Advice to Pres. Obama #1: An Actuary's Impractical Perspective

The suggestion was made to Oil Drum staff that some of us might want to write recommendations relating to President Obama's energy policy. It seems to me that several steps come before energy policy: we need to get the worst of our financial problems behind us and we need to understand where we are, before we can make intelligent decisions going forward. Also, the issues are really broader than energy policy--they include agriculture, education, commerce, and a broad range of other areas affected by reduced energy supplies.

In this post, I offer a few ideas regarding what needs to be done. My ideas not chosen from a point of view of what is practical; instead, they are chosen based on what logically needs to be done, regardless of the practicality. Also, these ideas assume a fairly high level of understanding, and a desire to implement the best long-term solution, without consideration of the politics involved. In the real world, I doubt that these ideas have much chance of being implemented.

1. Put our financial problems behind us.

This is a tough one. There is vastly more debt in the world than can ever be paid back. There are also vastly more derivatives than it is possible to unwind nicely. A fractional reserve banking system requires continued growth, in order to pay back all of the debt with interest, so that it does not fall apart in the way a Ponzi scheme does.

The US economy is now in a position where it can no longer grow rapidly enough to keep the current system going because of energy resource limitations.* The only logical thing to do is to start getting rid of the debt and start winding down the financial institutions that need debt-based products to survive. It may make sense to have a partial debt jubilee. If we keep trying to add more debt, the system will eventually collapse, and we will need to start over with a new system that is much less debt based.

Borrowing more money to stimulate the economy (or to salvage financial institutions) is not the way to go. It is just piling more debt on top of what we already have. We need to plan as if there will be less and less debt in the future, not more and more.

2. Set a floor for energy prices.

Long term, the level of energy prices is going to determine the level of investment. In years past, we have offered farmers price supports for agricultural products. Energy products are just as essential. We need to encourage the production of energy products, even if the "normal" market price would be too low. Allowing energy companies to go bankrupt, and their employees to leave the industry, is counterproductive.

Because of these issues, the US government should somehow see that energy companies receive a minimum price for oil and gas that is purchased for use inside the US. (This may require some creativity, but probably not more than has used with respect to the financial sector.) A reasonable minimum might be $75 a barrel for oil (adjusted for quality), and $8 per 1000 cubic feet for natural gas. These minimums may need to be adjusted upward over time. US suppliers should be given first preference at these prices, but if more is needed, non-US suppliers should be offered the full price. Imported finished products should have similarly high prices, to discourage substitution for US made energy products.

3. Start adopting practices that flatten wages between management and rank-and-file workers.

Workers who don't earn enough money to afford what a manufacturer is producing aren't able to buy the products produced. Over the long term, we need to work toward a society in which workers in a given location are producing goods (including food) for that same geographical area, and earning enough money so that they can buy the goods that are produced in the area. Flattening wages (lowering the Gini Coefficient) is a way of making this happen.

One approach may be to encourage more employee-owned companies. Many companies are likely to go bankrupt this next year. Employee groups might be encouraged to buy the companies they work for. With employee ownership, there is likely to be more interest in equitable wages for workers.

4. Make an honest assessment of what energy availability is likely to be in 10, 20, 30, 50, and 100 years, at selected price levels.

If we are going to plan for the future (number of new trains, number of new nuclear power plants, number of new wind turbines, etc.), we need to have an honest assessment of how much oil, gas, coal, and uranium is likely to be available in the future, assuming different prices levels (current, current x 2, current x 3). For example, deep water offshore resources and Canadian oil sands probably require a price of at least $80 a barrel to encourage new production. Estimates of energy availability should distinguish between what the US is likely to be able to produce and what is likely to be available on the export market.

If current low oil and gas prices persist, new investment is likely to drop off almost immediately, and the amount of oil and gas available in 10 years will drop precipitously. At a higher price, the amount of natural gas might stay higher for a while longer, but it will still drop off rather quickly, as available gas at a given cost level is depleted. At a very high price level, more oil and gas may be available, but we need to understand what this will mean for the rest of the economy.

5. Put together a number of alternative infrastructure spending plans and evaluate them in light of the amount of energy resources that are likely to be available at various points in time, based on (4).

If we want to realistically plan for the future, analysts need to create several alternative scenarios modeling what the future might look like, and work through the details to determine which of these scenarios is really feasible. These scenarios should include year-by-year estimates of a large number of variables, such as number of continuing coal-fired power plants, number of new coal-fired power plants with carbon sequestration, number of wind turbines, number of miles of roads maintained, number of new and continuing nuclear reactors, number of miles of water and sewer systems maintained, number of miles of new electrical grid, number of miles of oil and gas pipeline built, number of new trains and buses, number of new electric cars, number of acres farmed using diesel tractors, number of new homes built, number of factories built, number of schools built, extent of Internet availability, population growth, etc.).

One consideration for each scenario is how much capital will be required to produce the scenario and where it likely will come from, considering that little debt is likely to be available in the future. Another consideration for each scenario is the annual energy requirement, compared to expected energy resources based on the outcome of Item (4). Analysts will also want to consider whether adequate water availability exists for each scenario, and whether the scenario is likely to have other adverse impacts (deforestation; lower soil quality; increased pollution). Analysts may also wish to compare total CO2 equivalent emissions of the various scenarios.

If products necessary for a particular scenario are not produced in the US from US-made products, a long-term review of the continued feasibility of necessary imports should be performed. Will the US have sufficient exports in each year to balance out necessary imports? Are the countries from which imports are expected sufficiently stable, and will they have sufficient resources themselves, to produce the necessary goods?

A close review of these scenarios is likely to show that many are not feasible, or are not feasible for more than 10 or 20 years. If this is the case, less ambitious scenarios should be evaluated as well, perhaps including the use of draft animals and bicycles and resettling a significant share of the population to less urban areas.

6. Make an honest assessment of how the minimum needs for the population might be met, without large fossil fuel inputs.

We have gotten so accustomed to our current way of life that we have become oblivious to the big gap between what we have now and what would be needed to go back to a more sustainable lifestyle. To provide a base for future planning, we need to take an inventory of our basic needs and how they can be met, given the declining resources indicated in Item (4) above.

We need to ask questions such as: How might we go about producing enough food and water for our population, with minimal fossil fuel inputs? If resettlement is necessary, what kind of new housing can we truly afford in various parts of the country? How can we maintain the fertility of our soil and adequate forest cover? What adjustments are needed if we are no longer able to irrigate? What steps need to be taken to assure adequate clothing for each person, minimal heating for each residence, and a heat source for cooking?

It may be a useful exercise to put these requirements through the analysis suggested in Item (5) as an additional scenario. If the analysis in Item (5) indicates a continued shortfall of resources even with these reduced requirements, family planning may necessary to limit population. Once we have a clear focus on our basic requirements, it will be easier to start teaching people the necessary skills to provide an adequate lifestyle for all.

7. If there is any significant chance that a significant downgrade in lifestyles is needed within 20 years, start teaching the skills now to deal with those downgrades.

Unfortunately, it is not possible to learn new skills overnight. If there is a chance that our current oil-powered factory farm system cannot be maintained for 20 years, we need to start now teaching people the skills to produce food locally, with simplified tools and organic farming methods. We also need to start developing appropriate open pollinated seed for each part of the country and developing optimal farming techniques that do not require large fossil fuel inputs.

If there is a chance that private passenger automobiles will become unavailable to most people, we need to be thinking about ways to minimize the need for transportation and develop alternative methods. If there is a chance that we will frequently need to do without electric power within the next 20 years, we need to start teaching children and adults about this, and start developing workarounds.

8. Start thinking durable, flexible, and recyclable in everything we build.

Instead of aiming for efficiency and low cost, we need to be designing 100-year products. If we build bicycles, we need to figure out how to keep them operating for more than five years without rusting and falling apart. We need to figure out how to make roads (or railroad tracks) enduring. Clothing should be made with the assumption that it will be transferred from wearer to wearer until it is fully worn out. We need to be developing local sources for our simple, flexible, and durable products, so that when these products do wear out, they can be replaced.

It is likely that we will lose energy availability in the future. We need to be planning with this contingency in mind. For example, is there a way that the railroad tracks we build now can later be used by a lightweight human powered vehicle, or by a horse drawn cart? Can factories be built that will use local wood as an energy input, if that is all that is available? How can we optimally recycle all of things we now have -- clothing, automobiles, worn out tires, even asphalt roads?

*Note on US Energy Problems

If seems to me that the US has likely passed peak energy consumption, and because of this, economic growth is likely to slow in the future, and may become negative. On a per capita energy consumption basis, the US appears to have passed peak energy consumption in 2000:

Figure 1. US Energy Consumption by Source, Based on EIA Data

While the drop in per capita energy consumption since 2000 is not large, it is likely closely related to lack of growth since that date, other than growth related to the increasing amount of debt outstanding. We are now finding that maintaining this large amount of debt is unsustainable, and this is a major reason for the debt crisis that we are in the midst of.

One reason why US energy consumption is dropping is that the US is producing less and less of its own energy fuels. This is the same graph, showing how the per-capita consumption shown in Figure 1 breaks out between US produced fuels and imports.

Figure 2. US Energy Consumption, Showing US Produced Fuels and Imports, Based on EIA Data. Nuclear energy, while not included in the imports, could also be considered an import, because its fuel is primarily imported uranium.

If we were able to use the imported fuels to produce a large amount of high value exports, and use the sale of these exports to balance the imported fuels, there would be no problem. This is not the case, however. As the amount of imports grows, so does our balance of payments deficit. The recent spike in prices showed how unsustainable our current path is. The lower fuel prices we are seeing now are not likely to help the problem. Instead, they are likely to reduce fuels available for US consumption for two reasons:

(1) Exporters will likely delay new production in higher cost areas, and may even cut back on other production.

(2) US producers will likely delay high cost projects, and may close wells, such as oil stripper wells, that are no longer profitable.

With world oil production now reaching its limit, I can see no way out of our current predicament. We are now in the midst of a major debt unwind, related to the inability of the economy to keep growing without adequate fuel resources. There is no reasonable possibility that the economy can grow its way out of this predicament. Instead, the economy will have to shrink as the debt unwinds and as imports and exports reach a better balance.

Link: Other "Advice to Pres. Obama" Energy Policy Posts in this Series

Usually, when there is talk of a floor for energy prices, it usually refers to having a tax establish the minimum that consumers will pay. This is intended to increase the proability that alternatives, including conservation and efficiency, will be implemented.

To establish a minimum for energy producers is another matter and sends a different signal, to increase production of oil and other fossil fuels. It also helps feed the illusion that we can drill ourselves out of peak oil. I don't think one is going to get much support for further subsidies for the fossil fuel producers, and rightly so.

The focus should be on alternatives, not increased production of oil and other fossil fuels.

I agree that this is not what other people have been thinking about. A higher price for fossil fuels will have the indirect result of encouraging investment in alternatives, but just as importantly, it will help to keep fossil fuel production continuing. The fluctuation of prices up and down is terribly damaging to the industry. will help to keep fossil fuel production continuing.

So the continued poisoning of the atmosphere with high heat capacity gasses and acidification of the ocean is a GOOD thing?

Darwinsdog, you have to remember that Gail is a product of the oil industry. This is the same person who advocated in an article on Oildrum that we should drill ANWWR as soon as possible because of efficiency factors. Don't expect her to have an instant grasp of ecological factors.

Um - Gail is certainly no ecologist, but....product of the oil industry??? I assure you not!! (in fact there are only 3 of 25 on staff (Robert, Euan and Phil) that have ever even worked in oil industry -and none of them currently)

I stand corrected. I didn't necessarily mean that in literal terms but mostly was addressing her apparent bias toward the industry's interests.

her apparent bias toward the industry's interests.

Bias or realistic observation that, like it or not, what we see around us is from cheap fossil fuels.

Look at this comment:
I think wind and solar should be called fossil fuel extenders, rather than renewables. Without fossil fuels, they will come to a screeching halt.

Wind/Solar don't need FF. But, with the large number of people and their high demand level - the only way to satisfy that demand level is with FF.

As the FF goes bye-bye either the demand level will drop, the people level will drop or both.

you have to remember that Gail is a product of the oil industry. This is the same person who advocated in an article on Oildrum that we should drill ANWWR as soon as possible because of efficiency factors.

I think you conflate support for ANWR drilling with "enemy of the earth". I happen to agree with Gail on that subject. There are several potential benefits that might be obtainable if we did it right. Among them:

(1) A substantial stream of government revenue could be captured that should be earmarked for the transition away from fossil fuels.

(2) Under cut the drill-drill-drill political movement, which otherwise might manage to take over the political system, and would foolishly try to continue BAU.

(3) Somewhat reduced oil import bill during the transition.

(4) Buys a little bit of time on the Hubberts peak downslope.

Note, if (1) is achieved, that a net reduction in total fossil fuels burned is possible. But if (2) (anti 2 actually) is allowed to come to pass, than coal-coal-coal will accompany drill-drill-drill.

You are absolutely right. No serious planning for transition can take place without thinking of the short term political consequences. The drill drill drill movement will use any gas price increase to hammer their shortsighted agenda home. The polls in the last election clearly showed the impact of that mentality in the absence of a good strategy to neutralize their poison. Crafting an energy tax in the guise of a nativist production increase push is very clever. It looks even better in the current economic slowdown as it can be passed off as an attempt to create jobs in the drilling sector (or at least preserve jobs that would be lost due to shutdown of now uneconomic low production wells). Good thoughts.

Worry not, ANWR will be drilled someday, any other conclusion does not follow from a peak oil scenario. If this country is going to be as broke as many TOD posters think it will be in the not too distant future, the sooner we drill ANWR the cleaner--a poorer U.S. will have virtually no concern for the environmental cost of North Slope oil. If, on the other hand, you believe we aren't going to hell in a handbasket in the next decade, that oil certainly is not getting less valuable and we will be able to do a cleaner job of extracting it as our technology advances. What does your crystal ball say?

There is another factor pushing ANWR forward--the pipe that carries north slope oil to tidewater. That pipe is running at less than half capacity today. Building a new pipeline will have a much higher energy cost than using the one that is currently being maintained to a more or less decent standard.

Will we do a cleaner job of getting ANWR oil now or down the road? That oil will flow someday and probably in the pipeline that is already being used.

I think wind and solar should be called fossil fuel extenders, rather than renewables. Without fossil fuels, they will come to a screeching halt. On a "energy cash flow" basis (offsetting energy going into making solar and wind, getting them set in their locations, upgrading the grid, and adding required extra storage/natural gas capability against additional electric production), they are almost certainly net negative at this point in time, as they ramp up. Theoretically, if we can keep them going without a huge ramp up, they should be able to provide a net increase to energy available as electricity at some point in the future. It would be worthwhile trying to figure out how long this might be the case.

Wind will come to a halt once we can no longer maintain wind turbines and the power transmission lines they require. Solar is likely to be more durable. Individual units will last however long they are built for, as long as they are wiped off reasonably often. Battery backup for solar depends very much on fossil fuels for production and distribution, so this is likely to drop off quickly, as fossil fuels become less available. If factories stop making solar panels, I still expect solar to disappear within 50 years.

I think we will continue using fossil fuels until they are gone. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference when, since CO2 levels are cumulative. We have a workforce and infrastructure now, so it makes more sense now than later.

Gail, that's the most sensible description of wind and solar I've heard. No one seems to realize how fossil fuel dependent these technologies are. They cannot function in the absence of fossil energy.

But we have FF. I think about this issue and I understand the issue, but I don't see it as a long-term issue, i.e. some decades out, perhaps a century or more even, I have no doubt new ways of replacing FF can be found. If we reduce their use to mission critical only, there really shouldn't be a problem.... eventually. It's the transition that's gonna be difficult.

My immediate answer to this problem is a micro-energy build-out making use of recyclables and DIY effort with some of that bailout money helping the process along. $5,000 can actually get every household well on the way to reducing the nation's energy consumption and free up a lot of the grid for other uses, like rail, trolleys, etc.


Your suggestion of 'micro-energy' projects reminds me of Chairman Mao's village iron smelters initiative. It's about as likely to be useful, IMHO.

Thank you for a poor analogy and really saying nothing at all. You might want to read my post on that on my blog and get back to me. I say this because people can, are, and have been building their own micro-energy systems.

Perhaps you've followed some of the links provided in the past?


Improve your house insulation; use a more efficient vehicle; exercise by walking to the shops instead of on a treadmill; keep Venice and Prague beautiful by not actually going there and complaining about all the tourists. These are projects that are often free or even profitable. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

This is one I get a chuckle out of: use a more efficient vehicle.

Well, I wonder how much energy and how many other resources go into building a new vehicle? I suppose if you mean trade for one, well, OK.


I think that is a very misleading conclusion.

I don't think we can have a buildout of these technologies today without continuing to (wisely) expend this petroleum trust-fund in that direction.. but what makes a wind-farm or a PV/CSP installation permanently dependent upon a FF driven economy?

Maintenance, Lubrication, Replacement parts, Grid Structure?

The proposals I have seen for CSP are to have large group of them located in the desert, with dedicated transmission lines. To make this work, you have to have sufficient energy to get the workers back and forth to this remote location, and to bring food to them. PV located in a remote area has the same problem. Someone has to keep getting the dust off of both CSP and PV installations, to keep them operating. There is of course also the grid structure as well for these that is likely to need maintenance.

PV already located on top of someone's house will keep working for the lifetime of the PV, as long as they get brushed off often enough. These PVs don't need to be grid tied, so presumably could continue to provide energy during sunlight hours. I don't know anything about inverter operation. Presumably these would also continue to provide AC from DC current, at least until they get to the end of their lives, using captured solar energy.

With any of these devices, they eventually need to be replace. This requires a factory and transportation of the new finished product to the location where it is to be installed. This transportation works best if there is some established transportation system - highways and trucks, or railroads, or a combination of the two.

I think there is a strange piece of evidence to support this view; the Dakar car rally no longer goes to Dakar. This applies to the suggestion that Europe should get solar power from North Africa via long cables, partly undersea. Like the car rally that project would be repeatedly sabotaged.

Thanks for the clarification.. but I still contend that it's not too difficult to see the non-petroleum workarounds here. As I said initially, we have to use what's already in place, which is roads, cars, trucks, factories and supply-lines that are all heavily 'oiled'. But a desert CSP doesn't have to be extremely remote.

You could put them on the outskirts of Phoenix, El Paso or Tucson (I'll leave Vegas off the list at this point), giving them access to railheads for increasing worker and parts supply, while the railtrack would ideally also accompany the power-spur to the site as well, affording this grid component full maintenance access both for bringing the tools and working power. It's a few layers of considerable but not at all 'monumental' infrastructure that would be mutually supportive. It shouldn't have to be a unique spur-line, either, but could be established along the routes between cities, using grid and rail that then is already serving multiple purposes, while supplanting many old highway demands in the above categories.

The lifetime of PV, and of Rail are the best arguments for implementing them where possible, to buy the kind of timespan needed to adapt away from the old oil systems. For now, they don't happen without oil.. but I don't believe that they have to keep that constraint.

Gail, that's the most sensible description of wind and solar I've heard. No one seems to realize how fossil fuel dependent these technologies are. They cannot function in the absence of fossil energy.

I simply think that view (popular on TOD) is not correct. As a thought experiment, pretend we never had FF. We would have created solar & wind anyway. Our technological/industrial progress would have been slower. But we never would have become addicted to cheap energy. These things can be built and maintained without FF inputs. But we will continue to have dwindling FF inputs for probably a century. The real issue, is will we get serious enough about the transition in time to avoid a dieoff?

Maybe wind and solar could have been developed without fossil fuels, but not in their current form. The little windmills that used to around years ago (to pump water for animals) don't require much in the way of fossil fuels. The huge monstrosities of wind turbines that we have today, that require multiple length trucks to carry their blades, do. Small water mills were developed long before fossil fuels, and could be used again. Solar thermal can be used without fossil fuels. Reflective solar ovens don't require fossil fuels (especially if the metal is already available from used vehicles and other things.)

I still think that the renewable energy that we have without fossil fuels will be very much less than we have today.

On the farm where I grew up (1950's Northern Canada) we didn't get grid electricity until I believe 1960. All draft horses until 1958 (except for threshing gang with their distilate-burning tractor). No telephone until 1962. BUT we always had wind-generated electricty (a 65 foot steel tower in the front yard, manually controlled, with a bank of lead-acid batteries in an outbuilding). Provided power for electric water pump for house, mom's vacuum cleaner, iron, lights, radio.

People who think the world ends if petroleum goes very expensive, have too little experience. If the continent were being fed by suburbanites gardening their front yards and the only thing holding up maintenance of some solar-thermal electricity generation and its transmission lines in central California were unavailability of some petroleum fuel, I would very soon get in the business of hiring a crew of (then abundantly available) cheap labour to anually extract enough petroleum from some tar sands somewhere to be able to provide sufficient fuel to them (at a sufficient price) to keep their transmission lines operating and their mirrors washed.

You underestimate how much housewives value electricity.

I think the size wind turbine you had is a lot more sustainable than the huge size we see today. If lead acid batteries continue to be available, it works for small scale electricity.

I don't recall ever getting a comment from you on my build-out idea. Have you taken a gander?


Thanks for the link. I will need to look at it. Too many "hats" to wear at the same time right now.

I generally agree with your ideas. See the comments I made on your post.

The little windmills that used to around years ago (to pump water for animals) don't require much in the way of fossil fuels. The huge monstrosities of wind turbines that we have today, that require multiple length trucks to carry their blades, do. Small water mills were developed long before fossil fuels, and could be used again.

I think that you are somewhat underestimating how far the use of renewable energy had advanced prior to the invention of the steam engine. In the seventeenth century 95,000 thousand mills (a combination of water and wind) were in use in France. Prior to the invention of the steam engine water wheels were being used to grind grain, polish metal, run lathes for metal working, grind ore and pump bellows for the processing of iron, manufacture textiles and paper, saw wood, etc. The industrial revolution was not really a technological discontinuity but an acceleration of an existing trend. Economic growth and increasing industrialization/urbanization were already occurring powered by wind and water when James Watt invented the steam engine. The idea that it is physically impossible to make use of renewable energy without fossil fuels is incorrect.

However, I would agree that it is highly questionable whether renewable energy sources can support the same levels of economic production to which we have grown accustomed, and the problems of managing energy descent are extremely thorny. It is a much easier task to build up your infrastructure based on the exploitation of fuels of increasing energy quality than it is to downsize your infrastructure to use energy sources of lower quality.

I also think that the concern about other resources than energy limiting economic production is well taken. It seems unlikely that we will out run of abundant elements such as iron, aluminum, titanium, and magnesium any time soon, but it takes a substantial amount of energy to extract these metals from their oxides, so that a combination of lower quality ores and more expensive energy source would significantly limit how much of these metals we can afford to produce. Other rarer substances may be even more problematical. I think that economic contraction is in the cards, but I am still not convinced that our long term energy future will be totally dominated by plant photosynthesis and passive solar/passive geothermal.

Wind and solar seem to exist without FF. In fact, without solar there would be no FFs.

I'm not sure of your point.

Without FFs there would be no significant wind and solar conversion systems.

Without solar, there would be no FFs, but there would also be no wind.

In fact there wouldn't be much of anything.

I think wind and solar should be called fossil fuel extenders, rather than renewables. Without fossil fuels, they will come to a screeching halt.


Were the FFs to go away today, then this would certainly be true, no more renewable energy infrastructure could be built. But there is this idea going around that once the FFs are totally gone, all solar and wind power must soon inevitably go as well, and I am not at all convinced at that.

Yes, it does require some energy imputs to manufacture, or even just remanufacture, solar or wind devices. However, I believe that some people are forgetting that PVs and WTs are not the only renewable energy resources out there. CSPs can be configured to apply high levels of concentated heat to industrial processes. Also, don't forget biogas! The production of methane from agricultural and municipal wastes using anaerobic digesters is a proven, widely deployed technology. The equipment is low-tech, very durable, and does not require high imputs of energy and materials to fabricate. If we need a gas flame to work materials in order to continue having a renewable energy infrastructure, we can count on having it.

The one thing for which I have any doubts about sustainability is the PV panels. I am not so worried about the energy imputs to manufacture or remanufacture these, but the sustainability of some of the materials required to make a PV cell is questionable.

You are right about biogas being available, but of course in much smaller quantities than the natural gas of today.

In all of these things, the question is whether we are going to run into Liebig's Law of the Minimum. It is difficult to see in advance where it might hit.

I expect that given appropriate plans an 18th century blacksmith could produce small electric motors and generators. They would be low efficiency and expensive due to the difficulty of drawing long stretches of wire by hand and the poor quality of the magnets and insulators available at the time, but quite possible. Keep in mind the levels of background technology in use when these devices were first being invented. Given even expensive motors and generators, wind, hydro, and several permutations of solar are possible.

I think that puts a pretty low minimum on electrical tech. Electronics are another kettle of fish entirely, but analog control devices for electrical systems are a matter of public record thanks to the patent system. There are an awful lot of cool widgets that were invented and superceded on our way up the energy curve that will be invaluable on the way back down. Silicon PV is probably a dead end tech, but it is possible that somebody working on a dye-based system will come up with a sustainable solution there as well.

Liebig's Law of the Minimum

I think that is a great Key Post subject. All the scenarios we might care to develop will fail once the weakest link is hit. It is at the back of my mind with virtually every post I see on what can or will be done in the future.

Let's take my micro-energy build-out. It depends on minimizing consumption of raw materials by recycling old automotive generators and alternators, for example, into rotors and/or stators for wind power or hydro power. But how many of these are there in wrecking yards? How many would need rewinding? How many stators and rotors could be made out of other materials such as wiring from abandoned homes, etc?

How close can we rally get to the ideal of micro-power in every household? (Keep in mind, most would use more than one kind and I don't assume one size fits all.)

Another issue is, most people are making analyses based on living as we do now. The underlying assumption is how do we stay as comfortable as we have become? Another aspect of this, as an example, is that homes just weren't kept toasty in the past. People dressed differently and didn't need as much heating to stay warm. (There have been two different programs, one in the US, one in Britain, where the people dressed as in the past and found they not only were warm enough, but were more comfortable - at least in terms of warmth - than wearing current fashions.)

I would love for someone to take a stab at assessing my plan. I've not the know how to do so beyond sketching out what's available in terms of DIY technology and new technologies that might be adapted. I can't do any energy analysis nor would I have any idea how to estimate available recyclable parts for various types of systems.

Liebig needs to be addressed for all proposed solutions, imo.


A discussion of critical resources for thin film vhotovoltaic solar photo cells (PVSC's) can be found at:

Some of these substances are produced in very minute quantizes, often as a byproduct of copper, zinc or aluminum production. In a few cases increasing recovery of one byproduct reduces recovery of another.

Different types of PVSC's can be made with more abundant minor substances, but their efficiency is lower.

Resource Investor also has published information of critical substances for various battery technologies.

I think we will continue using fossil fuels until they are gone. It doesn't make a whole lot of difference when, since CO2 levels are cumulative.

I have not kept up on the precise numbers regarding global carbon flows, but it was my understanding that about half of the anthropogenic CO2 produced in any year is removed the atmosphere and sequestered by natural processes. So CO2 levels are not cumulative -- absent any injection, the ppm would "decay" over time to some "natural" level -- and so slowing the rate of consumption would give Nature more time to sequester the carbon. Perhaps someone who is more up on the current science can chime in?

-- Philip

No it's not, but the judiciary, hostpitals and food are good things, and we can't provide them in the absence of oil, at least not in the short term.

Wouldn't it be better to just subsidize alternatives directly?

Doing that won't help sustain the flow of oil. By doing it his way he's helping fund the maintenance and expansion of oil infrastructure.

We can harness the markets to deliver more than just higher prices. I believe substituting dollar for dollar carbon taxes for income taxes will go a long way to delivering the outcomes we need. Carbon taxes levied at the pit or well head (or on import) according to grade of oil, gas and coal will be cheap and simple to collect. They should be based on a dollar charge per ton of CO2, plus a scarcity charge for oil and gas. Carbon pricing will work its way rapidly through the economy and the consumer will have more discretionary income from reduced income taxes to offset his higher energy costs. Conservation, efficiency and renewables will all be pushed to the top of the agenda and we will be able to survive much longer on our remaining reserves at little or no cost. We may even be better off and we might give ourselves the opportunity for technology to "solve" our problems. As the economy delivers more efficiency the price can be pushed up and up, not just to maintain the tax base, but to increasingly drive carbon out of the market. We will have succeeded if wealth remains constant at least and income taxes need to be re-introduced because carbon is too small component of the economy to form a tax base.

In addition, to offset the financial crisis, governments could commence major Keynesian style infrastructure programs in rail, renewable energy and conservation.

The big problem with this is political will. Not only are the oil and coal lobbies incredibly powerful, but our current crop of leaders such as Rudd here in Australia, Brown in the UK, Sarkosy in France etc are the antithesis of what might be called statesman. They are small minded apparachiks whose strongest ability is understanding how to climb the greasy pole. The world waits with baited breath for Obama. While anything is better than the awful Bush, he has a lot to live up to if he is going to be the messiah who leads us out of the wilderness.

How would you prevent companies from just exporting more coal, if there is a US carbon tax? Would the tax apply to exports as well?

Yes, coal, oil and gas will be taxed at the well or pit head. If authorities determine the importing country has similar policies credits could be given much along the well established principles of double taxation relief that have been in place for decades. If not the taxes should be left in place. Importing countries will comply pretty quickly because they will want to keep the wealth within their own borders.

You have it exactly right. A direct carbon tax on fossil fuels at source is by far the simplest, fairest and most economical means of educing CO2 emissions. Sure, by now, the voting public is sufficiently educated in the usefulness of "market traders" to be able to see through th "Cap-and-Trade" scam, which is designed simply to enrich market traders.

The problem I see is, that for the suggested approach Obama should have choosen very different personalities as his advisers like Richard Heinberg and Karl Denninger. (One could even put Fidel Castro whose essays about the state of the world are the best a POLITICIAN has written in the last two years)

But the president of the United States gets elected to guarantee the american way of life to be continued. As there is no way out of this mess going in the same direction as usual, I'm quite pessimistic about any far reaching decisions of the new government, even if they are aware of the situation.

6. Make an honest assessment of how the minimum needs for the population might be met, without large fossil fuel inputs.

Can't be done. It's physically impossible to feed 305 million people in this country withour massive fossil fuel inputs. Try feeding yourself without fossil fuel inputs, if you're skeptical of this assertion. 14 out of 15 people would need to die, before the population could have any hope of feeding itself without fossil fuel inputs.

In a way it is about choices. It is highly doubtful that anyone in power, let alone somebody who is elected is willing to suggest what needs to be done: consume less.
Consuming less runs completely not just against the american dream, but counter to human nature. It is human to want more, whether it is in terms of more money, or the toys that money gets you, or if it is in the realm of accomplishment. Once you've been published in the local paper you want to be published in the national paper. Once you've scaled a mountain 4000ft high you want to do the bigger one.
If this desire to exceed an existing accomplishment can be changed to goals which push us in the right direction ("I grow 50% of my food myself" "Well, I grow 70% of all my food myself" there may be hope. The pattern to exceed has to shift from trying to consume more to trying to consume less.
Humans abhore the middle of the bell curve. (that's what ego does for us). Nobody wants to be average. We have to shift to to the other tail if the human race wants to remain relevant.

Yes "powerdown" can't be popular for those in "power" or those with "power".

ELP (economize, localize, produce) therefore goes against the "normal" human ambitions to expand, compete, consume.

Nicholas Roegen-Georgescu points out that the definition of an elite is someone who doesn't produce (especially anything with his hands). A person who has worked as a manager or executive only and who has had a title will be very unwilling to consider production as his job.

Kunstler is saying that Obama will have to-and should- cede a lot of control to local smaller areas of the US as the Fed Govt becomes unworkable. But is Obama capable of "powerdown" when it is his own power at stake?

I think that people can shift their thinking if they're aware of the energy problems. But making them aware is very difficult. They don't want to believe the bad news.

This country does has a lot of land that can be used for agriculture. Current grain and cattle agriculture is very land-intensive. It would seem like this country could support most or all of our current population, at a lower standard of living, but someone would need to work out the details. Irrigation is a big issue. Without fossil fuels, irrigation would need to be much more limited--mainly water diverted from a local creek.

Up until 1800, there were few fossil fuels used, and people around the world managed to live. We should be able to do at least as well as they did.

Up until 1800, there were few fossil fuels used, and people around the world managed to live. We should be able to do at least as well as they did.

Compare today's population with that of 1800. Even if we currently had 1800's population, we couldn't live as well as that many people did back then because skills have been lost and the carrying capacity degraded. Overshoot always results in reduced carrying capacity. Much of 1800's Midwestern topsoil is now in the Gulf of Mexico, for instance. Try feeding today's population without resorting to I-NPK or Diesel. Massive famine & population collapse is what's in store.

The yield of grains is X5 higher now than in 1800 due to genetic improvements. Why would NPK not continue to be available as well as recycled sewerage?. The future may be a world without massive FF but there will be massive amounts of electricity generated from nuclear and renewable energy. Most of today's use of diesel in agriculture can be readily replaced by electricity/chemical storage(tractors, trucks, pumps). Crop dusting by aircraft may be out!

At this point, there don't seem to be uranium mines needed to provide the necessary uranium for current nuclear plants as soon as 2014 or 2105. Everyone says there are ways of circumventing this problem (recycle US nuclear bombs, like we have been using Russian bombs), but it still looks like a problem to me.

I thought I had read that recycled sewerage is a problem now, because of all the toxic heavy metals in it.

Not just toxic metals. Pharmaceuticals also are bascially being flushed into the sewerage system and these are finding their way back into natural systems. The contraceptive pill is now getting a lot of attention for its environemntal after affects with the Vatican now trying to link this isue with unexplained male infertility.

While I am not making any assertions here that this is a proven fact, you do have to wonder about the possibility.

I had a friend who had chemotherapy last year who described to me how the poison is administered and then needs to be flushed out of the body. Ultimately this stuff goes into the sewer.

With an increasinbgly geriatric population now being kept alive by gobfuls of pills everyday, I would be very careful indeed before using municipal sewerage as a fertiliser product, even if it was processed free of any pathogens.

There are more uranium mines being developed, not to mention more enrichment capacity. With excess enrichment capacity you can enrich tailings. Uranium supply is a nonproblem in any place that actually cares about supplying uranium.

The green revelation was accomplished by breeding wheat strains with shorter stalks that could hold themselves up when heavily fertilized with nitrogen.

Synthetic fertilizers are the real agricultural productivity revolution. Look up the fertilizer use at the USDA website and see roughly a four fold increase since 1960, which is very consistent with harvests.

I think irrigation has helped a little too.

I was surprised to read once how heavily China depends on fertilizer for today's yields.

Paul the Engineer is correct about the much increased grain yields post-1960s enabled by new grain crop varieties that can use higher soil N content supplied by synthetic N. However, much of USA wheat is produced at lower intensity per acre(less N input) than in many parts of the world. In the US, soil moisture seems to be the limiting factor for wheat, and this crop is grown at lower density with lower inputs than elsewhere, relying on the vast acreages available to efficient (large) mechanical cultivation. The US input of N (&PK) into grain growing is of course absolutely essential for continuing grain yields, the old turf soils having long since been mostly mined of their natural accumulation of available soil nutrients.
In very different scenarios, parts of China have doubled yields per acre since the 1960s, using synthetic N. This fertilizer is used at about half the rate per hectare, per crop, of modern European and N Zealand grain crops, (see examples quoted below). In the Chinese example the *extra* N is additional to a very high re-cycling rate of human and animal wastes in villages with very high population densities.In favorable production areas there are 2 crops per year, rice summer / wheat winter, reaching a total yield in an average year of <12 metric tonnes per hectare or 4.8 metric tonnes per acre. This compares with highish modern wheat yields averaged across UK, restricted to one grain crop per year, of 8mt/ha, or with the >15mt/ha world record for wheat presently held by New Zealand.

There is scope for prioritization worldwide including US and similar food production areas.
Five percent of present world natural gas is used to produce synthetic N (N fertilizer on world basis is produced 70% from Nat Gas and 30% from coal).
It should be possible in an emergency to rationalize US food production and distribution - in particular to reduce the diesel costs of present food distribution systems - and to substitute NG for diesel in both cultivation and movement of bulk commodities. The present practice of feeding grain to livestock also is not in most circumstances the most efficient use of grain protein and calories.
(I have done some quick EDITING of above first post)

Will all of you PLEASE read Fukuoka, look up Mollison, learn something about natural gardening, etc.?

This is simply not an issue of can we, but will we. Period. End of discussion. Anyone want to refute this? Then research, at minimum, the two people listed above.

Again, not can we, but will we.


Fukuoka's two texts can be found here:

Here's a website:

This video from Mollison might be useful, but I've not yet watched it.

Best is to see his series, Global Gardener. It can be found on-line or can be downloaded. (Don't know about the legality, just mentioning it's possible.)


We can, but we won't.

"Then we're stupid, and we'll die." -- Priss, in BLADE RUNNER

"Yup." -- ccpo, on TOD

This video from Mollison might be useful, but I've not yet watched it.

I watched it for you, it was quite good despite being a bit dated.

For one thing I learned a new meaning for EROEI, that being eggs returned on eggs invested ;-)

It seems that the way it has been done in the industrialized version comes out to about 9 eggs worth of energy to produce 1 egg for consumption. Sunny side up? The easy is over, time to start scrambling for a better way, unless we all want to end up hard boiled.

The easy is over, time to start scrambling for a better way, unless we all want to end up hard boiled.


In the past most water was moved by gravity or wind power. Modern wind turbines and electric pumps are a good solution, as irrigation pumping doesn't have to be continuous( short term storage in water tanks, dams). This worked well in the past in remote locations and could be used wherever ground water is available.
On a bigger scale water could be pumped from the great lakes or the Canadian northern rivers down to Mexico via the mid-west, with wind resources and almost no FF use.

"mainly water diverted from a local creek."

In many areas there are no creeks or none that run year round and many that lie in areas somewhat inaccessable.

Spring fed ones are not that common. Most are running due to runoff and rains.

Within 5 miles of me I know of very few that would be usable. The spring did provide a place for people to wash clothes during droughts back in the early part of the century.

I have been to that spring and drank the water. I will go there when I need water after the dieoff and powerdown occurs but I am lucky. Most would not be. And thats in an area where we have copious rainfall on average and lots of very good water in a nice aquifer.

This is why native americans always camped near a good spring. Or fresh running 'live' creek.

Missouri is best for that. Enormous springs there but lots of hilly rocky ground.

The rest of the country I am not sure of but what I have seen is not that promising for using flowing creek water. Settlements were always around sources of water but back then the population was no where like it is today.

Good spring water is very healthy. No plastic or metal pipes to alter it. Its taste is very palatable. Best moonshine made comes from good spring water.

My well is around 300 ft deep and I could configure a sleeve to draw it up by hand if need be and likely will have to but then rope wears out....etc

Best luck for finding a good spring fed creek in just the right area and one that someone is not squatting on and protecting.

Water and arable land. Two very important necessities for life.


It doesn't sound like you disagree. I think irrigation will become much less used, especially in the arid parts of the country.

I expect you are unrealistically pessimistic here.

The US can't feed the world without fossil fuel inputs, but we can feed ourselves.

Food exports and beef on the table every day would be relics of the past, as would most frivolous professions not directly related to food production in some way.

Major changes would be needed in transport, but we fortunately have rail in place that can be electrified and driven from solar+wind+hydro, as well as an extensive system of navigable waterways that served the country well pre-rail. Farms have tremendous nutrient recycling and energy generation potential as well.

I'd suggest that you try to feed yourself without fossil fuel inputs, as it appears to me that you have "run the numbers" and realised that it can't be done at current standards of living, and that it therefore can not be done at all.

It's physically impossible to feed 305 million people in this country withour massive fossil fuel inputs.

I doubt that. I did a very careful analysis of my own situation. I live on a 1/4 acre lot, and I figured that by removing some trees and adding a dairy goat and chickens, my wife and I could raise approximately 75% (by weight) of our total directly-consumed food needed annually. We would need to buy our grains and dried legumes, feed and fodder for the livestock, and some fruit. If I had to produce all of that myself, I might need maybe another 1/2 - 3/4 acre. Add to that a couple of acres of the forest land that we live amongst, and we are still comfortably within what is presently considered to be a sustainable ecological footprint.

Looking at the amount of lawns that surround residential and institutional buildings, plus what we already have under cultivation, and I have no doubt that we could keep our present population fed sustainably, even without FF inputs.

Let's see you do it, then. Provide ALL the food, fuel, fabric, etc., for yourself and family without employing ANY fossil fuels. Not even gas for the roto-tiller or chainsaw or for the pickup to haul compostable biomass. Once you can demonstrate your ability to live this way, I will accord you some credibility. But even then, you haven't shown that your 305 million fellow Americans (assuming you are American) can accomplish what you have. I stand by the assertion that mass famine and population collapse are inevitable. Please feel free to prove me wrong by actually living without fossil fuel inputs, rather than just posting about the possibility of doing so.

I don't have a roto-tiller, or a chain saw, or a pickup, and have no plans to get them. I'm part of the way there to that 75%, but it is a multi-year plan and there are still some pieces to put into place. There are undoubtedly some people farther along than I am.

I tend to agree with DD. Before fossil fuels and when the earth had just a fraction of todays population, say before the industrial revolution, humans were not living sustainable-- forests were lost and topsoil as well. I don't expect an imminent collapse but we are so far from sustainability a decline is inevitable. It's great that you are trying to live sustainably, but probably there is no sustainable way to support 8 billion people, even taking advantage of technology to get some sustainable energy from the sun.

How far do you go with the "no fossil fuel" experiment? Can a shovel be used, even though fossil fuels were used to make and ship it two years ago? If we have to scratch out a living with our fingernails there will be problems. However, realistically, we (the world or the US) will not be out of fossil fuels for 100 years, so it seems more valuable to discuss what can be done with [say] 10% of our current usage. Can the average Joe grow 100% of his/her food? Gnerally speaking, no. However, a very large percentage of us can grow a significant portion. (Why do southern California grocery stores even stock lemons, anyway?) I'm not going to grow any wheat in my garden, but I can (and do) grow potatoes, tons of fruit, and an assortment of vegetables. I only have chickens for eggs, although upping that to produce a few roasters would be easy. My bees produce way more honey than I can use...and I have a full time job. Were I too have reduced work hours and the incentive to grow more food, I have no doubt I could could raise enough food to take care of 80%+ of my family's need. Life would be nice if I could buy or trade for flour, coffee, and other harder to produce stuff, and I would prefer to use electricity over wood for canning and drying. I have solar PV, and a fair bit of water storage, so in a civil world I can do pretty well.

The biggest problems I see are that if nobody else is working on self reliance, I am in trouble. IF the regional infrastructure implodes, I will run out of water in a matter of weeks in the summer. If things head south more quickly than I can scale up my gardening I'm in trouble...etc.

I believe that we can safely start with the assumption that whatever could be and was done prior to the age of FFs can and will be done after the age of FFs.

Some argue that there are more people now, and the carrying capacity has been degraded. This is true, but it is also true that we know more than our predecessors did. There may be less in the way of ores remaining in the ground, but there are a great many more items above ground that have been fabricated from the ores we have previously mined, just waiting to be recycled.

I don't know if we can keep things up until the sun goes red giant. I'm more concerned with just getting us through the next century or two right now.

I believe that we can safely start with the assumption that whatever could be and was done prior to the age of FFs can and will be done after the age of FFs.

And I believe it won't. There's been a vast loss of the most vital traditional skills along with the traditional tools to operate them. For just one instance some jerk 20yrs ago was just about to throw his hand-brace (manual power-drill) into a skip just as I was passing and grabbed it. And no-one in the uk knows how to make shoes anymore. I also have a scythe (a key pre-industrial tool) but vanishingly few others in the uk have even any concept of a scythe let alone one in actuality.

We are probably going to have to re-learn a lot of skills. We won't have to re-invent the wheel, but there are probably a lot of other common items from 200 years ago that will almost have to be reinvented.

All of the sudden we have shifted from a US to a global context. I have no doubt that globally, the human population is in overshoot territory. The earth cannot support a population of 8 billion, and probably not even 6 billion, on a long term sustainable basis. Clearly, global populations must and will come down, sooner or later, one way or another. I don't know where the leveling off number will be: 2 B, or 1 B, or 0.5B - who knows?

The global population is not spread at equal density across the global land surface, nor are all locations equally well endowed with carrying capacity resources. Thus, it is not valad to assume that the US population must decline at the same rate as the rest of the globe. The reality is that the US still does not have all that dense a population, and our resources are still very substantial. While we cannot support an infinite exponential increase in our population, I have yet to see any evidence to prove that the US could not support its present ~300M population sustainably.

As was documented in Farmers of Forty Centuries the East Asian cultures of China, Japan, and Korea pretty much maintained their civilizations on a sustainable basis for forty centuries utilizing what are essentially organic agricultural methods. The energy imputs required for East Asian agricultural methods were very low.

I don't know if human civilization is sustainable for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. The claim that, absent FFs, we can't sustain ourselves for even a couple of centuries does look quite questionable.

I would agree. I have been talking about the US situation. The world situation is different. The very densely populated areas would appear to be most at risk.


You said:

I have yet to see any evidence to prove that the US could not support its present ~300M population sustainably.

And Gail mentioned:

family planning may necessary to limit population.

I'll try to find some source info - but from my reading there seems to be a pretty good argument that the US land mass can only sustain about 200M on a longer term basis.

It seems to me that it is a really big gamble to attempt to maintain maximum population levels in a country or on the planet. It is like living with heavy debt, a shaky job and marginal health. One major upset and you will be living on the street or worse. Would it not be wiser to really push family planning (education - not dictation) than to just hope optimal conditions will persist? It's a given that most people will want to have children (baring dire conditions) - but, is having more than one or two children really necessary? My understanding is that a voluntary global trend towards 1 to 2 children families would probably bring us back to a sustainable level before we have a total collapse of human population due to unpleasant forces. However, like Gail, I suspect this recommendation will never be implemented in time to prevent unfortunate scenarios.

"My understanding is that a voluntary global trend towards 1 to 2 children families would probably bring us back to a sustainable level before we have a total collapse of human population due to unpleasant forces. However, like Gail, I suspect this recommendation will never be implemented in time to prevent unfortunate scenarios."

Have in mind that the world population is very young. Even if you immediately turned worldwide to 1-2 children per family, the population would stay growing for a long time. It would easily topple 7 billion people. In the long run world population would shrink - but much too late to provide the immediate effect we need to reduce resource consumption.

Subtract out immigration, and N. America, Europe, Russia, Japan, and China are all there now.

My best guess is that over the course of the next century or so the US population will move back down to maybe 200M or less. This is unlikely to be the result of any "population policy". More likely, it will be the result of: 1) the end of people coming into this country (no work, maybe tighter borders and a less welcoming citizenry) and maybe even a small net outflow; 2) lower birth rates due to hard times (looking at the Great Depression experience); and 3) higher death rates due to reduced life expectancies, higher infant mortality, higher accident rates, higher crime rates, natural disasters, riots, etc., etc.

I think we do have the resources to feed the population in excess of 200M during this interim period, though.

I wonder if birth rates won't go up, do to lack of birth control and lack of Social Security. Death rates are likely to go up even more, so you may still be right on the 200M or less estimate.

I'm only going by the experience during the Great Depression. Birth rates went very low then, undoubtedly due to times being hard and people feeling that they couldn't afford more mouths to feed. Remember that there were not a great many birth control options back then.

Will this pattern repeat this time around? Or will people think ahead and deliberately produce little slaves to care for themselves sixty plus odd years later? I don't know.

World population first exceeded 1billion in the early 1800s according to web page of us census bureau. Maybe 15:1 drop is needed in US, but world should only need 6:1 drop.

You are being argumentative. Even 100 and more years ago nobody provided for all their own needs. There were stores, trade, etc.

If you're going to make an argument, you might want to structure it within the bounds of reality. Not that I disagree with your terminal assertion, but this sort of hyperbole doesn't advance the conversation.


It's been done:

Mind you, they eat snails.


WNC, will be good to get started on your plans before TSHTF. Sometimes things are not just as easy as they appear in your kids coloring books and some real world experience will come in handy.

I am living in the country, about 200 miles from the next big city. With a little farm with about 60 irrigated acres we are pretty self-sufficient: We are raising one beef and 2 pigs each year. I do all the butchering / processing myself and my 4 year old son is helping / learning. Further, we are maintaining a little vegetable garden. Sounds great, does it?

You may say that we are well set for a post carbon life-style. Hence it isn’t just that easy as cutting a few trees and buying a goat and a chicken. Even during summer time it is a challenge to get affordable food for your critters if you don’t want to buy it for $$ at your Coop warehouse. There comes the winter and pastures are gone. Snow covers the ground. What you need is hay and straw and water (not ice). Further there is the problem with the manure which needs to be taken care off, and so on and so on. By the way, do you know what a goat or a chicken smells like when it is kept on ¼ of an acre? You will loose all your friends in your neighborhood and don’t count on bailing yourself out with eggs or goat milk. Them critters are somewhat different from the Wal-Mart quarter horses as you know them: “slide a quarter in the slot, push the knob and there comes your egg / milk or butter.

You can argue to replace the tractor by team of horses: 2 horses x 20 lbs hay per day = 40 lbs/ day times, or 14400 lbs of hay per year that must be cut and dried and hauled into the barn Add the grain and some straw for the bedding if you want to get a little closer picture.

I am now 52 and I have a life long experience with livestock and farming and I am trying to find a practicable way of “limited” self sufficiency without oil. What you say is childish and relying on that flower power stuff will kill is suicide. All you can reasonably do on your ¼ suburban acreage is growing some veggies and get you an alternative power supply for your freezers.

Sorry, WNC,


With a little farm with about 60 irrigated acres we are pretty self-sufficient:

Is there a reason for irrigation? And, I assume, typical modern farming? Have you looked into other ways of doing what you are doing? If you switched to permaculture, or some other form of growing, it's possible you could lower costs, keep your yields and reduce your time spent working considerably. IF you don't till, how much time do you save? If you don't need to weed as much, how much time might you save? If you don't need to pay for fertilizer, how much money do you save? If you don't need to grow hay, or as much... etc., etc.

I'd be interested in how your experience might change if you assumed all these changes.



“Is there a reason for irrigation?” - The reason for irrigation here is that without it we grow prickling pear cactus and rabbit brush.

I am growing alfalfa hay. I get good results without any fertilizer. The old “Ranger” plants do well here for about 12 years. (tilling / replanting every 12 years)

“If you don't need to grow hay, or as much... etc” – My neighbor just tried that last year. Got himself 600 head of sheep. Came winter with some snow on the ground and 2/3 of his flock went tits up so far. I counted 5 dead this morning when I left. Funny ain’t it? Even sheep must eat when nothing grows out there.

What we are talking about is feeding 305 million without fuel for that tractor, and all your kind advice doesn’t help me. Come out for a “recreative” vacation on the farm and show me how you would do. We will start to mow an acre of grass by hand, turn it to dry, rake it together and haul it in the barn. It will hardly be enough to get a dairy cow through the winter (or the equivalent of goats) but you will return back home with a totally different set of mind about reality of feeding the masses without the help of fossils. The sustainable carrying capacity of this planet is somewhere between 500 million to 2 billion, and we are now up to 6.5 billion.

I'm also about 200 miles from the nearest "Big City". There is a town of 5,000 about 50 miles west of here, but during the wintertime, it can be a chore to get there as one must cross a 9,000 foot elevation pass and the snow and wind can be bad. So, I only make it to "town" every couple of months.

I've been working on self sufficiency for quite a while now. But, I'm still dependent upon my freezer to keep the lamb and pig that were slaughtered this past fall. Without electricity I would have no way of safely storing meat. So, this years project is a smokehouse. I have a makeshift root cellar in my barn; I'm using hay and ground temperature to keep some of my garden produce. My second project for this coming year is a real root cellar.

As for the chickens and goats; I have both, including a buck. The buck gets right ripe about August, but the wind blows away from the house and so he's bearable. The goat's milk is fine as is the yogurt and cheese, but, none of it comes without considerable effort. The chicken's eggs are swell too, but chicken feed is now $18.00 per 50 lbs. I could buy my eggs for considerably less. I have 17 hens and so during the summertime, there are eggs aplenty for me and for my neighbors and my hens are free range with plenty to eat out of the surrounding fields. Wintertime is a different story. Feed is scarce and so, I have to buy my chicken feed from the farm store. I'm going to have to cut back my hen numbers. Six hens produce enough eggs for my own consumption.

I grow my own hay and so far have had plenty, but, I can't imagine harvesting the 600 bales I do by hand. I figure when the gas runs out, then my stock will become free range. I'll have to turn them loose and keep track of them daily. I currently have three mules, and a saddle horse besides the goats. When things get tougher I'll have to barter two of my mules and replace them with a couple of cows. As it is now, I can buy a fat steer from a neighbor for slaughter, as I have done. I've done the same with lamb and pork.

I quit putting fertilizer on my hay field seven or eight years ago because I didn't want to become dependent on fertilizers for a good hay crop. I've experimented a bit, and I've found that I can cut a crop of grass hay once per season, during September, and get the hay I need. I use manure as fertilizer. The trade offs are I can be rained out, and loose an entire crop of hay, my only crop for the season and that would be disasterous. And, grass hay doesn't contain the nutrition that alfalfa hay does. So, it takes more to go the same distance nutritionally.

My garden was frozen out this past September. I got enough to just barely get me through the wintertime, but, I've been eating a lot of dried apples too. I hope this coming season is better, but may not be. I'm noticing the effects of climate change here in these parts. The weather has become quite unpredictable and the extremes are severe. For example, today, the temp is 43 degrees and the wind is blowing at 35 mph. A week ago, the daytime temperature was 11 and the wind was still blowing at 35 mph. We've had little snow this winter, as was the case last winter. This past summer, the cattle on the mountain, found their way into the deserts, in search of feed, because of the prior year's scarcity of moisture in the high country. Because of lack of feed, because of drought, the deer and elk are down in the fields in very large numbers this winter. They've destroyed most of one of my outdoor haystacks. I'll have to get even next fall.

I've been working at self sustainability for quite a while now, and, I'm close, but, not quite there yet. The idea of a goat, chickens, and a garden isn't going to work, especially in an urban environment. What happens when the city culinary water system goes kaput, or someone comes by in the night and figures your goat would look better on their spit? A chicken will drop dead for the heck of it.

No, there is absolutely no way 300 plus million "Mericuns" are going to have enough to eat if the fossil fuels aren't there for our present version of mechanized agriculture. Solar, wind, battery power, biofuels, whatever, will not fill the bill as replacements for the fuel that runs our farm tractors at the huge scale we presently operate.

As a kid I watched the teams of draft horses bringing in the hay and then the crews stack it with the aid of pitchforks, derricks and beaver slides. Those things work, but not on the scale we've become accustomed to these past 60 years. I still see beaver slides and Jackson Forks in use in Montana, but nowhere else.

So, all of you folks who think you can just plant some veggies in the back, buy a few chickens, and maybe a goat, well, I'm sympathetic to your intention, but my suggestion would be, try it and then figure out what you're really going to do if things get tough. Best from the Fremont

One of the issues I am concerned about is that even if I could plant a garden and take care of myself and my family, how much good would that do if there were people all around without adequate food? Somehow, we need to get adequate food for everyone. Without skills and tools and seed it will be very difficult. Also, years ago, people used draft animals for farming. We don't have any of those now, making the process all the more difficult.

I think that community is the key, and the smaller the community, the better. I'm not sure survival in an urban or suburban setting will be possible if it all goes to hell. The "haves" will soon be the victims of the "have nots" and there isn't much that can be done. This is the fallacy of "home storage". You can't have the firepower, or the bullets to defend your cache and, who would want to spend their last days and hours killing their fellows. So, in my opinion, small communities, in isolated areas of the country, will have the best chances for surviving the Mad Max scenario. I am hopeful that we'll be able to do better than descend into a free for all, Regardless, in my opinion, there will not be food for everyone, but, there can be food for some and we're all kind of on our own on this one. In other words, it's an issue of individual responsibility for making viable arrangements for oneself and one's family. Those who do will have a chance, those who don't, won't make it.

What are the options for those who have to live in urban or suburban areas because of employment or family ties, or simply economics? I would suggest they join a gang, and the nastier the gang, the better. I'm half kidding, but, I do believe that unless they can identify with and become one of the "takers", their chances of survival will be small. But, then, who want's to pay such a price?

A spouse or children at home complicates one's options, and narrows them dramatically. I have children and have done my best to help them prepare for what is probably coming. But, they have to have real jobs, they have to live near an urban center, and so what will they do? I've tried to make enough room for them here with me if it comes to that.

I've kept Mules for the past 25 years because I've always thought they might come in handy. I don't farm with them, but, I could. I have used them for packing in the back country, and for riding. I have a 1450 pounder that I use to gather cattle. He's out of a Quarter Horse Mare and so he is, as they say, "cowey". Moving cows with him is kind of like moving cows with a Tug Boat. He's good at it though, just kind of awkward. I used to always ride a flashy horse, but now, I like my mules the best. They're as smart as the whole neighborhood and that includes the Attorney up the road. Best from the Fremont

Thanks for your comments.

As long as my husband is teaching at the university nearby, we are pretty much stuck in town. We also have two young adults sons (one living nearby, one living with us), plus my husband's father in an assisted living center nearby. All of the connections make moving difficult.

Gail- Right, so if I've understood you correctly, your husband's job is worth more than your life (and his too). And this from an actuary.
I've given up on saving my own family and the valuable property they (and in theory I) own. Such is fate. As J Christ said, father will be set against son and mother against daughter.

Unless there is enough for everyone, survival will be difficult anywhere. It is not obvious that we could move somewhere, and have the skills to do what we need to do. If my husband is not on-board to move, I am fairly certain I could not support myself on my own in even a semi-ideal location.

Our average annual precip is 8.2". Chamisa & big sage dominate the rangelands. There's no ag here w/out irrigation water. My property is on a river (glorified arroyo is more like it) but the irrigation water comes via ditch from a different river. Not only would irrigating directly from the lower river be illegal but it would involve pumping water uphill. As things are, I have about 30 psi of head from the ditch that runs above the property. The ditch becomes clogged with cattails if they aren't sprayed, burnt or mechanically removed. Organic growers don't want the ditch sprayed and the fire dept. no longer allows it to be burnt. In the old days the ditch was cleared by hand. Neighbors cooperated in keeping it flowing. Clearing the ditch by hand is grueling hard work. The last time we tried to do it by hand, people were cracking beers after about half a day's work, and only a few hundred meters of cleared ditch. No one has the time, energy or work ethic anymore, to do this work by hand. Hence, every couple or three years, a trackhoe must be rented to clear the ditch. Everyone would much rather contribute the ~$100 per household to rent the hoe, than attempt to do the work by hand. A rubber tired backhoe can't be used because the Russian olives that line the ditch would puncture its tires within minutes. The ditch is ~10 kilometers long.

Perhaps the day will come when necessity makes clearing the ditch by hand obligatory. What if not everyone cooperates? What if the few who are most motivated have to do most of the work? What if someone upstream impounds the ditch water? Who is going to enforce water rights when fuel is so expensive we can't afford a trackhoe for keeping the ditch flowing? What if someone decides to drain the ditch by digging thru the berm? Who is going to keep them from it, punish them, or fix the damage? Maybe in the late 19th & early 20th century people could be counted on to police the ditch and keep it cleared by hand, but I don't see it today. Apartments and trailer parks filled with Hispanic, Native American and Eurotrash gangsta vandals occur along much of the length of the ditch. These kids have no incentive for cooperating in ditch maintenance and much effort goes into removing the trash they throw into the ditch as it is. When it comes down to it, these kids would raid the gardens of those attempting to grow food, rather than cooperate in growing it. My point is that without fossil fuel energy for maintaining and patroling the ditch, no water flows and no food is grown.

Alfalfa is a heavy phosphorus user. Twelve years of harvesting alfalfa without P inputs is hard to believe. Do you allow the hay to be grazed at all, or supply manure otherwise?

I would put 500 million as the top end of sustainable global human population. In fact, I would say that half a billion is about 2x or 3x too many. No way that 2 billion can be sustained without fossil fuel inputs, let alone the current population as you rightly point out.

“If you don't need to grow hay, or as much... etc” – My neighbor just tried that last year. Got himself 600 head of sheep. Came winter with some snow on the ground and 2/3 of his flock went tits up so far. I counted 5 dead this morning when I left. Funny ain’t it? Even sheep must eat when nothing grows out there.

Well, the point was less animal rearing. And I don't recall this being about your neighbor and 600 sheep, so not sure what your point is. What is it that your neighbor tried?

What we are talking about is feeding 305 million without fuel for that tractor, and all your kind advice doesn’t help me

And I am not talking about this week or next. I am not speaking of those time frames, obviously. Transition is not easy and people will hurt. (They already are.) But where we need to be is still where we need to be regardless of where we currently are.

EDIT: "You are growing without irrigation? I could have sworn you said 60 irrigated acres..." You said fertilizer. Oops.

As regards irrigation, permaculture and natural gardening essentially do away with irrigation. The entire point is to mimic nature. Stuff grows where you are, so stuff can. By preferentially planting to minimize evaporation and retain moisture when the field is not producing you can either reduce or eliminate irrigation. This increases the water in the soil overall. I bet your alfalfa all comes out of the field? Since AI know nothing about alfalfa, forgive the question: is there any waste left from harvesting, and if so, what is done with it? Hopefully, you are leaving it in the field.

You didn't respond to my no-till comment. You till, I assume?

I am at a disadvantage: I don't know where your farm is. Some places just shouldn't be farmed, but some of those can. Try to find Bill Mollison's Global Gardener series.

Now, one thing we have to realize is that the profit motive doesn't really work. Along with fractional banking, working for profit is inherently about getting more than you get. It is inherently BAU and inherently unsustainable.

When I talk of having my own place, preferably with a group of like-minded people, I am not talking about a profitable farm, I am talking about a farm with enough surplus so we can store food for hard times and some more for trade. That's it. We don't need more than that in a non-debt-based, non-capitalist society.

Were I you, I'd invite some friends and family to share your farm and get ahead of the curve. Set up a land trust.


I live in a small town - NOT a "suburb" - and am not doing the whole homestead-in-the-country, 100% self-sufficiency thing. If society completely collapses, I know I'm dead. You probably are too, whether you know it or not. I've assessed my risks and am at peace with them. Are you?

As for the neighbors, I don't intend to be the first person in my neighborhood with livestock. I am starting to see other people in town with chickens, so I don't anticipate it being very long before they become pretty common. If eggs get expensive enough, people might get chickens pretty quick indeed. It is only the people that have tried to keep a rooster as well that have gotten busted; I figure that when I hear at least three roosters every morning for two months, then I'm safe. A few people in town have goats, too. I grew up living next door to someone who raised chickens, I was over there all the time, and spent my summers at my grandparents farm, so I'm not quite the city slicker you make me out to be.


Sorry for thinking of you as a “burbarian”. No offense! You will do fine on your chicken and you goat, with rooster or without. Just fine. But I thought this discussion went about getting 305 million hungry Americans fed without the help of oil. Most of these people are living in the cities where goats aren’t an option. So what?

There are urban and suburban areas with restrictive zoning now, but this is changing fairly quickly now, and the pace of change will pick up substantially as things get worse. The number of places with more relaxed, permissive zoning keep increasing all the time. Of course, there is also the issue of non-enforcement as municipalities face budget shortfalls and have to cut back staff.

People living in urban high-rises are going to need access to a community garden if they are going to grow anything. I expect to see more of these in the future, too. Look at the nation as a whole, however, and you'll find that there are not that many people living in multi-family housing. Most are living in detached or semi-detached housing with yards that could be put to work growing food.

You seem to be living in the doomer fanasy world right now!. The world before FF wasn't composed of millions of self contained individuals, many in agriculture were specialized farmers, or food and fiber processors( wine millers, beer, weavers, blacksmiths,farriers ). The world post FF will also have specialization but also have one big advantage over the pre-FF world; abundant electricity driving automated manufacturing and rapid transportation.

Why do "doomers" think every family has to be self sufficient in agriculture. In the US a modest shift from pork and beef to chicken and maize would enable at least 600 million people to be fed with no FF inputs(but with energy inputs). Possibly many people will grow more vegetables because of the high transportation cost or longer transportation times( via rail), but maize and chicken is very inexpensive now. Most consumers buy processed food because they are too busy working to prepare much cheaper less processed foods. If the economy stays in a prolonged recession and heaven forbid we only have enough jobs for one wage earner per family( not mass die-off, just the loss of 50 million jobs) most families in US can still have the income to buy all the maize and wheat flour, potatoes, and chicken and beans and have lots left over for the other essentials(cloths, coffee, pay for electricity, mortgage, one EV per family).

"without massive fossil fuel" morphs into "without fossil fuel inputs" during your argument.

We need some liquid fuels(3%? 5%? of present consumption) for present food production and transport. Prior to 1900 it was all done without any liquid fuels. Its a big jump to a world(100-200 years in the future) without any fossil fuels, where no attempt has been made to replace our existing farming systems.

Saying; "It's physically impossible to feed 305 million people in this country without massive fossil fuel inputs." is just ignoring history or what occurs in many 3rd world countries.

Furthermore, its diverting attention from the real big immediate problem of Peak oil; those 500 million low fuel economy cars and light trucks. Replacing them with EV and PHEV's is going to leave plenty of oil for food production and transport for a very long time.


You say “Prior to 1900 it was all done without any liquid fuels”. That’s right. Now let me ask you this:
1. What was the US population prior to 1900?
2. What was the world population prior to 1900?
3. What percentage of the US population prior to 1900 was occupied in agriculture?

Prior to 1900, working as a farmhand covered your needs for bunk and bed with a little extra for maybe a beer and some warm clothes. The majority of the people lived in the country, right there where the food was produced. We cannot compare the world from before 1900 with the world of today. In a first place we have tripled the carrying capacity of earth under those anno 1900 circumstances. Now, 6.5 billion and growing, that’s something that gotta sink in, as well as the problem we seem to have with the forces of compounding.

“We need some liquid fuels (3%? 5%? of present consumption) for present food production and transport.” – Neil, you got to look up you figures. As a thumb-rule we can say that every calorie of food requires 10 calories of fossil fuel across the entire supply chain. I do not see how than can be improved by 500 million EV’s you are talking about.

Yes, “Prior to 1900 it was all done without any liquid fuels” but then the US also didn't have massive hydro, nuclear electricity and were not building 5GW wind capacity per year, and had maize plants that yielded 25 bu/acre not present hybrids getting 150bu/acre.

Replacing vehicles getting 25 miles/gallon with EV or PHEV getting 100miles per gallon is going to free up a lot of oil for agriculture and critical non-electric transportation.

The only way food will be a problem is if every available bu of maize is used for ethanol production and wasted in gas guzzlers.

I don't know if a US population of 300M+ is sustainable or not. I do agree with the thought that it is probably not desirable. A population of 200M or even less is clearly MORE LIKELY to be sustainable long term. We would be better off staying well under our carrying capacity rather than pushing all the way to the edge.

As I said above, there is a difference between remaining over 200M on a temporary basis (a century or so) and permanently. I think we'll drift back down to around 200M over the next century or so, and we do have enough resources to cover us during that transition.

Of course we can support 300 million people with little FF. The Chinese and Indians do it. It's just that our economy is going to resemble theirs if we don't make the transition voluntarily and soon!

There is a real danger that the economy that we knew is over now. We may never be able to recover from the emerging depression (beginning of the peak resources economic collapse). I hope that any government work projects recognize this and put the valuable remaining resources into infrastructure for a sustainable future.

Apples ... Oranges!

Left ... Right!

Lessee ... in 2008 we have approximately 300 million dudes and dudettes occupying the good ol' USA.

In 1920 we had 106 million. 1920 is a good year for the purpose of this discussion.

In 1920, a little more than half of the population was engaged directly or indirectly in agriculture. At the same time, a considerably larger amount of rural acreage was in production; much of what is now suburbia was prime ag land.

Agriculture in 1920 was mainly three kinds; integrated self- sufficient small farmers who produced enough to feed therr families and produce a surplus that could be sold in order to buy necessities such as salt, kerosene, tools, nails, wagon parts, horseshoes, clothing and rifle cartridges. A second type - and rapidly growing in 1920 - was specialized monoculture ag 'stations' that only produced one kind of crop. In 1920, certain cereals were subsidized to support the war (WWI) effort. Monoculturists could afford gasoline powered tractors, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation pumps. This and the subsidy gave these farmers a tremendous pricing advantage ... that over the next ten years drove millions of integrated farmers off their land and into the cities - out of farming.

The third kind of farmer was not exactly a monoculturist, but did not have the same kinds of mechaniical inputs available but usually produced one kind of crop; cattle and sheep ranchers, dairy farmers, orchardists and vegetable specialists.

Agriculture was not particularly productive in 1920;

As the decade began, the agricultural sector was faced with problems, many of them related to economic characteristics unique to the farm industry. This industry was made up of thousands of producers, each generating a minuscule portion of the total output and none having any control over the total market.

Not only were there 'too many farms and too many small farms' a more serious problem was that there were too many 'new' farms. In many areas the plow had riven the land only a few decades previous and the innate knowledge of the best crops, the best husbandry and the best farming techniques had not been discovered. Many farmers were immigrants who were often ill suited to the farms that they were trying to create. Not only were these new farmers undercapitalized, they also faced a skills gap. Also, many farm areas were unsuitable for long term production; consider that Connecticut was during the 19th century agricultural land from one end to the other, but the soil was too poor and too rocky to be profitable, especially with the tools available to small farmers in 1920.

Another problem was that the inputs often needed to increase production were very EXPENSIVE; land (acreage), pumps, barns, balers, tractors, plows, trucks, etc plus livestock and feed; a farmer engaged in a risky version of Russian roulette with the local bank; a shortage of rain or furrows plowed the wrong direction and the whole enterprise was done.

Consider that the acreage set aside for homesteading purposes during the preceding century as suitable for a farming family using mules and human labor was a quarter section, 180 acres ... that a full section was a square mile, too much for any one family to till alone. Less acreage than that was a tremendous risk, more than that might mean failure if the tools and the labor could not be had. There were no credit cards in 1920 and a successful farmer likely had rich family members or belonged to an association (such as the American Grange) that could assist in finding credit/markets, but were not free for all to entry. To fail at the farm usually meant a harrowing trek to a city, to compete with immigrant labor in factories or sweatshops at piece rates @ long hours @ dangerous jobs. Worked until broken then the widow and children left to domestic work or to beg in the streets.

So ... in 1920 there would have been almost 50 million involved directly or indirectly in agriculture, who were poorly trained or who lacked experience, who had only partial access to fossil fuels or other technology and who were responsible for feeding themselves and another 50 million with more (and arguably better) land at their disposal.

In light of the current land distribution/ownership and the shortage of farmers that it is unlikely that any semblance of 1920- style agriculture could be implimented in America within the time frame indicated by almost any of the current Peak Oil scenarios. There are too few hands that could be turned to the work, who could learn the art and who could be capable of feeding themselves and their families, not to mention produce any surplus that could feed the non- farm part of a much larger population. In the medium term this country is 'stuck' with monoculture specialist agriculture, with that form adapting as well as possible in a declining fuel use environment. To have a successful agricultural alternative will require a grand strategy implimented over a longer period, perhaps parallel to the current system, with incentives to permit more and more persons to participate in agricultural work, either as hired hands or as 'apprentice farmers' with the opportunity to found their own farms when they are able to do so.

How would the challenge best be described, today?

First of all, there is less acreage to farm, and the acreage is far removed from markets and a high percentage of that acreage has been exhausted by industrial farming techniques. Much of the country's best productive farm land has been turned into 'acres of free parking'. The process has also necessitated the '3000 mile caesar salad'. Our food is grown mostly in the Midwest and Southeast and shipped to processors in Texas and California, then back across the country to supermarkets. That latter state used to produce - along with Florida - much of our fresh fruit and vegetables. These are now imported from Mexico and Chile while our orange groves have been bulldozed and the land 'sculpted' into golf courses or ... more acres of free parking.

Each productive farmer works an operation that is very much larger than the 180 acre quarter section; this farm requires many high- tech/high energy inputs. All these inputs are 'sunk capital' which is often borrowed ... which must be repaid; the cost and forms of sunk capital are a constraint on what the operator can do; to repay or roll over debt is the first and last necessity, slways.

Our gross agricultural output has grown geometrically, however this is the result of relentless specialization. It is impossible to farm many areas of the US productively without having enormous acreages (40,000 - 50,000 acres) and computerized- mechanized systems to prepare, nourish, de- pest, irrigate and harvest. Most such super- farms are entirely dependent upon subsidies; in fact they would not exist at all without them. So ... it is not just the shortage of FF inputs that is a hazard, it is also the shortage of subsidies, also the unavailability of credit, of fertilizer inputs @ a low price, of a properly functioning futures market and of available transport @ a reasonable cost. There are indeed some of these farmers who are members here and the process is well documented by many authors over a long period.

Another outgrowth of hyoer- specialization has been the diversion of good food crops into feed- inputs to other ag products such as livestock or ethanol. I won't go into the ethanol debate here, but suffice it to say that the 'feedlot industry' has vast externalities and could not exist without both subsidies and the large input of good human food @ very low prices. Using a 20:1 caloric ratio of grain inputs to meat output a large percentage of our field crop output is diverted to meat production, the process driven by economies of scale. The cycle is large inputs result in increased production that drives prices lower so that per- unit return declines relative to input costs requiring even larger production that drives prices further downward, each increase in production requiring larger 'investment' in machinery and increasing scale ... a classic ezample of diminishing returns on increased capital invested.

Another issue is that farming a certain manner leads to an ossified culture, that being determined by a kind of tradition as well as by the equipment (sunk capital), market, and the farm itself. Farmers have learned how to farm, they grow corn because their fathers grew corn, as did their grandfathers. A farmer that has invested millions in wheat production will have difficulty (or it is impossoible) to grow other crops. An area that is good for soybeans may be good for corn or vegetables, but it is great risk for a farmer to shift direction when an error in husbandry can cost the entire crop and lead to ruin.

At the same time, agricultural techniques have improved dramatically since 1920; besides genetic/hybridizing crop varieties, there is marketing tools available to farmers that didn't exist in 1920 and a much more flexible transport network. Having a market is vital, since the short stave for most farmers is the shortage of money followed by the shortage of water. Granted, fuel and fertilizer have been available for too long that these inputs are now taken for granted. At least in the medium term, the coming shortages in petroleum inputs would cause a realignment in shortages, with the FF inputs manifesting as another money problem.

Without water, of course, all agriculture ceases.

What would be a critical path to expand or sustain ag production with a decline in petroleum inputs?

First of all, the greatest need requires the first attention; the loss of water supply and the increasing salinity of irrigated lands is a great danger and addressing this needs to be the first priority. In the West, cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas have claims on water that are always gained at the expense of agriculture. In the Midwest and high plains, the depletion of aquifers is equal in effect to the similar decline in oil production but with a more fatal outcome.

Second; the loss of ag land to sprawl is still continuing; also to industrial development, oil and gas drilling and mining. This must be addressed. The idea of suburbia becoming farmland is not realistic. Suburbia is designed as 'bedroom' use by office workers who have neither the time, inclination or training to be anything other than vegetable gardeners. Training is a greater issue than acreage; most of suburbia has the land 'sculpted' with the topsoil pushing behind retaining walls or put into dump trucks and used as 'fill dirt'. Consequently, there is little good land to 'farm' in suburbia. Sprawl needs first to be contained, then the abandoned suburbs returned to agricultural use or watersheds. Many can be employed at this and doing so would be - to paraphrase James Howard Kunstler - 'the greatest allocation of resources in the history of the world.'

Third; the concept of food- as- animal feed and industial livestock production is something that needs to be revised out of existance. Half of 'farm policy' is eating policy. Americans need to eat less meat and processed food. At the same time, better animal husbandry would require less inputs; less for the feed and less for the products of the feed. Eating better food would cut health care costs, as well a save energy. Reform here would be the 'low hanging fruit'.

Fourth; the subsidy system needs to be completely rethought. Subsidies are what drive more and more FF inputs; the allow the concentration of acreage, the purchase or lease of larger and more comples 'farming systems' and drive the unsubsidized out of business by undercutting their prices. This happening here is a hardship but the effects abroad have been devastating; a large part of the immigration from Latin America in the past ten years has been driven by low farm product prices abroad caused by the dumping of cheap American cereals. The farmers who cannot support their families in Mexico and Guatemala end up here putting Americans out of work.

Fifth; the markets for ag products need to be reformed. Large manipulators such as processors (Archer Daniels Midland, Cargil, etc.) hedge funds and Sovereign Wealth Funds need to be removed from the markets; this rather than the shortage of FF will cause famines.

Sixth; a program to find suitable land for suitable new farmers needs to be instituted. It is not enough to buy some land and cows and cut loose with some farming! Farming is an art and to do so well takes training; our ag colleges support the megafarmers. An apprenticeship program where a condition of subisidy is to 'start' a new farmer and train him would be a low- cost way to double the number of good, new farmers in a short period of time. The need is to shift emphasis to smaller, organic integrated farms. Another emphasis NEEDS to be placed on community support as the outcome otherwise is farm failure and re- consolidation. Supporting small farmers is done in Japan and France; we need to emulate these countries. If we simply draft some 'instant farmers' we will have failures when we can least afford it and the result of failed farm will be exhausted soils and land too poor to be productive for a long while.

Seventh; the idea of a 'successful farmer' needs to be revised. Today, the successful farmer is a subsidy machine, yet a check away from bankruptcy, a technocrat and balancer of books who also plants and harvests things, BTW. The idea needs to be expanded to include farmers who do not break yield records or who corral the greatest amount of cash, but who can increase the fertility and beauty of the land that he or she farms. Food over the long term comes from love and work, not from fuels, fertilizer, a computer or a bank loan. Those latter are simply tools that can be replaced by other tools; the love is the end not the means.

Finally, the Americans need to escape from the car, the McDonald's, the parking garage, the big suburban mini- estate and reconnect with tne real world again. Too many have been living the cartoon. A reconnection to the real world exists in our memories; most of us grew up near farms and have a better idea of what we know about what the farming life can reveal; about nature, about life about how all are connected ... provided the backgroud noise of cash registers and automobile engines can be stifled.

Simple irony requires that many Americans would suffer amidst a surplus of parking spaces. Unfortunately, the final war shall be between humans and automobiles; the autos will win and the humans will starve. Any survivors will be enslaved ...

Superb analysis. Should be required reading for every politician, and any who fail the comprehension test should be recalled.

Just one note, a minor re-direct. IMHO, irrigation water availablity is not the huge problem you propose. I grew up having three uncles who were terrific dryland wheat farmers in western Saskatchewan and Alberta. They could get a worthwhile crop of cereal grains with no irrigation out of land that would only grow tumbleweed and sage in the road allowances. I have always been impressed with their skill at it, and they were doing it long before the super-(fossil/fertilizer) era. All in knowing how to cultivate (or not to), rotations, fallowing. Skills they acquired from being farmers there in the dust-bowl 1930's and making it through. It's knowledge which should be recorded and preserved as an invaluable resource.

Again, excellent post.

I agree it is a great overview.

Agriculture was not particularly productive in 1920;

Not only were there 'too many farms and too many small farms' a more serious problem was that there were too many 'new' farms... the innate knowledge of the best crops, the best husbandry and the best farming techniques had not been discovered. Many farmers were immigrants who were often ill suited to the farms that they were trying to create. Not only were these new farmers undercapitalized, they also faced a skills gap.

Thank god for the internet. If a program can be instituted yesterday, the potential to educate a lot of people in a short time, and perhaps create a real time or cyber-mentoring program is good.

Also, many farm areas were unsuitable for long term production; consider that Connecticut was during the 19th century agricultural land from one end to the other, but the soil was too poor and too rocky to be profitable, especially with the tools available to small farmers in 1920.

According to many, an irrelevant point, but not one that is managed in a day. Rehabilitating the soil is an issue of knowledge and time. I am planning to buy unimproved land (save money), store what I need to not starve for 3 - 5 years (basic nutrition and calories), then build my own soil.

the inputs often needed to increase production were very EXPENSIVE; land (acreage), pumps, barns, balers, tractors, plows, trucks, etc plus livestock and feed...

KISS it. New paradigm: not about profit. Live well, live with others. Help each other. Not kumbayah, just cooperate a little.

In light of the current land distribution/ownership and the shortage of farmers that it is unlikely that any semblance of 1920- style agriculture could be implimented in America within the time frame indicated by almost any of the current Peak Oil scenarios.

Time is a problem. I'm not sure I have a smart ass answer for this. National realization that we have to power down? Farmers taking on partners in Land Trusts? Some degree of coordination on crops among a given community/area/region make it more efficient... but leave a good bit of redundancy in place for food security? Etc.?

There are too few hands that could be turned to the work, who could learn the art and who could be capable of feeding themselves and their families, not to mention produce any surplus that could feed the non- farm part of a much larger population.

See my previous comments re: sharing knowledge.

In the medium term this country is 'stuck' with monoculture specialist agriculture, with that form adapting as well as possible in a declining fuel use environment. To have a successful agricultural alternative will require a grand strategy implimented over a longer period, perhaps parallel to the current system, with incentives to permit more and more persons to participate in agricultural work, either as hired hands or as 'apprentice farmers' with the opportunity to found their own farms when they are able to do so.

Pretty much agree, but it's not because it isn't possible.

First of all, the greatest need requires the first attention; the loss of water supply and the increasing salinity of irrigated lands is a great danger and addressing this needs to be the first priority.

Stop irrigating, start mulching, cover cropping, not tilling and capturing rain.

Second; the loss of ag land to sprawl is still continuing

We have enough land by a factor of 50%. We can more than feed ourselves now. With adequate transition we can continue to. Yields will not fall if natural methods are properly introduced.

Sixth; a program to find suitable land for suitable new farmers needs to be instituted. It is not enough to buy some land and cows and cut loose with some farming! Farming is an art and to do so well takes training; our ag colleges support the megafarmers. An apprenticeship program where a condition of subisidy is to 'start' a new farmer and train him would be a low- cost way to double the number of good, new farmers in a short period of time. The need is to shift emphasis to smaller, organic integrated farms. Another emphasis NEEDS to be placed on community support as the outcome otherwise is farm failure and re- consolidation. Supporting small farmers is done in Japan and France; we need to emulate these countries. If we simply draft some 'instant farmers' we will have failures when we can least afford it and the result of failed farm will be exhausted soils and land too poor to be productive for a long while.

Couldn't agree more.

Other points either agreed with, or not interested in responding, or too ignorant to.


Thanks for your long essay!

How does one make a path to a more sustainable future? What does the current financial crisis do to farmers? You might do well writing a post for The Oil Drum on these subjects. Let me know at GailTverberg at comast dot net if you are interested.

14 out of 15 people would need to die, before the population could have any hope of feeding itself without fossil fuel inputs.

I think thats a bit of an exaggeration. Consider countries like Inda, Pakistan, Bangledesh, which hive higher population densities than the US, and very low FF inputs. We might not be able to support the current pop (certainly not a present levels of consumption). But we could support a lot more than 20million.

I do not agree. Humans have been subsistence farming for thousands of years! Why now is it suddenly so hard? Climate change? Erratic rainfall? I just don't agree.

Lots of people on earth feed themselves with no significant fossil inputs. Fuel for cooking is a much bigger problem in these areas than fuel for other things. Where external food aid is needed, this is almost always a direct result of famine, war or other similar forces, not constraints on carrying capacity.

Clearly the cities get emptied, and there are massive social impediments, so it may be true that it will not happen in the USA ever, but I don't agree that it's physically impossible.

Overall, with commuinity organisation and the retention of modern knowledge, I contend there is enough arable land in the USA to produce a food suprlus. So let's see:

470 million acres / 305 million people = 1.5 acres per head. Looked at another way, we are told that there is nearly 2.3 billion acres, and that 19% is arable. This leads to 437 mln acres, which leads to 1.4 acres per head.

Oh dear.

From we learn that 11 acres of welsh countryside fed a family of 4.5, so that's, er, 2.4 acres per person.

So, well, it seems I was wrong, and that it is indeed "challenging" to feed 305 million people using USA land and subsistence techniques. Quite the revelation really.

From we learn that 11 acres of welsh countryside fed a family of 4.5, so that's, er, 2.4 acres per person.

No, I do not think you are wrong. You are basing your calculation on "primitive" techniques. When I think of farming now, I consider modern ag to be a boondoggle that literally threw energy and resources out the window. Very poor technology, in my opinion, in that it was very poorly applied technology.

The new "old" forms of farming have been the result of research and trial and error, and are quite well thought out/scientific. There is nothing low-brow or random about natural farming, bio-intensive, permaculture, etc. They are the heights of farming technology, not the lowest form.

Here's one example with rice. It is quite old, so is likely not best practices compared to today, but I really can't say. (Often, "natural" or "organic" farming mean no more than not using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. That is not the sort of farming I am talking about.)

The drop in yields when changing to natural farming (God knows what that meant for this survey: no FF? No fertilizers? Don't know.) ranged from 2 - 20%.

Here's another repeating the same yield results. However, the offsets need to also be considered: less yield, but much higher nutrition content, no money spent on fertilizers and pesticides, etc. Nutritionally, we come out ahead by eating healthier food and less of the bad food. It's an excellent piece, actually.

Today's organic farmers, operating for the most part without benefit of public investment in research, routinely achieve 80 to 100 percent of conventional yields in grain and, in drought years, frequently exceed conventional yields. (This is because organic soils better retain moisture.) Assuming no further improvement, could the world - with a population expected to peak at 10 billion - survive on these yields?

I think increased yields in years of shortage are far more important than reduced yields in times of plenty.

This one is more anecdotal than scientific, but brings up a great point: many areas of the world really are doing subsistence agriculture: poor yields on poor lands and using poor practices. In such cases yields will go up, not down, with the net global result almost certainly being a net gain. This is even more true when we consider how natural farming and permaculture can build soils and thus reclaim fallow land.

The above examples of increased production were all attained without a drop in yield, which would be unacceptable in this community where agriculture is the primary source of livelihood. New systems are introduced alongside traditional ones, and are designed to enhance and diversify production rather than
replace it


I don't think there is any way we'll have the political will to unwind the current financial crisis by decreasing debt. This requires the collective education of millions of people (constituants) who have been conditioned to live on debt.

I think a better model would be something along the one proposed in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. Since we see the inevitable catastrophe ahead, let's figure out a way to tunnel through it and make it as painless as possible. Let's do things like provide repositories of seeds/knowledge/tools that are easily accessible when it will be difficult to access the internet or travel.

I'm not an US-Amercian so I will express myself in more general terms. Actually I'm living in the Dominican Republic and I've been living in Cuba, before. I'm used to rolling blackouts and brownies, I know a lot of stories of people growing their pig on their balcony or hunting down the cats in the street to feed themselves. All I can say is that the american way of life - at least it's positive sides - are the most desired in the western world, even in a communist country like Cuba. People won't resign to it voluntarily. Only economic force will do so and it will cause a lot of pain. That Cuba still exist as a communist society is due to its high degree of organisazion. People suffered, but they survived. And they are still suffering. So the best a government can do anticipating catastrophic shortage of nearly everything is providing a high level of organisation locally and on the national level. The problem is to achiev that level within a free and democratic society.

There's a lot of truth here. Also relevant is reading accounts of eg. root causes of strife in central Africa, or life in rural villages of India. One key concept to grasp is that, over generations, land holdings become extremely fragmented without a "primgenitor" law such as prevailed in england. The typical 1/2 acre of farmland in Africa consisted of perhaps 10 separate plots distributed broadly across the village's territory, (divisions for childrens mariage gifts / dowery, debt settlements, rentals, inheritances) and defence of property rights is a huge effort, requiring endless dispute settlement sessions with the village elders, and maintaining of good social relationships with as many as possible. Then there must be universal respect for elders decisions and judgements. Our society is simply not prepared for such a system. Far too much inherint "all I can get", "what's mine is mine, and as much of yours as I can take and keep also" for any such system to be workable.

Present government structures in N America cannot either survive the transition, or provide the service. Anyone who really thinks this is the near-term outcome had best first start working on developing an alternate government structure, because present systems can't do it.

Here is what I posted to on November 22, 2008. Gail and I most certainly agree on many points but her presentation is much more specific and well-written.

For an energy future, look to the past
by Rick Lakin

This is a response to a request for new ideas from the Obama-Biden Transition team at I received a form letter in response to a previous submission. This is my second submission to President-Elect Obama.

In my first submission, I suggested a Domestic Exchange program similar to the Foreign Exchange progam for students. As a teacher in Southern California, I feel that students could learn and share much by travelling to other areas of our country.

The form letter I received asked for my thoughts on Energy and the Environment. Here is my response:

I do not have a great concern about climate change. This issue is neither a great threat in the short or medium term, nor is it solvable by directly addressing it nor is it one that emerging or industrialized countries are willing to sacrifice the resources and capital to solve.

My great concern is the long term policy to address the imminent deficit in the production of fossil fuels. The extreme increase last summer of energy prices was not the direct cause of the current economic situation but it was an underlying factor, it did accelerate the onset, it has exacerbated the recession and it will severely inhibit the recovery when those high prices return at the first hint of renewed economic growth.

We, as a nation, need to decide what the world is going to look like in 25, 50 and 100 years and focus our policies and planning on that. If we settle for the easy politic, chase the status quo and try to maintain our energy-intensive lifestyle without sufficient cheap energy, we will quickly run out of money, resources, patience and fingers to plug the holes in the dike. We must do this by taking the following actions:

1. Shift our focus to a more efficient low speed, low energy fixed route electrified transportation system.

2. Incentivize the urban planning and construction of 4 floor walkup living communities with the first floor providing the retail and businesses and space for the residents on the upper floors. All of these buildings should be built within 2 blocks of mass transportation.

3. Restore, re-educate and repopulate our nation's small farm communities. High-energy industrial farming using fertilizer and fossil fuels will become impossible within 25 years.

4. Our nation needs to convert and shift our massive expenditure of resources, energy and capital from recycle and replace to repair, repaint, restore, refurbish, retain and repurpose. We will have to change from Victoria's Secret to Victoria's Sewing Secrets, from Crate and Barrel to crate and barrel making, from Joe the Plumber to a nation of plumbers, electricians, carpenters, cooks and farmers and finally from plastic to cast iron.

5. Our educational system must shift from producing academic specialists to vocational generalists. Our higher education system is quickly pricing itself out of the middle class market. The jobs that those schools train for are quickly disappearing. We need to restore the intricate vocational skills leveraged by development of high technology but low energy solutions that enhance the use of human and animal labor.

6. Our nation needs to recognize that the no-risk society is unattainable, has infinite costs, expends incredibly large resources and significantly increases system complexities. We need to remove the roadblocks to simplicity and reliability, raise the stakes for untrustworthiness, lack of integrity, and negligence and reward small solutions to big problems over big solutions to small problems.

Our nation and our people are passing into the most dynamic shift in direction since the beginning of the industrial revolution in 1750. We are going from a time of future promise to past wisdom. We are entering a time when we need to relearn old, simple lessons combined with a liberal application of efficient, low energy, low capital and high technology solutions. For the first time in human history, we will have to model the future after the past.

Thanks! Your comment, "For the first time in human history, we will have to model the future after the past" makes me think that one of the things we need is a new kind of history course, looking at things as we did them in the past. You have some good ideas!

We'll have all the liquid fuels we need. Cattails, juniper, sage, whatever.

Poet is NOW Producing Ethanol from Corn Cobs.Ethanol from Corn Cobs.

I have to say that the concept that we have to model the future on the past highlights where this poster is going wrong. It should be a giant flashing warning sign that the understanding it flawed - since the full extent is to look at a rose-tinted view of the past and try to remodel it. Mock Tudor beams on a suburban housing estate - and just as false.

In contrast the reality is we HAVE created all those new developments and we are very unlikely to forget them or give them all up. Some may go, some may mutate, but many will stay. The future will NOT look like the past, it will be its own thing. The developments we keep change the makeup of society and what we do. Automation is not something that will be leaving.

Personally I think we are looking towards a hybrid of localised resilient production and globalised community. While physical goods and people will move less, ideas and information will be even more widespread. I'll leave it to you to understand what currency means in that environment.

Stuck in the middle is the nation state and various united states; which will have to find a purpose if they are to continue in future.

Stuck in the middle is the nation state and various united states; which will have to find a purpose if they are to continue in future.

Not sure I agree with much of the rest, but that last is a good one.

A few comments:

#1) We can't wait until we have "solved" all of our financial problems to start moving forward with these other things. Furthermore, much of what we should do to address our financial problems is directly related to several of your other points. In particular, I believe that a very big part of our problem in the US is due to the fact that we import huge amounts of energy (in the form of oil) and other goods, but do not produce enough for export to pay for it. Instead, we have been paying for it by expanding debt. If we want to fix our financial problems, that means cutting down rather than expanding debt, and this in turn means bring trade into balance.

The only ways that trade can be brought into balance are: a) produce more goods for export; or b) produce more goods for domestic consumption that substitute for imports; or c) a combination of the two. Much of the confusion and obfuscation regarding the state of our economy can be swept aside - THIS is what we really must focus upon.

Unfortunately, our ability to further expand our exports are quite limited. Our best bet is therefore to agressively promote import substitution. How can this be done?

First, since such a large component of our total imports is oil, we can substitute both by: a) increasing our capacity to produce alternative, renewable energy sources in the US; and b) by increasing our energy efficiency. Your #2 - putting a floor on energy prices - is a good first step. I would go further, however, and apply a tax on petroleum and petroleum products that would go into a special fund to help finance renewable energy infrastructure projects and energy efficiency projects, such as electrified rail transport expansion.

Second, as a more general aid to help us return to a more balanced trade position, I would shift much of the federal tax system from income and payroll taxes to a value added tax. A system of differential rates coudl be applied, with those items that are essentials and that are mostly produced domestically, like foodstuffs, being taxed at a lower rate than petroleum or many luxury goods (which are mostly imported). This would place the US on a more equal footing in relation to most of our competitors, and would provide an incentive to consume less stuff in general, and less imported stuff in particular.

One other big thing I would do to wean the US off of the debt culture is to establish a new protocol whereby all new debt incurred by anyone - individuals, corporations, or governments - must be funded by a dedicated revenue source. This would set a reasonably low upper limit to the amount of debt that any person or entity could carry.

#3) I am not keen on employee ownership. For it to work, it must require that most of the employee's capital is tied up in their employer. If the employer goes out of business, not only does the employee lose his job, but also his capital. Too many eggs in one basket, especially for vulnerable members of society.

What I prefer is a strong but limited and localized public sector focused on providing essential public goods, public but non-governmental ownership and operation (i.e., though a cooperative form of public trust) of toll goods (e.g., utilities, transport systems, etc.) and common pool goods (e.g., fisheries, parklands), and a private sector that is dominated by independent, locally owned small businesses and by consumer-owned cooperatives. Such a system, IMHO, would provide the most humane economy for the widest range of people.

#4) An honest assessment would be in the form of a range of scenarios rather than a single number. As we all know, it is a complicated business projecting these things, and the future is contingent upon a multitude of variables.

#5) Yes, we very much need to do a rank-ordering exercise. We probably can't do every thing we would like to do, some hard choices will need to be made.

#6 & 7) It is going to be extremely difficult for anyone at any level of government to open acknowledge that standards of living are going to have to decline for anyone. Perhaps the path of least resistance would simply be to encourage them to start thinking in terms of "shoring up the safety net". Modify existing programs or develop new programs to work with people to assure that no-one in the US starves to death, or dies of dehydration, or freezes to death, or dies of a treatable condition. We may have to leave it to people to adjust themselves to the reality of lower living standards, and just build a minimalist floor below which they cannot fall.

#8) One way to work on this is to impose some sort of fee or deposit on all packaging and all "durable goods". Make it more expensive to throw something away and we'll have less of a throw-away society.

You have lots of worthwhile things to say.

Now that I think about it, employee ownership does have a definite downside. At one point, I worked for a large US insurance company that encouraged employees to buy shares of its stock by subsidizing the price by 15%. The company got into financial difficulty, and the price of the stock dropped from $24 a share to $2 a share. It also started a massive lay-off of employees at the same time. This was not a good combination.

In a professional services firm, buy-in costs are often quite high, and the firm typically asks for more money as it grows (at the time the employee receives his annual bonus). If the firm gets into trouble financially, the employee-owner is often out both the money and his job.

I think your point about needing to produce more goods for domestic consumption to substitute for imports is a good one. I suspect with our financial problems, our imports will drop down greatly of their own accord. In this case, we will need more domestic goods, just to provide for our basic needs.

In particular, I believe that a very big part of our problem in the US is due to the fact that we import huge amounts of energy (in the form of oil) and other goods, but do not produce enough for export to pay for it. Instead, we have been paying for it by expanding debt.

I've been interested in this issue for quite a while, as an outside observer. It appears to me that you've missed three of the main supports of the US currency, and its import economy. That is, 1) US direct and indirect foreign investment 2) US provision of financial services for offshore entities, with acompanying fees retained locally. 3) US capture of international intellectual property rights markets.

Suffice it to say, 2) is in a serious downward trend and may never recover. 1) Still, a very large proportion of the investments traded on major US markets, even in companies nominally based in the US (GE, GM, Ford, Caperpillar, etc etc.) represent overseas assets, I think sufficiently more than overseas investments in those assets to make a large net positive for US economy, and most of the resulting dividend (direct quarterly payments or appreciation) remain in the US supporting the US economy. Add to that US direct ownership of foreign assets (copper mines in Chile, farmland and petroleum plays etc. in Canada, etc.) and the repatriation of profits, and 1) supports a large segment of the US economy at very high levels of income (until recently anyway). 3) I'm not sure of the significance, but do know that (almost) no patent worldwide is worth holding unless it is also patented in the US. And there is a surprisingly large segment of US citizens who earn their living from royalties on patents they've filed and licensed to companies across the world. Add to that the virtual stranglehold of US on entertainment industry (movies except India, music, games except Japan, others) and I think this has and still does go a long way to uncounted offsetting of "direct balance-of-trade" imbalances.

Not sure, I do stand to be corrected.

I'd like to see the numbers on these.

Foreign investments go both ways now. I am wondering how they will change in the years ahead, as foreign trade is reduced, more countries and companies go bankrupt, and air travel is scaled back. In one post, I suggested a possible scenario where local governments "took back" land and businesses supposedly owned by outside companies, as the ability of the parent governments to look after the needs of their citizens started unraveling.

The huge increase in financial services is a bubble that is going to go away. The US and London will both be hurt by the change.

8. Start thinking durable, flexible, and recyclable in everything we build.

Without renewable added here, you would still fail even if all your ideas were implemented. The planet is finite. It's ability to support us is finite.


Ricklakin: To the average western citizen such a program would sound like a declaration of failure. Not good as an inauguration speech. I'm afraid people first need to feel much more pain before they are willing to renounce to growth. Even if they do so they will only renounce temporary, until the crisis is "over". You will need to grow a whole new generation or two who never knew the "old" times personally to get completely over it.

And if so, then we are doomed because that time simply does not exist.


Ccpo: If you define "to be doomed" as renouncing to growth, then yes, we are doomed. What I wanted to say with that we need two generations to get over it is, that we need 2 post doom generations to perceive scarcity as something normal. People have a great ability to adapt to difficult situations but they are less able to really change their mayor goals. You can be "doomed" for 10 years, grow your ond food and ride to work on a bicycle and still dream of a MCmansion and a SUV.

That clarification makes more sense.



We do not build things that are renewable. We produce things out of wood, metal, stone, water, and other inputs. We have to make certain that we do not use wood more rapidly than it grows back, and water more rapidly than it replenishes, so that we do not deforest the countryside or lower the water table, but this is not what people think as renewable.

I don't consider wind turbines renewable, nor do I consider solar PV renewable. These simply extend the amount of energy that can be obtained using fossil fuels, but without fossil fuels, they don't work. My garden would be as close as anything I can think of that would be renewable.

We do not build things that are renewable.

You are right: we don't. But we can. There's no reason for the base structure of buildings to not be renewable. We could even do light without electricity, or just live differently so lights aren't used.

Let me be clear here: you are saying considering renewable is hogwash?


I am still having a hard time understanding what you mean by building renewable things.

There was a post this week-end about Passive Solar Homes. My first thought was, "What happens when someone breaks one of the big windows?" If they are large fancy triple glazed windows that are sealed very tightly, to keep the structure operating as planned, it seems like the home's planned super solar characteristics are lost. If the windows are small single-glazed panes, that can be replaced using glass from a building that is being torn down, then the structure is more sustainable. If putting a board over the broken glass is the only likely solution, the question is how usable is the structure with the board replacing the window.

Renewable is a label attached to a lot of things, but except for growing things, it is hard to see much that is really renewable. A hut made from sod is renewable; a log home is renewable, as long as it doesn't have glass windows.


There's an awful lot if sand in the world. I'm thinking making glass isn't one of our biggest problems. Your point about smaller panes is good, though.

I am not, if you read my comments, a big fan of passivhaus because it is greenwashed BAU. I see it as a necessary evil resulting from all the building stock we already have.

I think one of the problems we are having, and that occurs a lot around here, is our basic assumptions. You seem to be trying to describe what happens if we try to hold on to BAU while slowly greenwashing it. I'm not even considering BAU in any form. I see where we need to get to as sustainable. Period. There is no choice, so discussions that don't have that as a base assumption are largely academic unless focuses specifically on surviving the transition.

So, we seem to be talking about different time frames.


Let me add: by sustainable, I mean just that. We can build without tearing things out of the ground with massive pits and miles long holes. Do we need skyscrapers? No. Now a certain amount of stuff might be needed, thus we must husband. Use steel only where absolutely necessary. Build it to last hundreds of years so future generations don't have to rebuild until far in the future.

Who knows? Hover cars might arrive someday and make roads unnecessary. Don't ask me how you'd make a renewable hove car! So, can everything be sustainable? NO. SO USE THINGS WISELY.

If we can stabilize population and live differently, without stuff for stuff's sake, the stuff we have built can be recycled. How about clothes? Hemp and cotton perhaps over synthetics? Etc., etc. We have to imagine a very different world, but not a poorer one, necessarily.

Here's a paper on repatriation of indigenous people to ancestral lands in Australia. Interesting, and perhaps evidence that we can, indeed, return to the land.


I heard about a church that was losing it's roof, the main beam was sagging, but it was a long-span, and made from a kind of tree that didn't grow nearby. In fact, the only ones nearby were the two, beautiful 'model' trees that adorned the front yard of the chuch. They were mature and quite tall. The realization grew that these trees may well have been planted there for just this purpose.

Came with its own replacement parts! If I ever find that story again, I'd like to see if they've planted a new tree to replace the one they cut down.

We get into all sorts of definition struggles with the word 'Renewable'.. but as far as buildings are concerned, and probably many other 'made' items, I think a renovation is a close approximation to a renewal. Like recycling, you can't expect it to go on forever.. you just want to make the investment last as long as possible. As you said, 'build it to last' ..

Thanks for the article.

Bob -
Is this the story to which you refer?

Dang, Judith.. good find!

Even has the clue to where I got it from. It was told in McDonough's 'From Cradle to Cradle'

Anyway, urban legends are what they are to make their point, eh?

I really am having a hard time with the assertion that wind turbines are dependent on FF. Can you give me one choke point in the manufacture, installation or operation of a wind turbine that absolutely requires FF?

As I understand it, bearings need to be replaced every five years on wind turbines. There is probably other maintenance that needs to be done also, since the turbines are under a lot of stress with all of the movement. Creating the new bearings, transporting them to the wind turbine, and physically getting them up to the wind turbine requires a transportation system that is still operating (roads, trucks, perhaps trains) and a factory to make the bearing. Maintaining the grid also requires fossil fuels.

So, ultimately, what? When the fossil fuels run out, game over? Forget all the talk about ramping up wind, solar, geothermal, you name it?

So, ultimately, what? When the fossil fuels run out, game over? Forget all the talk about ramping up wind, solar, geothermal, you name it?


All of these fuels are just a way to get a little more work out of the oil we have. If we don't have it, we are back to pre-1800 lifestyles.

I think electricity and the oil and gas system will end at approximately the same time--5 years difference, max. The concern is that the failure of the financial system (which could be immanent) could cause major failures of both the oil and gas system and the electrical system. If there is no monetary system to pay workers, how many electrical workers will come to work? How will a Georgia electric utility pay a Wyoming coal mine for its coal, and get it shipped to Georgia? Without electricity, oil doesn't get pumped very far through a pipeline.

Are you claiming that there are no substitutes for FF in a techonological economy? I believe that there are substitutes for all forms of energy that we use as energy and that most are functionally interchangeable.

As an example, our transportation system could be run totally on electricity which can be produced by other than FF (wind, solar, hydro, sea-wave, geo-thermal, bioliquid, etc).

If you are talking about the immediate present, I agree you will be using FF but that can (and will) be changed.

Someone has to keep the transmission lines repaired. It takes fossil fuels to do this.

People have been trying to find a solution to our problem, but so far haven't accomplished much. Have you read Rear Admiral Hyman Rickover's speech from 1957? He was talking back then about the need to tell that generations children about the fact that fossil fuels would run short in the early 21st century, and the need to start planning the transition. So far, not much has happened, except faith that "the market will provide".

you often make this statement:

"Someone has to keep the transmission lines repaired. It takes fossil fuels to do this."

Seriously, how much fossil fuel can it take to service the 250,000 miles of HV transmission lines. As much diesel as the entire US railroad transportation system(1% of oil use)? That's probably a bit high, what about the fuel to move 2,500 trucks over the entire distance every day( 100 miles per vehicle), approx 20,000 gallons per day.

Now why cannot most of those trucks be electric/battery powered?

The big problem for the future electricity grid will be to replace NG peak demand and replacing coal fired base load, but having FF for maintenance is going to fairly trivial. Similarly for transport and maintenance of wind turbines, or nuclear reactors compared with the energy used now to transport coal and NG its only minute compared with the energy produced.

Seriously, how much fossil fuel can it take to service the 250,000 miles of HV transmission lines.

Are you aware that many transmission lines are not accessible by road and must be serviced by helicopters? In my rural area I see them flying out there all the time checking the lines. So, how many electric helicopters are there? Your transportation statistics comparisons are a meaningless comparison. Fuel rarity regardless of percentage used hurts all users.

This part is all so way off it's become funny. Get a grip, people. NOTHING we do today is absolutely dependent on fossil energy resources. For every problem you propose I can offer an affordable solution provided sufficient solar electricity. (One of the better aspects of absence of fossil fuels for helicopters is that will make hydrogen dirigibles economic again. True, many are perhaps too poorly educated to correctly evaluate the relative risks involved with modern-technology lighter-than-air airships, constructed of 95% carbon fiber readily available from a myriad of ethelyne resources including crops if it ever comes to that BTW, supported with the same hydrogen they use as engine fuel. Some researchers are even now fabricating medium-grade carbon fiber directly from coal dust, for which any charcoal source should substitute. However that "many" who may be scared of H2 dirigibles will not include electrical linemen. I know, I worked as an HV lineman in a long-since-past earlier vocation. Those guys are expert at risk analysis.)

Doesn't your solution beg the question of where do we get the hydrogen and at what energy cost? Each “solutions” comes with more proposed “solutions” ad infintum. What is the maneuverability of these dirigibles in even a small amount of wind? If airships were such a viable solution, they would be used now.

Now you guy's are going circular on me. Your whole position is predicated on not being able to maintain the electricity supply, and now you're saying we can't maintain the electric grid simply because we won't have enough electricity do do so? (One way to think about hydrogen is essentially just electrical energy in gaseous form).

What is the maneuverability of these dirigibles in even a small amount of wind?

Maneuverability of dirigibles is purely a function of propulsion power vs. drag co-efficient. Essentially any airship can maintain a stable hover in any wind condition up to near its maximum airspeed, easily do-able today with modern propulsion engines well above 100 mph. (Hindengerg - Performance. Maximum speed: 135 km/h (85 mph))

If airships were such a viable solution, they would be used now.

That's even more circular that above. You claim that since fossil fueled helicopters are NOW more viable than airships, THEREFORE airships will never be viable even when fossil fuels disappear? Define viable ("economical"?) for me.

Besides the helicopters where there are no roads issue, there is the issue of maintaining the roads. This is not at all trivial.

It's a general issue, Gail, not only the roads, but the gear and tackle to raise towers, the pesticides to maintain cleared right of way, the list is endless. Energy and the associated levels of culture, technology and economy are all of one piece. We won't have marketing depts selling Pepsi or dirigibles and helicopters maintaining the grid because as the level of energy declines, culture, technology and economy will all decline with it. The knowledge won't necessarily be lost right away, but soon enough once it is no longer used. Even information requires copy-and-verify to maintain integrity.

At an 8% decline rate for fossil energy, a single generation will see available energy drop to only a 1/4 of what was available at its birth. Mommy and Daddy will remember all sorts of things that would continue to exist only as piles of rust in the front yard. And if large users are kept going, if the last resources are thrown down the drain in an effort to cling by the fingernails, that grid will crash so much sooner.

Down to 25% puts us to the 1950s in the USA, if I recall. It might be possible to adapt much of what we do to that energy regime. We go another doubling past that and we'll be hard pressed to pump oil, build a tanker or manufacture fancy high-efficiency lighting.

cfm in Gray, ME

My mother tells that their household got their first electricity when she was eight years old. That was less than 80 years ago. Once we start losing electricity, things will start changing very rapidly. All of the information on the grid, for example, will be missing.

Including all those health records Obama wants to digitize. Big meltdown coming at University of Maine. "Information" is what we will lose first. The stuff with the lowest entropy - electricity, finance and by extension culture, social capital and technology.

cfm in Gray, ME

Besides the helicopters where there are no roads issue, there is the issue of maintaining the roads. This is not at all trivial.

we need to start now teaching people the skills to produce food locally, with simplified tools and organic farming methods.

I'm not quite sure how this would make any sense on a global scale, the (energy) inefficiencies of scale are massive on just about every level. There's a good reason why throughout history, small scale subsistence farming has failed tragically whenever populations rise above a certain size. And forced population decrease as a solution to that, well...

I think we have to recall Catton's (and Malthus') assertion that the reproductive capacity of any species is greater than the ability of it's environment to provide food for it. ( I might not have phrased that in the most succinct manner) :^)

Small scale farming - when pushed beyond it's limits due to a growing population - was unable to produce enough to feed that growing population. In time, given no decline of fossil fuel availability, even large scale industrial farming would be unable to produce enough food for our growing population. World watch posts figures re food production and if I recall correctly it has plateaued.

Population remains forever the elephant on the sofa



I agree large scale agriculture is very efficient. I don't see a way we can keep it going, and the food distributed, without huge fossil fuel inputs. If we keep going with the current model, it seems we build up to a cliff, and just fall off, when the current model stops working. Somehow, we need to build a sustainable model along side, even if it doesn't work as well in some sense. Otherwise, total production goes to 0 when large scale agriculture is no longer possible.

From what little I know about industrial farming, I think you are wrong. "Efficiency" as you probably use the term means the most production per unit labor or per acre. However, using this metric for efficiency ignores the fact that labor has been replaced with mechanical effort, ie, machines, as well as industrial fertilizer and energy intensive irrigation. Furthermore, farming large areas tends to result in faster soil erosion, so modern farming has been called "mining the top soil". Farmers in future won't be as "efficient" as you describe, since it's likely that much more human labor will be required. There are other ways to produce food, just not the large quantities of cheap commodities such as corn and wheat. There will still be places for small farmers as the fuel for the massive tractors and combines runs out. Surely, total production will not go to zero, it's just that there may not be enough food produced to feed 300 million people in the U.S. plus those who depend on the U.S. for our agricultural exports.

E. Swanson

In 1955, China had a population of 615 million

Since then, fossil fuel use in agriculture has increased a 100 fold in China. I don't know what the use was in 1955, but it appears to have been minimal. The U.S. would probably have to change its diet substantially to move away from meat, but it appears, that with the right practices, especially the use of humanure, that we could support 300 million.

The pre-Columbian population of the Americas is difficult to estimate. Guesses have ranged from 8 million to >100 million. Denevan (1976) published a "consensus figure" of 54 million which I think is too high but will accept here for the sake of argument. Of that 54 million, the Aztec & Inca Empires account for 37 million, leaving only 17 million for the remainder of South America, northern Mexico, the US and Canada. Perhaps the majority of this 17 million - say ~10 million - inhabited what's now the US, especially the eastern woodlands. A native population of 10 million is probably too high for the US but is as good an estimate as any. While some of these 10 million Native Americans were "hunter-gatherers" (I prefer the term gatherer-scavenger), most were sophisticated agriculturalists. The more sophisticated the more apt to overpopulation and societal collapse. This is what happened to the Mayan civilization, the Hohokam, the Chacoan & Mesa Verdean Anasazi. These farming cultures inexorably bred themselves into carrying capacity overshoot by virtue of their very agricultural prowess. Indeed, "sustainable agriculture" is an oxymoron. The only "sustainable" human means of subsistence is the gatherer-scavenger lifestyle, which supports only a very low population density and absolute population size. But no American today possesses the plethora of very sophisticated skills necessary to support themselves as gatherer-scavengers. Even Inuit seal & caribou hunters are dependent today on rifles & snowmobiles. All the mouse jockeys, internet pundits, couch spuds & tube junkies who blithely assume they can support themselves on their fruit trees, backyard gardens & poulty flocks in the post hydrocarbon world should take heed of this lesson from the Americas. Unlike the aforementioned bunch of bozos, pre-Columbian aboriginal Americans actually knew what they were doing, yet could only support a population 3% its current size. The fear exuded by all you pollyannaish technocopian know-it-alls is palpable.

I am a young man but when I was about 11 years of age I read the Foundation trilogy by Isaac Asimov. You are probably familiar with it but if not it tells the story of the fall of a huge empire simply because it grew too large, too specialised and too complex and duly collapsed inwards upon itself. They didn't need to run out of their primary energy source like we are doing.
Those books probably coloured the way i've viewed the world ever since. I have never trusted the growing complexity and lack of redundancy.
However, I've known about peak oil for less than 8 months (when I read the Long Emergency) and to be honest have made few to no proper preparations.
So, I am not a pollyannaish technocopian but I am fearful.


You might want to read The Failure of Networked Systems. It makes some good points about how systems look like they are working, but can suddenly fail.

You have probably read my posts concerning the interconnection between oil supply, growth, debt, the financial system, and electricity. As oil supply slows down, growth slows down, and it is not possible to maintain the level of debt we have now. If this causes the financial system to topple, we could get feedback loops back to both oil supply and electricity supply. It is frightening.

we could get feedback loops back to ... electricity supply.

There, that statement is the entire basis of all doomer's position. Address that one, and all the other stuff becomes easy. THAT's what we need to get our governments doing, ensuring that no matter WHAT happens financially, internationally, etc. etc., the electricity supply remains stable, available, renewable and sufficient to substitute for all other current energy sources.

As stated above, the Chinese may have a few quibbles on your definition of sustainable. They've maintained a high-density civilization in a much smaller resource pool than N. America for many millenia, and no doubt could continue to do so indefinitely for all practical purposes at population levels well above your 10 million estimate. Claiming that native N. American populations were at the maximum sstainable prior to arrival of mid-eastern cereal crops, Asian rice, S. American potatoes, modern domestic animals, modern knowledge of selective breeding and hybridization is very open to contest, to say the least.

But no American today possesses the plethora of very sophisticated skills necessary to support themselves as gatherer-scavengers.

Go ask Airedale - he'll tell ya all aobut how he's a ready.

I think Airdale is more of a farmer.

Many of the replies are well-meaning and well thought out but they seem to miss the main effects of Peak Oil. When we study Global Warming, there is a simple cause, a simple solution, and the effects of doing nothing are simple to understand. Peak Oil is just the opposite. It is like comparing the common cold to the HIV virus. The common cold has a simple cause, a simple cure and the symptoms are easily understood. When the HIV virus invades the body, it does not cause symptoms directly. It reduces the immunity to other more serious symptoms which eventually cause death due to the complications of AIDS. Peak Oil is like that. The symptoms of Peak Oil are high prices and low availability but the effects are much more abstract and difficult to understand. They do not effect every person or country equally. The symptoms may be reflected in failed economic growth, geopolitical effects such as war, isolated failures of industries and governments, breakdowns in transportation and energy infrastructure and finally in a breakdown in the food delivery system and the subsequent beginning of a decline in population.

There is no cure for Peak Oil. There is no cavalry coming round the bend to save us from ourselves. There is no technological breakthrough that will allow us a return to the status quo. There is no silver bullet in the form of some yet-to-be-discovered alternative energy that will allow us to maintain our suburban lifestyle.

The future post-peak will be a difficult one but it will not be unpredictable or unexpected. For the last 150 years, the world has been on a dynamic curve that brought us from a world essentially without non-renewable energy to one that it utterly and mortally dependent on fossil fuels. For the next 100 years we will be on the decline side of that curve.

The bottom of that decline curve is predictable and it is a world that our ancestors have lived in without unlimited non-renewable resources. There will be much technology that will make that world better than the one from the past but there will be many challenges that will make it much more difficult, mainly the challenge of too many people.

We are at a point where we must make a choice. We can expend our valuable resources trying breathe life into a dying patient or we can focus on our long-term survival and adaptation to a future that is very different from the immediate past but very similar to the past in which our ancestors lived. That is the main point in studying Peak Oil.

Now imagine you are Obama and you have to sell this to your voters (and to those who didn't vote for you) without being declared rightout nuts. People want to be told that everything will be fine, they want a redeemer, not a prophet of doom.

Agreed. That is another parallel with the AIDS Crisis of the 1980s. President Reagan never used the term Aids until May, 1987, six years into his presidency and 7 years into the crisis. Peak Oil is our incurable disease for which none dare speak his name.

As a politician you can't - at least you shouldn't - say: "hey, we are srcewed, We had a nice time but now let's go back to the cave." You must keep a highly positive vision of the future and you can only react when a crisis already has formed. Climate change in Germany for example didn't interest conservative politicians because for them it was just speculative doomsaying. The crisis manifestet itself in an different way than expected: With the success of the green party. Once in a sudden everybody turned green because they didn't want to loose any voters. But climate change is much easyer to tackle than peak oil, you can tell your voters about a beautiful peaceful world full of flowers and harmony. Not so easy to do with PO.

The best that could happen to Obama IMO is, that when recession and PO really start to hit the world, to blame Bush for all the bad and to gather people behind himself. Then, and only then he might have a chance to tell them the truth without being tared and feathered.

I didn't saying I was being practical with my suggestions. As a politician, one has to put forward a good story about how things will be better. I would make a lousy politician.

And, if he wants to be remembered as among the most important presidents of all time, he needs to set systems in motion to guarantee sustainability and reliability of a sufficient electricity supply to pick up the petroleum share of energy supply now being dropped. Obviously the first steps should involve great improvements in ELECTRICAL use efficiency (forget fossil efficiency, not worth the investment). Next, a rapid build-out of solar thermal generation in ideal locations, and the required HVDC tansmission to deploy it. Finally, something like an Apollo project to develop super-high-efficiency low-cost solar cells, ideally Optical Rectenna.

Once in a sudden everybody turned green because they didn't want to loose any voters.

The Democratic platform had no pro-labor planks 'till them Communists got traction with labor as an issue.

What'll be fun to watch is the CONSERV(e)atives find the conserve religion and beat Hopie McChange over the head over peak oil/FF conservation.

The bottom of that decline curve is predictable and it is a world that our ancestors have lived in without unlimited non-renewable resources. There will be much technology that will make that world better than the one from the past but there will be many challenges that will make it much more difficult, mainly the challenge of too many people.

But it WON'T be the world our ancestors lived in. It will be a deforested, desertified, polluted, biotically depauperate world that can't support even an ancestral level of population. Whatever the pre-Industrial Revolution carrying capacity (K) was, it is already severely reduced sans fossil fuel inputs and K will be even lower in the future. "Technology that will make the world better" won't matter. Without fossil fuel inputs the biosphere can't support even a Neolithic level of population. Population collapse is inevitable and human extinction a distinct possibility.

Is there any scaleable process to produce fertilizers with, for example, nuclear or solar energy?

No. The Haber-Bosch process requires an enormous amount of methane to produce the 100 million tons of nitrogenous fertilizer currently required in order to feed the world. This amounts to a doubling of fixed nitrogen inputs to the biosphere, over natural (non-anthropogenic) input. This results in the eutrophication of not only bodies of fresh water but even of the ocean over the continental shelves. Such enormous fixed N inputs are clearly unsustainable, even if CH4 wasn't the finite fossil feedstock it is. Likewise, rock phosphate and potash must be mined, processed & transported. Even if fission powerplants sprung up like mushrooms around the world, supplying electricity to power mining equipment currently powered primarily by Diesel, the world would still face the problems of runoff pollution & eutrophication, not to mention peak uranium. Relying on I-NPK agroindustry to feed a population in gross excess of the biosphere's carrying capacity is simply unsustainable, from whichever angle you look at it. Technocopian idealists who expect some powered down version of BAU, or some relatively benign agrarian utopia post peak, are simply deluding themselves.

Sadly you are correct, and 2 billion is the approximate number of excess humans maintained by Haber-Bosch. Dunno how to get out of this one without considerable pain.

not to mention peak uranium.


The hydrogen necessary to produce ammonia that becomes nitrogen fertilizer can be obtained from electrolysis, but not as economically as from natural gas or syngas.

Mineable resources of potassium are estimated to last 400 years. It may also be recovered from sea water, but that would require energy(electricity) to pump water to solar evaporation ponds. Potassium stays in solution after it becomes saturated with sodium and the sodium precipitates out. You have to evaporate a lot of water to get a little potassium.

Mineable phosphorus resources will last 100 years. When it's gone, the earth will no longer support a large population.

We already seem to be past peak with phosphorous production.

Nitrogen fertilizer can be readily produced from any available source of free hydrogen. Our early steps to produce the hydrogen will likely involve a combination of thermal and electrical energy input to the process, with increasing proportions of thermal as our knowledge progresses.

The big problem presently appears to be phosphorous fertilizer. Many soils, eg. clays, already have sufficient available potassium, but phosphorous needs to be supplied almost in every case and current world reserves are only at about 70 years [edit: I'll go with Paul's 100 yrs here, little difference] at present rates of use. We need to implement ways to recover and re-use ALL organic phosphorous now being passed out through our waste disposal streams. The systems need to be well enough developed so they don't carry across any toxins, eg. heavy metals etc.

An interesting aside regarding the problem of using human / sewage sludge waste as fertilizer. This study suggests first feeding all sludge and waste to earthworms in a controlled environment, then using the worm droppings as fertilizer. The system apparently can recover almost all the NPK in the waste stream, and greatly reduces or eliminates salts and heavy metals in the resulting compost. Sounds highly do-able. Koreans already using it, though they've also already taken great strides to reduce as much as possible all use of chemical fertilizers, to the point where according to the article, they can get nearly all the replacement fertilizer required to eliminate chemical fertilizer from just the droppings from the cows maintained in S Korea (presumeably mostly dairy?), an amount of waste only about 1% the mass of their human sewage sludge, so they don't really need the process.

Very encouraging.

This group in Japan has figured out a process to remove heavy metals from sewage sludge. Treatment with phosphoric acid removes the metals except copper, and the acid is entirely recovered in the process. Only problem is copper (industrial waste, not human sewage problem). Treating with peroxide should take out copper metals, but apparently most copper in sludge is in a biological form and doesn't come out.

The worms act as a bio-filter and will accumulate bio-toxins. So one can dry 'em and try to reclaim what they have filtered. Or, use the excess worm biomass to feed critters you don't plan on eating. Copper is a toxin (Lets see Cu vs Fe in a low O2 environment Hrmmmm) so the comment about copper in the waste stream is something to be mindful of.

The Worm Gin is a great idea, but managing the moisture levels strikes me as problematic. And for colder environments, you'd have to heat the bin. Pre-processing the waste with something like a rotating airation composter is a good idea. Worms are not approved by US Gov for fecal matter due to the low heat, even though the data looks like the worms will do fine on processing the material safely.

I'm really pleased to hear of late a number of 20 somethings starting to lay into boomer generation city councilpeople about being ripped off - making a generational argument - and essentially saying "we know where you live". Every time some politician - Obama included - promises more to the boomers and the well-connected, this wakening generation knows perfectly well they are being sacrificed. My guess is a larger proportions of 20 somethings understand K and carrying capacity than we boomers. It's all tied into arguments of scale and distribution; Gail has it in one of her top recommendations today. The Gini Coefficient and so forth.

Here we are trying to figure out how to get this information to the new administration. Our system of government in US is "supposed" to do that already. So why do we need a new work around?

It strikes me as pretty easy to make a clear, political argument for a culture of LESS. It would, of course, be called class warfare. And just as we cannot avoid resource depletion and widening "poverty", we can't avoid the class warfare. It's better to address it now. Physical and social "k" will be higher if we do.

cfm in Gray, ME

One generation blaming the previous generation for their problems is pretty futile. I may as well blame my parent's generation for the petroleum culture or for Hitler. Rather than laying blame, it's more productive to assess the present situation as to what can be done about it and if nothing can be done, to accept that rather than resorting to panicked "fixes" that turn out to be counterproductive. To my mind, large-scale policy initiatives are bound to do more harm than good. People expect Obama to "do something" and so he will, but whatever he does will have no lasting benefit. The simple fact is that fossil fuel exploitation has allowed Homo to inflate its population far in excess of what the world is able to sustainably support. Population reduction WILL be accomplished, one way or another. Any policy that attempts to delay or circumvent significant reduction in human census number will only make the crash come harder.

While I respect Obama and believe that he is intelligent and compassionate, his continued belief in the growth paradigm is inescapable. If he had run on a zero or negative growth platform, we would be sitting here criticizing our new President McCain. Denial is just another way to hasten the arrival of mass dieoff. Obama may even have some inkling of that but dare not speak his name.

There may be a slight workaround to this problem, however, if we became serious about sustainability, a less threatening concept than zero growth. This is the concept that should be applied to any and all investments that he has in mind vis a vis the stimulus package. For every program or project, ask the question, "is this project or program sustainable over the long term", a sustainability impact statement, if you will.

I'm a card carrying doomer too but if the world population was to drop quickly to a billion or 500 million and stabilize, I would say that a generation later the eco system would have recovered to a sustainable level.

The pillaging of the oceans would cease, deforestation curtailed, pollution minimized, flora and fauna would recover and reclaim lost territory.

Things would not be the same as 500 years ago, some species could never recover, transplanted flora and fauna may do more harm than good.

An orderly descent is our only chance. If we go down kicking and screaming, burning, raping, pillaging and warring until there is nothing left then we will have reaped what we had sown.

I don't think there will be any orderly descent. I want to be wrong.

if the world population was to drop quickly to a billion or 500 million and stabilize, I would say that a generation later the eco system would have recovered to a sustainable level.

Might in fact happen quite quickly.

The World Without Us: Suppose Humans Just Vanished--Then What?
In this episode, journalist Alan Weisman, Laureate Associate Professor in Journalism and Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona, discusses his new book "The World Without Us," a massive thought experiment about the aftermath of humanity's sudden disappearance.

Well-stated! I might add that the symptoms of peak oil may not always even be high prices. It may be low oil prices, because of feedback loops. When the economy fails to grow (because of inadequate energy), well meaning individuals try to pump up the economy with a lot of debt. The debt then collapses, and prices of oil and many other goods drop.

"There is no silver bullet in the form of some yet-to-be-discovered alternative energy that will allow us to maintain our suburban lifestyle".

That's because its been discovered; electricity and chemical batteries! Almost all uses of oil(except heavier than air aircraft) can be replaced by electricity/chemical storage.

Remember it's Peak OIL not Peak ENERGY!

I think one of the most important things that must occur before starting any planning scenarios is to acknowledge that the existing consumer/service economy is not sustainable and that a new form of economic activity is needed.

You cannot have over 60% of the economic activity be, in essence, washing each other's laundry. There will be a surplus of non-productive workers. This, in turn, means that people will have to be deployed differently. In my scenario of last year I foresaw people retiring at 30 to rejoin their extended family/affinity units to produce the bulk of their necessities.

There was no government in today's sense and people received a guaranteed allotment of certain goods once a year.


The whole world economy now is powered by the american dream (and fossile energy, of course). A politician who proposes LESS wouldn't get more than 5% of the votes in any country of the planet. The only politician in power with such a discourse in the whole western hemisphere is Fidel Castro (and, now, his brother Raúl) and this only in general, global terms. The cuban population is kept from consumism by force and the embargo of the United States is blamed for it by the government. Otherwise two thirds of the Cubans would jump on the train of capitalism immediately. The only way to tackle PO in a free democracy is to disguise it as climate change. Reducing fossile energy consumption to save the world is noble, while you can live in the illusion of basically keeping your lifestyle. But seeing your lifestyle threatened by the scarcity of fossile fuels only leads to fear and denial.

One clue is to go back and see what societies looked like before the FF age. You would have been hard pressed to find a society that produced enough of an agricultural surplus to support more than about 20-30% of households engaged in non-agricultural work - at most. In many cases it was more like 5-10%, or even less.

To muddy the waters, though, there does not necessarilly need to be a hard dichotomy between agricultural and non-agricultural households. As many of us have been saying here, many households engaged primarilly in non-agricultural production could still produce at least some of their own food. This is feasible in areas where the population density is not too high. The good news to take away here is that the higher percentage of a society that you have that is producing part of their own food, the lower the percentage you need that is producing all of their own food plus a surplus. That in turn means that you can have a higher percentage of society that is engaged in doing things other than just food production. Those "other things" are largely what differentiates a "civilization" from a mere "culture".


You probably won't be accused by many others of being too optimistic, so I'll have to do it :) The physicists, during the early debates involving quantum mechanics, used to say the problem with the theories being proposed was not that they were crazy, but that they weren't crazy enough.

There is no reasonable possibility that the economy can grow its way out of this predicament. Instead, the economy will have to shrink as the debt unwinds and as imports and exports reach a better balance.

This I agree with but I would not put the import/export balance in the middle of it. The key thing is adapting to the necessary shrinkage, and how to shrink. Shrinkage will reduce both imports and exports. I advocate (elsewhere) two economies, one our usual one, the other an alternative economy -- car-less small dense agriculturally-centered towns.

One reason I advocate two economies is that it not only prepares for the future, but it simultaneously gives people a refuge from the ravages in the regular economy, plus a chance to actively take their fates into their own hands. The problem, of course, is that there are fewer profit opportunities in the alternative economy, at least of the size that are meaningful to TPTB.

Another reason is that the transition a sustainable society can thereby, to some extent, be disentangled from the mess that will be existing and decaying current industrial economy. (Trade imbalances being but one part of the mess.)

The lack of reality in your (and my) proposals comes from their incompatibility with the profit motive, or at least its primacy. Rationality will not prevail easily.

I think I have said some of the same kind of things about two economies in some of the comments to other posts. Basically, what I have said is that the unemployment rate as we currently measure it will be going up and up. It seems to me that an alternative economy will develop at the same time. Some of the alternative economy will be things we perceive to be good--growing one's own food, bartering services for food or clothing. Other portions may not be good--young men selling "protection" to families and businesses, as cities provide less law enforcement; people taking down unused buildings for usable parts. I didn't want to take that as a given in this particular post, because I thought there was at least a chance that some of my thoughts might get to TPTB--not that they really could do anything with them.

Other portions may not be good--young men selling "protection" to families and businesses, as cities provide less law enforcement; people taking down unused buildings for usable parts.

It's of course true that there will be many problems even were this path to be followed. In a sense, it doesn't matter -- if it's the only road to survival, then it's the road we have to take. But this one problem has a solution -- these small dense towns will have to organize their own policing. On an another level, there might at some point down the road be much less room for "roving entreprenuers" then there is now, i.e. there might be much less of a ready outer market for the proceeds.

Anyway, good job.

Good stuff Gail, but I think you overlook a couple of points. Part of the reduction in per capita energy since 2000 has been several years since 2003 of unusually clement weather, especially winters.
This article, and your last one on energy as a limit to economic growth don't consider energy efficiency and conservation. The USA is very profligate in energy use. Through sensible conservation we could probably cut energy use per unit of GDP by 10-20% without any life style sacrifice. More is possible with modest sacrifices. On the efficiency front we can cut many energy end uses over a reasonable time horizon (20-30 years) by 50 to 90% through intelligent efficiency initiatives. Automobiles are probably the most obvious. Buildings, both housing and commercial, are also excellent candidates. Industrial consumption is another major candidate. (I have personal experience in both housing and industrial and know whereof I speak).
Europe is already at about 50-60% of USA energy use per unit of GDP, and Switzerland is about 40%. Their transportation infrastructure is obviously a major contributor, but far from the only one, and the quality of life is not less than ours.
I have no doubt that, using the present energy source mix, we could run the US economy on less than 1/2 the present energy consumption, without any uncomfortable sacrifice. Getting there will take time, but will also be economically beneficial, not costly as so many economists posit.
Then there is the switch to renewables. If we switched the 80%+ of our primary energy from fossil fuels to renewable primary electricity, we would replace about 85 quads with about 30 quads. That also will take time but is doable and also economically beneficial.
In sum, by getting a significant part of the growth from energy efficiency and renewables, we can grow the economy for decades without energy as a significant constraint. This switch is fundamental to the economic strategy that Obama should adopt.
Combining conservation, efficiency and renewables, we could run the USA economy on energy per unit of GDP not more than 25% of the energy we now consume, and that should be set as a 30 year goal that would allow and enable continued economic growth as we work our way out of the mess we are in now. Murray

I doubt the USA could lower its energy consumption that far as Switzerland did. Climate is harsher on the american continent and the distances are longer. There's also a lack of infrastructure that would require an enormous up front energy investment berfore you could harvest the benefits.

Over the last 30 years worldwide there has been steady progress in energy efficiency. But it got all offset by the growth of the GDP and world population. Now, that an other 1/3 of the actual world population joined the struggle to industrialize, things didn't become easier. I also doubt that the rate of conservation progress could accelerate much, it seems to be very time intensive.

In my recommendation to model different scenarios going forward, I was intending that Obama look at alternative scenarios regarding efficiency and new infrastructure. We can improve energy efficiency by mandating car pools and taking unneeded SUVs off the street. This approach has virtually no cost, and be guaranteed to increase efficiency. Some other approaches, like building new factories for new cars, and gradually adding a small number of more energy efficient cars to the mix is more iffy. It probably would be more energy efficient just to drive the exiting cars longer, and replace them with energy-efficient cars when they wear out.

Moving people together into fewer housing units could also save a huge amount of energy, as could sealing the homes more tightly and adding insulation.

Because of investment issues, we need to be looking at solutions with low up front costs. It is only if we have sufficient capital that we should look at more capital-intensive solutions.

I like that low end asessment. It is in fact what happens here in the caribbeans, especially in Cuba. They still drive these vintage chevies and big middle class homes got divided into smaller apartments or simply a BIG family moved in and filled the space.

I think that was discussed here before but dividing MCmansions and concentrating more people in less widely spred suburbs would also be a low cost solution in the USA, especially if you start constructing light railways.

Gail, you touch on a couple of valid points, but your comments suggest a near total lack of knowledge/understanding in the field of energy efficiency. I agree with the prior reply that progress in increasing efficiency has been made in the last 2 or so decades, but that progress only scratches the surface.
From 1994 through 2009 I led a corporate effort on efficiency imptovement in a $5b/yr, 35,000 employee multi-site multinational corporation. We reduced Ein per unit of good product out by 30% with the average economic payback of all projects under 2 years, and no project over 3 years. Given the almost certain success of projects we finally convinced the CFO to approve projects with 5 year paybacks. Traditionally in the Microelectronics field, projected paybacks are not realized, so a 2 year or less projected payback is strongly favored when approving investmant projects, as an offset for risk. When I retired we had identified projects to get past the 50% reduction point, and had concluded that a greenfield plant could be built to use less than 1/4th the Ein per unit out of our best 1996 plant performance.
I have seen one example where relayout of process piping reduced energy needed for a major process by 93%, while reducing construction cost. That is an unusual example, but 50 to 75% is not at all unusual.
Similarly I built a house that used <30% of the annual energy of similarly sized and sited neighborhood homes and the interest on the extra construction cost was less than the energy cost saving. Years ago I reduced energy consumption in a then fairly new Long Island home by about 25% with an 18 month payback.
I have seen many factories that are incredibly inefficient in their use of energy, and management simply has no idea.
the numbers I used in my initial input above are intentionally conservative, and achievable. Murray

I think the issue is how much time and capital we have. If we have time and capital, I would agree that energy efficiency is the way to go.

Read 1994 to 2000.

The President-elect’s plan

also .. is this where ideas could be sent ?

Thanks for the link. It sounds like President Obama will fix all our problems-not to worry.

Other than blog type comments, I am having a hard time seeing where any one can submit anything of substance.

Hi Gail,

Excellent set of suggestions. Your points 4 and 5 (assessment and analysis) begs for the building of a computer model. Perhaps government investment in such a model would be a great use of the “stimulus” money. As a retired software developer, I can assure you that there are lots of unemployed software engineers in this country that would love to work on that project.

The model would have to be huge undertaking to build something like the short and long range weather prediction models that have been created in universities – hopefully with less public scorn! But, the benefits of the “Gail” model could be tremendously useful. Actually, without such a model, I doubt that any useful public policies can be devised. The basic idea would be to enable a rational analysis of the scenarios you suggest need to be evaluated. And, like any complex model, feedback experience can be used to constantly improve the model.

I suspect that without such an undertaking, the variables are just too numerous and complicated for any kind of effective policy development. Misguided ideology, greed, corruption, etc. are more likely to rule the day without some really good information (even then, this may only be a fond hope).

You are right. I am basically thinking that we need to build a computer model. If it gives work to unemployed software developers, that would be all to the good.

I know when I first started writing about the peak oil issue, one thing that frustrated me was the fact that no one had sat down and tried to work out any numbers on what solutions would at least theoretically work. We don't have enough resources to make false starts in several directions simultaneously, so it seems like we need to understand our current predicament before we strike out trying to solve it. I am sure a model would still miss things, but it would seem to rule out the more ridiculous solutions.

no one had sat down and tried to work out any numbers on what solutions would at least theoretically work. We don't have enough resources to make false starts in several directions simultaneously,

John Howe has done that in his little book. Roughly he figured on a society using 1/8 the fossil energy and dedicating itself to a crash course building wind and solar. To which I'd add rebuilding the environment - everything from soil to health care.

Jumping to the right paradigm sooner rather than later means not wasting enormous amounts of never to be renewed resources - and not having to rebuild stuff many times over. Dream on.

cfm in Gray, ME

Unless the government does its own analysis, it is difficult to get the government to believe it.

To be honest, I think we are far past waiting for or expecting "the government" to do anything. It is virtually impossible for the government, with its vested interests and obligations to them, to see with any clarity at all.

There will come a point when the people will simply act and tell the gov't to kiss their sustainable arses. It will require entire communities standing together and choosing to put resources into creating their sustainable environment. Civil disobedience will become the norm until a new paradigm becomes the norm.

If this does not happen, collapse will come.

This is as inevitable as my pushing "Save" to send this post.


But, the benefits of the “Gail” model could be tremendously useful.

Actually, this is the "ccpo's wife's model." We developed the idea a year ago. The software essentially already exists. There would be a lot of work integrating some different existing packages. As a software engineer you'd know better than I whether it would be better to start from scratch, but there is a software package that already models complex scenarios.

E-mail me (see my profile) and I'll forward some e-mails that have been shared with a couple others already.


There seems to be an unquestioned assumption that all this debt is a bad thing especially the government's share of debt. Where is the historical evidence that large levels of government debt has brought down any society? The large debts of WWII and the Cold War that accumulated in the United States were a part of the rise of the largest middle class ever. It was unfair trade policies and union busting which has worn down the American middle class not the national debt. The principal of government and business debts will never be paid off because the banks don't want them paid off. They make their money from interest collected not from interest paid to depositors. The principal is simply rolled over year after year as long as the interest keeps coming in. Making those interest payments can be easily made if we return to the higher levels of taxation of the rich which existed during the rise of the middle class in the 1950s and 60s.
The idea that maintaining wind turbines requires fossil fuels is absurd. Fuel for the equipment involved as well as lubricants can be made from biological sources. Just because FF are used now does not mean substitutes could not be available in more than enough quantities in the near future.
Agriculture is the industry most able to make its own fuel via biodiesel or FT using silage, straw, and even manure. Electric farm equipment can be charged using PV on buildings of wind turbines or a combination of both. Food distribution networks could use electrified rail to a larger extent if new rails were laid on long abandoned right of ways. There was a time when every co-op grain elevator in the country had its own rail siding. Every small town also had a depot next door to the elevator.
What Americans need to do is redefine the meaning of the American Dream. My definition is not that of Dick Cheney. My definition includes the end of fossil fuel use as quickly as possible. A combination of high oil import tariffs and end fuel rationing would go long way toward achieveing that dream.

Since I started to read Denninger I really doubt that you can redefine the meaning of the American Dream by stacking up the debt. In fact, what will happen if you do so is injecting resources and hope into the current dream until it turns into a nightmare.

I sound very pessimistic but my point is, that none of the developed countries will change their course until they are brutally forced to do so by an "unforseeably" unfolding reality. The problem is that politicians can't bet virtually their country on a future event. They are doomed to react. They are tied to the expectations the system is creating by the way they obtain and exercise their power in a modern democratic society.

I'm sorry if this is too off topic because the points Gail made in this thread are worth to be discussed regardless if they can be realized by politics or not.

After studying Norway I think you might find your way to a change of heart there. I see several above are proposing Cuba as a model. I hope not. Norway I think has the answers to the question "how should a democracy operate"? Perhaps it's the small size of the population. I'm sure someone here will claim it's the oil wealth but I differ. They've taken great pains to isolate the oil windfall from their economy which is one of the reasons I claim them a successful democracy. The biggest difference from all others appears to be a trustworthy government and a population which trusts its government.

There was a time when every co-op grain elevator in the country had its own rail siding.

In high school I drove a grain truck from the combine to the elevator in Eastern Oregon, and indeed the elevator, located in a small town of about 200, was served by a rail line. The small town and the elevator are still there, but the rails are long gone. The old rail right of way is still visible in Google Map's satellite images of the area.

I would rather see government money spent on restoring the rails to lines like these than poured into the black hole of TARP and all of the other financial bailouts.


Debt is very different in a declining economy than in a rising economy, or even a level economy (back 2000 years ago). Paying back the debt with interest is a real problem. We have never had a declining economy in the past, so I don't think we can use the past as a source of guidance for the future.

"Paying back the debt with interest is a real problem. "

Surely its being paid back to others members of society (someone?). They pay taxes and the money re-circulates.
If we move to a low interest rate of say 1% for mortgages, then servicing the interest will be a minor part of the 30 year payback

Gail, I want to kiss you, lol. That's a very well structured set of policies, and very close to being practical. In a relatively few points you have got most of the critical things. I doubt they will get done but I would be really happy if Obama co-opts you to shape polcies in some way.

The only minor carp I have is I think some kind of revoluton in land use will likely need to happen if life as we know it might continue. An interesting embryonic might be this UK one:

I'd highlight two of your points in particular: 5 & 7. 5 focuses the political mind somewhat, 7 could possibly save our bacon if things go bad (I spend most of my time doing 7).

As an aside, I noticed you arrive at TOD, cautiously and a little uncertainly, a bit over 2 years back. You've become very good now, a master, well done. Just looked through your 2008 predictions again and they are the best / most accurate of any I've seen, including mine, congrats.

Hope you keep up the good work and hope you are listened to by those who hold the reins.

Thanks for your kind comments. I have only been on The Oil Drum staff for since June 2007, but it seems longer. (I wrote a couple of guest posts before that.)

Good luck on your work with 7. My success in that area hasn't been as good. Too much hard labor, especially when the weather is less than idea. Also, our soil is less than ideal (clay).

I sent this to back in November, but got no reply:

Some Peak-Oil Related Federal Policy Issues

Cheap oil is not coming back to stay: Economic growth has been fueled, literally, by cheap energy. It requires energy supplied at an ever-increasing rate. But fossil fuels are a finite non-renewable resource, and the rate at which we can exploit them must peak and decline – long before they run out. In the last 4 years the rate of global oil extraction has stagnated, despite record high prices and enormous investments. US oil production peaked in 1970 and has declined by a half since, and the same thing inevitably will happen globally. Despite the recent drop in the price of oil, the fundamental situation we are in has remained the same. As soon as the economy attempts a recovery, even if only in China, we will see triple-digit oil prices again.

More drilling is not the solution: Even the most optimistic projections of the oil left to be extracted in the US and its coastal waters will not materially change the gap between global supply and demand. Every 18 months the world needs the equivalent of the whole production of Saudi Arabia in new production just to make up for the decline in the output of existing wells. This is not a race that can be won.

Natural gas is not the solution: The future of Natural Gas (NG) supply in North America is bleak, despite the recent blip of supply from unconventional gas. The very high cost of production, coupled with the credit crunch, is already causing a slowdown in drilling. Meanwhile demand is growing, as gas is more popular for electricity generation than coal (for good reasons), and is even being diverted for use as a transportation fuel. The price of NG is very sensitive to the supply-demand balance, and will probably seek parity with the price of petroleum (2x current NG price), or worse, balance with the very tight world market of liquefied natural gas (3x current NG price).

Coal, shale and tar are not the solution: Producing unconventional oil from these sources requires huge amounts of energy and water, and the resultant pollutants and greenhouse gasses are deadly to the planet and our future. This is a path we cannot take if we want our grandchildren to survive.

Biofuels should not be subsidized: In order to produce biofuels one must invest a large amount of energy (in the forms of fertilizers, use of farm machinery, trucking, distilling, etc). Whether the production of biofuels is, at best, a modest net energy gain, or actually a net loss, is an unresolved controversy. Also questionable is the net GHG emissions from the production and use of biofuels, including nitrogen compounds from fertilizers, and the destruction of tropical forests to be replaced with palm oil plantations (the main actual source of biodiesel). Given all that, and the adverse impact on the price of food, I oppose any public subsidies to biofuels. If they are indeed as beneficial as claimed, they can compete on the free market.

Sometimes the government should just get out of the way: Many federal (and state and local) regulations are blocking local initiatives that would ameliorate the energy crunch. For example, adding electric generation equipment to existing small dams would be enormously helpful in parts of the country (New England) but is not feasible since the permitting procedures are too expensive relative to the project sizes.

Infrastructure Investments: Although deficit spending on public works is, in my view, a better reaction to the slumping economy than “the bailout”, the choice of what infrastructure to invest in is critical. Building new highways would be the worst choice, a tragic waste of the resources we no longer have. Instead, we need to tackle the huge backlog of deferred maintenance on existing infrastructure, including bridges, sewers, and the electricity grid. And we need to rebuild and electrify the railroads, since rail is about eight times more energy efficient than trucks in moving long-haul freight, and electric rail is twenty times more efficient than trucks.

Raise the gasoline tax: We will not be able to maintain the existing roads with the current fixed-cents-per-gallon gasoline tax. The cost of such maintenance rises with the price of oil. The tax needs to be similarly linked, and the simplest way is to make it a percentage of the price of gasoline, like a sales tax. Talk about how the gasoline tax will not do the job in the future because many cars will run on electricity is premature – should we be so lucky! We will mostly drive our current cars for a long while yet, by economic necessity. The idea of charging a tax by the mile rather than by the gallon is a very bad idea, since it discourages conservation – and introduces a whole new layer of Big Brother surveillance. Fuel taxes automatically reward people who cut out unnecessary trips, car pool, or switch to fuel-efficient vehicles – all without any new administrative costs. Moreover, raising the gasoline tax fits right in with the “carbon tax” approach to fight climate change. People will complain, but what use is cheap gas if the roads crumble?

Bailing out the auto industries: We should recognize that fewer new cars will be needed. Rather than propping up the unsustainable, wasting taxpayers’ money, should condition government assistance to the auto companies on a conversion of a major portion of the industry to the manufacture of busses, rail cars, and perhaps wind turbines and thermal solar devices.

Need to de-link Health Care from employment: With rising unemployment and underemployment, and with businesses struggling to continue offering health insurance to their employees, it is more urgent than ever to get away from the current model of health insurance via employment. There is no reason for that arrangement, other than a historical accident, and it destroys the souls of those who cling to bad jobs just because of the fear of losing health insurance. Every other industrialized nation has universal health care, and even General Motors now realizes that our current system is unsustainable.

Future of the financial services industry: It too will contract, because Peak Oil means the end of “economic growth” and thus the viability of much lending. For that reason, there is no basis for the promise that taxpayers’ money spent on financial assets will be returned once “growth” restores the industry. Instead, we need to recognize that the growth-based monetary system has run its course. The creation of money via interest-bearing debt is unsustainable. The end of cheap energy will force us to re-organize the economy so it can function without growth. This does not mean poverty and stagnation, but it does mean an end to the fractional reserve banking system, and to unfettered concentration of wealth. I recommend the writings of Herman Daly (an economist who worked for the World Bank) on the steady-state economy, he explains it well.

Nice letter, but I suspect it didn't get much readership.

Hi VTPeakNik,

Have you been stealing my speeches? The only part you left out was my usual rant about population growth and the need for the government to fund an aggressive promotion of family planning education.

But, it seems that you have gotten the same reply :-)

I keep writing to my elected representatives and showing up at their so called "listening sessions" to deliver much the same message. To date, I've not received a single rational response (or any reponse other than silly form letters).

On one hand, I have a great granddaughter who will arrive at adulthood into this mess we are creating and I feel an obligation to help prevent the worse scenarios (my Irish mother was successful in activating my quilt mechanism). On the other hand, the futility of it all suggests that I could use my time more productivily researching all those great rual roads waiting for extended bicycle tours.

Your letter was very well researched and written - I suspect this took more than 10 minutes to craft. Are we the ones who have the delusion thinking anyone will listen? Do we just sound like the Christian fundamentalist who expect the rapture any minute now (I've actually been told that PO and GW are irrelavant because of this). Personally, I believe that the only people that will be saved are those that can ride a bicycle at least 50 miles in one day to get to the promised land (or whatever it is). Those of us that can ride even further will get better housing, more vigins, and be able to choose which relatives to spend eternity with. Sorry, I did digress from PO.

Those of us that can ride even further will get better housing, more vigins,

I hate to be the one to break this to you Dave, but haven't you heard?

Due to the recent high level of martyrs in the ME, we are approaching Peak Virgins.

my Irish mother was successful in activating my quilt mechanism

I take this to mean that when the cold winds start a'blowin, you've got yourself covered?

I really need to "Preview" before hitting "Save" - but, both guilt and quilt appear to to be relevant for TOD. Maybe a quilt is a better mechanism to being thinking about :-)

Excellent closer. Leave em laughing!

We are now so short of fossil fuels we are having to demand a floor price to support the price of fossil fuels...boy that will be an interesting sell...:-)


"4. Make an honest assessment of what energy availability is likely to be in 10, 20, 30, 50, and 100 years, at selected price levels."

If I could make an assessment of energy availability in 10, 20, 30, 50, or 100 weeks, never mind years, I would be rich.


" If resettlement is necessary, what kind of new housing can we truly afford in various parts of the country?"

Oh goody, another housing boom! :-)


"The only logical thing to do is to start getting rid of the debt and start winding down the financial institutions that need debt-based products to survive."

That can be done by bankruptcy and by shutting the hedge funds, which no one even knew existed a few years ago....


"7. If there is any significant chance that a significant downgrade in lifestyles is needed within 20 years, start teaching the skills now to deal with those downgrades."

If there is any significant chance of a significant upgrade in lifestyles, technology and energy efficiency within the next 20 years, should we teach the skills to deal with those as well?


Two ideas: Re-instate Glass Stegall, and CARBON TAX, constantly excalating over the upcoming years, and let the technicians do the rest. That should about do it.

Can we feed 300 million people without liquid fuels?? Just look at your fellow americans--we now overfeed 300 million by a large margin. By changing diets and reducing daily caloric intake to more healthy levels, we would only need to produce about half as much food as we do now--a much easier task with a healthier population

So what happens to all of the people who are employed by that huge food industry? Not a trivial source of employment.

"Dear Mr. President, What's your Hubbert-time zone?"

Take a quick look at areas of the World where there are not energy resources available to support the massive population. Millions of people die from starvation because they cannot get enough food. The future of energy is going to limit human population growth.
In the future life expectancy in years will drop back to 50.
In areas of abundant resources, people will live better and longer.
There will still be transportation, but slower, think sail boats, horses, and bikes.
We will live without large energy consuming devices. Large energy devices are heaters, stoves, cars, farm equipment, military equipment. We spent $500 billion on military last year alone. Most countries will be forced to go back to 1 gun per man planes, tanks, etc.

Unless......We tap into the core of the earth and use the heat in the earth to make electricity.
Until that happens, we will have lots of adjustments to make in our daily lives.
In the US Southeast of the 1800s most people lived as farmers, with very little. No cars, no electricity, no appliances. My grandparents had a wood stove, and wood fireplaces. No fast food, no frozen food, no telephones, no TV. They had land to grow lots of food, animals to produce, and traded for what they could not make or grow. The difference then was people had skills, more land, and less convenience. Everything was local to the area. They did get one orange per year from Florida at Christmas. They survived and were happy, but a much different life than we live today.

Unless......We tap into the core of the earth and use the heat in the earth to make electricity.

Yes, a fine plan. Look at how well Mars is doing with its solid core.