Hawaii: Peak Oil Canary in a Coal Mine Revisited

This is a post that I wrote in June 2008. Since today is a US holiday, we thought we would run something relating to a vacation spot.

Hawaii seems to come up often in the thinking of people aware of peak oil. On one hand, it seems like an ideal place to relocate after peak oil - no need to worry about heating a house; clothing is mostly for protection from the sun; and crops can be grown year around. On the other hand, it produces no fossil fuel itself, and it is at the end of the supply line for both food and fuel. Hawaii's biggest industry, tourism, is already declining, and with rising fuel costs, can only decline further.

Many of you know that I was recently in Hawaii. After visiting, I thought I might post a few of my thoughts about the situation.

Hawaiian Islands location

Figure 1: Location of Hawaii - Wikipedia

When I visited Hawaii, I spent most of my time on the "Big Island" (with more land area than the other islands put together) and Maui (the next island north of the big island). These islands are probably the most agricultural of the Hawaiian Islands. I also visited Oahu, home of Honolulu and most of the population.

Hawaii varies a lot from place to place

One of the first things one notices is that Hawaii is a mixture of very densely populated areas and areas with virtually no people. This is what a population density map of Hawaii looks like:

Hawaiian population densities

Figure 2: Population densities of Hawaii - Wikipedia

When one travels around, the reason for this disparity in population density becomes clear. Most of the islands are very rugged mountains, but there are a few flatter areas where most of the people live. The soil quality also varies greatly from place to place. In some areas, particularly on the Big Island, there is not really soil, simply volcanic rock, with nothing growing on it, because the eruption giving rise to the land is very recent. Even where there is soil, the underlying volcanic rock tends to make the soil drain quite quickly after it rains.

The climate varies greatly, even within a few miles, because of the rapid elevation changes and the tendency of rain to fall on the eastern side of the islands. Most of us think of Hawaii as quite lush and green, but there is a much larger area which is very dry. High elevations can be very cool, and even can be snow-covered in winter.

What are the advantages Hawaii has from a peak-oil perspective?

1. Many are aware of Peak Oil and are concerned about the problem.

One thing I was surprised at was how aware people are of the problems, especially on the Big Island. On the way out, the woman I was sitting next to on the flight from Honolulu to Hilo (on the Big Island) brought up the issue of oil shortages, and said the local paper talked regularly about the Big Island's vulnerability to oil shortages and high proportion (90% plus) of imported food.

I gave talks to two different groups in Hilo--one was an energy forum consisting of about 150 business people and politicians discussing Big Island energy issues; the other was a group of Hawaiian people interested in sustainability. The energy forum got very good local press coverage. I was surprised that so many people were aware of peak oil, and were interested in finding solutions.

2. Fairly large population on the Big Island before fossil fuels.

When Europeans first discovered the Big Island, people lived in self-contained communities of 250 to 500 people. These communities occupied rectangular or triangular strips of land along streams. These strips went all the way from the ocean to the closest mountain top. Because climate changes so rapidly, these strips of land, called ahupua`a, offered a range of climates and soil conditions for growing many different types of foods. They also provided areas for fish ponds for farming fish. According to Robert Oaks "Hawaii: A History of the Big Island", there were about 600 of these ahupua`a, when Europeans first discovered the island.

If we multiply the number of people per community times the number of communities, we get quite a large population. If there were 250 to 500 people per ahupua`a, and 600 of these communities in total, this would suggest a total population of 150,000 to 300,000. I would find the upper end of this range difficult to believe. The current population of the Big Island is only about 135,000.

3. Some still remember pre-fossil fuel approaches.

Knowledge of the history of what was done in the past seems quite a bit better than on the mainland. Europeans first visited the Hawaiian Islands in 1778, which was not all that long ago. Hawaiians continued to rule the island until 1893. This was only a little over a hundred years ago. When I visited the Bishop museum in Honolulu, I discovered one could look at black and white photographs life under Hawaiian rule. While Western illnesses killed quite a few of the native Hawaiian people, many survived and passed down at least some of the traditions to their children.

4. Little need to heat or cool buildings.

Hawaii is known for its mild climate. On the coast, the temperatures are in the 70s and 80s in the daytime, and a little lower at night, year around. It gets cooler at higher elevations, so that one needs a fireplace for warmth.

A mild climate has many other benefits as well. One doesn't need insulation, and in fact, one can get along with just a thatched roof held up by poles for many uses.

Before Europeans came, Hawaiians wore little clothing. Those of us with fair skin would probably need clothing, simply to prevent sun burn.

5. Built in water transportation system.

Moving goods and people by boat is usually a very low energy mode of transportation. WIth ocean all around the islands, boats or barges can easily be used for transport.

6. Year around growing season.

With a very mild climate, it can be possible to grow two or three crops a year.

7. Availability of ocean to supplement food needs.

With the ocean nearby, there is the possibility of catching fish to supplement other food sources. Fish can also be farmed, sometimes even in a netted-off section of the ocean.

Eating sea weed is another possibility, as the Japanese do.

8. High rain fall in parts of the island.

A shortage of water is often a limiting factor for growing food. Parts of the Hawaiian Islands get over 100 inches of rain a year.

9. Geothermal, wind, solar, and water currents as energy sources.

There is currently one geothermal plant generating 30 MW of electricity on the Big Island, and there is the theoretical possibility of more generation, both on the Big Island and on Maui.

Parts of the islands are very windy, so wind generation is a possibility, and, in fact, is currently being used.

The islands are well situated for solar energy of all types (solar thermal, solar PV, and solar concentrating). If methods for using water currents to generate electricity are perfected, Hawaii will have this as an option as well.

What are the disadvantages Hawaii has from a peak-oil perspective?

1. Distance from rest of world.

Hawaii is a long way from any other occupied body of land. It is 2,390 miles from California; 3,850 miles from Japan; 4,900 miles from China; and 5,280 miles from the Philippines according to this source. The one thing this is good for is as a location for refueling aircraft. Apart from this, it means that everything must be transported over very long distances to get to Hawaii.

2. Agriculture is small scale; difficult to scale up.

Because Hawaii is so mountainous, it is difficult to do commercial agriculture. Also, the large amount of volcanic rock in the soil in many areas makes crops more variable than commercial equipment is designed to handle.

A publication of the US Department of Agriculture shows these statistics for Hawaii agriculture, for all of the islands combined:

Hawaii agriculture statistics

Figure 3: USDA Hawaii Agriculture Statistics

The way I read this, Hawaii in 2002 had only 110,000 acres of harvested cropland. Of this, approximately 58,000 acres (.21 x 27.7% x 1000) was irrigated. In 1992, the figures were a little higher than this, with 140,000 acres of harvested crop land and 82,000 irrigated. We know that quite a bit of sugar cane and pineapple (both irrigated) has left Hawaii in recent years, so this probably explains the drop.

There is quite a bit of pasture land, but this is generally very dry and often very steep. Without irrigation, it is unlikely to be productive as farmland.

3. Vulnerability to tsunamis, volcanos, blights, climate change.

Because of its location, Hawaii is vulnerable to tsunamis, particularly along the coast, which is where most of the population is. The Big Island had a railroad at one time, but many of its bridges were destroyed by a tsunami in 1946. It was never rebuilt.

Since Hawaii is small, it is easy for it to be affected by impacts that would tend to average out over a larger area. If Hawaii grows a large amount of a single type of crop, it is possible that a pest or blight will attack the crop, and the whole crop will be lost. If a crop is planted, and the weather suddenly changes, the crop could be lost. This means that if Hawaii cannot depend on trade, it needs to keep some surplus, in case crops do not turn out as planned.

4. Lack of fossil fuels.

All of Hawaii's fossil fuel is imported. Most of this is oil (used for both electricity and transportation). Some coal is also imported for electricity. Hawaii uses very little natural gas. The lack of fossil fuels makes manufacture difficult, and makes the islands very dependent on imports.

5. Lack of metals and clay.

Hawaii was in the stone age until Europeans came and brought metal in 1778. Until I visited the island, it never occurred to me that the problem was a lack of metal ores. Also, without fossil fuels for heating the ores, it is not clear that ores would have been of much use. Early Hawaiians lacked nails, metal knives, metal pots, coins, and many other things we have come to expect.

The island is also without clay, so there is no pottery or bricks. Before Europeans came, food was wrapped in the leaves of the ti plant, and baked underground. Hollowed out gourds were used for transporting water.

6. Excessive population.

If the only island that one had to worry about from a sustainability point of view were the Big Island, the population would probably not be too far out of line with its resources. The total population of Hawaii is currently estimated at 1.28 million. If one compares this to current harvested cropland of 110,000 acres, this would equate to nearly 12 people per harvested acre. A ratio of about 1 to 1 perhaps 2 to 1, considering the long growing season, would be much better.

If Hawaii's problems become clear before those of the rest of the US, it is possible that quite a few people currently living in Hawaii will move to the mainland. This would be helpful, from the point of view of balancing the population with the available resources.

7. Belief in "right" way to do things.

Clearly, one way of attacking the problem is to try to go back to the old (pre-1778) way of doing things. Another is try to use technology to work one's way out of the problem.

Our current set of laws, regulations, and belief systems very much favors the technological approach. There are laws saying how buildings should be built. We have expectations as to how people should be dressed. Property ownership laws are such that the status quo is the most likely outcome--big businesses have large tracts of lands; most individuals have postage stamp size lots. All of these pretty much predetermine what the outcome will be.

What are the current risks?

Hawaii's biggest industry is its tourist industry. It seems likely to me that Hawaii's tourist industry will largely disappear in the next few years, as oil prices rise. Two Hawaiian air lines have already gone out of business, and two cruise lines have stopped serving the Hawaiian Islands, leaving only one cruise line serving the islands. So far, the islands away from Honolulu have been hardest hit by the drop in tourism. It seems like the situation can only get worse.

Another large source of revenue is the US military. On my way to Honolulu, there were about 30 American service men and women on the plane with me. I asked one sitting next to me where he was going. He said the whole group was on its way back to their home base in Hawaii, on leave from tour of duty in Iraq. They had flown from Iraq, through Europe, across the Atlantic to Atalnta, and now were on their way to Honolulu, to be with their wives and families. I asked the serviceman where he had been before he joined the service, and he said the US Northeast.

It is hard for me to believe that it makes economic sense to send service men and women circling the globe, all the way from Hawaii to Iraq (the long way around!), especially when they did not live in Hawaii to begin with. I would think it would make sense to scale back US military operations in Hawaii. Hawaii is needed as a refueling point, and possibly for defense, but it is hard to see how it makes sense to station a large number of service people there, when their ultimate destination is Iraq.

A smaller source of revenue is agricultural products. Hawaii exports some sugar cane, pineapple, macadamia nuts, and coffee. Prices for these goods can be expected to rise, as the price of oil increases. It is possible that these exports may be able to continue, if enough oil can be imported to keep all the necessary infrastructure maintained and the machinery operating, and if demand for the products continues at the new higher prices. One problem with these industries is that they use up most of the Hawaii's cropland, leaving little for other crops.

What are Hawaii's options going forward?

This is really too big an issue to discuss here. Perhaps I can talk about it more in a later post.

I think one of the issues is that Hawaii is currently a state that imports a lot of products, and mostly sells products like tourism and military bases. If it loses its "exports", where does it get the funding to continue buying imported food, gasoline, televisions, and asphalt?

All of our current belief systems would seem to dictate trying to find a high tech way out. Yet I have a difficult time thinking of new products Hawaii could sell to generate revenue to replace the revenue it is likely to lose from tourism and the military. Selling long distant services (computer programming or customer service) would seem to be an option, but it would seem like Hawaii's costs would be higher than those of competitors.

Going back a few years to earlier approaches doesn't seem offer any likely alternatives. Years ago, Hawaii exported salted beef. Fish was also salted, as a low-energy way of preserving it. I don't see a big market at this time for salted exported meat and fish. Before that, Hawaii's big industry was whaling. That doesn't seem to have a big future either.

Manufacturing doesn't seem very likely either. If manufacturing were undertaken, it would need to be done with local resources. Without metals, it seems like it would be hard to do very much. Power would need to be supplied by electricity, generated from an available source, such as wind or geothermal. The products would need to be ones of very high value, because of the high cost of shipping products to customers. I can't think of anything that would work well, but perhaps it is just my lack of imagination.

Another approach might be to look at what worked before Europeans came, and see what could be added to it, that might still be sustainable. Over two hundred years ago, people lived in narrow communities along streams called ahupua`a, and traded with people who lived near them. Would it make sense to go back to a system closer to the very old one? What changes would be needed to make such a system work, and be acceptable to people living there?

Certainly we could make tools from abandoned cars and trucks for a very long time, to supplement the natural resources. Locally generated electricity might be added as well.

Going back this far would require huge changes in belief systems, and probably changes in land ownership rules. I am not sure how one would even contemplate such a major change.

As for problem 1 - what about wind-powered seacraft?

There are beneficial prevailing wind currents that would allow a trip from California to Hawaii and then back to Vancouver. A fast sailing ship with modern technology could probably do this in two weeks, which is quicker than even modest overland trips without fossil fuels (how far could you travel with a horse and carridge in two weeks?)

For me, if TSHTF, I'd rather live somewhere warm, relatively underpopulated, with good fishing potential than almost anywhere else on earth. A thought-provoking piece though.

Gail: Another advantage Hawaii has is a relatively small population and a very low violent crime rate. If things really slide, many American cities such as Detroit, Chicago, Atlanta, Vegas would be expected to become troublesome-Hawaii might become even more of a hangout for the moneyed crowd. The proximity to China might also be a big plus for the RE market down the road.

I am less sanguine, or I would have moved home long ago.

This study shows that Hawaii was up against Malthusian limits when Europeans arrived. The soil was exhausted, and most of the island is not suitable for growing the staple crops of sweet potatoes and taro. That is why King Kamehameha launched his attacks on the other islands.

I think the estimated population of the Big Island in ancient times is probably too high; the estimates I've seen are about 80,000 - half the current population. In any case, the Big Island now is not the Big Island as it used to be. Parts of the island look like a moonscape - the results of deforestation caused by agriculture attempts. It's totally screwed up drainage patterns. Many streams on the Kona side no longer exist (meaning sporadic flooding problems).

And the culture of ancient Hawaii, like the culture of native Alaskans, shows a lot of awareness of Malthusian issues. There's an area on Oahu known as "Nanakuli," which roughly translates as "deaf ear." People there would pretend to be deaf when travelers asked for food or water, because they had none to give. There are accounts of ancient battles, where few died in the fighting, but many starved in the aftermath, because the land could not support both the existing residents and the invading army.

As for crime...Hawaii has a low violent crime rate, but a very high property crime rate, resulting in one of the highest crime rates in the nation. If things get really bad, property crime can be as bad as violent crime.

I agree with your analysis, also being a relative long term resident of Hawaii (10 years+), and still own a home on Maui. At the time of western contact, Hawaii was at it's limits.
I lived in one of the most productive agricultural areas of Maui, Kula, and while the avocados and coffee grew great, nematodes made most traditional crops challenging (lettuce, onions and the cabbage family excluded).
Property crime is high in Hawaii, and if you are a young Caucasian male, so is violent crime.
It is a place I find extremely socially comfortable, and miss the waves, the soft light, the dramatic storms, and the water the most of all.
I will be returning for a stint this winter, just to check in, and keep friendships.
Oahu is not survivable, Maui and the Big Island very questionable. Molokai would be my choice, if I had the community ties.

In any case, the Big Island now is not the Big Island as it used to be.

I have been meaning to ask you, are you from the Big Island? That is where I am now, near the north end. This had never been a dream destination for me, but a unique opportunity came up to work with some very like-minded people, and here I am.

The guy I work for is a large landowner here. He has lived here for a while, and is very concerned about peak oil and the ability of the islands to feed themselves in an emergency. He is into all kinds of things designed to improve the situation here, which he is very passionate about. He is doing a lot of agricultural work in connection with the universities, and has a 500-acre ag park here designed to keep some level of agricultural know-how on the island.

It feels like a pretty good place to be relative to most places I have lived. The population density feels very low to me. Land is expensive, but prices are coming down and I hope to buy at least 10 acres if I determine that I will stay here long-term.

There are over a million people, almost all of them in and around Honolulu. Is that really a sustainable population without ff? Did any islands of this size carry such populations in the past (before the 20th century)? As I recall most cities over one million in earlier eras were centers of empires, able to draw on resources from a large area. I suppose you could look at the ocean as a kind of empire, but that could be a bit of a stretch. And if the oceans go anoxic, being in the middle of one will be no great advantage. There will also likely be many refugees from other flatter islands as they get overwhelmed by rising tides.

I do see some pretty major advantages for this location, but as with most places, the combination of population and expectations of a relatively high-consuming lifestyle are likely to stretch capacities pretty thin.

Your question isn't logical-FF are not going to vanish, just become more expensive. Hawaii is already a haven for the superrich and rich. Is Chicago sustainable without FF, Vegas or Atlanta?

A good question for Vegas: "Is Vegas sustainable without water, electricity, fossil fuel, or booming economy?"


As long as this little graph doo-dad is updating correctly, things look pretty bleak.

At the bottom of the page:

Update: In a 2008 report on the status of Lake Mead, scientists at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography predict there is a 50% probability that Lake Mead will be completely dry by 2021, because of climate change and unsustainable overuse of Colorado River water. The report concluded "Today, we are at or beyond the sustainable limit of the Colorado system. The alternative to reasoned solutions to this coming water crisis is a major societal and economic disruption in the desert southwest; something that will affect each of us living in the region".

As the water dries up, so does the electricity. With less, more expensive fossil fuel, just getting there is going to take away some gambling money if they decide to go at all, and without a booming economy - who's going to make the trip to go gamble away some "excess" cash?

So, if one wishes to travel further down the path after answering those questions...Where do all of the people who have no water, no electricity, and no jobs in Las Vegas go?

Already, the only place in the USA with a worse RE market than Vegas is Detroit, and this thing is just starting.

You say it isn't logical FF are going to vanish. I would argue with that. We have a highly networked system that we are using now--including finance, international trade, and manufacturing of high tech equipment from around the world. If this networked system fails, then it seems to me we will see basically three levels.

1. Where we are now.

2. Huge step down, to what can be done without finance, international trade, and manufacturing of high tech equipment, except with what equipment has already been manufactured, and what oil can be obtained from local sources, or through barter in the international market. There will be a little oil, gas and coal. I wouldn't count on Hawaii getting any of this.

3. As equipment degrades and cannot be replaced with new (because international manufacturing requires systems that can no longer be supported, we will fall back to what fossil fuels can be obtained through low tech methods--coal that can be knocked down with a pick, and carried out by hand, for example. Heavy oil that is near the surface, perhaps for tarring the outside of a ship.

Good points, Gail. As your main post points out, Hawaii is at the end of the supply chain. If the rest of the world is down to using oil only for the most crucial functions, and often not even for those, is the mainland going to work hard to be sure Hawaii has its fair share? Especially as its main source of cash income, tourism, dries up? Oil and petrol might not vanish over night, but they might be mostly reserved for only the richest and those who work for them.

Is Cuba, another large island that had to get along with much diminished supplies of oil, a good comparison here for prediction?

I don't see where this Cuba stuff is coming from, or the thinking that the "mainland" won't provide product to Hawaii. If that point is reached, the USA itself is unlikely to hold together IMO so I wouldn't worry about it happening very soon. You are talking about a future where rich Americans and rich non-Americans won't be able to purchase energy at any price-like I said before, that is long after Vegas and other mainland cities collapse totally. Don't underestimate what the superrich will do to protect that tribe-who would have thought that the schmuck USA taxpayer would have to directly transfer money to guys who are among the wealthiest on the planet? At one time they were content not to be taxed, now they have their puppets tax everybody else and give the proceeds to them like the lords of the fiefdom.

I don't see where this Cuba stuff is coming from


After 1990, Cuba lost all its Soviet oil and with the US embargo on basically had zero oil.
They adapted without mass shootings,feudalism, tribes or lower taxes you idiots dream about.

You wingnuts are seriously knowldege impaired.

I guess I should regard that comment as a compliment of sorts-try not to shoot up the whole trailer park when you go off the meds, champ.

I think Cuba under embargo is a worthwhile thing to bring up when thinking about various Hawaii scenarios. But I flagged the previous post for abusive language (idiots, you wingnuts) so maybe this little bit of string will be going away? No need to have the conversations degenerate.

I responded not to the wingnut comment, but to the annoying habit some TOD posters have of attributing characteristics or statements without any regard for truth. I threw in the meds comment because I thought the feudalism and lower taxes combo sounded drug induced. The trailer park reference was just for fun.

You can't compare Cuba and Hawaii. Hawaii has the largest percentage of millionaires of any state in the US. The median price for homes on Oahu is $600K. Hawaii's tourists have even more money than the residents! The US military budget for this strategic location is another big number. People at the top of the food chain are not the ones that will suffer from peak oil.

What you get for $600,000 is often a little single-wall plywood shack with cheap windows and screens. It looks good on paper, but as property prices crash back down - as I expect they will - it will reflect the fact that they're still just plywood shacks. The home my mom lives in was originally sold new for 15k, is termite-damaged, but taxed at about the inflated average rate. And many people don't even own their shacks outright.

There are some large and lavish places, too, but without air conditioning most of the recently-built ones wouldn't be anything you'd wish to live in.

But yes, the "wealth" thing should play out interestingly.

Go to Detroit, where you can buy a mansion quality built to last forever for pocket change. Cleveland also.

I think the Cuba people's sense of entitlement is far, far less than that of most U.S. citizens'. Simply put, they aren't nearly as spoiled as we are. They were not brought up with the pap of 'Cuban Manifest Destiny' or 'Cuban Exceptionalism'.

Besides, they are under strict government rule, and are much smaller in area and population than the U.S., and their people have a much more unified sense of belonging to their society than we seem to have.

Or at least they have to pretend to have that unified sense, on pain of losing their ration cards or being disappeared into some dungeon.

After 1990, Cuba lost all its Soviet oil and with the US embargo on basically had zero oil.

This information is totally erroneous. Cuba oil consumption dropped from a peak of 220,000 b/d in 1990, to a low of about 180,000 b/d in 1993. Read the stats from the EIA. And try to be a little more discriminating about pro-communist propaganda.

Did anyone actually view the video? No one?


This information is totally erroneous. Cuba oil consumption dropped from a peak of 220,000 b/d in 1990, to a low of about 180,000 b/d in 1993. Read the stats from the EIA. And try to be a little more discriminating about pro-communist propaganda.

My mistake from before, not the 'communist propaganda'.
For the 'enslaved and abused' Cuban people who dealt with the Special Period, you'll find that their oil use went pretty much to zero, EIA statistics not withstanding.

The video said that oil imports didn't go to zero, I think the Cubans said oil was reduced by 40%.

See how useless your pathetic political correction is, JD as nothing you say refers to adapting to Peak Oil.
Good to see you at the ready to fight communist propaganda.

As for the hurt feelings, I will apologize to every person offended who bothers watches the video above all the way thru.

For JD, there are videos of the Army McCarthy hearings.



Let us not forget that Cuba was (and still is)a well organized police state with a tropical climate,no need for heat,very little ac,almost no personal automobiles,and a very low standard of living all the way around for nearly all the people.

All this bodes well for Castro being able to organize for survival.

The soil is pretty good and there is no real population pressure as in most third world countries,no major water problem,no major topography problem,truly hardly any tough problems at all from an agricultural pov.

The people were and still are capable farm workers/laborers,used to the work and willing to do it.

And so far as I can see you have got your facts straight in addition to these STRAIGHT FACTS.

And yet they are obviously having a hard time feeding themselves w/o substantial imports.
Perhaps they could manage it ok if they were not hampered by communism but I must admit that they do have workable schools and public health ,etc.

My estimation is that it is impossible for a modern society to survive w/o oil based agriculture either home front or imported.Cuba is a case in point.If they don't continue to get the oil they have been using all along they will not so gradually either slide all the way back to the seventeenth century or have another revolution.

I have not been here long and have not taken the time yet to go back and read all his old commentary(he may be an er, um ,an undesirable political role model) but Wisdom from Pakistan makes some good points ,one recently being that you can't live on vegetables,you must have substantial amounts of grain at the very least to survive,if not dairy ,meat,etc.

And you just can't produce large net amounts per farmer of grain or meat w/o the ff inputs.

And you just can't produce large net amounts per farmer of grain or meat w/o the ff inputs.

No, you can (at least in starches) but I will admit is much, much harder to do without fossil fuels.

You can get starches from potatoes and sweet potatoes from an urban garden and you can get a fair yield without any nitrogen fertilizer 100 cwt(5 tons per acre). The Incas and Irish got their starch from taters.

Of course nitrogen helps a lot producing 3 times as much.

If you need 2000 calories per day of starch, that's equal to 12 medium potatoes per day or ~5000 potatoes a year. A ton is 5000 medium potatoes. So 1 acre of potatoes could provide starch for
5 people.


OTOH, farm grown wheat averages ~3 tons of grain per acre.
The fact is people like wheat more than potatoes.

Meat is another story. People eat too much meat as you can get by on 50 pound of meat per year. The average American eat 250 pounds per year most of the world eats much less than half that.

During the Great Depression, Hoover asked Americans to reduce
their meat intake to 2 pounds per week.


Fossil fuels aren't going to disappear in Saudi Arabia or Alberta. But Hawaii? Where would the fossil fuels come from?

The Export Land Model is going to shrivel oil exports. Lots of countries will stop exporting long before they stop producing. Who is going to export oil to Hawaii? That state would need to outbid Australia, China, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and lots of other Pac Rim countries as well as countries between the Pac Rim and the Middle East. Who is going to sell oil to Hawaii 20 years from now?

It would be interesting to see the current demographic/employment statistics accompanied by historical numbers for this state. In addition to total employment and unemployment, it would be instructive to see average income as well.

To compliment the employment data, state budget numbers, including surplus/deficit, total spending and a break down on how money was being spent would probably be telling. Is the island depopulating? This type of analysis would give a pretty good picture of the current health of the islands. At least from a economic standpoint.

Even though I live on the mainland, I would like to know if things are going down hill there, and how fast. Although things will play out somewhat differently on the mainland, this analysis might provide us with some clues about things to come.

It is not depopulating. Quite the opposite. Especially the Big Island. Gail's population number is out of date. There were over 160,000 people on the Big Island in 2004, and estimates are as high as 200,000 now. The population is booming there.

The operating principle of working societies (and ecosystems in general) appears to be "use what you've got".

What Hawaii has appears to vary quite a bit from island to island and place to place.  Hydropower is a possibility in the high-rainfall areas.  Geothermal, if the religious sensibilities of the natives don't get in the way.  I know that lava flows have been re-directed using water sprays to freeze dikes and move the lava away from assets; perhaps this could be improved into a way to create structures, e.g. engineered lava tubes.  Using lava to dam streams to create lakes would foster hydropower and aquaculture, and eventually create meadows when the reservoirs silted up.

The lack of metals is an issue, depending how good we get with plastics.  Bioplastics may offset much of the metals issue if the decline in fossil fuels happens more slowly.

Honolulu also has a major seaport which will bring in cheap goods long after Vegas has abandoned stretches like Detroit.

The lack of heavy metals and clays is an issue that can be worked around by using the sea water and basalt lava as a source of light metals and construction materials.

Sea water is the usual source of magnesium salts and magnesium (Magnesium from Sea Water).

The molten basalt lava directly from the volcanoes could be cast into dimensional stone and fibers for construction. This would replace much of the need for concrete (and ceramics). The cement can be replaced with the combination of Sorel cement based on magnesium oxide and magnesium chloride with phosphate additives to make the cement water proof and greatly stronger (Sorel Cement, Mechanism for soluble phosphates to improve the water resistance of magnesium oxychloride cement).

The electolysis of molten basalt lava with added sea salt will convert the basalt to aluminum, iron, silicon, and titanium chloride gases. They in turn become a source of the lighter metals and iron. The major reason that this approach is not used now is that an active volcano is needed for the heat source (beyond the whole idea of working with an active volcano), something not readily available in the lower 48 states. The metals can be won cheaply enough to compete on the world market and to create industries fabricating with them.

I find the concept of using lava flows as a technological resource a bizarre "techn-cornucopian" fantasy.

The flows are irregular and unplanned in every regard. Timing, volume, place and even consistency cannot be predicted accurately. By their nature, lava flows are generally inaccessible and extremely dangerous (Pliny the Elder died investigating them). Poison gases come with volcanic eruptions, ground water turns into lethal steam vents and more.


Ore veins are also unplanned in every regard.  Floods, too.  Yet we can often use them productively.

Beaver dam streams to obtain food and protection from predators.  The beaver ponds silt up and become meadows after the dams are abandoned.  Isn't ground water turning to steam the basis of geothermal power?  These progressions can be harnessed.

Ore veins do not vary in time. They stay where they are After many thousands (1 million ?) deaths, we have a handle on methane gas emissions from coal mines.

Floods vary in time but are statistically predictable and almost always happen in rivers. a fixed space.

In some theoretical sense, perhaps we could prepare and plan for an eruption and if everything worked out, do something with it. If things did not work out, be willing to accept multiple worker fatalities (see random emissions of poison gas, etc.).

In the real world, with constrained resources, I do not think so.


Cuba has already demonstrated post-Peak survivability of islands.

The island of Bali has about 1500 people per square mile in a fairly sustainable in food which is the same population density as the island of Oahu, but the population is better distributed on the land. The largest city Badung has the same population as Honolulu.

The energy use of the Indonesia is 1/10th of the USA so lower energy use is the principle driver to going post-Peak.




It's fairly clear that a huge reduction in energy would be required with new land use policies.

But post-Peak Oahu looks totally doable IMO assuming zero population growth.

Massive roof PV solar, say a 200 m2 array with battery back up for each house would provide ~7 kwh per day would cover a good many high efficiency appliances(no AC).

Bicycles for island transport; you could ride across the 44 mile x 30 mile island in a day to visit friends, etc. In the US I think 70% of transport energy goes to move people rather than goods.
A fleet of sailing ships sustained London in the 18th century.

Employment would be a problem which is why they need to consider
a 'Society of Sloth'(Jay Hanson).
Need to reconsider the meaning of 'work'.

Er...ride across Oahu On a bicycle? Just like that? ROFLMAO

No way my legs would be up to pedaling over the Koolau's, although currently the major impediment to cycling is the danger of becoming hamburger under a stampede of SUVs.

It will be hard to keep cross-island highways maintained but perhaps not impossible, and I think "bicycle-towing" vehicles might be interesting. That is, a person in a car, truck, or even on a motorcycle could tow a long string of bicycles up the mountain, and they could coast down the other side to many destinations. They do that as a tourist gig on Maui, or used to... truck the bicycles up to the top of Haleakala and let the tourists enjoy the 39-mile coast to sea level without much pedaling.

Massive roof PV solar, say a 200 m2 array with battery back up for each house would provide ~7 kwh per day would cover a good many high efficiency appliances(no AC).

According to the NREL's U.S. Solar Radiation Resource Maps: page, 200 m2 of 15% efficient solar PV panels, tilted south at latitude in Oahu, should produce somewhere in the region of 155 kWh per day! By my calculation you would only need 9 m2 or about 7 200W panels to achieve your 7 kWh per day.

I am targeting vaguely similar results for my own apartment here in the tropics so, I know that your 200 m2 for 7 kWh per day is way off. Still wide scale adoption of a system that is going to cost approximately $10,000 per installation is not necessarily doable.

Alan from the (other) islands

yeah I meant 20 m2 per day. If you can do it with 9 m2 that's great but remember you'll need storage and conversion.

Cuba has already demonstrated post-Peak survivability of islands.

That's a complete myth. Cuba is still burning about 180,000 b/d, 80% of its peak in Soviet times. It also imports most of its food:

"Cuba spent $2.2 billion last year to buy food, including $700 million for rice and beans combined. It imports about 70 percent of its food."Link

Your Indian link is wrong, JD.
Try watching the communist video and opening your mind.


2/3 of Cuban calories are made in Cuba.
1/3 of Cuban food is supplied by government rations, 4/5ths of the rations come from imports
so 73% of the food is domestically produced with 26% being imported(especially hard-to-grow rice).


OTOH, According to the USDA, 15% of US food (volumetrically) consumed is imported.


Of course, the fact that Cuba is currently importing 26% of its calories or that Cuba uses less than 15% of the per capita energy of the US must totally disprove the meme that Cuba learned how to survive Peak Oil condition, right JD?

I suggest the readers ignore the ideological warnings of JD and actually watch the film.

More like 50%


But point taken - no nation is an island

In the 1990s they grew virtually all of their own food, but a lot of people went hungry - they didn't starve, but it wasn't enough. From 2001 the US started selling Cuba food. Nowadays Cubans get about 22% their toal nutrition from wheat, and 13% from rice, most of it imported from the US. They also import from the US soya meal and the like which they feed to their livestock to get milk and meat, and so the US food must get partial credit for their nutrition from that, too. But overall the Cubans provide more than half their own nutrition.

Posted by kiashu(who I frequently disagree with).

I'd say Cubans are making 73% of their own food today based on wikipedia above.

The point is that we can feed ourselves post Peak without decending into anarchy if we are willing to adapt.

Did anyone watch the video?

Cuba’s urban ag miracle has feet of clay
Proponents of urban and peri-urban agriculture, ourselves included, have a poster-child: Cuba. In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union as a big market for sugar exports, the Cubans became more self reliant and replaced the food they could no longer afford to import with bounteous harvests from small urban plots.

Alas, all is not quite so rosy in the organopónico. A new book, noted at HungryCity, points out that these plots supply just 5% of Cuba’s food. Furthermore, 75% of Cuban farmers use agrochemicals, and 83% would apply more if they could. Despite masses of evidence that organic land in Cuba really was more productive than conventional farms, the country is reverting to a conventional model.


About specific figures, well urban agriculture supplies mainly salad vegetables — lettuce and tomato, which isn’t a very popular part of the Cuban diet. Peri-urban agriculture could, according to researchers in that field, one day supply up to 70% of Havana’s food needs, so there’s an area of great potential. In terms of national self sufficiency, I’ve heard various figures being bandied about. Official international sources (often from US) estimate that 90% of foods are imported. Cuban contacts say about 50%, because of the large amount of informal campesino production that is just not being documented. In recent years, Cuba has had relatively more choice over whether to import or aim for self sufficiency, and it has tended toward the former (as has the UK). This may however be changing again with the current economic crisis.


Blogs that say Cubans thirst for Big Macs and hate salads.
The 80% import is just wrong see wikipedia entry above.

In Peak Oil people will survive on their gardens and can only dream of Big Macs.

Did you watch the video?

The blog information comes from a scholar named Julia Wright who has spent the last 15 years studying the Cuban response to the collapse of the Soviet Union. She has traveled extensively to Cuba for research and wrote her Ph.D. thesis on the topic: "Perspectives on the Emergence of a More Ecological Farming and Food System in Post-Crisis Cuba". That thesis can be downloaded here (large pdf). It's very detailed, and highy recommended for anyone who wants the real story on Cuba. She is also the author of a new book entitled Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security in an Era of Oil Scarcity: Lessons from Cuba. Dr. Wright carries far more weight on this topic than a blogger, or than an anonymous chat room poster like yourself, waving a flimsy wikipedia quote.

Thanks for the pdf, JD.

Julia Wright concludes her 368 page paper with,

"Cuba’s achievement in moving from a highly vulnerable situation to one of reasonable food
security within one decade also stands in stark comparison with the shortcomings of the
international community, and governments of many less-industrialised countries, in addressing
global food insecurity. As described in Chapter 3, it is widely accepted that the international
community is unlikely to meet the - rather more modest - International Millennium Development
Goal of halving the number of food insecure people in the world by the year 2015. Cuba’s example
shows that this is not an overly ambitious target – but is one that can be achieved by a firm political
commitment to prioritise basic food rights, and a semi-regulatory approach, over an unregulated
free market approach. Such commitment in Cuba has benefited from a strong degree of sovereignty
and a range of cross-cutting mechanisms to maintain incentives for national production, while
ensuring equitable distribution and accessibility. This is perhaps the biggest lesson that Cuba’s
experience of the 1990s has for the rest of the world."

She seems to approve of organic, decentralized, private farming approach of Cuba versus the large, energy intensive, industrial farming of the Dominican Republic(her example). She says that industrialized farming produces higher yields than organic farming but Cuba's organic farming produces more jobs.

Now, did you watch the video?

Those are noble sentiments. They don't change the facts however, to wit:

1) Cuba is still using 80% as much oil as it did during its Soviet peak.

2) Urban organic gardening only supplies 5% of Cuba's food. It mainly supplies salad vegetables — lettuce and tomato, which isn’t a very popular part of the Cuban diet.

3) 75% of Cuban farmers use agrochemicals, and 83% would apply more if they could. Despite masses of evidence that organic land in Cuba really was more productive than conventional farms, the country is reverting to a conventional model.

4) Cuba is suckling on the tit of foreign fossil fuel agriculture. It imports 50-90% of its food supply, according to Dr. Wright, and of course those imports are also transported courtesy of FF.

The story that the video promotes − that Cuba overcame peak oil by turning to community agriculture - is about 95% baloney.

Today, Cuba spends $1 billion a year to give the island's 11.2 million citizens a subsidized ration including rice, legumes, potatoes, bread, eggs and a small amount of meat. The government estimates the ration provides a third of the 3,300 calories the average Cuban consumes daily.


That means 2/3s of the 3300 daily calories do NOT come from
the government ration--they come from the private Cuban plots and gardens. So 2) is flat wrong and is not documented in any way. Her paper does show that daily average calorie intake decreased from 2845 cal in 1989 to 1948 cal in 1992 during the special period or 68%.

On Item 1,
Table 2.2 shows a 53% decrease in petroleum for Cuban agriculture, a 77% decrease in fertilizer,63% decrease in pesticides and a 77% decrease in animal feeds from 1989 to 1992.
I think you should mention that Cuba's economy is dependent on sugar (60% of exports) to needed earn money to buy their oil to support among other things sugar production.


Item 3) Of course given the option of using fertilizer, pesticides, tractors and oil people will use them--they are addictive.

It doesn't mean that post-Peak they won't return to organic farming. Wright says people and the government approve of the urban gardens.

Item 4) The 50% of food supplied is what the cubans say, 90% is what some US sources say according to Wright who offers no figures of her own. So you aren't even talking about the Special Period?
According to Motleyfool financial blog Food imports were severely restricted during th Special Period.


The story that the video promotes − that Cuba overcame peak oil by turning to community agriculture - is about 95% baloney.

I don't think that's what the video said. That Cuba adapted to peak oil by turning to community agriculture, is a fact and it provided most of the food during that period. The fact that cubans like beans and rice, tractors and fertilizers are irrelevant to surviving Peak Oil on an island.

Really poor job, JD!

1) Cuba is still using 80% as much oil as it did during its Soviet peak.

Yes, now. Was not the case several years ago.

2) Urban organic gardening only supplies 5% of Cuba's food. It mainly supplies salad vegetables — lettuce and tomato, which isn’t a very popular part of the Cuban diet.

In 2002 3.4 million tons were grown in the urban gardens, if that was 5% of consumption for a population of 11.3 million that would put the daily food consumption at 33 pounds. 2009 numbers aren't in, 2008 numbers were 1.4 million tons, if that were 5% that would put daily food consumption at around 13 1/2 pounds. What year does the 5% number apply?

3) 75% of Cuban farmers use agrochemicals, and 83% would apply more if they could. Despite masses of evidence that organic land in Cuba really was more productive than conventional farms, the country is reverting to a conventional model.

Yes, unfortunately.

4) Cuba is suckling on the tit of foreign fossil fuel agriculture. It imports 50-90% of its food supply, according to Dr. Wright, and of course those imports are also transported courtesy of FF.

I'm skeptical about the 50-90% figure. Last year they imported 3.423 million tonnes of food 2008, approximately 1.4 million tonnes grown organiponicos in 2008, down from past years. There's about 1.5 million tonnes of sugar exports for 2008, also down, about .5 million tonnes of tropical fruit exports. That does not include domestic consumption of farm grown food, I can't find the numbers for that. Output from the urban gardens and sugar exports were much higher in 2002.

The story that the video promotes − that Cuba overcame peak oil by turning to community agriculture - is about 95% baloney.

Dr. Wright's thesis and book is more positive than the video from what I've seen so far.

The pdf looks interesting, its long and will day a few days of spare time to read, but there is this quote from the abstract,

Agricultural production doubled between 1994 and 1999, calorific availability increased by 25%, wages for agricultural workers tripled, yet at the same time subsidies to the agricultural sector were halved. By the end of the decade, the country was able to meet a far higher proportion of domestic food needs than at any time in its recent history and stimulate a far more innovative and forward looking agricultural sector.

The abstract doesn't seem to be supportive of the jist of your claims.

Edit: Another quote from the summary,

When CMEA collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost many of these essential supplies: including half of its supplies of diesel and food imports, and three-quarters of its petrol, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and livestock feed. Cuba’s agricultural output subsequently dropped by almost 40%, and its sugar harvests, upon which it was dependent for export revenue, by 60%. Overall calorific intake fell by 30%. By 1993, the nation was on the brink of a huge food crisis. The natural resource base, and especially the genetic resources and soils, were also in a critically poor state of health due to years of industrialised exploitation. Added to all this, the United States tightened its trade sanctions over the island.

International reporting of the 1990s indicated that Cuba had managed to overcome this crisis through becoming more self-sufficient in food, and did so through implementing an ecological agricultural production system on a national scale.

Another edit: I see nothing in sections 5 or 10 that support you.

Can you point to something specific in the thesis that supports you?

My claims are quotes from the author of the study, Dr. Wright. Follow the links to the blog articles.

We'll, I skimmed over her study and her book (not a thorough reading). Various bloggers put forth her work that Cuba accomplished little during the shortfall of fossil fuel, from what I've seen I just don't see her work supporting their arguments. Sure they picked back up in fossil fuel use now that they secured some supplies, but whey they do now is not at all useful for the argument or even interesting. Something often quoted from her is that Cuba only grows 5% of their food in Urban gardens. At some point in time that data point is possibly true (its possible that Wright has a mistaken number there also). What Cuba was doing was most interesting around 2002-2003, they hadn't yet gotten all their energy supplies back, in 2002 they grew 3.4 million tons of food in the urban gardens. Population was around 11.3 million, if that was only 5% of their food it would put the average daily food consumption at around 33 pounds which just isn't plausible, it would have to have been much more than 5% for several years. In 2008 they only grew 1.4 million pounds in the urban gardens but it stands to reason, why do it the hard way if they have their imports back?

Very nice. I wish a European reader with some experience would do the same for Iceland. I've spent some time there pre and post correction and studied their history, but it is a very interesting parallel.

IMHO looking at USA cities or states, Hawaii defintely isn't the Peak Oil Canary-I would nominate Vegas,Atlanta,Detroit,Philly over Hawaii. Those cities are ready to implode.

BrianT -

Regarding your choice of cities for the 'Peak Oil Canary: Detroit has more or less already imploded, Las Vegas is an obvious candidate, Atlanta has problems associated with water and excessive sprawl, but why Philadelphia?

Philly has no water supply problems, has good access to marine transportation, pretty decent public transportation, a highly diversified commercial base, is centrally located along the Boston-Washington corridor, and has well established surrounding suburbs. Plus (and I'm not sure this is a plus or a minus in a oil-constrained world) there are at least five oil refineries within about a 25 mile radius of the city. (One more thing: it's also the hometown of Rocky Balboa.)

As I live in Wilmington, DE about 28 miles south of downtown Philadelphia, I am quite familiar with the city, and to me the place appears rather stable. The problems it does have are quite old and seem neither to be getting much better or much worse.

I think I would much sooner put Los Angeles and Phoenix on the list than a place like Philadelphia. Of course, if the shite really hits the fan, I would not want to find myself in ANY large urban center, so maybe this is all largely academic.

Just their fiscal problems-you are more familiar with Philly than me so I will defer to you on this one http://www.reuters.com/article/domesticNews/idUSTRE57G59Q20090817

I think Anchorage AK (my home) is a viable canary. Long, cold winters, high heating costs, most food is transported here, to start a business or plesure trip you have to fly to Seattle to then start your trip. We may end up like at the turn of the century working up here 'putting in a season" then south for the winter. Should be interesting

That was a comment I got when we ran the story a year ago. Very cold, isolated areas are going to be difficult to be self-sustaining. The Big Island has quite a bit going for it in terms of growing season and not having to heat or cool homes.

Could you repost that story or link to it, I would like to read it.


Here's the reddit links for this post (we appreciate your helping us spread our work around, both in this post and any of our other work--if you want to submit something yourself to another site, etc., that isn't already here--feel free, just leave it as a reply to this comment, please so folks can find it.):


Find us on twitter:

Find us on facebook and linkedin as well:

Thanks again. Feel free to submit things yourself using the share this button on our articles as well to places like stumbleupon, metafilter, or other link farms yourself--we appreciate it!

Some thoughts:

- The U.S. military presence isn't going away anytime soon. Even if oil were $300/barrel the U.S. nay will have its oil needs met. If oil does rise to those heights then the Navy will use the declining, but still substantial, U.S. manufacturing base to build more nuclear-powered vessels. The USAF could employ long-duration, high-altitude unmanned aircraft, powered by hydrogen and very high-efficiency PV, to patrol large swaths of the Pacific from Hawaii. Airships could come back into vogue, if we could find more helium or engineer safe lighter-than-air craft buoyed by H2.

My point is: Regardless of the oil situation, the U.S. military presence will not leave Hawaii for many reasons, including the fixation on being the World's policeman, etc.

- Even if the U.S. and other countries' middle classes shrink and become poorer, the rich will get richer, and thanks to increasing World population their numbers probably will not fall in absolute terms...so Hawaii will be assured of a flow of well-heeled tourists for a long time, especially if conditions go sour on the Mainland.

- I suppose that Hawaii could suffer increasing population for awhile as long as the rich folks can keep the resources flowing in...but, when that tide inevitably turns, Hawaii will be the worse off for having welcomed in more people.

- I wonder how changing energy availability, tourism, etc. could affect the Hawaiian sovereignty movement?

I likewise think that there is going to continue to be a large US military presence in Hawaii for a long time to come. I doubt that we are going to be able to keep the "world's policeman" act up for much longer, given as we are pretty much bankrupt. I believe that it is only a matter of time before the US must face up to the fact that it will have no choice but to quit the entire Eurasian land mass and fall back to a defense perimeter in the Pacific, Atlantic, Caribbean and Arctic. We simply will not be able to afford to extend our forces any farther than that. That will leave Hawaii in a very strategic spot as our main forward base on the Pacific perimeter. It will be worth putting a lot of our scarce and diminishing resources into maintaining a strong defense posture there for as long as possible.

Longer term, of course, it is questionable how long the US will continue to exist as an intact nation. Should the energy and economic descent fall far and fast enough, a national break up into smaller component units is not beyond the realm of possibility, in which case Hawaii could very likely end up on its own.

I agree with this. The comments about the military are my big quibble with Gail's essay. She seems to think that the military presence in Hawaii is flukish, rather than a result of core strategic priorities. (It's traveling to Iraq that will be the more temporary phenomenon than traveling from Hawaii.)

As long as there is meaningful trans-pacific trade (which I expect will be the case for our lifetimes, if not beyond) the US will have an intense interest in maintaining control of Hawaii. It will keep at least enough military presence there to discourage anyone else from taking it. Hawaii will remain one of the biggest US bases, barring collapse of the US or Hawaiian independence (and I'm one of those who thinks such events, if they happen, are more likely decades away than years).

I lived in Hawaii for twenty years and did a lot ocean fishing. In
the last twenty years fish stocks have declined in fish size and
populations dramaticaly due to large commercial fishing operations in
the northern Pacific from many different nations. I expect "Aloha"
to decline dramaticaly resources become unavailable in Hawaii.
I now live in Las Vegas which has zero future but have a "best layed

These are all interesting points. But ultimately it seems irrelevant/merely academic. People will leave for the mainland for economic reasons long before agricultural and imported fuel limits are reached.

Given the favorable weather and good potenial for alternative energy, I would expect a population larger than the historic levels to be quite possible.

Spain's Energy Island Project [ Wind-Hydro power station ] to the rescue of small islands !
Flash http://www.insula.org/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=22

El Hierro, the smallest island of the Canaries, is staging one of the most ambitious island projects regarding energy self-sufficiency through the use of renewable energies. In a few years, El Hierro will become one of the first islands in the world to meet its energy demand using RES (Renewable Energy Sources).

Considered as one of the most audacious actions of the strategy established in the European Commission White Paper on Renewable Energies, the project is already a reference for other islands, such as Crete and Madeira, and has become a strong example of the “Island 2010” initiative promoted by the ALTENER programme. The 100% RES project is also a key issue of the “Sustainable Development Plan” defined in 1997 by the Island Government of El Hierro, which has proved to be even more relevant since El Hierro was declared a “World Wide Reserve of Biosphere” by UNESCO in January 2000.
It is a most singular project, featuring high replication possibilities, which demonstrates that a 100% RES future is already a reality for islands.

To reach this objective, different programmes focusing on energy saving, 100% RES for electricity production and transport. With the financial support of the DG TREN of the European Commission, a consortium of 7 partners, coordinated by ITC (Instituto Tecnológico de Canarias), will carry out a project that focuses on the “100% RES for Electricity Production” programme. The most innovative part of this programme is the development of a Wind-Hydro power station, which is an original concept that combines wind power and hydropower, using water as an economic way of storing energy. Furthermore, and in order to demonstrate that the synergies between different RES can contribute greatly to increasing RE penetration into weak grids in isolated areas, PV, solar thermal and biomass programmes will also be implemented.

Projects: http://www.insula.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=blogsection&id=1...

Google "El Hierro Wind-Hydro power" for other links

I think that the gloom and doom of Jared Diamond about the islands of the world, in the past, may be changed by modern Technology. Perhaps one should move to an island The Possibility of an Island

Nice to see this re-posted.

I've lived in Hawaii since '75, which may not make me a kama'aina but has allowed me to get the lay of the land and form some opinions.

I'm currently on windward Oahu where I've lived all that time. My wife and I had planned to move to the big isle, upper Puna, but were drafted into caring for my elderly dad, and now elderly mom who have had a need to be near the "complexity" of hospitals. (They moved out in '85 to retire, and grew old here).

While the climate is nice, Oahu feels like a famine trap to me. It's basically a city and suburbs on a rock. Under some credible circumstances things could get quite grim here. However, under different circumstances, it could be better than many other places. I could take either side of the debate and argue it equally well, probably. Energetically, an island is not all that far from most other coastlines, yet is resilient against on-foot migrations of the destitute.

I'm not principally concerned with personal survival, although it is rather a prerequisite for most projects. As it is, Oahu is just one more suburb clueless about peak everything. There is little "culture" here in the sense I feel it in other areas I visit; it's a melting pot but on a shallow level in some ways.

Eventually, a major hurricane will hit Oahu. Past "peak everything" there will be no way to rebuild it. That will be luck of the draw, it could dodge that bullet for another hundred years. And indeed, as the winds slow down and the planet warms, the remains of hurricanes will start supplying a larger percentage of the isles' rainfall and prevent complete droughts.

Still, during the lifetimes of people reading this, a place like the big isle would be an option, and I know that my comments here won't start a stampede in that direction. I think the (likely) upcoming deflationary depression will cause people to leave Hawaii, and the big isle, for jobs elsewhere. Already, for various reasons, some professions are leaving. A confluence of factors has doctors leaving Hawaii in droves. On the big isle, there are so few that the emergency rooms aren't even always manned. If you get a compound fracture or something, they're likely just to stablilize the bleeding and give you a ticket on an interisland airliner to go to Honolulu... which won't work once those airlines are out of business. (the air ambulances kept crashing, so people stopped getting on them).

It's possible to get a 3-acre plot in upper Puna for under 30k, I've sold the ones we bought for my family members, (one to this nice fellow http://sanityandsimplicity.blogspot.com/), and soon will sell our favorite one to help us continue elderly care on Oahu. (cash discount to TOD members). In ways like the absence of doctors, the big isle is scary. However, one could last there a long time in principle: it's still possible to buy NPK in bulk and import anything one might need for several generations of barter. Food, water, and other basics are not really a problem, even if the culture becomes a bit (more) wild-west.

Tsunami's, climate change, etc are negligible problems on the big island; it's a shield volcano so unless you're living beachfront or someplace like Waipio valley, you won't notice the tsunami's; and they are less of a danger now than previously due to the ability to detect earthquakes and predict the likelihood of a tsunami. Earthquakes and lava are more a distraction and entertainment, at least until another large hunk of the island falls off all at once, as it is wont to do every 100k years or so. My wife and I have climbed into the calderas during major eruptions... tough on the lungs, but Hawaiian volcanoes are a lot more tractable than the sort which did in Pompeii.

Of course, the energy potential of the big isle is impressive; geothermal alone could keep it well-supplied for long into the future. I don't think that'll actually happen because by the time it's obviously needed, it may be too late to build it out. But if there was ever a place electricity isn't needed, it might be Hawaii.

Jay Hanson lives on the big isle, and tells me I will go out in a blaze of multiple mushroom clouds. And it's one significant possibility; we'll see.

Back before the deflationary scenario made itself apparent to me, I thought that Hawaii's economy collapsing first due to high fuel prices might be an advantage, in that it would allow Sen Inouye to divert funding to build out significant support mechanisms; that's less likely in a general depression.

Even Oahu would be a lot more resilient if others did as I have done, and planted their yard with breadfruit trees. But it's a token gesture on my part; and any campaign to encourage that would run afoul of the 'cosmetic ecologists'. A fellow I used to employ is now running a high-profile campaign funded by high donors to improve Hawaii - by banning the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. Really, no shit, this is big local news. The wealthy in Hawaii are putting their time and money into banning the weinermobile. As though it were significantly less absurd than the multiple 4x4 SUV's in every garage. Weinermobiles all.

Should get interestin' in the years to come. But so will everyplace...

Mushroom clouds seem like an altogether likely way to leave this vale of tears for residents living anywhere near any harbor or navy installation,and near misses count when playing nukes.

I can't see the Navy ever giving up Hawaii unless we are on the losing end of a nuclear exchange.

Since the rich will apparently always be with us,barring a bloody revolution which may thin them out for a few decades,but fossil fuels won't,I foresee as Leanan and Gail do a collapse of the tourism industries.

But if bau revives in a slower paced, fuel restrained world,I don't see any reason why ships should not again become the preferred means of travel for the liesured classes- after all the old liners were resorts in and of themselves were they not?

Coal combined with sail should serve nicely and such ships can of course also deliver considerable amounts of cargo.

Best of luck with your family elders,I am in a similar situation myself.

Yes, if a full-on nuke exchange with the Soviets were to occur, I think I'd be cremated about 50 times in rapid succession, but only the first time would hurt, and maybe not for long.

In that event, there are other places I'd less-rather be than vaporized. Although the big isle would probably be fine except for the impressive light show.

The jet-plane tourism industry will certainly collapse; either in a resurgent economy from high fuel prices or a depression from lack of paying passengers. Many will probably leave Hawaii for this reason, which would be a slight safety valve. Many of those left will be retired folks and those who own their property outright by having had it in the family for awhile. Having a roof over your head and food stamps isn't a bad life on Oahu now; good bus service, nice beaches, etc. I expect the bus service to fail just when needed most, but in principle it could be continued.

A bit more into the future, one wonders how long ships full of food will be plying the seas in exchange for fiat money (as opposed to trade for raw materials). And how long the USA will seek to hold onto Hawaii, for that matter. Awhile, probably. And as others have mentioned, it's possible to live a VERY low-energy life here and still survive. Bags of cornmeal from the midwest, water catchment, and some windmills to keep the sewage systems powered would cover a lot of it; nobody will freeze in the winter and few will overheat. And while very little ag is being done now, a lot of food comes up under this much sun and rain. My backyard is loaded with it and I don't spend any work on it. Not enough to support us, but not negligible either.

Thanks for your well-wishes on eldercare; it's a tough time to be a boomer, but a sacred duty.

We face similar problems to Hawai here in Jamaica.

1) No fossil fuel resources.
2) very little renewable electricity generation.
3) Large tracts of land that are either very hilly and/or stony.
4) Weather patterns that are all over the map these days, more droughts and floods.
5) heavy dependence on tourism for hard currency earnings (to pay for imports)
6) Large population relative to arable land
7) Badly depleted soils from years of poor practises requiring heavy use of fertilizer.
8) Declining fish stocks
9) One spur of the single railroad damaged by a hurricanr in 1980 and abandoned. The main line neglected and abandoned years later. The only remaining rail service is used and maintained by the bauxite industry.
10) Lack of awarness/interest in Peak Oil/resource constraints on the part of local political, business and academic leadership.

In addition to some of the positives that Hawai has, we've still got some bauxite (aluminium ore) left although it requires massive aounts of energy to refine that into alumina and even more massive amounts of energy to produce aluminium. There is also a significant population of rural poor who still don't live a very energy intensive lifestyle. One problem with the poor is that they depend heavily on cheap imported cornmeal, flour, rice, sugar (yes, locally produced sugar costs 3x world market prices) and chicken necks/backs, rather than locally grown food, for their staple diet.

Alan from the (other) islands

Doesn't sound so good. If you look around the world, pretty much all of it has high population relative to arable land--especially if there weren't irrigation and a lot of fertilizer.

Great ganja though.

How about geothermal on the big island? Never mind I found something on Puna but it seems like there has to be quite a bit more potential for this.

To me, Hawaii offers a unique laboratory for renewable energy. Hawaii has very good renewable resources (sun, wind, geothermal, ocean thermal, biomass, etc.), and no fossil fuel resources. Hawaii should have a small bias toward renewable energy relative to the rest of the U.S., since all fossil fuels must be shipped in for power and transport. Electricity and fuel prices here are high. If you can't make some headway with renewable energy here, then I see no hope anywhere.

And because of the year-round growing season, I can do a lot more experimentation here both with gardening and with energy crops.

A 70% mandate by 2030 is a little more than a "small" bias.

Mandates can be repealed at any time if they can't be achieved. Keep your eye on 2010, when the 100 million gallon mandate for cellulosic ethanol can't be achieved.

The bias I refer to is natural, not government mandated. Without fossil fuel resources and with ample sunshine, wind, etc., Hawaii should be naturally tilted more toward renewable energy relative to the rest of the U.S.

Yes, Hawaii has an excellent non edible oil tree that can make biodiesel, Calophyllum inophyllum or Alexandrian Laurel grows well there according to USDA and can give a good crop within 4-5 years. I live in India and grow a lot of trees and experimenting with Tree based non edible oils as a source of bio diesel-post peak !!

According to article before europeans came there were 600 villages each with 250 to 500 people resulting in a population of 150,000 to 300,000. Now the population is 1.28 million. I would take the lower number 150,000 about traditional sustainable population because it seems that whenever the population reached its sustainable limit of 300,000 there was a die off to push population back to 150,000. This makes the current population number about ten times as high if you count in the tourists too. Interestingly almost everywhere in world population is currently ten times than long term sustainable level. In its peak prosperous time, mughal era 1526-1707 the population of sub-continent never reached more than 100 million in number, now its about 1500 million, 15 times but then the mughals seldom ruled all of sub-continent, some outskirt provinces like sindh and baluchistan and nwfp and south india sometimes go outside their rule, so about ten times over population. In egypt during reign of pharoahs population never reached more than 6 million, it actually fluctuated between 3 and 6 during 2500 years, now its 60 million. This means we are over due for a ten-to-one die off, which either be long extending a few decades or short extending a few years.

About sustainability, in absence of food import from outside, the mughal india was able to comfortably support its 100 million rich and prosperous people on 400 million arable lands, when the economy and wars were animal driven and there were thick forests. The population of sub-continent reached 400 million in 1940 long before green revolution but people were far poorer and famines were not unknowns especially in bengal. Its after the usage of green revolution that boosted yield 2.5 times and canal water that enabled two crops per year the region is having 1.5 billion people. In the long run, when dams get filled with sediments breaking the reliance on canal water and when fossil fuel resources get exhausted breaking the supply of artificial fertilizers and pesticides the region has to move towards a lower population.

This example can be used for hawai to some extent. Given its location it can't rely on food imports in long term so have to live on food that is grown there. At a 4 arable acres per person ratio the 1.59 arable acres can support 400,000 people if we assume that land is as fertile as in subcontinent, but since its not and i roughly expect it to be half as much fertile, it means 200,000 people. Given that the 4 to 1 ratio is during peak empire in india, the very long term average extending centuries may be 8 arable acres per person, meaning a hawai population of 100,000 people. Since people can depend on sea food in hawai much more than indians can do, the number increase to 150,000.

In any case, over 1 million hawai people have to leave the land to settle down somewhere else when the tourism get a real hit when oil prices rise again when world economy show a sign of recovery.

You have convinced me-Hawaii will become just like Cuba (no more food imports for Hawaii). I assume the sex tourists will be travelling by steamer boat to have their fun in Hawaii, the Cuba of the Pacific, just like the whalers of olden days.

I found the 'carrying capacity' figures from the sub-continent interesting.
Hawaii's current population at 12 per acre of cropland does indeed seem much too high for any locally sustainable food supply.
A comparison might be modern Britain/UK (61M) where a similar calculation of potential cropland (present + proven potential for crop-growing) suggests about 3.5 - 5 persons per acre. Because we in UK are essentially all city dwellers, mechanized high-yielding NPK agriculture on cropland, and NPK-boosted similar areas of grassland, would be needed to underpin any large measure of our self-sufficiency.

An historical comparison of Eire (Ireland) with Hawaii might be worth considering. Subsistence agriculture was a large component in reaching an overall peak population in the whole of Ireland of an extraordinary >8M in 1841, mostly, it appears, living off pre-industrial means. (If anybody has access to details of component agricultural areas I would value references.) Numbers reduced to just over 4M by 1926, with a disproportionate reduction in the rural majority (south and west) compared with the north where population held up more because there was a concentration of industry. Most Irish subsistence agriculture seems to have combined recycling of all manures, supplemented along key coastal strips by seaweed, with a high calories-yielding crop, potato, that could handle high manure input in a damp temperate climate (c.f. traditional barley/oats, that had severe yield limitations). Significant dairy and sea-food inputs also contributed. This type of agriculture hardly existed elsewhere by that time in the rest of British Isles, (except western Scotland) and in 1841 the population in England, the larger part of the mainland, though rising rapidly, was less than twice that of Ireland.
Intense vulnerability of the Irish rural population was demonstrated, and food security was not underpinned by the adjacent increasingly capitalist/industrializing dominant system, and there was mass-migration and some die-off in Ireland. (The dominant system was experiencing great difficulty itself adjusting to its own exponential increase in urban populations.)
Carrying capacities of themselves do not tell us much about outcomes. Some local circumstances can combine to give very high carrying capacities, but these are very vulnerable unless part of a wider 'grid' that provides some insurance to cover variable food production. It is normal to see large fluctuations on annual and sometimes decade time-scales. Local storage can only do so much.

It seems like in traditional agriculture like in ancient egypt, iraq and india population used to fluctuate between 100% and 50% of the sustainable level. When die off used to happen population used to become half. In modern time since we have increased the yield 5 times (2.5 times due to use of green revolution seeds x 2 times due to two crops instead of one) the population didn't became 2 times, it became 10 times (2 x 5). When a die off happen the population have to be reduced to 1/10 of its current level.


"Carrying capacities of themselves do not tell us much about outcomes " is a line that should appear in every article that includes a discussion of future food supplies.

Nearly everything I see in this respect is grossly overoptimistic in that the authors tend to ignore various physical realities ranging from climatic variability to weather variability to soil and variations in local geography all of which are smoothed out for us FOR NOW by that raving monster big ag(with a little help from big autos-the eighteen wheeled kind)which we are all so fond of poking with verbal sticks.

And most of them also tend to ignore some very real physical principles of biology such as the effects of dense shade on the growth of plants( The NYT ran a piece on growing food in high rise buildings ignoring this physical reality a few weeks ago)etc,not to mention other such petty details as the loss of net labor productivity when you grow your wheat a few square meters at a time and therefore must harvest it by hand,etc.

We have an antique grain cradle and all of the men in the family back in our younger days gave her a try in rye we grew as a cover crop(we don't raise grain) and as men used to the worst kind of hard work we judged it it be the sort of work that only a very tough man not yet feeling the first twinges of middle age could handle on a regular basis.

When tshtf ,as it seems it must,.....we will be very lucky to maintain some semblence of a civil society and that only if the collapse comes in slow motion.Hopefully it will unfold slowly enough that we in the rich countries can make emergency adjustments fast enough to prevent outright chaos.


Hopefully it will unfold slowly enough that we in the rich countries can make emergency adjustments fast enough to prevent outright chaos


Have wanted to know more myself about famines in modern times. When Stalin and Mao poked their sticks into complex ongoing systems during attempted forced industrialization, the results happened rather suddenly. I suspect also that some of the famines (Bengal? Any thoughts WisdomFP?) might have occurred for similar reasons in British India?

Agree also that many 'articles' ignore biological and physical limits.

Our temperate agriculture in its modern organic form could support cities, but within limits. In 1850 England, 20% of total population 18M, could, with horses, (and clover for N) just about do the work to feed the rest. Much of America on similar agriculture ran into soil fertility problems by 1920s.

I remember some of the hard hand work on the farm - and just how quick you had to be as well as strong. Also long hours. A friend told me the other night of his grandfather, he was a plowman not an owner, getting up between 4 and 5 of the morning to bring the horses on to the field by first light. (20 pair of Shires on local largest outfit, in living memory still.)


Famines in India happened because of the same reason it happened in roman egypt, 19th century Ireland, 1920s soviet union etc,. export of local crops. For the purpose of export, non-food items are grown in large quantity that makes the elites owning large amount of land very rich but at the same time increase food prices to a very very high level as food is scarce now that the poor farmers couldn't buy. In such times its an ancient duty to govts to come to help, it is one of the basic purposes of having a govt to ensure food supply, but as its known the british didn't considered helping irish people who were of their own religion and country, one can imagine what they would have done to indians.

One can always complicate data by pointing to deviations from the mean and amount of variety but its more desirable to simplify than complicate. In the large scheme of things the extremes on both sides of the mean cancel out and we get a fairly reliable mean. If that not satisfy or data is not simply big enough for canceling out of extremes one can use other statistical tools like median and mode. Without simplifying things we can't actually get any information. Information after all is generalizing of data to find rules that though not explain every situation but provide a reasonable approximation. In the particular case discussed above ofcourse there are 10,000 species of rice alone each attracting a different kind of pest and each requiring a different combination of nutrients but then the first farmers of 10,000 bc were extremely simple people who may not even count to 100, they didn't knew the art of domesticating any animal or making use of any metal, yet they bio-engineered wheat by combining two wild plants. In the middle ages the arabs successfully experimented the art of grafting etc. To be a farmer you need not be a mathematician but you should have a rough estimation of how much land you must crop at the least to have a safety margin in case of crop failures, pests invasions, flood, undesired level of rainfall etc. My research find that typically a farmer working by hand can support five families or 25 people in providing farm goods including meat, milk, oil seeds, grains, vegetables, fruits, cotton etc for a 2000 calories diet. To process those farm products for eg to make cloth out of cotton or wool, to get leather out of skin, to get soap out of animal fat etc a 50% more labor is needed. It means that a farmer who is providing all the services mentioned above, which he must be if he is a full time worker and there is only one crop per year as is natural, can support 16.66 people or you can say three families per farmer family. Now add in very essential industries like construction, metals, pottery etc and that number reduce to 13.33. Add in very essential services like priests, judiciary, police, guards, hair cutters etc and that number fall to 10. In short, when working by hand, half of the produced goods go to the lowest level of workers that are actually producing things even if they are at the least acceptable consumption level. Its the other half that support the elites, the soldiers at the same time providing a cushion in times of troubles. Its a wonder how humans made empires at that level of productivity.

Talking of famine in India. Seems that the monsoon in India has been the worst since 1972, with rainfall 22% below average. For weeks now the Indian government have been promising to release wheat from reserves, but have failed to do so, causing speculation as to whether there is any reserves or whether it is suitable for human consumption. Wheat prices are rising in India against price declines globally.

Things are looking pretty grim for farming in India at the moment with lack of rain, falling water tables, depleted farmland and falling yields. Farmers are deeply in debt there with suicides rising and stories of wives being sold to raise cash in Uttar Pradesh. The Green Revolution seems to have also left a legacy of widespread debt, dependency and health problems. Add this to the background of a massive rise population, IIRC some 200m increase since 2004.

The spin, dissembling and lack of action from the Indian government make it look like things may actually be much worse than they appear.


It is good that you are handy to remind us from time to time of the shortcom ings of our government(s) both present and historical.

Some of my own family died in Ireland during the famine and I have no doubt that many millions of people have died in the east as the result of misguided or craven management of European colonial politics.

Prhaps the world would be a much better place of the oceans were MUCH WIDER-lots of troble makers of all stripes would have been forced to remain at home.

Most things in farming are a double edged sword that cuts both ways. Year round growing season is such. Two or three crops per year put a tremendous strain on the soil and obviously requires enough nutrients to sustain it. Being volcanic perhaps there is sufficient nutrients available locally, including from the sea, but I'd imagine from Gail's comments, that organic matter may be insufficient in the soil. A year round growing season would also burn it off fairly quickly and may cause problems with nutrient release from the volcanic soils.

Year round growing season is also very good for crop pests and depending on humidity & rainfall for blight and other diseases. Good rainfall may also cause problems with nutrient washout which may bring Liebig's minimum to the fore on an island.

Without NPK and other chemicals it is quite likely that a large portion of the current arable land would become marginal land unsuitable for most kinds of farming. With NPK & chemicals the soil will deplete remorselessly with declining yields. So either way, population would have to decline over time to some minimum supportable by what's left in the way of usable farm land.

By my quick table napkin analyse it doesn't look like a particularly good place to go if resource depletion is going to be a problem in our future. It seems to be an import reliant community and insufficient money or lack of produce to import would cause huge problems as self-sufficiency seems unlikely with its current population.

I am strongly against two crops per year system. Its so unnatural. There is only one spring season in a year for seeds to grow into plants, only one summer season per year for the plants to get heavy amount of sunlight to grow full and have seeds (grains, fruits), only one rainy season to provide the fully grown plants heavy showers of water since they can't get that amount of water from ground water alone and only one autumn season for plants to die and crops to be harvested and then only one winter season for the soil to rest and land to become clear and slowly gain energy again for the next year.

One crop a year system also provide good rest and leisure time to farmers in winters. Those who like to keep busy can use winters to weave clothes, make leather and do other supporting works of farm economy. A farmer can also use this time to do non-farming but very essential activities like repairing his mud house after damages of rain, to take part in community services etc.

Two crops per year system put so much stress on soil that it can't bear it on its own. Result is need of a vast and powerful empire to supply nutrients from far off places like guano island. A regional empire can very well thrive on one-crop-per-year system, most prominent example is ancient egypt. In India and Pakistan, before 1950, all farms had one crop per year. All the needed water was supplied directly from rain with no dependence on canal water. Very few dams were there and canals covered a very few percentage of total farm land. Canal water was used only during droughts. Its an old saying that canal water poison the soil and a wise farmer never rely on it.

The down side of this is that very few people are supported by land but then a lots of people can easily destroy a habitat with their wastes.