Renewables Transition 3: The Precautionary Principle

In the first two posts in this series (1 and 2), I discussed the requirements and challenges of transitioning our global economy to renewable sources of energy. My interim conclusion was that there are serious doubts about our ability to affect any significant transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy. Much of this uncertainty is the result of uncertain systemic energy return on energy invested. In other words, when all inputs are taken into account—as must be done where we’re talking about shifting energy sources on a civilizational level—can a world powered by solar and wind power itself the way it has on oil, gas, and coal?

The key take away is precisely this uncertainty: we simply don’t know if renewables—either current or potential future technology—will be up for the job. Where does that leave us? This discussion—and many others related to Peak Oil—is really a matter of what is known as the “Precautionary Principle,” or what degree of consensus is required before we embark on a course of action that may result in irreversible harm. Because the Precautionary Principle has such broad application in discussions of Peak Oil, I’ve modeled this post as a discussion of the principle itself, using the issue of renewables transition as but one example of its application.

What is the Precautionary Principle? The simple definition states that if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or to the environment, in the absence of a scientific consensus that harm would not ensue, the burden of proof falls on those who would advocate taking the action

While the Precautionary Principle is traditionally framed in terms of proactive but unacceptably risky decisions, it can also be expressed in the converse as a need to avoid inaction. Principle 15 of the United Nations’ Rio Declaration states that “[i]n order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

Likewise, the Precautionary Principle has a long history of application in resource management areas such as forestry, endangered species, or global warming. See, for example, this graph on fisheries management:

However, in these classic resource management examples, there is not a strong underlying trend as we see in fossil fuel depletion and energy descent. If you don’t think that fossil fuel sources are finite and will eventually decline, then this article isn’t for you. However, if you accept that we will see a decline in production in fossil sources of energy, then you recognize that our current situation is not like that of a forest or fishery—while reducing consumption will change the pace of decline, it will not suddenly make the resource self-sustaining. As a result, we cannot simply proceed with less of business-as-usual. Instead, it seems axiomatic that our civilization must either 1) accept continually declining access to energy, and/or 2) develop renewable sources of energy to compensate for the decline in fossil fuel production. Unfortunately, that choice isn’t especially helpful, as we’ll likely all agree that we must 1) accept some smaller degree of energy AND 2) develop renewable sources of energy. The dilemma facing society, in my opinion (and as I raised in the first two parts of this series) is whether it is wise to spend our limited remaining endowment of surplus fossil energy in an effort to jump-start a large enough renewable energy program to essentially maintain business as ususal (e.g. current economic, political, and social structures), or whether that energy would be better spent preparing in mitigation of an accepted and much deeper process of energy descent?

If we’re really talking about making societal decisions among various mitigation options—not the simple dichotomy of act with great risk or don’t act at all and maintain the status quo—then how does the Precautionary Principle apply to deciding between several risky alternatives? There seems to be an argument leveraging the Precautionary Principle in both directions: one can argue that if we spend our remaining surplus energy seeking to maintain business as usual through massive investment in wind and solar power, and then those investments don’t produce enough surplus energy to perpetuate themselves, then we will fall off an energy cliff far worse than if we had consciously powered-down; conversely, one can argue that there is huge societal risk in not pursuing a solution (mass renewables investment) that could stave off disaster, and that “managed” energy descent will itself be an unmitigated disaster—it’s really only akin to asking if you’d rather kill three or your four children (managed descent), or all four (unmanaged). Which course of action actually best addresses extreme risk amidst uncertainty—the fundamental purpose of the Precautionary Principle?

Conclusion: we have a limited remaining endowment of surplus energy, and a limited amount of time, with which to prepare our society for energy descent. There are many proposed alternative courses (including staying our current course), often infused with selfish interest, and all (at least if we’re honest) including significant degrees of uncertainty. In the first two posts in this series, I tried to raise substantial uncertainty that a massive investment in wind and solar power will succeed in allowing us to continue with societal business as usual. You may or may not have been convinced by my critique--and I want to point out that I don't claim that I presented a definitive proof. For the purposes of this post, however, I submit that I have at least raised significant uncertainty about the viability of continuing business as usual through massive investment in renewables. Without necessarily accepting my arguments writ large, if you accept that there is any uncertainty in this regard, then where to?

Questions for discussion:

1. Does the traditional version of the Precautionary Principle provide a guide for our decision-making?
2. If not, **accepting the uncertainty in ALL potential options**, what framework for decision-making should guide society?
3. How does this (or any) framework maintain its integrity amidst the self-interested (and short-sighted) influences that will continue to skew any such analysis?
4. Is there any validity in a solution that may perpetuate business as usual without also addressing the structural growth imperative of our current system?
5. How do we ensure that the needs and desires of future generations are adequately represented in this debate? To what extent are we morally obligated to do so? Do we need to consider only the future generations that will come to exist under a model of declining population, or is there some obligation to consider those future generations that could come to exist under a theorized continuation of business as usual?

..when all inputs are taken into account—as must be done where we’re talking about shifting energy sources on a civilizational level—

Well, well. When I've made the same assertion about the necessity for all inputs being taking into account (as I've made bold above), I've been roundly thrashed for my efforts by proponents of EROEI analysis. Thanks for validating this position jeffvail.

And, yes, the precautionary principle must provide a guide for decision making. Making a bad situation worse by moving ahead with ill-considered techno fixes to unsolvable problems is just plain stupid. Business as usual is doomed. We need to consider not only future generations of humans but also the health & integrity of ecosystems in any decisions we make. Doing nothing and letting nature take its course may be the best decision we can make.

"Doing nothing and letting nature take its course may be the best decision we can make."

Nature will solve every problem--guaranteed. Of course, we from the selfish-human perspective we may not like the "solution" much!

My views on EROEI are not necessarily accepted either (see comments to first two posts)--and I appreciate the potentially unworkable can of worms that is opened when we start talking "all inputs"--but as long as we're discussing issues on a global and civilizational scale, I think we must open the EROEI boundary all the way (and realize that, while valuable, constrained EROEI measures are at best indicators of the "civilizational" EROEI that we must ultimately meet)...

There is a large elephant hidden in your room, I think, Jeffvail -- and that is, that we are talking about "saving" or "evolving" Western European style human civilization, and that the "precautionary principle" applies only to that aspect of creation.

I may be feeling particularly bleak this morning, but it seems to me that the Universe hasn't focused on H. sapiens as the end of evolution, whatever the Bible may say about the matter, and more profoundly, perhaps, Evolution is directionless. So far as we can tell from evolutionary theory, there is no evolution "toward" anything -- species come, species go. Some exceptions might be found among the cyanobacteria-- they can always find a little patch of sunlight to get by in, but since they can hardly be said to have developed a "complex" civilization, their path to survival is somewhat simpler.

It looks to me like we human beings have irretrievably fouled our nest, and there is no way "forward". Looks like Nature is about to reboot. It is irrelevant whether "we" like the results.

I agree that "we" (here, I mean not just Western European-influence civilization, but all modern human industrial civilization) tend to focus on keeping what "we" see as an acceptable level of "civilization" going forward as a key goal. Like you say, the universe and laws of nature don't much care what "we" think (arguments here necessarily slip into religion/spirituality issues). That said, I dont think we have to abandon admittedly selfish desires like perpetuation of humanity, cultural history, etc. What I think we do need to work on is accepting that none of these things are sacrosanct, and that we should be willing to reconsider all of them as necessary. In my own take on philosophy (and I want to recognize this as what it is--i.e. not a "scientific" argument), any consideration that doesn't focus on humanity at the level of individuals is irrelevant, both morally and practially (for example talk of the importance of the universe continuing without humans, or the opposite potential for the sublimation of individuals into some kind of hive mind). So, that in mind, I think there's value in trying to find our best way forward. It might be no more than trying to avoid total extinction, or trying to slow the pace of decline in our standard of living (as opposed to our material consumption). Many fundamentals of philosophy need to be examined in light of collapse, but this probably isn't the right forum for that. In my opinion, this forum is best suited for discussing both data analysis and theoretical frameworks for human decision making. Sometimes I share your sense of doom or futility (and I'm guessing that it's not a permanent condition for you either!), but I think how we work through it ultimately defines us. It may be that both endeavors are ultimately meaningless, but I guess that's a risk I'm willing to take... sorry if anyone takes that as a sermon--I think it's an important issue to discuss.

In all of these discussions people agree or disagree on our best 'solutions'. But it goes without saying that all interested parties (basically anyone alive) have completely different unspoken definitions/views about what the GOALS are. Many care about their own lives and slightly less so their childen. Most care about their family and friends and care about their children slightly more than themselves. Some care about all of the above and include non-human life on the planet today. Still fewer care about the future potential of all yet to be born human generations, and far fewer still care about future potential of yet to be born non-humans. What someone 'types' or 'says' what they care about, that is not necessarily the same as what they REALLY care about when the chips are down.

So when we discuss the precautionary principle, our individual and societal goals etc., its important to realize that everyones objectives might not be the same from the beginning of the conversation, and therefore many of the 'solutions' are kind of apples/oranges. Not sure what is to be done about that other than to agree on a goal.

How about the GOAL of just going along with making the earth a good habitat for humanity? That's one way to read the "project", long under way, that we all seem to be riding along on whether we really know it or not, or care or not. One doesn't need to have a personal purpose in being part of the sweep of history. You just answer what you'd do in that circumstance.

One of the certainties in natural systems is that the parts connect by exploiting their differences. So the individual goals and purposes of people serving common whole system ends may all be quite different anyway. It may be a kind of cultural hubris for us to assume that it's our goals that determine the direction of change for the whole.

I studied the "punctuated equilibrium" event for a plankton species, closely examining it's progression over time. The evolutionary succession had four major evolutionary burst and then extinction events, for it's own advances, in the period of a few hundred thousand years. The species as a whole tried one experiment after another till it found one that eventually worked, is the clear appearance of the data.

How about the GOAL of just going along with making the earth a good habitat for humanity? That's one way to read the "project", long under way, that we all seem to be riding along on whether we really know it or not, or care or not. One doesn't need to have a personal purpose in being part of the sweep of history.

Exactly my point. Being part of the 'sweep of history' is irrelevant. Our discount rates towards basic needs are always steeper than our discount rates towards the commons - could you imagine it being different? (on average). As events get worse we are going to care less about the earth being a good habitat and more about our own personal problems, or rather, LESS of us will care about the earth being a good habitat. The time to care/change course towards such things is when everything is going well and a small % of people have critical needs.

As events get worse we are going to care less about the earth being a good habitat and more about our own personal problems, or rather, LESS of us will care about the earth being a good habitat.

To expand on your point, I would like to stress that the speed at which this occurs is not constant, and as the speed accelerates it will take more effort (energy) to slow the mass down enough to reverse or stall a movement towards what most perceive as chaos.

Specifically, the more that more of us transition towards that camp that cares "LESS" about a "good habitat" (due to increasing personal hardships requiring us to spend our time surviving...barely) the faster ("steeper") that decline to an unsustainable habitat occurs.

And so the question becomes how does 1% or less of the population that truly gets it, change the mind/habits of the other 99% who may well be satisfied with their quota of energy because they do not have the wherewithall to contemplate whether it will be there tomorrow?

Personally I feel that attempting to change the mind of that 99% is wasted energy and quite possibly impossible. Especially as we factor in acceleration toward the midnight hour. However, I do believe it is quite possible to change the mind of another few percent.

But even then, to what ends? In the near term we are left with 90% of a population who needs what the remaining 10% has worked a lifetime to achieve - a relative balance in ERoEI. Those, again, are not very good odds.

I have an increasing sense that "The time to care/change course" is accelerating away from us and may have already come and gone. Things appear to be going badly, and too many of us now have "critical needs". Stubborn optimism seems to be all that's left for those who prefer to remain hopeful - myself included.

Could it be true that for all of our supposed smarts we are no better than spent yeasts falling to the bottom of the wart? Luckily, even in this mead brewing example, there are still remnants of hibernating yeasts left in the mixture waiting to begin the process of growth once favorable conditions return.

..there are still remnants of hibernating yeasts left in the mixture waiting to begin the process of growth once favorable conditions return.

After you. I encyst.


As long as i have time to smile and wave to whatever is left, and kiss my !@#$* goodbye.

I think the psychologies that draw whole communities into worsening a tragedy of the commons are indeed tried and true, but they're not necessary choices. The opposite choice is like any other, that is for people who see what the choices really are. In the case of a tragedy of the commons the thing most people still miss even if they see that a mistake is surely being made somehow, is what mistake. The mistake is in not realizing that the self-investment used to drive the tragedy to conclusion is a product of the whole that individuals have a natural responsibility to use in the interests of the whole, rather than push the whole into crisis. Actual "smart cells" don't act like cancer.

In the case of comparing ourselves to "things with no brains" that demonstrat far greater "perception" on these matters than we do, a possible motivation for studying how and why is our own pride and shame. Just exploring your environment for fun seems to work too, and to be more similar to how natural systems sense and respond their own bounds and avoid crossing lines of conflict. It's just computes as "not so much fun" to continue on when aware of approaching conflicts.

What we agree entirely on, it seems, is that the time to change directions is long before you're in danger of causing major harm from having gone too far. That's the magic of switching to a development goal of perfecting what you have rather than the one that humans demonstrate their blindness with, that of maximizing what you can take till you've taken too much and are sorry.

"What we agree entirely on, it seems, is that the time to change directions is long before you're in danger of causing major harm from having gone too far."

If only the "we" that agrees on this included most of those involved in the major decisions steering our society.

... and if only this was 1956.

Well, 1956 was approximately the thousand year whole system point of diminishing returns. T me that's the marker of "too late". Switching to sustainable resources then could conceivably have averted major calamity for humans, but would have still eliminated all real "wilderness" on earth. Climate change was already under way and unavoidable then too.

So, that in mind, I think there's value in trying to find our best way forward. It might be no more than trying to avoid total extinction, or trying to slow the pace of decline in our standard of living (as opposed to our material consumption).

Yes, that's it. It's one thing to say that the industrial age has peaked and will wind down (and I'm convinced that's true), and another to believe that mankind is doomed. There's no proof of that. Very stong arguments can be made for a very rough patch ahead, but that's not doom.

So we need to think about how we can survive. And if the below ground resources are depleting, then it's not a real head scratcher to figure that we'll need to learn how to manage with the above ground resources, which means biology, the surface ecology. We've messed it up beyond terribly. We need to go into reverse. We need to reconnect with the soil, etc. Hard, but it's not doom. But the longer we delay, the harder it will be, that's far sure.

Dave, what do you mean by "we"?
Is it you and me, your family and friends, your street, town, county, state or country?
There are nearly seven billion "we" in an ever diminishing viable biosphere. Consider that, then contemplate human traits and instincts.

Could there ever realistically be enough cooperating "we's" to "reconnect with the soil" to save the planet? That should be explained or you are just writing soothing words for the congregation...... and maybe yourself.

Salvaging the wreck will be the next great human achievement. I have no expectations that our nature will change from selfishness to altruism. I mean actual altruism adopted by the vast majority and that is sacrifice (probably the ultimate sacrifice), with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation or an earthly reward.

Of course I have a grip on enough of reality to know that that aint happenin' anytime soon.
When it comes to sacrifice it reminds me of a knock, knock joke and human nature.
Knock, knock...........
Who's there?
Hugo who?
Hugo first

"Doing nothing and letting nature take its course may be the best decision we can make."

The problem I have with such a statement is that none of us are "doing nothing." We are all using massive quantities of irreplacable fuels and turning them into gasses that are making our planet unlivable. This is not "doing nothing."

It is as if someone kicking an old lady to death notices that she is on the verge of expiring and concluding that no matter what happens she is going to die. Concluding this, the kickker concludes that he should "Do nothing" to help prevent the death of the old woman, and proceeds to go on kicking her.

I do no mean to pick on anyon in particular here, but unless you are living essentially a stone ate existence (which if you are posting on line, you certainly are not), you are not "doing nothing" by any remote stretch.

I have great respect for dd, but here he seems to be saying continuing BAU is impossible so let's continue BAU.

ill-considered techno fixes to unsolvable problems ... Business as usual is doomed

Proper wording would be "techno fixes to problems I think are unsolvable ... Business as usual may be doomed" In the context of this article, you are using semantics to try to control the scope of any discussion. Such efforts are not worthy of further notice in any debate.

Insisting that others constantly hedge their statements with needless and wimpy phrases like "I think" and "may" is a way of trying to control the scope of the discussion and is not worthy of further notice in any debate.

Declaring opinion as fact is a semantic error, period.

The fact that he is declaring it makes it rather obvious that it is his position. Adding "I think" to every statement is a waste of ink (or electrons) and stylisticly banal, as are other hedges.

Look, you don't agree with his position, so attack his position (as I have above). Don't whine about his style, which is supperior to the one you would have him adopt, as any manual of style would agree.

I would correct that to say..

"...Don't whine about his style, which I THINK is superior to the one you would have him adopt... "

Remember, 'Descartes Thinks he thinks, therefore he thinks he is..'

Stylistic strength doesn't improve bombastic statements.. the other day, someone was describing Bush as a stronger leader because he didn't back down or question his choices. That's not strength, but instead a lack of resources, and no interest in finding any.

darwinsdog, So you have a method of doing so, of "taking all inputs into account? I have the beginnings of a practical whole systems accounting method for that purpose, that has also not gotten the kind of constructive comment needed, or really any real comment at all. I think what throws people off is that I make a strong effort to use natural functional categories rather than cultural value categories.

What I mean by that is avoiding the conceptual error made in LCA measures, counting only the technology component of process impacts. I also count the impacts of hiring the people and every other factor used to run the business utilizing the technology. It's the whole system of impacts that is physically responsible one needs to measure, not just the smaller part we like to blame for the impacts.

The way I arrange the model is according to the circular chain of effects that allows a system to invest in itself, the main story here. If you or anyone else would be interested in critiquing or offering an alternative approach I'd be very interested.

Excellent stuff and what a pity nobody has commented on this. I'm in a hurry and must go, but quickly: do you have more on your model - definitions, writings, anything? Please link, and I try to familiarize myself with it (not an expert in the field - far from it). Thanks!

The .PDF link above has some discussion, definitions & references. That is also linked on a notes page on my related whole system measures I have not succeeded in getting anyone in any of the traditional sciences to think about how to monitor the functional parts of natural systems (the units that work as wholes). It seems to confuse everyone. So they are not dissuaded in using some abstraction that seems profitable.

As with LCA, the impacts a product causes are thought of as the addition of all the engineering systems it is part of, which omits all the other processes, like the businesses that provide and organize the human workforce etc., forming a network of processes that needs to work as a whole.

The oversight of measuring whole system impacts using culturally selected measures is large, as you can imagine. Learning another community's language and trying to get them to expand it just a bit to include references to natural systems eats up all the time... If I try for a few years and can't get anyone to acknowledge that whole systems are recognizable units, I move on...


I for one would like to study your work but to somebody looking at it from the outside and not familiar with the terminology or much of the substance this stuff looks pretty impentratable.

I don't think you are going to get much response from the general readership unless and until you break it up into bite size pieces with illustrations and examples of each constituent part of the entire theory.May be those with specialized training in closely related fields can make sense of it but not many of us possess such a background.
I get lost in the acronyms and diagrams almost immediately.
I realize that this is one hell of a job-that's why elementary school teachers are paid prepare elaborate lessons that enable little kids to learn basic arithmetic over a few years time.

If you have posted such a first grade first discussion of your work elsewhere I am not aware of it.It does not look as if it would fit in here because of the space and time frame,but maybe it's in the archives?I'm a newcomer and haven't explored the archives yet.

I basically would like to collaborate with someone working in one of the environmental indicators communities and develop it to fit. Either the LCA, EROI, systems ecology or sustainability science communities would seem to be the best for getting down to the central issues and coordinating technique, but no responses so far. I also have a PowerPoint on what I call TEA (total environmental assessment) which I prepared.

darwinsdog, So you have a method of doing so, of "taking all inputs into account?

No, I do not, nor do I think it is possible to account for all inputs, which is the very point I wish to make. Some inputs are unquantifiable, some are value judgments and some are unknown. This being the case, any attempt at input/output analysis is pretty much meaningless. Some may find utility in a limited accounting but to my mind, what is left out in such a partial accounting is much more important than what is included, which leads to meaninglessness again.


This being the case, any attempt at input/output analysis is pretty much meaningless.

Only if you are certain that the unknowns are likely to be so big relatively that they make the error margin bigger than the calculation result.

Nobody is foolish enough to think we'll get it even 50% correct.

However, if we get things within less than an order of magnitude (10-order) variable range with a high probability, that's already a good start.

IF, we have no idea of probability or error range - then I agree with you.

But the only way to find out is to try and to recalibrate.

Only if you are certain that the unknowns are likely to be so big relatively that they make the error margin bigger than the calculation result.

I am fairly certain that some unknowns that are externalized in the analysis are so huge as to be incalculable.

Well, well. When I've made the same assertion about the necessity for all inputs being taking into account (as I've made bold above), I've been roundly thrashed for my efforts by proponents of EROEI analysis. Thanks for validating this position jeffvail.

You are talking about apples and oranges. Jeff can correct me if I am wrong, but I don't believe here he is talking about the solar energy embedded in the resource. He is talking about "all inputs" to reflect all inputs that must be put into the process by humans. As Darwinian pointed out to you, for this sort of analysis the solar inputs are irrelevant. What we want to know is how much energy are we going to have to consume to produce the energy needed to run society. Take biomass for instance. From an energy standpoint, we want to know how much energy it takes to turn that into a useful fuel. If it takes more BTUs than are contained in the liquid fuel, it is a pointless exercise (if you are talking about similar quality fuels). Adding the solar energy into that equation tells me nothing useful.

I fail to see the relevance of the point you argued with Darwinian, unless you are trying to show that we are extending beyond the carrying capacity based on the solar insolation striking the earth. I don't think we are anywhere close to that point (although we may be well beyond the level of energy that could be provided by the solar energy that is converted into biomass).

I can see the value of EROEI in measuring energy inputs into a system. I fail to see that including solar inputs adds anything to that analysis. What do you think it adds? That is a serious question, as I really don't see the relevance.

I fail to see that including solar inputs adds anything to that analysis. What do you think it adds?

When it comes to fossil fuels, forget about solar inputs, forget about archaean metabolic inputs, forget about the pressure input due to gravity and the heat input of radioactive decay. These are beside the point I attempt to drive home.

In your biomass example, the inputs I would be concerned with are the opportunity costs of growing that biomass for fuel instead of for food, or instead of leaving the land alone to support biodiversity and provide ecosystem services. You can't value the species & community interactions & ecosystem services that may be lost; they are essentially invaluable. You may be able to quantify the BTUs provided by oxidizing that biomass but you can't quantify the value of the water you took away from some priceless lotic ecosystem in order to grow it.

This is the sort of thing I'm talking about and those locked into an anthropocentric perspective consistently fail to see the relevance of the point I make. I say that those who can't see the relevance are crazy and it's this very craziness that makes me think that humans haven't a snowball's chance in hell of avoiding impending extinction.

"you can't quantify the value of the water you took away from some priceless lotic ecosystem in order to grow it."

Great example. Focusing on EROEI can indeed lead to a danger kind of reductivism that is all to common (and destructive).


Now you are making some progress im explaining yourself.I must agree that "those who can't see the relevance are crazy"-but I might use gentler language because the vast majority of people lack the requisite background and CANNOT really understand your arguments.

Maybe as many as five percent of us overall have a freshman level of understanding of biology,but I doubt it.
Just because someone has completed a course does not necessarily mean that anything SUNK IN.

The percentage here will be rather high of course.Only a small minority of the regulars ever post anything betraying ignorance of the basics.

You can't value the species & community interactions & ecosystem services that may be lost; they are essentially invaluable.

I agree with the thrust of your argument, but EROEI is not the proper tool for addressing it. EROEI is a tool, and it is useful for the purpose it is meant for. But it is one component, not the final answer that dictates whether something is worth pursuing.

For instance, I am sure palm oil has a very good EROEI. But it has big negative externalities. So even though the EROEI may be great, most environmentally-concerned people would not see it as something that we should be trying to scale.

Thank you RR, for your polite & intelligent reply. Now we are on the same page.

I am sure palm oil has a very good EROEI. But it has big negative externalities.

Tell this to the Indonesian government, who are even now subsidizing the destruction of paleotropical rainforest for the sake of oil palm plantations, while Indonesian citizens go hungry. I acknowledge that I said "forget the sun's input" but let me bring it back up to make a point. We all know that the major primal energetic input to fossil fuel generation was the sun, and have chosen to regard that input as an externality for the sake of EROEI analysis. Having chosen to externalize the sun's input, where do we stop? Since it's so convenient to disregard the sun's input perhaps it becomes that much easier to externalize hunger also, as the Indonesian government seems quite willing to do.

To bring the issue closer to home than Indonesia, nearly every morning I cook my potatoes & eggs in canola oil, which has become quite expensive lately presumably due to price competition for use as fuel. If canola oil becomes so expensive that I am forced by economic necessity to switch to a less nutritious vegetable oil and my health suffers accordingly, will I be content to have my ill health treated as an "externality" in the economic/energetic analysis of the food versus fuel debate? I don't think so. Multiply this health impact on me by tens or hundreds of millions of people whose health suffers as a consequence of burning food for fuel and this disregarded input attains overwhelming significance. How does one quantify the value of public health? To the suffering individuals the value of good health may be infinite.

The argument may be made, and would be difficult to counter, that as fossil fuels deplete it may become necessary to power tractors with biodiesel if one wants to have anything to eat. But it hasn't come to that yet. So long as the parking lots of churches around here are full of Dodge Ram pickups, with V8 diesel engines, every Sunday morning, and people are jetting around the world to attend PO conferences, I say that it is irresponsible to commit land and resources to growing biomass (edible or not) for fuel, whatever the energy return on energy invested.

I'm with you all the way in regards to what you are saying here and now.

Go dude!

DD - Do you think there's any chance at all the extinction we started could end life on earth?

It would certainly be something difficult to verify...

DD - Do you think there's any chance at all the extinction we started could end life on earth?

No, of course not. There are food chains with chemoautotrophic archaeans as primary producers that will hardly be impacted at all by Anthropogenic Mass Extincion (AME).

I expect AME to be as severe as the end-Cretaceous extinction event but not as severe as the end-Permian dieoff, which is really in a class by itself.

I expect to loose all large vertebrates. By "large" I mean bigger than the mean size for the taxon. For fish this is bigger than about the size of a bullhead catfish or centrarchid sunfish. For birds bigger than a starling or robin. For mammals bigger than a rat. I expect that we will loose primates altogether. We will loose turtles and quite possibly the lissamphibia. Ancient clades such as lungfish & polypterids will be lost. We may loose complete phyla of vulnerable marine invertebrates. The great majority of species lost will be specific parasites of large bodied hosts that go extinct.

Business as usual is doomed. We need to consider not only future generations of humans but also the health & integrity of ecosystems in any decisions we make.

Must we? Certainly this has been my working assumption until very recently. As of late I have begun to consider the psychology that underlies and drives our current dilemma; and I am beginning to see the same things said in different contexts. For instance there was a discussion on TV a few nights ago about the probability of life elsewhere in the universe and why we haven't found any evidence that life does exist elsewhere. The reason advanced was that advanced civilizations have built in destruct mechanisms that prevent them taking the action needed to prevent their own demise.

We have seen this again and again through history. The Maya, Anasazi and Easter Islanders are just three of many civilizations that gained high degrees of sophistication, but were unable to comprehend the impact of the loss of their forests, or cope when the climate changed.

So, should the precautionary principle be applied? There is only one way to apply it and that is to dramatically reduce the burning of coal. (Note that to not stop burning coal because it would damage the economy is to turn the principle on its head.) Will we stop burning coal? Will we even stop the growth in coal burning? No! Not even as sea water floods the financial precints of New York, London, Sydney or Shanghai will we stop burning coal.

And should we worry about succeeding generations, the very core of Brundtland? It is a good question. Did our ancestors worry about us? The answer is that we have never worried about succeeding generations, or even of our own children. They must live in the world they find themselves in, even if it is a world that is sorely damaged. Living (if they do live) through a die-back will not be pleasant.

So I think it is all too late. Climate change is baked in, no matter what we do. Peak Oil is not even recognized, let alone being acted on. Then there are all the other problems with food production, species loss and all sorts of other resource constraints. We could lump all of these issues together and call it over-population in order to start dealing with the actual problem, but we won't. There will be a lot of handwringing about the symptoms, but no mention, let alone action about the real problem.

We must consider a powerdown future where we still invest heavily in renewables, just not at the business as usual lifestyle level.

1. Yes.
2. N/A
3. It itself does not lose integrity; people will lose integrity, clutching to lifestyle, status, and meaningless trinkets.
4. Absolutely not, that would be highly immoral.
5. We need to determine how to enable future generations to continue virtually indefinitely, though assuredly not at this population level. We may not figure that out in this generation, but we need to provide the tools and educational context to succeeding generations, so that they are able to continue this work.

While I tried to take a somewhat objective tone in the main post, I don't mind stating in comments that my personal answers are the same as yours... my only partial disagreement is in the integrity of the precautionary principle itself (#3): if we know that people will act without integrity when faced with certain challenges--or at least that some of them will--then is the principle faulty for being overly idealistic? I'm still torn on that one. How much realpolitik need we accept? I like the (admittedly extreme) example of war and violence: we can stop it tomorrow if we all just stop fighting, but that's not a valid prinicple on which to proceed because it's so plainly unrealistic. The precautionary principle isn't quite that bad--it still provides an excellent logical ground to argue for certain actions, but I worry that it's too idealistic (in light of known human propensities) to provide much meaningful guidance.

The indirect struggle is with vested interests who promulgate propaganda to support their market share, regardless of the impact to current and future generations. The victims of that propaganda become the 'army of fools' that provide political cover and support for the vested interests.

Conservative Christians in early America (such as the Puritans) lived very simply and eschewed comfort and material wealth/possessions. That lifestyle mindset is lost on the majority (not all) of those today who put themselves in the same category. Of course, extravagant lifestyles are rather commonplace anyway in Western Civilization.

Managed descent could result in better ultimate outcomes, but it simply won't happen - certainly not for the whole world (which can hardly agree on doing anything about anything), and probably not for most individual nations, either. Certainly not for the US; our nation is far too dysfunctional. How many decades have we been talking about health care now, and it is still questionable whether we are going to manage to decide to do anything that is going to make more than just a marginal improvement - and might very well end up doing more harm than good? Ditto with energy, ditto with budget and trade deficits, ditto with education, ditto with immigration, and the list of big, unaddressed problems goes on and on and on.

What we will be left with then, is muddling through. Individuals and institutions will make their own decisions and own actions at every step along the way. Some investments in renewables will certainly be made, and undoubtedly these investments will increase as depletion drives up the price of oil, and thus all other forms of energy. At the same time, energy descent will certainly mean economic descent as well. This, unfortunately, will among many other things mean that some of those investments in renewables, and in energy efficiency strategies such as electrified passenger rail, will never be done; there just won't be enough money to fund the investments. At some point, the rate of energy and economic descent will slow and level off, coinciding with whatever level we've managed to build renewables up to. From that point forward, that is the level that we'll pretty much be stuck at. If it is too low a level, then that just might be a temporary plateau to be followed by a further descent when things like PV panels wear out and there is no industrial capacity remaining to replace them. That is an outcome that would be particularly worth avoiding if possible, but the truth of the matter is that even this highly realistic and likely scenario that I've just described is unthinkable to just about everyone in a position of economic or political power in the US, and therefore has not and will not be thought, and therefore is unable to be avoided.

I'm not sure how you reason it, but I think the stability of what people hope will be a sustainable economic world depends on both how well it's built as well as how big it is. It's got to be big enough to sustain the level of complexity for the economies of scale to produce the technology needed, for example.

I'm, of course, delighted that you're mentioning the core calculus of the technology side, whether we can lower the energy overhead of society to equal the energy productivity for our future resources and technologies. There's also a variety of other "integrity of the whole system" issues involved, though. There are all the questions brought up by proposing to rudely shock living things into rapidly changing everything they do. That's partly why I look to natural system economies for guidance on how they manage such transitions.

I think humans have remarkable resilience and creativity, but not when they don't see what's hitting them, or not have the chance to learn as they go. Then they go berserk. So, I think the most important factor determining success or failure is the presence of a competent public discussion of what's hitting us. Of course, no such thing is really apparent yet.

I notice that there's seems to not have been a single mention in the major media, that I've heard, about the effects of the 6 year price spiral in food & fuel prices leading up to the financial collapse. It seems from many views to have been due to the unexpectedly slack return on investments (ROI) for the whole spectrum of in food and fuel resources, occurring as peak oil occurred.


I'm one of the last to believe in conspiracies BUT:

Given the lack of coverage of peak oil and the lack of coverage you mention concerning the "six year spiralin food and fuel prices" I have been thinking that I will have to substantially modify my position visavis the reality of conspiracies- or at least expand my definition of conspiracy a bit.

There is probably no single rule of thumb so important in getting along in society in general as applicable to so many problems as the old "go along to get along " rule.I suppose that this rule and Occams Razor are a sufficient explaination of the lack of coverage you mention.

Only those on the outside trying to break in are free of the go along incentive.

I try to remember it at all times and as a result I tend to be extremely skeptical of most of what I see ,hear, and read.I don't always find it easy to decide between the pronouncements of the authorities and my own apparently lieing eyes-but it was perfectly obvious to me even as a freshman in college that the psychology taught in those days was based mostly on sand and bullshit and entirely contradicted by Darwinian biology -a theory that had and continues to stand the test of time..

Up until about the time of EO Wilson you could learn a lot more about the human mind from good novelists.

The only reason I am willing to accept the pronouncements of tptb in climate science is( one )that I do know enough basic science to understand that climate change theiry is consistent with the basic sciences of climate ,geology,chemistry.physis, biology,etc and (two) there is plenty of ordinary(meaning comprehensible to the well informed layman) supporting evidence available that can be easily understood by someone not trained out the ying yang in computer modeling,statistics,and so forth.

This little rant is relevant to the overall discussion in that the TYPICAL MAN-LAWYER,BANKER,BUSINESSMAN ,TRUCKDRIVER ,FARMER-has no real idea who he can trust but he does realize that there are one hell of a lot of people who are lying thier butts off for reasons of thier own.

This does not bode well for any cooperative effort in regard to the overall energy problem.

Its unfortunately a fact that most of us,including in my estimation most college graduates are functionally illiterate insofar as the sciences are concerned- or perhaps I should say ,possessed only of a second or third grade science education.

Yes, so it seems at least the larger community either a) is afraid to, b) doesn't want to, or c) were never taught how to "think for themselves", or d) there are "special problems". Basically I think it's because (d) leads to (a)+(b)+(c)... There's a problem with reasoning how complex systems work if you don't know them inside and out. Systems that exist as individuals and take care of themselves, like people or plants, ecosystems or businesses, have all their organization invisibly located within their relatively closed networks of internal processes, and all design themselves uniquely to their environments. So we start with either their inner or their outer workings, or both, being completely invisible to us.

So, finding it impossible to define them with rules in the usual way, I found something of a successful "cop out" using things you can know for sure even though you don't know much. For example, Things that grow together and work as a whole are going to be found connected to what almost any growth curve refers to, and reorganize at some point.

The funny thing is that as "abnormal" as that way of thinking is for science, it's rather normal for common intuitive thinking. When you see indications that "something's up" whether in personal relationships, in your community or in the news, it's a great way to be alerted to go look for what's doing it and respond to what it's going to effect. Weird, no? That's exactly the common reaction that we're not doing in response to our cultural plan to blow up the earth with an endless explosion of change...! It appears "something's up".

So,... I think we're surely lost, especially because the time is so late, but maybe we already know a lot about what to do. ;-)

most college graduates are functionally illiterate insofar as the sciences are concerned- or perhaps I should say, [they are] possessed only of a second or third grade science education.

me thinks you are being overly optimistic

Step Back,

I wouldn't want to be accused of being an elitist so ......

With the PP, we ban a toxin and then ensure that we avoid it's harmful effects. As a precaution, we conserve to the max and pursue relatively carbon free energy sources like solar. We cannot guarantee a viable civilization taking this course, but I think we guarantee mass extinction taking the current course.

If we end up with disaster either way, oh well and never mind.

But the PTB are worried about a few percentage points of GDP growth as an argument against taking significant action.

But hey, it's all academic; we are screwed.

I have a question. Is there a broadly accepted source table of EROEI figures recently calculated for a reasonable range of energy sources? I was able to find quickly this website, table of values for many energy sources , but am sure it must be wrong because it's stated values don't support any of the apparently accepted discussion above.

I certainly don't think there's a "broadly accepted" source of EROEI figures (let alone actual EROEI numbers, or even appropriate EROEI methodology). Worth noting, however, that many people would disagree with me. Parts 1 and 2 in this series (linked at the very top of the main post) discuss these issues in some depth. In my opinion, it's less likely that the EROEI numbers on that table are "wrong" than that they represent a different boudary, and therefore are much less useful when discussing civilizational/global issues such as mass transition to renewables.

That would seem a fruitful avenue of research for anyone interested in a fight, I suppose.

Jeff, As I've mentioned before, my sense is that it's considerably less important to have "right" EROI figures than to have a competent means of organizing the data when it becomes available. Our equations do not yet refer to the natural functional parts of the systems we are projecting the behavior of, and THAT needs to come first.

Failing to do that seems to be why most of the green movement, along with government industry, promotes 'sustainable' design as efficiencies for sustaining the economic growth rate. That directly contributes to multiplying growth impacts for the stated purpose of reducing them. It's fascinating how and why the real world of systems fools us that way, but it's really threatening too. It really does demonstrate a misunderstanding of the working parts of things as significant as that of the physicians who started modern medicine with leaches to suck out the bad blood.

100% agree... our civilization has a tendency to treat symptoms, not root causes. In the process of trying to figure out the "right" EROEI figures (parts 1 and 2), the only real conclusions that I came to were that 1) we don't know, and 2) we DO know enough about the generalities of how the system works that we should know better! Until we start to look at the broader system and realize that we are going to see very fundamental shifts in how our civilization operates going forward, I think we'll just be rearranging deck chairs...

I didn't see a diagram of the whole system EROI model you use. My outline is Would you like to work with me to find a common one?

lengould, your link is broken.

I found this Net Energy List. Is that what you were point to?

Yes, that's the same link. Thank you.

Energy Payback Time of a SolFocus Gen1 Concentrator PV System

The above article presents what appears to be a very extensive EROEI calcluation of one type of concentrating solar PV renewable energy generation. Their unit emergy figures are taken from reliable databases, their limits include adding in all manufacturing inputs, the average US energy consumption per capita of the assembly and installation labour, transportation from factory to install site, tracker and inverter replacements at least once per lifetime, etc. etc. Quite thorough, I think. One point where I disagree with them is in crediting the solar installation with a factor of 1/0.38 because it's output is high-Q electricity rather than low-Q boiler heat, but at least they document it.

Their conclusion is that this studied system returns all it's manufacturing and installation energy in about 1.5 years, and has an expected life of at least 20 years. The authors also note "component transportation was still the single largest energy contributor" (the glass morrors from a distant Corning plant to the SolFocus factory, an item which could be dramatically reduced with integrated volume manufacturing).

Do they add in the energy consumed in operating the business, consumed by the employees using the money they're paid, obtaining finance, paying taxes, and other business services, or just the technology? All the calc's I see ignore that other stuff because it appears to confuse them why they should take responsibility for any functionally necessary energy uses other than the technology costs.

Do they add in the energy consumed in operating the business, consumed by the employees using the money they're paid, obtaining finance, paying taxes, and other business services, or just the technology?

Probably not; the question is does it matter if they don't and that in turn depends on what we are trying to do?:

If we want to add the new source of energy to the economy without the activity replacing some other existing activity then yes they must count, however if not then we are double counting if we include them since the resources were being consumed anyway and have simply been used differently and must therefore have been included in the 'how much energy do we need?' part of the equation.

The way I would like to look at this is to say what net energy output is possible for a given proposal (including all the embodied energy of the new system but not that of the wider inputs on the assumption that some decline is a must and we must substitute not add) then see how close all this added to current use can get us and thus define what sort of medium term society we might sustain.

Of course the absolute minimum need for this to actually happen is an end to both population and economic growth so there is little chance until collapsing energy supplies force it on us.

If you want to compare the energy extracted with the energy spent to do it, don't you want to measure all the energy spent to do it?

Otherwise you're not accounting for the energy spent for the system you say you're testing. What you're proposing is that the rent on the land for the wind farm not be counted in the energy budget, even though you don't get to do the project unless the land owner gets to spend it on improving his lifestyle. It's not double counting at all to compare input and output totals.

If you look at all the financial transactions you see they include a great many more energy inputs than the ones you'd be counting. That's what I'm pointing out. I know, the way everybody "prefers" to do it is not to count the things you would need a new technique to count. The equipment manufacturer you're working for would probably like to hide the purchaser's hidden energy support costs too... and look only at the energy producing part. With a great may subjects that choice leaves out 50% to 90% of the system energy costs, though. The statistics are rough but reliable using quick estimating and improve somewhat with effort, but the precision of the LCA metrics gets lost in the larger scale average consumption costs that you need to combine with them to get the total...

What you're proposing is that the rent on the land for the wind farm not be counted in the energy budget

The sticking point I have is that if the end user of the energy is not using any more energy than they were at the start and are paying the same price then no new money has entered the system so all that has happened is that the rent paid has replaced the fossil fuel profit but the energy cost of the total transaction has not grown. If the end user ends up paying more because of poor EROEI then the result is surely less consumption as some of the user's indirect energy spending will have moved to the producer but the producer will also suffer from the rising energy cost reducing the amount he can use more than the consumer's loss in consumption.

I 100% agree that many alternative energy schemes draw the boundaries far too tight or use very strange definitions of EROEI to get the answers they want but what is needed is a system that rationally compares possible ways of employing resources rather than a total cost to the ecosystem estimate (that basically says humans are the problem please go extinct!).

They actually do, by totalling all "other" overhead costs not specifically calculated and adding them in at the average of US energy input / $GDP.

See part 2 of this series, but I think this generally falls into the "if it seems too good to be true" category. If it was really possible to return ALL energy inputs after only 1.5 years (and assuming it scales), then they'd realize a 100% return on energy invested after only 3 years. Why aren't they producing thousands of these things? The answer, invariably, is because they don't realize a return on money invested of anything close to that (quite possibly it's negative). If you accept my theory that money is a decent proxy for totality of energy invested by a society to bring something into service, then their methodology is leaving something out.

Of course, it's always possible (and I'm actually not being sarcastic here) that they really have hit upon a great new technology that will make energy "too cheap to meter" (which would be the eventual result if the energy payback was really 1.5 years on a 20 year life span AND it scales). However, until I see thousands of these things and realize this cheap energy myself, I'll remain skeptical of all such claims--bottom line, this is a claim made by someone trying to raise venture capital for their business in order to make more money for themselves...

It really is just as it seems. However there are three obstacles in its path: 1) it is very new 2) it's unit size is too large to be suitable for installation by individuals 3) utilities, which are its natural market, are extremely antsy about doing anything which hasn't been done already by 10 other utlities.

There is also the factor that they are presently selling the system at $11,000 / kw, which is extremely expensive even for a solar system. So either the general hypothesis on this site which goes something like "price is directly proportional to EROEI" is an error, or this company is accepting very low sales in order to exploit the very high-cost-tolerant early adopters. I think it is the first (eg. EROEI is not nearly proportonal to input cost). These units incorporate a lot of precision curved glass mirrors which have had precision reflective coatings sputtered onto them, a lot of protective glass with special anti-reflective coatings, high proportions of very high-tech electronic controls, actuators, inverters etc. etc. Safe to ignore the 1 sq cm per sq ft of triple-junction solar cell, but still, relative to the energy content of a big coal boiler, this unit has LOW unit energy content but HIGH technology content, so costs are much higher per unit energy content. A 1 ton steel structural member used to help support a coal conveyor represents a lot of energy input, but relatively little cost.

So either the general hypothesis on this site which goes something like "price is directl proportional to EROEI" is an error, or this company is acceptingvery low sales in order to exploit the very high-cost-tolerant early adopters. I think it is the first.

Certainly price contains valuable information about viability for a given technology in our current economic system, but a simple thought experiment shows that price cannot be directly proportional to EROEI. A carpenter earns about $40 an hour here in Colorado. A ton of coal in Utah costs about $40.
Can anyone argue that the labor of a carpenter for an hour has the same embedded energy as a ton of coal?
(I know the carpenter has a pickup truck and a big screen TV, but still it does not make sense).

Skilled labor cost fluctuates tremendously with supply and demand and is a major cost component of new technologies such as solar thermal power plants. There is no chance that the underlying energy inputs could fluctuate synchronously with oscillating labor costs.

Burdening a CSP plant with the current energy consumption of employees tells us nothing about the viability of CSP in a future energy-constrained society, since CSP plants can operate with employees who walk or ride bikes to work rather than drive F-250 pickups, and in a future energy-short society the F-250 will not be an option. For this reason, EROI boundaries which include the direct inputs required and do expand asymptotically into society at large make the most sense to me.

I agree with tommyvee. What matters isn't how much the workers use in terms of energy in their personal lives today. They could always live next door to a PV factory or wind turbine factory and walk to work. They could give up TV too. What matters is how much is needed to mine the materials, transport the parts, and build the finished products to come up with wind turnbines, towers, PV panels, grid tie inverters, etc.

We can do these things with less energy than we currently use. Some of the current EROEI is due to the cost of the energy in the denominator. Make that cost higher and the energy in the denominator will shrink.

And there are the articles posted here and here by Charlie Hall and his students.

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It seems to me that the PP can only be applied to specific scenarios. The answer will be quite different if one is considering it in the case of BAU, BAU Lite or a society of yeoman farmers living an Amish lifestyle.

Granted we cannot really foresee what our future society might look like but without some crystal ball gazing I see the effort as a waste of time. However, having said that, I do believe it is possible to arrive at a set of logical future paradigms such as the consumer society as it is known today will be replaced by the "needs" society.

I'd hold off for the time being.


My primary concern here is that I think we have a "one-time shot" to use current surplus energy. Based on my assumptions about how our economy and civilization function, if we don't direct it into something useful, then it will be (largely) wasted on non-durable and non-needed consumer goods, etc. IF you accept that, then to me the question is *where* do we try to direct our remaining surpluses of energy? It's an artificial dichotomy, but do we direct it generally to trying to build up a massive renewable capacity that will help to maintain BAU (or mitigate decline), or work to build new and very durable infrastructure for a mid- and post-descent civilization (e.g. localization, means to assure quality of life amidst dramatically lower energy use, etc.)? My personal feeling is that some mix would be appropriate, but what? If we start down the road of centralized renewables and then find that we don't have the energy surpluses to maintain such a centralized system, is that investment wasted? That might be a more precise issue for the application of the precauionary principle stated above...

I think many share your concern.


Many of us here at TOD and elsewhere have been long operating with a narrow set of hypotheses (or even a single one, but I'm not talking to doomers anymore). I've commented on the dangers of this and the associated biases earlier, so I won't repeat myself.

Now, if we were advisers to policy decision makers and to be taken seriously and not as partisan lobbyists, we would of course have to have a big brown envelope... errr... I mean a fairly wide variety of scenarios - not all of which we agree with personally - and a way to test their relative fitness 'objectively'. Something that at least looks non-partisan and scientific - making it harder to argue against on purely policy grounds.

Your question "but what?" underlines the point, I think.

We are not capable of analyzing or comparing the alternative approaches. Regardless of at what level of decision we are (energy surplus reduction as a unsure/given/temporary/long-lasting), we still have way too many scenarios to ponder with.

We really need cognitive augmentation, unless we want to play pure dice.

Now, don't get me wrong - I'm with Nate on this. I reckon it's more likely we will end up playing dice due to our evolutionary makeup, whether we notice/accept it or not. However, at least theoretically we do have a choice to at least to do a few Monte Carlo runs 1st and narrow down our choices, before we convene at the craps table.

I could of course make a not-so-educated guess as to what would be the optimal choice, but I do think (as I've outlined in my other post) that we should perhaps be concentrating more on robustness, which in this case might slightly approximate also overall resilience (economic + energetic + environmental). And I haven't done any resilience modeling myself. I do believe this is what you are after as well?

If you wanted to to analyze your set of questions - a crude model and a few test runs might really open some eyes for all of us.

Any decent systems modelers here with free time? We could cook up a quick project on this, just to play around with ideas. It'd sure beat banging one's head to wall on trying to communicate these issues to the BAU locked-in very-short-horizon PTB - who don't have time to grok it unless you've got numbers turned into pretty pictures and guarantee a win in the next beauty contest (sorry, had to put in a standard TOD pejorative expression of 'those-who-don't-get-it').

Your response was to a post that included "where do we invest our remaining...."

A definition of "we" would be interesting. Because I think there is a multiplicity of "We's."
"We" do play dice, i'm not sure it is "pure", but it does somewhat have
the nature of a "random walk" at times. Within the US and across the various states there are a plethora of
local/regional solutions to this, even individual solutions - for instance in my community, the Amish install PV,
Solar Space Heating, Solar Water Heating, and use horses for transportation, and horses, mules, and oxen for
agricultural work. The Swazi's have a different solution. It appears that there is company in California providing
installation of PV on roofs at no capital cost to the homeowner in a state which must do 40% renewals by 2020.

A corollary question might be, do we have time to determine a "best practice", or a small handful of best practices, appropriate to the
geography/culture/finances of some localities so they can be implemented, such that the sum of those localities can "refresh" the technology (say a little more than just manufacturing)?

I'm not sure my new neighbor in the new development near my farm is salvageable - she call's the police when i shoot my .22 at a varmit
trying to eat my free range chickens pecking away underneath my PV. Her anger/fear of losing the financial returns of 2007, and the
unlimited frontier of "growth" through fingertip moving work will never be mollified. that (phantasm) world is dead.

Well, clearly the true solution, as best as we'll be able to manage, is to fix the market system so it looks for sustainable solutions. My short sketch of the principles from above:

What would change the formula, and remove the investment gap for true sustainable development, is to qualify the tax treatment of capital gains according to their contribution to long term sustainability. That would naturally follow from realizing that the fiduciary responsibility is to the whole interest of a corporation's stockholders, not just to their short term profit interest. That would change the "prudent man rule" too, so that "prudent" would have it's common language meaning rather than the fancier's meaning that is being followed at present. I personally think that the main tax treatment difference would NOT be to take profits away from investors, but only allow reinvestment of returns if they have the effect of reducing our impact on the earth in the long term. That would largely squash the speculator frenzies, for example.

There are significant problems with how we measure sustainablity, of course. Most measures overlook the difference between cultural responsibility and functional system responsibilities, is that main one I talk about. Still, since investment choices are the natural means for steering self-investment systems... it seems obvious that steering investment choices according to their value for the future, is the way to do it.

It would take an effort to do it right, but would have far more effect in making the free market work right, and so be more practical in the end, than anything else I've heard suggested.

I have tried to air my thoughts on maintaining soceity in the past unsuccessfully. I will try again.

Many people say that renewable fuels (both liquids and solar&wind) can not equal more than about 25% of our fossil fuel usage and therefore we should not pursue them. This in my opinion is a problem of framing. Since it wants to have renewable do everything that fossil is currently doing.

But this begs the question - How much of our fossil fuel usage is NECESSARY vs just BAU?

Because fossil fuels have historically been very cheap there are many places they are wasted and used where not needed. Outside and nightime lighting is one area. Very fuel inefficient transportation (both individual and mass) is another.

If the need for energy is reduced significantly to meet real needs than renewable can become greater than 50% in my opinion which is a reason to install that capacity.

Just because I can get a battery to power a 15 mpg SUV like gasoline is no reason not to develop high milage vehicles that are hybrid electric.

I think a key distinction here is between energy source and energy conduit. If we have enough primary surplus energy available to us, then we can maintain a significant amount of liquid fuels (through biofuels or other means) indefinitely. As you point out, the absolute amount--and whether this is enough to meet our "needs"--is the pertinent question, not the % of current consumption. However, if the EROEI is too low (as I suggest in parts 1 and 2, see also Robert Rapier's recent posts), then these renewables (whether we're talking solar/wind for electricity or crops for biofuels) are not primary energy *sources*. My concern here--and where I think the precautionary principle applies--is whether we're investing our dwindling reserves of *surplus* energy into something that will provide that surplus energy *source* well into the future?

My take on it is that the 25% figure is approximately right (in the ball park, anyway), and that we will have no choice but to descend down to that level. IF we are somehow luckier and smarter than we appear to be, we might actually be able to pull it off and level off there; if not, then down, down, down we go. In any case, that 25% is the BEST CASE long term scenario. People need to get over the idea that 25% is a worst case to be avoided; they really shouldn't want to know what the real worst case looks like.

Life at 25% of our present energy usage: Yeah, there is a lot of waste that can be trimmed, but nobody should have any illusions. There is a rough correlation between per capita energy consumption and per capita GDP. If we are going to decline by 75% in energy consumption, then we are also going to decline in per capita GDP - and yes, maybe by as much as 75%. That will be difficult, but it will not be the end of the world. That takes us back to around 1941 in terms of living standards, or to about the level of, say, Costa Rica. Quite a come down, yes, and certain to be quite painful. However, the US could survive with a lot of good things (like our national parks, for example) intact - IF we can manage to actually level off there. Don't build out the renewables, however, and 25% will just flash in and out of sight as we pass speeding downhill.

It sounds like what you are proposing is a voluntary economic depression. Voluntary or not it would still be a depression! I can imagine an individual (like Warren Buffett) choosing to live very modestly and below his means (I do), but I can't imagine the leadership of the USA proposing such a course of action for the nation. That would be "Un-American."

In fact, the USA has recently done everything in it's power to prevent that! Maybe they should have let it continue.......

The downward slide won't be voluntary, reality will impose it on us. The only thing that might be voluntary would be an early acceptance of and adjustment to that reality. That might make the difference whether we can actually level off at that 25% level or keep on declining. In that sense only, leveling off at 25% of present energy usage could be considered voluntary.

It's interesting to me that the average US citizen presently consumes enough fossil fuels to emit >20 TPY of CO2, whereas the average French citizen's emissions are about 6.7 TPY. That's very close to your requested 25%. I'm quite sure very few people would characterize the French as living a deprived non-industrial lifestyle. So it becomes a question of "can we develop renewable energy resources comparable to the per-capita difference between French and US nuclear enery production, and then downsize consumption in US to the level of the French, then address the remaining 25% by switching it from fossil to renewable"? Given new solar technologies such as that I referenced above, and that now being developed by Google etc., I see the answer to that being "Yes, easily, if anyone wants to".

Good points. It will not kill or even severely harm anyone not to drive a hummer or SUV, or not to fly, or not to have many of the useless energy wasters we employ.

The crucial point is to get a lot of people to see a much lower impact lifestyle as desirable. If even a considerable fraction of our enormous advertizing industry could be devoted to promoting low-carbon lifestyles, we could get a long way toward where we need to be.

I notice that, after a coupld decades when everyone wanted to have baseball and other sports played inside, there is now a big movement to go back to out-door stadiums. A similar aesthetic of reconnecting with the natural world could lead people to appreciate reducing or interupting their electric use (or going on battery power) when the sun isn't shining and the wind not blowing, rather than seeing it as merely an enormous inconvenience.

The French are fortunate to have a government that actually does a lot of things right. The US is unfortunate to have a government that does a lot of things wrong. That makes a huge difference.

I'm not intimately familiar with French politics, but it is my impression that they do not have a major party that runs on the premise that government can do nothing well, and that, when they get in power, does everything they can to make that premise a reality.

I'm a little more familiar with French politics, and I think it could be fairly said that the "center of gravity" in France is considerably to the left of where it is in the US. Of course, the same could be said of MOST other countries. Most Americans are not aware of how right wing their country actually is on a global scale. The US has no real left wing, for all practical purposes.

Of course, it could also be fairly said that the spread between the extremes of left and right in French politics is considerably wider than what we have here in the US. The differences between the Democratic and Republican parties are really pretty trivial. In the context of France or most other countries, the Republicans would be a far right party and the Democrats would be a center-right pary. Of course, in France and in most other parties, the far right parties never get enough electoral support to actually govern, or at most are only junior partners in a coalition government. The US is quite exceptional in that we have a far right party that actually wins elections and governs not just rarely, but quite commonly.

Aahh, the trap of the vanishing status quo. Gets 'em every time.

It doesn't mean that "all we need to do is get the US down to the emissions level of France". You're forgetting the small matter of 1.3 billion Chinese, and 1.2 billion Indians, whose combined number will shortly be over three billion, and who are rapidly increasing their per capita emissions (from under 1 tonne per year). And then there's Africa and the rest of undeveloped Asia, whose numbers and per-capita emissions are rising even more rapidly in percentage terms.

Try 20 tonnes per year down to 1.5 tonnes per year: more than 90% reduction.

I was thinking about this last night in bed. I won't post all the reasoning -- my wrists won't take it -- but, taken very roughly, speaking of enduring changes:-

  • 10% reduction is easy to do - it's nearly happened now.
  • 20% is doable without significant change or discomfort.
  • 30% starts to require significant infrastructural change - capital allocation choices.
  • 40% starts to require behavioural change as well.
  • 50% requires a change in patterns of living - your "USAlian to French" example.
  • 70% or more requires a change in core values. And therein lies the rub.

But go ahead, Len. Your proposal is better than nothing.

(Out for the day.)

How much of our fossil fuel usage is NECESSARY vs just BAU?

ALL OF IT or it would no longer be BAU.

Coincidentally a friend of mine just spent about 30K out of his own pocket to UL certify a self contained solar powered LED aluminum light post that could be used in parks or community areas.

Another friend of mine is actually building the prototypes.

Just because I can get a battery to power a 15 mpg SUV like gasoline...

We could really use your battery technology right about now! :-)

But this begs the question - How much of our fossil fuel usage is NECESSARY vs just BAU?

Because fossil fuels have historically been very cheap there are many places they are wasted and used where not needed. Outside and nightime lighting is one area. Very fuel inefficient transportation (both individual and mass) is another.

This is the real question. I am not going to speculate as to what %of FF we need to maintain a high standard of living. I know that because of diminishing standard of living returns on energy consumption, the answer is "A lot less than we use now", however, the trick is re-organizing society to do so.

For example, cars are only useful because society is organized around them. This is a gigantic problem, and is not to be underestimated, but it means that there is a chance economics will kill off insane attempts to maintain BAU driving levels with batteries or biofuel. I hope we have cars into the future, but I realize that the use of them will decrease by an order of magnitude, and the associated costs will encourage the use of a vehicle sized to the application.

However, such a model assumes that a "middle class" exists. Historically, there is the elite class and everyone else, with a small middle class to support the elite class. This is true today; the "middle class" as we know it is just a rapidly shrinking sector of the poor class that has a high level of material wealth due to cheap oil. In reality, the middle class disappeared decades before Peak Oil; the oil was the only thing maintaining the illusion. This is a really big problem, and will cause a lot of necessary hardship.

Could we survive without night time lighting ?

What would change the formula, and remove the investment gap for true sustainable development, is to qualify the tax treatment of capital gains according to the investment's contribution to long term sustainability. Investment is what builds the new directions of a self-investment system, it's redesign "steering" mechanism.

It's a direct way to give investors a "package label" on the environmental impacts of teh investments they buy into. The use of sustainability metrics to qualify investments for serving public purposes follows from realizing that fiduciary responsibilities for serving the interests of clients and shareholders needs to apply to the whole interest of clients and shareholders, not just to their short term profit interests. That would change the "prudent man rule" too, so that "prudent" would have it's common language meaning rather than the financier's meaning being used at present.

You wouldn't necessarily need to increase the tax non-sustainable capital gains, just limit the amount that can be reinvested, since it's the reinvestment of gains in exploiting the system that is where the explosions of exploitation come from. Maybe you'd only only allow reinvestment of returns if the investment had the effect of reducing our impact on the earth in the long term. That would largely squash speculator frenzies, for example.

There are significant problems with how we measure sustainablity, of course. Most measures overlook the difference between cultural categories of responsibility and functional categories of responsibility, the main one I talk about. Still, since investment choices are the natural means for steering self-investment systems... it seems obvious that steering investment choices according to their value for the future, is the way to do it.

It would take an effort to do it right, but would have far more effect. It would make the free market work right, and so be more practical in the end than anything else I've heard suggested.

It would take an effort to do it right, but would have far more effect. It would make the free market work right, and so be more practical in the end than anything else I've heard suggested.

You are proposing to have a centralized body quantatively measuring sustainability based on the details of manufacturing processes and imposing appropriate taxes, and you call this a "free" market? This choice of terminology is curious.

I personally think that markets for goods and services can survive the end of growth but capital markets cannot. If the overall economic productivity of society is stagnant then the appearance extrordinary profits in one sector of the economy implies the appearance of extrodinary losses in another sector of the economy. That's what the "zero" in zero-growth means.

Seeking extrordinary productivity is a good thing, but not seeking extrordinary personal profit. If extrordinary profit is the primary goal of entrepreneurs then the pressure to leverage increased productivity to manufacture and sell more stuff (rather than leveraging it to produce the same amount of stuff with lower ecological impact) will be enormous and unrelenting.

Well,... exactly, the micro-analysis of LCA measures isn't going to be either available at first certainly. I think you need to back up and ask "what can I know for sure here". There are a few things. One is that because energy use drives up all energy costs permanently, and now dangerously it seems, adding profits to investments is now generally unsustainable.

Starting from that scientific logic, that all returns on investment should be spent, you then start with a plan to phase that in. Then while while waiting for people to develop practical measures you plan to allow certain exceptions, earnings from selected purposes that people could reinvest. You have not idea how upsetting it will be to explain why the general compounding of money and concentration of wealth needs to reduced toward zero.

If further expansion is inherently unsustainable, simply being apparently 50 years beyond the point of diminishing returns for expansion, we need to climax the scale of the economies in a prompt orderly way to be able to continually improve the quality of he economies continually in the future. The bottom line is, like in paddling a canoe or driving a car, as soon as you see the necessity of a turn you ready your method and then time you application so it goes smoothly.

You have no idea how upsetting it will be to explain why the general compounding of money and concentration of wealth needs to reduce toward zero.

Oh yes I do. I know from long and bitter experience the ferocity of the resistance to this concept even among people who think of themselves as environmentalists. But sooner or later we are going to have to bite the bullet if we want to preserve some semblance of advanced civilization. The problem with adding more intelligent measurements to the economic decision making process is that use value cannot be objectively measured, so that cost/benefit analysis can never be done on an objective basis. Yes specific resource inputs can measured, and we can try to impose resource depletion quotas à la Herman Daly. Pollution can be measured and we can attempt to control it through taxes or quotas. But on the consumption side there is no alternative to reaching some politically negotiated, subjective agreement on what levels of consumption are acceptable. If such agreements are socialism then socialism is necessary. I have tried hard to convince myself that there is some other path to be pursued that is more congenial to current cultural prejudices, but I have failed miserably.

If such agreements are socialism then socialism is necessary.

There is no need to insult socialism by confusing it with common sense.

well, yes, either that or the bullet will bite us you might say! I think the needed legal measure of sustainability can avoid the wishy washy mess you see in most of current indicators, and be scientifically neutral. You can basically use EROI. The trick is to start with regulating the investment market as a whole, since it acts as a whole, and would multiply limitlessly and reduce EROI below the line of sustainability if not regulated.

Then maybe you'd make exceptions to the rule for some things.. taking the usual approach to defining an ideal principle and a practical application of it.

Daly's approach doesn't work, however, because you still have inequity and conflicts continually multiplying within the system at climax even if you bring about climax prematurely using resource constraints... poke around with Economies that become part of nature a bit.

Our current economic problems are very instructive and predictive. The core problem is excess debt (living beyond our means) and the only BAU solution is to accept a temporary reduction in wealth (via defaults) to allow the system to reset and then rebuild.

I find it fascinating and frightening that the majority of our leaders and citizens have no understanding that excess debt is the core problem. And most support solutions that are making the situation worse (government spending via quantitative easing) to avoid any short term pain.

Future energy descent problems will be much more complex and difficult to understand with more severe impacts than a "simple" excess debt problem.

The current economic crisis strongly suggests that the precautionary principle will not influence our energy descent decisions.

1) Does the traditional version of the Precautionary Principle provide a guide for our decision-making? Precautionary Principle necessary but not sufficient.

Yes, the precautionary principle provides a guide for us, but it is by itself insufficient to choose a wise approach. Other methods must be incorporated when the precautionary principle fails to select a safe approach. In our particular situation, being readers at the Oil Drum and not heads of state, I believe that dissensus is the best model to augment the precautionary principle. Dissensus, a concept taken from the Archdruid Report, refers to numerous different approaches attempted simultaneously by different groups.

Transition Towns, doomsteads, national ploicies, regional initiatives, and personal choices will create a broad divergence of approaches in different areas maximizing the chances that at least one group will succeed.

2) If not, **accepting the uncertainty in ALL potential options**, what framework for decision-making should guide society? N/A, uncertainty in all options accepted.

3) How does this (or any) framework maintain its integrity amidst the self-interested (and short-sighted) influences that will continue to skew any such analysis? Misleading question, methods do not maintain integrity in short-sighted and self-interested environments.

Creating long-sighted and community-interested or globally-interested environments is a necessary precondition for any framework or method to maintain it's integrity. I personally feel that developing systems and structures that engender long range planning and broad-self-interest is more important to our civilization then solving the power problem, but it is beyond the scope of this discussion.

4) Is there any validity in a solution that may perpetuate business as usual without also addressing the structural growth imperative of our current system? No, but several will be attempted so it's a mute point.

5. How do we ensure that the needs and desires of future generations are adequately represented in this debate? Intrinsically satisfied, this debate is primarily about weighing the needs of future generations.

Merely by having this debate we are looking at the needs of future generations because this debate is about choosing the best approach to ensure a positive future. The time frames we are looking at are decades out and their success will be measured by a society that only the youngest amongst us will live to see.

Well, in part, consider that like ours does too, natural system economies generally have parts that are all "out of control" by way of having their own reactions to their own learning. Nature's economies mostly somehow organize themselves into "well oiled machines" that take care of themselves. Their parts fit together by learning how to provide each other complementary services and avoiding conflict. I think we can learn a lot about this stuff by studying how our same stage of development is handled in other natural system economies. I have a short piece onHow economies can become part of nature in the next World Watch and a slightly longer one hopefully coming up in a day or two on TOD.

Good questions and very good intro - all the articles in the series.

I can't answer your questions - I'm far too removed from all the data and with way too small a brain to grasp this all.

However, what I can do, is to refer to people who think these issues as their bread & butter. For example, people at RAND.

Steven W. Popper, Robert J. Lempert and Steven C. Bankes have written a book detailing their computational approach to what they call 'robust decision making' for policy planning. The book 'Shaping The next 100 years' is a free download from RAND.

The gist of their approach is however distilled in their Scientific American article from 2005 titled 'Shaping the Future'.

The basic assumptions in their work are as follows (paraphrasing):

- future is uncertain
- policy decision can err on the side of too little or too much caution - both causing decision regret along with attached systemic and long-lasting effects (such as environmental collapse, economic malaise, etc)
- the traditional analytic approach is to predict and then use a heuristic to judge
- Europeans on the average favor precautionary principle. Americans on the other hand pure cost/benefit analysis (this is of course simplified distinction between the two)
- Both models are analytically wrong in their philosophy and can lock in decisions to options that may produce the most optimal outcome, but are more likely to produce a non-satisfactory outcome

Their approach is robust forward testing of scenarios against a wide variety of expected future parameter outcomes using a computational model (they've used Sanderson's Wonderland model modified to their needs). Humans pick the model, they select scenarios, and computer tries to break it by doing a some type of stochastic walk on the parameters.

The most robust model is the one that satisfices most amount of more likely outcomes without inducing too much regret (i.e. unwanted effects).

That is, the approach is to satisfice for future unknown events, not optimize against one assumed future.

This keeps in their opinion the future more open to various courses of action.

In their model run of the Wonderland, they dub their scenario 'Safety Valve'. Instead of precautionary 'Crash Course' or BAU style 'Stay the course' it involves setting strict limits on pollution, but allowing time horizons to be relaxed, IF the cost run too high. An example image illustrating two parameter runs and choice of strategies below:

Now, I'm NOT saying this is the best approach. Nor am I saying I'm in favor of it. I'm undecided.

Also, their approach do not remove that fact we MUST model and we MUST define likely ranges for the parameters for the stochastic runs. Further, afaik Wonderland model takes no primary or secondary input from energy resources. Energy efficiency could perhaps be taken out of the Tech_link parameter (see Appendix A in the book).

So, this approach - while not directly answering - at least touches on your questions 1 and 2. In short: precautionary principle is in the authors mind not likely the most robust strategy and the way to select the most robust strategy is to use a decision tool like they propose.

Of course, model is still a model and GIGO applies. However, if we get to even to this stage that we were actually modelling and then arguing about the model details, I think we would be at the very least a one step closer to having a policy decision (other than 'let's stumble along while we bicker and remain undecided').

What the authors do (imho) bring to the table appears to me to be a a more or less genuine approach to introducing something debatable to the discussion. Something which can actually be scrutinized and tested as parts - and not as whole (i.e. the 'whole issue of growth/environment/humanity/meaning of life and such').

We all know the arguments are otherwise too easily polarized into the "tree hugger!" vs "capitalist eco-raper!" shouting matches, out of which nobody gets anything useful and which just postpone any sane decision making into an uncertain time in the future.

That's my 2 cents worth. not much, but hey - at least I tried. That's gotta count at the gallows for the future generations, right? RIGHT? :)

One of the interesting problems is that living systems (like economies that are full of independently learning parts) are not only far too complex to model, but change their behavior all the time as the parts learn and that learning branches off in new directions. A hazard of models is that they can't learn about everyone's environment at once... nor be programmed to know when people or their environmental systems will learn something unexpected and begin behaving differently than assumed. The information about that is naturally beyond the information on which any model can be developed.

I developed a general method for beginning to correct that, to make models responsive more like natural systems are, using models to gain a kind of "foresight" instead of relying on letting them take you over the edge of failure as your test of when you're approaching the threshold for it. What I take as a starting point is the types of irreversible accumulative change that are unsustainable and will precipitate system reorganization, basically growth and decay. fyi Models and Change - adapting models to the natural world of complex systems

Before I try to deal with your insightful comment, let me go META first.

The post I made above was an attempt to show that the model is NOT the most important thing nor should we get stuck on it forever.

Testing our strategies against models AND then finding the most robust strategy under various scenarios - that's the next step forward. EVEN IF we understand and accept the fact that our models are incomplete and may be seriously mistake in parts.

That's why we keep re-modeling, re-testing and re-adapting strategies. A bit like the scientific principle.

Now back to the meat of the discussion...

If I understand you correctly you are thinking of fairly low level models with adaptive agents.

Good, if we had good models like that - we'd be better off - I think.

However, models like that are also by nature more complex and introduce more variability and uncertainty.

That's why most modelers use very high level aggregate input / output models.

Fuels/energy flows IN. Economic output (useless or needed - doesn't matter) OUT.

And funnily enough, if one accounts for grey energy and approximates useful work (ref. Ayres), then these input/outputs develop fairly predictably as aggregates. Regardless of all the innovation, break-through, efficiency gains, agent adaptation, etc.

Of course, in time - all static models will more likely be increasingly incorrect.

That's why we model again!

I say the strength of humans is in learning, re-calibrating to changing patterns and modeling based on all of this.

Trying to build a model a priori, a static or adaptive, is not going to be possible. However, building a set of simple models that have some predictive power to near future, and fixing/replacing them as we learn - seems like a reasonable cost/benefit trade-off concerning accuracy and model horizon.

My belief is based on the general dislike of trying to find THE holy grail of something (in this case a predictive model). Human artefacts are always products of their context - time culture, awareness, information, values, etc. I do not believe it is possible to build a holy grail, but it is possible to use several more simplistic models with a shorter horizon and acceptable margin of error.

What do you think?

P.S. I refrain from further comments to you web pages, before I have had time to try and understand them. Based on my cursory glance, I think you should contact the editors and ask for a guest post on the subject.

You could say my modeling approach is a physics based predictor for "black swans" that generates pointers to the particular networks of natural system processes they will occur in, and approximately when. It's entirely predictable where complex system events on unobservable scales will occur in some fairly common circumstances. It's mostly in how you read the data at hand, taking it as referring to the functional parts of the natural system we can't see because they're not in our models.

Unfortunately, that choice isn’t especially helpful, as we’ll likely all agree that we must 1) accept some smaller degree of energy AND 2) develop renewable sources of energy.

I agree with the above statement, and this shows that what is needed is a multi-pronged, systemic, designed-and-managed (or not- Orlov comes to mind) powerdown approach. This suggests that the PP is one guiding principle among many, but it cannot be applied rigidly or unilaterally in every case. The paradox is that unless it is universally accepted, it is ineffective. The reality is that it is a symptom of, and ineffective against Tragedy of the Commons type scenarios.

However, applying it universally leads to a massive reconfiguring of our whole way of thinking and acting, including the propensity for applying universals.

With regard to the political and economic complexities of powerdown and climate change, I would say that the PP does not apply in all cases. Powerdown may come about as a step-function of successive economic crises, eventuated by maintaining BAU and pushing growth.

Perhaps a better general principle is that we are only a small part of the overall information space.

The only "civilization" on the planet that appears to know how to live with some kind of reasonable footprint is in Africa. Due to AIDS, tribalism, exploitation, desertification, resource extraction and other means this knowledge, vital to our future, is being eradicated.

Many cultures have practiced representation of The Seventh Generation in decision-making. I think our attitude to time is pathological. We steal from both the past (Ancient Sunlight) and the future (Fractional Reserve Banking), spend it all in today, often as a means to avoid experiencing the here-and-now. Memory pollution is rampant too.

I believe all of this is moot without a completely new set of guiding ideas in our civilization, ergo, a new civilization, as the BAU ideology is what continues to create such insolubles as the PP vs. Tragedy of the Commons.

This it just where I got to in my thinking, when wondering if the way natural systems gracefully change their whole way of changing and integrate with their environments could be adapted to our way of rebuilding the earth. My short versions of "how we copy that" for our situation (as a complex uncontrolled growth system needing to find a fit) are above.

The trick is very subtle, occurring at the most uneventful place on the development curve, the inflection point in the middle. The switch is from measuring progress in relation to where you come from (in %'s of change from the past) to measuring progress in relation to where you're going (in %'s of progress toward perfection). The goal of perfection, of course, just starts with avoiding catastrophe (rule #1 of perfection) and then gets clearer as you find comfortable solutions.

Excellent proposition, I think. Though I wonder at the possibility of getting a congressional committee to identify "perfection" for the hired model builders.

Well, you could see it as just "fixing stuff". Perfection is having nothing more to fix, and that's not likely to occur. Start by learning to cease bringing on ever greater disasters... that's a start! ;-)

Dreaming about renewables replacing the free lunch of fossil fuels, oil first, is perhaps an entertaining intellectual exercise, not more.

Peak oil is old news. One might frame it in peak oil per capita, long past, or peak oil in affordability / availability (high oil prices or lack of a market); or even in a hypothetical measure of what is ideally needed but won’t be available. All, past.

The end game - yes the end game - is controlling the sources and the transport through military and imposed ‘legal’ means. And going on, and I do mean continuing, measures, the new colonialism, in short, to force, coerce, bribe, attack, re-arrange, co-opt, others to obtain what can still be provided.

For the US, that includes supporting dictatorships, oligarchies, anyone they can buy off or of, give candy to, for guarantees of delivery (ex. Saudi), using military might to set up friendly puppet Gvmts, the same old, pay the cronies for palaces to deprive the people (Iraq, say, past and present...); securing transport routes, but mostly keeping a grip on the finances, dollar hegemony, etc.

I single out the US - but the rest of the West is right behind, gingerly following on, mealy-mouthed and sycophantic, in the footsteps of the super power.

The irony is that using military might and dire threats can only accomplish so much in certain areas.

To garner energy, agreements, complex infrastructure, shipping routes, refineries, distribution, etc. have to keep on running smoothly, therefore the emphasis on ‘democracy’, non-failed states, vibrant communities and all that. Tough call, hard sell.

E.g. nuking Iran is counter productive, say.


You do seem to be an uncommonly hard core realist.I see things on the international front in much the same way,except I have been predicting big time violence for a while now.Of course I'm not able to say when a REAL(casualties thousands per day,day after day) war will break out but any day or any year seems like a reasonable prediction.

Technology is changing the game of war perhaps even faster than it's changing other things.

I have a gut feeling the nature of the fighting next big war will come as a suprise to nearly everybody.

Most of what the public believes about nuclear war for instance is extremely wide of the mark visavis what is actually known and posssible.

Any of the more advanced powers including The French,The Brits, the Russians,the Chinese,and most likely the Isrealis and the Japanese(they might need a year or so to actually build the bombs) and the Indians and maybe even the Pakistanis could empty the Middle east of people with the right kind of bombs and have troops and oil men safely on the ground and pumping oil in a matter of weeks.Of course such a plan would require extensive advance planning and preparations and would be hard to keep secret.

Considering the climate and the speed at which dead bodies will dry to a husk under such conditions there probably wouldn't even be many health problems among the troops moving in.

Of course we (here in the US)will never pull such a trick because..well just because, right?

"Considering the climate and the speed at which dead bodies will dry to a husk under such conditions there probably wouldn't even be many health problems among the troops moving in."

Wow, you've really thought this out in some vivid detail, ofm!

I, too, am impressed by Ms. No's realism. I tend to agree with Basivich ("Limits to Power") that the last chance we had to steer away from the energy empire we have become was under Carter. But the country pretty firmly rejected his suggestion that we start to seriously conserve and start living within our shrinking energy means. We could have, perhaps, just perhaps, limited our military to a truly defensive force.

One irony is that the military itself is a huge energy hog (as some posters with experience in the armed forces pointed out a couple days ago here). And of course wars are huge wastes of all sorts of resources.

Our elites have proven themselves to be completely corrupt and inept. Hard to imagine that they could manage any response to truly enormous crises much more nuanced than the blunt instruments of war.

Hi Dohboi,

I have given the whole subject of aggression and war quite a bit of thought since they are so highly relevant to the human experience,but I have little or nothing to say that is original.

What I have found is that the military way of thinking and planning(properly understood and executed) is to focus on WHAT IS POSSIBLE at all times and never just on what seems to be likely or what looks affordable,etc.

So the first rule is to ask every day "Have we missed any possibilities today?"

And the next one is "Have we run this past EVERYONE that might POSSIBLY have something relevant to contribute?"

So as to be sure they spend zillions on experts of every stripe.

The scenario I outlined was outlined to me by a sargeant (with a degree in history)who spent his career training troops to handle chemicals,bombs, fallout,etc.

I have no doubt that there is a contingency plan ready to go for everything that you can imagine, including one for occupying various types of terrain cleared of people by use of nuclear weapons.

You may remember the plan Reagen put forth to defend Western Europe with neutron bombs-the kind that kill people but leave buildings standing.

The idea was that the if the commies invaded, the populace would evacvuate and then Nato would drop the neutron bomb on the Warsaw Pact trops.Everyone would be able to go home -except the dead WP tropps of course-in a few weeks or months at most.

The one extra detail is the one about the bodies turning into mummies-but of course I lifted that one from accounts of life in the desert.

One very pertinent fact in regard to the military being an energy hog is that wars are often started precisely because the aggressor realizes that the fight must be "now or never" as a result of energy constraints.

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor as much as anything for this reason-it's all laid out in the history books for any one intersted.Germany might have won WWII if the Germans had succeeded in capturing the oil fields they went for faster and not gotten bogged down by energy shortages.

Some German commanders actually had to use horses to move equipment to the front during the allied invasion of Europe..Thier orders were to use gasoline only for actual combat operations.

China's support of dictatorships is at a level even higher than that of the US. China's willingness to do deals far exceeds that of the US. China's doing stuff in Zimbabwe. China's making deals with Sudan. China supports the Myanmar/Burma government. China props up North Korea. The rise of China is going to make the morally objectionable aspects of US foreign policy seem mild by comparison.

I know, I know that there are many people who are completely convinced that "Cold Fusion" is an example of a hoax and/or bad science. However, I have spent a great deal of time reading peer-reviewed articles (there are several thousand on the subject), and several hundred can be downloaded from the "Low Energy Nuclear Reactions" website, below:

I hope that there are those on this web-site with the patience and the open-mindedness to consider the possibility that there is indeed some good science here worth considering. If you are such a person, you might consider a read through that very well presented web-site.

My point is that there are many forces in society that would be in opposition to such a technology, if it were to become commercially relevant. Some of those forces are not completely benign and would attempt (and perhaps have attempted) to suppress this technology.

If you are truly interested in a renewable technology with high power density, with low rates of emission of noxious or toxic byproducts, and with no likely limit to the amount of fuel (deuterium), perhaps it is worthwhile to consider "Cold Fusion".
Although I doubt that anyone would take my word for it, I hope that some of you who are skeptical would take a small amount of time to consider this technology (or least the interesting science behind it). The LENR website above is a good place to start.


There may well be something to room-temperature, low-pressure, low-electromagnetic-flux nuclear fusion. (Terry Pratchett would say that it happens "because of quantum".) And of course nuclear fusion is indeed "high energy density". BUT (you knew a "but" was coming)....

But the parameter that matters is power density. For "cold fusion" to be viable as a future source of energy, it should have blown up a few labs by now. There's been nothing in the peer-reviewed journals or MSM about that happening. (Note that the words "by now" are the most important ones in that assertion.)

Anything for which there is legitimate doubt about whether there is a net energy gain or not - well, anything like that is not going to take over from fossil fuels. Even if there is a net energy gain, but it happens slowly, it still won't be any use. And if it hasn't been demonstrated to be scalable to a predictable 100MW continuous power output, it won't be any help in the next fifty years, which is when we NEED a replacement for fossil fuels.

So ... an interesting curiosity for a rainy Sunday. Thanks for drawing it to our attention.


Your concerns are understandable and I certainly agree with them to a certain extent. I just thought I would add that someone has already been killed by a run-away reaction at EPRI in the early days of the work. Also, an electrode in Japan (Mizomi??'s lab) that had been generating several meja-joules of heat during a C-F experiment, was disconnected and placed in a bucket of water where it proceeded to evaporate 11 full buckets of water over a period of several days before it cooled down. (many 10s of megajoules to do that!).

The technology to make use of heat (especially heat in water) is very well understood. If the generation of heat can be made consistent, the scale-up of the technology will take very little time. The pace of the semiconductor revolution is instructive. Even though transistors and integrated circuits were completely new, it took less than 20 years from the inventor of the transistor (1948) until large-scale use of the technology was underway. The pace of exploitation of CF technology would be more rapid once it can be made reproducible.

Given the very low level of effort and the active disdain by which the technology is treated by funding agencies, and the status of the technology as "pariah science", it is surprising that it has made this much progress already. The key difficulty is still reproducing the effect on every electrode.

Another potential advantage of the technology is its ability to transmute elements. There is significant evidence that is already occurring in nature. Transmutation of elements with the existing high energy technology is extremely slow and energy intensive.

Personally, I believe that the major obstacle to the success of CF is not the science or the effect, but rather the attitude of the funding agencies and the general public and the existing science establishment (although Pons and Fleischman have to take some of the blame for their method of publicizing the work). It is disturbing (to me) that Scientists would be so contrary to the possibility of new science and breakthroughs.


Is there any validity in a solution that may perpetuate business as usual without also addressing the structural growth imperative of our current system?

I think that the answer to this question is clearly "no". We are not only facing financial disaster within the context of growth driven BAU, but we are also facing potential ecological disaster which all of our technological brilliance may not be able to avert. We need to fix our problems at the source and just slap on bandaids that will allow X more years of BAU.

If we have any hope of large scale human organization continuing to play a role in our future, then people who are making investment decisions about large scale infrastructure need to have a mandate to make ecologically intelligent, forward looking decisions. Their job description should read, "If you make investment decisions which are conducive to long term human welfare then you will be rewarded and honored, and if you make investment decisions which are not conducive to this end you will be out on the street looking for a new job"

Of course anyone who spends more than a few minutes thinking about how to create such a mandate will realize that a major shift of economic and political power is a prequisiste for success. Most people therefore conclude that such a course of action is "impractical". This judgement of impracticality may well be correct. But if so then the game is up, and we should start honing our survivalist skills and stop wasting timing yakking on the internet about energy technology.

It would be interesting to simply enact a replacement tax law which taxed dividends and capital gains according to some pre-defined criteria of investment contribution to long-term sustainability. eg. high taxes for profits from investing in a coal-burning generator, low taxes for investing in solar technology.

Negative EROEI is just another red herring thrown out by the doomer crowd. Renewables have already surpassed nuclear power in the US in total quads. A little study will show that renewables have the potential to replace fossil fuels altogether (many times over). The real solution for peak oil is for doomers to learn how to think positive.

Negative EROEI is just another red herring thrown out by the doomer crowd.

EROEI can't be negative, so if you are going to criticize, at least try to understand what you are talking about.

A little study will show that renewables have the potential to replace fossil fuels altogether (many times over).

This is where an understanding of EROEI could help you. Most of those studies I have seen require massive amounts of fossil fuels (i.e., low EROEI). In other words, only high EROEI solutions could have the potential to replace fossil fuels. Low EROEI solutions ARE fossil fuels, just repackaged as renewables.

"only high EROEI solutions could have the potential to replace fossil fuels"

This is why I'm very eager to hear if there are any net-energy calcs available for the simplest Solar Heating applications, particularly domestic cooking, water and space heating that are built from a dizzying mountain of waste material that is still flowing from our communities.

Glass and Mirrors and Aluminum Baking trays(for example) are somewhat High-energy materials, but could be working in simple collectors and concentrators for many, many years. The amount of daily business, usual or not, that could be maintained with such 'craft projects' seem to me would be quite high on the EROEI chart, while directly reducing the amount of propane, NG, #2 Oil and Electricity that this sector requires. The labor might be considerable, but this would be provided by people themselves, or perhaps in barter and local trade.

Bob Fiske

Basic passive solar home design (in the proper climates) has essentially infinite EROEI.

If windows which were originally intended for the north(shaded) side of the house are moved to the south(sunny) side during the design phase of construction, there is no incremental energy cost. But passive solar design in many climates can reduce home energy use by 50 to 80%, depending on house operation and configuration.

The fact that passive solar design is not standard shows how incredibly cheap energy still is in the US.

Just like divide by zero in software, an energy gain for no energy investment results in a non-finite EROEI.

That's why I'm so addicted to garbage piles.

Just walked home with another square foot of Mirror today, and played around as I walked planting a bright spot on other houses that very few lightbulbs in my posession could replicate, (and as a cameraman, I own some very bright bulbs) and none of them would do it without a wire going off to a battery or the grid.

I have had no luck finding any EROEI calcs on 'Ultra Simple Renewable Energy' like solar ovens, hot water heaters made from reused parts.. anybody who cares about such things is likely building the gear itself and not bothering with the mess of assumptions that has to be applied to this.. but still, when the resulting EROEI is likely to be VERY, VERY high, it sure would be nice to trumpet some humble yet highly valuable little solutions that we all could be producing right away.

Boy, that sounds like a mission statement..


A little study will show that renewables have the potential to replace fossil fuels altogether (many times over).

What might this study be? When is it coming out and from who?

You got me interested.

"The real solution for peak oil is for doomers to learn how to think positive."

No. That isn't really going to help the people who can't see that we're heading for a waterfall who still believe that it's probable that a bridge will be built in time to keep us from dropping. Possible.. I suppose, but then that's where the Precautionary Principle sets in, right? What's plan 2 if that bridge doesn't work out in time?

Sure.. there is plenty of Solar Energy.. but the tools to capture it are not being implemented as fast as the biggest fields seem to be depleting.. and the energy FROM those fields might well be what we would need to fill a 'rush order' for the solar and other equipment to do this job.

Sorry. EROEI is simply central to this balance.

Sorry. EROEI is simply central to this balance.

I agree with you in general, but believe that the above statement should be extended with "EROEI and timing is simply central ..." as you pointed out yourself above. The biggest problem we're having in getting energy systems to shift to renewables such as solar and wind is not HOW but WHEN. Those interests with large investments in remaining petroleum and coal etc. are fighting the obviously inevitable WHEN question with HOW arguments, and no-one seems able to contradict them. ( I obviously think it should have been last decade / century, they obviously would preferr for it not to happen for another decade or two, regardless of consequences to transition). The HOW part is long since settled in low-circulation technical literature, eg. Clean Power from Deserts - The DESERTEC Concept for Energy, Water and Climate Security - Club of Rome on a map of the Sahara desert the width of a page of paper, the space required to supply ALL energy for Europe, Norht Africa and the mediteranean Middle East to replace electricity, petroleum and coal and supply desalinated water to all arid zones, from existing solar thermal technology (proven EROEI 8+ above) takes up an area about the size of three postage stamps. or Assessment of Parabolic Trough and Power Tower Solar Technology - Cost and Performance Forecasts - Sargent & Lundy LLC Engineering Group Chicago, Illinois [QUOTE]For the more technically aggressive low-cost case, S&L found the National Laboratories’ “SunLab” methodology and analysis to be credible. The projections by SunLab, developed in conjunction with industry, are considered by S&L to represent a “best-case analysis” in which the technology is optimized and a high deployment rate is achieved. The two sets of estimates, by SunLab and S&L, provide a band within which the costs can be expected to fall. The figure and table below highlight these results, with initial electricity costs in the range of 10 to 12.6 ¢/kWh and eventually achieving costs in the range of 3.5 to 6.2 ¢/kWh. The specific values will depend on total capacity of various technologies deployed and the extent of R&D program success. In the technically aggressive cases for troughs / towers, the S&L analysis found that cost reductions were due to volume production (26%/28%), plant scale-up (20%/48%), and technological advance (54%/24%).[/QUOTE]

Given Sargent & Lundy Engineering's worst case scenario provides peak time solar electricity at $0.062/kwh by only building 2.8 GW and doing a few minor and definitely achievable R&D improvements, plus transmission, and a clear path is provided to offering 83% capacity factor using cheap sand and gravel tanks for thermal storage with 3x collector area and no additional central plant, which should make the installation no more expensive PER KWH if only the industry can get to 2.8 GW installed, I don;t see what we are waiting for.

It also appears to me that the more agressive forecasts of NREL / SunLab of $0.035 / kwh if we can get to 8.2 GW installed quite quickly is entirely within reach. Moving the units from Arizona to Iowa only requires increasing the (relatively cheap) reflector surfaces by 8.2 / 5.25 = an added 56%, changing the energy costs from 3.5 to 6.2 ¢/kWh by (1 + .5 x .56 = 1.28) to perhaps 4.48 to 7.94 ¢/kWh .

The problem is the anti-progress interests are conducting a very effective campaign against such inevitable solutions (eg. Bush admin. nearly zeroed the funding to NREL on first day in office, then started selling stupid "hydrogen economy" crap) Media campaigns drowning out the advancements, regulators captive of utilities etc. etc.

I agree. (Glad someone else wants to add the fine print..)

Actually, Bush renewed the solar energy tax credits in 2008 and expanded it to include utility companies.

If you want to talk "anti-progress" you need to talk to the left wing loonies. The same group that won't allow increased oil exploration in the US.

?? Bush admin. supported rational renewables ?? Pardon ?? ?? ?? ?? ??

You call yourself a "conservationist"? I'd like you to come a bit closer and call me a "left wing loonie" again, mister. You gotta stop watching that Faux News crap, I think your brains clean enough already, eg. well washed.

Actually, I was calling Feinstein and Kennedy left wing loonies. You need to work on your reading comprehension there a bit tough guy. lol

And since you don't believe anything you read from Fox, then you must believe EVERYTHING you read on MSNBC and the LA Times. Well, here ya go!

I've been reading the Oil Drum for some time now and although I really enjoy it and agree with most of the stuff written, the comments are mostly very doom and gloom. Yes, peak oil is here. Yes, we cannot continue our current way of life on oil. Yes, we are screwed if we don't do something drastic.

Who could have imagined flying with 500 people at a time across the oceans before the Wright Brothers? Who could have thought of actually splitting the atom before the Manhattan project? Look at the incredible pace of what has happened in the last 20-30 years in IT.

I know that the whole oil problem is a much more fundamental problem than the above, we really have shot ourselves up in the air with no parachute, but I refuse to believe there is no way out. There always is !

Maybe it is cold fusion. Maybe hot fusion. Maybe zero point energy (for those that believe in that), but the fact is there is a hell of a lot more energy in the Universe, our solar system and on our planet for that matter than we are using now with oil. We just don't know yet how to harness it. Let's concentrate on solving that problem instead of being depressed that there is a problem.

We need a new Manhattan project for this and unfortunately it is not going to happen until people start feeling the pain. That is not now, but it soon will be. When that happens we will all feel the pain for some time and then we will solve the problem. Either that or we will all die eating Soylent Green ...

In reaction to the article, I don't think the precautionary principle really aplies to this problem. To me it sounds like we over fished our local lake and are mourning all the fish that has disappeared while across the lake a herd of cattle is grazing and we still haven't figured out we could eat those instead. The oil will never be completely gone and if the s..t really hits the fan we will be in deep trouble while the powers that be will still have enough energy for the Manhattan2 project. Unless they don't want to, but that's something for another type of website ...

I think there's a good chance that there "is a way out." What I'm less confident in (by far) is that it's a realistic, implementable one. The example I use (probably far too often) is ending war: we can end all war tomorrow, forever, if we all just agree to stop fighting. Problem is, that won't happen. Admittedly, that's a simplistic example, but I think it's illustrative of the problem we're facing. Like ending war (or ending poverty), the extremely complex reality of human ontogeny, neurology, and sociology mean that the "way out" must jump several hurdles simultaneously, not just the "is it possible" hurdle. We act, and civilization emerges, as a means to solve fundamental "problems"--genetic desires to reproduce, eat, feel warm and secure, etc. Civilization tends to go about solving these problems in a predictable way--centralize, specialize, grow, etc. I think that one of the biggest hurdles we must face is that there may well be "solutions" to our problem (genetic desires, conscious will, etc.), but we may fail to recognize them precisely because they might not consist of essentially doing more of what we've been doing. Here, cold fusion, hot fusion, super-nano-solar goodness is only doing more of the same, and in the end will only push the problem back a few years or a few generations--until we address the problem of growth we won't "solve" the problem. But, that problem (and that solution, to the extent we can explore for it) is outside the perception of mainstream civilization...

I get what you're saying, but I don't agree. Human nature is working against us in solving this problem, but there has been very little predictable about the 20th century. We have made huge leaps in the last 100 years, mainly of course due to the availability of large quantities of cheap energy, and the pace is only increasing.

What I refuse to believe is the problem of growth. By focusing all our attention on only this little rock in space we're living on we are indeed setting a limit on growth and the possibilities for mankind. We need to get off this rock and start exploring the rest of the universe and we need to solve the energy and food problem (which is also basically an energy problem) in a massive way to do that. Oil and other fossil fuels are only the starter motor in getting humanity up and running with this technological revolution. They cannot be our only flirt with a technologically advanced type of society.

About your point on war. I think we agree everyday not to stop the wars. A lot of people have a very large incentive in keeping the wars going (oil being an important factor). Solving the energy problem will solve the war problem, not the other way around.

We've jumped several hurdles at the same time before in the past. I wouldn't underestimate the brilliance of a few of our (positively inclined) fellow human beings to come up with something, probably by accident. To increase the probability of someone coming up with a brilliant solution, we need more people, not less, but all at a higher living standard.

Yes it's hard to even imagine the advances that will take place in the 21st century. Growth is definitely a positive thing. In the not too distant future, the majority of the population may choose to live "offworld". Where it's safer, more comfortable, and more productive. The Earth may become a park like world where people only come to vacation.

China is now moving forward with their space program, and plans to put men on the moon. The US can't afford to with our new found backwardness.

Glad to see that the totally delusional have not yet completely abandoned this site.


Your arguments betray a lack of knowledge of the basic sciences and engineering.

We have been accumilating an integrated and internally consistent body of scientific knowledge for a few centuries now.

The foundations are so firm as to make it reasonable,for conversational purposes , to assert that they are "set in stone".

There are frequent minor revisions to existing theory but nobody whatsoever with any understanding of these matters expects the laws of chemistry or physics or biology to be overturned wholesale.

Any trip to the moon requires a certain amount of energy to drive the ship and there is simply nothing in existence that is even remotely affordable for any purpopes other than research,communications, and status.

Now it is possible that someday somebody will invent a new technology based on new science which will enable space travel.It is even concieveable that this new kbnowledge might be discovered ,the research and development done,and such a rocket ship actually built.Concieveably all this might happen within a century or two.

Those of us who understand the biological and geological end of the problem understand that we don't HAVE a century or two.Put another way-We are having a heart attack and the doctor THINKS she can save us if we get to the hospital within an hour.But we are four hours away by the fastest available means.


How about for the purpose of developing the moon's resources?

Plans for space tourism are well underway.

I take it you're just having fun, now, but I hope other conservatives on this site are busily distancing themselves from you at this point.

Space 'Tourism' will be making a major headline when the first HUNDRED people have gone beyond our atmosphere. Any possibility of creating a self-sustaining human (and the supporting Biota) habitat outside of Earth's thin, vibrant skin is still extremely remote. There's all sorts of hopeful notions for it.. but the one place humans live, the ISS, requires just massive support from down here.

Sweet Dreams, Conservationist.

Nonetheless, the study of what makes ecosystems tick that is necessary to attempt such an endeavor may be needed to keep humanity going with some modicum of civilization on Earth.

The attempt may succeed or fail, I would not presume to sufficient prescience to know which, but I consider the attempt to be worthwhile in and of itself.

In fact, I would assert that not making a serious attempt at colonizing the rest of the solar system is blatantly stupid and increases the odds that DD is correct about human extinction being immanent. Recognize the limitations and learn to work with them, then reach as far as we can.

Actually a study was done for NASA on building a lunar colony. It's an interesting read.

Are you being sarcastic? Colonizing the solar system? So, using logic, first we are going to urbanize Northern Canada, Siberia, the vast deserts, etc. This is ignoring the vast expanse of Antartica. Jeez, the USA has vast areas just waiting to be "colonized", every single one a zillion times more hospitable to human life than anything out in Space. Seriously, science fiction can be fun but is the result of viewing too much a frying of important brain tissue? How about mankind colonizes Detroit or Flint first-plenty of vacant land there right in the city.

According to NASA, that's their long term goal.

Detroit or the moon? Hmmm, I think the moon would probably be safer. lol

NASA is paid taxpayer money to promote this nonsense.

I am dead serious.

The energy balance may never allow it, but the things we need to learn to do it are also things we will probably need in the next century right here on Earth.

You got a problem with that?

Of course it would be great to do it, it would also be great to cure all human disease and sickness. IMO the human sickness cure goal, far fetched as it is, isn't even comparable to the silly notion of finding some other Earth substitute and sprucing it up like on This Old House. There is no shortage of space for humans right here on Earth, and there never will be. The thing is, humans want to live in the most desirable spots, and the least desirable spot on Earth, as I stated before, is pretty well a paradise for humans compared to outer space. We are Earth mammals-we can colonize Space about as well as whales can colonize dry land.

What I wrote is just so much vague buzzing to you, isn't it?

The attempt, and what we can learn in the attempt, is the important bit.

If it should happen to not pay off with a viable human colony elsewhere, it still greatly increases the odds of a viable human colony on Earth.

Especially if DD and Totonelia are right, we are going to need all the skills we can get in that area.

It isn't vague buzzing-it sounds more like a sci fi fantasy yarn. Why not just send all the genius cyborgs into space (they will be here any day now). The Jetsons wasn't a documentary-it was a cartoon (there is a difference).

Why science fiction? We already have a permanent space presence with the ISS. It's not self-sustaining, but neither are the research stations in Antarctica.

You must realize that at some point in the future, the sun will fuse helium and destroy the Earth's ecosphere altogether. Unless the human race develops colonies in space, all of Earth's life forms will become permanently extinct (if we don't get hit by a large space rock before then).

NYC isn't self sustaining-you cannot compare Antartica to a Space station (check out Herzog's recent film).

Building a self-sustaining colony in Antarctica would be difficult as well, IMO. "Magnificent desolation" applies equally.

The Oil Drum....Where the acolytes of Malthus come to preen....

actually it's pretty easy to imagine - none of the advances will violate basic principals of physics

"the majority of the population may choose to live offworld"?

sure, with the next-to-non-existent space programs of the US and Russia in the lead? Have you ever looked into the space-weather problems of just a single one-way trip to Mars? They are pretty much insurmountable at this point - and when you get there, there's no there there (no breathable atmosphere, no drinkable water, no edible plants) - and that's the best place in the solar system after earth.

But I'm sure you are right, non-existent fusion reactors will save us all, non-existent space elevators and mooonbases will house us all, the next Green revolution will feed the 7,8,9 billion people breeding with all that available power - and we will kill ourselves with overuse of everything on the planet

"out new found backwardness"? try being broke and mortgaged to the hilt for generations to come - we've spent and spent and ran out of money and kept spending - so surprise! we can't pay for a space program

it's so funny that you are critical of "doomers" on this site as you live in a dreamworld where hard physical realities can just be science fiction-ed away

"To infinity and beyond!" says the toy Buzz Lightyear - but of course, he's just a toy, and a cartoon character at that...

But at least Buzz does come to admit that 'He's not really flying.. just falling, with style!'

Sounds like us.. except for the style part.

it's so funny that you are critical of "doomers" on this site as you live in a dreamworld where hard physical realities can just be science fiction-ed away

Yes of course, renewable energy is just science fiction. Don't even think about installing solar panels or converting your car to electric. It's too late now. This all should have been done 20 years ago. We just need to get the media to start reporting the end of the world, and everything will be good to go. Then we can all start picking out funeral plots. lol

How about for the purpose of developing the moon's resources?

Uh, wasn't that you, then? Check your classical mechanics textbook and rocket prices, and do the maths. The Moon is irrelevant (except as a source of tidal power -- one of only three sources that does not derive from the sun.)

Renewable energy is not science fiction, but changing over to it will not be painless. There are quite a few problems to be overcome, but the core problem, the biggie, is capital allocation. That is a political problem.

The energy we burn each year from fossil fuels is about the same order of magnitude as all the economically extractable energy we can get from wind, solar thermal, terrestrial solar PV, biomass, hydro, tidal, wave, and ocean current power combined.

That's all the potential, not just what's being used now - less than two percent of that.

It took 130 years to build up our capital plant for fossil fuels. Given that renewables are much more capital-intensive, to reduce our use of fossil fuels (in particular coal) enough to avert climate catastrophe, we need to repeat this 130-year effort in 15 years or less, and then do it again in the next 15 to 20. Meanwhile, demand is growing in the developing countries - we need to work faster than this if we are to stop them resorting to (low-capital-cost and cheaply available) fossil fuels out of impatience. It can be done -- technically, it's quite easy. But politically, with all the vested interests, it's the hardest problem mankind has faced.

(Note: numbers are not exact; but the essential problem is not affected by errors.)

By all means, install solar panels and convert your car to electric; but it'd be better if you installed superinsulation and rode a bicycle instead ... and lobbied your political representative, to counterbalance the brown envelopes ... advice she or he is getting from the fossil fuel and heat-engine industries.

I guess we're on the same side, but the people here see (dimly) how hard the transition will be. And, I think, they keep going over the options, hoping we've missed something. (Check the archives.)

Rocket price math is the very reason you would want to use the moon's resources rather than relying on the Earth.

Hello Conservationist,

Your Quote: "Yes it's hard to even imagine the advances that will take place in the 21st century."

Since you proclaim yourself to be a Conservationist: How about we start with a simple advance first==>stopping the Dieoff and/or extinction of bats from White Nose Fungi?
Bat fungus spreads fast

..The syndrome has spread across Pennsylvania, into Virginia and West Virginia and is expected to spread this winter into the caverns of Kentucky and Indiana. The die-off is "unprecedented in North American wildlife, at least in recorded history," says Dr. Thomas Kunz of Boston University...
From the National Park Service, US Dept. of the Interior:
..cave myotises, can eat about 600 mosquitoes per hour, and up to 3,000 mosquitoes per night...

I certainly can't imagine any TOTALLY FREE manufactured flying device that can capture up to 3,000 mosquitoes every night, silently in the dark, and also provide superphosphated guano for O-NPK soil enrichment.

Therefore: Please get back to me very, very soon with your invented, perfected, then manufactured replacement. I know I cannot physically swat 600/hour [one every 6 seconds], and I don't want to eat 3,000 mosquitoes every night so I can crap out guano the next morning.

I suggest you and your fellow inventors be extra clever by inventing just a male & female version of your machine, then programming them somehow to mate [better study pheromones and sensory systems real quick].

Then, we can move on to the 'next advance' of halting the dieoff and/or extinction of other species. How far along are you and your team on your TOTALLY FREE inventions to replace tuna, giant sequoia trees, gorillas, frogs, coral reefs, snow leopards,...

BTW, your invention team needs to work extra fast as:,0,30...
Federal endangered species list could see 29 additions

..Yellowstone sand verbena, Ross' bentgrass, Hamilton's milkvetch, Isely milkvetch, skiff milkvetch, precocious milkvetch, Cisco milkvetch, Schmoll's milkvetch, Fremont County rockcress, boat-shaped bugseed, Pipe Springs cryptantha, Weber whitlowgrass, Brandegee's wild buckwheat, Frisco buckwheat, Ostler's peppergrass, Lesquerella navajoensis (a bladderpod), Flowers penstemon, Gibben's beardtongue, pale blue-eyed grass and Frisco clover.
Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

We need to get off this rock and start exploring the rest of the universe


I'm sure you mean well with all your ideas. However, there is also a large element of misunderestimating of the complexity of our predicament.

Millions of years of evolution inexorably married our bilogical selves to this rock (Earth).

The mere fact that the biodome experiment failed should scare you.
We humans depend on an incredibly complex set of coincidents for our continued existence on "this rock", many of which we take for granted, like the fact that the spinning molten core at the center of our planet generates a magnetic field that aligns the ozone ions in the upper atmosphere and thus protects us from excessive cosmic radiation. We don't know how to build an equivalent set of radiation shields (except of course in the fantasy world of Star Trek). We don't even know how to make it back and forth alive to/from Mars.

Step Back,

These two cornies (cornicopians)have watched too much television and studied too little science to carry on a rational conversation with them.

It has been said that one should never argue with a fool(my apoligies,guys,as being mistaken is not necessarily the same thing) in public as the PUBLIC will not be able to tell which is the fool.

Ditto the guy who talks about Malthus acolytes.Malthus has been rolling in his grave laughing ever since he died-his work has been validated every single day since somewhere.

Of course he did not anticipate ff,but the folks who are laughing at Malthus don't seem to anticipate the DEPLETION OF FF.


Did you read your October 2009 issue of Scientific American yet?

Economist assures us that a breakthrough in oil recovery is invariably around the corner to capture all that "left behind" crude.

No drop left behind.
What a cool political slogan.

I always knew in the first place that it was going to be the economists who will save us.

To apply the "fish resource management" analogy, what we should be doing is adding to our supply( equivalent to allowing fish to breed in marine sanctuaries). Since FF supply is finite, this means adding to our renewable supply.
Does it really matter if we use 1%, 10% or 20% of the economy and the associated present energy use to build out renewables? If we don't the FF energy is going to be used on other activities.
How can we use too much of our present energy to build renewables? the solar or wind turbine employee and the capital investment will be either spent building renewable energy or spent building shopping malls or new cars or TV's.

Unless the renewable has an EROEI of less than 1.3, I don't see any downside in building wind capacity whether the EROEI is 5 or 50, but clearly the focus should be on the renewables that have a fastest payback( in energy terms), allowing faster expansion.

To go back to the fish resource analogy, protecting fast maturing fish species(3 years maturity) is going to allow a larger sustainable fish harvesting of this species than protecting slow maturing stocks that may take 30 years to recover.

Until population tops out (whether by control, pandemic, war or starvation is immaterial) then the reducing-the-number-of-heads problem outweighs all efforts to reduce consumption-per-head towards zero - which is what renewables is all about.
For instance, in a dedicated 'green' magazine, I read with interest the letter from an earnest family wanting to mitigate their 'carbon footprint' of a projected return flight to an overseas wedding. There was a cute photo of the family - three kids! Don't they get it? They just added 50% to an already overload, and they're worried about carbon??
My partner and I have pushed the boundaries, to see what you can get down to. Our house runs on one 50watt/3amp (max) solar panel, and we are on the wrong side of the 45th parallel.
It can be done, but it is of no use doing it, unless population is controlled, and unless everyone does it. Otherwise this is just the tragedy of the commons - if you don't use it up, somebody else will, so it might as well be you, oops oh dear, it's all gone.
There will be survivors of the dieoff, but they will be applying triage pretty hard to what exists - Cuba may be a clue - and you can bet it will go: water - food - shelter - security. I don't see the internet, the stockmarket, or air-traffic control, making it to the list.
I think what frustrates me most, is that those who saw it coming may not necessarily be the survivors....

Actually, you need more than 2 kids to sustain the population. If every family had 2 or less, the population would eventually be reduced to 0.

Would you mind jumping out of such simplistic extrapolations for a second?

It would take a long time with an average birthrate of under 2.0 kids per couple to moderate the population, at which point, I'm sure there would have been other corrections and adjustments.. it's not like we set up some 'World Policy Forever', and that's just what happens.

But don't you think it would make sense to work in that direction, to work among our various cultures develop a working link between our childbearing goals and our land's ability to support the families?
The Future of Humanity: a Lecture by Isaac Asimov

..So, that throughout the [21st] century, the birth rate will have to be lower than the death rate; and the death rate, we hope, will be low. So that babies will be comparatively rare, mothers will be never be multiple mothers very much. I imagine that it will be the kind of world where every woman will be expected to have no more than two children. If she has only one child, good. And if she has no children, fine.

I mean, people think of that, instantly they think of race suicide. "Oh my goodness! We're all going to vanish!" We will have billions of people on Earth, more than we have ever had prior to this century! And through all of history before, we've had lower populations. No one worried that we'd vanish from the Earth!! And besides, if it looked as though we were going to vanish from the Earth, all that has to happen is the word goes out: have babies. And you'd be surprised how fast we can make it up...

We have to get to 2 billion from 7 billion in less than a generation - best estimates are 2 billion can be sustained at subsistence level, perhaps 1 billion at our level, long term.

Volunteers will be - if you'll excuse the metaphor - thin on the ground. In that light, you need not worry overmuch just yet, about a slight reduction in a clearly overstocked species.


My recurrent criticism of this series is the conflation of two issues: 1) whether renewables have a high enough EROEI to be worthwhile for anything, and 2) whether that EROEI is high enough to maintain BAU.

You've repeated that conflation once again here:

The dilemma facing society, in my opinion (and as I raised in the first two parts of this series) is whether it is wise to spend our limited remaining endowment of surplus fossil energy in an effort to jump-start a large enough renewable energy program to essentially maintain business as ususal

Who says that the goal of jump-starting a large renewable energy program is to maintain business as usual? Again, I repeat, the important question is whether it is possible to use some part of the remaining endowment of fossil energy to jump start a renewable energy program large enough to sustain itself. If the answer is yes, then it is worthwhile to invest in those renewables.

The benefits of winding up with a sustainable, stable amount of renewable energy are of no small import, even if the net energy made available to human civilization is far smaller than that of the current fossil fuel age. At stake most importantly is global electronic communication, and the ability to conduct certain types of scientific research. (The two are related.) In my opinion, if human beings as a species are to figure out how to live sustainably on this planet, the ability (at least for powerful elites) to maintain a global consciousness through electronic communication is paramount. But this is not synonymous with BAU. It would take a fraction of current human energy usage to maintain these features of our current civilization.

In the current situation, the investment in renewables is still so small that invoking the precautionary principle seems hardly relevant. I have very serious doubts that even the most profound revolution in our national or global politics would result in a renewables crash-program large enough to make our "fall off the energy cliff" worse than it would otherwise be. Currently it seems more likely that even modest crash programs being talked about won't actually materialize. In my opinion, asking whether a crash program to sustain BAU is advisable is the wrong question to be asking. BAU is not sustainable and will not be sustained, in any case. Thus I think you're most on the ball in this post when you state:

we must 1) accept some smaller degree of energy AND 2) develop renewable sources of energy.

On another note, I thought the comments on this series were most interesting when we were discussing possible new and novel approaches to ERoEI calculations. I'm a little disappointed that those ideas have not been brought forward to the conclusion of the series.

Finally, of the questions you asked at the end of your post, the most interesting to me is

2. If not, **accepting the uncertainty in ALL potential options**, what framework for decision-making should guide society?

My answer is a scientific framework, sustained by educating the entire populace in basic scientific knowledge and a scientific attitude. If we can remember the basic ideas of physics and chemistry that Western civilization has learned over the last couple centuries, and marry that to more traditional societies' ability to observe and respond to their habitat, we might have a fighting chance of lasting longer than most other species that have lived on this planet. If in 200 years, some group of folks somewhere are still having a conversation similar to this one, that will be a good sign. If on the other hand we forget to teach any of our children the laws of thermodynamics, then forget it, I see humanity taking down with it as much of the biosphere as would a large comet collision.

I support your main points.
We make choices however outside of scientific frameworks.
Who got married because of a scientific framework?
With that caveat, you are right to emphasize that our BAU mostly involves the burning of vast tonnages of ff on ephemera. Of the 'essentials' even the N fertilizer currently used in world farming requires but 5% of natural gas usage.
Yes, we need to keep warm and fed, and globally need better control of communicable disease, and in developed world a much lower burden of mid-life chronic disease (the risk factors are rising again in USA and in middle-class elsewhere. )
Like our science heritage, these could take a small fraction of our current energy extravaganza to better maintain and improve on.
We can not know how renewables and nuclear will scale - but such new energy infrastructure is unlikely to be wasted in an energy constrained world especially if looking into horrors of rapid climate change. (My choice is for renewables because they are quicker and have fewer security issues.)
To me the real risk is that we will have wasted the non-renewables and will end with a lot of irrelevant unusable infrastructure, as in BAU. Attempting BAU seems the ultimate high risk strategy.

I think regardless of what is the best route, assuming any one could actually ever figure it out, we will ultimately try to do SOMETHING to stem the problem of lost energy whether it is successful or not. It is just in our nature.

For example, Hawaii had electricity at 50 cents a KWH during the $140 a barrel oil price spike last year and now they are all focused on getting alternative energy online. Whether it will succeed in replacing the energy they have now or not is irrelevant. It gives them a sense that they are working towards something not just sitting ducks waiting for the next wave of energy they can't afford. There will still be controversy and people against it but when more people are for it than against it because of price then things finally get done. I think the energy problems in CA during the Enron crisis had a similar effect and gas at $4 a gallon is having the same effect on the hybrid/small car market.

America will change itself when enough people agree that change is needed despite the cost, through voting or grass roots movements, or when their wallets are hit. Right now the grass roots movement on alternative energy and conservation is too small so we are just being dragged along by our wallets.

The EROEI argument re renewables, is perhaps flawed. If you were on the Titanic, you would have been perfectly justified ripping up the decking to make a liferaft. On the same basis, you can argue for the creation of a solar panel using oil, simply because when the ship goes down, you will be floating.
Compared to the alternative of not floating, you did the right thing. Who cares what you did, to what degree, to the doomed ship?
The only valid argument is where you mix the 'tragedy of the commons' in - the remaining oil will be used, if not by some, by somebody else. If you have a system in place to out-survive them (and any PV panel manufactured now will outlive oil) you are on the right track.
I've got a couple of 100-watters stashed away in the dark, and you don't know where I live.....