Profiting from Scarcity

This is a guest post by Philip Henshaw, known on The Oil Drum as pfhenshaw. Phil has a BS in physics and an MFA in architecture. He has been studying the physics of how natural systems change form for 40 years, first interested in the subject by college physics experiments in how all experiments misbehave. Phil's website is

Economic theory is based on the observed regularities of the past. Some are considered as general principles, or “natural laws” that are expected to never change. From a systems view, though, such laws are emergent properties of the complex system they are regularities of, and prone to change as the system changes form.

Growth systems, for example, invariably change form when they climax, but the present laws of economics describe a complex system that has perpetual growth that never changes form. The question is partly how to tell when such changes might be appearing. Complex systems may vary a great deal without indicating a change in the form of the whole system. What would raise the question is finding events of kinds that are not supposed to occur at all. Present evidence points to depletion of necessary resources as the possible cause of the combined food and fuel price spiral of the past decade.

An example of one such economic law is that scarcities are temporary. In theory, self-interest drives people to either find substitutes, added supplies, or to reduce demand as prices rise, and in those ways scarcity is expected to resolve smoothly.

When none of those three things occurs, though, the economy experiences a continuing price spiral with no substitutes or added supplies being found for an extended period. It’s a primary indication that the physical system is at a point of inelasticity, and changing design in some way. Then the old “laws” become misinformation about regularities that no longer exist. This is a brief research note on one example, to raise questions.

The economies that are unable to relieve scarcities for their own needs violate their own equilibrium. They create panics as markets display a “law of limitless price” for resources in inadequate supply for which there is rigid demand, instead of the traditional “law of supply and demand”. If scarcity develops locally, but substitutes from elsewhere can be found to relieve them, such “price shocks” are natural events that the system as a whole recovers from.

Scarcity is never supposed to happen for an extended period for the whole economic system at once, though. It would imply that the value of investing in finding alternates or increasing supplies has declined to zero, no matter the price. That would violate one of the primary laws of economics, the expectation that increasing investment produces increasing returns.

In micro-economics, and in development generally, it is universally understood that any process of increasing self-investment has increasing returns only to a limit. Past that limit, additional investment produces diminishing returns. Some believe the principle of diminishing returns does not apply to macro-economics, though. The world economy as a whole has never before had slowing growth for an extended period in modern history, leaving the theoretical limitless potential of human invention untested.

Evidence that the economic system as a whole has ended its long period of continual growth, and has instead begun to climax, just as natural systems always do, would have especially far reaching implications for what can be planned on. It relates to what Keynes1 and Boulding2 referred to as the “widows cruse” (from the Biblical story, I Kings 17:8–16, of Elijah and the inexhaustible cup, or ‘cruse’ which he gave a hospitable old woman) representing the sustainable path for economies at climax as they experience diminishing returns on investment.

Figure 1- Created by Author

What would push a whole self-investment system beyond its point of diminishing returns, broadly, is additions to its energy overhead costs and/or energy resource depletion, resulting in declining whole system EROI3, 5 and declining physical profitability. As depicted in the Figure 1, a sustainable state is accompanied by a steady level of investment (solid lines).

During the development period, increasing investment results in increasing returns until it begins to have the reverse effect. If continued (dotted lines), returns decline toward a point of vanishing returns as physical income is no longer greater than costs. Where overhead liabilities build up and returns on investment decline, a point is reached where it is “no longer worth it” to operate a system. A time is reached to “call it quits” for all kinds of large and small business plans.

In general, the limit is real but beyond available information to define, and often unexpectedly discovered, as in bankruptcies. When a whole economic system displays diminishing returns, it prompts the analyst to look for possible thresholds of vanishing returns that would predict collapse. That such reversal and failure points are theoretically sure to exist for any process of development using physical resources, makes looking for such limits a good question to ask in response to evidence of unexpected inelasticity.

Natural diminishing returns is what happens when a person is shining his shoes or combing his hair, and the first strokes accomplish a lot and then later ones accomplish very little. Every resource, whether obtaining supplies of a physical material, or improving a technology for using them, displays its limit by the decreasing productivity of increasing physical investment.

The investment response to any diminished resource is often to substitute new techniques to maintain productivity. That means that diminishing returns may also be expressed as increasing complications in finding substitutes, emerging conflicts of interest or unresponsiveness for related resources in making those substitutions.

An example is the broad present experience in professional “sustainable design” and in “sustainable development”. Designers now find a very large increase in the complexity of coordinating many different designs and systems at once is needed for success. These are all features of the broad meaning of the 2nd law of thermodynamics and how it applies to the “cost of energy” for any physical process of “making things happen”, and as what the subject of thermodynamics(a) generally refers to.

One of the most curious things about the debate over the natural limits to growth, though, is the general lack of professional study of signs of significant change in the nature of economies, partly due to a belief that economic laws don’t change. The point when diminishing returns for added investment is reached is actually the end of the compound growth period. For us, a 30 year overshoot of speculative financial expansion, apparently absence real investment potentials to satisfy investors, may have disguised our passing the real point of physical diminishing returns on investment long ago.

Watching for such turning points should be our natural means of ‘steering’ our own theories. It should be our main way to discover the natural limits of our own models, not just for one point of view on the debates over planning and policy, but for all points of view. Not watching closely to see when nature is upsetting our theories implies we are treating our theories as being our reality, giving us no perspective for questioning them.

It should be possible, then, to consider our theories as only a form of information to help us understand where nature is taking us. Discovering behaviors in the economy that violate the long trusted laws of economics would then test its assumptions. With the right information, people are very responsive to ending increased effort when they experience diminishing results, and promptly adjust their efforts for all kinds of things.

What’s first needed is a means of noticing things not following the old rules. The problem seems to occur when we have little experience except for knowing the rules to follow. We can then get the wrong signal, as when following old rules in an environment where the rules have changed.

For example, if one only looks at the profits involved, having prices rising faster than costs might signal increasing investment opportunity. If the reason for rising prices is fundamental scarcity due to over-investment in the physical resource, then accelerating that fundamental scarcity by increasing investment is quite counterproductive, even if locally profitable.

The problem being hinted at here is that relying on profiting from scarcity to be a growth industry and to pay for increasing overhead costs for other things, is a strategy that may abruptly collapse. It would be unfortunate to be banking on short-lived strategies to finance things like converting the world economy to sustainable technologies and avert climate change, for example.

If our larger economic problem is profiting in the false profit of making things scarce, we’re talking about a physical development trap potentially more threatening than peak oil, climate change, and the financial breakdown combined. The projected profits needed to invest in mankind's needs may simply not materialize at all. Development of all kinds alters its environment and creates conditions that upset the apparent “rules of the past” giving false guidance unless a person is watching for the signs of reversing directions of the environments own responses to us.

One of the hidden but most important of all principles of natural systems is that every physical system that begins with growth, alters its environment in a way that brings an end to its own growth. When that approaches, it is not the past regularities of the system or the equations one had developed trust in that are important, but the limits of the physical system and what new regularities may develop.

One of the recent economic behaviors an economy is never supposed to exhibit is the way the prices of food and fuel (our primary necessities of life) began a rapid exponential divergence from their prior stable level for the 6 years from 2002 to 2008. They increased at ~25%/yr, until the world economy collapsed. They seemed to be following some altogether new “law of unlimited price” instead of the usual “law of supply and demand”. That’s not supposed to happen.

When demand exceeds supply, the increase in price is supposed to stimulate increasing supply and lower the price again. The opposite is what actually occurred, investment increasing and prices rising faster. That produced a progression of successively more radical changes in global price relationships.

Continually increasing prices like these would naturally be expected to upset financial expectations and add to what caused the financial collapse. Clearly such a price spiral also is a sign of profound inelasticity in the global economic system as well.

Figure 2

The exponential shape of the curve strongly suggests there was an emergent system of multiplying feedbacks operating, of some sort, that a person would need to discover to know what was really happening. What is clear is that the limit of the system driving the run-away price spiral was the global collapse. The list of linked physical/economic causes for it would surely be long, but the problem is how to characterize them simply enough to make them comprehendible.

If this is a sign of fundamental diminishing returns on investing in the earth, what you would expect to be the cause are that food and fuel demand are both increasing and now competing for the same resources for the first time, while those resources themselves are being degraded making the investments in them more costly. At the same time the total overhead cost for operating society, which I call SROI4 , has also been systematically increasing.

My speculation is that the curves of increasing societal cost and decreasing resource productivity5, or EROI, might have crossed, making the net productivity of the system as a whole fall below its sustainability threshold. The emergence of a strain like that, on resources for which there is inelastic demand, would be a natural ‘snag’ in adjusting supply and demand, and seem quite adequate to explain the end of speculative increases in real estate prices, and become the direct cause triggering the collapse of finance rather than just a contributing cause.

Surely there were a great many things going on at the same time. That’s one of the mysteries of nature’s complexly well-organized systems. Systems that act as a whole are made of disconnected parts that work together as if they had ‘ESP’.

One of the particular financial mechanisms that might have played a role is speculation. Speculative investment funds moved out of real estate to look for something else with a natural mechanism to keep pumping up the returns, in this case apparent physical scarcity relative to whole system necessities.

A movement from real estate to commodity speculation probably did create a surge of speculative demand and an additional restraint on supply. The combination of the additional speculative demand for raw commodities was an additional restraint on supply adding to the other strains that made the unresponsive markets vulnerable to speculation in the first place. The flight of speculation from real-estate would have also have further weakened the prices for real estate.

The tragedy of the commons is just that. Our rules don’t tell us where the breaking points of our rules are, and even well lubricated markets have breaking points, and can give people faithfully following the old rules that have ceased to apply the entirely wrong signal.
It is fairly clear that our centuries of economic growth are now also upsetting a great variety of other environmental systems, and we don’t quite understand how or what to expect. The ancient rule “nature always recovers” is now not holding up for us in a great many ways and in a great many places.

It seems to me that the time has come for us to reexamine the rules which we assume underlie our economic system. Physical resources seem to have reached limits, driving up their physical cost for a system built for readily available and inexpensive resources. If we don’t start noticing now, when will we?


a As a note for generality, thermodynamics was originally defined only in terms of the energy equations of controlled machines as a way to describe the limits of their being controlled. For systems for which there may be no equations, but still use energy and need to satisfy the same kinds of limits, the broadest way to look at the same subject is in terms of the natural limits to their learning curves. You may not know why, but if as you buff your shoes the shine is not getting any brighter, that asymptote to the improvement indicates the thermodynamic limit of the “elbow grease” being applied. If the learning curve levels off too soon, it might save you a lot of effort or signal you to switch techniques more quickly. The stages of any learning curve, once it starts, is first experiencing increasing returns for the effort and then decreasing returns.

In general there are signs of that point of reversal (the neutral point on the curve) and the point of refusal near the end, long before they arrive. The following general diagram of the start-up and shut-down phases of any learning process shows how changes of direction tend to have leading signs of leading signs.

Diagram created by author; accepted for publication in the Encyclopedia for the Earth

1 J.M. Keynes. Treaties on Money and The General Theory – Chapter 16

2Kenneth Boulding. A Reconstruction of Economics – Chapter 17

3Energy Returned On Energy Invested, EROEI for energy is the ratio of physical returns to the physical costs to obtain resources, called ROI in general. The ROI ratio increases as resources are discovered and declines as they are depleted. It needs to be high for resource extraction in order to absorb societal overhead costs of resource use. That TROI (total ROI) needs to remain marginally greater than one for the sustainability of the whole system.

4P.F. Henshaw. 2009. “Simple System EROI”. Research note

5Charles Hall et all. 2009. “What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have?” Energies

Thanks for your insights!

It seems to me that the critical element in macroeconomics is that we are dealing with a finite system, rather than an infinite system. Thus, one has to expect that limits will be reached.

I think economists always have assumed the system is so large, that these limits were not material, but experience is proving that this is not the case.

A very good thought motivating report. My simplistic view: it's a system (be it finite or not) composed of finite systems. The obvious example for me is O&G exploration. When I started in 1975 there was a big new play starting: the Deep Tuscaloosa in La. Even the concept that such a play could exist where it did was ground breaking. At that time there were still a lot of places to drill along the Texas coast but these opportunities were just the residual of the plays discovered in the 30's and 40's. Those plays have now withered to very little residual potential as has the Tusc. This was no surprise to the industry: it very easy to see the limits of each play even in its initial development. There are always obvious physical limits to every geologic province. Today the Deep Water plays of Brazil and the GOM are hot commodities. But their individual limits are as obvious as plays discovered 60 years ago. There may certainly be new plays yet to be discovered but that's another matter. In the end the earth is finite and all plays will be exploited eventually. and then there will be no more.

Now back to the economic system. Is there any part of the system that can truly be classified as infinite? Consider material transportation: Horses were replaced by wagons which were replaced by trains which have been replaced (to a degree) by trucks and airplanes. In the early part of the 20th century it must have been obvious to many that horses would be replaced by the ICE. Today many speculate that the ICE will be replaced by the X alternative vehicle (pick your own flavor). Some see nuclear as the system to replace FF for our primary energy source. Without resorting to Star Trek fantasies can we speculate on future technologies which might make the ecosystem sustainable? In the case of the financial system can we replace those finite components which have outlived their viability with a new component? Some may come up with logical though not practical solution. Mass murder of 4 or 5 billion folks could reset the system for sure. But that’s not likely (hopefully) to be employed.

Wide open possibilities for some sense of stability. Have at it.

The wackos who accept the premise that world oil production will peak--or more accurately probably has peaked--believe that the sum of the output of a group of depleting sources of energy, e.g., Texas & the North Sea, will also show a production peak.

The conventional wisdom, most eloquently stated by Peter Huber and Michael Lynch, is that a sum of the output of a group of depleting energy sources will show a virtually infinite rate of increase in production. Peter Huber explicitly states that our energy production and our consumption will increase forever. As I have previously outlined, this is analogous to expecting that while the individual oil wells in a field will peak and decline, the field production--the sum of the output of a group of depleting wells--will increase forever. These types of fields exist in areas occupied by elves, fairies, unicorns and other mythical creatures.

And remember, the Peak Oilers are widely considered to be the nutcases, while Peter Huber believes that the sum of the output of regions like Texas and the North Sea will show an infinite rate of increase in production:

The real issue to me is not whether there are "limits" in that there are never limits if you're always able to apply more effort, but how to define the limit of how return is worth the effort. I'm working on a more formal treatment, but it's simple to understand that if increasing investment makes resources increasingly unavailable, that itself is a real final limit to the usefulness of growth, and counterproductive. I think the real limit of growth is the inflection point right smack in the middle of the "S" curve, because that's where increasing investment produced decreasing returns.

Thanks for the help in making it better!

...that point may have been a while back (1999?) and has been masked by a little proxy for real effort known as "money" (of which an infinite supply exists...)

Nice article btw. I needed 'both heads' to read it but I think I understood most of it.


Nick, I think it was before then. I think the time when the earth started to give steadily increasing resistance to physical investment and decreasing real returns, what 'depletion' really means, is what caused money to turn to financial schemes for continually growing returns. Yes, there is an infinite potential for creating money, but I see the time when physical system investment became less profitable and financial investments took over as long before 1999. The turning point I see turns up in lots of history curves at about the same time, as in this curve from Charlie Hall with my overlay of the "S" curve implied, showing the history of US energy use:

It is too late for acknowledgement, for we cannot do anything now.
Maybe it is too late for mankind.

As the bible was quoted, i want to say, if Jesus will come back tomorrow, this would be grace to save us from seeing this worlds downfall...

Dude, let's not hijack the thread by talking about Jesus.

We can do that over on The Drumbeat.

Our situation is very grim. We do need a transformative event or series of events and actions if we are to avoid a great deal of suffering.

I think we all look for ways to help -- hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up, even fighting for positive change against great odds.

...broad present experience in professional “sustainable design” and in “sustainable development”.

[emphasis added]

I've recently had some second thoughts about the whole 'sustainability' thing that derive from some similar thinking. Not that sustainability is the wrong target, but that it can only be an 'immediate' target in order to modulate a grander process of evolution. Sustainability implies steady-state at some thermodynamic balance point when nearing limits. But this is a temporary condition given that the embedding environment itself will eventually change and change the energy flux of the system. Reorganizing the internal workings of a system to achieve sustainability should be viewed as a kind of ratchet mechanism that prevents or minimizes collapse, but does not represent a 'forever' end point.

Adaptability, not growth, should be the inherent law of economic systems!

What is "sustainability"?

It seems like we have our "sustainability" goals set at way too high a level. We hear from time to time that the truly sustainable level is the level of the hunter-gather. Above that, everything is temporary.

I think your point about being able to change is important as well. We know, for example, that the climate has changed over the years, and will continue to change, whether or not mankind is contributing to that change, and can change its course. As climate changes, there is a need for underlying systems to change as well.

I have more to say on this subject since the author has hit very close to my pet theory with his complexity and "ESP" query, but Gail's remark about actual sustainable society levels reminds me of a conversation I had with a First Nations (Indian) chief while walking through Vancouver.

Calvin is the hereditary Eagle Chief of the Gitxsan in central BC. This is my forecasted parable;

"This is how I see it Calvin in about 200 years. Your people are sitting around the fire reminiscing and laughing."

"Ya...", one elder says, "I remember those white people. They came, they went, I knew they wouldn't last. But they sure made me laugh though."

I'd be interested to hear your theory on emergent self-organization.

Well, my theory of self-organization would be a long post, and is kind of "backwards"... My theory is that complex systems are physical things that are observable and explorable, but not definable. I use math as a diagnostic tool to help me ask better questions about physical systems as if they were "models of themselves", rather than to represent systems with my own constructs.

The way they work as a whole as if they have ESP is by having E.S.P (Equal Stress Principle) in having loops of relationships that share their strains and surplusses. It's something like collective insurance policies and makes the self-forgiving. That said, that is something one can only observe, and can't makes a machine to duplicate because natural systems rely on the cooperation of uncontrolled parts, not controlled parts. So... you can see it gets you exploring a lot of new territory to go into it.

My theory is a learning process, not a way to construct models. I use models for raising questions, not defining answers. The first farily compelling question for anything one observes growing is what is the network of relationships that is doing it, and second, how will it alter the conditions of its own environment to bring itself to an end. Generally, that happens one of two ways, distinguishing between self-maintaining and self-destabalizing sytems. They either switch from growth by beginning their maturation or their decline. fyi Try finding things of interest on one of my web sites or or

Well, here it goes 710 (or OIL) and pfhenshaw... Nate probably thinks I'm a little nuts, but empirical evidence can bear this out. Furthermore, I am pursuing this as a collective effort according to one of the central tenets of the theory.

It starts like this, Einstein theorized energy and mass are transformable and arrived at E=mc^2. Or, he started in some relevant direction and ended with this rather simple and economical formula. The concept and ramifications have been monumental in their impacts, needless to say.

Similarly, I arrived at the theory that energy and consciousness are transformable. I haven't come close to any formula, but I have come up with a few governing principles:

- complexity of the system is necessary for higher levels of energy to consciousness transformation and modulation. As an example, a nebula cloud of primordial matter incorporates massive amounts more mass than either a human being or the earth, but is not that wholly complex and contains very low consciousness density; whereas, the human body and brain system is one of the most complex systems we know of and has the ability to modulate consciousness. Furthermore, the human body's ability to modulate consciousness is not just within the cranial cavity, but throughout the entire organic system. Consciousness density is governed by complexity.

- we partake in the energy/consciousness transform nearly continuously, but because it is all encompassing in our biological existence we are not aware. I came up with "Does a fish know of water?" only to find out its been used before. But, did gravity exist prior to Newton quantifying and describing its behavior? Of course it did. We are involved in the E/C transform by the very act of this message. Just add up the physical systems, (me and you included), involved in this interchange of ideas and their energy usage to start to put together a simple model of E/C physical definitions.

- emotions are a high level E/C modulation mechanism, as is music.

- fully understanding the mathematical and physical characteristics as manifested in equations is beyond our capability at this time. We can get a good start, but I believe the communicable descriptions will progress as all technology has, it will evolve with knowledge.

- systems of like consciousness tend to self organize into more complex systems. This speaks to 710's query on emergent self-organization. This may provide the starting point for better quantifying the theory.

- having a higher ability to modulate the E/C transform will significantly alter our understanding of the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics. As I like to say, the cup can be unbroken. There will still be adherence to the 1st Law since conservation still applies in the universe, but there will be the appearance of Entropy reversal employing E/C modulation. The Zeroth Law still definitely applies!

- got thinking on this, probably contemplating Hawkin's "Arrow of Time" from A Brief History. This is a humdinger, but I'll put it out there. The perceived direction of time could be dependent on the direction of the E/C transform. Our predominant current perceived direction is caused by mostly energy > consciousness. A reversed direction (premonition) could be the result of consciousness > energy (think of a film playing backwards as in the point about the cup becoming upbroken). This could provide a sound foundation for understanding premonition and otherwise physic phenomena.

That's it for now. But here are a few more points; we will not be able to engage in any appreciable space travel until we understand this principle of the universe. The Internet has evolved as a tool for a higher level of self organization for our species. How far it will take us is yet to be determined. If this seems all so simple and obvious, maybe that's because it is supposed to appear that way. C'mon, how tough is F=ma now that we have been told?

The really way out there final point to make is I've had some validation of the correct direction of this theory.

Well, I guess that is an imitation of my style of a sort. The trouble I find with "=" signs is they tell you what should happen, but don't get it to happen. You need a complex process that begins and ends to do that.

So, I watch the developmental processes to see how things work as well as equations to see what should be possible. It looks to me that the world economy had a brush with either an iceberg, and so it would be worth running the pumps till we get the hull fixed, or it hit a sand bar, it which case it's probably better to save the fuel and disembark to see where we've arrived... ;-)

That's probably why your essay/article resonated with me. You articulated what I've been trying to say for the past three years.

It's a keeper.

Great comment.

Largely, there are two possible outcomes: a hunter/gatherer society living within a vibrant, complex, and diverse ecosystem, or a herder society scavenging through an environmentally degraded ecosystem caused by the overshoot of humans (much like the Middle East). And Gail is right. All else is piffle, a series of stations on the road away from the cheap energy fiesta and the techno-bubble it created.

I think we have a choice. Or, rather, I should say that a choice is out there. The species will not willingly make the right choice, and it will not powerdown voluntarily in a coordinated fashion in order to end up in that environmentally complex system we all would like to envision. No, more likely, we will be like the goats of today feeding on the corpse of the once green and fertile Middle East, feeding on the detritus like maggots.

Witness the destruction of the Amazon in order to fuel cars and feed cattle. We are cannibals, eating our lungs in order to drive cars.

Diminishing returns is right. And what a diminishing return it is!! Just think. We could, if we all pull together, destroy the planet with complete efficiency while still managing to save the automobile!!

You see! What a great trade. A car culture in exchange for the planet. What a brilliant cancer we are.

Hello Cherenkov,

As usual, I enjoy your postings. I hope you are making progress on that book you are writing based upon my postings [Recall your comment in my blog]. I fully hope you understand Asimov and 'Dune', plus the postPeak implications for Optimal Overshoot Decline. I will be glad to do a 'Nectar of the Gods' Yeasty Peakoil Shoutout upon its publication. Please don't forget Harry Chapin's "Remember when the Music.." and "Wildfire Reloaded" on Youtube. It will be outside-the-box thinking for the downslope ahead, and I think you and most TODers are brighter than Me. Thx[S]

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?


Regarding everything being temporary above the hunter gatherer level:

A biologist might make a fairly airtight case in the affirmative,if she assumes that any cultural or technological advances such as primitive agriculture or the beginnings of specialization(farmer,builder,baker,arrow head maker,etc) lead inevitably to an industrial revolution and all that is entailed.

Personally I don't buy this argument,as a theoritical matter.

Tropical peoples engaged in slash and burn agriculture can easily move often enough that they have little effect on the ecology if thier numbers remain small-and thier numbers almost certainly will remain small,if they never learn to work metal,domesticate draft animals, or come into contact with tech savvy outsiders.

Warfare between local bands in itself is probably adequate to control the population.It might be hundreds of years after a clearing is abandoned before that spot is used again.

People in more temperate climates have lived for thousands of years in many parts of the world by subsistence farming supplemented by hunting and gathering,eventually becoming efficient enough to support more complex local cultures.Some Native American tribes were living this way at the time of the European invasion.

Although primitive farmers and herdsmen frequently despoil thier immediate environment,some people have always survived either locally or remotely.Sfaik the environment USUALLY returns to a state capable of supporting primitive agriculture again within a fairly short time- a few hundred years or less.It can then be recolonized by nearby people.

Sometimes the land is more or less permanently ruined for farming by the buildup of salts(deposited by irrigation water)in the soil,extreme erosion,or desertification.Even this degree of degradation does not always drive every body out.There may be a few people left scratching out a living as nomadic herders.

I do not see any reason why these scenes,or variations thereof, cannot be played out again and again for tens of thousands of years,IF something prevents technology from advancing beyond a critical tipping point.Such a restraint might be something as simple as there being no workable copper or tin ores located on the surface where they can be found easily.

Now on the other hand as a PRACTICAL matter,it does seem inevitable that once you have a reliable supply of food and a few specialists,progress towards an eventual industrial society is almost inevitable,and that if such things as metal ores,coal and oil exist,they will be found and put to use.

If so we do the Stanley Kubrick thing from banging the bones together to the rocket ship in the blink of an eye-on the evolutionary time scale.

Personally I believe we can live on this planet indefinitely while still using whatever non replaceable resources are at hand.The only thing I can see killing us off totally is a flat out nuclear war,a meteor strike, or some other equally catastrophic event.Human life might Hobbesian,but it will persist.

Hi Mac,

Thoughtful comment.

Personally I believe we can live on this planet indefinitely while still using whatever non replaceable resources are at hand.The only thing I can see killing us off totally is a flat out nuclear war,a meteor strike, or some other equally catastrophic event.Human life might Hobbesian,but it will persist.

My hope - probably a fantasy - is that humans can indeed live on this planet indefintitely (baring catastropic cosmic event). As Carl Sagan said - we must first conquer our bent for agression that allowed us to conquer the planet in the first place. Next we must cast off the superstitious belief in gods and supernatural things. Then we could apply reason and the scientific method to work our way out of this mess and achieve balance with the biosphere.

However, all the right-wing (nut) chatter that hammers every day for "stronger defense" and "stronger family values" (ie - breed more humans) and trys to portray Americans as a superiour race (funny notion given we are a nation of immigrants) prevents us from having any kind of sensable conversation.

2 billion people, freed from superstition, using all available scientific knowledge could (IMHO) achieve that indefinite status. The real question is how to liberate people from the tragic burden of superstition.

How indeed?

I have an intelligent right wing radical friend who understands the world very well,but he is quite comfortable with his philosophy,maintaining that wars,famines,ecological catastrophes natural or manmade,emergent diseases,and so forth are facts that cannot be avoided.He sees the eventual cultural and physical survival of his intellectual band of companions as the likely outcome of an eventual third world war.

One of his favorite remarks is that the ecologically conscious(He uses stronger language.Self imposed physical and cultural genocide is one variation.) folks who refrain from having children are so clueless that they don't even need nature to weed the gene pool on thier behalf,as they're taking care of it personally.

Now this is a very scary way to think to most people,but he is internally consistent.

Intellectual honesty requires that the possible truth of his arguments be evaluated seperately from the desirability of adopting his philosophy.

The more I study in the fields of biology and history,the more I conclude,reluctantly,that he may be right.Most visitors here are probably familiar with the the dictum that accurate quantom measurements are an impossibility because the very act of measuring changes the outcome.

I haven't figured out a graceful way of saying so but I think a very large part of the confusion about our so called shortcomings and failures are nothing more than the result of "us trying to understand us",which may be somewhat analogous to the physics measurement problem.

We try to look at Homo Sapiens as a biologist should-impassively,w/o injecting our prejudices and preconcieved notions into our observations,but we fail miserably because we insist on injecting our values-which are ephemeral cultural artifacts-into the examination of the problem at an inapropproiate(too early )stage.

As I see it life and evolution are emergent properties of complex but purely physical(in the sense that physicists use the term) phenomena.The properties of life result in a second round or generation of emergent phenomena exponentially more complex.(Anybody interested in pursueing this line of thought should start with Darwin and work his way up to EO Wilson if you are like me and have little money but abundant time and curiousity.Books are cheap.Specially used on the net.)

Any impartial and intellectually disinterested biologist from some other dimension would probably write a paper eventually resulting in something as follows:

Synopsis of the biological survey expedition report.planet III,gstar cat 666-131313

The dominant organisms have evolved such that thier fundamental behaviors are determined almost solely by thier lower brain centers which evolved in the earlier stages of thier lineage.

Food, sex,and status(power)are the most immediate first level drivers of thier behavior,with secondary drivers including kin selection and remarkably rapid Lamarckian cultural evolution.

As in all technologically evolved species so far encountered,randomly generated but self sustaining cultural and technological memes have caused the planetary population to coalesce into various factions that view all others as threats in general but allies of convenience.This species is one that has evolved thru a hunter stage and a territorial defense stage,and as such thier current status is consistent with the work of the socioboilogy school of thought which has guided our progress in the biological sciences for the last thousand orbits of our home planet.

There is of course a slight chance that a cooperative meme will come to dominate culturally and that they will therefore continue to remain numerous and potentially capable of defensive measures,but this is statistically highly unlikely.

It is reasonable to expectthat these organisms will burn thru the fixed resources of thier planet and either become extinct or techonlogically impoverished and few in number well before the scheduled expansion into this sector.

Entered this 237 day of the 2167 th Year of the Empire in the Master Budget Plan.
The full report may be accessed upon entering your security code.

MS Barf Battle Axe
MOS G9 Statistician

Back in the days when I used to read a lot of sci fi,my friends and I speculated that deliberately broadcasting high energy radio messages would be the best possible way to gain the attention of any space going predators and hand them our address on a silver platter.

It may be that we are DESIGNED(SUCH an unfortunate word,but none other fits as well,despite the erroneous implications)in such a way that we can only function within the "Us versus Them" paradigm.

Nature doesn't give a rats ass either way.

We make it.

Or we don't.

Go outside.
Climb a mountian.
Watch the sun rise.
Watch the sun set.FROM THE MOUNTIAN TOP.
Sit up there on a still quiet clear night and watch the stars do the dance of the neverending circle.
It will be very good if you can see the cemetery where your forebearers rest.
You will be able to accept reality if you do this as needed.
No prescription necessary.
No known cases of developed tolerance resulting in loss of Efficacy.

Either way. An astronomer can count ten thousand galaxies looking thru the window formed by the cup of the Little Dipper.All the "billions and billions"(Sagan fan here too!) of stars in each of those galaxies will continue to burn,and planets to rotate around a good portion of them,and life to arise on some of them,and to evolve intelligence on at least a small portion of those,which is still a lot.

"No such thing as a happy ending,Grandpa(?)"

"No child.No such thing as an ending."

That reminds me ,I need to go back and hunt up the title and get that book ordered.

As for all of you with no taste for this sort of metaphysics(?),I would snidely remind you that my pig doesn't care either.He's been squealing for his dinner for the last fifteen minutes,and he knows to the minute what time it is because he knows that certain cars pass at a certain time every day,and fifteen minutes is a long time to wait,when you have nothing to look forward to but your dinner and another nap.

If you ever overimbibe of reality altering substances and cannot decide if you are a figment of your own imagination,take off your shoes and go outside and kick a tree or something,hard,toes first.You will get Saul on the road message back in about a tenth of a second.

Gotta feed that pig before the busy body who moved into the nieghborhood lately calls PETA.

I believe I may kick over her beehive by inviting her over on the day we butcher.There's nothing like fresh hand raised pork tenderloin on a grill,even though the corn will be out of the freezer.

Great comment.

I think the way to look at human overshoot is exactly the way one would look at any other species in destructive overshoot. The altruistic alien viewpoint is the gold standard. The species in overshoot shouldn't get a vote; that's like giving fat cells veto power over the decision to go on a diet.

I'm just saying...

Hi Mac,

What a great post! Too bad you don't live within my biking range. I'd love to bike over and chat about the fate of the planet while the pig has lunch!

There is a funny cartoon that shows another planet that has just approached earth. The other planet is dressed like a doctor. The doctor planet is saying to earth planet: hmm... it appears that you have "humans".

I suspect that you have read "the fabric of the comos" or something similar to get the your insight on about measurements in quantum physics - I really enjoyed that book.

we can only function within the "Us versus Them" paradigm.

This was Sagan's point - we can either move beyond this paradigm or your right wingnut friends are correct. Either we resolve the current mess rationally or we let nature run it's course: a collapse followed by the survival and dominance of the most aggressive and ruthless.

I always find this cosmic view a real dichotomy: one one hand we see the insignificance of planet earth and the human race; on the other hand, the very essence of our species (and our families) is to survive and find fulfillment in our individual lives (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, etc)

As your right wing friends seem to be the ones who are mostly in charge of world events, it is reall hard to see how we break out of this boom and bust cycle for species like humans.

I'm often reminded of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" and the Easter Island story. In the end, there was just a small band of survivors who apparently did not care much about political ideology - they were just subsistance folks.


As regards the right wingers,they are certainly numerous enough to win elections nationally and world wide..They are particularly thick on the ground in this area area.I am acquainted with quite a few,but I count only a couple among my real friends.Otoh,I can count my real friends on my fingers w/nary a qualm about running short!

You would like these guys even if the conversation turned to politics.These two at least are serious thinkers and can defend thier paradigm with long recitations of history and quotes from the Bible and from Darwin.They understand very well that we are on an unsustainable path in general,and and unsustainable path in our warmaking abilities in particular that can be described as extreme offensive overshoot.

As they see it,our wars up until 1860 were nothing more than the equivalent writ large of the territorial clashes of wolfpacks or prides of lions.People died in large numbers of course in earlier wars,but not enough in biological terms to matter.

The American Civil War ,the so called (with great justification)first modern war,ushered in a new paradigm of war.Machine guns,repeating personal weapons,breechloading rifle artillery,railroads, self propelled armored ships,the telegraph,and industrial scale manufacture of war making materials all came together for the first time in a big way.The industrial revolution,in short, revolutionized war.

The Bomb sealed the argument.We have been locked into the ultimate mexican standoff since Alamagordo,and no one knows HOW to defuse the situation.These guys spend a lot of time worrying about thier kids future.The one thing they absolutely are not willing to do is let thier gaurd down,unless some means can be devised so that everybody disarms silmantaneously.

Unfortunately I can find no serious flaw in thier reasoning,given that the driving behavioral imperative is survival personal/family/tribe/ nation.

"Some Native American tribes were living this way at the time of the European invasion."

From my studies and research I think its more like ,

3,500 years before the whites came the tribes living in the Eastern Woodlands were already using permanent sites and engaging in a early form of farming. As they replanted seeds and used the seeds that were larger eventually more modern corn (bigger kernels from what was seeds) came into being.

Since the soil was very rich they could establish sites near rivers so they had good water, mussels and fish as well as gardens. The women were in charge of the gardens and each daughter inherited her mothers plots. The men engaged in hunting and fishing and other activities.

Berries and other fruit were tamed and planted as well. Logs were set upright with spaces filled with saplings and mudded over for shelters.

Eventually they became 'towns' and were more or less permanent but still the tribes could move about if desired.

Above the Ohio the Shawnees established many towns named after the chiefs. This was later in the history of Native Americans but was viable. When the white man wished to render the natives to starvation they simply burned the crops that would have been stored for their winter supplies.

Ample evidence of this is recorded. The midwest and upper areas were mostly plains and so there the natives engaged more in hunting and gathering. A different environment than the Eastern woodlands. As it is today and still is.

That is still true and why those who live in my area do not have huge tracts of land such as in the upper midwest...even in upper parts of Illinois and northern Missouri.

The ozarks are extremely rich in woodlands, clear rivers and much game. That makes it an excellent location to live sustainabily but you never hear it told that way. Its isolated and shutin to a large degree ever since I roamed it in my latter teens and til I moved out of that area in the 70,s. Its still primitive in many areas.

All history of the Native Americans depends heavily on the locations where nature is more diverse. Near here are the mounds of the Mississippians. Very permament settlements. You just don't build huge mounds and they flee. You also find fewer stone tips since hunting was not as important as gathering.

I once found a spot where one of them had buried a cache of river mussel shells. I wondered about it some but looking at their pot shards(which one could also pick up in fields) I noted that they used the shells bits to give stiffiness to their pottery as it was laced with the bits of white shell.

The rivers were full of mussels. There are some who still drag for mussels. We have them often , or used to on the buffet bars on Friday when many go out to eat fish. I don't see them much anymore but not too long ago(2 years ? ) they were in good supply.

So the time line is very long. They originated farming back then long long ago. As the white man came they imitated what the natives were doing.



You said it a lot better than I could.

The catch with sustainable development is that nearly all sustainable design is driving the system as a whole to use more and more physically expensive resources. It's really a continuation of the whole growth system's drive to use up the least expensive resources that can be found, as fast as possible. That's what SD is now a major contributor to. The effect is to greatly hasten the approach of the point where our resource and system overhead costs will be too great to sustain, will no longer pay for themselves, and large networks of previously necessary functions will have to fall away.

These are sliding conditions, with the wealthy and highly productive people pushing up the global price of resources for everyone, systematically, and without end, forcing nature to use her way of shedding demand... That's the 'big crunch'... unless, we do what we should have done decades ago and turn off the compulsive growth pump and guide the system to grow only as fast as we can learn to reduce oyr basic resource demand.

"turn off the compulsive growth pump and guide the system to grow only as fast as we can learn to reduce oyr basic resource demand."

Nicely put. Who in your opinion has the best ideas on how to set up an economy/political system to do this?

Michael Hudson has a financial approach similar to mine, but I have not been able to find out much about it, and I seem to have a much better handle on the physical system requirements. You can see my approach at$.htm

Paul Krugman and others have also made note of the problem that lending people more money when they don't have the earnings to support the debt they already have is not sensible, particularly if nothing is selling. My basic approach is that the financial system created a lot of false information about how much wealth the physical system was producing and is still trying to hold the debtors liable for the erroneously inflated earnings projections… It’s a mess, but it would be less costly in the end to correct the information to fit the physical world than the reverse… :-)

Hello Dohboi,

I would offer my prior post on understanding our 'Societal Prey' as a method of achieving some degree of Optimal Overshoot Decline [see TOD archive].Since I hope many here are now practicing the Peakoil Shoutout: this creates synaptic wildfires when they inhale [S]ulfur. The following should thus be intuitively obvious to committed Shoutout Devotees:

Recall the [P]hosphorus is #1, S is #2 on Asimov Bio-elemental Intensity list. Since P is already extremely geo-limited, but S is largely treated as waste: a non-BAU Webb/Pomerene approach to elevating S pricing to levels commensurate with its #2 ranking can clearly semaphore to the world a Paradigm Shift. IMO, this is entirely in keeping with Asimov's Foundations concept of Predictive Collapse and Directed Decline.

The Porridge Principle of Metered Decline can be driven by this willful acceptance of S-scarcity [or will it be forced upon us?] and its subsequent ripple effects throughout the global economy. The diminishing return constraint will first, foremost, and largely be felt in the I-NPK pull-system supply chain and postPeak FF/I-NPK latency will magnify this effect, thus causing a more rapid ramp of O-NPK recycling.

The spreading ripple effect of constrained-S upon industry will cause rapid collapse of pointless goods, but will tend to create a sustained demand for vital goods which can be locally manufactured. Recall that S is the primary Root Element that drives all manufacturing processes as energy is applied.

Have you hugged your bag of NPKS today?

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

An additional exploration of my proposed Optimal Overshoot Decline can be obtained by applying a postPeak analysis to Frank Herbert's classic "Dune": [S]pice, or melange was the central theme; Fremen, Harkonnens, et al.

Elysium is referenced in the Schiller poem which inspired Beethoven's Ode to Joy (9th symphony, 4th movement):

"Joy, beautiful spark of the gods,
Daughter of Elysium,
Touched with fire, to the portal,
Of thy radiant shrine, we come.
Your sweet magic frees all others,
Held in Custom's rigid rings.
All men on earth become brothers,
In the haven of your wings."
Recall from my extensive postings that S is important in everything from simple matches, to industrial fertilizers, to explosives, to mineral extraction of other Elements, water purification, tire vulcanization, and many other items. The application of S-scarcity to induce Liebig Minimums in most things, while concurrently driving O-NPK towards building a high agri-ERoEI of a Liebscher's Optima can serve us well on the Hubbert Downslope ahead.

"She comes down from Yellow Mountain..."
Sulfur block
IMO, we need to accept the criticality of S, not mentally block it. Please consider this as just another reason to spread Peak Outreach by the Peakoil Shoutout.

George, not to skip over your question of “what is sustainability” that you suggest is “adaptability” . I quite agree. I think adaptability is being a versatile and resourceful learner about your world, and the key reason for the historic collapses of civilizations have been that the societies became fixated on one world working one way and their solution for that lasting forever, and it didn’t. What hit me at one point was how very common versatile learning is for most kinds of human and other living system activities.

All animals spend their time resourcefully learning their way along, foraging and dodging. When you watch what people and animals do they not being driven by “global pressures” the way the mathematical models describe. So, I think the question is almost the opposite, not just how can be design responsive and adaptable systems and become adaptable ourselves. Why aren’t we resourceful all the time, by nature, when in personal relations and in the arts we demonstrate such skill and pleasure with that. I have a paper in Cosmos & History called Life’s hidden resources for Learning that also discusses this puzzle.

Eventually the sun goes red giant and we vaporize, so there is no such thing as eternal sustainability, at least not within this space-time continuum. The question is: how can homo sapiens sustain itself on earth for as long as possible? Recognizing natural limits and adapting to live within them is an excellent place to start.

The question is: how can homo sapiens sustain itself on earth for as long as possible?

I'll offer a slightly different version of sustaining life. Rather than ask how to sustain our current species we should be asking how do we sustain (perpetuate) a life form capable of symbolic reasoning, invention, exploration, etc. A form like us but necessarily more advanced in that facility which we seem to lack - greater wisdom. The human brain, currently represented by the species sapiens is conceivably still subject to evolution, especially under the selective forces that our world is developing. Evolution tends to work by building on top of what already exists. Humans have developed a level of sapience (probably associated with Brodmann area 10 of the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex) that provides some amount of integration of all of the other areas of the brain/mind, e.g. intelligent and creative problem solving, emotions, moral sentiments, etc. But that integration is incomplete, or at least still immature.

Evolution and the adaptation of Homo's brain to become more integrated through further development of the BA10 (and other associated areas) is completely conceivable based on what we understand now about evolution and brain architecture/behavior.

What we need to work toward sustaining is our genus rather than our species per se. That our species happens to be the only one extant for this genus means that we have to act to preserve the potential for the species to evolve, meaning we have to ensure the survivability of at least some population of Homo sapiens, living in a long-term sustainable fashion. My work is mostly geared to understanding how this can be achieved given the current trends and challenges we have created for ourselves.

Question Everything

Wonderful comment, impressive vision, fascinating worldview. I'll probably be in touch.

until then, on behalf of mutants everywhere; kudos.

I'm not sure mere survival is all that difficult, really. Say we go +6C. We're going to have a lot of die-off, regardless. Go underground. Actually, don't even need to go under, just tear down the excess concrete/steel and use it to seal up other buildings. It would be the same as going underground, so long as they were either well insulated or concrete. Dig tunnels between 'em.

For food, have strong, thick/well-insulated shutters on open areas of the building for milder weather and reflect in, or refract in, some way sunlight. As long as water is around, you're set. Hell, wouldn't necessarily need clothing in such a closed system.

So, no, the issue isn't survival. That's pretty certain, in fact. The issue is how many of us get to pass through The Century of the Perfect Storm, and can we mitigate enough to have a viable, healthy *and* comfortable society.

At least, that's my 2c.


An example of one such economic law is that scarcities are temporary. In theory, self-interest drives people to either find substitutes, added supplies, or to reduce demand as prices rise, and in those ways scarcity is expected to resolve smoothly.

There's no such "law" in economics. In the neo-classical formulation, the only goods that are not scarce have a price of zero...prices are the market mechanism for rationing scarce goods.

Edited What you are really referring to is "shortages" rather than scarcities, which is trivially defined as the difference the the quantity demanded and the quantity supplied at a given price.

It's OK to distinguish between "shortages" and "scarcity" as technically different in professional discussions where all the terms are redefined to refer to variables in equations.

I admit I'm mixing in the vernacular, natural language, meanings of the terms. I would be glad to have you say how you'd state the same principle, that supply and demand for shortages for a whole system should not cause unbounded price escalation. What would you say, in a general scientific way, is the reason that is not supposed to happen for a whole economy?

I'm not exactly sure what you mean by unbounded. Relative prices are measures of rates of exchange --- nominal prices express exchange rates in the unit of the medium of exchange. I don't see how relative prices can be unbounded---what can be offered for a particular good is ultimately going to be grounded in the physical economy.

I don't think there is an economic law that states price changes caused by reductions in supply must be "small". In a single market, the usual argument would be the existence of substitutes --- in the absence of substitutes, following supply would potentially lead to sharp and permanent price increases. Again, though, these will be bound by the physical economy.

We have grown prolifically, by population and technology, with little more awareness than a plate of bacteria possesses. We seek advantage, we use our tools to take advantage and we create an artificial reality that only keeps us temporarily suspended above the natural fray. Eventually our magical levitation will falter and we will be dropped back into nature's maw where the places to which we were adapted have disappeared or been terribly disfigured.

Will investors build an energy net beneath us so that we do not fall to the jungle floor, or will they hoard what remains until most of the rest of us have crashed and been decimated by disease and warfare. Will accepting a lesser lifestyle and less consumption be accepted until we hit some kind of sustainable backstop like solar and wind or will the fall in energy availability insure that most future investment is put into building the military to compete for remaining supplies of fossil fuels thereby starving the alternative energy industry.

Currently we seem to be on the competitive path, at least while there is something to contest. I think the longer we stay on this path, the farther we will have to fall later and many of us not killed upon impact will end up on the forest floor running for our lives.

“Eventually our magical levitation will falter and we will be dropped back into nature's maw where the places to which we were adapted have disappeared or been terribly disfigured.”

There is truth in this.

I have been greatly disheartened by new studies that show a reduction of wind velocity across wide areas in both Europe and North America. The slowing winds are a direct result of the effect of global warming.

In global warming, the poles warm more and faster than the rest of the globe, and temperature records, especially in the Arctic, show this. That means the temperature difference between the poles and the equator shrinks and with it the difference in air pressure in the two regions. Differences in barometric pressure are a main driver in strong winds. Lower pressure difference means less wind.

As the arctic ice pack melts and the arctic oceans warm the temperature of the surface across the northern hemisphere will increase becoming more equalized. This will results is an average diminution in the power that can be extracted from the wind. No one knows how extreme this effect will be, but its underscores the old adage that you should never put all your eggs in one basket.

Yes, the safety net may not be there when we need it most. The fall may be long and deep. The crash to the jungle floor may be harder and more painful then we can ever expect or fear.

The crash to the jungle desert floor may be harder and more painful then we can ever expect or fear.

We will probably be nostalgic for the jungle floor...

I like your phrase "magical levitation". My sense is that seeing the real possibility of loosing that might wake us in a dream.

Don't we need to finally ask how it is that there are so many things in nature that don't loose their magical levitation? We do seem to be at risk of loosing ours entirely, by persisting in trying to solve the wrong problems, and things. We may well have already gone too far to avoid some more major calamities, too. But one can change purposes once you notice the old purpose is really not getting the intended response any more.

Life and species, some of them very long lasting in form, do seem at times to persist magically. They are embedded in channels of energy flow that are sometimes very difficult to undo. Species reach a stable population and remain there, within range, until there is a major perturbation. If the perturbation becomes too great or is a lesser perturbation that lasts too long, the chain of energy flow can be halted, resulting in extinctions. Most animal species satisfy their metabolic needs by consuming other cells, single or combined and populations resonate. Humans were levitating quite nicely on top of the pyramid without technology. Then we decided to mess around with the energy flows with agriculture and animal domestication, messing around with the genes, so we could direct more of the energy into the channel that leads directly to human biomass. In our wisdom we have embraced technologies to consume from all levels of the pyramid. We have created extinctions of species. We have tapped energy beyond the pyramid to consume the pyramid of life. If we had kept our place within the pyramid, we would never have had the energy to evolve the complexity of technology that now threatens to undermine and destroy or greatly simplify the entire pyramid.

Perhaps that's one of the problems with economists. They view the technological world as magical, supernatural and transcending the laws that govern the biotic land and seascape. They are naturally most concerned with human consumptive behavior and utility and supply of goods, a natural concern for any evolved dissipative structure. However, this innate selfishness and tunnel vision among other behaviors that worked while we were confined to the pyramid will destroy when equipped with Promethean fire and technological leverage. Technology is a misadventure along life's path and this will become painfully evident as the next few decades create disillusionment. Just because we have persisted and evolved for 4 billion years does not mean that technology has such a future. It is unfortunate that we will probably destroy ourselves trying to escape from the only home we had, the pyramid of life and its relatively long lasting energy relationships.

P.S. Thanks for the article, very thought provoking.

"Economic theory is based on the observed regularities of the past."

Primarily, neo-classical economic theory is based on ideology and a misapplication of 19th century engineering principles (especially thermodynamics) to an aspect of human culture.

Perhaps Phil is being kind.

Some critics have labeled economics as scientism, and I think there is considerable merit to this charge. Ideology may be too strong a word, but it is impossible to separate neoclassical thought from a particular normative position (a kind of crude utilitarianism). At the same time, it is somewhat disingenuous to suggest that economists have made no attempt to seek out regularities and build theories that attempt to explain them.

I stole that one from Herman Daly, formerly of the World Bank. I believe his exact quote is: "Economics is an ideology parading as a science."

dohboi -

I agree.

There seems to be a general misapplication of thermodynamics, not just in neo-classical economics, but also in many other fields. Many people in the social sciences, as well as those writing about the environment and sustainability, sometimes have a tendency to couch the point the are trying to make in thermodynamic terms (entropy being the big favorite). When used in this way, the thermodynamic terms become more metaphorical rather than a component of rigorous scientific analysis.

To use the example given by the author, shining one's shoes is definitely an exercise in diminishing returns (i.e., the n+ 1st stroke doesn't get the shoes much more shiny than the nth stroke), but I would consider it a real stretch to call that an example of entropy.

As someone (I can't remember who) once said, "The science of thermodynamics owes more to the steam engine, than the steam engine owes to thermodynamics." The point being that the science developed from observing the machine, rather than the machine being developed from the science. I think that general notion is also true of a lot of the sets of observations and assumptions we conveniently call 'laws', such as the law of supply and demand in Economics 101.

Nice points. I think fluid dynamics was also a major influence in early economic theorizing.

Yes, in part “I’m being kind” in saying economics is based on observed regularities of the past, and not mentioning how biased that observation was. There was indeed a long mostly steady growth period, which they assumed should last forever…. So the piece is about the evidence that the limit of growth was actually some time ago.

One of the great errors in neo-classical economics is using equations based on the physics model of science. It represents cause and effect as the numerical relation between our categories of information, which says the living systems are not physical things, and are not have parts engaged in their own individual developmental learning, and that their relationships never change. I study growth as an activity of a physical systems that starts and ends with the active developmental learning of their individual parts. One thing every learning part of a growth system learns is the point at which it becomes over extended, and unresponsive, or finds it’s environment to be unresponsive.

That approach leads to asking about that the experience of the parts, as one of the advantages of using a diagnostic and exploratory approach rather than defining the system as our equations and theories. It’s actually a branch of physics, if somewhat backwards for physics too, based on the conservation laws and the necessary questions for how energy flows begin and end and maintain continuity.

Thanks, pf. I think it is incredibly important to see how influential fields evolved and where influenced and fostered by circumstances. In this case, classical economics, as far as I can see, would have had a much harder time getting any credibility if it tried to develop any time besides the bizarre last hundred and sixty years or so when energy, especially from fossil fuels, was becoming more and more available.

This bizarre circumstance fostered this bizarre ideology/discipline, and the ideology fascilitated and justified the eternal search for and extraction of ever more energy (and other resources)--a perfect feed back loop.

And as they say, that kind of thing works...until it doesn't.

I work in higher ed, and I have long advocated training all first year students in the histories of the various major fields. My suggestions have not been implemented so far, unfortunately.

Well, good teaching always benefits from using the interesting stories that a well read teacher can illustrate the subject with.

The often humorous or tragic or profound learning experiences of others that led to our present views of things do a lot to enliven any subject, don't they? Would having a way for teachers to share the stories they use to illustrate the material perhaps make students curious enough about the history of the ideas and look it up for themselves???


If there is any field more resistant than education to useful change,I am seriously mistaken.

Your of idea teaching the history of the various fields sounds like a world class winner,but unfortunately the likelihood of it's adoption is probably inversely related to it's utility.

Now if you were some doofus pompous ass who got his tenure by playing the game to win your easy job and pension,all your backscratching buddies would be on your wagon already.

I think, though thermodynamics is a rather complex tangle of things itself, the main error was the assumption by the physicists that because they could not find anything else in their equations that gave an arrow to time, that decay must also be the animating force of nature… or something.

What I think they might have benefited from is taking some courses in economics, where it’s clear that all things begin with a seed resource and build themselves up by “wasting” some of their product on building up their process. That autocatalytic self-investment is the key to self-animating processes. It’s in those complex beginning and ending processes that are never going to be ‘clean’ enough for equations to define, that practical people deal with all the time. That’s where the fact that things need to build up before they wear down seems to be hidden, so at least in time sequence, syntropy seems to become the driver of entropy, and not the reverse.

Somehow that autocatalytic syntropy that seems to be actively part of every beginning of things is missing from the basic equations of physics and still keeps more recent attempts to break out of if firmly boxed in. I’ve only found a way with the physics of my method to locate the information holes that physics has to leave out, but that is quite helpful…

This is almost exactly my long range order argument cool.

Since its intrinsic to complex system of all types it has to be a quantum principle i.e quantum systems must retain a uncollapsed wave function.

Its sort of like squeezing a balloon when you read out one quantum variable then another expands to retain the overall uncertainty of the system. This connectedness if you will of quantum systems allows them to actually decide how to evolve. This building process has to be core or intrinsic.

The problem I see with traditional physics is in general it does not deal with the rich evolution of complex systems.

Another way to look at it is as complex systems develop they also actually do develop what are for all intents and purposes hidden variables that are use to bootstrap complexity.

That autocatalytic self-investment is the key to self-animating processes. It’s in those complex beginning and ending processes that are never going to be ‘clean’ enough for equations to define, that practical people deal with all the time.

I don't know if it can be defined or not I suspect a better way to consider it is a matter of patterns not equations there are certain common ways for complex systems to evolve so in general they don't change in arbitrary ways. I'd say its simply not clear how to reduce these patterns to equations. Anyone who has studied language recognition recognizes that pattern recognition itself is and adaptive process where the pattern or input is used as part of the recognizer.
The fact that input is in a sense absorbed into a complex system and becomes part of the overall system response makes it difficult to construct equations.

You could think of it like cutting up a bunch of equations then randomly piecing them back together to form a new set of equations. Still more patterns emerge but how on earth do you create equations for this. Its like equations for describing the constellations or patterns we see in clouds etc. Patterns begat patterns if you will. We see this intuitively but trying to quantify it is incredibly difficult.

I am speaking too fast here, but mentioning a major overlooked general explanatory principle for physical processes. What is evident in economics, and present in apparently all energy using processes but most places unstudied, is that to begin or end every energy flow needs to take place by a complex series of developmental processes, that are apparently locally original. Somewhat the origin of this work was that observation, that every beginning has to have a beginning point in a process of development.

It first arose in physics lab when I noticed that the strobe photos of the ping-pong ball, following a neat parabola, never captured what threw and caught the ball. The equations always omitted the beginning and end of the process too, capturing only the steady state in the middle...! The theorem I ended up with to tie in the beginnings and ends of things is what underlies the analytical side of my work, fyi, is called The Law of Continuity

Let me also say that it sounds like we're using slightly different approaches, mine more of a diagnostic/empirical one, but working with the nub of the same problem. Have a look and see if there's more for us to talk about.

pfhenshaw said

I think, though thermodynamics is a rather complex tangle of things itself, the main error was the assumption by the physicists that because they could not find anything else in their equations that gave an arrow to time, that decay must also be the animating force of nature…

This view that decay is the animating force of nature has been elaborated in the work of Kay and Schneider -- self organization being viewed as being caused by energy gradients. Their view is not incompatible with yours, and seems to have many similarities.

Their generalization of the second law of thermodynamics: "Nature abhors a gradient".

See Into the Cool: Energy Flows, Thermodynamics, and Life, Eric D. Schneider and Dorian Sagan, 2005, University of Chicago Press.

The physical theory that the creators of neoclassical economics used as a template was conceived in response to the inability of Newtonian physics to account for the phenomena of heat, light and electricity. In 1847 German physicist Hermann von Helmholtz formulated the conservation of energy principle and postulated the existence of a field of conserved energy that fills all space and unifies these phenomena. Later in the century James Maxwell, Ludwig Boltzmann and other physicists devised better explanations for electromagnetism and thermodynamics, but in the meantime, the economists had borrowed and altered Helmholtz’s equations.

The strategy the economists used was as simple as it was absurd—they substituted economic variables for physical ones. Utility (a measure of economic well-being) took the place of energy; the sum of utility and expenditure replaced potential and kinetic energy. A number of well-known mathematicians and physicists told the economists that there was absolutely no basis for making these substitutions. But the economists ignored such criticisms and proceeded to claim that they had transformed their field of study into a rigorously mathematical scientific discipline.

Thanks for the supporting link.

On a completely unrelated note: Has anyone rewritten the song "Please, Momma, don't let your babies grow up to be cowboys" substituting "doomers" for the last word of the title? If not, its a parody waiting to happen.

What is odd, though, is that the rather incoherent way economists applied the physics model, "scientististicly" (if that's a word) to the behavior of living systems helps display a deeper problem the physics model leaves completely out.

The physicists have yet to quite notice that at every point where the equations come up with infinite energy densities of one or another kind, nature requires us to explore organization of a different kind on a different scale. Those points of indefinability come up at the beginning and end of any continuity. That's my theorem in drtheo.pdf That nesting of levels of order is only resolved by making physics descriptive of processes beyond description, and point to the error of using physics as representing the structures of nature directly.

That's my theorem in drtheo.pdf That nesting of levels of order is only resolved by making physics descriptive of processes beyond description, and point to the error of using physics as representing the structures of nature directly.

Forgive me if I misunderstand for I believe I'm quite a ways out of my league here.

However, wouldn't the descriptive capability of physics just be the entry level prerequisite for understanding let's say chemistry which in turn is necessary to understand biochemistry, without which one can not fully grasp mechanisms of cell physiology which in turn precludes comprehension of the higher level organization of multicellular organisms leading to ever higher levels of complexity?

Once we arrive at complex webs of synergistically interacting communities of interdependent organisms that in turn depend on relatively simple and basic chemical and physical processes for their survival have we then come full circle in the descriptive process?

The issue it seems to me is that nature doesn't recognize any compartmentalization of disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology or ecology, let alone our human economic systems. It just is, the entire fucking, writhing, seething, chaotically dynamic shebang all at once! So whatever descriptions we may attempt can only be of limited value and must by definition fail at being comprehensive.

Phil offered these examples of main stream links on how the commodity price spiral is linked to the collapse. He believes these are consistent with his view, even though they do not mention EROI, or other physical system diminishing returns, or increasing competitive conflicts of interest. All of these would amplify the spirals they are mentioning.

Chairman Ben S. Bernanke, August 22, 2008, Reducing Systemic Risk. Speech At the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City's Annual Economic Symposium, Jackson Hole, Wyoming:

-- Intro: In choosing the topic for this year's symposium--maintaining stability in a changing financial system--the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City staff is, once again, right on target. Although we have seen improved functioning in some markets, the financial storm that reached gale force some weeks before our last meeting here in Jackson Hole has not yet subsided, and its effects on the broader economy are becoming apparent in the form of softening economic activity and rising unemployment. Add to this mix a jump in inflation, in part the product of a global commodity boom, and the result has been one of the most challenging economic and policy environments in memory. Emphasis added

R. J. Caballero, E. Farhi, P. Gourinchas. 2008 Financial “Whac-a-Mole”: Bubbles, Commodity Prices and Global Imbalances. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity Fall 2008 Conference Draft

-- “This paper provides theoretical and empirical evidence to support the proposition that three of the major global macroeconomic phenomena of recent years-–the persistent global imbalances, the subprime crisis, and the volatile oil prices that followed it-- are tightly interconnected. They all stem from a global environment where sound and liquid financial assets are in scarce supply.” Emphasis added

R. J. Caballero, E. Farhi, P. Gourinchas. 2008
“Financial Crash, Commodity Prices, and Global Imbalances” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity - 2008, 2, pp. 1-55 Brookings Institution Press E-ISSN: 1533-4465 Print ISSN: 0007-2303 DOI: 10.1353/eca.0.0013

-- Abstract: The current financial crisis has its origins in global asset scarcity, which led to large capital flows toward the United States and to the creation of asset bubbles that eventually burst. In its first phase the crash exacerbated the shortage of assets in the world economy, which triggered a partial re-creation of the bubble in commodities markets, and oil markets in particular. This bubble in turn led to an increase in petrodollars seeking financial assets in the United States, which became a source of stability for the U.S. external balance. The second phase of the crisis is more conventional and began to emerge in the summer of 2008, when it became apparent that the financial crisis would permeate the real economy and sharply slow global growth. This slowdown worked to reverse the tight commodity market conditions required for a bubble to develop, ultimately destroying the commodity bubble. Emphasis added

Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08

A third paper from Brookings Inst. from Mar 23,2009 seems to directly confirm my view that the oil price spiral 2007-08 was due to diminishing resource response to oil investments. That implicates resource depletion as the trigger for the speculative surge, as I've described, and its "material contribution" to the recession and financial collapse. It doesn't make the further connection to he price spiral starting in 2003, or for why other commodity supplies would each appear to stagnate at the same time. I suggest that for major resource to all meet limits at once is natural for a stress equalizing market system.

James D. Hamilton 2009 Causes and Consequences of the Oil Shock of 2007-08 Brookings Papers Spring 2009 Conference Draft

"This paper explores similarities and differences between the run-up of oil prices in 2007-08 and earlier oil price shocks, looking at what caused the price increase and what effects it had on the economy. Whereas historical oil price shocks were primarily caused by physical disruptions of supply, the price run-up of 2007-08 was caused by strong demand confronting stagnating world production. Although the causes were different, the consequences for the economy appear to have been very similar to those observed in earlier episodes, with significant effects on overall consumption spending and purchases of domestic automobiles in particular. In the absence of those declines, it is unlikely that we would have characterized the period 2007:Q4 to 2008:Q3 as one of economic recession for the U.S. The experience of 2007-08 should thus be added to the list of recessions to which oil prices appear to have made a material contribution."

The ultimate problem seems to the fact that we are human. In the balance between rationality and emotions, emotions win.
Rationally we know that finite resources used at a rate greater than zero will lead to depletion, but emotionally we all want a raise next year.


Wow what can I say this is exactly what I've been trying to say for some time.

I think however you have missed some of the problem. As the system approaches limits i.e further investment yields lower returns you can cheat.

If you have a fiat currency system you can borrow from the future to drive investment today promising a much higher rate of return then will ever be realized. So what happens is as the real future returns are falling the financial system makes ever more ludicrous promises of future returns to drive growth today to prevent default. It does not care how crazy things get as long as monetary inflation keeps the default rates low.

Next if this flood of debt induces technical innovation you get a tremendous boost to the economy as resources are allocated to expanding new technologies. In our case resource extraction technologies of all sorts also expanded dramatically allowing ever more efficient extraction.

What this does as serves to hide the real underlying decline as increasing system complexity is mistaken for growth. The system is not really growing as can be seen by increasing debt loads. This ability to increase complexity even as resources become strained can be seen in nature mature ecosystems develop maximum complexity to fully utilize the natural solar and water resources for a given environment. This does not change the overall amount of energy but allows more efficient usage. Like nature we had a diversity explosion as we hit resource constraints.

Unlike nature we did it without a balanced budget if you will. Most of the alternative proposal for our current path boil down to developing complexity more like its done naturally and staying balanced.

The problem regardless is when the energy budget declines even the natural complex ecosystems collapse and our imbalanced faux economy does not just collapse but suffers a spectacular implosion.

This force which is really unpayable debts is actually the most important one during the initial stages of collapse its not "real" but because the system cannot restructure it becomes very real. And of course we can expect the fiat money pump to remain open further inflaming the situation.

So I think you have the basics right but for the short term the fact the system was driven when it should have been balancing its budget overwhelms the basic underlying resource situation and makes it far worse.

Well, yes, but I think whether you have fiat currency or any other kind, you get the very same problem you describe. You can make promises, true or false, and bank on them if anyone believes you. What guarantees the system will spin out of control, and the promises will automatically escalate is something other than how the currency is expanded I think.

Any currency system need to be elastic somehow, and businesses need to rely on contracts. What I see as the other variable not presently being widely discussed is the practice of regulators guaranteeing the stability of the interest rate *and* allowing people to *“add their winnings”* received from lending our their savings *“to their future bets”*. So there you have an automatic feedback loop, and a financial system structured to guarantee that it will spiral out of control whenever the physical world lags a little or a lot and makes the promises of ever multiplying wealth into a lie.

You say “Most of the alternative proposal for our current path boil down to developing complexity more like its done naturally and staying balanced.” I would be pleased if that were the case. The ones I know of may have that goal but I believe will create greater internal conflict than we presently have, done by constraining growth without eliminating the automatic mechanism described above that drives growth by continually intensifying internal competition.

In my view nature develops high degrees of healthy complexity as systems mature within their limits, as they approach their period of stable vitality, aka “the good life”… I think it’s done by unplugging that sort of growth feedback mechanism so the same surplus can be used for something else. I think that’s the key, the way turning off the growth pump gives a system the resources and the time to devote to completing and resolving its design to as it approaches perfection. Any organism exemplifies that, and any person who stops growing only because their pants get too tight exemplifies the opposite… ;-)

All I can say is you explain it better than I can but spot on.

Maybe I should say most of the alternatives claim to be like natural systems but they are not.

I would be pleased if that were the case. The ones I know of may have that goal but I believe will create greater internal conflict than we presently have, done by constraining growth without eliminating the automatic mechanism described above that drives growth by continually intensifying internal competition.

Exactly thats why I'm dismissive of a lot of the proposed alternatives.
40K EV's for the few remaining rich is not a solution regardless of how they are powered coal, wind etc.

I think that’s the key, the way turning off the growth pump gives a system the resources and the time to devote to completing and resolving its design to as it approaches perfection. Any organism exemplifies that, and any person who stops growing only because their pants get too tight exemplifies the opposite… ;-)

This is why I claim a system that facing declining resources has to first simply then "grow" into its constraints slowly with refinement. I think the way you describe it as refinement is far better. It needs to simply till and excess is possible then slowly refine itself using the excess renewable energy each year to generate more complexity but more akin to art than science.

Glad to see someone with a better grasp of the English language try and explain this :)

I see what your saying but can't explain it.

Don't underestimate the raw power of an broken promise on humans. Broken promises lead to anger and a few million people are about to face the wrath of six billion pissed off people that never got their piece of pie.

I agree to your article, being a follower of "the limits to growth". However, I believe that the role of price speculation, while destabilizing the price curve of commodities and adding volatility, is only a minor factor in the long run. I am thinking about a business concept which derives capital gains from commodity scarcity and redirects gains towards social business, renewable energy investments etc. How would that fit into your views? I´d be really interested. Sincere regards from Germany

The leading economists quoted above don’t describe the commodity price spiral as an insignificant factor at all, but very major. They also don’t offer a reason for it, except noting as I also did that it ended up being driven even higher by speculation .

I think the question might be how to prevent speculation from doing that, from piling whatever the reason the global food and fuel markets became vulnerable to speculation. Still, other than that a lot of speculators jumping on the band wagon, why do you think the commodity markets became vulnerable and unable to respond to higher prices by providing greater supplies, as it seems they always had before?

Well, the commodity markets would display a perfect exponential curve to the stars as commodities run scarcer because demand can not be destructed in a civilization based upon these commodities. Speculators don´t change the general path of this curve, they just make it swing up and down like crazy on its way upwards due to bubble inflating and deflating, is my opinion.

Well, yes, the speculators don't create the scarcity, just exploit it.

What actually happens is that the parts of the weaker parts of the system that had formerly required a resource that gets expensive, stop using it and collapse. Think of the economic system as pyramid, and that that price spirals in necessities signal waves of collapse from the bottom. Our system is hard to draw a full picture of, as there also seem to have been waves of collapse at the top at the same time. I think my concept$.htm would help start putting that all together.

Hello Ciliata,

Great TOD name!

Welcome to TOD! I assume your personal nasal cilia is highly sensitized to seek S with every Peakoil Shoutout? :)
The Ciliata, or Ciliophora, includes about 7000 known species of some of the most complex single-celled organisms ever.
On the larger scale above Ciliata, we seek the same in our 'Societal Prey':
..This is actually no different than in Nature: a lion pride's or wolfpack's fresh kill quickly sets off a feeding frenzy to be the first to the prey's liver and other high mineral content internal organs. The eating of most of the muscle & bones is done later.

Thus, picture our 'societal prey' as the annual total of a cubic mile of oil [bones], with multi-cubic miles of natgas [muscle], with the [internal organs] being the highly prized agri-Elements NPKS. The resulting food surplus is what allows job specialization, thus civilization...

Will we learn to "Profit from self-induced S-Scarcity"? My Thx[S] to the keypost's author for this extremely interesting thread.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hello Totonella, thanks for the compliment - actually i was trained a biologist with a specialization on protozoa-plant-microbial interactions. And yes, I have spent quite a bit of time observing the rise and fall of a yeast population in a limited environment. .. As for mankind, I´d go with the saying of Dennis Meadows "I am a pessimist of the mind but an optimist of the heart." The Question that bugs me is: Is it morally acceptable to know about the mess we´re in, profit from the upswings and downswings, and to shovel a large share of the profits into things that make sense for society - things that are needed in a highly chaotic transition phase. I am thinking about social business projects for education of the poorest, of renewable energy projects in 3rd world countries, of habitat conservation and so on. Best, ciliata

Your welcome. As to the answer to your moral question: I don't have a definitive and articulate philosophical answer, but it only makes sense to get prepared using whatever knowledge, skills, and methods that you perceive as best protecting yourself & family & community for the rough ride ahead.

"Is it morally acceptable to know about the mess we´re in, profit from the upswings and downswings, and to shovel a large share of the profits into things that make sense for society"

Try asking is it morally acceptable NOT to do things that make sense for society? but I expect you already have:-) Think if the future of all human civilisation depended on me, what would I do, how would I be? It's up to us to create what happens next.

Yes. Specifically I meant: Is making financial gains from an inevitably rising, (but also an eventually socially destructive) price curve ok as a means of accumulating capital for societal well being - it does sound so schizophrenic at least, but at small scale may do some good...let me give you a practical example:

I constantly make a bit of money on oil future price development. I use greater part of the profits for instance as a microcredit to a school in rural Uganda. Although it is only a small amount, it helps to expand their business (education fights poverty and burns no oil), helps to employ some 8 people, another 80 dependent relatives and educates hundreds of kids.

Money comes from an absurd system (speculation on scarce commodities like oil, which in macro-scale even adds to further destabilize the price dynamics) and is redirected to at least hopefully good projects with a high social leverage. Concept stays vulnerable to criticism however, even my own ;)

At the end, I guess some solutions have to face the crazy reality of the entire system and make the best of it.

Again: thank you people for your feedback on my humble little world improvement plan. best, ciliata

Yes. Profit from options and futures and keep none of the proceeds for yourself; rather, use them to help get the natural world and a reasonable compliment and diversity of passengers through the bottleneck as well as possible.

It's a bit like water catchment in principle.

It's something I'm trying, as an adjunct strategy to my other efforts. Not very good at it, seemingly. I lost seven figures last year by not weighting deflationary trends, which was a shame for my projects. But I still drive an $1100 beater car and can't afford tooth implants.

Redeployment of resources by the relatively sane is a good thing, I think. Don't let it bother you to catch the rain; just realize you only need a sip for yourself.

Best "economics" article I've read in a long time. I'd nominate it as "recommended reading" as a permanent TOD resource.

The things which we attempt to describe with "economics" constitute a quasi-biological adaptive system with a lot deeply in common with ecology. The context at any point is determined by the real-world constraints.

For a short time, we'll have "extremophiles" which are able to profit from volatility; black swan cooties.

(mental note: The Black Swan Cooties would be an excellent name for a rock band).

with apologies to:

Rock Band? Oh,you're not talking about lithographic strata are you?

Well I'm sure that this would still make a good background picture for their first album cover.

Black Swan Cooties

Hey, cool pic. Album cover potential for sure. And for some reason that rock actually does remind me of the economy... hmmm, wonder why....

Might as well do strata, I have a geology degree going to waste....

a tip of the hat, FM, for your generally excellent & trenchant commentary on everything, this notwithstanding...

TKS, I appreciate the compliment!

Great image kayak guy, it's called the Idol Rock - 200 tons on a tiny plinth.

Thanks very much for the compliment. It's probably worth coming back to again sometime, after thinking about a bit, since there are a few things that won't be apparent till you've thought about the basic premise for a while. Is it really possible that the limit of growth may have been some time ago? Is that the reason investment in either physical or financial growth is creating explosively growing complications out pacing any real gains?

It's really almost implausible that a "highly intelligent" species, priding itself on learning the secrets of a physical world, would still believe in doubling our rate of changing both it and how we ourselves live on it, every 20 years or so in perpetuity. It would make it hard to not make mistakes, for example. The basic work of doing something about that rather basic mistake itself seems need us to learn how to see that nature has been responding differently than was planned.

Actually, it resonates well on first read for me, and probably a good number of other TOD regulars. Some pretty savvy folks hang out here.

The "highly intelligent" aspects of our species have been exaggerated and the delusional aspects underplayed; I recommend reading some of Nate's past postings on this stuff here if you haven't; for edification, enjoyment and chagrin.

You're right, and few people will be willing to believe it, and that's part of our existential pickle. (also, oddly enough, a good name for a rock band).

Please feel free to be in touch directly if you'd like by clicking on my user name.

The responses have likewise resonated with me, and made my replies easy.

It's a lot easier to write for people with similar curiosities to your own, and not just throwing opinions around. I'd be happy to follow up with anyone, especially if there's a work opportunity for applying this approach, of course. I have a variety of basic research techniques for studying uncontrolled systems scientifically behind this. See

Very cool stuff on your website.

Everybody - click on the link and check it out.

"Is it really possible that the limit of growth may have been some time ago? "

I'm not sure how far back you mean. A number of people around here are pretty sure that the real peak is not peak oil but peak EROEI for oil. This is devilishly hard to pin down perfectly, but it seems reasonable to assume that it happened in the late nineties when oil started its exponential price rise that finally ended with last year's economic collapse.

I think the "limit to growth" is actually the inflection point in the growth curve, NOT it's future asymptote.

It makes a lot more sense that way, and is a very real limit you can see in the growth of all kinds of systems.

To find the inflection point for the whole economic system, then, you'd look at a collection of measures of growth over time. For me that includes energy use, both earned and unearned money income, quality of life measures and signs of increasing conflict with limits, etc.

I have not made a full study of it, but I think that the inflection point of our growth curve occurred, and turning it into an "S" curve by reversing curvature, in about 1960. That does not mark the limiting size of the system but the limit of its positive feedback process, when nature shut that off... and the end of increasing real returns on increasing investment. That inflection point is the whole system point of diminishing returns.

It's a little tricky to think of the relation between the scales, rates & accelerations of the whole system (its derivative rates). Then there's also the proportional rates of change (exponents). Given the whole system is in flux, all parts of the 'equations' become variable where the system's own learning process comes in.

I usually approach by interpreting equations as questions about when the environment will reverse them. That's what underlies my use of what look like the outputs of equations, but call them learning curves. It ends up giving the equations a flexible fit to reality, while teaching you a lot about reality in the process by prompting good questions at the right point in time. That's what my work is mostly about.

"when the environment will reverse them"

And how, pray tell, could you possibly estimate that??

The key to *estimating that* is first asking the question. Asking the question is often overlooked. Most people treat observed trends as fixtures you can count on. More often trends trigger reactions by things around them and get reversed.

The mayor of NYC has based his entire "sustainability" plan on a ten year trend of increasing popularity and population of the city, and made a straight line extrapolation that the city would increase in population by another million people, and to be "sustainable" would need buildings and parks and services built for them. Were you to ask how he environment would reverse the trend you don't get a straight line projection, but a realization that NYC's infrastructure is already congested and over taxed in numerous ways, and that adding large numbers of people might stall as the city became unlivable again.

The more particular rule is that growth systems naturally upset their own growth mechanisms. In both that and the general case of trends tending to reverse (by running into things)it helps to ask what any trend will run into... ;-)

Philip Henshaw, thank you. Your post speaks to me. What it mostly says is "Oh dear", but it is better to know than not know.

I think your post on The Failure of Networked Systems is closely related. If Phil hasn't read it, it might be a good one for him to read.

Yes, The Failure of Networked Systems also relates to the "point of vanishing returns" and collapse in another way.

The way that improving efficiency makes systems more vulnerable as they are overextended is a very real threat. I've written on that as well, as has Robert Ulanowicz. In that case the "non-renewable resource" is the tolerance of the system and the adaptability of the parts. That makes it still very much part of the whole subject of how we can transition from "surviving on exhausting" our poor planet and our own limited learning capabilities...

Nature very much has ways to get out of these traps, but we're still mostly in "the problem identification" phase. Increasing our control of things that need to be left to take care of themselves is one thing. Not perfecting the efficiency of things to the point of becoming unstable is another. My short piece on the "Efficiency Mistake" is presently #2 in the list at Concept&Comment

Thanks much. Hopefully the idea you're responding to is "Oh dear, THAT's the steering wheel!",

Seeing how the environment is responding is the entire key to real "cybernetic" steering is the main theme. When buffing your shoes, once you have a shine and there's little more to accomplish, you put the buffing pad down down and go for a walk... The strategic difference is it's a matter of changing *purposes* when an old technique is at its limit, not just perfecting *techniques*.

Best, pfh

In micro-economics, and in development generally, it is universally understood that any process of increasing self-investment has increasing returns only to a limit. Past that limit, additional investment produces diminishing returns.

Hall & Cleveland studied this in relation to oil and found that it was true. Increased investment just meant less barrels per foot drilled. It is covered in this 1981 paper.

I have often wondered if this was not the reason for the logistic shape in any oil production curve. For there to be a logistic shape there must be a higher return for going slower. If the return was the same for producing fast or slow, then we could expect to see an exponential rise, and then nearly instant fall to zero (more like the USGS models of late peak oil production.) This little attribute of oil may partly save us from ourselves.

I don't think natural gas behaves this way. I think natural gas may rise in price and production until it just cannot be afforded and then crash. And the downward slow shape will be determined by how economies collapse, more than geological factors.

There are a lot of variables, but what does not vary is that the more you take the cheaper it gets... until... the more expensive it gets.

Those are typically irreversible changes in developmental direction for any given development purpose. If you go to the point where liquid crude is no longer profitable using one extraction method, the next extraction methods will be produce oil more, not less, expensively.

That still leaves a lot of sour crude for slow microbes perhaps (hypothetically), and conceivably a long lived resource at lower capacity. That would do nothing to save our system of using up everything ever faster, of course, but could leave a lot of "slow burn" resources around for some successor civilization that figures out another demand curve...

This is great stuff Philip. Thanks for posting.

This expalins a lot, "What’s first needed is a means of noticing things not following the old rules. The problem seems to occur when we have little experience except for knowing the rules to follow. We can then get the wrong signal, as when following old rules in an environment where the rules have changed."

A lot of what we see here at TOD is scanning behavior, looking for those new rules. It's quite possible the new rules won't even manifest until the old rules are completetly excised. Do you think there's a possible time shift when the old rules break down and the new replacements are vague or not fully formed, or do we shift from old to new with some immediacy?

Thanks again.

Don in Maine


I have a hard time with all the 'fugazzi' of modern life and its RULES.

Here is simplicity.

You put a seed in the ground. It grows and produces food. You eat the food and the cycle repeats.

Its when man with his science of profit ,etc, steps in and starts fussing with the simplicity that we begin the downhill slide and to where we are now headed.

Clues: Monsanto,ADM,et al

Food to eat, wood to cook it with, a shelter to assist in that.

Thoreau makes it rather simple.

Airdale-there will be naysayers but they become merchants and then we start all over again ,so leave me to the simple part for I have enough of the mercantilism which produces huge quantities of plastic shit and then comes all the raggedy rest,,,Letterman,Soaps,Idols yada yada...

We conquer nothing, we rule nothing, we think we do but we fail/fall in the end. What have we gained? What have we lost? We are losing a planet.

"We conquer nothing, we rule nothing, we think we do but we fail/fall in the end. What have we gained? What have we lost? We are losing a planet."

Losing a Planet? Not so much, I think.

The planet is losing us.

The speed of succession from one system of thinking to another is always the same general growth pattern, I think, and we're talking about humans being "slow on the uptake" so our mental rules are out of sync with nature's responses to us.

When people finally put together a new picture, there may be a point of recognition making it seem like new ideas burst on the scene, that really took a long time to develop. TS Kuhn in discussing scientific revolutions mentions some of that, but it's also visible in the cultural shifts within any little office group or family unit, as well as in cultures and in politics.

In terms of noticing that we've slipped into trying to grow by profiting from scarcity,... I think we are definitely slow on the uptake... The change in nature's signals that we missed, her responses, was fairly rapid in that it's the very slight change in curvature of the growth curve at its neutral point. That also a reason for it to be so easy to miss. That's when our habit of ever increasing investment to produce ever more ever cheaper, urned to to ever less more ever less cheaply.

Its interesting I've phrased it as complex systems lying about their state but you can also look at it as the old measurements are no longer valid i.e you have been measuring mass but now the system has a electric charge with throws off the mass measurement.

In fact a better way to look at it is during emergent behavior the system is expressing itself in new variables simply not in the old equations. Certainly new equations are probably also needed but you have this more profound change of variable.

As and example consider a species that evolves from being asexual to sexual certainly you can continue to count the individuals but your completely missing the new and powerful variable of sex. You may wonder why the individuals of the species now require meetings before having young. I bet you could create some crazy theories.

Intuitively for me these emergent variables are far more powerful then a simple collection of more primitive physical measurements. The sum is greater than the parts.

As and example a lump of iron is simply not the same as and exquisitely machined gun. We know this but what is the measure ? By this what would you measure physically to tell the two apart. How would you value it ?
Money is something we created to express this difference but forgetting money how would you value a lump of iron over any manufactured piece with the same materials.

For that matter a living being is a small collection of a few elements yet again the sum is far greater then the parts. A barrel of oil with some trace elements mixed in probably something closer to vinegar and oil salad dressing even has the same basic bonding structure. You could of course move further and just run and entire animal through a meat grinder and its exactly the same as the pre grinder animal at the molecular level yet obviously you lost something ( life )

Whats the physical measurement how do you weigh a soul ?

All of this in my opinion is revolving around the same problem of emergent behavior. And I'd argue its not measurable with classical or even traditional quantum variables. I'd argue its almost certainly a property of quantum mechanics but what it is is ill defined.

Its also interesting that you hit the same thing in reading your Unification of Conservation laws internal variable are conserved in the divergent process. These can be as tenuous and powerful as what we call life but that have no traditional physical measure.

Also one last thing.

My law of complexity is a system is complex if the time it takes to simplify it is indeterminate. The simplest example is it the time when a sand pile with a single grain being added will actually collapse.

A system can be determined to be complex if attempts to simply it result in it being reduced to its simple form at arbitrary time rates. As you mention a fire and spark going out this is some what bounded by the breaking of the intrinsic of a system. Obviously dumping water on a fire will put it out but when does a campfire left untended finally die ? If you set the system on a path that will ensure it becomes simple i.e from a fire to no fire then the time evolution to reach the no fire state is not well bounded its complex thus a campfire is a complex system.

One could say that your law of Continuity or more correctly emergant behavior is also saying that the time evolution of the system is undefined.

Yes, that idea of "emergent variables" is quite close to how I look at it.

There are some that are unforeseeable, as the emergence of sexual reproduction for example. You tend to notice those as new growth systems, and are drawn to the novel mechanism by finding the feedback loop of he growth process. Any new type of organization seems to get its successful developmental start with growth.

Then there are emergent variables as come in as the growth system interacts with its environment. Those may sometimes be complementary connections representing new relationships with other systems. That such new kinds of learning for a growth system will occur is completely foreseeable, but takes careful observation to tell what is or will be learned at any time. That every growth process will change its environment to upset its own growth mechanism is one of those. There are a series of them, that I describe as marking the "Chapters" of the developmental story of events.

The unusual way I use measures for the study of system organization is to interpret them as learning curves measuring a degree of organization, all be it, in that undefined direction. I'm mainly using the math as a pointer to help me ask better questions about kinds of organization that math can't describe. When I find a divergence between the learning curves and what a model would predict, it points to needing a new model.

My maps of those bounding points for when developmental systems change state, starting with the germination of their seed network of relationships, and ending with "breaking of the intrinsic of a system" as you nicely put it, is chapters.htm

footnote: To understand how a whole economic system can lack "necessities" or have resource "depletion" is important. The design of an economic system is flexible and expandable because substitutes can be found for almost anything. The problem is recognizing the limits of that ability to make substitutions.

So, in this context “depletion” refers to the whole economy’s method of having access to resources, not the depletion of any one source or method of obtaining them, and “necessity” is similarly the requirements of the whole system for following its normal rules.