Things Fall Apart: Complexity, Supply Chains, Infrastructure & Collapse

This is a presentation by Dr. David Korowicz from Feasta, given at the Oil Drum/ASPO Conference at Alcatraz, Italy in June 2009. It can be downloaded here: Things fall apart: Some thoughts on complexity, supply chains, infrastructure & collapse dynamics, PDF 23 slides, 1.3 MB, text of spoken presentation.

Slide 2: Poem

This poem by W.B. Yeats inspired my talk's title.

Slide 3: A 16,000 thousand year switch

Suppose I were to take your new born infant, and by some magic transport her back through 16,000 years to a cave in what is now Lascaux in south-western France. Let's swap your baby with a baby born to a Neolithic mother. There is no reason to believe that in time both children would not turn out to be well-adjusted, unremarkable members of their respective communities. Genetically they are the same. What is clearly different is the world in which they would have to make their way.

Slide 4: Triad/Civilisation

What shaped our modern world is our hunter gatherer minds, and the growth in complexity and size of human society and infrastructure facilitated by access to increasing energetic and material resources. We could say that civilisation is the emergent feature of these interactions.

Slide 5: Title page Thermodynamics of Civilisation

This lecture will focus on the complexity part, but the other elements are always close by.

Slide 6: Far-from equilibrium thermodynamics

In the universe as a whole, entropy, or disorder is increasing. Yet life, our civilisation, the things and institutions we create are ordered. We create islands of low entropy out of the tendency to universal disorder.

To see this we can look at the simple example of a Bernard cell. The molecules in the liquid between the hot and cold plate are moving randomly in all directions. Any one part of the liquid is the same as any other part. As we increase the temperature gradient, we arrive at a point where suddenly there appears lots of convection cells. This phase transition corresponds to the emergence of lots of order and structure within the system.

While the cells themselves are low entropy, we see in the graph that the transition corresponds to a big increase in the rate at which heat is dissipated. Heat is the most disordered (high entropy) form of energy. The dissipation is into the environment outside the experiment. In general locally ordered structures enhance the flow of general disorder and so such structures are thermodynamically stable- as long as there is a continuous flow of free energy through the system. If we reduce the flow of free energy that allows us to maintain the gradient below the critical threshold, the order disappears.

Our civilisation expresses these thermodynamic realities. Far-from-equilibrium thermodynamics gives us a way to view the consequences of what reducing the flow of free energy that is required to build and maintain our society might mean in practice.

Slide 7: Energy Rate Density

Eric Chaisson has, using simple thermodynamic relations, associated energy per unit time per unit mass with complexity. In this graph he has taken the overview of our 'cosmic history' as one of increasing complexity.

Complexity is not a goal of life, merely the result of increasing free energy stores being accessible. Complex humans share the universe with far far more less complex things.

Slide 8: Resources used in Manufacturing Processes.

It is a cliché, though true, to say that life has become more complex. We can see this in the products we produce. This figure shows the energy used per unit mass graphed against process rate of various manufacturing processes. The processes range from manufacturing processes used half a century ago, up to modern semi-conductor and nanotechnology manufacture. What we see is that we are making much more energy intensive products, of much smaller size. The most modern commercial processes are forming distinctive structures on the scale of only tens of atoms.

Let us take advanced semiconductors as our standard barer of complexity. They form the basis of our telecommunications and information processes, being as the basis of mobile phones and their network infrastructure; computers and their network infrastructure; they run our power grids and car electronics, medical equipment and games consoles.

A 32 MB DRAM chip would now be considered archaic, but we see that its 2grams require 1700g of resources. One expects that contemporary Very Large Scale Integration (VLSI) chips require vastly more resources.

Again, all of this reflects the thermodynamic reality that the cost for higher complexity on smaller and smaller scales must be paid in increasing energetic and material resources.

Slide 9: Complexity & the Global Economy

We can see complexity in the number and depth of interactions, numbers of products, the complexity of products, the number of institutions, and the number of specialised roles and their knowledge base.

The remarkable thing about our economy is that it works. Each day I buy bread. The person who sold me that bread need not know from whom the wheat was bought, who manufactured the mixer, or who provided export credit insurance for the bulk wheat shipment. The person who delivered the bread to the shop did not need to know who refined his diesel, who invented the polymer for his gasket, or if I personally have money to pay for bread. The steel company did not know that a small manufacturer of bread mixers would use its product, nor cared where its investment came from. The process required to simply give me tasty and affordable bread, required, depending on the system boundaries, thousands, millions, even hundreds of millions of people acting in a coherent manner. There was no master organiser, nor could there be, given the complexity of the process. From each of us playing our own small part, through the market and price system, the global economy emerges. The global economy, like the formation of birds in flight, is self-organised.

The number of products, their complexity; and the increased infrastructure required to manage elements of the increasingly complex world in which we live all require more complex supply- chains that are required to transform raw materials into products and services that criss-cross the globe. It is said that a car has about 15,000 components. If each of those components has on average 150 components (1%), and each of those 1.5 components, that makes over 3 million interactions- and we have not included staff, plants, production lines, IT and financial systems.
And as things and infrastructure wear out, that's the laws of thermodynamics working again, these supply-chains are required not just to grow the global economy but to maintain it.

In a world of growing population with increased consumption demands, the tendency to complexify will remain a huge driver as new problems and challenges arise. Well it would, were it not for the ecological limits to growth.

Slide 10: Evolution of complexity

As Joseph Tainter has so well demonstrated, societies are problem solving organisations, developing the easiest solutions first. That could be simple, e.g. the need to make bread; or it could be complex, e.g. putting in a renewable energy infrastructure.

As new solutions are introduced they co-adapt and co-evolve with what is already in place. Where they provide some new good or service we like, or provide some new efficiency they spread more quickly through our society.

However we see declining marginal returns in our investments in complexity. This can be seen across the board, for energy, metals, agricultural productivity etc.

It is something that society finds hard to understand. The more complex human, institutional, and infrastructural resources we throw at a problem, the more confirmed we are in our potency as problem solvers. But consider the cutting edge of physics in 1897, the discovery of the electron by J.J. Thompson. It was performed on a laboratory bench, and would have required the services of a master glass blower and a couple of other crafts people. Now consider the Large Hadron Collider, the cutting edge of modern physics which requires over 20 km of tunnels under the French-Swiss border; 72 twenty ton magnets, and thousands of highly trained direct staff- to find (possibly) another particle, the Higgs boson.

We see a similar story in drug discovery. Alexander Flemming discovered penicillin in the 1920's for a cost in the order of tens of thousands of euros, with a huge return to human welfare. Now we spend hundreds of millions on making minor improvements to drugs that have minimal benefits for humanity.

Slide 11: Analogy: An adaptive landscape...

We can look at an analogy of these processes. This figure shows us at a moment, represented by the red triangle, faced with choices in the x-y plane. The problem, say putting in renewable energy infrastructure, has an energy & resource cost represented by the height of the mountain, represented by the cross here.

What we tend to concentrate upon is this cost. However we must also consider the ground beneath our feet-this is the implied infrastructure which includes all those things we take for granted but are essential to the project's completion. These might include the availability of a financial market; that supply-chains work; that contracts can be enforced; that transport systems work, really the list is endless. In total, our implied infrastructure is the accumulation of all the complex organisation and infrastructure up to this point in time, throughout global society, without which, the project cannot succeed.

While most concentrate upon the trip to the summit, the real problem is that the ground is about to crumble beneath our feet.

Slide 12: Supply-Chains and infrastructure title page

Slide 13: Supply-Chains

Let's zoom in on a little piece of a supply-chain and see the essential components. One of the defining features is that we can change suppliers for economic or other reasons, we can substitute S for S'. This means we can loose suppliers in a supply-chain, and the market system allows us to find new ones easily. This can allow us to manage risk. Indeed the system is so efficient that many companies hold virtually no stock and can partake of the efficiencies provided by just-in-time delivery.

If we zoom out and look over the whole supply-chain networks we see that some nodes are essential to the functioning of the whole. Virtually all financial transactions are mediated by banks. If there were a systemic collapse in the banking system, the supply-chain would collapse also as there is no direct substitute available. We saw such a shudder in the system in late 2008 after Lehman Brothers collapsed. Banks would not issue the letters of credit required for international trade as they did not trust counter-party banks. One reason for the 90% drop in the Baltic Dry Shipping Index was due to a temporary freezing of such financing. In the parlance of network theory, the banking system is a hub.

On the basis of our previous discussion, and intuitively it makes sense I think to say:

More complex things have longer and deeper supply-chains.

They have more substitutable components- i.e. there are very few alternative suppliers of advanced integrated circuits, compared to the number of suppliers of say, plastic moulding, or cardbord boxes.

They are more resource and implied infrastructure dependent.

Slide 14: Map of the origins of base materials required for a mobile phone.

This is a nice map showing the origin of the base materials required for the manufacture of a mobile phone. For each element this is only the beginning of a long journey that will directly involve thousands of enterprises before the phone ever appears in your hand.

The implied infrastructure would be the networks of international trade and finance that facilitates this; and the availability of complex mining technologies.

Slide 15: Infrastructure

What has evolved is that we have put these most complex components and infrastructures at the heart of our most critical systems.

To see this process we imagine that suddenly all our IT systems, introduced over the last 15 years, stopped working. The result would not be to return us to where we were just before their introduction. Many people would become uncontactable, records would disappear, business and commerce would be in crisis. Our banking system, airline transport, stock markets would fail. The electric grid would go down. For most, work would become difficult or impossible. The little cash we had would be spent, but could not be replaced as banking systems would fail. We could not buy food and there would be reduced food within the economy. The ability of state to manage the crisis would be greatly impaired. Within days we could see major social unrest. How is it that a series of developments only 15 years old, could if suddenly removed cause such chaos, after all we were fine without it? Well we have seen some of the answers in how complex systems evolve.

The continuous functioning of our supply-chains (particularly in the case of food where just-in-time delivery and globalised sourcing means modern cities could be days away from a food crisis); financial and banking system; telecommunications; energy systems, and transport have become increasingly integrated and co-dependent. A serious failure in one could cause a cascading failure in the others.

What has helped make such systems viable is that they are being cross-subsidised throughout the whole economy. The resource required to build and maintain such complex infrastructure require that we buy games consoles, send superfluous text messages, listen to iPods, and watch YouTube.

The short lifetime and rapid turnover of mobile phones, computers, servers, and network infrastructure are often presented as an upgrade to new technologies and services. This may be so, however a level of throughput is required to keep the system functional. Internally, because more complex structures will tend to fail more rapidly than less complex ones (for thermodynamic reasons, though built-in obsolescence may also play a part). Externally, because of the economies of scale require that such complex and resource intensive components must be produced continuously in quantity.

In this sense we are upgrading just to sustain the basic functionality of the systems upon which we have grown increasingly reliant.

Slide 16 Collapse

Here are a couple of definitions of collapse. It's what we'll talk about now. It is I hope clear from what we have said that complexity and energy flows are inextricably linked, and that a draw-down in such flows are most likely to lead to abrupt changes rather than continuous changes in complexity.

Slide 17: Energy decline & energy budgeted

Here is a familiar Gaussian plot of oil production, we have also an account for declining EROEI, giving us the net energy available to society. Ignore the actual figures, this is just for illustrative purposes.

As we'll see in a moment talking about a money budget in such circumstances is likely to be very problematic, but we could talk of an energy budget for a country. Each of those sections represent energy spent on health-care, general administration, running businesses, schools, and investment, for example.

Well the first thing is as net energy declined, each sector would be under increasing pressure to maintain basic operations. Investing in conventional or renewable energy, which requires a large up-front energy payment for a small annual return over many years would be increasingly difficult. Firstly because there would be less investable energy. Secondly, our social discount rate is likely to increase, that is society is likely to become more short-term. When offered the choice between saving basic employment or health services now verses a slow long term energy payback, it is more likely to choose the former, especially as the stakes rise.

Both of these represent positive feedbacks on declining net energy, and thus on decreasing complexity.

However the above scenario seems far too optimistic, we are unlikely to have such well defined net energy available. There are other positive feedback that will make the decline process far more uncertain as we will now see.

Slide 18 Debt & Opaque money

If energy flows into the economy decline, growth cannot continue, this reflects thermodynamic realities and embedded dynamic constraints.

Debt is a call on future wealth. We can borrow because the principle plus interest has a better chance of being paid back in a growing economy. In a contracting economy paying back the principle will take a growing share of the total economy, never mind the interest.

The sovereign, corporate, and personal debt already accumulated, and governments' attempts to run deficit financing to bring us out of recession are likely to fail as rising energy and food prices choke off growth, and lower discretionary income make servicing debt more and more difficult. Eventually, lenders will realise they are throwing good money after bad, or rather bad after worse.

If countries cannot borrow, they cannot run deficits. If you need to import energy, food, or components for vital infrastructure or services, you will need to export something of similar value. This will mean companies integrated into parts of supply-chains may have to drop out.

Investment will become close to impossible, even energy investments will occur in a much more risky environment.

Our debt based fiat money system is effectively primed for deflation. The pool of money in the economy is maintained by new borrowing as old debt is repaid. A drop off in new debt issuance, and a reluctance to spend (a reduction in the velocity of money), will mean reduced economic activity on top of the energy constraints. Some governments will no doubt discover the short-term benefits of printing money, only to further loose confidence in their currency.

Valuing a currency will become fraught with difficulties, the dollar will no doubt crash, but against what?

We could say that money becomes opaque. We lose confidence in its valuation in space, that's trade; and time, that's investment.

Finally, sticking with our thermodynamic theme, we might remember that entropy and information bare a close relationship, a history going back to Claude Shannon in the 1950's. The collapse of structures and institutions represents a loss of information about how our world works. The increase in uncertainty will be fundamentally stochastic rather than epistemic.

Slide 19: Supply-chain creeping collapses

What I mean by creeping collapse is the loss of individual companies and failing elements of supply-chains. This is in contrast to the failure of a hub, such as the global banking system.

In this list we see some of the constraints we mentioned before, plus some new ones. What is important is that they are interacting together and often re-enforcing each other.

The combined effect will be to reduce more and more the number of companies in the supply-chain, and make the exchanges (physical, monetary etc.) more and more difficult.

By reducing the number of substitutes in the chain, whole chains will grind to a halt for want of critical inputs, further reducing the viability of other members of the chain. In a way just like that old rhyme that encapsulates 'for want of a nail, the war was lost'.

Slide 20: Dis-economies of scale

Economies of scale are the familiar benefits of a globalising world. They mean that not only can goods or services be produced cheaper, meaning greater sales volumes; but also a freed up discretionary income that can be spent on other goods and services.

In the energy/ economic environment I have been discussing, this process goes into reverse. The rising prices of goods (because of the energy cost, supply-chain and money risk reasons), and reduced discretionary income reduces the number of goods sold. This further increases the price at which the good must be sold, further reducing sales.

The rising cost of critical goods reduces discretionary income in the wider economy, reducing broader economies of scale, feeding back into the rising cost of goods. So drawing upon our earlier example, the rising cost of mobile phones which are now quite essential, mean less is spent on games consoles. This further raises the cost of advanced semi-conductor components for the phone.

We might also consider the dependent economy, by which I mean the network infrastructure for mobile phones, or the internet infrastructure for computers. As fewer users buy phones/ computers, or use them less, the cost of maintaining the network rises per user. In addition the cost of maintaining the infrastructure itself is likely to rise for the reasons already mentioned.

Thus we have yet more positive feedbacks driving our civilisation to lower and lower levels of complexity. Eventually networks, or major network functions will become unviable and effectively have to turn-off.

Slide 21: Infrastructure creeping collapse

We might ask how fast such a collapse occurs. We are reminded that most of our critical infrastructure has the most complex supply-chains, is the most resource intensive, is the most dependent upon cross-subsidisation, is the most expensive, and has components with short lifetimes.

The bathtub graph shown describes the probability of failure over time of many components of our infrastructure. We could consider such infrastructure to be scattered with multiple time constants. The systems functionality is set by the shortest critical time constant. That many of our key components (computers, servers, routers etc.) have lifetimes of only a few years does not look good.

In an early slide I discussed how interconnected our infrastructure is. Here a problem is that that even if one sector is maintaining its functionality, it is vulnerable to cascading failures transmitted from other sectors that cannot maintain upkeep of functions.

Slide 22: Scenario: Fast Supply-chain collapse

We saw that beside creeping supply-chain collapse, there is the collapse associated with a hub, in our case we mentioned a systemic failure of the banks.

Well, here is a scenario that seems likely. In essence, at some point in the future, over some period, the debt/ bond market will switch from being ultimately confident about the return to economic growth, to accepting that uncertainty and depression can only continue. As we know, markets tend to change their views over short-time periods.

An acknowledgement of this view will dry up the debt market, crash other markets, and will effectively mean that almost all debt cannot be repaid (or can, with worthless money). This means that all banks will be seen as insolvent.

The speed of such a transition could be in the order of months (baring in mind the propagation speed of the recent financial crisis). A collapse of bank intermediation services would effectively collapse our global and national supply-chains, in addition to instigating a money crisis.

The consequences would be unprecedented, including the prospect of a food crisis in many advanced economies. This would be the detonation point when the world finally absorbs the depth of its ecological overshoot.

Slide 23: Conclusions

The rate of collapse will be dependent upon the the speed of our critical systems- the operational speed of our financial markets, the speed of our supply-chains, and the maintenance rates required for our infrastructure.

In time a collapse will be seen as a series of jumps to lower levels of complexity occurring over decades. This will be set against a background of creeping failures in many of the systems we take for granted. There may be periods of stability or even slight recovery, but the downward trend will be unstoppable.

We are not in the middle of a financial crisis, but at the edge of civilisational one.

What we urgently need to develop now are emergency measures to soften the impact of such a crisis. The omens are not good, but we do have the ability to make better choices rather than worse ones.

Thank you!

your thesis seems to be that complexity is less stable and more likely to collapse. Lets examine this in terms of critical infrastructure such as energy, communications or food. We have had examples of natural disasters and wars to see what happens to infrastructure under stress. For example energy:

"Well the first thing is as net energy declined, each sector would be under increasing pressure to maintain basic operations. Investing in conventional or renewable energy, which requires a large up-front energy payment for a small annual return over many years would be increasingly difficult. Firstly because there would be less investable energy."

Our Neolithic ancestors only had two energy resources, food and wood. If they deforested or over hunted a small region they had nothing to fall back on. If we start to exhaust say oil, we have a variety of energy resources, examples of WWII economies cut off from oil showed they were robust because they had alternatives. Renewable energy such as wind power returns the energy investment very quickly( <6 months) so that even a growth rate of 50% per year returns net energy to the economy. Solar may be a little slower. I think you are confusing EROEI with turnover time, so that even ethanol with an EROEI of 1.5 returns that investment very quickly(about 18 months). Investment in oil however may be a 10-15 year time to return EI, even though EROEI is higher. Our complex mix of different energy resources derived globally gives a robust energy supply.

"We are reminded that most of our critical infrastructure has the most complex supply-chains, is the most resource intensive, is the most dependent upon cross-subsidisation, is the most expensive, and has components with short lifetimes."

If you are referring to mobile phones or the internet, these are very robust infrastructures, parts can fail, some component supplies may fail but they continue working. Compare this with less complex communications, mail, depends upon air and surface transport, delivery infrastructure, less complex but less robust break any one link and the mail doesn't arrive.
Comparing a 2g chip on a mobile phone or computer requiring 1700 g of resources, lets look at what that chip replaces; a 50 tonne aircraft 2,000 tonne ship or train delivering the mail.

Many manufactured products are sourced world wide, isn't this more robust than 200 years ago, obtaining cooking pots from one local foundry using local coal or charcoal and local iron ore. If any one component failed, the industry was abandoned. Now if one supply fails, say iron ore, another source supplies it.
What about food locally sourced compared with globally. What's more reliable in a local drought, or local heavy rain or local summer frost?

Economies prospering using alternative energies during WW2, ehh?

Was that the Germans, the Russians? Maybe the Italians, who switched sides halfway through and STILL managed to lose?

Sure the Germans used coal-derived fuel for the Panzers. Do you know how much carbon that process emits? Making fuel out of coal is just going to kill the planet even faster. And drive up the cost of the fuel produced.

And when diesel fuel becomes $50 per gallon, how many ships will be able to bring food internationally? Are YOU going to pay $50 for a punnet of Guatamalan strawberries? Not to mention bottled water flown internationally by jet... As always, with local produce, there are fluctuations and scarcities. Get used to it. Your grandparents did. What makes our generation think they are special? Why don't we deserve the hardships our ancestors had?

As the economy tanks and our overshoot starts to bite, you'll be glad to have bread and a thin potato soup twice a day as payment for emptying the latrines.


"Economies prospering using alternative energies during WW2, ehh?"
What I said was;

"examples of WWII economies cut off from oil showed they were robust because they had alternatives."

I was thinking of the Swiss, Sweden, they had a robust supply of energy, some coal, hydro electric power, wood. David is implying that our society will collapse when we run out of oil, or maybe FF energy. There are certainly no reasons why renewable energy cannot supply basic future needs with the exception of air travel.

Britain functioned during WWII with very small amounts of oil used by the civilian population, food rationing, many homes destroyed, because they had a complex robust society. Limited resources were shared.

"Are YOU going to pay $50 for a punnet of Guatamalan strawberries? Not to mention bottled water flown internationally by jet"
That's the point, we will use scarce oil for transporting Guatamalan rubber rather than a luxury such as strawberries or your neighbor driving an SUV. Shipping of essential items will be able to function with $50/gallon oil, but non-essential items probably not unless different energy resources are used such as CNG, chemical batteries, fuel cells, DICE engines using water/coal fuel for ocean transport.

"As always, with local produce, there are fluctuations and scarcities. Get used to it. Your grandparents did."

My grandparents didn't starve because of crop failures because food was moved globally then as it is now. Famine is possible in any local region. Famines occur when food is prevented from moving globally into drought affected regions such as in Zimbabwe, Sudan, Ethiopia.

"As the economy tanks and our overshoot starts to bite,"
Which economy? US, China, Australia, Europe?
Is a 10% decline in GDP, or a 50% decline in the stock market, or a 3.5% decline in numbers of employed what you call "tanking" ? somehow I visualized something more dramatic, more like 25% unemployment, a 90% decline in GDP, I don't think you will find many people existing on thin potato soup in the above mentioned regions, it's a world recession not a world depression. Not many in the US or Australia are showing their ribs as they stand in line for day jobs or unemployment benefits.

It is obvious that as fuel prices rise that we will have to give up fuel intensive luxuries.

And just as obvious that as this happens,those who make thier livings from these luxuries,from the winter strawberries to the sugar water sold at convenienve stores,are going to lose thier jobs.

And when they lose thier jobs and double up and eat dried beans and rice instead of hamburber,mortgages go bad and rentals sit empty.

And tax revenues that support social services ranging from food stamps to our army in the ME dry up.

And the positive feedbacks kick in with a vengeance,faster and faster, and things get REALLY waco really fast.

It's not that hard to understand why Washington is trying like hell to preserve business as usual.

It's because THIS TIME,things are such that the classic standard strategy of kicking the can down the street,leaving the problem for the nest session of congress or the next generation,won't work anymore-and they KNOW IT.

Collapse is staring us in the face,from three inches,and cursing and blowing spittle on our suit ,and daring us to FIGHT,right HERE and right NOW.It's do or die,today,BEFORE the next election.

It's hard for me to form a clear picture of how far down the positive feedbacks,which are obviously not finished with thier dirty work yet,WILL drive the economy.Complete collapse is possible,according to lots of very capable people, but I still think that we will mostly continue to live, in the US and other rich countries at least,pretty decent lives-the ones of us who have jobs,anyway.

And while it only occured to me to describe our invasion of the ME as a "social service" just now,it certainly is-in the same sense that the electric grid or a health department is, something that keeps us fat and satiated.Cheap oil is cheaper than food stamps.

But wars aren't.

Unless maybe they go according to plan-which they seldom do.

I am not putting my seal of approval on this "invasion thing" ,just exploring the idea from a quirky pov.

I think the WWII comment related to somewhere in Scandinavia, which effectively lost access to oil altogether, and survived. Like Cuba after the USSR collapsed.

This is a bit OT, but I've been thinking:

Took another look at nuclear lately. It really does seem that if we put all our efforts into fast breeder reactors, our energy needs would be met for a few hundred years - except a big dip while we transition over.

But, of course, we'd still be busy driving all the large animals to extinction and destroying soils and depleting water, no matter where the energy comes from.

Also, fast breeder reactors seem to produce a lot of plutonium. For this to be safe, we'd need a very high level of social control. Society would need to be so oppressive, that human error and dissent pose no practical threat to mass-production of plutonium.

This is not the case today. Environmentalists attacked France's fast breeder with rocket-propelled grenades, and got away with it. Someone probably could walk up to an oil refinery today and be met with off-duty cops packing pistols? Mass-deployed fast breeder reactors would need serious weaponry, air defenses, and shoot-on-sight policies.

Chernobyl melted down for many reasons, including poor design and poor worker training and discipline. Brutal and oppressive employment policies could have prevented this (for example, if very small infractions of policy were vigorously investigated and punished by death.) Many innocent people can be unjustly punished by such a system, but that's a price to pay for safety.

I don't advocate oppression, but I see no other way that fast breeders could mesh with human society. And, I see no other energy source that can match the scale of hydrocarbons.

I don't advocate industrialism, either, because it destroys the environment that sustains it.

I bring this up not because it's the right thing to do, but because it seems like the closest to business-as-usual that can actually be done, and because there's so much momentum behind business-as-usual that it seems likely people will try it.

Also, fast breeder reactors seem to produce a lot of plutonium. For this to be safe, we'd need a very high level of social control. Society would need to be so oppressive, that human error and dissent pose no practical threat to mass-production of plutonium.

Not true. You dont have to use the U238->Pu239 cycle, and you dont have to use fast neutrons to breed. You can use Th232->U233 which contaminates U233 with U232 making the material quite unsuitable for weapons material, and you can use thermal neutrons. This was demonstrated at Shippingport with the light water breeder reactor, and is very leverageable in the LFTR concept, which is often explored at:

A working liquid fluoride reactor prototype ran for several years in the sixties at ORNL. I always argue against the liquid metal fast breeder reactors because they solve two problems we wont ever actually have:

1) Uranium being too expensive to afford.
2) A shortage of plutonium.

Whereas LFTRs could be far less expensive than current light water reactors, safer, consume 1/200th the fuel and produce 1/600th the waste.

Chernobyl melted down for many reasons, including poor design and poor worker training and discipline.

This is one hell of an understatement. Chernobyl happened because it was an inherently flawed unstable reactor boosted up to the gigawatt scale that had no containment at all. This sort of reactor could never get built in the west even in the halcyon nuclear will solve everything days of the 50's. On top of that there was zero saftey culture to the point that they deliberately turned off all the safety overrides on the reactor to run an unnecissary test after an 18 hour shift. To top it off the SCRAM rods had graphite risers in them that accelerated the reaction in this monsterous pile of nonsense in the event of a failed scram. so one of the rods got stuck, displaced the poorly moderating water with extremely well moderating graphite and of course the whole damned thing went from standby to over 40 gigawatts and everything blew up.

One of the scenarios that nuclear proponents must tackle head-on IMO is to try and anser the question: "What happens if there is a generalised collapse of complex society"

Don't get me wrong -I'm 'neutral-to-pro' nuclear- but it just seems like common sense to think of worst case scenarios given the nature of the beast.

-Perhaps the whole complex could be buried/encased in concrete for example, otherwise we could end up 1000 years from now post-collapse with intra-tribal wars being fought with radio-active dirty-bombs in the mix, pretty horrible thought.


The thing that scares me is the pools full of spent fuel rods. Those will always seem like something that can be pushed off until tomorrow, until things break down. If ignored long enough, we might see an energy-deprived lower-complexity world having to deal with multiple Chernobyls.

Really, if society degrades that far, there are much more existential concerns than a slightly increased risk of cancer because of the toxic holy metal of the anciencts.

That's a pro-thorium forum. Let's stick to neutral territory, Wikipedia here:

When using thorium in modified light water reactor (LWR) problems include: the undeveloped technology for fuel fabrication; in traditional, once-through LWR designs potential problems in recycling thorium due to highly radioactive 228Th; some weapons proliferation risk due to production of 233U; and the technical problems (not yet satisfactorily solved) in reprocessing. Much development work is still required before the thorium fuel cycle can be commercialized for use in LWR, and the effort required seems unlikely while (or where) abundant uranium is available.

Here we see that thorium is relatively untested, has unsolved technical problems, and needs high security, just like the U238->Pu239 cycle. Fast breeders have operated for many more years in several countries, even fairly recently.

My point about security stands - and I don't buy the argument below that the USSR failed because it was too oppressive. If anything, they weren't ruthless enough about ensuring Chernobyl's safety, even after the fact. Officials received a 10 year prison sentence for their crimes. In 2003, an Alabama teenager was sent to prison for 26 years for marijuana possession!

As I understand, the proximate cause of USSR's failure was Saudi dumping of oil into the world market, orchestrated by Reagan.

That's a pro-thorium forum. Let's stick to neutral territory, Wikipedia here:

Its cited by wikipedia and has the largest document repository of the original ORNL experiments along with current developments. Its somewhere to go to actually learn about them. My point about LFTRs is they are the only breeder reactor that can compete. All other breeder reactors are at least as expensive as LWRs and have a more expensive fuel cycle.

Here we see that thorium is relatively untested, has unsolved technical problems, and needs high security, just like the U238->Pu239 cycle. Fast breeders have operated for many more years in several countries, even fairly recently.

Put the two together. Fast breeders are readily applied to military capacity, which is why they recieved funding. Liquid fluoride reactors contaminate U233 with U232 when breeding. While its not imposible to weaponize contaminated U233, its very difficult to do it and no state actor would bother given the difficulties compared to Pu239.

"Society would need to be so oppressive, that human error and dissent pose no practical threat to mass-production of plutonium."

neutrally discussed, oppressive societies aren't by necessity good at removing the threat of human error. Because everyone will be so afraid of punishment that they will not pass on information about errors, design flaws, inefficiencies, etc; instead always reporting fulfillment of plan and if necessary they will fake and fraud the results (again a social discount phenomenon, they know they may be executed in the future if the fraud is exposed but it helps them avoid punishment now).

This is why oppressive societies will usually lose awareness of what is going on at the base. Bottom-up information flows dry out, and at some point the resulting top-down commands become senseless or counterproductive, as they are no longer reactions to accurate situational information. This was clearly visible with the Eastern Bloc nations whose regimes had totally lost the capacity to accurately judge their real internal situation. This was the culture that allowed the USSR to degrade to the point they had to import basic foodstuffs from the very enemies they had vowed to bury.

Using an oppressive system like this to run a fully nuclear economy will perhaps reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on the sites (as, if people have no freedom of movement and need a government permit and a minder to travel anywhere outside their city, such actions are harder to plan) but it will hugely increase the risk of catastrophic accident, and flawed designs being perpetuated.

What an oppressive system is good at is course is then using "human resources" for the cleanup, as in the USSR where thousands of "liquidators" where ordered on suicidal missions at Chernobyl.

In comparison, despite all complaints, a "near-disaster" like Three mile Island caused a huge public re-evaluation of nuclear power in the West. This doesn't mean of course that I consider the current political mess the West has created to be anything near optimum - one of the ironies of history is, that after watching the collapse of the Communist block due to its denial of reality, the West has chosen its own path of denial. We've also seen the consequences of removing a correct informational feedback, not through oppression, but unrealistic reward - the sequential bubbles that our economy has been based on of course have rewarded only those who reinforced this belief system by articially created "wealth". Like with the Eastern block, a forced confrontation with underlying realities is necessary - and as it seems, the reaction to the first instances of that is to invest the maximum effort into sustaining the belief system instead of social survivability.



You are one of the small number of people who actually understand how communism worked-FAILED TO WORK- on a day to day basis.

And you have in a sentence or two pointed out something that is quite-simple yet subtle -that although we can send accurate information upstream in our society well enough to prevent paralysis,we WON'T .

This WON'T is a tragedy of the commnons kind of WON'T -everybody sees his personal welfre as being dependent on bau ,and even if he is smart enough to realize he dilemma,he wants HIS.

And of course getting HIS depends on bau just a little bit longer.

One more merger.

One more term in office.

One more subdivision.

One more trip to Disney.

One more new Camaro.

One more six pack.

One more Big Mac.

One more game on the tube.

One more bowl of beans.

And don't you DARE bother me with this so called REALITY,whatever THAT may be.

Whatever is is,it doesn't exist anyway because if it did, I could get it at Walmart.

And besides,it's YOU that's deluded,not me.If there was any thing to this crap ,the news would be all over it.You think the people who run this country are stupid?most of them are crooks,any body dumb enough to believe that (liberal conservative bullshit select one) ain't too smart but they ain't THAT stupid.

Now get outta my sight.

Fxxxxxxx commie !to your back.

Mac, your commentary has rapidly gotten me addicted. If you have time, drop me an email. Best.


Hit me with your email address at

Ok, so the real problem with nuclear power is wastes. There is no way any govt can guarantee a 10,000 years safety of these wastes. Lets see if there is a way out, what about throwing the wastes off to moon (our nearest celestial body). How expensive is that? Somebody on tod said $100,000/kg is needed for space payload. Ok, so how much energy $100,000 means. World GDP is 60 trillion dollars and power consumption is 15 trillion watts taken continuous. So, 25,000 continuous watts, equal to 25,000 x 60 x 60 x 24 x 365 = 788.4 GJ. How much energy is in 1 kg uranium. In one of the most basic types of nuclear reactors called CANDU which is LWR (Light Water Reactor) one unit of uranium produce as much energy as 20,000 units of best coal (anthracite). See source. 1 kg uranium equals 20 tons coal. One ton coal equals 27 GJ. 20 tons coal equals 540 GJ. Its less than 788.4 GJ. So, either use hwr (breeder I think is still in development stage) or bye bye to electricity and welcome to agriculture.

Ok, so the real problem with nuclear power is wastes. There is no way any govt can guarantee a 10,000 years safety of these wastes.

Why do people think like this? You only have to worry about it for several decades, long enough to discount and come to the next cycle. Either civilization collapses and its not your biggest worry anymore, or you revisit the issue again with arguably better technology after many costs are discounted.

You only have to worry about it for several decades, long enough to discount and come to the next cycle.

You mean kick the can down the road? Good idea! After all, it's gotten us this far... I'm sure the children won't mind cleaning up.

I prefer kicking the cans 500 m down into bedrock.
They can still be retrieved when future generations needs the raw materials.

Theres nothing to clean up. It sits in big concrete casks that are stable for centuries. People think its some sort of cheat but it isn't; Its as if people dont understand opportunity cost.

As the economy tanks and our overshoot starts to bite, you'll be glad to have bread and a thin potato soup twice a day as payment for emptying the latrines.

This statement should be broadcast non stop 24 hours a day 7 days a week 365 days a year in every mass media outlet until even the most delusional idiots begin to get the message.

Especially the politicians and the all the financial wizards that continue to sell the snake oil of BAU!

On second thought after reading this, all I have to say is that collapse can't come fast enough to help rid the world of people like this...

DC and Wall street need to be arrested and imprisoned. The sociopathic criminals that control our country will never see things as anything but their personal opportunities.

I bet that container ships will eventually be nukes.
I used to live on an aircraft carrier and I can personally tell you that they work quite well.
That is just one example of alternatives. It may be hard to scale to the numbers needed but it is there.

Yeah, nukes work quite well at driving ships, until accident or war sinks those ships. Then their nuclear propulsion systems work quite well at polluting the ocean with life-inimical radioactivity. Nuclear reactors (and weapons) on the high seas is just plain stupid. Come to think of it, they're stupid on land, too.

I acknowledge the risks.

Fair enough porge. Acknowledgment of risk is the first step towards concluding that the risks of fission power generation outweigh its benefits.


The risks are real enough but give the payoff I am still in favor of nuclear power on the Americam model.Good containment domes,ample security etc.

It is expensive no doubt but if it gets built to updated standardized designs it will imo look like a world class bargain a few years down the road.

I don't think that the three of us will live to see nuclear frieghters simply because there is not enough money to be saved on bunker fuel.Military nuclear applications are cost efficient,given the operational flexibility of nuclear power-the power plant costs are of little consequence if the ship can stay at sea for months or years if resupplied with food,etc,by a tender,and can sail at top speed for days on end with nary a thought as to its fuel supply.

Or if it can lurk in silence in deep water for a couple of months and float to the surface and take out an entire country -all by itself.

But my great grand father probably thought in 1915 or so that tractors would never be cheap enough for small farmers to own them .He owned one himself in his later years.

I don't think that the three of us will live to see nuclear frieghters simply because there is not enough money to be saved on bunker fuel.

A study I've read concludes that nuclear powered shipping is more economic today than standard shipping because of both money saved on bunker fuel as well as speed:

The study showed that a nuclear ship would be $40 million per year cheaper to operate when bunker oil is at $500/ton.
Those studies had indicated improved economics when bunker fuel is over $300/ton. Bunker oil is currently about $375/ton.

I really can not ever see a future where we have commercial shipping powered by nuclear reactors! The only reason that aircraft carriers and subs can get away with having a nuclear reactor on board is because they are also usually stuffed full of weapons which deter any pirates/terrorists attempting to nick the nuclear reactor and/or drive the boat into a port and blow it sky high.

Commercial shipping will not be powered by nukes. Not until al-quaeda all turn into fluffy kittens at any rate.

I expect to se very large high speed nuclear powered container ships.

The ability to trade is critical for the survival of several technologically advanced populations.

Those ships and every other freighter will have to be armed if the terrorist and pirate threath is not solved. This would be a nuicence and a cost and a failure of civilization and require some changes in various treaties unless the ships belongs to national navies but rather that then starvation thru being scared.

Nuclear powerplants in ships have one very big advantage, unlimited cooling water.
If nothing else works scuttle it as the ultimate cooling option.

They you need an ability to lift up the core before the fuel cladding corrodes.

Written by Neil1947:
Many manufactured products are sourced world wide, isn't this more robust than 200 years ago....

What about food locally sourced compared with globally. What's more reliable in a local drought, or local heavy rain or local summer frost?

Historically food was stored locally to compensate for weather and blight. Now the system is based on just-in-time delivery and dependent on a massive supply of inexpensive transportation fuel, vehicles and transportation infrastructure. Locally grown crops are insufficient to feed everyone in large cities. The system works well until a critical, irreplaceable component is lost.

Hypothesize a scenario or scenarios where such a component is lost, and what irreplacable components are these such that we can't develop alternatives or mitigations fast enough to avert disaster?

Trust. There are no alternatives to it.

Historically food was stored locally to compensate for weather and blight. Now the system is based on just-in-time delivery and dependent on a massive supply of inexpensive transportation fuel, vehicles and transportation infrastructure
How far back are you going when you say historically? Ever since wheat and corn and beef have been grown on the US and Canadian prairies they have been shipped east by rail or river boats to population centers.
In Europe or China grain has been moving by canals or ships for hundreds of years.
Is 1.3% of the US energy consumption a "massive supply of inexpensive transportation fuel"?
If diesel was X20 times more expensive, it would only have a minor impact on the price of rail moved food( 450 ton miles/gallon), and a modest impact on fresh fruits and vegetables moved by truck transport.

"The system works well until a critical, irreplaceable component is lost." Give one example of a critical irreplaceable component used to move meat or grain globally.

Fuel injectors to begin with. These are components with very small parts with even smaller margins of error. The number of factories able to inexpensively manufacture these parts can be counted on one hand. Every other good in the economy is dependent on diesel engined trucks to move them over at least the last mile. Each year a certain percentage (around 5%) of these trucks need to be replaced. The diesel engines used on farms are dependent on the same engines as the trucks.

""The number of factories able to inexpensively manufacture these parts can be counted on one hand.""

Not really, unless you have a hand with about 2500 fingers, and it reaches to just about every country on the planet. Diesel injectors are actually quite easy to make, mechanical fuel injection has been around as long as the Diesel Engine. What, say, 100 years? The over engineered Unit Injection system intalled on a lot of crap in the US, to satisfy EPA BS, is not that tough either. The ECM, that controls it is the problem.

But, it's a hop, skip, and a jump back to the mechanical stuff. Most of it is still around in the Parts Yards anyway. Make your choice. In the future, if you are worried about EPA Pollution issues when planting your wheat, I suggest you shoot the EPA guy, not the farmer.

Actually this argument is one I claim is actually completely wrong. Your counting the number of factories that make fuel injectors where whats important is the ability to make them.

As long as you can make the equipment to make fuel injectors then you can and will make them if they are a critical component. I'd argue the road system will fail well before we lose the ability to make fuel injectors.

Now they may become expensive and its highly probably if we continue to require diesel engines that the designs will be adjusted to allow less complex manufacturing processes. The original diesels where built in home workshops.

The Afghan gunsmiths are and example of complex engineering with simple tools.

Its the webs that matter and more importantly the infrastructure maintenance requirements.

Road networks fail, Electrical networks fail, city societies fail but as long as knowledge exists and the equipment can be put together the ability to make stuff lasts for a very long time. Far more likely is diesel engines will eventually be abandoned in favor of easier to make and run steam engines. Not that we won't continue to make them but external combustion engines have a lot of advantages over internal combustion engines if society relocalizes.

Even high tech steam turbines could be a possibility. Another is solid oxide fuel cells which do have a high tech requirement but are robust and long lasting. No telling whats going to happen but I just don't see fuel injectors being a issue that's a fairly simple engineering problem. The question is are tractors really the best solution.

My own opinion is some combination of steam and horse power is probably going to be the long term solution and maybe compressed air. All three are very easy to make cheap and serve as excellent substitutes for oil based engines and all three are very renewable fuel friendly.
And of course a move to hydro and wind. But I actually see electricity becoming more and more used where alternatives or substitution is not that viable. Thus houses of the future probably will only have electric lights and telecommunications with refrigeration and power/heat needs taken over by steam/mechanical/compressed air based systems.

You might even see lighting reduced to a single lamp if needed. And telecom could reduce to a mobile phone and some sort of organic flat screen or eyeglass projection system or eventually even contacts or implants.

Here is my list of things that will probably make it assuming we are not going back to the stone age.

1.) Airplanes and Helicopters.
2.) Some sort of tractor/carrier ( steam powered ?)
3.) Medical knowledge and advanced methods.
4.) General chemical biochem abilities however I think plastics and glues will become far less important as natural products are readopted. Chemicals will increasingly be made for purposes which don't have a natural substitute.

5.) Telecom but see above reduced eventually to a personal network device.

6.) Rail

7.) Nuclear power

Maybe solar powered blimps replace some of our aircraft usage who knows.

Probably some of these products like air travel could well be restricted to the wealthy but I see no reason for it to cease.

Certainly we may do things simpler or differently from today but I'd argue that we probably won't give up the above list unless forced and I think it will take a significant amount of force or total collapse to cause use to give up my list.

For the most part this list outside of rail is really and issue of keeping a certain level of technical capability even if its reduced to effectively custom manufacturing we can still produce these types of things if we retain the knowledge. Mass manufacturing for general use may or may not be common.

All of this esp if you throw in the nuclear is doable. If you consider regions with excellent hydro also becoming high tech manufacturing hubs at least for energy intensive parts of the processes then I just don't see any intrinsic reason for us to lose this.

I'd say rail, telecom, medical and lights are the three big things the general populace would continue to demand and the most likely to remain in mass production. Travel esp with telecom continuing could easily become rare. Medical care beyond the basics may also become rare. Drugs may or may not become difficult to get. My best guess is some will remain abundant and others may well become hard to get. Medical advances and indeed all research could well slow to a crawl or more likely be redirected down different paths than today.

I guess I see a huge difference between technology and some advances becoming rare and expensive vs losing them all together or developing alternatives better suited to a changing society. It actually took a lot to lose the knowledge of Rome for example I don't see any intrinsic reason for us to face the same loss of knowledge. And given the knowledge these sorts of high tech/industrial products follow at some maybe low production level.

More likely is that the military complex will become the modern day Medieval Monastery with a lot of this knowledge preserved primarily for military use.

Memmel,I always read your commentary with great interest as you frequently come up with ways of seeing things that have not occured to me.

There are no particular reasons i can think of why your list of surviving technologies should be any less likely to prove correct than one I might draw up but in my opinion:

If industrial capacity is very limited,and fiel is very expensive,we can esaily build a few light planes but copters are much more complicated and use a LOT of fuel.Maybe no copters since small planes are many times cheaper and copters reall don't do THAT much more.

Tractors in some form are close to absolute necessities as they can do so many tough jobs that are really beyond the capabilities of draft animals.And although I have not researched the issue I think that tractors can run on locally produced fuels more efficiently than working with draft animals much of the time.Certainly this will be true for heavy work such as plowing large fields or hauling heavy loads to a nearby town,as the tractor will consume no fuel at all if not in use.Draft animals will probably prove to be more efficient for lighter work that is done on a highly repetitive basis such as hauling a light load of produce from a farm or village to a nearby town on a regular basis,or cultivating a crop.If the manufacture of biobiesel can be simplified and the equipment standardized,areas that can produce good oil feedstocks such as soybeans or sunflowers efficiently will probably find tractors cheaper than draft animals.This wuold only hold true so long as new tractors and trucks can be built of course.

But there are literally tens of milloins of trucks and cars that a local shop could use as sources of critical parts to build workable home made tractors,and if they are preserved the supply should last for several decades at least,possibly for a century or two.The hardest parts to manufacture,such as extremely strong precision made gears and bearings could be stored for thousands of years if just kept thoroughly coated with any non corrosive oil.

I can't see any reason to use compressed air to operate machines in the future as it is only used in the present as a way to get power to an air motor via a hose from a compressor located some distance away.This can be very practical as when working in confined space such as a mine using an air drill to bore holes but it is not energy efficient.Perhaps you envision motors running on compressed air stored in tanks and compressed by a wind turbine or by water power?That might work if the machine is to be used in the immediate nieghborhood of the compressor, or towed to and from the job by a draft animal.

Vintage steam engines are fuel hogs and it is said that the ice displaced them primarily due to thier lower fuel costs.But I can see old piston steam type steam engines making a comeback any place wood is plentiful,especially if the waste heat can be diverted in to a factory or apartment building-and I do nor envision zoning officials having much say so in the location of future businesses if energy efficiency is at stake.Such engines were extremely simple and although the bigger ones could only be built in fairly large foundrys employing many men,they can last almost forever even in constant use with only occasional minor repairs.

Air travel is out if democracy survives.The working classes simply will not permit it if deprived of thier cars.

It all depends on how far down things go before we hit a sustainable bottom ,and I just can't come up with a clear picture.

I can easily envision the personal automobile still being around fifty years from now,and looking pretty much like todays subcompacts.

Such a car stripped of its fat and equipped with an engine capable of say a top speed of fifty mph could easily be made to get eighty miles per gallon or more,could easily be built to last for fifty years,and made so easily repairable that the auto mechanic's trade would become the worlds biggest dead end job.

A fuel ration of only two gallons per week would be enough for most people to adjust thier driving habits,over a period of time,so that we could continue to get some good use out of sunk investments in surburban housing and millions of acres of asphalt.

No new or expensive tech at all is needed to build such a car-all that is needed is a regulatory environment that allows the manufacture of nothing else for the simple reason that it won't sell if any thing fancier is available.If there are a few comments indicating interest in why this is so,I will post a long explanatory comment explaining just how such a car can be built.It might take a couple of days for me to write it up.

Wow we could go on for days on this :)

But yes this is the sort of thinking that to me makes sense post peak. What to keep what to discard what to replace.

Efficiency for example is something you mentioned several times however its not the end all inefficient but simple steam engines and air power have the beauty of using local resources and are easy to manufacture in simple machine shops. Wood need not be the only source of material for steam.

Also of course although I've not seen it why not pelletized cow patties ?
Or better rabbit droppings :)

In the future I think simplicity will become as important as efficiency.
Steam engines often last for hundreds of years I know of no ICE that compares.

I hesitate to explore your entire response many of the points are very valid and probably more correct then some of mine. Helicopters for example do we really need them vs much simpler light planes. I agree they may be relegated to very specialized uses.
Or maybe overtime really good VTOL's get developed who knows I tend to not try and guess to hard when trying top predict human ingenuity.

In fact that's rather my point we losing cheap energy does not change our technical prowess or ability to think it just means new problems and different solutions maybe radically different. In some cases its refurbishing older solutions my example is steam engines or maybe not. I just don't see this going away anytime soon.

It does not by any means suggest we will be able to keep or current civilization but it does mean we probably will be able to build a new one leveraging our knowledge and intelligence good chance it will eventually be radically different from today's to the point that people of the future might have a hard time even understanding the 100 years of insanity called the oil age. I just don't see keeping the "old ways" once oil becomes expensive as all that important let it die and move on.

Here in France the harvest is fully under way and every available tractor is being pushed into the field to help. It's surprising to see just how many antique working tractors there still are, many 50 to 60 years old and still in use. Whereas the farmers use their modern tractors for day to day work, the old ones are still around and capable of serious work when needed.

Also, there are a number of farms here in France that use both tractors and horses. Using the tractor for the heaviest work, usually just for a couple of weeks per year, means that smaller horses can be utilised for the rest of the time (no large draft animals).

Smaller farms will have more options available to them than large farms in the future I believe.

Steam engines often last for hundreds of years I know of no ICE that compares.

Not "hundreds of years"; the page (and plaque) says it was clapped out after 112. And that long only because it was a unique spec. Furthermore that canal system served a much more important function (carrying coal, ore, food, etc) than any single wheeled vehicle.

First diesels made in home workshops???

The definitive history of the early development of diesel engines is Lyle Cummins book "Diesel's Engine". The first working engines were built in the research shop of Machine Works Augsburg which in the 1890s was the height of technical expertise and scientific sophistication. The most difficult aspect of the whole device was the fuel injectors. The early test engines were by current standards very large with cylinder bores of roughly 10 inches (25 cm). It took years of trial and error to produce the first reliable compressed air based fuel injection system. It took another 20 years of work to produce the purely hydraulic injector systems with operating pressures in the 1000s of psi.

The first working engines were built in the research shop of Machine Works Augsburg which in the 1890s was the height of technical expertise and scientific sophistication.

Hmm took a bit to get full info on MAN's early involvement.

This seems to be a good link.
And of course MAN's own page.

I don't agree that MAN was what you claim when the first diesel engines where built.
I can't find any reference that backs up the claim. Certainly not a home workshop I agree however also not the height of technical expertise.

Later of course MAN grew to be exactly what you claim primarily building on the success of the first prototypes and of course the intertwined work with Linde refrigeration and the printing press.

Certainly MAN quickly developed into a first class machining power however lacking any definitive info as near as I can tell initially the machining part was a sort of spin off to open markets for the core mining business. It was a smashing success with two home runs the Linde refrigeration and a bit later Diesel however at the time both where developed or prototyped I find no indication that MAN had already become one of the best engineering firms in Germany.

And of course a bit further back to the printing press.

That link suggests that they did a good bit of copying off the English :)

To be clear I'm not disagreeing outright just pointing out that the first steps for the diesel which where sufficient to gain the funding to move forward where not nearly as sophisticated as later solutions. Advancement was rapid at the time but it was very much a synergistic situation. Novel crude prototypes where produced bringing in funding which went to quickly increase the machining/engineering capabilities of the original companies.

At the time innovation in machining, factories and even metallurgy was just as rapid as the innovation in the products. Without better info on the capabilities of MAN during the early years its tough to say what capability they had and when.

Give one example of a critical irreplaceable component used to move meat or grain globally.


HA! Good answer!

Actually, I can think of a good one, refrigerant. Chilling systems are very media- specific and will not function well or at all with 'substitutes' without overhaul. There are others; 'Delrin' bushings and bimetallic thermostatic expansion valves, for example.

All of thsse are mass- produced and a critical bankruptcy can cause instant large shortages. Tires are another good that is taken for granted but can become scarce rapidly as there are only a few tire manufacturers left world- wide.

I like the idea of peak oil happening ten years ago. Why? Because what happens after peak oil - to complex systems, as well as less complex ones - is happening right now.

And has been happening for the past ten years.

As we all can see, there are ups and downs. Some things fail - levees in New Orleans and Detroit generally - and some things advance. Goldman- Sachs is a good example of a successful post- peak entity. It is complex, adaptable, capable of shifting inputs and doing so rapidly. That is exists by devouring its 'habitat' is similar to the way a herd of bison devours their habitat.

If we had bison, that is ...

Are you talking about refrigerants in existing refrigerators( most never need recharging), commercial cooling( ammonia or CO2; both readily available) or new refrigerators? Certainly new refrigerators can be designed to run on CO2 or ammonia if other gases are not available. No it takes a year to switch over, no new refrigerators for a year would not be too difficult to handle, not going to cause economic collapse.

And has been happening for the past ten years.
What has been happening in last 10 years that hasn't been happening for last 100 years?

That were an extremely good answer.

Give one example of a critical irreplaceable component used to move meat or grain globally.

Here's three: credit, diesel and asphalt.

Credit is crucial for international transactions. Last summer and fall goods where idled on docks because banks would not issue letters of credit.

The U.S. government is over its head in debt. A financial collapse of this country would likely pull the economies of the world down with it and, like the fall of the Soviet Union, public infrastructure would fall into disrepair and social services would be curtailed. Don't be so confident that government would be able to afford asphalt whether it be from the high price of bitumen, a lack of tax revenue or no buyers for its treasuries.

Just last year diesel was 2 times more expensive than at present which squeezed truckers into strikes (in Europe) and toward bankruptcy. Due to fuel being a large fraction of the price of a ticket and discretionary spending diminishing, airlines were on the verge of bankruptcy. Could all of the food currently moved by truck and aircraft be added to the payloads of rail and ship within a year, 10 years or 20 years without displacing the transportation of other goods? Ships use diesel too and move slowly requiring more of them to sustain the rate of delivery. I have not studied the numbers, but during a depression, I suspect not.

Personal transportation is mostly reliant on gasoline while commercial transportation is mostly reliant on diesel. Cutting back on personal transportation does not make a significant amount of diesel fuel available. The yield of gasoline and diesel from a barrel of crude oil can only be adjusted slightly.

If you think rationing of diesel fuel would work, consider which industries would be sacrificed to make more diesel available for the transport of food. The industries that are short changed will have to lay off workers who will then have difficulty buying food and increase the stress on the government's social programs. The shortchanged industries will have neither the cash nor the credit to convert. While spiraling into a depression, credit will be scarce making conversion to other energy sources that require high initial capital difficult. The economic pressure will be to convert to the cheapest alternative transportation fuel which is probably natural gas. Switching to natural gas would postpone and intensify the day of reckoning without solving the problem.

Look at what is happening to the world economy now. Credit is tight, government debt is on the rise and investment in alternative energies has declined. The world is due for another financial shock in Fall 2011 when the resets of American Alt-A and Option ARM's peak. It will cause more global economic carnage from bank fraud because globalization has most of the world economies linked like mountain climbers tethered together.

If they can not be transported fast enough due to a shortage of fuel, aircraft or ships or a low rationing priority, diesel injectors made in Japan are not useful to Americans. The price of crude oil overshooting and then undershooting like it did in 2008 pressures the transport industry alternately with high fuel costs and then reduced demand. Both modes foster bankruptcy and stifle investment. Businesses may not be able to survive repeated blows from this volatility which would reduce the number of ships and airplanes. Globalization is squeezed to death.

Written by Neil1947:
Is 1.3% of the US energy consumption a "massive supply of inexpensive transportation fuel"?

Yes. Your statistic is deceptive because it assumes different types of energy have equal utility and are easily interchangeable. Neither wood nor electricity are sufficient to power the current fleet of semitrailer trucks traveling along interstate highways at a comparable distance, rate and price. Natural gas would be more expensive than diesel. Coal-to-synfuel could not match the price either especially if the environmental impact is included. Any large scale conversion to another type of fuel requires a correspondingly large expansion of production, refining and maybe distribution for the substitute. This may not be possible at the current scale, within the limited time predicted by the Export Land Model, during an economic depression and with current geopolitics.

For May 2009 in the U.S. as a fraction of total crude oil and petroleum products:

Finished motor gasoline: 50% (281.706 Mb/month)
Distillate Fuel Oil: 18.8% (106.037 Mb/month = 4.5 billion gallons / month)
Asphalt and Road Oil: 2.2% (12.228 Mb/month)

Written by Neil1947:
How far back are you going when you say historically?

About 220 years ago to the start of the industrial revolution when human world population began increasing exponentially. Both the population and the scale of the transportation system were much smaller.

Mobile phones and the internet are among the most fragile bits of infrastructure, because it is universally built / dependent on CMOS technology.

Take out the equipment in place with a massive EMP device, follow up with sporadic attacks with smaller EMP devices over the next year as people "dig out" with equipment in storage, and pretty soon, nothing will be left that works -- in any quantity.

Hi Neil,

A wind turbine may pay back it's energy cost in six months, more if you include grid infrastructure, batteries, never mind the fading dreams of electric cars. Trying to do it with ethanol will further compound a food crisis. However we must include wider processes. Just two years ago there were waiting lists of up to 4 years for turbine delivery, this delay has fallen away, but could emerge again (never mind renewable infrastructure resource nationalism). the IEA estimate that renewable energy investment will fall 38% between 2008/9. There really is very little production capacity compared to the scale of what we are trying to replace, and a limited ramp up rate. In essence, money have to be paid now for a turbine that may not even be erected for years.
The principle point is that we are slippening into a deepening crisis, and by the time society acknowledges it, we will have lost much of our ability to respond with renewable infrastructure.
The chip does not replace a ship or aircraft (which rely upon chips)-growth in both international trade and chip use is a feature of the last few years.
You are right, complexity can be an excellent risk management strategy-but not always!

Hi David,
Thanks for your interesting post and replying to some of the points I have tried to raise.
World-wide and in the US, wind energy capacity has been growing at 30% per year for about 15 years. In the US this was a growth rate of 50% in 2008, and there were certainly supply shortages. A lot of new factories have been opened to manufacture components and companies like Vestas are still expanding production. This year(2009) in US, another 4,000MW of capacity has been completed and about 3,000MW are under construction, so even if no new project start for the rest of the year the US will complete 7,000MW , compared with 8,500MW in 2008 and 5,000MW in 2007; not too bad considering we are in the worst recession for 80 years.

It seems that the back-order on turbines is no longer 4 years, but certainly the capacity to build at a faster rate in the future has improved as new factories ramp up production. The 2009 US budget had provisions to expand the grid, encourage further investment in wind energy but these will take perhaps a year to have an effect.
In this article I touched on why it will be possible to build a very significant wind capacity in N America over the next 20years.

7,000 MW of wind capacity in the U.S. for 2009 is about 2.3 GW of actual production compared to U.S. liquid fuel consumption being down about 1.5 Mb/d from its peak. Assuming it is all crude oil, over a year it amounts to 548 Mb. 1 barrel of oil equivalent has an energy content of 6.1 GJ and 1 W = 1 J/s. The reduction in crude oil consumption amounts to a reduction in energy consumption of:

106 GW

or 46 times more power than will be added by wind in 2009. I hope this puts your numbers in perspective.

But you need X10 more MJ of gasoline in an ICE vehicle(25mpg)(130MJ plus several kWH of electricity for refining/gallon) to travel the same distance using an EV(5kWh(18MJ)/25 miles).

hope this puts oil MJ energy in perspective to electricity MJ energy.

"companies like Vestas are still expanding production."
Vestas are trying to force their closure in the uk in face of intense opposition.

I was referring to world-wide production not local. The UK market is only slightly larger than the Australia market.

Great post. And it will and did attract the cornucopians and their lunatic friends the economists. Always good clean fun watching the pollyannas at the end of the world.

I am amazed at some of the wishful thinking, denial, fantastical and magical thinking, short-sightedness, and just plain ole dumbness that infests the comments.

I think that these comments from people who think of themselves often as scientists, economists, and other academic layabouts indicate the amazing depth of the ignorance and territoriality of the world.

Oh, and to the guy who believed that wind generators pay off in less than six months, I want some of what you're smoking. Hire a fact checker dude.

This represents a common oversight when Cornucopians refer to past examples of systems resiliency (e.g., the WWII examples above): the tremendous increase in the volume of resources being used now (especially the more obscure and rare), as well as the tremendous increase in complexity since then. Overall, at least a hundred-fold (to flagrantly guess, and assuming compounding of complexity).

When 2 million Norwegians are able to improvise successfully when their fuel and materiel supply was impaired during WWII, that's one thing; when 4.5 million Norwegians, each consuming twice as much volume now, and that stuff coming as twice as many separate things from twice as many places all over the world, that is a higher order of complexity that may not be quite so resilient.

In short, the answer to Neil1947's rhetorical questions is "no."

Great article Rembrandt. I think what cornucopians do not understand, is that the overall energy supply for the world is post peak as oil has gone past peak, and the effect is less net energy worldwide, which will only get worse. Less net energy has the fiscal implications indicated in your piece. Intuitively I had a basic understanding of how and why collapse would occur, but it was very informative to have the details of it laid out so succinctly.

I was at your presentation at the ASPO meeting (Thanks Rembrandt for great organization), and was helped by your clarity.
As well as your 'baby-swap' with the hunter gatherer artists of the pre-agricultural stone-age - memorably-made point - I am also struck by your focus on the different last 15 years.

Externally, because of the economies of scale require that such complex and resource intensive components must be produced continuously in quantity.

In this sense we are upgrading just to sustain the basic functionality of the systems upon which we have grown increasingly reliant. ...

You have made this crucial point more neatly than I have seen anywhere else.
best wishes

Hi Phil,
Thanks for your comments. Hope all is well!

Indeed whereas wood, animal hides, shellac, rainfall, etc, would have "produced continually" with no human effort or intervention.

Great article with much to consider. Globalisation seems to have progressed as costs-to-ship components have continued to fall thus enabling the optimisation of the final solution as each part of the solution whole can be created where costs are lowest. Examples are Chinese Manufactures and Indian Call Centres (enabled themselves by cheaper local coal energy and cheaper local wages).

"...In essence, at some point in the future, over some period, the debt/ bond market will switch from being ultimately confident about the return to economic growth, to accepting that uncertainty and depression can only continue..."

In the last year we have seen short-term interest rates approaching zero. Is it not possible that longer term rates would also come down in a World where fewer could afford to borrow? Even a small rate of return on Capital would be better than none.


I think the breakdown has begun. Local government services are being severely curtailed in the US -- look at reductions in staff across levels of state and county governments. The Federal Government will be okay until Treasury demand can no longer keep up with supply. I cannot imagine a functioning government by 2030.

Residents Angry As City's Trash Piles Up

Salem Garbage Collection Fee Increase Suggested

Gary garbage: Residents fume over lack of trash collection

Things may or may not be breaking down, but these items appear to signify nothing more than the sort of bog-standard nonsense (and in Gary, apparently, corruption) that has undoubtedly been utterly routine with governments from the dawn of civilization. (The big trouble with governments is that they are monopolies, which tends to immunize them from any sort of discipline, so that feckless behavior is encouraged or even rewarded.)

I agree these garbage stories don't really indicate anything -- of course, garbage collection depends on vast amounts of oil being cheap and available to be viable. Less consumerism == less trash, so this may not be one of the big stories as we ride the slide. It is interesting on how everything is interconnected.

IMO, the correct term, at least in the US, would be a 2-party monopoly. I think there is plenty of evidence that the two sides are not colluding.

That's a duopoly. Good Cop/Bad Cop

The US party system is a duopoly. However, government itself is a monopoly - you're forced to obey its diktats, no matter how stupid some of them may be, on pain of coercive violence. And you are forced to put up with at least some of its "services", no matter how fecklessly they may be provided, also on pain of coercive violence should you seek an alternative, which will often be illegal, or so heavily taxed as to be infeasible. These things do not change when the party in power changes.

None of this needs to involve collusion between the two parties (nor does it preclude it - there's simply no necessary connection.) It's simply that people with tenured or quasi-tenured jobs, which means nearly everyone in government from most legislators all the way down to the massively overpaid bus drivers I like to pan now and then for being too stupid or lazy to tell time, will often behave with just the incompetence, misfeasance, and fecklessness one might expect from members of a culture of near-total impunity.

Indeed, this is an excellent presentation.

It reminds me how similar the human race is to a virus or a parasite. Here were are 1million years into feeding from our host, planet Earth. Regardless how things may or may not have changed in those 1million+ years, we have spread. The corners of the map have been filled in and we keeping drying out our host.

How much longer will it be before there is a natural reaction large enough to balance out our effect on the planet? I am beginning to wonder how long we can wait before we need to infect another planet.

We are greedy. I doubt that I would want to live in the woods as a hunter gather. I like air conditioning, fine whisky and not having to compete for resources.

We do, however, need to convince conservatives in America to wake up. A third of that country is preventing progress for the benefit of the top 3%...all because some suburban middle manager (actually, about 30million of them) thinks he/she will be the CEO of the company that is about to downsize them. The Baby Boomers need to realize that they, we, have created the current problems concerning unsustainable debt levels. They need to realize they should expect to die working a full time job.

Or, we could imagine a different future:

"In the world I see - you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockefeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Tower. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying strips of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighway."


VERY good but not quite perfect.

Various kinds of creepy crawly vines will cover the pavement and soil will start to form as wind blown leaves are trapped in the vines.In less than fifty years you won't likely be able to actually see much open pavement.

The outline of the freeway will be visible though.

Probably for a thousand years at least.

OFM, I just read it as a quote from Chuck Palahniuk's 'Fight Club' rather than a serious view of the future of New York.

It reminds me how similar the human race is to a virus or a parasite. Here were are 1million years into feeding from our host, planet Earth. Regardless how things may or may not have changed in those 1million+ years, we have spread. The corners of the map have been filled in and we keeping drying out our host.

We are living beings and that is what life do.

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I like the analogy of the economy, and hence civilization, as a huge flywheel, now at speed. Keeping electricity on 24/7 is, to me, the bearings and their lubrication. Since I believe modern society is far too complex to forecast, I tend to look at "must-haves" and let the rest (hopefully) solve itself. From U.S. perspective, the seemingly bountiful prospect of shale gas and our existing supplies of coal seem to ensure, to me at least, that the lights can be kept on for several decades. And as a minimum condition, that is a comforting thought to one in his early 60's.

Hilary Smith

Once public order breaks down, pirates or local warlords will discover that the public infrastructure: roads, sewers, water and electric supply, communications systems, pipelines, etc. are incredibly vulnerable to attack.

..I believe modern society is far too complex to forecast..

..the seemingly bountiful prospect of shale gas and our existing supplies of coal seem to ensure, to me at least, that the lights can be kept on for several decades.

If modern society is far to complex to forecast, how come you turn around in the very next sentence & forecast that the lights can be kept on for several more decades? There are far more contingent factors weighing on the matter than just the reserves of these resources that may be in the ground.

The analogy with a huge flywheel is unsound, because the flywheel has the momentum of a moving mass to keep it going. I don't see such a momentum factor in society, other than the "momentum" of entrenched ideas, which unfortunately on their own do not move or make anything, only carry on imagining and wishing for that which is no longer possible. The belief in growth is continuing to live on, and will do right up till the brains in question hit the facts and cease to function.

Slightly off topic, but there's a book called "Things Fall Apart" which I thought the title was initially referencing, written by Chinua Achebe.

Yeah, I thought so too... I was trying to make an analogy to Christian Missionaries changing the way things have "always been done". But then I decided it was too deep for me.

A very good article.

I have just cooked my lunch:

dried pasta (From Italy),
tin of tuna (Thailand)
jar of pesto (Italy)
dash of olive oil (Italy)
tinned sweetcorn (Thailand)
dash of soy source (Hong Kong)
dash of Tobasco (USA)
natural gas (25% North Sea, rest probably from Russia)

I am washing it all down with a good old cuppa:

tea bag (India)
milk (cow ten miles away, via central pasteurising/bottling plant 300 miles away)
sugar (Caribbean)

I will wash my plates with Fairy washing up liquid courtesy of the petro-chemical industry.

So, apart from the milk (which still goes in the wrong direction to get bottled) and a fraction of the gas, my entire lunch has been 'globalized'. Makes you think...

PS: I am on the south coast of England

It's good to be wealthy, isn't it? The way we live in the UK in the early 21st century would make the royalty of 100 years ago jealous. I give thanks every time I go into a supermarket and see the abundance of cheap goods. We truly do live in a land flowing with milk and honey.

Yes we do live in good times. Or are they? I mean, call me old fashioned but would it not be fair to say that we are in serious danger of starvation if the food doesn't arrive from over seas. We are a massive net importer of food. While I am sure that we could feed the nation from our own farms, it would take a Churchillian effort under war-like conditions including rationing and expropriating land and labour. Naturally our daily calorie intake would need to drop significantly - which for some of the porkers in our population would actually be a good thing.

I went through my cupboards and fridge yesterday and discovered that if I had to feed myself from British produce only, I would have had only:

1) half a jar of Marmite
2) half a jar of Bovril
3) pint of milk
4) loaf of bread
5) carrots

everything which had been processed or tinned had either completely or in part come from over seas. For instance, the sausages were labeled as British but I reckon the pigs might well have been fed with imported grain etc.

Food security is something we all take for granted. We are so detached from the farm these days..

"We are a massive net importer of food"

The latest stats suggest we generate over 70% of our consumption of foods indiginous to the UK, and around 60% of all foods that we consume. (see page 20

These figures were considerably higher 10-20 years ago, and the decline has been due to cheaper imports rather than the lack of ability to sustainably meet our needs. With a modest reorganisation of diet and a slight reduction in calories consumed, the UK could meet the consumption needs of the whole population with no imports.

The bigger problem is that the UK farming sector would need to use a huge amount of fertilizer to meet this demand, which of course will be in short supply.

As for being detached from the farm, it depends where you live. All the veg I eat in my house comes from the local farmers market or my garden, all meat comes from the local butcher who is supplied by the local farm, beer comes from a brewery in Ramsgate, supplied by Kentish hops.

Food is less of a problem than non-food, I can be sure that all the hygeine proucts and household cleaning products that my family consumes are produced overseas and will be harder to replace.

The latest stats suggest we generate over 70% of our consumption of foods indiginous to the UK, and around 60% of all foods that we consume.

But if we stopped imports of oil, gas, fertilizers, etc, that percent would drop to much lower.

The answer is to buy more local food my friend.

The UK Food Standards Agency has just started a new advertising campaign.

"Simply using sunflower or olive oil instead of butter can help reduce your saturated fat intake."

Government money being used to increase food miles and the UK trade deficit at the expense of UK farmers!

Rembrandt, thank you. There may be a few insignificant quibbles with some of the tech details in your presentation, but the conclusion is inescapable. Yet you didn't explicitly say it.

Six years ago I had the privilege of staying at my mother's side in her final days. It was the hardest thing I've ever done - so far. As much as I wanted it all to just "go away," the pain, the fear, the helplessness, I couldn't come up with any alternative. What do I wish for? After a long life, death follows. Delaying the inevitable induces greater suffering, denies the next generation their time in the Sun, and solves nothing.

So here we are now, at the highest point of technological civilization, teetering on the precipice, arms flailing to keep from tipping over. No one goes gently into that dark night; we all need coaxing. if we're lucky, we get to personally experience the slow decline of aging and decay as we're weaned away from our love of life, until finally our grip loosens and we surrender. But what analogy serves for our civilization, when it's at the moment of our greatest reach, our boldest dreams, our fullest flowering of sheer numbers, that the Angel of Death arrives?

It's no wonder that collectively we'd rather choose denial and catastrophe over managed decline.

For me, the horror comes in the realizing that a rapid, complete collapse would ultimately be less destructive to the biosphere than perpetuating this futile struggle against encroaching night. I hate it, I fear it, and I dread saying it out loud. But what do I wish for?

Nelsone; You might be interested in the book 'The hero with a thousand faces' by Joseph Campbell. It is doing wonders to help me cope with my personal and global entropy crises.

Thx, Thaicoon. I've read many, many works by Joseph Campbell.
The point of my somewhat entropic post was the meta-question about what we're saving our lives for. What we're saving civilization for. What reasoning underlies our collective puffery and hubris about saving the planet.

The answer is trans-dimensional. This dimension is a classroom where we learn, in this case the simple, yet seemingly difficult, lesson of RESPONSIBILITY and ECONOMY.


On psycokinesis an unknown authour once pointed out a prominent inconsistency in our thinking:

If you wish to move an object to an alternate location in space/time you should consider the amount of energy involved; would it be wiser to simply pick the material object up and relocate it to the position required, or, harness a whole lot of metaphysical energy to transport it with telekinesis?

Good post I'd I have one comment.

One often overlooked factor about complex systems is what I call the earthquake factor.

For a complex system one can consider a number of small shocks shaking the system vs the big one.

Obviously if you shake the complex system or harden it via small shocks and dissipate the fragility if you will the system will not suffer a big shock.

One could consider a biological system subject to periodic but manageable localized disasters.
This rips the complexity fabric if you will but does not destroy.

The reason this is important is I think its the root problem with our current complex economy we repeatedly put out the small shocks thus eventually pushing the system into a big one.

A perfect example is the fire control policies of the western states that focused on putting out all fires eventually allowing the brush to reach a level that devastating forest fires occurred.

Thus complexity in and of itself is not harmful and its not clear that systems ever really simplify for long they just simply develop different types of complexity as long as their is a energy gradient.

Buy this I mean there is no real cutoff for the energy differential that produces complexity as and example consider the complex formations in caves that take thousands of years to develop yet operate on very minor gradient in space and time. What you do find is that as the energy gradient decreases the time for a certain level of complexity to be reached increases.

And interesting aside to this assertion is anywhere a energy gradient exists and you have a rich enough mix of elements with the temperatures bounded within the range of chemical bonds you should eventually get life and if you wait long enough intelligent life is effectively certain to arise.

I think this is important because once you have self replication i.e life you have complexity in what I call the true sense since the system can respond to its environment.
Once this life can fully utilize the energy gradient i.e its capturing to the limits of its ability and resources the external gradient you have a ecosystem.

I'd argue that trying to define a greater level of complexity above this and arguing that this complex system is simpler than the other becomes vague at best. Instead it becomes more a issue of specialization and stability of the underlying ecosystem to support specialization.

I just think past the simple ecosystem the words we use i.e complex specialization, species etc are not useful for quantifying what we are trying to describe. Measuring shades of complexity seems to be a difficult task.

For example our own globalization has a lot to do with the warped financial system that resulted from WWII its not a intrinsically stable system if the war had not occurred or had ended with more equality one can imagine local trade would probably have been far more important. We probably would have focused more on trading information i.e designs vs physically moving goods and taking advantage of differences in pay scales.

Thus you can see alternative complex systems that are difficult to value in levels of complexity are easily possible for our culture.

However going back to my earthquake model one see's that large differences do emerge when you start to consider how these complex systems behave when stressed. The ability to differentiate complexity seems to lie not in the complex system itself but into its responsiveness to different shocks. This is what the paper addresses but I think its important to realize that how a complex system fails seems to be the quantitative measurement needed to really understand complexity.

Once you understand this then its clear that doomer vs anti-doomer arguments are really simply a case of categorizing the shock that's being applied and the ability of the system to respond and how much "damage" it can sustain before converting to a completely different system.

And this gets to the heart of the real problem which is anti-doomers refuse to acknowledge any possible failure mode except small shocks and rapid recovery. All other possibilities are readily dismissed and tossed and doomer talk.

Yet anyone that works with complex systems for real focuses instead on the catastrophic failure modes of the system i.e doomer scenarios. Less dire cases are effectively self healing and actually good for the system. Controlled burns are a good thing.

Next with this viewpoint you actually reach a different conclusion concerning failure modes.

It turns out that the complex systems least likely to fail are those still managed by gloom and doomers and least dependent on a high maintenance grid.

In fact I'd argue that mobile phones and aerospace are probably the two complex areas most likely to last the longest and fail last if at all.

The reason is doomer engineers are still heavily involved in these areas and they can and will rebuild change or do whatever they have to to keep these systems running. The knowledge and understanding of failure is still a deep part of the system.

Far more likely to fail are other complex systems such as our food allocation system and road transport systems and after that the electric grid. Thus we will probably lose our grid long before we lose the ability to make complex aircraft and mobile phones.

The underlying problem is that the "doomers" have been cut out of the development of many of our societies complex systems thus they are simply not in a position to build in resilience or deal with small shocks before they become large ones.

In fact I'd argue only doomers can successfully build complex reliable robust systems. Anti-doomers will always eventually face catastrophic failure because they refuse to focus on it yet failure modes esp the catastrophic ones are the defining signature of complex systems.

Thus the real problem is to many people simply refuse to understand the true nature of complex systems and this viewpoint alone ensures that they will build out systems certain to undergo catastrophic failure.

I seem to be just congratulating people on good comments today. Oxytocin imbalance?

Be that as it may, memmel's comments are a TOD treasure. His lateral thinking is excellent, as well as the run-on rambles scattered with brilliantly offbeat reframings of the thing being discussed. I don't always agree, but I never skip reading a word.

In a word, complexity is complex, and I think memmel's comment here tries getting at that. Not all complexity is equally prone to phase-state transitions, it has a lot to do with the fine-scale local interactions of the consituent parts.

I enjoyed the energy/time/complexity comment, though I might take issue with the inevitability of intelligence evolving.

Perhaps the "Hire a Doomer" movement can start from his comment. Optimists shouldn't even be allowed to drive...

Thanks I should probably define what I mean by intelligence.

The best signal that life has become intelligent is migratory behavior. This means the system has developed some sort of biochemical time sensor that causes the organism to move in expectation of some sort of environment change. Thus phytoplankton and many plants actually are technically intelligent according to my definition. I think this map if you will is the critical factor. Assuming its made using a generic processor such as neurons and not just specialty chemical or photo sensors means the intelligence can grow to arbitrary complexity.
But the root or base intelligence level seems to be very well defined by observing migratory behavior. Certainly you have a bit of a puzzle between defining is it just a simple sensor or a more generic neurons. I'd argue that the actual development of a neural net and migratory behavior is proof you have intelligence however sensor vs net is not clear cut and migration plus a sensor is enough to eventually cause the neural network to develop.

Thus intelligence using my definition is simply stating that the organism develops environmental sensors and uses them to predict future environment changes. Migration behavior is just a powerful test.

This definition fits nicely with the idea that complexity is determined by failure i.e when the sensors detect that the environment is no longer the same as it was before. A eclipse as a simple example disrupting the movement of plankton. Thus these sensors give the organism a chance to deal with unexpected inputs. Further gains in intelligence are then possible if drumroll the organism manages to respond favorably to unexpected input. Thus something that not even a thought can provide a significant advantage vs organisms that fail to respond correctly to the unknown. Even a random response when confronted with a unknown input should beat treating it as a known input and collectively doing the wrong thing.

Now intelligence need not evolve much past this to get the greatest benefits but hopefully you see once it has this toe hold its hard to suggest that any upper bound exists. Each organism that develops a bit better sensor and processing network tends to win as the enviroment does something unpredictable. Thus if you couple periodic random changes with sensor/migration behavior I just don't see any limit to the upper bound on the development level for intelligence. Is human level or better intelligence a certain outcome who knows.
But I'd argue given the lack of any firm constraint one would expect that it would develop.
On the same hand there also seems to be no real time factor i.e assuming we are dealing with a planet it seems possible that the star could readily go nova before intelligent life develops in any particular system. Given the time scale on earth for the development of intelligent life it seems reasonable to assume that 10 billion years could easily pass without life developing human level intelligence and the star could nova.

Next of course at some point assuming humans are some other intelligent life develops on earth one has to wonder at what point does it successfully leave the planet if the star becomes unstable.

Its not clear at all if we could actually successfully preserve or species now in the face of a unstable star. We are still highly susceptible to a meteor impact for example.

So just using our one known sample point of semi-intelligent life evolving its safe to assume that the lifetimes of stars and the time it takes intelligent life to develop are on the same order of magnitude. It seems that we have a sort of race between the life of the sun itself and development of intelligent life.

Its very very easy to consider a few more catastrophic events happening say a large meteor strike resulting in apes never developing into humans we could have easily gained intelligence near the end of the suns life or never. Or more correctly some species on earth.

I find it very very fascinating that the rate at which intelligence seems to be able to develop and the lifetimes of stars seem to have about the same order of magnitude.
Esp if you consider when a species could achieve real starflight.

Although only one data point exists its still very very interesting that these time scales are similar. Why ? Is it really just a coincidence ?

For some unknown reason it really seems like life is under a bit of a draconian clock to develop to the level of intelligence required to flee its birth place or die in a nova.
We or the next intelligent species is really not given a lot of time to get its act together from this perspective. For the earth I would be surprised if we get more than two more chances at a new intelligent species arising before times up. I suspect at best one more shot is possible if we blow it. With our luck we could be recreated by some time traveling rat or cockroach descended species for a bit of questioning of the treatment of their ancestors. Maybe that's where the stories of hell really come from :)

My reply will be inadequate to the length and quality of yours, but why not...

Defining "intelligence" is always a problem. In the past I've done research work with very large-brained nonhuman species, and the "i" word always gets in the way of communicating to other humans what's going on.

If by your definition phytoplankton are intelligent, I might withdraw my disagreement on the odds of intelligence arising. I think by most definitions including my own usual one, something like the migration of jellyfish from one end of a lake to another following the sunlight would not pass muster on that basis alone, nor am I convinced phytoplankton "predict". So once again the "i" word fails to be useful, and the "p" word comes into question.

I don't think that "more intelligent" is necessarily a direction evolution will always follow. I have a fly sitting on my desk looking exactly like it's ready to spring into the air. Except it died 45 million years ago in tree sap. None of its relatives have evolved to be what's normally thought of as "more intelligent", even though they are as "evolved" as we are, being our distant cousins.

Clearly, there are local peaks in some fitness landscapes which correspond to increased cognitive complexity and are sometimes occupied; dolphins have convergently evolved self-awareness despite having no common anscestor with us for 60 million years or so, and other species even more genetically distant will probably meet that criterion. Yet by the same token, there seem to have been very long periods of time when self-awareness - as one benchmark threshold of complexity - didn't exist on the planet.

Your observation that advanced intelligence seems to take roughly the same order of magnitude of time as a typical planetary lifetime is interesting. Of course, we have a small sample. And "animals" are a tiny subset of extant species and could have been dispensed with entirely by evolution.

Certainly, in order to escape its planet of origin, an "intelligent" species also needs to be lucky enough to have a fortuitous windfall of happenstance at its disposal. A dolphin wouldn't be able to build a moon rocket even if it had an IQ of 600. And any brainy species which arises after we have entropized the concentrations of resources on this planet is simply hosed as far as migrating offplanet. Probably some salient new variables for the Drake equation in there somewhere...

If there are cockroach descendents alive in 500 million years, they'll probably be a lot like cockroaches and be no likelier able to solve a rubik's cube. Rats - or any mammal - could evolve intelligence again in that amount of time, even self-awareness, but I fear we may now be near the peak in all-time planetary self-awareness for this planet's denizons, and that's a shame. Almost certainly, any option for multicellular life to leave this planet and spread onward has been lost.



Its tough to define but I really think the critical breakthrough is sensing the environment and for us at least photosensors or "eyes" seem to be the key breakthrough.

There is a robotics researcher that takes the same approach I don't remember where I read about him but he's at one of the big name schools.

But the concept is sensors first intelligence can follow.

In your post you mention the fly that gets into some interesting issues because once a ecosystem develops you can readily classify the "intelligence" of its members say by simply counting neurons.

I'd argue at this point I'm certainly at a loss as to why some species get bigger brains vs others for insects you might argue that its genetic constraints but I hesitate to eve n assume this.

I don't understand evolution inside and ecosystem and I'm not convinced anyone else does.
We may notice the evolution of a single species but why that species in that ecosystem vs some other and why evolve in a particular way.

Sure with islands we get a sort of managed example but theses situations are where evolution is working with a limited genetic supply. I'd argue that they may well be exceptions not the rule. More open systems that have access to multiple gene pools don't follow the same speciation patterns. Finchs don't take over more slots they stay Finchs.
Flies stay flies.

What I feel we don't understand is this second order selection process or the selection of the species that will undergo natural selection esp with a rich gene pool.

This is important because it has a direct bearing on the key post. We do know that more often then not when a ecosystem is put under stress the peak predator is almost always wiped out often to the point of extinction.

Mother nature uses complexity to level the playing field before choosing a new winner.

I don't like calling this simplification since in my opinion its not really a simplification process. Often it seems that the species with the shortest supply chains in the old ecosystem i.e the ones that are generalist become the winners when the ecosystem stabilizes and re-speciates. The common theme is the old winners rarely win in the new world.

I actually don't see this is a bad thing in my opinion its better if the original diversity is retained as long as possible giving more genetic pools a chance vs some catastrophic failure that limits the gene pool ala island finches vs evolution on the South American continent. I think that when devastation is to high the new ecosystem remains starved for genetic diversity for a long time. I hope you would agree that the gene pool during the age of the dinosaurs was more diverse than afterward. Mammals may have gained the top spot but its not clear that we have recovered yet at the diversity level. And of course the man induced extinction events are a real travesty.

And again I think this is back on topic because it highlights the need to sponsor diversity in a period of stress not to try and pick a winner. In general trying to maintain BAU seems to be one of the few paths that's almost certain to ensure failure leads to a real loss in diversity that's difficult to recover from.

Your better off trying to level the playing field without losing any players giving all a chance to compete for their position in the changing system.

And this goes back to my proposal that the right answer is probably a sort of controlled collapse where we intentionally disrupt the current system to allow a new system to form.
By managing collapse we should be able to limit that amount of damage that actually hurts making changes.

Complex systems when stressed should be vigorously shaken not stirred :)

I'd agree with all you say here, and in particular preserving diversity - by which I mean species diversity - to give the future more to work with. It's what I've done for the last 35 years.

You raise a lot of interesting points, as always.


memmel's comments are a TOD treasure.[...] I don't always agree,

On the contrary I see quite a high level of errors and low-quality (if well-intentioned) content* in memmel's comments (*e.g. the "what I mean by intelligence" below, not that I read beyond those words). And rarely a succinct, careful, presentation of anything. I think you'll find he gets few negative comments mainly because so many others, like myself, tend to scroll right past his lengthy essays due to reckoning on more productive ways of prioritising their scarce time.

Well, I don't reckon memmel needs me to defend his posts, but I'll defend mine.

I consider memmel the master of the lateral ramble. The posts are lengthy, typically have typos and misspellings, and bring up things which might seem unrelated to the topic at hand. He'll assert things which may seem offbase or flat-out wrong. But clearly it's all coming from a quite intelligent mind, and I think it has the effect of causing us to look at things from different angles, which to me is valuable in itself. And occasionally I hear a conjecture from him that I've heard from nobody else in the world, which I can't easily refute. I like that.

Being succinct is nice, but I find value in what he does. And as you say, it's easy for one to skip the posts if they don't care for 'em, so no harm done if they're not everybody's cup of tea.


Might be interesting if someone could produce a "best of memmel" blog-page (or ebook). I'll hold off taking a view beforehand!

Aerospace is already failing. It is extremely energy intense.

What will likely continue is military aerospace with huge amounts of precious nonrenewable energy going towards maintaining the military/industrial/governmental complex in order to pull more resources to itself and to enrich the already rich and to concentrate power in their hands.

As to cell phones. I take it you did check out the chart with the different countries of origin for all the RARE metals used in cell phones?

You have read about peak metals in the report from the Hague, right?

Cell phones will die with the rest of the system and probably a good deal faster. The system is running as fast as it can as it is to stay in place. Once the tech that supports the energy infrastructure begins to wobble, you will see electricity get spotty, then rife with brownouts, rolling blackouts, and finally regional and national blackouts. I have news for ya pardner. No electricity, no cell phones.

Don't forget server farms:

Server farm operators order up their electricity before they finalize their construction plans. In Sacramento, over 50 MW of capacity was requested. A server farm in New Jersey asked for 100 MW. In San Jose, 180 MW. (5) An Austin Energy utility spokesperson told the Wail Street Journal that 200 MW (8.5% of its customer load) went to server farms. (6) A "farm" near Seattle asked for 445 MW. A California utility was asked for 340 MW now, to be expanded by a thousand megawatts in the near future. (7) At least three utilities have reportedly received requests for over 1000 MW of capacity, as reported by Susan Mandel back in 2001. (8)

Google Corporation alone reputedly already uses over 20 server farms, housing some half a million servers. (9) It is supposedly already the largest electricity user in one state. (10) The 2006 electricity demand of major search engine facilities (just a small portion of the Cloud) uses an estimated 5000 megawatts. (11) Converted to residences, that's about five million homes' worth of electric capacity. (12) Converted to electricity generation, that's ten 500 MW coal plants. (Want one in your back yard? Wanna work in the mine?) A modest server farm that draws only 20 to 30 megawatts uses enough electricity to power 20 to 30 thousand homes.

With digital phone systems, server farms play an increasingly important role in service.

I think what will surprise people is how fast the system will tank. Why? Because of the psychology of the built infrastructure. Most people believe that our infrastructure is permanent. They look at it and think, "gee, how can all this just stop? It's too big to stop. It will keep going at some level" (And at this point I must note that they always believe that they specifically will still have whatever service they deem to need despite others not having it.).

Of course, we know that that is not true. The infrastructure is subject to entropy just like the rest of the universe and must be constantly re-ordered with new injections of energy to maintain an optimum operating level. As energy becomes more and more expensive and as the economy tanks deeper and deeper, you will see less and less maintenance. You are already seeing this in the nationwide collapse of local governments with California being the largest example. Throughout the country, due to the severely stupid belief that taxes are bad, townships, towns, villages, counties, cities and states are finding that they cannot raise taxes in order to fill shortfalls in revenue crippled by a crashing economy. This is happening for two reasons: first, the aforementioned stupid people who insisted that taxes go down and we all live on credit ala Reagan's gargantuan red ink policy of cut taxes and maintain spending and because a collapsing economy will be unable to provide those taxes in mid-collapse. Now that we shot ourselves in the foot because we are too cheap to maintain our basic infrastructure, it is too late to remedy the problem.

We will not be able to pay for repairs due to a shrinking tax base. Lack of repairs will result in systemic collapse, leading to a faster crash, leading to even less maintenance, etc.

We could inflate our way out of it. But that does not really solve the underlying physical problem of not enough energy to keep this massive clown car of an economy in the air.

The collapse is happening. There are no solutions that return us to BAU. NONE. Get over it. Start thinking about where you want to be that is actually framed within the physics of the situation rather than childish desires for electric cars and other BS that is just BAU lite.

"...We could inflate our way out of it..."
I don't even think this diminution of government debt is possible since most of the governments borrowing is fairly short term and so would cost more when rolled over in an inflation environment. Similarly many of the expenditures are linked in some way to inflation rather than being fixed costs.

The military industrial complex will resist cuts as much as possible, pressing for even more expensive products as high level fighter planes to combat some supposedly advanced plane that will be appearing from a possible opponent or even a current ally that has been sold the current generation. Every other major ticket item will have an army of lobbyists, e.g. health in the US.

Sweden, Finland and Norway are great countries for large scale server farms. Stable grid, expanding electricity production, free cooling and good telecommunications. (Come over here with your capital, pretty please. :-) )

Well said Cherenkov

memmel, as usual brilliant insight. It seems the only things standing in the way of "resident genius" status on TOD are simple spell and grammar check programs.

david k, put some time lines and predictions in this talk and I'll nominate it as best TOD guest post ever. It's darn close now, even.

Of course, humans construct far simpler complex systems than nature, but nature had a head start and lots of time to build near-perfection from many failed attempts, like the famed three-legged camel.

Of course Romans and the Maya had diminishing returns on their investments in complexity, but over much longer time spans, about 4 to 5X our (hopefully) 200-year effort (1850-2050). I guess Rome for lack of new slaves and PM; the Maya just ran out of jungle to convert into energy and no longer had escape routes in hard times, i.e., prolonged droughts.

I wonder if the doomers in charge of aerospace and cell phone developments are keeping a wary eye upon critical rare metals extraction and transport lines. Sometimes the CIA impresses me with operations in certain African countries a few steps ahead of the Chinese and others, for example. Morroco and Sudan come to mind.

You're quite right, crisis solutions that lead to bigger crises are a favorite human response. It shows we are simply unaware of living in living systems.

What I call "planning for a bigger crisis" is precisely what's mostly involved in sustainable development and the efforts to prevent climate change, both very specifically designed to relieve bottlenecks and allow continued multiplying scale of economic impacts generally. What's really miraculous is that many of the professional institutional strategies developed just show the future with the effect of their solutions, and have time sort of dribbling off at their planning horizon...

What people need to do is learn to think "over the hill", not just pushing the problem "up the hill". To think over the hill you need to ask how the environment will respond as well as how you plan to change the environment...

I agree 100% the problem is of course the chain of accountability is broken it lasts as long as an individual holds a office or position. And large corporations break by their nature. And of course the "ole boy" network persists but generally in a bad sense.

Without the institutions to think "over the hill" we fail. The closest we have is our system of law but its imperfect and designed to not be forward thinking but forced to wait till a complaint is lodged to take action.

And of course the rapid pace of technological innovation has infected our thinking the majority become accustomed to silver bullets and silver spoons.

Now how does one translate that into shaking complex systems instead of having earthquakes.

It seems for example that the accountability for change needs to be upfront as and example consider hilltop removal coal mining. Regardless of claims made its obviously devastating to the environment. Lets reverse the issue and consider how we could create a infrastructure that would reject this sort of mining. Whats required to prevent it ?

To me for this case a system that would flatly reject this form of coal mining is the correct sort of "shake" needed for complex systems. We won't do this thus if you think you need the coal then we need to change the system !

This notice the lack of real pictures.

Or this

In a functional society this destruction would never even be dreamed of.

One way to do it is with performance based capital gain tax rules. The trick would be developing a legitimate performance base, good measures of the true long term opportunity costs of growth, and the political will to acknowledge that rampant growth is wrecking the planet.

If your profits come from investments with zero future opportunity costs then maybe you get to use them to add to your investments, otherwise they would be proportionally either taxed or have to be divested for qualified purposes. We need some strategy for interceding in the endless compounding of profits that is better than letting the system become completely unprofitable.

It's also odd that there seem to be no sustainability metrics applied to the government budget either, or for the recovery. We got to start somewhere. The fact is that if all of nature operated on the capitalist principle then every plant and organism would be like Kudzu!

Something needs to signal businesses what the point of "enough" is, and I think the above might be made practical if people understood the necessity of it.

Funny I'm actually exploring pretty much this exact concept in my personal life.

I'm working to remove the use of complex/ non-renewable stuff from the way I live.

So far I've.

1.) Use mortar and pedstal for grinding coffee.
2.) Gone back to using a soap and brush instead of canned shaving cream
3.) Was given a gift of a strait razor I'm still not quite ready to use getting there.
4.) Learning to sharpen stuff.

Lots of other little things like buying wooden/metal containers and eliminating plastic.
This is a constant battle plastic is pervasive.

But the underlying tenet is enough is enough i.e minimize the technology you use.

At a business level this means that you begin to produce goods at a steady zero growth rate. I.e you don't make but a small number of new goods in any given time.

Once the volume of goods needed begins to drop and once the technical complexity drops you increasingly can go back to diversified manufacturing in a home workshop or simple workshop.

So my approach at least is to work to identify technology that provided a real value add and eliminate ones that don't.

What I have discovered is something really surprising and unexpected. As you move back to using simpler technology and doing things yourself you develop rituals that are very satisfying. Making the perfect lather, grinding the coffee beans etc.
Sort of like mini Japanese tea ceremonies.

Simple art if you will is re entering my life and its surprisingly rewarding.

No doubt in my mind we have lost something profound over the last decades.
And hopefully you can see that this sort of steady state lifestyle quickly forces the business to change to support it. Thus by simply changing the way you live to minimize your own impact business will be forced to adapt.

Also of course I'm focusing on items that are potential heirlooms the mortar could pass through generations same with the strait razor and cup etc. Overtime many of these simple articles can take on value as you shave with grandpa's razor etc.

Grandpa needs to learn how to use it first :)

So my opinion is that a return to developing personal skills starting first with this sort of minimalist daily living then extending outward is the key. Change the consumer and business will follow it has no choice.

As a chemist I also want to tackle soaps and shampoos and other toiletry produces they make up a surprising amount of the "modern" junk we consume.

I'm also looking at paper making esp reusing the cardboard boxes and other packaging I have no choice but to buy. I'd like to being to internally recycle a lot of it.
Same for plastics. I figure later we have massive dumps of the stuff so no shortage of raw materials I might as well effectively treat plastics as a sort of renewable material.

Some of these ideas may have to wait until I get more room. Right now my best guess of what to do with all the damn plastic is try to coke it maybe mixed with wood. Obviously I want to capture all the crap from "burning" plastic so its not polluting.

These are just thoughts but the point is to even extend the concept to take advantage of the disposable society to create self reuse of the materials instead of sending them back via traditional recycling. I'll keep all the glass, plastic, metal etc I buy and reuse it myself. And if someday we quit making all the rubbish then the methods if they are useful should work with existing dumps.

Hopefully you see that I really think that change has to come from the consumption side its not ever going to come from the producer side.

Hi memmel, I too enjoyed switching from canned shaving foam to soap and brush. I recommend McDonough's Cradle to Cradle for some interesting recycling philosophy, maybe also Lovins/Hawken's Natural Capital.

Simplicity...IS...the art of life.

Always strive to simplify.

thankx David K, Rembrandt.

thanx memmel, your mind is refreshing waterfall in a barren place, a clear window in a house of mirrors.

If the United States were to actively deal with a severely limited resource future, would autarky be a reasonable way forward? That is, to become completely self-sufficient, which would no doubt require many changes in technology, consumption choices, life styles, etc. The advantage would be that the United States would be able to set the values on many (most? all?) the variables needed for a successful society. Sometimes bounding a problem makes solutions possible or at least more discrete.

Hilary Smith

Autarky, new word for me but a concept in mind for many years.

AUTARKY at all levels, right down to the personal, IS THE ASYMPTOTE TO WHICH OUR OBJECTIVES SHOULD ASPIRE.

A flat-out excellent presentation, I've bookmarked it and will reference it often, since it clearly makes many points I seem to have a hard time conveying to people.

I particularly like the "adaptive landscape" slide, which is exactly how I've long visualized it. I got a smile when I saw it, and knew I was in good hands for the rest of the presentation.

An excellent example of broad-boundary synthesis to characterize important aspects of the pickle we've gotten ourselves into.... which pickle manages to be invisible to the great bulk of our species.


Of course, this discussion raises the following question in my mind (as it should in everyone's): How to simplify one's life and shorten one's supply chains?

Clearly, we are going to be living in a world where the supply chains will be increasingly being disrupted, so the less one has to depend upon the longest and most complex ones the less vulnerable one becomes to their disruption. This is at least part of the logic behind the localization movement - or should be. Thus, one of the things one should be doing now is actively seeking out local sources of supply, especially in replacement of more distant supply sources. This is worth doing even if there is a higher cost involved. Thus, shop at the local grocery or food co-op, even if prices are cheaper at the Super Wal-Mart. Patronize your local credit union instead of the nearest branch of a big bank.

If the long and complex supply chains are going to be increasingly disrupted, then one might just as well go ahead and terminate one's dependency upon them now, rather than waiting until one is forced to do so. For example, most of the big shopping malls, and the retail chain stores in them, and the masses of plastic junk made in China that fill their shelves, are all going away, and soon. One might just as well go ahead and get into the habit of not shopping at these places. Air travel is likely to become rare and hugely expensive, if it continues at all; one might just as well start living right now as if it didn't even exist, and live in such a way that one does not need to fly anywhere.

Of course, producing one's own supply is the shortest supply chain at all. This is the logic behind a retreat into isolated self-sufficiency. The problem is that it is very, very hard. None of us can be masters of all trades, and even being a jack of all trades can be pretty difficult. Specialization and division of labor is inherently more complex than is everyone just producing for themselves; nevertheless, the advantages of at least some specialization and division of labor are so great that it is worth trying to preserve if possible. That does not mean that the hyperspecialization and global division of labor we have now is sustainable; it is not. What I am suggesting, however, is that there may be viable way stations between the present BAU and every person for themselves, places where there is considerably less complexity and very short supply lines, but where there is still at least some specialization and division of labor. This in turn suggests to me that it is worthwhile to be working on broadening one's skill sets and knowledge base, and to equip oneself to do as much for oneself as one feasibly can, but to also develop at least one special skill that one can do better than most people, and that is marketable; the assumption being that there will be some people nearby with different skill sets to do the things that one cannot, but that one can employ one's own specialized skills in trade for those things that one cannot produce for oneself.

Technology is something else that one should think about critically. There has already been some discussion above about how things like cell phones could become useless as the cellular networks become disrupted. One should perhaps consider going ahead and abandoning technologies now that one does not absolutely need to rely upon, rather than waiting until one is forced to do so. There is also the issue of parts availability to keep technologies running, or rather the increasing lack thereof. As global supply chains become more and more disrupted, the technologies that people will want to rely upon are very simple, durable, and repairable, and those are the type of things one will want to have, to the extent that one has things at all.

Finally, if we are talking about simplifying one's life, then minimizing the amount of stuff that surrounds one's life must definitely be part of that.

Not a complete list, and could stand to be elaborated, but all I have time for right now.

Again I think we face two different issues. One is technology/knowledge generally called high tech. There is no intrinsic reason for a energy shortage to effect high tech manufacture although it could well effect the volume.

The second issue is our webs if you will. The transportation web, the data web and the electric web and of course the supplier web.

The supplier web problem is solvable given that the knowledge to manufacture continues to exist as needed new manufacturing can be created and brought online almost certainly at a higher price point. Many of the goods may not make sense post peak in a world that more frugal.

The transportation web and the electric web are both energy intensive and maintenance intensive both are probably the hardest to maintain and replace. Knowledge or high tech does not do a lot of good for either power grids or roads we know how and what to do its just the cost of building and maintaining them becomes prohibitive esp if we see country borders break up or change and new political boundaries form.

Thus the movement of goods and even power over long distances are probably the least stable parts of our overall civilization. Along with this is of course water in arid regions.

Disruption here can readily result in refugees and drive conflict.

Several months ago while mountain bike riding a passed a girl riding a horse sending a text message it struck me strongly that this could well be our future a sort of warped mix of high tech and low tech.

"The transportation web and the electric web are both energy intensive and maintenance intensive both are probably the hardest to maintain and replace."

this may be true for parts of the transportation network, for example air travel, but Roman roads built 2,000 years ago have been in use until recently, so at least we know how to and are capable of maintaining roads. If traffic volumes are high repairs will needed. Sea transport by large ships is not energy intensive, less energy is used moving sea bound goods from the other side of the world than used over the last 50 miles via road transport. High energy costs will favor global sea trade, not local road transport.

Parts of Africa have long distance HV transmission lines, so I see no reason why the US grid will not be maintained. The energy costs for maintaining are trivial compared with the energy transported via a HVDC line. Not sure what you think is difficult to replace in the electric grid or do you mean the internet ?

But why build continent spanning HV lines ?

What do we really need to ship via the bulk sea trade ?

We really don't have good reasons for doing these things outside of simply because we want to do them. There is no real reason for large amounts of shipping. A few non perishable luxury goods or high end pieces of equipment say for example computer chips and some critical minerals. Other than that why ship anything any appreciable distance ?

Next I mean electric grids outside of cut lines fiber is requires very little maintenance while power lines require a lot. And we probably could even eliminate a lot of our wired/optic network if we wanted to.

Fog is a big problem but maybe we just learn to live with slow internet on foggy days.

If your willing to live with a bit of sporadic outages you can build a surprisingly robust network using wireless or freespace communications.

One thing that might help is my attitude is ship the information if at all possible.

Ship a CAD design to a local factory not the goods.

Now of course today this these concepts are focused at the household level but a programmable village level factory has been possible for at least ten years.

As far as raw materials go ubiquitous carbon and silicon could probably replace a lot of the steel we use and low grade iron ore is abundant. This is fascinating.

Look at this for and expanded version of the concept.

Ultimate limits of fabrication and measurement

Or you can exploit cheap labor and strip the minerals from poor African countries.

Obviously I'm not anti technology where it makes sense but on the same hand I don't agree with the way we solve problems today I think there are a lot better ways that have far less impact on nature.

And I'll give you and another example I've bought a mortar and pedestal and now I grind my coffee beans by hand. Its a nice work out and pleasant. My electric grinder is now in a box. Sometimes you should simply not use technology if you don't have too.

Of course the coffee beans are still shipped in from a far off country but this is a natural problem and coffee and tea grow where they grow they are a sensible trade.

Next step is to find a source of green beans and roast my own.

The point is you can take both approaches super high tech universal fabricators and good old mortar and pedestal use each approach where they make sense.

"But why build continent spanning HV lines ?"
The reason we have built them in the past is to access renewable wind and hydro power. In the future will be to also access solar power. The resources are plentiful, but usually located in remote regions.

"What do we really need to ship via the bulk sea trade ?"
One reason is saving energy, less energy used to move 64% iron ore from Australia to China than move 40% iron ore from inland China. It would be even better to just move steel to where it's needed. Bulk sea trade is very low cost and low energy.

Food miles is a fraud, it should be food energy we are concerned about, sometimes it used less energy to grow a crop and ship it from the other side of the world than grown locally, other times the reverse.

I think you missed the point.

Why do we need the power ?

Why are we still mining huge amounts of raw iron ore ?

Why on earth are we even shipping iron ore from Australia to China in the first place ?
Australia should be shipping finished products.

If you dig you find the underlying reasons are not actually efficiencies but related to the way the global financial system works. Given a different financial system I'd argue that we would return to shipping high value goods and some bulk items. Sailing empty is always and issue so trade routes and goods will avoid and empty leg if it all possible.

But 17-18th century trade made a lot more sense than current trade patterns.

This is a great link.

I like the way its written you can see how trade goes from being a relatively good thing to the sort of corrupted trade patterns we have today and you can see how the financial system developed in lock step with trade.

We don't have to continue on with whats effectively still a slave trade once you look under the covers.

Why on earth are we even shipping iron ore from Australia to China in the first place ?
Australia should be shipping finished products.

Good phukn question mate. We ship the coal and natural gas to China as well.

West Australian premier, Colin Barnett, has recently returned from China with a proposition to allow a Chinese company to set up a steel factory on site in West Oz using Chinese workers, even dummies come up with good ideas occasionally.

Why can't we do it "All Aussie"?, laziness and a perverse sense of entitlement, our proud confession.

Sea transport by large ships is not energy intensive, less energy is used moving sea bound goods from the other side of the world than used over the last 50 miles via road transport.

memmel, I read how many thousands of dollars one sea transport have to spend on diesel for moving goods from Asia to America when oil was around $140/barrel. I don't remember exactly but it is a lot. Lowering the speed of the ship was one option to bring down the transportation costs.

Thanks for reminding us of the basics. I would just suggest that the part you didn't have time to get around to (in my opinion a critical part) is developing strong local community structures. There is no such thing as "isolated self-sufficiency." Paradoxically, perhaps, the gift of fossil fuels has allowed many of to achieve a false sense of "isolated self-sufficiency" -- we no longer even have to know our neighbors' names -- at the cost of being totally dependent on the vast, far-flung and complex web of modern commerce, etc. When the crunch comes, it will be the neighbors, if anyone, who come to our aid.

WNC wrote:

None of us can be masters of all trades, [....] there may be viable way stations between the present BAU and every person for themselves,

That's part of my conception of energyarks, that one forms communities of 100-300 people who combine the various competences. And such competencies aren't just confined to branches of "engineering"; also needed are defenders, entertainers, inspirers, diplomats, those who can think of the fifth and sixth words in this list....

WNC Observer - your ideas are aligned with the Transition movement.

Hey, I've been depressed and moping around, and didn't pick up on this earlier. Yes, collapse is very real. A good example is the present collapse of professional journalism, and the music publishing businesses, both of which are taking the double hit of the economic downturn and the free internet suddenly replacing most of their functions.

What's most worrisome is that it is very clear that our whole society is organized around changing scale by continual compound exponential steps, a certain direct cause for running out of choices as fast as possible. There's still not even any discussion about the danger of growth limits though. I've been raising it for many years, with solid stuff, but people just walk away as if no one has a good solution. That we're now following a plan to create ever more complicated solutions exponentially forever, as a way of solving problems, says a lot. It predicts further economic collapse, for one thing, and societal collapse if it blinds us too.

One good way to soften the impact of these multiple crises (that our ignorance of the limits of natural systems has brought down on us) is discussed a little further on my research notes page for it. That's to either forgive the unsustainable levels of debt or inflate them by measured means. The automatic use of profits to multiply the scale of the system overshot what is sustainable. Now we have large financial commitments to perform the impossible, is one way to see the initial dilemma, and the way to readjust is natural climax. Then there's the rest of the problem of having everything we do designed to lead to adding the %'s for continually multiplying our scale...

"A good example is the present collapse of professional journalism, and the music publishing businesses..."

Are those really instances of something systematic we need to lose sleep over, or are they just banal examples of bog-standard creative destruction doing its thing? Does anyone need to care deeply or even at all about the minutiae of how such things are financed?

Once upon a time, there was little notion of copyright except as an expression of capriciously and arbitrarily granted royal privilege. Booksellers entering a town were often required to furnish their wares to the town library for copying out, as a condition for being permitted to sell them. Later on, quasi-monopolies came into being with printing presses, as copies became cheap enough to render copyists redundant, but only the wealthiest could afford presses. Eventually presses (or rather the use of presses) became fairly cheap, so copyright laws were enacted under cover of "protecting" artists and authors but mainly in order to preserve the monopolies of by then powerful press-owning middlemen. Lately, the Internet has inconvenienced the middlemen a little (a bit similarly to the way mobility has inconvenienced middlemen in the retail supply chain.)

I suppose that sort of turmoil and change has at times been stressful for middlemen, but most middlemen are essentially expendable parasites anyhow. Books, music, travelogues, reports, those things or something like them have all existed in ever-changing form for millennia, and will go on existing whether or not copyright survives in a practical sense, and even whether or not there's some sort of systematic collapse. Thus, if every "publisher" closed up shop tomorrow morning, well, so what? We'd adjust and it might not take more than a month. I suppose neurotic compulsive planners, folks who seem abundant in these discussions, will have their undies in a bundle over that sort - or any other sort - of uncontrolled change, but does anyone (other than, perhaps, expendable middlemen) need to lose even a wink of sleep over it?

I think there are differences in kind, and one can easily be caught sleeping if one does not take that into account. In a complex and rapidly changing information society is the loss of journalism similar to the loss of buggy whips and horse stables? Perhaps in terms of the % of GDP represented they are the same, just slightly different gears of the same size on a machine constantly changing gears...

It's like a boxer who thinks he can get up after any punch because he has surprised himself at how big a punch he can take and still get up from. You still have to watch to see if an opponent is getting fed up with it and about to hit you someplace where it might hurt more. Some changes hit closer to home and represent differences in kind.

What you seem to be assuming is that no choice today has opportunity costs tomorrow. I think that is the whole subject here, and Peak Oil one of the most easily measured and understood of these dilemmas. Our short term profit decisions are driving a whole society built for cheap resources into an inescapable corner of increasing dependency on systems requiring ever more expensive resources. Right?

PaulS, May I hazard a guess that you have never worked hard for many months at producing some work of value, such as a book or composition, which was subsequently adjudged to be worth publishing (by whoever)?
As Prof David Horrobin wrote to me, "People who generate new ideas are treated as pretty worthless, which is totally outrageous".

There's much I agree with in David's presentation. But as so often with analysis of these things (and social analysis in general) there is too much confining to abstract levels without direct relation to actual details. A bit like the famed Space Solar article here, or considering a sufficient account of a car as being "we can see that it will work if we explode a fuel-air mixture and use the force to turn some gear-wheels which turn the road wheels".

The analogy with thermodynamics/entropy is a popular one but inappropriate and unhelpful. The essence of social collapse is not reduction of complexity per se but only reduction of complexity of organised, designed, functional systems. Entropy by contrast is nothing to do with disappearance of such deliberately organised systems; rather it is the simple tendency towards uniform randomness.

In such an important subject we need to get down to the causality nitty-grittys along the lines of "three vicous people meet one weak person carrying some valuables along a dark alley and consequently etc". Rather than vaguely "we could definitely use a big energy source to throw Buzz Aldrin up to the moon".

We need to be clear on our terminology. By "collapse" do we mean a gradual unwinding and the last person out turn off the lights please--which might be better called a cessation? Or do we mean an abrupt catastrophic "heart-attack" of the system--which might properly warrant the collapse-word? Or a gradual fading-away, better called dissolution.

We need to analyse social/psychological/economic/political/geographical phenomena in terms of social/psychological/economic/political/geographic facts/concepts rather than hauling in strained analogies from physics. We need to consider how circumstance "A" would cause circumstance "B" as in this attempt at an analysis of some possible mechanisms of collapse.

One of the assumptions you state in your "energy blog" is:
"There are no alternative fuels for transportation which are sufficiently scaleable to offset this decline within the next few years (for either technical or social/political/economic reasons)."

While you lists 4 caveats (technical, social, political and economic) none seem adequate to prevent "scalable" replacements for alternative transportation.

You really cannot dismiss CNG, electric vehicles/trains, on technical or economic grounds. Present electricity capacity and NG resources are adequate to replace the transportation work done by oil based fuels.

Other measures such as gasoline rationing, car pooling, expansion of mass transit have very little costs, no technical barrier and would be politically and socially acceptable( as shown in WWII) if their is a true "collapse threatening shortage".

How about doubling CAFE standards to 50mpg?, introducing car pool, EV and mass transit only roads, for example for expressways running parallel with mass-transit ? Four day work weeks? No single person/vehicle(except motorcycles) driving on Sundays?

Of course, many single alternatives may not be scalable alone but together would be scalable.