. We are individuals and selfish, unwilling to compromise a way of life falsely bequeathed.

The oil age has changed us quite quickly. What we are now is not really normal, eventually we will change again.

Since about the turn of the previous century every generation (in the developed world) has expected more from life than their parents received. It has been possible due to oil/energy and its offspring, technology.

Every new generation expects to "be happier", life to be easier, be able to work less and retire sooner, live longer, experience more pleasures and to consume at will.

We tell our children "the world is your oyster", "there is nothing you can't do", "if you want it take it", "there is nothing stopping you". Then we hear phrases like "you've worked hard, you deserve it", "follow your heart and your dreams will come true". There are many, many more but I'm sure you know what I mean. Will they remain applicable in the future?

Like you think and expect and confirmed by our elected officials, our way of life is not negotiable and we will fight tooth and nail (to the bitter end) to maintain it.

Your vision of a self sustaining wonder world of technology sure is something to hope for. Probably fortunes will be made exploiting hopes and expectations for a continuation of that which we have grown accustomed to.

For me, a return to the primitive would mean death.

Roger that. (IOW ditto here. If it weren't for modern medicine and continued medications I would not have made it even through early childhood.)

We take for granted so many of the little things that our modern civilization provides. Lose any one of them and it could mean death. Not a quick easy death like in the movies, but rather a horrible, painful and slow agonizing death.

Say for example you get a tooth ache. If there were no modern dentistry, that cavity might turn into an abscess. The infection may spread from tooth to jaw bone and then into the blood stream. Not a pretty way to die.

Recently in Northern California, my neighbors and I had an unexpected return to the primitive. The electricity went out.

Even though I'm an avid TOD reader, I can't brag that I was "prepared". Far from it. As the cold and silence set in on the household, we quickly realized how utterly dependent we are on that continued flow of electric juice from the PG&E company.

Not only was there no internet. There were no lights. No heat. No cooking appliances (all electric here). The world turned into a cold dark hell. Neighbors came out of their houses to huddle on the street corners. We frantically waved at the PG&E repair trucks driving by. Finally one of them took pity us and returned us to the modern age.

The lesson was quickly forgotten by one and all. We returned to our brightly lit McMansions and blaring flat screen TVs. After all, the championship football games were on.

You, to be blunt, are a perfect example of those who will not make the transition.

Sorry to Mr. Lincoln, but "All men" are not created equal. Turn on your game and tune out the world. Then it will come knocking at Half time.


For me, a return to the primitive would mean death. But that is as it should be, because to return to the dark ages of primitive existance would for me be a fate worse than death.

Wow. Roger, that was downright poetic.

I hope that you are right.

I suspect that not all of us are going to get through this alive (speaking at a global level) but it is my fervent hope that, emerging from the difficulties, we see a new generation equiped with new ways of doing things. I prefer this vision to the vision of a gradual slide into barbarism.

This is, of course, cultural conditioning. All visions are valid, but I would prefer to think that my great-grandchildren will use technologies that have not yet emerged in order to exploit resources that we currently do not access and thus enjoy a full and happy life. Perhaps they will recover nickel/iron asteroids from orbits outside of Mars, who knows?

Comments on increased complexity leading to bigger breakdowns have been made elsewhere (and I agree), but I would point out that humans are a whole lot more complex than amoebas. So clearly, the long-term trend is towards increased complexity.

However this trend is not a perfect line pointing upwards, there are ups and downs. We may be about to see a down.

I would like to believe that appropriate action can ensure that the downturn is minimised in some geographic areas, allowing an early recovery. I would hope that, at least in some locations, the downturn is more of a "shakeout" than an "apocalypse".

"But it is not built for shortage." ???

Actually Economics 101 would suggest that all our modern free-market economic systems are based around the principle of shortage. Without shortage, there can be no economically defined price that balances the marginal cost of production with the marginal benefit of utilisation of a given resource.

This has actually been the problem of oil for the last century, with the massive finds in the middle-east and elsewhere there was no economically rational basis on which to set the price, it was given away at first, and then taxed by OPEC later. Outside of OPEC, this then spurred the development of high cost oil and more efficient utilisation.

The risk of Peak Oil turning into a catastrophe comes not from 'markets' but the concentration of power with decision makers that can avoid behaving rationally. The key risks are not in oil production, which is highly distributed, but with the concentration of car manufacturing and government regulation (as well as provision of public infrastructure, roads, planning and public transport). Rationing, price controls, artificial prioritisations and subsidies to the wrong solution are ways that the government can stop an economic system responding properly. In Australia, the decision to subsidise LPG conversions is a case of false solutions, while the lower tariffs on SUVs are an example of how governments create part of the problem.

Planning and safety laws, which prevent high rise development close to public infrastrucuture or jobs and delay the development and increase the weight of new vehicles slow the process of market response. A substantial proportion petroleum transport demand is determined by the capital stock ... house location, job location and transportation options. The speed with which this capital can be renewed and redesigned for PO can be enhanced by carefully considered government planning, but can also be distorted by the legacy of rules and regulations developed in a pre-PO world.

With vehicle manufacturing it is the new entrants such as Tesler and Think which are 'driving' the new technology, while the historically dominant manufacturers attempt to prevent solutions that threaten the value of existing capital investments. For peak oil, efficiency of use is the solution for the medium term, then followed by substitution.

Some economic provocateurs have claimed that efficiency is not a solution because it encourages greater use, while true in isolation, it actually ignores the point. A rising cost, from physical shortages or environmental consequences, creates the problem, efficiency enables the same output with less input, so that standards of living are preserved. Efficiency won't solve global warming without a tradeable caps or a carbon tax, but together they will stop sea level rise while maintaining lifestyles. It will also address PO because the underying shortage already exists.

Both of you above are missing my point I think...

Shortage refers to energy, whatever kind you like.

Both of you still are under the assumption that there will be a long powerdown and that the markets will make it OK and eventually the renewables will kick in and life will go on.......

My point is that the Western system is built around growth. In energy,widgets, everything...and if that stops (shortage) then we will collapse. Not immediately, but soon. The system is SO complex that there is no way it can handle shortage. It will fail. It was not designed to have less, only more.

Its like this computer I'm using right now. It works fine, but start introducing failure and lets see what happens. My keyboard keys could have issues but I can work around that..My DVD-ROM might break but I can work around that....MY screen might get black spots but I can work around that...

But then my power supply goes kaput! (peak Oil) Now what? My battery will last a long time and things sill seem normal for a while but eventually my batt will die SUDDENLY. And though there is still more power (oil) in it, it will not be good for running my laptop (world).

My complex world (laptop) has been reduced to paper and pen. As it has been for most of mankind.

There is no doubt that Peak Oil and Climate Change are civilization killers. And there is some concern that we understand as little about geology and climate as 14th Century people understood about microorganisms and sanitation.

But in truth, we have both failed and succeeded in facing civilization killers.

I believe we can change the lifeblood of our economy from oil to ingenuity. I believe that self-reliance will rally many people to save themselves. I also accept that initiative in time to avoid the worst of circumstances will be spotty. And that is OK; monolithic behavior is Potato Famine behavior.


  • Germany with Feed-in Tariffs. Solar powered economic lifeboats
  • Ontario implemented Feed-in Tariffs
  • California and Wisconsin Energy Commissions recommended adopting Feed-in Tariffs
  • A teenager YouTube posted how to turn his suburban yard into a vegetable garden
  • Morgantown like Personal Rapid Transit systems, electrified mobility solutions will open at Heathrow, Uppsala Sweden, Opola Poland and in several US cities in 2008.

The task we face is overwhelming. But there are a lot of people taking the ant approach to eating an elephant, small bits, lots of friends. I am terrified it will be not enough soon enough and encouraged that there will be spots of prepared courage.

Technology? Advancement? Computers?

For anyone interested in the above and arguements regards same should go out and buy a new laptop and experience Windows Vista.

It is a huge step in the wrong direction and scary as hell.

With a Intle Duo core processor running at 1.7 mhz, 2 gig of DDR2 ram , a very fast FSB and a huge SATA 180 gibbyte harddrive one would think this hugely evolved piece of modern technology would literally 'scream' in performance.

Instead its extremely sllllloooowwww and full of bugs. I can hardly use it. It has multiple layers of silly code placed on more mousey code and the result will take your accounting packages to their very knees.

I know because that is what my customer is experiencing since he picked up the latest tech toy from the city to run his retail biz.

There is nothing else available on the 'off the shelf' market except this device.

We have stepped backwards all because some weenie CEO/Owner can't envision the virtues of 'open source' and couldn't let go of the fortunes to be made otherwise.

The future is staring at me. Its not good if this is what TPTB are releasing on the techies as 'advanced'.

airdale-Linux is dead, long live Linux

1.7 MHz? My cell phone is faster than that, no wonder Vista is having problems. :)

No, in all seriousness, Vista is sh!te. I won't let my clients install it. I'm still running W2K on two systems. XP was too bloated for me.

The world-wide screw up in software technologies is just like the world-wide screw up in population control.

In a world of 6.5 billion people, many figure that adding just one more human feature into the pot won't perceptively change things on a global scale.

Similarly, in a bloatware filled with 6.5 billion lines of code, many figure that adding just one more wiz-bang feature into the pot won't perceptively change things on a global scale.

But it does.

There is nothing else available on the 'off the shelf' market except this device.

Does the required software not run on Macs ?

Just a thought,


Pakistani load shedding is due to a structure hit on some cooling towers in Balochistan ...

And they've got Nepal style unpaid fuel issues, too ...

And oil supplies being burned, at least partially.

The collapse of large networks can be avoided but requires tremendous efforts by many people all working together. The Y2K collapse is the best example of this. I see a lot of similarities with Peak Oil but I do not see concerted efforts of the scale that will be needed.