Umbrella View of Resource Depletion and Human Behaviour

This is a slide video of the presentation I asked Nate Hagens to give at the Oil Drum/ASPO Conference at Alcatraz, Italy in June 2009. It contains a concise summary of many issues related to depletion, energy supply, human behaviour and the financial system. More background material can be found in the articles by Nate Hagens linked below the fold. The presentation itself can be downloaded here: Umbrella View of Resource Depletion and Human Behaviour, PDF 148 slides, 8.7 MB.

Umbrella View of Resource Depletion & Human Behaviour from Rembrandt Koppelaar on Vimeo.

Rembrandt asked me to give a 'grand finale' presentation of a weekend conference on depletion, offering up a framework for how to view the supply/demand intersection. Many in audience were my friends/colleagues so there were quite a few inside jokes. I was also trying to squeeze a heck of alot into 60 minutes. There are several errata after a first listen:

1. Earth is 4.5 billion years old (sounded like I said trillion)
2. Brains began in simple organisms, I said 'single cell'.
3. 50% of obese children will grow up to be obese, (not 50% are obese)
4. Avg height difference between men and women in human cultures is range of 4-7 inches, not 7 inches.
5. Wages rose for 15 decades (not centuries...though that too is possible but data is only for certain countries)

The general thrust of lateral thinking...generalist vs specialist is what I was aiming at - i.e. it is a mistake to a)focus on one limiting resource and b)ignore who we are as evolved organisms and all that entails. Out of all topics I discussed, I would only consider myself an 'expert' on finance (which means I'm an expert on none...;-)

If you watched it, I hope you enjoyed/learned something. I was happy, given my severe lack of sleep, that I fit it all into 1 hour. There are no easy answers to these issues, and maybe no hard ones either - it is my hope that others at higher levels in business/government/academia can bring these concepts closer together...

**Some selected references that were not indicated on slides:
Life as a Manifestation of Second Law of Thermodynamics Schneider, E.D, Kay, J.J., 1994, Mathematical and Computer Modelling, Vol 19, No. 6-8, pp.25-48

The Continuing Importance of Maximum Power Charles Hall, Ecological Modelling
Volume 178, Issues 1-2, 15 October 2004, Pages 107-113

Cultural Objects Modulate Reward Circuitry, Erk, S. et al. Neuroreport Dec 2002.

Falling Behind: How Rising Inequality Hurts the Middle Class Robert Frank Jan 2008

Humans Prefer Cockiness To Expertise New Scientist Jun 2009

Often in Error, Rarely in Doubt Don Moore, Association For Psychological Science Conference, May 25 2009.

The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self-deception Robert Trivers, Annals of NY Academy of Science, 2000

Availability Cascade and Risk RegulationKuran, T., Sunstein, S., Stanford Law Review Vol. 51, No.4 1999

Biological Basis of the Stress Response James P. Henry, Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, January-March, 1992, volume 27, Number 1, pages 66-83.

The 'bible' on Sexual Selection: Mating Systems and Strategies Stephen Schuster, Mike Wade, 2003

Nate, it's unclear what you mean by brains evolving from simple organisms, not cells. Doesn't Allman in Evolving Brains discuss how bacteria like E. coli exhibit brain-like function, pursuing nutrients and avoiding threats?

Also, Nate, forget hope for a moment and take a hard look at academia, government, and industry. Government is about policy and implementation, academia is about theory, and industry is about finding a way to profit on the other two. Virtually no-one tied to any one of these social institutions really has a clue how the other two work, and that kind of common ground would be necessary for a coming together.

Forgetting also that government, academia, and industry are all fundamentally flawed social institutions.

People are not inherently flawed, the social environments to which they belong are inherently flawed. If you are looking for solutions, you are looking for your lost keys under the street lamp of government, industry, and academia, but you lost your keys in the dark alley of common and individual human experience.

1)I have Allman's book somewhere in the basement - I'm not sure whether quorum sensing activity in single celled organisms was origin of reptilian brain or not-clearly single celled organisms were the 'precursor' of brains- in any case I intended to say 'simple'.

2)I agree with you about our flawed institutions, but institutions can be derived and changed by groups of individuals that see behind the curtain. To compete, to value present over future, to enjoy (and have potential to be hijacked by) available novelty is not a 'flaw', to be inherently optimistic and believe in ones own viewpoint over that of others - these are constraints. Depending on ones vantage point they could be considered opportunities.

And we need institutions in our society, just rational, forward thinking ones. Institutions are only way to dampen/direct the impulses of the 'elephant'...

As to quantifying hope etc., there are many different timelines for hope. What gives me hope is sharing ideas and lateral thinking with like minded people.

"Forgetting also that government, academia, and industry are all fundamentally flawed social institutions."

That would be pretty much like saying "society is a flawed social institution", or to use the advice that the psychiatrist gave to the brothers Niles and Frasier Crane on a very funny episode of the TV show "Frasier", "your best bet is to stay the hell away from each other!"

Of course, the question would be to name, in all of history, one, just one "non-flawed" social institution. Humans are flawed so of course our institutions are flawed. The measure of a social institution is whether it magnifies the positives of the individuals so that the institution is better as a group than the individuals would be on their own, or if it magnifies the negatives of the individuals so that the group is worse than the individuals would be on their own. It's really not that complicated, but it is very hard for an institution to accomplish to bring out the best consistantly and not the worst. (Brief aside: We have to assume that more social institutions have benefitted humans in the big picture of evolutionary competitiveness than have not or there would not be so many of us on the planet)


When I said fundamentally flawed, I meant flawed from a design standpoint as opposed to an implementation standpoint.

"Would you classify that as a launch problem or a design problem?" -- Chris Knight, "Real Genius"

If you design a screwdriver to hammer a nail, the best implementation in the world will still fall short. You need to design a hammer. What we have designed as government, academia, and business are not suitable for human needs for structure, experience transfer, and meaningful ways of life.

Religion, also fundamentally flawed for failing to deal with human needs to cope with "spirituality", or wonder, awe, and the unknown.

Now, as for social institutions that aren't flawed from a design standpoint, you wanted one? Pick which one you agree with from among these five:

1. Reciprocity
2. Language and storytelling
3. Technology
4. Teamwork
5. Rearing of our young

Each one of these is a necessary institutional part of all human societies, and all problems resulting from engaging them are implementation problems. Eating, not specifically a social institution, is also not a flawed design for ingesting nutrients and energy, but the implementation is flawed when we eat HFCS and other processed crap, or eat too much and become overweight.

I used to lean heavily toward the side of thinking that humans are inherently flawed. But then I realized that to say humans are inherently flawed, is to say that life is inherently flawed, which is to say that the laws of reality are inherently flawed. If we are inherently flawed, then everything is inherently flawed. We didn't spring forth here from another dimension, we are a product of this reality.

It could instead be that our collective understandings and assumptions need further tweaking and percolation. Just saying.

So Mom was wrong when she said nobody is perfect, i.e. flawless.

It's actually an interesting philosophical position, sort of "the best of all possible worlds" idea.
I have my problems with it, but it's a hell of a sight better than some of the misanthropic stuff I see around here! :-)


Thanks. We're not on the same page yet, but maybe we're standing in the same library.

This position is based on the idea that billions of years ago, life on Earth was all single-celled, but eventually became multicellular. At one point in the evolution of life, it was unmanageably complex to coordinate multiple cells toward sustainable action. Today, all the life we can readily see with the naked eye, including ourselves, are manageably complex colonies of billions to trillions of individual living cells.

From our experience, the only sustainable social arrangements for human societies are tribal. But larger-scale sustainable societies could be possible if the right social building blocks were used.

The ideas and experience we used in our very first attempt at building a large society, which were all we knew how to do at the time, resulted in flawed designs for social structure (government and law), and spirituality (religion). Later came educational systems and industry, both, essentially, first attempts at solving problems of experience transfer and physical resource support.

How many times in human history have we attempted to solve a problem at any scale, from small to large, and gotten it right on the first try? As small examples, what's the version number of the operating system you're using right now? How often do you correct typos or re-word your posts?

We have been chiseling away at the square, not round, stone wheels of government, industry, and education, trying to make them go under water, fly, and clean our windows. They aren't designed to work that way, and they're not even very suitable for what we had intended hundreds and thousands of years ago.

Yes, you can call the stone wheels an "airplane" and attach a jet engine to it and make it fly. And this is where most of the energy waste goes, forcing more poor societal designs into a poorly understood society. The problems aren't fast cars, it's why we need speed. It's not iPods, it's why we continually need distraction. It's not crime, it's why people for thousands of years have been continually and repeatedly forced into self-destructive behaviors.

It's a lack of appropriate options, and a lack of appropriate understanding. It's these options and understandings that at one end help bind and at the other help enable a society.

...then everything is inherently flawed.

Maybe Godel Incompleteness Theorems fit here...

Thank you for sharing this presentation Nate. I have one question please. Can you please briefly explain what slide 118 (Effective Net Worth Per Citizen) is describing.

I am a UK citizen and I think that it should scare the living bee-jeebers out of me. But before I go and drown my sorrows I would like to know exactly what it is!

Thanks again,

Source is here (data IMF). It is based on external debt per country (net debt to foreigners) divided by population. I would argue this understates true debt, because so much of the mountain of debt is linked to things that are positively correlated (shares, real estate, etc.) that a drop of 20% would accelerate the losses. In many real senses, the worlds leading countries are bankrupt - only in terms of natural resources are we still rich, and then only if we use significantly less per capita. UK is in big trouble..

Thanks Nate. That makes sense. I too am very pessimistic about the UK. We are strutting around the world - fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan - like we are still an Empire. It is a sad thing to see. Our politicos still think that we are a 'big player' because we have a bunch of nukes on submarines but in reality we can't even buy our troops decent kit. Our economy is now completely hollowed out: the two income streams which have been supporting the 00's debt binge, namely North Sea oil and The City of London, have now largely evaporated. We have next to no manufacturing base, and where we do make things our labour costs are still far, far too high to compete (and there is another raise in the minimum wage just around the corner). Even IT jobs are now outsourced. There is no one sector capable of dragging us out of our "economic downturn" (I love that phrase!).

Our national debt is stratospheric. Our personal debt is stratospheric. It has been stated by prominent organizations that just to contain our national debt there will need to be an income tax increase to 35% for everyone! The government blabbers on about how they are focused on ‘cutting the deficit in half by 2016’ and the few people who are still listening assume that they are talking about cutting the debt in half! A halved deficit is still adding to the debt!

The consumer binge-buying days are over, house prices are still unaffordable using any sane measurement, real wages are stagnant at best, and we are a massive net importer of food - if we were surrounded by U-boats again we would starve. Except this time it need not be U-boats, but a sliding pound. Our pension system is non existent and our school leavers are not nearly as well educated as they need to be if we are to 'compete' in the high-tech information-capital world envisaged by some; you know the sort. They say "leave the manufacturing to the Chinese and Indians and we will instead do the designing. Never mind that a production line can employ 100s of not-very-bright people to make a never-ending supply of clever unrequired gadgets but which have been designed by only a handful of bright people.

By any metric you care to judge the UK we are in trouble. And it all boils down to the fact that we continue to cling to the absurd assumption of 'business as usual' and the Golden Rule of Getting Elected: GDP Growth! Historians will look back at these times and mark them down as just another part of the Grand Cycle. Humans are seriously bad at planning for the future. We hate to do it. We only react to crises, never anticipate them. As I walk around my town here on the south coast of England I am amazed at the complacency - and ignorance. People do not want to have their comfortable, consumptive lives interrupted by reality. Even though I strongly detect an undercurrent of people ‘feeling that all is not quite right’.

One of my favourite charts is the one showing the time line from 5000BC to 5000AD and the tiny slither of the oil age as a spike in energy consumption. I am sure people know the one I mean. Our entire economic system of consumptive-based growth has only been in full swing for the last 150 years – maximum. In reality, more like the last 50 years. In historical terms this is nothing. We have no precedent for continued economic consumptive growth (with the ensuing population explosion). Cycles happen, just as you say in the lecture.

I am sure that none of this is news to the readers of The Drum. I just wish that the odd politician would start to understand. That is our biggest problem. Can you imagine if a politician stood up in parliament and said “we must stop this absurd, destructive GDP growth, stop borrowing money, roll back globalization and start to scale back our energy consumption now before it is too late”. They would be hounded out of office and ridiculed till the end of their days.

Ah well, there’s always beer!

Our entire economic system of consumptive-based growth has only been in full swing for the last 150 years – maximum. In reality, more like the last 50 years...

Agreed but I'm not yet grumpy enough to deny it wasn't good while it lasted...


Review: Is This Umbrella a Bit To Big For Me?

Now to Nate Hagens overall presentation:
First the compliments:

-It's a damn good presentation. Very inclusive and thought provoking and gives an inclusive overview of where the thinking is on this issue among those who consider depletion a serious issue, and believe in taking a "wholistic" approach to the problems. The presentation presents not only a theory regarding depletion but attempts to present something of an inclusive theory of "ecology" in the biggest sense. I would recommend it to thinking friends, because it would cause even those who think that depletion and near term peak oil are non-existent threats to think about things they are not in the habit of thinking about (why we want what we want, for one)

That doesn't mean I agree with all the conclusions, but Nate and I have differed on TOD on things before, and he has not suffered because I differ with him on some points, and I have learned from his positions and arguments in most cases.

I am going to discuss, as best as I am able, the big picture issues and not dwell on small points or seek out tiny errors because the presentation is a "big picture presentation" and deserves to be seen as such. However, if we accept the premise that "the exception makes the rule" (with some exceptions!) then my interest in some following exceptions may make some sense:

-The presentation must by it's very nature do a lot of generalizing. This is fine in most cases as long as the viewer of the presentation keeps in mind that the generalizing is going on. We know that Nate places great importance on a few central themes that act as the scaffold that holds the rest of the argument together. Among the main ones are:
-Real wealth vs. fiat wealth
-Brain pharmacology (I could not come up with a better phrase than this to describe the discussion of the effect of dopamine and the need for what can only be described as a type of fascination with the chemical make up of the brain.

We know that all of the above factors exist, and we can assume they play a considerable role in the drive of human beings to do what they do and want what they want. As Nate points out, evolutionary science is probably less accepted in the U.S. than in most advanced nations, so we simply must leave aside those who completely dismiss evolution for the moment.

However, this does not release us from the issue of how clearly evolution is understood, even by the best minds in the area of evolutionary biology. There are dozens of books, hundreds of articles, papers and abstracts written every year on corrections, abridgements, amendments and additions to evolutionary theory, and we can assume the continuing changes in the theory will continue to be forthcoming. Nate’s presentation points to one example that is still a bit of a mystery, that being decoration to attract mates even at the cost of consuming more resources and being more visible to predators (the case of the peacocks tail). We can see how this would make the peacock a better competitor among his own species, but what does it say of the interspecies competition?

New species and behavioral adaptations of older well known species are being found each day. These complicate the simplicity of evolutionary theory considerably and tell us humans how very little we really know about the “whole picture” of the way in which evolution really has worked in all of biological history. Some generalization is needed, but it can be dangerous to generalize too much regarding human behavior based solely on evolutionary theory. This does not mean that evolution is not a huge factor, but we must keep in mind that we may be making some dubious assumptions based on very limited understanding.

The same is true of the economic side, or “real wealth vs. fiat wealth”. With the recent economic crisis it has been very easy to sow complete lack of confidence in the financial system the world has built up since the birth of currency. However, both coin and currency were created in various forms long before the oil age began.
But the attack on “money” has now been accepted as common knowledge. Let me give as an example the definition given on Wikipedia of “fiat money”:
Since 1971 the US dollar is not backed by anything. It is pure fiat money. The promise to exchange it for gold or silver was quietly withdrawn, and currency notes no longer carry that pledge. The same is true of all major currencies in the world today.

Do we accept the above statement as true? We know that the promise by the government to exchange gold or silver for currency has been “quietly withdrawn”…but of course in a free and open market currency can still be used to buy gold and silver. It can also be used to buy oil, grain, cars, airplanes, whiskey and cocaine. So do we still accept that the money is “not backed by anything”? Do we give any value to the overall value of the economy that prints the money and it’s invested infrastructure of roads, airports, bridges, sewer systems, docks and dams, development of navigable waterways, schools, universities, military forces, information gathering and distribution systems…the list could go on, but would we assume that the U.S. dollar is “not backed by anything”? If this were true, then currency printed by the nation of Chad would be equal in value to the U.S. dollar? (!!) After all, if both were “not backed by anything”, what would cause open market buyers to place a premium on U.S. dollars (or Japanese Yen or the Euro?) as opposed to any other worthless bit of paper?

Only a few sentences later, the Wikipedia articles bails out of its own ludicrous position by saying “The transition from bank notes to government-guaranteed currency marks the evolution from trust in a financial institution to trust in the economic capacity and future prosperity of the nation. The greater a country’s production and productivity, the more the goods and services it offers in exchange for legal tender, and therefore the greater the confidence and trust in that currency.” Ah, so the currency is indeed backed by something, in fact it is backed by something more diverse and larger than all the gold and silver could provide, it is backed by the very ability of the economy to produce.

I use the above example not because I regard Wikipedia as a scholarly source, but because it and sites like it are where millions of people get their information. This explains the bizarre behavior described by Nate Hagens himself just today in the Campfire thread, when he recounted his hair stylist who exchanged “all of her bank cash for gold and tools.” Even Nate seemed a bit confused by her motives. The loss of confidence in the financial system is much more widespread and much more dangerous to the economy than any loss of energy supply, at least for now.

This is directly related to Nate’s presentation, in that the increase in money was directly linked to the increase in oil supply. I think the case can be made that this relationship must be studied MUCH more deeply before such a broad generalization is made, and indeed if we assume that the infrastructure we have was “built by oil” we must give weighted value to current infrastructure, since it one way it is a form of energy storage. (I have often made this argument, by the way, in my local area. A great old brick building would be torn down, without considering the energy storage that the building itself provided. We could do much to stretch the usefulness of built infrastructure through correct maintenance and thus increase our energy “stock” simply by stretching the useful life our national infrastructure.)

Note that I am not saying that Nate is “wrong”, I am simply saying that overgeneralization and oversimplification of the hysteria concerning cash money (“fiat money”) is dangerous and could lead us into some very unpredictable territory. In fact I think we are already seeing this in the current financial crisis, as the popular media has turned against the financial community in a big way.
The last point is what I called above “brain pharmacology” and I will tie it to marketing for the purposes of this discussion, because both seem to be directly related in Nate’s mind to the issue of human motivation and desire, and this of course is tied directly back to the evolutionary discussion. If all of this worked it would give us a comprehensive system to explain human behavior and would have found the holy grail of social and behavioral science. While Nate’s discussion is fascinating and very well presented, I am not sure we are there just yet.

I will simply mention a few things that cause great confusion when we use such terms as “genetic competition”, or the “biological drive to procreate” or “the competition for a mate” in too general of a way. When we tie all human behavior to these things we must somehow account for the “exceptions”, especially if the exceptions are on a markedly upward trajectory.

Here are a few to consider:
-Homosexuality-How does one account for this in the biological drive to procreate? In every culture that has attempted to reduce discrimination against gay and lesbian people we find that there are a considerable number of them! When I was a child the number was given as perhaps 5%, maybe 10% on the high side, but that was from polls taken when a person could still go to jail for being an admitted homosexual, and would surely face job and housing discrimination and even physical danger in parts of the country. So we now know the percent of the population that is gay is somewhat higher. Once we get to a percent around 20%, this would have a decided effect on the gene pool. If being gay is genetic, one wonders why the gay population did not go genetically extinct centuries ago! We will leave that aside for now, and just say that there seems to be other factors to consider in human behavior than the “genetic competition.

-Voluntary childlessness-again, once social constraints are removed, the number of women choosing not to have children, both straight and lesbian women, begins to climb. These women are essentially taking themselves out of the genetic race. The need for children seems much more culturally driven than genetically driven, because in any nation that allows female liberation, education and contraception, the number of women choosing to remain childless increases. I do not know why this is, but it would given great reason to be skeptical of the principal driver of human behavior as being the “genetic competition”, or the “biological drive to procreate”.

Now with a bit of tongue in cheek, let us look at what is claimed to be the “marketing” factor and the drive to ostentatious excess in automobiles as the driving force for big, fast fuel hungry cars, and mention in passing a great marketing sensation:

-The Volkswagen Beetle-Here we have a small-low power-low status vehicle introduced into a nation that was growing, that faced no fuel supply issues at the time, that prided itself on living out the competitive “bigger is better” dream…and it became not only a success but a cultural icon. How? Why? How does the Volkswagen Beetle and the whole movement in the 1960’s toward “reverse snobbery” fit into the big picture of “ostentatious genetic display”. The kids who bought and drove Beetles were considered the hip ones, the ones that had style, and the women loved them (the cars and the guys)

…and it was not only the Beetle mind you: A wave of small efficient vehicles were hitting America by storm and are still prized by the cognoscenti: The BMW 2002 (2 liter, 4 cylinder), the MG Midget (how’s that for a macho name?), the Austin Healy “Bugeye” Sprite the Alfa Romeo and Lancia sedans, the Fiat. The Beetle was at least cheap…but people paid premium prices for many of the other small bore European brands. Apparently ostentatious display of “style” can be as valued as ostentatious displays of wasteful consumption. Again we are back to asking about the complex construction of human motivation that seems to defy evolution and brain pharmacology. We should do more studies of the marketing of these small cars, sold successfully in the richest period of American history, and ask why they were accepted by the American customer and culture. It could tell us much about some of the factors that drive human behavior and by extension human consumption (or voluntary lack thereof, which is what interests us).

Again, all of the above is not to find fault with Nate Hagens presentation. It is simply to ask that broad generalizations be taken with a HUGE grain of salt. Over-simplification can be a dangerous thing if carried to extremes. Albert Camus was once asked what Hitler’s greatest crime was. He replied, “He gave us simple answers.” Camus’s observation was brilliant…Hitler only had a few stock answers…Germany had problems…it was the Jews….Germany was weak…arm and fight…opposition parties…destroy them.

We must be very careful to avoid falling back on a few stock answers…America uses too much gas…it’s the evolution…we like to try different things…it’s the dopamine…our cars are too big…it’s to impress the ladies…(has anyone done a study of the vehicles that gay and lesbian drivers buy to see if there is a noticeable difference in buying habits?)

We must also be very careful of using the newest scientific research as the basis for a model of the whole universe. This is a common error: When horse drawn chariots were invented, the sun was drawn across the sky by a chariot of the gods…an assumption that never occurred to cultures without chariots…when the clock was invented, the universe became a giant machine, put together the way gears meshed, everything times to gearworks of the universe…when Darwinism was published, the universe became survival of the fittest and the concept of “social Darwinism” shaped national policy…when the atomic bomb was exploded, of course the universe was born of a “big bang”…and now with the discoveries in brain pharmacology all behavior is explained by the dopamine.

Someday there may be a great sage, who speaks to his followers thusly…”man does not live by dopamine alone.”
Fascinating discussion and again Nate, fascinating presentation, great fun to watch and discuss!


thanks Roger - I agree with much of what you said.

Regarding 'fiat', I didn't mean that currency is 'valueless', but that it has decoupled substantially from what it was designed to measure - and there will need to be a reckoning/equilibriating of claims vs assets at some point in future - combined with lack of cheap oil at flow rates required for sustained growth, much of the debt will turn out to be unpayable in the future - this doesn't mean that fiat currencies HAVE to go away, only that to keep them in long turn they have to maintain a stable relationship to the underlying (in this case, depleting) assets. I am not for it, but I suspect we will have a 'Global' before long, administered (ostensibly) by IMF. Considering the human nature aspects, it is a monumental mind boggle to consider how many people look at the digits in their online bank account, or Ameritrade acct. etc. as power to buy a house, or send kids to college, etc. when they are just digits, backed by a system in overshoot. Will be quite a shock if/when those digits are legally changed, or worse, disappear.

I am aware my overview is a generalization, for without generalizations one couldn't really attempt such an overview. It's my opinion we have enough knowledge at this point, but are lacking in synthesis (what I attempt to do), integration and ultimately, implementation. Most are just pursuing more and more knowledge. Who in society is charged with these higher 3 aspects of using science? I know that 98%+ of climate science funding goes towards natural sciences - next to nothing towards demand side/behavioral integration. Makes no sense to me.

When I started on this blog, I assumed that giving people the 'truth' on resource depletion would naturally result in some 'entity' on the planet naturally doing the right things for us to adapt/mitigate. I now realize that was incredibly naive. None of my material (as far as I recall), has ever said what or how we should go forward (other than we are going to have to use/be happy with less) - I view this type of presentation and work at TOD as stirring the pot, and accelerating discussion of these lateral concepts among folks smarter and more ambitious than myself. I'm losing motivation for the whole thing (declining unexpected reward...;-)

I think Nate's presentation is spot on brilliance. I would suggest that it is one of the star posts of the year! The presentation would make a great Discovery Channel-style documentary. Regarding the 'THATSITIMOUT' critique of Nate's presentation:

1. Evolution: The VW Beatle is a perfect example of the peacock. Anything which is different is noticed (it doesn't necessarily have to be expensive - just rare). Nate's point is that people drive fast cars because they are expensive and thus rarely seen and therefore will be noticed. Fast expensive cars will always be rare and noticed because they consume so much resources to build and run. The more VW Beatles one sees on the streets the more people are saying how they have just become another less desirable fad.

2. Real wealth vs. fiat wealth: At the top of one of Nate's slide he clearly says "Energy = Money". I believe that this is the point Nate wanted to get across: that people often forget printed money is not an end or a long term store of value, but a temporary means to buy energy (itself or embedded in products/services).

3. Brain pharmacology: I find this the most intriguing and fascinating part of Nate's campfire posts. Addictive behaviour pharmacology clearly shows the biological reason for why we have steep discount curves and are unwilling to act on peak oil. Comparing Nate's theory to past memes without tackling exactly why Nate's may be wrong is not a good attack. What if Nate's theory is exactly right? It makes logical sense to me.

4. Marketing: As I mentioned in point one above. Marketing is about being noticed. People drive VW Beatles (until they become too popular) to be noticed in order to procreate. Nate's point is that large resource consumption is something very few can afford and is therefore noticed, increasing the chances that individual will procreate in a given environment.

Your examples of celibacy and birthcontrol shows that we humans can most often control our animal instincts - but doesn't negate the fact that those animal instincts are sitting just below the surface. With regards homosexuality and procreation, I know of many that have their own children or adopt. Homosexuality and procreation are not mutually exclusive.

Finally, with regard to the sweeping comment that Nate's presentation is a generalization. This is not a valid criticism. In Nate's past campfire posts he has gone into each of the subjects in much more detail. He successfully squeezed all of these into a highly entertaining 60 minute presentation.


Your review of my review is valid in many ways, and I replied to Nate you can see, I hope, and as I stressed to Nate himself, I was not in any way attempting to refute or "dismember" Nate's presentation, which I think is a very good big picture presentation of these far as generalization, I was not faulting gneralization, To attempt a big picture presentation, it will be unavoidable to engage in a fair amount of generalization (I know I generalize often enough) just so we keep in mind that it is indeed a factor in the discription given and so should not be locked on to as though it is a particular (kind of the difference between an "artists impression" and a blueprint...both are valuable and needed, but one should not be used to do the job of the other.

As I said, and I think by your post that you would agree, Nate's presentation was a damn good one and better than the great majority of the theory making I have seen to date in this area.

By the way, your point about the Volkswagen Beetle is a very astute one. Can we make efficient homes, cars, boats, etc. more attractive to the customer and their prospective mating partners by increasing the novelty of the item, i.e., more color, different geometric patterns, air spoilers, wheels, etc.? We may want to look at the "aesthetics" of efficiency. Of course that gets back to the idea of "elegant design" that I often propose, so maybe I am simply engaging in promoting my own ideas! :-) Thanks for the reply, an interesting discussion, one of the more engaging TOD threads in some time.




Your own description of what you were attempting to say seems to me pretty spot on, and I would agree with you absolutely that work on the "world view" big picture synthesis is what is needed, and your presentation was as good as any I have seen in this area and touched on some of the BIG philosophical issues (Matt Simmons can do pretty well, but his are much more narrow, dealing with the geological and production side issues).

On the more reasonable balance between fiat money and resource, in one way that seems to be happening as we speak in the current financial crisis, and zeros are being taken off the balance sheets on all sides of the transaction! It has been painful for many, but I am not sure there is a way that it could not have been (just as the run up was pleasurable while it lasted, a sort of dopamine fix by way of cash rush :-)

Regarding your last paragraph of the reply, keep up the good work though, let's admit, you love this stuff! That's the great thing about the study of energy/supply/depletion/resourses/etc. is that it is fun, so any other side benefits you can accomplish to the benefit of humanity is a fringe benefit! Hey, nobody ever asks a golfer if he is succeeding at conveying his message while he is out on the course...he does it because he loves it, and so do you guys who contribute so much here at TOD, (your sure not getting rich at this, right? :-)

Minor (but maybe not so minor) aside: I am watching an episode of "Nature" that is rather incredible from an evolutionary standpoint: What is being described is the increasing confrontation between polar bears and grizzly bears on the edge of the arctic circle. These two largest land predators in North America are coming into contact due to the melting of polar ice, as the Grizzly bears begin to range further north.

Incrdibly, polar bears and grizzly bears can mate...creating a hybrid called (amusingly) a "pizzly". The offspring will be taught to survive by the mother, whichever variety she may be, meaning that some will be taught as essentially fishing/water hunting bears, while some taught by a grizzly bear mother would be prone to land hunting, two very different methods of predation.

The speed with which these changes are occuring is blindingly fast compared to the evolutionary scale, and raising questions about exactly how fast evolution can change path, or what effect one of two "accidents", i.e., coincidental occurances that would occur only once in a thousand years, but that would completely alter the evolutionary path of certain plants or animals in a huge way and very fast...making the danger of playing with the environment in a careless way all the more dangerous, but also offers the possibility could be very fast change on the human evolutionary side (negative or positive, which can be either an uplifting thought or a disquiting one...we have always counted on the evolutionary "clock" to guard against too fast of a change, assuming that we "are what we are", i.e., basically human, well into the foreseeable future).
Enough for now, I think I have already provide a few paths for some future thought...thanks again for as you call it, "stirring the pot"! (something of a hobby of mine also, as you may have noticed :-)


When I started on this blog, I assumed that giving people the 'truth' on resource depletion would naturally result in ...

That's exactly what I thought.

Peak Oil itself, is a no brainer.
But why do their eyes "glaze over" when you tell them?
That was the fascinating question.

Peak Oil is a gateway to trying to understand who and what we are.

What kind of species engages in such extravagant self-destructive behavior?

Well, yeast in a Petri dish; and reindeer on a St. Matthews Island; and lemmings burrowing their way to prosperity; and ...

The sisters of homosexual men have more children than the sisters of straight men have, on average, and the difference in fecundity is statistically significant. Apparently, the same genes that contribute to homosexuality in males contribute to motherhood in females. Hence, male homosexuality is maintained in the population by kin selection. As for voluntary childlessness, the genes that contribute to this behavioral propensity die out along with the phenotype that carries them, and hence the frequency of the propensity declines over time.

I didn't know this. But I wonder if this is a gene/suite of genes, or an environmental cue (culture)? E.g. if woman of average fecundity sees that her brother is homosexual and will not reproduce, maybe that causes some 'pressures' for her to produce more offspring, on average?

And/Or wonder if the husband of the wife views the gay brother as a none-threatening, non-alpha male who is,as thus, more welcome into the household as the helpful uncle/kin who then enables the hetero couple to have more children because uncle is helping financially or otherwise? (i.e. because uncle showers gifts onto nephews and nieces and thus enriches the hetero family. And also grandparents will funnel more gifts to their limited grandchildren of the hetero couple.)

One can quickly cook up narratives as to why having a certain percentage of gay kin actually helps growth of the family rather than hindering it.

The conventional wisdom in the enviro community (including my wife) is that we will voluntarily downsize our energy footprint through personal choices. My point is that only societal changes make a difference and the bottom up change will happen too slowly. Selfish choices will prevail.

This leads to the discussion of transportation. The rage currently is bus rapid transit, street cars and other forms of rail, but I think people will not choose to reduce their quality of life without some external pressure. Do we need to force people to use these systems by waiting for peak oil? The doomers think we have 3-5 years to build these systems before the collapse. Can we really rebuild our cities in 3-5 years?

My view is that we need a transportation system that appeals to the selfish person. Selfish needs are
1) save time
2) save money
3) security and privacy

Buses and train waste time and have a huge cost to society through subsidies (a typical bus/train system is only 25% paid for my fares) After riding the NY subway for 8 years, I switched to car pooling.

We need a new plan, not a solution that was designed for cities that don't have the same conditions.

Transport neesds to have the following characteristics:
0) better user experience than driving
1) cheap
2) fast
3) on demand
4) safe
5) private
6) low energy inputs
7) reduce congestion
8) encourage housing density
9) reduce need for parking lots
10) no liquid fuels

The system that fits these characteristics is personal rapid transit. Masdar has chosen PRT. Heathrow has installed a system. Skytran has developed a maglev high-speed prototype at NASA.

A 10-15 year transition plan to a transport system that is largely solar/wind/nuclear powered could work with by fulfilling the selfish needs of today's population.

A quick addition in the direction of being satisfied with less. Here's a link to an interesting measure (HPI):

The Happy Planet Index reveals the ecological efficiency with which human well-being is delivered

Central America seems to be one of the happiest parts of the world for the least consumptions of resources.

Thanks for posting this, Rembrandt and Nate. Stoneleigh posted a link to the vimeo on TAE a couple days ago, and I have it bookmarked. It so concisely sums up our current predicament, I have it bookmarked and am planning to send it to various family and friends.

Rembrandt and Nate,
"Some points on EROI" slide;
" energy and natural resources are what we have to spend(not$)"

If this was true we would be building a lot more nuclear and wind energy as these have a relatively small direct energy input but a lot of human capital(labor, knowledge). The limitations on building these now are not a shortage of energy or of materials, as Gail has often said we have a financing limitation. Unless you know of some energy or material shortages?

" all BTU's are not equal"
Couldn't agree more, this is often missed in EROEI, Hall et al suggest delivered energy,exenergy? or work output as a better measure.

" EROI of current flow rate is overestimated"
This would be true of mature energy resources(oil) but not of solar or wind energy, where new capacity is being built from almost nothing.

I don't understand point7) EROI and risk??

I don't understand point7) EROI and risk??

Conventional finance has robust literature on the nuances of measuring risk adjusted return for financial portfolios. It isn't enough to tell someone you've averaged 20% per annum on your portfolio or that a pro-forma investment expects to make 30% a year. Because most managers would prefer 12% a year if it came as 1% a month rather than up 10% down 15% up 20% etc. The reason this is important is when a strategy is down 20% but has expected avg returns of 15%, it is much more likely that the investor will throw in the towel early than with a strategy which produces an equity curve akin to a 45 deg angle.

Risk adjusted return is therefore mean expected return divided by standard deviation. So EROI numbers, and any other energy statistics, can't be compared mean to mean because the variability of some will be much higher than others. For example, biofuels, especially non-irrigated ones, should expect to have 1-2 years out of every 10 with a flood or a drought, thereby reducing yields in that year and causing overall EROI (adjusted for risk) to be lower.

There are also other nuances/similarities to finance in the asset allocation area - one might add a lower EROI (quality adjusted) to an energy portfolio if it reduces the overall variance.

Thanks for posting this ... but I gotta admit, it depressed the hell out of me.

At the risk of becoming a bit of a party pooper,
this mathematical function looks a lot like

power = Pmax-(2*sqrt(Pmax)*x-sqrt(Pmax))^2, where x=eo/ei from 0..1

If I integrate this I get a cubic,

Pmax*x-(2* sqrt(P)*x-sqrt(P))^3/(2*Pmax) which is
pretty much a straight line between Pmax/6 at normalized eo/ei=0% and 5* Pmax/6 at normalized eo/ei=100%.

In other words, except at the very ends eo/ei <.2 and eo/ei>.8 there is no appreciable change in slope, no dimishing returns. Instead a change in normalized eo/ei leads to a nearly exactly linear increase in output which sounds a lot more like Jevon's paradox--increasing efficiency leads to increasing power.

OTOH, if you differentiate
power = Pmax-(2*sqrt(Pmax)*x-sqrt(Pmax))^2, where x=eo/ei from 0..1

you get a straight line slope from .66 Pmax to .44 Pmax,
diff power = 2/3 Pmax-(2/3)^2 Pmax *x, where x=eo/ei from 0 to 1.

indicating a quite modest amount of 'wasted' power as eo/ei changes.

Perhaps there is a different function than a parabola but I doubt it.

If anything your power curve shows that changes in eo/ei
will modestly affect power requirements and that an decrease from 80% to 20% in normalized eo/ei will require an increase in differential power by only 27.3%.

Before I get too involved in this, to clarify, are you saying the Power/Efficiency curve looks like half an ellipse?
R2 = K(E-0.5)2 + P2


Nate doesn't derive any particular formula other than showing a smooth curve so I used the formula for a parabola; power=Pmax*4*(1-x)*x where x= normalized eo/ei(whatever that is).

If you integrate that you get a curve
int(power)= Pmax*(2-4*x/3)*x^2. When you plot that you find that for 'normalized efficiency' between .2 and .8 you get a straight line.
It seems unlikely that 'normalized efficiency'(NE) would drop below .2 given our technology.

If you differentiate power = Pmax*4*(1-x)*x you get
Pmax*4*(1-2*x) so diff(power) goes from 4*Pmax to -4*Pmax from a normalized x going from 0 to 1. It suggests that a drop in NE will require a proportional linear increase in power.

A lot of concern here at TOD is about negative effect of eo/ei shifting downward, but if the
effect is linear, concern about falling off a cliff would not be justified.

An ellipse like a parabola is a conic section so they should integrate and differentiate similarly.
You(WHT) could try to integrate parametric equations to see if it holds for ellipses.

OK, makes sense. When I looked at the curve it looked more like an ellipse than an upside-down parabola. I think what this says, given the shape of that curve, lots of power is still available across the spectrum. I think what the explanation needs is the curve republished with arrows indicating what various energy devices would lie on this curve.

The way this usually works is that a probability density function should exist that gives the relative frequency of different efficiencies. E.g. if there are many low efficiency devices, this would shift the relative efficiency lower and if there are many high efficiency devices, it would shift it higher.

I think this whole discussion is missing how these physical changes are connected to ordinary human decision making, i.e. through money.

We have economic growth as the primary driver of our life support system because people with money invest it to grow businesses and the economy so they can make more money. That's the mechanism that will be disrupted (by one or another means) by our running into natural limits, for example. Without that mechanism the satisfaction of "limitless human desires" just wouldn't be happening, because the causal mechanism driving that is the money pumping value of people using money to multiply money.

We really need to spend more time thinking in terms of how things actually operate, not just what could be and can't be. We simply can't have multiplying money and diminishing impacts, because making money *IS* the impact.

The way natural resource limits are observed and responded to by an economic system is with rising costs, serving to allow the diminishing resource use by those who can afford it financially, and cut off everyone else. That "big squeeze" is what we need to look for evidence of, try to understand how it will effect people's plans, figure our how to respond to... see my recent post "Profiting from scarcity"

I appreciate your efforts.
More synthesis and less exposition.
What ever your target audience erudition is always recognised and translates.
As Nietsche . . . 'She told me herself that she had no morality - and I thought she had, like myself, I more severe
morality than anybody'. . .
For example all that evolutionary biology is over blown it can be simplified down to animals take a meal where they find it, those with greater degrees of encephalisation do it better.
Perhaps as an American you think people are unique, manifest destiny and all that so you need to excuse human behaviour by characterisation rather than empiricism.

We humans have pretty much run riot over the planet.

We have behaved as we are -- a huge swarm of one species of animal addicted to maximizing pleasure for ourselves and minimizing pain for ourselves.

We are very good at consuming energy and materials quickly.

Our "pain" and "pleasure" signals are complex.

We not only want our personal best comfort zone for now, but we each want to expand our own personal best comfort zone infinitely.

One planet and one lifetime is not enough for any of us -- whether we want to tell ourselves otherwise or not

We want eternal bliss.

The complexities of the stories we tell ourselves seem to boil down to this: all levels of violence against other humans, other species, and our habitat in general arise from our insatiable lust to become eternal, infinite, and all-powerful.

The Full Spectrum Dominance of God is what we want even though none of us can get it.

So we either die trying, or we die trying to change the way we are.

Are there other possible modes of being available to us to choose and to shape? I think that there are.

Mostly those who preach, teach, and live lives that challenge the dominant mode of being are hung on crosses or beheaded or simply marginalized and mocked.

It seems to me that rape and murder are the core and dominant features of our species. The stories of other ways of being in the world have been co-opted for use as manipulative devices along the way -- history is replete with "liberation" and "conversion" as cover for rape, pillage, and plunder.

"Love" and "Peace" are thus made synonymous with "Hate" and "War."

We continue to expand the death-dealing riot even as people talk of peace and "sustainability."

No great plans for survival or change will help us at this point -- we've crossed the threshold into a Hell significantly of our own making, and find that we get to live here together for a little while.

Welcome to the Eremozoic Age.

Now all we need is "apocatastasis" -- some transformative combination of actions and events that make all well again.

The earth groans as in the pains of childbirth. What will be revealed? A soon-to-be lifeless planet? A global wasteland of sewer-like ooze? New Sons and Daughters of God or Gaia? Another -- hitherto unimaginable -- Divine evolutionary leap?

Resources are depleted....The competition intensifies....The human response? More weapons....more environmental devastation....more war.....even as we speak of peace and sustainability and cooperation.

I still work for Peace and Love and Sustainability. I am a happier animal when I do.

It is a ridiculous thing to hope, to believe in love or peace. And yet I do. It is even more ridiculous to think that one's words or actions will matter. And yet I do.

But I had to discount my commenting time.

Really good presentation.

It is the summary of the state of thinking on TOD.
As I was watching it I was thinking of who I can send it to.

A guy called Chris Martenson did "The Crash Course"
You should think of expanding this - maybe just into 3 one hour presentations and posting it so that people can re-use it

That is actually a good idea. I do have 3 one hour lectures on energy, human behavior, and economics that each go into more depth - I don't know the technology on how to record it ala Mortenson without a class/audience taping but Rembrandt or some other tech savvy youngster could point the way.

The 4th lecture, the 'conclusions', still needs considerable work. Maybe it would be 5 minute summary then show 55 minutes of images of possible futures with no talking...

I best do final push on remaining 2 phd research papers first...;-)


Nice presentation thanks. I'm left wondering to what degree your thinking, especially concerning maximum power principle and EROEI, has been influenced by Odum? Reading his book 'Environment, Power, And Society For The Twenty-first Century' was a revelation for me and I was impressed by his ability to consider whole systems.

Assuming you are aware of his work, what do you think of his more innovative (and hence controversial) ideas around transformity, emergy and energy heirarchy? The emergy concept in particular I find fascinating and if it is correct it throws a whole new light on calculations of net energy. The concept of fuel quality and that a calorie = a calorie = a calorie is wrong is especially powerful and has massive implications for determination of EROEI and for consideration of the importance of the FF subsidy we currently enjoy.

Interested to hear your thoughts and apologies if this has already been covered before.


I have to take girls to science museum so have to be brief
Definitely influenced by Odum (or his work, he had passed away before I got interested in this stuff). Of course net energy has to be quality adjusted, which is big problem for EROI - EROI is just blunt tool to get you in ballpark - but even emergy isn't a 'firm' calculation as societies values and what type of flows they value change over time. Exergy 'available energy' is probably as useful a term as anything. One of HTs concepts of 'pulsing' of natural systems may be instructive in framing where we are - this pulse is likely on downslope - so are our efforts going towards reducing the steepness of downslope or preparing for next pulse?

lots of stuff on emergy, quality, etc. both on TOD and on web - more anon.

Hi Nate

Hope the museum trip went well - I'm taking my 3 kids sofa shopping today and I can gaurentee it won't go well!

I agree exergy is a useful term but it is still very different from Odum's emergy concept. The former is, as you say, is an expression of energy available for work - i.e. very different from a simple measure of energy. However, the latter is a measure of 'embodied energy', specifically the amount of original solar energy that was required to produce the energy source (fuel). Exergy is pretty well grounded in thermodynamics whilst emergy is far more controversial.

If you take the specific example of wind energy then exergy might typically be around 30% of total wind energy passing across the turbine. By contrast wind emergy, or embodied energy (solar eenrgy required to produce it) is estimated at 1496seJ/J, i.e. 1496J sunlight required to produce 1J wind energy. Applying the exergy concept this would give an available emergy of 1496 X 30% = 449seJ/J.

Now lets look at our favourite (?) fuel, oil. My web research suggests that a barrel of oil contains about 6.1X109J energy and about 5.6X109J exergy, so exergy is about 92% energy content. But Odum estimates crude oil to contain an emergy of about 40,000seJ/J. Applying exergy this gives available emergy as 40,000 X 92% = 36,800seJ/J.

On the basis of exergy equivalence between wind and oil, this is reached (by comparing exergy/energy) at about 3X total wind energy vs total oil energy. However, on an emergy basis equality is reached with around 82X as much total wind energy compared to total oil energy - largely as a consequence of the much higher historical embodied energy in oil.

The question remains as to whether emergy adds value as a concept - is oil really 82X as valuable as an energy source per J of actual energy? How can this be measured when, as you rightly say, changes in value to society can occur? There are some obvious differences between oil and wind that exergy analysis misses, energy and power density, storability, transportability etc, but these can be hard to quantify. Also EROEI calculations can become mired in system boundaries, especially if you start factoring in and weighting the different emergy of sources used (not least human capital!).

I should confess that my education is more in the biological sciences (maybe why I warm to Odum?) than the physical so it's possible some of the calculations/concepts I've presented are off-target - corections/comments welcome!


Get your thinking cap. You can not see that your culture is making you think man is bad rather than just another animal.
Alternatively you can recognise most people stay civilised most of the time within their own milieux (social group) unless hunger intervenes.
Get cold, hungry and desperate then see if you have a moral picture of the world that stands up to scrutiny.
Life will go on that is what comes from ancient religions and under pins American culture e.g. the handshake is pagan symbolising a joint faith that the sun will rise again.
Your angst is no more than an inversion of straight forward pagan notions that life is firmly rooted in the here and now.
The handshake becomes affirmation that a metaphysical being will rise again.
When it does not there must be someone or something to blame rather than the whole premise being BS.

I want to posit something regarding the male Peacock's tail.
Just looking at the large and very distracting pattern and also noticing that there are many eye shaped spots might suggest that the tail had a value in escaping a predator.
And attacking predator might strike at the false eyes and get a mouth full of tail feathers and consequently be dissuaded from further pursuit.
I think there is more to the tail than just getting a piece of tail.

Could be. many theories on peacock tail, etc. But 'ornaments' and 'weapons' are robust in nature as part of sexual selection (meaning the survival costs of the trait is outweighed by the reproductive benefits, cumulatively prior to current generation). The relevant implication is that variance in mating success in males has been higher than variance in females.

I could have used example of widow birds etc but don't have any good images.

By the way that presentation is excellent.
I hope you don't mind that I sent it around to my open minded circle that doesn't hide their heads in the sand like an ostrich.
What is up with that type of behavior as far as survival value?

Also intimidation on the size of the peacock plumage......kind of like when we humans "bow up" when threatened.

Is there some way you could get some exposure for this presentation. Even YouTube or google video would be great. I think it would be extremely popular and very well received. I think the time is right for a big ramp in awareness. The only thing is I am not sure how many hits you want on TOD.
What would you do if all of a sudden you guys were discovered and garnered a huge following?

In answer to your first question, I think I would rather tighten this up and make it longer - like 3-4 pieces that really build up support for the points - this was kind of a whirlwind overview. But it is in public domain you can send it to who you like, just with proper caveat of what it was intended for (broad overview with jokes to high level audience)

Re huge following I doubt that would ever happen by nature of the complexity and uncomfortableness of these issues. Oildrum readers are self-selected - this is fire hose compared to garden hose for most people. And feedback even on this talk via private email has been binary (as expected). Either people love it or hate it and are offended - the interesting thing is the people who hate it hate different parts of it!!! (which makes me feel better)

A main message that I didn't articulate well is that we've attempted to replace declining energy with something that isn't real. There IS plenty of oil, natural resources left, but not the cheap stuff and certainly not at flow rate that has been glue keeping social democracies together. That has big implications..

I thought this video was excellent, and combined several elements that aren't often combined. I sent the link to two of my peak oil savvy friends who are both working on their PhDs in Psychology (one of them in addiction), it will be interesting to see what they think.

I agree, expanding this to 3 episodes would be fantastic. I think it could be improved greatly by filming you giving the lecture, pointing to areas on graphs that you're talking about, etc.

What parts did people hate, or become offended by? That's very interesting, that people would 'hate' it.