What is the Minimum EROI that a Sustainable Society Must Have? Part 1: Surplus Energy and Biological Evolution

The following multi-part series is taken from a paper that my colleagues and I published last year in the free, on-line journal Energies. You may access the entire PDF here. All references can be found in the pdf.

EROI theory is rooted in the biological principle that in order to survive each species on earth must procure more energy from its food than it expends attaining that food. From this basic principle the importance of energy surplus became evident, as food sources needed to “pay” not only for metabolism but also for reproduction and storage for leaner times. Part 1 of this three part series presents a brief history of the concept of surplus energy and how it has influenced both biological and human evolution.

1.1. Background: The History of Formal Thought on Surplus Energy

Energy surplus is defined broadly as the amount of energy left over after the costs of obtaining the energy have been accounted for. The energy literature is quite rich with papers and books that emphasize the importance of energy surplus as a necessary criteria for allowing for the survival and growth of many species including humans, as well as human endeavors, including the development of science, art, culture and indeed civilization itself. Most of us who have thought about this issue deeply would even say that energy surplus is the best general way to think about how different societies evolved over time. To chemists Frederick Soddy and William Ostwald, anthropologist Leslie White, archeologist Joseph Tainter, historian John Perlin, systems ecologist Howard T. Odum, sociologist Frederick Cottrell, economist Nicolas Georgescu-Roegan, energy scientist Vaclav Smil and a number of others in these and other disciplines, human history, including contemporary events, is essentially about exploiting energy and the technologies to do so.

While each acknowledges that other issues such as human culture, nutrient cycling, and entropy (among many others) can be important, each is of the opinion that it is energy itself, and especially surplus energy, that is key. Survival, military efficacy, wealth, art and even civilization itself was believed by all of the above investigators to be a product of surplus energy. For these authors the issue is not simply whether there is surplus energy but how much, what kind (quality), and at what rate it is delivered. The interplay of those three factors determined net energy and hence the ability of a given society to divert attention from life-sustaining needs such as agriculture or the attainment of water towards luxuries such as art and scholarship. Indeed humans could not possibly have made it this far through evolutionary time, or even from one generation to the next, without there being some kind of net positive energy, and they could not have constructed such comprehensive cities, civilizations or wasted so much in war without there being substantial surplus energy in the past.

1.2. Surplus Energy and Biological Evolution

The interplay of biological evolution and surplus energy is far more general, as emphasized a half century ago by Kleiber, Morowitz, Odum and others. Plants and animals are subjected to fierce selective pressure to do the “right thing” energetically; that is to insure that whatever major activity that they undertake gains more energy than it costs, and beyond that gets a larger energy net return than either alternative activities or their competitors. It is obvious that a cheetah, for example, has to catch more energy in its prey than it takes to stalk it and run it down, and considerably more to make it through lean times and also to reproduce. Plants too must make an energy profit to supply net resources for growth and reproduction, as can be seen easily in most clearings in evergreen forests where living boughs on a tree that are in the clearing are usually lower down than they are in the more densely forested and hence shaded side of the tree. If the bough does not carry its weight energetically, that is if its photosynthesis is not greater than the respiratory maintenance metabolism of supporting that bough, the bough will die (or perhaps even be sloughed off by the rest of the tree). (image)

Every plant and every animal must conform to this iron “law” of evolutionary energetics: if you are to survive you must produce or capture more energy than you use to obtain it, if you are to reproduce you must have a large surplus beyond metabolic needs, and if your species are to prosper over evolutionary time you must have a very large surplus for the average individual to compensate for the large losses that occur to the majority of the population. In other words every surviving individual and species needs to do things that gain more energy than they cost, and those species that are successful in an evolutionary sense are those that generate a great deal of surplus energy that allows them to become abundant and to spread. While we are unaware of any official pronouncement of this idea as a law, it seems to us to be so self-obvious that we might as well call it a law – the law of minimum EROI - unless anyone can think of any objections.

While probably most biologists tacitly accept this law (if they have thought about the issue) it is not particularly emphasized in biological teaching. Instead biology in the last century focused mostly on fitness; that is on the ability of organisms to propel their genes into the future through continuation and expansion of populations of species. But in fact energetics is an essential consideration as to what is and what is not fit, and many believe that the total energy balance of an organism is the key to understanding fitness. It took the development of double-labeled isotopes and the exquisite experimental procedures by the likes of Thomas et al. [10] to show how powerfully net energy controlled fitness.

Thomas et al. studied tits (chickadees) in France and Corsica and found that those birds that timed their migrations, nest building, and births of their young to coincide with the seasonal availability of large caterpillars, which in turn were dependant upon the timing of the vernalization of the oak leaves they fed upon, had a much greater surplus energy than their counterparties that missed the caterpillars. They fledged more, larger and hence more-likely-to-survive young while also greatly increasing their own probability to return the next year to breed again. Those of their offspring that inherited the proper “calendar” for migration and nesting were in turn far more likely to have successful mating and so on. Tomas et al. also showed how the natural evolutionary pattern was being disrupted by climate change; the tits that tended to get to their nesting sites too late to capitalize upon the caterpillars, who were emerging earlier in response to earlier leaf out, had lower survival rates. Presumably as climate warming continues natural selection will favor those tits which happened to have genes that told them to move North a bit earlier.

Howard Odum has argued that it is not just the net energy obtained but the power, that is the useful energy per unit time, that is critical in an evolutionary context. From this perspective there is generally a tradeoff between the rate and the efficiency for any given process; that is, the more rapidly a process occurs the lower its efficiency, and vice versa. Under a given set of environmental conditions it is not advantageous to be extremely efficient at the expense of the rate of exploitation, nor to be extremely rapid at the expense of efficiency. For example, a trout that feeds on drifting food in a rapidly flowing stream will acquire large amounts of food drifting by but at a low efficiency; i.e. much of the energy surplus created by the consumption of a large amount of food is spent in muscle contraction for the trout so that it can fight the faster current. Likewise a trout in slow water can be very efficient because its swimming costs are lower, but the slower water brings with it less food, and thus the overall energy surplus will be limited by the lower rate at which food is provided. Dominant trout will pick an optimum intermediate current speed, which will result in faster growth and more offspring [11]. Subdominant trout will be found in water moving a little faster or a little slower. In some experiments trout with no competitive power will be found drifting aimlessly in still water slowly starving to death.

This kind of tradeoff can be found throughout the plant and animal kingdoms and even rates of power plant operation in industrial society [12]. It explains why we must shift gears to stay near the middle of each gear range in a stick shift car when we want to accelerate, and why most businessmen once chose to take jumbo jets to cross the Atlantic rather than the Concorde or ocean liners. In fact it can be used to explain why the Concorde went extinct, and perhaps why the second Queen Mary was much smaller than the first.

Of course life in all of its diversity also has a diversity of energy life styles that have been selected for - sloths are just as evolutionarily successful as cheetahs, while warm blooded animals pay for their superior ability to forage in cold weather with a higher energy cost to maintain an elevated body temperature – the list is endless. Yet there remains a rate-efficiency tradeoff within each lifestyle. While drift-feeding trout choose areas of intermediate current to maximize the energy surplus, suckers have “chosen” through natural selection (i.e. have been selected for) to maximize energy surplus by processing lower quality food on the bottom, and probably have an optimum power output for that set of environmental conditions.

Nevertheless each life style must be able to turn in an energy profit sufficient to survive, reproduce and make it through tough times. There are few, if any, examples of extant species that barely make an energy profit – for each has to pay for not only their maintenance metabolism but also their “depreciation” and “research and development” (i.e. evolution), just as a business must, out of current income. Thus their energy profit must be sufficient to mate, raise their young, “pay” the predators and the pathogens and adjust to environmental change through sufficient surplus reproduction to allow evolution. Only those organisms with a sufficient net output and sufficient power (i.e. useful energy gained per time) are able to undertake this through evolutionary time, and indeed some 99 plus percent of all species that have ever lived on the planet are no longer with us – their “technology” was not adequate, or adequately flexible, to supply sufficient net energy to balance gains against losses as their environment changed. Given losses to predation, nesting failures and the requirements of energy for many other things the energy surplus needs to be quite substantial for the species to survive in time.

2. Application to Human Populations

Likewise human populations must generate sufficient net energy to survive, reproduce and adapt to changing conditions. Humans must first feed themselves before attending to other issues. While people in most industrial societies today hardly worry about getting enough to eat, for much of the world and much of humanity’s history and prehistory getting enough food was the most important issue. For at least 98 percent of the 2 or so million years that we have been recognizably human the principal technology by which we as humans have fed ourselves, that is obtained the energy we need for life, has been that of hunting and gathering. Contemporary hunter gatherers -- such as the !Kung of the Kalahari desert in southern Africa -- are probably as close to our long term ancestors as we will be able to understand. Most hunter-gatherer humans were probably little different from cheetahs or trout in that their principal economic focus is on obtaining food and for getting their requirement for surplus energy directly from their environment. Studies by anthropologists such as Lee [13] and Rapaport [14] confirmed that indeed present-day (or at least recent) hunter-gatherers and shifting cultivators acted in ways that appeared to maximize their own energy return on investment.

According to such anthropological studies as we have, the !Kung life style, under normal circumstances, generates a quite positive energy return on investment (i.e. generates a large surplus) from their desert environment, perhaps an average of some 10 Kcal returned per their own Kcal invested in hunting and gathering. In normal times these cultures had plenty to eat, and the people tended to use their time made available from their relatively high EROI lifestyles in socializing, child-care and story telling. The downside was that there were periodic tough times, such as droughts, during which starvation was a possibility. It is probable that our ancestors had a fairly positive EROI for much of the time, although periodic droughts, diseases and wars must have occasionally, or perhaps routinely, taken a large toll. Thus even though they had a relatively high EROI, perhaps 10:1, their populations tended to be relatively stable over a very long time, for human populations barely grew from thousands of years before Christ until about 1900. Thus even the relatively high energy return was not enough to generate much in the way of net population growth over time.

The rate at which plants and animals can exploit their own resource base changes slowly through evolution. All must adapt to climate and other changes, and animals must also adapt to the fact that their food is also going through its own defensive evolutionary changes. Humans are different, for the human brain, language and the written word have allowed for much more rapid cultural evolution. The most important of these changes were energy-related: the development of energy-concentrating spear points and knife blades, agriculture as a means to concentrate solar energy for human use, and more recently the exploitation of wind and water power and, of particular interest to this paper, fossil fuels. What is important from our perspective is that each of these cultural adaptations is part of a continuum in which humans increase the rate at which they exploit additional resources from nature, including both energy and non-energy resources.

The development of agriculture allowed the redirection of the photosynthetic energy captured on the land from the many diverse species in a natural ecosystem to the few species of plants (called cultivars) that humans can and wish to eat, or to the grazing animals that humans controlled. Curiously the massive increase in food production per unit of land brought on by agriculture did not, over the long run, on average, increase human nutrition but mostly just increased the numbers of people [15]. Of course it also allowed the development of cities, bureaucracies, hierarchies, the arts, more potent warfare and so on – that is, all that we call civilization, as nicely developed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel [16]. Throughout most of human history, humans themselves did most of the work, often as slaves but more generally as physical laborers which, in one way or another, most humans were.

Over time humans increased their control of energy through technology, although for thousands of years most of the energy used was animate -- people or draft animals -- and derived from recent solar energy. A second very important source of energy was from wood, which has been recounted in fascinating detail in Perlin [17], Pointing [18] and Smil [19]. Massive areas of the Earth’s surface – Peloponnesia, India, parts of England and many others have been deforested three or more times as civilizations have cut down the trees for fuel or materials, prospered from the newly cleared agricultural land and then collapsed as fuel and soil become depleted. Archeologist Joseph Tainter [20] recounts the general tendency of humans to build up civilizations of increasing reach and infrastructure that eventually exceeded the energy available to that society.

In summary, it seems obvious that both natural biological systems subject to natural selection and the pre-industrial civilizations that preceded ourselves were highly dependant upon maintaining not just a bare energy surplus from organic sources but rather a substantial energy surplus that allowed for the support of the entire system in question – whether of an evolving natural population or a civilization. Most of the earlier civilizations that left artifacts that we now visit and marvel at – pyramids, ancient cities, monuments and so on – had to have had a huge energy surplus for this to happen, although we can hardly calculate what that was. An important question for today is to what degree does the past critical importance of surplus energy apply to contemporary civilization with its massive although possibly threatened energy surpluses.

This is a quick terse review for those of us who have read Diamond and Tainter. The mention of animal traction and mechanized oil-powered equipment on farms would be a helpful addition.

It would also be helpful to note that some societies have created food surpluses that have resulted in a 66% of their citizens becoming overweight, along with 33% obesity.

A graph showing energy consumption per capita (especially agricultural) would help to make the points raised in the article.

"A graph showing energy consumption per capita (especially agricultural) would help to make the points raised in the article."

How can we quanitify per capita energy consumption in such a complex system? The inputs required to maintain our current civilization are so huge, varied and interdependent, it will be nigh impossible to do. Whatever number we come up with, I suggest we double it.

Not hard to do, add up the energy inputs, divide by the population;

Energy Use Per Capita - World Bank

And other sources are available as well to compare time scales and different demographics, such as;

I'm actually surprised to see the US as flat as it shows, and the world growing as much. Even the vaunted

Of course it's hard to say how efficiently such energy is used, and whether the numbers are accurate from a net energy perspective (no conversions are incorporated).

It is easy to see how a significant increase in Chindia could be fueled by a decrease in the US.

looks like grey energy is not included.

Grey energy is the embedded energy via exports, which have been exported abroad as the manufacturing base of US has been eroded.

Yet, you are right that even without embedded energy, the plateau is interesting.

Did you add in the energy from the sun over time on all the earth. We use that as well as all the stored energy of the sun that we call Fossil Fuels. Though water traveling downhill is part of climate pressures it is still driven by sunlight.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future.

some societies have created food surpluses that have resulted in a 66% of their citizens becoming overweight

I don't know that anyone really blames food surpluses; every agricultural region has a food surplus, while every urban region must import. You could say that that's unrealistic, as economics forces farmers do without to make ends meet, while money allows urbanites "all the food they can eat" (literally, if you hit the buffet), but the cause and effect then becomes much more than surplus=obesity.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of explaining peak oil/energy and resource depletion to the skeptics: Our economy/civilization is built and operates totally on surplus energy, and can't continue in its current form without it. Lots of it. "Enough" won't be enough. Thanks for the article!

My thanks also.
This is the information that keep me coming back to the TOD.

Yes, this is very good stuff, thanks. It's laid out nicely, and anyone new to these concepts who keeps reading will be sobered, I'm sure, by the time part 3 rolls around.

Of course, the convention of using EROI instead of EROEI as an acronym is inherently confusing and unfortunate in a world where EROI is defined differently by everyone except biologists, but an inhabited meme-niche in academic brainspace acquires resilient connections of its own, and academics in aggregate can seemingly no more vary from this evolutionary path dependency than ants can decide to spin spiderwebs. So we'll blunder forward with an unnecessarily confounding name for the thing, which makes lucid explanations like this one even more valuable and necessary.

One thing I liked about this article was the explicit mention that while the !Kung normally may have something like a 10:1 EROEI, that environmental realities periodically take that far lower. This is something I think few people have thought about, to the extent they've thought about the EROEI constraints to life at all.

In other words, that the EROEI fitness-space niche for species (particularly those with a relatively inflexible basal metabolic rate) must be "overaffluent" to allow survival through a reasonable range of net-energy bottlenecks. This "net energy resilience" tradeoff imposes an additional tight level of constraint when one looks at extended periods of time rather than short periods (which is rather de rigueur for a species or society). I think there will be an EROEI resilience coefficient which will become apparent for any given sort of species or society, to deal with the slings and arrows of outrageous stochasticity. In the case of the !Kung, in the simple case described, if their normal EROEI was 10 and their bottleneck-survival EROEI was 2.5, that coefficient might be around 4. Certainly this example may be wildly inaccurate, but it hints that civilizations may have a hard time in the longer term in making do with "best case" EROEI. (Particularly since we've opted to do the experiment of entirely messing up the climate while acidifying the oceans and killing off most other large species. What could possibly go wrong there?) Thus, species (and societies?) with a lower ERC (pronounced "urk", as in the last noise the last one makes before falling over) will likely be among the first to perish in global bottleneck conditions.

Many sorts of life exploit varying metabolic rates and even cryptobiosis, which reduces the net-energy-acquisition risk of a permanently "high idle speed". (One of the reasons corporations are so "fit" in our current economic system is their near-infinite metabolic flexibility).

I think that the rarified group of folks who think about EROEI as it relates to humans spend a lot more time thinking about "instantaneous EROEI" than on "sustainable EROEI", which you might consider to be the EROEI needed to maintain X population with X complexity level stably through X generations. Due to our poor tolerance for hiatus, there needs to be a resilience factor built in somewhere. Storable net energy is a valuable commodity in the animal world, so much so that a premium is paid for it by the organism. We've learned to take and utilize pretty much all energy stored by other organisms, and in doing so have lost sight of hard times while backing ourselves into a doozy.


Well said, Greenish.

I hope those of the readers and commenters who seem to believe that if necessary they can provide food for themselves with only on a small plot of ground will heed your words.Life is not about just the best case and good years with plenty of rain and a mild winter.

For those who may not be thoroughly familiar with the language, it can be translated more or less thus:;-)

That Mr. Murphy, him heap big fella,him mean as snake, him bring wind, him bring flood, him bring drought , him bring frost,him bring grasshoppers, him take your grub, him starve your sons and daughters.:(

Any body who expects to actually provide for themselves when and if tshtf better keep Mr. Murphy in mind, 'cause he spends more time with farmers than anybody else, except possibly warriors.

I don't really know enough to say just how big a margin of error is needed in planning for a self sufficient subsistence farming future. My opinion is that there is no real answer to this question as answering it it would depend on the assumptions made and the locality, as well as the abilities of the people involved.

In my part of the world,in the foothills and mountians of the southeastern U S,I am of the opinion that you need AT LEAST a couple of acres of GOOD LAND per person to have a reasonable shot at long term survival.

More land would be needed as a practical matter-the two acres or so are my estimate for food alone, considering the need for rotation of crops, fallowing some ground occasionally, growing some cover crops to maintain fertility,allowing space for access, fences,work areas, etc.You might find that you may need to grow a given crop in a given spot one or two years and then move it to another spot for four or five years to help control various bugs, blights , funguses, and so forth.

Another consideration is that while you can get say more green beans per acre by paying them a great deal of attention, you can generally get more beans PER DAY OF WORK using somewhat less labor intensive methods and a larger plot of ground.Rest assured that if you ever NEED to grow your own food, the odds are close to one hundred percent that you will have a great many other pressing and essential time consuming chores as well.

This is a place with decent soils, ample water, and relatively mild short winters and a nice long growing season.

There is one hell of a difference between theoritical yields-- the yields somebody can get in a really good year on forty by fifty feet by working it intensively as a self supporting hobby- and the actuality of day to day farming, even on a very small scale.

This said, even a forty by fifty plot can make a huge difference, and the experience gained there could make ALL the difference at some future time.

I am entirely in favor of very small scale farming and gardening as a way to SUPPLEMENT the family budget and diet-I just don't want anyone to make critical long term plans based on less than realistic estimates of the amount of food they can provide for themselves on a given amount of ground.

If we go back a few steps and forget about farming in the sense of chopping up the land to make it grow what we want it to grow. If we go back to a more basic life where we are planting 100's of species on any given bit of land, the more the merrier, so that one pest does not kill all of our food.

Not every piece of land in the world can support humans, Not every climae has all the water needed. We have to be more proactive than a hunter gatherer tribe, and less active than a farmer who chops up his soils every year.

Really I don't know how many people can live on earth without using buried sunlight. But we are here now, and we have the knowledge to do better.

The question is are we going to do better or not? The only answer is time will tell. And yes we have done some really bad things in the last few hundred years with all our use of buried sunlight and we are changing things, likely not for the good of us.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future.

ofm, not sure which pidgin you were trying to approximate there, but the transitive verbs generally require an -em after them.

Yes, these are languages with grammatical patterns, like other forms of language.

Unfortunately, it is hard for linguists to study them, since they are so powerfully ridiculed, even on rather intellectual forums, that speakers often refuse to use them in front of strangers.

Hi Dohboi,

Once upon a time I spent an hour or two reading about pidgins because I read omnivirously and indiscriminately, but all I can remember is a little about the way these languages arose and that some attempts have been made to formalize one or two of them.

I can't speak any pidgin language.But I know well enough what these languages are FOR, why they EXIST.They enable people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds to communicate at least in a basic fashion when niether party to the conversation is fluent in the other's language.Of course a pidgin may grow into a full fledged language in and of itself iIrc.

In a few respects I have an almost unique perspective among the commenters here.I grew up in a culture of relatively self sufficient, hands on farmers practicing a highly diversified form of agriculture utilizing a great deal of hand labor and relatively primitive technology in addition to the modern technologies.

I took my degree in Ag from a good university in the college known formally these days as the College of Agriculture and Life sciences.

There is a huge problem here in terms of communication-a lot of people that know something about ag but next to nothing about living and working on a farm where money and resources are very scarce, and a lot of people who have read a little and gotten a bee in thier bonnet are createing the impression that all the people who made thier living farming for centuries are using obsolete techniques, that they are behind the times.Of course this is true in some instances.

But they are also createing the impression that all these newfangled techniques that look so good on paper or a web page are ready for the big time and that the typical person will be able to utilize these techniques successfully.

IT JUST AIN'T SO.Fuel cells aren't really ready, the electric car isn't ready,cancer is still only curable part of the time, computers still crash.

We kept horses and mules on our family farms in my extended family for decades after we had tractors-simply because a good mule can literally drive himself on certain jobs and because sometimes the tractor either wouldn't run or could not be used under certain circumstances.

It took two generations for the older folks to feel safe in giving up the last of the draft animals-because the oral history of the family includes near starvation and extreme hardship when crops failed, or we were landless, or paying work could not be found.

Surviving , to paraphrase the coach, is not everything;it's the only thing.

So I made a perhaps feeble attempt at humor using corrupted pidgin to get my point across and get people to read the rest of the post.The message is CRITICAL-the schemes being so happily promoted by so many WILL NOT WORK CONSISTENTLY.

I actually cast myself in the role of the "backward" partner in the conversation.That's how I feel most of the time(not personally) in trying to get across my main point-that I am being outtalked by the city slickers, so to speak, and the audience is being sold a bill of goods in some respects.It's not that the goods aren't mostly good;it's more that they are being oversold.

The kind of farming techniques that are PROVEN TO WORK , and that can be utilized over large areas with different climate and soils,by people with a minimum of technical expertise and little capital or equipment, require a good bit of land.

If tshtf,it is going to be too late when you(rhetorical you) find out you have based your survival plans on a new kind of farming program still in beta and a very long way from ready for dependable and crash free use in the hands of amatuers.

Hey, farmer.

"They enable people from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds to communicate at least in a basic fashion when niether party to the conversation is fluent in the other's language."

Nicely defined. Put this way, what the world needs most now is 'pidgins' and speakers of the same, that can talk across all sorts of cultural, political and ideological backgrounds to come to some new understanding of our predicament.

I see city slickers here (of which I count myself as one, though most of my neighbors call me "Farmer John" since I am constantly out composting and tending my 'fields') ridicule country 'hicks' in various ways. Stereotypes of these kinds are part of what will keep people from appreciating the inputs from others who have important things to say.

Thanks also for reflections on your background. I think discussion on this may make for a good campfire session. I was raised for a couple years in the Philippines (parents were in the earliest years of the Peace Corps), and my folks, both missionaries' kids, were born in Mozambique (in a grass hut), and Korea. I wonder how many other posters have backgrounds outside the mainstream of American consumerist life. Perhaps something like this is necessary or useful to have perspective on the current general lunacy?

Murphy??? Just read a bit of history about him.


(And I concur with your thoughts about people trying to completely provide for themselves on a small plot of land.)

I also think that gardening/small scale farming is a good way to connect with reality,
specifically the interconnectedness of things, and the concepts of energy and matter flows.

I guess I tend to view the equation rather simply.

Thusly: The earth stores energy. In various and sundry forms. Flora and fauna and the end result of flora and fauna(such as oil,coal,etc).

When WE the earths inhabitants consume more of that energy than the earth can restore? We are then on a downward spiral. And points all along that trajectory indicate that once you sufficiently destroy some form of what the earth has (say underground aquifers) then it takes a very very long time, if ever, for it to be replenished by the earth(the earth includes space matter falling to it and the photons of the sun).

So we take out more than can be replenished? We will begin to suffer the results.

In my area I see it all the time. A timber cutter cuts a farmers timber. A huge oak(like the 170 yr old white oak in my yard) and it takes 170 yrs for another to replace it. BUT BUT if you cut down ALL the oak trees then they might(will) NEVER return. No seed stock. I have spoken to cutters and said "do you leave seed stock" they look at me like I am mad.

Around here the logging trucks never stop rolling. The farmers or landowners when times get tough call the timber cutters and the trees are ruthlessly chopped down. The land is left a huge ugly mess and erosion , wind and water, set in. They don't care. They want the money and the debil take the hindmost.

I am surrounded by woodlands. Beaten to hell by the massive ice storm of last winter and believe it or not the government is giving money to farmers and landowners to cut trees. Supposedly the ones damaged but is anyone checking? No. They get carte blanc to cut as they jolly well please and either sell or push it in piles and burn it.


Hi, Airdale. Around here they are cutting all of the mature pines because of the beetles. The Forest Service burns what's left to kill off as many beetles as they can, then they replant. Most of our hardwood mills are only accepting wood a couple of days a week. It seems they want to get the evergreens before the bugs do, but I doubt they're making much profit.

Airdale, It is happening here in New England also that absentee (mostly) landowners are harvesting timber for the cash. It isn't clearcut but it is close, within the restrictions allowed by the towns. No one seems to be interested in coppicing which would leave seedstock.

Ghung, we are having some older white pine taken down to improve exposure for the gardens and some PV we want to put in. The logger said the beetles have arrived in New England now so we will be losing more softwood. Many of our beech are diseased and the butternut are also. The forest dodesn't really look very healthy these days.

Some advice from experience: If you have beetles take the trees and put them to good use now. If you don't, the bugs will.
You can't beat the bug!

Hi Airdale,

Glad to see you made it thru the winter!

Here in Va the state is pretty tight on loggers and unless you are actually clearing the land for conversion to crops , pasture, or building, the law requires stream buffer zones, restoration of logging road beds, requires bridges over streams for skidding, and leaving seed trees-good sound specimens-unless the land is replanted plantation style.The foresters also strongly urge the landowners to go with a "best practices " package that is still more conservative in terms of protecting the environment.

But if somebody is only cutting a few acres, they may never see a state forester-they're kinda thin on the ground.

Good to hear from you, airdale, but sad to hear about the mayhem. I think a lot of us try to look at the ecological up sides of the recession--that people will be consuming less and starting to be more self-sufficient.

But desperate times brings desperate measures, like tearing down all or most of the trees in a once wooded, picturesque landscape. A (not too bright) friend of mind bought some land in rural Georgia as a remote refuge, but he didn't read the fine print--he hadn't kept the logging rights. One day, when the price of board wood was particularly high, a logging company swept in and left his idyllic haven a muddy, barren, desecration.

"We are then on a downward spiral"

Well put, on many levels. The spiral that hit me hardest recently, even though it may seem remote and abstract, is the release of methane hydrate from below the Arctic Sea on the Siberian shelf--an article just came out about it in the journal Science. There are estimated to be some 1.4 trillion tons of methane down there, and they are starting to bubble up.

Release of just 50 billion tons of the stuff over a short period, an event the researchers say could happen at any moment, would represent many times the global warming potential of all the CO2 that has been released since the beginning of the industrial revolution (since methane, over decadal time frames, has over 100 times the power as a green house gas as CO2).

I, and most of the others following this, am still hoping against hope that this will some how be a self limiting event, but it has all the earmarks of a strong positive feedback, or runaway train, or death spiral--whatever metaphor you prefer--triggered, of course, by our burning of massive amounts of ff.

Some reference articles and abstracts:




See also recent discussion at www.realclimate.org

Hi Greenish,

We've learned to take ....energy ...while backing ourselves into a doozy.

I like the "backing" image - implies a person getting into some situation with less than a full view of where they are going. And, by "doozy" I assume the predicament we have described before: huge population overshoot that defies the carrying capacity of the planet and all its attendant attributes: PO, GW, biosphere destruction, etc.

Down thread there is some discussion of the nature of humans that attempts to explain how we evolved to this point of impending crisis. I know we have been down this road before, but:

- explaining our predicament in terms of convention evolutionary dynamics is incomplete because we are unlike any other species - we can make choices about our place in the biosphere. All other species wait for a gene mutation to actually exercise a "choice".

- as Dawkins points out humans have another evolutionary process in play:

A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"[1]) is a postulated unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word μιμητισμός (/mɪmetɪsmos/) for "something imitated".)[2] Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.[3]

Richard Dawkins called for a re-analysis of religion in terms of the evolution of self-replicating ideas apart from any resulting biological advantages they might bestow. He argued that the role of key replicator in cultural evolution belongs not to genes, but to memes replicating thought from person to person by means of imitation. These replicators respond to selective pressures that may or may not affect biological reproduction or survival.[4]

- the question is quite simple: why are humans (presumably very intelligent and capable of implementing thoughtful decisions) unable to appreciate the planetary crisis we face?

- my answer is quite simple: we are blinded by mythology, (which began pre-science) that is perpetuated with the meme mechanism, that leads humans to believe that we are "special" (soul, afterlife, supernatural god, etc) that is unique to humans and not shared by any other species. We are simply unable to comprehend the problem because our worldview denies that we are simply one part of a complex biosphere.

- so here we are, incessant TV commercials for cars, ipods, junk food, clothes, jewelry, lavish homes, foreign travel, etc. The average person in the US considers a gasoline price over $3.00 a gallon to be somehow criminal. We think boob jobs and fast food is "normal". We love our segregated Churches. We love our cars and vote for more highways. We cheered when the US population went over 300M (400M is almost for certain in 40 years) We would never vote for (god forbid) a declared atheist.

I submit that the average US citizen is mentally crippled by religious beliefs (memes) and is therefore incapable of understanding our actual role in the biosphere. This is why we have "Backed into a doozy".

Don't blame mythology. It's a tool. It's what we do to justify what we do.............

Yes, but I think he is using 'mythology' here to mean any form of mass self delusion. Language, of course, is the primary factor that allows this kind of self delusion.

We have failed to properly understand ourselves as language using and abusing creatures. We have failed to see the great perils the development of this amazing communication technology (yes, it is a technology that has become hardwired in our bodies) poses for ourselves and our planet.

Dave wrote: "We are simply unable to comprehend the problem because our worldview denies that we are simply one part of a complex biosphere."

Yes, and no. SOME of us, including you, presumably, have come to have SOME comprehension of SOME of the problem, SOME of the time at SOME level. But mostly, even those of us who have some glimmering just carry on our daily business as if the world weren't coming to an end, for all intents and purposes.

Others, take your meme and turn it on its head--"We're just a small part of a vast system, so we couldn't possibly be having such a large effect."

The ability of the linguistic mind (or monkey mind, in Buddhist terminology) to twist and turn and rationalize and fool itself and others is quite phenomenal.

Hi dohboi,

SOME of us.... have come to have SOME comprehension of SOME of the problem..... even those of us who have some glimmering just carry on our daily business as if the world weren't coming to an end

I think you are right and I find this to be a real dilemma. My wife and I will engage in certain behaviors that we believe are least harmful to the planet (bike a lot, small car, energy efficient home, small garden, etc). We give a little money to organizations that we think are helpful (population connection for example). We vote for political candidates we think have some clue. But, beyond that we "carry on our daily business" as you say.

It is very difficult, especially at our age and health level, to equate anything more radical with having a significant impact on the overall problem. In addition, we are not inclined to be martyrs for any cause - we do believe in personal happiness as long as we are not harming others. Of course, when we pay taxes to a government that harms others with its war machine - then this is another issue. Not an easy problem to solve.

It sounds as if we are about in the same boat (except your wife seems to be a bit more 'on board' than mine, perhaps). I do a bit of work with the Sierra Club, especially to stop proposed coal power plants (which we just did successfully!), but they are somewhat limited in what they are willing to take on both conceptually and in terms of direct action.

"We vote for political candidates we think have some clue."

I'm glad you have found a few that fit this bill. Perhaps 'some clue' is rather minimally defined here?

Hi Ghung,

Yes, "blaming" mythology would be like blaming a shovel if I dug a hole in the wrong place. Did not mean to give that impression.

I encourage anyone who will listen to recognize that nearly all of us are burdened with delusions that were foisted upon us by parents, community, culture, etc. My hope is for more people to examine their most fundamental belief systems in the light the science and reasoning processes that we now have at our disposal. This is not easy - in my case coming to grips with a very religious upbringing was painful. However, I felt the benefit was a much richer life.

An example of how subtle (or not subtle) are delusions is when a politician ends a speech with "god bless America". Why do we so blindly accept such an irrational and supremacists statement? Why don't we use our critical thinking skills to openly challenge such a stupid statement?

Notice they almost never say "god bless all living creatures on the planet". And, why is this any different than ending a speech with "praise be to the Martians who have selected humans who hold US passports to be the only ones that will be protected when they purge the planet". Makes about as much sense.

god - pure mythology with zero scientific evidence
bless - grant us special favors
America - we get the favors and the rest of world doesn't because we are so special

Hi BikeDave.

Since you're addressing me I'll comment, but I'll keep it brief since this is a string about EROEI.

Before I heard of Dawkins' notions I had developed a working set of concepts something like his meme theory seems to be. Without going into the differences, I agree that there is parallel evolution per se going on in what Dawkins might call "memespace", and that religions are one class of "adaptive entity" which is evolving there. And moreover, that they are co-evolving in symbiosis of various sorts with humans, but they aren't really controlled by humans and their reproductive-fitness agendas overlap but are utterly distinct, like those of shark and remora.

There are all sorts of evolution going on; such as the exosomatic evolution of the human extended phenotype, another concept nicely framed by the prolific Dr. Dawkins. So for instance, the software version I'm using to compose this text is a part of my phenotype and has evolved from earlier versions; by rational programmers but in response to quasi-evolutionary competitive pressures, and propagating in another phase space. I'd say that religion has a lot less human direction than software, but it does respond to human inputs when it suits the contextual fitness of the religion.

The rather provocative claim I made a week or two ago is that humans in large groups aren't sentient, sapient, or sane by any reasonable standards. That we falsely attribute these qualities to humans in aggregate where they don't exist, because we subjectively seem to experience them as individuals. As large groups, we have a simple and somewhat dysfunctional unconscious and non-self-aware problem-solving ability, like a swarm of bees which grew too large for connectivity to work the way it was originally supposed to.

Individuals have a well-evolved brain which can be clever, and is even capable in principle of seeing past the rationalizations and delusions which have evolved with us. The surprising thing may be that it happens at all, not that most people don't attain it. Animals are evolved to do what feels good, and awareness past certain thresholds can be quite dissonant.

So another term might be "net energy wasted on biologically pointless memery gone wild", which biologists may assign the acronym TAXREBATE for maximum confusion. and so it goes.

why are humans (presumably very intelligent and capable of implementing thoughtful decisions) unable to appreciate the planetary crisis we face?

Because we are predators. Intelligent, but looking in general only for own benefit.

"- my answer is quite simple: we are blinded by mythology, (which began pre-science) that is perpetuated with the meme mechanism, that leads humans to believe that we are "special" (soul, afterlife, supernatural god, etc) that is unique to humans and not shared by any other species. We are simply unable to comprehend the problem because our worldview denies that we are simply one part of a complex biosphere."

However, the idea of having a soul, etc. does not seem to imply that our activities in this physical universe are exempt from constraint by its laws, and that includes those of physics and ecology.

This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of explaining peak oil/energy and resource depletion to the sceptics: Our economy/civilization is built largely on surplus energy, and can't continue in its current form without it. Lots of it.

I had a booth a festival this past weekend, since the people who tended to stop by were self selected by the fact that we were selling Solar Energy Products and services I was especially struck by the fact that not a single one was aware of peak resources let alone had connected the dots of the implications. Business owners seemed especially clueless. A very few of them were convinced that we would all be getting off oil to a new natural gas economy, the new BAU as it were, that would continue far far into the future.

Every day that passes I'm more and more convinced that most people are profoundly ignorant about the real world and it is an exercise in futility to even try to educate them.

"I'm more and more convinced that most people are profoundly ignorant about the real world and it is an exercise in futility to even try to educate them."

Could this be because they don't have the "surplus energy" to devote to the subject and its implications?

Could this be because they don't have the "surplus energy" to devote to the subject and its implications?

That's actually an interesting question. It leads to another question which is, what exactly are they devoting their surplus energy to, and what are the implications for their long term survival of diverting their currently available surplus energy from developing their awareness of their environment, and modifying their behavior in an adaptive manner that will allow them to survive long term as a species.

Sort of like a distracted young gazelle sunning itself while a hungry lioness approaches stealthily up wind. My guess is that like the genes in that gazelle their own, may be destined not to be passed on long term.

I believe that as it has countless times through the ages, Darwinian evolution will together with natural selection weed out those populations of species that continue to waste the diminishing amounts of surplus energy in ways that are energetically counterproductive or have become evolutionary dead ends.

Nature doesn't forgive wasting energy for long...

Interesting analogy FM and may actually be a simple explanation for the public inaction we see today. Most here probably understand herd dynamics. One basic advantage of herding is that the majority survive thanks to the weaker being picked off from the fringe. Essentially those on the "edge" of society are sacrificed for the good of the whole. That's seems to describe much of our fossil fuel history. The strong of our "economic herd" has done quit well up until now. The weak members unable to compete for resources took the hit for the rest of us. Just like with a herd of game animals we assume someone else will take the bullet for us. That has worked so well in the past their instincts tell them it will continue working in the future. But now we see some of those sentry animals (China, India) moving away from the fringe and potentially pushing us into the danger zone.

On a gut level it seems to make a lot of sense.

Yeah, Rock, the herd mentality works great.............up to a point:


Ha! Notice China and India crouched in the lower left.

Actually Ghung the "cliff hunting" method did come to mind as I wrote but the pizza guy showed up and I didn't want it to get cold. Except in our case it's hard to figure if anyone has really driven us to the edge or is it just a natural occurence similar to the LaBrea Tar Pits. But that doesn't even fit too well. Maybe it's just the nature of humanity being so different than the rest of the animal world. Unlike the bison we have the intellect to imagine that cliff out there but we choose not to accept. Like the old fable of the wolf that chews its leg off to escape the hunters trap. The wolf is neither brave nor cowardly. He is just being a wolf. He's just following his instinct. But the fable tells us man is basicly different: he can choose to stay in the trap and await the hunter's return. Then, despite poor odds, he might kill the hunter and remove the risk for the rest of the pack. As the tales goes this ability to choose self sacrifice seperates us from the rest of the animal world.

Hasn't seemed to quit work out that way.

You may be giving H. Sapiens too much "sapiens", Rock.
BTW, Hooters has a sign up, "Closed Due to Peak Oil". Better get out there and fix that drill!

Shouldn't Rock go to Twin Peaks instead? Seems more apropos.

That picture is a fine example of high EROEI. Proof that the desire for a high return is nothing new, and cross-cultural at that. The "First Nations" were more like us than my European ancestors wanted to admit.

The Europeans could idealize the Native Americans and revile (and exterminate) them, but couldn't see them as other humans struggling to live in an often unforgiving world.

Another advantage that strikes me about the herding metaphor, though, is that in a herd, not everyone needs to be alert to danger. You just need a couple sentinels on the look out, and the rest can feed and breed without much of a care.

But in our 'herd,' we have stopped listening, or we listen to the wrong 'sentinels--Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh rather than James Hansen and Richard Heinberg.

BTW, Hooters has a sign up, "Closed Due to Peak Oil".

Now the only thing more likely to get the attention of Joe six pack than that would be a sign that says: "We are Out of Beer Due to Peak Oil" I think ROCKMAN's rig would be back in production in what is colloquially known as a "New York Minute"

"We are Out of Beer Due to Peak Oil"

Truly the end of civilization as we know it! I'll have to brew my own. Another thought: I'm gonna have to kill 3 of my chickens just to get a dozen wangs. Man! Life's going to be tough.

interesting chickens you're breeding.

Each chicken provides four "wings" (two "drumettes", 2 "doubles") once they are cut up. It occurs to me that chicken wings are a good example of the things that will become more rare as agricultural resources decline. What is the net energy required to bring 2 dozen chicken wings to your table, egg to landfill?

and here I figured wangs were one per rooster like when I was a boy. I appreciate the clarification, and admire the reframing of a chicken carcass to get four wings off a two-winged bird; the wings were the least valuable part back in my youth before the advent of promotions and dippin' sauce, you could buy chicken wings for 3 cents a pound plucked and cellophane-wrapped at the Marsh grocery, and this was in the early 60's not the 1920's. But who'd want a wing?

In my crystal ball I see many euphemistic promotional reframings in our future. When life gives you lemons, re-brand them as pucker truffles and mark up the price. The EROI of convincing people to enjoy eating stuff that's cheap and available is quite high. Of course, EROI has little to do with EROEI except in the aisle with the academia nuts.

I used to buy cheap chicken part to make broth out of. Back in the late 90's you could get 10 pounds of Leg Quarters for under $4.00 around here, and even further back you could get wings, but either of them any more are higher in price.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future (maybe cheaper too)

Now we all know they are actually buffalo wings.

...but I guess if buffalo had wings, they wouldnta died falling over the cliff, just woulda flied away. (omigosh, I'm getting Peak Oil Loony)

True ghung. I really liked the premise of the wolf story but lately the way "we've" been acting it's starting to sound more like a fairy tale only a child might believe. Hooters is doing OK in this oil patch town. Might be the last one to close in the country when TSHTF. You know how them Cajuns luv them spicey wings.

Stop. You're making me hungry!

A crazy story about coyotes chewing their legs off: About twenty years ago my mom's trapper (when we still used traps) set 2 traps below a dead chicken. He came back to find two legs chewed off, one in each trap. He wasn't sure, but thought they were from the same coyote. I think that's when my mother told them not to use traps anymore. They started using hotdogs soaked in antifreeze after that, 'til my mom's golden retriever ate one and died. Since then we have learned to live with the coyotes unless they get after the chickens. Then it's 30-30 time! (More humane, ya know, and higher EROEI.)

My girlfriend is a vet and has treated animals poisoned with antifreeze - it is an incredibly cruel way to kill something, the animal dies poisoned by its own urine because the kidneys cease working and it can't pee. Glad you learned to live with the tricksters, all the govt killing programs have done is increase their litter size and induce them to breed at a younger age. So there are probably more now than at any time previous. I love evolution :)

A State biologist told me they are hybridizing with feral domestic dogs. They look like coyotes but are getting bigger. She said they'll breed to a feral domestic bitch, and after the pups are weaned they'll kill her. Figure that out from an evolutionary angle. My guess is that domestic dogs aren't worth much to the pack except for their genes.

Same has happened in Australia, with the Dingo. Scientific are begining to think that genetically pure populations may only exist on coastal islands, like Fraser Island.

perhaps more accurate analogy for us would be a wolf convinced by economists to chew off the wrong leg.

a distracted young gazelle sunning itself while a hungry lioness approaches stealthily up wind..more or less


No, they have too much surplus energy and therefore can afford to remain ignorant.

I think it is partly because they don't have surplus time, partly because in their lifetime everything has always gotten bigger, better and faster, but also because they believe that someone is in charge. They have been educated to believe the government is in charge and taking care of us. Whether or not they trust the gov't they live under, whether or not they like who they think is in charge, it is preferable to think that than to think that things are beginning to run out of control. I have been told, no problem, there are lots of oil wells in Texas that have just been capped up so we will use Middle East Oil first and then uncap those wells and voila we have all the power we need.

When the people find out that those who are supposedly in control (whether a beneficent government or the hated Illuminati) are not in control, nature is, I expect panic.

As Upton Sinclair wrote: "it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it."

Glad to see this old truism traced back a little farther than usual.

In varius forms it's been around nearly forever-I don't believe it is necessary to attribute it anymore,anymore than we need to attribute the basic laws of science to thier discoverer's ervery time we mention them.

Every day that passes I'm more and more convinced that most people are profoundly ignorant about the real world and it is an exercise in futility to even try to educate them.

The real question you should ask yourself is why the brightest people in fields like economics and energy production don't take the basic thesis of this article seriously when applied to the development of civilization.

The average person doesn't matter. Lets just take the living noble prize winners in economics, chairs at major university, the top guys in energy investing, the top strategists in oil production. Why don't these people share your view? Are you guys collectively the next Galileo?

The average person doesn't matter. Lets just take the living noble prize winners in economics, chairs at major university, the top guys in energy investing, the top strategists in oil production. Why don't these people share your view? Are you guys collectively the next Galileo?

Aside from the minor quibble that there is actually no Nobel Prize in economics, The official name is the Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel (Swedish: Sveriges riksbanks pris i ekonomisk vetenskap till Alfred Nobels minne). It is not one of the Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel during 1895, but is commonly identified with them.

Economists and energy investors in general, don't seem to be any better than Joe six pack, at understanding basic physics, let alone the reality, that their current good fortune is an historical aberration. Your reference to Galileo notwithstanding.


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

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

It seems that professors of Economics don't do too well in basic chemistry either...

We must educate people to see the need to examine carefully the allegations of the technological optimists who assure us that science and technology will always be able to solve all of our problems of population growth, food, energy, and resources.

Chief amongst these optimists was the late Dr Julian Simon, formerly professor of economics and business administration at the University of Illinois, and later at the University of Maryland. With regard to copper, Simon has written that we will never run out of copper because “copper can be made from other metals.” The letters to the editor jumped all over him, told him about chemistry. He just brushed it off: “Don’t worry,” he said, “if it’s ever important, we can make copper out of other metals.

Excerpted from Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy (transcript)”

Yeah, good luck with that!

Very interesting FM...thanks. One might assume that if Dr Julian Simon were still kicking he would be a big fan of the tar sands and oil shale.

Well, be careful. Economists are aware that there are physical constraints, they just don't think they are binding constraints because technological progress has increased the physical resources we can access and transform.

Oil is not an intrinsically valuable resource. Its value derives from the combustion engine and its availability derives from our ever improviing ability to extract it.

It's not surprising that given the 20th century's enormous economic growth (despite two devastating world wars) that economists have been lulled into a false sense of security.

And we ourselves must admit there is real uncertainty when conventional oil production will peak. Could be it has, could be we are riding the peak right now, could be Iraq could forestall for five to ten years.

I think the Oildrum crowd gets hung on the fact that resources are finite. No one cares if natural resources are finite or not. What they care is how big is the supply. Finite can be a very big number ...

Oil is not an intrinsically valuable resource. Its value derives from the combustion engine and its availability derives from our ever improviing ability to extract it.

Wow! You're kidding, right?!

I guess whale oil, or closer to home, coal, never had any intrinsic value either until someone invented the early steam engine and learned how to strip mine.

Did you graduate Summa Cum Laude in Economics and fail basic physics and chemistry? You don't think that a substance that can potentially release significant amounts of heat has intrinsic value regardless of the machinery which you will use it in as fuel?

I think the Oildrum crowd gets hung on the fact that resources are finite. No one cares if natural resources are finite or not.

Mind boggling!

What they care is how big is the supply. Finite can be a very big number ...

And so, central to the things that we must do, is to recognize that population growth is the immediate cause of all our resource and environmental crises.

And in the last one hour, the world population has increased by about 10,000 people and the population of the United States has increased by about 280 people. So to be successful with this experiment of human life on earth, we have to understand the laws of nature as we encounter them in the study of science and mathematics. We should remember the words of Aldous Huxley, that “facts do not cease to exist because they're ignored”. We should remember the words of Eric Sevareid; he observed that “the chief source of problems is solutions.” This is what we encounter every day: solutions to problems just make the problems worse. We should remember the message of this cartoon: “Thinking is very upsetting, it tells us things we’d rather not know." We should remember the words of Galileo; he said, “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same god who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” If there is one message, it is this: we cannot let other people do our thinking for us.

Dr. Albert Bartlett: Arithmetic, Population and Energy (transcript)

Do they teach the exponential function in Economics courses? Finite can get real small, real quick...

I guess whale oil, or closer to home, coal, never had any intrinsic value either until someone invented the early steam engine and learned how to strip mine.

...even worse - it found its value when the hydrogenation process was developed, whereby it could be made into margarine. Those 300,000 blue whales that died were largely rendered into tubs of margarine for the European market.

Yes, but one thing I think beck got at least partly right was this point:

"It's not surprising that given the 20th century's enormous economic growth (despite two devastating world wars) that economists have been lulled into a false sense of security."

I would go beyond this and say that the reason classical and neo-classical economics has had any traction is that with the development of coal then oil and NG resources, for 150 years or so it did seem as though there weren't any hard limit, that growth could go on forever, and that people could be little self maximizers in this ever-expanding universe. FF enabled this kind of economics to flourish.

Just another toxic substance created by our addiction to FF that helped destroy the world.

What is FF?

Fossil Fuel

Porge, quit making stuff up! You know as well as anyone that it really means Fraudulent Financials ;-)

That too.

What I find ironic about all this bashing of Economists is that my first exposure to problems of resource constraints, the exponential function,global warming, oil shortages, and population growth was in courses I took in undergraduate economics. This was in 1969. Maybe I was just lucky enough to go a school that was concerned about such things. And btw, my first exposure to the 2nd law was in an economics course.

The working economists, however, tend to ignore these realities. Perhaps they know where the money is. It is not in telling people that the tooth fairy is dead.

My favorite economist was Kenneth Boulding who was aware of all these issues and warned us that we need to address them way before his time.

My second favorite economist was Herman Daly.

In addition, I took a course in ecological economics in 1972.

I don't think economics is inherently cornucopian. Just because one recognizes the fact that resources are subject to substitution, does not mean that one believes that this will hold true at all times forever. Thus far, we have been a bit lucky. In the future, we will probably be less so.

But who really knows? I am always willing to listen to someone who has discovered a miracle.

Economists, like most people, are whores, and know which side their bread is buttered. He who has the gold makes the rules and all that. But an intellectually honest economist would not propose that there will always be a solution just because substitution has worked in the past.

My main takeaway from my studies in economics is that resources are limited and one should generally seek the highest returns on money, energy, labor, or whatever, first. This happens to be a way to make money but also happens to be a good way to manage resources and increase efficiency.

The most dangerous fallacy in my estimation is the over-reliance on GDP to measure welfare. Just because the river is flowing doesn't mean it is doing anything useful.

Another takeaway is that we should avoid waste wherever possible. But maybe that is just because I am a penny pincher.

Another takeaway is that we should avoid waste wherever possible. But maybe that is just because I am a penny pincher.

But this is not at all what the result of the current application of main stream economics.
I think that the system of free market capitalism (or what ever you want to call what we are doing) wastes resources like crazy and the pursuit of "money" is the reason.
As long as money has no anchor in the resource side of the economy it will always be such.
Energy based economics where we first measure the potential energy production rates available and then use it as the metric for all potential economic activity is the only way to maximize the efficient use of what we have left while simultaneously maximizing the quality of life for all humans. This will also minimize the damage done to the planet.

That is not true.

Economics recognizes that there are benefits and costs associated with goods and services that are not reflected in market prices. The benefits and costs are called 'externalities'.

Clean air is an example. CO2 emissions would be another.

Both are 'goods' that the market system will not value. Buyers rarely consider factors such as clean air or CO2 emissions when considering what to buy.

Since maximizing economic efficiency requires taking these 'externalities' into account, that opens the way to taxing and subsidizing goods and services to reach the optimum.

Simply put, if you think CO2 emissions are bad, tax goods and services based on their marginal contribution to CO2 emissions. A carbon tax.

If you believe dependence on foreign sources of energy is a 'bad', tax foreign sources of energy.

Europe has gas prices twice the American level because Europeans decided that discouraging petrol was a worth goal.

By the way, the worse offenders in terms of waste was the Soviet Union since prices used not used to allocate oil, but rather five year production targets.

If you believe that markets allocate energy resources efficiently in the short run, but are myopic in the long run (a plausible idea), then a tax or subsidy might be the answer.

That response is to tstreet right?

I believe that the whole Adam Smith market thing has run it's course and we need to make some sacrifices.
We need a resource/energy based approach that also takes into consideration long term and even unintended consequences. The time for unlimited economic freedom and use it up before the next guy does is over.

Furthermore, all the taxing does is screw over the poor and the parasites that caused all the problems don't feel a thing and keep right on wasting and destroying.

The Market caters to money and that is a very stupid and undirected way of doing things.

And then there is the problem of the corrupt bast@rds that collect the taxes.

I don't think economics is inherently cornucopian.

No one is saying that absolutely everything in economics is wrong.

However, it should be recognized that economics is FF (Fraudulently Framed).

Take a phrase like "goods and services".

Ever wonder why economists don't also talk about "bads and disservices"?

It's because they don't want to admit that an economic system can produce such things. It's because it will make the math more complicated. It's because it will force practitioners to go out into the field and start measuring all the "bads and disservices" that the GDP produces.

tstreet, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Please consider volunteering to write articles on how you think the economics profession can reinvent itself through the consideration of resource constraints.

Economists are affected by what happens in the world around them.

The Rome of Club made a set of extremely naive forecasts that were miserably off target.

Those forecasts failed for several reasons. One important reason is that the Club of Rome assumed no improvements in energy efficiency.

They assumed the rate of increase in economic growth after the oil shock as before and assumed that oil was a fixed function.

If you read this recent book by Jeff Rubin, who is a peak oil believer and a business economist, he points that radical efficiency improvements in response to the quadruppling of oil prices in 1974 undercut OPEC production discipline.

Nonetheless, I was trained in economics and time series and I have no trouble with the peak oil thesis.

My only issue is that there is real uncertainty about the timing.

Really only the Saudis know ...

"The Rome of Club made a set of extremely naive forecasts that were miserably off target. "

Please state what you believe these 'forecasts' were.

Now read what Matthew Simmons had to explain to a bunch of people who never even read the book.

My only issue is that there is real uncertainty about the timing.

Really only the Saudis know ...

Right Roderick. That is why Saudi-Aramco is planning a CO2-EOR project in Ghawar and that is why they are looking for oil deep under the Red Sea. So the world is listening to what they say, but the observer is looking at what they do.

Take away the combustion engine and the value of oil sinks over night.

Any idea how much oil is used by the food-industry ?

It is ridiculous to claim that physics determines the value of oil. Without demand there is no value.

With everyone not breathing, there is no demand for oxygen.

And technology is key.

Most people confuse technology with energy.

Although oil is very important, particularly for producing an amazing variety of chemicals, the technologies exist today to sharply curtail demand.

Let 'them' throw all those technologies at the market and force the people to buy them. Problem solved.

You are right of course, FMagyar, but you're wasting your time. Some cornucopians are best ignored.

Hi Fred,

I have a piece of advice for you. Don't write anything you would not be willing to say in person. It's easy to hide behind an email account and a phony name.

Insulting people on email does not impress me.

My point is that the value of resources is a function of the available technology. Oil has no intrinsic value. It's value is a function of the available technology.

Take away the combustion engine and the value of oil sinks over night.

It is ridiculous to claim that physics determines the value of oil. Without demand there is no value.

Both physics and technology matter.

And technology is key.

The OilDrum adherents have little credibility because they assume technology is static.

Although oil is very important, particularly for producing an amazing variety of chemicals, the technologies exist today to sharply curtail demand.

It is all a function of public policy and will.

And by the way, the Club of Rome gang was so badly discredited during the last century that I surprised to hear you trying to resurrect.

Exponential growth of 2% to 3% a year is quite possible if there is sufficient technological progress.

Oh, and the best recipe for reducing population growth? Economic growth ...

It is close to being a demographic law that the emergence of a prosperous middle class reduces fertility (number of births per household).

Insulting people on email does not impress me.

I'm sorry if you felt offended.

I try very hard not to insult people either in person or via textual posts such as here.

Having said that I will ridicule any ideas that I find to be lacking in substance or especially those ideas which contradict physical reality. Feel free to ridicule mine if you can show that they are deserving of ridicule. I will not only not be offended but will graciously thank you.

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.
Richard Feynman

Exponential growth of 2% to 3% a year is quite possible if there is sufficient technological progress.

Let me suggest you get your self a chessboard and put a single grain of rice on a square in one of its corners, then place two grains on the square next to it and then four on the next and eight on the next and keep doubling the number of grains till you have reached the 64th square...

let me know how you do. You can reach me on my posted email and if you manage to do as I asked I will give my phone number and home address as well... until then good luck and forgive me if I ROFLMAO!

It is close to being a demographic law that the emergence of a prosperous middle class reduces fertility (number of births per household).

And what would the collapse of a prosperous middle class do to fertility rates, do you think?

Correlation is not causation.
I have read that the big reason for prosperity apparently reducing birth rates is more distractions to replace sex.
The Television is the best birth control method ever devised unfortunately it is also the most effective reducer of intelligence ever devised also.


And by the way, Fred, if you had done your homework you would know economic growth does not require proportional increases in energy.

World crude oil demand grew an average of 1.76% per year from 1994 to 2006, with a high of 3.4% in 2003-2004.

World economic growth was approximately double that.

Why? Efficiency improvements.

I guess chemistry and physics is not a good guide to economics ...


If by growth you mean GDP that is a freakin fraud.
How much of GDP was just Wall street bullsh!t money changing accounts around. And then there is the colossal fraud that was the FIRE economy.
Wake up the game is over.
If you believe the Government numbers you are a fool.

Nor do emeritus professors of computer science do so well in chemistry.

John McCarthy at Stanford has this bit of non-sense:

where he
* arbitrarily assumes 1000K temperatures to separate metals from "country rock" (i.e. the plain rock that makes up the landscape), and
* conflates the "Gibbs free energy" with the energy necessary to separate ("free"?) components of a mixture or compound.
* hand-waves the "energy costs associated with breaking the chemical bonds associated [sic] the minerals."
* thinks that: "The one case in which second law costs of separation are probably significant is in the desalination of water. The reason is that fresh water is required for agriculture in quantities much greater than all other substances used by our civilization."

and of course trumpets the Simon-Ehrlich bet.

He's such a brilliant guy when it comes to computational logic and the like - the contrast is startling.
A sobering reminder of the limits to knowledge and thought, and how hard it can be to be correct or know/learn one is wrong.

He's such a brilliant guy when it comes to computational logic and the like - the contrast is startling.

Yes but GIGO still holds... I think it also underscores the problem of extreme specialization if one doesn't have a solid grasp of the basics then no amount of brilliant logic will lead you to the right conclusions.

1) They are just people. My experience are seniors pushing their project and their life and taking care of employees. They also have not time for considering topics "too far away from their central research". Too often. Sometimes over a beer late at a conference. Rarely a scientist changes to a new topic, it takes years to get new expertise.

2) The personal experience. It is really hard to approach this, because usually this thought will require personal change in everyday life. That is still a huge hurdle, even for "almost enlightened guys".

3) The broad strokes, again, so many topics are intertwined, that it is hard to keep overview. Todays
researchers are used to divide questions in to smaller parts - not the optimal approach top get a handle on these "interdisciplinary" questions.

4) and not easy to get funding for. Society's response to Club of Rome are not yet forgotten. Do a respected leader really want to take the risk? Some do, sure but not many. Often after fame is reached something can be changed (Gates? Hansen? A Jolie?...) at less risk, or in retirement. Only rarely someone does the long hard fight to make a change in uphill (Keeling?).

I hope I will stick to the right side ;)

no 5) You're fundamentally wrong and vast numbers of very smart people are right?

There's no chance of that?

Almost every economist, including all of those in positions of power, thought things were going fine in 2007. Only a few upstarts predicted a crash, and they weren't world-class "experts".

Economists provide their own empirical proof that economics is not a science.

Politicians and regulators do the same for policy creation.

Almost every economist, including all of those in positions of power, thought things were going fine in 2007

Either that or regardless of their lack of understanding of basic physical sciences they were, many of them even at the highest levels engaged in unethical behavior and running what basically amounted to fraudulent Ponzi schemes with the regulators apparently looking the other way.
Lehman Bankrutpcy: 'Repo 105,' Firm's 'Accounting Gimmick,'

Now, I have to call you to task.

What does Lehman's repurchase agreements have to do with economists?

Is this is not stretch?


What does Lehman's repurchase agreements have to do with economists?

The economists at the NY Fed knew exactly what was going on at Lehman's and if they weren't directly complicit they were certainly derelict in their duties.

Hi Fred,

You're making things up.

The New York Fed economists are mostly doing research on topics related to macroeconomics and monetary theory.

The Fed's supervisory powers are focused on commercial banks. Lehman is an investment bank.

Big difference.

Again, don't say anything on email that you are not willing to say in front of live people.

You're making things up.

The New York Fed economists are mostly doing research on topics related to macroeconomics and monetary theory.

The Fed's supervisory powers are focused on commercial banks. Lehman is an investment bank.

Big difference.

You don't say?


Geithner and Bernanke's Possibly Criminal Roles
Lehman Brothers Scandal Rocks the Fed
by Mike Whitney l ICH
After a year-long investigation, court-appointed bank examiner Anton Valukas has produced a deadly 2,200 page report which details the activities that led to the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy. The report is a keg of dynamite. The question now is whether anyone in government has the nerve to light the fuse. Valukas provides powerful evidence that Lehman executives were involved in “balance sheet manipulation” by implementing an arcane accounting procedure called “Repo 105” which masked the bank's true financial condition from investors and regulators.

According to Valukas, Lehman was “Unable to find a United States law firm that would provide it with an opinion letter permitting the true sale accounting treatment" using Repo 105. So, Lehman executives went outside of the country in an effort to enlist the support of a London law firm that would approve the procedure.

It is impossible to overstate the significance of Valugas's findings. The report exposes the opaque but central role of the repo market which provides essential short-term loans for financial institutions. (Lehman used repos to conceal the full extent of its collapse, by dint of the amount of leverage it was using, meaning the pitiful asset anchor tethered to a vast zeppelin of debt) More importantly, it shows the cozy and, very probably criminal relationship between the country's main regulatory bodies and the Wall Street behemoths. The activities of the New York Fed (NYFRB), which at the time was headed by Timothy Geithner, is particularly suspect in this regard. The report should trigger an immediate Congressional investigation, probing the whole affair and most importantly the role of the Fed.

I'm sure Timothy Geithner was so engrossed in his research in macroeconomics and monetary theory that he just couldn't be bothered to worry about what was happening at Lehmans. Right!

This isn't correct. A large # of economists, including Krugman were talking about a housing / credit bubble. Only the Chicago school ignored the obvious.

A large number is still a small fraction. Roubini was a no-name professor. Krugman got the Nobelish prize in 2008 (IIRC) but wasn't exactly a mainstream voice. The Chicago school has, and has, the seats of power and influence in the Fed, Treasury, and major banks and investment firms. Greenspan was the top of the heap, and one of the most powerful voices in the world, yet he was admittedly wrong (not to mention generally incomprehensible).

Even some of those few who saw bubbles as an issue did not foresee a systemic crisis. The vast majority (90+% IIRC) of economics said sub-prime housing was a "contained crisis" even while contagion was growing.

Most mainstream economists need their theories to be correct (or more properly, for the behavior of the markets to be in a region where their models function) because they make money that way.

So what if a handful of academic economists and bloggers were 100% right? Who listens to no-names with no wealth and little to lose? What lobbyists do they influence? Nobody except for little contrarians like those you find here.

It wasn't just academics who were warning of a bubble. Where I live, the chief of one of the top three economic research bureaus -- an advisor to the government and to large corporates -- was warning of a bubble in 2005 (and 2006, and 2007, ...). But that's not the point I want to make here.

The mere fact that there was disagreement among properly accredited economists is telling in its own right. It tells you that economics is junk.

Let me explain by means of a hypothetical example: The German central bank raises interest rates. Will the Euro to US Dollar exchange rate go up or down?

This kind of event happens all the time in economics, but still, we often get one economist predicting that the Euro will strengthen because Euro-denominated debt is more attractive, and another saying no, this tightening in the European economy will put growth at risk, so the Euro will weaken.

That's pretty typical of the kind of thing we see all the time in the business newspapers. I'm sure you've read hundreds of news items like this hypothetical example. Something fairly routine happens; one distinguished economist says A will happen as a result; another equally distinguished economist says no, the opposite of A will happen as a result of this same event.

The "subprime crisis" is pretty routine except for its scale. There have been plenty of bubbles -- even plenty of housing bubbles -- before; many books have been written dissecting them. Bubbles regularly feature in the training of economists. This one should not have been a surprise, and there should have been no dispute about its consequences.

So: a routine event, and opposing predictions made by trained professionals in good standing. What's the problem?

The problem is this. If, in a learned discipline, legitimate but opposing predictions are made about the consequences of a routine event, then what is being practised is not science. This is exactly the case both for my hypothetical example, and for the subprime bubble. So economics is not a science. It's -- at best -- a "pre-science," like alchemy, or astrology, or the doctrine of signatures.

In the sciences, there is plenty of debate, but only about things at the border of the domain of knowledge. No trained physicist or chemist disputes routine stuff like the quantity of energy released by chemically combining two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom - this is now well inside the domain of agreed knowledge. The arguments are about the effect of protein shape on chemical reactions, or high-temperature superconductors, or superstring theory.

So an alternative reading is that economics has no domain of agreed knowledge -- it's "all border". Which amounts to the same thing: no trained economist can make reliable predictions.

So why do political leaders listen to economists? And why do leaders continue listening to economists when their predictions turn out wrong, over and over again? Psychology has some of the answers.

"Economics is an ideology parading as a discipline." Herman Daly

"So economics is not a science. It's -- at best -- a 'pre-science,' like alchemy..."

This is an appropriate comparison. Whether they knew it or not (some of them did understand, but would not have described it this way) alchemists were engaged in psychological explorations. From a Jungian point of view they were dealing with something that was almost completely unknown to them — the nature of matter — and so they projected a detailed process within themselves, and, by extension, the human psyche in general, onto this screen. They used the terminology of their day when dealing with mysteries, which was the language of mysticism and religion. From Alchemical explorations some early discoveries in chemistry and medicine arose, and it was probably a necessary precursor to those sciences.

Today "The Economists" by which I think we mostly mean classical and neoclassical economists represented by the Chicago School and Free-Market fundamentalists (but maybe almost all economists) observe and experiment and pronounce theories based on a reality which they only acknowledge in part. As such modern economic theory is more an ideological and psychological exposition. The ideologies of the economist and their basic psychological orientation to the world are projected outward and are reflected in their theories of the functioning of a reality they only incompletely acknowledge and understand.

This of course is nonsense to an economist. A friend who is an experienced economist feels that I am deluded and that my "friends on OilDrum" are too. How is it that we could have this knowledge and revelation about the nature of energy supplies when the "oil industry" and other industry professionals don't see it? How is it that we could have this new understanding which has escaped the people who make it their business to study the way markets and economies work? A free market and human ingenuity will solve the problem. He can blog on about the most opaque and abstruse details and instruments of finance and the behavior of the economy, but (imho) completely miss the writing on the wall written in the language of biology and geology, and (again imho) in the language of common sense.

I would never claim economics is a science. It is difficult to falsify economic theories and the Popper definition of science is that science is concerned about theories (explanations) that can be falsified.

Although there has been experimental work, it is still very early stages.

But lots of things are not science and still have value. All the way from aesthetics to the ethical judgments that Drum Oil participants make.

I have not actually seen anyone explain

Also your statements about forecasting are a bit misleading.

If a time serious is subject to big random shocks, then it doesn't matter how well you understand the process, your forecasts will be still lousy.

If the probability distribution has fat tails, forecasting is impossible.

No one considers good forecasts to be the defining property of science.

I wasn't placing complete on economists.

My overall point is that it's not wise to acknowledge that there are many very bright, knowledgeable (not me) people who have a different view. These ideas here shouldn't be held like religion or sport.

3:1 EROEI for sustainability is a strategically critical issue.
Hall's Fig. 2 balloon graph of EROEI vs total energy use by type is insightful.

Oil's EROEI declines from 100:1 in 1930 to 30:1 in 1970 to 20:1 today.

Coal's high EROEI of 65:1 is noteworthy, compared to biofuels at < 1.

Photosynthetic energy capture ~ 3x greater than coal use.

Thermochemical solar conversion efficiency is ~ 10 x higher than photosynthesis. EROEI should also be comparable or better than the 20:1 shown for Wind. Solar thermal/thermochemical has potential for large scale energy and fuel with high EROEI.

PS Note Murphy's "evolutionary" energy law: "every surviving individual and species needs to do things that gain more energy than they cost".
This requirement of net energy or EROEI highlights the foundational "chicken and the egg" energetic conundrum of an abiogenic origin of life.

I am not sure EROEI is rich enough (enough dimensions) to capture all the issues.

Yes, the photosynthetic capture is better than coal, but so what?

I do not want to be a plant and coal may still be cheaper than ethanol-based fuels.

And wind power is more expensive than nuclear and your beloved solar has an efficiency that rarely exceeds 15%.

And that last figure comes straight from solar power engineers working in China.

"wind power is more expensive than nuclear"

We'll have to call you on that; sources for new wind versus new nuclear? No stranded cost sleight of hand, either.

"solar has an efficiency that rarely exceeds 15%"

So what? What is the efficiency of your roof right now? Solar PV on it would increase the efficiency infinitely. Efficiency concerns about solar are a red herring.

One might as well wonder about the efficiency of oil in the context of all the sunlight and buried biomass it took to create that oil in the first place, not even considering the cost of discovery and extraction.

But I digress. Efficiency is nice, and everything else being equal, more is better. On the other hand, 15% works quite well if one can significantly reduce the costs of the solar cells required to produce the electricity. This is occurring as firms become more efficient in manufacturing.

But I still wonder about firms like Nanosolar which was supposed to mass produce thin film solar through a printing process. Was that just hype?

"But I still wonder about firms like Nanosolar which was supposed to mass produce thin film solar through a printing process. Was that just hype?"

If Nano doesn't do it, someone will. $1.37/watt! We're getting there:

"Efficiency concerns about solar are a red herring."

Oh, you must be a cornucopian since costs don't matter. :)

Talk to solar power engineers. They will tell you the great challenge is the lower energy conversion rate.

Now you are the one making things up. I happen to be an engineer who has designed a few solar power systems.

Pundits, trolls, and those who are confused by them bring up false concerns that solar power "efficiency is too low" without really knowing what they are talking about.

First, there are no fuel costs. None, nada, zip.

Second, space concerns are not really a problem, because there are more acres of rooftops, parking lots, roads, etc where sunlight is falling unused than is needed to power the US. For example, I easily power my energy efficient house. Pundits often try to say "we'd need to cover the state of xxxx with solar panels, can't do it!", though either ignore the obvious or it does not occur to them.

Third, I said nothing about costs. Indeed, some of the more 'inefficient' PV panels are the best kWh/$ values (e.g., thin film).

The real present concerns DO center around cost, and with solar thermal, where the best places are with respect to population and industrial centers.

Want to try your hand at it? Download Solar Advisor Module and get back to us. Need help? Take the training, I found it to be just what was needed.

And here's a suggestion for you (seeing as you like to give them to others) - drop the pompous, arrogant facade, though it seems that this has been communicated to you in other forums without success...

I'll look forward to the rest of the series; always an interesting topic.

The way I have looked at the same idea is a little different, and maybe easier to visualize in context than EROI:

If the basic resource underlying civilization is food, then just by looking at food production we can summarize a large number of "causes" and get a good idea of the complexity a society is capable of.

First, we can divide a population into providers and dependants (this really only works with human populations). We have a pretty good idea of the history of food production, and how many people labor to feed the population as a whole. I think the general equation in agricultural societies was about "one feeds two", or 1:2, though that could also easily be 1:3 or 1:4 given healthy soils, irrigation, large families and so forth. That describes a society largely occupied with food production, but with a balanced proportion of people free to engage other pursuits - building, government, the arts, whatever else describes civilization - and sustain a moderate level of complexity.

I think the modern number with mechanized agriculture is about 1:75. which allows a very large number of "free" individuals for each provider. Looking to a less mechanized future, the number is likely to return to some sort of balance, and I think its fairly obvios that our level of complexity will wind down as the inputs of energy to agriculture wind down and yields-per-agricultural-worker decrease.

This could also apply as a test of "peak oil theory" (though I dislike the term). Regardless of other things going on, energy declines should manifest as lower agricultural output per person, leading to a decrease in the "provider/dependant" ratio. We should see non-farm payroll decrease, and an increase in agricultural workers. Of course, the increase may be "informal", and so off the radar.

A recent study by consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff looks at the cost of various kinds of electrical production in the UK. According to the article

The government's nuclear plans are opposed by some environmental groups as being too costly.

But analysis by Parsons Brinckerhoff, a company backing plans for an offshore wind grid, estimates nuclear generation costs to be 6-8 pence per kilowatt hour (p/KWh), including decommissioning and waste disposal, compared to 15-21 p/KWh for offshore wind.

These costs, in US cents are as follows: 6 - 8 pence = 9 - 12 US cents;
15 -21 pence = 23 - 32 US cents

I wonder how much net energy can really be generated, by something that seems to be so expensive. A US Department of Energy publication shows this graphic:

Since this graphic is in MWh instead of kWh, you have to divide by 1000 to get costs per kWh. It indicates that in the US, for blocks of non-intermittent power, the average wholesale price (blue band) has ranged from 3 to 8 US cents. The average price paid for wind has been lower (the red dots), because wind is intermittent, and utilities still have to have their other generation in place. The average price paid for wind has been more similar to the cost of fuel alone -- 3.5 to 4 US cents per kWh.

So for the US, we are talking about offshore wind, without subsidies, that costs something like seven times what the market historically been willing to pay for it. And, according to the article, this is without all of the costs of offshore wind included. The Reuters article also says:

The model does not include transmission because of great uncertainty over how costs for wind farms and other decentralised power supply sources would be allocated.

If all the costs of transmitting electricity from wind farms out at sea are allocated only to offshore wind generation it could increase the price per unit of output by another 20 percent, the report says.

I wonder how much net energy can really be generated, by something that seems to be so expensive.

I guess that to answer that question you really need to do the whole cost accounting in terms of EROEI and differentiate that from apparent economic cost. If you look at it in terms of energy accounting it may not seem so expensive after all.


However a much more detailed review of over 200 papers by the UK Energy Research Centre, on the issue of intermittency came to much lower costs about the cost of wind energy compared to nuclear energy.[45] A recent study shows the current generating costs of wind, nuclear and coal plant in the UK which stills shows nuclear the cheapest, but not by a great a margin.

Sometimes cheapest isn't necessarily the best option.


EROIE is not a substitute for looking at costs and benefits. EROIE is a complement to economic analysis, not a substitute.

Sure, you need to capture all costs and benefits, including positive externalities like reduced CO2 emissions.

And you have to take into technology. Technology is not homogenous and hence neither is energy. Energy is a homogenous lump that can be shoved into any engine.

But the fact that outside of Denmark, wind power is stalled for a variety of reasons ranging from high costs to local opposition.

Energy is not truly homogeneous, and it will suffer conversion inefficiencies. As I've noted before, oil has sufficient energy density and EROEI to tolerate a range of usage and conversion efficiency sins. Clever use of alternatives may find niches where (or when) oil becomes scares -- the land of silver BBs. Nothing within sight promises a silver bullet.


EROIE is not a substitute for looking at costs and benefits. EROIE is a complement to economic analysis, not a substitute.

Yes, I understand that. However I was responding to this point made by Gail:

I wonder how much net energy can really be generated, by something that seems to be so expensive.

Net energy can be measured in terms of EROEI and I'm sure there is generally a correlation to actual costs, however it doesn't logically follow that you can get a true measure of net energy generation by just looking at how expensive something seems.

I think you need the actual numbers both for the EROEI and the real world costs, including if possible, all costs and benefits, and positive externalities like reduced CO2 emissions.

20 years ago I purchased what at the time seemed a very expensive pair of Dr Marten's work shoes with special acid resistant soles. I still wear them today. So despite the up front costs being apparently very high, after 20 years of use they turned out to be quite cheap.

Gail wrote:

So for the US, we are talking about offshore wind

Why should the US ignore onshore wind??

Your prices are based on one consultant's study and are undoubtedly for bottom mounted offshore. Floating offshore wind farms are much less expensive.

The US DoE is projecting 5 cents per kWh for US offshore by 2014. Other estimates include;

Current estimates based partly on European experience since 1991, indicate offshore wind energy costs of under 6 cents per kWh. Capital costs are around 30-50% higher than onshore, due to larger machine size and the costs of transporting and installing at sea. This is partially offset by higher energy yields - as much as 30%. However, as happened onshore, these prices are expected to drop as technology improves and more experience is gained. Ocean Energy Council

The cost of electricity from offshore wind farms has decreased over time, from about 8.8¢ to 9.9¢ per kilowatt-hour (kWh) for the first projects, to about 5.5¢ per kWh for the 1997 Bockstigen project in Sweden. IEER

In terms of onshore wind, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce is reporting 2.5 to 3.5 cents per kWh including a production tax credit.


A lot of your citations are suspect, including the Ocean Energy Council, the IEER, and the Oklahoma Department of Commerce.

Perhaps if the US adopted a cap and trade system for CO2 and methane emissions, then the price of carbon emissions might improve the economics of wind power.

There's other references out there for offshore wind (the DoE reference I made still stands, of course);

The Danish WTMA estimates the cost of installing 1 MW of offshore wind capacity at 12 million DKK (roughly U.S. $1.7 million). The Association explains, “Since there is substantially more wind at sea than on land, however, we arrive at an average cost of electricity of 0.36 DKK/kWh
[about 5 cents/kWh in U.S. currency].”PROCEEDINGS OF THE IEEE, VOL. 89, NO. 12, DECEMBER 2001

For onshore costs, there are a lot of price points in the 5 cent/kWh range;

"Perhaps if the US adopted a cap and trade system for CO2 and methane emissions, then the price of carbon emissions might improve the economics of wind power."

Great idea!

Let's create an enormously complex, loosely (if at all) system for playing economic games with the chemicals that may be ushering in the end of complex life on earth.

Let the good folks at Lehman Bro's, GS and the other worthy and honest brokers take charge of the future of the viability of the earth. They have, after all, proven themselves perfectly capable at steering the ship of global capitalism safely and wisely. One might even say, "They did a heck of a job."

Yes, I think that's gonna work just greeeeeeeeeeeat.


It depends on who gets to buy and sell the credits. If it is only producers of GHG, then I would be very comfortable with such a program that takes the gamers out of the picture.

Hi Dohboi,

How do you think the US brought acid rain control and sharply reduced sulfer dioxide emissions ...

Could it be ...




Cap and Trade?


Gail -

I see you are still relentlessly trying to disparage renewables in general and wind power in particular. So here we go again.

I wonder how much net energy can really be generated, by something that seems to be so expensive. A US Department of Energy publication shows this graphic:

As I am sure you are aware, the unit price of power delivered can be made to look like almost anything depending upon what capital investment discount rate one is using. This is particularly true for something like wind power, whose cost is largely all upfront capital investment. Without seeing the bases of these analyses, I don't automatically trust such generalized power prices, either those that are favorable or those that are unfavorable.

But beyond that, I think your comment deliberately ignores the simple fact that energy input is but one of many economic inputs that determine the total cost of an energy-generating system, or practically any man-made physical system for that matter. A $150,000 Ferrari costs five times more than a $30,000 Acura, but I doubt very much that even you would believe it takes five times more energy to produce a Ferrari than it does the Acura. So, I think that comment is a red herring.

I wrote to the organization that did the study (Parsons Brinckerhoff) and asked for a copy of the report and whatever else they are offering to the press. (I don't know whether they will send anything.) Since nuclear has the same up front issues and wind, I would expect the relativity between the two to be pretty much the same, regardless of discount rate. This study was saying offshore wind cost at least twice nuclear.

If EROEI of nuclear is 6, my first thought would be that the EROEI of offshore wind should be something in the 2 to 3 range.

Hard to believe that either is that low.

Nate's posting here provides the definitive answer. :)

It's apparently between 0 and 60, probably.


I've often thought that intermittent energy sources such as PV and wind need to be treated a bit differently because of the storage expense. If we stick to the proposition that we need energy on tap 24/7/365 then a portion of the energy production of wind turbine needs to be allocated (in the abstract) to the construction and maintenance of some form of energy storage facility.

What makes sense to me, in the EROI debate, is to consider heterogeneous energy producing systems rather than homogeneous systems. Consider a 'black box' out of which we get our 24/7/365 energy and figure out its EROI. The box might include nuclear, wind, PV, coal, etc. and might include batteries, pumped storage, eutectic salts, etc. etc. as storage buffers.

I suspect, but don't know, that the aggregate EROI of a well 'tuned' energy producing system might be better than any homogeneous wind farm or solar thermal or wave power system. I don't know if anyone has taken this approach.

Decent point, but the whole concept of baseload power is a rather arbitrary and wasteful human construct. It would be perfectly possible to only watch TV and wash laundry when the wind is blowing, etc. Humans are perfectly capable of just sitting around killing time, and in that the !Kung are a good reminder. Instant gratification is overrated....

Homogeneous energy systems don't work ...

The US Department of Energy looked at wind power and consulted with the regional power distributers.

They estimated that it was technically feasible for wind power to supply 30% of the US energy grid.

Once you go beyond point, you have trouble matching energy demand and supply.

The European Union did the same analysis on several European countries. Same result.

Wind is intermittent and hence beyond a certain point makes the power system unstable.

Energy systems need the ability at very short notice to meet peak demand. Fossil fuels fit that well.

You are over-generalizing.

First, homogeneity can indeed by the problem, which is why it is important to also employ hydro, solar, geothermal, etc.

Second, implementing smart grid capabilities means that control area balancing is predominantly forecasted (what's the weather for the next 48 hours? what's the expected demand?)and automated (what dispatchable sources do I have available? what should the spot prices be on an hourly basis?) If you read those reports, you would have picked up on these points.

"Energy systems need the ability at very short notice to meet peak demand. Fossil fuels fit that well."

Natural gas does, coal doesn't. Hydro does, and to an extent, geothermal could. Solar can with storage.

Don't go acting like a power systems engineer when you claim to be an economist.

Gail wrote,

If EROEI of nuclear is 6, my first thought would be that the EROEI of offshore wind should be something in the 2 to 3 range.

An EROEI calculation can't be done on the basis of cost, it has to be on the basis of energy invested.

Thank you. I think that this "price-as-proxy" for EROEI hypothesis is being taken way farther than any evidence warrants. It is only a hypothesis, after all. While it may serve as a decent "reality check" on EROEI studies with so-called "boundary issues", the idea that one can compare costs of two different energy sources to get a sense of their relative EROEI is beyond any sound reasoning. Nonetheless, I think that's what Gail was trying to do here.

Mostly you can't get something for nothing, so a low price perhaps bound the bottom of the energy plane. But you can always get nothing for something, so a high price means little, potentially.

Gail -

On what conceivable basis could you possibly conclude that the EROEI of a wind turbine is only 2 or 3?

OK, let's go back to a recent example I used: a 3MW wind turbine operating at a capacity factor of 0.33 and thus generating 1 MW of power on an average annual basis. With coal at aprrox. 14,000 BTU/lb, the daily amount of electrical energy generated by that single turbine (24 MW-hours) is equivalent to 2.9 tons of coal per day.

If our wind turbine has an operating life of say 25 years (probably more, but I'll keep it low just to be conservative), then the total amount of electrical energy it will have produced during it's operating live will be roughly equivalent to 26,500 tons of coal.

If as you say, the EROEI of the wind turbine is only 2 to 3 (let us average the two and use an EROEI of 2.5), then the amount of energy expended in the construction of this single wind turbine would have to be equivalent to some 10,600 tons of coal. As the entire wind turbine assembly, including its tower and base, probably weighs no more than 500 tons, for this 2.5 EROEI number to be correct, then the construction and maintenance of this single wind turbine would require an expenditure of energy equivalent to an amount of coal some 20 times the weight of the entire tower assembly.

Now, does this look even remotely reasonable to you? Not only is an EROEI of 2 to 3 not even in the right ballpark, it's not even on the right planet!

I think it would help if you developed a better feel for making rough estimates of physical magnitudes.

the construction and maintenance of this single wind turbine would require an expenditure of energy equivalent to an amount of coal some 20 times the weight of the entire tower assembly.

Now, does this look even remotely reasonable to you?

I have to say, on the face of it, as someone who doesn't know off-hand how much coal it requires to forge a certain amount of steel, I can't tell how reasonable it is.

Jaggedben -

Fair enough. In rough numbers, the average amount of energy required to produce a ton of delivered steel is less than the equivalent of 0.5 tons of coal per ton of steel. (Many modern steel mills are far more efficient, but this is roughly the average).

Most of the life-cycle energy expenditure for a wind turbine is in the manufacture of the turbine assembly, it's tower, and its foundation. On a weight basis, these are mostly steel. Maintenance energy expenditure is a lesser percentage of that.

So let us say that if we include all the manufacturing operations in addition to the production of the steel itself, we might have an energy expenditure equivalent to perhaps 1 ton of coal per ton of installed wind turbine. As the total weight of a 3MW offshore wind turbine assembly is probably on the order of 400 tons (+or -), we would have an energy expenditure equivalent to 400 tons of coal. Even if we were to double that to include all the maintenance activities over the life of the turbine (though it is doubtful it would be that high), we still only have 800 tons of coal equivalent, not the 10,600 tons implied if the EROEI is only 2.5.

That is why any reasonable estimate of the EROEI over the life of a wind turbine, has to far exceed 2.5 by perhaps an order of magnitude.

It seems like people most liekly to ignore IROIE or net energy, but should know better, are green cornucopians.

People who believe wind, solar, biomass, etc can allow us to continue BAU without skipping a beat.

Who specifically do you believe those people to be? Any actual quotes?

I am one. Quote any of my old comments you like. Green cornucopian goes a little far to describe me, but it probably is not too far off.

The problem we face is not a shortage of energy, but of a specific form of energy, oil. A new supply of energy arrives daily from the sun and much of that is wasted. That is why nature has and always will have a surplus of energy.

EROEI/Net energy is junk science. It has some validity when the forms of energy in and out are the same as in oil when the energy input is mostly oil and also the output is oil. It also had some validity back in the day of coal powered coal mines.

But when the energy inputs are different from the energy outputs, there is the possibility of a dramatic increase in utility where the work accomplished by the new form of energy is greater that that can be accomplished by the energy inputs that were used.

The most common and obvious of these is electricity produced from fossil fuels. If I remember EROEI discussions from years back it is in the area of .6. But the utility of the electricity infrastructure of computers and other electrical devices plus the ease of moving it around via power lines far out weight the loss of energy in producing it.

The same is true for ethanol which according to the fallacious EROEI concept is barely energy positive. It doesn't matter. There is a very large increase in utility when natural gas and corn are converted into a form of energy compatible with the infrastructure mandate of gasoline vehicles and gasoline's distribution system.

Natural gas can not be used by the gasoline structural mandate. It obviously is not easy to convert natural gas into a gasoline substitute or it would have been done by now. MTBE is the closest I have heard about and that has been banned because it is a carcinogen and contaminates ground water.

And obviouly corn is not easily converted into liquid fuel compatible with the gasoline structural mandate either. But when the two are put together to produce ethanol there is a dramatic increase in utility that offsets the energy lost in production and the low EROEI numbers.

Another reason EROEI/Net Energy is junk science is the reification fallacy where a poorly defined abstraction like energy is treated like it was concrete. Energy does not exist except in its various forms each of which is unique. It is like grain and metal which are also abstractions. There is no generic grain just as there is no generic metal.

It matters.

Thus when different forms of energy are compared in EROEI, there is a implication that whatever energy units being used are all the same when they are not. Some BTUs are free and arrive daily with the sunshine. These are the green cornucopian energy BTUs. Some BTUs can be sent over power lines at near the speed of light and used to power simple and sophisticated electrical devices. Some BTUs are in a liquid form compatible with the gasoline structural mandate of vehicles and its distribution system.

So EROEI is valid today only in oil production where oil is the input and also the output. Other forms of energy are not in short supply like oil and the economy is not dependant on them as much as oil.

Applying it to nature is silly since there is no shortage of energy in nature but only a shortage in the converting of sunlight to other forms of energy for various reasons depending on the situation. There can be no shortage of energy in nature as long as the sun shines. And even in the cases where there is no light such as in caves and in ocean trenches there is still life.

Life can not be stopped. It can be slowed or changed, but not stopped. The evidence is the world. Given a barren planet again with the same conditions and resources available billions of years ago, life would re-emerge all over again and likely evolve similar to what we see today.

That is the green cornucopian view. Nature orders itself and the world. While appearing to be in chaos in the short run of our life spans, it is really just adapting to a new reality.

The problem is that that new reality may not include humans or at least as many of them.

Life can not be stopped. It can be slowed or changed, but not stopped. The evidence is the world. Given a barren planet again with the same conditions and resources available billions of years ago, life would re-emerge all over again and likely evolve similar to what we see today.

First, life can and often is stopped, check the fossil record.

Just because it is possible for life to emerge given the conditions that existed on earth before it actually did is no absolute guarantee that it would do so again and I'd be willing to wager a considerable sum that the odds are monumentally stacked against it.

Yes, indeed. That was just one more example of x's inane quotes that has convinced me to skip over every one of his posts.

What exactly "given a barren planet again" might mean, who the heck knows?

But if we were to make this planet barren (a goal which, to any outside observer, we would seem to be hell bent on achieving), this earth doesn't have the hundreds of millions to billions of years necessary to regenerate a rich living world--the sun will be too hot by then.

EROEI/Net energy is junk science.

Some important natural scientists and economists disagree with you, namely: HT Odum, Cotrell, Georgescu-Roegen, Soddy, Maribeau, Ricardo, Podolinski, and many others.

The most common and obvious of these is electricity produced from fossil fuels. If I remember EROEI discussions from years back it is in the area of .6.

EROEI analysis is not the same as conversion efficiency - which is what you have calculated above. A power plant can burn coal to create electricity at 0.33 efficiency - which is equivalent to the efficiency with which our bodies can process food into protein/fat/whatever. Both of these are examples of conversion efficiencies - much different than EROI. It bothers me a bit that you continually bash net energy on this website yet do not take the time to actually learn what it is or what it means.

Nature orders itself and the world.

Ok, but according to what drivers does nature order itself? HT Odum and many other scientists since, most recently Thomas et al. in Science magazine (in post above) have shown empirically that net energy and/or power are some of the primary forces behind natural selection. In fact, I suggest you re-read the post since this is exactly what it is about...



Will has a point. Net energy obscures as much as it illuminates. It treats energy as homogeneous and ignores the fact that certain kinds of energy are more useful than others.

For example, what matters is not just the net energy, but what one can do with that net energy. Some kinds of net energy are more valuable than others.

It is not even clear to me that EROEI necessarily sheds light on why tar sands are an expensive source of oil. I suspect tar sands are expensive for a variety of reasons, including capital intensity and the fact that they have trucked.

You may try to argue that the capital intensity is really disguised energy intensity, but I am not sure ...

At some point EROEI starts to run out of gas (energy?) ...

Net energy obscures as much as it illuminates. It treats energy as homogeneous and ignores the fact that certain kinds of energy are more useful than others.

I agree that there a quality issue that should be addressed, i.e. "all joules are not alike." In some analyses, where possible, we try to account of differences in energy quality - i.e. electricity being higher than liquid etc. However I would argue that there are positives and negatives to all kinds of analyses - like cost benefit analysis - and EROEI is not worse or better than those.

It is not even clear to me that EROEI necessarily sheds light on why tar sands are an expensive source of oil. I suspect tar sands are expensive for a variety of reasons, including capital intensity and the fact that they have trucked.You may try to argue that the capital intensity is really disguised energy intensity, but I am not sure ...

What are you not sure about - that is exactly the connection. Although the price - EROEI link is not always obvious, I think it is in this example. The EROI of tar sand oil is much lower than conventional oil due to all of the extra energy inputs needed to extract the oil. Those "extra energy inputs" cost money - hence increase the price of oil from tar sands. pretty straightforward.


You've completely overlooked the obvious potential of mixing high EROI and low EROI feedstocks like ethanol to get your minimum EROI of 3:1.

Your referenced paper gives a table which states that the minimum EROI is 3:1 and give (corn?) ethanol an EROI of 1.3:1 and gasoline from conventional an EROI of 10:1.
This suggests that you can mix 80% ethanol and 20%conventional oil based gasoline and get an arbitrary 3:1 EROI i.e. 1.3 x 80% +10 x 20% =3.0.
Most vehicles can be converted to run on up to E85.

Replacing 80% of our gasoline with ethanol would extend our oil reserves going to gasoline production to 3.6 times based on E85 having 72% of the energy of straight gasoline; 72%/(1-80%)=3.6

If we have 60 years of oil left we could extend it to over 200 years assuming we could produce enough ethanol.

The same argument goes for tar sands (3.7:1--per R^2's blog--5.6/1.5, Syncrude gives an EROI of 7--5.6/.8)with 70% tar sand gasoline(E10);
3.7 x 70% +1.3 x 30% = 3:1 EROI.

Likewise using ethanol with lower EROI oil would extend
transportation fuel. Lets say there is 100 years of unconventional oil with an EROI of 3.4, by mixing it with 19% (corn?)ethanol(E19) that has 94% of the energy of straight gasoline) could be extended to 116 years and still maintain a minimum EROI of 3:1; 94%/(1-19%)=1.16.

It seems probable that US domestic corn ethanol alone could provide 24 billion gallons of ethanol, which could be mixed with 126 billion gallons of gasoline to make 150 billion gallons of E19 which is equivalent to 141 billion gallons of straight gasoline. The US consumed
138 billion gallons of gasoline in 2009.

Corn ethanol under that scenario would save 15 billion gallons of gasoline(141-126) even using low energy tar sands oil.

Corn ethanol also produces a useful by-product, DDGS used in meat production which covers at least part of the infrastructure costs.

Is another couple of decades of gasoline supply useful to society?

Well, this is what I am not sure about.

Gas supplies fuel the heating of tar sands.

Tar sands and gas go together.

So there is a large supply of gas to provide the heat required to 'cook' the sands.

Gas is cheap today. So if I value the energy cost of tar sand using current gas prices, it is not bad.

Of course, you will argue your approach of calories in and calories avoids the vagaries of market prices. A position I sympathise with ...

I am not sure!

Rod, you must have been thinking about x's comments, not mine. I happen to believe that net energy is a very important factor. Not the only one, but at the top of the list, nonetheless.

"EROEI/Net energy is junk science."

Not junk, but over used. If there is a transformation for low-value to high-value fuel, a negative EROEI can still be acceptable. Coal to liquids, or natural gas to liquids being good examples. If the liquid out of CTL plant has only 75% of the energy that went in, you have still benfited from a change from scruffy sold fuel to high-grade liquid fuel. You might not be able to continue BAU this way, but you can keep the rail system running to get food into town and manufactured goods back out.

As was discussed here a few months ago, 10% of the agricultural land can produce enough bio-fuels to grow and harvest the food crops. A small number of CTL plants can keep the trains running. Now you've side-stepped the die-off, and just looking at EROEI in isolation you lead you to believe you are doomed.

One reason Farming in the land clearing and planting and then having to move on to the next piece of land over and over again failed is because people were fighting nature. The hunters and gatherers used what was available in their region. We have gained knowledge and know that we could if we thought about both processes manage them into a better rit for us now.

The hunter gatherer lifestyle is limited to new knowledge. It takes time to find edible plants in places you have never been, so spreading about the landscape is heavy on energy use and low on energy gain. But today we know of at least 20,000 species of plants that are edible to humans, but only farm a few 100 of them.

Farming requires us to be able to process plant species to get maximum yeilds from row cropping them. Most plants don't do well being monocultures, they survive in a web we know as biodiversity where they are normally found, be it forests, jungles, plains or whereever. They have insects that spread pollen, fight pests, birds that transfer seeds, and eat pests and feed via manure the plants, and so on and so forth. Taking the plant out of its natural surroundings and then placing it in a monoculture planting style is hard on most of them and they only do well with plant breeding or just never find that farmable niche.

What we have over the farmer, and over the hunter gatherer is knowledge and we should be using it more than we do now.

Forest Gardening, permaculture, edible landscaping, urban farming, small scale system engineering like BioWebScape designs that plant a lot of different plants in small plots of land to get maximum yeilds for the least amount of work are the wave of the future. Using the knowledge we gained over the long history of living on earth to better ourselves and work with natural systems is the only way to move forward in a limited FF world.

I've said that from my own thinking we should be able to survive on about 10% of the available land surface area if we use more of those 20,000 edible species than we do now, along with small animals for some of our food (unless you want to go all vegie diets). Either way omnivore or herbivore you should be able to manage with what we now know about all the plant species that we can eat, and use for our shelter, clothing and other needs.

Some people doubt this, because of what they see in the world today as far as people being willing to work with others, or willing to give up being top dog of the heap. That is the one thing that we as a species will have to work on, and will either get it right or die off, or just hang around as we have in the past. Some people have been able to go beyond their base needs and live with others for long term, maybe we need to evolve into Homo sapian niceness.( what is the latin word for niceness?)

What we have gained is all this use of old sunlight, and it has tipped the scales in our favor for a while now, and as it runs out or down from it's peak amounts, via more of us using it than ever before. We will have to reach a new balancing point, where we have less of it and can only keep the knowledge we have gained from the use of it.

Look around you, you have electrons streaming at you, nothing that the people of yesteryear had, and maybe not people to much longer than a few more decades down the road. Let us all make the best use of this limited time we have, and get more people involved in growing their own food on land they have access to. Changing the laws of land use so that people can have land to grow plants and animals on without being taxed to death, or being told they have to move because someone wants it for another purpose like a road or thier own house. If we stop and think about others first as well as ourselves might we not be better in the long run.

BioWebScape designs for a better Fed future.

Charles Darwin made the comment in Voyage of the Begal that the size of the animal was not related to how much they eat. I don't believe in evolution but the book was really good.

Good moniker considering what you wrote. Are you also a flat earther ?

It is always odd to read little essay's like the one above.

All of the information covered is known and has been well known since around 1934 when the Technocracy Study Course was published by Tech. Inc.
The reason we do not have an energy accounting system in a non market economic system based on net energy and natural capital is because the societal template is controlled by special interest groups that wish to maintain the class/caste system and further global corporatocracy.

Mostly that is also because they are unaware or uninformed. Its not a conspiracy.. just a default operation system that is no longer viable.

Adam Smith economics is throwback to Sumer law code economics and designed for a low energy conversion period from the past http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=dfx7rfr2_55dh6wv9&hl=en

People on this site can go around in circles trying to monetize energy or get an energy theory of value and relate that to another monetary system... but that will not work, because it will not protect the resource base.
It would be another Price System. Environmental economics is a sham as is Ecological economics... still based on the Price System.
Parties here interested in a creative and humanitarian science based society, interested in survival... read and do, something, and that means social activism and alerting people of a viable alternative and that is energy accounting in the technate design invented by M. King Hubbert and Howard Scott among others.

Interested in getting rid of the pathetic and self destructing Price System method of societal operation???, http://docs.google.com/Doc?docid=dfx7rfr2_96tc8x77&hl=en
Basic info on YouTube http://www.youtube.com/user/TBonePickensetc

Social activism toward a science based social design, secular and humanitarian and rich with creative thought.. not another oligarchy.

Investigate the Technocracy technate design, last two chapters of the Technocracy Study Course. It will be apparent then where the ideas above originated.
It was so far ahead of its time... but that time could come again if enough people become aware of it~!
For that we need your help in alerting others.

Hi John,

Social activism cannot eliminate the need to make choices.

As long as resources are scarce, any system of choices implies prices. Those prices include barter exchange and any and all rationing schemes.

By the way, Hubbert was not involved in energy accounting.

And he was a big advocate of nuclear power ...


Actually, Hubbert was involved in energy accounting. He was the Co-Author of the Technocracy Study Course which advocates energy accounting, among other things.

High energy civilization is providing abundance, unfortunately at a very wasteful, and inefficient cost. Due mainly in part to the availability of energy. So, unless you want to live in a land with only hand tools and human toil. It would be wise to look into viable alternatives.

Technate Design. Look it up.

Thanks porge.
How it is that people are so in the dark about the Technocracy technate design is unknown but there is no shortage of information about it http://gsa.confex.com/gsa/2003AM/finalprogram/abstract_61689.htm and Hubberts role in it.

The best case scenario is that people on sites like this one get interested in viably alternative ideas and inform others http://www.technocracytechnate.org/index.php?PHPSESSID=699d9fa70fe9df419...
If numbers of people let other numbers of people know about a science based social design based on thermodynamics and Biophysical economics in a non monetary system real change can occur.
The present system... the political Price System destroys itself if we continue to stick with it... so lets let go of it and do something creative for the sake of survival.

This is a loong, but very beautiful film, well worth seeing:
http://www.youtube.com/homeproject (approx. 1,5 hours)
Very relevant to the question about sustainability.
I am no CO2 fundamentalist, but the film puts several things into perspective.

Thanks Tor that was beautiful indeed. Its hard to imagine how anyone who watches it could possibly deny the impact our so called civilized members of humanity are having on the worlds natural ecosystems.

Its time to stop denying reality and take action, we can't continue to have 20% of the population consume 80% of the resources and we must get serious about population control and reducing consumption by the wealthy.

The film lists that 1.5 billion live on only what the sun provides( my paraphrasing). That must mean that the rest live off of what the sun provided in the past.

We have to make part of everyday life growing our own food for more people, depending on one's self and what nature provides will humble most people. To many people don't know where their food comes from, and then go further to wasting what they do have, that cycle needs to be broken.

That is where some of the localization groups are helping, even though most of them can't solve the whole problem, they can allow for more awareness to take place, the more people know that there is an issue of concern the better everyone will be.

Peak Oil was a springboard for a lot of people, they started changing their own lives and other people see that and wonder, hopefully more will ask and change themselves and the movement toward change will get here before we are all forced to change in a drastic way.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future.

The film lists that 1.5 billion live on only what the sun provides( my paraphrasing). That must mean that the rest live off of what the sun provided in the past.

Your conclusion does not follow logically from the quote as paraphrased by you. Regarding the energy the rest of us live off, the quote implies nothing in particular about what portion is fossil fuel.

I'm looking forward to the rest of the series, as I have an unanswered question about just this subject.

In Chris Martenson's Crash Course, chapter 17b, he claims that the EROEI for medieval society was 1.2:1, which seems remarkable. On the other hand, Richard Heinberg, in Searching for a Miracle, suggests that a minimum EROEI might be the 10:1, as mentioned in the article above (though he concedes that there is some research that might indicate an EROEI of 5:1 for a hunter/gatherer society.

I've tried to contact both Chris and Richard to get some clarification but to no avail. Hopefully, this series will cast more light on the minimum EROEI needed for a simple, but satisfying, sustainable society.

Its not a simple question. For hunter gatherers who live on a 5:1 surplus, to understand what that means you have to introduce the concept of time. If 5:1 is only on 20 hours per week of energy inputs, then there is a huge quality of life. If 5:1 is on working 80 hours per week, that has different implications.

As I wrote about in Energy Return on Time, if we use more time and more of the solar flows (not counted as energy input in todays EROI analyses), you can get by with much lower EROIs. For instance if I let the sun dry my hair and my clothes I won't use any electricity of labor at all. There are quite a few anthroplogical studies that show energy (labor) input into historical societies.

Also, OUR society has our wealth defined and divided by debt. We really need ~20:1 (4% of GDP) EROI or higher to make this system run into future. 10:1 makes us rich b historical standards but would only be viable now if much of old debt went into default (meaning a social/demographic relief valve). IOW where the EROI goes within society - an EROI/GINI if you will, is an important aspect.

I'm not sure how the time concept comes in. What does a 5:1 EROEI per 20 hours (or 80 hours) per week mean? I've understood society EROEIs as being the energy consumed by that society versus the energy (part of that overall consumption) required to make that energy available. I've read a numer of articles about hunter/gatherer societies that suggest there is no real notion of "work" in those societies - their work is almost indistinguishable from their leisure time (in a good way).

Thinking about it, maybe you mean that if the average hunter gatherer spends 20 hours of highly energetic time obtaining the energy needed for the rest of his time (and at least some of his tribe's time) then that is different from spending 80 hours of low energy work to obtain the same amount. However, again, I don't think the hunter gatherers spent much time, or considered it arduous or tedious work, obtaining that energy (as food). It was everywhere, after all, though there were times that weren't so easy (just as today's societies, but much more leisurely, overall).

I get your point about solar flows but that really would be a very different society from today's where it's almost a given that everything is powered.

Any thoughts on Chris Martenson's claim that medieval societies operated on an EROEI of 1.2:1?

EROI and EROEI are all well and good in wet temperate and polar climates. It should remembered that in dry temperate, semi-arid & arid, that it is water that is the limiter on the productivity of ecosystems. No water, dormant ecosystem.

On the other hand, EROEI still applies. Lizards apparently have figured out a way to extract enough energy return for their activities to compensate for their energy expended. Part of the key, I guess, is don't move a lot, travel at night, and stay underground during the day time. And, of course, there is a whole book series devoted to how human beings and others managed to live in very dry areas, the series being Dune. Reading Dune many years ago attracted me for there are lessons to be learned for those facing global warming and a dying planet.

However, the characters in the Dune series could do intergalactic travel. Our bad, I guess, when it becomes extinction time.

In Dune they had still-suits able to capture the humidity of the air they breathed out.

Strangely enough so does the human body, but only in a limited way. I have damage in the veins in my legs due to blood clots in 2005. I retain water so much so that I can gain weight due to the difference in the humidity of the air I breath in and out. One week a few years ago, I gained 45 pounds over 3 days but it took about a week to lose it again, it was a bit of a shocker for both my doctor and me. But the human body has some pretty odd abilities at times.

All in all we could extract water from the humid air, though the energy needed might be problem. I'd still like to get my hands on a few still-suits, pity they were fiction for the most part.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed future.

Oh, energy accounting still works and is useful. It's just that what you want to focus on is Energy Return On Water Invested (EROWI).

After all it's why given two coal mines in the same drier climates, the mine will go where the water is for processing reasons.

Just a sideways comment on Ghungs surplus energy. Most of the wealth created in the last 20-30 years has been in what one would call surplus business. The core is the FIREM economy. Financials, Insurance, Real Estate and Medical.

All of these industries do little to increase overall wealth indeed in agregate they are almost certainly negative and probably extremely negative.
For example despite medical advances the cost of using them generally meets are exceeds the wealth created by the individual in their lifetime. In other words the medical establishment generally takes all of the wealth of older people that try and make use of the advances. The only real value is people are generally healthy and a fairly small precentage ends up losing everything to medical.

In any case these surplus industries generally are energy efficient and driven by debt lent by the banking industry. However they take a tremendous amount of cash/credit to support. This is of course eventually supported by either debt or the creation of real wealth via manufacturing. In the case of homes of course the value is itself bouyed by debt. And of course Government but why even go there ?

And almost perfect bootstrap money machine.

However it fails dramatically when real wealth creation and debt expansion can no longer support it. So the collapse of the FIREM/G economy serves both to obfuscate the reall EROEI cliff and it serves as a bit of a buffer freeing cash flow to offset declining EROEI.

The fist Queen Mary was 1,018ft, the second is 1,132. The second one is larger, not smaller.


And if you are ever lucky enough to be on the Red Jet from Southampton to Cowes, Isle of Wight when QM2 is in dock you will get a fantastic close up view, but still, what exactly is your point!!

Society needs good EROI but also an empower basis. I recommend all TOD members to read H. T. Odum's great book: Environment, Power and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy. A limited preview is available on google books.

Odum writes in Chapter 7 - Empower Basis for Society:

The emergence of human societies from minor components of nature to the dominant modern technological civilization is a story of shifting empower. Progress has become so rapid that many people believe anything is possible. This chapter first considers the power basis for earlier societies, the limits to solar energy, and some of the ways food, clothing fiber, shelter and heat were supplied to human society. Next urban civilization is explained. Then emergy is used to evaluate alternative energy sources and the carrying capacity of the earth for people in the future.

I consider this book a must read. Thanks for your recommendation I have read here earlier.

Its 4. This is how:

It takes 40 hours to work manually at a farm using animals. It takes 0.8 acres to support a person in food. The 1.2 acres figure comes from a large calculation considering traditional yields of farmland and calories and nutrients requirements per person. Therefore it takes 32 hours farm work to support one person in food, clothing, shoes and herbs. It takes another 16 hours to take care of the farm animals, it includes 8 hours to grow their food in another 0.2 acres and 8 hours to milk them and feed them and take care of them. Altogether its never less than 48 hours and usually is 48 hours.

On the labor side, there are 365 days a year. Take out 15 days for fixed holidays (both religious and non religious). That leaves 350 days which are exactly 50 weeks. Give one day off each week. You are left with 300 days. Give 30 days off (10% of 300) per year for sick and casual leaves. You get 270 working days per year. Make them work 7 hours a day. That make it 1890 hours a year. Increase it a bit to make it 1920, now its equal to supporting 40 people (48 x 40 = 1920).

Other than farm products there is need of some very basic industry that total takes atleast 48 hours per person. Out of this 24 hours is for clothing industry. That 24 hours figure comes because hand weaving produce 2 to 3 sq yards clothes per hour, make it 2.4 so that it comes in standard unit of 2 sq m, 1 kg cotton is equal to 10 sq meters, world wide average consumption of cotton today is 3.125 kg per person per year, since people use fibers other than cotton too so consider double use of cotton to make it 6.25 kg to compensate that.

6.25 kg cotton. Leave 1.25 kg for raw cotton use for example by women during periods and for bandages. All the other 5 kg is weaved which means 50 sq m which means 25 hours. I take 24 hours to align that with 48 hours (being half of that). Ok it takes extra effort to clean cotton and make thread before weaving but then reduce the consumption to 3.125 kg if that combined effort is equal to the effort of weaving.

Keep 24 more hours for other essential industries like soap production, construction, die making and medicines making.

At the most minimum 96 hours effort per year is needed to support one person. A convenient level would be 50% more, that is 144 hours, then you would have no complains and there would be some extra. A 25% more or 120 hours is more appropriate. As long as only one person in a family of five work, for better calculation keep consumption at 96 hours level, so a worker can produce enough to support 20 people, which means 4 families. That is an EROI of 4.0. The extra would be consumed by rich, service providers such as govt servants, traders, doctors etc.

The 4 level is the minimum sustainable level. At level 2 you barely have a society because when crops fail production usually become half (it not fall all the way to zero) so a farmer needs to produce twice than needed just to absorb shocks. Society can help absorb shocks but society has its own costs due to management costs. So at level 2 there is no society. At level 3 there is society half the time and half the time there is chaos. At level 4 you start getting some kind of a basic structure like a village.

Other examples: assuming during eating grass an animal is using as much energy per minute as the average of the day (including extremes like running from a predator and sleeping), an animal living in wild would have to graze 6 hours a day, that means EROI of 4. Usually it has to eat only 3 hours a day (the time of actual eating and jaw movement) but then it not have to do any farming to grow the grass. A farmer would have to do farming.

A taxi company here has a ROI of 8 at the operational level (sales - variable costs) and a 6 at (sales - variable costs - fixed costs). After taking out taxes and supporting management its like 3 (including indirect tax of inflation).

A EROI of 8 means you can actually become so powerful that you can do a major war continuously or do breakthrough scientific researches.

Mughals rules india from 1526 to 1767 before getting weak. They took a 25% tax on all crops and that was their major income. The farmer must have a EROI of 4 to sustain, without that he can't give 1 unit to govt and put 1 in safety to absorb shocks of crops failures.

Medieval farms of europe were like 20 to 30 acres per family. It used to take 3 acres to support a person, 15 acres to support the family. Look historical documents for proofs, one from tsar russia of late middle ages say that if a farmer has less than 15 acres then he is barely able to feed his family and therefore should not be taxed.

I live amongst a grove of ancient oak trees here in the Central Valley of California. When Gen. Vallejo first explored this area there were over 40,ooo indians living near where I now live. They had subsisted for eons on the acorns from the trees, only needing occational meals of clover. They were well fed and able to live with almost nothing else. Gen Vallejo asked how they could live with no clothes, it being cold at the time. The indian asked if his face was cold. He said no. The indian said "indian all face." These same indians were known to make the best baskets and arrowheads of all the north american indians so must have had plenty of lesiure time. The next year travelers came to the same area. All the indians were dead, having died of white man's diseases, their bones lining the riverbanks of what would be called Calaveras River (Skull river).

Hi David Murphy,

I just want to say that I really enjoyed this essay and am looking forward to the next parts. I'm always fascinated with this kind of analysis of human "roots" and how we got to where we are now. Thanks.